Diving At The Blue Lagoon In Huntsville

I took a road trip down to the Blue Lagoon in Huntsville this weekend for DFW SCUBA’s Diver’s Day Out. In this case it was a weekend’s worth of diving, with a little extra trip down to Houston to see family beforehand. The drive down was eventful, with a full on monsoon just about closing I-45 around Buffalo. But I got there intact, set up my tent, and got ready to make some bubbles.

The water wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t too warm either, and there was a nice thermocline at around twenty feet. The visibility was pretty good, for the most part, with some algae clouds to make things interesting. I got to explore some sunken boats, play a little catch with a bowling ball, and work on my buoyancy a little more. I actually dropped a little weight, but am still having to add air to my BCD, so I’m thinking I need to drop a little more.

I also got some great advice on how to set up and configure my gear, as well as some updates to my “stuff to buy” list. I logged four dives this weekend, added a few feet to my maximum depth, and got a lot more comfortable with doing this stuff without an instructor looking over my shoulder.

The drive back up was uneventful, with no rain storms or accidents messing with me. After getting unpacked, I spent an hour or so washing all the gear and getting it hung up to dry out, then went out to dinner with Heather.

Taking A Road Glide Special Out For A Test Ride

I’ve been thinking about picking up a new bike for a while now. I really enjoy riding the RT, but the maintenance costs, both in terms of time and money, have soured the relationship. I had been looking at the Dyna Switchbacks, because they’ve got bags but still have some performance. So I went up to American Eagle Harley Davidson to talk to the sales people and throw my leg over a bike or two.

When I got there, James and I started talking about bikes, and I tried the Dyna on for size. It just wasn’t my thing. I’ve gotten really spoiled with the RT’s fairing, a lot more than I thought I had. So we went over to the Road Glides. These are full sized FL touring bikes, which are a lot heavier than what I’ve been riding. But the fit and feel of them! I had to take this one out for a test ride. James got me set up, and I went over to the Rider’s Edge lot to do some figure eights to get comfortable with it before heading out on the road. Despite my misgivings, it handled well and didn’t feel nearly as heavy as it is.

Feeling a little more confident, I went and explored the neighborhood behind the dealership for a while, getting used to the handling, braking, and acceleration. It was comfortable and easy to ride around on surface streets, including taking some U-turns. Eventually, I got on to I-35E and headed south. This is not a good road right now, what with the ongoing construction, but the Road Glide’s suspension handled it well. Handling was good, throttle response was great. Any time I needed a little oomph to pass a truck, it was there. I actually messed up and missed my exit, which forced me to go a lot further south before I could get turned around to get back to the dealership. That gave me the space to test the cruise control, which sealed the deal for me.

I got back to the dealership, checked back in with James, and started talking numbers. We got to a figure that was good for both of us, including a very reasonable trade-in amount for the RT, without any real hassle. At that point I called Heather, talked it over with her, and headed home. Once she got home from work, we headed back up so that she could try it on for size. It got two thumbs up, so I’m heading back up tomorrow to sign the papers, hand over some cash, and bring a new bike home.

Cocktails And Dinner At Herbs And Rye

I was looking for somewhere to enjoy some good cocktails and the universal recommendation was Herbs and Rye, a small steakhouse and cocktail bar located well away from the Las Vegas Strip. It’s far enough that you’re not going to be able to walk to it, but the cab ride wasn’t horrible. Don’t let the outside fool you, it’s deliberately designed to look that way due to the 1920s speakeasy theme. Once you go inside, you’re in a dimly lit, red walled, vintage steakhouse. The lighting has the effect of turning each table in to its own island. They’re known for their extensive cocktail repertoire, to the point where the menu is pages of cocktails, broken down by era, and a half a page of food choices.

