Tuesday, 30 August 2011

The Texas State Parks Geocache Challenge

This past weekend I found myself in Big Spring, Texas for a Geocaching event. A while back I attended an event in Austin where the Texas State Park Service had a booth talking about this great geocaching passport program they would be starting up. I knew it was supposed to begin in June but not much else. As I began to plot the caches I wanted to find in Big Spring I ran across this Big Spring State Park cache. The park is small, and nestled in center of downtown Big Spring. Arriving at the front gate you find a small kiosk that mentions that there is no longer any overnight camping allowed in the park. It is strictly a day-use park! I found no place to pay an entry fee so I began a slow winding drive up to the top of the mesa on which the park is located.

To access the geocache you park in the small lot for the Nature Trail and bird observation area on your right as you drive into the park. From here it is about three tenths of a mile to the cache with a gradual elevation gain and occasional steps set into the trail. Although it was already about 90F at 10AM I found the walk very nice and easy on the legs and knees. The cache itself is an ammo can with various swag, a log book, some nice color illustrated fact cards about the state parks, and lastly a tethered orienteering punch. To complete the "Big Sky" State Park Challenge you need to find the appropriate geocaches in ten of the twenty parks in this region that includes North and West Texas. There are similar challenges for other regions in the state. There are handy passports to print out on the Texas State Parks website. Just find the cache, answer a question based on the information on the collectible cards in the cache and punch your passport with the orienteering stamp. It's that easy!

A few joggers passed me as I was checking out the cache, but they paid me no real attention. I like the location chosen for this cache as it is not a park and grab and requires a little effort to attain but I wish the container were a little better hidden. I fear it may disappear even though it is clearly marked because it is visible from the trail. Now that I have found my first GeoChallenge cache I am eager to visit more Texas State Parks. When you complete your passport you mail it to the park service for a certificate and a chance at various prizes.

Lastly I hiked over to the observation rim on the north edge of the park and took in a vista of Big Spring and the wind farms out in the distance. It is far from the best vista I have ever seen, but it is amazing how far you can see over the surrounding flat flat terrain. I completed my visit by doing a few of the new Geocaching Challenges. These involve no physical containers to find but rely on you going outdoors and recording yourself doing various activities. There is even a free app for iPhones to keep up with your challenges.

Here my task was to take a photo of local landmarks with my finger on top of them. This was ackward to do alone but I took a photo of a large wind farm on another mesa to the east.

And here I was tasked with spelling out my Geocaching handle "ZSandmann" with native materials. I chose the abundant mesquite beans to leave my mark.

My wife and I are planning a trip to Balmorhea State Park for Labor Day. So look for that post soon!

Friday, 5 August 2011

The Texas Panhandle - Day 2

We started the morning off by doing some Virtual caches around Amarillo. They vary in subject matter, from a free spinning marble globe, a train that speaks to the railroad history of Amarillo, etc. Amarillo was once known as the self-proclaimed "Helium Capital of the World" for having one of the country's most productive helium fields. There are many geocaches that accent this history so we visited a few.

Don Harrington Discovery Center, located in the city's hospital district, is an interactive science center and space theater with over 60 hands-on exhibits. The structure at these coordinates is the Helium Monument, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the discovery of helium on the sun in 1868. The Helium Monument is really four time capsules (sealed caches?!). The first was opened after 25 years in 1993. The contents are on display in the adjacent museum. The other three will be opened after 50, 100, and 1000 years. Among the most interesting things in the capsules is the passbook in the 1000 year capsule to a bank account with a $10 deposit. It is projected to be worth $1 quadrillion when opened in 2968! That likely makes this the most valuable geocache on record, if you are willing to wait until 2968.

After the museum we visited the site of one of the largest helium factories in Amarillo. I love this story about the discovery of Helium in the area:

Nine million cubic feet of gas was escaping each day before the equipment could be found to cap the well, and the drilling company wasted no time in selling stock and planning for additional wells. A jubilant crowd gathered in the small town of Dexter, Kansas, in May 1903. Dexter was pinning its hopes for economic prosperity on a newly drilled well that had unleashed "a howling gasser."

To celebrate their good fortune, the people of Dexter planned a huge celebration, complete with band music, patriotic speeches and games. The lighting of the escaping gas was planned as the spectacular climax to the day's events. Promotional circulars promised "a great pillar of flame from the burning well will light the entire countryside for a day and a night."

After an exhilarating address by the mayor, the excited gathering watched with anticipation as a burning bale of hay was slowly moved into contact with the gusher. Instead of the expected conflagration, the flames of the burning bale were quickly extinguished. Undaunted, the mayor repeated the process several times, but with the same results. Disappointed and puzzled, the crowd slowly dispersed.

Dismay over the gas well's failure spread throughout Kansas, but Erasmus Haworth, the official state geologist, was intrigued by this unusual event. Haworth arranged for a large cylinder to be filled with the “Dexter Gas” and began a routine analysis of the cylinder's contents. The results readily gave a scientific explanation to the Dexter puzzle.

The gas contained only 15% combustible methane, which would not burn in the presence of almost 72% nonflammable nitrogen, and 12% of an unknown “inert gas” which was later identified as helium. Haworth’s results were reported to a Geological Society of America meeting in Philadelphia on Dec. 30, 1904.

The Cadillac Ranch, located along the historic Route 66, was built in 1974, brainchild of Stanley Marsh 3, the helium millionaire who owns the dusty wheat field where it stands. Marsh and The Ant Farm, a San Francisco art collective, assembled used Cadillacs representing the "Golden Age" of American Automobiles (1949 through 1963). The ten graffiti-covered cars are half-buried, nose-down, facing west "at the same angle as the Cheops' pyramids. The feet of Ozymandius we had visited the day before were created by the same group. This was my favorite stop on our trip, it doesn't seem like much at first but is such a unique piece of Americana. It can't be missed. I was able to sign my Geocaching handle to the monument before we left then we headed east towards Oklahoma.

I have been through Amarillo a few times before while traveling from Alabama to New Mexico for geology field camp. So I knew there was a giant cross near town but I've never had a chance to stop and see just how enormous it is confirming the "Everything's bigger in Texas" mantra. It is huge, there isn't much else to be said. The church that built it is undergoing renovations but there are copies of the ten commandments, the Shroud of Turin, the Stations of the Cross, Jesus' tomb, etc. We spent a bit of time checking everything out but then a tour bus pulled in so we figured it was about to get crazy and rolled on to the next stop.

We stopped at two different rest areas along the Interstate east of Amarillo. One was themed after Route 66 with white lined sidewalks painted to look like roads and murals of the route map made of recycled tire mats. There was also a huge playground for the kids. The other was more traditional and featured an indoor display on wind mills and wind turbines.

The older sections of Route 66 are more accessible to the east of Amarillo so we stopped in several towns and saw remnants of what was once America's greatest highway. Seems like it would have been a lot more fun than the monotonous Interstates we drive today, but most long trips are more about the destination than the trip nowadays. The historic Conoco gas station below is a neat little Route 66 museum now, but even more fun is the fact that they used it's architecture as inspiration for Romero's Garage in the first Cars movie! Who knew?

The rest of the day was an exploration of the less populated parts of the extreme northern panhandle. There are more canyonlands than I expected to see based on the surrounding high plains and those were fun to drive through. We saw few people but came across suicidal cats, rabbits, owls, and one frog that got his wish. We arrived home after 2AM but managed to cover all the territory the Panhandle has to offer. I still want to make a return trip to further explore Amarillo and Lake Meredith to the north.

Oh yeah, we saw this too: