Saturday, March 31, 2007

A Girl's Best Friend...

With apologies to Marilyn Monroe, Tiffany’s, LaDell, Elaine and Judy, diamonds may not be a girl’s best friend. I do like the song though. A trip to Crater of Diamonds at Murfreesboro outside of Hot Springs teaches visitors that it really is the guy who buys the bling that should be held in esteem and not the stone itself. Why? Because finding a diamond is darn hard work. There is a reason why they are expensive which has little or nothing to do with how much you love someone!
At the Crater, you can dig for diamonds and keep all that you find. Sounds good in theory, but hold on- it’s not quite that easy.
We paid our admission to the park, rented a few mandatory specialty tools, and trooped out onto the field of dreams. There we dug bucket after bucket of heavy dirt, lugged them to the washing sluice, classified the dirt and panned and washed the material, then flipped and sorted and picked through the material again hoping to find the Hope- or something close to it. Plenty of mud! No diamonds! The families out on the digging plain who had the closet thing to realistic expectations were the ones who carried out portable chairs, sun umbrellas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, gator aid, small, light plastic buckets with small, light plastic shovels and a couple of play dump trucks for the kids to play in the dirt with. Because while you do have a long shot of washing up a diamond, the fact is that what the experience is all about, aside from a hands on learning experience, IS playing in the mud! Admittedly: That’s fun!

Our Original Thirteen Colonies

This is NOT the thirteen original colonies that formed the United States of America. Not the union for which Betsy Ross may (or may not) have sewn the first US flag. But with our entry into Arkansas at Texarkana, we add the thirteenth state to our tour which aims to visit 49 of the 50 United States. No one is ruling out Hawaii at this point, but let's face it- it's a long and very wet drive! Texarkana is a border town, literally. We wondered if the postal employees suffered some form of governmental schizophrenia as they, literally, stand at the counter with one foot in Texas and one foot in Arkansas- just to mail out our post cards. You can check the "States Visited" map to see what our first thirteen were.
This is also the first leg of the portion of the trip that will follow Spring north as far as Pennsylvania, before veering west and then north with a summer end game of Alaska.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Bush Country

Four inches of rain the day before and the day of the trip to Crawford and Waco could not dampen our enthusiasm for visiting the home town of "W," the 43rd President of the United States. First order of business, a cup of coffee with George at the "Station" at the intersection of 185 and 317 which IS Crawford. A discussion of national security and a bite of BBQ and we were each off on our own agendas. Hey! I'm a very busy guy, you know. It's one of those towns where, for sure, if you blink while you are driving through, you will miss it!
All politics aside, the Crawford area gets our hands down nomination as the prettiest part of Texas we have seen yet. Texas has 7 distinct regions of geographical distinction: Big Bend, Gulf Coast, Hill Country, Panhandle Plains, Piney Woods, Prairies and Lakes, South Texas Plains. Each is very different from the other and there is little doubt when you leave one and enter another. By the time we leave the state in a couple more days, we will have spent time exploring all but the Big Bend and Panhandle Plains. Maybe they will be beautiful too, but for sure Crawford in the Prairies and Lakes region appeals the most to us. You can't get close enough to the Western Whitehouse to see the ranch itself but the ride out to it was truly wonderful. Secret service has a noticeable presence in the area and for the most part" no stopping, no standing, no parking", is the town rule and motto, but there are a few spots where you can stop and grab a picture or two. The scenery can stand on its own.

Crawford is SMALL, unlike the rest of Texas. If there is a movie theater we sure didn't see it, but this movie poster hangs in the station, which along with the Yellow Rose gift shop and one or two other very small shops, makes up the bulk of the town.

As with most of the digital pics on the blog, this one can be best enjoyed by enlarging it (click on any picture; use your back arrow to return to the blog afterwards).

Monday, March 26, 2007

Bandito Gregito

In case you were wondering the fate of the bandito Gregito who heisted the Bandero Banco in broad day light... he's been hauled off to Enchanted Ranch Penitentiary by the Marshall...

The Enchanted Ranch

We visited a bunch of towns that were still partly old west, but there is a place where the town is ALL old west- The Enchanted Ranch:

You can follow the link to their site if you want to look around. It's really pretty neat. Suffice it to say, if you want to be a cowboy (or girl) for a day, this is the place to go...

