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My Adventure Too Far

Texas Photography Trip #98

by Barclay Gibson

September 9, 2016

On Tuesday, July 19, 2016, I flew out of Portland International Airport for what was to be my longest trip yet, both in time gone from Oregon and for time on the road on a Texas Photography trip. And, as it turned out, it was to be my most exciting and unusual trip, too. Without a lot of boring details (but still with a lot of boring details), we have Carlsbad friends who recently bought a retirement home near Lake Athens, southeast of Dallas, about 550 miles east of Carlsbad. As first-time home owners, we wanted to be as much help for them possible. Therese asked if I could build a broom closet for their guest bathroom.

Having only one photo of that corner of the bathroom area from which to guesstimate heights, sizes and clearances, my wife and I designed a simple, inexpensive closet that was decorative while giving the maximum amount of storage space and could be cut from a single sheet of plywood. I cut it out in Carlsbad and trial assembled it. Brad would paint it once it was re-assembled in their house.

My trip was timed so I would be in Athens the day after their move. Completely as an afterthought, since my pickup would be empty, on Sunday, it was decided that I would carry a load of things that would have been awkward and space robbing in their small rental moving truck. Things like their foldable dog kennel, their wheel barrow, a cast iron barbecue, ladders, yard tools, and, of course, their disassembled broom closet.

Bath closet
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

Loaded truck
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

My load was well secured and tied down, but from the picture you can see why I avoided the interstates as much as possible. I spent Monday installing the broom closet and doing odd jobs around the house. Things like cutting and installing shelving in their master closet, tracking down a small electrical problem, stabilizing a shower valve and picking up a four-drawer file cabinet from Office Depot.

Bath closet
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

Now that the first part of my trip was accomplished, my Texas Photography Trip #98 could begin. But, backing up a bit, the basic itinerary of the photography part of this trip had been in the planning for nearly 18 months starting in February or March of 2015. Of the something over 1,100 Centennial items placed all over the state of Texas in 1936, I only had about a dozen historical markers and plaques not yet seen and photographed. My original hope was to see six of these on this one trip.

All these markers were scattered from Northeast Texas down to Gulf coast and back west to a remote spot near San Angelo in West Texas. All were deep inside private property requiring multiple phone calls, messages and return calls to obtain permission and set up appointments for my visit. Through my travels in Texas, I had been trying to see these particular markers on various occasions for upwards of five years.

As an added bonus, while researching for other markers, I heard of another historical marker in Liberty County that was way off the road near the Trinity River. It was for the homesite of a prominent player in the founding of Liberty County Texas. Everything about this marker made me think it just might be an un-inventoried 1936 Centennial marker. In all of my Centennial marker hunting, I have had the privilege of making only one such find. That was when I discovered a pair of huge 1936 bronze Centennial plaques dedicated to Davy Crockett that had been stored for up to 30 years behind a drafting table in the Crockett City Hall. No one knew what they were then and probably still don't know, even today.

I spoke with the Liberty County property owner, and he very much wanted to take me to see his marker, and I was very much looking forward to seeing it. My trip was originally set for July, 2015, because the long summer days, nearly 14 hours, provided plenty of time for driving between distant markers and time for good for daylight photography. But due to the complexity of appointments, weather and other factors, I decided to put the trip on hold and cancel all my appointments, room reservations and change my airline reservations.

Now back to Athens, July, 2016. By this time my goal for markers to be seen was down from six to four plus the extra marker in Liberty County. One of the original six, placed at a Chambers County homesite for Sam Houston, was well documented, good pictures were available and its location exactly known. There was no compelling reason for me to see it other than to mark it off my list. This could not be said for any of the other five markers. None had good photographs. Locations for some were only vaguely known. Of these five, one is a grave marker in Jackson County, southwest of Houston, that I could never get permission to see. Over the years I spoke with the owners multiple times. I even promised to take a rake, hoe and trash bag to clean up the neglected cemetery. The answer had always been, "No." It was "No" in 2015 and was still "No" in 2016.

My first appointment from Athens on Tuesday was with the Red River County Historical Chairman who drove me to the remote Centennial marker for Robert Hamilton, northeast of Clarksville. Hamilton was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence. My next appointment was at the Red River Army Depot just west of Texarkana to see the Centennial marker for Hardin Runnels, an early Texas governor. At the Visitor's Center, I was photographed, background checked, and escorted to the Hardin Runnels marker and Runnels cemetery both located deep in the midst of long rows of WWII ammo bunkers surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of Iraq/Afghanistan-era Humvees, IED-proof armored personnel carriers and transport vehicles. This marker was placed in 1936 before the property was taken over by the government in preparation for WWII, but it is evident that the Army has respected the marker and cemetery for all these years. No photography was allowed except of the marker and cemetery itself.

