Category Archives: Texas

Return to Austin

It was the summer of 1982.  Diana and I were newly married, I graduated from college and we headed off to Austin, Texas for a metal shop teaching job I was hired for.  Work was scarce in Michigan in those days.  The job didn’t pan out and we returned to the Midwest, but we always hoped to return to Austin for a visit someday.  Diana’s cousin Nancy and her husband David lived there (and still do), so we had a good reason to come back.  Who knew it was going to take 34 years?

In 1982, Austin was just starting to see some of the growth that has since exploded in Travis County.  Nice houses were starting to pop up in the hills west of town, but the entire place was still pretty laid back.  We rented a little two bedroom house on the north side of the city.

  

The house is still there!  Not sure why the lawn isn’t mowed, as the house itself appears to be in good shape.  The ‘north side of town’ has turned into the middle of town, as Austin has expanded so much.  I checked the price estimate online and it is appraised at $285,000!  My, how things have changed.  

Nancy and David had us over for dinner to their place the day we got there.  Their son Robert and daughter-in-law Tasia brought their children for us to meet.  Also, Nancy’s nephew Ben (Diana’s second cousin) and his wife Sara came over with their new baby boy.

  

It sure was great to see everyone!

  

Diana and I both got our chance to snuggle with the little guy!

During the few months we lived in Austin, there were a few unique places we had checked out that we wanted to see again. One was the Capitol building.

  

This beautiful pink granite edifice was designed by Elijah E. Myers, who also designed the Michigan and Colorado State Capitols.  If you zero in on the statue at the top, you will see that she is holding a lone star.

  

Inside the rotunda, there’s that Lone Star again, up there in the dome!

 Another place we visited back in the day was Hippie Hollow.  Diana had asked at her job for places to check out.  So we drove out to this place on Lake Travis…out in the middle of nowhere… and found a gravel pull off that several people were picnicking at.  Diana was trying to figure out how we were going to swim there as you had to climb down a cliff to get to the water when she exclaimed, “That girl doesn’t have a top on!”  I said, “Honey, you are the only girl here with a top on!”  Well, we weren’t into nude sunbathing, so we left.  Fast forward to this year, and we were driving down a very busy road in the hills.  All of a sudden, we see one of the brown highway signs that indicates a county park…saying Hippie Hollow!

  

Lo and behold, it is now a county park.  I like the little “no bikini” symbol on the sign.  :). No one will ever accuse Austin of not being progressive.

Next up was another place Diana had found out about from coworkers…the Dry Creek Cafe and Boat Dock.  Again, this place was way out in the sticks. Back then, it was owned by none other than Sarah Ransom, affectionately known as the meanest bartender in Austin.

  

Cigarette hanging out of her mouth with a one inch ash drooping off the end, she served up longnecks and nothing else.  There was no cafe, nor was there a boat dock.  There was two levels to the place, with a jukebox serving up Willie, Waylon, and Merle. The draw was the sunset over Lake Austin that could be seen from the upper back deck.  The cars in the lot ranged from pickups to BMW’s.  None of that mattered to Sarah, as she would bark at you “ya take ’em up, ya bring ’em back down”, referring to the beers she was serving you.  And if you didn’t bring it back down, you weren’t getting another beer until you went back up and retrieved your empty.

Well, Sarah passed in 2006, after more than 50 years of owning Dry Creek.  Giant mansions started to spring up around the place, but her son has hung onto it.

  

We pulled in and it was like a time warp.  Luckenbach, Texas was coming out of the jukebox, the longnecks were cold, and the cases for the empties were open and ready for us to bring ’em back down.

  

The trees have grown up behind the deck, so the sunsets aren’t quite as visible…

  

…but the company was as great as the last time I was here.  🙂   As we pondered as to how different our lives would have been if we’d stayed in Austin, we both agreed that we’ve done ok for ourselves, finished our drinks and brought ’em back down.

