Phannie

Phannie
Photo taken at Winchester Bay, Oregon

Friday, March 27, 2009

Big Bend National Park

This was the day we were to go to the Big Bend National Park, the entrance to which is some 110 miles or so south of Alpine. While Sandy was getting ready, I spent a little time downtown this morning trying to get some help with my computer’s photo uploading problem. I found a guy named John who runs a Pack and Mail/Computer Repair business just south of the courthouse. He was about my age, friendly enough, and quick to tell me that his store was the only source of computer assistance for a 150-mile radius. I didn’t have any reason to doubt him, and the appearance of his store led me to believe that he was much more into computer repair than Pack and Mail. There were derelict computers and pieces of computers strewn everywhere, obviously waiting for repair, with no discernible means of identifying the respective owners. I thought of the epitaph on the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, “known only to God.” In the case of the owners of this equipment, they are probably “known only to John.”

Near the front door was a geeky young man of about 19 who obviously worked for John and was engaged in an animated conversation with a woman who had entered the store just ahead of me. She was a pleasant, grandmotherly type who looked to be around 70. She politely asked the lad a question about computers (I couldn’t hear what she said). He introduced himself as a Sul Ross student and immediately began a lively monologue that was uninterrupted for the entire period of my stay, which was about 20 minutes. The young man seemed to be regurgitating everything he knew about how computers worked, and he knew a lot. His enthusiasm for his subject was so great that the formation of his words couldn’t quite keep up with his thought processes, and he truncated some of them as they spilled out. It was almost as if he were speaking in acronyms. The woman just stood there, mouth agape, as if she were in the presence of an alien from another galaxy.

About this time, John advised me to fire up my laptop, disable my wireless air card and plug in an Ethernet cable that he handed to me. He fiddled with my computer for a little while, and I could tell that he didn’t know much more about computers than I did. The geek talking to the grandmother was obviously the resident expert in his business. John said that my problem may be caused by my use of the air card to do the photo uploads. After bringing up the internet on my computer, I was surprised to observe that his wired internet service was actually slower than my air card! Meanwhile, John had disappeared into a back room shop area, where he was engaged in conversation with several local citizens, obviously friends of his, who had just come in and strolled past the counter where I was standing.

At this point, I knew I needed to move on, as the only two obvious sources of assistance were otherwise engaged, and Sandy and I needed to get going on our long drive to BBNP. John was more interested in the morning confab with his buddies, and the Sul Ross student was not yet finished with his lecture, even though the grandmother was now looking furtively from side to side, as if trying to determine a swift means of escape. I unplugged the cable and quietly left, oblivious to John and his friends in the back room.

Even though I didn’t get the computer assistance I needed, I must confess to having enjoyed my observation of this little vignette of small-town life, where business takes a back seat to relationships. Perhaps this is as it should be; it seemed entirely appropriate for Alpine.

Before leaving on our long trek, we had to have provisions—something high in calories and carbs, so we could keep up our energy for, uh, riding. We stopped by the Bread and Breakfast Bakery and Café in downtown Alpine. This was a storefront opening to the eastbound lane of U. S. 90, near the historic Holland Hotel. (U. S. 90, the main thoroughfare through Alpine, splits into one-way lanes, a block apart, near Sul Ross University on the east side of town and then rejoins at the western edge of the city.)

Bread and Breakfast Cafe













Hippie Sign















Placed in the window at the front of the cafe was a large blue sign that read, “Hippies use the back door. No exceptions.” I rather liked that, so my opinion of the place was already positive before we entered. They appeared to be between the breakfast and lunch service, and there were quite a few patrons seated around perhaps ten tables in the room. We ordered some doughnuts, cookies and a pecan roll, surely thinking that we would run into some homeless person with whom we would share our excess. Didn’t happen.

While waiting for our order, we took note of the fare going out of the kitchen to the diners and were very impressed with what appeared to be some well-crafted sandwiches and hearty soups. Although we were saving ourselves that day for another of the wonderful hamburgers at Alicia’s, we made a mental note to come back to this place for a meal. We’d have to make it breakfast or lunch, though, because they close at 2:00 p.m.

As I mentioned, we had some more wonderful hamburgers at Alicia’s, and this time we were seated next to some Brewster county sheriff’s deputies. These were classic western lawmen, dressed in blue jeans and starched uniform shirts, displaying a round badge with a star in the middle. They were wearing wheat-colored cowboy hats, which they didn’t remove during their meal, and what appeared to be .45 caliber pistols holstered on tan leather gunbelts. They were very friendly and talkative, and told us how much they appreciated our visiting their town. We greatly enjoyed this chance encounter and the feeling that criminals don’t get away with much around here.

The 80 miles to Terlingua went by quickly on the wide and smooth highway 118. As usual, there was very little traffic. We noticed, however, that the visibility was markedly decreased because of dust in the air from a strong cold front that had blown through the area in the early morning. This was a disappointment, because we had gotten used to the wonderful long views across the vast landscape. It wasn’t too bad, however; the visibility was maybe 35 miles rather than the usual hundred or so.

We filled up with diesel in Terlingua (Beware: it’s about 20 cents higher than in Alpine) and motored on down to the park entrance a few miles away at Study Butte. The fee for a seven-day pass was $20.00. Past the park entrance was an excellent two-lane road over relatively flat land dotted with millions of cacti for about 20 miles before reaching the boundary of the Chisos mountains, which were very imposing and rocky, formed by volcanic activity some 30 million years ago.

Desert Beauty in BBNP











Colorful Cactus Blooms












We turned off the road when we reached a sign pointing to the Chisos basin and began a long climb up the mountain that was surprisingly minimal in the use of hairpin curves and switchbacks. At the upper elevations, pine trees began to appear, increasing in number to where the area appeared quite forested. This was a real change from the scrubby desert vegetation that was prevalent below for hundreds of miles in all directions.

Trees Begin to Appear on the Climb to Chisos Basin











Beautiful Forested Area Near Chisos Basin











The drive up the mountain was lovely, and it culminated at a ranger station where there was a hotel, store and café (but no fuel). The main attraction for this area was a void in the moutaintops ringing the basin that revealed a breathtaking view to the northwest toward El Paso. The void, which is a v-shaped opening that frames the view, is famously known as “the Window.” A paved circular pathway invites visitors out to two viewing areas, and the view is indeed worth the short walk. On our walk, we even paused to let a family of deer cross the path in front of us.

