Central Texas Day-Tripping: Visiting Mother Neff State Park

Continuing with our day-trips out to local state parks, both Kris and I traveled to the outskirts of Moody, TX to visit Mother Neff State Park. As you may already know, almost all parks reopened this last week with social distancing measures in place and the strongest of recommendations for visitors to wear face coverings. An aside, can you imagine trying to hike in 90-100 degree weather with a surgical mask on your face? I’m sorry, but that is a level of BS I am not willing to accept. Kris and I did meet the requirement half-way and brought our face masks and kept them handy in the event that we did happen upon other visitors to the park who were wearing masks. In the event of seeing someone coming down-trail with masks affixed we would be prepared to dawn ours in the appropriate fashion and thus prevent the spread of Covid-19 and do our part to “flatten the curve.”

With that said, we arrived at the park just past 8am and flashed our pre-printed-day-pass (grammatically haphazard… I know) to the woman at the main gate and proceeded down Park Road 14c to our desired parking space somewhere near the genesis of Tower Trail and Prairie Loop. I’ll be the first to admit that I overestimated the “size” of this park. I had poured over the maps the evening prior and found that the park was in fact quite small and that it would likely take a leisurely three hours to complete all the trails and capture photos and memories. The park itself is a little over 250 acres and has about 4 miles of walking trails in total. The trails themselves are very easy to traverse, and with the exception of some “steps” and small “water crossings,” are perfect for children of all ages and sizes. 

One of the features about Mother Neff State Park that I admired the most would have to be the accessibility of the main attractions to visitors. For instance, the “Cave Trail” features a large cave shelter (where native Americans in years past used to retreat too after a days foraging) that can be reached by a convenient trailside parking lot that has stairs leading to the caves entrance. Additionally, there is a small granite “table-top” and civilian conservation corps tower that can be reached almost as easily. 


Both Kris and I had arrived at park’s opening and there were already several other visitors and families (none of whom were wearing masks) on trail at all the aforementioned sites. For those of you who know Kris and I, you know that we do not have children and it would be a cold day in hell if we ever did. Saying that, we always enjoy seeing little ones on trail. It is always fun to see parents chasing after them and trying to keep them from hurtling down the side of a ravine or into a patch of vibrantly potent poison ivy. In fact, on one of our city trips to San Antonio, Kris saved a little boys life who was about to meander off the side of a path and into the water along the Paseo Del Rio. Anyway, that is a different tale altogether, it is always fun to see little ones on trail for a number of reasons…

After we completed the more family friendly trails and sites in the southern portion of the park, we crossed the main road over to the “Pond Trail” and “Prairie Loop.” This flat prairie trailhead leads to a small pond that was so still and peaceful you could see the reflections of the sky, clouds and trees upon its surface. I cannot even begin to tell you how calm and peaceful this place was. I think both Kris and I relaxed here for about thirty minutes or until we heard a parade of children and families headed our way. I always love the vigor of “city-dweller-hikers.” Hearing the noise of this family we determined it was time to leave and visit the “Prairie Loop,” so we gathered up our things and proceeded down-trail toward that portion of the park. Upon leaving the pond and rounding the corner, we crossed paths with the “city-dweller-hikers.” I do not want to come off like a jerk so I’m just going to key on one thing and then move on. What the heck do you need with Black Diamond Alpine trekking poles on a flat pond and prairie trail? I get how some folks over-buy when they have a new hobby or whatever, but this guy, oh my God. I could go on and on… but I will simply say I will forever refer to him as a “Mother Neff’er!” Anyway, I wanted to take a discreet picture of him but thought better of it. Anyway, you’ll see some images of the pond area below, I just want you to imagine someone geared up for the Continental Divide Trail and imagine that person on this terrain…

Moving right along, Kris and I made our way over to the “Prairie Loop” and took a leisurely stroll stopping along the way to capture images of the flowers and general beauty of the park. I have to say this was a very pleasant surprise as I had never really spent much time in a prairie landscape in Central Texas. The amount of wildflowers and butterflies was incredible. I attempted to catch some images (not butterflies, that would have been a sight…) of the landscape but since it was so bright and my settings were askew it really doesn’t do the landscape justice.

After wrapping up our visit we looped back to our parking spot along the main road. I suspect that every parking space was full because there was a lot of traffic circling. I suspect that Mother Neff State Park is not a very well kept secret, especially since parks have reopened and cabin fever has undoubtedly set in for many Central Texas residents. I can’t imagine that we will return to this park as there are so many others we want to visit and I feel like we got the most out of it that we could. Having said that, it is an excellent park to visit (especially for a young family) and I would highly recommend it for photography enthusiasts. I should also mention that the park has a very interesting history that you can read about here.

