Friday, April 24, 2015

Alsace in Texas, Discovering a Gem

Alsace in Texas, Discovering a Gem

For those wondering how long we plan to stay in Texas, the answer is that we are already back home, but I've been slow in finishing this blog. Only one or two more to go after this one.

On a day when our friends went to see San Antonio and the Alamo (we'd been there, done that), Paul and I decided to check out what seemed to be the interesting town of Castroville, about 20 minutes west of San Antonio. It was our lucky day. Not only was it overcast and cool, setting the stage for more saturated colors, but it was very, very interesting in both a historical and current slice of Americana sense.

While its California namesake is more famous as the "Artichoke Capital of the World", this Texas version offers a whiff of Europe's Alsace region. The town was established in the 1840's when an Henri Castro offered transportation to his land grant on the Medina River, to multiple families from Alsace and Baden. Eventually, the settler group flourished, though retained old country customs and their dialect of High German. Much of that has been diluted over the last century or so, but many fascinating reminders remain in this town of 3,000.

Visitors are welcomed to Castroville by its charming visitor center, The Steinbach House, originally constructed in Alsace in the 1600s, then disassembled, moved, and reassembled as a gift to the people of Castroville. The staff person was knowledgeable and the home was furnished with period pieces, hand made artifacts and ceramics.
 Steinbach House - Castroville Visitor Center

 Original Pieces from the 1600s era home

 Handmade furnishings

Old Country Ceramics

After a delightful lunch and some prowling through a shop with "yard art", we strolled through the historic homes district. Along several streets were homes built by the original Alsatian settlers or their descendants. Most had been carefully preserved, and/or restored, with colorful yards 

 From 1844
 From 1846 - with additions and bright poppies
 "Kit" home ordered from Sears & Roebuck for $5000

Partway along the street, we encountered a corner yard overflowing with poppies and original farm buildings and implements. The current owner opens his lot to visitors during poppy season, asking only for a small donation.

By Golly, That's Red!

 Jack, the "King" (breed) poodle Greeter

Impossibly Cute Backyard

The day we visited also happened to be the Saturday of the local high school Senior Prom, so many sites around town had clusters of proud mamas and papas taking photos of their "young'uns"; in prom garb; the boys acting uncomfortable in their tuxedoes and the girls awkwardly tugging up the tops of their first-ever strapless gowns.

All in all it was a fun day roving amongst gorgeous flowers and relics of time.

Barbara and Paul

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Texas Hill Country & Hill People

Texas Hill Country & Hill People

Departing from South Padre Island after 4 fun days of sun, wildlife, sand, and the WORST tap water I have ever tasted (!), we headed due north. Our caravan of two did make a stop in Kingville to see the King Ranch (duh) - the largest ranch in the continental US, before traveling on to New Braunfels, situated between San Antonio and Austin.

Our aim was to explore the famed Texas Hill Country, with its bountiful wildflowers, rivers and rolling hills. Fortunately, the weather was perfect; sunny with a slight breeze. Though the Hill Country is quite a large area, our highlights circuit followed a path west from New Braunfels, then clockwise through Bandera, Kerrville and on to Fredericksburg. 

Bandera's Claim to Fame

While there's not much to the town of Bandera, it is situated on the gentle Medina River, with lovely little parks and friendly locals.

Medina River flora & fauna

Kerrville, TX is a short drive north and townsfolk are already ramping up with preparations for the popular singer songwriter fest (AKA Nashville West) held during the whole month of June. Apparently, it is the mecca for those passionate about writing and performing American Folk Music, with meet & greets, jamming, collaborations and talent scouts.

However, the real reason for driving the highways and byways of TX Hill Country in April is to feast our eyes on the famous wildflowers. And feast we did! Everywhere, alongside big roads and small, around yards, businesses and fields, grew a handsome variety of these colorful beauties.

Texas State Flower - Bluebonnets and more!

