Monday, January 25, 2021

An Off-Trail Hike and More Animal Encounters

A portion of today's hike was off-trail and I debated over whether to include a map of my track or not.

Over the years I've seen too many good places ruined by publicity.

But it's not like I have that many readers, and this is one of those lightly used parks where off-trail hiking is not discouraged and anyone that studied the trail-map would notice this trail-challenged spot that just begged to be explored, so I'm throwing in the map anyway.

I had just barely gotten started when this lady, rather belligerently I thought as she stamped her foot at me, wanted to know what the hell I thought I was doing out here at this hour, and how dare I disturb her morning routine!

The next stop was the birdblind, because the sun had just cleared the horizon and was throwing that quality of light that only lasts for a few minutes, so why not?

All the birdblinds, there's four of them scattered around the north end of the park, have outside as well as inside viewing areas which is nice in these COVID times when some of us are even more suspicious of enclosed public spaces than usual.

Oh No Dude!  Don't you know how cold it is out here?

Then, after a wander down the nature trail re-reading all the info-plaques - you know, in case they put out a new one since yesterday - 

and a short detour to yet another windmill at what used to be the ranch's main livestock holding and processing area, I hit the steep climb up the East Ridge Trail towards - well - the East Ridge.

Years ago there used to be a faint two-track diverging north off of the East Ridge Trail that petered out within a half mile into a confused jumble of game-trails that themselves petered out.

Today that two-track has just about faded away into obscurity. In fact, even though I knew about where it was, and was looking for it, I missed it the first time and had to backtrack.

The plan, even if I didn't find where the old two-track intersected the trail, which I did the second time, was to strike out off-trail to the NNW anyway.

Now going off-trail, no matter how briefly, should never be a casual thing. Take the case of a woman hiking the Appalachian Trail in Maine 7 years ago. She stepped off the trail for a bio-break, she simply wanted a little privacy to pee, and the final entry in her journal shows she died of exposure/starvation about a month later. It was two years before her body was found a couple miles from the trail.

You would have to work really hard to get lost on the track-less ridge I was headed for, bounded, as it is, on three sides by steep, rocky slopes and the forth by established trails and fence-lines which are pretty much impossible to miss even in the dark, but even so, before I stepped off the trail I had a plan.

I was carrying three separate maps and a compass, my GPS was on and tracking me, and I had two extra sets of batteries for it in my pack, all of which is true even when I'm on established trails. (Yep, definitely overkill but I've been hiking by myself for decades now and I'm still here so I'll take overkill.) But those were all backups to my primary plan of keeping the steep slope off my left shoulder which guaranteed I would eventually circumnavigate the ridge and come back out on the established trail.

Which obviously I did.

Clearly not all of us feel this way, but I believe that, whether on-trail or off, hikers have a responsibility to take care of themselves as if there was no such thing as publicly funded or privately volunteered  Search and Rescue. When off-trail in rocky, spiky land that means slow and careful. Every potentially injurious footstep planned out. Which makes for some slow progress, but that suits my hiking style just fine since being here now is more important to me than getting there in a hurry.

That slow, deliberate progress is probably why I was able to unexpectedly walk up on this young doe and a big old lecherous buck.

I don't know if  the buck was the same one I saw one ridge to the west yesterday or another one, but in either case he was faster than my camera-draw, though I could hear him crashing and clacking through the trees for some time as he tried to navigate that big rack through the obstacles.

The north end of this ridge sits about 150 mostly vertical feet above the complex of buildings built during the ranching days that are now used by the park service.

The public entrance to the headquarters, the original front door of the main residence, is on the far side of the large building in the upper left. Why Walter Buck, a bachelor, needed such a large house I don't know - Maybe he "entertained" a lot?

As is the nature of these things, the original home, part of which is now used as the park's headquarters, has been added onto several times, as have many of the outbuildings as well.

I suppose it's the distance (I'm now 4 miles hiking distance from The Van) that determined that the brow of next ridge east, only a 1 mile hike from The Van, be designated as the scenic outlook

instead of this spot, but that's fine by me as it meant I would be interruption-free as I ate my lunch in a quiet place with a fine view.

