Monday, February 22, 2021

Wait - That's Not Right !


Hey! What the heck is this crap doing all over our stuff?!

OH NOOoooo!!

Don't tell me 40 years of living in Texas has been nothing but a 30 second dream and it's actually 1981, I still live in Michigan, and now have to scrape the car off before I go to work!!!

Oh wait - whew - I still live in Texas, I'm still retired, and it's just global warming screwing with the weather patterns.

Looks kinda pretty doesn't it?

Yeah - so pretty - like when I was a kid growing up in Michigan - (happy sigh)

OK - seen it - now that's enough!

            What do you mean we're not done yet?!!!

It dropped below freezing around here Friday afternoon (Feb 12)

    We got a half inch of freezing rain Saturday

        3 inches of snow on top of the ice Sunday (see photos above)

            Sleet on top of the snow Monday- Tuesday

                Freezing rain again on top of all that Wednesday

                    And now, on Thursday as I write this, sleet and snow are projected for this afternoon.

                        Oh, and it's not supposed to get back above freezing and stay there until Saturday.

Around here a 'hard' freeze is anytime it drops down below 32 degrees for more than 6 hours.

For the past 5 days 28 has been our high and Tuesday morning it was 8 degrees.  (In this area when you see that the thermometer is reading 25 degrees and think 'wow! warming right up!', you know that it's been COLD!)

We've lived here on the property for 15+ years and this is only the second time I've had to drain the fire-pump storage tank because of an extended freeze. (Long ways from the nearest volunteer fire department so we have our own Forest Service rated fire-pump) The tank itself can take freezing, but the valve is more vulnerable and I don't like taking chances with it. (Yep, this should have been the third time I drained the tank, not the second. So I know from first-hand experience that the valve doesn't explode when frozen hard, it just gets these sneaky little splits in the body that don't show up until things thaw again.)  Not that I like dumping 250 gallons of our fire-fighting water supply on the ground either, but at least we have the pond we can draw water out of if we need to.

Oh yeah, I guess I should mention that the pond is frozen too - - - That's never happened before. Even a little bit!

Fortunately the ice is thin and can be easily broken through.

The unheated barn sits on an uninsulated slab in direct contact with the ground and the well-house floor is also directly connected to the ground, much of it bare dirt. And both are insulated with spray-foam. This keeps both buildings at a reasonable temp even when it's freezing outside.

Tuesday morning, when it was 8 degrees outside, inside both the barn and the well-house it was 38 degrees.

Speaking of well-house. One of the major impacts of these storms has been on the water supply, but since we have our own well, and a generator to run the pump with, we have not been affected by that at all.

 In extreme cases, and I think this one qualifies, we do heat the corner of the barn where we live. That's this side of the barn and from where the vent-stacks are (the bathroom) on down to the far end. (our back door) It was nice to see that we weren't melting the snow and ice off the roof there any faster than off the  unheated parts of the barn.

The insulation at work.

One of the two emergency lights installed at either end of the barn 15 years ago and still working just like it was brand new.

Oh, about that heat for our living quarters, although we have been far more fortunate than many, we've only had it available for some of the time.

You plug this emergency light into an outlet and as long as it is getting power it keeps the battery topped up. Lose power and the LED lights come on, but only if the sensor on the front side detects no light. If there's still light in the space, such as when the doors are open, it keeps the LED's off. Since I put them up the only time I've ever messed with them was to pull this one down just now to photograph the back. They just sit up there and keep doing their job year after year.

You see, for the past 30 years, about once every 10 years, following an extreme event like this, recommendations have been sent to ERCOT, the people in charge of the Texas power grid, and the state government to weatherize the system, including natural-gas wells and pipelines (much of Texas' power is generated via natural-gas but the wells and pipelines froze up, along with some of the generators, whether they were coal, natural-gas, or nuclear), but this being Texas, those recommendations have been ignored.

