Monday, October 10, 2011

A Ghost Town Explorer's Checklist

Not that long ago, I was discussing Texas ghost towns with someone who told me that her son had gotten excited about paying a visit to his first-ever ghost town, and apparently I was one of his influences. I am indeed touched by this. After discussing preparations for the trip, I realized the list I came up with might benefit any of you who are also thinking of taking that first trip to Terlingua or Luckenbach or some other ghost town destination in Texas.

That said, here's a list of what I consider must-haves for first-time adventurers:

Don't rely on a simple traveler's atlas or even one of those travel maps that you can pick up at a convenience store or visitor's welcome center - exploring ghost towns in Texas calls for a really good county map book that shows all the highways, byways, county roads, gravel roads, pipelines, and all that. I've been using a laminated Texas county map book from MAPSCO that has been indispensible in my searches. The books Ghost Towns of Texas and More Ghost Towns of Texas by T. Lindsay Baker provide driving directions to select ghost town sites throughout Texas as well as some really good history on each site. Baker's books and the county map book always come with me on every trip.

Never, never, never underestimate the importance of hydration. When you hike a couple of miles into the middle of nowhere during a 100-degree summer afternoon in Texas, you're really going to miss having a cold one-liter bottle of water by your side - provided you're not already suffering from dehydration or heatstroke (or both). Seriously. Take an insulated shopping bag with a couple of cold one-liters. Or grab yourself some reusable bottles from SIGG or Klean Kanteen or whatever your favorite brand is. Or your can splurge a little and invest in a Camelbak system or something similar that you wear on your shoulders.

For cutting through the occasional clump of brush or thicket or reenacting scenes from Robert Rodriguez films just for fun (as long as nobody gets hurt). You won't need this everywhere, but it's good to keep this handy just in case. You can always leave it in your vehicle.

If you're in tall grass, by the lake, in a marsh, or just someplace unfamiliar to you, best to keep a good walking stick at your side. Use it to test the ground in front of you for quicksand, critters, or other assorted hazards.

Can you hear me now? It always pays to have law enforcement or AAA at the push of a button if something should happen during your travels, and a surprising number of ghost towns do have some form of cellphone reception. No, you're probably not going to get 4G speeds in the middle of Indianola or Bugtussle, but that's okay.


Now for a list of "optionals" you might consider bringing along:

A simple five-dollar compass that you can get at any Wal-Mart, for when it's time to blaze new trails.

Nothing fancy, just something that tracks how far you've actually walked from your car. Walking's good exercise, and most ghost towns have plenty of fresh air.

I have always considered a can of Pringle's chips to be a godsend after a lengthy hike. Water is vital, but if you've been sweating, you'll want to start replacing your salts, too. There's probably more nutritious ways to do it than Pringle's, so if you want to take along some trail mix, fresh fruit, Beer Nuts, or whatever keeps you going, use what works best for you.

A little discretion is warranted here, especially since the ghost town adventurer is strongly encouraged to obey all Federal, state, and local gun laws. In addition, use your head - if the county you're in is under a burn ban, exercise extreme caution. The only reason I mention firearms is that I've heard from one friend who got shot at merely for visiting a remote cemetery in the Texas Hill Country. If you encounter a hostile boar or some sort of ornery critter, you might need more than just a machete. If you object to carrying a firearm, I understand. But please be safe no matter what you decide.

Surely you're not going to run off to some abandoned town in the Panhandle or near the Mexican border without snapping a few pictures to share with your grandchildren?

And finally, something to take along that some of you might consider strictly optional, but others will consider the most important of all:

So far, I have visited some three dozen ghost towns throughout Texas since May 2010, and I have always travelled alone. I'd like to take a trip sometime with a friend, someone who can provide good company while making sure I don't get myself in too deep. I've had a couple of folks who have offered to ride shotgun with me into the forgotten towns of Texas - you know who you are, and I thank you. It'll be fun, I promise.

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