Tumbleweeds
December 18, 2014 12:29 AM | Posted in:

We had our first significant T.E. (Tumbleweed Event) of the season last week. It was actually rather mild compared to the springtime varieties, where the prickly beasties have been known to knock semis off the interstate and dig deep gouges in concrete streets*, but it was still good/bad enough to be a topic of conversation at a dinner party the next evening.

Almost everyone had a tumbleweed story, except for the poor couple who lives in the Texas Hill Country and thus has only heard rumors and scary tales around the campfire. Most of the stories involved out-of-state tourists with an inexplicable fascination with tumbleweeds, to the extent that most of us had actually spotted them inside said tourists' cars, presumably being transported back to New Jersey or Massachusetts for some kind of show-and-tell about surviving the Old West.

Most of the dinner party guests who had lived in Midland for a couple of decades or more also had stories of finding tumbleweeds piled practically to the eaves of the house or blocking their garages after some particularly nasty storms. One man described how his wife cried for a year after they moved to Midland after getting married and she discovered the havoc the winds can wreak around here. And, of course, we here at Casa Fire Ant have experienced that disquieting predicament ourselves (the tumbleweeds and dust, not the crying for a year. Ours was no more than three months.). 

Anyway, our neighborhood experiences a phenomenon when the weeds tumble unlike most others in the area, because we have a couple of ponds. The combination of tumbleweeds and water is somehow even more depressing than having them pile up in your yard, except for the fact that someone else has to clean out the ponds.

I took a few photos after last week's T.E.

Photo

I wonder if the migrating ducks were perplexed by the stickery things floating in their temporary rest stop?

Photo

Our resident geese are, however, unfazed...jaded...or simply clueless. They're geese. What do you expect?

Photo

The dock doubled as an effective weed sieve.

Photo

The answer to the age-old question of whether tumbleweeds float is, apparently, "sort of."

Photo

The 45-mph winds blew tumbleweeds into a mass close to the bank of the pond; this was just the beginning.

Living on the outskirts of town has its advantages, but being a drag strip for tumbleweeds isn't one of them.

*These are obvious exaggerations. All of our roadways are asphalt.

Got a tumbleweed story of your own? Share it via email or on my Facebook post.

Snail
November 22, 2014 3:48 PM | Posted in: ,

We enjoyed on-and-off rain showers all day, and one consequence besides making the trees happy was the appearance of this guy. Or girl. Who knows?

Anyway, it was on our back porch and seemed to be begging me to take its picture. So I did. Snails can be very persuasive.

Snail
Snail
Snail

In case you're wondering, the snail didn't climb onto that bougainvillea bloom of its own accord. Yes, that's right; I blatantly manipulated nature for my own sordid photographic purposes. Life is cruel like that.

On the other hand, no snails were harmed (if you don't count hurt pride) in the making of these photos.

Comments? Criticism? Glowing praise? Email me or hit Facebook.
Alert Gazette readers may recall this post from almost two years ago, where I tracked down and photographed the elusive flow of Comanche Springs in Fort Stockton. To my knowledge, that was the last time the springs flowed, thanks to a combination of drought and continued heavy irrigation in the Belding Draw area just west of town.

Photo - Comanche Springs source

The region has had some fairly heavy rainfall over the past few weeks, but I haven't been down there to see if the springs are flowing. But we haven't seen any reports of flow in the local newspaper, and that phenomenon usually makes the front page.

So why bring this up? Well, I received an email yesterday from someone who ran across that post and wants to use some of my photos in an intriguing project entitled Our Desired Future. The accompanying website describes it as "a multimedia project to educate Texans on the interdependence of our groundwater, springs and rivers," with a stated goal "to inspire Texans to bring about the changes needed to keep waters flowing for future generations."

This is a laudable goal, and as far as I can tell, there's no hidden agenda. The material on the website presents a balanced look at the often-conflicting motivations of the various stakeholders in our state's water resources, and it effectively presents the dilemmas via stories, anecdotes, interviews, etc. with the goal of helping us understand the nature and magnitude of the problems, which unfortunately seem to have no easy answers.

