Thursday, February 28, 2008

Balmorhea, TX (with links to pictures)

As I write this, I am in the process of uploading images to some web albums, and as I do, I’ll be able to show you some of the things I’ve been writing about. For now, I’ll tell you about this place where we are now.

We are only about 30 miles north of where we were staying in the Davis Mountains. This is a Texas State Park built around a natural oasis. San Solomon Springs is a cluster of artesian and gravity springs that discharge around 25 million gallons of fresh water per day into what otherwise is an arid valley. The south and west is bordered by the Davis Mountains. Rain caught by those peaks percolates down through faults in the limestone bedrock, emerging into spreading wetland pools that were used for thousands of years by Native Americans to water their animals and by early settlers to irrigate their crops.

The most unusual aspect of San Solomon, however, is that during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps turned the springs into what was then the world’s largest spring-fed swimming pool. In recent decades this pool has become a favorite open-water site for scuba training and recreational diving. Divers from Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and every corner of Texas come here to do their open-water certification. Cool, huh? (Because where else would they do it???)

The pool is 200 feet in diameter and around 25 feet deep. It was constructed right over the outflows of several major springs. Radiating out from the circular pool in a “v” shape are two legs, each 70 feed wide. Both legs were originally more than 300 feet long. One was left shallow as a wading and swimming area but it was eventually shortened due to insufficient water circulation to maintain clarity. The other leg slopes upward from the central pool to about 12 feet deep at the far end. There, the water flows out through a canal to feed Balmorhea Lake, which is the reservoir for a system of canals that irrigate almost 13,000 acres of farmland.

Originally, the 3.5 million-gallon pool was lined with local limestone blocks and bordered with flagstone paving. Over the intervening years, however, the native rock has flaked, requiring capping with concrete to preserve the walls and adjacent walkways.

The bottom of the pool has undergone a different kind of transformation. Natural processes, including blowing desert sand and breakdown of the limestone lining blocks have created a silty substrate that supports a carpet of hydrilla and other aquatic grasses. An assortment of freshwater animals, including spiny softshell turtles, Mexican tetras, and channel catfish feed off the grasses. Two species of endangered fishes also inhabit the pool: Comancine Springs Pupfish and Pecos Gambusia (mosquito fish). Because of this metamorphosis from swimming pool to natural habitat, in 1992 the San Solomon Springs pool was reclassified by the Texas park system as a natural body of water.

We went snorkeling yesterday and we saw the catfish and the Mexican tetras. We also saw the cutest little ducks that swam on the surface, and then dove clear to the bottom of the pool to feed on stuff in the grass. They could stay down for minutes at a time, and then used their little feet to propel them to the surface. It was delightful to watch them go from bottom to top and then pop out on the surface. We had no idea ducks were such good swimmers.

So far, I haven’t taken any pictures of the area, but I probably will today. There is a dive shop next door to the park, and we intend to go over there and look into the price of renting weights and tanks. Aside from that, we have all of our own gear. My right shoulder has been flaring up, and so I need to have it settle down again before I can think about diving. Maybe tomorrow. For today, we will explore, and I will try to get you some pictures of the place.

In the meantime, here are pictures from the last week, beginning with our hike to “The Window” in the basin of the Chisos Mountains (Big Bend NP).


http://picasaweb.google.com/threecatsranch/ChisosBasinWindow

Here is the link to pictures I took around our campsite in Big Bend:

http://picasaweb.google.com/threecatsranch/Campsite

I got up before sunrise to take these pictures of the Chisos Mountains from the Rio Grande Nature Trail. The trailhead was in the campground where we stayed:

http://picasaweb.google.com/threecatsranch/Sunrise

Here are some pictures taken from the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive that runs south through the park until it dead-ends at the Mexican border at the Rio Grande. We took the Santa Elena Canyon Hike here:

http://picasaweb.google.com/threecatsranch/SantaElenaCanyon

Here are some pictures taken in the Davis Mountains along the Davis Mountain Scenic Loop and at the McDonald Observatory. There were six domes for telescopes at the Observatory. We were in two of the smaller ones. Some of these pictures were taken at the top of the hill, but the dome I have pictured is of the largest telescope, the Hobby-Ebberly Telescope, which was 432-inches across its reflective surface, an array of hexagonal mirrored pieces about three feet each.

http://picasaweb.google.com/threecatsranch/DavisMountains

Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Star Party (We're back, Baby!)

We stayed in Ft. Davis specifically to participate in the “star party” at the McDonald Observatory here in this remote area of west Texas. The observatory is affiliated with the University of Texas at Austin and boasts the third largest telescope in the world, the Hobby-Ebberly Telescope, named for the Hobby family of Texas and the Ebberly family of Pennsylvania who donated generously to make the telescope possible.

If I understand the story right, the University of Texas had plans to build a telescope when they learned that a university in Pennsylvania had plans to build a similar telescope at 15% of the cost. The two schools began negotiations to build a telescope together and these two families were involved in the initial development plans. This area is absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It would be hard to find any place in the country any farther away from even a very small city. There is no sky glow from any city or town. We were outside in the frigid cold for several hours last night, and we could detect none. The sky was so dark, in fact, that we were able to see a sheen of light that looked like sky glow; in fact, it was made up of particles of dust in the air—the same dust that formed our planet—called zodiacal glow. Mike, being an astronomy buff, was very excited about this since he had never seen or heard of it before.

As a part of the talk beforehand, we were treated to a view of an iridian (sp) flare. These are caused by the system of satellites that were put into orbit by a pre-cell phone-era company that was banking on the ubiquitous use of satellite phones. They were, unfortunately, not practical for the casual user and the company went belly-up. They sold the satellites to the US government to be used for military communications. As they pass overhead, they are constantly being adjusted and readjusted. Because of that, they catch the light of the sun in the same way and mirror would, and they flash VERY brightly. We were looking at Sirius (the brightest star in our field of vision) for scale, and as the satellite passed by, it did indeed flash much, much brighter than Sirius for just a few seconds. Very cool.

