Tag Archives: travel

Travel Tuesday: Modest canyon northwest of Austin beckons birds, hikers

Sometimes, the best sightseeing is right in your back yard.

If not literally, practically in the back yard.

My Beloved and I discovered a hidden gem only six miles away from our Texas condo. It took us more than a year to spend some time there, and really, it is too bad, especially considering it’s an outdoor venue that is particularly alluring in a pandemic.

The gem is the Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, about 45 minutes northwest of Austin and Lake Travis. Imagine the Grand Canyon on a much smaller scale. The comparison is apt because at one time, some version of the Colorado River probably ran through it. In practice, it means you can enjoy the place without all the crowds. And admission is free.

The promotional literature brags up this place for birders. The rugged terrain has spared old Ashe juniper and oak woodlands from logging and shelters some of the best golden-cheeked warbler habitat. Elsewhere in the 27,500-acre park, the open country supports another songbird, the black-capped vireo. Both songbirds are endangered, and the refuge is critical in preserving and restoring their homes. Because of its importance to the birds, this refuge has been officially designated a Globally Important Bird Area.

But I didn’t even notice the birds—it’s a great place to take a quiet walk. Mostly flat, it’s fairly easy to traverse, but there is enough elevation changes to make things interesting. At high points, one can see all the way to Lake Travis and beyond.

Layers of limestone, up to 1,000 feet thick in some places, underlie the refuge. In Spanish, “balcones” mean balconies and is a reference to the limestone terraces clearly visible in many part of the refuge. In some places, huge boulders litter the terrain.

Indian paintbrush flowers, also known as prairie fire, lend drama to the scene.

We hiked through the refuge in spring. As elsewhere this time of year, wildflowers can be found here, too.

There are three trailheads in the park: Doeskin Ranch, Warbler Vista and Headquarters. My Beloved and I traipsed around Warbler Vista, intending to walk a trail for 45 minutes or so. We took a few wrong turns (more our fault than poor signage) and finished our walk two hours after beginning. Oh, well. The detour was pleasant, through mostly shaded forest. The most dramatic part of our hike was through Quarry Canyon. This was like walking around a Grand Canyon in miniature. It’s not shaded though; prepare accordingly if you’re taking on this hike during a Texas summer. The refuge recommends you wear comfortable walking shoes or hiking boots, bring water and carry along protection from the heat or cold (the refuge is open 365 days a year sunrise to sunset). Birders should bring binoculars, and dogs are not permitted.

Travel Tuesday: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Springtime in central Texas means bluebonnets in bloom literally everywhere. Not simply gardens or boulevards but ditches and cracks in the sidewalks, too.

The bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas. Back in the ’70s, Lady Bird Johnson encouraged the planting of native plants along Texas highways in a highway beautification effort. Like cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., or tulips in southern Wisconsin, bluebonnet blooms are a common sight in the springtime.

Though they can be seen everywhere, one of the best places to take in bluebonnets is at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center just south of Austin, Texas. My Beloved and I enjoyed an outing with my parents there two weeks ago.

My Beloved and I, in a field of flowers.

In a pandemic, the center is a great way to enjoy the outdoors and some natural beauty. Displays, gardens, playgrounds, water features, walking paths and picnic areas fill the center’s nearly 300 acres. There’s a well-stocked gift shop, too. We spent nearly two hours there and could have lingered longer.

Dad and I in a full-color pose.

Photo opportunities abound. Because entrance is limited, it’s easy to get pictures without a bunch of strangers in the background.

The center offers miles of walking paths.

Bluebonnet is a name given to any number of purple-flowered species of the genus Lupinus predominantly found in the southwestern United States. The name is derived from the shape of the petals on the flower resembling a pioneer woman’s bonnet. My father, who has planted an active wildflower garden in his yard in central Minnesota, said the Texas flowers looked like smaller versions of lupine flowers.

The center was founded in 1982 when founders Lady Bird Johnson, a former first lady, and actress Helen Hayes established the National Wildflower Research Center. The University of Texas at Austin uses native plants to restore and create sustainable, beautiful landscapes. Bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush flowers were in bloom when we were there. I imagine other varieties of wildflowers are in bloom throughout the season.

