Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ed and Marilyn Pay Us a Visit

October 27, 2009

Yes, friends, we played hosts to these near-celebrities in the RV blog world.  We had invited them a couple of times to stop by our place near Fort Worth during their semiannual migrations to and from the RGV.  They declined for the silliest of reasons…like the birth of their first grandchild…go figure!

But this time the planets aligned, and Ed and Marilyn appeared right on schedule at the Vineyards in Grapevine, our favorite RV park in the DFW area.  We had spent several months there while our house was being built, and they seemed to enjoy it as much as we did.  They selected a spot within a few feet of the shore of Lake Grapevine, and we were delighted to get a tour of their Mobile Suites home on wheels.  We were duly impressed.
 Marilyn and Sandy 

We found these folks to be exactly as we expected, even though we had never before met in person.  Conversation was very easy and laughs were many; it was as though we had known each other for years.  We attribute that to following each other’s journals—so many things about each other we already knew!
 Ed and Marilyn

Ed and I had a great deal in common, having spent our careers in flying, and Marilyn and Sandy hit it off splendidly, as both of them are, adorably, a bit wacky.  After admiring their coach, we motored off to the Stockyards in Fort Worth, where we enjoyed a good steak (what else?)
Marilyn and Ed at Riscky's Steakhouse in the Stockyards

Mike and Sandy Enjoying the Fellowship

Later, I was able to deliver a soliloquy on the importance of the Stockyards in the late 1800s and early 1900s in its location on the Chisholm Trail.  My history lesson, which I had laboriously researched before our outing, drew mostly yawns--especially from the girls--but Ed, ever the gentleman, feigned as much interest as he could.  Frankly, I don’t blame any of them; the number of animals slaughtered here in 1940 is a fact desperately in search of perhaps eight people in all of Texas who would be interested in that useless tidbit of information.

After much enjoyment of these fine friends, we bade them farewell for the evening and looked forward to the next day's adventure.

October 28, 2009Dallas History and Shopping

This day we paid a visit to the Kennedy Assassination museum in Dallas.  Oddly, Sandy and I had never toured this venue, even though we have lived in the area for almost 20 years.  It could be this omission is due to my repressed embarrassment that such a monstrous crime could actually occur in my beloved state.  While the museum was very well appointed and informative, we didn’t think it revealed much new information about the tragedy.  After all, few events of my lifetime have received so much investigation and media attention.  It was sobering, however, to view the actual place where Oswald had crouched to deliver the fatal shots that changed the world.   The feeling most prevalent to me was one of sadness, as I reflected on that terrible day in 1963.  Like everyone else, I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news:  I was in my high school cafeteria; I can even remember the exact table at which I was sitting.

After this, we lightened the mood with a little shopping.  We dropped Marilyn and Sandy at Sam Moon’s, and Ed and I went to Elliott’s, the hardware store that all others would like to be when they grow up.  Ed looked around a good bit, but didn’t find anything he couldn’t live without.  I admired his discipline in this candy store for guys…he really is careful not to clutter his little home with things that are less than essential; I could take a lesson.

We picked up the girls at Sam Moon’s, and Marilyn displayed evidence of a lesser degree of discipline.  She had found a killer purse and coordinating wallet, along with some great looking jewelry.   Before their visit, Sandy and I had thought carefully about suggesting Sam Moon’s, as we knew that Ed and Marilyn, like us, are not necessarily in the “acquisition” stage of life.  However, Sandy felt that the totality of Marilyn’s feminine existence would not be complete without her being able to say she had had the Sam Moon experience if the subject ever comes up in conversation.   Having facilitated this rite of passage, I think Sandy is able to sleep better now.  What is the Sam Moon experience, you might ask?  Well, if you don’t know, Marilyn has one up on you.

October 29, 2009 – Entertaining at our Stick House

We had invited Ed and Marilyn over for dinner and a tour of the house (and Homer’s home), and they were gracious and effusive in their compliments.  These people are so warm, personable and charming; it is a shame that such gentility seems to be on the wane these days.  We had a great evening of food, conversation and laughter, and they even let me bore them with a little piano playing.  Sandy provided her signature chocolate pie, which Ed seemed to enjoy with a good deal of reverence.

After sadly bidding them farewell, we knew we had new friends whose company we will enjoy again as we cross paths on this incredible journey called life.  Thank you, Ed and Marilyn, for sharing this time with us. 

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Friday and Saturday, October 16-17 - Quebec and Home!

The very noticeable whooshing sound of the powerful bow thrusters, signaling the Spirit’s final docking maneuvers each morning, had become a familiar sensation by now, a rumbling alarm clock that would not permit further slumber.  When the captain was satisfied with his parallel parking exercise, the thrusters fell silent, and the dockworkers on the pier looped the mooring lines around the bollards. (You didn’t know this is what they call the spindle thingy on the dock, did you?  Neither did I.)  The mighty ship was at rest for the day.

It was Friday, and Sandy and I were elated to be in Quebec, our final cruise destination and the start of two relatively short airplane rides back to Texas.  Our luggage had been taken to the ship’s hold the previous evening, and we had only to wait until our appointed departure time of 10:00 a.m. to leave the ship.  Because of the number of passengers aboard these large cruise ships, those who depart are given a specific time to show up at the gangway, the times based on groupings of about 250 passengers for each 15-minute increment.

