Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Rural Gem - Mason, Texas

Texas Sized Topaz
I'm staying in Mason, TX now for a Habitat For Humanity build and will be here for another 12 days. The city of 2,186 people makes a claim to the title of "The Gem of the Hill Country." It has good reason for being called that as I learned at the free admittance Mason Square Museum located on the picturesque downtown square.

On display in the museum is the largest light blue topaz gem discovered in North America. Topaz is the State Gem of Texas and is only found in Mason.

Mason County Courthouse

I complimented the museum docent for the quality of the museum design. It contains far than the typical hodgepodge of local historical artifacts as is so common in underfunded, rural community museums. It does an excellent job portraying local history, both the good and bad. Some of the topics covered include:
  1. Fort Mason (1851-1869) where so many Confederate and Union Generals were trained including Robert E. Lee and Albert Sydney Johnson. Johnson was the highest ranking General on either side killed in battle during what southern partisans called The War of Northern Aggression.
  2. The migration of German immigrants such as John O. Muesebach that settled much of the Hill Country of Texas starting in the 1940's.
  3. Cattle rustling during the Mason County War, sometimes called the Hoodoo War.
  4. The Odeon Theater, longest running theater of west Texas built in 1928. On Saturday night Harpeth Rising gave a concert.

Mason County abounds in other attractions.
  • A golf course/baseball field/municipal park where I'm staying in my RV
  • Three other RV parks
  • Over 40 bed & breakfast inns and guest ranches
  • Two wineries
  • Six antique stores
  • Six artisan/craftsmen stores
  • The Eckert James River Bat Cave Preserve
  • And a full complement of traditional goods and services sans Starbucks and McDonalds.
I have especially enjoyed the local Hill Country architecture. I love the use of natural brown limestone in classic farmstead construction. Every old farmstead and many city tracts had these elevated water storage tanks to no doubt combat drought conditions.

County Jail
Farm Outbuildings
Farm Barn

Reconstruction of Part of  Fort Mason That Sits On A Hill Overlooking Mason, Texas

Old Yeller Statue

Lastly, if you are a child of the 60's you are probably familiar with the sad tale of Old Yeller. The Disney movie of the same name is based on the book by local author Fred Gipson. A Mason statue at the public library commemorates the story.


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Solar Home Building in Mason, Texas

I'm on the road again. After ending an enjoyable week in the Austin/Georgetown, TX area I drove 100 miles west in the quaint, rural county seat of Mason, TX where I'll spend two and one half weeks before returning briefly to Arkansas..

I'm here for my seventh Habitat For Humanity build in the last twelve months. There are about twenty volunteers helping the homeowner family build a single story, high efficiency, solar heated house on the outskirts of Mason.

We're on what's referred to locally as the Second Phase of construction. The first phase entailed laying the underground plumbing, pouring and custom finishing the concrete slab floor, cutting ALL the wall and roof structural components, assembling the roof trusses, and pre-painting exterior sheathing.

On our first day on Phase Two, we began with a comprehensive safety talk and commenced with assembling three exterior wall sections. With the celebratory participation of the soon to be homeowners, we raised the back side, gable end wall plus one side wall into position. Today, we'll put up as many more wall sections as the weather permits.

Lunch is being catered to us by the homeowners as we make new friends among the homeowners and volunteers, many of which travel all around the country as I am trying to do to build affordable homes for families. With Texas hospitality we are staying in our RVs in Mason City's park that hosts a 20 site RV park, a golf course, baseball fields, and rodeo facilities.

Note: A change in my itinerary come March. Instead of going to a Habitat build in Santa Fe, NM. I'm going to head 80 miles further north of there to Taos, NM and supervise students from the University of Texas that have volunteered to build family homes during their Spring Break rather than vacation somewhere else. It's part of Habitat For Humanity's Collegiate Challenge Program where we all can "Give people a Hand-up, not a Hand Out."

