IMAGE: State Parks — A wooden deck traverses some of Huntsville wetland areas to keep the trails accessible through the dense forests.

An ongoing Wanderlust series on the state's parks, forests and public grounds. The first edition, featuring Brazos Bend, can be found here.

A few packets of ketchup and a rainstorm destroyed my first tent during a family camping trip. It remains one of the most traumatic and formative experiences of my childhood, but it also illustrates why Huntsville State Park is so loveable.

Located 60 miles north of Houston and six miles southwest of Huntsville, the park sits smack-dab in the middle of the East Texas Piney Woods. The lands were purchased by the Huntsville-Walker County Chamber of Commerce in 1936. Beginning in 1937, an all African-American company of the Civilian Conservation Corps built many of the park's first roadways and structures. After many years of natural and man-made setbacks, Huntsville State Park finally opened in 1956. 

This momentous occasion marked a return of sorts. Before the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department made these lands publicly available, all 1,445 acres had been logged into oblivion since the 1880s. However, the logging stopped by World War I, and its cessation allowed the treeline enough time to recover. After so much loss, Texas granted nature a reprieve and invited everyone to enjoy it.

IMAGE: Texas Parks & Wildlife — The CCC men lay the foundation for a stone road during the park's creation in the 1930s.

As a kid, there's nothing quite like loss. It's heartbreaking, even if the items lost are simply toys, trucks or toilet paper. The objects of infantile desire are precious, but the desire itself carries more weight than any action figure or teacup ever will. This is especially true for possessions and immaterial things that grant greater authority to children. (No wonder sitting at the adult table for Thanksgiving is such a big deal.)

Hence my first tent, a small, off-brand, green and white dome with a Native American's head plastered on the side. It served as my first real step towards adulthood. No longer would I have to suffer the indecency of sharing a larger, family-sized contraption meant to accommodate me, my parents, my baby brother and our personal effects. I had finally attained the freedom my friends' older siblings always bragged about. Surely learning to drive was just around the corner. 

To celebrate, we picked up some fast food along the way. This probably had more to do with the fact that a last-minute forecast asserted a 110% chance of rain, but I didn't care. Soon, I'd be relishing my newfound maturity while my parents cursed one another trying to hurriedly set up camp.

Sometime after midnight, the rain and wind became so intense we sought shelter in the family van. Almost everything left outside to suffer the elements was utterly destroyed. My father picked up what was left the next morning and made for the campground's dumpster, but not before noticing something odd. On the side of my tent, the Native American's black and white profile was now adorned with streaks of red. It resembled human blood, but smelled strangely of McDonald's.

Turns out the euphoria caused by my descent into responsibility infected me with an intense case of forgetfulness. I forgot to finish my fries, brush my teeth, roll the sleeping bag out in my new tent and go to bed. Instead, I fell asleep in front of the fire, forcing my parents to do all of these things for me. Or, in the case of dental hygiene, nag me incessantly about it while I stumbled toward the tent with the drunken footing of a college student. 

Another item I forgot was a packet of ketchup leftover from my Happy Meal. My parents missed it too, because it remained on the ground in front of the dying fire's embers and, after a few heated moments of intense pressure, exploded its contents all over my coming of age.

IMAGE: State Parks — One of Huntsville's bevy of scenic trails looks best with a few leaves scattered over it.

I was devastated. My first chance to prove myself as an independent, free-thinking individual, and all I had to show for it was a fast food restaurant's revenge. Inconsolable, I wandered away from camp to suffer my prepubescent misery. That's when I discovered the trails.

Six trails traverse the park grounds, and a seventh leaves its Eastern border and guides walkers, hikers and runners to the nearby Sam Houston National Forest. With types as varied as cut paths, rocky benders and arduous single tracks, they encircle the entire park and many of its other features, like Lake Raven. A small child with a desire to grow, I found them fascinating for the places they took me.

When I returned to Huntsville State Park as a college student at Sam Houston State University, I found myself drawn to the trails again. This time, I was an actual bona fide adult with bills to pay. I didn't have to rely on my parents to come out here and explore the the area, but I also couldn't rely on their constant reminders to clean up the ketchup packets, brush your teeth or go to bed, either.

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