A Trip to Bastrop State Park

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The Pines of Bastrop State Park

The Pines of Bastrop State Park

With Joe in town last week for a visit, I figured it would be nice to do a little hiking (something not possible in the Finger Lakes in January). There’s not a lot in the way of hiking around College Station, so we drove west toward Austin to Bastrop State Park. The section of TX-21 that runs through Bastrop county had already caught my eye on trips to Austin thanks to a beautiful section of road turned cathedral by the tall stately pines lining both sides.

In fact, these are the Lost Pines, a remnant of an Ice Age-era pine forest that once stretched across much of the South. Other portions of it remain to the east, but the loblolly pines of Bastrop county are notable for being a tiny independent population more than a 100 miles from their genetic neighbors in the East Texas Piney Forest.

Upon our arrival, we checked in to the park headquarters, where we paid our $4/person fee to use the park. (You’re welcome, State of Texas. Please keep up the good conservation work.) Our original plan had been to take the Lost Pines trail, but we made a last minute change to a shorter route to accommodate a busy schedule. We started out on the Lost Pines trail, which is the longest in the park but used Roosevelt’s Cutoff to substantially reduce our distance. The ground in the park is very sandy, which almost seemed strange given the tall pines, until Joe found a sandstone rock outcropping near the spot where Roosevelt’s Cutoff rejoined the Lost Pines trail.

Joe explains how this sandstone outcropping formed

Joe explains how this sandstone outcropping formed and the marching dunes that created the crosshatching seen in the center of the picture

We took a bit of a detour back up a section of old roadway to eat lunch at the Fehr’s Overlook kiosk. Like the Scenic Overlook kiosk where we’d park, the “overlook” is a bit of a misnomer. While both are located at local geographical maxima, the proximity of the trees means that you can’t really see out to the surrounding area. Still, they are pleasant places to stop for a bite.

Once we reached the end of the Lost Pines trail, we followed the park road 1A around to a campground where the trailhead of the Scenic Overlook trail began. Nearby we found the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) rain shelter, built during the mid-1930s when FDR put jobless young men to work building state and national park facilities. Bastrop State Park does a nice job of drawing attention to the work of these young men with plenty of signage for original CCC structures. On one historical board we learned that, in the first three months of employment in the CCC, young men gained an average of 11-1/4 pounds! What a difference hard labor and regular meals can make.

Trail signage in general in the park was quite good, though we did stop a couple times to decipher exactly which direction the arrows on the sign post were indicating. The trails were not difficult to follow and bridges abounded for crossing streams. We found at least one gentleman trail jogging and saw others out hiking and bird-watching. Signs indicated that dogs are permitted on some of the trails. Our one real complaint was that the noise of civilization was rarely out of earshot, but, given the proximity to Highway 21 and the fact that the Lost Pines themselves take up only 13 miles or so, this can’t really be helped. The highway fades into background noise, broken by the occasional train or aircraft.

Blue Sky, Green Pines

Looking up through the pines to a blue sky

On the Scenic Overlook trail, we saw and heard the majority of the birds that we noted in the trip, including a couple of cardinals as well as several birds we failed to identify. (I grew up being quizzed on the trees of Northwest Arkansas, not the birds. By the way, Mom, there are lots of post oaks in Bastrop, too.) It’s not quite the mating season for the Houston toad yet, but we passed many a still pool of water that they’ll use when it starts in February and March.

In addition to the sandstone outcropping, Joe enjoyed himself exploring the geology of Bastrop, particularly when he discovered harder, multicolored rocks that stopped us in our tracks while he analyzed them. I hesitantly identified them as a form of chert, which, upon further reflection, seems to have been the right answer.

My favorite part, though, was the trees themselves. I grew up in primarily deciduous forests and while a thick green blanket from ground to sky makes me very happy, I’ve never been able to adequately capture the glow of golden rays of sunlight falling through a verdant forest. The pines of Bastrop were, I found, far more photogenic.

Lost Pines

The Lost Pines stretching upward

Our trip through Bastrop was relatively brief, but quite enjoyable. I’m keen to go back and do the full Lost Pines trail sometime, and I think it would be a nice place to hike in the spring when animals are out but the temperatures aren’t too high yet. Bastrop is also home to a lake (with canoe rentals) and numerous campgrounds, primitive and otherwise. I also have standing plans to cycle park road 1C, which stretches between Bastrop and Buescher State Parks, at some point during my time in Texas. But that, I think, will wait for warmer, sunnier days than we’re currently experiencing!

Celebrating Carl Sagan Day

Carl Sagan Day Apple Pie, complete with spiral galaxy

Carl Sagan Day Apple Pie, complete with spiral galaxy

This year, in honor of Carl Sagan Day, I took the plunge and decided to make some apple pie completely from scratch. Our plan here in College Station was to celebrate Carl Sagan by watching Cosmos while drinking cosmos and eating apple pie. To begin with, I had to contemplate inventing the universe:

Contemplating inventing the universe

Contemplating inventing the universe

With the arduous task of inventing the universe completed, I could move on to the comparatively easy task of making pie crust, which was still a new and exciting experience for me. Getting the filling in order wasn’t too difficult, and Simon and Matt were kind enough to assist with the peeling and slicing of apples while I took on the crust. This first pie was really for practice (and so that we’d have something to eat right away), but it still needed adornment, so we settled on pi for the pie:

The pi pie

The pi pie

After the pi pie went into the oven, it was time for the Carl Sagan Day pie. This pie was made with Empire apples–the pi pie used Jonagold–in order to really capture all of the upstate New York goodness that should accompany any celebration of Carl Sagan. And to honor his field of astronomy, we decorated the pie with a spiral galaxy:

The spiral galaxy Carl Sagan Day pie

The spiral galaxy Carl Sagan Day pie

Both pies turned out remarkably well for a bunch of first timers. Just look at that delicious pie:

Mmm, pie

Mmm, pie

Simon, Matt, and I dug into the first pie Saturday; we had to make sure that the Carl Sagan Day pie would be acceptable! Tonight was the night our group actually celebrated Carl Sagan Day with some Cosmos, some cosmos, some Symphony of Science, and, of course, some apple pie.

