South Shore Park, Bastrop

I’ve realized that I have gotten to a certain age in my life where all my idols are Master Naturalists.  This is why I felt lucky that we were in the presence of a couple of them on a nature hike last Saturday in South Shore Park.  We were actually at the park for a geocaching camp-out, but we were enticed by the sign at the park headquarters advertising the hike starting at 10 am at the Swift Trailhead.  We found another geocaching family there, as well as a girl scout leader who had a handful of girls with her.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-7The dozen or so of us adventurers set down the path with Louise (I think?) and another Naturalist, perhaps one in training.  We stopped every few feet for our guide to point out plants, to investigate scat, to identify butterflies and so on over the course of a couple of hours and a couple of miles.  I learned so much during the walk, but mostly I learned, or was reminded of, what it felt to be completely absorbed in a place and moment.  During this hike, I felt so entirely happy, so sure that this was EXACTLY what I wanted to be doing at this time.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-4One of the aspects of the hike that made me the happiest was seeing my middle son get so excited by nature.  He usually whines about having to go on hikes with us, and acts bored or disinterested in learning about what I can point out around him.  I am not sure if it was because there was a boy his age in the group, a pack of girls, or if it was something in the way our guide was speaking to the group, but he got hooked.  He was particularly excited about identifying mushrooms.  Louise handed each of the kids a different pocket guide. He had the mushroom one, the girls had birds, butterflies and flowers, and they were all using the pictures to identify their particular specialty.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-8I really enjoy these kind of guided hikes because they combine education, outdoors, and relationships with other people.  I love mental stimulation, and I love the feel of the forest around me.  I love seeing not just my kids but other kids get excited about nature.  Also, we were geocaching.  We found a couple along the trail, and some of the cute little critter waypoints for a night hike that was set up for the geocaching event.  We also saw some cool nature scenes, like this lichen on a log:

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-9Along the walk, I learned more about the Master Naturalist program, because I think if those kind of people appeal to me, perhaps I could join their ranks one day.  What I learned about it is that it requires 40 hours of classroom instruction on your specific geographic area, where you will learn all about the flora, fauna, natural history, geology etc.  After that, you have to commit to 8 hours of additional training in the field and then 40 hours a year of volunteer hours educating the public in various capacities and programs of your choice.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-17I think I will do that someday, but I will have to wait until my children are older or grown.  That probably explains why most Master Naturalists that I have met are either retired, or close to it.  They are probably more likely to be grandparents than parents.  I do worry that time is short, and it is not a guarantee that I will make it to retirement age or even to an age where I might have leisure time that does not involve children.  That is what I get for stretching my reproductive years over such a long span.  I have one getting close to leaving the nest and one who is just settling into it.

At one point, Jason went ahead of us on the trail, because Sebastian was being very antsy in the backpack with all the starting and stopping.  He was looking at his phone and not at the trail, and just barely caught this particular little elusive devil of a snake out of the corner of his eye.  He barely had time to get a picture of it before it disappeared into the brush:


I really enjoyed the other mothers who were on the trail.  The girl scout leader was extremely knowledgeable, and the geocaching mom had some interesting life experiences to tell.  Eventually I started talking to this geocaching mom, who was from Round Rock, and she and I made a plan for me to come speak to her homeschool core class on career explorations about the kind of work that I do.  I have been wanting to do outreach talks, and this might be the start, or perhaps one of a few I do next year.  It happened to be that she and her son were staying in the cabin right next to us.

2016_11_05-texas_roundup_bastrop-13I did enjoy the camp-out as well.  It seems like this is the first year that my middle son has actually had fun and made new friends at one of these geocaching event weekends, and maybe it is because the vision of the Lone Star Roundup has finally become manifest.  We have been attending this event each year since it started in 2011 as a fall alternative to the Texas Challenge that is held in the spring, to offer a chance for Texas cachers to get together just for fellowship and perhaps without some of the regional animosity that has developed over the years due to the intensity of the Challenge.  It was a fun park to host it at, too.  The butterfly garden in front of Osprey Hall is just amazing.  We just love Bastrop, and I do like this little park. All in all, it was a good experience.


