Author Archives: skiprd

3-9 May 2017: Tucson, AZ

The stop in Tucson was supposed to be a layover to get some work done on ACE, see Wendy’s sister, Susan, and her husband, Terry, see a couple local sights, and basically gear up for the next phase of the trip. Ho-hum. No big deal. It turned out to be a wonderful and memorable stop, maybe even the best of the whole trip. Here’s why. (There’s so much to recount that this is going to take a while. Sorry.)

Things started off with Susan and Terry inviting us to attend their annual Cinco de Mayo party, held this year on Cuatro de Mayo, and attended by some sixty-odd friends and neighbors. (You can read “sixty-odd” with or without the hyphen and I think it works.) We had a great time, wonderful people, great food, and Margaritas made with some orange liqueur that, unfortunately, made them way too easy to drink.

In planning for the trip, we mentioned to Susan and Terry that, oh by the way, we really like Mexican food, so they arranged a series of dinners at Mexican restaurants, each one better than the one before. Mi Tierra, near Susan’s home, was very good; Guadalajara in Oro Valley was, in my view, even better; but what topped el pastel was Elvira’s (no, not named after either the Mistress of the Dark or the song by the Oak Ridge Boys) in downtown Tucson. That last stop was a gourmet restaurant, with a posh, modern décor, and with a menu featuring foods in Mexico City-style, including five different types of molé, with each of our dinners memorable for both their preparation and their presentation. What a treat.

Susan also arranged a trip to “Biosphere 2.” For those of you who don’t remember it, the  original “biosphere” experiment was an attempt back in 1991 to seal up eight people in a huge, self-contained structure where they would live for two years, producing their own food, using plants to produce oxygen, recycling waste to grow the plants, blah blah blah. It was sort of like the grown-up version of those terrariums you made as a kid with the plants, the puddle of water, and a little frog (that promptly died and got dried out and your mom told you to get that stinking jar out of the house). That Biosphere experiment didn’t work very well either (among other things, they ran out of oxygen) (oops), and the structure has since been converted to series of contained environments for large-scale earth science studies and environmental education. But the concept of a structure that permits self-sustaining human habitation is still there. Bingo. I loved the place. While the tour guide was blathering on about how the Biosphere facility can teach us about climate change and various other environmentalist boogie men, I kept looking at this place and wondering, “This is great! How can we build this thing on Mars?”

Wendy and Suzor outside of the Biosphere. The structure is 3.1 acres in size, with 7,200,000 cubic feet of space under 6,500 windows. Below are pictures of three of the “ecotomes” inside the structure: rain forest, ocean, and desert, all of which, working in combination, might create a mini-earth on Mars where people could live indefinitely. [Click on the thumbnail photos to enlarge]

  

We also managed a day-long excursion to the Pima Air Museum, another world-class facility in (no offense to South Tucson) an unlikely location. The air museum is the third largest in the U.S. (behind the National Air & Space Museum and the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson) and not only has its own excellent collection of vintage aircraft, it also houses a separate museum for the 390th Bomb Group (complete with an intact B-17) and coordinates with the Davis-Monthan AFB “boneyard,” where aircraft are sealed up and stored pending either reactivation or dismantling.

The Pima Air and Space Museum has over 150 vintage aircraft displayed on 80 acres (!), including this F2H “Banshee,” a plane that has special significance to me because my dad was one of the test pilots for the development of this early jet-age fighter. The outdoor display is so large that one actually takes a guided tram tour to see it all.

Dozens of F-16s sealed up and put in dry storage at the Davis-Monthan AFB “boneyard.” There are over 1000 aircraft stored here in the perfectly dry climate where they can basically be parked indefinitely, although those aircraft identified for potential reactivation have periodic inspections and maintenance, including running up the engines at least once per year

The F-117 Stealth Fighter. The Air Force used to provide special glasses that would allow visitors to see the collection of stealth aircraft, but the base was on high security and so we were not provided those glasses. Still, it was quite a treat to be this close to so formidable a weapon.

And, Susan took us to another unlikely, but completely wonderful, spot, Sabino Canyon. This is something unlike anything Wendy and I have seen before. Sabino Canyon is a deep canyon in the desert outside of Tucson that contains a perennial stream. What made it unique is that the U.S. Forest Service operates a tram that takes visitors up the 3.8-mile canyon on a guided tour, pointing out the geological and biological features of this unlikely stream in the middle of the desert. Then, visitors have the option of taking the tram back down or, as we did, enjoying a leisurely two-hour hike back to the visitors center.

The steep, sheer walls of the Sabino Canyon, fully adorned with Saguaro cacti, which often look to me like people with their arms raised.

Amazing. A perennial stream in the middle of the desert. Even in the heat of the summer, pools remain that sustain fish life! And walking along this and marveling at such an improbable feature is made possible by a tram service (!) sponsored by the Forest Service.

