Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Amarillo to Euless

This day was to be a going-home day, so we moved sufficiently briskly to get on the road by 11:00 AM, which was pretty good for us. Since Palo Duro, like most other state campgrounds, did not offer sewer hookups, we weren't able to dump any of the tanks for the two and a half days we were camped there. Homer II has much larger tanks than Homer I, so I wasn't terribly worried about reaching capacity before dumping on the way out of the park. However, I had been curious as to just how long we could expect to stay out without dumping. I got my answer. Before taking our morning showers, I checked the tank capacity lights and determined that both gray tanks (one for the bath water and one for the galley) were about three-fourths full. After showering and doing the dishes, they were showing almost totally full. Then it dawned on me that I had forgotten to dump the galley tank before we left Abilene! Luckily, we made it until the very last hand washing before departure before both the bathroom and kitchen sinks stopped draining. So, we now know that we are good for two nights and no more, and that the galley tank should have capacity to spare. It should be noted here that we acknowledge using lots of water. Neither of us is comfortable skipping a daily bath, and we always clean up the kitchen after every meal. We recognize that not all campers see the need for such fastidiousness, especially when they are "boondocking," (camping without any hookups at all—no sewer, no water, no electricity, no nothing). We are just sissies, I guess, because it would never cross our minds to do something like that. So, besides having a fun time, we got some practical experience on this trip. We now know more about Homer II than we did beforehand.

It took only a few minutes to empty the tanks at the dump station just up the road from the campground, and we were off toward Lockney, following Bubba across the flat plain. We heard him say before leaving that it was about an hour and a half to Lockney, Bubba's home town, which is a tiny burg just east of Plainview. Bubba's mom, Algene, had offered us a Sunday lunch at her house, complete with her famous chocolate pie, and we were some excited about that. Besides, we were eager to see where Bubba grew up, and a visit to Algene's and Barry's house was viewed by us with at least as much anticipation as seeing the Palo Duro Canyon and the show last night. Bubba decided to venture off I-27 and take the back roads, which pleased me very much. (If you have read much of these travelogues, you know how much I despise interstate highways.) This back road route, however, was unlike any other I had encountered. It consisted of a single farm-to-market road, aligned from due north to south, with no apparent beginning or end. It was a pleasant enough journey through uncountable miles of open farm and ranch land, dotted with the occasional house, barn and feed bin. However, there was, literally, nothing else! Not a store, or a café or a gas station—nothing. Of these missing elements of civilization, the absence of a gas station was beginning to get worrisome, as the Hornet's fuel tank showed half full when we left the canyon. I was sure that would be plenty to get to Lockney, but not much farther. As we droned on and on through what seemed like a billion acres of corn, maize, and who-knows-what-else, the Hornet's fuel gauge seemed to move perceptibly as it neared the quarter-tank marker. Since there were no gas stations of any kind in evidence anywhere, and we had met only one other vehicle on this lonely road, it occurred to me that, somehow, the citizens of this area either don't go anywhere by car, or they have discovered a way to operate their vehicles and farm machinery without using petroleum-based fuel! I was very confused.

This was on my mind as we entered the outskirts of Lockney. I knew it was Lockney because of the small sign announcing the fact, but as we drew nearer, Sandy began to come back to life as she saw through the Hornet's windshield a collection of structures that, yes, unmistakably, was a town! It was good to see her stirring from the fetal position she had taken after accepting the fact that, after we ran out of fuel, we would die out here in this dry plain that, to her, was just as strange as the dark side of the moon.

Bubba, whom we were following as close as a blind man being led from a cave, pulled his rig up short just before entering Lockney, in front of a house that, well, had seen better days. It was a ramshackle old wooden-framed farmhouse that had been almost consumed by tall weeds and grass, nestled among a few small trees that had grown bent over from the incessant south wind. Scattered all around the yard were rusting relics of various kinds of well-used appliances, derelict vehicles and rusting farm machinery. It looked for the world as though a junk yard had exploded and the pieces had landed all around the house in a random pattern. Since Bubba had pulled off the side of the road in front of the house, I thought he might be pausing to give me some directions, so I pulled the Hornet up alongside his pickup and rolled down the window. Imagine my surprise when he said, "Well, we're here; I'm gonna go inside and ask Dad where he wants me to park." LouAnn had already opened the door on her side of the truck and was stepping out. Upon hearing this and seeing LouAnn step outside, Sandy and I looked back toward the shack and then, in unison, turned slowly back toward Bubba. The look on our faces and our open mouths appeared to be more than Bubba could take, and he immediately started laughing. We knew then that we had been had, and LouAnn, his accomplice, began climbing back into her seat. Apparently, Bubba's dad was in on the planning of the joke, because Barry mentioned to me at Palo Duro the day before that he needed me to help him move some refrigerators when we arrived in Lockney the next day. I found that a bit puzzling at the time, but didn't think any more about it until now. It is now clear that Bubba's penchant for practical jokes was acquired genetically, as Barry's eyes just danced as we later laughed about the trick they so handily pulled on us.

Barry and Algene's lovely two-story home occupies a large lot in a very nice neighborhood in Lockney. Built by a local contractor who also built their church, this solidly-constructed home is a testament to the care taken by a true artisan who took pride in his work. The rooms were large and inviting, with a roomy kitchen from which wonderful aromas were wafting. I remarked about the large work island built into the kitchen, which I thought would have been quite an unusual and innovative feature in a house built 46 years ago. I became increasingly distracted, however, by the smell of homemade rolls baking in the oven. I think I began visibly to drool and, fortunately, we were told to gather around the table before I embarrassed myself.

The meal was every bit as wonderful as anticipated. Algene served a very tasty and tender beef roast with béarnaise sauce, delicious broccoli and fruit salads, a potato casserole, corn on the cob fresh from their farm, the aforementioned rolls and, of course, the pies—not only the anticipated chocolate one, but a lemon chess pie, to boot. I had a piece of both, and they were heavenly. We all sat around the large dining room table, set with beautiful china and elegant napkins, and ate and talked until mid-afternoon. Joining us, besides Bubba, LouAnn and Breann, were Brittany, their older daughter, and her fiancé, Tyler. It was truly a Norman Rockwell experience, and afterward, Barry and Algene showed us all around the house, pointing out the uncountable mementos of a wonderful life lived by these lovely people and their children. Sandy and I will never forget the warmth, charm and sweet disposition of this couple here in this tiny town in the Texas panhandle. Their winsomeness and hospitality is something largely lost in the big cities, I think, as many of us don't even know our neighbors who live right beside us.

As we were leaving, I inquired, nervously, about the possibility of getting diesel fuel in Lockney. Barry said that we could, but he would have to take his key and unlock the pump. I was very intrigued by this, but I didn't probe further into such a curious arrangement. He offered this matter-of-factly, as though everyone in town had a key to the local gas station. I thought this must be just a west Texas small-town thing. Tyler said that it would be easier just to get gas in Floydada, which was down the road about ten miles. That seemed reasonable, as I knew I had enough fuel for another 50 miles or so, but I was almost sorry that I didn't find out more about Barry's gas key.

We said our goodbyes and pulled away, wondering if we would ever see Lockney again. This quaint little place, like many other small panhandle towns, is slowly losing population as the younger folks are lured to the larger cities and greater opportunities. As a result, Lockney and Floydada look a bit tired, with a number of the towns' buildings unoccupied. I'm not sure what the prospects may be for the future. For now, that's not important; as long as Barry and Algene Barker are in Lockney, it will be, for us, a beacon of hospitality and friendliness, regardless of how many hardy souls make their home there.

Arriving in Floydada, LouAnn Barker's home town, we found a couple of stations open with the beautiful green diesel pump. I nosed the Hornet into the Texaco station, but Homer's rear end hung out in the street a bit, which made me nervous. Fortunately, I think the citizens must be accustomed to obstructions like tractors and combines in the streets, because the drivers just pulled around my rig, waving good-naturedly, as if it were an every-day occurrence to see a fifth wheel halfway out in the street. I really don't think they get many RVs through here, though. I can't remember seeing a single one, other than Bubba's, for hundreds of miles.

We settled in for the long trip back to Euless. The leg on U. S. 70 between Floydada and Vernon involved hours and hours of mind-numbing monotony through what had to be one of the most desolate areas of Texas, eclipsed only, I guess, by the badlands between Midland and El Paso. We were reminded that there is certainly a lot of room in Texas—for a reason: No one could survive living in some parts of it. We arrived home about 9:30 in the evening, completely worn out. We know that, in order to travel outside Texas to the west or north, we'll have to traverse this area again, but we'll first have to work up our nerve—and stamina.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Euless to Amarillo

Thursday, July 27, 2006

After the pronouncements we had made that we probably wouldn't be taking any road trips during July and August, here we are, trekking out over the parched Texas landscape in late July. Texas is in the middle of an awful drought, and the temperature is hitting 100 degrees or more on a regular basis. So why, you may ask, are we doing this? Well, it's Bubba's fault.