"The Window"











Another View of "The Window"











This is an area much used for hiking, and there are many marked trails of every length and difficulty described on a panel nearby. We also observed perhaps a dozen vehicles carrying hikers in their gear. If you’re into hiking—or even walking—this would be a perfectly beautiful place to do it, as you could choose a path that would easily match your ability.

Soon, we started back down the mountain to the turnoff, where we could have chosen to turn right to the park headquarters and Rio Grande City, the only other visitor venue in the park. However, time was becoming an issue, and we decided instead to go back the way we came to another cutoff that would take us to the Castolon campground and Santa Elena Canyon. We had no idea what to expect at Santa Elena Canyon, as I had not been diligent in reading ahead in my “Roadside Geology of Texas.” I was wondering if it would be worth the trek, which wound about 30 miles to the canyon and 30 miles back. It turned out that it was, as the scenery along the way was gorgeous and rich with geological formations that are so well explained in the book. (We had the book open by now, reading about the fascinating remnants of the volcanic action so long ago.) If you don't have such a book, there are several turnouts along the way with narratives that describe what you’re seeing. The road was in excellent shape, and there were almost no other visitors to bother us anywhere. It was almost as though the park was there just for us.

On the road to Santa Elena Canyon, eroded volcanic hoodoos appear to be sentinels encircling the rock.











Santa Elena Canyon was something else to see. The canyon itself is an aperture in an immense monolith of limestone that runs for miles on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. This plateau is probably 2,000 feet high and has flat sides that made it appear like a sheet cake that had been laid on a dining table. This plate was heaved up over millions of years at the Terlingua fault line, which runs along the riverbed.

Limestone Uplift at the Terlingua Fault; Rio Grande is in the foreground.











The Rio Grande cut a fissure into the monolith and left Santa Elena Canyon, which was breathtaking in the shadows created as the sun sank in the late afternoon. At the very end of the road, there is a nice turnaround with restrooms, and visitors can walk out onto a huge beach-like apron of fine white sand that will take you right down to the river and some spectacular views of the canyon. We thought this was well worth the 60-mile round trip, and we highly recommend it to anyone.

Distant View of Santa Elena Canyon










White Sandbar at Santa Elena Canyon










Multiple Volcanic Eruptions Created Colorful Striations in this Rock (Photo doesn't do it justice.)











Volcanic Ash Deposits Near Santa Elena Canyon











After this, we drove back the way we came, out through the park entrance at Study Butte, and found ourselves back in Terlingua at dinnertime. We stopped at the Chili Pepper Café, another hole-in-the-wall joint that we tend to favor. Here we had another good meal! Sandy had beef chalupas, and I had a combination of chicken and beef fajitas. These were really good, with some excellent guacamole, chips and salsa and homemade flour tortillas. Yum! Well worth the stop. Toward the end of our meal a group of about 15 upscale bikers came into the restaurant. These were clearly not bikers of the longhaired, tattooed and dirty variety, but professional-looking folks who just liked to ride Harleys. They were very friendly and talkative, and we learned that they, too, were from the Fort Worth area. They looked like they were having a good time, so we wished them safe travel and went on our way back to Alpine.

I had wanted to pick up a few large rocks as souvenirs to take home for our xeriscaped yard, but signs in BBNP forbade any removal of rocks or plants. However, not too far north of the Chili Pepper café, we noticed, at a cut through one of the hills, that part of a rock face had collapsed, spilling some very colorful rocks onto the shoulder of highway 118. We stopped, and I picked up four very nice sandstone specimens which will adorn our yard on Sunday.

This seemed to put a period at the end of our trip, and I felt we had done a really good job sampling this wonderful place called Big Bend. We didn’t see absolutely everything we could have seen, but we are very satisfied that we saw the best of the best. What a place and what a great experience! I can’t believe we waited so long.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Big Bend: A Day Off in Alpine!

After burning up the roads every day since leaving on this trip, we needed a break; the old stamina is just not what it used to be sometimes. Sandy fixed a great breakfast and we took our time getting ready for the day. I spent the morning messing with this blog, trying to figure out why I can’t get my photos to upload to Blogger. Desperate, I tried uploading to other sites, and that isn’t working, either. I’ll guess I’ll try again from the desktops at home when I get back. I’ve been looking for an excuse to change to a Mac, and this may be it.

We decided to try yet another restaurant here in Alpine for lunch, and we chose Alicia’s, which had been recommended by the office attendant here at the Lost Alaskan RV Park. I’m happy to report (especially for Ed and Marilyn’s sake, considering their upcoming journey to these parts), the first ‘thumbs-up’ in our quest for good restaurant food.

You’ll have to be prepared to be unimpressed with the exterior of this little place. Alicia’s, at 706 E. Gallego—a short distance south of downtown—is, well, a dump. But the food made us forget the ambiance entirely. Sandy had a killer hamburger, just the way we like it, with buns browned on the griddle while the meat cooks and a big, hand-formed and perfectly cooked meat patty hanging out around the edges. The French fries were fresh and hand-cut, still sizzling when they arrived at our table. I had a Mexican combo plate, which was all good, but it included a serving of chili verde that was to die for. (FYI, the Mexican dishes are a little spicy here; they haven't been tamed for the gringo palate.) These folks know how to cook, and we feel relieved that we have finally found a decent food emporium.

Alicia's Restaurant












We strolled around downtown after lunch. In one of the shops, Sandy found a pair of earrings she liked and left for me the financial transaction, a chore for which I have had more than a little practice.

After a while we drove back to Homer, where the little woman took a nap and I read some of the blogs we follow. The longer we find ourselves in Alpine, the more I think I may have judged it a bit prematurely in a previous post. The friendliness of the local residents is really contagious, and this has the effect of suppressing my initial impression that the place was dull and unremarkable. I’m very happy we chose Alpine as a base while we toured the Big Bend area. Also, having checked out the other RV parks here, we are convinced the Lost Alaskan is the best by far we could have chosen.

Reading Ed and Marilyn’s blog, I picked up on a question Ed had about cell phone service. Well, surprisingly enough, almost every town we visited has cellular service. Even tiny Terlingua had a good signal! That is not to say that the coverage extended too far beyond the city limits, mind you. Obviously, you won’t have any capability at all when you’re out in the desert a hundred miles from nowhere.

