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.

Martin Creek Lake State Park

A spectral light shines through the mist at the end of the road.  It’s New Year’s weekend, and the campground is practically abandoned.  Dark shutters close off the ends of screened shelters sitting quiet in the night.  One could almost imagine spooky shadows rising out of them.  The spirit of the early settlers that passed through and lived in the area, in a settlement called Harmony Hill, seemed to be present in the dark and misty night.

martin-creek-power-plantA power plant hums in the distance, one of the few and constant sounds.  The plant lights shine up in the sky, looking like a city sitting on a hill overlooking the lake.  The constant noise interferes with the serenity of nature’s voices and one could lament the presence of the plant, but if it didn’t exist, neither would this park.  The land was donated to Texas State Parks by the plant in the late seventies to offset the environmental changes caused by it, to give nature a place to grow, to allow for a refuge for wildlife and a place for native plants to thrive.

bridgepowerplantThe discharge from the plant keeps the water in the lake warm, even during the winter, so this park is a favorite among anglers and casual fishermen.  The man and his son camping in the cottage next to us the first night appeared to be taking advantage of this, judging by their boat on a trailer behind their truck.  We saw quite a few boat trailers in our weekend here.

nutellapie2-copyDuring our weekend here, we worked at perfecting our technique at making meals and treats with our new fire irons: a double pie iron and a hamburger iron.  We have a long way to go before we are experts, but we learned a bit through trial and error.  The highlights were cherry pies made by my teenager on the last night, and some nutella/marshmellow puff pastry delights.  We mostly tried making different versions of calzones, some weak attempts at breakfast sandwiches (shredded hash browns as a base did not work well), hamburgers, and multiple types of desserts involving pie crusts, puff pastry, and buttered bread as bases.


We also did quite a bit of hiking.  Our first full day, we drove to Caddo Lake State Park (less than an hour away) and hiked about two or three miles along the Caddo Forest Trail (and various trail spurs).  We found some geocaches and this cool old shelter built by the CCC in the 1930s.  We stopped to check out the cypress trees along the bank, then walked back along the trail to our truck, driving back to the bank to eat our picnic lunch on a table under these trees, draped with silver Spanish moss.


In the afternoon, a few of us took a nap, and then we got up to play with our fire irons again.  The guys built a heck of a fire.  In the evening, the toddler went to sleep, and Jason and I traded off sleeping with him while the other (mostly Jason) entertained the teenager.  We had this idea that we were going to go to the Stargazing event there to ring in the New Year, but when it was time to go, we could not find it.  Aj and I drove all around the park, looking at the boat dock areas and any and all other areas we could see to try to find the campfire and ranger, but all we found were a few other families doing the same thing we were doing.  So we said Happy New Year at the cabin door, and went to sleep.


On the first, we joined quite a good sized group for the park’s First Day Hike, a slow ranger-led hike around the island.  We learned a bit about the park.  Afterwards, we were going to go to try to the black eyed peas and cornbread that the Dutch Oven cookers were giving a demo on, but we decided to head to town randomly to get snacks, and ended up at Dairy Queen.  I am not sure how that happened, except that we had gotten very hungry unexpectedly.

On the way back, we explored this Harmony Hill Cemetery just outside the park, where the early settlers are buried.  I found a geocache behind the cemetery fence, and we all marveled over the age of the graves and the stories, history that we read about on the headstones.


Then we took our own First Day Hike on the Harmony Hill Trail.  The day before, my oldest son carried the little one on his back wearing the Osprey, and this day, after letting the toddler “lead” us a bit, we let the ten year old carry him in the Osprey.


Those two have the rough-and-tumble kind of friendship, and we cracked up at the fact that as soon as Sebastian realized who was carrying him, he started head-butting his brother.  For quite a while, it went like this: Sebastian head-butt Kaleb, then cried “ow”, followed by Kaleb saying “ow!”, then another head-butt and the chorus of “ow!” starting over again, like a couple of stooges over there.

pinesEventually, Kaleb started whining (as is par for the course with him), and we came to a fork in the road.  We decided that Jason would take the little ones back, and the teenager and I would hike longer.  I was on a mission to get geocaches, of course, and we still had steam in the tank.  After this, we walked a bit and came to this arch of pines that was quite peaceful.  We had a great talk and found a cute little cache, then found our way back down the utility road to headquarters before meeting Jason along the road in the truck, coming to pick us up.

seedpodsAfter this, everyone wanted to take a nap except the toddler (who probably needed it the most), so I spent a couple of hours exploring the park with him, some parts with the stroller and some without.  He found sticks, leaves, seed pods, and little board bridges.  I found some birds (nineteen species), some beautiful little places, and peace.  We found our favorite campsites for future visits and sat for a while in the amphitheater, watching and listening to nature.


