5 Facts About Red Buckeye

If you enjoy hiking in East Texas, you have likely seen the red buckeye on your treks. This handsome shrub shows off its clusters of firecracker-shaped blooms from March through May and then drops its leaves by summer’s end. This red-flowered plant also has a yellow-flowered cousin that can be found along streams in the western part of Texas. Red buckeye is named for the color of the flowers and the similarity of the seed to a deer or buck’s eye.
1. Red buckeye is a shrub with an alias.

Like other Texas plants, the red buckeye is also known as scarlet buckeye and as the firecracker plant — for obvious reasons. When in bloom, the red buckeye produces a cluster of tubular-shaped flowers that resemble firecrackers. This makes it easy to identify this shrub when hiking through our state parks.
2. Red buckeye is a beast.

While beautiful to behold, this beauty is a beast that packs some powerful poison in its seeds. Indigenous peoples crushed the seeds and put them in water in order to stupefy fish to make it easier to catch them. The toxin-packed seeds of the red buckeye have also killed cattle who feasted on them.
3. Red buckeye is favorite of hummingbirds.

While the toxicity of this plant poses a threat to humans, cattle, horses, and sheep, it is a favorite of hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Even squirrels like to feast on the nuts produced by this leafy plant.
4. Red buckeye can help you clean up your act.

Indigenous people were really genius people who discovered more than the harmful side of shrubs and plants. Native Americans produced a foaming soap from the roots of the red buckeye as well as a black dye from the wood. Pretty clever stuff.
5. Pioneers found medicinal value in the red buckeye.

Native Americans and early pioneers made home remedies from the bitter bark of the red buckeye. Poultices were used to treat infections and sores. Like other plants, the red buckeye helped meet needs of both native Americans and early settlers who lived in the days before the conveniences we enjoy today.

Marie’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers & More

A good thing has happened as my blog on my adventures in the Lone Star State continues to attract more readers — and that good thing is recommendations. I love recommendations from those who email to tell me about things they enjoy doing in Texas and especially about places that serve a great burger.
That’s how I learned about Marie’s Old Fashioned Hamburgers & More. The Granger family, good friends who moved to the Beaumont area, alerted me to the grand opening of Marie’s in Fannett. Exciting news to someone like me who is always on the look out for a new burger joint. I couldn’t wait to head toward Beaumont to visit with my friends and to share a meal at Marie’s.
A few days after Marie’s opened its doors, I was there and eager to place my order. Located along Highway 124 near Beaumont, Marie’s occupies a simple building along this highway that parallels Intestate 10.
As usual, I ordered a bacon cheeseburger with a side of onion rings and a tall glass of iced tea. Whenever I see a burger joint tag their burgers as old-fashioned I am immediately interested. I am not opposed to specialty burgers (I would eat one in a heartbeat). It’s just that I am quite happy with a good old tried and proven bacon cheeseburger.
Marie’s promises hand-pressed patties on oversized buns with fresh vegetables and endless options to top off your burger. Burger buns are a super important component so I was happy to read that Marie’s offered oversized buns. For whatever reason, burger buns have a tendency to shrink once you start eating your burger. So, oversized is good.
I am happy to report that Marie’s kept its promises on all fronts — oversized buns, fresh vegetables, crispy bacon, pepperjack cheese. Combined, each of these ingredients did its part to contribute to one really delicious burger. I was happy that my two-hour drive was not in vain. The burger was definitely worth the drive.
We are indeed blessed to have countless places in Texas that serve great burgers. I would need another lifetime just to visit them all. But, because I don’t have another lifetime, I am content to enjoy as many burgers as I can as I travel across Texas. Occasionally I stumble across a burger that is not noteworthy, but that is to be expected. I prefer to be thankful for the many places, like Marie’s, that serve up a delicious burger.

As I have often noted on my burger reviews, since you are going to eat anyway, be adventurous. Take a risk and discover new places to eat. And when you do come across a place that serves a great burger, please be sure to let me know.

Gator Country Adventure Park

There are few creatures that are as immediately intimidating as the American alligator. Encased in tough prehistoric armor, these big reptiles can more than defend their place on the food chain. Even the animal kingdom thinks twice before getting too close. These creatures are some kind of tough.
The same holds true for their kin. I have seen crocodiles stacked like cordwood on the banks of the Nile River near Murchison Falls and caiman gliding along the waters of the Amazon River. And no matter where I have encountered these cold blooded creatures, my response has been the same — maintain a healthy distance!
I recently visited Gator Country Adventure Park at the invitation of my five-year old friend Elizabeth Granger. Elizabeth loves animals, is a big fan of the television show Lone Star Law, and is fascinated by alligators. So, she wanted to have her fifth birthday party at Gator Country in Beaumont.
Gator Country has been featured on television shows like Animal Planet. And with good reason. This 15-acre sanctuary is home to more than 450 American alligators, crocodiles, caiman, snakes, and an assortment of different reptiles. That is a lot of alligators in one location.

