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Fort Stockton by Foot (and then some...)
September 1, 2015 8:58 PM | Posted in: ,

City limit sign
 
Next time you're in a small town, grab a camera and go for a walk. I'll wager you'll notice some details that are either missing in the city, or easily overlooked. 
 
I did just that last Saturday in Fort Stockton. For those who aren't from this part of the country, that's the west-of-the-Pecos burg where I spent my [misin]formative years. I still have family there and so we're regular visitors. Here are some of the highlights of our three mile stroll.


The path less traveled is sometimes enhanced by the scent of creosote.

Trail through mesquite and creosote


The irony of a buzzard constructed of scavenged parts wasn't lost on us.
 
Buzzard made of spare parts


"As long as we're Romaining around, lettuce follow this trail..."
 
Salad Fork sign

Red, white, blue...and purple sage
 
Red, white & blue windmill behind purple sage

Someone steered him wrong
 
Longhorn skull


I mowed this yard when I was in junior high. It seems much smaller now. And quite a bit less grassy.
 
Big front yard


This ammonite shrine is as awesome as it is inscrutable. Note the petrified wood base.
 
Fossils and cactus


It's hard to see in this photo, but someone is having their asphalt-shingled roof painted. This house will be visible from the moon. 
 
Roof being painted white


This is Comanche Elementary. My first grade classroom is somewhere in this photo; there are two more wings in back where I went to second and third grades. The school is now abandoned. I swear I had nothing to do with that.
 
Comanche Elementary School


This is all that's left of the original playground equipment. Today, it would either be the subject of a lawsuit, or relocated to the Navy Seals training facility.
 
Playground equipment


This palm tree has no business being so content in the back yard of the house I grew up in. It's outlived many other trees, gardens, people, etc., and proves that benign neglect is sometimes healthy.

Palm Tree


Addendum: Later, on the same day, we traveled down US 385 to Marathon and dined at the 12 Gage Restaurant, adjacent to the Gage Hotel. The route takes you through the Sierra Madera Astrobleme -- which, I believe, is Latin for "big honkin' hole" -- and past some of the prettiest scenery in the state. It looks desolate, and it is, but that doesn't mean it's not teeming with life. On the return trip, around dusk, we encountered the following wildlife:

  • Deer (some of which made the runty Hill Country specimens look like something you'd buy at Toys 'R Us);
  • Javelina;
  • Bullbats (aka Common Nighthawks, or more imaginatively, Goatsuckers) swarming to catch their insect dinners before total darkness fell (they have no echolocation capabilities like bats), and one of which fell prey to the windshield of our SUV (perhaps confirming that they have no echolocation capabilities like bats);
  • One very long -- about the width of our vehicle -- snake stretched across the highway;
and, last but not least, but perhaps most intriguing...

  • One wedding party standing in the middle of the highway so the photographer could shoot the bride and groom with the dramatic sunset at their backs.
US 385 between Marathon and Fort Stockton, Texas
We recently returned from a vacation stay at Coronado, California (with an extended stopover at Las Vegas, but that's another story for another time). This was our fourth visit to Coronado, and we seem to be getting better with practice.

We stayed at the 1906 Lodge, a 17-room bed-and-breakfast named not for its address (which is actually 1060) but for the date of construction. It's a delightful place, within walking distance of just about everything on the island/peninsula/city (there's some confusion about how, exactly, we should refer to Coronado), yet far enough away from the main drag (Orange Avenue) that traffic noise is non-existent.

1906 Lodge
1906 Lodge

I'm planning on posting a more in-depth report of our stay (which I know you're dying to see, absent any accounts of oral surgeries done without anesthesia) but I wanted to start off with a video. On our last full day in/on Coronado, Debbie and I rented a tandem bicycle and toured the peninsula/city/island/whatever, and I recorded some of the afternoon on a GoPro camera attached to the handlebar. If you've never been to Coronado, you may not have a clear mental image of the beauty of the surroundings, and while the video doesn't necessarily do it justice, perhaps you'll get a feel of what we enjoyed every day of our stay. If nothing else, the Copland soundtrack might entertain and relax you.




A tree of unknown species
We have no idea what kind of tree this is.

Fall Fredericksburg Fandango
September 25, 2013 9:50 PM | Posted in: ,

We've just returned from a long weekend in Fredericksburg, where we were able to do many of the things we like to do best, including bicycling, dancing, and eating.

We stayed at a bed and breakfast on North Cherry Street, in a quiet neighborhood close to the western edge of town. It's one of the few B&Bs in the area that gives off a distinct Santa Fe vibe, both from an architecture and a landscape perspective. It also has the distinct advantage of being roomy enough to park a 10-foot-long bicycle inside without disrupting the flow of the space. I'd give you the name of it, but I don't want anyone else staying there so it will always be available for us. Well, that and the fact that I can't remember. That seems to happen a lot nowadays. What were we discussing?

Even though much of the Texas Hill Country enjoyed torrential downpours - and Fredericksburg got its share - we were still able to get in bike rides every day of our stay. I don't believe in karma, but one might make a convincing case that this was payback for our Memorial Day trip where we hauled the bike 300 miles only to watch it sit forlornly in the steady rain that kept us off it for the entire weekend. Anyway, we rode a total of 62 miles - a metric century, if you care about such things - and nothing fell off the bike, including us. That's always A Very Good Thing.

As an aside, we can remember when we rode that far plus a hundred miles on long weekend trips to the Hill Country. It would be nice to think that we could still do that, but as we get more miles on ourselves, getting more miles on the road no longer holds a great attraction. We just need to ride enough to justify eating well.

Following are a few photos from around the B&B. By the way, in the interest of accuracy in advertising, they should change the name of these facilities to "B&C," where the "C" stands for "coupons." Almost no one still offers breakfast. Instead, you get a coupon to apply towards a meal (generally breakfast or lunch) at a few choices of restaurants. Our hosts provided us with $7 coupons (per person), which we chose to use each morning at the Java Ranch Espresso Bar & Cafe where the kolaches, cinnamon rolls, and pecan coffee are highly recommended.

Photo - Passionflower
This passionflower was blooming in front of our B&B.

Photo - Green Anole
The geckos and green anoles (like this one) were busy
keeping the insect population in check.


Photo - Bugs on Cactus
Well, some insects were spared. These were getting ready to rumble.

Photo - Snails
Conspiratorial gastropods creep me out. They're talking about me, I just know it.

For those who are familiar with the Fredericksburg dining scene, we had dinner at Pasta Bella, Navajo Grill, and Crossroads Steakhouse, and lunch at the Peach Tree Tea Room, Bejas Grill, and Cranky Frank's. Yeah, that's right...not a German restaurant in the bunch. Oh, and we enjoyed fine al fresco dining at Luckenbach on Saturday evening; more about that later. I have to say that the lunches were uniformly superior to the dinners, although Pasta Bella never disappoints.

We made the obligatory side trip to the Wildseed Farms. It was nice to be there in double-digit temperatures. Seems like the last few times we've visited, it's been 100º+. And while it's no longer peak wildflower season, the grounds were in excellent shape, especially the butterfly garden.

Photo - Butterfly Garden
The Wildseed Farms butterfly garden was resplendent.

Photo - Butterfly Garden
We're getting toward the end of butterfly season in Texas,
but that just makes us appreciate those that are left that much more.


As I mentioned above, we played tag with the rainshowers during the entire weekend. We got in a two hour ride Thursday morning without getting out of the city limits (we were checking out real estate), and got back to home base about an hour before the rain started.

On Friday morning - the day that the forecast called for a 100% chance of rain - we contemplated taking a rest, but then decided to try to get in a brief ride. We had a very pleasant 45 minutes on the bike, and returned just as a light sprinkle was beginning. But within 20 minutes after pulling the bike into the house, here's what kicked in:



That's an awfully purty sound to a Texan's ears, especially if you're not hearing it from the soggy seat of a bicycle ten miles from home.

Saturday was clear and cool, if a little breezy, and we did a 30-mile ride into the country, where we enjoyed a number of pleasant and/or provocative sights.

Photo - Rushing river waters
It was good to see water in the Guadalupe and Pedernales Rivers.

Photo - Road sign
It was also good to know that we could squeak by on the weight limit.

Photo - Mushrooms sprouting in a cow pattie
You know that saying about blooming where you're planting?
Is this what they had in mind?


Photo - Turtle in road
This turtle was obviously disoriented by the rain, as he left the safety
of the mud for the danger of the road. (We rescued him.)


Photo - Rough green snake
This guy (gal?) picked a dangerous spot to catch some rays.

This beautiful creature is a rough green snake (some might refer to it as a grass snake). I had to look it up, because we don't have them in our neck of the woods, unless they're brought in with loads of non-native trees or shrubs. It was laying motionless in the middle of a rural road, one that was fortunately not well-traveled.

He didn't move a scale while I took a series of photos, and, in fact, I finally had to grab his tail to convince him to move off the road and into the pasture.

Photo - Rough green snake
She (he?) was wary but unmoving.

Photo - Rough green snake
Is this a threatening countenance? I think not.
(I've taken a lot of snake photos in my time, but this might be my favorite.)

One of the main reasons we like visiting the Hill Country are the plentiful and diverse choices of live music. There's no lack of dancing opportunities either, although claiming a spot on the dance floor is often a contact sport. (We're not averse to cutting the legs out from under our fellow dancers, provided they're older and slower than us. Which, come to think of it, never happens.)

On Friday night, we moved from the restaurant to the saloon at Crossroads, where a band out of Austin called the Debonaires performed a surprising variety of modern country and classic rock. Seriously guys, the ironic name is fine for those who know you, but we almost skipped it thinking you were a Fifties do-wop group. Not that there's anything wrong with Fifties do-wop, mind you. Crossroads has the world's tiniest dance floor, and some of the most inebriated young-women-whose-dates-won't-dance-with-them-so-they-"dance"-with-each-other. I'd insert air quotes around "dance" if I knew how, but I trust you know what I mean. Nevertheless, we weren't deterred.

Saturday had more opportunities than we could handle. Almost Patsy Cline was performing in Harper at 8:00 p.m., while Chris Story's CD release concert and dance was scheduled at Luckenbach at 9:00. Then, back at Crossroads, Del Castillo was also set for a 9:00 show. We've seen, heard, and danced to all of them, and they're each outstanding in their own way, but we decided to head out to Luckenbach.

We got to Luckenbach early enough to grab something to eat at the walk-up diner, and then got some prime seats inside the dance hall. It was eventually standing room only, and once again we had to fight for space on the dance floor. But that's sorta part of the fun of Luckenbach...it really is a family-friendly venue, and there were kids in strollers and octogenarians, and everything in between.

The band was even more awesome than usual. Chris has brought his band to Midland several times over the past few years, so we knew what to expect. But he's got a new guitar player (who also produced the new CD and wrote many of the songs) and he's absolutely amazing.

If you've been to Luckenbach, you know that the seating is at rows of picnic tables lined up perpendicular to the stage. The bench seating and limited space means that you'll likely be joined by strangers, and we eventually found ourselves surrounded by a group of folks who seemed to know each other, even though they were from different cities. As it turned out, one group was from Big Spring (just a few miles down the road from Midland, for you readers who aren't from our part of the state), and they were so excited to find some other West Texans that we were apparently made honorary family members (right down to the farewell hugs at the end of the night). In addition, one of the men in the group - Bryan Maynard - wrote one of the songs on the CD, which was pretty cool. And, on top of everything else, he gave us a copy of the new CD (entitled Chapter One...you can buy it here, but it's not available for download yet).

By the way, Chris Story and his band will be in Midland - along with Almost Patsy Cline - for the Wine and Music Festival in early October. 

So, that about wraps up our trip report, and...uh...what's that? Shopping? Well, yes, shopping did take place, and I even captured some photographic evidence. Sort of.

If you're a regular visitor to Fredericksburg, you probably know about Madlyn's, a women's clothing and accessories store that's well away for the main shopping area. It's been there forever, and I have no idea how they stay in business - we were there for an hour on Saturday afternoon and were the only customers during that time. But they do manage to stock some good stuff; Debbie seems to always find something and this trip was no exception. But here's what caught my attention:

Photo - Ceiling tiles

Recognize it? Well, sure, it's a section of ceiling tiles, but it's also apparently a part of the store's sound system. As far as I can tell, they've scattered their speakers around the store behind the tiles, so as you walk around the sound sort of fades in and out without an apparent source. It's really not a bad idea. However, it was sort of jarring to hear Texas rock from an Austin radio station coming from the ceiling of a store that caters to women who cut their musical teeth on the Lawrence Welk Show.

