Category Archives: Personal

The Top of Texas

The air is dry, the wind is brisk and the Spring sun has just started its march across the clear blue sky. Even early in the morning, the trail head is bustling with activity as hikers of all ages rally around the sign-in board, each eager to begin their trek along the many varied trails that make up Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Each trail comes with its own challenges and offers its own encounters with nature—from the various types of foliage, to the diverse geology to the myriad animal life—and these people seem eager to encounter it all. They are dressed differently; some wear shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops, others are sporting the latest high tech moisture-wicking spandex, and still others are in blue jeans with hiking boots. Some have back packs, others have hydration systems and a few are only carrying small bottles of water. Each will have their own encounter with the mountain, which is what beings them all to this remote part of West Texas.

Interstate 10 west of San Antonio is often thought of as a flat, straight, boring highway, devoid of scenery. Nothing could be further from the truth. The road weaves and turns and bounces amid rolling hills, flat-topped mesas and meandering valleys all the way to El Paso. In fact, West Texas is home to the few real mountains in the state and the tallest peak is located in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Located about an hour and a half east of El Paso near the New Mexico border just west of the Texas Panhandle, the park enjoys a steady flow of guests looking to visit the Top of Texas.

The park is an hour from the nearest town that offers hotels, restaurants or retail shopping, so visitors must remember to bring everything they will need for their trip with them. Guadalupe Mountains is part of the National Park Service, which held its centennial celebration in 2016 and has enjoyed a marked increase in attendance at all the national parks, according to Elizabeth Jackson, Chief of Interpretation, Visitor Services, and Education and Public Information Officer. “Certainly all the parks have had a good boost,” she said. “Largely our tourism increase has been [from] New Mexico and Texas,” she said of the visitors to Guadalupe Mountains. The park service debuted a program last year dubbed “Find Your Park,” which she said accounts for the dramatic uptick in attendance.

Enjoying everything the park has to offer requires more than one day, but the nearest hotel is a half hour away in White’s City or an hour away in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The park offers a few primitive camping sites near the trail head and several more in the back country as well as a couple of RV pads, but no hookups. The wind coming through the mountains requires a particular attention to detail in setting up a camp site, lest it get blown down. The sites fill up quickly and the park does not take reservations except for large groups, so arriving early is helpful. Open fires are prohibited, but propane or butane stove are allowed for cooking at the camp sites.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park offers several different hiking trails of varying degrees of difficulty. Each offers a full experience with the ecosystem, introducing the hiker to plant and animal life as they walk along the trail. The McKittrick Canyon trail is one of the most popular hikes, taking visitors into a valley full of spectacular sights. Tim and Philip Long are brothers from the Houston area and both hiked the trail. “I’ve been wanting to come here for years,” Tim said. “I’ve been to Big Bend quite a bit but I’ve never been here. I’d heard about these mountains and I’ve heard about McKittrick Canyon.”

His brother particularly enjoyed the canyon hike. “The canyon is easy,” Philip said. “Beautiful canyon. I heard about McKittrick Canyon before I’d heard about Guadalupe Peak.”

Guadalupe Peak is the draw for many hikers stomping along the trails. At 8,749 feet above sea level, the peak takes hikers up an 8.5 mile round trip trail offering a three thousand foot elevation. Hiking this trail takes on average six to eight hours to complete. Some hikers may struggle with the beginning of the trail, which features a steep incline along rocky, timber-lined steps before leveling out into the forested path. The trail switches back and forth long the entire mountain, taking hikers up and down the trail, across a bridge and over some rocky terrain before reaching the peak. The mountain is composed of different types of minerals from dolomite to limestone to sandstone and the layers are easily visible in the rock faces along the trail. As the trail goes up, the plant life changes from cactus and brush to evergreens, cypress and even deciduous, leafy trees that offer shade along the trail. Three-quarters of the way to the top is the Guadalupe Peak campground, a back-country area with five sites for primitive camping. There are no vehicles allowed on the trail, so camping equipment must be packed in along the three-hour hike.