It all started back in 2005 when founder Gary Saurage invited the public to come out and see his collection of live-captured alligators and other reptiles. Gary and his team added to their collection by rescuing nuisance alligators from people’s yards, ponds and swimming pools as well as animals that were displaced and stranded after hurricanes and floods.
For years, Big Al held the record for being the largest alligator in captivity in Texas. You have to see Big Al to really understand just how big he really is. This behemoth weighs 1,000 pounds, measures 13 feet and 4 inches long, and is believed to be 84 years old.
Big Al held the record until Big Tex was captured. Big Tex measures in at 4½ inches longer than Big Al, just enough to take the title from the old octogenarian. Both gators have their own pond. Big Al is less aggressive than Big Tex but just as intimidating.
The folks at Gator Country are committed to research, education, and overseeing the welfare for the animals in their care. They work with universities and schools to foster a better understanding of these magnificent reptiles and even have internship programs for students eager to get some hands-on experience with the various reptiles under their care.

If you are anywhere near Beaumont, it’s worth your time to stop by Gator Country. You might even see my five year-old friend Elizabeth there feeding the gators. It’s one of her favorite places. Elizabeth now holds the record for the coolest birthday party I have ever attended for a five year old. Happy Birthday, Elizabeth.

Murray Cemetery

Texas backroads have no shortage of interesting sights. As far as I’m concerned, windshield time on winding two-lane farm to market roads is about the best way to get from here to there — even though it takes a bit longer than traveling by way of our busy interstates.
I recently traveled from my home in Katy to a speaking engagement in Belton. Of course, I left early because I wanted to take the backroads. And I am so glad I did. The roadway was flanked by stunning Indian Blanket wildflowers swaying in the wind. Texas, I thought to myself, is absolutely beautiful.
As I traveled north of Rockdale toward the San Gabriel River I noticed the old Murray Cemetery and hit the brakes. Old cemeteries are among the most interesting stops on Texas backroads — and, the older the better.
Named after Madison Murray (1821-1897), the Murray Cemetery dates back to 1856 — a mere one-hundred years before I was born and twenty-two years before the town of Rockdale was incorporated. The earliest grave in the cemetery is that of Nancy Phillips and dates back to 1856. Nancy was forty-three years old when she died.
Situated on the gently rolling terrain of central Texas, the location of the cemetery is absolutely idyllic. Many of the beautiful trees at the sight were saplings in the days of the earliest burials. The once beautiful tombstones placed in memory of loved ones remain in place, but with their names and epithets slowly being erased by the passage of time.
My curiosity is always stirred when I stroll through old cemeteries. I wonder about the person who died. How did they face death? What unfinished work did they leave behind? Who attended their funeral? Who returned to place flowers on their grave? The questions just keep coming but with no one to answer them.
The reality is that one day many of us will end up in a cemetery, with a tombstone offering the world the briefest of information about us — the dates of our birth and death but nothing about what happened in-between those dates. Perhaps a line carved in stone to tell the world something about what we meant to our loved ones. Or perhaps a word about our profession or our belief about what lies beyond the grave.
As you travel Texas backroads, don’t be in a hurry. Instead take the time to stop and walk through old cemeteries. Reflect on the brevity of life and the passing of time. And then resolve to invest most in those who will cry at your funeral.

Bull Creek Cafe and Grill

A friend recently asked me if I have eaten some bad burgers on my search for the best burgers. The answer, of course, is yes. However, I was quick to add that I don’t write about the bad burgers. I am not a food critic. I understand that there is subjective latitude when it comes to whether something is tasty or not. So, I just write about those burgers that really get my attention.

The hunt for a good burger is a big part of the fun for me. I still get excited when I walk into a burger joint or cafe to check out their burgers. I love the anticipation of waiting for my burger to arrive and then taking that first bite. As I often note in my burger reviews, the first bite tells it all. If the first bite is not good then you can’t expect things to go uphill from there.
After a recent mountain biking outing with a friend to Brazos Bend State Park, we decided to find a good burger joint. Having burned a lot of calories we felt we could surely splurge on a big burger. We consulted our phones and then reviewed a list of possible places to have lunch. We chose the Bull Creek Cafe and Grill in Rosenberg.
The minute we pulled into the parking lot we could smell the deliciousness in the air. Aroma like that was good advertising. If the food was even half as good as the aroma we were certainly in for a treat.

