8 Tips for Absentee Landowners

This article originally appeared in my column in Texas Wildlife magazine, a monthly publication for Texas Wildlife Association members. 

Being an absentee landowner presents its challenges. As I have shared with you all before, my family has a farm in South Texas, about three hours away from my home in Austin. To get to our farm, I have to pass through two major cities, and because I leave after work, I am driving during rush hour and arriving after dark. (On the plus side, this gives me plenty of time to pray the water will turn on when I arrive.)

After I get there, I have a lot to catch up on—checking on the status of projects, meeting with lessees, meeting with workers, and then of course, making sure no varmints or snakes have made their way into the house.

Like many modern-day landowners, I have to figure out how to be a good land owner from afar. How do I keep my family’s property safe from trespassers, pay workers on time, make sure our pastures aren’t overgrazed, oversee hunters, implement projects to improve habitat, and manage repairs without being there every day? And then, when do I squeeze in time to actually enjoy the place?

Here are some tips I’ve learned from other absentee landowners.

1. Get a lessee you trust and build a good relationship.

Having someone you trust on your property regularly is helpful in many ways. They will keep an eye on the place, notice if something is off or needs fixing, and will have the local connections and expertise to help you accomplish whatever needs to be done. Send them a Christmas present, call or text them regularly to check in, and establish mutual trust. A grazing tenant and a hunting lessee will be a great help in making sure your ponds and feeders are full.

2. Collaborate with your neighbors.

Always let them know if you are doing something that might affect their property (like spraying a fence line, for example). Bring them wild game or produce from your property, keep the lines of communication open, and in turn you will build mutual respect. If it works for you, you all could even share workers or equipment. Neighbors are great resources out in the country.

3. Take advantage of technology.

There are so many great remote security systems out there nowadays that connect to apps on your phone and enable you to monitor activity on your property from anywhere in the world. Several companies are represented at the TWA Convention each year. I also utilize apps like Paypal for paying workers. Of course, you can’t go wrong with an old fashioned game camera either, strategically placed.

4. Get to know your Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Game Warden.

If you see anything unusual that might indicate trespassing and/or poaching, let them know.

5. Ensure “No Trespassing” signs are visibly posted around your property.

I also recommend showing up unannounced. Having regular activity on a property is a great way to keep it more secure.

6. Get to know your NRCS agent.

He or she can be invaluable in keeping you apprised of deadlines for programs and can help you fill out forms and conduct business over the internet.

7. Get a capable contractor.

We found a reliable contractor who does a great job and arrives on time, and though he may be a little more expensive than the average worker because he has to drive from San Antonio, the peace of mind of having someone reliable on-call is worth it to us.

8. Don’t take on too many projects at one time.

Over the year and a half it took to renovate our ranch house, I had to learn that because I was not present every day, some projects just took longer to accomplish—and that is okay.

As much as I dream about getting to run off to the ranch every time I want, I have family, community, and work commitments in the city so do the best I can. I hope all of you have success navigating the challenges being an absentee landowner presents, and still find time to hunt, fish, and enjoy the reason you own the property, whatever that may be.

Do you have any other tips I missed? Feel free to leave a comment!

Hat tip to my friend Greg Simons for contributing to this article.

Three Cheese Venison Lasagna on the Dutch Oven

I love Dutch oven cooking, and this recipe totally hit the spot recently on a camping trip to Enchanted Rock State Park. It got two thumbs up by everyone in our camping crew, including a 4-year-old boy and some very hungry hikers.

I give this recipe my approval because it is easy to shop for at the grocery store, requires minimal clean up, and preparation is simple.

Ingredients

  • 2 jars of pasta sauce
  • 1 box lasagna noodles, uncooked
  • 1/2 lb ground venison or beef
  • 1/2 lb ground sausage (I used a pork/venison mixture but you can use Jimmy Dean ground sausage if you don’t have access to wild game)
  • 4 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 15 oz. ricotta cheese
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cups grated parmesan

Instructions BEFORE you leave on the camp out

Brown the ground meat and store in a plastic container to take with you in your cooler.

Instructions at the camp site

Light 20 charcoal bricquets on fire using a charcoal chimney.

Mix the Parmesan, 2 c. mozzarella, and eggs together in a container. Save remaining mozzarella for top of lasagna.

