Remnants of the ‘last Southern frontier’


Big Thicket trees“I have been in the heart of the Big Thicket in Polk and Hardin counties, Texas, for ten days. Nothing can be seen except the tangled underbrush and tall trees. In a ride of 150 miles through these counties, there is one continuous growth of tall pines, oaks, magnolias, and numerous other forest trees. As far as they eye can see, it is the same. The tangled undergrowth and fallen trees block and interpose an almost impassable barrier in the way of any kind of vehicle …”
— John A. Caplen, 1887

The Big Thicket in southeast Texas has much diminished since John Caplen of Georgia traveled through this maze of swamps, rivers and dense forest more than 120 years ago. Logging and development have left only remnants of the Big Thicket, which once covered about 3.5 million acres and was called the “last Southern frontier.”
What’s left of the primeval wilderness, once inhabited by bears, panthers and wolves, is now organized into the Big Thicket National Preserve, created by Congress in 1974: nine separate land units and six water corridors spread over 50 square miles in seven counties. Because of the immense diversity of its flora and fauna, the Big Thicket was designated by UNESCO in 1981 as a Biosphere Reserve.
We’ll be passing through or near this 97,000-acre swath of the East Texas Piney Woods, probably in the latter half of October, as the route of our transcontinental bicycle journey takes us through Kountze, Spurger and Kirbyville on our way to the Sabine River, the border between Texas and Louisiana.
Because I have relatives in nearby Beaumont, in the southeastern corner of Texas, I’m somewhat familiar with the area and have ridden several times from Beaumont to Sour Lake, a round trip of about 35 miles. The terrain between Beaumont and Sour Lake, where Texaco was founded in 1903, is very flat, with elevation changes in inches rather than feet.
My wife and I drove down to Beaumont this week for an overnight visit, and I took the opportunity to ride the round trip between Beaumont and Sour Lake. It had rained that morning, and a steamy mist lingered as I set out from Beaumont. As the temperature climbed above 100 degrees, it was like riding in a sauna. As I got back to Beaumont, I had a flat and had to fix it in the blazing sun. I was wiped out at the end.
Hurricane symbolBut that ride along Texas 105 has some pleasing aspects: the flat terrain and wide shoulders. It had not occurred to me why the shoulders are so wide and beautifully paved on Texas 105 and other routes away from the Gulf Coast, such as U.S. 287 and U.S. 69. Then I noticed the hurricane symbols in the pavement. Duh! The wide shoulders are part of state’s evacuation plan when a hurricane roars in from the gulf, as did Hurricane Ike that did major damage to Beaumont in September 2008.
The temperature will have moderated by the time our group of transcontinental riders reaches the Big Thicket area this fall, but the hurricane season doesn’t end until Nov. 30. I hope those wide shoulders aren’t filled with cars heading inland.
Check out this video on biking activity in Beaumont and the Big Thicket area.

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Filed under Americana, Cycling across America, Texana

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