Need a socially distant vacation? We’re road tripping through Colorado in a campervan

Need a socially distant vacation? We’re road tripping through Colorado in a campervan

Our campervan has a stove, sink and mini fridge. Chris LeBlanc photo


We picked up Ivan the Terrible, a rental van from Native Campervans in Denver, and set out last week for a socially distant road trip through Colorado.
We specifically chose destinations where we wouldn’t encounter large crowds. We’ve been camping in forests and orchards, hiking and exploring. So far, we’ve visited the less developed north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, gone rafting (with just a single guide and no other guests) on the Arkansas River, hiked through one of the world’s largest aspen groves, and soaked in a hot springs.
We’ve learned a lot about van life, too, and we love it (even if we don’t have long blonde hair, perfectly formed bodies and floral print sundresses).

Rafting with a private guide lessens the risk of a rafting adventure. Pam LeBlanc photo


Here are a few thoughts and notes:
1. Campervans are a great way to go while traveling during a pandemic. We’ve been cooking our own meals and sleeping in our Dodge Ram Promaster 1500, customized with a bed, mini fridge, stove and sink, but no toilet or shower. We rented from Native Campervans in Denver. Its name is Ivan the Terrible, and aside from an issue with the key cylinder, it’s not at all terrible. (Ivan’s windshield did crack in a freak hailstorm a few days ago. Yes, this is Colorado.)
2. Dispersed camping is the way to go. For Texans not used to vast swathes of public land, this means you can pull off forest roads and set up camp almost anywhere. (There are rules, but you get the idea.)
3. Be prepared to poop in the woods. (Personally, I much prefer this over roadside bathrooms, for the view and the Covid exposure.) Just walk away from popular camping areas and please, cover your work.
4. Be flexible about where you plan to park your campervan overnight. Lots of folks are camping their way through Colorado right now. If you’re looking for a spot in the national forest, don’t spend all day looking for the next best spot. Take it! One night we weren’t in an area that allowed dispersed camping, so we had to park in a campground. The first four that we checked were already full, but we finally lucked out with the last slot at a not-too-scenic highway-side park.

We spent two nights in an apple orchard in Paonia. Pam LeBlanc photo

I swung on the most amazing rope swing at Big B’s orchard. Chris LeBlanc photo

5. Camp in an orchard! We spent two nights at Big B’s orchard near Paonia. Besides parking our rig between rows of apple trees (and a few hundred feet from the peach trees), we got to drink fresh hard cider from the orchard store, listen to live music at night (from a social distance), and swing on the best dang rope swing I’ve ever seen.

The north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison sees far less visitation than the south rim. We only saw a handful of other cars. Pam LeBlanc photo


6. Go to less visited areas. We opted for the north rim of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, which sees far fewer visitors than the south rim. The gorge is incredible. We peered 2,200 feet nearly straight down from Chasm View trail. I nearly wet my pants.
Today, we’re heading over McClure Pass on our way to Redstone, where we hear the barbecue’s great. We’re from Texas, so we’ll be the judge of that.

The hiking in the West Elk Wilderness area is superb. Pam LeBlanc photo

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Day tripping to Blanco State Park

Day tripping to Blanco State Park

Take a natural “shower” beneath the dam at Blanco State Park. Chris LeBlanc photo


I snuck off to Blanco State Park this morning, to dangle a toe in one of my favorite swimming rivers in the area.
The park, like all Texas State Parks, is currently operating under a reservation-only system. To get in, you’ve got to go online, reserve a slot in advance, and print out your registration forms (or save them on your smart phone).
I booked my spot two weeks ago. Other parks, such as Pedernales Falls State Park and Guadalupe River State Park, fill up even farther in advance. Face coverings are required inside all park buildings, and visitors must maintain a 6-foot distance from anyone not in their group.

