Backpacking Guadalupe Peak

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Our backpacks were too heavy. Nobody had trained. Nobody had even worn their packs before except me, and mine hadn’t left the garage in at least ten years.

On paper, the hike seemed easy. It was four miles up the trail with a 3,000 foot elevation gain, reaching a final height of 8,600 feet above sea level. The logistics of getting to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and back to Houston in one weekend were what had me the most worried … at least until we stepped on the trail.

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We formulated a plan to leave Thursday after work and drive to Kerrville, then get up Friday morning and drive the rest of the way to to the park. Once there we would obtain the limited backwoods camping passes for the Guadalupe Peak Trail from the rangers, then hike up the mountain. After we set up camp, we’d hike the rest of the way up the peak to watch the sunset. Then I’d take some amazing milky way photos, maybe even do some starry sky timelapse videos before heading to bed. Then we’d wake up before dawn to hike back up to the peak to watch the sunrise before walking down the mountain to go explore other things like Carlsbad Caverns or the strange Prada store in Marfa.

Things did not go exactly as planned.

We did leave Thursday night, and we did make it to Kerrville.

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The Holiday Inn Express had a fancy Texas-shaped pool. Unfortunately it was far too cold and late in the evening to try it out. The next morning we were back on the road.

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We made it to Guadalupe Mountains National Park around 1 p.m. and were very lucky to snag one of the few remaining backwoods camping permits. We unloaded our gear and headed up the mountain.

I’d done a fair amount of backpacking when I was in the Boy Scouts, and I was lucky that I still had my gear. However, nobody else had really tried out their packs, some of which had been procured through eBay, so everyone was starting the hike with discomfort.

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I also didn’t have time to open each person’s pack and ruthlessly throw all their belongings back in the car saying, “Nope, can’t take this,” like the guides and counselors did to me back in the old days. No deodorant. No extra batteries. Not even a toothbrush unless you break off the handle. What’s worse is I didn’t even follow my own rules and packed in two camera bodies, three lenses and a tripod in anticipation of all the amazing photography I was going to do. (So glad I brought a tripod for this …)

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Let’s just say it was a very long hike up the mountain.

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We stopped to rest often.

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We really should have paid attention to the fact that the trail was marked strenuous.

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Although we made sure to find plenty of photo ops.

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Five and a half hours later, we finally reached the sign for the camping area.

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Unfortunately that arrow on the sign doesn’t actually point in the right direction. The trail is off to the right of the sign, so the girls took a break while TJ and I wandered the mountain looking for any sign of a camp.

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It turned out to be just over the ridge of lower peak, so we made the last march of day into the camping area and set up our tents.

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We started cooking dinner just as the sun was setting. No, we weren’t going to be able to watch sunset from the peak, but there were times throughout the day when we weren’t sure we were even going to make it as far as we had.

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As I set up my cameras to capture some stars, the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen rose into the sky. I thought it made the night look a bit unique, so I set up a timelapse anyway. Then, since the moon hadn’t been able to dissuade me, the clouds moved in as mother nature had a good laugh about the fact that I’d carried all that camera equipment for nothing.

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The weather in the desert makes massive shifts between day and night, so we all layered up to fight the cold. The dehydrated food never tasted so good. Our friends passed around a flask, and we all took a nip of Scotch before climbing into sleeping bags and quickly falling into a deep, black sleep.

Around 2 a.m. the wind had picked up to better than 25 miles per hour. It had been impossible to drive stakes into the hard ground where we were camping, so Mary sent me out with rope to tie the tent down to whatever rocks and trees were within reach. The moon loomed over me, lighting the work. I never even had to turn on the flashlight.

We slept through sunrise.

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The dehydrated egg scramble had never tasted so good, and spirits were high as we knew we didn’t have to carry our backpacks up to the peak.

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Yes, we’d missed the sunrise, but it would still be a nice hike.

 

I packed some water and my camera into a sleeping bag stuff sack, slung it over my shoulder, and we headed for the top.

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The last mile was full of beautiful scenes. We couldn’t get enough photos, but even without packs, everyone was still having a bit of a struggle.

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Once we passed El Capitan, we knew we were almost there.

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A few portions of the trail crossed steep rock face, which had Mary crabwalking, but she overcame her fear of heights to cross them.

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Despite various threats of quitting, we all made it to the tallest point in Texas together.

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Inside the ammunition box at the base of the monument was a log book, signed by all who make the hike. Some people put serious thought into what they write. The book is full of poetry and quotes. We added our own signatures to the pages.

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Had we had more time, water and a permit, I think everyone would have been content to stay another night before breaking camp and hiking down the mountain, but we didn’t have that luxury. We made a quick lunch and then reluctantly put on our backpacks.

Mary had a sore knee, so it was slow going. Even so, it only took us about two hours to get down the hill — a marked improvement compared to our ascent.

I left my pack with everyone at the base of the trail and hiked over to the ranger station to get the car. Everyone was very excited to sit down.

We drove to Van Horn and celebrated our achievement with dinner and drinks at the El Capitan Hotel.

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We made the long drive back the Houston Sunday with one question in mind, what mountain do we conquer next?

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Guitar Comparison: Gibson Hummingbird versus Epiphone Hummingbird Artist

The Gibson Hummingbird has always been my dream guitar. It had that rock and roll pedigree, mellow mahogany tone, and just enough flamboyance to make it a legendary instrument. There’s just one catch, it’s really expensive.

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I fell in love with the Gibson back in my teens, and more than 20 years later, I finally have one (used, of course, I’m not crazy). However, needing another guitar for boating and camping, I was very curious as to the real differences between the Gibson and the very affordable Epiphone Hummingbird Artists. In fact, I found a blueburst B-stock Epiphone Hummingbird Artist for only $169.

Aside from the headstock you’d think the Epiphone would be a spitting image of the Gibson, but it’s definitely not. First off, their bodies, while both mahogany, are not quite the same size. The Gibson is slightly wider and deeper than the Epiphone with a more pronounced curve to the back.

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Both guitars have a 24.75″ scale neck, which is probably my favorite aspect of the guitar. It really helps me reach some of those chords with wide spreads. While the Gibson neck does feel more refined, when switching back and forth between the two guitars, you essentially feel like you’re playing the same instrument.

The Epiphone has a synthetic bone nut and a truss rod cover with three screws while the Gibson has a real bone nut and a truss rod cover with only two screws.

The rosewood bridges are similar, but once again, the Epiphone has a synthetic saddle while the Gibson has a real bone saddle. However, the Gibson still has cheap plastic pegs to hold in the strings. Being outside of the saddle, I know they don’t affect tone, but for the price, you’d think Gibson would spend $1 for real bone there as well.

There’s a HUGE difference in the tuners. My Hummingbird has sealed grover tuners, and the newer Gibson models have sealed Gotoh tuners. Epiphone doesn’t even mention the brand of their cheapo tuners in any of their collateral. They’re pretty terrible. I had some serious trouble keeping the Epiphone in tune for the first few weeks I owned it, although it has gotten better. With the Gibson, it’s usually in tune when I open the case, and it never goes out. With the Epiphone, I have to make sure and tune it before I start playing, and I might need to readjust it once or twice throughout the course of a three-hour jam. (This is about on par with every sub-$400 guitar I’ve ever owned.)

Of course, the real signature of a guitar is it’s tone, so I made a short video comparing the Gibson Hummingbird to the Epiphone Hummingbird Pro. Both guitars have Elixir Custom Light strings, and the audio was recorded on a Zoom H2n set to 4 channel mode. If you’re reading/watching this on a phone or laptop, you’ll probably have to plug in some headphones to really hear the difference.

So there you have it, a detailed look at the differences between a Gibson Hummingbird and an Epiphone Hummingbird Artist.

Hanging out at the Texas Renaissance Festival

For the past 41 years, people have been converging in costume in the woods near Plantersville, Texas. This year the Texas Renaissance Festival spans eight weekends, all themed, with only two left. November 21 -22 will be a Highland Fling, sure to attract plenty of kilts, and Thanksgiving weekend will be a Celtic Christmas, which probably means more kilts but with Santa hats.

After many weekends of terrible weather, we finally made it for the Barbarian Invasion. However, everyone in our group already had pirate costumes, so they went as pirates, not barbarians. (It’s totally ok to mix themes. No matter what the weekend you see quite a few ninjas, bronies, wizards and an occasional Doctor.

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This was our second year to camp, which is an experience in itself. The campground opens Fridays at noon, and by Saturday morning there are cars and tents jammed into every bit of open area around, so it helps to get there early and stake your claim. The camping fee is $25 per vehicle.

This year we were lucky that our friends Daniel and Shari made it early to snag us a nice flat spot on high ground, somewhat close, but not too close, to the port-a-potties.

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Mary made her own pirate costume by altering the cut of an old jacket from Goodwill and adding some lace trim and fringe adornments to the shoulders, pockets and cuffs.

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Every morning a cannon blast marks the opening of the fairgrounds, and everyone begins the trek to the park. Tickets are $29 for adults and $14 for children at the gate, but you can buy advance tickets at Walgreens for $24 and $12 respectively. However, kids get in free on Sundays.

