Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Seminole Canyon State Park and Environs

In planning our Texas tour, I knew that Big Bend National Park would be our prime destination after leaving the city part of the trip, but I was worried that, with Big Bend being at least a six-hour drive, we would be spending a whole day of a fairly short vacation on travel, so I was anxious to find something in between.  A little research in my usual source, the Lonely Planet, as well as Frommer's and online sites, brought  Seminole Canyon State Park and its excellent pictographs, almost exactly half-way to Big Bend, to my attention.   So I had made hotel reservations in the nearby town of Del Rio, and figured we could leave San Antonio without getting up at the crack of dawn and still be able to get to the park in time for the second of two daily tours that they run from Wednesday through Sunday, at 10 AM and 3 PM (apparently, they don't do the afternoon tour in the summertime because it is too damn hot!).  The road was straightforward and the countryside not particularly interesting, although in the vicinity of Bracketville we passed a ridge on the left with a collection of wind turbines, and  a field on the right that appeared to be studded with solar panels (Smitty had told us to anticipate both when we looked at our itinerary back in Austin).

We made good time, however, so we stopped in Del Rio and dropped our bags at the local Best Western, where we were staying.  The Best Western was a perfectly adequate accommodation, but the response I got when I tried to get some confirmation of just help much further we would need to drive to get to Seminole Canyon State Park, and the desk clerk plainly had no idea what I was talking about: she said, you mean Big Bend (which is three hours further).  The room was comfortable, though, and reasonably sized, and breakfast included not only cereal and muffins and waffles made in a mold the shape of Texas (a very common items in inexpensive Texas motels, I have found on various work trips to the Dallas area), but a sort of omelet, and sausage patties, and biscuits.

On we went to Seminole Canyon, first passing Amistad National Recreation Area which is plainly the focus of many tourists staying in Del Rio.  We reached the park about a half hour final scheduled tour of the Fate Bell Shelter for the day, which leaves at 3 PM, and spent the time looking at exhibits explaining the origins of the park’s name — they discussed was a set of Black Seminole scouts, the descendants of escaped slaves who settled in and raised families with the Seminoles in the Florida area, and who then who served the US Army in the Texas area in tracking down and fighting those Native American tribes in the area who were still resisting colonization and extermination in the post-Civil War years.

There was a huge group of tourists waiting to be led – an older woman, who turned out to be ouir tour guide, commented that she had never seen such a large group; it was divided into two parts to make viewing more manageable.  Talking to her, I learned that she was a long-retired volunteer, technically associated with the Rock Art Foundation rather than with the Texas Parks Department itself,  who lives many states away but comes back to this area regularly.   She loves the site and makes herself available as a guide, rather like a volunteer docent at a museum, to share her love of the materials and what she has learned about them over the years.

We began by walking down a set of stairs to look at the walls along this overhang from the lip of the canyon near the visitors center

Above us was a long wall full of several sections of pictographs

drawn about 4000 years ago by a group whose name was never given, just “Archaic People”

We looked both at the various panels

and at copies of watercolor paintings that had been made back in the 1930's showing the figures far more vividly than they are today

Another wall section, compared with the drawings years before

There have been a variety of explanations of the rapid fading of pictographs that had previously lasted for thousands of years, including the theory that the vast increase in moisture in the air as a result of the damming of the Devils River to create the Amistad Reservoir.  Our guide told is that at the current rate of fading, the pictographs could be gone by mid-Century.

As we returned to the visitors center, we stopped to admire a statuary tribute to the people who had executed the pictographs below

Because we were so far at the western end of the Central time zone, it was not getting dark until around 8 PM, so we decided to take the Windmill Nature Trail along the top of the canyon.  We bought a one-dollar  booklet with numbered stops but we could not find any of the numbered locations; still, it was a nice little walk and we saw a number of the plants we would be seeing again and again in Big Bend National Park

Back in Del Rio, we looked for a nice place for dinner.   The guidebooks all suggested heading across the river to Ciudad Acuña for the best meals, and I was feeling badly that I hadn’t studied them more carefully before leaving DC, so that we could have brought our passports to cross the border.  Later on, though, I learned from knowledgeable locals that Ciudad Acuña has become pretty dangerous, that the State Department now and that even middle-class tourists are in danger of being kidnapped for small ransoms, so perhaps it was just as well that we did not have our passports. 

