Monday, September 02, 2013

West Texas travels - part 3

Homeward Bound 

We got up at 8 – I smelled bacon! – and showered and went into the main house for breakfast. The Inn’s cook made us breakfast (we never got their names!) – scrambled eggs, toast, hash browns and Canadian bacon. Here, at least, the coffee was better. We were the only people staying in the house, so the staff sat and chatted with us for a while. We got an impromptu history lesson about Fort Davis – one woman’s mother had worked in town for Harvard University’s radio telescope astronomers (and that is why there’s a Harvard Hotel in town!) so she had been there since the late 50’s. She talked about how different it was once the NPS took over the Fort itself – kids used to go and climb on the ruins, etc. She also told us that there are four foreign exchange students staying in the house, and one of them is the Polish kid that we’d seen at Murphy’s and the Drugstore.  (aha!)

We had to stop at the Davis Mountain Nut Co. store in town – we’d had their “mocha madness” pecans from the McDonald Observatory cafe and wanted more.  We tasted a few things and bought a bag for home and a bag for the office. 

Then we drove north 33 miles to the natural springs at San Solomon, called Balmorhea (pronounced BAL-more-ay – the lady at the Inn was very impressed that I did that correctly). It’s 20 to 25 ft deep in some places, and it’s chilly! There are fish swimming around, and the bottom is mossy and uneven.  I stuck my feet in, but that was enough.  We decided we’d swim there another time.

We got on I-10, and headed east, toward home. We decided we’d get lunch when we got to Fort Stockton. I wanted to go into town to see “Paisano Pete” the largest road runner in the world. (57 miles) (He’s 11 feet high.)  We passed up a bunch of food places, because we thought we’d go into “Historic Fort Stockton” and find a place to eat, like we did with Mason and Ft. Davis. But Fort Stockton’s historic district just looked dead. We did get out and check out the courthouse area, and the Zero Stone - a marker placed in 1847, used as the zero reference point for subsequent surveys of the western part of the state.  But then we just got back on the road. We stopped for gas in the same place that we had limped into on Monday afternoon, and bought some snacks to hold us over until we could find real food. (If DQ counts as real food...)

I drove some of the last bit, from our lunch stop in Ozona, 90 miles to Junction, where we got off I-10 and onto the smaller roads. Unfortunately, the part I chose to drive was also when we rode into the black clouds, lightning and thunder we had been watching all day. A few drops of rain would turn into a downpour, and a mile later would be all gone, and a mile after that another downpour. For about 20 miles, up and down the steep grades. It was exhausting.

We passed a lot of churches on our drive last week, and clearly the most popular denomination in west Texas is Cowboy. Turns out these churches aren’t just for humans – “Some cowboy churches have covered arenas where rodeo events such as bull riding, team roping, ranch sorting, team penning and equestrian events are held on weeknights.”  And there are over 200 of them in Texas now. (Lesson #11 – a lot of Cowboys go to church!) 

The last leg of the trip was uneventful, and we were glad to see that most of the traffic was going the other direction. (Traffic! We finally had other cars to contend with!)  Made it home around 7pm. Sadly, we had forgotten just how HOT it is in Austin in August. We were so spoiled. Sigh.  

And now… laundry!

Total mileage, day 5: 443 miles, ~9 hours.

Total mileage overall: 1,255 miles 

West Texas travels - part 2

Day 3: McDonald Observatory

Wednesday morning, we started with some instant oatmeal in our room, rather than trying to hunt for a breakfast spot again. And here we come to lesson #4: The coffee in west Texas sucks.  Granted, it was hotel room coffee, but even the stuff from the lobby was bad. Even Alice’s coffee on Tuesday was bad. And the trend continued through McDonald and Fort Davis. Or maybe I’m just spoiled by the awesome coffee maker we have at home, and the ready access to Starbucks, which hasn’t made it out to Marfa yet. Just sayin’. 

I stopped in the gift shop for a Marfa t-shirt, and we set off to the north for Fort Davis and the McDonald Observatory. We stopped for lunch in Fort Davis at Murphy’s and had subs. They were really good. We also learned lesson #5: everything comes with a bag of Lay’s potato chips.  At first, I ate them, but later in the trip we just started hanging on to them, and came home with 4 bags in our “snack sack,” which accumulated munchies as the week went on. From Marfa to Fort Davis, it's only 21 miles.  At the restaurant, we picked up a map of town that was sponsored by a store called Fort Davis Outfitters, which looked like the modern equivalent of a General Store, so we had to check it out. It was exactly that – they had everything from cosmetics to cowboy boots to kitchen gadgets to car repair kits, and everything in between – except Lactaid! We spent a long time talking to the proprietor, who moved down with his wife from New Hampshire and opened the store at the end of last year. They’ve got a 50 page list of new items that they’re going to start carrying, and he added Lactaid pills to the list.  He did have something I needed, though – I bought a new cosmetics bag to replace the minty one.  The proprietor, even though he had moved down from New Hampshire, was an Aggie (graduated a few years before John). Lesson #6: Outside of Austin, there are a LOT of Aggies around!

