Caddo Mounds State Historic Site

Located 26-miles west of present day Nacogdoches, the Caddo Mounds State Historic Site is one of the more unique historic sites in the Lone Star State. Once the ceremonial center for the Hasinai, a group of Caddo Indians, this site preserves the remnants of this great Mound Builder culture that thrived here more than 1,200 years ago.

Those of us who love Texas owe a debt of gratitude to the Caddo. The name of our beloved state comes from the Caddo word “tejas” which means friend. It’s hard to imagine our great State having any name other than Texas.

The Caddo selected this site near the Neches River because the soil was ideal for agriculture, the springs that flowed into the Neches provided a reliable source of water, and the surrounding forest yielded lots of food resources. As a result, the Caddo thrived in this region for more than 500 years.

Over time, these native Americans developed trade routes that connected them with other native groups in Central Texas and as far away as present day Florida to the east and Illinois to the north. The Hasinai group that inhabited Caddo Mounds was also a part of a larger Caddo domain that encompassed northeast Texas, northwest Louisiana, western Arkansas, and eastern Oklahoma.

The Historic Site preserves three remaining and distinctive earthen mounds and a replica of a large thatched beehive-shaped Caddo hut made of native grasses. These dwellings were designed to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

The museum at the site is worth visiting. It features informative displays and artifacts dating from A.D. 750–A.D. 1400, including pottery, tools, and weapons. I encourage you to visit the museum before you walk the 0.7 mile self-guided interpretive trail to see the Caddo’s burial, low temple, and ceremonial mounds. This self-guided trail also leads to a portion of the old El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, which runs from Louisiana to Mexico.

Caddo Mounds is an excellent choice for a day trip or as a stop on your next East Texas road trip. One thing is certain, the Caddo enjoyed our great state long before we arrived on the scene. And you will enjoy your visit to this well-maintained historic site. It’s worth visiting and learning about the people whose native language gave us the great name of Texas.

Baby Head Cemetery

Cemeteries seldom make the list of must-see places on road trip adventures, and understandably so. After all, there are many more inviting and cheerful options to visit than final resting places. But, don’t let that stop you from considering a visit to some of the most fascinating and historical spots in the Lone Star State — old cemeteries.
One of Texas’ most interesting old cemeteries also bears the distinction of having one of the creepiest names on record for a cemetery — Baby Head Cemetery. Located about 9 miles north of Llano along Highway 16, this place is definitely worth visiting.

As the story goes, sometime between 1850 and 1875 a small child in the area was kidnapped and killed by Indians in an effort to discourage settlers to the area. Some oral traditions claim that the baby’s head was placed on a spike as a warning to encroaching settlers. Consequently, the mountain (or better yet, hill) where this incident allegedly happened was named Babyhead Mountain.

In the 1870s, a pioneer community was founded near the mountain and became known as Baby Head. A post office was established there in 1879 and remained in operation until 1918. The small rural community which once had numerous farms, homes, and business eventually dwindled to only a handful of folks. The cemetery is the last physical reminder of the Baby Head community.
Baby Head Cemetery is the final resting place for a few dozen folks, many of whom died in the 19th century and some as recently as the past few years. Many of the old headstones are so weathered that they are hard to read. But, in spite of their deteriorating condition, you can still make out the epitaphs on many of the old tombstones.
The epitaph on the headstone of two-year old Texas Calvin, the daughter of W.T. and M.A. Mc Coy expresses the hope of these parents who suffered the loss of their little girl. The inscription is a silent reminder that they grieved with hope:

Farewell sweet little Texas
Farewell on earth to thee
Sleep sweetly sleep beneath the tomb
The angels o’er thee watch
And when we meet in heaven above
We will part no more
Perhaps the most poignant epitaph was the one I read on the broken headstone marking the grave of Susan McCoy who died in 1893.

Remember friends as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so you must be
Prepare for death and follow me

There is a lot of Texas history in our old cemeteries. Walking slowly among the graves always makes me wonder about the stories of those at rest beneath old and broken headstones. Reading the fading epitaphs also makes me think about what final message I will leave on my headstone for those who will stroll through cemeteries long after I am gone.

The Jefferson General Store

East Texas is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places in the Lone Star State. If you love forests and lakes then this is the place for you. This is definitely road trip heaven. On a recent road trip through East Texas, we headed over to Jefferson near Big Cypress Creek and Caddo Lake at the junction of U.S. Highway 59 and State Highway 49.

