2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 24-25

Odessa TX. Tuesday April 25

Sunrise on our last morning in Fort Davis, TX.

When we mentioned to someone from West Texas that we were spending two nights in Odessa, they asked: “Why?” Well it is not the most touristy place in Texas but there is the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in the area. The museum is in Midland which is 20 miles from Odessa. An Evergreener earlier on this trip said that the oil field workers live in Odessa, the oil field owners live in Midland. From a quick look, that seems to be the case. Midland was ranked #1 in Texas in 2013 in the concentration of high-income households.

In the Balmorhea area, irrigated crops, well pumping, well production equipment

Monday morning we left Fort Davis. The first 45 minutes were spent continuing to drive through the mountains and desert. As we approached Balmorhea, the terrain flattened. The impact of oil fields just started to intrude on one’s senses; flares from burning gas, the smell of petroleum, the swirl of dust in the air, the sight of oil well pumps began and increased dramatically the closer we got to Odessa.

Part of the swimming pool at Balmorhea State Park

In Balmorhea is a state park located around a large artesian spring. The San Solomon spring system still pumps out water for residential and commercial use, with agricultural use primary. One can observe the irrigation canals and the green crops as contrast to the desert brown miles away from the springs. At Balmorhea state park, the largest spring fed swimming pool in the world was constructed by the CCC. At the deepest end by the springs, it is 20 feet. Other recreational portions are five feet deep. The spring water flows out of the pool into the irrigation system. We arrived around 9 AM. While it was too cool for us to take a dip, there were a handful of people in the pool.

Apache Corporation is located in Houston but was founded by three men from Minneapolis. They recently discovered in the Balmorhea area one of the largest oil discoveries in recent years. Previously oil drilling in the Balmorhea area was relatively light. Apache plans to drill 300 wells in the area. Thus, again will there be the fight between trade-offs. Oil production and jobs versus water use and potential degradation. The regional water board has already approved a water sale to Apache. The McDonald Observatory has already weighed in with its concerns for an increase in night sky light pollution. In its behalf, Apache Corporation seems to have one of the more responsible environmental records.

As mentioned earlier, the oil field impacts increase dramatically as we drove towards Odessa, 115 miles away. Two-thirds of the way to Odessa, we stopped at Monahans. The Monahans Sandhills State Park is known for its sand dunes. Smooth sand dunes as well as dunes with vegetation exist here with the smooth sand dunes beckoning to one. The park rents sand discs (originally designed for snow) but makes no promises as to slideability. As the day heats up, the sand becomes more resistant to sliding. We had arrived around noon, after having breakfast in Pecos and the stop in Balmorhea.

Monahans Sandhills State Park

Chris and I popped for the rental fee and took a chance. One drives out to the smooth dunes area, hikes up the hill, and tries to slide down. No luck. Too hot, sand too sticky. It was still fun and an unusual way to break up the day.

The sand here originated in New Mexico and was transported during the last post-glacial period. The dunes were probably formed 5-7,000 years ago and since they are located in the Permian Basin, the winds swirl around the basin but don’t blow the sand out of the basin. The dunes are here to stay under current conditions.

One of the sand piles

As we continued our drive to the northeast and Odessa, the well heads, collection systems, and utility poles providing electricity seemed to sprout everywhere. Most surprising to me were the numerous, large sand mining areas. I had been hearing about the use of Wisconsin and Minnesota sand for fracking but sand is used in regular well drilling also. One exhibit indicated 600 truckloads of sand can be used to drill one well. Sand here in the desert is mined also and used. Another exhibit listed the factoid that one gallon of oil needs 2,000 tons of tar sands to produce.

Given the wind, dryness, and lack of vegetation, blowing sand occurs frequently and must be adding to air pollution. We could visibly see the low-level pollution increase as we entered the Balmorhea area and then moved on to Odessa. BUT, as I checked national records, the air quality index for Odessa is similar to that in St. Paul, MN. Sometimes maybe you see things with a new eye when traveling. I will have to look around home with a critical and impartial eye when I return.

The drinking water quality here in West Texas seems to be universally criticized. TV news and newspapers have commented on it. But unemployment is low, population growth is occurring and construction seems to be occurring everywhere. Those are situations people like. Midland is even home to the first primary commercial service airport to be granted a spaceport license. The city is home to a space flight research facility and a space pressure suit manufacturing company.

For the rest of our trip we are lodging in national chains. Our TownePlace Suites here is nice, with an outdoor pool. Restaurant options are abundant with most of the usual food chains present. We ate at a regional steakhouse Monday night and regional deli today.

Today (Tuesday the 25th) we planned to see one museum, the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland. This was another AAA GEM and for us, it was a chance to learn more about the petroleum business. And it is big business, over 1,500,000 oil wells have been drilled in Texas over the last 100 years. We spent three hours here. The museum is excellent, covering geology and drilling techniques. They have a “Disney-like” ride discussing future oil exploration; through it we learned that laser drilling is under active research.

The Permian Basin is named for a geologic period of time ranging from 250 to 300 million years ago. The mass extinction of most living creatures on earth occurred at the end of this period. Today’s extraction of oil is due to the living organisms in the sea covering this area and the transformation of those organic creatures into oil under heat and pressure from layers of rock. The Basin is considered to cover an area 250 miles by 300 miles and has been one of the largest oil producing fields in the world.

