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

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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.

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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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