Monday, March 30, 2015

Sights around Fort Davis, Texas

When staying at the Davis Mountain State Park, we made a few trips in the surrounding area to see the sites.  For a tiny town, there were some big things to see!  For example, we spent the first evening at a star party at the McDonald Observatory.  Known for having some of the darkest night skies in the United States, they started building huge telescopes here in the  1930's.  Other telescopes have joined the domes on the hill, and it has become a very popular place to visit.  We went to the star party that starts at 8:45 this time of the year, and were surprised that 314 other people came that same evening!

We could see the big telescopes scattered over the mountain when we got there as the sun was setting.  Those few whispy clouds meant we didn't have a perfect view of the stars when it got dark, but it was pretty close.  There was a 30-minute star tour given by an entertaining astronomer with a green laser that could point out all the constellations and stars of interest in the night sky.  Then all 316 of us stood in line to see through the lenses of close to a dozen different telescopes that were aimed at Jupiter, the moon, and various stars and nebulas.  It was a very interesting evening.  There is also a day-time program that we will have to catch next time we are in the neighborhood.  An interesting fact that I had never considered:  Astronomers work at night, so the housing for them revolves around them sleeping during the day-time hours.

We also went to Fort Davis National Park.  This Fort was active in the 1800's when it guarded the border against Mexican raids and provided safety for pioneers heading west.  This group of buildings was actually abandoned and rented out as housing during the 1930's.  It has since became a national historical site and is in the process of being refurbished.  

We had a beautiful afternoon to walk the grounds and look at the buildings of the Fort complex.  Since we have a son graduating from medical school in May, the fort hospital was particularly interesting to us.  An interesting fact:  Instead of falling in combat, more soldiers at Fort David died as a result of the doctoring practices of the time.  They hadn't yet determined that medical instruments needed to be cleaned between uses.

We have to include a picture of the Jeff Davis County Court house.  Just like Denisa was enamored with wildflowers, she is now developing a thing for court houses.  This was even the first blue courthouse we have seen so far.

 An interesting fact:  There is a fence around the courthouse yard, with curious turn-style gates.  Denisa found out they were in place to keep the resident donkeys off the lawn in the early 1900's.

We really enjoyed a lunch at the deli downtown.  After spending 24/7 together, Denisa is really rubbing off on Mark.  She has always loved hot and spicy, while he has always steered clear of jalapenos.  He ordered the jalapeno potato soup and LIKED it.  The next thing you know, Denisa will start liking those cheap sandwich cookies that Mark adores.

We also stopped in at the Davis Mountain Nut Company.  They make candy covered pecans that are delicious.  We were offered free samples of the flavors they make in their shop--chocolate fudge, cinnamon toast, vanilla almond, hot-n-spicy, sassy sinamen, orange twang.  We had to put down our foot about trying the mocha madness, because no matter how much time we spend together, neither of us will ever like anything coffee flavored.

The owner told us the story of how the company was started 20 years ago, and explained their path to progress to the business they are today.  They recently won a "Best in Texas" contest, and got a contract to provide gift boxes of nuts to HEB grocery stores last Christmas.  They have really grown lately!  But they recently hit a pothole in the road to success when they were forced to change their recipe because of changes in food laws.  So the owner asked us to participate in the taste test to determine the best recipe for each flavor.  We were only too happy to help!  It's a tough job tasting 4 different cinnamon pecans, and determining which one is best, then 4 different vanilla, then 4 different orange, then . . .  It was brutal work but we made it to the end of the samples.  With all those delicious samples, we determined our overall favorite was the orange twang.  We bought a sample pack, and the owner bagged up some of the new experimental orange pecans to give us as well.  Another fun stop for us in Fort Davis!