Chris LeBlanc and Marcy Stellfox paddle standup paddle boards on the Blanco River. Pam LeBlanc photo

But officials are only filling parks to half capacity, which means once you get in, you’ll have plenty of space to spread out.
At Blanco, you can sign up for either a morning slot or an afternoon slot. We took a morning spot – which means you can arrive as early as 8 a.m., and stay until the park closes at 10 p.m. if you want – and encountered only a handful of folks on the east side of the park. (The west side is more popular with families and picnickers, but the west side has a better stretch for swimming, I think.)
We brought along paddleboards and swim goggles, and spent a few hours gliding up and down the river. It’s fun to play on the dam, too, where you can lean under a natural shower of water or jump off the top into the pooling green water below.
When you’re done, curl up on a towel beneath towering cypress trees and listen to the breeze ruffle through cottonwoods. Ducks waddle along shore, and a series of covered picnic tables makes a great spot for a meal. The 105-acre park hugs a mile-long stretch of river.
Admission to Blanco State Park, 101 Park Road 23, is $5 per person (free ages 12 and under), or free with a state parks pass. For more information, go to https://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/blanco.
There’s plenty of room to spread out beneath the cypress and cottonwoods at Blanco State Park. Pam LeBlanc photo

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Make a cool adventure product? Enter it in the Texas Works Awards!

Make a cool adventure product? Enter it in the Texas Works Awards!

Chet Garner and Vincent friedewald host the Texas Works Awards. Photo courtesy Chet Garner


I’d rather wear a Texas-made hat, sip a Texas-made bourbon, and wear a pair of Texas-made boots. We live in Texas, after all, and we should support our community.
That’s what the Texas Works Awards are all about, and when Chet Garner asked me to help judge them, I got pretty excited. Garner, host of the TV show “Daytripper,” in which he rambles around the state doing totally Texan things like running through corn mazes, looking for the mysterious Marfa lights and drinking Big Red floats, teams up with Vincent Friedewald, founder and CEO of No. 4 St. James, purveyors of cool Texas products like T-shirts that say “Porque por queso,” enameled Big Bend-themed camp mugs, and surfboards, to put on the competition.
The idea is to celebrate Texas creators. The competition is divided into eight categories – Fashion and Style, Workshop, Food, Drinks, At Home, Adventure and Outdoors, Pets and Animals, and Apothecary. The 2020 awards, presented by Go Texan, are open for entries now at www.texas.works/awards.
Garner asked me to judge the Adventure and Outdoors category, so I’m hoping to see everything from camping gear to bike stuff, paddling paraphernalia, running goods – anything that someone who likes to get outside and explore our state might need. (The 2018 winner in this category was wooden landing nets by Heart Wood Trade, www.heartwoodtrade.com.)
This year’s overall winner will win $10,000 and title of Best Consumer Product in Texas. Members of the Go Texan program can enter a separate People’s Choice Award, too, which lands a $5,000 prize.
Entry deadline for the main competition is Aug. 4. For more information go to https://www.texas.works.

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An online cheese and beer tasting: Can it get any better when you’re stuck at home?

An online cheese and beer tasting: Can it get any better when you’re stuck at home?

I taste tested three cheeses from Beehive Cheese Company in Utah. Pam LeBlanc photo


I love cheese. And beer’s pretty good, too.
So when a box of artisan wedges from Beehive Cheese Company arrived, I was stoked. And the shipment of craft beers from Roosters Brewing Company that followed made me swoon.
Both were supplies for an online course I took recently titled “The Birds and the Bees,” featuring Utah-made products.
Two things before we begin. One of my favorite sayings is, “A day without cheese is like a day without sunshine.” Also, I’m always eager to hone up on my knowledge about “The Birds and the Bees.”
On the designated evening, I brought out the cheese and the beer, fired up my computer, and tuned in to a Zoom conference call. Jacquie King, head brewer at Roosters Brewing in Ogden, and Katie Schall, a marketing representative for nearby Beehive, led us through a taste test of three cheeses, each paired with two beers.
Before we dove in, she gave us some suggestions. When you eat cheese, smell it, crack it open and look at the curd structure first. Nibble it, chewing slowly as it gets more and more buttery in your mouth.
As for the beer, pour it, let bubbles form as it opens up, then sniff it, sip it, and sip it again with a little cheese in your mouth.
“I think it elevates the beer and the cheese, and brings out the taste of the Utah desert,” King says.
I’ll agree with that.

We tried two beers with each cheese.


