Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 27, 2015

Remembering Katrina

Hurricane Katrina was one of the most devastating disasters in American History. Ten years ago this month, Katrina’s storm surge breached the levees around New Orleans, allowing an angry ocean to rush in and wreak absolute havoc. The storm killed more than 1,800 Americans and displaced tens of thousands more — many barely escaping the rapidly rising flood waters.

After the storm, New Orleans lay seriously wounded. Aerial photos revealed that Katrina’s angry claws had destroyed huge swaths of The Big Easy. As for those who remained behind, thousands found refuge in the overcrowded and undersupplied Superdome, the city’s iconic sports stadium.

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While an influx of volunteers worked tirelessly to aid those in need, the questions and the finger-pointing started among politicians. There was no shortage of speculation about why the levees and the city’s evacuation plan had failed and who was to blame. In the meantime, tens of thousands of residents were focused on only one thing — how to put their broken lives back together.

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In the days Katrina was gathering strength in the Gulf, I was on an adventure deep in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. When I finally had access to a phone, I learned about the devastation in New Orleans. Doyle, our Executive Pastor, encouraged me to get home as quickly as possible to lead our volunteers to care for evacuees from New Orleans.

Little did I realize as I made my way home that I would spend the next six weeks living with evacuees at the church. With the help of my new friends Cathy Thompson, Denise Fieglein, Susan Patrick and an army of volunteers, we were able to compassionately care for more than a hundred folks displaced from their homes by Katrina.

One of the biggest challenges was helping folks to get identification documents — not an easy thing to do when you have lost your birth certificate, drivers license, and every other form of personal documentation in flood waters. But, we managed to do this. We also helped folks find apartments and jobs. We gave several families cars with six months of insurance, connected them to medical care, and helped some to relocate to other cities.

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Over the years I have heard from some of the evacuees who spent more than a month of their lives here at Kingsland. Each of these have been quick to express their gratitude for the kindness of our volunteers and the generosity of our church.

Today, the City of New Orleans has come back stronger than before the storm hit. And, because we were willing to love people in their time of greatest need, many of the evacuees who called Kingsland home for a season have rebuilt their lives and are doing well. Thank you, Kingsland, for always going beyond by loving and serving others.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 21, 2015

The Murder of a Scholar

Khaled al-Assad, one of Syria’s most prominent antiquities scholars, is dead. The 83 year-old bespectacled caretaker of the ancient treasures of Palmyra, a World Heritage Site, was brutally murdered by ISIS militants this week. Eighty-three years old, a lifetime devoted to discovering and protecting some of Syria’s greatest archaeological treasures, and now a grisly end to the life of a man whose passion was educating others about his country’s rich history.

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The news of Assad’s death has both saddened and outraged his colleagues in the international community. Assad was affectionately known as Mr. Palmyra because of his extensive knowledge of the many ancient sites in the region. When Unesco declared Palmyra a World Heritage Site, they called it “the consummate example of an ancient urbanized complex.” For years, Assad served as the chief archaeologist of this ancient city and its treasures.

And then along came ISIS — bringing with them their militant brand of darkness, destruction, and death. As in other places, ISIS set about destroying antiquities they deemed heretical according to their strict interpretation of Islam. What they don’t destroy they sell to finance their operations. Assad and his associates were smart enough to move and hide as many of their country’s archaeological treasures as possible to keep them from being destroyed or sold off by ISIS.

When ISIS arrived in Palmyra, Mamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s current antiquities minister and a friend of Assad’s, begged his old friend to leave “because [he] was very important.” Assad refused to go, thinking the jihadist group would not bother with someone his age. “He was a retired government employee and an old man,” his son said. “He was innocent, so he never thought ISIS would hurt him.”

Assad was mistaken. Determined to find out where the old scholar and museum workers had hidden Palmyra’s ancient artifacts, they questioned Assad to no avail. So, ISIS did what they do best — they murdered Assad. And they did so publicly. These thugs, whose collective IQ paled in comparison to Assad’s, dragged the old man into the streets and beheaded him in front of dozens of people. And then they hung his body from a traffic light with his severed head on the ground between his feet.

And now, the world is poorer because of the senseless death of a man who simply cared about preserving the treasures of the past for the benefit of future generations. Assad considered his life as expendable in order to preserve the legacy of his ancestors. As for ISIS, they can never claim to have broken the old scholar. All they can claim is to have murdered him — and there is no honor in that!

