Sunday, October 23, 2011

South Llano River State Park: Part 1

It just doesn’t get any better than this; four weekday nights spent at the beautiful South Llano River State Park, in my favorite condo-on-wheels, in my favorite campsite (I’m not saying):

Part 1 of this blog will probably be short, as I don’t know how to find the words to express what pictures can better say.  This state park is beautiful—and has quickly become, over these last three years, one of my favorite places-- to just be. Part 2 of this blog will post the bird photos from this five day stay, and share some of the wonderful experiences while birding each day.  It will be posted at a next stop with internet access.
I have a friend who has her own unique way of expressing her longings to counter a stress-filled life.  She holds her head a certain way, voices a strength that is honed by what many would call a tough set of life circumstances, and simply says:  “I just wish people would let me be.  I just want some peace.” 
I found it this past week—a sense of peace I haven’t felt in a long time.  But I can’t put it in a bottle, and I can’t sell it.  It takes finding that special place to walk, to listen, to watch, to learn.  For me it took walking, with no other person in sight, the miles of river bottom trails that wind through this hundred year old native pecan grove, hugging the Llano River. Sometimes the rick-man joined me, but mainly I walked and birded alone. Five days, a tiny pattern of time, to walk and know this place.
I walk the path down to the river’s edge.  I stop and look to the left, and this is what I see:

I stop and look to the right, and this is what I see:

I continue to the right, amid the native stand of pecan trees that hold the wisdom of time spent in one place, thriving through good times and bad.  A bountiful supply of pecans are scattered about, many broken open and telling tales of squirrels and birds and other creatures reaping this wild harvest. The river is beside me, talking to me with a voice of comfort and healing waters.  I watch and listen to the screeching voices of Belted Kingfishers, fighting with each other while in flight over the river—fighting that age-old fight for fishing rights; for property rights; for what they each claim to be theirs.

I turn and head deeper into the grove and away from the river.  A grey fox crosses the path, freezing with my awareness, then bolting to a full run, with the beauty of a wild animal not tamed by human encroachment.  I continue away from the river, but not for long, as the river-bottom path does beckon.

In memory of Becki Howell Hughes who, at my age, lost her long fight with cancer.  Becki was a wife, a mother, a career woman—and so much more that I do not know.  But she will always be locked in my memory as a teenager; as a member of our long ago MYF that was so passionately a part of The Way; and as a beautiful 16 year old, with playful personality, and a gorgeous smile that caused all to pause and take note.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Garner State Park: "Hey, I'm only 15!"

After an extended summer of Gulf Coast drought and three-digit heat, the rick-man and I were anxious to escape to cooler locales in our condo-on-wheels--without leaving Texas.  Due to last winter’s CoachHouse build in the RGV (Rio Grande Valley), we missed an entire season of camping in my beloved Texas state parks.  And so within the confines of air conditioned household living, the rick-man and I were actively monitoring hill country temperatures, anxious for any forecast that promised a temperature range that stayed below the 90’s. 
And so finally, a mid-October cool front was forecast, allowing us to pull the Airstream from the RGV CoachHouse lot, northward, through the beautiful countryside and amazing diversity of south Texas.  Many Texans never venture the back-roads south of San Antonio.  It would surprise most to discover the softly rolling hills covered with a beautiful mixture of Live Oaks, Mesquites and shrub brush; and in rocky fields, a healthy supply of cacti thrown into the mix.  This country drive made for a beautiful and relaxing way to reach hill country parks; no I-10 traffic; no large cities to skirt.  And so I drove northward, through the land of Scissor-tailed flycatchers, mockers and birds of prey, pointing ourselves toward a first stop at Garner State Park.
This trip would be my first instantiation of a long-held lifestyle dream:  to spend school-year weekdays (when most folk are at work or school), camping in our state’s beautiful parks.  This lifestyle would bring a completely different experience than a weekend, summer week, or holiday trip, where state parks are filled with the tax-paying masses that enjoy these lovely, publicly held jewels.  For many work-filled years I had envisioned a time in my life that allowed me to arrive at a state park on a Sunday afternoon, just as the park was “clearing” as park rangers say, and enjoy the quietness of a park that would be “mostly empty”.  Reservations and specific dates and destination planning would not be required.  I’d just chase good weather and great destinations.  And weekends?  I envisioned myself “camped” at carefully selected commercial RV parks in pleasant towns, where the week’s laundry would be done, groceries and other provisions could be bought, and blogs could be posted with internet connection.  And so, here I am, this Saturday evening; side-by-side with the other “big rigs” at this perfectly adequate commercial RV park:  laundry in work, the internet waiting my post, and a Wal-Mart around the corner to purchase supplies.  It is noisy with city noise, but tomorrow night I’ll be in another state park.  I have arrived at that time in my life to instantiate my dream.  It feels pretty good. But I digress.
In fact, the rick-man and I arrived at Garner State Park this week ago, Saturday.  The heat chased us out of the RGV, and the cool temperatures beckoned us to pardon any weekend crowd.  And with Garner known as a popular summer destination, especially to families with teens, I had hopes of a “just mostly full” park.  We were lucky—we got a lovely, shaded campsite in the Live Oak Camping Area.   We had lots of neighbors, but only for one night.  And we were staying three.
I had no expectations of serious birding at Garner, but I was entertained by this Ladder-backed Woodpecker gleaning his dinner from the Live Oaks of our campsite:

