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Life In The Slow Lane With Eric & Laurel

~Because it’s all about the journey~

Snapshot Of A Winter In Florida

Snapshot Of A Winter In Florida

Posted by on Jun 9, 2018 in Florida, Gallery, Travel | 27 comments

If you are a full-time RV’er, you know there are only a handful of reasonable possibilities when winter rolls around: Arizona, southern California, south Texas, and Florida. That’s about it.

Most winters, we experience a little bit of it all as we travel across the country from Oregon to Florida. Were it not for my parents in Apalachicola, I doubt we would make it as far as Florida every year. But the upside is that we get to enjoy winter in a semi-tropical paradise without leaving the country.

We spent February and March in Florida this year, and in between spending time with my folks, made little trips to some of our favorite places. There’s a wild side to Florida, and that’s the Florida that we love.

Late afternoon in the pine flatwoods of the Florida Panhandle

Oaks and Spanish moss at St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge, one of the finest refuges in the country

A tropical colored sunset on the Ochlockonee River in north Florida

Biking on the beach in Florida is a blast, with flat and hard-packed sand for miles

Kayaking at Rock Springs in central Florida; a beautiful paddle through a semi-tropical jungle

Kayaking on the Ichetucknee River in central Florida

We’re always assured of seeing manatee while kayaking on the Ichetucknee

A Wood Stork, straight out of Dr. Seuss

Great Egret

Sandhill Crane

Tricolored Heron doing a fishing dance; they spread their wings to create shade for attracting fish

A Barred Owl observes us on a trail at O’Leno State Park

A Belted Kingfisher uncharacteristically gives us enough time to take a photo as we kayak past

Meeting up at Sweetwater Preserve near Gainesville with friends & fellow adventurers, Julie & Martin

Enjoying a week in St. Augustine with Amanda and Findlay

At the Bridge of Lions in St. Augustine

Findlay completed work for his Jr. Ranger badge in St. Augustine

Cooling off with fresh fruit popsicles in St. Augustine

A fun visit with my sister Valerie in Jacksonville

Beautiful blue twilight hour overlooking the bay at my folks’ home

I’ve written a lot about Florida in our travels, so if you’re interested in more details, check out one or more of the 39 posts in the sidebar. I’ve written about everything from the Keys to the Everglades to the Panhandle…and we’re not done yet. See you next winter, Florida!

P.S. Our site is undergoing a much-needed overhaul sometime in the next week and comments will be closed for several days, so if you don’t see the comment section, that’s why.

Next Up: Celebrating Five Years On The Road: And A New Look!

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Down On The Bayou: Breaux Bridge And New Orleans

Down On The Bayou: Breaux Bridge And New Orleans

Posted by on May 30, 2018 in Gallery, Louisiana, Travel | 36 comments

There’s nothing quite like the bayou country of southern Louisiana. From the haunting beauty of the swamps and the quaint towns of Cajun Country to the vibrant ethnic melting pot of New Orleans, the unique culture and landscape draws us back time and again.

This time, we visited the home of Tabasco on Avery Island, immersed ourselves in the WW II museum in NOLA, and got swept up in a Mardi Gras parade, despite the fact that we’ve always sworn we would never, ever go to New Orleans during Mardi Gras.

In the Heart of Cajun Country: Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

I don’t know about you, but we have a bottle of vintage Tabasco sauce in our fridge. I think I brought it from home when we started our travels five years ago. (Does anyone ever use up a bottle of Tabasco?)

Avery Island is home to the Tabasco factory, where 68 million bottles of hot pepper sauce are made each year. The spicy condiment was created in 1868 by Edmund McIlhenny, a banker bankrupted by the Civil War who happened to be a gardener and food lover.

It’s a simple recipe—a special variety of hot pepper, salt, and vinegar—fermented for three years before bottling. Conveniently, Avery Island sits on a mountain of rock salt that’s mined for the hot sauce.

The small museum is fascinating (there’s a whole sub-culture devoted to Tabasco), the self-guided tour is interesting, and the restaurant has a make-it-yourself Bloody Mary bar that begins with a 2-ounce pour of vodka and includes an elaborate array of garnishes.  That may have had just a little influence on the good time we had.

Avery Island Tabasco Factory

Tabasco pop culture

Tabasco barrel aging; the intensity of the fermenting peppers is overwhelming. The mashed peppers are covered with a thick layer of Avery Island salt and fermented for three years.

Taste-testing at the Tabasco Flavor Lab; kind of surprising considering that Eric hates spicy food.

Giant bottles of Tabasco plotting to take over the world

The souvenir glass reads: “Making day drinking socially acceptable since 1868.” Photo taken after olives, pickled green beans, celery, and bacon garnishes disappeared.

There’s more to Avery Island than hot sauce, though. Edmund McIlhenny’s son Edward was a passionate conservationist, and he created extensive botanical gardens and a sanctuary for wildlife on the property.

