Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ready to Move

written Sunday, November 30, 2008
near Texarkana, TX

If we accomplished nothing else during our stay in Texarkana it was to confirm that this "Ark-La-Tex" area (as they commonly refer to it) isn't going to be on our short-list of places to live someday. There's just nothing we saw that would cause us to delay leaving. A few years ago Mac Davis wrote a song about Lubbock TX that applies here, if I may paraphrase: "Happiness is Texarkana in my rear view mirror."

Yesterday, Saturday, the weather broke and a bad case of bus-house fever drove us out on a short exploration of the area. Just south of our RV Park is the Wright Patman Dam and Lake, another COE project. There are 4 COE campgrounds around the lake, one of which is top-notch and will be on our list of places to stay if we ever break down passing through this area in the future. We also explored the Dam, as I find these massive structures amazing in their scale and the amount of effort expended to build them. They will certainly be among those enduring things that'll survive our civilzation and give future archeologists something to study and wonder about.

The drive around Texarkana was just depressing. On the way into the central downtown area on Hwy 59 and 93, mostly the south side of town, there were more abandoned structures than inhabited ones. The lucky ones were boarded up, but all in various stages of deterioration -- eroding monuments to the natural law that things tend to move from a state of order to a state of disorder.

We'd heard about the Texarkana Post Office -- it's supposed to be the only Post Office in the United States that straddles a state line and has two zip codes. Since it's the main tourist attraction in the area we had to see it. It's downtown, right in the middle of Stateline Blvd. -- the road bends around the building, northbound lanes on one side, southbound on the other. OK, it was Saturday, but downtown was largely abandoned by everyone except questionable characters lurking about. After a few quick photos we drove up Stateline Blvd. to the north. As you make your way along this road Arkansas is on one side, Texas on the other. It was quickly apparent that the Texas side is "dry" as every liquor store we saw (and there were a lot of 'em) was on the Arkansas side. Throughout the South there's a patchwork of liquor laws that complicate life for people from Wisconsin and those who think a glass or two of wine in the evening is medicinal. We manage.

Anyway, the north side of town is somewhat better than the south. This is where the big shopping center is and most of the restaurant chains have located. We made a quick stop for a few supplies and headed back to the bus-house.

Today, Sunday, we're getting ready to pull out Monday morning. Our destination is another COE campground near Waco where we'll spend a few days on our way South. We have almost two weeks before we're scheduled to arrive in Rockport and we'd like to spend some time along the way in Austin to visit the State Capitol and the LBJ Library & Museum on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

T

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Rainy Spell in Texarkana

written Friday, November 28, 2008
Texarkana, TX

It's been a quiet couple of days here in Texarkana. Yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, we stayed in. Since it was cloudy and, at times, drizzly, it was a perfect day to veg, watch some football, and work on getting our big dinner ready. But the football game, Tennessee v. Detroit, was so bad I turned the sound down and used the glow from the TV only to help me see the crossword puzzle I worked on. The poor, sad Lions haven't won a game this year, and may well go win-less through this entire season. Whether it's business or sports Detroit doesn't seem able to get a break these days.  Maybe the Lions can be included in the auto industry bailout?

I wonder if the financial crisis we're going through is having an impact on professional sports? It only seems logical that it would as the support of business has to be critical to the various leagues cash-flow. It's not individuals that keep pro-sports going... it's business, and you can bet business has got to be cutting back on expenses that have marginal value, like pro-sports.

We whipped up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner which turned into quite a feat for such a small kitchen and very limited counter space. But we got it done and it turned out darned good if I do say so myself.

The rain is supposed to continue today so we'll see if there's something we can find to explore while staying dry.

T

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Crisis with our Economy and our Way of Life

written Wednesday afternoon, November 26, 2008
Texarkana, TX.

I've been spending some time every day reading and trying to understand this economic crisis we're all in. More and more people, including the new President Elect, are saying this is an immense problem of historic, almost biblical, proportions. While there's a tendency, a human need, to believe the future will be like the past -- reliable, predictable, and, hopefully, better -- it's looking more and more like this will change our way of life for many years into the future.

For your consideration:  First, this well written article by Tom Friedman of the New York Times. It's worth the five minutes it'll take to read.

(Link to Friedman column "All Fall Down")  Click to read

Next, here's an excerpt from an important article on Bloomberg.com. Written by Mark Pittman and Bob Ivry, it provides some information that few of us know and less understand.

(Link to Bloomberg.com article by Pittman and Ivry)  Click to read.

Once all that soaks in you'll be looking for the scotch bottle.

T

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Texarkana

written Tuesday, November 25, 2008
not far from Texarkana, TX.

Well, we're another hundred miles further South and determined to keep "running this play" until we find some warm weather. The cool Midwest Fall had the "freezing line" dropping South about as fast as we were moving the last few weeks, and while I'm not complaining too much, there's a growing need to get the shorts on and soak up some sun. Yesterday my Dad sent a copy of his own "out the window" picture from Beaver Dam. Yowzer! It looks like another early winter for Wisconsin. Last year they had record snowfall of over 100 inches. I really hope the sun comes out and it warms up for the rest of the winter -- they need a break.

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Meanwhile, further South, the drive down from Little Rock went well. I put 77 gallons of good old #2 diesel in bus-house today and, amazingly, paid the least per gallon since starting this endeavor in the summer of '07... just 2.56. I'm not celebrating too loudly as these low prices will not last long and they are really not good for our country in the long-term. The only way to stimulate development of alternative energy and wring more oil out of ever deeper places is to keep the price higher in order to make new energy projects work... to provide risk-takers with a return on their investments. Wildly swinging oil prices just add uncertainty and encourage investors to walk away. I'll gladly pay more for fuel if it secures a better future of our kids and grand-kids.

