Thursday, August 5, 2010

Who says I'm afraid of heights?

Who says I'm afraid of heights? I DO!!

No doubt about it, I'm scared to death of high places. I don't even like getting up on top of a 6-foot ladder. Seriously. Anyone who knows me well knows just how much I hate heights. I even get a queasy feeling in my stomach when I see someone near a ledge. I don't even like leaning on a safe, secure railing from a high place. Sure, I've gone up some pretty high mountains with steep ledges, but that took a lot of working up to and it was at least a little more safe feeling - I could go backwards and be on a huge chunk of mountain away from a fall.

So imagine my feelings when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity came along to climb a nearly 300-foot tall wind turbine. One the one hand, NO FREAKIN' WAY. On the other, not many people get to do this and I'll probably never have another chance. So I figured I'd take the opportunity.

After being trained on what to do and how to climb it, the last part of certification was the actual climb. The climb itself wasn't too climb up inside the tower. I was surprised at how hot it is in there. There are platforms you stop and regroup that cuts the entire climb into approximately thirds. Only one person is allowed on the ladder at a time, so each one goes to the next platform, gets off, then the next, and so on until we all regroup. There were 6 of us that day. You're attached to a cable the whole time and you climb the ladder so that your back is right up against the wall. These two things made it a lot easier to not get scared just so long as I didn't look down.

Once up on top, in the little box on the tower called the nacelle, the scary part was over for me. The nacelle is large (maybe 8-9 feet tall) and there's no real view out the sides. The tower sways from the wind and inside the nacelle, you feel like you're in the hull of a ship at sea. It wasn't bad.

I was also surprised that poking my head out of the top for the first time wasn't that bad either. It helped because you can only see out and up when poking your head out, not down.

When it was my turn to go out on top of the nacelle, I was nervous. But decided to not think about it and just do it. You are double-latched with saftey lanyards the whole time, so I tried to just think about it logically that even if I fell, I wasn't going anywhere. It also helped that the wind techs take safety very seriously and go through extra have to be completely careless and not follow the protocol in order to screw something up bad enough to have an accident.

The view from the top was amazing.

I actually walked to the edge and peered over the side at the 300-foot-drop. This is what cars look like from up that high.

The climb down was the least fun part to me. Instead of doing it in sections, you just go down the ladder all the way to the bottom. To make sure you aren't sneaking up on the person below you, you do have to look down from time to time. This was unnerving for me as I was forced to see how high up I actually was.

It was a very cool experience and I'm really appreciative of having this opportunity. The facility staff and wind techs were great, especially easing my fears as they knew I was petrified of heights. It was definitely an experience I'll remember for the rest of my life!

Full photo set found here:

Monday, August 2, 2010

Brady can swim!

Only a quick update...

Just last week, Brady was finally able to at least doggie paddle around. Now he's working on getting his face down while he swims and he's progressing along quite nicely. Still not good enough that he doesn't need us watching him 100%, so we still do that. But he and Alex are starting swim lessons back up this Sat (this will be Alex's first organized swim lesson) and hopefully Brady will be self-sufficient by the end.

Speaking of sports, craziness is about to ensue this fall. Brady and Alex will both be playing soccer for the first time. Brady will also be playing flag football when the soccer season ends, so should be a busy fall.

Melanie and I are still trying to get back into shape so we can do another tri together this fall...she's been more successful at sticking with it than I have.

I'm off to meet Brady's kindergarten teacher, but will post some updates soon about my climb up to the top of a nearly 300 foot wind turbine! And pics for proof!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

An end to this year's Tour de France

Just had a sweet little moment between Brady and I, and it prompted me to jot it down in blog form so that I can remember it vividly at a later date. You see, Brady has become addicted to this year's Tour de France. He's watched nearly every stage, and I shouldn't admit this, but I've even let him stay up until 11 pm to watch some of the longer mountain stages! He asks a ton of questions every stage, but he probably knows more about the TdF than most Americans and maybe even more than the casual cyclist. He gets it.

He understands the yellow, green, polka dot, and white jerseys. He understands the rainbow jersey of the world champion, the difference between a sprint road stage, a mountain stage, and a time trial. He understands the country jerseys of the national champions. He knows all the teams, all the major riders, who the best climbers are, who the best sprinters are, who the best time trialists are, and what it means to be a "GC contender." He understands strategies for sprinters on the lead out, how to reel in the breakaway, why the riders in the breakaway work together and draft to stay away from the peloton, why they attack on mountain stages, and also about sportsmanship and when not to attack (I'll not touch that debate here!). He even refers to the yellow jersey in it's proper French name, the "maillot jaune." (Pronounced ‘MY-OH jzone’ for you non-francophiles.) He's even asked me, "Which team is Jerome Pineau on?" I said "Quickstep." And he replied, "Oh, so he's teammates with Sylvain Chavenal then." The point is that it's really impressive to know all this for a 5-year-old, and it should emphasize just how immersed he's become in this year's Tour.

