January 31, 2012

On this trip we have been feeling a need to get to California as soon as possible.  Don’t know why, but sometimes you just need to go with the feeling.  So here we are in San Diego, enjoying a visit with Randy’s brother Butch and his lovely wife Lina.  As usual, they welcomed us and have been making sure we have a good time.  Butch drove us to Coronado Beach to enjoy the great view of the lovely Coronado bridge, and then on to the Silver Strand Beach.  Why they call it the Silver Strand is a mystery to me, because the wet sands look absolutely golden.  
RV parking is allowed on this beach and we have considered staying here, but it’s one of the few places where you have to pay for dry camping so we haven’t done it yet.  But it’s really beautiful.  Of course, when I'm on a beach, I look for shells.  And as usual, everyone indulged me and helped out, and I got a lot of shells to carry back. 

And they also took us to the San Diego Zoo.  We haven’t been there since 2002 and boy, has it changed!  San Diego Zoo is one of the top Zoos in the nation and here’s one thing we noticed right away; the St. Louis Zoo, which is also a top zoo, is free while the San Diego costs $42 (unless you have a relative with a guest pass, like we did).  But it’s non-profit, so all money goes towards the maintenance and expansion of the zoo.  And it’s an amazing zoo; their exhibits are created to provide the animals with the best environments possible and are constantly being updated.  The wild is the very best place for wild animals, but there are a lot of reasons to have animals in zoos, and I have to say that most of the animals here really seem at ease.  For example, the Sun Bear was up in a tree, flat on it’s back, sunbathing and scratching - not the actions of  an animal that stressed.  The only time we saw animals pacing back and forth was when it was lunch time and they wanted to go into their feeding areas.  The Silvered Leaf Monkeys have two adorable little babies, and one of the Takin (which looks sort of like a stocky Wildebeest) has a brand new baby, less than a day old and already standing up behind his mama.  None of them exhibited nervous or stressful behavior.  Their lions and jaguars are so beautiful and not at all impressed with the tourists, but they weren’t shy around us, either.  There are some animals here that I haven’t seen before, such as large Secretary Birds and charming little Meerkats.  They have a good assortment of the animals you expect to see - rhinos, camels, giraffes, antelope, elephants, etc, and we learned what you feed a California Condor - a dead rabbit.  They also have two really unusual and outstanding exhibits - polar bears and pandas.  The polar bears are gorgeous and you can see they are totally at home here.  They include a brother and sister who have been here since they were a couple months old, and another polar bear who has been here since she was two.  Now they are all grown up, very graceful and frighteningly big.  The male is over 10 feet tall and none of that is fat.  In the wild their diet would be mostly seal blubber, but in a zoo they don’t expend as many calories (regular meals, no hunting and warmer weather) so they are fed leaner meats.  These bears are all muscle and fur and ready for lunch; it was wonderful to be so close to them.
There is also have a big exhibit for their Giant Pandas.  No matter what I know to the contrary, they really do look like you could reach out and cuddle them.  Right now they have a female and a male.  The male is called Gao Gao and he’s known for two things: he is a bamboo-eating machine and he is really good with the ladies.  Female pandas are only fertile two days a year, so in both zoos and in the wild it’s hit or miss to make a baby panda.  But Gao Gao has gotten it right four years in a row!  
Here is my first try at posting a video - this is Gao Gao, effortlessly stripping off the inedible outside of bamboo and munching non-stop; you can see he's an expert at this.

