Category Archives: National Parks

Austin and Westward Across Texas

Once we left the Gulf Coast, we headed back up to Austin to visit with family for several days.  Diana’s cousin Nancy and her husband David, who we went to Big Bend with last year, live in Austin. Diana’s cousin Jerry had spent the winter there after retiring, so we also wanted to see him before he headed back to Michigan. They all went out of their way to show us a great time in this fun town! 

First up on Thursday was a trip with Jerry out to Johnson City to see the 36th President of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s boyhood home.

While his family had a fair amount of wealth, they lived simply in a rural Texas style.

The woman in the visitor’s center referred to LBJ as “a little stinker” during his days in Johnson City.  I’ll bet he was.  😉

From there, we drove west to Stonewall to the LBJ Ranch, otherwise known as the Texas White House.

This is still a working cattle ranch.  The road meanders through the property, as do the prize bovine. 😃

The visitor’s center for the ranch is housed in the former aircraft hanger.

LBJ would fly in to the ranch on this Lockheed JetStar that he dubbed “Air Force One Half”.  We found it interesting that he spent 20% of his time in office at his home here in Texas.

The wing on the left with the covered chimney was his fully functional presidential office.  The gentleman on the left was our tour guide.  He told us that a man on a tour he gave earlier in the day was the brother of the Dallas police officer J.D. Tippet, who was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald after JFK’s assasination.  The ranch is where the Kennedys were to spend the night of November 22, 1963, but that was not to be.  

This was LBJ’s domain. He used his 6’4″ frame…and several chairs that sat taller than the guest seating…to persuade people.  He felt self conscious around the Ivy-leaguers who ruled in Washington with himself only having a Texas teacher’s college education, so he would bring them to his ranch where they were out of their element. He achieved a lot in a short amount of time at this location.  He died of a heart attack in this home at the age of 64, six years after he left office.

That evening, we went to a place in South Austin that Jerry had discovered called the Saxon Pub.  Austin has a tremendous music reputation, and this night lived up to it.  

The headliner was Patrice Pike.  She and her band put on an amazing show.  At one point, she morphed one of her own songs into “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin, sliding into the drummer’s place.  That left the drummer no choice but to beat the wall with his drumsticks.  The audience definitely got their money’s worth!

The next day, Diana and I met up with Jerry, Nancy, and David.

Our destination was the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

The facility had a natural feel to it, and the buildings blended well with the surroundings.  Austin, in general, excels in their use of the local limestone in their architecture, giving the town a warm and inviting feel.  We enjoyed our visit to the gardens, and followed it up with lunch at a local barbecue joint called Salt Lick.  That was delicious!  Later that evening, Jerry’s son Ben and daughter-in-law Sara had us over for dinner, which was even better!

Here is Diana loving holding their son Cole.  What a cutie!

Saturday afternoon we headed over to Nancy and David’s home for dinner.  Their sons Thomas and Robert, along with their wives Marlana and Tashia were there, and also Jerry, Ben and Sara. There we had a birthday party for Sara and Cody Lynn, Nancy and David’s granddaughter.

Here is Cody Lynn showing off her new sticker book we got her.

We thought her brother Hayes might like a present also, so we got him a magnifying glass.  It was a hit!

Cole was enjoying a little lawn time.  😃

Sunday evening, we headed downtown to see one of Austin’s unique phenomenons, the evening bat flight.

When the Congress Avenue bridge was reconstructed in 1980, the gaps under the roadway unknowingly provided an ideal place for bats to roost.  Up to 1.5 million bats reside there by mid summer, and their nightly departure draws quite a crowd.  From our vantage point, we couldn’t see them very well…as it was quite dark when they began leaving. Still, it was a hoot to see the people hanging out to watch.

Monday, we began our journey west!  First stop was the tiny town of Junction to meet up with fellow RV-Dreamers Debbie and Steve!  We set up camp at Schreiner City Park, which allows three days of free camping.  We found this and the park mentioned in our last post on the AllStays app.

It’s pretty tough to beat that site!  Just beyond that shelter is the junction of the North and South Llano Rivers that give the town its name.

As a bonus to getting to see Debbie and Steve (seated behind me), we were able to meet Pam and Red, who are also fellow RV-Dreamers.  What a great evening!  If you are counting, that’s four couples from Howard and Linda’s rallies that we’ve met up with in Junction in the past two years.

The next day we headed to Balmorhea State Park in Toyavale.  This location is getting out there in the West Texas desert and featues a huge natural spring.  In the 1930’s, the CCC turned it into the attraction it is today.

From this panoramic shot, it looks like a normal public swimming pool.  What you aren’t seeing is…

…the natural bottom or the fish!  We did go for a dip, which felt really good.

We also enjoyed watching the roadrunners and the bunnies at our campsite.  

On Wednesday morning, we headed west toward El Paso.  For some reason, Diana and I had pictured it to be a sleepy West Texas outpost…not realizing that the city is home to well over 600,000 people!  With construction on Interstate 10, the trip through town was a bit more than we expected.  😊.  We enjoyed our trek across Texas and are looking forward to what comes next.  Be sure to stay tuned!

