November 29, 2003

Cold. It was cold as I loaded my gear into my car, getting ready to head for the airport. Probably 36 degrees or less. Frost covered some of the lawns up and down my street.

The day before I knew it was going to be cold, but I also knew it was going to be a spectacular day for flying. So, I bundled up — long-john bottoms, blue-jeans, and windproof ski pants, three shirts, a fleece jacket, and a windproof outer jacket. The only parts of me not double- or triple- or pentiple-layered were my feet and my face.

For the Texas Gulf Coast area, this was pretty cold, but it wasn’t going to stop me from flying. Jim decided to put his doors back on his Challenger, so he was a bit toastier than me.

My battery — being cold, too — wasn’t quite up to starting the engine, so I had to give it a little boost, but soon enough I found myself ascending on the centerline, looking to the east-southeast at the Galleria skyline (the right group of buildings) and the downtown skyline (the more distant, left group of buildings).

Balloonists knew about the ideal weather, too, and it wasn’t long before I saw two of them, one on the ground already, the other one dangerously close to the cars rushing by on Interstate 10.

It wasn’t intentional, but before too long I found myself overflying the aviation community of SportFlyer (27XS)…

…just north of Brookshire, Texas. By this time, I’m at almost 3,000 feet… it wasn’t much colder than at 1,500 feet, so I figured I’d enjoy the long distances you can see on cold days. A bit later, I approached the Brazos River and took this shot of it with an oxbow lake…

…in the foreground. As you probably know, that oxbow lake used to be part of the river… it certainly does meander, doesn’t it?

Ok — shiver, shiver — I’ve been in the air for 25 minutes, my thermometer says it’s 48 degrees, and I’m flying over an area I’ve been over many times before. It’s another 30 minutes before I take another shot… partly because I’m keeping my hands in my pockets where it’s warm, but also because the details on the ground I normally see at 1,000-1,500 feet are too tiny to be of much interest when at 3,000 feet. Finally I see a large, familiar landmark, the power plant and lake at Fayetteville.

Ah, here’s something I might have missed at a lower altitude, a large, round field. If you squint and turn your head a bit, you might see a face.

Shortly after that, I looked to my right and saw Fayette Regional Airport.

So far, although cold, I wasn’t that uncomfortable. The air was smooth as glass… like riding on a rail. The sky had been clear up to now, but off to the southwest was an unusual cloud, and it was breathtaking! The photo doesn’t show it, but the sun was shining through small breaks in that flat, rippling cloud, creating crepuscular rays. It was stunning.

After almost 2 hours in the air, I was closing in on Lockhart. For the last 15 minutes, I had managed to raise Jim on the radio, and he was about 10 minutes ahead of me. Great timing! He couldn’t get anyone to accompany him so, like me, he was solo on the first leg of the trip. What was really funny was, I managed to raise John Riley on the radio, and he was back at Bailes, flying around with Gabe. That means I could hear him and talk to him over 140 miles away! Incredible! I’m sure the clear, crisp day helped, and I was at 3,000 feet, of course, so that had to help, too. But still, that was really something!

The singular layer of cloud was still there as I lined up for the approach at Lockhart.

It was so beautiful, it was distracting. The first bumps I felt were in the pattern and on approach… the rest of the almost 2 hour flight had been baby-bottom smooth. I landed and taxied up to see Jim in front of the FBO, waving enthusiastically.

As we refueled, Jim said that he had stopped at Hallettsville and was planning to refuel there, but the pumps were not working, so he was pretty low after 156 miles. Soon enough, we were back in the air… I took this shot…

…of the airport as we turned north in order to avoid San Marcos Airport.

Here is another map, zoomed in, showing the San Marco area and our track.

At the outset, we had two general ideas before we started the trip: we wanted to fly over the Wimberley area, and we wanted to land at Lago Vista airport, just northwest of Austin. As we flew north from Lockhart, I could see Austin in the distance, but somehow I knew we wouldn’t make it to Lago Vista.

The wind had picked up considerably, and now we were fighting gusts, thermals and generally windy conditions. (Yes, even on cold days, there can be thermals!) Neither one of us felt it would be wise to try to make Lago Vista, partly because of the windy conditions, and partly because we felt we didn’t have enough time before the early Winter sun set.

After a few miles in a northerly direction, we turned west, and headed for a waypoint called Restoration Ranch, a private turf airstrip near Wimberley. Somewhere near where our track crossed Interstate 35, near a small town north of San Marcos called Kyle, I spotted this tin fleamarket, with a Texas flag painted on the side.

Looking up from that, the hills of the Texas Hill Country loomed ahead. Below me was my first look at my most favorite river in the entire world, the Blanco River.

