Archive for March, 2008

Roadtrip Day 4: A Hike

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

We got up moderately early, packed the kids up with breakfast junk from the hotel buffet, and headed out to the park. It was in the low 50’s but it didn’t feel cold; we’re at 3000+ feet up here, and that really seems to affect the perception of air temperature. I had running shorts and a running t-shirt, anticipating (correctly) that I’d be running back from a finished-up crew to the van.

We opted for the “Juniper Cliffside Trail.” The trails on the parks department map are not very clearly described or marked. In this case, we started on one side of the river (the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red), and found we needed to ford the washed-over road crossing to continue. Wet feet. The trail is a multi-use foot-bike-horse trail, and a few squads of bikers – and one of runners – passed us along the way.

The lower reaches of the canyon are “Quartermaster” formation Permian sediments. The white bands are gypsum, in the form of selenite or alabaster (and something else I can’t remember). Up close the white bands look like masses of brilliant thin crystals all lined up vertically next to each other. The gypsum precipitated out over layers of sediment during dry periods of the late Permian, when the world climate was going bonkers due to the conglomeration of continents into Pangea. As the soil dried, got somewhat re-wetted, and dried again – a lot – the gypsum sort-of filtered out of the sediments and was left as those distinctive white stripes.

Above the Quartermaster layers are two groups of late Triassic sediments, the Tecovas group and the Trujillo group. Those consist of random shales, conglomerates, and sandstones in a weird variety of colors. In particular, a pale purple and a greenish-yellow layer can be seen all over the place. On the trail (which is almost completely in Quartermaster territory), occasional arroyos have washed down the grey-green, yellow-green, and purple-grey sands and pebbles to mix with the red and white Permian sediments. It’s really cool to see. The water erosion on the cliffsides give a thoroughly Georgia O’Keefe look.

I can’t resist cheap compositions with gnarly dead trees. The place was easy pickings for that sort of stuff today.

The kids were pretty good about the whole thing. When they’d exhausted their energy, I left the camera bag with Elaine and headed back down the road. About two or three hundred yards out, I heard a couple of panicked-sounding screams of “Mike! Mike!”. I stopped to verify, and then realized I had no choice but to run back. An annoying minivan showed up to mask any further sound as I ran back up the park road as fast as I could (not fast). When the fam came finally into view, they were just strolling along. Pat saw me and came back to tell me that Elaine wondered whether I had the car keys. I expressed dissatisfaction with that motive for a distress call in a way that apparently made Elaine a little upset. I felt bad about that after I found out the effects. It turned out we hadn’t gone that far, because even with my slow running pace it took no time at all to get back to the van, though it had taken two hours to get where we got via the trail.

I sat around the pool watching Allie and Pat “swim” in the pool while Elaine and Christopher returned to the museum. Christopher came back in a couple hours to construct a “replica” of a historic firearm he’d found at the museum. It’s good that he’s satisfied with the most vague topological similarity between his realizations and the actual originals.

We went back to the park in the late afternoon one more time, just to have a look. It’s a really nice park, and with the museum as icing I think it was a nice trip. It’s really far, true, but Canyon is a surprisingly nice little town (compared especially to Lubbock, which had us wondering whether things would keep getting worse as we went north). We ate at a Thai-Laotian (yes, really) place last night, and at the little “Something Different” place today we had a good lunch and a flawless free wireless connection.

Roadtrip Day 3: Cool Museum, Make-Believe Hikes

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

Local temperature was 34 degrees this morning, and the plain outside the hotel was loosely fogged. Our day started relatively late, due to this enormous multi-room suite and its black-out curtains. We headed out to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Society Museum to make it in before the crowds. We were successful.

This museum is large. It’s billed, in fact, as the largest history museum in Texas. It’s reminiscent of the randomness of the Witte Museum in San Antonio or the Texas Memorial Museum on the UT campus (in the latter case, its former randomness – it’s been rationalized in the recent past). The collections include paleontology, geology, Plains Indian anthropology, petroleum production, sea shells, stuffed birds, stuffed plains animals, Indian art, Western art, firearms, cars, old gas pumps, WWII memorabilia, “pioneer” living, local ranching history, and the Texas Revolution. If you’re ever in Canyon TX, it’d be ridiculous not to visit.