We drove through town (tiny, at 1211 people) and passed the actual fort for which Fort Davis is named – we’ll be back there on Thursday – and started the drive up to the Observatory. The weather was fabulous – 80 degrees and sunny. We drove with the windows down! (This made it a lot easier to stop and take photos of the mountains, too.) We got to the Visitors Center (16 miles) just in time for our 2:30 tour. First we learned about the sun. They have a telescope that just looks at the sun, and the tour guide (Rachel) showed us a live image, so we could see the sun spots. My lack of coffee was starting to take its toll, but then it was time to head up the mountain! First stop, the 107” Harlan J. Smith telescope, on Mount Locke – 6790 ft elevation. We climbed the stairs to the floor of the telescope dome (whew, 50 steps at that elevation was rough) and learned about how the telescope works, the mirrors, and how it takes in spectral information and the scientists review it.  The kids on our tour got to move the telescope to different points; when there were no more kids to volunteer, I got to take the controls and rotate the dome itself! So cool!  The view from the telescope area is also amazing – Rachel pointed south to where, on a really clear day like the one we were having, you can see all the way to Mexico. And somewhere in Mexico, they can see “la montaña con dos huevos” :) 

Then we went over to the Hobby-Everly telescope, 6,640 feet up, atop Mount Fowlkes.  This one is very different from the 107” telescope – instead of one big tube with a mirror, it’s made up of 91 hexagonal mirrors, and is 433 inches across. It was also built for a lot less money than other modern telescopes, re-purposing previously used technologies like a radar dome, and the kind of metal frames that are used in construction. The dome panels were covered by hand with silver tape to reflect more light – you can see the stripes of silver on the outside. They are currently doing some modifications to the mirror base, widening it so it can participate in the HETDEX project.  When we looked through the glass in the HET visitors’ center, they were bringing a cherry-picker down from its lofty position, rotating the telescope at the same time. It had to be done really carefully – it was like a ballet! I also noticed that of the five people working in the telescope room, three were women. 

After the tour, we drove back around to the Mt. Locke side and checked in to the Astronomers’ Lodge. It’s where all of the visiting scientists stay when they come to do research at McD. There are signs everywhere warning you to turn lights off, and there are blackout shades in every room. Unfortunately, I don’t think the décor in the lodge has changed much since the 70’s. The room was sparse, and the bed was uncomfortable, but they had amazing water pressure. Not the best wireless access either (we were hoping for a UT connection, but alas…) but it was enough.

Dinner was with our tour group for the special viewing at the 107” telescope. The lodge provides three meals a day for the staff and scientists, as well as items you can take to go, like peanut butter & jelly sandwiches and fruit.  It turned out we were really lucky to have gone on the earlier tour – there were a lot of people in our later group who didn’t know as much about the Observatory or how it worked.  Our evening guide took us back up to the same seats in front of the Smith telescope, but he gave us a presentation on Spectroscopy, which is mostly what the two instruments at McDonald are used for.

Then we had a presentation by an astronomy grad student, who also had been sitting with us at dinner. He was a very bright guy, but he had a strong stutter. During dinner, when people would ask questions about the telescope, I was able to answer them, so he didn’t have to. But he had to give his presentation to the group. There were times when you could tell he really loved his work, so he didn’t stutter. He said if he had to choose, he’d go on being a researcher instead of a professor… I totally understand why.

Unfortunately, in order to equalize the temperature in the room, when they start moving the telescope they open the doors on both sides, and it got COLD up there with the wind blowing!  But we got to go into the monitoring room and look through an eyepiece and see Saturn! You could see it as a tiny bright dot with the naked eye, but through the telescope, it filled the view! That was my favorite moment, I think. They also brought up two Messier objects, which John had shown me earlier – the M13 globular cluster, and M57, the ring nebula.  We were looking in an area of the sky that was very near Cygnus, which is where the “Melyssa” star is, but we couldn’t ask them to find it – there were too many people there. The full moon was also beautiful, but it was too cold for me to stand out there and look for very long.

The full moon was useful, though, because we had to walk back down to the lodge in the dark. :) We grabbed some cookies and went to bed.