Pairing 1:
Beehive’s Promontory cheese, a creamy, slightly sweet cheddar that tastes vaguely like buttered toast, won my vote for best cheese of the night. It’s made with cows’ milk – half Holstein and half jersey – and aged 6 months, and named after Promontory Point, where the golden spike was pounded in when the Transcontinental Railroad was finished. It had those amazing little crystals that give it a slight crunch with every nibble.
We tasted it with two beers …
High Desert Hazy – I’m not usually a fan of super hoppy beer, but I loved this session IPA. Smooth, not edgy, and juicy. This was my favorite of the night.
Rooster Tail Hazy – I tasted hints of blueberry and strawberry in this one, even though there’s not blueberry or strawberry actually in it. Whatever.

Pairing 2:
For round two, we unwrapped Beehive’s Big John’s Cajun, another cheddar, but this one features a rind rubbed with Cajun spice. Since my husband’s Cajun, I figured I’d like it. And I did, but the spice overpowered the beautiful cheese a bit. I’ll stick with Promontory.
We tasted it with two beers …
Bees Knees honey wheat – I’ve always loved wheat beer, and this golden-colored ale had a crisp, balanced flavor with a zap of honey at the end. It muted the heat of the Cajun cheese nicely and even made me notice some subtle herb flavors.
Patio Pilsner – This dry-hopped pale blonde has a strong malt flavor. I’m not a big pilsner fan, so this one got lower marks from me.

I’ve been taking a lot of fun online classes with Utah distilleries, creameries and breweries.


Pairing 3:
The third time around, we went all out, sampling Beehive’s Barely Buzzed cheddar. The cheesemakers apparently got a wild hair one day and rubbed the rind of a baby wheel of cheddar with espresso and lavender. It tastes like toast sprinkled with flower petals, and works best as a dessert.
We tasted it with two beers …
Rude Ram Red – Going along with the dessert theme, this one tasted like an adult chocolate malt, with notes of caramel and a swirl of hops.
Ninerbock Doppelbock – More dessert in a glass, this time with toffee and caramel flavors, and not a lot of bitterness. (It’d be good in barbecue sauce.)

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Discovering new murals on today’s bike tour of East Austin

Discovering new murals on today’s bike tour of East Austin

I rode my bike along East 11th Street today, where I discovered some new murals. Pam LeBlanc photo


Every few weeks, I set out on two wheels to check out murals throughout downtown Austin.
This morning, I knocked out 30 miles and uncovered some art I hadn’t seen before. I wanted to focus my search on East 11th Street, where a giant yellow “Black Artists Matter” was painted last month. (A huge Black Austin Matters mural is also painted on Congress Avenue.)

The view from the top of Doug Sahm Hill on Riverside Drive. Pam LeBlanc photo


But first, I stopped at the top of Doug Sahm Hill on West Riverside Drive to get an overview of the city. From there, I hopped on the boardwalk and rolled east to Interstate 35 overpass, where I crossed and headed north.

Black Artists Matter is painted on 11th Street between Waller and Lydia. Chris LeBlanc photo


Black Artists Matter stretches for an entire block on 11th Street, between Waller and Lydia streets. Capitol View Arts and the Austin Justice Coalition teamed up to install the mural. Along a fence on the north side of the street, a series of smaller paintings also promotes black artists.

Austin hippie by El Federico. Pam LeBlanc photo


It’s not part of the series, but I’ve always liked the groovy painting of a cowboy hippie wielding a can of spray paint, by El Federico, on the south side of the street. (El Federico also painted the “Lover/Hater” mural on East Cesar Chavez street I’ve mentioned in past articles.)
Farther west, John Yancy’s bright-as-a-sunrise, 50-foot mosaic, “Rhapsody,” at Dr. Charles E. Urdy Plaza at East 11th and Waller Streets, honors the city’s jazz scene, once centered right here. Urdy is a former professor at Huston-Tillotson College who served five terms on the Austin City Council.

