Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Lost in the Shadow of the Spectacular



I'm continually puzzled by how few people I actually encounter out there utilizing the trails and landscape of Pedernales Falls State Park. Not that I'm complaining mind you! but after all, this place is only an hour away from the nearly two million people living in the Austin area. Add in the combined 8 million people living in the San Antonio and Houston areas, all within 4 or 5 hours of the park, and that's a lot of people!! Yet they sure aren't out there on the trails.




Don't get me wrong, the park must get a lot of visitors. Though I've never seen them in use, both the picnic and the Falls area have overflow parking lots. And when checking dates prior to my latest visit (The park is closed for special hunts a half dozen or so days in December and January.) and availability (100% of the campsites are reservable and you never know.) I found that all the campsites were already spoken for on the upcoming Saturday, but even so, it seems like only a small percentage of all the people that come into the park venture beyond the trifecta of campground, picnic area, and/or Falls areas.


I guess it all has to do with the promise of the spectacular overshadowing the ordinary. Seems we are inescapably susceptible to hype (Which is great for advertisers, maybe not so good for us.) and who among us can resist the bragging rights of bagging the extraordinary.


Yet how many of us battling the hoards to get a glimpse of Old Faithful over the shoulder of a fat man from Ohio, who's blocking the view anyway while he takes bad photos with a billboard-sized tablet held up in front of everybody's face, are even aware of the challenging switchbacks, pastoral panoramas and sobering sacrifice of Dead Indian Hill Rd. just a few miles away in the Shoshone NF?

(In Alaska, when fishermen line up shoulder to shoulder along the Kenai River during salmon runs it's called combat fishing. Does that mean the all-to-frequent spectacle at our landmark 'treasures' should be tagged as combat sightseeing???)






 

In our mad scramble to pay $11 to park in front of the heads torn from the native rock of Mt. Rushmore how many of us are aware that on the way there we passed a quiet, and free, little roadside tribute to the sculptor that just happens to also have an unobstructed, if more distant, view of the monument?

I agree, a crap photo, but look close right in the lower middle


And over the years I must have blasted by the quiet, but hype challenged, lakeside refuge of Atlanta State Park near Texarkana close to fifty times before finally pulling my head out of - well - a place where it spends far too much time, and stopping in to experience its soaring pines and thick, tangled lake-side forests.







Ever since the first explorers started coming home and lecturing about their adventures, struggling to find the words and descriptions that would hype up and justify the funding of their journey, we've been steered towards seeking out the spectacular and the unusual, and somewhere along the way our ability to see and delight in the extraordinary ordinary has been compromised.



Given a choice between a deep-woods hike up McHuge Creek off Turnagain Arm or the boardwalks and five-times-a-day tour-boats a few dozen miles away at the base of Portage Glacier - well - the numbers don't lie, bragging rights for motoring around at the base of a glacier, regardless of cost and schedules and crowds, clearly trumps those of gentle immersion in the forests and meadows there in the shadow of McHugh Peak.






I suspect that this is what happens at Pedernales too, this single-minded attraction to the signature falls at the far end of the park, or the swimming hole at the picnic area.



Admittedly the trails that web across the rest of the park aren't going to lead to sudden, breathtaking canyon-rim type views, nor are they going to end at the base of an awesomely colored cliff or a cave marked with ancient glyphs, but for those so inclined they are the pathway to their own brand of quiet little delights.



The play of light.

                The profusion of life.

                        The boundless wonders of Mother Earth.

                                             The simple, quiet contemplation of a gentle trail.

The kind of things that require time away from the frenetic noise, expectation and demands of the coveted spectacular in order to fully experience.






After all, if I had been herding up the paved path, (A path that is often fenced so the masses don't stray which invites disturbing comparison with the chutes at a feedlot.) shuffling forward as fast as the herd crowds would allow, engaged in irrelevant magpie chatter about who was seen at the mall with not their boyfriend or which latest narcissistic flash in the pan has the best music video, or what shenanigans the politician of the month has been up to, all the while elbowing adjacent tourists from 6 states and two countries in order to maintain my place in line; all to get my requisite 90 second glimpse of the spectacular, I might never have noticed Skull Rock sitting there in the less-trod hinterlands of Pedernales, tucked into the hollow of some cedar roots, half buried in freshly fallen oak leaves.

video


I would have missed the opportunity to pick up this unique bit of our world, to experience the cool, gritty texture with my fingertips, probe at the holes and ridges, and marvel at how it came about, to wonder at the forces and circumstances that formed it.

Oh, and by the way. In case you're interested, when I was done with it I replaced Skull Rock right back where I found it at GPS coordinates N39 --- Wait, you know what? --- I think I'm just going to let you have the pleasure and delight of discovering it all on your own.




Sunday, December 27, 2015

Secret Santa Exposed!!

Yep, this post is a few days late but that was necessary to avoid spilling the cranberries. (Spilling the beans just didn't sound very Christmasy. . .)

And OK, maybe that title went just a little too far in pumping up expectations. Probably more suited for one of the supermarket checkout rags than a blog, but technically that's what happened so I'm sticking to it. (Oh man! That was just too close to 'That's my story and I'm sticking to it!', a favorite saying of my Dad's and one that drove me nuts!! Excuse me for a minute while I go shudder. . .)






(Though it has nothing to do with the rest of this post, other than a vague connection to the holiday theme, this is what a bit of Americana Christmas looked like before being folded, spindled and  crammed into a USPS flat-rate box in October so we could ship it to Japan in time for Christmas.)









You see our family is one of those that does Secret Santa for Christmas, ever since a few of the more sensible of the clan switched us over years ago when the free-for-all melee was just getting out of hand. Which is great as far as I'm concerned because I don't have to freak out over some huge and growing list of people to buy for and can focus on just the one person.

Nowadays the proliferation of gift cards, and for the ultimate in simplicity, the egift card, simplifies things even more, (Hey, when your daughter lives in Japan - well, you get the idea.) which goes a long ways towards saving on those post-holiday therapist fees as well as reducing awkward regifting snafus. And I'll admit to leaning heavily on the little plastic suckers sometimes, but this year I got a wild hair and did something  different.

Statistically speaking, pulling names out of a hat (Literally; because, without naming names, some of us in this family are old school and don't see the fun in programming a random name generator and automatic e-mailer for the computer. Go figure!) should mean a random mix of yuletide match-ups over the years. Well this year statistics were on vacation that day and when the dust settled, the hat-band grease washed off fingertips and the paper cuts bandaged, I had pulled my nephew. Yep the same name as last year.

I did the DYI store card thing with him last year, and could have done the same this year. He's been remodeling his 1800's farmhouse and still has a few finishing touches to go so I'm sure he would have put it to good use, but somehow it just seemed like I should do something different this time around.

So I went trolling through his hobbies and likes and stuff (Hey! If it's on-line it's not stalking!!) and came up with a couple reference photos to get me started.



For quite a few years now my nephew has been a champion sled racer (Vintage snowmobiles on oval track.) and I came up with a few photos of his winning sled, or at least one of them. And behind that 1800's farmhouse of his is an original 1800's barn that he is equally proud of. In fact he got married in that barn.

I did a little Photoshopping of the reference photos to clean them up and reverse the images so the final product would come out - well - not reversed. Then I played around with the relative sizes and positioning until the combined composition looked good, at least to my eye, before transferring the doctored images by hand onto tracing paper.



With tracing-paper composition in hand I selectively cut a panel out of quarter inch birch ply, going for a blemish-free, evenly colored piece with grain that would compliment the image.

In this case I used a closed-crown of the cathedral grain to hint at a bit of a snow-drift under the sled while the tightening grain above it enhances the perspective back towards the barn where, if you use your imagination, it even suggests a rolling horizon line over on the right side. The second, less defined crown that would fall just above and behind the barn, hinting at windblown clouds in the sky, was a bonus find.(OK, honestly! Where else would clouds be but in the sky???)

The size of the panel plus frame was dictated by the interior dimensions of a large USPS flat-rate box, though I ended up piggy-backing it along with another project in a larger box anyway.

(Does my butt hand look fat to you?? Nope! Never mind. I don't want to know.)

Taping the tracing paper to the blank face-down, which flips everything around the right way, I transferred the image.

I've used various burnishing tools in the past for this step but have found that the rounded back of my thumbnail works best.



Almost ready, but I should probably work on the far-side ski a little more so I can see it better.

