Westward Ho!

The LEAPsters are continuing their West Texas Tour. On their second day, they had a taste from the old east, from the forgotten south, and the life-flourishing natural paradise of one of Texas’ greatest state parks.

Japanese Tea Garden

The light peaked in the horizon as we walked up to the beautiful Japanese Tea Garden in San Antonio. Mark Burns had a few ideas on shots he wanted to take. He began by doing what any professional photographer does; he scouted out the most photogenic part of the garden. As we scouted the perimeter of the park, with Brian trying to use a new DSLR stabilizer…

San Antonio TX, San Antonio Tea Garden, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors

…Burns’ eyes caught a glimpse of a breathtaking waterfall that sits in the back of the gardens.

San Antonio TX, San Antonio Tea Garden, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors

He explained that he would have to set the camera to have a 30 second exposure in order to take a good photo. This would allow him to capture a ghostly waterfall and a glistening rock in the picture. After that, he decided to take some portraits of us.

San Antonio TX, San Antonio Tea Garden, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors

The Japanese Tea Garden was a great addition to the documentary.

We said goodbye to Mark with a hint of melancholy. And as we said our farewells, we wished him luck on his next adventure: the solar eclipse which he will be photographing. With the early morning start, we decided to take a coffee break at one of San Antonio’s Local Coffee coffee shops. With a relaxing black tea for some and tasty macrons for others, we chowed down on our breakfast and headed back to our hotel with a satisfied belly.

Aldaco’s Mexican Cuisine

After a little down time in our rooms, we climbed back to our van and turned our compass towards Aldaco’s Mexican Cuisine. In reality, our decision to lunch at this location was not based on any recommendation. We had no idea of the restaurant’s reputation or whether it was home to authentic Mexican cuisine. In short, we had no idea if the food was any good. You may wonder why then we chose this restaurant. The answer is simple. Brian Aldaco, feeling drawn to the restaurant’s peculiar name, wanted to see if Aldaco’s Mexican Cuisine had any resemblance to his family’s Mexican cuisine.

With latin music in the background, we all shared a pleasant conversation on how much we were enjoying the trip. Looking through the menu we noticed that there were plenty of tasty plates to choose from. Christina and Brian chose the Tacos de la Calle plate, while Beatriz decided on the Chile Relleno. Professor Yawn, whether this would have been his preference or not, grubbed on some Tacos Gringos after Christina chose his platter for him. After finishing our meals, we decided that Aldaco’s Mexican Cuisine was worth trying. And even though Brian remarked that it was not like mother’s cooking, his tacos were still tasty and a good excuse to come back to Aldaco’s.

The Road to Seminole

Our next destination after San Antonio was Seminole Canyon. With a 200 mile trip ahead, we planned some stops along the road to take a few breaths of South Texas fresh air. Our first stop was at Uvalde, TX, about 85 miles west of San Antonio. There, we found the home of John Nance Garner, Vice President to FDR.

Uvalde TX, John Nance Gardner, Cactus Jack, LEAP Ambassadors, SHSU, LEAP Center

Vice President Garner was the first Texan to serve as VP, but “Cactus Jack” started his political career in Uvalde County as county judge. After taking our photo in front of his home, we continued on the road. However, as we exited the town, we found the cemetery where Vice President Garner is buried.

Uvalde TX, John Nance Gardner, Cactus Jack, LEAP Ambassadors, SHSU, LEAP Center

Our second stop was in Brackettville, about 50 miles down the road from Uvalde. In this small community of 1,674 residents lies Alamo Village, where John Wayne filmed The Alamo in 1960.  The set he built was apparently the largest movie-set in the world at its time. But as we neared the gates of this once flourishing attraction, what we found were locked gates and a solitary, dusty road.

LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, SHSU, Alamo Village, Brackettville, The Alamo, John Wayne

As it turns out, Alamo Village closed its gates to the public in 2009 after almost 50 years of attracting tourists from all over the country. Sadly, no traces of the set were visible from the entrance. After a photo-op in front of the Alamo Village sign, traced with vintage lettering, we climbed onto our van and continued our trip.

Before arriving to Seminole Canyon, we were compelled to stop at Del Rio, the birthplace of Christina.

LEAP Ambassadors, LEAP Center, SHSU, Christina Perez, Del Rio TX

We were so inclined to celebrate her birthplace, that we even visited the hospital where she was born. After snacking on some chips and sandwiches, we were ready to make the last stretch to the state park.

