Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hill Country Vacation - Wimberly

Cypress Creek
Cypress Creek in the Texas Hill County

This Memorial Day, Kate and I decided that, while there were pressing furniture and other assorted life decisions to be made, more pressing were our respective sanities. Therefore, we decided to take a break from the details and detritus of life, and get away for the weekend. We had a lot going on, so we couldn’t break away too long, but a short trip to the Hill Country was within reach, and we hadn’t been in a while, so off we went on the spur of the momenti.

The “Hill Country” is the general area that begins west of the prairie and coastal bottomlands of Houston, between Austin and San Antonio. It’s definitively hilly, but my guess is that the name came from exasperated flatlanders in Houston who were just so happy to see topography that they needed to incorporate it into the place name. It is the break between the lusher pine woodlands and bottomland forests of southeast Texas coastal plain, and the dry desert and mountainsii of West Texas. In recent decades they have built up a pretty big brand around it, turning it into a “wine country” iiidestination, etc. It’s a place of dry chaparral hills, with lush cypress lined creeks. Not quite the Tuscan landscape some of the chambers of commerce would make it out to be, but certainly closer to it than the Houston swamplandiv we left behind.

to of course god america i love you..." Wildflowers Mr. Taco Ice
American Trilogy, Wildflowers, Mr. Taco, Ice House.

We left early on Sunday, and pulled into town around midday. After picking up the key to our cabinv we set down for a nice lunch at The Leaning Pear, a small café near the main square. It was a nice mix of trendy café and just good small town sandwich place. I had a nice tuna salad with currants and pecans on rye, along with a fantastic bowl of spicy sweet potato soup.

Wimberly, Passiflora sp., Cypress Creek

Downtownvi Wimberley centers around a small square with equally small shops catering to a pretty wide range of shopper. There are the usual frou-frou boutiques, antique stores and upscale “Texas” furniture storesvii that infest the Hill Country, but there were some unique places too. My favorites were the vintage cowboy boot store. What do you do with used cowboy boots? Sell them to tourists from Houstonviii. My biggest disappointment was the Soap Apothecary. Not because I like/dislike soap, but it seems like it we be so easy to simply call it the SoApothecary. Maybe it’s just me. Wimberely is apparently a popular stopping point for bikers, who were all over town.ix We wandered down by nearby Cypress Creekx for a while, and then decided to head out to our cabin.

shops Not
Soapthecary? Rock
Stone and
The Hog Pound
Biker Bar Wimberley
Bikers The Burger
Wimberley Mural, Wimberley Shops, Soapothecary?, Rock Emergency!, Stone and Water, Cypress Creek, The Hog Pound Biker Bar, Biker crises, The Burger Barn.

The cabin was one of two on a small property, still a bit awash in wildflowers, along a creek. Or, I should say, ostensibly along a creek. Ours was closer to the highway (the creek was a bit of a walk through someone else’s yard away). Still, it was a nice little one room sort of place, with a small kitchenette, a normal bathroom, and a small bedroom/living room. The highway noise and incessant insect chirping was made much more tolerable by the massive hot tub on the back deckxi. The creek on the property had a small waterfall over a manmade weir, worth chilling by for a bitxii.

Canyon Ladder-backed
Woodpecker (male)
Blotched Water
Snake (Nerodia erythrogaster transversa?) Wildflowers
Canyon (B&W)
Waterfall, Waterfall Canyon, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Blotched Water Snake, Wildflowers, Reflections, Dam, Waterfall Canyon Vista.

When we finally got hungry, we came to the quick realization that fine dining is probably not one of Wimberely’s high points.xiii We tried a few locations, but they were closed or hiddenxiv, so we settled for a tex-mex joint down by the highway. Their food was, well, foodxv. The next morning we got up late and moseyed into town for breakfast.xvi We’d already seen most of the downtown, so we decided to visit the two local attractions that everyone recommended: Mt. Baldy and the Blue Holexvii. Mt. Baldyxviii was a bit oversold in that it was probably best measure din hundreds, not thousands of feet, and had a circumference of about a quarter mile. It was odd in being a giant pimple-esque blob in a fairly flat areaxix. However, the “hike” took about 5 minutes to summit. The views were ok, and swarms of swallowtail butterflies were inexplicably drawn to the summit, though it probably would have been better at a time other than high noon on a hazy day. Someone had brought an old couch to the top at some point. I mentioned that on the way down to a lady huffing and puffing her way up the stairs. She must have thought I was being a smartass because a minute or two later I heard her voice ring from the top, “OMG THERE REALLY IS A COUCH UP HERE”. Lady, I don’t lie about couches on mountains. Especially on PRAYER Mountain.

