Archive for the ‘Stuff’ Category

Chickpea Flour Pancakes

Friday, July 17th, 2009

This is not about breakfast. Well, not necessarily about breakfast. Pancakes are things made from batter and fried in a pan. The pancakes I’m talking about here could, I guess, be breakfast fare, but the focus is on (A) dense nutrition and (B) extreme simplicity.

Chickpea flour can be had at your local supermarket in packages from Bob’s Red Mill. That stuff is fine. There’s a variant that involves a blend of chickpea and fava beans, which would also probably be fine. However, if you have a local Indian market like MGM on Burnet in Austin, get your flour there. It’s generally labeled “Besan” or “Channa Dal Flour”. Channa dal are a legume, possibly a cultivar of ordinary garbanzos but I don’t think so. They taste better and are (I think based on thin Internet evidence) that they’re somewhat better for you. Anyway at MGM and similar places you can buy serious quantities of chickpea flour for not too much money.

The pancake recipe – the basic one – is weirdly simple: equal parts, by volume, flour and water. The result is a batter that seems way too thin if you’re used to making ordinary breakfast pancakes. A lot too thin; like, “there’s no way this is going to work” thin. It works.

Chickpea flour isn’t super-fond of being mixed into water, so you can either do it carefully with a whisk, and strain it a couple times, or you can just dump it in your food processor and subject it to several amps of high-speed sharp-bladed turbulence. Also I think that the motorized mixing seems to build up some protein chains to make the final pancakes have a little more structural integrity. Finally, of course, if you’re putting other stuff into your pancakes, the food processor is a big help anyway.

Flavoring possibilities are pretty broad. Go South Asian with coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne powder, and salt. I’ve purreed in some blanched spinach to great effect. I have a plan to make some seasoned with basil, chive, garlic, and oregano, and then bake them into a sort of cheesy casserole. The main thing to make sure you do is salt them, or else plan on serving them with some salt-bearing condiment, sauce, topping, or whatever.

Anyway mix up the seasonings of choice, the flour, and the water, all together into your suspiciously runny batter. Get a non-stick pan fairly hot (remember, the batter is really wet), but not so hot as to kill all your birds of course. Spread a little oil in the pan (I use one of those curiously not-as-useful-as-they-look silicone brushes for this) and then pour in a quarter-cup or so of batter. Once it hits the pan, tilt it around to let the stuff spread a little. Making these things thin isn’t super important but it’s aesthetically pleasing.

The first side will cook in a couple minutes, depending on the heat. You’ll notice the top go from wet-looking to a kind of matte sheen. The water content makes these things hard to overcook unless you’ve seriously over-cranked your stove. Flip the pancake with a big spatula (one that won’t ruin your pan of course) and let it cook on the top side for another minute or two.

The texture of these things is somewhat like what you’d imagine a soft plastic tortilla to be like. They’re not quite as bendy as a tortilla, at least a wet one, but they’re floppy and toothsome. They taste pretty much exactly like whatever seasonings you applied, plus a pleasant slight earthy backtone from the flour itself.

If you have a big sack of the flour around, and a good easy-to-wash pan (or, I guess, a plug-in griddle, though that’d make it hard to do the tilt-and-spread part), just flour salt and water are a damn good and very nourishing 5 minute snack preparation. I’m told that they freeze and reheat very well, which makes sense because unlike breakfast pancakes they have no “light and fluffy” phase. Make them spicy. Add spinach in the food processor step. Add some ground flax if you’re one of those flax people. Nutritional yeast. Whey powder. Sesame seeds. Sugar. This stuff is awesome. You won’t believe how filling (in a non-gross way) these pancakes are.

Another “Animal Planet” Experience

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

My overall landscaping strategy for my back yard is to allow any plant that decides to live there, live there. This means that parts of it have that “this must be an abandoned building” look. There are a variety of yaupon hollies (including one that we, laughably, paid to have planted), a large mulberry tree, a flourishing pittosporum bush, a poplar scion from a tree next door, and all sorts of other things. There’s also a raised garden with some rose bushes gone wild enough to dabble the imagery of any scene from a Brontë novel. It’s been that way for years. It looks both terrible and beautiful at the same time. The weird gnarled hollies bloom in the spring, and they’re quite pretty. The blossoms ripen into clusters of bright red berries, and they’re nice too. The mulberry makes an awful mess in the spring but it attracts mockingbirds (and probably rats) and my kids make purple mush out of the berries in a long series of annual rituals.

