Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Learn History on LBJ Ranch Bike Tour guided by Luci Johnson

Luci Baines Johnson surveys the expansive two-story house on the Johnson Ranch near Stonewall and says, “My daddy loved this place. He used to say two days here did him more good than most people got from two weeks in the Caribbean.” That’s easy to understand when strolling the grounds. Serene views of the Pedernales River are just a short walk away or a glance out the window.

You can ride with Luci around the ranch LBJ loved on Saturday, March 27 when Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park hosts the third annual LBJ 100 Bicycle Tour. Luci Baines Johnson, younger daughter of Lyndon and “Lady Bird”, officially starts the 32, 45, and 62-mile (100 kilometer) rides at 9:00 a.m. from the historic ranch airstrip adjacent to the Texas White House.

At 2:00 p.m. she will lead an easy seven-mile ride around the ranch. This special ride includes reminiscences and stories about her parents and life on the ranch in the 1960s and includes several stops at various historic locations. Surrounded by magnificent live oak trees, the house harbors years of vivid memories for Luci, whose parents bought it from her widowed aunt when she was just five years old. “I don’t remember not coming here,” she says.

Luci speaks from her heart, sharing stories about her family that only friends will hear. For three hours on a chilly Saturday in 2008, my husband Larry and I were counted among her many friends as we rode with Johnson on the LBJ Ranch Bike Tour, held as a fundraiser by Friends of LBJ National Historical Park.

That day more than 100 participants gathered at the parking lot of the LBJ State Park and Historic Site Visitor Center (there is both a state park and a national park). Riders of all ages came from as far away as South Dakota and Minnesota. Bikers rode on skinny tires and fat ones, pulling baby carts, and tending young children riding on their own wheels. One couple had a bicycle built for two, and another couple leaned back in their easy-riding recumbent bikes.

President and Mrs. Johnson donated their ranch to the National Park Service prior to his death in 1972. Because Mrs. Johnson continued living there, public access to the property was limited to guided bus tours. After her death in July 2007, the national park service began expanding public access to the home, and several areas are now open for viewing.

On our tour we rode to Park Road 1, which parallels the Pedernales River. With little car traffic, riders spread out peddling past a herd of buffalo, the Trinity Lutheran Church, and rest area with picnic tables. We turned left and followed our guide across the river on a bridge.

On a paved road we head toward the one-room Junction School, where Lyndon Johnson’s formal education began at age four. Our next stop was LBJs birthplace, just down the road. Despite his worldly travels and international career, her father was born and buried within a mile’s radius, Luci explains.

Across the road is the Johnson Family Cemetery, with LBJ’s headstone marked by the Presidential seal and Lady Bird’s final resting place designated with a bouquet of flowers. “Daddy used to walk here after dinner,” Luci said. “It wasn’t a sad place but a place of peace and serenity.” Branches from huge oak trees hover like angels guarding memories of her loved ones.

We rode to the ranch house, also known as the Texas White House. Luci, who now lives 60 miles away in Austin, acknowledged how much the home meant to her family; her children and grandchildren had come all their lives, and she was married there with a reception in the hangar.

She enjoyed hearing personal stories from riders of ways her daddy had touched their lives. She feels a mission to share this historic spot and hopes events like the bike tour, billed as “A Ride to Preserve History,” will encourage more people to experience the park in novel ways.

Our ride was fun and informative, the best way to learn history, and I encourage readers to consider this event.  Contact Sherry Justus, 830-868-7128, ext. 245 or Liz_Lindig@nps.gov

Photos by Beverly and Larry Burmeier

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Toasting the Chisholm Trail Winery

Mention the Chisholm Trail, and you’ll conjure up visions of the Old West. Today, you can find a modern version of the frontier pathway in CentralTexas at Chisholm Trail Winery--not so different in its rural setting, but with a final destination far removed from the semi-cultured establishments of that era.

Follow the long country road--through the woods, past Longhorn cattle grazing freely and quarter horses roaming the open range (with a couple of llamas and potbellied pigs around, too) to a small valley nine miles west of Fredericksburg. Set in a quintessential Western landscape, Chisholm Trail Winery is as fine a place to sample delicious wine and spend a lazy afternoon as you’ll find anywhere.

Escape the hustle and bustle of the city with a picnic by Spring Creek, located on the Chisholm Trail property; then stroll over to the winery’s tasting room for a refreshing glass of light, fruity whites or dry reds.

Chisholm Trail is the creation of Paula Williamson and Harry Skeins, two former attorneys, who purchased the property in 1992 with the dream of making quality wines in Texas using only Texas grapes. They spent three years learning vineyard techniques and wine making, including many hours under the tutelage of master wine maker Vernon Gold, and planted the first five acres in 1994 with Cabernet sauvignon plants. The first wines were released in 2001. Today the winery has tank space for 15,000 gallons. Paula is one of only seven female wine makers in Texas.