There were at least three separate sounders, or groups, of feral hogs tucked into the landscape and feeding up on this ridge with me today,

and at one point, while I was standing there focused on staying out from between the members of one of those sounders, some of whom had gone right while others had gone left, with my proposed track right up the middle between them,

this guy snuck in out of nowhere and trundled across right in front of me! (Ironically, this is where, I took a startled half-step back and got a dozen or so prickly pear spines in my leg for my carelessness.)

When The Sister saw this photo she asked if the ratty old thing was Sasquatch, but no,

nothing quite that dramatic. Just  a porcupine heading for the safety of a nearby cedar,

to wait out my intrusion into his space.

After making it back to the established trails, rather than taking the short way back to The Van, I gave my already tired legs a 15 story stair-master workout by, probably for some macho-ingrained nonsensical reason, setting the goal of climbing the steep, as in really steep, road to the park's established scenic outlook in one shot without a break, (OK, one break.)

From there I dropped down the new trail, from the rocky heights

to the lush(er) bottom-lands, on the final leg back to The Van.

Yep, another successful expedition without killing myself! Which is a good day in anybody's book. 

Monday, January 18, 2021

The Kind of Guy He Was

OK, I'm interrupting my South Llano River State Park series this week because sometimes, especially after this past year, (OK, I've done my 7 day trial of 2021 and I'd like to return it now!) we need to be reminded that there is good out there as well as the ugly.

Two years ago last week The Wife's nephew lost his life while helping a victim of domestic abuse.

This, helping those in need, was not a one-off.

He had no affiliation with any organization, group, charity, or church, but, on his own, and despite his own personal challenges, he helped people. Opening his house (literally - and I use the word correctly here) and his perpetually threadbare wallet to do what he could for those society had often written off.

That's the kind of guy he was.

This is a voice-print of a line from a song he wrote. Its from a recording his sister made as he sang and accompanied himself on guitar. The original print is hanging in the home of his parents.

Last week a group of his friends, with no particular affiliation with any organization, group, charity, or church, assembled care-packages in his memory.

It was a modest effort but, thanks in part to a generous $500 contribution from a grade-school friend who has long lived out of state, donations exceeded their expectations by a factor of four, hitting the $1200 mark.

Partnering with his favorite pizza-parlor and the neighboring convenience store, these care-packages consisted of his favorite food, favorite non-alcoholic drink, and basics such as socks and underwear.

His friends then took it upon themselves to personally deliver these packages into the hands of the homeless in the area. 

That's the kind of friends he has. 


Monday, January 11, 2021

Dang! Who Left the Freezer Door Open?!

 When you're a morning person like me, up and ready to get at it at the first hint of daylight, you learn to check the time first lest it's just the full moon trying to trick you into getting up at 0327 in the morning. (Yep, done that more than once.) And that's why, since my only time-piece is my phone, it is always within lazy arm-reach when I'm sleeping.

And that proximity is also why, even though I was asleep, I heard it buzz the second morning of my stay at South Llano River State Park in early December.

Now it's not supposed to buzz like that since I don't set an alarm, nor allow any audible notifications, and it was set to airplane mode so there couldn't be any incoming calls, but buzz it did. So I snaked a reluctant arm out of my snug sleeping bag to see what the hell was going on.

Black screen and no response to my unlocking-fingerprint.

I pushed harder and finally got an anemic buzz out of the phone, accompanied by a very brief notification that the battery was too low to turn on before it went black again, (The first buzz I heard must have been when the phone shut itself off) which was weird since it was fully charged when I went to bed a few hours ago.

At least I think it was a few hours ago but now I don't have a clock to verify that.

I wasn't happy about it, but I unzipped my sleeping bag and left it's cuddle-worthy warmth for the shocking chill of The Van so I could plug the charging cord into the dang thing. After all, I am into the second half of my 6th decade so maybe I only thought it was charged last night and since this phone carries one of my two backup maps when out on the trail I wanted to make sure the battery was full and ready to go in the morning.

Now normally I like learning new things, like the fact that, even though I can't display it when I want to, my phone has a thermometer inside it so it knows when it's too cold (or hot) for battery charging. But frankly, as I stood there in the frigid air in my all-together trying to keep at least one foot up off the painfully bitter slab that is normally The Van's floor at all times while attempting to get that tiny little plug into that tiny little hole, I could have done without this particular learning experience.

