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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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Things to Do on a Rainy Day

Written by | Published January 31, 2011

Earlier this winter, my friend Chris and I decided to broaden our cultural horizons with a post-holiday trip to the Dallas Arts District. Our original plan was to visit the Nasher Sculpture Center, but the cold, drizzly weather didn’t really lend itself to walking outdoors, so our itinerary shifted to the Dallas Museum of Art.

I’m a fan of primitive and folk art, so I was happy to check out one of the traveling exhibits, African Masks: The Art of Disguise (until Feb. 13). It included lots of great sculptural costumes from around Africa. Then, knowing we couldn’t possibly see it all in a day, we attempted to choose which galleries to view. We ended up meandering through the second floor visiting modern design, early 20th-century decorative arts, into Pacific Island art and past some wonderfully detailed Japanese sculptures. We even came upon a re-created villa—fully furnished with artwork on the walls.

I like the spacious, but warm, feel of the DMA building. It offers lots of opportunities to wander through different worlds of art, and—my favorite—to watch people interact with art. Not a bad place to spend a rainy day!

On a break, we took a walk around the vicinity and were pleasantly surprised at the proximity of the Nasher and the Crow Collection of Asian Art. I see another trip or two to this area in my future.[gallery columns="4"]

Side trip: Our excursion included a quick jaunt through downtown Waxahachie to check out the Ellis County Courthouse. I’ve always wanted to see this building in real life, particularly all those face sculptures on the outside. I’m not sure if these are likenesses of the legendary Mabel or not, but they sure are expressive! If you’re curious, read about the gargoyles on the Waxahachie courthouse.

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What's Up with the Astrodome?

Written by | Published January 24, 2011

Upon its debut in 1965 as host to an exhibition game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, Houston’s Astrodome—lauded by fans as the “Eighth Wonder in the World”—nabbed a spot in the record books as the world’s first multi-purpose domed stadium (not to mention the birthplace of AstroTurf). Alas, the once-regal Dome now rests in the shadow of the much-larger Reliant Stadium at Reliant Park; the Astros left the Dome for Minute Maid Park more than a decade ago.

But city leaders are debating the Astrodome’s future, and the options are numerous: Demolish it and install a green-space plaza? Keep the shell and convert it to a multi-use venue, perhaps with an attached hotel? Create a mega-venue with a planetarium and an institute devoted to engineering and mathematics? What do you think should happen with the Astrodome? We’d love to hear your thoughts and memories. (You can see the current options being considered, complete with artists’ renditions of how redevelopment might look, at http://www.reliantpark.com/feedback.)

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French Twist

Written by | Published January 20, 2011

In the past few months, I've had the good fortune to dine at a handful of French-inspired brasseries and bistros in Houston, San Antonio, and Austin. And I just got wind of a new spot—Lüke, the first Texas restaurant by New Orleans chef John Besh—that is winning raves in San Antonio for such French favorites as mussels and seafood meunière, all rendered with a Louisiana twist. Then, as I wondered whether this new infusion of French cuisine is a trend or simply a coincidence, I learned of a new spot in Austin that focuses on French pastries and those jewel-like cookies known as macarons, which are giving cupcakes a run for their money nationwide as 2011's hottest dessert treat.

Blue Sky and Green Chiles

Written by | Published January 20, 2011

On a recent trip to Lubbock, I wasn't very enthusiastic when my friend suggested we have lunch at a new burger joint called Blue Sky Texas. I figured a burger is a burger; however, I quickly changed my tune when we went inside and I saw the menu. One of the featured items is a green chile cheeseburger. You can also get green chile-cheese fries and chile sticks (fried chiles). Yum. My taste buds were ready. These are menu items you don't find at most burger places. I went for the green chile cheeseburger, and my friend ordered something called Blue Sky "steak" and fries (two ground-chuck patties stuffed with grilled onions and jalapeños and topped with queso).

And the Winners Are ...

Written by | Published January 18, 2011

In an awards ceremony at Dallas' gorgeous Winspear Opera House last Thursday, the "Texas Cultural Trust nonprofit organization that raises private money to heighten arts awareness in Texas" announced its 2011 honorees for the 2011 Texas Medal of Arts Awards, which recognizes Texas talent in film, television, literature, journalism, music, theater, media, and the visual arts.

