Sunday, March 28, 2010

No Smiley Face from McDonald's

Throughout our trip to the Southwest, we were careful about cornering and getting caught in tight spaces with the Airstream. Many a time, we passed up a gas station because it looked too tight to get in and out of the pumps. Anyone who pulls a trailer or drives a big rig knows: you've got select your food and gas stops a little more carefully.

We did very well until the last day of the trip. We'd found that McDonald's for coffee often worked well -- the coffee is passable and there is usually room to park the truck trailer. Well, we pulled of I-81 north of Scranton at a little burg called Clarks Summit, which has a strip with many of the ubiquitous service and food outfits. We saw a McDonald's and after a tough left turn, pulled in. We parked and I could see right away that it was a mistake -- there was no exit on the "drive-around" side.

To cut to the chase -- after getting some breakfast, we carefully circumnavigated around the facility and made a sharp turn out to the access road. Too sharp, as it turned out. When we got home, we noticed paint down the right side of the Airstream. We never heard a thing but Mary remembered seeing a pole over there as we left.

So, once the weather is warmer, it will be time to take out the lacquer thinner (which seems to work) and get the blemish removed, or at least looking better. It sort of matches a crease the former owner put on the other side. I'm glad it is a 1999 Airstream and not a 2009 model. It's a little road rash but we'll see how it turns out when cleaned up, washed, and polished. Just another item on the "to do" list for this Spring.
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Friday, March 19, 2010

Wal*Mart -- Tough Love

As a Vermonter and a “buy local” advocate, I’ve always had a dislike of Wal*Mart. Their politics are too red, their treatment of employees is less than stellar, and their gaffes (firing a guy for medical marijuana - telling all “black people” to leave the store) just don’t seem to stop. The company, worth more than many smaller nations of the world, has centers and stores in virtually any city of size in the U.S. That’s bad news for downtowns and small merchants -- it’s good news for travelers.

Yes, having spent two months on the road, I have a new appreciation of the attractiveness of this giant corporation. I’ve blown dust off cans of vegetables in small groceries, been appalled at the lack of healthy food -- even whole wheat bread -- and struggled to find spare parts in local hardware stores. On the other hand, with Wal*Mart, which is everywhere, we can get Cabot Cheese and Stonyfield yogurt in Texas or Louisiana, find Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and fresh produce, and use clean restrooms. They layouts are fairly standard so you know right away where the auto parts are, where the pet food is, and don’t have to orient yourself each time just to find skim milk.
Another big issue is parking -- when you are pulling an Airstream, the expansive parking lots are welcome. Wal*Mart, to their credit, allows RV’s to park overnight. This is a big deal when you are traveling and just needing a safe place to rest for a bit. Sure, you deal with bright lights and traffic noise but it’s safe, free, and available all over the country.

It is depressing to see roadsides and fields littered with white plastic bags -- many of them from Wal*Mart. As a birdwatcher, more than once I’ve spotted a white object in a tree, on a cactus, on a body of water -- and of course, it’s not a cattle egret or snowy egret -- it’s trash. Wal*Mart adds to the problem through their "bag everything that isn't walking" approach although one could argue that people who litter will toss whatever container/bag they have.

So, back in Vermont, we will buy our coffee from Capitol Grounds in Montpelier, our meat from the local co-op, and shop locally for essentially everything. But we now have a new appreciation, whether we like to admit it or not, for the cleanliness, the lower prices, and the good inventory of the ubiquitous Wal*Mart network. They will likely be key elements of our future road travel -- outside Vermont.
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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Come On Baby - Don't Light My Fire

Stepping out of the Airstream at seven this morning to walk the dog, I noticed a neighbor at the nearly-deserted Tennessee campground stirring his campfire and adding wood. What's with this fascination with wood fires? Last night, several groups sat around in lawn chairs, wearing parkas, staring at their campfires. It was 45 degrees out.