Featuring premium estate bottled wines in a beautiful Hill Country setting, Chisholm Trail Winery meshes Western heritage with contemporary panache to provide a fun atmosphere in which to enjoy the products. No stuffy people sniffing and swirling here. Paula, wearing a bright turquoise shirt and matching band on her cowboy hat, pours samples into Longhorn logo glasses, while live music entertains guests on the tasting room’s patio.

For $12 you can taste every wine produced here, and there’s a real variety. For example, Ghostrider is a sweet white merlot while Jackass Blush kicks in a tropical taste of orange blossoms, key lime pie, and mango. Their 2006 Diablo is dry and spicy, but for a mellow dry red sip Lil’s Red Satin.

Put Chisholm Trail on your list of places to stop during the Wine and Wildflower Trail, scheduled for the first two weekends in April. If you can’t wait, head to the winery's Vino and Pasta event on March 20 or Spring Fling on March 27. Drive 2.36 miles down Usener Road, off Hwy 290 west of Fredericksburg to reach the winery. http://www.chisholmtrailwinery.com/

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Swimming in Pirate Waters on the Caribbean Island of Dominica

The water was cold, and the rocks slippery, but we breathed quickly and plunged into the clear green pool, catching splashes from two nearby waterfalls on our faces. We were swimming at picturesque Ti Tou Gorge, deep in the lush tropical forest of Dominica (pronounced Dom-in-eek-a),  at the very same spot where cannibals chased Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest.

We paddled into a dark freshwater cave and then through a narrow gorge, wide enough for only one body at a time. Notable because hot and cold streams converge and intermingle here, the crevice opened into a large pool of clear water. We swam against the left wall of the cave in order to avoid underwater boulders that were close enough to the surface for scraping knees and feet. Creeping further through the chilly water, we came to another waterfall with its swirl of foam topping the crystal water. We climbed a rocky ledge and marveled at the amazing scenery and then splashed back into the water for a return trip through the gorge and cave.

Ti Tou Gorge, one of Dominica’s spectacular natural features, is easily reached from several points in Morne Trois Piton National Park, designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Tour companies take island visitors and cruise ship guests to this unique spot, often as part of longer tours that include other major attractions in the national park region.

Not known for beautiful sandy beaches that attract visitors to other Caribbean islands, Dominica’s fame lies mainly in its untamed beauty. It is the largest and most mountainous of the Windward Islands, owing to its volcanic origins. Several peaks top out over 3,000 feet, with the tallest, Morne Trois Pitons at 4,600, giving its name to the national park where Ti Tou and other attractions are located. Tales of piracy and buried treasure fill Dominican history and folklore, making it a particularly fitting spot for filming scenes of the Pirates movie.

Other points of interest on our daylong tour included snorkeling at Champagne Reef, driving to Emerald Falls and Trafalgar Falls (in different parts of the rain forest), and visiting an old mountain plantation with lovely valley views.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ann Arbor--Journey to the Heartland

Matthei  Botanical Garden is bursting with spring time blooms.
Ann Arbor, Michigan has something for everyone—a perfect Midwest Mix of activity, culture, and relaxation. Its climate is ideal for growing flowers and food, and there are plenty of bike trails and kayaking for outdoor enthusiasts. Additonally, it’s home to the University of Michigan, which gives visitors great opportunities for music and art—and, of course, sports.

For starters, here are a few surprising things I learned when visiting this easy-going, back-to-nature, sporty, foodie-nurturing, arts-loving, and well-educated town.

University of Michigan Solar House
• It’s a blooming wonderland. In June more than 10,000 peonies burst into bloom in colors ranging from white to wine-red at Nichols Arboretum, displaying the largest collection of antique and heirloom peonies in North America. Attractions in Matthei Botanical Garden cover the spectrum from century-old plants in the Conservatory to the prototype Michigan Solar House, designed and built by University of Michigan students and faculty and exhibited on the Mall in Washington D.C.

Hollander's Paper Works features
a variety of beautiful paper designs.
• Downtown is the “in” place to shop. In the 1960s, a revitalization plan turned the brick-paved Main Street of Kerrytown into an urban, outdoor market. Three main buildings feature a variety of locally owned and operated—but widely known--businesses such as Sweetwater’s Cafe, Found Gallery, Lily’s Garden, Hollander’s Paper Works, and Zingerman’s Restaurant.

• Fresh food is foremost. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), farm-to-table, and slow food movements are strong in the area. A consortium of people, restaurants, and farms are working to transform Ann Arbor into a center of food culture in Southern Michigan.

Craft breweries are popular around Ann Arbor.
• Small breweries are big business. Locally owned and operated microbreweries like Jolly Pumpkin Brewery in nearby Dexter and Original Gravity in Milan are making a name for themselves with tasty and unusual beer flavors. Sip suds flavors from these experimental breweries like oatmeal cookie, orange peel, Belgian training wheels, and vanilla java porter. Then learn about ingredients, aroma, and palate of artisan beers from Arbor Brewing Company in the city.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier