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First off…we apparently slept in too late…I was up by 8:15, went and did the campsite registration, filled the gas tank, came back, woke Brandy, made coffee, and got to the group site only to find out that they’re all early risers — we’d not only missed breakfast, but everything had been cleaned up and put away.

No problem, we poked around and mingled…I already told the story about the Switchback and Warbonnet hammocks, although I didn’t mention that I thought the custom tarp the Switchback guy had was really cool…room for two hammocks next to each other, with dark blue walls, and a translucent white stripe directly overhead to let in ambient light.

We watched a gentleman saw through a piece of wood and discover an angry carpenter bee while he was prepping for a friction fire demonstration.  While there, I had my whetstone out and turned UncleMJM’s (the host) knife from a dullness like it was meant for butter to a properly sharp instrument.  I tried a few times to see if I could find people interested in learning some games, but that just wasn’t meant to be, it seems…I never got any takers.

Lots of people expressed interest in the Trail Sling chair, and everybody was either petting or asking about Huyana.  Brandy and I basically did our own things all day…sometimes she was with the group and I was at camp…sometimes vice-versa.  Due to my frequent trips to the restroom, not to mention the nap, she had Huyana the majority of the day.

One thing we definitely didn’t miss was the potluck supper and the Stone Soup, which turned out pretty good.  These people are masters of dutch oven cooking.  Pineapple upside-down cake, bread, chili, banana pudding, black forest cake….mmmm….

Our names were entered in the drawing, and there were so many donated items, it seemed everyone won something twice.  I won a prototype of a wood-burning stove, and a new multitool, while Brandy won some red whoopie slings and a bottle for distilled alcohol, if we ever do another alcohol stove.  We hung out around the campfire for a long while, discussing a multitude of things, although I went back to camp for a bit to use my new stove to make some hot water for cocoa.  Eventually, it was time to turn in…so far, I’d say this trip has been a good and educational one.

I just woke up from a nap in a Blackbird.  Two hammocks I had definitely wanted to try out at the hang were the Warbonnet Blackbird, and the Tree to Trail Gear Switchback.  Both were available, and I was impressed with each in their own way…the Switchback had the really nice liner, and the netting was way above my head, making it feel very spacious.  The Blackbird had the nifty gear shelf and footbox, and I would still have a structural ridgeline.

Sadly, the only Switchback that was being sold at the hang was a netless model, which just won’t do for me.  Someone had a Blackbird up for sale, and it was only $100….this is normally a $160 hammock.  I asked if I could try it for a night before committing, and he said yes.  So I spent the next hour or so hanging it at camp…taking my Hennessy Explorer down, detangling the multi-layer underquilt I’m using this trip, reattaching said insulation, and retweaking everything to fit.

Somet time later, I was in the mood to hang out at camp for a while, feeling a bit nappy, and next thing you know, I’m asleep in my Blackbird.

Yes…MY Blackbird.

Now that I’ve had a comfortable sleep in it, I do believe the man has sold his hammock…and I will enjoy it again tonight.

A Good Ol’ Texas Hangin’

For two years, we’ve missed it.  Third time’s the charm, I guess.  Of course, this time, we planned things out months ahead, and had just about everything packed a week before we left.  No matter what, we weren’t going to miss the HammockForums Texas Fall Hang three years running.

So my annual bronchitis started up a week before time….I spent the weekend in bed and have been pretty much exclusively been drinking hot beverages since then.  So I needed a haircut and couldn’t get it the weekend beforehand…I arranged to get out of work a little early to deal with last-minute errands like that.  So what if I was feeling a little run-down right after I got home from said errands…I managed to squeeze in a 90-minute nap and a shower, and felt much better.

And suddenly, the car was packed, the dog was loaded up, and we were on our way!  We didn’t dally all the way to Fairfield, and got into town in about an hour and a half, then paused to grab a quick bite at McDonald’s before arriving at the park.

