Bastrop State Park: Lichen What We See

It’s a crisp February morning at Bastrop State Park, and our family is clustered around a park host named Ann with a dozen other explorers, listening to the story of the park’s recovery from the devastating fire of 2011.  It is Ann’s first day in the role of interpreting this story, and so she has assistance from the former park hosts, Joann and her husband.  She also has assistance from her children, an eleven year old named Charles and his younger sister.  She checks her handwritten notes a few times to make sure she is getting this story right, but seems to have it down.

The story starts at the park’s playground, with a display of images from the fire and explanations of how it started.  The rangers managed to save all the CCC structures except two scenic overlooks in the park, and two people lost their lives in a fire that ranged over a total of 34,356 acres.  During the walk, Ann explained to us the difference between primary and secondary succession, and why this was an example of secondary succession (not all of the soil was lost).

She pointed out lichen, and told us a clever little story to illustrate to us the symbiotic relationship between the two, something about algae being a great cook and fungus having an empty house and no one to cook for him, and together they built a beautiful relationship that grew a foundation, and that they were “lichen” each other.  Basically, what we learned is that lichen is important to the recovery of a forest, because over time, it breaks rock down which helps to form soil.  The lichen was a good sign that the ecosystem was returning, as was the appearance of insects, who were followed by birds as the first rungs of the ecosystem moving back into the burned forest.

We also saw the little saplings that were planted as part of the effort to replace the burned forest.  The goal was to plant two million trees, and by the end of this year, the park service will have reached the goal.  There have been hundreds of volunteer hours logged to reach that goal.  An interesting fact that I heard Ann talking about was that the Lost Pines were actually a particular type of Loblolly Pine, and that all the seeds, held inside the pine cones, were destroyed in the fire.  However, luckily, Texas A&M University had been studying the difference between the Lost Pines Loblolly Pine compared to those from the Northeast, and just happened to have some seeds that they were able to grow in a nursery and contribute to the replacement efforts for this forest.

Along the way, my sons talked to Ann and her son Charles, as well as some of the other hikers.  Charles seemed to really like my sons, and we were curious about their story, as we learned that Ann and her family were a full time RV family and home-schooled the kids.  They moved around every 4-6 months to different state parks and the parents volunteered at the park in exchange for reduced or free site rental.  They also had an RV repair business and sometimes her husband got part time jobs in the little nearby towns for supplemental income.  This was interesting to us because Jason’s dream is to live a life on the road, to be full time RVers.

At the end of the hike, we stopped to talk about a competing relationship between a pine and an oak tree, and then the leaders opened it up to questions.  I really wanted to know more about what the full time RV life was like.  Jason and I enjoy traveling together, but my dream was always to have a big ranch and lots of animals, and our dreams seem to compete with each other’s (although we aren’t any closer to either of them).  Joanne said you basically have to be best friends with your spouse, because you are sharing a very small area of space and often end up working with or near each other during park host volunteer jobs.  Ann talked a little bit more about what some of the volunteer jobs were like that were available, and how she and her husband needed to be best friends as they lived and worked in small spaces together.

I thought about this during and after our hike, what that would be like.  Jason and I had just come from a morning of sniping at each other, and truthfully we had been working more like that oak and pine than the algae and fungi.  I told him that really we were too busy being in competition for who was the biggest martyr in the relationship that we had forgotten that we needed to, or used to, or should have a more symbiotic type of relationship.  After all, we were the same two people who moved in together because he had an empty house and no one to cook for him.  Three kids and seven years, and we have to work a lot harder at happiness than we used to when it was new.  That is probably true for most everyone, though.  Nothing stays in the honeymoon stage.  So the question I pondered is, would less or more space make us better or worse together?

On the way home, we took a detour through La Grange to stop at Monument Hill State Historic Site, and we enjoyed winding our way through the neighborhood leading to and from.  The houses seemed to have so much space in the neighborhood, but yet still retained the community aspect.  Both of us were separately dreaming the same pipe dream- that maybe I could work at the primate facility in Bastrop, and we could live here.  We shared this thought, and both of us nodded at this mutual little dream we cooked up.  We had bright little dreams like this when we first got together while geocaching together and finding a nice little piece of property, and seeing us still dreaming them, I think maybe…maybe we still kinda lichen each other after all.

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.

Hundred Acre Woods

“You can’t stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”
A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

20160220_150149This past weekend, we did go to others, specifically our friend Misti and her son Forest to explore, like Winnie The Pooh and his friends, the Hundred Acre Woods.

Ours, however, is a real place, made up of grass and trees and little dirt trails that beckon one to come explore them.  All the side trails eventually lead back to the blacktop of the Cypresswood Hike and Bike Trail system, which runs a possible additional nine miles.

The trails were developed with bikers in mind, rather than hikers (especially those with babes on their back), and there were i20160220_145553nteresting obstacles and challenges.

Up, down, around and back again…this is how our hike felt to the legs and  to my spirit.  Despite the new development of this little section of property that lies just west of the Cypress Creek YMCA since the donation of the land from the Houston Endowment to the Precinct 4 Parks Department in 2013, some of it was ground I traveled in my former life.

