136″ WHEELBASE, HIGH ROOF
February 28, 2022 |
A few months ago, I landed an assignment near a scrubby southwest Texas town called Langtry. I planned to book a room at the nearest hotel, 28 miles down the highway in Comstock, but it was full.
Then I remembered I could turn my work trip into an adventure by driving my new camper van and staying at nearby Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site.
But I’d never camped solo in Vincent VanGo, as my husband and I dubbed our Ford Transit AWD van, which we purchased last April. I hadn’t even driven Vincent for long stretches by myself. I needed to get comfortable going solo.
I reserved a spot at the park’s recently renovated campground, a five-hour drive from my home in Austin. I’d visited the 2,172-acre park before, to see some of its famous ancient rock art, but never stayed the night. I chose a spot in the Roadrunner Flat primitive camping area, which required a quarter-mile hike to the nearest bathroom, but I preferred solitude over the sounds of other campers.
I pulled into the park, located about 40 miles west of Del Rio, late in the afternoon. From my campsite, I could see the mountains of Mexico crouching in the distance. A bird landed on top of a spindly yucca and watched me boil water on a portable stove to make a dehydrated meal. (I also know from experience that the J and P Bar and Grill in Comstock makes great burgers and chicken fried steak. Don’t let the “Eat Here” sign crafted out of blue duct tape dissuade you.)
I’m used to backpacking, so this felt luxurious. No tent to pitch, no contortions inside my tent to change clothes, and real lights instead of a headlamp. Nothing – nothing! – compares to snuggling up under flannel sheets in the back of my camper van.
My view consisted of lots of cactus, distant mountains, and open skies. I squelched stray thoughts of rampaging axe murderers and cozied up with a book before nodding off. I only woke up once – and struggled for 10 minutes to determine the source of the flashing red lights on the horizon. They were from a passing vehicle, not an alien spaceship.
With a few hours to burn the next morning, I yanked on my boots, made a Thermos of spiced tea, and struck out along the Canyon Rim Trail as the sun rose. I passed a sign that said “Watch for Snakes” as I headed down the 4.9-mile dirt path toward the Presa Canyon Overlook. There, I took in the view of the convergence of two canyons – Presa and Seminole. I sipped my tea as the sky turned from navy blue to rose, then orange.
If you continue, you can hike all the way to the Rio Grande. From there, you need binoculars to peer across the canyon to Panther Cave, one of the park’s premier rock art sites. Centuries ago, someone painted a pair of 9-foot panthers at either end of a mural featuring hundreds of other figures.
It’s accessible only by water – and only when the river is high enough. (It’s not, right now.)
If you make it to the park, sign up for the 90-minute guided tour to the Fate Bell Shelter.
(Visitors can only visit rock art sites in the canyon with a ranger-led group, to protect them from vandalism. The tours are offered every Wednesday through Sunday and cost $8 per adult.) You’ll scamper among car-sized boulders in the bottom of the canyon, then scramble up to a big rocky overhang. When your eyes adjust, you’ll see a panel of faded figures and designs in red, black, and yellow.>
Prehistoric people used crushed minerals, animal fats, and urine to paint these geometric designs and anthropomorphic figures. Archeologists speculate that the artwork might explain their belief system or tell stories about their journeys to the underworld.
I’ve been to the shelter twice and still love to contemplate the souls who painted it. What were their lives like? Why did they do it? Did they ever imagine people would travel for hours to see what they created?
During cooler months, the park also offers longer guided hikes to more remote areas of the park. In the fall and spring, nearby Shumla Archaeological Research Center also offers guided tours inside and outside the park.
I made it to Langtry for my assignment later that day and camped another night at the park. As I packed it in that final night, I realized something: I’d rather brush into a prickly cactus outside my camper van and take in the night stars from a picnic table than plop into a generic hotel bed any night.
And I can do it on my own – to the background music of howling coyotes.
Pam LeBlanc writes about adventure, fitness, and travel. A longtime newspaper journalist who now writes for a variety of regional and national publications, she loves anything that makes her muddy, results in mosquito bites or poison ivy, rips her pant legs, and brings her closer to nature. Pam and her husband Chris became Wayfarians in April of 2021. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @PamLeBlancAdventures