Strange, our name wasn’t on the posted list at the entry station when we arrived, though I had definitely gotten my confirmation of our reservation.  Well, at least we knew what loop everyone would be on.  We drove through and found a vacant site, started to set up, and discovered the key tree we both needed (because it was the only one with trees the right distance away) was big enough around that our 8-foot tree straps didn’t quite get around it, meaning we couldn’t attach our hammocks to it.

No big deal…we walked across the road and found a great spot to set up, even allowing us to have our tarp “porches” pitched toward each other to have a large area between us for Huyana to wander around, attached to her ridgeline so she didn’t wander off.  With that task done, we set off in search of other hangers.

A quick shortcut behind our campsite, across an open field, past a little amphitheater and the bathroom, and then we found site 26, where a few people were still awake and hanging out by the fire, including MacEntyre, the creator of the Insultex underquilts we were using that very night.

We introduced ourselves, and let people love on Huyana.  Someone tried to let their dog say hello, but with him growling and Huyana hiding behind me, I explained that I just didn’t think it was going to happen and that it would be best to let it be, rather than force it.

I comandeered someone’s vacant camp chair, and we proceeded to chatter about the weather, wildfires, dogs, and the one hang we did manage to attend a couple of springs ago, when a winter storm ran everyone off the morning after we arrived.  All told, a nice hour or so before people decided to wander off to bed.

When I got back to the campsite, I saw that my incredibly thoughtful wife Brandy had beaten me back and was almost finished heating up some water so I could have some tea before bedtime.  Mmm…apple cinnamon.  Huyana just calmly lay on her pillow, watching us until we were ready to turn in.   Alas, after I was in my hammock, snuggled up in my sleeping bag for the night, I suddenly had that urge that required me to get up, climb out, and put my jacket and shoes back on, so I could hike to the restroom.  Oh well, at least I have a nice warm nest to go back to…mmm…peaceful sleep in the woods.  I’m looking forward to Saturday’s activities.

What’s the limit of your tolerance for comfort? To some people, their idea of “roughing it” includes air conditioning and room service. To others, camping means bringing the RV and all the comforts of their livingroom out into the woods.

This weekend, we tested our tolerance.

For a year or so now, camping for us has meant hammock camping. We got into the idea after stumbling across it on the net, ordered a couple Hennesy hammocks, and did due research on hammockforums.net to learn as much about it as we could. Basically, you hang in a suspended tent, protected from bugs, in an assymetrical gathered end hammock, so it’s much more comfortable, and not too hard to lay flat. We didn’t get to camp as much as we might have liked last year — just once in Tyler State Park (where the main issue was being too hot and muggy — a couple of small fans helped with that), and a three-day canoe trip down the Brazos River, where we found that insulation beneath you really did matter, even when the night temperatures were still in the 60s.

So, for Christmas we upgraded to the Hennessy Supershelter which is basically a flexible foam pad that hangs suspended beneath your hammock; a bottom cover of the same material as the tarp, so it helps cut the wind and is water protection from ground splash; and a space blanket which you spread out between the foam pad and the hammock. We tried it out this January, but it turned out to be a nice weekend, and the night temperatures barely dropped below 50. The Supershalter worked great — we stayed warm, but we wanted a better test.

We tried again a couple of weeks ago, at Rusk. This was also interesting, because we had recently gotten a cocker spaniel puppy, named Vaquita, and this was the first time to try taking her camping at all. As it turned out, she slept just fine in the hammock, and I was warm and happy, although Brandy got a little chilly, with temperatures in the mid 40s.

And yet, we still hadn’t faced the challenge of rain, and wondered what our limits were for cold. Well, we got to test that out in spades this last weekend, at a HammockForums.net group hang at Ratcliff Lake. While eager to meet other like-minded people, it ended up being the forecast that made us really excited a few days before the event, while for others, it was scaring them away from the idea of camping, much less doing it in a hammock. The weather called for a 90% chance of thunderstorms, a low of 34 degrees, and 25 MPH wind gusts, bringing the wind chill down to 29 or so.

