Brown’s Drive In

One of the best things about a Texas road trip is the opportunity to discover new places to enjoy a burger far from home. I have a no fast-food rule when I am trekking across the Lone Star State. I figure that since I have to eat anyway, I may as well make every meal an adventure. And that means discovering new places to eat.

On a recent trek from my home in Katy to the Guadalupe Mountains, a buddy and I decided to find a burger joint in Kerrville. As I have done on many occasions, I asked Siri to recommend “places to eat a burger near me.” Brown’s Drive In showed up on that list and so we turned on our navigation and headed that way.
Brown's Drive InHoused in a hard-to-miss red building with white trim on Sidney Baker Street South, we parked and then took our hungry selves inside. The building is modest in size and smothered in fragrant burger aroma. There is seating both inside and out and a drive-thru window that kept the staff hopping.

I ordered the smaller quarter-pound bacon cheeseburger on a jalapeño infused sourdough bun. Speaking of hamburger buns, God bless whoever had the brilliant idea of putting jalapeño bits into hamburger buns. You did all true Texans a great favor by going beyond in your creative culinary pursuits. I also ordered onion rings and a glass of tea.
Brown's Drive In BurgerSince the inside dining area was filled with customers, we sat at one of the picnic tables on the front porch. As for the burger, it was absolutely delicious. Everything about this burger worked well. All of the ingredients were fresh. The meat was juicy and cooked to perfection. The onion rings were crispy and tasty. All in all, this was a delicious meal.
Brown's Drive In Burger ProfileIf you find yourself traveling anywhere near Kerrville at lunch time (or anytime), make it a point to stop by Brown’s and try one of their delicious burgers. They have been around for a long time, know what they’re doing, and have a loyal customer base — perhaps the best recommendation of all.

Thank You, Trail Crews

On January 1, Texans of all ages will head to our state and national parks to participate in First Day Hikes, a cooperative initiative among the nation’s state parks to get more people outside. On that single day alone, folks in Texas and around the nation will collectively log tens of thousands of miles on park trails. And that’s a good thing!
Omar on Guadalupe TrailI enjoy both hiking and biking the trails in our state parks. In fact, I use my Texas State Parks Pass as often as possible. There is no question I get more than my money’s worth every time I renew my annual pass. There is no better way to relieve stress and to clear my mind than heading down a trail in one of our parks.
Doyle on Tejas TrailAs a guy who enjoys taking dirt paths, I have often wondered about trail development and maintenance. After all, trails don’t maintain themselves. The fact of the matter is someone had to get out there and determine the best way to get a hiker from Point A to Point B. That means understanding the local geography, how to mitigate things that can erode or damage trails, how to scratch out switchbacks to get hikers to higher elevations, building boardwalks and bridges, and much more.
on-tejas-trailOn my recent visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I had an opportunity to meet a trail crew — young folks who were there to do maintenance work on Tejas Trail. They were all thin, tanned, athletic, super-friendly, and excited to do their part to keep the trails we all enjoy in good repair. My friend Doyle and I made it a point to thank each of them for their work as we made our way up Tejas Trail toward Hunter Peak. And each of them in turn told us to enjoy our hike.
trail-toolsAt the end of a long day of hiking, more than nine hours on the trails, we made our way back down Tejas Trail as the sun was setting. The work of the trail crew was evident. They had refreshed quite a bit of the trail by pruning back limbs of adjacent trees and plants, filled areas damaged by erosion, and more to keep this particular trail well defined. What a great gift to those of us who show up ready for adventure.
Tejas TrailI hope you will participate in a First Day Hike (or ride) at a park near you. Lace up your hiking boots, fill your hydration pack, toss some snacks into your daypack, air up your bike tires, and then get outdoors. And as you hike or bike down a trail, do so with gratitude for the trail crews that work so hard to make sure every trail in the Lone Star State is well maintained for our enjoyment. Thank you, trail crews!

5 Facts About Alligator Juniper

The alligator juniper is one of my favorite trees. I first encountered this member of the juniper family while hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains. It’s one of those trees that is hard to miss once you identify and get to know its distinctive characteristics. Here are five facts about the alligator juniper tree.
james-at-mckittrick-alligator-juniper1. The alligator juniper is named for its most distinctive characteristic — its bark.