 

Line the dutch oven with foil.

Layer the pasta sauce, lasagna noodles, cheese mixture, meat in that order three times.

Top with mozzarella.

Cover the Dutch oven with the lid.

Put 8-10 hot coal briquettes on top of the lid, and 8-10 underneath the oven.

Cook for approximately 30 minutes.

When you check on the lasagna after 30 minutes, be sure to use a lid lifter! That lid will be hot!

Be sure to check out my Dutch oven cooking tips!

A Woman’s Place is in the Wild

Today I wanted to share an article I had published on a big national hiking website for women!

Have you all seen REI’s new Force of Nature campaign celebrating women in the outdoors? In it, REI is calling those of us who love the outdoors “Forces of Nature” and striving to make the outdoors the “most level playing field on earth.”

You can read all about it HERE on their website. It’s cool!

This photo courtesy of their recent magazine.

In honor of this campaign, REI challenged me and my fellow Hike Like a Woman Ambassadors to write about what it meant to us to be a Force of Nature, and HERE IS MY POST! (<–click on that link  to see it on HLAW’s site!)

 

“The more women who get outdoors, the more people who will care about a healthy and vibrant future for nature.” — Let’s Be a Force of Nature, For Nature

 

It’s a short piece, and speaks to the core of why I write this blog. As you ladies may know, sharing the outdoors with women in an effort to inspire conservation actions is the driving passion behind every word I write. I hope those of you who come back to this blog feel a little bit more connected to the natural world each time and want to be a part of efforts to care for it.

“Every woman on earth, regardless of class, age, race, or economic status, benefits from the gifts nature gives: clean, healthy flowing rivers, wildlands in which to recreate, fresh produce, food and clean air.”

Grab a cup of joe, head on over to Hike Like a Woman, and check out mine and all of the other great articles on being a Force of Nature! There are about twenty articles being published May 1 – 20.

And be sure to check out REI’s hashtag #forceofnature for some good outdoor travel inspo.

Wild Things on the Farm

I’m a little overdue in posting about this! We had friends down to my family’s farm recently (and you can read about our turkey hunting experience here) but there was a lot more to the weekend than just hunting!

First, this critter greeted us in the kitchen sink when we arrived.

One thing about farms and ranches, is they are full of surprises! Sadly this is one of the tamest beasts we have found inside the house.

(We released him back into the wild.)

Kristin got a turkey, which was very rewarding and tasty.

And like any good Texan with a Saturday afternoon and some ammunition to spare, we did a little target practice.

Girls just wanna have guns, y’all.

Kristin and her husband Adam have silencers on their guns, and at first I did not understand the need for this menacing sounding feature. But after an hour of shooting pistols and rifles with no jarring noise rattling my eardrums, I started to get it. Then they explained that it helps when hunting to be able to hear animals approach, and not have to wear earplugs, and I could totally see their point of view!

Adam is a great coach and instructor. Both Kristin and Adam volunteer as hunt guides with the Texas Youth Hunting Program, which gives kids the opportunity to go hunting on ranches across the state.

You see me laying on the ground in this picture — HUGE mistake! The sticker burrs were out in force!

Kristin’s collie Jane came to party with Trooper, and even though Trooper was a little stinker I think it could be the beginning of a friendship!

A scarlet tanager paid us a visit while we were taking a break in the afternoon.

And two baby owls kept a close eye on us from their perch in one of our trees!

Their mom did not like us being nearby.

The cactus and huisache were in bloom, and even though those plants are pesky (we have far too many of them and they shade out grass and forb growth) they were very pretty to look at!

A great weekend that like usual, went by too fast but recharged my batteries way more than any weekend I spend in the city.

The Best Day Hike in Breckenridge, CO

The next time you are near Breckenridge, Colorado during the summer months, be sure to set aside time for the McCullough Gulch Trail. If you only have time for one trail in Breckenridge, it should be this one!

Summer vacations in the mountains are a must for Texans, don’t you think? After spending the last five days in the cool air of the Rockies, and not in the Texas heat, I am beginning to think so.

