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Across the globe, when talk of music festivals come up, two Texas events always make the list - spring's South by Southwest and fall's Austin City Limits Music Festival, both in Austin – the Live Music Capital of the World. Austin's Fun, Fun, Fun Fest, in November, is also starting to rise to similar ranks.

Bakery Cafe—Back to Blue?

Written by | Published August 22, 2011
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bakerycafe-cropWhile in Port Aransas recently, I drove to Aransas Pass looking for the Bakery Café, which is on the cover of the September issue and in the True, Texas feature, which had gone to press before I left for vacation. To my surprise, the distinctive turquoise façade with the name in bright red letters had been painted tan with brown type.

I mentioned this to co-workers when I returned to the office, concerned we may get letters about the color scheme change. We had just received advance copies of the September issue. Lois Rodriguez, who wrote the Bakery Cafe text, e-mailed the café owner to let him know they made the cover, and sent the cover image, noting that we thought the blue paint job looked nice. The owner called Lois to thank us for the magazine coverage, and to say that after they painted the exterior brown, one of his employees preferred the old color combo, but no one could remember how it looked. But thanks to our publication of the café image, they’ll be able to use the issue as a guide if they decide to repaint the café blue again. We hope so!

Texas-shaped pool!

Written by | Published June 17, 2011

With triple-digit heat already here in Austin (and lingering), I'mm semi-obsessed with swimming pools, so I smiled when I spied the Texas-shaped pool at Amarillo's Big Texan Motel, the lodging companion to the famous Big Texan restaurant, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (If you haven't heard of the Big Texan's free 72-ounce steak dinner, the mother of all big-food challenges, here's the skinny: You have to eat the whole thing, plus a slew of sides, in less than an hour.)

I don't think I could make a dent in that steak, but I sure can see myself doing a few laps from Amarillo to Brownsville.

Know of any other great hotel pools? Let's come up with a "Best-Of" list!Big Texan pool

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img_0306Next door to the Texas Prison Museum sits a noteworthy historical museum in its own right. The H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum (the acronym stands for Helping Every American Remember Through Serving) opened in 2009, and contains battle paraphernalia and personal mementos donated by veterans and their families, from the Civil War up to the current conflict in Afghanistan.

In addition to military gear, dress uniforms, flags, patches, and medals, the museum also displays letters written by soldiers to their loved ones, along with journals, and books written by military personnel documenting the horrors of war and bittersweet homecomings. I was impressed by the magnitude of the collection in a relatively small space. Both World War I and II displays seem extensive, even down to an unused schoolbook note pad from World War I. Women’s contributions in wartime, particularly World War II are represented with various W.A.C. uniforms and grooming accessories, and photos documenting factory work on the home front. Nearly as extensive is the section from the Vietnam War, which as a child I remember from TV news. Seeing the captured flags and other objects, among soldiers’ memoirs as told through letters and books was quite compelling.

Viewing this memorabilia and reading the personal histories of these soldiers gives me pause, as I consider the enormous sacrifices these men and women have made, especially as we observe Memorial Day.

Travel Deals

Written by | Published April 7, 2011

I recently made a quick trip to Houston to take care of some medical appointments, which got me thinking about the idea of “health travel,” or even the vague concept of “secondary travel.” For example, even if my main reason for visiting a city is to catch up with family, see a hotshot out-of-town specialist, or to attend a work conference or other event, I do try to squeeze in some recreation. In Houston, I try to visit a museum or gallery, a favorite shop, and a restaurant or bar I’ve been hearing about. This time, I joined up with two longtime Houston friends to check out El Real Tex-Mex Cafe, the new (yet old-school) Tex-Mex restaurant dreamed up by food writer/historian Robb Walsh and restaurateurs Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd. I had heard raves about the cheese enchiladas with chili gravy—that classic Tex-Mex comfort-food concoction served with orange cheese, lard-laden (and I mean that in a good way) refried beans, and Spanish rice. Well-deserved raves! Tart margaritas and a salvaged décor from the shuttered El Fenix Restaurant completed the experience. I’ll look forward to future visits once I can fit into my jeans again.