The easiest way to identify the alligator juniper is by its distinctive bark. Look for rough square-plated bark that resembles the skin of an alligator. The thick bark grows in a cracked or checkered and furrowed pattern that sets it apart from other trees. The leaves of the alligator juniper are a deep green to blue-green in appearance.
Aliigator Juniper GMNP2. The alligator juniper is a tree as tough as its name.

The Guadalupe Mountains is a perfect place for alligator juniper. The tree prefers dry hillsides at moderate elevations like those found in the Trans-Pecos region of the state. The tree grows in the company of piñons, ponderosas, oaks, and other junipers. Alligator juniper has a high tolerance for heat and a low requirement for water. This evergreen tree thrives in either alkaline limestone or slightly acidic igneous soil.
alligator-juniper-mature-trunk3. The alligator juniper is in no hurry.

According to the science of  dendrochronology or the study of growth rings in trees, alligator juniper trees grow at a slow rate. Research has shown that young trees grow in diameter at a rate of 0.6 inches per decade — that’s pretty slow! The growth rate slows to 0.4 inches after the tree reaches 170 years of age. Alligator juniper trees have been known to live as long as 500 years. That’s pretty amazing!
alligator-juniper-trunks4. The alligator juniper is a berry producer.

The female tree produces edible berries that can be consumed raw or steamed. Native Americans used the strongly scented berries to flavor teas and incense and even added the berries to cornbread and sausages. Some Indians dried the berries for winter use or ground them into a mush and then formed them into cakes. In addition, they used the resin of the tree as chewing gum.
Alligator Juniper Omar Hike5. The alligator juniper is a favorite of wildlife.

The alligator juniper attracts a variety of wildlife. Wild turkeys and deer especially enjoy juniper berries. Various bird species such as sparrows, Mexican jays, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds breed among junipers. So, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife when you are out hiking among alligator juniper.

Return to McKittrick Canyon

After my first visit to McKittrick Canyon I knew without question that I had to return. The mesmerizing beauty of this rugged landscape sliced into the eastern edge of the Guadalupe Mountains had earned a place in my memory. And not just any place but instead a place near the front where it refused to be ignored.
McKittrick SignMy travel schedule did not allow me to return in the spring as I had hoped. I determined, therefore, to return in the fall when the canyon bursts into a palette of colors that have earned it the reputation as the most beautiful spot in the Lone Star State. Once you visit you will understand why its hard to argue against that. It is indeed a beautiful and unforgettable place.
mckittrick-trail-wide-copyWhether you are a seasoned hiker or a novice, McKittrick offers trails to scratch every itch. The McKittrick Trail, a round-trip of about eight miles, is family friendly. The trail is flanked by beautiful trees and native plants hemmed in by jagged canyon walls. The color of the big-tooth maples is accented against the varying shades of green of alligator junipers and manzanita trees with their tiny apple-like berries.
mckittrick-manzanita-treeThe Grotto, a small limestone cave that resembles the gaping toothy mouth of a dragon is the perfect spot for a picnic. The park service has built some rustic tables at this location under the shade of the trees. You can turn around at this point or head just a little farther up the trail to the Hunter’s Line Shack, built in 1924 — worth the extra steps.
doyle-at-mckittrickFor those with more adventurous ambitions, you won’t be disappointed. There are even more hiking options available. But, regardless of whether you do a short or long hike, be sure to take a hydration pack and some snacks. Sign in at the trailhead when you start your hike and sign out when you leave. This will help the park personnel account for all visitors.
mckittrick-tumor-treeRegardless of where you live in the Lone Star State, make it a point to add McKittrick Canyon to your list of outdoor adventures. Consider visiting in the fall when the colors in the canyon are at their peak. Visiting and taking even a short-hike at McKittrick will do you good. In the words of John Muir, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” You will certainly find that to be true at McKittrick Canyon.
Omar Hike McKittrick

5 Facts About Sotol

Like ocotillo, sotol is one of the most easily identifiable plants in the Trans-Pecos region of the Lone Star State. The plant’s tall and singular flower stalks are the most distinguishing feature of this hearty native. Growing upwards of ten to fifteen feet, these towering stalks look like periscopes rising above the surrounding sea of scrub and rock.
Omar Looking at Sotol1. The sotol flower stalk has a variety of uses.

