Mason Creek Birthday Walk

It’s Jason’s fortieth birthday, so I let him choose our weekend activity. He chose to take us hiking along Mason Creek, where the paved hike and bike ends at a trail that enters George Bush Park.  This is what is great about us – we share the same interests.  I would have chosen to go hiking today, too!

We were rewarded as soon as we got on to the trail with a sighting of something rare for the area.  A juvenile Brown Pelican was hanging out in the creek.  I remembered something about this, and checked my birding forums later to see if this is where I heard about this bird.  Five days ago, a birder on my forums had noted this guy around the same place.  Several folks riding bikes and walking dogs along the Hike and Bike stopped to take a good look at this interesting fellow.  At one point, he flew off low along the creek, and I marveled at his wingspan.

Mason Creek pelican

Jason wanted to share with me a nice section of the forest, just past the locked pipe fence and the water treatment plant, where he had enjoyed a nice walk the other day.  He thought it seemed rather birdy, but today (later in the day),  it was a little less so.  I did see some of the common birds of the area during our walk: herons, egrets, robins, cormorants, starlings, hawks, some house sparrows and an eastern phoebe.

mason creek leavesMostly, though, I was looking at the ground.  There were a lot of fall leaves on the trail, and I realized I was concentrated on feeling the trail under me, to avoid pain to my ankle that I injured so badly back four years ago now.  Last night I took a long walk with the dogs, and as is common when I do that, my ankle was sore this morning and I had a bit of a limp and was trying not to put any strain on it by having to absorb shock of stepping on covered tree roots.  Jason was surprised because he didn’t think this trail was bad at all, and it wasn’t really, but there were a few roots here and there lying under the leaves.  I also really enjoy watching Jason’s legs walking ahead of me on the trail.  His legs are one of his best assets, haha!

mason creek bridgeWatching the trail in front of me so intently did make me think about this conversation I had with my kids when we were camping in East Texas recently.  I was asking the boys what they think about when we are hiking.  I think it is interesting to consider what is going on in other people’s mind space, particularly since there is sometimes times where we are all just quietly walking along.  My middle son says that he either thinks about the video games that he plays or he is looking around at the scenery.  I asked him what drew his eyes when he looked around, but he didn’t want to elaborate on that.  My older son said he doesn’t think about anything – that his mind is blank during hikes.  Then he shared with me some insight on the “Nothing Box” that men have in their heads.  I can’t imagine this but I know men are different than women in this regard.  A Nothing Box?

mason creek fungi

I had shared with my boys what I think about.  In some ways, maybe my mind is doing what both of theirs are kind of doing, because when I hike, mostly I am looking around at the forest and just enjoying being present in the moment.  My eyes seek out unusual shapes and colors, though, and I feel a joy in discovering neat little places.  As in this picture above, my eye is most pleased by finding neat little fungi and tiny little plant life up against wood or stone piles.  I also keep my eyes out for heart shaped or colorful leaves, little mosses, neat little stones, things like that.  I mostly spend my time focusing on the three little feet in front of me, making sure I am not going to fall down or trip on something.  I wonder often as I hike about how I would feel about doing this daily for months, like on a long distance hike.  Would I spend the entire hike focusing on those three feet in front of me?  Would I get tired of looking for fun little aspects of nature to marvel over?

mason creek hill trail

I also look around for signs of wildlife.  In this case, today, I smelled feral hog at one point along the trail, saw prints of hog and deer, and then we saw this flattened down sections of dead grass that looked like the hogs had been there as well.  This section was on a part that was called the Hill Trail on our screens on our phone, but did not appear to be a trail anymore, or at least a trail we wanted to try going down today with a baby on the back and shorts on.  We heard some birds, mostly robins, but also hawks going at it above the trees across the creek.  We saw a turtle sitting on a rock in the creek, and heard a fish jump in a smaller branch of the creek as we walked past.  There was a man who had biked over, basket on his bike, and who was now fishing from the creek, and there was another man with two dogs, and those are the only people we encountered once we got into the forest section.

mason creek cache

We also found this fun geocache, behind us in the picture.  Under the face is a cap that you open to get the log out to sign.  We found another one on the bridge on the Hike and Bike near where we entered the path, behind the elementary school where we parked that has a great playground for little ones and a nice little track.  All in all, we walked close to three miles this day.  I think I would like to come back to that area often.  It is a nice little refuge from the world that is not far from our house.