Seminole Canyon

A couple of minutes later, we arrived at the Seminole Canyon State Park. Unlike to the other state parks we had been to, Seminole was sprinkled with small cacti and desert life versus the usual gargantuan pine forests. However, it did hold its own charming appeal. Part of its beauty was held within its canyons and its various trails.

SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Seminole Canyon

Another interesting part are the many caves that line the canyons. There was one in particular where we climbed along the side of a canyon to go into a possible cliff dwelling.

SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Seminole Canyon, Beatriz Martinez

It was a treacherous climb, but with teamwork, we made it.

SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Seminole Canyon

The views were beautiful!

SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Seminole Canyon, Brian Aldaco

Although we were disappointed to not see more wildlife within the state park, we were captivated with smaller life forms such as the millipedes and the giant ants creeping around. Taking advantage of the little bit of sunset that we had to our disposition, we took a couple of more photos before making the 45-minute trek back to the car.

SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Seminole Canyon

Before leaving Seminole State Park, we decided to pay a visit to The Maker of Peace by Bill Worrell. A statue over 10 feet tall of a deer-humanoid shaman, it is believed that this art piece depicts the Lower Pecos features. In so doing, the statue had motifs related to the whitetail deer native to the area, a spear with a dart and a Langtry point as well as an atlatl which embodies the survival of the people. Finally, the bird in flight was on its right hand, which was a portrayal of the human soul. With the final blessing from The Maker of Peace, we hit the road for Alpine, TX.

We arrived at our hotel at 12:30 am after a 6:00 am start in the morning. It was understandable that we were all tired and ready for rest. We got into our hotel rooms to prepare for the long, vigorous day of hiking at Big Bend. Tomorrow will be full of adventure, so for the fans out there, stay tuned for more glimpses of our West Texas Tour.

It’s a Wrap: Sunday at Caddo Lake

Brian- Sunday Sunrise Tour

The sun slowly peeked its rays through the cypress trees, and the glow from the horizon steadily became warmer and stronger. As the light spread across the land below, the Leap Ambassadors began waking up from their groggy states–as did the wildlife that surrounded them. It was the LEAPsters’ second sunrise at Caddo Lake. This time, Mr. Burns and the others sat in the still water, waiting for the golden-hour (actually about 20 minutes) of warm lighting.

Suddenly, red, orange, and purple flooded the sky.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

The perfect lighting was upon us. Mark reached for his Nikon and began to shoot.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

As the sun emerged from the horizon, Mark continued to shoot…

Caddo Lake, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, Photography, Documentary, Caddo Lake

…and we joined in, pausing to enjoy the prettiest of the tours on which we had gone.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

Mark then directed the captain to a new destination…

Surprisingly, Chocolate Pecan won the most votes in favorite flavor.

…one we had seen several times with productive results. Once we arrived at the spot, the area’s salvinia invasion was noticeably present. Benign as these water herbs may seem, they pose a true threat to the ecosystem of the lake. This floating fern has endlessly propagated itself throughout the lake causing many problems over the past years. Stealing precious oxygen from the waters, making boat travel impossible in some areas, and having them at every corner has created an overall nuisance for the prosperity of the locals. Wes, enthusiastically explained how local and state entities are currently attempting to develop an effective method to eradicate this pest. Although it is our hope to see this threat neutralized the next time we visit Caddo Lake, it seems that a successful extermination strategy has yet to surface.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography
Egret Surrounded by Salvania

However, Caddo Lake perseveres, and is in fact, teeming with life of all shapes and sizes, even wing spans!

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

As we were wrapping up our tour, we pleaded to our captain to take us to a location where we could catch one last glimpse at the wildlife. It didn’t take much pondering before Wes quickly turned his boat and lead us to the perfect location.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

Crossing an archway of cypress, the woods resembled an aviary sanctuary. A blue heron soaring over the water one second, a white egret creeping through trees the next, or the vanishing sight of flying black-bellied whistling ducks, made for sights begging to get photographed. With cameras to spare, everyone was quick to photograph or record this bountiful wildlife.

Wes also provided more of his knowledge of the lake, showing the students lily pads, and the way that they react to water.

SHSU, LEAP Center, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake Tours, Wes Holland, Photography, Caddo Lake

We really can’t say enough good things about Wes or his Caddo Lake Tour Co.  We heartily recommend his tours to anyone contemplating a Caddo Lake visit.

After a couple hours of floating on the river…

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

…we stopped our photography, enjoyed the ride…

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography, Sierra Dolch

…and we returned to terra firma and drove to our next shooting location: the Caddo Lake State Park.