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 15, 2015

On Becoming Stronger Men

I believe that deep in the heart of every man lies a thirst for adventure — a thirst that can only be quenched by engaging in pursuits that lie beyond the boundaries of our daily routines. Adventure calls us to move in new directions and to seize opportunities that will stretch and ultimately redefine us. The potential for personal growth increases in direct proportion to the demands of the adventure.

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I spent this past week with a team of men from Kingsland in a remote Athabaskan tribal village in far eastern Alaska. And what an amazing week we had. Our men were tasked with working with children in the daytime and leading worship for the villagers in the evenings. We also scheduled some adventure time in the mountains and lakes near the village.

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Men working with children — a beautiful sight. Too often we tend to task women alone with anything having to do with kids, whether it’s serving in Vacation Bible School or Sunday School. God, however, wants and needs more men to step up and serve children as well. Watching our team of men interact with the kids in the village was encouraging. The kids melted the hearts of our men and our men embraced every moment we had to work with the kids.

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Our hosts told us that we are the first team of men only who have come to work with the kids in the village. The presence of our men serving kids, they told us, is something that encouraged them. Kids need a strong and godly male influence in their lives. We were happy to serve the kids and also to encourage the parents that stopped by the tribal hall.

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In the evenings, our men led in worship. They shared their personal stories of coming to faith in Christ, led the music, and preached the Word. Honestly, we did not have any capable singers in our group, but together we made a joyful noise choir that put smiles on the faces of the people. They joined right in and sang along.

Men Hiking Alaska
Our men not only had an opportunity to serve, we also enjoyed some fun adventures. We hiked the trails through the thick woods in the surrounding mountains (sometimes bushwhacking our way through), panned for gold, and searched for diamond willow trees. One of the men in the village took our team on an amazing trek down a remote and pristine river teeming with wildlife.

Gil Whittling in Alaska
Our Men of Kingsland Ministry and our Go Beyond Missions Ministry believe in the importance of providing our men with opportunities to engage in shared study through core groups. But, in addition to shared study, we believe that we can help our men to become stronger by also providing them with opportunities for shared mission and shared adventure.

Alaska Team near Turnagain Arm
We are committed to helping men to become stronger by doing life in community with other men (shared study), leading men to serve others (shared mission), and providing men with opportunities to do cool guy stuff in the great outdoors (shared adventure). We believe that by helping men to become stronger and more godly, we will ultimately help strengthen the home and better equip the next generation to advance the purposes of God long after we are gone.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 14, 2015

Amazing Alaska

Alaska is amazing — and certainly far more beautiful than I ever imagined. This past week I had the privilege of traveling to Alaska for the first time. Our missions ministry is working closely with our Men of Kingsland ministry to provide shared mission / shared adventure initiatives for men. Over the past year-plus our men have ventured to Cambodia, El Salvador, Idaho, Houston’s inner city, and Brookshire on shared mission / shared adventure initiatives. Our men have made some unforgettable memories while serving people in need in these locations.

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This past week, a small group of our men journeyed to Alaska to serve among an Athabaskan tribe. From Anchorage we traveled eight-hours to the northeastern part of the country along Alaska Highway 1. The word breathtaking does not seem adequate to describe the scenery along this route from Anchorage toward the Yukon. Our drive, in fact, took us a little longer because we stopped so many times to drink in the intoxicating scenery. Most of the time we just stood and stared, not wanting to disrupt these sacred moments with unnecessary chatter.

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After several hours on the road, we stopped to eat lunch at the Caribou Cafe in the little town of Glennallen. With hunting season starting the next day, the cafe was packed with folks who were on the road. The food at the Caribou Cafe was excellent. Of course, I ordered a bacon cheeseburger and was not disappointed. Several hours later we arrived in Tok where we met our hosts and enjoyed another delicious meal together at a place called Fast Eddy’s. Interesting name. Excellent food.

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From Tok we pushed on to our final destination — an Athabaskan village hidden away deep in the backcountry. The particular tribe we served owns more than 800,000 acres of the most gorgeous scenery I have ever laid eyes on. The village where we served has a population of just over a hundred people. Even so, the small village has a state of the art school building, medical clinic, and a large tribal hall. The tribal hall is where the village conducts business, observes potlatches, and celebrates a variety of observances.

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Within minutes of arriving at our destination, our team started making connections with the local folks. It didn’t take us long to fall in love with the kids. Like kids everywhere, these kids were full of energy and eager to get to know us. We shared Bible stories, sang together, did some of the coolest outdoor crafts you have ever seen, and enjoyed lots of recreation. We concluded each day with a fellowship meal with folks from the village followed by a worship service.

