Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Fort Davis to Deming, and a dust storm to boot

January 30, 2008 -- Fort Davis to Deming

A series of storms that attacked Southern California over the past few days created high-wind conditions at Fort Davis and all around West Texas and the southern part of New Mexico. As far as I was concerned, it was another in a long string of bad things that have been coming out of California lately. We'd seen what we wanted to see here in the Davis Mountains and were anxious to get going. However, I also didn't want to drive in winds gusting to 60mph -- not with this big ol' slab-sided bus. So we watched the weather, extended our stay by a day, and watched the weather some more. By carefully analyzing the governments best forecasts and applying a little common sense (very little), I thought I saw an opening... a small window of opportunity between two systems. If we decided to go, it'd mean getting up early and hitting the road right after sunrise in order to do an end-run around the big winds.

We have a very democratic system for making decisions like this... I have a vote, and Dar has a vote. In the event of a tie, the Safety Director breaks the tie. Dar is the Safety Director. It's a good system that's gotten us this far without major incident. And the decision was made to attemp this end-around and get the heck out of Texas. I mean, Texas is a wonderful state, but 50-some days is plenty. At least in my mind, I didn't start this lifestyle just to move to Texas. We'll certainly be back, but it's time for new adventures some place else. Besides, we've got an appointment in late March up in Vancouver, WA., and we've got to get ourselves a little closer.

So we got up early, fired up the big ol' Cummins motor at the crack of 8am, and headed out from Fort Davis. Our route took us south to a litle community called Marfa, and then westward on US Hwy 90. Since we anticipated higher winds later in the day, Dar drove the first 100+ miles, which was clear and calm... a great drive. Soon after I took over, things slowly deteriorated. We stopped just north of El Paso for fuel (3.11/gallon) and we began to see clouds of dust and blowing sand off in the distance. There was no place to stop right there, so we decided to press on. Various RV Parks were along the way if we needed them, but we also were just 80 miles from our destination -- Deming, NM.

Coming out of El Paso, I-10 heads north for a few miles before it turns almost due west. The wind was coming out of the west, hard. During the northerly part of the drive, that wind pushed the bus sideways and we had a lean or list toward the right. I've always heard that the way people get into trouble is by not recognizing the signs that point to trouble and knowing when to say "enough is enough". But we kept seeing other campers and semi-trucks even though they all had the same lean to the right.

I slowed to 50mph when we made the bend toward the west. At this point, we only had about 50 miles to go and the wind was now a direct head-wind. But we pressed on. Now that the wind was directly in front of us, the bus's lean had eased, but the sound of air howling over the roof and sides, past the windows, and around the air conditioners and other gear on the roof was defening. We were moving at about 50mph, but the wind, we later learned, was gusting between 40 and 50mph. Add the two together and we had air rushing over and around us at maybe as high as 90mph.

The wind was only one aspect of that pleasant little drive to Deming. Remember, we're going through the desert. Deserts are made up of sand and dust, and a few cacti and other plants. When the wind blows at 30mph or more, it often picks up bits of the sand and dust and carries it along in huge clouds -- what's called a dust storm. In the worst of these, visibility goes to zero -- you can't see at all; similar to being in a "white-out" during a blizzard in the Midwest. It wasn't nearly that bad on this day, but we did drive through dust and dirt for much of the way, although the visibility never got below a mile or so. So we pressed on.

Finally we were there -- Deming, NM. We found our park, not more than a few blocks from I-10. There was a collective sigh as we put the jacks down and hunkered down for the rest of the night. A jigger or two of medicinal bourbon helped calm the nerves and keep us warm during that blustery night.

T

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Star Party at McDonald Observatory

January 27, 2008 -- Fort Davis, TX

I've always been fascinated by space and all the incomprehensible things about the universe in which we live. As I was going through my K-12 years in the late 50's and the 60's, the US Space Program was going all out to get a man on the moon before 1970. It was an amazing time in which most of the country was united behind this common goal and there was a "can-do" feeling that transcended the Space Program. There was a sense that we could do anything... that anything was possible. This was all very exciting for a kid, whose young mind was also influenced by TV shows like Star Trek or Lost in Space that added visual substance to a kid's dreams of space exploration and the wonders of what's out there.

We did reach the moon in 1969 and achieved the nation's goal. For a short time during the next few years going to the moon became almost routine. We launched 6 missions that successfully landed on the moon -- the last one in December of 1972. Think about this... if you're under the age of 35 you've never witnessed a trip to the moon by astronauts. Considering that the median age in the USA is about 36, that's almost half the country's population. What's become of our dreams and that sense of wonder about the universe?

At places like the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, TX. those dreams remain alive. It's a place where the glowing embers of knowledge about the cosmos are tested and grow.

McDonald came to life after a posthumous donation to the University of Texas at Austin of a considerable amount of money from someone named McDonald in the 50's. At the time, UTA didn't even have an astronomy program. So, in conjunction with the University of Chicago, the first telescope was built on Mt. Locke and the place became known as the McDonald Observatory. That 82" telescope was, at the time, the second largest telescope in the world. It's still in use today.

The selection of Mt. Locke as the location for the observatory was made for a number of reasons. First, it's remote and far from the lights of metropolitan areas. Dar and I can attest to the remoteness of West Texas. Second, it's on a mountain top and higher than almost a third of the earth's atmosphere. This means less air, haze, and pollution to view through to get a clear image. And thirdly, the area has good weather with almost 250 crystal clear nights each year on average.

During our visit we got into the dome and onto the floor with the second telescope built here at McDonald -- the 107" Harlan J. Smith telescope, finished in 1968. It's a huge instrument and we had the opportunity to play with it some... moving it around, turning the dome structure, and opening the big door in the dome from which the telescope looks into space.

There's a staff of about 70 people that are employed full-time to keep the facility operating. They're the people that keep the equipment operating, the grounds and buildings in good shape, the visitor center open, and the tours staffed. They live in a village on the side off the hill and one off the "perks" of the job is the great view from up there at 6,800 feet.

I found it interesting that they have their own light pollution police. That's right, someone who goes out and talks to some of those independent-minded West Texans who have bright outdoor lighting that can reduce the darkness needed for good space observation. It wasn't clear how exactly how they enforce the darkness, but I got the feeling it's more education and money rather than tickets and prison. Money -- now that's something a true West Texan can understand.