The highlight of the week, by far, though, was a trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The “museum” is a combination of a botanical garden, wild animal park, zoo, and educational facility, all wrapped up in an authentic desert layout. One strolls about over several miles of trails and walkways, seeing the flora and fauna of the Sonora Desert as one might see it over years of backcountry hiking. Seriously. This is the second time we thought we were attending some little second-rate “local” museum (the first was our trip to Cody, Wyoming) only to be met a world-class facility that is as good as one can find anywhere.

In addition to a wonderful indoor exhibit of reptiles, insects, and an amazing assortment of little desert creatures that will sting, bite, or otherwise poison you, there’s wide array of animals native to the Sonora Desert were on display in man-made but natural-looking habitations:

Mountain lion. We asked the docent if it’s true that mountain lions actually stalk humans. The answer sounded a lot like a contrivance the gist of which is that “stalking” is not actually what they’re doing, but it seemed to me that the answer was basically yes.

A nice-sized wolf, assuming any size of a wolf can be “nice.”

Mommy and daddy big-horn sheep. Not visible here are two lambs, the older of which seemed intent on pushing the younger one over a cliff, which either illustrates the sometimes harsh nature of natural selection or explains a lot about young boys of all species.

And there was an extensive cactus garden, with many of the species in full springtime bloom. [Click on the thumbnail photos to enlarge]

  

We did make a quick stop to Saguaro National Park, but given how excellent were both the Sonora Desert Museum and the Sabino Canyon excursion, the national park was actually something of a let-down. Think about that. How often can a national park be a let-down?

There are two units to Saguaro National Park. This is on the east side, supposedly the less enjoyable of the two, although it may be more photogenic.

So that ended our “layover” in Tucson. Six days of non-stop eating and touring, excellent in every respect, all made possible by Wendy’s wonderful sister.

Next stop: Mesa Verde National Park and southwest Colorado.

2 May 2017: White Sands National Monument

After arriving in Alamogordo and setting up at the campground, we went out and looked at sand. Lots of sand. Some of it was in piles. That’s it. Good bye.

Actually, contrary to what one might think, going to White Sands National Monument is not just about going to look at big piles of sand. First of all, it’s not “sand” as most people would think of it. Such sand is ground up rocks (mostly quartz). The White Sands stuff is granules of gypsum, like in wall board and plaster of paris and toothpaste, that started as big gypsum crystals created when gypsum washed out from the surrounding mountains and just recently (over the past 7000 to 10,000 years, which is a blink of an eye in geological time) got eroded into small particles by the action of the constant desert winds. So, there are heaps and heaps, over miles and miles, of gypsum granules forming an unbelievably picturesque landscape. In fact, there are 275 square miles of these dunes, the largest in the world. But the geological story doesn’t end there. Gypsum is (1) water soluble and (2) easily blown away, so on both counts it shouldn’t even be here. But, since I saw it, I’m pretty sure it is. How can that be? I don’t fully understand the geology (even after attending a ranger talk on the topic), but it turns out that there’s a perched aquifer just under the surface of the dunes that binds up the base of the gypsum fields so that, while the top few feet of the dunes get blown hither and yon by the wind, the mass of the gypsum remains fixed within the confines of this subterranean water, and then with each rain, gets formed into big crystals, eroded into sand, and the process repeats.

Miles and miles of stunningly white gypsum (sand), created in an improbable geological process starting with gypsum being washed out of the San Andreas mountains in the background

The other thing that makes White Sands NM unique is that unlike most venues under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, where a “look but don’t touch” rule is enforced, at White Sands the NPS wants everyone to go out and play in the dunes! Really. Not just hiking and picnicking and nature trails and ranger talks and all the usual stuff, all of which abound and are very well done, people are encouraged to drive along an unpaved road of hardened gypsum, climb the dunes, and walk out into the area and take in the breathtaking beauty of the white expanse of rolling dunes. NPS even sells flying saucer sleds in the visitor center! It’s almost as if NPS were saying, “Look, anything you do is going to get obliterated by the wind in a day or two anyway, so go out and have a blast!” And people do. We went on a short hike into the dunes, and part of the fun was trying to scramble up the dunes with your feet slipping backwards almost as fast as you can move forwards. It’s like playing in the snow, but in a way that’s warm and dry. If you used to be a kid, coming to White Sands is a ton of fun.

Getting ready for an early evening ranger-guided stroll into the dunes. Of course, because this is an NPS function, the experience was perfect and our guide was knowledgeable, engaging, and funny. We’ve noted it before, but the ranger cadre of NPS is definitely one of its greatest assets.

The ranger-guided walk ended at sunset and we were treated to one of those flaming orange desert sunsets. The sliver of plant-laden dune in the center-left of the picture is the “inter-dune area,” where the aquifer lies just about 20 inches or so beneath the surface and holds the whole dune field together.

White Sands is one of the stops made by the family back in 1988, one that they always raved about. I never understood why until now. What a great place.

Next stop, Tucson.

1 May 2017: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Normally, I’m not big on caves, which have always impressed me as nothing more than big, rocky holes in the ground, and even if they have the usual assortment of formations, all properly lit up, the experience wears off in a few moments and I’m back to being trapped in a big hole. So, the main attraction in heading to Carlsbad Caverns was less the caverns than seeing the bats, which emerge from the cavern every night at dusk, and which I’ve heard about from Wendy and the family ever since they visited there in 1988.

