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Original Issue


"Is there a sign or something, so we'll know when we get there?" my friend asked dubiously. We were talking on the phone, arranging to meet at Enchanted Rock.

"You'll know when you get there," I said. No one has ever failed to notice Enchanted Rock. It is a dome of pure granite rising 400 feet above the ranch country north of Fredericksburg, Texas and covering, with its attendant outcrops, one square mile.

Imagine a basketball three-quarters buried in sand. The part sticking out would be the basic shape of Enchanted Rock. The first time I saw it I laughed out loud. I was driving toward it on the Ranch Road from the east, and it looked like a vast pink granite moon trying to heave itself over the horizon.

The first thing you do when you get close enough is climb it. Because of the rock's shape a person 50 yards ahead is visible only from the waist up, like a ship hull down on the horizon. The view from the top is spacious—several hundred square miles of savannalike ranch country and distant hills. To the north, various piles of boulders, also composed of granite, dominate the pastures like Stone Age monuments. One of them looks remarkably like the Sphinx but is called Bullhead Mountain.

The wind is strong and gusty. It arrives unwearied from Mexico, and the rock forces it into a wave which buzzards from the surrounding countryside come to ride. One doesn't think of vultures as cheerful birds, but in the air over Enchanted Rock they cavort and show off like schoolboys. You sometimes see 30 at a time. Many of them keep soaring even after sundown, like kids reluctant to go inside for the night.

Alongside the big rock are two smaller ones, so the effect—small, medium, large—reminds one of the Three Bears. These smaller rocks are domes, too. Like Enchanted Rock, they have irregularities—lumps and bumps and crevices that seem large to human beings but compared to the rocks themselves they are minor details and are unnoticeable a mile or two away. Seen at twilight from the hills to the south, the three rocks sometimes suggest a spaceport with lights flickering around its base. These lights are actually the lanterns and cooking fires of campers along Sandy Creek. The little stream waters a grove of big pecan trees that have shaded a picnic site and campground for generations of visitors.

The most notable thing to have happened on Enchanted Rock took place in 1841, when 24-year-old Captain John Coffee Hays of the Texas Rangers fought a one-man battle against a band of Comanches and survived, killing five or 10 of them. Jack Hays had been working nearby with a surveying party and went off alone to look at the country. The Comanches saw him and knowing from previous experience that surveyors meant they were going to lose more land to the settlers, they set out to kill him.

The chase began on horseback and continued on foot, to the top of Enchanted Rock. Hays occupied the summit, surrounded by the Indians, who were out of sight below the curve of the dome. He had a rifle and a pair of the recently invented five-shot Colt revolvers, and he was one of the best—if not the best—marksmen in Texas. It is not recorded what weapons the Indians had, but they may have been armed only with bows and arrows and spears. In any event, when an Indian crawled near to shoot, Hays could pick him off before he stopped moving. After a while the surveyors came looking for their leader, and the surviving Comanches, already discouraged by their losses, fled.

This story has been handed down less as history than as a Ranger exploit, retold with embellishments for 144 years. Written accounts of it differ considerably from one another. However, much is known about Hays. He was a modest, handsome, quiet man, small for a Ranger—he weighed 150 pounds—but he was one of the finest. From Texas he went to San Francisco, where he became the sheriff of San Francisco County. Later he became surveyor general of California and came to own considerable real estate in the Oakland area. He died near Piedmont, rich, honored and moderately famous, in 1883.

If you don't count lichens, probably 97% of Enchanted Rock's surface is bare granite. In all the cracks something grows: Virginia creeper, hairy mullein, many wild grasses, hickory oak and hickory trees big enough to cast some shade. The plants attract insects, and the insects attract birds and snakes. The biosphere is stretched very thin on the rock and has a hard time with wind, drought and heat. But it hangs on.

Scattered on the top are depressions, as small as a few inches and as large as 25 feet, and as shallow as saucers. Some of them contain gravel, or nothing; others hold mats of soil in which wild flowers and grasses grow. It looks as if some eccentric has carried soil up from below and filled the potholes, but this isn't so. Botanists can tell you exactly how nature created these patches of greenery on a knob of absolutely dirt-free granite. First, lichens grew directly on the rock. Their decay eventually produced a few spoonfuls of humus, which didn't wash away because it was in a pothole in which slightly more complex plants—mosses, usually—could grow. These, in turn, decayed, producing more soil, and thus the progression continued, through ferns to wild flowers, grasses, even small prickly pears and yuccas, with the little pad of dirt in the center of the pothole increasing each year.

The whole process, from lichens to the climax grasses, is a slow struggle. It takes hundreds of thousands of years. Visitors don't realize this. Sometimes on an August day a careless tourist will set fire to one of the clumps of grass for a moment's diversion, never suspecting how long it took to get there. But little is really lost as long as the dirt remains, with the roots in it undamaged. The grass will be back next year.

