Road trip

Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Other Stories, Part II

Read Part I here!

We stepped out of our tent the next morning into a world of impossible colors. Nature seriously cranked the saturation up to 11 that day. The sky was so intensely blue that the horizons looked like bad photoshops.

This “hoodoo” is one of the first notable rock formations you see on the iconic Lighthouse Trail. To me it looks like a muppet wearing sunglasses:

Lighthouse is an easier and more pleasant hike than Rock Garden, and has a much better payoff at the end.

The mapped trail officially ends at a small clearing with a picnic table and a bike rack, some distance from the eponymous rock formation. From there, a few desire paths lead up from the clearing to the Lighthouse itself. This time we had accounted for the dry desert air and brought extra water, so we chose a path and kept climbing. This ended up being my favorite part of the whole trip.

You can go a bit higher here and get some great views of the canyon.

When we were ready to go back down we took a different, more direct path than the one we had come up on.

We reconnected with Lighthouse trail at the clearing and backtracked to the trailhead.

The only thing left on our Palo Duro to-do list was the Cave.

It’s not deep, but it’s a world of fun to climb around on.

Once we’d worn ourselves out at the Cave, we treated ourselves to a surprisingly fresh and tasty supper of burgers, fries, onion rings and root beer floats at the park Trading Post. Then we returned to our campsite and called it a day.

We woke up early the next morning, broke camp…

…and drove back up into the flatlands.

On the way home we got to see all the scenery that we had missed during our night-time drive out to the canyon. Still mostly just corn, cotton, cows and wind turbines, though. Our next home has to have mountains. We are not flatland people.

Since I’m apparently blogging again, I might post a few of my favorite Austin pics from the past year. Or maybe not; this might be my last post for another year, who knows. I’ll leave you with a few lines from Cohen’s “Anthem,” which is basically my theme song these days:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in

That’s how the light gets in.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, food, Holidays, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather, Wildlife | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Palo Duro Canyon State Park and Other Stories, Part I

Fun fact – the second-largest canyon in the US is right here in Texas!

Palo Duro Canyon is about 120 miles long and up to 20 miles wide in places. It ranges from about 820 feet to 1,000 feet deep.

Full disclosure: I didn’t really expect to be continuing this blog. With Luke and Elizabeth both over 18 now and the custody issue no longer looming in the background, I’m less motivated to keep a public record of their good health and general wellbeing. But Palo Duro is too pretty not to share.

So, some quick catch-up: Austin has been good to us, I’m glad we moved here. It’s such a beautiful city. I don’t know if we would have been happier in San Antonio, but I doubt we would have found the same opportunities there. Maybe things really do unfold the way they’re meant to.

In an earlier post, I described living in DFW as “a slow death of the soul.” That wasn’t hyperbole; if we had stayed in Bedford we would eventually have lost ourselves, or lost everything of value inside of us. Living in Austin has given us back our sense of joy and our appetite for life. And ironically, we’ve become mentally and emotionally healthy enough here to recognize that Texas is not the right place for us to put down roots.

Albert Schweitzer once said, “In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” I was fortunate enough to encounter two such people in Austin, at different times and in unrelated settings. Neither was from Texas originally, and both were on their way to better places, but I am inexpressibly thankful to have crossed paths with both of them. They reminded me that those kinds of people and those better places still exist in the world.

In a different post, I described my long journey to the realization that I needed to stop trying to heal broken people. That epiphany was certainly true, as far as it went, but I’ve since figured out that I had drawn the wrong conclusions from it. I thought the solution was to keep the broken people at a safe distance. But apparently if a person isn’t at least a little broken, I have a hard time relating to them at all. Like the Japanese art of kintsugi, it’s all about how they have repaired themselves along the way. Strength, wisdom, compassion, courage and humor make the best scar tissue. Other, less-noble materials can occasionally produce some delightfully interesting results as well. In all instances, the key to keeping these encounters enjoyable is to maintain rock-solid personal boundaries and to make no attempt at any kind of healing or restoration on the other person’s behalf. That’s their journey, not mine. I have my own kintsugi project to work on.

