Wednesday, March 29, 2017

In Search of a Good Hamburger

In a not-too-recent post, I mentioned how Donna and I enjoy a good old-fashioned hamburger. In our travels, we are always on the lookout for a good burger, and we've found some good ones over the years. We don't go in for those over-the-top burgers that have all kinds of items added, like bacon, fries, eggs, and so forth. Many of these burgers wouldn't even fit in our mouths. Now, if that is your thing, then go for it. But we are simply looking for an old-fashioned burger like we could find almost anywhere when we were kids. We just need a good bun (a large one, preferably toasted on the grill), lettuce, tomato, onion (preferably red), pickles, and a freshly-formed patty that is a bit crusty on the outside but juicy in the middle.

For those who are curious, here is a list of places we've tried in recent years that we have enjoyed. I've linked these to the articles I've posted for them for your convenience. They are in no particular order.
Our list of good hamburger places does not end there; the list above is simply all that I have written about.

I've always found hamburgers at Texas Burger establishments to be pretty good. Now, I have eaten at one or two Texas Burgers that I didn't care for, but I've enjoyed far more than I didn't. The one in my hometown of Fairfield, Texas, has been my favorite over the last 20 years or so, but it has been a few years since I've stopped there; hopefully, it hasn't changed.

Donna and I both enjoy burgers at traditional Mexican restaurants. While living in Ozona, we would often order burgers at El Chato's, and we were never disappointed. In fact, at the time, I preferred their burgers to their Mexican food. Donna has recently started ordering a burger at Henry's Diner here in San Angelo. She really enjoys their burgers. I've not ordered one yet simply because I love their Tex-Mex style cheese enchiladas -- my favorite Mexican food -- and hate to miss any opportunity to eat them. But one of these days . . .

My brother and his wife recently stopped in at Herd's Burgers in Jacksboro, Texas, and really enjoyed their burgers. On a recent Texas travel show, I saw a clip about a place called Mae's Meat Market in Eastland, Texas, that I hope to try soon. I've also heard that the Stanton Drug Store in Stanton, Texas, makes good burgers and malts. That might make for a good day trip for the old woman and me.

One place we hope to try in the near future is Alamo Springs Café, on backroads about halfway between Fredericksburg and Comfort in the Texas Hill Country. We actually made a journey there about a year or two ago, but the café was closed; I think we were too early. This café is well known for its burgers, and has been featured in Texas Monthly and Texas Country Reporter.

On a recent episode of the Texas Bucket List, we learned of a place in Weatherford, Texas, that serves old-fashioned burgers. The Malt Shop is a small drive-in on the east side of town on the old highway. I do not believe there is any inside seating, but I do not know this for a fact. Since we do pass through Weatherford occasionally, I have put this on out list of burger places to try.

I'll continue my search. When a hamburger is done just right, it's a real delight to eat.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Week in Review

We started last week on a busy note.

On Monday, Donna had a medical appointment early in the morning. Then at noon, we met with our tax accountant to make our annual donation to our government. No matter how old you get, there will always be taxes. Afterwards we grabbed a burger at our favorite Whataburger location, then drove out by the lake to see how the parks fared after the heavy use during Spring Break week. Actually, they looked pretty good. City park crews had already made their way through the parks and had picked up garbage. Near the end of Spring Creek Park, we met a park truck with trailer collecting the last of the garbage in that area.

I guess the drive through the park awoke Donna's fishing instincts. Once we arrived back home, she gathered her fishing gear and headed back to Lake Nasworthy in hopes of snagging a few innocent fish. She had a bit of luck and caught the poor unsuspecting catfish pictured below, as well as a few of his friends.

Donna caught this and a few other catfish during her outing.
While Donna was fishing, I was sitting on our patio enjoying the nice weather. Donna had set out our hummingbird feeders over the weekend, and I was surprised to have 4 sightings of the little hummers while I was on the patio. I thought it was probably too early for the little rascals, but they are here. We have seen them every day since.

On Tuesday, I got my hair cut early in the morning, then followed that with getting the truck serviced. Our local weather station recorded a high of 95 today, the highest temp on record for this date. As I've said previously, we are getting too hot too fast. But we did get a trace of rain a little after dark Tuesday night. It really wasn't enough to help, but it was an encouraging sign.