Regardless, it was interesting to see that the first report focused on something going on in the aforementioned Belding Draw area of Fort Stockton, where Clayton Williams, Jr's son is undertaking something quite unfamiliar to West Texans: rice farming.

I don't have the time or energy (or knowledge) to explain the complex issues, although the story does a pretty good job of at least skimming the surface. But I do want to weigh in on something that the article touches on, and that's the idea that even if water can't be exported in liquid form straight from the source, it is still being exported in the form of crops. From this perspective, rice farming in arid West Texas is a bit of a provocative political statement. Jeff Williams, the farmer, admits that it's not logical, but he says that his family isn't being allowed to sell their water via pipeline so they're doing so via water-intensive crops such as rice and alfalfa (along with something called teff grass). And he wonders why there's a difference in the way the two are perceived.

Again, I'm not qualified to describe, much less assess, the legal issues involved, but I feel confident that there's at least one perceptual factor that muddies the waters, pun intended, and that's the perceived value of the potential uses for water that might be sold to someone else. It's pretty easy to make a case that using water to grow food is an entirely different endeavor than selling water for use in filling swimming pools or irrigating private landscaping comprised of non-native grasses, trees and shrubs that probably should never have been planted in the first place. We can argue about whether the latter uses are as economically valuable as the former, and in both cases the water is taken from its source and consumed, but I'm sure that most people will have an emotionally-charged preference.

The only quibble I have with the article itself is the statement that 35 million gallons of water can be pumped from the aquifer underlying Belding Draw every day and "still leave room to spare." The data I've seen varies depending on the agenda of those who paid for it, leading me to believe that no one really knows for sure, and no one can predict with certainty what will happen to that aquifer if the current drought persists and worsens. If this sounds like something you've heard me say before, you have a great memory.

As I mentioned at the top, Our Desired Future has some lofty and worthwhile goals. If you'd like to provide some financial support to help the team execute their plans, their website tells you how to do that.

Any thoughts? Feel free to share them via email or my Facebook page.

Winter is Coming
November 9, 2014 7:34 PM | Posted in: ,

No, this isn't a Game of Thrones post. But we are anticipating our first freezing temperatures of the season this week, so preparations are underway at Casa Fire Ant.

It's slightly ironic that our landscape is looking better than it has all year, just in time for a killing frost. Here's a sample of some of our flowers as they appeared yesterday...

Hibiscus

Bougainvillea

Rose

Rose

Our bougainvillea and hibiscus are in pots. Neither species will survive our winter in the ground, so we move them into the garage for the duration. Some horticulturists will tell you that being inside for the winter is not good for bougainvillea, but we have plants that have survived ten or more winters that way. And some even recommend forced dormancy as a survival strategy. The plants are puny in the spring, but after a few weeks of warm weather, they're typically back to their happy selves. I suppose the fact that we move them outside occasionally when the winter weather isn't too brutal so they can get a little sunshine might contribute to their hardiness.

It's a pain to move eight or ten fairly large pots in and out of the garage, so this year I've built something that I hope will significantly reduce the effort. I cut in half a 4' x 8' piece of 3/4" plywood and then rejoined the two halves with hinges, and attached six heavy duty casters (two of which are lockable) to the bottom. I threaded a couple of ropes through each end to tow and steer the platform, stapled a sheet of thick plastic to protect it from water leaks, and - voilà! - a movable plant stand that will accommodate all of our pots at once.

Here's what it looks like unburdened:

Rolling Plant Platform

And here's what the loaded version looks like:

Rolling Plant Platform

In case you're wondering, the hinges make it easier to store the platform. I can fold and lean it against a wall during the offseason.

I'm pretty happy with the way this turned out, although the construction wasn't without mishap. In accordance with my usual modus operandi, in which I essentially always have to redo a significant step that I messed up, I discovered that I countersunk the bolt holes on the wrong side of the boards and had to move the hinges to the other side so that the wheels didn't interfere with folding the platform. In addition, I failed to account for the countersinking and the bolts I used interfered with the wheels so I had to cut them off with a Dremel tool. Fortunately, I've done enough of this boneheaded stuff that I actually build in an allowance for it in my timeline and budget, and I'm disappointed in those rare instances that everything goes right the first time. OK, just kidding. I've NEVER had a project where everything went right the first time. But I've resolved to be disappointed if it ever does.

