Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Goodies

Gift-giving has been an important part of the winter holiday season since the holiday being celebrated was Saturnalia. It's one of my favorite rituals, but one thing that annoys me is the assumption that it has to cost a lot of money. During these tough economic times, I hear people say things like "maybe we shouldn't do gifts this year" and "I don't want to end up in debt for months."

I think this is kind of missing the point. For me, the joy and fun of giving and receiving gifts doesn't correlate well with the price tag those gifts had on them at all. I mean, sure it's nice to get something expensive, especially if it's something you could really use that you would have trouble affording, and it's given to you by someone who can afford it, but I don't think the choice here is between expensive gifts that leave everyone with "five months of bills" as the song goes, or forgoing the tradition completely.

One good option is homemade gifts. This is an especially good option for those of us who are unemployed or underemployed and are therefore short on money, but probably have extra time. You can knit a scarf, bake a batch of cookies, or can a batch of salsa. Often these things are much better than anything you can buy in a store anyway.

Just about every year I make a batch of pecan pralines. I've had this recipe for years and don't remember where I got it, so I hope it's ok to reprint it here for you. It's really very simple, and a great first step into homemade candy making.

Pecan Pralines

  • 1 1/2 cups pecans
  • 1 1/2 cups white sugar
  • 3/4 cup brown sugar
  • 6 tablespoons butter (that's 3/4 of a stick)
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
You'll also need a large saucepan, a candy thermometer (you can do the dropping-it-into-cold-water thing, which I did on my first few batches, but that's a pain and really, the candy thermometer is totally worth it), a baking pan or cookie sheet that has sides, some cooking spray, and some wax paper or parchment paper.

Put all the ingredients into the saucepan and bring up to a boil on medium heat. Position your thermometer. Ok, I'm actually using my probe thermometer and not a real candy thermometer (which is supposed to clip onto the side of the pan), but it works. The important thing is to not let the thermometer touch the bottom of the pan, or it will read hotter than what the candy is. I balance my probe on the side of the pan, and the boiling syrup keeps it lifted up off the bottom. I set the alarm for 240 degrees F, which is the "soft ball stage" in candy-making terms. If your thermometer doesn't have an alarm, just keep an eye on it and watch for it to get between 235 and 240 degrees.

It will get really bubbly and foamy. Be careful because boiling syrup is also known as "culinary napalm" for a good reason. When it gets close to pour time, it will stop being as foamy and have fewer, bigger bubbles blooping around. This is the point where if you didn't have a thermometer, you would start dropping syrup into cold water to see if it makes a soft ball, but like I said, that's too much trouble and you really should use the thermometer.
Have a pan ready that's greased and lined with parchment or wax paper to make de-panning easy. My original recipe says to drop it by spoonfuls, but I prefer to just dump the whole thing in and spread it out evenly. Let it cool completely.
When it's completely cool it should lift up off the pan easily in one big piece. You can then bust it up into individual serving size pieces and put it in a pretty tin. Yes, the tin is another monetary investment you have to make for this gift in addition to the ingredients, but hopefully your grateful relatives will give you back the empty tin once they're done with it for refills next year, like they do your canning jars. (Hopefully!) Then stick the tin in the freezer or something so you won't eat them all up before you have a chance to give them away for Christmas.

Pralines are kind of similar to peanut brittle but easier to make, since pralines are supposed to have a crystalline texture, while peanut brittle is supposed to be glassy and transparent, which requires a little more skill to achieve. They're also super-sweet like a pecan pie, but they're full of nutritious nuts, so that makes up for it right?

Of course, Yule is just not right without cookies. I made a batch of this recipe for Jam Filled Shortbread Cookies with homemade peach jam, and they turned out great.

One thing I did, after reading warnings in the reviews of the cookies spreading too much, was to chill them after they were formed, but before baking. I put them on parchment and then slid them into the freezer for a while until they were firm and cold, and then took them out, filled them, and preheated the oven. They only took about 1/4 teaspoon of jam each. I was tempted to put in more, but didn't want them to run over, and it turns out that was a smart move.

