Sunday, December 30, 2012

2012 - Our Year in Review - Part 1…

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Well it is that time of year again when we look forward to what the next year brings and reflect about the good and not so good moments of the year past. As we are nearing the end of our second year of full timing, free as the gypsies with no house to return to, we find ourselves in a small but very lucky circle of people who have been able to escape the drudgery of everyday life in the working world. We feel we are indeed very fortunate…

We began the year 2012 in Florida at Bonita Springs and we must admit it is still one of our most favorite wintering spots so far. We also enjoyed some fun times with friends in key West, Florida which is our number one preferred wintering spot!

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After wintering in Florida we headed toward Red Bay, Alabama to have some work done on our motorhome. It was here that we discovered
all the good things we had heard about Tiffin’s service were “spot on” as we had exemplary service in this otherwise cultural desert of a town with little to do nearby.

From Alabama we decided to head west and once again were able to enjoy the beauty of Spring in Texas. The bounty of wildflowers welcomed us to the Lone Star State and we revisited the home of Texas A&M University (where I had retired from). It was a blast to revisit with old friends and it was really fun to be a visitor to our old hometown.

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From College Station, Tx we headed west and enjoyed such places as Guadeloupe Mountains National Park, Albuquerque, NM., Saguaro National Monument and then we relaxed at a true resort while we visited the city of Las Vegas! From Vegas we headed further west as we enjoyed Death Valley and then meandered northward into Oregon.

Highlights of our trip through Oregon were fresh berries, Crater Lake, Portland and of course the very scenic coastline found all along the western edge of the state. After a short visit into Washington’s wine country to visit an old college friend we began our slow descent south.

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We really enjoyed our stay in the Portland Oregon area even thought our main reason to be in Portland was to get Sharon’s broken wrist surgically repaired by Portland’s finest. By August we were winding our way through the Redwoods of northern California and all along the western coastline of this very scenic state. Besides the Redwoods highlights in California were visiting San Francisco, swimming with the seals in La Jolla, see lots of whales close up at Avila Beach, attending our first Monday night football game with new friends and touring the area in and around San Diego.

As we entered fall we began a route easterly and visited some spots we enjoyed Redwoods Northern Cali 013103_0046and will return to. The Salton Sea and our visit to Salvation Mountain put us in a very fascinating area. Yuma appears to be an excellent place to winter along the southwestern states and a place we may revisit in the future. Then we continued eastward through Arizona and New Mexico and one again into Texas where we followed the Rio Grande to our current wintering spot here in Mission, Tx.

Since this blog is rather long I think I will make a part two to share with you a blog highlighting the “bests and worst” of 2012…

Thursday, December 27, 2012

A critter in the RGV that’s hard to stomach…

Tarantula Hawk

Bentsen Palm Sunrise 3This part of Texas is not only known for birds as naturalists from everywhere hang around the Rio Grande Valley in search of many other critters besides birds. Most notable are the butterflies and from what I can tell these folks can be as rabid as the most rabid birders I have run across. However, everyone I have known that has an interest in nature simply loves all the other things of beauty in our natural world as well.

Gulf FritillaryWhile hiking in the state park nearby I noticed a rather large looking creature buzzing around the top of a bush. Upon closer inspection I had discovered a Tarantula Hawk (see header photo). These two inch long wasps prey on Tarantulas and other spiders. Beware of this wasp because the stinger of a female tarantula hawk can be up to 1/3 in long, and her sting is considered amongst the most painful insect stings in the entire world. YIKES!!!

An interesting excerpt from Wikipedia about these wasps is below:

The female tarantula hawk captures, stings, and paralyzes the spider, then either drags her prey back into her own burrow or transports Fiery Skipperit to a specially prepared nest, where a single egg is laid on the spider’s abdomen, and the entrance is covered. When the wasp larva hatches, it creates a small hole in the spider's abdomen, then enters and feeds voraciously, avoiding vital organs for as long as possible to keep the spider alive. After several weeks, the larva pupates. Finally, the wasp becomes an adult, and emerges from the spider's abdomen to continue the life cycle.