Another thing occurred to me about traveling the river road (highway 170 between Presidio and Terlingua) described in the previous post. To ensure the best light for photography, you probably would want to keep the sun behind you. With that in mind, I would recommend starting a morning trip from Terlingua or an afternoon trip from Presidio. On the other hand, if you wanted to skip Presidio altogether (which is not a bad idea), a better choice would be to start the journey from Terlingua and then turn around and come back when you run out of scenery. That way, you would see a completely different visual treat each way. That is undoubtedly what we would do if we had it to do over again.

Oh, and one more thing: You can get diesel fuel in both Presidio and Terlingua.

After Sandy’s nap, we motored downtown to the Museum of the Big Bend on the Sul Ross University campus. There were some fairly decent exhibits, but the big attraction for us was an art exhibit in the north wing of the museum. Shown there (for sale) was some outstanding work of some really exceptional western artists. The pieces were mostly out of our price range, but the talent represented in this exhibit was just incredible. We thought it was well worth the trip. Frankly, the museum was not what you would call a must-see, but if you have any appreciation for art—especially western art—this stop would be worthwhile.

Since it was nearing dinnertime, we elected to try yet another new restaurant we found here in Alpine. This was Texas Fusion, at 200 W. Murphy, and yes, it was another dump. But, like Alicia’s, it was a keeper! Sandy ordered steak fingers, and I had a barbeque beef sandwich. The steak fingers were not the usual pre-breaded, pre-formed frozen planks that could be alternately used as leveling blocks for your fifth wheel. These were hand-cut pieces of quality steak, hand-battered and fried for each order. Served with cream gravy and French fries, these were divine. My sandwich was also good, as the plenteous brisket was obviously smoked for today and not left over from a previous day, as was the case with Alpine City Limits. So, another thumbs-up for Texas Fusion! Great cooking and cheap prices are what we like.

I also found a local radio station at 1240 AM that plays music I like—you know, the old timeless standards, big band numbers, show tunes and ballads that the younger generation despises? Frankly, I stopped listening to popular music about 30 years ago because I think songs should have a melody, and I haven’t heard many of those since about 1975. Frankly, I don’t think I’ve missed a thing.

After watching a little TV, we talked on the phone to our daughter, Mindy, who is in College Station, Texas, then turned in for the night. We had to be ready for the next day, when we would actually visit Big Bend National Park for the first time.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Presidio, Big Bend Ranch Park, Lajitas and Terlingua

This day was devoted to a day-long road trip to traverse highway 170 between Presidio and Terlingua along the Rio Grande. We had read that this was one of the ten most scenic drives in the U. S., and we wanted to see for ourselves. This required the excursion of a 250-mile triangle from Alpine through Marfa to Presidio, where highway 170 begins its journey following the river southeastward. The drive to Presidio was along U. S. 67 which, as we have come to expect for the roads in this region, in excellent condition with little traffic. The weather was clear, and the hundred-mile visibility allowed unimpeded views of the vast desert vistas ringed with mountains tinted in blue, purple and plum colors. I had the Hornet’s cruise control set on 75 (the speed limit in most of west Texas) and the trusty Cummins diesel hummed along contentedly at 2,100 rpm, taking the occasional hill with only a slight increase in EGT. (Jet pilots and diesel drivers with the appropriate engine gauges will know what that is.) A road trip just doesn’t get much better than this, I thought, as I beheld God’s creation before me. Speaking of topping hills, I was reminded of my days flying airliners over areas such as this in clear weather. The enormity of the landscape viewed from the top of a mountain was not unlike the visual impression from the cockpit seven miles high. It was already a wonderful drive, and I didn’t even realize then how much better it would get.

As we rolled into Presidio, I wasn’t quite prepared for the impression I got that I had already left the U. S. and arrived in Mexico. I had always heard Presidio mentioned on the TV weathercasts as having record high temperatures during the summer, and I had expected a heavily Mexican influence due to its location on the border. Well, the outside temperature on the Hornet’s display read 93 degrees, and it is only March! I wouldn’t want to be here in July or August, that’s for sure. But the more striking element of the city is that we thought we were driving in Mexico. The houses and buildings are largely ramshackle affairs painted bright colors of turquoise, pink and yellow, and if there was any zoning in the city, it was largely ignored. While the road signage was in English, almost all the signs on businesses were in Spanish only. We stopped at a local grocery store to get some fruit, and the signs in the vegetable and fruit section were in Spanish. All the conversations we overheard were also in Spanish, as was the background music. Driving through some narrow streets with junky cars around, I really thought I had taken a wrong turn and had accidentally left the U. S. I actually had to audibly tell myself that I was being illogical—I couldn’t just drive into Mexico without going through a guarded customs entry point or crossing the Rio Grande! With this in mind, I regained enough mental stability to find my way to F. M. 170. We didn’t stop for food or water, probably because I still had the irrational subconscious thought that we might get Montezuma’s revenge. So was our impression of Presidio, which actually should be worthy of some respect, as it is billed as the oldest continuous human settlement in the U. S. Maybe so, but I still wouldn’t want to live there.

Soon after turning onto highway 170, we saw a flashing road sign that announced a detour six miles ahead and that there was no through traffic allowed. I had already turned around to go back to Alpine when Sandy suggested that I get clarification of the sign. What a good idea! Nearby we spotted an equipment depot and office of the Texas Dept. of Transportation, so I pulled in there to ask about the sign. They knew about the sign and said that I was not the first motorist to ask about it. They told me the sign was misleading, because through traffic was indeed allowed, although via a 1.8 mile detour over a dirt road that was wide enough for two-way traffic. Great! We were off, and found the detour exactly as advertised. The posted speed limit for the short dirt leg was 20 mph, and I certainly didn’t exceed that, as the Hornet’s stiff suspension didn’t exactly absorb the rub board effect of the rocky detour. We also left a cloud of white dust, even at the slow speed, that I knew must have choked the three motorcyclists following us.

Detour Near Presidio












Back on the pavement, we found highway 170 to be a very good road—not quite as smooth as the U. S. highways we had been traveling, but plenty nice. We didn’t see a single pothole or even any evidence of one that had been filled. This was amazingly better than we expected.

The first twenty miles or so after leaving Presidio were really not much to look at, scenery-wise. We could see some mountains in the distance on the Mexican side, but highway 170 at this point involved driving up and down over a series of dunes that looked as though they may have been deposited there in the eddies of an epic flood eons ago.