Martin Creek Lake State Park

A spectral light shines through the mist at the end of the road.  It’s New Year’s weekend, and the campground is practically abandoned.  Dark shutters close off the ends of screened shelters sitting quiet in the night.  One could almost imagine spooky shadows rising out of them.  The spirit of the early settlers that passed through and lived in the area, in a settlement called Harmony Hill, seemed to be present in the dark and misty night.

martin-creek-power-plantA power plant hums in the distance, one of the few and constant sounds.  The plant lights shine up in the sky, looking like a city sitting on a hill overlooking the lake.  The constant noise interferes with the serenity of nature’s voices and one could lament the presence of the plant, but if it didn’t exist, neither would this park.  The land was donated to Texas State Parks by the plant in the late seventies to offset the environmental changes caused by it, to give nature a place to grow, to allow for a refuge for wildlife and a place for native plants to thrive.

bridgepowerplantThe discharge from the plant keeps the water in the lake warm, even during the winter, so this park is a favorite among anglers and casual fishermen.  The man and his son camping in the cottage next to us the first night appeared to be taking advantage of this, judging by their boat on a trailer behind their truck.  We saw quite a few boat trailers in our weekend here.

nutellapie2-copyDuring our weekend here, we worked at perfecting our technique at making meals and treats with our new fire irons: a double pie iron and a hamburger iron.  We have a long way to go before we are experts, but we learned a bit through trial and error.  The highlights were cherry pies made by my teenager on the last night, and some nutella/marshmellow puff pastry delights.  We mostly tried making different versions of calzones, some weak attempts at breakfast sandwiches (shredded hash browns as a base did not work well), hamburgers, and multiple types of desserts involving pie crusts, puff pastry, and buttered bread as bases.

nutellapie

We also did quite a bit of hiking.  Our first full day, we drove to Caddo Lake State Park (less than an hour away) and hiked about two or three miles along the Caddo Forest Trail (and various trail spurs).  We found some geocaches and this cool old shelter built by the CCC in the 1930s.  We stopped to check out the cypress trees along the bank, then walked back along the trail to our truck, driving back to the bank to eat our picnic lunch on a table under these trees, draped with silver Spanish moss.

caddoshelter

In the afternoon, a few of us took a nap, and then we got up to play with our fire irons again.  The guys built a heck of a fire.  In the evening, the toddler went to sleep, and Jason and I traded off sleeping with him while the other (mostly Jason) entertained the teenager.  We had this idea that we were going to go to the Stargazing event there to ring in the New Year, but when it was time to go, we could not find it.  Aj and I drove all around the park, looking at the boat dock areas and any and all other areas we could see to try to find the campfire and ranger, but all we found were a few other families doing the same thing we were doing.  So we said Happy New Year at the cabin door, and went to sleep.

fire

On the first, we joined quite a good sized group for the park’s First Day Hike, a slow ranger-led hike around the island.  We learned a bit about the park.  Afterwards, we were going to go to try to the black eyed peas and cornbread that the Dutch Oven cookers were giving a demo on, but we decided to head to town randomly to get snacks, and ended up at Dairy Queen.  I am not sure how that happened, except that we had gotten very hungry unexpectedly.

On the way back, we explored this Harmony Hill Cemetery just outside the park, where the early settlers are buried.  I found a geocache behind the cemetery fence, and we all marveled over the age of the graves and the stories, history that we read about on the headstones.

geocaching2

Then we took our own First Day Hike on the Harmony Hill Trail.  The day before, my oldest son carried the little one on his back wearing the Osprey, and this day, after letting the toddler “lead” us a bit, we let the ten year old carry him in the Osprey.

leaderofpakc

Those two have the rough-and-tumble kind of friendship, and we cracked up at the fact that as soon as Sebastian realized who was carrying him, he started head-butting his brother.  For quite a while, it went like this: Sebastian head-butt Kaleb, then cried “ow”, followed by Kaleb saying “ow!”, then another head-butt and the chorus of “ow!” starting over again, like a couple of stooges over there.

pinesEventually, Kaleb started whining (as is par for the course with him), and we came to a fork in the road.  We decided that Jason would take the little ones back, and the teenager and I would hike longer.  I was on a mission to get geocaches, of course, and we still had steam in the tank.  After this, we walked a bit and came to this arch of pines that was quite peaceful.  We had a great talk and found a cute little cache, then found our way back down the utility road to headquarters before meeting Jason along the road in the truck, coming to pick us up.

