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.


Wednesday, December 20, 2017

All Good Things Must Come to an End

(I completely forgot to write about our last venture to Site 2, but I guess I'll do that later.)

Joe and I went to two of our favorite petrified wood hunting locations today to see what's changed since the last few heavy rains.

A lot has changed.

We went to Site 1 first and, while the erosion wasn't too bad, it had definitely made an impact on accessibility. There was also an issue with the development across the creek, and how they'd just used some kind of heavy equipment to just shear off the bank, doing nothing but promoting erosion of gargantuan proportions. As an ecological restoration major, this kind of shit makes me want to throat punch some developer, and make them pay for remediation. But things like that don't happen. On our side, however, it was just regular old erosion that played a part in the changing bank face. And it wasn't too bad.

The sad thing was that the big root ball we'd been eyeing appears to have, well, disappeared. Whether someone was able to drag it out or the erosion managed to dislodge it is unclear, but I would venture to say that it was way too big to have gone too far downstream - and we walked a long way. Joe said there was all kinds of matted down vegetation and squishy mud around it, so I'm betting someone was actually able to retrieve it, somehow, using methods we've yet to perfect.

But not all was lost. We found some pretty amazing specimens.

The first one was - I'm assuming - part of the root ball that broke off when it was being extracted. The entire side and part of the end and middle is nothing but gemstone material of some sort. Agate, chalcedony, quartz, amber...it's hard to tell; it could be any or a combination of those.

This specimen is full of mineral material

We also found a pretty sizable log that we were able to pick up together and get back to the house.

That's my size 6.5 boot next to it.

The other cool things I found were two pieces of gemstone material - again, no idea what kind, exactly - that was washed up on the bank. It either came out or is all that's left of a piece of wood that was weathered away, destroyed, or just came apart after being thrashed around in the water.

I really like these because it shows how interesting nature can really be.

Before we left, we did end up with about half a bucket-full of wood. We've been super-selective, for all good reason, but we did take a few pieces that either had twig knots, inclusions, or a very interesting pith or overall twisty pattern.

However, when we went to Site 3, things were much, much different.

The two ways down to access the layers of soil containing the wood were completely eroded out. I mean, straight down, no way down. And, even if you could get down, you ain't gettin' back up, and definitely not with any sizable specimen in your arms.

This was a little sad, because if you looked in just the right spot, you could still see one of the giant logs we'd started digging out. Not all of it; the creek was still a little high for that. But it was there. I'm not sure how treacherous the water flow must have been to do such incredible damage, but it must've been one hell of a strong current. Across the bank there was a dump site of sorts; looks like a golf cart graveyard. Most of them had been washed halfway down the bank. All the vegetation that had been lining the sloping banks was gone on both sides and on the middle sandbar. From our vantage point, we could only see that one huge log poking out of the water, and a few small pieces that weren't worth picking up on a slow day, much less now. 

So, it's sad that these three major specimens we've been eyeing for awhile may be stuck there forever - for real, now (i know i've said that before) - but nature has a way of reclaiming everything, one way or the other. Maybe it will be more accessible after things dry out a bit, but we have a tendency to have more rain in the winter (heck, it actually freakin' snowed here last week), so who knows how long it might be before we really get a chance to go back. Even then, we still might not have come up with a good way to try to extract those large pieces. If we couldn't do it when the bank was navigable, there's less of a chance now.

So, I'll have to post the story and pics of the last trip to Site 2. Impressive haul is the only way to put it - and not all of it was wood.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Blowing the Whistle - 3 Years Late

After reading a recent NPR article about a high school in Washington DC, I felt like I finally needed to clear my conscience of some similar things that happened inside the district where I taught for 10 years. Maybe it didn't happen throughout the entire district, but it was definitely part of our school's daily operations. These are the reasons why my morals and ethics dictate I step out of the classroom for good, and these are the facts as I know them.

