Sunday, August 31, 2008

Black Duck Bay trail system?

Recently while once again hiking the Goose Creek Trail, I made my way to the top of the Fred Hartman Bridge, on the Hog Island side of the Houston Ship Channel. While enjoying the expansive and elevated view, I looked downward and what isn’t apparent to motorists, is a winding dirt road. On the opposite side of the bridge, the road splits and envelopes two giant retaining ponds.

By the way, folks repeatedly ask me about my safety and the legality of walking across the Fred Hartman Bridge and I tell them the truth; it is scary to have cars going past you at seventy-plus miles per hour, with no place to avoid being ran over, but perfectly legal to walk across the bridge. You can’t park on the bridge, but you can ride a bike or hike across it. I'm willing to take my chances up there, but use your own best judgment.

Seeing the road below the bridge, I thought how wonderful this would be for Exxon-Mobil to open it for jogging and cycling. It is a beautiful ready-made trail, meandering along the ship channel and Black Duck Bay, which a runner, hiker or bike rider could enjoy. I would love to expand my hiking distance and walk it. Birders, binoculars in hand, would have yet another place to observe the many shore birds our area affords.

Access to the roads would necessitate the building of a bridge to span the divided area that used to lead to the Baytown/La Porte tunnel. The Bayland Park parking lot could be used as a staging area for those who wished to use the new trail.

The more I thought about this possibility, the more excited I became, so much so, that I pecked off an email to City Manager Garry Brumback and our honorable mayor, Stephen DonCarlos. I told them I thought it would be a wonderful extension of the Goose Creek Trail, maybe as much as 5 miles.

That very day Mr. Brumback responded: "I think this is worthy of asking ExxonMobil. I am happy to put the question to them; as long as everyone understands that this is not City property and that we are not resourced to police or maintain it should ExxonMobil agree to open it up. Would a citizens group be willing to adopt it and be responsible for its upkeep"? Our Mayor also agreed it was worth looking into.

I assured Mr. Brumback that I would take on the project of raising support from local biking and running clubs, if ExxonMobil agreed to open the trail for us.

Within a few days I was contacted via telephone by ExxonMobil Human Relations person, Russ Roberts to discuss the possibility of making this project a reality and was told he would look into it and get back with me. He also pointed out that the wheels of decision making move very slowly on community projects commitment and to be patient while they study the impact and liability issues concerning opening it up to the public.

That was about a month ago and although I am patient, I couldn't keep from taking yet another hike on the Goose Creek Trail and this time walking up the opposite side (the side we use to go to La Porte) and taking a closer look at the improved dirt roads on the refinery side of the bridge. What I saw and photographed is an aerial view of beautiful dirt roads which wander around the giant ponds, Black Duck Bay and the Houston Ship Channel and collectively cover maybe as much as 5 or 6 wonderful miles.

This trail, if opened to the public by ExxonMobil, would draw riders, birding groups and joggers from the entire South East Texas area, as a favorite place to train, run, jog, hike, cycle and stage foot and bicycle races. It could be a major plus to our community; major as in something to brag about and not just for ExxonMobil, but our city and populace also. ExxonMobil could use this as a giant public relations and local community coup and rightly so. This could just be the shot in the arm the marina area needs to realize expansion also.

Local running clubs and cycle groups could adopt portions of the trail for routine clean up and ExxonMobil's roving patrol could close access at dusk and open it at dawn. It would also be very nice of them to provide occasional receptacles for removal of trash and debris picked-up by citizens and the groups charged with maintaining the cleanliness of the trail.

While security on the trail would certainly be an issue, citizens who hike, ride and jog would take the same precautions they do on any other trail or county road. Access to the trail could be accomplished by parking at Bayland Park and the city could improve the cement barrier feeder road portion to accommodate foot and bike traffic.

The Black Duck Bay Trail System combined with the Goose Creek Trail could effectively give Baytown a ten mile (estimated) trail and it would be a win-win for all concerned.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What in the world was that noise?

