On the way back from Uvalde, Texas, after our journey through the underworld in the Caves of Sonora, Bill and I made a delightful discovery in Castroville, an Alsatian community and artists’ enclave with an incredible European restaurant. Although there were some nice rolling hills and scenic vistas on the drive between Sonora and Uvalde, the towns we passed through were a hodgepodge of trailers, decaying and abandoned homes and trucks, unplanned and untended communities. From Devil’s Sinkhole to dry devil’s creek, river; this was devil’s country. Uvalde had a few attractive buildings and some evidence of life, certainly enough fast food joints but other than the” little gallery that could”, The Art Lab, the experience was forgettable.
It was such a pleasure to roll into Castroville. Right away, the layout and feel of the town was picturesque, European, tidy. OK, I betray my roots, I like aesthetically planned communities. The sloping roofs and old country feel of the homes brought back memories of Bavaria. I include shots of the city in the gallery below. The Old Alsatian Steakhouse and Ristorante will be reviewed in the Dining section of this site. Suffice it to say, it was a rare gem. More trips to Castroville are in the cards.
Traveling out to the Caverns of Sonora in Sonora, Texas was made easier by 80 mph speed limits. I was prepared to enter into another world, of twisting tunnels and vaulted rooms gleaming with crystals. We were not disappointed, the caverns were mysterious, well-lit and eerily beautiful, an alien world that was only recently discovered (in 1954). Since there was only a small ingress and no egress, it remained undisturbed, growing over eons, carved by water and by wind. Privately owned, the Mayfield family runs tours for 10 – 12 people at a time. Our guide was a caver whose day job was at TXDOT, the group all people “of a certain age” who were new to the caverns.
The tour began at the surface in the part of the cave that was not considered alive, no longer producing formations. It took about an hour and 45 minutes and descended 150 feet into the earth. They warned us it was humid, so no one was overdressed and almost everyone packed a camera, only occasionally impeding the enchantment of the living cave creature. Several moments stood out for me: one was when we passed a small, extraordinarily clear pool of water, tinted slightly green. There were stalactites dripping over the pool, causing a circle to ripple across the surface, some intersecting but all moving with a smooth elegance that made the water seem like glycerine. It was so silky and luxurious, the gentlest touch of time moving over the water’s surface. I tried to capture the feeling in my body but was shooed along, always the laggard. The group stopped for a moment to sit on benches and experience the darkness and the deep silence in one of the caverns. It was truly womb like, we were immediately enclosed by the soft, dark quiet. Would that we had a few moments in this pre-existent state, all sense of direction collapsed into a point. Bill suggested we return and take a private tour to enjoy this world at a saunter. I agree. I am still trying to get a real sense of geological time. The formations grow roughly one inch per thousand years and are still evolving. The cave is an ancient being by whom we are insects. This feeling reminds me of the Badlands when I realized how many millions of years the dinosaurs roamed the earth. I include a modern dinosaur in tribute.
It’s always nice to be with family for a traditional Christmas dinner. Our hosts, my sister Lucy and brother in-law Bill are beyond gracious. Growing up in a military family with a European mother and living oversees made me a world citizen before I knew I was American. In the last few years I’ve understood how much honor and courage means to me. It takes courage to face the ups and downs, the battle of life. Generally I prefer a more aesthetic approach, but one rises to meet challenges with grit, a quality I learned at home. Missing Aurora, who traveled north to Buffalo for a white (and frigid) Christmas, we were warm but not as bright.
The tables turned to more down home fare at the Salt Lick, as I meandered out to meet my sister Carol, Mike (my other brother in-law) and Dick, in from California and up for ribs. Holy smoke, I believe it has expanded threefold (like my waistline) but the food is still authentic and the people friendly. Except in the parking lot, where the feeding frenzy prompted snapping carnivores to lose some holiday cheer. We got our cheer back at the Duchman Family Winery (formerly Mandola’s) where we sipped some reds and whites, and split North and South. It’s probably clear to most who venture into this blog that I’m “big on Austin” but honestly, where else can you drive out in the country for great barbecue, enjoy the rolling hills and fields, cypress creeks, vineyards, an ass or two and Barsana Dham, a Hindu temple? The evidence speaks for itself. I hope you stay merry through the New Year and into 2011!