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This year our friends Bryan and Lorraine had a new booth for Lorraine’s jewelry called Bits and Bobs.

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They’re easy to find. Just walk down towards the Royal Carousal and then look for Gandalf.

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My friend Leo was also there running the RBN fortune-telling tent in Sherwood Forest.

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Everyday around 11 a.m., there’s big parade. It’s a great chance to see all the performers and vendors from the different areas of the park.

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I have to admit, we didn’t sit through many shows this year. The puppeteers, comedians, jugglers and whip masters don’t really do much to update their material year to year, so if you saw the Ded Bob show in 2010, you’ve probably seen it in 2015. However, we did stop by the stadium to watch the jousting.

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We were in the German section of the crowd, and while our knight did have the best hair, he didn’t win the tournament.

Our friends are huge fans of the Pride of Bedlam, a pirate band, so we did stop into the Sea Devil tavern to try some mead and catch a few tunes. Turns out, mead pretty much tastes like honey. Should have seen that one coming.

The  second floor of the Barbarian Inn is a favorite place to people watch (and they have Karbach on tap). That’s where we met this guy who walks everywhere with a goblet on his head.

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We did notice some new art installations in the enchanted forest, and we discovered this great harp player.

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But I still couldn’t get Mary to do the bungee bounce.

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After a long day of walking, eating huge turkey legs, and maybe a little bit of drinking, we made our way back to the campground, but not before stopping to chat with these llamas for a bit.

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Saturday night we never made it to the bonfire. We just circled around our own fire pit and played music until I couldn’t stay awake to play music anymore.

I’m sure there are all kinds of activities and shows we never even knew to attend, so if you want to know more, visit the official web site at www.texrenfest.com

You can see our entire album of RenFest adventures over on our Facebook page.

The “Scrubba Wash Bag” Review

Last year we got the Scrubba Wash Bag from Fred’s brother for Christmas.

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It’s basically just a dry bag with bumps on one side and an air vent, but on the Scrubba website it brags that it will produce a “machine quality wash.”  We have been wanting to try it out, but until last week we’d never been on a boat long enough that we remembered to use it.

So here’s how it works:

1. Fill the bag with clothes, enough water to get them all wet, and a tiny bit of detergent. (We used fresh water for the washing, but I suppose it could be salt water.)

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2. Then you let out all the air and just swoosh it around. This can be harder than it looks, as a lot of the clothes tend to get knotted up.

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3. The bag then calls for two rinses. I think the first rinse could be salt water, and then the second rinse with fresh water, but we used fresh for both.

The Verdict

Pros

  • It did indeed wash the clothes, and several big stains came out.
  • It packs up into a tiny space. This would be a big deal if you were backpacking.
  • It can doubles as a dry bag, and you may also be able to use it in place of a bucket for some things.

Cons

  • If you’re only using fresh water, I feel like it uses just as much or more water than a sink or a bucket.
  • Even after the second rinse, the clothes were still a little soapy.
  • The actual washing is a bit awkward and difficult. It would be easier to stir and rub the clothes in a bucket than it was to try and rub them around in the bag.
  • It’s more likely to get a hole than a bucket.

In closing, If you are backpacking or camping I think this is a major advantage. It could roll up in your pack and serve several purposes. If you’re on a boat and you already have a bucket or sink with a good plug, save your cash.

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A night on the hook at Redfish Island

It was one of those weeks when everyone needed something. Long hours at the office were followed by evenings of errands and projects. Then there was a dentist appointment and an auto inspection. Even when we reached the marina Friday night, the work didn’t end.

I had pulled up the cabin sole the previous weekend, so I was immediately tasked with the job of running a NMEA cable through the bilge, so that we could have a floor again. Saturday morning I spent an hour up the mast cleaning contact points on a steaming light that, despite having voltage and a good bulb, just wouldn’t turn on.

I was tired of working. It was time to escape.

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We left in the heat of the day and motored through the burgeoning traffic of summer boaters, their vessels just freed from winter storage. We passed the boardwalk as the smell of fried food wafted across the channel and tourists waved to us, hoping we’d wave back. To them we weren’t just another person gawking at the bay, we were a part of it.

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We fought our way through the wakes at the mouth of the channel where every passing motorboat captain immediately throttled up to display his power to anyone he hoped might be watching. And then, we finally raised sails and cut the motor.

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A six knot breeze out of the south was carrying us along, close hauled, at almost four knots.

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We slowly wandered back and forth across the bay, making a bit more forward progress with each tack, heading for Redfish Island.