Concerned about the devastation of Snowy Egrets (who were being hunted to extinction for their beautiful plumes), Edward hand raised eight chicks. The egrets grew up, flew away, and then came back, bringing their friends. There’s now a colony of tens of thousands that return each year in early spring to nest and raise their young.

We walked the four-mile path through the gardens, through ancient oaks festooned with Spanish moss, past ponds with alligator eyes watching us, and through gardens that come spring, are lush with foliage and flowers.

We were there in late January, too early for either birds or flowers. Still, it was beautiful.

A magical moment in the gardens on Avery Island

Entrance to the Buddha Garden

The Buddha Temple

Buddha in the garden. The statue (circa 1100 AD) was a gift to Edward McIlhenny in 1936.

The little town of Breaux Bridge is in the heart of Cajun country. We’ve learned to plan our visits so that we’re there on the weekend to catch the traditional Cajun music jams. Our favorite is Saturday morning at Joie de Vivre, a cozy café in downtown Breaux Bridge. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside, it’s a colorful melange of music and community spirit. (You can see a video clip of a music jam from a previous visit here.)

The bridge to Breaux Bridge

Joie de Vivre in downtown Breaux Bridge; doesn’t look like much from the outside

But inside, it’s so much fun! This is the Saturday morning Cajun music jam.

The Cajun accordion

Fiddles, mandolins, and guitars round out the jam

Colorful artwork by local artists at Joie de Vivre

About the RV Park

Every time we’re in the area we stay at Poche’s Fish’n’Camp. The park offers level concrete sites situated around picturesque fishing ponds, with full hook-ups, good Verizon, a laundromat, and peaceful surroundings. You’re in the heart of Cajun Country (the park is about 5 miles from Breaux Bridge). With Passport America, it’s a bargain at $20 per night.

Campsite at Poche’s Fish’n’Camp

The sunsets are always beautiful over the ponds at Poche’s

New Adventures In New Orleans

In the past several years, we’ve been twice to New Orleans in April for the French Quarter Festival, a music and food extravaganza that we absolutely loved (and would go back to again). This time, traveling through in late January, we anticipated a much more low-key visit, with the opportunity to do a couple of things that we’ve wanted to do for a while.

We planned a visit to the National World War II Museum, which our friends Pam and John told us we must not miss. And we planned to spend more time on Frenchmen Street, the local’s hangout for great music. We figured that visiting in late January, we would be clear of the city before the insanity of Mardi Gras began.

As always, we stayed across the river at Bayou Segnette State Park. It’s an easy 15-mile drive to the charming town of Algiers, and a quick 10-minute ferry ride across the Mississippi into the French Quarter. Breakfast at Tout de Suite, a neighborhood café in Algiers, is a tradition on our visits to New Orleans.

Colorful homes in Algiers

Breakfast at Tout de Suite: Crawfish étouffée with poached eggs, served over creamy corn grits.

The little ferry to New Orleans crossing the Mississippi

We much prefer the ferry to driving into the city. The weather in January in NOLA can be a bit chilly, but we’re talking a comfortable mid-60’s during the day and mid-40’s at night.

It’s fun to see the festive decorations in the French Quarter, but we never intended to be in the city for Mardi Gras.

New Orleans seems like kind of an odd choice for a war museum, until we discovered that this is where the Higgins boats, the famed amphibious landing crafts credited with helping to win the war, were built.

Visiting the National World War II Museum is a total immersion into the sights, sounds, and experiences of the war, both overseas and on the home front. It’s like stepping into a time machine, where you’re whisked back to 1939 and the dawn of events that over the next six years, changed the course of world history.

Of everything, I found the personal artifacts to be the most poignant. So many letters from soldiers to loved ones at home…and so many telegrams informing families that their loved one would not be returning. So many medals of courage, so many stories of sacrifice beyond belief. If you go, be prepared for a deeply emotional experience.

The museum is enormous. Know going in that there is NO way that you can read everything, watch every film and inspect every artifact. Neither Eric nor I are war history buffs. But we were both fully engaged in the experience, and felt like it was well worth the expense ($23-25 per ticket) and the investment of time. Even trying our best to be selective, we ran out of time the first day and ending up going back the next day (for an additional $6). And we still didn’t see everything.

Outside of the National World War II Museum; this is not even half of the museum.

Inside the museum on a Friday morning; a Douglas C-47 transport plane hangs from the ceiling.

And on Saturday morning…our advice, don’t go on the weekend if you can avoid it.

The U.S. planned never again to be at war after the First World War. Our attention was focused on surviving the Great Depression, not building a military force. Thus, we were frighteningly outnumbered on the military front at the dawn of the war.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor changed sentiments overnight, and the entire country rallied to join the war against the Axis powers. Here, Clark Gable enlists in the Air Force.

