MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

When you’re traveling between one location and another while transporting nearly eight tons of steel, plastic, explosive liquids and gasses, mileage concerns displace your normal thoughts of wealth, fame and glory. The distance from Dayton to Geneva State Park up on Lake Erie just past Cleveland is about 25 miles less than the range of the rig per tank. In situations like that I always think, ‘Yea, I don’t have to stop for gas.’

It’s always lovely to think we can just hook up our long, extra wide, heavy trailer and drag it several hundred miles without having to creep into a gas station with it looming up back there. Sidling up to a pump in an unfamiliar and always busy station with the huge thing in tow requires an in and out strategy rivaling a complex military maneuver.

Since I didn’t go to West Point, I always try to comfort myself by thinking of it as a challenge, ‘You know kid, enjoy it.’ Yeah, right. It’s always a white knuckle thing and I’ll never get used to it. I almost always have to stop even when the new park up ahead is within range. Why on earth? Why, fear of course…unbridled, stampeding fear.

I start to worry about running out of gas anyway on some shoulderless two lane in the middle of Bum(f word) Egypt with no cell phone service. That’s worse than the torture of stopping for gas isn’t it? Or is it? All I know at this point is that Dahna better find me a gas station on the GPS pretty damn quick which she always does. So far I’ve managed to gas up without knocking over any pumps and making the national news. I always feel great when I pull out with a full tank and get back on the road close to my destination. Top of the world, Ma! In this case it was Geneva S.P.

You would expect a park on Lake Erie to have a marina and it does, a very nice one with sailboats after our hearts. We went there first because I took my usual wrong turn and ended up in its parking lot, camper and all. Like Buck Creek the park had no individual water taps or sewer hookups so we had to be nearly self-contained except for electrical power which it did provide. It meant relying entirely on our water and storage tanks for the four days we were there. No problem if you don’t mind navy showers, hardly the worst thing that ever happened to you.

We had an easy time setting up and I was starting to think we were getting good at it. After three years of doing this we are getting better. Good? That’s relative. Anyway, we finished up, tossed Sacha into the truck by her “lifting harness,” and headed for little Great Lake Erie. That’s relative too, heh heh.

I like the word, “relative.” Dahna and I are relativists, political correctness be damned. Science will do that to you. That said,there are some things in the universe that approach absolutism, simple things. Gas laws for instance. Another might be Newton’s Laws of Motion which inform the inherent stability of speeding bicycles.

I even think evolutionary biology can be understood as couplet that approaches absolutism in its contrast with mankind’s vanity:

Mankind: The form of his works will follow function (lasts several thousand years)
Nature: The function of her works will follow form (lasts eons, literally)

Yea Nature! Like Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t like Nature. Really though, do we all don’t not like it? Vote.

Along with little dogs, Sacha does not like water and the lake was not her thing at all. She regarded it like she does her water bowl. She drinks water but only because she’s vastly out of place living down south with us and, as a husky, would certainly prefer melting snow in her mouth for that particular nutrient.

She did like some of the nasty stuff washed up on the beach and Dahna kept a firm hand on the leash to keep her from rolling. Get distracted for just a second and you’ll turn to see Sacha flat on her back, legs in the air, doing the doggy twist on some horrible putrescence straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. Sacha aside (but only for a moment), Dahna and I loved the lake since we love all bodies of water and the bigger the better.

There are plenty of lakes you can’t see across, but one the size of Lake Erie registers as oceanic in your mind even on a calm day like that one. On that day it didn’t have the deep power rumble of the ocean and so it felt like a lake, an oceanic lake. Apparently, I can’t describe it, but I will say that it shared with the ocean a sense of the earth’s curvature in the mind’s eye.

Dredge and Sailboat Share Lake ErieDSCN6892 (1)

I can’t remember the ocean ever being quiet at the shore, even after living there for several years. I was once becalmed on our sailboat on a Gulf crossing and it was very quiet, like the big lake that day. On the shore of Lake Ontario during a windy day near Niagara Falls, we “heard” the ocean once again as big waves raised by the long fetch crashed against the shore. Power and beauty like Beethoven or Serena Williams.

Without doubt, one of Nature’s most beautiful productions are the little dinosaurs we live with today—birds. Instead of just piddling around solely with Chemistry and Mathematics, Dahna should have picked up a degree in Ornithology. It doesn’t really matter though because she’s well on the way to mastering the subject as an avocation. She usually leaves me and Sacha asleep in the camper while she braves the elements at first light in pursuit of the flitty folk. She often meets earthbound folk with cameras who are also afflicted with the same obsessive compulsive disorder.

She ran into a retired Brooklynite at nearby Arcola Creek Park who was on a special mission. He was scarecrowing the crows away from a select group of blackbirds he was feeding. These birds had lost their tail feathers and couldn’t fly south. He was feeding them until they grew back and could then make the trip. Like Dahna at home, he was able to call his birds to him. They roosted near the creek that formed a small estuary near the lake where she later met a young couple fishing for bait.

Tailfeatherless Red-Winged Blackbird at Arcola Creek ParkVersion 2

They were kind and friendly, anxious to share with Dahna some points of interest in their community of Madison and its environs. She was struck by their love of their home and a healthy outdoor life. Dahna took a picture of the pretty little golden shiner they caught and several more of a hungry juvenile bald eagle nearby. She came back to the camper all happy and smiley and made me almost wish I’d gotten up and gone with her.

Golden Shiner at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7001

Juvenile Bald Eagle at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7031 (1)

In another wetland area in our park, Dahna got a good picture of a Reddish Egret, a new “lifer.” A lifer bird is birding talk for any bird successfully identified to the Life List of a birder. I asked her how many birds she has so far but she didn’t know. She thought maybe she’d count them when we got home, but I don’t think she’s keeping score. She’s pretty solid about the value of things.

Reddish Egret Geneva State ParkDSCN7075

One of the things we both value is a good cafe. In a strange place it’s sometimes hard to find one, but the town of Geneva has a great one, Honeybees. It reminded us of another great find way over in Grants Pass, Oregon—the Powderhorn. Anyhow, we walked into Honeybees about 10:30 AM and started to pass a little sign by the door. Dahna glanced at it and almost broke her neck doing a double take. It said, “Eggs Benedict—$5.95.” Dahna jabbed her finger at the sign and said a bit loudly, “That’s what I’m having.”

When we got to the table, I looked around and told her that $6.00 Eggs Benedict might not be a good idea, know what I mean, Vern? She said, “I’m having $6.00 Eggs Benedict and you can have whatever you like, little man.” When our dynamite Filipino waitress came to take our order, they both made me feel like a fool for sticking with my usual plain jane breakfast which I’m here to say was damn good. Of course, Dahna smiled across the table at me with every bite of her $6.00 Eggs Benedict and when she finished, patted her lips with her napkin and said, “Best breakfast ever!” I should have had what she had, and I was relieved when she held off doing her “Meg Ryan in the Restaurant” imitation.

Afterward, we did a little sightseeing in the town and some more birding not far away back at Arcola Creek Park. We only saw a few cormorants and crows but Sacha had a good time charging around and doing her sniffery. When we got back to our camper, the  huge 5th wheel trailer was gone and in its place was a tiny pup tent with a motorcycle parked beside it. The contrast was good enough for me to snipe, “Riches to rags.”

