Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pedernales Falls State Park is Awesome - Part 3!

We are on day 3 of our 4 day camping trip at Pedernales Falls State Park, it’s about 55 degrees, cloudy, windy and feels like it is fixing to rain. I don’t care, I’m going hiking and I’m going solo, as my brother, TJ Bustem has an aching back.

The trail itself is 7.5 miles, but about 1.3 miles from our campsite and I aim to walk to the trail and back which will give me a good 10-mile hike. I’ll be honest and say I am a fair weather/sunshine lover, but I can also be a determined person and nothing short of a heavy downpour of rain will dampen my hiking spirit.

Now, it’s still winter and the vegetation is fairly bleak and the absence of other hikers on this trail makes it appear less than hospitable. There are parts of it that look like Mirkwood from ‘The Hobbit’ in fact. Goblins probably hang out here while on R&R.

The first part of the trail resembles a gravel road, as the primitive camping area is about 2 miles up the trail and is serviced by vehicles, but after you pass that, it becomes more rustic and in places a mountain biker would have trouble. However, I did not find any of it difficult and anyone capable of walking that distance could walk this too. Now, after saying that, I want to add that any trail can be hazardous and if I would have slipped and sprained my ankle, I would have been in a fix. In the summer, there is the extensive heat and then there are the snakes also.

On this hike, my main concern was the wind and a smattering of rain. 50 degree F weather with a 20-mile per hour wind is flat cold. I was wearing a large lumbar pack with about 20 pounds of gear and water and despite the cold, I was sweating. Sweat, wind and cold can cause hypothermia and people have been known to die in these conditions when injured and I was hiking solo. I moved on and watched my step.

Up on top of Tobacco Mountain there are the remains of a old stone house. On the rocks around it are all kinds of old nails, pieces of pottery, and relics that hikers have found and left. It is close to Jones Spring, so if you hike this trail, look for it. Remember the rule of hikers everywhere – take only photographs, leave only foot prints.

Now I’m not a paranoid person, but I am a cautious one and the upper part of this trail under these dark, windy and cold conditions can get a person to look over their shoulder a bit. I thought I heard voices a number of times, or sounds of pursuit, but each time I stopped and listened, nothing appeared.

In the book ‘A walk in the woods’ by Bill Bryson he touches on lonely hiking when a hiker begins to hear things and becomes obsessed that they are being followed. I knew there was no one out there, as I had saw two mountain bikers early and the trail showed no signs of them and at the primitive camping area, I had talked to one fellow only and he was looking for the latrine. I moved on against the wind and cold and just kept my eyes open.

I was about 4 miles into the trail and 5.3 miles from camp when I caught the first ray of sunshine and it sent a bolt of adrenaline through my soul. From there on in, the sun gradually came into full view, the clouds dispersed and I made my way around Wolf Mountain a happy hiker. Bring on the orcs.

The trip around the top is about a half mile and I began my descent, camera in hand. Hikers and primitive campers with their large backpacks began to pass me heading up the trail, as I made my way back across the three dry creek bed crossings and finally arriving at the trailhead, I walked the 1.3 miles on the road back to the camp site. I must admit, I was a relaxed slow-moving camper the rest of this day.

My brother TJ Bustem drug out a largish sirloin steak and tossed it on the grill side of my Stansport propane stove and he had whipped up his specialty salad mix of artichoke hearts, tomatoes, avocado and onions and we dined like Kit Carson did, only better. Meat on a stick – yeah, meat on a stick. It doesn’t get any better than that, except when I looked up from my plate and there were five deer standing between us and the campfire. One even walked over our pile of kindling.

Closing out the day by the campfire and slipping into my bag for our final night, I drifted off perfectly content to stay another week and slept like a baby. Rolling out early for more coffee, I greeted the sunshine and the 26 degree F weather. Reluctantly we broke camp, cleaned up after ourselves and made the drive home.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Pedernales Falls State Park is Awesome - Part 2!

