Sunday, November 27, 2005

Vacationing in the Land of Puffy Coats

Note: The post "Into the Borderlands Part 2" follows this post even though this post is older.

Sorry I haven't continued the story of hunting
ghosttowns but we are currently on vacation up in
Minnesota. No broadband. :-(

The day after we got here four inches of snow fell.
It's cold, only in the 20'sF and everyone here is
wearing big, puffy coats. They look like very warm

We are wearing several layers of Texas clothing, but
it's not really working. Staying inside helps, but I'm
getting some serious cabin fever. I can only stay
inside for so long before I have to go for a walk in
the woods behind my parents house. It's a nice woods,
but much smaller than in used to be.

Miniwether got to go sleding. She thought it was great
fun up until she ran into the fencepost. She ended up
with a big lump on her head.

It's raining out right now and then it's supposed to
turn to ice tonight. We'll probably be stuck inside
for the next few days. Most likely while everyone else
will be inside playing cards and drinking hot
chocolate I'll be wandering back in the woods. I
brought my camping stove with me so I can make my own
hot chocolate out amongst the silent trees.

Adventure! Excitment! Snow!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Into the Borderlands, Part 2

Wherein Merriwether tells of the do-it-yourself cemetery, a search for a grist mill, another abandoned farmhouse, and the ashes of Magnola.

Down the road from Steward's Mill general store one finds the Steward Mill cemetery. Apparently people have been using this burial ground without proper authorization and so the cemetery owners have posted a sign to the right of the gate requesting people call before they dig.

The actual grist mill Steward's Mill formed around was supposed to be along the creek next to this cemetery. We followed the stream for quite some distance but could find no remains of the mill. A couple of spots along the creek looked promising but time had done a thorough job of wiping away man's work. I was hoping to see a millstone again. Once while snorkling in the Poestenkill Gorge in Troy, New York I found a large mill stone. As I poked at it a large eel swam out from under it and scared me half to death. According to my friends I shot straight up out of the water yelling "Eel! Eel!". There were no signs of eels (or copperheads) here.

Dissappointed we headed off down more Texas backroads in Jade Hawk. Less than a mile down the road we spotted another abandoned farm house.
We poked around and took some pictures. The floor looked pretty rotten so we didn't enter it.

It was time to try and find Magnolia, Texas. This town had been a shipping port along the Trinity River in the mid-1800's. Later it became a iron-mining town, then it just rusted away. There's a new town in Texas called Magnolia, but it's not the same place.

Clark had deduced Magnolia's location from assorted old maps and documents and had loaded this info into his GPS unit. We parked at an old slave's cemetery and headed into the woods. We followed a small stream to the Trinity River while keeping sharp eyes out for any foundations, odd clearings, old garbage, or out-of-place plants.

We found a few unnatural mounds and holes on our trek to the Trinity River, but we couldn't confirm that they were of Magnolian-origin. We searched the woods for quite a while, then focus on the bank of the Trinity River. It was an absolutely perfect day along a beautiful river.

We did spot an odd pile of rocks sticking out into the river. Could it be a jetty for loading/unloading the river boats making their way up to Dallas? It did not look like a natural structure with the straight edges and squared-off pond.

Using this 'jetty" as a a starting point, Clark and I headed back into the woods. This time we were somewhat more lucky. We came across a large area with much smaller trees than the surrounding forest. More interestingly (if you are an adventurer) were the scattered piles of ashes we found still scarring the forest floor. At fairly regular 40' intervals we'd find a pile of old ashes and cinder.

Some more pokings uncovered a few old bottles and even a square-hewn log. At this point Clark and I agreed we had quite likely found the remains of Magnolia, Texas and it was nothing but some ashes.

There's probably a lesson in there somewhere.

At that point we decided to return to the river. We made another interesting discovery there, thousands of fossils! The river was quite low and a layer of rock was exposed that was filled with fossilized shells. I'm not sure of the type or period from which they came.

