Mar 30, 2012

Mar 30 - In Hot Water Now

As I sit here this morning, punching keys, Dar is officially unemployed again. She worked yesterday and when there was no phone call summoning her to work today, her status is now "free to explore again". Yes, she may be unemployed, but it's by her choice... so she's not included in any government stats on unemployment and doesn't collect any unemployment compensation either.

The other day I completed a water heater gas valve replacement project. For whatever reason, the valve, that has been working flawlessly for 5 years, just quit a few weeks ago. This unit heats water with either gas or 120v electricity, so we still had hot water as long as we're plugged in. But before we got going on Spring12, and the boondocking opportunities increase, we wanted the gas-side working again.

I could buy the valve locally for $120, but found it online for $75 plus another $10 for shipping. Once it showed up it only took another hour or two to get it installed and functioning again. No glitches or stumbling blocks... it was an ego-soothing straight forward repair. And we're heating with gas again.

A side benefit of taking the practice run with the bus-house last Sunday is that everything is pretty much stowed and ready for travel.  Other than some re-arrangement of a couple stowage areas that Dar still wants to do, we're in good shape in that department. Some things just have to wait until that last day... things like cleaning the windshield, mounting the bikes on the car, and checking tire pressures all around.

Our plan at this point is very short range: get outa' here and to another venue where we can clear our heads and focus on what we'd like to do, where we'd like to go... for the next 6 weeks or so. The ultimate objective of the Spring12 expedition is Portland, OR.

Mar 26, 2012

Mar 26 - Savoring a Texas Blizzard

Yesterday, Sunday, we sucked in the slides, pulled the jacks, fired up the Cummins, and rolled out of Rockport/Fulton on a generally northeast heading. If you're prone to anthropomorphizing about these things, you could feel the raw glee emanating from the bus-house as it stretched it's atrophied muscles, flexed it's stiff joints, and swallowed the fresh diesel fuel elixir. For almost three solid months the rig has been sitting without being run, exercised... the longest period of non-use in five years. It felt good for all of us to be back on the road again.

For 25 miles we rolled through the flat coastal plain of alternating wetlands and cotton fields until we reached the town of Tivoli. And there it was... looming ahead... our objective. A Dairy Queen store with a big gravel truck and RV parking lot right next door. In our experience, almost every town in Texas has a Dairy Queen, and little Tivoli (with perhaps a couple hundred residents) is no exception.

"Two Blizzards please".

In addition to running the bus-house's engine, transmission, and chassis, we were also running the generator to provide the necessary power for the two air refrigeration units on the roof... so we could stay relatively cool on this hot spring coastal bend day. This is the time of year things start to heat up in these parts... when the temperature and relative humidity vie for top spot on the numerical weather score board.

After our refreshment break, Dar took the wheel and drove us back to our campsite at Sandollar. Yes, it was all a drill... a practice run... to make sure all systems were working as they should. But we all got a remedial lesson in the joys of travel that day. And we're now pretty much packed up and ready to head off on our Spring'12 expedition to the Northwest.

Stay tuned, it all starts in just one week.

Mar 18, 2012

Mar 18 - Two New Gizmos

 Before I get to the topic referred to in the title of this post, I have to share this. My little sister Jan found the following police report recently in our hometown (Beaver Dam, WI.) newspaper. I've reported on these police news items before... to lighten things up a bit and for the benefit of all you folks out there confined to the ant hill metro-plexes and megalopolises of this hurting country of ours. So many people just don't understand the nature of life in small towns. They're generally surprised, not by the incidents themselves, but that said incidents are news... and actually make it into print in the local newspaper. So, here goes...

Investigation: Police responded to the 200 block of West Street on Monday at 4:50pm for the report of a snowman that appeared to be making an obscene gesture.  The snowman had been made with a middle finger pointed upwards. No action was taken after police arrived and observed the snowman was melting.

I'm sure Andy and Barney would have handled it the same way. What's that old adage... something like "if you wait long enough most problems resolve themselves."

Now on to the main topic at hand.  Dar and I have acquired a couple electronic gizmos that we hope will add a little quality to our nomadic life. The first is a small scanner... but not just your run-of-the-mill scanner. No sir. This one has a lot going for it from our perspective: it's very small and light, it's totally portable, and has it's own memory and battery power so it doesn't have to be connected to a PC at all while scanning. No cables, no stinkin' computers... it's like a little camera that eats paper. We've seen a couple similar units but decided on this one, a Doxie-Go, on the basis of some favorable reviews.

It's very simple to operate and since it's so portable, we can now start scanning and culling the pile of documents causing our file drawer to split at the seams. At least that's the plan. In reality, it's going to take some time. I'm starting with current stuff first and will work backward, hoping a lot of the older stuff will expire and won't need to be kept any longer in any form. My goal is an empty file drawer and a backed up hard drive of the documents we feel must be kept.

