Thursday, January 31, 2013

San Felipe de Austin

I’m a history buff, especially regarding Texas history. I really enjoy the colonial era of Texas history leading up to the Revolution in 1836. So I was excited during our stay in Stephen F. Austin State Park to visit nearby San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site.

History peeks out from almost every corner of this area. The original town site is evident by the various roads laid out in a grid in this rural area. If you take the time to drive the various side-streets, you will discover a jewel here and there. For example, we came across the old Town Hall dating to 1842, a teacherage dating back to the late 1800s, and a church dating to 1837. Several structures in the area display Texas historic medallions.

Old San Felipe de Austin town hall, dating to 1842. The original town hall was built in 1830 and stood in Commerce Square near the site of the replica of Austin's cabin.
As old as these places are, they arrived after the real significance of this area. Stephen F. Austin founded San Felipe de Austin in 1823.This was the site where the original "Old Three Hundred" settled. In the period from 1823 to 1836, it was the social, economic, and political hub of colonial Texas, and many great historic figures of Texas history walked these streets. For a much more thorough description of the historic significance of the area, please refer to An Interpretation of the Cultural and Natural History of Stephen F. Austin State Park and San Felipe de Austin State Historic Site

For the tourist, the place to visit is the area that was plotted as Commerce Square. This is the spot where the Atascosito Road Ferry crossed the Brazos River; as such, it was the first place newcomers to the little colony saw once they stepped off the ferry. Today, Commerce Square offers a handful of sites to see. First and foremost, there is the statue of the Father of Texas.

Stephen Fuller Austin, the Father of Texas.

Down the walkway and off to the left is the old J. J. Josey general store, which now serves as a Visitor Center. There are a few displays in the center, and they are well worth viewing to get a feel of the important events that occurred in this community. During our visit, the curator spent a little time giving us some background. It seems that new facilities will be built across the highway from the current visitor center, and these facilities will give them more room for exhibits and educational programs. The groundbreaking should take place in the next few months, and completion should be in about 3 years or so.

J. J. Josey General Store, built in 1847. It was the last store built in the community after the original buildings were burned during the Runaway Scrape in 1836.  It now serves as the visitor center.

This is good news, for right now this place seems to be forgotten. It lags well behind its counterpart farther upstream, Washington-on-the-Brazos, which has the Star of Texas Museum, a living farm, and a visitor center, among other developments.

A replica of Stephen F. Austin’s log cabin sits near the Visitor Center. It is built in the traditional two-room dog run style. Although only a replica, the bricks in the fireplace are from the original structure.

Replica of Stephen F. Austin's cabin, where he conducted much of the official business of colonial Texas.
The town was burned when the Texans retreated from Santa Anna's advancing Mexican army, so no original structures of the town remain. Following the victory at San Jacinto, a few residents did return to the town site, but the little community never regained its place of importance and more or less faded away after nearby Bellville was named the county seat in 1846 and the removal of all county records was completed in 1848.

This brick-lined well was dug in Commerce Square in 1824. Today, it is the last architectural remain of the once thriving community. It was encased in 1928 for protection.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Good Eats: Hrushka's, Ellinger, Texas

There is a show carried by some Texas PBS stations called The Daytripper. Chet Garner, the affable host of the show, travels around the state with his crew and visits various locales for a single day. Usually in a 30 minute segment, he makes 3 to 5 stops at each locale he is visiting, and he always includes at least one visit to an eating establishment.

On a recent episode, The Daytripper crew visited LaGrange. One of the stops on this day trip was in a nearby town called Ellinger, where Garner visited Hrushka's, a combination convenience store/bakery/restaurant with a Czech heritage. The stop spotlighted the homemade hamburgers and kolaches. Since Donna and I were passing through Ellinger, we knew we had to stop.

We’re glad we did.

The store is right on Highway 71, so it is a convenient stop. We watched as regulars and travelers alike steadily streamed through this popular place, purchasing kolaches, jerky, and other goodies.

