Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Estes Park III

At Elk Meadow RV Park, Estes Park, Colorado…

Today was set aside to explore some of Rocky Mountain National Park, which we did--all the way to the Alpine Visitor's Lodge and then to Bear Lake. The weather was perfect on the leg to the visitor center, but I elected not to take any photos until heading back toward Estes Park, because the sun's position would be so much better, I thought, to light the landscape going that direction. To say that the scenery from this mountaintop highway--over 12,000 feet elevation in places--was magnificent would be an epic understatement. Sandy and I were agape at the splendor before us, as each turn seemed to reveal a view more grand than the last.  Waiting until the return trip to take photos turned out to be a terrible idea, however, because the beautiful puffy white clouds by then had morphed into thunderheads, and the blowoff from the tops cast a giant shadow over almost all of the northern part of the park. The stupendous vistas and the surrounding peaks, now absent the sunlight, had lost their three-dimensional grandeur, the crags and canyons having dissolved into distant bluish blobs. Taking photos of this would have been meaningless. I had hoped that we would be able to get some relief at some point en route back to Estes Park, but it was not to be. In fact, the storms and rain became more widespread as the afternoon turned into evening. Naturally, I was mortified at this turn of events, but we are going to try again to get some good photos tomorrow. We won't go all the way to Alpine Visitor Center, but there are plenty of photo opportunities without having to go that far. Fortunately, we had the good sense last year to get the lifetime senior America the Beautiful pass from the National Park Service, so we don't have to pay the 20 bucks each time we enter the park. I suppose my advice would be to take advantage of good photo opportunities when you can when in the mountains; the weather changes rapidly, and you might find yourself in my predicament.

By the time we returned from the park, we were hungry, so we stopped again at Smokin' Dave's BBQ.  The wait this time was even longer than the last, but it was a busy Labor Day weekend.  We decided to order something besides barbecue, to see if they are a one-trick pony.  Unfortunately, they may be: We ordered catfish and fish and chips; the catfish was mushy, so we sent it back, and the fish and chips appeared to be pre-formed little planks you could get from the frozen foods section of any grocery store. I left most of it in the plate. I didn't bother to take a photo of the food; I really didn't want any evidence to remain.  I must take the hit for this bad idea--ordering this kind of seafood in a barbecue restaurant in a remote mountain village was just plain silly. Did I really think they would have served fresh catfish instead of frozen? I think the high altitude is getting to me. This was strike two for me today in the common sense department.  

After an obligatory nap in our recliners in Phannie, we drove to town for Sandy to do a little shopping. I decided to visit Laura's, one of several little storefront candy shops on the main drag. 

 Now I need this stuff like a pig needs a bicycle, but the thing that drew me in here was the homemade toffee for which I have a huge weakness. The toffee is stacked in large planks right there in the front window along with other wonderful confections and sweets, including a devilish assortment of candy apples. Better get out your hankie to wipe off the drool at this point:

The toffee in the window is covered in white chocolate and macadamia nuts, and it is just as good as it sounds. I tried to resist it for, oh, about eight seconds. I purchased a small container and considered returning after closing to break the window and do a smash and grab. Phannie could hold all the loot in her belly compartments with no problem!

Here's a little tip: Remember how we've talked about things being expensive here? This store is no exception. Is it worth breaking into your piggy bank? Yes.

In all our wandering around Estes Park, we discovered another Thai restaurant! In an earlier post, I reviewed the tragic Everest Thai Cafe and erroneously mentioned that it was the only Thai eatery in town. 

The Cafe de Pho-Thai, in an unassuming location off the main street, offers Vietnamese and Thai dishes, and this place is the real deal. In fact, it turns out to be the best restaurant of all we have tried so far. Sandy and I shared some fresh and fried spring rolls as an appetizer and a chicken and vegetable stir-fry (not pictured), 

and everything was very fresh and tasty. I am very fond of Nam Pla Prik, a fish sauce-based table condiment common in many Thai restaurants and, noting none on our table, I asked our very efficient Thai waiter for some. In a few minutes, he returned with it, which he had freshly made himself. I told him it was delicious (and it was, although hellishly hot, which I also liked) and he beamed at my compliments. When Sandy and I share asian dishes, I always order them mild, as she doesn't always appreciate having the membranes inside her mouth burned away, as I do. With good spicy condiments, I can make my servings as incendiary as I wish. It's a win-win!

Since we are talking about restaurant reviews, I need to acknowledge a comment from one of my revered readers who felt I was being a bit harsh with my review yesterday of Penelope's Hamburgers here in Estes Park. She pointed out that she had eaten more than once at this restaurant and found the experience very satisfactory. She speculated that the cook may have been having a bad day on the occasion of my visit, and that I should not write the place off based on this one event. Now I take very seriously feedback like this, and I respectfully acknowledge that observations based on multiple experiences can provide a greater sense of a norm. That having been said, here are some thoughts that may explain my intolerance for restaurants that do not measure up.

