Wednesday, 24 December 2014

En Route to our Christmas Hideaway


December 8 found us paying tolls to drive around Houston.  The huge metropolis sprawled out beside us and we were thankful to fork over a few bucks to avoid driving its clogged arteries.   It took about an hour to get into the countryside where grassland gradually stretched up into the lovely Texas Hill Country.  In keeping with the “Big in Texas” theme, we stopped to take in the extensive gas pumps, souvenir and food counters at Buc-ees a chain of humongous gas stations.  All items sold there are available by the hundreds! The immediate area surrounding the crazy service station had been devastated by forest fire a couple of years ago and miles of burned forests and residential properties are beginning to show small signs of new growth.  We watch television coverage of bush fires raging in the US each year but the immense damage can only be felt in person.







We arrived at Millcreek RV just south of Johnson City in time to enjoy an hour’s sunshine before the cold wall came down.  With the weather here, it is warm and pleasant during the day but within sixty seconds of sunset, it is freezing!   The park was adequate and Dixie enjoyed daily walks by the shallow riverbank.   Our mission here was to spend some time lickin’ sauce off our fingers at the Famous Salt Lick Bar B Que in Dripping Springs, Texas.   The restaurant features a huge indoor grill where all the meats rest after they are smoked.   Customers are encouraged to get close to the kitchen and the smells of sweet sauce, Live Oak smoke and pecan pie are intoxicating.   We enjoyed some classic ribs, coleslaw and beans.   After our rich lunch, we were ready for some good exercise and hit the trails on our bikes at Milton Reimers Ranch Park.   The rough paths were a mix of red earth, stones as well as crevices from recent downpours.   The attractive local cream-coloured limestone is used everywhere in construction of homes and public buildings.   The trail lead us past grasslands, prickly pear cactus, twisting Live Oak trees and Mesquite.   The close mountains added another dimension to our view.   One Mourning Dove was the only wildlife we saw in over two hours.  I lost my footing on a gravel hill as we walked our bikes gingerly down.   I landed directly on my camera and the lens crumpled.  As Murphy’s Law would have it, I had swung my camera onto my back to protect it just moments before I fell.  On the positive side, I bore no physical harm!








Dixie went for a grooming and “Spa Day” while we toured the LBJ Historic Park and Ranch.  In Johnson City we saw the boyhood home of Lyndon B. Johnson and learned about his roots, education, courtship with Ladybird and his careers as an educator and politician.

At the famous 2,700 acre LBJ Ranch, we toured the historic displays at the Visitor’s Centre and walked about the Sauer-Beckmann Farm gardens, barn, kitchen and living quarters which is still an operating farm practicing the lifestyle of 1918 when LBJ was boy.


A self guided tour takes the visitors throughout the ranch property, with optional stops at the reconstructed Birthplace home, used previously as a guest home; Johnson family cemetery where generations of Johnsons are buried including the president and first lady; show barns; pastures; airport runway and helicopter pad.


LBJ’s private jet, Lockheed C-140 Jet Star is parked outside the Johnson Home, fondly called “The Texas White House”.  We joined a guided tour through the simple home, its basic living room and huge fireplace where politicians and astronauts once sat on the hearth while visiting the ranch, the small dining room, bedrooms, kitchen and large office.  There was a palpable presence of the past world decisions being made in LBJ’s office where his press and political secretaries worked together.  Three TVs were present in three rooms of the “White House” in order that LBJ could keep constantly updated on the news. (NBC, ABC and CBS)


Our guide shared the most poignant story while we were gathered in the kitchen.  The Johnsons and their staff were completing details for a perfect dinner party that evening when John F. Kennedy and Jackie would arrive after their motorcade in Dallas.  Ladybird called everyone into the kitchen, November 1963, where they watched the coverage of Kennedy’s assassination and the uncertain reality of the future filled the house.

December 11 was cool and rainy but we headed west despite it.  Only an hour later, we drove down the main street of the lovely historic town of Fredericksburg.  Its charm convinced us to stop and tour it.  We checked in to Fredericksburg RV Park , grabbed our rain gear and began a long stroll.  There are a large number of German settlements in Texas and Fredericksburg is one of them.  The town is known for its tourism with multiple galleries, museums, shops, theatres and restaurants and wineries; especially during the Christmas season.

