Sunday, January 14, 2007

Around Alpine, Texas

On our trip west last year, we spent two nights in Alpine and vowed that we'd have to return to see more of the area. This year we did just that, staying a week at the Lost Alaskan RV Park, a nice little park just north of town. Alpine, with a population of just over 6000, sits at 4500' elevation just about half way between El Paso and San Antonio - out in the middle of west Texas, far away from just about anything. Surprisingly, it sits in an area of significant mountains, and is close to a number of interesting places to visit. Alpine is the home of Sul Ross State University, and its 2000 students result in some nice bookstores and good restaurants that you wouldn't expect in a town this size. Our favorite restaurant, the Edelweiss Brewery and Restaurant, is one of those jewels. Housed in a 1912 hotel, the menu offers both chicken fried steak and jaeger schnitzel, and we enjoyed our New Year's Eve dinner here. Brenda ordered an Alpine Blond; but instead of Wolfgang, the god-like Nordic waiter, she ended up with a glass of the home-brewed lager. But enough of that, let's talk about our explorations:
Big Bend National Park is a place we've always wanted to visit, but we've never been close to it's out-of-the-way location; even from Alpine it's 100 miles. We only had time to spend one day in the Park, and chose to explore the western half and hike into Santa Elena Canyon. As you approach the border with Mexico, it looks like a huge rock wall fills the horizon, with just one crack where the Rio Grande river flows through. This is Santa Elena Canyon, a narrow gap where you can literally throw a rock across the river into Mexico. The hike, about a mile each way, climbs (naturally) the west side of the canyon and then drops back down to the river. We had a nice hike & then had lunch in the picnic area. From there, we drove back roads, toured the visitor center, and then exited the park to the west. Although we enjoyed the day, I don't think we'll be back. The remoteness, lack of services, and long distance from any major town is a drawback; and frankly, while beautiful, there are other parks that are more accessible and offer more to see and do. On the way, we passed through Lajitas, a very upscale little resort town. There, I took this picture of an old cavalry post that now is a resort hotel. On the way back we passed a ranch with camels grazing, a reminder of when the U.S. cavalry tried to use them as pack animals in the area, and the Faver ranch, the basis for the Clint Eastwood series "Rawhide" and the name of the trail boss in the series. Our interest in western history continued at Fort Davis National Historic Site, north of Alpine in a beautiful mountain area. Billed as one of the best preserved cavalry posts of the era, the post has many restored buildings and a very good visitor center which details the history of the "buffalo soldiers" stationed here. If you had to be stationed at a fort, this would be the place to be; at the base of beautiful mountains, grass & water, and a temperate climate. If you visit, don't miss the hilarious (not intentionally) visitor center video starring Kareem Abdul Jabaar dressed in as a cowboy and struggling to read the script. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but if I was Kareem, I'd be trying to buy up all the copies. Further north in the Davis Mountains, we visited the McDonald Observatory, a large mountaintop complex with a wonderful visitor center and tour. Being pretty much clueless about astronomy, we found the tour fascinating and educational. We visited the telescopes and got an appreciation for how they worked and why McDonald Observatory is one of the best locations in the country. It's on a high mountain (almost 7000'), and in an area that because of it's remoteness, is very, very dark because of the lack of city lights. In fact, all of the communities (including Alpine) within over 40 miles have local ordinances which prohibit any lights without shields to prevent "light pollution". Later, I noticed that at the RV park, only low ground lighting was used, and passing the high school, even the football field lights were shielded. Our tour guide gave us a show with the big telescope, moving it around (it's so well balanced that it only uses a 1/2 hp motor), and opening the dome. What surprised us is that the whole dome is on wheels and rotates around. We also toured the "new" telescope, which is a large panel of 91 small mirrors placed together to form a large mirror and that rotates on a cushion of air. It was interesting to learn that to save money; they hired a highway bridge construction firm to build the frame. The construction details were very interesting; you can find them here. To top off our day, we learned that we were on the highest highway in Texas! All in all, we had a memorable time in the Alpine area and recommend it if you're ever passing through the area. Thanks for all your comments on our site; be sure and include your name or email so we know who to thank!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Marvelous Marfa