Texas Longhorns

Before leaving San Antonio, we finally caught up with the Longhorn cattle I was so hoping to see again. We saw them on the hoof and on the bone- but still cool. There are supposedly many more of them now than there were years ago, but now the ranches are so big and are fenced so far back from the road, that you just don't get to see them the way you used to. What we did see was antelope, zebras and other exotics that are kept for ranch hunting. Interesting, but not very Texas to me.
We made a trip to the Zoo and other area attractions and had a good visit to the area- although we were never able to shake the constant clouds and rain and mud. Hey! It's Texas...Who'da thunk it?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Dreaded Bandito of Bandera

Well, we bellied up to the bar 'til we had saddle sores. Then we headed out to sick up the bank just before closing and before the day's deposits could be picked up by the Wells Fargo armoured horsey wagon....
I posed for a historical photo record of the robbery before heading into the bank, my bandanna up over my face to TOTALLY hide my identity.
Curses! An off duty Texas Ranger named "Walker" who was shopping in a nearby Bandera Gift Shop for Armadillo Bob t-shirts saw what I was up to, put the cuffs on me and and hauled me off to the hoosegow. I knew I shouldn't have taken that picture!

Let's Go To Luckenbach, Texas...

On the way to Luckenbach, we stopped in the quaint western village of Fredericksburg to taste our way through Rustlin' Rob's Texas Gourmet Foods. They specialize in all things jarred- hot sauces, preserves, pickles and peppers, oils, dipping sauces and so on. They have thousands of products to offer and you can sample every single one of them. Personally I worked my way through the hot sauce room. Prior to Rob's I never found one so hot I couldn't appreciate it. However "Toxic Waste" put an end to that claim.
Bob, Polly and the rest of out Texas Gang pose in front of the Post Office at musically famous Luckenbach, Texas. In addition to the Post Office, this building is also the gift shop, the Saloon, and, come to think of it, pretty much the whole rest of the town- with the exception of the out house and the dance hall. We drank the obligatory beer with Waylon and Willie and the boys, had a really fun visit, and then headed back to the ranch.
Despite the fact that his hair is a tiny bit shorter, Bob had to hide his face because other passers by thought for sure it was "Willie" and kept pestering him for an autograph...
until the real Willie showed up and took off the pressure.
What is the Texas object below:
a) an outdoor Luckenback urinal with a height requirement
b) an oil change bin for really big tractors
c) a watering trough for horses with a hitching post
d) none of the above
Texas runs on oil. No respect for alternative energy happening here!
Correct answer to photo quiz: C - but you knew that!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Trouble With Lone Stars

Since crossing into Texas, things have not necessarily gone the way I expected or intended. I already talked about leaving a wheel cover behind on a stretch of bum road. I thought that would be an isolated problem and not the beginning of a trend. But having been here a while now, I’m beginning to see a trend and I have a theory for what the problem may be. Call it fate, heavenly guidance, or just “the stars in alignment” - doesn’t really matter for this discussion. You see, any place else in the states, the stars CAN be in alignment. But WHOA! Not in Texas. Here everything is Lone Star. And the way I figure it, one lone star cannot be in alignment; it would take two, maybe three to get the alignment going, wouldn’t you think? So I have to say the stars are not in alignment here and it has caused some problems:

We arrived at Medina Lake (pronounced Ma dee na, not Ma Dye na as Bob would have me believe). This is in the hill country of Texas outside San Antonio by an hour or so. The hills are, like everything else in Texas, well, BIGGER. The roads are very windy (long “i”) as in twisty and convoluted. They have few if any guard rails and the ones they do have are where they are not needed and where they are needed they have none. I know! It didn’t make sense to me either. Especially since some of the drop offs are extreme and unannounced as you round the bend. Picture all that. Then imagine driving this road through the “hills” with a 43 foot motor coach pulling a Honda Odyssey behind it. Now add to that some fog -actually this is Texas hills so make that a cloud! Now throw in some rain. Add some violent thunder and lightening all around. Kick it up a notch with hail pounding on the picture-window sized windshield and you will have to admit, at least I did, that this was not what was expected for Texas weather. Oh, did I mention that the hills are blessed by hundreds if not thousands of deer who can show up and do show up wherever they darn well please whenever they darn well please. But not so bad, a freaky storm can happen anywhere.
Next realization: because of this storm we now have flash flooding. Manageable except when your camp site is under water. Ok then, find another one. Done. Let’s go down and see the lake; they say it’s huge. Well, the area where the lake used to be is in fact huge. Problem is the lake is down some 40 feet due to three years or drought. Put the kayaks in? Maybe if I can hire a helicopter to fly us over and drop us in. Getting out will be another matter entirely. The new brochures should advertise this as the Grand Canyon of Mud Puddle.