Probably another lesson could be gained from the fossils. In some ways, this trip turned out to have a much greater effect on us than we originally expected. When we first set out we were just two guys looking to get away from civilization for a day. Eating lunch on the edge of a town dead for 50-70 years overlooking the remains of creatures dead 35-75 million years has a way of making your PBJ sandwich taste kind of funny. Abandoned farms, lost towns, ancient clams...what a wonderful trip.

After several hours we finally left the Trinity River and it's ghosts. Clark's gps unit lead up back to the slave's cemetery where we had parked. We wandered aimlessly around there a bit more reading gravestones from before the Civil War. Neither of us were quite ready to return to our lives in the air-conditioned, electronically enhanced, perfectly manicured suburbs. A dirt road beckoned and we answered with a flick of the wheel and a cloud of dust.

What the dust had once been I do not know...

Adventure! Excitement! Exploration!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Into the Borderlands, Part 1

Wherein Merriwether begins the tale of his and Clark's adventure in the borderlands and how they went looking for was lost.

Magnolia, Steward's Mill, Larissa, and many others. These are the ghost towns of Texas.

Borderlands are usually defined by space. But they can also be defined by time, especially in a place like Texas. Places that once thrived have passed on, fading away over time. In most cases nothing is left but some ramshackle buildings and a name on an outdated map. Sometimes even the buildings are gone, yet the land contains signs of what was once there. You just need to know what to look for, then suddenly a ghost town springs up around you, appearing like a shadow from a passing cloud.

We were off to spend the day exploring these borderlands created by time, by entropy, by abandonment rather than by physical boundries. Earlier searches on the web turned up many lost towns. Some still had a building or two left standing to mark their location, others existed only as a name in an old record book, their exact locations no longer known. Clark had scoured the web digging up information on several towns, even downloading satellite photos of likely spots.

The adventure started as most do, 6am in front of Clark's house.
My RAV4 (aka Jade Hawk) was loaded up with rope, flashlights, GPS, first aid kit, cameras, maps and photos to explore any abandoned buildings/towns we might find. We left our comfey little suburb and headed north into the misty, pre-dawn darkness.

Forty-five minutes later I turned on to Highway 75, a road all but forgotten by the citizens of Texas. This highway is the Texas equivalent of US Route 66. It was the main path north-south across Texas before Interstates 35 and 45 appeared. Now it's a ghost road.

The borderlands are the areas where civilization fades away to meet...something else. The "something else" is usually either a complete wilderness or the ragged edge of another civilization. Complete wildernesses are awe-inspiring, humbling, harsh and stunning. Borderlands are weird and dangerous, sometimes foul. Both are beautiful.

The sun had just risen as we spotted our first carcass.

When I-45 appeared Hwy 75 faded, dooming many businesses with its passing. This gas station looked to have been abandoned years ago. Outside and inside were trashed and torn. It was a borderland. It is a place where rules fade and outcasts, adventurers, and criminals gather.
It was beautiful. It was the first of many forsaken buildings we explored that day.

A few miles further down the road we came across what was once a huge, rambling farmhouse. Now it is decayed, empty, even its ghosts have passed away.

More desolate miles, more deserted building, no other people. We headed farther north, farther east in to the Piney Woods region of Texas. The town of Steward's Mill had began in 1850 and had lasted one hundred years. Now all that was left was its general store and a cemetary. According to the records, they had a thriving grist mill along a creek on the edge of town. We easily found the store.

It is now a place of Historical Significance, and so nothing could be removed from the site. The front door was locked but through the windows we could see scales, and shelves stocked with old tools and cans. A display case held an inkwell and what looked like some schoolbooks. Harnesses and buckets hung from the rafters.

Through another window was a room empty but for a biscut display case and a double-headed axe.

This store stands along near a crossroads. It was only about 9am on a Sunday morning. There was no one around. Stairs lead down to the store's open basement door. We went down, we went in.
The basement had many doors but even with our big flashlights we couldn't bring ourselves to explore farther. Some things need not be, well, disturbed.

Here fades Part 1.

