Category Archives: Travel

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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Heaven In a Plain Wrapper

One of my favorite things about travelling is getting to find new places to eat. I always try to avoid hitting the chain places in favor of local independent eateries. Of course sometimes I will still go to Chili’s or Cheddars because it is convenient, but I try to find new places as often as possible. My trip to Colorado afforded me many opportunities to eat at new places, but tonight’s dinner location was noteworthy for its mix of good and bad.

DiCicco’s is an Italian restaurant near the Denver Airport nestled among a collection of hotels. It is in a big, uninviting building with a solid door, no windows and a patio that is loaded down with equipment and not used for seating. Upon entering the edifice, one gets a sense of entering an expensive boutique restaurant, but instead of a hostess stand, diners face a counter with a cash register, and what looks like a server stand. The hostess did not react to me for several moments until I asked where the hostess stand was. After clearing up my confusion, she asked if I wanted to sit in the bar area or the dining room. I was taken to the two-story dining room and seated in an intimate two-person booth adorned with very pretty hand-painted floral patterns on the walls. These paintings were all over the restaurant including the ceiling and vents. One wall of the dining room was a large screen showing video of Andrea Bocelli singing in a concert. I would later find out that on weekends, the videos are replaced with live entertainment in the form of a keyboardist and once a month they feature a live band.

Brandon, my waiter, was quite knowledgeable about the restaurant’s history and the menu. He seemed pleasant and nice, but he forgot my soda and took an inordinate amount to time coming back to take my order. I asked a few questions about some of the choices and settled on the cannelloni with meatballs and minestrone. I was glad I did. Unfortunately, however, the cannelloni came out before the minestrone. The soft drink glasses were quite small, necessitating several refills, of which Brandon was not as attentive as I would like.

The highlight of the dinner was the dinner. The cannelloni was the best I have had. Every bite was a bit of heaven covered in mozzarella. The meatballs, smothered in marinara, were delectable and accented the cannelloni very well. Even the minestrone, when it finally arrived, was quite good to the point I spooned every bit of the broth I could reach stopping only when my spoon came up empty. I cannot remember a more tasty Italian dinner.

If only it was served in a more accommodating environment.

This is not to say that the dining room was drab or distracting from the dinner. As I mentioned earlier, the entire interior is festooned with impressive hand-painted artwork on the walls—not canvases hanging on the walls—but rather murals covering almost all of the plaster. The problem was the fact that the impressive adornments are only on the interior of an uninviting building. The front door is solid wood with no windows. Similarly, the windows that are on the walls are plastered over. As I mentioned earlier, the building has a two-story patio that would offer diners a spectacular view of sunset over the Rocky Mountains, but the patio is closed and filled with excess equipment, which is quite unattractive.

DiCicco’s has very good food and it is worth the trip for that. The only problem is one has to get past the uninviting building to get it. If the restaurant was not one of only two in the immediate area, I might not have even bothered to enter it. The exterior is not inviting and the foyer did little to change the impression. It is only when one enters the dining room does the restaurant become somewhat promising. It is only when the food is served does the place shine, and it shines brightly.

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Go West Young Man

The morning sun shines down through the leaves of the aspen between the peaks of the Rockies and I marvel at the scenery and wish I could enjoy this kind of natural beauty every day. Driving in a rented Kia Sorrento is not doing the trip justice. I need my convertible Mustang or better yet, my Shadow Aero, since the mountains tower over the road and I have to crane my neck to see them, and the road is as curvy and winding as any I have navigated. My Mustang would love to test its suspension on these roads. I lean into each turn and revel in the feeling of being pulled this way and that as a new vista appears before me after each curve and I wish I was on my motorcycle. I have no schedule to keep, no pressing matters to attend to, so I can just wander down these mountain roads till my heart’s content. I have already written several years ago about how I feel drawn to the mountains, but it is more than that. In the 1800’s, as land was plentiful and jobs back east were scarce, there was a marketing push to entice people to move out to the newly opened west that said “Go West Young Man.” As my life has been changing and presenting more challenges, I’m hearing that slogan more and more lately.