What has made this Tour so special is that we've watched all the stages together, often at night, and often with him resting his head on my arm on the couch. It's not just an interest in cycling, but a time for us to be together and share in something. That's why today, the last stage in the 2010 Tour de France, was a little emotional. At the end of the broadcast, they did a 5-10 min. or so highlight montage set to music (Kings and Queens by 30 Seconds to Mars if you are curious). He was silent the entire time and I even thought he may have dozed off. When it was over and we turned it off, I asked him if he was still awake. He said yes. I asked what was wrong. He said, "I just feel like I'm going to cry." I said, "I know, it's sad when it comes to an end, but there will be another Tour next year and we'll watch it again." I said come on, let's go get lunch. As I walked out of the room, Alex (who isn't that interested in the Tour but watches from time to time) was following me, but Brady wasn't there. I walked back into the room to get him and there he was in a silent cry--the type of cry where he doesn't make noise but is the beginning to a total breakdown. He was bawling and I was having a hard time not getting choked up while I was trying to comfort him. I didn't want it to end, either.

But there is a happy ending. He started to feel better and we all ate some lunch together, and he went on and on about how someday he wants to be the national champion so that he can wear the USA jersey in the Tour de France when he gets older. And that he and Alex can be on the same team together just like the Schleck brothers (although Alex's favorite riders are Sammy Sanchez and Alessandro Petacchi). It was cute. But in reality, the odds of him being a professional athlete of that caliber are infinitesimal, but boy what a cool story this would make if he ever did. Of course he's also 5, and next year he may have no interest in cycling. Who knows? But for now, we're looking forward to our yearly Tour watch together in 2011.


When I woke Brady up from nap yesterday, I asked if he had a good nap. Thinking that maybe his feelings had calmed a bit after not thinking about it for a while, his reply: "Yeah. [Long pause] But I wish the Tour wasn't over." I feel bad for the little guy.

Oh, and one other thing I forgot to share when I first wrote yesterday...when I was making lunch for Brady and Alex after the Tour finished, they were sitting at the table waiting for me to finish. Some movement caught my eye and I looked over there and saw Brady mimicking Andy Schleck's celebratory fist pump after he won Stage 8 (see video below). I watched him for a few seconds and then he noticed me and sheepishly stopped as if embarrassed. I asked what he was doing and he said nothing. I asked if he was pretending to be Andy Schleck winning a stage and he smiled and shyly said "Yeah" with a great big grin. He's just too funny.

And Alex wanted to wear an orange tee shirt this morning to school to be like Sammy Sanchez (he wears an orange jersey)...these kids are crazier than I am. :)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Brady track update

I last reported that Brady was excited to run his practice mile last weekend and that I would post an update. Oh, how things change. He thought we were going to run the mile at a race with his teammates and friends and when I explained to him that he couldn't do it in a race until he does it in a practice, he was disappointed. He didn't want to run by himself and decided he didn't want to try to run the mile. I explained to him that you can't do the fun stuff (race) without first putting in the work (practicing it). He still kind of wants to run it, and says he'll try it in practice on his own first, but the ball is in his court. It's up to him now.

On a non-track-related note, Brady wanted to go for a bike ride on Monday (Melanie and I had the day off), so we took him out. He rode 7 miles and up some pretty big hills. I think he did pretty good but it did take an excruciatingly long time: 1 hour and 45 minutes. But he had fun so Melanie and I stuck it out. I was pulling Alex in the trailer and although he was getting a bit bored going so slow, he was a good trooper as well. The main thing is that Alex said he had fun and Brady loved it, too. So mom and dad just grinned and bear it.

On a related note, last night's track practice was something else. I should preface this by explaining how the track team practices and is divided. The team has kids ranging from 4 to about 14. They are divided into the 'little ones' (8 and under) and the 'big kids' (8+ and a few of the really fast 7 year olds). They warm up together as one group, but then run their practice within their age division. The coaches usually do not challenge the little ones much like they do the big kids so that there is no pressure and it's kept fun. I do like this because it keeps it fun, but there are a few of the little ones that actually want to be challenged. Brady is one of them. If he isn't pushed, he just sort of jogs. If you challenge him, he really goes all out and he actually has more fun.

So last night, none of the coaches were able to make it so one of the other dad's who has some coaching background coached the practice. Normally in practice, Brady runs his 200m repeats around 51 to 55 seconds each, and his fastest 200m time so far is in a race at 49 seconds. For the first couple of repeats, Brady didn't try real hard so the coach called him out and said he had to start hitting 45 seconds for his repeats. I wasn't there (had to work late but was on my way) but I got a call from Melanie.