We love having the time to stop at random places, and getting to listen to peoples' stories!  We made one other stop just outside Fort Davis.  We had noticed huge greenhouses about 4 miles outside of town, and we were hoping to get a tour inside.  But that story will have to wait for a blog of its own!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Davis Moutains State Park

We headed back to the mountains and our next stay at Davis Mountains State Park.  We have really enjoyed the state parks of Texas, and it was good to be staying in one again.  This park has some positives and negatives.  The main negative is that we had no cell phone service or television while we were there.  We needed to work out some arrangements for our next stop, and it always took a drive or a hike around the mountain to get a signal.  But the positives certainly outweighed the negatives.

The most obvious positive was the beautiful Davis Mountains.

We were on a hike to the Indian Lodge at the other end of the park, and this picture shows the valley where our motorhome is tucked away.  For those that aren't interested in hiking, you can see the zig-zag road that will take your car to the top for great views.

We met two couples that were also hiking that day.  One couple was from Houston, and they were hosting their friends from England.  Their English friends were busy clicking pictures of everything Texan, and asked us to take a picture of the four of them.  Then they reciprocated by taking a picture of us.

The next positive of the park is the interpretive center and its programs.  We were surprised to see ranger-led hikes and programs scheduled during the week.  These usually show up on the weekends when the crowds are bigger.  Denisa went to the first programs on javelinas and owls. She learned the differences between wild pigs and javelinas.  The two are not related and you can tell the difference because the javelinas are the stinky ones, and the wild pigs have curly tails, as well as tusks you can see on the outside of their mouths.  So that evening when one showed up near our site, she could correctly identify it as a collared peccary--the more scientific name for a javelina.

She also learned that owls can hear so well because the bones in their faces are structured like satellite dishes that feed the sound waves into their ears.  They have an ear on each side of the "dish"--set at different heights on their head so the owl can determine height of the prey by which ear picks up the sound. Those tufts of feathers on the horned owl that look like ears are just for ornamentation.

After having to reiterate all the interesting facts she learned to Mark, it was easy to recruit him to go to the ranger-led hike the next day.  Ranger Tara does a great job of teaching in an interesting way, and some times she just gets lucky with her timing.  While on the hike, she told us that a pair of black hawks have just returned to the park, and they hang out with the vultures.  But you can tell the difference between the two birds by their flight patterns.  Vultures teeter on the wind looking for dead corpses, while hawks hover like kites in the air and can swoop down on live prey.  She just finished this description, when we found a black hawk kiting perfectly high up in the air.  It was a goose bump moment when we watched him swoop hundreds of feet straight down to snag his victim.  She was as amazed as we were to see this perfectly timed display!

We also enjoyed seeing the hummingbird nest in a nearby tree.  This tiny little nest is made of lichen and soft material like dandelion fuzz, and is woven together with spider web the female finds.  All this intricate beauty is woven together into a tiny nest just 1.5 inches wide.  It will hold two 1/2 inch hummingbird eggs, but because of the elasticity of the spider web, it can expand as the chicks hatch and grow.

 Tara hopes the hummingbirds will return to raise another family this year. As beautiful as that little nest is, don't even think this would make a nice souvenir.  She also pointed out that taking down a bird's nest can result in a $5,000 fine, so we won't be robbing any nests to decorate our motorhome.

Tara also showed us the habitat of the acorn woodpeckers in the park.  They use the electric poles as graineries to store their winter's supply of acorns.  They make holes up and down the pole, and then stuff a nut into each hole.

 In the adjacent electrical pole, they drill out larger holes for nests.  This woodpecker was doing some home remodeling as we walked by.  We would highly recommend any of the programs at the interpretive center to other visitors.  Great job Tara!

The last positive we noticed might be the most important to Mark.  They have free cookies (and coffee) at the headquarters building!  Mark is a connoisseur of cheap sandwich cookies, and he kept making excuses to stop by headquarters to ask questions just to get more snacks.  They also had a bowl of chocolate Easter candy and we thought it was necessary for a new piece before every hike in the park.  

The hike below was in the primitive side of the park, and we had to sign in and out and get a gate code since this area is not patrolled.  