  • It was all about money.
As a Title I school, our district received money for each child who had their butt in a seat. Our "period of record" was 3rd period, so we essentially received funds for each child who was present during 3rd period. Therefore, it was important for funding reasons that we had children present. That's a simplistic way of putting it, but there you have it.
  • Even the worst behavior was overlooked.
Referencing the above, behavior that should have been regarded as reason for suspension was ignored. Often it was the worst offenders who were given the most leniency, too. If students got in a fight - knock down, drag out, fighting the campus officer, and so forth - they were given a citation, put in ISS for the rest of the day, and came right back to regular classes the next. At one meeting, we were told that students would no longer be arrested for drug possession on campus; they would be issued a citation. "Why put a black mark on a kid's record when they're so young and have time to turn around?" More than once, students had hit teachers, knocked them down on purpose, or other forms of assault. Teachers were basically bullied into not pressing charges and led to believe that they would suffer some form of retaliation if they did. 
  • Policies and disciplinary actions were unfair and biased
As I mentioned above, "frequent flyers" were often coddled, while students with no disciplinary record whatsoever would be punished to the fullest extent allowed in the district handbook. Certain students were allowed to wear hats in class while others were not. District policy said it wasn't allowed. Some students were allowed to have hair dyed in vibrant colors while others were disciplined for it. District policy had nothing against dying of hair in non-natural colors. I'm not going to say that it was a racial issue, but it was. Girls with bright red braided extensions were never spoken to about it, but Caucasian girls who sported blue locks would end up in the office.

That discrepancy wasn't just for students. Teachers were treated with the same favoritism as students. Say a teacher who signs in every day, first thing, without fail forgets one day, they would be called in by the principal. Yet, there were some teachers who flat-out refused to do it and nary a word was ever said. The same thing goes for teachers who were habitually late versus one who might be late one time and calls it in prior to school starting. Basically, it was the same way with anything. Morning duty, hall duty, departmental meetings, you name it. Certain teachers could get away with anything, even to the extreme, while others were disciplined for doing the same thing only on the very rarest of occasions.
  • Some administrators had a power trip and walked the fine line between what was legal and what was not
Without getting too deep into it (and, trust me...I could go in REALLY DEEP on this one), there would be an occasional administrator who believed they were God of the School. They would target a few individuals for reasons unknown. They would harass them, bully them, condescend to them, speak rudely, and basically be as unprofessional as one could be. They would impose rules for them that didn't apply to others. They would micromanage and monitor, using threats of discipline, poor evaluations, or dismissal. They would basically order teachers to do things that were borderline unethical or, in some cases, completely unethical. They would write them up for any little thing they did (see the comments above about signing in or being late) even thought it was clearly an isolated incident. They would chastise them about something they were accused of doing - true or not - in front of coworkers and sometimes students.

These administrators might be @$$holes, but they aren't stupid. They knew exactly what could be done without breaking the law. However, there were times in private when they would do just that. Good luck proving it.

Many times teachers would get the teacher association involved. Texas doesn't have teachers' unions. Sometimes it went beyond even the district representative and the teacher would have to pull in the attorney provided by the association at the state level. Sometimes that made the harassment even worse, even though the teachers still had hope that they would be able to catch the admin doing something that would warrant their dismissal.

