« December 2006 |
| February 2007 »
We've been flailing around with our itinerary lately, making changes every day because of whims or weather. I suppose that's how it should be, so we can explore what interests us, but the time came to get serious about our plans for the next few weeks. So this morning we pulled out the maps, the weather reports, and our lists of obligations, and put together a plan.
The first decision was to move on rather than exploring Las Cruces. As a place to live it was never high on our list, and from my online searches there didn't seem to be a lot to keep us here recreationally, either. Las Cruces is one of those places that is near a lot of stuff.
The second decision was to skip Silver City. This was a tough call, since I like that town and there are fun things to do in the area. But the weather has not been cooperative lately, and Silver City is up around 6,000 feet. We may return later.
The third decision was to attend the Tucson Gem Show. We were in Tucson for it last year and liked dropping in on all the various venues. This meant booking a moderately expensive stay at Beaudry's RV Resort, because most places in town are full, but the location is very convenient. We'll do a few days there for the show and then relocate a bit further out of town.
And the fourth decision was to face reality: we have a lot of on our personal and work schedules in February, and the only way we're going to accomplish it all is to park ourselves for a solid month. So we'll stay in Tucson through the first week of March.
But we won't be sitting still. We have plans to explore two national parks, make an overnight trip up to Phoenix, visit Bisbee, fly to the Florida State Rally, check out local real estate, and make our plans to go to Mexico in March. Somehow all that will get done while I work on the Summer issue of the magazine.
We can't get into Tucson until Feb 3, so we've got a few days to kill. With the weather cold, we decided to head to Rockhound State Park, in Deming NM. Our Google Earth location. This park is at 4500 ft elevation but that's about as low as we can get in this part of New Mexico. There is snow just a couple thousand feet above us, but here it is at least above freezing, and there's frequent sunshine.
Collecting rocks in Rockhound State Park
Rockhound State Park was Emma's choice. You can collect jasper, agate, opal, and quite a few other types of gemstones here. A short steep hike from the campground rewards you with beautiful views in all directions, and heaps of stone to pick through -- no rock tools necessary!
We found a lot of jasper, plus some other pretty stones we haven't yet identified. The rangers in the Visitor Center will probably help us with some, and we may call on our friend Mike Bertch, who is waiting for us in Tucson, to identify the rest. While we were up hiking around, I also found a cactus with my knee, which required me to gently roll up my pantleg (in 40 degrees and a cold wind) and carefully pluck about thirty tiny spines out.
Near Deming, NM. Click for larger
Along the way here, Eleanor got a hankering for a tourist trap along I-10. Now she has a new leather hat, which you can see in the first picture. Emma has new moccasins too. I think that takes care of our tourist trap needs for a while ...
Below a gray sky we bid adieu to the RV park, checked the post office one last time for any late packages, and towed the Airstream seven miles from our base elevation of 3,600 feet to the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park at 4,400 feet.
The Visitor Center and cave were virtually abandoned, which is not surprising considering the abysmal weather. All the winter tourists seem to be fleeing for warmer spots, which strikes me as an excellent plan except that there aren't any warm spots outside of southern Florida and Mexico. We had no trouble parking all 50 feet of Airstream & truck in the lot. The cave was so deserted that we walked for over 30 minutes before encountering another person.
We hiked down the Natural Entrance, which is about a mile and 850 feet of descent. This hike is strenuously cautioned by the park service. "Evalute your physical condition before attempting this walk!" "Weak knees are common!" Huh. It's a walk downhill on a paved trail with handrails. Last time Eleanor did it seven months pregnant.
Our National Parks pass got us in for free. Except now it's the "America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass," and now it costs $80 instead of $50. They've dropped the $15 eagle hologram, too. This new pass basically covers every Federal site that charges admission (but it doesn't cover camping fees or added-value tours). We got this latest pass in Vicksburg when our National Parks pass expired, and using it today saved us $18, so we've got a few parks to go before it pays off.
The cave is supposed to be a constant 56 degrees, but in winter the cold air above settles into the cave and causes a constant breeze at certain points on the Natural Entrance hike. Since today the temperature at the entrance was 29 degrees (with fog), we had a chilly hike in.
Still, the cave is magnificent and amazing for both its natural features and the incongruous man-made ones. This is confusing for Emma, who at one point marveled at the huge open space replete with hanging stalactites and said, "I cannot believe this is not man-made!" This is from a child who has visited numerous large caves and lava tubes and who can readily identify cave draperies, popcorn, soda straws, and "bacon."
Carlsbad is a park from the old school, so it features things you won't see in other parks from a more enlightened era. For example, at Kartchner Caverns State Park in Arizona, they are so concerned with protecting the natural condition of the cave that visitors are sprayed with a fine mist to remove dust, and walked through several air-tight doors to control humidity. At Carlsbad, they have a restaurant in the cave.
Stamps in our National Parks Passport
The restaurant was built in 1928, and not surprisingly the bathrooms directly adjacent arrived shortly after. There's also a mailbox, so you can post a letter from below the Earth's surface. In fact, you can do quite a bit of shopping underground if you care to. After an hour of hiking we stopped in for a snack and asked Emma if she wanted to see more cave, or ride the elevator up and out. "More cave!" So we hiked the entire Big Room tour too, for a total of about 2.5 miles.
Considering that it was a totally dismal day, hiking underground beat the other options available. I had hoped for clearing by the time we emerged, but at 1 pm it was still very cold and cloudy, and we high-tailed it for the south. Along the route (Rt 62/180 to be specific) you have to climb up to 5,695 feet in the Guadalupe Mountains. Up there it was dense fog, temperatures in the upper 20's and windy. I had to drive carefully, constantly on the lookout for ice on the road, until we descended back down before 5,000 feet.
We are covering a lot of miles in order to have time to explore some things in New Mexico and Arizona before we have to fly out. So we have stopped for the night in Las Cruces, boondocking in the retail center while we consider our options. We may stay here a few days (in which case we'll get a campground) or move on, depending on how things look.
Three faithful blog readers have emailed me to say I talk too much about food. (You know who you are.) So today I'll talk about water for moment. Specifically, how to deal with drinking water while we are in Mexico in March.
The big advice you get from people about traveling in Mexico is "don't drink the water!" Montezuma's Revenge, a.ka. "traveler's diarrhea" is the big fear. In most cases, it comes from drinking local water that has normal bacteria that our delicate US-based systems aren't accustomed to. It can also result from critters in the water (worms, parasites).
So the first line of defense for an RV traveler is to make sure the water in your fresh water tank is safe, for showering, brushing teeth, etc.
We've got a couple of methods to assure the water in our tank is safe. We can fill it with known good water (bulk bottled water sold in grocery stores), or we can pre-filter it with a charcoal filter to remove excess organic materials and then chlorinate the water each time we fill the tank.
Chlorination is pretty simple: you just add a measured amount of bleach to the water, and let it sit a prescribed time before using it. We'll use a second charcoal filter at the kitchen sink to help remove some of the bleach taste (which is already built into our Moen faucet) and also let the water sit before bottling it for the refrigerator.
Another good tip I got for masking the bleach taste is to add Kool-Aid, iced tea mix, Gatorade powder, or lemon/lime flavorings to the water. But most likely we'll just use the tank water for showering and stick to bottled water for brushing teeth, cooking, and drinking.
Beyond that, we'll follow the advice I got from my friendly Airstream M.D.: be careful about eating local fare or questionable grocery items, peel all fruit and avoid ice or open drinks. If we were going to stay for a long time and eat out a lot, we might consider Hepatitis A vaccination as well, but that seems to be overkill for a one or two week visit where we'll mostly be eating our own food.
Today's outing was to Living Desert State Park, up in Carlsbad. It's really more of a zoological park, featuring landscapes, animals and birds native to New Mexico. It's a nice spot on a sunny day, since the bulk of the exhibits are outdoors. For $5 (kids under 7 free), it's a cheap half-day out, and very educational. As with any zoo, a long lens is essential to getting good animal photos.
We would have gone to the caves, but weather suggested otherwise. It was a sunny and dry day today, perfect for walking around the park, whereas tomorrow we've got a chance of rain -- or even snow. I doubt that will really happen, but in any case tomorrow seems the right day to explore the caverns. Then, we'll head southwest.
Seeing the Google Earth image of our campsite last night started me thinking. It's amazing how we can go somewhere but not really know much about what's around us, until we start asking questions and poking around. In this case, I had realized we were in an oil field when I spotted a derrick by the road, but had no idea how many oil wells were surrounding us.
This morning I decided to make some mental notes as we drove through west Texas along I-20, and then Rt 285 north from Ft Stockton to New Mexico. Tallying up the things I saw as we drove turned a "boring" drive into a really fascinating one. Everything was worth noticing: oil wells, small gray deer among the cedars, ranch gates made of stone, sagebrush, mesas and buttes.
The things we saw today tell me that we have crossed the line from low elevation and arid climate to a much drier high desert climate. At first, I-10 cuts through rolling hills, revealing cliffs of yellow limestone and millions of years of geologic history in sedimentary layers. Then around Ft Stockton, the ground becomes flatter and the plants gradually become more and more scattered. The cedars that help define the hill country are almost gone. The temperature drops more rapidly in the desert air at sunset (it was 37 when we arrived and has since dropped into the 20s) and even Emma's hair is telling me that humidity is much less than it was a couple of days ago in Austin.