Donna and I ordered cheeseburgers all the way. They were great. Regular hamburgers cost $4.50 while our cheeseburgers cost $5.00 each. Patties are hand formed with fresh meat, and are topped with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, and pickles. The home made buns are toasted on the grill. They were delicious and as good as I’ve had in a restaurant in a long time. We were craving another round for days after our visit.

Next, we had desert of cream cheese cherry kolaches, each costing $.95. Again, we hit a home run. These were great. Hrushkas serves more than 15 types of kolaches, including traditional favorites like prune.

If you happen to be traveling on Highway 71 between Austin and Houston, keep an eye out for Hrushkas in tiny Ellinger. You’ll be glad you did.

Hiking Stephen F. Austin State Park

Stephen F. Austin State Park has a series of interconnecting trails (see Map of Trails). When added together, they tally a decent 5.86 miles, if my math is correct. On our hike, Donna and I fashioned a loop trail that took us along the river, around the camping areas, beside the neighboring golf course, and back to our camp site. (see Map of Park for info on campgrounds and other features; we were in campsite #39)

Here is a listing of the trails we took and their respective distances: 
  • Cottonwood Trail: .85 miles
  • Riverbend Trail: .43 miles
  • Brazos Trail: .27 miles
  • Sycamore Trail: .45 miles
  • Ironwood Trail: .80 miles
  • Pileated Trailed: .67 miles
 By combining these trails, we ended up with a short hike of 3.47 miles.

We started at the Cottonwood Trail. We would also end our hike here, as the Pileated Trail ends here, thus forming a complete loop. There is an amphitheater located just off the trailhead. Park staff offer programs here throughout the year.

Amphitheater behind Cottonwood Trails Trail Head

Just a few feet down the trail is an animal blind where you can view wildlife, especially birds. Several bird feeders hang on the off side of the blind. Unfortunately for us, there was no animal activity here at the time of our hike. 

Wildlife viewing area off the Cottonwood Trail

The Cottonwood Trail is a well maintained trail, wide enough for a vehicle. As you might expect, tall cottonwood trees line the trail; in fact, cottonwoods are prominent throughout the park.

Trail through the cottonwoods is level, wide, and clear. What a treat for an old hiker!

After nearly half a mile, we came to the Copperhead Trail junction. With a name like that, there is no way I was going to be able to get Donna to try that trail, so we continued along the Cottonwood Trail.

Near the end of the Cottonwood Trail, we turned left on the River Bend Trail. Although trail signs are prominent throughout the park, at this particular junction signage is lacking. The trail running off to the right is clearly marked as the Raccoon Bend Trail, but the trail continuing west and crossing the Cottonwood Trail is not marked at all. However, the map is very clear, so we journeyed down the trail, which soon became the River Bend Trail. At this point, the trails became a single path, though very clear and well maintained.

Trail junction where the Copperhead Trail becomes the River Bend Trail
This trail continues west for a short distance, then turns north at the park boundary. You’ll see a fence line at this point. After a short walk, you catch your first glimpse of the storied Brazos River. A glimpse is all you get at this time, because the brush is very thick. However, as you follow the trail east, there are several spurs that offer clear views of the river. Now, I love Texas history, and I love the role the Brazos River has played in that history. But the Brazos on the day we viewed it was just a muddy river. It is rather broad at this point, so it must have presented a formidable obstacle to early day travelers.

East bank of the Brazos River. Notice the bluff, which is probably similar to that on our side of the river. Think about what an obstacle this must have presented to early day travelers who needed to cross the river.

Much of our hike was spent on level footpaths through the woods, like this section of the Sycamore Trail.

Once we took the Sycamore Trail, we began heading away from the river. Near the end of the Sycamore Trail, we approached a ridge. At the trail junction, we opted to turn right where we would junction with the Ironwood Trail. Up to this point, our hike had been entirely in the woods, and we had been separated from any signs of civilization. From this point on, though, we would see various signs of civilization, including a golf course, camp sites, roads, and even a water tower. 