Bubba and LouAnn Barker, of whom we've written elsewhere in this blog, are dear friends whom we tease mercilessly, and they give back as good as they get. Some weeks ago, Bubba began talking about our meeting in Amarillo to see the long-running play, "Texas," at the ampitheater in Palo Duro Canyon. We had heard about the canyon and the play for many years, but we just hadn't gotten around to visiting there, (probably because the play is performed only in the summertime). We waffled for a while, fearful that Sandy's heat sensitivity might be a factor for an open-air setting deep in a Texas canyon in August, but then Bubba threw in the clincher: Sunday lunch at his parents' house in Lockney. Algene and Barry Barker are simply delightful people, and getting to visit them and sample Algene's promised chocolate pie was too much to resist. This now had all the makings of a trip that might be worth challenging the relentless Texas heat. Sandy is still wary, but we were told that nights in the Palo Duro Canyon are cool. We'll see.

As usual, we pulled away from the house shortly after noon and were famished after the long four-mile journey to Luby's cafeteria in Bedford. So, we stopped for lunch and then headed west through Fort Worth and onto I-20 to Abilene. Yes, we knew this was not a direct route to Amarillo, but we prefer not to travel the same road to and from a destination if we don't have to. Besides, neither of us had been to Abilene before, and we thought it would be a good idea to expand our knowledge of our home state. Before leaving, we checked with another friend, Bobby Hedlund, for advice on places to eat in Abilene. Bobby had lived there for a number of years, and we figured he would know better than anyone where to get a good meal.

Suffice it to say that the leg to Abilene was uneventful, but it was sad to see how burned-up the vegetation was along the highway. I'm not one who believes global warming is the fault of mankind, as I think the earth's climate is cyclical. The last couple of summers in Texas, however, make me wish for another Ice Age!

We unhooked at the Abilene KOA, which was a nice park with level gravel sites and lots of mesquite and pecan trees around. Then we headed just east of town for dinner at the Lytle Land and Cattle Co. steakhouse, one of Bobby's recommendations. This was a large restaurant with (obviously) a west Texas ranch theme. The waitstaff were liveried in blue jeans and cowboy hats and very friendly. We ordered a couple of shish kebabs and found them to be just the right amount, the beef nicely retaining the smokiness of the open mesquite grill that was in view of the diners.

Afterward, we drove around town a bit to see the sights. During part of this excursion, we got Bobby on the cell phone, and he was gracious enough to provide us a sort of running commentary as he helped us find our way through downtown, which wasn't what you would call lively. Boy, they really roll up the sidewalks after dark in Abilene. We ended up the evening at Wal-Mart (where else?) to get a few things and turned in for the evening.

Friday, July 28, 2006

We had a mini-crisis as we were preparing to leave Abilene this morning. Homer's water pressure had degraded during our recent Branson trip, and we had been working with United RV in Fort Worth to get it fixed. This morning, it slowed to a trickle, even though I had not installed the flow restrictor (necessary for RVs because the light duty plastic plumbing will develop leaks if subjected to normal city water pressure of, say, 80 psi.) I suspected a clogged water filter, but United looked at it and swore that was not the problem. I hoofed it up to the KOA office and asked if there was a reputable RV repair facility nearby. She said I should talk to Jerry at Jerry's Campers, about three miles away. So, I jumped in the hornet and headed out. Jerry's was a small and inelegant dealership, obviously family-run, the main office giving the impression of a well used and cluttered den in someone's residence. I was greeted by Jerry, who said that he would be glad to take a look at the trailer if we would bring it by after lunch. This was stunning, as I had been accustomed to having to wait days or weeks for an appointment for service at United RV. With this news, I hurried back to camp, where Sandy had most everything in the trailer ready to go. We hooked up and headed for Jerry's.

Jerry is about 60, wiry and tiresome in his peripatetic zig-zagging from here to there. He also had a ready quip for every conversation, telling us, winking, that it was so dry that he had school-age grandchildren who had never seen rain. Upon learning of our destination that day, he warned us that Texas ends just west of Sweetwater, and if we're not careful, we'll fall off the edge. Being an insufferable teaser myself, I felt as though I had a soul mate.

Jerry's only service employee was Cesar, a tall Hispanic man, whom Jerry immediately assigned the repair task. As soon as he turned on the water pump, Cesar said we had a problem. He almost immediately went for the water filter, which I, too, had suspected was clogged. The technicians at United RV said they had checked it, however, and found it to be okay. Jerry did not carry in stock a cartridge for the water filter, so I asked Cesar, who had disappeared briefly, to put in a bypass. He grinned as he pulled from his pocket a six-inch tube that he had fashioned with the appropriate fittings to accomplish just that. As soon as this was installed, Voila! The water pressure was back to normal again. I muttered under my breath a few well-crafted criticisms of United RV and decided I would just leave the filter bypassed from now on. The first Homer didn't have a filter and besides, we only drink bottled water in the RV anyway. If the faucet screens get dirty, I'll just change them myself.

Sandy had made some sandwiches, which we ate while Homer was being repaired, and we offered some to Jerry and Cesar, who declined. Jerry, grinning, said he would prefer some watermelon, if we had any. We didn't, of course, and his eyes twinkled as he obviously enjoyed Sandy's usual effusive apologies. In no time, we were on the road, having enjoyed immensely our interaction with this personable man who went out of his way to help a stranger in need. It had begun to rain as we were leaving Jerry's, who said that we were a good omen, having brought rain, and that we should come back soon and bring more.

We transitioned to US 84 at Sweetwater, where, astonishingly, we did not fall off the edge of the earth, as Jerry had warned. We regretted that we were unable to visit Mrs. Allen's legendary fried chicken joint in Sweetwater (we had heard from several friends that it is a wonderful little eating place with no menu, everything being served family style at communal tables.) I guess we'll just have to come back sometime. Near Sweetwater, the flat mesas that form the Llano Estacado began to rise, and I was enthralled with the scores of giant electricity-generating windmills that stuck up everywhere on top of these buttes. I couldn't believe that I wasn't aware of their existence, as I thought I kept up with current events pretty well.

The rest of the trip north was uneventful. We left highway 84 at Lubbock and took I-27 toward Amarillo, marveling at the breathtaking endlessness of the flat farmlands of the high plains. The weather was mercifully cloudy with scattered rain showers, and the temperature never climbed over 84 degrees. What a change from yesterday! I-27 was straight and smooth, and Hornet's diesel engine droned on reliably at its usual cruising 1800 RPM, the cruise control set, as always, at 60 mph. Sandy is usually pretty tolerant of these long, unremarkable interstate legs, but I could tell this was getting to her. She would point out, in the treeless, carefully tilled landscape, rows of electric transmission lines that stretched as far as the eye could see, disappearing over the distant horizon. She stared at tiny farmhouses that looked like the little plastic Monopoly pieces, plopped down amidst thousands of acres of plowed soil with no neighbors for miles and no towns for dozens of miles. We both wondered what life there must be like, so seemingly isolated. Sandy allowed that the womenfolk must be really good planners, as they couldn't just run to the corner store if they forgot something for a recipe they were making. Having lived in the city for so long now, we would have a hard time adjusting, I think. I'm sure there are many compensating factors these farm families would offer in rebuttal, however, and they would probably be just as perplexed at the thought of coping with big city life.

Trying to be helpful in dealing with our boredom, I suggested to Sandy that she could look for mile markers and their associated numbered exits from the interstate. At the time, we were passing mile 22, and I told her we would be exiting at mile 106 to go out to the Palo Duro campground. She gamely played along, announcing one mile post after the other, offering with each alert a brief musing regarding the desolation or remoteness of the region. Example: "Do you know why there are no flies out here? They die of exhaustion flying from one cow patty to the next." Fortunately for her, counting mile markers proved to be like counting sheep, and it wasn't long until she dozed off. When she awoke, she saw that we were only at mile 49, so she pronounced that mileposts in this part of Texas are obviously five miles apart, not the one mile I had suggested. She was pleased that she discovered this disparity and planned to report it to the authorities.

Palo Duro Canyon From Rim

We pulled into the park just as the last wisps of daylight were disappearing from the western sky. The attendant had our reservation and gave us a map to our campground. About a half-mile into the park, the maw of the canyon became visible, and we began the thousand-foot descent down the winding road that had been carved into the steep cliffs. While the Palo Duro is hardly as gargantuan as the Grand Canyon, which is five times larger, it is nonetheless quite a scar in the otherwise flat prairie. This erosion, about a hundred miles long, occurred over several million years by the Prairie Dog Town tributary of the Red River. The exposed canyon walls reveal many colorful layers of sedimentary rock, consisting of mostly reddish hues that are quite beautiful, especially at sunrise and sunset. The entry road makes a loop for several miles at the bottom of the canyon where various historical markers tell of the discovery of the canyon by Coronado some four hundred years ago and the various skirmishes and ultimate defeat of the Indians that were indigenous to the region.