One good thing about the high temps is that I have started walking early in the morning again. During cooler months, I walk either late morning or early afternoon. But on Wednesday, I was out at sunup and I loved it. This is, for me, the best time of day to walk. Later that day, we attended a "Quarterly Social" held at the club. Such socials are just informal get togethers hosted by our resident committee. This is a good way to meet and visit with our neighbors. We admired the ocotillos as we approached the side entrance to the clubhouse. They are just starting to bloom. They'll be right pretty before long. I'll try to snap a picture when they are in bloom.

You can see the blooms just starting at the tips of these ocotillos. There will be some good color there soon.
If Donna and I haven't traveled recently, we start getting a bit antsy, so on Thursday we decided to take a day trip. I reported on that elsewhere in my blog.

On Saturday afternoon, we decided to go downtown and wander around a bit. There was a Texas music and craft beer festival along the river. It was just getting started as we passed by. We stopped in a few of the local shops for a few moments. Our downtown is really very vibrant, and new shops open monthly, it seems. It's a pretty lively place on weekends.

On Sunday, I grilled some steaks and vegetables. My steak was great, but I think I overcooked Donna's a bit. Bloody vampire that she is, she wants blood dripping from the meat. She really likes it when the blood covers the plate and the steak floats. I must get better, for I do have to sleep sometime.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Good Eats: Cooper's BBQ, Christoval, Texas

I'll say up front that I love BBQ. It is absolutely one of my favorite foods. But I'm not a BBQ snob. In the ongoing debate about which is the best BBQ, I'm neutral. I say eat whatever you like, and whatever you like is the best BBQ for you. If you prefer Carolina BBQ, then enjoy. If your taste runs to Memphis BBQ, I'm happy for you. A lot of folks love Kansas City BBQ. Personally, I prefer the style of BBQ you find in the old Central Texas meat markets. I like a good smoky taste on my meat, and I also like a good smoke ring. I prefer something a bit crusty on the outside but juicy on the inside. I prefer no sauce. But that is me. "To each his own" is my motto.

But I've been disappointed in my BBQ outings recently. A few weeks ago, I mentioned my frustration at Smitty's in Lockhart (see "Short Trip to New Braunfels"). I get really hungry for BBQ, and I find West Texas to be something of a wasteland when it comes to good BBQ. I've never found a place in San Angelo whose BBQ I crave. So when planning our recent backroads trip (see "Backroads Tour"), I saw a Cooper's BBQ on the map in Christoval and decided to give it a try.

Now, before venturing further, I need to set the record straight. There are actually 2 chains or groupins of Cooper's BBQ. Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que originated in Llano, Texas. It is operated by the Wootan family, as I understand. According to their website, this chain operates 4 locations: Llano, Ft. Worth, New Braunfels, and Austin. I've only eaten at the Llano location, but I've eaten there several times over the last 20 years. I've always enjoyed it. The website clearly states,  "There have been some recent news reports and social media posts linking other Cooper's locations to us but they are erroneous and inaccurate."

I assume that the "other Cooper's locations" mentioned above is to several BBQ establishments operated by a family named Cooper. Among these is the location in Christoval, where we recently ate. A recent item on the Concho Valley Homepage indicated that this Cooper's BBQ is operated by Mark Cooper, who spent the past 17 years at the Cooper's in nearby Junction. The "About" on their Facebook page states, "The one & only original family-owned and operated Cooper's Bar-B-Q...and you STILL can't beat our meat!" There is another Cooper's in nearby Mason, but we've never eaten there, though it is on our radar. We have eaten twice at the Junction Cooper's, and did not like our experience either time. We were hoping the Christoval location would be better.

This is a nice little eatery. Wood was piled up around the back, and that is often a good sign of authenticity. The place has that old time feel that I like. And the people were welcoming and friendly. This is the way a BBQ place is supposed to be. But the real test of a BBQ place is the meat.

Warmer at counter
You order at the counter immediately as you enter. There is a warmer where meat is stored for convenience (see picture above). As we normally do, Donna and I ordered only meat. We purchased ½ pound brisket, 2 jalapeno cheese sausage rings, and some pork ribs. The employee then proceeded to cut our meat and then dip it into a very vinegary sauce. For me, that is a big no-no. I always like to try my meat without sauce, whether it be BBQ, steak, or whatever. For me, the sign of properly cooked meat is to be able to eat it without any sauce. When I cook a steak at home, I give it a dry rub and eat it without any sauce, for example. If any sauce is to be added, I want to be the one to add it.

But the damage had already been done.

I sampled the ribs first. The meat pulled nicely from the bone, but it lacked any real smoky BBQ taste. In fact, it had an overly strong pork taste. Next, I sampled the sausage, and I actually liked it. The casing was a bit tough, but the inside was juicy and tasty. Finally, I sampled the brisket. Again, it lacked that strong smoky taste I crave, and there was no smoke ring at all. All in all, the meat was fine, but nothing for me to get excited about. Many people would probably really like the meat here, though. I could see myself stopping in again for the sausage and even a sliced beef sandwich if I was passing through, but I would not make the 60 mile round-trip down there. There are a couple of places in Angelo that serves BBQ on a par with this.

Entrance and ordering counter. Tables in main room are family style, while attached room has individual booths and tables.
Interior of Cooper's. It looks like a BBQ joint, doesn't it. 
One of the things I liked was the condiments counter. You can help yourself to bread, onions, pickles, and jalapeno peppers at no extra charge. This is the way every BBQ place in Texas should be. Any place that charges for these items lacks a bit of authenticity in my humble opinion.

Self-serve condiment counter
This is very decent BBQ. I can't say we were disappointed, but it just wasn't what we were looking for. In fact, with the recent disappointments we've had at BBQ restaurants, Donna and I have begun to doubt that we even know what we are looking for. Perhaps we are looking for something from our past that just doesn't exist anymore.

But you can bet we'll keep on looking.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Backroads Tour: Mertzon, Eldorado, Christoval, and Knickerbocker.

Whenever Donna and I get a bit bored, we like to jump in the truck and find some backroads to explore. We've been doing this since we met over 40 years ago, and I don't see us stopping anytime soon. I'm always amazed at how different the landscape looks from the smaller roads rather than from the main highways. There is a noticeable difference.

Yesterday (Thursday), we set out on Highway 853, locally known as Arden Road. It heads due west out of Angelo. About 20 miles later it takes a sharp curve south to head just outside Mertzon. There once was a community called Arden about 15 miles west. It was located on the west bank of West Rocky Creek, a small creek which normally has a few pools of water. The little community at one time had a school, post office, and 3 Protestant denominations, but it declined about World War II.

I believe these are blackbucks, or Indian antelopes. We spotted them about 5 miles west of Angelo on 853. Look closely and you'll see one turned away at left of picture.
Just after the highway curves south, there is a crossing of the Middle Concho River. In fact, the highway thus far has roughly paralleled this river. In earlier times, people often followed the river as a water supply. But this river normally runs dry except after heavy rains. Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving drove their cattle along this river towards the Pecos when they were driving cattle to New Mexico following the War-Between-the-States.

Looking east at the dry Middle Concho River just past Arden.

When we reached US 67 just north of Mertzon, we crossed the highway and continued towards the old community of Sherwood on County Road 202. We soon crossed Spring Creek on a low-water crossing, where I snapped the picture below. This area is like an oasis for us. Not only does Spring Creek normally have good water flow, but there are big trees along its bank, even extending as much as a mile or more away from the creek bed. You learn to appreciate places like this in the arid and largely treeless west.

Low-water crossing over Spring Creek. Note pecan trees along bank.
Soon we came to the old Sherwood Courthouse, which served as the seat of government for Irion County from about 1889 to 1939. The courthouse then moved to nearby Mertzon, where the railroad line had been established. So today, the old Sherwood Courthouse stands abandoned, like a hulking specter from the past, but it does host a few functions throughout the year, such as weddings. If you like old courthouses, you might look into the old Stiles Courthouse in nearby Reagan County.

Sherwood Courthouse
We made the short drive to nearby Mertzon, crossing Spring Creek again. Along the way, I had to firmly apply the brakes as a couple of white tail deer jumped the fence and sprinted across the road in front of us. The "new" Irion County courthouse stands alone on a hill between the town's few businesses along US 67 and the local school.

