Even though lots of Texas universities have grandiose lecture halls, only one can boast a classroom with a 20-mile view. And this learning experience gives new meaning to the phrase higher education.
You’ll find Sul Ross State University in Alpine. Founded in 1917, the school of 2,000 students was named for Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross, the 19th Texas governor. Alpine is a charming burg an hour north of Big Bend National Park, and its average summer temperature sits comfortably in the mid-80s.
Sul Ross’ 93-acre campus boasts beautiful buildings and the incredible Museum of the Big Bend. The classroom that achieves new heights is Hancock Hill, and hiking up to it is a student tradition going back to 1981, when some industrial tech students, led by Jim Kitchen, decided they needed a better place to study than their drab dorm room. So they grabbed a full-sized teacher’s desk, threw it onto their strapping young backs and began hiking up the hill behind their dormitory. After about a mile, they found the perfect spot and planted the desk. It wasn’t long before they were spending most, if not all, of their study time on top of Hancock Hill.
One day, Kitchen left a notebook in the desk, and the next time he returned, he discovered that another student had written deep thoughts and life ponderings on its pages. He added his own and left the notebook. Slowly, the tradition and lore of the desk began to grow.
While I am not a Sul Ross Lobo, even I was tempted with the idea of climbing Hancock Hill and seeing what education it might bring. So early one morning, I set out for an adventure. After a good bit of searching, I found the unmarked trailhead at the back of the Industrial Technology Building parking lot. And so the journey began.
It wasn’t long before the views became truly exceptional as I looked down upon the campus and Alpine below. As the trail climbed higher, the wide-open Texas skies helped my mind to open, too. I didn’t have any fellow students that day, save for a jack rabbit and a race runner lizard.
I wasn’t sure how long my outdoor study time would be. I’d heard that the hike takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. After about 45 minutes hiking at a good pace, I didn’t feel any closer to the desk than when I had begun, and I debated turning back. Suddenly, a dead tree full of rusted bikes caught my attention. A sign of student life? Sure enough, over the next hill was the desk, complete with the incredible view. Not only was I happy for a place to sit down, but the seemingly endless view immediately inspired my thoughts. “Wow, Texas is beautiful. I wonder what it looks like atop those other peaks. Why didn’t I go to Sul Ross?”
I opened the desk drawers and sure enough found a journal full of student scribblings. I also found a book titled Course in Mathematical Analysis Vol. 1. The title made my brain hurt, so I immediately put it back inside. I did, however, take out my pen and leave my own musings in the journal. What did I write? You’ll have to hike up the hill to find out. I even saved you some room right below mine. Just make sure you take a pen.
Chet Garner shares his Texplorations as the host of The Daytripper on PBS.