Queen Butterfly I was there actually looking to expand my knowledge on butterflies but was glad to find this fascinating wasp along the way.I did have the opportunity to see and photograph several butterfly species as can be seen in the photos in today’s blog. The Queen, Fiery Skipper and Gulf Fritillary were patient enough for me to take their pictures but the beautiful Green Malachite that I chased around was not…

Even though I was out to look for butterflies there was plenty else to see. It just goes to show you that if you are out in the natural world you never know what you might stumble upon.…

Monday, December 24, 2012

An early family Christmas in Texas…

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Photo: Katie is the bomb!Our daughter Katie flew into San Antonio airport on Saturday the 21st of December so we left Mission, Tx early that morning to make four hour trek north.. Luckily for us there is now a Trader’s Joes in San Antonio real close to the airport. We stopped in to pick up some of our favorite Trader Joe treats and a few bottles of wine for our early Christmas dinner.

Katie was waiting cheerfully at the arrival gate and after lots of hugs we hit the road. Since our son Jason lives a little over an hour north of San Antonio we planned to spend a few days with him, our daughter in law and two grandkids.  The plan was to have an early 100_1116Christmas and Christmas dinner at his house. It has been quite a while since our whole family has been able to be together and this was just the perfect timing for our past due reunion.

Upon making the turn onto the street Jason lives we heard the joyful screams of the grandkids as they ran toward us and jumped in our arms for some quality hugging time. They were a bit leery of Aunt Katie since they hadn’t seen her in some time but before long they warmed up to her and were fixtures in her lap.

Next up was some shopping for the big feast and after a few stops at HEB grocery we had the necessary ingredients. Turkey in the roaster, check!, cornbread dressing mixed and ready, check!, candied yams prepared check!, green bean casserole made, check!, deviled eggs made,100_1089 check!, mashed potatoes and giblet gravy made, check!!!!  The next order of business was to open some bottles of Christmas wine and we sat down to very enjoyable feast of food and happy conversation…

After dinner in nearby Buda, Texas they have the popular Buda’s Christmas Trail, only in its second year, that has a massive display of lights along a trail. The Buda Trail of Lights is a free event sponsored by the City of Buda. They even offer free parking and a complimentary shuttle to the park. We had some great family fun at the Christmas Trail.

We hope each of you and your families have a fantastic holiday feast… And like us, we hope you savor the time with your loved ones.  After Christmas we can all get ready to hit the road once again as 2013 is just around the corner…

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Frisbee Golf Mission Style…

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We both love to play frisbee golf but didn’t get to play much out west as we happened not to camp near very many courses. So one day we decided that it was time to play some frisbee golf and just assumed there would be several courses nearby… Well we were wrong!

Llano Estero State Park 043There was however one course not too far away in McAllen, Texas so we gathered up our discs and drove over to the park but found that is not in the best of locations. The online directions alerted us that the hole 1 tee box was located at a  playground just across from the David Soto Baseball Field. There was ample parking at the playground so we parked and made our way over to hole number one.

Llano Estero State Park 044This is the nearest course to us and it is only a nine hole course (another larger course is located farther down the road in Edinburg). Our plan was to play it twice to make it eighteen holes. As it turned out we were the only ones playing on this course this nice sunny day. The course itself is a fairly simple course but it wraps around a swampy area that has lots of tall reeds growing through deep mud so we discussed as long as we avoided tossing a disc into the swamp we shouldn’t have any problem,.

Llano Estero State Park 047Hole number one didn’t look too bad but it ended up being the hardest hole on the course, well, at least it was for Sharon. She made her drive on number one straight but short so this meant she would have to toss the second one nearly as hard as the first. A quick flick of the wrist and all I heard was “CRAP!”. I turned just in time to see the red disc (the one in in the header photo) sail aimlessly right into the middle of the swamp. Our very first disc casualty since we have been playing disc golf. Sigh...

