Seriously? A full moon NOW?

Heading up to Fort Davis, TX from the Big Bend area makes sense if you have reservations for starwatching at the McDonald Observatory (a campus of the University of Texas at Austin), which we did. But it seemed very bad luck to get there at the same time the moon reached its full phase. Until we got there.

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Upon arriving for McDonald’s “Star Party,” we and over 100 other guests were ushered into a one-hour informative theatre discussion about all things Lunar, which was great fun. A humorously-gifted researcher led the conversation on topics like “Why is it we only see one side – the lit surface with the familiar craters and ‘seas’ — of the moon’s surface, never the Dark Side?” (because the moon is in synchronous orbit with earth and always turns her lit side to us), and “What are the relative ages of the moon’s various ‘seas’ and craters?” (they range from one to four and a half billion years old. This confirms that the moon is almost the same age as the earth, having been formed from a large space object that collided with earth and combined with some of its fragments to form the moon we know). We now know a lot more about the moon’s Seas of Tranquility, Serenity and Crises, and the craters Tycho and Langrenus than before, and why the Apollo Moon Missions landed where they did.

 

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At 7pm, the crowd went outside for a brief presentation about the constellations in the night sky. The moon had not risen yet, so the clarity of the stars was brilliant and not yet dimmed by lunar light. Even the Milky Way was visible. For those of us who can never find Cassiopeia, Pegasus or Orion up there, we had some mental Aha’s and think we can now find them when we are home on the farm. After the moon rose, we moved on to the telescopes, which number into the dozens at MacDonald. We got to see the Nebula in Orion’s Sword, Venus in her brightest phase, and several open-star clusters whose images are so far away that we were viewing what state they were in, some 1438 years ago (they’re 380 trillion miles away). We skipped the close-up of the moon’s surface, as the line to see it was about 50 people long and the temperature outside had sunk into the high 40’s.

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It’s hard to keep a perspective on how large the cosmos is, but the rate of change is quite like the geologic calendar. Several of the stars visible in the sky have an orange cast, meaning that they are Red Giants (a star in decay, getting ready to explode and disappear). Our own sun will turn into a Red Giant in approx. five billion years. If earth and humans survive that long, we’ll have to find somewhere else in another galaxy to live by then, as our own galaxy will be annihilated by the explosion when the sun goes. So, earth is just about halfway through her life cycle. Fascinating.

Hanging out, Rim-side

 

So, a confession: although it seems redundant to visit Big Bend Ranch State Park, right next to Big Bend National Park, we wanted to see something extraordinary at the former that was unavailable at the latter: a 36-million-year-old caldera. Its 10-mile diameter was not even recognized until technology allowed it to be seen and photographed from 10,000 feet above.

To get to the rim, we braved the worst road we’ve ever traveled: 35 miles of grinding gravel, ruts, gouge-outs, rubbled washes and generally just abominable boulder-strewn dirt paths. Had hiker’s lunch at Fresno Canyon, just outside the crater itself.

The canyon was far, far more beautiful than the caldera, another 5-mile hike over basalt and rhyolite rocks. We then drove to within ½ mile of the crater rim. The road went no further.

As we’d already had our hike and the temps were 85+ degrees with NO shade, it was decided to look up the images inside the caldera on Google Images and let it go at that! As you can see, though, the raw power of nature is fully evident and awesome! Ten hours for the entire excursion, and we stumbled back into a darkened camp with huge thanks for no mechanical or human mishaps along the way.

What a treat to see four adult wild burros and a baby standing in the dusk-lit dirt path about halfway home. We also saw a magnificent fully antlered (12 points, at least) mule buck guarding his harem while the ladies grazed, two red-tailed hawks taking dinner back to their nest to share, a jack rabbit, a cottontail and 20 scaled quail on our drive/hike. We always see Roadrunners out here, so they are getting to be as ordinary as the doves in the skies. But always fun….they look like nature’s prankster.

Floating the Rio Grande

Yesterday was a day off from hiking. We hired a river guide in Terlingua who drove us and four other people into Big Bend Ranch State Park, to catch about nine miles of the gently rolling Rio Grande and a float through Dark Canyon (so named because of the dark rhyolite and basalt rock that makes up its 1,000 vertical walls). The guide had us laughing uproariously at his tall tales and corny jokes, and he was vintage Terlingua – a laid-back 40-something outdoorsman with a very liberal attitude toward life, politics and rules. We’ve spent quite a bit of time in and around the Rio Grande, and wish we could see her when the water is running at whitewater levels. As it is, Colorado and Mexico upstream take so much water out of her tributaries that the only way she is full of water, rapids and vigor is after a deluge rainstorm, when she swells her banks and floods everything in the vicinity to a height of five feet.