Oh and by the way, we  saw one elderly couple wearing face-masks and you would be happy to know that we slipped our masks on prior to crossing their path. Stay safe and be well everyone!

Gardening in Central Texas

Sometimes you just can’t get away. A couple of weeks ago the State of Texas moved forward with the shutdown of state parks. As you may already know, both Kris and I have been enjoying our local parks since recreation is now hard to come by due to the viral pandemic. Well, seeing as though they are all closed we decided to stay home and enjoy our private home oasis.

To tell that tale we should back up to the beginning of our time here in Pflugerville. When Kris and I moved into our home in 2011 there was nothing more than a bur oak tree in the backyard to compliment a beat up old fence. Like many homeowners we focused on the inside of our home for a while and then turned our eyes outward some time later. I believe it was 2013 when we began developing a game-plan for our backyard. The yard itself is quite small as there is a water easement behind all the properties on our side of the street. I believe the dimensions of the backyard to be about 20×60’ so there is not a lot of space back there. One has to be pretty deliberate with what one chooses to do in such a limited space.

Since Kris and I love to travel we determined that our space here should be an after-work oasis. Ultimately, we didn’t want any stimulation from the outside world other than the chirping of birds. Bear in mind that we live in a tightly packed, child infested, working class neighborhood. We began by standing in the yard and doing a 360 degree survey. This survey included how many homes were around us and whether or not they had windows offering a view into the yard. In addition, we considered road noise, after school traffic and also required maintenance including access to complete any fencing repairs that may be necessary in time. With all this completed we began a search of native Texas plants and shrubs that would shield us from the outside world (in time). We had to take into account a number of things, but the most important was to visualize based on time. What would all this look like when the shrubs and plants mature in 8-10 years? Got to think fourth dimensionally (to quote Doc Brown from B2TF).

A short while later I replaced the decrepit old fencing and laid out the dimensions for the shrubbery beds. Without getting into the minutia of soil acidity, sunlight requirements and pruning habits, the garden beds were laid out with approximations for varying native shrubs. A short visit to our local nursery and we were on our way to digging holes. As some of you may know, I am not truly happy unless I am holding a shovel. I believe I have dug approximately 83 holes between the fence and the gardens in the back and front yards. That is a lot of holes on a postage stamp sized property. This week I believe I had to dig like 20-30 holes. With full disclosure I’d like to say that about 90% of the items placed in the ground that day are still present today.

  • Firethorn x2 
  • Golden Euonymus x2
  • Mountain Laurel
  • Silverado Sage x2
  • Gardenia 
  • Honeysuckle
  • Double Knockout Rose x3
  • Red Tipped Photinia x3
  • Black Diamond Myrtle
  • Climbing Rose x3
  • Dwarf Nandinia x2

With all our plants in the ground, watered and generously fertilized and mulched we sat back and admired all the hard work. Gazing over the garden from the patio I started to realize this vision we had of the yard was going to take some time to be realized. In fact, the new fence was around 6.5’ tall and my little shrubs were nursery sized. I knew it would take some time for the ultimate vision to be realized but knew when it was, it would be wonderful.

Flash forward about ten years and now Kris and I have the backyard oasis we had yearned for. From the patio and middle of the backyard you would never know you were in a busy neighborhood. Granted, one can still hear children playing next door, but you cannot hear road noise, see other houses nor feel eyes on you when you’re back there getting some sun. Seriously, do you ever feel eyes on you when you’re sunbathing? It is a creepy kind of feeling. Anyway, through hard work and time we created a great space and we enjoy it immensely. In fact as I write this I am sitting on the patio enjoying my coffee.

Rumor has it that state parks will be opened back up sometime this week or next. We are both pretty excited about it and are already planning our next hiking day-trip adventure. In the meantime though, we will be in our little 20×60’ oasis.

Central Texas Day-Tripping: Star-Trails

Ever wonder how they take those cool pictures of star trails? You know, the ones where all the stars are swirling around a central point in a dark sky. Having those questions myself I scraped the web and found that I not only had all the equipment necessary but also a VRBO cabin reserved in very dark sky country outside Llano Texas. If you haven’t realized by now, both Kris and I love our remote cabins. Kris works in a very fast-paced hospital and needs to get away and decompress as often as is reasonable. I was in a high-stress environment as a dental assistant (at the time) and, in general, have always enjoyed travel and photography so this would be the perfect opportunity to test out what I thought I had learned.

Rolling onto the ranch outside of Llano, leaving a bright red clay dust cloud in my wake we arrived at our weekend accommodation. After reviewing the site online and being here in person I found the area well suited for this astrophotography session. We had booked a cabin that had zero native light pollution and fortunately there were no other bookings in the neighboring cabins this weekend so we had the place to ourselves.