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There is no question that Alaska is an amazing place. But I have found that it takes more than breathtaking scenery to make a place memorable. I enjoyed my time in Alaska because of the guys I served with and the people we served. Ultimately, it’s the ordinary people who live in the context of the places we visit that make our memories of those particular places either more or less meaningful and memorable.

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I am thankful to have had the opportunity to help lead our Men of Kingsland to Alaska. We made friends with people who have the same dreams and aspirations for their families as the families in our suburban hometown. I will always cherish my memories of Alaska as a result. We hope to return to Alaska next summer to serve the Athabaskan people who made our stay so memorable. They are a large part of the reason I found Alaska to be so amazing.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 8, 2015

On Being Prepared

One thing I have never forgotten from my years as a Boy Scout is the organization’s motto — Be Prepared. Mr. Allen, my Scout Leader, drilled preparedness into us so that whether we encountered something unexpected in the wilderness or in everyday life, we would be prepared to do the right thing. “When preparedness meets crisis or opportunity,” he counseled us, “you are more likely to do the right thing.”

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I thought about Mr. Allen yesterday because yesterday was a day of training and orientation — a day of getting prepared in order to be prepared. In October of this year I am headed to Africa with a team of men to work with our partners there to take the good news about Jesus to people who live in very remote areas. The only way we can get to the folks in these villages is by backpacking. Our partners have told us that this trip will be physically strenuous.

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So, yesterday, three of us on the team met at Stephen F. Austin State Park to begin our physical conditioning for our trip. Last year I thru-hiked the Lone Star Hiking Trail, the longest hiking trail in Texas, with two friends. We spent months getting physically conditioned for that adventure by doing lots of training hikes with full packs. That’s the plan we are following to get ready for our African adventure.

Over the coming weeks we will steadily increase the weight in our packs and the length of our hikes. This is important because if we are not ready to meet the challenges we will face on the field, then some folks who have been waiting a lifetime to hear the good news will have to continue waiting. That’s unacceptable! We are committed to getting prepared so that we will be prepared to do the right thing when we are in Africa.

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Yesterday evening was also a time of getting prepared in order to be prepared. Our Go Beyond Disaster Response Team took part in the first of several orientation and training meetings in order to be prepared to do the right thing when we are called out to serve in a time of crisis. The Texas Baptist Men, recognized globally for their work in disaster relief, is training the 100-plus folks on our team. Monte Vincent, our Disaster Response Coordinator, is also undergoing specific training to take on a broader leadership role with the Texas Baptist Men.

Being prepared — it’s something each of us should think about. We should always be in a state of physical, mental, and spiritual preparedness so that we are ready to face anything that might come across our respective paths and then do the right thing.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 6, 2015

My New Texas Blog

As if I didn’t have anything else to do, I have started a new blog. For quite some time I have been thinking about starting a blog about all things Texas. So, I finally pulled the trigger and started my new Explore Texas Blog. Because I love exploring the Lone Star State, this blog will be a good outlet for sharing about my Texas adventures.

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For the past twenty-plus years I have traveled the world, logging as many as a couple hundred thousand air miles in some years. That’s a lot of time on airplanes. I have traveled to more than forty countries and visited most of the world’s sugar stick sites and enjoy writing about my global adventures on my Go Beyond Blog.

As much as I enjoy traveling and exploring new places around the globe, I absolutely love coming home to Texas. There is no place quite like the Lone Star State. No matter where I go in the world, when folks ask me where I’m from I always tell them that I’m from Texas. I am amazed that even in some of the most remote places I have visited, people have heard about Texas.

When it comes to exploring Texas, I prefer to get from here to there on a backroad if at all possible. Texas has no shortage of backroads that lead to small towns with interesting names or to hiking and biking trails that take you even deeper into the heart of Texas. As an ultramarathon canoe racer, I also enjoy paddling on our beautiful Texas rivers.

After years of writing about my global travels, I am excited to also write about my adventures in the Lone Star State. I invite you to visit my new blog. I hope to post weekly about everything from flora and fauna, small towns, burger joints, scenic road trips, to so much more. You can even subscribe to receive email notifications whenever I post a new blog.

I am excited to start this new writing venture about Texas. I hope that what you read will inspire you to see the Lone Star State through fresh eyes or will motivate you to venture down long stretches of Texas backroads to make your own discoveries. Thanks for stopping by and I hope to see you in Texas.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | August 4, 2015

Better Dads and Champions

Earlier this year, I started a core group especially for fathers interested in becoming better dads and champions to their sons. We call ourselves the Band of Fathers. Our objective is to grow in our relationship with our Heavenly Father and our sons through shared study, shared mission, and shared adventure. We believe that all three of these elements are important in building strong relationships with our sons.