It's not a difficult task, everybody north of Dallas has winterized systems that function very well, but - well - after all, this is a state where speed-limits are barely a suggestion to be ignored (Or used as target practice) and foolish blowhards like Ted Cruz, who lets his 10 and 12 year old daughters talk him into a trip to Cancun (At least that's his version. Which makes him a terrible father for (A) raising entitled children that are going to be a strain on society in the future, (B) risking their health by dragging them to a Corona hot-spot, or (C) throwing his girls under the bus as scapegoats for his own bad decision-making.) in the midst of a pandemic and a winter storm that has many of his constituents literally freezing to death, can still get themselves reelected. Although, to be fair to Texans, he only won this last time by less than a single percentage point.

Between unprecedented (Yes Brewed Journey, I did use 'that word', and I think with some all-time records being set I used it correctly - though I could be wrong - I, as The Wife points out, often am.) demand and low supply, the result is that the power-grid was, actually still is as I type this, crippled.

I was impressed with the tiny electric coop we are supplied by out here since the day we bought the place. Unlike when we lived in the city and the meter-reader came tramping through the yard every month and the power went out frequently, as far back as 20 years ago every meter in the coop's territory could be read by someone sitting at a desk back in the main office. (The meters also automatically report outages back to the maintenance department as well as provide our hour-by-hour usage data that we can access on-line.) and the power has been remarkably reliable.

The generator rolled from it's snug home inside the barn to outside where it is hooked up and standing by in case the power drops right in the middle of cooking dinner or something like that. When not actually running we kept it covered with that green tarp.

Back when planning this place, given the number and frequency of outages we experienced in the city, we did expect to be dealing with even more of those out here in the remote sticks where we are near the far end of a long feeder line. But I was wrong. As I said, the power here has been remarkably reliable. Even when hurricane Harvey sat nearly on top of us for a day or so, we didn't lose power. (The coop comes through every 5 years and trims trees back away from the power lines so it's rare that a falling branch or tree hits a wire.)

But before I knew all that, we installed a generator inlet in the side of the barn and a manual safety switch between the main electrical panel and the coop and generator feeds. All we have to do is plug the generator in and throw the lever on the safety switch to the generator side to disconnect the coop and connect up the generator.

Not without its costs, but even knowing how reliable the power out here is, probably something we would still do anyway because being prepared is worth it, especially when it's needed.

Having said that, even in these current circumstances of a crippled power-grid, our little rural coop continues to shine.

Yes, we have been subjected to the same load-shedding that has left hundreds of thousands in the big cities without power for days now, bursting pipes to the point where the water-systems are in big trouble too. But in our case they have taken the form of rolling blackouts that have been pretty much an hour off followed by an hour on for the past 4 days. And though the grid situation has only improved marginally overnight, leaving huge numbers still without power for extended periods, and I still expect power cuts here because this isn't over yet, (I can hear that it has started sleeting on the barn roof again) we have had power continuously for about 8 hours so far this morning. 

For much of the country the 3 to 6 inches of snow we got here is no big deal, even though it fell on top of a half inch of ice, but around here we don't even own snow-shovels let alone snow-plows. So all that snow laying on top of ice is still there on our county roads days later.

But even though The Van isn't going anywhere anytime soon because we have plenty of supplies and no jobs to get to, there are priorities.

Such as sweeping off the solar panel so the layer of ice can melt and we can use The Van as a giant recharging station for our phones and the little portable DVD player we have been using for entertainment in the evening. (Even when there is power it takes the DirecTV box nearly a half-hour to reconnect itself and rebuild our list of recorded shows and by then we are only a half-hour from the next power-cut)

But things are starting to look up.

Even though it hasn't gotten above freezing for days, it isn't as bitterly cold anymore and the residual heat in the ground is making progress on getting rid of the snow and ice.

We may actually, briefly, get above freezing later today, Thursday, (we did hit 33 for a whole hour Thursday afternoon halting our 'below freezing' streak at 144 hours, an all time record.) and Sunday is forecast to be above freezing for the whole 24 hours.

