Category Archives: Travel

Journey to Maars


Writing science fiction almost always involves world building. When an opportunity arose to actually see what real world building looks like, I jumped at the chance—and that’s how I found myself on a journey to maars.

To two of them, as a matter of fact.

A maar is a shallow, flat-bottomed volcanic crater, most commonly formed when hot magma close to the surface comes into contact with groundwater, triggering a steam explosion.  (There are other mechanisms:  in 1977 scientists got to watch an Aleutian maar form, over a period of a week and a half, caused by permafrost being melted, then flashed into steam, by magma.)

With water being one of the defining elements of maar formation, it isn’t surprising that maars commonly fill with water to become lakes, disguising their volcanic origins.  And so it was with the maars I saw.

A friend offered to fly me in a small airplane to view two maars near Fallon, Nevada.  I sat in the left seat and did most of the flying; although I’m rated in sailplanes, not airplanes, a wing is a wing is a wing, and I found the airplane easy to fly—if perhaps not quite as satisfying as a sailplane would have been. Speaking of flying, as we approached the maars we could clearly see the runways of Naval Air Station Fallon, better known as the home of the Navy’s famed Top Gun school.

The Fallon maars are known locally as the Soda Lakes and at one time were mined for alkaline minerals.  The region is still geologically  active:  there’s a geothermal power plant close by, and the United States Geological Survey lists the Soda Lakes as potential volanic threats, in part due to their young age:  they were formed no earlier than 6,000 years ago and possibly as recently as 1500 years ago . . . almost yesterday.

Soda Lakes are the only Nevada volcanoes listed in the annual threat assessment compiled by the USGS, but just over the state line there are many more.  It may surprise you to learn that the USGS estimates the odds of an eruption in California in the next 30 years is about one in six!  World building, indeed.

World Fantasy

Early in November  I attended the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. WFC is a professional writers’ event to a significant degree, but even I, with no fantasy books out as of yet, had several attendees ask me for autographs at the Signature Event (with every writer in one big room signing autographs.)

The convention venue was adjacent to San Antonio’s Riverwalk.  It’s one of my favorite places, an oasis in that city—though as cities go, San Antonio, with its ancient Hispanic roots, is its own kind of oasis in Texas.

The Riverwalk meanders for miles through downtown San Antonio, though on the river’s level you’d hardly know it.  There are some shops and restaurants reaching all the way down to the water’s edge.  There are also whimsical bridges and sculptures, birds, and even water taxis:  it’s Venice in Texas!

There’s also the aquatic version of street sweepers.

Below the Southwest School of Art & Craft, people who walk or jog by are watched by miniature folk sketched on a wall of rough timbers.  Here’s one of the watchers.

No visit to San Antonio, by someone who writes speculative fiction with spiritual angles, would be complete without paying respects to  San Fernando Cathedral, or, to use the full name, the Church of Nuestra Señora de la Candelaria y Guadalupe.  Portions of this cathedral date to 1738.  It is a major anchor in the Mexican-American life of San Antonio.

And then there’s this:  the towering mosaic on the facade of Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital.  The artist is Jesse Trevino, a native son from the West Side of San Antonio, who when he was young saw a tombstone angel with a broken wing that he never forgot.

The image is fantastic – a kind of sacred fantasy that speaks to the hope of healing in the real world.

Enchanted Rock

Brilliant red Indian paintbrush wildflowers below the Enchanted Rock batholith
Indian paintbrush below Enchanted Rock

In celebration of my birthday, I finally visited Enchanted Rock State Natural Area near Llano, Texas.  I went with a photographer friend, and we spent a night in the primitive camping area – which you reach by backpacking your stuff in.

Alexis wearing backpack
Me and my backpack

When the stars came out in the cloudless night sky, we saw satellites and the Milky Way. It was cold and a bit windy so my friend put the rain fly on the tent the better to keep us (or to be more accurate, me) warm. In the middle of the night, unzipping the rain fly and looking out, I saw how the constellations had moved around the axis of the Pole Star, and a shooting star.

We did have a bit of trouble with the local raccoons. When two of them started snarling over their right to plunder our backpacks, I levitated about three feet out of a sound sleep.  My wilderness-rated friend put our trail food into the tent stuff sack and suspended it from a tree.  Problem solved.  I will say I can now better empathize with those of my characters who spend a long, cold night in a wild place or in a wilderness of stars.

And I have never seen the stars like I did that night.

At dawn the rising sun brought out all of the colors of the landscape.  We broke camp, hiked back to the parking area, then hiked to the top of Enchanted Rock—a vast granite batholith.  From the top we could see for miles across the Texas Hill Country.  After that we hiked around the Rock.

Eroded granite menhirs framed by aloe plant in Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, TX
Rock formations near the trail around Enchanted Rock

After leaving the park we spent a night at a lovingly restored old railroad hotel in Llano, the Dabbs.  It’s a sweet old place, located on a bluff above the Llano River, with a lot of carefully selected, vintage train decor.

The next morning, by old railroad tracks nearby, we found a man and his friends putting an old railroad motor car, or “speeder,” on the rails.  He was going to be checking out the track for the safety of another dozen or more fellow enthusiasts who were planning a speeder group excursion the following day. He was happy to talk about his speeder and offer a photo op to an itinerant science fiction writer.

Alexis looking back over her shoulder from her seat on a railroad motor car
All aboard!

It was a happy birthday and I hope for many happy returns to the Hill Country!

Sugar House, Salt Lake City


Sugar House Park3

Beautiful place, Sugar House Park in Salt Lake City: a really nice urban park with magnificent views.  The early Mormons tried to raise and process sugar beets here, which didn’t work too well, and the sugar factory became a prison.  It had to have had as much sorrow and anger as any other prison, and on at least one occasion it was the site of a gross miscarriage of justice – when Joe Hill was executed for murder as likely retaliation for his labor organizing activities.  Now the former prison ground has trees and ducklings and kids on bikes and couples picnicking on the grass. A stream runs through it that’s cold on the hottest days, because it’s snowmelt. Places can be redeemed.

. Sugar House Park5


A New Kind of Paw Prints

My car developed  small round blurs in the middle of the front windshield – visible and annoying only when the sun angle was low.  After being puzzled for a while I remembered that I’d driven up to Dallas and met my friend Kristin at DFW and after we navigated through Dallas and returned to Houston, she borrowed my car to go around town;  and she has a portable GPS.   And it has a little suction cup to attach its antenna to the windshield.  Aha.  This was like when you  park your car and come back to see by the paw prints that a cat has strolled up the windshield, except these were in the inside:  GPS paw prints.

Go Fish

One interesting sight on the Mt. Vernon Trail in Arlington, Virginia last week was where a branch of the trail went under a roadway beside a tributary of the Potomac River.  There were a couple of young guys with fishing poles doing the fishing thing.  That’s always rather nice to see in an urban area.  What they were fishing for turned out to be feral koi that could be seen finning around in the murky shallows.   Some of these giant goldfish were more than a foot long in all their orange, black and white glory.  Happily the guys were doing catch-and-release on the koi.

Bicycles and Briefcases

Staying in the Washington, DC area for a week can a fascinating experience.  I went to help a friend in Arlington while she recovered from surgery.  Part of the recovery was walking – always good and good for a body! –  and there’s this amazing Mount Vernon Trail that flanks the Potomac River for miles.   It’s a hike-and-bike trail.  People bicycle a lot in our nation’s capitol and its outlying areas.  There’s even a bikeshare program where members can grab a bike at any conveniently located dock, ride to work or wherever and deposit the bike at a dock on the other end.  People not bicycling can often be found walking to and from the Metro or the bus or even the airport.  The Mount Vernon Trail has a branch to Washington National Airport.  My friend told me that some people save cab or Metro fare by using the trail to and from the airport.  Sure enough, along came a guy rolling his suitcase and carry-on at a fast clip to catch his plane.