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven't actually tried to pull the loaded platform into the garage, so I may be in for a nasty surprise tomorrow night when I bring everything in for the first time. I did do a test run with Debbie sitting on it, but she weighs SO MUCH LESS than these plants - I mean, really, it's like comparing a feather to a dump truck...seriously! (she's right behind me, isn't she?) - that I'm not sure how realistic a test it was. I'll let you know if, when I unlock the wheels, the whole thing plummets down the driveway and drags me across the alley and through the neighbors' fence and into their pool. Or you can watch for the report on the evening news.

OK, I know some of you are geeky enough to be disappointed that this wasn't a Game of Throne post, so this is for you:

Winter is Coming Meme

Are you ready for winter? Have you messed up a project lately? Do you watch Game of Thrones? All of these are fodder for further discussion, especially the second one, as it will make me feel better. Email me or leave a comment on Facebook.

Contest! Turn this shotgun into yard art!
November 8, 2014 10:42 AM | Posted in: ,

I recently took possession of a 1960s-vintage 12 gauge single-shot shotgun, formerly owned by my father-in-law, who says the gun was shot only a few times. This was partly because the unchoked barrel made the gun pretty uncomfortable to shoot, but he also wasn't a hunter. So, the gun has been rusting away in a closet for decades.

Closeup of Model 94 shotgun

It's a Stevens Model 94 manufactured by the Savage Arms Corporation. According to this article, Savage turned out more than a million of these shotguns, starting in the 19th century, in a variety of gauges. They were inexpensive, and by the time this particular model came into being, "inexpensive" was an acceptable synonym for "cheap." What looks like a nice walnut stock is actually grade-A genuine plastic. These shotguns generally sell for around $100-$150 dollars in the aftermarket.

Model 94 shotgun

I've cleaned the gun a bit, although as you can tell by the first photo, it's still rusty. Somewhere along the line the bolt that tightens the stock loosened, and I can't tighten it so there's a wiggly gap (that's a highly technical gunsmithing term, I'm sure). In short, this shotgun is no longer destined for shooting. So, I've removed the firing pin, and I want to "repurpose" the gun.

Here's where you come in, oh gentle and creative Gazetteer. I need your ideas for turning this gun into yard art, either as a standalone piece or something that will hang on a brick wall. I could always just mount it as is and stick a flower in the muzzle, but that's awfully cliched (although perhaps age-appropriate for a hippies-vintage gun) and I'm sure you guys can come up with something better. The only caveat is that it has to be something that I can actually do...so try to think like a third-grader.

And, seeing as how today marks the 12th anniversary of the Fire Ant Gazette, I figured we should make this a little more special than usual, so if you have the "winning" idea, I'll immortalize you on these pages as a character in a short story. (Eventually.)

So, if you can think of some creative uses for a shotgun that has a little sentimental value, but none otherwise, please share them via email or on the Facebook post that links to this page. Thanks in advance, and may the blast be with you.

"Dread Champion"
November 2, 2014 3:05 PM | Posted in:

Gladiator is one of my favorite movies, a masterfully crafted film with a compelling plot and outstanding performances (proving once more that a well-made movie can make a hero out of an unlikeable actor, but that's another topic for another day). 

The main character, Maximus, is a high-ranking officer in the service of the Roman Empire who refuses to bend a knee to the murderous new Caesar, and is given a death sentence. His family is slaughtered, but he survives and is driven to avenge their deaths by becoming the most feared gladiator in the Empire. Maximus is a guy you'd like to have in front of you in battle - honorable, skilled, fierce, and determined. He's a champion you'd want in your corner.

We all need a champion to help us meet the challenges of life. And wouldn't it be cool to have one at whose mere appearance all enemies quake and flee, unable to withstand even the sight of our protector. Guess what? We've got one, and He's not merely a champion. Here's how the ancient prophet, Jeremiah, describes Him:

But the Lord is with me like a dread champion; therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. They will be utterly ashamed, because they have failed, with an everlasting disgrace that will not be forgotten.
Jeremiah 20:11 (NASB)

Incidentally, in The Message translation of this passage, that last sentence has this pleasingly graphic phrasing: Slapstick buffoons falling all over themselves, a spectacle of humiliation no one will ever forget.