We settled instead on a restaurant called El Patio, which was nicely reviewed on Yelp and Trip Advisor, but trying it for dinner was a big mistake.  The signs on the outside all advertised the day-long buffet, and maybe it would have been good at lunch-time, but at dinner time the buffet food looked greasy, doughy and tired.  We ordered off the menu, which seemed promising, but they are plainly not used to having their customers eat from anything but the buffet, because they were out of almost everything we tried to order; what we were able to order was inferior.  I cannot recommend eating there.

I had hoped that we could go back to Seminole Canyon and take a longer hike, maybe even get a boat ride to Panther Cave, a separate pictograph site in the same park, but my spouse was having trouble with the site of an insect bite that kept getting redder and redder, and then painful.  So she spent part of the evening checking around online for medical clinics, and settled on the most popular one, Dr. Jaime Gutierrez, indeed the one that ripened earliest in the morning.  When we headed for breakfast at around 7:30 AM, dawn was barely breaking – here is a photo from the parking lot of our motel. 

She got to his office shortly after 8 and got the full experience of urgent care in rural Texas – she did not get out until after noon, with a prescription of antibiotics which was all she needed.  I’ll say this for the Best Western – they were very understanding of our circumstances and allowed me to stay in the room, taking advantage of what was likely to be my last Internet access until after leaving Big Bend national park a few days later; the day before, I had filed a pretty controversial report on a free speech issue relating to my alma mater, Reed College, and I had to address the reactions.. 

We decided to have lunch because, as limited as our culinary choices were in Del Rio, there did not look to be much hope for any restaurants for the first couple of hours of driving westward. We decided to try a place just up the street, Don Marcellino’s.  We placed our order at the counter and took a number that would tell the wait staff where to bring our food.  It was nothing special, but a fair improvement on our experience the evening before.

We then undertook the long drive toward Big Bend National Park.  The first couple of hours were flat, fairly boring country side, but after we turned south at Sanderson, the landscape became more dramatic, reminding us of the views around Capitol Reef National Park a few years  before, although not so colorful. Our route took us through the National Park (the sweet deal for folks over sixty, lifetime free park admissions for a $10 pass, very nice!), and we got to the main visitors center at Panther Junction a half hour after the normal 5 PM closing time; luckily for us, they were open until 6 for spring break, so we were able to get some good advice on trails and wildflowers.

But the hour was late, and we wanted to get to our motel past Big Bend in time for dinner, worrying that the town might be so small that everything would close up early.  We reached our hotel in Terlingua (I’ll recount that sad experience in a future blog post), and then after dropping our bags we headed into the Terlingua Ghost Town (more about that later too); this is where the action was.  We tried to eat at the Starlight Theater, but by the time we arrived, after 7 PM, there was a two hour wait for dinner.  They suggested we try the Boathouse, and that is what we did.  The place was more a bar than a restaurant, and the menu options were severely limited.   But a very nice solo singer/songwriter was performing, playing his guitar and singing with a rich, deep voice.  We were OK with the combination, but determined to do better for our following days in the area.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

A Day Touring San Antonio

We expected the drive to San Antonio to take us little more than an hour, as had our drive from the San Antonio airport to Austin a couple of days before, but we were caught in a horrendous traffic jam (on a Saturday!) on the freeways into town from the north; the upside was that by the time we reached our accommodations for the evening, the King William Manor, it was nearly check-in time and instead of just leaving our bags and heading out to tour, we were able to get into our room.  It was quite large, and nicely decorated; the bed was comfortable, and the receptionist was able to give us good touring suggestions. 

Our room at King William Manor

Front View of King William Manor

Rear of King William Manor

I would rate the inn highly were it not for the breakfast — instead of providing breakfast, that function was outsourced to the Madhatter up the street, where we got a voucher for a beverage and a main course (several different varieties of scrambled eggs, for the most part).  And our order, presented at a counter where we got a number to take to a table to which it would  be redelivered, got lost somehow, so we were left sitting around waiting to eat for much too long, until we asked a waiter what had happened.    The time mattered to us, because we wanted to see several of the missions south of town the following morning but also had a long drive to our next destination and a deadline – we needed to be in time for a pictograph tour.

