â€œThe land is rugged and pristine, a naturalist’s dream.â€
-Producer Kelly Fenstermaker
â€œHiking down into the canyon itself, it felt like dropping off the edge of the world.â€
-Producer Tom Michael
Hi, Aaron Henkin here, your host for the NPR Station Showcase with PRX. Each week on this podcast we travel the fifty states and tune in to the excellent work thatâ€™s being produced locally at the hundreds of public radio stations across the country. This week, our travels take us to Marfa Public Radio in Far West Texas, where producers Tom Michael and Kelly Fenstermaker bring us along on an expedition to a secret canyon in the middle of the Texas desert, a secluded geological wonder that few human eyes have ever seen. Here are some thoughts from Tom and Kelly about their experience visiting â€œThe Secret Canyon of West Texasâ€â€¦
Tell me what it was like for you the first time you looked over the edge of this incredible canyon… Did you walk up the edge with your eyes closed, like Walter Nelson has his visitors do?
TOM: I approached the edge on foot, as I was recording another scientist, and since I was walking through cactus land, my eyes were VERY open. Still, the vista is unusually dramatic, even for those of us accustomed to the landscape out here.
KELLY: Walter led us to the edge, eyes open. The canyon took my breath away. The sight of a plunging crevice in tones of orange, pink, yellow, chocolate and white cutting through the desert flat lands was completely unexpected.
Is the canyon actually protected against uninvited visitors, or is it just because it’s so remote that few people go out there?
TOM: Both. Not only is the entrance unmarked and remote, but the canyon is land owned by Midwestern State University.
KELLY: It is not open to the public, and certainly, most people would not be motivated to make the long, rough drive to find it. It is a research facility, mainly visited by academia, gathering scientific data. Few know of its location.
Tell us a little bit about the Dalquest Research Site and what kind of research is currently going on there…
KELLY: In 1996, Dr. Walter W. Dalquest, a professor of Biology at Midwestern State University, and his wife, Rose, donated the land to Midwestern State University for research purposes. The land is rugged and pristine, a naturalist’s dream. It is rich in geologic formations and varieties of plant life. A species of spider was discovered in the canyon that is unknown to exist anywhere else.
TOM: There is study of local flora and fauna, as well as geology. Though it’s hard to find, the book “Ribbons of Time” (2006) gives greater depth on the site, with pretty nice photographs.
It was a real surprise to hear one of your speakers say that the most common cause of death in the desert is drowning… did that come as a surprise to you?
TOM: When I first learned about drowning in the desert, it was a surprise. But when you think about the ferocity of flash floods across dry land, it begins to make sense. You would think dying of thirst would be more common, but in talking to healthcare workers who treat dehydration cases, you find that dehydration is more often too much exposure to beer than too much exposure to sun.
What’s your favorite memory from the time you spent out at the canyon? Do you have any special sights that have stuck with you since?
TOM: Hiking down into the canyon itself, it felt like dropping off the “edge of the world.” I enjoyed speaking with the scientists along the way. My favorite part of the audio feature was the historic retelling of the geologist who fell quiet when he was gazing out onto the canyon. When the rancher asked what he was doing, he answered “reading the story,” the geologic story. Everyone “reads” in different ways, and as a radio producer, it’s interesting to learn how others “read a story.”
KELLY: My favorite time there was camping out with Walter Nelson, Douglas Preston, who wrote the copy for the book, and my friend, Evelyn Lucchiani. We hiked to the canyon bottom and amid cactus and dry earth, found a little spring surrounded by ferns, trickling along the bottom. Going up and down those canyon walls is not for sissies, but Walter navigates them like a goat. We had a hard time keeping up with him. Evenings were cool and quiet, and the night sky ablaze with stars. Evelyn and I laughed and talked in our tent until late and Walter came to tell us to be quiet so he could get some sleep.
You can hear more stories from Marfa Public Radio online at The Public Radio Exchange. Thatâ€™s where producers from around the world share their work. Log on, write your own reviews, and have a say in what ends up on the radio at www.prx.org.