Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Good thing Bev has a sense of humor

Monday morning we left Texas for New Mexico.  Bev almost didn’t make the trip as quickly as Jim.
We were about 75 miles south east of El Paso -- the middle of nowhere -- when Jim thought he got an error message on our brake system and pulled off onto the shoulder of Interstate 10.  I went to the back of the rig to get the owner’s manual while Jim went out to the tow car.  Then I grabbed my set of rig keys and went outside to help Jim.  When I got to the tow car, I didn’t see Jim ... but I did see the rig starting to pull back on I-10.   I ran to the rig’s passenger window, pounded on the window, and Jim looked a me like he was seeing a ghost.  But he did stop the rig. 
Luckily for us, once we got back on I-10 we both started to laugh ... especially when we saw the next road sign, which read “Prison area.  Do not pick up hitch hikers.”  It would have been a long 250-mile walk.

Sorry, no photos available.

Monday, November 28, 2011

This is Sandy Wood for Star Date

For years, I've heard a short radio program about astronomy called Star Date.  The narrator is named Sandy Wood, and she’s got a great voice.  Plus, I always learn something.  Sandy Wood always mentions that she’s with the University of Texas McDonald Observatory, but I've never thought much about the observatory, other than it was probably somewhere in Austin.
Well, it's not in Austin; instead it's 450 miles west of Austin in the Texas west desert at an altitude of 6800 feet.  I didn't know that until I took a walk Saturday (Ohio State had just lost to Michigan and I needed a TV-football-watching break) and saw a road sign pointing to “University of Texas McDonald Observatory.” So Jim (who almost always goes along with my “hey, let's do this" ideas) and I drove almost 50 miles for a visit.
I actually thought it was only 32 miles.  But when you’ve driven 32 and see another sign that says it’s an addition 16... well, you’re almost there, so why not.
The McDonald Observatory was made possible by Texas banker William Johnson McDonald, who died in 1926 and endowed money to the University of Texas for an astronomical observatory.  The U of T didn't even have an astronomy department at the time.  But after some prolonged legal haggling (McDonald’s relatives contested the will) the first of the observatories' 5 telescopes was built.
At the observatory, we saw a brief movie about it’s history and a presentation about sunspots that included live views of the sun.
Some of what we learned:
Violet and blue stars are the hottest; orange and red stars are cooler.
You can impress people by calling heat waves thermal turbulence.
The sun is about the same temperature as Houston in the summer (I think that was a joke.)

It was a great visit.  If you want to learn more about the McDonald Observatory, here's the link:
On our way to the observatory, we came across the Calera Chapel. It was built in the early 1900s, restored in 2003, and always open. And it is all by itself.
The newest telescope at the McDonald Observatory. The observatory's location in the Davis Mountains has the darkest sky in North America because there is very little light pollution.
Two other telescopes.  People who maintain the equipment actually live at the mountain. 
Scenery near the observatory.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Baby it’s cold outside

Last night it got down to about 25 degrees; it might get in that neighborhood again tonight.  We stay plenty warm in the rig, but we do worry about the rig’s water pipes freezing -- that would cause a major inconvenience and an expensive repair.  So we did about the same thing we’d do at home:  Disconnect the outside water hose, leave the cabinets open so water pipes are exposed to warmer air, and left the heat on.  And in this case, we ran both a small portable electric heater and one that runs on propane.  We’re hooked up to electricity here, and our rig has an electric water heater -- but just to make sure our water system didn’t freeze, we turned on our propane water heater, too.
This morning there were some small icicles dripping off our water filter.  But other than that, all was well.

This photo is taken from the middle of the rig toward the cab and it’s one of the low tech ways we keep the rig warm.  What you’re seeing is a down quilt hanging from the sleeping area over the cab.  The quilt helps keep cold air out of our living space.
This morning a sparrow kept looking in the window by our dinette.  Bev put some wheat thin crumbs on the window ledge. We soon had a party. And probably you-know-what all over the roof.
And from Texas: The Christmas season has begun!