Our Lowcountry Tour Moves to Charleston
August 2, 2013 7:53 PM | Posted in:

The final leg of our South Carolina vacation (about which I've written here, here, and here) took us to Charleston, which takes its name from some historic figure (either Charlie Chaplin or Nick Charles, as I recall, although my memory is a little fuzzy).

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon, following a rather harrowing drive through one of the heaviest downpours either of us have experienced. Our hotel was located in the historic downtown area [you can pretty much tack "historic" onto any Charleston-related noun and be OK] which doesn't have the most driver-friendly layout in the world. But thanks to our geographically astute disembodied GPS guide, we made every turn correctly and arrived in pretty good shape. We were immediately greeted by Sam, the bell captain, who, upon learning our names, called us by them every time he saw us for the duration of our stay. I assume he did this for all the hotel guests, and while the hotel consists of only 50 rooms, that's still an impressive performance.

The hotel? It was the French Quarter Inn, and it reeked of elegance. Here's a quick photographic tour; you know the drill - click on the little pictures to see the big ones.

French Quarter Inn French Quarter Inn French Quarter Inn  - Stairwell French Quarter Inn - Stairwell Railing French Quarter Inn - 2nd Floor Courtyard The view from the 2nd floor balcony

The hotel is only a couple of blocks from the historic Charleston Harbor, and the historic Battery (dontcha call it "Battery Park," unless you're a Yankee and don't know any better) is a stroll of a mile or so past many historic fountains, historic mansions, and historic other things.

The harbor walk
A rare moment without sweating, wheezing runners, while strolling along Charleston Harbor

The harbor walk
The US Custom House is rife with pediments, entablatures, dentiled cornices, and balustrades. Why, it even sports an architrave.

The Battery at Charleston
The Battery has many statues of historic figures looking solemn or stoic. The more important ones managed both looks.

The harbor walk
There were many historic fountains, generally filled with urchins. The human youthful kind, not the spiny sea creature kind. Did you know that the pineapple is the Old South's version of a welcome mat?

A cobblestoned street
These are some serious cobblestones. Also, I was apparently
adjusting the handle on my head when this photo was taken .

Interior of one of the City Market  buildings
Our hotel was just a block from the historic Charleston City Market, which resembled a series of brick doublewides filled wall-to-wall with sweaty people. We bought stuff.

Rogue plant life on the side of buildings
I've seen ivy-covered homes before, but I've never seen ferns growing near the roofline of a three-story mansion.
You'd have to be awfully good with a weedeater to take care of that.

St
Charleston has many historic and/or old buildings, like The Cathedral of
St. John the Baptist. Many photographers suffer from chronic neck cricks .

I know I've been a bit irreverant with my commentary (ed. - ya think?), but the old downtown area of Charleston really is made for walking, and the beauty of the city is undeniable. It's full of architectural wonders adjacent to high end shopping and enough wonderful restaurants to rival any major metropolitan area.

We were about a mile from the South Carolina Aquarium, so we strolled down one morning and spent several interesting hours dodging the approximately eight million eight-year-olds who had descended like seagulls on the carcass of an exploded Great White Shark. Actually, watching and hearing the kids' reactions to some of the attractions was part of the fun...especially the poor kid who sat behind us in the 4D National Geographic Sea Monsters theatrical showing, and midway through the mildly scary film started blubbering and pleading for "someone PLEASE take me out of here! Please take me out!!" I suspect he had nightmares filled with marine dinosaurs for weeks, poor little guy.

Photo of some mook in 3D glasses
I'm pretty sure the kid was frightened by what was on the screen, and not by what was in the next row.

Hands-on exhibits are apparently a big deal now at aquariums, and this one let kids stroke stingrays - I couldn't help thinking, "Crikey!" and wondering what's next? Let's put a brown recluse spider down your sock and see what happens! - and fondle sea urchins. I stepped on a sea urchin once in Jamaica, and the only future encounter I want to have with one will be with me wielding a 5-pound sledge and a blowtorch.

We try to visit aquariums wherever we go and Charleston's ranks right up there on the Fun Scale. It's actually a combination aquarium and zoo, with small exhibits of birds, reptiles, and mammals, along with showcasing the typical watery denizens...including a two-story 385,000 gallon Ocean Gallery complete with miked scuba divers who narrate and take questions from the audience about the swirling sealife that surrounds them. Very impressive. Here are a few other scenes from the aquarium.

Albino alligator
They claimed this albino gator was alive, but we watched it for approximately 14 hours and never saw it move.
It was only later that we learned we'd been looking at a poster for the gator exhibit.

St
Did you know that some owls really aren't all that wise?

Pelican
What do pelicans dream about?

One of the exhibits was entitled Madagascar Journey, featuring the habitats and inhabitants of the island. It included a large lemur exhibit (well, the lemurs were pretty much regular size) with a tunnel that kids could crawl through and then pop up into a plexiglass dome in the middle of the action. Of course, if you know lemurs, you know that their primary action is sleeping, but I'm sure that between naps they were entertained by the kids.

On the way into the exhibit, we noticed a huge crowd pressed up against a small glassed-in enclosure. There were too many people to tell what it was, but everyone was rapt in their attention to whatever that enclosure contained. By the time we left, the crowd had thinned and we understood what had them excited. It was feeding time in the python cage, and the main course starred a little white rat. I tell you this up front so that you can scroll past the following pop-up photos if you so choose. (Weenie.)

Python enjoying a white furry meal Python enjoying a white furry meal
Our last day in Charleston was actually spent in the water in Mount Pleasant, which is located just across the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge. South Carolinians seem to be proud of their bridges, and I can see why.

big honkin' bridge
This bridge actually has a great bike/walking path along its entire span, and there were scores of people taking advantage of it.

We rented a couple of paddleboards at Nature Adventures Outfitters, where you launch directly onto Shem Creek, a quiet waterway that's practically teeming with dolphins. A couple of them surfaced close enough that we could hear them exhale and see the spray from their blowholes.

Debbie paddleboarding on Shem Creek
Debbie keeps an eye out for dolphins on Shem Creek.

Shem Creek opens onto Charleston Harbor, and if we looked closely, we could see the general area of our hotel in the distance. Paddleboarding in open water is a bit more challenging than in the calm of a sheltered creek, but the only trouble we experienced was when a jerk in a speedboat pulled up right behind me and gunned the engine, trying to knock me off the board with the resulting wake. (Didn't work.)

Debbie paddleboarding on Shem Creek
The Gilligan's Island theme song kept running through my head.

We headed into a freshening breeze (that's sailor talk, of course), and eventually got close enough to the Crab Bank Seabird Sanctuary to realize that the noise and the smell were sufficient to convince us we didn't need to get any closer. In any event, there's a bigtime fine associated with going ashore on the 22-acre sandpit island, which hosts an amazing variety of birdlife.

At the same time we were heading into the Harbor, a huge container ship was coming in. The ship was the MSC Heidi, a 1,089' 108,000 ton deadweight container vessel registered in Panama. I figured it was a couple of miles away from us, but we turned around and let the boat's wake carry us back toward land. The Heidi ended up docking close enough that we could see it from our hotel window, and I would have loved to see the gigantic container cranes unload it, but I never saw it happen.

Container cranes at the docks
It's difficult to imagine just how honkin' big these cranes are.

Container cranes at the docks
They reminded me of something out of Star Wars or War of the Worlds.

No Charleston trip report would be complete without talking about the food. Oh my. Each restaurant tried to outdo its competition in trumpeting its fresh, locally-sourced seafood and produce, and every meal was memorable. We ate dinner at three different restaurants, each one with a very different approach:

  • Our first night, we dined at Tristan, which is actually attached to, but not affiliated with the French Quarter Inn. Tristan is the kind of restaurant you'd see spotlighted on The Food Network, with the chef competing in Iron Chef. This is a destination for foodies, and for "adventurous" eaters who - like us - don't recognize many of the ingredients comprising the dishes set before them. We had the five course chef's special, and I couldn't name for you a single dish. We were both glad we ate there, but it wasn't our favorite meal.

  • The next night we walked a block to the Lowcountry Bistro, an unassuming narrown, two-story restaurant on Market Street. Their menu was more our style, with plenty of recognizable dishes like shrimp and grits with fried green tomatoes (which I had), and crab-stuffed flounder with white cheddar and ham grits (which Debbie had). I also had a delicious appetizer featuring pork belly, which is the grub-du-jour in South Carolina. We highly recommend this restaurant.

  • Our final night in South Carolina, we elected to go in a different dining direction, and went to Mercato, also located a block from the hotel on Market Street. Mercato is an Italian restaurant with a great atmosphere, especially if you get the big table right in front of the smooth jazz trio - like we did. The food is very good, although nothing spectacular (with the exception of their pork belly appetizer, an imaginative cannelloni dish that was amazing). Again, we highly recommend Mercato, especially if you want a change from ten days of seafood.

The complimentary breakfasts at the French Quarter Inn were up to the standards you'd expect from a highly-acclaimed hotel. No sign of DIY waffles or little boxs of Raisin Bran. Instead, they offered DIY mimosas and fresh berry-and-yogurt parfaits, individual breakfast quiches, chocolate-filled croissants (Tristan provided their pastries, and those we could recognize - and appreciate), and much, much more.

Charleston turned out to be a great place to visit and we'll make it a part of any future trips to South Carolina.

The Bedraggled Savannah Tour
July 31, 2013 9:12 PM | Posted in:

We left Palmetto Bay (which I've written about here and here) to make a day trip to Savannah, which is about twenty miles away, although it drives much longer. (Seriously, South Carolina...60 mph on your interstates? We have school zones in Texas faster than that.)

An impressive bridge
OTOH, they do have some impressive bridges.

Savannah drips with history. Also with humidity. Weather-wise, that was our most uncomfortable day of the week, and it was made worse by the amount of walking we had to do, thanks to the trolley tour. Allow me to explain, and take this as a cautionary tale.

We decided the best way to see Savannah was via one of the ubiquitous trolleys, complete with knowledgeable tour guide, so we spent $50+ on a 16-stop tour; the package included the entry fee to a cultural museum along the way.

We were trollied (is that a word?) from one overheated parking lot to another stifling parking lot where we boarded the real trolley (not the shuttle trolley), and the tour began. The first stop was in a shopping district, and we elected to disembark in order to buy a tote bag to replace the one we had conveniently forgotten to bring. We wandered around a bit and then re-boarded another trolley to continue the tour.

Paula Deen's store
A museum dedicated to that great Civil War heroine, Paula Deen

We hit the jackpot with that tour guide, a transplanted Brit named Michael who dispensed a steady stream of interesting historical trivia mixed with relevant current cultural references; it was fun to hear an oral history of the Old South dictated with a Cockney accent. (Was it really Cockney? I don't know; who do you think I am, Rex Harrison?) He was a wealth of information that I suspect you could find nowhere else. For example, we learned that Savannah was captured by General Sherman, who had the advantage of a fleet of biodiesel-powered tanks, during the Civil War. After taking a trolley tour of his conquest, Sherman gave the city to Abraham Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Lincoln was later overheard complaining that he'd rather have gotten a tie. I might be paraphrasing some of this, but you get the general idea.

We stayed with Michael for several more stops, until we came to the above-referenced museum. We didn't really want to leave the relative comfort and relevant narrative of the trolley, but felt compelled to display some cultural leanings by going through what turned out to be The Most Boring Museum In History. After a half hour of feigned interest, we went back outside to await the next trolley. We had apparently just missed it, because we had a long wait, and when it finally appeared, guess what? It was full, and no one got off! Apparently, we were the only tourists in Savannah who failed to read the memo regarding the MBMIH.