We also rock-hunted yesterday for rhyolite, tuff, and anything else interesting that we could find in road cuts and non-park public land. Collected some nice specimens, along with a section of quartz veining in limestone that our granddaughter is just going to love. It is hard, but we abide strictly by the rules in the parks: no taking of artifacts on park land, including stones of any kind.

Here’s a glimpse of Terlingua, a nutty little artists’ and musicians’ colony on the edge of Big Bend.

One last look at the beautiful Rio Grande by sunset:

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Tomorrow we leave for camping and hiking next door in the Big Bend Ranch State Park. A big surprise awaits!

Lost Mine Trail = Paradise Found

 

 

Hike-of-the-day was the Lost Mine Canyon Trail, 5 miles round-trip, and easily the best trail we’ve hiked yet. Traversing desert, mountain woodlands and high canyon rim, it offered breathtaking views around every bend. We saw vegetation that exists nowhere else in the park (mountain juniper, Spanish madrone, Mexican piñon and a rare prickly pear variant) plus lots of warblers, a pyrrhuloxia (relative to the northern Cardinal) western bluebirds, a blue grosbeak, three javelinas and enough grey fox scat to fill a good-sized bowl. The views were just the best, and breathtaking in every direction. We saw all the way to the south rim of the Chisos Basin, clear to our next camping ground in the west, Terlingua, and into Pine Canyon and Juniper Canyon, both heavily treed and sporting impressive geology.

We crossed paths for a second time with the Dallas Episcopal schoolkids who are field-tripping here on a curriculum called Classroom of the Earth. They were at the trail summit, camped out on the rocks having lunch and lecture. They are so much fun to meet on the trail, we hope our grandkids can have a similar experience, as well (when they are 7th-graders, that is!)

To relax our weary, blistered feet and sore legs, we took a dip in the Hot Springs on the drive home. Lots of people also had that idea, as the spot was full, and 105-degree water felt divine to all of us.

We’ve met wonderful people in this park. So very many from Michigan, but also Quebec, Oregon, New York, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Texas. National Park people are our people!

 

 

Crossings and Canyons

A relatively easy (4.5 mile) hiking day today, as we walked along the Rio Grande into the Sierra del Carmen mountains, down Boquillas Canyon. More stark beauty, as well as abundant roadrunners, and a Mexican tenor singing for tips from the other side of the border. The sheer limestone walls of the canyon were 1,000+ feet high, with many hollowed-out spots that probably resulted from water vertically seeping through the limestone and then pouring out through a fracture, eroding a cave-like opening high up on the walls. The masses of swallows feeding on insects above the river must love those openings for attaching their nests.

Six canoeists were relaxing at river’s edge, so we chatted them up for a bit. They were enjoying a four-day paddle down into several of the Rio Grande’s canyons, finding it magnificent. The current varies from quite sluggish to very lively, depending on the river’s width. It is now twice as high (average four feet) as in summer, carrying a heavy load of silt, and can be treacherous to swim in.

After the hike, we headed to the border crossing to the tiny Mexican village of Boquillas, where everyone makes their living from the tourists who visit. We hired a guide, Raoul, because we had many questions about how people live (and survive) in such a place. He was honest in answering our questions – the village only got electricity one year ago, via solar panels, because after 9/11 the board crossing was closed for 11 years and many people moved away. The border crossing has only been reopened now for three years, many who moved away have returned and the Mexican government saw fit to fund their electricity (and Wi-Fi!). Schooling is only available half-days, and only until 9th grade. The lower part of town floods out frequently due to the Rio Grande overflowing its banks. Gasoline is twice as expensive as in the US. No one has indoor plumbing, but they do get their water from a communal well, once weekly. As the pictures convey, life is pretty bleak here. We bought a delicious cantina meal and several souvenirs just to leave some money behind.

Interestingly, the US border patrol is involved in helping the Mexican citizens on the Rio Grande develop more opportunities so that they can afford to stay in Boquillas. US-Mexican relations are very good in this community, and it also helps provide a stable outpost in the Mexican side of the Big Bend Parque Internationale.

Our final event of the day was a two-hour drive down and back through Pine Canyon Road, a 4-wheel drive-mandatory two-track dirt road. We didn’t have time to take the 4-mile hike at the end of the road, but we hope to come back someday for that. It’s part of the National Park System’s research at Big Bend, into pristine microclimates and how they are sustained in this landscape. The trail promises to be gorgeous.

 

Big Bend National Park: “What God did with the Leftovers”

 

My word, this is beautiful country! Indian legend says this is where the Great Spirit dumped all the leftover pieces after creating the world.. It’s got a little bit of a whole lot of goodness. So much dry, parched landscape, so much geology and such a stark landscape…but truly breathtaking.