Texas' Balmorhea State Park

We’ll be at Balmorhea State Park in tiny Toyahvale, Texas until tomorrow.   The park includes what looks like a motel complex right out of the 1950s, but was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in in 1935.    
The centerpiece of the campground is a two acre swimming pool also built by the CCC. Most of the pool is 25 feet deep and used by both swimmers and scuba divers; the bottom of the deep area is natural rock and has turtles and fish.  The pool is fed by the San Solomon Spring, and the water is about 74 degrees year round.  The spring also feeds a small pond and several canals at the park, plus the park’s cienega or desert wetlands.
Because the park is so quaint, I asked the rangers if movies had been made here.  They told me no, but that the film “Giant” was made in Marfa, about 60 miles south.  “Giant” starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean and was made in 1956, so it’s been a while.    
And I know I’m breaking a promise to Steve H. to run photos of Jim and me in our blog --- but here are photos I took this morning of Balmorhea State Park.
Some scuba divers take advantage of the park's huge swimming pool. This photo was actually taken yesterday -- and you can see we went from sunny to cloudy.
These buildings are shelters over picnic tables at each camp site.  The ranger also told me that the lead singer for Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant, camped here recently.  Right now, the only people here are me, Jim, three other motor home campers and a tent camper.
One of the canals that run through the park.  The water in the canals and the pool is crystalline. All of the buildings -- including the campsite shelters -- are made of white plaster and have red tile roofs.
The Davis Mountain Range as seen from the park.
The motel-like complex at the park. Jim says it looks like ones he and his sister stayed in with his parents while traveling to his dad’s jobs building dams in the western US.
The Balmorhea State Park office. Jim thought "Balmorhea" was a biblical reference; I thought maybe it was Spanish.  Turns out it’s a combination of the first few letters of the names of three people who developed the nearby city of the same name.  It's pronounced Ball-more-ray.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Going barless

We've been without internet access for several days.  This and the 3 posts before it are what I would have published had we any Verizon bars.
We left this morning for Balmorhea State Park in Toyahvale, Texas, about 150 miles southeast of El Paso -- the “desert flatlands” of west Texas.  Jim picked Balmorhea because it's in the right direction (west) and the right distance (250 miles) from our previous stop.  So far it looks charming.  Plus it has internet and cell phone access, which we’ve been without since Tuesday.  We did get a few Thanksgiving cell phone calls in to family, but were not able to reach everyone (love you, Ashley) and another call dropped and we couldn't reconnect (love you, Paul).

The drive from South Llano State Park in Texas’ hill country to Balmorhea was windy and almost uneventful...but not quite.  Since we hadn't had any internet access for a while, Jim asked me to download a book on his Kindle.  When I got up to get his Kindle, I saw our big sun shade on the outside of the rig's big back window hanging kitty-corner.  If it fell off, it could get caught in the front wheels of the tow car and create all sorts of havoc.  

We were on a part of Texas I-10 with few exits; luckily for us, one was coming up.  We stopped, Jim wrestled the shade off the the back of the rig in the wind, and the shade is now resting comfortably under a picnic table (and Jim is now resting comfortable on the couch).  We’ll get the shade reattached in Tucson or Salt Lake City.

Bottom line:  We are safe and sound in a new place. And Jim has cable TV and is looking forward to a football weekend.
This big sunshade Bev is holding was hanging kitty corner over the rear rig window while we were driving west on I-10 at 60 miles an hour.   Jim checked our other two sunshades and they are OK.
The camping shelters at Balmorhea State Park have red tile roofs.  There is also a cienega, or desert wetland, near by. 

Our Thanksgiving Day

Here's a photo from the six mile hike we took Thanksgiving morning at South Llano River State Park.

Three miles into the hike we came across this windmill.  It powers a pump that supplies water for the park.
Because we'd recently spent six days in the salt air at the Gulf of Mexico, we decided we'd better wash that salt off the rig, so we found a car wash big enough for motor homes in the little Texas town of Junction, TX.  Here Jim makes sure the bottom of the rig gets clean.

And finally, the easiest Thanksgiving dinner I ever cooked:   Turkey sandwiches, canned cranberry sauce, candied yams (also from a can, but I actually cooked them, using a recipe on the can), a pumpkin pie we bought at the Navy commissary in Corpus Christi, and the kind of whipped cream you can squirt right into your mouth.   Delish!