We set up camp at a very neat and clean RV Park here in the Texarkana, TX. The weedless lawns are edged and evenly trimmed. The roads and pads are all clean crack-free concrete. In fact, it's almost too clean and neat, and certainly a change from the natural woodsy Corps of Engineer Parks we've enjoyed staying at. But this is a case of "dressing up" for Thanksgiving. Variety is nice and we've learn to appreciate all kinds of places. It spices things up a bit. And it's also functional in some ways. It's been a few weeks since we've been able to do laundry, and having full hookups makes that possible. We'll be here through the weekend before continuing southward.

Tomorrow, Wednesday is supposed to be a little warmer and partly cloudy. I'm not planning anything.

Stay warm Mom & Dad!

T

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Biggest Dam Bridge of All

written Monday, November 24, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

Monday, Dar and I loaded our bikes onto the Toad and drove about 10 miles to a trailhead for the famous Arkansas River Trail. The good citizens of the Little Rock area have built this extensive trail system over the last few years and we were itching to "give it a go". There's something liberating and free about riding a good trail through a natural landscape, along a river, through woods or forest, or even a good desert. We do it whenever we can.

Throughout the country local and state governments have converted old abandoned railroad rights-of-way into these marvelous trails where one can walk, run, or bike through the countryside without fear of being run down by some old vision-impaired guy driving a 45 foot motorhome. Of course, before you send me hate mail, it's also possible to be run down by young mindless texting teenagers, or middle aged depressed drunk guys. I just don't believe bikes and trucks/cars/campers belong on the same road, and that's why we almost always ride on trails specifically for bikes and pedestrians.

This trail is about 20 miles in total length. It forms a loop that starts in downtown Little Rock, crosses the Arkansas River on a recycled railroad bridge to North Little Rock, proceeds upstream along the north bank through parts of town, an old abandoned rock quarry, a couple of large parks, and eventually to the site of the Corps of Engineers Murray Lock & Dam about 8 miles upstream from downtown Little Rock.

At the dam, a new bridge, opened in 2006, was built on top of the dam expressly to carry the trail over the river. Referred to as the Big Dam Bridge, it's the longest pedestrian/bike only bridge built for that purpose in the United States. At over 4200 feet long, it rises 65 feet above the river and 30 feet above the dam and lock. When we crossed over, which we did twice -- once each way, the wind was steady at 20 mph and gusting higher. Being that high in the middle of the river in those kinds of winds was a hoot. I enjoyed it thoroughly, I think Dar did too.

As the trail winds it's way back to downtown Little Rock it shares space on city streets in some areas. We didn't do that part, choosing instead to make a U-turn and head back over the Big Dam Bridge and back to our car downstream.

The Big Dam Bridge and the Arkansas River Trail... highly recommended! Some pictures from our day should be online in a day or so.

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After more than two weeks in the Little Rock area I'm feeling like I belong here. I know my way around town, the airport, the big shopping centers. I have a local car mechanic. I know people at a car rental agency. We have friends here. I can get my way around downtown. Isn't it amazing how much you can learn in just two weeks?

We've enjoyed our stay in LR (we locals refer to Little Rock this way). I think we'll be back soon.

T

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Bill Clinton Museum

written Sunday, November 23, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

Back in the Spring of this year, as we traveled eastward from Oregon and Washington, our exploration theme was to follow the Lewis & Clark Trail. As I wrote yesterday, themes put some organization and objectives to our travels -- they help set a path and highlight obvious places that need to be checked out.

Since leaving Wisconsin in October, we have multiple themes for our travels. Seeing as many State Capitols (as we did Friday) is one. Visiting as many Presidential Libraries and Museums is another.

So yesterday, Saturday, Dar and I trekked back downtown and spent the afternoon at the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center and Park. The building is set in a new city park hard on the banks of the Arkansas River, which was previously a run-down warehouse district. Because a theme of Clinton's campaigns and administration was "a bridge to tomorrow", the building was designed to appear like a bridge reaching out toward the Arkansas River. Some locals refer to the building as the "bridge to nowhere".

In the past few years I've become more aware and pay attention to architecture and building design. I'm certainly no expert but I have opinions. (ah, opinions, that great democratizing element of the non-professional. Like Jimmy Durante used to say about jokes, "I've got a million of 'em!") Have you ever noticed how you can often date buildings that were considered "modern" or "revolutionary" at the time they were built? There are some buildings built in the late 60's on the campus of the University of Wisconsin that were considered "cutting edge" and "the look of the future".

Photo of the Humanities Building on the U.W. Madison Campus.

Humanities on the UW Campus Madison

Now, after a few decades, it's clear they have failed the test off time. They look like huge expensive mistakes, they're not very functional, and there's a growing sentiment that these things need to be removed and replaced -- after a mere 40 years -- before future generations start asking "what were these guys were smoking?". They'll be a short-lived monument to an architect who was trying to exceed his/her abilities and had no sense of classical style.

Those glass encased things that tower over and dominate most big city skylines are further examples of this. There is nothing natural or beautiful about them beyond their shear size, scale, and cheap space -- in my humble, uneducated, opinion.

