Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico

“It’s got all the cathedrals of the world in it, with half of ’em hanging upside down.”

Will Rogers, 1931

Years ago I flew into Las Vegas after Christmas break to help my friend Peggy drive her new-to-her car from her uncle’s house in Vegas back to Ft. Hood, Texas. Along the way we picked up another Ft. Hood friend, Rick, in Albuquerque and the three of us explored Carlsbad Caverns. It made a huge impression on me. Part of it was that we did not go in with a typical guide and tour group, but instead had an audio “phone” that we could listen to whenever we came to painted footstep indicators on the ground. It was so extensive that it took several hours to go through, all on our own, and there was even a cafeteria in the cave where we had lunch. I’ve always wanted to go back with Cal, so this was the day. Now, after seeing it twice, I still wouldn’t mind doing it again! I’m a person who enjoys cave exploration very much.

Carlsbad Caverns lies underneath the northern end of the Guadalupe Mountains, on the New Mexico end. The park was our destination for the day after our Guadalupe hike, and was not too far from our camping site at Chosa. We had to make reservations for our time slot and because it took less time than we anticipated to get into the park, we stopped at a “point of interest” along the way. It was a little trail to a rocky overhang used for millenia as a shelter for humankind. The roof of the overhang was blackened by multitudes of campfires over the ages. From the overhang, we could see across the road to more shallow caves.

On the trail to the overhang, all of the different types of plants were labeled, which was very helpful for someone like me who always forgets the names of things. In the southern Guadalupes, I had seen the yucca in bloom. Yucca is often used in landscaping back in Missouri, where I used to live, but it does not bloom there until at least August.

There are two ways to get into the cavern: by hiking to the natural entrance of the cave, and by taking an elevator down to the Big Room Trail. We opted for the natural entrance.

The park literature will tell you that “Carlsbad Cavern is one of over 300 limestone caves in a fossil reef laid down by an inland sea about 265 million years ago. Twelve-to-fourteen thousand years ago, American Indians lived in the Guadalupe Mountains.” Spanish and European settlers may have entered the cave, but the first credited exploration was by Jim White in 1898. Jim was a cowboy who found the cave by accident; he thought he saw a wildfire in the distance, but upon closer examination saw that it was thousands of Brazilian ring-tailed bats exiting the cave. He returned later with some wire, wood, and a light source, and began exploring it. You can see his ladder in the picture below. Jim spent the rest of his life exploring the cave and guiding others through it. In 1923 he guided the General Land Office for surveying and mapping the cavern, and it became a national park in 1930 after first becoming a national monument.

My parents took me on cave tours from a young age and I loved to go. We lived not too far from one in Ohio, where I grew up, and I loved exploring deep under the ground and looking at huge cave formations. I learned that stalactites “hold on tight” to the cave ceiling, and come down from above, and stalagmites grow from below. Both are formed from drips of water over millenia, and are easily interrupted in their formation by the simplest human touch. Back in the day, the cave formations were given cute little names, like “Bacon and Eggs” or “The Pipe Organ”. Most of the cave tours I’ve been on recently focus on the scientific and conservation aspects of cave growth and preservation, and that’s a good thing. However, I noticed that Carlsbad couldn’t help but sneak in a few names for their formations. The sweeping panorama in the picture above was called “Fairyland” and the one below was a “Whale’s Mouth”, with cave formations of draperies and flowstone.

So, I came up with a couple of my own. Here is “The Hobbit”, or “Li’l Abner”. You have to look at the black space in the middle to see it.

And, do you see my cute little cave cat?

Just when I would think there couldn’t be anything more awesome to see, we would round a corner or go through a passageway, and there would be something else. The picture above was the entrance to the Big Room, and its soaring heights really could be compared to a cathedral as Will Rogers did back in the 30’s.

We were at the Caverns when things were just starting to open up after COVID. You can still tour the cave on your own without a tour group, and can rent the audio tour in the visitor center book shop. We neglected to do that this time but we were still down in the cave several hours even without having audio to stop and listen to. There were plenty of descriptive signs along the way, though. Before we arrived in the Big Room, there were many stretches where we were all by ourselves. It looks like it still may be possible to have lunch down in the cave, but all of that was closed for COVID. We rode the elevator up when we were finished seeing everything. We did both the natural entrance and the Big Room trails and walked about the same distance as the day before, in our Guadalupe Mountains hike, but without all the rock climbing, so it seemed much easier! The bats still do fly out of the cave at sunset, something I would have liked to see, although their numbers are diminished from Jim White’s day. They hadn’t returned yet from their winter migration, so we’ll have to save that for another visit.

Next time – Exploring New Mexico

Boondocking Near Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Currently, we are in the Denver, Colorado area and will be for most of the summer. Now that we are here, life has intervened in the form of RV and truck repairs, appointments, and, most importantly, time with our grandson and helping his mothers through their recent move and his brief illness. Not all of life on the road can be a permanent vacation, as we are finding out! The internet where we’ve been staying has been slow and spotty, not exactly conducive to loading up a raft of pictures. But we had two weeks on the road between Austin and Denver, and they were event-filled, so that will be what the next few blogs will be about.