Llano Estero State Park 046We had no real problem with the rest of the course except for a few mosquitos.  Other than the location being beside the large swamp this disc course is not very challenging. We had fun playing the course and even got a visit from a Great Kiskadee Flycatcher while playing. However, as much as we like disc golf we probably won’t play this course again. It just isn’t worth the drive over to it from our park. We have heard from some other folks in the park that there is pickle ball for seniors nearby and it is only 50 cents for 2 hours with equipment and instructrion included.  Sharon is working on me to give this a try. We'll see.....

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Replacing a Thetford toilet seal–One Crappy Job!!!

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Tools Needed:

  • 1/2 inch closed end crescent or adjustable crescent
  • pliers
  • 3/8 inch open ended crescent
  • small rounded scraper or flat head screwdriver
  • small bowl
  • lots of rags

The model of Thetford toilet I have is a 34420 or also known as the Style Plus version of the Aqua Magic toilet. About a month ago we noticed that the toilet would slowly leak water seal beforefrom inside the bowl. Everything I read on line after searching for “water leaking from Thetford RV toilet bowl” came to the same conclusion. The solution must be that some debris (I assume that meant toilet paper and not that other stuff) was stuck somehow and it was keeping the seal from completing. Most of the comments online suggested the debris was stuck in the “blade”.

Well we scoured the area just around the seal inside and out and it seemed to work… or did it? Nope the water began leaking from the bowl again and so I took pictures of the label in the back of the toilet (since I couldn’t read them any other way) to determine the type of toilet I had. I verified this information with Thetford by calling their 1-800 phone number and they gave me the link to the exploded diagram of the toilet (something about exploded and toilets that didn’t leave a nice visual in my head, errr mind).

imageAfter scrutinizing the diagram it was apparent to me that my particular toilet had no “blade” so I must have a different problem. No blade to me meant no stuck debris but it did mean to me that my bowl seal might be bad. There is a rubber seal between the top and bottom halves of the toilet right where the water must go down. I couldn’t tell if the seal was bad but there was a lot of hard water buildup around the seal (at least I hoped that is what it was). So I ordered a new seal for the bowl and a new seal to replace the old seal between the toilet and the floor. It is recommended to replace both at once and why wouldn’t you since the toilet has to be removed anyhow.

I bought the seal kit from Ebay for about $16.00 and it also included detailed instructions for replacing the seals. First I dumped the black water and back flushed it. Then I removed the nuts holding the toilet to the floor and then moved the whole toilet outside. I brought a garden hose inside and took the opportunity to blast (another scary toilet word) water into the holding tank to give it a real good cleaning. Once finished I placed a rag over the opening to keep the gases from escaping (there I go again).

There were four nuts holding the top half of the toilet to the bottom half. Once removed I noticed the seals were real bad and that there was a ton of buildup on the the ball seal from all the hard water we encountered. So using a small screw driver I very carefully used its edge to slowly and carefully scrape the hard water deposits from the entire assembly. Once it was cleaned up I rinsed and dried everything and placed the new ball seal on the bottom half of the toilet.

imageI put the top half down ensuring that the bolts were properly aligned and that the top half was fully seated onto the bottom half. I tightened down all the nuts (not too tight as you don’t want to crack the porcelain. I replaced the old seal at the bottom of the toilet and placed the bowl over the two securing bolts on the floor.  I then tightened down the two nuts securing the toilet to the floor and reattached the two hoses in the back of the toilet. One had a PVC screw-on attachment so I placed some Teflon tape between the threads (highly recommended).

imageI turned the water and hoped nothing would leak.  When it appeared I was safe from any poor plumbing skills I flushed the toilet and viola!!! it works as it was supposed to again. The whole process took about two hours as I was cautious about removing all the hard water deposits. But for 16 bucks we have a nearly new toilet…

This was an easy job for a do-it-yourselfer but I have to admit as crappy as the job was, once finished no one can say, “You don’t know shit!” anymore…

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Day trip to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico

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We knew when we decided to stay in the Rio Grande Valley that we would end up in one of the border towns of Mexico.. Even with all the hype surrounding the drug cartel’s heinous activities in Mexico we really felt that there wouldn't be a great deal of difference in traveling in most of Mexico vs. the USA.