One of the aspects of our lifestyle that we looked forward to and now enjoy is the ability to spend time in small towns. It's amazing to us how many out-of-the way places have interesting stories. Marfa, Texas is one of those interesting places that's fun to explore. Marfa sits out in the West Texas plains, 30 miles from Alpine and about 400 road miles from San Antonio. With only 2400 people, much of it is a typical old ranching hub, with closed storefronts, deteriorating houses, and an overall sense of despair - but wait! Hidden underneath the depressing appearance is a noteworthy history and a long-standing mystery; but first, the history. Marfa began as a train watering stop in 1882 when the wife of an engineer, who was at the time reading Brothers Karamazov, named it after a servant in the novel. It became a local hub for ranchers and farmers, and during WWII was the site of an Army Air Corps training base (even then they trained pilots in miserable places). The big event, though, was the arrival in 1955 of the cast of the movie Giant, with Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and a host of other stars. It was notable as James Dean's last movie before he truly became one with his sports car. The local hotel, the "Paisano" hosted the cast, and has a wealth of memorabilia of their stay- they even have a small TV playing the movie over and over and over.....the hotel has been restored after a shaky past (at one time over 800 "time shares" were sold, but the hotel was sold for taxes and everyone lost their investment - there's a lesson here somewhere), and is very pretty with a fair dining room. The real culinary find of our visit was the Blue Javelina restaurant (see review); it seems that Marfa is slowly becoming an "artist" community and is getting upscale with it's eateries. But the really stunning attraction, the thing that makes you ask "How come we haven't heard about this?" "Why hasn't Fox news told us?" "Does Geraldo know?" are the Marfa Mystery Lights!! Since the late 1800s, people have reported seeing the strange lights which appear almost nightly, move around, change colors, and do all sorts of unearthly things. We of course had to see for ourselves, and so we bundled up and traveled to the MMLRNVA (Marfa Mystery Lights Really Nice Viewing Area), complete with red lights to guide you to the viewing platform without ruining your night vision. Sure enough, strange lights appeared near the mountains on the horizon, complete with flashes and color changes. Really weird. We think there was more, but we were met by two nice gentlemen in the parking lot, strangely dressed in black suits and sunglasses. But they were nice enough to take our pictures with some kind of strange blue flash and I.......gosh, I don't seem to remember much of anything else. So, if you're ever on the road between San Antonio and El Paso, don't take I-10 like most folks, jog south to Marfa and have lunch at the Blue Javelina and stick around for the Mystery Lights- be a part of the select few that have seen the mystery! Just avoid those two guys in the parking lot......

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Happy, Happy, Old Year

We've finished our first full year as full-timers, and it's time for a look back at 2006. We had a truly wonderful year, traveling 10,335 miles through 20 states. We spent time at 33 RV parks, not including our 5 months at the Lee Metcalf NWR volunteer area. We visited dozens of state and national parks, traveled through and visited small towns, and visited old friends and made new ones. Our travels are truly defined by restaurants; we can trace our travels by the places we ate - over 130 restaurants, from the elegant to the frightening.
Our Best and Worst List for 2006:
Best Burger: Nap's Burgers, in Hamilton, Montana. The "Nap's Special" is a 12-oz ground sirloin that hangs out an inch all around the bun, dripping wondrous juices...comes with a huge basket of crispy shoestring fries and a drink, all for $7.95. Looks like a dump on the outside.......because it is on the inside; but hey, you don't go there for the ambiance!
Best Gumbo: Fish Tales Seafood Restaurant in Galveston, Tx. The waiter pours the roux into the gumbo mix at your table. Better than PreJean's of Lafayette or Mulatte's of New Iberia.
Best Steak: The "Big Cowboy" steak at Pinnacle Peak in Tucson. A tender 31-oz porterhouse grilled over a mesquite fire. We order one, Brenda gets the tenderloin, I get the other pound and a half.
Best RV Park: Marina RV Resort, Winchester Bay, OR. Beautiful sites on the water; surf crashing against the breakwall, whale watching - all this for $20 a night!
Worst RV Park: Willow Lakes RV Resort, Brunswick, OH. Makes a FEMA disaster relief camp look good. Water was so bad it took a week of flushing to get the taste and odor out.
Best location: The Bitterroot Valley of Montana. Incredible views, friendly people, lots to see and do. An area of wonderful small towns and historic sites, great summer weather, and NO sales tax! Missoula is a great little town with all the amenities. We'll be back.
Worst Location: East Texas Gulf Coast (Freeport/Lake Jackson area). Mosquitoes, snakes, alligators, swamps.......chemical plants and refineries everywhere. Yikes!
Best City: San Antonio, TX. You just can't beat the RiverWalk at Christmas; lights, luminarias, decorations everywhere. A vibrant downtown with plenty of shopping and restaurants. Now if we could only get rid of all the damn Texans (or at least teach them to drive).
Worst City: The Los Angeles area. Every other car on the road is badly driven by a rail-thin blond woman in a BMW or Mercedes talking on a cell phone. Most of the others are 20-year old pickup trucks driven by illegal immigrants with lawn services. Valet parking is mandatory almost everywhere, prices are unreasonable, and everyone acts as if they're auditioning for a TV role. Need another reason? Fish tacos. One more? "The 5", the "405" and Garth Kemp. Frank Lloyd Wright once said that the "entire United States is tilted to the Southwest, and all the loose nuts roll to southern California." A wise man.
Best Thing About Full Timing: Enjoying the place you're at while at the same time looking forward to traveling to the next place. Seeing so much of this incredibly beautiful country and meeting so many wonderful people. Not having a lawn to mow, a view that doesn't change, or a winter to look forward to. Rain on the roof during the night.
Biggest Pleasant Surprise About Fulltiming: Our motorhome has performed flawlessly. The more we live in it, the more we appreciate the features. It's taken us up and down mountains, through bad weather and high winds, and given us a resounding 7.5 MPG! I'm glad now that I didn't spend the extra money for a diesel with the added maintenance. We'd recommend a Tiffin product to anyone looking for value and quality.
2nd Place Pleasant Surprise: How well Tricare Standard works. We have found good medical care everywhere we've needed it, our co-payments have been reasonable, and their web site makes tracking our claims easy. We haven't lost anything in medical coverage no matter where we've been.
Worst Thing About Fulltiming: We didn't do it sooner.
Best Experience So Far: All of you who have kept in touch and followed us as we've meandered around the country. We look forward to seeing all of you again this year!