Before Jason and I were together, I didn’t live that far from here.  Sometimes I would come explore out here with my dogs, trail “running” or just exploring.  I recognized the section of creek crossing where large blocks of concrete, like graffiti covered tombstones, jut out of the culvert.  There was a familiar pipeline crossing Cypress 20160220_143018Creek at another point, a point on a landscape I remember, but the trail seemed like an unfamiliar new friend.  It was bittersweet in a way to remember that other time in my life, reflect on the way life had changed since then, and yet marvel at the improvements.

Although the Precinct 4 website states that this preserve contains two miles of trails, we ended up walking almost three and a half miles.  The extra steps might have been from the walk from the backside of the YMCA, though I could see later that there was closer parking.  The YMCA soccer field was a nice spot to let the boys explore their walking legs, though – despite the fact that they seemed20160220_155549 more interested in the parking lot and the wire rope fence.  These two boys (about seven months apart in age) hopefully have more nature exploring to do together in the future, as they both have parents who enjoy the outdoors.  This park is a great place to come back to sometime to do just that.

Big Creek Scenic Area

20150926_101826There’s a quiet place along an old dirt road, not far from the cities of Conroe or Cleveland, where a small parking lot off Forest Road 217 provides access to a great big forest.  In this forest, there is a trail that runs for 140 miles, making it the longest continuous hiking trail in Texas (see Lone Star Trail).  There are also other smaller loop trails that this trailhead provides access to, one or two of which we hiked today with a small group (two other couples and their young children) from Hike It Baby.
When we arrived in the morning, it was in that golden moment of morning sun, where all is fresh and exciting.  The birds we20150926_101101re chirping in the forest, and I was hoping to see some of the noted residents of this particular area: the Red Cockaded Woodpecker or some more exotic warbler species.  I heard birds, but I didn’t end up taking the time to try to find them with the binoculars.

This portion of San Jacinto County also is home to over 90 species of dragonflies and damselflies, and seemed to have a high level of plant life as well.  We took a few shots of some interesting flora and fauna that we saw, but did not stop to catalog our bug and brush finds, either.

20150926_104350There is a time and a place for nature discovery, and although we were in the right place, it was not the right time.  I decided we should come out again in the spring, by ourselves, no group hikes or other agendas, to spend some quiet time in nature solitude.  We can bring our identification books, nature journals and favorite music to chill out to.

Today, 20150926_105419though, was for making friends and exposing babies to the wilderness.  Sebastian tolerated his baby carrier for about half the hike, and then lost it.  Jason ended up carrying him in his arms, feeding him a second bottle of our journey, while I carried the now-abandoned Baby Bjorn as well as one bag of
supplies and another bag with Jason’s (heavy) camera in it.  Both of the loads we were carrying seemed heavy towards the end, but I think it was good practice if we ever actually intend to do longer hikes or real backpacking with Sebastian.

I still want to get out there and actually hike the whole Lone Star Trail one day,20150926_101853 and I would like that to be practice for an eventual segment hike of the PCT or AT.  I have high hopes that someday we will have the stamina, time, money, equipment, and desire to stick it out for one of those real trails.  We’ve been saying that for a while, though, without any real progress towards it.  I hope this doesn’t turn out to be another one of our pipe dreams.

I have spent a little bit of time lately reflecting on dreams and intentions for the future.  I don’t want to be one of those people who doesn’t make their dreams come true.  However, as I age, I am starting to consider if we should hold so tightly to our dreams, or if we should let them evolve over time.  I believe that what you spend your time doing is a reflection of what is truly important to you.  I don’t see us investing time in obtaining the dreams I thought we had: saving our money for a ranch where we could have lots of animals.

20150926_105814We do spend most of our spare time exploring the wilderness around us, and as a result, that has become who we are – explorers of the great outdoors.  Lately, the question has been raised that if that is actually what is important to us, where we invest our time, then maybe we shouldn’t worry over a piece of land and obligate ourselves to hordes of animals.  Jason is suggesting that instead we get a smaller place and manage less, so we can do more.  I am trying to wrap my mind around this.

I want to invest my time in hiking, exploring, learning, geocaching, birding, camping, and finding my joy in the nearby forests each weekend, and what I realized today was that sometimes in order to do some of those other things, I am20150926_103505 going to have to let go of some of the others.  We can’t do everything we want to do at once, so we have to pick what is important at the time and let the others sit. For the short term, though, I still want to invest my time in Hike it Baby, because I am accomplishing my goal of making new friends for myself and Sebastian who have something in common with us – a desire to spend time in the outdoors with the kids.

That is exactly what we did today at the Big Creek Scenic Area.  Although Sebastian slept through about half of it, he did have some more contact time with both the forest and his new friends Max and Miles (who is just one day younger than him).  We got to know the Zubers and the Goods just a little bit better, developing those friendships slowly over time.  We got some exercise and fresh air, and found a new favorite place to come back to some time in the future.