Friday, August 28, 2009

What’s Coming Up on “Travel with a Twist.”

This week, I want to let everyone who follows “Travel with a Twist” -- or those wanting to begin following these blog posts -- what will be coming up every Friday in weeks ahead.

Some fun places to go or at least read about.

First, bird watching. The southern New Jersey shore near Cape May is the place to go. Birds migrate there in spectacular numbers and species. In September, there are big surges of neotropical songbirds all month along the beach. Hawks (Merlins and Northern Harriers) are migrating. You can see flights of loons and cormorants.

In October, you can see the height of neotropical songbirds. Scoters come along. And so do gulls and terns. Owls come in at mid-month. Egrets and great blue herons are on the scene.

Check in to the blog as zoologists explain what is described as the greatest bird migration in the United States.

Also in New Jersey. Sho-be-do, do-wop, do-wop. Yeah! The epicenter of Doo-Wop. It’s not just music. It’s architecture too. Amazing 50's motels. And oldies-but goodies at the convention center in Wildwood.

Off to Texas. A quilting convention in Houston, mid-October where 55,000 women will gather to show their artistry at the International Quilt Festival. “Travel with a Twist” will preview the festival and cover it live.

We will do our best to interview and survey the work of Peter Kramer, master cabinet maker in “little” Washington, Virginia. We may also give a review of the renowned five-star restaurant in the same small town, “Inn at Little Washington.”

We will visit three small towns all of which have renovated old movie theaters for live stage performances to enhance local economic development and give pleasure.

Austin, Texas wants to be “weird.” It’s the place where 100's of thousands of bats stream out from under the Lady Bird Johnson bridge every evening when the sun dips below the horizon. One of the only towns in the world that would not eradicate the bats. Learn why? It's an interesting story. Sit back and enjoy the thousands who watch every night.

Oh, and in early October, we may visit Kreutz’s barbecue in Lockhart, Texas. There’s an open fire in the joint with smoldering live oak logs, a hole in the roof for the chimney, BBQ served on butcher paper with bread and pinto beans. No utensils. Reviewed by the New York Times. We’ll do a better job. So tune in.

See you all next Friday.

© Russ Barnes 2009. All rights reserved including text and owned photos indicated as copyrighted. Reproduction or re-transmission of material available upon request. Links to this posted article are welcome and encouraged.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Life is Good in the Brush! --Outfitted on a Texas Ranch

Life is good in the brush! So proclaims outdoorsman Joe Heidelmeier as we drive through the Texas Hill Country to Hickory Pass Ranch in Joe's well-provisioned 1988 Ford pick-up truck, "Silver."

Joe, who is referred to as an “outfitter” in ranch lingo, will be my guide and mentor during my stay on the 3500 acres of near wilderness that make up Hickory Pass Ranch near Marble Falls.

Being “outfitted” on massive private ranches such as this one makes for an active getaway. In Texas alone there are hundreds of these private ranches, some providing the public with respite from the cacophony and confusion of city life -- and adventure through managed outfitted ranch experiences.

In such a getaway, your private outfitter guides you, supplies you, teaches you, befriends you, corrects you, informs you, protects you, and chastises you -- out in the brush.

Spending a vacation like this feels nothing like taking a Caribbean cruise, bargaining in the markets of Marrakesh, or doing the grand tour of Europe.

Nope. Getting out to one of the many Texas ranches that provide outfitting to the traveling public, your eyes may first be greeted by live oak and mesquite trees on the horizon, quisatche weed and prickly pear on the ground. Hidden, initially, from view but there to be discovered are also -- depending on the ranch -- quail, deer, wild turkey, dove, geese, wild sheep, wild boar, elk, bobcat, an occasional mountain lion. Snakes. lizards, spiders and insects find their place in the wilds of bush country. Your guide instructs you in how to deal with all the critters.

Why go there? What’s to do?

There are several answers. The first and most obvious is to hunt game. For the avid hunter, this is often an experience for a lifetime. But bringing home the game for bragging rights, while a big incentive, doesn’t explain the depth of the experience you get.

What you get besides maybe a “trophy” deer is more subtle to express. But most participants feel it. Want it. Come back for more. One appealing dimension to the experience, not often mentioned, is the mysterious connection that develops between people and nature in a communal setting on a managed Texas ranch.

Here are some of the rewards of time spent in company with other seekers of experience in the wild:

1) Learning -- not only about hunting and bagging the quarry (although that foremost). You may hear a few tips as I did from my guide, Joe, for example, about rattlesnakes. “Never walk in the shade during the day. Walk in the sun. At night, always carry a flashlight outside.” Or for another example, “If you see a skunk or a fox in the bright sun of daylight, shoot it or back off. It will be rabid.”