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The park in the centre of town, “Marktplatz” was tastefully decorated with white lights on all “tannenbaum” and a huge traditional German Christmas Pyramid displayed its parade of shepherds, milk maids and angels following round and round to chords of an old German Christmas Carol. 

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The art galleries that specialized in cowboy/cowgirl, cattle , horses and Texas Hill country scenery.  We saw some amazing cast sculptures, paintings and graphite drawings that inspired.  The largest kitchen store I’ve ever been in, a former hotel, kept us entertained and out of the rain as we sipped superb coffees and perused the merchandise.  All the buildings in town have been restored and interior patterned tin ceilings, wooden flooring and decorative balconies help maintain the essence of the 1890’s German Town.  Homemade sweets, high-end baubbles and traditional German blown-glass ornaments were displayed in all the shops.  We did not see the museums but went back to walk Dixie instead.  After dark, the town was bright with white lights everywhere, very beautifully coordinated.  We went to Friedhelm’s Bavarian Restaurant for some German beer and Schnitzel dinner. Ein Prosit!




The following day we were on the road again passing the beautiful countryside with its vineyards, wineries, peach, pecan and walnut groves and many large flocks of goats gamboling (always wanted to use that word) across the deep green fields.  The countryside began to open up where we were able to see for miles across grassy or rocky fields towards the mountains in the west.  After a long drive we were lucky to find the great Balmorhea State Park.  The sites each had a hacienda covering the picnic table and the view on three sides were to wards mountain ranges.  An underground aquifer feeds a large swimming area, a duck-filled pond and small grassy canals that run around the park.  We went for a bike ride and discovered someone was swimming so back we went for our suits.  The water was mild and we had a great swim while tiny fish jumped around us. The sunset over the mountains was familiar and comforting.






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Leaving the park, we saw two roadrunners and tumble weeds were everywhere, especially piled up behind wire fences.  We were in wind farm country again and the towering white wind mills stood guard along the rocky ridges.  The landscape became more desert-like studded with Creosote, Cactus, Tamarisk and Yucca. We entered New Mexico in the late afternoon, passed sprawling El Paso to our north and crowded Mexico on the opposite side of the highway.  Another hour was lost as we crossed into Mountain Time.  Setting up at Coach Light Rv in Las Cruces, we discovered that the park had taken a nose dive and thankfully we were only staying one night.  We vowed never to return there again.  We had a Mexican dinner at La Posta where colourful decorations for Christmas mixed traditional and Mexican.  The food was not as great as we’d remembered it from our past visit but the Margaritas saved the meal.






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By noon on Sunday December 14, we drove into Arizona and settled in at Saguaro SKP RV Park just outside Benson.  We signed up to stay for a month and will do Christmas and New Years here.  Our sight looks out over the Dragoon Mountains.  We have mountains to the East and West so we watch the sunset in real time over the west side then enjoy its pink and orange blast in the East.  We will cook a roast of beef and veggies and enjoy traditional Christmas pudding for dessert on December 25.

 Wishing everyone a wonderful Holiday Season!



The reversible wreath I made and the multitude of desert stars light our Christmas Hideaway after dark.



Saturday, 20 December 2014

GALVESTON, OH GALVESTON, I still hear your sea waves crashing…


We travelled along the Louisiana Outback Creole Nature Trail on Thanksgiving Friday.  The scenic highway runs along the Gulf of Mexico Coast, often at a short distance from the water.  The land was flat and dotted with ponds, marshes, rice fields and grazing land for cattle.  All the homes were raised on stilts against flooding.  A shabby double-wide propped up about twenty feet in the air flaunted a sign “Cajun High-rise”.



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Our driving pace was very relaxed and we stopped at a tiny Cajun Diner for a classic Louisiana shrimp and catfish Po-Boy lunch.  Many of the locals were out fishing along the canals beside the highway.  Hunters decked out in camouflage, motored down the bayous in search of ducks and gators.




Stopping at the Cameron Prairie Nature Walk, we strolled the boardwalk with its views of various waterfowl.  The Pintail Wildlife Drive took us very close to the waterways that support hundreds of bird species, turtles and alligators.  Considered one of forty of the top birding locations in the US, there are colonies of egrets, ducks, spoonbill, heron, cormorants, ibis and anhinga.  We witnessed displays of flocks flying up in unison as the sun cast shadows over their wings as they completed what seemed like choreographed ballet.  Turtles are usually very shy and their tremendous hearing capacity has them diving into the water before one can even lift a camera lens.  Perhaps accustomed to frequently passing vehicles, the turtles were posing for their Kodak moments.  We also saw at least ten alligators, most of whom were sunbathing in the grass.