The trick here is to get the basics, the outline and major details, like the all important sled numbers, and then work on the finer details in the next step.



Now it was time to fire up my cheap-ass woodburner with my favorite hooked tip.

Yep, that's right, my woodburner is nothing more than a glorified 30 watt soldering iron with a handful of interchangeable tips. The handle has suffered some abuse and is held together with tape and if I'm not careful that metal cone just below the handle will leave beautifully arched burns on my hand. (Which happens a lot and is no fun at all, but - well - shit happens. . .)

I recently had an opportunity to test-drive a Colwood Super Pro II woodburner and oh holy crap was that sweet!! But at close to $300 fully outfitted it's just a little outside the budget. . . for now. . .



At this point I got focused on what I was doing and didn't remember to take any photos for several hours so this 'in progress' photo was almost a 'completed' photo.

Here you can begin to see how the grain of the panel works with and enhances the image, at least it does in my mind's eye.





After some final fiddling careful and skilled burning, followed by a day or two of contemplation to make sure I was in-fact finished, I gave the panel three coats of water-based poly on both sides and all edges to seal it. True, oil-based poly is tougher stuff but it also has an amber tint to it that I didn't want in this case. The water-based stuff stays crystal clear.





The final step was to slap together a simple frame out of bits of an old weathered fence board, mount the panel in the frame with some pin-nails for easy removal in case a different frame will be better suited for it in its final home, you know, behind the door in the downstairs bathroom, and screw a bit of picture wire across the back for hanging.

There you have it. Probably as far from a plastic gift card as you can get. (But not necessarily better. . .)








The downside to creating a personalized gift like this is that in doing so I also ended up dropping my Secret Santa pants faster than a rental tux off the father of bride as he walks her down the aisle.

Oh well, not the first time I've been exposed, and probably not the last. (But again, that time at the beach in Virginia was not my fault!)

Friday, December 25, 2015

Tales from the road: The Christmas Freeze


Christmas 1983.

Back then my wife (Well she wouldn't officially be my wife for another 4 years but you get the idea.) still traveled and even camped on occasion, and that's exactly what we did that Christmas. That was the plan anyway.

We packed the tent, sleeping bags, cooler, cook-gear and ourselves into a tiny Toyota pickup and on Christmas Eve fought our way clear of the city (Houston), four hours later braved the demented on-ramps and confusion of San Antonio, and finally headed west on US90, making our way towards Lost Maples State Park.


But by the time we got to Hondo (What a great Texas town name! Hondo; it just sounds Texan.) we could no longer ignore the dire warnings coming at us from every side. Warnings we, in our work-a-month-get-a-few-short-days-off desperation were hell-bent on ignoring.






Back in Houston, where it was common practice to run the water lines through, and mount water heaters in, unheated attics, record cold that had Santa and his reindeer feeling right at home and kept roving plumbers and carpet layers busy for the next month, settled in for a long night. Out along the fringes of the Hill Country, where we were, it was starting to rain; not hard, but a freezing rain that was sticking to the windshield, not to mention the road. . .


 
From somewhere; I'm not sure where, but from somewhere; between the two of us us we managed to dredge up a bit of common sense and holed up for the night in a little motel there in Hondo. A room on the back side, away from the road and out of sight of the office.





There we moved the $2 hotel chairs with their creaky wood armrests and funny smelling upholstery out of the way, surreptitiously schlepped our cooler, stove and kitchen stuff from truck to room, and 'camped'.

Overnight the rain stopped and Christmas morning found us breaking camp, which meant sneaking our gear back to the truck pretending it was the bounty of freshly unwrapped gifts and not the detritus of an illegal in-room kitchen, and slinking away on wet but largely ice-free roads.

Easing over a couple of still-frozen bridges we covered the last 60 lonely miles to Lost Maples.


Being Christmas day we didn't expect a lot of people to be about, but the headquarters was dark and locked up tight, and we couldn't find a ranger anywhere to pay our entrance fee to! In slink mode once again, unstickered we illicitly eased past the gate and on into the park.

Leaving the Toyota sitting there in the farthest corner of the day-use parking lot all on it's own, we tip-toed on up the East Trail like Boris and Natasha sneaking past Bullwinkle. We followed the ice-rimed Sabinal River past Monkey Rock and deep into canyons where the sun didn't reach.