The last part of the trail brings the hiker to the peak along very rocky terrain. At the top, a large metal monolith is perched on the rocks and several hikers take the opportunity to rest, eat and perhaps take a selfie before descending. Beside the monolith is a metal dry box with a book for hikers to sign to commemorate their trip. Shaila Rubenthaler and her boyfriend took some time at the peak to rest from their efforts to hike the trail. “I think the last part is the harder part,” Shaila mused. “I thought that after the beginning, and going through all those stairs, I was like ‘when we get to the top it’s going to be just perfect’. And then we get to the top and we’re literally like rock climbing. It was harder at the end than at the beginning. But it was worth it.”

Her attitude was shared by 71-year-old Ariel Luna, who came here at the suggestion of a family member. “My nephew came here a couple of weeks ago and he sent a couple of pictures and I said I want to do that. He said, ‘let’s go!'” Ariel even had a baseball cap made to commemorate his hike. “I don’t know if I want to do it again,” he said, adding, “I’m glad I did it.” He found the last part of the hike the most strenuous. “And we’ve still got to go down,” he smiled.

Devil’s Hall is a shorter trail with less elevation, but one that offers a different geological experience. Jackson said that the trail is quite popular. “It’s pretty rocky. Usually older kids go there. We take school groups up there. 4th graders and older. You’re hiking up to see the really cool geologic stair steps. It’s neat.” Andrew Rivera and Anouk Van Nelleftien were part of a group of thirteen students from the University of Texas Odessa cross-country team who decided to hike Devil’s Hall as a team building exercise. “We’re bonding,” Rivera said as the group easily scampered over the rocks on the trail. None of them seemed the least bit fazed by the exertion of the hike, owing to their cross-country training. “I think I’m pretty trained,” Van Nelleftien said before hopping over a large boulder.

If these three trails are the main draw for the park, there are other trails for those looking for less of a workout. For the younger kids, Smith Springs Trail is a 2.3 mile loop. “A good mile and a quarter is paved,” Jackson said, adding that there is also the Frijole Ranch museum as well as other educational offerings. “Sometimes folks do just the short Pinery trail. Some of the more adventurous groups we send to McKittrick. It is a favorite hike by most. You’re hiking deeper into the canyon rather than up.”

Charles Grenade, an Air Force retiree and avid hiker, enjoys hiking the park and offers suggestions for those wanting to hike to the Top of Texas. “Get here early. That’s a long hike to get into there. Bring plenty of water. Sturdy boots…it’s a real rocky trail. A walking stick or trekking poles are very useful.”

Jackson echos those thoughts. “We remind folks, hydration is important. One gallon per day per person. Take enough water.” She adds that it is important to know one’s limits. “You don’t use the same muscles going up that you use going down.”

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a remote, rustic wonder in the state. Even with no resort amenities, the park attracts a steady flow of nature lovers and outdoor activists to it natural beauty.

This article appears in the September, 2018 issue of TexasLiving magazine.

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Hooking and Scaling: The Tale of Modern Torture

The thing to remember about dentists can best be summed up in the words of Bill Cosby: “Dentists tell you not to pick at your teeth with any sharp metal objects. Then, you sit in their chair and the first thing they grab is an iron hook.” I recently spent four mornings sitting in a dentist’s chair and I have had several hooks picking at my teeth under the guise of good dental heath. To say this was not a pleasant experience is like saying the biblical 40-day flood was a light, spring shower.

Like most people, my mother admonished me to always brush my teeth while I was growing up and like most people, I let those admonishments fall on deaf ears until fresh breath became important to me in my teen years. It is worth noting that girls seem to have a dental hygiene preference when deciding who to kiss. I now ensure I brush everyday with my Colgate Spinbrush and have done so for decades. I recall a dentist once commenting how strong my teeth were when I was younger. In fact, the only dental work I ever had was after I smashed a tooth that necessitated a root canal and a post and crown.

About ten years ago, I went to the dentist for a checkup and cleaning, since it had been several years since my last visit and the hygienist refused to clean my teeth until I had a “scaling” performed. For the uninitiated, a scaling is where they attack the teeth and gums with that iron hook, scraping a concrete-like substance called tartar off the enamel. This substance provides a growth environment for tooth decay and forms in areas typically missed by brushing alone. Unfortunately, my insurance would not pay for the scaling procedure and it would have cost more than $200, which, at the time, was more than I had. I also figured if the insurance wouldn’t cover it, it must not be too important, because clearly the insurance company had my best interests in mind. I went to two more dentists and was told the same thing. They would not clean my teeth without my first agreeing to the scaling. Sounded like a racket to me, so I increased the time I spent brushing to compensate. Because nylon bristles are clearly every bit as effective as metal hooks at scraping concrete off teeth.