When I visit the Bayou City, I often stay with friends, but this time, I tried an experiment. I had heard about travel websites like www.lastminutetravel.com and www.hotwire.com, which offer unsold hotel rooms at steeply discounted prices, and I decided to give lastminutetravel a try. Here’s how it works: You go to the site, pick your city and general area, plug in your dates, and the website finds available rooms. In my case, I found a “four-star hotel” in “downtown Houston” for $95. The site provides photos of the hotel, and a list of amenities, but you don’t learn the name of the hotel until you’ve booked the room. (This makes sense to me: While the hotels want to sell their unsold rooms, they don’t want to advertise that they’re willing to drastically undercut their rack rates. And be aware that after you reserve the room, you can’t cancel or change your reservation.) For my one-night stay, this worked beautifully: My hotel turned out to the Hyatt Regency, where rooms normally start around $180 per night. The hotel has a great rooftop pool, and its central location proved perfect for exploring on foot. When I returned to the office, I poked around these sites to see what other hotel deals I could find in Texas: I pretended to want to book a room four days out, and I turned up a “four-star” hotel in Galveston for $96 and a “three-star” hotel in downtown Fort Worth for $68.

Have you tried these sites for Texas travel? Care to share your experiences?

How I Survived SXSW: The Music

Written by | Published April 1, 2011

See related: How I Survived SXSW: Film and Interactive

How I Survived SXSW: The Basics

duran2crowd-good...and the crowd goes wild!

How to survive the Music portion of South by Southwest. Easy. Expect midnight or 1 a.m. headliners, lots of SXSW parties and little sleep.

In my previous installment, I highly recommend the SXSW’s express pass for bigger venues/band names. It’s worth it. Definitely. But realizing bands are playing into the wee hours of the morning followed by all the after parties that don’t end until 6 a.m., 10 a.m. is virtually the crack of dawn. But, if you can swing it, wake up long enough to get it then return to your Zzzzs.

As with the film schedule, the choices are phenomenal. Pick the bands you want to see most, and let the rest be icing on the cake.

Unlike the film portion, there aren’t discussions or Q&A with the bands at the shows, but you can see plenty of panel discussions, keynote addresses at the Convention Center, as well as interviews at the IFC Crossroads House. Bob Geldof and Yoko Ono (talking, not singing) were among the highlights.

cnn-grill-band1There's music everywhere, including this live band at the makeshift CNN Grill SXSW.

Still, the music portion presents the perfect opportunity to explore and experience so many new, up-and-coming bands. Take full advantage.

I did a lot of that and was pleasantly surprised on many occasions. Sometimes, I found the particular music I stumbled upon was not necessarily my style, but I always appreciate the creative education … and people watching.

duran8Duran Duran perform at Stubb's.

Admittedly, I couldn’t help but indulge in the familiar. Music snobs might chide me for going the mainstream route, but I enjoyed nurturing my ‘80s roots while watching The Bangles or Duran Duran. I saw them both from front and center. That wouldn’t have happened “back in the day.” Thanks SXSW.

I also hoped, as part of this whole SXSW experience, to take in two of the consistently big parties – Perez Hilton’s Night in Austin and Rachel Ray’s Feedback Party. Lots shared their personal opinion about each of these “celebrities”, but my interest was not in them, rather the energy around the parties they throw and the people and performers who show up. I managed to score badges for both.

perez-hiltonsignThere was talk of a surprise guest at the Perez party – Lady Gaga. Brittney Spears. P. Diddy. No surprise guest showed up, but it was a heck of a party with great music. People with RSVP wristbands started waiting in line at 3 p.m. for open doors at 6. Probably not necessary, as I saw people walking in throughout the evening. Also, if you have a badge, guess what? You don’t need a wristband. Though it’s technically not put on by SXSW, they used the same entry system for the party – badges over wristbands. If you’re badgeless, you’ll have to RSVP for those wristbands, and know that they accept tons more RSVPs than they allow in, and wristband distribution ended about 5 p.m. – All gone.

Kanye West hosted a party that night, too. Again, more RSVPs than available tickets.

While I enjoyed my evening at the Perez Hilton Party, this also was the evening of the biggest moon in ages. I heard it was a gorgeous sight to see. My badgeless buddies enjoyed the view from Auditorium Shores, where the City of Austin hosts a free concert as a thank you to locals who, in essence, give up their city for SXSW. They found the show via listings at www.sxsw.com/free. Between the closing performance by Bright Eyes and the beautiful moon, I hear the night was amazing.

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See related: How I Survived SXSW: Music

How I Survived SXSW: The Basics

How did I survive, SXSW? It wasn’t easy, but I did … and it was a fun journey. This is meant to give an overview of what to expect for those who have never attended SXSW before. I recommend the experience – even if just once. I’m also glad to answer any other questions you might have about navigating it.

lounge1Liz Phair on the IFC Crossroads stage. Those not fitting in the small studio watch from screens throughout the cozy lounge.

On Day One, while still shuffling through my newly retrieved SXSW registration packet to see what’s what/where and getting set for the week, I head to the IFC (International Film Channel) Crossroads House nestled against the Driskill Hotel. IFC aired daily interviews with film stars and musical talent, and hosted live performances, so a must-have is the free IFC wristband. It allows for a lucky few SXSW attendees to make up the live audience in a lounge setting where it was always happy hour.

This was definitely going to be a hotspot, because for me, it’s not just about seeing the movies or hearing the music, but getting to see and hear from the people behind the scenes.

The IFC Crossroads House had guests including Conan O’Brien, Rosario Dawson, Danny DeVito, Emmylou Harris, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Pee Wee Herman, Jason Ritter, Rainn Wilson, Brittney Snow, Soliel Moon Frye, Eliza Dushku and more. To see some of those interviews, visit http://www.ifc.com/sxsw. Consider making this part of your SXSW experience.

rosariocarladriskilldavito1Actors Danny DaVito, Rosario Dawson and Carla Gugino enter the IFC Crossroads House.

With less than one hour of SXSW 2011 under my belt, I encounter my first (and *last – see tips below) long line, here, at the IFC site. While making a mental game plan, I paced away from the line and moved just around the immediate corner of the building. What a fun surprise. I run right into actors Rosario Dawson, Danny DaVito and Carla Gugino, who everyone is waiting in line to see. They’re coming in the side door – Rosario is all smiles and Danny is signing autographs for the crowd of 5 that happened upon them as well. They were in town to talk about their film “Girl Walks into a Bar,” the first feature length film produced exclusively for the Internet … and its free. While I haven’t gotten around to seeing it yet, this encounter set the stage for the film portion and many celebrity encounters, panel discussions and Q&A sessions.

There are three types of SXSW film attendees, I discovered – those who take in only the world premiere films that already have big stars and a distribution deal (or are close to it); those who see the other film gems hoping for a distribution deal but may never see the light of day again; and those (like me) who really enjoy the underdog film but also enjoy the hoopla of the Red Carpet, and watching a film in my hometown with the big name actors and directors in attendance.

paul-cast-qa3Mottola, left, along with actors Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Kristen Wiig from the comedy, “Paul” answer questions after a SXSW screening at the Paramount Theater.

paulaudiencemaskDirector Greg Mottolla's staged keepsake of the SXSW screening of his comedy "Paul". Masks of the alien Paul were handed out to the audience for his requested, out-of-this-world photo op.

SXSW affords attendees the rare opportunity to watch a film and then have immediate access to the cast and crew for a Q&A session. I sat in on a few of these screenings for world premiere films at the lovely Paramount Theater like "Source Code" with Jake Gyllenhall, "Paul" with Kristen Wiig, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (of "Sean of the Dead"), "Super" with Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page, and "The Beaver" with Jodi Foster and Mel Gibson. All key actors (minus Mel Gibson) were present, watching the film with the audience and sticking around afterwards for the questions. I got to meet several, face-to-face, including Conan O'Brien, too. But talking one-on-one with Kristen Wiig was a real treat. She's hilarious - definitely my favorite Saturday Night Live cast member. She's down-to-earth and nice to boot!

jodiqa-154u5Jodi Foster attends SXSW to screen and discuss her film "The Beaver" in which she directs and co-stars with Mel Gibson.

