Saturday, March 13, 2010

El Paso To Alpine - Pictures

I'm sure the music plays, but Feleena doesn't twirl, and there are no handsome young strangers dead on the floor (as far as I know). But this is the original Rosa's Cantina, which inspired Marty Robbins' famous "El Paso".  Behind is the hill the hero of the song died upon.

We pulled off the side of the road during a stint on I-10, and picked up a mesquite thorn that went right through Adam's puncture-proof tire.  We stood on the side of the interstate in 30 mph winds fixing the flat. I used the extracted thorn to attach my homemade hatband to my hat.

We left the interstate to head south at Kent, TX.  Kent now consists of a post office and a gas station, both run by the same lady.  She runs back and forth depending on where she is needed.  Kent, evidently, used to be a more substantial community, as this hollowed out shell of a school attests.  It looks old - they haven't made schools like this since before the 50's, when cinderblock, ugly functional public buildings took over.  There was graffitti inside that was at least 20 years old.  It was a great place to stop for lunch, sheltered out of the howling wind.

After a brutal day of fighting strong headwinds winds while climing from one plateau into the Davis Mountains, we came around a bend in the road and saw our destination - the McDonald Observatory.

The original telescope, with an 82-inch mirror, was built in the 30's, and has been in operation ever since it is located in the darkest spot left in the Continental US.  Unfortunately for us, that didn't help much as the moon was near full, and we could see at night as if the sun was still up.

We took the public tour of the Observatory, which included a tour inside the 107-inch mirror telescope, built in the late 60's.

After the tour, we came back to our host's house.  John Kheune works for the Observatory, which is run by the University of Texas, Austin.  He and his family live on site, and are often visited by these creatures.  Most locals consider Javelinas to be pests, but I thought they looked tasty.  When I opened the door to take this picture, John's cat darted outside.  Horrified, I raised the alarm, but was told that the cat would be OK, but don't let Trinky Doodle (tiny little dog) out, because the javelinas would make short work of it.

After a short break, we walked back up to the telescopes for a private tour with John.  We snapped these pictures during the walk up the mountain:

The lights in the observatory are dimmed to keep the researcher's eyes adjusted to the dark.  The red light in the elevator has a much longer wavelength, which doesn't cause the pupil to contract as much.

After our private tour, we went back for the public "Star Gazing Party".  We were surprised by the crowd.  Our earlier public tour had perhaps a dozen people in it.  There were well over 100 people at the star gazing party.  We were told that in a few weeks, during spring break, there would be over 1000. 

At the Star Gazing Party, the tour leader used a super powerful hand-held laser to point out stars and constellations.  We learned a bunch of new constellations - Sirius, Andromeda, Pegasus were among the ones new to us - and the only new ones we retained.

I took this picture at the party with a 30 second exposure - you can see the movement of a couple of the stars behind the telescope during the exposure:

From the McDonald Observatory, we made our way south to our rendevous with "Bikeman" John in Alpine Texas.  He owns the only bike shop for 210 miles in each direction, and we desperately needed new inner tubes, as we had had several encounters with mesquite thorns.  Here is one of the decorations adorning his shop - a longhorn skull fashioned out of bicycle handlebars and a banana seat.

After stocking up on tubes in Alpine, it was south to Big Bend National Park.  Just outside of the park, we ran into our first patch of Blue Bonnet flowers - the state flower of Texas.  Adam screeched to a stop and began snapping pictures.  They had a thick, sweet perfume that we have detected many times since then on our ride, often without even being able to see the flowers themselves.

Within a few hours of that last picture, the wind had picked up to a steady 20mph, with gusts that had to be at least 40mph.  We were leaning at 10 degrees while riding straight to keep from being blown over.  The gusts pushed me off the road more than once.  Riding off the road is sketchy in mesquite country.
A few miles into the park, we spotted our destination for the night - the Chisos Basin, hidden in these mountains.  We were going to stay with another Warm Showers host at the Ramuda - a converted stables now used by the trail maintenance workers for the park.  We still had over twenty miles to ride around these mountains and up into them, then down into the basin.

By the time we crested the pass, the sun was down, and we were greeted with this sight.  It is a famous view, known as "The Window".  I almost crashed, driving off the twisting descent as my gaze kept lifting to the Horizon. 

The next morning, we walked up out of the pass for a day of hiking.  Back at the top of the pass, we got a much differnt view of the Window, from the same spot:
We did an 8 mile round-trip hike up the Lost Mine trail, which climbed up and out of the Chisos Mountains to the south.  It was a chilly, windy day, and we were being sleeted on by the time we hit the summit.  The views were spectacular, however, and it was well worth the climb.

The day after our hike, we got up and headed out for our boat trip down the Rio Grande.  I'll pick up with those pictures in my next post.

Right now we're hanging out in Austin, splitting our time between Adam's family and sightseeing.  There's so much to do here, I haven't had time to sit down and really work on a blog post in the last few days.  Perhaps the chance will present itself - but it seems like we might be busy from sunup to sundown until its time for our departure.  I will, however, make time to post the pictures from our Rio Grande canoe trip before we leave.

Monday, March 8, 2010

R & R

We are in San Antonio.  Dwight and our host, Steve, are off on a tandem recumbent bike ride around town and I'm staying back, working on some rest and recovery.  I find R&R a bit difficult because it requires me to not be doing.  The only problem is of all the doing I've done over my life, this bike riding is causing me the most physical pain.  Enough that two days ago in Del Rio, TX, I told Dwight I wasn't going to pedal another mile.  My feet have gotten quite messed up, more than Iraq, Ranger School, or SF training ever did to me.  Maybe I'm just not taking it easy enough on myself without the safety conscious army to worry about me.  Or, more likely, I've just worn out my bike shoes and was too stubborn to stop until my toes looked and felt like cocktail weenies that were on fire while still attached to my feet.

Regardless, once we made Del Rio, I was ready to rent a car and drive to Austin, where I knew friends, family and barbeque awaited us.  The previous two days of riding from Marathon to Langtry to Del Rio, were some of the worst weather and strongest headwinds we had faced.  All I could think of was, this is supposed to be vacation, I don't have to prove my toughness to anyone, and this just isn't fun anymore.  Cold, rain and wind don't make for enjoyable riding conditions.

What we did do was ride the Amtrak from Del Rio to San Antonio.  Not sure the bikes would get on the train, but they did and we took the easy ride to the home of the Alamo.

I have had many childhood memories come back to me since we've crossed the border into Texas.  The strongest memories came flooding into my mind when we found our first bluebonnet, the state flower of Texas.  I hadn't seen them in the wild since we left Austin in 1990.  All the places my parents took me, McKinney Falls, Pedernales Falls, Enchanted Rock State Parks, the LBJ Ranch, all started crowding my mind and my heart.  All my family, especially my Grandparents, were moving through my vision like a slide show.

Now, here in San Antonio, visiting the Alamo, where all my childhood heroes perished defending our future freedom and way of life, I find myself especially reflective.  This is one of the main reasons why I embarked on this trip, but it is coming at an unexpected time and place and resulting in unexpected emotions.

After these days of rest, I think we're going to ride the rest of the way into Austin.  Swing through New Braunfels, San Marcos, and maybe Lockhart on the way.  Then barbeque, TexMex, and Thai for a week.

Next week, I expect we will leave Austin with a load of furniture from my Grandparents, and a truckload of memories and drive the rest of the way back to Raleigh.  Not sure that I'm comfortable calling that place home either.  Maybe the girl who asked if I was homeless was more correct than she knew.  I suppose I will have time to explore that thought when we get to my birthplace, Austin.