A restaurant--like you and me--has only one chance to make a good first impression, so successful ones must have in place some controls that will ensure consistent quality that is not dependent upon something like the mood of the cook. In most cases while traveling, I will have only one chance to assess a place. The same will also be true of most of the readers of my blog, as most of them are travelers, too. If any of my readers patronize a restaurant based on my review, I want them to know exactly what I experienced and how I felt about it. 

While I don't profess to be an expert (I have never worked in nor owned a restaurant), I do have experience. We tend to eat out much more often than most people, so I have patronized thousands of restaurants of every kind imaginable. I believe I can assess pretty quickly the winners and losers and whether the problem is systemic. But bear in mind that this blog reaches an infinitesimally small number of people who may visit any of the restaurants I mention. I will certainly have no impact on their business, so what I write is more for entertainment than for enlightenment of the masses, and it is certainly not meant to be defamatory or retributive. The facts, inescapably, are the facts.

If you have read my blog for a while, you will hopefully notice that I try to give differing levels of criticism and that I don't blast a place unless I notice no redeeming qualities. When I do feel the need to lower the boom, however, I would like for what I write to be emphatic, thus memorable. Do I sometimes use a bit of hyperbole? Well, yes, but that is common in a writer's toolkit in order to help a piece be more interesting, memorable and yes, funny.

My experience at Penelope's was abysmal, and I admit to being highly peeved that the near confiscatory price of that modest meal did not ensure that the cook's mood would not be a factor in what we were served. I expect consistent quality, irrespective of whether it is our first time or umpteenth time at a restaurant, and that should be the goal of the owners as well, if they're serious about their business. The bottom line is this: If I'm paying 21 dollars for a couple of small burgers, an order of fries and two drinks, they had better be the best doggone burgers on the planet, every time. These weren't, and that's why I wrote what I did.

I hope my commenters will continue to hold me accountable and tell me when I have left earth orbit. I read every comment and respectfully offer my thanks for your input. I would be interested in knowing from others if they think my remarks about Penelope's were unfair. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Estes Park II

At Elk Meadow RV Park, Estes Park, Colorado…

We languished in the coach this morning, sleeping late and doing a little net surfing and phone calling while we enjoyed the mountain scene around us. Finally, we did something out of the ordinary and actually fixed a meal in the coach!  We had some leftover BBQ from that which we carried home from Smokin' Dave's, and we also fixed some of the fresh corn we purchased at the farmers' market in Colorado Springs on Monday. Sandy, a purist, ate her corn on the cob with just butter, salt and pepper.  I added garlic and parmesan cheese to mine; it was larrapin' good.  (Slang alert: "Larrapin'", in deep east Texas parlance, means "very tasty.")

In a brochure we had picked up the day before, I found an advertisement for a variety show called "Rocky Mountain Opry" that was opening tonight for a month-long run here in Estes Park.  I called for reservations, and got them for tonight's opening performance. It was billed as a musical variety show--something we definitely enjoy--but I was prepared for something pretty amateurish, especially since the tickets were only $25. (This seemed cheap because everything else here is so expensive.) More on the show later.

We drove around the area some more before the show, enjoying the scenery immensely, and finally ended up back in town so Sandy could do some shopping. Imagine that! Around dinnertime, we decided to grab a hamburger at Penelope's, a downtown storefront burger joint that had received good reviews and which sported in its window an award for "best burger in Estes Park."

Sadly, Penelope's award was obviously fraudulent. The patty was not cooked enough for my liking, and its gray color revealed that it had been cooked on a griddle that was not hot enough. The bun was a large dome of staleness, pieces of which I had to excise to arrive at a reasonable patty/bun ratio.  They also didn't bother to dress the bun, leaving it up to the customer to finish making the hamburger. It was hopelessly bland, and I finally abandoned the effort to eat it. Upon walking out, I decided it wasn't worth my time to upbraid the youngsters in back who had birthed this abomination; they obviously didn't care, and my complaining would have made no difference. Adding insult to injury, the tab for two burgers, one order of fries and two drinks was $21! Best burger in Estes Park, my foot!  I should put in a Whataburger here; I would be rich!

Because of this horrific experience, I will not give Penelope's enough respect to post any photos of the crime scene. Please don't bother to go here; you'll be sorry.

Now, on to something more pleasant--our experience with the Rocky Mountain Opry! The showroom is in the basement of a complex at the corner of highway 34/36 and Mary's Lake Road.  The facility includes a gas station, a small grocery store, a large gift shop and a restaurant. The showroom appeared to seat about 200, and it was about three-fourths full at showtime.

Friends, this talented troupe of musicians blew us away! We were totally unprepared for their brilliant performances. All of them sang and played multiple instruments as skillfully as any artists we've seen in places like Las Vegas and Branson. There were probably 50 different musical instruments on the stage, and they were all played at least once.