Lovebirds can be observed, too.

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is at 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin. In the COVID-19 era, reservations are required in order to limit attendance and prevent crowds. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 65+, $10 for military and $6 for youth ages 5-17.

‘Piece of mind’ from an airport security officer does nothing to create peace of mind

When the opportunity to see “the craziest things seen and done by the TSA” was offered me, I jumped at it.

I ran across You Can’t Fly With That: Confessions of a Disgruntling Airport Security Officer on Freebooksy, and I downloaded immediately. (Not a subscriber to Freebooksy? You should be. The website broadcasts free books daily.)

Many (but not all) of Freebooksy’s offerings are self-published, and sometimes it shows in the works with scant editing and typos. This is true of You Can’t Fly With That, too, but I can’t say it interfered with my enjoyment of the book. At first glance, you might think the title has a typo. Doesn’t the author mean “disgruntled” instead of “disgruntling”? Maybe; he certainly is as much a fan of the TSA as I am. But he also makes a case for being a pain in the tush for passengers and his supervisors, so maybe he does mean he’s “disgruntling,” that is, to make ill-humored or discontented. He’s admits to enough goofing off and lying about his absences that he writes under the pseudonym of “Anonymous”; Big Brother is watching, you know.

The Transportation Security Administration is a waste of taxpayer money, as I opined here on number occasions (here, here and here). I maintain the TSA is all flash and no substance, a government program designed to help scared little housewives and infrequent air travelers sleep better at night. It’s a ridiculous and expensive show paid for by taxpayer money in airports across the country every day that does nothing whatsoever to prevent someone who is willing to die for his cause to blow up a plane. 

My evidence, other than being a frequent flyer for several years in the mid 2000s? I was once considered such a security risk, I shut down an airport once. Yup, dangerous little anarchistic me. Shortly after 9/11, the crack TSA team at the tiny Central Minnesota airport where I was attempting to board a—gasp!—international flight detected a “bomb-making substance” on my laptop. The bright bulbs at the airport let me—the presumed bomb maker—board the plane, and the plane jetted off. They then shut down the airport and called in the bomb squad only find my keyboard had been smeared with—gasp!—glycerin-based hand lotion.

Reading You Can’t Fly With That does nothing to disavow me of my, ahem, high esteem for the TSA. Anonymous Author has penned a vulgar screed describing all kinds of hijinks of passengers, co-workers and himself. Here are a few lines from Anonymous Author’s work as evidence:

  • “The countdown to my freedom has begun you pecker-heads,” I manically spat through evil laughter while hovering over my dejected phone elves. “Soon, I’ll be kicking terrorist in the dicks and buying discounted airport merchandise. Enjoy unscrewing phones, suckas.”
  • For the next thirty minutes, we stood at the metal detector chatting and sending geologically-tarded passengers back to remove metal. … I mean delayed, or slow, retarded as, so yes, it’s okay.

At least Anonymous Author is self-deprecating: “I am, I repeat, I am, a jackass. Just one who’s actually a nice guy. A lot of my jackassery is used for public service.”

This work not literary brilliance by any means and there is no discernable plot other than a number of loosely connected anecdotes of stupidity, but I kept reading because Anonymous is occasionally clever:

  • [I am a] Screening Officer; or, unofficially, ‘Taker of Water from the Elderly’
  • I wouldn’t hack it as one of Ashton’s less famous lackeys on ‘Punked’, I’d crack mid-prank and ruin it all, similar to what Ashton’s done with his career choices.
  • Like women at an abortion clinic, I wasn’t having it.

Just in case Anonymous Author haunts Minnesota Transplant, I will refrain from using “bomb” in association with his book since I would like to pass through security next time I’m at the airport without a gloved-hand screening. Like at the airport, proceed at your own risk.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it

An enterprising rock sculptor is at work on the walking paths around my Texas residence.

I described this interesting two-foot-tall rock formation to my mother, and she explained, “That’s an inuksuk!”

Well, you learn something new every day.

And then my dad chimed in, and he said, “It’s a cairn.”

Why, yes, it’s that, too.

An inuksuk is a manmade stone landmark, or cairn, for use by the Inuit and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America. A cairn is a man-made pile or stack of stones; the word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic.