Stopped at the new fossil exhibit along the main road through the park, and saw a number of amazing dinosaur skeletons (90 in total discovered here), some of which are found nowhere else in North America. The beasts of Big Bend must have had a lovely time with the lush tropical climate and ample food supply that existed here 75 – 100 million years ago.

Yesterday’s 5.8 mile walk to the Hot Springs along the Rio Grande River was a splendid hike on the ridges about the river, at 1800 feet above sea level, with a gradual descent to the water. Today we hiked 6 miles at 5,500 feet, to the Window Pour-off west of Chisos Basin. Hiking air temps range from 55 degrees to 85 degrees – tough to dress appropriately for the lows and the highs, but the most important factor is hydration. We can make this length mountain hike without a problem, so long as we sip water pretty much continuously. They tell hikers here to take a gallon of water with them, and they’re not kidding.

The canyons are magnificent, made up of limestone and shale from early geologic past and igneous rocks from the later periods. Their sheer walls are mostly a soft orange or grey streaked with brown and black from millions of years of springs spilling water out of them. On today’s path, we saw roadrunners, mule deer, Mexican jays, and four wild goats up on the steep walls! Seems no one has ever seen these goats, in the recent memory of the rangers – but we know our small ruminants, and these were neither the barbary sheep nor the Aurochs that can infrequently be spotted here. No pictures of the goats, as I would have needed a telephoto and didn’t bring that lens along. Also, no pix of the vermillion flycatcher we saw – they’re just too fast for us. But we did see a group of Episcopal School children out for a field trip from Dallas, ready to storm into the hot springs just as we were leaving!

Tomorrow we venture to Boquillas, Mexico, a little border town across the Rio Grande that subsists on visitor dollars from Big Bend, and we’ll take in a hike to Boquillas Canyon (overlooking the Rio Grande) as well as a drive across the landscape. Time for a good night’s sleep to prepare for that!

Western Art of a Different Era: Pictographs and Petroglyphs

For months, we’ve looked forward to seeing the 4,500-year-old rock art in Amistad National Recreation Area just north of Del Rio, TX. Turns out you can’t see it there unless you have a private boat! We were advised to go instead to the Seminole Canyon State Park, and there we joined an afternoon tour with an area volunteer archaeologist to see a variety of paintings and carvings on the limestone cave walls along the lower Prena River bed.

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We learned a lot about how the lower Pecos River people survived in the west Texas Canyonlands, which are nearly as arid as a desert. The images they painted represent figures from their belief system and spirit world: shamans, powerful cultural leaders and anthropomorphic figures. They lived in clans of 25 – 35 people, subsisting on cactus and agave plants and roots, small rodents, insects, prickly pear, sotol and lechiguilla plants, herbs, birds, snakes, the occasional deer and the like. No buffalo or other major mammals at that time, as the climate was too dry to sustain them.

Although lean, these people were not malnourished. Both men and women created the pictograph images, using ground minerals, deer tallow and the sticky resin from the yucca plant as a durable paint. They also made their tools and weapons from flint, chert and cactus wood, and wove their clothing and shoes from plants in the area. They were amazingly resourceful. The park and guided tour are well worth the 1 hour 45-minute investment.

San Antonio Past and Present, in 1.5 Days

Starting with the Mission Trail, we investigated all five of the original farming and evangelizing missions of the area: Espada, San Juan, San Jose, Concepcion, and San Antonio de Bexar (which came to be far better known as the Alamo). It was highly informative, even if sad to learn of the losses in culture and lives of the indigenous people as the missions came to the area, and it helps to explain many things about San Antonio (its staunch Catholicism even today; the extensive system of aqueducts that was created, which today is the foundation for some of the city’s Riverwalk; the source of many place-names in the city, and perhaps why these missions are the most intact of any missions originally located in Texas).

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we are not Texan or southern, but we were less impressed by the Alamo in downtown San Antonio than most other visitors. To know the history of how many peoples fought over this territory, and to realize that all European invaders/colonists commandeered it from the native peoples, we can’t credit those who tried to defend the US Fort from the attacking Mexican/Spanish forces as entirely heroic. It is true that they were massively outnumbered by Santa Anna’s forces, and that they were basically slaughtered almost to the last US soldier. But we debate whether we should have been there in the first place. Millions dispute our opinion, but we will side with the indigenous peoples.

The city has a facility called the Museo Alameda, started in 2007 to honor the Hispanic-American culture in the area. It fell on hard times within five years of opening, was taken over by the Smithsonian and then the University of Texas. The Museo is now run by the city of San Antonio and is a mere shadow of its former self. We visited the only exhibit they have running at present, “Our Comida (food), our Culture.” It is a very well curated series of photographs and sculptures from multiple latin@ artists, and we wished more people would visit to help keep it alive.