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Some friends and I hiked the McCullough Gulch Trail near Breckenridge this past weekend, and despite overcast skies and chilly conditions, we could not have been more pleased. My thought is, if 8 people huff and puff up a mountainside in the cold and wind, and still enjoy themselves, then the trail must be good.

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In fact, McCullough Gulch Trail is rated as #4 of 68 things to do on TripAdvisor and it has earned their Certificate of Excellence.

The trail starts as a wide dirt road, and follows McCullough Gulch waterfalls up the side of the mountain to a small glacial lake.

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I usually look for trails that have some natural feature like falls, a view, a river or lake to keep me entertained. If I’m going to be burning my buns up the side of the mountain, I want some reward–and not just an Oreo in my picnic lunch. (Though that is nice.)

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McCullough Gulch definitely delivered on the rewards front.

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You pass boulders, fallen trees, gurgling creeks, and slopes with mountain goats, snow patches, and rock slides.

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Mountain goaties!
Mountain goaties!

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Within the first quarter mile, there is a pretty view of the McCullough Gulch waterfalls, and for most of the hike you are treated to the sound of the stream rushing down the mountain.

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The final 200 yards or so to the lake is the most challenging part.

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But just think of it as another day at the gym.

Feel free to take a break along the way and look for white mountain goats on the surrounding hills…and catch your breath.

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…or stop and admire the view.

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(That’s hiker speak for “catch your breath.”)

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Because in the end, it’s worth it!

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The lake and surrounding snow capped peaks is a treat. And the good news is, it’s all downhill from there.

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Plan Your Trip

Who Can Do This

This trail is a work out. That said, it’s not very dangerous–the trail does not involve cliffsides, thank goodness. 🙂

But rather, it’s a challenge because of the continuous 683 feet of elevation gain from the parking lot to the first lake. If you’re a Texas flatlander like myself, and not used to the thin air of Colorado, you will be breathing hard. We certainly were. And you will be acutely aware of your muscles.

I would recommend this for:

  • Ages 7 – 70
  • Fit and active

We developed a theory on our hike that kids would actually be the best candidate for this trail, because they would view it as a giant playground.

We were all in our 30’s and work out a few times per week, and ended up taking about four 3 to 5-minute long breaks on the way up. For pictures, of course. Not because we couldn’t breathe.

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Map & Directions

This trail is 15 minutes south of Breckenridge off of Hwy 9 and 851. Specific directions can be found here: All Trails – McCullough Gulch Trail

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When to Start

  • 8:30am

It is worth getting up early for this!! Even on vacation. Here is why:

You’ll want to beat the weather that usually rolls in mid afternoon, and you’ll also want to beat the crowds. (Everyone  reading TripAdvisor has discovered this trail.) Nature is so much more romantic without a ton of other people around.

How Much Time to Allow

I’d allow half a day. We hiked for two hours up to the lake, stopped for a picnic, and then the hike down to the car only took about 15-30 minutes.

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Plan a Picnic Lunch

This is critical to maximum enjoyment of this trail! McCullough Gulch trail leads to a gorgeous little lake, with another lake just half a mile away. Enjoy lunch beside the first lake and after lunch taking a jaunt up to the second lake.

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Whit’s Recommended Lunch

  • Chicken Bacon Avocado wraps, using a rotisserie chicken and fresh avocado. Mmm!
  • Cookies (essential.)

Parking

Parking is very limited at the trailhead, so unless you get there very early (around 8:30 am) you will either have to park on the side of a narrow road leading to the trailhead, or at the lower parking lot, which is a little over a mile away.

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View of the tiny parking lot at the trailhead (looking downhill, towards the road.)

What to Wear

See my posts What to Wear on a Day Hike and 6 Things to Always Pack in Your Day Pack for guidance on this.

McCullough Gulch Trail (7 of 36)
This girl is dressed appropriately! (As always.)

Read More

Fore more details on this trail, check out AllTrails.com (<–this link goes straight to the McCullough Gulch Trail page.)

All Trails is a great place to see pictures and reviews of various trails.

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Big Bend at the Bullock Texas State History Museum

An AIR CONDITIONED way to enjoy nature in the middle of Texas heat?! Sign me up. As much as I am a proponent of getting outdoors, I am not a proponent of being miserable outside. Sometimes that means postponing outdoor moments to when the weather is fairer. Hence why Brandon and I headed to the shade of the Bullock Texas State History Museum last Sunday afternoon to see the new exhibit, Journey into Big Bend, from the comfort of air conditioning.