Inuksuit (plural for inuksuk) and cairns are often used to mark boundaries or paths.

The creator here in my housing development is not some kid playing with rocks. Well, he might be a kid, but he understands the meaning behind the formations because they are built in forks in the road, as if to draw attention to the traveler’s choice.

When I brought my Beloved down the path on another day, I found another, smaller inuksuk near the first one I found.

On another path, I found an enormous formation built on a stone wall, at sort of a T in the path.

I rarely meet anyone on these paths. It’s odd to think someone took a few minutes or more to find and balance the rocks, and yet I see them only in my own isolation. It is a strange but special communion.

These works of art or navigation are a bit ephemeral. A few days after I brought my Beloved down the first path, the smaller inuksuk was just a pile of rubble. All evidence of its existence was gone (except my photo).

Speaking of ephemeral, how about a beautiful sunrise. I snapped this picture off my deck. If I were a better photographer, I would have a picture of the sunrise behind an inuksuk (alas, I am not that photographer). Given the deep freeze most of America is experiencing (even here, in Texas!), I think a warm picture of the sun might be the balm we all need.

“Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against, we are in harmony with reality.”

~ Pema Chodron, American Tibetan Buddhist

Grisham steps out of his mold, and so did I

I’m don’t particularly like fiction novels. I’m not a fan of John Grisham. And I’m not particularly fond of football.

But I do like books about travel, and John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza is like a love letter to Italy. It’s a departure for Grisham in that it’s not about an attorney or the legal profession, but when you’re a best selling author with a huge following, you’re granted a lark.

Playing for Pizza tells the story of Rick Dockery, a third-string NFL quarterback who fails spectacularly as the book opens. With few options but little interest in getting out of football, he pursues a job as lead quarterback with the Parma Panthers in the Italian Football League. A 28-year-old native of Iowa, Dockery is hardly someone who would be called worldly. Before arriving there, he doesn’t even know where Parma is, he doesn’t speak Italian and he’s more familiar with cheeseburgers than the cheese for which Parma is world-famous.

But Dockery warms up to Parma and his Panther teammates as the book—and football games—unfold. The plot is unsurprising but compelling. The characters are many, and the experienced author fleshes them out with vigor and imagination. Of course, the football players are brutes and the women are beautiful, but what would you expect in this genre? I was a little astounded by how some characters are introduced and then summarily dismissed (get that? a legal reference) but this habit did not distract from my enjoyment. The villain, however, is a journalist and as a former journalist, I was less pleased with that plot point.

Grisham’s game descriptions read like the sports pages (which is fine for people who read game recaps in sports pages), but where he really shines are his descriptions of Parma’s food scene, Italian opera and Old World architecture. Now I want to visit Parma, too! Here’s a sample:

“This is my favorite,” Carlo began in English, then switched to a friendlier tongue. “It’s a stuffed pasta roll,” Sam was saying as they gawked at the delicacy before them. “It is stuffed with veal, pork, chicken livers, sausage, ricotta cheese, and spinach, and layered with fresh pasta.”

That was just the first course! After the appetizer! You simply cannot come away from this book without craving a glass of wine, an antipasti plate and a plate of pasta, and since I read this book while on a diet, food porn has fewer calories, so I was OK with it.

I read Playing for Pizza because it was suggested by my uncle for our family book club via Zoom. The point of any book club is to be introduced to books you might not ordinarily read, and my uncle’s choice certainly drove me down an unconventional path. His enthusiasm for Playing for Pizza was contagious, and our book discussion was lively (especially when we debated the merits—of lack thereof—of visiting Venice). This book would be a great diversion for fans of Grisham, football or Italy, and I can imagine binge-reading it on the beach to great delight. Prego! (That’s Italian for “you’re welcome.”)

Travel Tuesday: Umlauf Sculpture Garden @umlaufsculpture

If ever there was time to visit a sculpture garden, a pandemic is it.

Sculpture gardens are outdoors. You can keep your social distance. Plenty of opportunity to restore your soul by considering art and absorbing nature’s beauty.

I love sculpture gardens (see evidence here and here). Recently, my Beloved and I escaped some of the COVID-19 doldrums by visiting the Umlauf Sculpture Garden + Museum in Austin, Texas.

