Phannie

Phannie
Photo taken at Winchester Bay, Oregon

Friday, December 30, 2005

Belton to Euless

After a nice visit in Temple with Sandy's mom, Gaylen, and Brenda, Sandy's sister and her two children, Aaron and Staci, we headed back to Dallas, but not without stopping in Waco at La Fiesta, one of our favorite Mexican restaurants, where we have been chowing down for more than 30 years. I used to think the place was busy, but on this Friday night, a security guard had to monitor the crowd that was spilling out the front door. It was just as good as always.

So, we bid farewell to 2005 and our first year as RVers. We feel a good bit more experienced now, and more mindful of what we would like to change about Homer. I wonder what 2006 will bring?

Thursday, December 29, 2005

New Braunfels to Belton

We cooked a huge Mexican omelet for breakfast today. It was plenty for two, taking two spatulas to remove it from the skillet. We knew we didn't have a long pull this day, as we were only going up I-35 as far as Belton, where we would stay overnight and then visit with Sandy's mom, who is in an assisted living center in Temple. With this in mind, we lounged around Homer all morning, then went to a nearby Camping World to pick up a few things, then to Oma's House for lunch. This is a German restaurant at the intersection of I-35 and S. H. 46 in New Braunfels, and we recalled having had a positive dining experience there on a previous occasion. Sandy had a Reuben sandwich/potato soup combination, and I had a weiner schnitzel with sauerkraut. The schnitzel was huge and quite tasty, and Sandy enjoyed her selections, as well. We will definitely return to this place.

After lunch, we stopped at Evergreen RV Center to scope out a new Coachmen 277DS fifth wheel they happened to have in stock. This is a great coach, one that we would certainly have bought if we had known about it before buying the Jayco Jayflight. Although not much longer than the current Homer, it is much more spacious inside, due higher ceilings and a much more efficient interior layout. There is even room for a king size bed, a larger bathroom and shower, and two lounge chairs in the rear! I am lusting after this rig mightily, and it could easily become the new Homer in the near future.

We went back to Canyon Trail to hook up Homer and alas! Our first mishap occurred! When I backed the Hornet's hitch onto Homer's kingpin, the extension and retraction of the locking handle appeared normal as the pin slid into place. For some reason, however, I was distracted and failed to make a visual check that the hitch's locking jaws were engaged behind the kingpin. I also failed to secure the safety latch that keeps the locking handle from moving. After retracting Homer's front legs, I began to pull the rig forward slightly to free up the wheel chocks. As soon as the truck moved, Homer's kingpin slipped out of the hitch, and the trailer fell with a loud noise onto the side rails of the pickup. I stopped immediately and got out to survey the damage. There was a slight indentation in each rail of the pickup bed and a corresponding indentation in the front edge of Homer's aluminum skin where the trailer impacted the side rails. Other than that, there appeared to be no significant damage, except to my ego. I extended Homer's front legs and then hitched up again, this time performing my customary safety check. I'm pretty sure I'll never forget this again, and I'm glad the lesson wasn't a costlier one.

Our pull up to Belton KOA was uneventful, but we weren't impressed with this park, either. The sites were gravel, it was too close to noisy I-35, and the TV cable was so bad, we had to fire up the satellite. The staff was friendly enough, but that didn't overcome the negatives for us. We had dinner at Fiddler's Catfish and Bar-B-Que in Temple. What a lousy restaurant! Everything was served buffet style, and the catfish and sides were inedible. The catfish had a disgustingly fishy taste and slimy consistency, indicating that it was frozen, not fresh. The only things I found otherwise acceptable for ingestion were the seafood gumbo and the barbecued ribs, both of which were actually quite good. Of the things Sandy chose, only the salad was passable for her. I was mystified that the owners were able to cook a really good gumbo—which requires more than a little skill, I have found—and fail so miserably with simpler things. They did have good homemade dinner rolls and cinnamon rolls which, I presume, were the main attractions for the goodly number of other customers. Otherwise, I would guess they were escapees from an asylum for the criminally indiscriminate. It would take a team of Clydesdales to drag me back to this place.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Corpus Christi to New Braunfels

This is departure day to head back home. At the Colonia del Rey RV Park, where we were staying, a large tree towered over Homer and, during our stay, it had shed hundreds of large leaves on our rig. This wasn't a problem for Homer's roof, as the leaves would obviously blow away once we started moving. However, I knew that many leaves had fallen on the flat top of the slideout, and I also knew these had to be removed before retracting the slide for departure. Leaving the leaves there would cause them to be wadded up between the slide flange and the surrounding frame of the trailer. This would cause a displacement of the rubber seal around the opening, allowing water to leak in. Homer wasn't manufactured with a roof ladder, so I had to go to Lowe's and buy a folding ladder. This worked nicely after a nearby camper saw me struggling with it and came over to help me figure out how to unfold and extend it. I am still amazed and impressed at the friendliness of RVers; I really like that about the RV experience. I carry the ladder in the Hornet's bed now, secured by a metal cable lanyard and a lock.

We finally chugged away at noon, headed for an overnight stop near San Antonio. I decided to detour through Robstown again and give Joe Cotton's one more chance at my patronage. I phoned first this time, to ensure I would not be fooled again, and a friendly voice answered that they were, indeed, open for lunch. Cotton's is a large non-descript wooden building with a metal roof, surrounded by a spacious concrete parking lot—just right for parking our rig at the far west edge. Since the décor inside was very rustic, with exposed wood and checkered tablecloths, along with country music blaring, we were a bit startled to see all the waiters in livery—black pants and white shirts and ties with maroon cutoff jackets, as you would expect to see in the Mansion on Turtle Creek. This incongruity faded, however, when we were served ribs, brisket and sausage on butcher paper, along with beans, potato salad, pickles, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers and sliced white bread. The meat was very tasty, and we went away totally unhungry.

The trek back up I-37 toward San Antonio was uneventful and boring, as the coastal plains are not exactly picturesque. Sandy was able to sleep, mercifully, and I began to be aware of the large number of RVs that were headed in the opposite direction, toward Corpus Christi. I suppose I met more than a hundred during the trip, which took about three hours, with a stop or two. The snowbirds who remained up north through Christmas were obviously now in full migration.

We arrived at the Canyon Trail RV park north of New Braunfels just before dark. This is a relatively non-descript park with no shade, skimpy cable TV and too much noise from nearby I-35. It's okay for a transient park, but we probably won't stay here again. We had dinner in Homer—nachos and homemade guacamole. Yum!

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

In Corpus Christi

Today we decided to make a round robin from the southernmost part of North Padre Island, northward through Port Aransas and across the ferry to Aransas Pass. Since we seem always to leave the trailer late in the morning, we stopped at Snoopy's, which was nestled under the bridge leading from Corpus Christi over to Padre Island. This is a very popular restaurant with a large al fresco dining area overlooking the bay. We chose a table outside, as the weather was a perfect 78 degrees with a light breeze from the southeast. We ordered another fried seafood platter, and we were much more pleased with this one. The fish was battered and fried fish-and-chips style, which was okay, because it wasn't catfish, which I mentioned before, must be fried only in a cornmeal coating to avoid ridicule. I was unable to identify the fish used here, however. It tasted like cod, which would have been appropriate for fish and chips, but hardly indigenous to the Texas gulf coast. The rest of the platter consisted of shrimp, oysters and scallops that were breaded before frying, but the breading was sufficiently light to allow the freshness and tastiness of the seafood to be enjoyed. All in all, it was a very good meal, and we decided this was a place to which we would return.
Sandy at Snoopy's

Across the bridge, we turned south into the Padre Island National Wildlife Preserve. This involved a ten-mile trek down the island to a visitor center erected by the National Park Service.
Padre Island Nature Preserve

I guess we don't have much appreciation for the sand dunes and sawgrass, which comprised the totality of the topography that was visible during this drive. Surely wildlife out here would be in desperate need of preserving, lest they die of boredom. The visitor center was very nice and modern and looked out over the beach at the Gulf of Mexico. This is the same seashore that you see in Galveston—the water being sort of dishwater-looking and the beach sand a dirty tan color. We were underwhelmed, to say the least. The things that was most off-putting, however, were several information displays under plexiglass at the railing of the deck area overlooking the ocean. Each one of these mentioned not so much the importance of the area as a nature preserve but imparted to the reader a stern lecture about the evils mankind has done to the environment. They warned the visitors of possible tarballs on the beach that were still washing ashore from an oil spill from a drilling rig back in 1997, even going so far as to describe how to remove them from your skin (use baby oil, which I'm sure everyone carries to the beach). Another placard described, with an array of photographs, samples of the rubbish left behind by visitors and that which washes ashore from other continents and from the ships at sea. The narrative admonished visitors to "take away more trash than you bring." Yet another placard warned that the visitor center in which we were standing, and even Padre Island itself, may disappear one day due to the rise in the oceans' water level due to global warming. At this point, I had had enough. This place must have been built during the Clinton administration by a bunch of environmentalist wackos. We retreated quickly to the Hornet, fired up the diesel engine, whose computer I had reprogrammed to produce more power and better fuel economy by bypassing the factory's clean-emission settings imposed by the EPA. Leaving the parking lot with a nice puff of black diesel smoke seemed very satisfying.