Fiorenza Park: Eagles, Reflections, Goals, and Pipe Dreams

Every morning during the week, I turn my car east on Westpark Tollway and join all the cars heading out of Katy. There is a time, usually coming over the hill past 1093,  that I hit a slowdown of this congested spot of tollway and find myself sitting still in bumper to bumper gridlock that carries me all the way to the Beltway.  Inevitably, I will look over to my left and see the sunflowers dancing on the grassy hill that marks the beginning of Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza Park.  The flowers seem to be beckoning me to come play.

If you are watching close, like I usually am (because there is nothing else to do), you will see the hillside disappear and a lake appear.  You might see the silvery flash of fish jumping in this lake and feel the delight of this in your heart.  Your eyes might be drawn to the two small islands, and perhaps you will wonder what those birds are that are clustered in a small flock on the islands.  You might contemplate what they are working on in the space between the highway and the lake (developing a new trail that will work itself around this side of the lake).  Perhaps, if you are like me, you might find yourself wishing that instead of going to work, you were actually on your way to that park instead, to see those things up close, to stop this rat race and just slow down a bit and soak up every bit of nature that place has to offer.

fiorenza-park-3When I found myself high on vacation days and needed to make a plan to use them or lose them, I decided that I was going to take a few days here and there to just give in to that feeling and go explore this park.  After all, there was a regular monthly bird walk that was scheduled here that I have been wanting to attend since my maternity leave last year (when I first discovered this information).  I felt very left out when I would get the email blasts with the list and pictures of the birds they saw.  I was especially excited when I saw that the group (led by a Houston Audubon employee, Mary Ann) was spotting Bald Eagles out there.  I wanted to see the Bald Eagle(s) for myself.

So today was one of those days.  It was perfect weather to join a group of (primarily older) adults on a walk about the park, marveling at each species representative.  I was the only one without a special fancy camera.  Next time (next month), I am going to bring Jason’s camera with me.  We did get to see the Bald Eagle.  Sometimes there has been up to five seen, but this one seems to be a permanent resident.  This is the only shot I got of her, with my cell phone:


After the group dispersed, I took a walk around the smaller section of this park a little further south to identify a vireo that I had seen while in the park a few weeks back with my kids playing Pokemon.  I had not thought to bring my binoculars that day.  I was delighted to note that it was a species of vireo I had not seen before (Blue-Headed), and after tallying up the species of the day, noted that my birding list for actually-seen birds this year is at a total of 130 species.

I was hoping to make this a year of birding trips, but then had to put that goal aside to cater to my middle son’s sports schedule in the spring, and then abandoned it completely in the heat of the summer.  However, I am only 5 species away from observing the most birds per year that I have recorded (in the few years I have been counting).  I am still 70 away from recording 200 for the year, which is one of my hobby goals, so I might have to plot a strategy for that in the next few months.  I also had set a hobby goal of getting 4000 geocache finds before my 41st birthday, and I completed that.  We have also been discovering a lot of parks in and around our area, which was one of my goals.

I recently reflected on the goals I had of planning a backpacking trip, in order to determine how serious I was about my dreams of hiking the AT or PCT one day.  I had to really question if my ideas of backpacking were actual goals, or just pipe dreams.  I am really not a fan of pipe dreams, to tell you the truth.  My best friend Jen said something this year about how I was “extremely goal-oriented”, and I hadn’t really thought about it like that before, but when I tried that label on, I found that it fit.  It irks me when people discuss their dreams as if they are things that will never really happen, because I feel like we create our own reality.  If you want to do a thing, you should make a plan to do that thing.  Work towards it in steps in you have to, but get it done.

I wanted to go spend some days at this park and see the eagle that lives there, so I made it happen.  I wanted to be an animal behaviorist, and I made it happen.  My job has given me the confidence to create plans and the persistence to see them through.  However, I still haven’t shed that baby weight, or even looked to see what kind of supplies we have for backpacking and planned a trip.  I suppose that today, doing a thing I wanted to do, made me consider more carefully how I was going to do the other things I say I want to do.  We will see how that plays out in the coming months.

