Tag Archive | Oak

A Delectable History Lesson

When planning this road trip to Tennessee, I soon came to the conclusion that a stop at a historic whisky distillery would have to be on the itinerary.   It turns out that one could plan an entire vacation around top-of-the-line bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey.  I’m partial to bourbon, but Jack Daniels is…well…Jack. The trip wound up including two separate visits – one to Jack Daniels in Lynchburg TN and the other to Buffalo Trace in Frankfort KY.  Both were excellent, though different.  And I’m looking forward to that whisk(e)y-centric tour someday!


IMG-20131026-00676_2The Jack Daniels distillery is located in historic Lynchburg, TN, at the south-eastern end of the farm country that extends between Nashville and the Cumberland Plateau. It is in Moore County, which was originally part of Lincoln County.  All of this geography matters more than you might think.  I won’t give everything away, just put it in context.  The fine whiskey produced by “Mr. Jack” was a result of having an excellent source of water from the limestone spring coming out of the hills, a ready source of grain nearby, white oak and sugar maple trees for the barrels and charcoal-filtering, and temperature fluctuations to mature (or “season!”) the spirits.  Of course, there were plenty of stills, legal and otherwise, in these hills, and they all used the “Lincoln County Process” of filtering the raw whisky through charcoal before barreling.  What really made JD into the brand it is today was the pride of its founder and subsequent owners and master distillers.  It all started in 1866 when Jack Daniels became the first man to register a distillery in the United States.

I had originally planned to visit Jack Daniels on a Sunday, but plans changed and I wound up arriving there late Saturday morning.  On a typical October weekend, this might not have been a problem, but this particular day was the annual meeting of the World Barbeque Invitational.  Everything took a little (or a lot) longer than would be typical.  Word to the wise: check the events calendar before you go!  I got registered for a “sampling” tour, then walked around the historic town square, fighting my way through crowds in the gift shops, for a while.  Moore County is a dry county.  According to the story we were told, the population of the county was too low to achieve the minimum number of votes needed to vote themselves “wet” after Prohibition ended.  When, a few years back, the law was changed to allow a percentage vote, residents decided to maintain the status quo, in order to keep Lynchburg and its surroundings a family-friendly environment (aka tourist trap).  Nonetheless, a small amount of whiskey may be consumed during the sampling tour, in the interest of educating visitors about the aging process.  Other stops included the fermenting vats (wow, that mash smells strong!), seeing the original stills, witnessing the filtration process, and a small barrel warehouse.  Most of these are also included on the standard tour, which probably would have been sufficiently informative.  In either case, it is definitely worth the trip.

The tour started with a visit to the "Rickyard" where white oak is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The tour started with a visit to the “Rickyard” where sugar maple is cut, dried, and turned into charcoal for the filtering process.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel's distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave.  The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.

The pure water used in the Jack Daniel’s distilling process is drawn from the creek emanating from this cave. The dam and channel were built to control water levels in times of flood and drought.



The Jack Daniel’s grounds are on a hill, with buildings on different levels, overseen by the Sugar Maples that give Tennessee whiskey its distinctive flavor.


Something Great in the Hoosier State (after all)

I left northern Wisconsin after a half-day of work, hoping to arrive in northern Indiana before making camp for the night.  I picked a spot on the map that was both far enough from the Chicagoland area to mean I was really on vacation, and that had a little campground symbol.  This place was Tippecanoe River State Park, and it turned out to be just far enough out of urbanity that my eyes had trouble staying open by the time I got there.  It also turned out to be a pretty cool stopover.

Large oaks in an open woods

Large oaks in an open woods


Arriving in the middle of the night, this state park did not seem very promising, from an “experiencing nature” perspective.  Although a Tuesday evening in October, the campground was quite busy.  Busy with large RV’s, generators running because temperatures were near freezing, and decorated for Halloween.  Apparently there is some sort of annual competition for the best Halloween decorations at this park.  And by “decorations” they apparently mean copious lighted objects, string lights, flashing lights, and other light-type apparati in the orange-and-purple spectrum.  Think your neighborhood’s obnoxious Christmas decorations… in October… in a campground.  Not that appealing for those of us in a tent, but so be it.

By morning light, though, the party lites lost their luster (and got turned off), and there was time for a quick walk to stretch the legs before getting back in the vehicle and driving south.  Turned out to be not so quick, partly because the trail system was a little bit confusing, and partly because it was so darn



cool.  The park had a variety of ecosystems, from floodplain forests along the Tippecanoe, to a wetland impoundment, upland white oak woods, grassland, etc.  Most of my hike meandered through the oak woods, and even into a (very) small section of “barrens.”  A few white pines grew here and there in the area, at the southern end of their range, and white oaks grew alongside post oaks near the northern end of their range.  The barrens had many of the same trees and wildflowers that we see in sandy soils of central and northern Wisconsin – neat to see, a few hundred miles to the south.  From a land management perspective, it was immediately apparent that the park staff were doing an excellent job of maintaining an open woods, and keeping invasive plants under control.  Go Hoosiers! (Might be the first time I’ve said that).

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors... several weeks behind northern WI!

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors… several weeks behind northern WI!

