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Oh, Brother!

Uncle Jimmy, aka Super Camper, helps make the most of a visit to Meridian State Park.

By Barbara Rodriguez
Illustrations by Fian Arroyo

This is a tale of a 12-hour getaway, some three hours lost to transit, maybe 30 years to reverie. A blink of time spent scaling the stony cliffs of Bosque County and, as it turned out, the trails of memory. A wintry interlude when the fish weren’t biting and a fleeting glance at the rare golden-cheeked warbler but a dream.

The day trip to Meridian State Park, northwest of Waco and a 90-minute slide southwest from Fort Worth, was a much-needed deep breath between Christmas and New Year’s, a respite from parties and dishes and climate-controlled chaos. The bonus: Around winter’s solstice the state’s parks seem to stretch out wide. Mostly vacant of visitors (and those few likely to be solitary fishermen), the sparse winter landscapes regenerate the spirit like nothing else I know. I highly recommend this sort of getaway, one requiring the bare minimum of gear and planning, to urban dwellers overwhelmed by stress at any time of the year. Quick investments in mid-week and off-season park visits, whether for a simple picnic or an hour’s nature walk, offer luxurious returns.

Of course it helps, too, if you have an Uncle Jimmy. Really, everyone needs an Uncle Jimmy. I don’t have one, but my son does — my brother, James Michael Rodriguez. Or, as I call him, Jem.

Uncle Jimmy is the sort of guy you want with you when you wash up on that proverbial desert island. Not only because he is resourceful and a great cook who can sweet-talk a fish out of the water, but also because he’s wickedly funny. The added value is his education in anthropology, sociology and bartending. Jem’s eccentric and broad world view is manifested by his collection of arrowheads, scrapers, bones, vintage fishing gear, beaver chew sticks, state of the art camp gear, and great characters (and connected to each a fabulous story). He is the ideal campfire companion.

Even during the years when he was nothing more than an annoying little brother, somewhere deep within myself I managed to admire Jem. I think I knew he was evolving into a naturalist far calmer and more entertaining than the Crocodile Hunter. (And he would never wear those perpetually wedged khaki shorts.) After all, he’d spent a week alone on the family deer lease when he was 10, a Jeremiah Johnson experience my father and mother madly encouraged. Let me emphasize the word madly. And because he did things like that with no fear of loneliness, darkness, cold or hunger, he grew up to be the best sort of all-around hunter, fisherman, outdoor cook and camper. He is afraid of spiders, but that’s another story.

So when we decided to blast away from the Christmas clatter for a day last winter, I called Uncle Jimmy. My thought was that he might stage a sort of fishing workshop for Elliott, my 7-year-old, a new, but enthusiastic — completely untrained and scarcely camp-broken — angler.

Now, lest loyal readers who follow the slightly lame wilderness adventures of my little family be disappointed, be forewarned there is very little bloodshed in this story and absolutely no natural disasters. It was a quiet day with nary a paramedic in sight.

The date we chose for our trip brought snow to north Texas. Like most Texas snows it was bracketed in sheets of stinging sleet. We voted to postpone. As is usual in Texas, within a week the weather was once again balmy. Our new departure date promised sunny skies and a high in the mid-60s. Two days out from New Year’s Eve that sounded like heaven. As is also usual in Texas, the forecast turned out to be a pipedream.

We determined to bring only a few things. Jem promised chicken wings. I stocked up on the other food groups: avocados and marshmallows — not just any marshmallows, mind you, but the season’s incarnation of Peeps: sugar-crusted, marshmallow Santas. I’d been itching to try what had been described to me by a fellow gourmand as the penultimate roasted marshmallow. I also packed cranberries and Jiffy Pop with the idea of gifting the birds with a Christmas tree garlanded in edibles. We each brought fishing gear. And with me were Elliott and my husband Jurgen, ever the good sport.

So fixated was I on keeping the planning and packing minimal that I didn’t bring a lot of things much more critical than marshmallow Santas. No chairs, no firewood, no plates, no knife, 1 plastic fork, not a single tortilla. I did bring salt and pepper, a huge glass vial of cowboy grill rub and a big cake of lavender soap. Look, it was a few days after Christmas, a week after we’d hosted an open house for 50 people; I was so tired, I was stupid.

I also brought layers and layers of clothing and an extra set of pants for Elliott. This was a good call. Forecast aside, we left with the temperature barely hitting the 40-degree mark. The waterside chill factor brought it a testy 5-10 degrees lower. Within minutes of our arrival, Elliott wore all the clothing I’d brought for him and some of mine.

Now, despite failings detailed here, I am a fairly competent outdoorswoman. But in face of my brother’s skill and experience, I freeze. At Meridian, frozen with the cold as well, I was absolutely worthless. What we needed to settle us in I determined, coming to myself at last, was a big, roaring campfire. Jurgen and I headed out for firewood and, if we could find any, live bait. There’s no firewood for sale in the park, but a market less than two miles away sells wood, nightcrawlers and steaming hot pinto beans.

