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.

Rosa’s Cantina

When it comes to music, my iTunes playlist is nothing less than eclectic. My taste in music encompasses just about everything from Mongolian throat singing to Mexican mariachi. I especially enjoy ballads — sentimental songs that tell stories that tug at my heart. And when it comes to ballads, I especially enjoy country–western singer Marty Robbins.

In 1959, Marty Robins released what became one of his signature songs, El Paso. This song about a love struck cowboy propelled Robbins from singer to superstar almost overnight. The setting for the song was Rosa’s Cantina “out in the west Texas town of El Paso.” What many may not have realized at the time is that there is a real place called Rosa’s Cantina in El Paso.

As the story goes, Robbins and his band were traveling from Nashville to Phoenix. They happened to stop for a break in El Paso in front of a local watering hole named Rosa’s Cantina. The place was already closed for the night but Robbins looked through the windows and walked around the joint, casting an eye toward the badlands of New Mexico.

Those brief moments in front of Rosa’s Cantina played a role in sparking Robbin’s storytelling imagination. By the time he and the boys had arrived in Phoenix the ballad was complete. We will never know for sure whether Robbins was already working on the song or if that brief stop in El Paso was the catalyst for the song.

What we do know for certain is that Rosa’s Cantina was the setting for almost the entire story about a love struck cowboy who gunned down another cowboy in a jealous rage over Felina, the Mexican girl who worked at the saloon. That song not only catapulted Robbins to fame, it also put Rosa’s Cantina on the map.

Today, Rosa’s Cantina is pretty much the same as it was in 1959. Housed in an unimpressive rock building next to a garage in a part of town where blue-collar workers hammer out a living, Rosa’s Cantina is a destination spot for Marty Robbins fans from all over the world. The guest book in the joint has signatures of guests from too many countries to count.

Cheryl and I were excited to finally make it to Rosa’s Cantina to enjoy the atmosphere and a hearty plate of Mexican food. The staff was super-friendly, the food was delicious, and the ambiance was very cool. The walls featured several Marty Robbins albums and other memorabilia. This place continues to give patrons a connection with a song about the old west that continues to stir the imagination.

Rosa’s Cantina is definitely worth a visit. Don’t hesitate to bring the whole family. The owners and staff know they are stewards of a legacy unwittingly bestowed on them by Marty Robbins. And once you step in the door, your own imagination will kick in as you reflect on a love story that did not end well for a jealous young cowboy.

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!

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.

Orange County Special Angels Rodeo

The Orange County Special Angels Rodeo began as a dream and has become an event that makes dreams come true for special needs individuals of all ages. Founder Lue Harris will never forget the night she woke up from a dream, a dream of doing something to impact the lives of a group near and dear to her heart — those with special needs.

Convinced that this dream was nothing less than a divine call to action, Lue woke up her husband Dan and told him that they needed to champion something really big for those with special needs. And so began a journey to bridge the gap between Lue’s dream and reality — something that would take a heap of work on the part of a whole lot of folks.
special-angels-rodeoWith the help her daughter Jo, daughter-in-law Debbie, and other family and friends, Lue’s dream of blessing those with special needs started to take shape. Her dream resonated in the hearts of people throughout the community. Folks liked the idea of offering those with special needs a rodeo experience unlike any other — an opportunity to become a cowboy or cowgirl for a day and participate in rodeo events using equipment especially adapted to meet their needs.
Special Angels HatsThis year, for the third time, the Orange County Special Needs Rodeo welcomed volunteers and individuals with special needs from around the state. In the days preceding the event, an army of volunteers transformed the T2 Arena and Event Center in Orange into a handicap-accessible rodeo wonderland — complete with specially adapted mechanical bulls, a petting zoo, horses, and so much more.
special-angel-gwenI first learned about this rodeo a year ago when I interviewed Jo and her mother Lue at their Farmers Mercantile Store in Orange. I knew then that I wanted to volunteer at the rodeo and waited a year to do so. And I am so glad I did. I was absolutely blown away by what I saw. The transformation of the facility was beyond anything I could have imagined.
Special Angel CodyWhat touched my heart the most was seeing the smiles and hearing the laughter of those young and old arriving in wheelchairs, leaning on walkers, and holding the hands of volunteers. Every participant was matched to a special buddy who helped them get around the arena to enjoy the day. Even wheelchair-bound individuals had an opportunity to ride a horse around the arena on specially designed saddles with safety straps. Totally amazing!
Founder Leu HarrisTo say my heart was warmed would be an understatement. I can’t stop thinking about what a magnificent day this was for me as a volunteer. My wife Cheryl accompanied our new friend Gwen on her rodeo experience. Gwen is bound to a wheelchair but today, her spirit and her smile were set free. Cheryl cried when she had to say goodbye to Gwen.
Special Angels Bull RidingFolks like Lue and Dan and Jo and Debbie and their team represent the best of what it means to be a Texan. They don’t try to hide the fact that they lean heavily on God for help and want to glorify Him by serving others. Their selfless service along with that of their many sponsors, underwriters, and volunteers make it possible for a special group of Texans to make wonderful memories in a rodeo arena. Knowing folks like the Harris family and attending events like this make me proud to be a Texan.