Although Burns was not going to shoot any film this time, but instead be filmed as he walked us through the process to prepare a shot with his 4X5 camera. He explained that, on average, this procedure lasts around 15 minutes.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

Every component should be set with extreme caution as it is imperative that the camera stand absolutely still. With a self-deprecating smile, Burns told us how after tedious preparation of this same camera for a photo session of Reliant Stadium, it all went to waste when his leg got tangled with the camera, knocking everything into a state of disarray. As Burns had no film or intentions to photograph anything, he was comfortable letting us approach the camera to look through the view-finder.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

Under the hood of the camera, we all took turns to look at this upside-down, inverted image of the scene created by the optics. Walking through every step in how the camera functions and how to set it, Mark Burns held the attention of the Leap Ambassadors captive. Even, Sierra was fascinated, as she approached the camera to record the aperture in motion.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

Finally, it was time to depart from Caddo Lake.

Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, LEAP Ambassadors, Photography

After carrying the bags of camera gadgets and lenses, we said farewell to Mark. Although our scouting trip at Caddo Lake was temporarily over, we looked forward to seeing Mr. Burns again soon. He had opened up a whole new world to us. One in which we did not just gaze at the wonders the world had to offer, but were able to capture it.

Caddo Lake, Mark Burns, SHSU, LEAP Center, Photography, Documentary, Caddo Lake

We were sad to leave this magical place, but we had to perk up as our adventures was far from over!

Kaitlyn- The Grove

This trip has been full of many new and exciting experiences. Our next stop was no exception.  We traveled a short distance from Marshall to Jefferson to visit the Grove, also known as the Stilley-Young House. Registered in the National Registry of Historic Places and recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark, the Grove was built in 1861 as a wedding gift for Frank and Minerva Stilley. Small, this home had the exterior of a Greek Revival architecture, while the interior was in a French Creole style.

However, it was not necessarily the architecture, or its age that lead us here. No, it was something much more than that. You see, the Grove was one of the top Haunted Houses in the Lone Star State. For the first time in LEAP history, the ambassadors were going on a historic home/ghost tour!Jefferson Texas, LEAP Center, SHSU, The Grove

Our tour began on the front porch, where Mr. Mitchel Whitington, the current owner of the house, greeted us. He briefly introduced us to the history of the different generations of families that had lived at the Grove. Everyone waited outside semi-impatiently. We were about to enter in a widely-rumored haunted house. It didn’t help that it was scorching hot outside and we were dripping in sweat. Thankfully, after putting our medical booties on, we were moved out of the East Texas heat and into the formal dining room and parlor of the home. Not only did the tour guide describe the history of the Grove’s numerous owners, but he also discussed interesting ghost stories during the first stop of our tour.  Although any mention of ghosts made some LEAP Ambassadors uneasy, the tour guide tried to put us at ease by explaining that all the ghosts in the home so far have been friendly.

Jefferson Texas, The Grove, SHSU, LEAP Center

Since the home is over 150 years old, it’s history is rich and fairly-well documented. Throughout its entire life, the home only had two major renovations completed throughout which helped preserve the original style of the home. Each room of the home, was particular to a family member. Throughout the tour Mr. Whitington enthusiastically told us the ghost stories and tales which allowed visitors to gain a sense of understanding about the homeowners who had cherished their home so much that they still returned to this day (now as ghosts) to make sure that their beloved home was still in good hands.

Jefferson Texas, The Grove, SHSU, LEAP Center

We toured the informal dining room, family room, and utility room before finishing our tour in the kitchen addition.  Interestingly enough, the house surprised us with two different items. One of them being an art piece by George Rodrigue, the Blue Dog. This particular Blue Dog was depicted in a dark, gloomy forest to go along with the theme of the haunted house. The second item was a statuette nicknamed the “Bird Girl”. The Bird Girl was first introduced to the LEAP ambassadors, Brian Aldaco and Kaitlyn Tyra, when they read the book “Midnight in Garden of Good and Evil” as preparation for their Savannah trip. Rumored to only be 4 original statues created, finding even a replica was astounding.