Saturday, February 20, 2016

I Believe I Can Fly

Bob Pauls Learning to Skydive
[Photo by Paula Sanders]

I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
I believe I can fly
I believe I can fly
~ Lyrics by R Kelly                                                                        

Paula, Frank and Kay Sanders
While visiting Austin, TX this week I took advantage of the presence of one of the over 37 operations of iFly. Never heard of it? According to their website iFLY is an "experiential entertainment company that created modern indoor skydiving…we make the dream of flight a reality by giving our customers “wings” in a safe and reliable environment."

I was joined by three members of the Sanders family. We each took two, one minute instructional flights in the free-fall simulator under the guidance of a trainer. A separate operator controlled the wind speed (rate of fall) and could keep you at ground level or shoot you fifty feet up to the chamber ceiling with stabilizing support from the trainer.

It was a lot of fun, but very expensive for the value received. It works out to about $25 a minute. It's slightly cheaper with bulk purchase of instructional time. 

Frank Sanders
Aspiring flyers are provided about fifteen minutes of basic instruction, a helmet, goggles, and a flight suit to wear during the flights.

While those accompanying you can take somewhat distorted pictures through the flight chamber tube glass, the company dings you hard for photographs or videos that they produce.

I was part of a group of about ten other students for my session. We each took turns flying and high-fiving each other upon completion.

The flying has few restrictions on flight eligibility. I saw six year olds mastering the technique immediately and 78 year olds doing nearly as well.

Unless you have shoulder or mobility issues, you should be able to enjoy the full experience.

Would I go skydiving again? Maybe. For the admission price of a three minute free-fall I can spend nearly a seven hours playing on the steep slopes of a first class mountain ski resort. Flying down the slope I can approach the sensation of terminal velocity, jump off moguls and cliffs to be airborne under my own control, and execute maneuvers against high G-forces that rival the reward gained from falling against the pressure of rushing wind.

If you correctly thought downhill skiing was an expensive sport, skydiving is far more expensive.

And as for the comparative risks of extreme sports, I prefer skiing. Surprisingly, the risk is more than hang gliding, a sport which I intend to take up again this summer of 2016. I prefer to fly like a bird than fall like a rock. To each his or her own.

Paula Sanders Flying High

Kay Sanders

Friday, February 19, 2016

Throwback Thursday - LBJ

I am leaving in two days for Mason, TX to commence another Habitat For Humanity build. This will be my sixth project in the last year. Most builds are two weeks long. Mason will be three weeks long, but the one after that in Santa Fe, NM is only a week long.

During the last week I've been visiting friends (Frank, Kay, Paula, and Toya Sanders) that previously lived two doors west in Carbondale, IL. We haven't seen each other for 13 1/2 years, but the experience has been as if we only said goodbye last week when they migrated to Georgetown, TX.

We've been way too busy this week with food (too much), reminiscing, and assorted adventures. We've gone hiking along the North Fork of the San Gabriel River that flows through Austin, TX. And yesterday for Throwback Thursday (x 45 years) we visited the Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) Presidential Library in Austin.

Today, we four all went flying for the first time without an airplane. More on that in my next blog entry.

Jeffrey Miller shot by the Ohio National Guard
John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph
My world view was enormously shaped by the events of the 1960s and 70s. I was in high school and college during the turbulent times of the Vietnam War, the domestic assassinations of three revered leaders (John and Bobby Kennedy plus Martin Luther King), the massacre of my peers at Kent State, civil rights protests, urban riots, the six day Israeli war, and the forging of the hoped for Great Society under the guidance of President Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ).

Bob Pauls
Photo by Sarah Maas (~ 1976)

Visiting the LBJ library brought back the vivid memories of my involvement in many social and political events on the period,  It was also the time of my first marriage with all the joys and struggles of a young couple trying to find their way in that tumultuous world.

The library is filled with sights and sounds of the period. Particularly poignant were recordings from the Oval Office wherein LBJ worked through his frustrations with trying the put an end to the fruitless war, eliminate poverty in America, end segregation, and protect the environment with the passage of  numerous laws. The two most noticeable pieces of environmental law were the Clean Air Act of 1963 and the Wilderness Act of 1964.

You will support this legislation, won't you Bob?
LBJ also used his power of persuasion to see passage of a twenty-two other Great Society laws. Below in bold are the laws that I personally am most proud to have seen passed by a far more compassionate and apparently, educated, Congress than what we have today.