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We crossed the course of a late afternoon rum race with dozens of sailboats of all shapes and sizes pushing for every ounce of speed in the light wind, beating a path in front of us. Then as they rounded a marker and headed north, we watched them deploy spinnakers, creating rainbows of billowing fabric as they pressed on downwind until they disappeared along the horizon.

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After three hours of sailing, we furled the jib and dropped the main, motoring into the crowded harbor. Weaving our way in between fishing boats, ski boats, trawlers, and every other sort of craft you can imagine, we inched our way towards the south end of the island and dropped anchor.

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Families swam, jumping off the gunwales of their vessels and bouncing around in inflatable tubes beside swim platforms. People cast fishing lines from the stern of their small boats, hoping to catch … something. Classic rock competed with rap music at deafening volumes from boats full of women in bikinis, dancing and posing for pictures on the bows.

We paddled the dogs ashore for a walk on the rocky island as we bided our time. Like clockwork, as the sun set, the anchors were raised and one by one the families, the fishermen, and the partiers all fired up their motors and headed for home.

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We weren’t left completely alone in the anchorage, but our few remaining neighbors were cut from a different cloth. The sounds of nature replaced the thumping radios as darkness shrouded the island. We ate dinner in the cockpit and sipped on rum and coke as we watched the waning strawberry moon rise in the east and climb across the sky.

Only the occasional whir of a wind generator or speckle of laughter from another sailboat would rise to compliment the sound of waves lapping against our hull and washing up on the island.

When you unplug yourself from the grid, and you remove the artificial lights that fill our cities and line our streets, it’s hard to ignore your natural circadian rhythm. It had been a long day, and an even longer week. The darkness of the night told my body it was time for sleep.

The wind had picked up to ten knots, and the open hatch of the V-berth was funneling a cool breeze into the boat as I stared up at the stars. It was a moment impossible to photograph. Even barring the technical difficulty of capturing stars from a floating platform, a perfect photo of the view couldn’t have preserved the feeling of independence created by swinging on the hook or the warmth of my wife lying next to me.

Just as I began to drift to sleep, the wake of a passing container shipped rolled me awake. I got up one last time to make sure we weren’t dragging, and more importantly, that none of our neighbors were dragging into us. As I stood on the cabin top a shooting star crossed the sky, and as I returned to bed I knew, this was the life man was meant to live. For centuries, this was the feeling that had drawn so many men to sea.

The charts claimed sunrise would take place at 6:20 a.m., but light filled the cabin long before the sun made an actual appearance. Neither of the dogs could be convinced that it wasn’t really morning yet, and they wanted to walk.

I put a life vest on one dog and promised the other I’d be back for him soon. Then I pulled on my own PFD before descending the swim ladder into our old kayak and for a paddle to shore. The heat of the day hadn’t yet set in, and the air was so clear that you could distinctly see the Kemah Causeway seven miles to the west as well as the entire Galveston skyline ten miles to the south.

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We walked slowly down the island as unburdened tugboats headed north in the Houston Ship Channel to pick up new barges and shrimp boats crisscrossed the bay. There was a dead calm.

Gimme Shelter’s anchor rode hung limp in the water as she bobbed in place.

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With Redfish Island being a barren pile of rock and oyster shells, both the dog and I were taken by surprise when we suddenly came upon a life and death struggle. A Graham’s crayfish snake was stretched out across our path, unsuccessfully attempting to swallow a very large mullet.

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With the fish still twitching, desperately trying to escape, the snake slithered down behind a pile of rocks to continue his breakfast with a little more privacy.

I took one last moment to marvel at the beauty of the morning before I paddled back to our sturdy little boat. Upon my return I found Mary had brewed a pot of coffee, so she made the second trip to the island on the kayak with Big Tex while I lit the stove and began flipping pancakes.

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After my warning of snakes eating fish the size of her dog, her walk was rather brief. When she paddled back, we sat down to not just a breakfast on the hook, but what happened to be our one-year anniversary breakfast.

As the sun continued to climb in the sky, we took refuge in the V-berth for a short nap before the heat of the day became oppressive and the motor boaters returned to the anchorage.

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The refrigerator had run our house batteries flat over night, but it didn’t matter. Replacing them would just be another project added to the list when we returned to the real world. The starter battery was still fully charged, and the motor cranked right up for a windless journey home.

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As we approached the boardwalk, we took a selfie and toasted our anniversary with sodas to commemorate the occasion – holding on to that moment of freedom before we began fighting traffic in the channel, before we began washing and repairing the boat, before we returned to work.

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