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The Devils, you say

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Head uphill and feet down, I'm lying on the ground in a sleeping bag at the base of a hill above Dolan Falls.

Rocks stab me in the back. My big toe hurts. It's hot and humid, and I ache from two days of fishing, but I can't sleep. And against the roar of the falls below, thunder cascades in from the west.

I close my eyes and track the storm using the lightning flashes over my eyelids. Flash, count, boom. Five seconds to the mile. Way off. Maybe it'll miss me.

I wiggle my throbbing toe against the soft flannel of the sleeping bag, feeling for the butt end of a lechugilla thorn and wonder if the stabbed digit will be infected by morning. I came up here in the dark wearing sandals like a rube.

Lying here in a tiny clearing in the cenizo, I think of the rattlesnakes that are sliding around looking for rabbits and rats. I think of the striped bark scorpions and brown recluse spiders that live under rocks like those poking me in the back and butt.

I zip up a little at the bottom of the bag, just to keep the arachnids and insects out, settle back with my head on a bow-hunting cushion I'm using as a pillow, and I wonder if the Apache and Kickapoo who lived and slept here hundreds of years ago felt like this.

Tap on the bag. Tap, tap on the rocks. Splat, splat, splat on my head.

The lightning and the thunder are suddenly one. A searing bolt tears a hole in the clouds right over my head, slashing down to strike just across the river. I'm dumb, but I'm not stupid. I slide my feet into the sandals, grab the sleeping bag, and scurry down the hill just as the sky opens and the flood begins.

My night on the ground, one item on my list of 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies, will have to wait. I don't want to die before I get to the end of the list, so I slink down to the Nature Conservancy's rustic house on a cliff over the falls and take refuge on the porch. The Apache and Kiowa didn't have this option.

Sleeping out is supposed to be a fun adventure. I don't care if you're on a remote sand bar on the Rio Grande, beneath an ocotillo in Big Bend, in a pup tent in Big Thicket or in your own backyard. There's no match for lying on your back, preferably close enough to a dying campfire to feel the warmth on your feet. And talking in low tones about life with a best friend. I'll give it a try again tonight.

The sun is coming up over the Devils. With the storm, the river has risen two feet in its rush down to Amistad International Reservoir on the Rio Grande.

This is a short river, maybe 60 miles of actual water in a 90-mile bed, though its spring-fed waters are among the purest in Texas. That's due in part to its location at the junction of three distinct geographical regions — the Tamaulipan thornscrub, Chihuahua Desert and the Edwards Plateau — and its remoteness.

Nobody gets here who isn't planning to, and some who have come regret it. One visitor wrote online, "We still refer to this trip as the trip to hell."

But much closer. About 170 miles west of San Antonio to Sonora, and then 45 miles south to the figurative gates in the Loma Alta area. Then west over about 30 miles of single-lane rock and caliche that acts like quicksand. This is four-wheel drive territory, and there are none in sight.

This pristine landscape is one of the best-protected natural areas in Texas. The state bought about 20,000 acres for a passive park in 1988. The Nature Conservancy has purchased about 5,000 acres and holds a conservation easement on 13,722 adjoining acres. Together they surround about 9 miles of the river. Landowners, who enforce no trespassing signs, protect much of the rest.

American Indians traveled up and down the Devils River. Their pictographs decorate a distant cave wall on the Nature Conservancy's Dolan Falls Preserve, and I can stand there and see why they considered this a sacred place. The water they drank, the animals they hunted, the plants they used for medicine and tools, all make this a special place and the chance to spend a night here, to sleep on the same ground they used, speaks to me in a way few things can.

The Devils River also is one of the unique fishing spots in Texas. There are largemouth bass, of course, and stripers migrating up the river from Amistad to rest below Dolan Falls because that's as far as they can go. But the real attraction is smallmouth bass.

The cool waters of the river, gushing from springs above Dolan Falls, are a perfect home for the native of more northern climates. Nobody knows whether the fish were stocked here without anyone's knowledge or migrated upstream from old Parks and Wildlife stockings when Amistad was built. The smallmouths don't care how they got here and the anglers who find a way to get to the river don't either.

I catch several of the dapper little fish during the day, and they make a nice little distraction, I guess. Still, my mind is on the next night, on finding a place where four inches of rain have drained enough that I can sleep on the ground without soaking through my sleeping bag and making me miserable for another night.

Thinking about the rocky ground and the muddy hillsides, I realize that I've become a wuss. I'm not afraid of rattlesnakes. I'm not afraid of bears or bees or mountain lions. I'm really not bothered by scorpions, though they do hurt when they sting.

But maybe I'm too old for this. I was only on the ground for an hour before the storm, and I'm sore. Rolling over into a fire ant mound and trying to sleep with sticks poking me in the back and rocks under my head, I know are going to be miserable, and I dread them already before the sun's gone down. I've become an air mattress guy.

Through supper, I keep hoping that Jay Harrod, who's here representing the Nature Conservancy, will return to his suggestion the previous afternoon that he join me sleeping out on the ground. But it doesn't come up. My sleeping bag is the elephant in the room that nobody's mentioning.

Finally, supper over, dishes put away and Harrod ignoring my long face, I pick up my bedroll and head off to a little grove of live oaks where the ground is packed and dry, and I can spend the night in relative safety as long as the lightning isn't doing a second show. I slip into the sleeping bag and wait a fitful hour until the lights go off in the house, and I can concentrate on the night around me.

There's a creeping pain in my lower back and new rocks keep materializing out of the ground and gouging every inch of my body. The half moon in the southern quadrangle is so bright, it beams like a prison spotlight, right in my eyes. I shuffle and tumble and twist inside the sleeping bag and think about crawling back up on the sleeping porch. I could claim some equipment or wardrobe malfunction.

Moan, moan.

Then the moon swings on past, and suddenly the stars are so bright they could be painted on the ceiling. I watch the Big Dipper, Ursa Major, the Great Bear (a bear I've never been able to visualize) begin to rotate across the sky, the stars at the far edge of the cup always pointing to the North Star. I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt when I first was able to see the dipper and my own kids' giddiness when I pointed it out to them, even if they've never seen a real dipper.

And finally, after midnight, over the rumble of Dolan Falls, I hear the sound of a screech owl, very nearby in the live oaks. I try to spot him because he's close, but I can't. Probably not even with a flashlight. Down the river, a second owl cranks up, and now I have a whole raptor serenade going.

The rocks get softer and the ground smoother and the inflatable pillow turns to down. Sleep finally sneaks up on me, and I'm gone.

Until 5:30 when I wake up in agony and figure I've got enough to write this. Then I go back to the porch.

mleggett@statesman.com