Sunday, June 29, 2014

West Texas

 

West Texas is very sparsely populated compared to east Texas.  I traveled Interstate 10 from Sonora to Fort Stockton yesterday and  loved the fact that there was so very little traffic.  Speed limit is 80, but I don’t feel comfortable towing at that speed, so I average about 50-60.  Obviously, everyone else was passing me.  But that’s fine, the scenery was all new to me and I wanted to enjoy it. Texas drivers are accustomed to going fast, some of their less-populated country 2 lane roads have speed limits of 70 or 75.  Yes, little skinny country roads.

I expected the area to be pretty much flat, but most of the road was hilly with long grades.  Sometimes it was so gradual I didn’t notice it, but I could feel my truck reacting to it.  Texas people were smart, instead of having steep grades, they just cut through most of the bigger hills and mesas.  That made for an interesting trip, you can check it out with the link at the end of this article.

The first part of the trip was on a basic four-lane highway through a few towns, green fields.  After about 50 miles, the road curved and I saw mesas up ahead, as far as I could see.  These rocky hills were all the same height, flat at the top, and continued for the next 100 miles, and probably beyond.  A few of them were smaller and came to a cone-shaped point.  In one area, there were windmill farms on top of the mesas.  All the vegetation was sparse, scrubby little bushes that were trying to grow out of what looked like mostly rock. 

I got to Fort Stockton about noon and checked into the campground.  There are very few trees in this area, so there was no shade.  I set up camp and then headed for the museum and fort.  It was a bright blue-sky, clear day with no clouds.  As I went into the fort visitor center, I mentioned that Texas had not been that hot back east a few miles.  The woman there told me it was 100 degrees out.   Oh, well, that sure explains it – that’s about 10 degrees more than where I was the day before.  At least the humidity is lots lower than Florida.  But it still feels like August in Florida. 

I’m not sure if it’s always this way, but the winds here are very strong, they were constantly 25-30 mph yesterday and into the night, with the same predicted for today.  It seems like the temperature and winds don’t reach their full impact until mid-afternoon, unlike Florida. 

If all goes well, I’ll be headed north to Carlsbad, New Mexico in the early morning.  Early, to escape the worst of the heat, it’s probably a 3 hour trip.  And when I pass the state line, I’ll be in the Mountain Time zone!

Click the link below to see one of the more interesting minutes of the trip.
http://youtu.be/d5XlAeL3YTc

 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Caverns of Sonora


Sonora, Texas is just off I10, the interstate that goes through Texas. It’s pretty much isolated, not too many towns along that road in west Texas. So, anyone who wants to see these caverns is going to be out of the way. My phone barely worked there.

Sonora has a cute little historic district with some old buildings that date back to the 1800s or early 1900s. The court house is quite impressive. I went to the Old Ice House Ranch Museum, housed in the old ice house. This museum is filled with artifacts from that time period, as well as more modern items, such as World War II ration stamps. I was talking with the woman who runs this museum (and owned some of the display pieces). She told me that most people go to San Angelo for shopping such as monthly groceries, clothing and other items. San Angelo is about 60 miles away.

The main tourist draw is the Caverns, an extensive, live underground cavern with amazing formations. We were able to see less than 2 miles of it, but it extends about 8 miles total. Amazingly, this cavern has formations in it that I haven’t seen in other caverns or caves. It is billed as the foremost show cavern in the world.


The most photographed area of the cavern is the first photo above, Horseshoe Lake, about 5 feet deep, although the water is so clear you think it’s shallow. The guide casually mentioned that we were inside a giant geode. A geode is a rock that has mineral matter in it when it is opened. Some of them have brilliant colors and designs and others are just plain. An internet search will give you an idea of what it is. Some can be as small as a golf ball or as large as a boulder.



I never get tired of these caverns, so after a few more stops, I’ll be on my way to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, one of the more famous ones.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Full Service?


A situation happened a few days ago that still has me surprised and a bit amazed. 