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The Manitou Islands

Approxametely 15 miles west of Leland, the Manitou Islands rise from Lake Michigan. This archipelago is a vital part of Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore, yet very few visitors ever get there. A few weeks ago, Diana discovered a trip that the Leland Historical Society was taking to both North and South Manitou Islands on the same day. Ferry riders normally get to choose between one or the other, and the transit schedule North Manitou requires overnight tent camping. This once-a-year trip offered both islands! Seeing that we had never been to either one, we decided to join the tour. Joining us would be our friends Camilla, Lane and Patti. The trip was supposed to take place on Tuesday, August 23, but it was delayed two days because of strong southwesterly winds. As luck would have it, that put the trip on Thursday, August 25th…the 100th birthday of the National Park Service!

We arrived at Fishtown in the village of Leland, ready for adventure! For those who have never been to Leland, Fishtown is the historic dock where Lake Leelanau empties into Lake Michigan. Some of the old fish processing shanties have been turned into a collection of gift shops, while others still house fisheries.

Our vessel for this special trip was the 52 foot Manitou Isle. Built in 1946, she has seen a lot of use in her 70 years. The larger and newer ferry on the left is the one that is used daily.

On the way to the islands, we passed the North Manitou Shoal Light Station. This lighthouse was built in 1935 and was the last manned offshore light on the Great Lakes when it was automated in 1980. It sits in 26 feet of water and the focal plane of the light is 79 feet above the surface of the lake. The sea birds sure appreciate it! The lighthouse is currently up for auction, with a bid of $10,000 already posted online. If you are considering bidding on it, be warned that it is still active…including the fog horn. 🙂

As we approached our first stop, the South Manitou Light Station came into view. 

After years of visiting this region, we’ve finally made it to South Manitou Island! The smaller of the two isles, South Manitou is 8.2 square miles. There is a ranger station that houses a few seasonal workers, but no permanent residents. That’s not to say it was always that way though. The island has been home to lumbermen, farmers, lighthouse keepers, and lifesaving crews. 
 

This relief model of the island shows how the western side is dominated by dunes. Both North and South share this feature, as do the Fox islands to the north, as well as most of the shoreline of the mainland in Leelanau County. The model also shows the crescent-shaped harbor, which is the only natural deep water harbor between Buffalo, NY and Chicago. The football-shapes in the water are shipwrecks. The one on the right is the latest shipwreck, the Francisco Morazan…a 234 foot steamer which ran aground in a November gale in 1960. Most of the vessel is still visible above the waterline. Time constraints did not allow us to visit the wreck or the giant 500 year old cedar trees that stand west of it.

If you recall in my previous post, Port Oneida Fair, I spoke of a ship owner named Thomas Kelderhouse. On this day, we were honored to have our tour guide be his great-great-great granddaughter, Kim Kelderhouse! Here she is explaining the legend of the Sleeping Bear, which is how the dunes and the national lakeshore received their names. According to Native American folklore, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a great forest fire in Wisconsin. Knowing their only escape was to get to the other side, they swam day and night. The cubs lagged behind and drowned just off the Michigan shore, where their mother waited for them. The Great Spirit eventually covered the cubs with sand, creating the Manitou Islands. As the mother bear slept, he also blanketed her, creating the Sleeping Bear dunes. As Kim stated, it is indeed a sad tale.

After leaving the dock area, which is where the former lifesaving station stands, we split up into two groups. One group headed to the farm and cemetery, and our group headed with Kim to the lighthouse.

South Manitou Light Station was first established in 1840. The original tower was replaced in 1858 by the cream brick structure in the photo above, which had a lantern room on top. It was deemed that light was too short (64 feet), so the current tower was built in 1872, closer to the water. It has a focal plane of 104 feet above the lake surface.

Kim explained how the spiral staircase is only supported in the center. If it were attached to the sides, the tower would crumble as it shifted in the wind and the stairs pulled at the walls. I’ve been to many lighthouses over the years and never knew that fact. Learn something new every day!

The third order Fresnel lens is a replica. The light shines nightly from May through October.

Here’s the motley crew on the lighthouse gallery!

Kim took us into the keeper’s quarters, which is awaiting restoration. The windows were recently replaced, thereby stabilizing the building.

The lack of a ceiling upstairs allowed us to see this interesting twist in the chimney, which made it possible to exit the roof without disrupting the rafters.

From the lighthouse, we headed back to the boat and headed off to North Manitou Island.

Just a couple of kids out for a boat ride.  🙂

As was the case at our previous stop, North Manitou Island’s dock is near the lifesaving station.

The unique thing about this location is that it is the only remaining station to have buildings that were used from the beginning of the Lifesaving Service through the Coast Guard.  This boathouse is the only remaining example that used the original 1854 standardized plans, and it was built that same year.

The 1877 Lifesaving Station was a combination crew quarters and boathouse.  It was later converted to quarters and a storehouse by the Manitou Island Association, and then to a dormitory by the National Park Service.

As was the case on South Manitou, North started out in the lumbering business selling cordwood to passing steamers.  When the trees were exhausted, the Manitou Island Association formed, which farmed the land.  A large barn from the farming era still exists to the north of the village near the dock.

A unique feature on North Manitou is Cottage Row.  There are 10 parcels that were owned by successful Chicago business owners who vacationed  here in the summer months.  The cottages on these lots were built between 1893 and 1924.

This cottage, the Monte Carlo, was designed by a 26 year old Frank Lloyd Wright when he was employed at the Sullivan firm in Chicago.  It was built in 1894.