Melanie: "What times does Brady usually run his 200s in?"
Me: "If he tries hard, about 51-53 seconds but if he's slacking he'll run around 55 seconds. Why, what's he running them in now?"
Melanie: "Uh, he's running them in 45 seconds."
Me: "What? No he isn't. Are you sure you're timing him right?"
Melanie: "Yes, and the coach is timing him too. He started giving Brady a target time to hit and he's actually running faster than some of the bigger kids who normally beat him."
Me: "I'm hurrying, I'll be right there. I have to see this."

So I finally get there and I get my stopwatch ready to time him. The little ones come up to do their run and the coach calls out, "Brady, you've got a time of 45 seconds to hit. On your marks, get set, go." I have my watch going and I have never seen him try with this kind of effort before! Sure enough, 45 seconds. My jaw nearly hit the grass. By this time a 2nd coach had showed up and when they saw my reaction, they looked over at me smiling and pointed to the watch shaking their head yes. I couldn't believe it. He was out-running kids he's never come close to beating before in practice. Wow. Needless to say, I was on cloud 9. Brady was pretty excited and after practice, I don't think he breathed for about 2 minutes while he talked and talked about it replaying it all for me. He was so proud of himself for running so hard and so was I.

We took him to Taco Bell for dinner as a treat, which is he and Alex's favorite place to eat. After dinner I watched the day's stage in the Tour de France and Brady wanted to join me. I was explaining to him the good riders, what strategies they were using, the rivalries, etc. He really got into it and said, "This is the greatest show ever! It's even better than cartoons." I know he didn't truly mean it, but that combined with his awesome performance at track practice, and he played me like a fiddle last night. I would have let him eat candy in bed if he would have asked. We let him stay up 2 hours past his bedtime to watch the Tour. :)

I'm one proud papa.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Brady is now a bonafide track addict!

I spent most of June traveling around TX, mostly in the Trans-Pecos region north of Big Bend, for a horned lizard project I'm helping out on. So I haven't been able to update much. I'm still catching up on missed work, house stuff, organizing pictures (I take A LOT with my new camera!), etc. Because of this, I haven't been able to write in the month of June. As I catch up, expect an update on our family camping trip to S. Llano River in April sometime in the next month. But the main reason I'm blogging today is to let friends and family know about Brady and his new-found love of track!!

We found out through one of Brady's former teachers that there are organized track teams for kids as young as 5. We asked Brady if he wanted to try it and his first response was, "What is track?" When we said it's running, his response was an excited "YES!!" I explained to him that it's not a fun playing time with friends or anything, it's just running around an oval over and over and over. And that it would hurt, he'd be tired, and he'd do nothing but run. "Still want to do it?" Brady: "Yes!" Okay, let's sign him up.

No doubt about it, he loves it. He doesn't always give his best effort at every practice, but he's 5 and that's just the attention span he has right now. And if I had to compare it to soccer or baseball, I'd say he takes track much more seriously with a lot less goofing around. In the last 5 weeks or so he's ran, I've seen a big change in his conditioning and running form. His teammates and the other parents really seem to like him and he's earned the nickname, "B." One of the coaches is really impressed with how fast he is for only a 5 year old with minimal training: "Man, if he could have joined us back in March, I'd love to see where he'd be right now." (Note: track season started in March but we didn't find out about it until May.) It's been a huge time commitment with practices every Mon, Tue, and Thur and long, all-day track meets on Saturdays. At track meets, the field events and the 2 mile run start early, about 8 a.m., but the other races start at about 10 or 11 a.m. and go until 3-5 p.m. Our entire Saturdays pretty much revolve around the track meet. But as much as he loves it, and we really like it too, it's well worth it.

I can't believe how big youth track is here in Texas!! At his first track meet (see paragraph below), there were 800 kids and 26 teams at the event. It was massive. The way these meets work is that there are different age groups: Pee-Wee is 8 and under, then there is 10 and under, 12 and under, 14 and under, 16 and under, and finally 18 and under. By far the majority are 12 and under as older than this and they are usually running with a particular school. As a 5-year-old, Brady is obviously in the 8 and under group. But even within this age group, the number of kids is so large that they break them down into heats based on sub-categories of age. They'll have all the 4 and small 5 year olds together, the 5 and 6 year olds together, and then they try to keep the 7-8 year olds together in the same heats. That way everyone is racing against kids at roughly the same ability as there is a HUGE difference in athletic ability of a 7 year old compared to a 5 year old. So Brady races against mostly 5-year-olds and sometimes 6 year olds. Within each heat (8 participants per heat for the sprints), they hand out ribbons for places within heat. That gives you an idea of the structure of these events, so when Brady places high, he's not beating the 8 year olds, it's just a reflection of how well he does against about 7 other kids his own age.