For the record, Jodi says she would have cast Gibson in the role, again, regardless of his negative publicity of late.

Tourists on the Austin Duck Tours got a real treat when they stopped to observe the buzz in front of The Paramount. They just happened to stop when Jake Gyllenhall was doing Red Carpet interviews for "Source Code." They had a front row seat for that, and you could tell, by the squeals of excitement on the bus, that they’ll likely not forget that tour.

I also enjoyed a slew of other less visible films including one of my faves – "Bag of Hammers", starring Jason Ritter, son of the late John Ritter. He’s super talented and the film deserves wider distribution. We shall see.

Also on my roster of films was "Matter of Taste", a fascinating documentary about one of New York’s top chefs Paul Liebrandt. My friend, Rachel Mills, is a producer for the HBO-backed documentary that had its world premiere here. I was excited for her and the project. The after party at Eddie V’s had haute hors d’oeuvres and a rare chance for me to get some sustenance. Between bouncing from venue to venue at breakneck speed sometimes, there was little time for food. I call it the SXSW diet. Lots of walking/running across town and no time to eat. The beauty of it is that there IS plenty of time to eat, if you choose. I just chose to take in as many panel discussions and films that I could, instead. There’s plenty of time to rest, too, if that’s what’s important to you. A friend called me after Day One saying she was skipping the next evening’s premiere – she was already tired. Good for her. Not for me! But you definitely need to know what your limits are, and heed them. Pace your stamina to carry you through your time at SXSW.

sxsw2011_filmgridThis portion of the film grid – between 4 p.m. and midnight on Saturday, March 12 – represents only a small fraction of the film screenings held throughout an eight-day period.

Taking it all in required much stamina because while some nights went long with films (the Kristen Wiig double-feature of "Paul" and "Bridesmaids", didn’t finish until about 2:30 a.m.) my mornings/afternoons were also booked with Interactive panels that addressed so many crucial areas of new media – the way technology changes the way we report and receive news and information. Was I tired? Heck yeah, but I was also feeling charged by it all, too.

In fact, I saw a documentary about Kevin Clash, the man (and voice) behind Elmo, the ticklish Sesame Street celebrity. It was only by chance that I saw it. I went in treating it as a time killer in between two nearby interactive panel sessions I was sitting in on. The location was suitable for simply getting off my weary feet. But the documentary was wonderful … and I admit to shedding a tear or two – mostly for joy. I don’t think we ever lose our giddy love of the Sesame Street puppets we knew as children. But, it also was a very real story with life lessons and all.

How I Survived SXSW: The Basics

Written by | Published March 31, 2011

See related: How I Survived SXSW: Film and Interactive

How I Survived SXSW: The Music

circusmashimuswelcomA welcome to SXSW and the Circus Mashimus Lounge during the interactive portion of South by Southwest.

It’s a given that I love living in Texas, but I feel especially fortunate to live in Austin. That’s not a slam on any other city. It’s just a city that’s a great fit for my personality and my varied interests. So, with my genuine pride in the Capital City, I get excited and kick into “hostess” mode whenever a big event like South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film and interactive conference and festival draws in lots of out-of-town guests. I want to make sure they feel welcome and enjoy this beautiful place I call home. I want them to go home and talk, with affection, about their experiences.

This year, the 25th anniversary of this stellar event, was no different and I jumped in, feet first, to experience SXSW with our guests, as well – upwards of 30,000 attendees.

I want to share some of those experiences (and some of the photos I took) with you here and in a follow up blog posts, but let me first tell you – this place was packed. Maybe too much for the locals, but that’s something the City of Austin and SXSW organizers can sort out. For now, I focus on numbers and what those tourism dollars mean for Austin, and Texas. SXSW is Austin’s Super Bowl for the music, film and interactive set.

