Hill Country Highways, Episode 4: For the Birds

We had a single purpose when we went to Burnet, a single purpose that had morphed into other diversions but was our sole motivation for our journey. So here it was, Sunday morning, and it was time for the main event.
Only, things weren’t going well right from the start. There was an incident with the screen door at the place we were renting. There was an incident involving the wine that almost cost us the entire bottle. We had no breakfast with us, because what I brought for Saturday was not enough, and so we had eaten Sundays ration as well. There were some other personal issues. J said we should have just gone back to bed and started the day over. Plus, we were a little behind schedule if we wanted to find a place to have breakfast along the way.
Turns out there is NO breakfast along the way to where we were going, just thirty minutes of road and farm houses along the dried out banks of Lake Buchanan. Several properties for sale. We finally decided to bite the bullet and dine at the overly-priced but very good buffet at the Canyon of the Eagles Resort. This resort was just a couple miles up the road from our main destination, the Vanishing Texas River Boat Cruise.
On occasional Sundays, this boat line offers a special trip for bird lovers called the “Freedom Flight”. A San Antonio raptor rehabilitation service comes out with birds they have nursed back to health that are ready to be returned to the wild. For each bird, a person on the cruise is picked to be the one to hold the bird before it takes its farewell flight.  We were very excited about this, being fans of the birds of prey.
I should have known something was up when I observed there were so few cars in the parking lot at check in time. When we went inside, there was some tension going on, and the employee behind the counter was frantically on the phone trying to figure out how to resolve the issue. A few ladies inside gave me the run down: basically, there was some kind of “emergency out of town trip” by the cruise line operator, and so the Freedom Flight had been rescheduled for NEXT Sunday. Turns out there was an email sent out July 22 that served as notification. J and I searched my email to find it, and he saw what I saw when I had gotten the email – it appeared to be a confirmation of the cruise I already knew I had reserved. It wasn’t unless you clicked on the link in the email to view your tickets that one could see that the original date was crossed out, and the new date subbed in.
Man, we were disappointed. We had spent a considerable amount of time and money to get to this point, only for this big let-down. We weren’t going to be able to afford to spend those same resources the following weekend. So, we did the only thing we could to get our minds off this: geocache all the way home.
We picked a scenic route home that took us through the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. I didn’t even know about this place, but I am glad I do now. This gazebo was the site of a virtual geocache, and while we were there, I read this sign that shared some interesting information about the preservation work going on at this NWR.
There are two birds that depend on this ecosystem for survival, the golden-cheeked warbler and the black-capped vireo. There is this other bird, the brown-headed cowbird, who is a nest parasite. The cowbirds will take over the nests of the vireos, puncturing their eggs and knocking them out of the nest, replacing the vireo’s eggs with eggs of their own. The eggs will hatch, much to the surprise of the vireo, who is now taking care of babies that look suspiciously unlike her. At the refuge, the rangers try to manage this by building traps for the cowbirds – a big aviary, much bigger than even the feral hog traps that you see at parks in Texas. There is some information here on the different trapping methods and how to become certified to trap these birds by the TPWD.
The cowbird has been increasing in prevalence and dramatically altering the number of songbirds that make it to maturity in this day and age. The reason  has to do with agricultural practices of people. The cowbird used to follow the buffalo herds and therefore move through an area, but now with livestock penned up in pastures, the cowbirds stick around. By the 1980s, they were preying on black-capped vireo nests at a rate of 90%. Since the inception of the trapping program, the parasitism was reduced to less than 10% by 1999. I am very fascinated by this example of how humans altered the behavior of a species, and how we have managed to turn that around in a positive direction.
DSC_0366The drive was also quite pleasant. I was able to drink a little of the salvaged (and now frosty) wine. All we were missing were some Willie Nelson CDs (or any CDs – neither of us had any music along with us, and I think we could only get a country station in now and then). We drove south from Bertram to the Highland Lakes area north of Austin via the Cow Creek Road, and saw nary a car or another person along the way. We stopped a few times. We were able to shelve our disappointment and enjoy the trip.

There are four access points for the public to the NWR, and two of those have hiking trails: Doeskin Ranch and Warbler Vista. It was a little hot during midday for a long hike, but we did explore a little. We also hit a small section of a “power trail” of geocaches very close to the Warbler Vista entrance. After a while of this, we were too hot to continue and decided to just come on home.
But, we will be back. We have to at least return to Burnet in the fall – I managed to get our tickets exchanged for a different date later this year. So the trails of the hill country will have to wait until then. It might even be better then, because the bald eagles will be nesting during that time.

So goodbye Burnet, Balcones, birds, and the hill country – we will be back soon!