With the van unpacked of everything but my equipment I set out to find the best place to setup the camera for the star trail images I hoped to gather tonight. I had hoped I would be able to capture the images from the rear of the cabin however there were many red ant hills and the last thing I wanted was to deal with that all night. After some time and wandering around there property like I had early onset dementia, I found an area along the north side of the cabin that would give me an awesome angle where I would capture a very rustic windmill, some old oak trees and Polaris (North Star).

At this point I began to lay out the site and prepare my gear. I attached the trusty Canon Rebel t6 with battery grip to the tripod, attached the shutter release cable and that ultra wide angle Manual Rokinon Lens that I had previously used for Milky Way Photography a month or so ago.  I opened up the star finder app on my phone and found a pretty precise area where Polaris should be and then maneuvered my tripod setup to capture the oaks and the windmill. With the composition created I ran through settings that I scraped off the net and plugged them in. At this point, Kris and I spent the rest of the afternoon on the ranch petting the donkeys, bird watching and imbibing adult beverages. Below are my settings for the DSLR/Lens combo. Bear in mind there are many ways to capture these images, a lot of people stack in a photo program and still others do multiple images and time lapse. My goal was to shoot continuously for a couple hours and see what I got.

  • Widest Aperture Available on your lens
  • ISO 200
  • Shutter Speed: Manual/Bulb (I used the cable and ran it for two hrs straight)

Slightly tipsy and watching the sunset from the ranch was surreal. I was absolutely blown away at the sunset. I was able to capture a couple of images with my iPhone 6. I have to say that is a pretty impressive little camera on that phone. I was able to get some pretty cool effects by merely tapping the image while focusing. Anyway, here is an image of that sunset. I suppose it helps that we were in a beautiful environment so composition pretty much took care of itself.

iPhone 6 sunset, absolutely gorgeous

As far as the Star Trails, we shot for about three hours (including testing) and had clear skies with the exception of some high cirrus clouds at the tail end of the shoot. For my first time shooting star trails I was happy with the image. In the future I will be more serious about the composition cause that could have been greatly improved. I’d also shoot an hour long exposure and see what I got. I feel like I was too hung up on a longer exposure to get longer trails. Seeing how dense the sky was with stars at this dark site it probably wasn’t necessary. We are hoping to head out to Big Bend State Park this winter for more star trails.

Final processed unedited star trail image from our time in Llano. Notice the smudgy streak in the center from the cirrus clouds.
Kris with the ranch donkeys
Cardinal bathing in the AM

Central Texas Day-Tripping: Milky Way Photography

This last summer both Kris and I visited a small VRBO cabin outside of Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country for some Milky Way photography as well as R&R. We have all seen the images online captured on DSLR cameras and teased in various photoshop programs. While all those images are amazing and inspiring in their own way, I wanted to see what they look like in raw format, unedited with real-time effects (light-painting, etc). Don’t get me wrong, I love the clarity and depth of photoshopped/stacked images but they sometimes ring hollow and give the viewer a false sense of “what the eye sees” in the field.

Having said all that, I’d like to share the background and composition of the evening. Kris and I arrived at the cabin late in the afternoon on a particularly hot and steamy mid-June day. If you have experienced summer in Texas then you understand where I am going. Fortunately, there was a steady light breeze and plenty of cold adult beverages on-hand. After unloading the van and getting all my gear into place both Kris and I sat on the front porch of the cabin and enjoyed the stunning hill country view and local wildlife. Without going into too much detail on the cabin and surrounding countryside (a tale for another article), both Kris and I saw countless deer grazing in the meadow, a curious cow who had wandered in from the neighboring ranch (or so we were told) and even a roadrunner. 

After getting slightly sauced on that warm afternoon the sun was setting and it was time to handle delicate equipment carefully. Thankfully the camera was safely secured to the tripod with a battery grip and shutter release cable in place. Additionally, I had attached a Manual Rokinon F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens earlier so that I wouldn’t be fumbling around in my inebriated state with new glass. I had been slowly building up my lens collection and was excited to have this one in the field with me tonight. This evening I had also unloaded my Dobsonian “Light Bucket” 10” telescope to do some deep-sky viewing and see what I could uncover. In the future, I plan on doing some deep-sky astrophotography however this is certainly not the telescope to do it with due to the lack of tracking and cumbersome nature of the scope in general.

As the sun began to sink behind the ridge I consulted my sky finder app and made some slight adjustments to positioning and moved my red LED flashlight closer so I would be able to see without ruining my night-vision and even do some light-painting. 