We ate a leisurely breakfast seated next to a gentleman of about 70, who asked if we were leaving the ship here at Quebec.  We said that we were and, with a dejected look, he said that he and his wife had booked a round trip and that he still had a week of this $#!% to go.  (Call it a wild guess, but I figured his experience wasn’t exactly positive.)  Sandy and I contemplated what we would do if we were only half finished with this trip.  Ruling out suicide as being a sin committed perilously close to when we would be held accountable for it, we decided we would merely beat each other senseless with Sandy’s hair dryer.  Then it occurred to us that that wouldn’t work, because the one who was the recipient of the first beating would not then be conscious to beat the other.  We decided we would need two hair dryers, so that we could pummel each other simultaneously, hoping that we would lapse into unconsciousness at the same time.  (Perhaps I should offer a suggestion to the cruise line that they provide this service themselves, conveniently including the charge among the countless others on the passengers’ cruise ID cards; it could be a real profit center for them.)     

We walked down the gangway at exactly 10:00 a.m. and cleared Canadian customs fairly quickly.  We hailed a cab to take us to the hotel and took note of the French influence in the architecture of old churches, hotels and government buildings.  The only negative was that these beautifully ornate masterpieces were surrounded by nondescript, boxlike buildings indistinguishable from those in other large cities.  What a shame, I thought, that the city’s development couldn’t have been more imaginatively themed in the context of the legacy structures.  Downtown traffic was a mess, even though there were separate lanes for buses and taxis.  The taxi driver’s frustration level became evident, as he drove like a madman once having cleared the ubiquitous and ill-timed traffic signals.  Our hotel was near the airport and far from downtown, so after the white-knuckled ride to get there, we decided not to spend forty more dollars each way to return to downtown and do some sightseeing.  Besides, it was cold and windy, and I was still a little worried about a relapse of my illness of the past few days.

So, we curled up and watched television, most of whose programming was meaningless because it was broadcast in French.  This made for frequent napping and, after eating nearby at a forgettable Chinese buffet, we turned in for the evening.  A word on the Chinese buffet:  This was probably the worst Chinese food we ever sampled, located in one of the most expensive custom-built buildings imaginable.  We were still hungry when we left, because the only thing we found up to our standards was chicken-on-a-stick.  Oh, yes, the almond cookie was also pretty good.  They didn’t even have any chili sauce (finely chopped red peppers in oil, a standard Chinese condiment—like our ketchup).  Yet patrons were flocking to the place, presumably thinking it was good food.  Are our standards perhaps a little high?  Well, maybe, but they can’t be that high, considering some of dives we often patronize.  The glaring omission of the chili sauce reminds me:  These folks in the north have no concept of spicy food.  We have had nothing spicy to eat since we left Texas, and now that I think about it, that’s probably what made me sick!  (I bought a jar of salsa in Bar Harbor--medium was the spiciest they had--but I’ve been saving it for an emergency; that time may have come.)

On Saturday, we woke up early, excited that it was going home day.  After a short ride to Quebec’s smallish but very clean and modern airport, we discovered that Sandy’s reservation for this flight had been snarled by the computer.  I printed out the tickets months ago, but didn't notice in the tiny print of the schedule that Sandy would be leaving Quebec late in the afternoon today but then leaving Detroit, our connecting point, around noon today.  Obviously, that made no sense, and I should have double-checked it.  The result was that Sandy wasn’t listed on this flight, and it was overbooked!  A seat was available three hours later, so we elected to split up, causing a good deal of trepidation on her part, as she had not been through airport customs before by herself and was counting on my knowledge of the Detroit airport (because I flew airliners into there often in my previous career) to facilitate the experience.  I reassured her that I have seen no news reports of people entering customs areas and never coming out again, and that, in all likelihood, she would be fine.  With a less-than-happy look, she bade me farewell, and I was thinking I may have chosen a bad time to have been so flippant.

My flight to Detroit was uneventful, and I noticed the customs and immigration area had been completely remodeled and seemed foolproof enough.  Good!  In the security checkpoint line, I found myself standing behind a German family consisting of an older man and woman, their daughter and son-in-law and two grandsons, aged about seven and four.  The daughter was the star of this show, dressed in what I could only describe as a black satin “goth” jumpsuit, on the back of which was embroidered a large elaborate gray skull and crossbones with a red heart in the mouth of the skull and the words “Love Kills Slowly” on a banner overhead.  On the back of her neck, I could see the words “Kiss Here” tattooed just below her black dyed hair, and when she reached for a piece of luggage, I noticed that her fingernails were painted black.  The whole group was in a state of chaos, as the gothic daughter was berating all the other family members loudly in German, undoubtedly laced with profanity.  The older boy looked quite normal, except that the back of his hair had been allowed to grow into a tail, the tip of which was cut into the shape of a spearhead.  The younger boy, who was the oldest child I had ever seen with a pacifier in his mouth, appeared catatonic.  The group had a huge collection of carry-ons and multiple layers of outerwear, all of which had to be removed and run through the x-ray screener.  The area looked like the aftermath of a tornado, as clothing and shoes were strewn everywhere, being scooped up with the other carry-on items in no particular order and pushed down the conveyor belt, the gothic daughter screaming in German at the rest of her cowering family and the security agents.  I thought to myself that I would rather let a terrorist into the U. S. than this woman.

Why do I think I need to recount this observation here in a travel blog?  Well, I don’t know, but I agonize a great deal about the decline of modern culture and the increasing lack of a religious and moral underpinning of society.  This makes me very sad and fearful for Mindy and her family.  We need to pray for our country while we’re allowed to.