I broke a tooth recently and needed a crown, so I went back to the dentist to have it done and the hygienist once again recommended the scaling. When I said my insurance won’t cover it, I was informed that now they do. So I did. During the exam, it was also discovered that I had several cavities that needed attention. So, what I expected to be two visits—one for the impression and temporary crown and one for the permanent crown—became four visits. They don’t like to do the entire scaling in one sitting (and I agree with them on this) so I had to make several visits.

For about four hours per visit, I reclined in the admittedly not-uncomfortable chair while the elasticity of my jaw muscles was sorely tested and I regularly fought with the suction tube in order not to drown. All the while, a procession of metal hooks traumatized my over-stretched mouth accompanied by two different drills, a couple of needles, and a glowing LED light wand. This, I presume, was a light saber to get the tartar the hooks couldn’t coax off my teeth. Fortunately, the anesthetic did its job and I felt no excruciating pain, though the sensation of that hook scraping along the gum line was akin to fingernails on a chalkboard and the feeling of the drill vibrating through my jaw was worse than the aftermath of a right hook. Lest I forget to mention the worst part, it was most difficult to remain still while the dentist rammed a foot-long needle through my skull into the chair behind me and left it there for a year while I tried to remember how to breathe. Then she slowly squeezed fire through that needle into my mouth. Fortunately, the Marcane worked fairly quickly and I felt my cheeks and tongue grow to five times their normal size as the nerves became deadened.

I found out that the anesthetic they use lasts four hours. I had to endure four days with an anesthetized mouth for four hours each day. I also found that during those four hours, talking becomes problematic and eating becomes dangerous. You never realize just how much your tongue moves when you eat until it doesn’t. My tongue now has battle scars from lunch.

It was great relief when I drove away after the final scaling and cavity filling visit, knowing I shouldn’t have to repeat that process for some time. The only thing that remained to be done is to attach the permanent crown when it comes in. Then, during a trek to Dallas this week, one of my brand new fillings decided to vacate its post, leaving an annoying hole in my rear molar. This means another trip to the dentist’s chair and another battle with the iron hook. At least it won’t involve scraping tartar this time, though I might wait until dinnertime before I try to eat anything.

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Gettin’ Down with Bob and Sue

There are moments of unexpected joy that come around in life.  These moments are rare and when they come, one must see them for what they are and savor every second of them.  My granddaughter called me a few weeks ago to ask me for a favor.  The last favor she asked for was to borrow a couple of books, so I didn’t think much of it when I replied, “Sure.  What is it?”

“What are you doing the week of the 28th?”

“Nothing much.  I don’t know for sure, but I doubt I have anything scheduled.  Why?”

“We’re having a Bob and Sue dance and I was hoping you could be my Bob.”

Now, I had never heard of a Bob and Sue dance, so the first thing that popped into my head was something like a Sadie Hawkins thing.  She went on to explain that there would be a couple of practices and a dinner prior to the dance.  It was then that it occurred to me that she was talking about Drill Team.  My granddaughter is a Morton Ranch Maverick Belle and she was asking me to dance at the half time show during the football game.

And I had already said yes.

What had I gotten myself into?

Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t dance.  At least not without first imbibing copious amounts of inhibition lowering beverages.  When I was in middle school, I attended my first school dance.  My lack of experience in that particular social ritual was glaringly apparent as I tried to figure out how to move to the rhythm while simultaneously screwing up enough courage to ask a girl to actually dance.  As I tried to surreptitiously practice dancing while hiding along the gym’s sidelines, some school mate observed my awkward gyrations and commented that I couldn’t dance.  That killed dancing for me for a couple of years.  It was in high school before I tried again.  I did manage to perform as Will Smith instructed Kevin James in “Hitch”, elbows in, shuffling from left to right in that safe space.  No one would confuse me with Tony Manero.