Of course, a downside of maintaining a vacant lot in my backyard is that it appeals to members of Kingdom Animalia as well. A wild (or feral) rabbit this year delivered a litter of kits in a superbly-hidden nest under a 1-foot-tall rose mallow plant in a large gravel pit. A small plastic beach ball was the key to secrecy. It took about 3 minutes for my daughter and my rat terrier to find the nest of course, with the ultimate result – after 10 long, long days of bewilderment on the part of the poor rat terrier, restricted from the yard over that time until the kits became at least basically motile – being a large number of new rabbit stamps on the dog’s kill list. (I like rabbits just fine, but if I’m housing and feeding a rat terrier it makes no sense to disallow it from ridding the yard of what it considers “vermin”, as that’s basically the only thing it lives for. It’s pretty bad at hunting, so baby rabbits – who apparently react to a dog in the yard by standing still – are great prey for this animal.)

Back to yard maintenance. A thing I don’t do – though for a short time I tried – is maintain my own lawn. I’d much prefer to have no lawn at all, which is to say that I’d like to have a full-blown impassable Hill Country thicket outside the back door, with (possibly) a couple of semi-maintained paths hacked through for access to some planned areas like the butterfly garden and the herb patches. That would probably bring down the Neighborhood Association storm troopers, however, so we’ve still got grass and we keep it alive. Thus we pay the cheapest, least-competent lawn service in existence to mow the lawn. They come once a week, or once every two weeks, or basically whenever they decide to.

Last week, during the lawn maintenance process, one of the lawn men knocked on the back door with a look of alarm. Elaine answered, and over the noise of his idling weed whacker he told her that he’d just seen a rattlesnake slithering over the rock wall into the middle rose (Brontë) thicket. She pushed him for details, as we’ve learned that lots of people mistake (harmless) rat snakes for rattlesnakes, but the guy said that he’d seen the rattles on the tail.

Well living in this goofy neighborhood, one has to imagine that pretty much anything that might live in the greenbelt around the development has probably strayed into every single backyard at one time or another. The fences are all old and rotting, so there’s nothing but the variously-demented pet dogs to keep vermin out. I’ve seen raccoons and opossums and rat snakes and rats and (of course) squirrels, and I’m sure that ring-tails and foxes are around. I’ve seen armadillo evidence (little holes where they dig for grubs). Oh, and the rabbits of course. Thus the idea that a rattlesnake would pass through seemed totally believable, but we figured that nobody’s backyard – especially ones with yapping idiot dogs and loud kids – would be much of a home for a rattlesnake.

That night, accompanying said idiot dog out for her evening vermin hunt, I was musing to myself that the noise from all the arboreal cicadas was so loud that it probably would be impossible to hear a rattlesnake rattling. I watched the dog sniff along the fence line heading for another raised “garden” in the corner, itself filled with a holly, some volunteer red oaks, random bushes, vines, and other unidentified vegetation. I couldn’t see it at all in the dark. As the dog moved into complete shadow, and as I thought about the noise of all those bugs, Gypsy suddenly jumped back with a “yip” and gave a couple more barks. Concurrently, I heard a very distinct and robust rattle coming from somewhere smack in the middle of the shadows.

I know I’ve probably heard rattlesnakes rattle at reptile shows or whatever, and of course I can’t be positive that that’s what I heard, but it wasn’t a bug or a bird and it was coming from low along the ground (or maybe the garden), and it sure as heck sounded like a rattlesnake. It was very assertive; really, I thought, a pretty useful thing to have as an animal. The dog, thankfully, didn’t think the snake looked like a squirrel, so when I demanded that it go inside immediately it ran up the deck steps right away.

So with a rattlesnake more-or-less definitely hanging around, what do we do? Once again, there’s only one answer: we call Amazon Rodent & Wildlife Control to secure the services of intrepid zoologist Rio Tenango. Of course, in Austin calls for tiger removal are probably pretty rare, but surely rattlesnake removal is a close second. We call and are told that they can treat our yard/house with a repellent mixture that should keep all but the dumbest snakes away. Elaine booked a house call. She asked if I thought we might be buying “snake oil.” Well, in a backwards sort of way, yes.

The Amazon team showed up outfitted with anti-pointy-teeth leggings and heavy boots. Rio got to work going through just about every square foot of vegetation looking for the snake, while his trusty assistant/spouse (I think? sorry if I’m wrong Rio) mixed up the anti-snake powder. I won’t divulge the recipe because you really need to see these people apply it to get the whole Tao of snake-repelling.

So our house is now radiating snake terror waves in all directions. I never really minded the non-venomous snakes like rat snakes, but honestly I don’t think we ever had any permanent residents, and at the rate they eat rats it wouldn’t really ever make a dent in the rat population when it swells up from time to time.