Progresso Mexico 025Some places in both countries have unsafe areas that we plan to avoid and here as anywhere we knew a little research was a really good idea. Many of the border crossings in the Rio Grand Valley are generally considered unsafe. The only exception is the town of Nuevo Progreso, Mexico. Nearly everyone we spoke to including the border patrol said a day trip to Nuevo Progreso, Mexico was fine but the advice was to simply stay on the main drag, have a good time and come back before dark.

We met a nice couple at an activity here in the park that said they were going to go to Mexico. We asked if they would mind having some tagalongs since as newbies we could learn from them where to go and what to do in Progreso. They said they'd love company so the next morning a short 33 mile drive east from our park put us at the international bridge that crosses into Nuevo Progreso, Mexico. Just before the bridge there was ample parking for $2.00 per car. Once parked we walked toward the bridge and paid 50 cents per person into the turnstile for entrance onto the bridge entering into Mexico. Once across the bridge you are in Mexico.. it really is that simple. We were forewarned of the need to bring our passports for reentry into the USA.

Progresso Mexico 024Now if you have ever been into a border town in Mexico before then you know that they are all very similar in appearance since they are primarily set up for the tourists in the area closest to the bridge. Nuevo Progreso, Mexico is not any different. All along the bridge walkway we saw several hands holding baseball caps asking for any spare change. Also many other Mexican men and women were just below the bridge also asking for change to be dropped down to them. Upon entering the actual town there weren’t any others begging from the tourists. There were however plenty of niƱa's, little girls, trying hard to get us to buy whatever they were selling and we also saw occasional elder women selling Chiclet (gum) for a donation. And yes those appear to be sausage links being sold out of the trunk of a car in the above photo.

The town itself was colorful and lively with a great representation of the colorful Mexican heritage and culture we enjoy. The streets were lined with venders selling everything from jewelry to cowboy boots. The stores were predominantly composed of shops selling trinkets and pottery. Yet there were dozens of Photo: Winter Texas flea market hahapharmacies selling cheap pharmaceuticals. Some of the pharmacies were free standing whereas others were within the trinket shops.  There was also an abundance of dental offices and inexpensive optical shops.

We were primarily there to just look around and price a few dermatological prescriptions for Sharon. We didn’t have much success but after comparing prices on one of her prescriptions for Retin-A we found a pharmacist that had a great value for the product. The price was about 50 percent less than in the USA and the tube contained twice as much product making it 75 percent cheaper overall. A five dollar Z-pack (for future sickness insurance), a couple bottles of rum and we were good to go. While waiting for the scripts we were told we could go into the bar (with live music) next door for a free margarita and so we did…

Progresso Mexico 026Exiting Mexico took a lot longer than entering did. Each visitor must go through customs one at a time and declare any purchases made. Since we bought some booze before heading back we also had to pay a liquor tax which was quite steep at $3.75 per bottle nearly negating the value of buying in Mexico. So make sure you account for the taxes on booze when pricing it while visiting Mexico.

We enjoyed our day in Mexico with a good Mexican lunch, a few margaritas, and a few laughs with our new friends from Rochester, NY. Will we go back? You bet we will…

Friday, December 14, 2012

Can you see it? Wonder what it is?

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While walking in the woods, along the beach or simply on a nature trail have you ever seen something odd that made you wonder not only what it was but also what made it happen? Below left is a tree with holes in a line made parallel to the ground. What creature would make these on this poor tree? The answer is of course is the Sapsucker. Why do they do this? The sapsucker drills holes in rows or rings around the trunks of trees to feed on the oozing sap. They are attracted to any tree in stress because while in stress a tree will concentrate sugars in order to help repair frailties or injuries.The sapsucker can indeed hurt and actually even kill trees with this behavior.

