Category Archives: Travels Abroad

Glen Rose Interlude – 1

As can be told from the last year, managing the gallery means a dearth of posts. This is a shame on one level, because it means that an ever-expanding collection of photos builds up on backup drives, just waiting for a few minutes between plant maintenance, enclosure design and construction, ARTwalk setup and teardown, home maintenance, relationship maintenance, Day Job essentials, laundry, mowing the lawn, and the regular nervous breakdown every third Friday. If I had the time to find a definitive and permanent vaccine for sleep, I’d be all set.

With that said, with things cooling down and the temperate carnivores going to bed for the winter, it’s time to start updating and revising. Let’s start with a little palaeobotany trip down to Glen Rose, Texas, best known for its dinosaur trackways but full of all sorts of other surprises.

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The original idea, such as it was, was to get out of Dallas for a day during Memorial Day weekend and hit someplace that presumably hadn’t been flooded with May’s torrential rains. This time, it meant hitting Glen Rose, almost directly due south of Fort Worth, and stopping by Dinosaur Valley State Park. Neither of us had been out that way for a decade, but the idea of nature trails, antique stores, and possibly finding some of the Paluxy River’s famed Cretaceous petrified wood. The wood could wait: the dinosaurs couldn’t.

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Besides the draw of Dinosaur Valley State Park’s hiking and biking trails and campgrounds, there’s the real reason why people travel from all over the planet: its famed dinosaur trackways. Back in the 1930s, the fossil prospector Roland T. Bird rode into Glen Rose on a hot summer day on his Indian motorcycle and stopped for a drink of lemonade. While cooling off, he inspected a recently constructed bandshell next to the county courthouse, which was constructed of local stone. Among the huge chunks of gypsum and petrified wood was a fossil track of a predatory dinosaur, and inquiry by Bird led locals to show him the river bottom, which was literally paved with dinosaur tracks and trackways. Not only were the first scientifically described sauropod tracks found in the river, but they kept coming across tracks on multiple planes of what used to be muddy beach: one of the great surprises was of a whole trackway, most likely of the big predator Acrocanthosaurus and the sauropod Paluxysaurus, as the former chased the latter across mudflats. Those trackways were cut out and archived decades ago, but the river bottom still had other tracks to see, right?

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Well, as luck would have it, the Paluxy probably had plenty of new tracks visible to the naked eye…if the bearer of that eye also had gills. The river was as high as I’ve ever seen it, and about as clear and attractive as week-old coffee. It was also as close to white water as it could come, so taking a boat on it, even if that were allowed, was a remarkably bad idea. That didn’t stop innumerable innertubers on the nearby Brazos, but if the idea was to view geology instead of lining the banks with beer bottles, this was a bust.

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Maybe not a complete bust: on the far shore was a smooth softshelled turtle (Trionyx spp.) taking advantage of a lack of humans to get in a good bask. It stayed on the bank for about ten minutes, long enough to get photos, but it didn’t take well to spectators. Enough people collected on the near shore that the noise or the motion spooked it, and it slid off the sandbank and disappeared into the roiling river. Considering that the genus Trionyx is at least 45 million years old, and probably a lot older, it may not have been a dinosaur contemporary, but at least it added some ambiance. Besides, softshelled turtles are famously cantankerous, and since this one was the same diameter as a garbage can lid, anybody stupid enough to catch it would learn soon enough exactly how hard it could bite.

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Not far from the river were two old friends: the Tyrannosaurus and Brontosaurus statues from the 1962 World’s Fair, where they joined other life-sized dinosaurs in an outdoor exhibition sponsored by Sinclair Oil. These days, they’re in exceptional condition: when I first viewed them in the fall of 1980, they’d been neglected for decades since they were donated to Dinosaur Valley State Park. The Brontosaurus had been constructed in segments in order to make it easier to ship by boat to the New York World’s Fairgrounds, and the sparkle used to cover the seams had fallen out, giving it a strange checkerboard look. Meanwhile, the Tyrannosaurus had suffered from the loving attentions of the residents of Glen Rose: in 1980, it had all of two teeth left. Apparently, having a fake dinosaur tooth was a status symbol among Glen Rose teenagers, so the rest had been shot out with .22 rifles and picked up. That changed in the late Eighties with a big restoration and location change, though, and they look today as if they could go for a walk.