2) A rare camaraderie especially to be found among men as they encounter the natural world together. What is this? Much -- including a feeling of well-being, connectedness, and personal power few feel in the modern offices and busy chores of city life.

3) A primal relationship between man and beast, and between man and nature, that cannot be found fully in a zoo or even in a state or national park. You experience this in your group even if you hunt only with a camera, as I do.

4) A growing experience of mystery at which I can only hint as these paragraphs unfold. The ranch setting, as well as the growing bonding the group experiences as they are immersed in that setting, provides a substantial contrast to the urban environment.

Consciousness changes. “Being in the brush is good ju-ju,” points out Joe Heidelmeier, using an African expression meaning a combination of luck, magic, and power. “There are people who, if they can’t get out to the brush on a regular basis, they could turn into something like a serial killer.” (It’s clear Joe doesn’t mean that literally. There are many subtle ways to murder a part of someone out of frustration.)

Allen Spence, manager of AC Hunting Ranches in Fort McKavett, Texas, agrees. “I used to come out here as a participant -- 180 miles from Austin -- to hunt for a week. Out here I felt content," Spence continues. “When I started back to the city and my job, my head started buzzing. You worry, what emails will be waiting? What’s happening with office politics?”

AC Hunting Ranches are actually three working ranches, all managed by Allen and his wife, Allison. One is 10,000 acres, the two others 5000 acres each (for a total of 20,000 acres), one of smaller ranches high fenced to contain sizable game like elk. There are several ranch houses, one of them elegant, “as nice as any found at Lakeway" (the sophisticated Austin resort). The accommodations at Texas ranches that outfit vary considerably. Those at AC Hunting Ranches extend from luxurious to a comfortable rustic apartment constructed inside a barn.

Sunrise, Sunset

Days begin with a robust breakfast, such as eggs, bacon and sausage, pancakes, fruit, coffee and the like, and end with a hearty group chowdown, with a chance to replay the tall tales of the day with a repast of such entrees as fajitas, Tex-Mex, steaks, chicken-fried steak and all.

Days more often than not end with a sunset in a signature Texas burnt-orange blaze. What follows is a night sky so black you can see burning debris streaking through earth’s atmosphere, the Milky Way laid out beyond as a light-show backdrop almost every night.

About the mystical experience. “An adrenaline rush” is how Allen Spence describes it.

Picture it like this: Your guide takes you through the brush to a “deer blind” -- an elevated, camouflaged lookout with horizontal rectangles for sighting a camera or rifle. You are quiet. You are still. You begin your look-out just when the sun comes up or goes down over the horizon at sunset.

This is the time of day Joe calls “the magic moment.” Creatures stir. You look out over the Texas land -- wooded with live oak, cedar, mesquite with meadows of quisatche, algerita bushes, prickly pear cacti, and grasses of all sorts.

It is quiet. The air is cool. You hear only the snapping of twigs and swishing of the brush as hidden creatures begin to stir. For a while you don’t care what happens. The silence, broken only by these soft sounds, is all-absorbing.

Time stands still. You watch. You wait. Then in a moment, out of the brush, a creature appears. As it comes into range, the guide coaches you through the shot. It is a dramatic moment in a mighty and intimate relationship between two animals: one human and one wild.

It is at this moment that many hunters suffer what Allen calls "buck fever." The guy begins to shake, quake, and quiver,” Allen reports. “He quivers like he is freezing even if the temperature is 100 degrees.”

It is an ancient rite. There is protocol, even courtesy, to the death -- little different from the priestly sacrifices on the temple altar described in the Bible. This is the moment of the “adrenaline rush,” “buck fever,” and awe before the creation we inhabit. “When I make my harvest and pick up the animal,” Joe confides, “I feel a twinge of regret. A spirit is gone and I feel sad about its passing."

Adrenaline Rush; Buck Fever

As to learning proper manners and protocol, Joe, my guide, explains, "There is a difference between a shooter and a hunter. First of all, many of these ‘shooters’ don’t know how to use a rifle. Second, they shoot deer in the body, through the internal organs. That wounds the quarry," Joe continues, "and the animal flees, the adrenaline flowing through its body. The animal suffers and the taste of the meat is ruined."

"What you need to do," says Joe, "is reach out and touch the animal. You need to target the animal right through the brain. We’re not shooters of animals. We harvest them when they are over-populated. And we do it in an organized, managed way."

Joe describes how he guts a deer with only a penknife. "Anything you harvest, you must eat, share with your friends, or give away."

In contrast, Allen offers a ghastly example of this civilized code of ”eat your prey.” Narrating the story of a U.S. Marine sniper, who when the time came to kill his deer, began to shiver and shake in a classic case of buck fever despite his competent and dedicated years in the killing fields of war.