Here they are all baked up nice and pretty. Only a couple broke or ran over, so I had to eat those (darn!), and the rest went into gift tins after they were cooled completely. They are extremely buttery and delicate. I'm sure they would do well with any flavor of jam or preserves.

Now I'm trying to decide if I want to bake any more cookies. I've been drooling at some of the cookie recipes on Tigers and Strawberries. I've also already made a Freerange Fruitcake like I posted about last year, which is curing in rum right now. I think I will take that to a Yule campout I'm going to over New Year's weekend. Maybe baking even more sweets is overkill. My fiance is on a diet, so he can't have any, and I'm running out of people to give cookies to.

On the other hand, I don't have any cookies! Everything I've made so far is designated for other people! Maybe I should make some just for myself! But which kind? Tigers and Strawberries has so many good ones I want to try, like the elegant looking Frostflowers (I've always loved pfeffernuesse, actually, the brand I always got were not tooth-breaking in the least), or the yummy sounding Cherry Chocolate Chip Cookies. Even the so-called "humble" oatmeal cookies from that blog sound festive with their cranberries and cardamom. Such a hard decision. It may just come down to how I have all the ingredients to make the oatmeal cookies right now, but I'd have to go to the store to get stuff for the other recipes. And Daniel doesn't like oatmeal raisin cookies, so it would be less tempting for him to cheat on his diet with them. And even if he does cheat, the oatmeal cookies are probably the most nutritious of the bunch.

Yeah, I might go with that and save the other recipes for next year. Which seems so far away! (The Aphrodite Cakes sound perfect for Valentine's Day or Beltane, though, so I might have to wait THAT long to try another of Barbara's cookie recipes, if I can find some rosewater.) But yeah, now I've convinced myself that I MUST bake more cookies!

Finally, one shouldn't forget the non-humans in one's life. They should have holiday goodies too. I just got one of those big seed-cakes to put outside for the critters. One of these days I need to try out making my own. It's fun to watch Mr. Squirrel doing acrobatics to get it.

The woodpeckers like it too. Here's the female Golden Fronted Woodpecker getting some. I've also seen her husband here, and the female Downy Woodpecker than hangs around (she appears to be single), and some chickadees and titmice. The warblers and wrens seem to still prefer the suet.
Lily just likes "helping" with the gift wrapping, as most cats do. Cats always get into the holiday spirit, don't they? Tearing up the wrapping paper, attacking the bows, climbing the Christmas tree. They're very festive animals.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Io Saturnalia, Glad Yule, and Happy New Year to whoever is reading this!

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Mistletoe Moon

The Mistletoe Moon is a good name for the full moon of December. Of course there's the Christmas tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, and it is a wintery sort of plant. It gets its white berries in the winter, and if it's growing on a deciduous tree, like this elm here, it's a lot more noticeable in the winter when the host tree drops its leaves and the only leaves you now see are bushes of mistletoe.

I've heard that mistletoe is a lot more common in Texas than it is in Europe (it's also a different species), which is an important thing to keep in mind when thinking about its mythical status. In Europe it's a rare oddity to find a green mistletoe bush on a barren tree in the dead of winter, so I can see how it can seem magical. Here it's mostly considered a pest. I've seen some very heavily infested trees. I've never heard of mistletoe actually killing a tree, though, but I guess it is possible. One redeeming quality is that the berries of mistletoe are an important winter food for birds (along with holly, another Christmas plant). The birds return the favor by spreading its seed to other trees.