 Lady Bird Johnson's favorite region of America the Beautiful

 Vibrant Mixture

Greener grass, Redder Poppies

Fredericksburg seemed to be the floral epicenter, with zillions of roadside flowers  to enjoy and wild seed farms cultivating even more seeds for purchase, for those home gardeners with a multicolored thumb.

Fredericksburg's most famous son, Admiral Nimitz, WWII Commander of US Forces in the Pacific theater. His statue and museum on main street with another museum on the next block chock-full of memorabilia and weaponry from World War II battles against Japan.

While we were still in South Padre, I realized that our Hill Country tour would take us quite near Austin, where two sets of cousins reside. It was our good fortune that both of them were available to meet up with us at an expansive country barbecue restaurant called "The Salt Lick". The place only takes cash, is BYOB (coolers of beer!) and does a bang up business. We ate family style (of course) at picnic tables and had a delightful evening catching up with one another and introducing them to our travel friends, Ken and Susan Hunt.

Maria and Roger Stewart

 Bruce and Ellen Thelen

Yours Truly

Despite all the jokes that New Mexicans make about Texas, we had a wonderful time enjoying their beautiful wildflowers and scenic byways.

Barbara & Paul

Monday, April 20, 2015

Bird Banquet and Turtle Rescue

Bird Banquet and Turtle Rescue

South Padre Island Part Deux - Besides being a fun- and sun-filled vacation destination, South Padre Island is a very important destination for our feathered migratory or resident avian friends. 

 SPI - Birding Center on the Laguna Madre

Given the marshy wetlands on the laguna side of SPI, it provides a haven and rich source of nutrients for birds and butterflies resident to the area, as well as those migrating through on their way to winter in Central America or spend the summer in the cooler climes of North America. The center has over 300 feet of boardwalk extending out over the marsh, as well as fresh water features, bird blinds and a 5 story tall viewing tower which provides a great all around view.

Domesticated parrot and Bird Center mascot

Tricolored Heron

During our visit we saw several different types of herons and egrets, roseate spoonbills, grebes, stilts, red winged blackbirds and pelicans. In the waters are tilapia, crabs and 'gators! Actually, there appeared to be a family of alligators with a papa, mama and 6-8, 12 inch long babies. Awww, how cute!

Ideal locale for lurking baby amphibians

A Least Bittern on the hunt

The Sea Turtle Rescue Center is just down the road from the Bird and Nature Center. Established by a local resident nicknamed "the turtle lady", this foundation accepts, treats and when possible, releases sea turtles that have been injured or become ill. Mostly run by volunteers, the center is pivotal in caring for these vulnerable critters.

One of their success stories is Allison, a sea turtle which lost 3 limbs from (most likely) a shark attack. After a great deal of collaboration and hard work, this turtle has been fitted with a keel-like prosthetic that helps her navigate around the tank. At night, when no volunteers are around to monitor her, she is kept in a shallower tank, where she can touch bottom and then tilt up to breathe. She is quite the crowd pleaser as she paddles around the big tank with her turtle companions using a single leg and keel. She'll live out her life at the center.

 Allison's Story

The center also had two small tanks that served as Turtle Intensive Care. The turtle below had sustained a cracked shell, (likely from a boat propeller strike) was infected and quite weak. The 5 white plastic clamps hold the shell together until it can heal and this turtle is kept in a quiet little tank for recuperation. 

 Recovering from Shell Surgery

 Beach Art
Where there's a beach, there's a lot of sand. And, with the right type of sand, there's a castle to be built. Apparently, an enterprising fellow gives sand castle building lessons, and includes the sculpting tools. For elaborate works like the castle above, in front of a hotel, a final spray with diluted Elmer's glue gives it a nice finish and helps to preserve it for up to a year, outdoors.

Sunset over the Laguna Madre

We're back home now, but there are a few more blog posts to create before the trip is really considered complete.

Barbara & Paul

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Big Madre and Little Padre

Big Madre and Little Padre

After many miles of driving southeastward, hugging the Texas-Mexico border, we finally arrived at our destination. Fortunately, we had help with the driving, from a 9 year old, named Dixie.
 DOG is my PILOT
As you can see, though Dixie is only 9, her Labradoodle wisdom and caution kept our friends, Ken and Susan in good shape.

