Motoring Across America

With James "Alex" Alexander

with James "Alex" Alexander



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Blog 296: On to the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Waynesville to Los Fresnos

The Journey
From Pride RV in Waynesville, we headed south and west staying at the Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park near McCalla, Alabama, the Pavilion RV Park in West Monroe, Louisiana, the New Adventure RV Park and Horse Hotel outside of Coldspring Texas, and the Gateway to the Gulf RV Park in Coldspring, Texas, before reaching our winter destination at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, about 30 miles north of Brownsville and near Los Fresnos, Texas.

Another LANWR Sign

Laguna Atascosa NWR
An informal greeting committee met us as we passed the entrance sign and drove into the refuge—five roadrunners strutted across the road in front of us (one at a time) in what appeared to be a welcoming procession. Native Americans consider the Greater Roadrunner sacred, so we took their presence as a powerful omen and a sign of good luck—it’s gonna be a great stay!

Roadrunner

The Refuge
Laguna Atascosa is roughly 100,000 acres consisting of four parcels of land. It is a world-class birding location with over 400 avian species either staying there year ‘round, wintering, or stopping off their migratory path for a few days of rest and fueling up for the next leg of
their journey. It is also the home of several endangered and threatened species—check out https://www.fws.gov/refuge/laguna_atascosa/.

Here is a recent article on the ocelot and the refuge:
https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-environment/2017/11/21/ocelots-try-survive-world-barely-knows-they-exist/824032001/.

Here are a few bird pics I have taken since we arrived. In order is the green jay, mockingbird, Harris’s hawk, and a long-billed thrasher. Quite good looking, don’t you think?

Green Jay

Mockingbird

Harris's Hawk

Long-Billed Thrasher

Our Gig
Jan and I are the “interpreters” for the wildlife tours. We will be hosting three-hour tram tours that go through four different habitats of the refuge along a 15-mile route. All kinds of cool critters live along the way. Below is a shot of the majestic caracara I shot on a practice run. Also, the refuge is home of nilgai (pronounced “nil’ guy”), an antelope on steroids (they weigh up to 600+ pounds)—an exotic species native to Pakistan and India. Below is a photo of a male.

Caracara 2

Male Nilgai

View from Our Campsite
We live in the Volunteer Village on the refuge, a very nice RV campground with 11 sites for the volunteers. We have a wonderful view in which to check out nature in action. Jack and Mitzy also love to just sit and scope out the carousel of critters that come through our backyard from time to time. Here is a shot of Jack in critter-watching mode, an armadillo, Stretch the Texas indigo snake (he’s a good one), a Mexican ground squirrel, and Angelina the javelina.

Batman Jack

Armadillo

Texas Indigo Snake

Mexican Ground Squirrel

Javelina

Eight-Legged Friend
It is our habit, when time allows, to take a family drive in the late afternoon to look for sights to see and critters to capture with the camera. Jan usually drives, Jack has the backseat, and I sit shotgun with Mitzy on my lap with my camera on a bean bag pointing out the window.

One day as we were driving down the road, Jan cranks the wheel and does a 180-degree turn. She jumps out the door to rescue a tarantula that was trying to cross a busy road (his odds of not being splat were quite poor). She pulls her sweatshirt sleeve down over her right hand, lowers it to the ground, and the tarantula clings on. Jan walks over to the opposite shoulder of the road and shakes her arm to free her rescued friend. The tarantula is not easily released and slowly starts to trek up Jan’s arm. I yell at her to stop so that I can take a picture, but when the big guy reaches her shoulder and her attempts to loosen her eight-legged buddy are unsuccessful, she whips off her sweatshirt, throws it to the ground, and runs back to the car wearing just her sports bra on top. Of course, I got the shot, loosened the grip of our new friend, and returned the sweatshirt to Jan to put on before traffic overtook us.

Tarantula 2

Old Trucks
Here are two old trucks from the Old Truck Reserve.

Old Truck 1

Old Truck 2

See you next time.

Blog 295: Smoky and Blue

Elkhart to Waynesville

Columbus, Indiana
From Goshen, we headed south to Columbus, Indiana, to stay a couple of nights at Columbus Woods-N-Water Campground. Nice and quiet, and guess what?—it is surrounded by woods and water—nice to experience truth in advertising.

