Friday, December 19, 2008

Small Towns of Texas - Lockhart

Although many Texas small town downtown areas have suffered as people move to the suburbs and stores move to the strip malls, some, like Lockhart, have managed to make the transition to become areas of quaint shops, restaurants, and historical sites. Lockhart, the self-proclaimed "BBQ Capital of Texas", has done an admirable job of restoring their downtown to a place well worth visiting, even if you're not in the mood for BBQ. But if you are, the "big four" are Black's, Kreuz's, Chisum Trail, and Smitty's - which claim to have 250,000 visitors a year. You can't walk anywhere in the downtown area without smelling the BBQ....and getting hungry. Many of the Texas towns we've visited have interesting old courthouses, but Lockhart's is one of the best maintained, impressive ones that we've seen. It's easy to see why Lockhart has been used as a location in so many movies; two that we remember are "The Great Waldo Pepper" and "Second Hand Lions". As we toured the downtown area we came across these two gentlemen who were entertaining the sidewalk shoppers with Christmas carols; a nice touch for the holiday shoppers. We were impressed with the beauty of the public library, the oldest continuously operating library in Texas at over 108 years old. A major converging point for the Chisolm Trail, Lockhart is rich in frontier history, and the Battle of Plum Creek is an interesting and enlightening story of the conflict between settlers and the Commanche Tribe.
After visiting downtown, we followed the signs to Lockhart State Park, another of the great Texas state parks. Along with a full-hookup campground, the park has fishing and a nine-hole golf course. The RV sites were large and well separated from one another. This is another great place to stay while visiting the area; not too far from Seguin and within range of a day trip to San Antonio or Austin. We had an enjoyable time on our exploration trip, and look forward to another visit and a stop at one of the barbecue restaurants. Since this will be our last entry before the holidays, Brenda and I would like to wish all of you a Merry Christmas and a successful and Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Relaxin' in Rockport

This week our road trip was to Rockport, a small coastal town just up from Corpus Christi. It's one of a chain of towns along that stretch of the coastline, and a favorite destination of "Winter Texans", those folks who flock to Texas from the north to escape the cold weather. Like most of the western Gulf Coast towns, it's not very picturesque. There are few high-rise condos, luxury resorts, or even palm trees; just streets of blue-collar houses, docks with working shrimp boats, and lots and lots of RV Parks. One reason for the popularity among Winter Texans is cost; a typical site rents for around $300/month plus electric, and there are many bare-bones parks that rent for less. You can see reviews on some of the parks here. It's rare to see snow, seldom falls below freezing even at night, and has a Super Wal-Mart - what's not to like? Our main purpose of visiting was to explore places to stay after we leave this area at the end of January, while also doing a little bird-watching and restaurant sampling. Since it was a three-hour drive, we decided to have lunch first, and looked for the Boiling Pot, a seafood restaurant recommended by many RVrs who have stayed in the area. It's one of those places that chain restaurants like Joe's Crab Shack try to emulate; weather beaten exterior, graffiti and sign covered interior - but this is the real deal. Our server, who was as proficient as she was cute, promptly tied bibs on us and covered the table with butcher paper since apparently we looked like serious diners. I had a bowl of gumbo (didn't need hot sauce - my ultimate compliment), and we shared a Cajun Combo, which when dumped onto the table (no plates or silverware) formed a sizable mountain of blue crab, shrimp, sausage, red-skinned potatoes, and corn on the cob. There's something delightfully sinful about eating with your hands, pouring cocktail sauce into little mountains for shrimp-dipping, and whacking crab parts with a mallet....and as a bonus, everything tasted great! We truly enjoyed our visit and recommend a visit if you're in the area.
Next, we visited some of the area's RV parks, most of which are full and will remain full until March. In most of the parks, RVs are packed tightly to maximize space, and there's rarely any privacy between sites. We took a picture of this park, which had concrete pads and was across the road from the water. A typical winter destination park, it had a large staff of workampers and planned activities each day. While we may be interested in this type of park some day, for now we prefer a place with a bit more solitude and a more natural setting. We were pleased to find Goose Island State Park, a beautiful park with large, secluded sites, nature trails, guided birdwalks, and fishing. The park offers sites in the woods and on the water; we reserved a wooded site since the water view isn't very spectacular (mud, brown water, and more mud), and the water sites are very close together. We plan on visiting Goose Island in early February.
While in the area, we took the opportunity to watch some of the many shorebirds along the water. We saw Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Willet, and one of our favorites, the Brown Pelican. These large birds are everywhere, sitting placidly on poles and docks patiently waiting for a sign of fish. They're appearance is almost clown-like, with their head feathers sprouting in all directions and those huge bills tucked against their bodies. We're looking forward to returning here and spending time exploring the area. Who knows where we'll be next? C'mon back and see.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