Yeah, that sounded like exactly what we needed to test for our own personal worst case scenario. If we could handle that, we could handle any weather we were likely to get while normally camping. So, we loaded up, including a couple of extra old Coleman sleeping bags, and a couple fleece bag liners in case we needed them, not to mention 3 layers of clothing, and headed for Ratcliff with what I like to call a “Death or Glory” spirit.

We arrived late at the park, and were a bit confused as to how much to put in the fee envelope, since we were part of a group. We put in our last 3 dollars in cash, to at least cover our car, figuring we could run out to an ATM to pay any other cash we owed someone else later. We were met by 4 nice guys from HammockForums — Mike (I forget his handle…somethingMJM), Slinky, Capt’n (or was that Slingo?), and Armijo. Mike pointed out a few options for hangng spots, then left me to it while I set up.

I had said before that I was accustomed to setting up camp in the dark. This is not even remotely the same thing as being accomplished at it — I think it took me a half hour or more to get everything up so we could sleep. By the time we got over to the campfire, there were only 2 people left awake. We chattered for a bit then everyone went to bed around 1 in the morning.

Went to bed, although like Rusk, I had to get up a couple more times to let the puppy use the bathroom. Other than that, a good night’s sleep. Of course, the lows for this night were only in the 50s, so we didn’t expect it to be otherwise.

The next morning, we wandered over to the group campsite, where we were reintroduced, and also met Cindy, TexasLonghorn, and Mtbikernate. Everyone sat around and relaxed, while Mike made an excellent breakfast with potatoes, eggs, cheese, bacon, peppers, and I’m not sure what else. Had a bit of coffee and a tortilla with it, and we were looking forward to the challenge that was coming.

Unfortunately, several people had only committed to camping the one night we arrived late, while others were frightened off by the weather. By the time the rain started, everyone was either gone or on their way out, except for Armijo, Brandy, and me. At least I got to try out Nate’s big axe — it was fun, but I won’t be any good at splitting logs anytime soon. I ran a quick errand to Walmart for a better pillow and a headlamp for Brandy, as well as getting some more cash out, and when I came back, we three pretty much just sat and chattered under the tarp, staying dry and enjoying the company.

For the rest of the day that’s basically what we did. No books or gadgets. Brandy got a blazing fire started in the rain with wet wood, and made a delcious venison stew for us to enjoy. We sat around, under the tarp or around the fire, and talked — swapping stories, comparing gear, deciding aloud how we were going to handle the frigid conditions, and just generally feeling good about the challenge. Turned out Armijo had come for the same reason we did — to test himself and his gear. He was using a Jacks R Better down underquilt (like a sleeping bag that’s suspended under your hammock), and his extra insulation plan was a Thermarest pad. Our plan was to open up those extra sleeping bags, and put them in the bottom cover below the pad, as well as using the extra fleece liners in the sleeping bags above us to insulate us that much more from the top.

We went to bed around 9:30, the puppy having gotten used to hiding under a blanket on my lap while we had been sitting around the campfire. She was moving around and being in the way while I was arranging the blankets in the hammock, but as soon as I had them layed out and settled a bit, she darted under the covers and wedged herself under my legs, then didn’t move for several hours, and that was just to find a new position. Somehow, she didn’t seem to be inclined to drag me out of bed to pee this night. This is good for her, as I would have just hung the leash from the ridgeline and let her out and then back in; I certainly wasn’t coming out from under the covers if I didn’t have to.

I slept good, really good. I tossed the upper covers over my head (I was treating the sleeping bags as a quilt), and tucked them in around me, and enjoyed a nice warm cocoon. When the wind blew, all it did was rock the hammock a little bit; otherwise, I didn’t feel it at all.

The next morning, we woke up to snow! Yeah, okay, so it wasn’t sticking, but it snowed for a few hours, and was still going when we finished breaking camp later and left. We opted to get breakfast before breaking camp. Armijo had gotten a little chilly, and he decided to just toss everything in the back of the truck and head out, raher than joining us for another meal. We searched for a cafe, but ended up settling for doughnuts — and excellent doughnuts at that. Afterward, we broke camp, and made our way on home. On the way, well, that seemed the perfect time to compose and upload this trip report.