When administrators come in, they want to change up every blessed thing into something they want to increase their control. That means things like squashing employee morale. They'll move all teachers around, scattering them around to all corners of the building to separate coworkers who had built an effective team for years. Isolate them and pull them out of their comfort zones, even if it means messing up effective collaboration. Remove all employee celebrations. Those after school Thanksgiving, New Year's, Black History Month, or birthday celebrations? Forget it. No need for that. Who gives a shit if there's a sense of unity?
  • Being a good teacher was a Catch 22
If you had a problem, either with teaching difficult content where the kids just wouldn't "get it," or if it was a classroom management issue, no matter what you did you ultimately got screwed for it. Ask for help and you're labeled an ineffective teacher and it would be reflected in your evaluation. Try to handle it yourself and you're labeled as stubborn and unwilling to get help which, again, is reflected in your evaluation. Being a teacher involves collaboration to make things best for the students. This type of attitude and retaliation isn't doing a thing for the kids; it's making teachers scared to do anything at all. It's not supposed to be about hammering a teacher for not being perfect. It's a dynamic craft that changes with each child, each class, each year. Every situation is different and while, yes, some level of adaptation and management should be expected of a teacher, they cannot be expected to have the perfect solution to a problem every time. Hell, that's why they go to professional development.
  • Grades were manipulated
Students were basically immune to receiving the grade they earned. Sure, there were always lots of students who tried their best and their efforts paid off, but there were always those students that did nothing but were expected to be passed. And it wasn't just the athletes. There was ridiculous pressure from administration to change grades to "give kids a chance" and whatnot. It didn't matter if a student had failed every single assignment they'd been given due to not trying, not finishing, or flat-out not doing it. Teachers were urged to give "effort points" but, since they're all teaching to a test, that isn't authentic grading as it would be done on the test. If a teacher had too many failing grades, they'd be called into the office and labeled as an ineffective teacher and often have to go on a "teacher growth plan." This was reflected in their evaluations as well. The problem is that, when you keep all the paperwork on a failing student as evidence as to why they're failing, and have comparative data from all the other students in the class, it's bullshit to label a teacher as ineffective. Some teachers refused to change grades and took the hit on the chin as necessary, because it was authentic grading and they felt like it was the right thing to do. They didn't stick around long. Others just learned to play the game and would wait until progress reports or report cards to go in and continue to up a kid's grade, assignment by assignment, until they got to an overall passing score. God forbid if you speak up against the practice. You'd be royally screwed, then. Sometimes a coach would call and literally demand you change the grade on a student who was an exceptional athlete. If a teacher refused to do so, it's a guaranteed call into the principal.
  • They're all snowflakes
This is kind of a whiny complaint, but students were treated as fragile little creatures. Teachers were told not to give homework because it was too much of a strain on the students. It was suggested that teachers use a color other than red to grade, since red was such a confrontational color and it would hurt the student's self esteem. This also kind of ties in to what I already said about dealing with students in an unfair and biased way. When they try really hard on an assignment, even if it is supposed to mimic the state assessment, grade them based on effort, not actual performance, so they don't lose hope.
  • Truancy was accepted as just a thing that happened
Students missing weeks upon weeks of school at a time was nothing out of the ordinary. Letters threatening legal action were sent home but nothing would ever come of it. Even students skipping half days, every day, were never reprimanded for it. Many times I wondered if anything could ever be done about it, and I had no real answer. Nobody else tried to problem-solve it, either, though.
  • Paperwork was out of control
Grading isn't anything to complain about. If you complain about it, you shouldn't have been a teacher to begin with. What was ridiculous, however, was the sheer amount of record keeping and paperwork. Teachers would have to keep a contact log every time they contacted a parent, for any reason. Emails for the same purpose would have to be printed out and kept in a folder along with the logs. For students who weren't doing well, we had to keep all of their work (or blank papers) in their own personal file to serve as evidence. We also had to make them fill out a "why I didn't do my work" paper which, 99% of the time, we had to mark as "refused" because the kids literally refused to fill them out. We were required to keep an Excel spreadsheet for every assignment, with every grade for every student. It was supposed to be used as data but was rarely ever presented in meetings or asked for by instructional specialists. Each marking period, we had to submit an Excel spreadsheet for all grades for all students and include "reasons" for why students made below a 70 in the class. It may not sound like much, but try doing it along with all the other duties of a teacher. And I know for a fact I'm missing some.
  • Every student was forced to follow the academic track
Many students were passionate about pursuing a trade. Usually it was because a family member was involved and they knew they could get an apprenticeship or something but, more often than not, it was because they really wanted to go after it. While there was a track for vocations, students were often denied entry because the district philosophy was to have all students "college ready." I guess they weren't counting vocational school as a type of higher education, though. Do you know how many students begged for the district to offer cosmetology classes? Never was considered, even though other parts of the vocational programs allowed for students to graduate with a certificate of some type. But they often denied entry. It was a huge disservice to the students for a number of reasons. 1) they were discouraging a student to follow their passion, 2) they were trying to convince them that college was right for each student, 3) some of the students who were truly less academically-inclined could excel in vocational classes and - quite possibly - come out making more money than those with college degrees, 4) it implied that people going into vocations were "less than," 5) even though the classes were available to some, others were denied entry to the program, thus killing their interest in being in school, resulting in behavior issues, lack of performance, or truancy. I'm not sure what it would take for a kid to actually get approved for the vocational programs, but even when I was in school at that district, I wanted to take auto shop. I was told that I was "too smart" for that and was denied entry, but also because I was "a girl. Now, deep in my heart I know why they did all of this. It was because the school/district wanted to keep up a high percentage of students accepted into colleges. I'm sure that's all tied into money somehow, although I never really tried to figure it out. The whole thing proved to me, once again, that the schools aren't really in it for the good of the kids. 
  • Vertical alignment? What's that?
Most people - especially teachers - are in agreement that state assessment testing is a joke. However, the reality is that it is here to stay and teachers must adapt to make sure their kids have the necessary skills to be able to pass the tests. The trouble with that is that there's no connection between the grade levels. There's supposed to be, but there isn't. If a student has to pass a test in 9th grade that tests mostly on analytical skills, then the 8th grade teachers should be working on establishing those same skills, and so forth, down the line. Hell, they should be teaching it anyway. If a student has never had to use higher-level thinking skills to draw conclusions based on something they read, how are they expected to just *bam* learn how to do it in a few months before the test is administered? It's not as easy as you may think and I've never met a teacher who has the answer to that question. There are so many facets to the test that you can't spend all your time focusing on learning how to read beyond the text and dig deeper using their own thoughts, because you also have to teach how to write, how to "work the test" so they can do their best on multiple choice questions, how to budget time and figure out how to "triage" the test, and so on. These skills should start at a very low level and be taught all the way up, along with other things, of course. But that never happens. One day-long meeting before school starts and one day-long meeting halfway through the school year doesn't make it happen.