After a diffuse lunch period we headed back to the canyon. With our fresh new annual pass we breezed in and drove down to the canyon floor. We had no explicit goals. The day had cleared up and gotten sunny and warm.

The lower reaches of the canyon are walled and floored with orange-red Permian sediments, highlighted by white bands of gypsum. Above that are multi-colored Triassic sandstones and shales. The top is capped by relatively recent “caprock” limestone and caliche. The scrubby vegetation was in various stages of dormancy, but the stark twiggy look was dramatic and “classic.”

The dark twisty trees in this image:

reminded me of the witches from Macbeth. What would Shakespeare have thought of landscapes like this? The harsh light beaming down on our baby hikes over forty or fifty yards of wild terrain wouldn’t have done for those witches, but the terror thorns, the twisted, scraggling shrubs, and the abrasive polychromed crags would possibly have seemed too fantastic to believe. I have to wonder what it’s like on moonlit nights.

The Triassic strata include (in the Trujillo group) layers of “banded” sandstone. Up close it has a shiny gray look, but from a distance it looks dull gray to blue-gray to an almost malachite green. These rocks are pieces that have tumbled down from an original altitude a hundred feet or more up the slope.

The plan is that we’ll head back in the morning for a real hike. We’ll see how that goes.

Roadtrip Day 2: Gliders and a Canyon

Friday, March 28th, 2008

After the long day on Thursday, we went to bed pretty early. Everybody woke up at about 5:30. By 6:00 nobody could maintain the charade of trying to sleep, so Elaine got the kids out the door for the dee-luxe breakfast buffet at the Days Inn. The breakfast area smelled strongly of petrochemicals, as it was primarily inhabited by oilfield service workers. Several semi-toxic packaged sweet rolls and bowls of cereal later we were ready to head out. The sun wasn’t yet up.

The Caprock Escarpment comes into view a few miles south of Post, TX. After Post, highway 84 rises up onto the plateau that is the High Plains of North America. The top-level rock strata is the Ogallala Formation, a fairly recent deposit of more-or-less rocky sediments formed from the broad downwash from the rising Rocky Mountains, stretching south to north across much of the country. The topmost layer is a hard quasi-limestone caliche that’s what was originally called the “caprock”, as it sits atop the typical bluffs that appear up and down the edge of the High Plains.

An interesting thing about this day is that it began about 40 degrees colder than it was Thursday afternoon. Thus upon reaching Lubbock we stopped at a Starbucks (with idiotic for-pay wireless) and then sought out a WalMart so that we could pick up more clothes for the kids. Lubbock is – partisans, please pardon me – a horrid place. For some reason we attracted beggars consistently. After a trip to a cold, windblown Prairie Dog Town (pop. 1)

we headed out, hoping to figure out a way to avoid the place altogether on the way back. However just outside the pale we notice a sign for a museum at the Lubbock airport. We spun around to go there after seeing a pretty good-condition C-47 parked in front. The museum is the “Silent Wings” museum, and it preserves the story of USAAF pilots who flew the various transport gliders employed in WW2 for airborne assaults. Inside the museum was, among other very well-done exhibits, a complete CG-4A WACO glider.

We soon found that the glider was set up such that we could climb inside and look around – somewhat astounding, given the fact that the things required delicate care when new.

The museum was a great find overall. We headed out and got to Canyon at lunchtime. After some pizza for the kids we drove out to the park. The van was low on gas so we didn’t want to drive down into the low part of the park, but we stopped at the point you can take this picture:

Palo Duro Canyon looks to be a pretty spectacular place. It’s a hard thing to capture with photography. I hope to go back over the next couple days, and I want to try and capture small stuff that evokes the visual impression of the big stuff. We’ll see.

On the way out of the parking lot we saw this tricked-out extreme Land Cruiser, apparently ferried here from Switzerland.

Roadtrip Day 1: Fossils, Bombers, Windmills

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

San Saba is a ways away from places that are a ways away from places whose locations you know. Specifically, it’s about 20 miles west of Lometa. It’s a nice town, the “Pecan Capital of the World.” There’s a park there around a millpond. I saw no mill, but there was a bridge.

West of San Saba to Richland Springs, then north across Wilbarger Creek, then west about 12 miles, there’s a roadcut through some Pennsylvanian sediments. We stopped and looked around. Within about a minute Allie had found a slab of fossilized stuff about 8 inches square.