First, I was wrong about the caverns. Like, embarrassingly wrong. (No wonder no one ever listens to me.) Carlsbad Caverns is definitely not just a big hole in the ground. Actually, it is a big hole in the ground, but it’s so big, and so complex, and so stunning in its visual impression that it nearly defies description. We did one of the self-guided tours (we got there too late for a guided tour), which took us into the caverns for a loop of about 2-1/2 miles, starting with an 800-foot descent on a switch-backed trail through the main entrance, and eventually into the “Big Room.”

This is some dippy retro post card that I found on the internet, but it’s the best depiction I found of the layout of the caverns. The self-guided tour, about 2-1/2-miles long, enters down the “natural entrance” on the upper left, all the way over to the “Big Room” on the far right, and then back to the elevator for the 750-foot lift back to the surface.

The “Big Room,” for example, although it’s just a teeny part of the caverns and just one part of the self-guided tour, is huge: big enough to put the U.S. Capitol building in there twice! At one point, it’s 250 feet tall. One side loop around the Big Room is a mile long! This part of the cavern system is only one of about 100 such caverns, most of which have never been explored. In 1986, some guys accidentally discovered a side-branch to the cavern system, and so far they’ve explored it for 150 miles. As the short film in the visitor center pointed out, it’s hard to find any place on the surface of the earth that isn’t fully explored, but beneath our feet, literally, we haven’t even begun to explore our own world.

And somehow the National Park service has managed to install paths, and handrails, and lighting throughout this portion of the caverns.

You’d actually do better to look up images of the caverns on the internet than settle for my amateur attempts to capture the scenes with my camera, but this image makes the point. Note the path winding through this portion of the Big Room. And, although this image doesn’t exactly capture the lighting, the National Park Service hired a theatrical lighting expert to do the lighting with the objective that the interior of the caverns would be illuminated, but the effect would still be “cave-like.” They succeeded on both counts.

I forget how deep we are into the caverns at this point, but we were approaching the time when they closed up the caverns for the day, and we were deep enough that we decided to get one last picture of us alive in case things turned out otherwise.

The bottom line is that I could easily go back to the caverns again and spend more time just marveling in its complexity and beauty.

Second, I was right about seeing the bats, but first a brief digression.

[Social Commentary /on]  There is an amphitheater near the entrance to the cave where visitors can sit down at dusk and watch the flight of bats as they emerge. Everywhere one looks, there are signs explaining that all electronic devices must be turned off (not just put on silent or in sleep mode). No active cameras, cell phones, or other electronic devices are permitted because they interfere with the bats’ behavior and ability to navigate. So, for the good of the bats, and for the benefit of the experience, no exceptions. Everything must be off. The effect of those signs? Zippo. Nada. A huge percentage of the visitors, Wendy and I estimate about half, were completely loaded up with cameras (some even set up on tripods!), cell phones, selfie-sticks, and God-knows-what, all ready to blast away as soon as the bats emerged. What? What’s going on here? The only thing Wendy and I could figure out is that about half of the population, here at least, but probably everywhere, doesn’t care about nature, doesn’t care about their fellow man, and doesn’t particularly care even about the quality of their own experience. As long as they can take some inferior little snapshot, and take it home to their equally self-focused and despicable friends and family, they’re willing to ruin the very thing they came to see. How sad. Fortunately, though, an armed park ranger showed up just before dusk and said that his job was to protect the bats, that using electronic devices was a citable offense, and that if the devices weren’t turned off and put away at this point, those using them were subject to arrest. That did it. Apparently, the problem is widespread enough that the National Park Service has learned that, if moral force isn’t enough, the prospect of making little ones out of big ones in a federal pen will ensure compliance. [Social commentary /off]

And the bat experience? Apparently we were there too early in the season and most of the colony of Mexican Free-Tailed Bats won’t return from Mexico for another month or two. So, right now, there are “only” 20,000 to 30,000 bats in attendance! Precisely at dusk, though, as if on cue, hundreds of bats emerged and begin circling in front of the cavern entrance, racing around at incredible speeds, somehow managing not to collide, gaining altitude with each loop, until they reach a height sufficient to head off into the countryside, and away they flew. Then another flight emerged, again spiraling upward, faster and faster, higher and higher, and then heading off. And then another flight, and another, and another. It seemed like it would not end. I later asked the ranger if the bats were actually emerging in groups so they could form up into “squadrons,” so to speak, but that’s not what they’re doing. They are actually solitary hunters. But they have to spiral upwards because their little wings don’t generate much lift. In fact, most of them can’t even take off from the ground. They are, as he put it, “the jet fighters” of the bat world. After 45 minutes or so, now in almost total darkness, the bats were gone and we headed back to the campground. Had we been here in June or July, it would not have been a few tens of thousands of bats, it would have been hundreds of thousands. I can’t even imagine what that would look like.

So, add this to the list of reasons we’d return to Carlsbad Caverns for an even better re-do of the experience.

