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Life In The Slow Lane With Eric & Laurel

~Because it’s all about the journey~

Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

Posted by on Apr 23, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 34 comments

At the edge of the Texas Hill Country lies a place so unique “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by Texans.” That’s what Bill Stephenson, founder of the National Speleological Society said about the Caverns of Sonora.

Well, that piqued my interest. And when I read that the caverns are filled with a vast array of glittering crystal-like formations, that made it even more enticing. I love sparkly things. Stars, crystals, fireflies, fireworks, champagne…the sparklier, the better.

On the other hand, I really don’t like caves. I don’t like being underground, I don’t like pitch-black places, and being underground in the dark in a tight space does not bring out the best in me. Nonetheless, this cave was irresistible because it promised treasures. Sparkly treasures.

The Caverns of Sonora happened to be conveniently halfway on our route from the Big Bend area to San Antonio, off Interstate 10 about 15 miles southwest of Sonora. There’s not much around here—so it’s pretty sweet to not only have the caverns to visit, but to also have a place to stay the night.

The campground at Caverns of Sonora (there’s an RV area if you don’t want to stay in a teepee)

The welcoming committee

We pulled into the campground and chose our site for the night—$25 for water and electric hookups. The next morning, we walked over to the gift shop to purchase our tickets for the first tour of the day. The tours cost $20, are offered every two hours starting at 9:00 a.m., and are first-come, with each tour limited to 12 people. The small group makes for a great experience (we had only eight people on our tour).

The gift shop is where you buy your tickets for the tours, and also has a pretty spectacular array of gemstones and rocks for sale

We lucked out with an excellent tour guide, a college student with a passion for speleology who spends his summers and winter holidays guiding people through the caves. Raphael was patient, knowledgeable, and convinced me to leave my down vest behind. Trust me (and Raphael), you do not want to wear anything more than a lightweight shirt in the caves, even if it’s 35 degrees outdoors (as it was in January).

The caves are about 72 degrees year round and 98 percent humidity, which makes it feel like Florida on a hot summer evening. You are not allowed to remove your jacket and tie it around your waist because the formations are delicate, and many of the passageways narrow. The owners of the caves are doing their best to protect the cave, and the only thing you’re allowed to bring along is your camera.

As the story goes, the entrance to the cavern was first discovered in the early 1920s by a dog chasing a raccoon down a hole. Decades of exploration followed, hindered by a 50-foot pit just 500 feet in from the entrance. Those intrepid early explorers eventually fashioned a network of stairs, narrow pathways, and bridges. On our journey, we traveled 155 feet below the surface through two miles of spectacular formations. For two hours, I forgot my dislike of caves. It is truly an otherworldly experience.

Our guide Raphael at the entrance to the cavern

Descending into the cavern

The first little bit of the cavern is nothing to write home about. But as forewarned, it was warm and humid. Really, really humid. My camera immediately fogged up and I had to resort to using my phone for photos.

Things soon got really interesting. No wonder this cavern is regarded as one of the most highly decorated caves in the world.

Before too long, the formations start to get interesting

So fancy! These are reputed to be some of the finest cave formations in the world.

I think these were called toilet brush formations (not really, but that’s what they look like)

The passageways are narrow through the walls of cave coral. Kind of feels like walking underwater through a coral reef.

Paved pathways traverse what would otherwise be inaccessible parts of the cavern

Our wonderful guide pointed out formations along the way

A cave pool filled with pennies, sacrificed to the universal impulse for making wishes. The copper pennies turn the water green.

Descending into the Crystal Palace, the most intricately decorated room of the cave

Halo Lake; the green cast is from pennies tossed in long ago.

Enjoying the Crystal Palace. This is truly a remarkable cave.

Elaborate cave decorations are everywhere

Making new formations, drop by drop. This one will eventually form a column.

Taking a close look at the formations

Cave bacon, always a favorite in any cave. Doesn’t that look delicious?

The Caverns at Sonora are known for their concentration of rare helictite formations. All caves have stalagmites and stalactites (stalagmites grow upward from the floor, stalactites grow downward from the ceiling—they “hang tight.”) But helictites grow outward from the walls of the cave. How the heck they do that, I have no idea. Apparently, scientists don’t even know for certain. But they’re very beautiful.

A rare helictite formation

I still don’t like caves. But this was a totally cool experience, and I’d do it again.

About the campground

The Caverns of Sonora offer electric and water hookups, with level gravel pull-through sites. There would be little privacy if the campground was full, but there was no one else in the campground while we were there. Bathrooms and showers are available (we didn’t use them). Weak Verizon connection. The best part is that you’re walking distance to some of the most unique caverns in the world. And it’s a great stopover should you be traveling between Big Bend National Park and San Antonio.