Not all the trailways are official.  The Mount Vernon Trail has tributaries where people’s feet have worn steep little dirt trails up to roadways or residential areas.  We found just such a side trail up to a couple of blocks of three-story apartments and our destination, a Harris Teeter grocery store under some of the apartments.   As we went up the trail, down charged a man in full business regalia, charcoal suit and white shirt and tie, carrying a briefcase.  Steep dirt trail + business suit and briefcase = hurrying to the office is not a visual equation  I’m familiar with, but it was a rather delightful sight.

More Interstate Travel Notes

Seen on I-85 South in north Georgia:  hot pink ragtop Mustang.  It sounds like a contradiction in terms – hot pink/muscle car?  But hot pink turns out to be a great-looking color for a Mustang.  It was being driven (fast) by a chick with a ponytail.

Noted on every Interstate everywhere I went:   the unintended consequences of cruise control.  Used to be there were flocks of cars going 60, 70, whatever.  But now cruise control comes with incremental accelerate and decelerate as well as cancel and resume.  You get an unpredictable mix of cars that imperceptably speed up or slow down with the drivers behind belatedly reacting.  If you come up on somebody going slow the simplest way to bleed off speed is cancel cruise control and resume or reset it at a slower (or faster) speed when able.  So on a busy freeway, cruise control goes like this:   CRUISE ON, SPEED SET, CRUISE, NOTE SLOWDOWN AHEAD, DECELERATE, NOTE TRAFFIC SPEEDING BACK UP, ACCELERATE, CHANGE LANES AROUND SLOW VEHICLE, ACCELERATE TO MATCH SPEED OF VEHICLE AHEAD, NOTE SLOW-MOVING TRAFFIC IN *BOTH* LANES AHEAD, CANCEL! CANCEL!  BRAKE!  SET LOWER SPEED THAN PREVIOUS.  CRUISE, NOTE TRAFFIC SPEEDING BACK UP.  ACCELERATE….

This was a driving trip and I ran short of prep time so I flung everything I could possibly need into the depths of the car’s trunk.  I spent most of the trip feeling over-equipped, since I didn’t need all the stuff I brought. Among other items, I had a short extension cord that just went along for 3000 miles of the ride – until last night.  This otherwise adequate Best Western lacks a wall outlet near the bed.  The outlet is eight feet from the bedside table, too far for the clock-radio cord.  The room’s clock-radio was parked on a dresser clear across the room.  Well, I like to listen to a clock-radio at night, and I like to have it on the bedside table.  So  – extension cord deployed, clock radio in desired position, pleasant night’s rest had.

Before this trip I invested in a Netbook computer.  Good thing.  It’s been helpful.  Like this morning:  thanks to the Netbook and Wi-Fi, I’m holed up in the Best Western room, blogging in cool comfort, instead of being on I-10 east of Baton Rouge where traffic is moving at 0-10 MPH.  Seems there were one or more accidents or stalls on the freeway.  Local traffic map on the Web indicates situation improving.  So I’m soon off.

Sights and sounds

Washington DC – wonderful place.  Monuments and memorials.    Peal (change-ringing) bells at the National Cathedral AND the Old Post Office,  where the Congress Bells are pealed in the Clock Tower.  There’s a  Clock Tower observation deck;  this is one of the views.

And this indicates that Washington (Georgetown) has some of the same urban pestilences that Houston does….

Location, Location, Location

I’m staying with a friend in Crystal City, on the other side of the Potomac River from Washington DC.   When a new job brought her to the DC area she chose her residence VERY well.  Not only does she live across the street from where she works, but her seventh-floor apartment balcony has this view.  From left to right, note Washington Monument, Jefferson Memorial, airliner departing National Airport, and US Capitol Building on the on the far right.