January 26, 2012

We camped in Deming, NM yesterday.  For some reason we were not in the mood to appreciate Deming; it’s a perfectly nice little town, popular with snowbirds everywhere, including some of our friends, but we just weren’t feeling it.  We did visit the St. Clair winery where Randy bought some good port, and we tried to visit a nearby hot springs, although that was closed.  So we left this morning, agreeing that we didn’t give Deming a fair shot and should visit here again later.  
Before we left we found a gas station offering gas at less than $3 a gallon - the pumps are set up to accept credit cards only and nobody is working there.  How awful is it that we were excited to find gas at less than $3.00 a gallon? 
Shortly after we crossed into Arizona the landscape changed; it was still dry and rocky, but there were huge red boulders now instead of small gray rocks, and the beautiful mountains were closer to the road.  We pulled into the Benson I-10 RV park and settled in for a couple of days.  I’ve never been to Tombstone, so Randy drove me over there so I could be a tourist.  
Tombstone is a neat place to be a tourist because that’s the name of the game there.  We bought a couple of cold sasperillas and started walking around.  The Court House is a big two-story brick and stone building with a great cuoplla on top.  It’s full of memorabilia about the town, including a reconstructed hanging gallows out back.  A few blocks away, historic downtown is as much unchanged as can be managed.
The Crystal Palace is still a saloon, with a really fine wooden bar, the original wooden floor, and the original tin ceiling with a lot of bullet holes in it.  Marshal Virgil Earp used to have an office upstairs but a big fire destroyed the the second story. 

Next we visited the building of The Epitaph, which has been the town's newspaper since 1880.  The little museum has the original printing press and many pictures by editor and photographer John Clum.  I learned that besides his work in Tombstone, John also went to Alaska, climbing up the Chilkoot trail and establishing post offices. 

Of course we wanted to see the OK Corral.  The front entrance has been blocked off, so you have to go to the show to see it.
But the main reason to going to Tombstone is to see where the Gunfight at the OK Corral occurred, so we bought the tickets.  There are a few extras thrown in for the ticket price, such as examples of cribs and saddles, but it’s mostly about the fight.  In the area of the original corral that is still there, life-sized figurines have been placed in the locations where the men stood, according to a sketch made by Wyatt Earp.  Then some actors put on a play about the events leading up to the fight, which was full of odd bits of made-up statements.  The actors were OK, and the actor who played Doc was quite good, but it all lacked impact.  So did Boot Hill Cemetery, outside town.  The headstones are all obviously fairly new, which made it seem more like something Disney would put up outside their Haunted Mansion.  But the outlaws really are buried here, achieving an odd sort of fame they could never have anticipated.

Basically it has all the markings of a perfectly normal tourist trap, perhaps a cut above many, and very enjoyable if you accept it for what it is.  And I was really glad we went.  I didn’t expect anything more, and I recognize that the people are doing their best to recreate a single, significant event from a specific, fascinating time.  There is just enough there to make it work on some level, just enough to help me imagine what it would have been like.  I am glad I didn't miss this.

January 24, 2012

Another long day on the road today.  In western Texas the view goes out so far that it seems like you can look across the plains and see what the weather will be tomorrow!    

The land continued to be very rocky and very dry, but apparently it can support a sizable number of deer.  Along the roadside we've seen at least 40 deer that didn't make it across, so there must be a lot more out there.

Eventually we reached the end of west Texas, which is El Paso.  There are places here where Highway 10 runs so close to Mexico that you can see across the border, where lots of small houses are stacked up the hillside.  
Out of Texas and into New Mexico; the biggest change was the weather.  A quick shower suddenly turned into sleet.  Fortunately it left just as quickly - one of the main goals of RVing is to avoid cold weather!

January 23, 2012

Today Randy drove all day through west Texas.  And a day driving through west Texas is a really long day.  After we got out of the San Antonio area there was nothing but scrub brush and dry land.  It is amazing that so many scrub trees can grow on such dry and rocky land, but they do.  For miles and miles and miles there is nothing but this . . . 
We decided we didn't need to drive all night, too, so we stopped in Fort Stockton at the Comanche Land RV Park.  It's inexpensive, right off the highway, and has cable TV.  Plus it's got these cool giant arrows all over the parking lot!