Pull-through sites at Caverns of Sonora

Next Up: Biking To The Missions (And So Much More): San Antonio, TX

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Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua & Marathon

Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua & Marathon

Posted by on Apr 15, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 32 comments

We like off-the-beaten-path towns. The smaller and quirkier, the better. At either end of Big Bend National Park lie two such gems: Terlingua and Marathon.

Both are in remote West Texas. Both have breathtaking night skies filled with shimmering stars that stretch to infinity. Both attract people who are happiest coloring outside the lines of conventional life. But despite their similarities, Terlingua and Marathon have distinct personalities.

Here’s what we discovered: Terlingua is the more unpolished of the two, and the best place to kick back with a beer and hang with the locals on the front porch of the rustic trading post. Marathon, on the other hand, is an excellent place to enjoy a superb prickly pear cactus margarita in an elegant 1927-era Western hotel.

Terlingua, Texas

Located just outside the far western border of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua flourished as a quicksilver mining town from the late 1800s until the mid-1940s. They even had their own movie theatre. But the demand for mercury diminished after WWI, the miners walked away, and Terlingua was left to fade into the desert.

Somewhere in the past couple of decades Terlingua was rediscovered by artists, loners, and eccentrics. Now it’s a ghost town with a population of 56. Make that 57, if you count Clay Henry, the taxidermied beer-drinking goat who was the former mayor of next-door Lajitas. (The actual human population may be closer to a couple hundred, no one knows for sure.)

Wandering the old mining cabins of Terlingua Ghost Town

A reclaimed miner’s cabin

At the entrance to town is the historic cemetery. There are no fancy monuments here; just simple stonework, Mexican style grottoes, and wood and filigree crosses. The Day of the Dead is reputed to be quite a festive celebration here.

Near the Terlingua cemetery

The rustic and historic Terlingua cemetery

The old wood and adobe church is still here, and still used. The former miners’ commissary is now the Terlingua Trading Post, offering a surprisingly excellent array of Native American and Mexican crafts—and an equally well-curated selection of craft beers. And the Starlight Theatre, formerly the movie theatre for the miners, offers dining, drinks, and live music.

We celebrated New Year’s at the Starlight and it was great fun. But a few days previously, sitting on the porch drinking a beer from the cooler at the trading post and listening to an impromptu music jam—that was every bit as good.

St. Agnes Church, circa 1914

The church has a rustic and colorful interior

A bug sculpture, just one of Terlingua’s many artistic offerings

Pegasus in the hills above Terlingua. You never know what you’re going to stumble across.

Locals gather each afternoon on the porch of the Starlight Theatre and the trading post next door. This is the place to enjoy some local color in the form of conversation, music, and a sunset over the Chisos Mountains.

The Starlight Theatre

An afternoon on the porch of the Terlingua Trading Post and Starlight Theatre

Music on the porch with really talented musicians and a music-appreciating dog

More reclaimed junk artwork, this time at the Starlight Theatre

Celebrating New Year’s at the the Starlight

Clay Henry, the cranky but beloved (and now stuffed) goat mayor. Legend has it that he could pound down 40 beers a day.

New Year’s at the Starlight Theatre. It was a pretty awesome way to ring in another year.

Marathon, Texas

Just 40 miles north of Big Bend National Park sits the tiny town of Marathon, population 470. The Chamber of Commerce proclaims “There’s nothing to do here.” Well, it’s a peaceful, beautiful place to do nothing. And that’s exactly what we did for two nights as we wrapped up our adventures in Big Bend.

Marathon is upscale compared to Terlingua—but there’s still an eccentric twist to the town

The wide main street invites exploring

The French Grocer, with just about everything you need

One of the most unusual places in Marathon is a colorful, fanciful hacienda sculpted of straw bales and paper crete made of recycled materials. The owner and builder invited us in for a tour—it’s a remarkable work of art, including the gardens and greenhouse filled with bougainvillea, banana trees, flowers, and herbs.

In the courtyard of Eve’s Garden B & B

It’s remarkable what you can build from paper crete and straw bales

A greenhouse paradise at Eve’s Garden B & B

The biggest attraction in town is the Spanish-Mission style Gage Hotel, built in 1927 for cattle baron Alfred S. Gage. (The architect was Henry Trost from El Paso, who also built El Paisano in Marfa.) Every inch of the hotel is exquisite, down to the gingerbread replica decorating the lobby (we were there just before they took down the holiday decorations).

To celebrate the beginning of another new year on the road, we planned a special dinner at the 12 Gage Restaurant in the hotel. After cocktails in the White Buffalo Bar, we settled into our black-and-white cowhide chairs for a Moroccan-inspired meal of spiced quail with basmati-apricot pilaf and charred tomato and green beans. Really tasty. But really skimpy on the stuffing. As it turns out, only a teaspoon of stuffing fits into a quail.

