07-Mar-2005 -- And then there were three! Like many people, I’ve had my eye on this confluence for a long time, one of the last few land-based virgin confluences in the forty-eight states. I tried to secure permission to visit this site through various channels, including starting at the bottom and working my way up, and vice versa. Each attempt ended in failure in 2003 and 2004, so I thought I would try a different approach in 2005. I asked all of the nice folks I’ve met on prior confluence hunts in Texas if they had an "inside" contact for this property, and I struck gold (thanks, Nancy & Champ and Bob & Allee)! Ironically, someone living near http://confluence.org/confluence.php?lat=36&lon=-103 had an indirect connection with this confluence—at the exact opposite corner of this very large state! Renewed, I pursued this newfound contact, and permission to visit was granted relatively easily (after signing my life away on a very thorough legal release form).
After a late night of fine dining and checking out Chick Corea live in Hollywood at the Catalina Bar & Grill, I awoke early on Sunday, March 6, 2005. I essentially packed the night before, since I knew I would not be back home before the end of my Texas odyssey. As always, I drove the thirty-two miles from Pasadena to my church in La Habra, since I am in the church choir, and have been for over fourteen years. The choir did a fine job during this Lenten mass, but time was dragging for me, since I was chomping at the bit to begin my sixteenth confluence adventure. After hitting a great Mexican taco place and scoring a wee hot-fudge sundae, I changed out of my monkey suit and donned shorts and a t-shirt for comfortable flying.
I made it to Ontario Airport in great time, and it was truly a glorious day in Southern California (see Photo #10). I tried to capture the beautiful vistas of the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains at a gas station near the airport, but my digital camera battery gave up the ghost. Oh, no! At least I had remembered to bring my battery charger for the trip to Texas. After I checked in at the airline ticket counter a few hours before my flight, I decided to recharge my camera battery and snap a few photos from the parking lot. It was a challenge taking pictures that didn’t look too urban, since I couldn’t stray too far from the airport on foot. After snapping four shots, I headed to my gate at this quaint airport, ready for the adventure to begin. Oh, was it about to begin!
Just before boarding time, our gate agent announced that our flight would be delayed, since they were one flight attendant short. There were a few perfunctory groans, but I remained calm, secure in the belief that my nearly two-hour layover in Dallas would save my butt. After a few tens of minutes, they said they had good news and bad news. The good news was a flight attendant was on the way, driving from LAX. The bad news was that it would delay our flight by 60-90 minutes. The groans echoed throughout Southern California, as most people realized they would now be spending the night in a Dallas hotel. I was certainly getting anxious, and it didn’t help that they called us all to the gate for potential rebooking.
Once there, I checked out my options for getting to Corpus Christi if I missed my connection. As I feared, my flight to Corpus was the last one of the evening, and the one in the morning was too late to make my appointments. In exchange for being allowed access to ranch property, I agreed to talk about my day job with NASA for all students (pre-K through 12th grade) at the ranch school. Missing this flight would jeopardize the confluence visit, my NASA outreach obligations, or both. I told them this at the gate, and said it was vital I make my connection. They were not concerned at all, since my layover was so generous, especially compared to the poor folks around me. Not appeased, I walked over to Southwest Airlines to see if they could help me out. They could get me to Corpus Christi the next morning, an hour earlier than my primary carrier, but that was still too late for my commitments in south Texas. I sat down, glumly, and awaited my fate.
We eventually left Ontario two hours behind schedule, so I was agitated to say the least. Unfortunately, this precluded my usual ability to sack out quickly and soundly while flying even the unfriendliest of skies. Just to tease me, the pilot made up a bit of time, providing me a ray of hope that I might actually make my connection. We taxied on the DFW tarmac for eternity (Einstein was alive and well in this black hole of time dilation), and then approached our gate, which was blocked by an outgoing aircraft. My spirits tanked as we inched towards another gate for deplaning. Sensing my despair, the perky steward lisped his take on the situation, telling me that my connecting flight would likely wait for me, since they didn’t have anywhere to go after arriving in Corpus. I’ll never forgive that S.O.B. for giving me a second round of false hope—my puddle-jumper to south Texas was long gone.