We decided to skip Marfa and head north to Carlsbad Caverns. Emma's still nonchalant about the caves, but Eleanor and I want to see them again. The last time Emma was here, she was still in the womb, and Eleanor was carefully walking down the cave's natural entrance, eight months pregnant.
We've parked at the only place in Whites City, at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. Whites City is basically a tiny intersection at 3600 feet elevation, bearing the usual tourist stuff (restaurant, gift shops, motel, post office, etc). It's a cousin of many such places around the country: Wall Drug in South Dakota, "The Thing" in Arizona, "South of The Border" in South Carolina, etc. Whites City is not nearly as interesting as those larger brethren, but definitely cut from the same cloth.
It was once much more of a tourist trap than it is today. Along the highway leading here, you can still see the remains of dozens of black-and-red billboards advertising the place in its heydey. The few readable signs are a tip-off to how long ago that was. My favorite said, "WHITES CITY. KODAK FILM -- FLASHBULBS". When was the last time you bought a flashbulb?
Best Western has taken over the former Whites City motel, but it still features a low-budget RV park out back, of the type you see all over the west: a dusty (or muddy) dirt parking lot, decaying facilities, questionable electric, wide open spaces and a view of the highway. Full hookups, $20. Many other western parks are cheaper, running as low as $10 but there's no competition in Whites City, so they can charge more.
There are about six or seven rigs here in the lot. It's far from a luxury resort, so they must all be cheapskates like us, or unwilling to make the 20 mile commute down from Carlsbad. The first hint of the park's status is the broken gate with a fragment of splintered wood sticking out. A sign warns that trailers must swing WIDE to avoid hitting the gate. They're not kidding. It took us two tries to make it through without a long scratch on the streetside of the trailer.
At our site, the first electric outlet we tried was mis-wired (reversed ground and neutral according to our tester), there were no caps to the sewer outlets, and the grill is completely rusted and burned out in the bottom, rendering it unusable. A heap of old Whites City billboards are piled just beyond our site in the cactus. Deep muddy ruts at the edge of the campground give testimony to a mighty battle that recently occurred with a large RV that was apparently trying to turn around and got stuck. The entire place has an air of benign neglect.
But we don't care. It's just a place to park for the night, and as long as the water is potable and the sewer doesn't back up, it'll be fine. The high desert feels good, even at 37 degrees.
Housekeeping notes: (1) The blog is now on Mountain Time. (2) I can't post pictures because we are on Verizon's "extended network". For some reason, the slow speed of that network doesn't agree with our blog software and I can't get photo files to upload. I also can't successfully FTP them. So any photos you see in tonight's or tomorrow's blog entries are the result of my emailing them to one of my correspondents, who posts them for me.
Our Google Earth location.
Hmmm... just when the weather gets nice, we have to go.
Our courtesy parking spot last night
We're being pressured by our airplane tickets again. That deadline for getting to Tucson is looming over us. It would have been nice to stay in Myron's courtesy parking spot another night, and it would be even nicer to stay through the Region 9 Vintage Rally that starts on Thursday. But we've lingered as long as we can. If we stayed any longer we'd have to rush through New Mexico. As it is, I am sorry to be bypassing Big Bend National Park. That's practically a crime.
We took the scenic route west from Austin, and didn't join I-10 for about 150 miles. This was a great way to see more of the hill country, and generally get a nice feel for that chunk of Texas. Eventually we ended up on the interstate, and at that point the speed limit was a breezy 80 MPH.
That's the highest speed limit we've ever seen in the United States, and I am told that it will go higher still as we head further west. For the record, we don't tow over 70 MPH, although I suppose we could. Myron and I had a talk this morning about the problems of blown tires (he's had a few and so have many other Airstreamers) and I am not eager to experience the joy of a trailer tire blowing at highway speeds. So I watch the speed, and checked the pressures this morning and all the lug nuts too.
We're parked at the Caverns of Sonora RV Park about seven miles off I-10 in Sonora, TX. John had suggested we check out the cave tour but Emma is not psyched. She says she's seen a lot of caves and they're all the same. Too bad ... because we are headed to Carlsbad next. But since she's unexcited, we are going to skip the tour here ($20 per adult, $16 for kids) and just take advantage of the cheap pull through sites ($15/night water & electric) for the night.
One feature Emma does like about this place is the animals. Many deer are roaming around here, and a couple of peacocks too. The deer are natives, the peacocks are imported. I'll shoot a picture in the morning and try posting it from one of the wi-fi enabled Texas highway rest areas.
Our Google Earth location. If you zoom out on Google a bit from our location, you'll see a maze of little dirt roads and what look like house sites. Actually, I believe they are all part of the big oil field in this area. Nobody seems to live out here, but the oilfield roads go everywhere.
Over the past few weeks I've been working with Joe via email, to figure out when and where we are going to head into Mexico. We still don't have a firm plan but a few ideas. The latest plan is to extend a trip beyond what we had originally considered. We're looking at a cross-Mexico trip through Sonora and Chihuahua. Soon you'll be hearing a lot about that as we figure out the details of traveling in Mexico.
One tip I got from experienced Mexico travelers we've met was to get Mike & Terri Church's book, "Traveler's Guide to Mexican Camping." Chapters 2 and 3 of this book should be mandatory reading for anyone considering taking an RV into Mexico. I'll explain the issues, and what we've decided to do, as we go.
This morning I met up with Liz Lambert at Jo's Coffee. Liz is the owner of the retro-cool Hotel San Jose on South Congress Street (just a few blocks from Pecan Grove).
I hooked up with Liz because she's interested in vintage trailers. So much, in fact, that her current project is to refurbish a bunch of old Spartan, Vagabond, and other 50s and 60s trailers, put them on 15 acres of land in Marfa TX, and sell them as condo units. I interviewed her for the magazine, and we'll drop by the project in the next few days.
Liz's hotel is also the major sponsor of a bicycle racing team. They use this Airstream to transport their bikes and equipment.
We couldn't get another night at Pecan Grove, so we hitched up and moved out to a courtesy-parking spot by Lake Travis, at the home of Myron F. A beautiful spot, but we hardly had a moment to enjoy it before it was time to head off to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to meet John for a personal tour. John, another Airstreamer, volunteers at the center and is on the Board of Directors.
The wildflowers aren't in bloom this time of year, and many of the plants were dormant, but thanks to John's interpretive guidance, it was still interesting. The architecture and design of the buildings and landscape are excellent. The center also boasts one of the largest rainwater collection systems in the world, which you can see a small piece of in the picture above. Giant 10,000 gallon cisterns made of native stone hold the rainwater. Since it's off-season, entrance to the center is free this month.
Tonight we met up with my old friend Vicki, who moved down here about fifteen years ago, and took her out for dinner at the Salt Lick in Driftwood (just outside Austin). We were here last year. It's a great spot for barbecue. It's so popular on weekends that they have to enforce a 90-minute limit for diners. We used up every minute catching up with Vicki, and another hour in the parking lot outside.
I was awoken this morning by an unfamiliar sight: sunshine in the bedroom window. The dismal weather has broken, at least for a day. I had work to do, but at least in the late afternoon we got a chance to take a long walk along the Town Lake (that portion of Lake Austin that flows through downtown).
Town Lake looks like a river. From Pecan Grove it's a short walk down Barton Springs Road toward Zilker Park and the trails that run along the edges of the lake. Today, enjoying the respite of sunshine after weeks of rain and cold, the locals were crowding the wide dirt and gravel trails, jogging, mountain biking, and pushing baby strollers.
Our loop was about four miles, but thanks to bridges and alternate routes you can program in any length you want. With the Town Lake trails, Zilker Park, a botanical garden, a sculpture garden, and the entire downtown, Austin has some great opportunities for pedestrians, unlike many other cities.
A quiet tributary to Town Lake gave these folks an opportunity for fishing and boating too. It's nice to be able to take a picture like that in January.
On the way back along Barton Springs Road we saw a little of the neon starting to light up. Elaborate neon signs are all over Austin, but I won't have time to get out tonight to shoot as many of them as I'd like. I wonder why they are so commonplace? They look terrific -- colorful -- exciting and retro.
Last February when we were in Austin we visited the Whole Foods Market at 6th and Lamar. That's just a few blocks from our location. It was such a fun time we decided to do it again. It's a tradition now. Plus, we like to browse interesting food.
"Yes, we have some bananas"
In keeping with the local slogan, "Keep Austin Weird", we picked out a smorgasbord of various odd items to sample and brought the whole pile home to spread out on the dinette. I was in a seafood mood so you'll notice that influence on the choices.
From top center going clock-wise: marinated seafood salad; ciabatta bread; crab, artichoke & parmesan bisque; grapes, "Pink Lady" apples, Concorde pears; Cowgirl "Red Hawk", "Oregonzola", Parrano, and Shropshire cheeses; roasted nuts; roasted edamame salad; smoked rainbow trout, pepper-smoked mackerel, smoked Chubb, Yukon Salmon "candy"; emerald kale and sesame grilled tofu; more soup; grilled asparagus salad.
And not for tonight, we bought bacon cheese and mushroom sausage; Italian sausage with romano; and Buffalo chicken and blue cheese sausage; Cajun-rubbed catfish.
For dessert: Italian cream cake, chocolate mousse cake, and chocolate truffle marquise. But who had room? There will be enough for lunch tomorrow and another day.