I've studied the fire habits of folks in campgrounds throughout the Southwest -- and am still amazed at the efforts folks go to. The state campgrounds in Texas are denuded of firewood and camp hosts sell bundles. Lots of folks bring it with them, even though it's prohibited. I saw a big motor home the other day with a half-cord of split wood in a side compartment.

The Texas bass fisherman at Choke Canyon probably win the prize. They put their money into big bass boats so most of them tent camp. They have roaring bonfires and laugh and drink half the night -- and aren't the best neighbors.

The Louisiana fisherman we saw a few days ago are also pretty avid. They camp in clusters of motorhomes/trailers and between the lights hanging up and the roaring fires, it looks like broadway. Country music wailing and loud talk complete the scene -- fortunately we were parked far away.

A Louisiana guy told me that he'd camped at our site earlier -- and had left me some firewood. I told him, "I heat with wood all winter -- so we don't do campfires." He understood.

So, no smoky clothes in the Airstream. I suspect, once we get the grandkids to come along, we'll be back at the fire, 'smores, and scary story scene again. Till then, we'll leave the firewood for others and admire their work ... from afar.

Photo by wili_hybrid

Friday, March 12, 2010

On Turning 70

One of the reasons for this Southwest adventure was to celebrate the fact that we were both turning 70 this year -- and sure enough, like clockwork, I did so on March 9th. (MRM has months & months to go.) It was a wonderful day -- perhaps the best we’ve had climate-wise and relaxation-wise.

We’re at the Sam Houston National Forest, about 40 miles north of Houston, surrounded by tall pine trees. After the onslaught of kids last weekend at our last site, it’s nice to have peace and quiet and few campers. We leave tomorrow for a couple of state parks in Louisiana as we start the trek northeastward.

Frankly, I’m still a bit surprised to be seventy. I remember years ago in Syracuse, when I was doing a lot of road racing in my early forties, knowing some of the “ old farts” who plodded along toward the end of the pack. I admired them, wrote a couple of magazine articles about one of them -- and now find that I’m one of them. It is a new age group -- always one perk of turning a new decade for runners, skiers, paddlers, etc.

I got a nice early birthday present here: I added the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered bird, to my life list. This forest is one of a few in the south that supports this bird, which needs specially-managed pine habitats to survive. They nest in living pine trees and are rather rare. I knew they were around here, but scarce -- and was advised that early morning and dusk were the best times to try to see them.

There’s a place with some known nests about a mile from here so I went up on Monday night to take a look. It was showery and I had the Vizsla with me -- not exactly great birding conditions. After spending some time traipsing around and dodging showers, and seeing nothing, I decided to try a bird call from my iPhone. (I don’t like to do this because I’ve heard that it can confuse the birds but thought -- this is probably the only time I’ll be here...) Well, no sooner had I played the call from the iBird app when two woodpeckers repeated it. I was astounded -- and saw one fly by and then saw another one land on a pine tree not far away. I got a great look -- the bird is sort of like a downy woodpecker without the white on the back. It matched the drawings I’d studied and of course, the call was also the same. I was psyched. I’d stepped on the dog’s leash and she was patient as I watched the woodpecker for 10 minutes or more.

My birthday started, as most of our days do, early. We had coffee and yogurt in our separate beds reading email, blogs, and news feeds on our iPhones. (I wonder how many 70-year-olds start their day that way -- perhaps more than we think.)

I took Penny for a nice walk on the woods loop where she can run freely and then decided to take a birthday run. I wanted to do 7 miles for 70 but since I haven’t been running much this trip, opted for an hour. It wasn’t pretty but felt pretty good -- and a nice start to the day.

Our daughter Jen, unbeknownst to me, had arranged an email blitz and I got many emails and Facebook greetings. Several cellphone calls and messages and a text message or two. It was great hearing from folks and it made me realize once again why the Post Office is losing money. One package (which was wonderful) and one note but the rest all electronic.