The Pictographs of Seminole Canyon

Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site is home to one of the oldest art collections in Texas — and I do mean really old. This 2172−acre park is nestled along the US-Mexico border nine miles west of Comstock in Val Verde County. Visitors can expect to see some of the most magnificent vistas in the Lone Star State and a whole lot more.
Seminole Canyon Cave ViewAncient inhabitants of this rugged region left their mark on the walls and ceilings of the caves along Seminole Canyon. These natural caves provided shelter and the canvas for ancient peoples to record their own stories. Without question, the rock paintings or pictographs of Seminole Canyon provide visitors to the park with a fascinating visual link to the past.
Seminole Pictograph HandsThose who study rock art have identified the pictographs of Seminole Canyon as belonging to the Lower Pecos River Style. This style of rock art appears only within a fifty mile radius of the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers.
Tinajas ViewThe early artists who painted these pictographs obtained everything they needed to produce and to apply their paints from the surrounding environment. The fact that their art is still on display testifies to their ingenuity and to the quality of the materials they produced.
Seminole Canyon Pictograph CeilingThere are more than 200 pictograph sites in the area that contain single paintings and panels of art hundreds of feet long. The pictographs depict animals, birds, weapons — and also human, anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, and enigmatic figures.
Seminole Pictograph 3Perhaps the most puzzling thing about these pictographs will always be their meaning. It’s impossible to look at the faded figures without speculating on possible meanings. Regardless of our conclusions, however, the reality is that the exact meaning of these paintings will be forever buried with the ancient artists who painted them.
Seminole Pictograph 4Protecting pictograph sites like those at Seminole Canyon is important. These pictographs are essentially an ancient text preserved on stone. They remind us that even ancient peoples understood the value of recording aspects of their culture, beliefs, and daily life. We owe it to them and to future generations to preserve their artistic and cultural legacy.
Seminole Entry SignThe only way to see the pictographs of Seminole Canyon is by a guided tour. The park offers a daily guided tour for a nominal fee. A park ranger leads each tour and offers insightful interpretive commentary. Expect to walk a couple of miles, including descending into the canyon and up and down stairs that lead to the pictographs.
Bill Worrell SculptureBecause both time and the weather continue to take their toll on the pictographs of Seminole Canyon, plan to visit this ancient outdoor art museum sooner than later. You’ll also see the really cool sculpture by Bill Worrell on your hike down the canyon. Regardless of where you live in Texas, the pictographs of Seminole Canyon are worth a visit. This is one Texas treasure you should not miss.

The Historic Murals of San Angelo

From earliest days, people have been compelled to record their history — the stories of how they lived, what they experienced, and what they accomplished. Ancient peoples cleverly devised ways to tell their stories.

The Egyptians painted hieroglyphs. The ancient Khmer empire recorded their history in the bas reliefs of Angkor Wat. Ancient cave dwellers left pictographs of animal and human figures, handprints, and curious geometric shapes on cave walls.