Dunes in the foreground, mountains in the distance on the Mexican side










After leaving this area, however, our visual sensations were increasingly rewarded, as rounding every curve and topping every hill revealed a grander and grander view of some of the most outrageously beautiful terrain we had ever seen!
The Rio Grande was flowing rapidly on the right below us, and the water a clear aqua color—not the muddy stream we had expected. Arising from its banks were huge mountains on the Mexican side and giant monoliths and escarpments on the U. S. side. The sheer rock faces were not unlike smaller versions of El Capitan in Yosemite, except much more colorful. The variety of the rock layers and formations cut by the Rio Grande revealed a geologist’s paradise. The earth’s carcass had been opened up to reveal every texture imaginable and every color in the spectrum, complete with hoodoos and outcrops of countless strange rocks, smoothed and shaped into both amusing and grotesque figures through millennia of erosion. Adding to the show was the desert backdrop itself, serving much like the skirt at the bottom of a beautiful Christmas tree. It was composed not so much of sand, but of pebbles, rocks and boulders of every size, festooned not only with the ubiquitous prickly pear cacti, but with dozens of other varieties of cacti and succulents, some of which were blooming in colors that were almost alarmingly intense. (I took lots of photos, but they don’t begin to do justice to what we saw, due to the limitations of my camera and its operator.) A photography buff would be in absolute heaven here. (Gordon, I’m thinking of you.) There was no dirt, or mud, or dust to detract from the order and cleanliness of the desert artistry. It looked for the world like it had all been professionally landscaped (and I suppose, in a way, that it had, by the great Gardener Himself). Sandy and I were completely mesmerized and totally amazed that such a beautiful place existed in my very own home state, and we didn’t even know it! It certainly lived up to its billing as one of the most scenic drives in the country.

Blooming Cactus











Another Cactus











View of Rio Grand at beginning of very scenic area










High View of Rio Grande











Teepee Shade Structures at Roadside Park on Highway 170










We drove through Lajitas and spent a little time at the upscale resort there. This was a very unusual and quaint place, complete with a shopping area that mimicked a frontier town in the old west, and we vowed to come back and investigate further.

Lajitas From a Distance










Lovely Open Air Patio at Lajitas Resort Restaurant










Resort Shopping Area from Entrance to Restaurant









Badlands Hotel at Lajitas Resort











Old Volcanic Rock on Outskirts of Lajitas











Highway 170 ended for us at Terlingua, the site of the famous chili cookoff and home to a few eccentric types, including what appeared to be a small colony of hippie dropouts from the sixties. There were a few outdoor cottage businesses along the highway, one of which even included a brightly-painted old rusting school bus with flowers painted on the exterior—something you might have seen, say, at Woodstock. (Memo to these folks: It’s over; let it go.) A hand-painted sign at one of these junky places advertised ‘cosmic hamburgers’ but we really didn’t have much motivation to stop and find out why they were cosmic.

The last 86-mile leg up state highway 118 from Terlingua back to Alpine was just as nice as the earlier drive from Alpine to Presidio. The unlimited visibility allowed us to enjoy the grandeur of the mountains, mesas and buttes from very long distances as we approached them on the nearly empty highway. While this was admittedly a long day trip, it didn’t seem so because there was so much to see.

Upon returning to Alpine, we had dinner at the forgettable Oriental Express, which I wrote about in the Alpine post a couple of days ago.

After dark, we drove up highway 118 north of our RV park, pulled off on a deserted side road and did some stargazing. With the high elevation and clear, moonless skies, we could see the breathtaking panoply of countless stars, planets and constellations, as if we were in a planetarium. The temperature was perfect—only a light jacket was needed—and the wind dead calm. It reminded us of how infinitesimally insignificant we are in the whole of the universe, yet how important we are to the Creator.

The only interruption of the utter quiet was a nearby cow, who suddenly was clearly annoyed by something and began voicing her disapproval. We laughed, as it was so predictable for us that such a meaningful moment would be accompanied by something as humorously incongruent as a mooing cow.

Bessie calmed down after a few minutes, and we lingered a little longer. Orion was just to the west of overhead, and we thought we could almost reach out and touch his shoulder. It’s not often that circumstances align so as to allow us humans to pause and behold such a show, and it didn’t cost a penny!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

On the Road to Big Bend: Fort Davis and Marfa, Texas

We did indeed sleep well last night, arising uncharacteristically late at nearly 8:00a.m. After a leisurely breakfast, we lounged around and finally made it outside just before noon! This is what retirement must be like, I thought to myself. I could adjust to such a laid-back lifestyle in, oh, about 30 seconds.

Today was to be occupied with a trip to McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis and about an hour’s drive north on highway 118. The drive was very picturesque, and we stopped for lunch at Cueva de Leon, a very adequate, if modest, Mexican restaurant in Fort Davis. The staff was very friendly, and we ordered for sharing a combination enchilada, chalupa and taco plate off the menu. I even purloined a piece of smothered steak from the lunch buffet, for which the proprietor didn’t charge me, even though I offered to pay. (The steak was good; I wish I had taken a couple of them.)

Sandy found some turquoise jewelry in the restaurant lobby that was made by a local artist. After assessing the pieces for a few minutes, the artist became quite a bit richer and I became quite a bit poorer. So much for eschewing expensive restaurants; this “inexpensive” meal cost me more than would have the pretentious Reata back in Alpine that I ranted so much about in the previous post. Oh, well, that’s what vacations are for, right?

We motored on up to the top of Locke Mountain, driving on the “highest public highway” in Texas, according to the observatory information. I must have been true, for at about 6,800 feet, the views were breathtaking. The visitor center was new and beautifully done, complete with a restaurant and lecture hall, where we sat through a 45-minute presentation by Rachel, a very knowledgeable and intelligent guide who had an excellent speaking voice and used perfect English (a rarity these days). We were even able to see a real-time video image of the sun via a remote display from one of the telescopes on the mountain. We could see the “prominences” (scientific term) which were gaseous emissions at the sun’s surface thousands of miles high. Sandy and I agreed that we probably learned more about the sun from this presentation than in our entire previous education. After this, Rachel led the group of about 30 visitors to the largest white dome, housing a 107-inch telescope, where she demonstrated the workings of this giant instrument for another 45 minutes. From there, the group went over to another smaller telescope a short distance away. We opted not to follow to this one, as we had done a good bit of uphill walking and standing, and we didn’t think we could absorb any more information anyway. We thought this was time and money (eight dollars per person) well spent, and the views from the mountain alone were worth that. One downer for me was that the weather was not cooperating to enable viewing of the night sky from the telescope at the “star party” to be held that evening. I had eagerly anticipated coming back up the mountain for that event but, by evening, a thin overcast had spread over the area, precluding any stargazing, unfortunately. These star parties are held only on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights, so I guess I’ll try again next trip.

