Finally, I am able to start posting my recaps of my fortieth birthday week in West Texas! I wrote most of this as it happened, saving it to a Word doc on my laptop. I’ve pasted it in here and tried to edit enough so my tenses are consistent, and then spent wayyyy too many hours fooling with uploading photos, which were giving me fits. So here it is – the first half!
The weekend started stressfully. I worked – I had intended to use the weekend to clean up a few work items and pack, but no.
We won’t dwell on that.
Jack had a study session with some classmates. Craig had a birthday party. All of the boys had their choir practice – it was a long Sunday at church, World Communion Sunday. My brother arrived at our house before we even got home from our marathon session at church, texting a picture of himself in front of the house with a quizzical look on his face. He would be joining us for part of the trip, and our late church made us late to meet him.
After greeting my brother (which involved giant leaping hugs from the boys), we brought home some po boys for lunch from a bar down the street, and Randy played with the boys while we packed and cleaned. In the middle of the afternoon, I had to take Craig to a birthday party at a literal mansion a block from their school – a somewhat down at heel mansion, but a mansion nonetheless, where one of his friends lives. They had a bouncy house in the front yard, and tables full of pizza, coolers of beer. I talked with friends while he ran around. He got a bloody nose, and I wiped him up before he stood in line to beat the shark piñata. We headed home a little early – Craig filthy from running around in the mud – and arrived to see my boys and brother tossing a Mardi Gras football with the kids who live across the street. A typical NOLA city afternoon.
My parents arrived shortly after, playfully blaring the horn at the football players in the street, and after some shuffling of the parked cars, we got them moved in. I made sweet and sour chicken and grilled broccoli for dinner. We ate and chatted and then shuffled the kids off to bed, going to bed not long after ourselves. In the morning, the boys did not have school – it was a teacher work day. This helped considerably with us getting on the road – we didn’t have to squeeze the morning school commute into the already-manic logistics. We packed up our car, gave hugs and kisses and loads of instructions, and then headed just a few miles away to grab a quick breakfast before hitting the road for Texas. My brother was caravaning with us part of the way – moving from Germany (where he did a 2 year post-doc) to San Diego (facing another 2 year post doc), and joining us for our drive to West Texas and a night at the campsite.
After a bowl full of grits, two over easy eggs on top, bacon confit (basically chunky fresh bacon bits), and some cheese for me, and sausage biscuits for the boys, we hit the road for Texas, stopping just a couple of times for gas and the restrooms. I read the last Louise Penny Three Pines mystery during the drive (Glass Houses). It was the first of about six books that I would power through during our trip. Discovering library books on kindle has been a life changer for this gal – I’ve always got two on the go, plus at least one or two on audiobook. I made sure to load up the kindle with downloads before we left, and I churned through them on the trip.
Our first night would be spent in San Antonio with my youngest sister, her husband, and my ONLY nephew (not for long! We have another one coming in February – a boy for my OTHER sister). We met them at the Gristmill, a charming, sprawling, mostly-outdoor restaurant perched above the Guadalupe River in the Texas hill country town of Gruene. It was raining, and so we did not get to explore as much of the grounds as we’d hoped. However, as it was Monday, there was no wait, and there were plenty of open tables under the patio cover, out of the rain. I had pan seared, seasoned trout with mashed potatoes and what appeared to be an entire head of broccoli. Everyone else enjoyed steaks and burgers, and a beer or margarita or two. After dinner, the rain had slacked off enough that we could walk up and down a few levels to try to see the river below, while Baby Charles, a new walker, bossily shoved each of us in various directions. Kid knows what he wants, and is not shy about hollering it at you. We all cracked up at this pint-sized dictator barking orders at us in his baby babble. He reminded me of my herding dog – insisting we all stay together in a pack, and furiously correcting you if you fail to obey.
We walked through a light drizzle across the street in the Gruene historic district, and bought ice cream cones at a quirky general store full of Texas knick knacks. You could get just about anything in the shape of a gun or armadillo or Texas itself, including coffee mugs and potholders, and there were several dozen varieties of grainy tart German mustard. My brother, home from his 2 year stint in Munich, joked about his inability to escape German food.
After perusing the taxidermied horned toads and cowboy boots and hats, and following Charles as he careened wildly around the store, inches from bringing down every display on top of his fool toddler head, we headed back to the cars and home. Charles went to bed, with the poutiest lower lip wobbling in theatrical pathos at having to leave the group (it was effective, his Aunt RG would’ve let him stay up all night to avoid that sad face), and I went up to wash my face before a little nighttime chat with the group. Then I headed to bed and downloaded a Ruth Rendell mystery – From Doon with Death – and read until my eyes closed.