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this part of central TX, it gets dark out here… extremely dark. So dark in fact that at times I have tripped over equipment and damaged some items thus having to replace them with new wide-angle lens’… Anyway, the red LED will preserve your night vision and also function as a regular flashlight enabling you not to destroy hundreds of dollars worth of equipment in the dark. Additionally, the red (or other LED) can be used for “light painting”. 

Light painting is a very simple concept and quite easy to do successfully. You set up your shutter release on the DSLR for exposure between 5 to infinity and while you are capturing the image you simply turn on the light and wave it at your foreground illuminating it for a brief period (I do like 1-2 seconds). Depending on how long your exposure is and how long you “paint” the foreground your level of intensity will differ. Below is an example of the same image with and without light painting

As I mentioned earlier when I reviewed what equipment I brought to the site, it is a must to have a sturdy tripod, battery pack and cabled shutter release button. The reason it is important is that any vibration caused by a heavy breeze, pushing the shutter release button or stumbling through the site in a drunken haze will distort your image horribly. Additionally, for the most impressive images, you will want a very wide-angle lens. The milky way is huge and takes up a significant portion of the night sky and you will want to capture as much of it as possible. I will say I am by no means an expert. I read a few online guides and Amazon reviews and learned what I would need and what settings to use. I was able to capture some pretty impressive images (to me). I’ll go on and list my settings below.

  • Camera: Canon Rebel T6 DSLR
  • Lens: Manual Rokinon 14, F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens
  • ISO: 1600
  • Focal Length: 14mm stopped down to 2.8 set at infinity
  • Shutter: 20 seconds for some images, 30 for others (just depends on the level of “blur”)
  • White Balance: Auto

Granted, before you even snap the first image you will want to dial in your focus on the most distant object you can find at infinity which will get you in the ballpark when the lights go out, then just micro-adjust from there. I am a creature of habit and convenience so I mark my lengths on the dial of the lens with a sharpie so it is easy to go from daytime landscape photography to astrophotography on a manual lens. Don’t get me wrong, I prefer autofocus, however, a comparable lens was a magnitude of order more expensive so…

Anyway, I shot for about 3 hours and got some nice RAW images. I do not use a star tracker or equatorial device so I will not be stacking images in photoshop. These images will give you a good idea of what you can see with the naked eye. The last image is one with simple edits in iPhoto. 

Edited Milky Way Image (filters only)

Kris and I had a wonderful evening and enjoyed our R&R in the Texas hill country and have many other stories as it relates to that. We also would return about a month later to do some all-night star trail imaging (more on that later).

Central Texas Day-Tripping: A Forest in Recovery

A Morning in Bastrop State Park

Continuing our theme of visiting state parks during the Covid-19 crisis, both Kris and I decided to visit Bastrop State Park for a day-hike on a random Tuesday morning. Fortunately our visit was prior to the Governor of Texas shutting down state parks due to the ongoing crisis. Before I spend too much time on our day-hike tale I wanted to give the uninformed some history on this particular state park and the disaster suffered some 9 years ago.

Back in 2011 Bastrop State Park was the epicenter of a calamitous forest fire that burned many acres and decimated the park and local community. As you could imagine, a disastrous forest fire takes a long time to recover from. Fortunately the community sprang into action and the recovery has been pretty solid. As you will see though, in images taken during our hike, that the recovery effort in the park is ongoing and there is really two stories present at every turn and in every frame.

A simple message we should all take to heart when in nature during these trying times.

Kris and I arrived at the park early and were warmly greeted at a social distance of 6ft and from behind a large plexiglass barrier by the park attendant who was sporting a smile a mile wide as we rolled up and presented our day passes. I don’t know if it was due to the fact we always print them out (especially in the age of Covid-19) so “contact” is limited, or the fact that she was excited to have people in the park. My suspicion is that both of these things were true. With the park in its recovery mode still I’m almost positive that foot traffic is probably limited. 

Now I’m going to preface my tale by saying that I’ve never been to this state park before and that I understand it was quite beautiful in its hey-day and that the destruction was devastating. In saying that, I’d also like to state that my expectations were very low and I was simply happy with the opportunity to get “on-trail” and just be outside and in nature due to being trapped in the house. My only real concern that day was the weather report. Central Texas had been hammered with heavy rains the last week or so and this day was to be the only clear patch of weather for the next two weeks. Regardless, Kris and I gathered up our packs and grabbed some additional supplies from the van like emergency rain ponchos, a compass and some forks for lunch (yes, I keep plastic cutlery in my van… ever try to eat tuna from a pouch with an oak twig? Yeah you would keep cutlery in your vehicle too).

