We have Destination Imagination to thank for the amazing Thanksgiving week we spent at Goose Island State Park down on the Texas coast. That program took over our lives this year, thanks to Isaiah’s team making it first to the state competition and then on to globals – and the effect of their success rippled through our Thanksgiving plans, as the camping plot was hatched not long after we returned from the state tournament in Corpus Christi. While we were down south Marisela, who felt an instant affinity for beach life, asked incessantly when we would be able to come back and spend more time. It occurred to us that Thanksgiving might be a possibility, and when we returned to Dallas Andres’ state park-savvy colleague, Dan, told him about Goose Island. Thus what may well be a new Calderon family tradition was born.
Somehow Andres managed to get the car loaded and his unruly gang seated and ready to roll before 9:30 on Monday morning. Part of the beauty of his packing job was that there was a wall of pillows and snack items between Isaiah and Marisela, so we had a bicker-free journey. Marisela thoroughly enjoyed chipping away at the edible partition, handing out snacks to anyone who was even vaguely hungry. Isaiah did a lot of scenery-watching and, maybe to allay his worries about missing two school days, performed calculations to determine the length of our trip first in minutes, then in seconds. Then he worked out how many seconds would be in multiple trips to the coast. He also enjoyed charting our progress on a pocket atlas and using the atlas to determine our distance from other possible destinations, just in case we had a last-minute change of plans.
Goose Island State Park is almost directly south of Dallas (on the map look for Rockport/Fulton, written right above Corpus Christi and Port Aransas). Much of the territory we drove through was obviously settled by Germans and Eastern Europeans, and we enjoyed the cultural blending that seems to have evolved over the years. We ate lunch, for instance, at a roadside fast food joint in Cameron called Clem Mikeska’s. The fare was a blend of classic Texas barbecue and Eastern European sausages, but with a twist that reflects another prominent demographic group throughout Texas: apparently Clem makes a mean breakfast taco, something I’m guessing his Czech or Polish ancestors would find pretty baffling.
After a quick restroom-and-gasoline stop in Victoria we made quick work of the remaining journey and arrived at Goose Island around 4:30. It was later than we had hoped to arrive, but the timing turned out to be providential: 4:30, we quickly learned, more or less marked the beginning of mosquito witching hour. Had we arrived earlier we might have set up camp at the first site we visited (217). As it was, we quickly abandoned that site when Andres was covered in mosquitoes before the rest of us were even out of the car. The ranger had told us nobody was camping in that area yet, and the seclusion was appealing, but no appeal could be great enough to make the mosquito population tolerable.
We made our way over to Live Oak Circle to check out our other options (see the little loop in the center of the campsites – click the map to enlarge). It seemed that all of the outer sites were taken, so we set up at 225, right in the center of the loop. It felt a bit like camping in a fishbowl, what with all the other sites surrounding us, but that definitely beat the mosquitoes at 217. Once we got set up we were quite happy with our locale.
After our tents were pitched Andres got to work on dinner and we had a delicious meal of ravioli. Our post-dinner activity was a walk to the fishing pier. It was an exciting trip. At the bait-cutting and fish-cleaning station (near the native plant/butterfly area if you’re following on the map) we saw a family fishing and a raccoon cleaning up after the day’s bait-cutters and fish-cleaners. It was the kids’ (and my!) first sighting of a live raccoon and it was an exciting moment. This critter was clearly an old hand at park scavenging – he barely gave us a glance as we walked by. Not far from the dock we saw a sign that we thought best not be read aloud in Marisela’s presence: it warned that alligators were known to lurk in those parts and that fish stringers and pets tied near the shore made quick and easy gator snacks.
At the pier we saw a number of night fishermen, many of whom seemed to be having good luck. Most were clearly quite experienced and had elaborate set-ups complete with wheeling equipment carts, aerated bait buckets, and an amazing array of tackle. On our way back we veered the wrong way, taking the left rather than the right fork of Lantana Loop, and we were ¾ of the way around before we realized we were taking the very long way home. At that point, of course, turning back would have made for an even longer trip, so we pushed on and made it back to camp nicely worn out for a good night’s sleep.
I got the kids tucked in, reading only a few pages of Swiss Family Robinson before Marisela closed her eyes, and Andres and I enjoyed a quiet evening by the campfire . . . until our neighbors arrived back to camp. Turns out two of the sites directly across from us were occupied by an extended family for whom the 10pm – 6am quiet hours were merely a suggestion. It’s a testament to how well the kids sleep when we’re out camping that they never seemed aware of the raucous activity (nor the incessant barking of Chico the Chihuahua) across the way. Andres and I managed to drift off, too, although there was still plenty of activity at our neighbors’ place.
We were awakened around 5:00 the next morning by rustles and clunks coming from the vicinity of our picnic table. Andres had left our food cooler out but had taken the precaution of putting our beverage cooler on top of it to slow critters down. Apparently during the 80 or so years Goose Island has been a state park the raccoon population has learned a thing or two about the ways of foolish campers who think they’ve achieved a critter-proof set-up. Andres shooed off a masked bandit who had knocked our drink cooler right off the food cooler (thus opening it and spilling out the ice, though thankfully not breaking any bottles). It was a narrow escape. We met a camper later in our stay who awoke one morning to find his cooler thoroughly pilfered.
Our first morning around the campsite was a lovely one. Marisela enthusiastically washed the evening’s dishes while Isaiah did what Isaiah does best.
The kids explored the camp trails and we just hung around and enjoyed a beautiful morning until – once our late-night neighbors were up and around and Chico barking – we decided it might be worth investigating our options as far as other campsites were concerned. A few of our quieter neighbors had packed up and left first thing in the morning, and we scouted their sites and decided to make a move to 219, which is the most isolated site on the loop . . . and the furthest removed from Chico & Co. The move went smoothly and we were soon set up at 219, where we stayed for the duration of the trip. After less than 24 hours at 225 the kids were a bit distraught at having to leave, but they did manage to settle in and enjoy the relative peace and quiet of the new locale.
Much to Marisela’s dismay (she likes Baba’s camp cooking) we had a cold lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches that day, and spent most of the day just lazing around camp, hiking a bit, kicking the soccer ball around, playing cards, and discovering surprising uses for the rope that had secured our gear to the roof of the Jeep on the way down (more about that later).
Our one excursion of the day beyond the immediate campsite area was to see the creatively-named “Big Tree,” which – wait for it – is a big tree on the park premises, a live oak estimated to be 1000 years old. The Big Tree is something like 36 feet in diameter, and one of the most fascinating signs around the tree set its growth history against the human history of the area. If I had a better memory for these things I’d dazzle you with some of those facts, but instead you’ll just have to settle for viewing a few of our pictures from the visit:
The kids discovered a caterpillar scooting around the sidewalks surrounding the tree and it took some serious coaxing to get Marisela to leave. She was convinced if she followed the caterpillar long enough she could watch it make a cocoon. Eventually the promise of hot dogs for dinner and roasted marshmallows for dessert convinced her that going back to camp would be worth her while. After dinner we took another night walk, this time carefully taking the right fork in the road on the way back. We had hoped to see the fish-eating raccoon again, but no such luck.
After our walk the kids once again crashed quickly and Andres and I enjoyed a lovely evening by the campfire, complete with multiple visits by a bold woodland raider whose sights were set on our soaking dinner dishes.
Raccoons were not our only wild nocturnal companions. Isaiah looked forward to tooth-brushing each evening so he could watch and count the geckos that congregated around the lights. They seemed to live along the roofline of the bathroom building and come out after dark to gobble up the bugs attracted to the lights. At one point Isaiah counted six of the little skittering things, ranging in size from itty-bitty to “grandpa.”
Wednesday was our day of off-site exploration. After we had tended to breakfast scullery we loaded up and drove to the town of Fulton, just a few miles outside the park toward Corpus Christi. Fulton features a quaint beachfront drive with an abundance of colorful, eclectic shops. Just beyond the shops and restaurants is a state historic site called Fulton Mansion, once the home of George Fulton, the town’s most prominent early citizen (hence the town name). Mr. Fulton had a diverse and distinguished career, working at various times as a schoolteacher, an engineer, and finally making his fortune as a cattleman. The port areas around Fulton were primarily used in the late 1800s by the meatpacking industry, and George Fulton was the cattle baron of the region.
We arrived about half an hour early for the next guided tour, so after a quick jaunt to the post office we spent some time in the small museum near the home, which included information about Fulton and his family and also general information about the region and the customs of the Victorian era. Marisela enjoyed dressing up a mannequin in Victorian garb
and Isaiah made quick work of a building a bridge – a model of one of Mr. Fulton’s engineering projects.
He also tried on some cowboy gear
and Marisela tried her hand at bridge-building, as well.
The mansion tour was fascinating. Fulton had employed his engineering genius in planning the home, and – most unusually for that time – devised heating and cooling systems, as well as a method of transporting hot water to the upstairs bathroom from a cistern in the basement. Some of the furniture in the home was original, and all was authentic. Apparently Mrs. Fulton was a careful record-keeper, and although she had fallen on difficult economic times after Mr. Fulton’s death and had been forced to sell the home and its furnishings, during the restoration efforts workers were able to look through her records and retrieve a few pieces of the original furnishings and have replicas made of several other pieces. We were very proud of the kids who, throughout the hour-long tour, paid close attention but also adhered to the Victorian dictum that children should be seen and not heard. After the tour we strolled through a butterfly garden behind the mansion. Much to Marisela’s dismay the butterflies did not come when called.
Thanks to a recommendation from the docent at Fulton Mansion we headed west with a lunch destination in mind. It was the kind of place we would have cruised right by had we not been watching for it, but we’re delighted we stopped. The service was friendly and the seafood was delicious. Of course the fact that the restaurant was flying a pirate flag made it even better for the kids. We’ve since learned that Port Aransas, which is just a few miles beyond this restaurant, was once an infamous pirate port. So the fact that Isaiah spent much of the car time on this outing reading Treasure Island turns out to have been particularly appropriate.
One of Marisela’s prime objectives on this trip was seashell-hunting, which had been her favorite occupation during the DI tournament in the spring. With that in mind, we headed for the ferry to Port Aransas. The kids loved the short ferry ride, and there were shells aplenty all along the beach. Isaiah even found two jaw bones lined with sharp teeth that presumably once belonged to some kind of aquatic predator. The weather was so mild that there were a few swimmers out, but an abundance of beached jellyfish made the kids wary of getting too wet. They both waded for a while, but after more than a dozen jellyfish sightings, Marisela decided she simply wasn’t safe on the ground and Baba carried her on our way back to the car.
On our way back from beach-combing we stopped for a few last-minute Thanksgiving provisions. Any hope I might have had for Marisela falling asleep on the 20-minute drive back to camp was dashed by her enthusiasm over a fairy-themed juice bottle she acquired in a moment of parental weakness during the provisioning. Isaiah somehow managed to keep turning pages on Treasure Island while she chattered incessantly about fairies. Everyone got showered when we got back to camp and here is proof that Marisela did, at a few points, at least, wear something other than that frog shirt and khaki skirt, and that I did actually wash and comb her hair now and again:
We were all too worn out for a post-dinner walk that night, and we all pretty much went straight to bed. Andres was actually zipped up in his sleeping bag and sawing logs by the time I had the kids down, which I found a bit odd. Turns out there was a good reason for his fatigue – he was coming down with a cold.
The next day was Thanksgiving. Andres wasn’t feeling well, so he stuck to camp while I took the kids out to the fishing pier. We had Isaiah’s little fishing pole, which is more suited to ponds than to the ocean (Mari fished with that), and a loaner pole from the park headquarters. What we didn’t have was live bait, and being that it was Thanksgiving the bait stand near the pier was closed. We put on what the kids decided were our most appealing “little fake creatures” (Mari’s phrase for the lures) and started casting. Isaiah quickly developed quite an impressive casting arm and was getting his lure way out from the pier. Marisela was too short to be able to cast over the pier, so I cast for her and she reeled in. We had a respectable catch, I think, for ill-equipped city slickers. Isaiah hauled in an impressive conglomeration of oyster shells (no pearl, unfortunately) and Marisela nabbed herself a tiny little slippery thing I think might have been a baby shark.
We made it back to camp for lunch and found Baba still feeling under the weather, but a bit better rested. I wrapped sandwiches in foil and warmed them on the hot coals to appease Marisela, who had been complaining bitterly about having had a cold lunch a few days back, and the kids went over to play and eat at our original campsite (to which they maintained a nostalgic attachment throughout the trip). After lunch we set back out for a nature-viewing walk, with impressive results. We saw a good number of pelicans, a water bird with a thin, curved beak (land-lubber that I am I have no idea what it is), and an entire battalion of leafcutter ants.
We also had fun with photography . . .
. . . and inspected for trolls under a bridge.
We got back just in time for me to assist Baba in preparing the Thanksgiving feast. The spread was a bit reduced from what we might have had in our home kitchen, but Baba’s two years of over-the-fire cooking in Kenya during his Peace Corps days really paid off and everything we had (turkey breast and gravy, spinach, pan-fried potatoes, cranberry sauce and buttered bread) turned out beautifully. Dessert was s’mores composed of homemade chocolate chip cookies and roasted marshmallows. It was a lovely meal, and we were extra thankful for our food since we weren’t entirely sure we could pull it off.
Friday was an around-the-park day. Andres was feeling better, but still not 100%, so we didn’t tackle anything too ambitious. We tried more fishing (less successful than the Thanksgiving day outing, and it seemed not even the well-equipped fisherpeople were catching anything) and did plenty of just plain hanging out. The hanging out involved what became two iconic diversions of our trip: Pumpkin and Baba’s 20-foot rope.
Pumpkin is a praying mantis. I discovered him (gender not determined in any scientific manner, but because the kids just agreed it was a boy – and don’t ask me how they arrived at the name) on the grown-ups’ tent on Friday morning, and thought I’d entertain the kids by putting him on their “front window” when they woke up. Marisela, initially, was not entertained and wanted that thing OFF, so I moved him to the tent roof, and there he sat for the remainder of the morning.
The weather called for rain and a cold front moving in, so before we set out to fish we set the tents up with rain flies and put away anything we didn’t want wet. I had to move Pumpkin in order to put the rain fly on the kids’ tent. They watched as I picked Pumpkin up and moved it to a nearby tree, and were impressed by how well he was disguised as he sat on the bark (photo by Isaiah).
Isaiah decided he was brave enough to hold Pumpkin, but wanted me to pick him up off the tree. Pumpkin seemed to like Isaiah at least as much as Isaiah liked him, and surprised us all by leaping onto Isaiah’s shirt.
From there Pumpkin just got friendlier . . .
and friendlier . . .
and friendlier . . .
. . . until Isaiah decided he’d had enough up-close-and-personal time with Pumpkin and we returned him to his tree. We managed to keep him in sight for quite a while, but he seemed quite content in the tree and kept climbing higher until – between the distance and the camouflage – we couldn’t see him anymore. It was a sad moment when we realized we had lost sight of our friend. In a few short hours the kids had become quite attached.
Lucky for us they still had that rope. Now the rope was brought along for a couple of reasons: to lash stuff to the top of the Jeep . . .
and to serve as a clothesline.
I believe it was just the second day of camping, though, when Marisela bumped into her first moment of boredom. With books around, of course, Isaiah is never bored. He was contentedly reading in their tent. Or maybe out forging a trail. Marisela was just not into trail-forging on this trip, and did not care to join her brother in his explorative missions. One of the great things about Marisela, though, is that she’s rarely bored for long. I was sitting by the campfire nursing some coffee and reading when I heard her say to herself, “If only someone could do something with this rope.” I looked up and she was holding the tail end of the rope – part of which was strung up to dry towels and such. Next thing I knew, she had fetched her stuffed doggie and this was going on:
Flying dog was fun for a while, but then I guess the dog became a bad guy and needed restraining.
At which point Isaiah decided Long John Silver & company could wait and got into the act himself.
Not sure what happened to the dog, but before long Isaiah was the tying victim (and Marisela was, I believe I heard him say, an evil cave girl).
Then it was Marisela’s turn to be captured.
Over the course of our stay the uses of rope just got more and more complex. It was part of elaborate dramas . . .
It was employed to rescue a soccer ball lodged WAY up high by one of Baba’s power kicks.
It provided physics lessons as the kids devised various pulley systems.
It hoisted stuffed animals on rides in Baba’s shoe.
It became a swing.
And it was an essential component of what Andres and I can only assume is Marisela’s first stab at performance art.
We were only half-joking as we mused that maybe the best Christmas present for all the kids in our life might be a 20-foot length of rope.
I digress, of course, but I had to work Pumpkin and the rope in somewhere. Back to Friday afternoon and the approaching cold front. It was hard to believe it would turn cold and rainy as we fished in the beating sun . . .
but just as I was cooking that night’s dinner of potato soup and hot turkey sandwiches the deluge began. Actually, it wasn’t much of a deluge, but it was enough rain to drive those who weren’t cooking into their tents. I served the kids their soup and sandwiches, then joined Andres in the grown-ups’ tent for a cozy supper. Soup was just the meal for the weather, and Marisela even complimented me on it and on my hard work cooking it in the rain (while simultaneously informing me that she didn’t actually like the taste of it).
The rain never amounted to much. It stopped not long after dinner. That night was the only night we had that felt like fall. It dropped into the 50s, which meant we could comfortably zip up our sleeping bags for the first time. The previous night I don’t think the temperature had dipped much below 70, so it was quite a change. We had a bit more rain Saturday morning, just to make packing up more interesting. After finishing off almost every bit of food we had left (other than the turkey), we started the sad process of breaking camp. The kids had made a few friends from neighboring campsites and played with them while Baba and I worked, which was fine with us. Isaiah also chatted a bit en espanol with a group of Chileans who had set up camp at the sites closest to us. They were surprised to find a Peruano camping next door. Andres was tempted to tell them he’d run out of real pisco and ask if they had any of that Chilean rotgut they liked to call pisco that they might share, but in the generous spirit of the holidays he refrained.
We pulled out of Goose Island State Park right around 11am and headed north. The seven-hour trip had seemed long enough on the way down, but felt practically interminable on the way home. It didn’t help that just when we hit I-35 at Waco, which should have brought a faster pace for the last leg, we ran into at least ten miles of construction, complete with stop-and-go traffic almost the whole way. It was close to 6:30 when we rolled into the alley behind 233 S. Windomere and started to unload. The kids were wiped out. I got them fed while Andres shuttled stuff out of the car. Marisela got her jammies on right after eating, then conked out on the sunroom couch while I washed up. It had been about as much fun as a little girl can take.