Golfers were active on the day we hiked. I love the Spanish Moss that drapes the trees.

Palmettos along the trail near the golf course

The Ironwood Trail passes near the water treatment plant for the park, then loops around the outside of the tent camping area and the screened shelter area. On the opposite side of the trail, there is a golf course, and golfers were active on this beautiful day. After dipping down into and out of a dry creek bed, the trail approaches the park road near the park entrance and intersects with the Pileated Trail for the final leg of our hike.

This stretch of the trail runs parallel to the main park road. There are several bridge crossings along this stretch. On the left and across the road, the group barracks appear. These are neat, well-maintained buildings. A blue water tower looms beside the trail near the junction with the nature trail, which heads towards the screen shelters. Then the trail crosses the park road.

One of the bridges on the Pileated Trail near the water tower
This final section of the trail is lined with various bird houses – are they blue bird houses? – and eventually comes out near the amphitheater where we began our hike less than 2 hours earlier.

Near the end of the Pileated Trail; our hike is almost done.

This is a good trail system. As we age and our legs and knees grow weaker, we tend to look for trails like this where there are few steep climbs and challenges. Our hike today was really just a pleasant walk in the woods, and that is exactly what we are looking for.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Stephen F. Austin State Park

We spent January 22 - 24 (2 nights) at Stephen F. Austin State Park near Sealy, just off of Interstate 10 about 30 miles or so west of Houston. We had never been to this park before, and that’s a shame, for it is a real jewel.

The park actually sits on land that was part of the San Felipe de Austin town site; I'll provide more information about this in another entry. The historical complex is just east of the park. The park is on the west bank of the muddy Brazos River, and a golf course is located along the east boundary of the park.

A loop in the campground provides 40 sites with full hookups for trailers. Our site had only 30 amp electrical; I do not know if 50 amp is available within the campground or not. There are 2 other loops for camping as well. One loop contains 20 screen shelters, and the other loop contains about 40 sites for tent campers. These two loops share restroom/shower facilities.

The firebug getting a fire ready at our campsite, #39.

In our camping area, sites were all pull thrus, and they were located far enough apart to provide sufficient privacy. Each site contained a picnic table, fire ring with grill, and a pole for hanging lanterns or whatever. Each camping site was well cleared and had a very clean look. As with most state parks, all internal roads are paved, and all camp sites have paved parking. The park also recycles aluminum cans, so be sure to dispose of these properly.

View of our campground from our campsite. The wagon is located at the site of one of the hosts, and it contains firewood for sale.

One of the screened shelters available to campers

A typical site available to tent campers

Although some state parks do offer WiFi and, occasionally, even cable TV, neither was available in the park. However, the park is close enough to Houston that we were able to pick up a number of TV stations. We also picked up the local CBS affiliate from Bryan/College Station.

We picked a great time to be in the park. Daily temps reached into the low 70s both days, so we spent almost all of our time outside. We were fortunate to be at the park while fires were permitted, so we enjoyed an evening fire both days of our stay.

The park offers numerous programs throughout the year, but since we were there during the week, none was available during our stay. Most such programs occur on the weekends when more people visit the park. During our stay, we saw no campers in the screened shelters or the tent sites; there were probably 15 to 20 trailer sites occupied each night. During weekends and times of the year when the weather is more reliably pleasant, I’m sure the park has near full occupancy since it is so close to Houston.

I saw evidence of an active park staff throughout the park. One screened shelter, for example, was undergoing a major upgrade. 3 park hosts were located in the park, and all stayed busy each day. Trails were clear and well-maintained.

Catching Up

I know. I'm way behind in my posts. We've been without Internet for about a week now, so I have some catching up to do. We've had a good time, and I have lots to share.

We are back in Angelo now. We did a quick check on the house about an hour ago, and it is coming along nicely. I'll take pictures later this week. The brick is almost entirely up, so it is beginning to look like a house now.