Jefferson was named for Thomas Jefferson when it was founded in the early 1840s by Allen Urquhart and Daniel Alley. In those early years it became the state’s leading inland river port as well as the leading commercial and distribution center of Northeast Texas. By 1870, Jefferson was the sixth largest city in Texas. But, with the advent of the railroad and less reliance on river boat transport of products, Jefferson gradually declined in population.
Today, Jefferson is one of the coolest road trip destinations in Texas. The town is home to more than fifty historic structures listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the old historic buildings in the downtown area now house all kinds of specialty and antique shops. One must-see stop in Jefferson is the Jefferson General Store.

The Jefferson General Store occupies a building first used as a hardware store in the 1860’s and has remained an important part of the community through the years. There are not many places left in Texas where you can step through the door of an old building and go back in time. But that is exactly the feeling you’ll get when you step across the threshold of the front door and into the Jefferson General Store.
The sign above the door boasts “we have everything” — and that is not far from the truth as far as general store merchandise goes. The moment my wife Cheryl and I stepped through the door we looked at each other and smiled. This place was crammed with more interesting things than we could have imagined — including some of the hard-to-find candy we enjoyed as kids like Chick-O-Stick.

You can browse the stuff at the store, sit at the soda fountain and sip on five-cent coffee or any of their nostalgic soda fountain offerings, play a game of checkers on an oversided checker board, or fill a bag at the old-time candy counter. In addition to enjoying some of our favorite candy, we discovered fried peanuts in the shell. Delicious, indeed!

I enjoyed browsing through their eclectic selection of books on everything from Texas history, flora and fauna, recipe books, collections of humorous sayings, and more. If you like signs with funny messages, you’ll find plenty of those. They also have a great selection of Texas jams, jellies, and salsas.
If your travels take you to East Texas, I hope you’ll make time to go by Jefferson and to stop by the Jefferson General Store. Walk slowly. Look at everything. Have a soda. Eat candy. Peruse a book and laugh. Take a selfie. Have fun.

A Place Called Uncertain

I sometimes resort to an unconventional method when planning a road trip — unfold a Texas map, adjust my bifocals, and then look for the most interesting place names. That’s the way my East Texas road trip came about. Actually, my wife Cheryl found the spot on the map and suggested we head in the direction of Uncertain.
I was so happy to learn that there is actually a place in Texas named Uncertain. How cool is that. It was settled, then. The only thing we were certain of was heading to Uncertain. Any other stops along the way would be at our whim. When Cheryl and I do this kind of road trip we don’t make lodging reservations ahead of time so that we can be free to head in any direction we want.
There are a couple of stories about how Uncertain got its name. One story suggests that the place was once known as Uncertain Landing and got its name because steamboat captains often had a hard time mooring their vessels there. Another story suggests that the town got its name before the border between the United States and the Republic of Texas was finally established. Before that time residents were uncertain about their citizenship.
Uncertain is an incorporated community located deep in the heart of East Texas. Situated along the shores of Caddo Lake, the largest natural lake in Texas, Uncertain is a little place with a whole lot of stuff going on. Locals offer boat tours that take guests through the largest bald cypress forest in the world. These big old trees give Caddo Lake a unique and mysterious personality.
You’ll find several small businesses in Uncertain and a non-denominational place of worship understandably called The Church of Uncertain. But don’t let the name fool you. This little house of worship is certain about the doctrinal essentials that make it vital to the spiritual health of the community.
There are a few places to eat in Uncertain but we chose to stop at a place called Shady Glade Cafe. This little joint has a cool local vibe and offers a great selection of home-style meals, including burgers. The big guy seated next to us ordered a chicken fried steak that was bigger than the plate. I ordered the Baconator with cheese, seasoned fries, and iced tea.
As he was leaving the big guy turned, took a deep breath, and said to me, “I can put away a lot of groceries, but I could not finish that chicken fried steak.” I can understand why. It was huge! As for my burger, it was really good, especially the generous meat patty that had a great flavor. There was a steady stream of customers the whole time we were there. That in itself is a good endorsement.
Bottom line — we enjoyed our drive through this small community where folks make their livelihood from catering to tourists and fishermen to Caddo Lake. The folks we met while there were all very friendly and helpful. So, one thing is certain — we enjoyed our brief time in Uncertain and glad that this was our first stop on our East Texas road trip.

Llano Earth Art Festival

The charming little town of Llano is located seventy-five miles northwest of Austin. Situated along the banks of the Llano River, this historic town is the county seat of Llano County. This region of the Lone Star State is known as the Llano Uplift, a rock formation created when underlying granite pushed its way to the surface and gave us the Texas Treasure known as Enchanted Rock.