I was flying solo tonight, so I asked them if it’d be a problem to stuff me in a corner so that I could enjoy some food, cocktails, and read a book I’d brought along. They happily obliged, without any fuss. Amy, the hostess, was fantastic, as was Christian, my server. For starters, I asked him to bring me a Vieux Carré, which was delicious, as well as a 14 oz. New York Strip, butchered in-house, with a side of “Brussels Sprouts with Honey Swine”. The steak was cooked to a perfect medium rare, seasoned with nothing more than a little salt and pepper. The side was also tasty, and should help convince people who aren’t too keen on Brussels sprouts that they can be done well. After dinner I asked the bartender to surprise me with something based on an Islay malt. It didn’t have a name, but was Laphroaig 10, Cherry Heering, orange and grapefruit juice, bitters, and an expressed and flamed lemon peel. Also incredibly delicious, and went well with some quiet reading time. When I finished up, they called me a cab and notified me, at my table, when it had arrived.


Banger Brewing Tour And Tasting

I had some free time today, because Heather was working late, so I grabbed a cab and headed down to Fremont Street to visit Banger Brewing for a tour and tasting. They’re a small brewery right on the old strip. It was interesting to see just how much they’re able to do in such a small space. They’re not distributed outside of the Las Vegas area, so if you’re out there, go check them out.

The first beer I had was the More Cal-Bel, their take on a Belgian IPA. It was delicious, with a great hop punch and good malt sweetness. It’s a little higher in ABV, so pace yourself.

Next up was the El Jeffe Jalapeño Wheat, a lighter wheat beer with the kick of jalapeño peppers. I’m not usually all that in to pepper beers, because while I like spicy foods, they seem to have the heat without the flavor. This was one of the exceptions, as the fruity flavors of the peppers shone through. Yes, there was heat, but it was a component of a well rounded beer.

I finished off the tasting with a Knight RYEder, their take on an imperial stout, made with some rye malt. Rye’s been making an appearance in more and more craft brews, bringing its spiciness and body to various styles. It worked really well in this beer, balancing out the roasted malts and alcohol. I’d love to try this one in a barrel aged version, I bet that would be really tasty…

PADI Open Water Dives – Day 2

We got up, loaded up our vehicles with all of our worldly goods, or at least the ones we brought with us, and headed out for breakfast. After refueling our bodies and vehicles, we went back to Balmorhea to finish off our final certification dives. The weather was already starting to turn, with yesterday’s spring-like conditions being quickly replaced by a return to winter.

The final dive in the PADI Open Water certification is a little more relaxed, in that I got to plan the dive and actually do some exploring instead of working around the skills reviews and tests. By the time we got in, the air temperature was at 58 and the wind had really kicked up. The water, held in the low 70s by the spring outflow, felt great and we quickly got below the surface.

We revisited some of the spring sources and explored more of the pool than we had before, did some underwater navigation, and really just enjoyed ourselves. I had some trouble with the navigation due to the compass being mounted in the gauge console and me not able to get it to a comfortable position. I’ll work on that when I put together my own gear. But overall, didn’t screw anything up badly, and my instructor passed me.

When we surfaced, the weather was turning decidedly nasty. The air temperature was down to 53, and it was starting to rain. The run for the lockers, in cold wetsuits, was pretty unpleasant, but it felt good to be in dry clothes. Gear was loaded in to vehicles as quickly as we could manage, log books were updated, paperwork was filled out, and we hit the road.

The drive back was anything but uneventful. By the time I hit Pecos, it was raining steadily and the temperatures were in the high 30s. After a quick stop in Odessa to get some lunch and top off the Jeep’s gas tank, I was back on the road. Before I’d gotten to Big Spring, it was below freezing and ice was starting to build up on the Jeep. The ground was still warm, so the roads, while wet, were still clear. Outside of Sweetwater, I had to stop to get gas and break ice off of my mirrors, wiper blades, and radio antennas. It was still raining and sleeting, with air temperatures in the high 20s, but the roads were staying wet instead of icing over, so I pushed on. My last gas stop was in Weatherford, by which time the temperatures had come up a little and were hovering right around freezing. The roads were still clear, and the rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, if a little slower than I would have liked. I pulled in to the driveway, unloaded the gear, and curled up with my sweetheart to watch the weather report.

PADI Open Water Dives – Day 1

I loaded all of the gear in to the Jeep and headed out to have some breakfast with a couple folks who were out to work on their Rescue Diver certification. After that we all headed over to Balmorhea State Park to get checked in and start in on the diving. Check-in went smoothly, the rates are reasonable, and the staff was friendly and helpful.