After the talk, we were treated to five telescopes trained on different celestial objects: Saturn, a nebula within Orion’s belt, the Andromeda Galaxy, a star cluster (M46 to you astronomy buffs), and the Pleiades (Just think of the Seven Sisters—or Subaru in Japanese, we’re told). It was great fun, and although it was extremely cold on this high hill, it was well worth the shivering to see all this stuff.

So this afternoon we moved on to Balmorhea State Park, still in west Texas. We are finding we like west Texas very well. No sign of the idiot thus far. It has taken me quite a while to get through this particular blog entry, and I still have many pictures to sort through. We have been out of touch for more than a week, and I can’t post my slideshows, or even upload them, without an internet connection. We have used Mike’s cell phone for virtually all of our internet usage, and so without cell phone coverage, we are out of luck. (And, of course, if there is no cell phone, you can bet that there is no internet either.) So stay tuned. I have lots of pictures to post, and more to bring you up to date on our comings and goings. We have missed being in touch with you for this past week, and we are very glad to be back in some semblance of civilization. I will be posting pictures of the things I've been telling you about within the next day or two.

Ft. Davis, Texas

We’ve moved on to Fort Davis from Big Bend. (Update: This would have been this past Sunday.) We spent four nights in Big Bend, and it was absolutely lovely. Very warm, but such a nice breeze. We slept with our windows open for the first time. We’ve learned quite a few things on this trip that will help us in years to come. One thing we’ve learned is that if we really want to find warm weather, we will have to go to the desert. That is fine with us because we like the desert. We’ve seen all four of the deserts in the American southwest, and we agree that the Sonoran Desert (in Arizona) is the most beautiful.

To get back to Big Bend, we drove the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive yesterday. It is a 32-mile drive where one can see most of the major features of the park. (By the way, Ross Maxwell designed the scenic drive. He was a geologist and also was the first superintendent of the park.) The road dead-ends at the Santa Elena canyon where the Rio Grande has cut a 1,500 foot tall canyon that is about 40 feet across. There is a hike that takes you back nearly a full mile into the canyon itself. The beginning of the hike takes you about halfway up the canyon wall, and then down to the water’s edge.

There are only a few places that you would want to put your feet in the water, but we were warned against that since the river is polluted with farm and ranch run-off. It is a pea-soup green and filled with silt. It is a “lazy” river. By that I mean, that it is barely moving. One wonders how it could have cut such a deep canyon; but it is filled with silt, which, given a million years, can easily carve out such a formation.

Along the river’s edge grows a “hedge” of reeds that are about 12 feet tall. The reeds were used by Indians and settlers to make roofs and other structures. Indeed, we stopped in at the visitor’s center before we reached the trailhead, and there was a nice patio that had a reed roof. It was a nice place to stop and have some lunch before we did the hike. It was very warm that day (over 90 degrees), and the temperature in the canyon was absolutely heavenly. It would have been uncomfortably warm to do it with the sun directly overhead, but we were there around 2:00 pm, and so the sun had dipped below the canyon wall on the Mexican side. Which brings me to the other thing we loved about this hike: there is something very special about standing at the river’s edge on the American side and looking across at the opposite wall where Mexico begins. This was true wherever we stood next to the river, and some of the most beautiful formations were in Mexico.

The previous day we had hiked the Rio Grande Nature Trail which started in the campground where we were staying. It was a self-guiding trail, meaning that we dropped a quarter in the slot at the beginning of the trail, and took one of the pamphlets that talked about various features along the trail. One of the things we saw was the metatas, which were nearly perfectly round holes in the rock where the Indians ground up grains for food—like a natural mortar and pestle. We have seen these in Mesa Verde NP as well. We also saw fossilized seashells, attesting to the fact that Big Bend was once completely underwater.

One of the most charming things we noticed along the trail were hand-made wire scorpions, painted walking sticks, necklaces and polished stones that were left along with a donation can by the Mexicans who crossed the river and left them there for American’s to purchase. (Donations were also welcomed.) Interestingly, a sign at the beginning of the trail warned us that it was illegal to possess these items; however, they were for sale in the visitor’s center. Sheesh. I had already ignored the prohibition and purchased some of the items along the trail—they were so charming—before I noticed they were for sale in the visitor’s center. I would way prefer the Mexicans have their profit than to give it to the federal government. I am a national park lover, but I thought that particular bit of profit-taking was shameful.

I have been talking along the way of acting like a real photographer and getting up before dawn to take pictures in the best light. (Sunset is also a good time when the colors are very saturated.) I found a spot along the trail that was enticing and so I did get my equipment ready the night before so that I could go the next morning. The only thing left for me to do was to drag my bones out of bed early enough to hike up to the ridge before the sunrise. And I did it!! I will post some of the images I took in that early morning trek. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the sun come up, and also, I saw Venus in the early morning light. It was the brightest object in the sky.

So this morning, we woke up still uncertain whether we could stay another day or move on. I kind of wanted to stay for the sunset photo-op when the Sierra del Carmen mountain range (on the Mexican side) was particularly beautiful. We were in for a very hot day, and despite the nice breeze that kept us cool, we decided to move on. (Now we have a reason to return. There is nothing on the way to this park and it is a long way to reach it. If you go, it will be your destination.)

This afternoon, we drove into Davis Mountain State Park in Fort Davis, TX. (There are a lot of forts in Texas.) We weren’t sure what we would find here. It is above 5,000 feet, and so we were worried, needlessly, about the temperature. It is 80 degrees at 6:00 p.m., and we still have a perfect breeze keeping us comfortable. Fort Davis is in the heart of the Davis Mountains. It grew as a strategic point on the San Antonio-Texas Road. It was established in 1854 and manned by troops of the Eighth U. S. Infantry who, mounted on mules, fought the Comanche Indians.