However, there is a group of ten people building a new trail in this area, and they were camped high in the mountains.  They work for the Texas state park system, and they are putting in a new six-mile loop trail here.  The team works ten days in a row, living in tents in pretty remote areas to avoid the commute to their work site each day.  We came into their camp area and visited with them for a while.  They were fixing dinner in a huge five gallon cook pot.  Working all day probably builds up an appetite, and they certainly have an interesting lifestyle!

We started this hike at 4 p.m., which is almost too late for the 8 miles round trip.  The setting sun was highlighting the tall grass heads as we were hurrying down off mountain. 

We were signing out from our hike at headquarters just as it got dark.  Mark was more than a little disappointed to find the doors were locked so he couldn't get another cookie for the road.

Marvelous Marfa and Her Lights

We headed north from Big Bend, and made a stop in Alpine, just 80 miles away.  We checked out Sul Ross University (since we have a weakness for colleges after working at one for so many years), and had a great lunch at La Casita.  That was followed by a raspa at Murphy's.  We learn new things every day, and today we learned that a raspa is a fancy name for a snow cone.

Then we headed about 15 miles west of Alpine to the Marfa lights viewing area.  We have heard about this phenomenon from several different sources, and the skeptics in us wanted to see them for ourselves.  The lights were first reported by a young cowboy in 1883, and they have been explained as being swamp gas, electrostatic discharge, moonlight shining on veins of mica, ghosts searching for gold . . .  Our favorite description is that they are similar to a miracle, where atmospheric conditions produced by the interaction of cold and warm layers of the air bend light so that it can be seen from afar, but not up close. The bronze sign describes them in the following way, "The lights may appear in various colors as they move about, split apart, melt together, disappear and reappear."

There is a very nice viewing deck and parking lot built on the side of the highway between Alpine and Marfa.  There was another bronze sign that pointed out that the viewing area was made possible by a generous donation of property from Clayton and Modesta Williams.  It's a small world, because we have a cousin that married the Williams's son.

We found out that RVs are welcome to park for the night in the parking lot next to the viewing area, and we were glad to see that two other RVs were there too.  This was our first time ever to park without electric hookups.  But it was a beautiful weather evening, and we needed to exercise the generator.  So it was a perfect night for boondocking.  You can see the viewing building with its deck behind our car.

Another couple that was parked there in their pickup and camper were coming from the west, while we were coming from the east.  They shared some of their travel brochures and advice from points west that we will be seeing, and we gave them maps and information about Big Bend.  It is so nice to make new friends on the road!  Thanks Ed and Jan, it was a pleasure meeting you!

In case you think we would be the only ones looking for these mysterious lights, the parking lot began to fill as the sun set.  At one time we counted, and there were 70 people outside on the viewing deck.  If the lights weren't amazing, the fact that so many people came out to see them was amazing to us!

We had heard rumors that the lights are only visible 30 nights of the year, so we weren't expecting much.  But as soon as it got dark, we started seeing lights.  We are still skeptical that they might be far away headlights, but there was a local that said there was no road in that direction.  They weren't spectacular, but it was a very interesting evening.  There is a permanent red light in the distance, but we saw periodic white lights that came and went throughout the evening.  The large crowd seemed to be happy with their sightings.  Mark tried a few pictures with his camera phone, but they aren't great.

Here is one bright light that appeared next to the permanent red light, and another fainter light to the right.  We are still skeptical about the Marfa lights, but we are sold on the parking lot camping at the viewing area.  After we tired of looking at lights, we had a short walk to our bed in the motorhome, it was a free night of camping, and we got to meet some new people.  Win, win, win!

The next morning we were off to view the sights of the town of Marfa.  We love the beautiful county courthouses across Texas, and this was a pretty one set off by the beautiful blue sky.
We climbed to the third floor, enjoying the pretty woodwork inside the building.
Denisa had read that you could climb to the fourth floor inside the dome for a great view.  But we were disappointed to see crime tape over the last stair case.  We found that they were having problems with a bee's nest in the dome, so our view was thwarted today.