Unloading all of the gear was a good warmup exercise, and the weather was wonderful, with air temperatures in the mid-70s and rising. We had a little bit of a scheduling bobble, so I didn’t get in the water until after lunch, but it really wasn’t a big deal. We got started, worked through the skills in three separate twenty minute dives, and did some exploring while we were down there. I didn’t have any real issues, other than communication, but that’s something to work on. The PADI Open Water certification requires four open water dives, but PADI limits you to three dives, maximum, per day. So I’ve got one more to do tomorrow.

Balmorhea is a spring fed pool, and during part of our explorations, we got down to one of the places where the water is bubbling up from the ground. It was pretty amazing to see the sand dancing in place and feeling the current. I also got to see a couple catfish, which were pretty chill about the whole diver swimming around with them, and one crawfish who decidedly wasn’t and disappeared as soon as possible.

Balmorhea State Park

The pool at Balmorhea State Park

After finishing up the diving for the day, I loaded the Jeep up and headed back to the motel to unload, update my log book, and chill before heading out to dinner. While I was there, I called home and checked in. It was probably a good thing that I did, because Heather let me know that a pretty severe ice storm was going to hit tomorrow. Now in scramble mode, I talked to the inn keeper, who was completely understanding about canceling my reservation for Sunday night. After finishing that, it was back to packing the Jeep and getting everything else ready to go in the morning. The new plan is to get up, eat, get the last dive in, and hit the road for home as soon as possible.

Big Bend Brewing Company Tour

I decided to leave a little early so that I could get out to Big Bend Brewing Company, over in Alpine, for their tour and tasting. Big Bend Brewing Company is currently the most remote brewery in the U.S., but has ties to Austin, where Steve Anderson brewed for Live Oak. I actually got there in time for the tour, about fifteen minutes early in fact.

Big Bend Brewing Company

Big Bend Brewing Company

The crew livened up the standard brewery tour by doing the tasting while we were touring, as well as discussing more of the brewery technology and processes than is typical. Usually you get some variation on “these are the ingredients, this is the process, let’s drink beer!”. We talked about the equipment, their expansion plans, the difficulties of getting ingredients on short notice due to the remoteness of the brewery, as well as the mentoring that’s being done to help make the next generation of brewers.

The first beer we tried was their Tejas Lager, a German Pilsner style lager that was light, crisp, and with just enough malty sweetness to offset the delicate hopping. I’m not a huge pilsner fan, but this is one I could definitely put in the rotation.

From there, we sampled the Terlingua Gold, a golden ale. It was hoppier than the pilsner, as expected, but still in balance for the style. This is a style I’m going to have to brew at home, because it’s one I can serve to people not that familiar with craft beers. In fact, if you can get it, this is definitely a good introductory beer for helping people move away from the fizzy yellow stuff.

Next up was the Big Bend Hefeweizen, which was a delicious example of a hefe. There are a lot of esters in this, lots of clove especially, that make it a wonderful beer for a warm summer day. This would pair well with some green chile enchiladas, some fajitas, or even fish tacos. And it’d be another good introductory beer for people looking to branch out.

And then we got to taste a real treat, the Pasión Peppermint Porter, a variation of their No. 22 Porter that they brewed for the Valentines in Valentine party that Big Bend Brewing Company puts on in Valentine, TX. I haven’t been a huge spiced beer fan, but beers like this are changing my mind. The peppermint wasn’t overpowering, but was definitely there, and went well with the chocolate notes from the roasted malts.

By this point, the tour was done and we were still tasting the rest of their offerings, including the La Frontera IPA, a bold, well hopped example of the style. Weighing in at 5 IBUs, it’s on the low end of the hop bomb trend, but it’s a delicious IPA that deserves a purchase every so often.

The final beer in the tasting series was their Winter Warmer, another spiced, higher ABV, ale. It was a treat to get to try two of their seasonal offerings, and this one didn’t disappoint. It’s a riff on a doppelbock, with some orange peel and coriander for additional flavor. This would definitely be nice with a big slice of mincemeat pie on a cold winter evening.