Thursday, February 5th, 2009

I am not a South Asian person

If this is good at all, it’s because I’ve read some cookbooks and tried a few things. Maybe this stuff shouldn’t be called “dal” because it contains or fails to contain certain key things. Whatever. Cook at your own risk. The end goal is a bowl of mush, more or less, so in my opinion there’s a lot of leeway.


My local HEB now carries “channa dal” and “toor dal” dried split beans. I think they’re tasty. They come in 2lb bags. I suspect that at a real South Asian grocery they might be less expensive, but at less than $3 for 2 pounds of dried beans it’s still inexpensive food.

Chickpeas work too, and those are available everywhere. Yellow split peas tend to get a little mushy, but it’s dal so that hardly matters. Green lentils work fine too. Heck I bet pinto beans would be OK though because they’re not split they’re going to require a long soak and more cooking time.


Mr. McGee points out that with dried beans, it takes a lot longer for moisture to get into the bean than for heat. That’s why soaking is helpful. For split beans like the Indian dals or yellow split peas, I’ve found that pouring hot water over them an hour or so before cooking is plenty of soaking time. Chickpeas require a lot more.


This is not so much a recipe as a process description. There are several “parts” to the dal:

  • Spices
  • Aromatics
  • Beans
  • Liquid/stock
  • Finishing Touches

The spices will be the place where you can experiment or guess and develop experience. What I combine in a dry little skillet is a mix of cumin seed, caraway seed, fenugreek seed, ajwain seed, clove, and coriander seed. Cumin and fenugreek and coriander are usually in equal parts, then a little caraway, 2 or 3 cloves, and the ajwain (which is really optional – it tastes like thyme and caraway basically). For a moderately large pot of dal (I think it’s impossible to make less dal than enough to feed four or five people), the total amount of these seeds is about three tablespoons, maybe a bit more depending on how much you like that sort of thing. Fenugreek is pretty important in my opinion, because it really goes well with the taste of the legumes themselves.

So I heat those up in my dry little skillet until they just start to give off some smoke, tossing them around a couple times. Get them off the heat quickly, and then grind them up in a spice grinder or a mortar & pestle (a pain). Set them aside.

In your cooking pot (a big saucepan with a lid), warm up some oil or ghee or a mix of oil and butter; about 3 tablespoons (or more if you like rich dal). When it’s kind-of hot, toss in some brown mustard seeds (maybe a teaspoon). Don’t do it yet however because you need to read the next paragraph.

The “aromatics” are a mix of onion, carrot, garlic, peppers, and (optionally) celery. I don’t know if celery is traditional in India but it’s part of the classic mirepoix so I use it sometimes. Don’t use too much garlic; in fact you can use asafoetida instead if you like. Believe me I love garlic but it just doesn’t balance well in this dish if you use too much. As to peppers, you can use a couple of serranos or jalapenos, or you can add dried cayenne to the dish; it’s not super important. You don’t have to make it spicy at all of course. Whatever you choose, chop it all up in a food processor into little bitty pieces but not a paste.

Now you’ve got a food processor full of dal mirepoix and a hot pan with hot fat and you’ve just tossed in the mustard seeds. Those guys will pop and splatter pretty quickly. Let them roast in the fat for 10 or 15 seconds, then add in the aromatics. Stir those around to let them soften up, like five minutes or so depending on your stove and pan etc.

For a family-sized pot of dal, you’ll want about 1.5 to 2 cups of dried beans. (I should admit that I always make way too much of this stuff but it freezes OK.) Once your aromatics are soft, you can drain your soaked beans and add them to the pot, stirring. An important ingredient to add now also is tomato. You can go with a small (14-16 oz) can of diced tomatoes, or you can add three or so fresh diced tomatoes. They make a big difference, really.

The spices have been waiting patiently in the spice grinder or somewhere. What I like to do is grind them up as finely as I can in the grinder (I have a $10 Proctor-Silex coffee grinder I got at HEB), and then sift them through a fine steel seive. Some of those seeds have crunchy husks that won’t ever soften up in the pot, and they’re unpleasant. Sifting the spices works pretty well – just shake them over the pot and you’ll collect some not-very-fine ground spices in the seive, and the fine powdery stuff will drop through. You can re-grind that if you like but usually I’m sick of dealing with them by this point.

OK now you just need to add some liquid to the pot and let it go. I generally use plain water but you could use vegetable stock I guess. Split beans will take about 30 to 40 minutes to get nicely done, while chickpeas will take considerably longer. Make sure the liquid level stays up. If you like, towards the end of cooking you can add a can of coconut milk (authentic? no clue, but it makes it rich).