By the time we made it to our campsite, it was completely dark outside, and it wasn't at all clear how well I would negotiate backing Homer into its berth. Since I could see nothing but blackness in my mirrors, I had to rely totally on Sandy to guide me, using the walkie-talkies. Fortunately, Bubba came out of his trailer to greet us and took over this job from Sandy. Bubba gave good directions and, in a few minutes, we were perfectly positioned and settling in for the night.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Bubba and His Tent

We awoke this morning to the clanging together of aluminum pipes. Peeking outside, I saw Bubba, who was assembling his obligatory shade tent near his trailer. One has to admire his energy and tenacity, although on the two trips we have made with the Barkers, the tent went largely unused. I think Bubba does this by instinct; I'm not at all sure that he does not have some kind of Bedouin ancestry. Stepping outside, I could survey in the now illuminated sky the features of the Sagebrush campground, with the red canyon walls rising all around. This was a smallish park, one of two state campgrounds at the bottom of the canyon. The area was fairly flat and open, with small mesquite trees growing everywhere. Almost all the spaces were taken by RVs of every imaginable type. A couple of the spots were occupied by tents. We shuddered as we drove by these, but had to respect their hardy occupants. I heard Sandy mutter under her breath, "You couldn't pay me enough money..." I had to agree with her.

Around noon we drove into Amarillo, about 20 miles away. We followed the Barkers to Sisemore's RV dealership, where Bubba and LouAnn drooled over a new fifth wheel and we bought a couple of things for Homer. Upon recommendation of Mr. Sisemore, we then drove to the Coyote Junction restaurant on Grand Avenue. He told us it was a dump, and he was right. The place looked like a small house that had been abandoned. The signs on the building were barely visible as the hot Texas sun and incessant wind had pretty much eroded all the paint away from the wooden structure. The wooden porch was in need of repair, and several pieces of junk adorned the entire front of the structure, among them a white porcelain toilet full of dirt and weeds. The parking lot was full, however, and upon entering, we found only one unoccupied table. I knew this had to be good. I was right, of course. I had some wonderful green chile stew for a starter, and we all had ribeye steaks, except for BriAnn, Bubba and LouAnn's daughter, who had what looked like a killer cheeseburger. It was a great meal, and we enjoyed the camaraderie.

Coyote Junction Cafe in Amarillo

After lunch, the Barkers led us downtown, where we were impressed by the mix of modern and old buildings. This area was laid out in the typical square city blocks arrangement, but it had an open feel, and everything seemed very neat and clean. The First Baptist Church and the Polk Street Methodist Church were especially beautiful structures, as was the Santa Fe building, constructed of white limestone with a wonderful rococo design at the top. All in all, we were pretty impressed with Amarillo, this bustling jewel in the midst of the vastness of the Texas plains. We heard an interesting statistic from someone today—that 65 percent of the beef consumed in the U. S. comes from the cattle that pass through the huge feedlots of the Texas panhandle.

Soon we made our way back to our campground, to prepare for the performance of "Texas" at the park ampitheater. When we arrived, we met up with Barry and Algene, Bubba's parents, who had driven up from Lockney, and another couple who had driven down from Dalhart. We drove out to the theater grounds, where we had a catered barbecue dinner (not so great) that the theater patrons can purchase for $8.50 a head. After we ate, we went out to the parking lot, where we had a tailgate party with cake and homemade ice cream that Bubba and LouAnn had made. I guess I probably overdosed on about six month's worth of carbs, but that was some good stuff. By this time, around 8:00 p.m., the temperature was dropping rapidly from the 95 degrees earlier in the day. Fortunately, the humidity is typically quite low here on the high plains, so the high summer temps aren't nearly as oppressive as that of Dallas or, even worse, Houston. We entered the ampitheater about 8:15, along with about 1100 other people. This was a great natural setting, as the high canyon cliffs provided most of the backdrop, with far more realism than would be available in a traditional theater. This natural area was used to its fullest, as the production used many horses with riders and horses pulling various kinds of wagons. The theme of the musical revolved around the settlement of the Texas panhandle and the natural rivalry between cattlemen and farmers that exists to this day. There was a love story, of course; as you might expect, the cattleman's niece falls in love with a young farmer, and their marriage symbolizes the harmony that now exists, presumably, between cattlemen and farmers today. While the principal actors have played their roles for quite a long time, most members of the cast are students from West Texas State University, and their performance was quite professional and energetic. There were all sorts of special effects, including a manmade thunderstorm and prairie fire, and there was a nice fireworks display at the end of the show. The only slight flaw was that the sound system, while quite good, could not always overcome the dissipation of sound by the openness of the theater and the strong breeze that was blowing through the canyon. For this reason, we couldn't understand some of the dialogue. All in all, however, it was a truly unique experience, and well worth taking in if you're anywhere in the area.

"Texas" at the Palo Duro Canyon

After Dark at the Theater

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Branson - Hot Springs - Euless

We awoke on Sunday and figured out there was no compelling reason to stay over any longer in Branson, as few performers put on shows on Sundays. Besides, it would be nice to have a couple of days at home to regroup before heading back to the salt mines on the 15th. So, with this in mind, we hooked up after breakfast and pointed the Hornet southward. This time, we purposely avoided route 7, favoring instead highway 65 and Arkansas 9 to Hot Springs. Highway 65 is a pretty good road and not nearly as mountainous as the scenic route 7 we traveled inbound to Branson. Arkansas 9 was much more rural and took us through a lot of pretty farmland.

We arrived in Hot Springs, again at the Lake Hamilton RV Park, and decided we would have one last meal at Fisherman's Wharf. It was just as good as a few days ago, and we had a good table where we could watch boaters docking at the restaurant's pier to have dinner.

We had also decided to return to Garvan Woodland Gardens to take some photos. (The weather had been too cloudy and rainy for photos during last week's visit.) So, we got up early and trekked out there before the temperature got too hot. The place is really very beautiful and is remarkable in that none of the rock formations, ponds or waterfalls is natural. The massive rocks were placed into position under the watchful eyes of students from the University of Arkansas, studying landscape architecture. Massive pumps were installed to provide the water for the little streams and waterfalls seen everywhere. It was amazing how natural the whole thing appeared. I hope you enjoyed the sample pics I included.

Idyllic Pond at Garvan Gardens

Beautiful Grounds at Garvan Gardens

Full Moon Bridge at Garvan Gardens


This 210-acre site was deeded to the State of Arkansas by Mrs. Garvan, on the condition that it be maintained as a garden in perpetuity. Mrs. Garvan had inherited the land from her father, who ran a lumber mill and brickyard on the property in the early 1920s. When the Lake Hamilton Dam was built, the reservoir inundated 240 acres of the original 450-acre site. The 210 acres of prime lakefront property is valued now at around 50 million dollars.

After taking pics, we loaded up and came on home, turning Homer over to United RV in Forth Worth to take care of some squawks that had developed during the trip. We were sorry the vacation was over, as we had a really great time. Can't wait until fall now, so we can get outta Dodge again!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

In Branson

During these two days, we just zoned out, sleeping late, seeing shows, going for walks, watching TV, etc. We didn't even encounter anyone weird enough to write about during this time. It was very relaxing. Here are my reviews of the shows we attended:

50s at the Hop - A cute show with talented performers that is always successful in administering our nostalgia fix.
Fifties at the Hop Show

Andy Williams and Glen Campbell - These two stars were appearing together in Andy Williams' theater and, as expected, the show was top notch. Williams obviously spares no expense in surrounding himself with the very best musicians, so his orchestra and backup singers were nothing short of spectacular. This was the most expensive show in Branson at $42.00, but well worth it. Andy, who is in his mid-seventies, still has a strong voice and is able to hit the high notes, but his age has brought about a bit of wobbliness in the higher range that we didn't notice several years ago when we saw his show. I hope he has the good sense to retire before he gets to a point of embarrassment, as Perry Como did in his unfortunate performances near the end.

Frederick Antonio, Piano Virtuoso - This was a dinner show, starring an old guy with an ill-defined European accent who played a variety of piano tunes to a background track. He was just awful. He obviously had little formal training, but had learned a few keyboard licks that, to the indiscriminating ear, might sound impressive, because he hit a lot of keys. Unfortunately, they weren't the right ones. It was painful, painful to hear, and most others apparently thought so, too, as there were only seven people in the audience. This poor guy was a real bomb. Even I could have done better. The only saving grace was that we got our tickets for $11.50, which was half price, and that included a pretty good steak dinner. We slipped out after the meal, which was merciful to our ears and our digestion.