After leaving this godforsaken place, we took highway 163 northbound to Port Aransas. This was a nice highway, but the scenery was much the same, except for an occasional house and storefront. Nearing Port Aransas, we saw an increasing number of RV parks and condominiums near the beach. The city itself was interesting. It has a very laid-back coastal feeling and reminded us of a nascent Key West. There were a lot of tourist shops and eat-a-bites, but we settled on a large restaurant named Virginia's On The Beach for an afternoon snack. This had been recommended to us by Kimberly and Tony, our next-door neighbors in Euless (Kimberly is a Corpus Christi native). We were seated on the open-air covered deck overlooking the yacht harbor. Again, the weather was perfect, and we enjoyed the beautiful scene as the sun slowly descended in the afternoon sky. We lingered over shrimp salad, pico de gallo and tortilla chips. The salad had a nice helping of boiled shrimp (which it should, for $13.95), but the advertised remoulade sauce in which it was tossed was desperately in need of more creole mustard. But then, I judge all remoulade sauces by that served at the legendary Johnny Cace's restaurant in Longview, Texas which, in my view, has the best remoulade anywhere. There were also too many black olives in the salad. The tortilla chips were a bit stale and the pico was only so-so. We shared a serving of much-hyped strawberry shortcake afterward and found it almost inedible. The server had touted the shortcake as being "homemade by the chef," but we would much rather have had the strawberries on top of a Twinkie, which would have been an improvement. The great view and Sandy's company, however, trumped the food misses by far and made for an enjoyable time.

Bidding farewell to Port Aransas, we took the short auto ferry across the ship channel to Aransas Pass. The trip took only about five minutes and there were no fewer than six ferry boats shuttling vehicles from one side to the other. On the Aransas Pass side, there was a very long line of traffic waiting to cross, and I expressed my puzzlement as to why building a bridge over such a short span of water wouldn't be a much more economical arrangement than operating all these ferry boats at no cost to the users. Since we had already visited Aransas Pass the day before, we pointed the Hornet back toward Corpus, some 18 miles away.

After descending the Corpus side of the tall bay bridge, we stopped downtown at the Science and History Museum, which was nearby the Lady Lex. This museum had some mildly interesting exhibits, the most memorable being displays of rocks and minerals that revealed the state stone of Texas (the petrified palm) and the state gem cut (the star topaz). Sandy and I marveled at this, as we had never heard of either of these.

State Gem of Texas

After looking around for a while, we heard the announcement of a tour of the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Not knowing what to expect, we joined the other tour participants, who numbered about six. One of these was a curly-haired Frenchman in his early twenties, accompanied by a female of approximately the same age. Both had an overabundance of hair, but the girl had the unfortunate genetic gift of a rather noticeably misshapen nose. Instead of having the normal indentation at the top of her nose where it connects to the brow, her nose sloped straight down to her nostrils. I couldn't help but think that it looked for the world like the hood ornament on a 1954 Pontiac--you know, the one that resembled an Indian chief cast in amber plastic? On the front of his t-shirt was written, in Spanish, "Sex Instructor-First Lesson Free." The tour guide, a middle-aged male who spoke a bit of French and Spanish, took great amusement in this and delighted in translating the phrase aloud for all to hear. As he finished, the Frenchman's female companion blurted out, giggling, "I am his best customer!" I marveled at this exchange, wondering what possibly could have compelled her to believe the rest of us needed to know any of this tawdry information.
Replica of the Santa Maria

The tour took us outside the museum into an open-air display built especially for the ships, which were constructed as seaworthy vessels back in 1983 to replicate, as closely as possible, the original ships sailed by Columbus. These two ships, along with another replica, the Nina, were actually sailed on an ocean voyage in 1990-91 to commemorate the 500-year anniversary of the discovery voyage in 1492. I was amazed by the handiwork of the construction; this obviously represented an enormous effort by the artisans who crafted these large vessels entirely of wood. Some interesting tidbits offered by the tour guide (who was still flustered and giddy over the t-shirt thing) revealed that the ship's crew slept on the main deck due to the omnipresence of rats in the hold. They also cooked their meals on the main deck, in a metal fireplace with a tray to hold the coals that would otherwise ignite the wooden deck. The ships were made of large wooden planks and, in an attempt to make them as leakproof as possible, tar was used to fill the cracks between the planks. Even so, it was impossible to keep water from leaking into the ship, eventually sinking it if not removed. So, each ship was fitted with a bilge pump made with an assembly of tubes and a leather holding pouch which had to be squeezed regularly by the crewmembers, causing the water to be suctioned out of the hold and overboard. At the beginning of the voyage, kegs of drinking water were taken aboard, but they soon became fouled with bacteria a few days into the voyage. Also taken aboard were kegs of wine, which were mixed with the water to kill the bacteria. This may explain Columbus's arrival in America when he thought he was somewhere else.
Silliness

Joe'Cotton's BBQ

The museum closed after our tour, and we decided to drive over to Robstown to eat at the famed Joe Cotton's barbecue, a restaurant that I had heard of for many years. We found Robstown to be a particularly non-descript place, located in the middle of the very flat coastal plain and surrounded by tilled farmland. Most of its residents appeared to be of a rather low economic status and the place just seemed sort of seedy and worn out. We finally found Joe Cotton's, only to discover that it was inexplicably closed for the evening. Even so, a steady stream of vehicles were driving into the parking lot, noting the darkened sign and building and driving away. This included me, of course, and I was immediately reminded of my similar misfortune last summer when I found McClard's barbecue closed in Hot Springs, a misfortune from which I still have not quite recovered. We decided to protest by eating Mexican food. I picked Taqueria Alto de Jalisco (which I roughly translated, "Tall Taco Joint of Jalisco") nearby, whose parking lot was crowded and contained a police car, always a good sign. Sandy and I split a Tacos al Pastor platter and a serving of crispy beef tacos, along with the requisite beans and rice and charro beans, as well. It came with pico de gallo and guacamole, and it was wonderful. We ate like pigs, forgetting for a while the inhospitable Joe Cotton's.

Monday, December 26, 2005

In Corpus Christi

This day, we were headed out to see the aircraft carrier Lexington, which had been decommissioned by the Navy in 1991 and donated to the City of Corpus Christi. We had a small snack instead of a full breakfast, anticipating that we would want to be hungry at lunch and dinnertime as we tried some of the restaurants that had been recommended to us or that I had found on the Internet. After enjoying a drive down Ocean Drive that fronts on Corpus Christi Bay, we took a photo of the original Whataburger restaurant near downtown. It was now a large, modern two-story restaurant, but we were told that the original burger joint was very modest by comparison.

The Original Whataburger

We stopped for lunch at Catfish Charlie's on McArdle Road and had a combination of fried shrimp and fried catfish filets. These were very fresh and tasty, but the coating on the fish and shrimp had too much flour and not enough cornmeal for our liking. However, they had, hands down, the best homemade tartar sauce we had ever eaten, and wonderful hot hushpuppies.

The Lady Lex

We arrived at the Lady Lex, as the carrier was known during WWII, along with the nickname Blue Ghost. (In keeping with the latter nickname, the ship is illuminated at night with ghostly blue lights, giving it an almost eerie countenance at its moorings in Corpus Christi Bay.) We boarded a tram to take us from the beach up the long concrete and steel ramp built to allow access by tourists. I was quickly struck by the enormity of the ship. It is as tall as a 19-story building and longer than three football fields. Entering into the hangar deck from the ramp, it was amazing how cavernous an area it was, obviously capable of housing a large number of WWII fighter aircraft. As guys must do, I had to go below and tour the engine room. I warned Sandy that there would be a number of staircases down to the bottom of the ship and just as many back up again, but she wasn't deterred. She has a difficult time with stairs since her ankle surgery last February, and I was apprehensive for what I figured lay ahead. My suspicions were verified as we eventually descended five staircases to reach the engine room. On the way, however, we saw a number of other interesting parts of the ship, including the galley, dental clinic, sick bay, post office, chapel and firefighting headquarters. The engine room contained two huge compound steam turbines driving two shafts from massive reduction gears that turned the propellers at a maximum of around 300 RPM. The steam was generated from a series of boilers that burned oil fed to them from tanks in the hold of the ship containing more than a million gallons of the stuff. The turbines also turned generators that delivered 440-volt electricity with enough power for 5,000 homes. It was quite incredible to take in the huge scale of the machinery and superstructure evident there in the bowels of the ship. I was most impressed by the technology available in the late 1930s to construct this leviathan of the seas. All this was pretty much lost on Sandy, who is certainly counted among those to whom things mechanical are not particularly friendly. What goes on under the hood of a car, for example, holds about as much interest for her as making lace doilies would hold for me.
Sandy Bringing up Steam

We made the long trek back up the stairs to the hangar deck, but not without what I know was a good deal of pain for Sandy, as her movements were halting and unsteady. I felt very sorry to have put her in this predicament, although she didn't utter a syllable of complaint. Once upstairs, I proposed that I would go to the upper decks by myself to see the captain's quarters while Sandy rested on a nearby bench. She protested a bit, but finally gave in. I told her I would take photos, and she seemed mollified by this.