And it was a great, sweat-free way to appreciate our state, and its great outdoors.

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If you’ve ever been to Big Bend, you know it is extremely remote, rugged, and picturesque. You may know the Rio Grande is one of the top twenty longest rivers in the world, and the region’s Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, protected Santa Elena Canyon and Maderas Canyon areas together make up one of the largest protected biospheres on Earth.  As they say, EVERYTHING’S BIGGER IN TEXAS, y’all.

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High above the museum rotunda on the third floor, the exhibit is as quiet and peaceful as a the park itself.

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The bulk of the exhibit is a collection of stunning images of West Texas from various photographers. Each one gives a glimpse of the park at its best. Kind of like watching a sport on TV instead of in a stadium, this exhibit gives you a better view!

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In one gallery, a continual looping video of the park plays, not narrated or cluttered with words, but just the natural sounds of the park, from the Rio Grande flowing through Santa Elena Canyon, the wind whipping around rocks and across the prairie, and birds chirping and rustling in the brush. Whether they intended to or not, the creators of this exhibit have given us the same serene experience as visitors to the remote park are given.

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Other than photographs and video footage, the main component of this exhibit is stories of the people that make up the park–from rangers to photographers. And Whit’s Wilderness was totally pleased to see many of them be women.

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(Whit’s Wilderness approved.)

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Lastly, a highlight of the exhibit is an enormous ancient dinosaur crocodile fossil found in the region. Kids loved this. Even big kids.

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So if you are looking to stay cool but not miss out on the great outdoors this summer, check out this great exhibit. It runs until September 18th so be sure to grab a friend and make a date at the museum before the summer’s over. Warning: you may get a hankering to visit Big Bend National Park!

Plan Your Visit

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Holly Reports on Her Grand Canyon Adventure

grand canyon hiking, grand canyon equipment

In honor of her birthday, and in honor of the great outdoors, today I’m interviewing my dear friend Holly about her recent trip to the Grand Canyon.

Before we start, I want to tell you a little bit about Holly. She is quick-witted, self sufficient, and fun . We met while working on Capitol Hill in DC and I learned quickly that if I were ever stranded on a deserted island, Holly is one of the people I would want there. With Holly on this deserted island, I know we would have food, shelter, and water. She would figure out some clever way to make it all happen.


Thank you, Holly, for granting me this exclusive interview.

Holly: You’re welcome.

I am dying to hear ALL about your trip to the Grand Canyon! Let’s start with your itinerary. What did you do each day?

*Editor’s comments below in Italics*”

Day 1

My friends from all over (DC, Houston, Indianapolis) and I flew into Phoenix. We stopped by REI to pick up items that we couldn’t fly with and then took off to Grand Canyon National Park.

Note to readers: REI rents gear out and it is a great way to quickly and inexpensively get equipped for adventures like this.

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We checked into the Bright Angel lodge at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. It had stunning views and we made it just in time for sunset.

Holly, you look like a walking advertisement for hiking.

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Day 2

On this day, we woke up early for breakfast at the lodge and took off around 9 am for the South Kaibab Trail, roughly 7 miles long and all downhill.

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I got my hiking poles! I’m ready to go! 

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We arrived at the bottom of the trail around 2 pm, checked into our campsite and then relaxed on the Colorado riverside.

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Pretty.

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We went to bed shortly after nightfall.

Day 3

Awoke early and watched the sunrise as we left our campsite. Took off on our 9.9 mile hike up the Bright Angel Trail.

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It looks bright!

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We made it to the top around 2 pm then took off to go back to Phoenix.

We stopped at Cracker Barrel on the way home for some much needed country cooking. Arrived back at our resort and went straight to the jacuzzis.

Mmmmm Cracker Barrel.

Day 4

Everyone flew home.

Which day was your favorite?

I loved Sunday. It was Easter. We ate peeps on the trail. The trail, although longer and uphill, was so beautiful and scenic.

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You ate people on the trail? 

No, Whitney, we ate “peeps”, marshmellow bunnies.