The Titanic Museum - Some entrepreneur has constructed a huge replica of the front third of the Titanic at the corner of highway 76 and Gretna Road! Inside this impressive structure is a museum containing more than 400 artifacts from the original ship. This was very well done, involving a 90-minute self-guided tour of all sorts of vignettes constructed to help visitors get a sense of what it was like on that fateful night in 1912. Of particular interest was the ship's grand staircase, which the builder of the museum had faithfully replicated in its actual size and splendor. This added a good deal of realism to the experience of imagining the opulence of this vessel and the compelling stories of its prominent passengers.
Titanic Museum in Branson

Titanic Grand Staircase

The Duttons - This show has been in Branson for eight years, but we didn't know anything about it and decided to drop in, especially since we were able to get half-price tickets to this show, too. The Duttons are a very talented family of nine who sing and play mostly bluegrass music in an engaging and energetic performance. Now, bluegrass is fine, and a lot of people enjoy it. However, it is one of our least favorite musical styles, and had we known this beforehand, we wouldn't have gone anywhere near the place. We left during the intermission.

We also made a first-time tour of the new Riverbend Center that his just opened in downtown Branson. This place is something else! It's an upscale mall, not enclosed like a conventional one, but constructed as shops on each side of a 1 ½ mile-long promenade along the riverbank. Above the shops are apartments and condos, and it looks for the world like a typical main street in mid-America. There is a large Bass Pro Shop and a Belk store as anchors, and two large hotels, one of them a Hilton, are being built nearby. The project is costing $420 million, and it will definitely put downtown Branson on the map!

One of the curious things about Branson is that we haven't found very many good places to eat, as we define them. There are many restaurants that serve fast food and all-you-can-eat buffets, but we have found the quality of the food to be well beneath our standards which, admittedly, are perhaps unnecessarily lofty. Oriental food is scarce and inferior; the mexican restaurants are a joke. And, since we avoid chain restaurants like the plague, we rarely eat out when we are in Branson. One of the nice things about Homer is that we can whip up a nice meal in the kitchen at a real cost savings. We don't fix anything elaborate, but it's always to our liking. For example, we made a killer chicken chili one night, and we keep on hand a supply of tuna and chicken salad, made just as we like them. We also get deli meats and cheeses and make gourmet sandwiches. We eat a good bit of fresh fruit, and we have a blender to make smoothies. With our nice flat panel TVs, satellite receiver and DVD player, we can have dinner and a movie right there in Homer or watch TV in the bedroom. This RV travel is pretty cushy.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Hot Springs to Branson

This morning, we tried some of the breakfast sausage we bought yesterday at the country butcher shop, and it tasted just as good as it looked. Foodies that we are, we have a lot of fun trying homemade goodies like this from the burgs through which we travel. It's almost always far better than the boring chain store offerings that I mostly detest.

We said goodbye to the Lake Hamilton RV Park and stopped in again at Cajun Boilers to have some more seafood for lunch. We were a little sorry that we couldn't eat six meals a day in Hot Springs. We saw a lot of interesting restaurants that we just didn't have enough time to try.

We pointed the Hornet northward on route 7 and quickly got into the rigors of mountain driving. I had forgotten how much of this highway is comprised of steep grades and switchbacks. The scenery is fabulous, but we could only average about 35 miles per hour for the mountainous leg to Branson, which was less than 200 miles away.

Warning to female readers: The following paragraph is for guys; you'll probably find it more boring that the rest of this pap.

While the Hornet's diesel engine has plenty of power to pull the 10,000-lb. Homer up the steep hills, I often prefer to shift the transmission manually in the mountains, because I have much better control over engine speed, EGT and turbo boost pressure. And a lower gear is essential to control the rig's speed on some of the steep descents, especially the long seven percent grade just south of Harrison. It would be nice to have a jake brake for the engine, but I have been advised by the experts that this doesn't work very well except on the 2006 Dodge diesels or later models. Seeing the value of the jake brake, Dodge designed the new transmissions to accommodate these starting this year. In addition to the extra gauges (EGT and Turbo boost pressure) I had installed on the Hornet, I also installed a transmission oil temperature gauge. On a couple of occasions today going up a long steep grade, I became a bit worried, as the transmission heated up to within ten degrees of the 220-degree maximum. I may need to check into getting an auxiliary transmission oil cooler for future mountain driving. I'm much more comfortable having a good set of engine gauges now, vice the idiot lights. Once a pilot, always a pilot, I guess.

We pulled into Oak Grove RV Park in Branson at about 7:00 p.m. I was exhausted from manhandling this rig through the mountains. This was the first time I really noticed the three thousand pound extra weight difference between Homer I and Homer II. I'm figuring this was about as much mountain driving as I would ever want to do in a day.

Vintage Trailer Outside Oak Grove RV Park

Sandy and I were famished at this point, so we walked to the Fuji Japanese Steak House just next door to the RV park. We were seated next to a charming couple from England, and we had a nice conversation with them while the chef did his obligatory tricks at the grill. The food was okay, but hardly up to the standard set by Kobe Steaks in Dallas for this type of venue. Perhaps for show, the British chap queried the waiter for an obscure brand of English beer which, of course, the restaurant didn't carry. When offered an American beer, he turned up his nose and waved the waiter off, obviously piqued at the idea of having to drink any vile American product. He then offered an unsolicited explanation that the town where he lived in England was home to the brewery having the oldest beer brand in the world, of which he was obviously enamored. He went on to reveal that the brewery had just been bought out by Coors, a sore point for him that he didn't attempt to conceal from us greedy Americans who stole his brewery. I started to point out that if it had not been for a few hundred thousand American beer drinkers in World War II, he might be ordering schnapps and speaking with a German accent. Seeing that I was contemplating such a smart aleck remark, Sandy pinched the tendon on the bottom of my right thigh where it connects onto my knee joint. Thus immobilized by pain, I could muster only a raspy groaning noise. And alas, my remark was lost to history (except as retold here, of course).

Sandy then helped me limp back to Homer, and we enjoyed the rest of the evening, situated as we were in a rather remote and quiet area of the park, nestled among tall shade trees.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

In Hot Springs, Day Two

We decided to stay another day in Hot Springs, as we liked the new Lake Hamilton RV park, and the previous day's rain kept us from getting to all the things we wanted to do before we left town. After a morning walk around the RV park, we enjoyed a breakfast of fajita nachos—yes, you heard me right. (We are a little unconventional, foodwise, at times, as most of you know.) Then we lounged around for the rest of the morning, did some e-mailing, and I worked on this journal. We were ready to get out again around noon, so we drove down the street a mile or so to the Cajun Boilers restaurant, situated on a small bay of Lake Hamilton. We noticed this place was always packed when we drove by, and now we know why. The seafood is plentiful and divine. The large fried shrimp platter was fabulous, and there was plenty for Sandy and me to share. The crab claw appetizer was also wonderful. We'll probably be forced to go back to this place before we leave.

We drove up to the Mountain Tower overlooking Hot Springs. This is the highest observation point in the area, as it stands a few hundred feet on top of a mountain near downtown Hot Springs. The view from this was terrific, but Sandy rode up the elevator as a labor of love. She is very claustrophobic in elevators—especially those rising to high elevations and having a window to view outside. This elevator had both features, and Sandy had to sit down to recover from her anxiety attack when she reached the top. Neither she nor I realized how serious her reaction would be, and I'm sure we won't be doing this sort of thing again, now that we know how much difficulty she had this time. As Sandy rested, I moved around the circular observation room where, below the windows, was displayed a timeline-style narrative of Hot Springs history circling the entire outer perimeter of the room. I found this to be just what I needed—not too much, not too little, and with large enough print—to reacquaint me with an overview of the history of the area in the time available. Hot Springs has a rich and interesting history, and I enjoyed this a great deal. The only drawback was a TV screen in the room playing a continuous video loop describing Bill Clinton's early years as a resident of Hot Springs. This was very annoying, but I couldn't reach the TV controls and had to endure this blather for the entire time.

After driving down from the mountain, we parked downtown and toured the old Fordyce bath house, restored by the U. S. Dept. of Interior to its former 1925 glory.

Fordyce Bath House

Lobby of the Fordyce

Of particular interest in the Fordyce was the far greater opulence of the men's bathing area compared to the women's bathing room. The men's area was much larger, with long marble benches and an elegant stained glass skylight, underneath which was a statue of Hernando DeSoto. The women's area was small and almost utilitarian by comparison. Ah, those were the days, weren't they, guys?

Men's Bathing Room - Opulent, Naturally

Women's Bathing Room, Not So Opulent

We then walked behind the Fordyce to see one of the 47 hot springs that give the town its name.

One of the 47 Hot Springs

Natural Spring Fountain

The mineral-infused water has bubbled from this mountain at a steaming 134 degrees since before recorded time. Because bathing in the water was so popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the flow from the springs was insufficient at times to supply all the bath houses. Someone had the bright idea that they would dynamite the opening of one of the larger springs, in an effort to increase the flow. This didn't work, but this stunt, among other problems, like the building of too many unsafe ramshackle bath houses, became catalysts for the federal government to step in and regulate the springs, setting the area aside as the first national recreation area and the precursor of Hot Springs National Park. The water coming directly from the spring is quite fit for drinking (after cooling, of course), and a free container filling station is located just off Central Avenue at the southern end of Bath House Row. As we did last trip, we filled a 10-gallon container to use as our drinking water in Homer, as we think the water is very tasty and imagine that it might be of some health benefit due to the minerals contained therein.

By this time, Sandy seemed almost to have recovered from her elevator experience, but she thought that a little shopping spree might be just the ticket to erase any lasting trauma. Not wishing to impede the healing effects that such an adventure would bring, I smiled sweetly and drove to a newish shopping center not far away. At the conclusion of this little diversion, she did indeed seem like her old self again.

Sandy's little shopping trip had such a curative effect that she allowed how her appetite had also now returned. So, we stopped at Facci's, an Italian restaurant on Central Avenue in a junky old house that had been operated by, well, a Mr. Facci, since 1975. The food was rumored to be good, although the proprietor, whom we encountered almost immediately, was sloppily attired in a dirty apron and tennis shoes, wearing his gray unwashed hair in a very long pony tail. I really don't know why Sandy and I seem to run into so many characters like this. I guess everyone else does, too, but it just seems a lot wierder out there than it used to. One thing's for sure, though: This old hippie could cook. Our chicken piccata was very, very good, although there were a few too many capers. The bread and olive-oil based dipping sauce was so good, I almost gnawed into my fingers as I gobbled up the bread.

After dinner, we drove out to Lake Ouachita, another beautiful body of water just a short distance from Hot Springs. We toured a marina and a COE (U. S. Corps of Engineers) RV park that fronted right on the lake. Every available space was taken, but that is understandable, given the inexpensive site rental fees and the picturesque location. I suppose people who live in this area could be jaded by the natural beauty so abundant here, but it would be hard for me to get tired of the Ozarks, I think. On the way back, we stopped at a country butcher shop and bought some breakfast sausage that looked good. By then, darkness had fallen, and it was time to call it a day.

Tuesday, June 6, 2006

In Hot Springs

We awoke on top of the mountain to find it raining! It had been so dry in Dallas that we had sort of forgotten what rain was like! The temperature outside showed 65 degrees, so there was no need for air conditioning. We just turned on the exhaust fan (RV equivalent to an attic fan) and enjoyed the cool breeze coming in the windows. Thanks to our Wal-Mart excursion last night, we had bacon and eggs for breakfast, a big improvement from yesterday's Spam debacle. Even though we had satellite TV going, we still felt surprisingly disconnected from everything since we had no internet or e-mail access. Isn't that amazing? I'm embarrassed to admit that we have become such satellite/cell phone/internet/e-mail junkies that we can't go on vacation without all this silly technology. We are what we are, however; we just can't figure out how we got this way.

With the need to get back to civilization in mind, I was determined to pull out of Cloud Nine a day early and move to a park closer to town where we would have wi-fi and not feel like early frontier settlers waiting for an Indian attack. So, we scurried around to break camp, and when I went to the office to tell the little Nazi lady that we were leaving early, she informed me that I would not be getting a refund for the extra night. I told her that that decision would be costly for her, as I would be submitting an unflattering review of her park in (the premier web source for unbiased info about RV parks). She shrugged her shoulders, and I left. But I successfully carried out my threat. (You can read my review at I can guarantee that will cost her a lot more than the 27 bucks she chose not to refund. We chose Lake Hamilton RV park as our recovery location, and were glad we did. The staff was super friendly, and it was right on the lakefront, close to everything. Not only was it cheaper, but the wi-fi was excellent.

Lake Hamilton RV Park

After we got settled into the new digs, we decided to drive around the area and do some sightseeing. This was a good plan, as the clouds and rain showers gave every indication of being with us the entire day. This made for an absolutely delightful temperature that didn't exceed 72 degrees all day, and the showers were spotty enough that it wasn't a problem to get out of the Hornet now and then. We stopped for lunch at McClard's Barbecue, the Hot Springs legend that was closed the last time we came through here on a Monday. The place was mobbed, as usual, and the food was as good as ever.

McClard's BBQ

Our sightseeing then took us out to the Galvan Woodland Gardens, maintained by the University of Arkansas on a 210-acre tract on Lake Hamilton. This was well worth the six-dollar admission price, and the lushness of the place was made even more appealing in the cool dampness of the day. After our afternoon of motoring around the area, we went downtown to take in dinner at the Belle Arts restaurant. The food was Italian, and the setting was an elegant dining room with a soaring arched ceiling and a pianist playing easy listening tunes on the grand piano. Unfortunately, the meal was overpriced and disappointing. The shrimp scampi was prepared with a sauce that had tomato in it, which is just not done in reputable Italian restaurants. The garden salad had way too much balsamic vinegar in the dressing, and the cold shrimp and avocado salad was just that—shrimp and avocado—with a highly forgettable dipping sauce. Too bad—the place had a lot of potential, but should be avoided at all costs because of the unimaginative food and high prices.

After dinner, we went next door to a storefront building with a neon sign that advertised it as the Bath House Theater. We had seen a brochure for this attraction when we were at Galvan Gardens, and it billed itself as the "best live show in Arkansas." The offering, according to the brochure, was a family variety show with comedy acts and an orchestra playing popular music from the last eight decades. What's not to like about that? We paid the $13 admission and settled in for what we anticipated would be a Branson-like show. Uh, it wasn't. The orchestra members, who numbered 8 souls, did double duty as the cast players during the skits. The musicians tried valiantly, but there were just not enough of them (only one trumpet player, two trombonists, and no strings) to bring off the big-band numbers they were trying to play. The result was almost comical, in that there was a melody—thanks to the poor lone trumpeter—but two trombones couldn't possibly have added the orchestral depth required for the music that was attempted. The result was a very amateurish sound, no matter how much effort—which was considerable—they put into their performance. The owner of the theater, Tom Wilkins, was the "star" of the show, along with his wife, who was the lead female vocalist, and his daughter, who was also a singer as well as the pianist for the group. As a pianist, she was pretty good, but as a singer—oh my word! Wilkins, his wife and daughter should be banned from singing for life, with the threat of imprisonment if they ever attempt it again. Everything they did was an off-pitch, screeching mess that was just maddening to endure. The comedy skits were lame and poorly executed but, to my astonishment, some of the 50 or so patrons actually applauded what was going on. This led me to believe these poor souls might never have seen a good show before or that they were polite to a fault. Sandy and I sat there for an hour with our mouths open in utter disbelief that enough people had paid to see this artistic holocaust for it to stay in business for years. The only slightly amusing part of the show was Wilkins's portrayal of Elvis's inept imaginary brother, Buford who, according to the story line, was attempting to do a show mimicking the real Elvis. This had some real potential as a skit idea, but it was executed in a bush-league manner. It did, however, keep our interest sufficiently so as to deter us from slashing our wrists before we could escape from the theater during intermission, which we did. If this was, indeed, the "best live show in Arkansas," then I pity Arkansans. The only good thing about this experience is that it gave me fodder for this journal. It was truly more fun to write about than to watch. Hopefully, some reader will take heed and avoid wasting the price of admission to see this travesty. Other than that, I really don't have any strong feelings on the matter.

Monday, June 5, 2006

Texarkana to Hot Springs, AR

Today is notable for the occasion of Sandy's and my 30th wedding anniversary. We celebrated this milestone before we left on this trip—dinner with the Barkers and Hedlunds on Friday and dinner with Mindy on Saturday before we left town on Sunday. As anniversary gifts, I gave Sandy some jewelry (what else?) and she gave me the new recliner I mentioned earlier. I hope she's as pleased with her gift as I am with mine. We know we're getting older when people respond with, "Wow!" when we tell them how long we've been married. Or, perhaps it's an indication of the shorter duration of relationships these days. It wasn't very long ago that a couple would have to be married 50 years to get a "Wow!" In any case, we consider ourselves to be very fortunate to have found each other and to have been blessed with a great marriage. I believe God had His hand in bringing this about, as I believe He has someone in mind for each of us, if we will just be patient and sensitive to His leading. We know a lot of fine people, though, who have had a marriage breakup, so I'm thinking that even some of the spouses God favors are still humans and capable of being stupid and selfish. We just won't get everything 100 percent right this side of heaven, will we?

