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    Roadkill speckled kingsnake

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    Roadkill garter snake

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    Our camping excursion for the end of March was over to Lake Livingston State Park. I hadn’t been since I met Keely there in 2013 and it was Chris’ and Forest’s first time. This state park is one of the few in Texas that allowed advance spot selection when you reserved your site—usually you have to take the luck of the draw when you arrive. Apparently this is a feature that is going to be available at more state parks later this year, something we are thrilled about. We’ve been frustrated by this lack of ability since we’ve returned to Texas and it was a feature we liked about Florida state parks.

    Chris and I took a three day weekend so we planned to enjoy a long weekend camping. We knew in advance that the weather was likely to be rough Friday afternoon and evening so we went ahead and planned to eat dinner in Livingston instead of trying to make dinner while it was storming. Well, the afternoon came and went and it was gorgeous! When we arrived at the campsite it was quickly evident that this is a bumper crop year for eastern tent caterpillars because they were constantly dropping from the canopy and also dropping their frass everywhere. Forest has become accustomed to seeing various caterpillars in our yard but this was such an overload that I’m sure it was the toddler version of a bug horror movie—he was not pleased. It took him until Sunday to finally come around to them but it was a near state of terror for him a lot of the time. Needless to say we spent a lot of time trying to play in areas where the canopy didn’t overhang the campsite, which was more towards the picnic table and parking area and out on the street where he would ride his little four wheeler.

    The campsite was directly across the street from the lake which made it a prime spot for Chris to set up a spot to fish. We spent a little time over there, the caterpillars seemed less dense than over at our campsite, and we enjoyed some time looking out across the lake. By dinner time the rain was moving closer to east Texas but it still wasn’t that close and looked like it would arrive after dark. We headed for Livingston anyway and found a great local place called the Blue Duck Kitchen. It was the kind of place you would find in a trendier small town which made me wonder if Livingston was trying to become that trendy small town, trying to revitalize their downtown as an excursion for Houstonians. The food was great as was the atmosphere and I recommend the place if you are in the area!

    The storm did blow in about an hour after Forest finally got to sleep, somewhere around 10pm. Chris and I were checking various weather reports and watching the radar as there were severe thunderstorm and tornado watches and warnings around the area. The county the park was in did end up with a tornado warning that extended to our north which prompted someone from the park to drive around telling people about it and to take cover “if you need to” in the bathroom. The warning wasn’t for the park itself but we kept it in mind knowing that some worse weather was coming our way with another cell directly behind that one. When the second cell arrived, the wind kicked up and with one whoosh the west side of the tent collapsed.

    Before we’d settled in for the evening I had put a few things together in case we needed to get into he car but even in the flurry it was hard to grab everything plus hold a sleeping toddler (who only woke the entire time when the cold rain pelted him just as we got out of the tent!) and rush to the truck. We waited it out in the truck for about 30 minutes until the rain subsided enough for Chris to fix the tent. I kept imagining everything being soaked through that we’d have to sleep in the truck and go home the next morning. At one point Chris was going to go out and take down the pop-up tent over our cooking table but I told him it wasn’t worth it for him to get soaked and cold. In the end the tent blew over and it broke. Oh well.

    Somehow there was no damage to the sleeping tent and very little water inside the tent. Chris fixed it and we piled back inside to go to sleep. Or attempt to sleep. I was wound up from the events and not long after someone started playing music from their RV. I was irate—and I never do this—but I got up and went to find the source so I could bitch them out. It was after midnight and I was not having it. Thankfully they turned it down and actually we heard very little from them the rest of the weekend.

    The rest of the weekend was not eventful in a stormy way and the weather cleared. More caterpillars dropped and we had to protect our food from little pieces of frass falling into our meals. No one wants to ingest caterpillar poop. Forest became a helper and would sweep the caterpillars off of things he wanted to play with and eventually found some bravery in dealing with them. Chris fished down at the docks near the park store and saw an elusive mink—apparently it is a rarely seen resident according to park rangers—and there was a lookout tower that Forest became enamored with, which had to be climbed multiple times.

    In all it was a fantastic camping trip. I’ll have separate hiking reports for the trails we hiked on soon!

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    The last time we noticed, or at least I noticed, giant swallowtail caterpillars on the citrus trees was back in October 2014 not long after Forest was born. I’m sure there have been more caterpillars in the years since; however, we recently found ourselves hosting some very fat and hungry caterpillars. In the first instar they looked so tiny and like they wouldn’t terrorize the citrus too much but as they’ve grown into other instars they’ve shown themselves to be the ravenous babies that they are, munching away on our poor citrus. The citrus that was badly set back from the freeze in January. Our lemon tree took the worst hit—devastating, too, because it was the largest of the trees—and Chris trimmed back the dead limbs only to have the remaining central limb destroyed by some surreptitous animal despite being fenced in. The tree is still alive but trying to come back from a 3′ stump.