Carl Sagan Day!

Carl Sagan Day!

Happy Carl Sagan Day, everyone!

100 Days As A Cyclist

One hundred days ago I bought my first nice bike (a.k.a. my first bike purchased from a bike shop and not a department store). What possessed me, aside from the thrill of learning that I’d passed my quals for the last time ever? Well, Joe and I had rented bikes to ride the Cades Cove loop in Great Smoky Mountains National Park a few weeks earlier, and, despite the absolute clunkers we rode and my abysmal performance as a rider, I’d had just enough fun to consider taking the plunge.

Joe and I biking Cades Cove Loop

Joe and I biking Cades Cove Loop. Note the clunker.

One hundred days later I have biked a total of 783 miles, 244 of which were spent commuting. I’ve saved myself more than 10 gallons of gas, which is more than my average fill-up amount. I’ve burned about 32,000 calories or 9.24 pounds of fat. I’ve gone from feeling like a 10-mile ride with 360 feet of ascent would kill me to regularly riding 30-mile routes on the weekend. I’ve even managed 600 feet of ascent, which is about the best I can do in this part of Texas, on a 39-mile ride at pace of 15.2 mph. With head- and crosswinds the whole way.

My bike, still looking shiny and new in July

My bike, still looking shiny and new in July

I am still very much a beginner in the world of cycling, but 780 miles in 100 days has taught me a lot. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned along the way:

Getting places is more fun on two wheels. I didn’t realize how much of my daily commute by car was colored by frustration–with the red lights, with people not moving quickly enough, with being unable to get the parking spot I wanted–until I tried it by bike. I actually get to my office faster by bike; I get less frustrated doing so; I save money, and I burn fat. Win, win, win.

Cycling on the road with cars is not as scary as you think it is. Yes, I have had people pass me doing 60 mph way too close to me for safety, but the vast majority of drivers have shown me courtesy and respect. If the pickups of rural Texas can get along with bicycles, I’m pretty sure anybody can.

Sundog on a weekend morning

A sundog on an early morning ride along Fitch

Some drivers are idiots. So are some cyclists. I’ve had drivers (and their passengers) jeer at me, call me names, and even threaten me while on my bike. I’ve also had drivers wave enthusiastically at me while riding and a motorcyclist pull over to make sure I didn’t have a flat when I was just taking a break on the shoulder of the road. I’ve also had to deal with cyclists who don’t follow basic laws, like riding with traffic instead of against it.

Cyclists come in every shape and size. I’ve met whippet-thin racers and I’ve met overweight mountain bikers. I’ve met cyclists nearly three times my age who can leave me in the dust. Anyone can ride a bike, and I do mean anyone.

Heading back down Mt. Unpleasant

Starting back down Mt. Unpleasant, near Carlos, TX

Pride comes before a fall. The moment you feel confident may be quickly followed by flipping head over heels into a ditch full of stagnant water. And discovering that you’ve given your boyfriend road rash on his face. It’s not a fun experience, but if you get up, check your dérailleur and get back on the bike, it’s worth it. Also, that bouncy feeling on your back tire? It’s a flat.

Cycling with friends is great. I look forward to our group rides on the weekend. We can take it easy and chat and just enjoy the scenery, or we (usually Chris and I) can go out and push ourselves to ride harder and faster and climb more. Either way, it’ll feel great in the end.

Chris and I after our first 40 mile ride

Chris and I, in our spandex, after our first 40-mile ride

Spandex actually is pretty comfortable. It’s hard not to look at a cyclist decked out in skin-tight, brightly-colored shorts and a jersey and think they’re crazy. But the truth is that those shorts are way more comfortable for riding, and those jerseys have pockets on the back that are the best thing ever.

Early mornings on the weekend are glorious. In Texas, the prospect of cycling in 95 degrees with 90% humidity during the day is very real and very unpleasant. During the warmer months, starting a ride just after sunrise means more comfortable temperatures and empty roads. Those early Sunday mornings are almost magical.

View from Mt. Unpleasant

Looking down on a lake from Mt. Unpleasant (nickname from local cyclists)

Aerodynamics can be a bitch. You’d think I, as a fluid mechanician, would be well aware of the un-aerodynamic state of an upright bicyclist. But I become infinitely more aware when battling a 12 mph crosswind. It’s rough. But, hey, what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, right? What’s a few extra hundred calories burned?

I love cycling. I love the sense of freedom. I love that the pace that makes me appreciate the journey instead of the destination. I love the feeling of empowerment when I’ve conquered something new. I love the exhilarating speed of a downhill sprint (I’ve been recorded at ~35 mph), and I love the feeling when I’m cruising above 20 mph without feeling strained. I love that I can save money and and time and the environment one day at a time. I love getting home sweaty and tired and rosy from the endorphins and the knowledge that I’ve just done something really healthy for myself.

Only one hundred days of cycling, but I think I’m on to something. And, yeah, my legs are looking pretty good these days.