Anyway, back to Bill's Museum. As we drove onto the grounds and I got a good look at the structure, I pondered. (a friend of mine ponders a lot -- claims pondering is a largely lost practice. I've been trying to emulate him and ponder some everyday.) Will this building stand the test of time? In 40 years, or 100 years, will it be considered fresh and functional?... a classic structure that's pleasing to the eye?... that flows, fits in with it's surroundings, and will cause future onlookers to somehow NOT want to stop looking at it? Or will it be as out-of-place, dated, ugly, and abandoned as the old railroad bridge that currently sits adjacent to the property? I don't know. But my opinion is that it'll be dated and look out-of-place in the not-to-distant future.

Photo of the Clinton Museum.

Clinton Museum in Little Rock

All that building stuff aside, we both love history and spending an afternoon walking down memory lane at another of the 19 Presidential Libraries scattered around the country. These are not libraries in the traditional sense, but more repositories of the papers, records, and paraphernalia of a specific President's terms in office. They're really more museums than libraries.

The exhibits are usually designed in a time-line fashion, so you can walk, peruse, and remember your way through that President's life. Of course there's a lot of emphasis on the time in office -- world events, legislative initiatives, foreign leaders, and results -- all as seen and interpreted by the President himself. It's good to keep in mind as you journey through this history that there are other interpretations of what happened and why. Presidential libraries are one means that a past president can, in some ways, attempt to influence his place in history. They are a past President's after-the-fact campaign for a good perception in the minds of future generations. For example, there was only one small panel that referred to impeachment, and it was under a theme of "Power Struggle with Congress".

Often, these libraries bring in other, unrelated, exhibits to help draw people in. The Clinton Library was full of customized motorcycles, "choppers" as they call them, that are really more works of art than they are functional motorcycles. A few of them look like they'd be nearly impossible to ride, and if not impossible, very uncomfortable. We enjoyed seeing the diversity and imagination of the guys that build these things. They really are works of art.

We enjoyed the afternoon thoroughly.

T

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Arkansas State Capitol

written Saturday, November 22, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

On Friday, yesterday, Dar and I drove down to the State Capitol in downtown Little Rock. The day was clear and brisk under a bright blue sky.

For all the traveling we've done over the years, and especially since we started fulltiming in July 2007, we've only been to a handful of State Capitols. It didn't become a theme of ours, an objective, a goal, until this leg of our journey. Most fulltimers have what I call "themes" to make their explorations more interesting and to provide some structure and organization to their travels.

Here are a few themes fellow travelers have told us about: major league ballparks, National Parks, highest point in each state, over-nighting in every State, fishing the major rivers in each State, various lists of museums, and, of course, State Capitols. There are many more of course -- lists limited only by your imagination.

Invariably, there are standards or requirements that go along with these themes. For instance, with State Capitols, is it enough to just see the building?  To drive or walk around it?  Or must you get inside, take a tour, and snap some photos? It's up to you. Our State Capitols theme requires that we get inside, take a tour -- guided or self-guided, and take both interior and exterior photos. Our requirements for putting States on our list of places we've been to is that we stay overnight and perform at least two voluntary bodily functions. I think that's all I'll say about that.

This visit to the Arkansas State Capitol will be our 6th that meets our minimum requirements. Even after seeing this small number there's a similarity to most of these stately old buildings that becomes evident. The architects and builders of most capitols west of the Appalachian Mountains were influenced by the US Capitol in Washington DC, and it shows. Every State, with the exception of Nebraska, has a bicameral legislative branch of government which necessitates a large chamber, meeting space, for each. Invariably, these two chambers are placed at the extreme ends of the building. There's usually a rotunda under a central dome of some kind which provides a sense of power, importance, strength, and possibilities. The executive branch, the Governor, has a large chunk of space in each Capitol, as does the Supreme Court representing the judicial branch of government. Other functions are scattered around.

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It took the good people of Arkansas an amazing 16 years to build this building. Political wrangling, fiscal restraint, and weak leadership and vision caused a number of suspensions, stoppages, of the project. After the cornerstone was laid in 1900, progress stopped for three years. Governors came and went, contractors were hired and fired, the oversight board was replaced a number of times, architects changed. Other stoppages occurred for various reasons. If it weren't for problems (ceilings collapsing, water leaks, etc) with the old statehouse a few blocks away, where the business of government was housed since the 1830's, the project may well have been delayed even longer.

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I'm not an expert on State Capitol Buildings, having seen only 6 now, but my impression is that his one, while stately and impressive, is not very ornate and doesn't include much of the art or symbolism that we've come to expect and have seen in most of the others. The exterior is all light colored limestone. The interior floors are mostly light, almost white, marble. The walls are mostly the same marble. The ceilings provide some variation and break up some of the monotony. There are plenty of pictures of past governors and photo collages of the elected representatives and senators from each year. We could only find 4 small murals way up near the ceiling and had found no information about what they represent or who did them. Christmas decorations gave the building a spark of color that wouldn't be there the rest of the year. It's a building that's no-nonsense, that's all business, that reflects the practical nature of the people that directed it's design and construction, and indirectly, the hardworking, economical people of Arkansas.

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Incidentally, the Old Statehouse still exists, and we toured it after the State Capitol. That old building has a colorful history that includes war, murder, and the location of the election night party when Bill Clinton was first elected President. It's now a museum.