In 1997, they dedicated their third big telescope -- the 433" Hobby-Eberly telescope. Unique in design and limited in function, it's one of the biggest 3 or 4 telescopes in the world today. Instead of one big mirror like other telescopes, this one is made up of 91 smaller individually controlled mirrors that work in unison to provide the best focus. It's mission is primarily spectroscopy -- the observation and measurement of light at different wave-lengths to learn more about what makes up these distant stellar bodies.

One of the programs we attended was the evening Star Party. Only held three nights per week, the staff breaks out 5 or 6 smaller telescopes to allow participants the opportunity to see and understand various stars, planets, and nebula (huge stellar gas clouds that glow). It had been a little cloudy earlier in the day but the sky cleared up right on time for the party.

We spent almost 8 hours at the Observatory that day and neither of us felt it was anything but a great experience.

T

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Wide Open West Texas

January 26, 2008 -- Leaving Marathon, TX

With the exception of El Paso, there are 8 large counties that make up the part of Texas that's often referred to as West Texas. If you look at a map it's that big point that sticks out to the west from the rest of the State. As we trek westward through this part of the country the thing that really gets my attention is the complete lack of people, or just about anything else for that matter.

Coming from the suburbs of a large metropolitan city, I'm used to living with thousands of people following me around and trying to get a parking place closer to the store. I learned to tolerate standing in lines and getting pushed and shoved while trying to buy a Christmas gift for my sweetie. At the intersection near my home I always had to wait for traffic before I could squeeze out onto the main road. And then there are all the rules and regulations that you must follow... building codes, zoning regulations, no left turn here, no parking there, do not enter over there, library book due in two weeks.

Well folks, this is West Texas, and in West Texas we pretty much do whatever we want to do. There's little need for rules as there's no one around who cares anyway. The little community of Marathon (pop. 455) is a case in point. Want to raise goats in your backyard in town? No problem! Don't feel like throwing anything in the trash for the past 20 years? Just fine! Grown attached to the 50's era house-trailer that you're Grandma used to live in until she died in 1968? Just park it in your side yard -- out by the chickens-- and let it sag, rust, and deteriorate at it's own pace. Grandma would have wanted it that way.

U-turn on the main street through town? OK. Park on the wrong side of the road? Great. Want to drive fast? The speed limits are set so high there's no need for enforcement. 75mph on a two lane road is not uncommon. And I haven't seen a traffic cop since we've been in West Texas anyway.

You see, this is West Texas. There's so much space and so few people that there's no need for all that rules, regulation, and enforcement stuff.

These 8 counties have an area of about 35,000 square miles -- an area about half the size of Wisconsin. The population of these 8 counties is 55,000 people. Doing the math, that gives us a population density of less than 2 people per square mile. How does that compare with other places?

The average state in the USA is about 80 people per square mile. Wyoming comes in at 5.1/sq. mile. Montana at 6.2; both of the Dakotas at about 9.3; Wisconsin at 100/sq. mile; Chicago metro is a mind-boggling 27,000 per square mile. Only Alaska, at about 1.1/sq. mile, has a lower density than this part of Texas.

However, despite the lack of people, I'm sorry to report that it won't be this way for long. The monied-artsy-fartsy set has found West Texas. Yes, it's true. Real estate prices are surprisingly high and on the rise. Every little town has at least one art gallery. There are people who think they're writers, sculptors, and painters, mostly from California, moving in and bringing their inflated home equities and sense of self-worth with them. There are quaint B&B's, little coffee shops and bakeries popping up here and there. These may well be the seeds of this area's destruction. It looks like the beginning of the end.

My advice? Get out here and see this before it's gone.

Well, that's today's report from West Texas. I've suddenly got a hankerin' for a Starbucks. Now if I can just find one.

T

Friday, January 25, 2008

Overview of Big Bend National Park

January 25, 2007 -- Marathon, TX

Hi everyone. I'm back at the PC and pecking away to catch up on the Sabbatical Blog. I'm learning to not like these big breaks in the blog... it's been something like 5 days since my last post. It's far easier to do 5 small daily post than to organize and write one that tries to span 5 days. But the past few days I've had little time to write and I'll just get you all caught up with our goings-on.

This past Monday morning, after talking with some people at breakfast here at Marathon Motel and RV Park, we made the command decision to leave the camper here, right where it sits in Marathon, and "commute" down into the park for our visits. We had planned to move the camper down to the park but we heard places to camp are limited in the park and a couple other nearby options aren't ideal for a number of reasons. So Marathon became our base of operations for the week.

Big Bend National Park, about 40 miles south from here, is a big park at 1,252 square miles. This makes it just a little bigger than Yosemite in California but less than half the size of Yellowstone. It stretches about 50 miles from north to south and about the same from east to west. At the center of the park is a ring of mountains, the Chisos Mountains, that peak at over 7,000 feet. In the center of that ring is a basin with a floor that's at 5,400 feet. Most of these peaks are volcanic in origin and quite dramatic, with many high vertical faces.

Along the southern border of the park is the Rio Grande River. Once a might river with the power to cut through a thousand vertical feet of solid rock, it's now a mere shell of it's former self. According to some sources, it's considered an over-appropriated river -- which means there are more users for the water (irrigation, industrial, and drinking water) than there is water in the river. A Ranger told us it's now carries only one-sixth or less the water it once did. This is not hyperbole... I've seen my little ol' home-town Beaver Dam River carry more water than I observed flowing down the Rio Grande this past week. It was probably illegal, but I personally threw a good sized stone from the bank on the USA side and cleared the water by 20 feet or more. The Rio Grande is not very grand anymore.

In the spaces between all the mountain peaks and the river is desert. Miles and miles of desert containing all sorts of wildlife... javalinas, deer, coyotes, bobcats, all of which we actually saw. There are also active communities of black bear and mountain lion which we didn't see. (Park poster advice: "If confronted by a Mountain Lion, act aggressive, wave your arms, yell... but do not run." -- got that?). The desert is also full of an abundance of plant life... grasses and cacti of all sorts.

Coming from the Midwest and having visited some of the great National Parks in the North, the one thing I missed at first was trees. There aren't any -- except on the sides of a few of the mountain peaks scattered throughout the Park. But I grew to like the open-ness of the Park and the ability to see for 20, 30, even 40 miles in every direction. The desert has a beauty of it's own. It's always changing.

We spent a day at Stillwell Ranch and the Rio Grande Village area, another day in the Chisos Mountain basin, and the third day on a long scenic drive to the Santa Elena Canyon, where we hiked a half-mile or so into the canyon where the nearly vertical walls are 1,500 feet high -- and we were the only ones there at the time. I want to do an additional post or two, a little more in-depth than this one, on a couple experiences we had at the park. They'll have to wait for another day however.