The canyon is formed by Limpia Creek, flows through the Davis Mountains, and is a centuries-old oasis for travelers. The park includes a part of the creek and nearly 2,000 acres of rolling grasslands and intermittent Desert Oak trees that cover the mountains. There is a 74-mile scenic highway that makes a loop through the Davis Mountains and includes Madera Canyon and McDonald Observatory, which is part of the University of Texas.

The observatory hosts star parties on Tuesday evenings. A giant Hobby-Eberly Telescope is connected to a gallery that offers interpretive programs. We will be able to view the stars and planets through telescopes, and so we are staying three nights here to take it in. The moon happens to be at a good phase for this since it doesn’t rise until late into the evening. Since there are no large cities within 200 miles of this place, the sky should be very dark. We are looking forward to driving the scenic drive, and to attending the star party.

We are still out of cell phone range, and therefore, no internet. We will be able to use our phones in town (about 10 miles away), but we still will not have internet access. I could post these entries, but I cannot make a slide show without internet access. Therefore, I’ll still have to wait to post these entries. Sorry for the length of all this. We are definitely making our way back now. I will continue to blog until we get home.

The plan at this point is to return to the park where we stayed in Las Cruces. (We really LOVED that hot tub.) We’ll probably spend a few days there. Then on to Yuma, AZ, which is snowbird heaven. My own grandparents used to winter over there from Nampa, Idaho, when I was a little girl. I hadn’t even learned to swim yet, and so you will know that was a very long time ago.

After Yuma, we are planning to spend a day or two in San Diego where my mother’s grave is. I have not been there, and I would like to visit her. I attended her memorial service when she died, but I have not seen the place where her cremains are interred. After that we will continue to head north. We are planning to stop the Palm Springs/ Palm Desert area. We are still searching for the place we might want to winter over as a permanent destination. By that I mean that we will pull our trailer down and stay for the entire three months, or at least the bulk of that time. We wish all of you well. Take good care.

Big Bend National Park, Texas

We reached Big Bend National Park two days ago. (To update: this would have been one week ago as I publish this entry.) We are in a wonderful park campground with nice big Cottonwoods for shade trees. This is called the Rio Grande Village campground, and the river is just over some mesquite. We can reach it from the Rio Grande Nature Trail, which we have yet to walk. As I write this it is around 2:30 p.m., and the sun is still high in the sky. Our plan is to walk it when the sun is lower in the sky. At sunset, the mountains to the east of us turn pink, and they are very pretty. I’m hoping I can get some shots of them.

This is one of the few places where it has been warm enough that we can wear shorts and sleeveless t-shirts. The temperatures have been running in the 80’s and there is a perfect cool breeze making it very pleasant. There are a lot of birds in this area since it is a transition point for birds migrating north from South and Central America, and south from North America. Just now, I took a walk through the campground and was able to get some good pictures of Roadrunners, which seem to run the place. There are also Gila Woodpeckers, White-winged Doves, crows (of course), and a red bird called a Summer Tanager.

Big Bend is one of the least known and most remote of our national parks. The riverbanks of the Rio Grande are a wetland habitat for birds and other river critters. There are also black bears, mountain lions, deer, javelina and bobcats. North America contains four big deserts: the Great Basin Desert, the Mojave Desert, the Sonoran Desert, and the Chihuahuan Desert, which is the most easterly and southern of the four. One of the most common plants in the Chihauhua Desert is the Lechuguilla (lay-choo-GEE-ya), and it does not grow in anywhere else. Like the Century Plant, it blooms just once in its lifetime before it dies. When it blooms, it sends up a fifteen-foot, asparagus-like stalk with tightly packed purple and yellow blossoms. It is not a cactus, but is actually related to the daffodils, while the agaves are related to the amaryllis family.

Yesterday, we hiked the Window Trail into the Chisos Basin. The Chisos Mountains are a rugged range that is completely within the boundaries of the park. There is a narrow canyon that runs between the mountains called the Chisos Basin. Within this area there is a small stream that flows down and pours from pool to pool to drop through “The Window” on the west side of the basin. This waterfall drops over two-hundred feet into a small inaccessible grotto covered with ferns and surrounded with oaks and maples—down on the edge of the desert.

This was a rugged, but beautiful hike between towering red bluffs. At times, the trees shaded the trail, making it comfortable, even though the temperatures were warm. There is quite an elevation change, but the switchbacks, steps, and areas of relatively flat terrain made it an easy hike both in and out (4 miles round trip). Toward the extreme end of the hike, the canyon becomes very narrow, and the rocks quite slippery. The view from the edge is quite impressive, and a big wind blows, making it seem all the more forbidding. The slick rocks made it quite dangerous to attempt to go to the edge and look over, but it was enticing all the same. I will post what pictures I have of it, but it was difficult to encompass with the shadows on the canyon walls and the bright valley below. ( . . . I saw below me a golden valley . . . ) We also saw a few javelinas and some white-tail deer, which are small. I would estimate their size to be a little smaller than an antelope. There is only one deer species that is smaller, and it lives in Florida. We enjoyed this hike very much. While the goal of the hike (reaching the window) is a short-lived thrill, it was very much worth the effort it took to get there.
I suppose that’s about all I have to say for now. I will post some pictures as soon as I am able, but we are out of cell phone range, and there is no internet available here. I’m afraid this will be one of those times when I post several days worth of entries. For those of you still reading, I apologize.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Del Rio, TX

You know you're in Texas when you see an advertisement for a business called "Billy Bob's Beds." That cracked us up.

We left Port Aransas this morning and made the first of many legs of our journey home. We abandoned our plans to go to Brownsville, which was about 100 miles south of where we were. We decided we wouldn't see anything we hadn't already seen in Corpus Christi. So now we are heading for Big Bend National Park, which is one day away from us. We drove north on I-37 from Corpus Christi to San Antonio. All along the way were signs marking that route as a hurricane evacuation route. Thank goodness that isn't anything we have to worry about. I tried to imagine all the people leaving Corpus Christi and driving north on both sides of the freeway. Everybody heading out of town--nobody coming in. Scary enough for a Stephen King novel.