Enraged, stressed, and fighting back tears, I contemplated my situation, even though I had been preparing for this eventuality for hours. The only way to keep my schedule intact was to rent a car at DFW, cancel my car reservation in Corpus, and drive all night to Kingsville, where I had a motel reservation. I took a bus to the rental car center and hit the Advantage desk around 10 pm CST. Canceling my Advantage reservation for Corpus was not a problem, but then there were a few issues in getting a one-way rental, not the least of which was the price increase by a factor of six. Serenity now, serenity now, I kept telling myself. I wanted a compact for good gas mileage (despite dirt-cheap petrol prices in Texas), but they told me they wouldn’t allow a Dodge Neon to be driven that far away. Serenity now, serenity now. I actually had to laugh because their "unreliable" small car had less than one-third of the miles of my 11-year-old Honda del Sol. Lacking the energy to bargain-shop, I opted for their Chrysler Seabring and hit the road by 10:20 pm, with only the most crude of Texas maps to guide me. I also called my motel, asking them not to cancel my reservation, as I would be arriving before sunrise.
At this point, I decided to embrace the situation and make the most of it. After all, it was only 8:20 pm at home, and I’m a night owl to boot. I cranked the A/C to stay awake, as well as the CD player, soaking up tunes most people wouldn’t be caught dead listening to in Texas. After one small misstep, I hooked up with 360S to I-20W to I-35S. Part of me wanted to turn north on I-35, drive 300 miles to Wichita, Kansas, and get a hug from Mom and Dad before crashing out in my old bed from childhood. No one said confluence hunting was going to be easy, I told myself, as I turned south. To make matters worse, the weather was fairly dismal all night long, ranging from drizzle to moderate rain to fairly thick fog. I could have shaved some miles off the journey, but I thought it was more important to stay on interstates as long as possible, particularly given the weather.
I blew by Waco and Austin on I-35, my first "visits" to these two cities. It was tough not stopping at the state capitol for a quick picture, but I was behind schedule and getting sleepy. Besides, my digital camera was probably out of juice, and the weather was bleak. As I feared, the Seabring’s mileage wasn’t too great, so I tried to stop in New Braunfels for gas. I decided to hit a Jack-in-the-Box instead, since I couldn’t find a gas station; the time was about 2:15 am CST on Monday, March 7th. The drive-through attendant, Maria, was very nice. She told me I was over halfway there (I should hope so!), and served up a southwestern chicken pita, curly fries, and Dr. Pepper with a smile. That pick-me-up really hit the spot, especially the small infusion of caffeine. Invigorated, I hit I-35 southbound towards San Antonio, looking for gasoline and praying for better weather.
I could tell from my coarse Texas map that I should take a bypass around San Antonio, to the east. It was unlabeled, though! Fortunately, I guessed correctly that it was the 410, and this saved some time during this most lengthy of sojourns. I was quite relieved to see the signs for I-37 and Corpus Christi, but gas was getting dangerously low by this point. Luckily, I found an open station in Elmendorf, though not an open restroom! I saved my receipts to aid in my confluence write-up; this stop for gas took place at 3:07 am CST, and gas was a paltry (by California standards) $1.94/gallon. Best of all, the rain and fog let up as I hit I-37 southbound for the final leg of the all-night trek. I counted down the miles to Exit 14, which was Highway 77S to Kingsville. Once on 77S, I got lost a bit going through the towns of Robstown, Driscoll, and Bishop. Fatigue was definitely setting in, but I knew I was close to my motel, so I pressed on, once I found my way.
It was 5:30 am when I finally arrived at the Motel 6 in Kingsville, and the light rain had returned. The journey was exactly 450 miles, no Sunday drive (well, the first few hours were, I guess). Zombie-like, I checked in with the motel clerk; she had canceled my reservation, but luckily there were still rooms available. I told her my sob story, and she was very sweet and sympathetic. My plans had called for me to wake up at 5:15 am, so I was already fifteen minutes behind schedule! I skipped shaving that morning, and that put me back on track. Trying not to hallucinate, I hit my non-smoking room, plugged in the digital camera battery charger, and took a nice, hot shower. Ahhhh! After a quick change of clothes and light packing, I checked out the Weather Channel. It looked like the rain was ending, especially to the southwest where I would be confluence hunting within two hours. Surprisingly refreshed, I checked out at 6:15 am and hit the road. I’ve never rented a motel room by the hour before; somehow, I always imagined it would be more fulfilling.
I made excellent time driving west through Kingsville, on TX-141, over to US-281 southbound. The sun came up, though it was enshrouded in thick clouds. At least the lingering rain was starting to dissipate for good. I drove through the town of Falfurrias and then started looking for the Brooks County Rest Area. Not finding it at the point I was expecting, I did a u-turn to speak with some Border Patrol agents. This part of Texas has a large influx of illegal immigrants, so the Border Patrol is never far away. They were most helpful in steering me to the ranch gate; I had not yet passed it. In fact, one of the agents had me follow him down to my meeting point. I arrived shortly after 7 am, nearly a half-hour ahead of schedule, but without one wink of sleep since Saturday night.