The rest of the day’s travel was uneventful, and both our flights--Sandy's a little later than mine--were right on time in Detroit and Dallas.  It was very good to get back home.  Cruising?  We’ve got that box checked.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October 14-15: At Sea and La Baie, Canada and Musing on Cruising

It’s just as well that we were sailing all day on Wednesday, because I was still weak and lethargic from the illness that began yesterday.  I still had little appetite, and I devoted most of the day to writing and posting the journal entry.  I wasn’t hungry at lunchtime, so we went for an early dinner and once again, it was really good.  They served a very good egg drop soup and a wonderful tabbouleh salad.  Sandy ordered a steak again, and I ordered prime rib, but couldn’t eat much of it.  Dang!

After we ate, we skipped the entertainment and went to our stateroom to watch a movie.  Sandy conked out pretty quickly, and we both slept fairly well.

On Thursday morning, we docked at the smallish village of La Baie (pop. 18,000), a fairly bucolic little place where the Saguenay River empties into the St. Lawrence.  Its claim to fame is the Saguenay State Park, a very scenic rocky area with lots of trees and waterfalls.  The riverbank here was festooned with lovely fall foliage, the first we’ve really seen since Bar Harbor.  (This trip certainly did not live up to its hype as a fall foliage tour.)  Unfortunately, the global warming Al Gore invented seems to have been suspended here, because it is below freezing outside with snow flurries!  The ship’s crew told us it is very unusual to have such cold weather here this early in the fall.  Wouldn’t you know it?  Armed with this information, Frau Mills declared that there would not only be no going ashore today, there would not even be any going out on deck!  I must say that I felt little need to attempt to defy her, as I didn’t want a relapse of my nasty bug.  I took the time to post some shipboard photos:

Spirit dockside in Halifax

Beautiful decor inside

Center console of five on the bridge.  This room is massive, extending all the way across the ship.

The casino

One of eight restaurants aboard the Spirit

Looking across the St. Lawrence from La Baie

We had quite a lot of time these two days to reflect on the cruising experience.  Sandy and I talked at length about what we liked and disliked about this kind of travel, and frankly, we have been struggling to find positives that outweigh the negatives.  We have arrived at some conclusions which you, dear readers, may or may not find illuminating.  And, having only two cruises to draw from, one could easily make the argument that we may not have sampled the experience adequately to be able to make authoritative judgments.

The Cruise Mystique 

Invariably, when you tell people you’re going on a cruise, they respond with something like, “Ohhh, that is so wonderful; we wish we could do that.”  The mention of a cruise results in a picture in just about everyone’s mind, I think, of a huge ship with all its amenities, docked in an exotic port of call—usually at a tropical beach area—while the passengers frolic about with little care or clothing.  This image, of course, was artfully conjured up by well-paid advertising agencies and recorded in the subconscious minds of us, the target audience, where it is stored as the appropriate mental picture to be replayed whenever the word “cruise” is heard.

“Mike,” you might say, “what you’re describing is brainwashing.” Well, uh, yeah, I guess I am.  But what else would explain some of the peculiar answers I get when I ask fellow passengers why they like cruising?  For example, Sandy and I were seated at a breakfast table with a friendly and talkative woman from Plano, Texas, who was about our age.  (In this particular busy dining room, seating is boardinghouse style at large tables where guests must often take seats beside other passengers unknown to them.)  She was fashionably dressed with expensively coiffed blond hair and was wearing no small amount of stylish jewelry.   Making friendly conversation, we asked what she thought of this voyage, the ship, and her cruising experiences in general.  She was more than happy to talk about it, and we learned that this was one of many cruises she had taken.  She said this was her tenth cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines and her third time to sail on this itinerary.  Since Sandy and I felt that our experience so far on this trip was definitely not worthy of repeating, I found it fascinating that she would have made this journey multiple times.  I asked her if her obvious fondness for cruising was predicated more on the ports of call or was it more about the shipboard experience.  She paused for a very long time with a puzzled look while she contemplated her answer.

“I guess it would be the ports of call,” she said, tentatively.   I was dubious about her answer, because it was incomprehensible to me how anyone would have any desire to revisit such backwater destinations as St. John, Sydney and La Baie—places that the cruise line itself had difficulty promoting as attractions.  When she left the table, she still looked puzzled, as if this was the first time she had given any thought to the improbable logic of paying thousands of dollars to sit there, a coiffed and bejeweled captive on a ship docked at a meaningless one-horse town, talking to a perfect stranger while eating a bowl of oatmeal at a boardinghouse table.

While my armchair psychological analysis of this lady is likely little more than pure hooey, I’m thinking she supports my theory that some people, but not all, of course, are motivated to take cruises not so much because the experience has a definable rationale, but because of the mystique and, much more importantly, for the romance of it all!

The Romantic Connection

First of all, I fully understand the romantic experience of cruising for the young folks.  In their case, the sleeping quality of the beds, which we found atrocious on both cruises, is hardly the first thing that comes to their minds at lights out.  In their case, a cruise ship is not about destinations, food or showrooms; it is a floating gambling saloon and bawdy house where more than a few children are conceived, irrespective of whether on a Select Comfort mattress or not. 