Luke and I have slipped the surly bonds of customer service and gotten regular weekday jobs, which has improved the quality of our lives by about a billion percent. Elizabeth is still working in the food industry, but she likes her current job well enough and she was able to request the Labor Day weekend off without too much trouble. When the big weekend arrived, we napped through the worst of the Friday afternoon and evening commuter traffic, and then rolled out of Austin at 12:30 a.m. Seven hours later the sun rose on a flat world of corn, cotton, cattle and graceful white wind turbines. Around 8:00 a.m. we arrived at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.

The canyon does not reveal itself until you are right on the rim. Its bluffs and spires and whimsical formations all sit beneath the surface of the surrounding flatlands, invisible from even a slight distance. Driving down to our campsite on the canyon floor, we got no real sense of the scale of it. We set up camp in warm morning sunlight, leaving the rain-fly off the tent to let the clean desert breeze drift through, and took another short nap to catch up on missed sleep.

Rock Garden Trail is billed as Palo Duro’s “most difficult and most scenic hike,” with “the best views of the canyon,” so naturally that was first on our list. It certainly is a pretty hike.

But Rock Garden Trail’s best scenery is on the way up. The vista from the top is, in our opinion, rather underwhelming. It does connect with a rim trail at the top that probably leads to better views, but by then we were running low on water and had to head back down. We still hadn’t gotten a really good look at the canyon, and we were starting to wonder if Palo Duro were overhyped.

Back at camp, we checked our park map and found a main overlook right off the paved road near the park entrance, so we drove up to have a look. That finally offered the view we’d been looking for.

There is a visitor’s center with big windows and a telescope, which gave us a rare glimpse of an Aoudad sheep in the far distance. If my camera lens and the telescope lens could have played more nicely together, this would have been a postcard-worthy shot:

On the drive back down to our campsite, we found another nice overlook.

We stopped to check out an old cowboy dugout, a remnant of the canyon’s cattle ranch days.

By then we were getting tired, so we headed back to camp and settled in for the evening. Nightfall brought us a slender crescent moon and the faint splash of the Milky Way across a glittering wealth of stars. Lightning flashed on the horizon, and we debated whether to enjoy the starscape or put up the rain fly just to be safe. After some debate, we decided to put up the rain fly.

That turned out to be the right call. We were awakened in the middle of the night by crashing thunder, howling winds and an absolute deluge of rain. I can’t even imagine how miserable that would have been with no rain fly.

Read Part II here!

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Animals, environment, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather, Wildlife | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Decision Time, Part IV

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

Read Part III here

Enchantment Rock State Natural Area opens its gates at 8am. We had planned to arrive at 7:30 to beat the Spring Break crowds, but we received a timely warning that earlier would be safer, so we set our alarm for 4am and got there by 6.

Google Maps has the entrance marked a bit farther down the road than it actually is; we missed it at first and had to turn around. There was already a car parked outside the gate when we drove past. We did a U-turn as soon as it was safe and got back to the entrance like two minutes later, and by then we were third in line. More cars immediately lined up behind us. By 7:30, when the sky was light enough to let me take this photo, the line stretched out of sight down the road.

Enchanted Rock as seen from the driveway: basically a granite dome 425 feet high.

When the gate was opened we paid our entry fee, parked the car and headed up the rock. At the bottom there are trails, but pretty soon it’s all just granite.

It’s steep enough to be a workout, but still more of a walk than a climb.

In the background of the next photo you can see the endless line of cars full of people hoping to be let into the park. Only a certain number of visitors are allowed in at a time.

We felt very thankful to be up on the rock instead of sitting in line!

It took us maybe 10 or 15 minutes to reach the summit…

…and find the USGS benchmark.