For this year’s recertification trip to Colorado, I took some vacation time and came up ahead of time to have a little mini-vacation. I was originally thinking about spending time hiking near Pike’s Peak and Colorado Springs, but then I remembered something someone told me about the Elk bugling in Estes Park. I’ve been to Pike’s Peak twice already, so, when I left the airport in Denver, I drove north to Estes Park instead of south. I booked no reservations. I researched no activities. I just drove and allowed my mind some freedom. Of course, one drawback was that, without reservations, I had no place to spend the night and since I landed at eight PM and it takes at least an hour to get out of the Denver airport, it was after 10:30 when I reached Estes Park. No place was open. I was seriously worried I would be spending the night in the car. Fortunately, I found an Econolodge that, even though it was also closed, the owner lives in the office, so he booked me a room.

I woke up early and wandered the streets in Estes Park this morning before the town woke up. None of the stores were open and several people were setting up a farmer’s market in the town square. The skies were clear blue and the air clung to a chill that made me question my decision to not bring a jacket. As I walked along the quaint main street, I even heard the bugling of an Elk. I saw a couple of them as well. They walked right in front of me as I drove down the road, just like they fully believed they had the right of way. After the stores finally opened, the people came out in droves. The roads filled up quickly, jammed with all kinds of vehicles from Jags to Beemers to motorcycles to Vespas. I figured it was time to get out of town, so I drove along one of the roads leading out of town and once I cleared all the touristy places and found nature, I was blown away by the scenery. If I never before made the connection as to why these were called the Rocky Mountains, it became clear today. The mountains are full of jagged slabs of granite, limestone and dolomite interspersed with the aspen, oak and evergreen forests. Large boulders are everywhere as are spills of smaller boulders, rocks and pebbles. It is a plethora of rocks.

Since it was getting close to lunch time, I decided to turn around and head back. I was hoping to find another hotel or B&B that was not too expensive, but the only ones I found were twice what the Econolodge charged. It seems Estes Park is a tourist town. It also seems that there is an Irish festival in town this weekend, which accounts for the scarcity of rooms and the higher rates. So I booked another night in the same place. Definitely not the nicest hotel I have stayed in, but since I only plan on sleeping there, I thought “eh.” I have to get up and out early to hike the trails if I want to see the moose and squirrel. And bear. And elk. And whatever other creature I can find.

After securing the room for another evening, I decided to tool around a little and saw a sign that said “Devil’s Gulch” and thought, hey! That sounds like a grand idea! So I drove down the road, fully expecting to see perhaps an old mining town, or a ghost town or something. I saw Glenhaven. It seems there is not a specific place called Devil’s Gulch, rather, it is an area that includes Glenhaven, which was essentially a road nestled in the mountains with about four buildings. The largest one was a B&B that I thought would be an even better place to stay than the Econolodge, but it was closed for renovation. Upon closer examination, it needed some serious renovation. Across the street was the general store offering coffee for a quarter. It was really not much more than a convenience store with a tiny deli counter. Outside the store was a large box on a pole. Inside the glass-fronted box were several books; about twelve. Above it was a sign that said Glenhaven Library. That says pretty much everything about Glenhaven. I would live there though, just for the views. Spectacular.
As I left Glenhaven it occurred to me. I hate crowds. I hate traffic. I hate the hustle and bustle of city life. I have lived in Houston for fifteen years now and the only reason I moved there was to be closer to my kids. In that time, Houston has only gotten bigger and more crowded. I want to live out where one can drive for an hour without seeing another person. I want to live where the only people I see are close friends and family, and then only on occasion. Even Estes Park is too crowded for me. It is a tourist town. I know many people come here on vacation all the time. These people book the resorts and the B&Bs and the luxury hotels. I never really appreciated that kind of vacation. When I go places, I want to immerse myself in the culture and history of the area. I want to experience the place the way the residents do, not the tourists. I want to see the natural beauty, the history, the life of a town, not some contrived entertainment designed to appeal to tourists that don’t really know the area. This is why I leave the town and drive. On that curvy little road, I spotted dozens of log cabins, ranch houses and even some mini-mansions. This made me think that maybe there are no more wide open places anymore, but these houses are spread out, so it’s not like they’re a subdivision. I could live in one.