Band of Fathers Logo 2We recently had our second shared mission initiative since starting our group. Our team of fathers and sons did some landscaping work for Cathy, a sweet lady in Brookshire who is battling cancer. The heavy rains we experienced in Texas in June flooded Cathy’s home more than once, creating lots of additional problems for her.

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Working with our partners at Manna House in Brookshire, we changed the slope of Cathy’s yard, added some drains, and then spread 15 yards of crushed granite to make the area maintenance free. These improvements should keep Cathy’s home from flooding again should we get more heavy rains. Cathy was beyond grateful.

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What I loved best about our shared mission initiative was seeing fathers and sons work shoulder-to-shoulder to address a need. After meeting Cathy, our guys shoveled and spread lots of crushed granite in the heat. From youngest to oldest, everybody worked hard. And when we were done, we all walked away with more than the satisfaction of meeting Cathy’s need. We walked away knowing we had made a new memory of serving together as fathers and sons.

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The task of strengthening relationships between fathers and sons requires more than spending time in shared study and talking about father-son stuff. We believe that serving others and sharing adventures together adds key elements in to the mix. Serving others puts us in a context where we can guide and encourage our sons to love others in practical and measurable ways. And, our shared adventures give us the opportunity to do hard things together in the great outdoors.

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I am grateful for my Band of Fathers and the opportunity to learn from them, serve with them, and grow with them. Later this week I am headed to Alaska with another group of men from Kingsland to experience shared mission and shared adventure with them. God is indeed raising up the Men of Kingsland to love Him and to serve others well. I invite you to learn more about our Men of Kingsland ministry and join us on the adventure of a lifetime.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 31, 2015

Hiking to Gorman Falls

Gorman Falls is one of the Lone Star State’s best tucked away treasures — a hidden gem of a site. Located along a remote section of the Colorado River, the falls are a part of Colorado Bend State Park. Although the falls are located a little more than a mile from the trailhead, getting there requires a semi-strenuous hike along a rugged but scenic trail. The last hundred yards of the trail require cautiously working your way down a steep descent along slick outcroppings of rock toward the Colorado River.

Clorado Bend State Park
Hiking to Gorman Falls was worth every step. As Cheryl and I started our descent toward the falls, we were excited to hear the sound of the water in the distance. Although we were anxious to get there, we made sure every step was well-placed. We held on to the cables placed there by the park rangers as an extra security measure for hikers. When we took our final steps into the heavily shaded bluff next to the Colorado River we felt as though we had entered an outdoor cathedral.

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These falls, fed by Gorman Springs, are absolutely beautiful. Cascading down from a 60-foot high limestone cliff, the calcium deposits in the water have created what look like window drapes. These formations are covered by green moss and ferns, adding a calming beauty to the picturesque scene. We sat in silence for the longest time, enjoying the sound of the falls, the shade of the trees, and a hint of a breeze. This, I thought to myself, is good medicine.

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After enjoying the falls for a good half-hour, we started the slow hike back to the trailhead. Cheryl and I took our time, stopping to sit and chat along the way. No hurry. No rush. We had our hydration packs and plenty of snacks. Hiking to Gorman Falls was not about hiking fast. It was about enjoying our time together in a rugged but beautiful setting. This too, was good medicine for us.

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When we returned to the trailhead, we were both happy that we had taken the time to hike to this hidden Texas treasure. According to my hiking app, we hiked 3.2 miles round trip. More importantly, Cheryl and I shared a fun personal adventure together and made a good memory at Colorado Bend State Park — one that we will enjoy for years to come.

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This week’s Texas summer road trip has, in fact, been a week of making good memories together. Cheryl and I have traveled some 1,500 miles. Along the way we have enjoyed lots of great conversation, eaten some really good burgers, and visited some of the most beautiful parts of Texas. We know that it will be a while before we can get out and do another road trip together and that’s ok. Until then we will enjoy reflecting on our hike to Gorman Falls and all of the other fun adventures we experienced together this week.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 30, 2015

Why I Love Bridges

Bridges. I love bridges. There is something inherently beautiful about these structures that are designed to connect people and places. Over years of traveling the world, I have crossed some of the most beautiful bridges on the planet. I have also cautiously ventured across more than my share of rickety old bridges.