The recent heavy rains have caused an explosion of wildlife in the back forty, or in our case, the back seventy acres. It sounds like what I imagine the boy Tarzan experienced when he first realized his parents had passed away and he was truly on his own. The cacophony of strange noises coming from the water-laden and swampy woods is almost frightening!

I know that sounds like an exaggeration and maybe it is, but case in point, my bride and I were sitting on the patio the other night when suddenly we heard what sounded like a cross between a woman screaming in terror/a banshee with rabies/a piece of cloth being viciously ripped apart/someone violently gagging and it all ended with a “who?” – I think.

My lady said, with a start “What in the world was that noise”? Now normally, I have an answer or a piece of wisdom to impart on almost any occasion or subject, but this time I was stymied. Then out of the deepest recesses of my mind, I remembered hearing this bird call years ago and was told by my Dad (who turned 80 today and is still a bastion of knowledge) that it was an owl, but I couldn’t remember which owl he said.

Now I’ve lived in this house for about fifteen years and haven’t seen a single owl, but the day of the last hurricane, while looking out the window of my dining room, I watched a Great Horned owl land on the telephone wire in my backyard. I always have my trusty Nikon binoculars, which I received for a 20th anniversary gift from the Plant where I work, setting on the garden window and my Audubon Handbook Eastern Birds edition handy and since it was lightning and raining like mad, I had the light off and the super alert and possibly frightened owl couldn’t see me watching it. Nevertheless, I moved very slowly, not wanting to reveal myself.

Now Great Horned owls are large two-foot tall predatory birds and absolutely a delight to watch. Every time the lightning flashed or the thunder rolled, it looked in that direction. It crossed my mind that almost any rodent or small bird was not safe at nighttime with this highly efficient and aerial meat-eater was on the prowl.

Anyway, this wasn’t the critter my bride and I heard, as they have a distinctive hooting sound. Now, I’ve considered the noise to be one of the many long-necked shore birds that frequent our Baytown area and it is surprising the variety of scary sounds they can and do make on occasion, especially if mixed with the cries of their prey and what we heard from the woods that night was surely a mix of both.

The rains have also caused an influx of snakes in the yard. My lady, who is normally timid concerning serpents, walked up on an open and white-mouthed, fat, and dark gray snake and with hoe in hand “chopped its liver and lungs out”. She is every bit the dainty lady, but will reach the perfect age of 49 next month and if you know anything about female mentality at this time in their life, you can read the message here. I know I don’t mess with her when she has that hoe in her hand. I had trouble identifying the offending snake as a cottonmouth moccasin later on in the day when I came in from work, as it was so utterly mangled.

Two days of rain later, I look across the patio only to see another snake and this one attempting to climb up onto the wicker furniture. Grabbing my wife’s favored tool of ultimate justice, I deftly and accurately severed its head with one stroke. It was diamond-backed and since twilight had descended, I did not make an accurate identification and destroyed it. The next day I researched the snake and realized I had killed a harmless diamondback watersnake. I won’t kill another, but will opt to relocate it instead. I have trouble allowing venomous snakes in the yard, but will tolerate all others, including the oft misidentified yellowbellied watersnake, which folks think are cottonmouths.

We have regular visits by garter snakes and I’ve had them crawl over my feet while I held perfectly still. To be honest, here in Baytown there are really only three venomous snakes that are of concern, with a couple of exceptions. The cottonmouth, the copperhead and the coral snake; all are distinctive in appearance and with a little education we can observe which is which. Most of the snakes that enter the yard are simply preying on the scads of tree frogs, toads, lizards, crickets and insects that our yard has in abundance anyway and who am I to deny them – minus the venomous ones of course. By the way, there are no poisonous snakes, just venomous ones.

Anyway, back to our mystery bird. While researching this fellow, I found a description which I think is as close as I’m going to get, minus the prey’s anguished cry and here it is: “A blood-curdling and quavering, dropping whinny” By all accounts my Dad was correct when he told me it was nothing other than a little 8 ½ inch tall Eastern Screech owl catching a nightly snack.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Danger is my Middle Name

I was slap dab in the middle of one of the biggest adventures of my young life. I had no idea living could be this exciting and each day after school brought more drama than the previous. Not being a stranger to dangerous undertakings and being of sound mind and body, I welcomed the day's challenge. I guess you could say I was anxious to get on with it.

The year was 1970, I was seventeen and thanks to my sister I discovered J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and epic trilogy "The Lord of the Rings". These 4 books collectively were about 1500 pages and were a reading obstacle the size of the Great Wall of China in my young mind. However, as all readers of thick books learn, if it's worth reading, it is probably going to end all too soon.

Down the street from my home was an abandoned two-story house with overgrown shrubbery and deep fluffy buffalo grass. On the other side of the hedge row, it was totally private and removed from all but street noise and allowed me a rapid transition to Middle Earth. My routine was as deliberate as a speeding arrow on its way to a target. Each day after I got off the school bus, I would grab a quick snack and book in hand, head for the abandoned house.

Sneaking through a hidden divide in the wall of overgrown shrubbery, I would enter the world of Tolkien, which to us purists, probably should have remained accessible the old fashioned way, even though the movies were excellent and fairly accurate. Incidentally, watching the movie, versus reading the books is like riding a train to California and telling the guy who walked it, you made the trip. You made the trip alright, but you were simply an observer, not a participant. I was there with Gandalf in the Mines of Moria; I know.

I had a favorite place where I would hunker down against a tree, comfortable in the deep inviting grass. The aromatic and dense shrubs muffled almost all city sounds and I would hide myself away for hours each afternoon and…read. On the weekends, I imagine I would spend five or six hours with hobbits, elves, dwarfs and orcs. At the time I realized this was probably going to be regarded as a special niche in my life. It was.

I've never experienced this feeling of separation while watching a movie or video. Streaming audio-visuals are no match for imagination brought on by the written word. When I read great literature, I ponder the meaning of the words, which causes me to read slower and slower, as I mull over what the author is attempting to tell me. A good fat book may take me a couple of weeks to read and I may read it three or four times over the years, getting more and more out of it each time.

I do believe that one of the reasons I tend to shun man-made entertainment venues is because reading books has made these places seem cheap and superficial to me. They are no match for the places I've been, through reading books. Books have also helped me develop mentally and spiritually, learning right from wrong, from so many situations that when a real-life drama develops, I usually have encountered something like it in one of the books I've digested.

Let's look at Louis L'Amour's many books as an example of right and wrong social behavior. Mr. L'Amour wrote Western's for the most part and I'll be the first to admit they are light-weight reading, but chock full of lessons for everyday life. Most of his books follow the same theme of a loner who has seen the trail from both sides of the law, but at this point in life are leaning towards doing the right thing. The hero always encounters a bad bunch of side-winding bad guys and eventually sets the record straight. The situations which develop in his books, parallel modern living when it comes to human relations and problem solving, but his character's solution to the problems usually ends up with the acrid smell of gunpowder hanging in the air, not because the good guy wanted it that way, but because he was forced to defend himself. Regardless, the reader learns both solutions – right and wrong.

Throughout his many excellent short stories, all suitable for the young entry-level reader incidentally, as well as the seasoned reader looking to expand their boundaries, are life-directing thoughts and expressions that carry over to us personally. I remember a line from one his books which I read over twenty years ago and it went something like this: "When you think killing a person will remove all your problems, just wait a year and they won't even be in the picture". His character had an evil overbearing boss who daily abused the hard-working hero, who was himself a rough and dangerous man, but was trying to do right and abide by the law. The cowboy hero thought about calling the bad boss out into a gunfight and just getting it all over with, but the more he thought about it, the more he realized that all he had to do was wait and the boss would probably be gone from the picture by natural events. This was a great lesson to me when I read it and I've quoted this line many times since.

My current reading goal is to finish the top one hundred Science fiction novels. It's an unexplored and possibly hazardous area with many mishaps and adventures ahead and thus I've decided to change my middle name to Danger, at least for the time being.