Spring Creek along the Sherwood Loop crossing.

Current Irion County Courthouse sits alone on a hill a couple of blocks west of US 67.
From Mertzon, we continued on US 67 southwest of town for a couple of miles, then turned south on Ranch Road 915, a road we had never traveled before today. We almost immediately crossed Spring Creek again, but this crossing looked far different from the previous ones.

Spring Creek, looking downstream, from bridge on RR 915. Not much water here, but at least there are some nice trees.
It is about 30 miles down RR 915 to Eldorado, and I bet we met fewer than 5 vehicles on this road. The terrain became increasingly rocky, but I was amazed at the number of oaks and junipers that dotted the landscape. Around Angelo, we don't have trees except for mesquites, unless there is a creek or river. But this area sported trees all over the countryside.

We made a short run through Eldorado, a small town of fewer than 2,000 souls. Eldorado gained some national attention a few years ago because of the raid on the Yearning for Zion ranch in 2008. Warren Jeffs had located his followers here, but there were charges of physical and sexual abuse, spurring the raid by various law enforcement agencies. The ranch is located just north of Eldorado.

Schleicher County Courthouse in Eldorado

Old jail in Eldorado
From Eldorado, we drove north on Highway 302, which I believe is the old highway. It runs parallel to US 277 for just short of 10 miles, and provides a relaxing look at the countryside. Near the north end before it rejoins current US 277, I noticed an old railroad grade between the two roads.

It was then just a short 12 miles or so to Christoval, where we stopped for lunch at Cooper's BBQ. I'll review that establishment in a separate entry. The town of Christoval is interesting. It straddles the South Concho River, a spring fed river with good water flow, certainly better than either the Middle Concho or the North Concho. The mineral waters attracted tourists in the old days, and bath houses were established. The land along the river was also a popular place for religious encampments, some drawing large crowds. But flooding prior to WWII caused the area to decline. Christoval is also known as the home of Jack Pardee, who was an All-American linebacker at Texas A&M and a two-time All-Pro with the Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins. He was also a noted coach, both at the college and pro levels.

Low water crossing over South Concho River. Don't worry, you can take the bridge in the picture if the water bothers you.
Looking downstream at South Concho River from park in Christoval. Since the South Concho actually flows north, downstream means we are looking north.
Looking upstream (south) at South Concho River from city park in Christoval.
Christoval really has a unique location on the river. The entire community has trees, which is special for West Texas. I'm always frustrated when I drive through the town, though, and see so many junky places. This little place could be a real paradise with some organization and work.

From Christoval, we took FM 2335 west, then north, to the old community of Knickerbocker. This small community lies near Dove Creek, a fresh water source. Among historians, Knickerbocker is known as the home of a number of outlaws of the old West, including the Ketchem Brothers (Tom and Sam) and Laura Bullion (girl friend of Ben Kilpatrick of Butch Cassidy's Wild Bunch).

We finished our little road trip by taking Knickerbocker Road back to San Angelo. We eventually crossed Twin Buttes dam, and I snapped the 2 pictures below. These pictures were taken from the opposite shore as those snapped about 2 weeks earlier in "Twin Buttes Reservoir".

This is the connecting channel between the North and South Pools of Twin Buttes Reservoir. I have seen this channel with much more water (in the 1990s), but I've also seen it dry. Right now, there is just a ditch, more or less.

The North Pool of Twin Buttes is visible in the distance. The connecting channel is below to the left.
It was a fun outing, even though the wind tried to blow us away. You can see from the pictures that the skies were overcast, and that held the temps down for most of the trip. It's always fun to get out and explore the countryside.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Where Did Spring Go?

As I prepare to post this entry, I suddenly remember this is the first day of spring. Looks like we're missing spring this year. We're going straight from winter to summer. We've reached highs mostly in the 80s lately, with one or two days jumping into the 90s. In fact, it is 90 right now. I do think we had a cool day early last week in the upper 70s.