Being out in the wild climbing again felt amazing, and the views were great.

There’s a cave entrance near the summit with an exit about halfway down the back face. I guess you could climb up through it from the other direction, but it would be harder. Even doing it downhill, the experience was more intense than I had expected. Here is the entrance:

Once you go in, it gets pitch black fast. We had planned to explore the cave and brought our trusty little camp lantern with us as a flashlight.

Most of the pics I took inside the cave came out blurry, since I couldn’t manually focus in the dark and my camera’s autofocus usually grabbed the wrong subject during the moment of flash.

The most important thing is to follow the arrows. They keep you going in the right direction.

It was super fun, but I wouldn’t say it was easy.

There were some really tight spots. A larger person wouldn’t physically be able to make it all the way through this cave.

You practically have to be a contortionist to get through some spaces. That’s my shoe in the bottom left of the next photo.

Speaking of which, I can’t say enough good things about those shoes. I used them hard for four days straight, and my feet felt as fresh and comfortable at the end of the fourth day as they did the morning of the first day. Ariat Terrain H2O waterproof shoes, designed for endurance riders. Easily the best hiking shoes I’ve ever worn. They’re really durable, too. We bought the non-waterproof versions back in 2011 for our trip to the Grand Canyon, and Elizabeth’s pair is still going strong.

I’m not getting paid or anything, I just love the shoes.

Here is the exit. This is not a cave for claustrophobes.

Once we made it out, we just chilled on the side of the rock and watched the turkey vultures circle for a while.

If you click on the next photo to open the full-size image, and zoom in on the red arrow, you can see a little flash of blue from a creek.

I wanted to see the creek close-up, so we made the descent.

Getting down the back face wasn’t as easy as it looked, but we made it to the bottom.

And we found the creek!

We had received a trail map when we arrived, so we plotted the shortest course around the base of the rock and back to our car.

That whole day was so restorative and relaxing. Just tremendously good for the soul.

Google Maps took us home by the scenic route, winding through the hill country on farm-to-market roads, and I enjoyed every mile of it. So much nicer than dealing with I-35.

A few days after we got back, Luke decided it was haircut time again. I think short hair suits him.

So that was this year’s road trip. Elizabeth turned 20 on the third day, but we were all too sugared-out for cake, so her celebration was postponed.

We’re looking forward to the move, and we’re grateful for everything that living in DFW has taught us.

A new chapter of our lives is about to begin, and we’re eager to turn the page.

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Decision Time, Part III

Read Part I here

Read Part II here

On Day Three we got down to business, driving around looking at neighborhoods, apartment complexes and libraries.

I cannot overemphasize Luke’s reliance on public libraries to feed his insatiable appetite for knowledge. He checks out stacks of books at a time, almost all non-fiction, almost all on political or historical topics. Access to a good library is fundamentally necessary to his happiness and quality of life. Unfortunately, the little neighborhood libraries in San Antonio are geared more toward families and young children. None of them met the needs of our young revolutionary.

Our search for the right neighborhood was no more successful than Luke’s search for the right library. We found a few pretty ones, but nothing really clicked for us.

We did check out a local H-E-B, which is where virtually everyone in San Antonio gets their groceries, and we had a small, childish laugh when we discovered what H-E-B stands for.

We had contacted some apartment complexes in advance and arranged for viewings. One of these was up on the far north side, which we had not yet visited. Driving into this part of the city on Loop 410 was a surreal experience. The farther north we drove, the more San Antonio’s unique Hispanic flavor was replaced by ubiquitous chain stores and restaurants: Target, Walmart, Home Depot, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, Pappadeaux. It looked like North Richland Hills. Add some mountains and palm trees and it could have been Temecula. As we left the freeway loop and continued north on surface streets, it became more and more clear that a completely different culture presides up there. Before our trip someone told me that “living outside of 410 is like living in a real-life Truman Show,” and now I know what they meant.