So, that’s one kind of romance; but there is another.  It should be noted that, especially for a woman, the desire for romance and attention by her mate is something that doesn’t just go away with the libido.  A cruise, if the husband can be nagged into it, is the one place where she finally has a captive audience of the one who (hopefully) cares most for her.  A smart man will recognize this, go along with it, and contribute his best effort to maximize his attentiveness toward her during this time.  This will give him a good deal of credit in the bank when he next does something stupid.

This is probably why most cruise lines offer only formal dining for their evening meals, where evening wear is required.  While men would much prefer to wear a tee shirt and cutoffs, women love this stuff; they’ll get all gussied up with new and expensive shipboard hairdos, then coyly check out the other ladies as they are squired into the dining room by their men, who are adorned with jackets that don’t meet in the middle and ties whose ends hang only as far as the second button above their belts.  All of their hair atrocities (assuming hair is present), are resolved by a generous Brylcreem comb-through, and they may or may not be wearing deck shoes.  It doesn't matter, though; the women hardly notice the fashion faux pas.  After dinner, the couple attends the show in the theater, and this may be the ladies’ best week of the whole year, where fantasy and reality merge and they are, for a brief time, indeed, Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager.

The importance of the element of romantic fantasy probably cannot be overestimated as the reason most cruises are booked and, more than likely, booked by women.  I'm guessing it's the reason the woman from Plano couldn’t readily come up with the answer as to why she liked cruises.  For the duration of this trip, she was Bette Davis, and my boorish question had the annoying effect of turning on the house lights in the movie theater.

Now one shouldn’t infer that I’m making fun of romance; Sandy and I enjoy romantic evenings and dressing for dinner on special occasions but, when we go out, it is usually to a fine restaurant that has cooked our meal to order, not having prepared it assembly-line fashion alongside a thousand others in a ship’s kitchen.  And we both agreed that we don’t have a problem with attentiveness toward each other; Sandy has all sorts of subtle (and not so subtle) ways to let me know anytime this happens.  However, we have observed that most relationships not as close have a void that perhaps cruising serves to fill in some cases.  If that is so, it is a good thing, and it explains a lot about its popularity.

We find the cruise ship itself to be pretty cool, but largely because it is such a technological marvel—a leviathan that glides smoothly and quietly along while the passengers are entertained and cared for by, in the case of the Spirit, about one crewmember for every two passengers.   It is painfully slow, however; having had a career flying jet aircraft, muddling along at 20 knots is about as frustrating as trying to swim in peanut butter.  Even with the ship at full speed, the autos visible onshore look like race cars as they whiz ahead.  But, that’s just me…I am spoiled forever by a machine that travels at 600 miles per hour.  Somehow, though, traveling by RV at 60 miles per hour is okay; I’m having a little trouble figuring that out.

I was quite surprised how much I missed the technology to which I have become accustomed.  The cruise ships on which we’ve sailed have an incredibly meager choice of TV channels, and since we’re now used to HDTV, the tiny little CRT TVs in the staterooms are painful to watch.  We also disliked the sparse cell phone service and the rapacious internet rates.  We’re a little chagrined to admit that we have become gadget junkies and can’t be happy without them.

When you plunk down your money for a cruise, you must be prepared to accept the fact that the price of the ticket, which can be relatively inexpensive, in some cases, is not the final price you will pay.  In fact, I doubt if the cruise lines make any profit from the price of the passage.  Upon boarding the ship, the cruise line swipes your credit card and gives you a ship’s ID card that is linked to it like a hungry leech.  And virtually everything that you consume on the ship, other than food and drink at the basic restaurants, will cause you to have to swipe your ship’s ID card, and a hefty charge will be added to your final bill at disembarkation.   Even a can of soda will run you $2.25; a liter of bottled water is $4.50; a massage $100.  If you’re a drinker, alcoholic beverages are ruinously expensive, and believe me, we noticed a lot of drinking going on.  All cruise ships have casinos (whose games, it is rumored, may not be rigged in the passengers’ favor--gasp!).  Every expense goes on the card—the outrageous 75-cent-per-minute internet fees, the inflated-fee shore excursions, dry cleaning, haircuts, Band Aids, the list is endless—and it all accumulates, quietly unnoticed on the card while you are helplessly captive, much like a cow in a milking stall.  This probably has been responsible for more than one heart attack at the time the final bill is presented.  That having been said, this gouging can be easily rationalized, I suppose, when you’re on vacation and having this “exotic” experience.  It was not entirely easy for me, however, and my final bill did not cause any angina pain.  Of course, the only "sin" we participated in was the sinful cost of internet usage and a few sodas.

When cruising, you also have to accept the fact that you are giving up your freedom to do your own thing.  Everything on a cruise ship is programmed, and the more popular events are usually crowded.  If you’re going ashore to look around, you have a very strict deadline to return to the ship for departure.  The short time in port is usually not sufficient to take in anything more than the touristy things.  Frankly, we have found this aspect of cruising to be the least palatable of all.  When we are traveling, we abhor schedules and much prefer to take the back roads, stopping to gawk when we see something interesting.  We have found this to be impossible under the strict schedule imposed when cruising.

Beyond that, I’m still mystified by the draw for the throngs of rather elderly folks on this cruise, which was a sellout.  Perhaps it is for the mystique and romance mentioned earlier; perhaps it is because they are comfortable with everything being scheduled and all their everyday needs provided.  They like having a crewmember turning down their beds at night and appearing at their elbow, telling them where to go next and when.   That just isn’t us, and I hope it never is; it reminds me a bit of a floating assisted living center.  I’m still left with the nagging feeling, however, that many people who go cruising do so because they think they’re supposed to enjoy it and that something is wrong with them if they don’t.     