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And, there is nothing like the feeling of conquering a multi-day hike and looking out over the canyon at all the switch backs and knowing you did it alongside great friends.

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Awwwwww! That’s so sweet! Why wasn’t I invited?

(Awkward silence.)

Where did you stay? Did you like it? How did it compare to a hotel?

On Friday, we stayed at Bright Angel Lodge in the national park. It was a beautiful lodge, with a tasty and inexpensive restaurant and beautiful look out spots. The rooms were surprisingly nice and clean and it was relatively cheap, especially considering the proximity to the trails.

Sounds like a good deal.

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Holly chillin’ in her flip flops. 

On Saturday, we stayed at Bright Angel camp ground at the base of the canyon. It was incredible and nestled right around the Colorado river.

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That looks primitive. 

Thankfully, there were bathrooms there and running water so we didn’t have to use chlorine tablets for drinking water. One catch was that all the trash you hike in, you have to hike out so that was tricky but was easy enough. They give you a huge box to lock any sort of food to keep bugs/wild animals away.

What did you bring to eat?

We brought MREs to eat that night and had a fun time on the river during the day.

MRE: meal ready to eat (read: no cooking required.)

I bet the stars were amazing.

The stars were bright and you could pick out any constellation. We went to sleep with the noise of the river rushing.

Sounds heavenly.

Did you reserve the campsite on the park website?

Yep we had to apply months in advance. You could take the chance that they may have a site open upon arrival, but that was too risky. We were told its usually full Spring through Summer.

Noted.

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What was the most helpful piece of equipment you brought?

Winner

  • Probably my Camelbak, because it was much more convenient to drink water from the straw than taking my pack off every time.

Runner Up

  • The second most helpful was hiking poles. We rented hiking poles not knowing what to expect but on the way up they were incredibly helpful. You can rent them several places in the national park.

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Hiking poles: an essential accessory indeed.

Let’s go back to the stars for a second. Can you tell us more?

Literally no words to describe how vast the sky is inside the canyon. The stars light up the sky and you can see any constellation.

Any must-see’s in the park?

The trails are beautiful. Every corner you turn, you see an even better view. Based on the time of day, the colors in the canyon change and create such a gorgeous backdrop.

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Did your friends have a good time?

Life is much better with community, and we loved going on this adventure together. It was a great excuse to get together and explore a place that most of us had never been.

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Amen, life is much better when shared with friends!

Is there anything you would do differently if you were to go back?

  • I would have done a few hikes in my hiking boots before wearing them on the trails. I got severe bruising on my ankles from the weight of my pack.
  • I would do a lighter pack or pay for a mule to take my pack down the mountain in order to really enjoy the hike.

This is GREAT advice! Preach, sister! 

How does the Grand Canyon compare to other parks you’ve been to?

GC really takes the cake.

Mmmmm, cake.

The only other place that compares, in terms of beauty and depth, is Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

I second that–Shenandoah is incredible, especially in Autumn.

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Anything else you want to let my readers know?

Another surprising thing was the weather: it was chilly at the top of the canyon. (30s/40s at night.) But, down in the canyon, the weather was in the 80s.

(PS. This was in March.)

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Good to know!

Thanks Holly for divulging all of your must-sees and secrets about the Grand Canyon. We appreciate it!

Sure thing, Whit.

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May Holly Johnson be your inspiration on your next Grand Canyon trip. 

Readers, if you have any questions for Holly, leave them in the comments.

Photo cred goes to Holly’s friend Prashant, @photogp2013 on Instagram.

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Kayaking Lady Bird Lake

More info on where to rent kayaks can be found in this post: Where to Rent Kayaks in Austin (and Where to Eat Afterwards)

One of the things I do in my free time is mentor a George W. Bush Institute Women’s Initiative Fellow. The fellowship is a yearlong leadership training program for women from North Africa and the Middle East, and I have been paired up with Insaf, a bright and confident Tunisian woman. Insaf is starting an initiative to increase recycling in her country. I will have to tell you all about her some time! But for now, I want to tell you about the time we kayaked Lady Bird Lake together.

Insaf (pronounced just as it is spelled) visited me in Austin one weekend this past March. We ate Mexican food, went to a SXSW film screening, and shopped till we dropped. We got some work in too. But, no tour of Austin would be complete without a little time on Lady Bird Lake, so I took her kayaking.

