Friday, February 26, 2010

Texas Haircut

I’ve always enjoyed small town barber shops -- usually the price is right and it’s fun to go through the “who are you, stranger?” grilling. Yesterday, feeling a bit shaggy, I asked the operator of the laundromat in Three Rivers, Texas where I could get a haircut -- and was not looking for a “foo-foo styling outfit.” She gave me directions to a little one-room operation not far away -- where a retired barber (over 80 years old) cuts hair in a little annex off his house.

I drove into his narrow drive, parked behind a Texas pickup, and walked into a museum of Texas artifacts -- and attitudes. The guy in the chair was over 80 as well and they were talking “Obamacare” and how their Medicare was going go get cut to pay for abortions, etc. You get the picture: right out of Rush, Glen Beck, and the rest of the wing-nuts. They went on for a bit and I just glanced at a year-old magazine and bit my tongue. Bubba, a local pipeline guy, came in with his pressed jeans and clean shirt -- dressed for town. He joined right in but pretty soon, at one point saying, “I don’t know anyone who voted for him -- it’s all those kids and Easterners.” I decided that a political debate would get nowhere and kept quiet; soon the subject changed to some local writer who wrote about the area.

The shop was amazing in decor -- if you are into stuffed animals. Several big deer heads, a javelina, a bobcat, and a few other critters lined the little space. A Colt 45 was in a case, with a Bowie knife, and all sorts of old posters and paraphernalia. The background music was country/western (big surprise) and the old boy did a good job cutting hair. We talked a little about gas/oil leases, winter Texans (which is what they call snowbirds down here), and where I could get an oil change for the truck.He did the whole nine yards: shave around the edges, lotion, powder, and all for seven bucks.

I told them that our daughter was born over in Beeville, Texas. I didn’t bother to tell them that she’s a MA liberal who works for the American Friends Service. They knew I was from Vermont -- it would be fun to have a tape of the conversation once I left the place. Texas is a red state -- and man, from everything I’ve heard down here, won’t be changin’ anytime soon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hunkered Down

A cold front with cold rain and wind is hitting us -- after a stretch of nice weather. This is a day to find some wifi at the local library and pay some bills. We drove yesterday from the border up to Choke Canyon State Park -- which is a big reservoir which provides water for Corpus Christi.
This place is teeming with wildlife -- as you can see from the 8-pointer who just stared at us as we drove by. It’s an iPhone photo so we were close.

I had a chance to see the rare Northern Jacana which has been hanging around for a few weeks -- and used the spotting scope of a fellow birder to get a good look. I had the glasses on him when he flew with a wonderful flashing of yellow flight feathers. (Mary & I saw him up close this morning)

The interior of the Airstream stays toasty but the condensation builds up on windows and doors on days like this. Penny is sacked out on the couch beside me, snoring away. She has a bunny out back which has caught her interest and I think she’s chasing it as her legs move in doggy dreams.

We’re back in the land of TV in English, having only had two Spanish stations down at Falcon. However, whether in Spanish or English, it’s all pretty mindless. We are fortunate to get a public broadcasting station for our Newshour fix. Between blogs and Huffpost, we keep up to speed on the iPhones. I read the Times-Argus and Brattleboro Reformer online to stay up with VT issues.

Off to the big town of Three Rivers which doesn’t have much but does have a library and laundromat -- the essentials of life for Airstream (and other RV) owners.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Vermont anymore

 Going to bed, listening to coyotes and the constant humming of oil/gas extraction nearby.  The lights of Mexican towns glitter across the reservoir.  What a contrast to Vermont -- although we’ve had a couple of rainy days, the prickly pear and yucca cactus and many other thorny plants let us know we are in deep Texas.

Thursday we went down to the Roma library to use their wifi connection.  The room was abuzz in Spanish, making it feel like we were across the border - just a mile away.  Later, at a Walmart in Rio Grande City, we were about the only two anglos out of the hundreds of patrons.  No big deal - and we marvel, as we do in Montreal, of the adroit switching from language to language.  Mary overheard a cellphone discussion by the person next in line who interrupted a steady chatter of Spanish to say, “and you got the shrimp, right?” then switching right back to Spanish.

Yesterday, while out on a walk with Penny, four javelinas sauntered across the road in a line, starting from momma to the youngest.  Then a sharp-shinned hawk wove through the thickets in search of a bird to eat.  And hundreds of grackles and red-winged blackbirds (pests here right now) are hopefully thinking about heading north.