The music review included a wide variety of hits, mostly from the fifties and sixties. Here is a guy doing a terrific Willie Nelson tribute:

The next performer is playing a contra bass saxophone, something I have never seen before, even though I used to play a tenor saxophone myself:

The Opry is doing different shows at each performance, including one with rock and roll, another with Broadway hits and another with classic country selections. I only wish we were going to be here long enough to see them all.  If you get a chance to see this group (they also appear in Arizona), you will be highly entertained.  Check them out here.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Estes Park

At Elk Meadow RV Park, Estes Park, Colorado…

We had a relatively easy drive planned from Colorado Springs, but we hadn't anticipated the construction detour from state highway 36 onto highway 7, a very curvy and narrow road along the Big Thompson canyon and over the mountain pass just southeast of Estes Park. It was the first time that I had driven Phannie in such extended mountainous terrain, but she performed splendidly. We had been through the Ozarks a couple of times, but that was pretty tame compared to this. Threading through the curves and managing the steep grades with such a big rig and a tow vehicle took a good deal of concentration and gear shifting, but I was very pleased at how well it went.

One of the unfortunate things that can't be helped about operating such a large and heavy vehicle on a two-lane highway in the mountains is the fact that other vehicles are going to stack up behind you from time to time until you can find a turnout to let them pass. I hate inconveniencing other drivers, but there is no way that Phannie can ever be as nimble as an automobile. In mountain driving, a low gear must be selected to climb a grade, as it must in descending a grade to avoid excessive speed and brake use. That means a slower speed than everybody else, whether you're climbing or descending. I am always vigilant for turnouts, though, and use them as much as possible. Folks who passed us were nice about it; I didn't see a single obscene gesture.

We really didn't know what to expect at Estes Park, but we were certainly impressed with the beauty of the area and the quaintness of the town nestled among the surrounding rocky peaks. Exemplifying the stunning vistas is a photo I took of the historic Stanley Hotel overlooking the town:

I'll have more about the hotel and also some photos of the town in another post.

We had reserved a spot at Elk Meadow RV Resort, a large park just west of town, and our view from there was pretty spectacular too:

Although there are plenty of empty spaces in the photo above, I heard the owner say there are 121 additional RVs with reservations to arrive for the Labor Day weekend.  

For a park with narrow gravel sites that are not all that level, the nightly rate is pretty steep at $53 with our Good Sam discount.  However, that's in keeping with everything else here; diesel fuel, for example, is $4 a gallon.

There are a couple of other parks here that are situated on the Big Thompson River. This is the type of setting we would have preferred, but Spruce Lake didn't have any riverfront sites, and Paradise on the River cannot handle a rig of Phannie's size.

We decided that today would be a down day (a luxury of the retired), so we didn't do much other than exploring around town a bit and trying some of the many restaurants from which to choose.

First on the restaurant agenda, after a recommendation from Ed and Marilyn, was Smokin' Dave's BBQ, which is perhaps the busiest restaurant we've seen here. (When is the last time you had to wait to be seated at a BBQ joint?) 

 Again on Ed's recommendation, I ordered pork ribs, and Sandy ordered a brisket sandwich. Both were very tasty, and there was a selection of sauces at each table--a nice touch, for sure. 

Of course, I am compelled--for reasons that aren't entirely clear--to offer an honest assessment, so I need to mention a few slight imperfections:

While the ribs had great flavor, they were slightly overcooked.  In my estimation, a perfectly cooked rib, while tender, still has some "bite" to it, sort of like al dente pasta. These ribs just sort of fell apart when I picked them up. It didn't keep me from scarfing them right down, however!  The baked beans were very good, as were the french fries. The cole slaw and potato salad were too runny and bland; I will avoid them next time. The cornbread muffin was a nice touch, but where I grew up, cornbread is NOT sweet. This was  clearly an insult to my heritage, but I ate it anyway; I decided to forgive them and move on. The service was excellent, by the way.

We also tried a Mexican restaurant named El Mex-Kal on the edge of town.  (I couldn't figure out if there was some meaning to the restaurant name that I wasn't getting. Were they trying a word play on "Mescal" or something? I didn't think to ask, probably because the shelf-life of my curiosity expired about the time I entered the door.)

I'm always nervous about ordering Mexican food outside Texas, but we needed a fix. After ravishing the chips (very good) and salsa (better than expected) we ordered a fajita steak burrito and a loaded tostada. I also requested a side order of pork-green chile sauce.  

The tostada was good--not exceptional, but good--but the burrito was very good, covered in white Mexican cheese and quite a bit more substantial than expected.  The green chile salsa was only fair and too runny. Sadly, it will be difficult to match the green chile sauce we had a few days ago at El Matador in Raton, NM. But because El Mex-Kal exceeded our expectations and the service was impeccable, we would eat here again.

We also had tried (on a different day) a Thai restaurant, the Everest Thai Kitchen.  