Farkleberry Spur Trail

Reckless punctuation aside, Kris and I strolled a couple hundred yards under the foreboding sky onto the Farkleberry Spur. I have to say, I love the names of the trails in this park. To this day I don’t know what exactly a “Farkleberry” is but I do have an active imagination. Yes, I know a quick google search would reveal the mystery, but I want to live in my own world. My own world imagines a “Farkleberry” to be a mystical and magical berry that sparkles in direct sunlight and bestows some sort of powers unto the individual who stumbles upon one in the wild. Oh, and “Farkleberries” are very rare only appearing under foreboding skies in late spring. Okay, enough about “Farkleberries”.

The trail was pretty straightforward and after a few steps the landscape of the park was almost overwhelming. Along both sides of the trail were the charred remnants of many Loblolly Pines and assorted oaks. In the distance some of the burnt trees stood in defiance. Along the trail there were actual warning signs stating to beware of falling trees. A bit further down this trail, and after a slight descent, we were greeted by the site of many smaller (nursery sized) pines, sage and wildflowers providing a stark contrast to the charred defiant pines. I had never seen anything like this before. I’ve hiked along trails where there was excessive storm damage of lightning strikes and the like, but never anything like this. The only way I could describe the sensation was both depressing and inspirational. I would carry this “sensation” the rest of the morning as we traveled further into the park. The other sensation that would be tickled throughout our day would be the scent on the breeze. Imagine a slight breeze kicking up and passing over you with the scent of wildflowers, fresh rain and an undertone of cinder/ash. It wasn’t a smokey odor, just a slight hint, it was surreal. I wish I could have captured it to share with you.

Descending further we arrived at our first crossroad and we elected to continue along the “Scenic-Overlook” trail. This trail, as the name implies, climbs up to an old stone gazebo that looks south-east over the entirety of the park. While the path was similar to the “Farkleberry” spur (no mystical berries were discovered), the exposure to the wind was intense due to the lack cover lacking due to the loss of all those pines to the fire. In fact, it was here that the damage was really evident. Upon turning back toward Kris I was greeted by a panorama of charred pines pointing toward the ominous sky. Maybe I was imagining it but it seemed like those pines were accentuating the charred scent. 

Charred Loblolly Pines with new growth beneath, truly a tale of death and rebirth.
Scenic Overlook Gazebo
A view SE from the overlook under daunting skies.

Atop this upward looping trail sits a small camping area with benches, grill sites and ample parking. I was somewhat relieved to have reached this point in a dry state, knowing that our next trail after a short rest and some photos would be the Lost Pines loop portion of the trail which was the longest (4 or so miles) and the furthest point from the van we would be on this day.

Without getting too far ahead of ourselves, Kris and I took some time in the small gazebo. It was at this point that Kris told me about her footwear. Apparently her sneakers were taking on sand and gravel at an alarming rate. Up to this point I have neglected to share the trail conditions. As you may already know, when it storms pretty heavily the trail gets really nasty and the rangers and custodians head out for repairs with their bags of sand. Well, the trail was exceptionally sandy. When Kris had taken her shoes and socks off to remove the sand I was amazed to see just how much she had been carrying with her. If you have ever seen archival footage of the dust-bowl in the American mid-west that would be a good comparison. Oh my God, I couldn’t believe that much had found its way into her sneakers. Fortunately she has been on many hikes and in an assortment of conditions so she oftentimes heads these issues off before blisters or other unfortunate trail induced injuries present themselves. In fact, she has prevented a myriad of unpleasant conditions from afflicting me on a daily basis. I could list them all here but that would likely be unpleasant for you the reader and makes me chafe merely recounting it in my head. So I will simply say, “Gold Bond Powder” is your best friend pre-trail and with a 4.5 star rating on Amazon how could you go wrong?

Refueled, un-chafed and certainly less sand-filled, both Kris and I went to the big “YOU ARE HERE” board and mapped out our next couple hours along the “Lost Pines Loop”. 

YOU ARE HERE

Lost Pines is actually another trail in the Bastrop State Park and Bastrop area that has an interesting, albeit mundane (other than to botanists), tale of its own. The pine trees present in this park are called “Loblolly Pines”. Other than having a name that is fun to say many times quickly in succession, they are not native to this part of the country. The pines are present in the eastern portion of Texas along with the rest of the south-east of the country and also in the mountain west I believe. What makes these pines lost is the fact that other than right here in this park there are none within hundreds of miles, thus these pines are a long way from where they should be; hence lost.