seedpodsAfter this, everyone wanted to take a nap except the toddler (who probably needed it the most), so I spent a couple of hours exploring the park with him, some parts with the stroller and some without.  He found sticks, leaves, seed pods, and little board bridges.  I found some birds (nineteen species), some beautiful little places, and peace.  We found our favorite campsites for future visits and sat for a while in the amphitheater, watching and listening to nature.

edgelake

Later, it was more campfires and fire iron experiments, and early to bed. Before going to bed, though, we took the kids on a night hike.  We were looking for a “night cache”, which usually involves a starting set of coordinates, and then directions on how to follow a series of fire tacks.  We walked down the deserted park road in the mist.  The toddler fell asleep in the stroller along the way, and then had to be carried through the woods (we only brought the umbrella stroller) while the older kids had a good time leading the way, finding the fire tacks with their flashlights.  They got stuck at the end, missing the last set of red fire tacks that denoted the end of the trail, and then wouldn’t have found the cache without Jason’s nudge in the right direction.  It was a fun adventure.

In the morning, we planned to hike the other side of the park.  It was overcast and grey outside as I started breakfast over the camp stove.  As I cooked, though, the skies darkened, and a storm came in suddenly.   We had just enough time to grab all our items, including the breakfast that was just barely done, and seek refuge inside our “cottage” (a mini-cabin equipped with two sets of bunk beds, heat and a/c).  Each evening, I had played a card game with the older boys, and Kaleb wanted us to play those games again while we waited for the rain to stop, but the adults in the group wanted to get all the gear packed up (if nothing else, to keep the toddler from tripping on and/or getting into everything).

spiderweb2

During this time, I went to shower, taking the risks of walking through the rain to get there.  As I undressed, I realized a huge stink-bug had attached to my pants.  I shook him off and kept a wary eye on him during subsequent activity.  As I was getting dressed again, he appeared to be coming right at me with agitation.  I moved down to another part of the bench, only to have him make headway towards me again.  I told my teenager about it when I got back, and he said, “why didn’t you just step on it and kill it?”  I expressed my chagrin about this, telling him that this was the stinkbug’s home and I was the interloper, and why should I kill it just for ending up in the wrong place?  He told me I had a messed up perspective, but I am not sure I am the one.

peacefullake

It was still raining, so we had to make a choice.  We didn’t have to leave for another few hours, and the ten year old was still insisting on a card game, but the teenager was telling us that if he had to spend any more time cooped up with us, one of us was going down.  The toddler was restless, as he was out of things to get into, and wanted to play in the rain and mud.  We wanted to go hiking and I also wanted to visit a friend who lived nearby, but we decided that the best thing to do was to hurry the gear out to the truck and get home as soon as possible.

edge-of-lakeSo away we left.  We all kind of laughed on the way out about how spooky the campground was, especially since we had eventually been the only ones staying on the Broken Bowl side we were on (a handful of campers on the Bee Tree loop/other side).  There was a metal drain cover near the bathrooms that was marked “Confined Space Entry”, and even though we realized it was an entrance for the septic system, we joked about what might be down in the Confined Space, and how the whole trip started to sort of feel like an Evil Dead movie plot.  I told the older boys we should each write our own story about it with fantasy elements, working in the various aspects, but they weren’t so interested in actually doing this when we got back home.

Still, I hope that the real trip becomes one of those family memories that they can hang on to later in life, a story they can tell about a time we spent together.

Goals

Last week, a girl at work asked a group of us what our goals were for 2017.  I told her a couple of short term work-type goals, but I didn’t get into my true goals of the year, since it wasn’t seemly for me to start dominating the conversation by listing my hobby goals.  However, I did spend a little bit of time yesterday comparing my goals for 2016 against reality, and considering what my goals for 2017 should be.

Wilson's Plover
Wilson’s Plover

These were my goals for last year: to increase my bird count (seen birds for the year) over previous years, with the goal to get to 200 species seen, to get to my 4000th geocache find, to spend more time hiking and camping with my friend, and to work on getting healthier.  I did get past my 4000th find (now at 4089).  The last two didn’t really happen; my friend and I did not go camping or hiking together after that first weekend of the year, and I am not necessarily more healthy.  Jason and I did go hiking and camping (some, not a lot), but my friend’s schedule never joined up with ours.

American Bittern
American Bittern

I decided to do the year end bird count yesterday.  I added up the birds I found by comparing notes in my journal against a digital ABA list to count.  I did get to a higher bird count than the past couple of years, with 144 birds seen.  Suddenly, though, I was struck with the urge to go out and find those last 56 to get to my goal of 200 for the year.

