Fort Davis, Texas is a tiny town nestled in the shadow of the Guadelupe Mountains in the far western reaches of the state. It is a place with so little human footprint that it is home to the MacDonald Observatory and the annual gathering of the Texas Star Party. Here the stars at night truly are big and bright. Without the lights of more populous areas it is possible to see the nighttime sky the way it was once viewed by our ancestors. It is a place where it becomes easy to sense our place in the universe and in turn to shed the baggage of stressful times. In Fort Davis, particularly when the day is done, the stars, the planets and the creatures of the night remind us that we are part of a vast expanse of history that has come before us and is still yet to happen. It is a humbling and healing experience to be there.
Fort Davis came to be in the middle of the nineteenth century when the California gold rush led to an unprecedented western movement. The journey was long and treacherous, moving through deserts and land belonging to Native Americans who were becoming increasingly more concerned about settlers claiming property as their own. The fort was not just a way station for travelers but also a means of protection for safe passage. It was home to officers and their families as well as the famous Buffalo Soldiers, Black recruits so named by the Comanches who were fascinated by the dark skinned men. It was a rough and tumble society on the outer edges of civilization where everyone had to work together to keep things from falling apart.
The fort and its purpose lasted only a brief time. When the Civil War broke out it was used as a western outpost for the Union Army until the Confederates defeated the troops there and used it for their own purposes. After the war it once again became useful but not for long. It was abandoned late in the nineteenth century and sat that way for decades. Luckily there weren’t many people in that part of the world and so the buildings were never completely destroyed. They simply sat waiting for someone to notice their historical significance and to restore them to their former glory.
Today they are a living record of an era when many citizens of our country were seeking futures for themselves and their children. It takes little imagination to understand the difficulties of their journeys. The post is four hundred miles from San Antonio which now as then was the only major city in any direction. At a rate of five miles per hour, the wagons that carried the families were excruciatingly slow. Travel took more than ten times longer than it does today and that was if all other conditions along the route were perfect. I thought of how long it had taken us to pull our trailer from San Antonio to Los Angeles on our vacation and began to understand the sacrifices that the travelers had to make. I thought of the heat and the uncertainty of the road ahead and marveled that anyone might have felt adventurous or desperate enough to consider such a daunting expedition.
There is a hospital in the fort that holds records from the doctors who worked there. The stories tell of horrors such as the family that lost seven children in two weeks to diphtheria. The primitive nature of the treatments are as frightening as the injuries and diseases that found their way so far from the rest of humanity and yet the daily lives of the people who came here were often as routine as anywhere. They wrote to friends and family back home and celebrated the coming and going of the seasons. They drilled on the parade ground and periodically defended themselves against cattle rustlers and thieves. They watched the comings and goings of the pioneer families and no doubt observed the same stars at night that continue to brighten the skies. When they were gone they seemed to have been forgotten for a time but today thanks to the National Park Service they are remembered by people like me who walk in the shadows of their history with a kind of awe.
Fort Davis is now mostly a destination for tourists and astronomers. Those seeking refuge from the hurly burly of our modern times like to sit on the porches of the inns on the main street of town and listen to the silence. An old time drug store offers a daily menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner along with a soda fountain featuring banana splits and root beer floats. Fort Davis State Park has tent sites and full hookups for campers. The Prude Ranch which hosts the Texas Star Party offers horse back riding and a vicarious ranching experience. The MacDonald Observatory is a scientific wonder that hosts tours and star gazing opportunities for the public even while it studies the heavens and learns more and more about our universe.
There are things to do in and near Fort Davis for those who like to keep busy but it is also the consummate location for simply relaxing. We spent an entire evening just gazing at the stars which were so plentiful that it was breathtaking. Some people actually sleep during the day and stay awake all night long to watch the changing spectacle in the sky as the earth spins on its axis.
Being in Fort Davis is a priceless experience that puts life so clearly into focus. Somehow out where mankind has such a small footprint it is easier to understand that our days and our nights will continue in much the same way that they have for eternity and none of our worries will change that. It reminds us of the beauty of nature and the cosmos and urges us to realize that we owe it to ourselves and to the future to honor the miraculous magic of our world. It tells us to learn from both the courage and mistakes of our past. It challenges us to become protectors of humans and nature lest we lose what is most important.
We know more about how things work than at any other time in history but I suspect that just as our ancestors, we still have much to learn. We need not berate ourselves for the ignorance of those who came before us but instead should celebrate the knowledge that has allowed us to become better. Somehow both our history and our future converge in Fort Davis in a way that makes our path as the human race seem so much clearer. It is difficult to visit this place without changing just a bit. It is both spiritual and scientific, reaching into the head and the heart. You won’t find raucous and artificial excitement here but you just might find what you need.