The day after we arrived at our winter spot in Harlingen, our park activities department hosted a free doughnuts and coffee morning. Not one to ever turn down a free doughnut, Cal set off to the main hall to take part. He disappeared for quite a while. Just when I was starting to wonder what happened, he returned with tickets for a 4 hour cruise, a Branson-style Kenny Rogers sound-alike concert by a gentleman named Rick McEwan, and a brochure for a tour to Mexico. Neither he nor I connected beforehand that it was an event where options for things to do for the winter were presented. It turned out to be an expensive doughnut!
Booking the actual date of the cruise with Osprey Cruises proved to be difficult because it was hard to find a day when the weather was optimal. That was part of the reason for the two-night stay in South Padre Island which was the subject of my last post. We were to cruise on the morning of the day we checked out of the hotel. The cruise leaves at 9AM and passengers are to arrive at 8:30, so we thought we would spare ourselves a long early morning drive. As it happened, though, it was more windy than usual that morning and a storm was predicted. The cruise company canceled the tour.
We finally found a good weather morning just over a week before our departure from Harlingen. We took off from the dock at Port Isabel–
and cruised under the Causeway bridge through the Laguna Madre. It was so exciting to see dolphins for the first and only time on our visit to the Gulf. It’s hard to get good pictures of them, but you can see one in the picture below.
We went past a rotating bridge, which opened its gate for us.
And then, we were inside the Port of Brownsville waterway. The deepwater shipping channel is 17 miles long and 42 feet deep with 40,000 acres surrounding it. After we went through the bridge, the boat passed through miles of sand and brush. We could see a protected island that is prohibited for us humans to enter and it was full of bird life.
Many birds also filled the shore line.
We soon came to the shipping boneyard. Huge rectangles are cut out of the hulking ships. Those rectangles are cut and ground into steel pellets and reused.
There is currently even a military ship being scrapped. The Kittyhawk is one of the great diesel aircraft carriers built in the 60’s and the last to be decomissioned. It is here being taken apart bit by bit. I could still imagine the sailors waving on board the decks.
There is a lot of scrap to be processed. I enjoyed watching everyone hard at work while we just cruised on by.
There are little pretty little tugboats to be seen. I liked this one which reminded me of St. Joseph, Missouri, in the state I used to call home.
At the other end of vessel life, ships are being built here, too. This one will go to Hawaii. It is to be a container ship for a large shipping corporation there.
There are docking spots for ships to stop and unload goods or just to have a lay by. This ship holds the immense blades that will be installed on windmill farms.
It was time to visit the Brownsville Shrimp Basin. Shrimp boats need repairs, too, and some are in dry dock for that reason, or for a new coat of paint.
You would think that shrimp boats would be out catching shrimp on a workday, but many were docked as we went through the Basin. Currently, it is too expensive for the small-time operators to purchase gas. It costs about $75,000.00 to fill up the tank on a shrimp boat! It is hard to catch enough shrimp to recoup that cost.
And then, the Big Shrimp Handoff: we pulled in to Texas Gold Shrimp Company and two men were waiting there to hand us two big containers of shrimp. No sooner said than done, and we were off again.
We caught all the action from the best seat in the house: the front of the boat. From our position, it felt like we were the only ones on the cruise. It was definitely windy, cool to start, and once in a while we were splashed, but we persevered and the morning warmed up as it went on. Going in and out of the shipping area, there was a long period where we were just sailing with nothing more special than sand and the sea to see. The captain stopped his narration at times to play 70’s music ( what I call Boomer Music). Going out I was munching a doughnut. Coming back I was tucking into a nice bowl of peel and eat shrimp with a cup of pina colada. The dolphins were playing again, and pelicans awaited our return at the dock. Could life get any better than that?
Oh, and the Rick McEwan concert? He was great, and we enjoyed our evening very much.
Next time – about that brochure for a tour to Mexico…
During our Texas stay, we made three trips down to South Padre. On our first, Cal had the brilliant idea of staying a couple of nights so we could be here for more than just one day. It didn’t take us long to get reservations booked after that suggestion. Our second visit, then, was our little mini vacation-away-from-our-permanent-vacation. The morning of the first day was our visit to Boca Chica that was in my previous blog.
South Padre Island lies just off the coast of extreme south Texas. The water in between the mainland and the island is part of the Intracoastal Waterway which goes all the way around the Gulf to the Mississippi River at New Orleans. It is also the southern part of the Laguna Madre, a long and shallow lagoon. Port Isabel is the last town before the bridge to the island.
We stopped at Port Isabel Lighthouse just before getting on the bridge.
Construction on the lighthouse was completed and lamps were lit in 1853. There was a period of stoppage during the Civil War. During that time, both sides used the lighthouse for observation. The last battle of the Civil War happened near here, more than a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
We climbed up 75 stairs and 3 ladders before we arrived at the top. There we were rewarded with the view that you see at the beginning of this blog. It was also interesting to get a look at the multifaceted lens. For those interested in such details, it is a reproduction of a 3rd Order Fresnel Lens. It was installed just this past December so that the lighthouse was lit for the first time in 117 years at that time. That must have been a sight to see!
Being able to stay on the island meant that we didn’t need to get up super early to get a good start on our day. We visited South Padre Island Birding Center. This was an excellent stop. We started in their museum, which was mostly a very cute and adorable collection of baby alligators and turtles. Directly outside were some adult versions of the same. These animals are not able to be rehabilitated in the wild so they make their home here.
There were about a half mile of boardwalks over fifty acres of wetlands, with many various birds that could be seen.
From the boardwalk, we could look over the salt marsh, and down into the shallow waters where we could see the reason for the assortment of birds – there was an abundance of fish in all sizes.
The interesting thing about the Laguna Madre is that it is hypersaline, meaning that it is saltier than the ocean. There are only five other lagoons like it in the world. The water evaporates faster than freshwater flows into it because of the dry climate, its shallowness, and the fact that it has no significant river source.
