Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Texas Wildlife & Wildflowers

Texas is well known for its wildlife, from the Coyote Ugly bars in San Antonio, to the beaches on the Gulf Coast, but from the moment we arrived in Texas, we realized that the wildlife here, in the form of birds, deer, turtles, turkeys, wild pigs, and even a panther or cougar of some sort that I saw and nobody could seem to identify, is abundant everywhere. From a maddening good hour before you wanted to wake up, the birds sang a cacophony of tunes that dazzled the senses. At the same time, some of them were predictable, and began each day with the same tune at the same time and led us to wonder, was it the same bird? At any rate, wherever you turned in Texas, there was wildlife in abundance.

One day I came across a group of wild sow pigs that were nurturing their suckling piglets. There were only perhaps a half dozen mamas or so, but there were easily 50 or more tiny piglets traveling aside, “How cute” I said as we drove by them. “Not really” my Texas companion replied. “These pigs are not indigenous to the area, and those 50 piglets will become 400 pigs within a year, and will eat everything in sight, causing huge environmental problem. There is an open season on hunting pigs year round, and hopefully, the landowner here will realize that they have a problem and come down and slaughter as many of these pigs as they possibly can.”

I love animals, and the thought of destroying them really bothers me, but man has created a situation where it is very easy for some of these life forms to get out of control. This includes deer, pigs, and turtles among others, and it breaks my heart to think of having to slaughter them, but we have upset the natural balance, and it seems that all the king’s horses and all the king's men will not make it natural again.

And then there are the wildflowers. Although we left Texas just as the wildflower season was going into full bloom, the flowers here are amazing. Everywhere you go the fields and roadsides are alive with color.

So there were snakes on the road, birds in the trees, deer in the bush, turtles in the ponds, pigs on the run, big cats in the bush, and wildflowers everywhere. Texas is blessed with a plethora of wildlife, but it also has a responsibility to it as well, and I think and hope that they will take it seriously.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


The particular part of Texas that we found ourselves has an interesting type of soil to say the least. After a few weeks on the ranch, I nicknamed this glutinous substance SMUD. Somewhere between sand and mud, this stuff will suck you in, chew you up, and infiltrate every part of your vehicle and every other available pore and orifice that you can imagine.

Not long after our arrival, one of the guests managed to ignore the warnings to keep the golf carts that were available to them “on the roads at all times”. The reason for this warning is that the SMUD, quickly engulfed the poor little cart and proceeded to swallow it whole. By the time I arrived, the guest (clutching what appeared to be a cocktail) had already fled in horror, and the golf cart was quickly disappearing below the surface. No problem I thought as I headed over with my ¾ Ton Chevy pickup that in addition to pulling the Airstream is also fully capable of pulling a 100 foot tall Douglas Fir out of the ground by the roots .

As I drove ever so slightly off the road to attempt a retrieval, I suddenly felt the truck begin to sink faster than George Bush’s approval ratings. This cannot be happening I thought as I continued to sink further. In just moments, I was up to my axles in SMUD and hopelessly stuck. As the sun was already beginning to sink, much like I was, I decided to come back the next day before attempting to rescue my vehicle, hoping perhaps that tiny Texas gnomes would be kind enough to dig it out during the night. Much to my chagrin, there it was the next morning, still buried to the axles, and still going nowhere. Now I have been stuck in the mud before, but this SMUD is not like anything I have ever seen this far from the beach. I once watched a full-size pickup sink beneath the sand completely on the Oregon Coast, and for awhile, I was afraid that would be my fate as well. Pretty soon though, a few good souls but especially my friend Armando pitched in to help me out, and through a combination of manpower and horsepower, finally managed to free me from what I can only describe as quicksand.

Just a word of advice should you ever find yourself in the middle of Texas surrounded by SMUD. Stay “on the roads at all times”!

Monday, April 19, 2010


One of the true pleasures of our stay in Texas was the opportunity to work with Armando. Armando was the lead ranch hand, and an indispensible part of the operations. Always there, always smiling, and always ready to do whatever it took to get the job done, Armando is the kind of guy you want on your team and easily did the work of two less dedicated people.

I am an early riser, but everyday when I showed up at the barn to get things started, Armando was already there and already working. God only knows what time he got started, and he was usually still working when I called it quits from shear exhaustion.

