Bentsen – Rio Grande Valley State Park: Dude, Chill

It’s a crisp Saturday morning in the Rio Grande Valley.  The air has that just-after-a-rain feeling, when the clouds had finally burst and released the humidity and all the plants look freshly washed.  A cool, refreshing breeze is blowing over us, assisted by the forward momentum of the electric tram.

We are in Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, home of one of the nine World Birding Centers along the southern edge of Texas.  This park is unique in several ways, and one of those ways is that vehicles are not allowed in the park.  Once you pass the park gate, you are either walking, riding a bike, or riding one of these electric trams (kind of a bigger fancy golf cart).

We rode the tram twice: once on Saturday afternoon for the Nature Tour, and once on Sunday morning for the Bird Walk.  Both times, we had the same guide, a ranger named Roy who had some interesting stories to tell.  We did not realize when we decided to do both these activities that it would be mostly the same stories and same tour stops between the two days, but I understood.  He had somewhat of a script that he probably gave day after day in this job, and we were probably the rare visitors that came to both.

Plain Chachalacas

I try to find the joy in all experiences, so even when when we stopped for a long time to watch the same bird feeding station we spent time at the day before, I found new things to delight in, like the fact that my two year old could now point out and say “chachalacas” when those heavy brown year-round residents showed up at the feeder, or that instead of seeing a handful of Green Jays like the afternoon before, a handful of Great Kiskadees were present this time around.  I was entertained trying to get pictures of all the characters in this little nature play.  I would just sit on a bench or on step, feeling the breeze on my face and listening to the bird calls, feeling happy just to be out here.

Great Kiskadee

I could tell my ten year old was bored of it, though.  Sometimes he was engaged and listening, but when Roy started into a story we heard the day before, I could hear my son sigh, or see him start circling or flinging his hands around, habits he has developed to “entertain himself”, he says, when he gets bored.  Sebastian was having a hard time with the sitting still, watching and listening part, so this day, Jason just took off down the road on a hike to the Hawk Tower with Sebastian in the backpack, saying we could catch up with each other later.

Chachalacas and Red Wing Blackbirds

As we drove further down the road to other feeding stations and viewing areas, I thought about how it was going for Jason and Sebastian.  I knew exactly what Jason would tell me if I asked him how that morning was for him, that the peace and solitude had been refreshing, that the weather was perfect, that he really enjoyed just sitting at the top of the Hawk Tower watching the raptors soar and holding Sebastian in his arms.   At one point, he was mentally considering what he would say to that question, and came up with the same answers.  I didn’t even need to ask him, then, because I already knew.  When we finally did talk about this the next morning, we had a bit of a laugh about this because it is tied to this long-standing joke that we are already in each other’s heads, often thinking the same thoughts or predicting the other’s thoughts with startling accuracy.  I suppose it is something that happens in most marriages.

On our way to the overlook by the oxbow lake, we were approached by an older man (looked to be retirement age) carrying a camera with a nice, big lens.  He flagged the tram down, and then started harassing poor Roy about the feeding stations.  He was basically expressing anger that all the feeding stations were not full.  He said he had called the office just yesterday, and a few days ago, to verify that the “provisioners” would be freshening the feeding stations this morning.  Roy explained to him that it was Spring Break, and the volunteers he usually had to do that job were usually leaving the park by this time (“winter Texans”), and that they usually stopped feeding the birds around this time of the year each year because food was plentiful and bird feed would go to waste, so they had only fed at certain stations.  The birds had not been coming around so far even to usual expectations, so feeders had kept seed in them longer than desired.  All these logical reasons fell on deaf ears, as the man remained angry.  He then dismissed Roy with a wave of his hand, saying, “Well, thanks….FOR NOTHING!”

I have been thinking about this man ever since.  My son and I talked about his response.  I tried to get my son to think about this from Roy’s point of view, from the man’s point of view, from our point of view.  We tried to imagine what kind of scenario would even result in that man having the right to be so mad at Roy for that, or so disrespectful that he would stop a ranger in the middle of a tour and give him his piece of mind like that in front of all those passengers.  Could this man have gotten away with acting like the world revolved around him all these years?  Has life never taught him otherwise?

Maybe he spent a lot of money to come to the Valley and had specific target birds he wanted to get, or certain shots he wanted.  Maybe he is a professional photographer and not getting his shots meant he didn’t recoup his trip expenses.  Maybe he is having a Big Year and this just wasted his time because he didn’t see anything exciting.  Does any of that justify his behavior?