Everything was covered in ice and the only sounds were the crystal water playing in the river and the drip drip tinkle of ice being shed from the trees, punctuated by the occasional glassy crash as a sheet of ice slipped off the steep canyon walls and shattered into a million sparkling shards.

It was breathtakingly beautiful and an awesome place to be on that day.

It wasn't what we had planned, but that Christmas turned out to be one of the few that really stands out in my memory and doesn't get all smushed up into the jumble that is the majority of my Christmases.

(And this has reminded me of a much more melancholy, but still road-trippy Christmas, but that will have to wait until next year now.)







Sunday, December 20, 2015

Foiled by Common Sense (Or was it Chicken Feathers??)


I've spent a lot of time in Pedernales Falls State Park and one of my favorite places to go tromp around is in the northeast corner of the park.

In the late 1800's there used to be a small settlement called Schoolhouse Flats straddling the border of the park right up there in the very northeast corner. According to historic maps the schoolhouse itself was actually located on what are now park lands but I've never been able to find any sign of it though the remains of a cemetery can still be found on the park side of the fence.



But that corner of the park is isolated from the rest by the river to the west and south and private property to the east and north, which, of course, is one of the attractions for me as the isolation tends to cut down on the number of people over there. (Which is mostly a psychological attraction since I rarely run into people anywhere in the park anyway except at the falls area itself. But psychological isn't so bad. . .)

Now here in Texas the law says that a fence is the same as posting No Trespassing signs. And you know that old adage about if you shoot an intruder climbing in your window don't leave them out in the yard but drag them inside before calling the police? Well here you don't have to bother dragging them inside because once they stepped onto your property they were fair game anyway.

Point is, the only prudent way to access that corner of the park is by crossing the river, and, without going for a full-on swim in the cold current of a rocky river, Trammell's Crossing is the place to do that. Except that this time when I went down to the crossing this is what I found.

video







Now I agree, that doesn't look so bad (Especially if you don't full-screen the video, which you probably shouldn't because the conversion process necessary to get the video uploaded to Blogger really screws up the quality!) but you see that little mound over there under the bright yellow-green tree?  That's usually dry and it's where I normally sit to change from hiking boots to water-shoes and back again. Normally the water at the crossing is about 12 to 18 inches deep, (When not flash flooding that is, but I'll get to that in a second.) but right now there's another 12 inches or so on top of that.

I'm sure I could have made it across all on my lonesome just fine, but being on my own with no one else around to impress with my great feats of daring also makes it much easier to hear what that little common sense corner of my brain is saying. (I prefer the term Common Sense since it sounds more manly than the possibility that I'm growing chicken feathers on the back of my neck. . .) And you know, over the years I've learned to like that little corner of my brain, so I decided to save that part of the park there on the other side of the river for another time.


Flash flooding isn't unknown around this part of the country and if you don't pay attention you are a fool, maybe a dead fool. El Nino has driven a significant amount of Pacific moisture across Mexico for the past year or so where it has combined with Gulf of Mexico moisture on a couple of occasions, one of which occurred around Halloween. This time it didn't kill near as many people as the Memorial Day flood but it was still bad enough to flood the control tower at the Austin airport and shut it down for months.(A portable tower was brought in while the mess was cleaned up.)



After I took that photo of the crossing, I turned around in my tracks and took this photo.


and this is a zoomed shot of the area pointed to by the red arrow. That's flood debris up there and, using my 4' hiking stick as reference, I estimate it's sitting about 20' above the base of the tree which is another 6' or so above the normal level of the river, and that's not the worst I've seen here!

Back around 1998 I stayed at the park a few days during which I forded the Crossing a couple of times. I moved on to some other parks further west and came back about a week later and I ended up photographing the effects of a 35' flash flood that ripped through while I was gone. . . The water in the Crossing was still too high for my taste that time too!


Thursday, December 17, 2015

I got DEF'ed!




I remember when it took two keys to operate a vehicle, one to get in it and the other to start it. And if it didn't start you just needed a little push and a pop of the clutch to get going. You cranked a handle to operate the window, and then only the one you were sitting next to. Wing-windows were the air-conditioning of the day and everybody knew what a quarter light was. The spare was always a real tire so you could just go ahead and finish the journey without having to worry about one of those fake doughnuts exploding if you go over 50 for more than 50 miles. And I remember a time when you could open the hood, pop the distributor cap and clean the contacts, wiggle the spark plug wires, maybe replace the condenser and a few plugs, tighten the fan-belt, check the oil level, refill the radiator, fix a sticky throttle linkage with a little shot of carb-cleaner and get yourself going again.