Next stop, White Sands National Monument.

30 April 2017: Davis Mountains State Park

When I was planning the Big Bend stay, one of my assumptions was that one day we’d drive up to the McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis, see the telescopes, attend an evening “star party,” and then drive back. I made that assumption because, on my map of Texas, it’s only about a half-inch between Big Bend and Fort Davis. What a dipstick! It’s actually 150 miles twixt the two, 70 of which is through the park itself at 45 mph! Obviously, one doesn’t make a quick run to and from the observatory, so we cut the Big Bend stay short by one day and headed up to Fort Davis.

Doing an astronomy thing was on my list because lately I’ve become fascinated by the Milky Way and west Texas has the clearest and darkest skies in the United States, perfect for star-gazing. At the risk of sinking into a pit of interminable, mind-numbingly dull blather, a “galaxy” is a system of millions to billions of stars, along with cosmic dust and other stuff, all held together by gravitational forces. Current estimates are that there are about 100 billion galaxies, but that number may double as the Hubble telescope continues to scan the heavens. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is a “spiral galaxy” that itself contains somewhere between 100 and 400 billion stars. (For those trying to picture this in their heads, a billion galaxies times a billion stars in each would be a “quintillion” stars, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars, of which our sun is one.)

An artistic rendition of the Milky Way galaxy that I swiped off the internet somewhere. As is apparent, our sun is just one of countless stars in the galaxy and occurs, so they say, near one of the outer spiral arms.

What makes all of this fascinating is that on a clear night, one can see millions of our neighboring stars by looking “across” the galaxy! From earth, the “transect” across the galaxy looks like a milky band across the sky. In fact, during certain times of the year one can look right through the middle of our galaxy to the center “core”! In most urban areas, it’s too light and too polluted to see the Milky Way, but my heart was set on seeing it once we got to someplace better.

Fort Davis turned out to be a special treat in many way. First, the tour of the observatory was completely fascinating. We got to see their telescopes, watch real-time images of the sun boiling and blowing off huge spurts of flaming gases, and learn about all of those incomprehensibly bizarre aspects of the universe that astronomers and physicists deal with routinely every day. Just one example: McDonald Observatory is about to enter into a multi-national effort to study “dark energy,” a force that astronomers assume must exist because the universe is not only expanding (my brain is too small to understand what that even means), its rate of expansion is increasing because something, scientists don’t know what, is apparently pushing the galaxies apart. As they explain it, “we call it ‘dark energy,’ but we don’t actually know what it is, and it may not be ‘dark’ and it may not be ‘energy.’ Maybe our understanding of the universe is wrong, or maybe we don’t understand gravity. We’re not sure.” Excuse me? There are actually people to think about these things as part of their jobs? And besides that, this is a fine time to tell me that maybe gravity isn’t what we think it is.

Secondly, I was hoping to attend a “star party” at the observatory, using one of their telescopes to peer into the night sky. Unfortunately, though, the star parties are only offered on certain nights, and not the night we were there. Disappointed, I returned to the campground and, in one of those “coincidences” that proves there is a benevolent force ruling creation, an amateur astronomer had set up in the campground with a super-duper telescope (a 15.6″ reflector, for those who know what that means) and was hosting his own star party! He gave me a personal tour of the night sky, and I got to see Jupiter and its moons, the double-star of Castor (of Castor and Pollux, the two main stars in the Gemini constellation), an incredible close-up of the moon, and I forget what else. What a treat!

An amateur astronomer, who had shown up as part of an annual gathering of amateur astronomers, graciously set up his telescope and invited campers to come by and peer into the heavens! Here he is aligning on the north star to calibrate the telescope’s motor drives that allow him to enter any celestial body into his computer and the telescope automatically aligns on the object. I cannot even begin to think what a setup like that must cost, or how he manages to transport it in his RV (visible behind the telescope).

Finally, after a disappointing few days of overcast skies in Big Bend, the night turned crystal clear, I got up at 4:00 a.m., and there was the Milky Way in stunning glory. My little baby camera isn’t very good for astrophotography, but I was able to capture this shot.

The Milky Way, as visible from behind our RV. If you look closely at the lower right-hand corner, you can see a C-shaped gap in the cloud of stars. That’s the galactic center, meaning we’re looking from our vantage point at the edge of the galaxy, right through the middle and out the other side. Ponder that for a moment.

(It’s hard for a computer-appropriate image to capture enough detail to reveal how truly impressive the Milky Way really is. A larger file, available here, is better.)

Next stop: Carlsbad Caverns.

 

28-29 April 2017: Big Bend National Park

[Ed. note: Sorry for the delay in posting updates. For the past 5 days we’ve been in areas of the country where people have no internet and no cell phone coverage, and they seem to be OK with that.]

Big Bend is a different kind of national park for us. Lying along the Rio Grande River in the very southern tip of Texas, one might think it would be nothing more that mile after mile of empty wasteland, of little interest to anyone except illegal immigrants passing through on their way to enrolling in Medicare.

