Gratitude and plans gone awry..

The View of "The Pond" from the Summit of the East Trail at Lost Maples State Natural Area.

The View of “The Pond” from the Summit of the East Trail at Lost Maples State Natural Area.

My much anticipated trip to Lost Maples State Natural in Vanderpool, TX was this past week.  I wrote a blog last August about the healing that the solitude of this park in winter brings to me.  I headed out on Christmas Eve with plans to spend 5 glorious days and nights at this park that has come to be such a special place to me.  Pippin and I arrived about 2:00 p.m., set up camp and immediately went for a hike.  The sky was blue, the air was crisp and clean and the park had obviously benefited from the rains we have had over recent months.  While the vibrant color of fall had faded there was still the occasional burst of reds and oranges just beginning to turn to rust.  The rains had brought more green to the area than I had seen in many years.  Armed with my camera I planned to capture these images to take home with me when the trip was over.

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We hiked until nearly dark and headed back to camp just as the sun was setting.  I started a fire, cooked a steak and veggies and sat down in front of the fire to relax a bit.  The stars were shining brightly in a crystal clear sky.  It was heaven.  Then it was off to bed early with plans for a hike of the West Trail on Christmas Day. 

Despite the early bedtime I managed to sleep until after 9:30 the next morning; something that is nearly unheard of for me.  After breakfast I wrote my morning pages and it was nearly noon before Pippin and I headed out on our hike.  There were clouds coming in but it looked to be more overcast than rainy.  The hike was beautiful; the strenuous climb up to the top of the hills and then down into Mystic Canyon was worth every step and I stopped often to take pictures of plants, streams and breathtaking vistas. 

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All was going as planned as we approached a benign looking creek crossing about 4 miles into our hike.  The water wasn’t more than a few inches deep and trickled off in little falls to the right of the crossing.  As I stepped out I remembered thinking how smooth the creek bed was at that section; almost as though they had poured concrete to make it easier for the park maintenance crews to drive through.  I also noticed the thin layer of moss and slime growing just beneath the surface about the time both feet flew out from under me and I landed hard on my backside and rolled over onto my right shoulder (the one that was replaced about a year ago).  The water was too cold for me to lie there feeling sorry for myself for long so I managed to scramble up and make my way carefully to the other side of the creek.  Pippin, who’s leash was fastened to a nylon belt around my waist was staring at me with a stunned look on his face and (I’m sure) wondering what the heck had just happened.  We headed on our way and I was thankful for moisture wicking clothing.  By the time we got back to camp my clothes were mostly dry with the exception of my boots and socks as well as my jacket that had been fastened to the back of my backpack.

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So, after supper and some time by the fire it was off to bed early again.  The soreness from my fall and the cold that night made for very little sleep for me or for Pippin.  He was restless and I knew that when I could feel him shivering against me that it wasn’t just me thinking it was colder that night.   I confess that I was already rethinking my plans to stay until Sunday.

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The hike up from the campground to the trailhead of the East Trail goes by the beautiful day-use campground at Lost Maples.

The next day after breakfast we headed out for a hike of the East Trail.  After the hike from the campground we set out on the Maple Trail which runs parallel to the East Trail for almost a mile.  I have only seen pictures of the park decked out in full color but this short trail holds its own special beauty even in midwinter.   There are quaint little rocky stairways along the trail that just make it all the more lovely.

The scene of mishap #2 :-/

The scene of mishap #2 :-/

 Everything was going swimmingly until we got half way up one of those quaint little stairways and Pippin yinged and I yanged and the next thing I knew I tripped on a rock and went flying forward.  I must have put my left arm out to catch myself and managed to twist my left shoulder in ways that I’m pretty sure it was not meant to be twisted.  As pain surged down my arm my first thought was, “Well, that’s it; it’s time to pack it up and go home.”  I got up, brushed myself off and began to check out the damage.  Poor Pippin was wondering once again what had just happened.   My shoulder was still throbbing but as I began to gingerly move it around I decided that the desire to capture this trail with my camera was greater than the now subsiding pain so off we went.