But this trip to Garner would not be about birding.  This stay would be about relaxing bike rides through the park, walks along the river, and just sitting outdoors to enjoy the beauty and the cool weather.  It was delicious. 
Even though the Texas drought had taken its toll, it was great to see that the heavy rain of two weeks ago had brought freshness to the foliage, and a flow to the river:

And a weekday bike ride to the original campground of the park, where the beauty of the river is the famous and treasured destination to many, gifted an absence of people, and a bounty of nature.  I sat and listened; no people noise; the noise of nature doing what nature does—actively in the present.

But a favored memory of this visit came with the first bike ride to that old, riverside section of the park; on Sunday, when people, and their stuff--and their noise, were littering the landscape.  I was pushing my bike up the one “steep hill” of the park road, looking down at the front wheel of my bike, when I suddenly heard a teenage male voice call out: “Ah, you can ride it up that hill!”  I was caught by surprise as I did not see or hear his presence, as he apparently hiked a wooded trail on the opposite side of the park road.  I smiled to myself, kept pushing, and then without much thought I stopped and called out, into the direction of his voice:  “I want to watch YOU ride your bike up this hill when you are in YOUR seventies!”  Now, I was ready for my expected answer from the male teen—something along the lines of my not appearing to be anywhere NEAR my seventies, or some other banter about my apparent lack of biking skill.  But instead, I got this specific reply from a head that peered out from the wood:  “Ah, I’m only fifteen!”  And with that, his head disappeared from view, leaving only the sound of his fading footstep to speak for our opposite directions and different goals.  I continued pushing my bike up the hill, head still down and hidden underneath my trusty birding hat.  But I was grinning from ear to ear over this unexpected encounter; analyzing his last sentence with its many potential meanings, taking my thoughts from the uphill task at hand.  Do I know his exact thought attached to this response to my challenge?  No, and I won’t ever.  But it delights me that I can continue to wonder about it.  We all see life from our own knot hole.  And from his, I’d simply have to wait an awfully long time to see him do anything, in his seventies.    

Monday, October 10, 2011

Happy Birthday, Bonnie Ruth

You never liked Christmas, as far as I could tell.  Christmas never brought out the best in you.  Seems it brought out the worst of those demons you frequently fought, exhausting you with angst and tears and all night episodes of furor.  You would struggle to wrap presents and place them under the tree about fifteen minutes before we opened them.  I always hated that.  But all soon learned that an offer of help was not a calming action.  I learned some thirty years later the clinical term for your episodes, finally diagnosed at the closing of your life, way too late to bring you any peace.  But the diagnosis did bring me better understanding, which may be a distant cousin to peace.

But oh how you loved birthdays.  You were at your best for birthdays.  I never thought to ask you why, but then I never thought to ask you much of anything during those years that I stayed as invisible as possible.  Now I wonder if family birthdays were your own private celebration of your strength and courage; those multiple months, twice, when added together created over a year of your life, completely bedridden to fight the physical and mental battle that brought two healthy boys into this world.   You won those two fights, and celebrated many birthdays that represented battles won.  But you were like a war hero that survives torture; like a soldier that survives as a prisoner of war:  you never talked about those two episodes, over six months each, confining you to a room; to a bed; to a horizontal position without relief.  I never heard you talk about how you survived, or what drove you to save the lives of those two little ones that 99.9% of women would have lost, simply by sitting up or walking to the bathroom.  The closest memory I ever heard you offer was to reflect on the many things your husband did for you during that period of your life.  I didn’t understand at the time, listening to the calm clarity of your words, that you were expressing your love for your husband.  He helped you save your boys.

And so you taught me to love birthdays.  I loved to be close by when you prepared for those family celebrations.  I could count on those days to find you happy; to hear you sing; to watch your hands work with the joy of crafting the special, from the ordinary.  I watched you place your one and only table cloth on the old Formica-topped round table.  It was a pale green linen cloth that you’d unfold from the cedar wardrobe in your room and carefully iron, five times each year; at least in those early years, the years when you were able.