It was with more than a little trepidation that I entered the Morton Ranch gym that first practice session.  Reyna was nonplussed.  Nothing fazes her these days; at least nothing having to do with dancing.  She has been dancing her whole life.  For her 13th birthday, her parents threw a surprise party for her after she had been with me on a road trip driving back from Arkansas.  Once we got to the house, that girl started dancing with her friends and didn’t stop by the time I left to go home.  I was exhausted just watching her dance.  I have attended her dance recitals throughout her school performances as long as she has been doing them, only missing one or two.  This girl can dance.

This guy cannot.

So once the other “Bobs” showed up for the practice, I noticed that several of them were in no better physical condition as I was, so I felt marginally better.  Most of the Bobs were the girls’ fathers, so I was probably the oldest one there.  Once the leaders started instructing us in the choreography, I became more concerned.  There were steps and counting and shuffling and spinning and lifting involved.  I began to feel better as the other Bobs were struggling as I was, so I drove on.  The practice was on the same night as Game one of the World Series, so they wrapped up pretty quick, since the home town Astros were playing and many of the Bobs were anxious to get home for the game.

The next practice went longer, but they added more moves!  I had not even gotten down the first set and now I had to remember even more!  Oh, this was not going to go well.  I was going to embarrass my granddaughter and she was going to hate me for life.

I needn’t have worried.  On game day, we practiced one more time and I felt better.  Besides, the rest of the Bobs were in the same boat. The dance was far from perfect, but that was clearly not the point, given how little preparation went into the Bob part.  It was just supposed to be a great and fun time for the girls and their “Bobs.”  I am so proud Reyna asked me to be her Bob for the event.  Even if she didn’t think it was a big deal for her, it was enough of one for me for the both of us.

So, here is the video.  Enjoy!

 

Bob and Sue

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Where To Find West Texas Jewels

Forty miles southeast of Lubbock, Texas, at the intersection of Highways 84 and 380, on a small parcel of flat land, rests a little jewel of Texas history. The town owes its founding to a cereal magnate and its continued existence to the energy industry, but it has more going for it than the acrid smell of crude oil and rows upon rows of wind farms on the horizon. Most people driving down Highway 84 are coming from or going to Lubbock, home of Texas Tech University, or on to Amarillo. But Post, Texas is still home to a number of die-hard West Texans who live and work in the 100-year-old town. Many of the residents have lived their entire lives there, while others left at some point to find their fortunes but ended up returning with a family. One unique sort of resident was discovered in Post but has now found a permanent home on display across the state in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This small, desert gem of a town offers a Texas-sized portion of history, culture, and art.

Garza County Museum

Linda Puckett’s husband’s family were long-time Post residents, so when she and her husband returned to Post in 1980, it was a homecoming of sorts. The Pucketts owned a trucking company at the time, but Linda quickly found her calling when the C.W. Post Historical Center needed help. In her role as director, Linda has overseen a mass expansion of the museum’s collection, including gathering items from local Post residents such as Alvin G. Davis, a renowned cowboy featured in a large room dedicated to his rodeo days and philanthropic activities. “He is the highest honored 4-H member to date. He’s quite a guy. He’s still living; we have a living legend.”

Building the collection has been a passion for Linda since she took over the museum in 1995, which meant a lot of work. “I’ve been here 22 years now. We started with three rooms and nothing and now we have a huge historical museum.” The museum is housed in the old Post Sanatorium, which served as the town hospital for a number of years. Next door is a building that served as a nursing school. “There really was nothing here; we’ve totally revamped the whole interior. Once [the residents] saw we were here to stay, they didn’t mind us having grandma’s stuff. We ended up with a lot of stuff, so now I have to be kind of selective.”

The town’s namesake, C.W. Post, is not underrepresented in the museum. Linda was quite happy when the Post estate called asking if she wanted the furniture from Post’s Battleground, Michigan office. The chairs and desk had been stored at the Hillwood Museum in Washington D.C. at Post’s daughter’s home, but the agent in charge of the display needed the space, so he thought of Linda. She has established a relationship with the estate over the years and now proudly displays artifacts from Post’s office. There is so much in the museum that Linda is planning on a massive expansion in the near future which may include building an annex to the museum dedicated to Post. “We’re running out of room inside. We have Mr. Post’s stuff in the hallway.”