Sarah would be pleased.  🙂

Big Bend N.P. – The Desert

One of the first things we did when we arrived at Big Bend was to go to the Visitor Center at Panther Junction.  We always feel that it is a good idea to do that at any park, just to get the lay of the land.  After speaking with the ranger about the trails, wildlife concerns and such, we watched the movie about Big Bend.  In that movie, they summarized Big Bend as desert, mountains, and river.  What a great way to organize our posts on this vast wilderness! 

Today we begin with the Chihuahuan Desert.  This expanse covers 140,000 square miles of western Texas, southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico and northern Mexico.

  

Being from the midwestern United States, I was amazed at how much plant life was growing out of what appeared to be hard packed gravel.  We really enjoyed walking through the arid landscape and identifying the different plant species.

In the southwestern portion of the park is the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive.  We explored this road on Sunday, April 3. As the road meanders towards Santa Elena Canyon and the Rio Grande River, it passes a couple of ranches that were here before the park was established in 1944.

  

This is the Homer Wilson ranch.  Once the largest ranching operation in the region, all that remains are a few buildings and a corral.

Not too far down the road is the Sam Nail ranch.

  

Sam and his brother Jim worked this land with Sam’s wife Nena.  Not much is left here but a couple of windmills…one of which is still working and pumping water…and the remains of the house.

  

The ranch sits in a low spot in a valley, and the trees growing in the irrigated soil make a cool oasis.  The blooming honey mesquite bushes that surround the ranch were teeming with bees, and the buzzing from their wings filled the air.

 
After following the drive to the river, we came back the Old Maverick Road.  This was 17 miles of dusty, rutted gravel road, and the Escape took it on like a champ!

  

I was busy watching the road, but Diana spotted this jackrabbit resting in the shade.  She has the eyes of a hawk when it comes to spotting animals!  🙂

On Monday, we hiked to Cattail Falls with Diana’s cousin Nancy and her husband David.  A friend of Nancy’s from Austin, Margaret, was also here visiting Big Bend and joined us on the hike.

  

While the park service doesn’t advertise this hike on the map or trail guide (due to the fragile ecosystem at the end), the trail is well marked at the beginning.

  

The trail winds through desert landscape for over a mile through the foothills of the Chisos Mountains.  

  

Here I am at the end of the trail, scrambling up the rocks to see the payoff.

  

This is where the waterfall normally is.  Even though there was just a trickle of water coming off the mountain, the drainage was lush with vegetation.  The shade from the trees was welcome relief from the hot sun.

On Tuesday, we met up with Nancy and David for a hike up to Grapevine Hills and Balanced Rock.

  

This path leads out through the desert for two miles, and is a fairly easy hike until the end.

  

The last 1/4 mile is up this outcropping to Balanced Rock.

  

Nancy and David, surveying the surrounding landscape.

  

We even had a lizard join us for this climb!

  

And here is Balanced Rock!  Diana and Nancy are giving it a little help, just in case.  🙂

After we returned to the trailhead, we made the journey to Dagger Flats.  This is more of a drive than a hike, but it features a wide variety of desert flora. A $1 guidebook at the beginning of the trail identifies the plants on this drive.

  

Here is a nice example of a Strawberry Pitaya.  When blooming, this cactus features magenta blooms on the ends of the spines.

  

The yellow blooms on the Huisache were in full swing.

  

The Ocotillo were sporting their red blooms, but had yet to show their green leaves on their branches.

  

There were several Thomson’s Yucca along the drive.

  

This is the marker plant for the Chihuahuan desert, the Lechuguilla. This member of of the agave family can only be found here.

  

At the end of the drive is an impressive stand of Giant Dagger yuccas.  When blooming, these plants sport a showy cream plumage from the top.

  

Here is some of the wildlife the ranger had told us to be concerned about.  I think they referred to this species as the Maximus Davidus.  🙂

  

Not to worry, as Nancy found another type of Giant Dagger!