There are other common things about Sandy and me that aid in our compatibility. My parents, like Sandy's, grew up during the Depression and worked hard to overcome their humble agrarian beginnings. They were God-fearing, church-going, honest and humble people who cherished their families and taught their children the difference between right and wrong, spanking their behinds when they did the latter. They also modeled that essential element that seems to be missing from so many marriages today—selflessness. It seems fairly simple to me that if a spouse always conducts his or her activities according to what makes the other one happy, there won't be a lot of time left over to do things that are harmful to the relationship. In the case of the wife, she'll be so pleased and astonished that she'll let the husband get away with a lot of stuff he does that's not so selfless—and there's gonna be some of that because, well, boys will be boys. (Note to guys: As long as we're talking about this, just remember that the wife's good humor about our occasional self-indulgence is confined largely to such activities as the acquisition of guy toys or going golfing or fishing or things like that—and these in moderation. There's a good chance that if you have treated her right in your relationship, she herself will insist that you do these guy things, in which case you're home free! Please note that this does not include the acquisition of girlfriends. If this is your weakness, then all bets are off. My theory doesn't work for this; God takes a dim view of it, and I'll just pray for you.)

When we awoke at Shady Pines this morning, it became evident that I had had some serious lapses in my preparations for departure on this trip. Because Sandy does the lion's share of getting us ready for RV trips, it is usually my self-appointed task to load the food items aboard Homer before leaving. I had been determined to select a rather minimal amount from the supply in our house, because we have learned that this can get out of hand, as we mostly eat out when we travel. For us, it's better to buy a few food items at grocery stores as we go. This assumes, of course, that we do indeed supply the trailer with a few basics to get us going, especially refrigerated food that would go bad if left behind. It was here that I had a problem. For reasons that still aren't clear to me, I took cereal from the pantry, but no milk. I took lunchmeat, but no bread. I also failed to take any eggs, bacon or any other kind of breakfast-type food. The result was that our breakfast here in Texarkana consisted of Spam, cream cheese and grapefruit. How pathetic is that? Sandy was very sweet about it, I think because she felt sorry for me in my exasperated state. This was one of those terribly embarrassing moments when I realized that the old brain has lost a few million more cells and that I will soon be a drooling mess.

One of the hosts at Shady Pines was a delightful lady of about 65, who was a charming conversationalist with an inexhaustible supply of things to say. I had walked up to the office to get some ice and escaped 30 minutes later when she paused long enough during her monologue to take a breath. She felt compelled to give me a seemingly endless exposition about her trials and tribulations of getting the park's wireless internet system set up. The system did work well, but my eyes glazed over after about the first five minutes of the story. Fortunately for me, it is usually Sandy who gets drawn into this type of conversation, as she has an engaging personality that makes perfect strangers spontaneously begin talking to her. This happens all the time, and I suppose they see her as easy to talk to. She is, indeed, friendly, charming and animated around people, even those whom she doesn't know, and I guess their response should be expected. Sandy doesn't seem to mind, however, for she is seldom at a loss for words herself—a fact that she will readily admit. One of her favorite articles of clothing is a tee shirt she bought for herself on which is stenciled, "I'm talking and I can't shut up!" This is just part of the mystique of a woman, I guess. Thankfully, guys only have to be concerned with simpler things, like nuclear physics or interplanetary space travel.

Ah, I see I have digressed quite a bit. We reluctantly said goodbye to Shady Pines and went immediately to Bryce's Cafeteria, which was celebrating its 75th year of hardening customers' arteries. I have already written about Bryce's in last year's Branson excerpt from this rag, so there is no need to revisit it. It should be required, however, that all who travel I-30 should remove their hats and observe a moment of silence as they pass by the tall Bryce's sign. And yes, it was just as good as ever. The peach cobbler was such a work of art that I can only speak of it in hushed tones, not wishing to diminish the religious experience.

The relatively short pull to Hot Springs was uneventful, and we settled in at the Cloud Nine RV Park, where we had made a reservation. This place was way out in the country on top of a mountain, where there was plenty of quiet and solitude with nice views of the surrounding hills.

Cloud Nine RV Park

When we checked in, we were greeted by an older woman with a German accent who, when I asked her about it, informed me somewhat brusquely that the wi-fi was not working. About this time an older man who had preceded me in registering came back into the office and requested a pull-through space rather than the back-in parking spot that he had been assigned. The German woman immediately began to chide him for his poor driving skills, saying the assigned space was plenty wide, so what was his problem? I was dumbfounded by her demeanor, as was the old man, who was quite embarrassed. I began to look for a swastika somewhere on her clothing, but then I let it go and paid for two nights, thinking that my T-Mobile card, while slower than wi-fi, would do in a pinch for internet surfing and e-mail. But it was not to be; we were too far out in the country for T-Mobile's signal to reach. After setting up, we motored back into town and had dinner at the Fisherman's Wharf Restaurant on Lake Hamilton. We had cold boiled shrimp and herb-crusted tilapia, both of which were excellent, as was our window seat on the lake.
Fisherman's Wharf Restaurant on Lake Hamilton

Hot Springs from West Mountain

Then we drove up West Mountain, within the Hot Springs National Park, where we saw some great views of Hot Springs and the surrounding mountains. After motoring around a bit more, we decided to go to Wal-Mart and get some of the food essentials that I had overlooked on departure from home. I guess Sandy didn't want any more Spam for breakfast the next morning.

Sunday, June 4, 2006

Euless to Texarkana

Frankly, we hadn't planned to do Branson again so soon after the last trip a year ago. I wanted to go out west, and Sandy wanted to go out east. We had even mentioned Maine in the last Branson travelogue. Well, experience has taught us that you don't take very long trips in an RV unless you have lots and lots of time. The reason is the roadweariness factor. RV travel is best when you drive a little and stay a lot. Ideally, you move from place to place, spending a couple of days or more in each stop to check out everything. I don't think very many people enjoy driving most of the day every day, setting up in the evening and breaking camp in the morning. Fairly short trips, like Branson, aren't so bad, because you can easily get there from the Dallas area with one overnight stop on the way.

So, having a bit of a time problem with my work schedule and the swirl of Mindy's high school graduation events, ten days is about all we could muster for our spring trip this year. If we were to go to the west or east coasts, it would take a minimum of three weeks and preferably a month. But then, we definitely prefer to dawdle along the way. Half the fun is stopping in some interesting little town and patronizing a mom-and-pop fruit stand or a farmer's market or festival, or checking out something unusual or historical. Although that's very enjoyable, it definitely slows one's progress, and that's why we will need more time. We have learned that the words, "RV travel" and "hurry" should not even be used in the same sentence.

Today brought a new and shameful low in our ability to cast off the lines and make a timely departure from home base. I had to go to the office for four hours this morning, just to get things in shape for me to leave. I am sometimes jealous of my employees who are not in management. You don't see them working on Sunday, by George, and most would tell you they wouldn't have my job under any circumstance. I often think they're a lot smarter than I am.

So, by the time I got home from work, ate lunch, and started the departure checklist, it was already 1:30 p.m.! Sandy was busy all morning, getting the laundry caught up and trying to police up after Mindy who, we are certain, will simply not be able to function in society because she is so disorganized. I think her going away to college will be a real eye-opener for her, as mom and dad won't be there to tend to all the little details that she forgets or ignores.

We brought Homer to the house yesterday, and I spent most of the afternoon inside, putting together a new Euro-style recliner Sandy gave me to replace a small and woefully inadequate upholstered chair that came with the trailer. I really like the new recliner, but it's so annoying to have to assemble everything nowadays. Sometimes I think that if the factories didn't spend so much time packing all the pieces just so, along with the multilingual assembly instructions, little labels on the parts and countless little baggies full of nuts and bolts, they would have time to go ahead and assemble the chair! The cotton-picking thing was in a million pieces! (Excuse me while I vent--this is really a pet peeve of mine.) I'm surprised the instructions didn't direct me to slaughter a cow and tan its hide to get the chair covered!

I hate to admit that it was almost 4:00 p.m. when we pulled away from the curb at the house in Euless! I can never rag on Bubba Barker again about timeliness. The trip through Dallas, which should have been a breeze on Sunday afternoon, was slowed to a crawl on I-30 just east of downtown, as workers had the freeway shut down to repair a bridge. This cost us another half hour! It was an uneventful pull for the rest of this leg, and I marveled at the fuel mileage showing on the Hornet's computer—15.2 mpg! That's really good for pulling a trailer and about twice the mileage most folks get in a motorhome. We stopped at Burton's Family Restaurant in Sulphur Springs for dinner, where we had some outstanding catfish, coleslaw, fries and pineapple-coconut pie. We were a bit apprehensive on our entry into the restaurant, as we were the only patrons, and the manager was mopping the rather dirty dining room floor. The staff was very friendly, though, and almost everything we had was scrumptious. Only the hushpuppies were disappointing. They served the little frozen pre-formed sticks that are ubiquitous these days. I thought of my recently departed mother's mastery of the hushpuppy and how she would have sneered at these tiny inedible cornmeal logs.