Happy Thanksgiving to our family

Two Thanksgivings ago:  From front left going clockwise: Paul, Shad holding Mia, Bev, Jim, Season, Lee holding Owen, and Ashley in the middle.
Bev's family (minus Paul and Toby) last Thanksgiving, when we also celebrated Mom's 90th birthday.  Top row:  Suzie, Brooke, Jill, Trudy, Don, Mia on Shad's shoulders.  Also left to right: Bob, Ashley, Ben, Mom, Jim.

The family at Ashley and Shad's wedding ... even their daughter Mia attended via the magic of photoshop.  Plus we have Paul (back row, second from left)  and Toby (kneeling, right).  Ash and Shad are having another baby in April.
Mom and Bev.
The cousins as kids:  From left: Toby, Brooke, Paul, Ashley, and Ben in the front.
Season and Lee with Owen about a year ago.  They are expecting another boy in early January.

Texas hill country

We left Mustang Island Tuesday and made our longest one-day drive yet -- 290 miles.  That doesn’t sound like lot of miles unless you are driving 40-feet worth of vehicle.   But the roads were good, Jim is a great driver, we made good time, and we spent Tuesday evening, Wednesday and Thanksgiving Day at South Llano River State Park in Junction, TX about a hundred miles northwest of San Antonio.
Junction is in the Texas hill country, so we’re seeing rolling countryside once again, instead of landscape literally as flat as a piece of paper.  The scenery is what I think of when I hear the phrase “Texas cowboy” --- cactus, sprawling trees, dry washes, shallow rivers, and yucca-type plants.  
South Llano River State Park was donated to Texas by Walter Buck, who moved here with his parents, sister and brother in1910.  Never married, Mr. Buck took care of his mom after his dad died, and raised goats, cattle and pecans (and was also a rained jeweler).  In 1977, Mr. Buck donated his 2,500 acre property on the condition that it be used as a park and/or for wildlife conservation.  The park, which opened in 1990, has hiking trails, bird sanctuaries, bird blinds where visitors can watch wildlife, and pecan trees all over the place.  What they call the “bottomland” portion of the park is one of Texas’ largest and oldest winter turkey roosts.   Up to 800 turkeys spend winter at the park eating the abundant pecans and acorns.  During the winter the turkey roosts are closed to the public because the birds scare easily.  We’re figuring that’s especially true around Thanksgiving. 
In the 1970s, Walter Buck harvested 75,000 pounds of pecans every year.   That happens to be an oak tree over our rig -- we figure pecans sound as loud as the acorns when they hit the roof of your rig.
The South Llano River.  The locals pronounce it “Lan-o” without the y-sound used in a Spanish pronunciation. 
Just a scene that looks like Texas to me.  In the foreground are Prickly Pear cactus.
Jim and what’s left of an armadillo he caught. (That’s a joke, but the skin is that of an armadillo Cooper sniffed it out.)
Up to 800 Rio Grande wild turkeys roost at the park in the winter.  In the spring, they leave and travel up to 30 miles to find a nesting area.  Then they return the next winter.
You can go 80 on the freeway in Texas.  Jim might be tempted to get the rig up to that speed, but if we drive over 65 mph we’d ruin our tow car’s transmission. 
There are three bird blinds in the park where people can watch the birds.  Here we saw a scarlet tanager taking a bath.  Volunteers fill feeders at the blinds every day. We’re thinking volunteers help with park maintenance, too, as this is one of the cleanest parks we’ve seen.  Even though it’s a wildlife sanctuary, they allow deer hunting here at certain times of the year.
Jim misread this sign and thought we were to show up here for Thanksgiving dinner.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Coastal Bend

The Coastal Bend... that's what they call the neck of the woods we're in.  It's where the gulf shore of Texas curves to the south.

And just off that bend -- and near the Mustang Island State Park where we are staying -- is the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station (NAS).  Jim retired from the Navy Reserve, and I like to go to military commissaries -- so we checked it out today. The base has an RV park for active or retired military; we’re thinking of staying there on a future trip.  We also bought groceries at the commissary, then came back to the rig and did chores.  Plus we got in our walk on the beach.