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By late afternoon, we were ready to stop for the night but saw no RV sites that were appealing or that had vacancy.  We took a small ferry across a channel as the sun was losing its warmth.  The beach-side town of Cameron seemed like a possible place to stop for the night.  We spoke to some locals that said anyone could camp on the beach so down we headed and set up facing the ocean.  Luckily we had enough light for a beach walk and watch the sun set over the waves.  The pretty pastel-coloured houses looked lovely against the burning sky.  We could see a few oil storage platforms miles out, twinkling in the dark distance.  It was great to pop out onto the sunny beach in the morning.


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_MG_4449offshore oil storage platform

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We carried on along the Creole Nature Trail past a similar watery landscapes, houses perched on stilts and grazing cattle.  Oil refineries were abundant and residents of a few “oil towns” were lined along local piers for fishing and family days out.  The view shifts from outback wilderness to sprawling industrial complexes.  Huge oil refineries are a mass of stacks, pipes, towers, trays and storage tanks.  The sounds and odors of crude oil being distilled, converted and broken down into propane, diesel, butane, gasoline, furnace oil and industrial fuels is overwhelming.





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About ten miles across the grassy fields dotted with cattle, the bridge, stack and top third of the deck of an ocean liner would appear.  Bright white, brick red, loud yellow and various blues of huge cargo ships were startling to view above the grass as they passed through the canals north of us.  Next, we saw an interesting illusion to the south.  Hazy silhouettes of ocean tankers appeared to float higher than the road we travelled on.  Atmosphere and distance can really play tricks on the eye!  As we neared the Bolivar Port, we joined a long line of motorists lined up for a ferry crossing.  The traffic was high due to the Thanksgiving  holiday so we waited about an hour to board and cross the mouth of Galveston Bay, Texas.  I went up to the top deck for the view while Chris stayed in the coach with Dixie.  Because the trip is free, many people take the 45 minute ride as a sight-seeing excursion, watching pleasure boats, cargo ships, shrimpers and dolphins.








One must be of a certain generation to remember the Glen Campbell ballad about Galveston,an island town in Texas.  Chris and I were singing it as we disembarked and drove along the seawall highway past public piers toward our camp.  Settling in at Jamaica Beach RV Resort, we were greeted by next door neighbours Lorraine and Chris from Bayfield Ontario.  Cocktails and friendship flowed freely as our Texas portion of our trip began.



We walked the beach every day and rarely saw other people. Dixie enjoyed the waves as well as sniffing the washed up shells, wood and seaweed.  One day we took our bikes and enjoyed our first beach ride.  The sand was a mixture of four colours; cinnamon, ginger, cloves and cardamom so each time the tide receded, the swirls and patterns in the sand changed.  On different strolls we saw a dead shark, a fisherman’s net, a pirate chest filled with gold coins, a note in a bottle from a young Australian boy named Al, a giant pink pearl inside an oyster shell….relaxing to the rhythm of the waves sure fuels the imagination!  Does anyone know if a sand dollar found on an American beach is worth more than one found on a Canadian beach?


The weather varied widely from extreme humidity and seventy degree highs to windy, rainy days in the low fifties.  We scored a great campsite where we had a view of the Gulf.  On a corner lot, we had our own lawn, palm tree and level paved site with patio.  The park owners really took pride in their property.  We drove into Galveston, only twenty minutes away, a few times to see the sites.

_MG_4695 Diving Bell House

For a couple of hours, we rode our bikes around the East Historical District, observing the homes and gardens in their various states of total renovation or derelict shadows of former glory.  The town was hosting a Victorian Christmas weekend so garland and lights added a bit of festivity.  The Moody Mansion built in 1895 was refurbished after the Great Hurricane of 1900 and boasts decorative plaster carvings, mahogany wood trim, marble floors and stained glass inside.  Bishop’s Palace is also open to the public and offers a mixed architectural style predominantly Victorian with turrets and porches borrowed from the design of French Chateaus.  The other fifty city blocks are lined with a mix of small cottages and huge Greek Revival-inspired homes.  Coloured tiles, ornate carving, wrought iron and picket fences, unique painted patterns and gingerbread, stained glass, charming gardens and porches lined with pillars all add nuance and variety to the neighbourhood.  The bad taste of Hurricane Ike and other fierce storms is sadly evident throughout the city where financial ruin has lead to the slow decay of many of the homes and commercial buildings.  There are a few quaint cafes and small businesses in the area.  We sat in the afternoon sun delighting in superb coffee and and baked treats at Pattycakes Bakery.