There’s much more to it than that, though. Big Bend consists of three separate components: the Chihuahuan desert, the Rio Grande River valley, and the Chisos Mountains, and each area we found to be worth seeing.

The Chihuahuan desert, for example, is one of four deserts in the United States: the Great Basin desert, which occurs mostly in Nevada; the Mojave Desert, which occurs in California and Arizona; the Sonoran desert, which also occurs in California and Arizona, and dips down into northern Mexico; and the Chihuahuan desert, which occurs mostly in northern Mexico, with smaller areas in New Mexico, Arizona, and West Texas, and which is the largest of North American deserts at over 140,000 square miles. What was most interesting to us, though, is that people were actually able to live in this incredibly hostile environment.

An abandoned trading post near the Castolon visitors center.

Luna’s Jacal (pronounced, “yah-kahl”), which I think is Spanish for “little hovel.” Incredibly, Gilberto Luna lived in this earth and rock hovel in the late 19th century, raised eight children, and lived to be 108 years old.

The Rio Grande river section of the park was mostly just a flat expanse, well suited to swimming across undetected at midnight, but what made it worth seeing were the spectacular canyons.

Santa Elena canyon. The walls are 1500 feet high and we saw a large number of kayakers paddling upstream and then making a relaxing float trip back down.

What we enjoyed the most, though, were the Chisos mountains. The peaks rise to over 7800 feet and, incredibly, the environment is wooded and cool, completely different than the desert just a few miles away. Bear and mountain lions populate the area, and temperatures are usually about 20 degrees cooler than down on the desert floor (meaning, for example, that the day we went hiking, temperatures were in the 70s!).

Hiking down to “The Window,” which is a spectacular gap in the rocks through which one can see the expanse of the Chihuahuan desert below. Unfortunately, the hike begins with a 2.8-mile walk DOWN 1000 feet to the vista point, which means, through some asymmetry in the space-time continuum, it’s actually 3.8-miles and 1500 feet back up. Or at least it felt that way.

As interesting as we found Big Bend to be, though, we both sense that it falls into a different category of national park experiences. There are parks, like Yellowstone and Grand Tetons and Glacier, that one can go to countless times and never grow tired of the experience. Then there are parks, and we put Big Bend in that category, that are definitely worth seeing, but which are more in the category of “immunization” parks. That is, having been there, we’ve had the experience and having had it, we’re now immune and, as much as we really enjoyed this visit, we don’t have to have it again.

So, check it off the list. Next stop, Davis Mountains State Park and the McDonald Observatory.

25-26 April 2017: San Antonio

We’ve started the 2017 western trip, having blazed through Livingston, Louisiana (nice RV park), survived the pavement hell of Louisiana and Eastern Texas, stayed overnight at Columbus, Texas (OK, but not up to our standards), and finally arriving in San Antonio. At first, we weren’t sure we’d even make this stop, seeing as how we were trying to orchestrate our stops to spend the smallest amount of time meandering along through places with little to commend them. But neither of us had ever been to San Antonio, so what the heck? It’s on the way, sort of, so a couple days layover made sense.

And we are really glad we did. Tops on my list was going to the Alamo.

I didn’t realize it, but this is *not* “the Alamo.” This is the church inside of what was the Alamo. The Alamo, as it existed in 1836, extended several blocks in all directions. Unfortunately, most of that area is now developed and only this church, and a small surrounding area, survive.

The legend of that battle has been imprinted on my mind since elementary school, but what we learned on our visit is that reality is even more dramatic than the childhood stories we all grew up with. It’s hard to imagine: 150 volunteers, plus or minus, against a determined army of maybe 10 times that number; Santa Ana’s raising of the red “no quarter” flag; and the last-minute realization that help would never arrive. In these circumstances, William Travis called the men together and said, in essence, “Look, here’s the deal. Reinforcements are not coming. We cannot defeat an army of this size, and if we stay and fight, the result is certain death for all of us. But we fight for principles that matter and we only have two other choices: surrender or flee, either way announcing to our countrymen that freedom and liberty are not worth dying for. It’s not for me to tell you what to do,” and then, drawing his sabre and carving a line in the sand, he continued, “but I intend to stay and fight and die right here, because I believe liberty, and patriotism, and everything that is dear the American character are worth dying for. And I ask any man who’s willing to stand with me to cross this line.” At that moment, every one of the volunteers (save only one!) crossed the line. And they stayed and fought, dying either in the ensuing battle or, if wounded and captured (including, perhaps, Davey Crockett), when lined up against a wall and shot.

The rest, as they say, is history. As has happened so many times over our history, the enemy’s “victory” inspired a sense of American outrage, which led to an overwhelming response, which led to a crushing defeat of Santa Ana and his army, which forced Santa Ana to save his hide by signing a treaty relinquishing the territory, and the Republic of Texas was born. As often as this pattern of events seems to repeat itself, Wendy and I sometimes wonder whether our national motto should be changed from E Pluribus Unum to Non Ursa Poke.