A small creek runs alongside that road out of Estes Park and at one point, there was a small waterfall. I stopped there to get some photographs, which necessitated climbing down to the creek from the
road across a bed of large chunks of granite and limestone to get to the creek. After I shot my pics, I took several moments to just sit there and let myself be open to nature, open to God, open to whatever thoughts would come. People don’t commune with nature enough and people certainly don’t pray enough. I did both and I felt at peace there, in that moment. Perhaps the mountains are indeed calling for me to head west.

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Off The Beaten Path

I have mentioned in past blogs that my wife and I enjoy driving out of the city to see as much of small-town America as we can. We have been through most of the small towns around Houston, San Antonio and Austin and have thoroughly enjoyed those visits, but that means that now we have to venture out farther and farther. This weekend, we drove to Oklahoma and passed through a number of small and not-so-small towns, such as Harrison and Henderson before going through Kilgore and Longview. Our route took us along highway 259 to our destination in Idabel, Oklahoma, but not before detouring us along other roads on several occasions. Sometimes the best discoveries are made when one leaves the planned path.

The weather on this trip couldn’t have been better had we controlled it. While hot for a summer day in Texas, it wasn’t the hottest day of the year. In fact, for a late July day, it did not even break a hundred degrees. The sky was mostly sunny with just enough clouds to break up the blue expanse and also be interesting. I did read on my news feed that some parts of Houston got serious rainfall, but fortunately we missed it. Traffic was light and the drive pleasant as we jammed to our favorites playlist over the Bluetooth on the car stereo. Since we both have family in Arkansas, we have travelled highway 59 more than most truckers over the years, but once we hit Nacogdoches, this trip would have us veer off our usual course and onto highway 259. It was a beautiful drive for a federal highway. There were many beautiful homes and ranches along the drive, and the setting sun cast gorgeous diffuse light that brought the country to life highlighting warm yellows and ambers. As we drove along, we passed a large red barn, with horses frolicking in the setting sunlight framed by ripe corn fields waiting to be harvested.

After we passed Daingerfield, Texas, we were detoured onto highway 67 in Omaha. I had been looking for someplace to eat ever since we passed a Grandy’s in Longview. Michelle is not the Grandy’s fanatic that I am and she wasn’t hungry then. By the time we approached Omaha, however, she was getting hungry. I was near starving. We didn’t see many places to eat on Google maps that sounded good, so I said let’s keep an eye out and we might find something interesting. Now, in this day of technology dependence where people are afraid to venture out of their homes without internet access on a mobile device, most people rely on Google to show them where to go. I use the technology as well, but I am not dependent on it. And I will maintain that statement until the day my cloud drive crashes. Anyway, after we drove along 67 for a short time, Michelle saw a sign that made her chuckle: The Rear of the Steer. It was for a barbeque place just off the highway with a full parking lot.

“Stop!” I insisted. “Turn around. We HAVE to eat there. We can’t pass a place called ‘the rear of the steer’ and not eat there.”

After some debate, she agreed and pulled over to turn around. There was only one other car on the road, so we had no problem with traffic. Omaha is so small that it looked as though most of the town was already at the Rear of the Steer. Inside, there was a small line at the counter to order, but as most of these people were probably regulars, it went quickly. We ordered and sat in a place that looked as though it had been there since the 50’s. It was quite clean, and well maintained, but the décor was not retro; it was authentic.