In 2010, SXSW injected more than $113 million into the Austin economy. That included booking more than 8,800 reservations totally 39,000-plus room nights from people coming in from all across the globe. The numbers for this year, though not officially in yet, may well exceed expectations and last year’s figures. It was touted as the biggest yet, and it certainly seemed that way.

livefromsxswLive from SXSW! Media outlets from across the globe covered SXSW events, which often included a glowing spotlight on the city itself.

That translates into a lot of music moohla, film finances and interactive ingots. OK. That was cheesy, I know! :) But in these economic times, that sort of boost to the system is welcomed with wide open arms!

And SXSW officials say the media coverage – all that free press covering world premiere movies, new bands, high-profile panelists and the invigorating scene – totaled in value of nearly $15 million.

Everywhere I turned there were news crews capturing the essence of it all with man-on-the-street interviews – most were clearly not local crews. From all the media outlets and worldwide bloggers I encountered to lunching at the makeshift CNN SXSW Grill, I can tell you the world had its eyes on Austin.

On top of that, the sheer volume of creative offerings helps strengthen the city’s brand identity, which goes a long way in securing future tourism dollars.

cnngrillMax's Wine Dive restaurant was transformed into the CNN Grill SXSW. Operations continued, with guests receiving free food, drink and live music.

The New York Times says, “South by Southwest now has three vibrant legs – music, film and Web – that come together to create a stool that is the envy of every other American city.”

The Chicago Sun Times says, “From its humble beginning in the Texas capital, South by Southwest has grown to become the worldwide music industry’s biggest and most influential gathering.”

I feel so proud to live in this incredibly creative city, the Live Music Capital of the World. And in whatever non-Texan accent I overheard–– whether from the East Coast or Down Under –– word on the street was always about how awesome Austin is. Deep inside, I gloat. To myself I say, “Yes, and when it’s all over, you have to go home … I AM home.” How lucky is that?!

Get a sampling at www.sxsw.com and consider a visit.

TIPS FOR SXSW

If you decide to go to SXSW next year, I offer these tips that will help increase your enjoyment factor.

Book lodging early: Hotel rooms, especially those with the best rates, go quickly. So book as early as possible. Since the bulk of activities happen downtown, you’ll want to be close as possible for the convenience factor of having everything nearby, a resting spot in walking distance and to avoid the challenges of finding parking daily.

Plan your schedule.Closer to the event, check SXSW.com for additions and updates to the schedule. Take all the heads up you can get because by the time you receive your registration packet with your pocket guides and such, the wheels are already spinning pretty quickly. Still, study that schedule as soon as you get it. The worst thing is to miss something important to you because you didn’t see it on the schedule.

Pace yourself. If you decide to SXSW 2012, remember to select a few things that are must-see/do for you and then allow the rest to be icing on the cake. You’ll be happier and stress-free. Also, be willing to go to a screening or performances alone. With so many choices, the odds of conflicting interests with friends are possible. If you really want to see something, don’t compromise that because a friend wants to see something else. You’ll have fewer regrets. Besides, there’s plenty of time to be social with an impossible amount of SXSW parties, and even a softball game, happening every single day/night.

Move to the Front of the Line.Why didn’t I encounter lines like most everybody else? Should I let the cat out of the bag?

SXSW has a fabulous SXXpress pass for any movie or music venue. They hand these out at 10 a.m. daily. It’s actually no secret because the information is printed in the registrant’s guides, but they seemed to be virtually unclaimed during the music portion of the conference. These free passes are like a “front of the line” carte blanche that works in conjunction with your badge. So, at movies and music venues, where three lines are queued up in order of badge holders (priority entry), wristbands and then single ticket holders, SXXPress pass holders are bumped to the front of the line ahead of badge holders. For the more popular shows, badge holders alone may fill a venue to capacity, so it would behoove you to get a pass because it’s basically guaranteed entry. These passes aren’t necessary for less hyped-up events, but if it’s something you definitely want to see, consider it insurance. I believe they give out 10 percent of capacity in express passes. During the film portion, most express passes were distributed by 10:30 a.m. … or sooner for the more popular screenings. Lines for the passes started at 9 a.m., typically. For the music portion, well…10 a.m. proved to be too early for that lot. I, however, remained among the few who continued to take advantage of it during the music portion, and it paid off. I rolled out of bed, went for the express pass, and crawled back into bed. Simple. On several occasions, the badge line went around the building/block and I was able to walk right in, including an evening at Stubb’s when the venue was at capacity by 8 p.m. (when I showed up) for people hoping to see Duran Duran at 12:30 a.m. I did have to wait about 20 minutes, but when the fire marshal cleared more to go in, I along with only 5 other express badge holders in our own separate line) were the first to get in and I saw Duran Duran from front and center.