One of the famed “Flying Tigers” used in the fight against the Japanese

The Road to Tokyo is a journey through the war fought in the islands and jungles of the Pacific

The Road to Berlin is a journey through the war fought on the European front, replete with snowy forests, bombed out villages, and desert scenes

Although personal journals were officially forbidden, many soldiers found solace in writing and kept hidden diaries of their war experiences. This journal was crafted from metal salvaged from a Japanese plane that had been shot down.

The tragedy of the American Japanese experience is touched on in an exhibit on the interment camps

Our New Orleans experience wasn’t all about the war. We spent lots of time walking (our favorite way of exploring and to recover from the museum), discovered a couple of new places where we had delicious casual meals, hopped on the streetcar to visit the beautiful Besthoff Sculpture Garden in City Park, enjoyed some great music on Frenchmen Street, and experienced a bit of Mardi Gras, which turned out to be a lot more fun than we anticipated.

St. James Cheese Company, just a couple of blocks from the WW II museum

A tasty lunch to fortify ourselves for another day at the museum

Hopping on the Canal Street streetcar delivers you to City Park, a beautiful green space in the city and home to the sculpture garden, botanical garden, and art museum.

The Wanda and Sidney Bestoff Sculpture Garden offers a tranquil space in the midst of the city

More than 60 sculptures are in the garden. I often wonder how people come up with their ideas.

An afternoon on colorful Frenchmen Street, the best place for music in New Orleans

An evening at d.b.a. New Orleans with Meschiya Lake, our favorite local jazz/blues artist.

I never realized that in New Orleans, Mardi Gras is celebrated for weeks before the actual date with dozens of parades on weekends. We happened to be enjoying an evening on Frenchmen Street when the Krewe de Vieux, a parade known for wild satire, adult themes, and political comedy, rounded the corner. We didn’t find it too outrageous; not sure what that says about us!

The crowd at d.b.a. moved outside when a Mardi Gras parade came down Frenchmen Street

The marching jazz bands are nothing like your usual hometown parade (as you can imagine)

The Krewe of Underwear, one of the only blog-appropriate groups in the parade

Float celebrating “300 Years of Ineptitude” for NOLA’s tricentennial

We had a couple of great meals at St. Roch Market, a “Southern Food Hall” and totally cool space that showcases a variety of excellent food vendors. It’s not convenient to anything, but we walked the couple of miles from Frenchmen Street twice because the food was so tasty.

Coconut curry shrimp; all shrimp should be served with the heads on because really, it’s more delicious that way.

About the campground

We always stay at Bayou Segnette State Park when we visit New Orleans. Although it’s a 15-mile drive to Algiers followed by a short ferry ride across the Mississippi to get to the city, we much prefer that to driving and parking in the city. Plus, we enjoy Algiers.

The campground is peaceful and the sites are spacious with good separation from neighbors. Paved sites, water and electric hook-ups, free laundry in the restroom complex, and good Verizon coverage. (It looks kind of blah in the winter compared to spring, when it’s lush and green.)

Campsite at Bayou Segnette, winter version

Next Up: Snapshots Of A Winter In Florida

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Roseate Spoonbills And Historic Beauty: Galveston, TX

Roseate Spoonbills And Historic Beauty: Galveston, TX

Posted by on May 13, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 30 comments

We’ve been planning to visit Galveston Island for years. In 2008, we made reservations for two weeks at the state park, but Hurricane Ike flattened the park just weeks before our arrival. “Sorry to inform you…”read the email telling us that the park would be closed indefinitely. So we rerouted ourselves south to Goose Island State Park in Rockport.

We fell in love with Goose Island, and were looking forward to revisiting in January. I made reservations far in advance. And then Hurricane Harvey slammed into Rockport last August. “Sorry to inform you…” read the email telling us that the park would be closed indefinitely. We rerouted ourselves north to Galveston Island State Park. And that’s how we finally got to Galveston.

I don’t believe in magical thinking (much), but I must admit I’m a bit hesitant now to make reservations for Texas coastal state parks.

One thing is for certain: although Galveston has suffered more than one devastating hurricane, it is an extraordinarily resilient community of both people and wildlife.

We settled into the state park, and this was our view. We could have chosen a beachfront site, but we preferred a site overlooking the marsh, where we could watch the shorebirds foraging and the pelicans floating by.

View from our campsite overlooking the marsh

There can be great rafts of American White Pelicans here

Several miles of trails lead through the marsh, and there’s always the possibility of seeing Roseate Spoonbills. That color! Those bills! I think these are my favorite birds (but don’t tell the others).

Roseate Spoonbills searching for food near the boardwalk

These flamboyant, colorful wading birds were common in southeast coastal areas until they were almost eradicated by plume hunters in the late 1800’s. It makes me sad and mad to think about.