(By the way, we have no commercial interest in either product mentioned in this post. If you'd like more info, cut and paste the model names/numbers into a search engine to learn more.)

Another big project the little scanner will help with is the digitizing of old photographs... boxes and boxes that we've got in various corners of various relatives attics and basements and closets. Here again, I'm hoping most of the photos won't have to be scanned... duplicates, blurry focus, etc... but the ones we'll want to hang onto can be scanned quickly and easily with this little portable scanner -- even while we're driving down the road or watching a movie if we choose to.

The other piece of electronic gear we picked up was a new camera. First, a little history. We've had a Canon Digital Rebel SLR, the first iteration, for many years. It was a 6 megapixel model (a little short on pixels these days... but I've always subscribed to the "don't get caught up in the pixel-hype" theory of digital photography). We had a couple nice lenses for it and the whole shebang fit into a bag just a little smaller than a Rollaboard suitcase. I liked the camera, it took very good photos... but for our style of exploring it was just too big. When making the decision about which camera to take on a hike, we'd look at the big "suitcase", and look at the little pocket-able point-n-shoot, and the point-n-shoot won out almost all the time. Sure, our photos probably won't make the cover of National Geographic, but for our purposes they were just fine.

What we did covet, from time to time, is more zoom... a "longer" telephoto lens... to reach out there and drag interesting things closer... to fill the viewfinder with that little bird in the tree over there. So the new camera had to be a balance of small size and a strong telephoto lens, while retaining most of the creative control features of the SLR. We think we found that balance with our new Canon SX-40HS. We're still reading the manual, getting used to the controls, and trying it out... creating a lot of throw-away pics along the way. Early reports are positive. It's small enough to fit in a case on my belt or in a small daypack, it has an amazing 35X telephoto lens (most binoculars are in the 7X to 10X range), and, as a bonus, it shoots HD video. We're looking forward to exploring with it when we leave the Coastal Bend of Texas in a couple weeks.

We've been considering a new camera for some time but until we found a new home for the Digital Rebel... we were reluctant. Last Fall, a couple traveling friends of ours -- Lynne and Fred from Canada -- told us that Fred was looking at getting more serious about photography. We made him a deal... and the rest is history. He's got a great camera for learning the basics of photography, and now we've got a camera that fits our lifestyle a little better.

A win-win.

Mar 12, 2012

Mar 12 - Down In The Valley

With a bad case of "camper fever" caused by sitting in one place for two months, we needed to get away... to get in the car and drive, just drive... somewhere, anywhere. And that's exactly what we decided to do.

During the past few weeks we've been keeping an eye on Dar's work schedule for a window of opportunity, a few days "off" in a row, a get-away moment during the long Texas Winter.  And after she finished her shift on Wednesday night we had four glorious days to run away, to escape, to explore someplace we've not been before. Yahoo! So where do we go?

East isn't possible without a boat. North, hmmm, north... we've explored up that way before... San Antonio, Austin, the Hill Country... and who'd want to go anywhere near Houston? So North is out too. How about West? Hmmm... thousands, no, maybe hundreds of thousands of square miles of ranches, grazing land, wind and dust, and a few new oil fields. Doesn't trip my trigger... how about yours? So the only compass point left is South. And it just so happens that that's a direction we've not explored before

During our fulltiming "career", we've heard folks talk about "The Valley". What they're referring to is the Rio Grande Valley and that area way down South... way down there in the crotch produced by the State of Texas, the Country of Mexico, and the Gulf of Mexico. It's as far south as you can go in the middle-lands of the USA and still be in the USA. It also happens to be one of only three areas in the continental USA where a shunfreezer from up north has a chance at a modicum of warmth during the northern hemisphere Winter (the other two being the southern tip of Florida and the extreme Southwest of the USA... Yuma, San Diego, et. al.).

Here's a quick overview of The Valley: First, it's really not a valley... more a delta or flood plain... very flat. It consists of four Texas counties with a population of more than a million people, of which between 85% and 90% are Hispanic. The economy is primarily agricultural, with tourism a distant second. In the winter, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 Winter Texans move into about 500 RV parks and other accommodations for a few months. That'd be about 75,000 RVs, assuming 2 people per RV. Like Rockport and the Coastal Bend about 150 miles to the north, the area is considerably windier than average. But in Rockport, the typical southerly wind tends to blow in from the bays and the Gulf, while down in the valley the wind blows in over tilled agricultural fields, picking up dust and dirt in the process. We've heard many people complain about the dust down there and after having been there I can understand the problem.

Thursday morning we piled into the toad and headed south on US-77. Our timing for this road trip left something to be desired:  the forecast for the 4 days was wind, rain, cold, and more rain. In addition, we were hitting the first days of the big spring break week and could envision hoards of people and even worse traffic congestion than we were already fearing. And to top it all off, Dar was coming down with a cold or virus of some kind. But intrepid explorers press on.