It was now midday, and we decided to find a place for lunch, with the assumption that the trolley hunting would go better on a full stomach. The MBMIH wasn't located in a hotbed of gastronomic delights, but we did happen across a small diner called Clary's Café (Where the staff is just as much fun as the food!). If that name sounds familiar, you have a better memory than me, because you obviously recognize it as a key fixture in the movie Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, taken from the two-decades-old best-selling novel of the same name written about a couple forced to spend their lives waiting for a tour trolley in downtown Savannah. Or something like that. I read the book; I don't remember much about the plot (obviously), much less the name of a diner that the filmmaker must have liked or disliked enough to shoot it. [And, by the way, it's amazing that with the hundreds of years of legitimate history bound to Savannah, that particular book and movie - along with Johnny Mercer - consumes an inordinately large proportion of attention from tour guides, in an apparent nod to the small appetites tourists have to actual old-timey historical stuff. Events that form the foundation of our nation and society? We'll pass. Spicy anecdotes about movie-set romances? More, please.]

Clary's Café

Anyway, we had a pedestrian meal in a semi-famous café. Clary's claims to be famous for its Reuben sandwich, and I like Reuben sandwiches, so I ordered one...only to be told that they were out of rye bread. But they did have excellent French fries, so it wasn't a total loss.

After lunch, we trudged down to the next trolley stop in hopes of completing the tour, only to find we were behind at least a dozen other hopeful boarders. After the obligatory 20-minute wait, the next trolley pulled up, and about six people got off the full shuttle. At that point I made the decision to cut our losses and pull the plug. It was hot and muggy, plus we were on the edges of a passing thunderstorm and our umbrellas were safely locked away in our rent car. So we walked a mile or so back to the parking lot, slumped into the stifling interior of the car, and drove away from Savannah. 

The only historical tidbit that has stayed with me is that when a statue shows a horse-mounted rider looking down and back, it means that the rider died from battle-inflicted wounds. Had I not had a healthy sense of self-preservation, that's the posture I would have assumed driving back to Palmetto Bluff.

Debbie and statue
Debbie and another tourist who stayed too long in Savannah

Animal Life in the South Carolina Lowcountry
July 29, 2013 9:07 PM | Posted in: ,

[We continue our vacation report from South Carolina. Here's part one.]

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Palmetto Bluff was the diversity of flora and fauna. I'm not much of a botanist, but the coastal pine forest, gigantic live oaks festooned with Spanish moss, and comic-book-sized magnolia trees bordered on awe-inspiring. It was the animal life, however, that fascinated me. It seemed that everywhere we turned we saw something interesting and generally un-West-Texas-like. Following are some random scenes to illlustrate this.

Photo - Green Anole
A green anole kept a close eye on us one morning during breakfast. (He dined a little himself.)

Photo - Dolphin fins
Shark! Well, not really. These are two of the Atlantic bottlenosed dolphins that frequent the May River
It's indescribably cool to paddle board around these friendly mammals.

Photo - Egret Sanctuary
Those white dots are egrets, roosting on an island in the lagoon just inland from our cottage.

Photo - Egrets
This is a little better view of some of the egrets. They were pretty noisy (and just a bit stinky, depending on the wind direction).

Photo - Bird and Gator eye each other
A shore bird keeps a close eye on a small alligator.

Photo - Alligator
This was the first of many gators we spotted while at Palmetto Bluff. They're qute shy.

Photo - Alligator head
A close-up of one of the lagoon gators. He wasn't thrilled with the papparazzi.

Photo - Rippled water behind a swimming alligator
There's something artistically sinister about the ripples following a slowly swimming alligator.

It's worth noting for those who might have some trepidation about vacationing around large aquatic reptiles with unsavory reputations that the alligators wanted to have absolutely nothing to do with us, or any other humans. And while we spotted them almost every day, we went out of our way to do so. It's not unlikely that one could spend a week on the grounds and never see a gator (which saddens me greatly, but that's just me).

Photo - Great Blue Heron
A Great Blue Heron was trying to stalk dinner while simultaneously keeping an eye on me.

Photo - Turtles
How many turtles can you spot?

Photo - Ant beds stretched across a dirt road
Ant beds might not have the excitement of gators, but I was curious as to why the ants lay out a series of
beds in a straight line across a dirt road. We came across several occurrences of this phenomenon.

Photo - Debbie in front of hill of dirt
And speaking of ants, they grows some big honkin' fire ant mounds in South Carolina!
(We couldn't help yelling "Marabunta!" as soon as we spotted it. You SyFy fans know whereof I speak.)

The last scene needs a bit of setup. One afternoon after lunch we were walking around the grounds. One of the lagoons was on our left, and we normally kept an eye out for alligators as we walked or bicycled past them. But Debbie looked to the right and spotted three deer just across the road in the wooded area. I didn't have my camera with me (what?!) so pulled out my phone, even as I realized they were too far away for a decent shot. A movement back toward the lagoon caught me eye, and I suddenly had a really good reason to keep my phone out and filming.

The bird is a Great Blue Heron (we've actually seen them around our neighborhood). The snake is a Small Unwilling Meal.

A Week in the Lowcountry
July 28, 2013 6:51 PM | Posted in:

It took us fifteen hours to get there, instead of the expected six. We fell into bed at 4:00 a.m. of the morning after we had planned to arrive, and were awakened at 7:00 a.m. by a tornado warning. We were telephoned by the front desk informing us that we'd overstayed our welcome and asking when we'd be leaving. And in between, we had one of the best times ever on a vacation.

The Destination

We celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary a couple of weeks ago, and we decided that a special trip was in order. Debbie researched potential destinations on the web and landed on an hitherto unknown place - to us, anyway - known as the Inn at Palmetto Bluff, located on the coast of South Carolina in a part of the state referred to as "the Lowcountry" (which, frankly, strikes me as a poor nickname, but if it works for them, who am I to judge?).

Palmetto Bluff is a 20,000 acre planned development, with beautiful custom homes living in harmony with rentals, town homes, and, of course, the Inn. The property has 35 miles of shore line along the May River and lagoons that wind through some of the most beautiful coastal forest you'll ever see.


The Trip

We were scheduled to leave Midland via Southwest Airlines around 1:00 p.m., and catch a connecting flight in Houston that would take us directly to Charleston, which is about two hours north of Palmetto Bluff. We figured we'd be in our room no later than 9:00 p.m. We figured wrong.

Thanks to a mechanical issue, we left late enough that we missed our Houston connection. SWA had thoughtfully booked us an alternate flight to Charleston...through Chicago. Long story made short: we landed in Charleston just after midnight, trudged out to our rental car in a steady drizzle, and drove on unfamiliar roads, much of which were under construction, to a destination we'd never been to, arriving after 3:00 a.m.

But get this: a bellman was waiting for us, greeting us with a smile, calling us by name, and he quickly loaded our bags and us into an overgrown golf cart and took us to our cottage. It was just a foretaste of the service we'd get all week.

The Accommodations

Our new home was a pristine 1100 square foot cottage with a vaulted ceiling, pine flooring, a full-sized fireplace with a wall switch-controlled gas log, and a screened private back porch overlooking the May River. Here are 11,000 words worth of photos; click for full-sized pictures.
Main Living AreaMain Living AreaSitting AreaWet Bar Gas FireplaceWindow SeatDressing AreaHis and Her ClosetsBathroomBack PorchPierra, the Bed Gator

The little alligator is Pierre, and if the housekeepers find him on the bed each day, they know not to change the sheets. You could say he's an ecogator, but I wouldn't advise it.

As you can see, the room was well-appointed and made for spoiling guests. We weren't thrilled to have a Keurig coffeemaker - it's not our favorite form of coffee - and the wi-fi was a bit on the slow side, but those were the only complaints we could come up with.

After a couple of days, however, we noticed that the lighting wasn't as bright as it was when we checked in. We wondered if they'd come in and swapped out all the bulbs; it took us a while to notice the details on the light switches.

Light switches with dimmer sliders

We're a bit slow on the uptake, I guess, because we didn't notice that every switch in the cottage had a tiny dimmer slider, and housekeeping had set all the lights to a more romantic [I suppose] level. We were happy to restore the lighting to a level more in keeping with our aging eyesight.

In any event, waking up to a view like this each morning provided plenty of atmosphere.

Morning sun through the shutters

The Surroundings

I could spend hours trying to describe the beauty of the landscape, but as always, pictures will do a better job.

Our front porch
Our front porch and bicycles

Our front porch
Even the path to our cottage was amazing.

View from our back porch
View of the May River from our back porch

May River at low tide
May River at low tide

Looking north from our back yard
Looking north from our back yard

Looking south from our back yard
Looking south from our back yard

The common area in front of our cottage
Part of the common area in front of cottages

Palmetto Bluff is crisscrossed with miles of paved walking/bicycling paths (and we discovered some additional miles of unpaved-but-smooth roads off the beaten path). Every cottage has two cruiser bikes assigned to it; they weren't speedy but they were comfortable and well-maintained, and we put them to good use spending hours exploring the property. Some of the views were just stunning to our West Texas eyes.

View from bike path
Morning view from bike path; can you spot the gator head?

View from bike path
The paths meandered along these lagoons.

View from bike path
Wood and steel bridges with separate cycling paths span the lagoons.

View from bike path
You sometimes felt you were on the world's largest golf course.

View from bike path
The paths were wide, smooth, and well-maintained.

View down unpaved road
We did explore some of the undeveloped parts of the acreage. Never saw another person.

Around the Grounds

It seemed like everywhere we turned, there was something interesting to see.

Driftwood sculpture of nesting birds
A driftwood sculpture of nesting egrets was donated by one of the residents.

Driftwood sculpture of nesting birds

Firepits
These fire pits were lit each night and all the ingredients for DIY s'mores were provided.

The community vegetable garden
There was a community garden...

The community vegetable garden
...and anyone could partake of its produce via the honor system.

Debbie on a rope swing
We couldn't resist this rope swing overlooking the lagoon.

Exterior view of the chapel
A chapel on the grounds had a bell tower that announced the hour.

View from inside the chapel
View from inside the chapel

Sign at the swimming pool
The weather was delightfully mild during our stay...

The shopping center...one store
...and the shopping was delightfully limited (one store).

Plantation ruins
These are the ruins of the 19th century plantation/lodge that once dominated the site.

Burial site for hunting dogs
This small cemetery in back of the Inn contains the remains of beloved hunting dogs.

Palmetto Bluff Inn
And speaking of the Inn, this is it.

Oyster beds at low tide
Low tide exposed oyster beds as far as you could see.

Boats stacked like firewood
There were plenty of boats stored on site, but very little actual boat traffic.


The Dining

We're getting to the serious stuff now. Palmetto Bluff doesn't have a plethora of dining choices - there were four restaurants on the property - but what it lacks in quantity it more than compensates in quality.

The River House Restaurant is located in the Inn, and it's the most elegant of the alternatives. We ate there twice, once to celebrate our anniversary and again on the last night of the stay. The staff was friendly, knowledgeable, and observant, and the meals were memorable. In the afternoons, the restaurant offered a veranda menu of appetizers and libations.

River House dining room

River House veranda

The Canoe Club had a slightly more casual ambiance, but the menu was just as impressive, as was the staff, and the view was even more so. It's on the second floor, and the full length windows that lined both walls provided beautiful views of the May River on one side and the lagoon on the other.

As much as we like the elegance of the River House, we thought the Canoe Club offered the most enjoyable combination of food and atmosphere on the property.

Canoe Club
The Canoe Club from the lagoon side

The May River Grill is located on the 18th hole of the golf course, serving only lunch and giving hungry and thirsty golfers a first-rate rest stop. We ate there the first morning following our arrival, and we weren't too drowsy to be surprised at the delicious offerings of what we first thought would be basically a burgers-and-fries diner. We would gladly have enjoyed more lunches there, but it was closed the remainder of our stay for some maintenance.

May River Grill
The May River Grill as viewed from the golf course

View of the golf course
The golf course as viewed from the May River Grill

Finally, Buffalos served breakfast and lunch in a very casual setting. We bicycled over for breakfast every morning, and for lunch at least once. We were also fortunate to be there on a Sunday, because their breakfast buffet was not to be missed. We tried to eat on either the patio or the screened-in porch whenever possible; the photos below offer sufficient explanation, I think.