Llano is also home to one of the newest festivals in Texas. Held in March, the Llano Earth Art Festival, also known as LEAF, attracts folks from far and wide — especially those who love to stack rocks or who have a close connection with nature. LEAF features all sorts of cool activities, including earth and land art installations, a variety of workshops, a fashion circus, live entertainment, food vendors, and piles of rocks for novice and more accomplished rock-stackers.

The festival is held at Grenwelge Park on the south bank of the Llano River. Car camping and tent camping sites are available by reservation. I haven’t seen so many VW vans in one place since I was growing up in the sixties. This iconic vehicle continues to be a favorite of those who travel light and free and call the open road home. Very cool, indeed. My son and I pitched our tents among some of the friendliest and nicest people we have ever met.

At the heart of the Llano Earth Art Fest is something that is near and dear to my son’s heart — rock stacking! Jonathan started stacking rocks for fun about ten years ago and has left his temporary cairns along the banks of many a Texas river. I can barely stack one sheet of paper atop another so I am quite impressed by anyone who can stack rocks. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jonathan and folks from all over the country and a few nations do the same.

LEAF prides itself as the host of the Rock Stacking World Championship, offering various categories of competition from balancing, arches, tallest stack, and artistic creations. The completion is fun to watch but what I found even better was strolling along the banks of the Llano River and watching the various rock stacking artists at work. A — maz —ing!

As much as I enjoyed the rock stacking and the food vendors, what I enjoyed most was the opportunity to meet so many interesting people. And I do mean interesting and super friendly and nice. And that’s really the coolest thing about a festival like LEAF. It is an event that brings people together and encourages everyone to slow down, walk slowly, have conversations, and make new friends.
Please don’t wait until next year’s festival to visit Llano. If the road takes you anywhere near central Texas, swing by and check out this lovely little town. After all, the infamous Bonnie and Clyde enjoyed Llano. You’ll likely enjoy it, too — especially if you are not running from the law!

Comfort Cafe in Comfort

Comfort is just a tiny little dot on Texas roadmaps. Located west of San Antonio along Interstate 10, Comfort is a popular tourist area with great recreational access to the Guadalupe River. While traveling to Big Bend, my buddies and I approached Comfort just in time for lunch. Our hunger led us straight to the Comfort Cafe.
Comfort Cafe SignThe Comfort Cafe is small enough to be considered a hole-in-the-wall but, as we would soon discover, big enough to deliver on flavor. The place was clean as a whistle and the staff was more than eager to help. Friendly staff always helps make any dining experience that much more pleasant.
Comfort Cafe MenuI ordered a bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings and a glass of iced tea — my standard order on my burger adventures. From where I was sitting I could see into the kitchen area where my burger was being made to order. I could even hear the meat sizzling on the grill, releasing its burger perfume into the air.
Comfort Cafe BurgerWhen my order arrived I cut my burger in half and was pleased to see the generous portion of meat. The bacon was crispy, the cheese perfectly melted, and the bun lightly toasted. All of the ingredients were obviously fresh. The only thing that remained was to take a bite.
Comfort Cafe Burger HalfBottom line — the burger was unquestionably tasty. Everything about this burger worked well together. Someone had obviously given some thought to how a burger should be prepared and did not compromise at any point on delivering a delicious burger. I made it a point to thank the folks in the kitchen, something easy to do in a small place like this.
comfort-cafe-interiorThe Comfort Cafe has only been opened a short while, but I am confident it will be around for a long time. If I lived anywhere near Comfort I would surely make it a point to make my way to the Comfort Cafe as often as possible. I loved the whole dining experience, especially the ambiance that is unique to small town mom and pop eateries.
comfort-cafe-exteriorIf your road trips ever take you anywhere near Comfort, consider pulling off the main drag and making your way to the Comfort Cafe. Little stops along the way like the Comfort Cafe just add a magical element to any road trip. Embrace the experience. Enjoy the food. Make good memories with friends and family.

5 Facts About the Chihuahuan Desert

The Chihuahuan Desert is one of my favorite places in Texas. The expansive spaces, distant silhouetted hills, distinctive desert flora, deep in the heart of Texas kind of skies, and mesmerizing chiaroscuro splashed across the faces of desert mesas all work together to create an iconic Texas region. Here are five interesting facts about this distinctively beautiful part of the Lone Star State.
chihuahuan-desert-map1. The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America.