As you could imagine, this area was largely devastated by the wildfire. If you have ever walked along an old railroad bed where the tracks have been pulled up and there is ten to twelve feet of verge along each side; that is the feeling of hiking along the first part of this trail. Another way to explain it would be similar to walking down trails along power lines. Another lovely feature along this portion of the trail was an abundance of “fire-ants”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with “fire-ants”… imagine the Balrog from Lord of The Rings. Imagine that Balrog the size of an ant. Imagine a million of those swarming out of foot high ant-hills on either side of you. Put all these things together and you will have the first mile of Lost Pines Trail from the Scenic Overlook Trail; Enchanting isn’t it? Oh, and there is a ton of sand to hike through. 

Freakin’ tourists… I think the beach sand draws them in…
The image I captured from above (tourist)
Balrogs of Bastrop

After the second time finding a place to sit, that wasn’t infested with fire-ants, to unburden shoes from sand, we rounded a corner into a small cluster of oaks and pines spared from the fire. This cluster became a covered trail and for another mile we felt like we were hiking back home in New England. The scent of pine and the assorted foliage was surreal. The path wound in and out, up and over small streams and into a small valley of pine covered ferns. Captivated by the beauty, Kris and I must have taken a thousand photos in a twenty minute span. As we headed further into the forest we ascended a slight ridge, turned a corner and were greeted by “Harmon Road”. The road provides the option of shortening the overall “Lost Pines Trail” by a couple miles and marks the boundary of the park. Looking at the sky and feeling some intermittent raindrops, both Kris and I elected to follow the road to get back on trail about half a mile up. We were now the furthest from shelter as you could be in the park and the sky was not looking good. Ponchos, available at a moments notice from my pocket and a bunch of camera gear in a non-waterproof bag we retreated back into the woods. 

Through more fern groves and under the canopy of loblolly’s we continued back toward the southern portion of the trail back to the southern loop of the “Scenic Overlook Trail”. The landscape was much the same as it was on the northern portion and many a picture was captured. 

Coolest tree ever, right in the middle of the trail! This tree defies normal and I love it!

On a slightly upward portion of the trail I was amazed to see the erosion created by the loss of the pines and their significant root structures. There were some instances where one slightly misplaced step could send one hurtling down the hillside to a painful death. Okay, maybe not death, more like an embarrassing slide induced wedgie. Either way, my steps would be perfectly placed as Kris had her camera readily available and would never hesitate to produce a hilarious image of me in a compromising position for the amusement of others.

Recent rains and undermined soil caused the hillside to be treacherous, fortunately the trail was wide and well traveled.

With an embarrassing death avoided and returning toward the “Farkleberry Spur”, our day-hike was nearly at its end. We were still dry and chafe-free which is always an exciting thing after any hike. “Fehr’s Scenic Overlook” is off of a small .1 mile gravel spur that looks like an unassuming maintenance road. Knowing that we were near the end of our half-day and with lunch-time approaching it would be the perfect place to stop for a bite. I was somewhat wary of just what the scenic overlook would display, but based on the appearance of the rest of the park my expectations were measured.

“Scenic Overlook” is a very generous term to describe the old stone shelter. If by scenic you are referring to a stone hut a hundred or so feet elevated from highway 290E you are indeed quite generous. With the sounds of traffic whirring by at 70mph and a rumbling of thunder in the distance, Kris and I dropped our packs and opened up our food bag for some lunch. I have to say when you have been in the woods for a morning hiking up and down hills and carrying a bunch of gear you get pretty hungry. I can only imagine how people hiking the AT, CDT or PCT must feel at mid-day. Here we had only done about 4 miles and I was ready to start sampling trailside berries. 

Just atop the hill from US290E, a very busy stretch of road… generous term indeed.

Have you ever eaten that tuna that comes in those little foil packets? You know, the ones that come in all those crazy flavors? Oh my God they are delightful! This day I enjoyed the “Sweet and Spicy” tuna. That stuff is awesome, it gives you protein, salt and a nice pleasant feeling. Additionally, I enjoyed some Gatorade Zero (Kris will not let me enjoy any other beverage other than this or water on the trail, I don’t know why and maybe I’ll work up the courage to ask at some point), and a serving size box of raisins. I’d like to say that I love those little boxes of raisins and that I always have. I remember being a little kid and finding those in my lunch-box and being so excited. I mean, not only do you get a great little nutritious snack but you also get a kazoo when you are finished! I love lunch on the trail!

Belly filled and back onto the remaining mile or two of trail, the sky was beginning to look quite spiteful. Knowing we only had a small portion left to hike we pressed onward at a steady pace. As I continued up and around the hillside I was very impressed with the management of this park (not so much with the scenic overlook) and how the efforts to preserve what remained from before the fire and to nurture the new growth was being carried out. I believe this park was once an incredible place and with dedicated care and management will be once more. In fact, Kris and I made an agreement that if we are still living in this part of the country we will return every year to document its progress. I know, not a lofty goal or aspiration, but in my own opinion; worth it. 