Also built that year was the Trude-Fiske cottage.  It remained in the family until 1979.

The Wing Cottage was also built in 1894 and was owned by several families over the years.  Note the fieldstone foundation.

The Riggs-Londergan Cottage was built in 1924.  The Manitou Island Association purchased it in 1958.

This is the Katie Shepard Hotel, which is currently being restored by Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear volunteers.  It was built in 1895.  Although plans aren’t firm, the thought is that visitors will be able to use it as an alternative to tent camping, similar to a hostel.

There are a few other cottages, including one that was ordered out of the Sears catalogue.  Diana found it interesting that, of all the places these wealthy city dwellers could have chosen to spend their summers, they decided on an island in northern Lake Michigan without electricity or running water.

From North Manitou, we headed back to the mainland to the dock at Fishtown.

Camilla took one of her famous selfies to document our safe return!  What a great day with friends!

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Port Oneida Fair

In the mid 19th century, northern Europeons began settling into the area between what is now known as Pyramid Point and Glen Arbor, along the shores of Sleeping Bear Bay. Thomas Kelderhouse, the owner of several cargo ships on Lake Michigan, realized the potential of the area’s timber during a stopover on South Manitou Island. He made a deal with a local landowner on the mainland, Carsten Burfiend, where Kelderhouse would build a dock if Burfiend would donate the property adjacent to it. The resulting port was named after the one of the first ships to arrive, the S.S. Oneida.

Over time, the land was cleared of it’s timber and farmed.  The sandy soil wasn’t the best for crops, but the longer growing season along Lake Michigan helped sustain the community for a time.  Eventually, most of the buildings were abandoned.  When the National Park Service first acquired Port Oneida in the 1970’s, the policy was to remove the buildings and let nature retake the land. Fortunately, the funds weren’t available at that time to remove the structures.  Eventually that policy was changed, after the public realized that the county roads were going to be removed also….thereby eliminating access to the area beaches.  As a result of it’s time in limbo, Port Oneida is one of the largest examples of a pre-modern rural community in the United States.  The buildings are now being preserved, as is the history of those early settlers.

Each August, the National Park Service partners with the nonprofit Preserve Historic Sleeping Bear for the Port Oneida Fair.  The event showcases rural life as it would have been in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. This year’s fair was held over two days, up from the usual one day event.  Admission is free, although a park pass is required to be on the grounds.

Spread over five seperate farms, there were many different demonstrations as to how things were done in the past.  Above, a man rides in a horse drawn buggy across a field at the Dechow farm.

Oxen in their yolks, ready to do some work in the fields!

A young boy using a shaving horse and a spoke shave to shape a piece of wood.

This woman was demonstrating the art of spinning wool.  She was really good at it.  🙂

This display from the Empire Area Museum had two hand-cranked phonographs; the one on the right was an Edison.  A far cry from listening to music on your iPhone. 😀

There were several bicycles on display.  This one was actually a predecessor to the high wheeler.

We found this oil-burning headlight to be interesting.  Note the red lens on the left side.  The right side is green, just like a boat would have.

This little McCormick-Deering gasoline engine was chugging along.  It was connected to a water pump.  They had several examples of old engines, one of which was powering a Maytag washing machine.

A pair of beautiful draft horses.  The front one is a Belgian and the one behind is a Percheron.

Just across M-22 from the Dechow farm is the Olsen farm.

This home is the showcase of Port Oneida.  It doubles as an information center for the historic district.

This gentleman was playing a hammer dulcimer.  To me, they are one of the prettiest sounding musical instruments ever made.

This man was explaining the uses of the flax plant.  In his hand was a by-product of the processing of flax, called tow fibers.  This was timely for us, as Diana had just mentioned earlier this week that she wondered where the term ‘tow head’ came from for blondes.  Well, he explained that the term came from the similarity of the color of the fibers to blonde hair.  He also told us that the fibers were used to make rope, hence the term ‘tow rope’….and towing your car, and so on.  Pretty cool.  🙂

The woman with him was spinning tow.  Both of them were wearing clothes made from tow.  Sorry about the angle of the photo: that’s a fiber spindle, not a flute.  🙂

From the Olsen farm, we continued down the road to the Burfiend Barn.

Outside the barn, children and adult volunteers were making wooden barn pegs. They drove the wood through cylindrical tubes with wooden mallets.  Each new peg drove the last one out of the tube.

Inside the barn, the string band Carter Creek was putting on a show.  We really enjoyed listening to them, especially when they played an old favorite of ours…John Prine’s ‘Paradise’.

We really enjoyed our day at the Port Oneida Fair.  If you are ever visiting Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore the second Saturday in August, be sure to save the afternoon for this event.

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Alligator Hill 

A year ago on August 2, a powerful storm packing winds in excess of 100 miles-an-hour rolled off of Lake Michigan and took dead aim at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Fortunately, no one was killed and very few people were injured. While there were dozens of homes and businesses damaged, the majority of the devistation was to the canopy of trees in the area.  A prime example of that is Alligator Hill.

