Monday, January 31, 2011


Heading into the interior of Texas we left the coastal plains and entered hill country. It's been months since Gigantor had to downshift to climb a hill! We arrived at McKinney Falls State Park, which is just minutes from downtown Austin, but feels remote. We found many nice sites to choose from and got settle in. The foliage is starting to get a bit prickly!:

That evening we drove out to the west side of Austin to the home of Glenn and Carole, and their perfectly mannered four children and friendly dog. We drove together out into the country to a very popular barbeque restaurant called the Salt Lick. When I saw parking attendants waving us into the parking lot, and then saw how big and full the lot was, I began to appreciate just how popular this place is. The pungent aroma of the meat smoker was in the air as we searched for a spot big enough for Gigantor. We put in our name and settled in for the 1 1/2 hour wait, which went quickly with good conversation, a cooler full of beer, and the occasional chunk of smoked sausage passed out to the waiting crowd to keep the peace. Once we got seated the tray of meat and sides was brought:

The sausage and pork ribs were awesome, but the brisket was revelatory! Songs could be written about this stuff, and probably have. Outstanding. It was a great visit and meal with Glenn and his family.

The next day we drove into Austin to see the city. We walked Congress Street from Lady Bird Lake up to the Capitol:

Pausing to admire the reflection of the sky in this tower:

6th street west of Congress is Austin's night spot - almost every door opens into a club or bar. It was Sunday afternoon when we walked there, so it was low key, but looked like a fun place to enjoy Austin's renowned live music scene.

As the sun set over SoCo, we sat and watched rowers and kayakers glide up and down the lake...

...then walked out onto the Congress street bridge to see if we might spot some of the bats that live under it. We were lucky to pick a good spot, and watched with fascination as hundreds of bats wheeled around the abuttments in a blur of wings. In summer the hundreds become thousands and it is a real tourist attraction to watch them at dusk.

Our dinner that night was at the Hula Hut (thanks for the recommendation Dan!). Being a wonderfully warm evening it was quite crowded, but our wait was not long and we sat to enjoy a fish-bowl of Hu-la-la cocktail:

Then enjoyed warm chips & fresh salsa, chicken enchiladas, and this crazy fried banana desert:

After all that city life and dining out we were ready for some natural landscapes and exercize. At McKinney Falls state park there are two trail loops, one paved, one single track dirt, and a river with two waterfalls. The falls areas are large open moonscapes where the river has carved the limestone into fantastic shapes. We enjoyed walking and bicycling on the trails and around the falls:

Friday, January 28, 2011

Port Lavaca, Texas

For our next stop I had identified a little county park in Port Lavaca, on the Gulf of Mexico. It's one of these places that doesn't take reservations, so you have to call ahead to see if there's space. I'd called the day before, and there was, but when I called minutes before we started driving, they were all full up. Unfortunately, I had already give their address to my bike shop so that they could send me some repair parts that I needed. So, I rifled through the pages of our various campground guides and found one not too far away, and made sure they could take us in.

It was an easy two hour drive, mostly through wide open ranch country. This is pretty much all we saw until we got down to the coast:

When we got to the town of Port Lavaca, we could see the Lighthouse Beach park that I had originally wanted, and we could also see empty spaces, so we pulled in and, sure enough, were assigned a site. It's very close living, but right on the water, with a nice boardwalk, beach, fishing pier, and boat launch on the premesis.

The sun rises late this time of year, about 7:15, so I captured the beautiful sunrise over Lavaca bay, as seen from my back bumper:

While here we enjoyed walks on the boardwalk, plus I received the parts for my mountain bike and restored my ride to its original trail-devouring condition. Then, I got myself a Texas fishing license, strung up my fly rod, and shoved off into the bay in one of our kayaks:

It was a beautiful day, light winds and around 67 degrees. I paddled along an old fishing pier, then around an oyster shoal, and finally along the bridge pylons of the causeway that stretches across the bay. It was here that I caught fish. The first surprised me and I did not react soon enough to keep it from dragging my line across the razor sharp barnacles that encrusted the pilings. When my line went taught again, I was ready, and brought to the boat this nice little Red Drum:

We took a drive on our last day, a spectacular day: sunny and 73 degrees. We drove down to Magnolia Beach, where the parking lot WAS the beach:

Here we had a nice stroll along the water's edge, where the dogs could swim and run and find discusting things on the beach to eat!

Next stop: the city of Austin!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Brazos Bend State Park, Texas

The Lone Star State: Almost immediately the pines gave way to deciduous trees, the cajun restaurants gave way to steak roadhouses, the swamps & bayous gave way to vast flat cattleranches, and the traffic on the highway became dominated with pickup trucks and SUVs.

After fighting our way through downtown Houston, with its road closures, high-clearance vehicle restrictions, and countless merges (thank God for Garmin!) we made our way at last to Brazos Bend State Park. It's a good 30 minutes past the edge of the endless urban sprawl of greater Houston and Sugarland. The park is huge - its a 3 mile drive from the gate to the campground - and the sites are spacious, paved and level. The Verizon signal was very weak, but after turning on the Wilson amp we got a strong enough signal for a workable internet connection.

Then, the rains came. It started raining in the night and poured steadily until late the next afternoon. We stayed inside until mid afternoon, then went into town to do a bunch of chores. We found a laundromat that offered wash/dry/fold service, which is awesome, then went off to buy auto parts, pet supplies, diesel fuel and groceries. The congestion in amongst all of the big box stores and supermarkets was insane. Made me long to get back out into the country. But, all was acomplished, we picked up our laundry and headed back to camp. Gotta have a crappy weather day once and a while to get these types of things done.

The next day the weather cleared, so we got out and explored the park. They have a nature center with displays of all of the local flora and fauna, plus live spiders, snakes and alligators.

This little guy's 5 months old and about 12 inches long:

The volunteer on duty pulled one of the babies out for us to touch. Here is Nancy petting the baby alligator:

And here she is touching a scarlet kingsnake:

We took our bikes out on some of the park's extensive trail system:

And walked some more trails with the dogs, including out next to a large shallow lake with a viewing tower:

We saw many kinds of birds, including moorhens, coots, white and white-faced ibis and teal. We hoped to see adult alligators, of which the park has a large population, but it was too cold out and they were all in hiding.

Next, we're heading down to the coast, to get one last look at the ocean before heading inland for the next six weeks or so.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Lake Charles, Louisiana

Picked our next park to locate us in bayou country of western Louisiana, and a fairly easy drive from the shores of Pontchartrain. We found Sam Houston Jones state park to be a nice place, with a good trail system, lots of riverfront, and two campgrounds that were pleasant, if slightly more densely packed than we prefer. But we got an end-row site, and WiFi is very strong, so we settled in and enjoyed our stay.

A herd of small white-tailed deer make the rounds in the park, taking advantage of the food that campers and park staff offer them. They are quite unafraid. I saw one jogging after one of the white park pick-up trucks, hoping for a handout. There are lots of armadillos around, too, and each seems intent on torturing Toby, ignoring him until he gets close and then scampering coyly away, while he strains at the end of his leash and cries in desparation. He would just love to have an armadillo of his very own!

On one of our many dog walks we noticed a camper that sported more than one tell-tale of full-timing, and which was emblazoned with the intriguing name "Imperfect Destiny" on its spare tire cover. I searched the web and sure enough, a young (by our standards, which is to say, our age) couple and their two dogs, living and working aboard, travelling the country. So, we made contact, and spend the next three evenings enjoying the company of Jim and Julie.

Jim and Julie, plus their two waggy-tailed dogs Siri and Star, live a cosy life in and around their 17' Casita camper. Their careers enable this location-independent lifestyle, which they have made as eco-friendly as is perhaps possible. With solar panels supplying power to their battery bank, they can go for many days off-the-grid, running laptop computers, signal boosters, and the requirements of the Casita as well. It's a nice unit and way of life, just on a significantly smaller scale that our hulking Whale. I envy the freedom that this gives them - freedom to choose those tucked away campsites with the special view and feeling of being at one with one's surroundings. But we do appreciate the pure luxury of space and storage that we have, and are not regretting the path that we chose. Both approaches are perfect in their own ways. Check out their adventures here .

Anyway, we spent three very enjoyable evenings together, learning about each other's way of life, adventures and favorite places. Went out to dinner on our last night, so's I could tuck into a heaping pile of boiled, seasoned, crawfish. They were delicious, surprisingly spicy, and I will have them again if I'm ever back in Louisiana. But, it was barbarous work, ripping their little carapaces off to get to the succulent morsel of meat in the tail, like going after the meat of one hundred miniature lobsters. After just one it was obvious that a clean approach was not an option, and I gave in to the mess and simply enjoyed the flavor.

Some more scenes from our stay in Lake Charles:

The eerie beauty of the cypress swamp:

A diminutive large-mouth bass:

Sometimes we sneak out while Kinsey sleeps so we can hike at a more lively pace. Here we soak in some sun on a viewing platform in the swamp:

Jim and Julie: we look forward to seeing you somewhere down the road!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Big Easy

Our drive from Florida's panhandle to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, took us across three state lines. We crossed the coastal portions of Alabama and Mississippi before entering Louisiana. It was a bit longer of a drive than we like, but got us to within striking distance of New Orleans. Fontainebleau State Park is large and popular, with big group picnic areas, three campgrounds, cabins, beaches, trails, and the remains of a sugar processing plant.
The campground we stayed at was nice enough, a bit more crowded than we prefer, but better than private parks. They've recently upgraded to 50 amp service, but didn't bother to regrade the disturbed ground, so much of our site was lumpy and torn up. Sloppy. But we enjoyed our stay, hiking on the trails and looking out onto Lake Pontchartrain.

There are many enormous live oak trees at the park, and here is their grand-daddy. My bike is leaning up against the 7 foot diameter trunk, and I am standing on a limb (circled):

And Kinsey is offered as gator-bait down on the bayou:

To get to New Orleans from our camp we crossed Lake Pontchartrain on the 24 mile long causeway. The Lake is 40 miles long by 24 miles across, covering 630 square miles, but averages only 12 feet deep. The far shore is over the horizon when you first get on the causeway, with the result that it appears to be a bridge to no-where:

Once in town we parked outside of the touristed area, but along the trolley line, thus avoiding the inflated parking fees of downtown and the French Quarter. The trolley is great and costs only $1.25 for a ride. In just a few minutes we were strolling the storied streets of the French Quarter.

Downtown New Orleans was not destroyed by Hurricane Katrina the way much of the rest of the city was, being slightly above sea level as opposed to slightly below it. The beautiful architecture, shops and restaurants remain as they were.

I was thankful that I wore a ball cap, as I was unlucky enough to be directly underneath a pigeon as it evacuated. As the saying goes: Thank God cows don't fly!

Nancy tried some of the local chickory infused coffee brew, and we sampled pralines in The French Market:

We also took the old St. Charles Street trolley out to the Garden District, to walk the quiet street among the stately old antebellum homes. Gorgeous.

Back to Vieux Carre for a stroll along the Mississippi River waterfront, where we saw the steamboat Natchez, an authentic steam fired paddlewheeler that takes tourists out for jazz and dinner cruises on the Mississippi.

We had a lovely, if expensive, dinner at Muriel's Jackson Square, then wandered up to experience the phenomenon of Bourbon Street. You hear it before you see it. The thumping base from the open doors of countless night clubs reaches your ears first. Then the crash of club promoters swinging metal "3 for 1 beers" signs against metal balcony posts, trying to lure passers-by into their doors. Then the whooping cries of the enthusiastic party-goers penetrate the night as you round the corner and encounter the full spectacle. All of the noises hit you like a wall, a confused cacophony of sound, the din of a street that never stops partying. The neon lights glare from every window. Gas-lights flicker from the lamp-posts. Gawkers on balconies fling bead necklaces to young women on the street in hopes of a gratuitous flash of bare breast. Hawkers beckon from the dark doorways of strip clubs and bars. Girls in negligee writhe invitingly. It's a sensory overload that can hardly be described. "Laissez les bons temps rouler!"

And just 100 feet down St. Peters hands a small sign over a nondescript doorway, that of Preservation Hall, the famous New Orlean jazz club of 50 years. We lined up with over 100 others, sure that we were too far back in line to get in, but we must have been number 95 and 96, and we squeezed our way into the back of the tiny room to hear Dixieland jazz in its purest form.

In between sets we got up closer and Nancy was able to sit and see, to get the full effect of the trombone-wielding front man, Glen David Andrews, and The Lazy Six:

back in Middletown...
one of the tall white pines which looms over my deck and backyard came down during our recent blizzard. Thankfully it missed our three-season room and deck, but unfortunately it took down half of our old dogwood tree:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Florida Caverns State Park

We left the Georgia coast and headed west, landing on the pan-handle at Florida Caverns State Park. We packed up and left in a cold rain, and drove out of the rain, but the cold remained. Damp, penetrating cold. A most UN-Florida-like cold.

While New England got hammered by a blizzard, we walked the dogs under clear skies, but the temperature never climbed above 40 degrees, and the furnace burned up lots of propane keeping us warm at night. We walked among the many sink-holes in the park, where underground waterways erode the limestone earth and it caves in upon itself. Then there is the Chipola river, which disappears underground for a 1/4 mile or so before coming back to the surface. This is the Blue Hole, where the river re-surfaces to continue its journey:

Most of the underground caverns are part of the aquifer, but here at the park there are dry caverns which have been opened up for touring. Its off-season, so Nancy and I had the tour guide all to ourselves, and enjoyed a very thorough exploration of the caverns. We really liked how the passage took us right among the formations, as opposed to keeping us away with railings. We had to duck to avoid taking a stalagtite to the head. And, it is always 65 degrees underground, which felt awesome given the Canadian climate topside.

Toby and I took a paddle on the Chipola's clear waters, enjoying the cypress trees and the abundant bird life, like cardinals, mergansers, pileated woodpeckers, and the barred owls which can be heard day and night.