“Did you shake too in Iraq when you shot a man?” No, said the Marine. “That’s a job. I’m ordered to do that. I don’t even have to pick the man up once he’s down. Here I have a different experience. I pick up the animal up and help to clean it."

Men these days tend to be isolated from each other in the work-a-day world of civilian life. Women somehow seem to have a blessing, deserved, of meeting in groups to share their special problems and experiences.A place where they can experience a distinctive feminine community.

Allen, though, welcomes women as participants in the groups. The encounter with the wild is available to all.

How to Find Your Ranch; What Are Typical Terms?

There is little if any packaged travel to most of the ranches like the one described here. To get to AC Hunting Ranches, it is recommended that out-of-the region participants fly to either Austin or San Antonio. From there, they can rent a car and drive the 180 miles to Fort McKavett. An extra option is that the ranch will send a corporate plane to either airport to pick up participants and fly them to an air strip close by the ranch, where Allen will pick them up by van.

Group sizes at AC Hunting Ranches are six people and six guides for special game; ten to eleven people with accompanying guides for deer and hog hunting. Most hunts are three days in length. Prices range from about $800 to $3500. The price includes room and board, personal guides, and game handling. Specific details about AC Hunting Ranches may be found at:

For information on other game-managed Texas ranches, the following directory provides a starting place :

© Russ Barnes 2009. All rights reserved including text and owned photo indicated as copyrighted. Reproduction or re-transmission of material available upon request. Links to this posted article are welcome and encouraged.

NOTE: Hickory Pass Ranch mentioned in this post does not offer nor solicits outfitted hunting and is used here for illustration purposes only.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Crestone: Where Travel and Spirituality Meet

CRESTONE, Colorado.

This is a place where travel and spirituality merge. At 8000 feet, it takes your breath away. I bicycle up and down the high-desert, sandy foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range from my digs to this small rocky mountain town close by the New Mexico border.

I tie up my bike in town, population 120. First stop, Curt’s Olde Country Store where I pick up sea salt potato chips made in Boulder. Then on to the post office (zip 81131) where four-wheel drive vehicles zoom into the parking lot as people pick up their daily mail. I drink water and munch chips. And I people-watch.

And then there is the Twenty-First Amendment -- a liquor store -- open when I was last there, now closed. The storefront has a sign which says -- in big letters, quoting Hunter S. Thompson -- “A word to the wise is infuriating.” Old dogs lie on the street in front of this old establishment. They half-way raise their heads in disgust as you approach. Accusingly, their looks say, “Why would you disturb my savoir faire, amigo?”

There is also the Shambala Cafe located next to a Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome in which grows who knows what. We won’t get into that here.

Okay. That’s travel. How about spirituality?

Well, there is a Hindu temple in the environs. Several Tibetan centers. An ashram. A couple of Buddhist stupas. The Shumei International Institute, an impressive facility located high on the mountainside.

(You can hear the drumming from the Shumei Center as it rumbles off the ridge of the Rocky Mountain range like a thunderstorm in late afternoon.)

It is said there is a crystalline formation nearby Crestone. Some say it provides the area with a special spiritual energy.

My favorite spiritual place (or should I say a favorite place, period?) here in Saguache County is a Carmelite Roman Catholic monastery, the Spiritual Life Institute. Unlike most, it is a co-ed monastic community whose welcoming sign broadcasts, "No fuss, no muss."

You go into Sunday mass barefoot, and the monks in their robes make their procession across the cool stone floor. The eastern light comes over the mountains and through the clerestory window. When you look through those windows from 8000 feet, the heavens appear dark blue. But then you also sense that you are peering into the blackness of outer space and the universe.

And then there is the altar. A rough-hewn block of Rocky Mountain stone, balanced on supports, that evokes solemnity, dignity, “gravitas.”

Following one mass, there is another celebration for one of the brothers just returned from Ireland. One monk holds up two bottles of champagne, declaring, "This will never run out!"

I cycle across the high desert, heading west from Crestone toward Moffat. Ten miles one way. The few motorists along the road I travel wave. Friendly. I stop for hydration. Halfway, hawks dive-bomb, coming close to my helmet. Protecting their hatchlings, I later learn. Out on the prairie desert, antelope roam.

For more information on Crestone, contact the Crestone Eagle, the community’s weekly newspaper at For information on the Carmelite Monesary -- For information on the Shamei Center --

© Russ Barnes, 2009, Bethesda Maryland. All rights reserved. Permissions:

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Hunting for a Holiday?

CHESAPEAKE BEACH, Maryland. August 4, 2009. Where do you go for adventure? snorkeling in Australia? cruising the Caribbean? trekking in the Himalayas? Nothing wrong with that -- except those places are far away. But how about checking out what's close-by?