Wetland at Tippecanoe.  They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats... but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

Wetland at Tippecanoe. They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats… but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

If walking around a labyrinthine trail system in deep sand looking at trees isn’t your bag, I’ve heard from a friend that the Battle of Tippecanoe historic site is also in that area.  I missed it in the middle of the night, but if I had it to do over again, I would want to stop there.  Check it out and let me know how it is!

It’s All Downhill from Here

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

West Texas

Mile 6999

October 18-19, 2010

The author's boots resting atop the Guadalupe Mountainss, overlooking West Texas.

Since returning from my trip last fall, I’ve been asked several times about my favorite places along the way.  This is one of them.  It was beautiful, there were great views, and it stuck out (both literally and figuratively) as unique in both Texas and the Southwest.  The real reason, though, that I was blown away by the Guadalupe Mountains was a pretty nerdy one: botany.

I had just spent nearly a week crossing the desert, from San Francisco to west Texas.  New (to me) flowers, grasses, shrubs, and of course cacti sprouted from the sparse sands of the rolling hills and expansive plains as I traversed that territory.  As I was nearing Texas, I asked a fellow traveler what I should see while passing through.  Without hesitating, he named the Guadalupe Mountains, and added, “You might be in time for the peak colors.”  I spent the intervening days pondering what he might have meant by that statement.  I knew that my timing had been off for the spectacular fall bloom of the Arizona desert, but thought that maybe I would be able to hit it 500 miles to the east.

I arrived at the National Park campground at dusk on a Monday in mid-October, and was surprised to find it nearly full.  I scrambled to secure the last available tent site and get my tent set up before darkness fell.  There was a thunderstorm off in the distance, and the winds shooting across the plains were upwards of 30 mph.  The ground was too hard for stakes, and my site was totally unsheltered, so I wound up putting logs around the inside of my tent to try to hold it down – it was too windy for a fire that night, anyway!  In the morning, commiserating with fellow campers about the night before, I commented on the unusually crowded park.  “Well,” he said, “it turns out we’re a little early for the fall colors, but I’d already taken this week off of work.”  “Yeah,” I said, “What are these ‘colors’ everyone keeps talking about?”  “Oh, well the maples are really pretty when they change color – everything’s all bright red and orange.”

Maples?  In the Chihuahuan Desert?  Sure enough!  Somehow, just before dark, I had crossed the invisible line to a place where maples and oaks, prairie grasses and blazing stars grew – alongside of the yucca, prickly pear, madrones, and ocotillo.  As I headed out on the trail, I saw some mustache grass

Gray Oak

(Bouteloua hirsuta) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium/Andropogon scoparius) next to my boots, and when I reached the higher reaches I was able to immediately identify gray oak (Quercus grisea)and pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), which I’d never seen before, based

on my frequent browsing through The Golden Guide to Trees.  Through this environment, so similar to our own prairies or oak-pine barrens, there was strewn a huge variety of desert succulents and western shrubs.  The juxtaposition made my hike as exciting intellectually as it was visually!

Prickly Pear cactus, in fruit

Blazing Star


I walked on through the heat of the day, under cover of the high desert trees, startled a few white-tailed deer, and took a break on the peak overlooking, well, the rest of Texas.  As I explained briefly in a previous post, the Guadalupe Mountains are the remnants of the reef of an ancient sea that spread away to the south and east.  While their sheer elevation might make them mountains otherwise, the vertical rise of around 3,000 ft. makes Guadalupe Peak an impressive edifice!  Perched atop the escarpment that runs around the edge of the plains below, I could almost envision the long-dry waves lapping in the haze below.

Below Guadalupe Peak, small splashes of color indicate where maple have found water and shade from the desert sun.

Finally, I began my descent along steep switchbacks, through a canyon on the back side of the hills.  As I picked my way downhill, the cooler, moister conditions brought about a change in the vegetation – at last, the long-sought maples!  While not yet at their peak, the Bigtooth Maples (Acer grandidentatum) were dotted with scarlet, and after the desolation of the desert I could understand why this splash of cool color would be worth driving hundreds of miles to view.

Bigtooth maples have little leaves!

Maple leaves dropped onto a yucca

My biggest (and nerdiest) find of the day was yet to come, though.  Edging along a rocky trail, I spotted an oak tree out of the corner

Chinquapin Oak

of my eye, with different bark from any others I’d seen in the park.  Pretty familiar bark, actually – browner than gray, with flaking furrows.  I looked around for a shed leaf, and picked it up.  Could that be a chinquapin?  Quercus muehlenbergii is at the tip of its northern range in the southwestern-most corner of Wisconsin, existing primarily on the dry, rocky bluffs above the Mississippi River, but I didn’t know it extended that far south and west.  Upon examining my Golden Guide, it turned out that its primary range extends to eastern Texas…  but there was a small outlier dot placed over the border between Texas and New Mexico… right at the Guadalupes.  In fact, many of the plants there, including the maples, were outliers, with their nearest counterparts a hundred or more miles away.  In all, the Guadalupe Mountains National Park has over 1000 species of plants, making it even an amateur botanist’s paradise!

Cancer Root is one of the rare plants that does not use photosynthesis for its existence, surviving instead as a parasite on tree roots.

Yucca, Century Plant, and Big Bluestem in a West Texas sunset

That night in my tent, I mused over my finds here at the end of the desert.  The next day would take me through the desert grassland and low hills of West Texas, en route to Austin.  Details to follow soon!