I heard the full moon was an eclipse this time, but I missed it because of all the clouds. It's been raining a lot lately. We're actually ahead on rain for the months of November and December, though we're still way behind for the year.
I've started some more peppers. The same kinds as the ones I started in fall. If the fall-planted ones become too root-bound as they wait for spring, I have a backup. My tomato and eggplant seeds have also just started to sprout.
The lettuce doesn't seem to mind the freezes we've had, and is doing great with all the rain. I like how a variety of lettuce growing looks, with the different colors and shapes. I'm thinking of planting my extras in the flower bed out front.
The Lincoln Shell peas are starting to put out pods. The Tall Telephone peas haven't, but the plants are growing much taller. I still think I like TT better. I think I'll end up getting much higher yields from the bigger plants.
I just planted the celery in little trenches to hold in water. I've heard that celery is hard to grow, but I thought I'd give it a shot. I read that it likes things really wet. I hope it's cold tolerant, since if it needs wetness, then winter is the time it'll get it.
The mustard greens are the best looking out of the brassicas. The freezes don't seem to have bothered them at all. I've been harvesting some for stir-fries. They've got a nice peppery flavor.
The cauliflower and collards, on the other hand, have gotten a bit damaged. A lot of the outer leaves have turned pale and crispy. I hope the cabbage worms are finally gone, and the plants can recover without getting munched on some more.
I have some turnips that are ready to harvest, but I think I'll leave them in the ground until just before I cook them. Turnips are one of those vegetables I started eating just because they're easy to grow. My favorite application for them so far is to make Scalloped Potatoes and Turnips. Just make a regular recipe for scalloped potatoes, but use half turnips layered in evenly with the potatoes. I sometimes make that at Yule to go with the ham, and it's great. The turnips cut down the potato's starchiness a bit, while the potatoes mellow out the turnips. Being covered in cream sauce probably doesn't hurt either.
The garlic seems to be very happy growing up through the thick straw mulch. It would be swell to have a good garlic harvest in 2012 to make up for my 2011 garlic disaster.
I'm a little surprised that the Swiss chard was damaged by the freeze as badly as it was. Most of the outer leaves turned to mush, though the inner leaves look like they survived. Usually I find chard to be a very tough, foolproof plant. Maybe this variety (Golden Sunrise) is less cold tolerant than what I've grown before. Maybe it just needs time to acclimate.

Once again I find myself wishing I had planted more for the winter garden. Winter is a great time to garden in Texas. As long as you plant things that can take the occasional freeze, you can have stuff growing all winter, and you don't have to water nearly as much as you do in the summer. Summer really is the true off-season around here, not winter.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Real Freeze This Time

Ok, that last one was pretty wimpy. Seems the plants hardly noticed. But not this time. Got down to 26 last night. That's a REAL freeze!

I'm sure the basil in the foreground here is done for. Whatever seeds managed to mature in time is all I'm getting. Once they thaw out I'm cutting them down and taking them in to dry. I hope my other plants, like the cauliflower, collards, lettuce, etc. are ok. I didn't do anything to protect them, besides the mulch they already had. I'll see what happens when they thaw out later this afternoon.

With all the moisture in the air from our rain, there was a lot of frost on everything. Here are my peas all covered in delicate frost crystals. Aren't they pretty? I suppose frost crystals are a common sight up north, but I'm still just fascinated by them.

So it's really winter now!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Rain, Rain, and More Rain!

This is called a "puddle". It's what happens when it rains enough that water actually accumulates on the surface of the soil, rather than soaking into the soil immediately. To the right you see some of the fall plants I haven't been able to plant out in the garden yet because it's too muddy.

San Marcos has this Christmas carnival every year along the river called The Sights and Sounds of Christmas. I've lived here for five years now, but have never gotten around to going. This year I was determined to go... and it got rained out! It got rained out in the year of the worst drought in history!

Surely the weather gods have a sense of irony. Oh well, I'll go next year. Of all the reasons to miss it this year, rain is probably the best. It's been raining almost nonstop since Friday. I've been saying "rain is the new snow." Snow is not unheard of in Central Texas, but it's rare enough that when it does snow, people all freak out. Businesses are closed, the roads are hazardous because people don't know how to drive on ice, and Facebook is littered with "Wow! Look at the snow!" posts (I admit I'm guilty of that myself). Well, now that rain has gone scarce, people are acting almost exactly the same now.

My rain barrels have been overflowing since Friday. When we get our own place, I really want to get some much bigger rain containers. These pickle barrels fill up much too quickly. Think of all the rain I could have been saving in the last few days! Oh well, at least the aquifer and lakes are being refilled. My area has been upgraded from the worst possible category of drought to only the second-worst, and our county burn ban has been lifted. I wonder how long it would have to keep raining like this to completely undo the drought. Months, perhaps? That would be interesting to know.