The Umlauf Sculpture Garden exhibits the work of Charles Umlauf and other contemporary sculptors in a natural setting. Umlauf was a 20th century artist who taught at the University of Texas for 40 years. He sculpted family groupings, whimsical animals, religious figures and nudes in various media; most of the sculptures in the Umlauf garden are in bronze. The museum espouses that there are more Umlauf sculptures in public locations than works by any other artist in Texas.

The garden offers a truly beautiful stroll on a nice day.

The Kiss, in a place of honor in the center of the property, is among the dozens of bronze sculptures in the garden. Inspired by French sculptor Augusts Rodin’s Kiss in 1889, Umlauf chose to extend the female figure’s leg dramatically. The passion is evident.

Margo Sawyer’s Circle [Synchronicity] is among a few sculptures by other artists at Umlauf. Made of brick with ceramic glaze, this site-specific piece sits below a beautiful waterfall. This piece beneath my feet is also a little bit over my head, but that’s OK with me; I don’t have to love a piece of art for it to make me think.

Right now, the juried exhibition Design Shine is showing at the Umlauf. One of the pieces is Oculi by Joe D’Elia, Sean Taylor and Sergio Hermoza. From the Design Shine description: “Oculi seeks to engage visitors by aligning different views into one, encouraging them to consider their own perspectives.” This particular piece is a wonder of structure but also implementation. Imagine the three-dimensional thinking required to install each circle in a row.

Whether you are interested in sculpture or gardening, the Umlauf Sculpture Garden+ Museum is a worth a visit. Admission for adults is $7, seniors $5, students $3 and youth 13-17 $1. Children younger than 12, active military and veterans can get in free.

Book about Texas is best appreciated for the journey, not the destination

I invested in God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State when it came out 2018 in hardcover because I intuited that I might settle in Texas at some point. I thought I ought to learn something about the state.

undefinedLawrence Wright’s book certainly taught me something, that Texas is a state of contradictions. It’s big and it’s intimate. It’s conservative and it’s liberal. It’s rich and it’s poor. Its people value ancient natural resources and space-age technology, religion and themselves, independence but also community. Whatever you might want in lifestyle or geography, you can probably find in Texas.

According to the acknowledgments, the book came to be when Wright’s editor at The New Yorker asked him to “explain Texas,” exactly what a transplant needs. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Wright covers a lot of ground in this story, a little bit memoir and a lot of history and politics. He is clearly left-leaning, but his book paints a balanced picture of a state known for both Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush.

The writing, as you would expect from such an esteemed correspondent, is lovely, but not in love with itself. Here’s how Wright describes Willie Nelson’s guitar, Trigger:

It has a big hole near the bridge, worn through by Willie’s pinky and ring fingers. Pick marks have scored the face paper thin. The entire instrument feels sheer, the frets worn down to nearly nothing. It’s been signed many times—Leon Russell used a pocketknife—but the signatures are fading into the patina. If you saw this guitar at a garage sale, you would walk on by.

Wright is a keen observer who understands what makes Texas distinctive in so many ways. He devotes whole chapters to the state’s unique politics (“The Cradle of Presidents” and “Sausage Makers”), music (“The City of the Violet Crown”) and geography the defines it (“Borderlands”). Ever been to Buc-ee’s? “It is the largest convenience store in the world—a category of achievement that only Texas would aspire to,” he writes, and then describes in the sort of detail an extraterrestrial visitor would appreciate and understand.

If I have a problem with this book, it’s that it lacks a narrative, or at least one I could follow. This is a book about place, not person. I began reading it in late 2018 and it wasn’t absorbing enough to keep my attention. It wasn’t until I bought property in Texas that I returned to it and finally finished it. It’s good in pieces, just not compelling as a whole. But whether you aspire to be a Texan or not, it’s a good little piece about a mighty big state.

Location, location, location (and the view)

Back when COVID-19 was just an obscure outbreak in central China, my Beloved and I spent time with a real estate agent (within six feet of her!), driving around Lake Travis (when driving around was socially and medically acceptable) and looking at property (touching countertops, flipping light switches–we were gutsy back then).