It’s day two of our camping trip to Pedernales Falls State Park (PFSP) and we’ve decided to tackle the 4-Mile Loop Trail and since my brother, TJ Bustem has a temperamental back, I will hike the Wolf Mountain Trail solo on Saturday, which from our campsite is a little over 10 miles.

The first obstacle we encountered was a shallow river crossing called the Trammel Crossing. TJ removed his low-quarter hiking boots and socks and waded across, but I was able to ford the river without getting my socks wet. He remarked that it was not even close to being as cold as a river he forded in Montana.

We began catching close-up views of deer and Thursday night we spied a 9-point buck was within 50 feet of our camp. After a mild ascent of this trail, we began seeing extensive evidence of feral hogs, but no hogs. The weather was beautiful, sunny and pleasingly cool, but without wind. It was picture perfect and we were taking pictures aplenty.

It was also fairly easy and we wandered over the trail taking photographs and our time. Up on top, we tried to get a cell phone signal and we stopped by an ancient family graveyard. It was so old the stones were in disarray and their marking were faint. We also came across quite a few cairns. Cairns were used by Native Americans and Mountain men to leave messages and point directions. A cairn is described as a mound of stones piled up as a memorial or to mark a boundary or path.

The hike took a total of about 4 hours and that included many diversions, photographs and observations of this and that and since we were not on a schedule, the time was well spent.

The temperature rose into the 60’s and was quite comfortable. We cooked on our stove, drank more coffee and toured the park using their map, which is free at the welcome center and finished the day back at the Falls. This area is very rough and flood prone when it rains up north and since it is basically like God made it, kind of unsafe to those who are not agile or inattentive. There are no signs warning you to watch out or you could fall and break your bones and I liked this immensely. Go down around the rocks and you pay attention – it’s that simple. We met a number of good folks and a couple from Fort Worth/Dallas.

Back at camp, we lit off our campfire and settled in around the flames to watch the stars. Wow, there are a lot of stars visible when you are away from city lights. We saw a number of satellites too. Hitting the sack about 11:30, I was not near as wary as I was the first night and since we had already had a visit from our raccoon marauder while at the campfire, I figured the night would be uneventful. It was not to be.

Somewhere around 2 am, the raccoon was back and I got up and threw rocks at it. They are extremely adept at accessing your equipment. Yesterday morning, the little rascal had eaten about 15 Hershey mini-candy bars from my brothers container. It had reached through the carrying hole and one by one had pulled the candy out, removed the aluminum foil wrapper and left a small scattered pile of debris. Evidentially chocolate is not hazardous to raccoons.

When we awoke Saturday morning, we discovered our furry friend had opened my ice chest and removed about 3 pounds of fish fillets, ate his fill and even left a small amount on the trail leading away from the camp area. I imagine this happened about the time I got up to chase it off. The sound we heard was evidentially the noise a coon makes when it is very happy. It sounds like a bubbling warble with a few clicks thrown in for good measure. TJ Bustem wasn’t a happy camper, as he had warned me and wanted to put the cooler in his truck for the night.

In Part 3 I hike the Wolf Mountain Trail – Stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pedernales Falls State Park is Awesome - Part 1!

Well, I finally got my Camp-out on and it was everything I had hoped for and more. This past weekend, my brother TJ Bustem and I spent four days in Central Texas, specifically Pedernales Falls State Park. Texans know it as “Perdenales” thanks to LBJ and both pronunciations are acceptable according to the Parks and Wildlife web site.

Back in January while making plans to camp, I made a number of purchases to replace old camping gear, including a new tent, mummy bag and camp stove, etc. On this trip I planned to prove this equipment and since it had been years since I had camped, I also planned to tote along anything else I might need, erring on the side of too much equipment.

I was pleased with the quality of my “3 season” Eureka Apex-2XT Dome tent. It was about a hundred bucks and is easy to set-up. I did get a surprise Thursday night when I went to zip up the tent at bedtime when a honeybee stung me on my right pinky finger. I had left the fly open on the tent and when the sun went down and the temperature fell, the bee landed right by the zipper. Lesson learned – keep that tent zipped at all times.