Those prickly pear cactus margaritas in the White Buffalo Bar, though. Those alone are worth the trip to Marathon.

The Gage Hotel, circa 1927

We caught the tail-end of the Gage Hotel decorated for the holidays, replete with a gingerbread Gage Hotel

The next day, all holiday decorations were cleared away. The decor of the hotel is understated classic Western elegance.

A tooled and silver embellished saddle is part of the decor

This is cattle ranching country

If you come to Marathon, don’t miss the White Buffalo Bar

Award winning prickly pear cactus margaritas

Just across the railroad tracks are the Gage Gardens, which would be even more beautiful in spring

A Golden-fronted Woodpecker in the gardens

About the RV Park

We visited Terlingua twice while staying in Study Butte during our week in Big Bend National Park.

To explore Marathon, we stayed two nights at Marathon Motel & RV Park. The sites are basically big open pull-throughs on dirt and gravel, but the park was quiet and the sunsets and dark night skies are spectacular. Plus, it’s an easy half-mile walk into town. Full hookups, good cell coverage, free wifi, and laundry (although there is only one washer and dryer).

There’s a lovely outdoor fireplace and courtyard where people gather most evenings, but it was so cold when we were there that no one ventured outdoors after dark. People also often set up telescopes for star gazing (but no one braved 17 degrees for a star party).

When you reserve, ask for a site in the back area away from the highway. The first two nights of your stay they honor Passport America, which makes it a great deal.

The Marathon Motel & RV Park

Pink afternoon glow at the RV Park

Dang, it was cold while we were there! The fountain was frozen in the courtyard of the RV Park.

A Marathon, Texas sunset

Next Up: Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

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Big, Beautiful, Big Bend National Park

Big, Beautiful, Big Bend National Park

Posted by on Apr 5, 2018 in Gallery, National Parks, Texas, Travel | 36 comments

Thank you, dear friends, for your compassionate, generous, and supportive comments in response to my last blog post. While this blog is primarily about our travels, everything that happens along the way is part of the journey. I don’t write about every flat tire or mosquito bite, but I do write about the big challenges. Your kindness buoys our spirits and helps us know we’re not alone as we navigate this epic adventure called life.

Flipping back through the calendar pages to the cusp of the New Year finds us in Big Bend National Park. According to Native American legend, after the Great Spirit created heaven and earth he dumped all the leftover rocks into a big pile, and the Big Bend was born. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it? I assure you, that legend doesn’t tell the whole story.

This is not a place you just happen upon. We’ve come close numerous times in our travels across West Texas, but it wasn’t until the last of December that we turned onto the two-lane road that would take us seventy miles from the nearest town into that giant pile of rubble known as Big Bend National Park.

Big Bend National Park

It is remote, rugged, and wild. And far more beautiful than I imagined (truthfully, I didn’t imagine it would be beautiful. I imagined dry, rocky, and barren. I was wrong).

Even the National Park Service waxes poetic in describing the park: “There is a place in Far West Texas where night skies are dark as coal and rivers carve temple-like canyons in ancient limestone…this magical place is Big Bend.”

Painted hills on the road to Boquillas Canyon

We spent a week in the park, hiking as many of the trails as we could squeeze into short winter days, rafting a section of the Rio Grande, and best of all, sharing adventures with our good friends and fellow full-time travelers Beth and Perry. Our verdict: This truly is a magical place.

Big Bend National Park is enormous. Covering more than 1250 square miles of desert and mountainous terrain, it takes more than an hour to get from one side of the park to the other. But there’s no traffic. And the roads are peaceful and scenic.

We stayed in a private RV park just outside the entrance to the west side of the park. Upon arrival, I had one of those “Uh-oh, what have I gotten us into?” moments. The park is hard packed dirt, the sites are not well-defined, and scattered around the property is a random assortment of junk, most of which the owner intends to use for some project someday. Oh, and there’s an old cemetery for added ambiance.

Our view at Study Butte RV Park

Curiously, there’s a cemetery at Study Butte RV Park

As it turns out, it was a wonderful place to stay. The internet is free and fast, the owner is friendly and accommodating, and the park is quiet and has memorable sunsets and dark night skies filled with stars.

We started our explorations at the Panther Junction Visitor Center. The film about the park is excellent, and the map and list of hikes we picked up was invaluable in planning our time. While there, we decided to hike the Grapevine Hills Trail, which isn’t far from the visitor center. It turned out to be one of our favorite short hikes in the park.