Jim waiting for our lunch at the Naval Air Station.
Jim and a Blue Angel plane. The Chief of Naval Air Training selects the Blue Angels Commanding Officer, also called the “Boss” --  and that chief is headquartered at the NAS Corpus Christi, Texas.
Two guys fishing by the granite jetty nea
r Mustang Island State Park. 
Goose neck barnacles find a home on a plastic bottle. I wouldn't call the beaches we've seen especially trashy but we've seen plenty of stuff, including plastic bottles, popped balloons attached to celebratory ribbons, paper plates, juice boxes, Styrofoam containers, and fishing line.   Plastic is the worst because it doesn't biodegrade; instead it breaks up into little pieces that fish and birds eat, which clogs their digestive systems and kills them.  

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bait, tackle, ice

This afternoon we drove to Port Aransas, a town on the north edge of Mustang Island.  It's a fishing, beach and resort town of about 2500 people -- but during the summer the population gets as big as 60,000.  There is only one road in and out of Port Aransas, and on the one side you have to enter via ferry -- so I can’t imagine the crowds.  But today there were just people fishing. And us walking around.
A University of Texas guard pelican. Brown pelicans are endangered, but we saw quite a few.
Another brown pelican. 
We walked around the interpretive center at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Post Aransas.
This huge shark mouth is actually the entrance to a Port Aransas beachwear store. 
This jetty near Mustang Island State Park is made out of huge blocks of pink, gray and black granite.  We saw a similar one in Port Aransas; the one in town was built in the early 1900s.  The granite was brought it by rail, then moved into place on barges. The jetties are popular fishing spots.

Moving islands

We’re on Mustang Island, one of the 9 barrier islands off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico.  It's right next to what I think of as the most well known of the barrier islands -- Padre Island, the longest barrier island in the world.
To quote the Mustang Island park brochure "Barrier islands are living natural systems, constantly moving, re-forming, expanding and contracting, responding to the winds, waves and storms."
Below are photos taken this morning. 
Another birds on the beach photo.    Mustang Island has experienced harmful algae concentrations called "Red Tide" as recently as last week.  Red Tide can kill fish, birds, and other animals.  In people, it can cause burning in the eyes, coughing, and sneezing, and is especially bad for people with respiratory problems. 
The campground at Mustang island State Park is basically a big parking lot with 48 campsites around the edges.  That's our rig at the far left.  Since we have the site on the very end, we have a wonderful view of the sea grass on the dunes and our site seems remote -- which we like. 

A beached Portuguese Man O War.   There were a lot of them on the beach, but this was the biggest one we saw.  
A read a review of the park in which someone criticized the fact that there is sea weed on the beach.  Seems that's like someone saying "I hate Salt Lake City because the mountains obstruct the view."   
Jim carrying his ever present I'm-pickin- up-the-trash-on-the-beach bag.
The surf here seems a lot rougher (and the big waves begin further out) than on Galveston Island.  I'm not sure why that is, as the weather is calm today. Those are pelicans at the bottom left and right.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Low tonight: 71 degrees

We hiked the bay side of Galveston State Park yesterday, and in the afternoon we took another walk on the Gulf side.  Photos of our bay side walk below.
I really need to bone up on my birds.  Or maybe I'll just enjoy looking at them.  Whatever they are, they're big.
Jim and Coop hike on an oyster shell trail.
And I used to think Ohio was flat.
We also talked with a park ranger about exactly how Hurricane Ike impacted the park.  She told us that before Ike, the park had an extra 80 feet of beach. Ike’s force pushed beach sand further out onto Galveston Island. When the water receded, it did so with such force that the former beach -- and everything on it -- was gone.  Amazing.
Before Hurricane Ike, the park's Gulf side had three rows of campsites like these for a total of 150 spots.  Ike obliterated the front two rows; now the park has one row of 50 spots.   Ike also covered the entire park with water and wiped out the park office and two day use areas.  A new day use area was built by volunteers this spring.

This morning we took off for Mustang Island State Park near Corpus Christi, TX.  Low tonight will be 71 degrees with a breeze.  High tomorrow should be about 84.  Is it really snowing in Salt Lake City?