My sleeping bag is the Kelty Mistral 20 degree mummy and I was toasty, even when the temperature fell to 26 degrees F Saturday night. My propane stove is the excellent Stansport H.O. model 206 and I heartily recommend this model to everyone. The H.O. stands for high output and I made coffee on it in under four minutes using my vintage Comet aluminum coffee percolator, and this at below freezing temperatures.

I broke-in my new cookware, which is a 3-piece set made by Texsport. They call it the “Hard Anodized Cook Set” and it was used to heat up water for oatmeal and clean-up, along with the various foods we cooked. I bought everything through and their service and prices are very satisfactory.

It’s about a four hour drive from Baytown to PFSP and check-in time for a reserved site is 2pm, so that doesn’t give you a lot of daylight to set up camp and do much of anything other than walk down to the Falls and look it over. The Falls on the Pedernales River can flood in 5 minutes and I’m told they have a siren set up to warn folks that a dangerous (and I mean a Tsunami) amount of water may be on its way. It’s something to consider if you crawl over the rocks in the river bed and have physical limitations. 5 minutes to clear the area and if you think you can’t, then don’t go down there, but stay up high on the sides of the river. Here is their web site.

Let me tell you about the rest facilities (toilet/shower) at this Park. They are heated, clean and make your camping experience wonderful. The Park itself is well-staffed with “Park Hosts”, which are basically retired campers who help maintain the Park in exchange for parking rights and they do an excellent job.

It’s been a number of years since I broke out of my comfort zone when it comes to sleeping and I’m not counting motels beds either. Sleeping in a mummy bag inside a tent, out in the woods is a far cry from what our spoiled bodies like and the first night was a bit uncomfortable. Add in the raccoon that decided to check all our gear for food and I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep. Neither did TJ Bustem.

We were up at the crack of dawn though and it was 29 degrees. My hands and feet were beginning to freeze as I made coffee and stoked the fire pit. Camp fires are allowed at this SP if kept inside a metal pit, unlike the Guadalupe River SP, which is under a total campfire ban. Thank the Lord, as camping without a campfire, is like showering without water in my opinion.

We shook the cold off, made a breakfast of hot oatmeal, jet-fuel strength black coffee and jalapeno, bean & cheese tamales from Los Toritos in Baytown. I decided this would become a staple on my campouts, as you can easily heat them up in a covered pan of boiling water and they taste great and stick to your ribs; besides camp food always tastes great regardless of the combination. Stay tuned for part two.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Eddie V. Gray Wetlands Center Visit

I must admit, this was my first visit. I know. It’s shameful to say the least, but to my credit, I did visit and it won’t be the last time either, as I was pleasantly surprised and pleased with what I found there.

The Eddie V. Gray Wetlands Center is located close to Robert E. Lee high school at 1724 Market Street and is owned and operated by the City of Baytown. I’ve walked past it twenty times at least, looked at it while driving, but never visited. I imagine I am one of many and this past week, I decided the time was right for a visit.

Upon arrival, I was met by Biology Intern Sarah Graham. She is very informed and quite pleasant, plus she offered to give me the tour. Sarah skillfully answered my many questions and it is obvious she knows a whole lot about nature and well – biology and our local resources.

She explained how Hurricane Ike had flooded the amazingly large facility, which originally was a bowling alley. As we talked, workers were replacing a lot of exhibits and doing general maintenance. She told me the Center was an undiscovered resource, which is a recurring theme here and one I’ve heard many times.

For some reason, many of us Baytonians are under the impression we need to drive fifty miles to see or do something worthwhile and it just isn’t so, especially when nature is on the agenda. The Eddie V. Gray Nature center has an alligator exhibit stocked with baby gators and native fish species and a visitor can get up close and personal, but from a safe distance.

I was particularly impressed with the science lab, where rows of microscopes were available to the public. I am going to make numerous visits to this lab and according to Sarah, I can grab a water or plant sample from my local ditch or pond and bring it in to see what lives in it.