We ate here twice today--the first time and the last time!  While the food was serviceable, they committed the unpardonable sin: They used leftover chicken in the entree! The difference between fresh and leftover is unmistakable and becomes more unmistakable the more aged a leftover it is. There was only one server for the whole restaurant, and to say that she was as slow as a sloth would insult the sloth. (Trivia alert: Did you know that a sloth is so laid back that it uses the bathroom only once a week?) 

Okay, before this gets any sillier, I'll sign off and save my fingers for the next post. Besides, I don't know anything more about sloths.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Colorado Springs - Day Three

At Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Colorado Springs, CO…

The planets finally aligned for Ed, whose track record has not exactly been perfect in selecting restaurants that were open at the time of his visits. The four of us met for lunch at the Na Ri Thai restaurant and, I must say, it was well worth trying again after the waveoff on Sunday when it was closed. It is not often that I am not able to find fault with a restaurant, but this one has indeed attained perfection, in my opinion.  We enjoyed some pot stickers for appetizers and each of us had a different entree, which we all sampled. Thai food is one of my favorites, and I only wish Na Ri were closer to us. After finishing this wonderful lunch, we said goodbye to Ed and Marilyn, wishing them safe travels and knowing we will cross paths again before long.  

Because of the full day we had yesterday, graciously afforded us by our hosts, Sandy and I decided to take it easy today. I took my iPad in for a replacement screen after crushing it in a freak accident. (Because of my embarrassment, I'm not going to tell you what happened, but it was entirely my fault and was the result of pure carelessness.) The technician took it apart and found it to be beyond repair, so I acquired a new one--this time a mini-version.  I think we're going to like it better.  Our transition to Apple computers, iPads and iPhones is almost complete. I still have one brave PC desktop left on my desk at home, so old that it's running Microsoft Vista, but it refuses to give up and roll over. I'm not sure why I keep it, but I've been using PCs for more than 30 years, and my familiarity with them and with Windows gives me a strange sense of comfort. Tossing it out would be a little like throwing over an old friend, and besides, there are still things about the Apples that annoy me. But they do make a quality product, in my view.

Sandy took the opportunity to do some shopping, and then we had dinner at Pizzeria Rustica, a small storefront place in old Colorado City. It was heartedly recommended by Ed and Marilyn.  

Oh, my goodness, did they hit it out of the park again!  As with most other types of food, I am not easy to please when it comes to pizza. I like the crust thin and crispy, and I prefer only a small amount of cheese. In fact, it would be fine if it had no cheese at all.  Sandy and I ordered a pizza with San Marzano tomatoes, salami, pepperoni, onion and fresh basil--no cheese.  

The center of the pizza was indeed thin and crispy, but this was surrounded by a thicker edge that was wonderfully yeasty and slightly chewy. It arrived served with truffle- and chile-flavored olive oil and fresh Parmesan cheese on the side.  These were for dipping the thicker edges of the crust after you eat away the inner thin-crust portion with all the goodies on it. I hadn't seen this done before, but it was fabulous--especially the truffle oil. That stuff could be an aphrodisiac, as far as I know! Nearby on the wall was a listing of all the local vendors from whom the chefs ordered their food today; they obviously take pride in the quality and freshness of what they prepare. This tiny place is very worthy of your visit; you won't be sorry.

It is difficult to overstate the awesomeness of this pizza. I almost wish I hadn't eaten it, as I will now judge all others against it.  The others will almost surely be found unworthy in comparison. 

Still on a high from the pizza place, we drove into Manitou Springs, a quaint old community nearby, to have some homemade ice cream at Pike's Peak Chocolate and Ice Cream.

Sandy ordered rocky road, and I ordered butter pecan.  They were sooo good!

We've already determined that we have barely scratched the surface in touring this beautiful place.  We will be looking forward to returning for a longer time.  

Estes Park tomorrow!

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Colorado Springs, Day Two

At Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Colorado Springs, CO…

Ed and Marilyn are such nice people. Even though they have served as tour guides for countless friends who have visited during their seven summers at Mountaindale, they seemed no less enthusiastic to show the local sights to Sandy and me.  They met us here at Cheyenne Mountain, and on the way to Old Colorado City, we stopped at a local farmers' market and picked up some fresh tamales, jam, corn and cookies. We love nothing more than finding these little pockets of local citizen commerce. We've already tried the cookies and jalapeƱo jelly, and they are so good!

Ed and Marilyn are buying some fresh corn in the photo below; these ears appeared to have been picked earlier in the morning. So fresh looking!

After driving past the famed Broadmoor Hotel, we made a stop at the Michael Garman studio in Old Colorado City. This remarkable sculptor has constructed a massive display of miniature old towns, complete with sculpted inhabitants and detailed so completely and accurately that it defies the imagination.  We enjoyed this a great deal and, although they had seen it many times, Ed and Marilyn were gracious to give us all the time we desired to gawk at Garman's handiwork.

Here are a couple of samples; the human figures in these photos are only about 2 inches high; every item visible--including all the wall decor and items as small as a cigarette, are handmade:

Touring this huge exhibit made us hungry, so we moved a little farther down Colorado Boulevard to Jake and Telly's Greek Restaurant, where we had a wonderful meal al fresco in perfect sunny weather.   We lingered quite a while talking, wondering if any day could be more perfect for what we were doing.  I don't think so.