And here I have to grudgingly admit, not without a certain small amount of self-loathing, that this part of the city falls more into our comfort zone than the colorful southern parts do. It checks all of the boxes: easy access to wild green spaces and hiking areas, sunny yards for a kitchen garden, boarding stables for Mahogany. This is most likely where we will end up, or at least start out.

When we got to the apartments that we had arranged to look at in this area, the office manager was out. We walked around on our own to get a feel of the place and realized fairly quickly that it wasn’t what we were looking for. The complex was built onto a hillside, and the driveways and parking spaces were so steep they looked like a transmission/parking brake endurance challenge. The location itself was uninspiring as well.

As we walked back to our car, the manager passed nearby in his golf cart on his way back to the office. He stared at us like he thought we were tweaker transients looking for scrap metal to pilfer.

We figured we might as well go in and talk to him since he was supposedly expecting us, so we changed course and headed to the office. I told him that I had spoken to someone on the phone about looking at the apartments.

Maybe he really did think we were transients or something, because he treated us as if we were wasting his time. He launched condescendingly into a list of requirements – income verification, criminal background check, rental history and so on – as if each one were a “gotcha” that would obviously disqualify us. By the time he realized that we were actual potential customers and adjusted his tone accordingly, we had lost all interest in doing business with him.

Those apartments weren’t right for us anyway, but the experience felt like a bad omen. For whatever reason, our appearance apparently wasn’t up to the local standards. What’s even the point of moving if we’re just going to end up in the same kind of conformist gatekeeping nonsense that makes DFW so visually appealing but culturally uninteresting?

The only other place that we had wanted to visit on the far north side was the “highest elevation point in San Antonio.” That turned out to be kind of a letdown too. The highest point in San Antonio is a restaurant parking lot that isn’t very high.

We chilled there for a while and talked about our impressions of San Antonio. The one thing we know for sure is that DFW isn’t where we want to be. It absolutely has its good points, but it’s a slow death of the soul for people like us. Here’s an example: in the four and a half years that I have lived in the Metroplex, I have not managed to have a single meaningful, get-to-know-each-other conversation with anyone there, and it hasn’t been for lack of trying. They are mostly a polite, pleasant people who are happy to chat about the weather and other superficial topics. I’ve had fun conversations, clever conversations, informative conversations. But whenever I try to bring up any deeper philosophical topics, they either laugh uncomfortably and change the subject, wander off, or tell me straight up that they cannot understand what I’m talking about. I’ve begun to suspect that there is actually no deeper level in their minds at all, even though that goes against everything I believe about the human soul. And yes, I realize how douchey and Iamverysmart I sound right now, but this is a profoundly alienating environment for us. Like, if it turned out that the entire population of DFW were actually androids like in The Stepford Wives or The World’s End, I would just be like, “Well, that explains it then.”

Anyway. Luke said that the absence of good libraries in San Antonio was a dealbreaker. I said that he just needs to give up on the little local branches and start looking at college libraries. We weren’t too far from UTSA at that point, so we drove over to look at its Peace Library.

Luck was just not with us that day. The library closed at 6pm, and we reached its door at 6:04. Still, the idea of having access to college and university libraries satisfied Luke. We agreed to give San Antonio a shot, and if it doesn’t turn out to be the right place for us, well, there’s a whole wide world out there just waiting to be explored.

When we were planning last year’s road trip to Austin, someone told me that we should definitely check out Enchanted Rock. We didn’t make it that time, but we did add it to the list of stuff we eventually wanted to do. So for this trip our plan was to leave San Antonio on the afternoon of the third day, spend the night at a campsite at the Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, and spend as much of the fourth day climbing around and exploring as we felt like before heading home.

This should have been completely doable. I had submitted my vacation request about a month in advance, after clearing the dates with my supervisor. My request sat in the system, unadressed, until three days before we had planned to leave. It was declined.