Tonight, we are in Del Rio, TX. We're staying at an RV park called "Buzzard's Roost RV Ranch." I think that's all you need to know about this place. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Del Rio is a town of about 34,000 people. It is a major inland shipping point for wool and mohair and it is also an international entry point. Directly across the Rio Grande from us is Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. Keep in mind that the Rio Grande, in addition to being the 2nd longest river in the country, is also the international border between the United States and Mexico. I have been doing some reading about Big Bend National Park and its history, specifically where the river is concerned. People used to cross over and back without a thought. Today, of course, is a different story.

This will be my 50th post to this blog. Seems like some kind of celebration is in order. Tonight, we're going to eat dinner out (and grab a couple of our favorite Applebee's margaritas), and then stock up on groceries. (Do we know how to celebrate, or what?) Big Bend is a remote park, and not really near anything other than a few convenience stores. There is only one gas station, and so we are hoping they sell diesel. We plan to spend several nights there to explore the park, and so we'll want to be stocked up on everything we'll need. There is, fortunately, a concession-run campground inside the park, which means it will have full hook-ups. There is always the possibility that it could be full, however, and so we are planning ahead. There are also three other campgrounds without hook-ups.

After we get to Big Bend I feel confident I will have more pictures for you. So stay tuned . . .

Sunday, February 17, 2008

USS Lexington


We visited the USS Lexington on Friday, which was a very worthwhile museum. Because this aircraft carrier was reported sunk no less than four times during WWII, it was nicknamed "The Blue Ghost" by the Japanese. There were a number of WWII fighter planes on both the hangar deck and the flight deck. One of the planes had Cdr. John McCain's name on it. Since he was shot down over Hanoi and his plane was destroyed, this can't possibly be the actual plane he was flying, but it was still interesting to see his name there. There was also an exhibit honoring Bush number one, who was a fighter pilot during WWII. He was shot down once, which is common knowledge, but we learned that he also had to bail out one time due to a malfunction.

There was a film about flight training of fighter pilots in a drill known as Red Flag. Pilots from the US and allied nations all get together for "war games" and it is quite a training operation. It lasts for about a week (I think) and in the last exercise, live ordinance is used. We learned that if a pilot survives his first 10 missions, his chance of surviving in action increases dramatically. This exercise is designed to give a pilot his first 10 missions in a relatively safe training environment. Still, these exercises are far from safe, and pilots and crew have been killed performing them. We were able to tour the entire battleship, including the engine rooms, crew's quarters, sick bay, galley, dental and opthalmic clinics, chapel, and a lot of other things I'm sure I'm leaving out. The Lexington was the first vessel to have women aboard as crew members. Very interesting.

Yesterday, we visited Padre Island National Seashore. There are two barrier islands off the coast of Texas--Mustang Island, where we are, and Padre Island to the south. The two islands are separated by Packery Channel, which we both suspect was formed by hurricanes. These two islands are a part of a chain of islands that stretches along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States from Maine to Texas. They are called barrier islands because they guard the mainland from the direct onslaught of storms. The national seashore is a preserve made up of white sand-and-shell beaches, picturesque windswept dunes, wild landscapes of grasslands and tidal flats.

The national seashore is the longest stretch of primitive, undeveloped ocean beach in the nation. It covers 70 miles of the 120-mile Padre Island which is considered the longest undeveloped barrier island in the world. Some 600 species of plants and wildflowers exist there. The strip of land is only .1 to 3 miles wide. To the east lies the Gulf and to the west, the Laguna Madre (a hypersaline lagoon), including a portion of the Intracoastal Waterway (shipping lane). On the Laguna Madre side, lies the park's Bird Island Basin, a highly regarded and popular windsurfing spot.

In 1519, when the first Spanish fleet sailed along the shore, the island was populated by the Karankawa Indians. Padre Island became infamous as a graveyard for ships blown onto the island during storms. If you can drive far enough, you can see the shipwreck "Niquaragua," however that was much further than we were able to drive. Around 1804, Padre Nicholas Balli, for whom the island was named, used it for his ranching operation, the first permanent European settlement on the island. Unfortunately, the island was nearly denuded of its many varieties of grass, and it was eventually protected as a national seashore and closed to ranching in the 1960's. Since then, the grasses and "sea oats" have made a dramatic comeback. The dunes depend on grasses to keep them stable. Sometimes the grasses are damaged by both people and storms, and the dunes begin to migrate (as they do in White Sands National Monument). They have been clocked at moving 35 feet per year (more than an inch per day).

We drove as far as we could on the paved road, but that eventually gives way to the beach. We were given a handout that informed us that the parks service is not particularly helpful for vehicles stranded on the beach. It was a warning to think ahead and bring tools you might need if you were to get stuck in the sand. Otherwise, it is permissible to drive on the beach. We passed a number of RVs in the first mile or so, but then it became less and less populated with visitors. We continued on the beach for about five miles until we came to three vehicles that were stuck in the sand. The tide was high, and so it wasn't possible to drive on the hard packed wet sand. We were in pretty soft sand, and we eventually lost our nerve about going any further. It's unfortunate because at about 10 miles the beach turns from sand to seashells, and that would have been fun to see.

After we came back, we visited Bird Island Basin to watch the windsurfers. They were moving really fast because of the high winds. We also had a chance to walk a 3/4-mile loop out among the dunes and grasses. It is easy to see why this area is known as coastal prairie. I didn't take but a few pictures because it wasn't really possible to capture it in still photography. For that, Mike had the advantage with video because he was able to capture the movement of the grasses and the sound of the wind. It was a fairly monochromatic landscape, and very beautiful.
We enjoyed our visit there. It was unfortunate that the high winds made it pretty near impossible to enjoy being out of the car. The temperature was near 70, but the wind made it quite chilly. I can imagine that it is a wonderful place to be in the summer time, however.