We awoke to a screech owl, cardinals, and mockingbirds.  The forecast today is for mid-seventies.  We can only imagine what August must be like down here.  It’s a foreign land in many ways to us native Vermonters.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Rare Roadside Hawk

As part of my preparation for our SW trip, I joined birder email groups in Tennessee, Louisiana, and Texas. One of the big deals for the last ten days has been the roadside hawk, a rare species from Mexico, that showed up at Falcon State Park.

I’m not that serious a birder, but getting more serious, and that sort of locked in our next destination from Goose Island. This place is right on the Mexico border, next to a big international reservoir, and full of birds and birders. People drive here just to try to see the hawk.

Yesterday was our first day here (it’s a nicely laid-out park filled with Canadians and folks from Wisconsin, Minnesota, and elsewhere north. Very few New Englanders.

I was out walking Penny just after dawn (which comes here late so far west in the Central time zone) when a car stopped and asked me if I knew where the roadside hawk was. I passed on some news I’d heard about possible locations and returned for breakfast. Later that morning, they drove slowly by again -- still no hawk.

A little later, I was talking with our Oklahoma neighbors (who have been coming here for 23 years) when the same car stopped, rolled down the window and reported, “He’s down by the recreation area in the top of a tree.”

I grabbed my binoculars and walked down in that direction. Passing the recreation hall, a young man asked me if I had heard of any hawk sightings and soon he and his parents were walking with me down the road, where up ahead, we saw a small group of birders set up. (It turns out that my companions had driven over from Louisiana just to get to see the bird -- every day a bunch more show up.) Sure enough, the young hawk was sitting in full view in a big bare tree, easily visible by binoculars. I could make out the striping and coloration but when I had a chance to look through a spotting scope, it was even more remarkable. He posed for ten minutes or so and then flew off, not to be seen the rest of the day.Later, while watching birds at a feeding location, Penny suddenly bristled and growled and lo and behold, a javelina sauntered out and started eating dropped bird seed. The iPhone picture doesn’t really capture how close he was.

We are seeing some amazing birds -- most of whom never get up our way. Green jays are spectacular as is the vermillion flycatcher. Today we saw all three orioles resident here: altimira oriole, Audobon oriole, and the hooded oriole. Visiting a sanctuary filled with golden-fronted woodpeckers, Great Kiskadoos, and orioles reminded me of the first time I snorkeled in tropical water. It was sensory overload.

So, Mary and I have given up snow for Lent. But we are reveling in the wonders of this part of our country.

Roadside hawk photo by Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes
Green jay photo by JunCTio

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

‘Gators & Wild Pigs

South Texas has a little bit of everything. We’ve been taking short trips from our Goose Island base -- the other day we went up to Port Aransas to pick up our forwarded mail. It was a rainy blustery day as we lined up to ride the free ferry across the channel. There was a slight delay in leaving and then a long string of barges crossed in front of us. It’s hard to get used to the scale of things here: freight trains are often miles long and barges likewise are long and slow.

Yesterday we visited Aransas National Wildlife Area which is about a 35 mile drive. I don’t think we changed elevation more than ten feet the whole way - that to cross streams - and most of it was straight as an arrow. It was a little like driving from Burlington, VT to Rutland with nothing but flat land all the way. Massive black dirt field lie in wait of spring planting -- and way across them, you could see cars and trucks moving like mirages. I remember these roads from flying here -- it was easy to pick a straight road and line up for a maneuver over it, be it a loop or a simulated landing pattern.

Aransas NWA is internationally-known for wintering Whooping Cranes and all sorts of wildlife. We took one of the drives and part way through it, two deer were beside the road. An Iowa SUV filled with people, stopped dead in the road and just sat there -- seemingly for ever -- taking pictures. Mary & I were fuming. “This isn’t an African safari, folks, we said in the car -- heck, we’ve got deer in the back yard at home.” After a long time, the deer moved, the SUV started crawling along, and I was able to pass. It wasn’t a great start -- but things did get better.

At the observation tower, we saw some pretty spoonbills and white egrets. Mary noted some black things moving in the scrub brush. I at first thought they were bears -- they were the same color and size of black bears -- but when I saw their ears, I knew they were javelinas. First we’ve ever seen -- and it was great to be 100’ above them with Penny asleep in the car.