I had mentioned this road trip to various managers over the course of the month and no one had given me any indication that it would be a problem. I have a new supervisor now than the one that I had originally cleared the vacation with, but still. I had requested less than half of the vacation time I had accrued – four days out of the week-and-a-half I could have asked for – and somehow that was too much.

Anyway, long story short, I spoke to my new supervisor and got my four days of vacation, but not the same four days that I had requested. So even if I had rolled the dice and reserved a campsite at Enchanted Rock far enough in advance, it wouldn’t have done any good because we ended up not being there on the night we thought we would.

We ended up just playing the whole thing by ear. When the sun set on the third day we were sitting near a fountain in a courtyard at UTSA, still discussing our life goals. Our tent was in the trunk, and we still wanted to see Enchanted Rock, so I called a KOA near Fredericksburg and tried to reserve a campsite. They were booked full for Spring Break, but they recommended a nearby park that offered no-frills tent camping. I called there and was able to secure a spot.

It was an hour’s drive to the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park. When I checked in the receptionist asked if we were going to Enchanted Rock. I said we were, and she advised me to get there as early as possible, since she had heard that the lines were already really long by 7:30am. If I had known how useful that bit of advice would turn out to be, I might have hugged her right there. For real, she saved our whole day.

Camping tech has come a long way since my childhood days of heavy canvas tents and dim kerosene lanterns. We just bought a basic 4-person Coleman Sundome for this trip, but I love it. The most challenging part of putting it up was the brisk wind that kept trying to blow everything away. Once we got it assembled and staked down, the wind was a non-issue.

Lighting tech is on a whole new level these days. Our little $10 LED lantern was almost too bright on its brightest setting. The half-brightness setting was easier on the eyes and still lit up the whole interior when we hung it from the handy loop in the center of the tent.

The lantern really proved its value when it turned out that these primitive tent sites had no access to electricity. It runs off of a lithium battery that lasts forever, recharges via USB and doubles as a portable charger. So it provided plenty of light for setting up the tent and eating the supper we’d packed, recharged my camera’s battery while we slept, and then (partially) recharged itself on the half-hour drive to Enchanted Rock the next morning.

But that’s a story for the next post.

Read Part IV here

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, Family, kids, Life, Road trip, School, Travel, Weather, Work Life | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Decision Time, Part II

Read Part I here

One of the biggest advantages San Antonio has over DFW is public transit. It’s crazy that most of the Metroplex has no public bus system at all. The bike-share programs that are taking hold in Fort Worth, Dallas and parts of Arlington have not yet spread to the smaller mid-city suburbs. This has been incredibly limiting for Luke and Elizabeth, and inconvenient for me since I have to drive them everywhere. So on Day Two we tried out San Antonio’s B-Cycle system and its public VIA transit.

We parked at the Blue Star Arts Complex just south of downtown. I had already downloaded the B-Cycle app and prepaid a 24-hour pass for myself. We bought 24-hour passes for Luke and Elizabeth directly from the kiosk at the Blue Star’s B-Cycle station. The system is simple: each pass buys unlimited use of all B-Cycle bikes and stations for 24 hours, one bike at a time per pass. Each bike has to be docked at a station at least once per hour to avoid extra fees. You can also purchase monthly or yearly passes.

Elizabeth carried that huge backpack around all day, I have no idea why. I don’t even know what was in it.

We rode the Hike-and-Bike trail along the river to visit four historic missions. The weather was glorious.

Mission Concepción, founded by Franciscan friars in 1731, is first on the trail. One of the first major battles of the Texas Revolution took place here in 1835.

We found a shrine on the mission grounds and I thought, “That’s a weird place to put a shoeshine stand,” and then I realized that I’m an idiot.

Mass is still held in the mission on Sundays. I didn’t take any photos inside the church itself because I didn’t want to seem disrespectful.

Luke’s philosophy is “Why walk when you can run?” It’s like there’s too much world he wants to see to waste time getting there slowly.