I’ve noticed in my life that every time I make a snotty comment like that, it always comes back to bite me in the butt. You’d think I’d learn but…not so much. It turns out that the guy in that tent was not poor in any respect. We started our conversation across the way about Sacha or his bike or something—I can’t remember. As we talked and moved closer together, I wondered about his accent and since we were close enough to Quebec I asked if he was Canadian. I wasn’t far off. He was Iranian.

[With autocratic governments murdering their own citizens all over the world and our own government, if not supportive, at least looking the other way, I’m not going to use his real name.]

I had enough sense not to offer him a drink but, rather, coffee. He declined as he sat down at our picnic table, “I just finished my tea,” he said. BZ was almost 60 years old and was on his way to Montreal via Niagara Falls. We also were headed to the Falls a couple of days after he planned to leave on the morrow. Dahna said that maybe we’d meet up again there, but he doubted it. “It probably depends. Sometimes you go to a place like that and you look at it for a little while and you go, ‘eh’, and,” he shrugged,  “then you go someplace else.”

Dahna laughed, “I know what you mean. Like when we went to the Grand Canyon, you see it and then it’s back in the car and you’re off. Next place, please. Peggy Lee had a song about it.” That confused BZ a little and it didn’t help when I mentioned Leonard Cohen. He didn’t know the name but he knew Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I mentioned that he was from Montreal and created a large and exceptional body of work, and Dahna added that he was officially a Canadian National Treasure.

I was ready to change the subject so I said, “Well, he’s dead now. He had the infinite good sense to die the day before Trump got elected.” That opened the door to a lengthy and intimate discussion that lasted several hours. BZ shook his head and said, “You can’t go backwards, you can’t do it. That’s what my country did and now look. You go back and it’s war, and all war is bad. ALL WAR! “ He was almost shouting.

BZ teaches certain pediatric surgical procedures at a state university since recently closing his practice. His wife and children live several hundred miles away, and he commutes home on weekends to see them. They attend a good public school and he refuses to move them until the last one graduates next year. His trip to Montreal was his last big road trip by motorcycle and because of that it had a special resonance, a last salute to his youth.

I said, “Yeah, it is. I lost my arm in Vietnam.”

He nodded and touched the table several times with his finger, “Then you know what I mean. You were a soldier too.”

“Marine,” I couldn’t let that ride, “You’re right, it’s all bad but it never stops does it?”

“No”, he said, “I’ll tell you how I got to this country.”

“It wasn’t too long after high school when the revolution came, and I was getting ready to go to college. In the first year they arrested and executed my older brother. He was a lawyer and he was carrying a banned newspaper. So, they killed him.”

Dahna couldn’t believe it, “They killed your brother because he had a newspaper?”

“Yes. They killed many people for trivial reasons. No reason. I knew people, students, who were in the United States studying and that’s where I wanted to go too. But, the Iraqis had invaded our country. They knew we were weak because the shah was gone and, by then, I could not get a passport. I could only get one by joining the army for two years first.”

I looked at him, “You fought in that war for two years to get a passport?”

“Yes,” he answered, “and I knew the first day I was sent to the front I would be killed. I got there with a group of guys, but I was the only one with a drivers license. They assigned me to transport and gave me a truck but an officer was interested in me and started talking. So, he made another guy take the truck. It hit a mine and blew up and killed the driver who should have been me. The first day.”

I kind of smiled a little, “I was too dumb to think I’d be killed even though there were a lot of close calls, a lot of firefights. One time my canteen got hit and a corporal came over and told me how lucky I was. About a half hour later, he was dead. There were a lot of twists of fate.”

He shook his head, “Yeah, you know about it. There were times when I had to walk on bodies. It was unbelievable that I survived. But I’ve had a good life in this country. Many times I think about what happened to my country and how glad I am to be here. Here with you!

Dahna and I both laughed and she said, “We’re glad you’re here with us too.”

We talked about the Islamic Revolution and the war and his country under the shah until the mosquitos won out. The next morning Dahna had a big cup of coffee for him and we spent almost an hour talking about our present lives and plans. Then he returned to the subject of Iran. He talked about how his country was modern then with a growing professional class. When I expressed some doubts and mentioned SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, he brushed it aside. It was much better then he said.

He was surprised when Dahna mentioned our overthrow of Mossadegh in the coup that installed the shah.

“You know about that? Yes, that was bad, but everything was better under the shah,” he said, “You knew about that.”  He was a little mystified, but pleased and his eyes lit up, “Everyone loved Mossadegh!”

I remembered back, after we sold our farm in the 70s, walking to class one summer at the University of Houston. I often had to make a detour around a large group of Iranian students demonstrating in the parking lot against the shah. One day there was an incredible mackerel sky above us, a sure sign of rain, but I had no idea what either the sky meant or the demonstration. It was just an inconvenience to me.

It’s hard to imagine but about that time, our close friend Lorey lived in Tehran as a young English teacher at a Department of Defense school. Her husband was an U.S. Army officer stationed there and one day they decided to drive to Kabul to buy some carpets, and that’s what they did. It’s almost impossible to imagine that now, isn’t it?

After our coffee, Dahna took Sacha for a birding walk through the park while BZ struck his tent and packed his bike for the trip up to Niagara Falls. I went back in the camper to write a bit at the dinette. I opened the shade when I heard him throttle up the bike and as he passed by he saw me through the window and we waved goodbye.

Several days later when we got to the Falls, we looked for him but he was gone…off to Montreal, I guess. I hope he goes down to the water and sees the chapel where

“…the sun pours down like honey
on our Lady of the Harbor”

Maybe he’ll hear some really fine music before he goes home to his happy family. We both hope so.

My own musical history began with what is now a dim echo of memory of my mother singing me to sleep with a lullaby. Next, and firmly implanted in my consciousness, is Patti Page’s “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” That thing has much to do with our outlays over the years of thousands of dollars in dog food, vet bills, squeaky toys and the like.

After that, no doubt in Kindergarten, I learned the Erie Canal song, singing:

“I had a mule, her name was Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal”

I’d always thought of that song and the canal itself as somehow exotic, stuck in that Peter Pan part of my brain that never grows up. For almost the entirety of my life, I wanted to see that thing and now my chance was coming up. Our next stop was near Buffalo, NY at one end of the canal. We were camping at Grand Island from which you can almost hear the roar of Niagara Falls.

Last Look at the Lake Erie ShoreDSCN6880

 


Continue reading MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 3: Ohio Is All That

Right now we are in the singular Acadia National Park in Maine where today’s cold drizzle and grey sky has done nothing to extinguish the flaming Fall foliage or our high spirits. We’re digesting a fabulous scallop, shrimp and haddock sea food platter from Chase Restaurant in Winter Harbor. When our nap is over, we’ll start prepping for the border crossing into New Brunswick tomorrow. But first, back to Ohio.

Kentucky gave way noticeably as we crossed the state line into Ohio. Everything seemed to ease out a bit as we headed north toward Buck Creek State Park near Dayton. It was a little like moving into a larger house. The vistas spread out farther giving us Texans a chance to exhale. “That’s better,” said Dahna. “Kentucky’s nice, but I think I’ll be more comfortable here.” The forested areas were free of the underbrush of Kentucky, and seemed to invite you to cut a stout walking stick and hike among the trees like you might do through an English wood. The cultivated fields were larger and they spread out and away opening up a bigger sky. It just got better and better as we approached the park.