This will be a short post; we've been busy with housekeeping tasks and haven't done much exploring. As you can see, Fanny is dressed in her Thanksgiving finery, and will soon be donning her Christmas outfit. Brenda and I hope you all had a happy and fulfilling Thanksgiving holiday, and remember, it only takes a 20 mile brisk walk to burn the calories of a typical Thanksgiving dinner!
We spent the day with old friends Tom and Janet, and Tom's brother Vance. It was a great day with memorable food, followed by one of Brenda's famous cheesecakes (pumpkin pecan), and a chocolate torte. Unfortunately, I'm about 19 1/2 miles short of burning up all of the calories.
We've decided to spend another month here at Huaco Springs instead of moving to Blanco State Park, since this is closer to friends and the activities in San Antonio. We'll be here until the December 28th, then find a place for a few days before moving to Blanco. One place we're considering is McKinney Falls State Park near Austin. We visited there last week and were impressed by the beauty of the area and the facilities in the park. While there, we met two other Escapees couples who were finishing up their two-month workamper stint. We enjoyed comparing notes on places we've been and people we've worked with. As we always find out, it's a small world among the full time community.
We'll be out and about next week, check back and see where we've been!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

It Was the Wurst of Times

The signs of autumn have arrived here in Texas; the leaves are turning, the mornings are cool, and it's time for the eagerly-awaited New Braunfels Wurstfest! This 10-day salute to sausage galvanizes the entire town as over 100,000 people flock to the Wurstfest grounds to eat German food, listen to polkas, and heft a pitcher or two of German beer. It's a well-oiled machine that has been going on for over 45 years, and offers a theater production ("Raiders of the Lost Wurst"), carnival rides, and an arts & crafts show. We decided to wait until the last day, a Sunday, to visit, hoping that we'd avoid the big crowds (we did). Paying our $8 entrance fees to the liederhosen-clad gate attendant, we entered the grounds and headed for the Wursthall, the largest of the three live-entertainment areas, where the eleven-member Jimmy Sturr orchestra was playing. The hall was nicely decorated, filled with picnic tables, and conveniently located next to the beer and food vendors. We settled in to listen to the polkas, but it wasn't long before I headed for the food area (funnel cake for Brenda, bier bratwurst with sauerkraut for me). We decided to skip the beer ($17 a pitcher domestic, $25 for German) since it was early in the day, but looking around we could see we were in the minority. With entry fee, food, and a few beers a visit to the Wurstfest could become a pricey evening; but hey, you can drop the kids off at the "Kinderhall" where they'll be supervised, tank up on Spaten Munich beer, eat a bier brat or two, dance the polka, and take a shuttle back to your hotel ($10). If the big hall is too crowded, no problem, there are two more entertainment areas, "Das Grosse Zelt" (the big tent) where we listened to Lorelei and Schatzi yodel, or "Das Kleine Zelt", where Oma and the Oopahs were wowing the audience. Taking a moment to look at the crowd, it was interesting to note what we didn't see - men with earrings, teenagers with purple spiked hair (or teenagers, period), mullet haircuts, or noticeable tattoos. There were lots of families, but the bulk of the crowd was those of us who are more senior in age and therefore better able to appreciate a good beer, brat, or polka. It was an interesting and enjoyable visit; next year we'll plan on making an evening of it - too bad we can't park the motorhome within walking distance.
Trying to find a place that would remind us of being back east in the fall, we visited the Lost Maples State Natural Area, a park near Bandera where an area of uncommon Uvalde Bigtooth Maple trees are found. Driving through Bandera, which bills itself the "Cowboy Capital of the World", we both agreed that they could use more "cowgirls" to help dress up what was an unattractive, run-down looking town. Arriving at the park, we found that in keeping with our "wurst of times" theme, we were about a week late to see the maple trees in their fall foliage, but had at least avoided the crowd of over 5000 that had visited the previous Saturday. Still, it was a nice walk through the canyon; it was a beautiful day and there were still a few colorful trees. The hill country of Texas is beautiful place; we enjoyed the drive, although we both wished we still had a Miata to drive on the twisting roads. Ah well, we can only tow one vehicle behind the motorhome at a time, so we'll have to stick with the SUV. We'll be out exploring again soon, stop back and see where!