While visiting the JJ Mays Wildlife Trace, I photographed a snake on the road and couldn’t positively identify it, but Sarah took one look at the photo and announced the snake was a ribbon snake. We walked to a section of the Center with live snakes and she showed me a real live ribbon snake. I was invited to hold the snake, but settled for a touch instead. Sarah revealed she isn’t really a snake person.

My tour guide explained the Center educates many groups of school children and each child leaves with a plaster cast of an animal track of their choice. I liked this idea, as many times while hiking, I cross paths with wild animals and through my own educational efforts usually identify the animal track correctly.

Another exhibit educates visitors on the biodegradability of various manmade objects and debris. I did not know that a cigarette butt was constructed mostly of plastic and can take up to ten years to completely degrade. I also did not know the cigarette butt is the most common item thrown out as litter and billions are thrown from passing cars in this country, every year. I know I see them on the trails quite often, along with other litter.

The Baytown area has salt, brackish (semi-salty) and fresh water and each habitat is home to specific species. The Center educates visitors in a unique way concerning each of these environments with a hands-on display involving colored plastic balls and simulated rubber fish and animals.

Yup; the Eddie V. Gray Wetlands Center is an undiscovered resource alright, but as more folks come by for a visit, that is sure to change and the change will be in us and how we view our local precious resources.

See my photographs here.

See the official website here.

Friday, February 13, 2009

JJ Mayes Wildlife Trace Revisited

This past Thursday, I looked out my front door and all I could think about was going hiking. The weather report from the day before called for mostly cloudy skies and possibly a bit of rain, but what greeted me was just the opposite. Evidently a Norther had blown in and we were once again being blessed with clear blue skies and temperatures in the 50’s. My kind of day.

Looking my bride square in the eye, I appealed to her about my need to hike and nodding her approval, she watched as I packed my High Sierra fanny pack. It’s a real gem of a pack and heavy duty as all get out, allowing me to comfortably carry quite a bit of heavy stuff. Over the years I’ve tried a good number of packs and carriers and this is the best thing short of a full day pack for my needs.

In case you are interested in getting one, I bought it online at and it’s called the High Sierra Ridgeline Lumbar / Waist Pack and it costs about $50. I recommend Joe’s also, as I’ve bought a lot of stuff from them and they are fair in price and excellent in service.

My usual gear went into the pack, which includes my Powerlock MultiTool (which my son carried while serving in the Army in Iraq), Canon digital camera, Nikon binoculars, Sansa MP3 player, 2 bottles of water, red neckerchief, cheese crackers, sunflower seeds and a couple other essentials.

Rolling down the driveway in my hoopty in anticipation of hitting the trail, I cruised off towards I-10 and the hectic traffic, which is exactly the opposite of what I am trying to find on the Trace. The trail is twelve miles from my house, but due to road construction on I-10, it is an unbelievable twenty-four miles to get home. To leave the Trace, a person has to head east, not west, go over the Trinity River and drive to Anahuac to make the turn-around. This adds twelve miles to the return trip.

Pulling into the Trace, I spy another vehicle in the parking lot and it turns out to be a couple from Baytown and they plan on biking in the Trace. Since the road is closed and the gate is locked with a sign that states “U. S. Property – NO Vehicles”, they are hesitant to enter. I tell them I interpret the sign to read no motorized vehicles and they decide that’s what it means also.

What a beautiful day for hiking and riding and we all head off into the Trace, me going towards the Hurricane blasted picnic area and they, after preparation, into the Trace proper. We did not cross paths again, but I did see them crossing one of the boardwalks hours later. I wish I would have asked their names and email addresses.

The picnic area at the front of the Trace is filled with giant oaks and there are a lot of downed limbs which makes it look inadmissible, but after negotiating the destruction I found most of it is wide open and quite majestic. I hope it is cleared and opened soon.

Leaving the picnic area, I crossed the fence into the Trace with the intention of walking the main road to the locks and dam on the Trinity River. The locks are maintained by the Wallisville Lake Project workers and the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers on the east bank and if my feet are any indication, this is about 4.5 miles away on a very rustic and storm-beaten dirt road.