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Fare Thee Well, Trey Woodward

Written by | Published March 24, 2011

By Dale Weisman

trey-jeep1A down-to-earth “rock star” of the Big Bend has passed away.

John Frank “Trey” Woodward III died on March 5, 2011, at the young age of 54. While cancer claimed his body, Trey’s gentle spirit lives on at the Woodward Ranch, a rugged mecca for rock collectors and outdoors enthusiasts.

For decades, the Woodward Ranch has promoted itself as the world’s only known source of red plume agate, coveted by agate aficionados and lapidarists. A 3,000-acre spread 16 miles south of Alpine, the Woodward is indeed one of the nation’s premier agate-collecting spots. More than 60 kinds of other colorful agates and gemstones, from opal to labradorite, occur naturally in the ranch’s rugged volcanic outcroppings.

“The real treasure found at Woodward Ranch was Trey. The agates and gems were just a bonus,” said Trey’s wife, Jan Woodward, when I contacted her after Trey’s passing.

Jan added, “Trey had a magic way of making people feel so welcome, and he was bent on sharing the beauty of this part of the world with others. A lot of people haven’t ever been off of a sidewalk, and Trey just wanted them to see the land, the sky, the cows and rocks. He was so humble and quiet. And yet he was responsible for getting many people interested in rock collecting and geology and all the facets of what you can do with rocks. The Woodward Ranch has such a long heritage of rock collecting and lapidary, and Trey carried on the tradition that his father and grandfather started there.”

I met Trey for the first time 11 years ago while researching a Texas Highways article on the mountains of West Texas. Clad in worn jeans, a khaki shirt, scuffed boots and a battered cowboy hat, Trey looked like the quintessential Big Bend cattleman. He had cookie-duster mustache, a gravelly voice, a firm handshake and a welcoming smile that instantly won me over.

Trey was the third-generation Woodward to operate the ranch. Originally homesteaded in 1884, the Woodward is one of the few working ranches in Texas open to the public, a place where visitors can roam the hinterlands freely gathering rocks and fond memories alike.

“We want visitors to go away with a deeper understanding of wildlife, a deeper appreciation for rocks,” said Trey during our first interview in March 2000. “Rock hunting is like Easter egg hunting. You can bring your family out here and have a wonderful time.”

“Sometimes people coming out to the ranch from Dallas or Houston seem like refugees from the cities,” added Trey. “I’ve also lived in some of those places, and I know what it’s like to be confined and never look out and see open spaces. This is also a working cattle ranch and has been for a hundred years. For people whose children have never seen cattle, it’s a treat.”

I returned to the Woodward in 2002 while researching a Texas Highways article on Alpine and spent more time with Trey, learning about the ranch’s and rock-hounding heritage.

Trey Woodward with petrified wood at Needle Peak. Trey Woodward with petrified wood at Needle Peak.

“Even in the 1930s my granddad wondered what was in those rocks he was kicking around, and he got a rock saw and started working with them,” recalled Trey. “My dad John Frank Woodward Junior got interested in the rocks and the geology here. He was a geology major at Sul Ross [originally Sul Ross State Normal College, later renamed Sul Ross State University] and found out that this was the only place in the world where you can find red plume agates. They have to be cut in a certain way. My father and Ross Maxwell mapped more than 10,000 square miles of West Texas, from El Paso to Wink to Del Rio. That experience gave him an idea of the geology, how to work with rocks and where the agate is.

