Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Stars At Night Are Big and Bright...Especially in West Texas!

     I love Spring Break and true to fashion we used the week to get out of town while our great city plays host to music lovers from around the world. We broke the drive into 2 legs stopping for the night in Fort Stockton. An interesting little town with a few motels and a Walmart. Which was nice considering we forgot a few things. We actually made 3 trips to Wally-World, so many that the guys outside selling hand carved crosses knew us by name. And what is the deal with RV's camping for the night in the Walmart parking lot? Seriously there were a dozen or so all set up like it was an RV park? Strange indeed..Ate dinner at the local K-Bobs had not eaten there since I was 7 and they had a salad bar in an old bath tub. It was ok, at least they had pickled beets! And that night Caleb got to watch his first SNL, the first of many firsts in a cheap motel (bad joke I know but funny.)
     The next morning we were off! Not 20 minutes into our drive we saw Ruby's doppleganger! It was the exact model and color of Ruby. We screamed and waved. I got to drive the 2nd day which is a rarity since Paco always drives. It was the best part of the trip. Seeing the mountains looming in the background and watching them get closer was a beautiful sight. We first passed thru the town of Balmorhea where we would stay our last night. Such a cute, old West Texas town with a lovely canal flowing thru the middle of it. I made a mental note of a mexican dive for later in the trip.
     Then it was up and up and up to the Davis Mountains. We stepped out at the park entrance and were almost blown over by the chilly wind. No fires, burn ban and for good reason. Hmmm...this would be our first trip with no campfire, glad we packed the stove. Ruby got popped up in no time. Along the road was a bird viewing area and within minutes the boys were rattling off names while I basked in the sun. Then we took a short 5 mile hike up the Montezuma trail, named after the Montezuma quail which had not made an appearance yet this season. The trail was straight up for a while and we took our time. Billy goat Caleb was at the top in no time. The trail curved and came back around the old Indian Lodge which was quaint.
     The time change worked out great and gave us more time to be outside but it got cold very quickly the first night. Paco whipped us up some pasta with Gran Rosie's homemade marinara sauce and we were quickly inside Ruby for the night. This was a first for us because we usually only use Ruby to sleep in and I was hoping we wouldn't feel trapped. The evenings spent inside Ruby were probably one of my favorite parts of the trip. We had plenty of room with the couch, chairs and table. Paco was teaching the boy poker and I was playing DJ on the Ipad. Things got silly and we laughed so much that Ruby was a rocking. I love how we as a family make the best of any situation and always have a good time together. Later that night after the boy had gone to sleep Paco and I went outside and marveled at the night sky. So bright it felt like the stars could be hand plucked from the sky.
     I packed extra blankets thinking it might be a bit chilly and am so glad I did because it got REALLY cold that first night. So cold that when I went to boil some water for my coffee the water in our jugs was frozen solid, even the water in Ruby was frozen! But luckily it warmed up fast. I grabbed my mug and the boy and I took off for the bird blind where I listened to his vast knowledge of birds and marveled at what an amazing and brilliant kid he is (hey I can say that I am his mom.) His knowledge of birds is immense, thanks to Paco and it is fun to hear him rattle off facts. *All birds to be listed later in the comments section.
     Later after some oatmeal we took off for our big hike, the 9 mile trek to the overlook. The boy led the way and the hours and miles flew. The views were breathtaking! I got inspired to resume work on our cactus garden at home. Hiking with my boys makes my heart happy and grateful. We crossed paths with a troop of boy scouts who were litter bugs! I wish I could have made their trash stick to their butts like a children's book I read once. Fueled with cliff bars we headed down the old CCC trail and we back to the camp by afternoon.
     Our legs were weary and we lazed the afternoon away. We did manage to make one more trip to the bird blind where Paco ran into an old birding friend who now lives in California. The cottonwood trees along the creek were immense! The wind began to die down and temperatures began to dip quickly. Another night of pasta, although we caught hints of someone barbecuing and wanted their dinner instead! We hunkered down quickly for the night again in Ruby. It was a little more tame but still a fun time was had by all. Thankfully the temperature did not drop as low.
     Not sure if it was the time change or the long hike but we all slept in a little more than usual. No frozen water this time. The boy and I hit the bird blind one last time with high hopes of seeing the Montezuma quail but no luck. I made some pretty perfect camp cakes, the boy's term for pancakes and we packed up quickly.