Finally the finish. I have gotten really fond of adding spinach to stuff like this – it’s easy and you get a pretty finished product that’s that much better for you. Just slice up some washed spinach into little slivers and dump it in the pot about 5 minutes before you’re ready to serve it. Stir it around and the spinach will cook immediately.

Check for salt and serve with brown rice, or white rice, or anything you want.

Weird Dream

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

Hey all this talk of The Gaff reminds me that I had a weird dream last night. I dreamed that there’s a tribe, or region of tribes, with a quirky “traditional culture”. I think it’s somewhere in Minnesota where there are lots of primitive natives. These people have a strange relationship with a species of large sea turtle. It seems that the human women of the tribe(s), as a regular cultural activity, surrender their very young female daughters to the male sea turtles, for the turtles to have their way with them. The turtles do their thing, with tongues lolling out, and then subsequently they waddle over to the ceremonially reclining human mothers and cuddle for a while. That ritual complete, the male turtles are sufficiently primed to be willing and able to fertilize the clutches of eggs laid by the females of the species in the meantime. The turtle eggs are watched by the tribespeople, and towards the point of hatching they’re actually played with by the tribal children. Some scientists speculate that this play activity acts to stimulate the still-developing brains of the unhatched turtles, doing them good and readying them for a long journey out to sea.

When hatching time is nigh, the elder men of the tribe(s) carry the eggs carefully over land, clear across Wisconsin to Lake Michigan. The turtle eggs are placed on a particular holy beach and allowed to hatch on a summer night. The baby turtles wiggle their way across the sand, down to the lake water, and begin their voyage out to the cold North Atlantic. Years later, they return to be greeted by tribal elders on another ritual evening, and are carried back to the village for the cycle to begin anew.

This may seem shocking to us, but it is a working symbiotic relationship between man and para-reptile. Both cultures appear to be nourished by their activities.

Port Aransas

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

Another winter, another trip to Port Aransas. I accidentally went through Nixon again this time, but a trip to Nixon is always a pleasure anyway.
Nixon, TX mural

The nice thing about Port Aransas at this time of year is that it’s so empty. The beach is huge and surprisingly clean for a place like this (that is, a dump). There are lots of northern-midwesterner old people around for birds and warm weather and all-you-can-eat pizza buffets, but they’re not at the beach much.
Photo of empty beach

Spent five and a half hours on the Lexington with Christopher. While eating lunch (on the ship) we figured that that was probably at least the fifteenth visit. This time was important because they just recently moved a couple of WWII-era 5″ gun turrets from an old destroyer being junked in Brownsville up the intracoastal waterway to Corpus. During the war (in other words, as originally built) the ship had four such turrets on board. They were removed after the war during a major refit in the early 50’s.
Photo of Christopher on the Lex

There’s a restaurant here called “Shells” that’s about the size of a typical garden shed. We went there for dinner on Wednesday, and the food was surprisingly, almost shockingly in fact, great. It’s like somebody who really knows how to cook went slightly crazy and set up shop cooking for retirees and weirdos like us.

The kids can spend arbitrary amounts of time at the beach. Pat and Allie worked hard to rescue a number if imperiled “beach roaches”, which looked like ordinary roaches to me. The built little habitats for them.
Beach roach rescue

We’re headed for The Gaff today, and I’ll report back on how the place is doing. We’re too early in the year for the belt sander races.

The Gaff update

Well The Gaff does not disappoint. We had to park around back because the city had dug a giant trench across the front parking lot. That meant we got to see the famous Pirate Day Gaff float.
Photo of float

It’s a beautiful day and yet nobody’s eating on the outdoor patio. Warm sun, cool breeze.
Photo of The Gaff

Allie and Pat and Christopher all worked on the ceiling tile we bought.
Photo of kids decorating tile

We were lucky to get a table right in front of the racing belt sanders of The Gaff. The sanders won’t be competing again until April.
Photo of racing belt sanders

Median of 2 sorted arrays

Sunday, May 4th, 2008

A nice young man wrote about working on an algorithm problem after being inspired to think thusly by his new copy of The Algorithm Design Manual. Coincidentally, I recently received my copy of the book as well. I was less inspired than Mr. Torreborre, probably because I’m very lazy. I thank him for presenting his interview question, because that got me to thinking yesterday morning. How would I find the median element of the merger of two sorted lists without actually doing a (linear) merge?

I’m now typing in what’s been going through my head, mostly while cooking breakfast for my kids. I contemplated trying to explain it to them, but I decided against it. Over the course of the explanation they would certainly concoct a variety of theories about why I was trying to punish them in such a strange and tedious way. I haven’t gone to search for a result in the book or on the web; maybe that’ll be obvious after you read this. I’ll check later.