Next was a driving tour of the magnificent Garden of the Gods, a formation of red sandstone monoliths pushed up and turned to the vertical when the Rockies were being formed eons ago.  Magnificent views were everywhere, of course; here's a sample:

We then drove to Manitou Springs to check out some possible shopping venues for Sandy for later in our visit (unless I can distract her enough so that she won't remember it. Yeah, it's a long shot, I know).

Ed then magically found the Lower Gold Camp Road and drove us up a mountain to what seemed like a mile-high overlook of Colorado Springs. The road we were traveling was a former railroad right of way, complete with two tunnels and a waterfall.  We enjoyed this immensely. Here are some of the photos we took:

After thanking our guides profusely for their insider's overview of Colorado Springs, we determined there was still way too much to see in only one short visit. We drove up the mountain to Phannie's parking spot to rest up a bit, and we began to hear thunder as a line of storms bore down on our camp, soon to inundate the whole area with small hailstones, followed by very heavy rain. We were dry and safe in Phannie, but the hail on the roof was really noisy. Here are some photos of the aftermath:

All this excitement made us hungry again, so we decided to try out an Italian restaurant we had seen earlier during our tour with Ed and Marilyn. The place, named Paravicini's, is in Old Colorado City:

We decided to share a bowl of wedding soup and a shrimp pasta dish with sun dried tomatoes, capers and olives. Soon after we arrived the server brought a small loaf of salt-encrusted bread, piping hot from the oven. Dipped in the olive oil and basalmic vinegar available at each table, this was a perfect starter to the meal.

The dishes were both tasty, but the soup was slightly too salty, and the capers and olives in the pasta dish contributed to a saltiness of that dish that distracted from the freshness of the ingredients. The salt crust on the bread didn't help, either. The service and ambiance were fine, and the place is quite popular. I only wish we would be in town long enough to try some other selections that might have less reliance on salt. 

Tomorrow we are going to try once again to eat lunch at Na Ri,  the Thai restaurant recommended by Ed and which, of course, was closed when he sent us there.  Redemption may be nigh, Ed.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Colorado Springs

At Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Colorado Springs, CO…

This will be a short post since the last one was a bit longish.  Our leg from Raton was a short one, and we arrived at Cheyenne Mountain State Park around mid-afternoon.  This has to be one of the nicest state parks we've seen, and the views of Colorado Springs are incredible from our lofty mountainside perch. I'll have some photos in a subsequent post.

After setting up, we drove out to Mountaindale RV Park, which is about 15 miles south of our campsite. We checked in with friends Ed and Marilyn, who have graciously agreed to show us around the area in the next couple of days. We also wanted to see the park for ourselves, and we can easily understand why these two have made it their summer home for seven years now.  It is truly a bucolic setting, and we'll have photos of that, too, a bit later.

We asked Ed for a restaurant recommendation for dinner, ever vigilant because of his long checkered history of picking restaurants that are closed. He knew we liked Thai food, so he recommended Na Ri, one they liked that was not too far from our RV park. A bit sensitive himself, he asked Marilyn to verify that it was open on this Sunday evening, and she checked and said that it was. So, after making plans to meet the next day, we followed Ed's instructions directly to the restaurant, only to find it…yep, closed.

We had a good laugh, anticipating the ribbing our friend will have to endure tomorrow, and drove about eight miles up I-25 to a Japanese restaurant named Jun Sushi and Noodles.  It was a busy place, and unfortunately, we were seated too close to a loudmouthed drunk who kept demanding some banana tempura (which the restaurant didn't offer).  Must be quite a drink, that sake.

Sandy and I had a teriyaki-tempura combination that was delicious and quite reasonably priced. 

Their mainstay is sushi, however, and that was the choice of most of the patrons.  We have never exactly warmed up to sushi, clinging to the rather outdated notion that raw fish is just better when it's cooked. I'm pretty sure that's not likely to change.

We're looking forward to our adventures with our friends, and we'll keep you posted.

Amarillo to Raton, NM

At Cheyenne Mountain State Park, Colorado Springs, Co…

Rewind: As promised, a review of Coyote Bluff Cafe in Amarillo:

This is a true dive in every sense of the word, and that’s why I like it! It’s a tiny burger joint in a rundown former house on South Grand Street. But it is incredibly popular; patrons must go inside, put their name on a list and then go back outside in the parking lot to wait for a table--rain or shine, cold or hot; it doesn't matter. There's no room to wait inside. 

The place is literally a dump; the owners apparently see no need to perform repairs that are sorely needed, like the front porch, for example. The floor boards there are nearly rotted out and will probably cause an injury at some point. (I hope their liability insurance is paid up.) Yet oddly, the more dilapidated the place becomes, the more charm it seems to have. Go figure.