You made a home-cooked southern dinner, usually involving fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.  I can still smell the fried chicken and see the golden color of the egg-dipped flour crust.  Your husband would cut the whole hen into pieces, working from experience if not skill. You’d pat each piece of chicken with flour, laid out on a sheet of waxed paper.  Then you’d dip the floured chicken into an egg bath that you watched me create, patiently allowing me to beat the eggs with a fork until they wanted to climb over the edge of the bowl.  After you coated both sides of the chicken in the egg bath, you’d go back to the waxed paper and roll the egg-sopped chicken around the flour before carefully dropping it into the cast iron skillet to fry.  I can still hear you talking about how Uncle Frank taught you that the best fried chicken comes from a slow cook without letting the pieces of chicken touch each other in the covered cast-iron skillet.  You’d pile the fried chicken onto an old china plate, lined with two paper towels to sop up the grease.  I’d reach out and break off a knob of the crust from a piece of chicken, and you’d just smile.  God, but you had a beautiful smile that was worn so seldom.   

I attempted to recreate this fried chicken memory a few years ago (with packaged chicken pieces pre-cut by the grocer).  As I carefully laid each piece of egg-dipped and flour-rolled chicken into my new cast-iron skillet, I wondered how I could possibly have never asked how LONG to let it fry.  And as I removed the greasy pieces onto a plate, that no number of paper towels could have salvaged, I bemoaned the lengthy cleaning that would be necessary to remove the grease-splattered mess from my range, backsplash and other kitchen areas within several feet of the range. (And yes, I covered the skillet while frying).  After one bite of chicken, confirming the pitifully greasy product, all the rest of it went into the trash, followed by a whole bunch of paper towel, soaked first in Windex, and then with grease.

But it wasn’t the southern dinner that was your birthday specialty.  It was the birthday cake.  A truly southern recipe for a pound cake, complete with a pound of sugar, a pound of butter, not to mention six eggs.  It was your best recipe, and your family’s favorite.  You would make this wonderful cake more frequently than birthdays, during the early years when the boys were still at home.  But for birthdays, you’d top it with a white icing, homemade in your double boiler.  I’ve never tasted anything that comes close to your magical icing—it was nothing like the frosting of familiar white plastic tubs located above the boxed cake mixes at the grocer.  It was much better than the honoring of the technique in fine restaurants that specialize in lemon pound cakes with crunchy vanilla icing (The Mosquito CafĂ© in Galveston should get an honorable mention for a distant second). 

I would watch you turn on the old gas stove, lighting it with a match, and start the water to boil in the bottom pan of your double boiler.  Then the icing ingredients would go in the top of the double boiler, and you’d work your electric mixer over the pan while it was in a gentle boil on the stove.  My help was safety oriented, holding the electric cord away from the gas burner and side of the bottom pan.  This task gave me a bird’s eye view as the thick liquid would magically transform into a white fluffy substance, difficult to describe, with a texture much lighter than pudding or frosting.  I’d watch you quickly coat the cooled pound cake with the icing, and within an hour it would harden into a crunchy shell that gave way to a delightful softness when I was allowed to place the correct number of birthday candles onto the cake. Today I find it fascinating that I hold such a specific memory of the sound and feel of those candles breaking through the hard outer layer of the icing, and then pushing through the soft inner icing and richly thick cake.  The only bone I ever had to pick about this wonderful icing was that there was no way to secretly steal a bite without cracking the finish and leaving evidence of the crime.  But that was OK, as the top double boiler pan was mine to scrape clean.

I don’t remember birthday presents, although I know they were opened.  My guess is that they involved baseball and softball gloves, footballs and other such outdoor sporting hobbies.  At some point the presents focused on teenage clothing, when the passing of time brought the boys long gone and birthday cakes that came from boxes.  Sad, flat cakes that were frequently missing some of the required added ingredients, as described in the small font on the back of the box.  There was no icing and no white-jarred frosting.  But there was still song, although occasional tears served as accompaniment.  
But today I remember the green table cloth; the fried chicken; the best pound cake in the world with icing I’ve never found on another’s cake.   I remember the happy voice of a mother that loved to celebrate birthdays.  I remember a round table that just barely fit into the small kitchen, with five people sitting around it.  I remember four of the five following the beautiful voice of Bonnie’s song:  Happy Birthday to You.

Today I remember and hold on to those good birthdays.  Today I remember to do as you asked.  And even though a fresh bouquet of silk flowers would be appropriate to replace this past spring’s bouquet, faded from these just completed summer months, I will save the placement of a new bouquet for another day.  Today I remember, and hear your voice:  “Oh honey, please just bring me a single red rose.”  And so today, as in these twelve years past, it is time for me to drive to the cemetery and place a single red rose on your grave.

Sometimes I wonder about the young woman in these pictures—the stories I will never know.  And then I pause from my typing and look down at the hands resting in my lap.  They are your hands. And I smile, and feel the peace that I wished we could have shared.  Happy Birthday Bonnie Ruth: