Sunday, April 27, 2014

Windy in El Paso

As expected, it’s windy here in El Paso, Texas.

It was breezy all day yesterday, but went beyond breezy about 3 p.m.  By 6 p.m. the big, heavy dumpster lids at our RV park were flipping back and forth. The rig rocked a bit, too; at times it felt like we were passengers on a train.

Last time we were in winds like this we were at Red Rock Park in Gallup, NM, a beautiful but desolate city campground where nothing blocked the wind.  All afternoon we watched tumble weeds and sand fly at us and about once an hour we vacuumed red sand from our window sills.  This time, nearby Class A motorhomes and big fifth wheels are blocking the wind a bit, plus we’re at the military RV park at Fort Bliss where gravel, cement and asphalt cover the ground.  Not as pretty as the red rocks and pink sands of Gallup, but a lot less dusty.  

Less dusty for us anyway.  Visibility was less than a mile on the El Paso freeways yesterday and might get to that level today. And per the news, for a few hours high winds and zero visibility closed I-10 the entire 60 miles between Las Cruces and Deming.
I told Jim I was going to take a photo of the moon being obstructed by all the dust in the air.  Then I realized it wasn't the moon -- it was the sun.  It was just so dark it felt like evening.  To the left is a slight outline of usually very visible Franklin Mountains.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

From Big Bend to Marfa to El Paso

Weather forecasters are predicting wind gusts of up to 60 mph for this afternoon, so we're going to hang tight where we are.  And where we are is El Paso, Texas.

As for the last couple of days: We left Texas’s Big Bend National Park on Wednesday and drove northeast to Marfa, Texas.  Marfa is windblown west Texas meets hippie art community meets upscale tourist. 

Founded when the railroad came through back in the 1880s, Marfa gained a bit of fame when the film “Giant" (starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, et al) was filmed there in 1955. More recently, parts of "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country for Old Men" were filmed in Marfa.  

In the 1970s, artists started moving in. Tourists followed. For a town of about 2,000 people, it’s got to have more restaurants per capita -- including some upscale ones -- than most  "in-the-middle-of nowhere"  towns. It also has its own National Public Radio station.

As we are now on our way back to home base in SLC and also needed to do some shopping, we drove next to El Paso, where we spent a week late last month.  We met a family in Big Bend from El Paso who recommended a couple of places to eat. One was the cocina (kitchen) at Ranch Market, a Mexican supermarket.  Great idea.  

Ranch Market is big, clean, colorful, and full of baked goods and veggies I’ve never heard of. I bought Mexican squash, Jim took a walk on his ethnic wild side and bought Doritos, and we picked up some great take out.
Our last night at Big Bend National Park we were treated to a javelina crossing.  Javalinas look like pigs but are actually more closely related to bears.  We saw our first javelina in the wild on the drive to Big Bend; it was standing in the middle of the road. Jim had to slow down and honk to get it to move.  We later read that javelinas have a keen sense of smell but very poor eyesight.  Guess our rig has no particular scent.
The  Tumble In RV Park in Marfa, Texas, where we spent one night.  Our rig and tow car (with kayaks) is on the left.  We'd read several on-line Tumble In reviews that started "It didn't look like much when I drove up..." and that certainly was the case.  But it was clean, kind of charming, and in this photo it appears that only retro-looking RVs may apply.
Marfa has a lot of windblown buildings -- some funky looking, others sad looking -- but it also has beautiful buildings like the Presidio County Courthouse, built in 1886. 
Jim at Marfa's El Paisano Hotel, where we had dinner.  El Paisano was the headquarters for the cast and crew of the film "Giant," filmed there in 1955.  Several rooms are named for major cast members.  Per the hotel web site, the James Dean Room is the most popular and features " queen-sized bed and a European style bath (shower only). This room also has a set of French doors opening onto a window balcony facing the Marfa County Courthouse." While I wasn't a big fan of the hotel's food (I had their "Giant" burger and a margarita), Jim's fish tacos were good and it was fun to visit one of the town's landmarks. 
El Paisano's walls meet the steps meet the floor. The upper part of the walls are a plain, creamy stucco -- so it's not as vertigo-producing as it appears.
On our way to El Paso we got this close-up view of a Border Patrol blimp at the side of US 90. We usually see them  high in the sky and in the distance. Officially called "aerostats," their cameras and sensors can detect people as far away as two miles. 
Pro's Ranch Market, is an "upscale Hispanic shopping adventure," per their web site.  We agree.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A long way from anywhere: Big Bend National Park