See the Stars

Written by | Published January 13, 2011

Hockey isn’t normally on my radar, but I became a fan for an evening at a recent Texas Stars game at Cedar Park Center. The Stars went stick-to-stick with the Hamilton (Ontario) Bulldogs, but the experience went beyond the swift-paced, puck-whacking, Plexiglas-pounding action of the game. Booming music, the jumbotron’s frequent fan footage (showing lots of happy kids and the kiss-cam), a roving burger-shaped blimp dropping coupons, the Chuck-a-Puck competition, a T-shirt cannon—all further amped the excitement.

Find ticket prices and details on special deals at www.cedarparkcenter.com (remember, there’s also a parking fee). And go, Stars!

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Dancing Mobiles

Written by | Published December 29, 2010

It would be poetic, I think, if I were to effuse that I’ve been fascinated with mobiles since I was an infant gazing at one dangling above my crib. But in reality, my introduction to mobiles came in grade school, thanks to a hippie art teacher who smelled of patchouli and patiently taught her ham-handed students how to make dancing (if lopsided) sculptures from twigs, painted acorns, and twine. I thought of her this morning when I read about the Nasher Sculpture Center’s exhibition of the works of Alexander Calder (1898-1976), whose first kinetic sculptures were dubbed “mobiles” by colleague and friend Marcel Duchamp. (Interestingly, fellow experimental artist Jean Arp called Calder’s stationary artworks “stabiles.”)

The Nasher’s show, Alexander Calder and Contemporary Art: Form, Balance, Joy, runs through March 6. Along with more than 30 of Calder’s works, the exhibition also highlights seven contemporary artists who were influenced by Calder’s creative reuse of materials, hands-on production methods, and explorations of form, balance, color, and movement.

I can’t think of a more pleasant place to experience Calder’s graceful sculptures. With its spare and light-filled interior galleries and al fresco sculpture garden filled with beautiful and thought-provoking installations, the Nasher makes artworks accessible and relevant to life’s experiences. So I know that when I next make it to Dallas, and when I walk amongst the mobiles as they rotate on gossamer threads, I’ll be back in art class, surrounded by classmates with braces and awkward hairdos, assembling sculptures from garden flotsam. The weight of one acorn could throw the whole thing off-balance. Alter one variable, and the whole project shifts. Could I have known back then that a mobile could be a metaphor for life itself? For more on the Nasher, see www.nashersculpturecenter.org.

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Texas on the Small Screen

Written by | Published December 16, 2010

I’m not really a football fan. Those are fighting words, I realize, in some parts of Texas, where pigskin rivalries divide families, coworkers, and even strangers in line at the grocery store. I do look forward to the Super Bowl every year (so I’ve marked my calendar for this year’s 45th anniversary game up in Arlington on February 6), but that’s mostly because it’s my annual excuse to eat lots of Velveeta-and-Rotel queso.

So for those who know me well, it’s always a surprise that I adore the television show Friday Night Lights, that sleeper quasi-hit show that won raves from the critics but never really took off with television audiences. My non-expert opinion is that it suffers an identity crisis: Most people think of it as a sports drama, whereas truly it’s a story about relationships, and it’s perhaps one of the of the most authentic depictions of small-town Texas since Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.

It doesn’t hurt that the show is set in Austin and surrounding areas. There’s the Continental Club! Fran’s Hamburgers! The Landing Strip of all places! That megalachurch near my house! It’s fun to try to figure out where each shot was filmed.

Location-spotting: This, along with the curious charms of actor Bradley Whitford (you know, the guy who played Josh Lyman on The West Wing, and Danny Tripp on the rollicking Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip) is what drew me to the new Fox buddy-police-comedy The Good Guys, which is set in Dallas and filmed in Dallas. The plots are gossamer-thin, but Whitford plays a pratfalling rogue Texas cop with gum-smacking panache (with Tom Hanks’ son Colin as the straight-guy sidekick). Never mind; the true star of the show is Dallas—sleek office buildings and tony downtown restaurants, Fair Park in all its Art-Deco glory, rough-around-the-edges barbecue joints along Riverside (formerly Industrial)…. I wonder if Dallasites have the same fun trying to identify filming locations for The Good Guys as I do for Friday Night Lights.

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