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The Maple trail dumps out onto the East Trail and we enjoyed an amazing hike, taking in “Monkey Rock”, the steep and strenuous hike to the summit and the breathtaking views from the top.  We managed the somewhat treacherous hike back down without further incident and got some really fabulous photos to remember it all by.  It began to rain just as I finished packing the truck and began to drive away.  Seems like the universe was trying to tell me I had stayed long enough.

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I know that many of my friends think I’m nuts to want to go camping in the middle of the winter, by myself at Christmas time.  It’s hard for me to explain but it is a way for me to recharge my batteries, mentally, physically (yes, I mean that) and spiritually.  Despite the mishaps I drove away with a tremendous sense of gratitude for my time spent at this captivating place on the Sabinal River in the Texas Hill Country.  It won’t be the last time I make that trip for sure. 

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The search for an icon…

The Blue Rock Before

I went on an adventure this past Sunday; a search expedition of sorts.  My friends Billy and Dodee Crockett own a gorgeous place in the Texas Hill Country, Wimberley to be exact, called Blue Rock Artist Ranch and Studio.  It is their home, a state of the art commercial recording studio and the scene of arguably the best House Concert series in the country.  It is a place created to nurture the artist’s soul; a place of grace and a place that I feel blessed to be whenever I am there.

The icon of Blue Rock Studio is literally the Blue Rock; a huge piece of limestone standing ten feet tall and fourteen feet across in the middle of Lone Man Creek.  The house and studio look down on “the rock” from high above — at least they did.  Last Wednesday night fifteen inches of rain swept through Wimberley and swept the Blue Rock downstream and out of sight.  What do you do when your icon vanishes overnight?  When that thing that represents your hopes and dreams just disappears?  Surely something that big can’t just evaporate into thin air?

So Sunday afternoon a small group of us gathered to hike down to the creek and see if we could solve the mystery of where the Blue Rock had gone.  It was a gorgeous day with bright blue skies and just a hint of fall in the air as we began the descent, armed with cameras and our curiosity. 

The hike down is really more of a scramble.  There is no trail; the hill is steep and the footing iffy in places, especially after the storm, but we all managed to clamber down without incident.  Evidence of the storm was everywhere; trees uprooted and heaped up where the rising creek had left them; piles of rocks that had been sent rushing down stream with the flood waters; places where the steep banks had given way to come sliding down, leaving mounds of debris.

An hour or two of exploring up and down the creek brought us no clear answer.  There were a handful of large boulders, some looking like they could possibly be a piece of the beloved Blue Rock.  Lots of photos were taken to try to match to older photos of the rock.  Still, as we headed back up the hill the whereabouts of the Blue Rock still remained a mystery.  It didn’t seem likely that it could have been taken beyond the bend in the creek.  It’s possible that it could have been broken into several pieces or perhaps one of the large rocks we spent time climbing around on was indeed part of the original.

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At the end of our demanding climb up from the creek we sat down to share a meal and reminisce.  With two esteemed singer/songwriters among us in Billy Crockett and David Wilcox there had been talk of this adventure needing a song.  Sure enough as we ate David would occasionally scribble something down on a scrap of paper he had brought to the table.  Eventually he got up and went into the other room where his guitar was.  A short while later he came back and proceeded to play us a brilliant song to commemorate the significance of the Blue Rock.  It was a very special moment. 

I drove home that evening feeling a tremendous sense of gratitude for having been a part of that experience.  The storms of life can wreak havoc sometimes.  They can also bring beauty and a chance for new beginnings if we’re able to open our eyes to it.  As David Wilcox so eloquently put it “the rock” is not gone.  It may be further down the river but “it’s in the walls and in the spirit, in the soul and in the sound.”