“My granddad started the agate ranch. When I was young we were building all the stuff at the house. We would cut, grind and polish rocks, and then college kids came down and helped us. I ran the ranch when I was 11-12 years old until age 25. My dad did the paperwork, but I ran the ranch. Then I moved away for 20 years, and my brother and sister ran the ranch for a while. I moved back in 1996, and my wife and I have made a go out of it.”

Trey showed me the ranch’s best agate-hunting beds, coaxing his old pick-up truck up and down steep ranch roads with panoramic views of Eagle Peak, the ranch’s signature promontory, dwarfed by the Cienega, Cathedral and Elephant mountains on the horizon. We stopped along spring-fed Calamity Creek, a lush oasis with oak-shaded campsites and a hunter’s cabin within a stone’s throw of the purling creek, which according to Trey never runs dry.

The last time I saw Trey was in May 2009 while researching an article on rock hounding for Texas Highways. My traveling companion Susi Bachman and I meet with Trey and Jan for a Tex-Mex dinner at La Casita in Alpine. We chatted about agates while devouring heaping plates of nachos and enchiladas. Between bites, Trey described how agates form over tens of millions of years in water-filled cavities inside volcanic rocks through a crystallization process. The nondescript agate nodules, called “biscuits,” dot the ranch’s hillsides. Slice one open with a rock saw, and you’ll find more colors than a Big Bend rainbow and an infinite variety of patterns.

Susi and I spent the night at the ranch in a lovely new guest cabin near Calamity Creek. We rose before dawn to meet Trey and hit the road at first light. Our destination: Trey’s Needle Peak acreage in south Brewster County. Bordering Big Bend National Park, Needle Peak abounds with green moss and pom-pom agates, pseudomorphs, petrified wood and fossils.

“Everyone I bring to Needle Peak says they love the ride down there the most,” said Trey, trailering an ‘86 Jeep behind his pickup for our four-wheeling sojourn. We left the pavement behind between Terlingua and Lajitas, offloaded the Jeep and took off down a muddy creek leading to Trey’s remote property. “Hold on!” Trey yelled over the roar of the revving V-8 engine. The Jeep’s fat tires spun in the slippery creek bed, splattering us with clumps of mud while Trey laughed like an overgrown kid, clearly in his element: mud and more mud.

We parked at the base of Needle Peak and hiked uphill through cacti, thorny brush and scree. “The best agate I’ve found is just below the peak,” said Trey. “It’s rough going up there.”

We stopped for a breather while ascending a steep ridge and savored expansive views of the desert badlands and nearby Santa Elena Canyon. “This is like home to me,” said Trey resting on a boulder. “It’s beautiful down here. Everything is quiet. It’s just you and the Lord.”

After several hours of rock hunting, we headed down the mountain, traversing a treacherous, talus-choked ravine. Trey spotted two basketball-size chunks of petrified wood. With my daypack already bulging with agates, I photographed the rocks and left them behind.

trey-fireplaceThat afternoon, Susi and I joined Trey and Jan at their Woodward Ranch home and rock shop, admiring their enormous collection of agates and gemstones, many still in a raw uncut state, some sliced and polished, many for sale and some only for show. A must-see: a conglomeration of rare and beautiful rock specimens surrounds the Woodward’s fireplace.

We sat outside at a picnic table, sipped tall glasses of sweetened ice tea and reflected on the Needle Peak adventure and life at the ranch. Trey said something that evening that resonated and stayed with me over the years: “We are keepers of the stuff. You don’t really own the rocks. You’re a temporary keeper because they outlast you.”

While the rocks indeed have outlasted Trey, his legacy endures at the Woodward Ranch. “Trey cared about the land,” said Jan. “He was such a steward of the land and a kind soul.”

Trey’s family and friends will celebrate his life at the Woodward Ranch around noon on April 30, and the public is welcome to join the gathering. Visit www.woodwardranch.com to view an eloquent video tribute to Trey Woodward.