Bill and I had fun in San Antonio, staying at the Hotel Havana on the Riverwalk. I was given a membership to the McNay Museum as an early Christmas gift, signaling the start of a new series of photo abstractions. I’ve included a few, but most are in development. Friday evening we dined at the famed Liberty Bar in its new location in the King William district (housed in a former convent). A lovely meal, nice appetizers and a particularly tasty Cotes du Rhone, easily 3.75 stars. Apparently, Black Friday was cause for celebration and a river parade, adding a little glitter to the experience and a lot of traffic. The Havana Bar was a fabulous dungeon with underground cellar or hotel elevator entrances, good drinks and quaint alcoves. While it was busy, Bill, Carol and I managed to take over a sitting room with little fanfare. On Saturday we visited the Pearl Brewery farmer’s market, had a drab cup of coffee and a questionable taco. Off to La Villita looking for blankets then back to the King William district for an outstanding breakfast at Tito’s. For a convenient overnight trip, this was a lot of fun. I recommend everything but the Hotel Havana for a quiet night’s sleep. Charm trumps comfort there.
Getting up early to hike through the woods brings memories of the morning light as it casts long shadows down the mountains, brings fire to the aspen leaves and makes globes of dew gleam in the sun. Smells of pine needles, boggy creek grasses and tumbling water under rocky outcrops begin to fade in my mind, sooner than the sound of the wind through the trees. Clattering aspen leaves and rustling pines sprinkled over a deep, muffled mountain roar, the voice of the Tetons, writ small on the trail to Inspiration Point. We saw quite a few people, an international collection taking two forks of a several mile hike up the mountain. The only animal who made contact was a grouse, almost invisible until she stepped out onto a log and walked daintily by me, a gentle, lovely little being. Her trust and friendliness were surprising and she melted into the underbrush as quickly as she emerged when a young couple came up the trail.
It was good to work out on the mountain, not knowing what was around the next bend, wondering “am I there yet?” stalking the next nature shot. I was tired when I got to the bottom breathing deeply the clean, pungent air, knowing how long it had been since I went to the mountain and felt its strength. I hope it will be sooner than later the next time. It has been liberating to explore this new terrain, see the ancient movement of the earth over time and share a few moments with the animals who taught me much about tribe and community. A wonderful, if brief journey North and West.
Going to the Tetons without seeing Yellowstone was not an option, although tourist attractions held no real allure. Traveling through the Teton National Forest was scenic; more fabulous road pictures of the Tetons offered themselves at almost every bend. Off we went, trailing a fluorescent green VW hippie van (sporting a peace sign and putting along at weed speed) through the forest. Entering Yellowstone lacked enchantment, the mountains balding with acres of trees lost to fire or disease, hard to tell. By this time we were used to the alternating speed limits popping up for no apparent reason – 25, 45, 35 – one rarely knew why or when. We crossed the Continental Divide at least 10 times on the trip, six times in Yellowstone alone. I couldn’t keep track of east or west unless it was clear which way the streams were flowing. Yellowstone held a certain fascination for me since childhood. My grandparents spoke of it and PBS lit a “great lodges of the West” fire in my imagination.
The lodge itself was monumental, a log cabin to dwarf all (and there were many) others. The shot I took inside the lodge does not do justice to the balustrades and massive stair railings, an odd marriage of Grimm’s fairytale meets cowboy campfire. Tourists of every age and stripe covered the ground like ants, scouring the mounds of holy smoke for that perfect shot, a camera safari at one of the West’s great wonders. Bill and I took to the boardwalk for a several mile hike around the main geyser area, waiting for the scheduled eruption of Old Faithful, watching the earth come and then rest for another 90 minutes.
The vivid colors, mineral smells and smoking, bubbling mud and water make for an atmospheric photo and sensory rich experience. It was not hard to imagine a time when this ground was hallowed, a place where the earth’s arteries spill precious minerals, whispering secrets from the deep in plumes of steam and mineral rain. I will not soon forget the sounds, smells and terrain of Yellowstone.
Aside from the crows, who were lured over to us by almond apricot treats, no animals were to be seen. On the way back to Jackson a small herd of elk stood regally by the side of the road but it was not until our hike to inspiration point the next day that we had any sightings. Tomorrow: hiking the Tetons.
The feel of the terrain changed dramatically in Wyoming. While Nebraska and South Dakota had a numinous, feminine quality, it was clear we were entering cowboy country when we crossed the state border into WY. One of my favorite stretches of road was gravel Highway 18 into the Badlands in South Dakota. Rolling hills, sage greens, fawns and purple browns dotted with a variety of shrubs and pine trees evoked the nooks and sensuous curves of a woman’s body, topped with soft, grassy fur. Even the Badlands had a mysterious, softening effect, possibly because the animals seemed peaceful and protected. The Black Hills were more rugged, home to more antelope than cow with a brooding, historic quality all their own. Still, the mystery was present in the pinon trees, the road to nowhere that took us into the woods, the reservoirs.