Named for its resemblance to a resting alligator, this rise of thickly-forested land lies within the boundaries of the national lakeshore.  A series of hiking and cross-country skiing trails, totaling over 7 miles, traverse the length of the hill.  The winds from the storm raked along the ridge, funneling into the ravines on either side and laying 150 year old trees into piles exceeding 10 feet in height.  The trail system was closed following the storm and was only recently reopened to hiking.  After our friends Lane and Patti hiked it, we decided to go check it out on our anniversary this last Saturday, August 6th.

As the map at the trailhead suggested, we snapped a photo to take the map with us.  It’s nice that these signs are clear enough to be able to read on a smartphone.  The NPS really does a good job at Sleeping Bear, and we appreciate it.  Our route for the day would take us to Islands Lookout and Big Glen Lookout.  Including a side trip to view additional storm damage, we totaled 4.7 miles.

Once on the trail, we were greeted by the cool canopy of trees that made up the majority of the path, prior to last August.  Having not hiked here before, we aren’t sure if the two-track appearance of the trail existed before the storm.  A lot of equipment had to come through this area to reopen the upper portions of the route.

Before long, we started to see some of the downed trees.  There was no doubt that this was the result of straight-line winds, as these giants were all dropped in an easterly direction.

After a short stretch of blown out forest, we returned to the canopy  of trees.  It was there that we came upon one of the best views we’ve ever seen at Sleeping Bear…the Islands Lookout.

Look at that water.  One of the hikers at the overlook commented that it reminded him of the Carribean. We never get tired of looking at these waters, and this particular viewpoint really puts it all in perspective.  Off in the distance is South Manitou Island to the left and North Manitou Island to the right.

Continuing around to the right, you are able to see just how wide the vista is here.  Looking with the naked eye, I spotted something on the horizon between the islands.  I zoomed my camera in as best I could, but I still couldn’t tell what I was seeing until I got home.

It was a fairly large Great Lakes freighter steaming north towards the Straits of Mackinac!

Leaving the viewpoint, we headed towards Big Glen Lookout.

This is the ‘spine of the alligator’, so to speak.  This area was hit hard, as you are able to see.  Still, it was interesting to see how other plant life was coming up from the forest floor.

Common Mullein were sprouting up everywhere!  

Again, we entered an area of forested canopy before we arrived at our next viewpoint. 

Big Glen Lookout overlooks what is considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, Big Glen Lake.  Almost perfectly round and surrounded by high hills, the lake doesn’t have a lot of big waves, making it a boater’s paradise.

Heading back towards the trailhead, we took the path that runs below the ridge on the south side.  This is the area that the storm hit first.

It looked like a war zone.  The National Park Service is contemplating what to do with the timber.  One school of thought is to leave it natural while the other is to remove it to lessen the extreme fire danger.  Either way, it was an amazing thing to see!

These trees were shattered.  It was interesting to see how the core of the tree seperated from the rest.  We saw several examples of this.

We can’t imagine what it would have been like to have been on the trail that day, as there was nowhere to hide.  It’s humbling to think of the power the storm was packing.

It wasn’t too long before we were back at the trailhead and our vehicle.  What would have normally been a nice hike to a couple of great viewpoints has become a lesson in the tremendous forces that nature unleashes from time to time.  We are really glad we did this hike and we recommend it to anyone visiting Sleeping Bear.

Ready for the Season!

We have returned to Wild Cherry RV Resort on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula for another season….and it is good to be back.  We arrived Friday afternoon, set up our rig and locked onto one of the best satellite signals we’ve ever pulled in on our DirecTV.  Life is definitely good.  🙂   We were greeted by Patti and Lane, and also JoAnn and Paul.  It was great to see them all again.  While I was setting up, Rex drove up in his pickup to say hello.  He and Jim (the resort owner) spent the morning getting the riding mower ready to go, as Rex will be starting to mow on Monday. He had set up his 5th wheel earlier in the week and was having a little issue getting his Dish Network signal locked on, so he asked if I would help him with that. Diana and I jumped on the golf cart and headed down to his and Nellie’s rig.  To remind everyone, Rex will be 92 years young this summer, and his charming wife Nellie will be 90.  They proceeded to pour us a drink, as we all know that aiming a satellite is easier with a vodka and tonic.  🙂  Rex and I headed outside to move the dish, while Diana and Nellie stayed in to watch the signal meter on the screen, calling the numbers to us through the open window.  Factor into this that Rex and I are both somewhat hard of hearing…and you basically have  the makings of an ‘I Love Lucy’ skit.   Even with my Dishpointer app on my phone, we were only able to get the meter to about 50%…which I was sure wouldn’t be enough.  I called Dish.  After telling the tech that “the neighbor moved it” …with me being ‘the neighbor’, he worked a little magic on his end and suddenly Rex and Nellie had great reception!  They insisted on taking us out to dinner to thank us, so we headed into town for a bite to eat.  Just getting to spend time with these two is a treat for us.  Let’s change that earlier statement to life is definitely better than good!  🙂

Saturday morning came early, as Diana and I had agreed to dive right in and work.  JoAnn and Paul had been covering the place since May 1, so they headed downstate to their daughter’s place for Mother’s Day weekend.  Rod and Mary will be here this coming Friday.  Paul and Jim had set up most of the picnic tables already, so I finished that project.  I also helped Jim with a new drain tile along the entrance road.  He handled most of that with his John Deere front end loader, something he is a master at.  Diana started in on the paperwork in the office.