  • 1963: Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963
  • 1963: Vocational Education Act of 1963
  • 1964: Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • 1964: Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964
  • 1964: Nurse Training Act of 1964
  • 1964: Food Stamp Act of 1964
  • 1964: Economic Opportunity Act
  • 1964: Housing Act of 1964
  • 1965: Higher Education Act of 1965
  • 1965: Older Americans Act
  • 1965: Coinage Act of 1965
  • 1965: Social Security Act of 1965
  • 1965: Voting Rights Act
  • 1965: Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965
  • 1966: Animal Welfare Act of 1966
  • 1966: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
  • 1967: Age Discrimination in Employment Act
  • 1967: Public Broadcasting Act of 1967
  • 1968: Architectural Barriers Act of 1968
  • 1968: Bilingual Education Act
  • 1968: Civil Rights Act of 1968
  • 1968: Gun Control Act of 1968

  • The library also gives recognition of LBJ's wife, Lady Bird Johnson. Johnson died only two days after the swearing-in of his successor, President Richard Nixon, a man we learned to hate for his disastrous policies that prolonged the war in Vietnam.

    I highly recommend a visit the the presidential library on the University of Texas campus.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2016

    Search and Rescue Fundamentals

    National Association For Search and Rescue
    Over the last two weekends I participated with eleven other students in the 30 hour National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR) SARTECH II Fundamentals class in Arkadelphia and Hope, Arkansas.

    The first weekend of training consisted of classroom instruction on wilderness survival, as well as, search and rescue organization, theory and practice.

    The second weekend was almost entirely in the field practicing theory and skills searching for a theoretical lost person in the thorny woods of central Arkansas. We were "called-out" to a deer hunting camp to look for lost female hunter that failed to return to camp. Looking for possible footprints we searched the base, performed a probability assessment of where the lost person might be and then formed "hasty search teams" to hunt for clues and signs. After finding footprints belonging to the person we tracked her trail step-by-step and found other clues down a dirt road on the way to a four way trail intersection. Since it was midnight when we arrived at the intersection and most of us were spent from a long day, we pitched camp to rest and resume the search at daybreak.

    After a wet, sub-freezing night we resumed the search following more clues suggesting that the possibly confused, disoriented, or ill person changed directions, doubled back on the trails. She was initially unresponsive to our auditory calls using her name. As we following her trail eventually getting closer to where she pulled off the trail for the night she responded to our signals. She was found just off the trail in the woods.

    After treatment for her deteriorated medical condition, she was carried out on a Stokes wire litter for transfer to a medical facility.

    That's Me Wearing The Rescue Pack Carrying My Portion of the Rescue Litter
    (Photo by Lora Frost)
    Rescues typically take about 72 hours to resolve themselves. What we learned from the exercise was how to apply resources on most land-based search and rescues, how to organize a search and assume specific roles as leaders, searchers, and record keepers. Then to round out our appreciation for the subject the instructors added knowledge components about incident command structures, environmental hazards and first aid, land navigation & orienteering; ropes, knots and & standardized rescue equipment; and legal obligations of search and rescue personnel.