Little chunks of fossilized crinoids were all over the place, sometimes separately and sometimes in little concretions like that. About 3 vehicles passed us during the half hour we rooted around.

We headed out and onwards to Abilene, which we skirted on its southwest side. We stopped after joining I20 at an exit labeled “Tye”. The Conoco truck stop sported a gift shop filled with weird dolls. After gassing and washing up, and after the inevitable purchase of some Silly Putty, we walked out to the sound of something in the sky. There flew a B1B, back to its home at Dyess AFB. Three or four more flew in one after the other, while a C-130 flew over, a couple thousand feet higher, in the opposite direction. It was pretty cool.

There are a lot of windmills – big ones – on hills southwest of Abiliene and out basically all over the place along highway 84 northwest out of Sweetwater. They looked a lot bigger than the ones I remember from northern California, but maybe I’ve shrunk since then.


Friday, March 21st, 2008

wasp photo

I hooked up my homemade “ring flash” Amazon box the other day and took some pictures of emerging flowers. I wasn’t happy with any of them in the on-camera preview, but I finally got around to uploading them. This wasp one looked terribly blurred and over-exposed on the LCD, but it looks fine to me now.

The pear blossoms in which this wasp was cavorting have since dropped off the tree; it only takes a couple days. It’s not our tree; it’s in the neighbor’s yard. It produces a tremendous number of pears. They don’t taste like anything at all when they’re ripe off the tree (July), but my brother-in-law told us to put them in the refrigerator for a couple weeks. After such treatment the pears get a lot sweeter.

This wasp was a little thing; the blossoms are at most an inch across when they’re open.

I got an OK picture of a mutabilis rose blossom too. The background is black because the ring flash doesn’t cast enough light to expose stuff not really close to the lens.

rose photo

“We Are Not Shed People”

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

Backyard sheds are an important part of suburban American life. With a shed comes obligation, however, and some are not up to the demands of shed ownership. In particular, I am not a worthy shed owner.


Our shed was, as sheds go, a pretty nice shed. It had been added to the home (we think) by its original owner, perhaps at the time the house was finished by the builder. The outside walls were finished with similar wood siding to that on the house; the inside was left without real walls. We used it to store a shedful of stuff that we didn’t want, didn’t know what else to do with.


One thing our shed did for the local ecosystem was provide a home for small rodents. This I discovered surprisingly recently. As a grossly unqualified shed owner, I hadn’t been in the shed for at least two years. A large rose bush with gigantic, murderous thorns had grown completely over the shed door. Before that the last thing I’d done was replace the shed doorknob with a new one. Since that time, mice or rats, or both working as a team, had gnawed a classic cartoon-like access portal at the bottom of the bush-hidden side of the shed. Our dog – a “rat terrier” as unworthy of her title as we are of “shed people” – had been showing a lot of interest in those bushes and that area, but had never come anywhere close to actually getting a rat. One afternoon, as I walked out with Gypsy, she and I both heard a brief rustle, and I turned to see a rat on a low holly branch. Gypsy saw it too, and sprang to the attack by cleverly running the opposite direction towards the area where she really suspected the rats to be.

No Shed

At that point I wondered, “Where is that rat going?” Only then did I think to check whether there was another way into the shed besides the inaccessible well-locked door. The next day we cut the rose bush back and checked inside. There amidst the unwanted detritus steaming away in the shed was what must have been some of the most valuable prime rat real estate in the area. We didn’t see any rats at that point, and the dog couldn’t find any either, but it was clear that they’d made much better use of the shed than we ever had.

Rat Check

About $800 later, we’re shedless. It was somewhat embarrassing taking the pictures. There I was, an affluent yuppie unable to maintain a shed in his own back yard, taking pictures of guys forced to wear breathing masks to protect themselves from the rodent filth I’d allowed to accumulate. It made me feel contemptible, but as I was depriving myself of a shed I contented myself that that was appropriate punishment. I don’t deserve a shed.

We’ll put flowerpots on the slab, or something. Flowers and herbs I can take care of, usually. The rose bush will be a lot happier anyway. I don’t know where the rats will go. They were of course seriously traumatized, and to some extent I feel kind-of bad about that too.