Besides our Park visits, we had to deal with some weather this week, not to mention a cold virus that both of us caught. But the rain eventually subsided and we're on the road to full recovery from that bug.

Tomorrow, Saturday, we're moving a little northwest to the Fort Davis area of Texas, a distance of about 60 miles. The McDonald Observatory is nearby and if we get settled early enough we plan to attend a "star party" they have every Saturday night. If I don't post something tomorrow, I will Sunday for sure.

More later.

T

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Heading into Big Bend National Park

January 20, 2008 -- Marathon Motel and RV Park in Marathon, TX

For the next few days, starting tomorrow, Monday, we're going to be in and around Big Bend National Park. We're told there is NO cell phone coverage and it's unlikely we'll be able to connect to the internet. We will attempt to check our cell phone voice messages once a day or so by land-line phone.

Blog updates and additions to our photo collection will have to wait until we're out of the park later in the week.

Thanks to all of you who check in on our website occasionally. We're doing this website and blog to keep all of you informed, entertained, and to create a lasting documentation of our travels. Often, it's your kind comments and feedback that motivate us to keep it up and to strive to do a better job.

We'll be back later in the week.

T & D

Yikes! 5.9f Sunday Morning Degrees

Sunday, January 20, 2008 -- Marathon Motel and RV Park in Marathon, TX

That's not a typo in the headline... that's really a little dot between the 5 and the 9. It was actually 5.9f degrees at one point here in Marathon last night. The forecast, which I follow a couple times daily, was for 18f in this part of Texas. 18f would have been an acceptable number... the same temp as the night before and the coldest we would have experienced since starting this adventure last summer. I was confident we could handle 18f and we were ready to give it a try. Alpine, a larger town to the west and 500 feet higher in elevation, recorded an overnight low of 23f. Other places in West Texas were also in the 20's. But not here in old Marathon. No sir! We had 5.9f -- I don't know why. It probably had to do with the elevation (over 4,000 ft.), the lack of any humidity in the air, the lack of any wind, and the clear skies... any heat just radiates out into space. I never expected to encounter a single digit temperature for as long as we do this fulltiming thing. What's the old adage? ... Never say never?

So how'd the camper do at those extreme lower temps? As I'm writing this at 8am the following morning, I'm not aware of any problems. The biggest issue with sub-freezing temperatures is our water system. When we expect the temperature to drop below freezing we disconnect and stow the fresh water hose that connects the camper to an outside water source and live off our on-board tank in the "basement". That area, which contains the big storage bins, the plumbing, and water tanks, is heated. As long as the furnace is running that area is kept relatively warm. For me, the biggest unknown is the ability of the water lines that run to the back of the camper for the clothes washer to handle extreme low temps.

We brought along a wireless thermometer that we used around the house in Geneva. There are three remote sensing units that transmit the temperature wirelessly to the main unit, which we keep in the camper. One sensing unit is dedicated to outside air temperature. We place it outside, somewhere out of the sun and close to the camper, and try to remember to take it along when we go. The second unit is in the basement so I can monitor the temperature down there. The third unit is in the water service bay, the area through which all inbound and outbound water goes. This area is a little more open to the outside due to some passageways for system drains. Last night the temperature in the water service bay dropped into the upper 30's while the rest of the basement was in the low to mid 50's. The low temp in the water service bay concerned me. I wasn't going to get any sleep without doing something about it. But what?

Coming from the frigid north, I've heard of people using a light bulb to warm a small area. Merely touching a glowing 60 watter reminds one of the inefficiency of incandescent light bulbs -- only a small amount of energy used by the bulb turns into usable light. The rest turns to heat.

The problem last night was that I didn't have a socket and bulb that could be plugged into an extension cord and placed in the water service bay to help maintain a little higher temp. The solution, after some considerable creative thinking, was Dar's electric curling iron... that appliance that produces those attractive curls in her hair. It consumes 40 watts of power and emits only heat. Perfect. So at 1:00am, I'm outside in single digit temps, plugging in a curling iron and placing it safely in the water service bay. It worked. The temp in the water bay started a slow climb. And I got some sleep.

Until last night, the lowest temperature we've endured with the camper, if I remember right, was 28f. We knew it was going to be colder as we moved west and were looking forward to seeing how the camper did with lower temps. We can now check that experience off our list of to-dos. I think I'll sleep better the next time, but hopefully there won't be too many more in the single digits.

T

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Roy Bean and the Drive to Marathon

January 19, 2008 -- Marathon Motel and RV Park in Marathon, TX.

Just up the road about 20 miles from Seminole Canyon State Park is the town of Langtry, TX. Well, to call it a town is perhaps an overstatement. It's about a mile off US Hwy 90 and only a short walk from the Rio Grande River, and if it weren't for people like me, who like the 1972 John Huston film "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (which starred Paul Newman), I don't think anyone would voluntarily slow down to make the turn into town.

In fact, there was a character by the name of Roy Bean who lived out in these parts during the 1880's and 1890's. It was a wild and rugged time with the main economic activity of the area involving the building and operation of the second transcontinental railroad -- The Southern Pacific. He was a store owner and saloon-keeper who was appointed justice-of-the-peace to help keep a little order in a largely lawless land.

Bean held court in his saloon and often employed bar patrons as the jury. He had no jail so all guilty sentences were resolved with fines -- fines that Bean kept. He charged $5 for a marriage and ended every ceremony with "and may God have mercy on your soul." There's something you gotta like about this guy!

During the building of the first railroad high-bridge over the Pecos River about 20 miles from Langtry, an accident caused 10 men to fall from the structure. Bean was called out for an inquest on the incident and ruled that all 10 had died even though 3 of the 10 had survived. He ruled the other 3 were going to die anyway, and he didn't want to make the long trip from Langtry a second time. In fact, the 3 survivors recovered and had a story to tell which added to the lore surrounding this colorful character.

Bean called his saloon and billiard hall the "Jersey Lilly", in honor of Miss Lillie Langtry, the actress and "Paris Hilton" of her day. Bean never actually met her, but was clearly infatuated with her. There's some dispute about the name of the town but evidence suggests that it was named after a railroad engineer with the last name of Langtry. Probably a coincidence.

The original "Jersey Lilly", which Bean did name for Lillie Langtry, still exists as does Beans last home which he called the "Opera House". After about an hour and a few photos for posterity, we were back on the road with Dar behind the wheel.