Later, it was more campfires and fire iron experiments, and early to bed. Before going to bed, though, we took the kids on a night hike.  We were looking for a “night cache”, which usually involves a starting set of coordinates, and then directions on how to follow a series of fire tacks.  We walked down the deserted park road in the mist.  The toddler fell asleep in the stroller along the way, and then had to be carried through the woods (we only brought the umbrella stroller) while the older kids had a good time leading the way, finding the fire tacks with their flashlights.  They got stuck at the end, missing the last set of red fire tacks that denoted the end of the trail, and then wouldn’t have found the cache without Jason’s nudge in the right direction.  It was a fun adventure.

In the morning, we planned to hike the other side of the park.  It was overcast and grey outside as I started breakfast over the camp stove.  As I cooked, though, the skies darkened, and a storm came in suddenly.   We had just enough time to grab all our items, including the breakfast that was just barely done, and seek refuge inside our “cottage” (a mini-cabin equipped with two sets of bunk beds, heat and a/c).  Each evening, I had played a card game with the older boys, and Kaleb wanted us to play those games again while we waited for the rain to stop, but the adults in the group wanted to get all the gear packed up (if nothing else, to keep the toddler from tripping on and/or getting into everything).


During this time, I went to shower, taking the risks of walking through the rain to get there.  As I undressed, I realized a huge stink-bug had attached to my pants.  I shook him off and kept a wary eye on him during subsequent activity.  As I was getting dressed again, he appeared to be coming right at me with agitation.  I moved down to another part of the bench, only to have him make headway towards me again.  I told my teenager about it when I got back, and he said, “why didn’t you just step on it and kill it?”  I expressed my chagrin about this, telling him that this was the stinkbug’s home and I was the interloper, and why should I kill it just for ending up in the wrong place?  He told me I had a messed up perspective, but I am not sure I am the one.


It was still raining, so we had to make a choice.  We didn’t have to leave for another few hours, and the ten year old was still insisting on a card game, but the teenager was telling us that if he had to spend any more time cooped up with us, one of us was going down.  The toddler was restless, as he was out of things to get into, and wanted to play in the rain and mud.  We wanted to go hiking and I also wanted to visit a friend who lived nearby, but we decided that the best thing to do was to hurry the gear out to the truck and get home as soon as possible.

edge-of-lakeSo away we left.  We all kind of laughed on the way out about how spooky the campground was, especially since we had eventually been the only ones staying on the Broken Bowl side we were on (a handful of campers on the Bee Tree loop/other side).  There was a metal drain cover near the bathrooms that was marked “Confined Space Entry”, and even though we realized it was an entrance for the septic system, we joked about what might be down in the Confined Space, and how the whole trip started to sort of feel like an Evil Dead movie plot.  I told the older boys we should each write our own story about it with fantasy elements, working in the various aspects, but they weren’t so interested in actually doing this when we got back home.

Still, I hope that the real trip becomes one of those family memories that they can hang on to later in life, a story they can tell about a time we spent together.

Weekend At Foxfire Cabins: Garner and Lost Maples State Parks

It’s early morning, and already baby is experimenting with natural elements.  He is checking out the properties of rock, wood and leaves.  Each new treasure he finds is tested for weight and depth, and sometimes, if he can manage it before mama catches him, taste and edibility.  The morning light is fine and crisp, and the sound of birds fills the air around us, including the cooing of the doves enclosed in the aviary.

foxfire pic 2_nThere are other sounds, too. Above us, the older kids are playing on the new playscape.  They have some complicated game going on involving light sabers and nerf guns.  A kitty or two stops to sit on the picnic bench nearby and watch the children play.  This is how morning begins on a relaxing weekend at Foxfire Cabins.