So today the weather is nearly perfect. The wind has died down and it is warm outside. I'm thinking of sitting outside and soaking up some rays. Hope all goes well with you at home. We are waiting for a UPS delivery that Mike is expecting, and then we will start our trip home. We had expected it on Friday, but now it won't come until Monday at the earliest.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Starting Toward Home

The weather has been less than cooperative since we've been here in Port Aransas. It hasn't been terrible weather, just a little too cool to really enjoy being outdoors. To be comfortable in the trailer for long periods of time, it is essential that we be able to be outdoors. Port Aransas is such a tiny little town--barely surviving, I would guess--that there isn't enough to keep us entertained. The tour books made it sound like more than it is. To find anything other than deep sea fishing tours, one must head all the way into Corpus Christi, which is 30 minutes one way.

After talking it over, we've decided to start heading for home next week rather than staying until March 5th. There are no refunds here, and so we have paid for the entire month whether we want to or not. Live and learn, I guess. It doesn't really matter since the price structure is such that a two-week stay (and two-week pay) add up to approximately the same amount as staying for the month. Mike went in to negotiate about that, but there is no negotiation; so, to make sure that no one uses this spot after we leave (not until the 5th, at least), we will read the electrical meter, and make sure we pay for no more electricity than we have used. We can pull out without any notice, and they won't know whether we're returning or not. They won't be able to rent the space. Two can play this game.

We still want to see the USS Lexington (tomorrow) and the Botanical Gardens (Monday). Then we'll leave on Tuesday and head for Brownsville, which is in the extreme southern tip of Texas. We can always decide to return here and use the rest of our month, or we can head for home traveling right along the Mexican border until we reach Big Bend National Park. We want to spend several days exploring that park, which is very large. As I read it, it will probably be a four-night stay to see the whole thing (or most of it, anyway). Then we will start traveling for home. There are some towns along the way that might make future winter destinations, and we can check those out on the way.

I've been preparing a special Valentine's Day dinner for the two of us tonight. It's the biggest kitchen undertaking I've done since leaving home. Each dish is simple and with just a few ingredients, but it should be festive nonetheless. I miss my kitchen at home, but I'm not sure if it's the kitchen or the cooking that I miss. It's been a nice break from trying new recipes, but I'm feeling a need to get back to it now.

We are still at least a month away from being home, but we will be back a little sooner than we had originally planned. I suppose it's possible that something along the way will capture our attention enough to hold us there, but we aren't anticipating that. I will continue to with my blog entries, and I'll be taking more pictures. Stay tuned. For now, Happy Valentine's Day to all. We will be seeing you again soon.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Texas State Aquarium

The weather was crummy yesterday, and so we visited the Texas State Aquarium. That's one attraction you can cross off your list of things to do if you ever visit Corpus Christi. It was very expensive ($33 for the two of us) and definitely not worth the price. When we arrived, the dolphin show was about to begin. We always enjoy seeing the dolphins, but they did not have a large enough tank to show their stuff. There wasn't enough depth or length for them to really get up a head of steam. If you've ever seen dolphins, then you know that they are very fast swimmers. They seemed content with their living space just the same though, and we saw them playing with different toys they had (balls, rings) after the show was over. One of the dolphins liked to give the trainer high fives after each of his tricks. Pretty cute. However, the show was nothing special.

After that, we had a heck of a time finding the exhibits. They had two gift shops that were easily accessible. We had to work much harder to find the aquarium exhibits. The river otter exhibit (our favorite) was shut down completely. They had an alligator (singular) and some pretty spectacular birds of prey. We also enjoyed the bird show they put on where they showed a barn owl (so pretty) and a white-tailed hawk (also incredibly beautiful). They showed a couple of mammals, one a cousin of the raccoon with a prehensile tail, and another was a cousin of the anteater with a 16-inch tongue for getting ants out of tight places. Ewwwww! It looked like a big worm coming out of his pointy little mouth. We did like that show, though and so donated an additional $5 into the basket for their rescue program.

Aside from that, their best features were their "iron garden" exhibit which was designed to look like the reef habitats that form on the oil platforms offshore and also their Amazon exhibit, which included poison dart frogs--very colorful. As I'm writing this, I realize that we did enjoy what we saw--we just thought the price of admission was too high, in addition to paying for parking.

But I want to tell you a little about Corpus Christi, which was a beautiful city right on the bay. There are at least two big bridges, something like our Fremont Bridge, that are tall enough for ships to pass under without the necessity of a draw bridge (meaning VERY tall). And there are a lot of ships since the area between the barrier islands and the city is a shipping lane. The port was not as large as Portland, but the ships were equally big. We also got a glimpse of the USS Lexington Museum, right next to the aquarium. We could have visited it too since we had plenty of time after the aquarium, but we decided to save it for another day.

Corpus Christi was first explored by Europeans in 1519, but it was a landlocked bay for another 300 years. There was a trading post established in the area, and the town became a trade center for the nearby cattle ranches and the Mexican border towns. It was transformed into an international port when the Army Corps of Engineers dug a new ship channel in the mid-1920's. After that, it was the deepest port on the Texas coast and attracted many of the businesses that form its industrial base.

The city's importance was further enhanced when it attracted a Naval Air Station and its advanced flight-training school. The NAS is one of its major employers and also includes the Army Depot, which is the primary repair facility for Army helicopters. Indeed, there is an awful lot of helicopter noise where we are and we have seen a lot of military helicopters flying in and out.

Despite its big city stature, it has retained its earlier small-town flavor, much like Portland. Also like Portland, it has a 2.5-mile-long seawall in the heart of the business district. Our seawall protects us from the river, theirs protects them from the Gulf of Mexico. There are also more than 100 miles of beaches on the barrier islands (Mustang Island, where we are, and Padre Island where there is a national seashore).

I didn't take my camera into Corpus Christi yesterday because aquariums make notoriously poor subjects for photography. I was sorry I wasn't able to take pictures of the bridge and the USS Lexington, but we will be returning to see some other attractions, and I will definitely have pictures for you then.