We decided to take a few days in Austin, because we liked it here so much last time. Part of the fun is Pecan Grove RV Park, a funky oasis in the middle of Austin. This is an old-time park that the city grew around over the years, and one of the last RV parks where you can camp just blocks from downtown of a major city. It has a mix of permanent residents and transients like us, plus a few eccentric millionaires. Right down the row, Matthew McConaughey keeps his Airstream, but he's not here at the moment -- he's in Australia shooting a movie.
Another feature of this park is an abundance of Airstreams. For whatever reason, Airstreamers are attracted to this place, and there are at least a dozen parked here, accounting for a sizeable fraction of all the trailers in the park. The drive over from Blanco on wet roads left our Airstream looking grim with streaks of dirt, so we're currently the shabbiest looking unit here. If we don't get some rain tonight I may sneak out and do a little washing.
This park, and the one next to it are endangered. Once at the outskirts of Austin, they are now sitting in the midst of prime real estate and hungry condo developers are making offers. In a few years I would expect them to be gone, so enjoy them while you can! Many others are, and the parks are full much of the year. We got the last spot this week.
Gunny and Eleanor at Rudy's
This evening Gunny came over and we headed out for dinner at a local chain called Rudy's for barbecue. Rudy's is sort of unusual. You pick up everything a la carte and make your own meal from the pieces. Free samples of everything except meat on the bone (ribs). If you want a sandwich, you get some bread and whatever you want in it. No waitstaff either, and you bus your own table. All the seating is family-style with folding chairs. It has no frills, but there's good food and a fun atmosphere.
Rudy's slogan: The Worst Bar-B-Q In Texas
Once we were seated one of the staff dropped by with three free cookies for dessert. He told Gunny that his was the best jacket they'd seen all evening. Gunny's jacket says "US Marine Corps" on it.
We'll stay in Austin for a few days. There's work to be done and more friends to be seen, plus I want to get over to Lamar Street at night to photograph some of the great neon signs over there.
This blog is for my friend Dr. C (but you can read it too).
Everyone tells us that Blanco is a neat little town, but when we drive through it looks like a small patch of not much. The Court House building, an ornate cube sitting primly in the middle of the green, has a sign in front of it that says you can rent it for events. The block of buildings across the street are the sort of half-rotted stone and wood construction you see everywhere in the old western towns, vacant of stores. I am reminded of your phrase about your hometown of Patagonia, that it is "a landfill in waiting."
But if you look more closely, Blanco has surprises and small treasures. You have to stop and talk to people to get the real picture of this place. Last night at dinner with Jim, we met the mother of the owner of Riley's Restaurant. She was a charming old lady, sitting in her chair by the entrance and chatting us up without guile or reserve. Today at the post office, "Chief" (of police? of the fire department -- I wasn't sure) came in to pick up a package and started a friendly round of ribbing and joking that everyone waiting in line joined in on. Everywhere we go, people are exceptionally calm and friendly. Those are the attributes of people who live in a low-stress region of the world, and who are comfortable with their places in life.
I took to asking people why they recommended we come to Blanco. The real estate agent in Wimberley, our friend John in Austin, the folks at the store .... all said that Blanco is the kind of small place that feels like the town they remember from their childhood: friendly, sweet, uncomplicated.
They're right about that. Blanco even has institutions that haven't been seen in other parts of the country in decades. The most-often mentioned local restaurant is a simple cafe carved out of the front of the local bowling alley. It's a place where you can still get a decent dinner for $5.95, with two sides. The bowling alley itself is a throwback: 9 pin bowling with manual pin setters. They hire kids to set the pins up between frames. If you want to bowl, you need to reserve a week in advance and your reservation is "dependent on availability of pin setters."
And if you look closely, or talk to anyone in town, you'll find out that the block of decaying storefronts is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation. The daughter of a car dealer, so the gossip goes, was given a pile of money to spend and she chose to spend it renovating Blanco's one-block downtown. Makes you think maybe Blanco has an upswing coming.
I'd hate to see it become too much of a success. Fredericksburg, 40 miles to the west, is a tourist mecca with all the trappings and high real estate prices. Blanco is still a real town, with real (nice) people, and while it's not an exciting place, it is a place worth visiting.
I worked in the trailer most of the day, but the tedium of work was broken up by two unexpected visits. Warren K is parked just a few sites away from us in his shiny new Airstream Classic 25. He's a nice guy who has a rough medical history, out full-timing on his own and trying to enjoy life as best he can. When I meet people like Warren I'm always impressed with the healing power of travel. It doesn't cure problems, and you can't escape them, but it does provide perspective, new friends, and opportunities for reflection. That's got to help.
Luc and Jane
Jane and Luc dropped by too -- they're 20-somethings (I think) roaming the country in a 1969 B-van with no particular plan except to see what there is to see. They knocked on our door just because we have Vermont plates and Luc is a Vermonter too. You don't see too many people from Vermont in Texas, I guess. They brought over some brownies and we compared notes about places we'd been before Jane had to head off to her temporary job up in Johnson City. Once they have some money saved up, they'll move east, but they were so nice that I hope we can cross paths again.
So goes a day in our life. Blanco ain't Disneyworld but sometimes that's better. Now I'm reminded of what you like about Patagonia. See you there, in a few weeks.
Our hunt for a winter home has officially begun. Everything west of Austin TX to Borrego Springs CA is in our search area. So we spent the day touring and considering the merits of small towns in the Texas hill country, that area west of Austin and San Antonio where rolling hills and cedars and cattle make up the landscape. Amazingly I forgot my camera and so I have no photos for you today -- sorry about that.
This evening, our friend and blog reader Jim Whitworth showed up at the trailer to take us out to dinner, which was a really nice surprise. Jim has offered a lot of useful advice about real estate in this area, and we'll probably go to his house in a few days to learn more.
Rita, a blog reader from Portugal, recently wrote to us to ask some basic questions about the things we bring along for our full-time travel. Since we get asked this a lot, I thought I'd share Rita's questions and our answers:
Rita: how do you know how many clothes to bring and how many pairs of shoes?...
We packed only what we need, which means not "something for every occasion." We have clothes for dry and wet weather, cold weather as low as 30 degrees (with layering), and warm weather. We have enough clothes to last for at least two weeks in average weather, without doing laundry. We left about 3/4 of our clothing behind in storage and periodically return there to pick up new things and drop off clothes we are bored with.
Eleanor says you should pack your absolutely favorite clothes. That way you'll enjoy what you're wearing every day. She made the mistake of bringing "camping clothes" the first few months. When she realized the difference between camping and full-timing, she swapped all the clothes out for things she likes to wear and was much happier with her choices.
Each of us has three pairs of shoes, which is plenty for a wide variety of situations if you are thoughtful about what you bring. I have a pair of hiking boots, a pair of casual everyday shoes, and sandals. Since we don't go to formal events, I was able to leave the wingtips at home. ;-) Emma has sandals, sneakers, and puddle boots. Eleanor has two pairs of sandals (one for hiking, one for dress), sneakers, and casual shoes. We all have a pair of slippers as well.
Rita: how about books and magazines?...do you buy them? after you read them do you keep them?...
Well, as a magazine publisher and avid reader, yes, I buy books and magazines all the time. But I don't keep them. Books either get left at campground "book swaps", mailed to friends, or shipped home for storage. All magazines get recycled with friends or thrown out -- except of course AIRSTREAM LIFE! It's a crime to throw out Airstream Life.
Rita: do you buy souvenirs?
Yes, but only very small ones. We each have things we collect. I collect stamps in our National Parks Passport. I also take digital photos -- 12,000 at last count, of which I've retained about 5,000. These take no space and they are free, but very memorable. Emma collects small rocks (no larger than 1" diameter) in a fishing tackle box. When the box gets full, some rocks get shipped back home. Eleanor collects National Park pins.
We do buy other things to decorate the trailer, but anything large gets shipped back to storage. That's rare. We try to only buy things that are truly memorable and interesting -- which doesn't include t-shirts, coffee mugs, and other typical tourist stuff. For example, we bought a hand-made sotol walking stick in Big Bend National Park. This was very meaningful to us because it was made by a fellow we met from the Mexican town of Boquillas, who I interviewed and later featured in the magazine. We kept it in the trailer for a few months and then dropped it off in Vermont at our storage unit. Later it will be a treasured artifact in our next house.
Rita: how do you manage to keep the things on your airstream streamlined so that you are not overflowing in "stuff", since we all know how "stuff" is so easy to accumulate? did the three of you make a rule on how to keep it light?
Yes, and the rule is simple: bring only what you need and for everything optional that comes in later, something else has to go. Even with this rule, we have managed to accumulate more stuff than we should have. So it's important to periodically go through the entire trailer and look at everything with a critical eye: Do I need this? Have I used it in the past three months? Will I definitely use it in the next three months? If the answer is "no", it goes away.
It's amazing how much stuff we brought that we thought we "might need someday" and which has never been used. In fact, we are currently making another pass through our possessions, because the trailer is starting to get too close to our maximum weight for my comfort. So far we've filled two 14x14x14" boxes with stuff to send home.
The bottom line is that you can't bring it all with you. Nor should you. If you find you need something that you don't have, you can usually get it readily enough. And a great lesson from this form of travel is learning what you really need -- and that's a lot less than you might think.
OK, this entry was supposed to be entitled "Maintenance Day 3" but it got eclipsed by other events...
That's not to say the guys at Roger Williams Airstream didn't do great work yesterday. They did. They re-assembled the Hensley hitch with the new parts, and it looks great. Note it is now metallic pewter rather than orange.