I think state parks are like dogs. Some, like Sacha, are prettier than others but they’re all great and Buck Creek was no exception. Our campsite was fine too, only that it was a blind side back in–the bête noire of middling trailer backer-uppers like me. Still, it was the easiest site to get into park-wide thanks to Dahna’s foresight when she picked it out months earlier. Even so, it took a few tries to get the camper in square and lined up with the electrical box and the…the…”Where the hell’s the frickin’ water faucet?” I asked politely, considering my mounting horror. Dahna’s eyes were like splintered glass (J. Agee), “There isn’t one. I think we have to go back out and find a tap and fill our own freshwater tank.”

Well…shoot.

Buck Creek State Park Marina

Buck Creek Marina

I did a better job backing in the second time and an hour or so after that Bud and Deb brought their drinks over to join ours. They were winding up a months long trip to the Northwest and were headed home the next day to their place in northern Ohio, dead tired. They were recently retired from a lifetime of the kind of honest productive work you probably associate with Ohio and the American ideal. Making things. They helped bring into view the heart of our country where we happened to be sitting.

Bud’s blunt manner of speech reminded me of my neighbor Ray so I looked at his hand curled around a rum and Coke. Sure enough, his hands showed the effects of a lifetime of hard work. It was a little incongruent that he and Deb were driving a large expensive motorhome stereotypically associated with soft-handed, hard-hearted rich people.

There’s a bit of crosstalk among RVers about class differences between fancy motorhome drivers and trailer draggers like us but most of it is bullshit. True, there’s been some examples of Class A snobbery and trailer dragger crassness but, like most stereotyped things, they dissolve into the gooey soup of statistical norm.

At bottom, it’s simple biology. People are pretty much the same if you get the chance to  sit down with them. It’s true that some people tip over into sociopathy, and it’s also true that sometimes they get together in great numbers for the purpose of destroying, say, a nation now known as a “homeland.” But, all of us want pretty much the same things as it turns out, and traveling brings that into high relief. It eases our fears and anxieties, and soothes the savage breast. Except during a blind side back in.

Our brief time with Bud and Deb was a nice Ohio prelude to our visit with Linda and Jeremy, our friends from Texas, now happily living in Bethany Village near Dayton. Jeremy is one of Dahna’s favorite professors, now retired, whom she met as his student in the summer of ’86. Dahna previously determined that since we were in our mid and late 30s, we were finally mature enough to finish school. So, back we went.

Jeremy had pulled the short straw and was teaching a core Texas Government class that summer. I doubt if he was thrilled about it but Dahna sure was. Several years later when she graduated at the top of her class as an organic chemist, Jeremy remained in the small circle of her favorites. A few years after that I taught their son John at our little high school in Hico, Tx.

Bethany Village is an immaculate planned community of retirees that was founded about 70 years ago near Dayton, Linda’s home town. It is a full service campus of everything from independent living in houses or apartments to full nursing care. Absolutely everything inside or outside the home is taken care of by management, and if anything at all goes wrong, all you need is their phone number on speed dial. In Comanche we have thousands of dollars in a tractor, lawn mowers and a shop full of tools and it’s still not enough but hey, we’s “management.”

We intended to board Sacha for the day so we could all tour Dayton dogless. But, friends being friends, they said she could stay in their house. Sacha promptly reciprocated by marking their territory as her own and we all had a big laugh. No we didn’t. But we did have a big day—a real highlight of our trip. In fact, the entire day was a series of highlights thanks to our friends.

Linda had earlier promised to cook for us and she delivered big time with a wonderful lunch followed that evening by fresh sweet corn and a chicken pot pie to kill for. Fortunately, Linda handed over the recipe voluntarily.

After lunch they took us on a perfect tour of Dayton which ended, perfectly, with the ringing out of “As Time Goes By” by the famous Deeds Carillon. Linda asked a guy with a badge if we could pick out a song and he said, “Sure,” and handed us a list to choose from. Dahna and I both said, “That one,” simultaneously and the big bells followed us in our slow walk out to the car. Dooley Wilson would have approved, I think.

Rick and Ilsa might always have had Paris, but Dahna and I will always have Dayton. Linda chauffeured us and Jeremy through much of the city including the parts that were off limits to her strict Catholic upbringing when she was a girl. The streets there were a little twisty and tight with numerous small establishments that once exerted a slightly profane gravitational pull on Dayton’s teenagers in the 1960s. Maybe even for a young girl like Linda destined to become a nun for a time. But as she drove us out into the larger city we saw muscular brick smokestacks adjacent to the huge buildings that once manufactured the products for a confident and increasingly affluent people. Today, these big campuses are largely “re-purposed” to worthy ends but they’re also useful in nefarious ways.

Our political opportunists point to them as artifacts of a vanished Golden Age and promise to return us to those halcyon days. In thrall to the very forces that depopulated those buildings, they intend nothing of the kind nor do they have anything in common with the men and women who built them. In fact, they would have loathed a man like John Patterson, the founder of Dayton’s National Cash Register.

Patterson was a visionary of the late 1800s and early 1900s whose workplace ideas helped seed the labor friendly policies of the New Deal. He opened his buildings to daylight with numerous large windows, established innovative safety and security protocols for his workers plus health care, child care, schools and he paid them well. His long range business strategy built a powerhouse company that produced enormous numbers of high quality business machines, satisfied customers and employees. NCR made a huge positive impact on Dayton’s and Ohio’s and America’s wealth.

This guy not only knew how to run a business to perfection, he also knew how to save a town, literally. Do yourself a big favor and Google this man. Check out how he anticipated the terrible flood of 1913 and instantly converted his factories to boat building and bread baking. His actions saved a lot of people that day and that’s why you see his name everywhere in Dayton. We still have people like that. If you remember Hurricane Katrina, you should also remember the Cajun Navy, the flotilla that saved countless lives in New Orleans in 2005. We met one of those guys a few days ago in Alma, New Brunswick. (We met a lovely Irish lass there too, but that’s another story for later.)

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Dayton’s Wright brothers had. It’s only coincidence, but the town of Baddeck on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where we camped is actually the birthplace of Canadian aviation. I’ll say more about that later, but you might be interested to know that Alexander Graham Bell was a big part of it. The idea here is that Dayton isn’t the birthplace of American aviation but of aviation itself. Big difference, or as Bernie might say, “YUUGE!”  That other guy might say it too if he knew anything about history.

Wright Brothers Museum

WrightBros

Before the bells of Deeds Carillon personally ushered us out of the Carillon Historical Park, we toured most of the exhibits there including a full-size recreation of the Wright brothers’ shop. It included a mock up of their manufacturing equipment which looked decidedly Dickensian with a touch of Steam Punk. You wouldn’t want to build their bicycles or airplanes wearing a tie or even a ring.

Their first production bicycle was called the Van Cleve after the Wright family’s ancestors. As Jeremy and I took in the lines of an actual Van Cleve, I ventured that they looked a lot like modern bikes. Actually the Wright bike looked a lot more like my 1957 Schwinn Corvette than a modern bike and when I realized that a few weeks later, I winced a little. Jeremy was decently mum on the subject.

The Wright bicycles were early “safety bicycles” with two equal sized wheels that quickly replaced the more dangerous high wheeled types. You’ve seen these pictured with a derby-wearing daredevil sporting a handlebar mustache sitting atop one of the ridiculous things. It occurs to me now that his ‘stache was named after the deathtrap’s handlebars the damn fool was gripping for dear life. Mystery solved. Ah…bicycles.