The river walk was just magical. So well landscaped and provided with solid pathways, it is obviously beloved by visitors and residents alike. The San Antonio river flows through town, and as mentioned above, the river walk takes advantage of a former aqueduct from the mission to divert the river and create more linear feet for the Walk. And everywhere one sees the airmen/women from the nearby Lackland Air Force Base, walking with their visiting families and decked out in their crisp blue uniforms. I asked one of them if I could take his picture in honor of my father (an AF veteran). The airman very politely obliged, and I’d like to think Dad was smiling.

We skipped lunch to make time for a trip through the Briscoe Western Art Museum on the river Walk. Another peak experience. The building alone is eye-poppingly gorgeous, originally built in 1929 Art Deco design to house the Carnegie Library. But the art is even more wonderful, and includes oil and pastel landscapes and portraits, bronze sculptures, historical uniforms and costumes, and a fantastic collection of historical saddles. Not a single Frederick Remington sculpture, which was refreshing.

Three distinct cultures were well-represented: the indigenous peoples who first inhabited the great western territories, the Spanish colonists and military who followed, and the American colonists who largely dominate the land today. I suppose you could identify a fourth: the admixture of all of them. The images chosen for the galleries were such noble renderings, reflecting both women and men who made contributions in their times. Because we so rarely see ornately tooled and silver/jewel encrusted saddlery, we were mesmerized by their beauty. The museum only has three floors, easily seen in two hours, and we left hungry for more.

Two final events capped off San Antonio for us: a meal at La Fonda, a well-regarded Tex-Mex fine dining restaurant – delicious; and a night with the San Antonio Symphony, at Tobin Center.

The meal offered duck tacos, stuffed poblano pepper, cheese enchiladas, pork tamales and a bifstek taco (for George), crowned by flan and tres leches cake. The symphony offered Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Howard Hansen (the theme from Interlochen!). The guest conductor (Gerard Schwartz) had recruited his son (Julian Schwartz) to play a series of cello variations on the Mozart aria, “La ci darem la mano,” from Don Giovanni. One of my favorites. Another peak experience. Go see the symphony when you are in town. They are wonderful.

…. Atop the Belly of the Earth

Enchanted Rock is billed as one of the best geological formations in Texas, and this is no exaggeration. It’s mammoth, superbly accessible to hikers of all skill levels, and so very unusual.

The technical description would probably be that it is a large phaneritic granite batholith, with multiple elongated plutons emergent from the southeast corner. The layperson’s version: a gigantic large-grained belly of granite sticking out of the earth – 425 feet higher than the ground surrounding it. The belly is part of a larger granite “hunk” that is as big as the island of Manhattan!

We hiked the summit trail to the top, and even though it was steep and there were no steps or paths, our traction was great because the surface is rough enough to grab the treads of any hiker’s shoes. Very good footing and a consistently rounded curvature to the rock body made it easy to reach the summit in 25 minutes. And except for the gale force winds at the top of the earth’s belly (what it feels like you are standing on), it was magnificent to observe the surrounding landscape and the vernal pools that have formed from erosion at the summit.

Nature is endlessly fascinating. There is a species of fairy shrimp that only exists in these vernal pools. Their ecology is very fragile, which is why no dogs are allowed at the summit. Low lying shrubs, prickly pear cactus and the sparkling pools make it a magical place at the top. The indigenous peoples who first lived around Enchanted Rock said they heard singing from the rock (likely the groaning and cracking of the rock as it cooled in the night from the day’s high heat), and saw flashing lights (the moon’s reflection off the vernal pools). Thus, the name Enchanted Rock.

We were captivated by the experience – the closest thing we may ever see that resembles Ayers Rock in Australia, and able to be easily scaled (although the brochures and signs tell you it’s a strenuous hike) in a half hour. What a treat!

Texas Hill Country in the 1800’s

 

Heading inland, what a lovely surprise to come upon a well-preserved frontier settlement town of the 1800’s in Comfort, Texas. This is a small burg, founded as so many were in the Hill Country by German immigrant farmers (the deutsche Freidenker brand of Cowboy Philosophers).

Comfort’s clapboard homes and limestone business buildings on the old main street reminds me of the town my mom grew up in (Clarkston, MI) with its stone buildings and old settlers’ homes next to the millpond. Well worth a visit, and they have an honest-to-goodness pie and gift shop (Miss Giddy’s) that should be your first stop if you love chocolate crème, apple-cranberry or sawdust (YUM!) pies.  Included here are also some shots of old downtown Alpine, which is northwest of Big Bend.

We ventured on to Fredericksburg, also full of pride for its German heritage, with similar lovely turn-of-the-century preserved building stock. This was following a peak experience hiking….