Site of Home of Harkin R. Runnels Texas Centennial marker
Site of Home of Harkin R. Runnels Texas Centennial marker
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

From the Red River Army Depot, I drove down to Shreveport, Louisiana, to see my friend, Gerald Massey, a fellow photographer for Texas Escapes who I first met in April, 2010. I had been to Gerald's house once, and he has been to Carlsbad at least twice. Gerald wasn't feeling well when I arrived so we spent most of Wednesday at his house. I dropped him off at the local YMCA so he could enjoy their hot tub while I went on the local airport to see what was going on there. (not much)

Thursday morning I left early enough to eat once again at the Petro Iron Skillet Truck Stop, mentioned in my Pulaski marker story, before sunrise. I was looking forward to my 2:00 o'clock appointment to see the Liberty County marker near the Trinity River. I had spoken with the Liberty County property owner, and he seemed eager to take me to see his marker. He even had his grandson call me and ask if I wanted to walk the 1-1/2 miles to the marker, ride horses or take ATV's. I agreed with the 83 year old owner that, "We don't bounce as high as we used to, and hitting the ground hurts a lot more now."

I was very much impressed with the grandson each time I spoke with him. He said he had arranged to have a crew mow around the marker and had the ATV's all ready for my arrival even though he had several very nice horses we could ride if we so decided. It soon became obvious that my visit to this marker whether or not it proved to be a 1936 Centennial, might well be he highlight of my entire efforts to see all the Centennials around the state. No one had ever gone to this much trouble before to help me see a marker.

But first I had to get to Liberty. In Nacogdoches I re-photographed a lot of Centennial plaques placed around the town. I was up a bit too early for good lighting the first time through six years ago, thus confirming the old adage, "No time to do it right the first time, but always time to do it over." About 20 minutes out of Nacogdoches, on my way to Groveton, I saw four large buzzards up ahead busily working over some recent road kill on the highway. Three of the huge buzzards escaped to the left, but one decided to go right. Dodging too late, it hit with a loud thud right of center of my grille. A quick search for common buzzards says they weigh about three pounds. From the sound and feel of that hit, I think this guy's feathers weighed that much.

I saw it fall to the roadway. Knowing the debris should be cleaned from the bumper and grille, I began to slow. That was when I noticed my truck beginning to smoke. My first thought was that some buzzard parts had found their way to my hot exhaust manifolds. I came to a stop just off the road. Expecting a bloody mess up front, I thought it odd that all I saw was only faintly red. I used some of my emergency water to wash it off and again thought it odd that it was so oily. My thought was, "That buzzard sure was full of fat." Back it the truck, I put it in gear to resume my trip. The truck wouldn't move. Into reverse, again it wouldn't move. Only then did I realize that faint red on the bumper wasn't buzzard fat, but it was transmission fluid. That was what was smoking.

On went the hazard warning lights, and up went the hood. Of course, with all the covers and shields there was nothing to be seen. I knew right then there was no way I was going to make my 2:00 o'clock appointment. My first priority was to find help either with a mechanic or with a tow truck. My GPS listed a garage nearby. Wouldn't you know that it was not a working number. That is when my phone went completely dead. During my whole time with Gerald, I had forgotten to charge my cell phone!

The GPS told me it was about 22 miles back to Nacogdoches and nearly twelve miles east to Lufkin. With no other options, I approached the dilapidated mobile home whose driveway I was blocking. I knocked on the door and stepped back not knowing what to expect. After a short time, a long haired, bare chested man only a little younger than me, came to the door. I had barely gotten the words, "I broke down. My cell phone is dead, and . . ." out of my mouth, when he said, "Let me put a shirt on. I have a buddy down the road who is a good mechanic. I'll take you there, and he can fix you up." We introduced ourselves. I think he said his name was Marvin. It may have been soon after that when I asked to use his phone to call about my 2:00 o'clock appointment. The grandson was disappointed that I couldn't make it and would tell his granddad.

Marvin's friend lived about a mile away. I sat in the truck while he went to his friend's house. I think his name was David. Soon David came out smoking his cigarette and drinking a cup of coffee. Marvin drove me back to my truck, and David followed in his. Working only with a screwdriver David soon had the radiator cover off and the grille removed. The problem was immediately obvious. The bird had broken a part of my grille which, in turn, had punctured a small tube in the auxiliary transmission radiator.