January 22, 2012

Yesterday I asked Jordan to be in some of my pictures; she's a good model!
Today Lance, Marla and Jordan came over to our RV because our first stop for the day was the Flea market across the highway from us.  There were a few booths selling new products (sunglasses and such), but most were true flea market vendors, offering the proceeds of countless yard sales and estate liquidations.  There were some genuine antiques, some specialty items, and a lot of junk; personally I like the junk.  And by diligent searching, we found a few things we couldn’t live without.
For lunch Lance and Marla suggested we go to CBQ Eatery - excellent idea!  It was started a few years ago by a DJ who decided to change careers, and as far as we could see, it was a good decision.  Randy and I ordered one appetizer, one side dish and one sandwich.  Appetizer:  Kanas City Pork Wings - meaty, tender pork ribs in sauce.  Side dish:  Punk Potatoes - home fries with bacon and covered in beer cheese sauce.  Sandwich:  The Primal Stoopid - grilled cheese with ham, bacon and gruyere, topped with beer cheese sauce, bacon and 2 fried eggs.  And it was all good, every single bite!  Plus the service was great; our server was attentive, helpful and friendly.  Plus the place was clean and attractive.  We give this place high marks on all counts.
Next Marla suggested we visit the Snake Farm Zoo.  As the name suggests, they have a lot of snakes, including a couple of Albino Western Diamondback who are pretty active and look mighty mean. 
They have some huge Reticulated Pythons, which are the longest snakes in the world.  I thought Anaconda were, but they are the heaviest (and they have some of those here, too).  But the highlight for me was when a young man named Clover brought out a couple of animals for the visitors to learn about.  First he brought out a bearded dragon, which is a small lizard.  It looks spiky, but the spikes are actually modified scales and they feel rubbery.  Next Clover brought out a Python.  He talked about it for awhile but I didn’t hear much of what he said because I was busy admiring the snake.  Eventually he finished talking and let us hold it.  I was amazed how soft the underside was - almost like baby skin.  And every time it moves you can feel all those muscles contracting.  I love snakes!
They also have a big (7 feet long) Asian Water Monitor named Khan.  Like so many exotic animals that used to be pets, he was suffering from malnutrition when he was donated to the zoo.  People don’t seem to realize that malnutrition has lasting effects; of course, these are the same people who don’t realize that not every animal should be a pet.  In Khan’s case, he was raised on dog food and since that isn’t what a growing lizard needs, his jaw is slightly deformed.  Clover says these animals are about as smart as a 6-year old, and Khan is his favorite animal in the zoo.  Khan shares his kennel (and his heat lamps) with a group of other reptiles, including an American alligator, a big Guadalupe Spiny Softshell turtle and several River Cooters. . . yes, that’s really the name of these turtles.  Kahn is the biggest varmint in the kennel but he seems laid back, even if he does use a turtle for a pillow.
Outside the reptile house is a small zoo with some unusual animals, like the Patagonia Cavy.  It’s the second largest rodent in the world (Capybara are the largest, and they have those, too), but to me they looked like a cross between a big rabbit and a small deer.    
They have a couple Spotted Hyenas here; I haven’t seen those in a small zoo before and can’t imagine how these ended up here.  They also have several large, brilliantly-colored Macaws.  I am always surprised that so many of these birds end up in zoos because they are such expensive pets.  The petting zoo here includes some very fat pot-bellied pigs, the usual assortment of goats, and a beautiful llama.  In one of the paddocks, a zebra shares it’s digs with miniature horses, and in the next corral are several different species of cattle, including buffalo and whatever that is with the great big horns
After we left the zoo, Marla took us to see the pet store where she works.  They have an adorable Kinkajou there, aka a Honey Bear.  She has a fully prehensile tail, a lot of energy, and was never still enough for me to take a good picture.  She liked to climb on Randy and nibble on his head. 
Lance drove us out to a beautiful park nearby, where scuba divers were training in the lake.  The surrounding neighborhood includes some beautiful houses, and in a side yard between 2 houses we found a large heard of deer.  When Lance slowed the car down they got curious and came up to investigate us.  If we had stayed there I think a couple would have stuck their head in the window.  But on the other hand, they might have head-butted the car, and it was a new car, so we rolled up the window and left them to their grazing. 
We have to leave early tomorrow, so we decided the sightseeing was done for the day.  Many, many thanks to Lance, Marla and Jordan for a wonderful time in San Antonio!  