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(thick northern Australian accent) “Now, this is a mature tyrannosaur! He’s about fifteen meters; that’s about 50 feet! Now, I’m gonna sneak up behind and jam my thumb up his butthole! That’ll really piss him orf!”

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Incidentally, there’s a very good reason why this tyrannosaur has a trapdoor for a cloaca. By 1962 standards, the World’s Fair dinosaurs were marvels of animatronics, and this trapdoor allowed access to the mechanism that opened and closed the tyrannosaur’s lower jaw. I’d known for years that other dinosaurs had similar mechanisms (the Triceratops had a head that moved back and forth, and the Ankylosaurus had a tail club that wagged), but I’d been told for years that the Brontosaurus was completely immobile. Imagine my surprise at Caroline spotting guide at the front of the corral that described the brontosaur’s neck moving from side to side. Nearly 55 years later, and you still learn something new.

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Another drastic change from late 1980: in a strange way, this was a more accurate locale for a big sauropod than anybody thought. In 1980, the scientific consensus still held that the big sauropods were swamp-dwellers that used water to buoy their massive bulks. The Paluxy dinosaur tracks seemed to confirm this: although plenty of sauropod front and hind footprints showed up in the river, not a single tail dragmark showed, up, supposedly confirming that the tracks were made under enough water to float the tails out of the way. What’s understood now is that sauropods held their tails out of reach of a wayward herdmate’s foot, and that most sauropods actively avoided swamps in favor of well-drained floodplains. Ironically, while the conditions most favored by tyrannosaurs are best represented today by southern Louisiana and the Florida panhandle, most of the big Jurassic sauropods would have been most at home in plains like the ones around Dallas and Fort Worth. If they could deal with the drastic changes in vegetation, that is.

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And on the subject of Texas climate, the seeming dead-fish eye on the Brontosaurus has a slightly disturbing story. This is the third head on this statue: when the big restoration project on both statues started in the mid-1980s, an effort was made to put a new, scientifically accurate head on the Brontosaurus, when “Brontosaurus” became a nomen dubiam for the previously described Apatosaurus. Unfortunately, as is often the case with a lot of science art, the proponents of accurate sauropods ran right into proponents of preserving art in its original form, even if it’s wildly inaccurate. Ultimately, molds were found of the original head, and this fiberglass replacement was made from those mold and reattached. The eyes, though, were made of clear resin, which has fogged and crazed from just a few years of Texas’s wildly high levels of ultraviolet light. Texas cars very rarely rust out due to our climate removing any need for salting roads in the winter, but the tradeoff is cracking car dashboards from heat and auto paint that turns into watercolors in ten years.

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Surprisingly for the whole foofarol about redoing the bronto’s head, nobody talks about redoing the tyrannosaur to match current theories. Namely, covering it with feathers. Here, I argue that this statue needs to be left alone to illustrate how dinosaurs were portrayed in the Twentieth Century…and put in a new accurate one just down the road a ways. You have to admit that seeing a “Roadrunner From Hell” tyrannosaur once you enter the park is a great way to make lasting impressions on first-time park visitors, right?

To be continued…

Glen Rose Interlude – 2

Want to know what you missed? Go back and catch up.