Southwest Texas’ Big Bend National Park is in the middle of nowhere.  It’s so remote that we haven’t even seen an airplane or an airplane contrail overhead.  

Once you get to the park entrance (and its a long drive to the entrance from anywhere) it’s another 25 miles drive to the closest building (the main visitors’ center).  Then It’s another 20 miles to Rio Grande Village, the closest campground via a straight road, or another 10 miles via sharp curves and steep grades to Chisos Basin campground.  

Since it’s not recommended that vehicles longer than 24 feet travel to Chisos Basin, we’re at Rio Grande Village RV, the only park facility with water/electric/sewer. 

Per the park newsletter “Big Bend includes massive canyons, vast desert expanses, forested mountains, and an ever changing river.” Does it ever. The brochure also says elevations range from 1,800 feet at the Rio Grande to nearly 8,000 feet in the Chisos Mountains.

It’s the only U.S. national park with an entire mountain range -- the Chisos -- within the park borders.  The park is bigger than Rhode Island and has four gas stations because you’re going to need some gasoline to explore this place by car -- not to mention get your RV in and out. 

Our time at Big Bend was spent hiking plus star gazing, and Jim kayaked the muddy Rio Grande. We also met a lot of nice folks at what we called the “Internet Cafe” -- two picnic tables outside of the Rio Grande Village store, the only place in the entire 533,000 acre park where you can get an internet connection.  We met people from Germany, Colorado, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Texas, and New York.
The road into Big Bend.  Because Big Bend is so remote, a ranger said visitors are “high quality.” That may or may not describe us, but it’s not a place party animals visit on the spur of a moment. People really have to want to see Big Bend to come here.
Welcoming committee for RV Site No. 1.  Luckily, we were at No. 4. 
Burros in Mexico as seen from Jim's kayak.
Another photo Jim took while kayaking.  The Rio Grande is known for being muddy and was especially so during our visit, as a heavy rainstorm dropped an inch of precip the night before we arrived. 
View from our campground: The Sierra Del Carmen mountains at sunrise.
Signs at trail heads said "Purchase or possession of items obtained from Mexican nationals is illegal," but we saw small displays like the above on every hike we took. Note the container at the back where purchasers leave cash. Items for sale were bead and wire replicas of  tarantulas, scorpions and other desert animals.  
Some of the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the US to be entirely in a national park.
Jim near where the Rio Grande makes a 90-degree turn called the "big bend," and which gives the park its name.
The longer patch of water behind Bev is the Rio Grande River and beyond that is Mexico.  A fluid border, both literally and figuratively.
Early explorers found this area so remote they called it “El Despoblado” -- the uninhabited land
"Hola, buenos días," said the man on a horse we met on a trail.  He may have been headed toward his own, private border crossing on the Rio Grande River. 
To the right of the Rio Grande River you can see a few of the motor homes and buildings in Rio Grande Village campgrounds.  
People in a hot springs along the banks of the Rio Grande River. A man named J.O. Langford purchased land containing the springs in 1909 and moved his family there from Alpine, Texas.  Langford thought the springs cured him of malaria and tried to turn the area into a resort, but the Mexican Revolution forced the Langfords to flee to El Paso in 1912.  Fourteen years later they returned, built a small motel, store and post office near their springs and stayed there until1942 when they sold the property to the state of Texas.  Two years later Big Bend National park was established. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Lake Amistad in Del Rio, Texas

We spent three nights at Southwinds Marina at Lake Amistad in Del Rio, Texas.  The campground is a military recreation area associate with nearby Laughlin Air Force Base. 