First stop: Panther Junction Visitor Center

A VW camper caravan

The Grapevine Hills Trail on a cold, late December day

We happened to be at the park the week between Christmas and New Year’s. There were a couple of nights of unseasonably cold temperatures (dropping into the 30’s) and a couple of days of chilly hiking, especially when the wind was blowing. But we’ll take cold any day over hot, especially in Big Bend, where there’s not much shade to be found and the temperatures can soar to 95 degrees by late spring.

On the way to Balanced Rock, the big attraction on the Grapevine Hills Trail

It’s a short hike at less than two miles round-trip, but has some fun rock scrambling

Beneath the famous Balanced Rock

Surreal views from the top of the Grapevine Hills Trail

Adventures On The West Side

The 31-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive (named for the first park superintendent, who helped design the route) is the highlight of the west side of the park. We set out bright and early on a chilly morning to drive the trail, stopping often to admire the views and  hiking a variety of short trails along the way. At the end of the day, we’d hiked about seven miles, and spent many more miles entranced by the mosaic of canyons, cliffs, desert, and clouds.

On the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

Beginning our adventures in Big Bend with Perry and Beth

At the Sotol Vista Overlook

On the Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail; about one mile round-trip

Purple prickly pear provides a bit of color during the winter

Admiring the Burro Mesa Pouroff

On the Mule Ears Spring Trail; about 4 miles round trip

See the Mule Ears in the distance?

We finished up our day on the Santa Elena Canyon Trail, which begins rather elaborately with paved switchbacks and stone retaining walls before descending to the river. The trail hugs the Rio Grande and offers a glimpse of the temple-like canyons carved from limestone promised by the national park.

Beginning the ascent into Santa Elena Canyon; about 1.6 miles round trip

The Rio Grande is the watery border between the U.S. and Mexico

Along the Santa Elena Canyon Trail

At the end of the trail in Santa Elena Canyon, overlooking the Rio Grande

Heading back down the concrete paved stairway

Curious to see the canyon from the water, we signed up for a half-day rafting expedition on the Rio Grande. Our guide was high-spirited and great fun and we learned a lot from her about the geology and history of the area. It’s not an inexpensive trip, though, and we realized in retrospect that we could have easily used our own kayaks and created our own shuttle.

Rafting on the Rio Grande with our very fun guide

It’s more of a float trip than a rafting trip

A great day for floating on the river

Adventures On The East Side

On the opposite side of the park from where we were staying, we explored the rocky desert-like terrain of Boquillas Canyon and the historic hot springs on the Rio Grande. This is one of the only places we encountered hordes of people (in Big Bend National Park, “horde” is a relative term. This is one of the least visited national parks in the country). Had we been there at any time other than Christmas break, we would have had the hot springs to ourselves.

On the road to Boquillas Canyon

Overlooking the Rio Grande on the Boquillas Canyon Trail

Trinkets made by craftspeople of Boquillas, Mexico

Jesus from Boquillas serenades hikers on the trail, sells trinkets, and makes a quick return to his home across the river if officials appear

The getaway canoe on the bank of the Rio Grande

Beth cooling off in the Rio Grande

A Mexican burro mama and baby come to drink from the river

On the Hot Springs Trail

Historic bathhouse on the trail

The hot spring was packed on this fine late December day

Adventures In The Chisos Basin

The Chisos Mountains are the crown jewel of the park. We chose two beautiful hikes here. The Window Trail is a 5.6 mile round-trip trek that descends 1,000 feet and ends abruptly at the pour-off for the basin. It’s a wonderful framed viewpoint with rocks worn to a glass-like smoothness by centuries of cascading water. You don’t want to get too close to the edge on this one.

The Window Trail

Heading down into the basin on the Window Trail

Stone walls along the trail; more of the handiwork of the CCC boys

A stone staircase, also created by the CCC, provides passage through the rocky chasm

Hiking up the carved stairs on the Window Trail

Admiring the view from The Window, the rock slick as glass from centuries of water cascading over the edge

Returning on the Window Trail

We saved the Lost Mine Trail for our last adventure in the park. The rugged, gorgeous trail climbs 1,100 feet over two and a half miles through a cool forest of pine, oak, juniper, and madrone with stunning views along the way of volcanic buttes rising from the desert floor. If we had to choose one not-to-be-missed hike, it would be this one. Or maybe the Window Trail. Or the Grapevine Hills Trail. I take it back—we don’t want to choose. We can’t choose.