OS Museum

C.W. Post built the town after obtaining the land from several ranchers; one of them was Wilson Connell, who sold Post 27,000 of his 160,000 acres and left the rest of his land to his family. Among those sections of land was the OS Ranch, named for Overall and Street, the original land owners and founders of the ranch who sold to Connell back in the 1800s.

In the building Post built on Main Street in 1911 as an office for his land and cattle company, the OS Museum now resides, independently owned and operated by the descendants of Connell. While the Garza County Museum features artifacts from residents of Post, the OS Museum features collections from around the world and has little to do with the town’s history other than its location. The late Giles McCrary, grandson of William Connell, started the museum to feature artifacts and artwork collected by the family as they traveled over the years. Christie Morris, assistant curator, explained that McCrary wanted to provide access to art that most people will not get a chance to experience. The museum rotates themed displays that change at Easter, summer, and Christmas. One of the most significant additions to the collection are the assortment of the famed Fabergé Eggs. “Mr. McCrary set the whole thing up as a nonprofit. The family doesn’t charge anything for it; we just want to make these things available to the people who live in the area and the people who come through.”

Those people include the residents as well as visitors. “We have people from literally all over the world. We have a lot of people passing through; a lot of people will stop to maybe see something downtown. All Post’s merchants are really good about promoting one another. A lot of times someone will come up and say that ‘I was down in so-in-so shop and they said I had to come see this.’ We get a lot of people from Tech as parents are driving through and they’ll stop and sometimes bring people back and they’ll stop in and see us.”

Postosuchus

One resident of the Post area that brings people to town moved away and will probably never return, although he takes with him an indelible part of the town. He is named for Post, Texas, as his formal name is Postosuchus Kirkpatriki, but he is more commonly called Postosuchus. The large animal lived in Post in the late Triassic era and David Temple, Assistant Director of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, is quick to point out that Postosuchus is not a dinosaur, he is a reptile. “This is really before the dinosaurs came along and you have these things which are essentially reptiles. Dinosaurs appear at the end of the Triassic and into the Jurassic.”

Researchers still visit the Post excavation from time to time for more study. The skeleton on display in Houston is not as large as a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but is similar in size to a Velociraptor. Researchers from nearby Texas Tech who regularly visit the dig site posit that Postosuchus may have been able to walk on his hind legs, but was probably a quadraped, according to studies of his skeleton. Temple said that the research was conducted using pieces of different specimens. Scientists unfortunately did not find an entire intact skeleton, but did find enough to identify Postosuchus, despite return trips to the excavation.

“We’ve been out there twice. We spent two or three days straight, ten hours a day and we didn’t really find much of anything. When you find stuff, it’s where you find it but its not everywhere. It’s kind of spotty.”

This little stretch of Highway 84 sees more traffic than one might expect from this West Texas area outside of Lubbock. Between scientists, residents, visitors, and Red Raiders driving to and from Texas Tech, the town gets a notable amount of visitors. Linda Puckett enjoys being on the route in and out of town. “We are the last stop before the interstate. We’re a good pit stop.”

So whether you find yourself traveling through the area and need a place to rest or looking for an out-of-theordinary day trip for the family, Post has plenty to offer. And if you visit on a Saturday, Puckett suggests visiting the Ragtown Gospel Theater, just north of town, for a matinée.

 

This article appears in the October, 2017 issue of TexasLiving Magazine.

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Hunkering Down and Riding It Out

I consider myself a Houstonian. I was born in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and that town will always have a special place in my heart, but I was raised in the Houston area, so this is where I consider home. Having lived most of my life in this area, I have been exposed to the peculiarities of Houston weather, from the boiling hot summers where you can literally cook and egg on the sidewalk (cook it, not eat it) to the days where all four seasons compete for attention with rain, snow, and heat all within the same twelve hours. I have worked outside in the summer of the drought where we had more than 90 consecutive days of heat in excess of 100 degrees and during the few days in winter where snow actually fell and accumulated enough to build small snowmen. In all my time here, I have also had my fair share of hurricanes and tropical storms and it never fails to impress me just how stupid people get in the face of extreme weather. Just one trip to the store this week demonstrates just how little people think when faced with the unusual.