Since this radiator was only needed with heavy hauling and towing or in mountainous country, the simplest solution was to bypass the damaged radiator completely. All that was needed was about two feet of transmission tubing, some clamps and about six quarts of transmission fluid. Just before David and I left for Lufkin to get these items, I asked Marvin if he would plug my phone in to have it charging while I was gone. It took David and me a good forty-five minutes to the auto parts store and back. In no time at all David was refilling the transmission. He even had me pull up to Marvin's mobile home so he could clean the engine and grille.

Now it was "crunch time." How much was David going to charge me? In my mind his price would start at $200.00. A tow truck alone would have been close to that. What he did as a mechanic wasn't rocket science, but he was available and willing to help. He had transportation. My guess was that I had taken a little more than two hours of his time. I was soon to be back on the road. What was that worth?

I asked him what he was going to charge and held my breath. David took another sip of his coffee, or was it another drag on his cigarette? Slowly he said, "How does $45.00 sound?" Just let me say that I gladly paid the $45.00 plus a very generous tip. Over Marvin's protest, he accepted a token of my appreciation, too. After all that, as well as a posed photograph of a job well done, I'm glad I remembered to get my partially charged phone back from Marvin's house. In the attached picture, I asked Marvin and David to separate just a little in order to show my now snaggletoothed pickup grille.

New friends
New friends
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

Back on the road, it was time to get my brain around the rest of the trip. My arrival in Liberty would now be a little after 4 o'clock. The James B. Woods marker southeast of Liberty is located in what is called Big Thicket. I did not have a firm appointment for this one. For the past year or so, I had spoken with a local historian who is one of the very few people who has actually seen this marker. He would be out of town this week only returning a day or two before my arrival there. Everything would have to be arranged at the last minute. My original plan was to try to see the marker on Friday, but with my buzzard encounter, I might be able to see it on Thursday instead, if it could all be so arranged.

It turns out he was back in town and said I could come by his house to get the coordinates for the marker, borrow some canvas chaps and get some last minute pointers for Big Thicket. After a few more phone calls to get final permissions from property owners, here I was, at last, on my way to see the James B. Woods marker with my partially charged cell phone, two GPS units, wearing my borrowed chaps and well covered with mosquito repellent.

I had been told that many years ago a gas pipeline had been put through the area, and the marker was not far from the pipeline right of way. The gate was where the pipeline entered Big Thicket. I knew approximately where the gate was supposed to be, but as I walked up and down the fence line, I could not see anything that looked like a gate. Finally, I saw one piece of the metal gate that had not been completely covered by the foliage. The way that gate was over grown, it could not have been opened in the last 25 years. It was now a little after 5 o'clock in the afternoon as I approached the gate to enter Big Thicket. I had a little more than three hours of daylight left.

TX - Big Thicket gate
The gate
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

Literally, as I stood looking at the gate, about to climb into The Big Thicket, my phone rang. It was the grandson wanting to know how my day was going and if we could still go to his marker that afternoon. Here I was at the very spot I had been wanting to be for five years. Should I climb the fence to see the James B. Woods marker or turn around and go see his marker? Of course, I wanted to do both. The reader can decide the best answer to that question after reading the next few paragraphs.

Back at my breakdown, once I called to cancel our appointment, it just never occurred to me to try to re-schedule that same day and just assumed he would have been too busy for that. I told him that I wouldn't have time that afternoon, but what about tomorrow? He said he was completely booked up on Friday. I felt bad but the gate was right in front of me. And the marker was somewhere past that gate. I fully believe the timing of that call was Providential. The choice was up to me. I was all ready. What could go wrong?

Most forested areas are commonly quite hilly. Big Thicket is almost totally flat. Looking at the overhead photos of the area, I commented to one person that I should be able to walk there in fifteen minutes or so. He just shrugged his shoulders and said I needed to take a shot gun and a machete. What could he have meant by that? I climbed over the gate and started in. With the coordinates in my GPS, I simply needed to walk straight to my destination, but, in any wooded area you can't walk straight any where. Big Thicket is not just any wooded area. There were vines, fallen timber and low hanging branches and spiders with huge webs. Those familiar with Texas spiders know that any time one branch is near another branch, a spider has a web between them. These were huge webs, maybe three feet across with huge spiders. I picked up a stick and tried to clear each web, but there were too many. They were unavoidable.

