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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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.


Texas Geocaching Challenge: Brenham

Neat Structure in Firemans Park

They say all you need to geocache is a sense of adventure and a GPS. These days, with the advent of the smartphone, you really don’t even need that GPSr. I think that sometimes we geocachers get so caught up in the game, in the numbers, in the bragging rights and competition, that we forget what got us into geocaching in the first place: that sense of adventure, a desire to explore our surroundings, to find something we never noticed before.
This sense of adventure is probably one of my defining character traits, and I brought it with me to the Annual Texas Challenge (and Geocaching Festival), which was held the first weekend of spring break in Brenham this year. I had taken the Friday off work to spend Thursday night through Saturday night in Brenham to participate in as many of the events as I was willing to sacrifice other time for (I had left my family behind for the first night).
20160310_201656Part of the reason I wanted to go up on Thursday night was to experience the Antique carousel at Fireman’s Park. It is such a cool story to think about how a group of citizens just found the horses abandoned in a field in 1932. Now that is a real cache! They managed to get the city to purchase the horses from the landowner and refurbish them for the delight of generations of people in Washington County. After some research, it was determined that the horses on the carousel were made sometime in the late 1800s. The carousel has been through some owner changes and refurbishments since, but the city continues to keep it going for all to enjoy.
20160310_201842Despite the fact that we couldn’t actually RIDE the carousel horses (for kids only), it was still pretty awesome to sit in the bench seat or stand next to the horses and ride this ancient carousel. We had an ice cream social that night, complete with a barbershop quartet, which most people were too busy talking to listen to. However, the best part of the evening for me was when the whole event was over and all had left the pavilion except a handful of us core folks, and yet the barbershop quartet was still there singing, just for fun, practice, or for each other. They were singing a beautiful rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that I was particularly enjoying when it was time for me to go, but memory of them singing that song is a little bit of a treasure.

The next day I had no particular plan except to show up, so in the morning I found a few places and had a coffee from the little coffee bar in the Pomegranate store/Funky Art Cafe that literally made me happy, and that I will look for in all the other coffee shops I go to in the future. I went to Fireman’s Park and watched Gary and his group assemble “cows” made out of plywood cutouts for a “milking” contest at the park before going for a ride with a couple I had met a few years back (Sue and Ron) to find a few caches with “Nashville Joe”, a guy who is a full-time RV-er, a lifestyle which I found fascinating. The caches we found were not that interesting in themselves, but they were near these juxtapositions of civilization and nature that kind of reminded me of what geocaching is kind of like, the mix of modern technology with bliss in nature.20160311_111101
We got back to Fireman’s Park in time for me to find 20160311_111112another couple to hang out with, Kenny and Kelly, but as we were preparing to go to lunch, we also needed to find Donna and Lola, who had the coins I needed for registration. We all ended up going to lunch together at a place called Must Be Heaven, at which I had a delicious muffuletta sandwich. This restaurant is like an old fashioned soda fountain but has lots of healthy options for those on diets. I enjoyed it, but I am not the only one, because it has 4.5 stars out of 235 reviews on tripadvisor and is rated #1 out of 63 restaurants in Brenham.  We also later had a dinner at Yumm! Eats and Sweets and Andrea’s Taco Shop, and a lunch at Smitty’s Cafe.  All in all, I found myself pleased with all our culinary choices in this 20160311_123004town, and I would say exploring new restaurants is one of my favorite hobbies.
Afterwards, I rode along with Donna and Lola to work on some lab caches. Lab caches are special finds set up for certain events, and are only available during a specific time frame. You don’t log them on the regular website, and they won’t show up on your list of finds, but they will count as a number for your find count. Instead of finding a container, you find a specific thing in a location, details of which are giving on the external website link, and you log each one by typing a code word into the website for each one. I worked on the lab caches with these two girls and then later with Jason and Sebastian, and20160311_132351 here are some pictures of what you might find at the location. Through the lab caches, we had 20160311_155511the following experiences over the weekend: discovering a sweet shop called Bliss that sells gourmet cupcakes and truffles, walking through Washington on the Brazos State Park down to the Brazos River and observing how high it was at this time, buying ice cream cones at a classic old grocery store/bbq shop at the corner of a dirt road, pushing the stroller through Main Street in Chappell Hill and checking out the shops, being the only visitors at a quiet old museum and a park in Independence and letting Sebastian run around and explore.
These were some of the best times of the weekend.  Memories of these experiences are the real treasures we find while geocaching.
We also work20160311_112404ed on finishing our Birthplace of Texas GeoTour, and by Saturday midday, we had completed enough to claim our geocoin that you earn for obtaining 25 points on your passport. Points can be earned by finding the geocaches as well as eating, shopping and lodging in Washington County (but you have to turn in your receipts to prove purchases). Jason had wanted to help the scoring team get set up with another computer and do some other misc things, so I put Sebastian in the stroller and walked from the Chamber of Commerce to the Visitors Center down in the old-fashioned downtown area to turn in our passports and pick up our coin.

