My Blue Highways

Posted in: Featured, Moore Thoughts | By: | January 31, 2013

A January afternoon in 2011, I was riding my motorcycle along the river road between Lajitas and Presidio. There aren’t many prettier stretches of tarmac in the lower 48 states. The Rio Grande cuts through ancient volcanic rock to create vistas and overlooks that make a soul want to live forever.

Along River Road, Big Bend Ranch State Park

I had not yet stopped to more slowly take in the scenery but kept noticing flashes of purple spread along the river’s banks. I know the road well but did not give any thought to the out of season hues. When I finally stopped at the pass on Ranch Road 170 I spotted more color speckling the river’s edge as the sun dropped lower to the west.

Seemed improbable but it turned out to be bluebonnets.

The only place on earth bluebonnets grow

The uninitiated will hardly understand when Texans take a reverential tone speaking about bluebonnets. But in January we start contemplating purple-blue pastures and hillsides. Rarely, however, do we begin to see bluebonnets in abundance until late March or April, though it’s warmer than a midwestern spring by February. It’s just a flower, you understand, but seems to tickle all of the subconscious mythology associated with Texas. We might only be riding motorcycles but we see ourselves as Augustus McRae and believe like McMurtry’s fictional cowboy, “There ain’t nothin’ better than ridin’ a fresh horse through new country.”

Even if the country isn’t that new.

Roadside Wonders

Bluebonnets are a species of lupines and there is a Texas strain. In the Trans-Pecos, the Big Bend bluebonnet can get close to mid-thigh with good weather. There is not much in the living world more beautiful than a spring desert cast with bluebonnets and blooming prickly pear and the bright red buds of an ocotillo. Pretty rare when it happens all at once but either one of those in mid-flower brightens the darkest of days.

Purty Prickly Pear

Texans have taken proprietary ownership of bluebonnets, even though it is simply a type of the lupine that thrives under the Lone Star sun. In “Gulf Coast Highway,” a plaintive ballad about a working couple made famous by Nanci Griffith and Emmy Lou Harris, a verse proclaims, “This is the only place on earth bluebonnets grow, once a year they come and go, at this old house here by the road.” Emmy Lou’s voice makes the hard life on the windblown coast sound idyllic but she could accomplish the same thing if she chose to sing every page of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic, “The Road.”

Ocotillo bright as the sky

The reigning king of western wildflowers, however, is, in my estimation, the Indian paintbrush. Although not as prolific in Texas, it ranges from Alaska to the Andes in this hemisphere and also grows in parts of Asia and Siberia. Indian paintbrush are almost bright red and on a blue sky day they can be visually startling on the landscape.

Indian Paintbrush, King of Texas wildflowers

The coming wildflower season in Texas is likely to be grand. There has been sufficient rain and cooler temperatures to make the seeds dormant for the correct time period. As the sun moves further northward and they begin to blossom, it will be easy to ignore every other distraction.

And simply ride west through “new country.”

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