Admirals's Conference Room

The captain's and admiral's quarters adjoined each other between the hangar deck and the flight deck. The captain's quarters included a combined stateroom and dining room and a separate bedroom and bath. He also had his own kitchen and a personal chef assigned to make his meals. The admiral's quarters joined this suite, and consisted of a conference room and separate bedroom and bath. The admiral's quarters were actually less impressive than the captain's, but I assume this was because the Lexington did not always serve as a flagship, and the admiral, when aboard, would have access to the captain's amenities anyway.
Captain's Stateroom

The air traffic and combat control centers, while technological marvels of their day, nevertheless seemed prehistoric in their reliance on the use of men with grease pencils, writing on glass panels to plot the movements of aircraft. This stood in contrast to modern ships, where computers control practically everything.

After this, we went to an IMAX movie, included in the price of admission to the ship and playing in a new theater constructed near the stern on the hangar deck (this gives you another idea of how large a place it is). The movie was about fighter pilots in a training exercise and was only mildly interesting.

Afterward, I wanted to go up and see the bridge, and this time Sandy insisted on going up as far as the flight deck, which required climbing another three flights of stairs. She would not be deterred, and up she went, although I knew she would later regret it. On the hangar deck were parked a number of decommissioned fighter aircraft, and we were surprised by the amount of open deck space still remaining empty. A carrier's flight deck appears very spacious except, I assume, when you're trying to land an aircraft on it.

Flight Deck on the Lady Lex

Bridge on the Lady Lex

The bridge was surprisingly small. There were four leather chairs, raised high off the floor for the senior officers, the captain always seated on the front left chair. No one else was allowed to sit in this chair, we were told, when the ship was in motion. Behind the bridge was the pilot house, where the helm was controlled by a wheel no bigger than that of a truck. Behind the pilot house was the captain's day room, which had a bunk and where the captain would ordinarily spend most of his time while at sea. Behind that was the chart room and navigator's station with tall angled tables where the maritime charts would be spread out to monitor the ship's progress. Again, this area seemed almost quaint, given that all of it would be obsolete nowadays when navigation is controlled by computers and satellites.

We then left the Lady Lex, greatly enjoying my time aboard this living piece of history and her important role in some of the most significant naval battles of WWII. She was damaged on two occasions during the war—once by a kamikaze attack and again by a torpedo to the stern. Twenty-seven sailors lost their lives in this attack, but the Lady Lex dealt crippling blows to the Japanese navy, from which Japan never recovered. I imagined what it must have been like aboard that mighty vessel when it was launching planes or under attack itself, and I swear I could almost hear, in a haunting muffled sense, little echoes of the cacophony that must have been deafening while those desperate struggles were taking place more than sixty years ago. My heart was full as I left, mindful of the history, the sacrifice and the pride that I felt during the experience.

We headed out S. H. 35 over the long bay bridge toward Aransas Pass and Rockport to check out these places we had often heard about but never visited. Aransas Pass was a bit of a yawner, but Rockport was a somewhat more picturesque burg with a significant amount of residential development along the coastline, especially in an area known as Fulton Beach. Both places are havens for fishermen and there were RV parks—many, many RV parks—all fairly crowded. The snowbirds were here in force, and it was no wonder. The weather here in late December was just perfect, each day in the 70s or low 80s, with plenty of sun to warm the bones. It's easy to see the appeal, especially for those folks who come down from the northern and eastern states, which are basically like deep freezers during the winter. Who wouldn't want to escape to a warm seashore area where the cost of living is still low?

By this time, we were getting hungry, so we stopped at the Big Fisherman restaurant near Aransas Pass. This place was recommended by Bubba Barker's mom and dad, Aljean and Barry, and Barry said not to miss the seafood gumbo. This was a huge place and very popular. We tried the gumbo, called "Texas Gumbo" on the menu. It was quite spicy, and just as good as its recommendation. However, we were unimpressed with the fried seafood platter and the peel-and-eat shrimp. The fried offerings had too much breading, and we consider catfish that is not dusted in cornmeal before frying to be an act for which the cook would need to pray for forgiveness. The shrimps were okay, but they would have been much better if cooked in a nice spicy boil of Cajun spices. Throngs of other patrons seemed to have no problem gobbling down their dinners, and we do acknowledge that we are incredibly hard to please.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Austin to Corpus Christi

After the rigors of the previous night, we slept in this morning. We decided to have a nice breakfast of bacon, eggs and toast. As is customary, Sandy and I divided up the kitchen duties—I do most of the cooking, and she does, well, everything else. About the time the eggs were frying, Sandy fired up the little electric toaster oven to make some toast. After a short time, the oven suddenly shut off, as did the small electric heater on the floor. The overhead lights had also dimmed, indicating we were now on battery power. I had forgotten that, with a 30-ampere electrical service in most smaller RVs, we can't operate high-draw electric appliances simultaneously. I knelt down under the front of the cabinet below the stove, opened the circuit breaker panel and reset the main circuit breaker. I turned off the heater and Sandy re-started the toaster oven. All was okay, I thought. After a few minutes, however, the smoke alarm began to sound, and we looked over to see smoke pouring from the toaster oven. What Sandy didn't realize was that the toaster oven restarted its cycle after the power interruption, in effect cooking the toast almost twice as long as needed. She began frantically trying to remove the smoking black slices of bread from the oven, while I tried to find the silence button on the smoke alarm. Finally, I had to pluck it from the ceiling and remove the battery. Then I hastily returned to the eggs in the skillet, finding, to my amazement, that they fared just fine. Sandy made some more toast, and we enjoyed a good breakfast in spite of our incompetence.

We decided to take a roundabout route to San Antonio and Corpus Christi, heading west on Texas highway 1431 to Marble Falls, then down U.S. 281 to Blanco, then over to Wimberley before intercepting I-35 again. The rocky hills along the north shore of Lake Travis made for some beautiful scenery, and we enjoyed the diversion very much. One of the downsides to traveling on Christmas day is that virtually no businesses are open. We drove for more than two hours there in the hill country, traversing numerous small and not-so-small towns where there were no restaurants or grocery stores open anywhere. I had planned to get some more diesel fuel in Wimberley, but found not a drop because of the Christmas closures. We finally found a truck stop in San Marcos where we filled up and then went around the corner to a Skillet restaurant, where we settled for a couple of highly substandard hamburgers.
Corpus Christi by the Bay

We stuck with the I-37 to Corpus Christi, as we had messed around and spent way too much time out in the countryside, no matter how enjoyable. Our reservations at the Colonia del Rey RV Park in Corpus were already paid, and we needed to get there before dark, if possible, to avoid another debacle as in Idyll Glen. As it was, the sun had already set when we pulled into the park, but there was a little bit of daylight left to get hooked up. The nice pull-through space made everything easy, and the TV cable worked fine. We were starved by this time so, after unhooking, we trekked back down Padre Island Drive to the Longhorn Steakhouse, where we had an excellent mesquite-grilled steak for two with salad, onion rings, baked potatoes, cauliflower and corn. We couldn't possibly eat it all, and we brought back to Homer enough leftover steak to have some wonderful fajita nachos in a day or two. Back at the trailer and tucked in, Sandy watched an old movie on TV while I surfed the internet looking for things to do and places to eat the next day in Corpus.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Euless to Austin

Idyll Glen RV Park Near Austin

As I am writing this, Sandy and I are sitting in Homer in an RV park in Jonestown, Texas on Christmas morning, while our daughter, Mindy, is in Hawaii. To say that we didn't exactly foresee this circumstance would be an understatement of galactic proportion. Mindy secured her plum Christmas vacation based on a one-minute call on our cell phone while we were driving through the Ozarks on our way home from Branson last summer. On the phone was Diane Thomas, the mother of Jessie, one of Mindy's best friends who had accompanied us on a Caribbean cruise a few years ago. Diane said she was making reservations for a trip to Maui in December, that Mindy was invited, and she needed to secure the airline tickets right then. Sandy and I looked at each other and, aware that we had always tried to show Mindy as much of the world as possible, instinctively said yes. Before we could talk about details, however, the already poor cell reception faded away, not to be retrieved. It wasn't until we got home that we learned that the Hawaiian trip was to be taken during Mindy's and Jessie's high school Christmas vacation period. We were already regretting the thought of Mindy's absence from home during Christmas, and we were also grousing a bit over the airfare, which we thought was a bit expensive, considering the purchase so far in advance, but we didn't say anything. When we later learned that Mindy would be staying at no charge in a condo that rents for about $30,000 a week, we thought we would definitely just be quiet. As Christmas drew closer, it became evident that Sandy (and I, to perhaps a lesser extent) would be an emotional mess at the prospect of Mindy's being away during the holidays, so I quickly thought of where we might take Homer to get away ourselves during this time. I knew that traveling northbound would be out of the question, because RVers just don't go north in the winter; they go south—and in great swarms. In fact, I would be hesitant to travel northbound in an RV in the winter, because of the likelihood of colliding with some other hapless RVer roaring southward in the stampede of snowbirds. So, I advanced the prospect of driving to Corpus Christi, a place neither of us had visited, except perhaps while in transit to somewhere else. This met with an approving nod, so I began to plan the trip.

