Sometimes you want to spend a vacation lazing in a hammock or basking on the beach. But other times, you want something more, such as acquiring a new skill or exploring a historical site. In other words, you might want to roll up your sleeves and take a learning vacation, like one of these.
1. LEARN TO CAMP LIKE A PRO
Some of my best family memories involve camping. The idea might daunt those who didn’t grow up with it, though … all those poles and stakes, stoves with flammable fuel, inflatable things and wild critters. Fortunately, Texas Outdoor Family Workshops (TOFW) come to the novice camper’s rescue.
These events, hosted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at various state parks throughout the year, help ensure a good experience by teaching basic camping skills.
I packed up my 16-year-old daughter, Bridget, and two of her friends, Ellen and Lauren, both camping newbies, to test the approach at Lake Somerville State Park & Trailway. Nine families gathered on a Saturday morning in October for the first lessons from TOFW coordinator Dan Hayes and two rangers. While this was the first campout for most of the group, one family had returned for a second workshop (participants may attend three). Hayes says people often come back. “The first time, everything is so new you don’t really absorb all the information,” he says. “The second time, you get more comfortable.”
Our first order of business: putting up a tent. After assembling one, with coaching from Hayes, everyone in the group succeeded in pitching their own. Stoked with this success, we were ready to tackle the afternoon activities. Depending on the park, these can include things like canoeing, fishing, Dutch oven cooking, hiking or wildlife watching. Our agenda listed learning to kayak and fish in Lake Somerville and geocaching, which turned out to be my favorite.
Geocaching, a high-tech treasure hunt, involves using a GPS device to track down hidden caches, or containers, such as camouflaged coffee cans, ammunition boxes or even a hollowed-out coconut with a clasp and hinge. At the minimum, the caches contain a written log, or a piece of paper, that geocachers sign to show they were there. There are nearly a million of these caches around the world—searchable by zip code at the official website, www.geocaching.com—including in a number of Texas state parks. Some parks hold special events such as geocache challenges. You can find GPS coordinates for existing caches online or place your own coordinates. Just ask first, as some sites are off-limits.
Hayes showed us how to key in on the caches he’d hidden, and we headed down the road. I felt pretty cool and high-tech following a little line on my GPS through the park. But even fancy technology gets you within only 10 to 30 feet of the actual cache—then, old-fashioned powers of observation rule the day. We ended up collaborating with other participants to locate all the caches. A side benefit of the workshop: a built-in extended family to play with.
The afternoon wrapped up with instruction on fire building, crucial to any successful camping trip. We used our campfire to make s’mores, of course, which we ate while listening for owls, frogs, crickets and other night creatures. We would have recognized them had we heard them, thanks to a presentation by Hayes that matched photos with recorded sounds. But the only critters we heard were two bold raccoons trying to make off with our Hershey’s bars and marshmallows. After convincing Ellen and Lauren the ’coons wouldn’t eat us, we doused the fire and crawled into our sleeping bags.
In the morning, the group reported for a quick lesson on breaking camp, apparently having survived the night quite well. I counted our outing a success when, on the drive home, the girls started planning their next campout.
2: LEARN THE CHEF’S SECRETS
On Greer Farm west of Daingerfield, Maine-Anjou cattle graze in lush pastures around a restored circa-1850 Texas home. Guinea hens bob around the herb gardens, and goats mow grass near four guest cabins overlooking a stocked lake.
This working farm makes a perfect setting for Cooking with Chef Eva, aka Eva Greer, a graduate of the Art Institute of Houston’s Culinary Arts program whose work reflects a Belize upbringing, European parents and world travels with her husband, Sid. A recent class focused on roasted meats, which attracted Bob Hewes, his son Greg and son-in-law Jay Boerner. They spent the weekend at the farm’s guest cabins, where their wives and children relaxed during the midday class. The attendees also included two women from Dallas celebrating a birthday and several repeat customers from nearby towns.
During the whirlwind three-hour class in the spacious, well-lit kitchen, we watched Eva prepare beef roast, lamb chops, pork loin, butternut squash soufflé, potatoes, mint sauce, gravy, roasted fruit and toasted pound cake. She handled this complex dance with practiced ease, even managing to involve us in pureeing, seasoning, turning, beating and mixing. Delectable smells permeated the kitchen, and we dug appreciatively into the finished dishes. Chef Eva made it fun and had us convinced that we could cook like this ourselves. And while I likely won’t tackle such a complex menu at home often, if at all, Eva shared general cooking tips in addition to teaching specific recipes. Placing the roast on a rack inside the pan, for example, keeps it out of the drippings for more even cooking. Kosher salt’s larger grains make it easier to tell how much you’ve applied. (And Chef Eva uses a lot of salt and pepper, rubbing it into the meat with her hands, which she washes constantly.)
Besides, with her enthusiasm, the hands-on opportunities, easy banter among the students and delicious food, it felt more like an afternoon with friends than a cooking class. The only thing better than heading home inspired to upgrade my cooking would have been the chance to stroll across the green lawn, through the shade of tall trees, and onto the porch of one of the cabins to digest a wonderful meal while watching the breeze ripple the pond.
The Hewes family got to do that and apparently left the next day suitably inspired as well. “On our way home, we got a call from our daughter, who was at the grocery store buying a roast,” Bob Hewes says. “We had it that Sunday night, and it turned out great. Then Greg made the pork loin and squash soufflé for his in-laws when they came to visit.”
Cooking class students can work off their homework by visiting area attractions such as the Daingerfield and Caddo Lake state parks or Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards in Pittsburg, which offers tours and live jazz in the dining room on weekend nights.
3: SHOOT THE PHOTO WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
Taking an amazing photograph often requires extreme effort along the lines of crouching in a blind, kneeling in the bushes or lying flat in wet grass, sometimes for hours.
I learned this on a recent outing with Larry Ditto, who offers instructional photo tours and workshops through Larry Ditto Nature Photography. I also learned that, while lenses as long as your arm, packs of filters and lots of other pricey equipment produce great images, so can a mid-price-range digital camera, with a little of the aforementioned effort and a few tricks. On instructional photography outings, Ditto teaches some of those tricks and demonstrates the required effort. I attended a workshop at the Block Creek Natural Area, which is made up of two adjoining ranches between Comfort and Fredericksburg owned by Myrna and David Langford and Sharron and Larry Jay.
The owners installed photo blinds in strategic spots and have an intimate familiarity with what photogenic wild creatures show up where and when. They can place shutterbugs right where they needed to be for a shot of, say, a Belted Kingfisher, Painted Bunting or gray hairstreak butterfly. Creeks, water features and feeders around the property attract a variety of wildlife, and careful land stewardship means plenty of wildflowers, trees and scenic vistas. Workshop participants lodge in the historic ranch house and two nearby cabins, with family-style meals included.
Our group of four rose before the crack of dawn, the better to be ready when the first rays of sun painted the landscape in soft, warm light. We spent part of the morning crouched behind a concrete spillway on a pond populated by geese and worked by a kingfisher, while Ditto and Larry Jay did their best to herd the geese into sunlight. The two men also pointed out dramatic angles of the sun through trees and spotted frost-edged sycamore saplings in the tall grass. I would never have noticed those, much less realized how dramatic they would look in a photograph. The results were worth lying on the cold ground.
Over lunch, we downloaded photos and discussed the results while Ditto offered feedback and suggestions for improving specific images. It struck me how different a scene can look when photographed at slightly changed angles by several photographers. Ditto dedicates some time during his workshops to using software such as Photoshop, but the real emphasis is on taking pictures, which suited me fine. We spent the afternoon shooting scenic views, close-ups of plants and lots of butterflies. As the sun worked its way lower in the sky, we added creek reflections and waterfalls to our memory cards and ended the day shooting star trails in the dark, something I’d always wanted to do. Then it was time to hit the hay to rest up for another early morning. Time really flies when you’re taking great pictures.
4: GO BACK IN TIME
What better way to learn Texas history than by walking where it happened? Washington County, aka the birthplace of Texas, contains a wealth of historic sites and museums that make it easy for families to turn vacation into a living history lesson.
At the Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, 293 acres of rolling hills and tall trees on the banks of the Brazos River, stroll through the remains of the town of Washington, including a replica of Independence Hall. In this nondescript wooden building, a ragtag collection of delegates signed the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2, 1836, creating the Republic of Texas, while a blue norther raged outside. Sitting in the drafty building gave me a renewed appreciation for those hardy souls. Guided tours refresh those vague on their seventh-grade Texas history or inform those who—gasp!—never learned it.
Interactive exhibits in the adjacent visitor center trace events subsequent to that memorable March day, and walking trails lead to the river and a pecan-shaded picnic area, a great place to contemplate how things have changed since this spot bustled with river-borne commerce.
In the middle of the park, the Star of the Republic Museum’s star-shaped, 10,000-square-foot building holds thousands of artifacts that bring to life early 19th-century Texas. Definitely worth a stop for museum buffs, but this outdoors girl couldn’t wait to get next door, where the Barrington Living History Farm re-creates the homestead of Anson Jones, last president of the Republic of Texas.
Architecturally accurate outbuildings such as a barn, smokehouse and slave quarters surround his original 1844 home, moved to this site in 1936. Interpreters in period clothes—love those bonnets and suspenders—use Jones’ records to properly plant crops, care for livestock and keep house. Depending on the season, they may be plowing fields with a pair of enormous oxen, drying vegetables or feeding the piglets. Not just any piglets, either; these are Ossabaw Island (Georgia) hogs, descendants of animals brought here by the Spanish 400 years ago. Visiting the farm leaves me admiring our forebears and feeling thankful for modern conveniences.
A self-guided walking tour in the nearby town of Independence covers a wide range of history, from Sam Houston’s homesite and a home owned by his wife, Margaret Lea; to the state’s oldest continuously active Baptist church; and to the first site of Baylor University and a number of early 1800s structures.
The Brenham Heritage Museum houses a lamp collection spanning 200 years, items from Houston’s home and what it claims is one of three remaining steam-powered fire engines in the U.S. The Burton Cotton Gin & Museum covers all things related to cotton and ginning, including in early 1900s Texas, when cotton was king. National Register and Texas historical markers dot the county, including on Brenham’s historic railroad depot and the Stagecoach Inn in Chappell Hill. The birthplace of Texas clearly takes pride in its offspring.
Melissa Gaskill is a freelance writer living in Austin. She is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power.