Boys, Mentors, and Adventures

When Cheryl and I bought our little slice of heaven in the Chihuahuan Desert, we dreamed of developing our property not just for ourselves but for others as well. In particular, we talked about hosting at-risk boys and offering them the opportunity to experience outdoor adventures, including doing work projects that require cooperation.

My friend Ryan Orbin, the Director of the Hangar Unity Center in Brookshire, and I have had lots of conversations about how to help at-risk boys become good men. He works for an organization called Eyes On Me, Inc — a ministry that exists to mentor, disciple, and serve at-risk youth and their families.

Earlier this year, Ryan approached me about hosting a Spring Break adventure at our place, including a work day, for boys from Brookshire. I immediately agreed. The Hangar has a great mentoring program that is making a difference in the lives of young boys. Some of these boys are one decision away from becoming a statistic. But thanks to Ryan and his team, things are changing.

Motivational speaker Josh Shipp knows what it means to be a kid at risk of becoming a statistic. Thankfully, one caring adult made the difference in his journey. Josh champions the belief that every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story. Josh is absolutely right in his observation. One caring adult willing to mentor a kid can make all the difference.

Cheryl and I have waited with anticipation for Spring Break. We headed to the cabin this past Sunday to get everything ready for the Brookshire Boys Big Bend Adventure.

The boys arrived late Tuesday afternoon as temperatures started to cool. The first order of business was to set up camp. For some of these boys, this was their first time to pitch and sleep in a tent. My friends James and Selim, members of my Band of Fathers group, came along to prepare meals.

We spent each evening around the campfire. My friends Doug, Ba, and Bobby are three of the men who meet with the boys week after week. I was so glad they joined the boys for their week of adventure. All of these men shared good insight into biblical manhood each evening around the campfire.

On their first night around the campfire, we gave each of the boys a hydration backpack and lots of outdoor gear. Each of the mentors explained the reason they should carry these items on outdoor adventures and then used those items as a metaphor for how to deal with life’s challenges.

We planned two days of hiking adventures for the boys at Big Bend National Park. The weather was perfect for hiking. Our first adventure outing was to Santa Elena Canyon, one of the park’s signature vistas. We hiked along the Rio Grande River to the end of the trail.

From Santa Elena we headed to the Hot Springs where the boys soaked in the natural hot spring pool and then swam in the Rio Grande. Their laughter filled the air and it was hard getting them to leave.

We set aside day two for work projects that required a high level of cooperation. We divided the boys into three teams. Team Doug and Ba was assigned the task of pounding in t-posts along the northern border of our property. They learned how to use a level to check for plumb and mason’s twine to check the height of each post.

Team Bobby was assigned the task of clearing brush for a new fence. The lesson here was to learn the importance of removing things that prevent us from making progress. Clearing fence line is the first step to putting in posts and stretching wire.

Team James and Selim was assigned the task of installing a new gate on our northwest tract. The boys learned how to measure the proper distances between holes and then learned to use an auger and a post hole digger. They set the posts and then set the gate.

At the end of the day our campfire conversation was about the value of working cooperatively and leaving a signature of excellence in all they do in life. Ryan reminded the boys that the work they had done would now be a part of their legacy. Several of the boys commented on how they felt really good about what they had learned and the work they had done.

Day three took the boys back to the park where they hiked the window trail and then hiked to the balanced rock — two more iconic locations at the park. Some of the boys said that they learned to push past some of their fears about the outdoors. We reminded them that in both outdoor adventures and in life, alone is dangerous. Men often get into trouble when they do life alone.

Our final night around the campfire turned into a share time as the boys and their mentors talked about our time under the Big Bend sky. We concluded the evening with prayer and then a final night in the tents.

The boys headed back to Brookshire this morning. The place is quiet again but not the same. As I look around I see part of a legacy left here by young boys on a journey to manhood. The boys returned home a little wiser, better friends, and with the understanding that God does indeed have good plans for each of them. Cheryl and I can’t wait to host the next group.

The Homer Wilson Ranch Trail

Big Bend National Park is an adventure-seekers paradise. From short day hikes to longer thru-hikes or off-road four-wheeling to night time star gazing, Big Bend is a Texas treasure that just keeps on giving.

Those interested in learning about the history that preceded the official establishment of the national park in 1944 can roam among the ruins of some of the original homesteads in this wide part of Texas. These sites are accessible by way clearly defined trails, mostly half a mile or less in distance one way.