How lucky we are that spoonbills still exist on this earth. We see them on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida—but their numbers are small, and they’re vulnerable to habitat degradation.

Spoonbills seem to always be searching for food

Spoonbills have an interesting feeding behavior, swinging their heads from side to side through shallow waters as they sift through the muck. Special sense receptors on their bills detect tasty morsels such as small fish, shrimp, crayfish, crabs, or aquatic insects.

The shrimp, crabs, and other crustaceans provide pigments called carotenoids that give the birds their pretty pink feathers.

Ah, now it’s easy to see how the Roseate Spoonbill got its name!

Chilly day in January; the weather in coastal Texas in winter is unpredictable

A late afternoon walk on the marsh trails

A Great Blue Heron hangs out by the boardwalk, completely unfazed by our company

We were impressed with the historic district, which managed to survive not only the 2008 hurricane, but also weathered The Great Storm of 1900, a category 4 hurricane that holds the title as the deadliest natural disaster in the history of the United States.

It’s astonishing that anything survived that storm. More than 8,000 people perished, and 3,600 buildings were destroyed. But the East End Historic District appears largely intact, with beautifully restored mansions, elaborate churches, and a large number of Victorian homes.

It’s obvious that Galveston was once a thriving port and the grandest city in Texas. We enjoyed walking around the historic district, admiring the homes and chatting with the locals. Sculptures carved from grand old oaks felled in the 2008 storm decorate the gardens. And apparently, Mardi Gras is a big deal here. We were visiting just as people were decorating their homes for the celebration to come.

Sacred Heart Church, an ornate Galveston landmark with Moorish/Romanesque/Byzantine influences. The original sanctuary was a victim of the Great Storm of 1900, but was re-built in 1904.

Bishop’s Palace, a Victorian castle built in 1892 in a style called “Chateausque.” The American Institute of Architects named it as one of the 100 most important buildings in America. Next time we’re in Galveston, I’m going inside for a tour.

A lovely Victorian home in the East End district

Sculptures from great oaks felled in the 2008 hurricane decorate the streets in the East End Historic District. Here, two herons peek through the foliage.

The Tin Man and Toto standing on a corner

An unusual two-story widow’s walk on a home in the historic district

The care and attention to detail is wonderful on the restored Victorian homes

Mardi Gras is a huge celebration in Galveston—it’s reputed to be one of the most festive outside of New Orleans.

Historic downtown Galveston (AKA “The Strand”) was once considered the “Wall Street of the Southwest” before the Great Storm of 1900 brought the town to its knees.

Winding up our Galveston adventures, we discovered Galveston Island Brewing. Started by a former tugboat captain, the craft brewery turns out delicious beer (true to form, I had a porter, and Eric an IPA). It’s a friendly, colorful atmosphere—and best of all, they have a resident brewery kitty, who made happy hour even better.

Happy hour with the cat at Galveston Island Brewing

About the campground:

We loved Galveston Island State Park. There are two parts to the park: beachfront sites, and sites arranged in a wagon-wheel formation on the bayside. If you choose a site backing up to the marsh, the birding and the sunsets are wonderful.

The bayside campground has water and electric hookups and good Verizon. It’s a convenient 15- minute drive into downtown Galveston and the historic area.

The campground fees are reasonable ($20 per night bayside) BUT Texas state parks charge a $5 per person day access fee in addition to your campsite fee (making it $30 per night for two people). When we’re in Texas for more than a week (and it ALWAYS takes more than a week to make our way through Texas), we buy an annual pass for $70, which eliminates the day use fees and includes four half-price nights of camping at the park of your choice.

Campsite Galveston Island State Park

Up Next: Hot Times In Cajun Country: Breaux Bridge, LA



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Beyond The River Walk: San Antonio, TX

Beyond The River Walk: San Antonio, TX

Posted by on May 5, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 34 comments

Mention San Antonio, and you’ll hear, “Don’t miss the River Walk!” It’s true. You really don’t want to miss the River Walk. It’s the centerpiece of the city and a lovely place for a stroll.

But there’s so much more to San Antonio. We were last in town 10 years ago, and only for two nights—just enough to explore the downtown stretch of the River Walk and to know that we wanted to return. This time we spent a week, which allowed us to venture beyond downtown to discover more of the charms of this historic, beautiful Texas city.

Beginning With The River Walk (Of Course!)

The second week of January was a good window to be there—the weather was pleasantly cool (low 40’s at night, mid-60’s during the day) and the town was remarkably peaceful and uncrowded.

Beginning our week in San Antonio on the River Walk, with plenty of elbow room

January was a wonderful time to visit. I doubt you could see the mosaic during high-tourist season.

Meandering the wide, winding path beside the river and exploring the interesting cafés, shops, and artwork along the way reminded me of being in Europe. Which was precisely the intention of  architect Robert H. H. Hugman, the visionary who saved the river from being paved over after a disastrous flood in 1921.