John Yancy’s mosaic honors Austin’s jazz scene. Chris LeBlanc photo


Found this on the north side of 11th Street. Pam LeBlanc photo


Ryan Runcie painted this mural of notable Austinites. Chris LeBlanc photo


But my favorite of the day? The mural of hand-in-hand people (oh, pre-Covid I miss you!) on the side of the African American Cultural District building on East 11th Street, painted by artist Ryan Runcie. The mural, according to Runcie’s website, is a symbol of hope. “It is a signpost that good will always overcome evil,” he says. It depicts Austin notables Deitrich Hamilton, Johnny Holmes, Doris Miller, Dorothy Turner, Gary Clark Jr., Mikaela Ulmer and Charles Overton.
I hopped to the other side of Interstate 35 for the cruise back home, pausing on Red River Street to admire a few other murals I’ve never noticed.

This spaceman is reaching for a slice of pizza behind Brick Oven Restaurant. Pam LeBlanc photo


This poor whale is wrapped up in ropes. Pam LeBlanc photo


Mike “Truth” Johnston painted the spaceman reaching for a slice of pizza on a cement retaining wall behind Brick Oven Pizza at 1209 Red River Street.
Adjacent to that is a mural of a red whale, knotted up in ropes. I couldn’t find the artist’s name.

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Ride like the devil at Purgatory Creek in San Marcos

Ride like the devil at Purgatory Creek in San Marcos

Erich Schlegel poses with his mountain bike next to rock cairns in a dry creek bed at the Purgatory Creek trails in San Marcos. Pam LeBlanc photo

I’ve been hammering out miles on my road bike for the past few months, riding loops around Northwest Hills and along Shoal Creek, the Violet Crown trail and that cool bike and pedestrian bridge over Barton Creek.
Yesterday, though, I left the skinny tires at home and pulled out the mountain bike when a friend invited me to join him for a spin at the Purgatory Creek trails in San Marcos. I’d never been, so I loaded up my Specialized Camber, grabbed my helmet and headed south.

I took this selfie on a flat spot at Purgatory Creek. Pam LeBlanc photo

I sometimes have a hard time finding mountain bike trails that fit my ability level. I’m pretty comfortable on knobby tires – until I’m stopped at the bottom of a hill, looking up a daunting escalator of rocks. I like the downhills better – as long as the stair steppy rock doesn’t go on for too long. In short, I like to have fun, but I’m not super good at the technical stuff. I wound up at an emergency clinic a few years ago after throwing myself onto some sharp limestone rock while riding my favorite trail at Slaughter Creek.
My verdict on the Purgatory Creek trails? Love them. They’re just my speed, with lots of single track through groves of oaks and ashe junipers, some stretches through grassy meadows, and some manageable roller coaster ups and downs. The terrain is similar to Slaughter Creek. I have to hop off my bike and walk it in spots, but it’s not as tough as parts of the Barton Creek Greenbelt. It’s less flowy than Walnut Creek.
I didn’t ride all 12 or so miles at the park, located a 40-minute drive from Central Austin, but I sweated buckets in the heat on parts of Dante’s Trail, Beatrice, Ovid and Ripheus. The trails, managed by the non-profit San Marcos Greenbelt Alliance, wind alongside a big rocky dam and parallel parts of Wonder World Drive. There’s a lot of twisty single track, but also some stretches of old double-track road. You’ll find easy flats, a couple of screaming downhills, and some cool rock features, including a grotto in a limestone cliff on Malacoda. Part of the trail goes under the road, and one stretch follows stacked rock cairns through a dry (at least when I was there) creek bed.

A trail runner makes his way through a dry creek bed at the Purgatory Creek trail system. Pam LeBlanc photo


You can access the trail system via any of three trailheads. The biggest parking area is at 2101 Hunter Road, the Lower Purgatory access, where there’s a water fountain and porta-potty. Smaller access points are located at 1414 Prospect and 1751 Valencia Way, also known as Upper Purgatory.
The trails are popular with trail runners and hikers, too, so keep an eye out. And the Paraiso trail is closed from March 1 to May 30, during golden-cheek warbler nesting time.
Bring water and don’t cross fences. For more information and maps, go to http://smgreenbelt.org/natural-areas/#purgatory-creek.
The park includes single track trails and flat easy double track roads. Pam LeBlanc photo

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