Amen to that…

The Big Blue Rock” by David Wilcox

From the ashes…

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Pippin and I spent a glorious weekend at Bastrop State Park in Bastrop, TX.  The park was deeply affected by the Bastrop County Complex fires that began Labor Day weekend of 2011.  96% of the park was burned resulting in closure of the park until December of 2012.  Evidence of the fire is everywhere you look but there is also evidence of rebirth.  It was wonderful to see the park full of campers, despite the fact the toilets are portable ones and the showers are temporary structures.  New construction is everywhere.

Bastrop State Park 006Pippin and I arrived on a gray Friday afternoon.  A front was expected that night but the forecast for Saturday and Sunday looked to be perfect.  This was Pippin’s first camping trip but he settled right in and figured out his tie-out pretty quickly.  He kept watch as I unloaded the truck and set up camp.  We had time for a bit of hiking and exploring the grounds before dinner and then bed.  I was a bit concerned about how Pippin would behave in the tent but he figured out the ground rules (no pun intended) in short order.  The 50% chance of rain thankfully did not materialize but there were some pretty high winds.   The winds caused some of the burned tree branches to snap and come thudding to the ground–a bit disconcerting as I remembered taking pictures of some really tall, burned pines not to far from where my tent was pitched.  Pippin didn’t like the noise and tried to climb in bed with me a couple of times.  Okay, he actually tried to climb on top of me…he can be such a chicken at times!

Bastrop State Park 039By morning the skies were already clearing and Pippin and I set out on a hiking trip right after breakfast.  The air was cold and still windy but perfect for hiking.  Armed with my camera, water for the two of us and some snacks we set out on what was left of the Lost Pines Hiking Trail.  About half of the trail is still shut down and we managed to miss a turn or two and ended up way further out than intended.  Then the trail I took to get back to camp was only partially rebuilt so another detour resulted in a traveling 3 or 4 miles further than originally intended.  Nevertheless, the day was beautiful and the park, even with acre upon acre of burned pine forest had a special kind of beauty all its own.  I had fun experimenting with my camera and trying different shots. 

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Bastrop State Park 113Dinner that night was cooked over a fire built in the fire pit and tasted delicious; dessert consisted of tortillas warmed over the fire with Irish butter and St. Dalfour’s Strawberry Jam.  Yum!!!!  A cup of tea to sit by the fire was the perfect end to a glorious day.  The night was clear and chilly and the stars were shining brightly along with a huge moon.  I’m told that Friday night was the full moon known as the “Hunter’s Moon”. 

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Pippin and I slept in Sunday morning, not a hard thing to do after the long hike Saturday and the fact that it got down below 40 during the night.  It was cozy in that sleeping bag and I felt incredibly grateful for so much; the few days away, the near perfect weather, the beauty of a park in the midst of rebirth.  Topped off  by a delicious breakfast of eggs and more tortillas with butter and jam I began the process of breaking camp with a tremendous sense of peace.   It would be easy to look at the park and feel sadness but I believe there are seasons for all things.  There are so many that care and are working hard to see the park restored.  And that is as it should be…

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On solitude and the healing it brings…


There’s a real person in here,

hard as it might be to imagine it,

as invisible as I may appear,

or as forgettable, I live

in a world at least as passionate at yours,

just not as loud.

By Tom Atkins

Lost Maples State Natural Area lies about 150 miles WNW of Austin, TX close to the little town of Vanderpool.  It has become a retreat spot for me, one that nurtures my introverted self.  It is a healing place; a place of refuge.

I first began these retreats a couple of weeks before Christmas the year after my divorce.  I went alone, with my Doberman, Gretchen for company.  My ex-husband never understood my introversion, despite the fact that we had taken a Meyers-Briggs personality test in a pre-marriage class at our church.  He was genuinely surprised to find that I was an introvert and apparently didn’t pay attention to the fact that introverts need quiet and solitude to recharge their batteries.  He took it personally when I needed alone time; as if I was moving away from him and not towards something that I needed deep in my soul.