Adventure! Excitement! Entropy!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Into the Borderlands

In this world of change naught which comes stays and naught which goes is lost.

It was time to return to the borderlands.

This life had gotten cushy, soft, empty. Here the roads are paved and all is convience.

I was forgetting. I was forgetting the borderlands.

I was forgetting the edge, the fallen, the lost.

It was time to remember.

It was time to go back.


I will tell you what happened...

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Let's do the time warp again...

Reader of this blog may have noticed two reoccurring themes to my adventures: poking things with sticks and eating. Well, this weekend we combined these two favorite pasttimes with a grand adventure back to the 16th century.

Ah, the 1500's. The Dark Ages had ended, swords could still be worn in public, the idea of "bathing" was just catching on, and being smart no longer resulted in a bonfire death at the hands of superstitous peasants. Better yet, all the food of that period was offered on sticks! Ah, the hedonistic, 16th century pleasures of poking and eating. It just doesn't get any better than that. Chicken on a stick! Corn on a stick! Pickles on a pole! Pineapples on a pike! Bratwurst on a branch! Ice cream on a bar! Steak on a stake!

At least, that's how the 16th century is portrayed at The Texas Renaissance Festival. This is one of my most favorite things to do every year. I've been a Faire-goer for twenty years now, starting back with the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.

We drove up to the Faire campgrounds on Friday night and set up the tent in the dark. The night was cool and the moon set early to reveal a sky filled with undiminished stars. It was a bit of a struggle to get Miniwether to sleep as she loves tents and was really excited. She eventually fell asleep, followed quickly by Misseswether. Unfortunately I did not follow them into that peaceful good-night. The family-friendly camping area is rather near a very busy set of train tracks and just when I'd start to drift off a train whistle peirced my head. Oh well.

Morning came foggy and smelling of bacon, campfires, and pine. An excellent way to start a day! We packed up the tent, got dressed (which, in retrospect, perhaps these two things should have been done in the opposite order), and munched on fruit and muffins. Five minutes later we were standing by the front gate waiting for it to open.

Oh what a beautiful place! Ribbons! Musicians! Dancing! Statues! Swords! Chainmail bikinis! A whole fantasy world tucked just one hour and five hundred years away from Houston. We wandered the shops, listened to the musicians, watched the performers and the joust, oogled the costumes, admired the shiney-pointy things, and generally had the usual wonderful time. This was Miniwether's third Ren Fest and she was all over it. From flirting with Spanish knights to riding the elephant, she wanted to do everything, see everything, and taste everything (which caused some problems in the petting zoo).

The day ended all to soon. By four-thirty Miniwether had fallen asleep in my arms, though she was wide awake a little after five to partake in a wonderful ice cream treat while mutely staring at a flame juggler. The dark rose up quickly after that and the royal fireworks signaled the end of the day. After that it was a short walk back to the Honda (benefit of getting there early!) followed by a long, long wait as 30,000+ people tried to exit down the single country road leading back to Houston. We learned after our first year to avoid this gridlock by partying in the parking lot. This year we tossed "Cinderella" into the portable DVD player and watched Miniwether continue to glow with delight as she was entertained by the antics of that fairhaired lady and her mouse friends.

The movie ended as the last taillights disappeared down the road. With a wave to the other smart tailgating partiers, we headed off for home. It was a very, very good day.

And now the pictures:

Miniwether on patrol!

At the gate. Yes, it is a very big hat.

Starting it of with dancing gypsies.

Their Highnesses.

A very, very big hat.

Miniwether and Misseswether loved riding the elephant!

Riding the Centuar wasn't quite as wonderful...

Ah, riding a frog. much better!

Miniwether wins the heart of a Spanish knight, but there was still a horse-issue...

Apparently in the 16th century launching oneself into the air with a bunch of rubber bands was commonplace.

Holy crap this hurts the crotch.

The traditional family shot.

Did we mention that Miniwether is very, very smart? Misseswether still beat her two out of three games though... :-)


Adventure! Excitement! Food poked with sticks!