Total mileage, day 3: ~17 miles.
Total mileage overall:  750 miles 

Day 4: Scenic Loop to Fort Davis

It wasn’t hard to sleep in a room that was pitch black (with the exception of my phone battery charger, which makes a handy night-light), and I was exhausted. We ate breakfast with some of the same folks from our tour, and made ourselves some PB&Js to have later.  We decided to do the “Scenic Loop” drive around the Fort Davis mountains, which leaves from McDonald and goes counter-clockwise, ending up back at the road into town (near Murphy’s). 

First, though, we stopped back at the McDonald Visitors’ Center to see the exhibits (which we’d missed before our tour) and do some shopping.  Turns out we didn’t miss much -- the exhibits are kind of dated and over-used.  But there was a plaque on the wall thanking everyone who had been involved in creating the exhibits, and the first name on the list was Brad Armosky. I’ll have to send him a note.  John got a t-shirt and a shot glass with the observatory logo, and we were off!

Here again, we were the only car on the road most of the time, and with the speed limit at 45 (lots of twists and turns and rolling hills), we drove with the windows down. It was beautiful. We stopped in the middle of the road to take pictures a lot, because … there was nobody else there! We kept seeing signs for a “Wildlife Viewing Area” – all the way around the loop – that never really materialized. (Lesson #7: there is no wildlife viewing area; or, alternatively, the whole loop is a WVA. We haven’t decided which.)  With the windows open, we kept hearing a popping noise, but we thought it was just the tires on rocks or gravel, until John pointed out what became lesson #8: Grasshoppers (especially the giant, west Texas kind) make a loud popping noise when you run over them. (eeeeewwwwww)  Scenic Loop: ~60 miles. 

We also drove over a lot of cattle grates on the scenic loop. There are a lot of ranches out there, and the cattle are just roaming the hills. Some goats, too, but mostly cattle. We saw a few on the wrong side (road side) of fences, but they were content to stay put. We kept thinking if we were seeing sheep, rather than cattle, we could be in Scotland. (Well, aside from the large palm-like succulents growing everywhere.) It’s that green!

Just as we were pulling up in the parking lot of the Fort Davis National Historic site, the black clouds overhead opened up, so we sat in the car and ate our PB&J’s and hard boiled eggs, and waited. We probably sat there for about 20 minutes, using the convenient Park Service wireless. Between the slowing rain and my need to find a restroom, it was time to get out. We went to the visitors center and got a map of the site, and some background info. It turns out that the Buffalo soldiers were once stationed at Fort Davis. The first black man ever to graduate from West Point, Henry O.Flipper, was also stationed there, but he was court-martialed for embezzlement (even though he was not guilty) and dishonorably discharged in 1882. (He was posthumously pardoned by President Clinton in 1999.) 

They have restored a few of the buildings, and have marked off the ruins of others. We stopped in the Commissary, the Hospital, and the Officers’ Quarters. John found the Magazine (complete with boxes of ammo) way out behind the hospital, too.  The scenery is just breathtaking – all of these buildings were constructed at the base of a huge mountain, along what used to be the San Antonio-El Paso road. The road isn't there anymore, it’s mostly dirt and overgrown, but there are signs.  

After walking around the site in the sun and occasional rain shower, it was time to go check in to our last hotel. We had driven by it a few times already, the Davis Mountain Inn.  A lovely blue house that would've had a perfect backdrop, except for the RV park that seems to have sprung up next to it. Ah well. It’s a lovely B&B, with a big kitchen, rooms that hold a total of 12 guests, a large living room, and more cookies! (Lesson #9, chocolate chip cookies are everywhere. Always grab one when presented with the opportunity!) Our room was the one with the king bed, giant spa bathtub, and equally huge tiled shower. We were in heaven. I think my bedroom growing up was smaller than the walk-in closet.  (2 miles from the Fort)

We rested for a bit – John spent too much time out in the sun, and it took its toll – and then we decided to go to the Fort Davis Drug Store for dinner.   It has a long history – the original drugstore opened across the street from where it is now, in 1913. It moved in 1950, and has been in the same spot ever since. The food is traditional Texan – meat, meat and more meat. John had chicken-fried-steak, and I had a ½ lb burger that almost took over the table!  And since it’s an ice cream parlor, we had to have dessert too. I was worried that I didn’t have enough Lactaid pills, but they sell it (individual pill packets for $0.50 each) behind the counter! Lesson #10: Every ice cream shop should sell Lactaid!  So I got to have a nice big scoop of mint chocolate chip.