Even ancient peoples understood that history provides context to our existence. History helps us understand how our own personal stories fit into the larger narrative. Each of us are, after all, shaped by what happened before us and have the capacity to influence what happens after us. We can add to the narrative of history.
Ranch Heritage MuralOne of the coolest examples of recording history is found in the city of San Angelo. Situated along the Concho River, this Texas town is steeped in western history. San Angelo is unquestionably proud of its western heritage and dedicated to preserving and sharing its history and culture.
Public Transportation MuralIn 1997, a woman named Susan Morris founded The Historic Murals of San Angelo. According to their mission statement, this initiative was designed to provide the residents of San Angelo “with a clear, valid understanding of the history-rich legacy of our West Texas forefathers.”
Indians of Texas MuralTheir specific platform for achieving their mission: larger-than-life murals to “expose as many people as possible to the history of San Angelo.” Today, the magnificent history-intensive works of art are on permanent public display on the brick and mortar canvases of the city’s downtown buildings.
Blacksmith MuralThese history-themed murals certainly pique interest in the city’s past. However, to make the learning experience even more enriching, Morris’ educational organization has added an additional component — a self-guided cell phone tour. Each mural has a designated number that you can dial to hear an audio recording with detailed historical information. Brilliant!
Ranchers MuralIf you have never visited San Angelo you will be pleasantly surprised. It is now on my list of favorite Texas towns. This place has a lot to offer — historic places, a beautiful river walk, lots of interesting restaurants, great shopping, and a whole lot more.
San Angelo Visitors CenterStart your visit at the beautiful Visitors Center that overlooks the Concho River. The friendly folks there can get you started on your tour of the murals. There are currently a dozen murals with more in the works. You can either drive or walk to each mural since they are all clustered within a few city blocks of each other.

Kudos to The Historic Murals of San Angelo and their team of directors and artists. They have given a gift to both residents and visitors alike, one that will continue to educate and inspire others into the coming generations. Thanks for putting your rich history on display.

Digging for Topaz

Topaz is the official gemstone of Texas as well as the birthstone for the month of November. This beautiful gemstone is found only among the granite hills and sandy creek beds of Mason County — in the geologic region of the state known as the Llano Uplift. The town of Mason, the county seat, is about an hour’s drive from Fredericksburg in the beautiful Texas Hill Country.
Topaz StoreTopaz was found in greater abundance in Mason County at the turn of the twentieth century. Old-timers speak of stumbling across topaz stones while looking for arrowheads in creek beds. In those days, however, there was a greater demand for arrowheads. Topaz was just another pretty rock.
Omar Topaz DiggingToday, topaz hunters have to look a little harder and dig a little deeper to find this stone. Topaz resembles shards of broken glass or frozen water, thus earning it the nickname “Desert Ice.” Topaz, however, also occurs naturally in a variety of colors including blue, orange, brown, green, beige, and red. A good place to look for topaz is around granite outcroppings in creek beds and ditches.
Cheryl SiftingDigging for topaz has been on my wife Cheryl’s list of Texas adventures for quite some time. So, we finally made the time to head to Mason County to try our hand at searching for the Texas State Gem. We set out with the understanding that topaz is hard to find and that we would be content to just share this adventure together.
Omar SiftingCheryl arranged for us to dig at the Seaquist Ranch in Mason County. The Seaquist family left their native Sweden at the turn of the twentieth century and settled in Mason County. The family still owns and operates their ranch located a few miles outside of the town of Mason. People have enjoyed rock hunting on the Seaquist Ranch since the 1970’s.
Soil SifterOur adventure began at eight in the morning. We met Jean Seaquist in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen in Mason, paid our $20 per person fee, and set off for the ranch. Jean personally escorted us to an area of the ranch known as Topaz Gulch — a creek bed snaking its way through the rugged hills at the base of pink granite outcroppings.
Digging DeepAfter our orientation, we set up our base camp — our canopy, camp chairs, and ice chest filled with fruit, water, and gatorade to beat the heat. And then we collected our gear and set off for the creek bed. We worked an hour at a time, digging and sifting material in our soil sifters. We found lots of pretty rocks and some that might be topaz. We’ll know more when we’ve had time to clean and examine our haul.
Topaz Gulch

All in all, this was a fun and affordable adventure. Like fishing, you have to be prepared to just enjoy the experience regardless of whether you catch anything. The best part of the adventure was the anticipation of finding something and spending lots of quality time together. We both agreed that we’d like to share this adventure again in the future. And that is priceless!

Lajitas Cemetery

Situated on a bluff in the northern part of the Chihuahuan Desert, the tiny community of Lajitas silently overlooks the lumbering Rio Grande River. Lajitas is Spanish for “little flat rocks” — a reference to the Boquillas flagstone of the area. Long before Anglo-Americans arrived on the scene, this arid territory was inhabited first by Mexican Indians and later by the Apache and Comanche.