The Homer Wilson Ranch Trail (or Blue Creek Trail) is one of my personal favorites. The Homer Wilson Blue Creek Ranch was established in 1929 and was one of the largest in Texas, comprising more than 28,000 acres — home to 4,000 sheep and 2,500 goats. The ranch was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

The trailhead is located at a scenic overlook a little less than 8 miles from the northern end of the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This overview offers sweeping vistas of Blue Creek Valley — once the operational center of the Homer Wilson Ranch. If you look carefully you will see what remains of the old line camp on the bank of Blue Creek.

The trail leading to the old line camp is an easy downhill stroll that crosses two drainages and then climbs to the house on the bank of Blue Creek. For many years, this ranch house was home to Wilson’s foreman, Lott Felts.

Although abandoned in 1945, what remains of the ranch house is more than enough to give visitors an idea of what ranch life must have been like in the days before the establishment of the national park. The house was well built, featuring a flagstone floor, high ceilings, a centrally located fireplace, and a covered porch.

Hidden in the surrounding brush are the remains of a circular corral for the training of young horses, a rainwater cistern, a dipping vat and chute for sheep and goats, and a few other remnants of ranch life. The entire area is a time capsule worth exploring.

The half-mile hike back to the parking area is all uphill but not difficult at all. When hiking in Big Bend, always remember to take a hydration pack or bottled water — even on short hikes. If you are interested in hikes that will help you to learn about the history of Big Bend National Park, definitely include the Homer Wilson Ranch Trail hike on your day-adventures agenda.

Hot Springs Loop Trail in Big Bend

Big Bend National Park is one of the absolutely must-see places in the Lone Star State. Bordered by a 118-mile stretch of the Rio Grande River to the South, the park encompasses more than 800,000 acres of magnificent Chihuahuan Desert landscapes.

In 2012, Big Bend National Park was awarded International Dark Sky Park status by the International Dark-Sky Association. The park boasts the darkest skies of any national park in the lower 48 states. There are no words to describe the breathtaking nights in this wide part of Texas.

Big Bend National Park also has a variety of hiking trails for every skill level — all of which offer their respective spectacular vistas. Whether you are interested in a tough multi-day thru-hike or a short and easy stroll, Big Bend does not disappoint.

The Big Bend Hot Springs Trail is a 1.2 mile loop trail with a modest 144-feet of elevation gain. The trailhead is located at the end of a two-mile gravel road that descends down a rough, narrow wash to the Hot Springs Historic District. There is ample parking there.

The Hot Springs Historic District preserves the history of this popular location in the park. In the early 1900s, a man from Mississippi named J.O. Langford was suffering from malaria-related health concerns. He traveled to Alpine, Texas with his pregnant wife and young daughter in hopes that the desert climate would improve his health.

While in Alpine, Langford heard about hot springs along the Rio Grande that would cure anything. Without having seen the place, Langford headed to the county surveyor’s office and filed a claim under the homestead act to secure the hot springs and adjacent land. He then loaded up his wagon and traveled eleven days from Alpine to his newly-acquired tract.

After Langford regained his health by taking a three-week treatment of bathing and drinking the spring water, he opened the springs to others seeking to improve their health. He built a bath house over the springs and charged 10 cents per day or $2.00 for a three-week treatment.

A country store, restaurant, post office, and lodging followed, making the area a popular tourist destination. The remnants of these buildings still stand as mute testimony to the attraction of the hot springs.

The Hot Spring Loop Trail leads to what remains of Langford’s bathhouse. The hot 105-degree spring water is retained in the perimeter of the old foundation, forming a large square bathtub. Soakers can sit and gaze at the Rio Grande and across to Mexico.

The Hot Spring Loop Trail continues for a bit beyond the hot springs and then takes a turn up the bluff. The views from this section of the trail are magnificent. Distant purple-hued mountains draw your eyes upward past the sagebrush and ocotillo that look like something transplanted from a Martian landscape.

The trail eventually loops back toward the trailhead and parking area, descending behind the remnants of the old general store. The hike is relatively easy and the views are better than spectacular. If you visit Big Bend and are limited on time, then this is a must-do hike that will reward you with great views.

Death in Big Bend

I love adventure.

Over the years, I have participated in amazing adventures from the Lone Star State to dozens of locations around the planet. I not only enjoy participating in adventures that make my heart race, I like everything about researching, planning, making lists, packing gear, and every little thing associated with preparing for a grand adventure.

I have made an agreement with myself to always make wise decisions when adventuring. In many cases, this means not venturing out alone because alone is dangerous. On a few occasions I have had to make the tough decision to turn around and head back in order to live to adventure another day.