T

Friday, November 21, 2008

Solutions in Search of Problems

written Friday, November 21, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

The rental car I used the other day had a "feature" I hadn't come across before. There is no ignition key. There is no place to even put an ignition key. So how does one start a car without a key? Well, what you have is a fob, a "clicker"-thing similar to the ubiquitous keyless entry do-dads we've all been carrying around for years. I'm guessing that this is another example of the use of technology that finds it's way into our lives only after it becomes the low-cost alternative to the old way of doing something. In this case, all the electronics are probably less expensive than the mechanical keyed switches. I'm only guessing.

So, how does one start a car with one of these marvels installed? Apparently, the little key fob you carry around is somehow "sensed" when it's within a few feet of the car. Once it's sensed, it's possible to just push the "start/stop" button on the dashboard and the car is supposed to start on it's own.

When I picked up the rental car, someone drove it around to the front and delivered it to me -- with the engine already running. I drove off. The first time I went to start the engine myself, at the repair shop where the Blazer was being fixed, I was stumped. The car seemed to recognize the fob, I'd push the start/stop button, some dash lights would flash, but the car wouldn't start. Hmmm.

Feeling like the old geezer I've probably become, I had to swallow my pride and ask the mechanic for help. (Well, back in MY day, we had a simple key, you see, and you'd put this key in the switch and turn it and the motor would spin to life, By-Crackee!) It was probably the same way someone felt when confronted with a key and switch back when going around to the front of the car and hand-cranking the engine to life was the normal way to start a car. (These old-timers sure are good for laughs!)

So, what was this rube doing wrong? Very simple... I wasn't stepping on the brake. With this new system, it's necessary to step on the brake in order for the engine to spin to life -- probably a safety "feature" to keep kids from pushing the button and driving off while Mom is in the convenience store picking up milk. My recent cars, this ten-year-old Blazer included, will start without stepping on anything. I can reach in and start it without even being in the seat if I'd want to. I'm sure the mechanic rolled his eyes and shared the story with everyone at coffee the next morning.

So, was there a problem with the old keyed switch? Does anyone see an advantage to this new system? What happens when the fob-thingy's battery dies? Certainly the car ain't gonna start!  In the old key-switch days people would hide a spare key in a wheel-well or under the bumper so if the primary key is lost when someone steals your coat at the bar, it's possible to retrieve the spare key and still get home without having to call your spouse and having her find out you're NOT working late at the office. In the old days, if I lost a key I could go the hardware store where they'd make a new key for $3.25 -- I'll bet a replacement fob-thingy is a LOT more than $3.25. Why was it necessary to go down this electronic route?

Like so many other applications of technology in our life these days, many of them are solutions in search of a problem... answers to questions not being asked... complications of the simple. Just because it's possible to do something doesn't mean it should be done. I have a suspicion one of the reasons these things happen is driven by marketing and is done to sell cars. When your neighbor drives up with a new car and shows off this amazing thing that doesn't need those old fashioned keys anymore -- well, you'll be fighting an image war (you Luddite... you rube!) with yourself, your pride, and your family, until you, too, have one of the latest and most coveted automotive technology gizmos. It's only us old-timers who don't care about the latest fashion and fads.

Alright, I'm done with the rant now. I think it's time for my nap.

T

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mountains and Sucking Toads

written Thursday, November 20, 2008
Maumelle COE near Little Rock, AR

The day started clear and cool, and we were looking forward to our first exploration since coming down with colds the past week or so. The objective was to drive a scenic route on small back-country roads in a generally northwest direction from our camp to the area referred to as Toad Suck. It's along the Arkansas River and about 24 river miles upstream from Maumelle Park. The same destination using Arkansas's finest country roads would be over 40 miles away.

The first place we stopped was Pinnacle Mountain State Park. There we learned about the geology of the area. The center-piece of the park is a 1,011 foot high conical shaped peak that dominates the surrounding landscape. The river level is about 300 feet above sea-level, so the peak rises about 700 feet above that. (I know, not much of a "mountain", but it was fun nonetheless.)  After a quick stop at the visitors center where we learned of trails that lead to the top of the peak, we headed off to the trailhead for the West Summit Trail.

A sign at the trailhead said it'd take about two hours to complete the trek so we headed off (and up) at noon. At first, the trail was a well used path of crushed rock and dirt that ascended at a manageable rate. They've broken the trail into 10 segments and installed small signs numbered from 1 (near the bottom) to 10 (at the top) which allow hikers/climbers to monitor their progress. At about the half-way point, the slope increased proudly and the path changed to a primitive stair-like climb from one boulder to the next. The trail is well marked but it was still necessary to make personal decisions about which precise route to take. You're basically climbing up a pile of huge rocks, hopping from one to the next, following a general path to the top.

The hike/climb was a test for muscles that hadn't been used lately. Rubber-legs and all, we made the summit after about 50 minutes. We soaked in the view, the warm sun, the cold wind, and took a passel of pictures. The trip down was quicker and allowed different leg muscles to get their workout too. It was a good hike on a perfect day.

Since the assault of Pinnacle Mountain wasn't in our original plans, we hadn't taken any sustenance except water. By the time we were back on the road starvation was becoming a concern. I thought we'd surely find something along the remaining route to Toad Suck. But that was not to be. This part of Arkansas is very rural.

We proceeded up Hwy 300 through Roland, Monnie Springs, Little Italy, Wye, and Bigelow. The road was winding, hilly, and pleasing to the eye. But food was in short supply on that route. It wasn't until we were at the foot of the Toad Suck Lock & Dam where we found a small convenience grocery to ease the now-screaming pangs of hunger.