The first serious storm I can remember is hurricane Alicia back in 1983. I was 18, I think. We lost power for a few days and several branches littered the yard and the street. I don’t remember that we flooded during that time. It was a few weeks after Alicia that several tornados came through and took down a tree in our yard, laying it across the breezeway of the house. I remember a neighbor was a construction contractor and he had a work crew up on his roof during the height of the storm repairing his roof damage. During that storm, bottled water wasn’t a thing and I don’t remember my mother raiding the stores for 15 loaves of bread or 12 cases of canned goods, yet we had food to eat and plenty to drink.

When hurricanes Katrina and Rita threatened was the first time I noticed the fear mongering on the TV. Weather forecasters began crying for people to get out of town. It was the first time I saw people panicking about the weather. It was the first time I experienced people rushing the stores and gas stations. There were lines for miles to get into the gas stations. Somehow, I managed to weather the storm without ransacking the local Kroger.

During hurricane Ike in 2008, people panicked again. This is not to say there was no cause for concern. Many people ended up losing their homes in that storm and thousands were without power for weeks. This is the reason for hurricane preparedness plans, so people can have a plan for what to do in the event of a serious tropical storm. I have a plan, too, it just doesn’t involve loading multiple shopping carts. There’s nothing wrong with buying provisions, but It’s the people who clear store shelves that just bother me.

Think, people! It’s not like there will never be water or bread ever again. The stores will restock. The most serious storms have effects lasting a week or two tops. There’s no need for one person to buy every loaf of bread on the shelf. People dragging three shopping carts loaded for bear to the register is ridiculous. I try to limit my normal grocery shopping to no more than once a week. It helps with managing my budget to buy a week’s worth of groceries at a time. If I have a week’s worth, then I should be fine for any storm that comes along, since the effects will probably only last a week. I see no need to have 10 loaves of bread going stale or moldy on my counter, or having three cases of bottled water taking up space in my pantry, especially when I have filtered water in my fridge and I don’t drink much water anyway, or having so many canned goods in my pantry that I could open a food bank.

Hurricane Harvey is currently bearing down on the Texas coast and the weather prognosticators are predicting flooding as bad or worse than Allison and winds worse than Ike. The news is saying it will be the most severe storm to hit America in years. This is drumming up a panic in the population just like they did for Katrina, Rita and Ike, particularly in those who have moved into the area since Ike and who haven’t experienced such a storm. The news is about to go into 24 hour storm watch mode, preempting normal programming for the duration of the storm, or until everyone loses power. Either way, I have a week’s worth of non-perishable food, plenty of water, candles, and batteries for my flashlights. If this one turns out to be worse than Ike, I can still evacuate. My readiness plans account for that eventuality too. This comes from being a Houstonian and having survived several tropical storms and hurricanes in my day. That, and having the ability to think.

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Observations During a Mundane Afternoon

After several weeks of procrastinating, I finally got my list of chores done this week. Among other chores, I got my hair cut, the oil changed, tires rotated, and the car detailed.

I needed a haircut, so while I was getting my oil changed at Walmart auto center, I went to the TGF hair salon in the Walmart for my quarterly trim. While the beautician was delicately snipping the half inch off the top (only the grays, I told her) an older, brightly clad bottle-blonde woman with blue-veined legs emerging from hot pink spandex shorts came in, walked up to my attendant and demanded Paul Mitchell face soap.

“We don’t have any,” the employee said, not missing a snip of her scissors.

“Could you order it?” the woman persisted.

“I’m afraid not,” the employee started to reply, but didn’t get to finish the thought.

“Why not?” the woman interrupted.

The employee stopped snipping for a moment. I caught her eye in the mirror and gave her a bemused smile of sympathy. “We don’t carry it,” she answered.

“So, you can order it.”

“No, ma’am.”

“Why not? You carry other Paul Mitchell products.”

The manager came out and took over the conversation, desperately trying to get the woman to understand that face soaps are not a product that TGF can order. The customer seemed unable to process that a hair salon does not carry the facial product she wants. The question “why not” was asked after every statement.