    I threw out an idea that we should get a sacrificial lemon tree, a larger and healthier tree, to plant and move the caterpillars so our citrus could recover. It was only after Chris bought the tree home and told me he had gotten it from Lowe’s that big flashing warning signs lit up in my brain. A friend on social media had recently been complaining about the complicated/secretive tags on plants at Lowe’s regarding bees and regarding the status of the plants being sprayed with pesticides. I’m only saying Lowe’s here because that’s where we were both shopping, but you can just transplant this scenario to other big box stores. This friend was shopping and was looking at the tags which said something to the effect of keep away from wildlife and to not ingest. I guess this was changed from previous tags which stated more effectively that they had been sprayed. She asked the vendor putting the plants out if they had been sprayed with pesticides and that was confirmed. I checked some of our plants that had been bought at Lowe’s, just some general annuals Chris had picked up, and sure enough the cryptic tag label was there. I wasn’t terribly upset because we don’t have a ton of them at the moment but it made me think a little bit about buying plants there anymore, particularly because we will be getting bees again soon.

    Anyway, Chris brought the new lemon tree home and said it was from Lowe’s which made me stop and wonder if the trees were sprayed. Sure enough we found a tag on the tree that it had been treated with neonicotinoids by the grower in early March prior to it being shipped to the store. We opted not to intentionally risk all of the caterpillars and only moved two as a test run, to see if the spray was still affecting the tree. Upon my research I found that there were two options for the chemical treatment, drenching of the root system in which the chemical is taken up throughout the plants system, and general spraying. The spraying had a better chance of it dissipating faster but the drench could stay in the system quite awhile, months or longer.

    Well. The tree was definitely treated because both caterpillars didn’t last a day. And we have *not* transferred any more over. I feel really bad that we sacrificed those two but I’m glad we now know better. It also made me wonder if other citrus (or trees and plants in general) are sprayed at other nurseries, the more local and organic places. Honestly I imagine the citrus to be treated no matter what because of all of the citrus issues and how badly ag offices in various states want to prevent crop damage from spreading. As for other potted plants, I have no idea. But I will be asking more questions now.

    Aside from that frustrating situation, we now have a fourth citrus tree that hopefully will be a good caterpillar host next year. Meanwhile the other caterpillars are chomping away and as you see that last fat one, in 5th instar, looks like its heading for the chrysalis stage. I’ve checked throughout the weekend for the tell-tale silk of it attaching itself to the tree but haven’t seen anything yet. *crossing fingers*

    I saw my first monarch the other day while I was mowing and I’m now on monarch caterpillar watch, checking the milkweed every few days for eggs or small chompers. I’ve been finding all sorts of other caterpillars and need to start a notebook of the ones I see in the yard so I can be better at identifying them.

    Happy April!

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    Hi, my name is Misti and I’m an audiobook convert.

    I was completely and utterly burned out of politics this month and I opted to move away from podcasts a bit and intersperse my listening with audiobooks. I’m finding that I enjoy listening to mostly non-fiction or shorter fiction via audiobooks. I use a combination of Hoopla Digital and Overdrive for downloading audio and digital books. I have preferred Hoopla mostly because it is easier to search for books and usually something is available. The only problem is there is a daily lending limit set by the library so if I want to download something at noon one day I usually get a message to try back later. If I remember, I try about 6:30 that evening and all is well. Overdrive seems to have a broader selection of books but it is not nearly as easy to download books because there are usually only a certain amount of copies per digital or audiobook so I have to put a hold on it. No big deal, just that sometimes there’s a line of people in front of me, whereas with Hoopla, despite the daily limit, if there’s a popular book available I haven’t had a problem downloading it before the daily limit is reached. I don’t know, it’s a weird system.

    I’ve been flagging so many books to follow up and read at some future date. Some I’m coming across that I know I want to own and will keep that in mind next time I see a used copy or one on sale somewhere.

    With my audiobook uptake this month and spurning of podcasts, I’ve ‘read’ a lot more books this month. I’ll denote which were audio.

    Completed
    On Trails by Robert Moor: I originally started this book on paper and got about halfway through before I couldn’t renew it anymore and had to return it. I found the audio on Hoopla and was able to finish it easily within a week. This is probably my favorite book I’ve read so far this year. Moor writes a fascinating overview about the history of trails, from what may be the first trails left in fossilized rocks from primordial animals in Newfoundland to a history of the Appalchian Trail, including a scouting adventure to Morroco for part of the potential IAT. Interspersed are stories about Native American trails and hunting trails. In one section he covers herding sheep on a remote portion of the Navajo reservation and in another he scouts old Cherokee trails in North Carolina. I found the latter fascinating because he discussed how you can often see the original foot path in the woods with the adjacent wagon path after settlers arrived and then adjacent to that the eventual highway that was built because the original foot path had been that desirable of a trail. There’s so much packed into this book I really thought it could have gone even further. Highly recommend this one for outdoor and nature enthusiasts.

    The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett: This is a story of a married and pregnant woman who leaves her husband in the 1960s and ends up at a house for unwed pregnant girls in Kentucky. She gives birth and stays on, remarrying and raising her child there. It is told from three points of view. At first I found this frustrating because I had just gotten into the story with the main character narrating when it switched over but then I grew to like the point of view of each of the storytellers. It ended more abruptly than I wanted and didn’t quite resolve everything but overall this is good introduction to Patchett’s work. I really want to read State of Wonder next!

    Epic Tomatoes by Craig LeHoullier: LeHoullier has made the rounds on various gardening podcasts and is always an interesting person to listen to. The book cover has intrigued me for years and I’ve wanted to purchase the book but never broke down to buy it. This was an informative read but I was mostly interested in the discussion about heirloom tomatoes and the history of some of the seeds, including the resurrection of 70+ year old seed. Most of the detailed information about seed starting and tips and tricks was less interesting because I was already familiar with it. This book is one for any gardener to check out. So many tomatoes, not enough garden space. Or driveway space in LeHoullier’s case!

    Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist: If you read certain lifestyle and inspirational blogs long enough you’ll see someone mention Shauna Niequist. She’s got several books out and this was her first one. I typically like to start the beginning with an author but from what I understand her books stand on their own. This memoir was heavily faith based—or was supposed to be—but as an areligious person it didn’t really bother me that this was the intended goal. Honestly, the book would have been better and more inspirational if it had been more secular because the references to God felt tacked on, as if her publisher reminded her that she needed to include a certain amount of references to religion in approximation of how many essays she had in the story. That said, I found myself loving some of her essays, particularly the ones about life changes. This particular book was a take it or leave it one for me, I will give her writing another chance and check out her later books at another point. Another audiobook.

    The Daring Ladies of Lowell by Kate Alcott: This was an audiobook. I was looking for an easy fiction listen to break up the non-fiction and this seemed up my alley in the vein of historical YA. Historical, yes, YA….ehhh, not really. I’m not sure how I would have liked this book if I’d read it on paper but as an audiobook it wasn’t that spectacular of a story. Actually, I probably wouldn’t have like the paper version either because the plot was trite and pithy. It takes place in the 1830sish in New England when cotton factories were just starting to gain steam. If you’ve read or watched Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South you’ll get an idea of where I going in a way—but in less well written storyline. The protaganist is a factory worker who left her family’s farm to escape farm life (which many of the other factory workers were doing) and there’s a story about murder and unwed pregnant factory girl, a weird side story of a tent evangelist, and of course a romance between the protaganist and the son of the factory owner—a romance that is incredibly forced.

    So, I liked the zone out and imbibe in something frilly aspect but this isn’t that engaging of a book.

    Bird Watcher’s Digest Butterflies Backyard Guide: Identify, Watch, Attract, Nurture, Save by Erin Gettler: I had Erin on the podcast to talk about her book a few weeks ago and I was bummed I didn’t think to check to see if the library had her book earlier than I did. I saw Hoopla had it available for download a few days before I chatted with Erin but I was already out of credits for the month so I had to wait until it reset March 1st. This is a great guidebook for common backyard butterflies throughout the United States. I’m going to have to buy a copy to have on hand at the house—Erin said Home Depot is supposed to be carrying it so I will have to look next time Chris or I go by there.

    Finding Everett Ruess by David Roberts: I have a love/hate relationship with this book. I loved the writer and the idea of this story but I really did not like Ruess himself. This was because the story focused on his years from 16-20 when he was exploring the southwest and he was a bit of an entitled, bratty teenager, not quite coming into his own. This book has been on my to-read book for years and I listened as an audiobook. If you aren’t familiar with Ruess’ story, in the early 1930s he was exploring the desert southwest, roaming with pack mules and horses as he tried to make his way by selling his art. Almost like a Muir or some other similar transcendental type of nature enthusiast, but not quite. He lived with other people doing work or exploring the southwest as well as various tribal groups on occasion. He was actually very negative about his interactions with tribal people which was frustrating, too. There’s quite a bit known about his wanderings because he was an avid journal and letter writer and his family has quite a bit of his information, except the final journal and some other information that they lent out to unscrupulous characters in the 50s and 60s. The first and last quarters were really the best parts of the book in my opinion, and because the story of his disappearance has not be solved it makes you want to become a Ruess fan just to solve the puzzle.

    Along the Appalachian Trail: West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania by Leonard M. Adkins: This actually needed to go on last month’s book list but for some reason I forgot about it. The book was mostly a lot of photos but I am always intrigued by early photos from the AT!

    In the Middle Of

    Appalachian Odyssey by Steve Sherman: I’m about 3/4 of the way through this book, a memoir from the 1970s. I have a lot to say about it and will save it for April’s book report. Pretty good so far, could have been developed a bit more.

    Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This year’s most hyped book, after I saw people raving about the audiobook because of its cast of readers I put myself on the lending list on Overdrive (Hoopla didn’t have it) and it was automatically downloaded this weekend. I just started yesterday and so far I’m ambivalent. If I was reading this on paper I would probably abandon it. I’ll keep you posted next month!

    This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett: This non-fiction compendium of her essays is fantastic! I think she’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s long lost soul sister. Listening as an audiobook, read by the author.

    The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett: I haven’t read much into this still, about a quarter of the way through. Probably going to have to audiobook it to finish.