First, I’ll say the median element of a sorted list afirst … alast is afloor((last-first+1)/2). In other words, it’s the element right in the middle (rounding down – arbitrarily – if the list has an even number of elements). So for this problem, I’ve got two lists, a and b, and I want to know what element would be smack in the middle of the list resulting from their merger.

I went around in confused circles for a while before hitting upon (what I think to be) a good way to view the problem. I know what the size of the merged list would be – it’s the sum of the sizes of a and b. Thus I know exactly where the median value will be in the result. However, all I know about the result list is that it’s a muddle of values from the two original lists. For any index i in the merged list, all I can say is that the value will be from either a or b.

Now, there are a few cheap things I can do to examine my lists. Looking at an element at a given position is cheap – well, at least, I’m going to declare it to be cheap. So, for example, I can look at the median of either source list, or at the first element, or the last. Another thing I can do, less cheaply, is to find where a number would go in one of the source lists. That’s an O(log2 n) operation (with n being the list length).

If I think about a couple of ordered lists of numbers (with no known bounds on the values in the lists), it’s clear that one list may have values larger than any value in the other, or smaller than any value in the other. If I take at the smaller of the two last values in my source lists (that is, alast and blast), and then find where it would go in the other list, I now know something really interesting: I know exactly what values occupy the positions at the end of the merged list! That is, if alast is smaller than blast, and I find that it would 100 numbers down from the last element of b, then I know that the last 100 elements of the merged array have to be the last 100 elements of b. Of course I can make the same discovery at the bottom ends of the lists.

In the degenerate case, one list might contain nothing but values completely beyond the end of the other list. In that case, I can immediately find the median of the combined lists because the merge is easy. If it’s not, then with 2 log n operations I can snip off some of both lists. Now, some portion of the low and high ends of my hypothetical merged lists are no longer muddled – I know that those portions contain values from one of the two lists. In fact, I can now see what my goal is: I need to get to the point where the median slot – the position smack in the middle of the hypothetical merged list – is not muddled.

So now I have two sublists of the original lists, which represent the “muddled middle” of the hypothetical merged result. Hmm. I’m not liking this approach, because I’m not lopping off sufficiently big chunks of the problem. Well, they might be big, but I’m not forcing any bigness; I’m just whittling the ends of the lists down, and the rapidity with which the lists get smaller is entirely dependent on the values in the lists. I need to get a little more radical. (I do still like checking to see whether one list lies completely beyond the other, however, at least for now. It’s cheap to do.)

Another thing I can do cheaply is look at the median of one of my lists, and then I can see where it’d go in the other list. If I do that, then I will definitely lop off half of one list. I’ll still have a muddled result, except now I know a little bit more: I now have four lists, not two, and by looking at the combined sizes I’ll know that two of those can be forgotten. Now that’s looking good, because on every iteration I’m throwing away half of one list and at least some of the other. I’ll always pick the larger list to be the one I cut in half of course. Eventually, I’ll get to the point where one of the two lists lies completely beyond the other, and then I’m home free.

Coding up something like this makes me feel uncomfortable. I fear “off by one” errors the way some people fear spiders. Sitting here now I can conjure up a vision of working through the day on this stupid thing. I know that I really should try. One thing that’s clear is that it’d be silly to do it in a fun language like Erlang, because it all depends on it being O(1) to look at values in the lists. (Well I guess I could merge two Erlang binaries, treating them as arrays of integers, but compounding my off-by-one fears with the need to essentially code up my own array indexing routines really freaks me out.) I’ll try not to be lazy and do this in Java or something boring like that, at least.

Well I just checked this blog by a smart person and he does this a totally ‘nuther way. I don’t have enough glucose left in my blood right now to figure out which is better, but I bet his is because he doesn’t have to do any searches. He has a weird definition of the median though in the case of lists with an even number of elements. I’ve always thought that the median value has to actually be in the data set, because otherwise there can be an arbitrary number of median values. I’m no statistician however. It probably makes no difference at all for this problem.

Later still…
I’ve been putting together a model cannon kit whose instructions are basically “glue it together”. My eyes are sore. Anyway, to the extent that I can get a lame approximation to the stuff I wrote above working, I think it’s still interesting. In the case of a significant disparity in list sizes, mine converges really quickly on the median because it chews up the shorter list very quickly. When the lists are pretty dense and about the same size, it takes about log n iterations. I’m not sure how to figure the bounding function – maybe it’s log n but maybe not (I suspect the later but I’m dumb).

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.