Jefferson Texas, The Grove, SHSU, LEAP Center, Bird Girl

It’s safe to say the Ambassadors had never visited a haunted historic home before and certainly not one that was recognized in by magazines such as Texas Highways, or the Dallas Morning News! Although some enjoyed the tour more than others, we left with much to talk about and an appetite ready to be fulfilled by lunch!​

Jefferson Texas, The Grove, SHSU, LEAP Center

Christina- Downtown Jefferson and the General Store

Just before heading home we decided to visit the City of Jefferson, Texas. Jefferson is a small town perfect for a leisure-filled weekend. Its architecture is, in places, similar to New Orleans, with its shops, antiques, and family-owned restaurants. Our lunch stop was Kitt’s Kornbread Sandwich and Pie Bar, which is known for its diverse options of Cornbread Sandwiches. My sandwich was called “The Irish” and contained corned beef, tomatoes and onions in between two slices of cornbread. We couldn’t leave without trying one of the many pies listed on the menu. We ordered chocolate pecan pie, very berry pie, and bread pudding all with a scoop of sweet vanilla ice cream. Surprisingly, Chocolate Pecan won the most votes in favorite flavor.

It’s also worth noting, that we saw a Charlie Chaplin image, of note because Brian dresses as Chaplin each year for Halloween.  Aldaco good-naturedly posed with the sign, contorting himself to cover “restrooms.”

Brian Aldaco, Kitts Kornbread, Charlie CHaplin

We also decided to stop at the Jefferson General Store before getting back to Huntsville. The General store sold many old school items including Candy, socks, shirts, toys, home décor, and many other objects. Some of us bought candy to cure our aching sweet tooth, while others bought toys. Overall, our stop in Jefferson was a success and finally it was time to go to our own small town of Huntsville.

Caddo Lake, SHSU, LEAP Center, Mark Burns, Photography, Documentary



First Night at Caddo Lake

By Brian Aldaco (Photographs by LEAP Center students unless otherwise noted)

Acclaimed photographer, Mark Burns, unveiled his National Parks Photography Project in 2016, displaying his black-and-white photographs at the Bush Presidential Library. After accomplishing this feat, Burns became the only photographer to capture all 59 national parks in black-and-white.

Mark Burns, National Parks, Photography, Craig Robbins
Photograph by Craig Robbins

Akin to Ansel Adams, Burns is drawn to the wilderness throughout his quest to capture the perfect image. After having portrayed the magnificence of sites across the United States, this Houston-based photographer was called back home to the beauty of his own state. Mark Burns has now begun his newest project: to photograph Caddo Lake in Uncertain, Texas.

Given its proximity to SHSU and the relationship that the LEAP Center has forged with Burns, the LEAP Ambassadors decided to initiate a documentary on Burns and his work.  Commissioning two MCOM students–including Sierra Dolch, who accompanied us on this trip–the Ambassadors, Dolch, and Burns set out for Caddo Lake.

This trip was primarily a scouting trip, a chance to find the most photogenic spots on the lake.  Later, we’ll return in the fall to exploit the season’s vivid colors and exploit our knowledge of the lake.

The excursion began on Friday, July 14, with thunderstorms hovering over us and lighting cracking through the heavy showers.  But as we arrived in the small town of Uncertain, TX (population 94), the skies cleared just enough to avoid rain, while still providing us with a nice photographic backdrop.

LEAP Center, Mark Burns, SHSU, Sierra Dolch, Documentary, Photography, Caddo Lake

Among the Spanish moss-covered cypress trees, we discovered Blue Herons…

Blue Heron, LEAP Center, SHSU, Mark Burns, Photography, Caddo Lake

salvinia, drifting water lilies, turtles, and egrets.

Egret, LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Caddo Lake

Everyone was captivated by the lake’s fauna and flora as we glided over the serene water. The looming trees contrasting against the glistening water made for an endless vista that had us all amazed.

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake

Yet, Mark’s ever-searching gaze never wavered. While we floated down the river, there were moments when he asked our boat’s captain, Wes Holland, to stop his vessel. Focused on the scene that had captured his attention, he set his camera, reflected, and shot.

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake

Whether it was the creeping rays of a setting sun, the shine off the water lilies, or the glow of a sky at golden-hour, Mr. Burns knew what would look best through the lens of his cameras.

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake

All the while, Sierra Dolch did her best to capture the environment in which Mark was observing and working…

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake

Eventually, the sun’s last rays were nothing but vanishing purple and red streaks across the darkening sky…

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake

…which made for a pretty soon, but soon led to decreased visibility, and we turned back for the shore.

The boat tour was made all the more pleasurable with the guidance of Captain Wes Holland…

SHSU, LEAP Center, Caddo Lake, Documentary, Mark Burns, Photography

…who kept us on time, on track, filled in some interesting facts about the lake, and even let Brian steer!

