This blog was originally created to showcase my photography. That kinda stopped happening. Shooting (guns and images) is still my passion, but I'm a writer at heart, so that seems to dominate, regardless of what I try to do.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

It's All About the Aggie Gold

Since my last post, school started. I'm lucky in that, for my last semester, I only have three classes. Granted, two of them have labs as well, but it's still less work than it could have been.

Despite that fact, the only thing I really wanted to get to before graduation was my Ring Day. For those of y'all who have no clue about Aggie traditions, here's a little info for you.

The Association of Former Students has this to say about the Ring itself:

"The Aggie Ring is the most visible symbol of the Aggie Network that connects Aggies around the world. Dating back over a hundred years, it is a tradition that is deep in symbolism. Every symbol represents values every Aggie should hold; our six Core Values: Excellence, Integrity, Leadership, Loyalty, Respect and Selfless Service. Those who have earned the right to wear the Aggie Ring have cleared some of the toughest requirements in the country for a class ring, thus making it one of the most treasured items and Aggie possesses."

"Design of the class ring at A&M is as deep in symbolism as it is in tradition. The shield on the top of the ring symbolizes protection of the good reputation of the alma mater. The 13 stripes in the shield refer to the 13 original states and symbolize the intense patriotism of graduates and undergraduates of A&M. The five stars in the shield refer to phases of development of the student: mind or intellect, body, spiritual attainment, emotional poise, and integrity of character. The eagle is symbolic of agility and power, and ability to reach great heights.

One side of the ring symbolizes the seal of the State of Texas authorized by the constitution of 1845. The five-pointed star is encircled with a wreath of olive or laurel leaves symbolizing achievement and a desire for peace. The Live oak leaves symbolize the strength to fight. They are joined at the bottom by a circled ribbon to show the necessity of joining these two traits to accomplish ones's ambition to serve.

The other side with its ancient cannon, saber, and rifle, symbolizes that Texans fought for their land and are determined to defend their homeland. The saber stands for valor and confidence. The rifle and cannon are symbols of preparedness and defense. The crossed flags of the United States and Texas recognize the dual allegiance to nation and state."

For an Aggie, this Ring means the world. I've waited to earn mine since I was in the third grade. I've worked towards this my entire life. Despite the other paths my life took me before I was able to get here, I had always aspired to make it happen eventually, and I did. 
The first part of the tradition of earning and receiving your Aggie Ring is that it is presented to you by someone of great significance, usually your parents. Although both my parents were supposed to put it on me at the same time, my mother was too busy taking pictures and let my father do it. Unfortunately, most of the pictures show my face all crumpled up because I was pretty much crying the whole time.

The second part is that you put it on with the graduation year facing you. This is to symbolize that you are not yet ready to present yourself to the world as a Former Student. Upon graduation, you turn the Ring around so the year faces out, symbolizing that you are now a Former Student and ready for the world ahead.

The unofficial part of receiving your Ring is the subsequent Ring Dunk tradition. It's one of less style and grace, yet just as much a part of Aggie tradition as the Ring itself. After Ring Day, people get together and have Dunk parties (since the bars in town have now been banned from allowing this to happen there), where the new Ring gets dropped into a pitcher of beer and the student chugs it as fast as they can, catching the Ring in their teeth at the end. 

Yes, it's silly to some. To Aggies, it's a must. As time has gone on, some have decided to Dunk in something other than beer, sometimes non-alcoholic due to personal reasons or age, or because they hate beer. I chose to Dunk mine in Michelob Ultra because I really don't like beer and it's low in calories. Joe Dunked with me since he never did his when he got it, and he decided to do Jack and Mountain Dew. Well, whatever. I wasn't about to do mine in Crown and Diet Coke, which is my drink of choice.
There's an art to prepping the pitcher, as well. Maybe some call it cheating but, if you've ever tried to chug fizzy, cold beer, you can imagine it's probably not doable with a full pitcher, even if the Old Ags managed to it way back when. I guess we've become wimps. But I also really hate vomiting, and that's exactly what would have happened had I not used the new method.

Pour the beer a day or two before. You pour it back and forth between two pitchers to get most of the carbonation out. You let it sit out. By the time you're ready to Dunk, the carbonation is gone and it's room temperature, which keeps your throat from constricting.