Heading into the Chisos Canyon at daybreak

Views of the massive Casa Grande volcanic butte dominate the trail

A century plant (agave) dried bloom stalk on the beautiful trail

Stairs carved in pink granite, again thanks to the CCC

The pines and junipers on the trail look almost like bonsai

Nearing the end of the trail, with another view of Casa Grande

A volcanic pinnacle at the end of the Lost Mine Trail

About the campground

We were in Big Bend National Park the week between Christmas and New Year’s, one of the two busiest times at the park (March is the second busiest time). Even months ahead of time, there were no reservations available at Rio Grande Campground, the only RV campground within the park. All of the other campgrounds in the park are no hook-up, first-come first served, and most are unsuitable for anything but the smallest rig.

As it turns out, we were happy that we landed at Study Butte RV Park. The park has full hook-ups, the owner is great, and the internet is speedy and free. And it’s just a few miles from the town of Terlingua, which if you come to Big Bend, you do not want to miss.

Our site at Study Butte RV Park. It looks spacious in this photo because Beth and Perry had left. They were about three feet away, which is just the perfect distance with good friends! :-)

Next Up: Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua and Marathon, TX

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When Life Gets In The Way Of Blogging

When Life Gets In The Way Of Blogging

Posted by on Mar 27, 2018 in Florida, Gallery, Musings, Travel | 74 comments

I’ve had a post on Big Bend National Park almost finished for about two weeks. Meanwhile, I’m more than two months behind on our blog. I don’t like being so far behind.

But the past couple of months, life has taken precedence over blogging. We’ve been in Florida since the first of February and just yesterday afternoon waved goodbye to my mom and dad.

At 87 and almost 90, they still live in the home they built on the bay in Apalachicola thirty-five years ago. According to my dad, the only way they are going to leave there is “feet first.” His words.

Dad and Mom, in Miami with a whole lifetime of adventures ahead

We’re doing our best to support them in their wishes. But it’s getting harder for them. My mom has Alzheimer’s and spends most of her days in her robe, on the sofa, watching old movies and napping. When we suggest—ever so kindly—that she get dressed, or take a shower, or come outside for a walk, she grins wickedly and shoots us a bird. And tells us to kiss her butt.

My mother, who put great stock in manners and had strict rules for just about everything in life, would be mortified by her own behavior now.

We never know what she’s going to say or do. Trying to discourage her only encourages her, so we mostly ignore her inappropriate behavior and distract her as best we can. And we laugh along with her, because she’s often funny, even if sometimes appalling.

This disease is stealing my mother’s memories, but she’s still my mom. I meet her where she is, telling her stories of her life while we drink tea together on the porch overlooking the bay. She likes that. And sometimes, when she’s being really obnoxious, I flip her off when she flips me off, which she thinks is hilarious.

Four generations: Clockwise from center, my great grandmother, my sister, my grandmother, my mom, and me

My dad has sustained his good nature and sense of humor. He soldiers on, doing all of the housework, cooking, shopping, driving, yard work, home repairs, managing their finances, and keeping track of their doctor’s appointments and their various medications. He even irons his shirts. For some reason, that little act of domesticity breaks my heart. He’s doing his best to maintain life as he’s known it for the almost 70 years of their marriage. The past several years have been a big learning curve for him, but he’s determined and proud. Sometimes to the extreme.

His balance is not what it used to be, but until a couple of years ago he would climb a ladder with his chainsaw to trim trees that were encroaching on the roof. I almost keeled over when he told me that he was on the roof, especially when he said, “Those acorns are like roller skates!” Last year, the doctor told him no more ladders, and I think he’s finally accepting that limitation (he wasn’t listening to our pleas to stay off the roof).

I can’t help but think that they would be better off in an assisted living facility. I envision them in a nice place, with meals prepared, people to socialize with, and my mom’s needs taken care of. But that’s what I want; it’s not what they want.

One of the gifts of traveling fulltime is that we’re able to spend extended time with my family, while having the privacy and comfort of our home with us. (I am ever grateful to Eric, who is unfailingly kind, compassionate, and generous with my folks.) I’m not sure I could approach this situation with equanimity without having our own space to retreat to.

A cross-country camping trip from Florida to Oregon, circa 1960

After spending hours every day with my mom asking me the same question 10 times in 10 minutes, and patiently repeating everything to my dad several times because he’s hard of hearing (and refuses to get a hearing aid), when Eric says “What?” to me when he doesn’t hear me, I want to strangle him. That’s when I realize that I need a break.

We have a routine with my mom and dad when we’re visiting: coffee in the morning, and an extended happy hour in the late afternoon before starting dinner. There was a time that my mom was an excellent and adventurous cook. Now, she won’t even make her own tea. But my dad still loves good food, and he’s delighted by everything we make (Brazilian fish chowder, coffee braised pork, tandoori chicken, shrimp creole—he likes it all, everything except beets). And then we watch a movie together, most often something from the 1950’s or before because anything else confuses my mom.

