Gayne Heads West

The western portion of Texas is what most people from outside of the state think Texas looks like - hot, dry, and barren.
I stopped in Fort Stockton to take a picture of this metal sign and to throw my kids' Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel DVD into oncoming traffic so I would never have to hear it blaring from the backseat again.
"Let's stop there dad. It looks cool!"
"Stop where?"
"At the snake place!"
"Where's that?"
"You just passed it!"
"Oh, that's too bad."
Encompassing more than 10,000 acres, the Sproul Ranch has been family owned and operated for more than 120 years. While cattle are still run on the H.E. Sproul section - where I stayed - its main operations are hunting and tourism. Ranch guests stay in the well-appointed, and Young family children destruction proof, Harvard Lodge.
Here, on the forest moon of Endor, the second Death Star's shield generator sits unguarded…with on the Sproul Ranch sits a giant radio telescope run by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. I wonder what it's listening for…
Does Gayne Young bring bad luck? I'm not sure but just after I arrived, a summer storm passed through the ranch, the lightning of which ignited a fire in the next canyon over.
What does Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai have to do with Gayne staying at the Sproul Ranch? Nothing. Nothing at all.
What was my 6 year old son's favorite part of our room at the Harvard Lodge? The light dimmer, of course. "Quit turning that thing!"
"Look. The light goes on. The light goes…"
"Get your hand off that thing!"
"…off. The light goes back on…"
"Get away from that switch now!"
"I drove 5 hours and spent hundreds of dollars on this family trip and y'all's favorite things are the dimmer switch and the bunk beds!"
"Sleeping up here will be like being in a tree house."
"That comment just cost you my paying for your wedding someday."
"Dad."
"And college! Now go outside and enjoy the view!"
Because my kids wanted to stay in the pool until they resembled dried fruit, I did not get to partake of the trap and skeet range.
I did manage to get away from the kids long enough to study some of the trophies taken on the ranch. This cougar is one of many taken on the Sproul Ranch's horseback hunts into the mountains of the ranch.
Free-ranging monster deer such as this one are also available on the ranch.
Lions have been hunted with dogs on the ranch for generations. This dog was so good at baying cougars that she was immortalized next to one of her cats.
"Dad, are you gonna stuff our dog when she dies?"
"No. I don't even like spending money on her now when she's alive."
"Dad."
"Would you like a javelin rug as a bathmat in your bathroom?"
"No way!"
"Too bad. I already wrote Santa and asked him to bring you one."
"Write him back. I don't want one."
"No can do kiddo."
"Dad!"
I had exactly 5 minutes in the pool to myself before my kids decided to use me as a float, kickboard, diving platform, pretend shark, etc….
"Look dad. It's like I'm in a secret cave."
"Secret as in 'No one other than you should know about it?'"
"Yeah."
"Then I can get out of the pool and go have a beer?"
"Dad!"
"What? If it's a secret…"
When the Fire Marshal showed my thoughts immediately raced to "How was my son able to set something on fire while I'm watching him?" Then, I remembered the fire in the next canyon over.
I surmised that the fire was pretty bad when I saw heavy equipment being brought onto the scene.
My wife's box o' wine wouldn't fit in our ice chest so she removed the liner from within. The result? What looks like a colonoscopy bag of urine.
My son has never completely shut a door in his life - until we were all outside with no hotel key and the ranch staff was 10,000 acres away fighting a fire!
It's day two of the living hell I call a family vacation and on today's agenda is a drive over to Balmorhea State Park for a dip in San Solomon Spring.
San Solomon Spring was originally a desert wetland known as a cienega. In the 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps leveled the springs (boy, talk about conservation) to build a 1 ¾ acre spring fed swimming pool.
The CCC also built a number of structures around the pool for, judging by the smell, feral cats to spray urine upon.
The pool is 25 feet deep in the center and holds a variety of fish and turtles. Note: My daughter is not indigenous to the pool.
"Dad! I'm entering the pool. Get my picture." I really need to quit putting my kids in these galleries. They're starting to act like primadonnas.
"I don't see any fish."
"That's probably because your goggles are so tight there's no oxygen around your eyes. Can you see anything?"
"Where are you?"
Ladies and gentlemen, my daughter's first time off the high board without me pushing her from the edge.
"Yes, now you'll be able to see the fish. But you look like a dork - go swim with your mom."
What does Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai have to do with San Solomon Spring? Still nothing. Nothing at all.
Some of the water from the pool is diverted to a small cienega. Yes, only 70 years after destroying the native topography the government decided to try to undo the damage.
The cienega's waters are so clear that visitors can easily spot crawfish - and drink straws - under three feet of water.
Sad but true: these snakes appeared after a kid threw some Sunchip snacks into the cienega. Apparently blotched water snakes love salsa chipotle flavored chips.
Turtles also love multigrain snack chips.
We returned to the Harvard Lodge on the Sproul Ranch just as another afternoon storm passed through. Not only did the rain extinguish the fire in the next canyon over but it left us this sweet rainbow. Everyone coo. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaa
Here, my daughter poses with one of the many lions taken on the ranch.
Here, my daughter fears for her life as she just knocked the plastic tongue out of the lion mount. Way to go kid.
For our last day on the ranch we decided to take a backcountry Jeep tour. As you can tell from the picture, my 6 year old son was thrilled with the idea.
This was the first time we were able to see firsthand evidence of the fire that claimed roughly a thousand acres. Even after a heavy and prolonged rain some brush was still smoking.
Anybody have some topsoil handy? Fire in the Davis Mountains of West Texas is a mixed blessing. On the one hand it can clear overgrown brush and allow fresh grasses to grow. But it can also scorch delicate grasses and leave only rocks.
This agave plant, although beautiful, is not the variety of plant that produces tequila. How do I know? Let's just say my stomach's still not right.
This hand carved wooden trough is a beautiful reminder of the Sproul Ranch's 120 year history. The orginal vaqueros hired to work the ranch had to be multitalented, as good at carving necessities as they were at working cattle.
Noting the beautiful ruggedness of the ranch, it's easy to see why it's one of the few ranches in Texas to offer free-ranging elk and aoudad hunting. The animals love the protection and cooler temperatures of the upper mountains as well as the browse and graze opportunities in the lower valleys. My 6 year old son, not so much. He just kept complaining about wanting to go back to the pool.
What does Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai have to do with my Sproul Ranch Jeep tour? Again, nothing. Nothing at all.
"Oh Daddy. That flower's beautiful. Just gorgeous against the starkness of that cactus."
"Jeeze kid. How old are you again?"
"Nine."
Our Jeep tour guide stopped at this tree to comment, "That sure would make a good picture if there were some buzzards perched in it." "It would that," I responded. A few minutes later I asked, "Do you think any buzzards are going to show up?" "Nope. Not today." Hmmmmmmmm.
After our Jeep tour we headed further west to the McDonald Observatory: home of the 38th largest telescope in the world. And yet you can't buy a beer there.
Despite the fact that this telescope weighs 160 tons it is so perfectly balanced that it can be swung on its axis with the push of a hand. And yet they wouldn't let me swing it into anyone. Oh, and they don't serve beer there either.
Back at the Harvard Lodge my daughter and I took the time to admire some more of the ranch's trophies. "What kind of elk is this daddy?"
"Dead."
"Dad, you've used that joke about a hundred times!"
"I know but it's a good one isn't it?"
My thanks again to the Sproul Ranch. Visit them at www.sproulranch.com