Dread is an adjective that's rarely used nowadays, The Princess Bride and Predator 2 notwithstanding (go watch them again). It's defined as something that's regarded with awe; greatly revered, and also greatly feared. And while other translations of this passage from Jeremiah translate the phrase as mighty warrior or fierce warrior, there's something about dread champion that seems to surpass the mere human characteristics we might ascribe to a particularly skilled and brave fighter...especially knowing that champion implies someone who is not just an advocate for you, but is willing to do whatever it takes to protect you and defeat your enemies.

The next time you're feeling fearful and weak, remember that you have a Dread Champion ready to step in front and conquer the enemy that's attacking you. After all, as another wise writer put it, if God is for us, who can be against us?

How does the term "dread champion" resonate with you? Email me or leave a comment on my Facebook post!

The running adventures of an adventurous runner
November 1, 2014 2:48 PM | Posted in:

Editor's Note: I actually drafted this a couple of weeks ago, then promptly forgot about it. It's yet another post about running, so you may be excused if you have something better to do, like trim your toenails or re-roof your car. But be warned; I've now created a new category entitled "Running," so the dreariness is likely to continue.

Yesterday was like the perfect storm for running, although now that I think about it, storms are tumultuous and chaotic events and yesterday wasn't so that makes no sense. [rewind]

Conditions yesterday were ideal for a run: overcast, light winds, temperature in the mid-70s. I could see thunderheads on the horizon, but nothing threatening locally as I set out on what is becoming a regular route for my still-infrequent outdoor, non-cycling workouts.

I'm trying to get back into some semblance of running fitness after taking most of the summer off. I find no joy in running in 90°+ temperatures and I can't work heat-beating morning runs into my routine. But we've finally started to have some milder weather in West Texas and I've been taking advantage of it after work.

The last few runs have been brutal, as I'm reminded (again) that nothing really gets you in running shape like running. Hours on the elliptical trainer and bicycle will certainly help with the aerobic aspect, but they won't replicate the ground pounding that's a natural part of running. Conversely, running makes you run better, and I've paid a few dues lately that mean I can go longer, faster, albeit not much of either.

That doesn't mean it's easy, by any stretch. I'm challenged both physically and mentally to keep putting one foot in front of the other. One of my mental exercises is to lock in on the chorus of a song to help maintain a steady rhythm. (I don't listen to music when I run outside; that seems dangerous on the street, and unnatural on the trail.)

Interlude: Have you noticed I used a lot of parenthetical remarks? (Surely you have, being the observant and intelligent reader you are.) I'll try to do better. (Or not.)

However, I don't always choose wisely. Yesterday, for example, I covered about a mile with the chorus from Rich Mullins's Awesome God looping through my head, and while it's an uplifting mantra, after 50 or 75 repeats, it's no longer refreshing. My second choice - although "choice" isn't really accurate as I have no control over what my mind decides to do - was even weirder: Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic by The Police.

If there's one thing Sting know how to do, it's crafting a catchy hook in the songs he writes, and this is a great example. But the grammar is infuriating, and I found myself arguing with myself about whether either of us should be fixated on a chorus with a line like Everything she do just turns me on. Admittedly, that argument was good for another quarter mile of distraction.

At one point I came across a horseshoe, with nails intact, laying in the middle of the trail. I ran past it and then circled back, picked it up without breaking stride, and hung it on a fence post, intending to grab it at the end of the run and take it home to craft into something...crafty. Unfortunately, when I passed by it again, the thought of carrying even a few extra ounces of iron was more than I could bear, so it's still hanging there.

Other than a few coveys of quail, I didn't run across any wildlife, although I could have passed a whole menagerie at times without noticing; some of the trail is pretty rutted and rocky and I need to focus my attention a few feet ahead to minimize the possibility that I might also throw a shoe like that poor horse.

