I am standing in a pitch black field. The darkness soaks up my coat and pants, and I can barely make out my bare hands. Dark sky protocol dictates that the only lights out here are four infrared bulbs: two marking the path, and two marking the edge of the shed that housed the telescopes that made up this observatory. A thin layer of clouds moved across the sky, blocking out the light from the moon and the stars. I am reminded of the poet Jim Morrison’s words: “Out here, there are no stars to guide us”.
The only glimmer of light was a tendril of bright far in the horizon, towards the city of Austin that lay about one hour drive southwest. “See that?”, he says in my ear, pointing towards the light, although I could barely make out his hand. “That’s light pollution”. I am not sure if I am saddened or comforted by the sight, as I try to become comfortable with the inky black. Civilization makes it mark on the land, but it also seems to represent safety. So many dangers could be lying in wait in the field.
Just last night, I almost was a danger to others, standing in the parking lot of the nearby resort, also under dark light protocol. I had a cart in front of me, and was wearing a blue coat, but it all blended into the darkness so well that a man nearly tripped over my cart until I moved it and coughed, frightening him. I feel a little frightened now of what I can’t see; snakes, feral hogs, bobcats, all those creatures we saw scat and tracks of earlier on the trail.This must be how the night felt to the pioneers, and I try to imagine what it was like to have to make your way on your own through this forest, back when there were even more animals and dangers in the darkness. I wonder how many accidental deaths this blackness has been responsible for. At the same time, though, it is thrilling to just stand there in the field, blending in, until I feel like I am a part of this outdoor landscape, and not a stranger to it.
Just a few minutes before, we finished watching the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field 3D video, in which it feels like one is coasting through space. We watched this inside the shed of the observatory, where two members of the Austin Astronomical Society gave us an hour long presentation on the wonders of telescopes and space. We had just contemplated how small and insignificant we are in terms of space and time before I walked out into the field to see what it felt like to stand there on our way out . We would have been able to marvel at the stars and planets through the telescopes, but the weather didn’t cooperate, which is just our dumb luck.
It was last August that I brought you the first four episodes of our Hill Country Highway adventures in and around Burnet, Texas. If the reader remembers, we had felt some frustration over the fact that we spent an entire weekend out in a cabin in Lake Buchanan in anticipation of a special Vanishing Texas River Cruise called “Freedom Flight” that ended up being cancelled. We tried to schedule a time to go again later in the year, but ended up canceling our reservations in order to have the money for our wedding. I was still a little disappointed, but my parents offered to watch the kids this November so we could take the “Freedom Flight” cruise on an anniversary weekend.
Months ago, I secured the tickets for this special boat ride, offered just a handful of times during the year, in which rehabilitated raptors are brought on board to be released back into the wild during the boat ride. The lucky guests who have their number drawn will get to the be the person who holds the bird for their big release. I also made reservations at the Canyon of the Eagles Resort, a place very close to the boat dock that we decided we wanted to stay at one day after having breakfast there last year.
Two days before we were set to leave, we got a phone call – the boat cruise was canceled, again. The lake levels were too low. Looking out at Lake Buchanan, one can see what they mean. Even though this year is not a drought year, there is a vast distance between where the edge of the lake has been in the past, and where it is now. When they call this particular boat line the Vanishing Texas River Boat Cruise, it almost seems like a cruel joke. It is vanishing, right before our eyes.
In fact, the website for the “eco-adventure” company that advertised canoe, kayak rentals and guided tours out of this area now just leads to an unclaimed domain name. No one is renting watercraft from the shores near the resort, as it would be a long hike through the brush now to get to the lake, which is basically dried up to the Colorado River now, which used to run through its middle.
Anyways, Canyon of the Eagles Resort has a seven day cancellation policy, which meant it was too late to back out of the weekend now, despite the prediction of bad weather. It was hinted on the weather channel that there might even be snow, so this had us packing layers, gloves, hats, and preparing for the possibility of being holed up at the resort.
The resort is really a collection of four-plex cabins surrounding an inner courtyard, which contains a swimming pool, a rec room, a bar, a fire pit, and then a chef-led restaurant with a fireplace outside of it, which provides a good gathering place to show outdoor movies or host a live band. The rooms at this rustic lodge do not have TVs in them, because they want to encourage you to go out and enjoy the great outdoors. The resort boasts a “big backyard” to play it – it is surrounded by a 940 acre nature park, with fourteen miles of trails. Inside the park boundaries, down a long dirt road, is the afore-mentioned observatory, which hosts “star parties” most weekend nights at dusk. There are also nature programs, such as the “Shake, Rattle and Roll” snake program that was happening on Saturday.
Here a couple of pictures from the grounds:
The weather actually ended up being better than anticipated, so we were able to go out and play. These are the things we enjoyed over the weekend: road burritos from Buccee’s, hiking and geocaching at both the Canyon of the Eagles Park and Inks Lake State Park, cheeseburgers at Hoover Valley Cafe, a visit to the fish hatchery, birdwatching, a fabulous breakfast buffet and later romantic dinner at the Overlook Restaurant at the resort, a late afternoon nap, an astronomy program at the park’s observatory, a slow walk through the damp trails after a fresh rain on Sunday morning, chocolate truffles, more birdwatching, more geocaching, and a stop at Storm’s Drive-In in Burnet for breakfast.
Here is a video of what the bird song was like at Canyon of the Eagles Park (which, although on the same grounds as the resort, is managed by the LCRA and is a birding hotspot): if you can hear it
This is a list of the birds we saw over the weekend:
several unidentified hawks
Black Crested Titmice
Ladder backed Woodpecker
Cedar Waxwing (possibly)
Long billed Curlew
Bald Eagle (immature)
One unidentified sparrow – either Song, Bachmans, or White Crowned
Ground and Mourning Doves
On the way home: Crested Caracara in Brenham, Red-Shouldered Hawk and Killdeer in Marble Falls
With some other species sightings the past few months (Mississippi Kite, Spotted Sandpiper, Ruby Throated Hummingbird, the two adult bald eagles), that brings our yearly species count up to 121.
We also found fourteen geocaches. My favorites were the ones in Inks Lake (some of which I have been wanting to see since 2007), and a travel bug hotel in someone’s front yard inside a plastic fire hydrant. Here are some of my favorite pictures from the weekend:
I don’t regret going at all, even though it was a real bummer that the Freedom Flight was cancelled again. I am beginning to wonder if we will ever be able to do this boat ride, and we are starting to not care about it anymore.
Also, with the “Romance Package” we had booked, I feel like we probably paid a lot more for the weekend that I had intended us to. I agreed to the package because it seemed like it would save us some money on pet fees and the meals we ate there, but it probably cost us $10-20 over what we would have spent (but then again, we never used our drink coupons, so if we had, we might feel like we came out even). We probably won’t spend that kind of money on other anniversaries, but maybe just for special milestones. With a new baby on the way, it might be a while until we can sneak off for a weekend getaway without children for some years, at any rate.
The food at the Overlook was awesome, but I think I ate too much of it, because I had a stomach ache for a few days after. It is probably because Jason and I insisted on trying to finish our huge complimentary desserts.
The park was nice, and I want to come back another time, perhaps to camp instead someday, and perhaps with the kids sometime, so they can experience the observatory as well. We had a really good time, and I am sure we will treasure the memory as the years go by.