Great Kiskadees Singing In the Trees

I was talking to my son about that side.  I told him that we had spent money to come here as well, and I had target birds I wanted to see.  We were wrapping up our visit out here, and I had only one target bird left unfulfilled (the Altamira Oriole), but I explained to my son that even though we would try to find it in the area by the World Birding Center buildings, and maybe again the next day at the tropical section of Estero Llano SP, if I didn’t see it before we left, I wasn’t going to cry about it or blame it on the rangers for what provisions they did or didn’t leave out.

More Kiskadee

I felt very fulfilled and happy with our bird count for this trip, despite the fact that rangers at both parks we went to talked about how low the species lists were compared to normal.  Where they usually were finding 60-70 species, we only found 40-50.  Perhaps it is because I am a beginner birder, or perhaps it is because I have low expectations, but I was quite thrilled to have found all the birds we did find.

Northern Cardinal

I think living with the attitude I have will help a person be happier in life than the angry guy is, but I also wonder sometimes if it allows me to accept less than what others would.  I have had a couple people in my life tell me I should be a bigger diva, that I should stand up for myself more, demand more in my life, but sometimes I wonder, if I am happy with this, why argue the point?

More Chachalacas

As luck would have it, though, right after we talked and as we literally left the paved stone area of the park and headed to the parking lot, I saw the Altamira Oriole I was talking about, feeding in the trees above.  My feeling when I left the park was one of satisfaction, that I had gotten everything I wanted out of it.  I guess I could be more like that dude, but then I would be less happy with life, and that seems like a trade off I am not willing to take just to get my way more often.  I feel like in the end, karma will reward those who treat others (including park rangers) with kindness, and perhaps those dudes who need to chill will find karmic justice for their actions as well.

Altamira Oriole

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

20160311_094146 20160311_094113


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.

All the Roads

full map road tripsIt started with a dinner, Valentine’s Day, over five years ago now.  That was our first meal together, as friends, “not a date”, we both insisted, as my divorce wasn’t quite final.

We sat across from each other at Johnny Carino’s way out on the east side of Houston, after hanging out watching a dog agility competition, and set out to talk about what we had in common (geocaching, dogs, general interest in animals and the outdoors).  We ended up talking about road trips instead – trips we might like to go on someday.

He told me about a map and some information that a friend (Don) had given him, with advice about a road to take.

Four months later, we were sitting in a Johnny Carino’s in Billings, Montana, about to embark on that road together – the Bear Tooth Pass, Montana – gateway to Yellowstone.

My ex was coming home for two week leave literally the day after our divorce was final, and I needed to get out of town for a while while he visited our kids, at my house, in my bed, taking over all my general area.  I had realized that due to the divorce, I could travel anywhere I wanted to on my vacation, instead of having to spend it with my former in laws.

Jason asked me where I wanted to go, and told me he would drive me.  I told him Glacier National Park….I said Olympic National Park…but all those places were too far in 2010 for that maiden voyage.  We agreed on Yellowstone, on going to the road Don had suggested.

2010 Trip in Purple, 2014 in Red
2010 Trip in Purple, 2014 in Red

He gave me a laptop computer with mapping software to plan the journey. We both saved money individually, to pool together.  He brought the camping equipment, his dogs, his camera, and I brought the plans, made all the arrangements, gathered food supplies.   We spent two weeks on the road, camping most nights, learning how to be partners in a journey together, and I guess it just stuck – the mutual wanderlust, love of the open road, excitement of exploration.

There is a certain kind of relationship people must have to be good road trip partners, and we have those qualities.  We have these incredible conversations, share a sense of humor that leaves us sometimes laughing to ridiculousness levels, and get lost in mutual creative aspects, like recording scenes from the road with our cell phones and trying to match it up with music.  We can also sit quietly for a while, looking out the window or listening to audio books, just taking it in.  He takes the pictures, I write the stories – that’s always been how we roll.

2012 Trip
2012 Trip

Since that maiden voyage, we have been on two more epic road trips – one every other year.  I have mapped our journeys out on this map above, and included our little side trips over the years – various camping trips, geocaching events, visits to family and friends, exploration of Texas State Parks.  We’ve probably traveled over 12,000 road miles together (just last year’s trip alone clocked in at 6,600 miles).  We’ve taken a few trips via plane to places not included on the map, but where we also did some exploring, including Maryland and Puerto Rico.

We’ll keep going.  We’ll keep saving for that every-other-year trip, with smaller excursions in between.  We want to see all the roads, visit all the National Parks, stop at all the monuments, find all the oldest geocaches.  Or maybe that is just me, and he is willing to play chauffeur…either way, of all the things, this is what became our thing, and it’s one of those that defines us as a couple, and I love it.