Monday, March 29, 2021

The Elusive Madrone


It's Friday, January 29, and as is typical in this Corona-age of crowded parks and short trips, I must vacate my campsite to make way for the weekenders that make their reservations farther ahead than I do.

But, as is also typical, I'm going to sneak in one last hike before hitting the road early enough to get myself to the other side of the city before the afternoon rush kicks in. And I'm not talking the good kind of rush, but rather the road-rush of frenzied hoards of commuters trying to get back home for the weekend before doing it all over again on Monday.

Down at the southern end of Pedernales Falls State Park, much of it south of the county road that cuts through down there, is the Madrone Trail.

This is as far from the campground as you can get so, since I was moving The Van anyway, today is the perfect time to actually drive to the Madrone trailhead so I can get right on the trail without a lot of preamble perambulating.

The Madrone Trail is a point-to-point so to make a loop out of it requires adding in some bits and pieces of other trails as well, including that bit of the Juniper Ridge Trail which forms the 'toes' of my foot-like track.

The Madrone Trail actually crosses the entire east-west width of the park along its southern border, but I didn't feel much like rushing my hike in order to beat the rush - since that seemed overly redundant in terms of rushes - so I only hiked a portion of it as I made my counter-clockwise, five-mile loop this morning.

After using fossil-fuel to get myself to the trailhead I switched to foot-power and slipped through a gap in the fence

to start my hike along the empty, peaceful trail.

Unfortunately too empty in one respect.

The Texas Madrone is becoming scarce in some of its former habitat and here at Pedernales is no exception. In fact, despite being on the lookout, I didn't see any full grown specimens on this hike. (Of course, to be fair, I only hiked about half of the actual Madrone Trail today) When trolling through past photos for an example I discovered that over the past 10 years I have photographed this particular tree twice before.

With it's deep orange-red coloring, distinctive shedding bark (The tree is sometimes called Lady's Leg because of the smoothness of some of the branches/trunks.) and rosettes of fall-tinted red-green leaves this is not an easy tree to miss,

but the best I could come up with this hike was these two shrubby examples (one right and one left in the photo) tucked under the Cedars

and a seedling that someone is trying to protect with a stone barrier.

But my slow, plodding pace was not without other rewards, such as this landscape of speckled silver-dollars (probably not their official name but close enough for me) all clustered in a mound

smaller than my lens-cap.

Or this oh-so-soft carpet of moss found down near Butler Creek

laid out like a Siren Song blanket on this nearly prostrate tree, just daring me to climb on up and take a nap. (I didn't. - I thought about it - but I didn't.)

When the trail took me around the southern member of the Twin Buttes I decided that its summit would make a good lunch-spot.

And I was right.

But since I had to bushwhack a bit to get to my nice comfortable spot-with-a-view, I took some precautions.

If you look close, there at the end of the arrow, you can see that I've propped one of my hiking sticks up against a branch. Even being black, (I've talked before about how I don't like advertising my presence so avoid the neon colors of many other brands.) any straight line like this tends to stick out out here in - well - the sticks.

In this case the hiking stick is marking the direction I need to go when I leave my lunch-tree.

And by the time I get to that first stick and retrieve it,

I'll be within sight of my bright yellow towel hanging off another branch there in the distance.

OK, maybe not so bright anymore now that I've been using it while painting a few sketches on the go, but I'm reluctant to use the super-bright hunter-orange bandanna I also carry unless I really need to.

In addition to the usual "hey you dumb-ass hunter, don't shoot me" I also carry the bandanna for the O part of my STOP process in case I misplace myself out here, but it just screams so loud I don't like using it unless I have to.

Anyway, bright or not the faded and stained yellow towel is still easy to see from a distance and placed near it is my second hiking stick, pointing the way back to the trail.

Over-kill on the precautions?

Oh definitely.

Especially when you consider (A) I only came this way less than an hour ago, (B) I'm also tracking myself with a GPS, (C) and the trail wraps around three sides of the butte with a fence-line and road not all that far away on the fourth side, so all I had to do was go downhill to 'find' myself.

But I do it anyway, not only because a little extra caution rarely hurts, but also for the practice. Same reason I run the fire-pump once a month, not only to make sure it is operating, but also to keep the steps necessary to hook it up and get it operating fresh in my mind so that I have a better chance of performing those steps properly when in a panic.