Joe beat me in time by a long shot. It took me almost two minutes to do mine. I kept having to stop to breathe! I was too busy trying to get mine finished to look at him and see what he was doing, and I may have dribbled quite a bit, but I did it, I caught the Ring, and I felt accomplished. It was a rite of passage and I passed the test.

Although my parents decided to pass on staying for the Dunk, Joe and I had a small group of friends who came over and enjoyed the evening with us. We ate a little, drank a little, and laughed a lot. Everyone was responsible and nobody was on their phones. It was great. It meant a lot to me that they chose to spend their evening with us. Some came and went to other Dunk parties, but they all ended up back at my place to watch us.

Even now, it's hard for me to believe I finally got my Ring. Every time I feel the carvings on the side, every time I look down and see it, it's a shock. It's a wonderful, fulfilling feeling of shock.

However, while it may have taken me years and years to get here, the journey is not yet over. I have one semester left and then I go through the other ceremony that all of this was for. I applied for graduation last week, I have my gown and my sash, but I still need to get my cap. I'm scared to death to walk across that stage because that means that my career as an Aggie Student is officially over. This has been the best time of my life and I'm going to be very sad for it to end. I'm optimistic about the future, but nothing will ever compare to the years I've spent at this school, the pride I've felt for being an Aggie, and the hope that, if my grandfather were still around, he would be proud of me for following in his footsteps. To imagine his smiling down on me as I'm receiving my diploma...well...that's the real motivation and the consolation I have in knowing my years as a student at this magnificent university will come to an end.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A Few from Big Bend

We had a really great time at Big Bend and, as you're aware, I took an absolute ridiculously large amount of pictures. I finally went through them all and have a few I'd like to post.

My mother suggested I start a scrapbook with them all and include information about what we visited and its meaning to us, so that's what I did. I've gotten 10 pages or so done, and I'm only through the first day.

So here are a few of the ones I chose:

We drove through Fort Stockton and no visit is complete without a pic of Paisano Pete
I had a trackable that I picked up and its mission was to go to New Mexico. I dropped it in this geocache in Marathon.

Made it to the park!

It was a little misty when we arrived but stopped quickly. This is a picture of Casa Grande - the mountain behind the lodge - from The Window Trail

The famous view of The Window. I especially like this one because you can see the depth of the image due to the clouds between the mountains behind The Window.

An Aggie can't travel in Texas without taking Miss Reveille on the journey. These types of images are shared on social media - especially Instagram - with its own hashtag for other Aggies to follow.

I liked this one because it shows that, even in the Chihuahuan Desert, there is a whole other world tucked between water-retaining rocks, such as these. Ferns and moss can be found in many shady places if you just observe the world around you.

Although we did much more that first day, this was my end-of-the-day treat: a prickly pear margarita. Truthfully, it wasn't as good as I expected and was way more sugary than I'd hoped. Not a fan of super-sweet cocktails. But it was an experience.

So, those are just a few of the pics from the first day of our journey. I have 600+ photos, but I swear I won't be posting them all. In fact, I may just end up uploading the pages from my scrapbook instead, which would be much more efficient, I think. Maybe a little harder to scrutinize because of the multiple pictures per page, but still fun to look at, I think.

If you have something to say about these, leave a comment. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Stars at Night Are Big and Bright....

Deep in the heart of Big Bend...

Unfortunately, the "Heart of Texas" has become overrun with assholes from California and has built up so much that light pollution has reduced any chance of seeing those gorgeous stars.

Big Bend National Park, however, is free of virtually all light pollution except for right around some of the lodge parking lots and cottages. Even so, I was able to do some night photography and actually ended up with some pretty cool photos of a shooting star (or satellite, depending on who you ask) and the Milky Way.

I have to pat myself on the back a little bit, here, because I didn't set up my camera prior to attempting to photograph anything, and I ended up having to use a GoPro camera as a prop to keep my lens pointed upwards. I even forgot to remove my camera strap. And these images haven't been through any post-processing as of yet.