Now none of us like vehicle problems, but these days it's especially bad for us more wizened, well weathered, OK OK, have it your way, us older people, when our incomprehensible, computer driven, new-fangled dashboards light up and start screaming like a pin-ball machine suffering the outrage of a tilt, (You younger people might have to Goggle that to figure out what it means, or is Google an old fashioned thing now too?)) and your only option is a tow and a lengthy, and expensive, stay in the waiting area of the nearest service bay.

Very rarely do vehicles have problems when they are just sitting. By definition then, the most likely time for a vehicle to throw a hissy fit is when it's moving, and when your vehicle spends a good 90% of it's moving time on a road trip - well - guess when things are going to go bad. . .

I had one of those near heart-stopping, flashing lights, dinging alarms moment on my latest trip. And I wasn't even moving at the time!

I had just made a hard, down-hill stop at one of those traffic lights lurking out there on a 70 MPH highway just waiting for the next victim to get to just that right spot where continuing on means running a red light but stopping in time is going to be an adventure. I had the barest moment to congratulate myself on wrestling my 8000 lbs to a stop without having something from the 'house' behind me fly forward and crack me in the back of the head or even chattering the anti-skid, when all hell broke loose!

With heart pounding like a rabbit only two steps ahead of the wolf and eyes bigger than a pre-teen boy confronted with his first glimpse of boob I desperately tried to make sense of what the hell was going on.

In addition to some crap about only 9 starts left

  this was lit up, only on the dash it's a little smaller than this photo.



Now maybe it's just me but from where I sit this looks like someone swimming in the rain, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out what swimming in the rain had to do with driving down the road.

I had to find a safe place to pull over, not easy since I was just approaching the city airport at the time and, as usual, the road was all chopped up and confused by construction. But I found a spot in a tiny little dirt parking lot and drug out my owners manual, which is only slightly less thick than a volume of the complete works of Robert Service, and started thumbing my way through it page by page. (For some reason including an index, or even better, a quick guide to all the incomprehensible symbols we might be faced with when driving their product doesn't seem to have occurred to the writers.) Finally, there on page 213, I found what I was looking for, which is pretty remarkable considering that the image is printed about the size of a small fly.

Of course! It's the DEF alarm. I've seen it a couple times before, once I stopped paying the dealer four times what it actually cost to keep the DEF tank filled up for me that is. But what the hell?! only 9 starts left! What happened to the first gentle lighting of the light when I have about 1000 miles left before big brother takes this drastic step? And I thought I was supposed to get more like 20 starts,not a measly 9, before the government regulations strand me, a tax-paying citizen, in place just so The Van doesn't fart a dainty little extra bit of  - well - whatever the hell it is they're all worked up about.

But while I was thumbing through the pages of the manual from hell, parked more or less level by the way, the insistent dinging and flashing lights just stopped all on their own.

I sat there and thought about it a while and concluded that the hard stop combined with the downhill slant, sloshed the DEF forward in the tank hard enough to trick the the computer into scaring the crap out of me, but now that I was level again the damn little shits had quietly picked up their toys and slunk back into the closet again.

I went on my merry way, after allowing my blood pressure to drop below stroke status and splashing on a touch of deodorant to counteract the fear-sweat stink but on the way home a week later the DEF light lit again. Politely this time, without all the fanfare and dire messages. Again I was pointed downhill, this time creeping down a steep slope towards a one-lane low-water crossing with water flowing over it. (I wanted to get a close look at the gauge before doing something stupid. The water was moving at a fair clip but was only about 9 inches deep. If I had been in the car I wouldn't have risked it but The Van is high clearance and weighs nearly 8000 lbs so I was able to cross.) Once I was on the other side and level again the warning disapeared but I went ahead and picked up a jug of DEF on my way home anyway.


When I saw the freshly emptied jug sitting there among the fallen leaves in front of The Van I couldn't help but wonder about all the resources, and resulting pollution, that went into creating that 2.5 gallons of DEF that is supposed to reduce the emissions emitting from The Van.

