Saturday, December 27, 2014

Happy Holidays in West Texas

Holiday lights as seen from horse-drawn carriage
This was our second Christmas on the road, away from home and in the southern part of the United States. It’s easy to be oblivious to the holidays when you are away from home, but we saw some beautiful holiday lights in San Antonio and the next day decided to head north to Johnson City, first stop along the Hill Country Holiday Lighting Trail.  We arrived at dusk, just in time to snag a place at a bar for the Seahawks game (not hard, since no one else was watching it) and to watch the lights come on around town. It turns out that a lot of Texans go to Johnson City for the lights and music, and for good reason. We really found the holiday spirit (after the Seahawk win) as we clambered onto a carriage and let Priscilla the Clydesdale take us around the colorful streets.

Janna communes with LBJ
Since we were in the neighborhood we decided to visit the Lyndon Baines Johnson Ranch and we found a quiet, off road picnic area to boondock. Texas is most accommodating of weary travelers and most rest stops and waysides are welcoming for overnighters. After driving the ranch we made a slight detour to visit the historic dance hall at Luckenbach. Liz resisted the temptation to get out her fiddle and play the empty stage as she would have had to disturb a coterie of roosters that were strutting their stuff. Instead we headed across the Pecos River to the tiny crossroads known as Langtry.  The town had a colorful historical character there named Judge Roy Bean who dispensed western justice and liquor from his saloon which is restored and serves as a museum. We boondocked  there  (with permission) in the Community Center parking lot.

Two Texas Grand Dames: Hallie Stillwell and Gov. Ann Richards
Then it was off to Big Bend National Park, where we spent the first night at the Stillwell Ranch just outside of this very remote, huge and beautiful park. Hallie Crawford Stillwell was a Texas Justice of the Peace and a great friend of Governor Ann Richards. She ran the 22,000 acre ranch for 30 years after her husband died, until she passed away in 1997 at the age of 99. A small museum houses her memorabilia and we checked out a key at the camp store to tour it. Liz was happy to spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the high desert looking for agates and carnelian. As opposed to the national park, it is legal to collect on the ranch property, 50 cents a pound for any rocks you want to take with you.
Mexican craft cache in Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park is the most serene and silent place we have ever been. According to the dark skies ranger lecture we attended, it also affords viewing of the most stars because it is so far from city lights. We enjoyed a couple of days of exploring and were touched by the openness of the border between the park and Mexico. An official pedestrian border crossing to the tiny village of Boquilles del Carmen was recently reopened there and it’s possible to hail a rowboat  to come across if you want to visit. The rowboat sounded doable but the subsequent ride to the village on horseback, or if you prefer, in the back of a pickup truck, gave Janna enough misgivings that we stayed on the US side. One morning we hiked on the Lookout Trail above the Rio Grande and watched a man on horseback come across the river to replenish the little caches of hand-made Mexican crafts that are illegally located in the park. Americans camping in the park pick them up and leave money in a jar. We visited with a young  American woman who was repairing the trail and, as we watched a Mexican family walk along the other side of the river, she hollered "Hola" and “Buenos dias” and  they happily hollered back the same.

"Restacked" building in Terlingua
Driving west out of the park we enjoyed the dips and rolls of the famous River Road which ended in the tiny towns of Study Butte (pronounced “Stoody Buy-oot”) and "Terlingua Ghost Town". Originally settled as Spanish missions, then nineteenth century mining operations, these places currently support a most amazing array of artists, naturalists and desert rats. We were surprised by the well-stocked organic Cottonwood Grocery in Study Butte and amused by the musicians playing in front of the Trading Company in Terlingua. There are some contemporary houses and business structures in this town, created by “restacking” rock from the ruins, and used mostly by venders catering to tourists. The flourishing arts scene was very attractive and if one can somehow avoid the 110-degree summers, it might be an interesting place to investigate more. 
Chinati Gallery houses Judd's artwork in old barracks
Our next destination was Marfa, made famous by the arrival of minimalist artist Donald Judd in the 1970’s and the arts scene that has developed around his huge installations. Since it was Sunday again and we were in a quandary as to where we might watch the game, Liz came up with the idea of stopping at a motel to see if we could somehow pay a small fee and watch it in the lobby.  The young couple managing the motel turned out to be an unexpected delight and, by the end of our visit, our latest new friends.  Both were former collegiate athletes, she a basketball scholarship recipient from Russia and he a football receiving end from California. We loved them both and found lots to talk about besides a place to watch the game.  After some careful deliberation and a phone call to the owner, they rented us a room for four hours to watch the Seahawks beat the Cardinals. In the bargain we got showers and a plug-in for the overnight in Lilypad. Cameron and Elena are an energetic and smart couple who are looking for a good place to settle and raise a family. We gave them leads for various hospitality venues back in the islands  and hope we will be seeing them again, perhaps this summer in Friday Harbor.