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The word bridge is important in our vocabulary. It’s the word we use when we talk about making connections or working toward reconciliation with others. We’ve all heard the admonition to “not burn our bridges.” And, when we advise someone to deal with a problem only when and if it arises, we often tell them to “cross that bridge when you come to it.” That’s good advice!

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Building bridges is the antithesis of building walls. Walls tend to separate and protect. I have visited the Great Wall of China almost a dozen times. It’s impressive. The Chinese built the Great Wall to keep the Mongol hordes and other invaders at bay. Imagine if some ancient culture had built a great bridge — a lasting structure designed to bring people together.

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Our world needs more bridges — the kind of bridges that can connect us to those who are different from us and that span the deep chasms of prejudice that divide and separate people. A bridge is a symbol of peace, an invitation for people to move toward one another in the hope of cultivating deeper understanding and more wholesome and charitable views about one another.

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Building and crossing bridges is important. Doing so connects people who are separated by geographical and cultural distances that can lead to prejudice fueled by misinformation. Because of the diaspora of nations among us, it is more important than ever that Christ-followers build cultural bridges of love and understanding that will enable them to connect with neighbors who hail from the four corners of the planet.

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I have thought a lot about bridges today. As Cheryl and I continue our Texas road trip, we traveled to the Regency Bridge. This beautiful bridge spans a remote section of the Colorado River on the Mills-San Saba County line. Of the more than 52,000 bridges in the Lone Star State, the Regency Bridge is the last suspension bridge in Texas that is open to automobile traffic. I’m glad that we took the time to find and drive across this bridge.

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Built in 1939, the Regency Bridge continues to serve ranchers and farmers who live in the area. The bridge no longer gets much traffic because it has been bypassed by newer paved farm to market roads. Even so, it continues to do what bridges are designed to do — to give people access to people and places that would otherwise remain divided. May we always look for ways to build bridges that span the things that separate us from others. And, like the Regency Bridge, may these bridges outlast us.

Posted by: Omar C. Garcia | July 29, 2015

The Caprock Canyons

On my short list of affordable adventures in the Lone Star State is to bike the Caprock Canyons Trailway. This 64-mile hiking, biking, and equestrian trail stretches from South Plains to Estelline along an abandoned spur of the Fort Worth and Denver Railroad. The trailway is a part of the Rails to Trails Conservancy, an organization that is creating a network of trails around the country from former rail lines.
IMG_5182The Caprock Canyons Trailway runs through one of the most scenic areas of Texas and skirts Caprock Canyons State Park, home to the State’s bison herd. The bison herd is the legacy of Charles Goodnight. This famous cattle rancher rescued several plains bisons in 1876 at the urging of his wife at a time when bison were being slaughtered by the thousands.

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Cheryl and I spent a good part of the day exploring Caprock Canyons State Park. Like Palo Duro Canyon, the vistas at this park are absolutely beautiful. And, the presence of bison lends an Old West charm to the views. We visited several locations in the park where we took short hikes to scenic overlooks. There is indeed something therapeutic about sitting in silence while looking at scenery that just makes you smile.
Caprock Canyons PicsI received helpful advice from park rangers on how to prepare to bike the trailway, including the importance of caching water along the way and carrying lots of spare bike tubes. After visiting the park, we drove to three of the trailheads to get a feel for the terrain. After gazing at the long stretches of trail, I am more excited than ever about carving out some vacation time to make this adventure a reality.
IMG_5129Of course, another thing we are doing on our summer road trip is looking for the best hamburger in Texas. Today we stopped for lunch at Galvan’s Restaurant in Turkey, located a short distance from one of the trailheads. Good choice! We enjoyed a delicious homemade burger in a small restaurant that was so clean you could eat off the floor. The walls are decorated with autographed pics of famous TV western stars. Pretty cool. I recommend Galvan’s if you are ever in this you-got-to-be-going-there part of the Lone Star State.

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This evening we stopped at Heff’s Burgers, voted the best hamburger in Abiline. We had to take this detour to check out this place for ourselves. Absolutely a good choice! And absolutely the best hamburger we have eaten on this trip … or perhaps ever! No kidding, this was one of the best burgers I have ever eaten. If you are ever in Abiline, make it a point to try a burger at Heff’s. Not a fancy place as far as burger joints go, but definitely in a league of their own.

Our adventure continues tomorrow as we venture to San Saba to see the Regency Bridge featured in the opening segment of Texas Country Reporter and then on to hike at Colorado Bend State Park.

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