Right next door to the birding center is Sea Turtle Inc., which is a refuge and hospital for sea turtles. South Padre Island is a nesting hotspot for Kemp’s Ridley turtles. The center also has several Green turtles. In 2022, they were able to rehabilitate and release 89 turtles, and protect 7,403 hatchlings. We were able to see large tanks of turtles who were not able to be released back into the wild.
I was impressed at their ingenuity in giving the turtle below a new lease on life. Allison was missing three out of four of her flippers due to a predator attack, and all she could do was swim in left circles. The staff at the rehab center rigged up a brace so she can swim freely, although she cannot be released back into the wild.
Their hospital is under a tent while a brand new facility is under construction. They have smaller tanks in the hospital for those turtles who are still in states of rehabilitation. When it is exceptionally cold, sea turtles become cold-stunned. They are then weak and inactive, floating to the surface and washing up on the island. There is only a short period of time when they can be rescued. This past December a cold period happened where the organization rescued many turtles, and we saw five in the hospital which were still not yet ready to be released back into the wild from that event.
On our final trip out to South Padre we went out to the rock jetty where most of the turtles are found. It is on the very southern tip of the island in Isla Blanca County Park. It extends way out to sea. We did not see any turtles, but near the jetty is this statue:
It is a memorial to fisherman lost at sea. If you look closely on the left, you will see a grounded weather balloon.
Certainly, the main thing about going to the island is the beach! Driving all the way north of the island, the hotels and condos recede into the rearview mirror, and all that’s left is the dunes and the sea. That’s just the way it ought to be. The road just ends. You can drive on the beach and we could have turned around and headed to the last beach access, but that would have been too easy. We just parked the truck and hiked through the dunes with our Subway sandwiches and lawn chairs.
Next time – a cruise through the Port of Brownsville
An almost-two month stay from January to March in Harlingen, Texas offered several opportunities for trips down to the Gulf of Mexico. The area lies at the southernmost tip of Texas. From our park, it was an hour drive. On our second trip in that direction, we headed to the nature preserve at Boca Chica Beach. You can’t go any further south in Texas, or the United States, on the Gulf than Boca Chica.
Rocket launch fans would know this area as the home of SpaceX. Indeed, as we headed down the road toward Boca Chica, we couldn’t miss seeing the rockets sitting in place. There are days that SpaceX closes the road for a launch or to move their rockets around. We didn’t know that we should have checked first to see if the road was open, so I guess we were lucky that we could pass through.
I took the picture on top from our truck as we were driving by.
Then, further down the road, another site:
The road ends at Boca Chica Beach. The beach itself is drivable. A right turn from the road’s end, and there you are. I was conflicted about SpaceX. On the one hand it is exciting and interesting to see. On the other hand, I didn’t like seeing it from an otherwise pristine beach that had been all natural until they arrived.
I turned my back to it and just enjoyed the beach. A great blue heron stood sentinel, as if to reassure me that all was still okay in his world.
There were long stretches of beach that were deserted except for the birds:
We talked to some park rangers who were congregated for a chat. They informed us that if we drove further down the beach we would see a lighthouse. Off we went, and thankfully left SpaceX in the distance behind us. It was about a mile or two down, and once we arrived, we found people again.
I must have missed something the rangers said (or they assumed we knew), because the lighthouse is in Mexico. And here is the mouth of the Rio Grande. It never ceases to amaze me how many times we cross paths with this river. The lighthouse is off in the distance, but you may be able to see it in this picture.
The Rio Grande makes its way west in the picture below. The river is very deep where it meets the ocean; the fishing must be good.
A pair of pelicans observed the action from the American side. The land right up to the river is still part of the Boca Chica Wildlife Refuge.
We had a picnic lunch on the beach before making our way out to further adventures. It had been a great beach morning at Boca Chica.
I was going to put all of our Boca Chica and South Padre adventures in one blog, but it would have proved to be very long. Our Boca Chica morning was part of a trip to South Padre Island. That will be for next time!
As luck (for me) would have it, my sister moved to New Orleans a couple of years ago to live with her oldest, Kat. I’ve always wanted to go to Mardi Gras there, so I put a trip for Mardi Gras in my plans, and my daughter Katie agreed to come with me. We had booked our AirBnb a year before the trip and it was only a couple of blocks away from my sister. Planning is everything.
I had a lot to learn about going there for Mardi Gras. First of all, there is not one or two parades, but multiple parades going on all over the area throughout the weeks leading up to the day before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. There are sometimes several parades in one day, with one parade leading the next. The Uptown parades are walkable from my sister’s house. We did not go to the French Quarter parades, or even set foot in the French Quarter on this trip. Both Katie and I had been there before.
Kat advised us not to come on the final weekend of Mardi Gras, which was a huge surprise to me. The crowds are massive and the cost of everything is higher. With Southwest Airlines not behaving as it used to, we may have had more difficulty with our flights. Both Katie and I were glad that we followed her advice.
On Friday night, our first night, we were down on the street after dinner and it was around 11:30 PM before we left. I didn’t even notice the time passing! It was pure fun to watch, wave at the people on the floats, and try to catch whatever they threw down. I got socked in the nose with a massive wad of beads and I didn’t even mind. Well, not too much.
By the end of the night, we’d had quite a haul. Katie and Kat are here modeling their beads, and Katie (on the left) is also wearing her new hula hoop. I was wearing quite a few beads myself.
The goodies that the floats toss out are called “throws”. The beads are just a start, and some of those may have various decorations or lights on them. Katie received some very nice glass beads, plus three hula hoops throughout the weekend. There are also hats and headbands, sunglasses, cups of all sorts (New Orleans dinnerware), bubbles and toys, Kleenex and chapstick, balls and frisbees, bags of snacks, stuffed animals, and other odd things like a manicure set and a bamboo spear with feathers and a rubber tip. I’m sure I’m forgetting something. The people on the floats keep an eye out for the kids, and will try to throw them the nicest toys. It would be fun to be a kid at a Mardi Gras parade.
It wasn’t time for bed yet after the parades. We had to have a bite of King Cake back at the house first.