Fabulous View from Mt. Locke










Telescope Domes at McDonald Observatory









107-Inch Telescope at McDonald Observatory











We drove back down the mountain to Fort Davis, where we could have toured the old western Army fort for which the town was named. We were a little too late to take a tour, but we did see some of the preserved structures and restored buildings from a distance. This probably would be an interesting place to visit for some folks (our friend Jim G. comes to mind), but I guess I’m not too much into the frontier Indian/cowboy/cavalry thing. It was easy to see why the fort was built where it was, in a box canyon that would afford protection from Indian attacks. We would like to have visited the 500-acre desert nature center not far from Fort Davis, but that had to be prioritized downward, unfortunately. Oh, to be retired and have time to do all we would like to do!

Jeff Davis County Courthouse at Ft. Davis











Historic Ft. Davis Bank












We decided to drive the 21 miles from Fort Davis to Marfa. We intended to make this trip on Wednesday but, as our star party plans at the observatory went south, we thought we would go ahead and get a start on this next adventure. The 21 miles went by quickly, with excellent mountain scenery passing by. It is remarkable how good and smooth the roads are in this area; I guess it’s because there are so few vehicles to wear them out!

Marfa, frankly, was a big disappointment. We had read articles in the newspaper and Texas Monthly that described this as an up and coming destination for artists and craftsmen of all kinds and that real estate values were being inflated by the influx of wealthy folks to the next “in” location for a first or second home in a good climate. Well, I think the boom has gone bust. There are a few little artsy venues around, but many of the shops that obviously housed quite a number of galleries and boutiques now sit vacant or boarded up. The downtown is now very sleepy, with the near-vacant (but lovely) courthouse standing vigil on the north end of the main street. Only the legendary El Paisano Hotel showed any activity at all. This was indeed a marvelous newly-restored structure designed by Trost and Trost architects (legendary in architectural circles) in the 1930s. This was the hotel used by Rock Hudson, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor, along with the rest of the cast of the movie “Giant,” filmed near Marfa in the mid-fifties. The architecture of this hotel would not have been unfamiliar to these Hollywood stars, as it was reminiscent of much of the Spanish-Italianesque villa style seen in many places in California. It was fun to look at the memorabilia and photos the cast left behind and to imagine what Elizabeth Taylor’s opinion really was of this tiny, dusty Texas town in the middle of nowhere.

Downtown Marfa










Magnificent Presidio County Courthouse, Built in 1865 for $60,000. (Yes, I like old courthouses!)









Another crisis for visitors to Marfa would be places to eat. There was a Dairy Queen and a Subway, plus a very seedy-looking bar named Agate Moon, whose hand-painted sign outside advertised barbeque as, presumably, a chaser for the beer. Frankly, from the looks of the place, I wouldn’t have dared venture in there without a gun on my hip. I’m pretty sure all the other patrons had one, too.

The Hotel El Paisano had a restaurant, aptly named Jett’s Grill, after the character played by James Dean in “Giant.” We took a look at their menu, however, and discovered the owners had the same elevated opinion of their restaurant as the owners of Reata in Alpine. The prices seemed way out of line for this little town that has obviously fallen on hard times. Having seen really all there was to see, except for the Marfa lights, we decided to go back to Fort Davis for dinner. We had spotted a restaurant at the historic Limpia Hotel there, and we wanted to give it a try.

El Paisano Hotel Lobby









El Paisano Hotel Patio and Entrance to Jett's Grill











The 21 miles back to Ft. Davis went by quickly, with the theme from “The Big Country” playing appropriately on the Hornet’s XM radio. We parked parallel in front of the Limpia, and we could just as well have pulled up in a buggy and tied up our horse, given the quaintness of the Ft. Davis downtown area, reminiscent as it was of a western town of, say, 1880. We entered the Limpia dining room and were greeted by an officious, unsmiling woman with menacing facial features that would have caused a bulldog to jump off a meat wagon. Looking over her spectacles, she sniffed,
“Do you have a reservation?”
After looking around at perhaps ten empty tables, I turned to her with a smirk, and said,
“Uh…no, we don’t; how big a problem can that possibly be?”
She probably didn’t appreciate by smart-aleck retort, as she wrinkled up her nose and said,
“Well, I’m sorry, but we won’t have anything until later in the evening. We’re expecting a busload here in a little while.”

Busload, my rear end, I thought. This woman needed a fierce beating with Sandy’s purse strap, but I couldn’t talk my bride into doing it.

So, there we were, the little woman and I, rebuffed, humiliated and hungry. I had a vision of swinging doors on the Limpia and my being tossed out into the dusty street by a couple of cowboys. I picked myself up, helped Sandy into the buggy, and untied the brown mare. (Wait a minute; the imagery is getting out of hand again. Pardon me while I do a quick reality check.)

Okay, I’m back now. We hopped into the Hornet and drove around looking for another place to eat. We found the café on the south end of town where we had earlier seen the sheriff’s patrol car parked—a good sign, we thought at the time. Unfortunately, the building was locked up tighter than Jackie Gleason’s Speedo. We were left only with a little place called Murphy’s Pizza Cafe, where we had what would have been a fairly edible pie if the crust hadn’t been undercooked and soggy in the middle. We didn’t eat that part, so what we had amounted to, well, a pizza doughnut. (I can’t make this stuff up; it just happens to us.)

Fort Davis, like Alpine and Marfa, seems to have its share of issues for visitors looking for a place to eat. However, we liked the town a lot. It was attractive in its own quaint and rustic way—sort of what we were expecting in Alpine or Marfa but didn’t see. We learned that the 1986 movie, “Dancer, Texas-Population 81” was filmed here. I have requested it from Netflix so we can see this cool little town in the movies! We wouldn’t mind spending more time here some day, to check out the attractions we missed and see if someone nicer is greeting customers at the Limpia dining room.

After eating our pizza, we drove back to Marfa. It was getting dark, and we wanted to see the Marfa Lights. These are the mystery lights that are supposedly visible on clear nights on the south side of U. S. 90 about nine miles east of Marfa. They were first reported in the mid-1800s by a cowboy who thought they may have been Apache Indian campfires. According to information we read, they generally are seen as two lights that dance on the horizon, turn different colors and perhaps merge and appear to be coming toward you.