Off trail and back inside the comforts of the van, it began to rain. In an hour we would be back in Austin. In a few days the state government would close access to Texas parks. I’m glad we made it out to Bastrop State Park before the general shutdown because it is an amazing place and will give me a lot to think about until parks reopen and we get back on trail.

Along the trailside
It has and will continue to be a long journey back to normal in the park.
Toying with the macro lens again…

Central Texas Day-Tripping: Enchanted Rock

This past week both Kris and I were in Fredericksburg, TX for a little Covid-19 R&R and took advantage of everything being closed in town to go visit the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. We had been planning on taking a day-trip to the park for the last few years but, for one reason or another, never made it out there. Granted we live just outside of Austin and there is so much fun to be had here that we seldom go driving off into the hill-country in search of adventure… but we were glad we did. In fact, can you think of a better place to be for fresh air in the age of social distancing? Well, I’m sure you can, but this is my story so just go along and we will get along.

The drive from our little cottage in Fredericksburg was fairly straight forward and in fact relatively deserted when we left in the morning on Monday. I think we may have passed about 2 or 3 cars the entire 20 miles. We arrived around 8:45am and were likely (other than campers) the first people into the park. We found a nice place to park very close to the Summit Trail Head and gathered up our small day-packs.

There is something about the smell of nature in the morning. Upon stepping from the van and onto the well groomed trail-head there was a refreshing crispness in the air and an almost ethereal atmosphere. The last few days it had been raining in this part of the hill country so there was still plenty of moisture abound and a fog that we were hoping would burn off as the sun came up. The temperature this day was going to be in the mid-80’s which would bring those hopes to fruition. Our singular goal on this small hike was to summit the pink granite boulder before the heat of the day set in and enjoy the views as the fog burned off.

Summit Trail Marker

Setting off on the Summit Trail was very serene since we were the first visitors of the day. The air was pretty still with a slight breeze which was nice as it kept the humidity off. The ambience of water bubbling from the runoff of the recent days rain and the birds chirping to attention was wonderful to experience. The initial trail was well tended and the sounds of our gravelly footsteps were the only other sound, well that and my sloshing water bottle. With my iPhone at the ready and my DSLR in my day pack we marched slowly up hillside toward the pink granite dome known as Enchanted Rock.

For a little background, Enchanted Rock is a huge pink granite “batholith” (Rock) much of which lies beneath the ground, so that high dome is only the “tip of the iceberg” so to speak. Climbing to the summit of the dome is roughly the equivalent of climbing 30-40 flights of stairs. Also, and my personal favorite quirky fact, there are several species of shrimp that choose to inhabit the small pools of rainwater collected along the crags of its surface. Well, whether or not these shrimp choose this place as their home… they have… and they are there… now… waiting… for you to see them and be amazed that they are there.

Homeless Guy in a featureless wasteland

Anyway, the climb to the top is well worth the reward of breathtaking hill country views. The climb itself is relatively short but steep in some places and barren, very barren. I think that is what surprised me the most was how featureless the final ascent is. Honestly, there is really not much to see on the way up and the slope is such that you are never really sure when the last ascendant hump is truly the last hump before the summit. My advice of course is don’t bother with your camera (if you brought one) until you reach the top.

Kris, being in far better shape and condition than I, reached the top quite gracefully. In fact, I’m pretty sure she trotted up the last hundred meters or so whereas I stopped at the 3/4 mark to search for my breath which I had misplaced somewhere on the ascent. Now I will not go as far to say I am out of shape. I am in shape, just not a toned one. I think BB King once said he was, “built for comfort not speed”, well that is me. As I was “lounging” on that uncomfortable pink slab, not all unlike a salamander on a sun warmed rock, the sounds of families and children could be heard in the distance. A few moments later a pair of school aged kids came charging up the featureless dome in my direction. One of them said boldly, “There, I can see the top!” 

I suspect they assumed the winded, panting, middle-aged homeless looking character was at the edge of the summit cause, lets face it, who would be lounging in such a strange place? Disappointed they found that this bizarre character was not at the peak of the dome but unknowingly resting about 100 steps from the top. About what seemed like five seconds later I heard the kids playing at the top of the dome. I was like, WTF, I stopped here!?! Before I could realize the colossal fail for all its value, a pair of soccer moms appears and without breaking stride blazed by me to meet their children atop the dome. 

With my failure secured, I stumbled to my feet and strode those last 97 steps over the final hump and witnessed the fog covered summit of Enchanted Rock. I listened attentively and could only hear muffled children, the whistling of wind and no chatter of the creepy homeless guy. Needless to say I was relieved. 