Our next stop in this tiny town was the Hotel Paisona.
Built in 1930, it seems a little out of place to see such an elegant hotel in this tiny west Texas town.  It was elegant on the inside, as well as the outside.
It also had an indoor pool that was added in 1960.
But  its main claim to fame was its connection with the movie, "Giant," starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.  The hotel Paisano served as headquarters for the filming of the movie in 1956, and the stars and many extras stayed here during part of the filming.  In fact, the movie is always showing in the lobby of the hotel.
 It was a fun stop and looks like a nice historical hotel for an overnight stay.  But now that we live in our rolling hotel, Denisa isn't even taking notes on hotels to stay in!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Good Bye Big Bend - Last Hikes

Sunday was our last day in the Big Bend area, and we still had a full day of things we wanted to do.  There are only two churches in town, so we started at the 11:00 service at the local Baptist church.  Do we need to mention that they had beautiful wildflowers out front?  
One never knows what to expect when going to a different church.  But we certainly didn’t expect that the special music would be “Amazing Grace” on the bagpipe played by a local ranger wearing a complete Scottish kilt uniform.  That is amazing!

After church, we changed clothes and headed into the national park for our final two hikes.  The first was a little known hike that is on no map because of the sensitivity of the area.  We knew about it because a hiker we met on another trail was exclaiming about it.  When we asked a ranger, he gave us more detailed directions that included driving on an unmarked gravel road for a couple miles, then walking another half mile to a trailhead.  It was truly a hidden gem.  We thought it was appropriate this Sunday that one of the first things we saw on the trail was this cactus.

It was a beautiful blue sky day, and we were clearly in the middle of a desert hike, so it might be a little surprising to know that our destination was Cattail Falls.  Where could there be a waterfall hidden amongst all this cactus?

We did notice that some of the desert plants seemed larger than usual, so perhaps they were getting a little more water?


This ocotillo was one of the tallest we saw.  Incidentally, we were hoping to see the ocotillo in bloom.  But we must be satisfied with all the wildflowers because we were just a little early for their showy red blooms.


After a mile on the desert trail, we started to hear rushing water.  Then we walked into a desert oasis that was 20 degrees cooler and absolutely stunning!

The water was pouring out of the mountain, and we had this oasis all to ourselves for thirty minutes.  It was just beautiful!

This cooler and wetter micro-climate was decorated with maiden-hair ferns and columbines--two plants that one would never expect to find here in the desert.
The one thing that we didn't see at Cattail Falls were cattails!

There was a pink-flowering tree next to the falls that made a nice artsy photo.


Downstream from the roaring waterfall, were smaller falls that echoed the blissful sound of falling water.

It was hard to believe that only 100 yards away from that cool hidden waterfall was the dry desert terrain.
 We couldn't understand what happened to all the water that was pouring over that waterfall.  The riverbed was bone dry!  So Mark (aka Indiana Engelman) had to solve the mystery of the disappearing water.  He hiked down the river bed until he saw the last of it disappear underground.
 This hidden hike was one of the highlights of our time in Big Bend.  But we weren't finished on our final day.  We were now headed towards the Upper Burro Mesa Trail.  

Denisa found this hike described in an article about forgotten canyon hikes of Big Bend in the Texas Highways magazine.  The article points out that few will stop at the unassuming trailhead that begins in "a nondescript grassy valley."  So again, we had the trail to ourselves.  Past the grassy valley, we entered into a series of canyons, with increasingly taller walls and more rocks in the way that we had to scramble over.

 We had beautiful blue skies, as you see through this hole in the canyon wall.  This canyon is the Javelina Wash, where the water from the Chisos Basin will drain.  Even with the rains we have received since our time here, there was no moisture in the canyons.