     We saw Fort Davis from a distance on our hike and the boy and Paco really wanted to check it out. I requested multiple times that I wanted to go to Marfa but they ignored me. The Fort was crowded with tourists so we did the drive by. Then it was off to Balmorhea for the night.
     Along the two lane road were some smaller hills. I was staring off into the hills daydreaming when I  spotted some desert big horn sheep. They were splendid, just leaping up the rocky hillside. Balmorhea is a quaint, tiny town with a stream or canal running the length of the entire main street. Just outside the town Paco spotted some rare lark buntings, apparently these were a big deal. We stopped at the only convenience store and the boy spotted some kids from my school. I didn't believe him but sure enough there were indeed some kiddos. I was amazed, way out in a tiny West Texas town!
      The boy was anxious to get to the pool, the largest spring fed pool in the world! We were also camping here for our last night. After checking in and pulling into our spot for the it was changing time. My good mood was slowly dissipating as I pulled out the swimsuit. Why, oh why had I said that it would be so cool for us all to jump in the water together. I despise cold water and have been known to go days without bathing if there is no hot water. It would have been tolerable if the outside temperature was warm but it was maybe 60 degrees with a strong north wind. I was grouchy but determined to keep my word so we lined up on the side and handed a stranger my phone to take a picture. 1,2,3, Jump! It was not that bad at all, in fact the water temperature stays between 70 and 75 degrees year round. I was pleasantly surprised. AND there were fish everywhere! The boy swam with goggles and dove down to get a closer look. Some parts of the spring reached 25 feet in depth. It was very beautiful but I got cold and exited the water. In addition to the pool there was also a ginormous cottonwood tree that was home to a great horned owl who was just hanging out watching everyone. 
     After swimming we wandered around the campground exploring the various canal walkways and cienegas. The boy spotted some soft shelled turtles hanging out on the bank that were as big as Luling thumpers! We also observed some ring billed duck, hooded mergansers and scaup. By then our stomachs were growling so we headed back into Balmorhea for dinner.
     There was only one restaurant in town besides the convenience store, a mexican place that was in a large pink house. We have the best luck with local dives and our streak continues. This place was delicious and we left with full bellies.
     Our last night in Ruby was uneventful but we still played cards. I was finally beating Paco in gin. We were wind blown and a little sunburned so we crashed early. The next morning we decided to skip breakfast and hit the road. The journey home was quick and Paco drove the entire way. I finished a book and climbed into the back to harass the boy. In Fort Stockton we met the driver of a Vanaru, a converted Volkswagon with a Subaru engine. It was impressive and we spent a few minutes marveling at each others vw...
     Ruby you have filled us with such memories! You have been the best financial decision our family has ever made. The boy recently turned 12 and reminded us nonchalantly that he only had 6 more years at home with us. I foresee many more trips and many more miles to go before you sleep..xo mama rosa

Sunday, January 27, 2013

We Brought the Girls!

     I don't particularly care for January. It is a long month, post holidays, the days are short, we have to go back to work...wah, wah! But we do get a long weekend in January and even though we had only been back at work for a few weeks I was already in need of a break.
     Luckily we had planned ahead and booked a site, many of the parks were already filled, which is awesome. This long weekend we would be heading east to Huntsville State Park. And this time we were bringing our girls: Juno, a golden retriever and Sassy, a terrier/mut mix. Juno had been camping with us once before pre-Ruby to Garner State Park when she was still a pup. Sassy had never been on the road with us. Our neighbors would graciously watch them whenever we took off. This time however we decided to give it a go. Crossing our fingers that it would work out.
     Saturday post last long run we loaded up and hit the road. The journey was a little farther, about 3 1/2 hours. The girls loved the trip. We stopped in Navasota to let them have a break. That is an interesting little town. There were so many old mansions. I spied one for sale but was the idea was quickly shot down. A charming drive though thru lots of cow country.
     The park, which was just outside of Huntsville, was crowded! We had to go inside to check in and like I said earlier so glad we had reservations because they were packed. The clerk was not in a mood for humor and when I asked her which of the remaining sites were the best she was very nonchalant. We chose one with a view of the lake.
     Huntsville is very popular with day trippers. The parking lots were filled and there were tons of hikers and bikers. When we pulled up closer to our site we had to do a double take because it was covered with boyscouts. We checked the site number and confirmed that it was indeed our spot. The troop leader apologized and said they would be gone shortly. Girls were anxious to stretch their legs so the boy and I took a short jaunt to a fishing pier. There were warning signs about alligators but we never saw any. The scouts left and we got busy.