As was our updated practice for RV trip departures, I had retrieved Homer from the storage facility the previous afternoon. However, because of the rush to tie up all the Christmas-related tasks (last minute gift wrapping, a Christmas party obligation, etc.) before departure, we didn't finish all the pre-departure preparations that would ordinarily be done on the day before launch. I knew we would pay for this the next day, and I was right. Even though little needed to be done to Homer except fill the fresh water tank, we still didn't get away until 1:30 in the afternoon. Sandy had previously packed the four plastic tubs we load onto Homer as standard essentials (soft clothes, underwear, linens, cosmetics, medicine, hygiene supplies, shoes, etc.) We found that we still hadn't finished wrapping the gifts that we would be dropping off in Temple on our way south, so even with the preparations Sandy had done, we were very late leaving. I probably need to mention, however, that we didn't do ourselves any favor by oversleeping. We didn't drag out of bed until 8:00 a.m. Scandalous and embarrassing, to say the least!

I was a little nervous about Homer's plumbing, because I knew the outside temperature had been as low as 13 degrees a few weeks before. At the end of the Kerrville trip in October, I had drained the plumbing from the low point valve and the water heater, as well. I had the sneaking suspicion, however, that I had overlooked something. As it turned out, I had. As I was filling the fresh water this morning, I looked at the drain valve again and noticed there were two other drain tubes nearby that I had not seen before. I quickly checked the Jayco owner's manual and found there were two additional drains whose valves were in the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink! I had not opened these in October, and I feared the worst. I also checked to see if I had opened all the faucets in the coach, and was relieved to find that I had. Then I thought about the shower head and faucets outside the rear of the coach. I hurried out to check and found that I had forgotten to open these! Now I was really nervous, and more than a little concerned that I had been so haphazard in performing my winterizing chores. Having flown jet airliners for years, I was accustomed to exercising a much greater degree of thoroughness in making sure an airplane was in airworthy condition before flying it. With this in mind, I was a bit rattled at my carelessness that was so painfully evident. As it turned out, my fears were groundless. When I powered up the water pump, the faucets coughed and spat water for a while as the air in the lines cleared out, but the plumbing came through fine; there were no broken lines or leaks at all as I closed the faucets, one by one. The only casualty was one of the gallon jugs of drinking water that we store underneath the dinette bench seats. I had forgotten these after the last trip, and one had sprung a leak after obviously having frozen during the cold spell in early December. The jug, with its seal intact, was completely empty, but I didn't see any water damage anywhere, except for a slightly musty smell in the compartment under the bench seat. There were numerous cans of soft drinks under there, as well, but none of them had burst. I hope I don't forget this stuff next time I do winterizing.

We dropped off the gifts in Temple and arrived in Lago Vista, near Austin, well after dark, as is too often our custom, at the Idyll Glen RV Park. I chose this park by virtue of some surfing on the net. It looked very nice and rustic, settled into a hillside as it was, near Lake Travis. I had gotten a reservation over the phone from Milton, a very pleasant man, who gave me verbal instructions on where to park when I arrived. It seems there were only two empty spaces left in the park, and to reach the one earmarked for me would require a "turn to the right at the rocks" and that I couldn't miss it. Well, I did miss it, and I'll lay odds that anyone else would have, too, under the circumstances. Since the park was situated on a rocky hillside there were rocks everywhere, and no fewer than four choices of roads leading away from the park entrance. There were few lights on anywhere, and I decided to take the road farthest to the right and watch for space number two. As it turned out, I should have taken the road farthest to the left! The path I chose led me down a very narrow asphalt trail with RVs on each side, but pointed the wrong way! (Since these were all back-in spaces, they needed to be pointed in the direction I was going, but they were pointed toward me.) There was no way I could back into a space going this direction and no room to pull to the side if I met another vehicle. I knew I was in trouble, but there was nothing I could do but proceed forward and hope for the best. Fortunately, I soon drove into a smallish parking lot near a clubhouse at the top of the hill, where I saw an arrow painted on the asphalt, pointing to the side of the clubhouse and indicating, I surmised, that the correct flow of traffic was in that direction. So, I followed the arrow, thinking I would circle around the clubhouse and go back down the hill, this time in the proper direction. Not! As soon as I turned the corner and the Hornet's headlights illuminated the far end of the building, it was painfully evident, underscored by a rising volume of hysteria from Sandy, that this route was not meant for RVs. A tight turn would be required at the far corner, and it was evident that, if I continued, I would either collide with the rocks or demolish the northwest corner of the clubhouse. Neither of these choices was very appealing, so I elected to back up along the narrow alley and into the parking lot in front of the clubhouse. The only problem was that there was a car parked behind me in such a way that I had to make a reverse s-turn at the corner of the clubhouse. This is not easy at night, using the side mirrors; there is ample opportunity to make a very expensive error. So, I asked Sandy to get her trusty walkie-talkie and guide me through the intricate maneuver, which she did, handily. (How lucky, I thought, that I had had the good sense to purchase these things.) Just as my driver's window reached the front corner of the building while we were backing up, an older couple emerged from the clubhouse door. They stopped abruptly, obviously startled at the spectacle of my rig going backward, weaving between the obstacles in the parking lot. The gentleman finally collected himself and hollered, "Would it help if we moved some of these cars?" Knowing that a little more maneuvering would put me in the clear and, embarrassed at the spectacle I was creating, I said, inexplicably, "No thanks, I need the practice." It was one of those inane comments that one would wish desperately to retrieve, all the while knowing the impossibility thereof, once the words were launched. They had the expected effect on the hearers, who looked at each other in the most puzzled way, as if trying to decide who would make the call to alert the asylum about the escapees. As soon as I had room to swing around, Sandy took her seat in the cab and we chugged back down the hill, this time in the proper direction, which was fine, but we still didn't know where to park. By this time, lights were beginning to come on inside the RVs parked closely together along the winding road, undoubtedly because the quiet darkness of the park had been shattered by all the wanderings and maneuverings of the Hornet and its noisy Cummins engine. The occupants of the RVs probably thought that a new earth-moving project had begun or that the garbage pickup was scheduled for a very inappropriate time. As we clattered around the park, looking for space number two, I thought briefly about just continuing straight ahead over the cliff and into the rocky ravine at the outside edge of the next corner, as a means of ending the embarrassment for good. I don't think Sandy would have minded either, at this point. Just then, Sandy's younger eyes spotted space number two near the entrance of the park where we first began this red-faced excursion all across the hillside!

The parking spot was very narrow, and with about ten more minutes of noisy maneuvering, Homer was nestled in just right so as to be able to extend its slide without hitting the electrical service post at the edge of the parking space. I turned off the ignition key, and the engine mercifully fell silent with a whimpering squeak. (This was normal, I had learned, because a diesel engine stops so abruptly that the fan belts attached to it keep going for a tiny fraction of a millimeter, hence the slight squeak.) As I exited the cab, I dared not look up, as I was sure that a crowd had probably gathered by now. (It hadn't; RVers are a very courteous bunch and tolerant of people who make fools of themselves.)

Presumably as decoration, the owners of the park had outlined all the parking spaces with small boulders, since the rocky area around the park was replete with an inexhaustible supply. Unfortunately, this makes for a treacherous situation when one is stumbling around the trailer in the dark, trying to hook up the utilities. Sandy was having a similarly difficult time keeping her balance as she tried to hold the flashlight for me. This did nothing to diminish my feeling that somewhere out there in the darkness, people were watching us who were either laughing hysterically or calling 911. We finally got all the chores done and settled in, exhausted. We then realized that we hadn't eaten anything. We hadn't had much choice of restaurants on the road, as most everything was closed on Christmas eve. So, Sandy started fixing us a couple of turkey sandwiches, and I flipped on the TV, where I was treated to nothing but a snowy screen. I went outside and looked at the cable connection, which seemed to be okay. I then wiggled it a bit, an action which I pondered for a moment there in the darkness as being a curiously instinctive but inexplicable action that didn't do any good whatsoever. It is moments like these that make me wonder if men didn't evolve from apes, after all. I decided to put up our Christmas decoration. (Yes, I meant to use the singular version of the noun.) Before we left the Dallas area, I had purchased impulsively (from Wal-Mart, where else?) a small Christmas wreath that was not a wreath at all, but a likeness of one painted onto a plastic disk, outlined by small red and green lights. It was on sale for half price and easily one of the cheesiest ersatz Christmas decorations imaginable. It was perfect for the RV, as it is fashionable among RVers to "decorate" their awnings and outside sitting areas with kitschy things like electric Chinese lanterns and plastic peacocks and the like—the more tasteless, the better. I took a photo of it to show Mindy, who will be suitably appalled, thinking as she does that her parents have lost their minds with this RV thing, anyway. Tweaking her disdain for the RV lifestyle by appearing to embrace fervently the "trailer trash" image is great fun for me, as it is impossible for her to conceal her horror of it all.
Christmas in Homer

The TV cable's obvious malfunction was not immediately fixable, as the park office was closed. The alternative, for which I was prepared, was to hook up the satellite dish. By this time, however, it was nearing bedtime, so we elected instead to watch a movie on DVD. So much for Austin and its environs. Corpus tomorrow!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Marble Falls to Euless

We motored around Marble Falls today, stopping at Ken's Catfish and Barbecue for lunch. Catfish being one of our favorite foods, we find it hard to pass up one of these joints. It was quite good, and our hankering was fully satisfied. This was a nice little burg and quite picturesque, especially along the high cliffs of the Colorado River. We drove along a narrow residential lane on the south bank of the river and admired the river view of some of the houses built precariously close to the rocky edge. We saw a realtor's yard sign in front of one of these and called the listing agent just to see how close we came to guessing the price. It was a nice place with a guest cottage, but not nearly as large as our 3,500 square foot house in Dallas. Prior to making the call, my guess on the price was $450,000, and I think Sandy's was something less. When the agent told us it was priced at $1.4 million, I just about ran off the road! I guess I haven't been keeping up with the real estate market.