January 21, 2012

We are in San Antonio now, and when one is in San Antonio, what does one do?  Go to the Alamo, of course!  We were fortunate to have our nephew Lance, wife Marla and daughter Jordan as our tour guides.  They drove us to see the Alamo, and I got my first surprise - the Alamo is downtown.  You step up from the curb and into the outer mission walls.  
Some of the original grounds have been covered by nearby buildings but enough is left to give a nice space around the mission.  The outer walls house some display areas, a couple of Spanish cannon, and one amazing live oak.  This thing isn’t original, of course, but it was transplanted here a long time ago and looks just right as it arches over the old well and along the benches.
My second surprise is that the mission isn’t very tall - just a little over one story.  And the famous arch at the top of the wall was added by the US Army sometime in the mid 1800s.  But when I consider all that it’s been through, it’s wonderful that so much of the detail remains.
The long barracks beside the chapel have been restored and now host the gift shop, so it didn’t have the same impact for me as the main building. . . but I still spent a lot of time there, and bought a trinket.  
And on to the Mission.  Unfortunately, but understandably, they do not allow photography inside so I don’t have any pictures.  Inside is one large room with a ceiling as tall as the outside frame allows.  There are a few displays of artifacts, but most of the space is open.  It is still being restored and the conservators sometimes find old dates and such carved into the higher sections of the walls.  A smaller side room is roped off.  I am very, very glad they don’t have a bunch of tourist stuff inside.  I cannot describe the feeling this place gave me - all the conflict and passion; desperate men in a terrible battle which, at some point, they had to know they would not survive.  This is not about history, this is history.  The whole time I was there I could barely breathe.
But eventually we had to leave.  So we walked away from the Alamo and headed to River Walk.  River Walk is a long stretch of downtown land along the San Antonio river that has been re-developed into a modern shopping area.  It’s very relaxing to walk along the river, checking out the shops and restaurants and watching the tour boats drift by.  We looked at several restaurants before deciding to try the County Line BBQ; it was OK, but I’m sure Texas has better to offer.
There was still some daylight left so Lance drove us to another old Spanish mission - the Mission San Jose.  What a beautiful place!   
It was restored in the 1930s but you sure can’t tell what was done.  It has exactly the right look; the inside of the chapel is completely restored so it can function as a church, but the rest of the buildings are in a lovely balance between care of preservation and the disrepair of age.
Isn't this a beautiful place?
In contrast to the plain walls, the main entrance is surrounded by some of the most gorgeous carvings. 
The grounds are walled in and are home to some wonderful trees that grow so close to the ground that in some places they actually grow into the ground.
At the end of the day we stopped at H E B, a big Texas grocery store.  This is a great store - a lot of good product at very reasonable prices.  Back at their place Lance and Marla fixed a 'liscious dinner for us.  What a great day - can’t wait for tomorrow!

January 18, 2012

A couple of days ago we took the ferry to Galveston.  The ferry was quick, efficient, and free - what a deal!  In Galveston we went to the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum.  Ocean Star offshore rig is now the centerpiece of the museum, and the museum is really interesting.  It had examples of crew quarters, a ton of info about drilling, and samples of drill bits that chew through seabed rocks.
And I learned about directional drilling, something I didn't know was possible.  Apparently it's common practice now, and works something like this:  
Afterwards we asked the staff where to have lunch and they recommended Shrimp and Stuff, which is not on the tourist area and is pretty good.  Besides the museum, I was sort of disappointed in Galveston.  The beach was being pounded by waves and I didn’t find anything I wanted do to there.  Some days just don’t seem to work, and this was one of them.