Not romantic or exotic enough? Think again.

Slip on down, for example, to the Chesapeake Bay and step onto, say, skipper Randy Dean's charter fishing boat, the "Bay Hunter," and you enter a near-by world that never stops in providing multi-faceted fascination and fun. It's local if you live in the Washington, D.C. area, fifty minutes from Northwest Washington. Chesapeake Beach and the Chesapeake Bay are also local if you're visiting family and friends in the D.C., Baltimore, Wilmington, or Philadelphia areas and want to experience something singular.

Local Vacations?

What's so special about local? For starters in this instance, the Chesapeake Bay has a shoreline longer than any other estuary in North America, including San Francisco Bay. Its bio-diversity is specific and unique. There are hundreds of different species of oysters in the myriad feeder rivers and streams that characterize the Chesapeake Bay’s extensive meandering shoreline.

Knowing about the grandness of the Bay, only a few days ago I negotiated my way from the Fishing Creek Marina dock to the step-stool stairs of the swaying "Bay Hunter" charter boat. On-board you find a father and son team: Captain Randy Dean and his seventeen-year old son, Ryan, the boat's first mate. You immediately recognize that this is no national chain operation. It is a family business.

There is always weather on the Chesapeake. It was beautiful on this August 4th day, 92 degrees, but a heavy cooling southern wind prevailed with a few mildly threatening clouds hovering low to our west.

"Bay Hunter" Sails. Chesapeake Resort is Along Shore

The "Bay Hunter" departed the Marina fast by the Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa complex of buildings, shops, and restaurants. Our mid-summer, dog-days mission was to fish for rockfish (AKA striped bass), bluefish, spot (for bait), and Spanish Mackerel.

First we fished for bait. What we were after, said the Captain, was to catch forty small spot, the smaller the better. That quota was met. We were off to the adventurous search for the prized rockfish. Captain Dean pursued these fish diligently, using both high and low technology to seek out the fish sanctuaries of the moment. High-tech was the sonar technology used to see the depths by means of computer screen -- low-tech, or what we also might call human and bio-tech, was the use of binoculars to extend "the amazing eyesight" of the sea birds, mainly gulls, as they hovered around rockfish congregations "breaking water" signaling their temporary presence.

Fish on Port Line

Being on a vessel like the "Bay Hunter" is not a passive outing. You are decidedly and vigorously, engaged. "Fish on port line," the captain commands. And you grab the rod, digging its butt into your groin, lift its tip, and begin reeling in the ducking, dodging and spinning fish as it breaks the waves in the wake behind to the boat's stern -- and then into Ryan's waiting net.

"The fish are on the move," says Randy Dean. So he starts up the boat's engine and we ride the waves in pursuit. In the meantime, we talk in the pilot house with, Ryan, Dean's seventeen-year-old son and the boat’s first-mate.

I ask him, "Do you have a girlfriend"

Ryan answers, "No, not right now."

"How long do you go between girlfriends?"

"As long as I can," he answers grinning. "You know, girls can be just like a school of fish -- they all look good, and you get one --- and then another one comes along, and she's better than the one you've got. Sometimes they are all over the place. Then they are like a school of fish that just swim away."

Such is the kind of personal exchange you may get vacationing locally.

Ryan (AKA “Rye”) also said, "My mom likes organic." What's more organic than "pulling," trolling for, fish or seaweed out of the waters? These fish are not raised or fed on a farm. They are wild and free-range fed along the waters of the Chesapeake. Much like the complementary hotel and spa along shore. The Chesapeake Beach Resort and Spa is hardly a part of a collective chain of national hotels. The resort was designed by an independent architect living his life on a boat moored in Baltimore Harbor. The guest rooms at the resort are decorated in unique colors of muted blues and green and gray -- just like the Bay itself.

Feeding of Fishes

Fishing is sacramental. Or, if you will, “sacrafishal.” Cleaning fish makes a city slicker like me a bit squeamish. There is even a Gospel dimension to it. The loaves and the fishes. There is something redemptive about fish sacrificing their lives for us so we can have a delicious meal.

End of journey. The catch.. We too give up our lives for our posterity, our loved ones.

Go over to the man who cleans the fish for you. He guts and fillets your catch. He is much like the grave-digger in Hamlet in his sunny acceptance of life and death. I ask, "What do you do in winter?"

Cutting through the flesh and bones of a rockfish, he gives me a jolly look and answers, "I put together several manual jobs just to keep things going. But this here is the life I love."

© 2009 Bethesda, Maryland. Russ Barnes. All rights reserved. For permissions both text and photos contact

To see a rockfish catch, visit