The last time I was here was about 3 weeks ago and the fires that were burning then were now out, but the pleasant smell of wood smoke lingered. I couldn’t get over the feeling that I was seeing raw nature though, as fire-burned areas existed long before man and this burned area looked plum primal.

I was delighted to see the oddly red-colored raccoon at work looking for crawfish, which I spied the last time I was here, but this time, he had the jump on me and ran before I could get more than a blurry photo. This trip allowed me to glimpse numerous well-fed nutria, shorebirds, predatory birds, a small snake and diverse ducks, but alas, it is still too cool for alligators. The upside is the absence of mosquitoes.

I made my long walk in the sun to the locks and back feeling totally cleansed by the exertion and sunshine logging in about ten miles, if I can include the many meanderings I allowed myself and I posted my photographs here, for all to enjoy.

JJ Mayes Wildlife Trace Feb 2009

Friday, February 06, 2009

Tamales Rivals in Baytown? Not a Chance!!

I set out this week to find the best tamales in Baytown. It’s a daunting task to put it mildly and girded with the knowledge that food tastes are relative to each individual person, I forged on (anyway) with reckless abandon. It ain’t over until it’s over, so if you know of a tamale maker that needs investigating, I’m all ears, er, uh. I’ll investigate.

My intention is uncovering and exposing the best corn husk-covered and masa-filled tamale shop in Baytown, both to fulfill my craving and to enlighten my fellow citizens. If this sets off a tamale war in Baytown, where tamale makers compete for customers, then we Mexican food lovers will benefit in every way.

Besides, who says we have to drive to Matamoras, Houston or San Antonio to get quality tamales anyway? Hogwash! I contend the best tamales are made right here in our Baytown.

I, as in so many other areas of knowledge, am not an expert in Mexican cuisine, but in my defense, I have over fifty years of experience…eating - and in America, that means eating a wide variety of foods. So, equipped with this vast amount of culinary confidence in my ability to pick out what is simply really tasty, I left fear of failure behind.

Quite a few years ago, my beautiful bride - who was born and raised in the heart of Old Pelly, subtlety- but deliberately, set out to convert me to Mexican food. Given my druthers at the time, I always opted to enjoy Chinese cuisine. This was most likely due to my living two years in Central Thailand. While we were dating, she always hinted towards Mexican food and truth be told, I developed a rather strong hankering for it - to put it mildly.

Oh, for goodness sake, I’ll admit it. I’m addicted to Mexican food – okay? Thank God for my bride, Mexican food and thank God for tamales. Being a nomadic American for many of my formative years brought me into contact with a wide variety of local foods, but Mexican food pretty much tastes delicious regardless of how, where or what is served. Baytown’s rich Hispanic culture is replete with fantastic Mexican restaurant choices I’m told, but many Baytonians have no idea where to start. I’m hoping to change that.

And not to slight enchiladas or any of the other dishes most of us Texicans eat, I’m spotlighting the tamale as the pièce de résistance of my search. I hate to use the French phrase to describe Mexican food incidentally, but my study of Español is in its infancy.

Over the years I’ve enjoyed homemade tamales from Baytonian friends Rudy Aranda and Jose Padilla and whenever they have some to spare, I pick-up a couple dozen. Their homemade tamales are always delicious, but I want a steady supply, so hence, my search and being the geekish Internet dude that I am, I went online and typed into the Google slot the words “Baytown Tamales”.

What popped up on my computer screen was Los Toritos Tamales at 1906 N. Main, right here in beautiful Baytown! Fantastic! My daughter Melody is a fan of their brisket tamales and introduced my bride and me to their cheese and jalapeno tamales; so licking my lips and rubbing my amble belly, I drove down there to have a chat with the owner, Llyda Martinez.

Llyda makes about a hundred dozen tamales per day at this location and about three hundred dozen at her Pasadena shop and come to find out, this shop is Baytown’s only tamale only shop. Los Toritos is named after a nickname her Dad calls Llyda’s sons. It roughly translates as “Little bulls”. The tamale and sauce recipe come from her mother and is of course, a family secret.