I wonder what the effect of this cold-snap is going to have on our trees and wildflowers. The oak down by the pond, the first one to do so every year, was already budding out and the wildflowers were throwing out their ground-hugging leaves before this all happened.

The spring garden (We start planting chard, spinach, radish, and carrots in mid January and herbs and potatoes in mid February) is already screwed and by the time we get it restarted the summer heat is probably going to get at it before we can harvest much.

This series of storms proved fatal for some and was uncomfortable for most, but if you're looking for a good side. we all need to be knocked out of the complacent rut dug by the clock, schedules, and routine once in a while. It reminds us that the underpinnings of our comfortable lives are actually very fragile and that we should always be prepared for when those underpinnings get knocked over, because they will.

Update: Saturday morning Feb 20:

Once it gets above freezing this morning the forecast projects it will stay that way - at least through the next week.

The official stats for the past week:

8 temperature records broken

6.4" of snow (that's more than the past 20 years combined)

144 consecutive hours below freezing

5 storms in 8 days (though calling a gentle freezing rain an actual storm somehow doesn't seem right)

Monday, February 15, 2021

Down to the Falls!

 OK, truth is, The Falls here at Pedernales Falls State Park are probably not what you picture in your head as a waterfall.

If there is an underlying theme here in the Texas Hill Country it's limestone. (Yep, that 'underhanded' pun was intended.) Layers and layers of limestone laid down over unimaginable years. And here in this area tectonic activity has tilted those layers.

West is to the left in the photo above and that's also the direction from which the water flows in the Pedernales River, left to right, right into the barrier of the tilted layers.

At the northern tip of the State Park the water runs into a few particularly large slabs tilted up like this where it pools up behind them until it can spill over and run down the backside of the slopes.

This is what, perhaps slightly erroneously, is called The Falls. But true falls or not, this is a very popular part of the park which makes this early Monday morning, when the park is closed to all except the campers on the 20 or so available campsites, a perfect time to head on down that way.

But first: The Falls are nearly 2 miles from my campsite, if I want to drive The Van down there, which I don't. Instead there is a whole trail network I can use to hike on down there. Much more pleasant than driving a paved road. But if I'm going to stick strictly to established trails that means I first have to walk the road the best part of a mile to reach the Bird Blind, which is also where the coral is, where I can then get onto the trail system.

For years my go-to solution for this has been to bushwhack up-hill due west from the end of the campground road for a quarter-mile until I intersect the South Loop Equestrian Trail. From this point I have access to the park's entire trail-system without having to walk any significant distance along roads, or drive The Van to a trailhead.

Between when I was here two years ago and today (Jan 25 2021) there was a fire across the area where I do this particular bushwhack, which actually makes the bushwacking a whole lot easier. More of a walk really instead of weaving my way through thick, and sometimes prickly vegetation.

But just because the whacking is easy that doesn't mean I get complacent.

Where my bushwacking intersects the established trail I take the time to build a marker so I know the right spot to leave the trail on my way back later on.

Many people build cairns for this because they are easy to spot. But because they are so obvious I prefer to just lay out a few stones on the ground near some recognizable feature (There is a decent sized cedar growing near the trail just outside this image to the left) as a pointer. Still effective if you are looking for it, but natural enough that it doesn't jump out and scream at you. In this case the two larger stones were already there, I just added the two smaller stones, although one would have been enough. Not that it really matters since, as always, I took the marker apart when I passed it on my way back.

Once on the equestrian trail system I have free-range of most of the park and work my leisurely way towards the north end.

I don't know. This looks pretty Jurassic to me.

OK, maybe Jurassic is a bit of an exaggeration, How-bout pre-historic instead?

But eventually I make it down to the river.

But man! That water is pretty high!

From here, near the western boundary of the park, I need to follow the river east for a while in order to get to the actual falls area. Usually I can just walk along the exposed limestone of the riverbed, but most of that is underwater right now,

so instead I'm forced up into the rugged terrain between the bluffs and the river. (Yep, there is a trail of sorts there right up the middle of the image.)