Between morning coffee and afternoon happy hour, we spent our time sorting, cleaning, and hauling off truckloads of stuff. My mom was extraordinarily creative and talented, and an equally extraordinary pack rat. My dad asked for help in cleaning out her sewing room and her craft studio and we set to the task.

It was an epic journey going through her stuff. And it brought up a lot of emotions for me. In her sewing room, I found patterns for her maternity tops, patterns for the matching Easter dresses that she made for my sister and me, and fabric scraps from my prom dresses. In her studio, I sorted through her oil paintings, sketches, and enough paraphernalia to open a craft store—silk and dried flowers, paints, brushes, carving tools, ribbon, yarn, and more.

Easter morning 1956

Three florists came to haul away all of the silk and dried flowers, and we hauled four truckloads of stuff to the church resale shop, three truckloads to the dump, and three truckloads to recycle. We got the sewing room and studio cleared out, but we’re by no means done—one of these years, we’re going to take on my mother’s shoe collection, which rivals that of Imelda Marcos in her heyday.

I did this to help my dad, but in all honesty, I did it for myself, too. I feel helpless against the ravages of time and the slow erosion of their lifestyle and their health. Part of me wants to stay there with them, to help them stay in their home, to do whatever I can for them during these last years. They don’t pull on us to stay, but I know that their lives are easier and more enjoyable when we’re with them.

With my dad. I’m not posting photos of my mom in her robe.

But the reality is that we have our lives to live, too. This is one of those challenging times where there just isn’t a simple answer. The best I’ve managed is to remind myself that my folks have had wonderful, interesting lives, and that this is our chance to do the same. Still, it’s hard leaving them, not knowing what we’ll find next year when we return.

The bridge over Apalachicola Bay

At the moment, we’re on our way to our next adventure. We have many new-to-us places in our near future, including Cumberland Island, Savannah, Charleston, Asheville, Nashville, and a birding festival in Ohio in mid-May. We’ll head across the country to Lopez Island for July and August, and then return to our hometown of Ashland before beginning our journey back to Florida next fall.

I’ll be blogging about it all, but first, I have some posts to catch up on now that I can catch my breath. Thanks for staying with us—it’s all part of life’s journey.

Next Up: Big, Beautiful Big Bend National Park

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A Postcard From West Texas: Fort Davis, Marfa, & Alpine

A Postcard From West Texas: Fort Davis, Marfa, & Alpine

Posted by on Mar 12, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 32 comments

There was a time when we dreaded the 800-mile slog across Texas, especially the desolate 550-mile stretch between El Paso and someplace we considered worth visiting—say, Austin or San Antonio.

But that was before we unearthed the gems of West Texas. There is beauty and peace in these wide open spaces, quirky towns scattered about, and interesting characters who call this far-flung region home. We cross Texas almost yearly in our travels from Oregon to Florida, and I’m happy to say we no longer dread the journey—in fact, we’ve found much that entices us to return.

Cruising down the highway in the company of tumbleweeds

In late December, we parked ourselves for a few days at Davis Mountains State Park. We’ve been here before and had good memories of the park and the surrounding little towns of Fort Davis, Marfa, and Alpine. This time, we had some serious winter weather, with temperatures dipping into the 20’s at night. But the days were sunny and bright, and we had a good time hiking and exploring Fort Davis and the nearby towns of Alpine and Marfa.

There are miles of beautiful trails at Davis Mountains State Park, most of them steep and rocky

The CCC boys were busy at Davis Mountains State Park in the 1930’s, including building this shelter overlooking Fort Davis

On the old CCC Trail to Fort Davis

Built of handmade adobe bricks, the Indian Lodge was one of the projects of the CCC and is still used as lodging for park guests

A brand new luxurious birding pavilion is a great place for morning coffee and birdwatching

Early morning birding at Davis Mountains State Park

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet arrives for a peanut butter breakfast

Just a few miles from the state park is Fort Davis National Historic Site, considered one of the finest examples in the country of a frontier American Southwest military post. From the mid-to-late 1800’s, army personnel stationed here protected settlers, mail coaches, and traders en route between El Paso and San Antonio.

Many of the buildings have been restored (including a state-of-the-art frontier army hospital) and the excellent new visitor center presents stories of the settlers and the Apache and Comanche that called this land home.

On the trail overlooking Fort Davis

Fort Davis Officers Quarters

The newly renovated visitor center at Fort Davis

Apache Kiowa moccasins

Sunset in the Davis Mountains

Ten miles up a winding mountain road from the state park is the McDonald Observatory, one of the most highly regarded observatories in the world. The Davis Mountains boast some of the darkest, clearest night skies in the country.

Several years ago we attended a star program at the observatory; this time, we returned for a daytime tour that included seeing some of the enormous telescopes up close (including one of the most powerful telescopes in the world) and a real-time viewing of the sun.