On our way back through Burnet, we stopped at a place that sells park model trailers. These things are a curious phenomenon, rapidly gaining in popularity, according to what I have read. It's essentially a small mobile home that's more the size of a travel trailer (no more than 12 feet wide). It's not designed for RV travel but for towing to a semi-permanent location then set up as a second home or vacation cabin. For some reason, I find them mildly appealing, I guess because of their simplicity and ease to maintain. It would be unthinkable, though, for one of these little things to be your only permanent residence. There's just not enough room. It's funny how the aging process turns things upside down. Just ten years ago, I would have still have been in the "acquisition" mode in terms of housing. Bigger was always better. But, as I'm on the older side of middle age, I marvel at the change in my priorities. Nowadays, I'm focusing on what I can get rid of. Keeping up our big house is a constant hassle and a monstrous expense, and I won't be sorry to see it go after Mindy moves out. I'm looking forward to retiring, jettisoning much of the stuff we've accumulated and simplifying our lifestyle. I think I would be perfectly happy with a condo or something similar, where all the upkeep is someone else's problem, and it would serve as a home base for what would be a constant pastime of RV travel. Now, if I can just get Sandy to buy into it!

Sunday, October 9, 2005

Kerrville to Marble Falls

Sunset RV Park on Lake LBJ
We decided to break camp a day early and motor back through Fredericksburg to a new RV park near Marble Falls. It was a Sunday, and as we pulled onto the main drag in Fredericksburg, we were struck by the number of tourists everywhere. We had intended to stop and look around a bit at the shops, but we were both put off a bit by the throngs. We elected to keep going, saddened a bit that the quaint town has become so commercialized. I punched the accelerator and the diesel clattered happily up to its normal 1800 rpm for cruising. We were headed for Marble Falls. I had spotted the target RV park—Sunset on Lake LBJ—on the Internet while doing a little surfing the night before, and I was ready for a change of scenery. This was a beautiful new park, built right on the edge of its namesake lake, near the dam. It was very spacious, all parking spots being concrete with asphalt connecting roads. This is the first park we visited that had no TV cable, so I set up the satellite dish, and we soon had Direct TV going strong. We have the portable dish that sets on the ground, but we plan to put a roof-mounted one on the next RV. After unhooking, we went back up the road a piece to the Farmhouse restaurant where, again, we had a respectable dinner of mostly standard roadhouse fare.

Saturday, October 8, 2005

In Kerrville

We cooked and ate a nice breakfast and decided to wander around the area a bit. There was an arts and crafts show going on around the courthouse square, and we stopped in to look around. The weather was perfect—crystal clear blue sky and temperature in the seventies. Being outside on such a day was more of a treat than the show.

Kerrville Arts and Crafts Festival

Some of the artsy-crafty things were interesting, but my investment in a small jar of Rainier cherry preserves made by a vendor from Hunt, Texas, was nothing short of spectacular. I'm not sure I've ever had better preserves of any kind. The jar is almost empty as of this writing, and I'm rationing myself as I try to locate the vendor. I'm starting to panic, because there is nothing on the internet. It would just be unseemly to hire a private detective, but I'll swear it would be worth it. Update: I finally found the source of the preserves—a pleasant woman named Karen who lives on a ranch near Hunt and makes all her jellies, jams and preserves from fruit grown organically on her land. She explained that the Rainier cherry preserves were a specialty, in that she had bought them on a recent trip to Washington and that they were only available for a brief time each fall. I had never heard of them before, but I was now a devotee, even at six bucks for a small jar. She said that she only had two jars left! I ordered them at once, along with some other flavors that she described over the phone. She even had preserves she had made from cactus and flowers. I didn't think I was ready for a whole jar of those. I bragged and bragged on her handiwork, and she seemed thrilled that someone appreciated the obvious pride she took in her skill. I offered a credit card to make the sale, but she said she would just put a bill inside the box when she mailed the preserves. I marveled at the trust she placed in me merely by the sound of my voice on the phone—only in Texas, I thought. I also thought about the neat experience of this little diversion—finding such a delightful little treat by pure happenstance. It was not so much the preserves, although they are unimaginably good, but the uniqueness of this little vignette—the woman from a tiny Texas hill country burg who takes so much pride in her product, plus the quaintness of the trust she still had in mankind, unspoiled by the rapaciousness and deceit that is so much a part of a big city. I savored this experience greatly, knowing that Sandy and I will be one of the very few people who will sample her wares and feel her warmth as our lives briefly touch. This is what traveling is all about—not only enjoying the awesomeness of the world God created for us, but finding little lagniappes like this that will always be etched into our memories.

We had lunch at El Acapulco, a busy Mexican restaurant not far from downtown. The food was quite passable, although not particularly memorable. The entrée was large—plenty for the both of us.

We drove around in the country west of Kerrville, enjoying the rolling hills and marveling at all the deer grazing by the roadside with little fear of us. At one point, we came upon some unusual looking cattle. There were two longhorns, with which we were familiar, but there were several others with really striking black coats in the front and rear and a beige band in the middle. Sandy exclaimed that they were clearly designer cows—probably Liz Claiborne. We took some photos for evidence, but I'm a little dubious about the Liz Claiborne thing.

Texas Longhorn


Sandy's "Designer" Cows

We stopped at a Gibson's discount store—one of the few remaining after Wal-Mart's conquest of retailing to the masses. I suppose it survived because it has morphed into something else—a store that deals mostly in fishing and hunting gear, with a significant amount of hard-to-find housewares, gadgets and hardware. It was a very interesting place, and we bought a small electric heater for Homer. (A norther had come through a day or two ago, and we nearly froze during the previous night. Sandy was scared to turn on the central heat in Homer because it uses propane, which I suppose she thought was either too volatile or too noxious for human use. Never mind that it has been around a hundred years or so; I'm sure its approval by the government is right around the corner.) I was finally able to demonstrate that it worked fine without asphyxiating us, but her skepticism was not easily overcome. I bought the electric heater anyway, because it didn't make much sense to use Homer's propane when I could use the RV Park's electricity for free—well, that is, for the price already paid in the space rental fee.

We had dinner at La Four's Seafood Restaurant in Kerrville, a family-run place that was really pretty good, considering how far away from any sea it is. One of the remarkable things about it was the energy of the waiter—a young man who was the son of the owner. He literally ran everywhere he went. The service was, as you might imagine, spectacular. We had refills on everything almost before we realized they were getting low. The poor kid just wore me out watching him—oh, to have that much energy again! Like El Acapulco, La Four's was very adequate if one is seafood-hungry, but it was not a jaw-dropper, by any means. Afterward, we got some provisions at the local HEB grocery and retreated to Homer for the night. The park's water pressure was back up, and I let out a sigh of relief. I'm sure Sandy wouldn't have slept a wink if the water main hadn't been repaired.

Friday, October 7, 2005

Euless to Kerrville, TX

The Texas Hill Country
It has been a long four months since our return from Branson. Near the end of that chapter of the travelogue, I was lamenting our return to Texas in mid-June, only to encounter the oppressive Texas heat. I knew we wouldn't be going anywhere again until October, because Sandy and I despise traveling when we're prisoners of the air conditioner. Because we despise hot weather so much, we often fantasize how nice it would be to be able to live in, say, Maine for the summer. It's just as well, though, that we've been in a holding pattern, because we had a bit of a tussle with Jayco over Homer's plumbing system. I had wondered why the black tank needed to be dumped so often—sometimes twice a day. When we took the rig in to get a small leak fixed after our Branson trip, the technicians at Vogt RV, Homer's birthplace, discovered that the shower was plumbed so as to drain into the black tank instead of into the gray tank! This is a huge problem, because bath and toilet water comprise by far the greater volume of waste water. This means the gray tank would be receiving just the drainage from the kitchen sink and the lavatory, which is almost nothing in comparison.