The past few days we have been walking along the beach, picking up shells; by now we’re pretty good at that.  The weather has been cooler, but in southern Texas that means in the 60s, which means we just throw on a jacket.  Yesterday a very heavy fog rolled in and the waves were fierce, but most of the time it’s clear. 
Around Gilchrist are a some reminders of Hurricane Ivan.  For some reason when they cleaned up all the cars, houses and debris, they left one van.  It sits out in the middle of a field and eventually will probably just rust away.  Things rust pretty quick out here from the humidity and sea salt. 
As the area recovers, a few compromises have been made.   It’s common for beach houses anywhere to be built up on stilts, but here they are three stories up!  These are the highest houses we’ve seen, on any beach.  I'm not sure how effective this is . . . it’s a good idea to be above the waves, but waves this high are going to do damage no matter what.  
Even the temporary laundromat is in a trailer WAY up on stilts.  It must be pretty hard to haul bags of laundry up and down all those steps! 
For groceries we drive to the little town of Winnie.  One of the things that says we are in the South are piloncillo, which are hard cones of brown sugar; you don’t see these in Dierbergs.

And today I saw real cowboys for the first time.  Near the highway we saw some horseback riders, and I assumed they just were out for fun.  But right behind them was a small herd of cows and we realized the rest of the herd was already across the road.  We often see the tracks of cows along the beach road; I didn't realize this was a cattle region, but perhaps everywhere in Texas is cattle region.

January 14, 2012

We left New Orleans and drove all day across Louisiana to the eastern edge of Texas.  We thought that we would go to Houston and then visit Lonnie and Chris, but we discovered that Lonnie and Chris are camped east of Houston.  So we stopped to visit with them first.  
We parked in an RV park near where Gilchrist, Texas used to be.  The camp manager (I can’t recall his name so I’ll call him Bob) told us about about the Gilchrist; three years ago Hurricane Ivan roared through here and changed everything.  About 99% of the buildings were knocked off their foundations; Bob’s home simply disappeared - not a single trace left, just the pilings.  He and his wife had spent Thursday helping the last of their campers hook up and leave, and Bob wanted to leave on Friday because he was tired.  But his wife had everything packed and wanted to leave right away, so they did.  Good thing - a few hours after they left, the 10-foot surf hit.   Bob told me about their neighbor who stayed during a previous hurricane and swore she’d never to that again, but when level 2 Ike came in she either decided to stay or decided to leave too late;  a couple weeks later they found her and her trailer miles away.  It is very easy for me to wonder why anyone would stay, but that was before I heard the stories about looting.  Right after the hurricane passed, hundreds of people swarmed in to grab anything they could.  I decided not to post the stories he told us - all of them are depressing and some are horrible.  But he summed it up when he said that they had a disaster, but looters made it a catastrophe.  And now I can understand better that when people know they will loose everything they own if they evacuate, they will try to evaluate how big the storm risk really is.  Perhaps a level 2 hurricane just didn’t sound that bad; whatever the reason, over 300 people in this area made the wrong choice.  And the town will probably never recover.
Enough bad stuff; we are doing our best to bolster their economy by spending some money here.  The RV park isn’t up to full service yet but they do offer full hookups and nice people, plus it’s just across the road from the beach.  The water is too cold to get in but it is so relaxing to walk along the beach.  Today Lonnie took us to High Island Beach so I could find some shells.  If I keep finding shells, we may need to get a bigger RV!  But I can NOT turn them down.