100_0074So, having the chance to go off camping in a remote spot with no cell service and no television– just me and God and Mother Nature–was energizing for me.  I think my friends worried.  “Are you going to be safe out there by yourself?”, they’d ask.  “Are you sure you should be alone over the holidays?”  I told them I’d be fine.  I was car-camping in a campground on the park after all.  There were Park Rangers there; other campers.  And I needed this time to myself.

It was the perfect time of year.  The park is generally very crowded in the fall.  Large groups of people arrive to see the maples turning; their vivid red and orange foliage is stunning.  In December, especially right before Christmas the park is generally nearly empty.  An RV may stop for a day or so on their travels but tent campers are rare; most preferring the milder temperatures of spring and fall.  It does get very cold at night there in the winter.  The campground is in a valley so the sun takes a long time to shine on the campgrounds each morning.  My first night I learned the hard way as the temperatures dropped to 20 degrees in my tent.  I was too cold to get out of my sleeping bag to put on more clothing so I curled up tightly in fetal position and closed my mummy bag down until all that was sticking out was my nose.  It made for a long night but I was more prepared after that.

I spent 4-1/2 glorious days hiking, reading, meditating.   I enjoyed having the park almost to myself.  I rarely met anyone out on the trails.  The days were clear and crisp; cold, but not in a bad way.  It was perfect for hiking.  Gretchen and I hiked several miles each day; taking lunch out on the trails and enjoying the beauty of the Texas Hill Country.  It was restorative. 


Since then I have gone back at Christmastime often.  It’s been a few years now but I have a trip planned this Christmas.  I’m looking forward to it.  My Border Collie, Pippin will go with me–it will be his first major camping trip.  There is no personal crisis that sends me there this year.  My life is good.  But the beauty of the Hill Country calls to me–as if it is a homecoming. 

In her poem, “The Invitation”, Oriah Mountain Dreamer asks this question:

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself
And if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.”

I’m grateful to be able to answer “Yes” to that question.


Many thanks to Tom Atkins at Quarry House for graciously granting me permission to share his beautiful poem.

Don’t…stop…look down…

I’ve always been one of those people who hiked with the intent to see how quickly I could negotiate X number of miles.  I love being outdoors and I love to get the exercise but I’ve not been much on stopping and looking at what was around me.  That’s changing, however, and that’s a good thing.  Otherwise, I might have missed this on my morning path:

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Despite the 100 degree temperatures I feel fortunate to live in Austin, TX where 10 minutes from my house in suburban South Austin and just as close to down town are nearly 8 miles of hiking trails that, except for the sound of cars on the freeway for the first mile or so could just as easily be in some remote state park in the hill country.  The Barton Creek Greenbelt is a beautiful oasis near the heart of Austin and as a result my morning path consisted of scenes like these:

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This painting can be found on the bridge supports as you walk under the freeway.

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The drought has taken it’s toll on the greenbelt.  The beautiful falls are gone for now…there’s no water in the creek but I am grateful to have this beauty just a short drive from my house.  And I’m even more grateful that there are people who understand that this beauty is to be cherished and respected.


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Let me tell you about the adventure she had…

…in Africa…  This happens to be a line from a song by singer/songwriter, David Wilcox called “Johnny’s Camaro” which involves Johnny (of course) , his beloved Camaro and his friend Laura who is headed to Africa on an Outward Bound trip.  It’s a delightful musical tale in which Laura, having been dropped off at the airport by Johnny and his Camaro (obviously) has a life changing experience in Africa, comes home and gets a clue about Johnny and, well you know…

No, I didn’t make it all the way to Africa.  I did, however, take an REI Adventures trip in October of 2000 to Zion National Park.  There was no Camaro in my story but there was a Johnny, although he had been gone for two years before my adventure occurred.