Since Homer's tanks are relatively small—approximately 35 gallons—using the shower filled the black tank very quickly. I wrote a blistering letter of complaint to Jayco, asking for the plumbing to be rerouted under warranty to a normal configuration or for them to take the trailer back because of what I considered a monumental design flaw. They wrote back a curt reply saying, in essence, that it was not a design flaw and that I would just have to get over it. Astonished at their cavalier attitude, I took my letter and Jayco's reply to Vogt RV. They were equally appalled and took copies of the correspondence, indicating they might be able to do something about it. Thankfully, they did. After weeks of wrangling with Jayco, the Vogt folks prevailed, and Jayco agreed to fund a fix for the plumbing. The fix, however, was not what I expected. Instead of re-plumbing the drain lines to empty into the correct tanks, they elected to replace the black tank with a 70-gallon version—roughly twice the capacity of the factory original. It seemed this would solve the problem, but I wondered why it wouldn't be simpler just to reroute the shower drain. They said it wasn't. Seems like poor design to me. I happily accepted the fix, though, grateful for Vogt's intervention.

The trip to the Texas hill country was my idea. I've always liked the area, and I've been trying to figure out where we might live when I retire from the FAA in about five years. So, it was, for me, as much an investigative journey as anything else. Sandy, however, was not necessarily on the same page. Even though she has retired from teaching, she hasn't necessarily zeroed in on the fact that I, too, am nearing retirement and that a lifestyle change will be needed. She is still trying to cope with the fact that our daughter, Mindy, is now 18 and no longer particularly needful of parental oversight. In fact, she is downright hostile to it. Neither of us has a clue where those 18 years went; yet, in typical male fashion, I have applied logic and moved on. In Sandy's mind, however, Mindy has yet to reach puberty. It is no wonder, then, that looking for retirement venues is not necessarily on Sandy's radar screen. To her credit, however, she is a trooper and gamely goes along with whatever harebrained scheme I cook up, perhaps thinking that this, too, shall pass. That's one of the myriad of things I love about her. So, here we go again, perhaps on slightly different pages, but always ready for a new adventure.

We're getting smarter about preparing Homer for trips. We had determined that it was not a good plan to retrieve the rig from storage, prepare it for departure, and then start the trip all on the same day. It was just too big a job. This time, we brought Homer to the house the afternoon before departure day and did most of the chores ahead of time. This involved things like inflating all the tires properly, checking the propane tanks, adding some fresh water, taking inventory, etc. We also loaded everything we could that evening that we knew wouldn't need any handling or additions the next morning. As it turned out, we were lucky we accomplished this much beforehand, because we found ourselves moving a little more slowly than usual the next morning due to some minor physical ailments, and we didn't make it away from the house until about 11:30 a.m.

Due to my disdain for interstate highways, I decided to take us on the back roads for this trip. We stopped in Glen Rose, Texas, for lunch choosing Grannies' Down Home Cooking near the town square. Glen Rose is a quaint little town that time has largely forgotten, nestled on the bank of the beautiful Guadalupe River. It's probably best known for its ancient dinosaur finds, including footprints of the beasts made in ancient mud that hardened into stone. We didn't stop for this attraction, but we'll put it on our list for another time. (Eating always wins out over improving the mind!) Sandy and I strolled into Grannies' (spelled that way because, at one time, there were two grannies; one finally bought out the other's interest in the restaurant, but didn't change the name) and were immediately met by the open arms of, well, Granny. When she saw us come in, she immediately arose from a table near the rear of the room and started walking toward us with arms extended. Sandy and I looked at each other, as if to say, "What do we do now?" We thought Granny had mistaken us for some long lost friends or something. She gave us both big hugs, and I'm sure that if someone with a camera had been behind her, taking a photo of our faces, our expressions would have proven fairly humorous. We were totally perplexed, but didn't resist; after all, who could resist a hug? We later found out that hugging was Granny's trademark. She hugs everyone who comes into the restaurant, disarming reluctant strangers like us with her warm smile, her shawl, and her constant banter. She looked as though she had been chosen for her part by central casting. The lunch consisted of a wonderful southern cooking buffet, with killer meatloaf, chicken spaghetti and fresh vegetables, topped off with a moist coconut cake. The tab was cheap, and we needed to be rolled out in a wheelbarrow.
Gannies' Cafe in Glen Rose
Granny in Her Glen Rose Cafe
We continued west on highway 67 to Stephenville and then down to Dublin on highway 16. We stopped at the Dublin Dr. Pepper bottling company, which is legendary in that it is one of the few bottlers of Dr. Pepper—if not the only one—that refused to switch from sugar to cheaper corn syrup as a sweetener for the drink. As a result, Dublin Dr. Peppers achieved a sort of cult-like following of consumers who believe the real McCoys are far superior to those that are syrup-sweetened. We're not really sure, although we've tasted both carefully. They have a gift shop in the plant that sells everything Dr. Pepper and, of course, Sandy had to get a Dr. Pepper T-shirt for Mindy. (Much to our relief, Mindy professed to like it. This was very unusual, but then it was an article of clothing, of which she can never have too many.)
Dr Pepper Museum in Dublin
Inside the Dr Pepper Museum

We stopped in Burnet for barbecue at Cooper's BBQ. Wow! Everything about this place just says, "Texas." You choose your meat at the pit before you go inside. The pit boss spears it and plops it onto a tray that you drop off as soon as you enter the restaurant. The guy behind the counter then takes a butcher knife and deftly applies his carving finesse, making the presentation even more appetizing and easy to eat with your fingers. Once your tray is reloaded with the dressed-up meat and sides, you seat yourself at one of many long rows of picnic tables, where you can chew the rag with a stranger or just, well, chew. Cooper's has really tasty meats and is well worth being starved when you get there.
Cooper's BBQ in Burnet

The drive on to Kerrville was very scenic, as we expected. The Texas hill country has its own unique identity that's not easy to describe, because part of its charm is in the feeling one has about it, especially among native Texans, I think. Not to diminish the connection that non-natives can develop for the state, but most Texans by birth seem to exhibit a love for this immense state that is not unlike a love of country or love of the family farm. The hill country is like a bauble on a grand dame, joining other jewels like the piney woods of east Texas, the sawgrass of the gulf coast and the rugged crags of the Big Bend to make up her whole persona. It's as much of an air, or feeling, as it is an appealing landscape. Traveling through the rocky hills reveals not the majestic grandeur of the Rockies but the almost audible heartbeat of a land of legend and mystique, both wild and winsome at the same time. The undulating change in dimension between land and sky creates a different visual treat with the rounding of a curve or the crossing of a crystal stream. Surveyed from the top of a ridge, the hills seem to stretch without end, passing under cottonlike clouds at the edge of the impossibly blue sky. At day's end, the sun brushes gilded clouds onto a pink and purple canvas, as it reluctantly leaves to shine on lesser lands. Marveling at God's handiwork, I can't help but get a lump in my throat and think that it is all so very Texan.
"At day's end, the sun brushes gilded clouds onto a pink and purple canvas..."





We arrived at the Take-It-Easy RV Park in Kerrville after dark (naturally), but the manager, who lives in his fifth wheel near the entrance, checked us in cheerfully and directed us to a parking spot in the middle of the park. As we unhooked and began setting up Homer, a man from a nearby trailer came over with a floodlight that helped immensely with the manipulation of the hoses, cords and cranks. We continue to be amazed at the almost universal friendliness of people in the RV community. To give a fellow camper a helping hand is considered a standard code of conduct. It's very comforting in a way. It reminds me of my home town, Nacogdoches, Texas, where everyone knew each other and seemed like members of a large family. Living in a big city, I've missed that warm feeling, and here it is again, alive and well among fellow RVers.
Take-It-Easy RV Park in Kerrville

This is not to say there aren't some characters in these places. For example, while we were puttering around outside Homer the next day, Sandy noticed an elderly lady walking alongside the lane near our parking spot. Nearby was a wooden bin that had been constructed beside the lane to hold residents' garbage bags out of sight until an attendant could pick them up later. As the lady approached the bin, she stopped and stared at it for quite a long time, as if trying to figure out its purpose or perhaps wondering why she had stopped, as she wasn't carrying anything with her. This was a bit unnerving to Sandy, who apparently did a quick mental fast-forward and didn't exactly like gazing into the crystal ball to see herself as aged and insensible like this poor lady. As I see it, Sandy's pushback from growing old is not a bad thing. I think we're really only as old as we see ourselves to be.

That same morning, the wife of the gentleman who loaned us the floodlight walked over and asked if we had a dog. She was a big-boned woman with a deep voice, probably from too much tobacco, caffeine or gin, and she was clearly not someone I would want to mess with. Sandy told her we didn't have a dog, and she then went into a long, raspy tirade about her discovery that morning of a pile of dog poop near her trailer. After learning that we were not the offenders, she stormed off, vowing to find the poor animal that relieved itself in such an unfortunate location. It was not clear, however, that if she found a dog, how she would be able to determine its culpability in the crime, given the rather small likelihood that it would confess. After marveling at this for a short while, I noted for the record this rare divergence from the heretofore unwavering friendly spirit normally evident among fellow RVers. (As I write this, I realize that I frequently use the word "marvel" as a verb. I think this is one of my favorite descriptors of the sense of wonderment that I feel when I see something or someone that strikes me as unusual or curious.) Another benefit of the relaxed pace of RV travel is the opportunity merely to pause and observe—or "marvel"—at what's going on around you, much like an actor who steps out of a play and sits in the audience for a while, seeing the performance from a brand new perspective.