Many of the scientific details from the tour have already escaped me, but I do remember the quote by Albert Einstein that was written in large script on the wall of one of the observatories: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all art and science.”

(Book your tickets for observatory tours ahead and book online. The tours often sell out, and the tickets are cheaper online.)

The sundial at McDonald Observatory

Witnessing the birth of stars in a faraway star nursery

The original McDonald Observatory, built in the 1930s

Bright shiny new observatory containing the powerful Hobby-Eberly Telescope

Explaining the inside workings of an enormous research telescope

Marfa, Texas

Marfa has definitely been “discovered” since we first visited back in 2012. The vibe now seems more hip and less quirky, but it’s still an interesting place to visit for a few hours, especially if you enjoy wandering and photography.

Founded in the early 1880s as a railroad water stop in the middle of nowhere, Marfa has become a haven for artists and urban escapees.

We were happy to see the Food Shark still in operation. On our first visit to Marfa, we were delighted by the delicious gourmet Mediterranean food offerings of the funky silver food truck. Five years later, the truck looks even more decrepit. But our Greek salads were fresh and tasty, made with organic greens, fresh herbs, feta from a local goat dairy, and homemade hummus. Another lesson in “do not judge by appearances.”

Marfa, Texas

The Presidio County Courthouse, built in 1886

An adobe church against the always cobalt skies in Marfa

In the courtyard of the historic El Paisano Hotel, circa 1930 (paisano means roadrunner)

The lobby of El Paisano Hotel decked out for the holidays

Checking out Spare Parts in downtown Marfa (a vintage Western wear store)

Local designer clothing and local poetry on the walls of Communitie Marfa

The Food Shark

Lunch in the funky courtyard of the Food Shark. The big bus is a dining car—a new addition to the Food Shark compound.

Alpine, Texas

The biggest town in Far West Texas, Alpine (population 6,000) is the jumping off point for Big Bend National Park. We spent a day in town exploring and stocking up at the excellent Blue Water Natural Foods store for our upcoming week in the national park.

While we were at it, we paid a visit to the small, very good, and free Museum of the Big Bend at Sul Ross University. And enjoyed an excellent lunch at Reata Cowboy Cuisine.

Downtown Alpine, Texas

Postcard murals in Alpine

Museum of the Big Bend on the campus of Sul Ross University

Inside the Museum of the Big Bend

A traveling shrine carried by Spanish missionaries

Reata Cowboy Cuisine in Alpine

Cowboy decor at Reata

Contender for the best Tortilla Chicken Soup we’ve ever had

About the campground:
Davis Mountains State Park was established as one of the first Texas State Parks, and it’s one of our favorites. The setting is beautiful, the night skies are wonderfully dark and star-filled, the sites are spacious, and there is a network of excellent hiking trails that range from easy to challenging. If you enjoy birding, you’ll appreciate this park. A couple of lovely birding pavilions provide a comfortable spot for watching the birds that come to the well-stocked feeders and water features.

Sites range from no-hookup to full-hookup, and there are bathhouses with hot showers and a dump station. There’s no cell service in the campground, but take the scenic drive to the top of the mountain overlooking Fort Davis and you’ll have excellent coverage (it’s also a great place for sunset).

A bonus is that Davis Mountains State Park is ideally located for exploring Fort Davis (a short trip down the mountain), the McDonald Observatory (about 10 miles up the mountain), Marfa (25 miles southwest) and Alpine (25 miles southeast).

Davis Mountains State Park Campground

Next Up: It’s Really Big, And Really Beautiful: Big Bend National Park

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In Search Of The Starry-Eyed Man: Hueco Tanks State Park

In Search Of The Starry-Eyed Man: Hueco Tanks State Park

Posted by on Feb 27, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 36 comments

In late December, we made our third trip in five years to Hueco Tanks State Park. This time, I was not leaving until we got to see the Starry-Eyed Man.

Located in a remote canyon 30 miles northeast of El Paso, the park contains a unique assortment of pictographs left behind by the ancient peoples who called this desert oasis home. Most pictographs are painted with red, brown, or black pigments, but the Starry-Eyed Man includes rare green pigments. Not only is it a cool image, the colors are remarkable. I had to see it for myself.

Hueco Tanks State Park protects one of the largest concentrations of Native American rock paintings in North America, as well as the largest number of painted masks. Once a stagecoach stop on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route, the park also contains thousands of inscriptions carved into rocks by visitors who passed this way in the mid-1800’s and early 1900’s.

Hueco Tanks State Park

This is the most tightly supervised park we’ve ever visited. And for good reason, since there are apparently a number of people with poor impulse control who feel the need to add their names to the rocks, including scratching graffiti into the ancient art.