We hiked a couple of short trails, took the kayaks out on the lake for about two hours, went to the Lake Amistad National Recreation Area Visitors Center and watched the movie, explored part of the park, and wandered around Del Rio.

Like every other body of water in this part of the country, Lake Amistad is low.  So low in fact that there were no boats in any of the slips.  But the boat ramp at the marina was usable and lots of people were backing speed boats and fishing boats into the water. Apparently the lake is well known for its bass fishing.

On the way here we drove through several very nice Texas towns and stopped at a beautiful rest area, so I was looking forward to seeing Del Rio.  It was kind of a disappointment.  US 90 skirts the town and is full of car dealerships, big box stores and fast food joints. As you leave town, you see RV and boat storage, closed gas stations, and closed restaurants. Del Rio also has its original downtown, but most of the shops are also closed.  We want to say something nice, but...well, there’s not much in that vein to say about Del Rio, other than that one section had some cool old homes.

(And Happy Birthday, Paul.  We love you.)
The name of the campground on a big propane tank kind of sums up the ambiance here at Southwinds Marina.  But our camping spot had a great view of the lake.
Southwinds Marina campground neighbors.  We also met actual people from Alaska who have been full timing since 1998 and another couple from Florida who just started full timing in January.  The Florida couple was practically giddy about being on the road. When we were pulling our boats out of the water we met a young airman from Laughlin Air Force Base who graduated from Oregon State, as did Jim, daughter Season and SIL Lee.
Southwinds Marina has 20 spots with full hook ups, plus another section that just had water.  The water-only section was really full over the weekend.  It must have been a family reunion because Saturday night there were 21 cars at the five camping spots.  They were having fun and not especially noisy, but sure left a lot of trash behind.  Come on people, pick up a few of your plastic grocery bags.
Jim and Lake Amistad.  The many inlets remind me a bit of Lake Powell in Utah and Arizona. 
The cactus are beginning to flower and we saw three different colors of prickly pear blooms.

Train trestle over Lake Amistad.
A bright spot among the sad-looking buildings in Del Rio was this beautiful Methodist Church.  When Jim first saw it he said ”Methodists don’t build churches like that.”  Well, these guys did back in 1931.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Achy Kayak Shoulders

We are at Lake Amistad National Recreation Area in Del Rio, Texas, in what's called the south Texas brush country.  Lake Amistad came into being in 1969 when a dam was built across the Rio Grande. The huge reservoir is in both the US and Mexico and is the third largest international lake in the world, per the visitor center's film -- although that seems hard to believe considering the Great Lakes.  But Lake Amistad is big, with lots of inlets.

Del Rio is also one of those places where there is no Verizon coverage, so I'm writing and posting this courtesy of the free WiFi at the Del Rio McDonalds. Next time we get Internet coverage, I'll post some Amistad photos.

Before we left Austin, however, Jim wanted to add Lady Bird Lake to our list of places paddled. Lady Bird Lake is actually a reservoir on Texas's Colorado River (not to be confused with the Colorado River that created the Grand Canyon) which flows 862 miles from Lubbock to the Gulf of Mexico. 

Other than when we kayaked on a very choppy Lake Superior last summer (me for about 20 minutes before I yelled "Uncle"), it was the windiest time we've spent on kayaks.  And because the trip towards downtown was with the wind, we paddled against the wind coming back.

That return trip was a killer.

If we stopped paddling at all, we immediately drifted backwards. So there was no looking at the scenery -- just paddle, paddle, paddle.  At one point Jim said "Are you singing?"  No, I was counting strokes out loud, which helps me concentrate. 

Still fun though. 

Downtown Austin, Texas, as seen from Jim's kayak. Wikipedia says Texas' Colorado River is the longest river in the US to have both its source and it's mouth in one state.
A small heron let us glide right by him.  At first I thought it was a super huge kingfisher, but then he stretched out his long heron neck.  To the left of the heron is a grackle.  Herons usually spook pretty easily, so maybe it was ill, poor baby. Or depressed because he was near a noisy grackle.
No, these are not heron eggs found along the river. Jim's friend from his days at Intel Corp., Pam, and her husband Bart, raise chickens and gave us fresh eggs when we visited them Saturday. I boiled three and made great egg salad sandwiches.  The eggs were big, had pale green shells and the brightest yellow yolks I've ever seen.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Texas State Capitol Building and Austin's SoCo

Our friends Steve and Norma told us the Texas State Capitol tour in Austin was pretty cool.  Then I saw a web site called 25 Best Things to do in Austin, which listed a state capitol visit as number one.

So, that was our main activity for yesterday.  Photos and a few facts below.

The Texas State Capitol, plus Jim walking Cooper. The stone for the building came from Marble Falls, Texas, where we had lunch with friends Ted and Sandy the day before.
The star in the dome of the state capitol rotunda is 218 feet above the floor; the space between floor and star is high enough to fit in the Statue of Liberty sans the platform she stands on.  And the tiny star in this photo is actually eight feet across. On the floor of the rotunda are the seals of six countries whose flags have flown over Texas:  Spain, France, Mexico, Republic of Texas, the Confederacy, and the U.S.
Our Statehouse tour guide, Gloria, waits for Texas rangers to pass by before beginning her description of the Texas Senate Chambers. The rangers were leaving Governor Rick Perry's office, which was just around the corner.
A Texas star chandelier on the ceiling of the Texas Senate Chambers. 
Tour guide Gloria waits for our group to assemble in the Texas House of Representatives Chamber.  Everyone else in our tour group was from England.
In the 1990's Texas' Capitol was running out of office space for Senate and House of Representative members, so an underground extension with skylights was created. 
I told Jim we might as well end every description of our day's activities with "And then we went to a brew pub."  Here's Jim after our Texas State Capitol tour at Hopdoddy Burger Bar in Austin's SoCo (South Congress Street) District.  He's got a 512 IPA and that's my 512 Pecan Porter  to the right.
My mom asked me something along the lines of "Those photos you post of your meals -- do you actually eat all that food?"  Since we've left Tucson, the answer to that question is usually "yes."  I have to get out of a state that has such good food because my jeans are beginning to hurt.  Same thing happened in Louisiana and New Mexico.  Anyway, this is a blackbean and corn veggie burger Jim and I had at Hopdoddy's.
Austin's SoCo District has all sorts of weird little shops, including a antique store we wandered through.  I like the painting above.  The tag gave the price as $325 and said it depicted "A very important couple."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wellington, Ohio, High School Reunion

There was a mini reunion yesterday when we had lunch with Ted and Sandy, two of my (Bev's) classmates from Wellington, Ohio.  

Ted and Sandy now live in Weatherford, Texas, 30 miles west of Fort Worth.  Sandy sent a Facebook message saying to get in touch if our RV travels took us near Forth Worth.   When I realized how close Austin (where we are right now) was to Forth Worth, I did just that. Ted and Sandy scoped out towns between Weatherford and Austin, picked a lovely restaurant, drove the majority of the miles (170 for them versus 50 for us) and we met up in Marble Falls, in the rolling Texas hill country

Like my family, Sandy's and Ted's families have lived in Wellington for a long time. In fact, Ted's mom and my dad both graduated from Wellington's class of 1937.  

Ted and I both played trombone in the band and Sandy played flute.  Sandy and I were in Girl Scouts together.  After high school, Ted and Sandy got teaching degrees, and in 1982 moved to Texas for jobs. Ted taught middle school music. Sandy taught first grade.

It was fun to talk about Wellington, school memories, our families and a lot of other topics. Thanks Ted and Sandy!
Class of '69 reunion (except for the class of '66 Yakima Davis High School guy on the far left): Jim, Bev, Sandy and Ted.  We had lunch at the very pretty, very good River City Grille in Marble Falls, with a view of Texas' Colorado River.
This photo is a little dark but I had to include it because Ted is holding a copy of the "Whiton Rush," our 6th grade newspaper (our teacher was Mrs. Whiton).  Ted and I were listed as co-editors.  The stories included a music review by Ted that said only this: "I liked it." Maybe I edited the rest out. 
The view from our motor home 15 minutes before Jim and I left to meet Ted and Sandy.  A heavy downpour turned to hail and wind gusts.  I called Sandy to see how the weather was where they were; she said there was some blue sky, so Jim and I headed off. Within 30 minutes it was clear. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Downtown Austin, Texas, plus Pam and Lindy

We've seen a lot of Austin.  Some of it intentionally, some of it not.  Either way, it's been good.

Friday we drove north on Congress Street, which is essentially Austin's Main Street.  If you kept going, you'd hit the state capitol. We crossed Lady Bird Lake via the Ann W. Richards Bridge. Up to 1.5 million bats spend the spring and summer under that bridge, forming the the largest urban bat colony in the U.S.  Per an Austin web site, the bats migrate to the bridge where they give birth, hang out (literally) until fall, and then migrate south. We didn't see the bats, but they apparently leave the bridge at night in a big black cloud that can last for as long as 45 minutes. It must be amazing.

We walked through the Rainey Street District, which is full of bars and restaurants and under going a lot of construction and renovation. We walked the Congress Street District with its businesses, the 6th Street District with more restaurants and bars plus tattoo parlors, the Convention Center District and who knows where else. Then it was back to Rainey Street for lunch.

After that we decided to go to a Central Market, an upscale grocery store Steve and Norma introduced us to in San Antonio.  But instead of 40-something South Street, 40-something North Street was entered into our directions app, and we got to explore an area near the University of Texas.

As for yesterday and today: Saturday we drove west to meet up with a friend of Jim's from when he worked for Intel Corporation -- Pam, plus her husband Bart. Today we drove north and had lunch with Lindy and her family. Bev has known Lindy since she was born; Lindy now has a cool husband named Chris and two kids of her own.
Friday (the day we walked all over Austin) we had Cooper with us but left him in the car. We found a shady parking spot underneath this huge, spreading tree near Austin's Rainey Street District.
The Lady Bird Hike and Bike Trail has the miles of paths in downtown Austin. 
Several Segway tours -- with tourists in matching T shirts -- passed us as we walked around Austin's city streets.  
Part of Austin's city scape.  The building on the left looked like an Escher art print.
Jim at Banger's Sausage House and Beer Garden in the Rainey Street District, where we had lunch.  If you get a tattoo of Banger's logo (a cowboy boot with the top part of the boot in the shape of a beer stein) Bangers pays for it.  We passed.
Near Austin's hike and bike trail that runs along Lady Bird Lake was this extremely thick and well-manicured lawn. Turned out to be upscale AstroTurf.
Three turtles sunbathing on Lady Bird Lake.
Saturday: Jim, his former Intel co-worker, Pam, and Pam's husband Bart, who we met up with at Jester King Brewery in west Austin. Pam and Jim worked in Intel's global staffing department.  Bart is a physical therapist and an artist.  
In the background is the line to get a beer at Jester King brewery after a tour bus dropped off a load of people.  Fortunately we got there before the tour bus.  The brewery's parking lot was so big and had so may cars in it, I thought a concert was being held.  But no -- it was just people getting pizza and beer.
A view of one of the picnic areas at Jester King.
Sunday:  Lindy's kids Riley and Connor.  Connor is demonstrating his dining technique of moving individual mac and cheese noodles from spoon to mouth.
Lindy, Riley, Chris and Connor.  Lindy works for DeVry University.  Chris teaches 8th grade U.S. history.  We ate at Chuys, a Tex-Mex Restaurant that Lindy says is the best in the state (Lindy and Chris also met at one of the chain's other restaurants).  Very good!
Bev with Lindy and her gang.  Lindy's parents and Bev have known each other since about 1975. Our families celebrated many a Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthday, etc. together when Bev's kids and Lindy and her brothers were babies.