The Toad Suck area is near Conway, AR., a significant town of about 50,000 people. All the action must be in Conway, because there's little going on in Toad Suck. In fact, other than the Lock & Dam, a COE campground, and the convenience store, things pretty much suck in Toad Suck. We did stop for some pictures, including the requisite photos with the "Toad Suck" sign, before pointing the car in direction of home. Due to the lengthening shadows we chose a quicker but more frantic route down I-40 on the east side of the river back to Little Rock.

I-40 was a mob scene. It was packed with traffic, much of it semi-trucks rolling at 75 and 80 mph... cars going faster. Are lower fuel prices liberating people to drive as fast as they can, while they still can?  Poking along in the slow lane at 70 we had made it over half way back when, suddenly, the Blazer's engine just quit -- abruptly and completely decided to stop running! Man-oh-man! What's wrong now?

Regular readers know we call the Blazer our "Toad" (we tow it... towed... Toad... get it?). We speculated that the Toad didn't find anything humorous in going to Toad Suck, and, hearing what we both had to say about the place, decided to give us a little demonstration of dominance... a reminder of how critical a Toad can be to our happiness and well-being. We'll always remember that it was on the day we visited Toad Suck that our Toad sucked.

What would we do without cell phones? After bailing out of the Toad and getting ourselves well away from traffic, it took only a few calls to arrange a tow. Call it "good karma", or going with the flow, or luck, we actually felt fortunate that the Toad stopped breathing when and where it did. Considering the much less accessible places we were just earlier today, the time of day it happened, and the flow of events that brought us to a group of people (tow truck operator, mechanic, rental car company) that were concerned, helpful, personable, and professional, things could have turned out far worse.

Despite my initial concerns, I agreed to have the tow truck driver take us to a mechanic he works with not far from where we broke down. Even though the clock was well past 5pm, his normal closing time, the mechanic worked at diagnosing the Toad's problem. But even if he found the problem, parts wouldn't be available until Thursday and we'd have to find a rental car for a day. I found an car rental office not far away and the mechanic had one of his helpers schlep me over to pick up a car.

We got back to the bus-house about 7pm, where Dar had put a pork tenderloin and vegetables in the slow-cooker earlier in the day. So, despite a hic-up in the daily plan, we still had an excellent, albeit well-done, hot dinner waiting for us when we got home.

By the way, the mechanic did find the problem before we left but, as expected, parts would have to wait until morning. It looks like a problem with the ignition system -- an electronic module that controls the coil and spark to the plugs just up and quit. It looks like Toad will be back on the road by Thursday afternoon.

T

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Maumelle Park

written Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Maumelle Park near Little Rock, AR

Yesterday, Monday, we had planned to move from Burns Park, where we'd been staying for the past week, to Maumelle COE Park just 12 miles away. Because Dar was in full "capitulation phase" with her cold, we did consider delaying the move another day, but she decided all the activity with moving would help take her mind off the misery. Maumelle is a couple notches above Burns in facilities and maintenance, and it's right on the banks of the Arkansas River. Instead of just being parked in the woods, its being parked in the woods and on a river.

About mid-day, we broke camp at Burns, made the short drive to Maumelle, and found a very nice campsite near the river. There are more people here than one might expect -- the place is probably half full -- as snowbirds from the north make this an annual stop on their way south for the winter. The park is close to major highways but secluded and quiet. It's just about perfect.

Dinner last night was chicken soup for my sweetie (it can't hoit), and I boiled up some spaghetti so I could use up some extra sauce I had made last week. A Christmas cookie, direct from the cookie factory in Wisconsin this past weekend, served as desert. I'm not hopeful the cookies will actually make it to Christmas. I'm not even sure they'll make it to Thanksgiving!

No explorations to report on today. The sequential impact of this virus (first me, then Dar) is putting a crimp in our style. But we'll have most of a week to see the Arkansas State Capitol, the Clinton Library, and a few other adventures -- and the weather looks like it'll cooperate.

T

Monday, November 17, 2008

Little Rock Update

written Monday, November 17, 2008
North Little Rock, AR

Here's a quick update covering the past week.

We arrived here at Burns Park Campground in North Little Rock last Sunday afternoon. The campground is a nice enough place and is close to our ideal camping experience because it is heavily wooded, has clean asphalt roads, and well-separated campsites. However, some sites aren't very level and the park has a neglected feel to it.

Monday and Tuesday were rainy and Dar was getting ready for her trip to Wisconsin. It's become a tradition, with her Mom and Sister, to get together on a long weekend in November and turn the farmhouse into a Christmas cookie factory. I dropped her off at the Little Rock airport on Wednesday and off she went.

Unfortunately, as much as I was looking forward to the time alone and having ALL 300 square feet to myself for a few days, it turned out to be less than what I'd hoped. About the time Dar left, it became clear I was coming down with a cold -- a depressing thought as we've both stayed relatively illness-free since we've been on this journey.

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An observation... the phases of having a cold virus:

First, there's an awareness phase. This is that point in time where you're feeling "not quite right". Not bad, mind you. Just not right. You're becoming aware that something's not right.

Then there's the battle phase. Once you're aware a bug has invaded the sanctity of your body, you begin to battle it with everything you can throw at it... orange juice, vitamin C, tinctures of zinc, positive mental attitude, and various herbs, potions, and snake-oil that you've heard other people swear by. The objective is to fight it off... to beat it.