About 1970, I was riding my Japanese 10 speed bike home in Houston’s Montrose around midnight. I had a strong Gulf breeze at my back and I was young and strong, so I decided to “stand on it” to see just how fast that heavy monster would go. I shifted into 10th gear just about the time a big “cowboy” staggered out from the pool hall up ahead. He saw me coming in the street lights, my long hair flowing. It pissed him off.

He made an unfortunate snap decision that factored out velocity from momentum’s equation: p = mv where p stands for momentum, m for mass and v for velocity. I figure his mass was roughly equal to mine plus the bicycle, but his velocity was negligible compared to my own. When we met he put his shoulder into it and so did I. The impact caused the bike to wobble as if he were a puff of wind, and when I looked back he was on his keister spinning like a top.

It was a perfect example of the conserving and  converting of linear momentum into angular momentum, poor boy. I’m sure whoever held his beer had a good laugh before calling the ambulance. My Physics students got a laugh out of it too. Well, the cowboy lost that night but I guess he won in the long run, or thinks he did. Be sure to vote.

Linda and Jeremy visited us at Buck Creek the next day for dinner. Dahna grilled sweet chili chicken and I fixed them our Old Crow house drink which they politely sipped. We talked past dark, my favorite thing to do with smart, lovely people. They’re well-traveled citizens of the world and we’re lucky to be their friends. Luckier still, they’ve contributed several fine pieces for this new blog to be published soon.

Mute Swan

Version 2

When we left for Geneva State Park the next day it was with a twinge of regret. I said, “This deserved way more than three days.” Dahna said, “Yup, I could live here.” I said, “What? And leave Comanche and the Chicken Express behind?” She said, “Pppth.”

Canada Geese

BCGeese

MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 2: Goodbye To All That, Texas

It is possible to drive out of Texas if you try. We didn’t try hard enough but we did manage to reach Cooper Lake State Park out east of Dallas near Sulphur Springs.  We traveled about 250 miles to get there and that equals the fuel range of a 3/4 ton pickup pulling nearly four tons of tall trailer. It also equals 7 mpg in case you might be thinking of doing something like this the way we do it.

Cooper Lake S.P. is a nice park but we didn’t stay long enough to enjoy its many charms. We were anxious to get out of Texas and its summer heat wave and kick back in more temperate northern climes. Well, ha ha. Sometimes where you’re going is precisely where you are not going. If that sounds a little too Rumsfeldian, take a few minutes and read, or re-read, Maugham’s very short,  Appointment In Samarra. Sure, it was hotter than Hell in Texas, but at least it was dry heat as they say. Up north it was hot and humid, so much so that in Kentucky, even Ohio, I could have sworn I was in Houston. Reality bites again.

In our attempt to escape the frying pan, we only camped two nights at Cooper Lake. Our normal minimum stay anywhere is three nights which gives us a little time to both rest and see the sights. Two nights in a place barely registers unless there’s a murder or something. Frankly, I can’t remember much about the park except that the lake was way down due to the general drought conditions Texas has suffered for a number of years now. Climate change, aka global warming it is.

The people who run this country at the moment seem to take issue with the reality of this issue which is the Mother of All Issues and that is not an opinion. There might be plenty of reasons to replace a lot of them in November, but this particular one will do all by itself. Speaking as a guy who has dabbled in science, I can assure whoever might want to listen that the chemistry involved in this phenomenon is simple and quite approachable. If you’re willing to objectively search that half of the internet not devoted to porn and cat videos, you’ll be able to figure it out on your own. Or… you can swim in denial but watch out for crocodiles. Better to soak in the clear restorative waters of reason.

Speaking of restorative waters, our next stop was at Lake Ouachita State Park near Hot Springs, Arkansas. You might want to write that down. Without doubt, this park is beautiful beyond words and the maintenance is superb. Looking out at the shimmering lake we both had the same simultaneous regret. I said, “Damn! We shoulda’ brought the kayak.” Dahna said, “Yeah Pat, why didn’t you bring the kayak?”

A couple of years ago we splurged on a couple of Hobie pedaling kayaks. These things are great for fishing, birding, hunting or whatever you want to do with your hands totally free while using your much stronger legs to zip across the water. Geezers like me love them because once you get them into the water they glide along almost effortlessly, fast enough to leave a satisfying wake. You can even sail them, an option that sold me on the spot.The only problem is getting them to the water because they’re heavy. Oh yeah, they’re kind of expensive too.

We (and I say “we” with authority) decided not to bring the 100 lb. tandem “Oasis” in order to save gas. It occurs to me now that at 7 mpg, you’re already screwed and that a kayak sitting atop your truck isn’t going to make that much difference. Only three weeks out and we’ve already seen several Hobie kayaks like ours strapped to vehicles, not to mention hundreds of other types. New Rule: When you plan to spend three months constantly camped beside a stunning lake, river, or ocean, take the frickin‘ kayak, Homer.

Us at Lake Ouachita State Park

AF235W Ouachita

The only thing missing at this extraordinary park was birds. It was weird because if some other place seemed more hospitable to birds, I didn’t know it. Actually, most places experience bird dropouts at certain times each year as they move on. Dahna was a bit miffed, but unruffled, knowing about this. She figured some would show up before we left in a few days. That didn’t happen because we had to skip out of there early.

Our neighbor Steve came by to visit the on the morning of day two of a three day stay. He was wearing a Natchez Trace State Park t-shirt, and when I told him that was our next stop he gave me a little tip about the place. He said, “If that big ass vapor light down by the fish-cleaning station bothers you, just cut the white neutral wire.” Steve had a career as a street light installer but, even so, I won’t take his advice because of Lou Coin.

When I was about 12, my dad came in my room and asked me if I remembered Lou, the diminutive Lebanese electrical engineer that was on his bowling team.

I said, “Sure.”

He said, “Well, Lou’s dead. He electrocuted himself in his attic working with the wiring hot and he grabbed a water pipe and that was it,” he snapped his fingers . “Don’t ever work with electricity when it’s hot, understand?”

I said, “Yeah.”

He looked in a little deeper and said, “Did you hear me, boy?”

I said, “Yes sir,” and I sure did.

Steve also said, “By the way, you might want to check the weather.” When he left, I did just that. Sacha jumped straight up when I shrieked, “HOLY SMOKES!” or something to that effect. Tropical Storm Gordon had come ashore in Mississippi and was taking a slanty northwest course designed to bring it directly over our campsite the very next evening. Local Hot Springs forecasts predicted dire flash flooding and so, discretion being the better part of valor, we got hell out.

The ranger at headquarters knew the forecast, and as he took in my tale of woe I was careful to add my mostly heartfelt praise of his beautiful park. He refunded our last day’s fee and I promised we would come back soon, a promise I intend to keep probably.

The plan was to hotfoot it to Natchez 325 miles to the west, beat Gordon, then rest and relax for four days in the Volunteer State. But, instead of the originally planned three days, or the tropical storm-modified four days, we ended up staying at Natchez Trace S.P. for five days because of hurricane Florence.

Dahna and I grew up in Houston on the Gulf Coast and that’s where we expect these storms to stay at all times. It’s just part of our culture and we’re proud of it in a dumb kind of way. We remember the big ones like Allison and Alicia, Betsy and Carla, Katrina and Rita, and Ike and Harvey. We could fill out the rest of the alphabet with the names of other monsters that hit our hometown or nearby. The beach house we lived in a dozen years ago on Bolivar Peninsula lies in pieces at the bottom of East Bay right now thanks to Ike. It’s just that we don’t associate these storms with camping deep inland much less getting pushed around by them up here. Well, we had an appointment in Samarra.

Fortunately, Natchez Trace is a nice state park even if it is a little bit small. [Aside: Is it odd that the last three words of the previous sentence make sense in context, yet each one has the same meaning individually? You never see this in science.] We had our doubts at first because its approach is blanketed in kudzu rendering the underlying native foliage a mystery of green lumps. You citizenry of the North Country might not know about this stuff or fire ants or nutria or killer bees, but don’t worry about it. Just stay away from the climate data.

The kudzu was beautiful in a disturbing alien way but it wasn’t to be seen in the park’s camping areas. I suppose the rangers had some method of hacking it back and a good thing too. It’s no stretch for southern campers to have nightmares of becoming entombed by the stuff in their RVs.

Kudzu

Natchez Trace SP Kudzu

Natchez Trace S.P. had the beautiful lake you would expect in Tennessee, further rubbing it in about the kayak thing. We weren’t able to directly enjoy the lake by boating on it, but we certainly got the benefit of the crappie that live in it. Thanks to the generous family of fishermen next to us and the well-lit fish cleaning station (with its white wire intact), Dahna and I plus half the people in the camp ate like royalty.

I was reading at the picnic table when Brittany came over and introduced herself and asked if we would like a plate from their big fish fry. I was noncommittal since Dahna was off birding but that didn’t matter. Fifteen minutes later Brittany’s mom brought over a huge styrofoam clamshell full of perfectly cooked crappie, fries, and a bunch of her justifiably famous hush puppies.  When Dahna got back we tore into it like Sacha into a wiener dog. Bogart once said that a hot dog at the ball park tastes better than a steak at the Ritz. That goes for fresh crappie at a state park too. Man, you meet the nicest people out here.

Natchez Trace State Park

Natches Trace State Park

Brittany is a country girl with kids in high school who looks like a high schooler herself. It could be that her youthfulness derives from a career of good works. She is a helicopter-borne EMT and has cared for thousands of critically ill or injured patients over the years. It was a delight to meet her, and she joins a number of smart tough women we’ve met on the road. A lot of them like our new friend Laura travel far and wide and do it alone. It seems to me that more women than men do this.

I once got a laugh out of Dahna when I remarked on all the “ramblin’ man” songs out there: Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice”, Lightfoot’s “That’s What You Get For Lovin’ Me,” the Allman Brothers, etc. I said, “Shoot, it’s hard getting around with all these ramblin’ men all over the place getting in the way.” Truthfully though, there really are a lot of ramblin’ women out there.

I first “noticed” Laura when I looked out the window and saw her talking to Dahna at the picnic table. They were talking about the merits and failings of various travel trailers, but I had no idea what the subject was. They could have been discussing String Theory for all I knew since they both were intently into whatever it was. So I kept my distance. She was wearing a well-worn cowboy hat which makes a lot of sense when you meet her, and I did later that day.

Laura is attractive, middle aged and recently retired as a physical therapy assistant. She is in a long term love-hate relationship with her home town of Nashville and travels not only for pleasure but also steam release. At the moment she pulls a new 20 ft. Coleman trailer with her trusty Silverado but misses her high quality T @ G teardrop. I think her real love is motorcycling and she’s lost count of all the bikes she’s owned. Neil Young wrote a pretty good song about a woman and a motorcycle on “Harvest Moon” and it reminds me of Laura a little. She describes herself as a gear head, and she is that and more.

We took her to lunch on our last rainy day at the park’s surprisingly tony restaurant. It was a good meal in good company and when I paid the check Laura said, “Next time it’s on me.” I told her I would hold her to that and I will. She briefly entertained the idea of caravanning up to Kentucky with us on a lark but, unfortunately, had business back in Nashville. We parted the next day but are staying in touch. You might be hearing from her in these pages as we go along.

The next day we headed to Taylorsville Lake State Park. Kentucky is a beautiful state as towns with names like Bowling Green attest. Almost 50 years ago a friend and I hitchhiked from Houston to his hometown of Pineville in the southern part of the state. It wasn’t beauty that caught my eye then, rather the poverty. While there I drove out of town with his brother to a spot where we parked. Then we walked across a set of railroad tracks and out to a miserable shack in the distance. An old woman in rags was scrubbing laundry on the open porch and inside her son and grandson stood in near darkness.

They quietly small talked with my friend’s brother for a long time. With long pauses between topics they eventually got down to the delicate business of bargaining for a car part. The courtesy shown back and forth between the men was remarkable and humbling to me. I never said a word, just nodded hello and goodbye. I think I understand what changed Robert Kennedy’s heart when he went to Mississippi and Appalachia after Jack was killed. It is sad beyond words to me that those two brothers and Martin Luther King Jr. will always stand for the high road, the one not taken.

The hurricane lopped off a day of our stay in Kentucky and my memory of it is a gray and drizzly blur. We managed one day of driving around the serpentine lake that wraps around part of the park to look for birds. Fat chance on a day like that though. The thing I remember vividly is the narrowness of the rural roads. At one point we met an oncoming pickup that we only missed by inches. I pulled off the road into a driveway and pushed my side mirrors in to the retracted position. The other thing was the beautiful homes that dotted the lush countryside.

Kentucky is rightfully known for faster horses and older whiskey. One thing in abundant supply there is charred oaken barrels. You can’t call your rotgut “bourbon” without aging it in these specific barrels and bourbon is the whiskey of choice in Kentucky. They even have a famous Bourbon Trail for tasting the various brands. It’s like the Appalachian Trail only less straight.

Eastern Bluebird

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Dahna and I are bourbon drinkers and are faithful to one brand and one brand only and that’s Old Crow. None of our friends like the stuff but oddly enough seem to enjoy our house drink which is loaded with it. When we offered Laura one, she was hesitant at first but, feeling adventurous, said, “Oh hell, I’ll try anything once.” After a few sips she said, “Hey, I like this.” Later on she suggested I put the recipe in Trail Writers. Okay, here it is:

1-1/2 oz. Old Crow

Juice of 1/2 lime (1 Tbsp)

1/2  cold can of club soda (we use La Croix lime soda)

1 heaping tsp Splenda or sugar

Lots of ice

Now, you can use “better” bourbon but why bother? Here’s what I know about Old Crow:

  1. It’s cheap.
  2. it won’t give you a hangover.
  3. It’s America’s oldest continuously distilled bourbon.
  4. It’s easier to develop a taste for O.C. than scotch.
  5. U.S. Grant and Mark Twain reportedly preferred it.

We enjoyed our short stay in Kentucky but were glad to leave and head to Ohio and meet our friends Linda and Jeremy. Linda was going to cook for us and we were ready Freddy!

MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 1: Learning to Fly

Dahna and I have traveled quite a lot since ’72 when we headed out west with a battered Whole Earth Catalog to look for land. We bought 80 acres, one half of the homestead of an elderly Dust Bowl couple who still top the list of the sweetest people we ever met. The place sat on a remote mesa in the high desert of southeastern Utah. At 7200 feet of elevation and no electricity or water, or the prospect of either, it was a tough place for two city kids to start out with each other.