The discovery of mercury in nearby Terlingua changed everything. Starting in the late 1800s, the populations of Lajitas and Terlingua surged as a steady stream of miners moved in to the area to work the mercury mines. Conditions in the mine were dangerous. Life in Lajitas was not for the fainthearted. Only the rugged survived.

During the days of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing established a large cavalry post at Lajitas in 1916. Pershing spent several years unsuccessfully pursuing Poncho Villa, the famous Mexican Revolutionary general, around northern Mexico. Pursuing anyone in the vast and unforgiving Chihuahuan Desert was a huge undertaking.
Lajitas CemeteryToday, the small Lajitas Cemetery is one of the must-see points of interest in the area. Like the nearby Terlingua Cemetery, this burial ground is filled with many fascinating old graves. Sadly, most of the names carved into handcrafted wooden crosses are no longer readable. Only the remaining descendants of the deceased know for certain who is buried beneath the rocky cairns.
Lajitas Cemetery GraveIn 1991, a woman named Elie Webb initiated a restoration project at the cemetery. Under her supervision, a fence was built around the cemetery and a gate and arch added. Webb also added iron crosses to many of the graves. Today, however, even these improvements are losing the battle against the harsh desert environment.
Lajitas Cemetery GravesOld cemeteries like the one in Lajitas are worth visiting. These old burial grounds are like dusty history books that can give us a little insight into what life was like in the days of cowboys, indians, and mercury miners. As you travel down Texas highways and byways, make it a point to stop at old cemeteries. These old burial grounds have their own interesting stories to tell.

Iwo Jima Monument in Harlingen

On February 23, 1945, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal captured a unique moment in time at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Rosenthal’s photograph of the Marines of Company E, 2nd Battalion raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi endures as one of the greatest war photographs in U.S. history. His image resonated with the American people and became an iconic representation of the fierce resolve of the greatest generation to fight for the preservation of our democratic way of life.
Joe Rosenthal Iwo Jima PicRosenthal’s photograph stirred the heart of a sculptor named Dr. Felix W. de Weldon. On duty with the U.S. Navy at the time Rosenthal’s photograph was released, Dr. de Weldon immediately constructed a small scale model of the scene. After the war, he worked for nine and a half years to depict the scene on a more massive scale. Once Dr. de Weldon completed the plaster model, he spent an additional three years overseeing the bronze casting process.

After the massive sculpture was completed, the various parts were shipped to our nation’s capital and assembled at Arlington National Cemetery. President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially dedicated Dr. de Weldon’s bronze memorial on November 10, 1954 — the 179th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corp.
Felix W de WeldonThe working model of the memorial was stored at Dr. de Weldon’s summer home and studio in Newport, Rhode island. In October 1981, Dr. de Weldon gave this full-sized working model to Marine Military Academy in Harlingen, Texas. Dr. de Weldon felt that the climate at this South Texas location was ideal for the preservation of the molding-plaster figures.

The fact that Corporal Harlon H. Block, the Marine placing the flagpole into the ground, was a native of the nearby town of Weslaco also influenced Dr. de Weldon’s decision about where his sculpture should permanently reside. Block was killed at Iwo Jima just six days after the flag raising. His gravesite is located behind the monument.
Iwo Jima Monument MMAThe massive sculpture, dedicated April 16, 1982, is situated on the Marine Military Academy Parade Ground. When my wife and I drove to Harlingen to visit the Iwo Jima Monument and turned onto Iwo Jima Boulevard, our first sight of the monument caught us completely off guard. Our jaws dropped at the inspiring sight of this moment in time captured by a war photographer and sculpted by a Navy veteran.
Uncommon ValorDr. de Weldon hoped that his gift would serve as an inspiration to the young cadets at Harlingen’s Marine Military Academy. There is no doubt that it has done just that. But his gift also serves as an inspiration to the many visitors who travel to Harlingen from all over the country to see this magnificent memorial to a time when uncommon valor was a common virtue.
Iwo Jima Monument at MMAIf your travels take you anywhere near South Texas, make it a point to drive whatever extra miles you need to in order to visit the Iwo Jima Memorial and Museum at Marine Military Academy in Harlingen. Those of us who enjoy the blessings of living in the United States of America certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the men and women of the greatest generation for their courage and sacrifices. I am thankful for Joe Rosenthal and Dr. Felix W. de Weldon for their gift to the American people.