The name comes from the Biblical three wise men who brought gifts for the baby Jesus. Traditionally, King Cake is eaten between January 6, the day of their visit, to the eve of Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. A baby is placed inside the cake. Supposedly if you find the baby in your piece, you will have good luck and will be “king” for the day. I also heard another version in New Orleans, which is that you have to buy the next King Cake. My piece of cake had the baby! I don’t know when I will be back to buy everyone another cake.
We watched just one parade on Saturday afternoon. I enjoyed that one because the groups in each float were the military, police, veterans, EMT, and firefighters organizations. Some of the groups were interesting, such as the Women of the Armed Forces and World War II veterans. I didn’t see any veterans on the float, though. They are all probably too old to be riding around on a float by now.
Saturday was cold, and by the time this parade was over, it was starting to drizzle. Another parade was coming, but we abandoned it in favor of a coffee shop, and then found some little shops to explore over on Magazine Street. Strangely enough, we found a small Alligator Museum. It is one man’s lifetime collection of all things alligator. You could purchase your own little alligator in the gift shop.
Also found on Magazine Street:
And a homage to Mardi Gras:
A nice warm bowl of pho at a Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Tran, was wonderful in this weather.
On Sunday we were back out on the parade route on St. Charles with lawn chairs, lunch, and empty bags to hold our throws. The day was sunny and as it warmed up as it went on.
There was even a float where you could toss your beads or hoops back, if you didn’t want them:
Having lived in St. Louis for so long, I was excited when the Clydesdales and the Budweiser beer wagon came along.
Of course, no parade would be complete without marching bands, pom squads, and twirlers. There were plenty of those. You could even get your own group together, put on some crazy costumes and dance music, and boogie down the street.
Even the houses and trees in New Orleans dress up in their beads for Mardi Gras:
We had a little time on our last day in New Orleans, so we Uber’d over to the Riverfront Mall for a beignet at one of Cafe DuMonde’s satellite coffee shops. There, we also got a look at the Mississippi River and strolled through some of the stores.
Our destination this morning, though, was Mardi Gras World, and from the mall it was a short walk. My sister and I had a picture taken next to this handsome gentleman in the waiting area:
Mardi Gras World is a working studio where most of the Mardi Gras floats are made. Several generations of the Kern family have been creating them since 1932. It has been open for many years so that everyone can get a behind-the-scenes look. First we were shown a short movie about Mardi Gras and the studios. We were given a slice of King Cake since it was Mardi Gras week – hooray! The tour then proceeded to the warehouse and studio.
Inside were floats aplenty in all stages of construction. The various decorations on a float are called “props”. A float prop is pictured at the top of this blog, and there are a couple of small ones below:
The props are made with layers of styrofoam which are glued together with insulation foam. The prop artist will carve it into shape, and then it is decorated. A prop can be redecorated several times, as the head above has been.
There are also props and floats that are made from fiberglass and reused unchanged every year. We had seen this one on the parade route, from the Krewe of Cleopatra, and it was already in the warehouse for next year.
A New Orleans Krewe is a social group. Krewes are a New Orleans tradition that go back all the way to 1856. Mistick Krew of Comus was the first one, and it still exists. A Krewe creates the parade and also has a ball. It can cost a lot of money just to join a Krewe. The group needs the funds to purchase all of the throws, which can run into the thousands of dollars. Besides Cleopatra, on Friday night we had seen the Krewe of Oshun and the Krewe of Alla parades.
I have heard that the French Quarter parades can get a little rowdy. The streets are narrow and the crowds can press in. The Uptown parades which we attended are more family friendly. For us, it was nice that we could just walk a few blocks down to the parade route whenever we wanted to go.
Now that we are in the season of Lent, the parades are over in New Orleans. But you can be sure that everyone is already working on next year’s parades. Fat Tuesday is February 13, 2024. It will be early in the year, so dress warm if you come!
Next time – across the Gulf to Boca Chica Beach and SpaceX
It’s time to hit the road and head off from El Paso all the way across Texas to our winter spot in Harlingen Texas. Is the truck hitched? Slides in? Stairs up? Let’s go!
Out of El Paso, the mountains were close by for quite awhile, but they gradually faded into distance. The terrain is rugged here. We saw plenty of buttes, strange rock formations, and miles upon miles of open, parched land.
I should maybe have titled this blog “Four for the road”, because there were actually four overnight stops along the way, but our first was at Fort Stockton RV Park. It’s right off the highway and is primarily an overnight stop for RVers crisscrossing the state before or after the long open stretch of west Texas. There are things to do here, but we always say: “Next time!” They do have a handy little restaurant which served us up a good breakfast.
The road entered some pretty hills and valleys of the southwest corner of the Texas Hill country. Our second stop was outside of Junction, Texas for two overnights at Pecan Valley RV. This is a lovely, quiet place just behind a pecan farm. The owners of this park have had it for just a handful of years. They own just two rows of the pecan orchard. The park is a large oval with nothing but grass in the middle of the oval, and RV spaces under plenty of trees ringing just half of the outsides of the loop. There were four sites next to ours, although there were more down the road, and for a blessed twenty-four hours we had no neighbors close by.
There are deer to be seen at any time wandering around. In a little farm area, there are chickens and goats. Many of the chickens were free ranging and came to pay us a visit. Thanks to those chickens, we were able to buy a dozen multi-hued eggs.
The South Llano River is just a short walk from the goat and chicken pen. The river is what makes this park popular in the summer. Besides swimming, people enjoy rafting, kayaking or tubing. In all of its history, the river has never run dry, although with today’s climate change it does get very low in the heat of summer.
We had a full day to rest up here, so we went over to South Llano River State Park for a hike. At this park there is a large protected area where about 800 turkeys make their home. The turkeys are easily scared off, so visiting their roost is not encouraged. We hiked the Overlook Trail, which, after spending time in the Southwest, was an easy trail up for us. We were even surprised on our hike by an armadillo scurrying into the underbrush. It moved too quickly for a picture.
Junction’s single claim to fame is this antler tree, put up by the Women’s Club in 1968.
The Llano river is a bonus to the beauty of this area. I would like to be here when the trees bud again. We’re familiar with Texas Hill country and it was a good feeling to be back.
A short 140-mile drive took us further east to Guadalupe Brewing Company in New Braunfels. Since they are a Harvest Host location, we stayed a night in their back parking lot.
A surprise for this stop was that our daughter Katie, who lives in Austin, decided to come down and join us for the day. She always has ideas for different and fun things to do, so after getting set up at Guadalupe we headed off in her car. First stop: Animal World and Snake Farm Zoo. At first glance, this place looks like a tourist trap off the Interstate. But once inside, we discovered an interesting little zoo with a variety of well-cared-for animals, birds, and a good assortment of snakes.
We also had cups of food to feed a multitude of goats with many cute little kids.
New Braunfels is but one of the German heritage towns that dot this area of the Texas hill country. We walked the little downtown area. All of the busy activity on this Sunday afternoon concentrated on their large Biergarten with Hofbrau beer on tap. Instead, though, we roamed the city streets, checked out an antique mall, and visited the little train depot. If you are ever in New Braunfels in November, you can enjoy their popular Wurstfest.
We needed to patronize Guadalupe Brewing for our stay, so we headed back. They had a full selection of beers to choose from. I’m not really a fan of beer, but Cal is, so we sampled three small glasses. My favorite was their Texas Honey Ale, which is described as “a blonde ale enriched with Texas honey”. Even the description sounds delicious. They also make a good pizza, and dinner was in order. That was a fun day!
Leaving New Braunfels, we pointed Sam and Frodo due south in earnest. It was getting warmer. Putting San Antonio behind us, we were on new-to-us territory. Our last stop: Lake Corpus Christi State Park. It is about forty miles to the east from the city for which it is named. Once we set up, I just sat at our picnic table and enjoyed the warmth and the cardinals singing and flying over us.
I hiked a mile long loop trail. Cactus on the the ground were interspersed with deciduous trees with no leaves, and here and there was a palmetto or a palm tree. The trail finally opened up onto the lake.
I missed getting an excellent photo that evening, though. We walked down to a large aluminum T-shaped fishing pier in the late afternoon and caught the setting sun over the lake. The sunset was amazing. It was a walk where we were just “going exploring”, and I had left my phone and camera behind. You’ll just have to take my word for it that it was spectacular.
Traveling further south, we entered a coastal plain with low vegetation, more cactus and very little sign of human life. We had about 140 miles still to go from Lake Corpus Christi. Once near Harlingen, civilization returned. Harlingen is in the northeast part of the Rio Grande Valley, an area that also includes Brownsville and south Padre Island to the southeast and McAllen and Mission on the west. It is at the very bottom of Texas, so once again, we are not far from Mexico.
I’ll leave you here for now while we make some new memories. I’m going to pick up my Europe blogs again for three or four weeks. Do you remember my question from way back in November: what did I leave out of my Scottish blogs?
Huddled in our blankets in front of our fireplace in the cold November nights of New Mexico, we stalked the Weather Channel for a warmer place that would be still be a days driving distance from Denver. El Paso was consistently several degrees warmer. It’s a funny thing, too, because El Paso, Texas lies only approximately 50 miles to the south of Las Cruces, New Mexico. We knew where we had to go. We were going to go there anyway, but our arrival at our site in El Paso was about three weeks earlier than we originally planned.
At the very tip of the nose of Texas, on its far western side, lies the city of El Paso. Franklin Mountain rises up and pushes down into it like a thumb. The city has crept up and around the tip of that thumb. El Paso is limited in its growth southward by the Mexican city of Juarez, from which migrants poured during the months of November and December 2022. Driving along I-10 reveals a tale of two cities: Juarez, looking a little less prosperous and with a lining of smog along its mountainside, and El Paso, with its chain restaurants and hotels lining the expressway. If you look closely, you can see the immense border wall which snakes down and around, dividing Mexico and the United States.
On the northeastern side of the mountain lies sprawling Ft. Bliss, the Army’s second largest base, containing 1.1 million acres. It is so big that it is chopped up by the roads that pass through it, notably SR 54 that passes in front of the RV park. Were it not for that highway, this would be a great place to sit. Behind the park, Franklin Mountain rises up and provides a lovely backdrop. All around the mountain, development never rises much higher than this. I suspect that much of the land is owned by either the federal government or the state of Texas.
On some of my daily walks, I tried to get behind the buildings and up into the hills, but it was just too far. In the foreground of this picture is one of Ft. Bliss’s housing areas and behind that is a fence.
There was plenty of time to explore, so one of the first things we did was hike in the Franklin Mountains.
It was silent on the mountain, until the sound of birds broke through. We stood there for awhile, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from, until this gaggle of geese flew over us. They circled above our heads for quite awhile. Maybe, just like people, they were having an argument about which direction was best for their migration journey? There was quite a discussion, as evidenced by all their honking. Finally they fixed their formation and flew off. Adios amigoose!
If you want to drive to a destination in El Paso that is on the other side of the mountain from where you are, it can take some time to go around on the highway. The single other option is to travel on the only road that cuts through it, which is beautiful Transmountain Road. Franklin State Park, where we hiked, is on that road. Going from west to east, at the end of Transmountain road, sits the National Border Patrol Museum. We thought it might be interesting, so we paid a visit.
The thing that struck me most about this museum is a reminder that the United States borders do not only encompass our border with Mexico, which is what comes to mind when I think about Border Patrol. Those who work for Border Patrol have to be ready for winter conditions up on the border with Canada, and also oceanic borders in other places. The museum is small and didn’t take us long to go through. It is a good place to learn about those who protect all of our borders.
Border Patrol agents have to keep an eye out for motorized hang gliders, which are used for drug smuggling. We learned about the many ways that people try to smuggle all manner of things – and people – into the United States. Helicopters are needed, of course.
After we visited the museum, Cal made an attempt to see how high up we could drive into the mountains from our side (not very far). We passed a migrant detention center and observed many people walking around in the fenced back yard. One man was holding a baby. It is an image that stayed in my mind and put a very human face on the current migration crisis happening in this city.
We made a stop at Keystone Park and El Paso’s Botanical Garden one morning. Keystone Park needs a lot of love, as it doesn’t seem to be well maintained. It is a narrow strip of wetlands on a short trail located between a busy road and I-10, which is amazing given this light-industrial location. There were many birds to see, which made it worthwhile, and then the Botanical Garden can be accessed from this trail.
The birds would take flight and move to another section of wetland when I tried to take just a step closer, so I couldn’t get a closeup shot of them. But I did like this view of the mountains reflected in this picture. Our RV was on the other side of the mountain from here.
The garden was small, but a lot was packed in. It provided plants from the Chihuahuan desert and a peek into some past history.
In one area, there were pretty mosaics set into the wall:
I liked how they had decorated, just a little, for Christmas:
The garden also had a set up of a “paraje” which was an encampment along the Camino Real. This dates back to the 1600’s, when New Mexico was a Spanish colony. The trail covered the distance between Mexico and Santa Fe along what was originally a Pueblo Indian trail. The Spanish were setting up military outposts and needed to move both equipment and missionaries. Parajes were located every 10 or 15 miles to give shelter, rest and water to the livestock and and travelers as well.
The plan for the day was that if we had time, Cal would drop me off at Whoopee Bowl Antique Mall up the highway, and he would go to Camping World while I was there. We have such an exciting life!
I had read about Whoopee Bowl, and I love to poke around antique malls, so I wanted to check this out. If this is the sort of thing you enjoy, it is not to be missed if you are ever in El Paso. I’m always amazed at all the junk…excuse me…stuff that people collect. Whoopee Bowl takes antique malls to a whole ‘nother level.
The above picture is up on the second level. After checking out this massive place and returning down to the first floor, I found a room I hadn’t been in. There was huge fish aquarium, a blazing fire going in a massive brick fireplace, and a rousing game of poker going on.
Atlas Obscura is a guide, both on-line and in book form, to all sorts of quirky and interesting places that one might normally miss. They don’t list the Whoopee Bowl, maybe because it is a business. But they do list the Casa de Azucar, which translated from Spanish means House of Sugar. It was just down from where we were staying and made for a good walk.
It is a testament to one man’s love for both his wife and his Catholic church. Rufino Loya started building this confection of decoration around his little house and kept at it for 25 years. He died just this past August at the age of 88 years. I hope someone will keep taking care of it.
Also just up the road, two artists were working on a mural on a concrete retaining wall. I enjoyed walking by and checking their progress.
Our time in El Paso was also about catching up on chores for me and RV maintenance for Cal. The less-glamorous side of RV life is that we do have to stay on top of everything that one would normally do in their lives. Some things had not been taken care of since before our trip to Europe. It being Christmas time, there was also gift buying, Christmas cards to write, and other things that one does to get ready for the holiday. Our RV park had a club house with a kitchen I could use, and I baked some Christmas cookies there.
Just a few days before Thanksgiving, we made a last-minute decision to visit our family in Denver, so we went drove there without the RV for both the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
Almost every evening while we stayed here, though, we walked together through the little streets of the RV park. It was fairly large so I could get a good number of steps in. When the sun goes down, the temperature plummets, so at times we had to make sure we got our walk in before dinner. For awhile we enjoyed a full moon. There was also a little Christmas wonderland set up by our camp hosts.
And, of course, we paid a visit to Santa!
Like a coin which has two sides, we were happy to refuge here, and also happy when it was finally time to move on down the road.
Next time – zipping across the state of Texas in five days
Happy first blog of 2023! I haven’t gotten back to blogging as quickly as I would have liked after the holidays. Blame it on the flu, and traveling, and also having some nonexistent Internet. We are now in a good spot with great Wi-Fi for awhile, so it’s time to flip the calendar back a couple of months…
Entering our RV again after 3 months away in Europe was truly like coming home. It even still had a little of that “new RV” smell. No mice had settled in and nothing catastrophic happened to any of its mechanics. The lithium batteries hadn’t even lost much of their juice. We looked forward to getting back to our nomadic life, even as we still missed some of the aspects of life that we’d had in Europe. First, though, was two weeks in Denver and a happy reunion with our family there. We would be returning at Christmas. So, for the weeks in between, we headed south to New Mexico.
Our time in this state was a comical musical chairs-style switch up in plans and RV reservations. A five-night stay in a state park was canceled by the park for maintenance issues. A clueless RV park owner who takes reservations only by phone lost our reservation and had a full park during the dates we were to be there. And, unexpected: it often got cold at night, sometimes with below-freezing temperatures. We ended up canceling three other stays because the temperatures were dipping too much. RV life sometimes calls for some flexibility!
One of our “substitute stays” took us to a KOA park in Las Vegas. No, not THAT Las Vegas…remember, we are in New Mexico. While there, we took a drive 35 miles down the highway to visit Pecos National Historical Park. The Pecos Indians had a pueblo there, four to five stories high, home to about 2,000 people for several hundred years until the Spanish came along. What the Spanish didn’t destroy, the Americans did: later, it was a stage stop on the Santa Fe Trail. Situated in a fertile valley between two mountain ranges, it was a major gathering and trading place. The warriors were known to be fierce and undefeatable.
The pueblo is in ruins. This is all that remains of a once-great people. Once upon a time, there were 20 kivas here, which were places for ritual ceremonies. I climbed down inside of one of them.
The park service is slowly reconstructing some of the park based on archeological finds. The Spanish mission was in a partially ruined state and they have rebuilt some of it and the surrounding pueblo.
We drove around Las Vegas a couple of times. It was once a stop on the Santa Fe trail during its Mexican past. Later, the railroad arrived. I read that there are 900 historic buildings in this town, dating back hundreds of years. There are things to see another time when it’s warmer. We had dinner in the Buffalo Hall and Cowboy Cafe, another old building. Their barbeque was delicious.