In the early days, nitroglycerin was carried to well sites in vehicles like this

The museum showcases the discovery in oil in the Midland-Odessa region, dating back to 1923. The entrepreneurs who lived through boom and bust are highlighted, along with a clear description of the oil drilling process. We finally learned that those cylindrical tanks that we observed next to wells are devices to separate water, oil, and gas that are pumped up from the well.

One of the Chaparral racers

An additional gallery details the history of the Chaparral racing cars. Jim Hall, the founder of the Chaparral was from Midland. The chaparral racing cars were a major innovation in race cars in the 1960s and 1970s. Several of the original race cars are here along with a model of the garage where research and repairs were undertaken.

The Oil Patch outside the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum

Outside, the museum has a collection of antique oil field equipment. The items range from the early 1900s to the 1990s.

We cooled off in the pool at the hotel before heading out to dinner. Tomorrow our end goal is Amarillo with a stop in Lubbock, Texas.

Ed and Chris. April 25

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas: April 22-23

Fort Davis, Texas Sunday April 23-and some from Saturday April 22

Looking up at McDonald Observatory, Fort Davis Texas

A fantastic experience! That describes the hours we spent at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis, Texas. The Observatory began in 1939 due to an unexpected bequest from a Texas banker and lawyer, William Johnson McDonald, who left money to start an astronomy program at the University of Texas. At the time of his death in 1926, Texas had no astronomy department. The university began a collaborative program with the University of Chicago which had a premier department. A local woman donated the land on the mountain top where the observatory was built. The McDonald Observatory is now solely run by the University of Texas and has four major research telescopes (an 82″, a 30″, a 107″, and a 360″). on two mountain tops and a support community. Other instruments, some owned by UT and some belonging to partner organizations, are used for research into radio waves, infrared, etc. and to educate visitors.

Why did we decide to visit the observatory? Well, AAA rates it a GEM. Evergreeners have recommended it. We have enjoyed several night sky programs at national parks over the years. This part of Texas is high on the list of areas to observe bright stars and where better to follow-up on bright stars than an observatory? We went “whole hog” in scheduling activities. Our experience began Saturday evening, April 22 with a one hour educational presentation. That was followed by a 90 minute star-gazing adventure. Then we came back Sunday morning for a 2.5 hour talk and tour of two of the telescopes.

Every program was well-done. The initial 60 minute lecture was held indoors for about 100 people. Graphics were used well to illustrate the points the lecturer was making; generally about our solar system and the planets. A few of the points both Chris and I remembered; more of the points were new and understandable; some of the points were over our heads.

After a 30 minute wait to allow for the skies to darken, 336 of us went outdoors to an open-air amphitheater for a “Star Party”-a sky viewing presentation and telescope viewing. (Obviously additional people came just for the Star Party.) Chris and I did not line up to use one of the dozen or so telescopes set up. Instead we spent the 90 minutes listening to a guy just do a fantastic presentation. It was humorous, it was understandable, it was educational, and it was fun. He used some sort of laser pointer that enabled him to point out constellations, stars, planets, satellites, etc. using the sky as his chalkboard.

After the programs we better understood the concept of the solar ecliptical plane; the constellations and why there are 13, not 12; why you can not see all constellations or planets at one time, etc. At 10:06:36 he pointed out a satellite. We observed it crossing the sky and then for about 3 seconds it gained immensely in brightness. This satellite by Iridium Communications has reflective antennae that gather and reflect sunlight causing the brief burst in brightness.

Did I mention it was cold? The previous blog post discussed how the weather had changed from temperatures in the 90s to clouds and cool temps. When we arrived in Fort Davis on Saturday and as we toured other locations, the skies were dark. We were uncertain if the program would be canceled. However, around 6 PM the sites cleared up. The temperature remained in the 40s for the program but we were bundled up and had a blanket to place on the concrete bench.

McDonald Observatory, home to the original 82″ telescope

Sunday morning after breakfast and Church, we returned to McDonald Observatory. This “Daytime Solar Viewing and Tour” began with another lecture, accompanied by video and graphics. Through filters and media hook-ups, we viewed live shots of today’s sun-well, delayed by 8 minutes for transmission time. The topic was the sun, solar flares, coronal mass ejections, sun spots, etc. There was some repetition of information that had been presented the previous evening, probably helpful to us in remembering data.

The 107″ telescope-completed in 1968 and the third largest in the world at that time

After the lecture, we drove up to see first-hand the 107″ telescope. We stood right next to it; young girls were given the controls and made the telescope turn, the building’s opening rotate, and the curtains that shield the telescope move up and down. The floor by the telescope can also be raised to allow for maintenance. The operation and history of the telescope were covered. The telescope area is kept chilled to 46 degrees. Some of the other tour-takers were quite chilled by the end of our time in there.

