The sun is close to setting as I wind my way slowly up the rough ranch road to the ridge where the agate fields are. I bump and bounce along in my long-suffering truck to the top and then I see the most amazing and beautiful sight. You see a lot of amazing things in this country but this…this is breathtaking. To the west a few miles lies Cathedral Mountain with the sun setting close by. A fog bank has rolled in and the clouds are piling up on the north face of the mountain like waves on a rocky shore. The clouds spill into the lowlands below and then for a few brief minutes the vanishing sun sets the scene ablaze. Incredible. I am dumbstruck. I do my best to capture it on camera, wanting to share it with someone. Out here though you have to bring your own company and this evening it is just me, and a magical, mountain sunset.
The next morning, as soon as it’s light enough to see, I’m out picking my way along the mountainside and high ridges. It’s a treasure hunt you see. I’m looking for agates found nowhere else in the world. I walk slowly, hunched over, up one hill and down the next. Nothing. And then I see one, with its distinctive “biscuit” shape, smooth on one side and bumpy on the other. And then another and another until my bucket is half-full. Greed overcomes me and I notice that my bucket is half-empty. I must have more. You see I know what beauty lies within them. It’s as if a million sunsets like last night were frozen and hidden away in these little chunks of stone.
Finally, my work ethic and manners get the best of me and I drive down to the ranch house to find Trey Woodward, the ranch owner, sitting there at the rock shop waiting for me, wondering where I’d been. I hold up my bucket of rocks and of course he understands completely. Trey shows me his shop and little store, filled with spectacular agates, opals and minerals from his family collection. I’m mesmerized by the back-lit displays of thinly sliced agates that seem to have little pictures inside them. Trees, landscapes, even figures of winged horses. His house next to the shop is like a museum. In fact, in the Smithsonian Museum are found specimens that once rested on his fireplace mantle. And what a fireplace it is! The rockwork is a flower garden of color with geodes, crystals and agates of every description. A monument to more than a hundred years of collecting by a family that’s been here for 3 generations.
There have always been cattle here, but with the cattle market being what it is, the agates, opals and other gemstones have become a major source of revenue for the ranch and it is these agates that have made the ranch famous. The Texas Red Plume agate, discovered here in the 1930’s by Frank Woodward Sr., is found nowhere else in the world and the only precious opal in Texas is found here as well. Flower Garden, Pom Pom, Moss, and Iris agate…there’s probably more variety of agates here than anywhere else in North America.
It is the unique geology that makes this place possible. You can look over toward Cathedral Mountain and see the stump of an ancient volcano called Eagle Peak. About 40 million years ago it erupted and flooded the area with lava. Gasses within the lava formed pockets into which seeped water laden with silicates and other minerals. Slowly, over millions of years, quartz crystallized in these pockets along with metals and other impurities to form these intricate patterns.
The ranch, just south of Alpine, is open 7 days a week and is closed only during mule deer season. It’s best to call ahead for directions and weather conditions. The Woodward’s can be reached at 915-364-2271 or e-mail at email@example.com . For more information check out the website at www.woodwardranch.net
So when you come, wear your hiking boots, bring a small hand-pick or pry bar for those stubborn specimens, maybe a pair of binoculars and your camera. Definitely bring your camera. You never know what you’ll find or what the next sunset will bring.