It's too hot too early, and this concerns me. Right now, we're close to our average in rainfall for 2017, but that can be misleading. Our lake levels are still lower than I like, and with this early heat and high winds, evaporation will lower them more quickly than normal. Some nice long sustained rains would be beneficial. Even though we've had good rain the past 2 years or so, we've not enjoyed those reservoir filling rains we so badly need.

I'm so glad spring break is over and things are returning to normal. San Angelo was really hopping last week. That's economically good, but I like things nice and quiet. Donna and I drove through Spring Creek Park on Friday, and the place had campers everywhere. The RV park out there was almost full, and then other RVers and campers were all over the park itself, wherever they could find a place to park their rig or pitch their tent. Families were having a good time on the lake during this warm spell.

I like it when the kids are in school and everyone is working. That is when Donna and I like to travel and get out. Wouldn't year-round school be nice? I'll mention that to my teenage grandson next time I see him; I'm sure he'll agree.

We picked up 2 new recliners last week. They surely are comfortable. I've already had a nice nap in mine. In fact, after I post this, I may go kick back and enjoy another nice nap in it.

I never tire of watching the deer and turkeys here at Rio Concho West. A couple of nights ago, Donna and I watched as a herd of deer gradually worked their way out from the brush through a draw and into the backyard of a neighbor. It was dusk, and it was really too dark to see more than vague shapes. I have no idea how many were in the herd, but I would say at least a dozen. A day or two later, I stepped out on the back patio to light the grill when I noticed a gang of turkeys in the draw across the street near the club house. I was able to snap the following photos as they gradually worked their way to our side of the street and into our neighbor's yard.

The turkeys were spread out along a draw just across the street. There were a few more farther to the right that I was unable to get frame in this photo.
They then worked their way across the street into a neighbor's yard.

They kind of act like they own the place, but I surely enjoy watching them.
Happy spring to all of you . . . or rather, happy early summer.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Texas Hiking Trails

I recently posted an entry about trail journals which followed people attempting to hike major trails in the continental USA. That got me to thinking about hiking trails in Texas. Simply put, we really don't have access to truly long trails in the Lone Star State.

To my knowledge, here are the longest linear trails we have. Sources for these trails vary, and many do not have an official internet presence.
  • The Lone Star Hiking Trail is currently measured at 128 miles, including loop trails. It begins in the west near the small community of Richards and ends in the east near Cleveland. It passes through the Sam Houston National Forest as well as a small portion of the Big Thicket. A portion of the trail slices through a corner of Huntsville State Park outside of Huntsville.
  • The Northeast Texas Trail is working to become the longest trail in Texas. It follows an old rail bed from Farmersville through 7 counties to New Boston (near Texarkana). I'm not sure of the length, but highway miles from Farmersville to New Boston totals 123 miles.
  • Caprock  Canyons Trailway, a 64 mile long trailway on a former railroad bed, is located in the canyon country of West Texas.
  • Trail Between the Lakes is located in deep East Texas, between Sam Rayburn Reservoir and Toledo Bend Reservoir. Total length is 28 miles, all in Sabine County.
  • Four Cs Hiking Trail lies within David Crockett National Forest, roughly between the towns of Alto and Ratcliff. The linear trail is about 20 miles. The unusual name comes from the Central Coal and Coke Company, which logged timber here in the old days. There is even an old rail bed that the trail follows at times. Donna and I actually hiked part of this trail years ago. You can view my hiking report here.
  • Lake Mineral Wells State Park Trailway stretches about 20 miles from Mineral Wells in the west to Weatherford in the east. Access points are available in both towns named above as well as from within Lake Mineral Wells State Park and the small community of Garner. This trail is part of the Rails to Trails project. This is another trail that Donna and I have partially walked. We started at Weatherford, went west for 5 miles, then returned for a total of 10 miles. I never wrote a review of that hike.
The above are not all the trails, of course, but are only the ones I'm familiar with to some degree. The state and national parks around Texas as well as national forests have miles and miles of trails, but nothing of length that extends from point A to point B. For example, San Angelo State Park near me has over 50 miles of trails, but within that 50 miles are a dozen or more trails of varying length.