The granite dome itself is so strange, so unlike nature's ordinary creations, that people tend to read religious or mystical meaning into it. In this the Indians were no different from us. When white men first came to the rock they found trails, just a little wider than a human foot, leading to its base from various points on the horizon. It was the Indians, not the white men, who called the rock enchanted. They thought spirits lived on the top, and left frequent offerings to keep them friendly. The spirits made dry, cracking sounds at night. They still do, but now they're said to be the noise the granite makes as it cools and contracts after a hot day.

Every spring, in the years around 1900, the local ranch families walked or rode horses to the top of the rock and held a combined church service which was followed by Sunday dinner in the pecan grove beside Sandy Creek. Nowadays a few people go to the smallest and least-visited of the three domes and sit cross-legged, high above the plain, and meditate.

In other moods people have tried hang gliding (it's not a good site), picnics, sex, getting stoned and getting drunk. Rock climbers practice in a few special places. Medical rescue teams from military bases practice, too—strapping a "victim" into a wire basket, lowering him into crevices and hauling him out again. In the early days of automobiles, when it was considered sporting to drive through railway tunnels and up courthouse steps, someone got an Overland touring car, badly overheated, to the top of Enchanted Rock. Some say there was once a scheme to carve the rock into gigantic likenesses of Davy Crockett, James Fannin and other heroes of the Republic of Texas. But whether for lack of money or lack of enthusiasm, the project never came off.

Geologists call Enchanted Rock an exfoliation dome. Exfoliation is a process: the shedding of layers or leaves. It sounds improbable for a rock to be shedding, but you can see it happening. Or rather you can see that it is happening, for the change is so slow not much will occur in your lifetime.

Imagine a layer of rock only two or three inches thick coming loose all over the dome, like the skin lying loose on a tangerine. This layer then breaks up into big irregular pieces, each one concave and 20 to 30 feet across. The pieces lie in place until they erode, which takes a nice stretch of geologic time. Then another thin layer comes loose and starts to wear away. Nature is peeling Enchanted Rock layer by layer. You can see the big, thin slabs lying all over the surface, with grass growing in the cracks between them. Eventually the rock may peel down to an insignificant knob of no interest to tourists or anyone else.

The middle rock, called Little Rock, is less of a stone desert than the other two. It has small thickets of trees, patches of grass and prickly pear, many birds and sometimes deer. Once, lying still in the sun on its top, I heard an odd, dry, fluttering sound. It was the wind in the wing feathers of a black vulture. I opened my eyes and saw him in the air above me, so close that we were in what teachers of salesmanship call eye contact. The field guides say that a black vulture's wingspread is only five feet, but this one's seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon. I suppose he was trying to decide whether I was dead enough to eat. I made a slight movement, which persuaded him that I wasn't, and he banked and flew away.

The smallest of the three rocks has no name. I once spent two days and nights on it, camped under a little live oak, and my only visitor was a field mouse. Though he was only two inches long, this wild animal was as friendly and trusting as a puppy. He came out of a crack well after sundown, squeaked at me, then ran up my pants leg to the knee and down again. I lay down. He came within two feet of my face, peered at me and squeaked again. He kept it up, dashing off and returning for another look and squeak. Altogether, we had about a 10-minute visit.

It's odd to think of anyone "owning" an object like Enchanted Rock, which stood unowned for millions of years before there was a human race. But for the last century someone has owned it, and in 1978 the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department took it over and made it a state park—Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. The old pecan-shaded campground, worn bare of grass and eroding badly, is finally getting a rest; the new camping area is in a mesquite flat favored by deer. It has a paved parking lot, a well-designed toilet-and-shower building, and simple campsites (a table and fireplace) scattered among the trees.

People used to camp on the summit. It's no longer allowed, a certain percentage of nature lovers having abandoned too many beer cans, uprooted too many plants, and left evidence that they had not been toilet trained. But you can stay up there after dark. Night on the summit is impressive. Darkness takes away everything but the sky, the wind and the rock. The people down in the mesquite flat cannot be seen or heard. Enchanted Rock takes on majesty; it becomes an island in the ocean of time. If you want to pretend that it's the 10th century, there's little to spoil the illusion. Moonrises, meteor showers, thunderstorms far away—they seem to have been staged just for you. Most nights you have only the stars and an occasional jet flying five or six miles overhead, sending down just a whisper of sound.

In the hills 15 miles away, lights flare and fade in a curious, codelike pattern that repeats itself with slight changes and at irregular intervals, night after night, year after year. The lights suggest some crackpot trying to call down flying saucers. Actually, they are the headlamps of cars on a road that winds through cuts in the hills.

A few years ago, when sleeping on top was still allowed, we used to awaken every two or three hours, as campers do, and find that the constellations had made a big jump across the sky. Around 4 a.m., even in August, the wind would chill you to wretchedness if you were unprotected. One morning before dawn, curled in my sleeping bag, I listened to three great horned owls calling, presumably to each other, with dignified pauses between calls—one of them in the middle distance, one startlingly near, one faint and far away. With daylight the owls fell silent, and soon the sport-loving buzzards, tireless, observant and silent, arrived from their distant dormitories for another day of fun.