Visitors are required to view a 15-minute video about the ancient peoples and the pictographs, in hopes that they will be inspired to protect the artwork.

The visitor center at Hueco Tanks State Park, once the home of rancher Silverio Escontrias

It’s a stark, yet ruggedly beautiful landscape

Only 70 people at a time can enter Hueco Tanks without a guide, and only North Mountain, one of the park’s three peaks, is open to self-guided exploration. But before you set foot on the trails, you need a permit—even if you’re camping in the park.

A word to the wise: Reserve a permit for North Mountain when you make your camping reservation. Otherwise, you’ll need to show up each morning before 8 a.m. at the ranger station to try for one of the 10 first-come-first-served permits.

Hueco Tanks is a renowned bouldering site, and people come from all over the world to practice clawing their way up the boulders with no equipment other than their hands and feet (and a thick crash pad below). Most of the people who come here are interested in bouldering, which leaves the trails wonderfully uncrowded.

Hueco Tanks has the reputation as one of the best places in the world for bouldering

On the trails at Hueco Tanks, part of the North Mountain area accessible without a guide

If you’re up for a bit of an adventure, ask for a map to Cave Kiva. (You’ll have to leave your driver’s license hostage.) The hike takes you up North Mountain to a hidden cave, where eight beautifully painted and remarkably well-preserved masks await. For the Jornada Mogollon, an agricultural people who lived here from 200 to 1450 A.D., the masks represented their ancestral spirits and acted as a bridge between the human and the spirit worlds.

The masks are magnificent, and we’ve made the journey to Cave Kiva all three times we’ve visited the park.

Hiking up North Mountain in search of Cave Kiva

The huecos were filled with water from recent rains

The stone alligator points the way to Cave Kiva

Eric always volunteers to go first (one of many reasons I love him)

Inside Cave Kiva, it’s light and spacious, and the mask pictographs are wonderful

Ancient Jornada Mogollon masks in Cave Kiva

This is one of our favorite masks

The easiest exit is to slide out on your back (the easiest way to enter the cave is sliding in on your belly)

Finding the path back down the mountain is always tricky

A Red-tailed Hawk observes our journey

The plaintive, melodious songs of Canyon Wrens can be heard echoing throughout the canyon

M.F. Wayland, a traveler passing through on July 25, 1884, left his mark

A camp cook from 1924 recorded his visit to Hueco Tanks

And now, the whole reason we returned to Hueco Tanks: Finding the Starry-Eyed Man. This pictograph, along with many others, can only be visited on a guided tour. Reservations for guided hikes must be made at least one week in advance. Tours are given Wednesday through Sunday, the cost is two dollars, and they’re excellent.

If you’re interested in this particular pictograph, be sure to request tour number two. Apparently, tour number one is the default tour, and while it’s interesting (we signed up for this tour on our first visit to the park), it won’t take you to what we think are far more unique pictographs.

In our three-hour tour of rock shelters and caves, we found some of the most memorable pictographs we’ve seen in our travels.

Exploring a cave on the West Mountain district with a guided tour

On the trails of the West Mountain district

An ancient stone grinding pit (for grains, beans, and seeds)

Photographing one of the many stylized masks on West Mountain (perhaps a rain deity?)

The dry climate and location of the masks help to preserve them (most are located in caves, or beneath rock overhangs, which protects them from the sun). Paints were made from ground minerals (ochre, carbon, and gypsum), bound together with animal fats and plant juices. Brushes were created from yucca fibers and human hair while reeds were sometimes used as a primitive airbrush technique.

The intricate, stylized work artwork is fascinating

A deer pictograph

Standing next to the White-Horned Dancer

The White-Horned Dancer

Approaching the Starry-Eyed Man

Gazing down at us from an eight-foot-high rock overhang, the Starry-Eyed Man was just as extraordinary as I had imagined.

The Starry-Eyed Man mask, with the unique green pigments rarely found in pictographs

About the campground:
Twenty sites are tucked into red rock boulders in Hueco Tanks Campground, with spectacular sunsets just about guaranteed. Water and 50-amp electric hookups; the park also offers showers, restrooms, and a dump station. The sites are level and spacious, most have ramadas with picnic tables. Verizon coverage is mostly good, but a bit bumpy. Reservations must be made by phone and are limited to three days.

If you’re camping at Hueco Tanks, be prepared to be locked in at night (you can leave in case of emergency). You must be back in the campground by 5 p.m. (might be a bit later in summer). I wasn’t kidding when I said this park is tightly controlled. But it’s worth it!

Campsite at Hueco Tanks State Park

A beautiful sunset from our campsite

Next Up: A Postcard From West Texas: Fort Davis, Alpine, And Marfa

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