The ranch manager for this portion of the property met me ten minutes early, at 7:20 am. I showed him some aerial maps of the confluence point, handed over my signed legal release, and then loaded up my gear into his large, white truck. We were still a handful of miles from the site while at the gate on US-281, but the distance began shrinking as we headed east on a ranch road. The ranch manager called another employee to get the latitude/longitude coordinates for a windmill near the confluence; this helped us better navigate to the exact point. I jotted down the numbers as best I could in the bouncing pick-up.
We started chatting and didn’t notice my GPS showed us diverging from the confluence point. After this overshoot on the main ranch road (essentially to the Kenedy County line), we backtracked and prepared for some off-roading. Our closest approach distance on the main ranch road was about 0.85 miles (1.4 km). I can honestly say I don’t feel I need to try mechanical (or biological) bull-riding now; the cross-country trek surely duplicates or surpasses the experience! We were largely surrounded by mesquite trees, live oak, and guajillo shrubs, finding small, rocky paths in between impassable botanical barriers. I was pleased that we navigated to a point only 0.35 miles (0.56 km) from the confluence, but the ranch manager said we could do better. We crossed a fence boundary, and (yet again) I was unable to figure out how to open and close the gate. This is a theme for me with prior confluence hunts. With our next bouncy pass, we came within 300 feet (91 meters) of the confluence! It was now time to set off on foot. As I heard from many folks the rest of day, it’s a good thing I visited this area early in spring—apparently, it is overrun with rattlesnakes once the weather gets warm. No thank you!
With my trusty Garmin unit leading the way, we walked amongst the mesquite trees to the confluence of 27ºN and 98ºW, arriving around 8:05 am CST. The confluence point was very near a large mesquite tree, so this confounded our attempts to get good GPS satellite coverage (and photos). All of my photos of my Garmin unit came out blurry, though some did display the coveted "all-zeroes" condition. With six satellites tracking, I obtained all zeroes with a GPS error of 19 feet (6 meters). Luckily, I took a picture of the ranch manager’s GPS unit as well; it is the only discernible GPS view. The last digit changed from "0" to "1" as the picture was taken as well. I forgot to check the altitude estimate from the GPS; it didn’t display on the ranch manager’s unit as a default (unlike my Garmin). From a topographic map, I can state the elevation was about 70 feet (21 meters) with little change in any direction. The aerial view from TerraServer and especially the topographic map from TopoZone agree well with our experiences at the site—namely, that we were near the southwest corner of a patch of brush (largely mesquite trees).
While I struggled to take GPS photos, the ranch manager brought the truck around within a few tens of feet of the confluence! I took the requisite digital pictures from the DCP in the four cardinal and four diagonal directions. My Nikon CoolPix 3500 digital camera worked like a champ, though I was sweating battery life a bit, given its brief recharging at the Kingsville Motel 6. I also took a picture of my GPS unit where it first displayed all zeroes, sitting on the trunk of the confluence-squatting tree. In addition, I captured a nice photo of the confluence point from the clearing to the southwest, overlooking some lovely orange flowers (lantana). I also took a picture of a small prickly pear cactus about 30 feet (9 meters) northwest of the confluence. There were beautiful yellow flowers around this portion of the ranch, some buttercup, and a gorgeous purple blossom, winecup. I asked the ranch manager about placing a small, laminated sign at the confluence. He disallowed this, saying it would never be seen, and the cattle would eat it, anyway! I’ll save it as confluence memorabilia, I guess.
It started warming up quickly, so we headed out around 8:40 am, having little trouble getting back to main road. This land is part of an 825000-acre cattle ranch in south Texas, the largest ranch in the United States (with more land area than the entire state of Rhode Island!). We passed a plethora of wild turkeys, and I asked the manager if they were good eating. He said he preferred Butterball, and then he said, "Actually, down here we eat steak on Thanksgiving." Wow, talk about beef country! We also passed a few wild deer; clearly, this area was typically off-limits to eager hunters. Javelina inhabit the area as well, though I didn’t see any during this brief trip. I did manage to snap photos of one shy wild turkey, a few cattle with Spanish dagger (or pita), and the gate off US-281 where our drive began.
One of the coolest parts of this trip was hearing a bit about the climate and geology of this region of south Texas. It’s basically a semi-arid desert, with a few hurricanes from time to time, but very few tornadoes. Interestingly enough, they had six inches of snow on Christmas Day, 2004—the first white Christmas since 1894! Cattle on this land typically eat native grasses, buffle grass, and a special bluestem grass actually named for the ranch itself! As you might expect, there are quite a lot of petroleum and natural gas reserves on this ranch as well. One of my favorite parts was seeing a swivel gate, invented by Exxon. We encountered a few of these along the main ranch road. They allow the driver to nudge the gate open (swinging on a central pivot) using the front of one’s truck as a ram. Once through the gate, torsion pulls the gate closed again, allowing passage without leaving the truck!
At US-281, I thanked the ranch manager profusely and headed north towards my three NASA outreach talks in Kingsville, for the ranch schoolchildren. I arrived at the main ranch gate around 10 am, chatted up the friendly guard there (who had helped arrange permission to visit), and then headed to the library. The district librarian, Ellen, met me there and brought me into a classroom filled with eager 1st through 4th graders. Though nearly comatose, I found renewed strength in the attention and excitement of these bright, young pupils. I displayed a slide show about the Mars Exploration Rovers mission, along with a video animation, as well as NASA show-and-tell items (a space-shuttle thermal tile, 3D Mars poster, iron meteorite, and piece of aerogel). They asked excellent questions during our forty minutes together, but it was soon time for lunch.
The teachers threw a special luncheon "in honor of my visit" and it was unbelievably scrumptious. The librarian asked what I would like, weeks in advance, and I suggested regional cuisine. I don’t think I’ll soon forget Mrs. Rodriguez’s ground-beef enchiladas, cheese enchiladas, pinto beans, green salad, and homemade peach cobbler—yummy! It was great chatting with all the teachers about my day job—and confluence hunting—during lunch. I was sorely in need of a siesta by 12:15 pm, but it was now time to talk with five dozen 5th through 8th graders. They were marvelous as well; I essentially showed the same slides and video. All the students were most pleased with their huge pile of NASA "goodies" I mailed out from California days earlier, such as stickers, lithographs, mousepads, and so forth. We wrapped up this talk around 1:30 pm, so I could at least poke my head into the pre-K and kindergarten class. I stayed about ten minutes, answering questions and talking about space. To say they were utterly adorable is a gross understatement, but the high school was beckoning.
I followed the librarian to the campus of Texas A&M, Kingsville, and spoke to some bright high school students from 2:20 pm to 3:20 pm. Even though I sent NASA "goodies" for the whole school, they limited my high school presentation to the AP physics and chemistry students only. Most encouraging, this group of ten or so students was 80% female—things have certainly changed since I was in high school! They also enjoyed my Mars slides, video, and NASA show-and-tell items, but it was time to bid south Texas adieu. I hit 77N, driving near the speed limit, thanks to a speed-trap tip from the librarian. In Robstown, I stopped and gassed up, amazed at the dry heat following a damp start to the day. I saw a bank sign confirming an afternoon temperature of 90ºF (32ºC), but I was cozy in air-conditioned comfort.
Since I arrived early to Corpus Christi International, I was able to catch earlier flights to DFW and Ontario. They were actually pretty nice, after hearing about my flying ordeal 18 hours earlier. I scored exit rows on both flights and prepared for some much needed sleep on the plane. The short flight from Corpus to Dallas was uneventful and slumber-filled. I had a two-hour layover, and I slept through most of that wait as well. Once on the plane bound for Ontario, there were TWO mechanical snafus that delayed us over an hour. One of the same flight attendants from my Ontario-to-Dallas trip was on this plane, so I stopped her and said, "Excuse me, Miss. You were on my flight from hell yesterday, so I was just wondering, is it you or me who is bad luck?" She flashed a toothy grin and said, "Oh, honey, it’s not me. It must be you." I quickly dozed off, and within no time at all, we landed in California. After a non-trivial drive to Pasadena and a light snack, it was bedtime.
Before sending my thank-you "shout-outs" to various people, I must first send a giant, slobbery raspberry to the 96400 employees sharing one brain at a certain "American" airline. Here’s a thought for next time: instead of bringing the substitute flight attendant from LAX to ONT and making hundreds of people miss their connections, why not have someone from the NEXT flight from Ontario sub? This would allow the flight attendant from LAX time to get on the second flight, with no delays. It’s not rocket science, folks. I’ll next see you on a flight to hell (perhaps on my ski vacation after the Chiefs win the Super Bowl).
I’d like to thank all of the folks at the ranch who made this visit possible. Thanks for trusting an outsider (from California, no less) to document this confluence. Incidentally, the ranch would like me to mention that future visits to this confluence are discouraged. I’d also like to thank all the teachers, students, administrators, and especially the librarian of the ranch school. Doing outreach with your wide-eyed, inquisitive pupils literally gave me the strength to face a long day after pulling a bona fide all-nighter. South Texas was truly a little slice of heaven, and I thank you all for your gracious hospitality. It was pleasure closing out the primary confluences in the great state of Texas, as I have done in Georgia, Montana, and New Mexico (the latter with Steve Adams ). Watch out, Wyoming—you’re next!