Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Big Bend Country

One of the most unique areas of Texas is the Big Bend country. It is so remote and off the beaten path that even relatively few Texans have ventured to that part of the state. But it is one of my favorite places, and I look forward to visiting there often in the future. I’m no stranger to the "Last Frontier", as locals often call that region. From 1991 to 2002, I lived on the edge of the “Trans-Pecos” region of Texas, and my job from 1997-2002 took me there often.

One way to get to know that region is through literature, and there are two books I highly recommend. The first of these is I’ll Gather My Geese by Hallie Crawford Stillwell. Hallie is a legend in the Big Bend country. As a young woman in 1916, shebegan her teaching career in remote Presidio, Texas, in the western part of the Big Bend. In 1918, Hallie married Roy Stillwell, who owned a 22,000 acre ranch about 50 miles south of Marathon, Texas. From that time on, she spent most of her time on the ranch, and her book traces her life through World War II in an honest, simple writing style. Hallie died in 1997, and her descendants still operate the Stillwell Store in a remote location southeast of Marathon.

J. O. Langford suffered throughout his young life from malaria, which he had contracted as a child in his native Mississippi. After marrying, he began moving west in hopes of reviving his health in a drier climate. While in a hotel lobby in Alpine, Texas, in the early 1900s, he overhead some men discussing a hot spring on the Rio Grande which supposedly contained curative powers. After inquiring about the land, he learned that it was open to homesteading and filed.

In 1909, Langford moved his wife and infant daughter to the property at the mouth of Tornillo Creek, which is located in the eastern portion of today’s Big Bend National Park. His book, Big Bend: A Homesteader’s Story, follows the lives of his young family as they grow to love this isolated country and its inhabitants. What I especially enjoy about the book is how completely the Langfords are able to immerse themselves in the culture of the area and how they learn to live simply and in harmony with their surroundings and their neighbors. For example, Mr. Langford thinks nothing of his weekly trip to the post office, a round-trip of 14 miles which he walks.

I’ve found that most local libraries usually carry these books. Although they describe a Big Bend of the past, they detail the history of the land and they capture the spirit of the frontier that still exists in the region. If you plan a trip to the region, start by reading one or both of these books.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tyler State Park -- March 21 - 24, 2011

The beautiful spring weather called to us, so we decided to hitch up the trailer and head for the great out-of-doors. However, rising fuel costs made us look for someplace close to home, and we decided to visit Tyler State Park.

Tyler State Park is a 985 acre park in northern Smith County, about 10 miles north of its namesake city, Tyler, Texas. Located about 2 – 3 miles north of Interstate 20 on FM 14, the park is convenient for East-West travelers who need to make an overnight stop.

View video of Tyler State Park.

The centerpiece of the park is a 64-acre lake that is popular with fishing enthusiasts, swimmers, and various boaters, including those who prefer canoes and kayaks. During the past decade or so, the park has really become popular with mountain bike enthusiasts, who enjoy the rolling hills and the 13 miles of bike/hike trails that are contained in the park.

Weekends at the park are notoriously busy due to the park’s proximity to Tyler and its recent popularity among the mountain bike crowd. One of the nice things about being retired is that we can visit such spots during the week when most people are either working or are in school.

This trip turned into one of our most pleasant camping experiences. We selected site 54 in the Big Pines Campground (see map). I was able to position the trailer so that the steps from our rear door allowed us to step down onto the picnic table concrete pad. Our awning extended over most of the picnic table. The fire ring was just beyond the awning. This was one of the coziest campsites we’ve enjoyed. We also had a partial view of the lake.

Campsite 54 in the Big Pines Campground
There are about 173 campsites within the park. It can become quite crowded on weekends and during holidays. During our stay, probably only 30 or more sites were occupied daily. However, when we pulled out Thursday, the sites were already filling up for the weekend.

