Texas has a wealth of oil and gas production facilities, hundreds of ranches ... and 14 national park sites that protect and preserve some of America’s most precious natural, cultural and historic land and waterscapes.
National parks traveler Mikah Meyer, who’s on a mission to visit all of the more than 400 sites within the National Park Service, crossed into Texas via its eastern border, eager to begin his ambitious adventures across the vast state.
First stop, Big Thicket National Preserve, which protects almost 45,780 hectares (113,121.96 acres) of land and water spread over seven counties in southeast Texas.
Mikah enjoyed the quiet beauty of a swamp cypress tupelo forest as he glided through one of its many rivers on a small boat. The dominant trees in most of the Big Thicket swamps are bald cypress and water tupelo which look primeval in appearance.
“There was something mystical and magical about the place even though it didn't have the big sweeping vista that other parks might have,” Mikah observed.
Mikah found more natural beauty at Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi, which protects 112 kilometers (70 miles) of coastline, dunes, prairies, and wind tidal flats, teeming with life.
To get to Padre Island, he had to travel through Houston, the most populous city in Texas, (which has no national park sites), and he said he couldn’t help but notice the contrast between the urban environment and the natural one.
“It was interesting to contrast this state that is so well known for oil… and then just to the southeast of this city known for oil production there’s the world's longest undeveloped barrier island.”
“What I’m learning about the seashores is that what really makes them unique is that they present the opportunity to experience our coastal land as it was before human development,” Mikah said.
That seems to be the recurring theme as Mikah travels across the country from one national seashore to another.
“Everything from Cape Cod National Seashore to Canaveral National Seashore, Gulf Islands National Seashore and now Padre Island National Seashore -- the consistency is that they offer the opportunity to experience undeveloped beaches,” he emphasized.
Near the park’s visitor center is an area where the tides come together, bringing with them literally tons of trash, which get swept up onto the beach. The park service uses that naturally occurring event as an opportunity to teach school children about conservation.
“They give them a trash bag and the kids can go out and pick up trash and they talk about conservation and taking care of the earth,” Mikah explained. “So it's a cool way to see how the National Seashore is trying to involve the next generation in preserving and taking care of these lands,” he added.
A mammoth discovery
When people hear the name Waco, Texas, many associate it with the deadly siege carried out by federal agents of a compound belonging to the Branch Davidian religious group in 1993.
But the city was famous long before then for something a little more appealing.
As Mikah describes it, in 1978, two young friends, Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin, were looking for old Native American arrowheads in the area near their homes when they found a bone sticking out of the ground. “So they started digging around it and it turned out to be a mammoth tusk,” Mikah explained.
The young men removed the bone and took it to Baylor University's Strecker Museum (predecessor to the Mayborn Museum Complex) for examination. Museum staff identified the find as a femur bone from a Columbian mammoth. This extinct species lived during the Pleistocene Epoch (more commonly known as the Ice Age) and inhabited North America from southern Canada to as far south as Costa Rica.
That stunning discovery launched a massive archaeological dig “that produced the largest -- and what I think is the only -- find ever of an entire herd of mammoths,” Mikah said.
A lost world
Strecker Museum staff quickly organized a team of volunteers and excavation began at the site. The crews slowly excavated a lost world. Between 1978 and 1990, they uncovered the fossil remains of 16 Columbian mammoths. Their efforts revealed a nursery herd that appears to have died together in a single natural event. Six additional mammoths as well as the fossil remains of many other animal species have been excavated in the years since, including the tooth of a juvenile saber-toothed cat and a camel that lived approximately 67,000 years ago.
Waco Mammoth National Monument was designated as a new unit of the National Park System by President Barack Obama in 2015.
“When you hear the word Waco you think of compounds and biker gangs, so you know it's good that they have some things a little less controversial to be known for,” Mikah observed.