The next morning, we got up fairly early and kissed the family good-bye as they went about their work/school schedules. We headed to an authentic Mexican restaurant in a strip mall and had chilaquiles and migas and beans and soft homemade flour tortillas and augh, it was worth every stomach cramp that followed. I am now committed to attempting to make my own tortillas, because these were so fluffy and delicious.
We headed off into what turned out to be a pretty legit storm, and so pulled over to buy some groceries at the H.E.B. and camp fuel from the Wal Mart, and wait out the storm. Back on the road, we headed down I-10 before turning off to drive through the Texas oil fields – the drive was like being on another planet. No civilization as far as the eye could see, just oil derricks and huge white Ford pickups and trailers where the workers must live while they’re on a monthlong shift. My brother’s car and mine appeared to be the only ones that weren’t being driven by workers. The landscape was entirely flat and scrubby, but the sky was blue and the clouds were white and the driving was clear. I finished my Rendell novel, then waved my phone around in the air in a vain attempt to download another in the snippets of cell service that flashed across the screen during our drive.
Within a few hours, we were almost to the Guadalupe Mountains. They rose up from the desert floor, blue in the distance, ridges and features looking painted on, capped by crisp white clouds. We were driving through the set of a movie Western, nothing modern in sight (besides ourselves and our car) – it could’ve been 1818 for all the landscape was concerned. There were signs dotted here in there in the nowhereness, most advertising fresh water, which must be in short supply out here. The temperature gauge on the car read 72 degrees – about 20 degrees cooler than it has been at home. We were still in the foothills, but once we started to climb in elevation, that temperature would continue to drop precipitously.
The massive clouds cast their massive shadows across the inky mountains. The brown rolling foothills were dotted with scrub brush. There were no trees. The closer we got, the more detail filled itself in on the mountains – gullies and ridge points and pleats, a largely flat top, the whole set just rising up out of the desert floor. There were only a handful of cars.
We pulled into the visitor’s center, for a brief look, before heading to the surprisingly full campground. It looked for a moment like we may be out of luck vis a vis a campsite, but in the end we found the very last unoccupied site – one that was high up and exposed to the pretty powerful gusts of wind. The elevation at the Pine Springs campground is over 5,000 feet, and the wind was funneled through the gap in the mountains to rattle the tents and knock over camp chairs, sending trash bags flying across the desert. The temperature was in the 50s, the air brisk and cool. We set up camp – my brother brought his own tent, and he pitched it next to our two person tent. We set up the campstove and I got some sweet chili chicken kebabs frying up while the boys finished lugging our stuff up the path – the chicken smelled delicious.
We drank a beer and nibbled on hunks of bread while we set up the rest of camp and waited for the chicken to cook through. There was some cloud cover, but it didn’t blanket the whole sky, and as the sun went down we began to see stars upon stars upon stars.
After dinner we put a pot of water on the stove to boil for dishes, and sat in the camp chairs and talked and looked at stars. We did the dishes up – scrubbing them in a plastic bin with a little soap, then dipping each into boiling water to sanitize. They dried quickly in the cool dry air, and we packed everything up, putting the smellables in the car to keep them safe from wildlife, and fell asleep to the sound of wee little coyote howls in the background. (I’m sure they’re quite vicious, but they sounded tiny and sweet.)
It was a cold night for me – in the 40s. My core was fairly warm, but my sleeping bag was not holding in my body head and my legs and arms were freezing, despite being dressed in many layers. My brother had the same experience – the Prof was warmer, I guess he won the sleeping bag lottery that night. We woke early, well before dawn, and the stars were still out and amazing. When we got up, my brother’s tent was empty – he had hopped up, too cold to sleep, and hiked a ways up the mountain to get a really amazing view of the sunset. Eventually he returned, we put on coffee and sausages, and ate apples and yogurts and sausage and small pineapple turnovers. Then it was time to say good-bye to my brother – he was heading off to his new job, his new life, in San Diego. We gave him big hugs and waved good-bye, and then started getting our packs together for our day-long strenuous hike.
We wore layers, and comfortable socks and hiking shoes. I wore running gear – although it left my lower legs exposed to the whipsaw of grasses (and occasionally, razor-edged agave) that intruded upon the trail, it kept everything from chafing – key for a 10 mile hike! My giant Mickey Mouse shirt looks sort of silly in pictures, but it was soft and comfortable, and my sorority sweatshirt was warm and sturdy. It would be in the high sixties that day at our campsite, but about ten degrees cooler up at the ridgeline, and so layers were key. I wore a baseball cap that really, really wanted to fly off my head in the gusting winds, and I slathered sunscreen everywhere – it was sunny and exposed, despite the chill, and I did not want to come away freezing+sunburned. We packed pepper turkey sandwiches, gala apples, carrot sticks and peanut butter, and trail mix and protein bars, plus three bottles of water apiece.