The building housing the Hobby-Eberly Telesope

After the 107″ scope, we drove over to the next mountain (also donated land) to view the 402″ scope. Actually this telescope, the Hobby-Eberly, is a prismatic scope that utilizes a series of 91 hexagonal prism segments rather than one large mirror to collect the light. By use of the prisms, it actually does not have to be 402″ across to have as much capability as a 402″ mirror telescope. It is currently being upgraded to work on a Dark Energy Experiment and while we could view it, we could not get as close to it as we did with the 107″ scope. The people here were quite proud of the construction design which allowed the telescope to be constructed in 1997 at well below expected cost due to using “off-the-shelf” components. It is currently tied for second largest telescope in the world.

All in all, an excellent time; interesting, illuminating, enlightening.

Ed and Chris. Monday April 23 in Odessa Texas

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 22

Fort Davis, Texas Saturday April 22

Fort Davis National Historic Site

What a difference a day makes! Friday the sites were clear and the termperature was in the high 90s. Today as we drove to Fort Davis we encountered gray skies, fog, and temperatures mainly in the 40s. Luckily the border checkpoint (75 miles from the border) was well-marked and could be seen even with the fog. The drive was only 100 miles and the elevation change went from 3,000 feet to 5,000 feet. Still in the desert, though.

Heading for the fog and clouds

Our first stop was a bust. Marfa Texas receives lots of attention as an “in” place to visit. Back in the late 1970s, a major art installation began with works of Donald Judd. Now the Chinati Foundation offers guided and self directed tours of locations where large-scale art and the landscape are linked and in buildings where large-scale art is installed.

One of the large scale Donald Judd concrete art installations

My negative take is based on viewing one site and the fact that other sites are only open for limited times, resulting in the need to stay in this small town all day in order to view them. The long guided tours by docents sell out though, so some people are evidently enthralled by it. We toured the untitled works of Judd in concrete.

Part of my negative take may also be the lack of reasonable food at 9:30 AM. If we stayed longer, options included Dairy Queen and Subway. Other choices also opened later or were back in the high-end cutesy variety. We were out of town by 11 AM.

Fort Davis was a little better in the food choices although the list of restaurants put out by the Chamber had multiple errors in the dates and times the restaurants were open. No Dairy Queen, no Subway. The ice cream store is open Wed-Sun, so that suits us just fine-it was listed as Mon-Fri. Thirteen restaurants are listed, two are open for just two or three days of the week. We had lunch at the state park restaurant, luckily it stayed open until 2 PM (the brochure siad it would be open for dinner. Wrong.) One of the restaurants is usually open on Saturday but for some reason it was closed yesterday.

Our choice for dinner opened at 5 PM. We got there are 5:05 and the next opening was at 7 PM. I was not sure if that restaurant is usually crowded or if the crowd was due to the Christian Motorcyclists Association being in town and taking up all of the few food choices. Yes, the CMAs were on Harleys and had their leathers on but they looked to be at least 65 years old, overweight, and there were a lot of trikes among the motorcycles. Dinner was at Lupita’s, a small Mexican restaurant with seven tables-all occupied.

Part of Officers Row at Fort Davis

Fort Davis is home to the Fort Davis National Historic Site. Described as the one of the best remaining frontier military post in the Southwest, the fort is also known as home to the Buffalo Soldiers, the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry comprised of all “colored men”; except for the officers. The Buffalo Soldiers were stationed here from 1867 to 1885.

From the video and displays, the fort may have been a critical component in maintaining the peace during the Indian Wars but the soldiers spent more time on buidling the fort, roads and telegraph lines than fighting. The San Antonio-El Paso Road goes right by the fort. The fort was established in 1854 as part of the guarantee to Mexico to stop marauding Indians from crossing the border. In 1891 it was abandoned, having outlived its usefulness. For the next 70 years it was lightly used and started to deteriorate. In 1963 it became a national historic site.

From the fort, we drove to the Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center and Botanical Gardens. We had a nice walk through the gardens; everything was blooming nicely due to their drip irrigation system. But what I really wanted to mention was the greenhouse. The greenhouse is devoted to preserving the natural diversity of the desert. For us, it was an eye-opener.

Some of the many cacti in the greenhouse at Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center in Fort Davis, TX

The greenhouse is chock-full of cacti; varieties of cactus we had never seen before. Yes, I know we are from Minneosta but we have been traveling for several years and have visited numerous deserts, desert gardens, and botanical centers. The differing colors, styles, formations, etc. just were mind-boggling. A few of the more interesting ones, to us, are shown above. I could present many more.

Saturday night’s activity will be included in the blog post for Sunday.

Ed and Chris

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 21

Terlingua Texas Friday April 21

Desert View just west of Big Bend National Park boundary

Hot and Dusty. The schedule for the day was a three-hour Jeep trip into the backcountry. While our Subaru is all wheel drive, it is not high clearance. This is our fourth Jeep ride into backcountry since we began traveling. It provides us with an opportunity to see terrain up close and personal that we would not view or hike to under normal conditions, particularly when the temperature for the day quickly climbed into the 90s.

Driving to Christmas mountains

The Jeep had a canvass top with bench seats that were raised to provide a good view. Unfortunately, I spent part of the time bracing myself since the seats were vinyl. As the Jeep drove into the backcountry, the land traversed was rarely flat. On the vinyl seats, when the Jeep went downhill, I tended to slide forward and down, even wearing a seatbelt to assist in holding one upright. Not exactly the worst problem in the world, but the legs did get a workout stopping my slides. I know, it is a tough life traveling, isn’t it, but what else do I have to complain about?

Housing styles in the desert

Randy, our guide, gave us a geology and botany lesson as we drove along the dirt tracks. We gained several thousand feet in elevation between Terlingua and the turn-around point, although the elevation gain was not usually noticeable. There were a few homes out in the desert, trying to live off the grid. There were more “pads”; a clearing with a small cabin or car port where people might spend a weekend or a week away from the city. First requirement, build a shelter device and a water retention system. Almost all water out here is provided by collecting and saving rainwater. Normal rainfall is 10 inches per year.

Desert Views

This area is all part of the Chihuahuan Desert. The Chihuahuan is the largest of four deserts in North America, stretching down well into Mexico. Vegetation changes based on rainfall and elevation, the only wildlife we saw was a jack-rabbit. Evidently most of the wildlife hunts and travels at night. Smart.

Randy mentioned the force generated by the flash floods that occur when it rains. A friend had built a concrete dam along an arroyo, it took the floods only two years to wipe it out. The guides have to monitor the weather and the area. Rains that occur further north can put the road we traveled under water and/or mud even when it is clear and dry around Terlingua. That is similar to the Terlingua Creek rising down by Santa Elena Canyon on our hike Wednesday even though there had not been any rainfall around the canyon.

The Terlingua area had some ranchers trying to make a living here, but the main economic force was the mining of cinnabar to produce mercury. After WWII, the need for mercury in switches and bombs took a nosedive and the population got up and left. It got so bad, the town was classified as a ghost town. Today there is a population of less than a hundred but with the people in nearby Study Butte, the population is over 300.

Dining in Terlingua

Terlingua markets itself as one of the gateways to Big Bend and the Terlingua ghost town is a part of the marketing. A couple of bars and gift stores bring in the tourists, along with some RV parks. A Texas Chili Cook-Off in the fall can attract 10,000 people and a hundred state police to patrol and control the drinking. Although limited in number, we found the restaurants to be good. We had dinner at the Starlight twice, with live music. La Kiva, built like a cave, was a second dinner site with good food. Both had their share of characters, whether they were local or tourists was hard to determine. Lunch has been at a gas station cafe and an artsy, artisanal cafe. The cat at the artsy cafe must have been related to the cat at the Far Flung Outdoors center. At Far Flung it sat on the counter where you paid your bill since it was the Queen of the outfit. At the cafe, it was constantly rubbing our legs despite the entreaties of its own.

Photos from Terlingua ghost town

The ghost town still has remnants of buildings, mine shafts, and machinery from the mining days. The old mining company store made of adobe is still here along with the Catholic Church, jail, theater and cemetery. It survives due to the mix of artists, ex-hippies, and free-thinkers who enjoy life here.

Friday afternoon we drove to Lajitas Texas and visited the Burton Warnock Center of Big Bend Ranch State Park. The state park is east of the Big Bend National Park, the visitor center has an exhibit about the Chihuahuan Desert. The exhibit is nice, the center not terribly busy. We chose not to go hiking in the afternoon heat so our time here was short.

The fire pit was busier tonight than Thursday evening. While the fire creates some glare for Starlight viewing, the stars are still more plentiful and clearer than in cities. We woke at 4 AM and spent some time watching stars from our patio.

Ed and Chris.

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas. April 20

Terlingua Texas Thursday April 20

Canoe trip on the Rio Grande River

It is currently 98 degrees Fahrenheit in Terlingua. We are very happy we chose to schedule our canoe trip on the Rio Grande River for the morning. Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua was the outfitter; just a few hundred feet from our casita. There were 18 people and three guides on this trip. While on the Rio Grande, it was not within Big Bend National Park. We drove past Lajitas, a small town with one resort and the entrance to the Big Bend Ranch State Park. The state park is one-third the size of the national park, still very large. There is a national park in Mexico that is on the opposite side of much of the two Big Bend parks.

The scenery along the route to and from the canoe launch site

The drive to the put-in location on the river takes about 45 minutes from Terlingua. The actual canoe ride is about two and one half to three hours. We had a mild current with us but there was a headwind pushing against us. It was a curse for slowing us down, it was a blessing as a cooling factor. If you did not paddle, though, you did not get anywhere. So arm exercise was the health benefit of the day. This stretch of the river involves a few minor rapid type spots, most of it was easy for the canoes to handle. Close to shore you might get hung up on low water and rocks but the main channel was probably 3 to 4 feet deep. There were “S” curves where some skill was needed to not run into the weeds growing high along the bank when you got to turn two or three.

Canoeing on the Rio Grande River

Canoeing on the Rio Grande River

Not all of our companions were skilled in handling a canoe. I would call Chris and I “advanced beginners” and we seemed to be about the best of the bunch. One canoe in front of us made a habit of going from one bank of the river to the next; frequently we had to hang back in order to avoid ramming them broadside. One couple, most were man-woman couples, were sad to see it end as “we were just getting the hang of it”.