Slinky (or was it Mike?), we’ll pay up at the next hang — sorry we didn’t have enough cash.

Nate, thanks for letting me play with your axe – it was fun!

Capt’n, thanks for letting us borrow your lighter a few times.

And Armijo, we had a great time — thanks for sticking around — it wouldn’t have been a group hang if there wasn’t at least one person besides the two of us braving it out.

Thanks to whoever arranged the hang, and we look forward to the next one (hopefully a little warmer) 😉

Sometime around 11, we returned to life, and after a quick shower and change of clothes, decided that it was about time to see about gettng something to eat. Our plan was for today to be a light day, to settle into being on vacation, and not to do too much when we were operating on relatively little sleep. We drove until something appealed to us, which in this case happened to be a chinese buffet. You’d be shocked at how often a chinese buffet appeals to us.

After lunch, we headed across the bay to the Texas State Aquarium, which I had been greatly looking forward to. The girls had gotten to visit the aquarium in Galveston, but I’d never been to one on the coast, and was hoping to see a lot of things that usually weren’t featured inland. I am happy to report that I was not disappointed.

As we approached, the sky was quite threatening, dark and gusty. I took some shots of the fountains on the way in (water sliding off the back of a whale’s tail, for example), although I forgot to take pictures of the brickwork in the walkway, which featured different sea creatures. Sadly, Angela’s back was bothering her terribly, and she didn’t have the stamina to get very far, so Brandy was kind enough to wheel her around while I went running all over like a deranged reject from National Geographic, photographing anything that happened to catch my eye. Let’s just say that later, we probably rejected 75% of what I shot, as I was still getting the hang of adjusting for the lighting. Between this and the Dallas World Aquarium, I have learned that the lighting in these environments is never good for casual photography. What looks bright to you is actually quite dim to the camera, and unless you can get the crowd to cooperate in getting out of your way to set up a tripod, you will either get dark shots, blurry shots (from having to take long exposures), or grainy shots (from having to raise the ISO – sensitivity, for those not versed in camera vocabulary), or tick off the staff and have reflections from using your flash. I opted for the grainy approah, as I have photo software that thankfully can account for a great deal of that, usually without degrading the image too much.

Sorry, didn’t mean to start technobabbling at you, but let’s just say that I really have gotten heavily into photogrphy as a hobby in the one year since receiving my current camera (it was a birthday present from 2008). I saw fish swimming in a circular tank, a whole pond full of hermit crabs, seahorses, a large tank simulating life below an oil rig, with dozens of large fish and a shark! I saw a barracuda just around the corner from that, and then jellyfish, where the room was so dark, I had people looking over my shoulder and seeing the pictures I got, then asking me how I pulled them off without using the flash. *beams proudly* I managed to show one or two who had a camera capable of it, and then caught up to the girls just in time for the dolphin show! I hadn’t seen a show like that since the summer that Seaworld opened in San Antonio, so I was very happy to see it live again, and lucked into some really neat acrobatic pictures.

Next, we wandered below, where we could see the dolphins playing in their tank from underwater, and then on to the rest of the lower level, where we got to pet some rays, see various birds of prey, walk some funky spongy stuff that apparently is what playground ground is made out of nowadays, watch river otters cavorting, and even some big sea turtles swimming, before we heard that the aquarium was preparing to close — we had completely lost track of time!

Heading back to the motel, the original plan had been to grab some supplies at HEB for breakfasts, but by this time, we weren’t really in the mood. Fortunately, we’d made dinner easy, by bringing some frozen leftovers from home….we just needed to heat them through and voila! Easy dinner. Course, before dinner, Angela opted for a nap while Brandy and I headed out to the Station Street pier….her for some fishing, and me to catch some sunset pictures. Just after dark, we made our way back, had dinner (mmm….chicken, broccoli, rice & cheese….), then Angela and I strolled to the convenience store for the few things we needed for breakfast and some ice cream. Brandy went to sleep first , while Angela and I stayed up a bit to play cards, before exhaustion finally overtook us. I think that was the earliest we have ever gone to bed while on vacation…..