We both think the harshness of that place forced us to work as a team and that it was teamwork which led eventually to the kind of love that can sustain a long marriage between two wildly different oddballs like us. This lovey-doveyness might come as a surprise to some of the campers who witnessed us trying to back the trailer into a tight spot on the blind side. Nevertheless.

When we started out back then, we loaded our two dogs into my ’69 Ford E300 cargo van and headed west. It was a brawny one ton beast, but it only had a little six cylinder engine with three speeds on the column, no power anything, radio or A/C. Basically it was Ford’s version of Lenny in Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. It was a good old truck and we tricked it out with plywood cabinets over the wheel wells and a big storage box in back that held our Coleman stove and lantern, plus a tent, bed rolls, dog food and other accoutrements of hippie wandering.

Occasionally we’d hitchhike cross country, generally through the Rockies or the desert of the southwest. In ’76, we very nearly lost our lives near Yellowstone when the Teton Dam collapsed and the Snake River crashed through its narrow valley killing a number of people. We were not among them but only by the slimmest of chances. It was exciting in the way Death staring you in the face often is, but I won’t bore you with the details. I’ll just say that sometimes it’s wonderful when you can not catch a ride down by the river to save your life. Life is the operating word.

About 40 years ago my dad offered to buy us a new boat if we’d supply him with a new life, a grandchild. We threw ourselves into the task but, alas, were unable to fork over the goods to cover our side of the bargain. As a result, we went boatless for another 20 years. After that long dry spell, so to speak, it seemed to make sense to buy a French 41’ blue water, ketch-rigged sailboat. It would make sense to any garden variety lunatic because we knew squat about sailing, or even boating in general. We knew traveling but not on water.

S/V Alchemy Anchored at Lydia Ann Channel, Port Aransas, TxDSC00391

So, we taught ourselves to sail the thing in Galveston Bay and later enjoyed a few years of distance sailing in the Gulf of Mexico. If you’d like to road test your marriage (to mix metaphors a little) take your spouse, your soul mate, out on the ocean in a little boat. “Wait,” I hear you say, “A 41’ boat is a pretty big boat.” No it ain’t, and we’ll see how just big your love for each other really is when you return to port, if you do.

Well, all that was awhile back. Now we travel in an RV and not just any RV. This is our third trailer in four years and that scares me more than just a little. For a long time I thought advancing age would compensate for my declining physical strength with an increase in wisdom, or at least a little better sense of knowing my own mind. Sadly, that’s not the case. I am happy to say that Dahna, who shares equally in the decision-making around here, also happily approved of each purchase and was no help at all.

Our First Camper at Silver Falls State Park, Oregon

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The above profligacy led to Branyan’s First Law of RV Motion: When the number of campers you buy is directly proportional to the number of years you own them, then you, sir, are a moron.

I’m writing this sitting in the booth of an Arctic Fox 25W travel trailer hard on the shore of Lake Erie, a little northeast of Cleveland. We bought this particular brand because it is a quality “true four seasons” camper and it lets you travel up north where freezing will burst the pipes of lesser units. Its plumbing and various tanks are completely enclosed in the insulated and heated space which greatly expands your range as the seasons change. May lightning strike me dead if I ever buy another.

Like most people, we adapted it with a few custom projects to suit, and it’s helped make the camper quite cozy. A long trip like this one takes a lot of preparation but that’s not all. We also needed a true and trusted friend to housesit for about three months while we’re gone. This person has to coordinate with hay cutters/balers, pecan harvesters, my neighbor and close friend Ray (not easy) and various others, all the while registering voters for the midterms (for God’s sake vote this time!), fighting our crappy internet provider and wrangling my broken down lawn mower. Imagine doing all this for three months in the cultural desert that is Comanche, Tx. where I happily live–Dahna not as much. You’ll agree that that requires a special person, a special friend. That person is Patty.

I’ve known Patty for fifty years almost and Dahna’s known her most of her life. She grew up in tough Pasadena, Tx. as one of three beautiful, strapping Irish sisters along with a cute little brother. She’s spent her entire adult life fighting as a Democratic activist in support of worthy officials, like Representative Lloyd Doggett, who actually try to help working people and the poor. From our house she’s boosting Beto O’Rourke’s senate campaign. Years ago she helped manage the campaign of Beto’s father in El Paso, and she ran a little while with Hunter S. Thompson during the Mc Govern campaign of ’72. Maybe she’ll tell you about it. Maybe not.

Patty is also a brave traveler, par excellence. In the last year, she’s pulled the tiniest teardrop camper through almost every state in the nation plus side tripping to Canada. She’s got a lot of stories to tell and we’re lobbying her to go back out there and get some more. The plan is to help her find the perfect upgrade camper and tow vehicle to go with it when we get back home. She’s done a lot of great things and traveling is just one of them.

Patty with Lemon Drop at Big Bend National Park

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She’ll tell you the best thing she ever did, by far, was raising her remarkable son, Hunter. This kid spent three years in the Peace Corps down deep in Paraguay after graduating with a BA in Philosophy. You might think getting a degree in Philosophy is pretty dumb in this day and age, and you would be right if you’re thinking of the average Joe or Jill. But, it’s great training for someone with the horsepower to understand it and that describes Hunter. It took awhile, but he finally met his match in Meagan. Like Patty before them (and still), they’re dedicating their lives to fighting the good fight. We’d better hope they win. They travel like crazy too and recently hung out in Guatemala working with farmers, Meagan’s specialty. No expensive RV necessary.

Okay, we had our expensive RV all hooked up in the driveway. Sacha was in her backseat with her pretty blue eye, and I was about to strip a mental gear. What did I forget? What else? I saw Patty standing by the truck so I walked up to her and said, “I’m going to give you a hug in a minute so you stay put.” Then I started walking around in tighter and tighter circles until Dahna finally said, “Get in the damn truck and let’s GO!” Hugs and kisses and, at last, the three of us were off to Nova Scotia. Flying.

Whooping Cranes at Goose Island State Park, Texas

WHOOPERS

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

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In May of 1995 I drew my last actual paycheck ever after a year of teaching Chemistry and Physics at Pflugerville High School just north of Austin, Texas. I hired on there from a small school in Hico, a tiny ranching town in north central Texas. My contract had been renewed but I missed my little school and the tough, self-reliant country kids that came with it. Besides, I wanted to do something else even though I loved teaching and it was a good fit for me. Of course, it meant surrendering once again to my recessive “leaf in the wind” gene which, depending on circumstances, can lead to really great things like marrying Dahna or really bad things like losing an arm in Vietnam. The wind blows to a lot of places, and if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself traveling to climes both sunny and dark.  At least you’re traveling.

Continue reading The Journey Begins

Down Mexico Way

November 25, 2017

The trip from Garner to Falcon State Park took us through the streets of Laredo. We’d never been to this little burg, and were surprised to find it’s a lot like Los Angeles, only bigger. Seriously, if you think the border is sparsely sprinkled with dusty little towns inhabited by white-linened oxcart drivers, think again. There are millions of people of all descriptions living down here, with about half of them zooming around in patrol cars chasing the other half. Apparently border paranoia is a terrific job creator for the bullethead set, but I have yet to see one single donut shop. That confirms we’re not in Kansas anymore. Anyway, it takes gas to get from Garner to Falcon, and I had just enough sense to get it before Laredo.

Truck stops are the best places to get gas when you’re pulling a pretty long trailer because, usually, you have more swing room. The road sign said, ‘FLYING J,’ so I said, “Cool,” and exited. Not cool. We hit the biggest tractor trailer logjam in Texas history, which really pissed off the drivers because once it finally cleared, they were out for blood and in no mood to accommodate us tourists. Imagine driving a Smart car in the Daytona 500. I got air horned twice, and not in a good way, before ducking into the station. Ah NAFTA—Cheap flimsy crap by the truckload.

I spotted a driver side pump but got cut off by a sneaky SUV. The only other one was way over on the other side, but it was hemmed in by a bunch of semis parked at an angle, Le Mans style, leaving only a narrow access lane to the pump. I took a chance on it anyway and threaded my way through, miraculously without hitting anybody or anything. I pulled up to the pump…good old #3. You know, the only pump anywhere whose nozzle is too big to go into the filler hole. I won’t strain your credulity with how the rest of the day went from that point straight into the toilet, but I’d say it wasn’t the worst day of my life. Maybe not the worst day ever.

Falcon State Park sits on the huge Falcon reservoir which serves the U.S. and Mexico with its dammed up Rio Grande water. It’s a fisherman’s and birder’s paradise, two pastimes that share their demand for stealth and patience. Dahna has both of these plus a fine eye for detail, a knack for taxonomy, and the technical skill to handle a sophisticated camera like a pro. She uses all this talent to get some really stunning shots of what’s becoming a very long list of avian species and varieties. My job is to carry stuff, control Sacha, and resist the urge to photobomb the shot. I try not to say much when she’s talking shop with the other birders because I know doodley about birds. Taxonomy is a must, but that stuff rolls off me like water off a duck’s back. I know red bird, blue bird, squirrel! So, trying not to embarrass her, I generally affect an arrogant faraway gaze to repel anybody from talking to me. It usually works, but sometimes I get busted.

Curved Bill Thrasher- Falcon Reservoir
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Salineño Wildlife Refuge isn’t too far from the park, is famous as a “Don’t Miss!” among birders, and is funded by a conservation consortium including Texas Parks and Wildlife. The place is hosted by RV live-in couples who volunteer for months at a time and rotate duty among themselves. It was manned this time by a nifty Iowa couple about our age who were expert birders and really knew the area from their many years of service there. An international set of birders were there when we arrived, about 20 or so, training their long-lensed, tripod-mounted cameras on the birds and butterflies. We quietly moved in and stood in back and Dahna started shooting. A moment later, a large female hound started sniffing me up. Her owner, the hostess, whispered, “You must have a dog. If it’s in the car, it’s okay to bring it here. She likes other dogs.”

Pyrrhuloxia – Falcon Reservoir
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I retrieved Sacha, and as soon as I got close to the site, the hound came tearing out, with the hostess right behind, and the two dogs had a quick meeting of the nose. All was well until a minute later when Sacha took a giant poop right in front of the lady’s RV and then scratched up a dust storm worthy of the Dust Bowl itself trying to cover it up. The whole incredible performance only took only a few seconds, but it kicked off a deafening cacophony in the trees nearby. I turned to look and blurted out, “What the hell is that??” She said, “They’re chacalacas.” “What’s a chacalaca?” I asked. Her look of astonishment caused me to realize I had blown my cover. “Why, it’s a bird,” she said, “A big brown bird.” I figured I might as well confess, “My wife’s the birder. I’m the gofer, but hey, I do have a poop bag.” She said, “Forget it,” and giving my arm a little squeeze said, “Let’s go back in.” Back inside, she petted Sacha so I could watch the birds through the binoculars. Nice, nice people. Later, I asked Dahna if she ever heard of a chacalaca and she said, “Sure. I’ve got some shots of them. Big brown bird.”

Plain Chacalaca
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Green jays were the most common birds there, and there were tons of them at the park. These are beautiful (“gaudy” as Dahna says) tropical birds. They have blue heads with black chins, green wings and yellow underbellies. I’m still partial to my fave, the bluejay because they love to scream just to be obnoxious. They always remind me of those bucolic summers when school let out and our parents wanted us to get lost until dinnertime. We’d eat and then they’d kick us out again. Heaven on earth. Someone said you can’t grow old in the same America you were born into. [sigh]

Green Jay- Salineño
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Falcon’s wildlife wasn’t limited just to birds. We had a friendly pack of javelinas that roamed through our sites and Dahna saw a coyote stroll by right down the middle of the road. We saw an entire flock of roadrunners there, about 7 or 8 or so. Back home we hardly ever see them and then they’re always solitary. About a year ago, I saw our cat chasing one through the back yard. The bird took a mighty wing-assisted leap up and over the roof of the cabin, and the cat kind of spun around wondering where the hell it went. Beep Beep is where it went.

The most exotic wildlife we saw, rarely seen in Texas, was an old mating pair of New Mexico liberals. Liz and Charlie were our neighbors, and we nearly extended our stay another day just to hang out with them. Charlie was a retired something or other who retired from Los Alamos where he worked on something or other that had to do with lasers. He was, as you might expect, a technical whiz who had his camper tricked out with solar arrays, wildlife cameras, and other gadgets. They were experienced boondockers who often camped off grid for a week at a time, usually at national parks or on BLM ground. The threat of Trump and the Republicans to the public ownership of these lands led to a gentle dance of political opinionating that evolved into a full-blown polka stomp of liberal outrage. We had a high old time and discovered they were considering going to Choke Canyon State Park. We’re going there too on the way home, and there’s a slim chance we might meet up with them again. Meeting people like these guys is a lot of the reason we do this.

Gulf Fritillary Butterfly
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The short trip from Falcon to the Paradise RV Park in Harlingen took a long time because the 100 mile distance is mostly town, and you make lousy time. The park is privately run and functions as a winter home for a lot of snowbirds who own their own lots. Some have small trailer houses all decked out while others live in their motorhomes or campers. It’s a not-so-little village with lots of folks with various temperaments. One woman pounded on her window and barked at Dahna when Sacha peed on her lawn. Then again, when I almost ran over a couple of ladies last night, they were pretty good about it.

Our particular site was not good, and I’m afraid my language wasn’t very nice around Jeff who skipped over to help us get situated when we drove up. He’s a retired Army chaplain who goes around in his motorhome helping veterans with their PTSD. I told him my PTSD was working just fine at the moment, thank you very much. Dahna hates it when do-gooders rush over to help us set up, and she finally had enough and basically ran him off. He’s a nice sky pilot on a mission though, and he runs his own little nonprofit with his wife, Chrissy. Sometimes he runs halfway across the country to assist families of veterans left behind by suicide. I’ll probably donate a little.

Great Kiskadee
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The next day we drove out to South Padre Island Birding Center which is just this incredible thing. It was Thanksgiving Day and the center itself, with its multi-storey observation decks, was closed but the best part was accessible. This was, I swear to God, about a mile of first class walkway elevated about 4’ over the brackish tidal marsh on the lagoon side of the island. It must have cost millions and came complete with fancy rest area/bird blinds. We had Sacha in her harness at the entrance, and Dahna was already shooting while I read the big sign that said, “NO PETS ALLOWED ON THE BOARDWALK.”

As I was telling Dahna about the sign, a woman wearing an official shirt marched up and stated flat out, “That’s a fine looking service dog you have there.” I started to correct her but she repeated, “Yes indeed, a beautiful service dog you have right there. Sitting there.” Dahna confided to her, “They’re very close.” They both turned to stare at my dumb blank face until, finally, the lady said, “If anybody says anything, you say, ‘service dog,’ okay?” I said, “Yes Ma’am.” She actually thanked me for my service as she walked off, but I had recovered enough to yell back, “Thank you for YOUR service.” Dahna said, “Shh, you’ll scare the birds,” and the three of us headed down the long path.

White Ibis- South Padre
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White-faced Ibis – Resaca de la Palma State Park
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This place turned out to be the Valhalla of birding in south Texas. There were zillions of birds we never see like tricolor herons, little blue herons, black necked stilts, various kingfishers tons of ospreys on the wing and a bunch of different ducks. I particularly like her close shots of a roseate spoonbill and those of a couple of big alligators lurking cinemagraphically in the marsh grass. We’re talking about coming back for a longer stay sometime in the foreseeable future since we barely scratched the birding surface. The Tex Mex is cheap and tasty as is the seafood. Always go to the old family restaurants.

Little Blue Heron – South Padre
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We’re leaving for Choke Canyon tomorrow and hope to do a little kayaking there. See you back at the ranch.

Vermillion Flycatcher – Falcon Reservoir
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Let’s Go To Garner State Park

 

November 21, 2017

Maybe you remember the old B.J. Thomas song, and maybe you’ve been to Garner. For Dahna and I, unknown to each other in those days, Garner was THE early 1960’s summer hot spot. The park was built in the late 30’s by Roosevelt’s CCC and 25 years later became Mecca for Texas kids who loved dancing the old cowboy Whip, the clear Frio River, and the cheap thrills of Mexico 90 miles away. Notorious Ciudad Acuna lies across the Rio Grande from Del Rio and was, and maybe still is, the target for gringo teenagers with wheels and shit for brains. We could buy liquor for pennies but still overpaid somehow, and we’d circle the pretty Mexican “girls” in the Sur Club or the Brown Derby. It became clear pretty soon who was circling whom, but penicillin was cheap and effective in those days, so nobody really cared. Back home there was always somebody who knew somebody and…well, it always worked out.

Once, coming back across the border in my newly-inherited ’57 Ford, about 2:00 a.m. with three of my buddies, the officer asked if we were bringing back any alcoholic beverages. I was about to naively say, “No sir,” when Jimmy piped up, “Yeah, but you’ll never find it.” You’d be surprised how fast two cops can dismantle the interior of a car. As good as they were, they were too dumb to frisk Jimmy who had a half pint of Bacardi down the front of his Levis. He was too loaded to be of much help putting my car back together, and it probably took us at least an hour but I don’t remember for sure. Jimmy lived into his late 60’s which is far longer than he had a right to.

Okay, so we’re all loaded up. The pickup’s gassed up with the kayak lashed on top, the RV’s packed and battened up in travel mode, and Sacha’s a little nervous in her comfy backseat. Neighbor Ray has been instructed to shoot anything that needs shooting. Allan has the house keys and is the master of the cats’ domain—not that there is anything wrong with that. The truck is pointed at the cattle guard, and we’re about to start our 14 day birding safari headed for points south. I looked over at Dahna and said, “This would be a great time for you to remember whatever it is you forgot.” She looked out the windshield and replied, “I guess you’re going on this trip without sunglasses.” A few minutes later, we were underway.

We got to Garner a little before 4:00, and there was a long, slow moving check-in line in the big, sleek headquarters building that looked inside like the lobby of Trump Tower, but more tasteful. This was a huge change from the old days when there was no headquarters, first of all, so you didn’t have to check in, second of all. We’d drive in and just park somewhere on the grass and eventually a ranger would come by and hit us up for two bucks and stick a receipt in the wipers. It was always good form to wash off the Ciudad Acuna evidence from the tail fins before he got there. There, in the summer of ’64, we were hot to trot and the skies were not cloudy all day like they were this time.

Northern Cardinal
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The weather wasn’t great when we left, but the forecast was good. Not so the forecasting. First it was fog, then fog with mist, then mist with drizzle, then cold with drizzle, mist and fog. I wasn’t worried though because Garner is Shangri-La as everybody knows and everything’s perfect there. I was worried about the gas, however. This new camper is bigger and heavier than the old retro, and the kayak on top combines to turn our normal gas guzzling truck into an aerodynamic brickbat of Godzilla proportions. Divide 210 miles by 30 gallons to get some idea. To be fair, there were lots of hills.

Unlike Dahna, I was too slow-witted to walk Sacha when we got there so had the pleasure of standing in line for over 30 minutes waiting to check in. I wondered, ‘Who the hell are all these old farts? Don’t they have jobs? Jeez!’ Finally, I stood before the lady ranger and listened to her sad story while she assigned us the worst spot in the park. She was worried about her son, a naval aviator trainee now assigned to the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi. She probably imagined the kid splashing his trainer jet in the bay like John McCain did 50+ years ago.

Cypress Trees on The Frio River
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Our spot at Garner wasn’t really the worst. I’m sure plenty of people would have loved it. Hermits, for example. I’d like to know more about the hermit community but not by being one. I guess some people drag around a three ton RV in order to get away from the madding crowd, but that’s really not it. The purpose of RVing is to get out of your nice house so you can stay in a pinched rattletrap among lots of PEOPLE YOU DON’T KNOW. It ain’t camping! You pay a pretty high price in effort and money to meet friendly and intelligent folks who don’t give a rat’s patooie if you live or die. It’s liberating, truly. You’re not supposed to be lonely. You’re not getting away from it all if you do it right.

We were lonely for three days in our huge and forlorn “Frio River” loop. The park was half full but not where we were. Looking left or right through the drizzly fog, you saw only empty spaces. We drove down to the heart of our old memories, the beautiful, deserted stone pavilion where we danced all those years ago and took a quiet turn or two through the Whip. We reminisced about the corny songs we loved to dance to on the old jukebox, like “Black Land Farmer” and “Fraulein” and “Last Kiss.” Well, you had to be there. In the early ‘60s I mean.

Dance Pavillion
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CCC “Combination Building – Gift Shop, Restaurant & Mess Hall
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Dahna did see and photograph some cool birds such as a golden fronted woodpecker, some pine siskins, a yellow-rumped warbler and a pair of Egyptian geese. The place was full of huge jack rabbits that looked like long-eared dogs through the fog and a flock of wild turkeys trotted by through the mist. The best thing, critter wise, was our dawning discovery that our rescue girl, Sacha the problem dog, returned once, if not twice, to the shelter is, in fact, a sparkling gem.

Me with Sacha inside a Cypress
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Yesterday, as we marveled at how she combines the best traits of both Daisy and Libby, two of the world’s greatest dogs of all time, Dahna wondered aloud in hushed tones, “Is this the perfect dog? Did Daisy send her to us?” We are smitten.

Texas Jackrabbit
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The crappy weather never let up and for the first time in our lives, we were glad to get out of Garner State Park. We got a good early start and the hookup went smooth as silk. Our spirits were improving at the prospect of sunny skies down on the border 260 miles south at Falcon reservoir. It looked like clear sailing but, as you know, we’re the Branyans and the Simpsons have nothing on us. I won’t say it was the worst day of my life but…

Turkey Heaven
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