I’m in a little town called Mason, Texas and stopped at a local Chevron gas station to get some gas.  I pulled up at the pump and a man came out and snatched the fuel line and started to open my gas tank.  In shock, I looked at him and looked at the pump – and saw the price was $4.25.   I looked again at the big sign on the road that said $3.53.  I asked him what the correct price was – he told me it was $4.25 for full service.   Full Service??!  Since when do we have full service gas stations?  I told him I didn’t want to pay that price and he told me I’d have to pump it myself at the other pump.  There were no signs or warnings.

Obviously, I pulled around to the other pump – really – over $.70 per gallon to have someone pump your gas?  I got out at the other pump with my credit card – no place to swipe it through.  No signs telling me what to do.  I start to the office and he stopped me, saying “Pump first, Pump first.”   OK, I guess I can do that.  As I was pumping gas into my tank, I got a bit suspicious and figured I’d only put $20 in, just in case.  Most stations want the credit card swiped through first – there has to be a catch. 

I went in to pay, he swiped my card and then I saw him figuring something on his calculator and the price on his cash register increased from the amount I pumped in.  I asked him what the increase was for – he told me that it was a 5% charge for using a credit card.  I shook my head and told him it would be the last time I would stop in there.  I’m so glad I didn’t fill my tank, my truck is thirsty and it could have run up to $60 or more.    This guy also does some auto repairs there, but he doesn’t seem too busy, you can imagine why. 

I’ve been in Texas now for about 6 weeks and have really enjoyed my time here.  The people have been friendly and helpful and I’ve really enjoyed the places I’ve visited.  Even Mason, the town is a cute little gem in the middle of the state, a no-stoplight town.  I won’t let one greedy man change my opinion of the state. 

Still – I can’t get over it – full service at a gas station!  OK, when is the last time anyone ever saw that – except for the handicap signs that we had on the fuel pumps in Florida?  And then it was the same price. 

 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Dig It!



Mason, Texas is known for topaz stones that have been found in areas surrounding this little town.  It is not being mined commercially, so there are three ranches that allow you to come on their property to search for them.  For a fee, of course.

The museum in town has quite a few of these stones on display, the largest one is uncut and is at least the size of a baseball.   There are some smaller ones, about the size of golf balls or a little larger, also uncut.  They also have stones that have been cut and faceted – complete with a star.  They are beautiful!  Texas gets lots of mileage out of that Lone Star!

It sounded like a fun idea, so I called and made arrangements to go out to one of the ranches to search.  It was a great day for digging – low humidity and total clouds for most of the day.  There was a large area that we could search  – there were two women besides myself.  We were given a few pointers by our guide, who then left us to our own devices. 

I decided I would dig close to a riverbed and ended up digging partly in the water of the small streambed.  It’s hard work, especially with wet sand/pebbles/stones.  You put a shovelful into the sifter and then scratch through it.  I found some nice stones and pebbles, but no topaz.  I tried a few more places and then decided I’d climb on top of the rocks for some photos, just for a break.  Besides, there was a nice breeze up on top!

I came back down and it was time for lunch.  The other two women had not found any topaz either, and decided it was time for them to leave.  I took a quick break, ate my sandwich and scouted out another place to dig.  I searched for another hour or so and decided I’d had enough, I’d been out there for about 4 hours.

I didn’t find any topaz, but I had a good time and it was interesting.  I’ve heard of places in other western states where you can search for stones, and I bet I’ll try it again.  I will probably do some research and see if I can find hints to make my next search more successful.

 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

It's an adventure......



Yes, I went to see the bats again, at a different location – can’t resist a show like that.  I’m glad I did, since they emerged from the cave in two separate, huge groups about a half hour apart.   But this story isn’t about seeing the bats so much as it is about the trip out to the Bat Cave.   Yes, they do call it tBat Cave.