A Birthday to Remember

Planning a vacation is always difficult for us. When you have three people, with three different work schedules, of which one has unpredictable days off (but is usually able to request paid ones fairly easily), another who gets no paid days off and has a jerk for a manager who may rescind a day off after it had been given, and another who can get unexpectedly busy and feel obligated not to take time off……well, let’s just say that spontenaity is usually in our best interests. Unfortunately, it can also work against you, especially when the place you want to go is popular — there’s no way you can just show up and get a place to stay at a reasonable price. And then there are other factors, like health or weather, that were significant issues earlier this year. To even be able to do some of what we wanted to do ends up feeling like a victory to me, that we got out there at all.

This was originally to be a four-day weekend, starting with my birthday, and ending Memorial Day. Brandy had already requested and been told she had the day off. Angela had finally heard back that she was approved for her vacation time, and I’m lucky about being able to give short notice, so I had just requested and been approved for my birthday off, and Angela had made the reservations at a miraculously reasonably-priced motel in Port Aransas. (Finances had been thrown; there was no way we were going to be able to do Plans A or B…Destin, FL and South Padre were out of our reach for now). Things were looking good…..and then Brandy lost the Friday off. She was incensed, but it’s my nature to adapt and adjust plans to recover from setbacks. I kept the day off, with the plan to get the household chores taken care off, the packing done, the car loaded, and a nap, so Brandy wouldn’t have to do all the driving. Angela and I also picked up dinner, so we wouldn’t have to stop for it on the way out. She even got off a little early, although thanks to traffic, she didn’t actually get home any earlier than usual. No biggie — it was only 7:00, and we were on our way!

Seeing traffic reports later, I’m amazed we didn’t have more trouble on the road. I read where there had been a semi wreck in Temple that had the whole southbound side a parking lot for hours on Friday night. But not for us! Of course, maybe I just wasn’t noticing whether the traffic was sluggish or not — we were listening to radio plays I had downloaded and burned to CD. Our favorite was “The Bad Man.” Orson Wells as Pancho Lopez has us in stiches.

(In an awful Mexican accent that kept coming and going) “Aw, you see what you make me do? You make me keel you.”

And I don’t remember offhand who played the old man, but it’s worth listening to the play over and over just for his lines. He really played up the crotchety old prospector cliche.

By the time we’d listened to that and “Around the World in 80 Days,” we were approaching Georgetown, and I made a previously arranged call to Seth, an old roommate from when I lived in Austin, to meet up and catch up on old times. It turns out he’d gotten into insurance, and we almost got started talking about it, but I stopped him, saying that I appreciated the intent, but we weren’t really here to talk business. Mmmmm, hot fudge sundae for me, an appetizer sampler for Angela, and a banana cheesecake for Brandy. Seth just had coffee, and I had to insist that we would take care of the bill….not like one cup of coffee was going to break the bank. We had fun reminiscing on some of the goofy things we’d done, some of which the girls hadn’t heard about before, but eventually, we had to move on, and so we bade our farewells and got back on the road, now about 11:30. Of course, we couldn’t pass through San Antonio without saying hello to my parents, especially not on my birthday, so we dropped in there for a little while, and as a result, we were coming out of the south end of San Antonio at about the time we were originally figuring on arriving. Along the way, we occupied ourselves watching a storm that had been following us since Austin, even if that did mean that conversation slowed, leading to an inevitable consequence for me. Sadly, that nap hadn’t done much for me, so I lost some time to a brief coma before coming to around Mathis. A quick gas station break to stretch, and we were in the home stretch, finally reaching Port Aransas by way of Corpus Christi around 5:30am.

When we dawdle…..we really dawdle.