Every national park seems to have a town nearby that visitors flock to after a day of exploring.  Big Bend’s version of Bar Harbor and Gatlinburg is Terlingua Ghost Town.

  

While there are a few shops here, there’s  not the wall-to-wall crowds that are usually seen in national park border towns.

  

Terlingua has one of the most weathered cemeteries we had ever seen.  Most folks here died from disease, mercury mining accidents, or gunfights.

  

And the town is home to the Starlight Theatre.  This restaurant/bar is named after the incredible night sky that puts on a show most nights over the region.

  

We ate here three times over the course of the week.  With there being so few choices for places to eat out here, we were thankful that their food was good and atmosphere is fun.

That wraps up the desert portion of our Big Bend adventure.  Next up is the mountains!

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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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Thar’s a reason they call it Junction, pardner…

Junction, Texas is a charming community with a western vibe.  Located in the hill country a few hours northwest of San Antonio, the town sits just to the south of Interstate 10.  Founded in 1876, the town was named for being the place where the north and south branches of the Llano River meet.  It is the seat of Kimble County, but it has a laid back, cowboy feel to it that belies its official status. Not a lot of famous folks come from Junction, other than Coke Stevenson (35th Governor of Texas) and Les Cox, who went 0-1 in the two games he pitched in for the 1926 Chicago White Sox.

We not only found Junction to be a meeting place for two rivers, but also a meeting place for several members of our RV-Dreams family.  When I sent out a Facebook post showing that we were in Port Arthur, Tracy contacted me to arrange a meetup with her and her husband Lee. She is a fellow blogger and RV-Dreamer. We had been in contact through our blogs, the RV-Dreams forum, and on Facebook over the past year or so. We went to separate RV-Dreams rallies in 2014, so we had never met in person. We had reservations at Morgan Shady RV Park, and it worked out that Lee and Tracy were able to land there the night before us. 

  
What a great meeting it was!  We immediately hit it off, sharing stories of how we got to where we are now.  Tracy made a yummy spaghetti dinner and salad for us, which was a thoughtful touch after a day on the road.  🙂

  
The two of them telling the story of how they became fulltime RVers was entertaining and had us cracking up!  🙂

Tracy’s Camper Chronicles blog is an honest view into the emotional aspects of these two empty nester’s lives as they take to the road.  Anyone who has done what we are doing will tell you straight up that while it may seem that we are on a constant vacation, the minutiae of life still happens.  People still get sick and have to find health care, have to get their hair cut, pay bills, grocery shop….each time having to find a new place to do those things.  Tracy really does a marvelous job of showing all sides of the journey…from the joys of new discoveries to the pain of major vehicle issues.  Definitely worth the effort to peruse her work, if you haven’t already.

After Lee and Tracy left on Wednesday morning, we met up with fellow Fall 2014 RV-Dreamers, Keith and Jeanne.  They were headed west to Fort Stockton and stopped for lunch.

  
This charming couple was camped next to us for a week during the rally, and we had been hoping to be able to meet them again on the road.  Lo and behold, that took place at the Junction Sonic.  🙂   Jeanne had noticed that we were in Texas through the blog and reached out to us by email.

  
We sat out front at Sonic so their dog Umber could be with us.  We had to get our doggie fix.  🙂   We talked for over two hours!  It was great to see them and to know they are both doing well.

  
After lunch, we returned to Morgan Shady and walked the park.

  
It’s a quaint little campground, and the ‘shady’ comes from the many pecan trees that grace the property.