I will say one thing about state testing and how it plays into this. When a state changes the test in a year's time, and makes it considerably more difficult, the "downstream" teachers never had a chance at teaching to the test, either. They sent their kids off into the summer with the skills they thought they'd need (I hope they did, anyway) for the next year and then all of a sudden the test became way more difficult. My comeback to that is: teach the kids what they need to know as grade-level appropriate, and passing a test won't be a problem. However, teaching to a test is what it's all about, and that kinda leads me into my next point.
  • Low income, low standards
As the years wore on, I saw the standards for expected knowledge get more and more watered down. Even the AP classes became the same as regular academic level. I'm really not saying that this happened all because these students were low income. It's just a theory I have, based on what teachers from other districts all over the country have told me about how they do things. Again, I have no scientific data to prove this; it's merely a plausible theory. Teachers are told over and over about how all children can learn the same and they can all be held to the same high standards. I truly believe that to be true. However, in practice, it wasn't that way. When material appeared to be too much of higher order thinking for the students, the rigor was taken down a few notches. The teach and reteach thing is perfectly normal and is to be expected, but this went beyond that. This goes hand in hand with the rest of what I've been saying, though, about the grade manipulation and the college track thing. Make it easy enough so that the students can pass, and everything's just fine. They'll deal with the test when the time comes. All of this ties in together, at this point. Give them "feel good" grades on practice state assessments so as to not hurt their feelings, let the inmates run the asylum, let them get away with ridiculous things (not just behavior) because they have a "difficult life." I do agree that concessions should be made for kids with difficult circumstances, but that should not be affecting their education as much as they let it. For instance, if a student is pregnant and they need to see a counselor during a class, fine. If they need to see a counselor during EVERY class, that's not fine. If a kid's having trouble with a teacher at that moment (most often misplaced anger due to a personal issue), and they want to leave the classroom to see the AP, sure. Let them. It's a good thing to diffuse a situation and maybe find a mutual agreement. Having that situation every day, however, is an excuse. But they let them get away with missing out on important instructional time because "they don't have it as easy as other people." Again, I truly believe that any student can achieve great things if you believe in them as well, but when you're undermined by admins and supervisors, what can you do?
Okay. So I blasted public education in Texas. My situation may be an isolated incident but, based on what teachers in other districts have told me, I seriously doubt it. 

There were good things about it, though. Don't let me sway you into thinking *everything* was terrible. 
  • We had teachers on staff who were excellent grantwriters and managed to get many thousands of dollars awarded to our school
  • Our para-professionals were some of the most dedicated, overworked, enthusiastic support staff anyone could ever ask for
  • Our custodians worked their asses off and did a bang-up job
  • We had great hall monitors/bodyguards
  • We used a greater percentage of district money on technology and teaching materials than any neighboring district, while that meant a pay cut to our superintendent.
  • While I still had to provide my students with supplies, my yearly investment was rarely over $200 because our district was so accommodating in resources
  • We had a wide variety of teacher trainings and professional development both throughout the school year and over the summers, all of which were paid for by the district and, if during the school year, we were always ensured classroom coverage
  • The majority of our kids were pretty awesome. Sure, there was a large percentage of jerks, but the kids who had the mindset of scholars were some of the sweetest, hard-working, most genuine teens I've encountered and, while I'd rather die than go back into a classroom, I do indeed miss those kids.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Some Thoughts on Texas A&M - More of a Rant

As my time here at A&M is winding down, I've been thinking a lot about what's been the most important to me, besides the degree. A&M is all about tradition, and that was one of my biggest draws. My grandfather (c/o 1941) loved his school and instilled that same pride in me at a very young age, despite my decision to attend a different university the first time around.

That being said, it leads me into a few things that have made me immensely unhappy.

1) The seemingly-constant "tear down, rebuild" mentality. Maybe I'm exaggerating a little bit, but ever since I've been a student here, old buildings have been demolished in favor of new construction. Cain Hall, for example, had a pretty interesting history in its usage. The university decided to take it down - for reasons I'll get to in another bullet - and maybe it wasn't a terrible thing, but it seemed as if there were other options available to keep it intact. But, no...there was a greater motivation behind it. At any rate, a remodel would have sufficed, in my opinion. Perhaps it was too choppy inside to accommodate the Student Services that had moved in, but it was easily accessible to all who needed it. Next, Bizzell Hall. Built in 1918, it had fantastic architecture. Absolutely beautiful. In fact, Student Services had been moved to Bizzell after Cain was taken out. But now it's gone. Instead, they're going to erect a $43M monstrosity that is to serve as the Student Services building - in 2020. They've been relocated for a second time, to be discussed in a minute.

2) Whether it's due to a lack of maintenance, disease (due to lack of maintenance) or making way for more construction, they're chopping down trees left and right on Main Campus. The remaining empty planters and flowerbeds are barren and look terrible now. I know they used to have all the trees tagged for surveying and data collection, but I've been told by forestry students that the whole program has fallen to the wayside.

3) Student Services was moved to the White Creek area of West Campus. In temporary buildings. With no parking whatsoever and impossibly-complicated change-over bus rides get to it. The specific office you're looking for is hard to find (mostly because they all look alike) and they're not listed on the online campus map. The actual assistance available from Student Services is a joke to begin with, but that's a different rant. You know what? I'll deal with that now.

4) Student Services is useless. They triage students into "Crisis, Urgent, and Routine" categories. While I agree that crisis intervention should be immediate - and it is - trying to get a student with issues to decide whether they're urgent or routine is just cruel. Pretty much everything is urgent when it comes to mental health care, in my opinion, and especially when you're dealing with college kids. The website states that, for routine care, a waiting period of 10 - 15 days to even get scheduled is normal. However, when I visited their site to see if I could schedule an appointment, I was met with this disclaimer: "We are in a time of the semester when we are at or above capacity for the number of students we are able to see in a given week. Our wait time to be seen for an initial appointment may be 4 or more weeks away." Basically, if you're not already in the system, you're screwed. A&M is constantly trying to prove (to themselves?) that they're on top of things in the way of student care, and it's bullshit. And posting a ton of links for self-help isn't helping.

5) Cain was removed in order to build a full-service hotel and conference center, a new parking garage, and an elevated walkway over to Kyle Field. Like many things going on with A&M these days, it's all about the money. And Old Ags obsessed with our football = money. According to The Eagle newspaper, "The 250,000-square-foot project is planned to include a full-service restaurant and bar, 1,000 square feet of retail space, an outdoor pool, a fitness center, an outdoor event area, a 650-seat ballroom and more than 28,000 square feet of conference and meeting space. The eight-floor hotel will have 250 rooms -- 237 standard rooms, eight standard suites, three hospitality suites and two deluxe suites. Vice Chancellor of Business Affairs Phillip Ray said room costs still are being determined." Opinions on this development vary, but it seems as if most students are against it. But They don't care what students want. They want what's going to bring in the big bucks. Some will say this has everything to do with our SEC status.

6) New agriculture department offices were built behind AGLS on West Campus. A set of twins. New, shiny, modern...with offices of the exact same size as where the staff and faculty came from. I'm all for modern, efficient buildings, but I refuse to believe there wasn't some way an architect could have designed something that fits in with the traditional culture A&M has possessed since its inception. That goes for AGLS as well. Access to HFSB and other adjacent buildings has been blocked off by construction for yet another modern monstrosity to the tune of $49M, to be completed in 2019. It will hold plant pathology and microbiology labs. While I see the value in expanding the square footage of the teaching/lab/research facility, it's just another building that looks like it should be in downtown Houston. Is my rant solely focused on aesthetics? Not entirely. During this construction, they have removed about 1/4 of the parking spaces from Lot 74, which was already hard to park in and, in the process, removed half of the handicapped spots, pushing them back a considerable distance from the buildings. The chain link fence also blocks off a few sidewalks with easy handicapped access. It's also taken out several rows of the adjacent Lot 97, which happens to be my lot, and it's much harder to find a parking space. The email I got notifying me of this inconvenience informed me that I should plan ahead and arrive early in case I need to park in Lot 100 - the giant catch-all lot surrounding Reed Arena. I didn't pay for a Lot 97 pass to be parking in Lot 100 which is typically full anyway. 

7) West Campus is the side of A&M that's left behind. If you want to know about any events going on around campus, you'd better plan on going to the MSC every week, or you'll miss out. Signage of upcoming events are plentiful there, but nothing current is set up anywhere on West Campus, except for a few A-frame signs outside of the West Campus Library advertising ongoing programs. Wanna get involved in a charitable event? You'll never know it's happening unless you end up at the MSC. Traditional events, such as the annual Elephant Walk, were only promoted on Main Campus. I missed the one designated for my class year, and I missed the one for the new seniors although I graduate in December. Campus-wide emails are sent out for every possible cultural inclusion seminar you can think of, but for Aggie traditions such as Elephant Walk or Ring Dance, you're on your own, apparently, unless you happen upon a sign - again - only around the general area of the MSC. Wanna buy a t-shirt for an organization or event that you somehow managed to find out about? Gotta go to Main Campus - multiple locations. But never anywhere on West Campus.

8) Student organization meetings and campus events are never announced in time to actually plan to attend. It's a regular occurrence for me to get an email for something I'm interested in going to, only to find out that it's scheduled for the very next day or, in many cases, the same day. For students who are encouraged to form study groups and meetings with professors and trying to stick to a schedule for studying or whatever, that's annoying. I can't just tell the members of my group project that I won't be showing up in two hours because there's a Salary Negotiation Workshop I really need to attend. Tell me a week ahead of time and, yeah, we can work something out. And, before you ask, no, there is no online calendar anywhere that tells you about these upcoming events. If there were, I wouldn't be complaining.

9) West Campus is left behind in many other ways as well. Innovative water bottle refill stations have even been installed in some of the oldest buildings on Main Campus, but nothing on our side. This is rather ironic to me, considering that West Campus is home to the environmental, ecological, agricultural, and sustainability programs at our school.

10) The Student Writing Center, Success Center, and Career Services are jokes as well. None have been helpful to me whatsoever and, in two cases, I have even been denied assistance. The writing center is staffed with students enrolled in liberal arts classes - go figure - and cannot assist with scientific or technical writing at all. The Career Center staff was less than helpful and just wanted me to take advantage of their online services rather than actually help in person. They literally told me that all the resume assistance I needed was online, if by "assistance" you mean templates for three generic resumes and one cover letter. When I was looking for a summer job, they told me to use an online resource and basically hung up, leaving me to try to wade through all the confusing links that led to nothing more than yet another information page by myself.

With all of that out of the way, I would still say that there is no other school I would rather have attended. I love Texas A&M, its traditions, its culture, its history...even if the administration is trying to make it into a much bigger university than it should be. Our traditions and background are slowly fading away with each passing year as a record number of freshmen arrive. It's a hard phenomenon to explain, and I wish I had the words, but it's just a matter of too many people who aren't embracing everything A&M stands for. They're just going to school to be a student, not necessarily an Aggie, if that makes any sense. Not a majority, but the Aggie Spirit is slowly getting watered down.

Maybe I say all of this because I'm a total red-ass. While I could never afford a student sports pass, I've participated in as many traditional events as possible. I know the Yells. My phone's ringtone is the Aggie War Hymn. My wardrobe is 80% maroon. I haven't even graduated yet and I've already donated to the Century Club. I bought a brick for my grandfather that was placed outside the Corps Center. I'm one of the first people to throw my arm around the stranger next to me on the bleachers (or anywhere else, really) and saw 'em off. No, I didn't attend every Midnight Yell, Silver Taps, tailgate, Muster, or Bonfire, but I did go as often as I could. 

As I walk through Main Campus, I imagine my grandfather walking those same sidewalks between buildings, hurrying off to lecture and trying to balance his classes and Corps responsibilities. I imagine him walking the halls of some of the same buildings I've been in. I picture him out on Simpson Drill Field. I have an emotional connection to this university and perhaps I'm letting that cloud the bigger picture, but I can't help it. 

Change in all things in inevitable. Perhaps I just need to be thankful that I was an Aggie Student when A&M was still what it was meant to be (although some will argue that disappeared awhile back). I will always fondly look back on my time here with wistful memories, from before A&M morphed itself into the mega-college I have no doubt it will become in time. Either way, there's no place I'd rather be. But the important thing here is that I AM an Aggie for life, and that's what I've always wanted.

Monday, November 20, 2017

New Petrified Wood Location

It's been awhile since I've gone searching for petrified wood, but I had the opportunity to go to a different stretch of a creek I've hunted before. This part is about a mile upstream from where Joe and I have been before.

This section has a bend in it, with good examples of deposition/erosion and I'd been down there once before with a class to study that process in the field. I noticed a large bit of wood while I was there and I picked up a few pieces, but that was before I really knew what kind of special qualities to look for in a good specimen.

So when I was on the property where you gain access to that location, I figured it was a great opportunity to see what I could find. I found some great stuff, and I only walked about 50 feet downstream. There's a long section of streambed to walk, and I didn't even look in the banks to see if I could find any large pieces. Mostly because I hadn't really prepared - no bucket or tools - and it's a long walk from the creek to the parking area, although my Jeep could have made it further.

So here are a few of the pieces I picked up. I'll be going back - probably after school's out or maybe on the weekends - to see what other prizes I might find.

I like this one because of the growth rings

This one's a little bleached but I love it because you can see where a twig snapped off

The back side of the same piece. I'm not sure if the oval on the right is part of a twig scar or not, but it's still pretty cool.

This one's special because of the crystallized sap. Sometimes it's amber, sometimes it's chalcedony; I'm not entirely sure what this particular mineral is, but it's very pretty.

I think this is one of the best I found today. The rings are so vivid and beautiful.

I didn't realize how out of focus this picture is, but this has nice rings too.

I just liked this one because of the waviness of the grain. I've been told that this area was covered up with vines at the time, so I think this is probably a good specimen showing that.

I picked up this one because it looks like it has evidence of char. The other side looks like outside bark. I know there were fires; I've found other pieces that were clearly burned, and I think that's what happened with this one.

The twig scar on this one is awesome, as is the hash markings. Not sure if that's part of a unique bark, or if it's from bugs eating the wood.

Again, I didn't realize how out of focus this one was until I just uploaded it. This one is amazing because of the three types of minerals on the broken end. There's the black, that tan colored one that's a big bubble and translucent, and then the clear crystals. Again, I'm not entirely sure what minerals they are, but they're very pretty and unique compared to other specimens I've found.

When I first picked most of these up, I didn't know what special characteristics they had. I grabbed them because I noticed the color first or, in the case of the twig scarred ones, the twig scars. What a surprise I got when I came home and washed them all off! 

Now that I know there are some very special pieces at this particular location, I'll definitely be going back with boots so I can explore a little more and take a bucket with me. I expect to find some more with mineral inclusions and possibly more of outside bark. Who knows what I'll find when I actually inspect the bank to see if anything's buried in there. 

What I think is so cool is that I found these after walking only a short distance. I can only imagine what else will be down there! The best part is that I have access to this location pretty much whenever I want. 

I only have a few weeks before I graduate, so I need to get to this particular location as soon as I can. If it's fruitful, I'll go back more than once. Since I already have SO MUCH FREAKING WOOD, I think I'll actually take my time and wash everything off in the creek and take a good look at it before I decide to take it with me. I've found that I really just need to be more selective in my pickings because there's just so many boxes filled with wood found at different locations that I'm almost swimming in them. Besides, some of the really neat pieces should stay behind for others to find. 

Anyway, I hope you enjoyed looking at these pics and following me along on my outdoor adventures. I'll update again when I have more to post.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Where I Come From

I got an opportunity to participate in some genetic research for 23andMe. I've been involved in genetic research before, which helped me identify two gene mutations that were causing me some health issues, so I'm not worried about the Big Brother thing. But there's more to the story than just the research contribution.

The perk of doing this study is that I get the full genetic analysis as well. I'm really curious to see what the results will say.

We all get stories of our heritage and backgrounds, but how much do we really know? How far back have you traced your roots? I did genealogical research for my family - both sides - for quite some time and got quite a bit of information but, at some point, the trail just ends. If you can get professional help, that's great, but it doesn't come cheap and I always figured I'd have time to do it myself. And I haven't.

I've traced my father's side back to the town in Germany, and I've even found some photos of the old storefront they had. I've not gotten as far with my mother's side. I know my grandmother was in the Daughters of the American Revolution, which grants me admission as well, but I have no clue as to where her paperwork would be, or if they DAR keeps that kind of thing on file.

I've always liked the genealogy exploration. It's like a puzzle waiting to be put together, or like a large wad of yarn begging to be unraveled. I like the stories, the photos, the history and, sometimes, the darker side to the family you thought you knew so well.

Mostly, with this 23andMe kit, I'm hoping that the results will be somewhat accurate. I have no way of knowing, for sure, but it'll be interesting regardless and - hey - it was free. I'm really anticipating getting back the results and seeing what they believe is my ancestry. It may just verify everything I've always known or, it might bring up a few questions to my family.

At any rate, I've spit in the test tube and will be mailing it in tomorrow. We'll see what I get back!

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!