Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Friday, November 25, 2011

Back to Branson

Three years had elapsed since our last visit to Branson, and we thought that would be a good trip to stretch Phannie’s legs a bit and see a few shows.  The Barkers—Bubba, LouAnn and BreAnn decided to join us for this escapade, so we knew we would have a good time.

We had never seen any Christmas shows in Branson, and we got word that this may be the last season for a couple of the longtime stars.  Shoji Tabuchi is retiring, and Andy Williams has been diagnosed with cancer, so we thought this might be the last time we could see these entertainers.  As it turned out, we didn’t get to see Andy Williams, as he was undergoing treatment in California; however, his Christmas show was still terrific.  He left word that he will be performing again next year but, at 84, you have to wonder.  The Lennon Sisters have now joined his show and the Moon River Theatre will be their new home in Branson.  (Yes, they’re still going—well, half of them, after 50 years!  Two of the sisters retired, and one was replaced by a younger sister, Mimi.)
The Lennon Sisters
 Andy Williams’ show was very entertaining and professional, as expected, and I enjoyed seeing the Lennon Sisters again.  These gals are really showing their age, but then, so am I!  They still sound good, though!  I hope Andy’s illness is short-lived and that he is able to do his show as long as he can.  Gotta give him kudos for hanging in there and thumbing his nose at the aging process…pretty inspiring, if you ask me!

I confess to a bit of sadness as I see the aging entertainers with whom I grew up.  I wistfully yearn for a return to the simplicity, innocence, hopefulness and national pride of the fifties and sixties.  Those were great decades, and I’m afraid I don’t fit in very well in many aspects of life in this new century.  While I marvel at the advances in technology, communication, transportation and medicine, I am perplexed at what passes for culture, music, discourse, justice and political leadership.  Never before have I questioned if our country will survive in a form that I will recognize.  But I remain optimistic that at least some of our mistakes will be corrected before long.

I also wonder if Branson will survive after all the old stars die off.  You wouldn’t know it, judging by how the place is growing, but I have a hard time envisioning the next generation of gray-haired folks making the trek there to a "Lady Ga-Ga" Theatre.  There’s just something not right about that.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.  Our travel legs from Fort Worth to Texarkana and then to Branson were uneventful, and I was glad to have the chance to drive Phannie through the rather benign Ozark foothills to get comfortable with her power management in an uphill/downhill situation.  I was very pleased with the performance and smoothness of the Caterpillar engine and Allison transmission.  I found that leaving the cruise control engaged, even on moderate inclines, resulted in very comfortable downshifting at the appropriate RPMs.  Soon after acquiring Phannie, I had the Cat techs confirm that the engine computer was set to “soft cruise,” allowing somewhat flexible parameters for holding cruise speed.  This helps to avoid engine lugging, hard shifting and high RPMs to hold an exact speed.  In soft mode, the computer is content to allow cruise speed to vary appreciably when going uphill and downhill.  Neat feature. 

Going downhill required a bit more attention, as I had had the Allison techs reset the transmission to downshift only to 5th gear instead of 2nd when the engine brake is applied.  This requires me to control the downshifting manually if the downhill grade is steep and a gear lower than 5th is needed.  I prefer it that way, however, as I was always alarmed at the huge RPM spike caused by the automatic downshift to 2nd when the engine brake was applied.  I wondered why this default setting would be used in the first place, but settled on my belief that the coach builders have designed it that way to keep inexperienced drivers out of trouble.  This assumes such a driver would be unable to discern that downshifting might be a good idea when embarking on a steep downhill grade and would mindlessly let the rig achieve escape velocity or burn up the brakes instead.  This is another of those dumbing-down techniques by manufacturers—much like their wholesale reliance on idiot lights—that I often rail against with utter futility.      

We stayed at the Stagecoach RV park in Branson, which was not up to our usual standards and too far from the strip.  We got a good deal with Passport America, but the inconvenience wasn’t worth the 50 percent price reduction.  In fact, it could even be said to be silly, considering what it cost to drive Phannie to Branson and back.  It just shows how much people can be influenced by a bargain, no matter how much irritation they will endure to get it.  Sometimes I wonder about myself.

The girls did some shopping (surprise!) at every conceivable opportunity, and I was relegated to chauffeur’s duty while Bubba watched football to the extent possible.  We got some pretty fair barbeque at Famous Dave’s and a so-so steak at Montana Mike’s.  We had never tried either of these before and the one visit was probably enough.  One favorite eatery was the Dessert Station, where we got a good burger and excellent desserts.
Shoji Tabuchi was a very slick and professional production with a good deal of talent variety which was needed, in my opinion.  While Shoji is a talented violinist, it doesn’t take too many violin solos before I begin to yawn.  It was almost worth the price of admission to see the theatre’s bathrooms, which were something to behold.  Imagine a men’s bathroom so large that it has its own billiard room! 

Shoji Tabuchi

On our last day, we toured Big Cedar, a fabulous lodge complex on Table Rock Lake not far from Branson.  We had a wonderful breakfast at the Devil’s Pool restaurant and walked around the beautiful setting.  What a find!  Unfortunately, we will have to return to check out this place further.  Sandy said this discovery was probably the best part of her trip.  Looks like that cinches our return!