We arrived at the viewing point just before it was fully dark. The Texas Highway Department has erected a very nice viewing center with a large parking area and restroom facilities on the south side of the highway. The lights around the viewing apron were subdued and red-colored, so as not to interfere with observers’ night vision. Since this was a moonless night, the area into which we were looking was as dark as ink, except for two lights on the horizon very far away, which appeared to me to be yard lights, perhaps at two remote ranch houses, I thought. We were told, however, that there isn’t any structure or electricity in that area, a fact I found hard to believe. I would very much like to have flown in a helicopter toward the lights, because I was convinced they were real electric lights. After looking at the lights for a long time, I began to think I could see them moving up and down and side to side. I passed this off as a phenomenon caused by staring at the lights too intently and for too long a time. Sandy had the same experience, and the bottom line is, we saw something out there, but we remain skeptical.

Marfa Lights Viewing Station












After our encounter with the Marfa Mystery Lights, we drove the 16 miles into Alpine and to Homer, where we watched a little TV and hit the sack, tired but satisfied with our full day’s activities. Tomorrow we’re off to Big Bend Ranch State Park and a very long drive through a very large and, hopefully, scenic area.

Postcript: Still unsettled by what we presumed to be the Marfa lights, we drove back by the viewing center the next morning to look at the area in the daylight. Using a pair of binoculars, I looked across the wide basin towards a mesa perhaps 20 miles away that was the approximate location of the lights we saw the previous night. I was able to see to the horizon quite clearly through the binoculars, and I saw no evidence whatsoever of civilization. I didn’t see anything but desert badlands. There was no place in the remote area where a dwelling would likely be or, for that matter, where an electric power line would conceivably run. So, I am now more mystified than ever. I presume that the two lights we saw last night were indeed the Marfa mystery lights, for they are, for sure, a mystery.

Daytime view of area where lights were seen; what's out there? No sign of life.

Monday, March 23, 2009

On the Road to Big Bend: Alpine, Texas

The trip from San Angelo to Alpine proved to be about a six-hour drive through some of Texas’ least attractive topography. We saw a lot of oil well pumps sticking up out of the scrubby vegetation for a hundred miles west of San Angelo, so the owners of that land probably think those parcels are quite beautiful when their royalty checks arrive.

The only towns of any size we traversed were Big Lake (population about 2,500) and Fort Stockton. Approaching Fort Stockton and beyond, the grand vistas really opened up in the sparkling clear air. The mountains near Alpine were clearly visible from a hundred miles away. Before we departed on this trip, we had ordered a couple of books, Roadside Geology of Texas and Roadside History of Texas, and these have proved very interesting companion reading during our journey. For example, we learned that the large mountains at the intersection of U. S. 90 and U. S. 67 east of Alpine are part of the Permian limestone uplift and much different from and older (by hundreds of millions of years) than those like the well-known Ranger Mountain and the Twin Sisters, which are part of the Presidio volcanic field west of Alpine. The geology book contains descriptions and photographs of many unusual formations clearly visible from the highways. If you have any interest in the history and geology associated with Texas travel, I highly recommend these books for your RVing library.

While I’m on the subject of history, readers may note that I don’t tend to include lengthy historical narratives when writing about the places we visit. The reason for this is simple: This blog is not meant to be a history textbook. While I love history and historic places, I find blogs that present a lot of historical detail a trifle boring, frankly. With the advent of the internet, I can find, with a few mouse clicks, as much history as I desire about a place. This blog is about impressions—what a traveler might see through our eyes and experience through our reaction. We humans are always more interested in what other humans do, think and feel. This helps readers imagine they are living the experience themselves through the story—even though the story may be simple or the experience mundane. Writers who understand this will always favor the readers by engaging them on a personal level, thereby meriting their readership.

Because towns of any size are far apart in this area, I highly recommend keeping your diesel supply a little heavier than usual. I really wish I had an aux tank for areas like this. (This reminds me of my flying days; pilots generally think the only time they have too much fuel on board is when their aircraft is on fire.)

Our park of choice in Alpine was the Lost Alaskan RV Park. This is a well-run and clean facility near the Alpine airport with fairly level pull-through spaces and full hookups, including 50 amp. The park staffers were friendly, and a caretaker came by when we parked to see that we had everything we needed. The only downer was that all the formerly gravel roads in the park are being paved, and the graders and rollers were a little noisy during the daytime. Around the first part of April, the paving will be complete and will really be a nice feature for RVers. There isn’t any park cable, but we really didn’t need it with our DirecTV satellite and the automatic TracVision antenna. (We’re still tickled with this system; it was worth every dime of the investment, in my view.) We were having a bit of trouble with the park wi-fi, however. The signal was a trifle weak, so we just abandoned that in favor of the AT&T aircard, which worked well for our internet connection.

Lost Alaskan Entrance












Paving Machines at Lost Alaskan RV Park







We have to confess to being a bit disappointed with our initial observation of Alpine. It is surrounded by fairly low mountains, but no one could confuse these hills with the majestic European Alps, from which the town gets its name. And, we were expecting a degree of quaintness, but this was not always the case. South of the downtown main drag, U. S. 90, there was a surprising degree of rundown and unappealing houses, buildings and other structures. To the north and west, the residential areas were much more well-kept and somewhat more prosperous-looking.

The elevation—nearly 5,000 feet—makes for a fine outdoor climate. Although the temperature was around 85 degrees during the day, the nights were very cool—between 40 and 50. We definitely had to turn on the heater in the early mornings. I think this might be a healthy climate, too. I seem to be relatively free of the allergy and sinus problems that chronically plague me back in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. In fact, the attendant who checked me in at the Lost Alaskan RV Park told me that she had moved to Alpine from Euless (a stone’s throw from where we live near Fort Worth) to escape her respiratory problems.

Sul Ross University has a larger-than-expected presence on the eastern outskirts of the city. The buildings are very nice and modern-looking, and we understand the school has excellent programs in agricultural and animal science. (I hadn’t realized that Sul Ross, the university’s namesake, was a former governor of Texas.)