In previous travels, I always loved that feeling when I finally arrived “out West”. On this day, it happened in west Texas as we swung off the I-10 and headed north on to a narrow but well-maintained and quiet road to the New Mexico border. We stayed just inside the border for several days.

If you do a Google search on the least-visited US national parks, Guadalupe National Park comes up as number fifteen. And in front of it are nine Alaskan and American Samoa national parks. That sounded good to me! Although it covers about 47,000 acres, much of it is wilderness. We parked Sam in New Mexico, but had to backtrack into Texas to see it. There is a small campground, but the main thing to do and see here is hike. There are numerous trails. El Capitan, shown in the picture above, greeted us at the southern end of this mountain range as we were driving through. If you were to hike up to it, it would be about 11 miles round trip. The rock has been a landmark for centuries for the Nde people and later for US Army troops, explorers, pioneers, and the Butterfield stage coach.

The El Capitan trail was a bit much, so we chose instead Devil’s Hall trail, which was 4.2 miles round trip and was rated to be “moderate”. It started out innocently enough as the Chihuahuan Desert gave way to the Guadalupe foothills.

Pretty soon, the trail went into a wash and it was hard to pick out where we were to go as we clambered up, down and around huge rocks and boulders, using hands, knees, and elbows. It was as if the devil himself had thrown them down.

II

I’m not certain how I got myself into that spot! We worked at the trail for a couple of hours and I think we were near the devil’s “hall” but the day was getting on so we had to reluctantly turn around and go the same distance back.

The title of this blog, besides the part about Guadalupe, includes the word “boondocking”. To the uninitated, “boondocking” means to settle in a spot without any utility hookups. You bring in your own water and provide your own power, or don’t use any at all. Campers and RV’ers like this idea because they can go off and camp anywhere by themselves-versus a crowded RV park- mostly on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. This is “dispersed” RVing; you can stay on the land for free and, if you know what you’re doing, you can be all alone with no neighbors. There are also many campgrounds, run by BLM or the Forest Service, with no hookups, often with no camp fees. It sounded interesting and fun to us, so before leaving home we purchased a generator to be able to do this. I was hopeful that our 5th wheel could run for a night just on its own battery power, but we really didn’t know how long the batteries would run without using the generator.

For our first time boondocking, we thought we’d make it easier on ourselves and found Chosa, a free BLM campground out in the desert, on the northern end of the Guadalupes. There were no conveniences, just a big, rectangular fenced lot.

I desert and

I loved the open, windswept desert and the luminous clouds, especially at sunrise and sunset. At sunrise, it was as if a bright lamp had suddenly been turned on each mountainside in turn. And how is it that flowers can bloom in the middle of dry, sandy rocks?

This little fellow was the only critter we saw at Chosa, besides the birds, and his home was very close to ours. For the first couple of days, we had Chosa almost to ourselves, but as the week progressed it got busier. “Nomadland” had just won the 2021 Academy award and on our last night, I felt like I had been dropped into the movie set. There were more people and the mood was positively celebratory. Our new neighbors from North Carolina had their own happy hour going. People were out visiting and some kids were playing Frisbee. Not entirely my idea of boondocking, really!

What we learned about boondocking with Frodo and Sam is that Sam can only survive 5 hours on the battery. We have a residential refrigerator that needs power, plus a lot of other little things that are constantly running. Cal didn’t want to leave the generator out and running while we were at Guadalupe NP, so we were watching the time while there. When out hiking, we were worried about the batteries draining below 25%, so that is why we cut the hike short. We need to run the generator all night, and I worry about anyone parking too close to us being annoyed by the noise. We’d probably have to invest a lot more cash into an upgraded power system such as lithium batteries or solar energy, not something we’d like to do at this point. In the end, we do feel that we have an array of different types of parks we can go to that have power wherever we go, some where we don’t even have to be close to our neighbors, so boondocking might not be something we do often or at all.

Next time – Another national park!

Living West of the City

We arrived in time to have an outdoors Easter feast with our daughter, Katie and her boyfriend Larnell

We resided for a month at an RV park in Hudson’s Bend west of Austin Texas, which sticks up like a thumb between the Colorado River and Lake Travis. There are other suburbs too, piling on one another. It’s an area of massive bluffs with multi-million dollar mansions and apartment complexes perched precariously on top, looking down on the lake, ravines and the city with its westward sprawl. Roads are hilly and winding. The road from our park was narrow and led to more new homes and boat launches for the lake. Out on the main road, heading eastward took us over Mansfield dam. You can see the bridge for the road in front of the dam in the picture below. It was always an awesome view. I could see Low Water Crossing Road every time we drove over the dam, and one day I convinced Cal to drive on it. The early morning fog blanketed us as we crossed. On the other side of the crossing, there was one boat shelter and launch for each of the houses on the bluff, but I suppose that the residents would have to drive around the upper bridge and cross the Low Water Crossing bridge to their dock.

There were a lot of parks near us and we would hike several times a week.