Ancient peoples like the Lipan, Chiricahua, and Mescalero Apache depended on the sotol to meet a variety of needs. The tall and straight flower stalks were used to make spear shafts, knife handles, digging sticks, and tepee poles. However, perhaps the most important use of the stalk was to make fire drills and fireboards, also called hearth boards, for starting friction fires. Sotol stalks also make excellent walking sticks and are used in the construction of corrals, house roofs, and other structures.
Sotol at GMNP2. Sotol is a plant with a heart.

The heart of the sotol plant has been used for generations as a food source for humans and animals alike. In times of need, ranchers know that they can rely on the heart of sotol for cow fodder. However, this requires trimming back the armada of saw-edged leaves so that the animals can access the sugary and starchy pith of the plant.

Sotol heart was also a major staple food for ancient peoples. They discovered that the spongy sotol hearts are edible raw but tasted better if roasted slowly. The leaf bases can be eaten in a fashion similar to artichoke bracts. Ancient people also pounded sotol hearts into a paste that, when dried, could be mixed with nuts and fruits or ground into a flour.
Sotol with Fall Colors3. Fashion by sotol.

Native Americans used sotol leaves  to weave mats and baskets and even durable sandals. These resourceful desert dwellers also used the fibers of the sotol leaves to make many varieties of twisted cordage. More recent uses of the leaves include making ropes, roof thatching, and hats.
GMNP Sotol4. Drunk on sotol.

Hispanic peoples of the region learned to make sotol mescal — a potent alcohol drink made from the heart of the plant. One modern naturalist compared the drink to a “mixture of hair oil and gasoline.” Sotol mescal became a common alcoholic beverage among the frontier population of west Texas. During the Prohibition, sotol mescal became a leading article of contraband.
Sotol Leaves5. A source of fuel.

The dead leaves of the sotol plant make an excellent fuel for fires in places where both trees and fire wood is scarce. The leaves burn rapidly and brightly, making them an excellent source of fuel for an emergency fire. The green leaves of the plant can be used for providing smoke for emergency signaling.

Mig’s Burgers

After several days of hiking in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a friend and I decided to travel west toward Salt Flat to explore some of the backroads in this vast part of the Lone Star State. There is a whole lot of openness out in the Trans-Pecos that has a calming beauty all its own. This is quintessential cowboy country for sure.

As we traveled west on US 180, the Guadalupe Mountains slowly faded from view and nothing but the horizon loomed in front of us. And I do mean nothing but the horizon. We eventually headed south on FM 1111 toward Interstate 10 — a long stretch of road that eventually led us to a little town called Sierra Blanca.

Sierra Blanca, translated White Mountains, is a Census Designated Place with a population of less than six-hundred people. This nearly invisible little town is located 30-miles from the Mexican border and 80-miles southeast of El Paso. It has the distinction of being the county seat of the sparsely populated Hudspeth County.
Mig's BurgersWe arrived in Sierra Blanca at noon and were hungry for a good burger. That’s when I noticed a Border Patrol vehicle parked in front of Mig’s Burgers. Since there are not a lot of places to eat in Sierra Blanca and because we did not want to drive to the next town on empty stomachs, we decided to check out Mig’s.
Mig's Burgers InteriorWhen we walked in I noticed the two border patrol guys seated at a table. I walked over and asked them if the food was good. They smiled and pointed to their empty plates and assured me I would not be disappointed. So, we sat down, checked out the menu, and placed our order. I ordered a jalapeño cheeseburger and onion rings with a glass of tea.
Mig's MenuWe were surprised to learn that Mig’s has only been opened for about four months. That’s why I did not find any recommendations when I checked my Yelp! and Trip Advisor apps. But, no worries since we had it on good authority — literally — that the food was good. And indeed it was.
Mig's Burger ViewMy bacon cheeseburger was prepared to perfection and was absolutely delicious — and not just because I had spent several days hiking and had an appetite the size of Texas. It was really good. The onion rings were store-bought and nothing to write home about, and that’s ok. The burger, however, met and exceeded my expectations.
Mig's SignI hope Mig’s gets enough drive by business to stay in business. The folks that run the place are friendly and attentive to customer needs. And they definitely know how to put together a good burger. I wish Mig’s the very best as they grow their business. Be sure to stop by if you ever find yourself in this far-flung region of the Lone Star State.