The patio at Buffalo's

The view from Buffalo's patio

Rain/Dance
May 29, 2013 10:09 PM | Posted in: ,

Even though there is some Biblical support for the adage that if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans, I've never bought into that concept except as it applies to plans that are clearly contrary to His will. And so when I tell you that we took our bike to Fredericksburg for a long weekend of riding and ended up getting on it not even once because it rained every day, don't believe for a second that I think God broke a region-wide drought just to foil our plans.

Not that it didn't cross my mind.

But I do believe that when a door closes, a floor opens, and thus we found ourselves in the happy position of dancing through an entire Memorial Day weekend, in ways we never imagined. But I'm getting ahead of myself. And I hope you're intrigued enough to stick around for yet more vacation slides.

But first, you need to know that I now plan to devote my life to becoming the premier frottoirist in Texas, if not the world, as I've come to realize that the rubboard represents the pinnacle of musical achievement in the history of mankind. There's really no higher calling.

Frottoir player - Zydeco Angels
My new musical hero

Accommodations

We booked three nights in the "Gabrielle" unit of the Patio Sisters bed & breakfast (motto: "big bed...no breakfast"). If you follow the preceding link, you'll see a professional presentation of the photos I took, shown below, except you'd never know there was a toilet by looking at the professional pictures. So I recommend going with mine, especially since I spent so much time on them. But it's your call.

Exterior View Our door had a name The patio The fireplace More patio We never even uncovered the hot tub The interior was spare We were never sure of the barrel's purpose Good bed, excessively pillowed Country chic ceiling Metal-lined shower with bumpy floor Ah...there's the toilette

Here are the takeaways from the weekend's accommodations:

Pros:

  • Great location - within walking distance of Main Street, but far enough to escape much of the traffic noise.
  • Quiet
  • New constructions - clean and well-maintained; everything worked
  • Comfortable bed and effective HVAC
Cons:

  • The corrugated metal and rustic wood motif was a bit tiresome
  • River rock on shower floor very uncomfortable on some feet, and overhead "rain" shower head may not be everyone's cup of tea
  • No closets. No chest of drawers or bureau. No problem if you don't mind living out of your suitcase.
There was a time when I'd have listed "no breakfast" as a drawback, but the current standard seems to be to provide certificates good for breakfast (or, frequently, lunch) at local eateries. In this case, we had certificates for $7 each for each night's stay, and the restaurants were ones we liked anyway (Bejas Grill, Rathskeller, Java Ranch, etc.). The certificates never cover the entire cost of a meal - at least, not the way we eat; YMMV - but it's a nice gesture, and beats the meager "continental" breakfasts served by many B&Bs that still give lip service to the second "B."

Dining

I already touched on that above, so we may as well round things out. Frequent visitors to Fredericksburg will recognize the following:

  • Peach Tree Tea Room - sandwich sampler and chilled avocado soup ($$)
  • Pasta Bella - eggplant parmigiana ($$)
  • Bejas Grill - fish tacos, chips and hot salsa ("hot" as in who microwaves their salsa?!) ($$)
  • Hondo's - grilled mahi mahi sandwich ($$)
  • Navajo Grill - beef tenderloin and lemon pie with a brûlée topping and fresh berries ($$$$)
Oh, and this...

Big honkin' German pancake
Big honkin' German pancake

Shopping

It rained on and off through the weekend. Did I already mention that? So the time that we would have spent on the bike was instead spent going through every store on the main drag. Every. Store. Fortunately (for me), the only thing we bought was foodstuffs, and empty calorie stuff at that.

That means we passed up some real finds.

Cowboy wine bottle holder
This would be an elegant addition to any decor

Nature

The Texas Hill Country has not completely escaped the drought that has ravaged most of Texas, but it's faring pretty well this year - especially after last weekend. Did I mention that it rained all weekend? San Antonio got some historic, flooding rainfall, and while Fredericksburg wasn't similarly afflicted, I suspect that over the next week or so the landscape will start to display the luxurious green hues that should be the norm. Also mosquitos, stifling humidity, and fire ants, but what's lemonade without a few lemons?

I understand that the bluebonnet crop wasn't quite as good this year as in the past, but that doesn't mean that the wildflowers didn't make a showing.

Wildflower-filled pasture
Wildflower-filled pasture

You don't have to get out of the city limits to enjoy nature. This guy was sunning just a block from Main Street.

Turtle
Witness some of the worst looking legs and feet in the Animal Kingdom

We went for a walk around the neighborhood at dusk on Sunday, and were mesmerized by the sight of dozens of fireflies twinkling all around us. Fireflies make make even really good things better.

We also drove through a number of neighborhoods, with an eye toward possibly investing in some real estate at some point. There were some very nice neighborhoods where people had seemingly neglected their properties, as we saw broken and even boarded-up windows. This was puzzling and a little disturbing until we learned that the town had been hit by a monster hailstorm about a week earlier...softball-sized hail had done a number on houses across the north side of Fredericksburg. We saw big agave plants that had been smashed to jelly, and oak trees stripped of their foliage; cars were missing moonroofs, and houses had tarp-covered voids where skylights once resided. Bad mojo, and the only thing that would have kept something like that out of the news was the F5 tornado that tore through Oklahoma the following day.

Entertainment ("Here there be dancing")

You perhaps heard that it rained most of the weekend, thereby stifling our cycling plans. We even skipped our planned outing to Luckenbach on Friday night, not wanting to deal with the muddy conditions. But we're nothing if not adaptable. As it turned out, the annual Crawfish Festival was taking place within walking distance of our B&B, and for $15 each, we got weekend passes to live music starting around lunch each day.

Variety was the musical theme for the weekend. On Friday night, we danced to country music by Jake Hooker and the Outsiders, on Saturday night we danced to big band ballroom music (at the Hangar Hotel, at a fundraiser for the USO) provided by Bill Smallwood and the Lone Star Swing Orchestra, and on Sunday afternoon we boogied to zydeco as performed by Jean-Pierre and the Zydeco Angels. And somewhere in there we squeezed in some Latin moves to an arrangement of Santana's Black Magic Woman as ably rendered by the Walburg Boys (who, in an awesome display of musical versatility, also provided some of the best yodeling we've ever heard, although, frankly, that's not saying all that much).

There's something about copious amounts of crawfish and Cajun music that makes otherwise normal people make questionable choices in haberdashery. Beer might have also made a contribution.

People wearing crawdad hats
Head-mounted crustaceans: cutting-edge fashion trend

The dance floor at the Hangar Hotel was small and tacky (in the sense of being sticky, not in poor taste, although to a dancer the two are synonymous). Also, because the orchestra had "swing" in its name, and there was a swing dance lesson beforehand, most of the dancers seemed to feel obligated to dance swing steps to every song, which made doing foxtrots and waltzes somewhat challenging. But it's a rare thing to be able to dance to a big band doing the standards of times past, and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

Hangar Hotel dance
All reet, you jive hep-cats

The floor was slightly less crowded at the Crawfish Festival, especially on Sunday afternoon.

Dance area at the Crawfish Festival

The thing about good music and an open floor is that it leads to, well, dancing...and that dancing can originate from unexpected (but delightful) sources.



So, what's your excuse?


That gentleman rolled in with his walker and spent most of the afternoon twitching in his chair until he finally couldn't stand it any longer and had to give in to the urge to surge.

The music, by the way, was provided by the aforementioned Zydeco Angels.

Jean-Pierre and the Zydeco Angels

That's Jean-Pierre on the squeezebox, but the real star is, of course, the rubboard player. Did you know you could get special rubboard gloves? They're the mark of a true professional; here's a closeup:

Gloves of a frottoir player

Actually, these are very high-tech compared to most, which use either bottle caps or thimbles to generate the percussive sounds. Also, rubboards (aka frottoirs) are not exactly cheap. But I'll let nothing stand in my way of becoming a world-class washboardist, so I'm cashing in my 401K. Pretty soon.

So, we didn't get to bicycle around some of our favorite haunts, but we didn't let the rain dampen our enthusiasm. It pays to have a fallback passion, one that doesn't depend on the weather. As long as we can find some good music and a bit of floorspace, we'll do just fine. And last weekend, Fredericksburg repeatedly rose to the occasion.

Spring Vacation 2013: San Diego/Las Vegas
May 18, 2013 2:52 PM | Posted in:

Yeah, I know that looking at someone else's vacation photos is lame, but, really, if you had anything better to do you wouldn't be here. Am I right?

In what's becoming something of a tradition for us, we headed back to San Diego last month, and made a brief stopover in Las Vegas on the way home. April is a great time of year for this itinerary. San Diego is much too crowded in the summer, and Las Vegas is much too hot.

As usual, we stayed at the Glorieta Bay Inn. As a resort, it's nothing special, but the location in Coronado is ideal, and the price is right, especially compared to the high-end and iconic Del Coronado which is across the street.

Speaking of the Del, it's celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, and they managed to wrap one of the hotel spires with a big honking gold ribbon to commemorate the occasion.

Photo of the Del Coronado

Downtown San Diego is across the bay from Coronado. There are so many great photo ops; this is one my favorites.

Photo of the San Diego Skyline

We're always in awe of the horticultural richness of this area. The record low temperature for Coronado was 29º in 1949, and the highest monthly average temperature is 77º (in August), so just about anything except tumbleweeds flourishes there.

Photo of a flowering Bird of Paradise

We took a short drive down the coast to Imperial Beach (which, frankly, was kind of smelly), and were impressed by this ice plant-covered vacant lot next to a cozy beach house.

Photo of blooming ice plants

It's still California, however, and will someday disappear into the sea.

Photo of an earthquake warning sign

This was our fourth trip to San Diego, but just our first time to tour the USS Midway, the aircraft carrier that's now a floating naval museum. It's a fascinating experience, whether or not you're a history and/or military buff. The flight deck is home to many aircraft, and where there are warbirds, there are armaments. Who doesn't love armaments?

Photo of guns and stuff on an airplane

And more armaments...

Photo of guns and stuff on an airplane

I've already used the term "iconic" once in this post, but another San Diego icon is the "sailor kissing nurse" statue on the Embarcadero, which is visible from the USS Midway. It's an inspiring sculpture.

Photo of somebody kissing

Speaking of the Embarcadero, it's a great place to stroll on a Sunday afternoon and take a look at the modest bass boats anchored in the bay.

Photo of the Vibrant Curiosity

This is the 280-foot superyacht Vibrant Curiosity. See that triple row of silver rails running vertically up and over the top of the boat? That the track for an interior elevator so the guests don't have to weary themselves with a long climb up the stairs. (Impressive as it is, it's still puny compared to the 330-foot Attessa IV that was docked here last year.)

Another must-see destination in San Diego is the collection of museums at Balboa Park. We never tire of the Air & Space and Automotive Museums.

Photo of window-mounted car air conditioner

Remember when car air conditioners looked like that? You do? Wow...you must be really old.

Photo of Hercules motorcycle with Wankel engine

This is a Hercules Wankel 2000, a German motorcycle introduced in 1974. It was the first motorcycle with a rotary engine offered for sale to the general public.

By the way, Debbie got lots of admiring stares as she paraded through Balboa Park in her Mayan princess costume and pet jaguar. OK, not really. San Diegoans are quite jaded, and no one gave her a second look.

Photo of a real Mayan princess

I never figured out whether this was an alligator or a crocodile. Whichever, he hasn't been eating well.

Photo of reptile sculpture

I also never figured out why Debbie insisted on wearing 3D glasses throughout the trip. It's a good look, though.

Photo of Debbie in 3D glasses

Our stay in San Diego ended all too soon, and we hopped on a Southwest flight to Las Vegas, where we'd booked a room at the Vdara Hotel. This is a fairly new hotel on the Strip (it opened in 2009) and we were attracted to it because it's non-smoking and doesn't have a casino. It's also centrally located, overlooking the Bellagio and next door to the Aria.

We had a room on the 42nd floor, and we were sort of disappointed by the rustic nature of the surroundings. We actually had to get out of bed and walk over to the wall to operate the remote-controlled shades on the huge picture windows that spanned the entire length of our 582 square foot room. I mean, really?

Like you, I've always wondered what happened to all those canoes from summer camp once they reach the end of their floatiness. Wonder no more...this is the "sculpture" in front of the Vdara (that's the Aria in the background).

Photo of canoe sculpture

Here's the view from our room, looking down on the fountains at the neighboring Bellagio.