“Well, I’ll be back in a week to pick it up. Please order it for me,” the woman demanded as she pushed her shopping cart out of the store. We all snickered when she wandered out of sight.

While sitting in the chair getting my ears lowered, my stomach started rumbling. During this week, there was a discussion online about In-n-Out Burger coming to Houston, so I decided to have lunch at what I thought would be its most direct competition, Smash Burger. After that meal, I have determined that Smash Burger is not in competition with In-N-Out Burger. And having had In-N-Out on more than one occasion, the real competition it has to beat is 5 Guys or Whataburger. Smash Burger is above McDonalds and Burger King, but that’s about it.

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While leaving Smash Burger and heading to Discount Tire, I came upon a lone wheel rolling down the feeder road, weaving lazily from one lane to the other, never quite finding the curb before angling back across traffic. It rolled for at least a mile before it wandered down a side road. There was no car pulled over that was missing said wheel, no indication that anyone had lost it and no one appeared to be looking for it. It was just out for an afternoon jaunt all by itself. Makes you wonder what else your car does when you think it’s parked.

I left Discount Tire and headed over to the car wash. After getting my car detailed, I stopped in a parts store to get a battery for my motorcycle and then to the gas station to fill up the tank. Before I could even open the gas cap, a van pulled up beside me and a young Hispanic fellow stuck his head out of the window.

“Hey, man,” he asked, “you need a new home theater system? I got a spare one in the back.”

“Nope. I’m fine, thank you.”

“You sure, man? I can let you have it cheap.”

“I’m good.”

As they drove off, I had to wonder of what truck that system “fell off” or whether or not some home was missing its stereo.

On the way home, after completing all the tasks I needed, including getting the car detailed, the skies opened up and rained all over my car. But, it’s all good. It just gave my car “the wet look.”

It was an interesting afternoon, to be sure.

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Running in the Family

When I was a child, I would occasionally spend the night with my Grandmother in Cabot, Arkansas and just after bed time, a large train would come rumbling by her house, as she lived less than 100 yards from a main line, and I would jump out of bed to watch the train go by. The night air was cool and the grass and pavement were lit by the moon and starlight and the one or two street lamps that ran along the road between the house and the train track. The lonesome whistle of the engine and the clickity clack of the train wheels on the steel tracks were the only sounds I heard as I watched the trains roll along. I wouldn’t budge from my perch until I saw the caboose roll along into the darkness. Some nights, I went to bed disappointed once the railroad companies stopped using cabooses.

Figure 1 My Granddad Standing next to a retired steam locomotive circa 1970.

My mother tells me that both of my Grandfathers worked for the Missouri Pacific railroad back in the forties, fifties and sixties; mom’s dad was an engineer and dad’s dad was a conductor, and both worked for the railroad until their respective deaths. Their company was eventually bought out by Union Pacific.

My father has always had an interest in model trains as long as I can remember. His preference was the large modern diesels that pulled America’s freight ( I surmise this was because of his career in transportation logistics) while I preferred the old steam locomotives of the 1800s.

My parents bought me a train when I was a child, one of those carpet trains with the oval shaped track that could be set up and taken down quickly. Of course, the problem with those train sets was that in designing them that way, the manufacturers guaranteed themselves repeat business as pieces would invariable get broken or lost in the process. Another problem with those sets was that running the train in a perpetual circle or oval got boring pretty quickly. The only way to alleviate that boredom was to actually build a model railroad with buildings and tunnels and bridges.

My father had a grand plan to set up a full scale model railroad on a large piece of plywood with miniature buildings, cars and trees; a small scale duplicate of a slice of America that we could control. Sadly, this model never reached fruition as we didn’t have room for it in the house and when we started it in the garage, it got pushed aside to make room for more practical matters. I hear from mom that he did eventually set it up after I moved out on my own.

Sometime around 1997 or 1998, my dad and I went to the Arkansas railroad museum in Pine Bluff. While we were there, I bought a small N-scale steam locomotive and a few cars and some track; enough pieces to build a small working electric train setup. I had no aspirations of building a large model train set, but I always like the wood-burning steam engine with its large bell-shaped smoke stack, and I wanted to have one that would run on my desk while I did my homework, since was attending college at UALR. I don’t remember ever getting it running, though, and that engine sat on a piece of track on my desk until I moved away. Then it sat in the hutch on my desk for another 16 years, doing nothing more than gathering dust.