    On Hold
    Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: This is on hold because it is a series of short stories and not one continuous novel so it doesn’t make it easy to just sit down and read straight through. I’ll probably borrow it off and on throughout the year until I can finish it.

    What are you reading?

    *Photo heavy post! Write-up at the end! It’s also long!*

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    Prep and Planning
    I think we picked the perfect weekend for introducing Forest to backpacking. It wasn’t our longest hike with him ever but we also didn’t want to be too far from the car should we need to hoof it back if something went awry. The weekend before I had seen the 10 day forecast and thought it looked like a promising one for a backpacking trip. The rest of our weekends through April and early May are pretty busy with commitments and Chris heading out of town for work, so unless we planned on doing this when the heat really ramped up, this was going to be our only window for getting out and going for an overnight backpacking trip.

    When planning the hike I asked Chris where exactly he was thinking of going and he thought the Lone Star Trail in Sam Houston National Forest was good because it was close. He did want to hike a different section than we’d hiked before, however. The LST club has a helpful website with downloadable maps and a KMZ you can view on Google Maps/Earth so it was pretty easy to plan out the hike. There is a bigger guidebook which we may need to get in the future, but the printable maps and their concise guide for water sources and camping sites was all I needed for this particular section. I ended up printing the area for Section 9 – Big Creek, which goes from Trailhead 11 on the north end to Trailhead 13 on the south end. In the south is the Big Creek Scenic Area which I wanted to hike through. I added up the miles from Trailhead 13 heading towards a designated campsite on the north, just south of Double Lake campground. That mileage was a little over six miles which would make a 12+ mile round trip—totally doable.

    Since we were doing a shorter hike and really had no end goal on where to finish for the evening other than a decent campsite with water access, we didn’t get started hiking until after lunch on Saturday. In fact, we didn’t pull our backpacking gear out until Friday evening to start going through our gear. We realized our Aqua Mira water drops, our go-to water treatment, were a year expired, but we had a pump so we packed that instead. We couldn’t find our headlamps either. Well, Chris found an older one of his and I used Forest’s—Chris misplaced his newer headlamp as we were packing and I haven’t seen my headlamp in months or maybe over a year or more. We also had idea where our metal sporks went. Instead, we ended up using two plastic forks we had in the kitchen and brought one of Forest’s little baby spoons for him to use. Our gear hadn’t been used since our attempted thru-hike of the Northeast Texas Trail in November of 2013, right before I got pregnant with Forest, so I was apprehensive about getting our stuff together so late in the game. Luckily it all worked out. We just had to figure out what to divide with whom.

    As Chris was carrying Forest in the Osprey Poco Premium carrier I would be carrying much of the other gear. And it was just one overnight so it wasn’t like we had to go all out with carrying a ton of food or other extra clothing. Chris and I took no main extra clothes, just a change of underwear and socks, leaving a change of clothes in the car in case we wanted it when we got back to the trailhead. The main clothes in my bag were Forest’s because I didn’t know what he would do, particularly in regards to potty accidents. Forest has been pretty well potty trained since October (more on that in a bit) so I didn’t have to heft around diapers, just one for sleeping overnight, and I had several changes of underwear for him in case of accidents.

    For food we opted to go pretty easy. We’d eat lunch at Chick-fil-A before the hike (Forest’s favorite place!) and just needed dinner, snacks, and breakfast on the trail. I was most concerned food-wise for Forest because he is still in a picky toddler phase, though slowly getting better at eating more diverse foods. For dinner we opted for Santa Fe Instant Refried Beans, which we discovered on the AT. Chris picked up a package at our local HEB grocery store, though you can them on Amazon. Forest likes beans so we figured he’d eat those (he didn’t, of course) and we took a few tortillas from the fridge and picked up a couple of packets of hot sauce from the Chick-fil-A condiment counter. Snacks were various bars, trail mix, snap pea and lentil pea crisps, and some animal cookies and Goldfish for Forest. Breakfast was oatmeal, again because I knew Forest would eat it (and he didn’t, of course) and it was an easy meal for all of us.

    I’d been telling Chris for awhile that we needed a three person tent because Forest is too much of a crazy sleeper for all of us to fit in the two person tent. I think Chris finally realized this and opted for the time being to take a hammock for him, with Forest and I sharing the tent. Chris is going to research three person tents (if you have input, let me know!) and hopefully we will have that for the next time we go out for a hike. So, I carried the tent, a new endeavor for me, and Chris carried his hammock. In addition, Chris carried his light sleeping bag (I carried my heavier down bag to use as a blanket), his water, and Forest’s little potty chair, in addition to a few other smaller items. When your base load is a 26+ pound toddler you don’t want too much more added to that weight.

    On the potty chair—over a year ago I bought a Oxo 2-in-1 Potty Chair for the back of my car. Since we were doing elimination communication with Forest I wanted the option to try to get him to pee if we could while we were out and about, and I knew that once we really started potty training that the travel potty would come in handy. It definitely has and we’ve taken it on countless day hiking trips already. I usually carry a refill bag if I know he’s going to go #2, but with #1 he just sits and tinkles on the ground. This time I left the bags at home and we just dug a hole when he said he needed to go #2—oh and thank goodness he’s now better at telling us when he needs to do either one! Next up is teaching him how to squat over a hole so we can leave the potty chair at home but I think that’s going to be a bit down the road!