As we arrived back at camp, I noted that Elliott, famed for removing his shoes in restaurants, classrooms and theaters the world over was barefoot. What I didn’t yet know was that in the 15 minutes we’d been gone, he’d managed to cast the end of his rod into the lake, then, against Uncle Jimmy’s advice, waded in after it, soaking socks and shoes — clothing items I hadn’t brought along. He appeared delighted to be wearing work gloves on his feet, like some giant splayfooted bird cozied up to the grill.

Campfire hissing, chicken cooked and hot beans in our bellies, we set out to fish. We could have launched a boat from the dock just steps away. Lake Meridian, a 72-acre reservoir formed when the CCC built a dam on Bee Creek, demands that sort of exploration — in the spring or summer or any day without a slashing, white-capping wind. Today we delighted in setting our lines feet from the fire.

As I watched Jem thread a nightcrawler on his hook, I was delighted to learn you don’t have to use the whole worm, as long as you’ve got a good wiggle in the threaded segment. When a dozen worms sets you back $3.50, pinching them in two defines fiscal responsibility. Finally, lines cast against a whipping headwind, we sat down to examine the two tackle boxes Jem had brought along. The larger of the two was not unlike the exploding version our father introduced us to as children, but Jem had purchased this one, fully loaded, for less than $10 at a garage sale.

All this time I’d scarcely noticed that Uncle Jimmy was wearing a pink, Rastafarian-like stocking cap. No doubt anyone else would have found it incongruous, but the hat was familiar to me. And comforting. Our mother had knit it. Since her death, it is these odd sorts of things — a child’s plastic dinosaur I salvaged from her kitchen faucet, the purple hiking boots I now wear — that keep her in our circle. The unspoken story between Jem and me that day was how, in her passion for handcrafts, Mom would get stuck in loops of creativity. One year, it was elf-toed crocheted slippers, another year, sculpted clay mice. Jem was the beneficiary of the Year of the Knitted Caps. They’re quirky, mushroom shaped and not exactly attractive, but sooooo Mother. He wears them with aplomb.

Jem also inherited far more of Mother’s adaptability and resourcefulness than I did. But we both have a heaping share of her curiosity. She taught us to pause and study sticks and stones and insects. We kept alligators in the backyard and hatched duck eggs in the hot water closet. Once she brought home a shoebox filled with baby bats. A nurse, she gave Jem a kit that allowed him to anesthetize, flay and peer inside a living frog, stitch it back up, and nurse it to a full recovery. She never convinced Jem of a spider’s good will, nor me that a cricket was good company, but otherwise she was monumentally successful in opening our eyes to the natural world. My brother’s willingness to crumble open the scat of any creature attests to this. And that, as soon as we tested our fishing patience, was what we set out to do next.

Several nature trails wind up and around the park’s reservoir, its central and very attractive feature. Scenic limestone ledges and outcroppings abound, as do beguiling stretches of cantilevered stones and gently manicured and sometimes stair-stepped trails. Our goal was to explore some of the deeper hollows beneath the stone overhangs. Leaving Jurgen to tend the fire, Uncle Jimmy, Elliott and I stalked off to find adventure. Jem of course had the most perfect of water-sculpted walking staffs. He quickly found a suitable walking stick for me — and later one for Elliott, who almost immediately jettisoned it. He has not inherited my brother’s passion for sticks. As a lad Jem was never without one, usually named Snakebeater. In a famous family incident he once hurdled across the front yard, Snakebeater in hand till it snagged on the lawn and impaled him — below the tongue. He still carries a stick, but I haven’t seen him running with one since.

We hiked up the Little Springs Trail that intersected the Little Forest Trail, crossed the park’s looping central drive (ideal for biking and jogging) and climbed gently and steadily to Bee Ridge, a spectacular scenic overlook of the lake in its limestone cauldron. On the way up, Elliott had a close encounter with a cactus, which (perhaps because I was too absorbed with memory swapping to stop him) he had determined to dig up. Jem and I were well ahead on the trail when he shouted, “Mom, I’m hurt by a cactus!” He cried out, but didn’t cry — not in front of Uncle Jimmy — as I plucked the spines from his hand. The time spent on the mutually painful session was invested in laying out the difference between the nopalitos in bean soup and a prickly pear on the trail, not to mention a lesson on leaving plants in situ.

By the time we stepped from the carpet of Ashe juniper needles through the frilly rim of oak to gasp at the view I was once again absorbed with my brother. It took me a few minutes to understand what he meant when he said, “I don’t know about that.” Elliott had goat-footed his way to the edge of a broad backed and sloping stone to dangle his legs above the precipitous drop. I encouraged him to shimmy backwards on his bottom and then tried to calmly impress upon him that rubble and sticks, even leaves, can mean a treacherous slip. I realized I could not be wandering memory trails and be a responsible parent at the same time.