Our objective was Marathon but we had no reservation anywhere. In Marathon we could go south, into the Big Bend Park area, or west, to Alpine, a larger town with more RV Park opportunities, or we could stay right there in Marathon if we found something we liked.

As we plied west the land becomes more arid and desolate. Evidence of human activity becomes increasingly sparse. Didn't even see many cattle on the range. The 100 miles to our destination is almost all uphill -- we left Langtry at about 1400 feet and climbed to 4200 feet at Marathon. The bus' mileage suffered by the double whammy of the climb and a steady headwind.

At Marathon we found a wonderful little RV Park that co-exists with a small motel. The Marathon Motel and RV Park is a place that makes up with soul what it lacks in amenities. The people who own and operate the place are friendly and helpful. They have a wonderful small cafe that serves a great breakfast. They have an outdoor fireplace in a neat little courtyard and encourage patrons to come on down every evening and warm up by the fire while watching the sun set behind the Del Norte Mountains. We did just that and met another couple with an interesting story. Sitting at the fire, protected by the walls of the courtyard, it didn't feel like the 20f degrees it was when we finally retired to the camper.

We originally planned to stay here only one night and head down to Big Bend on Sunday. But the combination of friendliness, good internet connection, and cable TV so we can see the Packer game on Sunday night made it necessary for us to stay an extra day. We're now leaving for Big Bend on Monday morning.

Stay warm everyone.

T

Friday, January 18, 2008

Seminole Canyon

January 18, 2008 -- Seminole Canyon State Park near Comstock, TX

Sometime around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, some native hunter/gatherer Indians would occasionally occupy large natural limestone shelters created by flash-flood waters at bends in various canyons near here. These shelter areas were carved out of the relatively soft limestone by water washing away the softer lower portions of the rock walls leaving an over-hanging upper portion that served as a protective roof. While occupying these spaces, some of these natives got a little creative, mixed natural pigments into paints, and painted figures on the walls and ceilings of many of these shelters around this area of Texas and Mexico. These paintings, or pictographs, are very old and supposed to represent things that were important to these people.

In order to protect these important early works of art, the State of Texas purchased some of the lands around Seminole Canyon in an area along the Rio Grande River just to the west of the junction with the Pecos River. The state added a visitor center, museum, guided tours and longer hikes, and an RV park and campground. We stayed here for two nights.

On one level, I do appreciate the historic nature of ancient pictographs like these. I also like to listen to the interpretations of the experts about what they think the pictures represent, who did them, and why. For example, this group of ancient peoples is thought to have only spent an hour or two a day gathering and preparing enough food for the day. Once that was done, they had a lot of time to spend on other activities. There were no books to read, no TV to watch, no beer to drink, so what's there to do? Here, some experts tell us that some of the best, brightest, and more artistic members of the tribe fulfilled a need to communicate by collecting natural pigments and dies, carefully mixing them with exotic binders and carriers to make a primitive paint, and making a deliberate, serious effort to produce the finest artwork of the day. They wanted to reach out to future generations and tell us about their society and spirituality. How they believe their shaman, or sorcerers, who are designated by the tribe to travel to the invisible spirit world and bring back information that will make life easier for the tribe.

But maybe there's another possibility. Ma Indian and Pa Indian are having a pretty good life for the time. Food's relatively abundant but a daily chore nonetheless. They've decided to move into this limestone shelter near a bend in the canyon and close to the big river. The biggest problem they have is their adopted teenage son, Uggah. He's just "not getting it", accorrding to his Mom. He's spending a lot of time laying around the shelter, chewing on Yucca beans and another mind-altering plant root. He doesn't help with food gathering and he refuses to hunt. One day, while Pa Indian is out hunting rabbits and Ma Indian is out gathering roots, Uggah finds some leftovers from Ma Indian's dinner the previous night. It was some kind of bean dish mixed with meat fat. Well, before you know it, Uggah, in a drug induced stuppor, has used Ma's bean dish to paint all kinds of things on the walls and ceilings of the shelter. When Pa Indian arrives home after a long day on the trail, sees Ma Indian crying, and the walls defaced with horrible demonic images, he's finally had enough. Uggah is sent away -- out of the clan. Of course, he finds another clan at the next limestone shelter and the cycle starts again. Maybe it didn't happen this way, but who's to say?

Besides the history, we did also enjoy the hilltop on which we parked the camper. We could see for miles around both the USA and Mexico. The clear crisp dry air makes it possible to see sharply all the way to the horizon. As the sun sets the reddish brightness slowly gives way to a cloud of stars... millions of light specks... that you never get a chance to see in the big city. This could be the view that motivated those ancient native Indians to think larger than their simple lives.

T

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Headlights

January 16, 2007 -- Last night at Braunig Lake RV Park in San Antonio, TX

The bus has been the our focus the past few days. As you've probably read in a previous blog posting we found a problem with our headlights during a light check one morning a month or more ago. The low-beams don't stay on reliably. Even though the headlight switch is on, they'll go off and come on intermittently. It's not been a problem up to this point as we haven't had to travel at night yet. But that day will come and, after all, isn't this one of those basic systems, like brakes and the I.R.S., that you trust will always work and will always be there when you need them?

To make a long story short, the problem turned out to be the high beam/low beam switch in the steering column. After some difficulty in finding the exact cause of the problem, and the manufacturer shipping the wrong part once, we finally resolved the issue and have full, reliable headlights once again. When the bus wasn't in the shop, we were cooling our heels at the ol' RV Park getting caught up on some basic chores... laundry, cleaning, paperwork, bills, website, blogs, and keeping up with Hillary's latest conspiracy theory. But as of this afternoon, the lights are working and both Dar and I are smiling, ready to move on with our adventure.

Tomorrow, Thursday the 17th, we leave San Antonio and head west on US Hwy 90 toward Del Rio. Most of the time up to now we've made reservations as we move from one place to the next. Tomorrow will be different... no reservations and we really don't know how far we'll get before we stop for the night. Many fulltimers travel this way and we thought it's time we get in that mode as it enhances spontaneity and gives you more options during your travel day. Besides, we and the bus are a little like the 800 pound gorilla.... where does he sleep?.... anywhere he wants!

Our objective within the next two or three days is to make it to Big Bend National Park. If you'd look at our map page, you'd see a big dip in the blue line that represents our travel plan. The bottom of that dip, right along the southern border of Texas and the USA, is the park. It's supposed to be a scenic feast and a photographers dream. The only downside is that it's been colder than a well-diggers, ah, rear-end. After a few days in that area we'll try to watch the weather forecast and pick a few back-to-back sunny days to make the run through New Mexico and down, into Arizona.

So off we go, with a full diesel fuel tank, a full load of LP gas, and fully charged batteries. I'm told both internet and cell phone coverage is very spotty. It may be a few days before I can update anything.

Celebrate Life!

T

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Everybody's Somebody in Luckenbach

Sunday, January 13, 2008 -- Braunig Lake RV Park in San Antonio, TX

The area North and West of San Antonio, and West of Austin, is referred to as The Texas Hill Country. In stark contrast to the broad coastal plain to the east and south, the rugged and dry limestone hills cover an area roughly half the size of Wisconsin and are part of the transition between the wetter areas to the east and the arid west. There's little soil to absorb rainfall when it does occur and flashfloods are not unusual. In some ways it looks desolate and forbidding; in other ways, strangely attractive. I found the area comfortable, even homey, and very scenic.

This past Sunday, the 13th, we trekked north through the Hill Country about 60 miles to the town of Johnson City. This is the hometown of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th President of the USA. Johnson City got it's name from an ancestor of Lyndon's back in the middle 1800's. The Johnson Family has been in these parts since those days.

The visitor center for the LBJ National Historical Park is in Johnson City, and includes his boyhood home and the Johnson Settlement which includes the log cabin, barn, cooler house, and windmill belonging to Lyndon's Grandfather and Great Uncle back in the 1860's. Click here to learn more about Johnson's ancestors and his childhood.

http://www.nps.gov/lyjo/planyourvisit/boyhoodhome.htm

After the Johnson City portion of this tour, we headed west on State Hwy 290 toward Stillwell. The LBJ Ranch and Texas Whitehouse is along the banks of the Pedernales River on the North side off the road about 14 miles out of Johnson City. There's no public access to the Ranch -- but there is a 1-1/2 hour tour that starts at the LBJ State Park just across the highway from the Ranch. We took the tour.

The tour guide was a local retired history teacher whose family has been on the same land for 5 generations. He was of German heritage (a real, live German-Texan) and was full of information, little background stories, the how's and why's of the ranching business, and personal accounts of his experiences with Lady Bird Johnson, who he met a number of times. He was delightful and we could have listened for hours more; it just makes the experience so much more real. Thoroughly enjoyable.

The LBJ ranch house, known during his term as the Texas White House, is a modest 8,000 square foot house that had been added onto a number of times since Johnson purchased the place from his aunt in 1951. We weren't able to go inside yet, but it's supposed to be very comfortable and not pretentious at all. There is still evidence around the property, although abandoned, of Secret Service security who were on-duty and protecting Lady Bird until her death this past July. The house is a very comfortable-looking place in a relaxed country setting. There are two 300 year old Live Oak Trees that grace the front lawn. You can almost picture old LBJ sitting there under those trees surrounded by heads-of-state, legislators, cabinet officers, or his family.

The ranch was once well over 2000 acres but chunks have been sold off and the National Park Service now has about 700 acres. Johnson's request is that it be preserved as a working ranch so the children of the USA can experience that lifestyle. There are a number of National Park Volunteers, people who live fulltime in their RV, who are living and working on the property for a few months at a time. Who knows, maybe at some point in the future we'll do something like this too.

The next stop on the days tour was Luckenbach, Texas, the tiny town memorialized by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in 1977 in the song "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)". Word of mouth and a little research told us that Sunday afternoon was the best day to visit. And what a visit it was.

The town has a purported population of 3 and it's tag-line is "Everybody's Somebody in Luckenbach". According to Wikipedia:
Its oldest building is a combination general store and saloon opened in 1849 by Minna Engel, whose father was an itinerant preacher from Germany. The community, first named Grape Creek, was later named after Minna's husband, Carl Albert Luckenbach, who was then her fiance; they would later move to another town which became Albert, Texas. Luckenbach was first established as a community trading post and was one of the few that never broke a peace treaty with the Comanche Indians, with whom they bartered and traded.

Citizens of the town claimed one of them had launched the first airplane years before the Wright Brothers.

Its population increased to a high of 492 in 1904, but by the 1960s, Luckenbach was almost a ghost town.

An ad in the paper offering "town — pop. 3 — for sale" led Hondo Crouch, rancher and Texas folklorist, to buy Luckenbach for $30,000 in 1970, in partnership with Kathy Morgan and actor Guich Koock. While modern-day Luckenbach is part of Fredericksburg, Hondo used the town's rights as a municipality to govern the dance hall as he saw fit.

Today, a favorite destination of motorcyclists from all over Texas and a few motorists like us, it's a great place to relax, buy a T-shirt in the General Store, mail a letter at the Post Office in the General Store, drink beer in the bar in the General Store, and listen to local musicians "jam" while drinking beer in the bar in the General Store. We did all of these and more. It's not an easy place to find as it's tucked away off the main road on a small side-road, and then off the side-road on a 'sider-road". Due to it's popularity with a certain sub-culture, signs leading travelers to Luckenbach are stolen with such regularity that they've simply given up trying to replace them. You just have to feel your way here with gut-level instincts.

In addition to the General Store, the only other structures of note are the Dance Hall and the outhouse/toilet facility that's so important when there's a lot of beer-drinking going on. In Texas, we're learning that people pretty much do what they want to do, and if the outhouse isn't close by, convenient, and large enough, well, let's just say it wouldn't be good for Luckenbach.

This particular Sunday there were a couple local bands on stage in the Dance Hall. We didn't see much dancing going on, but the music was very good. You can buy food -- hot dogs, hamburgers, curly fries, and brats -- yes, brats. This part of Texas around Fredericksburg is proud of it's German heritage.

Originally, we wanted to spend a little time driving around Fredericksburg, TX which is supposed to be a quaint small town of about 12,000 people. But we relaxed too much in Luckenbach so that'll have to wait for another day.

Here's a though for the day (from a sign on the wall of the Luckenbach General Store): "I didn't claw my way to the top of the food chain to eat vegetables"

T

Big Texas

Tuesday, January 15, 2008 -- Braunig Lake RV Park in San Antonio, TX

Texas is Big, with a capital "B". As a small town boy from Wisconsin, I grew up with a distance scale that had important things just an hour or less away. Milwaukee and Madison, the towns where our TV broadcasts originated, were both an hour away, more or less. That exotic resort town of Wisconsin Dells was also about an hour from home. Sometimes we went shopping or visiting relatives in Fond Du Lac -- yup, an hour or so away. My world, even as a young teen, was an hour or so in any direction.