I ordered my usual bacon cheeseburger and opted for pepperjack cheese on a medium-well patty with a side of onion rings. The cold glass of iced tea really hit the spot after a full morning on the trails at the park.
After a short wait I looked off toward the kitchen and saw my burger on its way to our table. Holy smoke — even from a distance I could tell that this was going to be an amazing burger. Fresh lettuce, juicy tomato, melted cheese, crispy pickles, wavy slabs of bacon, an amazing bun, and a very generous helping of meat — all held together by a serrated knife.
And those onion rings. Wow. The onion rings were a meal in themselves. They were huge. Nothing frozen or fake about these rings. This was the real onion ring deal. Hard as I tried, I would not be able to finish the onion rings.
As for the burger, I cut it in half to look at the beautiful burger strata. Totally impressed. The first bite was delicious. So good. Everything about this burger was perfect. I looked across the table at my buddy and we both shook our heads in agreement. We had found one amazing burger.

The only bad part of finding a good burger is that last bite. I hate to see something so good come to an end. If you live or find yourself anywhere near the Bull Creek Cafe and Grill, make the time to enjoy a meal there. One thing is certain, this place is amazing. And that’s no bull!

Bad Rabbit Cafe

The Big Bend region of Texas gives a whole new meaning to the word vast. Out in this part of Texas folks measure distance by the hour rather than by the mile. And there are plenty of hours between here and there when you are exploring the Big Bend.

Of course, food is always on my mind whenever I venture out on one of my Texas road trips. That’s because there are so many fantastic out-of-the-way places to eat in the Lone Star State. And discovering a new place to eat a burger is always on my to-do list when I am on the road.

Now, when it comes to the Big Bend, there are not a whole lot of places to eat — especially when you venture south of Alpine and head toward Terlingua. That’s why its important to plan ahead when road-tripping in Big Bend.
Among the best places to eat in this iconic cowboy country is the Bad Rabbit Cafe at the Terlingua Ranch Lodge. The lodge (or Terlingua Ranch headquarters) is located 16 miles east of Highway 118 about an hour south of Alpine. Just look for the big sign with the yellow Terlingua Ranch logo located at the intersection of Highway 118 and Terlingua Ranch Road.
The Bad Rabbit Cafe is housed in an original ranch structure made of stone and masonry. Very Texas-looking stuff! You’ll love the magnificent views on your drive to the cafe as well as the surrounding mountains and mesas once you arrive. The cafe generally opens at 7:00 AM every day and only closes early on Sundays.

I ordered my usual bacon cheeseburger with a side of hand-cut fries and a tall glass of iced tea. My wife Cheryl and I enjoyed the ambiance of the place while we waited for our meal. Decorated with boots and murals and all kinds of cool stuff, the dining area also serves as a venue for local bands on weekend nights.
My burger arrived quickly and piping hot. The generous portion of meat was especially delicious and all of the veggies were fresh. I also appreciate that the burger came with bacon cooked to crispy perfection. There is nothing that ruins a bacon cheeseburger faster than slices of wimpy bacon. The bread was also delicious.
One bite was all it took to convince me that we had made the right call to eat at the Bad Rabbit. It was definitely worth the drive off the main highway between Alpine and Terlingua. To make our experience even better, the staff was courteous. All in all, this was a really pleasant dining experience. Cheryl and I have already decided that we will visit the Bad Rabbit again for some good Texas grub!

Introducing Dos Arbolitos

When it comes to amazing vistas in Texas, the Trans-Pecos region is at the top of my list. The expansive spaces, distant silhouetted hills, distinctive desert flora, deep in the heart of Texas skies, and mesmerizing chiaroscuro splashed across the faces of desert mesas all work together to create iconic Texas views.
I first felt the call of the Chihuahuan Desert when I was a Boy Scout. My grandfather’s stories about Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos, stirred my curiosity about this part of the Lone Star State. I made my first trip to visit the Jersey Lilly when I was a Boy Scout and I was hooked. I loved everything about the desert.
Throughout those years I came across numerous ads about Terlingua Ranch — a rugged 100,000 acres tucked between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. For little money, the ads touted, you could own a piece of Texas. These ads drew a lot of people to this remote region. Folks fell in love with what they found and the land started selling like hot cakes and continues to sell to this day.
Last month, through the kindness of a friend, my wife and I were blessed with a remarkable gift — our own little slice of Texas at Terlingua Ranch. I had dreamed about this as a Boy Scout but never imagined that one day I might own land in one of the most iconic regions in Texas. So, we begin a new adventure to develop a place to enjoy off-grid getaways.
We are now the legal owners of a piece of property in the Big Bend Valley with million dollar views in every direction. From our little place we can watch the sun rise over Nine Point Mesa to the East, enjoy the views of the Christmas Mountains to the South, and watch the sun set behind the distant mesas to the West. Amazing stuff any way you slice it.

The next step is to have our land surveyed, confirm our corners, and get our metes and bounds document. Through the kindness of another friend, all of this is in motion. We are taking this a step at a time, don’t want to incur any debt in the process, and are excited about watching things unfold.

As Cheryl and I talked about a name for our little slice of heaven in Texas, we immediately agreed on Dos Arbolitos, translated Two Saplings. This is actually the name of one of our favorite Spanish songs. Translated, the lyrics say, in part:

Two little trees have been born on my ranch,
Two little trees that look like twins,
And from my little house I see them alone,
Under the holy protection and the light of the heavens.

They are never separated one from the other
Because God wanted the two born that way,
And with their very branches they caress each other
As if they were bride and groom that loved each other.

We are beyond thankful for this unexpected blessing. Whenever I need to clear my head and my heart, I always seem to head West toward the Chihuahuan Desert. And when I do, I always come home refreshed after enjoying the views, watching the sun set, and sitting under the stars. There are no words to express what it means to call Texas home and to have been blessed with Dos Arbolitos.
I have added a new Dos Arbolitos category and will post updates as things continue to unfold. We know it is going to be a long process and we are committed to enjoying the journey. Thanks for following my adventures in the Lone Star State.

Another Time Soda Fountain and Cafe

I love small town diners — perhaps because of the nostalgia but certainly for their food and all that these local eateries mean to the life of a community. I prefer dining at places where I know it will take a while for my food to arrive and I can fill the waiting time with good conversation.

As the pace of life grew increasingly faster, old-fashioned diners and cafes began to disappear from the culinary landscape. As for their replacement, we got faster service but not necessarily better food or a better dining experience. There is something to be said about eateries where things move just a bit slower.
There is just such a place in Rosenberg, a small town just outside of Houston. Appropriately named Another Time Soda Fountain and Cafe, walking through the doors of this place is like stepping into a time machine. From the decor to the menu, this is the kind of place that just sort of hugs your heart and mind when you walk in.
This place has it all — amazing hamburgers, made from scratch meals, malts made with real ice cream, banana splits, and an array of delicious desserts. They even have soda jerks that will prepare you a fountain drink the way they used to back in the 50’s. And, to make your dining experience even more memorable, the cafe is appointed with some pretty cool period decor.
As I always do when I try out a new place, I ordered a bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, and a cold glass of tea. The menu even states, “Please allow extra time for grilling.” I like that. I was not in any hurry and really wanted to soak in the atmosphere.
Once my burger arrived I cut it in half. Those of you who follow my blog know that I have this thing about burger strata. I just have to see what things look like under the hood and how a burger is put together, layer by layer. And wow, this burger had a big ol’ thick helping of meat with the bacon cooked to crispy perfection (just the way I like it).
I believe that the first bite always tells the story. If the first bite is bad then there is no reason to believe that the bites that follow will be any better. But if the first bite is good —oh my soul — then you can count on every bite that follows to keep a smile on your face.

My burger immediately passed the first bite test — really good. Everything about this old-fashioned burger was right. From the grilled bun to everything else, this was one delicious burger. I eat slow anyway, but I ate this burger even slower than usual because I wanted to savor every bite.
My mountain biking friend who was dining with me asked me if I have ever eaten a bad burger on my quest to find the best burgers in the Lone Star State. “Absolutely,” I replied. “But, this is not one of those burgers that is big on bragging and a failure on flavor.” This burger passed the test and is now on my list of burgers that I can recommend without hesitation.
You may live a long way from Rosenberg, but I’ll bet you don’t live a long way from a good burger near you. As long as you have to eat, make eating more of an adventure by searching for and trying places off the fast food highway. Remember to eat slow and have meaningful conversation around the table — just like it was done in another time.