The up-side is that puts me up close and personal with the bluff where I can experience first hand the thick layers of rock (Left and top in the image) laid down over looong periods of time contrasting with the thin layers laid down and stacked up during successive short periods of the area being sea-bottom.

Some of these thinner layers are barely the width of a finger but still took thousands of years to lay down.

But all of them, thick layers and thin, after being cooked by the compression of successive layers then finally brought back into the daylight by up-thrusts and erosion, now show the wear and tear of flowing water.

Even those 30 feet above the current water level.

We humans seem to have this ingrained need to pick out the high spots and to leave visible calling cards that scream out "HERE I AM!". (Hence the popularity in this area of fancy but largely function-less entrance gates when the house is too far back from the road to be seen)

This place, one that was new since last time I was here, was perched way out there in the distance on the north, non-park side of the river, as high up on a ridge as it could get. In fact it was so far away that I didn't notice the scaffolding, nor the swarm of workers crawling all over this monstrosity, (We only take up a few square feet and can only be in one place at a time so why the need for so damn much "living" space?) until I got the image back to camp and onto my laptop.

A disappointing reminder that, in the name of vanity and greed, we are going to invade and sublimate our natural surroundings until we inundate ourselves into extinction.

But that won't happen today, so onward!

OK. Maybe not - - -

I'm almost to the falls area and normally I'd go around this down by the river, but that's all underwater right now so - - -

Look out! Old Man Climbing!

Shew! Made it!

But now I'm getting a little dizzy looking back down at my tiny shadow, so let's move on.

Fortunately the climb from the falls

to the bluff overlooking them is considerably easier.

If you're not into all this hiking nonsense you can actually get here to this overlook via a short stroll down a pretty much wheel-chair or stroller accessible trail from a nearby trailhead instead.

But rather than do the sensible thing and head up that way, I wander off onto the Hackenburg Loop instead.

This is named for the family that used to own this spot below the falls back in the late 1800's/early 1900's.

At that time there was a large pool below the falls with some world-class fishing. In fact you can still see the old road Herman Reiner, the owner of the north (non-park) side of the river, put in where Model-T's used to clatter down to the river and people would set up camps on the small flat over there while they fished, for the fee of a dollar a day. (more recently I've seen goats grazing those flats a time or two)

At the time of the Hackenburgs and Reiners there were huge Cypress trees (100 footers) lining the banks along here, but then the epic flood of 1952, when 9" of rain created a 60 to 100 foot wall of water, tore through here, stripping the Cypress and filling in much of the fishing hole with sand. (More recently, sometime in the '90s, I saw the results of a 30 foot flood here that went through the park a couple days before.)

In fact, this perch I found above the trail for lunch was probably underwater then. (during the 52 flood)

I had seen two other people near the falls a half hour ago so to avoid possible encounters with others I chose a lunch-spot well off the beaten path. But it might have been just a little on the steep side.

While drooling heavily with stomach growling mightily as I extracted my lunch from the pack, my sleeve of crackers escaped and rolled halfway back down the slope!

I just hope I have enough energy left to go back down and get it.

After lunch I did a little more exploring along this quiet section of river, (Here the far bank is State Park land as well but off-limits to the public.)

then, heeding the lengthening shadows of afternoon, finally began making my way back towards The Van.

But after a day of solitary hiking the thought of finishing up by finishing up that last little bit along the campground road, on display for every camper there, just didn't appeal, so I set off cross-country and, using the drainage back there as a guide, bushwhacked my way into the campsite from behind.

After 10 miles of hiking today, am I ready to take on a 12 mile hike tomorrow?

I guess we're going to find out - next time.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Pedernales Falls State Park, Then and Now

 I first started going to Pedernales Falls State Park in the 1980's.


Back then you could drive right in, snag a campsite for the asking, and hike all except the uber-popular falls area without running into anybody else.