Now compare that with some facts from Texas:

* if you get up one morning in Dallas and start driving west, after three long hours on the road you'll find yourself coming into Abilene. As you exit to grab a quick lunch, confident you're making good progress, you see a sign that says you're still 430 miles from El Paso -- more than 7 hours away at 60mph -- and you'll still be in Texas at the end of the day.

* Texas is so large in its east-west expanse that El Paso, TX, in the western corner of the state, is closer to San Diego, CA than to Beaumont, TX near the Louisiana state line.

* Beaumont, TX in turn, is closer to Jacksonville, FL than it is to El Paso.

* Texarkana, TX in the northeastern corner of the state, is closer to Chicago, IL than it is to El Paso.

* The north-south expanse is similarly impressive; Dalhart, TX and other communities in the northern corner of the state are closer to the state capitals of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Wyoming than they are to Austin, TX, their own state capital.

But if you ever want to frustrate a Texan who likes to talk about how big Texas is, just tell him that we could divide Alaska in half and make Texas the third largest state.

T

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Downtown San Antonio

January 13, 2008 -- Braunig Lake RV Park in San Antonio, TX

Our excursion to downtown San Antonio ended as daylight faded and the city lights were coming on. We decided to take a table on a balcony overlooking the River Walk, order a couple martinis, watch people go by, and simply relax and enjoy the end of the day. I have this love/hate thing with crowds. I hate standing in lines, waiting, getting pushed, and dealing with rudeness. Driving in heavy traffic is just the mechanized version of the same thing. I hate it. But I do like being around other people -- even lots of other people -- as long as it's a more relaxed setting. There's an energy that comes from being around others, talking, laughing, and making wise-cracks, as long as there's a common goal of enjoyment, a degree of civility, and everyone can keep their competitive natures in check. As the day ended today, we had that. Of course, a couple jiggers of gin didn't hurt.

After our early morning exercise walk, we headed for downtown. San Antonio is supposed to be the second largest city in the state behind Houston. But how, you say, can little ol' San Anton be larger than say Dallas? Or Fort Worth? The answer to that question is "suburbs"... Dallas has many and San Antonio has virtually none. Dallas is about 340 square miles surrounded by dozens of suburban communities. San Antonio is 407 square miles with very few surrounding suburbs. Our RV Park feels like it's well away from the city and there are no residential communities as far as I can see, but we're in the city limits. So San Antonio feels like a much smaller town to me than it should, based on it's population of 1.2 million. The heart of downtown is only 10 minutes away from our RV Park. It didn't take long to get ourselves downtown and parked. After a short jaunt we were at The Alamo.

The Alamo was originally the first Mission started in this area by the Franciscans around 1720. It was then known as Mission San Antonio de Valero. It evolved but didn't appear to reach the same level of development as some of the other Missions we visited a few miles to the South. For example, the church never had a completed roof on it during it's Mission years. The story goes that these Missions had a stone mason around to direct the more complicated building tasks -- like building an arched or barrel roof on a church this size. According to some, the stone mason at this place became smitten with a young women in the community, but she was already married. It seems he was laying more than stone. Well love works in strange and sometimes tragic ways, and this stone mason ended up killing the woman's husband. He had to leave town to avoid the wrath of the rest of the neighborhood, and the poor old Mission never got another stone mason to finish the church.

This Mission was dissolved in the late 1700's, and the land given to the natives that had been living and training there. The name "The Alamo" came from a name given the place during a Mexican occupation some years later. In the early 1800's San Antonio, the community, continued to grow around the old Mission grounds, as did the struggle for independence from Mexico. It all culminated in 1836 when the fateful battle at The Alamo took place, and a few weeks later Santa Ana was defeated at San Jacinto by Sam Houston, which led to an Independent Republic of Texas.

The Alamo is now under the permanent oversight of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. It's operated as a shrine to the people who died here and a monument to the struggle for independence. It's role as a Mission is minimized and under-played. The grounds have been heavily modernized and museum-ized. Only the church building, which now, finally, sports a real poured concrete roof, and a portion of the barracks and convento are, in part, original. No interior photography of any kind is permitted, but Dar and her rebel nature got us a few pictures for our album before she was nearly cuffed and carted off for questioning. It's a place that should be visited when in San Antonio.

Next on the list was the River Walk, a developed area of restaurants, shops, bars, and hotels along both sides of a bend in the San Antonio River as it flows through downtown. It's an easy walk of just a couple blocks from The Alamo. Originally planned in the 1920's by dreamer and architect Robert Hugman, rejection and a great depression delayed any work on the idea until the late 1930's, and then WWII stopped further work until the late 40's. Through the 50's and early 60's it lingered and wasn't appreciated or patronized. But all that changed with the surge of development prior to HemisFair '68 --the 1968 World's Fair -- that turned this place into one of the top Texas tourist attractions.

The River Walk is a level below street-level. There are no cars or street traffic hassling you as you traverse the paved paths and walkways that go past dozens of establishments and street-vendors of all kinds. In some ways it seems separated from the city. This weekend was "Mud Festival" -- the celebration of water returning to the river after the annual draw-down and clean-up of all the flotsam and jetsam that accumulates when this many people are this close to a waterway for a full year. We're happy to report that the water is, in fact, back. We also took a 30 minute guided boat tour that provides a nice overview and some history.

Downtown San Antonio is a first-rate place and we recommend it.

T

Friday, January 11, 2008

More San Antonio Missions

January 12, 2008 -- Braunig Lake RV Park in San Antonio, TX

During the 18th century, Spain had possession of much of the Americas, including most of what is now the USA west of the Mississippi River. This was an immense geography populated only by a wide variety of native American Indians. Realizing the only way they'd have a chance to maintain control of these far-off and desolate lands, Spain sent forth Franciscan Friars into the new world to indoctrinate the natives in the religion and culture of the Spanish people. The thought was that since there are no native Spaniards to populate and control their lands in America, they'd create "Spaniards" from the natives. Thus, in the early 1700's, missions sprang up throughout the Spanish west. There were many failures and some successes, but by the mid-1700's there were 5 successful mission communities along the banks of the San Antonio River in what is today the City of San Antonio. They all used the San Antonio river as their source of water and crop irrigation -- so important in this naturally dry climate; and they were far enough apart so each had its own fields and livestock ranches, but close enough for a degree of common defense. From the northernmost to the southernmost was a distance of less than 10 miles.