The burgers are huge and come in about a half dozen varieties.  The green chile cheeseburger is a thing of beauty and my favorite, even though I’ve had only one other version, the Old Fashioned. That green chile cheeseburger will always be my favorite because it was my first love when I had it here before. I ordered it with bacon too, in spite of my fear it might hasten my trip to the Great Beyond. Then I remembered my Lipitor prescription, and I felt better about it. The Hellburger also caught my eye, based on its promise of being wickedly spicy, but I don’t know if a Baptist is supposed eat a Hellburger, so I didn’t order it.

So what silly thing did I do this time at Coyote Bluff?  I ordered a steak, for reasons that are not entirely clear. I shouldn’t have; it was too thin, too done and had a peculiar whang (Texan for odd taste) that I didn’t like.  I won’t make that mistake again; the place is a BURGER joint, Mike! 

The next day, our leg from Amarillo to Raton, New Mexico was uneventful, and we loved seeing again the great vistas and clear skies on the high plains, punctuated eventually by the appearance of distant mountains as we approached New Mexico.

I try to limit our en route legs to 250 miles or less each day to allow us to just mosey along, taking time to stop if we wish and see stuff that interests us.  With all the conveniences of home right there in the coach with us, it’s sort of like taking a road trip in our living room. Because of Phannie’s roominess, together with our ability to move around, access food and drink, and relax in the plush cockpit recliners, we really don’t get tired on a long drive like we do in a pickup or automobile. Since I obviously can't get up and move around when I'm driving, Sandy does most of the steppin' and fetchin'.  That's women's work, after all, isn't it?  (Please, God, let this be a post she doesn't read.)

Sandy quickly slips into slumber soon after she reclines her cockpit chair and raises the power footrest. She will tell you that life is good in Phannie once I have been dealt with!

A surprise for us was our ability to have access to cell phone signals on this trip, even in some very remote parts of the Texas panhandle. We never lost a signal anywhere in Texas until we reached Raton (it figures). We know we have become way too addicted to the technology, but we must face the fact that we have become data junkies. Much of the time en route is spent calling, texting or on the web. It is a wonderful convenience and source of information, as well as helping pass the time (especially with social media); I'm not sure how we got along without it. 

Now some readers will be shaking their heads at this, because for them, a vacation is not a vacation until they jettison all of the bondage of technology, preferring to rejuvenate themselves in peace and quiet without peering into a silly small screen much of the time. For others (like Sandy and yes, yours truly), you may as well cut out their tongues or cut off their fingers. A vacation unconnected would be pretty much unbearable for these folks. 

Now, let's talk about Raton.  This little burg is nestled at the bottom of Raton Pass in the northeast corner of New Mexico. We stayed at the Raton KOA, which is a pretty tired-looking place with gravel sites, and it was too expensive for my liking. But they were friendly toward us, and that counts for something, I guess.

Note the deep blue of the sky in the photos above and below. We don't get to see that in the hazy metropolitan area where we live, and that's among the things I love about traveling in the West.

I would like to say something positive about Raton, but the town is pretty sleepy and may have seen better days.  There doesn't seem to be much here to support the place other than the gas stations and convenience stores that populate the intersection of I-25 and U. S. 84. There are many closed businesses, unfortunately. Even KFC couldn't make it here, and there is no Wal-Mart. The size of the downtown area is such that one would think these businesses would thrive.  Maybe they need to change the town's Spanish name to something other what it means in English.

Downtown Raton 

We at dinner at El Matador, a painfully nondescript little Mexican eatery on Second Street.

A curiosity is the large "restaurant" sign on the front of the building in some kind of Hellenic font that would be appropriate for a German restaurant. I don't know why I notice these things, but that helped convince me I needed to eat here.

We had tacos and enchiladas lathered in some of the best red and green New Mexico chile sauce I have ever eaten. (I am a sucker for New Mexican chiles.) We had breakfast burritos stuffed with egg, pan sausage and green chile strips, swimming in the aforementioned sauce. It was ridiculously good.

By the way, someone asked why I'm doing so many restaurant reviews lately. Well, when we are overnighting in different towns when en route somewhere, we generally eat out--not having time to do much else--and that usually presents an opportunity to offer some commentary that could possibly be useful to readers…or not.  It doesn't really matter; I blog about what's interesting to me. Hopefully, it is occasionally interesting to others. 

Colorado Springs is next; stay tuned!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Sweetwater to Amarillo

At Oasis RV Resort, Amarillo, Texas…

Okay, let's get right to the point on Miss Allen's; you've waited long enough. This is what the locals call Allen's Fried Chicken and Family Style Meals in Sweetwater, Texas, which is about 50 miles west of Abilene on I-20. This ramshackle place has been on the main drag in Sweetwater since the earth cooled, and everyone in this part of Texas knows about it.

The meals are served family style, which means that you sit at large tables with other diners whom you probably don't know (unless you're a local).

