Catching the Texas travel bug

After last weekend, I can now say that I have been on an entire camping trip in search of one shiny green beetle.

Our friend Alejandro had been excited about this particular kind of beetle, the Wood’s Jewel Beetle, for months, so the four of us—Cano, Alejandro, Jenny and I—packed our bags and headed west to Davis Mountains State Park.

We left Austin at 10am, breakfast tacos in hand. Google maps pegged the drive at 6 hours, but our tendency to stop for scenery, fresh peaches, enchiladas and ice cream stretched it to a solid 9.

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Our campsite–is West Texas even a real place?

The drive was stunning—every time I travel in Texas, I am amazed at the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems. I didn’t want to sleep in the car because I was afraid I’d miss the scenery changing subtly from scrubby forest to grassy flatlands to gently rolling hills to (finally) the crinkled peaks of the Davis Mountains.

We arrived at the park at sunset, and drove to a scenic overlook, where we wandered around in awe of the green valley, meandering creek, and hillsides covered with grass glowing in the golden light. When got to the campsite, the sun had set, and we hurried to put up our tents.

When we were finished, Alejandro pulled out a black light from his car, which he mounted on the side of the vehicle and draped in a white sheet. Within seconds, the air around the light was filled with moths careening in and out of the shadows. Huge, clumsy beetles dropped from the air onto the sheet, all of them bumbling, awkward, earnest, none of them green.

I wandered away from the light, just far enough that my eyes could adjust to the velvety blackness around me. On the ground, I saw something glow—maybe a reflection of the light on a shard of glass? I approached it, but as I changed angles, the glow stayed constant. I scooped it up—it was a female firefly! Wingless and wormlike, she crawled on my hand, emitting a soft green glow.

When the sun rose on Sunday morning, it found me peering out of my tent, sleepy-eyed and stiff from lying on the ground. I hadn’t really seen the campsite the night before, and the drifts of dewy flowers and green expanses of hills looked magical in the slanted, lemony light.

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The campsite at sunrise

We decided to hike in the morning, but fate was not with us. The first trail we tried led straight to the bank of the swollen creek, which was flowing with a strong current that we did not want to cross. The second trail was the same, with the added complication of my eye swelling shut due to an insect sting.

We drove into town to the nearest grocery store, and I grabbed a bottle of antihistamines and walked up to the counter, where the solitary checker was writing prices on bottles of shampoo with a black sharpie.

“Can you see this?” she asked, holding up the bottle.

I laughed.

“I can’t see much, since my eye is swollen shut.”

We finally got to go on our hike later in the afternoon, once I could open my eye almost all the way again. We chose the most challenging path on the map, the Indian Head trail, which started off ambitiously by winding straight up the nearest mountain. We were all a little winded after the first few minutes, but the beautiful scenery made up for it.

The hills were blanketed in tall tufts of grass, and dotted with dark green junipers. Torrey yuccas, looking disturbingly human, loitered on the slopes, casting long shadows in the afternoon sun. The fibrous trunks of dead yuccas doubled over instead of snapping like branches, giving the eerie impression of bent, broken bodies.

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Shooting the breeze with a Torrey yucca

The trail took us over three small mountains, each more fascinating than the last. We found quartz pebbles like milky bubbles, spiny, lightning-fast lizards, and a stand of white flowers so fragrant that we stopped to smell them for a full ten minutes. Every so often, the constant green of the hills was broken by rocky outcroppings, which we climbed and lay on top of like reptiles warming their blood in the sun.

On the way back to camp, I found an uprooted Boletaceae mushroom, and broke it open to get a better look at the gills. Within seconds, the flesh turned a vibrant blue. We gathered around the mushroom, and I pulled it apart as many times as I could just to watch the color shift as the inside of the mushroom oxidized. It was so beautiful!

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Boletaceae mushroom turning blue

That night, we black-lighted again, and then stood around talking and admiring the stars, which were brighter than I had ever seen them and strewn across the sky with all the elegant chaos of a Jackson Pollock painting. I felt so at home.

The next morning, packing up the tents felt bittersweet; one day wasn’t nearly enough to see all the beautiful things the Davis Mountains had to offer, and we hadn’t even found the beetle. I was concentrated hard on folding the tarp into an even square, when I heard a loud, droning buzzing, and turned around to see a flash of green—the beetle! I shot out a hand to grab it, and opened my fist to see it flailing on my palm, an iridescent green underlaid with yellow. We were all so excited to see it—the perfect end to the perfect camping trip!

Extra pictures

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A leafed-out ocotillo

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We found a whip scorpion!

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A really pretty mushroom

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Walking in the hills

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More hiking

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