Bear Tooth, Bear Claw, Buffalo Burger: A Love Story

DSCF0190This week, I was asking my family to tell me about the happiest times of their lives.  My train of thought on the afternoon commute from work one day took me down this path, and I found it very interesting to ponder that it was actually quite difficult to determine exactly what that time or times were.

DSCF0200 My kids told me that they had the same trouble I did coming up with answers to that.  It depends on many factors.  Did I mean a specific time, a moment, in which they were happier than they ever had been or were after?  Did that mean the best day ever?  How do you quantify happiness?  Does it mean that you laughed harder than you ever had, that you were having an absolute blast, or did I mean like in that quiet kind of way in which just everything came together to allow you to have a peaceful day in which you felt extremely content?  Yes, these are my children, there is no doubt.  Their answers were very insightful, and I hope I can use that information to create more happy moments for them in the future.

My answers to those same questions, though, despite it being hard to nail down, seemed to be mostly related to the past six years with Jason.  Sure, there were some nights with my college roommates in which we laughed so much and had a blast, but I have to say that in the past years by Jason’s side, he has made me laugh harder than anyone ever has, certainly to the point that I did or was in danger of embarrassing myself, running out of breath, having sore abs the next day, and having to cross my legs to avoid peeing myself in laughter or just to be able to hold myself up.  Also, though, there are many days with him that were those quiet kinds of contentment, perhaps from just the peace of having a true companion, or from sharing an adventure, or from spending the day doing what I love with someone who loves the same things.

When I think about the happiest day, one of the days that came to mind was this one that I am going to share pictures from, a day where we crossed from Wyoming to Montana a few times, driving from Billings to Red Lodge, through the Bear Tooth Mountains, and ending up in Silver Gate.  This was early on, a few months into our relationship, during a trip that I knew we would eventually consider some kind of honeymoon.  We spent the day geocaching, sightseeing, looking for wild animals and adventures.

We had crossed through some intense mountain scenery and played in the snow, and were a little cold and hungry when we hit Silver Gate.  We had been scouting for caches we were planning to look for, and got stuck on this one called Bear Claw.  The description said it was located at a place that sold bear claws, and the more we talked about this, the more we decided that we wanted one of those very badly.  We had worked up an image in our head of hot, fresh tasty pastries, so we were so disappointed when we pulled up and realized that it was just a gas station, and in fact the reference was to Little Debbie type snack cakes, which they were out of anyways.  There were no bear claws of any kind to be had here.

Disappointed but soldiering on, we drove up to the entrance of Yellowstone National Park to inquire about camping spots, only to be told that they were full and there were no spots to be had.  So we turned back around and drove the twenty or so miles back to Silver Gate and rented a little cabin for the night to a tune that was higher than we wanted to spend, but lower than the peak rate, so a negotiated compromise.  Then we went driving around the National Park, finding bison and antelope galore to feast our eyes upon (no no wolves or bears, which we hoped for).DSCF0258

That night, we walked across the street to this little restaurant, the Log Cabin Cafe, and ate the most delicious buffalo burgers you could ever dream of.  We still laugh about that, about how we had to eat one after looking at them all day.  I remember the feeling walking out of that place, breathing the crisp air, seeing the stars lighting up the sky all around us, and the feeling of love filling my chest and the feeling that it was settling there, that this was the start of something huge.

And this was one of the happiest days of my life, but it is just one of several wonderful ones we have had together since that time, in our various road trips and other smaller adventures we have together.  I came to this place in my life to be happy, giving up on my previous miserable marriage, and there are these days that I can count on to show me that this path I chose, this man I chose, was the way to find it.

Summer Summary

When I last wrote, the summer seemed full of possibilities yet, and now it is winding down.  Only two weeks until the start of another school year.  As we all expected, summer’s heat has turned up the dial and we are all sweltering.  However, it hasn’t really stopped us from playing outside, because we are crazy like that.  20160729_154220

Perhaps in a different year, we would have lost all interest in outdoor activities, but three current activities are keeping us motivated:  a step challenge at my work, my goal to get to 4000 geocache finds by my 41st birthday (31 finds/37 days left), and the advent of Pokemon Go.  I realize that Pokemon Go is one of those things that you either love, hate, or laugh at, but it is a perfect way to inspire my ten year old who really needs more exercise (and can’t stand geocaching anymore) to get out of the house and be active.  It is a lure, to borrow a term from the game, to encourage him to go for a walk around the neighborhood, at a local park, or even our nearby malls on particularly hot days, so I can still get my steps in for the step challenge but yet not feel guilty about leaving my children to work on it.