So was the food. I had the hamburger steak while Michelle had the chicken fried steak and both meals were quite good. We sat and listened to some of the other patrons as they talked about their day, shared stories and jokes. One gentleman told his companion the story of how the place got its name. Evidently it is very well known for its hamburgers, and hamburger is taken from the Rear of the Steer. As this couple left the place, he yelled to no one visible “See you later, old man,” to which the reply “Take Care” came from an unseen voice back in the kitchen. Later, the owner of that voice would come out bearing several plates of food, looking very much like Mel, from Mel’s Diner on the TV show “Alice”, only dressed better. He said hi to everyone he passed and stopped to talk to more than one before hurrying off to the kitchen for more food.

We liked the place so much I bought a T-shirt. It was a great beginning to the weekend that promises more good times, especially if we remain open to leaving the planned path every once in a while. Which is kind of the point of the trip.

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Reaching For the Sky

I spent a week in Colorado this past month for recertification and it reaffirmed a feeling I have had for a number of years now.  I belong in the mountains.  I have no family history that I know of to account for this feeling.  My family hails from Arkansas and the history follows a path through Missouri, Texas and the Carolinas (I think).  Granted, there are mountains in Arkansas, but we never lived near them.  We’re coastal people; North Little Rock, my birthplace, sits on the Arkansas River across from Little Rock, and Houston is on the Gulf Coast.  We have lived in Louisiana and on the peninsula in Virginia as well.  No mountains.  Maybe that’s why.
Something about the way they reach majestically toward the heavens, snagging passing clouds, covered in snow in the hottest times of the year and looming over the plains below makes them seem indomitable.  That they are there year round, unmoving, the only limitations on access being man-made, gives a sense of permanence in a constantly changing world. 
As I become more frustrated with the current political/social climate in this country, I dream of escaping to a mountain retreat.  A secret bunker hollowed out of a remote mountain where I can hole up and enjoy quiet time with my wife without the hustle and bustle of city life sounds almost idyllic.  Of course, this is a pipe dream as I found when visiting Colorado; the mountain sides are covered by the spreading fungus of subdivisions of houses and strip malls.  Even the “Top Secret” NORAD base featured in the TV series Stargate SG1 is visible from Colorado Springs as the town has spread up the hill.  You can also see one of the most familiar geological landmarks in the country from there.

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I drove to the summit of Pike’s Peak along a long, winding road past several impressive, expansive vistas, jutting rocks and picturesque mountain lakes.  I saw deer, hawks, and other wild animals along the way.  I also saw about a hundred bicyclists, dozens of motorcyclists and bus loads of other tourists at the several gift shops, restaurants and pullouts along the way.  There are fast food places not 10 minutes from the gate to Pike’s Forest park as well as shopping centers.  Of course, Pike’s Peak is a tourist destination so that’s to be expected.  I’m sure there are more remote locations in the Rocky Mountains; at least I hope so. 
To be able to wake up in the morning, cast open the curtains and see the splendour of the sunrise lighting up the mountainside is a dream worth pursuing.  Spending an evening on the patio watching the setting sun cast the mountains in silhouette against the palette of muave and lavender skies while barbequeing seems an ideal toward which to strive.

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My wife and I spent a week last summer in the Grand Teton national park, at the northern most edge of the rockies, and we fell in love with that mountain range.  We said right then that we would love to live in that area someday.  I’m thinking someday sooner than later.  Every time I see pictures of our trips to the mountains, I hear a siren’s call to return to the rolling foothills and jutting peaks.  If only I didn’t have to earn money to survive.  There are factors keeping us from packing up today.  We have a house here, we have kids and grandkids here, and we have jobs and school to finish here.  I get frustrated that we can’t just get up and go right now.  Heck, I could even jump on the motorcycle and be riding instead of typing this.  I do tend to get impatient from time to time.
Someday.  Someday soon.

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