At our rest stop on the shore in Mexico

We made one stop during the paddle, it was on the south side of the bank so we were in Mexico at the time. The rock walls were high on both sides of the river, although frequently a flat stretch of land ranging between fifty yards to a half mile existed before the walls came up.

By the time we returned to Far Flung, had lunch and showered, we decided to take the rest of the day off. Too hot to hike the desert and too far to get anywhere.

Ed and Chris Thursday April 20

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas. April 19

Terlingua Texas Wednesday April 19

Santa Elena Canyon

Remember that brown, yucky water I have been writing about? Well, today we got to walk in it. That’s the headline, next comes the story.

Our goal for today was to hike the Santa Elena Canyon Trail. It was on our priority list, it was recommended by one of our Evergreen hosts, and a fellow hiker said it was nice but do it early before it gets too hot. Well, it is 38 miles from Chisos Lodge in the center of the park to Santa Elena Canyon on the southwest side of the park. With speed limits on the straight aways of 35 or 45 mph, it took us 75 minutes to reach the trail head. Did I mention Big Bend is a large park?

Driving along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

The drive takes us down out of the mountain area around Chisos Lodge, through desert with varying rocky formations along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. Generally the rock formations are brown to gray, we saw only one section of rock that had red and white coloring. It reminded us a bit of the Badlands in South Dakota. There was a particularly nice view as we came over a rise and saw the desert in front of us stretching out to the mountain border with Mexico.

Santa Elena Canyon, Mexico wall on left, US wall on right, canyon in middle

Santa Elena Canyon is at least seven miles long with cliffs ranging between 1,000 to 1,500 feet in height. The Rio Grande runs through the canyon, thus separating the cliffs in Mexico from the cliffs in the United States. The hike up Santa Elena Canyon starts where the river flows out of the canyon. To hike it, you cross the bed of the Terlingua Creek, climb up an embankment, walk through a brief shady flat section, and then hike up and down and up and down a rocky path before reaching a flat section that parallels the Rio Grande River.

Starting the hike, through the flat land, on the rocky trail, looking down from the trail back towards where we started with Rio Grande on your right

Rain had fallen farther up the watershed of the Terlingua Creek that raised the water in the creek bed from one inch to almost a foot, necessitating a hike into the water. Luckily a volunteer was on hand to guide us at the start of the trail. One actually had to cross the creek twice as the path had braided into channels before reaching the Rio Grande. We aimed for the shallowest sections to cross, managing to drown our shoes in water but only getting a portion of our pants wet. Glad we were not wearing jeans, the gear we have is quick drying.

At the end of the trail, can you spot Chris at the lower right center?

The round trip took us just under two hours at our slow pace and reflecting the temperature, already into the high 80s. The hike was memorable and delightful, a mild breeze helped to keep us cool. A canoe junket from an outfitter was working its way up the river, I assume they were going to follow the current on the return trip.

Crossing Terlingua Creek coming back from Santa Elena Canyon

On the return trip we passed a couple with two young children who had just crossed Terlingua Creek. They were trying to dry out and commenting that they had not planned on a water crossing. As we reached the area where we would have to cross Terlingua Creek, the volunteer was not there. We advised two people contemplating the hike on how best to cross. As we made our way back, we both slipped on the bank and landed on our butts, half in the water and half in the mud. With dignity, we got up, washed off our hands and pants in the nice, brown creek water and headed back to our car. At the car, we switched shoes, dumping out the accumulated water from the shoes. We changed into shorts and had lunch; granola bars and warm water.

Parked for the oasis walk, can you spot the snake?

Driving through the desert

Our plan for the afternoon did not change. To reach our lodging in Terlingua, we back tracked on the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, stopping at several overlooks to take advantage of photo opportunities we passed by on our drive to Santa Elena. We only walked one short trail out to an old homestead with its derelict windmill and a newer windmill. The water provides for a desert oasis, the greenery could be seen for miles before you reached it.

Our casita at Far Flung Adventures

Terlingua and Study Butte are very small towns, relying on Big Bend visitors to survive. We are only here due to the lodging at the casitas at Far Flung Outdoor Center. Terlingua is classified as a ghost town although there are now 250 some people living here. Most residents ae artists, musicians or work in Big Bend or with various outfitters dependent on Big Bend.

We are taking a canoe trip tomorrow and a jeep trip on Friday. More importantly, the casitas are very nice. Roomy, a small kitchenette, back porch, TV and radio, AND decent Internet. Dinner looks like it will be at one of two halfway decent restaurants in town, the Starlight Theater with live music.

Ed and Chris. Terlingua. April 19

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 18

Big Bend National Park, Tuesday April 18

Along one of our hikes to the Rio Grande River

The Rio Grande River is the 4th or 5th longest river (depending on how some rivers are measured) in the U.S. at 1,896 miles, about 1,200 of which form the border between Mexico and the U.S. The river is also heavily drawn down for irrigation and at its location here in Big Bend National Park, it is currently flowing between 2.5 and 5 feet deep. The river here is wadeable, we observed a man riding across the river on a mule followed by his dog.