When my truck got stuck in the quicksand that they call dirt here, Armando jumped in with a shovel and helped me dig it out by hand. When a few of the cattle got loose on the road, Armando showed me how to use a combination of food to bribe them and brains to fool them into heading back into the pasture. And when we got ready to leave, Armando showed me that between his somewhat limited English, and my very limited Spanish, we had built a bond that I will always remember.

So here’s to Armando..Via con dios Amigo!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Get along little doggie!

One day the ranch owner called and suggested I “go along” on a “calf tagging" expedition. The new crop of young cattle had just been born, and in preparation for eventually selling off these cattle so the land can be returned to a more natural state, all the young calves would need to be tagged. This of course is something which I knew only enough about to be pretty sure I don’t want to be involved, but what the hell, I grabbed a pair of gloves and met Paul out in the field. Paul smiled heartily as I told him that Carol suggested I “watch” them tag some calves. “Watch!” he laughed, “ain’t no such thing as watching!”.

This turned out to be true, and I soon found myself knee deep in mud and cow shit and watching in amusement as grown men tried to throw ropes around the necks of the baby calves. Much like archery, I didn’t have a lot of experience at calf roping, so I quickly decided that I would just grab one of the suckers. I was almost instantly successful, and in one of those “be careful what you wish for” moments soon found myself with a “small” calf that probably weighed a hundred pounds and was at least as strong as I was nestled in my arms. Needless to say, the calf was not overly happy about this, and I quickly found out that his thousand pound mama wasn’t either. Snorting and bellowing at me to let go of her calf, I found out that the best defense against an angry cow is a cowboy hat. Unfortunately I had left my cowboy hat, along with my cowboy boots and chaps back where I never owned them, and was grateful when Paul came to my rescue and chased mom off. We got that first calf tagged in short order and emboldened with my success, I soon grabbed another and another. While the Texans were having little success with their ropes, when all was said and done, three out of the four calves we were able to tag that day succumbed to my clumsy but successful technique. Final score JB 3….Cowboys 1!

On the other hand, one of the things I did enjoy was riding a horse, and whenever possible I tried to tag along on the morning horseback ride. These weren’t just horses, these were Paso Finos, and a more enjoyable, easy gait ride cannot be had. The 650 acres held a load of visual treasures in the early morning light, and I never grew tired of seeing the oaks or the cedars, the ponds and the turtles, or the other farm animals out for their morning stroll.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On the Job Training

As part of the work we had agreed to do on the ranch, I became involved in some of the guest and day to day ranch activities. This led to some amusing involvement in things of which I had little or absolutely no knowledge. I keep a quote on my computer that says “I am very experienced at doing that that I have never done before”. Never before in my life has this been so true. It started out with little things, like when a guest requested a one hour “Archery Session with Instructor” that was offered on the website. As there was no instructor on staff, and the only one available was me, I quickly became the staff archery expert. As luck would have it, when I was a kid my next door neighbor and constant torturer David was an expert with the bow and arrow. Try as he might, like so many skills that I tried to acquire when I was young (baseball, roller skating, wrestling, etc.), I completely sucked at it. However, what I have learned is that 40 years later, much of the knowledge that I tried to absorb at that time but that my adolescent body was simply unable to use effectively, has lay hidden under the surface just waiting to surface. Apparently this is much like the pimples that at 56 ears of age one would think you are done with, but which still seem to erupt from time to time.

Anyway, as I nocked the first arrow in the bow and prepared to take a shot, all the while pretending that I knew what I was doing, the kids I was teaching watched in awe. Pulling back the bow I let the arrow fly and much to my surprise and their amazement, nailed a bull’s-eye on the first shot. OH WOW, they exclaimed! HOLY SHIT, I thought silently to myself while outwardly pretending that this is something I do everyday. “OK, now you try” I said, breathing a huge sigh of relief that I was now completely off the hook, and wouldn’t be required to prove myself again. From now on, anything I said was the gospel, and they just ate it up.

