5.21.2009,12:16 PM
Texas Forts: Phantom Hill

Fort Phantom Hill

"Waking up is hard to do," to paraphrase an old song. So much for getting an early start. Mist and fog blanketed everything outside. I hit the snooze button a half-dozen times before I finally pushed my way out of bed. Checking the weather forecast for here and Abilene, it looked worse for Saturday and Sunday.

'I am NOT canceling,' I said to myself as I turned on the cell phone. A quick call to Abilene State Park relieved any hesitation; shelters were available. The tent was quickly yanked out of the dry bag with a big grin. No tenting this time; I wanted dry nights.

Both dry bags -with waffle pad, sleeping bag, monopod, air mattress and assorted camping gear- were loaded onto the luggage rack and strapped down tight. Full bag liners were slid into the sidebags and the tank bag topped off with items for close reach. On with the gear, fire up the bike, power up the GPS, and go.

The fog was thick and drizzle constant. But that didn't dissuade drivers from following too close on my rear end. After turning onto I-20 heading west, I could relax. It was good to leave the cities behind.

The trip began with about 36 miles on a full tank of gas. In Eastland, I could see the strong winds and highway speeds at 70 mph were consuming more than normal fuel. Even though I laid forward on the gas tank so that I wasn't a human sail. By the time I hit Abilene the little fuel tank on the gauge was blinking at me. I needed gas now at barely 200 miles on a full tank.

Passing exit after exit, no gas stations. Trying to suppress growing panic, I laughed aloud when I saw the big bill board "Cracker Barrel. Exit Now." Strong deja vu mixed with relief as I prepared to exit the freeway. That intersection with the gas station and Cracker Barrel has been a savior more than once. First time was on my way to Utah. I took refuge inside the station during a driving monsoon. Then, dripping pools of water, I sought hot coffee across the street at the restaurant.

This time I was dry - me and the bike. With only 217 miles on a tank, it was nearly empty. My gas mileage sucked. After filling up the tank, it was almost obligatory to cross the street for something to eat. It was almost lunch time anyway.

After a quick sandwich, I walked out into blazing sunshine and heavy humidity. Time to shed layers. Back on I-20, the GPS instructed me to get off at the next exit for FM-600. Had I known that, I wouldn't have stayed on the frontage road.

Turning north on FM-600, I saw a sign, "Fort Phantom Hill. 11 miles." Cool. Almost there. The road left the highway clutter and wound through ranches full of prickly pear and mesquite trees. The mesquite had been pulled out of a few places, piled and ready to burn. More water for grass to grow. But leave one tree and cows will disseminate seed after they leave the cows' stomachs. Mesquite seed aren't digested and cows act like living four-legged scrub brush planters.

The terrain gained elevation above rolling prairie, or what was once prairie. Now it was mostly scrub mesquite and other opportunists that gain hold on overgrazed land. Where periodic fires and prairie dogs once helped to keep down the mesquite, prickly pear, and other exotics, they replaced the former rolling plains dotted with savannahs of post and pin oaks. The land recovered quickly back then from grazing herds of buffalo as they constantly moved. Fences and minimal management now create little micro-ecosystems that can't sustain their former identity.

Well, the fort was on a hill. Actually, it is a butte. And like all buttes, it was flat on top. How this could be one of the several proposed origins of the name -Phantom Hill- for the fort, was not obvious. But it is. I kept an eye out for any signs of a fort and finally found a sign: two tall stone chimneys.

I was finally at the fort that had intrigued me: Fort Phantom Hill.

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posted by Macrobe
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