For those of you worried about illegal border crossings, recognize that crossing the river is probably the easiest portion of the journey. The terrain here is hot, rocky, dry, and terribly inhospitable. The river is brown and you would not want to slip and ingest any of the water. We have observed airplanes overhead and we passed through a checkpoint with cameras recording us and our vehicle as we drove here.

The U.S. and Mexico have had rocky relations for much of our history. Remember Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and California were once part of Mexico. We have normally treated Mexico with disrespect when we deigned to consider them at all. So today’s bombast is nothing new, even if unnecessary and counter-productive.

Some desert plants

So much for the politics. We spent most of the day’s hiking time going to the river or along the river. Now, I will admit once again that we no longer are interested in hiking 12-15 miles a day with great changes in elevation. Shorter hikes at a slower pace are just fine. Our goal normally is to see specific, varied sections of the area we are visiting. Enjoying the view, listening to birds, viewing wildlife are all primary goals.

Examples of desert blooms

For instance today we saw: a road runner, minnows in a backwater of the Rio Grande, small blossoms of red, yellow, blue, and white on varied plants, bird nests stuck in crevices high up in rock walls, three desert bighorn sheep (or auodad, a non-native species introduced by accident), a man on horseback with his dog plus the guy on a mule crossing the river, rabbits, multiple lizards and slithering creatures, prickly pear plants trying to bloom, and tons of birds we don’t even try to identify. Big Bend is supposedly a birder’s paradise; the diversity of birds and plants is huge based on its varied topography. We did not see Mexican black bear or mountain lions, both of which are plentiful in the park.

Top: Desert mighorn sheep. Bottom: Mountain they were on top of

This national park is ranked 45 out of 59 in attendance. The walks are not crowded, but there are enough people to meet and talk to on each walk. It seems like there is always some connection; they lived where we used to live, or a relative does; we traveled to the same park or location; or we share tips on various trails in the park.

Hot Springs: The old general store, part of the hike, the pictographs, and the springs by the Rio Grande

We traveled to Hot Springs, a small pool framed by rocks next to the Rio Grande. One couple was in the pool, it did not look that inviting although there is probably some bragging rights to say you did it. The walk to the pool passes by the old general store and post office. This area has been inhabited by Indians years ago, there are pictographs on the rock walls. We had our first glance of the Rio Grande River as a border river, noting that it is not very wide, was flowing fast, and was a yucky brown color. Oh, right, we are going on a raft trip in this river Thursday. Great.

After lunch of a granola bar and warm water, we hiked to the river again, walking through a back water area. The path crossed flood plains heavy with deposited rock and sand. (Forgive me while I swear. The Internet system here did not successfully save about 30 minutes of writing which would have taken us up to the end of the day. Of course, that version was much more interesting than the re-creation I will now attempt.)

Animal figurines top; re-stocker? on horseback

Along the path we observed the man on horseback, with a dog trailing behind him. He was carrying some colorful sticks which from a distance we could not clearly make out. Later on we figured what it was. In several locations, there is a homemade stand of animal figurines and carved walking sticks. Next to them is a small can for honor system payment for the items. There is a note on the can indicating that your payments will go to assist the schoolchildren at an elementary school in Mexico. Nice touch, we thought, although we did not make a purchase. However, reading park material when we returned to our room we discovered that this process is illegal. Anything which we purchase is considered contraband and could be seized from us.

Boquillas Canyon: the rocky path, view of the river bend, path along the River, the canyon entrance

Panorama of Boquillas canyon through bend in Rio Grande RIver

Our next hike to the Rio Grande took us to Boquillas Canyon. The river takes another bend here before it enters into the canyon. The canyon walls are 1200 feet high but we did not wade into the water to observe them closely. This hike involved more elevation gain and loss than the other two and occurred during the early afternoon when the temperatures were approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The path was primarily in the sun so we were pleased to return to our car.

Back at Chisos Lodge, we rested up before taking another short hike close to our room. Dinner was in the Lodge restaurant, the food has been surprisingly good and affordable. There is no TV, radio,or phones; so hiking and enjoying the outdoors is pretty much it. We plan to view the sunset once again and check out the stars to determine if they are as bright tonight as they were last night.

Tomorrow we check out but spend three more days in the park. We are just moving our lodging to the small town of Terlingua on the west side of the park.

April 19, 3:30 PM Hallelujah. New lodging internet service is great!

View after the rain storm Monday night

Ed and Chris for April 18

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 17

Big Bend National Park, Monday April 17

At the entrance to Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park, Monday April 17

Well, we are finally at Big Bend National Park. Along with viewing the sandhill cranes along the Platte River, seeing the Texas wildflowers, this was one of the primary new sights that inspired this trip. It is just under 500 miles from Kerrville, and Chris drove the entire trip. I think the 80 mph speed limit energized her. We thought the scenery along the way would be boring, but found it enjoyable as the topography changed from the Hill Country to flat plains to desert to mountains. Not much color in the rocks though.

Driving from Kerrville to Big Bend

Lunch was at a regional chain of steakhouses in Fort Stockton but we both opted for the extensive salad bar-see, we can eat our fruits and vegetables. The skies were a gorgeous blue with fluffy clouds, it was a nice change from the multiple gray days we encountered recently.