Yikes! Whiteout at McDonald Observatory
Leaving Marfa, we stopped to see the town of Alpine, then headed north to the McDonald Observatory operated by the University of Texas. Unfortunately as we ascended the mountain it began to snow and we were just able to hear a talk and slide show about the sun, plus another giving us a glimpse of the workings of the Hobby- Eberle telescope, one of the largest in the world.  By then, the weather was in white-out conditions so we hightailed it down the mountain, sad to miss the program about the stars and the milky way.
Gorgeous Christmas Day hike in Hueco Tanks
A night at the beautiful Guadalupe Mountains National Park and then it was on to our Christmas destination, Hueco Tanks Historical State Park. This fascinating place has the largest collection of pictographs in North America, some dating back 8,000 years. Subsequent visitors have also left their marks on the tumble of volcanic rocks that shelter several springs in the middle of the high desert. The park takes its stewardship task very seriously and only a few visitors are allowed in daily to camp or hike and only after watching an orientation video and signing many pieces of paper. The other appeal of the park is that it is an internationally known rock climbing site so at 8am on Christmas morning we gathered in the ranger station with a crowd of German speaking young people to receive our daily permit to venture beyond the campground and into the back-country. It was a lovely Christmas, biking and hiking in weather that reached 60 degrees, then cozy time in Lilypad singing, opening presents, and talking to family. Truly a happy holiday in West Texas.  Happy Holidays and a peaceful 2015 to all of you.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Deep in the Heart of Texas

What fun: playing music with Chip every night!

We have taken much to heart as we travel around in Lilypad.  We have learned a great deal about the heart of this country, we have had old and new friends open their homes and their hearts to us, and now here we are deep, as they say, in the heart of Texas.  At this moment we sit in the San Antonio kitchen of Glenn ("Chip") Hughes, high school buddy of Liz’s, university professor, philosopher, musician, poet and all-around big heart. We were here for Thanksgiving and had such a good time that after a 10-day trip to the Texas coast, we came back to spend a few more days. He feeds us, and gives us the run of his house (oh what fun to have comfortable chairs, showers, good internet, and cable tv to watch Seahawk games.)  The house is filled with books and it’s a lot like hanging out in a really good library. Furthermore Chip loves to engage in heart-filled conversation and wait, there’s more:  he is affirming and patient about our fiddle and concertina practice and the three of us have been playing and singing together every evening.

Chip also kindly took time from his busy academic life and showed us the town of Fredericksburg and his favorite Hill Country drive along the Guadalupe River. In San Antonio he introduced us to his friends, showed us some of the city, and took us to both the innovative Institute of Texan Cultures and the McNay Art Museum.

Padre Island National Seashore
Our ten days in southeast Texas found us along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail and visits to four of the many beautiful Texas state parks. We went to Rockport on the coast and took the free ferry over to Mustang Island, one of the long barrier islands on the Gulf of Mexico, where we camped on the beach and toured the University of Texas Marine Science Institute’s estuary visitor center. In Port Aransas we enjoyed a delicious sea food lunch and some serious bird watching, seeing Black Bellied Whistling Ducks and a flock of Pyrrhuloxia (no, we did not learn how to pronounce that.) Then it was south over a causeway to Padre Island National Seashore where we saw Skimmers and Royal Terns, Snow Geese, White-tailed Hawks, two kinds of pelicans, Red Headed Ducks and Sandhill Cranes. As environmentalist Hazel Wolf used to say, “Some of those birds needed watching.”

"Javie" checking us out at Falcon Lake
We also learned about the historic cattle ranches of Texas. We drove through Corpus Christi and stopped at the Kenedy Ranch Museum, a small but well-done and highly informative museum in the tiny town of Serita. At Port Isobel we stopped at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge where we added Green Jays and Black Legged Stilts to the bird list. Liz went on a tram ride and learned about the Nilgai, (introduced Indian antelopes) that, along with feral hogs are major challenges to refuge managers. This refuge also hosts 12 of the 50 ocelots that are known to live wild in the United States and many major research and management strategies are in place to support this population. In Falcon State Park, we were quite excited to see a wild javelina. 

Would have loved to see Hidalgo lights at night
We were surprised when we stopped at the Brownsville Visitor Center to be greeted as “Winter Texans”. Evidently the area makes a concerted effort to attract northern visitors, and many signs proclaim welcome. Birders are a big part of this business and there are even associations limited to "Birding B&Bs." Close to 500 bird species have been sighted from the coast up the river, many of which cannot be seen in other areas of the United States. Along the way we discovered some other interesting things like delicious oranges and grapefruits sold from pick-up trucks, the holiday lights of Hidalgo, and the city of Laredo, where everyone was speaking Spanish and our light skin and ignorance of the language clearly labeled us as out-of-town visitors.
Guess we're in a Homeland Security file now
As we traveled west on Military Road (also known as Highway 281) we witnessed many instances of law enforcement/citizen interactions, a startling illustration of this nation's huge increase in police personnel along the Mexican border. That, and the occasional sight of the fifteen-foot fence that marks the border between Mexico and the US, were to us, a profoundly sad sight. We were stopped at check points and repeatedly photographed by Homeland Security cameras. The police presence made us uncomfortable and brought thoughts of a "police state," making us wonder how our neighbors to the south must feel when they come here, whether legally or illegally. We wonder whatever happened to heart-felt welcomes and general open-heartedness in southern Texas. 

After enjoying a quiet Texas state park at Lake Casa Blanco on the outskirts of Laredo, we headed north and found ourselves driving through oil, gas and fracking operations for 200 miles. It boggled our environmentalist realities to see the machinery every few miles on the ranch lands, and dusty little crossroad towns that are now highly industrialized and are apparently surviving by economies based on servicing these huge sites. 

But we were somewhat cheered by spotting countless Crested Caracaras and other raptors dotting the landscape along the way. That’s one nice thing about the heart of Texas: it’s really good for the birds.