Rancho Del Cielo (Living Above the Clouds)
By CATHY CORMAN
The tables have been cleared, dishes washed and put away.
White light from the butane lanterns invites curious mosquitoes indoors to feast on 15 Texas Southmost College students who are spending a long weekend at Rancho del Cielo, TSC’s ecological field station in the Gomez-Farias region of Tamaulipas.
“It took years before we figured out how to get eggs up here,” said Rancho del Cielo's director, Larry Lof. “One time we put the eggs in flour. I guess we figured the flour would cushion them. And sure enough, we had egg mess. They have the Styrofoam things now — we pack them in with the bread and don’t even lose an egg. I know why they never did get up here!”
“I’ll tell you why!” interjected Cristy Garzoria, prompting bursts of laughter from the other students.
Having stood for nearly two hours in the back of four¬-wheel-drive trucks to get up the eastward slope of the Sierra de Guatemala, the students can easily imagine the eggs’ dismal fate. Like all visitors to the northernmost cloud forest in the Americas, the students are bruised and scraped from the rough ride, which would have pitched them from the back of the trucks had they not held on for dear life. This ride, more than the hikes they will take and caves they’ll explore in the forest, will initiate them into a special fellowship, which over the past 20 years, has come to revere this corner of Northern Mexico. At Rancho del Cielo, which takes up about 50 acres of forest, visitors observe the spectacular beauty of a temperate rain forest 3,500 feet above sea level. Scientists say the forest resembles wooded areas covering the coastal area from Texas to Maine some 50 million years ago.
They linger under the 100-foot maples, sweet gums and oaks to inspect the brilliantly colored bromeliads and orchids hanging from the trees.
Their eyes take in hundreds of shades of green — from the rich dark color of lichens and ferns, to the light lime of new sweet gum leaves.
At night, they watch in wonder as the clouds roll in, giving birth to the name “cloud forest.”
During the dry season, which generally stretches from October to late May, plants and trees drink in water from the clouds, which condense on leaves and drip to the ground in liquid form. Sometimes, at night, the clouds are so dense that visitors cannot see more than a few feet ahead of themselves, giving the forest an eerie, primeval quality Lof swears makes a fitting home for Bigfoot and Sasquatch — as well as jaguars, ocelots, pumas and black bears (all of which have been spotted over the years).
Big animals aren’t the main attraction, though. Bird watchers and ornithologists from all over the world come with TSC’s permission to study the exotic bird life.
They hike old cattle trails and peer into fruit trees looking for mountain trogans, blue mockingbirds, flame-colored tanagers, blue-crowned motmots and singing quail.
And they experience the road. The steep boulder-strewn logging trail is prone to give way to unexpected sinkholes.
After their trip, all students will have to do is mention the road from Gomez-Farias to Rancho del Cielo to anyone who has made the trip, and they will invariably elicit choked groans and giggles from the initiated.
“Nobody can imagine what this place is like,” said Sergio Garcia, past president of Gorgas Science Society, a TSC club which sponsors the field trips. Garcia, who has been coming up the mountain for two years said he can never adequately describe his trips to family or friends. Other cloud forest regulars agree. Photographs don't capture the majestic beauty nor do they ever capture the rigors of the road.
Garcia and other Gorgas members, however, suggest finding someone who has been up the road, and you’ll find a friend.
Gorgas Science Society was formed in the mid-1960s, when TSC first became involved with the forest.
All TSC students may join Gorgas, and for $30 a year, can travel up the mountain as many times as they want.
Currently, there are about 25 active Gorgas members who routinely handle fund-raising and travel to the forest.
Over the years the group has been responsible for raising money to fund the monthly field trips and to build and renovate all the facilities at the compound.
Gorgas bought the materials for cabins, the wood-burning stoves, the water cistern and all the kitchen utensils. They built every single TSC building and shed with their own sweat and tears.
Since none of the facilities are equipped with electricity, everything the students buy has to run off of gas. Lof speculates that Rancho del Cielo has the largest supply of butane gas refrigerators in the world.
What students didn’t buy over the years, they begged, borrowed, or… “salvaged.”
Gorgas students pulIed windows from the demolished Fort Brown buildings in the ‘60s and took legs off pinball tables the college was about to discard to make dining tables. They recently saved gas station coupons to collect a set of drinking glasses for the dining room.
Lof groans at the memory of having sold hundreds of boxes of Judson mints and conducted countless car washes and bake sales.
Rancho del Cielo never runs off of taxpayers’ money, he said. Instead private donations and money earned from fund-raisers keep the field study program alive.
And keeping the program alive hasn’t always been easy.
Frank Harrison, the first settler in the forest after the Mexican Revolution, was murdered for occupying the area.
Harrison, a Canadian who taught school and farmed in southern Tamaulipas, gained title to the land in 1935. He first came across the land in a hunting trip in 1926. He spent the rest of his life hybridizing plants and fruit trees, raising cattle in the cloud forest.
Harrison welcomed scientists and birders, and he befriended several Brownsville residents — including Brownsville Independent School District’s Tom Keller, past TSC board member John Hunter and Bob Deshayes — who subsequently built cabins in the forest and encouraged student groups to join them.
They invited TSC president Barbara Warburton to tour the area in 1963, beginning the formal affiliation between Rancho del Cielo and the college.
When Harrison was murdered in 1966 by jealous lowland farmers, the area became a field station dedicated solely for the purpose of conservation and preservation.
Gorgas students peddled his hearty amaryllis bulbs in the Valley to raise money for the station after Harrison had died.
Lof credits Warburton with the initial success of the program and said she inspired students to raise thousands of dollars to fund trips and build cabins.
He became assistant program director under Warburton in 1975 and has subsequently assumed directorship. Juan Perez now works as Lof’s assistant, helping him coordinate field trips and recruit students.
Lof sees himself primarily as a caretaker. “I see my role as making it possible for people to experience this,” he said. “I want to keep this area available as long as possible.” Yet, Lof said, he can’t guarantee that in years to come there will be a cloud forest to protect.
Farmers, hungry for land that appears to be exceptionally fertile, illegally clear the forest of precious timber every year. Although the Mexican government has forbidden the deforestation, it often turns a blind eye on the farmers and loggers eager to take the land.
Lof counsels students to study the ecology of the area with care. The soil is shallow and relatively useless. The nutrients, he tells them, are living high above the forest floor in the rich green canopy, which converts sunlight into food. As soon as the trees are felled, and once the land is burned for planting, nutrients leach out of the soil.
“Do you save the trees and let the people starve, or do you cut down the trees and let people eat for a few years?” he asked.
“If you cut down a tropical forest, it is gone forever. Then you burn it and it releases all its nutrients. Add 120 inches of rain, and you wash everything away.”
There is very little he can do as an American, Lof said, but he hopes the Mexican government will heed projects from Mexican environmental groups.
The students absorb Lof’s gentle teachings. Ready for bed, they eagerly anticipate another few days of exploring the forest. They aren’t welcoming the trip down the mountain, though.
After 20 years of making such trips, Lof thoroughly understands the feeling. But he said, they should be thankful for the rough road.
“If the road was too good,” he said, “we’d have condominiums all over the place.”