My Ozark Trail ConnecTent

My weakness is outdoor gear. When I get home in the evenings I like to peruse YouTube in search of the latest camping or hiking or anything-outdoors gear reviews. So, it should come as no surprise that I have all sorts of gear crammed onto the shelves in my garage. And, because I am a trekking pole junkie, I keep no less than three sets of trekking poles in my pickup truck at all times. Better to be prepared!

While recently watching a YouTube review of the latest in tents for car camping, I was wowed by a cube tent that attaches to the framework of a straight-leg 10 x 10 pop-up canopy. Amazingly simple and fast set-up that yields lots of usable square footage that, honestly, is closer to the glamping side of the camping equation.
After doing some research, I found a very affordable version of this tent — the Ozark Trail ConnecTent. So, I placed my order on Amazon and then waited with all of the patience of a kid on Christmas Eve. When my packages finally arrived I couldn’t wait to get home to set everything up in my backyard. And then, it rained!
At the first available opportunity, I unpacked everything in my backyard and proceeded to set up the tent. Although I managed to set my tent up by myself, the set-up of this particular tent would have been a bit easier with an extra hand to help. My wife Cheryl arrived home just in time to help me finish the job.
Setting up this tent is really pretty intuitive. I began by setting up the pop-up canopy. It is important to have a straight-leg rather than a slant-leg canopy in order to properly attach this particular tent. I raised the canopy to the lowest position and then proceeded to clip the tent to the framework. Very easy stuff.
Once I had everything clipped into place, I staked down the tent. A particular feature that I like about the pop-up canopy is that it comes with four guy-lines already attached to the corners. This adds a good extra measure of stability, especially to withstand high winds.
The inside of the tent is huge. I set up my camping cot just to get a feel for the interior space. Love the spaciousness of this tent. Perfect for car camping when I have the luxury of bringing extra stuff to set up a more comfortable base camp for hiking or biking in a state park.

I will have my first opportunity to use my new ConnecTent under the big Texas sky when I attend the Llano Earth Art Festival during Spring Break. I have a camp site reserved and can’t wait to set up my tent for a fun weekend outdoors. Will write more after the festival in Llano. Until then, happy camping!

2018 Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest

For the third year in a row, I drove across the Lone Star State with friends to participate in the Chihuahuan Desert Mountain Bike Endurance Fest. We loaded our mountain bikes and camping gear at four in the morning on Valentine’s Day and arrived at Big Bend Ranch State Park at four in the afternoon.
We wasted no time in getting our base camp set up at the Maverick Ranch RV Park in Lajitas. This park serves as ground zero for the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest that draws upwards of 500 mountain bikers from around the nation. For three days on Presidents Day weekend in February, the RV park becomes a small town with a population several times greater than that of Lajitas.
Big Bend Ranch State Park features some amazing trails, including a 50-plus mile Epic Loop rated as one of the best trails in the country by the International Mountain Biking Association. No worries, however, if you are hesitant to tackle a torturous trail like the Epic Loop. The bike fest is a non-competitive event that features a variety of guided rides for every skill level.
After setting up our campsite, we mounted our bikes and headed east toward the Buena Suerte Trail to get a ride in before sunset. The Buena Suerte trail is a wide jeep trail that leads to several single track trails that range in difficulty from easy to pretty hard stuff to ride.
Over the course of our two and a half days, we managed to rack up close to eighty-miles on the trails. While we all enjoyed riding our own mountain bikes, we couldn’t resist checking out the more expensive mountain bikes made available by the country’s biggest bike brands.
On our second day, I opted to try the Cannondale Monterra 2 electric mountain bike with full suspension and fat tires. This is one amazing mountain bike that features four electronic settings that make trail riding a whole new experience. This bike is nothing short of amazing. It was so much fun to ride and the fat tires just ate up the trails.The best part of an event like the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest is sharing the adventure with friends. We had a blast checking out new trails, stopping to take pics along the way, back-tracking to repeat fun sections of the trails, eating some delicious meals, and sitting around the campfire in the evenings.
I was especially glad to run into Karen Hoffman Blizzard and David Heinicke, two friends I met on my first ride two years ago. Karen is a contributing writer to Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine and David is the head naturalist at Brazos Bend State Park. They were great encouragers to me on my first ride and shepherded me down a trail that was a little above my riding skills at that time.
If you enjoy mountain biking then make it a point to do the Chihuahuan Desert Bike Fest. This ride is 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. I think you’ll agree that this ride is unquestionably one of the best things going for mountain bikers in the Lone Star State.