Monday, November 28, 2011

First Frost

Last night was our first frost. The official low for San Marcos was 28, but my home thermometer only got down to 32 (I have one of those clocks with an indoor and outdoor thermometer in my bedroom, which is how I keep track of these things). I brought in my peppers, pineapple sage, and ginger plants, but the plants that were left outside had hardly any damage, and the bird baths didn't even freeze over.

The only frost damage was to parts of one or two of my Ms. Burns Lemon Basil plants. Which is good because I'm still trying to get a crop of seeds off them. There's no more frost predicted for the next week, so that'll give them some more time to mature some more seeds.

We've also finally been getting some decent rain. Right before Thanksgiving we got over an inch of rain, and we have more forecast for this weekend. We need a whole lot more to undo the drought, but every little bit helps.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Pie Results

The results are in. The pies were a hit! Here's what I had left to take home.

The pumpkin held together better than I had hoped, but was still a little on the soft side. I hope reducing the amount of pumpkin puree next time will fix that problem. Tasted great with the gingersnap crust.

The pecan may have been the best pecan pie I've ever had. The golden cane syrup used instead of the usual corn syrup made it just the right amount of sweetness, instead of tooth-achingly sweet, with a nice caramel flavor. Using plain pecans instead of spiced pecans didn't seem to diminish it at all. The bourbon and ground pecan crust was also wonderful, and would probably work in other pies besides pecan.

The rest of the meal was great too, with both turkey AND ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, green beans, creamed corn, salad... the works! I have heard some people saying they get sick of the traditional Thanksgiving meal and opt for something non-traditional instead, but I don't know if I could ever get sick of turkey and cranberry sauce. It's only once a year, after all, and it's such a great celebration of America's bounty. You'll notice that all the main characters in the Thanksgiving meal are foods native to the New World. I'm sure that's not a coincidence.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Turkey and Pie Day!

Last year I spent Thanksgiving scrambling to harvest all my cushaw squash before our first freeze. This year we haven't had our first freeze yet, and since we had such a harsh summer, I have no squash to harvest. However, Squash 2010 was so bountiful, that I still have plenty of pureed squash in my freezer to see us through another pumpkin pie eating season!

I show you two pies, alike in dignity...

I was assigned with dessert for my family's Thanksgiving feast this year. Since there will be 10 people attending, I felt that warranted two pies. I know I could have scraped by with one pie, but one should always have plenty of pie for Thanksgiving, right? Thanksgiving is a time when eating multiple desserts is entirely appropriate, especially if the desserts in question are pies.

Of the Three Canonical Thanksgiving Pies, pumpkin is favored above all others by me, because I still have all this pumpkin puree in my freezer to use up. Pecan comes next, because I'm a Texan, so pecans get the "Locavore" advantage. Sorry apple.

Pie 1 is my version of Alton Brown's Bourbon Pecan Pie, from his excellent Good Eats Thanksgiving special from this year (I'm really going to miss that show). The only changes I made is that I made it in a regular pie pan and not a tart pan, since I don't have a tart pan, and I used plain toasted pecans rather than bothering with making the candied spiced pecans (though they sound delicious and I might make a batch later for Yule). It still smelled awesome baking and I'm sure it's going to taste delicious. I nibbled a bit of the pie crust made with ground pecans and bourbon, and that was really good. Alcohol makes pie crust more tender. If I remember correctly, it keeps the gluten from forming, or something like that. Anyway, it seems to have worked.

Pie 2 is Pumpkin Cheesecake with Gingersnap Crust. I'm a little more worried about that one, since it's a recipe that's more of my own invention, heavily modified from Paula Deen's Pumpkin Pie recipe, which I attempted last year for Yule, but had some problems. I chose the recipe because I was looking for a pumpkin cheesecake recipe that didn't require one of those big springform pans, which I don't have. This one looked like it would work, but as I was mixing the filling, I realized that the recipe, as written, would not fit into my prepared standard 9-inch pie pan (despite saying in the recipe that it would), and thankfully I figured that out before I added the 1 cup of cream, so I left that part out. After the pie was made, it had a wonderful flavor, but a grainy texture, which I blamed on using previously frozen cream cheese. Apparently cream cheese doesn't like to be frozen.