And once again, the woods surrounding the resort are filled with trillium!  The trees are starting to leaf out and soon our wooded tent sites will be filled with campers.

The flowering trees are beginning to bloom, and the apple and cherry blossoms will soon be covering the hillsides throughout Leelanau County.

On Saturday, I picked up where Paul left off on edging the patios.  As you can see, our lakefront sites are wide open right now, so it’s a perfect time to come up and spend a few days.  The only thing you will hear is birds, frogs, crickets and…during the day…Rex mowing those hills.  🙂  Shoulder seasons in Northern Michigan are magical.

Mosquitoes are rarely a problem here.  It’s also very dark at night, so if the sky is clear, the stars are insane!

The wineries, shops, and restaurants in the surrounding villages are all open for business. People are taking to the woods in their annual hunt for morel mushrooms.  We hope to get our trikes on the trails soon, as the weather has been warming up into the 60’s in the afternoons. And this is a fabulous time to explore Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and the Leelanau Conservancy preserves.

Leelanau was calling us, and we are really glad we got up here as quickly as we could!

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Wild Cherry RV Resort
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Big Bend N.P. – First Impressions

Last year, Diana’s cousin Nancy and her husband David invited us to come to Big Bend National Park in Texas to do some hiking with them.  We tentatively made plans to meet them in early April.  So since leaving Melbourne Beach on February 21, that has been our goal…and we made it!

  
 

Big Bend is named for the major change of course the Rio Grande River takes between Texas and Mexico.  It is extremely remote, and it boasts some of the darkest skies in the U.S.  Looking at an aerial view on Google Maps, the Chihuahuan Desert is apparent…

  

….but the wild and wonderful Chisos Mountains are not.  When we arrived and this landscape unfolded before us, we were awestruck!  As a bonus, the desert was starting to bloom!

  

The prickly pear were beginning to show off with their red and yellow flowers.

  

The Eagle Claw cactus with their magenta blooms. 

 

The Ocotillo with their red clusters popping out at the ends of their branches.  There is a large expanse of them as you enter the park from Study Butte.

Big Bend National Park is massive, covering 1251 square miles.  The Chisos Mountains, the remnants of an ancient volcano, are contained entirely within the park.  A good portion of the park’s hiking trails originate in the Chisos Basin, which is the caldera of that volcano.  The remaining trails are scattered throughout the surrounding desert and along the Rio Grande River.

There are several gravel roads that lead to the remote areas of the desert.

  

Before we left Michigan in December, we outfitted the Escape with a set of all terrain tires, in anticipation of the rugged roads we planned on encountering. Edsel still looks good in his red paint scheme.  With all the dust in Big Bend, that would most likely not last.  :). We didn’t plan on any high-clearance roads, but any that were labeled ‘4 wheel drive’ were deemed ok for us.

Up in the basin, there is a lodge, campground, restaurant, visitors center and store.  There is not a gas station there, but there is one not far away at Panther Junction.  The temperatures in the basin are cooler than on the desert floor, and are cooler still at the top of the mountains surrounding the basin.

  

When experiencing views like this, it is hard to believe we are in Texas!

With Big Bend being so…well…BIG, we will be writing several posts on our time here.  Stay tuned as we explore the vistas of this wonderful place!

  
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San Antonio Missions

“We’re on a mission from God”

Elwood Blues

With the arrival of Easter weekend, we were on a mission to see a mission…FIVE of them, to be exact!  We made our way to San Antonio on Saturday and met up with Bob and Kathrun, fellow RV-Dreamers who we got to know at the Fall 2014 Rally. Like us, they sold their home, disposed of most of their possessions, bought an RV, and hit the road. (There is much more to their story, but it is their song to sing.  Once Kathrun’s blog is up, we will provide a link.) After we settled into our site, we headed into town to see the Alamo.

This was Diana’s and my first trip here  together since 1982…not long after we were married.  We were living on a shoestring in Austin at the time and had come here with our college friend Betsy who was visiting us from Michigan.  We shared the following story of that trip with Bob and Kat:  Wanting to spend the night in town, Betsy, Diana and I inquired on a whim at the Hyatt Regency to see if they had any rooms available.  They had one with two queen beds…at $45 a night.  Even in 1982, that was cheap… especially for a Hyatt on the Riverwalk in San Antonio.  We asked what was wrong with it, and the clerk said “oh, it probably doesn’t have a view”.  We got to the room and I ducked into the bathroom.  I could hear Diana and Betsy talking as they looked out the window, delighted that we actually did have a view.  I heard one of them say “oh look….there’s a Spanish mission!”  When I joined them at the window, a mere one block away was an unobstructed frontal view of the Alamo.  🙂

On this visit, we weren’t the only ones with Easter plans.  🙂   While very crowded, the line to get in moved quickly.

For anyone who has yet to visit this historic place, the Alamo is no longer the Texas outpost it once was.  The city of San Antonio has surrounded it like so many of Santa Anna’s men.

Kathrun stepped across William Travis’ line in the sand (now bronze in stone).  Be careful, Kat …that didn’t end well for the first people who did that!  🙂

From the Alamo, we found our way to the Paseo del Rio…otherwise known as the San Antonio Riverwalk. This is a series of walkways through the city that line both sides of the river. Originally a Works Project Administration project from the 1930’s, the Riverwalk has sprouted a multitude of unique eateries and shops, and has become Texas’ # 1 tourist attraction.