Third, is the capitulation phase. In this phase, the objective changes from one of fighting it off to one of trying to minimize the symptoms. Cold medications, cough medicines, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, decongestants. Most of what these things do is put you in a drugged stupor, which is maybe better living with the full-blown symptoms... I don't know. You hunker down and realize all you can do is let it run it's course.

Fourth, is the climax phase. A cold, like a good novel, usually has a climax... the point at which the block of concrete in your sinus passages is at its maximum, you have a Kleenex or two packed into each nostril, and no medication seems to quell the throbbing in your head. This usually occurs at night, keeps you from sleeping, and causes thoughts that there may actually be some benefits to death.

Lastly, is the healing phase. Once you've passed this "hell night", the healing phase begins. There are some lingering symptoms for a few days, but you feel hope and renewed zest for life that only grows stronger with every wad of yuck blown free from your nasal passages... with every ball of mucus coughed up and liberated from your lungs. For at least a short period of time, as the drug-induced stupor passes, you savor every moment of feeling good, of life, ... of NOT being sick.

------------

I reached capitulation phase on Wednesday night and then climax on Thursday night. Friday, another rainy day, I never stepped foot outside. I tried to read but mostly stared at the TV and felt sorry for myself. By Friday night it became clear that I was starting to heal. I slept soundly for 10 hours and woke to a new day, in more ways than one, on Saturday morning. The sun was lighting up the woods more brightly than any time since we arrived. I was actually starting to feel alive again. I took a long vigorous walk through the park. It felt great.

By the time I picked Dar up at the Little Rock airport on Sunday afternoon, I felt much better. Unfortunately, as we greeted each other near the x-ray machines in security, she informed me that she was in her own capitulation phase. She was somehow able to hold the virus at bay for most of her big weekend, but now the virus was winning the battle.

T

Monday, November 10, 2008

Toad Suck Daze

written Monday, November 10, 2008
North Little Rock, AR

After thoroughly enjoying a couple days with Bill & Sue near West Plains, MO., we fired up the bus-house and pointed her South again. We got back on Hwy 412/62 eastbound in Northern Arkansas until reaching Ash Flat. A right turn onto Hwy 167 southbound took us through Evening Shade, Cave City, Pleasant Plains, and Velvet Ridge. At Bald Knob we picked up Hwy 67 southbound, a 4-lane divided road that goes right to Little Rock.

I really wanted to stay at a Corps of Engineer campground some 30 or so miles north of Little Rock at a place called Toad Suck Ferry. Of course, the only really good reason for wanting to stay there without seeing it first is the name. What could possibly be the origin of the name "Toad Suck"?

According to Wikipedia:
The legend behind Toad Suck is that long ago, steamboats traveled the Arkansas River when the water was at the right depth. When it wasn't, the captains and their crew tied up to wait where the Toad Suck Lock & Dam now spans the river near Conway. While they waited, they refreshed themselves at the local tavern. The dismayed folks living nearby were heard to say: "They suck on the bottle 'til they swell up like toads." Hence, the name Toad Suck. The tavern is long gone, but the legend lives on at Toad Suck Daze.

But reason won out over "childish desires" (we put it to a vote and the Safety Director had to break the tie) and "we" decided to stay much closer to Little Rock, but still right along the Arkansas River. But even though Toad Suck Daze is normally held in early May each year I may have to do some exploring in that area during the Safety Directors absence (She's going to Wisconsin for a few daze, er... days).

I may have to refresh myself while awaiting her return.

T

Panic Stop

written Monday, November 10, 2008
North Little Rock, AR

We left Branson on Friday the 7th of November. The destination was the acreage of a couple friends we met in Rockport last year -- Bill & Sue, who live near West Plains, MO. We've been emailing back and forth during the past month about our respective plans for the winter and they invited us to stop by, see their place, and check out this part of the Ozarks.

Driving in the Ozarks can be a challenge. The roads are little more than collections of curves, hills, and double-yellow lines. Not a lot of dirt was moved when these highways were built, and it seems they had no chain saws since the road seems to wind around any tree of size. There are precious few places where a motorist can safely pass a big bus-house that's poking along a few m.p.h. under the speed limit.

On the way to West Plains we did have one incident that caused me to stop breathing for a minute and utter a few carefully selected words. As we trekked eastward on Hwy 412/62 in northern Arkansas, I'd been following, for some time, an old filthy Lincoln Mark driven by a very erratic driver. At times he'd be plugging along even more slowly than my preferred speed for that type of road. At other times, he speed up and was a half mile ahead. There was no pattern or consistency.

As we trudged along we came to an intersection. A gas station/convenience store was on the left side of the road. The erratic driver was right in front of us, moving about 45 m.p.h. The road was normal Ozark-quality -- narrow, no shoulders, plenty of hills and curves ahead. I was following at a comfortable distance... until... my erratic friend suddenly decided he wanted to turn left into the gas station, but couldn't due to oncoming traffic. So... he just stops! No visible brake lights... only an old Lincoln parked right in the lane of traffic! Picture a 36,000 pound torpedo about to make a direct hit on the aft section of an old Lincoln "liberty ship". I'm sure my eyes were bigger than pie-plates as my right foot instinctively, thankfully, found the correct pedal and applied just enough pressure to warm the brakes up to a temperature normally found only on the surface of the sun. From the outside, I think, it all appeared calm and controlled -- except maybe for the long blast from my air horn. But on the inside it was a different story. This was our first, what-you'd-call, panic stop.

They say you learn by "pushing the envelope" or "taking it to the limit". We learned, happily, that both our brakes and sphincters functioned the way they're supposed to.

T

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Andy Williams Christmas Show

written Thursday, November 06, 2008
Branson, MO

All Right! I might as well get this out there right off the bat: I actually enjoyed the Andy Williams Christmas Show that Dar talked me into attending yesterday. Yes, I enjoyed it! With all my grumbling about the lines, the crowds, the traffic, aging performers, and all the other touristy hoopla here in Branson, probably no one thought I'd say that. I certainly didn't.

But I had a great time. First of all, you've got to admire someone who's doing what they love, and enjoying it so much that they'd rather work at their craft than relax, retire, and fade away. He doesn't say how old he is, but a little research found he's 81 years old. In person, he certainly doesn't look like an octogenarian. Even if he has a cosmetic surgeon on retainer (and he probably does), so what? Performing is his passion and looking good is a part of performing. Way to go, Andy.

We were seated on an aisle about mid-way back in the front section of the theater, which was only about half full. But the place holds over 2,000 people so half-a-house is still a good turnout at $39/head. Just after the performance started, an usher knelt down next to me and whispered if we'd like to move to front row center, where they had a few open seats. Of course! Why not? So off we scooted.

When sitting in the middle of an audience, further back, there's little or no intimacy with the performers. I often like that because I can really relax, maybe nod off -- catch a little nap and be thoroughly rested and ready for the drive home. There's a splendid anonymity to it, it doesn't matter if you applaud or not, you can just hide-out as part of that large singular mass of humanity.

But let me tell you, Bunky... being in the center of the front row is something else. The performers, I'm told, can only see the first few rows of the audience, and they usually form a bond with this sub-set for the purpose of feedback. There's an intimacy about it -- two-way communication based on eye contact, body language, and emotional reactions. Just like public speakers, performers crave that intimacy during a performance as reinforcement that what they're doing is working. I got absolutely no rest at all.

During the rest of the performance, Dar was often the subject of old Andy's  eye-contact. For example, in "Moon River", Dar melted when he looked at her while he sang "Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker..." You had to be there.

The Andy Williams Christmas Show

I wouldn't have been surprised if, at 81 years old, he'd only been on the stage less than half the time, singing a few old favorites, and mostly introducing other performers. But that's not what we got. I'd guess he was on stage 80% of the time, singing song after song and working with other performers. And this guy can still belt out a tune.

The show was reminiscent of his variety television show and Christmas Specials from the 60's and 70's. A strong Christmas theme, a mix of other performers, and a strong talented band. Reminiscent too, was his interplay with the audience, his mannerisms, and his self-deprecating style of humor.

I, we, had a great time.

Now, if we could just do something about that carnival outside.

T

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Branson Phenomenon

written Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Branson, MO

50 years ago Branson was a very small, quiet, fishing village along the White River, surrounded by the gorgeous wooded hills of the Ozark Mountains. There were two small motels with a total of 16 rooms available.

Today, many of the hills have been stripped of trees and leveled for theaters, restaurants, hotels, condos, time-shares, apartment developments, and sub-divisions. They're building a new airport capable of handling large commercial jets, and had to move two mountains to do it.

Here's a short list of what you see as your driving around town. "Sensory Overload" comes to mind:

Hollywood Wax Museum
Titanic Museum -- Experience a Titanic Christmas
Dinosaur Museums
Year 'round Haunted Houses
Worlds Largest Toy Museum
Go-Karting Tracks
Ripley's Believe It or Not
Family Fun Factory
Dinosaur Canyon Miniature Golf
Water Fun Parks
Dick Clark's American Bandstand/ Bar & Grill
Showboat Cruises
Magic Shows
Ride the Ducks
Huge upscale Branson Landing Shopping Centre
Traffic gridlock along "The Strip" and downtown.
Condos and Time-Share sales
Hundreds of Restaurants
Hundreds of Motels & Hotels
New Branson Convention Center
60 Theaters
80 Shows
Wow!

Except for solitude and gambling, there's something here for everyone.

T

Historic Election

written Wednesday, November 05, 2008 -- Branson, MO

On every Presidential election Tuesday for many years, I've made it a tradition to watch the election returns on TV. I'll get a comfortable chair adjusted just right and positioned for minimum reflection and best viewing angle, I'll pop some popcorn, open a cool adult beverage of some kind, make sure the remote control has fresh batteries, and settle in for an evening of results and analysis. I know, it won't change a thing. I could save a lot of time by just reading about it in the paper the next day. But the tradition continues and it will for the foreseeable future.

This election was historic for at least a couple reasons. First, and perhaps most obvious and notable, it was the first campaign to result in the election of a black man as President of the United States. Regardless of your politics and your opinions about it, this will be something that will start a new chapter in the history books for many years.

Second, I think this will be the first presidential election for which the campaigns raised and spent over a BILLION dollars. Sure, in times when trillions of dollars are being thrown all around in the name of trying to save the economy and our way of life, a billion doesn't sound like much. But it's still a tremendous amount of money that's being spent for a job that pays $400,000 per year plus room and board.

And presidential campaigns are getting longer, more protracted, and more mean-spirited. This one lasted more than two years and, in my opinion, reached new lows in dishonesty. In some people's minds, Ms. Palin kicked off her "Palin in 2012" campaign last night after McCain's concession speech. Please! Enough! Let it rest... let us rest for a while. If these politicians would work as hard for us as they work campaigning for themselves, just imagine what could be accomplished.