Hill Country Highways: Burn it, Durn it! Episode 3, in which we visit the caves

IMG_4743One does not simply walk into Longhorn Caverns.

There is a locked gate.
In order to get in, you have your choice to pay the $12 or so per adult for the general tour, or pay upwards of $45-70 for the Wild Cave Tour, which is about twice as long and involves going through the small passages that most people might not be interested in slogging through. They also offer a Geology Tour.
We decided on the standard tour, and were greeted by a tour guide named Ashton, or something like that, and joined a pack of about twenty people. It was late in the afternoon, and we were a little too exhausted to deal with the bumping of bodies all around us, so we kept trying to stay to the front of the pack for the tour. The guide was somewhat entertaining, full of corny jokes that he had probably told a gazillion times.
The history of the place is what I found to be the most interesting. First, the caves were used by Comanches, who prob ably discovered the caves about 400 years before anyone else. The Comanches were not necessarily the most easy going of the Native American tribes. When the settlers moved into the area, the Comanches started stealing women away and then holding them for hostage here in the cave. Sometimes, if the ransom was paid, the girl was actually released to the family, but sometimes not. One story that our guide relayed that I found very compelling was that of a 18 year old girl held hostage, who was the daughter of a wealthy land owner. Her father called in the Texas Rangers to rescue her. While about three hundred Comanches waited with the girl in what is known as the “Indian Council Room”, thinking they were going to get either a ransom, or in a scrap with equal numbers of Rangers, three brave Texas Rangers slid down ropes in another entrance, sneaked into the room, got the girl, and got her out, before the Comanches realized it. One of those Rangers later ended up marrying this young girl, who was about half his age, and they ended up settling in Burnet.IMG_4754
The caves were also used as a hideout for outlaw Sam Bass and his crew of bandits.
Later, the caves were privately owned by one D.G Sherrard, who ran a speakeasy in the cave during the prohibition era. Patrons could come and have a nice meal in the Council room. There was a bandstand not far from the main room where people could dance. Our tour guide pointed out where the bathroom was for the Speakeasy, and also an area where patrons would sit up on the rock formations inside the cave to have their pictures taken.
During the Great Depression, Sherrard sold the cave and surrounding land to the state of Texas. Soon after, during the New Deal era, Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps spent seven years getting the caves ready for visitors and turning it into a park. There were some areas of the cave that have calcite crystals that sparkle, and apparently the CCC boys thought when they first discovered this that they were looking at diamonds. Imagine their disappointment when they found out they wouldn’t be rich after all.
This cave is one of only two caves in the United States that was formed by river water, and not by geological processes. As a result, it does not have the typical IMG_4752stalactite and stalagmite formations of most caves, but has sort of a smooth, rippled appearance. It was very beautiful in many spots inside the cave. The lighting that was installed in 2012, which replaced the lighting installed by the CCC, was designed to display some of these striking features. The cave has great acoustics, and lately the park has been capitalizing on that by having concerts in there. The cave is also available for private events, and some weddings have taken place inside the cave. Also, supposedly the cave is haunted, and there is a society that gives Ghost Tours of the caverns late at night.
Our tour ended up running a little longer than the hour and twenty minutes that were originally scheduled. There were some slow people in our group that held us up. There were also some annoying people. J and I got to the point where we could not WAIT to get out of the cave, because the people were driving us nuts. Lack of body sense, too many children with little supervision, loud talkers, camera-stoppers and entire pathway-walkers. Good grief.
Inside the cave, there is an answer for an earthcache. Along the trail system outside the cave, there are a few more caches. We found one, which was a fun ammo can, but at four pm, it was too hot to contemplate doing more. So, we made our way back to the Willow Point Resort, figured out how to go to the lake for a swim in the slowly-disappearing Lake Buchanan (the drought has not been kind to this lake), grilled some killer steak fajitas, and relaxed in wait for our next adventure.

Hill Country Highways: Burn it, Durn it! Episode 2

I was thinking about this one part of our visit to Inks Lake that, in retrospect, was the best part.  The path to the Gneiss Oak cache turned into rock face at a certain point, and just followed along the lower edge of a hill.  On the way back, J went all the way up that rock hill, billy goat style.  Then, he gestured for me to join him.  I was a little nervous about my bum leg, but I followed him anyway.

Then we just stood still for a while and listened to the wind.  Watched the rocks.  J was scanning the area with his binoculars, looking for interesting things.  I was thinking about a Texas version of that cliche saying, “get lost, find yourself”.  I was wondering what part of me would I find in this quiet moment in nature.

Then we found a half-naked woman.

She was across the water from us, on a different trail.  We contemplated if she was hot.  Kinda.  That was our cue to get up.  It broke the spell.