Hugman came up with a flood control plan for the river that included “a narrow, winding street barred to vehicular traffic…holding the best shops and cafés…with quaint atmosphere.”

With the help of the Works Progress Administration, the core of the River Walk was created in 1939. The result is a beautiful two-and-a-half mile stone path bordering both sides of the river, linked by a series of lovely stone arch bridges.

Late winter reflections on the San Antonio River

An intricate mosaic of San Antonio’s Missions and other historic buildings on the River Walk

The River Walk has been called the Venice of America (or at least, of Texas)—but the gondoliers in the river boats don’t sing opera arias; instead you’ll be serenaded by mariachi bands strolling the sidewalks. (Which I find delightful unless they make a beeline for us while we’re having lunch at a riverside café, and then I just want to pay them to go away.)

Enjoying a peaceful lunch at Las Canarias on the River Walk

A delicious shrimp salad, Nicoise style

There’s a lot of art to discover along the River Walk

North On The River Walk: The Pearl Brewery Complex

In the past few years, the River Walk has expanded to 15 miles, and is now the longest linear urban park in the country. Walking just a couple miles north on the section called Museum Reach took us through more landscaped beauty and artwork, ending at the restored historic Pearl Brewery. It’s a favorite spot for locals, and ended up being one of our favorites, too.

Strolling the River Walk in the Museum Reach area

Within the Pearl complex are cool boutiques, bookstores, curio shops, and a charming hotel. The food offerings at a dozen different restaurants are some of the best in town; there’s a big green space for hanging out and relaxing; there’s a farmers’ market on weekends; and a microbrewery turns out some fine beer. We visited the Pearl twice and could have happily spent more time there.

We enjoyed walking along the River Walk to get to the Pearl, but you can also catch a river taxi downtown that will take you there and back. Which looked like fun, but we seem to always be trying to walk or bike off whatever indulgences we have planned.

Fish art on the River Walk on the way to the Pearl Brewery complex

Cured restaurant in the Pearl District; originally an administrative office for the brewery, circa 1903. RVing friends Laura and Kevin told us about this little gem.

Lunch at Cured: Kale salad with dried cherries, toasted pumpkin seeds and watermelon radish. The second course was grass-fed beef chili with pumpkin. All accompanied by tasty local IPAs.

Dessert. We first had Lick Honest Ice Cream in Austin and were delighted to find it again at the Pearl Brewery complex.

Some unique flavor choices. Not so sure about the roasted beet ice cream, but I can vouch for the goat cheese ice cream with thyme and honey.

The Pearl Brewery Complex by night

Inside the renovated brewery, where we had an excellent dinner of grilled Gulf snapper at Southerleigh Fine Foods and Brewery. Good beer at the brewery, too.

South On The River Walk: Biking To The Missions

Heading south on the River Walk, we spent the better part of a day biking the Mission Reach, an eight-mile section (16 miles round-trip) that links four 18th century Spanish Colonial missions. It’s a beautiful ride along the river through wetlands and natural areas, with side trails that lead to the missions. And it’s mostly pretty flat. My favorite kind of biking.

Biking the Mission Trail on the south section of the River Walk (16 miles round-trip)

Mission Concepción, the most historically intact of the missions

Inside Mission Concepción

The Texas missions were established in the early to mid-1700’s, more for political than religious reasons. By converting the indigenous nomadic peoples to Catholicism and teaching them Spanish language and culture, the missions bolstered Spain’s presence on the Texas frontier. In return, the missions provided food and shelter to the wandering tribes (collectively known as the Coahuiltecans) and offered protection from their enemies, the Apache and Comanche.

The Franciscans recognized that perfect adherence to Catholic doctrine wasn’t going to fly with the natives, and wisely modified their goal to one of “Imperfect Conversion.”  Meanwhile, the Indians came up with their own creative take on Christianity, which included peyote ceremonies to help connect them to the spirit world.

Even the artwork in the missions incorporated the beliefs of the indigenous peoples. In Mission Concepción, the most well-preserved of all the missions, original frescoes still decorate the interior. In one of the rooms, I looked up to see a mustachioed face, surrounded by yellow rays, looking down at me.

Fresco in Mission Concepción

The sun was considered a face of God for the native peoples. So it’s pretty cool that this image is in the mission. Here’s the not so great part: Because the Spanish were considered the masters, God was depicted as a Spaniard.

At least the Spanish worked with the Indians and offered something in return instead of just killing them, as happened so many other places.

As of 2015, the San Antonio Missions were named a World Heritage Site, and all still serve as active Catholic parishes for the community.