Morning Creek
Baldy/Prayer Mountain Through the
Scrub (B&W)
The Couch and
Old Baldy (B&W)
Cacti Small Palafox
(Palafoxia callosa)
Vista from Old
Baldy/Prayer Mountain
Morning Creek Bend, Morning Cafe, Old Baldy/Prayer Mountain, Through the Scrub, The Couch and Old Baldy, Cacti, Small Palafox, Vista from Old Baldy.

The hike took an exceptionally shorter time than we had anticipated, so we adjourned to the Blue Hole. This local swimmin’ hole turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the weekend, with surprisingly nice facilities and a really pretty, natural section of creek for swimming. Unlike some other, more famous swimming holes in the areaxx, Blue Hole was spectacularly natural. A paved path wound down through a beautiful Cypress and oak forest to a stretch of lawn along a wooded section of cypress-lined creek. There were areas deep enough for swimming, and then areas you could wander along the creek bed as it spilled in multiple channels through the woods. Despite my better judgement and in the face of probably public ridiculexxi I got in line for a massive swing out over the water, and put in a pretty decent effort.

Blue Hole.

Thoroughly soaked and with afternoon fading, we headed home. Along the way we made a brief stop at a couple small towns looking for a place to eat dinner. Flatonia won for best name, and Lulingxxii won for both most whimsical petrochemicals and creepiest fixation on watermelons. Regardless, our search took us through a cornucopia of small town Texas Awesomeness, including Double Shot Drive-Thru Liquor and Guns, the Hard Times Restaurant, and more than one old-timey Dance Halls. We finally found somewhere open at a vintage small town Texas restaurantxxiii in Schulenberg. While its history turned out to be better than its food, there is no better way to cap off a trip to the Texas Hill Country than a chicken fried steak and a couple Shiners.

Museum Luling
Watermelons City Market
BBQ Flatonia! How about them
nuts? Really? Frank's
Hard Times
Restaurant (antiqued)
Whimsical Pumpjack, Luling Museum, City Market BBQ, Flatonia!, How about them Nuts?, Really?, Frank's, Hard Times Restaurant. 

i Spur of the moment is not our usual modus operandi. For me, yes. For us, no.

ii Ok, well, there’s a few mountains. It’s all still pretty flat out there until you get to the Mexico/New Mexico borders.

iii Having wineries does not make an area wine country, per se. Sonoma, this ain’t. There are a few decent wines to come out of here, but there’s a lot of schlock. During the ’11 drought, it was wine country mostly because vintners were drinking fairly large quantities trying to forget their lack of income and/or grapes.

iv This is starting to be reflected in its growth. Austin is growing faster than Houston, without as much of an economic base. It’s like somehow tech companies and suburbanites prefer rolling hillsides and cleaner air to the Houston’s Upton Sinclair-esque industrial coastal landscapes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s things to recommend both places. But in terms of scenic beauty, the Hill Country has a lock. Now in terms of probability to supply water to its citizens for the next five years? Well, welcome to Houston.

v We usually travel up to Fredericksburg, but opted for something closer. My wife had previously stopped through the smaller town of Wimberely, and liked it, so we headed there. After frantically calling around for a rental (no hotels, just guest houses), we managed to get a small cabin near town, out of pure luck (seeing as this was at the very last minute on a holiday weekend).

vi I’m not sure if it’s necessary to call a place downtown when it makes up 95% of a place…there’s not really other parts of town to compare it to…

vii Which mostly consist of trendy showcases for decidedly untrendy furniture. You might think this a subjective assessment. However, I truly do not think décor composed almost entirely of A) raw cowhide, B) bluebonnets, C) stars, D) wrought iron, and E)longhorn horns can really be described as “trendy”. Or, for that matter, “fashionable”, “worth buying”, or even, I suppose, “furniture”.