Now on to the races!! After about 4 weeks of practice, he races in his first track meet on June 12, 2010, at Southlake High School. The coaches entered Brady in the 50m dash, the 100m, and the 200m. The first race up was the 100m. Here it was, Brady's first ever track race! This kid handles pressure so well. I thought he'd be nervous, but he is just as calm and cool as a cucumber before he runs. He gets up, we (mom and dad) are all excited, and the gun goes off! He got a horrible start and was in last place at the 50m mark. But then he kicked it in to an extra gear and smoked the last 50m....1st place! He took first in his first ever race. That was pretty awesome. He took 6th in the 50m dash and then when the 200m came around (it's at the end of the track meet), he was pretty tired and struggled to a 7th place finish. It was a great experience for so many reasons: 1) He, and we, had fun! 2) He got some really good experience. 3) He got in some great he gets more conditioning, he'll feel less 'tired' at the end of the day at a track meet. 4) He got to try some new things.

His second track meet was June 19 at Mineral Wells, TX. This meet was a lot of fun and I started recording his race times so that I could write them on his ribbons. I should mention that at his early age, I'm letting him try anything and everything whether he's good at it or not. I think it's important that he gains that experience and starts to identify which events he likes most and which events he isn't that crazy about. So for this year, I'm fine with him trying anything and everything...but he'll need to cut down the number of his events to only 2 or 3 as he gets older. But for this race, I gave him the option of running the 400 meters (1/4 mile) if he wanted to. He was nervous and wavered back and forth, "yeah, I want to. No wait, I changed my mind. No wait, yes, I want to." He was nervous and scared as it's more of a 'bigger kids' race (not many kids under 7 run it), and that's understandable. Finally he decided that he wouldn't know if he liked it or not if he didn't try. So he decided to try it. His first event of the day was the 100m. He finished 2nd with a time of 20.67 seconds. Very good! Next up was the new one, the 400m. He was lumped in with the older kids (7 and 8 year olds) because there aren't many 5 year olds to race against. He took 7th (out of 7) with a time of 1 minute and 55 seconds. It was a great learning experience as he bolted out too fast for the first 200 meters (and was near the front) but then realized it's a longer race that he's used to and really struggled coming home for the final 200 meters. Although last in the heat, he was pretty close to the 5th and 6th place kids so he wasn't way far back. I thought he did great and he showed great determination. He had the biggest grin on his face when he got back to his teammates who couldn't believe he ran so well for being only 5. He felt pretty good about that. His next event was the 50m dash and he took 2nd. His last event, and I figured he'd be too tired to do well, was the 200m. He finished 2nd with a time of 49.02 seconds! That was 2 seconds faster than his fastest 200m time so far! Great job for being so tired at the end of the meet. And here's the gushing dad moment where I was so damn proud. On the way home, I asked him what his favorite part of the day was. He said it was the 400m. I said, "Really? You liked that race even though you were in last place better than the ones you place higher in?" He said emphatically, "Yep." "Why?" I asked. He answered, "Because it was so hard and I had try my best to run as fast as I could. I wouldn't have known I liked it if I wouldn't have tried it." Exactly what I wanted to hear. :)

His third track meet was in Arlington, TX this past weekend on June 26. I gave him the option of trying the 800 meters (half mile) if he watned to. The downside to the 800m is that it's the first event, which would make him pretty tired for the rest of the day. But like I said earlier, it's good experience and good conditioning. He went to the tent to get assigned to a heat. I was expecting them to do similar to what they do for the 100m and 200m and line up the under 8 kids based on age (keeping 5-6 year olds together). I asked a volunteer, "I've got a 5 year old for the 800, where's he need to line up?" The volunteer's response: "Uh, I don't know. We don't get any 5 year olds who want to run the 800." Turns out they didn't have many 8 and under for the 800 period, so they lumped them in with the 10 and unders (the meets are so long that any time they can lump together for longer races, it speeds things up so much). That's right, my 5 year old was racing against 10 year olds in his first ever 800m!! As always, he was so calm and cool before the start. I now joke with him about 'taking care of business'...I'll ask him is he's nervous and he says no, and I say you just gonna take care of business, and he says yep. :) Anyway, the heat of 10 and unders is somewhere between 15-20 kids. He lines up on the starting line, dwarfed in size by nearly all the kids, and the gun goes off! Here we go. I talked to him a lot about not going out too fast (remember his 400m learning experience above?) and he really seemed to 'get it.' He stayed very smooth and calm for the first 400m and then tried to go a little faster to catch kids on the 2nd lap (800 is 2 laps). He did fade a little at about the 500m mark to the 700m mark, but he had enough gas in the tank to run a very strong last 100 meters. I was impressed! So were the coaches...they usually don't let 5 year olds run the 800 because they usually can't run it without walking (and that slows down the whole track meet, which is long anyway)...but the coaches noticed how strong he finished. The 8 and under coach told Brady after the race, "Brady, I think we found your race!" He ran a 4:20 and finished 3rd from last. I was pretty proud and impressed. Next up, he ran the 100m in a time of 20.28 seconds and took 4th. He ran the 400m right after the 100m and finished 6th with a time of 1:55.87, the same he did last week (but last week he wasn't already tired from the 800m!). Next event was the 50m and finished 6th. The 100, 400, and 50 are all back-to-back-to-back so he is pretty spent by the end of the 50. He then had some time to rest and relax before the 200m. He ran a 50.86 second 200m and finished 2nd. Very good track meet and his fitness is getting a lot better and his running form is looking quite good. When he started, he just looked like a little kid running around, but now, he looks more like a track runner with a purpose. Oh, and how does he like the 800m even though he was toward the back? He said it's his favorite along with the 400m. The kid loves running.

