Surrounded by the burnt effigies of pine and oak, my two younger brothers and I sat before a raging campfire, beers in hand.
It was early December 2012, and I had a few weeks left before a way-too-early morning flight to Boston. The move was perilous at best, as I was out of work and downtrodden. Seeing this, Kevin and Ben decided to make the most of it and suggested we get away for a bit. Maybe camp somewhere nearby.
“How about Bastrop?” they suggested.
Confused, I asked, “Is it even open?”
On September 4, 2011, three separate wildfires broke out near Bastrop State Park. Winds from Tropical Storm Lee combined the fires into a single monstrosity that engulfed 32,000 acres, destroyed 1,673 homes and killed two people. According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife department, it affected 96 percent of the park's 6,600 acres. Though officially contained in October 2011, the underground fires weren't fully extinguished until late January 2012.
Hence the blackened toothpick trees around our campfire. The irony didn't go unnoticed, even after our growing pile of crushed empties succumbed to gravity's might. We were buzzed, fat with food and sitting in what looked like a dead landscape. Scenes from Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic novel The Road flashed before my eyes.
As dismal as these images were, they didn't hold a candle to the memories I associated with the place. Houstonians have their favorites. Some even keep lists, written or remembered, and pass them between friends and family. Ours have always been Stephen F. Austin, Huntsville, and Lake Livingston, but Bastrop State Park is something else entirely.
Located in the so-called “Lost Pines” forest, an ecological niche two hours west of Houston, Bastrop occupies a privileged place in my mind. Geologists attribute its location and character to forest shrinkage during the late Pleistocene era, when the last glacial period engrossed the planet over 12,000 years ago. That's why, they lecture, strong genetic similarities exist between it and the Piney Woods of east Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.
Fascinating, no doubt, but what I know best about Bastrop is biking, hiking, and rolling down hillsides into Texas-sized piles of leaves. The first state park we brought bikes to. The first time the family used a camper after years of setting up tents, enduring torrential downpours in said tents, giving up on these tents, and retreating to the car. There's so much I love about this place.
When news of the Bastrop County Complex fire first broke, I was hundreds of miles away, teaching college literature at Texas Tech University. My heart sank, but there was nothing to be done. Like so many others, all I could do was watch and wait. I hadn't been to the park in years, but it still felt like I was losing a home.
Dubbed the “most destructive wildfire in state history” by park officials, several private and state-supported efforts are underway to restore the Lost Pines and Bastrop State Park.
The Lost Pines Forest Recovery Campaign, spearheaded by a joint partnership between TP&W, the Texas A&M Forest Service, and the Arbor Day Foundation, is one of the largest. In November of last year, they planted over 1.2 million loblolly pine trees in affected areas. According to the campaign's website, 2.7 million more trees are needed to ensure the forest's full recovery.
New projects for fuel and fire management are also in progress. Tonight, a public meeting in Bastrop hosted by Bastrop County, the forest service and TP&W will discuss these plans and take questions from local community members.
All good things, and with time, maybe these endeavors will revive the Lost Pines and the park contained therein. From what I can tell, this looks to be the case, but I'm never one to simply take others' words at face value.
When I had the opportunity to visit last Christmas, a year after camping with my brothers, I took it. After stops in San Antonio and Austin, I hopped on to Texas 21 and made my way towards the park. By the time I arrived the sun was long gone and the stars were out in force. I couldn't see much, but what I saw was beautiful.
The surviving trees, still black, showed signs of growth. New branches and leaves were sprouting up the length of the naked trunks. What were once dead, vacant fields were repopulated with loblolly pines planted by volunteers.
The weather turned cold, and Christmas was close enough that I didn't expect to see many campers in attendance. Yet a few small fires dotted the landscape, briefly interrupted by persons passing before them.
Old friends, no doubt. Maybe a few brothers and sisters, catching up with beers in hand.