This year I used cream cheese that hadn't been frozen, and mixed it up using the creaming method just like a regular cheesecake. I still ended up with extra filling, and it ran over a little as it baked. Maybe next year I will try using 1 1/2 cups of pumpkin instead of 2 cups and see if that helps.

As you can see, I also got a little paranoid about it not being done enough when the 50 minute baking time was over, so I put it in for another 10 minutes, and it cracked as it cooled. Which probably means it would have been ok at 50 minutes. I appreciate how Alton Brown gives the temperature his pie should be at when done, since custardy pies like pumpkin and pecan look like they're not done enough when you take them out, making it tempting to overcook them.

The gingersnap crust is made using 6 oz. of gingersnaps pulverized in the food processor, and then mixed with 2 tbsp. melted butter and pressed into the pie pan.

I will report back on how the pies go over at Thanksgiving Dinner. My main worry is that the pumpkin one will fall apart when we try to slice it, like the last one did. The last one turned out to be delicious pumpkin pudding, but to be a pie it needs to be firm enough to slice.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Topaz Moon

I tried to get a nice picture of the full moon shining through the clouds and the ash tree in the front, but I don't think my camera knows what to do with that kind of lighting, so it didn't turn out quite the same as it looked to my eyes.

The Phoenix Moon Grove's name for this month's full moon is the Topaz Moon, named after the state gemstone of Texas and November's birth stone. The traditional English name for this moon is the Hunter's Moon, and while the deer are getting their antlers now, I don't think hunting season in Texas comes until later in the winter. The TV weatherman called this moon the Beaver Moon, which is a name I hadn't heard before.

November is the month we usually get our first frost. So far this year we've come close a couple of times, with nights dipping down to 34 or so, but not quite freezing yet.

The weather has been cool, but it's also been dry. We've gotten a little rain, but not much, just drizzles that don't even fill the rain barrels. I'm still having to water regularly. In this picture you can see the peppers wilting again. If I keep them watered, I've been getting a crop of bell peppers and, to my surprise, jalapenos. One of the plants turned out to be a jalapeno that got mixed in there, and not a California Wonder. Because of that, I went ahead and tossed the seeds I had saved since they're likely to be crossed with the jalapeno. Oh well, I can get bell pepper seeds somewhere else.

The peppers and basil are the only plants I nursed through the summer that I got any kind of crop from. It really turned out to be a waste of water trying to keep everything else alive. Something to remember for next summer.
I planted two kinds of peas this winter, Lincoln Shell and Tall Telephone. I got the Lincoln Shell peas in a trade (unasked for), so I went ahead and planted them alongside my Tall Telephones, but I doubt they'll beat TT in a side to side comparison. The description for LS says they're a dwarf variety, and one of my favorite things about Tall Telephone is how big they are.

I planted the peas on the tomato cages Daniel made for me for the last batch of tomatoes, and then alongside the rows of peas I planted root crops: carrots, radishes, turnips, rutabagas, beets, and parsnips. They're all growing well so far except for the parsnips, which doesn't really surprise me. I only had a few parsnip seeds from a trade, and they were a little on the old side. Parsnip seeds don't have a long shelf life, but I went ahead and planted them and so far two have come up.
The brassicas I started in August are looking really good. I planted multiplier onions in the slots where some of them didn't make it, but the rest of them have taken off. The mixture of the different leaf types in the bed looks very pretty, the blue-green smooth collard leaves, the yellow-green curly mustard leaves, and the bright green long thin leaves of the onions.
The Broadleaf Czech garlic is sprouting, which I guess means they have been getting enough water with their weekly sprinklings, but the other kinds haven't shown up yet. I know softnecks tend to sprout before hardnecks, so I'm not worried yet. The other ones should be coming along soon.
I planted some extra Tall Telephone peas along the back fence, even though that puts them in danger of getting eaten by deer. For something different, I tried mulching them with shredded office paper instead of straw. Daniel usually throws away his shredded documents, but I asked him to save them for me instead to use as mulch. It looks kind of weird because it's so bright white out there, but so far it seems to be working.
I planted a second batch of brassicas in another flat, because I still have room in the garden for more. I don't think I can have too many greens! The first batch is almost big enough for me to start harvesting.
I also planted a lot of lettuce, which is almost ready to start planting out in the garden. I got about ten different kids of lettuces in a seed trade, and since lettuce seed doesn't last long, and lettuce doesn't cross-pollinate much, I went ahead and planted all of them to see which kinds I like the best for seed saving. I've got quite a variety of colors and leaf types. I'm going to have to learn to like salads better, I guess!

Finally, I leave you with a picture of a new bird I haven't seen at my house before, a Lesser Goldfinch. They're a very pretty bird, with jet-black on the back and a neon yellow belly. As usual with these bird pictures, the picture does not do him justice. He was trying to drink out of the birdbath, and having a little trouble because he's such a small bird, he had trouble reaching the water level. I've seen him again a couple more times, always at the birdbath. I haven't seen him eating the suet or the sunflower seeds, so I wonder if he doesn't like those. Female goldfinches are a lot duller in color, so I haven't seen any, but that doesn't mean they aren't there.

I've also seen some White-crowned Sparrows eating sunflower seeds underneath the feeder, but I couldn't get a good picture of them at all. Winter is kind of an exciting time for birding here, because there are a lot of birds that spend the winter here, so this is the only time I get to see them.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Saying Goodbye to Aquarena Springs

In honor of the Day of the Dead this week, I give homage not to a person I've lost this year, but to a place. I think now would be a good time to finally post something I've been meaning to for months now but haven't gotten around to it. I'm posting my goodbye to Aquarena Springs, the Texas landmark and nostalgic childhood memory that's being demolished this year to be made into a nature preserve.

Aquarena Springs was this funny little amusement park that opened in the 1940's at the headwaters of the San Marcos River. In the 1980's it became a staple of my childhood road trips. We didn't have a lot of money growing up, so this was pretty much the best we had for a "summer vacation" back then, a trip from the Dallas suburbs where I grew up, down to San Antonio, or maybe even the coast (Galveston or Corpus Christi), always stopping first in San Marcos for a day at Aquarena Springs. It was pure 50's kitsch, but as a little kid I didn't care. Little kids are really impressed by things like Ralph the Swimming Pig, the Submarine Theater with the Mermaid Shows, the Swiss Sky Ride, and the only thing that's surviving the demolition, the Glass-Bottomed Boats.

But by the 1990's the park was struggling, unable to compete with things like Fiesta Texas, so it was sold to Texas State University, and TSU decided to turn it into a nature center. (I'm tempted to say a little something here about how inconsistent that seems with the fact that they almost built a huge conference center and hotel over Spring Lake Preserve right behind there, but I'll skip that for now.) I've got mixed feelings about the whole thing. Of course I think nature preserves are great, and this is an ecologically important area. But I still wonder, do they really have to demolish everything? I found out this past summer that they're going to bulldoze all the old buildings left over from the amusement park (after leaving them to rot and decay since they acquired the property). I don't see how their presence harms the river or the wildlife, and would have preferred them to be kept as historical monuments, as something to show the history of the place. After all, when I moved to San Marcos in 2006 and told people where I was moving to, those who had even heard of San Marcos at all would say, "Oh yeah, that place with Aquarena Springs! Hey, do they still do those swimming pig shows?" and I'd have to tell them no, they went out of business a decade ago, but at least then we could still go to the place itself and see the old buildings, even if TSU didn't care about what it meant to us.

Really, that's the first thing a lot of people thought of when they thought of San Marcos. Not Texas State, not the Outlet Mall, not the things that the City of San Marcos or Texas State University seems to think is important about this town. No, the swimming pig was our real claim to fame, embarrassing as that may be to some people, and now almost every trace of the old amusement park is being taken away.

In July I got a chance to go down there and take photos of everything before it was destroyed. I'm glad I did that because I heard that now it's completely fenced off for the demolition.

Here's where you go in, where you used to pay your admission.

I was trying to get a shot of how the roof is rusting and has vines growing in it. I'm really not sure why TSU decided even this building isn't worth maintaining.

Here's a shot of their token posters and newspaper clippings acknowledging the history of the park that once was here. I used to have a plush Ralph that squeaked when I squeezed it. Wonder what happened to it.

Some of the Fanta bottles with nipples they'd use to lure Ralph into the water.