More than once I have thought about Sir Ernest Shackelton, one of my adventure heroes. In 1908, he made the hard call to turn back when he was within reach of the South Pole. After assessing his situation, he determined that if he pressed on he would run out of food and die on the way back. He later wrote to his wife, “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.”
I recently purchased a copy of “Death in Big Bend” by Laurence Parent. I spotted the book at a gift shop in Terlingua. I was immediately intrigued because, now that we have an off-grid cabin outside of Big Bend National Park, I am doing a bit more hiking at the park. The book is a collection of 17 stories of death and rescue in Big Bend National Park.

While most visitors to the park enjoy an incident-free vacation that becomes a memorable part of their adventure narrative, a few have not been so lucky. The stories in this book are well written and illustrate what can happen when only one small things goes wrong on an adventure. Once one thing gets misaligned, then it often triggers a series of other missteps that often lead to tragedy.
I recommend this as a must-read for any adventurer or anyone thinking about hiking at Big Bend National Park or Big Bend Ranch State Park. Too many times I have come across people on the trail who appeared ill-prepared, hiking miles from the trailhead with, at most, a 16-ounce bottle of water.

Once while hiking in McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains on the Texas / New Mexico border, I came across a couple in serious need of water and nutrition. I had it and offered it freely. I recently wrote about what I carry in my day-hike backpack. I carry this little extra weight even on short day hikes just in case. I was able to help this couple on one of those just in case days.

The stories in the book are captivating. I could not put the book down once I started reading. Spoiler alert — most of these stories are heartbreaking but instructive. Some of those who got in trouble overestimated their abilities and underestimated the hostility of the Chihuahuan Desert, resulting in tragedy. In each case, just one small thing could have changed the equation to equal life instead of death.

Whether your adventures take you to Big Bend or other locations, I recommend reading this book. If nothing else, the stories will cause you to reevaluate your planning and to take a second look at your gear, your route, and your preparedness. I remain committed to careful planning lest I become the next story of death or rescue in Big Bend.

Balanced Rock at Big Bend National Park

Balanced Rock is one of the most popular hiking destinations at Big Bend National Park. This geological feature is very cool and frames some of the most spectacular views in the park.

Balanced Rock is accessed by way of the Grapevine Hills Trail, an easy 2.2 mile out and back hike with an elevation gain of 80 feet. The trailhead is located approximately 6 miles off of Highway 118 down the Grapevine Hills road. Although this is a well-maintained dirt road, make sure that your vehicle has reasonable clearance.

This is a pleasant hike, especially in the morning or late afternoon. The trail winds its way through a little valley in the Grapevine Hills, featuring some of the most spectacular rock formations in the park. Take the time to enjoy the views and the varieties of desert flora along the way.

The final quarter mile leads up some boulders, so you will have to do a little scrambling — nothing too difficult. The trail ends at the Balanced Rock. From this point you will enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding area with the distinctive Nugent Peak off in the distance.

As with all hiking in Big Bend, be sure to take plenty of water and a trail snack. It’s always good to be prepared in case something unexpected happens along the way and you have to wait for help. And remember my hiking mantra: pace and place. Hike your pace and watch where you place your feet and you will have an enjoyable hike.

Mule Ears Peaks at Big Bend

The picturesque Mule Ears Peaks is one of the most recognizable landmarks along the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive at Big Bend National Park. The twin pillars of black igneous rock that jut up from the desert floor are hard to miss.

The Mule Ears Spring trailhead is located at the end of a short spur off the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. The sign at the trailhead advises hikers to carry plenty of water — advice that should be heeded, especially in hotter months when temperatures can easily soar past the hundred-degree mark.

The Mule Ears Spring Trail is a moderate 3.8 mile roundtrip trek that winds through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains. The mostly rocky trail that leads to Mule Ears Spring skirts Trap Mountain and crosses several arroyos. The spring has created a desert oasis that nourishes thick stands of cottonwood trees, ferns, cattails, and a variety of desert shrubs.

Before arriving at the spring is a rock corral, a reminder of the resourcefulness of early sheep and cattle herders in the area. The corral is constructed of rock that was dry stacked and fitted together without the benefit of mortar. The fact that it still stands is amazing. If those stones could speak what wonderful stories they would tell about the challenges faced by early settlers to the area.

Mule Ears Spring is a turnaround point on the trail. However, you can hike through the vegetation and continue on a well-defined trail that leads ever closer to the peaks. The trail eventually leads to a bluff that offers absolutely spectacular views of the Chihuahuan Desert and the peaks.