My next challenge turned out to be trap shooting. Once again I had never even tried this sport before I was required to be an expert at it, but being an excellent shot with a pistol and a rifle, I though “how hard can this be”. What I found out is that hitting a target that is moving across your field of vision at the speed of light with a load of tiny pellets is something like merging onto an LA freeway from an on ramp while towing a truck and Airstream that are over 40 ft. long and don’t exactly accelerate like a Ferrari. Something I do have experience with. It’s possible but not easy, and you may spoil a perfectly good pair of underwear in the process. Shotguns are a loud and messy affair compared to the guns I am used to and firing one is a rude awakening. Fire shoots from the muzzle and the stock slams into your shoulder with a force that is quite surprising. But once again, just like Leonardo Di Caprio in “Catch Me if You Can”, half of looking like you know what you are doing is successfully pretending you know what you are doing. Pretty soon terms like “lead the target” and “try and nail it before it reaches the tree line” that I had heard from Paul (a real expert) where rolling off my tongue. Before long my “students” where hitting clays like experts and all this from someone who has yet to fire a single shot at an actual target. Later I received a nice “thank you” note and a tip from one of the parties whose teenage kids I had “taught” to shoot. Will the wonders never cease!

Oddly enough, fishing was the last thing I had to look good at, and this is something I do know how to do. However having grown up a fast water trout fisherman all my life, fishing for bass and catfish in a pond was decidedly not something I was good at. In spite of that, I did manage to pull of a plausible lesson for some of the guests that day, but they did not catch any fish which is not all that unusual. Several days later when the real fishing instructor was able to show up, his guests caught a total of 15 fish (catch and release), and it was the first time they had ever done it. I was humbled, but oh well, I did pretty good overall, and as they say, two out of three ain’t bad!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Looking for the Heart of a Saturday Night

Most Friday and Saturday nights were spent at Carol’s restaurant. Not only was it the best place to eat for miles around, it was pretty much the only place to eat for miles around. This does not include the Cat Springs Country Club, a converted gas station complete with the old gas pumps that apparently (since I don’t eat them) serves one hell of a good burger, except on Friday’s when they only serve catfish. Surprisingly, no major golf tournament has ever been held here. As a matter of fact there is no golf course, but if you need a warm burger and a cold beer somewhere halfway between Austin and Houston, this is the place.

Anyway, back to Carol’s. Carol, the owner of the ranch/B&B that we were staying and working at, has built a local clientele based on a very un-Texas like menu, a little good wine, and lots of good company. While we soon knew all the usual suspects that would show up on any given weekend, we never got tired of the way they welcomed us into their world.

We soon learned that the always impeccably dressed in his Texas best Poor Ol’ Bob’s wife G. Marie was a world class country music writer and singer who would often entertain us until late at night after most of the regular guests had long departed. We got to know Paul & Robin, close neighbors of Carol’s that loved to drink a little, OK sometimes a lot of wine and laugh and laugh. Paul soon became the natural target for some of my jokes, and was always able to flick it back at me in style. Paul is a giant of a man with a handshake, a smile, and a laugh to match. And who could forget Skeeter, a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer, Skeeter has adopted Carols ranch at Cat Springs as his home, and tirelessly helps Carol with whatever he can in exchange for an extraordinary place to hang his hat and practice his art Then there was Pete. Pete was a character that would show up after a couple of beers at the Country Club for a couple of more at Carol’s and liven up the party. He also has a heart of gold, and one night presented Kate with a beautiful hand-made “Sunday-Go-to-Meeting” walking stick made of Texas Crape Myrtle with a brass head and tip. Kate was stunned and it is just one of the mementos we will carry with us forever.

These are just a few of the wonderful people we would meet, and does not include Carol’s delightful staff. People like Gina who will soon be headed to Ireland to try her hand at acting in a country where she will stand out instead of being just another waitress/actress wanna-be that line the streets of New York and Los Angeles. Or Cindy who proudly showed us the pictures of her beautiful children including her 10 year old daughter who is preparing to break out of small town Texas and leave for Australia on a scholarship program for which Cindy worked her heart out to support her.