Bee Cave City Park had a nice dog park compared to others I’ve seen, with lots of room for Fido to run.
Bob Wentz County Park
Emma Long Metro Park – we had to ford this stream several times when the trail would flip sides.

The dogs, above, were at Emma Long Metro. Unfortunately we decided to walk this trail on a Saturday morning, and encountered families with unleashed packs of dogs running all over the trail. There were actually two more for this family, above. We cut the walk a little short, turned around, and voila! Hardly anyone on the trail going back. I heard later that Austin does have some trails where dogs can run unleashed…I guess we found one.

Hippie Hollow Park, clothing optional. It was a little chilly, so we opted to keep ours on.
Lots of nice places for sunbathing at Hippie Hollow
From Hippie Hollow, a view of the residences atop the bluff

The “lighthouse” was just on the other side of this bluff from our RV park, and we tried so hard to get to it. Gated communities thwarted us at every turn. Later on we found out it is just a water tower. I guess it looks nicer than the usual.

I drove into Austin by myself for a little retail therapy – this picture is from the Austin Antique Mall.

There was a day trip to Inks Lake State Park, which could have been a blog all by itself, and maybe someday I will do one:

We surprised a lizard which had been sunning on a boulder
We puzzled over all the reasons why a cactus might have a perfectly round hole in it. Something must have thought it was a tasty treat. We saw this again in subsequent hikes.

On another Saturday day trip with Katie, we visited a buggy museum. The place was stuffed with every possible conveyance a horse (or any other mammal) could pull.

Late 19th century paddy wagon
A Czech funeral hearse, built in 1880
And there was so much more!

It may seem like we were terribly busy, but there was plenty of time to relax at home. I experimented with some new dishes, and we tried making pizza on our Weber Baby Q. The pizza wasn’t bad, but not a 100% success either. We’ll have to work to perfect it.

Costa Rican Gallo Pinto. The only thing missing was the fried plantains.

One thing I am loving about our new life is that every park has a book swap library. Some are not so great, but the one at our park in Austin had many good books. I read all of these in the month of April. The only one that was not a swap was the Reader’s Digest Lowell Thomas book, given to me by my brother Jared. Lowell Thomas lived in a generation before mine. I constantly looked information up on Wikipedia while reading his book, learning more about his life and also that of Lawrence of Arabia, whom he traveled with and wrote a book about.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention my best friend at the park, Pumpkin. She belonged to our neighbors, who lived full time there. Pumpkin would run up to us every time we were outside, and was always looking for cuddles and snuggles. She would always try to sneak inside our RV, and thoroughly enjoyed our lawn chairs, especially when we were sitting in them. From our window, we would enjoy watching her playing with leaves or trying to catch birds. That is her picture at the top of this blog, and here are a couple more:

In the above picture, Pumpkin is helping me show you that no one parked next to us on this side for the entire month we were in Austin. It was like having our own extended yard. The park almost filled up at times, so I have no idea why they never put someone there, but it was pretty darn nice of them.

It has been a couple of weeks since we were there. We’ve been adventuring since then, so there will be much to catch up on!

Next time – the scenery is changing as we travel west

All Around Austin

South Congress Street

Cal and I have a history with Austin, and we have visited our daughter and her boyfriend several times since she moved here a few years ago. It’s a booming city with traffic issues, and much easier not to deal with than to think about venturing anywhere in our big Ford truck. We have done most of the things that would be on a “must see” tourist list, although I did see a brochure for some interesting museums that are currently closed for Covid. That will be for next time. We do miss the funky, sleepy little university and capitol city that Austin used to be, and remembered restaurants and hang-out places are gone. But shades of the old Austin still reveal themselves, which keeps things fun. We have our favorite places, and are finding new ones. This blog will be about two of the favorites, and one new place, that we have visited this time around.

Zilker Park

A view of Austin from Zilker Park

Zilker Park is Austin’s large city park. It was donated to the city of Austin by Andrew Jackson Zilker in 1917. There is a botanical garden in the park, which I love, and here is a picture of it from an earlier visit a few years ago:

Today’s adventure at Zilker, however, was about kayaking. We canoed here, long ago. My experiences with canoeing over the intervening years have mostly led to wet hair and lost equipment, including shoes, so I decided long ago that canoes are best avoided. This was only our second time kayaking, and it we both enjoyed it.

We started out on Barton Creek. The first thing I noticed was all the turtles. Turtles swimming next to us, turtles sunning on rocks, turtles jockeying for space on logs. They climb onto the lowest part of the log, and the whole crowd slooooowly moves forward. It’s a fair system–the first one on eventually gets pushed back on the water, like a game of musical chairs.

We also saw a couple of snakes slithering through the water. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen snakes swim before.

Barton Creek was tranquil, and on a Monday morning we there were no other kayakers about. Once we turned into the larger Colorado River, there was more traffic. We paddled all the way under the downtown bridges.