We arrived on a Monday, setup our camp, then went for a short ride through the park to get our bearings. After returning to camp, we hopped on our bicycles and took a short ride around the campground. We always enjoy seeing the various RVs and how other people do things. We learn a lot this way. As evening approached, we built a fire, roasted some wieners, enjoyed some chili dogs, then retired.

Relatively Empty Big Pine Campground

The next day, we took a long hike along Loops C and D of the park. The dogwoods were in full bloom and dotted the hills. The hike was quite a workout because of the hilly terrain. After returning to camp, we built another fire, grilled some sausage, and enjoyed the evening.

Dogwoods on a slope on Loop C Trail
Donna was in a fishing mood, so she spent about 4 hours Wednesday feeding the fish. I spent time in camp doing odds and ends. Trailers require periodic maintenance, such as lubricating the arms for the slide out and the steps, making minor repairs, and just general cleaning. Storage space seems to always be limited on RVs, so I periodically repack items, taking out those things we never seem to use. It’s important to continually inventory all your gear to ensure you are not carrying more weight than you need to.

Wednesday evening was steak and potato night. Donna made potato, carrot, and onion turtles and a salad to accompany the steaks. It was great.

The trip was fun and it was very relaxing. Only 2 things bothered us. First, the wind blew steadily at 10-15 mph, occasionally gusting to 25 or 30, almost our entire stay. Second, the pollen covered everything. Once we returned home, I spent a great deal of time washing everything off. Otherwise, a great trip to a great little park.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Staying Busy

When I was gainfully employed, I worked merely to make a living. Many years ago, I did have a passion for what I did. But as the years passed and I was moved from position to position, I lost my passion. For the last 8 years or so of my career, I was really doing work that I had absolutely no interest in at all. All I looked forward to was going home at the end of the day. Retirement was my salvation.

Now I'm free to do what I want whenever I want, and I enjoy staying busy. I may be in the minority here, but I like mowing my yard. I take great pride in doing a good job. I enjoy being outside. I pause time and time again as I'm working to watch a plane streak cross the sky, sometimes passing in and out of clouds. Mockingbirds and robins follow me as I mow, hoping that I stir up bugs for them to snatch up. Squirrels scurry across the top of the privacy fence behind my backyard, then hop onto a branch and disappear into the trees.

I love listening to all the sounds. I live near an elementary school, and although I cannot see the school from my house, I can hear the voices of the children as they enjoy recess throughout the day. The hum of other mowers in the neighborhood remind me that I'm not the only one working outside.

What I really like is that I'm in no hurry to finish my work. When I was employed, I would hurry home after work and rush to get the yard mowed before darkness set in. Now I have all the time I need, and I truly enjoy the time when I am busy.

At the end of the day, after all my work is done, I enjoy sitting on my patio and looking over what I have done that day. I take pride in the neatly trimmed sidewalks and borders and the evenly cut grass.

I've also had time to do things that I've put off. I've given my shop a thorough cleaning, and all tools and equipment are properly stored. The garage has been washed and cleaned, and my truck now gets a good hand washing once a month.

Retirement . . .  it's the best thing I've ever done.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Horseshoe Casino -- March 15 - 16, 2011

We've been doing some ramblin' lately, so we thought it time for a bit of gamblin', so we headed to the Horseshoe Casino in Bossier City, Louisiana.

Donna and I enjoy video poker. We are not high-stakes gamblers, though, and it's difficult to find good pay tables for low rollers in the Shreveport/Bossier City area. If you're willing to play at the $1 level or multi-line $.25 level -- which can get pricey when playing at the 5 coin level -- you can find some 9/6 Jacks or Better or even some NSU Deuces Wild. However, at the single-line quarter level, there really isn't anything at the 99.0% level or above that I know of or that is listed at the VP Free site.

Our current game of choice is multi-line Bonus Poker Deluxe, which returns 99.64% with perfect play. The 'Shoe has 50-play and 100-play machines with multi-denomination levels of 1 cent, 2 cent, or nickle play. On this trip, we played mostly at the penny level with 50 hands. Betting 5 coins per line, this meant we were betting $2.50 per play.