So, what do we conclude from all this?  Well, we have decided that, while we enjoyed some parts of this trip, we don’t think there will be many cruises in our future; it’s just too confining.  As a surprising result, we have gained a new appreciation for travel in our RV, and that will undoubtedly be our focus in the future.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October 13 - Sydney, NS

Mom and Dad love you!


Colonized by the British in 1785, Sydney, Nova Scotia has a population of about 180,000 and is the center of a significant coal mining industry.  Frankly, we remain clueless as to how this port of call came to be included on the Spirit’s itinerary.  In the daily newsletter published onboard, the writers were having a very difficult time coming up with attractions that would entice passengers to buy one of their expensive excursions, and those who did were not reporting anything special ashore.  The only things listed in the newsletter were an old fort, the summer home of Alexander Graham Bell and the world’s largest fiddle!  These were definitely yawners for us, so we elected to stay on the ship for the day.  However, the paucity of sightseeing venues was not the deciding factor in our decision, unfortunately.

Shortly after midnight this morning, I awakened shivering, with chills and fever.  My first thought was that our worst fear had come true—that one of us would contract the flu or even worse, the swine flu—while aboard ship.  Like everybody else, I guess, we were thoroughly spooked by all the media coverage for the last year or so.  Feeling really lousy, I was convinced that I had contracted the dreaded H1N1 virus and that I might have to be buried at sea!  (Isn’t it funny how you always think the worst?)  Sandy, of course, was so frantic that she had entered a low earth orbit; she had already begun to inquire as to what flights might be available out of Sydney to take us back to Texas.  In the meantime, she declared that I would be seeing a doctor, and she could only wait, nervously pacing around the room, until the ship’s infirmary opened.

I was quickly seen by a female doctor of Scandinavian descent, dressed in a crisp white officer’s uniform.  She was very friendly and efficient, giving me a thorough exam and finding that I had a temperature of 101.  (I think it probably had been higher than that, but Sandy poked some Tylenol in my mouth earlier.)  We were quite relieved to hear that I did not have the swine flu or any kind of flu, for that matter.  The doctor said this was likely a 24-hour virus that was going round, and she gave me a shot, prescribing bed rest and giving me two packages of medication to take for the next couple of days. 

After the injection and my ingestion of some of the pills the doctor gave me, I began to feel much better rather quickly and, by mid-afternoon, the only lingering symptoms were a little weakness and loss of appetite.  We were both so relieved and thankful that the doctor’s diagnosis apparently had been right on the mark.  I don’t know what kind of virus it was, but it was a nasty little bug; I’m glad it didn’t last long.  I went back to our cabin and slept for a while, but I didn’t exactly stay in bed all day as the doctor had suggested.   Sandy was highly disapproving of my blatant disregard for the doctor’s orders and communicated that disapproval with the regularity of a cuckoo clock.  I was only able to gain release from my captivity by convincing her that it would be inexcusable for me not to call Mindy today and wish her a happy birthday.  To do that, I reminded her, would require going to an upper deck where we could get a cell phone signal.

While there, I was feeling well enough to write and post the day’s journal entry, an activity carefully monitored by a frowning Sandy, who I think was expecting me to relapse unexpectedly into a coma at any moment.  I really felt much better, but I was not particularly hungry at dinner, which annoyed me greatly as it was lobster night!  As we went to the dining room, Sandy was still frowning and holding her cell phone at the ready with the ship’s doctor on speed dial, but I made it fine, although I could only pick at my food.  What a shame.

Attempting to keep as close to the doctor’s orders as possible, Sandy marched me back to our cabin after dinner and ordered me into bed, where we watched a movie and fell asleep fairly early.  I guess I’m not that good a patient when it comes to following orders, but I still think I didn’t get away with much today, thanks to my dear, loving wife, who takes better care of me than I deserve.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Monday, October 12 - Halifax

Halifax is a much larger city than we expected—a population of about 500,000.  We elected to take a city tour when we arrived at the cruise terminal.  The city was founded by the British in 1749, and it retains much of the British influence today.  In fact, it is said that many of the residents still consider themselves British subjects, although Canada has been a self-governing dominion since 1867.  Halifax is frequently visited by members of the British royal family, and Prince Charles is due to visit here in December.  Many of the older houses and buildings are reminiscent of those found in England, complete with the gardens and manicured landscaping favored by the British.  We found it to be an altogether charming place. 

Halifax has one of the largest natural harbors in the world and played a key role in World Wars I and II as a protected final embarkation point for convoys of ships sailing across the Atlantic.  It also has the sad distinction of providing three ships that sailed to the site of the Titanic wreck in April, 1912, to pick up bodies of the victims.    In all, 249 bodies were recovered and brought back to Halifax for burial, while the survivors were taken to New York.  We made a stop at the cemetery where the gravestones of the Titanic victims were arranged in rows forming the shape of a ship’s bow.  Not all of the victims could be identified, and their gravestones remained nameless.  The cemetery is located in a quiet wooded area near downtown, and Sandy and I couldn’t help feeling a sense of deep sadness as we viewed the gravestones, some of which displayed the names of entire families, including young children, who perished in that senseless disaster.  One of the gravestones displayed the name “J. Dawson,” the name of the character Jack Dawson played by Leonardo DeCaprio in the recent Titanic film.  Looks like the filmmaker did his homework in picking the real name of a Titanic victim, although the real Jack Dawson was employed as a boiler tender on the ship, a backbreaking job shoveling coal to feed the boiler fires.  Unlike the DeCaprio character, this poor lad would have had little time for romancing Kate Winslet.