Now, does anyone know where I can find a good tree with thick fluffy buffalo grass under it?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

America and the Olympic Spirit

Friday night millions of people around the world tuned in to watch the 29th Olympiad/2008 Olympic Games opening ceremony. I was right there with them, as to me, this is true athletics. I hardly watch professional sports, I confess, but when the Olympics are in progress, I am all eyes and ears. My youngest brother, Bruno, is a past torch-bearer.

Unbelievable and jaw-dropping was used by television co-host Bob Costas to describe the 300 million dollar opening ceremony. Using tens of thousands of unpaid Communist volunteers in incredible (and almost scary) unison the Chinese sent the world a message that they are unified enough to take on the world and this point was driven-in a thousand fold. Seventy-five thousand fold to be roughly exact and the Chinese government had the tough job of culling-out the other four million who wanted the unpaid tedious voluntary jobs.

In a stadium built for this initial purpose we saw a technological demonstration unmatched in size, cost and splendor that due to overall cost will probably never again be repeated. Words fail to describe how incredible this ceremony was. Using gigantic LED screens extending over a quarter of a mile and 15000 plus performers in perfect unison I saw the determined spirit of a country on the move which to me resembles an unstoppable tidal wave of awesome and unbeatable power.

And thus, the world’s top athletes have descended into the Bird’s Nest National Stadium of the Forbidden City of Beijing, China to compete. China’s coming out party is a better description of this ultra-extravagant Olympic ceremony. Everything is on the line for the athletes as always, but watching the ceremonies, effort, expense and choreography; I can’t help but think that heads will roll in China if gold/silver/bronze medals aren’t produced by their determined athletes.

This past week American runners apologized for wearing protective masks due to the oppressing smog and this is a country with a government which strong-handedly shut down most automobile traffic and smog-producing industry just to clear the air for the Olympics. Try that in the United States and our citizens would rightly laugh out loud.

We do not understand the Chinese. Their concept of state-enforced unity is foreign to us freedom loving people. Their philosophy in life was exemplified by the 2008 Tai Chi Masters who in unison exhibited precision movements in the Bird’s Nest Friday night. Chinese people do not mind doing everything in unison, which incidentally is scary and threatening and defies the concept of freedom of choice we Americans demand. I can’t even imagine finding 28 martial arts masters in America of any style, coming together to practice for eight months for a one night exhibition, performing it flawlessly and then footing their own bill. Heckfire, Matt Lauer even referred to it as karate, to show how little he understands the importance of Chinese martial arts to the Chinese. Karate is Okinawan, which is part of Japan, the ancient enemy of China.

We do not understand how much is at stake for the 639 Chinese athletes in this Olympics. We do not understand how determined they are to please their government. We do not understand that China has over 600 million citizens fit for military service and the money, thanks to us Americans, to fund this Army. We do not understand that the greatest passion the Chinese know is revenge.

Words cannot exaggerate or adequately describe the splendor of the opening ceremony and I do not want anyone to think I did not appreciate the effort and splendor. I just couldn’t get past China’s economic drive, Communist doctrine of freedom suppression and the feeling I was watching a Chinese commercial for future global expansion and ultimately - domination.

We Americans hold the key to success for our own destiny, destruction and/or survival. The Olympic spirit we exhibit, as the greatest free country on earth, can and will trump the Chinese, or justify them. Our 647 American athletes must uphold the spirit of the Olympics above all other nations. We simply must and it’s important to win of course, but win without controversy and this friend, will justify our way of life to the Chinese.

The Olympics should be without politics and I apologize for making it so, but it’s also important to realize the Chinese do not look at these games the way most of the rest of the world does. The Japanese in the past have referred to China as “the sick men of Asia” and make no mistake; the Chinese government and the determined and self-sacrificing unified nation behind it, have every intention of setting the record straight.

This is without doubt, the most important date in modern Chinese history. With all this said, I pray the best athletes win, regardless of country origin, for that after all, is the true spirit of the Olympics.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sweating the Goose Creek Trail

I tell folks I ain’t built for speed, but I can still lift heavy stuff, providing I get under it and get a good grip. Actually, this is only partly true, as these days I realize I have little to prove by exhibiting past Herculean effort and never having had a hernia, I figure there is no sense in getting one now. The speed part is totally true, as I have stubby legs and a corpulent girth.

