Saturday, June 2, 2012

Governor Rick Perry and Me

The governor and I each have a plan to end the Texas drought. The data indicate that my plan is more effective.

The driest 12 months in Texas history started in October, 2010. Less than half of the normal rain would fall across the state in the coming year and many cities would swelter in more than 100 days of triple digit temperatures. Gov. Rick Perry proclaimed three Days of Prayer for Rain at the end of April, 2011. I visited Texas that June.

The fires had started in West Texas in early April. Fort Davis residents still needed to tell me how the Rock House Fire had swept across 30 miles of open range to reach their town. Some houses were destroyed in minutes, while others nearby were untouched. The flames had caught and charred entire herds of cattle outside of town.

My camp room at the Stone Village cooled off enough that I could fall asleep shortly before dawn. The bathrooms, a few doors down, never fell below steamy. My room had been one of the carports for the motel rooms in the 1930s tourist lodge. Camp rooms with sweating guests alternated with motel rooms with droning air conditioners. I spent most of my time in Fort Davis in the shade or inside the air conditioned library.

The Fort Davis library building began life as a Mercantile in 1873. The wooden floor creaks under the embossed tin ceiling and one of the glass display cases still serves as the circulation desk. The front room is crammed with books and green arm chairs tucked into nooks. A narrow mezzanine overlooks the bookcases. (Justine Shaffner might spend even more time in libraries while traveling than I do. She also enjoyed the Fort Davis library).

I worked at one of the wooden tables in the cavernous back room, where the a/c wasn’t as icy. An earthen roof and large ceiling fans kept the room comfortable. Mrs. Spoon was selecting an armload of books. Her narrow Wranglers and pearl-snapped shirt suggested that she stayed in shape checking cattle and moving the irrigation water, but she was a retired school teacher.

The library was suspiciously quiet: most of the children in town were rehearsing The Princess and the Pea. The Missoula Children's Theatre had arrived on Monday, “with everything it takes to mount a full-scale musical production...except the cast.” Everyone got a part. Actors too young to remember lines or tunes played the dust bunnies under the princess's bed. I attended an afternoon performance--the school auditorium was air conditioned.

The Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center was south of town through a landscape painted using only black, grey, and brown. I ventured out from the shade to hike through the native vegetation. While I recovered on the porch of the visitors' center I heard a few drops of rain hit the metal roof. When the individual drops refused to coalesce into rain, I realized I was listening to the metal expanding in the relentless heat.

I had hoped to visit Big Bend National Park next, but decided to reschedule when temperature dropped below 114 degrees. I headed north, over Wild Rose Pass, which had also burned in the Rock House Fire.

I sprinted between the air conditioned car and air conditioned Motel 6s as I crossed Texas. And I bought ice for the cooler. I found block ice once, in Fort Stockton. Cubes lasted until I was out of the parking lot; the block lasted to the next town (200 miles).

The average rainfall increased as I drove east. There was enough moisture to support trees when I got to the Texas Hill Country. However, the drought was even worse here, as the eastern parts of the state had received an even smaller portion of their average rainfall. The map of precipitation departure from normal changed from tan to pink to dark red as I traveled east.

The Hill Country was hot and muggy, but cool enough to camp. I had bugged out of Balmorhea State Park a few nights earlier after paying for a campsite. I thought I’d wait for the temperature to drop and the convention-oven wind to die down before I set up my tent. When it was still 107 at 7 pm I went to a motel.

Lockhart State Park offers a 9-hole golf course, swimming pool, and a small campground with electricity, water, and room for RVs. I sprang for a $17 undeveloped campsite along the river, where I hoped to catch a breeze.

I stumbled out to put the fly over my mesh tent/sauna when thunder woke me after 11:00. After midnight, the rain hitting my tent seemed more solid than liquid. A lightning strobe flashed constantly. The National Weather Service later reported that nearly two inches of rain fell on Lockhart that night; 1.2 inches between 2 and 3 a.m.

The next morning I was delighted to see that I had pitched my tent on a high spot, which gave me a lovely view of the small stream running through the campground. I didn't have to pray for even one day to make it rain. I only had to set up my tent.

Ants, earwigs, spiders, and one juvenile cockroach had been delighted to find a place to escape the rising water. My tent was a sagging, sodden, muddy mess infested with invertebrates. The cockroach had been badly traumatized by the rain, which he'd never seen before. He suffered flashbacks when I struggled to rinse the tent off under a spigot, while keeping it out of the mud. The roach tried to crawl up my leg after I forced him to abandon the tent.

I was surprised the town of Lockhart didn't hold a parade for me and my drought-ending powers when I drove in the next morning. It looked like the sort of town that could organize one at the drop of a hat. The ornate Caldwell County courthouse is a Second Empire jewel built of sandstone in 1893. An octet of large flags snaps smartly overhead at one corner. Parked cars ring the town square in orderly ranks, rather than occupying a city block.

Nearby, the library is in a Classical Revival building that I mistakenly took to be remodeled church. The city describes the building as "a source of curiosity to many professional architects."

The Texas drought has eased recently, but they haven’t solved their long term water problems. Texas is a dry state with a growing population, extensive agriculture, and water-hungry businesses. Governor Rick Perry will have many more opportunities to try to make it rain. Perhaps he'll try camping.


  1. OMG, I fell out of my chair when I got to the cockroach climbing up your leg!

  2. Linda,

    Me, too, when it happened. Although the poor thing was clearly traumatized, I still wouldn't let him climb my leg to safety.