I do have some more pictures of birds, plants, and seashells for you. Here is the link. I hope you enjoy them. I am having fun taking them.

http://picasaweb.google.com/threecatsranch/Ducks

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Web Album

I took some pictures of the area yesterday to give you some idea of where we are. They aren't great shots because of the way the sun moves across the sky here. It's very strange. The sun rises over the gulf and sets behind us on the mainland side. It's as if the sun is moving from south to north, but clearly that isn't possible. Perhaps we've entered the Twilight Zone or been abducted by aliens. The problem is that it stays low in the sky all day, and so it's difficult to take a good image on the beach without blowing out the highlights. I think you'll get the idea though. Here is the link:

http://picasaweb.google.com/threecatsranch/Gulf

We're just spending our days hanging out, reading, sitting by the pool. The pool could be a little warmer, so we just sit in the sun until we get too warm, and then the water feels good. We usually swim a little, or do some aqua jogging, and then get in the hot tub, which feels good on old bones. We've decided to eat out tonight since we are almost certain that the seafood will be excellent.

We're starting to feel very comfortable here. There is generally someone in the hot tub, and we've had some interesting conversations. One man was wearing a hat from Costa Rica, and since that's some place we'd like to see before we die, it was nice to hear that they had enjoyed their trip very much. Yesterday we talked with a couple from Ontario, Canada. It was interesting to hear their take on our presidential campaign and some of the things they'd noticed about our country. We had a good laugh when they pointed out that John McCain had made a comment about "getting away with" using Canadian quarters in the Senate Lunchroom vending machines. He said it as though he was getting a better deal using Canadian money when, in fact, Canadian quarters happen to be worth more than American quarters at this point in time. They got a good laugh out of that since the joke was on McCain and he didn't even know it. (This is not a paid political announcement, and John McCain did not approve of this message.)

We talked about the differences in our political systems and also about our respective systems of taxation. They have until the end of April to file their returns, but their equivalent of our W-2 form was not required to be in their hands until the end of February. What interested me most was our discussion about their national healthcare system. I asked them to estimate what percentage of their income went to taxes. Even with national healthcare, he estimated the percentage to be at 15%. I don't know about you, but I feel fairly certain we pay more than that. He also told us that they were required to purchase supplemental health insurance if they travel to the United States since Canada will only reimburse at the rate Canadians would pay. Under their Canadian plan, they (the citizens) pay $4.11 for every prescription no matter what it is. Also, he said that if they needed some kind of procedure while they were here, the Canadian government would be just as likely to pay them to be on a jet for home rather than have the procedure here.

So that's about all I know about Canada for now. I'll continue my sleuthing while I'm in the hot tub as I plot to overthrow the Canadian government. (Just checking to see if Canada is up on my blog.) So that's about all I have for now. Tomorrow we're planning to drive into Corpus Christi to do some grocery shopping; but before that, we'll see one of the attractions I have marked to see before we go. I'll have more for you then.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Note to Chuck on Margaritas

We tried the Jimmy Buffet margarita recipe, and we didn't like it as well as what we've been doing. Here is what we're doing:

1 part frozen Bicardi Margarita Mix (we're using a spoon to scoop out the concentrated mix)
1 part gold tequila
1/2 part triple sec

Shake in a shaker full of ice. Strain into a martini glass.

We're on the lookout for the Newman's Own Limeade to make our comparison. Thought you'd want to be in on this very important experiment. Pictures to come--not of the margaritas--pictures of the Gulf of Mexico.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Saturday

I couldn't think of a title for this one, so figured "Saturday" was good enough. We're liking this place better and better. It was warm yesterday, in the low 70's, but the wind was warm. It smells like the beach here. It gets pretty chilly toward sunset and at night, but otherwise, it's been very pleasant. There is a constant breeze, but nice. We went over to the pool yesterday. There is one lane roped off for lap swimming with a lane line on the bottom of the pool. It's always nice having the line for lap-swimming, or it's very difficult to tell when you reach the wall. There were some people there when we arrived and they were doing aqua jogging in the lap lane. I just waited for them to finish. The water isn't terribly warm, but I got in the hot tub until I was really warm, then got in the pool. It made the pool feel refreshingly cool. I swam a little, but I didn't want to get TOO carried away. It might seem too much like work.

Aside from that, George and Krissy got walked yesterday. We have trailers across from us and to either side, but behind us are dunes with beach grass growing over them. We have a small patch of grass to call our own. We've started picking up George and taking him behind the trailer so that he can't see people and dogs walking by. There are also a couple of short palm trees and some oleander bushes for him to hide under. He's kind of getting the hang of walking here and he snuffled around in the beach grass yesterday. He still hates the harness and hides under the chairs when we offer it to him. Sometimes the desire to go out gets to be too much for him though, and so he submits to the harness. We sat in the sun yesterday morning, and then he got too warm and so moved into the shade of the oleander bush. All-in-all, we were probably out about 45 minutes which is a new record for George. Krissy isn't bothered by all of the things George is, and so she goes out walking in the morning and the evening (and she's quite insistent about that).

Today we may make a trek into Corpus Christi for groceries and cat food. When we drove into Port A, we crossed the bay, which looked like a mud flat to me. Nevertheless, there is a big bridge (a bridge to you and me), and it's called a "causeway" in Texas. This particular one is named for President John F. Kennedy on the map, and everyone calls it the "Kennedy Causeway," but when you approach it the sign says something else. Go figure. But to get back to what I was saying, we'll cross the causeway and then we'll be in Corpus Christi where all of the "big box" stores have lined up on either side of the road in their quest for the first crack at customers coming into the city from Port A and Padre Island.