We headed to the visitor’s center first, to buy a better map of the trails and to check in with the rangers and pay our camping fees. The ranger recommended a good full-day loop, and after one last visit to the pit toilets, we headed that direction.
The trail started with a meandering, gentle uphill trajectory, before a rapid climb of about 2,500 feet over roughly 2 miles, in a series of steps and steep switchbacks. Base camp elevation was already 5,822 – the air was thin for us sea level dwellers, and it did not get easier to breathe the higher up we went. I stopped at just about every switchback to catch my breath, but slow and steady wins the race, and after about three hours of climbing, at 1:15 pm I topped the ridge, gasping like a fish out of water and starving for lunch. The Prof had gone slightly ahead, and was waiting for me there – we found a relatively smooth rock under a tree and ate our packed lunch, recovering from the hard work of the climb.
The trail was well maintained, white dust and rock, with occasional rock or wood beam steps hewn into the ground to help hikers navigate the steeper parts. Small trees drooped fetchingly over the rocks, while giant cliff faces loomed up overhead. I would occasionally sit for a moment on a rock under a tree and look at the tiny agave and bell flowers, the grasshoppers and praying mantis and butterflies. The weather was mild, a few wind gusts but nothing bad, high 50s/low 60s and sunny, and I’d turn my gaze to the rock formations, the veins of color twisting through the giant slabs, distracting myself from the heaving breaths I was taking after only a few steps.
At the top, we were suddenly immersed in a lovely pine forest. I pulled on my sweatshirt –chillier up here in the shade – and inhaled the soothing pine scent. Our feet crunched on needles as we walked along the trail, even now that we’d completed our climb. The grasshoppers were large, and would leap out of our path as we walked, with a startling clacking sound. The trail meandered along the forest, and then into an open meadow – tall grasses brushed our legs as we walked in the meadow for a bit, and then up through forest, and then along the exposed ridgeline, with views out across the flats and buttes in the far distance.
After some more mild ups and downs along the forested path, we came to the descent – ribbons of white paths, gentle switchbacks meandering across the sheer mountainsides. The rubble made these paths unpredictably slick, and with sheer drops in some places, it was a down-hike to keep you on your toes. We slipped and slid a bit, but no major falls, and soon we were at the foot of the mountain, hiking the last mile or so in the meadows.
According to my iphone, we walked 15.1 miles, 32,558 steps, 118 floors.
Once back at camp, we got some fresh clothes and put them on our still filthy, salt encrusted bodies (at the time I’m writing this, I still haven’t had a shower!) I washed my face and hands at the picnic table, and then got to work on dinner – beef stew. The Prof lit the finicky camp stove while I sliced onions, carrots, and garlic, and then I slipped them all into a stew pot to soften. I made a little space in the middle and put half a pound of beef stew meat inside, then tried to get it all good and seared and partly cooked before pouring over a can of beef broth and half a bottle of red wine. It boiled, lid-on for a while, and then lid off so the alcohol would boil off. We ate slabs of French bread slathered with butter while we waited, and I sipped red wine and looked at all the pictures I had taken. After dinner and dishes, we sat below the clear sky and the stars a while, chugging some ibuprofen before crawling into the tent. I slept fitfully – too cold, then too hot, then startled awake by nightmares.
In the morning, we woke at dawn and packed up the car, then headed towards our next destination – La Cantera resort. We stopped in seedy, down-at-heel Van Horn for McDonalds breakfast burritos and coffee, then headed off down I-10 for some amazing views of the rolling West Texas hills, on our way back to San Antonio.
We pull into La Cantera a little before 4pm. The resort is SUPER TEXAS. It was lovely, but everything was oversized – a giant lobby, with giant chairs and couches, and a giant painting of a horse over a gigantic fire. Outside in the giant courtyard were several seating areas, large cushy chairs surrounding fire pits, with a long pool of water leading to a fountain and some large abstract sculptures. Down a terrace or two was a pool, and if you wander its giant length you find waterslides that take you down another level to a kids’ pool. Back across the first pool, there is yet another set of stairs that will take you down to the adults only pool, which is where we headed. There was some sort of leadership conventions going on while we were there, and there were some slightly obnoxious adults in the pool and Jacuzzi, but it wasn’t full of people, so we found a quiet corner and relaxed. The pool was heated, just slightly, a perfect temperature, with an infinity edge. We lounged at the edge and looked out over rolling Texas hills – part golf course, part homes, and I turned my gaze downward toward the infinity edge where the water pours over and into a grate covered with river rocks. I was staring directly into the beady black eyes of a little snake, who quickly wriggled his way down into the rocks, only to poke his head back up a few feet farther down. I kept a wary eye on my buddy with equal parts affection and healthy fear. He mostly just chilled in the water with just his head out – black and yellow, small head, didn’t look poisonous. Eventually he made a couple of attempts to crawl out altogether and escape into the grass, but couldn’t quite get over the lip of the retaining wall. We eventually left, and while I was somewhat concerned for his welfare, I was also not planning on climbing in there and picking him up, so I hope he figured it out.
