Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Spring '10 Sneak Peek: Exploring the Edges of Texas

Walt Davis holds an ornate box turtle at Spring Creek Ranch in the Texas Panhandle (Courtesy: Walt and Isabel Davis)

"It took an unlikely coalition of farmers, sportsmen, and conservationists to stop and finally reverse the slide to extinction. We owe their continued presence to a previous generation of conservationists who deserve our recognition and gratitude."
In 1955 Frank X. Tolbert, a well-known columnist for the Dallas Morning News, circumnavigated Texas in a Willis Jeep, sending his dispatches to the newspaper. Fifty years later, Walt Davis -- an avid fan of Tolbert's column -- and his wife Isabel repeated Tolbert's trek.

In their new travelogue, Exploring the Edges of Texas, the Davises offer a dual perspective of each of the places they visited -- from the eyes of both previous visitors (artists, explorers, naturalists, or archeologists) and contemporaries (biologists, ranchers, river-runners, and paleontologiests) who serve as modern-day guides for their journey of rediscovery.

Here, the Davises talk more about their book, the experiences they shared along their treks, and why they hope readers will find Texas' explorers and nature activists fascinating.

Q: Please, tell us about how you came up with the idea for your book and what inspired you to organize it the way that you did.

WALT DAVIS: When I was 13 years old, Frank X. Tolbert and his 9 year-old son, Frank Jr., drove a Willis Jeep all the way around the border of Texas. I read about their exploits in the Dallas Morning News and wished they had asked me along. Fifty years later my wife, Isabel, and I fulfilled my boyhood dream and made our own 4,000 mile circumnavigation of the state. Exploring the Edges of Texas is the record of our journey.

Q: You have said that you hope readers will take from your book a deeper appreciation for the human dimension of scientific exploration. How did your travels serve to enhance your own appreciation of these explorers and advocates?

WALT AND ISABEL DAVIS: The explorers and naturalists who traveled the edge of Texas before us did so under difficult and dangerous conditions. Charles Wright walked 673 miles from San Antonio to El Paso and back to collect plants for Asa Gray at Harvard. Lt. James W. Abert mapped the Canadian River while being shadowed by Comanche and Kiowa warriors. Jacob Boll traveled into the wilderness to collect fossils, and paid for it with his life when appendicitis struck him down beyond the reach of medical help. The natural history of Texas was written by men and women of grit and determination drawn to the geographic and scientific frontiers of their time. The knowledge they passed on to us was bought at great personal cost.

Isabel Davis rests by a tree at Spring Creek Ranch. (Courtesy: Walt and Isabel Davis)

Q: In Exploring the Edges of Texas, you chose to retrace the steps of some very influential explorers and advocates, from French trader and explorer Benard de la Harpe (who, in 1719 established a trading post that would later become Texarkana) to artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes (who, in 1901 penned one of the most lyrical descriptions of the Big Bend country from his mountain campsite). In your research for the book, how did you choose which explorers and scientists to follow? And, what was the single most surprising thing you encountered, when studying these locales from this unique and unusual perspective?

WD and ID: Choosing the explorer or naturalist to follow as we traveled the edge of Texas was one of the most interesting, and at times most difficult, parts or our journey. We looked for someone who left a compelling personal narrative of their experience. We also looked for people whose stories were not well known hoping to bring them out of obscurity and introduce them to a new generation of readers. The most surprising thing we learned was that many of the animals we saw on our travels would have disappeared a century ago if concerned people had not fought to save them. By 1900, white-tailed deer in Texas were nearly wiped out by market hunters supplying a burgeoning wild game meat market. It took an unlikely coalition of farmers, sportsmen, and conservationists to stop and finally reverse the slide to extinction. At the same time a similar coalition, led by the Audubon Society, put a halt to the wholesale slaughter of plumed birds for the millinery market. Imagine the beaches and marshes of the Texas Gulf Coast without the flocks of pelicans, spoonbills, herons, and egrets that grace the landscape. We owe their continued presence to a previous generation of conservationists who deserve our recognition and gratitude.

Walt Davis sketches the Texas Panhandle landscape (Courtesy: Walt and Isabel Davis).

Q: For this book, you divided the 4,000-mile-long border of Texas into sixteen segments, spanning as much as 400 miles each, in some cases. How long did it take you to travel these areas? What was a typical day like for you?

WD and ID: A map of our journey around the state looks more like a spider web the shape of Texas than a single line around it. We would drive from our home to the Rio Grande Valley then back again; to the Big Bend and back, to the Sabine, the Sulphur River, the Red. Ultimately, we did manage to drive all the way around, but it took many trips over 4 years to get it done. A typical day might include a quick breakfast of cereal and banana in our tent or travel trailer, a morning interview with a local rancher, an afternoon hike to locate the campsite of a previous naturalist and a quick watercolor sketch to record the scene. After supper Isabel would write up our day in her journal, I would download photos, and together we would plan for the next day. Trying to choose a favorite locale is like trying to choose a favorite child. Each is special in its own way. Goose Island State park was the site of a birders perfect day with hundreds of migrating warblers pinned down by a spring cold front. Benito Trevio introduced us to a whole new world of semi-tropical plants at Rancho Lomitas in the Rio Grande Valley. We raced a herd of pronghorn on a Panhandle ranch and hiked to the Bowl in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. However, our personal favorite has to be the seven-day raft trip through the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande guided by Terlingua outfitter Far Flung Adventures. For seven days we floated through a desert canyon wilderness treated every night to gourmet meals served on the riverbank. But that leaves out a dozen other favorites, each with its own unique claim to our affection.

Isabel Davis looks over Mineosa Creek in the Texas Panhandle (Courtesy: Walt and Isabel Davis).

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