Inside the cabins at Foxfire
Inside the cabins at Foxfire

Jason and I had stumbled upon this collection of cabins right near the entrance of Lost Maples State Park a few years back, and had spent a night or two there when we didn’t feel like dealing with tent camping but wanted to enjoy the hill country.  Since then, we have tried to go back a couple of times (most recently to celebrate my 40th birthday), but had to cancel our reservations.  This time, we finally managed to get there, with a best friend’s family in tandem.

Swimming Hole at Foxfire Cabins
Swimming Hole at Foxfire Cabins

This first morning’s adventures took us to Leakey first, a town about thirty minutes to the west via Hwy 337, referred to by motorcyclists as part of the “Twisted Sisters” or “Three Sisters” route.  “Oh great,” my friend’s husband said (sarcasm unclear), “Keely’s bringing us out to dig in the dirt for an hour”.  And, we paid to do that, ha!  I had given in to my middle son’s latest obsession and looked online for a place for us to go arrowhead hunting, finding an affordable option at Sam’s Digs at the Frio River Landing.  For $5 a hour, we had all the dirt we could dig through, and could keep whatever we could find.  One of my friend’s son found an arrowhead, and I found a huge “Frio” that Sam and his cronies there at the park made a big fuss over.  Despite my son’s interest in this, in typical fashion he didn’t stick with the hard labor needed to find anything (like our trip to Crater of the Diamonds) and wandered about instead trying for a lucky surface find.  For the money, though, it was a good deal and something we would try our hand at again.

20160206_153945After this, we caravaned south to Garner State Park, a popular park in the summer because of the historic dance, but a lovely place to visit no matter what time of year.  We had a picnic lunch at the edge of the Frio River, then made a decision about a hiking trail to pursue.  Jason had his heart set on the challenging Mt Baldy Trail, so we agreed to try it.  I had tried this one back when Kaleb was a baby and AJ was about six, but had to turn back around because it got too tough with the baby in hand.  This time, even with the Osprey baby carrier, there was a time coming 20160206_145917down that the only safe way to approach the trail with a baby was to do a hand off, person to person, down the slippery and steep incline.  It wasn’t a long trail, but it was steep, and all had a sense of victory after reaching the summit and then making it back to the parking lot safely.

After this, we completed the Hill Country Square that we had started this morning:  Vanderpool west to Leakey, Leakey south to Concan, Concan east to Utopia, Utopia north to Vanderpool.  We ended the night with a fajita feast courtesy of our friends, and like the night before during our burger fest, we wandered freely between the two cabins.

At some point, my best friend and I were sitting between the cabins with my oldest son, looking at awe at the multitude of stars we could see from this location.  It felt like we could see the whole Milky Way, and we identified which constellations we could and watched for shooting stars as we talked.

PANO_20160207_105818In the morning, we got up and baby resumed his experiments, trying to touch and throw all the leaves, rocks and sticks he could find.  My friend’s family played a little round of basketball and the kids continued their complicated Star Wars themed game.  After we were all packed up and fed, we went next door to Lost Maples and hiked a few miles round trip to “Monkey Rock” and back.  On the way home, we all met up one last time at the Old Spanish Trail Cafe in Bandera, a place where one could eat a down home country lunch buffet, where pancakes were served all day, and where, if you were interested, you could sit in a bar stool saddle.

It was a perfect weekend with friends, and I am already dreaming of the next time we can do this.  I don’t know if it will happen again this year, but perhaps next year we can come out in the fall when the leaves turn, or in the summer when Sebastian is old enough to come with us tubing on the Frio and Medina Rivers.  When we come, we will most likely return to Foxfire, a place that will always be dear to us, a place where I hope we come back to time and time again.

Bastrop State Park: Hike It Baby: Thoughts on Hiking
















Last weekend, we went camping with the Hike It Baby group at Bastrop State Park.  The focused activity of the day was a planned mid-morning hike along the Red Trail (with a later connection to the Purple and Orange Trails, I think).  We didn’t get to the park until just before the hike began, due to timing of a work trip I had to take and then subsequent slowness of getting the car packed up.  Once there, we decided that Jason would go set up camp for us while the boys and I made the hike.