Of course, back then the population of Austin, the nearest city, was 350,000 and it hadn't yet made any of those "best of" lists that are the death knell of any place that makes such a list. The music scene was just starting to ramp up - in a local sort-of-way

and the combined marketing and tourism catchphrase "Let's Keep Austin Weird" was still 20 years in the future because nobody was trying to change the city yet.


Just this morning (Feb 4 2021) I heard that population of Austin has broken the 1,000,000 mark. Housing is scarce and unaffordable. Despite a whole new system of toll and ring-roads, computerized signals, and a voter approved "transportation plan", traffic is horrendous. And every tiny little rural community within 30 miles is now a bulging suburban satellite saturated with "developments" and cookie-cutter shopping "opportunities".

Oh, and these days if you want to get into Pedernales Falls State Park, a much-too-close 40 miles away from the city, even for just a picnic and a quick look at the falls and a picnic, you better have booked your slot well in advance.

In fact, though it isn't mentioned on the web site at all, because that would make too much sense, the park is closed to all except campers on Mondays and Tuesdays. Which is a bonus to the registered camper that likes hiking solitary trails, but kinda sucks if you're one of the many service industry workers who's weekend is Monday and Tuesday.

Also, because it too is not mentioned anywhere on the web site, your first warning of  this fancy new gate across the road about a half mile into the park and still some three miles from the headquarters building, is when it looms up in front of your windshield.

Nor is there any warning on the web site about the fact that, reservation or not, you can't get into the park between noon and 1400.

Just my luck, I turned up at 1215 intending to park at one of the many trailheads for a short hike before occupying my site sometime after the 1400 check-in time. Instead I wasted the early afternoon waiting in a growing line of cars and RV's for the gate to open, then listened to the ranger directing traffic at headquarters act all surprised that so many vehicles were pouring in all at the same time. Well duh you doofus! What the hell did you expect?!

And fair warning for these COVID times. Despite pre-registering and printing out a bar-coded windshield pass, this is another of the parks where you still have to actually go inside the headquarters building and be checked in. (They threw my pre-printed pass away and gave me another. If I'd a known that I'd a saved the paper by not printing the dang thing in the first place.)

To be fair, they have installed a PA system and you wait outside until invited in. But on the other hand, despite the sign outside saying only one group at a time in the building, there are two check-in stations and both were in use, in a rather small space to boot! Fortunately everyone was masked and the process is quick so I was out of there in well under the 15 minute exposure time the CDC warns about.


The park still has the same 58 campsites today that it had back in the 1980's,


but back in 2017 the park closed half the coveted campsites while they tore down one of the two bath-houses in order to build a new facility in it's place. Well the new bath-house was completed sometime in late 2018 (I have yet to go inside it though) but they never did open up the closed campsites. Pre-COVID I thought it was because they were now going to tear down the second bath-house and redo it, though there has yet been no sign of that happening. Currently the excuse is COVID regulations which have this park, because of it's proximity to a large urban area with high rates of infection, operating at 50% capacity.

Now, if you were a logical thinker, you might expect to find every other site closed during these pandemic times in order to space the campers out, but if so your expectations would be shattered.

The sites to either side of mine, and for two more sites on down in one direction, were open and occupied, while a matching block of 5 consecutive sites just a little up the way in the other direction were all closed. The sites, even those adjacent to each other, are well spaced out so it wasn't like we were camping on top of one another, but still - - - Then again, maybe there is some of that new-math kind of logic behind the pattern of closed to opened sites that I just don't understand.

So does all this mean you should give this park a pass these days?


Though nowadays it does require advanced planning, and close attention to the gate schedule, assuming you know it, this is still a great park. Maybe not my favorite anymore, though that's in part due to the hassle of getting through the urban sprawl to get there, but it's still a park worth visiting with its 50 some miles of trails and a lot of history. (though you have to dig out the history on your own as there are pretty much - well, zero, info-plaques around the park) In fact there are more trails today than when I first started coming out here with the fairly recent (within the last ten years) addition of the 10 mile Juniper Ridge and 4.5 mile Madrone Trails.

Over the next few posts I'll drag you along on some of last week's hikes in this park.