Bush Mountain and Hunter Peak

Six of the seven named peaks in Texas that are more than 8,000-feet in elevation are located in Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Of these six, three are accessible by steep and rocky trails — Guadalupe Peak, Bush Mountain, and Hunter Peak. The others can only be reached by those intrepid enough to bushwhack their way across rugged terrain with topo map and compass in hand.
Guadalupe Mountains PanoramicOn my recent visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, my friend Doyle Lowry and I decided to start our quest to summit all seven peaks by hiking to the top of the three peaks accessible by trail. Now, just because these peaks are accessible by trail does not necessarily make them an easy win. Quite the contrary!
bush-mountain-and-hunter-peakAfter reaching the top of Guadalupe Peak, we set our sights on summiting Bush Mountain and Hunter Peak in one long day of hiking. The Bush Mountain hike is a 13-mile roundtrip hike that is rated as hard and recommended for very experienced adventurers. The Hunter Peak trail is rated as difficult and adds a few more miles to the hike.
Doyle on Tejas TrailDoyle and I set off from our base camp at Pine Springs Campground as soon as the sun came up. We followed the winding Tejas Trail toward the junction of the trailhead to Bush Mountain and Hunter Peak. The Tejas Trail slowly winds its way up the mountain and features long inclines and gentle switchbacks that lead to ever-increasing elevations.
Omar on Tejas TrailAfter several miles of hiking we reached the Bush Mountain trailhead and turned left toward Bush Mountain. The trail to the summit loses and gains in elevation but finally leads to what we found to be the least spectacular of our summits. No matter. We took a quick photo, checked it off our list, and retraced our steps to the junction of the Bush Mountain Trail, Tejas Trail, and the Bowl Trail.
Doyle Pointing to SummitAfter a ten-minute nutrition break at the trail junction, we set off on the Bowl Trail until we reached the intersection of the trail that leads to Hunter Peak. This was by far one of our very favorite hikes. The area is absolutely beautiful. But, like the other trails leading to the summits, the trail led increasingly upwards.
Omar and Doyle Hunter PeakFinally, Hunter Peak came into view. When we reached the summit we were rewarded with much more than we expected. The views from Hunter Peak have to be the most beautiful in the park. Absolutely magnificent views in every direction. From the summit we could see all of the other peaks in the park as well as hundreds of miles toward the distant horizons.
Omar Pointing at Hunter PeakWe started our descent a little after mid-afternoon and slowly made our way back to base camp, stopping along the way to take more photos. We reached the lower portions of Tejas Trail as the sun disappeared over the peaks and finished our hike in the dark. All in all, we spent 9.5 hours on the trails and returned to camp tired but excited about our day.
Basecamp at NightGuadalupe Peak gets lots of attention at the park and understandably so. After all, it is the highest point in Texas. However, the views from Hunter Peak rival if not exceed those from Guadalupe Peak (at least in our estimation). So, if you set your sights on Guadalupe Peak, make it a point to spend an extra day and hike up to Hunter Peak. I promise that you will not be disappointed.

Seven Lone Star Summits

There is something about high places that beckons — that invites us to venture upwards to behold new vistas. Now, I am a flat-lander born and raised. Grew up in a place so flat that a fellow could see his dog running away for three days and maybe four if he stood atop a tuna fish can. No need for topo maps in my neck of the woods because there are no high places there.
El CapitanThat may explain why I am drawn to the hillier parts of our state that actually have contours that draw eyes upward toward the sky. The sight of hills and mountains, modest as they may be in the Lone Star State, just make me smile and nod my head in agreement with God’s handiwork. I love all of the geography within the borders of our distinctively shaped state, especially places where the geography slopes upwards.
Omar GP Summit PicOn December 2, 2014, I set off on my most aggressive upwards adventure — one that would take me to elevations far beyond those reached on any of my hikes in the magnificent Texas Hill Country. Early that chilly morning, I took my first steps toward the summit of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in Texas. After a pretty strenuous hike with lots of elevation gain and upwardly inclined switchbacks, I reached the summit — 8,749 feet.
Omar Hike GP 2016Standing at the highest point in the Lone Star State was amazing. I could almost see my front porch from there, and my dog! On that particular day I had the top of Texas all to myself. I spent half an hour just drinking in the views like a parched man trying to satisfy a thirst. Every direction I turned, the vast views poured into me and refreshed me in ways I cannot explain.

Since then, I have learned that there are seven named peaks in the Lone Star State that rise more than 8,000-feet into the Texas sky. These seven peaks are a bucket list unto themselves, even for a flat-lander like me. In order of height, they are:

• Guadalupe Peak | 8,749 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
• Bush Mountain | 8,631 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
• Shumard Peak | 8,615 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
• Bartlett Peak | 8,508 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
• Mount Livermore | 8,378 feet | Davis Mountains
• Hunter Peak | 8,368 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
• El Capitan | 8,085 feet | Guadalupe Mountains
Doyle GP Hike 2016This past week, I returned to Guadalupe Mountains National Park with my friend Doyle Lowry to hike to the top of three of the peaks — Guadalupe, Bush, and Hunter. My second hike to the top of Texas was as tough as the first time. But, the reward was every bit as satisfying. The other two peaks were also amazing. More about that in another post.
El Capitan ViewHiking up trails that make your legs burn and cause you to stop often along the way to breathe deeply is therapeutic. And the views along the way are like a soothing balm that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other.
Omar-Doyle GP Hike 2016If you enjoy hiking in the Lone Star State, then consider taking a trip out west to where the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert meets the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. It’s a fascinating and beautiful place. But, be warned and be prepared! The seven Lone Star summits will beckon you toward the top of Texas.
Guadalupe Peak Summit

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.

Beautiful Bur Marigold

I am not a naturalist but I do have a natural curiosity about flora and fauna in the Lone Star State. I have more photos of yet-to-be-identified plants and flowers on my phone than I care to count. But, that’s ok! I find it relaxing to leaf through the pages of my Texas wildflowers handbook in search of answers.
BBSP BikeOn a recent bike ride at Brazos Bend State Park, I was captivated by acres of beautiful yellow flowers growing along the edges of Elm Lake and along the trail to the spillway. These sunflowery-looking  beauties were a feast for my eyes and had me reaching for my camera.
Bur MarigoldCurious to learn more, I posted my pics on my iNaturalist app and asked for help. Thanks to the kindness of someone much smarter than me, I discovered that the beauties growing in biblical proportions at Brazos Bend are called bur marigold.

Bur marigold are also known by a few other names, including tickseed and beggar-ticks because their bristles tend to latch on to the britches or socks of hikers. These flowers prefer low, moist areas such as ditches, marshes, and wet meadows. That explains why they were flourishing along the lake at the park.

Bur marigold are also butterfly magnets. They attract a variety of butterflies, bees, and even birds. And, at least at Brazos Bend, they attract people. The photographers were out in force snapping away with their telephoto lenses. As for me, my iPhone camera served the purpose. As they say, the best camera is the one in your hand.
bur-marigold-closeRiding past acres of these beautiful flowers that Thoreau himself described as being full of the sun reminded me of why I love to get outdoors. Scenes of wildflowers, sounds of birds, sights of wildlife, and big oak trees with outstretched branches — it just doesn’t get much better than that.
BBSP Bike TrailThe weather in Texas is starting to get a little cooler, making it a perfect time to explore our treasure chest of state parks. Plan to get outdoors soon. Breathe in some fresh air. Feast your eyes on nature at its best. And thank God for the Lone Star State.