The main reason most people have for visiting Glen Rose, Texas is for dinosaur tracks. Whether it’s to visit Dinosaur Valley State Park or the oxymoronic Creation Evidence Museum up the road, it’s all about dinosaur tracks. Before one Roland T. Bird came into downtown Glen Rose for a glass of lemonade and found a dinosaur track incorporated into a WPA-built bandshell next to the courthouse, the town was one of a multitude of towns southwest of Fort Worth boasting scenic views and excellent diners, but nothing that would convince people to travel from the other side of the planet to visit. Now, Glen Rose has a plethora of antique stores and art galleries to give a reason to stay, just so long as you don’t spend so much time stomping around in the Paluxy River that you lose track of daylight.

Since the original plan to go slopping around in the Paluxy was capsized by the closest thing to white water that I’ve ever seen on it, this meant lots of daylight for other endeavors. The dinosaur trackways are on what used to be muddy beachfront, so they tended to catch lots of other items during regular rounds of sediment deposition. While I have yet to come across any reports of actual dinosaur bone preserved in Glen Rose, that mud preserved a lot more. In particular, the area is simply rotten with exquisitely petrified driftwood, most of which looks as if it came out of the surf last week instead of 120 million years ago.


Those familiar with the fossilized logs at Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona might be a bit disappointed with Glen Rose petrified wood, or most of the stuff in Texas for that matter. The Glen Rose deposits rarely preserve whole logs: the vast majority of pieces resemble the chunks and bobs that wash up in the Gulf of Mexico today: the bark is gone, but the surf wasn’t strong enough to move big logs and stumps onto land, so most of what’s here are smaller pieces that were broken up elsewhere. However, it’s beautifully silicified, preserving knotholes and insect damage, and it’s considerably more forgiving of erosion than its mudstone matrix, so it once collected in large piles. A tough but workable stone, with obvious attractiveness and durability: when given that sort of resource for construction, of course the people Glen Rose put it to use.


Based on the buildings still extant incorporating local petrified wood, you’d think that the area would remain loaded with logs. Making a trip out to Glen Rose 15 years ago, I heard some of the backstory from the former mayor, who ran a now-defunct bookstore in the town square. According to her, most of the available logs and larger chunks that weren’t already incorporated into local buildings were picked up and sold for the rock shop trade in the 1950s, and the high quality of the wood meant that people were keeping a close eye on the buildings. She related how a gas station near the square, made almost completely out of local petrified wood, had shut down and the land purchased by a local church for possible expansion. According to her, the church was evenly split between those who wanted to restore the gas station as a piece of local history and those who wanted to sell the petrified wood to a wholesaler, and this was settled when the gas station “accidentally” came down in the middle of the night. The petrified wood was salvaged and sold, and half of the congregation hasn’t talked to the other half since.


Even acknowledging that (a) the story might be apocryphal and (b) I should have taken notes rather than depending upon memories from a decade-and-a-half ago, the gas station story is believable upon seeing the structures still standing. So long as Cretaceous rock remains in the Glen Rose area, additional petrified wood will eventually erode out and gradually migrate to the bottom of the valley, but all of the easy pickings have been gone since the Great Depression. With luck, though, enough will remain that some aspiring palaeobotanist should be able to identify and classify the local flora, and give as much of a view of the plant life of Creataceous Glen Rose as the trackways give of the fauna.

To be continued…

Travels Abroad: the Hibiscus of Grenada

Hibiscus

As mentioned earlier, the Nicaraguan city of Grenada is absolutely festooned with beautiful Hibiscus trees, all of which were first starting to bloom during my trip at the end of May. Unfortunately for me, many of the most impressive specimens didn’t photograph well, as it’s remarkably hard to stop and get a good macro photograph when everyone else in your party doesn’t share your botanical zeal. The same was true of the photos I thought I had of hummingbirds feeding from those same Hibiscus blooms. Well, next trip, then.

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Travels Abroad: Hotel La Bocona

Hotel La Bocona

Between the Day Job and working on big plant projects for the end of this year and the beginning of next, sharing photos of the work trip to Grenada, Nicaragua went onto the back burner, but not out of a lack of wanting to share. Actually, yes, it IS because I don’t want to share. Namely, I’ve found my perfect house, and now I need to figure out how to make it happen in Texas.