The native American Indians that were drawn to these Missions were largely nomadic hunter-gatherers, living off the land and moving from place to place as they needed new sources of food. They were mostly peaceful people, but were beginning to feel pressure from other more aggressive Indian Tribes, such as the Apache and Comanche, who themselves were feeling pressure from the westward movement of civilization. The missions offered a relatively safe haven from the marauding tribes, and, because each mission was a self-sustaining community, they offered a steady supply of food. The trade-off was that they had to become Catholic, the religion of Spain, and they had to learn the Spanish language, and Spanish culture, skills, and crafts.

A Mission compound was basically a fort, a small community surrounded by walls for protection and defense. Often, the walls of the compound included rooms that housed the American Indians and their families. Inside the compound was a church, a convento (living quarters for the friars), and buildings for food storage and craft shops. The large open area in the middle of the compound was used for daily living, food preparation, gatherings, and probably a dozen other things. As I wrote earlier, each of these missions was a self-sustaining and independent community that needed very little from the outside world.

At their height, each mission had about 300 American Indians, only 2 or 3 Franciscan Friars, perhaps a couple Spanish soldiers for defense, and a handful of artisans and craftsmen. The objective was to teach the American Indians not only religion and a culture, but skills necessary for them to be independent once their training was done.

The mission period lasted for almost 100 years, from the 1720's to the 1820's. As time went on age and the elements took their toll on the Missions. The walls and buildings were often vandalized for their building materials. In the early 1900's, the historic value of these places began to be appreciated and efforts to preserve and reconstruct them began. During the depression the WPA did a lot of work here.

Today, 4 of the 5 historic missions are called the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park and are administered by the National Park Service. They are Mission Conception, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan, and Mission Espada. The 5th, Mission San Antonio de Valero, is known today as The Alamo, and is administered by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

During the past two afternoons, Dar and I visited each of the 4 missions of the Historical Park. Most of them are heavily reconstructed, but portions of original structures do exist. The best preserved mission building is the church at the Mission Concepcion which is 250 years old and almost all original. There are some original frescos on the walls and ceilings as a bonus to visitors who care enough to look for them.

The Missions, in the afternoon sunlight of South Texas, are very photogenic. We'll pop some photos into an online album for you to see.

Sorry for the History Lesson. Class dismissed.

T

San Antonio Area

January 11, 2008 -- Braunig Lake RV Park in San Antonio, TX

This writer has a lot of catching up to do. I just looked at my last post and it was 5 days ago -- not acceptable! I'll try to pick up the pace a little.

In my last post I wrote about our visits to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and the Fulton Mansion. On January 6th, we took our bikes back to Aransas and rode the entire 17 mile loop through the refuge. Due to the relatively high winds we probably didn't see nearly as much wildlife as we would have if it were calmer. But we did see a number of 'gators, including a young one only a couple feet long and a much older one that was something like 10 or 12 feet long. Unfortunately, I didn't bring a measuring tape along so Dar could get the exact length. There are a couple pictures of these guys in our online photo collection.

Based on our limited experience it seems armadillos are one of the most common animals at the Aransas Refuge. They're all over. On our bike ride, Dar didn't see one that was right on the edge of the road until she was almost past it. Hitting a 'dillo with a bike would probably be a send a rider sprawling. We also saw a couple little snakes crawling across the road. I stopped to check them out. When it comes to snakes my courage is inversely proportional with the size of the snake, and these were pretty small. I'm not sure which of the more than 40 types that inhabit the park it was, but this little guy would stop crawling as I got closer, watch me carefully, and when I got too close would jump up, not at me just into the air, and roll over like he was dead. Probably an innate defense mechanism of some kind.

The following day, Monday the 7th, we spent most of the day putting the bus back together again as we prepared for travel the next day. There was also a lot of interaction with our neighbors. Our last "happy hour" with them was promptly at 4pm and then we went out to dinner with new friends Bill & Sue at Charlotte Plummers, a nice seafood restaurant right along the bay in Fulton. From our table along the bayside windows we soaked in the view of the bay and all the fishing boats in the harbor. I think it'll leave an impression that'll last until we return. I've said this before but we really grew to like the Rockport area.

Tuesday was moving day and we jumped out of bed about 8am. Since the move was only about 160 miles there was little urgency to get going. And, of course, the stream of neighbors coming over during the morning to say good-bye, taking pictures of each other, exchanging contact information, and all that... it was hard to stay on task and get everything done smoothly. But we enjoyed the experience and finally got on the road about 11:30am... just a half hour later than we thought.

Driving north, uphill, and into a stiff wind, the bus performed flawlessly. Dar drove a little over half the way. We arrived at Braunig Lake RV Park, on the south edge of San Antonio right along I-37, about 3pm. After checking in and parking the bus we drove the car a little further into town and had dinner at a Chili's Restaurant. I'll tell you what, I've been to Chili's all over this land, and they have the best chips & salsa you can find anywhere. They're thin, not too salty, and usually still warm. We had way too many but couldn't help ourselves.

The following day, Wednesday, was spent at Holt Cat. Our bus has a Spartan chassis (the frame, engine, transmission, axles, etc -- the "truck" that the coach is built around). Holt Cat is a Spartan Service & Warranty Center and we were there to have a headlight glitch looked at and repaired. The problem is this: the low-beam headlights don't stay on reliably. Up to this point we haven't driven much at night so the problem wasn't recognized until during a pre-move light check a month or two ago. I don't know how long the bus has had this problem but it's got to get fixed. Headlights are one of those things like brakes that just have to work all the time. A very nice Holt service tech ran some tests, consulted with Spartan, and, at this point, we're going back in on Monday to confirm what they think -- that a little electronic "black box" isn't working right and will have to be replaced. Once they confirm the fault, a new part will be air-freighted down and will be installed on Tuesday.

Yesterday, Thursday, we drove The Mission Trail and visited two of the 5 historic missions established by the Franciscans in the mid-1700's. These five missions were all built along the banks off the San Antonio River. The first mission built was Mission San Antonio Valero -- known today as The Alamo. We didn't visit The Alamo yesterday, but did see Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission San Jose. Both are currently active Catholic churches with services every Sunday. Of the 5 missions along the trail, all but The Alamo are part of the National Park Service. These historic places have been heavily reconstructed, with much of the work done by the WPA during the depression. They provide a good glimpse into the life and culture of the time as the Spanish indoctrinated the native peoples of the southern plains into the ways of the European West.

Looking ahead, we may visit an additional mission this afternoon. On Saturday we'd like to do downtown San Antonio and visit The Alamo. Then Sunday we hope to head north about 60 miles to see the LBJ Ranch and National Historic Park in Johnson City, the quaint German town of Fredericksburg, and Luckenbach Texas. So much to do and time just flies by.

T

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

January 6, 2008 -- Sandollar Resort near Rockport, TX

There are only maybe three places in the continental USA where a person can get, more or less, away from winter: Southern Florida, South Texas, and parts of the Southwest. We haven't spent a winter in Florida yet but have heard that it can be very crowded and very expensive. The Southwest can be crowded and expensive (near San Diego or Los Angles), it can be desolate and dusty (in the desert of Southwestern Arizona), and it can be cold and wet, as it was this year. South Texas varies from year to year as well, but our first experience with wintering in a warmer place has been a good one. Both of us really like the Rockport area. It's hard to beat the weather. People are very friendly, there's great fresh seafood, it feels laid-back and comfortable. I think we'll be back again.

A couple days ago we drove over to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. This place is only about 20 miles from our camper the way the pelican flies, but about twice that far by car. The Refuge is 115,000 acres of grasslands, live oaks, redbay thickets, tidal marshes, and sloughs. Over the years storms and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico have shaped this land which is now home to an unbelievable variety of birds, reptiles, and mammals. On the way into the park, before we were even there, we saw what we thought was a small cat or something running up the side of the road ahead of our car. It turned out to be a little black pig! Maybe "piglet" would be a more accurate term since it wasn't very big. We paced it as it slowly ran up the side of the road, long enough to get a picture of it.


During the few hours we spent in the park we saw more wild hogs (what that little guy turned out to be), whitetail deer, armadillos, and too many types of birds to mention. There are about 500 Whooping Cranes here, one of the largest accumulations of this endangered species that exists anywhere in the world. Also of note, there are alligators in the park although we didn't see any during our first visit. Additionally I'm happy to report we didn't see any of the more than 40 types of snakes that slither around the park, 5 of which are poisonous. There's a 16 mile driving loop with many pull-offs and hiking trails, so many opportunities to get out of the car and commune with nature.

The out-of-the-way location of the park reduces the pressure from people that only want to quickly add it to their list of places they can say they've been to -- those that make the long drive back into the park are the ones that really want to be there. So there's very little pressure from others and often we were the only ones on a walking trail. I'm sure there are many more animals watching us than the other way around. I really enjoy watching critters in a natural setting and I'd highly recommend this place to anyone who feels the same way.

Yesterday, Saturday, we visited the Fulton Mansion. Just a few blocks from our camper and right along the shore of the bay, this house was the home of a George Fulton and his family during the late 1800's. It isn't particularily large, as mansions go, but is notable for the quality of workmanship and it was the first house in the area that had running water, a gas lighting, and central heat. It was built from wood shipped in by boat from Louisiana. The walls, both exterior and interior, are a foot thick and are solid wood -- no spaces between wooden studs here. It was built in the same manner they used to build grain elevators in the Midwest years ago... boards laid flat, stacked up, and nailed together... board on board. The floors are also solid wood with a thin layer of shell-crete (concrete with crushed seashell aggregate) over the top. To say this place is solid is somewhat of an understatement. They say there's enough wood in this house to build a small modern subdivision. It has withstood hurricanes, including one with a storm-surge that filled the first floor with 6 feet of seawater and a small boat through the front door.

After the owners died, the remaining family sold the place and, after a few more years as a private residence, it sat vacant for many years, was turned into a restaurant during the 50's and even a trailer park at one point. In 1976 the State of Texas purchased the property and restored it to it's former grandeur. A visit to the mansion is a good way to kill a couple hours and learn a little along the way.

We're getting our minds around the idea that we're leaving here in a few days. But adventure awaits over the next hill. Today, Sunday, we're going back to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge -- but this time with our bikes. We're planning to bike the 16 mile loop.

T

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Cool Start to the New Year

January 3, 2008 -- Sandollar Resort near Rockport, TX

A cold front blew across the region New Years Eve and we've had morning lows near freezing the past couple of days. But the days redeem themselves with light winds and mostly sunny skies, and highs around 60. Compared to the beating much of the rest of the country is taking this winter, you'll hear no complaints from this guy.

We normally don't do much on New Years Eve. But this year we were torn between going with one group of neighbors to a nearby retirement community dance (bring your own bottle, snacks, oxygen) or walking with another group down to the neighborhood bar -- Alice Faye's on the Bay -- complete with rock band, crowds, bawdiness, and fun. So, in typical Midwest fashion, we ended up doing both. Dar likes all kind of dance and had a good number of turns on the floor at both places.

Getting home at 2am, at least for us, means it's going to be late the next morning before we're awake and taking nourishment. So New Years Day was a hang around the camper day. Dar rolled herself out of bed early enough to see the Rose Bowl Parade -- a "must do" every year for her. And we did get up the energy for an hour-long vigorous walk along Rockport Beach during the afternoon. I normally don't spend much time watching TV sports but I did tune in to the Rose Bowl game -- until it just became too painful to watch.

Rockport is home of The Texas Maritime Museum. It's a small but very well done museum focusing on the importance of the Gulf to the State of Texas. The centerpiece exhibit is about a ship named La Belle, which sank in 1684 in Matagorda Bay, just to the north of where we're staying. The La Belle was part of an expedition of four French ships belonging to Robert de La Salle, a French Explorer, on a quest to find the mouth of the Mississippi River. La Salle was a harsh taskmaster and poor leader, and apparently a not too talented navigator based on the fact that he missed the big river by over 400 miles. Eventually the entire expedition failed and La Salle was shot by his own crew. The La Belle sank in minutes after it became grounded and was quickly filled and covered with silt, which preserved it's contents for over 300 years. In 1995, a team of Texas State Archaeologists found the wreck and recovered millions of artifacts, many in amazingly good condition. The silt preserves material so well that even full coils of rope were found -- an extremely unusual find in shipwrecks. Many of the artifacts from La Belle are on display here.

An interesting tidbit of knowledge I picked up at the museum was on the subject of navigation. In those early sailing days, determining your precise location on the planet was not an easy task. By measuring the angle of certain celestial bodies above the horizon, finding your latitude -- your north/south position -- was more precise than determining your longitude -- your east/west position. A skilled navigator could fix a latitudinal position to within 20 miles or so, but the accuracy of a longitudinal position was far less accurate. Perhaps that's why La Salle sailed past the mouth of the Mississippi and ended up in Texas.

I think we've got a little more of our own exploration of the area to do today. Hopefully our navigational skills are better than La Salle's. And it's probably a good thing our GPS unit wasn't made in France.

T