“Welcome to west Texas, where everything bites, pokes, sticks, or stings,” chuckled our project partner, John.
It was the first morning of our two ten-day hitches to the Fort Davis National Historic Site. As our crew surveyed the territory, it was easy to see what John meant: dense patches of Prickly Pear Cactus were scattered throughout the land, as well as an array of Mesquite trees, all in different stages of growth. Colorful moths and butterflies flew overhead while gigantic ants and beetles buried themselves in the dusty, coarse earth. Rocky mountains, several hundred feet above us, surrounded the small but bustling town. We were only seven hours from Austin, but it felt much farther.
John welcomed us to the town of Fort Davis, built throughout the mid-1800s to guard west Texas and allow safe passage on the San Antonio-El Paso road, a journey of 600 miles that took pioneers to California to mine for gold. Named for the then-Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, the fort served as a fully functioning town, with a store, chapel, jail, and family housing.
Our job for the next twenty days was to cut mesquite along the old road in order to restore it to how it would have looked in 1850, with small patches of grass here and there and a few bushes. We were to use herbicide to kill the Mesquite after cutting it. After a few hours of work on the first day, we realized that this was no easy task. We had only brought a few chainsaws with us, for we were unaware we were cutting Mesquite, which has denser trunks than most trees we cut. Brush cutters were no worthy opponent for this stuff. Frequent cries of “ouch!” and “oww!” stood out among the sounds of machinery, as Mesquite has a way of grabbing onto one’s skin with its thorns, as if retaliating in anger for being separated from its roots. A quick fix to the recurring stabbings came in the form of a pitchfork, my personal new favorite tool. Our other project partner, Bill, literally saved our skin by bringing us three shiny pitchforks and a wheelbarrow. We were immensely grateful and more productive, for the pitchforks made it easy to carry a clump of mesquite almost the size of a person.
A few days into the project, the weather decided to take a turn for the worse. A large thunderstorm rolled through, depositing hail throughout the fort. Our project partners agreed to let us stay in a renovated historic house in the fort as a reprieve from the unpredictable weather. Originally a house of a high ranking official, this house now served as a storage unit and a place for re-enactors to get dressed in the finest 19th century military garb. Of course, one mention of the possibility of ghosts had us scared but excited, which led to pranks galore. We stayed at the house off and on throughout our time at Fort Davis, for which we were immensely grateful during the cold nights and mornings in the mountain air.
Despite our hopeful attitude, our chainsaws had issues throughout the trip, which slowed us down considerably. Even though we brought our favorite saws, they didn’t agree with the heat of midday and continual use, and one by one they began to fail. We doctored them as much as we could in the field, even switching out parts and eventually ending up with one completely broken saw and two kind of working ones. We vowed to bring as many saws as possible the next time around to avenge the fallen brethren.
As we made our way farther down the road, we had plenty to look at. It seemed like everywhere we looked, there were artifacts. Some were clearly recent deposits, like soda cans and bits of plastic (so, actually trash), but we found some pretty amazing things. Pieces of plates and glass, a uniform button, and even an old stove was located around the site.
Nights at camp were a lot of fun. We played card games and read books, and we discussed various fan theories about the outcome of Avengers: Endgame. Crew member Sophia and I listened to her playlist of aggressive orchestral music as we completed a nature hike on top of Fort Davis at dusk, stopping every now and then to look at plants and cacti from the Chihuahuan desert. Javelinas and deer strolled around our camps frequently, and a particularly happy skunk ate dinner with us one night (he was uninvited, and would not leave). At the fort, our two new horse friends, Soldier and Dudley, greeted us every morning with pleas for forehead scratches and pats.
On the second hitch, we arrived to work armed with six chainsaws. We had our method down to muscle memory at this point: a sawyer would saw through a mesquite tree, their swamper would rake the remains away with a McLeod, a pitchforker would come by and scoop all the remains up and take it to the side of the road, then someone would do quality check with loppers, then lastly, the herbicider would come by with a backpack sprayer and coat all the cut ends.
The bad weather continued throughout the second hitch, and we had several days where we were able to work for half the day and then take a few hours for education. We went to the Star Party at the McDonald Observatory where we learned many constellations and got to look through telescopes, and on another day we went to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and tour their collection of cacti and desert plants with Bill as our tour guide. We also met a visiting high school group and learned how to make adobe bricks to go on the restored structures, which was a muddy but satisfying experience. Lastly, we took a full day to assist the museum technician in cataloging artifacts! We cataloged original pieces of pine wood from the structures as well as little items like books, oil lamps, and bullets. I was overjoyed to be able to assist in museum work and view artifacts up close!
Overall, this experience was something I will never forget. To be able to spend so much time at a place we all enjoyed was a blessing and I gained a newfound appreciation for all of the hard work that goes into historic preservation. Many thanks to my spectacular crew for all the laughs, including but not limited to the Porter’s voice, gender bending photo filters, low budget horror movies, and the endless jokes.
Love you, Purple!
Caroline Fangman – Conservation & Disaster Crew Member (Purple Crew)