Now I was not only cold but curious and checked The Van's thermometer, (27 degrees outside, 31 degrees inside. Humm, maybe that's why the fridge hasn't cycled on all night.) pulled aside the shade to check the eastern horizon, (Nope, no sign of the sun yet) then jumped back into my sleeping bag, taking the phone with me to warm it up above that too-cold threshold.

Eventually, when I once again risked extending my head beyond the warm coziness of my well-lofted cocoon far enough to peek out under the shade, the sun was sneaking up on the horizon and I could legitimately get up and get going. (Yep, now that the phone was warm it was also magically charged up and ready to go as well.)

It certainly wasn't any warmer when I climbed out of my sleeping bag this time, but a cup of hot oatmeal, two pair of socks, a base-layer, two shirts and a heavy jacket, two pair of nested gloves, a neck-gaiter to camouflage my turkey-wattle and hide my stubble, not to mention slip up over my nose to keep it from freezing blue and falling off, a thin skull-cap which fits nicely under my hat but also does a surprisingly good job of keeping my ears warm, and this southern-dweller was ready to hit the winter trail.

Not long after I set out, even before my blood had time to get properly circulating, I passed this thermometer hanging outside one of the bird-blinds.

Despite the claim of the name on it, I thought maybe the thermometer was reading a little low, but a half mile later I passed another bird-blind, and another thermometer, which was reading the same.

Ah well, it's a glorious day anyway so let's go hiking!

Yesterday I looped the eastern side of the park. Today the plan is to loop the western side. And like yesterday, today I'll do the loop clockwise. It's not what I normally do, go clockwise, and I don't have any real explanation for the change-up, but that's what I did.

Aww! Isn't the destructive little critter cute?!


It's highly unlikely that mom reciprocates and thinks that I'm cute too.

In fact, give her half a reason and she'll stomp my ass!


One of the group, scattered along both sides of the trail and effectively, very effectively, blocking my progress, has spotted me.

With only a modicum of alarm, befitting my puny stature I suppose, the sounder (the official title of a group of feral hogs) moved off to the right, towards the creek-bed.

And none too soon either! It's awfully chilly this morning to be just standing around like this.

Soon I am in the vicinity of the Canyon Seep, POI #4, which isn't far from the apparently disused primitive camping area.

There are 4 different formats for GPS coordinates and my GPS always seems to be set on the wrong one,

so rather than fiddle around with it to change formats and actually zero in on the coordinates of the seep, I just left the trail behind and set off clambering up the creek-bed, one careful step at a time in the jumbled rocks and twisted remains of trees swept downstream, in an attempt to find it sans-technology.

In my mind I was equating this seep with Fern Cave in Caprock or The Grotto in Lost Maples. But if I did actually find the seep, it was a rather nondescript stain a few inches wide and maybe three feet long in the canyon wall that I didn't even bother taking a photo of.

So, somewhat deflated, I retraced my steps and continued on with my hike.

But the trail always gives back eventually and I came across this guy later near the western edge of the park. 

 And as an extra bonus, as I was finishing up the hike by cutting down the restricted access road behind the service area before making the final turn back into the campground, I came across this guy.

He-she is actually pretty dang big and at first I thought it was a coyote, but a closer look revealed that it was a rather elegant looking fox instead, albeit a big one.

So the day may have started out ridiculously cold, but by the time I closed it out with dinner back at The Van it turned out to be another great day on the trails.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Scared the Bejeebers Outa Me!

Last day of November and first morning of my South Llano trip.

Time for some hiking!

First on the agenda is a jaunt up the new trail for the obligatory stop at the scenic overlook.

Out there, just below the horizon on the left side, is the town of Junction, just about 5 miles away. Close enough that I can just barely see the endless parade of trucks passing out there on I-10.

That white pyramidical triangle near the center is a rock cut for the highway, US-377. Traveling southwest out of Junction, pop 2500, it runs along the far side of South Llano River for 25 miles before crossing to finally climb out of the valley, then runs another 20 miles across the ridges to Rocksprings, pop 1100.

Between the highway and me are the pastures and tree-groves of one or two of the working ranches taking advantage of the river and its valley.