Passing Brownsville, TX and its Mexican counterpart, Matamoros, we drove into Port Isabel, with the only bridge access to South Padre Island. Driving over the "Laguna Madre" on an almost 2 mile long causeway, we arrived at the far south end of the thin strand of sand, running mostly north-south, called South Padre Island. The Laguna Madre is a shallow, hyper-saline body of water that separates TX from Padre Island (north and south), stretching over 130 miles to Corpus Christi. It provides a very important and large protected ecosystem for a huge variety of fish and birds, migratory and resident. Much of the TX and Padre Island shoreline is protected as National Wildlife Refuge and National Seashore.

We stayed in a KOA RV park on the far south end of South Padre Island (SPI) where all of the development is clustered. Since no place on the island is more than a few dozen yards from the water, we enjoyed the breezes and waterside activities. The KOA was quite nice. We hit it just right, since the Spring-Breakers had departed and the summer crowd had yet to arrive. 

Next to KOA RV Park

The primary activities on SPI are tourist-related (boating, kite surfing, beach play-building sand castles, etc) and fishing.

Didn't see any of these!

Our foursome went dolphin watching in the Laguna Madre with a Mennonite honeymooning couple, Gorgy, the dolphin-spotting dog, and Captain George.


Dolphins are easy to see when they surface, but she can apparently hear their whistles and songs, so would roam around the boat to stare at the water in the area where they were about to surface. It certainly made for better photos of dolphin, rather than just empty water. The tour operator often also brings along Penelope, the pot-bellied pig, but she was unavailable that day!

Gorgy, the dolphin dog

Dolphin 3-some, 2 adults with baby in between

SPI has plenty of wildlife, beach fun and quirky experiences to enjoy. More in the next post on turtles.

Barbara & Paul

Monday, April 13, 2015

THE LAW west of the Pecos

THE LAW west of the Pecos.

Departing the Marfa and Alpine area, we drove south-east on Highway 90, roughly paralleling the Texas-Mexico border. 

Other than US Border Patrol agents stationed every few miles, there wasn't much of interest to see.

That all changed when we stopped for a break at the turn off to Langtry, Texas - population 15 souls.

At one time, in the late 1800's, the town had a train depot, general store, post office and a saloon or two. It was quite a rough, and unruly town, becoming even more "lawless" with the arrival of a newly minted Justice of the Peace, by the name of ...... Roy Bean.

Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center in Langtry, TX

The Bean boys (Roy and brothers, Sam and Joshua) had had quite the checkered history; keeping a few steps ahead of the law in California. Joshua was elected San Diego's first mayor, then murdered sometime later. Quite the swain, Roy was assisted in escaping from jails by devoted girlfriends, and cut down from a hanging rope by a bride he had just helped become a widow. All this and he still had time to marry an 18 year old at the age of 40, with whom he fathered 4 children.

After finding California inhospitable, Roy Bean (and family) moved to TX to sell whiskey, and stepped up to become a J.P. Holding his court in the Jersey Lilly Saloon, which he happened to own, he pronounced himself THE LAW west of the Pecos (River).

The Jersey Lilly Saloon (and Judge Bean Courtroom)

The jurors were chosen from his most loyal bar patrons and were expected to buy drinks to assist in coming to a timely verdict. Since the town did not have a jail, most cases were settled by fines. Those fines usually corresponded to the amount of money the accused had in their pockets. Unsurprisingly, none of that money made it out of Langtry. 

Though he was called "The Hanging Judge", that was largely a creation of Hollywood fiction (imagine that!). Judge Bean only sentenced 2 men to hang and one of them escaped. He also relied heavily on his "Law Library" of a single book. If newer versions of the publication arrived, they became kindling.