The flat stretches of coal and oilfields, along with a preponderance of cattle and horse ranches made the eastern part of Wyoming feel distinctly masculine. The odd bicycle on the hill early in the trek Westward provided a welcome moment of whimsy in the spare, no-frills expanse of gas stations, post offices, abandoned outposts and caravans of truck and train transport. I “enjoyed” my once in a lifetime all white meal at the Ghost Town Café (hot turkey slathered in white gravy over white bread over mashed white potatoes). It was hard to imagine we were headed to one of the most beautiful natural settings in the Northwest: the Grand Tetons
The dearth of birds on this trip surprised me. I had a fortunate encounter with a ruffled grouse during a hike I’ll post later, but other than hawks, crows and the occasional magpie they were hiding or absent. The other exception came at a rest stop with a pond, which we shared with a flock of migrating Canadian geese. They were a lively group, not shy at all. I may have seen one flock of sandhill cranes in the distance in Brighton, CO but I’ll probably have to go south to the Gulf Coast to see any more this year.
After one of several 8+ hour drives, we pulled into Jackson, WY at twilight. The teaser shots of the Tetons included in this post are from the following day on the way to Yellowstone National Park. Jackson Hole proved to be an Aspen wannabe, but the Wyoming Inn, despite the over the top Western theme, provided a great base camp for the next few days. The fireplace and the large Jacuzzi tub didn’t hurt. Neither did the homemade cookies and outstanding bread pudding (with fresh berries) snuggled up to Seattle’s best in the hotel lobby. I haven’t talked much about food because this was not a culinary tour by any stretch of the imagination. We had one nice meal at Café Genevieve, which made up for the sushi we tried at Ignite, an Elton John bar boasting an assortment of cowboy Asian appetizers. Right, but it was late and the menu looked interesting. We declined other JH sushi (one on every corner, seriously) offerings and considered wild game (the other red meat) without biting in the end. The pig candy appetizer at Café Genevieve, however, took me beyond any lingering bacon fetish and ended the reign of the noble pig for the time being. http://www.genevievejh.com/
Despite his cold, Bill rose early the next morning to take some amazing shots of the Tetons in the morning light. Fortunately, I got some good ones at a more reasonable hour – posting to come.
Aho Mitakuye Oyasin….All my relations. I honor you in this circle of life with me today. I am grateful for this opportunity to acknowledge you in this prayer….
To the Creator, for the ultimate gift of life, I thank you.
To the mineral nation that has built and maintained my bones and all foundations of life experience, I thank you.
To the plant nation that sustains my organs and body and gives me healing herbs for sickness, I thank you.
To the animal nation that feeds me from your own flesh and offers your loyal companionship in this walk of life, I thank you.
To the human nation that shares my path as a soul upon the sacred wheel of Earthly life, I thank you.
To the Spirit nation that guides me invisibly through the ups and downs of life and for carrying the torch of light through the Ages. I thank you.
To the Four Winds of Change and Growth, I thank you.
You are all my relations, my relatives, without whom I would not live. We are in the circle of life together, co-existing, co-dependent, co-creating our destiny. One, not more important than the other. One nation evolving from the other and yet each dependent upon the one above and the one below. All of us a part of the Great Mystery.
Thank you for this Life.
The Native American theme continues the prairie dog and bison community feeling of the Badlands. The people I’ve met in my journey west have been genuine and kind, very down to earth.
After leaving the badlands and entering the Black Hills, we decided to join middle America for a tour of several national monuments. It’s easy to consider opting out of Mt. Rushmore but we were convinced to see it (definitely a once in a lifetime experience) after talking with the curator of the President’s museum in Rapid City, SD. Paying respect to the forefathers we then chugged along (shout out to Gideon Sjoberg) up the road to see the Crazy Horse memorial: http://visitcuster.com/nationalparksmonuments/crazyhorsememorial/. This was an opportunity to contrast the government sponsored production at Mt. Rushmore and the privately owned Crazy Horse Monument. Korczak Ziolkowski, (the sculptor who worked on Mt. Rushmore and was recruited by 4 Lakota chiefs to carve the monument to their warrior chief) was determined not to accept government funding for the project. His family continues to work on the carving, which will take another several decades to complete. I include a link above to the monument website. I’m glad we took the time to see the 20-minute story of the memorial.
Born on the anniversary of the death of Ogalala Lakota chief Crazy Horse, Korzak gave his heart and soul to the project. The adversity and the physical hardship he endured was truly astounding. He built the initial scaffolding by hand with the help of an old air compressor (Kaput) which often necessitated climbing up and down 700 rungs of the ladders to restart the old machine. Interviewed at the end of the video, his wife Ruth and seven of his 10 children continue completing the memorial. Several mentioned that they felt they were born to this, their life’s work. From the inspiration that Henry Standing Bear and the other Lakota chiefs had to honor this Native American hero, to the dedication of one man’s life to it’s realization, the monument is coming alive. The American Indian learning center to accompany the project will be the largest in the US when completed. While it may not be completed even in the lifetimes of Korzak’s children, when fully executed it will dwarf the Washington monument, Mt. Rushmore and all existing national monuments in the US. It is a fitting tribute to the people who stewarded the land for many generations. Hill City, SD was our last stop on the way to the Grand Tetons, a long drive and the last leg of our journey.