Since our room was comped and we had comped meal vouchers for the buffet, we were out very little other than our gambling costs, and we broke about even on this trip.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Fishing at Martin Creek Lake State Park -- March 11, 2011

Donna wanted to go fishing today, so we packed a lunch and headed for Martin Creek Lake State Park between Tatum and Henderson. The park is located on 5000-acre Martin Creek Lake, constructed to provide cooling water for a lignite-fired, electric power generation plant.

This is a nice little 287 acre park. All sites were booked as guests for the upcoming spring break week were expected to start arriving later in the day. The park is really very level considering its location in East Texas, and the park roads are ideal for bike riding. The biggest problem I have with this park is that the power generation plant is visible from almost all developed areas of the park, and the constant drone from the plant takes away from the "wilderness" experience I seek in state parks.

One of the unique features of this park is the island, which contains primitive camping sites. The island is reached by a nice bridge. There are various facilities available for fishing, including a lighted fishing pier. I was concerned to find the lake level lower than I've ever seen it in the previous half a dozen or so trips I've made to the park.

Unfortunately, Donna didn't catch any fish. The wind was blowing so hard that it made fishing unpleasant. Since I don't care for fishing, I took a walk through the campgrounds. After my walk, I found a nice spot out of the wind but in the sun where I could read while Donna fed the fish.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Cleburne State Park -- February 25 - 27, 2011

Cleburne State Park is a 528-acre park that includes a 116-acre, spring-fed lake. The park is located southwest of Fort Worth in Johnson County about 10 miles southwest of Cleburne.

This was our second stay in this park, and I must admit I was disappointed with the trails and the campsites. We stayed in the Poplar Point campground (see map), and there are no level sites in this area. If I were to visit this park again, I would opt to stay in the North Creek campground. Both of these campgrounds offer full hookups. Most of the trees in our campground were cedars and the sites were mainly rocky in nature, but the North Creek campground has oaks, elms, and others, and there is more grass as well.

Our purpose in visiting this park was to meet my brother and his girlfriend for some hiking. We began our hike by taking the Coyote Run Nature Trail near our campground. The trails are not marked, however, and after a mile, we ventured off the main trail on another trail and soon found ourselves, near the front entrance of the park. We had intended to go from the Coyote Run Trail to the Spillway Hiking Trail, but we missed that trail entirely. We did pick up the Fossil Ridge Trail on the west side of the park and followed this back to our campsite.

The trails are challenging for there are numerous ups and downs over lose rock. It is also a challenge to dodge the mountain bike riders who tear down the hills at break-neck speed.

Following the hike, we enjoyed hamburgers. Since the park was under a total burn ban (no open fires, no charcoal fires, etc.), we were forced to use the little side-kick gas grill that came with the trailer. This grill attaches to the outside of the trailer and connects to the propane system. This was only the second time I had used that grill, and we were all impressed by how well the burgers turned out.

Blanco State Park -- February 23 - 25, 2011

Blanco State Park is a gem.

Blanco State Park is 104.6 acres, along the Blanco River, in Blanco County. Activities include camping; swimming; picnicking; hiking; nature study; boating (electric motors only); and fishing. Tube, canoe and kayak rentals are available at the park.

The focal point of the park is the Blanco River. Although the park was relatively quiet, especially at night, during our stay, I would imagine that it is crowded during summer months as people take advantage of the river to cool off.

The park more or less hugs both sides of the river, with the exception of the headquarters and the camping areas. Located on Highway 281, it is an easy overnight stop for RVers who are seeking a site along the road. A low-water crossing connects the north and south areas of the park, and the camp sites are located on high ground on the south bank of the river. See map park for details.

Low-water crossing over the Blanco River. Camp ground located top-center.
Full hookups are available in the park, and sites are level. We stayed in camp site #10 and were very happy with it. Plenty of shade is available, and at the time we stayed there, the picnic tables had been renovated and all had covers. My only complaint would be that the sites were a bit closer together than what we are accustomed to in state parks. WiFi is also available.