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Galveston has two waterfronts, its industrial port side where various cargo ships load and unload, cruise ships and fishing boats dock and where old oil rigs go to die.  An interesting collection of them line the opposite shore of the harbour and are used for parts and repurposing.  Beautiful worn warehouses now hold restaurants, bars and shops or stand abandoned.  The south side of Galveston is a public place with wharfs and boardwalks where beaches invite locals and tourists to surf and enjoy the seashore.  There are always many ships anchored out in the Gulf waiting to come in to port.




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One gray, cool day we donated two dollars to the most decrepit parking box ever seen. (See image) An archaic metal key is used to push the money into the slot.  How do they ever know how long a car had been parked in a particular spot? Curious!  We toured the fascinating Ocean Star Oil Rig Museum.  The retired rig holds bountiful displays and information about the oil industry.  Older machinery, towers, drills and their amazing bits are in place on the exterior decks.  Intricate models of rigs and ships from various eras,  illustrations and charts tell the complex story of oil formation, discovery, gathering, processing and distributing.  One model compared the immense size of a modern oil rig to Manhattan!  All aspects of the industry are explored from the incredible technological advancements to the human elements of food preparation by chefs and laundry service on a rig.  One thing I had never considered is the necessary delivery of fresh water to the oil rigs and platforms.  Surprisingly, guests have an option of paying an admission fee to enter the museum or you can do an  hour’s work on the rig, which I did, as you can see from the photos.  It was worth the free admission!

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Some say archaic, some say timeless charm…..                                                Trapped giant Ken doll.

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      In keeping with the spirit of the season….a green tree above and white “Christmas Tree” below



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  on-deck tour guide


We sat outside at Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant and enjoyed catch of the day: Grouper and Redfish.  The patio is situated next to the tall ship Elissa and we watched seabirds gad about on the ship's ropes.  Dolphins in the harbour appeared a few times for our entertainment.  A huge yacht from The Caymen Islands was docked next to the patio and the crew were busy scrubbing every inch of it.  We were treated to the departure of the cruise ship Triumph by chance.

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A large property near the inland bay offers a variety of family entertainment from a gigantic Water Park, I-Max Theatre, Aquarium and Rainforest.  During holiday season there are thousands of Christmas lights up and an ice sculpture venue too.  We joined Lorraine and Chris on a tour of The Rainforest.  The humid jungle brimming with vines, orchids, bromeliads, butterflies and birds was the perfect escape from a cold dreary day outside.

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Colourful birds flew in the canopy above us and sloths and monkeys appeared out of the greenery now and then.  We caught feeding time for the two large monitors.  Ponds contained huge fish including interesting rays and turtles.  A sea otter, twice the size of its Canadian cousins, played on shore and leapt in and out of the water with ease.  A variety of snakes, lizards, bats and rodents were on view in their micro climate cages.  The least shy of the birds were the Scarlet Ibis that looked exactly like White Ibis dipped in orange dye.

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We shared a few “happy hours” at the park with our Canadian friends and supplies from Specs.  The name suggests an optical store but Texans know that it is a huge liquor store.  They say “everything in Texas is large” and the store fit the cliché.  Imagine the largest grocery store you have ever been in.  Leave a couple of rows of cheese, crackers, olives, snacks, bar implements and visualize the remainder stacked with any and all kinds of spirits, beer and wine!  We  joined Bonnie and Bill and daughter Kate, from Winnipeg, at the “Canadian Table” for a fun potluck dinner at the RV Park.  I felt a small spark of Christmas spirit surrounded by decorations in the clubhouse and watching the many lights come on in RVers sites each night.  Our  “last supper” with Lorraine and Chris was over oyster and shrimp platters at “Nicks Kitchen and Beach Bar”.