Turning back into Barton Creek, we navigated past the kayak rental and up to Barton Springs, below. The upper level, beyond the fence, is a huge pool. If this had been a weekend day, it would have been packed with people. The whole of Barton Creek is a popular swimming hole. We saw lots of ropes hanging from trees for swings.

Later on, we walked on the hike and bike trail, which goes along the river where we had kayaked, and there were many more people out enjoying the day.

When we were walking by, this duck was sitting in the exact same spot that we had seen it while kayaking that morning. Did it ever move?? If you look closely, you can also see two turtles and some fish in the bottom right corner.
That is a tent hanging from the tree. The owners have their kayaks down in the water. Wouldn’t it be fun to sleep there, if only for a night?

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

I usually seem to find myself in Austin in April. April is when the wildflowers bloom, and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a great place to go and see them. However, we didn’t think the wildflowers here were as thick as they had been the first time we were here. I don’t know if it was because of the big February freeze. The freeze certainly didn’t seem to hurt all the wildflowers that we’ve seen along the roads and in fields this month. Regardless, this garden is a beautiful place to see all sorts of flowers and Texas botanicals. If one had children, there are all sorts of things to play on – gardens and spaces just for them.

Right inside the gate, a volunteer was eager to tell us that there were owl babies up inside a planter.

The wildflower center has had a nesting pair of great horned owls for more than a decade. The female is named Athena, and every year she lays her eggs in this aerial courtyard planter. I was lucky enough to be able to see one of her two owlets through the zoom in my camera. So cute! They were almost ready to leave the nest, and move with their mama to the nearby woods.

Every turn in the path led to something else.

I like learning the names of flowers I have seen on the roadsides; here, the Mexican tulip poppy.
Don’t step on the snakes!

“Lady Bird” Johnson was the wife of our nation’s 36th president, Lyndon B. Johnson. She was passionate about beautifying the nation’s roads and was an advocate of the Highway Beautification Act of 1965. In Texas, she is responsible in great part for all the beautiful wildflowers that can be seen along the roadways in the spring. She also co-founded this garden in 1982 as a wildflower research center, and it was named after her later in 1997. It has the most diverse collection of native Texan plants in North America. The garden claims that this is “a signature piece of her environmental legacy” and I, for one, agree. It is a gift for all to enjoy.

When we were all tired out from all of the various gardens, we were not done. There were also miles of Texas woodland trails to be explored. Back in 2016 my daughter Katie, her boyfriend Larnell, and I tramped on all of them. We came upon an area of live oaks with all sorts of swings – doubles, singles, and even ones for babies. What a great idea! This time around, I made sure Cal and I had some time on one of the swings. The first two pictures below are from 2016; the last, of Cal, from this visit.

McKinney Falls State Park

Upper Falls

This state park is only 13 miles from Austin’s capitol building, but it feels a world away. It helped that we were here on a chilly weekday morning. Large parking lots and masses of picnic tables told us that this is a very busy place on the weekend; another urban getaway similar to Zilker Park, but without the “downtown” feeling. When we first hit the hiking trail here, we were pretty much by ourselves.

The land that the park contains was a farm for Thomas McKinney, one of Stephen F. Austin’s original colonists. The ruins of his his homestead can be seen in the park from a hiking trail. When he died, his widow sold the property to the Smith family, and the descendants donated the park in the 1970’s.

“Old Baldy” – 100 feet tall, this cypress tree sprouted over 500 years ago. It’s a very lucky tree – cypress was a highly desired wood in the 1800’s for cabin building, yet somehow this one missed getting the axe.

The picture above shows Onion Creek flowing over limestone ledges as part of the Lower Falls. This was an important river crossing for natives, traders and settlers for centuries. Below, the massive area of limestone was part of a 2,500 mile road, called El Camino Real, that stretched from Mexico to Louisiana. I could just see wagons massed here waiting to make the river crossing, and once again had that history-beneath-my-feet feeling. Cal obligingly stood there for me so you can get a sense of just how large an area it is. In rainier times, this would be covered with water.

There is camping here, and yet more trails that we did not have time for, so I’m sure we’ll be making a return visit!

Next time – the last posting from Austin

Lampasas, Texas?

That was our answer to our daughter, Katie, when she was wondering how we might like a day trip to Lampasas. Cal and I were both stationed at Ft. Hood, TX eons ago. The town is only about 25 miles from there but we drew a total blank when it came to any memories about it. She is expert at putting together various odd things to see that make for a fun day, though, so we totally put ourselves in her hands. What to do in Lampasas? Lots of things, as it turned out!

We are currently staying about 30 minutes drive from Katie, just west of Austin. She picked us up and we enjoyed an hour’s drive through the Texas hills and wildflowers to Lampasas. First stop: a charming little town park named Cooper Spring Nature Park. Katie had mentioned that we would be visiting a garden and I suppose I am too fresh out of the city: I was expecting manicured lawns and and concrete paths. These paths were narrow gravel mixed with generous helpings of dirt, but there were more wildflowers in abundance, a small woods, and a meandering little creek with tiny fish. The whole thing had a natural air about it, like they were just letting the park be Texas all on its own. It made for a beautiful walk.