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Insaf had never been kayaking before. When I first proposed the idea during one of our Skype dates, she seemed a little dubious. However, she said she trusted me to make her time in Texas worthwile and whatever I thought we should do, she would do. (No pressure.)

I had 72 hours to fill her up with as much love for my home state as I had, or at least–that was something I could shoot for.

One morning during her visit, we drove down to the lake to the Texas Rowing Center, a straightforward and affordable kayak rental shop. I was certain that I wanted us to rent two single kayaks, as opposed to one two-person kayak. Singles are smaller and more maneuverable, and you don’t have to rely on another person to paddle. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten stuck in a boat with someone who doesn’t paddle. It’s like they’re trying to summon The Force and move the boat with their mind.)

When I suggested we rent individual kayaks, there was instantly a look of fear in Insaf’s eyes. It occurred to me then that she might actually be nervous about setting off on her own. Having grown up around boats and fording down rapids in kayaks, I hadn’t considered this possibility. But I wanted her to love her time in Austin, so a two-person kayak it was!

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We loaded our sunscreen, water, and other gear into the boat and gingerly pushed away from the dock. As we paddled towards the Mopac bridge, Insaf turned around and asked in a weak voice, How deep is it here?

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Oh, just a few feet, I lied, recalling previous times I’d tested the depth with my oar and found that it was at least one oar length, if not more.

Maybe we can go more this way, she replied, pointing towards the shore.

I can’t see the bottom,  she said later, her voice thick with fear.

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After I convinced her it really wasn’t that deep, she got more comfortable and took our her camera. She loved the turtles and was snapping pics of them right and left.

I usually take the sight of turtles at the lake for granted; it’s amazing what you notice about your city when seen through a foreigner’s eyes.

We headed towards the Mopac bridge, hugging the shoreline. Insaf was paddling away–in between selfies and photos of turtles–and I was glad she wasn’t a slacker!

During the boat ride, Insaf let me practice my French speaking skills on her. This was quite a charitable act on her part, I must say.

We crossed over to the other side of the river, turned around, and headed towards Barton Creek. I love making this detour because the water is much shallower and clear enough to see to the bottom. There are also usually a lot of birds, fish, turtles, and other wildlife hanging out along the creek too.

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The wildlife were out in force that day and Insaf, my fellow environment enthusiast, was loving it.

I’m not going to lie, it is a huge joy to hang out with someone who loves wildlife and the outdoors as much as I do. You both can just nerd out all day long and know you’re not boring the other person, and not being looked at as weird. Rather, you can just embrace the experience together.

By the time we turned around and started to head back to the dock, Insaf was all smiles.

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I had been doubting whether she was having fun, and could not see her face since she was sitting in front of me. But as I glanced at this selfie before stowing my phone away in a dry bag, I saw that smile and knew I had hit a high note with this expedition.

When we got out of the boat at the boathouse, she turned to me and said, in her French accent, Whitney, this was the most fun part of my trip. Thank you for taking me.

Score!

Maybe I am doing this mentor thing right after all. I smiled back at her with a combination of relief and pride.

She later told me that she knows of a kayak rental place back home in Tunisia and she said she would try it when she got home.

She also said she had been told by a program leader that she would find her mentor to be such a kindred spirit, and that she would find she and her mentor to be very alike and have much in common. She said that had all proven to be so true. Knowing how much I admire her, it was a touching compliment.

So, it had been a successful day on the water, after all!

And, because we earned it, because she was on vacation, and because I was just trying to be a good mentor, we headed straight to South Congress and ordered burgers at Hopdoddy’s. No trip to Texas would be complete without a loaded burger.

Burgers are a universal language.

Info to file away for later: How to Do Lady Bird Lake

  • Parking: Austin High School
  • Kayak rental: Texas Rowing Center
  • Cubbies available with fee
  • Must see: Barton Creek
  • Cost: around $20, depending on rental

Austin’s Best Porch: Jacoby’s

jacobys, austin best restaurants

I don’t know about you, but this is one way I like to enjoy the outdoors:

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Cold beverage in hand, on a shady porch somewhere near a fan.