Photo of the Fountains at the Bellagio

Even from 400' up and behind plate glass we could hear the faint sounds of the fountains when they fired off.

You can make out the inner workings of the fountains from this angle. Those guys walking around are the pool cleaners.

Photo of fountains

I had never thought about it before, but there's a lot of trash on the sidewalks of the Strip, as well as a lot of tipsy and/or inattentive/inconsiderate people (I'm sorry to burst your bubble if this was a shock to you), and so a lot of gunk ends up in the Bellagio's pool. Someone has to keep it clean, and these are the guys, dressed in their wetsuits and floating on their party barge. A Saturday morning is an ideal time for this work.

Photo of fountain cleaners

Whereas San Diego is chockfull of natural wonders, most of the amazements in Las Vegas are manmade. Doesn't make them any less notable, of course.

Photo of a hotel lobby

Photo of giant mushrooms

We don't go to Vegas to gamble; we're there for the shows, and we saw one each night we were there. On Thursday night, we caught a taxi down to the Stratosphere where Frankie Moreno has a nightly show. This is an awesome musical show by a guy who will likely someday be headlining a show in one of the premier hotels in Las Vegas. Moreno and his brother are musicians and songwriters, and they've put together an first-rate band that specializes in what I would call "big band music with an edge." The only way it could have been better is if we could have danced.

Photo of Frankie Moreno and band

By the way, don't confuse this show with that of Frank Marino, who is a female impersonator. You might be surprised if you expect one and get the other.

On Saturday night, we went to see the production of Jersey Boys at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel. If you're one of the few people in the nation who aren't familiar with this long-running show, it's the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and it was very entertaining, although the language will make a sailor blush (but probably not a 14 year old high schooler).

We also had a good view of the Paris hotel from our window:

Photo of Paris Las Vegas Hotel

It's good to go on vacation, but it's also good to come back home, especially following the municipal insanity known as Las Vegas. We're now looking forward to a summer trip to Hilton Head Island. Stay tuned for more pictures...don't say you weren't warned!
On Saturday, May 12, Debbie and I drove to Fort Davis to attend the annual fundraiser for the Marfa public radio station (KRTS 93.5). This year's event was held at the H.E. Sproul Ranch, located about seven miles northwest of Fort Davis, and included a donated artwork sale, catered dinner, and barn dance. We never pass up the opportunity for dancing in interesting places, and this event took place in a spectacular setting.

If you're familiar with the Fort Davis area, but have never been to the Sproul Ranch, you take Highway 118 toward McDonald Observatory, then turn onto an unpaved road immediately before you come to Prude Ranch. The ranch lodge is about 2.5 miles down that rather rough and occasionally treacherous road.

Photo of ranch road

Despite some recent rain, the landscape was still obviously suffering from the ongoing drought. Nevertheless, the natural and manmade scenery is awe-inspiring, as shown below. The structures on the top of the mountain are part of the McDonald Observatory complex.

Photo from ranch road

The ranch complex consists of a lodge, several suites, a barn, and a beautiful swimming pool that epitomizes the concept of an oasis.

Photo of ranch road
Photo of ranch road
Photo of ranch road

The preceding photo represents one of the abundant visual anachronisms that occur where 21st century technology is placed into an Old West setting. The rather large contraption in the background is a radio telescope, and it wasn't until I did some research that I learned that it's part of a network of such devices called the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA). The VLBA consists of ten radio telescopes spanning more than 5,000 miles, from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands, and is used to conduct a wide variety of scientific research. (For another photographic perspective of the Sproul Ranch telescope, scroll down a bit on this page.)

The art show was an interesting event. All the pieces were 5"x5" and were for sale at the set price of $93.50 (corresponding to the radio station's broadcast frequency). It was sold on a first-come, first-served basis, and while Debbie and I didn't get there early enough to get our favorite piece, we did score a pretty cool quilted square made by a Fort Davis artist named Kathleen Morris. Here's a scan of the piece:

Scan of artwork

Note the wonderful little ocotillo in the lower right corner, complete with red flowers. I think we got a great deal.

At the beginning, I implied that our primary motivation for attending this event was the dance, and we weren't disappointed. Doug Moreland grew up in Fort Davis (his dad now lives there), and his brand of western swing is a lot of fun to listen and dance to. I got the impression that this isn't necessarily his regular group - there were just three of them - but they had a great sound and each one was a gifted musician. Moreland is shown below playing the fiddle; according to his website, he's also a chainsaw artist.

Photo of Doug Moreland and band

The dance floor wasn't large, and it got even smaller when they moved tables in from the dining tent, but, fortunately, not a lot of people danced. The only downside was when a well-meaning but inexperienced volunteer dumped a two-pound bag of white cornmeal on the concrete floor to make it easier to dance on. We tried to politely warn her that she was overdoing it, without effect, and sure enough, a little later an older couple (older than us, even!) slipped and fell. Fortunately, only their pride was injured. The photo below shows how the floor looked after a several dances; it looks like we were two-stepping on an ice rink! You can imagine how our boots looked after kicking through the corn meal dust.

Photo of ranch road

Overall, it was a great time and we'd do it again in a heartbeat. I have no idea how much money the station raised, but there were several hundred in attendance, including at least four couples from Midland.

We didn't stay at the ranch lodge; it was booked up. Instead, we stayed at the Harvard Hotel in Fort Davis (across the street from the Limpia Hotel, and next door to the drugstore). The Harvard is owned and operated by the Sproul Ranch, and offers very nice, quiet accommodations. And breakfast at the drugstore is hard to beat!

Borders Ruins
July 26, 2011 7:45 AM | Posted in: ,

On July 18th, Borders Group, Inc. announced that it was closing 400 bookstores and liquidating its inventory, having failed to find a rescuer after it declared bankruptcy. The company is another victim of technology, having missed the boat, the train, and even the bus that runs to the online hubs for selling books and music.

You might think that an ancient city like Santa Fe, New Mexico, would be slow to embrace change, but in this case, it seemed to be ahead of the curve, because here's what we encountered at the former location of its Borders store in the Sanbusco Center on the 17th, just a day before the aforelinked announcement. 

In reality, the Santa Fe store knew its fate back in February, soon after Borders announced its bankruptcy.
 
Photo of an empty Borders bookstore
Photo of an empty Borders bookstore

This is downright spooky - 25,000 square feet of mostly empty space previously crammed full of books and music, although as you can see in the first photo, someone is trying to keep the coffee shop alive - it's now called the Lucky Bean Café - which actually makes the place even weirder. I assume that the café is the only reason this space is still open to the public. It's interesting to note that the store's website was active at the time of this writing and even listed events scheduled for later this summer.

This was one of our favorite places to visit in Santa Fe. Its collection of technology-related books was probably the best I've ever seen, ironic given the fact that technology proved to be the company's downfall.

Road Warrior Gear
July 22, 2011 6:30 AM | Posted in: ,

I don't travel much on business, or conduct much business when I travel, but when I do, I have a handful of accessories that I always pack to make the trip more efficient. In addition to the usual electronics (e.g. notebook computer and iPad and associated cables and chargers), here's what I bring:

Photo - Various pieces of road warrior gear

  • eBags backpack: I switched to a backpack from a traditional computer bag last year, and I'm never going back. Besides having a plethora of pockets and pouches for storing all kinds of gears and accessories, a backpack doesn't scream "steal me because I have $2,000 of equipment inside!" Plus, a backpack frees up your hands for carrying suitcases or coffee.

  • Eagle Creek mesh bag: This is one of the handiest accessories I've run across. Everything you see in the photo (except the backpack and the table!) will fit into this three-compartment (two smaller ones are on the back side) zippered bag...along with the power adapters and cables for my laptop, phone and iPad. The mesh bag then stores nicely inside the backpack's middle compartment.

  • Kensington notebook lock: This won't prevent a determined burglar from making off with your computer, but it will thwart snatch-and-run thefts by passers-by who peek in while the housekeeping crew is busy leaving you those useless little soaps.

  • Nite Ize gear ties: I've just discovered these at REI, and I buy a pair every time I'm in a store. They're twist ties on steroids, and their usefulness is limited only by your imagination. Plus, they're fun to play with! They come in multiple sizes and the big ones are truly heavy duty. Bend them to use as a makeshift tripod for your compact digital camera, or a document holder when you're typing.

  • 1-to-3 AC adapter and 12" power cords: Hotels are getting more savvy about providing abundant AC outlets, but you still occasionally find one that just won't accommodate all your electronic charging needs. These simple accessories multiply the available outlets, and the short power cords accommodate adapter bricks.
How about you? What are your "must have" business travel accessories?
According to Wikipedia, there are about 200 bicycle sharing systems worldwide. Fewer than 10% of those are in the United States, and one of those is the B-cycle program in Denver

B-cycle is actually a multi-city program, with installations in six other US cities (including San Antonio). We checked out the Denver installation today and found it to be an impressive service, but highly dependent on the having the right infrastructure.

The concept is simple: check out a bicycle for a nominal fee (which is charged to a credit or debit card) and use the bike for short trips throughout the service area. If you use the bike for trips of less than 30 minutes, you're not charged any additional fees; longer usage times incur increasingly expensive fees. The idea is to keep people from tying up the bikes for long periods, thus making them unavailable to others.

You can buy a 24-hour pass, good for unlimited rides of 30 minutes or less, for $6.00. Residents can purchase memberships that provide more access, and also provide automatic tracking of mileage, average speed, time ridden, etc., thanks to the GPS and RFID technology built into the bikes and the checkout stations.

Denver has 500 bikes in the program, with 50 check-out stations scattered mostly around downtown and in the most popular retail districts that are accessible via the city's amazing network of bike trails.

And it's those bike trails, as well as a general overall bike-friendly philosophy that make the B-cycle concept successful. It's one thing to have access to the bicycles themselves; it's quite another to have a safe and enjoyable environment for using them. 

Denver has a quite laid-back attitude toward cyclists. For example, although cycling on downtown sidewalks is technically discouraged, as long as you're not out of control, nobody really cares. Cars give cyclists the benefit of the doubt, a refreshing change from the often hostile attitudes we encounter in West Texas. And, as I mentioned previously, Denver's system of dedicated bike trails, and clearly marked, wide bike lanes make it possible to get almost anywhere by bicycle without competing with auto traffic. 

Thus, while such a program sounds attractive for any city, it would be less so in practice than in theory for most locations. A successful bike sharing program first requires a culture of bicycle acceptance (or, better, encouragement), followed by creation of an infrastructure to support the program. For many (most?) cities in the US, I suspect this is never going to happen. More's the pity.

If you ever find yourself in downtown Denver for several days, I highly recommend trying out the B-cycle system. It's a great way to get around the area without worrying about driving or parking. The bikes are well-maintained and easy to ride, even for an inexperienced cyclist.

Driving the Noisy Roads of Texas
June 13, 2011 9:17 PM | Posted in: ,

I drove about 360 miles yesterday, mostly on I-10 and I-20, from Fredericksburg to Fort Stockton and then to Midland, and the overriding thought that sticks with me is..."wow, what a noisy drive!"

Interstate 10 is a patchwork of road surfaces, and the newest ones are also the loudest. The material used to surface the road is so coarse that the noise from the friction with the tires is just overwhelming, especially when compared to the smooth asphalt sections that come before and after. And it makes me wonder if TxDOT or anyone else has ever studies the long term effects of such high noise levels on drivers?

I'm sure it depends to some extent on what kind of car you drive. I would expect - hope? - that a Mercedes sedan would be quieter than my pickup. I'm sure that the type of tires also affects how much noise is generated.

Regardless, after several hours of driving on rough and noisy surfaces, I felt more tired and even stressed than had I been driving on the smooth asphalt of days gone by. If all drivers are affected similarly, that must impact driver alertness and mood, and not in a positive fashion.

I realize that the new surface materials are less expensive and are said to be longer lasting, but it's one more example of how "progress" adversely affects quality of life. But I suppose that's what the volume knob on the satellite radio is for.

Georgia to Maine in Four Minutes
March 9, 2011 1:51 PM | Posted in: ,

No, I'm not referring to your teenager's driving, I'm talking about the following video, which documents a 6-month, 2200-mile hike of the entire Appalachian Trail. [Link via Neatorama]



I found this fascinating, probably because it makes the hike look a lot easier than it probably was. It also made me wish I was retracing Kevin Gallagher's steps...only on a high-end, full-suspension mountain bike. With hotels every 40 miles or so. And they wouldn't have to be luxury hotels; I'm not unreasonable. Any Best Western would do.