For me, KOA parks are usually just an overnight stop off the highway. Some are practically on the highway, and come with traffic noise and small sites. We stayed here for two nights, and I must say it wasn’t bad. They gave us site #1, which meant a full sprawling yard and no RV’s in view from our front porch. Susan, in the office, fried us up some delicious pancakes with vanilla and cinnamon for breakfast. However, this park sits near the Hogback Mountains, and Las Vegas itself is at 6,424 feet elevation. I didn’t think it would be so chilly this early in November, but we had snow on the morning of our departure. We needed to get further south!
Northern New Mexico is mountainous and is very beautiful. Santa Fe, Taos, and Angel Fire are all nearby. But we’ll have to save our exploration of it for a time when it’s a little warmer.
Our next stay, in Fort Sumner, was also a last-minute replacement find. It was a small mobile home and RV park, usually the kind of place that would be at the very bottom of our desired place to stay. But the permanent residents were to the back, us transients to the front, and all places were neat and tidy. Our site was very wide, and we were right in town. Well, such as town was. What this place lacked in amenities, it made up for in character.
The owners of Valley View RV also own the “Billy the Kid” museum up the street. Ed & Jewel Sweet opened the museum in 1953 as a repository for all the stuff they had collected in their life, and naming it after New Mexico’s famous outlaw is what drew people in. Their son, Donald (who is no spring chicken himself, but gets around well) is running the family business and together with his son, Tim, they run a tight ship.
I wasn’t much drawn into the Billy the Kid stuff. Stuff of lore though he may have been, he was still a criminal. Allegedly, he killed 21 men before he himself was killed at the age of 21 in 1881. But this is BTK territory: where ever we went around these parts, a sign would proclaim “Billy slept here!” or “Billy shot someone here!” and I couldn’t see one redeeming thing that he ever did. I guess it helps with tourism dollars, but I would say the heyday on these events has come and gone.
I loved looking at all the stuff the Sweets collected and had on for display in the museum, though. Besides these farm implements, there were collections of various household items, lots of old buggies and some covered wagons, and of course more BTK ephemera.
Whenever there is a fort to be seen, and we’re looking for something to do, we usually go see it. They’re all different, and some have been amazing for the surprises they hold. Nothing could have prepared me for Fort Sumner, though. Rather than normal western fort-looking buildings, this beautiful museum greeted us:
Recently completed, the Bosque Redondo Memorial tells the story of how 8,500 Navajo and Apache Indians were rounded up in January of 1864 and made to march almost 300 miles to this place. Called “The Long Walk”, under the leadership of Kit Carson, 200 of them died of cold and starvation on the way. The site was to be a reservation to “civilize” them by going to school, practicing Christianity, and becoming corn farmers. Once they got here, they were made to construct their own dwelling places. Unfortunately, the nearby Pecos river was brackish and caused intestinal problems and disease, armyworm destroyed the corn crops, and the wood supply was soon depleted. Most of the Apache escaped the next year, but it would be three more years before the Navajo simply walked home. The whole venture was a miserable failure.
The memorial was built at the request of some Navajo teenagers who, when visiting Ft. Sumner, wanted to know why their story here wasn’t told. Until just two years ago, you would visit the fort and simply not know what happened at this place. The events were certainly not included in any of my history books.
I didn’t have much of an appetite for visiting the fort after that, but we followed the trail out. There isn’t much left of it anyway. Walking about the grounds, I pondered the atrocities that occurred here under the direction of our government. It is a silent, windswept place.
I’m continually astounded at man’s inhumanity to man. I came away with a feeling that I, we all, need to travel and see these places and to learn their stories. Otherwise, how can we learn not to repeat them?
As a side note, after the fort was abandoned in 1869, a rancher purchased one of the old barracks buildings and turned it into a grand house. It was there that a local sheriff ended the life of Billy the Kid. He is buried in the military cemetery nearby, but we did not visit it.
Ready to get back to nature, our next stay was at Valley of Fires Recreation Area, maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. It looks over part of a 44-mile lava flow that happened 5,000 years ago. It was not the result of a volcano. Instead, the Carrizozo Malpais Lava Flow was the result of volcanic vent openings in the valley floor. Our site also looked out over the lava field and provided us with several grand sunsets. From our perch, the only man-made thing that we could see was the nature trail and, occasionally, cars on the road far off in the distance to our right. Ahhhhh…excellent.
It is a quiet and peaceful place and was our favorite stay during this time.
When we hiked the nature trail, we discovered that the lava field is very much a living place. There are cactus, trees, and bushes common to the Chihuahuan Desert that we were in, as well as some late-blooming flowers. Animals live here too but we didn’t see any. Seeing lava rock again almost made us feel like we were back on the Big Island of Hawaii.
As a fill-in for our lost RV reservation, we stayed for several days in Alamogordo, right across the road from the world’s biggest pistachio.
McGinn’s PistachioLand and its neighbor, Heart of the Desert, were both great places to sample pistachios, pecans, and wine. It was very handy, after having all that wine, to just be able to walk across the road (carefully!) and go home. At McGinn’s we also took a little tram ride through the orchards and vineyards for an interesting tour. We liked McGinn’s best, but that was probably because Heart of the Desert was a smaller operation and were very busy with a wedding when we visited.
Also behind our RV park in Alamogordo was a little country road which I enjoyed walking on a couple of times. There was a large pecan orchard to look at, mountains ahead of me, and friendly horses to pet.
The highlight of our stay in Alamogordo, though, was a visit to White Sands National Park. Although it was designated a national monument in 1933, it became a national park in 2019. We took a guided walk by a park ranger, where we learned that recently they have found a set of ancient footprints here. The footprints date to 24,000 years ago, placing humans in North America sooner than was thought, but this date seems to still be in dispute. Although the gypsum sands seem dry, there is water only a couple of feet below the surface.
The sun going down made for great effect, casting its long shadows over the sandy hills. We were here in the late afternoon so as to catch the ranger’s tour, but it was a great time of day to visit.
Our last stay during this time was in Las Cruces. From our park, we were able to walk to Old Mesilla, a village that was settled over one hundred years ago. Red chile peppers adorn the plaza and the thick adobe-walled buildings contain art galleries, shops and restaurants.