To recap, the end of May and beginning of June were spent in Grenada with co-workers at the new Day Job, where we were the overawed guests of local philanthropist Peter Kovind. Among many other things, Mr. Kovind took advantage of Grenada’s classic Spanish architecture (painstakingly rebuilt after its burning to the ground in 1856, and you might want to look up the name “William Walker” if you want to understand why) to convert one of Grenada’s beautiful houses into the Hotel La Bocona, literally across the street from the statue of the same name.

Hotel La Bocona

As a hotel, the Hotel La Bocona reminds me of why I dislike most American hotels: simplicity is a wonderful thing. The rooms are comfortable and roomy, the pool is exquisite, and the staff, without exception, absolutely wonderful. Just for the experience alone, I rapidly felt terrible about not making my own bed and saving the housekeepers the trouble. Were I insane enough to consider going back to professional writing, this place would be my perfect idea of a locale in which to lock myself and write for the next month, only coming out to improve my Spanish. (As it stands, my Spanish isn’t so bad that I’d believe that “¡gringo estupido!” meant “May the Lord be with you!”, but it desperately needs improvement.)

Hotel La Bocona

And then there’s the garden. Many of the houses and hotels in Grenada follow the same basic pattern: one big door to the front, usually at the corner, but no windows. Instead, the center of the house is open to the sky, and usually exploding with plant life. When the rains come, they don’t come with heavy winds, so an overhang in the courtyard keeps tables, chairs, and couches protected from water, and when the rains stop, the combination of sights at ground level and sights in the sky (such as the family of parrots yelling at each other from a nearby tree) is about as close to Tanelorn as I’ve ever found. Grenada is justifiably famous for its wide variety of hibiscus trees, and some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen were growing in the second courtyard, right next to the (shallow, warm, and inviting) swimming pool.

Hotel La Bocona
Oh, and I almost forgot the spa. Grenada has an extremely wide range of tourists visiting at any time, and the spa in the back of Hotel La Bocona turned out to be extremely popular with both German and Canadian visitors. Peeking inside, I could understand why. Let loose a few small dinosaurs in there, and I’d never want to leave.

Hotel La Bocona Spa

I’ve already told myself, over and over, that with a new push toward travel, it’s better to visit twenty new places once than the same place twenty times. I’m reconsidering my decision as far as Grenada is concerned. In fact, if it means being locked up in Hotel La Bocona for a month, I might even take up someone on a book contract, and that’s saying something.

Introducing Delonix regia

Delonix regia

As mentioned before, the big trip to Nicaragua at the end of May/beginning of June was work-related, which puts certain restrictions on botanical sightseeing. It’s bad enough being the only person in the general party actually thrilled to see my old friend Hylocereus costaricensis, the dragonfruit cactus, in the wild (or possibly its cousin H. undatus), and confirming that they grow best in medium to heavy shade during the hottest parts of the year. It should be understandable that my cohorts weren’t going to stop the bus every time I saw something vaguely interesting along the side of the road, and much of the area around Grenada had very handy cliffs and even a few volcano calderas to throw me into if I didn’t stop whining. Because this was business, I settled for biting my tongue, grumbling slightly, and trying my best to get decent photographs before the drivers had us on the other side of the galaxy.

(Incidentally, I learned something very handy and very thoughtful that hadn’t come up in years of bicycling in the States. For many reasons, Nicaragua is absolutely loaded with bicycles, and I watched fathers with two kids on the top bar cruise through traffic with grace and elan. Only recently have motorists in the States, particularly in Texas, accepted the increasing number of bikes on the road, so I still deal with the occasional jerk who thinks it’s still 1983 and that there’s something fundamentally wrong with someone over the age of 14 on a bike, under any conditions. Because of that, I was still rather defensive of anybody honking behind me, as that usually meant an idiot who expected the bikes to get off the road just for them, even if they were the only other person on the road. I’m serious: I had one bozo blast her horn from her SUV for a good half-mile, tailgating me the whole way, and then finally pull around just in time for us both to look at each other at the stoplight. Well, I looked at her: she stared straight ahead and did her best to avoid eye contact while her kids stared. I just told them “You’re all right, but your mom really needs to up her medication” before pedaling off.