Well, anyway, back to the video. I've never been on any part of the Appalachian Trail, much less walked the entire route. But the dramatic changes in topography shown in this video make me question whether it's actually a completely linear representation of the route. In any event, I can see why the Trail is a huge attraction for outdoor enthusiasts. We could use something like this in West Texas.

Fort Stockton's New Visitor Center
August 2, 2010 9:04 PM | Posted in: ,

I won't go so far as to say that it's worth driving 200 miles just to see it, but if you happen to be in Fort Stockton (or anywhere close by), the town's new visitor center is worth, well, visiting. This multi-million dollar installation - at the intersection of Main Street and E. Dickinson Blvd. - incorporates a lot of symbolism representing the area's historical and commercial contributions.

Photo - Fort Stockton, Texas

The large steel span and signage across Main Street (and close by Paisano Pete, the world's largest roadrunner) serves as a gateway to the historic district where many buildings from the old fort have been restored.

Photo - Fort Stockton, Texas

Larger-than-life weathered steel cutouts evoke the varied cultures of the earliest inhabitants of the region: American Indians, Mexican vaqueros, settlers coming through by covered wagon, US Cavalry soldiers.

Photo - Fort Stockton, Texas

The visitors center also spotlights the region's significant contribution to meeting the country's energy needs. It sports a full-sized pumping unit (oil), a big wellhead (natural gas), and the newest installations - working solar panels and wind turbines. These power the visitor complex, and any surplus electricity is put into the grid.

Photo - Fort Stockton, Texas

Then there's this:



Pretty cool, huh? Streams in the desert...it's Biblical, you know.

New Gallery Images
February 21, 2010 10:35 AM | Posted in: ,

Got a few more images in the Gallery, taken from our trip last month to the San Diego zoo.


Strangest Airports
February 20, 2010 6:35 PM | Posted in: ,

Popular Mechanics has posted a list of The World's 18 Strangest Airports, and I was curious to see if I'd been to any of them. Turns out that we've flown in and out of three on the list, all of them associated with dive trips:

  • The Princess Juliana Airport on the Caribbean island of St. Maarten (the Dutch counterpart to St. Martin) was a stopover on our way to Saba (more about that next). I had no idea the airport was "strange," but it made the list because of the approach over a beach and a highway. I do remember sweating our return trip, both literally and figuratively, as we weren't sure that our baggage would make the weight limit. (It did.)

  • And speaking of Saba, that tiny island - a part of the Netherlands Antilles - is served by the Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, and there was absolutely no doubt that we were experiencing a "strange" airport! At 1,300 feet in length, the lone runway is scary short, but it's even worse given that both ends lead to sheer drop-offs into the ocean. Nevertheless, our STOL aircraft handled the strip with aplomb (and we got some great video through the open pilot cabin door; I think they liked to show off the approach!).

  • Another trip took us to the island of Guanaja, off the coast of Honduras. En route, we landed at the Toncontin International Airport in the capitol city of Tegucigalpa. Apparently, the location and comparatively short runways make this a challenge for jumbo jets, but we weren't flying on one and thus never suspected our lives were in danger.
You'll notice that the new(ish) Denver International Airport is also on the list; my wife has been there a number of times on business but my only experience flying to Denver was with Stapleton. DIA makes the list presumably because of its sheer size (53 square miles) and big solar farm.

Weekend in San Diego
January 27, 2010 10:40 PM | Posted in:

We returned Monday evening from a four-day excursion with our friends Tommy and Toni to the San Diego area, and had a wonderful time. It was Debbie's and my first visit to the area and we'd happily go again. Following is a brief photo-essay of the highlights from the trip.

As you may recall, San Diego experienced some cataclysmically bad weather last week, with torrential rains that led to life-taking mudslides, high winds, and hail. We didn't know if we'd be dropping into the middle of that weather, or if the front would move out by the time we arrived on Friday. Fortunately for us, we caught the tail-end of the bad weather, experiencing occasional showers interspersed with sunshine Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, but by noon of the second day, the skies cleared and stayed that way until our departure on Monday.

We stayed at the Glorietta Bay Inn in Coronado (link shows the area on a Google Map), a community on the northern tip of the peninsula that runs for about twenty miles along the western edge of San Diego Bay. Driving access to Coronado is via the San Diego-Coronado Bridge, a beautifully spindly structure that swoops across the Bay. Both of the following photos were taken from the car. The second photo shows a view of Coronado from the bridge.

Photo - San Diego-Coronado Bridge
Photo - San Diego-Coronado Bridge

Incidentally, those concrete dividers in the first photo can be repositioned to accommodate rush hour traffic, inbound or outbound depending on the time of day. The machines used to reposition them are fascinating, but by the time we figured out what they were doing, it was too late to get a photo.

The Glorietta Bay Inn is a 100+ year old Edwardian-style mansion that has been restored and converted to a cozy hotel. Our room was small but entirely adequate, and much more reasonably priced than some of the huge beachfront resorts across the street.

Photo - Glorietta Bay Inn

After we got settled in, we crossed the street to the Hotel Del Coronado (referred to by the cognoscenti as "the Del" and definitely in the category of "huge beachfront resort," with room rates to match) and watched the sun set over the huge breakers that were left over from the record low barometric pressures the area experienced a day earlier. We then headed for dinner (in the rain), taking the advice of the young lady at the Glorietta's front desk. It proved to be a mistake, as the Brigantine was disappointing in just about every aspect. Things would get better, however.

Debbie and I awoke Saturday morning fully intending - however grudgingly - to get in a run before breakfast (the GBI has no workout facilities). Fortunately, it was sprinkling again, so we got a reprieve...and the sun was breaking through the clouds by the time we headed for the GBI's free continental breakfast, where we were entertained by the sight of a couple of young boys shredding bagels and throwing them on the floor to feed the birds that had found a way inside the dining room.

We had decided to spend Saturday sightseeing and so we headed for the Cabrillo National Monument, located on the spot where the first European set foot on the west coast of the United States. Cabrillo is also home to the Old Point Loma lighthouse which was first illuminated in the mid-1800s.

The whole area has an interesting military history as well (there were two 16-inch guns in place there during WWII; those bad boys could fire a shell almost 30 miles), and it's the home of the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The setting for this cemetery is very dramatic, high on a hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean on one side and the entrance to San Diego Bay on the other.
Photo - Rosecrans National Cemetery
Photo - Rosecrans National Cemetery

The aforementioned Old Point Loma Lighthouse is just down the road from the cemetery, as is the Cabrillo National Monument. The first two photos below are obviously of the exterior of the lighthouse; the third one is taken from the inside, looking up the spiral staircase.
Photo - Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Photo - Old Point Loma Lighthouse
Photo - Old Point Loma Lighthouse

As you might imagine, the views from Point Loma were spectacular, including those looking back toward San Diego. The first photo below shows the Cabrillo Monument set against the backdrop of downtown San Diego, across the bay, and the naval complex in the foreground. The second photo is looking more to the south; somewhere out there (in the foreground) is Coronado.
Photo - Cabrillo National Monument
Photo - View of San Diego and Coronado from Point Loma

From there we drove down to the western shoreline of Point Loma, and hiked a mile or so to see the tide pools. Again, the adjective "spectacular" seems entirely appropriate. I don't know if the surf is always so active, or if we were seeing the remnants of the earlier storms, but it was certainly pounding the shoreline that day.
Photo - Cabrillo Tide Pools
Photo - Cabrillo Tide Pools

This is the area where the pelicans were making the drag, gliding on thermals from the northern cliffs down to the southern tip of Point Loma and back again. We hadn't a clue as to why this route was so appealing, but perhaps they just enjoyed the people-watching.

Photo - Pelican gliding above the surf

This kind of active sight-seeing generates a powerful hunger, so we headed back to civilization for some lunch. Serendipity landed us at Humphrey's By the Bay overlooking the San Diego Yacht Club marina on Shelter Island Drive. We scored a window table and had a great time inspecting the yachts, both huge and modest, and watched as a black-and-white duck put on a great underwater swimming display. The food was excellent; we strongly recommend Humphrey's.

Photo - View from the window at Humphreys

We then headed back to San Diego proper and walked through a nice little shopping area, although very little shopping was accomplished (whew!). Dinner that evening was from another front desk recommendation, but this one was much better. The Boathouse was just a couple of blocks from our hotel and we enjoyed an excellent meal of fresh seafood.

The next morning dawned bright and cold (44 degrees, in fact), and Debbie and I had no excuse so we set out for a pre-breakfast run. We headed south on the peninsula, where Orange Avenue becomes Silver Strand Boulevard. We passed the Naval Amphibious Base - the one where Navy SEALs train - and imagined that we were challenging the fitness of those guys by our very presence. Or not. Anyway, there's something about running in such a beautiful setting that makes it seem less like work and more like play (although our legs begged to differ the next morning).

After a nice little breakfast at the local Panera Bread (we could only begin to imagine how lucrative a Panera location in Midland would be...if any of the company's reps are reading this), we headed for the world famous San Diego Zoo, our home for the next six hours. Much taking of photographic clichés ensued, to wit:

Photo - Condors at the zoo
California Condors aggravating one another
Photo - Crocodile at the zoo
Little bitty crocodile, up close and personal
Photo - Gorilla at the zoo
Big honkin' gorilla, up close and personal
Photo - Lizard at the zoo
Little green lizard, up close and personal
Photo - Meerkats at the zoo
Meerkats basking in the sun
Photo - Rhinos at the zoo
Rhinos eating dinner. LOTS of dinner.
Photo - Warthog at the zoo
The photogenic side of a warthog

We left the zoo around 5:00 p.m., pleasantly tired and quite happy, despite our disappointment that the polar bear exhibit was temporarily closed, and that the line to see the baby panda bears was too long to bear (ha!). Dinner that evening bordered on amazing, and it was another fortunate accidental discovery: Chez Loma. Never mind that the bill for the four of us was more than our rental car for the four-day weekend; we were on vacation and it was worth it! (More seafood, of course.)

We repeated our workout routine the next morning, only we ran the opposite direction, to the North Island Naval Complex, then returned through some residential streets of Coronado. Another continental breakfast, then off to the airport for the beginning of a very long journey back to Midland (thanks to mechanical issues in San Diego, and a strange route that took us to El Paso, then to Dallas, before returning to Midland).

It was a fast trip, but a good one, and again, we all agreed that we'd return to San Diego in a heartbeat, given the opportunity.

Back Home
January 26, 2010 7:39 AM | Posted in: ,

We spent an extended and very pleasant weekend in San Diego/Coronado, California. I hope to post a report with a few photos as soon as I can work through the backlog of work and errands that accumulated while we were away. In the meantime, here's a teaser photo of four pelicans gliding along the coastline at the Cabrillo National Monument:

Photo of four flying pelicans

Dangerous Roads
December 2, 2009 8:28 AM | Posted in: ,

The Simon Seeks travel blog has an interesting compilation of what it calls The world's most extreme and dangerous roads [Link via Twisted Sifter's Twitter feed]. As you might expect, most of the roads and highways are found in mountainous and/or so-called third world locations, and I don't doubt for a second that driving them is a harrowing experience.

However, as this post at Sleepless in Midland points out, one doesn't have to travel outside the city limits to encounter truly horrific road conditions.

And, as far as requiring nerves of steel for responsible drivers to navigate, I would also match up any residential street within ten blocks of either Midland high school around lunch time with any of those roads in the Simon Seeks post.

Major Award
July 15, 2009 6:55 AM | Posted in: ,

Programming note: If you read this post yesterday and found that it had an abrupt and unfulfilling ending, you might want to take another shot at it. Not that the ending is any more fulfilling, but at least it has one now. In the meantime, I'll be away taking a remedial course in blogging in an attempt to remember the difference between "Save as Draft" and "Publish."



As I've mentioned a couple of times, we spent the July 4th weekend at Canyon Lake, in the Texas Hill Country. We went there without much of an agenda, other than tubing down the Guadalupe River (a pastime, by the way, whose attraction escapes me, but Debbie grew up with fond memories of tubing the Frio River so I suppose we were trying to recapture her childhood. But, I digress; this is not about that.).

Having a relatively uncluttered schedule, when we saw numerous signs advertising a "sock hop" featuring the music of Johnny Dee & the Rocket 88's, one of us decided that we ought to go.

Parenthetical aside, sans parentheses: Now, lest you misinterpret the preceding sentence, let me assure you that despite all claims to the contrary, I am not a stick-in-the-mud. Well, not always. I'm just, well, deliberate. I had my reasons for initially being less than enthusiastic, and those reasons proved to be remarkably relevant as we shall soon see.

It took us a while to discover the reason for this event - it was a fund-raiser for a community service group, but after talking to a couple of enthusiastic volunteers and learning that it was an annual and well-attended event, we decided to shell out $50 for two tickets. We decided that, if nothing else, we could hear some fun music, and maybe get to practice a few dance moves in front of people who would likely never see us again. That's a liberating concept, by the way.

Neither of us had packed in anticipation of a dance, but with the understanding that this was a very casual affair, we headed for the J.C. Penney's store in nearby New Braunfels where Debbie found a fetching sundress and I scored a couple of pairs of ridiculously plaid shorts, the kind all the Kool Kids are wearing nowadays. Shoes were a slight concern, but I figured that my low-top All-Stars would fit in with the sock hop theme, and Debbie never travels with fewer than a dozen pairs, and surely one of them would work.

We had been informed that while the dance got underway at 8:00pm, there would be a dance instructor on hand earlier to give a few swing lessons to those who were interested. Since this was our first time at the event, we showed up early, and joined in the group lessons even though they were pretty basic. It was during those lessons that my initial concerns began to assume enhanced credibility.

If you were anywhere near the Hill Country over the 4th of July weekend, you know how hot it was. Temperatures were in triple digits every day, and the humidity pushed the heat index into the danger zone. Thus the temperature was still in the upper 90s when the dance began, and did I mention that it took place in an non-air-conditioned, gym-sized metal building? The organizers had set up an industrial strength fan in front of one of the four garage doors set in the sides of the building, but there was no cross ventilation so the fan didn't provide any relief unless you stood directly in front of it.

And thus we found ourselves glowing intensely following the rather mild dance lessons...and it was obvious what was coming.

The band fired up promptly at 8:00 (and if you've never been to a JD&tR88s show, you're missing a great time; these guys are pros, in every sense of the word) and while the majority of the 300 or so in attendance were content to sit and listen, the concrete dance floor was crowded throughout the evening. As you might expect from a 50s/60s retro band, most of the music was fast, and so we spent most of our time doing swing and cha cha, with an occasional rumba thrown in. We also spent all of our time sweating.

We'll never again complain about the air conditioning not being turned up enough at our ballroom dances, because we learned that evening what it means to truly sweat to the oldies. I'm talking dripping-off-your-fingertips, flung-off-the-ends-of-your-hair (well, not mine, of course), do-you-think-these-clothes-are-ruined? levels of sweat. And that was after just three dances.

Still, we quickly realized that everyone was in the same boat - the same sticky, soggy, smelly boat - and we decided just to enjoy the music and the dancing. As I said, chances were good that no one would ever see us again, and there's a lot to be said for anonymity in a situation like that.

But when the band took its first break, the aforementioned dance instructor made her way through the row of tables to where we were sitting (and dripping). She crouched down next to us and quietly asked if we could come up to the front of the bandstand at the next break. Oh, great; we've violated a local standard of personal hygiene and they want to make an example of us before they run us out of town. OK, that sounds silly, but not as silly as the real reason.

The instructor leaned forward and said (I swear this is the truth), "we've been watching the dancers and we want to recognize three couples who are doing the best job, and you are one of them." Debbie and I could barely stifle our disbelieving laughter. I mean, while we weren't falling down on the dance floor, or if we were it was gracefully choreographed, we also weren't (in our humble opinions) doing anything worthy of what was obviously A Major Award.

But, I'll admit we were flattered. And so we gratefully and humbly accepted our Major Award during the next break, still sweating like Mississippi chain gang workers. Finally, we had tangible evidence that the literally thousands of dollars we've invested in dancing (if you total the cost of the lessons, dances, ball gowns and shoes, tuxedo and accouterments, and so on) over the last three years has paid off.

And we have the denim apron, soy candle, and bar of scented soap to prove it.

What can I say? It was a fund-raiser, and local merchants donated the awards. And, as they say, beggars can't be choosers. Especially really sweaty ones.

On the Trail of the Naked Indians
July 13, 2009 1:27 PM | Posted in: ,

We stayed in a great bed-and-breakfast over the July 4th weekend, the Firefly Inn, located near Canyon Lake in the Texas Hill Country. If you're following my Twitter feed (and why wouldn't you?), you may have seen my daily reports on the terrific breakfasts we enjoyed during our stay. But I don't believe I mentioned one of the most interesting aspects of the B&B: its address. The Firefly Inn is located on Naked Indian Trail.

When we checked in, the proprietor - a friendly fellow named Jack - anticipated our question. The name of the road is derived from the presence of Texas Madrone trees (Arbutus xalapensis) on the hillside on which the Inn is constructed. Madrones have a fairly limited range in the Texas Hill Country and Edwards Plateau, and the "Naked Indian" nickname is derived from their "bark exfoliation" characteristic. That is, they periodically shed their bark, and the new bark has a wide range of colors, going to a deep apricot or red that gives rise to the politically-dubious ethnic appellation.

Can't picture it? Here are a few photos I took of some of the specimens on the hillside above the Inn.

Photo - Texas Madrone
Photo - Texas Madrone
Photo - Texas Madrone

Jack told us that while he wasn't aware of any scientific evidence to prove it, it seemed that Madrones will flourish only in the presence of cedar trees. There's no known symbiosis involved, and it could be coincidental that wherever you see a Madrone, you'll also find a cedar close by, but we did indeed observe that phenomenon, without exception, in this locale.

Easter Hill Country Tour - April, 2004
April 13, 2004 4:05 PM | Posted in: ,


[Editor's Note: The following post is the longest by far of any published on the Gazette. At 4,000 words, it violates the most basic tenet of blogging: keep it short and to the point. I apologize in advance for imposing this endless travelogue upon you. Perhaps the photos that accompany it will ease some of the burden. Nevertheless, forewarned is forearmed!]


As I mentioned earlier, MLB and I spent a long Easter weekend in Fredericksburg, in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. It's been our tradition for the past two decades to participate in the Easter Hill Country Tour, a bicycling event alternately sponsored by the bike clubs in Fort Worth, Lubbock, Houston and San Antonio. This year's event was organized by the Fort Worth club.

Unlike many similar events, the EHCT is a self-paced event that allows for a lot of individual creativity in scheduling and participation. Routes of various lengths and difficulty are mapped out in advance for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You can generally choose from mileage that varies from 25 to 75 miles, with a century (100 mile ride) each Saturday thrown in for good measure. The Sunday rides are shorter...25-40 miles. However, you can also make up your own routes; there is a seemingly infinite number of combinations of backroads around Fredericksburg and Kerrville, and the fun is often in trying to come up with new variations that still allow you to enjoy the periodic rest stops (complete with food and drink and -- most important! -- Porta-Potties) that are placed along the "official" routes.

After more than 1,500 miles of biking through this countryside, we're pretty comfortable doing our own thing. In fact, we don't enjoy riding with large groups of people that much anyway. For one thing, pacing is problematic, and there are some associated hazards (watch any Tour de France video to get an idea). We usually arrive early and ride on Thursday, before the Tour begins. We'll then generally ride one of the organized routes (or a variation thereof) on Friday and Saturday. Depending on how we feel, and the weather conditions, we may or may not ride on Sunday morning before returning home.

This year, we rode with the Tour only one day, on Friday. We rode alone on Thursday and Saturday, and the weather kept us off the bike on Sunday. We ended up with just over 125 miles of riding. More about that in a moment.

Front view of the B&BThe EHCT is actually based in Kerrville, which is about 22 miles south of Fredericksburg (hereafter referred to as "Fburg"). But we stay in a bed and breakfast just outside of Fburg that's so wonderful that we're willing to tolerate the drive to Kerrville as needed. Fortunately, in most years the Tour has one day of routes that all begin and end in Fburg, so that's one less car trip we have to make.

[Note: Hereafter, the thumbnail images are linked to larger versions of the photos...some are much larger, in case you're on dial-up. You can also click on the first image below and begin a photo tour without all my boring narrative if you wish. But you'll have to backtrack in order to return here, as there are no links leading back to the Gazette.]

The B&B (which shall remain nameless in order to protect our ability to get future reservations...it does not suffer from a dearth of business! ;-) is a couple of miles out of townView of the river and has about a quarter mile of riverfront along the Pedernales (see photo at right). It's got its own nature trail, and we've spotted deer, armadillo, rabbits, fox, snakes and turtles while wandering through it. You can sit on the screened-in back porch and watch the deer wander past in the morning and evening, or relax in an outdoor hot tub with the same view. It's a one-family B&B, so we have the run of the place to ourselves; the proprietors live in a separate house 100 yards distant. The breakfasts are hand-delivered each morning by the owners, and range from German pancakes with peach syrup, to poached eggs with bacon, to fresh fruit and yogurt parfaits. Yep, we really rough it.

We arrived mid-afternoon on Wednesday, following a drive of unsurpassed beauty. The wildflowers began appearing just south of Midland, and for the next 300 miles we were treated to a visual feast that only occurs in those infrequent years where copious spring rains combine with an early final freeze to bring out the best in the landscape.

What we viewed is essentially the legacy of one woman, Lady Bird Johnson, whose tireless campaign to beautify America beginning in the 60s still pays dividends to highway travelers across the nation. Texas has perhaps benefited the most, as one might expect given the Johnsons' roots in the Hill Country. The Texas Department of Transportation has an ongoing wildflower seeding program, and maintains a website providing up-to-the-minute reports on flower and foliage status across the state, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a native plant education and research facility located in Austin. Thanks to efforts from these organizations, one can view bluebonnets, Indian Paintbrush and many other native wildflowers in a literal non-stop parade for hundreds of miles through Texas. (However, some believe that events -- natural and otherwise -- are conspiring against the continuation of this legacy.)

In any event, our drive to Fburg was wonderful. I insist on taking a route that most Midlanders eschew: I head south to Rankin, then on to Iraan, meeting up with I-10 just west of Sheffield. It's a slightly less direct route, and it puts us on the interstate for most of the trip. However, I really enjoy the drive from Rankin to Iraan because of the vastness of the scenery, and I'm always interested to see how the condition of the landscape compares with previous years. The windfarms atop the mesas west and north of Iraan are also pretty spectacular in their own right. The juxtaposition of the old energy sources (the 75+ year old Yates oil field, active but declining, provides Iraan with its raison d'Ítre) against the new (the hundreds of shining white wind turbines generating electricity 24/7/365 give area ranchers a new and badly needed source of revenue) is fascinating to consider.

We unloaded the bike and I got it ride-worthy while MLB unpacked and Abbye attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to make friends with the farm cat. Abbye is the epitome of eternal optimism. She's convinced that the cat will eventually become her best bud, given enough time and effort. The cat remains skeptical.

The weather forecast called for a cold front to move in on Saturday, with possible thunderstorms. We decided to do our long ride on Friday, and the wisdom of that decision was later confirmed. Before that, on Thursday, we headed out on our own to ride some of our favorite roads as a warm-up. MLB on bike in woodsWe cycled through some densely wooded areas (see photo at left; as I was taking this photo, we were rocked by a blast from a nearby granite quarry...so much for a pastoral setting!) where we've spotted deer and wild turkey in the past. We didn't see any wildlife this trip as our midday arrival was not the best time to catch the critters out and about.

Longhorn cattleWe broke out of the woods and into some cultivated pastureland, occupied by the obligatory herd of longhorn cattle (photo at right). We then headed back to town, making a side trip to the local bike shop to replace MLB's "hydration system" (water bottles are so old school). Total mileage for the day: about 30.

One thing we discovered was the coolness of MLB's Garmin Forerunner, which is a GPS you can wear like a sportswatch. I had bought it as a Christmas gift, thinking she'd primarily use it during her snow shoe outings and hikes, but we discovered that the altimeter and grade computation feature were perfect for cycling through the hills. There's something reassuring about knowing that the reason we're moving only four miles per hour up a hill is due to the fact that it's a 12% grade. I mean, we always knew that hill was steep, but now we knew how steep. (It was also interesting to learn that Midland's elevation is actually higher than Fburg's, and by a thousand feet, no less.)

My parents came into town that evening, completing another tradition where they join us for the weekend. In the past, they've pulled a camper and stayed at the beautiful Lady Bird Johnson (she's everywhere!) city park, but I think their camping days are now behind them. They stayed instead at a new hotel built on the grounds of the local airfield, and named, appropriately, The Hangar Hotel. It's very nice, and recommended if you can't get our B&B (which, of course, you can't). Dinner that night was German cuisine (Rind Roulade with pan fried potatos and sauerkraut for me) at Friedhelm's Bavarian Inn. One can't spend a weekend at Fburg without eating German food.

We were in a quandary concerning our Friday ride. If the weather report was to be believed, it was likely that we wouldn't be able to ride on Saturday afternoon, so we'd need to keep that day's route short. That seemed to call for a longer ride than usual on Friday. We had four choices of routes for Friday; the longest was about 75 miles and we knew we weren't adequately prepared for that (we'd been able to ride only about 150 miles this year thanks to bad weather and other schedule disruptions). The next longest ride was 62 miles (a metric century...100 kilometers), and that was probably at the outer edge of our capabilities. However, the shorter routes covered territory we'd ridden on Thursday and just didn't look that interesting.

The bad thing about the 62-miler is that it included what's known locally as the Willow City Loop. This loop is one of the most beautiful, treacherous and difficult courses in the area. It's beautiful because it has the most dense concentration of wildflowers -- primarily bluebonnets -- to be found in the area. It's treacherous because it has a number of blind curves and steep drops which are often made worse by sand on the road from recent rains (and, yes, it had rained recently). In fact, we'd had a bad experience on this route a few years back, when we were still riding our upright tandem. Coming down one of those steep hills, we hit a cattle guard and flatted both tires simultaneously. Fortunately, I was able to maintain control while we came to a shaky stop. We had to be trucked off the course, the first (and only) time that's happened to us. We had not only punctured both tubes but also ruined a tire, making an on-course repair impossible.

To compound that unnerving experience, we came to a halt just a few yards from a low water crossing where a short time before we arrived a cyclist had hit some sand and taken a nasty fall...nasty enough, in fact, to be awaiting the arrival of an ambulance. That served to intensified our shakiness from our near miss, as we saw how bad it could have been.

The treachery of the course is made worse during this time of the year by the non-stop vehicular traffic of flower-gawkers. People come from miles around to view the wildflowers, and, of course, their minds and eyes are not necessarily on the cyclists with whom they are presumably sharing the road.

I mentioned that the route is also difficult. Most of the terrain is gently rolling, but at the end there's a long and steep climb out of the canyon that completely destroys whatever goodwill has accrued from the beauty of the first part. And, to set the proper context, it should be noted that the end of the Willow City Loop comes with almost 30 miles left in the overall route, so you can't leave it all on that climb.

So, MLB wasn't crazy about the idea of re-visiting the route but she let me make Long line to the johnthe call and I decided we should go for it. The first part of the ride was uneventful, covering some of the same roads we traveled the day before, but in the opposite direction... a minor physical change that makes a world of perceptive difference. The weather was perfect... cool, mostly cloudless and nearly windless. The only disruption to our enjoyment was the long line in front of the Porta-John at the first rest stop. This was poor planning on someone's part; there should be at least two of those units at the first stop of the morning, for what should be obvious reasons.

If you look at the larger photo linked to the thumbnail above, you'll see the usual brightly colored, Lycra'd-up cycling crowd. MLB and I are drab dweebs compared to these folk: no Lycra, baggy shorts, cotton t-shirts...decidedly lo-tech apparel, in keeping with the usual recumbent rider's reputation as the geek of the cycling world. OTOH, you'll never overhear us complaining about aching shoulders, necks, backsides or hands, thanks to our relaxed riding positions, and we get to see the world around us as we ride, rather than staring at our front wheel or the pavement six feet ahead. Yeah, we're slower than the rest, but we like to think that we get superior sensory input, overall. (Although I sometimes wonder when we're still out on the course an hour after the others have loaded their bikes and headed for the hot tub!).

We pedaled onward, and at the end of a long downhill, we came to the start of the Willow City Loop. There were no surprises. The flowers were just as beautiful as advertised. At times we rode past such thick patches of bluebonnets that the air was heavily perfumed with their scent. The following photos are just a sampling of the scenery, and fail miserably in doing justice to reality.

WildflowersBluebonnets are, of course, the state flower of Texas, despite some early attempts to assign that honor to the cotton boll, of all things. There are actually five species of bluebonnet, all of which are designated as "State Flowers." Contrary to popular belief, it is not illegal to dig up a bluebonnet (although there are often right-of-way restrictions on any such activity along public roadways).

WildflowersThe photo at right is one that really fails to convey the amazing display of wildflowers. The field in the background appears to the casual eye to be a nice pond or small lake, the blue water contrasting nicely with the surrounding green vegetation. Of course, in reality, this is a large stand of wildflowers...a literal "sea" of bluebonnets.

WildflowersMost of the trees along this route are live oaks and mesquite. If there are any willows along this route, I missed 'em. (Willow City is actually a tiny hamlet -- the proverbial wide spot in the road -- at the beginning of the route; I'm sure it's overrun with willows.) Mesquites are the Rodney Dangerfields of the tree world, but I find them to be amazing and beautiful when allowed to assume something other than shrublike proportions.

WildflowersIn the photo at right, MLB consents to be a part of the tableau. Actually, that was a role we played throughout this part of the ride. The other side of the road was lined with people taking photos of the flowers, and more often than not their cameras swung around to us as we came upon them. After all, bluebonnets are a common sight, but how often do you see a tandem recumbent? And, at that point early in the ride, we were still somewhat photogenic, at least compared to the mewling, quivering, debilitated creatures we would soon become.

WildflowersIn this photo you can see rows of white flowers that formed a natural backdrop for the bluebonnets. MLB thought they were a mallow of some sort; she's much more knowledgeable than me about such things. They looked like weeds to me, but that's the general nature of most wildflowers anyway.

We rode deeper into the Loop and the terrain got more challenging. Through the pedals, I could feel MLB tensing up as we swooped into the draws and around the aforementioned blind curves, and I kept a close rein on our speed to reassure her. At one point we were passed by three young women who were obviously serious about their riding -- and their lycra. A couple of minutes later, we dove into a particularly nasty-looking curve and spotted some sand at the bottom. I braked well in advance and we eased through it, to find that one of the women who had just passed us wasn't quite as observant. She was stretched out across the road, bike on top of her and a nasty bruise already appearing along the entire length of one leg. Her partners were turning around and coming back to check on her. We asked if she needed help and she waved us on. It was a reminder of the consequences of inattention and/or bravado.

On we went, passing an endless stream of cars and motorcycles making the Loop in the opposite direction. That was a blessing...the bicycle route ran the opposite of that of most of the motor-driven vehicles, which greatly minimizes the chances of unfortunate encounters. But it still took some of the luster from the beauty of the surroundings.

It finally came time to climb out of the valley, and we could see clearly what lay ahead. I stopped to take a couple of pictures (and to try to summon some extra energy), then we made our slow way up the hill.The long climb out.

It might be edifying to understand what it's like to climb a really steep hill on a bicycle. Unless you have the legs and anaerobic threshold of Lance Armstrong, your climbing success will be directly proportional to your gearing. If you can gear down low enough to spin up the hill, even at very low speeds, you can likely climb any hill of reasonable gradient and length. Of course, the definition of "reasonable" will vary.

This applies to all bicycles, recumbent or upright. However, the advantage the latter holds over the former is that the rider can, as needed, stand up on the pedals and bring the whole body's weight to bear for additional power. This advantage can be significant.

The only glaring weakness of the recumbent riding position comes to the fore in these climbing situations. We have no choice but to use our legs and only our legs to spin up the hill. Standing up on the pedals is not an option. This particular hill was long...perhaps a half mile...and steep; the grade was 11-12% for much of the climb. We were undertrained, sweating profusely in the midday sun, and had the incredible pleasure of being passed at low speeds by a long string of Harleys going our direction. At one point, we were struggling to maintain four mph. It was torture...for me, anyway. Did I mention that MLB was just chattering away on the back of the back, describing the flowers on the side of the road and the view of the canyon below?

Without belaboring the point, let me just say that this was the closest I've come in over 15 years to hollering calfrope and getting off and walking the hill. We've ridden up Vail Pass from Vail, and that wasn't as painful as this climb. But, we made it, even as my legs started flirting with cramps.

The rest of the ride was almost anti-climactic, a blurred series of steep ups and downs that eventually led back to town. We ended the day with 67 miles, thanks to the fact that we were staying a couple of miles from the official starting point and elected to bicycle in rather than load the bike on the car and drive in. In hindsight, given our lack of training mileage coupled with the difficulty of the route, it was a very foolish thing for us to attempt. We perservered, however, and emerged exhausted but somehow gratified by the experience.

Dinner that night was at Pasta Bella, a competent little Italian restaurant just off the main drag in Fburg. I had a very good Veal Parmigiana (although, frankly, I'd have eaten boiled shoe leather by that time and enjoyed it), followed by homemade strawberry, peach and pecan ice cream at the Fredericksburg Bakery.

We awoke to heavily clouded skies on Saturday morning, and the weather forecast seemed confident in the mid-afternoon arrival of the cold front and rain. We elected to skip the rides originating in Kerrville, and set off on our own route, hoping to get in a couple of hours before the weather intruded.

Scenery from the ride on SaturdayI'll forego the excrutiating detail of the Saturday ride. It was much less demanding than the day before, and we covered some roads we'd never before seen, which is always fun. However, one downside of doing that kind of exploring is that you sometimes find yourself confronted with uncomfortable decisions about which way to turn, and during this ride we ended up traveling down a very busy State Highway 87 with no shoulder for about five miles before finding the bailout road that I knew existed...somewhere. "I'm sure it's just over this next hill...and around this next curve..."

A pastoral setting, indeedWe eventually found our way onto a familiar backroad, and enjoyed riding past the full ponds that dotted the pasture through the entire route.

In the meantime, the clouds got heavier and the winds calmer, and we couldn't help feeling that this was a sign of impending change. The long climb out.We came upon the water crossing shown in the photo at right and took that as a sign to turn around and head home, which we did, and without incident.

About an hour after getting back home, following 25 miles of riding, the calm came to an abrupt end as the front blew in, with gusty winds out of the north. An hour after that, the skies opened up and it rained...and rained...and rained. Other than an occasional lull while the front regrouped, it rained until we left for home mid-morning on Sunday. We had guessed right, and beat the weather. We hoped that no one got caught miles from home in the middle of the Kerrville rides when the front hit. Been there, done that, and it's no fun.

As soon as we finished our Saturday ride, I trekked down the nature trail a ways to get a photo of the tree shown at right. A scary tree This gnarly oak tree is probably 100 years old, and I've always intended to take a picture and try to do something artsy with it. One variation of my Photoshopping is shown here (warning: the big image is really big). I tried to capture some of the inherently spooky quality of the tree with its moss-laden branches and Blair Witch Project-starkness.

Dinner that night was forgettable...a decent but not compelling chicken-fry at the Plateau Cafe. I would have preferred to drive to Kerrville to eat, but the weather had everyone skittish and we elected to stick close to home. Another bowl of that wonderful ice cream made up for the less-than-stellar meal.

Sunday morning came in wet and cold, and we loaded up in a steady drizzle. We ran in and out of rain all the way to Sheffield, with occasional sprinkles during the last 100 miles. We were out of bluebonnet country, but even the normally drab landscape just south of Midland was still yielding surprises. I'll leave you with this field of yellow flowers, set out for no apparent purpose other than to enthrall passers-by, in the middle of nowhere 40 miles south of home. I don't know the species of the flower, but we'll take all of it we can get every spring, since it means that God has again blessed our parched land with some life-giving rain.

Flowers along the Rankin Highway

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