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Farewell to Forbidden Gardens

Written by | Published February 23, 2011

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Upon hearing that Forbidden Gardens would be closing soon, I planned a stop on the way to Houston for a farewell visit to this distinctive attraction. I arrived on a windy, overcast afternoon to find the entrance locked and deserted, with a sign clamped to the gate about a weekend sale of their office furnishings and gift shop items.

Although I was unable to tour the grounds one last time, I still walked away with fond memories of the place. I had visited several times, mostly in the first few years of its opening, with my daughter Lucy, who was then around seven or eight years old. It gave me great pride, and some amusement, to show her some of China’s culture and history, in an outdoor museum in Katy. We oohed and ahhed over the magnitude of the terra-cotta army, and tried to pick out “repeat” soldiers, those with identical features. We marveled over the miniature Forbidden City, with its myriad courtyards and throngs of tiny people. The exhibit rooms filled with colorful period furnishings, clothing and a replica of the emperor’s dining table also caught our attention, but our favorite of all was the half-man, half-dog statues seated at the entrance to one of the pagoda-topped structures. How Lucy loved climbing atop these creatures!

I snapped a few photos of what I could around the entrance. A forlorn-looking, slightly chipped gray horse stands on the hill overlooking the orange-tiled roofs. It felt somewhat like walking into a barren street where a grand parade had marched into town and left. One could still feel the presence of centuries of Chinese history on a remote patch of land in Katy.

Celebrating Year of the Rabbit

Written by | Published February 23, 2011

photo courtesy Dorothy Huangphoto courtesy Dorothy Huang

In January 2010’s TH Taste, I wrote a brief mention of the Chinese New Year Feast hosted by cooking instructor Dorothy Huang, Martin Yan (of PBS’ Yan Can Cook), and restaurant owner/chef Hoi Fung at his Fung’s Kitchen in Houston. The event, held over two nights, was a sold-out success, and the team brought back this popular Lunar New Year banquet for 2011’s Year of the Rabbit. Luckily for me, I was able to attend this year, and it is truly a feast for the senses, as well as the appetite.

The evening opened with a trio of lion dancers, which snaked their way to and from every table, playfully wagging and begging for “lucky money” from guests. Red envelopes were provided at each table for those wanting to contribute to the fun.

Following the lion dancers were several troupes of Asian girls ranging from five-year-olds to pre-teens performing traditional Chinese dances. Adorable and delightful!

We enjoyed a nine-course tasting immediately after the performances, with accompanying cooking demos of most of the dishes by Chef Fung, Martin Yan, and Dorothy Huang. Entrees included Chinese classics such as Peking duck (very succulent!), lobster in black pepper sauce, sweet-and-sour fish, and also Chinese style filet mignon, along with shrimp fried rice for good luck. After the sumptuous, scrumptious meal, our hosts greeted diners at each table and we toasted the Rabbit Year with red wine and cognac—“ganbei!” (cheers!).

Earlier in the day, I tried to visit the now-shuttered Forbidden Gardens, and mourned the passing of a Houston-area Chinese cultural treasure. Could Fung’s Kitchen New Year’s Feast somehow mark the birth of another?

Scouting Trip

Written by | Published January 31, 2011

It’s the last day of January, and though it’s warm in Austin right now, the National Weather Service says a cold front will roll in tonight, followed by really cold temperatures later this week. Instead of stocking up on hot chocolate, though, I’m planning my annual trip to southeast Texas this weekend to scout out the first wildflowers of the season. My mother, who lives near Edna, has already spotted coreopsis along the roadside, and my sister tells me that bluets are out, too. Yes, all those early bloomers will probably freeze their petals off this week, but I can’t resist looking for them. I make a trip home each year around this time with that in mind—I think of it as a Texas twist on Groundhog Day. And some years I’m rewarded by seeing a splash of phlox or even an overachieving Indian paintbrush.

Of course, the fact that the magazine staff is working on the April issue (which always has pages and pages of wildflower photos) during January and February also colors my enthusiasm. There’s nothing like seeing all those gorgeous images to put you in the mood for the real thing. And thankfully, in Texas, it’s almost wildflower season, no matter what the National Weather Service has to say.

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