But settled in and rested, we make plans to REMEMBER THE ALAMO and head into the city to make a day of it. The Alamo. Where my childhood heroes Davy Crocket and Jim Bouie (that’s how he spelled it, not Bowie as he is known today) lost their lives in heroic defense of Texas against Mexico. A battle so big on the plains surrounding the Mission that the 4000 Mexican troops held off by less than 100 American loyalists had plenty of room to duke it out, without worrying about if the parking garage would be destroyed. Sound peculiar?. It was to me. I last visited the Alamo 49 years ago. It hasn’t gotten any bigger but San Antonio sure as shoot has, and though there is now a law that no building can rise high enough to cast a shadow of the holy ground of the Alamo, it really is, or so it seemed to me, too late to save the Alamo. The hallowed ground is now not much more than a bus stop on a trolley tour of the city. It hit me hard. I was bummed. For Marilyn who was seeing it for the first time it was a touching experience. I guess in much the same way it was for me so long ago. But the touching experience I had hoped to repeat nearly 50 years later was nowhere to be found in the gift shop that took over the battlefield. The sign asked those present to be silent in respect of those who gave their lives- it was anything but! I felt an urge to scream, “Shut up!”, but didn’t.

There won’t be any pictures of the hog races. The brochure said they would be held on the 18th. That, however, was an “oops” as they were held on the 17th and guess who didn’t get to see them.

Still, a nice day at the fabled River Walk downtown might go a long way to restoring the alignment of the stars. We walked the river and the shops and enjoyed a Mufaletta at O’Brien’s- it being St Patty’s time. Marilyn about choked on her first bite. Washing it down with a diet coke in a cracked glass was probably not the best idea either. So off to the boat ride we went. The seats are close. Too close. Especially to be across from a guy big enough to need most of the boat for himself. Now I am in a seat in a boat and cannot move- at all. Only moments ago I was in a trolley and couldn’t move - at all. When we did start walking again we stopped to help a guy who looked a lot like General Custer (never expected to see him at the Alamo) get his wheel chair though a doorway he appeared to be stuck in. That was when his accomplice hit me in the back and tried to steal my blessed cell phone. He did not!!! We headed home (coach that is).

Now don’t get me wrong, partner. There is some gosh darn, dog-goned, mighty perty, ass kickin’, boot lickin, get down and holler scenery and fun stuff to do here and we are having a good time. Marilyn reminds me of that if’n I begins to forgit. So it’s all good. Even if those cussed lone stars just can’t get themselves lined up!

The stars continue to stay OUT of alignment for our visit to the San Antonio area. Yesterday, as planned we finished up the taxes, proceeded to San An to copy and UPS them to our accountant in Maine. But on the way back to the "ranch" we got caught in a traffic "mess" when there was a multiple car accident at the intersection of 16 and 211, just before park road 37, the windy, hilly road back to the campground. We sat in traffic for two hours while one police car after another sped to the area. There were ambulances, and some poor souls even had to be air lifted out by chopper. (I guess I won’t be using tht chopper to put in the kayaks after all.)

Now I have always wanted to see a longhorn up close, but this is not what I had in mind, even if it does represent a traffic "mess" in the truest meaning of the word. Some times there's just no escaping the odds! But hey, being positive, it's better than being in town being mugged by General Custer in a wheel chair or floating merrily down the stream with my knees buried in an ugly guy's "fork in the river." Ah, the old West!!! Git along little doggie!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Padre Island, Texas