They also installed a pair of SilenX computer fans in the refrigerator vent. These will help greatly with the refrigerator cooling when we get back into warm weather. Last summer we had several days when, in temperatures over 90 degrees, our refrigerator was unable to stay at proper temperature. In Death Valley, the interior of the compartment went up to 58 degrees and we lost all the perishables.
The problem was that the refrigerator cooling depends on a draft of air rising up the chimney and out a roof vent. The chimney is partially obstructed by design, and in very warm temperatures the draft is weak. So the two fans, which are on a switch, were mounted at the top to pull air up and out of the roof vent. In the picture, the vent cap has been removed to allow installation of the two fans. They are mounted on silicone feet to reduce vibration.
But the big event of the day was an invitation by fellow Airstreamer and blog reader Dwight to come see his workplace. Dwight happens to be a helicopter flight instructor at FlightSafety in Hurst TX. They are the factory-authorized Bell helicopter training facility. Dwight -- realizing I have a fixed-wing pilot's license -- emailed me to offer me a tour of the facility and some time in one of their simulators.
Now, if you're not a pilot or interested in aviation, this may not mean much to you, but for me it was like being invited to Willy Wonka's factory and given a lifetime supply of chocolate. FlightSafety is the premiere flight training company. If you want a professional pilot to be very well trained, that's where you send 'em. Transition classes to get an existing helicopter pilot into a new Bell turbine helicopter run about $20,000 -- and that includes about six hours in a really incredible simulator like this one.
The Bell 430 flight simulator
So obviously I dropped everything and drove 40 miles over to Hurst to fly the big sim. I had zero helicopter experience, but Dwight made it easy. With his touch-screen instructor's panel, he can put the simulator at any airport in the world, in any weather, and it all seems perfectly real, full motion and sound included.
The instructor's control panel
What can I tell you ... it was amazing. Everything from the initial engine-start procedures right through the landing is exactly like the real thing. We took a Bell 430, which is a beautiful aircraft that can carry up to 10 people, around the countryside. At one point I crashed it, which was interesting. The jolt you get when hitting the "ground" is pretty considerable.
The Bell 212 helicopter simulator by FlightSafety
Then we switched to another room with the Bell 212 sim and flew it around New York City. I orbited the Chrysler building, flew down the Hudson River, and then came around to the Wall Street heliport. Dwight demonstrated a couple of wingovers, which were serious fun too. The things you can do with a helicopter are just amazing. I could really get into flying one for real.
It was interesting to fly both simulators, since the Bell 430 has FADEC controls and the 212 doesn't. What a sweet ride in both, though!
Wall of patches of pilots who have trained at FlightSafety
Upon my departure Dwight awarded me a certificate from FlightSafety International, which reads "future aviator Rich Luhr piloted the Bell model 430 simulator as sole manipulator of all flight controls." That's a souvenir I'll treasure.
We spent last night inside the service bay, which is always a peculiar experience. When we wanted the "sun" to set last night, we had to step out into the shop and snap off the overhead lights. Then this morning, we woke up in pitch black thinking it was still early morning ... until David and Bret came in and turned the lights back on.
(In case you are wondering, while we are in the enclosed shop we don't run the propane appliances, for safety.)
Today we are pulling out of Roger Williams Airstream and heading south to the hill country west of Austin. We'll be there for at least a few days.
Sign of the week!
So far the maintenance stop is working out fine. We've found some problems and fixed them. The latest little bug found was on the front. Some small diagonal cracks have started in the aluminum near both of the bottom corners of the front compartment.
Since the cracks are minor and a complete fix would be extensive, we decided to try stop-drilling the cracks and sealing them against rain with caulk. They aren't structural cracks. We'll keep an eye on them to see if they go further.
The guys also did some tweaking on the front compartment door to eliminate the persistent leak we've had there when towing in the rain. The gasket wasn't sealing well on the left side, and with some "persuading" of the interior frame they seem to have gotten the gasket to seal evenly all around.
The hitch parts were completely sanded down and repainted, with primer and multiple top coats. I expect the new paint job will last longer than the original.
Last night we chanced the weather (which remains cold and rainy here) and went out for dinner at our friends Paul and Anne's home in Paradise. Yes, Paradise is only 30 miles up the road from here. Paul and I grilled a few steaks, and Eleanor made two puff pastries for dessert. One was filled with the peach jam we got in Ruston (superb), and the other was filled with lingonberry jam. In the photo above, Emma is lamenting the fact that Eleanor won't let her have a second serving of dessert.
Tonight I had a special adventure, but I'll save that for tomorrow's blog, along with the accomplishments of today (day #3)...
We've been towed into the service bay for our maintenance review. The trailer was covered in snow and icicles, so it immediately began melting, which gave Emma some ideas. She spent the morning playing with the ice and then making snowballs and snowmen outside in the fast-melting snow.
(See, we really are prepared for cold weather if we find some. It didn't take much trailer space to include these clothes. I'll be posting on this subject in greater detail soon.)
I had earlier emailed a list of some of the things I wanted done, but in the morning I reviewed them with Robert and Denver, since David was stuck at home by the snow. Our list includes a safety check of several major systems (propane, electrical, running gear/brakes, hitch), a wheel bearing re-pack, installation of a refrigerator cooling kit, fix the leak in the front compartment, and maybe install an inverter. We'll also throw in a few upgrades while we're at it.
The original plastic vent sitting atop some new stainless ones
The first upgrade was one of David's new & very cool stainless stove vents. The original vent was gray plastic, and it had two disadvantages. First, it was not a great cosmetic match for the Airstream. Second, it had little plastic tabs on the outside which needed to be secured for every trip, and then removed so the vent could be used. Inevitably we would forget to either lock it or unlock it.
The new vent is all stainless steel, so it matches the upgraded furnace and water heater covers we installed last May when we were here. The stainless flap is heavy enough that it doesn't need tabs to secure it for travel, and yet it doesn't come open during towing. Very cool-looking too.
The next item was a routine wheel bearing re-packing. It has been probably 18,000 miles since our last re-pack in May. No problems were found. While they were at it, the guys cleaned and checked the brakes, which they report look perfect. The new semi-metallic brake pads are wearing reasonably well (they've been on for about 2,000 miles) but I'll still switch to ceramic when these are worn out. These will need to be checked very 5,000 miles, judging from the current wear.
20,000 miles of towing since install
Now to the Hensley. The hitch has been working perfectly, but I felt it was time to take a look inside and see if there was any wear. At the very least, it needs a repaint.
Nubs worn off the zerk fittings
Inside we found some significant wear in three places. The zerk (grease) fittings have an inner spring-loaded nub that is supposed to ride in a groove on the weight distribution bars. You can't see this in normal operation. If the zerks are screwed in too tightly, the nub will wear off, and that seems to be what happened here. Compare the new and old zerk fittings above.
The internal bushings of the Hensley were worn too. We've kept our hitch well lubricated, so I would guess that this is not unusual wear. Another high-mileage owner has told me his bushings wore the same way, and that with wear the weight distribution on the tow vehicle changes. Obviously we'll be replacing these as well -- fairly easy to do.
Finally, note the stretched metal on the first hole in the picture above. This is a direct result of the struts on the Hensley not being tight. Properly adjusted, the strut bar (not pictured) should be under tension and pressing forward (left in this picture) in the hole. If the strut is loose, it will stretch the metal as has happened here. This probably occurred last summer when for a while I accidentally mis-adjusted the strut bars. When I realized my mistake, I re-adjusted them but the damage was probably already done. Fortunately, this is not a big deal to fix either.
The full Hensley repaint takes a while, so I don't expect to have the hitch back on until Friday. But it's a good thing we took it apart to examine it. With the miles we have put on, extra preventative maintenance is really important.
Now all you northern readers don't have to feel bad about our fun in the sun and warm weather down here in the south -- because there isn't any of either in Texas! We woke up this morning to an inch of fresh snow and more coming down. The guys here at the dealership say they haven't seen snow here in years, and certainly not two back-to-back storms like the area has had this week.
Of course we were completely comfortable in the trailer last night. I mention this only because a lot of people ask us if our trailer is insulated. Of course it is. Temperatures in the 20s are no big deal. So if you want to go camping in sub-freezing weather, go right ahead. Your Airstream is built to take it. All the water tanks are heated by the furnace, and there's no need to "dry camp" as long as you can find an open dump station in the winter.
Today, technician Denver Russell has towed our trailer into the shop for our systems check, and a few upgrades. I'll be documenting everything we do over the next couple of days ... because we aren't going anywhere while the roads slippery.
Oh man, it's cold. Cold cold cold. I'm talking icicles on the trailer this morning. Frozen sewer cap. Hats and gloves while hitching up. We could be in Vermont this week and the only difference would be a few inches of snow.
Last night it was too cold to run the heat pump, and cold enough that the holding tanks had the potential to freeze, so we switched over to the furnace and started burning propane instead. The furnace blows hot air onto the holding tanks, so we really aren't in danger of a freeze-up. It would have to be much colder (probably around zero Fahrenheit) before there would be any concern.
We finally got a break in the weather today, long enough to drive on ice-free I-20 for three hundred miles to Weatherford TX. The warmest we saw all day was 30 degrees, and it's 25 now. With this funky weather pattern, it doesn't look like we'll catch a break for at least a week, and we might get more freezing rain in the next few days.