Texas bluebonnets below a little pond
A woman walking her dog was the only other person we encountered in the park
A cactus that looks to me like a turtle
I think we surprised this herd of deer as much as they surprised us!

Across a country road from Cooper Spring was a sculpture park.

A colorful tractor painted by the artist’s children
This butterfly garden was in the shape of a butterfly, and aerial butterfly sculptures danced in the wind

We were getting hungry, and lunch was part of the fun too: we went to Storm’s Drive-In for burgers and fries. The first Storm’s opened up back in 1873 as a stagecoach stop. Times change, and in 1950 it was operating as The Dairy Cue. When Elvis Presley was stationed at Ft. Hood, it was a favorite stop of his. So why didn’t we hear about this when we were there? And wasn’t Lampasas a bit of a distance from Ft. Hood to go, back then, for a burger? The story goes that he would ride up in his Cadillac, and his favorites were a hamburger with a strawberry shake. Anyway, the restaurant went back to its family name of Storm’s, and you can still drive on up and be waited on. They are so busy they have added a covered patio in case you don’t want to eat in your car. Because of their busy-ness, the service was slow, but the hamburgers were delicious and so were the fries. They had sweet potato fries, which earned them points with me just for having them.

Katie had one more Lampasas trick up her sleeve. Lampasas is also home to the world’s largest spur. I thought maybe at one time it might have had a home in front of a country western dance bar in the middle of Texas, owing to the fish-net stockinged leg up at the top, but no. It was put there in 2017 to encourage tourism for the town. It is 33 feet 10.75 inches tall.

By this time we had pretty much exhausted the Lampasas possibilities. Since it was Sunday, the stores in their picturesque courthouse square were closed and so was their museum, which may have also been because of COVID. We had passed a state park on the way to town and she wanted to explore that, so off we went in a new direction.

It was a bit of a drive through more wildflowers, buttes, cattle and cactus, but we finally arrived at Colorado Bend State Park. Another long drive through the park took us down to the river. Cal took this picture of Katie and I on his phone. I’m not sure what the big reed is that is in front of our miniscule selves, but I love this picture for the comparison with the towering bluffs on the opposite shore. There didn’t seem to be much here besides the river and a boat launch, at first glance. Katie saw people with small children and beach gear taking off down a trail that paralleled the river. Her curiosity got the better of her, so we left Cal in a lawn chair to watch the boats while we went to investigate. Of course, I love any excuse for a hike.

Our impromptu hike took us to some nice river views:

I was admiring a big old pecan tree, and then noticed this sleepy owl on a branch. His feathers resemble the bark he is sitting on.

Another tree, this one a large black willow, with amazing bark

It was hot and Katie wasn’t as enthralled with the natural wonders as I was, but she pressed on. We thought we might find a beach along the river, but finally arrived at something more fun – a spring-fed swimming hole just up from the river. It felt great to dip our tired feet in the waterfall!

At the top of this picture you can see the path we had been on, and that’s where it ended.

It was pretty deep on this end of the swimming hole, which is how I was able to get a shot with no one in it. Most everyone was sitting on all the rocks to my right. This ended up being a 2.5 mile round trip hike.

One more stop: we had passed an ostrich farm on the way to the state park, so we thought we’d say hello to the residents behind the fence. They were intensely curious and sashayed right up to us in all their feathery finery. The ostriches were a perfect ending to a beautiful spring day.

Well, hello there! Fancy seeing you here!
Say, did you hear about the race between the giraffe and the ostrich? It was neck and neck the whole way.
A bird’s eye view

Ostrich meat would be a market I could get into to make some good money…but it probably wouldn’t take off. If ostrich my budget, I could maybe afford it.

Till next time! There will be more about the Austin area.

Alligator Encounters at Brazos Bend

When I read that Brazos Bend State Park had alligators, I booked our stay here as soon as I could. Three hundred alligators make their home in this park! It wasn’t just about the alligators, though. It is on a migratory bird flyway, so many types of wading birds make this park a stopover, or their home. Plus many different animals. There are a lot of great walking and biking trails, too. When deciding which pictures to post, I was overwhelmed by all the beautiful shots I had taken just in the space of the 3 days we were here. Which ones to choose?

Our drive from Galveston wasn’t long. This park is just southeast of Houston. As soon as we had Frodo and Sam settled in, we took off for a bike ride. Elm Lake Trail went around the largest lake and through the marshes and promised our best chance of seeing wildlife. It didn’t take long for our first alligator sighting:

The alligator is sitting on the far bank, as if to emphasize the sign

And then, one alligator was snoozing not far from our feet:

This one looked like he wanted to make lunch out of the heron. Does it look like he already has something in his mouth? He was too far away to be sure.

Then they started coming in pairs, and one on the trail! They like to laze about in the sun on the trails, but this was the only one we saw doing that.

I was more than a little nervous despite my smile, and not too sure if this was a good idea despite the fact that the alligator was smiling as well.

There were lots of ducks and shore birds, and it was a great bike and walking trail in and of itself:

My brother Jared came out to see us again, this time for a bike ride and lunch afterward. There were plenty more trails to explore.

