The Strawberry Cactus

I am struck by the singular beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. I really can’t explain why. It’s just something I feel deeply inside — something that causes me to be silent and, for lack of a better word, reverent.

While some may look at a vast desert landscape and regard it as nothing more than a hard and mournful kingdom of sand and rock and shrubs, it is indeed much more than that. The desert is a canvas on which the beauty and resilience of life is on display.

Anything that can survive and even thrive in the desert has my deepest respect and admiration. It is these survivors that each lend their respective beauty to the desert, some in ways more obvious than others. Among my favorites is the strawberry cactus.
The strawberry cactus is one of the most beautiful of desert plants. Its name is derived from the strawberry-flavored fruit that it produces. Its appearance has also earned it numerous aliases, including strawberry hedgehog, hedgehog cactus, porcupine hedgehog, straw-colored hedgehog, and pitaya.
While the desert intimidates other plants, the strawberry cactus is at home in the harsh environment of the Chihuahuan Desert. This hardy specimen can be found in most areas of Big Bend, from the low desert to mountain slopes as high as 5,000 feet.
The strawberry cactus grows in clumps that can be several feet in diameter. Throughout spring and early summer, these clumps are adorned with large and colorful flowers. The distinctively beautiful magenta flowers make the strawberry cactus easy to identify.
The reddish-purple fruit of the strawberry cactus ripens in July. Before eating it’s important to remove the thorns. The fruit has a tart-flavored taste that is similar to that of strawberries, hence the name. The fruit of the strawberry cactus has been a favorite of desert-dwellers for generations.
The next time you drive across the Chihuahuan Desert make it a point to look more carefully at the plants that call this wide part of Texas home. They are there because they are tough — and they each make a special contribution to life in the desert. Look carefully and you too will see a distinctive and singular beauty in desert places.

Surveying Dos Arbolitos

Beauty is indeed in the eyes of the beholder. And when it comes to Texas, I especially love the beauty of the Trans-Pecos — where the sprawling Chihuahuan Desert paints the landscape with brushstrokes hundreds of miles long. This wide part of the Lone Star State is not every Texans cup of tea. But for me, there is a beauty here that is hard to explain.
A few months ago, my wife and I purchased a few acres of land in the Big Bend Valley section of Terlingua Ranch. Our little slice of Texas is located between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, two of the most beautiful places on the planet. We have named our place Dos Arbolitos, the subject of an earlier blog.
Our intent is not to retire at Dos Arbolitos but rather to have a place where we can occasionally get away from it all — a place so quiet we should be able to hear the sun coming up in the morning and so dark we should be able to see the Milky Way bisecting the night sky. We are beyond thrilled to have visual access to some of the most amazing views of the Big Bend from Dos Arbolitos.

This past week we were able to check off two more important items on our checklist as we take baby steps to develop our property. The first of these was to get our property surveyed in order to identify our corners. My friend Gil Harris accompanied me to Dos Arbolitos to meet the surveyor.
We agreed to meet the surveyor at the Little Burro Country Store at the corner of Highway 118 and American Legion Road, the dirt road that leads back to Dos Arbolitos. While we waited we enjoyed some great conversation on the front porch of the store with the Deputy and some of the locals. One things for sure, folks in the area are pretty friendly.

Relaxing and chatting on the porch at Little Burro got me to thinking about the absence of front porches on homes today. I think that we lost something special when we abandoned our front porches and opted to do all of life inside of our comfortable homes. The conversation and interaction of years gone by has been replaced by so many high-tech distractions inside our homes.

A porch is definitely on our to-do list for whatever tiny home structure we build at Dos Arbolitos. Since our place is so remote, we will depend on solar power (available in abundance) and rain catchment. So, no distractions — just plenty of opportunities to sit on the porch and feel the warm desert breeze.
But, back to our survey. Our surveyor set up his very cool equipment which connects with satellites and marked our corners to within an inch. He drove his markers into the ground and Gil and I added T-posts to more easily see the corners from anywhere on the property. As soon as I get our Metes and Bounds document I will file those papers at the Brewster County Courthouse in Alpine.
The second key thing I was able to check off our list was getting our turnaround cut into the property. This will give us easy access from the dirt road that runs north and south on the west side of our property. Dennis, who operated the heavy equipment, helped me identify the best location for the turnaround as well as a potential site for future building.
Something transformative happened when Dennis drove his big rig onto the property and began to clear land. Seeing the creosote bushes scraped away and the mesquite trees exposed made it much easier to visualize the potential of our little place. I can’t wait to go back to trim trees and arrange for phase one of the project which will be a permanent shade awning that will become an outdoor cooking and seating area.
So, the adventure continues. Cheryl and I know that it will take time for all of the pieces to come together and are committed to inching along at a pay-as-we-go pace. We don’t want to incur any debt in the process. So, if that means doing things a bit slower, that’s ok. We will enjoy the journey.
I will continue to post updates on the development of Dos Arbolitos. Hopefully my posts will be helpful to others who are considering owning their own little slice of heaven in Texas and developing it on a budget.

Special thanks to my friend Matt Probsfelt for taking the photo of the sunrise over Nine Point Mesa to the east of our property and the drone photo of Dos Arbolitos.

Guadalupe Peak 4.0

I stood at the top of Texas for the very first time four years ago. In search of my next adventure, I had researched Guadalupe Peak and then set off to solo hike to the summit on a cold December morning. And what an amazing adventure it was!

I summited Guadalupe Peak a second time and then a third time after bushwhacking to the summit of El Capitan. Since I was in the neighborhood and so close to the peak, a buddy and I decided to go for the peak, a third summit for both of us.

This month, I led a group of men and boys from my church to Guadalupe Mountains National Park to do something hard. We drove six-hundred and fifty miles for the opportunity to stand at the top of Texas.

In preparation, I had told the group that hiking Guadalupe Peak is hard. The hike along the steep and winding trail to the top is rated as strenuous. I knew for a fact that it would not be any less strenuous for me on my fourth bid.
We met at the trailhead at 6:30 in the morning while temperatures were still tolerable. Huge amounts of excitement swirled in the morning breeze and mixed with bits of anxiety as we waited like race cars with engines revved high.

We took a moment to share final thoughts about our adventure, we prayed, and then we hit the trail. Every guy knew that the first mile and a half would be the hardest because of the steep elevation gain.
Like a brick wall, the first mile and a half stop those who are either unprepared or don’t want to summit badly enough. This is where we have to decide whether we are willing to push past the pain.

The heat only added to the difficulty. As the morning wore on the temperatures continued to creep higher until they inched past the hundred degree mark. Our bodies craved hydration and electrolytes and power bars.
Every man and boy quickly settled into his respective rhythm as they trudged up the trail, slowly eating away at the elevation. My hiking mantra on this particular trail is pace and place — maintain a steady pace and watch where I place my feet.

Every one of the guys hiked his own hike and just past mid-morning, we began to populate the summit and feast on the amazing views. I felt just as excited as the day on which I first solo hiked to the top of Texas.
Standing at the summit of Guadalupe Peak with an amazing band of brothers was worth every hard step along the way. This is something we did together — a shared adventure, a reminder that we must do life in community with other men because alone is dangerous.
One thing is certain, the guys on this adventure will always share a special bond. We made it to the top of Texas on one of the hottest days of the year. We watched out for and encouraged one another. We enjoyed great fellowship. And we did it as a band of brothers.

If you are in search of adventure and in good physical condition, consider a trek to the top of Texas. This is one of the coolest bucket-list adventures in the Lone Star State. Although the hike is hard, the reward is worth it. Do your research. Hike prepared. Push past the pain. Enjoy the view.

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.