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

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

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.