After lunch, Jared and I were ready for a walk. Then, after some more visiting, we decided to walk again. The bike ride was 4 miles, and then in total he and I walked 5.3 miles. Not bad for a man who is getting ready to celebrate his 80th birthday! On the bike ride, we happened to talk to a man who was fishing. “No luck this morning,” he said. We enjoyed the view for awhile longer, and as we turned to leave, he had caught a nice-sized bass. We all decided that we had brought him the good luck that he needed. While we were looking at the view, we saw a gazebo, and it was the gazebo that Jared wanted to hike to on our second walk.

Jared at the gazebo, with the overlook behind him.
I was admiring these trees, and then I looked straight up…
Like a scene from “The Birds”! And I got this picture after I had scared many more of them off.
They are anhingas, a bird I have also seen in Florida and Costa Rica.

We had birds at our campsite, as well. We watched this little wren and its partner busily build a nest inside our 5th wheel hitch. Below that picture is one of a cattle crane. There were a whole flock of them outside our living room window one morning, but they took off in a hurry. Cranes, egrets, and herons are hard to photograph; they fly away at the drop of a pin.

On our last afternoon, I walked to a nature trail around another small lake right next to the camping area and hit the jackpot: a mama alligator and 12 babies in a nest, just under a viewing platform! So, now there are 312 alligators in Brazos Bend.

Mama and her nest, with the babies on the middle left.
Little babies are so cute, even if they are alligators.

This is such a special place, not only in the sheer amount of wildlife that could easily be seen, but also in the safe haven that it provides for animals and birds. I’ll leave you with this last thought:

Next time: We arrive in Austin

Beach Bumming in Galveston

Our Galveston living room view after a storm

Galveston, oh Galveston! I still hear your sea winds blowing…

Glenn Campbell

One whole, glorious week on the beach and we were right there. I mean, right…there. I have to give a shoutout to Rusty and Kris Thompson for the recommendation. Dellanera RV park is city owned and was missing all the amenities that other parks had, but all of them except one were on the opposite side of the main Seawall Boulevard. And what other amenity do you need when you’re at the beach?

To me, walking the beach looking for shells, playing with the water and photographing the birds, and just thinking is one of the most relaxing things I can think of to do. Cal, however, is “meh” on the beach and was just humoring me, as well as fretting about the effect of salt air on the equipment. Oh well. He did find a few guy friends to swap RV information with while there.

I have been to Galveston many times with various family and friends, but this was only Cal’s second time. In my late teens, while stationed at Fort Hood, it was a favorite place to go with my best friend Peggy. We would visit Outdoor Rec on a Friday afternoon, check out a big green Army canvas tarp, sleeping bags and a cooler. Coming in to Galveston, we’d pop Glen Campbell’s “Galveston” in the tape player, turn up the volume, and roll the windows down. There was a ferry ride and then we’d be on Bolivar Peninsula for the weekend. We’d drive right on the beach and there was nothing out there but the beach. The tarp would be pitched against the car for a lean-to, sleeping bags unrolled, and the 8-track tape player on until the batteries died. I remember the moon over the water and the sound of the waves as I’d fall asleep. We’d spend an entire weekend having fun, subsisting on junk food, and when we returned to post on Monday I could hardly lace up my combat boots since my feet were so burned. One time, we decided we wanted to see Louisiana, so we drove all the way to the border.

You can’t go all the way to the Louisiana border any more, which Cal and I discovered on my first visit back to Bolivar Peninsula. The beach has eroded about halfway down the peninsula and now it has been diverted north. It was a shock to see the original crumbled road just above what is now the beach. This time, the new shock was seeing all the beach houses that have been built in the last 5 years. Subdivisions line the beach like colorful dominos, and march halfway way back up to the road. There are businesses, strip malls, and stop lights. We drove some distance in, but could not find the end of the houses on the beach. Maybe there was an end before the road diverted, but we didn’t get that far. Instead, we found an opening in between the houses, and after we parked I tried to enjoy the beach with the houses at my back.

You can still ride the ferry from Galveston Island, and the seagulls still hover, looking hopefully for a snack:

A container ship coming in to Galveston Harbor
Ghost Ship

On the beach:

The pelicans followed me all the way down from Rend Lake, Ilinois and Livingston, Texas!
Frodo on the beach!
The luck is better for sea shell searching by the sea at Bolivar Peninsula
The day’s treasures
It took Cal a few minutes to check out the beach, and then he was ready for his lawn chair.

If I had money and the inclination, I guess I’d want to build a house on the beach too. During this pandemic, the trend is for people to isolate in their own house, cook their own food, and still be on the beach. Some houses are so big, several families can gather together for a beach vacation. I would think there would be money to be had, renting out a beach house on Air BnB, and you could stay in it when you wanted. Still, I liked the beach better when it was in its natural state and I don’t think I will return again to Bolivar.