Here is the four of us at dinner at a riverside Mexican cafe.

The river boats were full, and everyone was having a great time.

The Arneson Theater along the riverwalk.  The venue is unique in that the seats are across the river from the stage. This site is used for all sorts of plays, Mexican dances and mariachi bands. The five bells in the arches are meant to represent the five missions of San Antonio.

On Easter Sunday, we decided to search out the other four missions, all part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park.  While the Alamo is maintained as a memorial to those that lost their life in the battle, the other four missions are active parishes of the Roman Catholic Church.

To touch on the overall history of the San Antonio missions, these enclaves were established by Franciscan missionaries to convert the local people to Catholicism and the Spanish way of life.  They became safe havens from Apache attacks, so many people accepted the trade-off out of sheer need for survival.  Bob stated that the missions were generally located a day’s travel from each other.  My, how times have changed.  🙂

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First up was Mission Concepcion. This stone church was dedicated in 1755.

Many of the original paintings still exist on the interior walls of the peripheral rooms of the enclave.

We saw this stone in the walkway near the grotto, most likely put there to remind us what state we were in.  We definitely aren’t in Florida anymore. 🙂

Next was Mission San Jose. The grounds of this compound were absolutely beautiful. This church was dedicated in 1782.

The surrounding walls of the mission were restored by the WPA in the 1930’s, creating this expansive courtyard.

The interior of the church was well restored; something we wouldn’t have guessed by the rugged exterior.

Our next visit was to Mission San Juan.

The buildings at this location are replicas, being built by the WPA in the 1930’s.  The doors of this church were locked, so we do not have photos of the interior. We took a walk on a nice trail to the San Antonio River behind the mission.

Our last stop was Mission Espada.

This church dates back to 1756, but the mission itself was established in 1690…thereby making it the oldest of the five.

The interior was simple and had plenty of natural light.  It was a very pretty and intimate space.

If you have the opportunity to journey to San Antonio, be sure to build in enough time to visit all five of the missions.  There even is a paved bike trail that links them together.  We feel it is worth the effort to seek out these beautiful places, and the history that speaks from within their walls.

 

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Florida Fun

Since our last post at the Edison/Ford Winter Estates, we have covered a lot of ground.  We spent a couple of days at Dunedin, going to Honeymoon Island one day and to one of our favorite lunch spots…Kelly’s For Just About Anything…the next. After that, we spent a day in Lakeland, where we were able to catch our first-ever spring training game!  My beloved Detroit Tigers were taking on the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

  

Any day that I can see Miguel Cabrera play baseball is a good day.  🙂   To add some excitement,  J.D. Martinez hit a home run over the center field wall with one of the most perfect swings I’ve ever seen.  The Tigers looked very good, ending the day with a 3-0 shutout win.  I am very hopeful that this will be a good year for the team.

Following Lakeland, we spent four days back at Recreation Plantation near The Villages.  

  

 

While there, we caught up with Diana’s brother and our niece and her family.  We also drove up to Gainesville, as we wanted to see Devil’s Millhopper State Park.  We had read about this place on several blogs, so we drove an hour and a half north to see it.  Unfortunately, we found out when we got there that it was closed on Monday and Tuesday. Hmmmm…we have never heard of a state park being closed on ANY day of the week, but we will be sure to put that on our list of things to check before heading out the door next time.  🙂  Moving to Plan B, we drove back to Payne’s Prairie near Micanopy.  This preserve is the huge wildlife area that I-75 bisects between Gainesville and Ocala.

  

 

We wanted to get some mileage in for some upcoming hiking we are planning, so this looked like a good place to start!

  

First we climbed a tower and saw the preserve’s wild horses in the distance. Then we passed through the gate and into the wildlife area.  We only saw horse manure (along with bison scat) on the perimeter road.  Our hike took us about a mile and a half until the trail narrowed and we thought better of trying to go any further. The signs warn of alligators and snakes. There were also plenty of red ant hills to avoid.

Our next stop was for one night at a favorite place of ours: Golden Acres Ranch near Monticello, Florida.

  

You may recall our Harvest Hosts post from a year ago that can be accessed here.  This stay was just as nice as the last, although the many Guineafowl weren’t quite as vocal as our previous visit.  We purchased more of their amazing Mayhaw jelly as a thank you for letting us stay.  🙂

  

They sure are funny looking birds!

  

 

The Great Pyranees dogs were happy to see us!

From there we drove to the Pensacola area.  We stayed in a little campground in Holt named Eagle’s Landing.  It was neat as a pin and it had great wifi.  I was able to use it to finish our taxes, so that made us happy campers!  We also drove out to Fort Pickens and met up with our friend Diane, who was down from Michigan visiting her daughter and grandchildren.  You may recall we had lunch with her and her husband Terry earlier this winter in Orlando. This day, she brought the boys out to the fort, as they like to explore the tunnels and passageways.

  

It’s always good to see them!

Fort Pickens sits at the entrance to Pensacola Bay.  We were drawn here by a series of recent posts by fellow blogger, Wandering Dogs.  The white sand of the surrounding Gulf Islands National Seashore looked like snow in Beth’s post, and we had to see it for ourselves.