 I got an instruction sheet at the Visitor Center in town and it states that there is over 8 miles of dirt road to get there.   OK, I’ve been on dirt roads before.  Unfortunately, this one was rocky and had mostly a washboard surface for the better part of the way. 

The first part out of town was smooth going.  Then it turned into a narrow well-patched road, but it still wasn’t bad.  Then it turned into washboard and I was going about 10 mph to try to minimize the impact on my truck.  There were occasional cattle guards and even they were more bumpy than you’d find on a regular road around here.  A cattle guard consists of steel tubes across about 4’ of the road and the idea is to keep the cattle on one side or the other.  Apparently, they have not figured out how to get across it.  So, they're free to roam wherever they want.

I came across a bull who was rubbing his face in the dirt along the side of the road and then stopped to look at me as I passed.  Then I came across a little stream crossing the road, complete with the rock bottom.  The next stream was larger, with more water across the road.  I couldn’t  tell how deep it was, so I got out and walked around the edge – only a couple inches deep.   No problem.  Pretty canyon rock walls on the right side, so it must have been a nice river at one time.  Maybe it still is in rainy season.

I felt like I’d been driving forever and I hadn’t seen any signs.   Then I saw a white pickup coming at me, so I flagged him down and asked if this was the way to the Bat Cave.  He grinned and said it certainly was, but there was one more river to cross.  He told me it was about 100 yards wide but only a few inches deep.  I thanked him for the information and went bumping down the road.

Shortly after that, 3 SUV type vehicles passed me going at least 25 or 30, kicking up dust.  I looked at their wheels bouncing on the road and figured their vehicle must be more comfy than mine.  A couple minutes later, I rounded a corner to see all three of them parked and everyone out of the car, looking at our last river to cross. 

These people were all related and one of the members of the family was related somehow to the original owner of the Bat Cave property.  I told them about my conversation with the man in the pickup and that it was safe to cross.   One woman was very curious about me, since I was all alone and started asking about my life on the road.  She seemed very intrigued with it. 

The crossing was not bad, someone had planted sticks to mark the shallow area on one side, and on the other, you could see the rocks drop off – there was even a small waterfall.  Very small.  I took it very slow since I didn’t want to get water in my brakes – thinking that at least it was not sea water.

Shortly after that we were able to make our way into the preserve.  What a trip!  To prove that there are people who actually live down this road, there was a huge ranch with a big sign at the end near where we turned into the parking area.

The bats came out about 8 PM, which was still light enough to get pictures, but they’re so close and so fast that I didn’t get good shots.  They get going about 35 mph in the vortex, but can do 50-60 on a straightaway, after they get going.

After the show, I was able to cross the larger river in almost daylight and the only other holdup I had was cows.  By the time I came upon a herd of cows having a meeting in the middle of the road, it was totally dark and they’re all black.  I stopped to see if they would move out of the way.  They just stared at me staring at them.  I moved the truck a couple feet closer and they took a couple steps toward the sides.  I inched along slowly while they moved away.  I’m so glad they’re placid animals. 

The rest of the trip home was uneventful, although slow.  But, it was an adventure.

 

 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Just when you think things are fine......

 

I've been staying at Beachcomber Park, a Passport America park (discount!),  near Lake Buchanan in Texas.  Today, as I was doing some trip planning, I went into the bathroom and turned on the light.  The light seemed at half strength, so I tried another light - same thing.  Then I realized, it had gotten warm and the AC had not kicked on in a while.  I went out to the power pedestal and checked to be sure my power cord was still plugged in.  I bypassed my surge protector, but that didn't make a difference.  My breakers were fine.  I had no idea what to try next.

I went to the office to see if there was any problem in the area.  The owners were in the office and when I explained my problem, Carlton told me he would gather some tools and be right over.  He started checking at the pedestal and had power there, and there was power at my breaker box.  The GFCI outlet had not flipped, so that wasn't the issue.  He checked out my converter.  Somehow he figured out it was the battery.  The battery level was very low.  I'm not sure how that happened, the water level was OK and it was supposed to charge whenever the RV was plugged into shore power.