Alpine is in a Basin With Sul Ross University Prominent at a Higher Elevation










Brewster County Courthouse in Alpine Built in 1873










Quaint Architecture in Downtown Alpine; Stucco and New Mexican Styling is Popular










One curiosity expressed by Sandy was where the students hang out when they’re not in class. There is no movie theater, no mall, no Wal-Mart (perhaps a good thing, in Alpine’s case), and few fast-food joints. We found a McDonald’s, a Subway, a Sonic and a Dairy Queen, but that’s about it for fast food. There are a couple of pizza places, including a Pizza Hut, but no other chain restaurants of any kind. (Not that it mattered; we usually avoid these.) We figured the college students must all get good grades, because there’s little in Alpine to distract them from their studies.

We had dinner at the Longhorn Steak House just down the road from our RV park on highway 118. It was absolutely insipid. The owners should be flogged for serving what they thought passed for food. We simply couldn’t eat it and left hungry. Nearer to downtown on the same highway was the Reata restaurant, redone from an old house and serving upscale western cuisine, but the menu was rather ridiculously expensive. Perhaps for this reason, the restaurant was also relatively empty. I guess price shouldn’t be such an issue, because we can certainly afford a nice meal, but it just galls me to pay thirty dollars for a steak in a restaurant about which I know nothing, especially when all the side dishes are priced extra. After reading the menu posted outside and determining that our meal would have cost the better part of a hundred bucks, we elected to look elsewhere. Perhaps the food was good, but this was Alpine, Texas, not New York City. The owners need to return to earth.

We drove a few blocks to Alexander’s Grill, a Mexican restaurant. Only one other couple was occupying a table, but no one came to seat us. We noticed an employee on the phone nearby, but he appeared clearly annoyed that we had come in, so we obliged him and left. I continue to be amazed at how many restaurants are poorly run; it’s no wonder their failure rate is so high.

We stopped by the local market and picked up a few grocery items, then we returned to Homer, where we had a couple of hot dogs. We were tired after the day’s journey, and we knew we would have a full day coming up, so we retired early, anticipating a good night’s sleep.

Foodie postcript for Alpine:

Within a day or two later, we tried two more restaurants—Alpine City Limits, appropriately located near the western city limits, and the Oriental Express next door. ACL was a newer restaurant, well-appointed, with an eclectic, moderately-priced menu. Service was fast, friendly and attentive. I ordered fajitas, and Sandy ordered a barbecue beef sandwich with cottage fries. Let’s just say the food was edible, but definitely not memorable. The fajitas had been warmed up from being left over, and Sandy’s sandwich was very dry. It tasted as if it had been warmed up from leftovers as well. The Oriental Express was run by a very serious gentleman of oriental descent, and his daughter was performing waitress duties. We ordered lemon chicken and a vegetable plate, and these, too, were just barely mediocre. The waitress never came back to our table after delivering the food, so I had to get up and search around for things we needed. I hasten to report that her tip was reflective of her indifference.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

On the Road to Big Bend: San Angelo, Texas

Leaving Brownwood behind, I’m feeling a little remorse for having pilloried it so badly in my last post. One of the unfortunate aspects of recounting our impressions of a town or city from a single overnight stay is that the reader (and the writer, for that matter) gleans little about the true nature or history of the place. I’m sure Brownwood has much to be proud of, and such a superficial sampling as mine does not do it justice.

Nevertheless, first impressions are what they are, and nonetheless valid, I think. The decline of Brownwood’s downtown area is a malady shared by many, many other cities, and I’m confident the local politicos are doing all they can to revitalize it. Unfortunately, their job will be more difficult in this case because of the narrow, labyrinthine downtown streets and the displacement of the area from the main thoroughfare, U. S. Highway 67/84. And whoever came up with the idea of adding the harsh mercury vapor street lights certainly didn’t help the effort.

Crossing the Colorado River just west of Brownwood, it was easy to see that the city’s founders chose a fine place for a settlement on the banks of this beautiful waterway. A steep hill west of the river undoubtedly offers some protection from the wild west Texas winds that are often prevalent this time of year.

Highway 67 gradually climbed a bit with the rising terrain as we headed toward San Angelo, and the vistas became wider and wider as trees became very scarce, revealing the vast expanse of mesquite-studded open land with the highway ribbon unrolled in front of us. There was little traffic, and the highway shoulders were plenty wide enough for us to pull over when the occasional vehicle approached from behind. We remembered a mileage sign back on I-20 west of Weatherford that jolted us with the announcement that El Paso was 545 miles ahead! We tend to forget how large Texas really is.

We rolled through a number of tiny burgs and a couple of towns such as Santa Anna and Ballinger that actually had a town center and a fair amount of activity on this, a Sunday. We stopped for lunch at Alejandra’s Mexican and American Restaurant in Ballinger. The food was pretty good, although unnecessarily pricey, we thought. The building on the square housing the restaurant was quite old, and this added to the ambiance of the place. One curiosity was that the proprietors elected to locate the restrooms in a separate small metal building outside the rear entrance to the building. The walkway to the building wasn’t covered, so patrons would certainly get wet when it rains. It reminded me ever so much of an outhouse. Not that I ever lived at a place with an outhouse, mind you, but I have used one on a couple of occasions. (Wait a minute; it occurs to me that this is probably more information than you need, and I’m even a little unsure of how I got to this point in my narrative. Let’s move on.)

Across the street was the Runnels County courthouse, which, unlike many charming small-town Texas courthouses, had a somewhat unfortunate deficit in architectural appeal.

Runnels County Courthouse








Rolling again, the mesquite gave way to farmland as we approached San Angelo, which we found a bit surprising, given the scarcity of rainfall in the area. They must have a good aquifer for a water source.

We could easily have omitted the stop in San Angelo because of the relatively short leg from Brownwood, but I was determined to have a meal at Zentner’s Daughter Steakhouse, a restaurant so good that I still remembered it from 25 years ago when San Angelo was a layover point for a commuter airline where I was employed as a pilot back then. (We are such foodies, it’s just sinful, I’m afraid.) So, we settled into the Spring Creek Marina and RV Park, on the shore of Lake Nasworthy just south of the city. This was a very nice park with gravel roads, wide spaces and long pull-throughs. Almost all the spaces were full, which surprised us a bit. The economy doesn’t seem to be keeping RVer’s at home all that much.

Spring Creek RV Park








Lake Nasworthy









It was with great anticipation that we arrived at Zentner’s. Their specialty is, of course, steaks—large ones that have been cooked in garlic butter on a flat top griddle rather than grilled over charcoal grill or a wood fire.

