Editor’s note: I had never heard of Big Thicket National Preserve before reading this take on it from Christian, our national parks expert here at The Royal Tour. This story made me laugh, smile, and shake my head at some people – yes, Christian, I’m looking at you – who will brave anything just to get that next park passport stamp. For more of his amazing adventures, click here to view all of Christian’s articles here at TRT.
Back in July of 2019 I had a conference to attend down in Texas, so I flew out a day early for a side trip to get another stamp in my National Park passport book. My plane touched down in Houston and the rental car place gave me a “free upgrade” from the Kia I rented to a bigass truck because all they had was bigass trucks. Did I mention I was in Texas? I wanted my first stop in Texas to be one of the seemingly millions of taco shops. I also wanted to eat my tacos Texan style, so I drove out to the eastern edge of town, lowered the tailgate, and ate my lunch under the blazing sun. I assumed I’d be sitting out under the desert sun, but as it turns out, Houston used to be a swamp or whatever. Also, Texans apparently love paving stuff, because the parking lot to building ratio is pretty lopsided. The humidity and the temperature were both ninety-five that day, so I sat at a small taco shop in a big parking lot and ate some of the best tacos of my life.
I had about 20 hours before my next conference and decided to make the most of it by heading towards a national park I hadn’t been to yet – Big Thicket National Preserve. I got to a town near Big Thicket at about 7pm and started in on a familiar ritual whenever I show up at a small rural town around sundown. Figure out (1) where on god’s green earth I am, (2) what to drink, (3) what to eat, and (4) where to sleep. In (1) Kountze, Texas, I tracked down a (2) local beer, (3) got some more tacos, and (4) headed to a chain motel (if you’re wondering, this is my happy place).
I underwent another well-worn ritual of mine the next morning, and ate stale off-brand Cheerios in a motel dining room while I looked at a map and planned out my day, then headed to Big Thicket. I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, that Big Thicket is one of the most biologically impressive places I’ve ever been, and also one of the most uncomfortable places I can imagine willingly spending my free time. Much like the parking lot to building ratio in Houston, my appreciation to enjoyment ratio was pretty lopsided. A sassy park ranger told me that because of the oppressive heat, extreme humidity, and bugs, I might be the only person on the trail that day.
Big Thicket forests are a bit different
The ranger was right. Inside the dense forest at Big Thicket is one of the most uncomfortable places I’ve ever been. The canopy is thick, so thick that barely any shrubs grow here because of the limited sunshine that manages to reach the forest floor. Even so, I somehow felt like I was getting a sunburn, and the thick humid air felt like trying to breathe through a mask (way before wearing a mask was cool. Wasn’t 2019 quaint?). There’s a unique smell that comes with a wet forest floor; to me, it smells like actively decaying leaves. Not a good smell, not a bad smell, just the smell of decomposition.
The forest in Big Thicket is a disorienting place. Most of the time I’ve spent in the woods has been out West, where the trails are steep and the air is dry. This is a weird forest where the trails are flat and the air is wet. It’s so flat that thousands of acres of Big Thicket are actually a floodplain. Much of the forest is flooded for months out of the year, and the trees here have learned to love it. Bald cypress trees grow in the slowly flowing water. The trees can tolerate when it’s dry here, but especially love spending their days in mushy soil (unlike myself). In Western forests you’ll find things that aren’t so confusing, such as bushes.
Mushy soil makes these trees happy
But this is Texas. Instead of bushes there are puddles, and just when you think there might be a bush coming up, instead there’s another puddle. There are some bridges over the especially floodplain-y bits, but sometimes the water overtakes the bridges, or the bridges sink into the earth anyway. Once I felt like I was starting to get the hang of this mushy forest, I started to run across palmettos (like small palm trees), and then a puddle, and then some cacti. There are little sand hills here that were formed by ancient rivers and seas that deposited sand here. The cacti love the sand hills because it’s hot enough here for them, and even though it rains 55 inches per year, the water drains from the sand quickly (that’s why the sand hills are dry enough for cacti).
Bridges don’t work right here.
Alright, so I’ve got the hang of it by now. But there’s really no escaping the millions of bugs. I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt, and if you’re thinking of telling me I should’ve worn long pants and long sleeves to avoid ticks, I don’t want to hear it – you sound just like the ranger right now and I’m tired of your sass. My small solace from the bugs was the fact that there are carnivorous plants out here trying to eat the bugs. Of the five species of carnivorous plants that grow in the United States, four of them are found here. They weren’t working fast enough, though, because there were still a lot of bugs biting me. Arguably the most bloodthirsty plant in Big Thicket, the pitcher plant, has an elongated pitcher that it fills with nectar to attract prey. When bugs land inside the plant, they slide down the slippery edge, drown in the liquid, and get slowly digested by the plant. The pitcher plant devours the bugs in a way that seemed appropriately cutthroat, but I wished was a little more proactive.
After I got my one millionth bug bite I decided to head back to my rental truck. I had seen a couple road kill armadillos earlier in the day, but that doesn’t count as wildlife to me, so I kept my eyes peeled for live armadillos while I hiked, and thought about the people who were here before me. At the visitor station earlier, the ranger told me that this land was once occupied by the Atakapans and Caddos prior to European contact. We don’t know much about their way of life besides the fact that they lived on the edges of the thicket, some lived as hunter-gatherers, and others grew squash, corn, and beans.
Cyprus knobs… and puddles
Some of the Native Americans who occupied this lush forest are scattered throughout East Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, while others are now in Oklahoma. Still others are in a diaspora across the nation. After the departure of Native Americans, there were a few short-lived boomtowns around here in the 1800s. Newspapers from the time discussed Big Thicket as a place where trees grew five to six feet in diameter and so close together that you had to crawl to make your way through the thick woods. Boomtowns sprouted up to clear cut these once-great forests, and even though the floodplains didn’t, the towns dried out and disappeared. The forest today is lush, but it’s a shadow of what it once was.
This forest won’t return to its former glory in my lifetime, but hopefully one day it will. As a National Preserve, the United States will preserve this land in perpetuity for scores more visitors to come here like I did, enjoy the biological diversity, get back in their bigass trucks, and go eat more tacos in Houston.
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