One of the best sources for hiking in Texas is a website called Texas Hiking. In the past, I had an account on this site and contributed regularly. I have not used the site in years, though. Some of my posts are still available under the user name "kcameron". You can also visit your local library and search for hiking books by Laurence Parent and Mickey Little. Both authors have written extensively about hiking and camping, in Texas as well as other states.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Hiking with Grandson

Our daughter and her 3 sons came down for a visit. Oldest grandson Xander (age 14) is on spring break, so it was a good time for them to visit.

We always try to find ways to entertain the young 'uns when they are here. Since the weather was good, I thought it might be fun to take Xander on a short hike. Xander has hiked a little on Boy Scout outings, but I don't know what kind of hiker he is, so I decided to keep the hike relatively short.

We set out to the north section of San Angelo State Park. There are some dinosaur tracks there I've wanted to see. I checked the Trails Map available on the park's website, and found the coordinates provided there: 31° 31'51.37" N   100° 33'37.52" W. I thought Xander would enjoy seeing the tracks.

We parked at the parking lot at the end of the pavement in the North Concho Camping Area. The trailhead here is known as Bell's Trailhead. Our route would follow one similar to hikes Donna and I took in "Hike Report: The Big Hill" in February 2014 and "San Angelo SP: January 23, 2012".

Grandson Xander at the trailhead. It was 43 degrees when we started our hike, but soon warmed up nicely.
Just past the trailhead, we took the biking trail for the Dinosaur Trail. At San Angelo SP, there are often parallel trails for bikes and horses. There are times when the trails merge, but for the most part, the trails run parallel, often just a few feet apart. If you know anything about horses, then you will know why this is a good idea. On the day of our hike, we saw about 10 horses in the campground near where we parked. A lot of folks had come out during spring break to ride the trails at the park.

You can see the trail is clearly labelled for bikes. Bikes cannot ride on horse trails, and horses cannot ride on bike trails. However, hikers can opt for either trail.
Normally when hiking San Angelo SP, I opt for the horse trails, for I trust horses more than bikers, who come tearing around curves and over hills and almost always fail to follow trail etiquette. But I noticed that the horse trail was not as clear as the bike trail. With spring virtually here and snakes coming out of hibernation, I wanted a clear trail, especially since Xander was along. When Donna is along, I don't worry about snakes as much. I simply let her lead so if any snakes are out there, she'll be the target.

We reached the area where the dinosaur tracks should be. We spent close to half an hour hunting up and down the creek bank, but were unable to find the tracks. I guess I'll have to go out on a ranger tour some day to pinpoint the tracks.

The dinosaur tracks are somewhere up this creek bed. We hiked pretty far up the creek, but did not see them. More water is in the creek than normal, and that may have hidden them. Notice the trail on right.
We then followed the trail around to what is known as the Big Hill. It really isn't that big -- probably only 100 feet or so -- but it does stand out against the flat land surrounding it. In recent years, a commercial enterprise has built a large steel building atop the hill. There is also a large home (the owner of the business, perhaps) directly behind the business. Both of these take away greatly from the "wilderness" experience this hike used to have. They are located directly behind the large cross shown in  "San Angelo SP: January 23, 2012".

But while atop the hill, if you look in the opposite direction of the business, you still have some wonderful views of the North Concho River valley, O. C. Fisher Reservoir and dam, and the surrounding countryside. I was able to see numerous RVs in the park's camping area, distant ranches, and other sights.

View from atop the Big Hill. The tree line in distance is the North Concho River. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you might be able to see O. C. Fisher Reservoir in far right portion of picture.

We continued on the trail to the bottom of the hill, then took the North Scenic Loop Trail as it dipped along the river briefly. We then rejoined the main trail to head back to the truck. We also opted to take the Shady Trail, which winds through the trees along the river for a half mile or so.

While on the North Scenic Loop Trail, we noticed this paved low water crossing on the North Concho River. I don't know who put this in; perhaps the rancher who owned the land prior to the park. Perhaps there once was a public road that ran through here years and years ago.

The North Concho River just upstream of the low water crossing in the previous picture.
North Concho River along the Shady Trail, one of my favorite trail sections in the park. This picture is looking upstream.

This picture is taken from the exact spot as the one above. I have simply pivoted to look downstream. I always am amazed how a river can almost disappear.