    In all, packing for this trip wasn’t terribly different than any other of our backpacking trips, just more of a reorganizing of items and trying to take less than usual.

    The Hike

    We finished packing on Saturday morning and headed over to Chick-fil-A for lunch. Afterwards we hit the highway eastbound to the part of the national forest we hadn’t been to before, off US 59. We encouraged Forest to sleep on the way but he did not comply, despite his sleepy appearing eyes. When we arrived at Trailhead #13 there were several cars in the parking lot already, which was encouraging. It was good to see other hikers out but also because I don’t necessarily like being the only car at a trailhead—more cars feels like a little more safety-in-numbers.

    Forest was excited as soon as we got out of the car because were “HIKING!” and because there was a giant muddy puddle that he really wanted to jump in. No muddy puddle boots meant no splashing about so we had to keep telling him to stay back. Eventually he couldn’t contain his excitement for going on a hike and was ready to get into the pack. Chris lifted him into his pack and I strapped mine on, and we set off down the trail.

    Immediately we came across phlox and verbena and continued seeing various wildflowers blooming alongside the singletrack. It was bright and sunny with the perfect crisp blue sky above the tree canopy. Really, it was an awesome day and weekend to be out on the trail. There was a slight chance for a scattered shower later in the afternoon (we left the rain gear at home in favor of saving space and weight, deciding to just set the tent up if a storm came along) but otherwise the outlook was favorable.

    The trail meandered through lobolly pine forests and down to hardwood bottomlands along creeks before reaching an elevated tramway that led straight to the Big Creek Scenic Area. We encountered two men heading back to the trailhead after doing some dayhiking; one of the men had an Air New Zealand tag on his pack and complete with their accents I figured they were from NZ and wondered if they had hiked the Te Araroa and some of their other long trails. I’m sure they had, but we kept the conversation to minimal niceties—they were intrigued by Forest sitting in his pack—and we kept on down the way.

    Not long after we made it to the scenic area (no camping!) Forest decided it was nap time so Chris and I kept our conversation fairly quiet as we walked through the less maintained scenic area. It was thicker forest, more bottomland hardwoods, and had a wilder feel. A mile later we found Trailhead #12 and opted to continue on since Forest was sleeping. We didn’t walk much further because we came to a bridge over Big Creek and the area was ripe with wanting to be explored. Chris carefully put Forest down to sleep in the pack on the ground and I sat down for a break. Chris grabbed the camera and took off to explore the creek and adjacent wetlands while I laid down on the bridge to relax. This relaxing reminded me so much of our other long distance hikes, the breaks we would take and short snoozes I would steal while staring up at the tree canopies. Getting a taste of that again was divine.

    I had no idea how much time passed while we lazed about there but it had to have been about an hour before Forest woke up. He was cranky when he woke so he took a few minutes to figure out where he was before being awake enough to eat a snack. Chris had found several interesting critters along the creek, including a water moccasin, while on his explorations. After our break we continued down the trail, tracing the contour of the creek as we meandered north. The bottomlands called out to both of us and we kept pausing to see what we could see across the way. Further up beavers had dammed the stream, creating a swampy pond above the dam. We were looking for signs of beavers when we heard a dog not too far away, across the stream. There were no trails over there so we were a little weary of a possible wild dog in the woods and we began walking north again, trying to keep our voices down so we wouldn’t entice a stray dog to chase us. Luckily, no dog followed or showed up later that night.

    We left the scenic area, rising up to another tramway and down again, back into the wider landscape of the pines once again. The trail took off away from the edge of the stream but we weren’t more than a hundred yards or so from it and could see the edge of the trees that signified a wetter area. I knew the trail jogged even further from the creek at one point but would reunite closer after a short period so I kept waiting for that turn to gauge where we were on the map. I’d tucked the map into my zippered pocket on my pants and it was easily accessible. The trail has mile markers along the way which are a great help, too.

    Somewhere along the way Chris asked Forest if he wanted to get out and walk for a bit. Chris wanted a break and Forest wanted out so this worked perfectly. Forest might have been a little exuberant because he would take off running and then splat on the trail because he’d trip over a tree root or stump. There was plenty of poison ivy lining the trails so I’d have to keep him from wandering into the vegetation too much. Forest had been walking maybe a quarter of a mile when Chris looked up and saw something to our east and thought it looked like an old washed up bridge. I stopped to look with him and after we surveyed the area we realized it was a cleared terrace with a fire pit. The ‘bridge’ was really a table. This was a campsite!

    There wasn’t a designated campsite for another two miles so I was a little weary that this was perhaps on private property, just across the stream, as there was a white area on the map across the stream. I looked closer, later, and realized the white area didn’t have a boundary on it like the other in-holdings on the map, so I figured it might not have been an in-holding. Nevertheless, we walked downhill to the campsite to check it out and see which side of the creek it was on. It was on the west side, so, no chance of it being on private property and we saw no trees painted with border markers—we set up camp! What luck to stumble across this great site! It was clear at the beginning of the trail leading to the campsite that it was not used often as the trail was slightly overgrown near the beginning. We figured that it wasn’t a campsite that they (the forest service or trail association) wanted to be widely used; however, the campsite itself was relatively clear of new growth and the fire pit looked like it had been used in recent months, so I’m willing to bet it gets used more often than ‘they’ would like!

    I’d forgotten how easy it was to set up our backpacking tent. Chris and I put it up like it was old hat, maybe with a few pauses to remember how we did something, but it was almost genetic memory. Then came the fun part of blowing up the NeoAir mats. This time I got to do both of them, which is no fun because I always get lightheaded as I’m blowing them up. Forest loved the tent and wanted to get in to play immediately but we had to reiterate a million times that he couldn’t put his shoes on inside and he couldn’t bounce on the mats and he couldn’t poke anything on them! He played like it was his nap mat at daycare and I gave him two of the books I carried for him to read so he could unwind after the hike.

    Chris and I stretched out and set up camp, taking some time to wander around the site while we each took turns to stay with Forest. It was 4:30pm when we arrived at camp and with the late sunset it would be a long three hours to keep Forest entertained. It turned out to be pretty easy, as we explored with him—checking out the creek side, looking at ants, flipping over logs, and finally, gathering pine cones. He also entertained himself by running around in the leaves, trying to balance on the wood beam meant for sitting, and being an all-round goofy toddler. At some point I wished I’d carried my own book because reading at camp is one of my very favorite things to do. As the sun lowered on the horizon it produced a wonderful glow through the pines and reminded me a little bit of Ocala National Forest on the Florida Trail.

    I kept getting antsy as the evening wore on, waiting for other hikers to arrive. I think this is a carry over from our thru-hiking days, where you’d get to a shelter or campsite and hope maybe you’d be the only one there only for someone to arrive just as you are getting ready for bed. No one arrived, which was much to our liking.

    After dinner, to kill about thirty minutes before bedtime, we hoofed back up the little hill to the main trail and went for a little walk, continuing northbound. We realized we weren’t very far from the next mile marker, maybe a tenth of a mile, which was comforting to know and helped us figure out where we were on the map. Forest enjoyed the walk and did a little better with watching out for tree roots.

    Finally it was bedtime and time to wind down for the evening. This was a frustrating task for me because it always takes Forest at least 30-45 minutes to wind down at night and I knew it wouldn’t be very easy because he’d be loose in the tent and not confined to his crib like usual. Of course there were the typical stall tactics, which included a trip back outside after dark to hang with the mosquitoes while he went to the potty. Sleep that night was alright but not comfortable. I mean, sleeping on those air mattresses never is that comfortable, but Forest was his typical kicking, squirming, rolling self and the mats kept slipping all over the tent. Thankfully he didn’t wake up before dawn so we all slept in a little bit.

    Mornings at camp are another one of my favorite things. A light fog enveloped the forest, not too low, and the sun brightened the forest to the east. We ate our oatmeal (or bars and mish-mash of stuff like Forest) and began packing up camp to hit the trail back to the car. Part of me was ready for another 10 miles to go to another campsite but the other part of me had that feeling you get after being in the woods for a week, where you are antsy to get to town for your shower and giant plate of restaurant food.

    Back on the trail we headed south once again, through the pine trees, up the tram and back down to the scenic area. No barking dogs this morning, thank goodness. In addition to the Lone Star Trail running through the scenic area, there were three loop trails that connected back up to the LST. For a change in scenery we opted to take the outer loop, the 0.6 mile Big Creek Trail. It winded through mesic woods that gently rolled up and down as we traversed across creek bottoms. By taking this trail we had a botanical discovery, finding trilliums and may apples! What luck! I’d wondered if we would be too far west for either of them—apparently not!

    As we headed out of the scenic area Forest appeared sleepy and began leaning over in his pack. I think he was relaxing more than anything, but it gave us a reason to make extra effort to get to the car faster in case he wasn’t feeling good. He usually doesn’t nap in the morning. We weren’t far from crossing over Tarkington Bayou, a cautious crossing over piled up logs, when he asked to get out and walk. We told him to wait until we crossed and then he could hop out and walk, which he did once we were on the west side of the bayou. Thankfully he also asked for a snack. My stomach was beginning to gnaw at me, the oatmeal was long burned off, so we sat down in the middle of the trail for a snack while Chris searched for the snake he’d seen in the water before we crossed.

    Forest did end up walking, he walked the entire way back to the car which was about a mile from the bayou! Chris led the way and I trailed the end and Forest walked in the middle in some varying state of running to dilly-dallying while poking at plants. There were plenty of splats on the trail when he didn’t pay attention and tripped over a root or stump (or tried to turn around to talk to me and while walking!) but each time he brushed it off and kept on going. Soon we heard the echo of cars driving down the road and before we knew it we saw the patches of phlox and verbena we had passed on our way in the day before. And not long after we arrived at the trailhead!