And apparently it works because after thousands of solo hikes here I am, standing at my desk in the barn, writing up my last trip and thinking about the next.



Sit: This is probably the most difficult step in this process because not only do you first have to admit that you don't know where you are, it also goes against the double-whammy of your body's natural fight-or-flight response. But it's the most important thing you can do right now. Just as soon as you feel like you've misplaced yourself - sooner if possible - sit down. This has the immediate effect of preventing you from making things worse by allowing that initial concern (OK, downright panic) to take over and drive you into doing something, often many things, one on top of the other, that may turn out to be less than helpful in resolving the situation. (Fight: This is the wrong spot so I'm going to fight my way to somewhere else right now, even if I don't have any idea where that somewhere else is, or Flight: I don't know where I am so must get away from here as fast as possible and I don't care if I know where I'm going as long as it's somewhere else.) And the body's natural physiological response to sitting also helps lower your heart-rate and adrenaline levels. To help with that even more sip some water, chew on some trail mix, sing a dirty limerick, do anything "normal" that will allow your mind to clear and settle down.

Think: Now that your mind is functioning rationally think about the situation. Where you were last time you - well - knew where you were. Where you were going. And how you got here. Often this is all that's needed to get you back on track, both figuratively as well as literally.

Observe: At this point, if you still can't put your feet back on the trail with confidence look around. Can you see landmarks that you can take bearings off with your compass and triangulate your position on  your map? Maybe you can even spot your back-trail? (Just make sure it's yours and not a random game-trail.) Can you hear traffic or a river? Chatty hikers? To expand your picture further mark where you are right now with something highly visible (Yep, there's that screaming bandanna.) then explore in a radius around that point, always keeping your marker in sight because, until you are "found", where you are right now is the closest you will ever get to where you are supposed to be.

Plan: OK, Now that you have the picture, what are you going to do about it? Here, depending on your skills, the weather, and the resources you have with you, there are several possibilities. You can take a bearing and walk towards the traffic noise, towards the river, towards that ridge-line. (Statistically, there's a higher chance of finding people or infrastructure by going down-hill, down-river, than up.) If you left a trail-plan with someone you can hunker down right where you are, build a shelter with the resources you have, and wait for someone to come looking. (If the sun is getting low you want to do this - build a shelter - right now regardless of your ultimate plan because building one in the dark sucks!) Even if you plan on walking out, you still might want to hunker down for now and observe your surroundings in the dark, when the far-off glow of town lights can be seen, or moving headlights mark the location of a distant road impossible to see in the daylight.


Monday, March 22, 2021

Today the East Half of Juniper Ridge

 It's my last full day here (Jan 28) at Pedernales Falls State Park this trip and I knew it was going to be a long one (I was right. It was over 13 miles of hiking) so I headed out early this morning to hike the eastern  end of the Juniper Ridge Trail.

In deference to today's total anticipated hiking distance, I took the more direct route from campground to Wolf Mountain trailhead by hiking the road. Well not really the road. There's a (modern) water-line buried parallel to and just a few yards west of the road and the park service keeps the ROW over top of it mowed, which makes for easy hiking. Better than the edge of a paved road anyway.

Again, the Juniper Ridge Trail doesn't have any trailheads of it's own, so just like when I hiked the western half a few days ago, I had to start off on the South Loop Equestrian Trail

and travel it for a while before intersecting the Juniper Ridge Trail at about its mid-point, right about where the asterisk is pointing on the previous map.

I just showed you photos of Juniper Ridge Trail a few posts ago, and since the trail is very similar its entire length I won't bore you with more of the same. Though I was anything but bored slowly hiking the ledges along the ridges which I had all to myself.

At the far eastern end of the Juniper Ridge Trail I came to the stone house.

This was built by the Trammells around 1870 when they moved onto this tract of land.

By today's standards the whole house is about the size of a modest walk-in closet, but after the Trammells were finished with it the Jones' moved in and continued to farm the nearby fields as well as raise goats.

As you can imagine, the long occupancy of this house left behind

a rich array of artifacts.

Of course you are not supposed to cart these artifacts off and keep them for yourself, and it's nice, surprising even for a curmudgeony old pessimist like me that is quick to believe the worst of people, to see that many people are willing to leave the artifacts they find behind for others to enjoy and peruse, including scholars that know how to get the most knowledge and information out of them.

Trammell field #1 lies just west of the stone house and was walled in.