I cannot help but point out that there was once a courthouse here where Billy the Kid was tried for his crimes and sentenced to hang. He escaped before that could happen.
We had excellent fajitas in a restaurant called La Posta in Old Mesilla. It had been a Butterfield stage stop and inn, and in 1935 it became a restaurant. Parrots and a piranha fish greeted us when we entered. La Posta had rooms upon rooms, and we ate in what was once was the blacksmith and harness room, with a fireplace that kept us warm. While we enjoyed our delicious dinner, we could look at an immense Christmas tree in an adjoining room.
The state of New Mexico overall has much to offer, but we will have to return at a time when it is warmer. The entire state is at elevation, which means it isn’t a great place to be in late fall and winter. Las Cruces itself, while in the far south of New Mexico, sits at 3,900 feet elevation. It was 27 degrees on our last morning in Las Cruces and it wasn’t the first time we’d had a freeze. Daytime temperatures usually warmed up into at least the 50’s, but nighttime freezing temperatures means that the RV mechanic (that’s Cal) has to disconnect hoses and turn on tank heaters. It’s always a worry that a connection might freeze and crack.
We were continuously keeping an eye on the Weather Channel, trying to figure out where would be the warmest place to sit for awhile. What did we find? That is the subject of my next post!
Our previous post, from Western Colorado, actually happened two months ago. What have we been doing since then? Getting ready for our 3 month trip to Europe!
Anyone who knows me well will not be surprised to hear of our plans. Thinking about it and saving for it kept me going through the last decade of work before retirement. In its original conception, the trip was going to be 9 months, plus Hawaii tacked on at the beginning. Why spend a lot of money flying back and forth over the ocean for a few weeks when you can see more in one trip for several months?
Then, grandchildren started arriving. COVID happened, and the purchase of our truck and 5th wheel. We had our trip to Hawaii earlier this year, so now it’s time for the other part of the plan. The trip duration has been reduced to only three months, but three months is still a blessing, and I’m glad we can go.
I started planning for the trip last fall. And then stopped for awhile. COVID variants arrived, waned, came back around again. Ukraine was invaded by Russia. Optimistically, I reserved AirBnbs and purchased plane tickets. Cal was worried about Covid resurgence. And it is resurging again. We have been vaccinated and boosted twice, and have our masks, but who knows? Neither of us could have foreseen the airport debacle that is going on right now in Europe and here in the States. But all plans are made, and we will hope for the best.
What about our truck and 5er? Our RV is going into storage on an air base. What could be more secure than that? We have a nephew in Albuquerque who is graciously letting us keep the truck in his driveway. I suspect he will be enjoying a few drives in it. When we return to the United States, we will be back to our RV’ing life the same as before.
Meanwhile, besides trip preparation, our time in Denver has been filled with the mundane stuff of everyday life. We have been happily enjoying the company of our grandchildren – and their mothers, of course!
Two days after we arrived, we had a late May snowstorm.
One place I enjoyed returning to this summer was Denver City Park. There were a couple of walks with friends. I wish I could have joined them more often. This is the kind of weather I prefer!
This year, for the first time, I had opportunity to be in the park twice in the evening for concerts by the Mile High Freedom Band:
In Ferril Lake, the fountain changes colors, and swan boats paddle around it.
As we rose north from Arizona and Utah so did the gas prices, and they peaked during our stay in Denver. We limited excursions to those around town. We were curious about a couple of brown signs we’ve seen on streets we travel often, so we followed those signs. The first was 8 miles out from our summer spot at Cherry Creek State Park to Aurora Reservoir. Despite the cool and overcast weather, people were out fishing and SUP’ing.
We discovered a great trail through the rolling prairie around the lake, and some blooms that looked a little like thistles.
Another brown sign we see on our way to City Park in Denver is for Four Mile Park. I was hoping for a hiking/biking trail until I did some research on it: it is a historical park.
Four Mile Historical Park is four miles from the heart of downtown Denver and was a last stop on the Cherokee Trail in the pioneer days. This house is the oldest house in Denver. A cabin was built to supply travelers, and then it became an inn and stage coach stop. Women slept in the parlor and the men upstairs, and the upstairs loft was also used for dances. It finally became a gentleman’s farm for a Denver lawyer and his family, and grew to 600 acres. Now there are only twelve acres and it is in the city with apartment buildings all around the outside.
Tim, the assistant site manager, walked us through the house. We could see its transformation over the years. The first room is the old cabin, then there is a walk through the parlor, and finally into the very genteel turn-of-the century home.
The interesting thing is that the dining room and kitchen are in the basement. It’s cool down there, perfect for hot days when the wood burning stove is always lit. The stove also warms the space in winter.
Outside, there are both replica and and original buildings, barns with animals, and a boardwalk for children to sweep when they are visiting.
One thing I like about Denver is that, even when just going about running errands, I can look up and see the mountains when driving westward.
Of course, the best thing of all is the time spent with our grandchildren. Merely gazing at that perfection of a truck is happiness in spades for our grandson.
As with our trip to Hawaii, I don’t know how often I will be blogging while in Europe. We do have some places that we will be settling in for over a week, so maybe I’ll be catching up then.
Do you follow Facebook? If so, Twosna Travels is there, and a search on the name will find me. I may be more likely to post random photos there.
First stop – Belfast, Ireland. Until then: goodbye, slán, tschüss, arrivederci, antio sas!
Imagine listening to the sounds here: nothing but the birds singing. The lake below is sparkling and blue. Through a gap in the foothills behind the lake you can see the beautiful green and snow-capped mountain peaks beyond. This splendid vision is called Rifle Gap State Park and it lies in western Colorado.
We had come from Moab, one of the best places in the United States for ATV’ing and off-roading in all of its many forms. Our large RV park was crowded and there was a gathering spot by the entrance for any off-road excursions. Any other park in town was full because of an off-roading event.
In true Utah form, our park was also “landscaped” with lots of rocks, gravel, dust and dirt. The park owners made an effort by watering our little patch of iris, but nothing could take away the road noise. It was handy for seeing the national parks, because we didn’t have to drive into Moab, but I was happy to see that our reserved site at Rifle Gap was open one night earlier.