Halifax was the site of another disaster of its own back in 1917, when the Mont Blanc, a military vessel full of gunpowder and munitions, collided with a Norwegian freighter and exploded in the harbor near downtown.  The city is situated in a bowl-shaped area, and this topography served to intensify the effects of the explosion.  About 2,000 people died and 9,000 were injured in the blast, and the town was largely destroyed.  I don’t think many people in the U. S. know about this event, even though it remains the worst manmade accidental explosion in history.  By contrast, the Texas City ship explosion in 1947 claimed 581 lives.

We toured the Maritime Museum before leaving, and found it very interesting—especially the artifacts retrieved from the site of the Titanic sinking.

We walked a good bit in the very nice development near the cruise terminal and then returned to the ship to enjoy another tasty hamburger.  Then I posted yesterday’s blog entry and we went for dinner—an excellent sautéed halibut entrée with melon soup, artichoke salad and strawberry soufflé.   Delicious!  I still can’t get over how good the food is on this ship.  One would never expect this quality to be maintained, considering the thousands of meals that have to be prepared every day.

After dinner, we saw a Second City comedy troupe in the theater.  They were quite good, as all the other entertainment has been on this trip.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sunday, October 11 - St. John, New Brunswick, Canada

St. John, New Brunswick, Canada, named for John the Baptist, was a fitting place for us to be on Sunday, we thought.   Unfortunately, this place appears to have little else going for it, except the distinction of being the oldest incorporated city in Canada and the home of the Reversing Falls on the St. John River.  It also has an ice-free port and is home to a significant shipbuilding facility.

Now, back to the Reversing Falls:  This describes a phenomenon that occurs twice daily, at high and low tide.  The tides at this location are very pronounced, raising and lowering the water level up to 30 feet between high and low tide!  The St. John River, emptying into the bay, is caused to reverse direction for a few miles at high tide when the sea water pours from the bay into the river channel, pushing the river water back upstream.  Then, at low tide, the direction of the flow is reversed and the river water pushes the sea water back out into the bay. 

These monstrous tides resulted in a funny story about Sandy, which I recount here at my peril.  When we arose this morning, the ship was docking at high tide, and we could see the wharf and its associated buildings quite clearly through our porthole above the dock level.  We went to the breakfast buffet, and then Sandy became preoccupied back in our stateroom with her “getting ready” ritual (discussed in an earlier post with some trepidation).  She was oblivious to the fact that the tide was quickly going out and was causing the water level—and the ship—to descend several feet at its moorings.  While Sandy was primping, the ship slowly descended with the water level and our porthole sank beneath the surface of the dock.  When she stepped out of the bathroom, all she could see was the side of the concrete pier instead of the nice view of the port area we had had earlier.
            “My Lord, we’re sinking!”, she shrieked, and began to scratch around in the suitcase for her jewelry case, makeup (naturally) and other valuables.
            After I explained the tide situation, she calmed down a bit, but she had to sit down for a few minutes.

So, St. John’s main claim to fame appears to be related to tides, and that’s about it.  Even the cruise line’s excursion brochure was skimpy in its attempt to lure passengers ashore.  The Spirit was docked quite close to downtown and, from the large windows on the 12th floor of the ship, we could see just about all we needed to see of this rather nondescript place.   We strolled down to dockside for a few minutes and decided it was too cold and windy to investigate further.  Some of the passengers who had made the trek out to Reversing Falls said it was a bust because they were not there at the time of day the river reversed course.  (Looks like they could have figured that out beforehand from the tidal calendar.)

Back on the ship, we spent a good while in the ship’s library, where Sandy read a book and I posted to our journal, checked e-mail and read other blogs.  We had hamburgers for lunch and then relaxed our cabin until dinnertime.   At departure time, we went up to the 12th floor to a viewing area with large windows overlooking the ship’s bow, where we sat and marveled again at the maneuverability of this huge ship as it backed away from the dock and turned itself around in the small channel before heading out to sea.

As we departed the harbor, a very talented barbershop quartet was singing in the lounge behind us.  After they finished, we went to the main dining room and decided to repeat the steak again, this time with melon soup and fatoosh (middle eastern salad); it was just as good as the previous night's dinner.  We had an excellent table at a window overlooking the Bay of Fundy as the sun sank behind the low shoreline.  The evening show was a Broadway extravaganza with some incredibly professional and talented dancers and singers. 

All in all, it was a very relaxing day; we enjoyed it immensely, though we didn’t even manage to leave the dock area.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Saturday, October 10 - Bar Harbor

After an okay night’s sleep on our way to Bar Harbor, we were awakened at 8:00 a.m. by a deafening metallic clattering sound.  Sandy shot straight up in bed, eyes wide as saucers, shouting,
            “What was THAT!”
Being a guy, of course, I knew what it was.  An announcement had been made the previous evening that our stop at Bar Harbor would not be at dockside but at anchor offshore.  Sandy had not processed the idea that dropping anchor, especially an anchor of a ship this size, would be a somewhat noisy event.  Coupled with the fact that our stateroom is not far from the bow of the ship, the noise of the huge rattling chains would, indeed, have awakened the dead.  The cacophony was all the more startling because the ship is otherwise remarkably quiet.  During arrivals and departures where the ship uses a dock, only a muffled rumbling sound is heard underneath the ship as the thrusters do their work maneuvering the huge vessel.  Otherwise, it simply glides along in complete silence, the noise of its massive diesel engines suppressed into nothingness. 