We retreated from the ridge and began exploring less treacherous stretches, recesses where smoky smudges beneath the rock shelves suggest the Tonkawa or Tawakoni might once have sheltered there. Long strides of heron tracks offered proof the great blue makes it his stomping ground. Our greatest find aside from the flashing red cardinals and unexplained patches of blue running in wide stripes down the cliffside was the plundered ground nest of a reptile. Scattered around the rim a few leathery strips of eggshell rippled in the breeze. More intriguing still was the discovery of remnants of the same shells in raccoon scat 100 yards down the trail. Rocky had made a nice breakfast for himself.

Keeping a close eye on Elliott, happily lost in his own world of exploration, I realized it was I who most needed the lessons of this day. Wandering in Jem’s wake, watching him bob through the woods in his pink hat, sharing family history over coyote scat, I understood it really wasn’t Uncle Jimmy I’d asked to join us. It wasn’t even Jem the fisherman or outdoorsman. Days after a celebration that has seemed empty since my mother left our earthly camp, I simply needed to share some happy memories with my little brother. And I think maybe, just a little, he needed me. Elliott will have other opportunities to fish and hike and bond with his uncle. But this winter’s day it was I who needed him to remind me how to be the mother to my son that my mom was to me.

Lessons from Uncle Jimmy

Everyone needs a snazzy little campstool. Jem’s has telescoping tripod legs, a swivel seat, and a low price ($6 at Target). He says you’d be stupid not to have one. As I perched on the very chill, condensation-slick cement step of the shelter I agreed.

I am an accomplished campfire cook — which means I accept the backache, the smoke in my eyes and even the tedium of trying to get the fire’s heat just right as part of the fun. Jem’s portable Weber forever changed my world view. I now believe campfires are for sitting, gazing, chatting — keeping food warm or water on the boil. But tidy little grills are for cooking.

Always rent a shelter, even on daytrips or when tent camping. Stock it well and use it as a living room or getaway space.

Bed down on an air mattress set on a cold cement floor and you will sleep like an oyster on ice. Sleeping on the ground is warmer than lofting yourself above air that is absorbing the cold from the floor. If you want to sleep in a shelter, drop an old blanket under the air mattress as well as between the mattress and your sleeping bag.

Cook something tasty early in the day, wrap it in foil and keep it warm aside the campfire for all day snacking — this way you don’t arrive back at camp late in the day and ravenous with only cold food and the chore of cooking to greet you.

A dozen night crawlers are enough to bait two-dozen hooks.

Big Red mashed into a paste of Wheaties makes indestructible dough bait that will cling fast to a hook flung hard by a 7-year-old (that it is an alleged carp magnet seems less monumental).

Carry leather gloves when hiking, the better for crumbling up scat and parting thorny vines or branches.

Always wear two pair of socks with your hiking boots — especially handy if you’re called upon to sacrifice a pair to a wet-footed family member.

Do not try to dry sneakers on the campfire. They will melt, giving your child one more excuse never to wear them.

Polarized sunglasses are a fisherman’s best friend when it comes to spotting fish or peering into underwater scrub in search of lost gear.

Tortillas are a camper’s universal tool. Thick, flour ones do double duty as plates, hot pads, skillet mops, napkins and even hand warmers. You could even, I think, warm one up nicely and plop it atop your head before you put on a pink knit cap. Or perhaps I’ve gone too far.

What Uncle Jimmy learned: Tell a second-grader to stop doing something and he most likely will first do whatever it is one more time. This is the behavior that gave rise to mothers telling harrowing tales of eyes put out and faces frozen.

Meridian State Park

173 Park Road 7
Meridian, TX 76665
(254) 435-2536

All reservations more than 2 days in advance must be made through Central Reservations: (512) 389-8900

Directions: Take State Highway 174 from Cleburne, State Highway 144 from Glen Rose or State Highway 6 from Waco. Join State Highway 22 and proceed to the park. Take State Highway 22 from Hillsboro or Hamilton. The park is located about 3 miles southwest of Meridian off State Highway 22.

Schedule: Open 7 days a week year-round, except for extreme weather conditions. Gate is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Activities: Camping, fishing (bream, crappie, catfish, largemouth bass), picnicking, hiking, lake swimming, boating (no wake), birdwatching (including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler) and bicycling on park roads.

Facilities: 6 primitive tent sites; 8 tent sites with water in the area; 7 back-in sites with water and electricity; 8 pull-through sites with water, electricity and sewage; 11 screened shelters. The group camp with a dining hall and kitchen offers 7 shelters and 4 trailer sites.

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