At the end of the tasting, we had the opportunity to fill our pint glass with any of the beers they had on tap. Sadly, I had to pass on that because I still had to drive to Balmorhea, about fifty miles away, so I did a little shopping before heading back in to town to pick up six packs of each of their beers to bring home with me.

It’s definitely a haul, but if you’re out in west Texas, you really should stop in and visit Big Bend Brewing Company. Trust me, they’ll make it worth your time.

PADI Open Water Confined Water Dives

I drove down to the Kirby Creek Natatorium this morning to do my PADI Open Water certification’s confined water dives. We started out by doing the swimming test, 200m with no mask, fins, or snorkel. After that, we put our gear on and got our heads under water. Breathing under water was a very interesting experience, but I have to admit that I freaked out a little bit the first time. And the second. But, the third time was the charm. Thankfully my instructor was patient and understanding. After I got over that, we proceeded with working on the skills.

There are a variety of skills that you need to work through, including clearing your mask underwater, handling running out of air, recovering your regulator, swimming and diving with a snorkel, and hand signals for communication. I made it through all of them, though I’m going to have to practice using my snorkel a little more as I’m having trouble getting comfortable with it.

After finishing off with treading water for ten minutes, I packed up the gear and headed out to meet Heather for lunch. With the classroom and confined water sections done, all I’ve got left are the open water dives, which are going to happen next weekend, out at Balmorhea State Park.

Catching Blue Man Group At The Winspear

We took Reese to see Blue Man Group over at the Winspear Opera House today. It’s one of the last things we’re doing before he heads home, but it was definitely something we didn’t want to miss. We’ve seen them before, in Las Vegas, but this show was different. We all had a really good seats, and even Reese enjoyed the show. After the show, one of the Blue Men was out front letting people take pictures with him. So, of course, I made Reese got over so that I could take one of him.

Reese hanging out with a member of Blue Man Group

Reese hanging out with a member of Blue Man Group

Laphroaig Tasting At Sigel’s Elite

I had some on-site meetings today that got me most of the way to the Sigel’s Elite, which made getting across town for the Laphroaig tasting much easier. It was no trouble to find, and there was plenty of parking.

I got in a few minutes after it started, and started off with the Triple Wood. I’ve had this one before, and it’s one of my favorite expressions. It goes really well with sour or tart foods, such as berry cobblers. The peat is definitely there, as it should be in an Islay malt, but with the time in sherry casks, it’s got a nice balance to it.

After that one, I played catch-up and sampled the Select expression that they’d started with. This is their attempt at recreating a pre-Prohibition whisky. It’s pretty darned good, with a much more forward oak flavor than I was expecting. I think this would pair really well with a nice bison ribeye.

Next up was the 18 Year Old, another one of my favorites. Being an older whisky, it’s definitely more mellow than its younger siblings, especially the peat. But that allows the other flavor notes to really shine. I’m not sure what I’d pair this with, because it’s one to be savored. I think that good friends and possibly a good cigar are the perfect accompaniment for a wee dram of this whisky.

Once we had finished that one, we got to taste the 2014 Cairdeas. I guess Simon was feeling the Christmas spirit, because this was completely unexpected. I’ve got a bottle of it at the house, but I haven’t opened it yet. It was definitely interesting, with a pronounced sherry note, along with some yeasty flavors. I’m not a huge fan of sherry finishes, but this one is an exception. I’m thinking it’d go well with a crème brûlée or maybe some sweet crepes.

And finally, we got a real Christmas treat as Simon opened up a bottle of the 25 year old. This is Laphroaig’s oldest normally available bottling, and one I’ve been wanting to try for a long time. It’s just been a little too expensive to buy a bottle on a whim, so this was definitely a treat. What can I say, it was fantastic. The peat’s hiding in the background, but there’s a flavor explosion going on with everything else that’s been hiding or developing over time.

Once the tasting was done, I spent a few minutes chatting with Simon before picking up a few bottles of the Select, and getting one signed. All in all, a great way to spend an evening.