He's lucky in that he's joined a very, very good track team. Our kids place very high compared to a lot of other teams. No one on the team, and also the parents, can believe how much he can run though. He may not be the fastest, but man he can just run and run and run without getting too tired. Most kids only can do 2-3 events because they get too tired, but Brady seems to just be able to run forever. And they also are pretty impressed with his speed for being only 5. At the end of the meet last weekend, as the parents were joking about how much he runs, I jokingly asked him if he wanted to run the 1600m (the mile, it's right after the 200m), and he said, "how many laps it is?" I said "4." He said, "Yes, I want to run it." The parents all laughed but one dad said, "The thing is, he's not joking. He'd really go try it right now." He was right. I asked Brady later that night if he really did want to try the mile in a race (which they don't even have an 8 and under age group for that race as most kids are 9 or 10). I also told him that he would have to race against bigger kids who are a lot faster than him, so he'll probably come in last. He was okay with that. So this weekend, 4th of July weekend, we do not have a track meet. I told him that we'll go to the track and I'll time him in the mile to see if he is in good enough shape to try it. He's okay with that. So if he runs it well this weekend in training, we're going to let him try it in a meet the following weekend. The problem is that he will be dead-legged tired as he doesn't want to give up any of his other races: the 800, 100, 400, 50, and the 200. The 1600m comes after all of those. I think he's willing to give up the 50 and the 200, but he really likes the 800 and 400 and the 100 to a lesser extent.

I'll post an update and let you know how his mile goes this weekend as well as updates on future track meet results.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Big Bend National Park 2010 - Greatest Family Vacation Ever!

We all have memories, and lots of them. Most are benign. “Last time I turned on the shower and walked in immediately, the water was cold. I should wait until it warms up this time.” But I believe that there are a handful of a select few memories we accumulate in our lives that really make a lasting impression on us. I don’t mean that we simply remember them until we die, I mean they permanently change the direction of the path we’re traveling in life. They force us to self-evaluate and learn more about ourselves…what makes me happy, what are my priorities, what do I want to accomplish, what do I truly ‘need’ in life, what do I wish I could change in my life? In other words, “Who am I and where am I going?” For me, this trip was one of those memories. It was one I’ll never forget. And it was amazing.

Pardon the philosophical meanderings. I’ll chalk it up to a Big Bend hangover. We can only live in the now, but I hope this was the first of many such memories with my family. I want to accumulate as many positive, life-changing memories as I can before I die. I’ll touch more on that at the end of this, but for now, let’s get to the more proximate, short-term highlights of this incredible trip.

Here are some quick stats to start off, or as I like to call it:

Inside the numbers:
Miles driven: 1,400+
Shaded temp at mid-day: 100 F
No. of pictures taken: 578 (145 by Melanie, 433 by me)
No. of bird species positively identified: 46
No. of reptile species found: 11+
No. of bee stings: 2 (Melanie’s was much worse than mine)
Most hours spent in the park in one day: 13.5
No. of whining kids who were afraid to hike up steep mountains and through hot desert valleys in 100+ F heat: 0

First off, I’m a biology and science dork, so of course a place like Big Bend with all its unique features will appeal to me. But when the first words out of an accountant’s mouth are, “Wow, this is really cool,” that should speak volumes of how incredible Big Bend is. Phrases like that were one of the first things Melanie said when we got there. She said it multiple times on the trip. So did I. So did the boys.

I’m not a great bird watcher, so many species were left as ‘unidentifiable.’ Irks me to not be able to ID them (I think of it as solving a puzzle, which is fun for me), but there were a lot that were new to me but I couldn’t figure out. Of those 46 I could positively identify, 14 species were ones I hadn’t seen before. That was cool. We saw some cool herps, most common were the whiptail lizards (no pics). There are multiple species of whiptails in the park and I can’t ID them without having in-hand, hence the 11+ count. I’m counting it as at least 1 species, but probably a couple more. We did find one species of snake that I had never seen before (Trans-Pecos Rat Snake), which was pretty cool for me. The boys thought the lizards were all pretty cool and Brady was really good at finding them.