At Mount Pleasant, we abandoned I-30 and zigzagged over to U. S. 67 for the 65 remaining miles to Texarkana. It was a good choice, as our campground—Shady Pines—is on 67 just southwest of the city, and the drive was very nice through the few small towns along the way. The highway was well maintained, and there was very little traffic.

Shady Pines RV Park

We turned into the entrance of Shady Pines at 8:30 p.m. and nosed into a nice concrete pull-through pad near the back of the park. Shady Pines is a newish park and oh, so neat and clean. Wow! The place was manicured, with all the lanes and pads paved with concrete. I didn't see a single speck of litter anywhere. The price was also right at $22.50 with a Good Sam discount, and I was surprised how few campers were there. As I'm sitting here in Homer writing this at 7:20 on Monday morning, I notice another trailer moving slowly by, heading for the park exit. I am mystified as to how anyone can get up, have breakfast, break camp and be on the road so early. It's just not normal; there's something definitely wrong with those people!

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Temple to Euless

After another fine night's sleep, I awoke early and went outside to watch the sunrise. As I rounded the corner of the trailer, I was confronted by a small herd of deer, quietly grazing on the tall grass, perhaps 25 yards away. They raised their heads and looked at me but, obviously comfortable with humans, they almost immediately went back to munching on their weedy breakfast. I was mesmerized by the deer in this utterly peaceful and bucolic setting, quietly ignoring me and the increasing cacophony of bird songs as the morning twilight gave way slowly to the rising sun. It was a magical setting, and I marveled at the magnificence of God's creation. For the first time in a long time, I felt completely relaxed.

Family of Deer Nearby

We decided to leave fairly early (for us), because I wanted to arrive at United RV in Fort Worth before they closed. I had a punch list of a few things we discovered during the maiden voyage that United would need to fix. For example, a small panel had been left loose in one of the kitchen cabinets, and one of the window shades was not working properly. I also decided to have United install an additional air conditioning unit in the bedroom. While the present 15,000 BTU unit would probably have been okay for normal people, I was a little disappointed in the volume of the airflow from the bedroom's overhead outlets. Due to our desire for Arctic-like surroundings, the extra unit should more than fill the bill. Fortunately, I had anticipated this and ordered Homer II factory-wired for the second unit. All United will have to do is to drop it into the bedroom skylight opening.

I decided to stay off the choked I-35 for as long as possible going home, so we headed from Belton up S.H. 317 toward Hillsboro. This is an inviting road, very scenic and rural, with little traffic. We stopped in Valley Mills for lunch, on the main drag at a tiny café, named Open Country Beef Restaurant, Meat Market and Catering Service. Now, if you've read much of this travelogue, you know that we're always on the prowl for little mom-and-pop eating joints that have the best of local cooking. There is always the possibility, however, that one of these places may look good on the outside but be a real stinker on the inside. This, unfortunately, was the case for Open Country.

We noticed that only one table was occupied in the very rustic restaurant, the décor of which consisted mainly of weathered barn wood and kitschy country stuff hanging on the walls. We saw no evidence, however, of a meat market. We sat down, and a woman in her fifties appeared at our table to take the drink order and hand us menus. True to its name, the Open Country menu was limited mainly to beef dishes. Sandy ordered a hamburger, and I opted for the lunch special of meatloaf and two side veggies.

As we waited for the food, I noticed three deer skulls, complete with antlers, hanging on the wall. That's right, deer skulls. I replayed the portion of my memory containing images of all the animal heads hanging on walls that I observed in my lifetime. At the completion of this review, I was unable to recall any other occasion when I had seen a deer's entire skull hung on a wall as a trophy. I had seen antlers and taxidermied bucks' heads before, but not anything like this. It was as though they tacked the poor creature's head to the wall after its demise and allowed nature to take its course. This was not terribly appetizing and proved to be an omen of things to come.

From where I was seated, I could see the rear of the restaurant, where a door was propped open, revealing a storage area and a door to the restroom. A playpen was also there, occupied by a baby with a pacifier in her mouth. About this time, Sandy and I heard a sound much like air escaping from a balloon. It only lasted a moment, but it was quite loud. Then it occurred again and again, in a steady rhythm. We strained to see the origin of the sound, to no avail. I decided to make a trip back to the bathroom to get a better vantage point. As I passed one of the booths about halfway across the restaurant, I saw a young woman, obviously the mother of the child in the playpen, snoring away with her very audible balloon noise. By "obviously the mother," I reached this conclusion based on her evident exhaustion and disheveled appearance. She probably needed the nap.

Our orders arrived fairly quickly, but the food was just awful. The vegetables were cooked to death and the meatloaf was an unrecognizable slab of what I hoped was beef. I ate only one bite of the vegetables, but I was able to dispense with the meat without too much trouble. Sandy's burger was so-so, and she wasn't impressed enough to eat it all.

About this time a fire truck rolled down the main drag outside with its siren blaring. The mother awoke from her nap and ran to the front of the restaurant to watch the spectacle, as did the waitress and the cook. This spawned a discussion among the three, not so much as to what may be on fire, but who the driver of the fire truck might be. I'm guessing he was known to them; perhaps he was even the baby's father—who knows?

We marveled at this little vignette, so representative of small-town Texas, where everything stops when a fire truck goes by. We wondered how we would adjust if we abandoned the frenetic pace of the big city and adopted such a laid-back lifestyle. There's a lot to envy here, but we can't help but think we would be bored pretty quickly.

The rest of the trip home was uneventful. We dropped Homer at United RV, eager for them to take care of the punch list, so we can hit the road again in June. In the meantime, we'll be shopping for a second TV for Homer's bedroom.

Monday, May 1, 2006

Georgetown to Temple

Today we made the long pull up to Belton—28 miles! This was easily the shortest distance we have traveled between overnight stops. Our goal was to get in some face time with family and friends whom we hadn't seen for a while, so I decided to camp at the Cedar Ridge Corps of Engineers park at Lake Belton. Like most COE parks, this one had water and electricity available, but no sewer, TV or phones. Before acquiring this new rig, we steered clear of any parks that didn't provide sewer hookups, because we had to dump so often. With Homer II, the 80-gallon waste tanks are more than adequate for going days between dumps. This opened a whole new world of RV parks, in a sense, because the COE parks are usually situated in very scenic locations, especially when adjoining lakes. We called ahead to make sure Cedar Ridge had a spot for one night, and they said there would be no problem. Upon our arrival, they gave us a map with all the open 50-amp spots marked. We were to come back to the guardhouse and check in after parking. We chose spot #2, a large open area with a separate parking space for the Hornet, along with a covered pavilion, charcoal grill and fire pit. We had a fine view of the lake, and we were enchanted by the peaceful beauty of the place! Leave it up to the government to create a place with what would be costly amenities elsewhere, all for $18 a night!
Cedar Ridge COE Park in Belton

View of Lake Belton from our Campsite

After getting settled in, we went into a frenzy of visitation, seeing Sandy's mom and her Aunt Nettie and Uncle Lloyd and their children. Then, even though our normal bedtime was approaching, we called up John and Linda Abbey, our good friends for 30 years, and they agreed to join us for a late dinner at Denny's in Temple. We had an excellent visit and felt almost like young folks again, staying up so late and all! One of John and Linda's attributes that we have always appreciated is their sense of adventure. They haven't lost any of that over the years, and they proved it by dropping everything to make the 50-mile round trip from Killeen to Temple to join us. They are very special to us, for sure.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

In Round Rock

After a leisurely breakfast, we drove around the area a bit and did some shopping, then we drove out to the Jim Hogg COE Park at Lake Georgetown. We toured the camping area, where there were only a couple dozen RVs occupying spots with hookups. Most of these were near the lakefront, which was very nice, even though the water level of the lake seemed quite low. We had lunch at the Monument Café, a longtime institution in Georgetown. This was a curious place, as it looked for all the world like the typical family-run local eatery found in small towns, where everyone goes for a good home-cooked meal at a cheap price. They offered chalkboard specials, which were fairly priced at $6.99, but most of them had already been sold out by the time we arrived at about 1:30 p.m. The menu items appeared ridiculously overpriced. For example, a simple hamburger was $6.95, and my two small pork chops with vegetable sides was a whopping 13 bucks! They seemed to be justifying the high prices by offering sides that were a bit more sophisticated than you ordinarily found in these little eateries. My mashed potatoes were flavored with chicken broth and butter, turning me off a bit because I found them a bit too rich. Also offered was a spinach casserole with artichoke hearts, a dish of which they had also sold out. Sandy found her hamburger to be very ordinary—perhaps a two on a scale of five. Even though we were put off by our impression that the Monument was trying to be something it wasn't, the place was quite busy, even this long after lunchtime. I'm beginning to think these poor diners are desperate for something other than chain restaurants.