The Big Thicket, as could be expected, is "Texas Big." It encompasses more than three million acres in nearly 30 counties. Anyone can visit The Big Thicket National Preserve with over 100,000 acres of protected land and water ways. You can watch a 15 minute video in the comfort of air conditioned surroundings telling you all about its birds, animals, flora and fauna. It has nearly 40 miles of wide, paved hiking trails. But I wasn't in Big Thicket National Preserve. I was in Big Thicket as it really was.

Here was a native born New Mexican who grew up being able to see Guadalupe Peak over sixty miles away. Now visibility was hardly more that 40 feet or so in any direction, and every direction looked exactly the same. Just going in the general right direction was a challenge. And those spiders! It wasn't particularly hot or humid, and I wasn't sweating much, but I was soaking wet. All those leaves and branches were dripping wet, from what, I don't know. My map and the papers in my pocket had all turned to a mass of pulp. There was no way to keep my glasses clear. My vision was the same looking through them or over them.

Because the sky was slightly overcast, there were no discernible shadows. There was absolutely no way to keep from being totally disoriented. Most people have been lost at some point. It might just be looking for your car in a huge parking lot where most of the cars look just like yours, or lost in a multi-story office building where every office is the same or lost in a wilderness. Without my GPS, I was lost. But I just kept going, keeping, the best I could, headed toward the marker. After maybe 45 minutes or so, it dawned on me the kind of situation I had gotten myself into. I could tell my GPS battery was getting low and my backup GPS wouldn't be much better. My guess is that I was within 50-75 feet of the marker. It might have taken me maybe 10-15 minutes to locate it, but I decided in an instant, not to use that 15 minutes looking for it.

Being within just a few feet from the marker, I turned around and headed back toward my truck. Which, I think, was less than one-half mile away. After a few minutes, I was well over one-half mile away! That is how confused I had gotten. From the scribbled coordinates written on my pulpy paper, I may have actually circled the marker without seeing it. By now I could tell I was getting very tired. That is when I started to notice the vines with all those thorns and thistles. I must have been much more careful going in, but was getting very careless now. The thorns and thistles did a real number on both my arms and hands. Without those canvas chaps, my pants would have been in shreds. And those spider webs! My head and arms were covered with them. Sitting down on fallen logs for just a few minutes was a great help to regain some of my composure. I did that two or three times and felt much better. Really concentrating on what I was doing, the distance began to decrease.

That was when my GPS battery gave out. Now I was down to using my less reliable backup. Would it hold up? Still with no sense of direction, I kept plodding on. By now, that is what I was doing, plodding through those thorny vines and spider webs. Then I began to hear sounds of civilization. It is amazing, with no orientation, how sound can be so directional. Soon, walking toward the sound, I came to the fence; thoroughly, totally, absolutely exhausted and soaking wet, with just minutes left of daylight. There were a lot of "What Ifs" racing through my mind. Am I sorry I didn't find that marker? Absolutely not. I have not seen the James B. Woods marker, but I know someone who has. That's good enough for me.

Thankful to be out of Big Thicket in one piece, without a single spider bite, mosquito bite or snake bite, I returned my borrowed chaps and gladly headed for my reserved room down at the Baytown Super 8 on Interstate 10. You can only imagine how good that long, hot shower felt that night. Even though I slept well, the events of the day were racing through my mind all night long. I was ready to head for home but there was a lot of trip left on my itinerary.

TX - Boeing 747 Space Suttle Transports with replica shuttle
"The Boeing 747 Space Shuttle Transports with a full sized replica Shuttle mounted on its back."
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

Though I had planned extra time for Friday, by the time I had breakfast (I had only eaten one apple and one orange since my Petro Truck Stop breakfast the morning before), packed and re-oriented myself a little, it was time to get through Houston before the weekend traffic hit. Still healing from my Big Thicket wounds, on the way, I wanted to stop by the Johnson Space Center to see the recently installed exhibit featuring one of the actual Boeing 747 Space Shuttle Transports with a full sized replica Shuttle mounted on its back. That was a sight to see.

I got around Houston with no problem. Even then I dodged a big one. With moderate traffic on Loop 610, I had cars in both lanes beside me. Suddenly, just in front of me, I saw a scoop shovel right in the center of my lane. With no time or space to dodge either way, I straddled it without touching it. I don't know about the car behind me. If that shovel became airborne, it could have sliced right through a windshield. I couldn't see anything unusual so maybe it made it to the side of the roadway without doing any harm.