However, I ended the run near the pond at the north part of our neighborhood and decided to cool down by walking back to the house. There was a lone duck on the far side of the pond, and my presence on the sidewalk apparently unnerved him, so he decided to take to the air. Displaying typical duck form, he furiously flapped his way across the entire length of the pond, rising ever so gradually before finally clearing the cattails at the end by a few feet. Then he inexplicably made a u-turn as if he had changed his mind and wanted to return to that small body of water.

Unfortunately, he misjudged his landing and executed a rather dramatic and undignified belly-flop onto the grass a few feet away from the way. (I don't think I've ever seen a duck land anywhere but in the water...now I know why; webbed feet make poor landing gear.) That was followed by much thrashing and contorting as he regained his feet, at which point he looked around as if to say, "you guys, I totally meant to do that!" 

Indoor workouts have their place and value, but the price of missing scenes like that is a steep one.
 
Want to leave a comment? Email me or put it on my Facebook page. We'll all be glad you did!
We had just pedaled - very slowly, with agonizing effort - our recumbent tandem up a 650' section of road with an average slope of 17.2%, and once things finally leveled out a bit, my wife wondered aloud whether we were getting too old for that sort of thing. I wanted to dispute that notion but I lacked the lung capacity to do so, and, in fact, had wondered that very thing.
 
Of course, we could have stopped, gotten off the bike, and walked the hill. That would have been an admission of defeat that we haven't experienced in 25 years, and to do so might be the admission that as far as riding over the hill, we're over the hill.
 
Horseshoe Bay has some killer hills, in addition to the one described above. If you're familiar with the area, you know there's a significant elevation gain between Ranch Road 2147 and the HSB airport. There are several roads to get you there, but they are all basically long and steep. You can take Hi Mesa, which begins with a thousand foot climb that averages 16.4% slope (with one mercifully short section of 41.7%!). Hi Stirrup is an alternative; it also has an initial thousand foot climb but the average slope is only 15.6%. Then, there's Nolen Drive - the most direct route to the airport and the one most people will drive. It begins with a 1350' climb that averages 11.3% slope (but the last half is 14%), with a brief leveling out before continuing another 800' that averages 14.7%. We've never ridden that section of road. I ran up it once, and that convinced me that a motorized vehicle is the only sane method of transit.
 
We've ridden many memorable hills over the course of our cycling lives, including:
 
  • Vail to Vail Pass, Colorado - one 10.4 mile stretch averages 8.5% slope, with one short section of more than 30%

  • Freedom Trail Road, Kerrville, Texas - a 1,250' section averages 11.3% slope

  • Keystone to Montezuma, Colorado - a 5 mile ride with an average slope of only 5.3%, but it starts at an elevation of more than 9300' and ends a thousand feet higher than that, and has one section with a 36% slope

  • Road from McDonald Observatory Visitors Center to the summit of Mt Locke - this is perhaps the most infamous of roads for Texas cyclists. The entire distance is just over a mile, but the average slope is 13%, but one 700' section averages almost 19%, and the maximum slope is a ghastly 38%. Full disclosure: we rode this on our single bikes, not our tandem.

  • Bear Mountain (Fort Davis Loop), Texas - 1.5 miles with an average slope of 8.4%, but one 600' section averages 18%

  • Road from Fort Davis to McDonald Observatory Visitors Center - 1.5 miles with an average slope of 9.45, and one 200' section that averages 31% and a 700' section averaging 15%

  • Bear Creek Road (what is it about steep "bear" roads?) outside of Fredericksburg, Texas - 600' section averaging 10%, but the last half averages 14%
Out of fairness to ourselves, it's worth mentioning that on a recumbent, you can't stand up and pedal...you have to gear down and grind it out. Also, our tandem weighs around 60 pounds with our Camelbaks, loaded rack, and other accessories. Given those challenges, and the fact that we still haven't had to walk any grades, I feel pretty confident that we're going to be cycling the hills for a long time to come.

Note: All of these measurements courtesy of Google Earth, and I can't vouch for their accuracy but my legs and lungs can. 

Feel free to comment on this post via email or on my Facebook post. If you're a cyclist or runner, what's the most challenging hill you've faced?