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Small Towns of Texas - Shiner

We've moved into our home for November, a park on the Guadalupe River named Huaco Springs. It's one of a number of parks and canoe/tube rental facilities along the river, and during this time of year, is fairly quiet. The river is low this time of year, and because of a year-long drought and near-record low water at the Canyon Lake reservoir, may remain low for some time to come. What's nice about this park is that the sites are large and they're set up so that you can either back in or pull in for a view of the river. We chose to pull in, and it's nice to have a river view through our "picture window". It's still in the 80s each day here, which allows us to sit outside in the evening and listen to the water rushing through the rapids. The river is very pretty, with large Cyprus trees along the banks and Cormorant and Heron visiting to look for fish. It's nice here now, but we wouldn't want to be here in the summer when the "toobing" is taking place; this is a large campground and their "quiet time" rule doesn't start until midnight. We'll be here for the month, then head a bit north to Blanco State Park.
One of the enjoyable aspects of our lifestyle is exploring small towns. A few days ago we visited Shiner, whose welcome sign that announces it's the "Cleanest little town in Texas" just might be correct. It's the home of Shiner Beer, a legendary beer here in Texas that is now being sold throughout the country. It's not surprising that there's a brewery here; the population is over 50% Czech and German, and in 1914 the locals, who yearned for a beer like in the "old country", hired a brewmaster named Kosmas Spoetzl. They've been producing great "craft" beer ever since. Having been on the Budweiser and Coors brewery tour, this one was a bit different - the entire operation consists of 60 employees, and only one of the seven beers is made at a time. The day of our tour, Shiner Bock, the biggest seller, was being produced. The tour didn't take very long, and afterward we were treated to our choice of three four-ounce tastes (the holiday brew, made with pecans and apricots, was very, very good). The Shiner story is one of those feel-good stories; it's presence has contributed to the local economy, they have a loyal group of employees (one retired after 60 years on the job), and they seem to enjoy what they do. They even close on weekends so that employees can be with their families. The little town is also special with manicured lawns, neat houses, and picturesque parks (complete with bandstand). This is an area of many small Czech and German communities, and each town has a large church or two. In shiner, the Saint Cyril and Methodious church dominates the skyline. It's one of the 15 "painted churches" listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, all of Czech or German heritage. Having grown up in Northeast Ohio, I somehow thought that all the Czechs settled in that area - I'm still amazed at how many are in Texas, and how many bakeries advertise "kolache". In fact, we bought a dozen on our trip to Shiner, and the poppyseed were incredible.
Occasionally we'll come across something really clever; on the road to our RV site we came across this mailbox. Come back and see us as we continue our search for the perfect kolache!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Arizona & New Mexico Travels