But at least we are here, parked at Roger Williams Airstream for service over the next three days. Freezing rain won't be a big concern since we have nowhere to go, and the service center has a heated bay that they'll tow us into every day. Quite a contrast however from our last visit -- it hit 100 degrees when we were here last May.
We've got a full slate of stuff to have done on the trailer, both maintenance and upgrades, so watch carefully for the next few days. We'll also be catching up with some friends. So even though it's cold, it should be interesting and fun.
Sorry no pics today. But yesterday I uploaded a lot of photos from our recent adventures, to our photo album. Check 'em out!
We received this email from blog reader Larry Ko:
I love to cook Chinese, Cajun, Mexican, and Italian, making do with ingredients on hand. My kitchen is stocked with lots of infrequently used kitchen tools. What tools and appliances do you feel are a functional must for your AS kitchen? What basic items do you keep stocked in your pantry?
Good to hear from you. Lots of people ask the same questions you just asked, so I think this time I'll "blog" the answers.
We don't eat out a lot, but we are full-timers that travel around a lot. So, as we travel, I like to pick up local food items and cook with what I purchased. We always try to go to farmers markets and those little roadside stops that offer unusual local fare, like smoked fish, tangerines from 7th generation trees, garlic fried peanuts, or mutton tacos with a pickled serrano.
If you plan to camp some place remote, and want to have the "local fare" for your meals, pick up what you need along the way instead of packing it ahead of time. But, if you plan to be in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and think you may want Thai or Cajun, then make plenty of room and pack it with you. My philosophy is "I can always hand-wash t-shirts and undies but I can't purchase gumbo filé in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument."
What basic items do you keep stocked in your pantry?
Fresh is best, so our refrigerator is always full. However, we gravitate toward out of the way places where diverse food items are not readily available. As a professional cook, there are certain things I refuse to do without. I love to cook many different cuisines, so I have way too much stuff in the "pantry". Even though each thing is in small/single quantity, I still manage to fill four rubbermaid tubs, two overheads, and one cabinet. Rich complains that we have a trailer full of ingredients, but nothing to eat. ;)
My staple ingredients are:
rice: Basmati or Jasmine, Arborio (for risotto), wild, brown, and dried rice paper rounds (Vietnamese salad wrappers)
pasta: long, short, pearl, couscous
barley, lentils, flour (all-purpose & whole wheat), oatmeal, cornmeal, white grits, biscuit mix, baking powder & baking soda, white cake mix
raw honey, molasses, pure Vermont maple syrup and sugar: granulated, raw, dark brown, confectioners
tea: black, green, white, red, herbal (We don't just drink it, I cook with it too.)
coffee: drip, perk, espresso
peanut butter, cashew or almond butter, white & black sesame seeds, unsweetened dry coconut
various dried fruits & assorted raw nuts (good for snacking & cooking), unsweetened chocolate, chocolate chips
oils: olive (reg. & Extra-virgin), soybean, macadamia, cooking spray
vinegar: balsamic (white & red), cider
salt: kosher, sea, iodized
pepper: whole black peppercorns, coarse & fine grind, white fine grind
canned/jarred: red & green chilies, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, corn, black beans, mushrooms, coconut milk, coconut water, evaporated milk, olives, artichoke hearts, pineapple, pickles, salsa, garlic, ginger, basil, tamari, mirin, fish sauce, hoisin, nori, red & green curry paste
broth: chicken, beef, vegetable Progresso soups (for when I'm too tired to cook or we are very short on time)
wine: 2 dry reds & 1 white
dried herbs & spices: whole green cardamom, cumin, coriander, fennel, paprika, bay leaf, saffron threads, orange peel, lemon grass, sage, thyme, rosemary, cilantro, ancho chilies, chili powder, ground & stick cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne, red pepper flakes, gumbo filé, curry powder, and my own mixes for dry rubs, bbq, & Indian masala
What tools and appliances do you feel are a functional must for your AS kitchen?
Now I need to be able to prepare and serve all those ingredients. As you know, storage space and weight are an issue, so I try to make sure that the things I have can serve more than one purpose. For example, the carafe of my 4-cup coffee maker is also used as a teapot, a pitcher, and a gravy boat.
I didn't bring my "best" cookware -- too heavy and too large. But I don't like "non-stick" aluminum pans, so I purchased a standard 7 pc. set of mid-weight, durable, stainless steel pans (by Wearever) with the sandwiched-disk style bottom. To this, I added my favorite "risotto" pan, and an 8" fry pan with sloped sides. Our friend Brad brings his favorite cast iron skillet for "blackened" cajun dishes he loves to prepare.
I also have:
-small roasting pan with a collapsable rack that multi-tasks as a cooling rack and trivet
-broiling pan (purchased as an extra from the oven manufacturer)
-4 qt. crock pot with removable "crock" - multi tasks as a "deep" casserole dish w/ lid, and a great way to slowly reheat or keep foods warm
-4 cup auto-drip coffee maker and a 6-cup stove top percolator (when there's no electric and I still want coffee)
-2 cup stove top espresso pot (what can I say... I like coffee)
-hand blender (not mixer) and a 2-slice toaster
-3 pc. stainless steel mixing bowl set (multi-tasks as salad/serving/storage bowls)
-small metal colander and a small fine mesh strainer
-four culinary knives: 1 each - paring, 8" serrated, 8" chef's, 6" slicing
-small bamboo cutting board (doubles as a cheese board) and a medium one for use with my larger knives
-two serving spoons, 1 serving fork, metal tongs (multi tasks as salad/cooking/bbq tongs)
-two metal spatulas, 3 rubber spatulas and 3 wooden spoons of various sizes/shapes
-manual can opener, cork screw/bottle opener, citrus zester, instant read thermometer, pastry brush, small "box" grater, vegetable peeler, egg slicer, and kitchen scissors
-six metal skewers, a 2 oz. ladle, ice cream scoop, 1 cup measure and measuring spoon set
- metal serving platter, two metal pie plates, a bread basket and a fruit basket
- four oven mitts that double as hot plates
- disposable plastic containers of various sizes/shapes
- 4 bottle wall-mounted stainless steel wine rack (from IKEA)
- under-cabinet mounted paper towel holder
- wireless remote digital thermometer for the refrigerator (ambient temperature affects the refrigerator's performance so I adjust the setting accordingly)
- "Corelle" dinnerware, four each: dinner, salad/sandwich, & dessert plates, soup & dessert bowls
- 4 stackable coffee mugs (from IKEA), a 5 pc. flatware set for four, and 4 steak knives (Man can only eat off paper and plastic for so long.)
We also have a small "disposable" (good for about 12 uses) charcoal grill that we store in the outer compartment, and a step stool so Emma can operate at a proper counter height and I can see what's in the back of the overhead compartments. ;-)
I didn't start our trip with all this stuff aboard. It is a 15-month culmination of things I decided I wanted to have along in my kitchen for comfort as well as function. To help you determine what should be in you kitchen, I can suggest this technique: Put what you consider your kitchen necessities out onto your counter, review each piece and see if any can be used for more than one purpose. Those are the "keepers".
Other items that are favorites or "must haves" are next, and so forth. You can cut a lot out with this type of process. Then find a place in your kitchen for everything you picked out - in order of importance. Make sure that the most frequently used or favored items are easy to access. Then cook a few meals in it. You will find that you missed some items, but also that you packed ones you didn't use. Swap them out. I know there are things in my kitchen I could do without, but it would make cooking less fun, and I want to enjoy my kitchen -- small as it may be.
We're still waiting for the Dallas / Ft Worth area to get out from under that ice storm. The word from our on-the-spot reporters is not great: continued rain and ice expected into Monday at least.
We got a taste of it, but nothing serious. It rained all night. The rain stopped this morning and while we were in the matinee watching "Charlotte's Web," the skies parted to give us a reasonably nice 72 degree day. The lake flooded a little from all the rain last night, covering some of the bike path and all of the docks, but since all the campsites are located about 20 feet above the lake level, we're in no danger. I can't say the same for the people of the D/FW area, where patchy ice and frozen bridges are undoubtedly wreaking havoc.
While were at the theater today ordering a gigantic bucket of popcorn, the staff came up to us waving today's Ruston Daily Leader. "You're the family in the newspaper!" Yep, there we are on page 8A (Business Section), under the headline "Taking your business on the road". Another small-town Ruston moment.
Click here to download the
article as PDF (612 kb)
Will we be on the road in the morning? It's anyone's guess, but I wouldn't be surprised to be here another day.
Strange weather. Instead of getting colder and rainy, our weather actually improved, while Texas went into the deep freeze. Emma and I rode three laps around the lake here at Lincoln Parish Park (about 3 miles) under partly sunny skies and temperatures that eventually reached into the mid 70s.
Emma, ready for her ride
Eleanor took advantage of the opportunity to open the windows and vents, by cooking. She pulled out some ingredients and started a homemade soup in the crock pot.
Meanwhile, just a hundred miles to the west it was 30 degrees with freezing rain. I heard this from our friend Paul in Paradise TX:
It's still 28 out now. Close to 1/4" of ice on everything. I just finished filling the water tank on the International and going into town to top off the propane bottles. With the amount of ice they are forecasting, if the powerlines go down, we'll have a safe haven with utilities.