The desert is rich with life and with beauty. You will enjoy the bigger views along the trail but don’t overlook the desert flora along the way — sotol, lechuguilla, yuca, ocotillo, and several species of cacti. The trail to Mule Ears Peaks is definitely worth adding to your day hiking itinerary on your next visit to Big Bend National Park.

The Window Trail at Big Bend

Beyond the Pecos River lies the vast expanse of the Chihuahuan Desert, that wide part of the state that boasts some of the most magnificent vistas in the Lone Star State. This is where the Rio Grande River makes a dramatic turn, giving Texas its distinctive and recognizable shape.

In the southernmost part of the trans-Pecos is Big Bend National Park, a place Lady Bird Johnson once described as “the very edge of the world.” Big Bend was established as a national park in June 1935. Encompassing 1,252 square miles of land, this national park is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

From the riparian region of the Rio Grande River to the rugged peaks of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend offers outdoor enthusiasts more than 150 miles of hiking trails. These avenues offer access to the amazing geography and geology of this region that is home to more than 1,200 species of plants and more than 600 species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

The Window Trail is one of the most popular treks in the park. This 5.2 mile roundtrip trail is an easy hike for anyone in reasonable shape. The trail begins near the Chisos Mountain Lodge and descends 800-feet over a 2 mile stretch to a magnificent overlook of the Chihuahuan Desert. There are places along the way to stop and rest or to just sit in silence and listen to the sounds of the breeze and the birds.

At one point the trail descends slightly into a streambed where the rocks have been polished smooth by the flow of water. Steps carved into the rocks make it easy to navigate this section of the trail that leads to the breathtaking overlook flanked by rugged cliffs.
I should note that the overlook drops 220 vertical feet to the floor of the Chihuahuan Desert. The rock at the overlook is slick, so you should exercise lots of caution and not get too close to the edge. If you happen to be there in the evening, this notch is a great place from which to watch the sunset.
There is a junction a quarter mile from the end of the Window Trail that leads to the Oak Springs Trail. It is worth hiking the section of this trail that ascends to a ridge that offers unobstructed views of the Chihuahuan Desert. The views from this ridge are truly breathtaking.

The Window Trail and Oak Springs Trail will not disappoint. It’s worth taking the time to add these short day hikes to any visit to the park. The views at the end of the Window Trail and from the ridge on the Oak Springs Trail make it worth every step.

A final word to anyone planning on hiking in Big Bend — please make sure that you read the signs at the respective trailheads. These signs will help you to get oriented, understand the time commitment required, and remind you to always take water with you (at the least).

I have seen far too many hikers on trails at the park who ventured out without water. It is important to stay hydrated and to be prepared in case of any unexpected injury or delay that might occur along the trail. That is just hiking smart.

If you have not visited Big Bend I encourage you to do so. It is well worth the drive from any place in the state or the nation.

Our 2019 First Day Hike

John Muir is regarded as our nation’s most famous and influential conservationist. He inspired the people of his generation to experience and to protect what later became some of our country’s largest national parks. Muir famously said, “Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
There is indeed something therapeutic about taking a dirt path. Dirt paths give us access to vistas that most folks who opt to live life on tarmac never see. Those of us who live in the Lone Star State are fortunate to have 95 state parks — each with their respective dirt paths.
Today, my wife Cheryl and I participated in one of the many First Day Hikes offered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife folks. This year we chose to hike at Stephen F. Austin State Park just thirty-minutes west of our home in Katy. This is one of my favorite parks for hiking and biking.
The First Day Hikes program is a cooperative initiative among the nation’s state parks to get more people outside. Since its inception a few years ago, thousands of people across the United States have logged tens of thousands of miles on park trails.
Cheryl and I spent the morning strolling down trails at Stephen F. Austin. Cheryl is a Texas Master Naturalist, so we stopped a lot to look at and to talk about the flora along the trails. We also enjoyed looking at white tail deer and other wildlife. I learn something every time we hike together.
Our walk reminded me of something David Henry Thoreau said: “An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day” — and indeed it was. Taking dirt paths has therapeutic value. New research is showing that exposure to natural environments actually improves physical and emotional health. I believe it. I always feel better in every way after a good long trek through the woods.
As you look to the year ahead, make sure to schedule some time to walk down a dirt path. When you do so, make sure that you walk slowly, listen carefully, observe intentionally, and breathe deeply. Take my word for it, the walk will do you a lot of good — probably more than you may realize.

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.

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!