Returning to the center, we saw some interesting birds: common moorhen, common yellowthroat, coot, etc. Then Mary said, “There are two alligators right there.” And sure enough, as advertised, a couple of pretty good-size gators were just lying there in the swamp -- not moving -- nearly invisible.

Last night, on a long walk with Penny, I watched grey pelicans line up for fish scraps from a guy cleaning fish at the boat ramp. They sat there until he finished a fish and they leaned foreward with a “pick me” attitude as he tossed the goodies to them. A couple of heron gulls hung around looking for extra parts.
The weather is better today -- it’s been a little chilly by South Texas standards. We’ve leaving in the morning for Falcon State park down by the border. Supposed to have some real interesting birds found nowhere else in U.S. It’s forecast in the high seventies down there late next week. We’ll see.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Trailer light gremlins

Our ongoing saga of blown fuses and battery draining continues. My brother Barry and his spouse Mica hooked up with us at Goose Island the other day before they headed west (we have decided to hang around this area for now rather than heading to Big Bend.) Barry is an Airstream whiz, having renovated two old trailers from scratch and working on all the electrical, plumbing, and gas systems. He brought his tools and we spent the afternoon poking, testing, and drawing blanks for solutions.

The trailer running lights come on for about five seconds and then go off when the trailer is hooked up to the truck. We have power from the truck for the lights and traced the line into the trailer into some sort of relay/splitter under the couch. Barry is slim and crawled under the couch with his test light and found that the line going out of the splitter seemed dead. We sort of gave up, buttoned up, and had a nice dinner together. Here's his followup guidance to me:
Just a recap, the green wire into the trailer stays hot to a small box of 4 wires, green out, black, and red. Black wire on box is ground. Red wire is hot, don't know what it is. Green wire out may go to a junction of wires to various running lights. If you can find that junction unhook all wires and start hooking up one at a time to see if you can find the problem. Good luck.
So, for now we don't drive at night. All other lights are working. And the project of sorting out the malfunctions continue. Fortunately, the days are getting longer.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beeville’s changed -- have we?

We took a magically memory trip yesterday up to Beeville, Texas where we lived during flight training. The trip up from Aransas Pass was flat and fast -- 70 mph four-lane with direct access and suddenly-appearing stop signs. We saw fields of elegant windmills slowly turning in the stiff Texas wind.

We spent about nine months in Beeville while I took advanced naval flight training in the F9F Cougar and then a short finish course in the then-hot F-11 Tiger. We carrier-qualified in the F9 and had a blast dog-fighting in the afterburner-equipped Tiger. The goal of this visit was to see if we could find our old residence, the hospital where our daughter Jennifer was born, and the air station. One out of three accomplished!

Beeville is a city of about 15,000 just north of Corpus Christi. We used our GPS mapping on the iPhone to find Rosewood Avenue where we rented during our stay there. We found the street, which seems a little seeder four decades later and took this photo of the house we think we lived in - we weren’t sure of the address.
The hospital was tougher. It was a little adobe-faced country hospital when Jennifer was born. I decided to ask at the big local hospital about it and after a few questions, I found a person in the gift shop who had had a child there a year or two after we left. She told me that it was demolished a while back and that a vacant lot now marked the spot. We talked about how progressive the hospital had been -- Dr. Miller let me observe the delivery of our baby -- and she then led me down the hall to a photo gallery where a picture of that wonderful doctor hung. I took a picture as a memory and it tugged at Mary’s heart when she saw it.

Mary & I found the spot, took a picture of the lot, and then asked at a gas station about directions to the air station. “Oh, that’s a prison system now,” the clerk said. “The Navy pulled out about ten years ago.” Oh well, I was wondering why I hadn’t seen any Navy jets around.

It was a nice trip -- and we weren’t really surprised to see all the changes. We saw a bunch of Crested Cara Caras on the way home and made plans to visit Corpus Christi in the days ahead. It’s pretty cold for this area and good weather to sightsee.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Birder Heaven

Leaving Lake Charles, LA, we joined the trucks and RVs on I-10 heading toward Beaumont, Texas. We had decided not to tackle the Houston traffic, given our trailer’s propensity to blow turn signal fuses, and went north on a series of state roads, seeing some of the not-so-touristy side of the Gulf Coast.