Mission Concepción

Original interior frescoes

Mission San José

Inside Mission San José

The convento at Mission San José

Indian dwellings at Mission San José, with a traditional stone outdoor oven

Mission San Juan, currently being restored and not open for tours

Mission Espada, the fourth and last on our bike tour

The rustic and beautiful entrance to Mission Espada

Inside Mission Espada, a much simpler mission than the other three

One More Mission: The Most Famous Of All

There’s one more mission in San Antonio. And it’s the most important one, at least according to Texas lore and pride. (Remember the Alamo?) We didn’t realize that the Alamo was not just a fort, but was originally the first of the San Antonio missions.

The Alamo is right in the middle of downtown, just a short walk from the River Walk. It’s a huge tourist attraction with all of the tourists and touristy trinkets that come along with being a tourist magnet. It’s completely unlike the other four missions, all of which have retained their mission-like dignity, peace, and beauty.

Nonetheless, this is a sacred place for Texans. It’s here that a pivotal battle took place in 1836, where the Texians fought for their independence from Mexico. For 13 days, less than 200 Texians defended the Alamo against more than 1800 Mexican soldiers. Although the Texas rebels lost the battle and their lives (including the legendary folk hero Davy Crockett), their sacrifice fueled the rebellion and helped to win the war, carried forward by the battle cry of “Remember the Alamo!

The Alamo, right in the middle of downtown.

Exploring San Antonio’s Gardens

Getting ourselves entirely off the River Walk, we spent part of a day exploring the delightful San Antonio Botanical Garden. Enormous glass pyramids house ferns and tropical plants, and paths wind through all kinds of different gardens and Texas landscapes. One of the most unique areas is a demonstration garden for wise-water usage, with six themed gardens that include tiny houses designed in keeping with the theme.

January is spring gardening time at the San Antonio Botanical Gardens

In the Fern Grotto

Piney Woods cabin along the Texas Native Trail

A tiny house (Spanish courtyard style) in the Water Saver demonstration gardens

And a big purple chair

A fairy house in the children’s garden

We also paid a visit to the Japanese Tea Garden. This had been on my list since I saw it on our friends Lisa and Han’s blog a couple of years ago. It’s a lovely garden created in the 1920s in an abandoned limestone quarry. The name was changed to Chinese Sunken Garden during WW II, for obvious reasons. And then changed back in 1984—although the entrance gate still reads “Chinese Tea Garden.”

Japanese Tea Garden San Antonio

Stone pavilion in the tea garden

Overlooking the tea garden

We wrapped up our San Antonio adventures with a stroll through the King William Historic District, on the south bank of the San Antonio River. In the late 1800s, this was the most elegant residential area in the city and the homes have been beautifully preserved.

Beautiful home in the King William Historic District

Another beautiful home in the King William Historic District (but I don’t want one. Too much to keep up with).

About the RV Park

We stayed at the San Antonio KOA. It was fine, and our site backed up to a biking/walking path along a creek. It had all of the things you expect from a KOA—nice laundry, bathhouses, and a random assortment of activities, none of which we ever participate in. It was also quiet, dark at night, Verizon coverage is good, and it’s a 10-minute drive into the city (there’s also public bus transportation available).

Next time we visit San Antonio, we might try staying at Travelers World RV Resort. We biked past it on our way to the missions, and although the sites seemed close together, we were intrigued by the idea of staying right on the River Walk so that we can explore without driving at all in San Antonio.

Our site at the KOA San Antonio RV Park

Next Up: Birds, Historic Homes, and Beer: Galveston, TX

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Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

Posted by on Apr 23, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 47 comments

At the edge of the Texas Hill Country lies a place so unique “its beauty cannot be exaggerated, even by Texans.” That’s what Bill Stephenson, founder of the National Speleological Society said about the Caverns of Sonora.

Well, that piqued my interest. And when I read that the caverns are filled with a vast array of glittering crystal-like formations, that made it even more enticing. I love sparkly things. Stars, crystals, fireflies, fireworks, champagne…the sparklier, the better.

On the other hand, I really don’t like caves. I don’t like being underground, I don’t like pitch-black places, and being underground in the dark in a tight space does not bring out the best in me. Nonetheless, this cave was irresistible because it promised treasures. Sparkly treasures.

The Caverns of Sonora happened to be conveniently halfway on our route from the Big Bend area to San Antonio, off Interstate 10 about 15 miles southwest of Sonora. There’s not much around here—so it’s pretty sweet to not only have the caverns to visit, but to also have a place to stay the night.

The campground at Caverns of Sonora (there’s an RV area if you don’t want to stay in a teepee)

The welcoming committee

We pulled into the campground and chose our site for the night—$25 for water and electric hookups. The next morning, we walked over to the gift shop to purchase our tickets for the first tour of the day. The tours cost $20, are offered every two hours starting at 9:00 a.m., and are first-come, with each tour limited to 12 people. The small group makes for a great experience (we had only eight people on our tour).