Coming into town, we were briefly flummoxed on where exactly we were headed. Angela had the address of the place, but we didn’t have a map, and the Gazetteer didn’t conveniently show Port Aransas. (Course, as I’m writing that now, I wonder if it might have been under Aransas Pass…) Brandy paused at a gas station for directions, but before she even got to the door, she happened to glance at the intersection and see that one of the streets was Station. Laughing, she got into the car, and we turned onto Station….only to start laughing that much harder when we saw that the Blue Crab Motel was right next to the gas station she had been stopping at for directions. How’s that for holistic navigation?

Strangely, considering she’d now been up for nearly 24 hours, Brandy said she was feeling pretty awake, so after we unloaded the car, and Angela and I were lying down to pass out, Brandy made her way to the Station Street pier to check out the fishing potential. She had all her gear in the car with her, and early morning is supposed to be a good time, so we wished her luck and promptly lost consciousness.

The Call. Part 3.

Warm salt air, a gentle breeze, and the slowly brightening sky … along with the racous cry of gulls who could possibly wake the dead, rouse me early Sunday morning. Stepping out of the tent and the sunrise has lit a glorious panorama of clouds…. and my can of Jolt is tolerably cold, so I sit there and watch the sunrise and listen to the slowly waking city and all the life around me.

I’m in no mood to argue with what was seen last night, and would much rather forget it all ever happened to begin with. My demons are my own… but a realization struck. Yes, while they are my own, they are to be dealt with on my own terms. Not theirs. I’ve faced them… every single one.. and overcome them. Each time I have been told that I CAN’T do something, each time I came to the point where I could bend no more, I have won.

Gulls. Wheeling and crying. Dreams of flight over distant oceans. Water has always struck a chord with me. Rivers intrigue me more than lakes, as they are made for travel… but the Gulf…. the ocean. Adventures untold. Histories of lives lived well, and not so well. The ocean’s pathways are truly vast… and can hold me in such breathtaking wonder of all the distant shores, of the deep beneath me, and of everything in between. I am a child of gypsies, raised with a love of the new, the unseen. My spirit is that of the Wanderer. A chronicler of lifetimes spent simply living. I am a doer, a dreamer, but above all, an experiencer. To my spirit, the reason for life, and the creation of life itself was to experience the joys of being alive. To know all the joys and the sorrows. To drain that cup, and to remember. I walk this earth with eyes wide open. Aware of dangers, aware of pain, of sorrow, of death. Memories of friends and loves lost.

Too often we allow ourselves to get caught up in the daily grind, to deny the magic that is simply being here. Too often, we surrender our power to outside forces, say that we can’t do this or that. The wonder is that we are here. Wonder at a world filled to the brim with magic. At the harmonies of science, of the music of the stars, of the gulls playing in the ocean breeze. The experience is the destination, and the attitude is the key. To embrace all of it with open arms, and to know that whatever happens is merely part of the experience. So many lose the gift that is life with arguing about inconsequential crap, they ruin what is a wonder with their negativity and fail to ever look up and see the glory in front of their faces.

Galveston holds a special place in my heart, and always has. The richness of the history, of the promise, of unspeakable sorrow, and the strength of spirit to rebuild. History walks and breathes here. Morning finds an excellent breakfast near the harbor, away from the tourists. Simple fare prepared well… but again, even if it was bad, it is still part of the experience.

Turning towards home, a quick stop in Huntsville at a dear friend’s house for a drive by hugging, and then straight up 45. Barely resisting the urge to turn down OSR…. Old San Antonio Road. One day, that will be a trip to be remembered… and then to home.

Sitting in the driveway, engine still idling, I’m not ready to stop. I know my loves are inside waiting on me, missing me. When I was a child, my parents and I would take off for weeks at a time, just go somewhere. They were retired, and had the money to do as they pleased. Now, as an adult, that drive is still with me…. and I want to continue. To explore, to see. Pulling into the garage, it is just enough. Tomorrow, it is back to work… back to the daily grind.. but the the call will always be there. The wanderlust will always echo Come See.