Lake Travis is a reservoir lake on the western edge of Austin, Texas. After spending winters for a decade glamping in various locales in the southern United States, we had determined the Austin area to be “the one”: the one place in which we might consider spending multiple winters. Affordable, geographically and culturally interesting, not too humid or too hot (at least in the wintertime) and the people here reminded us of the good-hearted Midwesterners with whom we’d grown up and spent our summers.

Just before the pandemic was officially declared, we closed on a condo on the north side of Lake Travis. It was one of the first properties we viewed, and we kept coming back to it for its location, price and view.

Oh, the view!

View from the deck

Even on a cloudy day, the view from our deck is impressive.

We’ve now been sheltering in place here for two weeks. We’re quite content keeping ourselves busy unpacking, repairing various doodads and decorating. If we’re going to be stuck somewhere, March in central Texas is lovely. I’ll share some of our condo updates in a future post, but for now, I’m sharing a sunrise. Here’s to the sun rising tomorrow.

Sunrise over the lake

Travel Tuesday: Sculpture parks


St. Louis 003

“The Way” by Alexander Liberman at Laumeier Sculpture Park, St. Louis, Mo.

Summer is the season to visit a sculpture park wherever you may find it.

Sculpture parks, sometimes referred to as sculpture gardens, offer art fans the opportunity to interact with art and nature. For me, sculpture — found object or otherwise — is more interesting than any two-dimensional art like drawing or painting and if I can enjoy it while enjoying a stroll in the sunshine, all the better. Sculpture parks are a great destination for families because they appeal to all generations.

After writing about Nyberg Park sculpture garden in central Minnesota recently, I was reminded of a visit to the Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis a decade ago.

It is an intellectually stimulating and beautiful place that you should visit if you ever get a chance. It’s an outdoor sculpture garden with all sorts of interesting sculptures made of wood, iron, steel girders and even dirt (I would have thought a sculpture made of dirt would be landscaping but apparently not).

Lots of different kinds of people were there when I was, not just art aficionados: Kids flying kites, women walking dogs, lovers enjoying the art (or each other, I’m not sure), siblings arguing about which direction to take at the fork in the road in the woods.

Like many sculpture parks, Laumeier’s was free. Can’t beat free!

If you’re interested in working a visit to a sculpture garden into your next vacation or family weekend, check out the worldwide list of sculpture parks on Wikipedia. The list is segmented by country and state. Many of the listings are hot-linked to the park’s own website so you can get all the details.

Enjoy some art and fresh air this summer.


Travel Tuesday: Crater Lake National Park

Just when you might think you’ve had enough of winter (or an interminably wet spring), you’re reminded of a place that is still measuring the snow on the ground in feet.

And it’s beautiful just the same.


The snowbanks at the visitor center towered over the cars.

Two years ago in May, we visited Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon. The caldera in which the lake is cupped is at an elevation of 7,000 to 8,000 feet and therefore chilly, even in May; we had to climb a 20-foot snowbank in order to catch a glimpse of the lake. And that was after a 90-minute drive through winding roadsit’s as remote as it is stunning. Forty-six feet of snow—feet, not inches—fell at Crater Lake that year; in February of this year, the park experienced the second biggest monthly snowfall in nearly 70 years at 154 inches. Road crews use rotary plows equipped with fans that can shoot snow 75 to 80 feet in the air, but Rim Drive (the road circling the lake) remains blocked at this time of year.



But forget about the snow; the real show is the lake. At 1,943 feet deep, Crater Lake is the world’s deepest volcanic lake. Replenished only by rain and snow, Crater Lake is widely considered to be the cleanest, clearest large body of water in the world.

When my Beloved and I were there two years ago on a calm, sunny day, it was the bluest reflecting pool I’ve ever seen. It was so calm, it was like a mirror of the shore and the sky. Those white streaks in the water? Those are the reverse images of the wispy contrails in the sky.

Crater Lake, resting inside a caldera formed 7,700 years ago when a volcano collapsed, was established as a national park in 1902 and has been protected from lakefront developers who might sully its rugged shores. As I mentioned, it’s a remote National Park but it’s worth the trip if you find yourself in southern Oregon. As a destination, I would recommend visiting it later in the summer (when there’s less snow and easier travel).