The gift shop is where you buy your tickets for the tours, and also has a pretty spectacular array of gemstones and rocks for sale

We lucked out with an excellent tour guide, a college student with a passion for speleology who spends his summers and winter holidays guiding people through the caves. Raphael was patient, knowledgeable, and convinced me to leave my down vest behind. Trust me (and Raphael), you do not want to wear anything more than a lightweight shirt in the caves, even if it’s 35 degrees outdoors (as it was in January).

The caves are about 72 degrees year round and 98 percent humidity, which makes it feel like Florida on a hot summer evening. You are not allowed to remove your jacket and tie it around your waist because the formations are delicate, and many of the passageways narrow. The owners of the caves are doing their best to protect the cave, and the only thing you’re allowed to bring along is your camera.

As the story goes, the entrance to the cavern was first discovered in the early 1920s by a dog chasing a raccoon down a hole. Decades of exploration followed, hindered by a 50-foot pit just 500 feet in from the entrance. Those intrepid early explorers eventually fashioned a network of stairs, narrow pathways, and bridges. On our journey, we traveled 155 feet below the surface through two miles of spectacular formations. For two hours, I forgot my dislike of caves. It is truly an otherworldly experience.

Our guide Raphael at the entrance to the cavern

Descending into the cavern

The first little bit of the cavern is nothing to write home about. But as forewarned, it was warm and humid. Really, really humid. My camera immediately fogged up and I had to resort to using my phone for photos.

Things soon got really interesting. No wonder this cavern is regarded as one of the most highly decorated caves in the world.

Before too long, the formations start to get interesting

So fancy! These are reputed to be some of the finest cave formations in the world.

I think these were called toilet brush formations (not really, but that’s what they look like)

The passageways are narrow through the walls of cave coral. Kind of feels like walking underwater through a coral reef.

Paved pathways traverse what would otherwise be inaccessible parts of the cavern

Our wonderful guide pointed out formations along the way

A cave pool filled with pennies, sacrificed to the universal impulse for making wishes. The copper pennies turn the water green.

Descending into the Crystal Palace, the most intricately decorated room of the cave

Halo Lake; the green cast is from pennies tossed in long ago.

Enjoying the Crystal Palace. This is truly a remarkable cave.

Elaborate cave decorations are everywhere

Taking a close look at the formations

Cave bacon, always a favorite in any cave. Doesn’t that look delicious?

The Caverns at Sonora are known for their concentration of rare helictite formations. All caves have stalagmites and stalactites (stalagmites grow upward from the floor, stalactites grow downward from the ceiling—they “hang tight.”) But helictites grow outward from the walls of the cave. How the heck they do that, I have no idea. Apparently, scientists don’t even know for certain. But they’re very beautiful.

A rare helictite formation

I still don’t like caves. But this was a totally cool experience, and I’d do it again.

About the campground

The Caverns of Sonora offer electric and water hookups, with level gravel pull-through sites. There would be little privacy if the campground was full, but there was no one else in the campground while we were there. Bathrooms and showers are available (we didn’t use them). Weak Verizon connection. The best part is that you’re walking distance to some of the most unique caverns in the world. And it’s a great stopover should you be traveling between Big Bend National Park and San Antonio.

Pull-through sites at Caverns of Sonora

Next Up: Biking To The Missions (And So Much More): San Antonio, TX



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Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua & Marathon

Big Bend Bookends: Terlingua & Marathon

Posted by on Apr 15, 2018 in Gallery, Texas, Travel | 36 comments

We like off-the-beaten-path towns. The smaller and quirkier, the better. At either end of Big Bend National Park lie two such gems: Terlingua and Marathon.

Both are in remote West Texas. Both have breathtaking night skies filled with shimmering stars that stretch to infinity. Both attract people who are happiest coloring outside the lines of conventional life. But despite their similarities, Terlingua and Marathon have distinct personalities.

Here’s what we discovered: Terlingua is the more unpolished of the two, and the best place to kick back with a beer and hang with the locals on the front porch of the rustic trading post. Marathon, on the other hand, is an excellent place to enjoy a superb prickly pear cactus margarita in an elegant 1927-era Western hotel.

Terlingua, Texas

Located just outside the far western border of Big Bend National Park, Terlingua flourished as a quicksilver mining town from the late 1800s until the mid-1940s. They even had their own movie theatre. But the demand for mercury diminished after WWI, the miners walked away, and Terlingua was left to fade into the desert.

Somewhere in the past couple of decades Terlingua was rediscovered by artists, loners, and eccentrics. Now it’s a ghost town with a population of 56. Make that 57, if you count Clay Henry, the taxidermied beer-drinking goat who was the former mayor of next-door Lajitas. (The actual human population may be closer to a couple hundred, no one knows for sure.)

Wandering the old mining cabins of Terlingua Ghost Town

A reclaimed miner’s cabin

At the entrance to town is the historic cemetery. There are no fancy monuments here; just simple stonework, Mexican style grottoes, and wood and filigree crosses. The Day of the Dead is reputed to be quite a festive celebration here.