I'll try to post an entry each day until I catch up. I'll need to hurry, though, for we are leaving again in about 10 days, and I'm sure we will be without Internet some at that time.

Stay tuned . . . .

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Propane and Other Things

We're in Conroe at the moment. We've been visiting Donna's mother. We leave this morning to start heading back west, but we'll visit at least 2 state parks on our return trip to San Angelo.

Our first stop will be at Stephen F. Austin State Park near Sealy, Texas. This park is located near the original San Felipe townsite where Austin located his original 297 families, sometimes referred to as the "Old Three Hundred". As a history buff, I'm looking forward to exploring the area. I've never been here before.

From there, we head west to Bastrop State Park, site of a terrible wildfire a little over a year ago. We spent nearly a week there in 2010, so we're interested in seeing how the park has changed since the fire. If you are interested, you can see a hike report on the park from our previous visit if you click here.

The weather the past few days in Conroe has been great. As usual, we're staying at Omega Farms (see reviews for May 2012 and July 2012 by clicking here). One of the things I like about this RV park is that you can wash your RV here. Most RV parks do not allow any vehicle washing, while others will allow you to do some washing for a fee. Omega Farms allows you to wash your RV and there is no fee. The trailer was pretty dirty from our recent experience in the snow down in the Big Bend area. So, I broke out the scrub brush and extending pole and scrubbed away one sunny day.

We've been using over $100 a month in propane the past 2 months. We've run into some very cold weather nearly everywhere we have been since early December. We had very cold weather in Lubbock and pulled out just a few hours ahead of a good snow system. We spent Christmas in extremely cold weather in Big Spring, with temps in the teens for 3 nights in a row and daily high in the low 30s. We headed to Big Bend to get warm, only to get snowed in down there. We returned to San Angelo to 2 cold and rainy days. Then we headed east looking for warmth but found ice and cold instead.

We have two 20-pound propane tanks on our trailer, and I carry a spare as well. We normally pay anywhere from $16 to $18 to fill the tanks up at propane stations. However, if we do a tank swap, we can pay as much as $22 per tank. In extremely cold weather, we probably use a tank in 3 or 4 days. So I love these sunny days when we can turn the heat off during the day. We usually try to find a spot where we can park our trailer with our big bay window towards the south so that we can get as much sun into the trailer as possible.

I do not know if the parks we are going to have Internet, so I may not be able to post anything for at least a week or more.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Building Another Home

When we came back to Texas in October after our trip through the Southwest, we did a bit of house hunting. We wanted to give the Texas housing market one more chance. We spent a month in the East Texas area looking in Tyler and Longview, but were unable to find what we wanted. So, we headed back to our beloved West Texas. We spent some time in Lubbock looking at houses there. We like Lubbock, and we've lived in that area before and thought we would enjoy living there again. We looked at a number of houses, and even made an offer on one, but it was refused.

We had just about given up on living in Texas and were about to return to Nevada and look in Laughlin and Las Vegas. We had seen some housing areas in our price range while we were out there in September and October, and had pretty much decided to return and do some serious house hunting there.

Then our daughter called to tell us she was expecting, and that changed everything. Donna decided she wanted to be around for the new baby, so that was that. We headed to San Angelo and almost immediately found the type of house we were looking for.

Our new home is a patio home. It is larger than our previous home in Angelo, but has very little yard. I like that. I've always enjoyed working in a yard, but once I retired I found it tied me down too much. For this yard, we are putting in a desert xeriscape landscape in the front yard, and our side yard will have limited grass. Very little watering and upkeep will be required. That means more time for me to play.

Foundation was recently poured when this photo was taken on Dec. 12. All houses in this subdivision have rear-entry garages, which we really like. Houses in the background are across the paved alley from us.

Photo of foundation taken from the alley. All houses on this street are patio homes, like those seen across the street.

Photo of the street taken from our sidewalk

The house has lots of storage, much more than our previous house.