My next stop was Fort Bend County. Having already seen all of the Centennials in the county, there were two that had been moved to better settings. One was for the site of the original fort at the bend of the Brazos River, hence the name of the county. It had been re-set on one of the walking trails in the beautiful new County Sheriff Complex on the Brazos River. The other for Randal Jones was now located next to the nicely restored former Fort Bend County Jail which now houses the Richmond City Police Department.

Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

In all my Texas travels, I've had more than my share of really bad motel rooms. Arriving in Wharton, I made my way to one of my favorite stop overs, the Tee Pee Motel. Originally built in the 1940's, there are ten individual "tee pee" units which have been updated in the last fifteen years or so. Each consists of a small, circular room with only enough space for one bed, a couch and a bathroom. What I had been looking forward to all day was a delicious Mexican food meal at Los Cucos overlooking the Colorado River. Purposely not eating anything since breakfast, I still couldn't eat it all. For me, a meal at Los Cucos in Wharton is beyond description.

Saturday was going to be another complicated day. After breakfast at Denny's, I headed to Kerrville. Trying to explain why Kerrville was my destination is even more complicated. As mentioned at the very beginning of this tale, I had begun planning this trip over a year ago. The final date was set several months ago for me to spend a day in Athens, the day after our friend's move, Monday, July 25th, next day to see Gerald, then the Woods marker, then Wharton. From Wharton, my next appointment was northwest of Mertzon in Irion County, 430 miles away.

My wife and I have some very good friends, Pat and Katie, who a few years ago, retired and built a house near Kerrville. The first part of June, Pat died suddenly of a massive stroke. His memorial service was scheduled at their house near Kerrville on Saturday evening, July 30st. For months, my schedule, set by our friend's move to Athens, had me to be passing through Kerrville on Saturday, July 30th, the day of Pat's memorial service!

Camp Verde Texas Centennial plaque
"One Mile to Ruins of Camp Verde" Centennial plaque
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

But there's more. Just weeks before I was set to leave from Oregon, a fellow marker hunter, Greg, found an un-inventoried Centennial plaque, just like the ones that were in Nacogdoches. This plaque is located at Camp Verde commemorating the imported camel experiment that took place there just before the Civil War. Camp Verde is located just south of Kerrville, barely ten miles out of my way. Greg and I have both coordinated our Centennial efforts through Sarah Reveley, who lives in San Antonio. She wanted to see the newly found Camp Verde marker, too.

Originally I would meet her and her sister-in-law at Camp Verde. But due to some last minute scheduling glitch, her sister-in-law would drive ahead, if I could pick Sarah up at her house, barely an hour's drive from Camp Verde. The timing worked out beautifully. We met at Camp Verde at about 11 o'clock and saw plaque after having lunch at the very nice restaurant at Camp Verde. While having lunch, Sarah happened to mention that the Reeves County Centennial Pope's Crossing marker north of Pecos had been knocked over by an oil truck making too sharp a turn. Sarah was trying to figure out who to contact about having it re-set in a more protected enclosure. Later, checking my route to Carlsbad from my last maker appointment, I saw that changing my route to go through Pecos was only four miles further. Done deal.

After they left to go back to San Antonio, I had time on my hands until the memorial service at 6:30 Saturday evening. That time was well spent at the very quiet, air conditioned Kerrville Library, where I could relax and do a little reading while trying to stay awake until time for the service that evening. The very respectful service was a short walk from their house under a grove of Hill Country live oaks. All of their family; kids, and grand kids, had a part. Their son, a preacher with a church in Florida, did the eulogy.

My room that night was in Junction, about an hour west on I-10. My appointment for my next marker was to meet at the ranch headquarters northwest of Mertzon at 9:00 o'clock. From there one of the owners drove me over bouncy dirt roads to the Centennial Coughlin's Stage Stand marker near a tributary to the Concho River. After that, I was on my way to Pecos to see the condition of the Pope's Crossing marker. On my arrival, I was pleased to see that it had already been repaired having been placed in a nice concrete base with four big posts now protecting it. Sarah would be pleased.

TX Centennial Coughlin's Stage Stand
Coughlin's Stage Stand marker
Barclay Gibson July 2016 photo

So that's about it. I got to see three of the markers and got very close to the forth (giving myself credit for my attempt). Plus the extra one at Camp Verde. As I said from the beginning, it was my most exciting and unusual trip. And it turned out to be the most complex. I'm still wondering how different this trip might have been had I thought to re-schedule my 2:00 o'clock appointment? That is one of the "What Ifs" I'll never know the answer to. At least I now had a few days in Carlsbad to unwind before heading back to Oregon.

© Barclay Gibson,
September 9, 2016 Column

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