I do know the Chili pepper used is called “Chile de Arbol” and the seasoning is just right. Llyda introduced me to a Mexican favorite – “Champurrado” or hot chocolate which is traditionally consumed while eating tamales and it was decidedly delicious also, a perfect combination.

Los Toritos has been open since August 2008 and let me say that this restaurant is destined to become very busy. Thanks to Los Toritos, I can say with certainty that my journey has successfully found its end.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Each Minute of Each Hour of Each Day

In our busy day to day speed-living, the real fulfilling moments of life are as of yet undiscovered, contrary to everything we think or are led to believe. We WANT to believe we are getting fulfillment, but are we? I think not.

By all appearances our individual lives, while arguably peculiar, are still very predictable. Days go by with no apparent change and we are lulled into a semi-stupor state of existence by the mundaneness of it all. We think we are progressing.

Driving to work and listening to the radio drags into a daily routine of zzzzzz and one day leads into a stream of days which becomes a gray area of passed months - and before we know it a whole year has passed…or years have passed.

It’s now February 2009 and yesterday folks were concerned with George Orwell’s 1984 or Y2K. Remember Y2K? We blinked twice and it passed.

How do we get off this Merry-go-round, or how do we bust out of this non-stop cornucopia of blitzkrieg activity and experience a defined sense of enlightenment? Do we need to shave our heads and don orange robes? Ohm ohm. Not me. Can we drive somewhere, get out and blam!, it happens? If it were that simple, we could buy it in the 7-11 stores by now and then it would be cheapened and undesirable.

I stepped out into the chilly thirty-eight degree weather Thursday night and looked up at the star-filled sky. On the horizon, the planet Venus was a few degrees above our beautiful crescent moon. For a fleeting moment I felt I was there with the ancients observing the same celestial display that held them captivated centuries ago. I was there, even though I was here. It was a special moment.

It’s all around us and it’s all going by and it’s up to us to seek after it. No one can do it for us.

Most of us greet each day in a series of sameness, never realizing we are living our lives minute by minute and the quality of our life is dictated by whether we choose to savor it. We are waiting for something big or someone special to stimulate our consciousness and each hour of each day passes without a realization that our state of mind is dependent on us and us alone.

I contend that a moment of blinding truth is worth more than a wheelbarrow of hundred dollar bills and that special moment, that moment when and if it is realized, is probably harder to attain than the load of money. Nevertheless, the money is what we are taught to desire. The great American industrialist, J. Paul Getty is quoted as saying he would give all his vast fortune for “just one happy marriage”. To him, the money, which he had fifty billions of, was nothing without happiness and happiness was something that eluded him. He chased the wrong thing.

Aside from a religious experience or conversion, or maybe a close call with the Grim Reaper, most of us rarely get a peek into real inspirational thinking and I am no exception. My friend and fellow columnist, Jim Finley wrote about writing something truly magical, if I may loosely use that term and I agree with him one hundred per cent.

Maybe, just maybe, someday I will write something that is revelatory and is passed down as worth reading. “Son, read this. It will make a difference in how you think”.

The great Indian sage, Mohandas Gandhi never attained what he was looking for, even though others gladly called him Mahatma, or Great Soul. Gandhi never liked the title, as he felt he didn’t deserve it and in all his works and wanderings, true enlightenment eluded him, according to his own words. The same can be said of Ben Franklin and Ben was considered by many, as the greatest scientist of the eighteenth century. What chance do we have then? Much, in every way, as these great men didn’t recognize it when they saw it.

I dream of the moment when a few divinely-guided chemical synapses pop inside my head and all the pieces of life’s great puzzle are suddenly revealed. Sometimes I feel like I am at the door, only for it to fade and I am left wondering if it will ever come back. The answer is so close, like a parallel universe, but unattainable and mysterious.

So, in the meantime, I will pause and reflect and maybe, just maybe…

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