Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

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 d├ęcor 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.

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!