Sorry the picture has so much glare. These are pictures of the mermaid show. I remember one of the big tricks the mermaids would do is drink Coke underwater by keeping the bottle upside down.

Going in to the entrance building from the other side, with vines growing over it now.

A better shot of the vines growing over the adobe building. I thought these old buildings had some pretty cool architecture.

Further on that same building, with more vines growing over the pillars.

All around the park, TSU put up these weird signs, almost like at first they were thinking of leaving the buildings up, and these were going to be their interpretive markers. Each one says some stuff about what this place used to be and has a picture of how it looked before TSU allowed vines to grow over it and water damage to accumulate. "FUTURE CONSTRUCTION SITE" seems to rub salt in the wound further.

The restaurant as it is now. Everything is locked up and it looks like nobody's set foot in there in years.

Going further into the park, they still had the cables for the Alpine Sky Ride up, and the wind blowing through them made a VERY CREEPY sound. It was similar to the sound of the black obelisk from 2001: A Space Odessey. Very post-apocalyptic.

 More vines growing over buildings that were once bustling with activity.

Ah yes, the Submarine Theater, home of Ralph and the Mermaids. You would go out on this ramp into the the thing, which had seats in front of a big glass window (as you can sort of see in the picture on the left). Then the WHOLE THING would sink into the water, and you'd watch the water level slowly go up above your head. I thought it was so cool when I was a kid! It also helped that the theater was one of the coolest spots in the park, temperature-wise.

Here it is now. TSU allowed it to fill up with water and sink. That thing in the middle of the picture is the entrance, where you'd go down a staircase to the seating area. The door wasn't even locked, so we took a peek inside, and saw the now-rotting stairs leading into the turquoise water. Very creepy. I used to go down those stairs!

The Submarine Theater from another angle. It didn't show up in the picture, but I could see down into the water, through the windows in the front, and make out the submerged seats under there. Creepy!

Here's the shaded area where you'd wait in line for the next show, now rotting and overgrown.

People used to walk up this ramp to get on board, including me! It's amazing how fast nature can retake something like this.

Another shot of vegetation growing over the railings with the theater in the background.

The on-ramp facing the other way, with the restaurant in the back.

A sign for the Glass Bottom Boats, the only part of Aquarena Springs they're not getting rid of.

Looking across Spring Lake you see where the Alpine Sky Ride took you to, this platform where you could look at the other side of the lake. I wonder if they also got rid of the replica Spanish Mission over there (that I mistakenly thought was a "castle" when I was a little kid).

I never knew what this structure was over the path over here in the park, but it sure is pretty. It looks like an old fashioned covered bridge, but it's not. Could be a magical portal to another era.

Here it is from one side. Nice stonework.

Here's the back side of what TSU turned into an aquarium. Not sure if they're keeping this either, and if not, why not. It has the look of an old log cabin from the wild west.

A couple of Eastern Phoebes looking over the lake. They're wildlife, and they don't seem to mind the old buildings.

There's a lamp post in there somewhere under all the Trumpet Vine.

The tunnel from the other side. Look at that beautiful huge cypress tree next to it. Does that cypress tree want the building torn down? It'll probably hurt his roots, actually.
The old cypress is practically merging with the building itself. It also has moss and ferns growing on the roof and is covered with spiderwebs. I think they should just leave it be.

 Just beautiful, in my opinion. Could be a post card, or a calendar.

This is painted on a window on the side of what they turned into an aquarium. "ENDENGERED SPECIES OF THE SAN MARCOS RIVER". I'm real tempted to make a comment here about the educational quality of Texas State University, but I will resist.

This is the aquarium from the front. The benches used to be where you'd wait for the next Glass Bottom Boat tour.

And now my favorite, the Swiss Sky Ride. You'd get in these gondola-like things and ride them over the lake to the other side. I loved being up high enough to see soooo far when I was a kid, and I remember seeing what I thought was a beaver swimming in the lake below, which got me all excited. Now I realize it was probably a nutria, but hey, that's still educational, right?
The thing that impressed me the most now as an adult are the weird, surreal, mushroom type things that were built to provide shade for the people waiting in line to get on the ride. It's like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
Look how high I got to go!
Right in front of the launchpad was this fountain that used to be surrounded by neatly kept aquatic plants. Now it's kind of gone feral... and stagnant... and full of frogs. Are they going to rip it down with the frogs living in there?
I got a lot of pictures of the shade things because they're so cool, even in their peeling and rusted state.