White-Tailed Kite
White-Tailed Kite

I made a list of what species I was missing that I was likely to find, given the area, and started making some kind of little mini-field guide for my family to help me find them.  Based on the list, it seemed that the most likely place for us to maximize the count would be Paul Rushing Park, in the Katy Prairie.  While I was working on this, my husband arranged for my oldest son to do a pressure washing job, which we needed to drive him to, that was sort of on the way out there.

White Crowned Sparrow
White Crowned Sparrow

Well, the toddler fell asleep in the car on the way out there, so by the time we got to the park, no one wanted to deal with waking him up.  Plus, it was the middle of the afternoon, not prime birding time.  I directed my husband to drive down a couple of little side areas that sometimes have birding action down them, but then he was going really slow and there was nothing out there to see.  When I let him know we should turn around because this was not panning out, we needed to try a different location, he would keep taking his time.  His reasoning was that he was just enjoying driving along those roads, that he was having a good time the way things were.  It was making me anxious, because I could feel time ticking down and we hadn’t seen anything new yet.  I couldn’t just enjoy the journey, because today I was on a mission. He stopped to take a picture of an egret in a canal and I almost lost it.  “Egrets!  We don’t have time for egrets!”

western-tanagerThen, my oldest son called, much earlier than we expected, and we had to go pick him up.  No new bird species seen,  no walk around Paul Rushing, a complete strike out.  I found myself wishing that I had a friend who would come out with me to the Prairie at dusk or early in the morning.  This family thing wasn’t really working, because we were having to balance too many sets of needs and wants.

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting

My best girlfriends all live too far away, don’t call me that much, hardly have time for friendships because their lives are too busy, and none of them are really interested in the same things I am.  I recently met a girl in my neighborhood who said she was into birding, and seemed receptive to the idea of us going birding some time together, but I didn’t know her well enough to ask her to come with me, right now.  I think we will have to work into it slowly.

Yellow Rail
Yellow Rail

The next morning, I was trolling eBird hotspots in the Katy Prairie, comparing my list of target birds against bird counts at the different locations.  When I pulled up Paul Rushing Park, I saw that my friend Janey, whom I have much admiration for, was just at the park yesterday, finding some of those same birds I was after!  This reminded me that there are actually people in my life right now that I could make plans with who could help me pursue some of these hobby goals in 2017.

Semi-Palmated Sandpiper
Semi-Palmated Sandpiper

It made me start considering my casual friends a little more closely.  Instead of thinking about which of my close friends could I try to convince to come with me on outdoors adventures, which one of my casual or new friends could I invest more time with, who has the potential to be an outdoors companion?  There are a few women I have met through geocaching that might be willing to join me.

American Oystercatcher
American Oystercatcher

I asked my husband if he was okay with the idea of my spending a little time once a month or so pursuing my own interests with a friend instead and he was fine with that.  There is a lot of mom guilt to deal with in having your own interests that are easier without children, which I have spoke of before on here.  Some women would just suggest waiting until the kids are grown to have individual pursuits, and I think that is a noble idea, but it is hard for me to accept.  I worry that I won’t live long enough to get there.

Long Billed Curlew
Long Billed Curlew

I have spread my child-bearing years out over basically two generations, so that means it is like twenty years in between having my first infant and my last one being old enough to be a good outdoor companion.  I have been trying to straddle the difference by just taking my kids with me out to all the outdoor things, but birding is just not one of those things that is easy to do with a toddler.  I want to get better at it before I get older, so that when I am a grandmother, I will already be proficient enough to not get frustrated by it.  Some activities are better in your youth, and some are better with age – birding is in the latter category.

Pyrrhuloxia
Pyrrhuloxia

Around Thanksgiving, I made camping reservations for the spring.  Often what happens to us is we decide to go camping, and then realize that all the dates/places we wanted are already booked for the season, because apparently the rest of Texas plans ahead.  This way we were locked in, and my friend could work around it if she wanted to go.  She had suggested before that our spontaneous camping trips didn’t work for her, because she had to plan months ahead of time.  I made the reservations, then sent back the dates/locations with an invite to this friend, and also to a couple of other friends that I would love to spend more time in the outdoors with. I sent an invite to Janey to see if I could join her birding sometime, and now I am going to look over friends to see if I could set up more concrete plans with them.