There’s not a lot going on at Rifle Gap and that was fine with us. The water level in the small lake is low. There is boating, but mainly for fishing. Campground loops line the edges of lake like pearls on a necklace. Our loop rose up from the lake in a zig zag fashion, and our site was at the top of a hill. We decided that our site, and the one next to us, were the best and most private in the park.
Rifle Falls State Park is not far from Rifle Gap, and driving there, you pass through a pretty little mountain valley dotted with picturesque farms, a winding creek, and improbably, an old golf course. It is another small park, but we hear it is impossibly crowded on the weekends. No wonder, because it is a lovely spot to visit. We were glad we were there on a weekday.
I had not expected something so breathtakingly beautiful.
You can walk behind the falls—
—and along the cliff walls on either side of the waterfall, there are small caves you could wander in and out of. As you can imagine, I really enjoyed this part.
Up on top of the falls, there is a walkway.
Up here, there are “wooden diversion structures”. There was a hydroelectric plant here in the first half of the 1900’s, and these housed the pipes that carried water down to the powerhouse. Around the turn of the century, there was also a resort hotel near here, and the owner charged folks a quarter (about $5.00 today) to visit the falls. Now that it is a state park, we were able to visit without charge because we have an annual Colorado state parks pass.
Not far from Rifle Falls State Park is the Rifle Falls Fish Hatchery, which supplies trout not only for the creek here and in Rifle Gap State Park, but in many other lakes, streams, ponds, and reservoirs. In some remote areas, they drop the fish by helicopter or small airplane. What a shock for a fish!
We always enjoy walking around the ponds in a hatchery to look at fish in their various stages of development. This hatchery has capacity to produce five million fish per year, but is only producing less than half of that currently. Whirling disease is currently a problem with cold water fish, such as trout. The hatchery is only utilizing spring water (versus surface water) to reduce contamination, which lowers their capacity. I also learned that they stock fish for kid’s fishing derbies. That’s great! It gives the kids more of a chance to catch a fish.
There was actually one other state park in this area, Harvey Gap, but all it contained was a large boat launch area. The lake looked similar to Rifle Gap, although it didn’t seem as shallow.
This was a relaxing interlude between our Utah travels and our arrival in Denver for part of the summer. We were treated to more mountain views along the drive to Denver, and I’ll leave you for now with this view of the Rockies from Breckenridge.
How would you like to live in a house carved out of rock? Someone we had met somewhere on the road had told us that the Hole N’ The Rock house was one of his favorite things to do in Moab, Utah. That idea sounded interesting to me, so we decided to give it a visit.
If you’re one of my regular readers, you know that Twosna Travelers doesn’t usually visit places that are dubbed “Tourist Attractions”, otherwise known as “Tourist Traps”. As we arrived, everything screamed Tourist Attraction, especially the sign. I would not have stopped if we had just driven by without knowing what it was all about.
For $6.00, you get a 12 minute tour of the house. Yep, that’s right…12 minutes. And, pictures are not allowed inside. I purchased a little brochure of the house for $2.00 in order to have the inside pictures that I am posting here. There is also a petting zoo where you could feed the animals, a collection of Lyle Nichols metal art sculptures, mining equipment and other vintage items and memorabilia to look at outside, souvenir shops, and ice cream. To me, all of that was extraneous stuff. I wanted to see the house.
While we were waiting for the tour, though, I did stop to admire their collection of antique gas pumps and license plates:
So…the backstory. Albert Christiansen and his brother Leo were part of a family that settled the land that the house is on. An enterprising sort, they cleared a cave on the property for cowboys passing through the area on cattle drives to stay in. In 1940 Albert decided it might be a pretty nice house, so over a period of 12 years he hand drilled and blasted and moved 50,000 cubic feet of rock, finally readying it for he and his wife Gladys to move into in 1952. He died only five years later. For ten years, until his death, he and Leo also operated a diner in part of the house.
The first room on the tour is the kitchen. The 1950’s decor is interesting. There is also a deep fat fryer, not seen in this picture, set into a pot-sized hole in the rock.
The craftsmanship in the fireplace was amazing. The chimney is 65 feet tall, drilled down through solid sandstone from above, but Albert could not get it to vent properly. An outside patio on the rock ledge above the house was in the works at the time of his death, so perhaps he was hoping to finish this off then.
The house is 5,000 square feet and has fourteen rooms around large rock pillars.
Their bedroom can be seen behind the lamp above, and is also shown below.
Albert was also an artist and taxidermist, and his studio was farther back behind the bedroom. He greatly admired Theodore Roosevelt and sculpted a likeness of his face on the rock cliff outside the house, seen in my “Hole N The Rock” photo and in more detail below.
Gladys was no slouch, either. After Albert’s death, she continued developing the home according to what he had dreamed and wished for. She worked with Leo to construct a bathtub in the bathroom.
When Albert died, she moved her bedroom to a different room in the house. She collected dolls, and the ones in this picture were hers. All of the furnishings in the home are still original to what Gladys and Albert had.
Gladys and Albert had no children together, but she came into the marriage with a son, Hub Davis. When Albert passed, she was the one who had the big white sign painted on the cliff. She polished rocks and sold them in her gift shop, and and her collection of them is inside the house. She also gave tours of the house. Hub kept the enterprise going after her death in 1974, and then it was sold and passed out of the family. That is when all the other attractions, including the petting zoo, were added.
There are those people in life who use their creativity, talent and passion to do amazing things in their corner of the world. These people bless us with the fruits of their genius that they leave behind. Albert and Gladys were two such people and I’m glad I was able to see their home – even though I would have liked more than 12 minutes inside! They are buried out back in a little nook in the rock on their property.
We left after the tour and did not pay to see the zoo. The ice cream shop hadn’t yet opened for the day. For some reason, we were really hungry after our visit and had a huge Italian lunch at Pasta Jay’s in Moab. We followed up that decadence with – you guessed it – an ice cream cone!