After soaking a bit, we headed up for showers and then to get dressed for dinner. We went to a place called Whiskey Cake – a Texas-meets-hipster, farm to table type place. All of the waiters wore suspenders, and our particular waiter had a handlebar mustache and tried to talk me into a jalapeno shot of some kind, which I declined in favor of the Alright Alright Alright – an Old Fashioned made with rhubarb bitters and whiskey that Matthew McConaughey allegedly distills these days. Gimmicky, but the drink was tasty, if a bit sweet. The Prof had a Blanton’s, on ice.
We ordered a goat cheese fondue appetizer, which was really a sort of goat cheese queso situation, with tiny olives and sun dried tomatoes baked into the cheesy goodness and toasted triangles of spongy bread to spread it on. We paired it with a flight of local beers.
For dinner, I ordered a rotisserie quarter chicken and brussels sprouts, and the Prof had pork brisket with shaved pickled carrots on a bed of really delicious cheese grits. We split a whiskey cake with coconut ice cream – the namesake of the restaurant, it was a large slice of chocolate cake with cayenne spiced walnuts on top, along with hand whipped cream. Um, yes, thank you. Amazing. With our dessert course, I paired a rye Woodford reserve on ice, and the Prof finished with his favorite of the beer flight, and after we had eaten as much of the dessert as we could fit, we sat in hanging cocoon like chairs in front of a fire and slowly finished our drinks.
We returned to the hotel and tried to find a cushy seat by a fire, but they were all crowded with obnoxiously loud people obviously at this conference, and so we eventually gave up and went back to the room and got into pjs. That night held a bit more insomnia for me, though I did eventually fall asleep in the (predictably giant) king sized bed.
We woke at 6:30 or so next morning. I put on Princess Eugenie’s wedding for a bit, until the Prof snuck in and switched it to the Weather Channel while I was taking a shower. Royal fashion was much more fun than watching Jim Cantore suck the grief marrow from the bones of the poor people of Mexico Beach, I think. Harrumph.
Then the Prof headed down to swim a bit more in the pool, while I readied myself for a massage. I packed up my things, which the Prof would load in the car for me while I was enjoying my spa time, and dressed in a swimsuit. I took the elevator down to spa level, and didn’t even make it out before I was hit with a wave of nausea and lightheadedness. Whoops – can’t skip breakfast. I got back in the elevator and went up to find the sundries shop, and bought myself a cranberry juice and cranberry muffin and took my cranberry-lovin’ self to the courtyard to eat. Then it was down to the spa, refreshed and ready to be manhandled by the talented fingers of a massage therapist.
My appointment was at 10:15, so I got there an hour early to enjoy the quiet room. I was blissfully alone for almost the entirety of that hour, and floated in the vitality pool (a pool with the saline solution just right so that you float effortlessly), passed on the herbal steam (it was 100 degrees and damp, just feels like going outside right now in NOLA), and spent many, many minutes in the blistering 165 degrees of the salt sauna. The heat was like a laser, tracing down my skin and burning my nose and lungs, and it smelled amazing – cedar and salt and hot. I could only sit in there three minutes at a time, but it made me decide that when I am a billionaire I shall build one in my mansion.
Rotating between the vitality pool, the cold shower, the salt sauna, and relaxing in a cushy chair overlooking the Texas hills, I whiled away an absolutely gorgeous hour. I meditated some, attempting to remove the work anxiety that I’ve struggled to slough off on this week trip, including listening to a guided gratitude meditation. I closed my eyes. I did not look at my phone except to load the meditation, and check the time to be sure I went to the waiting area by 10:15. In the waiting area I had cool lime and cucumber water, and cocoa tea (just tea, but with chocolate notes in the herbal blend), and sat in a room of people clearly here for a wedding or other family event who were just yakking it up. Like the pool folks and the fire folks, they were a little intrusive into my reverie. I don’t begrudge people their good time, so I didn’t let it irritate me visibly, but I was a little eye rolly at how loud these folks were. Read the room, there were people napping in there!
My massage therapist came to fetch me. A slight, older woman, with her hair piled on top of her head, she asked me where I particularly hurt (“where are you carrying your tension today, dear?”), and I told her NOT to touch my toenails, which still feel not properly seated in the nail bed after our hike. Otherwise, I asked her to please stretch my hip flexors and lower back, and work my calves which remain tight from our trek uphill. She did all of this and more, working my shoulders, neck, head, and tiny pressure points across my face.
After my heavenly massage was complete, I drank some water and some tea, got a quick shower, and headed to meet the Prof at the entrance to the spa, where he was waiting with the fully packed car. Then we headed off to San Antonio proper.