We had an easy day, enjoying the wonderful weather, and opted to cook out rather than drive 20 miles to a restaurant. (Mary took me for a birthday lunch -- which was delightful -- the next day.)

It’s wonderful to celebrate this milestone with Mary, my friend and partner ... and Penny, who with her constant need for exercise and attention, keeps me moving.

Monday, March 8, 2010

5 Pounds of Possum

Last night, when we were listening to a local bluegrass band playing at a chilly outdoor amphitheater at Brazos Bend State Park, they did a number titled “5 Pounds of Possum in my Headlights Tonight.” It’s a cute song about a working mom with no money, an empty refrigerator, and a supper opportunity -- as the title says. I suspect PETA has not approved the song. It reminded me that we are in Texas .. a long way .. in many ways, from Vermont.

you know you’re in Texas:

.. when a bluegrass band plays Five Pounds of Possum in my Headlights Tonight.

.. when empty plastic bottles rattle around the back of the pickup since no one recycles. We’ve only found one Texas State Park with containers and all there seems to be are out-of-the-way municipal sites .. not easy to reach when hauling an Airstream.

.. when 12-foot-long alligators snooze on the bike path bank. Now that gets a Vermonter’s attention. (There are 300 adult alligators in Brazos Bend State Park ... but who's counting?)

.. when you check out groceries and the register beeps and refuses to sell you beer -- because it’s Sunday and you can’t buy beer until 1:00 P.M.

.. when all you can get on the truck radio is country/western music and religious broadcasting.

-- when barbecue is not what you do, but what you eat

-- when only the state flag is flying over the visitors center (we decided not to ask why)

We’ve enjoyed Texas: the weather, the people, the birds and the wildlife. The Texas State Park system is excellent with better facilities than Vermont parks. Yet the reports of early spring days back home are starting to tug at us and I can sense how the robins and redwing blackbirds might feel -- it’s time to start making plans to head north.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Northern Wheatear

I've been reading on the Texas birdlist about the daily sightings of the Northern Wheatear in Beeville, Texas. This caught my eye because as I noted in a past posting, we have ties to Beeville.

This bird, a resident of the far north, should be wintering in Africa with the rest of its buddies. How it arrived at John's (an Amish farmer) field is Texas is anyone's guess but fortunately, he's an amateur birder and identified it -- and soon experts from all over were coming and verifying it. It's been seen about every day right out behind his house.

We were planning to go right by the site on our way to Goliad State Park so I decided to take the six mile detour and see if I could spot it -- figuring it's definitely the only chance I'll ever have.

We parked the truck and Airstream by the road and I walked in the ramshackle farm operation. A young birder from Central Texas was there and as I signed the book, I saw addresses from all over the country. He had a big telephoto but had not yet seen the bird.

We watched dozens of meadowlarks (eastern or western -- not sure) and other birds and I was getting discouraged -- the breeze was stiff and Mary and Penny were waiting.

Then I saw an Amish buggy coming down the road toward the truck and thought, "Oh no, Penny!" It was too far to run to the truck to warn Mary and I didn't have my iPhone and soon I heard Penny go ballistic, saw the horse shy away from the truck, and thought, "Oh great, what a nice introduction." The buggy turned in the lane and soon I was apologizing but John and the two women he was training to drive, were fine.

Just then, the guy with the camera said, "Did you see it?" And of course, I hadn't. The bird had popped up on a tank - he'd snapped one shot -- and off it went into the weeds. About five or ten minutes went by and I was getting bummed when up it came, perching about 10 feet from me on an old tank. I got a wonderful view with the binoculars as the guy shot dozens of shots. The bird sort of posed, moving around the tank, giving us side views, front views, until it got sick of it and moved off. We were psyched.

As you can see, the bird is not spectactular except in its rarity. It was a great experience for an amateur birder. So with the Roadside hawk, the Jacana, the groove-billed Ana, and the Wheatear, I've added some pretty rare birds to my list. The total list, modest at the start, has grown by over 100 birds this trip.

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photo by seabarium