A few Saturdays ago, Brandon and I finally got around to trying the famous Jacoby’s restaurant in Austin.  This restaurant is all I’ve heard about for months now. Everyone has told me the same thing: Jacoby’s is the best restaurant in Austin, and the chicken fried steak is incredible.

Jacoby's, Whitney and Brandon Klenzendorf

Did someone say chicken fried steak?

If there is one thing Brandon likes in this world, it is chicken fried steak. All other food is ranked in his mind by how it compares to chicken fried steak.

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With a thick crispy batter, salty seasoning, and tender beef, Jacoby’s chicken fried steak kicked my own homemeade version to the curb.

My favorite part of Jacoby’s is the lawn overlooking the Colorado river behind the restaurant.  It was a beautiful and shady place to watch the sunset.

Jacoby’s is on the far east end of town, beyond the end of the lake, where the river continues on beyond Lady Bird Lake.

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Ducks were wading around the edges of the water and swallows were zooming in all different directions.

It was all set to the chorus of grasshoppers and crickets in the trees. It wouldn’t be Spring in Texas without that!

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Also out on this lawn is an herb garden and chicken coop, where they grow some of the seasonings for the menu.

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The food and the view make this place live up to its reputation. I highly recommend it!

 

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The Trail to Do in the US Virgin Islands

In honor of our first anniversary on Sunday, I’m posting some special features on our honeymoon to St. John, US Virgin Islands.

Situated on the edge of the US Virgin Islands National Park, Caneel Bay Resort has the most pristine beaches I’ve ever seen. In daylight, they were the ultimate in peace and quiet, with nothing but the sound of waves returning to the shore. At night, they were front row seats to the starriest skies I’d ever seen.

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Naturally, we spent most of our vacation on the beach. When we weren’t looking out at the ocean, we’d look up to the high points of the island, Margaret Hill and Caneel Hill, which towered over us at 700+ feet.

I felt as if they were beckoning us to hike them.

Don’t you want to see what the view is like from up here? Don’t you need some exercise after the amount you ate at the breakfast buffet this morning? they seemed to be saying to me.

Yes, but I’m really comfortable right now. And I’m on vacation, so calories don’t count.

At some point, the first voice won out, and Brandon and I set off to tackle St. John’s hills.

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It was an unusual feeling to leave the openness of the beach and head down the narrow trail through the woods.

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The woods themselves consisted of thousands of skinny trees, each no more than an inch or two in diameter. The floor was covered in fallen leaves, and occasionally a palm tree, succulent, or fern would break up the monotony.

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I had expected a little more in the way of tropical plants, and was surprised to find that based on scenery alone, at that very moment, I could be in Appalachia, the Ozarks, or East Texas.

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It was plain old forest, and it seemed to go on forever.

I felt as the author Bill Bryson did when he wrote, “There is no point in hurrying because you are not actually going anywhere. However far or long you plod, you are always in the same place: in the woods.”

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But as the trail wound upwards, the monotony waned as we were treated to stunning views of the surrounding waters. Blue of the most brilliant shade glowed through the spaces between branches and palm fronds.

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Nothing is as brilliant of a blue as the ocean, am I right?

High up on the hill, we spotted a speck of red on the forest floor—easy to spot in the sea of greens and browns. I knelt down to find a little hermit crab making his way along the trail.

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Views of the ocean continued to greet us as we rose higher and higher. There were a few points where I thought the air was getting thin and that my beloved breakfast buffet was going to make a second appearance, but I was able to press on.

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Once we reached the summit of Margaret Hill, the toil and trouble was worth it.

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The view was spectacular. 36o degrees of the Caribbean Sea and its islands. A camera can’t capture the feeling of standing on that point.

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There’s Caneel Bay resort down there.

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The bay on the right side is Hawksnest Bay, where we swam with the sea turtles. The bay farthest from where I’m standing is Turtle bay, and the one on the left is Caneel Bay.

We made it!

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From the top of Margaret Hill, the trail led us across a forested ridge to Caneel Hill, and back down to the road connecting to the resort.

By the time we made it home, we were so hungry and pooped that all we wanted to do was order a cheeseburger at the café and look up at the “mountains” and say, We did that.

And that is exactly what we did. Lest all of those calories I just burned go to waste!