And from our friend John in Austin, TX:
Sit tight! We have had over 6" of rain in the last 24 hours. All kinds of reports of water rescues and road closings on TV. Many homes in south Austin are inundated; just saw a photo on TV of water up to a chair seat in a south Austin home. All indications are for an ice storm tomorrow and 3 to 4 sub-freezing nights with sporadic rain. They are even forecasting "thunder-sleet", which is quite rare in this area. A tornado hit San Marcos, 20 miles south of us, and did some major damage. I-35 was closed in San Marcos due to lines down across the highway. I may even miss my weekly breakfast taco tomorrow morning.
So we made the right call in staying here in lovely warm dry Ruston. And Scott, having heard that we were "stuck" here, met us in town and handed us a set of movie coupons so we can go see something on Sunday when it's supposed to be raining. Kyle from the tourism bureau also called up and offered me a set of tickets to tonight's basketball game at the college. The "Lady Techsters" are playing. Man, this is too cushy ... but I passed on the tix only because we knew Emma wouldn't be up for it.
While in town we stopped off at the local hardware store to get propane, and I ran into Jody Backus, who owns the store. Jody and I happened to meet yesterday at the reception for the governor. In addition to being a local businessman, he's also a member of the "Police Jury" which is sort of a Louisiana name for a town council. It turns out his grandfather owned an Airstream, too, and did some cool modifications on it. Jody is going to try to find me some pictures of it.
Jody Backus, in the red shirt
Running into him again so soon really reminded me of how I've been feeling about Ruston all week: it's a big town with a small town feel. Everyone's so friendly ... and everyone seems to know everyone else.
This afternoon I was sitting at our picnic table enjoying the warm south breeze and reading, when a fellow on a mountain bike came riding up. Turns out he was James Ramseur, who has been running the Parish Park since 1996. He designed the mountain bike trails, and lives right in the park with his family.
Our Airstream (left, in the trees) and a vintage 60s Airstream alongside the lake
We told James that the park was too cheap at $20 for a lakeside site with full hookups, but he said people had complained it was too much! Incredible. It's a steal. This park is excellent, with the woodsy feel of a state park but plenty of amenities, including bicycling and walking trails, a sand beach with swimming area, gazebos, docks, and rental spaces for gatherings. Plus three bars on the cell phone, Verizon Internet works, and we're only a few miles from everything. We had a nice talk before he had to ride off with his 10-year-old son.
So today has been very nice and we're happy to stay on a little longer. Perhaps tomorrow we'll go out for lunch, see a movie, or even visit a plantation home. There's still plenty to do in Lincoln Parish while we wait for Texas to warm up and dry out.
Last night we culminated our visit with dinner at the Squire Creek Country Club with Jody and Joe. Well, we thought this was the end, but things are turning out differently.
Dinner with Joe, Jody, Eleanor, and Emma
Eleanor and I were up late last night examining the weather forecasts, trying to decide whether to go or not to go to Weatherford TX in the morning. There's a frontal boundary draped across I-20 just west of the Texas border, and it is moving slowly. Here, it is in the 60s heading for 72 degrees today. We ran the air conditioner last night. But we'll be getting heavy rain all weekend, so it won't be much fun.
On the other side of the front in Texas, it is another world: about 30 degrees with ice forming. I called David Tidmore (of Roger Williams Airstream) on his cell phone this morning, and he reported that his shop is closed today. He said, "We're having an ice storm. You would be more than insane to come here today." OK. Towing on ice is bad enough to stop us, but towing on ice in the Dallas/Ft Worth metroplex is a nightmare I don't even want to imagine.
Although this decision might seem clear-cut, it was actually tough to make until I spoke to David. We had plans to courtesy park with our friends the Mayeux, and it would have been really fun. I wanted to go for it. It was a big disappointment to call our friends and tell them we weren't going to see them. But "get-there-itis" will kill you. When you're on a trip, keep this in mind. No matter how many plans will be upset by cancelling a trip, it's still less disruptive than an accident on ice.
There's not much point in going halfway, either. Between here and Dallas/Ft Worth metroplex there are some campgrounds but nothing we really feel like visiting in near-freezing temperatures and rain. Better to stay put in rainy warm weather, where we know a few people and can do some errands.
So we'll be in Ruston two more days. Who would have figured this would become a major stop? I'll go find propane, clean out some stuff in the trailer and ship it home, and we'll watch movies and do some home schooling. Eleanor has a major blog entry to share with you as well ... which you will not believe. We'll post that later this weekend.
With all the running around we've been doing, I haven't had a chance to really examine or talk about our current residence, Lincoln Parish Park. It's small, with just 33 sites. The camping area surrounds a 30-acre lake, which is ringed by a paved trail for walking. Most of the back-in sites are directly on the lake, as ours is, and the pull-throughs are very close also. At just $20 per night for full hookups, it's a bargain.
But the best feature is the world-class mountain biking trails all through the park. Scott wasn't kidding about the mountain biking here. This part of Louisiana has hills and just enough elevation for trails that can challenge beginners and advanced riders. A whole bunch of triathlons and competitive mountain bike rides are held here each year. I wish I had a mountain bike just for a day ... I'd like to at least look at the fabled "Tomac Hill" drop-off that goes 120 feet down followed by a big jump.
We picked up mail yesterday, and found a few surprises. Since I announced our General Delivery address to the world last week, two friends sent things for us. Dr. C sent a couple of books: A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo, and On the Border by Tom Miller. (I'll report on these later.)
Brad and Mary sent us a can of Spotted Dick, with this note: Enclosed you will find what you have all been looking for all of your lives. Portable English pudding.
Today we met with Mary Margaret van Diest, a reporter for the local newspaper. Mary Margaret interviewed us (I'll provide a link to the interview when it comes out) and then gave us a tour of the Ruston Daily Leader's office and printing facility.
The tourism guys took us out for lunch at Ponchatoula's, a local spot. Eleanor and I ordered a muffaletta to split, but the darned thing was so huge we could only eat half of it. Chris, the owner, came by and chuckled about it: "I love to watch people try to eat the whole thing."
Just a couple of blocks from downtown there is the small Louisiana Military Museum. For $2 admission (kids free) it's well worth visiting. The two main rooms are jammed with display cases of artifacts from the Spanish American War, Civil War, WW I, WW II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War. The collection of weapons and uniforms alone are very impressive. There's also a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk and a Huey outside. I've been told they have far more in the collection that can't be displayed simply for lack of room, so the parish leadership is trying to find the museum a larger location.
I also took a quick tour of the Parish history museum, which is housed in an 1886 mansion. So now I know the secret of why Ruston is where it is ... Mr. Russ cut a deal with the railroad to come through his 600+ acres and the railroad company laid out his town. Good politickin'.
Me, Governor Blanco and Scott Terry
Speaking of politics, you'll never guess who I ran into today. Well, you might since I let the cat out of the bag yesterday. Governor Kathleen Blanco was visiting and my buddies insisted on introducing us. I showed her my new "Hurricane Relief" wristband and told her that people all over the country were still thinking about what happened. (It's not over ... not by a long shot.)
This is supposed to be our last night in Ruston, but we're looking at a nasty weather system west of here. There may be icing or heavy rain in Texas this weekend. If things look bad on Saturday morning we'll spend another day here.
A day of contrasts today. We started at the Squire Creek Country Club, a relatively new golf course and residential housing development, where we were scheduled to present after lunch to a room of about 30 members. Lunch was first-rate, the decor was elegant, the ladies were all very nicely dressed, and after the creme brulee dessert I felt distinctly like I would be a disappointment to the audience. It was a hard act to follow.
Yet either they were all being very polite, or I did well enough. Eleanor and I had picked 59 slides from our collection of 5,722 (today's count), and I stood up there and did my best to explain why someone would voluntarily sell their home and go out on the road in a trailer full-time. Emma chipped in her thoughts on the subject from time to time as well, much to the amusement of the audience, and we got lots of great questions.
After the talk we were approached by several members of the audience who owned RVs (two owned Airstreams!) who told us about their own adventures, and how much they loved traveling. The co-owner of the country club, a very nice lady, even went so far as to say we would be welcome to come back and park overnight! (I don't think that offer applies to all travelers, however.) And for classy touch, everyone who attended the speech got a cute little silver Airstream charm.
The rest of our day was not so upscale, but it was darned interesting. We met the affable Scott Terry, who runs the local Chamber of Commerce, and he took us to the quiet nearby town of Gibsland. Gibsland is not a tourist town, but this visit was by request. Gibsland is famous for only one thing, the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde in an ambush by local lawmen in 1934.
"Some day they'll go down together,
And they'll bury them side by side,
To few it'll be grief,
To the law relief,
But it's death for Bonnie and Clyde."
That prophetic poem was written by Bonnie Parker, a young girl who could foresee how her life of crime at Clyde Barrow's side would eventually turn out.
But they weren't buried side by side. Their bullet-riddled bodies were captured on 16mm movies, displayed to schoolchildren, photographed in the embalming room, and eventually interred miles apart in the Dallas area. Such was the notoriety of this couple that some of their personal possessions were stolen even as they were still warm, lockets of Bonnie's hair were clipped off, and 10,000 people came to their funerals.
L.J. "Boots" Hinton
The Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum is the thing you would come to Gibsland for. Run by L.J. "Boots" Hinton, it is housed in the former "Ma Canfield's Cafe" where Bonnie and Clyde stopped for sandwiches just a few miles before driving into the police ambush that ended their bloody careers. The museum is encyclopedic: photos, movie memorabilia (from the 1967 film with Warren Beatty), guns, documents, 16mm film footage, books, and the car used in the movie.