That same morning, while washing dishes, Sandy noticed that the water flow from the kitchen faucet slowly dwindled and eventually stopped altogether. Now, you need to know Sandy to have an appreciation for the sky-is-falling anxiety that such an event can create for her. She is freakish about personal hygiene and is pathologically fussy about the cleanliness of kitchens and bathrooms. The idea that the flow of water, the ultimate source of maintaining a clean environment, had suddenly ceased would, in her mind, certainly be the last great calamity to strike the earth before Armageddon. Her eyes fluttered and rolled back in their sockets. Just as her corneas disappeared above her eyelids, I walked over and flipped the switch on Homer's electric pump that draws from the fresh water holding tank and pressurizes the plumbing system. In an instant, the water pressure was back up to normal. We later found out that plumbers had temporarily cut off the park's water main to repair a leaking pipe. With the restoration of water pressure from the electric pump, the color began to return to Sandy's face, and I used the occasion to point out to her that, unlike her beloved stick-built house, Homer has a backup fresh water system that is worthy of some appreciation. The answer I got back was something like, "Harrumph." I made my point, I guess, but I hadn't won the match.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Gore to Euless, TX

After a nice breakfast, we started preparing Homer for the final leg home. As one of the last little chores, I added to our U. S. map on Homer's door the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. This is a cool way to chronicle visually our travels in Homer, and it was thoughtful of the Barkers to purchase it for us as a gift after I had admired the one on their trailer.
Sandy Adding Oklahoma to Homer's 'States Visited' Map

The leg home was uneventful, except it was depressing to see the outside temp gauge in the Hornet slowly climb to 99 degrees as we neared Texas. I'm not sure we'll be going anywhere else this summer; it's just too darned hot! Sandy and I have always wondered what a fall or spring vacation would be like. She could never take one at those times of year when she was teaching. Now that she's retired, I'm sure we'll be trying it. Summer travel from now on will likely be to places where we can find some cool weather. I guess that pretty much limits us to the very northernmost states or the mountains or Canada. We're already talking about going to Maine next summer.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Eureka Springs to Gore, OK

We slept late this day and drove around Eureka Springs some more, learning a little more about the town. We found that the springs around which the town was formed—much like Hot Springs—were famed for their medicinal qualities toward those who drank and bathed in the water. There were even a couple of old bath house/hotels still there, which we would have loved to see. A shopkeeper told us that the water in the springs had become contaminated around 35 years ago, and the flow of water was stopped for public use. She said she remembered what a traumatic event that was for the community. It would be interesting to take a look at the newspaper stories from that era. That Eureka Springs snapped back so strongly is a tribute, I suppose, to those who promoted the Passion Play and the town's image as a honeymoon getaway. Whatever they did seems to have worked; there is certainly a lively tourist trade, with seemingly endless hotel/motel accommodations along route 62. There are also many, many beautiful Victorian bed and breakfast places, as well as a couple of country music theaters.

Before leaving town, we stopped at a joint that advertised the best Ozark fried chicken and barbeque and had a cool-looking barbeque pit outside, fashioned in the shape of a cannon. It was enough to hook me, so we went inside to see what the best Ozark fried chicken tasted like. Because of the effectiveness of the outside appearance of the place, I ignored several other warning signs that were obvious: It was nearly noon and we were the only patrons, and there were only two employees present, which means they had not planned to be overrun with customers. One of the employees was a cranky little woman who was only visible from her eyebrows upward as she barked orders to the harried middle-aged blonde lady who manned the counter. The fact that customers were present didn't dissuade her from continuing to badger the order-taker over whether she had mopped the restrooms. The place was also uncomfortably warm inside, which prompted me to ask if they had air conditioning. The blonde lady, wiping her forehead, replied that she had been working hard at mopping the whole place and hadn't turned on the air conditioner. This was certainly more than I needed to know. Since she herself was obviously uncomfortably warm, I assumed the little Nazi lady in the kitchen was the owner and did not wish to waste electricity for air conditioning on mere employees. I was even a little surprised when the blonde lady turned it on for just us two customers. These were all very bad signs. Mean cooks do not make for happy meals. My instinct told me to just turn around and leave, but I was now intrigued; I wanted to validate this latest bit of insight. Very wary of what I was likely to be served, I ordered only one chicken dinner, which consisted of three pieces of chicken, a scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy and baked beans. Within three minutes, the blonde lady called me up to the counter, where she handed me the meal on a Styrofoam plate with plastic utensils. I knew right away that, unless some new frying technique had been discovered, the chicken had been cooked for some time. It had indeed but, actually, it wasn't too awful. Perhaps my hunger was affecting my taste buds. Sandy and I shared the chicken, and I tried the potatoes and beans. The potatoes had no taste at all. I was curious as to how they could possibly have prepared these in such a way that any element that contributed to a potato taste could have been removed. They must have really worked at it. The "baked" beans were out of a can and were barely warm. I really wanted to give the little Nazi lady a piece of my mind, but she had disappeared into the bowels of the kitchen and her head was not visible at all. Besides, it was getting late in the day for departing with Homer. So we left, marveling at the vast number of restaurant owners who don't seem to care that they serve slop and the equally vast number of diners who eat it without protest.

We headed south toward Fayetteville, stopping there early in the afternoon to finish lunch. I chose La Huerta, a Mexican restaurant on highway 71 that still had a parking lot full of cars at 2:30 in the afternoon. This was a good sign. We ordered two combination dinners, which included a taco, an enchilada and a chalupa with chili con queso. When our meals arrived, all three items were exactly alike. All contained the same serving of finely ground hamburger meat, poorly seasoned. Only the tortillas were differently formed so as to make a taco, and enchilada and a chalupa. The chili con queso, a tasteless emulsion that had the consistency of milk, had been poured over the hamburger meat on the chalupa and had quickly disappeared, except for a thin, filmy residue. We ate a bit and left, but not without pausing to look at the many other customers, chomping away at this mess as though they thought it was good. Note to self: Don't bother eating tex-mex outside of Texas ever again. We've tried it everywhere, and it just doesn't measure up. (London, England was the worst.)

We could have jumped on I-540 from Fayetteville at this point, but U. S. 71 paralleled it all the way to its intersection with I-40 south of Fayetteville. I opted to take U. S. 71, because it obviously was the old route that I-540 replaced, so I knew it would not be heavily traveled. The road atlas I was using also showed highway 71 to be a scenic route (you know, the little green dots alongside the route). We weren't disappointed. The road was excellent, and there was so little traffic that we were able to slow to a crawl in many places to enjoy the magnificent vistas out over the Boston Mountains. We also went through wonderful sleepy little towns like Mountainburg, where there was an old-time drive-in called the Dairy Cream. I was sure it would be a great joint for foodies like us to stop, but we were still gagging from the previous two food debacles that day. We just waved, forlornly, as we went by.

As we neared I-40, we noticed a roadside vegetable stand just outside Alma, Arkansas. We did a quick u-turn and pulled into a church parking lot next door. We loaded up on cucumbers, squash, new potatoes and sweet corn, all of which looked as though it had just been brought in from the field. It was ridiculously cheap, too. We got four big bags of veggies for about eight bucks. I knew we had some steaks in the fridge, so I was planning to have a good meal that day, even if we had to fix it ourselves.

We got on I-40 and droned on into Oklahoma, stopping at the Marval resort in Gore, a tiny burg that billed itself as the "trout fishing capital of Oklahoma." Bubba, who was now preceding us by a day, called to say that they had stayed there and recommended the place, so we were looking forward to another good overnight spot. This was, indeed, a nice park, situated on the bank of the river formed by the water released from the Tenkiller Reservoir. The river was a fast-flowing, sparkling clear stream, cold as ice. One couldn't possibly swim in it without a wet suit, but it was certainly appealing, as it was 95 degrees this afternoon.

We set up in a shady spot and I began assembling my portable charcoal grill that I had bought for ten bucks as we were stocking Homer for its maiden voyage last May. I was astonished at the amount of assembly required for so small a device. I suppose there is no getting around this, but it took about an hour, using the dreaded "bolt A, washer B, locknut C" instruction diagram and dropping every other one of the infernal little parts through the cracks in the picnic table. This little grill was made in China for Sunbeam Corporation. They seem to have gone to a lot of trouble to arrange all the parts in such a way that the grill would barely fit, glovelike, into the box, which I utterly destroyed in the throes of birthing the grill from its cardboard womb. The Chinese obviously went to a lot of trouble to manufacture, sort and package the myriad of little parts and their packaging, not to mention printing the extensive instructions in three languages. Surely it wouldn't have been too much more trouble for the Chinese just to have put the grill together in the first place. I really don't know where we poor consumers are headed from here. I think pretty soon they're going to just send us some iron ore, a tiny blast furnace and some engineering drawings and have us make the danged product ourselves!