  

It was in service from 1834 to 1947, and was occupied by Union troops throughout the U.S. Civil War. The Apache chief Geronimo was held here during the Indian Wars from October 1886 to May 1887. 21.5 million bricks were used to build the structure, and a major portion of it was destroyed by an 1899 fire that reached a magazine, resulting in a massive explosion.

  

The wind and rain are slowly taking their toll on the remaining sections of the fort.

  

Not only does the sand look like snow, it drifts like it!  

Sea level rise will most likely bring about the fort’s ultimate demise, as the barrier island it sits on already is seeing closures during high surf events. Campers have been stranded in the campground near the fort recently, and this road has been flooded several times over the past few years.

With our visit to Fort Perkins complete, we headed west out of Florida.  Thinking back to all of the places we’ve visited, we realize just how large the state is. Tallying up our miles, we covered over 1600 miles with the RV. That doesn’t include our trip to St. Augustine, our drive to Port Charlotte to see Diana’s cousin, our day at Cape Canaveral, our drive to Tampa for the RV show, or the trip to see my sister and brother-in-law in Bonita Springs…all which were done with the Escape.  That was an additional 2000 miles. To put that in perspective, we could have traveled from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Flagstaff, Arizona and back and not have covered that many miles! Even though we have visited Florida many times in the past, we discovered a multitude of places that were new to us. It has left us wanting more, and we look forward to returning soon!

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Flamingo – Everglades National Park

“Progress came and took it’s toll – and in the name of flood control,

They made their plans and they drained the land – now the glades are going dry.”

John Anderson – Seminole Wind

Driving around the urban and agricultural areas of southeast Florida, it didn’t take long to realize that most of the land we were on was once part of the Everglades.  All of the farmland west of Miami was once part of the river of grass.  Even Miami International Airport was once home to gators, anhingas and sawgrass.  The maze of canals diverting the water coming out of Lake Okeechobee is staggering.  The Everglades we see today are but a small percentage of what existed prior to the 20th century….and the fresh water entering the current version of the glades is for the most part controlled by man.  Couple that with rising sea levels and salinity, it is easy to see that this fragile ecosystem is truly endangered.  Perhaps not ‘dry’, in the literal sense of the word, but certainly different from what it once was.

On the one hand, visiting the park left me with a sense of uneasiness for treading on the remaining portion of the Everglades.  But if you remember what I said about my preconceived notions regarding the ‘swamp’, I realize just how important it is for us to see this place firsthand.  On our trip into the lower glades to Flamingo on Sunday, it quickly became apparent that our visit to Shark Valley was merely an introduction to the novel that the Everglades truly is.

Entering the eastern side of the park from the city of Homestead, we stopped at the Coe Visitor Center.  Information on everything the National Park Service offers regarding the park is available there.  From Coe, we stopped at the Royal Palm Visitor Center.  This location is more about the attached trails than being a ‘visitor’ center, per se.

  
The first thing you notice are all these blue tarps on the cars.  It turns out that the vultures in the area have developed a taste for rubber windshield seals and wipers.

  
I pulled this photo from the web.  While we didn’t see any vultures munching on cars while we were there, we didn’t want to chance it.  We tarped the Ford.  🙂

The first of two paths we explored was the Anhinga Trail.

  
This beauty was poised along the side, smiling for the camera.  One interesting thing we found out about alligators is that while their bite can exert a tremendous amount of force, their muscles that open their jaws are quite weak.  Good to know if you ever find yourself in a wrestling match with one.  🙂

  

These bromeliad airplants were nestled in the branches of one of the trees along the trail. They are not attached to the tree; they merely use it for support.

  

Further down the path, I spotted this Morning Glory.

  

This Red-bellied turtle was checking out the tourists.

  

There were several Anhingas along the path.  This one was drying off after a morning swim.

  

A couple of birders we met identified this as an Eastern Phoebe.

The other trail in this area is the Gumbo-Limbo trail.

  

This stand of trees was decimated by Hurricane Andrew’s 150 mile per hour winds in 1994.  It has since rebounded nicely.

  

The path is named for the Gumbo-Limbo trees that grow here.  This unique tree is often referred to as the Tourist tree, as it sports a sunburned appearance.  It was used for a variety of purposes, from carousel horses to medicinal salves.

From Royal Palm, we drove 35 miles straight out to Flamingo.

   
This is where the river of grass meets Florida Bay.  There were thousands of birds on the tidal flats.

  

We spotted these American White Pelicans amongst the bunch.  These are some of the largest birds in North America, similar in size to Trumpeter Swans and California Condors.

   

 

There are several camping options available at Flamingo, including this nice trailer loop.  There is also a small visitor center.

  

This is a Swallow-tail Kite.  Tough photo to take, as they move really fast!

From Flamingo, we worked our way back, stopping at most of the overlooks and trails along the way.  We were hoping to see some Roseate Spoonbills…which we did not…but we did see plenty of other birds!

  

A Great White Egret, looking for something in the tall grass.

  

An Osprey hanging out in it’s nest.

 

I’m fairly sure this is a Raven and not a Crow. Definitely not a Patriot, Ram, Bronco … and certainly not a Lion.

  

A couple of Florida Vultures hanging around in the trees.

  A Great Egret in flight.

A big highlight of the day was Pay-Hay-Okee overlook.

  

The unusual name of this place means ‘grass river’…and what better place than this to view the endless miles of sawgrass.  I had difficulty photographing a blade of this unique plant, but here is an image from the web. 