    At the end of the sessions we took a 145 question subject matter and orienteering exam that, if passed, certified us as SARTECH III level SAR techs. When we return to Arkadelphia in a month's time to pass the field exam, we will gain certification as SARTECH II level techs. The field exam on March 13 consists of six sections:
    • Station #1: Land Navigation: Use of topographic maps and compass. Candidates complete a course over terrain commonly encountered in the operations area in a specified time frame, not to exceed 600 meters.
    • Station #2: Tracking: Candidates identify and mark a footprint track left by the evaluator and follow the track to its end.
    • Station #3: 24-hour Pack: Candidates should carry the basic survival and safety supplies for their environment and the items to complete the stations.
    • Station #4: Rope Skills: Candidates demonstrate the ability to tie four basic knots and a harness with supplied rope and webbing.
    • Station #5: Route Search: This station entails locating and labeling clues in a given area demonstrating the ability to detect 50% of the clues using a route search tactic.
    • Station #6: Area Search: This station entails locating and labeling clues in a given area demonstrating the ability to detect 50% of the clues using an area search tactic.
    Training beyond these fundamentals is highly encouraged. Specializations include man tracking, K-9, mountain/technical rope, whitewater, avalanche, and underwater search and recovery.  When I lived in southern Illinois I served briefly on the Williamson County Dive Recovery Team. I'll probably take further classes in the years ahead as the SAR subject is interesting to me on several levels.
    • Navigation is becoming a lost art. As a right of passage in the 1950-60s I was a Webloe, Cub Scout, Boy Scout, and Explorer Scout (now called Venturing). I earned a lot of merit badges in outdoor skills. Technical and natural orienteering were two of them and we needed those skills to take solo trips in the lakes and woods of northern Minnesota where I spent much of my youth. Navigation is seemingly no longer relevant to most outdoor experiences. Cell phones, satellite phones, GPS, emergency locator beacons, and modern camping technologies have substantially reduced the fear of perishing in the wilderness for all but the unprepared and unfit. 
    • Even if we have technological tools to survive, the average modern human has lost its connection to the full outdoor experience. Few people can navigate by the wind, stars, moon, sun, or tides. Even fewer know how to use their five senses to learn from and understand the stories nature has to tell. Deep ecology is little understood by voters, let alone politicians and lawmakers.
    • SAR is about saving lives or returning the remains of loved ones that perished in some unfortunate experience. Skills in providing shelter, providing nourishment and rendering medical care, plus transporting someone home to safety are the hallmarks of caring culture. 
    You too could become a member of a rural or urban search and rescue team. There are lots of duties that can be performed at headquarters if you are not able or inclined to go into the field on a physical search.

    Recommended Reading: 

    • Bob Pauls
    • Caleb Darnell
    • Justin Allen
    • Heather Schafstall
    • Holly Nichole Ballard
    • Jennifer Lefevre
    • Lora Frost
    • Nishant Mathure
    • Piper Scholfield
    • Shame Seaton
    • + 2 more

    • Mikki Lee Hastings
    • Bill Rogers

    Take the Waters ... Please

    Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

    Bathhouse Row, Hot Springs National Park

    The 19th century was the best of times and the worst of times.  On three divergent fronts. We had the idle rich that glorified luxurious travel We had pioneers braved the wilderness to forge a new nation, and we also had the uneducated/quack doctors and patients that sought and promoted quack cures for all sorts of maladies.

    Consider that...
    • Electricity was promoted as cure for numerous diseases.
    • Corn Flakes were marketed to cure masturbation.
    • Drinking or bathing in mineral water allegedly able to cure all sorts of ailments from alcoholism to arthritis, baldness, Bright’s disease, cancer, catarrh, chapped hands, constipation, diabetes, diarrhea, “female complaints,” flux, gout, hectic fever, high and low blood pressure, indigestion, insomnia, jake leg (a neurological malady caused by drinking moonshine whiskey containing tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate, an industrial chemical), malaria, milk leg, neuralgia, opium addiction, piles, pneumonia, rheumatism, ringworm, scurvy, sour stomach, St. Vitus’ dance, toothache, ulcers, and venereal diseases, plus various other unspecified skin, eye, stomach, bladder, liver, spleen and kidney problems."*
    Last week I took a side trip to the mother of all national park units, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. Besides my peculiar interest in questionable medical cures, I had been offered a volunteer park service job there this summer and wanted to check it out. 

    The original Hot Springs Reservation, the first designation of Hot Springs National Park, was set aside by Congress in 1832. Hot Springs National Park is thus the oldest of more than 400 units in the national park system. That's 40 years older than Yellowstone National Park. nd as such, it can rightly claim that it is America's Spa.

    In about 1870 westerners increasingly traveled to Hot Springs for the thermal baths and to drink the mineral water. Native Americans used it for centuries before that. It took another 100 years for the site to finally be placed on the National Register of Historic Places for its own protection. There's been a long history of conflicts among private landowners, entrepreneurs, and the federal government on what should be regulated to protect this natural resource. Like
    Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the news over the last month, the federal government won the fight but works in partnership with local interests.