From our inn, we took the long route to our planned itinerary, a stroll along the River Walk to the Alamo, looking at some of the fancy old houses in the King William neighborhood, which was the first of the suburbs to develop outside San Antonio’s original downtown

Our Inn had a brochure for a walking tour of King William; had we more time in San Antonio, I think we would have chosen that as an addition to our limited itinerary in town, or perhaps a walk on the River Walk away from down town

The San Antonio River walk provides paths on both sides of the — river, not only in the immediate downtown area where it is lined with restaurants, hotels and other establishments, but south of town for miles. 

We passed by a St. Patrick’s Day celebration along the walk

before we climbed up from the river to walk to the Alamo.
The part of the Alamo where fighters for the Texas Republic were besieged by the army of Mexican General Santa Anna, actually just the chapel of the entire mission complex, was a relatively small building, and there was a long line awaiting the (free) entry. 

A series of placards with historical information lined the walls of the archway through which the line extended, so that that we could read while we waited, and the line moved quickly enough.   There were a series of exhibits inside – no photos allowed within the buildings, and at the transept of the old chapel, a staffer of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, which has recently been displaced by the state as the authority operating the monument, was talking about the fears of the current staff about whether they will lose their jobs.  We were later given to understand that the state authorities claim to have found discrepancies in the DRT’s books, and that there is larger controversy about how to manage the plaza in front of the Alamo. 

No waiting in line was needed to enter the larger grounds of the mission that contained the Alamo, and many people were milling around in the gardens and walkways.   A narrator was giving an impassioned account of the battle of the Alamo – in a Brooklyn accent — to an assembled crowd of hundreds of people.   We listened for a while, then moved on.

At the suggestion of our friend Smitty back in Austin, we went looking for Schilo’s, where, Smitty told us, they made root beer the old fashioned way.  We stopped in and had not only a delicious root beer (two frosted mugs of it for the price of one) as well as a light meal to tide us over until dinner.

Thus refreshed, we went to see a few of the other sites of downtown Austin, including the San Fernando Cathedral,

 inside of which we found a mariachi band serenading someone’s happy birthday,

and the interesting Bexar County Courthouse

On the way to Market Square, we passed the small building where O. Henry lived and edited his newspaper “The Rolling Stone."

Market Square, despite its English name, is actually a cultural center for the local Chicano population, and the area was pulsing with music from bands as well as being packed with people.  I was up for inching my way into the crowd, hoping to do a little souvenir shopping as well as soaking up the vibe, but Nancy reminded me of my very bad experience pushing through a packed crowd in Salvador, Brazil, the previous summer.  Besides, our dinner reservations for the evening were fast approaching, so I reluctantly agreed that we should head back toward the King William district.  As it was, we got there barely in time to meet up with our friends Katie and Dunx.

Dinner at Azuca was excellent – good food on a modernized Latino theme, served in a pleasant patio atmosphere. Ceviche was an excellent appetizer coming with delicious crackers, and my parrillada mixta was so large that it easily served as lunch on the road the following day

As our dinner wound down, a band was setting up for a 9:30 PM salsa performance.  I liked the iudea of staying for dancing, but our friends had plans to go hiking the following morning, and not only did we need to be on the road in time for a 3 PM tour in Seminole Canyon State Park, but Nancy and I had decided what we would try to visit some missions on south of the city on our way out of town.  So we all headed off to bed.

After our breakfast problems (see above), we only had the time to see one of the several missions south of the city, and we chose San Jose, the largest of the missions. 
On the way in, we passed this drive-in theatre named after the mission facility (you can see a painting of the mission on the wall below, and the church’s dome and steeple in the background)

It was a fine building

set on expansive grounds, even more expansive than the Alamo.  We were surprised to see at least a hundred cars parked in the lot at the edge of the grounds, and damned if there wasn’t a church service going on that Sunday morning in this National Park Service facility!  (we felt compunctions against taking interior photos as a result).  We learned afterward that they government is trying to avoid establishment clause issues by leaving the church building itself in the hands of the Roman Catholic Church (although we also heard that the church’s restoration was carried out by the WPA).  A woman headed to the podium for a beautiful sung version of the23rd psalm – this small woman had a very big voice, and although she was singing into a mike, it wasn’t at all clear that she needed amplification.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Two Days in Austin to Attend SXSW

Nancy and I traveled to Austin, Texas this month in connection with my speaking on a panel at SXSW, with plans to tour Texas afterward; Nancy had never been to Texas at all, and our itinerary included several parts of Texas that I had never seen, as well as the chance to visit with several old friends along the way.

We flew into San Antonio because it turned out that renting a car with a drop in a different airport than our pickup would have been prohibitively expensive had we picked up our car in Austin; presumably, the presence of SXSW meant that the car rental franchises in Austin were desperate to keep their cars in Austin, so the drop charges during that period were several hundred dollars.  So we arrive in San Antonio about mid-day on Thursday and drove directly to Austin for the first couple of days of our visit.  We were fortunate to be hosted by Smitty (Tom Smith), the head of Public Citizen’s Texas office, in the home he shares with his wife at the south end of Austin in a development that backs up on a creek and park area (he walked us back there the morning of our departure for San Antonio, showing off a series of hiking trails whose creation he had helped foster).

We relaxed that afternoon, then headed down to walk around near the river at the edge of downtown, then listen to some live music.

We had an early dinner at Guero’s Taco Bar, a classic eatery on South Congress strip; we enjoyed having tacos, then strolled up Congress toward downtown, where we admired the city skyline

and walked along the river.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Volcán Villarica in happier days

The images and videos I saw this week of the eruption of the Villarica volcano, with flames shooting into the air and red-hot lava pouring down the slopes, brought back memories of our family's hike to the crater of the then-dormant volcano during a vacation to Chile over the school winter holidays period in 2005-2006.  It was one of the great outdoors experiences we have had together, hiking from about 6000 feet to near the 9350 foot summit, then coming down partly on foot, partly sliding on our butts.

We came to the area by an overnight bus from Santiago, where we were staying with family members who were teaching in a local school, to the village of Villarica.  There we signed on with a guiding company that would help us get to the top of the mountain.  The guides supplied us with snowsuits, in which we posed together before setting off for our adventure
We were given the option of walking from the bottom of the ski-lift, but we opted to take the ski-lift for about the first thousand feet of elevation gain, then started walking up the rocky slope.  Within less than half an hour, we reached the bottom of the snow line
Although the party started out all together, the younger ones quickly got out ahead, while us older folks labored upwards in the company of the more patient guides.  There were fine views along the way up, and I was glad to take the chance to pause to take photos.  Below is our guide, with Lago Villarica on the left, the village of Pucon in the center foreground, and several other snow-capped volcanoes in the distance

And here is a view of other hikers above us (there were several different groups on the mountain), and the puffing from the crater above them.

The snowy path was really pretty icy, and sometimes it seemed I would slide back almost as far as I had stepped forward.  Occasionally I would give voice to my frustration and alarm, and the guide finally told me to get a grip or he was going to head to the bottom with me.  But I calmed down a bit and we kept trudging toward the top.

Sometimes, instead of gentle white smoke/steam coming from the top, we would see a more ominous brown puff. 
We were told that this reflected the dust coming up from a landslide within the crater.  And at one point we could see some rocks, including a very large boulder, bounding down mountain.  The guides were all in touch with each other and the hikers were shepherded along paths toward the other side of the slope up the mountain side.  Excitement!

Here is Nancy pausing to look up just before we did the last couple hundred feet of elevation game to the summit -- or, at least, the part of the summit that we would be reaching, at the lip of the crater.
Finally, we were at the top; we could look down into the crater, and across the crater to the summit ridges.

In the crater, we could see a bright red hole containing lava, and sometimes there would be flickers of flaming lava being tossed into the air

When it was time to head down, the trip went much more quickly than coming up -- to some extent it was almost like cross-country skiing along the paths.  But the best part were the chutes that connected some of the paths.  And on this mountain, it is not only OK, but downright expected to cut the switchbacks, coming down the shoots on our rear ends.  This is why we needed those snow suits.

We got back to Villarica town by late afternoon, whence we could look over the rooftops to the mountain looming on the other side of the lake.
Even though Villarica is on the other side of the lake from the volcano, I understand that the town has also been evacuated.