     On this trip we didn't pop up Ruby, no need since the boy would be sleeping in a tent with the dogs. It had been quite a while since we had set up the tent. I love the attention Ruby gets when she is popped up. As we were setting up camp I noticed that just across the road was a large group of teenagers with skateboards, mini motorcycles..I groaned and yes pre-judged them. I was instantaneously taken back to Connecticut when we camped next to some very interesting and loud campers. But as the days and nights passed I was pleasantly surprised. We stayed up later and were probably noisier then they were. Ok after setting up camp we decided to just lay low since it was already late afternoon. The game set that I bought at Christmas was a big hit. We played washers and ladder ball until it got too dark.
     Dinner was muy bueno thanks to our new camping stove. I don't know how we survived without it (oh yeh we ate dinner from a bag!) Paco whipped us up some fajitas. The campground was very quiet. There was a nice family next to us with their grandfather, I mean dad, it was hard to tell.  They ran their camp like a little military school with orders being shouted. I'm surprised they didn't play taps the next morning. I was exhausted from the miles run earlier and crashed early. The girls were hesitant at first to crawl into the tent but eventually settled in.
     I slept in longer then usual because the boy was not slamming the door back and forth. But when I stepped out of Ruby the boy made it clear to me that he was starving. I made some killer "campcakes" and we spent a lazy morning reading  until we decided to take a hike. There are quite a few trails and without the girls we might have ventured further but our girls could only handle about 4 miles before a break. The trail was peaceful and it was a nice change to be under the tall pines. But where were the birds? There were birds but not much variety at all. In fact even that night there were no creatures?! I wonder if it is because of all the day traffic at the park?
     After our hike we mellowed out in the beautiful, unseasonably warm weather. We read, played games and read some more. There are no cool animal stories or adventures in this entry. Just a lot of R & R, which is what we all needed. I did pick up a cool radio station out of Livingston that played old hits from the 70's. The boy got serenaded a few times. He will have such a well rounded taste in music when he grows up. I hope someday he will hear an old Steely Dan song and be instantly transported back into time and camping with us! Love that boy so much and treasure these weekends that we can steal away from the busy-ness.

     Later that evening with our roaring fire we devoured burgers and the boy was invited to have a smore with the camp next door, he quickly returned. The tall pines against the setting sun and later the moonlight were magical. Overall a beautiful park but one that we probably wouldn't return too. We still have about 30 parks to hit! I think that it will take us longer than two years, my original goal, but we will get there. And now we know that we can ring the girls! Enjoy this weather as crazy as it is and get out there..Happy Trails :) Mamma Rosa

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Oh No You Didn't!!! Long entry but 4 parks

     A week or so ago I read in the paper that a young couple was attempting to visit all the Texas county courthouses and then write a book. That was all fine and dandy until I read that they also intend to visit all the state parks and write a book about that! Oh no you don't that is my gig! Besides most of the state parks we actually camp in none of this Griswold family vacation business, we actually spend the night and get to know the lay of the land. AND we have Ruby..do they have the coolest Eurovan in the south? Yeh, I don't think so. So cute young couple watch your back we have a head start..Ok not really (well yes really) but that is awesome that Texas State Parks are getting some of the attention they deserve. They are fabulous and read on to hear all about 4 New Parks we visited over the holidays. Yeh 4!!
     Paco's grandma turned 90 earlier in December. 90 years old! Grandpa is 92. They both get around quite well and still live at home. More about them later..They live in the Rio Grande Valley, Pharr to be more specific which is rather far (sorry I teach elementary school.) We missed her birthday but wanted to go and visit so we searched for a few parks along the way and in the vicinity. Our first destination would be Choke Canyon, just outside the town of 3 Rivers.
     A medium size park with a large lake and a couple of other smaller ones. We arrived a little after 2. Popped up Ruby, bought some firewood and went on some hikes. Our first hike was along the lake shore where we saw some little shore birds that began with a p  *DISCLAIMER*  I am not a birder, I appreciate a good bird and can spot them but have no idea which is which. So the boy and Paco who are huge birders will edit this and add all the bird names at the end. We hiked around for just a few hours and were blown away at the wildlife we encountered! 8 point bucks, huge gobblers, armadillos, javelinas and a bald eagle!! I do remember a couple of birds on my own because they were so breathtaking, a vermilion fly catcher and roseated spoonbills. On the way back to the campground while discussing how incredibly lucky we were a great horned owl flew right in front of us. And then as the sun was setting we spotted him again in a tree hooting away (looking for love.) Amazing even a non birder could appreciate the moment.