The wall is partially tumbled down now and overgrown, (When I look at the jumble of rocks I think of all the work that went into hauling and placing each one of them, by hand, which tells you how important these walls were to the builders.)  but I didn't have any trouble finding a secluded spot to settle in for a lunch shared with the spirits of those original European inhabitants.

After a quick lunch, because it was already getting late and I had a long ways to go yet, I made the obligatory stop at Jones Spring, which probably played a big part in the location of the stone house, but only a quick one before continuing on, since I've gotten distracted here in the past and have been known to spend hours just watching the wildlife in the small pool.

From here the way back towards camp is along the Wolf Mountain Trail.

Its pretty much track-like surface is easy hiking on weary old legs, but - well - kinda boring too. So right about where that wolf-track is on the map above I bailed off the Wolf Mountain Trail and back onto the horse trail.

The two trails don't actually intersect but they aren't all that far apart horizontally, if you know where to look. The horse trail is a ways above the Wolf Mountain Trail and you can't see one from the other, but after many hikes through here, some map-reading, and a little bushwhacking, I've made this particular cutoff more than once.

It would have made for a shorter hike to stick to the Wolf Mountain Trail, but I find the horse trail more to my liking. I'm kinda stubborn that way I guess.

It also would have been a little shorter getting back to camp from the trailhead by retracing my steps along the road, but once today was enough. Instead I stayed on the horse trail and trekked across the burn area once again.

I'm not sure if this burn was prescribed or wild, but based on the number of large, decent hardwood  trees that were killed, the ragged margins of the burn,

 and the fact that it was hot enough to split rock, I'm leaning towards wildfire.

Another reason I chose the longer way back to camp was that, anticipating coming this way again, I had left my marker telling me where to leave the trail for the final bushwack back to camp in place when I did the first half of Juniper Ridge a few days ago, so I needed to come back and dismantle the marker before I finished up this trip.

Which is actually tomorrow, the finishing up this trip bit.

Next time my final hike here at Pedernales before heading home.


Monday, March 15, 2021

The Same but Different and other Nonsensical Stuff

 I've pointed out before that many Texas State Parks have closure dates because they hold hunts of various types, the most common being deer.

Pedernales is no exception.

I've also included this photo in a previous post of a typical blind maintained and managed by the park system, this particular one being in South Llano River State Park.

Pedernales Falls State Park holds hunts as well, but they use a different kind of blind

that, in my opinion anyway, is more eco-friendly and blends in with the surroundings much better.

True, this U-shaped, stacked Cedar cuttings, style of blind does require periodic refreshing with more Cedar boughs laid on top as the old boughs gradually decompose from underneath, but then again, there are certainly plenty of Cedar boughs to be had around here just from trail maintenance alone. Besides, the plywood blinds require periodic refreshing too.

So my vote goes to these natural Cedar bough blinds.

Speaking of hunting.

Not far from the cemetery mentioned in the last post, right where the State Park trail makes a sharp left to follow along the boundary fence, there's a wire gate, the kind with no hinges or latch, the kind you have to untwist the wire and drag aside, that leads to a track on the adjacent private land.

It's there to be used as an emergency evacuation route in case people are trapped in this part of the State Park by a flood on the river.

On the private side of that fence, taking advantage of a large, for this area, open area, is a more elaborate version of a deer blind.

Many ranches here in Texas, with it's ridiculously small inventory of public lands, supplement their income by hosting hunters. This usually takes the form of hunting leases, where a hunter, or group of hunters, pays an annual fee for a hunting lease. The rancher gets the additional income (Good leases are not cheap!) and the hunter gets controlled access during certain in-season dates.

Posted near that gate, again on the private side of the fence, was this new sign.

Though it makes sense, what with the rash of people - agritourism participants - not wanting to take responsibility for themselves lately, this is the first time I'd seen the term Agritourism as part of an official document. (By the way, agritourism is apparently not in my spellchecker yet.)

And as long as I'm throwing nonsensical stuff into this post - - -

On the same hike as finding the agritourism sign I ran across several game-trails, though most probably wouldn't notice them let alone call them game-trails.

The 1 to 2 inch wide trails, pointed out by the blue arrows, cut not only through the ground-litter but can even be traced across the 1/2 inch gravel covering parts of the trail I'm hiking on.

The yellow arrows are pointing at the architects of the little trails.

 These are Leaf-cutter ants. A monster of the Texas ants.