One of the ammo can trophies won in the Texas Challenge on display at the Visitors Center

After we picked up our coin, we had fun exploring all the little antique shops and art galleries. One of my favorite finds during the hour or two my baby and I strolled down there was this stand of cool little stuffed animals made out of alpaca fur. They were so soft and neat looking and I contemplated buying one for Sebastian, but in the end decided they were a little too pricey 20160312_134135(but so adorable).

Over the weekend, Sebastian explored natural areas and items, discovering things like the magic of dandelions and the boldness of older kids.  He helped us find actual geocaches, sift through antiques, and learned about cisterns at a little historical area that we found walking about downtown.  He had fun all the places we went, and so did we.    For this reason, now Brenham will be dear to my heart, the same way Bastrop became after the Challenge that was hosted there in 2014.  We have been back to Bastrop quite a bit since, spending weekends and money there having further adventures, and I feel like we might do the same in Brenham in the future.

For this re20160311_093705ason, I think that a geocaching event is more than just claiming a smiley, getting the icon on your profile.  It is more than the people you meet, and the other caches you find in the area.  Just like geocaching is mostly more about the journey than the actual destination/find, this weekend was more about the exploration than finding hidden containers.  In a way, the whole town was our “cache” – a treasure trove, a place where valuables (like the neat little alpaca toys, great coffee, all the fun places we discovered together) are stored.

I didn’t compete in the actual Challenge this year, but I had more fun than I usually do, less pressure, and more time to just explore.  There has been talk (usually from my husband) that maybe we should do away with the competition aspect of the Challenge, as it just brings out the worst in people.  Maybe after this year, they might, but I think in the future, I am going to approach big events like this with the same attitude of exploration, and find all the neat little gems about the town along the way.

Here are some other scenes from downtown Brenham:


Under this fake rock lies a geocache
Sign we found in one of the restaurants
Seen in a shop window

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Willow Waterhole

20150508_110419Last week, I flew the coop again.  I was waiting on a friend who didn’t appear, and I didn’t want to lose another day to my living room, so I loaded the stroller and left to explore a park that I had been reading about and hadn’t visited yet.

This time,  I decided my main objective was geocaching.  I have learned over the past couple of years that I have to decide what I am doing and not try to multi-task my outdoor time.  I always have this optimistic idea that I can exercise, look for caches, AND look for birds at the same time, but perhaps the idea that multi-tasking means you aren’t doing any one thing well is correct.  If I had been truly exercising, I would have been would been moving faster, and if I had been truly birding, I would have been moving slower.

20150508_102521When I got close to the park, I followed the signs to parking off Dryad, but in retrospect, I would have been more comfortable parking somewhere else.  There didn’t seem to be a legit parking spot, but rather a place where the gravel road just ended with enough room for a few cars.  This parking spot put me at the one pond that is the furthest south.  It appears from the map that there are three or four different pond areas in this park, which stretches east to west along Gasmer, crossing S Post Oak.  The park itself encompasses 280 acres in total, comprised of flood relief areas turned “greenspace” in recent years.  The concept of placing retention ponds behind Westbury High School, in the area I was parked in, was first originated in 1996, and came together between 1999 and 2001 under the auspices of the Willow Waterhole Greenspace Conservancy.

willow waterhole

I also immediately became aware of one issue with this park.  The location of the park lends itself to sketchy inhabitants, perhaps due to its inner city location.  There are nearby apartments near S Willow and S Post Oak with an opening in the fence that allows direct access to the park.  I actually think that it is great that apartment residents have this awesome nature park in their backyard, but I have to admit feeling some reservation about sharing the park with two lone fellows that I saw while out there.  Neither of the men that I saw were dressed as if they were out to enjoy a nature park.  One was dressed in urban thug and his shirt actually had the store tags hanging off of it, so I wasn’t sure if that was a style, an accident, or a recently stolen item.  The other was lingering suspiciously by a park bench near the parking area.  He had a bag in his hand, and also occasionally reached into the bushes to what appeared to be a backpack.  He would walk aimlessly a few feet in either direction, stand there, and then go back to his bench.  It made me feel uncomfortable and I wanted to keep my vehicle within view at all times.  There were some other mothers out here with strollers and young children, so I decided that if they didn’t let these suspicious folks ruin their good time, I wouldn’t either.  I did cut my visit short, though, and next time I go, I am taking Jason with me.

I am going to try to go with the family on a weekend when Houston Audubon folks are there doing their monthly bird survey, so I can learn from them and also have the company of others.  There are interesting features at this park and several caches hidden there to find (I found five while I was out there), so there are reasons to come back.

Here are some of the views from the park that I experienced while out there:


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