After the stupid and frustrating grill assembly process, I discovered that my charcoal starter fluid was missing. Then I remembered that I had loaned it to Bubba in Hot Springs. He obviously failed to return it when our hamburger cookout was finished. I shall have to punish him for this omission, as I had to jump into the Hornet and drive back into Gore for another can of lighter fluid.

I can't remember what law it is when, faced with two ways to turn to look for something in a store, you will always find that it is in the other direction. Such was the case in the Harp market in Gore. Spotting sporting goods in the far north end of the store after entering, I headed for that area to look for the charcoal starter. Every other thing imaginable for a picnic was there, except for charcoal and charcoal starter. I turned around and ambled back toward the south end of the store and found the charcoal starter where I'm sure every Goreian would have looked for it—near the pickles! Go figure. I wasn't very happy with Bubba right then, but I got over it pretty quickly.

Hungry, hot and exasperated, I finally got the steaks going about 8:00 p.m., while Sandy cooked some corn on the cob, baked potatoes and a salad made with the fresh cucumbers. It was all delicious and more than made up for our restaurant debacles of the day.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Branson to Eureka Springs, AR

Today we said goodbye to Branson and moved Homer to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where we met our good friends John and Myrna Fields, who have a lake home in nearby Shell Knob, Missouri. They were accompanied by their son, Steve, and a couple from Weatherford, Texas, John and Myrna's home town. We drew on the good nature of the Barkers and asked to break out of our caravan at this point, allowing us—and them—maximum flexibility to make the homeward leg as needed to allow for our visit with the Fieldses. LouAnn determined that she would, indeed, visit Dick's five and dime store before leaving, based on our fervent recommendation. She did a lot of looking, but seemed far more restrained in her purchases than we had expected. Perhaps she was just exhausted from previous shopping adventures. In order to accommodate this shopping trip, we arranged with Cooper Creek to drop the trailers in an unoccupied spot while we drove into old Branson. We returned around 1:00 p.m. and noticed that the Barkers still hadn't pulled out for their leg to Gore, Oklahoma. Now having some insight into their traveling habits, we were not terribly surprised or concerned.

Our short drive to Eureka Springs was through very hilly terrain, which slowed us down considerably, as did some fairly heavy rain showers during the last 20 miles or so. The rain really cooled things down, though, and the Hornet's outside air temp gauge read 75 degrees at Eureka Springs! What a welcome relief from the mid-nineties every day in Branson.

We had a really good dinner with our friends at the Catfish Cabin restaurant in Eureka Springs, after which, we gave them a tour of Homer and the Wanderlust campground. This is a nice, clean park, moderately priced, but with no cable TV. There are scenic hills all around, but not enough shady spots, unfortunately. After our guests left, we drove around Eureka Springs and marveled at the quaintness of its European-style setting, perched almost impossibly in the steep, heavily wooded hills. There was way too much too see—and for Sandy, way too much shopping opportunity—in the brief time we were here, so we made a pact to return soon. We did manage, however, to buy some stunning baubles for Sandy from Zark's, whose jewelry and decorative art pieces were unique and marvelous to behold. John and Myrna had turned us on to this place, and Zark's should be sending them a royalty check, based on the coin we left behind there.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

In Branson

These days were spent doing some shopping and seeing shows at Branson. Since the Barkers had BreAnn and Jeff along, they spent one of the days at Silver Dollar City, an especially nice amusement park nearby. When our Mindy was younger, we made several trips to this park and many others, and by far, Silver Dollar City was our favorite. As for the shows, we saw the Haygoods, the Hughes Brothers, 50s at the Hop, Pierce Arrow, Broadway and Ray Stevens. Of these, only Ray Stevens disappointed. Ray seemed a bit off his timing and didn't have much to offer beyond his old silliness, which by now is a bit worn. The other shows were well worth the price of admission and are definitely recommended. As for dining, we have not found much that is impressive in Branson. We ate at the only Thai restaurant in town, which was too expensive and so unremarkable that we're not even going to mention the name; in fact, we've already forgotten it! A definite T.A.G.L. (Take a Good Look, cause we ain't coming back!) We also tried the Dockers buffet, which was absolutely insipid. Same for the Cannery, whose only saving grace was an old gentleman playing the guitar and singing some wonderful old tunes while we dined. We also ate at Casa Fuentes, a small Mexican food place that wasn't too bad by Missouri standards but would surely have been burned to the ground by the tex-mex aficionados in Dallas/Ft. Worth if it had opened there. We actually found two bright spots: Billy Bob's Dairy Mart, a tiny mom-and-pop hamburger joint that advertised old fashioned hamburgers. These were cooked to perfection, with large hand-formed patties and properly grilled buns. The frozen French fries disappointed, however; next time, we'll order potato chips. We also tried Smack's, a little deli across the street from Dick's Five and Dime store. It had been recommended to us because of their homemade bread used to make sandwiches. While the bread was good, the sandwich was nothing but cold cuts and cheese, and we could have done that ourselves. Their biggest gaffe of all, however, was the iced tea, of which Sandy is a world-class judge. She proclaimed their swill to be much too old and strong and, when she asked for a glass of ice, they served her—no kidding—a mouthwash-sized Dixie cup with a few cubes of ice in it! Now Sandy is nothing, if not particular about her iced tea. It must be fresh, not too strong, and served over a washtub full of ice. When the owner set the little Dixie cup of ice on the table, I thought she was going to pop a vein right there on the spot. I ushered her out before she garroted the guy, who deserved at least a good dressing-down, but we were running a little short on time before the next show. I knew that the ensuing felony proceedings would delay things entirely too long.

Speaking of Dick's Five and Dime, this is a must-see store for Branson visitors. It is faithful to its hype as a last-of-its-kind dime store. The place is huge and, although we have visited it several times, we still haven't managed to see everything. It is truly a throwback to a bygone era when ladies selected their undergarments from shelved stacks of various sizes along one side of an aisle. You could buy paper dolls and hairnets, sprinkler tops for soda bottles (used for sprinkling clothes while you ironed them), bubble gum in the shape of a cigar, oldtime planks of taffy and hundreds of other things you just don't see anymore. Of most fascination to me were the one-of-a-kind gadgets. We weren't able to leave the store without buying corn ear butterers and a lemon squeezer, of all things. We also bought a small broom and a picnic tablecloth (complete with corner grippers for windy weather) for Homer. What a place! We tried to impress on the Barkers that they need to visit this unique store before they leave Branson, but I wasn't sure they would be able to work it in. Perhaps it's just as well; LouAnn, like Sandy, is a shopaholic and, if she ever sees the place, she will likely never leave. They'll just have to bury her in the back parking lot when she goes to her reward!

Bubba suggested Landry's for our meal on the last night in Branson. Now Landry's is a chain restaurant, and all who know me are aware of my aversion to most chain store food emporia. There are a few exceptions, however, especially when one is desperate, as we were in Branson. Landry's is one of those exceptions, as is P. F. Chang's, now that I think about it. Landry's serves reliable seafood and, amidst Branson's vast collection of mediocre country buffets, it stands out as a rose among the thorns. Sandy and I shared a very nice broiled seafood platter, and it proved to be plenty for both of us. This was definitely the best meal found in Branson this trip.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Hot Springs to Branson, MO

We were sorry to have to leave Hot Springs, because there is so much that we were unable to see in such a short visit. We broke camp and headed for McClard's Barbeque which, to my complete devastation, I found to be closed on Mondays. McClard's is an institution in Hot Springs, having resided unchanged on Albert Pike Road since time began. They do barbeque very, very, very well. After several minutes staring at the empty restaurant in utter denial, I was finally able to move on, stopping at an alternative BBQ joint, Stubby's, on Central Avenue, which was sufficiently good that it took away a little of the sting of disappointment over missing the McClard's adventure. Sandy and I shared the Ultimate Combo Plate for $13.95, and it was way more than we could possibly eat. We gave the excess to Bubba, who is always a reliable disposal unit. We topped off the meal with a homemade peach fried pie, which was wonderful.
Homer on the Left, Bubba's rig on the right

Sandy & Mike in the Ozarks

Mike at RV Park on Lake Taneycomo


The drive to Branson took us through more beautiful Ozark mountain scenery, and we arrived at the Cooper's Landing RV park to find a nice shady back-in spot; well, actually, all of the spots are shady; this is a very nice park situated on the shore of Lake Taneycomo. Several of the parking spots back right up to the steep lakeshore, but these always seem to be full, as one might imagine. This lake is just downstream from Table Rock Dam, which impounds the gorgeous Table Rock Lake, known far and wide for its clear, clean and deep water. Taneycomo, renowned for good trout fishing, is just downstream from a trout fish hatchery, where the young trout thrive until they are released into Taneycomo, fed by cold water discharged from Table Rock Lake. Cooper's Landing is average priced, with good TV cable, and would be especially attractive to fishermen.