I also noticed that the young guy who waited on us at Murphy’s on Wednesday afternoon was there at the Drug Store on Thursday night. We learned more about him the next day.

Then we walked around the “center” of town – the square, which has the County Courthouse, the library, the state bank, and the Hotel Limpia. We looked in the bank window, and it still has the old fashioned teller windows… if I were going to film a bank robbery movie in a small town, I’d use this town!  

That was enough of an evening for us, so we went back to the Inn, watched some tv and went to bed.

Total mileage, day 4: ~62 miles
Total mileage overall: 812 miles
Here's a map of our route

West Texas travels - part 1

Marfa, McDonald and Beyond

This is the wonderful trip John planned for me for my birthday (6 months ago) and only revealed in early July. When he had the idea in February, the first time the tickets were available to the special viewing at the 107” telescope at McDonald was August 21. So that became the central event around which the trip was built.

We left on Monday and started the drive west. We stopped for lunch in Mason, TX – a quaint little town with a population of 2,104. The town’s claim to fame is that the largest blue topaz found in the US was discovered there. But of course that museum was closed on Mondays. (We should’ve sensed a theme…) We had lunch and looked around a bit, added a little gas to the tank, and got back on the road. (114 miles)

Turns out Mason was exactly half-way to our first planned vacation destination, the Caverns of Sonora, in Sonora, TX (114 miles).  The caverns are a National Natural Landmark. The cave was warm and muggy (98% humidity), and there were about 360 steps to climb (up and down) throughout the tour, which meanders for almost 2 hours over 2 miles of caves.  The tours here are a lot less practiced and formal than the tours at Luray – partly because it’s not a National Park Service site. No uniforms – Bill, our guide, wore a t-shirt and jeans. There were exactly 3 people working there that day, so they were alternating tours. The caves are amazing; formed by gas, there are very different formations here, including helictites that stick out at odd angles from the walls or the ceilings. The most famous one at Sonora, which formed as the shape of a butterfly, was vandalized by someone on a tour in 2006. (Bill told us they think they’ve caught the person, and really want him to bring back the piece that he took!)  In Texas, it’s a jailable offense to vandalize caves and cave formations, so the thief is in trouble either way.

We had some ice cream (had to recover from the heat of the cave!) and headed further west. If you’re counting the miles we’ve driven and thinking about our gas mileage, you may understand the mild panic we were beginning to feel as we got closer to Fort Stockton. We were now getting into the higher elevations (and going up and down mountains), so we pretty much made it to the gas station on fumes! (141 miles)

On our drive west from Austin, particularly on Route 29, we crossed a lot of creeks. They were, with one or two exceptions, all bone dry. And had been for some time.  Lesson #1: Just because it’s called a “creek” doesn’t mean there’s any water there.

From Fort Stockton, we went south to Alpine, in search of dinner. There’s one really nice restaurant in Alpine, called Reata. Unfortunately, Reata was closed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday for renovations. Sigh.  So we quickly looked up another restaurant, but we found it at 8:15 and they were closing at 8:30. Sigh. Where did we eat dinner, on our first night of vacation? Subway.  Well, it was food. And we didn’t want to wait til we got to Marfa to eat, fearing that everything would be closed. (67 miles)

Turns out, we were smart not to wait for Marfa for dinner… we were right, everything was closed! We checked in to the El Paisano Hotel, which is where Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean (and the whole crew) stayed when they were filming “Giant.”  It’s charming. John got us a suite facing the courtyard and fountain. The room bizarrely had two levels – the kitchen and sofa on one level, and the bed and bathroom up 2 brick steps on a higher level platform (that creaked like crazy).  The accents in the room were interesting, including a small stained glass triangle window with a fleur de lis above the bathroom door – which was also ringed in bricks.  We had two sets of French doors looking out over the patio. It was really lovely.  Fortunately the hotel has (weak) wireless access – lesson #2: cell phone service is awful out there. (26 miles)

When I went to unpack my toiletries, I noticed that everything was a little wet and smelled minty. What do you know? My small bottle of mouthwash – the only thing not in an additional plastic bag – had opened and leaked out all over everything. Fortunately it was clear, not green…but everything had to be taken out of the bag and wiped off.  I’m just lucky my library book didn’t get a minty makeover!

Total mileage day 1: 463 miles (plus a few extra driving around Alpine, looking for dinner).
Total time: 11 hours
Here's a Map of our route 

Day 2 – Big Bend

We slept late and lounged around for a while, and then decided to go find breakfast. Here’s where we learned lesson # 3: Marfa is only open on the weekends. Everything we tried, including places that had been highly recommended, was closed on M-T-W.  We finally found a little hole-in-the-wall place (Alice’s Restaurant) serving breakfast burritos.  We weren’t the only people in the place -- two Border Patrol guys were enjoying their breakfast, so we figured it had to be good.