viii On hearing we were moving to Houston, and acquaintance once described alternately as “all boots and no cattle”, and “Stetsons and lattes”.

ix Though, to be fair, these were mostly “midlife-crisis-biker-on-the-weekend-investment-banker-during-the-week” types. Sons of Anarchy this was not. I’m pretty sure much of the leather was by Armani.

x I am endlessly fascinated by Hill Country streams. Unlike our muddy, raw coastal bayous, they are lined with cypress, clear, and flowing over cobbles and rocks. There are pools and riffles, and you don’t run (as much of) a risk of getting violently ill from swimming in them. Also, no (or fewer) alligators. Coming from upstate NY, I am very appreciateive of any stream/lake/bayou/etc in which I do not run the risk of being eaten by extant dinosaurs.

xi Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to use it that night. I used it the next morning, but hot tubbing under the hot texas sun is not nearly as appealing as it is on a cool night.

xii Especially since, much to my delight and my wife’s unease, it yielded me a new (sub)species of snake.

xiii Our first clue should have been when we asked the rental company rep about fine dining, and she had a big pause…and then recommended the tex mex place down the road.

xiv Or completely unable to be found…something you would think would be key to staying in business.

xv I got the blue cheese quesadillas, which were an appetizer. It came with a massive plate full of pretty much just steak, melted blue cheese, and tortilla. I got through about three wedges before I had to quit. I sensed a disturbance in my body…as if millions of coronary arteries had cried out, and then been silenced.

xvi We went to the local café, which apparently has trouble remembering that holiday weekends = lots of tourists. I ended up with an hour-long wait for a bowl of granola and fruit. Coming out of the restaurant a group of banker-bikers asked us how the food was. I said it was ok, but you’ll wait an hour for it. One many replied, scornfully, “Hell no, we won’t” as if I was suggesting he do so. They’re tough sons of bitches, those latte bikers.

xvii Which, of course, would make an excellent band name. My only dilemma is trying to figure out what genre it would best fit….prog rock? Alt-country? Bluegrass?

xviii Hence renamed “Prayer Mountain” because the land was bought, and is now maintained, by a nearby church, Our Lady of the Boring Place Names. But seriously, it was bought by a church and renamed Prayer Mountain.

xix Wimberely is in the Blanco River and Cypress Creek valley between higher country.

xx Like Austin’s Barton Springs, which is great for an urban area, but really just amounts to a rectangular pool fed by springs on-channel on the Colorado. It is not half as nice as Austin would have you believe it is.

xxi There was a large contingent of beefy teenagers there showing off on a the swing for the bevy of teenage girls nearby. I joined with a bunch of parents in taking the swing away from them at one point, to let the kids who had been patiently waiting while the teens hogged it have their turn. The teenagers did not like this. Vocally so.

xxii Loyal readers may remember Luling from a previous post.

xxiii After much searching. While smart phones make finding restaurants along the way much easier, they can’t mage gold out of lead.

DIY deconstructed: Desk, revisited

Another ideal not to be realized.

A while agoi I made the decision to build myself a desk instead of buying one at the furniture storeii. I had seen several I liked, and Sketchup'd a design I thought would work (as detailed in a previous blog post). I ran into a few snags with my decision, namely: 1) I had selected what turned out to be VERY expensive wood in VERY unusual dimensions. 2) I was having trouble making some decisions about necessary tools (Table saw versus miter saw, etc), 3) it ended up being a ridiculously busy work year, 4) I got overwhelmed by all of the other new house stuff, and 5) I didn't follow through.

Original design. Abandoned for no good reason.

After a hiatus, I have once more sauntered into the realm of manly power tools and mangled wood, and am actually making progress on a desk. I may still make a version of my original design, but I based on our space and my whim of the moment, I decided to go a slight different direction. I really like the look of some of the old “campaign furniture” from military campaigns of yore. The simplicity combined with the old-timey fixtures and functionality was appealing. What follows is a description of the first half of my endeavor, presented for your amusementiii.

The new general design is simple, though I haven't decided whether alternating accent wood color will look cool or like a cheesy racing stripe. Also, drawer fixtures are apparently really hard to draw in Mspaint.