The box is manufactured at one place (And the inks used for the fancy graphics made somewhere else.), the plastic jug at another place, and maybe the spout and cap other places. All of it shipped, via diesel truck most likely, to the plant that manufactures the DEF, then shipped to a distribution center, then to a store, to which I have to drive and collect the product before dumping into my tank to make The Van 'cleaner'. (Which it does by periodically burning extra fuel to raise the temperature in the soot filter. . .)

And even though we recycle the 'waste', I still have to drive to the recycling center, then the material has to be transported to a processing plant, and the plant has to use energy to convert the various components back to usable form, which is then transported to a processing facility, and from there to a production facility, and then a distribution center and . . .

Makes me wonder just what the hell we were thinking, especially when you factor in all the costs and materials that go into these fancy, and complicated diesel particulate filter systems in the first place.

It reminds me of extreme 'eco' activists mindlessly driving mining conglomerates out of the US, where regulations limit the bad effects of mining, to countries with lax or even no such regulations where the mining process can be a relative eco disaster. I'm sure the activists think they're doing good when they're hatching their plans over cocktails in their suburban McMansions, but if they would actually sit down and think about it, maybe not. . .





Sunday, December 13, 2015

As You Like It


As You Like It is the title of Shakespeare's most bucolic, fairytaleish, feel-good play. He even PG13'ed it by removing some of the violence and adding the mid-play conversion of a villain into a good guy when adopting the work from Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde. (OK, so I did seem to vaguely recall that the play was adopted from a published work, but I had to go look it up to confirm that and get the details. My memory's not that good!!)

Anyway. . . After a long hot summer here in Central Texas followed by really crappy fall weather courtesy of El Nino, we finally had a forecast for a string of sunny, lows in the 40's-highs in the 70's, days. You know, bucolic, fairytaleish, feel-good weather; As We Like It.

Armed with the forecast and combating a bad case of cabin fever, as soon as the weekend hoards were safely crammed back in their cubicles or chained behind their school desks I hit the road and blew the dust off The Van.

Nothing earth-shattering. In fact it would barely count as a stroll to the local pub for Lewis and Clark or a morning amble around the block for a one-armed Powell, but I'm living my life, not theirs, so I headed on over to one of my go-to spots intending to put in as much hiking over three or four days as my hibernation-atrophied, cookie-bloated legs would stand for.


I've been here to Pedernales Falls State Park so many times the collection of my GPS tracks is turning into a big red blob. But that's OK. Though I'm beginning to recognize certain individual trees and even a few rocks out there in this 5000+ acre park, there's always something new.

Before going down and occupying my camp site on the afternoon I arrived in the park I drove on up to the the falls area at the north end. This saved me about 4 miles of additional hiking required if I had started out from the campground itself, and frankly, since the falls area is not my favorite spot in the park it's not often I find that four miles plus whatever hiking I want to do once I get there worth it. Sure, it's the namesake of the park, but it's also the spot where a good 70% of the park visitors gravitate to so there is always going to be people there, sometimes a lot of people,


 like this group heading down to the falls in front of me for some bride photos. Fortunately there's a fork in the trail just ahead. (OK, here it's more like a road than a trail. Just one more reason it's not my favorite spot.) They stuck to the left, I took the right.



My main objective for going to the falls area was to see if I could find the official Texas State Parks Geocache Challenge geocache. Though I've stumbled on a number of them, geocaches, by accident, I've never deliberately looked for one before, so I've never officially found one before; and I still haven't.

There's only one official 'nature trail' in the park and that's a half-mile loop just off the edge of the campground. The trail referred to in the description above is more of a chaotic network of paths created by all the people that (over)visit the falls area and, according to my GPS anyway, those coordinates are about 30 feet south of anything resembling a trail or path, though I may have been overly trusting the electronics and taking things a little too literally. After all, five decimal places is a lot, even when we're talking Earth scale!

At any rate, even on a weekday there were too many people scrambling around for my comfort so I didn't spend all that much time trying to find the cache.


Instead I wandered back to the campground where I was in time to catch some afternoon light on the real and otherwise devoid of people, nature trail.









Saturday, December 5, 2015

Identity Crisis



Just as I was planning on taking the feeder down for the winter. . .