It was at that point that we received a message from another RV-Dreamer couple, Pam and Red.  Like Lee and Tracy, they attended the Spring 2014 rally.  They are near Junction, working on a relative’s house.  We’ve never met, so we decided to clear that little detail up!  We couldn’t make it happen this stay, but we will be returning to Junction soon and are going to get to know them at that time.  We never knew when we attended that rally in Goshen, Indiana that we would develop so many friendships on the road….or that so many of them would be nurtured in Junction, Texas!
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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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Shangri La Botanical Gardens

Moving west out of Florida, we drove through Alabama and Mississippi in quick succession.  After spending a few nights in Livingston, Louisiana, we headed to Port Arthur, Texas.  We found the Beaumont/Port Arthur/Orange tri-cities area to be very industrial, with most of the business centered on oil production and refining.  While the port cities are an important cog in the big American wheel, they are not exactly what we would call a naturally inviting place to spend a few days.  But our campground was decent, so we thought we would check the area out.  A lot of famous people are from this region:  Singers Janis Joplin, Mark Chesnutt, Tracy Byrd, George Jones, Clay Walker, and Edgar & Johnny Winter are from here.  Athletes Babe Zaharias, Bubba Smith, Frank Robinson, Bruce Lietzke, and Detroit Lions standouts Mel Farr (superstar!) and Jerry Ball all hail from the area.  Surely there must be something more than oil here.  We set out to look for a little culture and nature.

The first place we went to was Cattail Swamp, in search of the elusive roseate spoonbill.  This area is actually a man made retention area that is the last step of the town’s sewage treatment plant.  We had to pass through a gate that had a sign that said “Warning: Aggressive Alligators”.  Hmmm….the ones we saw in the Everglades seemed pretty content, perhaps these weren’t as happy with their surroundings.  :). We stayed for a few minutes and saw a fair amount of birds and ducks, but no spoonbills or ticked-off gators.  Diana had another place that we could check out, and it ended up being a winner!

Shangri La Botanical Gardens is a privately owned preserve in Orange, Texas.  H.J. Lutcher Stark, a local business leader, began the gardens in 1942. It is now overseen by he and his wife’s foundation.  The gardens are a member of the American Horticultural Society’s Reciprocity Program, so we toured for free using our Meijer Gardens membership. It was a great way to get out and stretch our legs after a morning of doing paperwork.

  

The entrance to the grounds was very inviting.  It is interesting to note that this facility is the first in Texas to achieve LEED Platinum status, the highest level possible through the U.S. Green Building Council.  This area contains a wetlands demonstration garden; a series of ponds that take in water from an adjacent lake and filter the waterfowl waste from it.  It demonstrates how man-made wetlands can have a positive impact on nature.

  

The grounds were planted in more of a formal pattern than was the case at McKee Botanical Garden in Vero Beach, Florida. Most of the major plants were well identified.  

  

This Stephanie Dwyer sculpture, Dancing Sisters, marks the entrance to the interactive children’s garden.

  

Shangri La also has a series of greenhouses.  This one was featuring Easter lillies, which were also present in other areas of the gardens. It definitely smelled like spring!

  

This greenhouse featured orchids.

  

Diana really liked this yellow variety…or, since we are in Texas, this Amirillo variety!

Two of the greenhouses were also set up to feature their current butterfly exhibition.  Three varieties were present:

  

The Monarch…

  

…the Julia…

  

…and the Zebra Longwing.

  

Look at the bloom on this red Hibiscus!

From there, we followed the trail into the outdoor portion of the gardens.  

  

This turtle lineup was there to greet us.  🙂

David Rogers series of wooden sculptures entitled Big Bugs currently are featured in the outdoor gardens.

  

Yikes!  A 15 foot high Praying Mantis!

  

This is an Assasin Bug.

  

Here is a parade of three giant ants headed our way!

On our way out, Diana spotted a flash of wings to our left, as a large bird landed in a tree.  

 

Turns out it was a hawk.  He stuck around long enough for me to get a photo of him.  🙂

We really enjoyed our time at Shangri La Botanical Gardens.  If you find yourself in the Greater Beaumont area, be sure to check it out. We also can’t say enough about the value of the American Horticultural Society’s reciprocity program, both for us and for the participating gardens. We’ve seen a lot of places we might not otherwise have chosen to see, and the venues are able to showcase themselves to visitors from other areas of the country. Shangri La certainly was a bit of paradise in this very industrial area.

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