The food, which is southern home cooking, is brought out and set on the tables in large serving bowls and platters, and the patrons pass these around the table, uh, family style.  (We hadn't met before the guy in the photo below, but he was very friendly, telling us that he scheduled his business trips in order to pass through Sweetwater at lunchtime to eat at Miss Allen's.)

Although the photo above doesn't show it, there were no fewer than 21 different items when all the serving dishes had been brought to the table.  These included fried chicken, barbecue brisket, ribs and sausage, cole slaw, pea salad, potato salad, boiled buttered potatoes, candied sweet potatoes, green beans, pinto beans, stewed okra and tomatoes, stewed corn, stewed squash, stewed turnip greens, rolls and peach cobbler.  Available drinks were iced tea or water.

This is my first plate; it would hold only seven of the 21 dishes on the table: 

Sandy and I had not dined here before today, but it had all the hallmarks that would constitute nirvana for a foodie like me. It was because of the cachet of this place and a recommendation by old friend Bubba that we nudged Phannie a bit out of our way through Abilene and Sweetwater while en route to Colorado. I had to try it; no real foodie could look himself in the mirror if he hadn't.

Now, for the review. Let me precede this by reminding you that I am incredibly picky about food. I was raised among great cooks, and my expectations are bordering on unrealistic. If I owned a restaurant, I would probably go broke trying to achieve perfection. In fact, I'm sure of it.

First, the surroundings: I love old landmark dives like this, so I have nothing but raves about the history and tradition of this family style restaurant.  The servers were rushed but friendly, so we really have no problems here.

Now, the food:  The fried chicken was among the best I have eaten.  It was perfectly seasoned, floured and fried.  The barbecue, however, was a bit under par. The smoke flavor was strong, as if some kind of smoke flavoring had been added. The ribs were way overdone, and the sausage was bland and greasy. The buttered potatoes and pinto beans were fine, but most of the other vegetable dishes surprisingly and inexplicably had too much sugar added to them. Perhaps this is a local thing, but I didn't get it. I had never eaten sweet turnip greens before and found them quite off-putting. The green beans, corn and sweet potatoes were canned, therefore disappointing, but with this many dishes, I suppose they had to take some short cuts to keep the cost at ten bucks for all this food, of which patrons can eat all they wish, as long as they eat it on the premises.

Was it worth the ten bucks?  Of course; it was an amazing experience to be drawn briefly into this little vignette of the Sweetwater community and worth a stop just for the chicken.

In an effort to fend off criticism about my being a one-trick pony, preoccupied only with food as I describe the places we pass through, let me add a couple of interesting facts about Sweetwater that you probably didn't know:  The WASPS--the only women pilots of WWII, were trained at Sweetwater's Avenger Field. It is also the center of one of the largest wind generation areas in the U. S. with more than 1300 windmills. I was not able to determine how the town got its name; I was too busy eating lunch at Miss Allen's.

Full of chicken and some of Miss Allen's other dishes (there were so many, I took only a forkful of some), we trekked northward to Amarillo. The strong wind was at our stern this time, and Phannie handled much better.

We pulled in to Oasis RV Resort about 6:30 p.m.  Now this was more like it: A big beautiful park with large concrete pads. 

No, we didn't arrive after dark, as the photo above would suggest; I took the photo after we returned from dinner. Those readers who know us well are not surprised by what would be a very late arrival time for most of them. I get quite enough ribbing from our RV friends about the hours we keep, so I'm trying to head them off with this explanation. (I doubt if it will work.) Frankly, we've tried being early people, but we just don't do it very well. It's too much like having to get up early to go to work. 

We have tried to forget the dustbowl park back in Abilene, but the white dust all over Phannie's lower sides and posterior means that a wash job is imminent so as to avoid further embarrassment.

We went to Coyote Bluff near downtown Amarillo for dinner, but I'll tell you about that in the next post. 

Friday, August 22, 2014


At Big Country RV Park, Abilene, Texas…

Before lurching away from our little manse near Fort Worth, it suddenly dawned on me that I had not checked Phannie's battery water levels in a while. So, I grabbed some distilled water and my Pro-Fil bulb and connector tubing and gave the house batteries a drink. 

Here's a photo of me servicing the batteries the easy way; I just put the tube in the water jug and squeeze the bulb until it resists any more squeezing. The water goes throughout the manifold to all the battery cells without overfilling them.  Easy peasy!  (If they gave college degrees for doing things the easy way, I would have a PhD for sure.)

Those batteries were thirsty!  Look how much water they took, and it really hadn't been that long since the last check and fill.  Must be the hot weather:

I am just waiting for these coach batteries to play out so I can replace them with AGM batteries that will not require irrigating. I will have to really feed my piggy bank, unfortunately, because the AGMs are not cheap!

Until then, however, I would not want to be without my Pro-Fil battery irrigation system. Phannie's battery tray does not pull out (bad design), so watering them without Pro-Fil is a total pain.  (Takes two of these Pro-Fil manifolds for the four batteries.)