Book Learnin' - Roy Bean Style

Later in life, Roy Bean became enamored with British stage actress, Lilly Langtry. He courted (read: stalked) her from afar, writing many amorous letters,  sending gifts, naming the saloon in her honor and building an opera house for her Texas debut. He even claimed to have named the town for her...Not! Sadly, Ms. Langtry finally came to visit several years after Judge Bean had died.

Oddly enough, the oddity doesn't stop there. In 1955, a Mr. Willingham, a former Air Force Reserve pilot claimed that while piloting a F-86 jet fighter in the area, a UFO zipped past his aircraft to crash just inside Mexico, near Langtry. Though described as the "Del Rio, TX UFO Incident", the aliens were probably just en route to rendezvous with colleagues in Roswell.

Nonetheless, Langtry, TX has an unusually nice visitor center with xeriscaped garden, friendly staff and a most colorful history to explore.

Barbara & Paul

Sunday, April 12, 2015

From Barbara McGuire - Keep Marfa Weird

"Keep Marfa Weird" 

This was the message on a little roadside sign as we entered Marfa, TX, which is a LONG way from anything else. We expected the usual wind-scoured west Texas community, with it's cow town, wild-west history, but fortunately there was so much more to be seen beneath the dusty veneer.

Marfa did indeed once serve as a railroad water stop, then became a site for an Army airfield (Fort Russell), with up to 10,000 trainees. After 1945, with the departure of the military and closing of a German POW camp, many thought it would simply shrivel up and blow away. A few Hollywood westerns, such as "High Lonesome and "Giant", sparked some short-lived excitement. A nighttime phenomenon known as the "Marfa Lights" (floating distant bright lights of uncertain origin, dating from the 1880's) attracted a few visitors, but little income and fewer newcomers, to this patch of Chihuahuan desert. 

The area's fortunes changed in the early 1970's when avant-garde sculptor, Donald Judd, moved his studio and some staff to the town to set up on a locale where his large pieces could be permanently installed and displayed. Many describe him as a "minimalist", while he saw himself as an "empiricist". His original degree was in philosophy. Long story short, with assistance from the Dia Foundation, Judd purchased land and "re-purposed" airplane hangars and other army facilities into art spaces and staff housing, creating the Chinati Foundation. Though Judd died in 1994, many artists and several other foundations have moved to Marfa, boosted the economy, and made it THE modern art destination, Santa Fe and Taos, notwithstanding. 

One of the Chinati Foundation Buildings

With all this "newness" came much innovation, creativity and "weirdness", to ask some. After "experiencing" several art venues, we benefitted from local knowledge, to visit one of Marfa's tastiest restaurants, the "Food Shark", complete with outdoor and indoor dining areas. The food was good!
The Food Shark Restaurant
The Food Shark Dining Car

Having had our minds expanded by cutting-edge modern art, we thought "Why stop with our puny solar system?" Therefore, we ascended to the highest point in Texas to take in the McDonald Observatory, with several optical telescopes and one spectroscopic telescope. An astronomer oriented visitors to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), and a video, narrated by Sandy Woody (of NPR StarDate fame), provided more history of the other scopes.

Entryway to McDonald Observatory Facility

Astronomer Presentation

There was a little something for everyone around Marfa, Alpine & Ft. Davis, TX.
Barbara & Paul

Thursday, April 9, 2015

A Brush with Passion

Moving south on our road trip into the "Republic of Texas"

A "Brush with Passion" is the title of a book that describes the work of Clark Cox. He was an artist who explored, painted and fell in love with the area around Carlsbad Caverns and the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. 

About a dozen of his watercolor paintings adorn the walls of the Pinery Trail Visitors Center entrance to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. These paintings, completed in 1927-28 in an almost pointillist style, were each accompanied by a poem also written by Cox. One particularly nice quote is

"Solitude awakens latent moods and creates the greatest urge for their expression and many a gem if thought lies forgotten; tied up in packets and laid away in some old cedar chest like lost jewels."

So should you find yourself in the area, be sure to pause in appreciation.

Below is a photo of the Pinery (yes, pineRy) Trail entrance to the GMNP and a sampling of Mr. Cox's paintings.

Barbara and Paul