These are our top ten places we have discovering and playing at this summer since I last wrote (not an all-inclusive list, and besides the places I mentioned last time):

  1. McClendon Park:  I have decided this is one of my favorite finds of the summer.  It has a nice playground for all ages, a splashpad, geocaches, pokestops and gyms for PG, and also it is right next to a rookery where tons of birds have made their roost, making for exciting bird watching as well.
  2. 20160716_185443 20160716_185541Pine Mill Ranch:  this is a neighborhood near my house that I have been geocaching in by bike, sometimes alone and sometimes with my friend and her kids.  One day, we were really hot towards the end and found the splashpad.  Playing in it really cooled us down, and later I planned a Hike It Baby walk there, but was disappointed that only one other person showed up.  This seems to be my fate with planning Hike It Baby walks, so I have kind of given up on that myself, although Jason has been taking the kids on tons of Hike It Baby walks since he has been spending the summer as a stay-at-home dad.
  3. Katy Mills Mall:  the mall is not new to us, but we rediscovered how much we enjoyed it after Pokemon Go.  It has a ton of pokemon stuff going on, but also it is a nice air-conditioned venue to get some exercise, and someday we plan to spend a whole day there, perhaps paying to ride the train and the giant robotic stuffed animals, to sample all the foods and check out all the stores.  For now, we mostly play and window-shop.  We also had a good time re-exploring Memorial City Mall, although the play area was very crowded.  There was this special thing going on while we were there in which we found this giant Pokemon exhibit and had to take a pic of the real-life pokeball.20160730_175808
  4. Fort Bend Discovery Center:  This is the new branch of the Houston Children’s Museum, and it is much closer and much less crowded.  We decided to buy a family membership after a nice visit there last weekend with our friends (that I met online last year, through a baby app and then via Facebook and Hike It Baby).  These pics are the kids having fun discovering all the exhibits.  The Tot Spot was awesome – a safe, air conditioned place with all kinds of toddler friendly activities.  When I was in there, I felt like I was really doing something good for my kids.  Jason will probably take Sebastian back there regularly during the week now that we have a membership and until he starts working again.
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  5. Rick Rice Park:  lots of pokemon activity
  6. Westgreen Park:  I discovered this little gem when we were going back and forth to Rick Rice Park in the past few weeks.  It has a playground and a splash pad, and Sebastian really enjoyed playing there.  There is no playground at Rick Rice, so this is a good way to reward him for being a good boy and putting up with being pushed around in the stroller or driving around looking for imaginary monsters20160801_201428 20160801_20154320160801_195148
  7. Quillian Center (Noah’s Ark Pool):  I took these younger guys there on a day around Fourth of July weekend, during a time when Jason was taking AJ to urgent care to look at the full body rash he had acquired.  We had a lot of fun and I would take the kids back, but probably not until next year when Sebastian is a little more able to keep up with the bigger kids.
  8. Ervan Chew Park:  On the surface, this park is pretty basic, but we had a good time here playing on the playground, in the splashpad, catching Pokemon, and watching the dogs in the dog park next door. Plus there was this water fountain incident that made us laugh:20160729_152928
  9.  Houston Zoo:  although I will say, I am not going back here until it cools down, because I almost died when we went in the middle of the day on a July Saturday.  I sweated so much.  The splash pad was fun, though, and we have free admission (membership) until November.  We’ll be back, just not until temps are below 90.20160709_123717 20160709_123725
  10. The elementary school:  the school Kaleb goes to is not that far from our house, and it has a really nice playground for Sebastian to play on in the evenings (particularly summer evenings).  He is obsessed with playing ball right now, so this is a good place to take him in the evenings to let him chase soccer balls around in the grass, or learn how to bounce basketballs.20160731_094111