After breakfast, we hopped aboard one of several tender boats shuttling passengers from the Spirit to Dockside at Bar Harbor.  The shuttle boats operated continuously from the time we anchored in the bay until 4:30 p.m., certainly a passenger-friendly gesture by the cruise line, allowing people to come and go as they pleased.

It was easy to see why Bar Harbor is an attractive summer home for the luminaries who have built stately “cottages” there.  (These are hardly cottages, but million-dollar-plus Victorian wonders.)  The city is nestled among rocky forested hills on the shore of a very picturesque harbor strewn with little forested islands, whose trees were ablaze in yellow, orange and red colors.  Yes, this was what we had come to see.

The town is relatively small, perched along and atop a steep hill that ascends from water level.  During the winter, fewer than five thousand people reside there, but in the summer the number swells by tenfold.  We intended to take a trolley tour of the town, but were thwarted due to the demand from our ship and a Princess cruise ship that had also anchored prior to our arrival.  The combined four thousand passengers overwhelmed the trolleys and tour buses that stopped incessantly at the pier.

We thought walking was a healthy option, so we struck out on foot and found ourselves famished after two blocks of this punishing fitness craze.  We barely made it to the Westside Café, a smallish restaurant where there was a line of patrons waiting to get in the door.  Lobster was their signature menu item, and since we were in Maine after all, we felt obligated to partake.  After quite a wait, we were seated, and we ordered the day’s special—a boiled lobster, clam chowder, coleslaw, French fries and blueberry pie.  The chowder arrived quickly and was consumed just as quickly, our being in agreement that it was the best ever.  Then the waiter brought our lobsters, which he said were from the morning’s catch.  There’s no way of knowing if he was truthful, but these were so tasty and sweet that we believed him completely.  And the fresh blueberry pie?  It was homemade goodness that I ate for no other reason than to give me energy for the rest of the day.  

After this delightful repast, we felt recovered sufficiently to continue our trek.  We went downtown and looked around, Sandy looking for something for our grandson, an incessant activity of hers these days and much like a swarm of locusts in leaving no store untouched.

We decided Bar Harbor is a place to which we will definitely return and give a proper investigation; one day was certainly not enough for this charming spot.

Returning toward the ship, our ride aboard the tender was a bit harrowing, in that the wind had increased to about 35 mph and the tender was slamming into the whitecapped waves with terrific jolts, throwing sea spray up and over the boat and leaking into the closed cabin as a steady drip onto Sandy’s lap.  Before I could offer to swap seats with her, an oriental gentleman beat me to it, and I made no attempt to dissuade him, as I had already showered and needed no extra bathing today. 

The skipper of the tender soon slowed to a crawl to lessen the force of the swells, and we were soon alongside the mother ship and crawling aboard from the bouncing little craft.

Back on board the Spirit, we watched a movie before going for dinner in the main dining room, where we had a wonderful sirloin steak with peppercorn sauce, salad, asparagus and crème brulee.  The steak was perfectly cooked, and we both agreed that the food on Norwegian was significantly better than that we had on Royal Caribbean.

In the theater, we enjoyed the antics of a really good ventriloquist, who persuaded a number of people from the audience to go onstage and embarrass the daylights out of themselves.  I was glad I wasn’t one of them.

It was a good day, and we’re looking forward to Canada tomorrow.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Friday, October 9 - Boston to Bar Harbor

We awoke after a pretty good sleep and went downstairs to avail ourselves of the complimentary “breakfast” served by the hotel. What they offered was no different from all the other hotels like this that serve insipid cardboard cutouts of real food to make you think you are getting something worth eating. Most of the stuff was in the form of cereals, unripened fruit and something laughingly called rolls and pastries. I am convinced these hotels give contracts to bakeries with instructions to make their products attractive looking but as completely devoid of taste as possible, so as to discourage the guests from taking more than, well, one bite. But, no biggie, I thought; I never cared much for breakfast anyway.

We returned to the room to await checkout, which we delayed until 1:30 p.m. I spent the morning working on the blog while Sandy spent the morning, uh, “getting ready.” I’ve never really understood this elaborate ritual of hers, but I have learned over our 33 years together that analyzing it is futile and perhaps even dangerous.

Amazingly, we departed the hotel in our taxi at the appointed time and became the captive audience of a cab driver who was a native Bostonian and whose indigenous accent was as thick as any we had heard—a native dialect totally devoid of the letter “r.”  The cabbie was eager to talk about his hometown, and we would not have been unhappy to hear it, except for the fact that we understood very little of what he was saying.

After waiting an hour in the obligatory processing line with 1,668 other passengers, we finally boarded the Norwegian Spirit, a large vessel about 900 feet long and weighing 75,000 tons, much of which was our luggage. We wandered around the place for a while and eventually found our stateroom, which I think was in steerage. The room was quite small, much like the one we had on our last cruise to the Caribbean a few years ago on Royal Caribbean. We were quite apprehensive about the bed this time, as the mattress on the Royal Caribbean ship was nothing but thin foam and very uncomfortable. This one, however, seems much better. Looking around, we remarked at how Homer, our fifth wheel RV, is a good deal roomier! The Norwegian Spirit was built in Germany and, as a result, seemed a little over-engineered; all the structures and appointments seem very sturdy and well-crafted, but that’s not necessarily a bid thing when it comes to something like a ship or an airplane.