We drove into the little town of Port A day a couple of days ago. There isn't much there but a bunch of ramshackle stores that would most assuredly blow away if a hurricane struck this area. Certainly the larger businesses are set up for a big blow. Most of the larger buildings are built of concrete. Mike was discussing the engineering of these structures. Some are wedge shaped with the point of the wedge facing away from the ocean. Some are just the opposite with the wedge facing into the ocean. Clearly, the latter is better for taking on a big wind. The structures on the island (with the exception of the little town) are few and far between. Since the whole place was leveled less than a century ago, I suppose it has taken businesses a very long time to decide to rebuild out here on the island. Those that have are either built to last, or built cheaply so that they can rebuild just as cheaply. It has us thinking a lot about hurricanes out here. I went through a hurricane when I was six, and what I remember most was the absolute deafening and relentless roar of the wind.

I'm going to try to get you some pictures of the oil rigs just off shore. They are out a long way--maybe a mile? I'm not very good with distances. We can see them, but the day we pulled in it was rather hazy and all but the largest of them was obscured. When we walked out on the beach a couple of days ago it was very clear and we were amazed at just how many structures are standing out there. A dozen or more, I'm guessing. There is also a shipping lane through the bay and into Corpus Christi and so there were a lot of ships out there as well. Mike counted nine. We weren't sure if they were anchored or moving. It's kind of cloudy today, although it is warm, and so if it's clear on the beach, I will take some pictures.

The beach itself is very nice. When we pulled in it was at high tide, and only about 12 feet of beach were above the water line. Then when we walked a couple of days ago, the tide was out revealing a nice wide beach. There are an impressive number of perfect scallop shells to be picked up; and there are also an impressive number of Portuguese Man of War jellyfish lying on the beach. I recognize them from when I lived in Hawaii where they also line the beach at Kaneohe Bay (the Marine Corps base).

I guess that's all I have for now. I'll try to get some pictures between now and the next time I write.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Port A

I was a little worried about how things were going to go here, but today I'm feeling better about it. When we pulled in on Tuesday, the wind was blowing hard and it continued on into the evening and even after we went to bed. I started putting two-and-two together (at least I thought I did) and I came up with this: It's a barrier island, meaning it makes things nice and cozy for the folks across the bay. There weren't very many hotels or RV's along the road coming in, and we drove most of the length of the island. AND our picnic table and benches are made of concrete (so they won't blow away). There's also a little enclosure for our barbecue, presumably to protect it from the wind. I started thinking we had made a terrible mistake in paying for a month up front (no refunds).

But yesterday, the wind died down to what I would call "breezy." It was still chilly. It didn't get above 58 degrees all day. Some folks walked by and asked Mike about the truck. I talked some with the woman, who really didn't like traveling. They actually own their spot here, and I was trying to figure out why someone would buy into this place if they didn't like traveling. I didn't figure that one out yet. But I asked her about the wind, and she made it sound like the wind blew all the time.

This morning, we woke up to no wind and the temperature is already above 70 degrees at 10:00 a.m. Now that's more like it. I think it's going to be okay. Mike had checked the forecast the first evening, and so far, it's been right on. It should be nice for the next week or two if you can trust an extended forecast.

We drove into town yesterday, which is a typical beach town. It reminded us of Hawaii. There is a grocery store on the island, which is rather strange. It had some things that seemed quite unusual for a non-specialty kind of grocery, but then some of the stuff you'd expect to see wasn't there. We picked up some frozen margarita mix. Mike is trying to perfect his margaritas. This stuff was pretty good. The can gives you instructions for using the whole can; but we can't do that because we don't have a container (or a refrigerator) large enough. So he turned the instructions into the "1-part this and 2-parts that" kind of instructions and just used a few ounces of the frozen mix. They turned out great. Not too sugary (as those mixes tend to be) and not too tart. We'd been using fresh limes, but to get enough juice from fresh limes was pretty expensive. Have you priced limes lately? Even here, where citrus is grown, they are pretty expensive.

So that's about everything of note that we've done since we got here: perfecting our margaritas. Today it will actually be warm enough to sit by the pool or walk on the beach, and I figure the warmer it is, the better the margaritas will taste. Oh yes, and here's a tip: If you want a really good margarita, the "Perfect Margarita" at Applebee's is pretty darned good. We've found Applebee's all across the country.

Oh yes. I almost forgot. We drove into a neighborhood that is built so that all of the houses have some of the marina in their back yards--and, of course, everybody has a boat. Very expensive, I'm sure. If you ever watch CSI Miami, then you'll know what I'm talking about when I say the houses looked like that. But to get back to the neighborhood we drove through, all of the houses were constructed to make it possible to bring down aluminum shutters over the windows--to protect against hurricanes. Even our spot in this RV park has a "hurricane proof" enclosure so that people who own the spot have a place to store things while they are away. Hurricanes are obviously a big deal around here. (That would explain the concrete table and benches at our site.) We imagine Corpus Christi has a pretty cushy deal hiding behind the barrier islands, but that is no doubt the reason there isn't too much built up around here.

We heard about the tornadoes east of us on the news last night. I'm glad we've been such slow pokes getting across country because we could very well have been there. So I guess that's it on the weather disaster channel--that would be me. Things are going okay so far. Oh yes and Big Hug to Larry and Chuck. (Feel better now?)

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

"To the Gulf Stream Waters . . ."



We reached Port Aransas, TX, today (pronounced Port uh-RON-zus). We are very happy with the park we selected--very nice--with a boardwalk across the dunes to the beach of the Gulf of Mexico. Port Aransas is located on the northern tip of Mustang Island along the Central Texas Coast across from Corpus Christi and Aransas Bay. It is a barrier island and took its name from the wild horses brought by Spanish explorers. It was inhabited by the Karankawa Indians until the 19th century. First known as Sand Point, the town of Port Aransas was leveled by a hurricane in 1919.


The wind is blowing pretty hard right now, but it is 70 degrees at 5:00 p.m. Not bad. We walked out across the boardwalk onto the beach just to see what it was like. It appears the tide is up, the surf is rough, and the water is brown--don't know why on the color--Mike thinks it's because it's whipped up by the wind. Who knows. It was pleasant despite the wind, and we're told that the wind is unusual.


I have a couple of pictures for you--one is our spot, and the table you see is ours to use. The other is the thermometer on the truck's rearview mirror. It was 88 degrees as we drove down Interstate 37 from Kerrville. I would say more about Corpus Christi and the rest of the area, but I'll wait until we explore those areas. I may not post as often as I have been because we are here for a month and we will mainly be doing the ordinary things of day-to-day living. There are quite a few attractions we'd like to see, and I've also discovered at least two dive shops. For now, I'll leave you with that. Big hug to Erik, Mae, and Matt.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Kerrville, TX

We are in Kerrville for the next three nights (two, actually, since we have been here one night already). This is a very nice park. Mike earned three nights here because he helped a guy fix an electrical problem on his rig, and that guy owns the park. When we arrived, I was suspicious that the guy was pulling Mike's leg; but, indeed, he had called the park and told them we were coming. Cool! It really is one of the nicest parks that we've stayed at.

We are on the end spot, and our nearest neighbor is probably 50 feet away. There is also Goat Creek, a small river that runs along the side of us and we are near the water. The creek is stocked with fish for catch and release. We are not fisher people, but it's still nice that there is fishing here. There are pools (closed for the winter) and spas, basketball and tennis courts. They show three movies each night on their cable TV. We looked at the selections for the next three nights, and there wasn't anything we'd heard of. So we're happy to be here staying for free. We've discovered that many of these parks, this one included, offer daily trash pick-up. No trekking off to find the dumpster. They are really a lot like five-star hotels--only difference is that you bring your room with you.

Mike has been pretty insistent that he wasn't going to be doing any driving or hiking on Superbowl Sunday, and so it just worked out this way. It's quite warm here--the warmest place we've been so far. I think I might actually wear shorts today. Yesterday it was 80 degrees in the afternoon when we arrived.

So here are some things I have written in my notes to tell you: When we passed over into Texas, we also passed into the Central time zone. Now we are two hours ahead of you. Also, we've been driving through the Chihuahua Desert which seems to consist only of creosote bushes. When we were on the other side of the Guadalupe Mountains (in New Mexico) we were also in the Chihuahua Desert, but we saw a LOT of Soap Tree Yuccas. Now it is just the creosote bushes, and not very pretty. The roads have been excellent in Texas--even the concrete freeways that are the bane of Mike's existence.

I've been keeping track of our expenses for propane, diesel, and lodging. The highest price we've paid for diesel was $4.25 per gallon in Death Valley, and the lowest price was $3.09 per gallon. Generally, it has been running around $3.40 per gallon and always more expensive than premium gasoline.

It's nice to have a couple of days to just sit and rest. We've been hiking and driving ever since we left. Not complaining, mind you, it's been a lot of fun. I guess I'm saying that we've been having too much fun. When we leave here, we will be driving to Port Aransas which is 30 minutes from Corpus Christi. I read about Corpus Christi in the tour book, and it sounds a lot like Portland (without the snow). If you notice my response to Lisa, in the last entry, I've written a little bit about it. Since writing that comment, I've done some reading of the articles I've torn out of diving magazines and it sounds as if there will be some diving there--especially off the oil rigs. The description of the sea life we might encounter sounds just like the Caribbean. There is also the possibility to see whale sharks, which would be quite a treat. They are not meat-eaters--they eat plankton--but they are large like Beluga whales and so they would be the largest fish we have ever seen.

There is also a lot to do in Corpus Christi, including two aquariums. I love a good aquarium. We will also be able to tour the USS Lexington which is an aircraft carrier dubbed the "Blue Ghost" because it was reported by Tokyo Rose at least four times to have been sunk during WWII. The description of the tour sounds fascinating.

So that's about all I have to say for now. If I don't write between here and Port Aransas, it'll be because there isn't anything to tell you. We're just hanging out for the next couple of days. So, enjoy the game, if that's what you'll be doing. And if you're not, then just take good care.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Ft. Stockton, Texas




We crossed over into Texas yesterday. We were in Texas in the Guadalupe Mountains, but we kept crossing back into New Mexico. Now we are in Texas and heading south. I've posted a few dumb pictures. The first is a picture of the Organ Mountains from our stay in Las Cruces. They were very pretty, but almost impossible to photograph because there didn't seem to be a single place in Las Cruces where the view wasn't trashed up with signs, power lines, or billboards. This shot was taken as we headed down the road. Also I felt I must post the picture of us crossing the Continental Divide some time back. And finally, the "Welcome to Texas" sign which also proclaims Texas as the "proud home of President George W. Bush." Hm. (. . . and on the other side, it didn't say nothin'. Now that sign was made for you and me.)
So we spent last night in Ft. Stockton, Texas, which seems to be only an RV Park. It must have more, but we certainly can't see it from where we are. The RV Park seems to be posted on the extreme edge of town. It has a little Cafe that serves frozen and canned food, and instant mashed potatoes. AND we had our choice of white or brown gravy on our potatoes. I wondered what made each the color that it was. The woman serving it up is cute as can be though, and so it makes it very difficult to complain about the food. She is too sweet. Anyway, I have the distinct impression that all of this is to keep outsiders out of town. Makes you wonder what goes on there.
So today we're on to Kerrville, Texas, where we have three free nights. I think I already told you about Mike fixing a guy's electrical problem, and so we were rewarded with three free nights. After that, on to Corpus Christie. We're not sure whether we will stay there or in a place called Port Aransas. There are nice RV Parks in both places. When we get there, we may stay for a full month if we like it. We decided against Big Bend National Park. Maybe another time. We've done quite a lot of hiking, and we are about hiked out. Big Bend is a big park, and it would have meant quite a commitment to see it all.
So that's all I have for you now. Most of the overnight rigs have pulled out, and we are generally the last ones to leave. We don't get up early enough. It does seem to be a part of RVing--getting up at the crack of dawn and going--and so we will think about working on that. Okay. We're thinking about it. So far, nothing is happening. Take care. Stay warm and dry.