The trip back to Fort Worth had to be re-routed due to weather.  Even though we missed most of the thunderstorms, we did encounter some rain in the Tulsa area.  This was the first rain encounter with Phannie, and she did just fine—no leaks anywhere that I could see.

The only indignity suffered was with Mae, who looked much like a mud pie.  The road spray from Phannie definitely took its toll on the usually-pristine little red car. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Tales From the Front: First Monday Trade Days in Canton

Sandy and our daughter, Mindy, along with Brenda (Sandy’s sister) and LouAnn, formed the group of hens who dreamed this up.  On only one other occasion, years ago, was I forced to attend the shoppers’ monthly feeding frenzy in Canton, Texas.  I told myself then that it would take a team of Clydesdales to drag me there again. It wasn't exactly a team of Clydesdales, but it was a bunch of horses--about 350 of them, that would indeed take me back to Canton.

Phannie's RV Port, with all lights on preparing for next day's departure to Canton

Sandy gives Phannie's wood cabinets a drink

Mason and Sandy, ready for departure 

It’s not that I begrudge my beloved an occasional pilgrimage to this vast assemblage of flea-market Bedouins for reasons that only females, I think, can fully comprehend.  Most guys (with, uh, some exceptions) just don’t get it—the fascination with all things cute and kitschy.  And I can assure you that is an apt description of all of the stuff these gals felt compelled to buy rather than to hold on to the money burning a hole in their purses.  But money just isn't cute, and it is entirely acceptable for them to exchange it for something that is.   Frankly, I would rather have squirreled away the money or spent it on something worthwhile, like the latest electronic gadget I think I might want.  The problem is, I can't really use this as an argument, because I get way more of these than I should.  So, I wisely keep quiet, smile a lot and keep the cash flowing.  Perhaps to demonstrate her annoying selflessness, Sandy limited most of her purchases  to those for our grandson, Mason.  This is fine with me, and I take no small degree of satisfaction in the fact that his parents--and not us--will have to find a place to put all that stuff.  (Sorry, kids!)  
It’s okay, though, that we guys don’t have to understand or appreciate the female mind which, the ladies will probably tell you, has attained a far greater level of sophistication than that of the male.  Male brains, according to them, have either atrophied or even regressed in the eons since we guys emerged from the primordial soup. (Yes, to hear their side of the story, it was only the male of the species who evolved from swamp slime; females, obviously, could only be a Divine creation.  My reaction to this illumination was, predictably, a rather neanderthal-like grunt.)  But I digress.

Main gate at the older section of Canton First Monday park

My role in this Canton escapade, which I happily accepted instead of going into the mosh pit of shoppers at the vendor sheds, was to be (along with Bubba) the bus driver, taxi driver and ATM while they shopped.  No arguments here; parking would have been almost impossible on Saturday, because every piece of Canton's open land was occupied by vehicles for miles around the sellers’ sheds during this weekend and all the rest of the first Mondays.  This was an especially busy weekend, as the sellers had all their Christmas-themed wares available which, for this group of shoppers, was like waving a pork chop in front of a coon hound.  Saturday at the park proved to be a zoo, and our ladies claimed they were unfairly constrained by the crowds from looking at everything they wanted to see.  What a pity, I thought.  
Sandy and LouAnn find bargains!

Sandy with sister Brenda

We had not been able to secure RV space in our desired park—Mill Creek Ranch.  This is a very nice park with beautiful facilities and some very nice park model cabins for those visitors without RVs.  However, bookings are required several months in advance for trade days weekends.  We stayed instead at Canton I-20 RV Park, a very serviceable facility with a friendly and accommodating staff.  Warning:  Reserve your spaces well ahead of time if you’re planning to park anywhere near Canton on trade weekends!
Saturday night’s restaurant selection proved quite successful--
the Red Barn at the Wills Point exit off I-20.  This is a very modest joint, open only on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, serving some fine catfish, shrimp and all the fixins, not to mention some killer cobblers.  We would definitely go there again.  For a great breakfast at a quaint little local dive, try the Bluebird cafe in Wills Point.  A word to the wise: Stay away from Juanita’s Mexican Restaurant in Canton; we’re not sure whose idea of Mexican food this is, but it’s not ours.  Really insipid stuff.  
The ladies’ quest for shopping treasures having remained unrequieted by the constraints of the vast crowd on Saturday, they determined that Bubba and I would return them to the melee on Sunday morning.  This proved to be a much better experience, as the park was far less crowded.  (I have to assume that most folks were in church and not being backsliders like us.) After picking up the girls, we had a nice pizza lunch at Jerry’s on highway 19 and made our way home.  All in all, it was a good weekend trip, and Phannie’s comfortable easy chairs and HD TVs were a perfect place for Bubba and me to kick back until we received the next summons for taxi service.

Sandy, Mason and Mike arrive back at the RV port.  (Mason LOVES RVing!)