Cophosaurus texanus - Southwestern Earless Lizard

They also got to see their first Texas Horned lizards in the wild as we found some in an area just west of San Angelo on the drive out there. Got some DNA samples for a project that I’m helping to collect data. :) The boys thought the rattlesnakes were pretty cool (they stayed in the truck) and got to hear it rattle when it dashed away from me while trying to take a picture. I did get some good pics of a young one.

Day 1
On the first evening being there, we basically drove around and got an idea of where we wanted to hit for the next 2 days. We drove all around the south side and did a short amount of exploring. We drove back to our cabin after the sun had set and stopped to get pics of snakes: one Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (no pics, Melanie spotted it but it darted off too quickly), a huge Bullsnake, and a Trans-Pecos Rat Snake. It took a lot of restraint to not grab the rat snake to get better pictures! (Because it’s a National Park, handling any specimens is illegal. I don’t need marks on my record if I were caught handling anything given that my job requires getting permits for research!)

Pituophis melanoleucus - Bullsnake

Bogertophis subocularis - Trans-Pecos Rat Snake

Day 2
On our first full day, we hit some of the major overlooks on the Ross Maxwell scenic drive. We also hiked down to an old abandoned ranch (Blue Creek/Homer Wilson Ranch) in one of the valleys (Blue Creek/Red Rocks canyon trail).

It was a hot, but short hike. The boys were pretty excited on the hike, which was a good sign for us—didn’t want to force them to hike, so having them excited about it meant that we’d be able to see a lot more stuff without a fuss. From there, we went down to Santa Elena Canyon and had lunch. We hiked the 1.7 mile trail, which included going up and over a pretty high overlook to get back down into the canyon. Both the overlook and canyon were really impressive. Brady loved it, but Alex had to be carried a bit on the hard parts. I was still impressed given the temps and how difficult climbing up was…the boys did great.

View into Santa Elena Canyon. Note the 3 hikers in the lower right for scale.

Looking up from within Santa Elena Canyon.

Our super little 3 year old hiker!

Canoes on the Rio Grande in Santa Elena Canyon.

View looking out when climbing back out of the Canyon. You can see my red truck on the left.

We then spent the rest of the day in the High Chisos Mountains walking around the Basin. Lightning rolled in, so we had to call it an abbreviated day. I also found out on this day that a license plate that says LIZARDS arouses the suspicion of park rangers…had to answer some questions a ranger had for me regarding just how much I liked lizards and what exactly I was doing in the park. Personally, I’d rather get grilled with questions than have lack of regulation of illegal collecting. I was actually relieved by this.

Day 3
With a shortened day, and resting up the previous night, we hit it hard on the second full day! We started in the Chisos Basin in the morning and hiked up into the mountains.

Brady was phenomenal…I could hardly keep up with him. Alex was pretty impressive for an almost 3 year old. I don’t think we ran across anyone that didn’t say “Wow, I can’t believe you guys are up here hiking like this for your age.” They were paid lots of compliments and they liked that everyone thought they were ‘cool’ for hiking. After a little over a mile on the way up, Alex was tired but Brady didn’t want to quit. Melanie and Alex walked back down and Brady and I continued on for about another mile. It was an excellent time and it was clear to me that he and I are really going to have some epic hikes as he gets older.

Brady didn’t even mention his legs getting tired until we got back down from the mountain after a good 2-3 hours of hiking in elevation. But he and Alex scarfed down some Fun Dip candy (i.e., pure sugar) at the bottom of the trail and they were ready to hike again! We grabbed lunch and then started up another long hike in the mountains toward Emory Peak/Boot Canyon. It was great and had some really good views and lots of really neat birds. I was hoping to see a Colima Warbler (a Big Bend specialty), but no such luck. The boys, once again, were quite impressive with their hiking abilities. And most importantly, they were loving it!

After the Chisos Basin, we drove down toward Rio Grande Village campsite and went to Boquillas Canyon.

We hiked this trail during the heat of the day, so it was a slow journey. We made frequent shade stops so the boys could get water. They were hot, but were having a lot of fun laughing and running. We made it to the canyon which was neat, but not nearly as cool as Santa Elena Canyon. At the end of the trail, the Rio Grande is really narrow. The boys were throwing rocks into the river, so I told them to throw one as far as they could. They each made it just past the halfway point in the river, so I told them they just threw a rock into Mexico. They thought that was pretty cool. After Boquillas Canyon, we went to Rio Grande Village picnic area for a dinner of sandwiches. We saw some cool birds, including Vermillion Flycatchers (one of the brightest birds we have in the U.S.).
He wouldn't sit still, so this is the best shot I got that shows how bright the orange/red is.