From our campground on Baffin Bay, south of Corpus Christi, we ventured north to Padre Island for a day trip to explore the world’s largest remaining undeveloped barrier island. We had only one day to fit this in, so we willingly put up with the showers and the wind that whipped off the gulf and onto shore. What a spectacular spot. One of the best birding spots in the country according to “them that know about these things,” we were not surprised to see birds in numbers that defied counting. And since we are bird watchers but not bird identifiers (Marilyn defines bird “identifiers” as those who refer to what is just a pretty bird to us as a “long legged, bug eyed, fluffy feathered, curve beaked, wobble throated, rainbow crested Sightiana), we were just delighted to walk among the throng and not be too worried about what to call each and every one of them- although there were a few we knew we had never seen before and did want to get back to the bird book to look up.
In the stiff breezes of the day, huge rafts of birds lifted up in waves, hovered over head to allow us passage underneath them, then settle back to the beach and surf behind us. It was hard to know whether to look foreword to see what would appear next, up to see them gliding on the wind, out to sea to take in the pounding surf, behind to see how closely they would settle back in or straight down to avoid stepping on the thousands of Portuguese Man-of -Wars that were washing ashore. It was a walk on the beach, on the wild side, for many miles, with something for all the senses to enjoy. And not a single one of those birds showed us any disrespect by taking care of business while hovering above.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Boots in the Road and Other More Typical Mirages

The road to Corpus Christi was fraught with peril. The day began as the last several have with “thick of fog” as we used to say in Maine. It was hard to figure where it has all been coming from as we have been relatively removed from the bodies of water that would produce it, but none-the-less there it was. We took our time getting started to avoid starting the drive in the worst of it and chose instead to do some prep for a leg of the trip a few days down the road that would see us traveling through an underpass that we are marginally, or shall I say “just barely” able to pass under. We took our measurements with and without air in the bags that lift the coach to travel mode height and double checked our figures. If all goes well and we have our calculations right we should clear it by a couple inches. If not, I suppose we’ll be talking about that soon enough. For now it seems safe.
Still, hours after getting on the road, we came upon what looked to be road construction. It’s never fun, but it’s no biggie either. Saw the big electronic arrows that tell you to get to one lane or the other, some flashing hazard lights, the break lights on the vehicles in front as they slowed for the inevitable delay that often coincides with those signs. But as we got closer there were signs up saying, “Accident Ahead.” And there was one. And it must have been a doosey! A pile up- the kind you get in heavy fog when driving speeds do not match up to road and visibility conditions. A California kind of highway accident! The kind that can only happen when everyone is caught off guard in a moment at the same place and time. There were cars on carriers. There were cars still in the gulley. There were cars rolled over and cars askew in the road. It had been bad. There was broken glass and plastic and metal all over the place and fluids wetting the road. There were fire and police and rescue crews all over. The debris field was surely a couple hundred feet in the road and at the end of it all, right smack dab in the middle of the road, was a pair of boots.
Now I’d like to tell you it was a pair of extra fancy rattlesnake skin cowboy boots to make this even more of a Texas story, but I can’t. More likely they were a pair of mucking boots that fell off a fire truck or similar. But what a representation of what had happened here earlier, I thought.
Still further down the road we came upon a second accident. Three 18 wheel tanker trucks had mashed each other pretty handily and the chemical cleanup crews were on the scene and working away. What I am sure were normally nice clean shiny tank trucks were coated in the green slime of fire retardant and absorption material that looks like what they use when they seed the side of the road on new highway construction. Again it was a strange image of what had happened, and you understood the message without having to see it play out and luckily without being involved. No doubt both scenes were the result of very heavy early morning fog. Texas’ version of the New England white out played out for all the passers by to view!
And still further down the road, as the shock of the last two scenes faded, the “real” Texas classic emerged from the fog of the morning and into the heat of the day. What now looked like beautiful and grandiose lakes started to appear everywhere. In fact they were the fabled mirages of the flat lands and the desert. They are stunning - just not real! But real enough so as to make you understand why a man dying of thirst in the desert surrounding him would spend his last ounce of energy in a desperate attempt to reach the water they purport to offer. They call to you from far away, yet you can never get any closer than you already are…
That evening in the campground on the bay we took a stroll in the wind out onto the fishing pier. At the end of the pier we struck up a conversation with a family doing some fishing as day turned to night. He was a Spanish man dressed in patriotic red, white and blue theme threads from his head wrap and cap to his sneakers and everywhere in between. We talked about fishing and we talked about his service to this country in the Marines. He proudly showed me his leg brace that keeps him walking even though his knee was severely blown away. He lifted his shirt and showed me the waist wrap that lets him stand so he can fish. He was thankful to be there fishing. He was happy. He was a Texan. He was a Mexican. He was also an American and made a point of it! As we are want to do, we shook his hand and thanked him for his service before heading back to the coach to put the day in perspective.
You see, at the end of the day, and in their proper perspective , not all things are as they may first have appeared to be. Some things that seemed to be, are not. And some things that seemed not to be- are!