Emma tries out the 1934 Ford, courtesy of "Boots" Hinton.
"Boots" will tell you everything you want to know -- and he has made a life's study of Bonnie and Clyde. His father was one of the two Sheriff's deputies who shot Bonnie and Clyde. Reading the guest register, the most common comment by visitors was "Sorry I didn't have more time!" I'd recommend at least an hour and preferably a couple of hours to really read and understand everything.
Another big day is planned for tomorrow. Would you believe a visit with the Governor? Stand by ... Ruston hasn't run out of surprises yet!
Emma had a rough night, so we let her sleep in today. Some nightmares ... probably the result of not burning off enough energy during the day. That put us behind schedule today, so we stayed back in the trailer during the morning and met Jody and Joe for lunch at the Faculty Club.
And thus the Tour Of Ruston began! First stop was the Exploratorium at the university, which is a small but packed hands-on science museum for kids. Emma learned about how tornadoes form, played with some pendulums, handled some rocks she hadn't seen before, etc., so that helped us do the science homeschooling for the day.
At one point it seemed we had four children
Next stop was Hart Associates, a custom lighting manufacturer. Jody has been enthusiastic about these folks for a long time, and with good reason. They make some fine stuff and absolutely everything is made to order. Consequently, they are high end and worth it.
We got a full factory tour by Sandra Grady Hart, who is half of the husband-and-wife team that runs the place. They seem to be able to make a lamp out of any material, in any size, with a wide range of designs that they develop right there, and put on any finish you might dream of.
From there we were guided by Gary McKenney, the General Manager of the local radio stations. He took us over to meet Ruston Mayor Dan Hollingsworth. The Mayor is a nice guy -- proven by the fact that for many years he and his wife took their five children Airstreaming! We had a nice conversation in his office. He asked about Emma's homeschooling. It turns out he's really concerned about kids learning to read, and thinks (as I do) that it's the most fundamental and important skill they'll learn.
Done? Not hardly. We zipped over to Libby and Andy Follette's pottery store along I-20, and then over to their shop on Pea Ridge to see Andy making some of the pottery.
Andy demonstrates making a plate
Like Hart Associates, we got the full tour, including a peek into a kiln to see finished products coming out. Each piece is a little different, so it's a bit like watching a birthing.
The peach trees here aren't doing much this time of year, but the peach store at Mitcham Farms is still open. So Gary took us over there, too, and we just caught Jim Mitcham as he was about to leave. Apparently in June peaches are a huge thing here, with a massive festival that has been held for about 50 years. Peaches are a very perishable crop, so they don't ship like apples or oranges. If you want the really, really, fresh peaches, you have to come here in June and eat 'em right away.
Yeah, it's hot and humid in June. But I bet the peaches are worth it. Since it's January, we'll just taste the peach jam and peach salsa that they sell in the off season, and think about those fresh peaches ...
A dormant peach orchard
If you think that was a lot, there's more coming tomorrow. We're scheduled to present at the country club tomorrow after lunch. I've recruited Eleanor to co-present and supply the "woman's perspective" since the audience will be mostly women. Then we hope to meet up with Scott Terry -- the guy who wrote us the funny letter -- and go see the Bonnie & Clyde stuff.
Not having done any real research for the day's route, we didn't know much about Vicksburg National Military Park before we arrived. It is a drive-through park, with a convoluted 16 mile road that rolls up and down the hills that gave the Confederate Army the high ground as they attempted to defend a stretch of the Mississippi River.
Dotted along the road are monuments, earth fortifications, cannons, and interpretive signs. It's the kind of place where you can spend any amount of time you want, depending on your interest. Despite the roads many twists, it was easily traveled by our 30-foot Airstream, and parking along the road was easy since hardly anyone was visiting today.
A highlight of this road is the ironclad gunboat "Cairo", the remains of which were rescued from the bottom of the Yazoo River after 100 years. It is now on permanent exhibit under cover, and a museum of its artifacts is nearby. The Cairo was one of seven magnificent boats of the "Inland Navy" created by the Union specifically for the Civil War. Covered in charcoal iron plating 2.5 inches thick, it boasted 75 tons of armor.
But the Confederates found the Achilles Heel of the ironclad, and exploited it by detonating a floating mine which mortally wounded the Cairo. With its port hull ripped open, the Cairo sank in 12 short minutes ... but miraculously all 175 crew survived.
Emma snaps a photo of the ceiling
Vicksburg NMP is not the sort of place that Emma finds interesting. She had never heard of the Civil War, and at age 6 her ability to comprehend it was limited. This meant a short visit before heading onward to Ruston.
Before we left Vicksburg, we took a short driving tour of the downtown and riverfront area. Four floating casinos have been established along the riverfront, but their impact on the rest of the city is not visible. Given the depressed nature of much of the town, I'm not sure that's a good thing.
We're established in Lincoln Parish Park now. This is a nice spot by a lake, with full-hookup sites. It's one of those places you might easily miss, but at least from our view before the sun set this evening, it's very pretty and (this time of year) not very crowded.
This evening we had dinner with Jody and Joe, who are responsible for our being here. They have revealed that we will have a full day tomorrow of red-carpet treatment courtesy of the people of Ruston. What that means exactly remains to be seen.
Leaving Topsail was tough to do, and not just for us. Airstreams slowly cruised the alleyways of the campground but seemed to keep getting "stuck" as they stopped again and again to say goodbye to new friends. One couple said they'd "been leaving" for over an hour but still hadn't managed to get out the exit road.
It was the same for us. Joe, Carol, Bill, and Wendimere came over and between coffee & lemon cake, conversation, and general procrastinating, we managed to turn our planned 10:30 departure into a 12:30 departure. It didn't help that the cold front had come through and cleared the skies at long last, leaving us with a dry and sunny 65 degrees. I could have stayed longer.
Finally we hitched up and hauled out on Rt 98 to the Ft Walton Beach post office. Our remaining mail finally arrived, and it includes a thick package of tourist info on the Ruston area, courtesy of the Mayor's office. I'll have to remember to take into account the mail delays that occur around holidays. The Post Office says Priority takes 3-5 days. Our experience has tended toward five days, especially when going cross-country.
Then we decided to pile on the miles, since it was a clear day and I wanted to have some extra time to stop on Tuesday. No "blue highways" today: it was I-10, I-12, I-55, and here we are in lower Mississippi. Normally I don't comment on the roads, but I have to say that I-55 wins my vote as the most boring Interstate in the US -- and yes, I've driven I-80 through Nebraska. In Louisiana it's also a teeth-rattling experience, although not nearly as bad as I-95 in CT and NY. Our scale for measuring the quality of a road is to count the number of things crashed on the floor in the trailer after towing. I-55 rates a three, whereas I-95 was about a nine.
We're parked behind yet another Cracker Barrel for the night. I swear we could be at any Cracker Barrel in the country and I wouldn't be able to tell the difference. These places are stamped from one mold, inside and out. Emma even knows where the giant checkboard is set up in the store, and of course she led me right to it so she could challenge me at checkers. She's getting too good at it (translation: she beat me like a rug.)
Tomorrow the plan is to drive to the Vicksburg National Military Park and spend a few hours studying history while day-camped in a parking lot, then finish the drive up to Ruston.
The flamingos were out this morning in a large flock!
Photo by Devoman
But I slept in ... and so did Emma, worn out from a big day of cycling on Saturday. I showed up for "breakfast" at site 164 around 9:00.
Herb, Rich, and Joe out for breakfast under the pines
The rally was supposed to end today, but it turned out that many of us were staying an extra night or more. By afternoon I counted 15 Airstreams still here, including Carol, Joe, Steve & family, and Wendimere & Bill.
Bill and Emma race to the beach
We decided to stay one more night. Taking an extra day turned out to be the right move, despite the high cost of this campground ($42 with tax). Instead of rushing out after the rally festivities, we got a chance to relax and enjoy a much less hectic day. Since we got a fairly nice day with temps in the 70s, I was also able to let the awning dry out before rolling it up. We've had rain every night and heavy dew as well, so drying things has been tough.
Emma took me, Joe, and Bill out for a bike ride to the beach, which is about a mile down a paved road. The sea was rough, as it has been every day since we arrived in the panhandle. The storms that keep passing through are really stirring up the water, so the "Emerald Coast" is more of a murky green.
On the way back, Emma organized a race. We took it easy because she still crashes regularly. Today she clipped the edge of the beach tram and landed in a big puddle, but got up feeling fine. So far she's had about six spectacular crashes but no injuries. Everyone in the campground knows her now, either because she's crashed on their lawn or ridden by screaming "Woo-hoo!"
This evening we had an "impromptu pot luck" which most consisted of leftovers of last night's huge dinner -- and it was good -- and then at 7:30 we showed Superman 3 on our big screen for seven adults: Carol, me, Eleanor, Wendimere, Bill, Steve, and Misty. The kids watched "Cars" on Emma's little DVD player in her bedroom. So yes, with a little creativity we can actually get seven people in position to watch a movie in here.
Tomorrow we will pack up and hit the road. Our date in Ruston is looming, and we need to cover 488 miles on Monday and Tuesday. We have no planned stop between here and there, but a few ideas and we'll just see how things go ...
Emma has officially learned to ride a bike, at the Can Opener Rally here in Miramar Beach, FL!