Most of the time, it’s not much more than a shallow creek, but it’s spring-fed, clear, and has a lot of character!

As you can see, there are numerous low-water crossings, and occasionally a more substantial bridge.

If you’ll notice, this bridge is concave shaped, and it’s designed to be overrun with water because, sometimes, the Blanco becomes a raging, torrential nightmare. Very few houses are right on the river bank, because it wouldn’t be long before they would be swept away. The beauty of the river can be seductive. But if you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time, the seductress can be a killer, with a wall of water rushing downstream, washing away everything in its path.

Here is a sharp bend in the river…

…and you can see where it has eaten away the side of the hill over thousands of years. This section…

…illustrates the rocky limestone foundation of this area of Texas, and shows shallow portions of blue-green water. Rainfall soaks into the limestone which creates a vast underground reservoir called the Edwards Aquifer. The Aquifer is the source of a great many springs in the area, which ultimately gives birth to the Blanco and other small rivers.

I passed over the 7A-Ranch Resort and Pioneer Town, one of many places to stay in Wimberley. My favorite, going back many decades, is Rio Bonito.

We press on, past the town, for Jim wants to find a small cabin he has stayed at. Off in the distance, nestled among the hills, is Canyon Lake.

I look down, anxious to get another shot of the pretty river, but as I press on the shutter release, the sun reflects off the water.

Finally, he finds the particular bend in the river where the cabin is… somewhere down there…

…among the trees and the limestone escarpments.

The hills have made the air even rougher, so we finally decide we’ve had enough. A quick conversation about whether or not to head for Lago Vista… not!… and we turn southeast toward New Braunfels, and lunch! Shortly after we turn, I grab this dramatic shot of the Devils Backbone (which I can tell you is a great thrill on a fast motorcycle!).

Off to my right is Canyon Lake and the wide tan expanse of Canyon Dam.

To my left are some of the more rugged hills found in the area.

Before long, we land at New Braunfels. As we taxi, I’m overwhelmed by the old 4-engine aircraft left standing who-knows-how-long on the tarmac.

The primary purpose for landing at New Braunfels: it’s one of the few airports within our range that has a restaurant on the field. Jim had a club sandwich; I had a burger. We left happy!

We decided to return to Lockhart to refuel, so we mounted up and took off.

On the short flight to Lockhart, we blundered into a small airfield — Fentress Airpark — used by Skydive San Marcos for parachute jumping.

Given the clear day, it wasn’t hard to spot this rather large grass fire.

It appears to have engulfed at least one trailer home. Someone wasn’t having a very good day, but at least there were several fire engines on site.

Back at Lockhart, we refuel…

…and talk about the flight back. Jim is concerned he won’t make it back to Bailes before dark due to a headwind that has come up. So, he decides to accompany me back to West Houston.

Although this is territory I’ve been over before, there are always things to see. Here, two families contest each other with color; on one side of the road, nearly all the buildings except the main house are red with a tin roofs; on the other side of the street, all the buildings except the main house are white with green roofs. It caught my eye… like a little color feud.

Another view of the Fayetteville power plant, this time at a lower altitude, and with power lines leading away.

This is a very interesting — and odd — house out in the middle of nowhere. I can’t quite decide which motif they were shooting for, but it seems to have a little bit of everything.

Here is an orchard (what kind, I don’t know) snug up against the Colorado River, with cattle grazing between the rows of trees.

Jim was still plugging along…

…in fact, we probably spent 20 minutes or more without chattering to each other over the air-to-air channel. At one point, he calls over: “Are you asleep?” I kind of felt like I was… Flying lower was better because there was more to see, but the thermals were wearing us down. Just as I was thinking that, they suddenly became noticeably quieter. It was almost 4 o’clock, and the sun had lost its hold on the land, and the thermal “bubbles” could no longer burst.

It was right about then I suggested to Jim that he fly toward Bailes for a few minutes to see what his GPS told him his ETA would be. He did so, and it said it would get him there by 5:15pm, so, a waggle of the wings and he veered off toward the southeast. Later he told me he landed at 5:20, so it was a good estimate.

Shortly after that, I took these shots of the Brazos River meandering under the I-10 bridge, US 90 pointing due east, toward Houston, a Katy grain elevator — a farmers sentinel and its shadow, and the Katy water tower, looking like a Martian from out of Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”

Being an all-day trip, we realized that we’re reaching the limits of our 1-day range. It was fun to see the Hill Country from the air, and there’s a lot more to see. But it will have to wait for another day.

366 miles covered, and in the air for about 5 hours 45 minutes.

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