As you can see, there is quite a bit of noise in them. Unfortunately, I have a 10+ year old Olympus 10-megapixel Evolt E-510, and the archaic settings don't allow for much control over ISO or f/stop or anything else that requires high levels of adjustment to achieve professional results. In addition, my Zeiss lenses have taken a ridiculous beating, including 10 years in the heat of South Texas and caliche dust. But, I'm taking a lot of the blame too because, like I said, I failed to set up my camera prior to any attempts at taking pics. I did plenty of research beforehand to see what I should really be doing with the camera to get the best pictures, but my camera simply does not have that range of settings. So...you work with what you have.

And this is what I have.

I did end up with some fantastic, high quality photographs of other things, like lizards, millipedes, a jack rabbit, and some other things but I think it was just a fluke. To be honest, my phone takes better pics than this old DSLR. And the cool thing about my Samsung Note5 is that I CAN manually adjust ISO and white balance and all that good stuff. I ended up getting some pretty impressive photos with my phone instead, and a few botched photos with my camera that made me wish I'd used my phone instead.

Well, sorry to underwhelm. I have a lot more photos I can post, but this is all I really have time to talk about right now.

In the meantime, I'm looking forward to seeing the height of the Perseid meteor shower and maybe I can get some long-exposure pics of that, although I've been told they're about one a minute, so I'd probably have to leave the shutter open for longer than the camera can clearly process without a ton of blue and red pixels littering the image.

I wanted to pepper this entire post with creative, meaningful banter but, it seems, after a couple of years of writing nothing but scientific papers, much of my creative writing talent has withered. I feel like I have so much to say but, at the same time, it feels as if I'm trying to wade through mud to get it out.

Good news for you, though. You're my guinea pigs for new posts. Yay!

Thursday, August 3, 2017

I've Resorted to Scrapbooking

We returned from Big Bend a couple of weeks ago and I've been itching to get through all the pics I took. I've had the time but, with over 900 pictures between the two of us, it seemed like a daunting task. Plus, I wanted to make sure they're on both the computer and hard drive, because I've lost photos before and it's heartbreaking - especially when it's something you can never get back.

But I persevered and got through them. I've decided a couple of things: 1) I need a new DSLR with newer technology, better lenses, and a higher megapixel rating and, 2) Sometimes I get lucky with that old thing and manage to get some pretty decent photos after all.

Now, I could have just gone the regular route and picked out a whole bunch of the good ones and stuck them in a photo album, hopefully one with the little memo paper next to the picture, but I figured that would be a little boring and not much fun to go back through.

My mother started making scrapbooks for each of the little trips she and my dad go on together, so I decided to do the same thing. Joe and I went to Hobby Lobby and picked out a bunch of supplies to get started. I'm not sure what all I need to really make it look great, though. I've done one-page scrapbook pages for shadowboxes, but never a whole book.

I was a little disappointed in the choice of travel stickers there. Almost all of them were dedicated to flying - not road trips - and the ones they had were more international, PacNW mountains, or beachy things. None of which apply here.

So...I guess I'll be looking online as well, but I was really hoping I could keep this pretty simple but still make it eye-catching.

I've gotten the first 6 pages planned out, but I'm assuming it still might need some tweaking, depending on how the layout and embellishments and stickers go.

Either way, I'm pretty excited to see this come together. Unfortunately, it's one of 3 artsy projects I've got going on right now, and I'm running out of time to get them done. Summer's almost over and then I'll be bombarded with school work and mania. One solution, I suppose, is to set aside, say, one hour a day to work on a page or something related to the other projects. Maybe that will work.

I'm going to pick up my first round of photos today and we'll see how they work with the huge stack of background papers I got, and the layouts I have in mind. I'm trying to leave room to write a little bit about each site or moment captured, so we'll see how that goes.

Once I get some pages done, I'll post some. Feedback is kinda pointless, really, since everything will be glue-dotted on and relatively permanent at that point.

I guess it doesn't matter. As long as I have a good time doing it and it actually reflects what we did, that's what's important, right?

Monday, July 24, 2017

Attempted Recovery of Wood from Location 3

Joe and I went to Location 3 yesterday to attempt to recover some of the petrified wood we found. After a lot of brainstorming, we decided the best way to try would be to use a come-along and some tow straps. Of course, that would just help us get it up the bank. Getting it into and back out of the truck was a different struggle for which we hadn't yet devised a solution.

After looking at the mammoth task of recovering one large log, I decided to look around and see if maybe we could find something smaller to satisfy our hunting urges in case the recovery was a bust.

I walked the same bank I'd walked a month before, and found something that had been uncovered since then. It ended up being a nice chunk with lots of big areas of opal inclusions. They were on every side, but this one had the best color. Hard to tell from the photo, but it's very rainbow-y.

In my wandering, I also found a neat little piece with two branch nodules sticking out. It's covered with a bit of algae, so it's going to need some cleaning, but the shape is really neat and the color is pretty rich. It's going to look wonderful once it's all fixed up.

After I found that, I came back and Joe was still surveying the log. At that point, I noticed another piece of wood sticking out just at the water line, and started digging by hand, wrecking my nails. Oh well. That's the price you pay.

I kept digging. And digging. And digging. And using big splashes of water to remove bank mud and wash sediment downstream. And kept digging. What started out as a 4" piece of wood peeking out from the sandy bank ended up being this:

My size 6 1/2 boot on a piece not yet fully uncovered

We wrapped that one with a tow strap, hooked it to the come-along, and wrapped another tow strap around a fallen tree on the opposite bank. Sad to say, no matter where we wrapped the strap, there never seemed to be the right amount to use the come-along properly. Even as we were stretching everything tight, this huge thing wasn't moving even a little. It was at that point we realized more digging was necessary and we hadn't even thought about how to move it closer to the point where it would go up the bank near our entrance point. So, with that large disappointment, we moved on to the log we originally came to retrieve.

Again, my size 6 1/2 boot on the log

With this one, we made quite a bit of headway in the beginning. We got it to an area where we could pull it up on the bank but then we got stuck. It was at that point that we realized we were going to have to wrap a tow strap around an I-beam of a bridge, but it was completely encased in hard mud and roots. We worked on chipping away at it for awhile, but to no avail.

Tow straps in place before moving the log

There is one log specimen that's been completely uncovered and we know we can move it. There's that big light grey chunk and we still don't know exactly how big it is and we haven't been able to move it. Then there's the third log we still haven't had the chance to completely uncover and it looks significantly larger than the first two. That's going to be a job in itself just to unearth it. We got it partially done one day, then it rained and was covered up with sediment again, so that's what happened with that one.

Unfortunately, on this day, we had to admit defeat. We simply didn't have the means to do what we'd set out to accomplish. This is due in part to a lack of sufficient anchoring points, a treacherously steep and soft, sandy bank, and exhaustion from heat, sun, and physical exertion. 

One challenge we are facing, also, is that every time we make a trip up or down the bank, a little bit more sand is displaced. I fear that if we have to keep making treks, it's going to be impossible to get down there at all. Basically, this means we have to find a way to be successful on our next trip. We're running out of summer and running out of ideas. We've considered enlisting the help of two very strong friends to see what they can do to help us out. It may mean just wrapping the pieces with the tow straps and tugging it all the way up, probably with the help of a come-along in some spots. We have a couple of other ideas as well.

My father suggested we just abandon the mission. He suggested that we were going to hurt ourselves trying to do it and it just isn't worth the physical injury. He's right on that point. However, if the pyramids could be built, Stonehenge assembled, and the Easter Island heads erected, there has to be a way for us to do this, even if we have to use some sort of ancient technology.

I'm not willing to give up just yet. There's also a part of me that thinks we should contact the local museum, who has the means to extract these gigantic specimens for their displays. I don't know if they will; it may be too much of a hassle for them, they may not think it's important enough, or who knows what other reasons they might have for not having an interest. 

Some of y'all, I'm sure, are wondering why we're putting so much effort into something like this. Maybe you're wondering why we can't just leave well enough alone and leave them in their natural environment. I guess those are valid questions. It just seems like a huge shame to have amazing specimens remain in a location where they can't be appreciated. There were a variety of trees in the area during that time period, and having some scientists examine them and maybe learn something from them can never be a bad thing. If nothing else, being in a museum could give lots of people enjoyment and give them insight into our area's prehistoric history. Plus, they're just super-cool to look at.

So, no, we're not giving up yet, but we're certainly going to have to bring our best game if we expect to be successful. This last trip can't completely be called a failure, because we learned a lot from it. We know we must look at this recovery effort in a different way if we want to get the job done.

Hopefully, in my next update, I'll be showing you photos of what the pieces look like after they've been extracted from the waterway and in the back of the pickup.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Lake Waco Research Shale Pit

The other day, Joe and I took a trip to Waco and went to the Lake Waco Research Shale Pit, which is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. While it is wide open, you have to obtain a permit to enter the property (the office is literally just around the corner from the site), just in case anybody reads this and decides they want to go. If so, keep in mind that no digging is permitted; it's surface-collection only. The Rockhound Times says you can find "Plentiful ammonites and small snails, as well as the occasional shark's tooth, fish vertebrae, starfish, and echinoids."

It was probably close to 3 when we got there and, although there are no posted times, we figured it was smart to leave around 5 when the office closed. Plus, it was unreasonably hot, no breeze to speak of, and the shade was only available in areas where there appeared to be no fossils. We both wanted to stay and walk further around the pit, but there was just no way. As it turns out, I drank almost all of the water in my Camelbak when I checked later. I didn't even drink that much on our 2-hour hikes in Big Bend in the heat of July.

Within a few minutes, close to the entrance, I found a small ammonite and a shark tooth which, I've been told, is pretty rare. It was just *sitting* there!

More searching turned up another ammonite, a nautiloid, a handful of nearly-microscopic bivalves, a few spiny gastropods, a neat piece of matrix, a piece of coral, and something that I have yet to identify.

Even the people on the fossil forums aren't quite sure what it is. I thought it was an urchin at first but it's missing some of the key markers of an echinoderm. Someone suggested a Glyptodon scute. For those who don't know - as I didn't, until a few hours ago - a Glyptodon was a large, armadillo-looking creature about the size of a VW Beetle. They were covered in scaly bone things called scutes. A quick Google image search turned up pics that look pretty similar to what I found, but I'm still not convinced. There are some differences. This pit seems to be from the Cretaceous, but Glyptodons are from the Pleistocene. But, this thing is about 4" in diameter, which is bigger than 99% of the other specimens found out there and there are sections on a Glyptodon that area that size. So I still don't know.

Anyway, it was a fun day. I didn't even get sunburned!

Some of the better finds from our Waco trip, including the unidentified piece

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Petrified Wood Adventures

Besides being a quaint place to live, my town has a lot of petrified wood in its waterway banks. Since I've been here, this has been what some might call an obsession of mine, hunting for logs and any unusual pieces I can find.

When I was growing up in Southeast Texas near a river, I used to find small, tumbled chunks of petrified wood. I knew there had to be larger pieces in the banks, especially upstream, but had no way to find them as all of the area is surrounded by private property and steep, dangerously sandy mud banks.

When I moved up here, I remembered those pieces of small wood and decided to start looking here because I'm on the upper end of that river.

Rockhunters are, by nature, very secretive about their locations. It's understandable, but frustrating when all you want to do is go out and have a good time.

I can't remember where, but I heard about Location 1, and decided I had to find out where I could go to hunt. I scoured Google Earth, looking for any bridges crossing over and writing down GPS coordinates to each. My first adventure to the Location 1 proved to be an amazing area. I found *so* many large chunks of wood, many with inclusions of chalcedony or agate. Everything was fine until I got run off by some construction workers on the bank who claimed I was trespassing.

First set of finds from Location 1, skateboard for scale

I went home and looked up the Texas laws regarding navigable waterways and realized they can't do anything about my being there, so long as I enter the waterway from a public area. So there!

The second time I went back, I was able to find a 4' long log with a really neat limb knot. Unfortunately, it had been on the bank quite a while and was pretty bleached and dried, so it split when picked up. But it's still a gigantic, unique find. I also ran across a root ball, probably 3' in diameter, and I'm still trying to devise a way to get that out of the waterway before the area is developed which, considering the way this town is growing, could be any day now.