It was the problem, because when it was hooked to the truck with jumper cables to test it, the AC kicked on with no hesitation.  Carlton brought over his professional-looking battery charger and plugged it in to charge the battery.  I should be find out in the morning if it will hold a charge.  I know I'll be keeping a close eye on it in the next few days, and I may just get a new one as soon as I get to a store.

I have met many park owners in the past few months, but these people have been the most friendly and helpful.
 

Monday, June 16, 2014

Longhorn Cavern State Park

 

 



Another cavern tour – a completely different one.  This cavern was formed with an underground river instead of water dripping from above and forming stalactites and stalagmites and other formations.  This cavern has walls formed by flowing water and are smooth in most areas. 

Years ago, this extensive cavern system was home to many bats, but they have relocated because they were being disturbed by the noise of tours and lights during their daily sleeping time.  There is supposedly a small colony of bats that reside there, possibly in the less-traveled areas – we certainly didn’t see any. 

 

There are multiple tours that can be taken, including one where they provide knee and elbow pads and you get to crawl through small areas and get really dirty.  I opted for the basic tour, just over a mile in length, and it took about an hour and a half.  We walked through areas only 4’ tall and into areas that were as high as a 2 story building. 

 
 
After a quick lunch in their little restaurant, I walked a couple of their hiking trails and explored some of the old buildings built in the 1930s by the CCC. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Bats!



For the past couple nights, I have been spending time with bats.  Yes, the popular Halloween images that everyone is familiar with.  They really are misunderstood creatures and are not a danger to humans or other animals.  They actually provide an important service for humanity – the consumption of insects.  In the case, in this area of Texas, they feed on moths that produce larvae that infest corn.  They can eat up to 40 moths per night.  Figure out how many that would be if you had a couple million bats going out to hunt every night.  The farmers love them.  There are no vampire bats in the U.S. – those are reserved for South America and places like that, so we're not talking about that kind.

The photo above is the entrance to an old railroad tunnel, which was abandoned in the early 1940’s after about 30 years of service.  Every year, the Mexican free-tailed bats migrate up here for the summer, starting in May.  The females arrive pregnant and when they are ready to deliver the baby that will weigh about 1/3 of her own weight, they will find caves in this area to deliver.  The babies require very warm temperatures or they won’t survive, they like it around 100 degrees or so and that won't happen in this tunnel since there is air flow through it.    The mother and babies will all spend about 5 weeks there and then return to places like this tunnel or under bridges in other areas. 

If you look directly into the tunnel before dark, you can see the bats moving around in there, but the real show starts about dusk.  At first, you’ll see a few bats fly out, then you’ll see more .  Soon, you will see a continuous stream of them, seemingly coordinated, fly out to create a counterclockwise vortex of swirling bats.  The area will be thick with them.  After they have gained enough speed and altitude, you’ll see them leave this vortex and fly off into the sky in search of their food.  Since there can be as many as 3 million bats in this tunnel, this continues for an unbelievable length of time. 

Last night, a large group of people gathered on the benches on the side of the area above and to the side of the tunnel.  I wanted to be as close as possible, so I was sitting right next to the fence.  This spectacular event lasted over a half hour and the air was continually thick with these critters.  They are so fast that it was impossible to make out any detail of an individual animal, you were just able to get the impression of a continual flow of them.  If you listened closely, the sound of their wings beating the air sounded similar to a distant stream flowing over rocks.  When the ranger told us it was time to leave, they were still coming out of the tunnel. 

During all this, I was watching the ones closest to me, some zoomed by within a few feet.  There were obstructions for them to get around, such as the fence, and a few misjudged and landed on the ground on the other side of the fence, but got right back up and into the mix.  One didn’t quite make it safely over the fence, but tumbled to the ground right at my foot, brushing my ankle lightly as he fell – but he was up and gone in a second. 