We did a little more sightseeing and shopping, then turned in early, again anticipating a good night's sleep on the new king size bed. We weren't disappointed. What a difference a little more room makes!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Euless to Round Rock

It's hard to believe four months have passed since our last RV trip. We weren't particularly motivated to travel during the colder months, but there was another big reason: We were trading RVs! Having made four significant trips in the original Homer, we had pretty well zeroed in on the things about our first RV that we wanted desperately to change. Being complete novices to RV travel when we bought that rig, we accepted certain known compromises in the Jayco and discovered others as we roamed from place to place. Clearly, Homer I's tiny bathroom was the greatest annoyance, followed closely by the separate sleeping arrangements. Sandy and I have never been able to sleep together in anything but a king size bed, and Homer I's bed was not even a full queen size. Our compromise was that I would sleep in the front bedroom and she would sleep on one of the bunk beds in the rear of the coach. Under normal circumstances, it would have been the other way around, but my 6'-2" frame didn't fit in the bunk bed. Besides, Sandy was never able to overcome the claustrophobic feeling of the lower bunk. The front bedroom was also an irritation, because the ceiling was very low, and not even 5'5" Sandy could stand upright in it. Because of this, making the bed became a chore to be dreaded. Although we tried to make the experience more accommodating by replacing the factory mattresses with comfortable custom made ones, the sleeping arrangements were definitely a pain.

Of almost equal annoyance was the tiny bathroom, which contained a small shower stall and a tiny toilet. The space was so cramped that it was necessary for me to have one foot in the shower stall while sitting on the "throne." The impossibly small sink was on the outside of the bathroom, and one couldn't help but splash water everywhere while washing up.

Another problem area was the lack of kitchen counter space. There was almost none! Meal preparation is very frustrating when you don't have a place to work. These were the sorts of little problem areas that we knew were there in Homer I, but we didn't realize that living with the compromises would become more untenable with each succeeding trip. If I had a piece of advice for other newbies, it would be to consider carefully that the passage of time doesn't necessarily make the heart grow fonder about living with these frustrations every day. In fact, the small living space seems to magnify them exponentially. If you're shopping for an RV, and you know that your prospective rig has a feature that you're not particularly happy about, you will probably grow to despise it once you own it and live in it!

This was the backdrop for our visit last February to the RV show held in the Tarrant County Convention Center in Fort Worth every winter. After roaming around the huge hall for about an hour, we happened upon a 2006 Sierra fifth wheel, model 295 RGD, made by Forest River. Its layout and features were such that none of our Homer I pet peeves were in evidence. It had a king size bed in a large front bedroom with freestanding full-size shower. The toilet was concealed in its own little room, and there was a full size lavatory. There was also a full wardrobe across the front of the bedroom, in which I could easily stand upright, and a dresser with lots of drawers. In the rear kitchen, there was plenty of counter space and enough room in the living area for two recliners, something that we had definitely missed in Homer I. It was a beautiful coach, and we were amazed how much difference a couple of feet in length and height made. Best of all, the price was right--only about eight thousand dollars more that we paid for Homer I.

We left the show dazzled by what we had seen and, after thinking about it overnight, we decided we wanted to trade up to this model. We went back to the show the next day, only to find that it had been sold! We asked one of the representatives of the dealer, United RV of Fort Worth, if he had any others, and he said no, that it was a popular model, and we would likely have to order one from the factory, as other dealers who had them in stock would be reluctant to give them up to another dealer. While I have learned to be skeptical about generalizations like this from salespeople, I let it pass. We went to United RV the next day and ordered a Sierra just as we wanted it. I have also learned the value of purchasing our RV from a local dealer. If you have problems with your unit—-and you will-—the dealer that sold it to you will always give you extra service, no matter how many assertions they make that their customer service is the same regardless of where you bought your rig. This was certainly true with Vogt RV, who sold us Homer I, and it has proved to be true with United RV, located just across the freeway from Vogt on state highway 121 in Fort Worth. So far, we can truthfully say that we've been treated well by both firms, and we would have no qualms about recommending them to others.
Homer II!

After a wait of about eight weeks, United RV called to say that our new Sierra had arrived and they were installing the new TrakVision satellite antenna that I had ordered. After having used the manual-point external dish for a couple of trips in Homer I, I declared that I would no longer be willing to go through the hassle of trying to find satellites by moving that stupid dish around outside in the weather. I wasn't very good at it, and we found that by the time we got everything set up, I was exhausted and frustrated, and had probably missed the TV show we wanted to see.

One more extra I added to the new rig was a top-of -the line porcelain toilet. The unit installed at the factory was made entirely of plastic and, because of its diminutive size, did not exactly accommodate the, ah, larger derriere.

You can tell from reading this that Sandy and I are not into "roughing it." While we like RV camping, we'd just as soon leave the "camping" part out of it. Our idea of camping is to have along with us all the same comforts and conveniences of home. This would brand us "sissified" by those folks who like outdoor camping and communing with nature's creatures, but we don't care. If we want to commune, we'll do it with drink in hand, sitting in our lounge chair under Homer's awning. Unless it gets too hot...or we see an insect or something.

An inspection of Homer II revealed that it was manufactured exactly has we had ordered, and we signed on the dotted line, leaving Homer I behind for someone else to enjoy all the extra features we had added—like the custom mattresses, the doubly large black tank and the tank flushing system. Oh well, it served its purpose, by allowing us to dip our toe into the water and see what we liked and didn't like about fifth wheels. Naturally, we took quite a hit in depreciation, but I thought, everything considered, it was money well spent.

Trading RVs is much like moving from your stick house to another one. Absolutely EVERYTHING must come out of the old trailer, and a new scheme must be thought out for placement of the stuff in the new rig. This is not easy, as the layout is much different, and one has to think carefully about where everything goes for maximum ease of access. This was made somewhat easier in the roomy Sierra, whose storage space, inside and outside, was substantially greater than the Jayco.

I hooked up the Hornet and took Homer II for a test drive. I was pleased that I couldn't tell much difference in the way it pulls compared to the Jayco, even though the new rig weighs 2200 pounds more, at 9900. Even after we get all our "stuff" loaded into the trailer, we'll still be well under the 13,000-pound towing limit for the Hornet. The new Sierra also has a much improved exterior look, thanks to the smooth fiberglass skin. Note to readers contemplating buying a trailer with aluminum exterior skin: Don't. It's much too easily dented, and you can't help but get dings all the time. This was another good lesson we learned from Homer I.

Although we have some longer trips planned this summer, I was eager to take Homer II out for a short shakedown cruise. I mentioned doing a long weekend trip down to Georgetown and Temple, where we could visit Sandy's mom and some good friends from our church when we lived in Temple years ago. Sandy was in agreement, so we brought Homer II to the house and loaded up, planning to leave on the morning of April 28. Unfortunately, a cold front was pushing its way through north Texas that morning, and the weather radar showed multiple squall lines that would be moving across I-35 during the day. I quickly decided that our departure could wait another day, so we continued with our preparations. Even though we had plenty of time to get ready for this short trip, we still forgot some things. One hindrance was that the lack of the checklist I had developed for departures in the first Homer. This checklist was a hybrid of the generic checklist contained in the Jayco owner's manual, upon which I appended extra items peculiar to us. When Homer I went away, so did the owner's manual and the checklist. It looks like we'll have to develop a new one. The older we get, the more we find it important to write notes to ourselves. The scary thing is that we sometimes forget where we put the notes. Getting old is just plain scary.

We made an uneventful trip to Georgetown, where we began to set up at the Berry Springs RV Park. This is a clean and quiet little park and fairly new, it appears. Even though it had just rained, the gravel roads and parking spots were in good shape, except for one easily avoidable mudhole at the far north end of the property. There was no cable TV, so we flipped on the TrakVision, and after a few little whirring noises, the antenna zeroed in on the correct Direct TV satellite, and the Fox News Channel popped up on the screen. What a cool gadget this antenna is! How could an RVer live without one?

After reading a few more instruction manuals on the new appliances and accessories in Homer and fiddling with everything to see how it all worked, we made our way out to Dwain and Bobbie Marshall's house, an absolutely beautiful sprawling Austin stone manse overlooking a creek at the edge of their huge back yard. Dwain and Bobbie were victims of a bus crash a few years ago wherein some great friends of ours lost their lives. Dwain lost an arm in the wreck, and his recovery was in doubt for a while. He appears now to be just as feisty as ever and is a walking testimony to God's answering prayers and the care of a loving mate. After a wonderful dinner and an evening of reminiscing, we headed back to Homer for our first night in the new sleeping digs. Our new custom king mattress was simply wonderful, and we slept like a log. It is amazing the difference a little extra room makes. So far, the new Homer seems perfect.
Bobbie and Dwain Marshall