Hardscrabble farms and tired towns, with some bright spots. We stopped to pick up some barbecue at a newly-opened restaurant in Conroe, ate it in the trailer at a vacant store parking lot (while the Vizsla napped in the truck), and motored on to Navasota where we camped at a small municipal site near the airport. A rainy, gusty night, a grubby washateria where Mary did laundry, and an impending flu bug made it a less-than-wonderful experience.

The drive to Goose Island State Park, in Rockport, Texas was easy with lots of straight Texas roads with 70 mph limits. We started to see lots of birds as we approached Aransas Wildlife Refuge and soon were searching for a site at the park - where we had made reservations. (Texas has an interesting process in their state parks -- you can reserve a slot for a date or period but not a site -- so you have to decide once you are there which available site you want.)

We found a nice isolated site surrounded by oaks and thickets and right next to a little bird sanctuary and the showers. We set up on the level site and I promptly got sick for two days -- pretty severe stomach bug. Lots of rest, fluids, and good care from Mary and I made a nice recovery yesterday.

I felt up to participating in Saturday's bird walk -- having missed the two earlier ones -- and was astounded at the variety as well as the knowledge of the volunteer guides. We saw about 45 species including willets, gulls, pelicans, ravens, vultures, ducks, and a white ibis. I don't know birds around the sea very well so it was very informative and just spectacular birding.

We really like this place -- it's a wonderful area. We decided to extend for another week rather than keep traveling. Seems nice to settle for a bit and enjoy the weather and the birding. Yesterday afternoon, we drove over to a field where two whooping cranes are living. There were a half-dozen other birders there -- some armed with monstrous lenses for their cameras. The birds were just regal, standing on one leg, preening themselves, ignoring their watchers. It's hard to believe that they fly down from upper Canada and that there are still only a little over 300 of them alive.

This is a nostalgic area for us. Last night out walking the dog, I was watching the sky full of stars and remembering night flying here, decades ago. I happened to remember a night cross-country where I was returning in a F-9 trainer with an instructor high over Houston and we just went inverted and watched the lights of the streets, parking lots, ball field for a while. I did my advanced flight training here, got my Navy wings here, and our daughter was born in this area. Our son got his USMC wings here as well.

So, we've got more whooping cranes to see at the wildlife center, a visit up to Beeville to find our old house and the hospital and the air station, and hope to meet up with my brother Barry and his wife Mica before they head further west. But the schedule is a vacation schedule -- and all plans are flexible. It's nice. Now I need to find those black-bottomed ducks.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Finally, 60's and WiFi

A week after our start, we finally got 60 degree temperatures and a state park with WiFi. The Louisiana park systems rock -- not only are they wired, they also honor the Golden Passport and charge seniors half price.

We are in Lake Charles, LA after an easy trip from Natchez, MS state park -- which was ok but nothing special. It did give us a chance, in spite of cold temperatures, to de-winterize and get the water system going. We continue to fight nagging electrical problems and drove down to Lake Charles with a dead tailight and turn signal on the Airstream. A fuse change solved that.

We met some serious Airstreams, George & Ruth McNinch of Mississippi, who have a cool 05 with a slide. George helped me troubleshoot our battery charging problem - finding that there is no power to the 12V lead on the plug. I did some research on a Ford F-150 forum and learned that sometimes the factory doesn't include a trailer battery relay (05) plug. After checking with an RV dealer and UHaul, I bought the part this morning, plugged it in, and things seem to work. I don't think the truck ever had the $13 plug -- so stay tuned.

Sam Houston Jones State Park is overrun with deer, racoons, and other critters. Our Vizsla met an armadillo yesterday and went nuts -- nearly dragging me across the road to see it. This morning, eight deer were right out behind the Airstream.

The birding is great although there are almost too many for a novice birder like me. I have added about five to my lifelist but will never, without help, figure out the dozens of warblers. We took a short hike today with the dog and Mary really enjoyed seeing her first red-headed woodpecker. Lots of them around here along with sapsuckers.

I took the mountain bike out today with the Springer attachment and gave Penny a good run on the park roads. She's snoring away on the couch as I type -- tuckered her out.

I ran today in shorts and singlet for the first time in many months. Tomorrow, we leave for a small city park in Navasota, TX enroute to Goose Island, then Mustang Island, then Padre Island.