Bill and Wendimere arrived today, and Bill immediately got to his task of teaching Emma to bicycle. In July he removed Emma's training wheels in Aurora, CO. In November, he and Emma practiced in a parking lot in Haines City, FL. And today, the final breakthrough occurred. After a patient hour or so, Emma suddenly became proficient and comfortable at turning her bike, and began cycling madly through the streets of Topsail Hill State Park.
Bill and Emma working on riding skills
The problem was, we couldn't get her to quit. We took turns riding with her on our folding Birdy bicycles as she circled the block again and again, yelling, "Woo-hoo! I LOVE bicycling! Bicycling ROCKS!" She rode everywhere, shrieking with excitement and attracting plenty of attention from our fellow campers. I was hoping she'd learn to like bicycling, but I never expected anything like this. She has begged us to take her for a long ride tomorrow, so we will ride the one mile (no vehicles) road to the beach, if the weather isn't bad. Thank you, Bill!
It was "open house" all day, so besides practicing cycling with Emma, we were busy all day with visitors and occasionally getting to see someone else's trailer. There are three Safari 30 bunkhouses here (including ours) and so I'm interested in swapping notes with the other owners. We've already discovered a few bugs common to all of them. Since there are so few of us who own this model, sharing ideas and solutions is really helpful.
In the afternoon, our friend Joe and I did a little talking about our March (?) trip to Mexico. I wish I'd had a chance to view a few trailers, but we were so busy I never got breakfast or lunch. By the time dinner rolled around, I was starving ...
Wendimere chills by our trailer in the early evening
... which turned out to be good thing since dinner was a massive potluck event. There was a huge buffet line of everything that people had brought, which included at least fifteen entrees and a dozen or more desserts. One table was dedicated only to Cajun entrees. We had about 80 people attend and there was enough left over that everyone got to take a little home if they wanted to.
The evening's entertainment was "Raiders of the Lost Ark" projected on a huge white sheet of plastic in an empty campsite. (We "edited" the movie for Emma by covering her eyes or distracting her during the scary parts. At one point I looked over to see her crawling across the pavement toward a dark lump on the ground. She was capturing a frog.) It was a spectacular evening, warm, windless, and bug-free, except for a brief light misting toward the end of the movie. This has been a good time.
A very slow-moving line of thunderstorms bore down on us all night, bringing a constant distant booming and intermittent rain. This morning the line grew closer, and the sky grew darker until by 9 a.m. we were forced to put the lights on in the trailer. There was nothing to do but wait it out. We watched the weather radar on the Internet and left the TV on in case a tornado was reported.
If a tornado had appeared, our plan would be to run for the nearest safe structure. You can't tow your way out of danger, and driving along Rt 98 isn't really practical way to escape an unpredictable tornado either. Once in a while we get caught in a big storm and so I review the escape plan with everyone -- in this case, run to the bathrooms nearby, which are made of brick. Fortunately, this storm line brought us nothing but a few hours of rain.
When it subsided, I checked the mail again in Ft Walton Beach. Nothing there. We'll have to go back again tomorrow.
By the time we hitched up and towed 11 miles to Topsail Hill State Preserve, the sky was miraculously clearing and the rest of the day was spectacular. Not a cloud to be seen all afternoon, and dozens of Airstreams filling the campground.
Our group met up at an empty site (#164) to grill and hang out. I managed to get most of the crowd posed for a quick photo, but since it was a five-second exposure in the dark they're not all looking their best ...
A few friends we knew before are here: Carol, with whom we have enjoyed several adventures (most recently our trip from Salem OR to Idaho in July -- see the archives), Herb & Sidra, and Joe (known as 2air on the forums). The rest are new to us, but we're making new friends fast.
Today was our last day in Henderson Beach State Park. Tomorrow we'll pack up and move 11 miles down the road to Topsail Hill State Reservation to join the rally-ites who are already gathering. We dropped in on Topsail today just to check out the action and saw a wide range of Airstreams: a 16 ft Quiksilver Bambi, a Classic motorhome, a Land Yacht motorhome, a 34 ft Classic trailer, three polished vintage trailers, and others.
Since I spent the day working and nothing exciting happened, I'll just mention a few miscellaneous things.
The mail system I talked about yesterday didn't work perfectly. I didn't account for post-holiday mail delays, and it turned out that at least two packages have not yet arrived, although they should have. We'll take a last look tomorrow morning before we relocate. Worst case, we'll have to drive 20 miles from Topsail Hill to Ft Walton Beach to check over the weekend.
Weather-wise, it has been bizarre. I knew this part of Florida was changeable in the winter, but still the variation from day to day has been surprising. A few days ago it was beach weather. The next two days it was cold enough for hats and winter jackets. Eleanor put the extra apple cider out by our doorstep to keep it cool, but today it warmed up to the point that the cider started to ferment, and a dense fog developed, like the northern California coast. I can hear foghorns off the coast every once in a while.
Redwoods would like this, but the locals sure don't. And there's no telling what is coming this weekend, since the forecasts change every few hours. But it doesn't look great for the rally. Still, everyone is planning to have fun no matter what.
We're listening to The VAP tonight. I made the mistake of calling in to ask the "Panel Pros" (and my good friends) Tim, Rob and Colin what they thought I should do with the 1953 Flying Cloud. So The VAP episode #35 is half about the adventure Rob Baker had trying to retrieve the Flying Cloud, and of course they took the opportunity to rib me a little too.
Back in Charleston SC and in other places we have spotted the "hula man" signs. Go back to the original blog entry for a photo of what I'm talking about. Here's an explanation of those. Thanks to Hunter Hampton for tipping me off.
Today was mail day, which means we drove to the Ft Walton Beach post office to pick up General Delivery of whatever our home post office, friends, and family sent along last week. Every week or two I pick a post office that will be along our projected route, and spread the word. Next week it will be:
Ruston, LA 71270-9998
I also let people know the window of availability. In this case, we'll pick up mail on the 10th or 11th, so First Class letters need to be in the mail by Friday this week to be safe.
In today's mail was something I'd been waiting for. You may recall that in Tampa I had to use the last of my "buttonhead" rivets to repair the dump valve bracket. So I had written to our friends Don and Amanda and Donal to ask if they would mail me a small envelope of half a dozen rivets. I knew Don had recently bought a large box of them and would have spares.
The rivets arrived today, elaborately wrapped as a Christmas present. Now, if you've ever been to Cracker Barrel you'll recognize what they did. It's that insanely infuriating puzzle/game that they put on the tables at every Cracker Barrel, but using rivets as the game pieces. Of course, we love that game and we play it competitively when we stop at Cracker Barrels. So now we have both a handmade version of the game which will remind us of our friends, and a handy rivet storage block.
Well, back to work. A full day of business, interrupted only by a move from site 3 to site 18.
That's because we booked our visit here in two separate sessions on ReserveAmerica, and so we ended up with different sites. This actually worked out well since this is a water/electric campground (not full hookup). We took the opportunity to dump the tanks before settling back in to our new spot.
Our technique is simple: on a day when we expect to have the opportunity to dump the tanks, we all take showers right before. This ensures there's plenty of gray water to flush the hose, and also puts us ready for several more days of limited gray capacity in case we need to dry camp again. We did this on Saturday while parked at the day use area here, waiting for our site to open up. Once in Illinois at a very quiet campground in the winter (Kickapoo State Park), I remember Eleanor showering while we were parked at the dump station. There was nobody around, so we figured "Why not?"
Now we're in the new space with empty holding tanks, and easily ready to stay here through our departure on Friday. We know exactly what we can do & for how long, and so there's no doubt about our ability to dry camp here through Friday.
If you experiment and learn how far you can go with your gray and black tanks, you'll have much more comfort using your trailer in all sorts of situations. I feel bad for people who only stay in full-hookup campgrounds because they aren't confident of their rig's limits. You miss out on so many great places! It's worth the effort to learn your capacities and how to maximize your resources (water, holding tanks, and electric).
Full moon tonight and yesterday
This evening Bill called to say that he and Wendimere would be up for the rally on Saturday, which is great. That makes something like 38 Airstreams coming, and nearly 80 people. Also the weather is looking better every day. At this point we are expecting 70-72 degrees on Friday & Saturday, when most people will be here.
Sunset over the Gulf of Mexico
Things have turned Florida-lovely today, with blue skies and upper 60s temperatures, so it was a very nice day for a walk along the boardwalk and the beach.
Along the beach just east of the State Park are several buildings that appear to have been either inns or condos. They are barricaded now, rendered uninhabitable by storms. The buildings were placed directly in the line of natural sand dunes, which are supported by sea oats. The buildings killed the sea oats, and so when a storm arrived, the dunes washed away -- along with the undersides of the buildings. Now the building code is different, so I've been told. Along the state park, sea oat replantings are underway.
This is a really beautiful state park, an oasis of nature tucked into the middle of Destin. The surrounding landscape of dunes, palmetto, pine and oak is relaxing and full of character. Even though we are only a few hundred yards from busy Rt 98, it seems far away.
It was also a fine day for some domestic activities, including home schooling and sewing. Yes, we travel with a sewing machine lately. It rides in the back of the truck, taking the space formerly occupied by the generator.
This afternoon our friends from St Augustine (Steve, Misty, and Brianna) arrived, and we hosted dinner for them. I'd tell you what we ate but Bobby says I need to stop talking about the food so much. (He's getting hungry up there in Virginia.) You'll have to use your imagination!