My brutish, but fairly common body build is good for endurance though and this is where I shine, so to speak. It serves me well when I do the stuff I like to do, like hike, stroll, jog, or tote heavy stuff.

Friday morning, I looked out the kitchen window and having watched the weather report the day before, I knew we were heading into another hot and humid Texas day. Male cicadas calling out to each other filled the air and even though I could hear the steady hum of air registers in my air-conditioned home, the tree-crawling bugs trill reminded me of just how much I love to be out in the heat of our summers.

Because we cicadas do their most spirited humming when it is hottest outside, I too began to get the itch to crawl along a trail. Gathering up a full compliment of accouterments and trail gear, I hopped into my fuel-efficient hooptee and drove down to Garth and Decker to walk the Goose Creek Trail. I was still thinking about the cicadas as I entered the trail close to El Toro’s and even though folks around the world regularly eat these fellas, I just could not figure out how I would go about cooking up a mess of those bugs, when the smell of Mexican food around me seemed so much more appetizing.

For starters, each time I walk this trail I pass a couple of cars parked right on the trail behind El Toro’s beside the sign that reads “No Parking at any time” and wonder how this is possible that the owners of the cars feel free to block the trail and ignore the sign. Maybe they are blinded to the sign by visions of delicious food? Who knows – I keep walking.

This particular day, I was on a mission. A mission to walk to Bayland Park and back in the heat and not fall out like a heat-crazed lunatic. It was about 9AM, hot, sunny and humid and I was carrying about 15 pounds of gear, which included 3 pounds of water. I like to carry a lot of stuff when I hike and get a good workout. Some of the stuff I never plan to use, but in the event I need it, I want to have it with me, if you catch my drift.

Behind the old San Jacinto Hospital, I passed a longhaired fellow working the pebbles in the playground area with a metal detector and a sharpshooter shovel. Beep, beep – beeeep! He was finding coins alright, real treasure to be sure and even though he would probably have to find a bag of quarters a number of times to pay for his electronics, I’ve lived long enough to realize the fiscal expenditure is secondary to the amount of joy he probably receives through his hobby.

Now some folks will tell you that any sane person will not be walking, hiking or jogging in the middle of a hot Texas day and they may be right…but, the key is to know your limitations. Just the day before I jogged about 2 miles at 2pm and enjoyed every bit of it, so a 2-hour hike in the heat was within my limits. I read the other day that a certain 1930’s era Texan worked all day, then walked 10 -15 miles to attend a dance, walked home afterward, bathed, grabbed a bite to eat then went back to work. Not me. It passes my limit of endurance.

I set a good 15-minute per mile pace and kept planting the heels of my $22 Payless sneakers. The sweat was flowing and I had a red bandana to mop my face, trying to keep from rubbing the SPF-50 off in the process. Nary a soul did I pass on the trail, which is sad, but just as well, as I am a lone trekker for the most part. I did however scare up a brace of coneys in two locations. Two were cottontails and two were swamp rabbits. They made good company.

The bridge over the slough close to Robert E. Lee high school always has a good variety of shore birds and this day was no exception. The heat was such that they were sluggish and allowed me to get quite close as long as I kept moving along, which I did.
It appears that an industrious city employee on a brush hog cut back and forth all across the trail while cutting the grass and deposited a lot of mud and debris on it and over close to West Main and the icehouse “Softails” the tractor ran slap into a cement drain culvert, knocking it off its pedestal. Pretty sloppy work by that fellow in my opinion, but what do I know, I’m just walking the trail. I’ll drop Scott Johnson an email anyway so some kid doesn’t fall into it.

By the time I arrived at WC Britton Park, the fellow with the metal detector was hard a work over there and we shared pleasantries. Passing through the park, I arrived at Bayland Park and toyed with the idea of walking to the top of the Fred Hartman Bridge again, but passed on the idea as my bandanna was totally soaked and half of my water was depleted, so turning around I retraced my steps.

Another day hike completed and I felt the deep satisfaction I always experience when I push myself to get off my duff and out into the Texas heat.

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