Leaving southern Utah, we dropped down into Northern Arizona and headed East to Page, Arizona. Page is a growing town on the south end of Lake Powell, where we stayed at the Lake Powell Campground and RV Park, a nice enough place to overnight. The lake, which dropped to it's lowest level in 2002, is the 2nd largest reservoir in the U.S. and has been steadily filling, rising 78 feet since the low point. It's a beautiful lake, with the blue water contrasting against the bright red rock and has some of the biggest houseboats you'll ever see. A short drive took us south of town to Marble Canyon and Lee's Ferry, at the northern extreme of the Grand Canyon. We stopped at the bridge over the Colorado River that looks down 616 feet to the river, then drove down into the valley to Lee's Ferry, where most of the Grand Canyon rafting trips originate. The area is striking; large sculpted rocks tower in all directions, and the colors are magnificent. We watched a rafting group preparing to leave the next morning; for an interesting article on the less attractive aspects of rafting the Colorado river click here. Leaving Page, we headed southeast and entered Monument Valley. I'm a big fan of the John Ford western trilogy filmed here (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande), and looked forward to seeing the distinctive "mittens" of the valley. It was an easy drive into the valley, but then came the Navajo toll booth and the construction projects. Taking advantage of the tourist interest, the tribe is constructing a "hotel and spa" and with construction vehicles, a temporary parking lot, tour buses, and heavy tourist traffic which made it impossible to find a parking place, and we settled for a quick visit and view from a distance. We journeyed on and spent the night in Farmington, NM, which has, as we discovered, absolutely no redeeming qualities. We ended up in Lee Acres, a dirt parking lot with hookups that sort of summed up our Farmington experience, and were off the next morning to visit Albuquerque. Here, we like to stay at the American RV Park, a first-class park with grass, shade, and even a continental breakfast. This was our first stop at a major city since spending the summer in Montana, and we hit the stores and restaurants (Buffalo Wild Wings!), as if we'd been out of the country for a year. A real treat for us was a visit from our friends Joe and Susan who live in Monument, CO, near Colorado Springs. We spent a day together catching up & enjoying Old Town, driving old Route 66, and had a great dinner at the County Line BBQ at the base of the Sandia Mountains. Leaving Albuquerque, we headed south on I-25 to US 380, then east to another of our favorite places, Ruidoso NM. We stayed two nights at the Circle B RV Park, a nice park convenient to the town and Brenda's favorite casino, the Inn of the Mountain Gods. I have to admit that this is a special place, one of the most beautiful casinos we've seen, furnished with Indian art and providing great views of the mountains highlighted by Sierra Blanca Mountain. The buffet is very good and reasonably priced, and Brenda claims that the bread pudding is the best she's ever had. We have an agreement; I get a cup of coffee and the newspaper and head for the lounge area with the great view, she heads for the slots and wins money. It worked well this time (for a change), and she even won enough to spring for dinner. The area around Ruidoso is filled with old west history. This is the home of the Lincoln County War and the stomping grounds of Billy the Kid. An interesting place to visit is the town of Lincoln, which has been designated as a state monument but has not been modernized or commercialized. We visited here five years ago and were pleased to see that the area is largely unchanged. This is where Billy the Kid, being held prisoner awaiting hanging in the county courthouse, killed two guards and escaped in April, 1881. The courthouse is now a museum and still has the bullet holes from the escape. It's a pleasant walk around the town where many of the homes have been restored to their original appearance. There's also the "torreon", a defensive tower built when Mescalaro Apaches raided the area. Wrapping up our stay, we headed east through Roswell (lots of plastic aliens there), an overnight stay at the Fort Stockton, TX RV Park, then to our current location at Canyon Trail RV Park in San Marcos. We'll be roaming around this part of Texas for the next few months, so c'mon back and see what we're up to!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