(Anyway, it took a trip of this sort for me to make sense of a horn habit that hadn’t made sense before. As mentioned, I used to get defensive about people honking at me, and would get angry when a motorist would pass with a quick double-tap on the horn. “Yeah, I know, I’m in your way. I’m trying to get out of it.” What I discovered was that for Central America at least, this is a sign of respect: the double-tap is to inform the cyclist that a car or truck is coming up behind, and that the driver saw and acknowledged the cyclist’s presence. Now, when I get this at home, I don’t get surly. Instead, I wave and thank them, and the drivers are always surprised that the crazy white guy on the bike actually gets it.)

One of those minor grumbles came up over and over with a particularly beautiful tree that was so brilliantly orange that it was visible from the air well over the Managua airport. Everywhere we went, these trees followed, so orange that I thought the foliage was orange. Upon closer inspection, the coloration was from the blooms, but what blooms! I thought our native crepe myrtles did a great job of hiding their foliage among brilliant cascades of flowers, but this one could have taught the crepe myrtles about eight or nine lessons. My problem was being given a chance to focus in on an impressive canopy of them while moving at speeds that threatened to blue-shift the pigments.

Delonix regia

Finally, I managed to get close to a small specimen, and just stood and stared at the blooms. Each was easily the size of my hand, looking more like something manufactured from steel or bronze than anything botanical. For the rest of the trip, I’d gaze contentedly at those trees as they passed by on the highway back to the airport, telling myself that one day, I’d come back and give them much more time and attention.

Delonix regia

The real surprise on this is that while I and everyone else in the group thought these were indigenous trees, our not having seen them before was only because we lived far too north. We’d encountered Delonix regia, commonly and appropriately named “flamboyant”. Originally from Madagascar, the flamboyant tree grew enthusiastically and vigorously any place where the conditions were right, and went feral over most of the Earth’s tropics. In the US, they’re apparently only found in the Rio Grande Valley in far southern Texas and in southern Florida, but they’re as cosmopolitan a tropical tree as can be managed.

Delonix regia

That was another big surprise: while the northern half of Nicaragua may be jungle, the area around Grenada was much drier and scrubbier, and I saw a lot of analogues to plants I would have seen in North Texas that were thriving under many of the same conditions. The surprise was seeing so many plants, particularly cacti, that I recognized from just about any garden center or commercial nursery back home. At first, I thought that these may have originated in Central America and gained their current popularity due to imports to America and Europe, but D. regia‘s range makes me wonder about that. Time for more research, and the hope that I might live long enough to finish it.

Travels Abroad: La Bocona

Signs to La Bocona

Among many other wonders in Grenada, Nicaragua, one of the greater mysteries of Grenada was literally across the street from the hotel in which I stayed. Right by the front door of the building across the way was a large statue, carved out of volcanic rock, built into the side of the doorway. A very helpful gentleman working at the hotel passed on what he knew about the statue, which he was the first one to admit wasn’t much. Then again, nobody else seems to know, either.

La Bocona
The statue is called “La Bocona,” which roughly translates to “The Big Mouth”. La Bocona is a fixed point in Grenada: Grenada attracts a large number of international tourists and expatriates, and even those completely inept in Spanish, such as myself, can recite the name and have everyone in the city point you in the direction of the statue. In fact, the statue now has several concrete pillars in front, to prevent drivers and cyclists from taking out the front door while being distracted by its odd shape. La Bocona may not be in the center of Grenada, but it’s close enough that it’s very handy as a guide to the central market, the fire department, and any of the central cathedrals in the city.

La Bocona

With it being a landmark, you’d think that La Bocona would have more of a history, but that’s where things get odd. Apparently it was excavated during the construction of a sidewalk, with different versions saying in the 1940s or 1950s, and the owner of the property had it installed in the front of the building so everyone can see it. Other than that, it’s a mystery. La Bocona has no myths coming up around it, no outre explanations as to how it got there, or why it was constructed. It’s just there, and I suspect that filling in some of the questions about it would disappoint everyone, as the mystery seems to feed upon itself. Trying to give it an explanation would ruin it, but everyone has their own basic ideas, which they keep to themselves.

La Bocona
After a while, I shared that sentiment. I have no doubt that archaeologists have already examined and documented everything they can about La Bocona, and now I want to hunt down what they’ve written. I myself have a sneaking suspicion as to what the artist was trying to capture, and if I’m wrong, you’ll never know. In the meantime, it just perches at that corner, unseeing, as wonderful humanity rushes by. It did so before it was buried, and it’ll probably do so centuries after I’m gone.

Travels Abroad: Grenada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua

I try not to let personal life issues affect Triffid Ranch activities, which is why they very rarely ever come up. One of those involved my previous job, which had been souring for a while. Between regular depletion and bizarrely scheduled annual layoffs, timed to guarantee that the parent company saw a double-digit return for the year, the job was becoming more and more of a chore instead of a career. As with any long-running tech company, it managed to gather its particular collection of dysfunctional characters, and many were brittle enough that you never knew what might be the one factor that caused one or five to come in with high-powered weaponry. Between the birthers, the young-earth creationists, the conspiracy theorists, the Freecycle addicts, and the Cory Doctorow cultists, any given trip to the break area was like reading the comments on a Yahoo! news article. It was probably pure coincidence that my bike tires were slashed at least once after I answered The Vital Question in a project meeting, “Star Wars or Star Trek?” with “Don’t look at me: I’m a Babylon 5 kind of guy,” but the timing fit. Either way, take a bit of advice: you know that guy that every tech company has, who practically curls up on the break room counter in impotent rage because “I’m angry at my government”? When he asks your advice on schools where he can send his unvaccinated children because “vaccinations cause autism,” do NOT bring up that they may have more to worry about genetically inherited connections to paranoid schizophrenia. Just saying.

So it was time to leave, and just in time, too: three months to the day after leaving the old position and the few remaining people for whom I still cared, the company was sold to a crew notorious for liquidating new acquisitions, so I dodged a few bullets. The new position is just as obscure as the old one, which is just exactly what I needed: if anything, I get my fill of the crazy by taking the train to work, and being told by former Texas Instruments and EDS engineers on the same route that I need to get a new bicycle seat because “if it doesn’t have a channel in it, you can get prostate cancer.”

Anyway, one of the criteria for the new position required getting a passport, as the opportunity for making company presentations around the world was a serious possibility. My measured and professional response was “Oh, TWIST my arm!” Previously, world travel was a bit like being handed an operational Green Lantern ring: oh, you can talk about the possibilities, but who’s going to give you the option? And then the word came through that the whole company was making a journey…to see Grenada, Nicaragua. Not what I was expecting, but I definitely wasn’t complaining, as I’d wanted to visit Central America since I was five years old.

Sadly, since this was business, this wasn’t the botanical tour for which I would have arranged had this been purely for pleasure. That said, I have no regrets. Grenada is a stunning city, and I hope to visit it again when my conversational Spanish might be described as something better than “you’re going to starve to death in a restaurant if your waiters don’t know English.”

The streets of Granada

Anyway, over the next few days, I get to resurrect a grand tradition that’s been missing from American culture for the last thirty years: boring friends and relatives to death with photos from your last vacation. This, though, should be a blast.