At any rate, I'm glad it's over. I'm really happy there'll be a short break from the pollution of campaign ads. I'm always hopeful that the new president will be successful, will make the right decisions, will bring our nation together. Unfortunately, I'm almost always disappointed.

But, at this point, I'm still hopeful.

T

Monday, November 3, 2008

Branson Missouri

written Monday, November 3, 2008 -- Branson, MO

How does something like Branson get started? Yesterday, I talked with an old-timer who's been coming here since 1959. In those early days, the population of Branson was less than 100 people, there were two motels with a total of 16 rooms available, a few fishing cabins along the river, and a sprinkling of other sleepy businesses. That was 50 years ago.

Today, the official population of Branson is about 6,000, but that grossly understates reality. Because so many people live just outside Branson's city limits, the real population of the area is more like 30,000. And when you throw in the number of people visiting (as many as 8 million every year), the number of people around here can be upwards of 65,000 on any given day. There are more than 50 theaters in the area with over 60,000 seats available -- more seats than Broadway in New York I've been told. This week alone about 100,000 veterans will be here for the annual Veterans Day celebration.

As of this writing, we haven't explored the area yet. We just arrived yesterday afternoon, and after we got settled in our parking site at the Ozark Country Campground, we watched a little football and did some chores. But we had to drive through much of the Branson area in order to get to this RV Park and what I saw made me shiver and my eyes glaze over. Besides theaters, there's every imaginable tourist trap and attraction. There are supposedly more than 800 restaurants. I wrote yesterday in the "What's New" section of my homepage that Branson reminds me of a mix of The Wisconsin Dells, a touch of Las Vegas, a pinch of Dollywood, a notion of Nashville, and a sparkle of Disneyland -- and I'd add, the roll-call from the home for aging performers. Dar loves this stuff so, because I'm that kind of guy -- giving, compassionate, and willing to do almost anything to make my sweetie happy -- we'll be here until Friday.

The drive down was uneventful yesterday. But man-o-man, the hills in this part of the country are daunting. The closer we got to Branson the higher and steeper they were. And we were cutting across them, not riding a ridge or vehiculating a valley. Compared to driving the mountains of the west, the grades are certainly shorter but no less steep. We have 400 h.p. and gobs of torque with our big ol' Cummins Diesel, but it was working hard to get us up the hills, downshifting a couple of gears and slowing to 40 m.p.h. at times. Then, as we crested the top of the hill, we got the feeling you get on large roller coasters -- "we're going straight down and we're all going to die!" -- like being dropped out of a cargo plane without a parachute. Let me just say our PAC (compression) brake got a real workout as we encountered hill after hill coming into Branson.

I think it's wonderful how our presidential candidates are bringing us all together in the closing days of this 2 year long campaign. I can feel a unity, a bond, a common passion among people of every political stripe that may be almost as strong as those days of intense patriotism after the Twin Tower attacks in 2001. What's uniting almost everyone in the USA is that we're ALL sick and tired of this campaign, this ordeal, this torture. (I thought torture was illegal?) We're ALL preparing to breath a collective sigh of relief when its finally over, when the TV ads are gone, when we stop getting emails full of hate and lies, when all that's left to do is collect all the yard signs that have become so much litter. We're ALL so bludgeoned that we almost don't care who wins. And we're also of one mind that there's just got to be a better way.

T

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Harry S. Truman Lake and Dam

written Saturday, November 1, 2008 -- Thibaut Point COE Campground near Warsaw, MO.

I got off to a slow start on Friday and it was just after noon before we headed off to explore more of the big lake we're camped on. We had a surprise rain shower that lasted a couple hours in the morning but by the time we left camp the sky was mostly clear and the sun was out in earnest.

The Harry S. Truman Lake (or Reservoir) was created along the Osage River as the result of a large Army Corps of Engineers project that was authorized in the 1950's and wasn't completed until the late 1970's. It primary purpose is flood control, but electric power generation and recreation are among the other benefits. It took a long time to build as numerous roads, bridges, cemeterys, and complete towns had to be relocated above the new lake level. I wonder if a project of this scale could ever be done again in our litigous modern society. And where would the money come from?

On our loop around the lake we stumbled into a town named Tightwad. The unusual name is said by some to stem from an episode where a store owner cheated a customer somehow on the sale of a watermellon. As we drove into town I wondered out loud if they might have a bank and if that bank might be called the Tightwad Bank. We were still laughing about the thought when, around the next bend, there it was... The real Tightwad Bank! I couldn't believe it.

Tightwad Bank Sign

As we drove around Tightwad, we found the Tightwad Fire Department, the Tightwad General Store, the Tightwad Motel, and the Tightwad Bar & Grill. Whenever I settle down again, after this life of exploration, I'd give extra consideration to a town that had an unusual name... like Tightwad.

On down the road we came to the Truman Dam that created the lake. It's about 5000 feet of earthen dam and another 1000 feet or so of concrete gravity dam. The concrete part includes the spillway and the powerhouse. There's a very nice visitors center on a bluff overlooking the dam and lake where the vistas, especially with all the fall color still bright, are incredible.

IMG_1336.JPG

Today, Saturday, we're going to hang around the bus-house, working, reading, enjoying the 70f degree temps, and getting ready for our move tomorrow. Never having been to Branson before, I'm not sure what to expect. I've heard about congestion, traffic headaches, lines, and more. It'll probably be a stark contrast to our campsite here along the lake.

Oh yeah, and I'm supposed to remember to turn my clock back tonight. Now, if I can just remember where I put it. Hmmm.

T