The destination in this 3.6 mile hike is the pour off where all the rushing water from these canyons would make a hundred foot waterfall.

The picture above was our view from the top of the pour off down to the dry sand below.  We have found that you lose all depth perception when you try to take a picture straight down like this.  In more scientific terms, we could describe it in the same way that the article did: "The canyon suddenly ends at a huge pour-off.  Be careful, one slip and you're dead."   That's 100 feet straight down.

A few days earlier we hiked the Lower Burro Mesa.  On that day we were standing in that sand far below the pour-off where we were  today.  

We hoped that some hikers would come down that lower trail, so we could take their picture to put some scale to our pictures.  So we made ourselves comfortable in the room-size cavern where the water would swirl before it became a waterfall.  We found a remarkably comfortable rock recliner, and Mark almost went to sleep.  It was a wonderfully cool and shaded place to rest--another one of those wonders we love to wander into.


No hikers appeared below, so we finally headed back down the trail.  The first step was getting back up that first group of rocks to enter back into the canyon.  There is definitely some rock scrambling on this hike.  We also had to pay attention to not miss any turns since it would be easy to go down the wrong canyon and never find your car.

In the past we have described hikes by the number of miles, or the number of hours, or even the number of tangerines eaten.  On this hike we saw an unusually large number of lizards. 

Most of them were quite quick, but this one stopped long enough for a photograph.  So we will describe this hike as a 16 lizard hike.

These two hikes were great fun, and it was a gorgeous last day in Big Bend National Park.  We really feel like we have been wandering His wonders! After 8 days, we were a little sad as we left the park for the last time this evening.  Good-bye Big Bend!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Big Bend - Lost Mine Trail

We've had some cloudy and cool days at Big Bend National Park, but those have made for nice temperatures for hiking.  This morning we headed to one of the top recommended hikes in the park--The Lost Mine.  We are here during spring break, but the only time we have felt the effects of the crowded conditions was that the parking lot for this trail head has been full every time we have passed by it.  We had read that you need to be early to get a parking spot. So this was the morning to rise earlier than our new retirement wake-up time, and eat cold cereal for breakfast.  We were successful in getting one of those coveted parking places this morning!  

We had other hikers tell us that this hike gives the most "bang for the miles hiked" because there are some great views along the way.  We totally found that to be true.

Most of the pictures are from the summit, where you are seeing adjoining mountain peaks at eye level.

You might notice that Denisa will usually be pictured in a safe place far from the edge of the mountain.  But you can always count on Mark to crawl up to the top of whatever ledge there is.  Since Denisa some times has to convince him to be in pictures, it is good to take advantage of these scary poses just to get him in the blog.

It's also lots of fun to make friends with other hikers at the peak.  We love taking pictures for fellow hikers, and it's nice when they offer to take a picture of us together as well.

This time it was a little scary to watch Mark get to this area of the peak.  It's another "where's waldo" picture, but you should be able to make out his tiny little frame in the left center of the picture.  Right after he crawled back up on the trail, a college student told him he was certainly brave to go out there.  Denisa thought he was certainly crazy to go out there.

We have another picture taken from another set of college friends at the peak.  There were so many really nice view points at the top of the Lost Mine trail!  Incidentally, there are no mines on this trail--or at least no found mines on the lost mine trail.

We exchanged email addresses with Christian and his girl friend, who were at the summit with us.  Through email we could send some pictures we took of them from a distance, and he reciprocated and sent us this picture as well. Isn't technology wonderful?  Thanks Christian!

We felt so blessed to have clear skies while we were at the summit.  We were forecast for rain in the afternoon, and we found out that hikers behind us had to hike up with cloud cover most of the way.  As we hiked back down, we met the clouds rolling in.  We sat and watched (and of course Mark scrambled up to the highest point) as the clouds continuously rolled up to the saddle area between two mountains, but never crossed the saddle.  There is probably some meteorological phenomenon that causes this, but it was certainly interesting to watch.