We signed a contract on the house in mid-December. It is scheduled for completion on April 19, but I believe it will be ready before then. We have met with the builder several times and have selected everything from brick to sink fixtures.

We're looking forward to settling into our new house and getting out of the trailer. And we're delighted with our decision to settle in San Angelo again. It is close to our daughter, and the town is just a very comfortable fit for us. It is easy to get around, has everything we need, and we really like our doctors there. Our home is located in a nice neighborhood close to shopping and the loop, making it easy to get in and out.

Framing in place on December 22, 2012

Donna and I have never been able to stay put anyplace for very long. We've told our daughter we'll give her three years here. We'll probably get antsy about then and set our horizons for somewhere else down the road.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On the Road: Study Butte, Texas, to San Angelo, Texas

It's 311 miles from Study Butte to San Angelo. That's a long haul pulling a trailer, but it's a good drive, full of history and West Texas scenery.

Study Butte to San Angelo, 311 miles from the mountains to the prairies
We left early in the morning with snow still on the ground in some spots in Study Butte. The roads had cleared off the previous day, so we felt safe traveling. From Study Butte, the road climbs up and through the Christmas Mountains before leveling off near Terlingua Ranch, a sort of desert resort with lots, cabins, RV sites, and other amenities about 15 miles north of Study Butte.

As we neared Alpine, the terrain became hilly again. More snow remained on the ground at this higher elevation, especially on the north slopes of hills. We came down off the ridge and stopped at McDonald's for coffee and snacks.

Back on the road, we headed east out of Alpine on US 67/90, past the campus of Sul Ross State University. About 10 miles outside of town, US 67 splits and heads northeast towards Ft. Stockton. US 67 from Alpine to Ft. Stockton is a good highway, with numerous passing lanes and a good shoulder the entire way. There are very few houses on the stretch. The land is almost entirely devoted to ranching. It's an easy, relaxing drive.

Near Ft. Stockton, we intersected with I-10 and drove in to the largest city in the Big Bend region. The only Walmart in the entire Big Bend is found here. We decided to detour off the interstate and drive along the old highway through town. We stopped for gas on the western edge of town, then drove along the old highway seeing all the old motels and eateries. Ft. Stockton is an oasis for travelers, as the closest town east is 110 miles (Ozona) and the closest town of size west is Van Horn, about 120 miles distant. So, Ft. Stockton provides lots of places for travelers to stop.

I'd like to return to Ft. Stockton when I have a few days. There are numerous places there I want to see, including the 19th century military post, the historic Comanche Springs, the Annie Riggs Museum, and the Ste. Genevieve Winery several miles to the east of town. But that trip will have to wait until another day.

About 10 miles east of town, US 67 splits off I-10 to the northeast. This is mesa country, and the farther we drove, the more wind turbines we saw along the tops of mesas. Wind power is big business out here. As we crossed the Pecos River near McCamey, I began thinking about the historic Horeshead Crossing of the river and the notable Castle Gap that directed travelers from the east to the river crossing. In my mind, I began planning a day trip there from San Angelo, another trip that will have to wait until another day. There's so much to see out here. The land really comes to life when you know something of the history.

From McCamey all the way to Big Lake, there is a great deal of oil-field related activity. There is an oil boom out here. Traffic on the roads is dominated by oil-field activity, and new apartments, RV parks, and other lodging options are popping up everywhere.

About halfway between Rankin and Big Lake, we come across the site of an earlier oil boom, one dating back to the 1920s. On May 28, 1923, the Texon Oil Company discovered the Santa Rita University 1-B, an oil well which brought great wealth to the University of Texas. The well is located just south of the highway, but the effects of this oil boom are obvious along US 67. It is a barren landscape where very little grows.

As we near Mertzon, mature oak trees appear along both sides of the highway.This is unusual for this part of Texas except along creeks and rivers. Although Spring Creek runs to the south of the road, these trees are not near that water source.

We finally pass the Twin Mountains and are back in San Angelo. We will relax here for a week or so, then head back out.