Our second objective was San Antonio’s famous River Walk. In 1921, a disastrous flood hit San Antonio, and the city planners did what such people always do in such cases … they decided to channelize the portion of the river that ran through downtown, and then pave over it. As it turns out, though, they encountered the dreaded little-old-ladies-in-garden-clubs contingent. Under the impetus of that formidable force, the idea of channelizing the river remained, but it’s flow was regulated by an upstream dam and a plan created to develop the corridor. Later on, through the efforts of the WPA, some 17,000 feet of walkways, bridges, and landscaping were added along the channel. Over the years, the number of restaurants, bars, and shops increased, the size and layout of the River Walk changed and grew, and it now stands are one of the most successful urban projects of its type, serving as a model for countless other developments, including the Little Sugar Creek Greenway in Charlotte, NC. And it is completely charming.

It’s hard to describe the stunning beauty of the River Walk. This is not a fake picture. This is a snapshot I grabbed as we strolled along the path one night. Even more, our visit to San Antonio also coincided with the city’s annual “Fiesta” (sort of a Hispanic version of Mardi Gras), and as we had dinner one night at a River Walk restaurant, we were treated to periodic concerts by passing boats filled with high school Mexican bands (guitars, violins, trumpets, and all that) gearing up for their upcoming competitions.

Oh, and one more thing. In one of those improbable coincidences that proves something, Son #1 had a business to San Antonio while we were there and we met up for dinner!

Sitting along the River Walk, with Mexican bands in the background and enjoying, let’s see … a few margaritas, a couple glasses of wine, two hors d’oeuvres, exceedingly large entrees, and two orders of crème brulee. Such things are what make travel “broadening” (at least in the sense of girth).

Next stop: Big Bend National Park.

 

6-9 April 2017: Getting ready for the next big trip…

We leave in a couple weeks for this year’s trip out west (more on that below), but prior to the trip it was time for our “traditional” pre-trip campout with the with Little Darlings. I say “traditional” because we did a pre-trip campout once, and the way our family works, once is enough to create a tradition. And once a tradition is established, we can never not do it because, well, it’s a tradition. All of which leads to a geometrically expanding list of spontaneously generated random obligations. And I put “we” in quotes because Wendy is out in Seattle with the other Little Darlings, spending Easter with Laura while Robert is deployed, and wasn’t here for the campout.

This year’s campout was a great success, although not for the reason I expected. Cliff selected the location (FD Roosevelt State Park), which is only 30 miles from the LaGrange house, so I went over early to snag the best sites, Cliff showed up around noon, and Jennifer showed up mid-afternoon. We all assumed that we would occupy ourselves with an excess of activities at the campground and nearby Callaway Gardens. Some that turned out to be true, and in fact we did ride bikes at Callaway, go to the butterfly house, have a picnic lunch, and watch the birds of prey show.

Riding bikes from the Discovery Center to the butterfly house, a distance we thought would prove too much for the younger cousins. Not so, though. All of them showed themselves determined not to quit. I have no idea where they got that trait.

And, at the campground, we skipped the park-provided hot dog supper, Eggstravaganza Easter egg hunt, archery, reptile encounter, and night hike and picnic, limiting our in-park activities to Saturday night’s bluegrass concert.

But what most occupied us was the girls’ fanatical commitment to geocaching. For those not familiar with the activity, geocaching involves using a GPS (or a GPS-enabled app on a smart phone) to find various “caches” that others have hidden in the woods, often containing little dime-store trinkets that one can exchange for other dime-store trinkets brought along for just that purpose. An good description of geocaching and all that it entails can be found on the Geocaching 101 website.

What an experience!! Four little girls, racing around the woods with smart phones in hand, clambering over each other in a frenetic drive to find the cache and exchange trinkets. For three days, the geocaching frenzy ran unabated. “Please, please can we go geocaching? Please, Grandpa, please, please…” First it was two caches near the campsite, then seven caches along a loop trail, then I’m not sure how many on another hike. And we also logged the “official” FDR State Park cache. Most of the state parks have official caches and I got each of the kids a “Georgia State Park Geocaching Passport” book. After getting a certain number of state park official caches, the kids are eligible for souvenir coins. (As you might expect, adding a reward like earning coins to the process only made them more fanatical.)

I forget which cache this is, but it’ll give you the idea. The cache was contained in an ammo box hidden under some rocks about 20 yards off the trail. The app we used (Cachly) displays a compass with an arrow indicating the bearing and range to the cache, and then it’s a matter of following the app until close to the cache location, at which point it becomes a challenge to figure what the dastardly owner did to make the ammo box hard to find.