It was a great privilege to see this event and I hope I’ll be able to see more of them in other areas.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

 
Today I visited the Enchanted Rock State Park.  This is an area of granite domes, rising up to 1800’ or more above sea level.  The tallest one, for which the park is named, is a steeply sloped granite surface that climbs 425’ in .6 mile.  Huge boulders have broken off and remain scattered in the area. 
 
I went early to try to escape the heat of the day, and as I was climbing up to the top, it was comfortably breezy.  When I got to the top, the wind was at least 30 mph, possibly more.  Just when you think you’re at the top, it seems there is more to climb.  The photo above is when I was about halfway up - it seems closer than it is.
 
It was refreshing when you finally walk up the crest and see the surface flatten out.  There are little areas of vegetation, complete with wildflowers that have been able to anchor themselves in the dirt that has been blown up to the top.  There is an impressive 360 degree view of the surrounding area, although it was a hazy day. 
 
After recovering from the steep climb, I started my way back down and took the Echo Canyon Trail, which went between Enchanted Rock and Little Rock, which is just a few feet less than Enchanted.  This trail was mostly across boulders and rocks that had tumbled down through the years.  The wind was totally blocked by the Rock, so the trail was hot and mostly sunny.   This took me around the base of the Enchanted Rock, plus a few mystery trails that were marked with an arrowhead sign.
 
I love mysteries, so I took 2 of these trails, ending up at the base of the huge edifice and as far as I was concerned, there was no reason to be there.  It wasn’t marked on my map and I couldn’t see anything in the area that was interesting enough to create an extensive trail.  When I got back to the headquarters, I questioned the ranger and found that they were for the actual rock climbers – those people who scale the face of rock structures that seem to have vertical sides.  OK, not for me, it was just more hiking for me.
 
 I had a good morning hiking and I was getting hungry, so I finally got back to my truck and with a sigh of relief, turned on the air conditioning.

For those wishing to see more photos - check out my slide show at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSnqwsx3328
 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Luckenbach, Texas



This town is on my map, but my GPS didn’t know about it at all, which is not unusual, since she keeps telling me she’s “recalculating”, or that my destination is on the right when it’s definitely on the left.  She has not known about established cities before this.
 
I’m not a country music fan, but I figured I needed to drive through this town just because it’s famous enough to have someone write a song about it and actually make it a hit.  Well, it would be a real stretch to call this a “town”. 

There is a Post Office, which also sells tourist items in the front.  They boast a population of 3.   Yes, only 3, I didn’t forget any other numbers.   And then there’s the bar in the back, full of signs covering all walls, as well as objects hanging from the ceiling and a few neon beer signs.  If you go out the back door of the bar, you’re in an area of picnic tables with a stage for music.  There was a guy sitting on a stone wall with a guitar, playing and singing, a few people were gathered around with drinks.

Nearby, there’s a small building that has unique siding on the outside walls – license plates from all over.  Across the street, it’s just a dirt path at this point, there’s an old-time dance hall where they have concerts on the weekends.

                       

Certainly, it’s different and laid back.  It’s the kind of place you wander into and then spend the next few hours sitting and listening to music.  There were some bikers there, and it gives them a nice ride on a country road on a beautiful summer day.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Deer Week


 


For the past week I've been at a campground belonging to the U S Army Corp of Engineers.  These parks are always attached to a body of water, in this case, Canyon Lake, northwest of San Antonio, Texas.
These parks have hookups for water and sewer and paved RV sites, each with it's own large picnic table under a roof.  There are nice bath houses including toilets and large showers.  The sites are nicely spaced, with generous undeveloped areas between the sites and the lake and different camping areas. 

Early this morning, I opened my door to see 6 deer in the field next to my RV.   There wasn't a day that I didn't see multiple deer, and a few fawns, wandering through the area. 
  
This past weekend, there was an influx of locals coming in with their boats, jetskis and other water toys.  The area was full of happy campers, but it did not feel too crowded.  After a day or so, most of them cleared out and my nearest neighbor was  4 or 5 sites away. 