Camp site #10 at Blanco State Park

The park is located within the city limits, so shopping and dining were very convenient. In fact, there is a walking trail at the east end of the park (on the north bank) that connects the park to downtown Blanco.

Downtown Blanco. The old courthouse now serves as a visitor center. Johnson City is now the county seat of Blanco County. Picture taken from trail that connects downtown to the park.

There are 2 or 3 places to dine downtown. We stopped in one day at a restaurant on the north side of the square -- I believe it is called Real Foods Market and Cafe -- and had a nice meal. Donna tried the fish tacos, which she really enjoyed, while I sampled the Reuben sandwich, which was excellent. We topped the meal off with a pint of Brewhouse Brown Ale from the local Real Ale Brewing Company.

We spent our time walking throughout the park, and Donna did a bit of fishing.

Donna fishing in the west end of the park.

We were surprised by the number of people fishing along the river. Obviously, most come from Blanco and the surrounding area, though a few RVers had their poles.

Man seining for minnows along dam in east end of park.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Presidio La Bahia

"Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!" These were the cries that led Sam Houston's army into battle at San Jacinto. But while most Americans are familiar with the Alamo, very few know the history of Goliad and the events related to Presidio La Bahia.

Founded in 1721, Presidio La Bahia is considered the world’s finest example of a Spanish frontier fort. It was originally located on the banks of Garcitas Creek near present day Lavaca Bay in direct response to French encroachment on the province of Texas. In 1726, it was moved inland near present day Victoria. It was not until 1749 that it was relocated to its present location near Goliad. The original Goliad grew up around the presidio.

During the Texas Revolution, both the Texians and the Mexicans controlled the presidio at some time. But it was the events involving Colonel Fannin's command that has made the presidio sacred ground for Texans.

A Texian army under command of Colonel James W. Fannin occupied the presidio from late 1835 until March, 1836. Despite orders from Sam Houston ordering Fannin to retreat across the Guadalupe River to present day Victoria, Fannin failed to withdraw until it was too late. When Fannin finally did lead his men towards Victoria, his army was over taken by the Mexicans under General Urrea at a place near Coleto Creek. Although Fannin and his men defended their position valiantly for about a day, they were without adequate provisions, including water, and their position afforded them little protection. As a result, Fannin surrendered with what he believed honorable terms on March 20.

Monument at Fannin Battleground (Battle of Coleto Creek)
Fannin and his men were returned to the presidio, where most of the men were held in the chapel.

The chapel at Presidio La Bahia
Chapel and courtyard. Fannin was executed off to the right.
On Palm Sunday, Fannin and his army -- a total of almost 350 men -- were marched out from the presidio in 3 different directions and shot, under orders from General Santa Anna. About 27 men were able to escape in the confusion and hide in the brush. Others who escaped being shot were ridden down by lancers. Texian soldiers who were severely wounded from the Battle of Coleto Creek and were unable to walk were carried from the chapel into the courtyard and executed.

Mission Nuestra Senora del Espíritu Santo de Zuniga, February 21, 2011

Goliad is one of the most historic small towns in Texas, and one reason for this is Mission Nuestra Senora del Espiritu Santo de Zuniga (Mission Espiritu Santo).

The mission was founded in 1722 near Matagorda Bay to minister to the Karankawa Indians. In 1749, it was relocated to its present site one-half mile south of Goliad on the San Antonio River. The mission operated the first large cattle ranch on the frontier of New Spain and supplied the needs of communities as far away as Louisiana. Mission Espiritu Santo continued in existence for 110 years. The mission chapel, granary and school, all within a walled compound, were restored between 1935 and 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration under National Park Service direction. Today Mission Espiritu Santo is open to the public as part of the Goliad State Historical Park.

The chapel at Mission Espiritu Santo
Believed to be the last remaining walls from the mission's original construction.