Mark Burns, SHSU, Docuementary, LEAP Center, Photography, Caddo Lake

But our learning experiences were not over!  In the hotel, we were joined by a second crew of LEAP Ambassadors who got a late start because of work.  When they arrived at the hotel, we gathered in a hotel room to learn about using film from a 4X5 camera, which Burns will use on this trip (and other trips).

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake

With Sierra providing instruction to Brian, the camera was set, and we were ready for our group tutorial.  The film has to be kept in a cool environment, so Burns transports it in a cooler.  He then has to ready the film for use, which has to be done without exposing it…

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake

…which is accomplished with a film-changing tent. This device allows the photographer to position the film in sleeves without exposing it.

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake

It can be a cumbersome process, with the photographer using braille type markings to know how to position the film.  But Burns was able to prepare about ten frames of film and tutor us in about 15 minutes.  It was an interesting coda to an interesting day.

With that lesson fresh in our mind–along with the prospect of a four am wake-up call–we headed off to our rooms, armed with the prospect of another smile-inducing day ahead of us.

LEAP Center, SHSU, Documentary, Photography, Mark Burns, Caddo Lake




In a Sprint to the Finish, LEAP Ambassadors Visit Bush Library, Meet Ken Burns and Mark Burns

Even as the semester winds to a close, the LEAP Center Ambassadors refuse to slow down.  Indeed, on their first day in school following the Thanksgiving break, the Ambassadors embarked on an educational trifecta, attending three venues to learn about politics, history, nature, and art.

The tour began shortly after the Ambassadors got out of class on Monday, November 30.  From class the students drove to the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, where they learned about World War II, the CIA, China, the United Nations, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and other historical events in which former President Bush was involved.


“My favorite exhibit,” noted senior Austin Campbell, “was the Oval Office, where the political action unfolds.” The students gathered with Campbell for a “presidential conference” in the office, much to the amusement of Museum staff…


…as well as a more formal portrait…


Brian Aldaco, on the other hand, most enjoyed the wing addressing Bush’s move from Yale to Texas. “I enjoyed learning more about his personal qualities and his family, which I think contributed to his success later in life.”


This was also true of Megan Chapa, who enjoyed seeing the wedding exhibit on the Bushes.


The students got a closer view of the seventy-year marriage of George and Barbara Bush hours later, when they sat about 20 feet from the couple for a presentation by Ken Burns and Mark Burns, who came to the Bush Library to discuss the 100th Anniversary of the national park system.


Ken Burns has won two Emmys, two Grammys, a Peabody Award, and has twice been nominated for Academy Awards. He was also the director of “National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” excerpts of which were shown. Burns provided an eloquent defense of the national park system, noting that “In Europe, governments erect cathedrals or palaces, and these ‘monuments’ are often reserved for the national elite. In the United States, we invented the idea of preserving the land for the entire nation. It’s a democratic idea.”

The national parks system was created as part of the Organic Act of 1916, legislation designed “…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner…as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

This idealistic notion was punctuated by Mark Burns’ (no relation to Ken) photographs, which captured the remarkable beauty of these sites. In fact, Burns is one of only three photographers to photograph all 59 of the US national parks and the only one to photograph them all in black and white.


Burns’ monochromatic photography—evoking Ansel Adams—was on display at the Bush Library alongside paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and other painters of the natural world. Enriching the exhibit was the presence of Mark Burns…


…and Ken Burns, whom the students had the opportunity to interact with on the tour of the exhibit.


Campbell, combining politics and the environment, asked Ken Burns whether he had noticed global warming affecting the national parks. “Absolutely,” noted Burns, who went on to observe that it was possible that in a couple of decades, visitors to Montana might come across a sign that says, “the site of the former Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.”

On this ominous note, the students walked the short distance from the Bush Presidential Museum to the Bush School of Government and Public Service, where they learned about careers—with an emphasis on those that might allow them to influence public policy for the better.


Staff were welcoming, reinforcing the strong relationship that the Bush School has with SHSU. Indeed, the Bush School’s Master’s Program at Texas A&M has more undergraduates from SHSU than any other national university with the exception of TAMU. Some of those former SHSU students are now in the workplace, holding down careers in the state legislature, in management positions for city governments, and even as administrators at SHSU.

It was a lot to take in at the end of the semester, and although only eight hours elapsed on the tour, the students vicariously experienced World War II, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Persian Gulf War, and the development of the national park system. And, as future public servants, they may also make history—as advisors, legislators, park rangers, or even presidents.