The kids had a total blast and the experience gave me grounds for optimism as well. Except for the usual risks of running around in the woods, which are numerous (ticks, rattlesnakes, slippery rocks, cuts, bruises, poison ivy, etc.) but usually not totally fatal, geocaching is a completely fun activity for kids, and the grownups can turn the kids loose and let them have as much UNSUPERVIZED fun as they want. I read an article once that noted it wasn’t that many years ago, certainly during my lifetime, that except for the time when they were actually in school, kids were basically free of adult supervision by the time they were eight years old. Heck, we used to jump on our bikes and ride to school at that age, and to the park, and to the “wash” (a dry river bed), and the ball fields, and the local 7-11, and the parents had no idea where we were or what we were doing. The only requirement is that we had to be home “by the time the street lights come on.” Living that way not only required parents willing to let their kids loose at what appears nowadays to be an early age, it required children willing to venture out without someone at hand to protect them. On both counts, those days are gone. Good grief, it sometimes seems like even college students nowadays can’t survive on their own without adults providing them with safe rooms and pacifiers. So, I’ve wondered whether the biological/psychological/emotional capabilities that allow parents to leave their kids alone and kids to thrive on their own have been lost. Nope. A campground is the perfect place to turn the LDs loose and let them do whatever they want, and adding geocaching to the mix and letting the kids run around in the woods, on their own, unsupervised, makes it even better.

So, with the pre-trip campout in the books, it’s now it’s time to get ready for the trip out west. This year’s trip will take us to San Antonio, Big Bend National Park, up to Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands, then to Tucson to visit Wendy’s sister, then up to Petrified Forest National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Blanding (Utah), all five Utah national parks, and then down to the Grand Canyon. With the exception of Mesa Verde, I’ve never been to any of these places. Forty-seven days and 5300 miles. Further updates to start in late April.

RIP: Little Sally (2004-2017)

Well, yesterday was little Sally’s last day. On our February trip to Florida, she developed a persistent cough, which was diagnosed several times as bronchitis, but which turned out to be a tumor above the palate. There was really nothing that could be done, and she was in pain, and we knew in our hearts that the inevitable course of events was too much for our little friend to bear. So, we elected to use a service somewhat akin to pet hospice: a vet came to the house and little Sally spent her last few moments here at home, in our laps, with her favorite toy (called “Purple Minky”). (It’s too complicated to explain unless you can recite most of Inspector Clouseau’s lines by heart).

Sally (on the left), AKA registered as “Sally Princess Buttercup LBD Byrnwyck.” The “LBD” stands for “Little Brat Dog,” a title she earned every day with her incredibly charming, but equally stubborn, dachshund disposition.

We tried several times to persuade Sally that she was a dog, and we were people, and therefore in the natural order of things, we told her what to do, not vice versa. It never worked and we just gave up.

Sally was generally a good sport when it came to things such as being made to pose as an elf, although you can see she’s pretty much exasperated by the indignity of it all.

So, with thirteen years of great memories, and a fondness for our little friend that will warm our hearts forever, we say goodbye.

20-26 February 2017: South Florida

In telling folks about our plans to conclude this year’s Florida trip at Lake Okeechobee, people kept saying things like, “I hope you like alligators…,” or “you’ll have some interesting experiences, that is, if you think snakes and alligators can be interesting…,” or, my favorite, “Lake Okeechobee is a great place to go fishing, well, except you really shouldn’t go near the water because it’s basically loaded up with alligators and besides that my dad was fishing there and found himself wading in a sea of water moccasins…” Oh good grief. The litany of dreadful, foreboding encounters was so extensive and constant, we seriously considered just canceling that portion of trip and going home.

It was fine. In fact, it was better than fine. It was wonderful.

And, once again, inspiring. Our first day at Lake Okeechobee was forecasted to be coolish and raining, so he drove over to Fort Pierce to see the Navy SEAL Museum.

A statue commemorating the rescue of Lieutenant Tommy Norris by Petty Officer Mike Norton. During a mission in Viet Nam, Norris was so severely wounded that he was presumed dead. Nevertheless, Norton braved a hailstorm of bullets, rescued Norris, and then, although badly wounded himself, put his own life jacket on Norris to swim Norris out to another SEAL vessel, acts of heroism and bravery so compelling that Norton received the Medal of Honor. Incredibly, though, after LT Norris recovered from his near-fatal wounds, he returned to duty and himself engaged in acts of heroism so compelling that HE won the Medal of Honor. Wendy and I are standing there, reading all this with tears in our eyes, and we’re not through the front door yet.

Inside, the museum was everything you’d expect. One inspiring display after another explaining the whole SEAL concept, from intensive BUDS training in San Diego (where two-thirds of the volunteers can’t take it and drop out), to specialization in various aspects of modern warfare, to samples of the equipment used, to the operations of SEAL teams. As you would expect, some of the most famous SEAL missions are illustrated, including the rescue of Captain Phillips from Somali pirates to, of course, the granddaddy of them all, the raid on the compound in Abbottabad and the elimination of Osama bin Laden.

The code of conduct for Navy SEALs, very similar to the Army’s Soldier’s Creed, or the Ranger Creed, although one should note one particular element: “I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.” It is this principle that led to the condemnation and shunning of the SEAL (whose name I refuse to utter) who violated his oath and published “No Easy Day,” the account of the raid on Abbottabad. I know most people don’t understand why describing the mission was such an act of betrayal, but personally I give thanks that he was ordered to return all of the royalties he earned.

