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Scattered on the top are depressions, as small as a few inches and as large as 25 feet, and as shallow as saucers. Some of them contain gravel, or nothing; others hold mats of soil in which wild flowers and grasses grow. It looks as if some eccentric has carried soil up from below and filled the potholes, but this isn't so. Botanists can tell you exactly how nature created these patches of greenery on a knob of absolutely dirt-free granite. First, lichens grew directly on the rock. Their decay eventually produced a few spoonfuls of humus, which didn't wash away because it was in a pothole in which slightly more complex plants—mosses, usually—could grow. These, in turn, decayed, producing more soil, and thus the progression continued, through ferns to wild flowers, grasses, even small prickly pears and yuccas, with the little pad of dirt in the center of the pothole increasing each year.
The whole process, from lichens to the climax grasses, is a slow struggle. It takes hundreds of thousands of years. Visitors don't realize this. Sometimes on an August day a careless tourist will set fire to one of the clumps of grass for a moment's diversion, never suspecting how long it took to get there. But little is really lost as long as the dirt remains, with the roots in it undamaged. The grass will be back next year.
The granite dome itself is so strange, so unlike nature's ordinary creations, that people tend to read religious or mystical meaning into it. In this the Indians were no different from us. When white men first came to the rock they found trails, just a little wider than a human foot, leading to its base from various points on the horizon. It was the Indians, not the white men, who called the rock enchanted. They thought spirits lived on the top, and left frequent offerings to keep them friendly. The spirits made dry, cracking sounds at night. They still do, but now they're said to be the noise the granite makes as it cools and contracts after a hot day.
Every spring, in the years around 1900, the local ranch families walked or rode horses to the top of the rock and held a combined church service which was followed by Sunday dinner in the pecan grove beside Sandy Creek. Nowadays a few people go to the smallest and least-visited of the three domes and sit cross-legged, high above the plain, and meditate.
In other moods people have tried hang gliding (it's not a good site), picnics, sex, getting stoned and getting drunk. Rock climbers practice in a few special places. Medical rescue teams from military bases practice, too—strapping a "victim" into a wire basket, lowering him into crevices and hauling him out again. In the early days of automobiles, when it was considered sporting to drive through railway tunnels and up courthouse steps, someone got an Overland touring car, badly overheated, to the top of Enchanted Rock. Some say there was once a scheme to carve the rock into gigantic likenesses of Davy Crockett, James Fannin and other heroes of the Republic of Texas. But whether for lack of money or lack of enthusiasm, the project never came off.
Geologists call Enchanted Rock an exfoliation dome. Exfoliation is a process: the shedding of layers or leaves. It sounds improbable for a rock to be shedding, but you can see it happening. Or rather you can see that it is happening, for the change is so slow not much will occur in your lifetime.
Imagine a layer of rock only two or three inches thick coming loose all over the dome, like the skin lying loose on a tangerine. This layer then breaks up into big irregular pieces, each one concave and 20 to 30 feet across. The pieces lie in place until they erode, which takes a nice stretch of geologic time. Then another thin layer comes loose and starts to wear away. Nature is peeling Enchanted Rock layer by layer. You can see the big, thin slabs lying all over the surface, with grass growing in the cracks between them. Eventually the rock may peel down to an insignificant knob of no interest to tourists or anyone else.
The middle rock, called Little Rock, is less of a stone desert than the other two. It has small thickets of trees, patches of grass and prickly pear, many birds and sometimes deer. Once, lying still in the sun on its top, I heard an odd, dry, fluttering sound. It was the wind in the wing feathers of a black vulture. I opened my eyes and saw him in the air above me, so close that we were in what teachers of salesmanship call eye contact. The field guides say that a black vulture's wingspread is only five feet, but this one's seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon. I suppose he was trying to decide whether I was dead enough to eat. I made a slight movement, which persuaded him that I wasn't, and he banked and flew away.
The smallest of the three rocks has no name. I once spent two days and nights on it, camped under a little live oak, and my only visitor was a field mouse. Though he was only two inches long, this wild animal was as friendly and trusting as a puppy. He came out of a crack well after sundown, squeaked at me, then ran up my pants leg to the knee and down again. I lay down. He came within two feet of my face, peered at me and squeaked again. He kept it up, dashing off and returning for another look and squeak. Altogether, we had about a 10-minute visit.
It's odd to think of anyone "owning" an object like Enchanted Rock, which stood unowned for millions of years before there was a human race. But for the last century someone has owned it, and in 1978 the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department took it over and made it a state park—Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. The old pecan-shaded campground, worn bare of grass and eroding badly, is finally getting a rest; the new camping area is in a mesquite flat favored by deer. It has a paved parking lot, a well-designed toilet-and-shower building, and simple campsites (a table and fireplace) scattered among the trees.