Log from second visit to Location 1 and the section of rootball

So then I got the idea that I needed to just start looking for other waterways in the area that had easily-accessible banks, and surely I'd find something. I went as far as to get on the Web Soil Survey site to check different outcrops and time periods and elevations, learning what type of substrate I was looking for to find exactly the type of fossils and wood I wanted. It was quite educational.

That's how I ended up at Location 2. Not only did I find veins of quartz (or maybe calcite - jury's still out on that) running through the mud bed, but I found a lot of petrified wood that had started decomposing when it was petrified. Very knarled and full of interesting ridges. I found some pics online after I'd gotten home that showed some amazingly large, colorful logs being extracted from the banks, but it was further down the creek than I'd walked. I still haven't gone back due to current extraction projects to be explained next.

Some of the smaller but interesting pieces from Location 2 and a crystal vein

It was at this point that I decided my garage was getting full of pieces and I really needed to be a little bit more selective about what I was choosing to bring home. No sense in taking everything when others can have the fun, too, and there's plenty there for us all. I began collecting only pieces that had mineral inclusions or visible rings, or some that had interesting, twisty vine shapes.

Not every excursion was successful. I have definitely scouted more empty waterways than I have ones with wood. Even when I didn't find anything, it was an adventure and I had a good time.

In fact, I went to a river that has been touted as *the* place to find not only pristine wood specimens, but arrowheads and other archaeological artifacts. I found close to half a dozen places to access the river and, every single time, I struck out. My guess is that all these people who have found magnificent pieces have access to private land or something, because all I found was sand and mud.

I went to a local museum and they had some pieces on display and they mentioned that they'd been found in Location 3. There are lots of places to access Location 3, so I did my research on Google again and found two very promising spots. One of them became more fruitful than I ever imagined.

Besides finding lots of newly-uncovered short chunks of trunk, I ended up finding two gigantic logs, one of which I'm still trying to unearth. A bit of online research showed that Location 3 is widely-known and many people go there - in fact, my first trip, I found a shovel someone had left behind - and I'm guessing others had found those logs with absolutely no way to extract them.

Two of the large logs from Location 3

I've made two additional trips to Location 3 and brought back some wonderfully-colored specimens that I had to actually dig out of the bank, rather than bleached ones that were just lying out in the sun.

I've contacted some other pet wood hunters from other areas and have brainstormed with them several ways to get the wood up the bank and into the back of the pickup. I have two strategies that I'm pretty sure will work, even with only 2 people. Now it's just a matter of finding the time to plan it out and execute it.

Today, my garage is full of large specimens and my flowerbed is lined with some of the lesser-quality ones. Many of them are almost too heavy for me to lift, and I dread the day when I have to move out of this house. One entire trip for moving will be just a truckbed full of nothing but rocks and pet wood.

My second cousin (or something like that, down the family line) has a ranch near Lockhart. He has lots of petrified wood on his place and has gotten into cutting and polishing. He keeps inviting me to bring my wood down there to him so we can cut and polish them, but I'm still unsure as to whether or not I prefer them in their natural state. I think most of them would look quite nice with the ends cut flat and polished up, but I just haven't found the time to go visit.

In the next week or so I'm going to get back down to Location 3 and see what I can do about extracting a log or two. I have a feeling it might be an impossible task, no matter how plausible my tactics may seem from home. The banks at that waterway are ridiculously steep, and nothing but soft sand covered with vines and underbrush. Even when I get it up on the flat land, I still have to get it *into* the truck, and back out when I get home. If I had to guess, I'd say the one piece I've completely unearthed is probably close to 200 pounds. The other...well, I still don't know. I've yet to uncover it all the way and I have no idea of its actual size. The last time I was there, it had rained a week before and all the digging I had done was undone with sediment deposition from the water rise.

I'm having a great time looking, even if I end up leaving a truckload of specimens behind. I feel like, while I want to be the proud new owner of all the pieces I can find, it's not fair. Others deserve to have a part in the fun too and, truthfully, I don't *need* all the pieces I find. I've even considered donating some of the larger ones to the local museum so they can put it in their display.

But, until the time when a decision like that must be made, I will continue hunting and trying to find a way to get those three huge pieces out of the waterway and up into the bed of my truck!