Thursday, January 18, 2018

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Pool: Solstice sunset and still pools

By Frank Pool
Dec. 25, 2017 at 9:33 p.m.
Updated Jan. 2, 2018 at 6:35 a.m.

The weather on the winter solstice was bright and cool. After failing to enlist a couple of old friends to go with me, I decided to drive out on my own to see the sunset on the shortest day of the year.

Enchanted Rock is a small corner of a Precambrian batholith, a huge blob of granite that pushed its way to the surface about a billion years ago. Seen on a map, the entire batholith is roughly egg-shaped, 62 square miles.

The granite still exerts pressure from below, and as the surface erodes, it exfoliates large rocks that over time slide down the surface. Straight wall-like structures in the stone are dikes, evidence of vertical fissures filled with other minerals.

From the highest point, 1,825 feet above sea level and 455 feet from its base, the view is an unimpeded 360-degree panorama. I brought a canteen, an extra shirt tied around my waist, a hat, a flashlight and an old walking stick I've had for a quarter-century.

The last time I'd been to Enchanted Rock was election night 2012. I'd decided to avoid the news until the next day, and I remember lying on my back on the granite of the billion-year-old batholith, watching sunset and stars, seeing satellites and airliners high above, pondering duration and change.

This year, as I walked deliberately and slowly to the top, I met many people who also had decided to see the sunset. Many were young, and too many were too loud for my mood, so I gravitated to the east end of the summit.

Here were several bowls filled with rainwater, known as vernal pools. I sat down and waited, and eventually I saw some of the tiny fairy shrimp that live in them after rains, and whose eggs survive the droughts.

One pool was filled with vegetation and some mud, and the shrimp were larger there. Higher up, the shrimp were much smaller, and took a lot of patient concentration to see as they moved. These were younger, the result of rains a few days before.

It still was an hour before sunset. There were many teenagers and young adults, with a sprinkling of older people. Twice I saw pairs of men, clearly fathers and sons, walking together.

In addition to the vernal pools, there are several depressions filled with soil where plants have taken root. One had cactus, a sotol plant, and at least four different grasses. It was a beautiful little oval garden in the midst of solid granite. A solitary bee buzzed by as I sat by a still pool waiting for the solstice sunset.

Though I was alone, I was connected. I used my phone to take photos and sent them to my daughter in Manhattan and to my wife, who was in Ohio with her newly widowed mother. I exchanged texts but did not want to break my silence. I waited for the sun to get lower, and I watched as the thin winter clouds turned yellow.

It was a sunset of yellows and blues and grays. Most people clustered at the western edge of the summit; I was content to be a few hundred feet farther back, alone and silent while watching the end of the shortest day of the year.

Five years ago I lingered on top past dark and had trouble finding the trail even with a flashlight. This year I trudged back in twilight as a cool wind blew steadily from the south.

It's winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Each day will be getting a little longer now.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School.



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