The most exciting part of the hike happened about half way down.  For some reason, we got a good phone signal (something hard to come by in Big Bend).  So we were able to get a text message from our son Luke.  Luke will graduate from medical school in May, and he found out today that he was matched to do his residency in Kansas City.  It was his first choice, and we feel so blessed that he and Jordan will be going where they wanted to go.  That's another blessing this day!

Remembering Important facts for later in this post

We have found that often things happen and we meet people or learn things that all tie back together in curious ways.  That happened to us this week in Terlingua and Big Bend.  Terlingua is a tiny town that includes a gas station (that we visited two times), a grocery store (that we visited two times), a donut shop (that we visited two times), and a school (that we visited two times).  I see a trend here!

The school library is also the public library, and the librarian told us that they have about 100 students in K-12 grades.  Three of these are high school students that live in the national park with their families.  The national park has a school for K-8, but older students must drive to the Terlingua school to finish their education. [That is an important fact for later in this post.]

There is also Terlingua Ghost Town five miles down the road.  It includes a general store.  Notice the large round hoops out front.  Those are used as hula hoops for anyone able to make them spin around their waist.

There is also a cemetery.  Some graves are memorialized with flowers, some with stones, and a few have small change left on them.  This grave was covered with empty beer bottles.

There is also a restaurant called the Starlight Theater Restaurant and Bar, that doesn't open until 5 p.m. [This is an important fact you need to remember for later in this post.]

There are few places to eat arond Terlingua. In fact, the two most popular open at 5 p.m.  We heard that you should be there before 5:00 in order to get a table.  For example, the day we arrived at Long Draw Pizza (the other popular place), we arrived early and waited in the parking lot.  Sure enough, 6 vehicles pulled in at 4:50, and when the doors of Long Draw Pizza opened at 5:00 all the tables were full with the people waiting.  It has been a while since we ate at a place that allowed smoking, and I was glad the smokers were at the other end of the small restaurant.  We were also glad when Larry and Sue sat down next to us at our long table. They are from Florida, enjoying an extended vacation in their motorhome.  It was fun getting to know them.  [That is an important fact for later in this post.]

After eating at Long Draw Pizza the night before, the next day we were planning to leave the national park early enough to eat at the Starlight Theater Restaurant.  We knew we needed to be there early [Remember?], and we had plenty of time.  But we saw a young man on the side of the road waving frantically, so we stopped.  We were the first to arrive right after he hit a wet spot on the road and flipped his car.

Eduardo was one of those national park students, and he was driving himself home from high school in Terlingua that day.  [Remember?]  We already knew about those students and his situation.  The second car that pulled over at the scene of the accident had a doctor on board.  He checked Eduardo over and deemed him uninjured.  There was absolutely no phone signal, so we offered to take Eduardo home to his parents.  We also helped to report the accident, and all the park rangers seemed to know Eduardo.  It was a very unexpected change in our plan for the day, but Eduardo's family was so appreciative of our help.

Once Eduardo was in good hands, we headed back out of the national park, knowing that we would arrive late to the Starlight Theater Restaurant.  Sure enough, all the tables were full.  Since everyone orders at the same time, it would be at least an hour wait for a table to open.  We decided not to wait.  As we headed to the parking lot, we heard a voice behind us.  It was our new friend Sue.  [Remember?]  She and Larry had seen us get turned away, and they invited us to sit in the two empty chairs at their table. 

We got to enjoy their company for another meal!  Larry ordered the wild boar, and Sue had the filet.  But we had heard about the Diego Burger, and we ordered one to share.  It includes one pound of beef, 8 slices of bacon, 2 fried eggs, cheese, jalapenos, peppers, pickles . . . It was huge!

We were hungry after a day of hiking, but I can't believe we ate the whole thing!

So it was a day when you realize that God puts people in your path for different reasons that we might never understand. [Remember!] But it sure is interesting wandering this path of His wonders!