Since we had had nothing to eat since attempting to ingest the fake food at the hotel, we were starved, so we found the ship’s buffet, which was one of eight restaurants that were available. As with any buffet, some of the food was quite good and some was, well, meh. I had some outstanding sauerkraut and Sandy had some pork patties and stir fried vegetables that she said were quite good.

After we ate, all the passengers were directed to designated assembly areas on the promenade deck, wearing our life vests for an emergency drill. Each assembled group had an attendant who attempted to shout instructions we would need in the event we needed to escape the vessel. The area was very noisy and, since the attendant had a heavy oriental accent, we didn’t comprehend much of what was said. I’m thinking that it wasn’t very important, however, because we got the vests on, saw our gathering point and identified our lifeboat. What else do we need to know other than where to put our sack lunch and Sandy’s makeup?

Shortly thereafter, the Spirit’s horn blew three times and cast off the lines. We were off, uh…backing up! Yes, the captain backed this thing out of its berth and out into the harbor without a tugboat in sight. Modern ships don’t need them, of course, because of the thrusters now incorporated into the bow and stern; what will they think of next?  We went to the stern of the ship and watched the city of Boston slip quietly into the sunset as the great ship headed into the open sea.

After roaming the ship for a while, we decided to have a late dinner and went back to the buffet, where we had among other things, bean salad, flank steak, asparagus and fried rice, all quite good.

Next, we went to the ship’s theater, a huge place that we thought was larger than the one on our Royal Caribbean ship. The variety show was quite good and lasted just a little more than an hour, which we thought was just about right. As you might imagine for an excursion to enjoy fall foliage, most of the folks on this trip were on up in years. In fact, we were asking ourselves what we were doing on this ship with all of these old people? You gotta give them credit, however, for getting out and staying active. We believe you’re only old if you think you are!

After the show, we were pretty tired, so we turned in and had a fairly decent sleep, sensing the faint rocking of the ship as we smoothly sailed along.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Thursday, October 08 – The Fall Foliage Cruise Begins in Boston

Yes, we’re back on the road…uh…back in the air and on the water, that is. Since our last outing to Big Bend last March, we’ve had just a little going on in our lives. Mindy and Tyler became parents to Mason Michael Girard, our first grandchild! He is beyond brilliant and handsome and, when Sandy and I see him, we make total fools of ourselves as we gush over his every move and facial expression. Of course, we would never want any of our friends to hear what idiotic things we say to him or the completely inane contortions of our faces as we’re fawning over him. All of this theater, alas, is wasted, as Mason is only four months old and won’t remember any of it. (Unless the very puzzled look on his face means something; I just wonder…)

We had wanted to do the fall foliage cruise ever since our friends Terri and Jim made the trip a couple of years ago and highly recommended it to us. With the downturn in the economy and all, the prices finally got down to where I couldn’t turn it down.

So, here we are in Boston, having flown here uneventfully this morning to spend the night before we sail at 5:00 p.m. tomorrow. We were starved by the time we unpacked in our hotel room, so I fired up the computer and immediately went to, my new favorite foodie website. As usual, we were looking for mom and pop joints that all the locals know about, and Yelp has been very helpful with that. With just a few keystrokes, we could see that Belle Isle Seafood was not very far away and had killer reviews. And, judging from the photo accompanying the reviews on Yelp, Belle Isle Seafood was clearly a dump, so that really settled it for us! Hailing a taxi, we were off!

It didn’t disappoint! This is a tiny seafood market that backs up to Boston Harbor near the airport, definitely a blue-collar place that will cook your seafood for you, with the menu on a dry-erase board behind the refrigerated display case. There are about ten chairs at an eating bar, if you just can’t wait until you get home to eat your freshly cooked seafood. A constant stream of folks pulled up along the curb and fetched their dinner, obviously having called ahead their orders to go.

Sandy ordered a grilled shrimp dinner and I ordered a fried combo platter comprised of haddock, scallops, shrimp and clams. Oh, yes…and onion rings, French fries and coleslaw. This platter was huge! It would easily have fed both of us…and most of east Boston, for that matter. And yes, it was all stupendous in its flavor and freshness; Sandy’s shrimp were not shrimp but big prawns and perfectly grilled.

And, best of all, our bill was perhaps a third of what it would have been at the hoity-toity restaurants downtown! Sadly, we couldn’t begin to finish everything; I think a French fry had to be tossed at the end.

After this exercise in gluttony, we dropped into a shoe store near our hotel. Sometimes for Sandy, a little shopping will help bring closure to a good meal just as nicely as, say, key lime pie. And yes, she found a nice little dessert for her feet!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Big Bend National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bread and Breakfast Cafe

Hippie Sign

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

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

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

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

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

Desert Beauty in BBNP

Colorful Cactus Blooms

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

Trees Begin to Appear on the Climb to Chisos Basin

Beautiful Forested Area Near Chisos Basin

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

"The Window"

Another View of "The Window"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Distant View of Santa Elena Canyon

White Sandbar at Santa Elena Canyon

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

Volcanic Ash Deposits Near Santa Elena Canyon

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

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

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

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Big Bend: A Day Off in Alpine!

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

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

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

Alicia's Restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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