South to Bryce Canyon

Leaving Grand Teton National Park, we headed south through Wyoming to spend a few days visiting Bryce Canyon National Park, one of our favorite places from past visits. The drive through Wyoming was both beautiful and interesting; there were numerous small towns that had what looked like a migrant RV park nearby. It became obvious that we were looking at the new oil boom - a cluster of office trailers, surrounded by dozens of cheap RVs, and a sign announcing the site of an energy company. Since there are few houses in the area, workers buy low-priced trailers and 5th wheels and move to the area. Not too scenic, unfortunately. While traveling along a little-used road on our way to the main highway, we were surprised to come across this historic site, called Signature Rock. The sandstone cliffs mark a crossing point near the Green River for the Oregon trail used by emigrants on their way west, and are covered with names and dates of the people who passed through. The most famous name was that of Jim Bridger, famed frontiersman and guide, who name was dated 1844, well before the wagon trains used the trail and presumably carved when he was scouting the area. Standing there in front of the rock, with the surrounding area virtually unchanged aside from the lonely road, it was easy to imagine what it must have been like for the original pioneers traveling in their "travel trailers".
We crossed into Utah, picked up Interstate 80 West, turned onto the I-215 bypass to avoid Salt Lake City, then headed South on I-15. Traffic and congestion in this area is remarkable, and it wasn't until we were well past Provo that it began to thin out. We picked up US 50, crossed over to I-70, then onto US 89 south to Panquitch, where we stayed at the Hitch-N-Post RV park, a small but comfortable place to stay while we visited Bryce Canyon.
Southern Utah is home to a number of impressive National and State parks. It's a unique combination of mountains, desert, forest, and multicolored rock formations. At Bryce Canyon NP, water and wind have created a fairyland of red and orange rock formations that are incredibly beautiful. From the entrance and visitor center, a good road runs along the canyon rim for 18 miles, with pulloffs and side roads to parking lots and overlooks. Like Yellowstone NP, Bryce Canyon was busy with tour buses full of European visitors taking advantage of the strong Euro (that's probably over!) and each overlook was filled with French, German, and others. It's an easy day stopping at the overlooks, visiting the lodge and visitor center, and hiking the short distances on the canyon rim. For the more adventurous, there are trails that wind through the hoodoos and canyons, but for us, the altitude and length of the trails was a bit too much and we worked up our sweat in the gift shop. There's not much to say that can describe the rock formations from the vistas, so I won't try, here are some pictures. Come back and visit as we wrap up our trip!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Grand Tetons

Leaving Yellowstone NP, we headed southward toward Jackson, WY and Grand Teton National Park. It's a beautiful drive through forest and a gradual descent into Jackson Hole (valley), with few buildings, just a few lakes and cabins. As we approached the valley, the snow-capped peak of Grand Teton, Wyoming's second-highest at 13,770' came into view. What sets the Tetons apart from other mountains is the lack of foothills - there's no gradual ascent; suddenly these huge mountains rise out of the valley. It's an amazing sight, the huge, chiseled mountains against a startling blue sky with the green valley below. We stayed at the Colter Bay RV Park, part of a large, concessionaire-operated complex owned by the Park Service. There aren't many choices in the park; either the full-hookup campground at $52 a night or no-hookup campgrounds at $18 a night. Since the town of Jackson and commercial parks are 40 miles away, there isn't much choice and we stayed three nights in the RV park. It proved to be a good location to sightsee, although it still took a considerable amount to driving to tour the park. As in most large National Parks, there were lodges, with restaurants, gift shops, and service stations scattered throughout the park, and all of the restaurants we dined at were surprisingly good and reasonably priced. As in Yellowstone, wildlife was everywhere - we saw lots of elk in the meadows and forests, and along the Snake River one morning watched this juvenile bald eagle as he hunted from a tree. The town of Jackson was another example of the modern tourist attraction; "rustic" looking chain stores and gift shops in all directions, all with the same overpriced t-shirts and other authentic made-in-China Wyoming gifts. We didn't spend much time there, it was just too beautiful in the park and exploring the backroads. Imagine living on this horse ranch east of the Tetons with this view every morning! It's a truly memorable place to visit, a one-of-a-kind location. We enjoyed our stay, but soon it was time to head south toward Utah and a stay at Bryce Canyon - stay tuned!