    Mineral water has historically been defined as "a natural water produced from a well or spring that naturally contains at least 250 parts per million total dissolved solids." Did you know that water spa aficionados distinguish about a dozen different types of mineral water? Thermal, Hypothermal, Mesothermal, Hyperthermal, Osmotic, Chemical, Oligomineral, Carbogaseous, Alkaline, Sodic, Saline / Chloro-Sodic, Sulfated, Sulfurous, and Ferruginous. **

    What intrigued me about Hot Spring's bathhouse row of seven historic spas was the segregated and regulated pseudo science of the operations. First of all these were initially white-only establishments primarily tended to by African-American attendants. The National Park Service rightly now exhibits the role of race in the operation of the facilities.

    Women's Treatment Room
    As for the pseudo-science aspects, you need to realize that many of the treatments offered at the spas then required a doctor's prescription to acquire. Not that there wasn't an economic motive to provide them to anyone that could pay the bill. Three of the treatments' apparati are captured in the adjacent photo I took.

    ~ Left, background) Multi-jet needle-like showers where dozens of water jets targeted specific parts of the body.

    ~ (Right, background) Mercuric sitz-baths where one sat in a short tub and allowed mercury-laden water to be absorbed through your mid-section.
    ~ (Foreground hoses) Intense, high pressurized enemas.

    (Not shown) Electrified soaking tubs.

    Enema Control Cabinet. Steam Cabinet on the Left.
    The more traditional regimen for the average patron was:
    1. Perhaps a workout in the private gym
    2. A hot shower
    3. A cold shower followed by a hot towel wrap
    4. A cool-down period
    5. Dressing in the latest styles in the ornate men's or women's locker room, and then 
    6. Socializing on the top floor in the men's smoking lounge or women's tea room.

    Men's Dressing Room
    Ceiling Above the Men's Dressing Room Scilpture
    All in all an interesting afternoon's visit and worthy of a visit and perhaps a modern spa treatment at one of the many commercial spas now still operating in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Should you choose to replicate "taking the waters" for your health I encourage you to skip the mercury baths and electrified baths.

    (Dry) Electrical Therapy Treatment Room

    See Also:

    Friday, February 5, 2016

    DeGray Eagles Et Cetera

    DeGray Lake Resort Logo with Blue Heron
    After spending a month layover at the Escapees RV Club headquarters camp in Livingston, TX my journeys have taken me to Arkadelphia and Hope Arkansas for my first Search and Rescue (SAR) training class.  I’ll be returning to Livingston after two weeks for a one week stay before traveling back west. However, I have to return to Arkadelphia in March to complete the field exam that completes my SARTECH II certification with the National Association For Search and Rescue. 

    I was only one of three RV campers staying midweek at DeGray Lake Resort State Park. It’s a very nice park this is with all the accoutrements of the modern state resort park: golf course, large marina, seasonal riding stable, widely spaced camp sites, and three rental yurts. It’s only by coincidence that I managed to pick the nicest of spots overlooking the 13,500 acre reservoir.

    When I awoke the first morning I inadvertently flushed from the tall pines surrounding my site a flock of previously unseen black vultures. To my surprise twenty-four vultures returned to one tree adjacent to the RV for the evening to catch the last warming rays of sunshine. Roosting but 50 yards away on a dead snag were two adult American Bald Eagles sharing the serene shoreline.

    Black Vulture
    Black Vulture
    My days at the lake were spent quietly hiking the local shoreline and purchasing the last of the SAR pack supplies needed for the training class. I’m a little surprised how few campers there were in the campground midweek. The weather was quite nice during the day and the temps only drop to the 40’s at night.

    The population soared on the weekend as it was the start of the park’s 37th annual “Eagles Et Cetera” celebration. No, this is not a fan club event for the rock band (I wish). Offered during the three day celebration were numerous eagle and owl watch tours, raptor rehab demonstrations, and a live falconry hunt.  I couldn't attend because they coincided with the training sessions, but I was able to see enough to know there will be plenty to see in this watershed.

    Midweek I drove north to Hot Springs, AR to possibly “take in the waters” before returning for the start of the training. More on that next time I post.