After a week of relaxing, it was time to move on for more sightseeing.  I'm sure I'll be looking for more campgrounds run by the COE - in fact, I have one picked out for the week after next.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Gruene, Texas


 


I went to Gruene, Texas the other day, a cute little old town that has become a thriving tourist attraction.  Among other old buildings located there, Gruene Hall is the oldest dance hall in Texas built in 1868, and quite famous, since many famous singers have played there.  It's a big old building, totally wooden, including the floors.  Nothing fancy about this place, seems that they don't even sell liquor, only beer.  Framed photos line the walls and seating in the large area is picnic tables.
There's an antique store, a gigantic one with so much stuff in it that you couldn't see it all.  In reality, it was part museum and part store.  In addition to jewelry, vintage dishes and other items, there were old cooking utensils, tin cans from back when food items such as crackers and pretzels came in such things.  There were also gallon-sized metal cans that had contained oil or heavy-duty lubricant.  Of course there were old soda bottles and beverage cans. 


One store had fossils, geodes, arrowheads, sharks teeth and more pretty rocks.  For those of you who may have read my blog about being a rock fan, I can now be accused of spending money on rocks.   I picked out 5 small ones and including all of them, they claim to boost my energy, confidence and courage as well as improving my intuitive perception and reasoning.  As a bonus, they guard against the evil eye, depression and melancholy.    One claimed to be good for artists and another will bring me tranquility and calm my nervousness.  OK, sounds good, and they're really pretty.  I'll let you know when my transformation to a perfect person happens.

Texas is Special




For those of you who have heard that Texas is different - it's true.  In many ways, it's special.  It's mostly a good special, not the cynical, sarcastic "special".
 
Texas is so special that Ford has a pickup truck labeled "Texas Edition".   Seriously.  I imagine that it's only sold here, but who knows, maybe someone can order it in Alaska or some other place.  There's another pickup labeled Lone Star Edition made by Ram.   Chevy probably has one, but maybe I haven't seen it.  I even saw some travel trailers in one of the parks that were labeled "Texan". 
 
San Antonio is special because it's got the Tower of the Americas (shown above), which was constructed for the 1968 World Fair.  There are 3 elevators that will take you to the top in just over 2 minutes - it's 750' tall and you can get a great 360 degree view of the area.  If you wanted to walk up to the top, there's only 952 steps.   Guess who didn't do that? 
 
San Antonio also has the Alamo, right in the middle of downtown.  Throughout the years, the city just built around it.  It's special because of the history, but I was surprised that it was quite small, but then, it did start it's life as a mission.  There are other missions also, with larger buildings and more history. 
 
In one part of San Antonio, El Mercado (Spanish for The Market) was delightful, with crafts and goods both relating to Texas and Mexico.  There was almost more imports from Mexico than local items.  There were onyx items, sombreros next to cowboy hats, Mexican pottery with wonderfully bright colors, cowboy boots and embroidered Mexican style clothing. 


 
Texas has the USS Lexington, a WWII aircraft carrier that has been turned into a museum.  It's massive, took me 3 hours to go through it and I didn't read everything.  Definitely worth a visit.
 
I've only been through part of east Texas, and I'm sure that there's more special things I'll see.  So far, I've found one thing I'm not thrilled with (besides the bumpy roads and lots of traffic).  Since Texas is famous for BBQ, I tried that today.  This restaurant was highly recommended and is a local chain.  I got a pulled pork sandwich and found that there was only two kinds of BBQ sauce - warm and warmer.   Is it only Florida that has the sweet BBQ sauce?  I guess I'll stick with the Mexican food unless they can guarantee me sweet BBQ sauce.   For any Texans reading this - sorry, I guess it's a personal taste thing.
 
Tomorrow, I'm looking forward to touring some caverns, where it's going to be a chilly 70 degrees inside, compared to the 90's we've been having.  It doesn't feel like 90's in Florida though - not yet.