Dinosaurs were still on my mind as we packed our gear to hit the trail in the morning. Staying in Badlands National Park in a rustic cabin with a guest rabbit who visited every morning added charm to what proved to be a rugged climb up Saddle Pass. But I digress. One of the real treats during our stay came to us by way of the Cedar Pass Lodge diner. Breakfast is buffet all the way in the old West. While I normally don’t opt for pork, there was something compelling about the bacon. Bill conceded my point that the land still belonged to the dinosaurs “on average” pausing to bliss out on the best bacon either of us ever tasted. When I complimented the cook, who sat out back on a stump, he smiled through his handlebar mustache and said, “That makes me want to try a little harder next time.” The Tao of bacon; my first teaching of the day.
Lunar, Martian, frozen dinosaurs, ancient sea beds? The Badlands are eroding before our eyes, time rolling down the weathered, red and grey veined cliffs in little pebbles, the occasional boulder. Just another speck in the cosmos, I marveled at the vast, water carved history of the earth laid out before us, a living topographic map. Struggling up a steep, gravely trail called Saddle Pass, Bill and I emerged onto a prairie floor 1/4 mile above the other prairie below. The buttes were above us and below us with two prairies stretching in between. It was as if we emerged onto an African savannah through a narrow opening in the valley of time. I do not exaggerate, the dinosaurs will vouchsafe for me. Gave a little blood to the land, honored the ancestors and proceeded to the Buffalo Gap national grasslands, stopping at a lovely oasis along the way.
So came my second and most valuable lesson. The zen prairie dog who never blinked while I snapped several pictures from the window of the car was an elder in a town of chirping, cavorting, scuttling prairie dogs. There were always sentinels, looking out for the clan, who were very affectionate and frisky; a caring, lively community. There were miles of these towns along Sage Creek Rim road. But we were there to see the bison. It took us almost 7 miles to see a lone bull, standing under a tree and a few more miles to find several small herds, peacefully snacking on prairie grass. Parked on the dirt road in the middle of two hills of bison, we turned off the car and sat watching the herd. Bison are unlike cattle: their shapes, the look in their eyes, the grunting noises they make, the shaggy manes and little jumpy tails. While their rocking horse running gait was sort of comical, they seemed to glide along effortlessly when walking and grazing. The buffalo calves were goofy and played as comfortably with the big bulls as they did with the females and other youngsters, another peaceful, loving community in action. I wish I could describe the deep, noble feeling emanating from these large, soulful beings. White buffalo calf woman gave the American Indians the gift of the buffalo, which sustained them. The ancestors made their presence known. Again, I was humbled and deeply moved by the peace in the sound of the grass blowing in the wind. If human beings were as loving to one another as prairie dogs and bison are, our world would be renewed.
Leaving Austin for Brighton, CO at sunset, following the crimson trail while Venus illuminated the evening sky, chased the sun down to Mountain time. Setting out on the first of three long legs of our tour, rolling through the grasslands of Nebraska with miles of sunflowers, corn and sandy hills – prairie grasslands swaying a welcome to the Great Plains. Grass fur stretched out like the pelt of a giant beast, wanting to run my hands through fields that look softer than they really are.
Pheasants and grouse popped up from tall grass, thought I saw some sandhill cranes in the distance but mostly hawks circling fields, catching thermals. This was our only day in the grasslands, the driving destination being Badlands National Park. Taking a slight detour to Agate Fossil Beds National Monument was the first clue that we were stepping back in time to the land of the dinosaurs. The plains, first covered by a shallow inland sea, then evolving into a tropical forest after the upthrust of the Rocky Mountains, gave way to a Serengeti-like savannah as the climate cooled and dried. Many of the land formations in the park and in the Badlands speak to eons of water’s ebb and flow followed by the wind’s incessant, wearing erosion. Layers of sediment, paleosoils and volcanic ash combine to form the shapes and colors of hills and buttes that look like roaming dinosaur herds, still present as human beings enjoy our brief ascendancy. Stepping into the context of geological time was conveniently dwarfing, preparing us for the transcendent lunarscapes of the Badlands. Formed by only 500,000 years of erosion, the Badlands are a virtual hourglass of time, eroding to prairie over the next millennium. They are like nothing I have ever seen or felt, and emanate a deep and abiding peace.