We found an affordable hotel in Harligen to use as our base and Friday we drove over to Port Isabel and South Padre Island. A cold front that came through overnight kept the high temps in the lower 50s and clouds, wind, and intermittent showers kept whatever spring break crowds that might have existed well hidden. Our impression of South Padre Island was mixed. The developed south end, with it's high-rise condos, hotels, beach and t-shirt shops, and trendy restaurants might appeal to some tourist and vacationers but it didn't to us. Here, like other places along the gulf, the beaches are well hidden by buildings and public beach access is hard to find. But a few miles north, where development peters out and the natural dunes and character of the barrier island are hanging on by a thread of seaweed, we found the place we could like. It's possible to drive onto the beach and access as much as 25 miles of relatively unspoiled shoreline. Could even camp overnight here if you've got the right gear.

We visited the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center but weather kept the outdoor activity to a minimum. Besides, any birds out today would be hunkered down and trying to keep from being blown away. On the recommendation of a local resident, we enjoyed lunch at Blackbeards, an island institution for over 30 years and where we had a surprisingly excellent meal. And just up the road was the Padre Island Brewing Company where we huddled inside while sampling the ale offerings of this, the only brewpub we could find down here. If you can't soak up some sun and spring-break "sights" during a visit to South Padre Island... I don't know where I'd rather spend an afternoon.

Saturday we checked out of the hotel and explored both the rural and developed parts of the area to the west. General impression... too many people... too much congestion and traffic. Not our cup-o'-tea. That's about all I'll say about that.

We tried a different route north, US-281, on our return to Rockport... hoping to see something more than scrub grazing land along the way. Once away from the Rio Grande and the irrigation systems of the valley, the land is mostly non-descript and supports only cattle grazing... if that.

While not overly impressed with the valley, we're glad we visited. Our objective is to see and experience as much of North America as we can and we enjoy it all. It's just good to be out there exploring.

And we're down to less than three weeks before we get the big wheels rolling again.

The road ends about 10 miles north of all the development. Sand blowing over the road is a constant battle.

Get 'em while they're hot! Just a cool half-million for a chunk of sand.

Coming into Port Isabel.

Mar 5, 2012

Mar 5 - OysterFest

Spring is arriving along the Coastal Bend of Texas. Warm and humid southern breezes are starting to dominate the cooler and dryer "Northers" that blow through here during Winter. The sun is higher in the sky... and increasingly intense. The Winter of '11-'12 is about over.

This past week we bid adieu to more Winter Texans as they're anxious to return home. It seems we humans are often living our lives looking into the future... the excitement and anticipation of what lies ahead, the undiscovered, the unknown, the change of scenery, the adventure... instead of slowing down a little to enjoy the present. I'm no different, what with my urge to get moving and exploring again. Maybe I'll take some time this week to consciously slow down and enjoy the "now". Smell the flowers, Grasshopper.

Saturday Dar and I hoofed about a mile down the beach road to the big annual Oysterfest festival in downtown Fulton. An amazingly large and well attended event, it was the 33rd annual fundraiser for the Fulton Volunteer Fire Department. People come from many miles around to attend... we talked with folks that drove all the way from Houston. Two huge tents are erected... one for music, food vendors, and beer, and the other for folks selling arts and crafts. And a carnival fills the streets and parking lots. It's really quite an impressive event for a small town.

Not being one who normally savors large crowds, I must say this one was an enjoyable mix of young and old. A steady flow of live music keeps things lively. And for the sporting enthusiast, an oyster eating contest is something to witness. The contestants sit at a long table on a raised stage. When given the signal, they'll have 5 minutes to down as many raw oysters as they can. But that's only the half of it... the rules also state that they must then keep 'em down for at least another 5 minutes before the winner is determined.  Here's the method used by most of the "pros":  When the start of the contest is signaled, they dump multiple bags (a dozen shucked oysters per baggie) into a large plastic cup... 4 dozen, 5 dozen, or more. Then they raise their cup and swallow, slip and slide, guzzle the oysters down... like so much beer... gulp, gulp, gulp. And repeat it all until the end of the contest is signaled 5 minutes later. The real entertainment for the casual, if not somewhat nauseated, observer is the pained and sickly expressions on the faces to the contestants as they struggle to hold down their "catch" for the next 5 minutes. To be in the upper tier of oyster eating contestants it's necessary to down more than 12 dozen... perhaps as many as 15 or 18 dozen. Believe it or not.

Between oyster eating contest and belt sander racing... folks around here really know how to live it up.

I'm feeling the inner urge to pick up my writing pace a little after the past two months of "vacation". I've collected a bag full of topics to spout off about, so there may be some increase in posting frequency as we near our departure date just four weeks off.

Beyond Branson; Pondering Future Travel

This past Tuesday, we moved from Branson to a very nice Corps of Engineer’s Park on Wappapello Lake.  We’re in the Redman Creek CG. This fac...