Near the Terlingua cemetery

The rustic and historic Terlingua cemetery

The old wood and adobe church is still here, and still used. The former miners’ commissary is now the Terlingua Trading Post, offering a surprisingly excellent array of Native American and Mexican crafts—and an equally well-curated selection of craft beers. And the Starlight Theatre, formerly the movie theatre for the miners, offers dining, drinks, and live music.

We celebrated New Year’s at the Starlight and it was great fun. But a few days previously, sitting on the porch drinking a beer from the cooler at the trading post and listening to an impromptu music jam—that was every bit as good.

St. Agnes Church, circa 1914

The church has a rustic and colorful interior

A bug sculpture, just one of Terlingua’s many artistic offerings

Pegasus in the hills above Terlingua. You never know what you’re going to stumble across.

Locals gather each afternoon on the porch of the Starlight Theatre and the trading post next door. This is the place to enjoy some local color in the form of conversation, music, and a sunset over the Chisos Mountains.

The Starlight Theatre

An afternoon on the porch of the Terlingua Trading Post and Starlight Theatre

Music on the porch with really talented musicians and a music-appreciating dog

More reclaimed junk artwork, this time at the Starlight Theatre

Celebrating New Year’s at the the Starlight

Clay Henry, the cranky but beloved (and now stuffed) goat mayor. Legend has it that he could pound down 40 beers a day.

New Year’s at the Starlight Theatre. It was a pretty awesome way to ring in another year.

Marathon, Texas

Just 40 miles north of Big Bend National Park sits the tiny town of Marathon, population 470. The Chamber of Commerce proclaims “There’s nothing to do here.” Well, it’s a peaceful, beautiful place to do nothing. And that’s exactly what we did for two nights as we wrapped up our adventures in Big Bend.

Marathon is upscale compared to Terlingua—but there’s still an eccentric twist to the town

The wide main street invites exploring

The French Grocer, with just about everything you need

One of the most unusual places in Marathon is a colorful, fanciful hacienda sculpted of straw bales and paper crete made of recycled materials. The owner and builder invited us in for a tour—it’s a remarkable work of art, including the gardens and greenhouse filled with bougainvillea, banana trees, flowers, and herbs.

In the courtyard of Eve’s Garden B & B

It’s remarkable what you can build from paper crete and straw bales

A greenhouse paradise at Eve’s Garden B & B

The biggest attraction in town is the Spanish-Mission style Gage Hotel, built in 1927 for cattle baron Alfred S. Gage. (The architect was Henry Trost from El Paso, who also built El Paisano in Marfa.) Every inch of the hotel is exquisite, down to the gingerbread replica decorating the lobby (we were there just before they took down the holiday decorations).

To celebrate the beginning of another new year on the road, we planned a special dinner at the 12 Gage Restaurant in the hotel. After cocktails in the White Buffalo Bar, we settled into our black-and-white cowhide chairs for a Moroccan-inspired meal of spiced quail with basmati-apricot pilaf and charred tomato and green beans. Really tasty. But really skimpy on the stuffing. As it turns out, only a teaspoon of stuffing fits into a quail.

Those prickly pear cactus margaritas in the White Buffalo Bar, though. Those alone are worth the trip to Marathon.

The Gage Hotel, circa 1927

We caught the tail-end of the Gage Hotel decorated for the holidays, replete with a gingerbread Gage Hotel

The next day, all holiday decorations were cleared away. The decor of the hotel is understated classic Western elegance.

A tooled and silver embellished saddle is part of the decor

This is cattle ranching country

If you come to Marathon, don’t miss the White Buffalo Bar

Award winning prickly pear cactus margaritas

Just across the railroad tracks are the Gage Gardens, which would be even more beautiful in spring

A Golden-fronted Woodpecker in the gardens

About the RV Park

We visited Terlingua twice while staying in Study Butte during our week in Big Bend National Park.

To explore Marathon, we stayed two nights at Marathon Motel & RV Park. The sites are basically big open pull-throughs on dirt and gravel, but the park was quiet and the sunsets and dark night skies are spectacular. Plus, it’s an easy half-mile walk into town. Full hookups, good cell coverage, free wifi, and laundry (although there is only one washer and dryer).

There’s a lovely outdoor fireplace and courtyard where people gather most evenings, but it was so cold when we were there that no one ventured outdoors after dark. People also often set up telescopes for star gazing (but no one braved 17 degrees for a star party).

When you reserve, ask for a site in the back area away from the highway. The first two nights of your stay they honor Passport America, which makes it a great deal.

The Marathon Motel & RV Park

Pink afternoon glow at the RV Park

Dang, it was cold while we were there! The fountain was frozen in the courtyard of the RV Park.

A Marathon, Texas sunset

Next Up: Exploring A Crystal Cavern: Sonora, TX

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