During the hike, the group of about 22 families split up according to speed.  There was a time when we were in the front of the pack, but then I slowed down as I started to pull out the binoculars to look at birds.  My oldest son stayed with the front of the group, but the middle one stayed with me for a bit, until I got annoyed with him for throwing a stick into a pile of brush, making a20151114_104525 crashing sound that chased off the woodpecker I had just asked him if he wanted to look at through the binoculars.  After that, he took off to join his brother at the front.
There was a time when another couple or two and the hike leader Jennifer were walking with me, but then they forged on ahead and I kept stopping to look at birds.  Pretty soon, I found myself alone on the trail (except for the sleeping baby in the BabyBjorn up against my chest).  I knew there were people behind me, but for some reason they didn’t catch up, and I didn’t feel like I needed them to.  It seemed like it was about the last half mile I walked alone, because I remember that Jennifer was still at my side when her odometer chimed off the one mile reading.

In that time, I had some time with myself and my thoughts.  I considered 20151114_103302what it would be like to be backpacking alone on a long distance thru hike, and contemplated if I had what it took to do something like that.  Mentally, I believe that I have what it would take, because I am enthusiastic and persistent. I am always game for physical activity, and I am absolutely thrilled with being outdoors.  The sight of a trail makes my heart pump faster like a person in love.

However, physically, I was feeling the effects of the hike, even though it was fairly short in distance.  My lower back was in a lot of pain, and although that probably had to do with the seventeen pounds of baby dead weight on my chest and a possibly ill-fitted baby backpack (we discovered the next weekend that we had failed to adjust it since his last growth spurt).  One could argue that I would probably not be carrying a baby on a thru-hike, but I would also be carrying my gear20151114_102952 on my back instead.  Depending on the fit of the pack, that may or may not be easier to handle.

Also, my bum ankle was giving me a hard time.  I didn’t really consider when I was laying on my back that fateful day in December 2012 with my bone hanging out and my ankle twisted the wrong way that my hiking aspirations were now toast.  I thought with the miracle of modern medicine that I would be as good as new in a few months.  I was still in denial until the doctor explained to me that the pain I felt in my ankle would probably always be there, and although I would be able to resume normal activity, it would not be at the level I was at before and I would have to adjust.  The cushion between joints at my ankle is gone, and also the strength of my muscles and ligaments has not returned, so after a day of hiking even a short distance, my ankle is swollen under the joint at the inside and I am limping.  How could I possibly hike fifteen miles a day or so for months on end, when I am not even sure I can actually hike fifteen miles ONE day?  
There was a steep incline on the trail before we got to a stopping point, which was about halfway through the hike that the group had planned.  The older boys were up there sitting on a rock waiting for me, complaining that they had enough hiking and could we just call Jason to come get us now?  They were bored of it.

I was not bored of it, and I wanted to continue on with the group, but I wanted to wait with the boys to make sure Jason could find them, and by the time this all happened, the group had already started hiking the rest of the way and I was going to have to play catch up.  So, I only got to do half the hike, but even though my spirit was willing, the flesh was not, and this makes me reconsider future endeavors.

20151114_112853It might be that backpacking and thru-hikes were always just a pipe dream for me. I have had those before and had to let them go, and it always sucks but after a while, you forget about them.  It might be something I can get around to later, after the kids are older and we have more time for our own pursuits.  It is not a bad idea to continue to challenge my bum leg and appeal to my outdoor schemes by taking some hikes, perhaps even overnight ones, and see how I feel afterwards.

Still, for now, we are still enjoying the outdoor activities and sense of community offered by Hike It Baby.  We enjoyed the rest of the camp out, although for some reason we missed out on some group activities and group knowledge (like when the hot dogs were being served).  It might have been because our older kids got bored and we ended up going into town to appease them for a bit (visiting our favorite shop, Bastrop Goldsmith, as well as finding a new favorite shop).
Luckily, another mother in the group offered to make Kaleb a grilled cheese sandwich (since all the hot dogs were gone).  The rest of us were fine eating varieties of salad and chili for dinner.  Sebastian survived his first camping trip, although he did come down with a mysterious fever in the middle of the night (causing Jason to have to leave camp at one in the morning to find a place open to buy fever reducer at).  There is more drama that ensued after (re: car breakdowns and missed work etc), but that is besides the point.
20151114_112907The point is that we did end up having a good time exploring this park with the group, despite physical and logistical challenges.  It was so awesome to camp with a group of people who all had young children, because there were many activities to enjoy together.  One of the best parts was the hangout site, where there was a sand pit and some safe activities for young ones to explore together.  We would camp with this group again, and hopefully I would be able to enjoy an entire hike with them (without complaining older kids, perhaps).