Nearby the campground we found another interesting attraction. As we learned last year, one problem faced by the Everglades is nutrient-rich runoff from farms, which leads to overly dense plant growth that actually chokes the wetlands. To counter that problem, local governments have built a number of treatment impoundments upstream of the Everglades to remove nutrients, and one such facility is located just a few miles north of the campground. That facility diverts about ten percent of the flow of Taylor Creek, retains that flow in a series of basins where overly rich plant growth is acceptable and intended, and then returns the water, now reduced in nutrient levels, back to the creek. These basins are, as one would expect, wildly rich in plant and animal life, and the county has actually built paths around the basins where one can stroll and enjoy the rich diversity of life that flourishes there.

One of the treatment ponds for Taylor Creek. It is remarkable that the county would take something as mundane as a treatment system and make it inviting and user-friendly, such as the thatch-covered gazebo where people can pause while walking around the area.

We saw birds of all stripes (herons, anhingas, egrets, ibises, ducks, cranes, songbirds), turtles, butterflies, and even an otter. (No snakes.) (At least none that I pointed out to Wendy.) (That was a joke.) It was particularly fun to watch the birds catching and eating fish, even if the fish did seem too large to ease down the gullet.

 

And yes, we did see alligators. Dozens of them. Mostly basking in the ponds, although a couple were sunning themselves along the path, something that Wendy found particularly disconcerting.

This six-footer slowly moved away from the path as I approached, although it was hard not to keep in mind dozens of youtube videos showing alligators spinning suddenly and charging hapless onlookers. As I was approaching to take advantage of this photo op, I just kept reminding myself that there are things in life worse than getting bitten by an alligator, although I must admit none actually come to mind.

One last thought. We found ourselves parked next to a couple from Pennsylvania, Herb and Mary Ellen Truhe. It turns out he is a retired policeman (27 years on the force) who comes from a family of wide-ranging police experience. And we found him to be one of the most friendly, knowledgeable, and decent human beings it’s ever been my pleasure to meet. Just one example to illustrate the point. He once had to arrest a drug addict on a parole violation warrant. As he picked up the guy, he noted that the addict looked pretty bad, obviously strung out. “When did you last eat?” he asked. “Three days ago,” the addict responded. So, incredibly, Herb brought him home, sat him down with his family, and gave him a decent meal, before carting him off to jail. “The only thing I ask,” Herb said to the addict, “is that you treat my family with the same respect I’m showing to you.” As it turns out, while they were having supper, the addict engaged with Herb’s teenage daughter, telling her at one point, “You need to stay away from drugs, or you’ll end up like me.” I don’t know how all that ended up, but it’s easy to imagine a story of redemption from a simple act of grace and a home-cooked meal. So there we have it: more inspiration from something as common as a neighbor at a campground.

Parked next to the Herb and Mary Ellen Truhe. The campground was very nice and, contrary to our fears before arriving, completely free from dachshund-eating alligators and snakes.

We’re not sure about a Florida trip next year. We’ve basically explored the state to our satisfaction, noting the areas we like (as well as those we’re not so fond of). We may return next year to a couple favorite places, or we may start exploring the options for other warmer climes. Either way, though, this was definitely one of the better Florida trips.

Whither postcards?

At every worthy stop we make, Wendy and I send off postcards to the grandchildren, aka Little Darlings (henceforth LDs), all eight of them. But lately it has become a formidable challenge to find postcards even at the most likely stops. Disney had precious few (maybe a half dozen), and only the same limited selection was to be found at all of the venues. Many other stops had none. Sometimes, we’d ask a store clerk if they had postcards and was greeted with an odd stare, followed by, “I think the place across the street used to have some.” I was preparing to add a comment to one of my travel posts about this strange phenomenon but coincidentally a post on the same topic showed up today on the RV Travel blog, describing postcards as a “relic of the past.”

The premise behind Woodbury’s conclusion is that picture postcards, as media of choice for sending off pictures of destination spots, along with the obligatory “wish you were here” message, have been overtaken by photo messages, Instagram, Facebook, selfies, and every other form of instantaneous electronic communication. True, true, and in many ways our ability to follow each other’s travels, see the sights, and participate vicariously in travels to new places is both more extensive and intensive than it ever was. But the replacement of the postcard with an excess of instantaneous photo updates, I think, like so much of the modern electronic alternatives, somehow loses something in the translation.

The difference between a postcard and a photo-feed, I guess, is firstly not so much in the adequacy of the communique, but in the generosity of the message. It takes considerable effort to hunt for just the right card, carefully write out (with a pen, of all things) a message particular to the recipient, address it, and find a place to send it off. At least with eight LDs, it’s hours start to finish. But that’s why postcards are more an act of thoughtfulness than a blunt, in-your-face info update. More than just saying, “wham-bam, here’s a picture, see you later” it says “You matter enough to me that I’m taking time out my travels just to let you know how much I care for you. You’re worth the effort.” And, secondly, the impetus for a picture postcard is, obviously, the picture. There are no “selfie” postcards, which is why they stand in stark contrast to someone who visits something as majestic as the Grand Canyon and thinks, “What a great place to take a picture of me.”

Oh well… I guess it’s to be expected that photographic relics of the past still hold appeal to living relics of the past (namely us). Next post will be back to reality…