 

It is triangular in structure, with upwards-facing serrations along it’s edges. Moisture is gathered in these serrations, thus feeding the plant.  Be careful…they are sharp!

As we walked down the ramp from the overlook, we heard an owl down in a thicket next to the structure.

  

We peered in and found this Barred Owl.

  
 

We showed it to other visitors on the deck, and everyone was really quiet and respectful of the bird’s space.

If you have never been to the Everglades, we hope you are able to see this fragile ecosystem in the near future.  The diversity of species here is astounding.  It’s amazing the Everglades still exist, with all that mankind has thrown at them in the past century.  Efforts are being made to restore a portion of the historic flow… but there are huge politics in play, so the outcome remains to be seen. We certainly hope the restoration happens.

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Shark Valley – Everglades National Park

Before we came to South Florida, we had the preconceived notion that Everglades National Park was a hot, mosquito infested swamp…somewhere that we would find difficult to visit.  Well, we were pleasantly surprised this last Friday when we visited Shark Valley, the northern portion of Everglades National Park.  As luck would have it, a cold front had swept through the area on Thursday and brought the region low humidity and temperatures in the high 60’s. Insects were few and far between. Perfect weather to go for a 14.7 mile bike ride into the heart of the glades!

The name ‘Shark Valley’ is somewhat deceiving.  There are no sharks in the freshwater of the Everglades; the name comes from the Shark River Slough, the large body of slow moving water coming down out of Lake Okeechobee.  The valley is all of 10 feet deeper than the Atlantic and Gulf ridges to the east and west.  The Everglades are not swampland, but rather a shallow river of clear, fresh water flowing over a limestone base from north to south.  While they were once much larger…extensive portions were drained and developed…they still are massive.  They are also quite diverse in their fauna, ranging from sawgrass to tall pine trees.  Surprisingly, there were very few palm trees.

The National Park Service operates a tram along the Shark Valley Tram Trail….a 15 mile asphalt loop road that runs south from US-41 into the middle of the park.  They also rent bicycles and allow walkers on the trail.  We decided to take advantage of the great weather and check it out with our TerraTrikes!  It is advised to arrive early, as we got there just after noon and were subject to a half hour ‘one car in/one car out’ wait.

  

Diana took the lead and kept an eye out for alligators.  It’s one thing to be standing up and looking down at them, but we were a lot closer to their level with our recumbents!

  

It wasn’t long before we saw the first one.  A ranger told us to never pass between their head and the water, as that is their escape.  He didn’t need to tell us twice.  🙂

  

We quickly started seeing other wildlife, such as this Great Blue Heron.  What appears to be grasslands from ground level is actually mostly water, which can be easily seen from the air.

  

We spotted this tortoise along the side of the trail.

   

Yet another gator laying in the grass.  At one point, I stopped to view a turtle, so Diana stopped and began pushing her trike back with her feet.  Her gears made a clicking sound that evidently scared a gator that was hiding in some tall grass, just out of our view.  It jumped into the water with a huge splash. That really got our heart rates going!

  

Diana spotted this colorful Bull thistle.  We saw several wildflowers in bloom throughout the trip.

Near the southern end of the trail, an observation tower rises above the Everglades.  

  

As we approached, we had to go through a fair amount of water over the path.  This runoff was actually flowing across the road, as this part of Florida has had a lot of rain this year.

  

While parking the trikes, we noticed this big alligator sizing up all of the tourists.  :). Actually, only one person has been attacked by a gator in Shark Valley since it opened in the 1940’s…a young Brazilian boy who fell off his bike into the canal near the visitor’s center.  His mother jumped in and rescued him by prying the reptile’s mouth open.  While that was an unfortunate accident, we are continually amazed at how some people tempt fate by posing with creatures like this.

  

As we started up the tower, we noticed this American Crocodile.  Notice the narrower snout.  Alligators have a much wider spread between their nostrils. The Florida Everglades are the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators co-exist in the same habitat.  We were lucky to see this one, as they are endangered and it is rare to see them in the wild.

  

Here I am near the base of the tower.

  

The concrete structure rises above the valley and gives a great view of the surrounding landscape.  The upper portion is closed off, most likely for safety reasons.

  

Looking back north, you are able to see the road we had just biked on.

  

 
To the east, south and west, there is wilderness as far as the eye can see!  While most national parks showcase stunning geographical features, Everglades National Park was the first to be established to protect and display the vast ecosystem. It is the third largest park in the Lower 48, behind Yellowstone and Death Valley.

After we were done at the tower, we returned on the curvier eastern side of the loop road.

  

It wasn’t too long before this Great White Egret flew in front of us.

  

We passed this partially submerged gator.

  

Here is a White Ibis in flight.

  

We also saw plenty of hammocks, which appeared to be islands in the glades.  What we found out was that they are actually deeper water than the surrounding landscape.  When the Everglades dry up in the hot summer, these deeper areas are able to support tree growth.  A change of mere inches can cut short the life of a tree, as has happened to the trees in the foreground.

  

As we neared the end of the trail, this Anhinga stood by the side of the road, drying its wings.  He didn’t move at all as we slowly passed by.

If you ever get a chance to visit Shark Valley, be sure to do so.  It’s a great way to spend a day!

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