As we were walking down, we saw a little cactus growing out of the side of the rock.  J marveled at this, and I told him about an article I read in Texas Highways on the way up here about a Bed and Breakfast near Big Bend that does paleontology tours, and the owner of the establishment marveled at very similar things.

“Life finds a way,” the owner had said.  And that seemed so profound on this morning hike.

And then we saw the half-naked chick coming up the trail.  We asked her how she got across the water, and she told us what trail to take.  And we realized she was probably like eighteen and so we felt a little dirty for checking her out.  But, in our defense, she was hiking in the hill country in practically a bikini.  I just have one word for that: Cacti!

Hill Country Highways: Burnet, Durn it! Episode 1

IMG_4728Over the weekend, we headed out to Burnet, Texas for a weekend getaway.  This was a trip that ended in adventure, education, and eventual disappointment.

First off, I will admit that originally I was mispronouncing the name of this town.  I was telling my “sisters” about the trip I had planned there, and Stevie Muree corrected my mistake. She told me a funny story about being interviewed on the radio, in which she told a story about being recognized as the rock star that she is, in Burnet, of all places…only she also said the name wrong.   The DJs went quiet, shook their heads, and set her straight, and she vowed to never make that mistake again, even to the point of putting a bumper sticker on her guitar case to remind her that it’s “Burnet, Durn it!”  (can’t you learn it? is the rest of the expression).

We came to Burnet with a single purpose, which I will eventually explain.  However, we had a whole day to kill.  We decided to spend it geocaching at Inks Lake State Park, checking out the caves at Longhorn Caverns State Park, and tasting some Texas wines at Perissos vineyards.  We also soaked up the sun dipping our sweaty bodies in Lake Buchanan after a long day of being out in the hot Texas sun.

I had never been to Inks Lake SP myself, actually, but had intended to go there on an ill-fated trip back during the Spring Break of 2007.  That is a story for another day, but suffice to say, I never made it there, since my vehicle was totaled in Luling and our trip had been cut short.  J had been there once for a Texas Challenge years ago but hadn’t explored the park hardly at all.

We were a little mystified at first at how to access the trails we wanted to hike on, but we figured it out after burning some time driving through the park.  You could get a start on the trail from the camping area, but it would be a much longer hike than parking at the trail head outside the park proper.

We had a great time hiking around the Pecan Flats area, grabbing the TPWD 2013 Geocaching Challenge cache  and another cache called Pecan Flat.  There were some cactus hazards, though.  During the hunt for the first cache, there were these small tubular cacti that kept getting caught on my legs, leaving little spines that I continued to rub across for the next twenty four hours.  The second cache involved crossing a whole field of prickly pear.  I tried to avoid them by going a different way than J to the cache, only to end up brushing against stinging nettles and then whining about it until I got some cream on those spots.  Nothing turns me into a bigger baby than stinging nettles!  Scenes from this hike:
IMG_4729 IMG_4730 IMG_4731 IMG_4732 IMG_4733After this, we went across the road to the trail on the other side, grabbing TSP 4 – Gniess Oak and Rocky Top.  At this point, we had been out there for about two and a half hours, and were both starting to get overheated.  We got in the A/C, drank another entire bottle of water (each had a water bottle along the way), and stopped at the Hoover Valley Cafe for lunch.  It was delicious.  They use a special bun for their sandwiches that is sweet and fluffy (I read online later that they obtain them from Sweet Mesquite in Houston – will have to check that source out).  I would recommend this as a great place for lunch if you are in the area.  Here is a down-home youtube commercial if you are interested:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KC4zYBZ45M

We were still pretty hot, even after the lemonade and A/C, so when I suggested going to the winery across the street, J balked at first.  He had this idea that a winery visit would involve walking through the fields looking at the grapes, maybe a grape-stomping; outdoor activities that he wanted nothing to do with at this moment.  When I convinced him there was indoor shady seating just to taste the wine to pick out a bottle to take home, he went along with the plan.  I liked one of their reds the best, but was too cheap to spend almost $50 for the bottle, so I got a 2010 Sweet Lucy white wine for about half that price.

After this, J really wanted to go swim in the lake, but it just didn’t make sense to drive back to the Willow Point Resort where we were staying, only to turn around and come back down this way to check out the Longhorn Caverns.  Plus, the caverns are only open from 10 to 4, so it just made sense to stop by there first.  It was fifteen ’til two when we walked in there, and so we caught the two o’clock tour.

There is a lot I could say about the Caverns, so I think I will continue the story on Episode 2.  We are currently addicted to watching Breaking Bad on Netflix, and it has been slowing our stroll, but I hope to pick up the story within a day or two.