We hiked up a steep slope and saw a whipsnake, a beautiful Blue Grosbeak (they are pretty common around there), and had a great view of the valley.
Blue Grosbeak

But it was getting a little steep on the trail edges for our comfort level with the boys, so we headed back down. We drove to Hot Springs next and the boys got to put their feet in it and yes, more rock throwing into the Rio Grande (rock throwing is one of their favorite past times). The rock formations at Hot Springs were really neat and we saw lots of Canyon Wren nests.

Rock formations at Hot Springs

Canyon Wren nests

Canyon Wren

There were also some old abandoned buildings from the 40s—an old store and hotel. These were some of Melanie’s favorite places from the trip. We also saw the mother of all palm trees, actually about 4-5 palm trees in one cluster. If you stood in the middle, it was like a cathedral overhead. It was very cool.

Looking up inside the palm 'cathedral.'

To conclude the day, we drove back up to the Chisos Basin, got a few sunset pictures and then headed back to the cabin. A total of 13.5 hours in the park and not one complaint from the boys.

Day 4
On our last morning, we packed up all our stuff from the cabin. I say cabin, but it’s really a mobile home trailer at a place called Wildhorse Station in Terlingua (just outside the park). If you ever visit Big Bend, I HIGHLY recommend you stay here. Although simple, it was a great place to go back to at night that felt a little bit like home. I think this ‘home’ feeling went a long way with Melanie and the boys. And when it’s 100+ degrees, it was nice to be there and showered in the morning instead of in a tent. I particularly enjoyed the peaceful mornings on the porch listening to the Black-throated Sparrows.

After leaving Wildhorse, we decided to drive back to the park and then leave via the north entrance/exit…we hadn’t even sniffed the north side of the park, so we at least wanted to drive through it. On our way out, we saw several roadkill Desert Spiny lizards (a beautiful lizard when alive), a Texas Horned lizard, and a small diamondback rattlesnake. I got some great pictures of the rattlesnake as he/she just laid there and let me take as many pictures as I wanted. The only hard part was making sure I wasn’t roadkill from other vehicles.

After leaving the park, it was back to Fort Worth. The boys travel so well, so it was really nice. No major meltdowns from kids or parents! We made frequent stops to stretch the legs which slowed us down a lot, but the trade off was that everyone stayed relatively happy the whole way home. The only unhappy part was that this amazing family experience was coming to a conclusion.

And on that note, I’d like to conclude this long-winded post by coming back to my philosophical meanderings I touched on at the beginning. On the drive home, Melanie asked each of the boys what their favorite part was and then I asked her the same. We went around saying what each of us liked the most. Spending time together was the obvious one that we all agreed upon, but the boys had multiple answers for more Big Bend specific items: the mountains, birds, snakes and lizards, etc. When it came to my turn for a Big Bend specific feature, my answer will probably surprise most of you that know me. As much as I love herps and birds, my favorite part of Big Bend was the geology. I had been thinking about the geology when we first arrived. It stood out to me. Here, you have these massive features with exposed layers of rock. These once nearly-horizontal layers were now essentially vertical in many places. The force of the tectonic plates smashing into each other had to be amazing. I’m not a geologist, but I think these mountains were formed at the time of the Marathon Plate, about 300 million years ago. Despite erosion and weathering trying their best to make these massive structures ‘less impressive’ over time, there they stood, 300 million years later, still impressive as ever. But this is a point I try to get across to students in biology class, most people really do not understand just how long 300 million years really is. A lot can happen in that much time. Look at it this way: think of how short 1 second is compared to 1 year; it’s nothing, not even a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things. But if I asked you to stare at a clock for 1 million seconds, you’d be sitting there for 11.5 days. If I asked you to stare at a clock for 300 million seconds, you’d be sitting there for almost 9.5 years. Think of how much can happen in those 9.5 years, especially if you were only alive for 90 seconds or less of it. What’s the point of these geological musings? Our human life span is virtually nothing from this perspective. It may seem like a long time, but it’s not; our lives are over almost as soon as they start. We don’t want to admit it, but it’s true. And here I was, in an even shorter time span—only 4 days out of my already short-life—and I was as happy and content as I have ever been. I was spending time in an amazing place with my family. You can draw your own inferences as to what you see as important, but what I took out of this was a realization of how happy I can be in such a brief glimpse of time and how other things pale in comparison to these events. Times like these, they won’t last forever. And time is always changing; I won’t ever be able exactly recreate that same feeling I had at Big Bend, but I look forward to adding new life-changing memories similar to this one before my blink-of-an-eye life in this universe is up. And I’ve got the best family I could ask for to travel along that path with me.

A complete set of my Big Bend photos can be found here:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

So what have you been up to in the last 8 months?

I said last year that I’d be better about keeping my blog updated. But unfortunately, it’s been a good 8 months or so since my last update. Here, I thought I’d give a general overview of what’s going on with our family since last October. I know I’m leaving out some stuff that I can’t think about off the cuff, but this should at least hit the major highlights.

Alex is turning 3 in just a few days, so this week is kind of crazy getting ready for his party. He basically thinks he’s 5, and even tells people that when they ask him how old he is. We have to speak up and say, “no, he’s really just 2 but he thinks he’s 5 because that’s how old big brother is.” We tell him he’s only 3, but he refuses to believe it. He will be eligible to play soccer this fall and he’s looking forward to that. He’s also doing really well swimming so will likely take lessons in the winter. I suspect he will be swimming on his own by the end of next summer. He just moved up into the ‘big kid’ class at daycare/school, so he’s been pretty excited about that. He also loves going on hikes looking for birds, especially cardinals. Amazingly, he can actually identify a small number of birds correctly!

Wow. What to say about this kid. He’s just crazy busy. He played soccer in the spring and moved into the 5-6 year old league, although many of the kids were 7! Not sure how that works, but anyway, it was a learning experience for him. They incorporate positions (offense and defense) and it’s starting to look more like soccer instead of group running. By the end of the season, he was playing really well. I’ll tell you this much…no one on that field runs harder than he does! Love the effort. He’s playing baseball this summer and has moved up into coach’s pitch. We do some fun ‘practice’ in the backyard and he’s really improved from his previous 2 years playing. He’s had hits from the pitch the last couple of games, which was great. (If they don’t hit on 3 pitches, they get 2 tries from the tee.) He’s also doing pretty well swimming and really wants to do another triathlon. He wants to play football in the fall, so we haven’t decided if we are going to drop soccer or try to do both. He’s really good at soccer, but is very anxious to try football. Oh, and to top it off, he learned that one of his teachers at school coaches 5-8 year olds for Track and Field. Once he learned that Track and Field = running, he was all about that! We got him on a track team over the summer and he’s been loving it! It’s expensive, and very time consuming—practice is on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights—but it’s worth it if he really likes it. Growing up, track was by far my favorite sport and Brady seems to feel that way too. I’m being very aware to make sure and not push him in that direction though. If he wants to do it, it’s going to be up to him. But it sure makes me proud to see him out there when they are running repeats. :)

Melanie finished all her coursework to be able to sit for the CPA exam last year (the requirements had changed since she graduated). So she’s been studying for the CPA exam for the last several months. She just took the first section and she hasn’t heard back yet if she passed or has to retake (retaking is common), so we’ve got our fingers crossed. In her free time, which doesn’t exist, she’s been trying to get in a swim here, a run there, or a spin class at lunch. She’s still wanting to do triathlons, but time is just so limited due to her CPA exam schedule.

I’ve been working a lot, but have really done a good job of reducing weekly hours from 60 to 40-50 to have more time for the boys. I’m much happier, and still productive. I was stressed because my job funding runs out at the end of this year, so I’ve been applying for faculty positions. I got one interview at a school that I liked, and probably would have accepted if they offered, but they didn’t see me as what they were looking for. That’s the way the ball bounces in this business. I struck out with all my other applications. But luckily, both of the people I work under seem to be happy with my productivity and work so they have found a way to extend my position to a third year (it was originally funded only as a 2 year position). That’s been a huge relief for us, especially since we like it here so much. I’m very happy with my job and so is Melanie with hers. We’re excited to be in Fort Worth for another year! I’ll be applying for jobs again this fall for when my 3rd year expires. Other than work, everything’s been geared around the boys. We’ve been having a lot of fun. I’m not training for any triathlons, but have been at least staying in decent shape. Really my only fitness related goal is to just not go long periods of time of doing nothing. Running is what I do most often though.

This year has been great for us as a family. Now that Alex is getting older, we’re doing a lot more things together. In March, we went down to Dinosaur Valley State Park to do some hiking, learn about dinosaurs, and see some birds. The boys loved it, so we also took them to Fort Worth Nature Center to do some hiking. In April, we went on our first family camping trip to South Llano River State Park in Texas hill country. It was beautiful and was a great time. I hope to post a blog update on that sometime in the next 2 weeks. And yesterday, we just got back from Big Bend National Park. It was amazing and we all had a lot of fun. I think all of us were sad to start today not waking up to the scenery. I’ll post a blog update on that tomorrow.

I’ll probably be making some catch-up posts in the next month, so expect a flurry of activity on the blog. Also, you can follow our pictures on In order to see our pictures, you do have to sign up for a free Yahoo mail account. Once you have that, you can search for me under the same name as my sbcglobal e-mail account (karstenkb@...). Add me as a contact and when you do, I’ll be able to add you as a Friend/Family. From there, you can access all the pictures. If you have any problems, let me know and I’ll try get it figured out. I got a new camera this spring, so I’ve been taking lots and lots of pictures. They are there for you to view if you want. :)