I was divorced in December of 1998, 5 months after my husband assaulted me and was arrested.  I don’t believe my husband was a bad person but what he did to me was a bad thing and the deal breaker was that he didn’t get it.  I knew the day that he told me that he was going to plead Not Guilty if they were going to make him go to therapy that our marriage was over.  “It’s not like I blackened your eye or drew blood or anything, Judi” were his words to me and they sent a powerful message on what I needed to do next for myself.

As was my M.O. I threw myself into work.  I was fine.  I was strong and I’d get through this.  I didn’t need any help.  About a year later I crashed and burned.  It was as if God was saying, “Judi, I won’t let you continue to stuff all of your grief.  I’ll be here but you’re going to have to go right through the middle of it.  You can’t sidestep it this time”.

It was about that time that Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s poem, “The Invitation” was floating around the internet.  This excerpt from it hit me like a brick:

“It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.  I want to know if you have touched the center of your  own sorrow; if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it or fix it.”

I realized that I had spent a lifetime of hiding, attempting to fade and generally tiptoeing around painful experiences.  I was well on my way to allowing fear of pain to shut me down.  I hadn’t grieved my father’s death from five years before; I hadn’t grieved the loss of trust caused by the assault; I hadn’t grieved the loss of my marriage; there were other things as well.  The tears and anguish that came pouring out were a gift.  It didn’t seem like it at the time but it was the first step in a long journey towards learning to truly experience joy.  A journey that I’m still on to this day.

6XVU_010My trip to Zion was the first vacation I had ever taken in my life that was just about me and where I wanted to go.  It was a small group of wonderful people and three of the best guides we could have hoped for.  They took us on breathtaking hikes for six incredible days.  We climbed through slot canyons.  I tried my hand at “stemming“, a rock-climbing technique that involves using the opposing forces of your hands and feet to climb up or across narrow slots.  Have I mentioned I’m afraid of heights?  Nevertheless, there’s a bit of the daredevil in me and it looked like too much fun to pass up.  I did okay until my knees started to shake and I nearly lost control of my legs.  I still remember one of the guides laughing, “Hey look, she’s got scissor legs”.  I did manage to make it across without biting the dust but it was touch and go there while I regained control of my shaking legs.

Walter's Wiggles

Walter’s Wiggles

One of the most memorable hikes of the week was the hike up Angel’s Landing.  It’s only a 2.4 mile hike but involves a 1488 foot elevation climb.  Part of that is Walter’s Wiggles, a series of 21 steep switchbacks that will definitely get your blood pumping.  Once through that section you can stop to rest at Scout’s Landing before making the last half-mile push to the summit.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  Two of our group declined to make the trip and my fear of heights definitely made a noble attempt to dissuade me.  At that point however, I knew I would regret it the rest of my life if I didn’t make it up the narrow ridgeback to the summit.  The trail is narrow and strenuous with steep drop-offs and often just a chain to hold on to.  It was worth every dizzying step.

Angel's Landing -- the last half mile

Angel’s Landing — the last half mile

As I climbed the words from Johnny’s Camaro ran through my head, “…let me tell you about the adventure she had…”.  The view from the summit was breathtaking.  I remember vividly looking out and reflecting on the rugged beauty and thinking about the storms that had carved out the canyons and over time created all that natural wonder.  It seemed to be a good metaphor for life.  We’ll all go through storms that can seem devastating at the time but great beauty can come out of it if we’re just willing to walk right through the middle of it.

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It’s a loooong way down!

We ended our trip with a five hour hike through The Narrows, an awe-inspiring canyon where the Virgin River flows and the only choice is to hike through the water.  Wading through those icy waters I nearly went down more than once, slipping on the river rock beneath my feet.  Ah yes, another metaphor for life.

The Virgin River Narrows

The Virgin River Narrows

It was the trip of a life time for me; a life-changing experience.  Do I still struggle with fear?  Of course.  But I’ve learned that if I can just walk through it; if I can just risk the adventure — beautiful things can happen.