Bronzed Cowbird
Bronzed Cowbird

So, based on this thought process, I guess you could say that my goals for next year is to find some outdoorsy friends to come with me to do some of the activities that are hard to do as a family, to make plans for camping and hiking in advance so that the friends I do have that want to go can work around that, to try to get over that 200 species bird count, to find more geocaches (I have half a mind to work on the Precinct 4 Challenge and maybe work on knocking out some counties we have not gotten yet for the County Challenge).  I think we will all be doing more biking and hiking as a family this year, since the youngest kids all got new bikes.  We have a plan to do longer hikes, even an overnight one, with the kids.  We are actually going to take a birding trip to the Rio Grande Valley in the spring, maybe even hitting some of the other known migration spots as well along the way.  We want to try out more state parks, starting next week.  All of these are too many goals to get into during a casual conversation with co-workers, but I hope maybe some of you reading this will be able to join me in them.

Revival

This past year, my husband has been warning me that I was becoming one-dimensional. I pride myself on being somewhat of a complex person, and in fact that is one of the things he loves about me. Our conversations are usually so riveting, but it seemed like this past year I talked about little besides work, work, work. He kept encouraging me to find something that would calm me down, take the edge off. The kids were telling me I was way too uptight, and I could feel it like a hard cold line in my jaw and shoulders. It wasn’t helping that I had signed on to take this certification course this past year that resulted in my obsessively studying for the four exams when I was at home. Even when I wasn’t at work, I was focusing on work-related tasks.
I tried walking, I tried drinking, I might have tried yoga but not nearly enough (seems like I quit going to yoga regularly at the end of last year). I tried going out with my friends on occasion, making plans for outdoor outings, setting up camping reservations, reading NPR articles and trying to absorb and share new (not-work related) information. I was trying, but then it seemed like even my hobbies were stressing me out.
I realized a little late in the year that I had too many vacation hours left, and I needed to use them or lose them. This may also have been contributing to my obsession with work.
I started using these mental health days to go on bird walks with the Houston Audubon groups. I went with them to Fiorenza Park (which I wrote about earlier), to Hermann Park, and most recently to Kleb Woods.
I ended up having to bring the toddler with me to Kleb Woods, which meant I did not really get to hear the lecture on birding in the Katy Prairie and also missed out on some of the bird action and bird talk during our walk. I try to find the best in every situation, so we still had a good time. However, there was this moment out there, as I was leaving, where I decided to find some geocaches and then could not find them. I struck out on three out of three. It got me going down a rabbit hole, contemplating the idea that I might not be any good at the things that interest me. Over the years, various obsession have struck my fancy – horses, dogs, geocaching, birding – and the truth is, maybe I am not really good at any of those things. It was not for lack of trying, but despite some gains, there were also losses. Triumphs, and then great disappointments. Viewing myself from this lens was very demotivating. It didn’t help that this geocaching strike out followed a day of great disappointment at work. I was feeling kind of down about the whole thing, actually.
I took this week off work for a little staycation to use up some more of those hours. I contemplated the idea of finding out who I was separate from work. However, the first couple of days, I wasn’t really able to focus on that, because despite being on vacation, I was dealing with emails and text messages from work that started to cause me anxiety. I did go out on Monday morning to the Houston Arboretum with the Hike It Baby group, giving me and my little son some time to focus on nature. We did some holiday family outings together.
It really wasn’t until today, though, that I had a moment where I felt all of that tension slide away for a bit. I had gone out to Bear Creek Park for another Hike It Baby walk, and after the walk, I took my little guy in his stroller on another little trail off Patterson Road to find some geocaches and solitude in nature. The caches were easy to find, and we were having fun discovering little things in the forest, like mushrooms, lichen, butterflies and such. Then, there was this moment where I stopped on the trail to listen to some bird calls up high in the pines. I looked up and watched the pines swaying in the breeze. I took a few moments to spot the birds through my binoculars. Sebastian was awake when we stopped, but soon fell asleep listening to the melody of the birds and the wind. When I put my binoculars down, I felt so relaxed. It was as if I had just been given a massage. I remembered that this was my antidote, and this is what I needed to make sure I had more of. More than that, I also realized that I don’t have to be good at my hobbies necessarily.  I can just enjoy doing them, with no pressure of performance.  If I enjoy a thing, I can just do it for enjoyment’s sake.

This feeling in the forest is who I am without work, and who I need to focus on being – a woman who feels great joy in embracing the delights of nature, who is most at home in the woods, who loves discovering small little worlds in our great big one.

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