As much as they like to wave, most Texans we met also like to laugh. They have an open, no holds barred sense of humor that not only allows them to laugh at the rest of the world, but also at themselves. Not everybody can do this, and it’s one of the things that makes them so endearing. And when they laugh, Texans don’t let out a little guffaw, or a slight chuckle, the Texans we met preferred a great big belly laugh and a smile as big as their heart. While their sense of humor tends toward the more obvious, they seemed to love my sense of humor which tends toward the subtle play on words and the pun. While most of them did not tell that type of joke, they seemed to love them, and it was very rewarding to have a table full of Texans at Carol’s of Cat Springs laughing that big old Texas laugh.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Texas Two-Finger

One of the first things you find out about Texans is that they are friendly. They are very, very friendly and they like to wave at you. In fact, they like to wave at you a lot. At first we thought the maybe it was our Oregon license plates, or the classic Airstream we were pulling, but after we had been there awhile, we realized that they wave at everybody and it’s apparent that different occasions call for different waves.

First, there’s the graceful “Rodeo Queen” wave that you are likely to get from a total stranger sitting on their porch as you drive by. Then there’s the “Howdy Y’all” wave which is much bigger and more enthusiastic and is likely to be given when you pass a group of Texans out for a horseback and Lone Star Beer ride which they are frequently known to participate in. But perhaps my favorite wave, and the one that will damn near wear you out giving it, is what I call the “Texas Two-Finger” wave. This ubiquitous wave is given by most country-dwelling Texans to nearly every truck that passes by. I say truck because I never actually drove a car in Texas, and I’m not sure it has the same status as a truck, but when you are driving a truck, Texans honor you with this wave. It is a subtle little wave compared to the others, and involves clutching the top of the steering wheel and then raising the first two fingers of your right hand in a salute to passing drivers. Maybe it’s because the countryside is so vast out there, and just seeing another human being can be a cause for celebration, or maybe it’s because Texans are just so damned undeniably friendly. Either way it becomes a reflex after a while and something you actually miss when you travel out of state or go to Houston which apparently many Texans would like to believe actually is out of the state.

After three months in Texas this had become such a habit that I absentmindedly did this little wave as we headed east through Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally into Florida. In some cases people just glared at me or I got no response at all, while in others I got the famous one-finger salute so well known outside of Texas. I finally had to make myself stop altogether as I was afraid I was drawing the attention from some of the local police. It’s funny how something like a wave can be so much a part of life in one place, and so out of place in another.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Welcome to Cat Spring Texas!

Of all the States we have visited, one of those we least thought we would spend much time in was Texas. We had both “been” to Texas before, and although the people here were always very friendly, neither one of us had seen much here that we thought would bring us back. What we found out is that Texas, like California only even more so, is so big that you haven’t really “been” to Texas until you have traveled thousands of miles through all types of terrain.

We also found that the people here are not only very friendly, they have a ribald sense of humor, love to eat, drink and party together, and make everyone feel at home.

We ended up in Texas for two reasons. One, you kind of have to go through it to get from Louisiana to New Mexico. Two, we had been invited to the tiny town of Cat Spring by the owner of a 650 acre ranch that also operates as a very unique Bed & Breakfast. Scattered across the acreage is a plethora of small cabins, cottages, and farmhouses available for guests. Each one is tastefully done in variety of themes, and guests come here to get a taste of ranch life and away from the big city. The ranch owner who is interested in returning a portion of the ranch to a more natural prairie state, and “greening” up her operations had invited us to visit and discuss a possible consulting position as she moves forward with her project. The opportunity to spend some time on the ranch and discuss the possibilities for the future was very tempting, so after spending the holidays in New Mexico with my family, we headed back to Texas.

The ranch is situated in the bucolic rolling prairie lands that begin at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. Studded with massive live oaks and dotted with ponds, the ranch is currently home to a small herd of cattle, some horses, chickens, peacocks, geese, goats, a pot-bellied pig, dogs and cats, along with a few emu, antelope, bison, a kangaroo, and even a camel. The long-term plan that they are working on is to remove the cattle and restore the pastures to their native prairie grasses and wildflowers. This is a process that is slowly gaining popularity in Texas, a place where cattle are king, and an exciting trend for the future. The ranch owner also wants to establish a wildlife preserve here where some of the native species such as fox and quail can return and flourish.

Sitting halfway between Austin and Houston, Cat Spring is a tiny little town with only one stop sign, a Post Office, a couple of Antique stores, and Carol’s at Cat Spring, an incongruous gourmet restaurant operated by the owner of the ranch. This would become our home and the source of our adventures for the next three months.