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Did you notice how the Sapsucker blended into the tree making it camouflaged a bit? It is very strategic for many critters to “wear camouflage” in the wild. See the tree on the left in the above photo? One has to look closely to see the Screech Owl in the top left of the dead snag. The closer photo on the right shows him more clearly…pretty well hidden in the hole of this tree. This Screech Owl is in a day roost and can be found at this tree at the same spot every day.

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Another bird that mimics their surroundings is a bird found only in the south Texas area called a Pauraque. They also day roost but do so on the ground. See how well they blend into the ground in the above photos? Even with the close up photos above it is still amazing how they have evolved with this very protective coloration

So the next time you take walk in the woods, along the beach or on a nature trail look closely because you never know what you will see or what is seeing you…

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More Critters at Bentsen Rio Grande State Park

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We realize that the beach is too far to visit so we continue to visit the natural areas nearby and take refuge with the critters that reside down here longer than the Winter Texans. Nearly every time I ride my bicycle into the state park nextBentsen Birds 015 door the beautiful Blue Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus cyanogenys) love to sun along the front entry. Some of the ones we have seen are up to a foot in length.Up close their beautiful blue color is visible just under their belly. We are finding there are other interesting critters here in the RGV!

But it really is the place to come for the birds and as a result I have a few more photos of a Golden Fronted Woodpecker which by the way can actually be found all through the north into the brush lands of Oklahoma. Also a fun little bird to watch at the suet feeders are the Black Crested Titmice. These excitable little birds will flit into the feeders grabbing a bit of suet or peanut butter from the holes in the log feeders and retreat just as quickly.

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However, I still just love watching the Green Jays and hope that I never tire of doing so since we will be here a month. There is one feeding station in the state The Big Dig 046park with a watering hole and the Green Jays often enjoy bathing there.

Before the cold weather that just hit the area (temperatures here overnight plummeted into the upper 40’s F and will only rise into the 60’s F) we decided it best to spend some time rearranging the outside bins and and cleaning them out. We were able to identify a few things we have been looking for and we also were able to pull a few things out that will be delivered to our son and his family for safekeeping since we aren’t using the items. This once a year (for us) task is now complete so we will just hunker down and pout about not being able to wear shorts and flip flops for the next few days…

Sunday, December 9, 2012

South Padre Island, Tx…

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Port Isabel and South Padre 027It was time for another road trip from our park in Mission, Texas and we decided that we needed a beach fix. Only problem was we are 90 miles away from the water. We both love spending time near the ocean and on the beach. What were we thinking when we decided to stay in south Texas so far from the ocean for the winter???

Well the weather was perfect in the area and with temperatures in the high eighties it was time for us to make the easterly 90 mile dash across state highway 83. The road is great and moves quite well considering that there is a seemingly continuum of towns from Mission through Harlingen. Los Fresno is the last small town we passed through on the way to Port Isabel and South Padre Island. We certainly watched our speed based upon the number of Law Enforcement cars we saw.

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Port Isabel and South Padre 030Port Isabel itself is a quaint little beach town with the typical beachy shops selling boogie boards, sunglasses, towels, swimsuits and sunscreen. There is also a small number of restaurants and one we heard about we had planned to stop at before leaving the area. But the only thing between us and the beach was the causeway and we didn’t dawdle around the town of Port Isabel…

We drove north on South Padre Island past all the pay to enter parks and pulled into beach access number four and parked the SUV, collected our beach stuff, our lunch and walked a short distance Port Isabel and South Padre 016across the sand to the waiting surf of the Gulf of Mexico… Ahhhhhhhhh, how pleasant it was to breathe in the fresh sea air with that smell of salt air and the sound of the waves crashing into the beach. We sat down and prepped our lunch only to look up and see a group of cowboys on a beach ride, how fun! While eating our lunch we were watched carefully by a group of sea gulls and it was entertaining to see them fighting over territory and squawking at one another.  After lunch on the beach and a couple of hours relaxing, sunning, wading in the surf, and collecting shells we were both put back into a great mindset…. Yep, we should have stayed closer to the beach… What were we thinking???