Another day, we visited the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum, which I had been to before, but Cal hadn’t. When else can you actually stand on an oil rig? You can learn all about the details of oceanic oil drilling there. I was dubious about having these oil rigs out in the ocean the first time I visited, given the oil spills that have happened. Now, with climate change being the driver of more efficient energy usage, perhaps we can look forward to a day when we aren’t so reliant on oil. Ocean Star made substantial effort to put their best foot forward regarding their conservation efforts.

The Ocean Star is next to Galveston’s fishing wharf:

One of the things I’ve always loved about traveling south is seeing the palms, in all their beautiful varieties. Remember the big February freeze that hit the southern states? From Louisiana to Texas, the palms are all brown. It is a byproduct of that freeze that I didn’t think about at the time, when everyone was worried more about power outages and frozen pipes, staying warm and having clean water coming out of their taps. But the palms are brown, which is distressing. It’s never frozen like this before, so no one really knows what will happen to them. To replace them in landscaping is very expensive. I could see some had been cut back in the hopes that new growth would come. Some may come back on their own, some may be dead. It’s really a “wait and see” situation.

We are hopeful that this palm, in front of our RV, may come back from its freeze.
A view from one side of our park, in which you can see the stricken palms

On our very worst weather day, when the wind was howling and we were getting rain and thunder, my brother Jared came for a visit. He lives about 40 miles from Galveston. We enjoyed lunch at a Mexican restaurant that really turned out to be a pancake house with two pages of Mexican food on their menu. It was our first time eating inside a restaurant in over a year and I was happy that we had a back corner table.

Here are my favorite bird pictures:

There’s a clown in every group. Check out the seagull standing on one leg.
How many birds on posts can I photograph?
I am King Seagull of this sandhill, and I made sure the other seagull knew it.

Sunrise and sunset…

Morning Moonset

…and everything else:

Our neighbors for the week were in this fun-looking trailer
Everyone travels in their own style

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)

It’s always our self we find in the sea.

e e cummings

Next time – 3 days at Brazos Bend State Park

Life in Livingston, TX

I never could resist the call of the trail — Buffalo Bill

Livingston, Texas was nowhere on our itinerary. Not to begin with. And then, I wasn’t even going to blog about it. Until we made a discovery…

Livingston is the home of an RVing club called Escapees. They provide a lot of member services, including a mail forwarding service. We are using that service, and since we now have a Texas address, we needed to register and title the vehicles. That also meant that a vehicle inspection was necessary, as well as obtaining a Texas drivers license. Besides their national headquarters, Escapees runs the RV park where we stayed. They are oh-so-helpful with all of this, so, we spent several days there, and became Texas’s newest residents.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do besides business. Things are usually hopping at this Escapees park with many activities and events, but everything was shut down for COVID. So, one afternoon we went over to Lake Livingston State Park. Below are some pictures. This lake was formed by damming up the Trinity River, and supplies the drinking water for Houston, some 80 miles distant.

The park ranger advised us that most of the trails were muddy at best and flooded at worst due to recent rains, so we checked out the Piney Woods Boardwalk Trail, which is pictured at the very top.

I wasn’t ready to go back to the RV park yet, so I talked Cal into driving over the dam. That was the discovery of the day! Behind the dam power plant there was a gazebo for watching bazillions of gallons of water go over the dam, and as it happened, there was a bird-a-palooza feeding frenzy going on. We saw pelicans, black cormorants, sea gulls, cranes, blue herons and in massive quantities. The fishing must have been awesome. We just stood there and looked and looked. The pelicans from Rend Lake, Illinois must have followed me here!

Blue herons walking in step and supervised by a crane and a black cormorant

We also enjoyed a couple of afternoon bike rides. The park opened up onto some quiet country roads that were blessedly flat. I found some very friendly horses who came right up to me to say Hi.

It was fun to watch the wisteria come into bloom over the course of a few days.

We liked that our site opened up onto a dry camping area, that was really just a field, so we had no neighbors there. On the other side of the field was another service that Escapees offered, a place for RVer’s to get their rigs and vehicles weighed. It wasn’t super busy and provided us with some mealtime entertainment out our window. We were weighed ourselves, and are happy to report that we were safely not overweight.

First the tow vehicle gets weighed, then the trailer, and then both together. They also measure height. Lastly, there is a big conference at the picnic table to discuss everything.

We were so curious to know if this outfit was overweight. I do not think I would want to be driving this choo-choo train. But I do think the little blue car would be fun to zip around town in!

Next time – Galveston!

Cane River Creole NHS

History is not there for you to like or dislike. It is there for you to learn from it. And if it offends you, even better. Because then you are less likely to repeat it. It’s not yours to erase. It belongs to all of us. –Unknown

I have read many books on plantation life and have seen several movies. I’m glad that the most recent of them show it in a manner that is more true to history. I had never been to a Southern plantation. After seeing this on a Louisiana map, I wanted to see for myself. The Cane River Plantations are called “Creole” because this term refers to those born in Louisiana during the French and Spanish periods, regardless of ethnicity. There are two plantations 10 miles apart, Oakland and Magnolia. We visited Oakland first, built with enslaved labor by the Prud’homme family, descendants of French settlers. Cane River farmers originally planted indigo and tobacco until the invention of the cotton gin.