January 11, 2012

Today I checked an item off my personal bucket list: visit an old New Orleans cemetery.  Just a couple of blocks from our RV park we could see the top of an old cemetery.  The Visitor Center said it was safe to visit during the day so we went in; turns out it’s Saint Louis Cemetery Number One.  
It's enclosed by a 6-or-7 foot high wall.  On the inside of the wall are a few individual tombs and a lot of “oven” tombs - they are stacked on top of each other and the doors sort of look like old-fashioned oven doors.  
The tombs are all different shapes and sizes.  Most are well-weathered, a lot are in a terrible state of decay, and a few look almost new.  Some have been used by the same family for centuries; one marked GILLY, about the size of these below, holds 5 people, from Hypolite Gilly in 1877 to James Truitt in 2004.  It’s weird to think that these old tombs are being opened again and again.  
The rows between them are narrow and crooked.  A few tombs are enclosed in wrought-iron fences - not sure what need there is for a fence in here.
A lot of the tombs are dated in the late or mid 1800s, and I saw one dated 1741.  I saw the word "Famille" on a lot of these and at first I thought it was Italian because there is a huge Italian Mutual Benevolent Society tomb in the center of the cemetery.  But of course, it's French.   
The tombs are in a wide range of decay.  Some are obviously still visited so it's odd that they are in such bad shape; I can't help but wonder if they are all still occupied.

The architectural designs make the tombs look like little houses, so it does give the impression of a city of the dead; it’s easy to understand how so many ghost stories get started here.

Oh, and there was another odd thing about this cemetery. . . there is a large, new-looking pyramid with the inscription "Omnia Ab Uno".   I checked for it on the internet, and this thing is the future resting place of actor Nicholas Cage.
Overall, this was an excellent chance to indulge my odd fascination with cemeteries.

All of this before we even had breakfast!  When we left the cemetery we walked to Cafe du Monde again; nothing like powered-sugar covered Beignets for breakfast!  After breakfast we went walking around the city, and I discovered I like New Orleans more in the morning than in the evening.  The air is cleaner, the streets are not as crowed and the street performers are better.  There was a great guitar player outside Cafe Du Monde, and a good group of horn musicians in front of the St. Louis Cathedral.  We went into the Cathedral and it’s very pretty.  But architecturally it doesn't compare to the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it Basilica back in St. Louis Missouri.   
Here’s a useless piece of info:  “Who Dat” is the most popular phrase here now; it's on T-shirts and signs everywhere because it's being used to indicate support of the New Orleans Saints.  And we met a local guy who gave us a little interesting information: some of the balconies are supported by old black iron posts with a ring of spikes near the top.  According to this guy, the spikes were to discourage ardent suitors from climbing all the way up to the balcony to be with their beloved.  And he pointed out a cherub plaque that used to mark the location of the most popular brothel in town; that's probably not on the tours.  
In Goorin Brothers Hat Shop the sales guy and his customer recommended Johnny’s Po-Boys and the Napoleon House Restaurant as good places to eat, so we went to Johnny’s for lunch.  It was a great recommendation - we ordered one muffuletta with fries and split it.  Lots of ham, salami, cheese and olive salad - loved it!
We spent the rest of the day walking around.  One of the nice things about this city is that if you look down the little alleys between buildings, a lot of the time you find a little garden area, carefully tended, in contrast to the grimy, neglected buildings in front
Since space is such a premium commodity here, the parking garages stack cars two deep.

We checked out the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company restaurant; they have paraphernalia from the movie, like this display of “magic shoes” - the braces he wore as a child.  And the menu is written on ping pong paddles.  
The architecture of the French Quarter is unique.  A few elements are used a lot, such as elaborate wrought iron railings, flower baskets hanging from balconies and narrow alleys between buildings.  But pretty much anything goes.  The roof lines don’t match up with the buildings next door, architecture design ranges from cottages to mansions, and paint colors and state of repair are entirely up to the individual owners.  
A few stores use gaslight lanterns, which looks wonderful at night, and some are already getting ready for Mardi Gras.
We ended the day by going to the Napoleon House Restaurant to pick up a muffuletta and beans with rice to go, went back the the RV park's hot tub, and later had dinner, which was OK, but not nearly as good as Johnny’s.