Trading Places

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

To Big Bend and Back, Day 14 

FORT STOCKTON, Texas— Finally we got an "early" start this morning, departing the hotel in San Angelo before 9 a.m.  We decided to try a role reversal from our usual routine.  Today I drove while Ken navigated, photographed, and took notes about the events of the day.  And maybe that's where things began to go awry.

Something's wrong with this picture
Our first stop of the day at a San Angelo water lily garden turned out to be fruitless.  Not only were the water lilies out of season, we found no letterbox, though we were unable to say with any confidence that we had located the spot the planter described. (Strike 1)

In part of the original section of San Angelo dating back to the late 1880s, we made our second letterbox search of the day.  The clues told the story of underground tunnels that were said to be active from the 1880s till the late 1960s.  According to local lore, farmers and ranchers would come to town with their families to shop for supplies and take care of business. While their wives visited the mercantile store, the men would go to the bank, which housed an underground tunnel that allowed the men to slip onto the staircase in the back of the saloon and up to the bordello. The men would spend the day making withdrawls and deposits and then go back through the tunnel and exit the bank, rejoining their families for the return home. A fascinating legend, but we were unable to find the letterbox, nor the "cement bridge" the box was supposed to be hidden under.  (Strike 2)

Finally at our third stop, which we reached only after I had made about six wrong turns en route, we were able to find our first letterbox of the day.  Another interesting local story was attached involving one Benjamin Franklin Ficklin, better known as Ben Ficklin.  A native of Virginia, Ficklin made his way to Texas after a series of pranks and missteps including being suspended from Virginia Military Institute for discharging a howitzer aimed at the cadet barracks.

Ultimately, Ficklin served in the Mexican-American War and became involved in the westward expansion movement.  Some credit him with the idea for the Pony Express and for a time he served as its manager.  Later he operated his own mail line from El Paso to San Antonio until he had an accidental encounter with a fish bone in Washington, DC.  In 1871, Ficklin was dining in a Georgetown restaurant, when a fishbone lodged in his throat.  Medicine being a rather unexact science at the time, a physician cut an artery in Ficklin's throat while trying to remove the bone, and the unfortunate Ficklin died a few days later.

Ben Ficklin Cemetery, San Angelo, TX

The town named in his honor didn't fare much better than its namesake.  Laid out along the Concho River in 1873, Ben Ficklin, Texas grew to become the county seat in 1875.  A few months after the courthouse was finally built in 1884, the river flooded along with several local creeks.  Their combined waters roared down on Ben Ficklin, wiping out the town.  Now all that remains is a cemetery with some of the victims of that flood.

Lake Nasworthy Nature Trail

South of San Angelo we visited the city's Nature Center on Lake Nasworthy, where we located our second letterbox of the day.  Finally, we were batting .500.  Maybe our boxing day was going to be fine, after all.  The box was hidden on the Nature Trail, a one-mile loop which provided a window into the semi-arid ecosystem found in west Texas.  Cacti of various types lined many parts of the stony, sandy trail, and prickly, thorny shrubbery along the route kept us alert.  It was a fascinating contrast to the woodland trails we are accustomed to seeing in Georgia.

After we left San Angelo, our letterboxing took a turn for the worse.  We drove many miles out of the way to search for some boxes that sounded promising, only to discover that they were missing. (Strikes 3 and 4)  After our last attempt ten miles outside Imperial, Texas, we were dragging our way toward Fort Stockton, our destination for the night.

I should have remembered Ken's history with shortcuts when he said, "I think we should turn on Buena Vista Road instead of going the route that both the built-in and the portable GPS units are suggesting we go."  And, in his defense, the beginning of the road looked fine.  The surprise was yet to come.  After seven miles on a pockmarked, lightly asphalted road, I flashed back to Ken's misadventures in trying to get from here to there more efficiently.  Thus the next eight miles on a washboard dirt track were more expected than astonishing.  At the end, we realized that we had saved a whopping five miles over the route that would have taken us over smooth, well-maintained highways.  But hey, we enhanced our trip by an additional 20 minutes of flat scrubland scenery.

Maybe tomorrow we should return to our normal roles.

DAILY STATS:
  • Started in San Angelo, TX; ended in Fort Stockton, TX
  • Weather:  Sunny, 27° to 70°
  • Miles driven:  260          (Trip total:  2,410)
  • States: 1 (TX)          (Trip total:  6)
  • Letterboxes found:  3         (Trip total:  64)
  • Pickup trucks looming in the rearview mirror:  27
  • Unpaved county roads:  163
  • Plastic shopping bags littering the roadside:  3,178
       (in spite of the abundance of "Don't Mess with Texas | $2,000 fine for littering" signs)
More Photos from Today 

On most two-lane roads
Stamping in
When the cemetery gate is locked...
The remains of Girvin, TX (one of many ghost towns we've encountered)
Near Castle Gap, TX
What's left of the Pecos River near Imperial TX