Okay, I digress; back to today's journey:

If you are familiar with Texas geography, you may wonder why we're going from Fort Worth to Colorado Springs via Abilene. You would be justified in your curiosity, because Abilene is somewhat offset from a straight line between the two cities. Two words: Miss Allen's.  I'll have more on this in a later post; sorry for the tease.

It was a hot trek this August afternoon on I-20.  The outside air temperature readout varied from 99 to 102 for the entire trip. To make matters worse, it was quite windy, and big motorhomes require quite a bit more attention by the driver when wind gusts are broadsiding the rig.  Phannie is no different, and I was ready to shut down in the RV park just on the outskirts of Abilene.  Fortunately, we didn't have to run the generator and roof airs en route. Tiffin did a good job with the dash air in our Phaeton; it has a very high volume blower and six outlets for the front seats. This setup provides sufficient cooling in all but the most extreme hot weather.

The topography in this area, as in most of west Texas, is not what you would call particularly scenic. It is even less so these days because of the awful drought. The scrubby vegetation and grass are incredibly dry and brown, and when you exit the pavement onto dirt and gravel--which, regrettably, constitutes the driving areas in Abilene RV parks--the dust is powdery and plentiful. Here is a photo of poor Mae after a short drive to our parking space at Big Country RV Park:

I may have to rethink Abilene as a stop on our trips.  We really try to avoid dusty and muddy unpaved parks, but sometimes we have no choice. (Gosh, that sounds a little snobbish, doesn't it?) Sorry, but we don't apologize for much these days. 
We had dinner at the Seafood Tavern in Abilene.  Pretty good, but we erred in ordering some fried selections. The seafood was good, but we didn't care for the beer batter; it was too heavy and greasy. Fortunately, Sandy and I had split an entree, so it was manageable because of the small portions we ate.  It was probably not the best idea to go to a seafood restaurant so far from ANY water, but it had been recommended to us and had very good Yelp reviews.  On a positive note, the service was excellent.  We might go back, but we certainly wouldn't order anything fried.

Tomorrow we stop at Miss Allen's. We will elucidate in the next post, so be patient. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Yearly Maintenance Finished; Time to Head North!

At home near Fort Worth, Texas...

I suppose it's just as well we were thwarted earlier in the summer in our attempt to get the heck out of Dodge, er, Fort Worth, that is. Bubba's accident and Sandy's neck problems caused us to miss our intended caravan to Colorado. Well, that was then, and this is now. It's been cooler than normal this summer, but it's too danged hot now to stick around here any longer. Sandy is doing better, so we're going to try to find Colorado without Bubba (his coach won't be repaired for a while yet). More on that later.  

I've used the time at home to take care of the annual service on Phannie, including the genset.  It was also time for a 50,000 mile service on Mae, which included service to the transmission. The dealer also took care of some GM recalls against the car. Luckily, the technicians working on all this equipment caught several discrepancies that could easily have given us problems on the road. 

It was time to change the thermostats on Phannie's engine, and the tech at Holt Caterpillar discovered that one of them had failed, having fallen apart as he removed it. During some chassis work, the tech at Motorhomes of Texas found a loose electrical connection that was causing a loss of AC power from the inverter. During the genset service, the Cummins/Onan tech replaced a panel that was missing--one that could possibly have caused the generator to overheat. When servicing the transmission on the HHR, the Chevrolet tech discovered that the fluid reservoir pan was bent and beginning to leak.

So, it's been a fairly expensive few weeks, but I'm very happy that the rolling stock is now in good shape for another year. Perhaps because of my career flying airplanes, I have always been diligent to ensure that whatever I'm flying--or driving, as I am nowadays--is properly maintained on schedule. Perhaps that's why I'm still here, who knows?

A few days ago, I noticed that Phannie's headlight lenses were becoming a little foggy--as plexiglas tends to do after a while when exposed to the sun. So I thought to myself, here's some maintenance that even I might be qualified to do! So, I looked for the plexiglas cleaner and found, unfortunately, that the bottle had dried up. Then I remembered I had read somewhere that toothpaste could be used to clean and polish the lens. Purloining a tube of Colgate from the bathroom, I decided to give it a try. Here's the highly technical procedure, with photos. It took a good bit of scrubbing and the help of a handheld electric buffer, but I think the results speak for themselves:

Pretty neat, huh? 

Because I expended so much energy and brainpower on this project, I decided I was exhausted and that a nap was in order. As I nestled into my recliner, I asked Sandy what day of the week it was. 

"It's Tuesday," she said.

I soon nodded off, thinking about several of my friends, including Bubba, who are still grinding away at their jobs on this Tuesday afternoon while I enjoy a nap. I'm not sure why, but that somehow made me sleep better. 

Well, with all of the maintenance items complete and the sun baking my beloved state, the time has definitely come to find a cooler clime. Tomorrow, we will be heading out, stopping in a few days to see some friends near Colorado Springs and then onward to Rocky Mountain National Park. After that--who knows?  We'll keep you posted.