The Importance of Being Earnest...on Twitter
October 11, 2014 1:44 PM | Posted in: ,

So this happened last week.
Let's backtrack a second. Here's some context, in the form of a brief partial thread on Twitter:

Screenshot of Twitter thread

That conversation thread was pretty innocuous, beginning with the other person's statement about wearing a personal fitness device to a wedding. My reference to the Pogo quote was in response to the other person's expression of an observation that was different from mine, but the subject was hardly controversial, nor the conversation adversarial.

If you're not a Twitterzen, that reference to a "friendly block" means that the person whose Twitter feed I was following will no longer allow me to post messages on or respond to their timeline. This is the type of action normally reserved for stalkers or people who post offensive things on someone's page. Or, in the case of this person, apparently, people who publicly express a belief in God or claim personal Second Amendment rights.

Here's the profile that seems to scare this person:

Screenshot of my previous Twitter profile

Now, I don't really know anything about the other person, whom I was following because of some interesting things they'd posted. I did know enough to understand that we had some significantly different views and values, but I'm not threatened by associating with people with whom I don't see eye-to-eye on every subject. Obviously, not everyone feels the same way. But it's hardly a life-changing event, and certainly not worth losing sleep over.

So why am I devoting a blog post to it, if it's not a big deal?

It did make me think about whether the public face I'm displaying on social media accurately represents who I am, especially on Twitter where you're limited to 140 characters. Am I unintentionally turning away people because I've been too cavalier in my self-descriptions, or used humor without the proper context that leads to misunderstanding?

In the case of the "guns and God" phrase in my Twitter profile, I was taking a not-so-subtle dig at Barack Obama's [in]famous quote. This is my semi-tongue-in-cheek method of displaying my political leanings, but some may read more into it than I intended.

If you're going to engage people on social media, especially outside the confines of friends and family, I think you need to be as transparent as possible about the values and interests that are so important to you that they form a big part of your personal identity. The preceding exchange caused me to evaluate how I was doing in that respect, and I realized that I was inadvertently making myself out to be someone I'm not.

For example, I'm a big supporter of 2nd Amendment rights, but guns don't really play a big part in my life. On the other hand, expressing a vague belief in God as almost an afterthought - and in a decidedly flippant manner - understates the nature and importance of my faith.

So, if someone decides to block me because I'm a Christian, I've got no problem with that. It's who I am. But if you block me because you think I'm a wild-eyed gun fanatic, then you've misread who I am. And, perhaps, that's because I inadvertently misrepresented myself.

Given those considerations, I've rewritten my Twitter profile so that anyone who sees it will be able to place in context anything I post or link to. It's not perfect, but I think it's better, and I hope it's adequate to let people know who they're dealing with.

Screenshot of my new Twitter profile

If you'd like to comment on this post, please email me or post something on my Facebook page.

Wrong Way Looking: Remedial Driver's Ed
October 6, 2014 9:34 PM | Posted in: ,

So, let me ask you a question. Is it just me, or have you also noticed that many drivers pulling up to an intersection tend to look to their right, and then back to their left after they start to move into the intersection?

I can't find any definitive statistics about whether the driver's side gets hit more often in side-impact collisions than the passenger's side, but based on my observations, I wouldn't be surprised to learn it's the former...simply because drivers are engaged in that peculiar behavior.

It's not an academic question from my perspective. It's not unusual for us to spot this kind of strange driver behavior when we're out on our bicycle, and trust me when I say that inattentive drivers are a cyclist's biggest nightmare. I can't count the number of times we've had cars pull in front of us (or begin to do so) and then spot us at the last second, simply because they looked right and then looked left only after starting to move into the intersection. (To be clear, in all of these instances, we've had the right of way.) Cyclists are always advised to try to make eye contact with drivers to increase awareness, but it's hard to make eye contact when they don't look at you until it's too late.

My firm recollection from driver's ed was the admonition to "look left, look right, then look left again." That was good advice back when we were riding mastodons, and it's still good practice. I'm dismayed that more drivers don't seem to be aware of it.

Comments? Email them or post them on my Facebook page. We'll all be glad you did.