     Back at our site which was by the way very cute and quaint we settled in and added a few more layers as it was becoming quite chilly. We were excited to try out some new camping toys. A multi-portable game set that included ladder ball and washers and my new obsession a short wave radio. We also ordered a new multi burner camp stove but it did not get delivered in time. After sharing a few dinner in a bags I played with the radio. I picked up stations from Asia, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and San Antonio. The boy talked and talked. Now that he is in middle school the conversations and the questions are quite entertaining. One of the things I love the most is how our conversations flow without the interruptions of technology. The fireside chats will always be my favorite part of camping.
     Paco stayed up later of course but saw no animals which was puzzling because my favorite Christmas cookies were GONE the next morning, tin and all. The cooler had mud tracks and scratch marks all over it...coon? We hiked a few more trails saw some more birds see below for the list.
     Our stomachs were growling and we were off for the valley but not without a quick grub stop in George West. I love the names of the towns on the way south. We randomly picked a cafe. I love small town cafes. I try to eavesdrop on conversations and make up stories about the people I see. We asked our waiter for recommendation he said the burgers with hand made patties and fresh baked jalapeno buns. One of the best burgers I have had in a long time!
     In a food coma the rest of the drive to Pharr was a blur. I fell victim to the gaping open mouth nap, I can always tell because when I wake up and glance at Paco he is stifling a laugh. I hate when that happens. At least I don't druel...yet. We checked into our hotel, yes a hotel don't you watch Border Wars I was not camping in the valley! After quick showers so we wouldn't scare Grandma we went over to grandma's house.
     I love Grandma's house! It is warm, but not too warm and there is always something on the stove. Grandma is happiest when she is making you fatter. Uncle Tito and Aunt Irene were also visiting (my favorites :) We all feasted on steak, cabrito (roasted goat) and fresh tortillas and we weren't even hungry. The boy is a very adventurous eater and was all over the cabrito. I was happy that Aunt Irene was sharing her wine. Soon after stuffing ourselves we bid Grandma and Grandpa goodnight and went back to the hotel.
     The next morning I rose early to try and run. Training for a marathon and camping are hard but I was glad that I at least had a treadmill and only 10 miles to log. It was mind numbingly boring and I stopped after 7. After a quick breakfast we headed to a state park in the area, Benson State Park. A beautiful little park just outside of McAllen. You can camp here, primitive only but you wouldn't catch me there! In the couple hours we were there we saw several border patrol vehicles multiple times. It was a little unnerving and sad. There were my favorite birds, green jays and many, many others including a clay colored robin-thrush. See below for the boys' lists.
     All that hiking made me hungry and I had a hankering for some tamales. Aunt Irene had told us about a place in town called Dalias. If the line was an indicator then I knew they must be good. We bought 3 dozen and took them to Grandma's. She of course had some fresh caldo (beef stew) on the stove. So we feasted! The best tamales hands down that I have ever had and this green sauce that I could drink. And grandma's caldo, well if I could bottle and sell it I would be a rich woman. So yeh that is how it is when we go to visit Grandmas we hike and then stuff ourselves and repeat! After linner (what the boy calls a late lunch) we went to another nature preserve, Santa Anna and hiked for a bit till the sun started setting. In some ways the valley reminds me of the panhandle. They are both flat, dusty but breathtaking sunsets!
     One last meal at Grandmas. Uncle Tito had even made some sweetbreads, YUK! The boy of course willingly indulged and enjoyed. I stuck to a few more tamales and vino. I love when Grandma gets nostalgic and shares old stories like when Paco was a small boy and put salt in her hair when she was sleeping. We bid farewell for the night and settled in for our last night at the hotel. I was really looking forward to the next morning!
     One of my most favorite people in the world who I had the great fortune to teach next to for a couple of years moved to the valley. I was heartbroken when she moved away I couldn't even teach in the classroom next to her so I volunteered to move to the trailer park. She was even the boys teacher. Anyways she is cute as a button and had a baby 2 months ago!! A baby girl I will dub Miss M! I had not yet met Miss M so I was beyond excited. We drove the short drive to their casa and Miss M met me at the door. I love babies and think they are almost all cute but Miss M. She stole my heart at first glance. Seriously the most beautiful baby girl I have ever met. I whisked her away and immediately began the mommy sway. I was in love. I am in love. In fact that made my New Years Wish list, to have my own Miss M. I just want to wake up one morning and there on the door step is my own baby girl. I miss you old friend but am so happy for you and your family. xoxo
     So after the baby love fest we set out for Rockport with breakfast tacos from El Pato (yum!) Long drive, well at least it felt long. But I found an oldies station out of Corpus and sang Paco a few tunes. Our destination was Goose Island, another state park where we would spend the night. When we arrived I was immediately annoyed that we were only staying one night. The park looked amazing and I thought there would be no way we could explore it all in one afternoon. #205 was a our primo camping spot. It was secluded and wooded and perfectly lovely. The boy wanted to be on the bayside but it was still cool and the sea breeze made it even colder.
     A windy hike out on the long pier with many sea birds with different names flying overhead. Then we drove Ruby over to visit the oldest oak tree in Texas. The height was not impressive but the twisty roots were interesting reminded me of a literal family tree. We then searched out an oyster joint where of course I ran into a student from my school. After shooting a dozen or so we began to talk about the boat tour we would be waking up at 6 a.m. for...ugh I have to admit that this was something I was not looking forward to. A cold bird boat tour, not my cup of tea. But I love my boys and they were excited so I faked my enthusiasm and was game.
     Our last campfire was windy! But a what a great fire. The phone alarm was obnoxious and all of us changing in Ruby was a funny sight. Thankfully Paco buffered us with enough time for some quick coffee before boarding the skimmer. I immediately liked the boat, they had a warm lower section surrounded with windows, blankets and more coffee. The captain was friendly and had a long southern draw like Robert Earl Keen. Oh I almost forgot the tell you the main purpose of this boat tour was to see the endangered whooping crane. There are only about 400 of these birds left in the world. In addition to the whooping cranes there were many, many other birds you could encounter.
     Our very first stop we were fortunate enough to witness a pair of these majestic creatures! They took my breath away. The whole trip was 3 hours but it felt like half an hour. We saw a total of 15 whooping cranes and countless other birds (47 other species!) See list below. The boy and Paco were in heaven and I was overwhelmed with happiness for my boys. Watching Paco outside with his eyes peeled to the horizon, huge grin plastered to his face made me fall in love with him all over again. He has truly given me the gift of seeing the beauty that surrounds us everyday. And then seeing the boy at the bow of the boat with his  wavy hair blowing in the breeze smile permanently frozen, well it made my eyes swell with tears at how fast he is growing and how I need to remember to treasure every moment. Whew...see I too loved the boat tour for more reasons other then the whooping crane.
     After the tour the skies opened up and light rain began to fall and pretty much followed us all the way home. We took mostly back roads which was fun. I made Paco pull over in Goliad so we could tour the mission and check that state park off the list. Our stomachs were growling but we held out until Lockhart and Smitty's. Have you ever been there? If you sadly answered no well then friend you have to go and soon. Hands down our favorite barbecue! And my favorite beans, sorry boys.
     So I started this entry ranting about my so called rivals but have realized that I am the true winner. I am traveling this great state of ours with my best friends making memories that will last a lifetime. So here's to a new year and new adventures in Ruby! Our next trip will be to the Piney Woods region of east Texas. Peace and Love, Mama Rosa :)

Birds :) 
From the boat tour/last day
common loon, eared greeb, American white pelican, brown pelican, double crested cormorant, neotropic cormorant, great blue heron, great egret, reddish egret, tricolored heron, black crowned night heron, white ibis, roseated spoonbill, mottled duck, northern pintail, redhead, lesser scaup, common goldeneye, bufflehead, red breasted merganser, ruddy duck, turkey vulture, black vulture, northeren harrier, sharp skinned hawk, red shouldered hawk, red tailed hawk, osprey, crested caracara, American kestrel, whooping crane, sandhill crane, black bellied plover, killdeer, American oystercatcher, American avocet, lesser yellow legs,. ring billed gull, herring gull, willet, long billed curlew, marbled godwit, ruddy turnstone, long billed dowitcher, bonapartes gull, laughing gull, lesser blackbacked gull, caspian tern, royal tern, foresters tern, morning dove, mockingbird, belted kingfisher, caroline wren, great tailed grackle, western meadowlark, house sparrow