We had docked our bikes at the B-Cycle station in Mission Concepción Park, not realizing that it was a 15-minute walk from the park to the mission itself. Luckily there is another station just outside the mission, so we didn’t have to walk back to get our bikes.

We took the bike lane on Mission Rd until it reconnected with the river trail, then followed the signs to Mission San José.

This is my favorite of the four missions. It was founded in 1720 and is still an active parish with a beautiful little church.

The church entrance:

 

We hit our first snag with the B-Cycle system when we were ready to leave Mission San José. Only four bikes were docked at the Mission station and two had flat tires. Not a catastrophe: it was an easy 15-minute walk to another B-Cycle station at Padre Park. But that station was having some sort of connectivity issues; we spent close to half an hour coaxing three bikes out of it.

At least the view was nice. We got to watch kayaks going down a river chute from the shady comfort of our pavilion.

Once we all finally had our bikes, we continued on to Mission San Juan. This is a pretty stretch of trail, with woods and bridges.

Mission San Juan Capistrano was founded in 1731. It was heavily restored in 2015, including the addition of a coat of white plaster on the main structure. It was small to begin with and there wasn’t a lot left of it.

Like the other missions, it still has a nice church.

Our last stop, Mission San Francisco de la Espada, was originally founded in 1690 in northeast Texas, or what was then northern New Spain. It was relocated to San Antonio in 1731. Like Mission San Juan, it has lost some of its historic charm due to extensive restoration.

This is the ground that we covered on the Mission Trail, including the walk back to Padre Park:

It took a lot longer than an hour, though, with all the time we spent exploring the missions. We rolled out of the Blue Star at about 10:45am and finished up at Mission Espada a little after 5pm, sunburned and ready for supper. I have just now realized that we went about eight hours without eating anything that day and didn’t even feel hungry until we were headed back to the Blue Star. The missions and the bike trail kept us completely captivated.

We left our bikes docked at the Mission Espada station and walked to the nearest bus stop. Here we got lucky: there’s a bus route that just goes back and forth between the missions and downtown. It took us about six hours to cover that distance by bicycle and maybe 35 minutes to get back by bus. Then another 10 or 15 minutes to walk from where we got off the bus back to the Blue Star. We could have waited for a connecting bus, but that would have taken longer.

The bus was clean and pleasant, and the driver and passengers were very friendly. Three thumbs up for public transit.

The original plan was to see the missions, have lunch at Alamode Panini and Gelato in the Blue Star Complex, go tour some local neighborhoods and then have supper at Mi Tierra. But it was so late by the time we got back to the Blue Star, we only had time for one of the restaurants. I was leaning toward panini and gelato, but the kids had their hearts set on Mi Tierra. I bowed to the majority, and we had a nice Mexican dinner.

For some reason – probably hunger – I forgot how expensive parking is downtown and just drove to the public lot closest to the restaurant. We did get some nice views of the skyline.

Not sure the views were worth the $10, though.

Mi Tierra was packed with tourists. We basically inhaled our meal and then spent the next twenty minutes trying to get our waiter’s attention for the check. To be fair, he had a large party keeping him running.

The mercado is pretty at night.

This spot reminded us of Disneyland. New Orleans Square on the right with the Matterhorn in the background:

The last landmark on our Day Two checklist was the Hays St Bridge. It’s a pedestrian-only bridge, so we headed back to the Pearl Brewery to trade our car for some bikes. I love that they repurposed the old buildings without changing their names.

There’s no hike-and-bike trail between the Pearl and the bridge, but there are mostly continuous bike lanes on the streets. We got there with no problems.

We got a nice view of downtown.

That was a fun ride. We like the B-Cycles.

We got back to the hotel around 10 or 10:30 and had no trouble falling asleep.

Read Part III here

Categories: A Plethora of Parks, environment, Family, Holidays, kids, Life, maps, Road trip, Travel, Weather | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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