    In Forest’s words, “Did it!” We’d survived the first overnight backpacking trip!

    It is immensely satisfying to have that done and under our belt. All of my hiking memories came back to me, the different feelings from relishing the hike to being ready to get to camp—they were all there. It was funny how much I have come to associate Burt’s Bees diaper cream with backpacking because when I opened the baggie to move around some of our medical kit stuff, the smell of it wafted out and it was an instant flashback to the trail. Even getting inside the tent at night had me remembering so much about our long hikes. I’m hoping we can squeeze in one more hike before next fall and maybe by next backpacking season Forest will be ready for doing more hiking on his own. We may have to pick close sites at first to build his stamina but that’s ok. It will be fun to see where we get to hike in the coming seasons!

    Part II will be a video of our hike but I have not had a chance to even get it edited and processed so that will be up sometime next week.

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    Today is a rainy, dreary day and we’re going to get a slight dip in temperatures to the 50s and 60s for a few days before we return to life in the 70s and probably 80s once again. I was hoping to get a few things done in the garden this weekend, pull some weeds, plant some seeds, and transplant some stuff, but that might be held off until later in the week.

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    The garden is awakening well now, with a few plants taking a little longer than others. A couple of plants I am actually wondering if they are dead but we will give them another month before we do something about them. Sometimes plants are sleepier than others and they take awhile to come back.

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    We’ve had a ton of milk thistle reseeding itself in the vegetable garden from the compost so I’ve been trying to transplant some of them into the flower garden. I’ve been reading and listening to a few podcasts/blogs that talk about using thistle in various manners and I may try to see what I can do with our thistle once they are grown. I’ve been thinking a lot about trying to use more of the plants and weeds in the yard for whatever edible and medicinal uses they are known to have.

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    The Rhododendron canescens is blooming and has been for about a week. Now that I’m thinking about it, we have a few more behind Chris’ man-cave (the garage) and I don’t usually go over there but I bet those are blooming, too.

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    A couple of weeks ago we got a third load of mulch which I spread out on the final areas of the garden, some of which is seen here. I spread it on a Saturday and on Sunday I noticed a few plants looked grey and a little weird but I thought it was from the mulch dust and just shook off whatever mulch was left on the plants and didn’t think anything else of it. Chris and I planted a few things and I sowed some seeds in that bed and then on Monday we had a good rain. On that Wednesday after I went through the garden to see what was going on and I was horrified to see plants bleached out and looking like they were dead! A quick Google searched suggested that the mulch had not been cured properly and alcohols had built up in the mulch which basically burned the plants. I truly thought the plants were dead but by a week later I saw a couple of plants look like they were trying to pull through. If you see the purple plant and two little green plants at the bottom of the photo, those are two that I thought were toast but here they are severa weeks later, pulling through. I was a little dismayed at the mulch issue because we’ve bought from that company many times in the past and had no problems. Needless to say we will be more vigilant in the future!

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    The Gladiolus dalenii are thriving after Chris started spraying some fish emulsion on the flower beds. It has been working as both a fertilizer but also a deer deterent. I had to replant one gladiolus bulb continually because the deer kept pulling one up when they were nibbling.

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    The patch of blue-eyed grass has expanded over the years and if we let it I think it would take up an entire section of the flower bed. Nevertheless, it is a gorgeous addition to the front flower bed.

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    We had several nice marigolds that really made the corner of one of the beds look really awesome last year and they all self seeded and germinated back in January. Looks like we will have another great patch again this year.

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    One of our goals this year is to provide plenty of milkweed for the monarchs. In addition to swamp, common, and ‘butterfly’ (tuberosa) milkweeds, Chris bought more tropical milkweed seeds so we can really get a thicket of it growing. Some of it reseeded from the plants we had, and even came back after the freezes, but we are looking to have more plants this year as I think we may end up raising many caterpillars in a caterpillar tent. We need to get more pots of it so we can have a rotating supply of it in the tents as the cats chomp them down. We’ll see.

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    I left this dandelion because it was just too happy growing out of that nook!

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    One happy surprise is seeing the golden lotus finally bloom! Progeny of a pup we gave Chris’ dad back when we lived in Florida, it’s like having an old friend back!

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    Things are looking good. It will be vastly different in a month!

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    Every evening we venture out to the garden to see which strawberries have ripened enough to pick. I usually get an idea of what we need to get when I go through the garden at lunchtime, so when dinner is over and Forest is ready, we get a bowl (or sometimes a plant container) to hold our berry haul. Last night Forest picked out the biggest and ripest of the bunch and chowed down on it, leaving just a little bit of the tip when he was done. This kid eats his berries backwards, from the stem side first!

    Once strawberry season is over it will be snap pea season, bean season, tomato season, and onward throughout the summer. Which means picking something in the garden most nights from here on out!

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    We finally managed to get out for a camping excursion after several months of dormancy in that department. Busy schedules and chilly weather left us without a camping trip on the schedule for December and January and while February warmed up nicely Chris ended up out of town for work for several weekends. We’re sticking closer to this side of Texas for our spring camping trips and we kicked the season off with a trip up to Huntsville State Park. While we’ve hiked here many times, Chris and I have only camped here here once, back in February of 2012. I like that this park is so convenient, only an hour drive from our house so it makes it easy for us to leave on a Saturday morning and come back later in the day on a Sunday and still get home in time to unload and prepare for the week.

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    We lucked out with site 49 in the Raven Hill campground, which put us close to the bathrooms and playground but we had a buffer from that which meant we weren’t too close to the comings and goings of that area. In addition we had access down to the lake and the campsites right here were not stacked up on top of each other. I’d say that sites 49-53 on the lake side would be ones to get if you are coming to camp at the state park. The last time we camped the place was fairly deserted due to bad weather but this time the place was packed. There were umpteen Boy Scout groups to boot, but thankfully they were all kind of placed in a scout area, where all of the groups were in one general section of the campground. I have nothing against the scouts, my brother and dad are Eagle Scouts, but it gets a little cacophonous when camping next to a scout group.

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    Forest is turning out to have a really good memory. The last time we were at the state park was back in October when we went for a hike. The education center was open and they have two baby/juvenile alligators in an aquarium there in addition to other small tanks, one with a coral snake and another with baby box turtles. After we set up camp we had planned to do a pre-lunch hike in which we would create a loop of a portion of the southern section of the Chinquapin Trail and the Coloneh Trail together and end up back in the trailhead parking lot near the visitors center. As we approached the visitors center Forest started pointing and exclaiming about alligators and it took both Chris and I a few seconds to realize he was remembering seeing them months ago! He would not let up about seeing alligators for about half of the hike and if you saw in the video he kept wanting us to turn around so we could go see the alligators. Of course we finally made it back and he got to see the alligators but not without some panic on his end!

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    Compared to this time last year, camping with Forest is getting quite a bit easier. Following directions (with plenty of testing boundaries in the mix) and an interest in playing with toys and self directed play has allowed us to be able to sit or do camp chores instead of constantly minding a toddler. It was so, so pleasant when Forest would play with his trucks in the dirt and I could just relax in the chair while I took in the wonderful spring sunshine and blue skies. It was also a lot of fun just exploring around the campsite with Forest. He has an interest in spiders and ants and when we were trekking back from the bathroom we spotted a line of leaf cutter ants. I went from hyperfocused on the few ants and zoomed out a bit until I saw a clear path of ants heading in one direction which lead me to look over and see several mounds about ten feet to our right. It was fascinating because I had been reading that book On Trails last month (soon to pick it back up) and in that book the author covers ants and the unique way they know to follow trails. When I zoomed out in the scene I realized these ants had worn a path in the grass just like humans wear paths into their environment. It was really awesome to see and I didn’t have my camera to try to document this but I hadn’t really been acutely aware of this until that moment.

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    So, we watched leaf cutter ants, looked at leaves, picked flowers, talked about birds in the sky; it is a whole lot different camping with an older toddler! Another change has been that Forest has been starting to want to eat at the table with us and that translated over to camping. We’ve been letting him sit in a chair at times, with him kneeling on his knees to reach the table—we’ve got to find the booster component to our highchair!—and he wanted to do the same while camping. He only sat in the highchair once, at dinner, because there were too many bowls and plates to deal with being spilled for that meal.

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    Hiking wise we had to piece together some trails because the far back trails were closed due to the work being done on the Lake Raven dam (see map here). Saturday afternoon we took the lower portion of the Prairie Branch loop out to the Chinquapin Trail and crossed over at the marsh on the north end of the lake to have a snack at the bench. It was a slow walk, to see what we could see and enjoy the afternoon. Sunday morning’s hike was via the Chinquapin trail starting at the nature center parking lot and continuing on about a mile beyond the marsh where we judged the contours of the map with where we were in real-time and then bushwhacked at the first instance where the trail dipped close to the Triple C trail, which follows the perimeter of the park boundary. We wanted to make some kind of loop but following the Chinquapin trail to the Triple C Cutoff and over to the Triple C trail would have made it too long of a day than we wanted so the bushwhack worked out well. It worked out well also in that the area we chose to cut through wasn’t thick with yaupon and instead was mostly navigable through grasses and other not-so-thick understory plants. The whole bushwhack couldn’t have been more than 500 feet but it was exhilarating to get off trail for once!

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    On our way across the marsh we had noticed the sky clouding up and thought we should have checked the radar on our way out, and of course on our way back on the Triple C trail we heard some suspicious rumblings in the distance. Luckily the rumblings did not evolve into any precipitation and we made it back to the campsite for lunch unscathed by bad weather.

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    We usually don’t do lunch at camp on the day we head back home because we usually have a long drive ahead of us. Being only an hour away we took a leisurely lunch at camp, dismantled the campsite, and then Chris fished at one of the docks for about an hour before we headed home. I’m looking forward to having a few more of these scenarios in the coming months—the no rush to get out and get back home; we still got home with plenty of time to unload and get everything ready for the week.

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