Unfortunately—and to my complete anguish—the meal was a bomb from the beginning. The salad dressing was (shudder) bottled ranch! This would normally be enough for me to slip into a storage room and begin setting the place on fire, but I hoped this would be just someone’s bad idea, and that all else would be okay. It wasn’t to be. Neither my steak nor Sandy’s was cooked as we had ordered it, and they were nothing like the fabulous juicy versions that I had remembered. For one thing, they were too thick for stovetop cooking and were, therefore, much too rare. In order to get a steak with a hot pink center, a thick steak would have to stay on the griddle so long that the garlic would be burned and bitter. Much of my steak was tough and sinewy, and I’m sure that John Zentner was rolling over in his grave at the travesty being done to his reputation here. The only acceptable food item was the french fries, which were fresh cut and quite good. We tried to salvage something else by sharing a slice of Italian cream cake, but the piece we were served was dry and crumbly, obviously not baked at a time within recent memory. It was hard to believe that we would now be forced to rate this a TAGL restaurant. (Take A Good Look, cause we ain’t comin’ back.)

After stopping at Wal-Mart for a few things (looks like we, too, are contributing to the decline of downtowns), we dragged our disappointment back to Homer and watched a movie, “Pride and Prejudice,” based on the Jane Austen novel written in the late 1700s. It would have to be classified as a “chick flick,” as Sandy especially loved it, but I’ll have to admit it was very well done with great acting.

I’m already plotting that on the return trip, I’m going to try the Lowake Steak House, located out in the middle of nowhere just east of San Angelo. This was John Zentner’s original restaurant, and I want to see if that place, too, has been corrupted.

So, off to Alpine tomorrow. More later.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

On the Road to Big Bend: Brownwood, Texas

Yes, I know how long it has been since the last post. I have some excuses, however, but these involve mostly personal and work-related matters, and a travelogue is no place to drone on and on about those things. In fact, we have made a couple of trips in Homer that we didn’t record for posterity, mostly because they were unremarkable. We went back to Branson last fall and to New Orleans in February. I have already written about Branson a good bit, and the New Orleans trip was work-related, so I was too bummed out to write about that one. Retirement can’t come too soon; that will definitely improve my state of mind.

Okay, I didn’t say these were good excuses, but they’ll have to do. I find myself so envious of fulltimers like Ed and Marilyn and Gordon and Juanita, whose escape from the work world allows them enough carefree time to post daily to their journals.

After almost a year in the new house, we can report that it is just about perfect for us at this stage of our lives. It has exceeded our expectations in every way, especially in its energy efficiency. Although this house is only about 40 percent smaller than our old one, our energy bills have shrunk by 60-75 percent, even though we’re paying higher rates now. I’m still pinching myself at having had the uncharacteristically good foresight to spend the extra money during construction for the energy-saving features. They are really going to pay off bigtime.

We decided to go to the Big Bend area of Texas because it is a “bucket list” item of mine. Having lived lo, these many years as a native Texan and having not seen that part of my great state was, well, embarrassing. Now Sandy wasn’t particularly excited about this destination, mainly because she doesn’t care much for desolate areas and she is deathly afraid of snakes. She had heard a few snake stories from friends who had visited the Big Bend, and she had built up in her mind some pretty fanciful ideas about the supposed plethora of these creatures that would be awaiting her at every step outside. Even so, she gamely agreed to accompany me and, knowing the depth of her phobia, I marveled at her willingness to accept what she believed to be certain peril just to be with me. Gotta love this gal.

As usual, we were late getting away from the house. We’ve found that we really need a full day without other obligations to prepare for a trip departure, and that is difficult to do most of the time due to my work obligations, which was the case this time. We had intended to make San Angelo our first stop en route. At 250 miles, that is about as far as we like to travel in a day. The late departure didn’t permit it, however, so we settled for Brownwood as the first night’s stopover.

Neither of us had visited Brownwood before, so we really had no idea what to expect. We already knew, through RVParkReviews.com that there was only one RV park in town, the Shady Oaks, and we found it to be pretty much as advertised. Arriving late on a Saturday, the office was closed, but we selected a spot with 50 amp service and left payment in a mail slot on the front door. The frontage of this park is within a few feet of a busy highway, and it was incredibly noisy. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to stay there any longer than I had to.

Soon after dropping Homer at Shady Oaks, we went back into town for dinner at Underwood’s Cafeteria, easily the most significant eatery in Brownwood. This barbecue place has been around since the fifties and had a number of clones in other Texas cities. I don’t think many remain, however. There was a fairly long line of patrons awaiting their turn at the buffet, and we were somewhat surprised to notice that most were having chicken fried steak as an entree. Sandy chose fried chicken, and I had a “smoked steak” sandwich. We shared a bit and determined that the entrees were pretty decent. The smoked steak was quite unusual. From the looks of it, they had placed a sirloin or rib eye steak in their smoker for a very long time, as it was just falling apart. The smoky flavor was quite good, as was the barbecue sauce, and I wouldn’t mind trying the ribs and sausage next time. The side dishes were quite forgettable, but the dessert cobblers…oh, my stars! At the end of the serving line set three huge pans containing peach, cherry and apple cobblers, and Sandy and I both agreed these were the best we had ever eaten anywhere. These were hot, crusty marvels with just the right ratio of dumplings to fruit and the perfect degree of sweetness. If it wouldn’t have made such a scene, I would have taken all three pans out to the truck and bathed in whatever drippings didn’t make it into my mouth!




















Being on a sugar high now, we decided to drive around town a bit. We saw a sign that pointed to the historic downtown area, so we opted to go check it out. By now, it was dark, and I wasn’t quite prepared for what awaited us. The downtown area was probably the most lifeless, gloomy place I have ever seen. Although many of the buildings appeared to be occupied by businesses, no people could be seen anywhere along the dark, narrow streets! It was a moonless night, and the only thing keeping the darkness at bay were some incredibly glaring mercury vapor lamps that actually increased the spookiness of the place. It looked, for all the world, like a sci-fi horror movie set where all the citizens had either been abducted or evacuated in preparation for the arrival of a giant squid or something. I’m sure it gives a much better daytime appearance, but the night visage was truly disturbing.

On a positive note, all the people we met were unfailingly friendly, and that sort of made up for the downer of our visit to the downtown area.

Our tummies full, we returned to Homer to bed down for the night, eager to see what tomorrow would bring.