I set my pack down and surveyed the landscape. I was very surprised to see multicolored pools of water in varying depth with grasses and flowers growing from them. I had heard there was a varied ecosystem atop the dome but wasn’t really expecting to see all this.

I grabbed my DSLR and wide angle lens and began capturing the landscape. I was that guy… I think I took about a million pictures up there with the wide angle, telephoto and even the kit lens. I try my best not to get too artsy… I never want to be that guy, but inevitably I am. You know that guy I’m referring to… the one on their belly taking a picture of a puddle with grass sticking up out of it (and hopefully small shrimp). I’m almost as bad as the selfie stick people. Anyway, I tried to keep my distance from the normal people and think I managed to compose some nice shots. 

With the photoshoot complete, Kris and I headed back down and into the park to explore the loop, turkey pass and echo canyon trails

The Loop Trail is just that, I large 4.5 mile loop that travels around the far reaches of the park with primitive camping sites along the way as well as some ponds and an excellent small oak grove where Kris and I stopped for lunch. The Loop Trail has gentle elevation changes and quite a bit more pedestrian traffic as should be expected. We saw all kinds of characters ranging from trail runners to dog walkers to couples out for a stroll. Also, a really nice scenic overlook can be reached via the loop in the farthest northwest portion of the loop.

The Turkey Pass runs between the largest of the granite domes and has a couple of technical hiking aspects to it, but nothing challenging in that regard. There are some great views of the eastern portion of the main dome as well as some curious portions of the dome that appear to be ready to slide free from the structure at any moment. I had read somewhere that the structure itself is comprised of multiple layers of the granite which has led to many rockslides over the millennia. Fortunately there were no rock slides this day.

As for Echo Canyon, lets just say “canyon” is a very generous term. Imagine a 2 for wide trail through some brush with gnarly oak trees on either side… thats about it, but it does pass by Moss Pond and that Oak Grove I mentioned earlier which was quite nice.

All the trails end off back on the main loop and the loop terminates at the campground and parking lots respectively. Upon completion of our day (5.5hrs and about the same 5.5 miles) we loaded back into the van and traveled back to our Fredericksburg cottage suite having had a wonderful time. I’m not sure if and when we will be back, but we will always have the fondest of memories and likely the melanoma (we hastily applied our sunscreen) to remind us of that Enchanted Rock.

Perils of a Cruise Buffet

https://laughshop.com/funny-buffet-sign/

The discovery of Penicillin was one of the twentieth centuries greatest achievements, well accidents if you want to get technical. As most people know the discovery of the most prescribed antibiotic in history was made by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928 while experimenting with what we know as the flu. The story of the day mentions a nameless lab assistant practicing containment in a rather sloppy manner, an open window and haphazard gelatin. Having said that, I recently returned from a two-week Panama Canal cruise on a major cruise line that shall remain nameless. My wife and I affectionately referred to the buffet on the ship as “The Petri Dish” (more on that later). Although we didn’t discover any Nobel worthy medicaments, salves or poultices we did come to know a few simple truths I would like to share with this audience as it relates to the buffet.

First, you want to be first. In fact I’d like to amend that. If you are unable to make reservations at one of the fine restaurants on the ship or can see land and think you are a strong enough swimmer; you want to be first. Hell, it is worth the risk of not being a strong enough swimmer to reach land to avoid being in the line at the buffet. By the way, I really enjoy the placement of those automatic Purel sanitizers placed at the entry of the buffet lines. I am willing to bet that they still have the original liquid that was loaded shortly after the ships christening. On a side-note, remember in the film “Caddyshack” when Judge Smails wife christens the yacht and the champagne bottle breaks off part of the bow, that was awesome. Nothing like that happened on this ship. Anyway, be first at the buffet and if you see children get the hell out of there.

Second, don’t be second, be first. 

Third, don’t even consider being third. In fact if you are third, scan the horizon for land (see above). If for some reason you didn’t heed my advice thus far, you have the potential to be exposed to many pathogens of a non-hygienic nature. Let’s say you were third in line. Let’s explore your exposure, which of course would not be limited to ten bacterial encrusted knuckles, four sweaty palms, numerous respiratory exhalations and the worst of all… stray body hair (and this isn’t considering the hygiene of the third-world crew members who prepared your “food”). If you manage to endure this buffet version of the intro for the made for TV movie “The Stand” you should visit the Aruban casinos as soon as possible.

Back to the petri dish. Actually, I think I’ll save that for another day when we can further discuss the specificities of sneeze guards, the culturing of bacteria and the loose regulations for ships registered out of Panama. Anyway, I lost about six pounds on this two-week adventure. Not too bad when you consider I’m not a strong swimmer.

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