The Chihuahuan Desert extends far beyond our own borders. The desert spans the northern states of Chihuahua and Coahuila in Mexico and extends north into Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona — a region bigger than the state of California.
chihuahuan-view2. The Chihuahuan Desert is a rain shadow desert.

A rain shadow is a dry region of land on the side of a mountain range that is protected from the prevailing winds and rainy weather. The Chihuahuan Desert is bordered by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range on the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range on the east. These mountain ranges form parentheses around the Chihuahuan Desert, blocking most of the moisture from the Pacific and from the Gulf of Mexico.
Chihuahuan Shrubs3. The Chihuahuan Desert is a shrub desert.

According to conservation groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature (aka World Wildlife Fund), the Chihuahuan Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in the world. In the mid-19th century, the grass in the northern Chihuahuan Desert grew as high as the belly of a horse. However, overgrazing led to the decline of native grasses thus allowing the invasion of shrubs like yuccas and agaves, ocotillo, creosote bushes, mormon tea, and many others.
Chihuahuan Panoramic4. The Chihuahuan Desert is home to several mountain ranges.

The Chihuahuan Desert in Texas is home to the Franklin Mountains, Chisos Mountains, Davis Mountains, and Guadalupe Mountains. The seven highest peaks in Texas that rise to more than 8,000-feet are found in the Guadalupe Mountains and the Davis Mountains. These higher altitudes boast both beautiful coniferous trees as well as magnificent vistas of the Lone Star landscape.
waterhole-trail5. There is water in the Chihuahuan Desert.

While there is little rainfall in the Chihuahuan Desert, the region is not entirely without sources of water. The Rio Grande River bisects the Chihuahuan Desert and forms the natural border between Texas and Mexico. There are also streams, arroyos, puddles formed during summer rains, and some aquifers. These help sustain both plant and animal life in this harsh desert environment.

High Sierra Bar and Grill

Terlingua is a place like none other in the Lone Star State. Nestled between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, this ghost town has a character uniquely its own. The name of the town is derived from the Spanish words “tres lenguas” meaning “three tongues” — a reference to English, Spanish, and Native American, the three languages spoken there in the days of the Old West.
Terlingua SignIf you have never ventured to the Chihuahuan Desert or to Terlingua, you owe it to yourself to visit this fascinating and mesmerizingly beautiful part of Texas. Terlingua was once a thriving mining town that was abandoned after the Second World War. Starting in the 1970’s, Terlingua became a destination for adventurers, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians, and just plain folks who were bewitched by the old ghost town and decided to stay.
High Sierra Bar and GrillOn a recent visit to Big Bend Ranch State Park, my buddies and I ventured to the High Sierra Bar and Grill in Terlingua in search of a hunger busting burger. There are not a lot of places to eat in Terlingua so we were happy to find the High Sierra and even happier to learn that they had burgers on the menu.

I ordered my usual bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings and a tall glass of iced tea. We enjoyed the ambiance of the place while we waited for our burgers. The staff was friendly. The iced tea was cold. The mix of locals and outsiders made for some interesting people watching. And the music was perfect, especially because Johnny Cash was on the playlist.
High Sierra BurgerMy burger and hand-battered onion rings arrived hot and ready to eat. The generous-sized and cheese covered meat patty was cooked just the way I like. The bun was slathered with a combination of mustard and mayo, every ingredient was fresh, and the bacon was nice and crispy. I cut my burger in half and eagerly took my first bite.
High Sierra Sliced BurgerThe first bite always tells the story. And this first bite was delicious. Wow — it was so good. I savored every tasty bite. When I finished, my only regret was that I did not have the bandwidth in my stomach (nor the metabolism) to do it all over again. Without question, this was one of the best burgers I have eaten in the Lone Star State. And the onion rings were pretty tasty in their own right. All in all — a delicious meal!

No matter where you go in Texas, you can find a delicious burger. However, you must be willing to get off the beaten path and walk into places you might not otherwise visit. I’m glad we stopped to eat at the High Sierra Bar and Grill. This eatery will remain high on my list of places to eat the next time I venture west of the Pecos River. If you find yourself anywhere near the ghost town of Terlingua, check out the High Sierra Bar and Grill.