If you watch, the ones going one way, left to right in this photo and marked by the left and right hand yellow arrows, are just moving along, while the ones going the other direction, marked by the center yellow arrow, towards the ground nest, are carrying stuff. Usually it's leaves, or parts of leaves, some so large the ant stumbles along blindly, but relentlessly,

but a few of these returning workers are carrying Juniper berries. Though these few often seem to give up before getting to the nest, abandoning piles of berries right in the middle of the pathway.

Whatever they are carrying, or not carrying, you don't want to mess with these guys!

Both ants in the image above are facing to the right. The one towards the bottom of the photo is a soldier ant, out there guarding the trail and workers. Look at the jaw-muscles that make up most of the head on that sucker!

Even the regular worker ants, like the one above the soldier, have impressive jaws in their own right.

So best just get out of the way and let them do their thing. They've been at it since long before us humans existed and will still be at it long after we have excessed ourselves into extinction.

OK, Enough of this random crap. Next time I'll complete the eastern half of the Juniper Ridge Trail and stop off at the remains of a 19th century homestead.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Across the River into History

Having covered 20+ miles on foot over the previous two days I figured today (Jan 27) it would be a good idea to keep the hike short - ish. (It turned out to be about 7.5 miles by the time I quit screwing around out there)

A good spot for a short hike here at Pedernales Falls State Park is the chunk on the eastern side that is cut off from the rest of the park by the river.

 So that's why I was down at the river crossing much too early for smarter people.

This is Trammell's Crossing, which is ironic since a trammel is something that impedes progress or freedom. But this passageway into and out of the rest of the world was not named for a trammel but rather for the Trammell family that moved here in the late 1800's and had holdings on both sides of the river.

Depending on recent rainfall the normal water-depth here, actually over there just short of the far bank where the water is deepest, varies from a few inches to a couple of feet. Today it's over half, but not quite 2/3rd's, calf deep.

Around here a reliable source of water results in Cypress trees.

And there are some pretty spectacular specimens to be found along this river.

 But there are also some stark reminders of the periodic floods that sweep down the river.

The water never stays high long, I once crossed the river 5 days apart with a 15 - 20 foot flash-flood tearing through in-between crossings, but when it does get high, trapped as it is between limestone bluffs, it's fast and violent. When I have made the crossing a few days after one of these floods its extent is bookmarked by fresh debris caught up in the trees high over my head.

But the river has been behaving for the past few months so this particular crossing was uneventful.

I used to make a big deal out of water-crossings.

I carried water-shoes with me all the time just in case I ran into one and did the whole remove-the-boots-and-socks, tuck-them-safely-inside-the-pack, drag-on-the-water-shoes, cross, wrestle-the-wet-water-shoes-back-off, dry-my-feet-carefully, and then go through the whole getting-the-socks-and-boots-back-on-and-laced-tight rigmarole. (Whew! I'm worn out just writing about it.)

Now days, as long as I can reach the bottom with a hiking stick, I just plow straight on in.

The only concession I make is that if it's cold (Yes this is Texas, but hey, it is January) I roll my pants up then stop on the other side long enough to pat some of the water out of my socks with a towel. The  rest will dry soon enough as I hike on.

Much of the trail here on the other side of the river

follows an old wagon road called Mill Holler that connected this area with the community of Cypress Mill two miles to the north.  (Lumber mill, cotton gin, general store, post office and school.) At that time this was the connection to the rest of the world as there was no road connection to the south at all.

You used to be able to see traces of Mill Holler road where it left the park through the north fence at an old gate. If those traces are still there today I managed to miss them even though I was looking. The fence looks like it might have been worked on recently and I couldn't find that old gate either so maybe it's gone now, along with the echoes of wagon wheels that traced the road in its day.

Of course I would have to be right on top of it to spot that old gate because it's difficult to see very far now, but before the thin and fragile layer of rich soil over a limestone base was subjected to over-grazing, 'alternative' management practices, and extended droughts through the mid 1900's, all of which changed things, perhaps irreversibly, this area looked completely different than the scrubby cedar thickets of today that shade the trail now and suck up what little water might be available. (Cedars are thirsty little things!)

Back when the early white settlers arrived this was prairie grass-lands prime for grazing, cotton, and even corn, and this little pocket that eventually became the State Park attracted what were called 'old-stock Americans' from the southeastern states, as distinguished from the German immigrants that founded and settled around Cypress Mill a few miles to the north. (Much of Central Texas was settled by Czech and German immigrants lured here in groups by land speculators)

But things change and now a major part of the local population is made up of white-tail deer that seem surprised to see me.