Driving into the mountains for Chisos Lodge

We arrived in time to see the introductory video at one of the visitors centers but we checked in at Chisos Mountain Lodge, located inside the park, up in the mountainous area. Big Bend is the 14th largest national park, 7th largest outside of Alaska. Due to its remote location, it is not heavily visited in comparison to the other large parks. The combination of desert (Chihuahuan), river (Rio Grande), and mountains (Chisos range) makes it unique. The park warns that the road to the lodge is steep and winding, but we found it tame. The road is off-limits to RVs and large trailers.

Peak behind Chicos Lodge

The storm approaches

Sunset photos

We had dinner in the lodge restaurant, with window view seats overlooking the mountains and a storm off in the distance. By the time we returned to our room, the storm had arrived. Mild at first, it turned cold with a brief, fierce hail storm. When the rain had passed, the sun came out and we took a walk observing a rainbow and the interplay of dark clouds and sunlight. Numerous people joined us at an overlook to watch the sunset and take the requisite sunset photos.

Our camera is unable to take photos of the night sky, but it is amazing out here away from the lights of civilization. The stars are brighter and more numerous. When the moon rises later in the night, it dims the affect of the stars but does not eliminate it.

There is no cell phone coverage at the Lodge, it is spotty elsewhere. There is slow WiFi here but expect postings to be sporadic for the next few days.

Pictures take a long time to load. I may add a few of todays on tomorrow’s post.

Ed and Chris.

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 15-16

Kerrville, Texas. Sunday April 16

Saturday April 15

National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas

Bombs and Blossoms, the theme of the last two days. We drove to Fredericksburg, 30 minutes away, and home to a German community that immigrated to Texas before the Civil War. Germans constitute one of the largest European immigrant groups in Texas, and the Texas Hill Country was one of the major destinations for them. Germans left their homeland due to inheritance laws that gave all family land to the eldest son, due to crop failures, and religious oppression.

The Nimitz family was part of that German immigrant wave. From the Nimitz’ family tree sprang Chester Nimitz who was the Admiral serving as Commander-in-Chief Pacific after the Japanese attached Pearl Harbor. Fredericksburg is home to a fantastic National Museum of the Pacific War which started as a museum honoring Admiral Nimitz.

Nimitz during WWII, Nimitz with his grandfather, Nimitz statue in front of Hotel Nimitz

Chester Nimitz’ dad died a few months before he was born in 1885 and his grandfather was a major male influence in his life. The grandfather’s tales of life on the sea sparked an interest in the military and Chester tried to obtain an appointment to West Point (free tuition too). All of the Texas appointments had been made but he was told there were still appointments available for the Naval Academy. He went for it, and diligently studying, he got the appointment and passed the entrance exam.

Nimitz made a name for himself early, one of the first to promote the submarine service. (Yes, they had them back then.) We worked his way up over the years, and Roosevelt tapped him as the Chief for the Pacific War. During the war, titles changed and two other areas were carved out for separate command; for instance, so Douglas McArthur could command the Philippines area. However, Nimitz was the person who led the combined military forces of the Allies to victory over Japan in WWII.

The museum has a new 33,000 square foot gallery to go with the old Nimitz hotel which displays Nimitz family memorabilia. The new gallery uses large display boards, videos, personal testimony, computer kiosks, and battle graphics to retrace the causes, conduct, and legacy of the war. The amount of information is overwhelming. One excellent element of the museum was the significant allocation of exhibit space to the causes leading up to World War II in Asia. I walked away reflecting on the role face, poor economies, military dominance over civilian rule, ancient feuds between countries, and the development of national self-myths have in encouraging people to support wars.

The Pacific Theater is detailed campaign by campaign. The fighting was influenced by the Japanese unwillingness to surrender, making the casualty tolls high for limited land space captured. As in many events in life, luck, poor decisions, and mistakes play a crucial role, not just heroics, good planning, coordination, etc.

One of the Sunday houses in Fredericksburg

The rest of the day was spent in Fredericksburg. The Vereins Kirche Museum illustrates the history of the German immigrants in Fredericksburg. The museum mentions Sunday houses, small houses built by farmers in Fredericksburg so farm families could shop on Saturday and worship on Sunday before returning to the farms the rest of the week. The German immigrants reversed their living practice from Germany; in Germany they lived in towns and walked out to the farms daily. In America, they lived on the farms and came to the towns to shop and worship.

The drive to and from Fredericksburg from Kerrville only takes 30 minutes, we enjoyed wildflowers along the roads as part of our day’s activities.

Sunday, April 16. Easter Sunday

Wildflowers in Texas Hill Country

We slept in and went to 11 AM Mass in Kerrville. As part of the introductions, visitors were asked to stand and state where they were from. Chris mentioned we were from Minnesota. The woman up front of course said: “Great, from Minnesota-o-o-ta” trying to replicate the Scandinavian accent. After Mass, a guy came up to me and introduced himself; he had been a city manager in Shoreview MN and his son still lives around Cretin High School.

Wildflowers in Texas Hill Country

The rest of the day was driving. We thought we had seen wildflowers before but today’s crop was overwhelming. Red and yellow were the predominant colors from the artist’s palette but blues, whites, and purples were also present. We drove north from Fredericksburg along 495 to Llano, then east to Burnet, south to Marble Falls and back to Llano and Fredericksburg. It was stunning; it rivaled the wildflowers we saw at Revelstoke National Park in British Columbia and at Mount St. Helen’s in Washington State. Miles upon miles of multi-colored hues along the shoulders of the roads. Unfortuantely, most roads had absolutely no shoulder and a speed limit of 70 mph. Well,maybe it was alright or I would have been stopping constantly to shoot more pictures. Once again the sky was gray and overcast or the pictures would be more vibrant. It was a great way to end our time in the Hill Country and to enjoy God’s beauty on Easter Sunday.

Wildflowers in Texas Hill Country

Dinner was at a German restaurant (what else?) in Fredericksburg,

Video of wildflowers

Ed and Chris. April 16

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2017 Trip Two: Tour of Texas April 14

Kerrville Texas Friday April 14

The LBJ Ranch-The Texas White House

I admit it. Texas “Hill Country” is hilly, hillier than the eastern portion around Ennis and Waco. The Balcones Fault Zone that we briefly discussed in yesterday’s post about the Meadows Center in San Marcos did its job. The fault zone runs from Del Rio by the Rio Grande northeast towards Dallas. Today’s drive showcased hills, escarpments, and valleys. Roads have dips where flooding occurs during heavy rains. Those flat lands closer to the Gulf are gone.

Driving around the Texas Hill Country

Our drive today was 200 miles north from San Antonio to Johnson City and then southwest to Kerrville-with a few back and forths for exploratory purposes. Motorcycles were out in greater numbers than previously seen. Wildflowers were not as extensive as a week ago but still present and profuse periodically. Cattle and sheep were frequent. This is supposed to be an area where peaches grow but we were not able to identify any orchards. The large number of vineyards and wineries did catch us by surprise although we did not stop at any. The day was normally cloudy so outdoor pictures are not vibrant, but at least it did not rain.

LBJ, Lyndon Baines Johnson, our 36th President, was our primary target for the day. We spent hours visiting his birthplace, his boyhood home, his grave, and his ranch-the Texas White House. All three are located in the Texas Hill Country within twenty miles of each other. People of my generation identify Johnson with the Vietnam War and while the displays cover this, our blog post will list a few other facts of his life and Presidential career. Such as the fact that LBJ spent over 25% of his time as President working at the Texas White House.

LBJ’s mother, Rebekah, went to college and received a degree in journalism (so did Lady Bird). Very unusual for a woman at that point in history. Education was important to her, one of the reasons the family moved from the countryside where he was born into Johnson City where the schools were better. Rebekah tutored him also, and concentrated on debate and elocution, two traits that would aid him greatly in his political career.

LBJ’s boyhood home in Johnson City Texas

LBJ’s father served for 12 years in the Texas Legislature and Lyndon learned political skills from him. LBJ visited him while the Legislature was in session and went out on the campaign trail with his father. His father would meet constituents at home but Rebekah made him hold many meetings outdoors on the porch due to the smoking and cussing that occurred. LBJ’s bedroom abutted the porch, though, so his informal education in politics was not hampered.

Early in LBJ’s career in Congress, he had promised his constituents that they would get electricity in Johnson City. Recognize that electricity was not universal, in fact, most rural areas did not have electricity. It was too expensive for electrical companies to set up power plants and run wires for less populated communities. During the Depression, FDR and Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act to allow for the formation of electrical cooperatives in rural areas. The federal government would provide and guarantee loans for that purpose but REA regulations set minimum population levels that Johnson City did not meet. LBJ was not able to convince the REA administrator to waive the requirements so he went directly to FDR who granted a waiver just for the Johnson City area.

Where LBJ signed the education bill, on a picnic table outside his one room school house with his first teacher by his side.

During Johnson’s five-year stint as President, over 1000 pieces of legislation were passed. Only during Franklin Roosevelt’s twelve years was a greater number of bills made into law. LBJ’s time as Minority Senate Leader and then Majority Senate Leader put him in a rare position to get legislation passed. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was signed into law by LBJ sitting at a picnic table outside the first school he attended with his first teacher by his side.

One has to wonder how LBJ would operate today. He sold his legislation to conservatives on giving a helping hand so people can improve themselves. Today, we seem to be in a mood to not do anything for people but to make them improve all on their own, despite poor schools, broken families, poverty, ill-health, etc. We could use his political skills today and his concern for helping people.

We had lunch in Hye TX, a small unincorporated community where the cafe is housed with the post office. At this post office in 1965, LBJ’s Postmaster General was sworn in. Down the road ten miles, we had a snack of peach ice cream at a small cafe/gift store/fruit stand.

On our drive to our hotel in Kerrville, we stopped in Luckenbach. Luckenbach, I believe, exists solely as a place where an establishment acts as a general store, bar, and dance hall. During the afternoon, free music flows. An eclectic gathering of locals, tourists, bikers, and VW drivers were in the crowd. (Evidently the Texas VW Classic is happening in Fredericksburg this weekend.)

Video of Luckenbach Texas

Ed and Chris

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