In December, 2016, I took an assignment to write an article about a display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science called Trains over Texas. The museum had a large O-Scale model railroad built featuring natural and man-made landmarks of Texas. While researching the story, I watched the model trains run and talked to several museum docents, who were avid train modelers. This reignited my interest in model trains and I became interested in whether my old train would still run after all these years. Of course, this meant I would need track and transformer, which I did not have.

In trying to find one, I determined it would be cheaper to just buy a boxed railroad train set from Amazon, rather than piece the track together.

I got the train set, put it together and ran the n-scale coal-burning steam locomotive that came with the kit. It worked fine. I then put my old train on it. It sputtered and spun its tires and did its best to run, but it needed some TLC and maintenance before it was going to work. I knew nothing about maintaining a locomotive. I had to learn quick.

I quickly found out that model railroading is not a mainstream hobby, and the big box hobby stores are woefully inadequate to supply the model railroad hobbyist. Michael’s has absolutely nothing for trains and Hobby Lobby only stocks two or three boxed train sets, but no individual pieces or models. As a matter of fact, a Google search turned up only two hobby stores in the entire Houston metroplex that serves the train community.

G&G hobbies is a general purpose hobby shop in Rice Village that does have a few locomotives, track, models, and even some box sets. It even has parts to repair trains, so that’s good. It does have a very large selection of rolling stock (trainspeak for train cars). Sadly, the focus of the store is Remote Control (RC) toys and plastic models, and apparently only one employee knows anything about trains. As such, G&G was unable to help me service my little Jupiter.

Papa Ben’s is a train shop in the Montrose area which offers nothing but trains. Its entire focus is model railroading. They even have a “club room” with a huge N-scale layout setup where members of the local train club come and play. One employee, a tall man named Steve, not only was able to educate me on how to maintain my Jupiter, he even fixed the broken coupler on the tender for me. I was able to get several ideas for my train setup and all the part I need to complete it.

I also attended a train show in Stafford that had several stores from all over the country as well as many of the chapters of the model train club. I took my grandsons to this show and they had a ball controlling an HO switcher to put together all the cars needed to form a train.

An old high school friend of mine contacted me several months prior and offered me the chance to partner up with him in a hobby shop in New Hampshire. When he found out I like model railroading, he became very excited and declared I would be the train guy! Now, I am learning a lot about trains as a result of my efforts to fix my Jupiter, but I don’t know if I’m “the train guy.”

I learned about a new technology in model railroading that did not exist the last time I entertained the notion of trains. Digital Command Control equipped trains have a computer chip that allows the train master to run multiple trains on one track independently. With old DC technology, any train on the track would draw the current from the transformer and they would all run based on the amount of current. The train master couldn’t set independent speeds or stop a single train. It was all or nothing. Also, DCC allows the master to turn the train light on and off at will. Some trains even have a sound chip so it actually rings the bell, whistles and chugs along the track with realistic noises.

Now I have gotten the idea to retrofit my Jupiter with one of these DCC chips and an LED bulb to make it more realistic.

While I was in a train shop in New Hampshire, I found two flat bed cars with Army tanks on them. I thought they were clever so I bought them so I would have something more interesting than just plain old box cars or tanker cars. At a store in Austin, I found a surface to ground missile on a rail car. At a train show in New Braunfels, I found flat bed cars with other military vehicles and I got the idea of making an Army train. I bought two flat beds with a duce-n-half, two ¼ ton jeeps an M113 and an M577; all vehicles I drove in the my time in the Army. So now, I plan on having a Chessie System locomotive pull my Army train, my Union Pacific engine pull the box cars and I am thinking of getting some logging cars for my 0-6-0 steamer to pull. My Jupiter will pull my excursion train, which has a Pullman car and two open sided passenger cars.

All I had to do at this point was build a model train layout on which my trains could roll. I’m creating a new blog to document the development of my model. Have fun. I hope I will.

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