But there are remnants of those other inhabitants if you know where to look for them.

For most of the time I've been coming to this park it wasn't available, but in 2010 a nice 73 page history of this area that mostly focuses on the past couple hundred years was published and is available in PDF format. When it came out it helped fill in some blanks and, for me anyway, has made my subsequent visits richer and more engaging.


For instance, I know now that when I hit the eastern fence-line and look north that area on the other side of the fence used to be called Schoolhouse Flats where the inhabitants of 6 to 9 ranches/farms in the area regularly came together for community baseball games on Sundays.

It's called Schoolhouse Flats because just to west, on this side of the fence-line and lost now to time and the scrub, there was a wood-framed 12 x 20 school/church where local kids went because their parents didn't particularly want them doing their lessons in the German of the Cypress Mill school.

But a couple three decades ago, long before that history was published, right near were the trail hits the eastern fence-line and turns north I stumbled on my own little bit of history - probably because I tend to lollygag and poke around rather than just hike a trail to get it done - During one of those rambling ambles back before the fence-line maintenance track was officially turned into a trail, I stumbled across a cemetery that none of the park people I talked to at the time seemed to know anything about.

It wasn't easy to find back then and is much harder to spot now, even though it's actually just a few yards off the trail. Yeah, back in there behind that scrub.

Like always, as soon as I turned the corner I started looking.

And it wasn't long before I spotted it.

See it there?

That cockeyed post.

This post, like the fence enclosures around some of the graves, probably dates from the late 1930's when the Wheatleys rediscovered the cemetery some 40 years after the last of the about 19 burials.

They knew nothing of the previous inhabitants but cleaned up the cemetery anyway, and did a little fencing around some of the plots as well to keep cattle out, because this was still grazeable land back then.

The post looks like it might have once held a sign of some sort but that was gone by the time I first found the place and, though this place is not exactly a secret, there has been no effort since to make it any easier to spot.

As far as I can tell, after referring back to some of my original photos of the area, not much has changed here since I first stumbled on it several decades ago.

Which I think is kinda nice.

I myself have been able to locate about a dozen of the purported 19 graves, I think anyway. Some I've located are definite, others maybe not for sure.

One I have definitely not located is that of 5 year old Annie Rainey shown here in a photo taken in 1944 and included in that history I mentioned.

But that's OK. It's kinda fitting that I don't know where all the graves are, or who is in them.

Because while other hikers go by only yards away never realizing I, or the cemetery, is even there, I'm here, quietly spending my lunch among the lingering whispers of the rugged, independent pioneers of over 100 years ago.

Headstones aren't the only stones left behind by those settlers.

I paced off this stone wall to be about 200 feet long and not far from where the schoolhouse and cemetery are. It probably dates from the late 1800's and delineated a yard, pasture, or crop-field.

I spent some time poking around behind that rock wall looking for evidence of structures of some sort. A couple of times I thought I might have spotted the rotted remains of Cedar corner posts, but in each case the "posts", while appropriately spaced, turned out to be rooted in the ground, not pounded or buried.

I did find one cluster of stones that may, if you use your imagination - a lot - have once been part of a foundation, but that was the best I could come up with.

History can be very elusive, which on the one hand is kind of fitting, but on the other is very frustrating!

But for now the shadows are starting to lengthen so it's probably time to close the loop and head back to the other side of the river, because there's another hike waiting tomorrow.

But I have one final thing to yammer about.

The image above is an aerial photo and it clearly shows that as I approach the bluff (On the trail marked in blue) before dropping down to the river crossing on my way back, I have passed right by the southern end of what has become known as Trammell field #2 (#1 is to the southeast on the other side of the river near tomorrow's hike.) The field was probably last planted sometime in the 1920's but is still clearly visible in this 1951 photo.

Today the field, which apparently was never walled like Trammell field #1, is grown up with Cedar scrub and is nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding land.

I said nearly indistinguishable. On a previous hike, since I knew it was there and where to look, I was able to poke around and find hints of the field, although the encroaching Cedar is quickly hiding it now. 

But hey! Back to the business at hand.

Though this was supposed to be a short day in terms of miles it's turned out to be longer than planned, so I need to get myself back to camp and rest up for tomorrow.