Here's where you'd get launched. I guess the cars themselves are long gone, but the cables were still there making that creepy moaning noise.

 Here's where I'd get on all those years ago, now all overgrown like most things here.

It kind of reminds me of some sort of abandoned Southeast Asian temple out in the jungle somewhere.

One last look before we move on to Pirate's Cove.

This used to be a Pirate-themed gift shop, and I seem to remember them having some sort of parrot shows here too. Since then TSU's been using it as an office or something, and a place to launch their scuba divers.
I also wondered if they really had to tear this building down too. Seems like a perfectly good building, like the aquarium. I mean, do they really have to tear the old buildings down, rather than fixing them up and using them for something? Seems wasteful.

This Yellow-crowned Night Heron is another member of the wildlife community that doesn't seem to want the building torn down. He seems perfectly happy fishing around the cypress roots right beside it.

This turtle seems just fine swimming under the water here. I'm still not seeing why these buildings are incompatible with a wildlife preserve.

But judging on the state of decay of Pirate's Cove, I'm sure it's coming down too. It's like TSU didn't take care of these buildings at all. This window is about to fall out into the water.

Well, after getting pictures of all the old buildings set for demolition, we went out on the one good thing TSU added to this place, the boardwalk doing out into the wetland. Great place for wildlife viewing. Nice Green Heron, eh? I think that's a White-winged dove behind him.

Lots of happy birdies out there. Got some White Ibises (the juvenile ones are not white), some American coots, some Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, and some Snowy and Great Egrets.

 We kept seeing these odd holes in the sand under the water near the walk.

Turns out they were dug by tilapia, one of the invasive species that live here along with the "endengered" ones. Yeah, the same African fish that have now become popular in frozen fillet form at the grocery store. Nice big fat ones in there too. Tilapia are a species of cichlid, so I guess like their cousins, they probably build nests and protect their eggs.

 I think this is a Western Kingbird. I'm surprised I got this good of a shot of him. He wouldn't stay still.

 Look at all that Elephant Ear and Water Hyacinth. There's something I wouldn't mind being torn down.

 It's been ages since I've seen Wood Ducks.

I noticed that the native Rio Grande Cichlids were also building holes, but they were in deeper water than the tilapias. I wonder if it was one of those situations where the shallow water is a better place for fish nests, so the larger tilapias had bulled the Rio Grande's away and took the best spots.

Speaking of invasive species, here's one of our cuter ones. Nutrias may be bad for the environment, but they're cute! They're like guinea pigs of the water. (Yes, I know a lot of people consider them "water rats", but I think they're actually taxonomically closer to guinea pigs. They are from South America, after all.)

I'm surprised how close it go to us. Hardly any fear. I wonder if people have been feeding him or something.

I also got this shot, looking out beyond the lake towards the huge golf course you literally have to go through to get to Aquarena. Oh yeah, a golf course right next to a nature preserve. Nothing weird or contradictory about that at all! Yeah, that totally sends the right message about environmental conservation.

Sarcasm aside, I heard a rumor that they actually want to expand this golf course. Ugh! I hope that's not true. In my opinion, Texas shouldn't even have any golf courses at all. Wherever golf was invented, they obviously had a lot more water there than we have here. I wonder how much water the golf course uses to keep their grass green compared to how much I use to grow my vegetable garden.

The sun was starting to go down and the birds were starting to roost for the night in the trees around the lake. This really is a good birding spot. I've even seen an osprey here before.

 I could still see silhouettes of a lot of birds on the lake as the sun went down.

Of course night herons are named that for a reason. He wasn't going to bed any time soon. They're cute, aren't they? I think they have a sort of comical look about them, like they're a cartoon bird instead of a real one.

Goodbye Aquarena Springs. A part of my childhood now lives only in my memory, and the memories of everyone else who stopped over there on childhood road trips for those 50 years.