We thought we’d have to choose between going to the art museums in Marfa and going to Big Bend, but with lesson #3 in full effect, the decision was made for us. Big Bend, here we come!  We packed up our gear and set off.  First stop, gas and lunch in Marathon. We bought burgers at the gas station grill. (I eat at Rudy’s all the time, so why should eating lunch from a gas station bother me?) We took it to go and set off for the park. (56 miles to Marathon)

Basically, from Marathon, you drive straight south to Big Bend. It’s very long and flat, but the mountains in the distance are gorgeous. I had no idea that there were big mountain ranges like this in Texas! It really doesn’t look like what people imagine west Texas to look like – or what you see in the movies -- with big saguaro cactus, dry earth and rolling tumbleweeds. There were lots of little cacti, and low scrub brush as far as the eye could see. And it was actually GREEN! (40 miles to Big Bend)

There was nobody on the road with us for most of the trip – not just to Big Bend, but in general – I think we were passed once on the highway on Monday, and only saw one other car on the way to Big Bend. Halfway to the park, there’s a Border Patrol check point, with lots of cameras recording who comes and goes, but we didn’t have to stop.

When we got to the park, it also seemed deserted. The entry gate was unmanned, with a sign to pay for your park pass at one of the three visitor stations. The first visitor station, right inside the gate, was closed for lunch (it was 1:45, and they were reopening at 2pm, but we didn’t want to wait).  So we drove on to the next station, Panther Junction, which is roughly in the center of the park, about 26 miles in. The hills started getting steeper, and the vegetation was more desert-like. The rock formations were amazing. We talked to the Park Rangers at Panther, ate our burgers, and decided to head for Chisos Basin.

[There was a teeny bit of cell service at the park, so I got a call back from Cochineal restaurant in Marfa, offering us a dinner reservation time of 8:15pm. This turned out to be perfect – if it had been earlier, I don’t think we would’ve made it back in time.] 

The most famous pictures you see of Big Bend are of Casa Grande Mountain, and are usually taken from Chisos Basin (9 miles into the park).  We went on one of the shorter hikes into the basin area, and caught sight of a roadrunner, who walked ahead of us just fast enough that we didn’t get very good pictures. Sadly, he did not say “meep meep.” We took lots of pictures at the basin, and then turned around. [96 miles back to Marfa]

We had to stop at the Border Patrol station (briefly) on the way back. The two officers came out and checked the car and asked, “Just the two of you in the car?” Yes, sir. “And you’re both US Citizens?” Yes, sir! “Have a nice day!”  I guess we don’t look like we’re smuggling anything (or anyone). ;)

When we got back to Marfa, the ground was wet - it rains in west Texas, too! We had about an hour to rest, and then we got dressed and went to dinner. We had time for a drink in the hotel bar, which was nice. The food looked good – it had to be, considering they had a mostly captive audience of hotel guests who couldn’t get food anywhere else nearby!  As we left to walk the four blocks to dinner, it started raining again. I stood under an awning while my chivalrous man ran back to get the car. So John was a little damp by the time we got to dinner, poor guy.  Dinner at Cochineal was excellent… I understand why the reservations are so hard to come by.  For our appetizers, John had arancini (fried balls of risotto) and I had fried artichoke hearts with garlic aioli. They were both wonderful. There was a LOT of garlic in mine!  Then we both had chilaquiles with pork for dinner.  We probably could’ve split one, but it sounded SO good, and it’s a house specialty.  We ate so much, we declined dessert!

At dinner I finally got to give John a present that I had been hiding for a month… one that I had hoped to be able to give him for Xmas, or his birthday, or any other occasion where we’d see his family up in Richardson, but that was not to be. You see, it takes a lot of time to get the right parts to repair a 100+ year-old pocket watch.  When we were first dating, he showed me this family heirloom (in pieces, missing its glass, etc.), stowed in a plastic bag in his office closet. It was engraved to his great-grandfather in 1906! I knew from the minute he showed it to me that I was going to “steal” it and get it fixed for him. I snuck upstairs one afternoon last December and took it, and dropped it off at the jeweler that week, but it wasn’t ready until mid-July. Well, the trip seemed like the perfect time to give it to him, and he loved it. It needs a longer chain so he can wear it more often.

We went back to the hotel and crashed. It was a loooong day!

Total mileage, day 2: 270 miles
Total mileage overall: 733 miles
Here's a map of our route