Unfortunately, like farming, ranching is not a high-earning endeavor and many require the support of day-jobs to make a go of things. That means that this somewhat remote highway actually experiences the rural version of a rush-hour every morning, and though the campground is a straight-line mile and a half from the highway, the acoustics of the valley means that each one of those vehicles can be heard going by, especially when the air is cold and dense. But not to worry. Where I'm headed, back up in the ridges and canyons to the south, the only "highway" sounds are the skittering of feet running away from me. (They run away most the time but - well, you'll see)   

The plan today is to make a loop around the eastern half of the ranch,

so after taking the new trail up to the lookout 

and lollygagging around a little,

I toe-jammed my way back down the very steep old road (Cars have long been banned and now no bikes are allowed since the park staff have gotten tired of picking up the pieces of failed down-hillers. The busted-up bikes aren't too bad, but the busted up riders are just way to gooey and messy!) to connect with the Fawn Trail which will connect me to the East Ridge Trail which will connect - well, you get the idea.

There is a point or two along the East Ridge Trail where I can look west and see my proposed lunch stop. It helps if you know where it is, but even then

you might have to zoom in a little to spot the windmill poking up through the trees over there.

But before I get there and can break for lunch I have to pick up the Frontera Trail

there at the southernmost edge of the park, and though "Frontera" may sound fancy to us gringos, in Spanish it just means boundary or border.

You might think walking a fence-line is pretty boring, and it may be to the ranch hand that has to patrol it several times a week for months on end, but out here, with no people, no man-made sounds, and plenty of wildlife and native plants to look at, I don't find it boring at all.

But eventually it's time to leave the fence-line behind and track along the western ridge of Mid Canyon towards the windmill.

Good thing too because I'm starting to get hungry!

Adjacent to the windmill is a small 20th century (judging by the look of the concrete slab it's sitting on) building that may have once been used as a line-cabin by ranch-hands.

Now days the solid wood paneled door is weathered to the point where some of the panel-seams are showing daylight, (you can see one of them in the bottom left corner) but the door, along with it's more modern lockset, are still holding strong and doing a good job of protecting the empty building.

Unfortunately, when I took this photo of the markings on one of the steel sheets covering the sides of the building I was more focused on getting to my lunch than what it said and didn't realize that part of the logo would be unreadable in this photo. I get the coal, iron, and railroad part of this division of US Steel, but can't quite get a handle of that first word that ends in sser, or maybe it's ssee.

Somehow, I doubt it's crossdresser or fricassee.

Heeding the urgent calls from the brain in my stomach (In 2010 it was discovered that the stomach has neurons, the same kind of cells that make up the brain, which kinda makes sense since for the primitive early forms of life here on earth nutrition was more important for existence than the existential angst of figuring out why we exist. So it turns out that a "gut feeling" may actually be your first brain calling in!) I cast around under the windmill for a good lunch spot. Sheltered, well off the trail just in case I wasn't the only one wandering around out here, (I was) and comfortable.

To quote Meatloaf, two out of three ain't bad, but there's a decided lack of large logs up here for comfortable lounging while staying up off the prickly stuff on the ground, so I had to build a little throne and table for myself out of local materials. (Before any of you go all eco-rad on me, when I was done I put the large rocks back where I found them and scattered the small ones, making sure they landed right-side up to blend in as if I'd never been there.)

So there I was, miles from anyone and tucked in out of sight of the trail where I wouldn't be found until the-stink-got-bad, nothing but the near silence of nature around me, enjoying lunch with my pack propped up nearby when - 

while concentrating on digging out the last morsel of tuna from the foil packet with that tiny red spoon, I heard a rustling pretty damn close by and at the same time, out of the corner of my eye saw, something lunge at me!

My first heart-pounding thought was of a deranged armadillo coming after me, or maybe that possum I live-trapped out of the barn last week and relocated to the back of the property had come back for revenge, and here's me with nothing but a tiny little red plastic spoon to fend off the attack!

It's really difficult to get me to make any audible noise - just ask The Wife when she's trying to get me to actually talk, you know, out loud - but in my head I squealed like a little kid - - - which certainly didn't do my manly self-image any good - - - 

OK, so turns out it was actually nothing more dramatic, or dangerous, coming after me than my pack falling over - but still, it  scared the bejeebers out of me!

When my pack fell over it neatly spit my trail-painting kit out the open top-flap, so since it doesn't hurt to appease the gods of the trail once in a while, especially when they are clearly already screwing with you, after I finished up lunch I did a quick painting right then and there.

Now - anyone seen some stray bejeebers wandering around? I seem to have lost mine - - -