The live oak trees form an “allee”, which helps to bring cool air from the Cane River
The dining room. We were able to tour the house by ourselves, with no one else present and no guide, because of COVID.
The girls’ bedroom
When I saw this kitchen, I felt like I had stepped back to my childhood. The last descendant in the family lived here until the 1960’s, and the plantation is presented in the way that it looked at that time.
The pigeon house. Pigeon houses just like these were being built in France at the time, a direct connection to the old country. Pigeon meat and eggs were a delicacy.
These two pictures are of a slave cabin. However, these cabins spent more time being sharecropper cabins. When emancipation happened, the former slaves became sharecroppers, a system that kept them in continual poverty. Like the 60’s kitchen in the house, this cabin has been left the way it was at that time.
Cane River near Magnolia Plantation

There was a park ranger in Oakland who, when hearing we were heading to Magnolia next, gave us detailed directions on how to get there. Apparently the road was closed at Magnolia, and you needed to get to the other side for the parking lot. There was something about not going over a river, a turn in a town, and a stop sign. But we only listed with half an ear, and there were more things to look at, and a picnic lunch happened. Needless to say we ended up on the wrong side of the closure. We had a very scenic drive to the correct spot.

Cal sitting on the correct side of the road closure

The house at Magnolia burned during the Civil War. It was rebuilt in the late 1800’s and is now in private ownership. We were able to walk through the grounds at that plantation. Magnolia’s history goes back to the mid-1700’s, during the colonial Louisiana era. By the start of the war, the plantation owner had several properties of over 6,000 acres.

Every plantation had a store. It was necessary for obtaining needed items, but was also a gathering place and in the mid 20th century a gas station was added. Standing on the porch after looking at the photo below, I could feel history beneath my feet.
At one time there were 70 slave cabins at Magnolia. Eight are remaining, each holding two families, and also became sharecropper cabins.
The gin barn
King Cotton

In my last post, I mentioned that Natchitoches was where Steel Magnolias was filmed. Actually, several movies have been made in the area. A John Wayne movie, “The Horse Soldiers”, was filmed at Oakland. A horror film was made at the Magnolia Plantation home in 2009, “For Sale By Owner”. Looking at the home, pictured below, I could see why!

The book I read most recently on this subject was historical fiction. “The Invention of Wings” was written by Sue Monk Kidd and I highly recommend it.

Next post–Moving on to Texas

Natchitoches, Louisiana

Grand Ecore RV Park

Some months back, when I was starting to plan where we would go to start our life on the road, I was looking at a map of Louisiana and noticed a notation for “Cane River Creole National Historical Park” with the town of Natchitoches nearby. I was intrigued, found Grand Ecore RV Park, and wanted to make this a stop for sure. After the schedule was set, we needed to totally regroup to take care of some business, but this was a place I wanted to keep on the itinerary.

For our first few days out of Missouri, I just wanted to get as far south as we could as soon as possible. We soon learned which items inside the RV were likely to fall on the floor after all the mini-earthquakes that happen inside during a day on the road. We also learned to be careful opening the cupboards, because for sure everything got rearranged inside them. America’s roads are pretty bad! I was hoping the trees would be budded out by the time we got here, but spring was in progress so all was good. Daffodils were blooming and so were the Bradford pear trees.

Natchitoches is pronounced “nack-i-tish”, a fun word. It is a cute little town, French Creole in origin, which sits on the Cane River. There were little tourist shops along the main street fronting the river. The only one we donned our masks for was the city’s oldest general store, Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile. There were things to buy and things to just look at.

A building that looked like it could be in New Orleans
The Cane River; the main part of town is on the left.

Natchitoches was having a “Bloomin’ on the Bricks” festival the day we were there with lots of spring flowers set out in pots, and a university orchestra playing in the bandshell on the river. It was fun to sit and listen; spring was in the air for sure!

Two food items we had heard were good were the white chocolate bread pudding from Maglieaux’s Riverfront restaurant, and the meat pies from Lasyone’s Meat Pie restaurant. The bread pudding made for some good desserts back at the RV; big enough to share. We had the meat pies with dirty rice a couple of days after the festival. I can recommend both, but not if you are watching your calories! The only other thing that is big here is boiled crawdads, straight out of the river, but we didn’t try them.

Enjoying our meat pies on the river in the same shelter where the band had played.

The pictures above were taken near our RV park. The area around Grand Ecore belongs to the Corps of Engineers and they run a boat launch area into the river. The RV park is privately run but has some sort of relationship with them that we weren’t able to discern. Whatever, it was a well-run park and a very relaxing place to be.

One more note for Natchitoches – the movie Steel Magnolias was filmed here and they are very proud of that. Below is the Steel Magnolia’s house. It’s been too long since I’ve seen the movie, so the house isn’t familiar to me. I may have to check it out again. We have heard, however, that some winter scenes required the townspeople to dress warmly – and it was summertime during the filming!

Next time – Cane River Creole National Historical Park