Friday, March 9, 2007

You Left Your What ???

I left my heart,
In San Francisco...
No, not me, but I did leave a wheel cover in the heavy fog somewhere between Louisiana and Houston, Texas, where we stopped to fuel up with the "big boys" and realized it was gone. Parts of the dreaded route 10 are wonderful now but there are a few portions of that highway that treated the coach like a single kernal of pop corn in the bottom of a hot pot of butter - hence the damage! A quick call to Spartan Chassis and the part is ordered and on the way to the rescue. Until it comes we can continue along so long as we are careful. Victoria today. Corpus Christi next. San Antonio on deck for a two week stay.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Mighty Mississippi and More

If where-ever else we are is “Gundyville,” then this must be “Sim’s City.” Our friends Sandy and Waylon (SIMS), minding the house while we travel, are from Louisiana, and a while back we toured New Orleans with them and had a great time. Lucky we did that because thanks to Katrina much of the opportunity to do that, at least in all its old glory, is gone for now. So for this trip we are content to see parts of the natural Louisiana- parts that were surely affected by hurricanes but not so an outsider would ever know.
We drove right through the heart of Baton Rouge and were excited to go up, up, and over the mighty Mississippi River. It was as expected: muddy, with paddlewheel river boats on either side of the bridge and lots of tug driven, steam belching barge traffic. The crossing is not significant because of its beauty ( it isn’t) but because it represents our having crossed into the West. And it represents the most central commercial artery of the country. We will be on this side of the Mississippi only for a short while on this venture. Just enough to get our feet wet in the west so to speak. And we did just that.
Having crossed the river, we drove through the Atchafalaya Bayou, the world’s largest river swamp system. To be honest, I never even heard of it before. But what a discovery! Swamps are interesting to begin with, but this one is downright exciting and we spend much more time exploring it that we had ever expected to do. We learned a lot and the welcome center for the area had interactive displays to help visitors learn lots. To date this is the best visitor’s center we have seen in any state we have visited. Amazing displays! We award Louisiana the “Best of Trip” welcome and info center. Unfortunately, I didn’t reset my trip meter on the coach so I don’t know exactly how many miles we were driving through the swamp, but surely this has to be the longest bridge anywhere, so long as you are willing to classify it as such. It’s actually a divided highway that goes for nearly 30 miles through the bayou on pilings. We snapped a shot or two as we drove down the highway, same as we had done when we crossed the river. There are some places you just can’t pull over when your vehicle is a combined 60 feet or so long! From the road, you are eye to eye with the tree tops and look down into the swamp. Incredible perspective - the kind of view you pay good money to see from a gondola at a theme park or mountain resort.
Most noteworthy about traveling through the Atchafalaya Bayou - the scenery is different than we have ever seen to date in our travels. Unique. Distinguished. Noteworthy. And very, very memorable. We enter the Bayou as the first entry on the list of places we would hope to return to for future consideration.
And a word or two about Gulf Coast hurricanes: As we have progressed through the states of the Southeast that border the Gulf of Mexico, we have both told and listened to many a hurricane story now. The stories are, in all truth, more or less the same, depending on how close to landfall the story was generated. But, as they used to say in a twist on the old detective TV shows, “the names have been changed to protect the innocent.” In this instance, the names change to blame the guilty. We were hammered the hardest by Charlie in Cape Coral. In the Florida Panhandle, we crossed the newly completed bridge on Rt.10 which was destroyed by Ivan. Got a close up look at Katrina in Biloxi and parts of Louisiana, but here, near the Texas border we are hearing and seeing about the rath of Rita. We all share the human experience. We all face the natural world. Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Earthquakes. Hail. Snow and Ice. It really doesn’t matter. Here on the planet, there is no getting away from it all. And only the names are changed…..

Up, up and over the Mighty Mississippi...
Paddlewheels upstream:
See the barges downstream, honey?
Nice looking "bridge artwork"
Highway infrastructure through the Atchafalaya Bayou
Interactive displays in Louisiana are excellent!