With new design in hand, I made a go at starting the project using the tools already at my disposal. It became quickly apparent that while they were at my disposal in terms of availability, actual disposal was also probably a better choice for them in the long run. But logic and foresight have no place in manly exploration of new territoryiv, so off I went. Before I spent the cash on good lumberv I decided to make a preliminary version/mock up with generic Lowe's whitewood.

The first step was cutting the pieces to roughly the dimensions of the plan. Lacking a table saw or miter saw, I used an old miter box and rusty hacksaw. This was a less than ideal route to govi but it got me started.

Making the initial cuts.

About this time, as inevitably happens with any project, I become bored/delude myself that it is going to be too easy, and decide to add bells and whistlesvii. I decided that the front of the desk needed drawersviii. I puzzled for a while on how to accomplish this sans a router/table saw, and came up with the brilliantix idea of drilling large holes in each of the four corners in which to insert a jigsaw blade and finish the cut. In general terms this worked. I produced three drawer holes. In more specific terms, it failed spectacularly in that the holes were irregular, not square, and needed about an hour with a wood rasp and chisel to get anywhere near useful.

This approach is firmly ensconced in the “works in theory” department.

I had originally planned to use a nicer wood (in this case, birdseye maple) for the drawer front to class this thing up a bit. However, the wood I ordered ended up being too large to fit the pre-cut holes and I lacked a table saw to rip it down effectively. I cut three pieces of whitewood to meet the task, and after much sanding, rasping, and moderate skin abrasion, I had drawer fronts that roughly conformed to the drawer holes.

The last step in preparing the pieces was cutting the legs, which were designed as crossed, angled pieces. To get the right angled cut, I was facing two problems. First of all, there was math involved. After finally figuring out the proper cut anglesx I had to figure out how to make them. I tried using a roofer's square to accurately cut a 31.2% angle into a homemade miter box. This worked in the sense that a cut was made in the miter box. It did not work in the more traditional “achieving the purpose” sense of working. After some deliberation I broke down and bought a miter saw and made my final cuts.

A lot of hardware to make some glorified X's out of wood...

Ready to assemble. Sort of.

So here we are at the end of preparations, with all my pieces matching relatively well, ready to assemble and stain. Part 2 of this post will document the inevitable future horrors this process will entail as I move forward.
iI am speaking generically to keep myself from realizing this was almost a year ago.
iiBecause, you know, everything turns out better when a neophyte with no recognizable skill does something as opposed to paying skilled craftsmen to do it.
iiiAn/or moderate concern for my mental wellfare.
iv“Hey Columbus, do you have a map to this new trade route to the Indies?” “Hell no, I figure we just sail the hell out of this western ocean....we're bound to hit the Indies at some point..”
vSome lumber comes from the mightiest, densest trees in the forest. Mighty trees who stand proudly above the forest floor, with richly figured wood. The lumber one gets at Lowes/Home depot is not from these trees. If lumber may be viewed along the lines of high school hierarchy, the Lowes trees were asthmatic AV club members. One has to pick through the bins to find whitewood/pine that has few enough knots to maintain structural integrity, and hasn't been warped into 3, potentially 4, new dimensions. On the plus side, you can buy a tree's worth of wood for like $6.50.
viThis, in turn, is a phrase I have become very very accustomed to saying.
viiIronically, adding ACTUAL bells and whistles would have been a much, much easier process...and I mean, who doesn't want a desk with bells and whistles? That would be awesome.
viiiGiven the ubiquitousness of drawers in our lives, we may be lulled by our drawer-abundance driven complacency to think that this is an easy accomodation for DIY furniture. We were wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong. Akin to thinking “hey, I use ice all the time, there's ice in my drink right now. Therefore ramming that iceberg with this passenger liner should be an easy accomodation to our route.”
ixOnly applicable for very large subsets of definitions for brilliant. Subsets large enough to include synonyms like “lunacy”, “drill-happy”, and “rutabega.”
xAmong other things I actually delved into high school side angle side, SOHCAHTOA stuff. Part of me seethed at proving my math teachers right...that this was applicable in the real world. However, given that I didn't actually remember these things but went the Google route, I feel partially vindicated. It may have real world application, but the internet has made learning and struggling to retain it obsolete. Take THAT, excellent NY high school education....I am now now repurposing those brain cells for beer buffering.