2017 Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest

Last year’s Chihuahuan Desert Mountain Bike Endurance Fest was one of my favorite Lone Star State adventures. The venue for this bike fest that draws hundreds of mountain bikers from across the state and beyond is the expansive Chihuahuan Desert at Big Bend Ranch State Park — without question one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing places in Texas.
Chihuahuan DesertThe Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest is an annual event offered on Presidents’ Day Weekend in February and sponsored by Desert Sports of Terlingua, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Lajitas Resort. If you are interested in riding, then be sure to register early. The event is capped at 500 riders and fills up well before the registration deadline.
Bike GuysOne of the best things about this event is that it is a ride and not a race. Whether you have a multi-thousand dollar full-suspension mountain bike or an entry-level hard tail, you will feel right at home. There are guided rides for every skill level. You can ride at your own pace and not feel embarrassed if you have to dismount and walk your bike up a scree-covered incline.
Maverick RV ResortBase camp for the big event is the Lajitas Maverick Ranch RV Park in Lajitas, located adjacent to the old town cemetery that looks like something out of an old western. The surrounding desert hills and mesas only add to the old west mystique. The ride turns the RV Park into a boomtown crammed with RV’s and tents, brand name bike vendors, and evening campfires and music and conversation.
Biking FriendsThis year I returned to the Bike Fest with several friends. We had reserved a couple of sites after last year’s ride to make sure that we would have a place to pitch our tents. And, because we enjoy this event so much, we have already reserved our spaces for the next two years and hope to encourage a few more of our dirt-loving buddies to join us.
James at Bike FestAs soon as the sun came up we enjoyed a delicious breakfast and then mounted our mechanical steeds and headed off into the desert. We enjoyed two and a half days of riding and logged a little more than sixty trail miles. To say we had a blast would be an understatement. Sharing this adventure with good friends made it all the more enjoyable.
Trek at Chihuahuan Desert Bike FestI love events that bring people together — and the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest does just that. We enjoyed sharing our dutch oven desert with our neighbors at the campsite, talking with other riders, sharing tales of our daily rides, laughing a whole lot, and warming our feet at our evening campfire under the watchful glimmer of billions of stars in our deep in the heart of Texas sky.
img_1445If you are a mountain biker, then I encourage you to add the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest to your list of adventures. Get it on your calendar now. Register early. And then join the fun in one of the most amazing places in the Lone Star State. Hope to see you in the Chihuahuan Desert in 2018.

5 Facts About Walking Stick Cholla

I love the mesmerizing beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Lone Star State. This is iconic cowboy country that easily conjures up images of the old west. The more I wander through this region, the more I want to learn about the distinctive plants that give the vistas a beauty all their own. On a recent visit to the Guadalupe Mountains, I became acquainted with the walking stick cholla — an easy to identify member of the cactus family. Here are five interesting facts about this really cool-looking plant.

1. Walking Stick Cholla has some really cool aliases.


Most plants that grow in the Chihuahua Desert are known by more than one name. The walking stick cholla (pronounced cho-ya) certainly has its fair share of Native American and Spanish names, many inspired by the features of the plant. The cholla is also known as cane cholla, tree cholla (because it resembles a small tree), tree cactus, candelabrum cactus, devil’s rope, coyote prickly pear, tuna quell, and velas (candles) de coyote.
Cholla Cactus A2. People either love or hate the walking stick cholla.

In its native desert environment, the cholla is regarded by some as a weedy and troublesome pest. This hardy cacti can quickly reproduce. Fallen joints can easily form roots and produce new plants that spread and take over rangelands. However, to those who love xeric landscapes, cholla is regarded as a beautiful sculptural addition to a low-maintenance garden.

Cholla Fruit
3. The walking stick cholla is a source of food.

The walking stick cholla produces a distinctive yellow fruit that is often mistaken for flowers. This fruit lasts throughout the winter months and is a source of nutrition for wild birds, pronghorn antelope, desert bighorn sheep, and deer. The calcium-rich fruit of some species is edible either raw or boiled and is a good source of fiber. The cholla fruit is also used in dye production.
Cholla Cactus B4. The walking stick cholla has spines and blossoms.

As with all cacti, beware of the thorny spines that grow around the perimeter of the candelabra-like branches of the walking stick cholla. The vicious barbed spines have earned it the nickname devil’s rope and are tough enough to penetrate leather gloves. So, handle with care. In contrast to its spines, the cholla produces purple or magenta flowers that add to the beauty of the desert landscape.
dried-cholla5. Dead walking stick cholla stems have a beauty all their own.

Dried cholla wood is a good source of firewood. When dead stems decay, they reveal a hollow wooden tube with a beautiful pattern of slits. These dried cylindrical branches are sometimes used as walking sticks or canes or to make picture frames, tool handles, and other curio-like items.