Glasgow, Kentucky
From Columbus, we headed south in the rain (hurricane aftermath) down I-65 to Bailey’s Point Campground, another Corps of Engineer campground at Barren River Lake (about an hour south of Mammoth Cave National Park). It is a heavily wooded campground beside a huge lake—solitude abounds. They have an interesting tradition at the campgrounds that we just missed out on. The second weekend of October every year they have a “Boo Fest,” where most all campers decorate their campground sites for Halloween and many of them go all out. To many folks, this is a tradition—a chance to get together with friends and outdo each other on decorations. All kinds of activities are planned. The local kids have a break, so the place is exciting as well as quite scary! We left on Friday morning missing out on the main excitement.

Kentucky is the home of narrow winding roads, tasty bourbon, and fields of tobacco. Here is a shot of one of the cool tobacco barns.

Tobacco Barn

Chinese Buffet
The little town of Glasgow is kinda quaint, but limited in what it has to offer to sophisticated travelers like us. :’) With really low expectations on my part, we stopped for lunch at the China King and had their buffet for $7 a person. Just amazing! Really, really, good. There were close to 40 pans of really tasty Schezuan-style food. From zippy hot-and-sour soup to crab and shrimp and dozens of noodle dishes—wonderful stop.

Waynesville, NC
From Glasgow, I let the Google Maps take us the shortest route to Waynesville, NC—my bad. We poked along very narrow, very curvy blacktops for a couple hours. Beautiful country, but poor Jan was driving the bus and had to be on full alert as she guided us along the way at 15 miles an hour tops.

We chose Waynesville because of its close proximity to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and access to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had talked about seeing the colors here for years and had planned on it the year the government and the national park system were shut down. This time we made it. Our Pride RV Resort campground was just seven minutes from Maggie Valley decorated to the hilt for the fall season and Halloween—you couldn’t go ten feet without seeing pumpkins, witches, and other scary decorations. There were lots of antiques—here is a sign I found intriguing. The old trucks you will see later all came from Maggie Valley.

Flying Gas Man

Dog Park
Waynesville has a nice dog park within a manicured city park that we took the pups to several times. Here is a shot of a resting Golden.

Resting Golden

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We had allotted one specific day to do a full-court press on shooting the fall colors. Alas, just as we had the car loaded, the rain came—first a soft mist, then a sprinkle, and the occasional downpour. However, we were out of the campground before sunrise (which never came), drove through Maggie Valley, and turned west on the Blue Ridge Parkway winding our way to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center inside the Great Smoky Mountain NP.* The ranger was helpful but not hopeful as we discussed possible destinations. He said it was not the best year for fall colors because the very warm temperatures a few months back had a big impact. He also said that because of the rain, rising winds, and lousy visibility, we may not be able to absorb the usual experience of the park. Hey, we were there, so we headed north driving adjacent the Oconaluftee River. We first stopped at the Mingus Mill, once the only grist mill for miles around. It was pouring rain, but we all got out of the car to check things out. After five minutes, both pups were doing their impression of drowned rats, and with gloomy looks led us back to the car. We drove for another hour, seeing a few colors along the river, but saw nothing but bright gray as we passed by the scenic pullouts. We accepted defeat, but decide to try again the next day.

Mingus Mill

Smoky View

*Depending upon your perspective, this where the Blue Ridge Parkway ends at Milepost 469. The Blue Ridge Parkway is its own National Park that for 469 miles links the Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in the south, starting in the northern part of Virginia and ending at the southern part of North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Parkway
Fortunately, we had another day to explore. This time we drove through Maggie Valley but turned left instead of right on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was a chilly 40 degrees but the sky was clear to partly cloudy—great day for a road trip. We took the Parkway for over 40 miles. We have heard horror stories about the horrendous crowds in both the Smoky Mt. Park and the Parkway during prime season. Being there on a weekday just off season had its perks—traffic was light making things much more enjoyable.

We stopped at Waterrock Knob where Jack and I hiked the trail to the top to admire the views. Truth in advertising again—the literature stated steep and rocky and it was spot on! Nice views from the summit.

From there we stopped at several turnouts and gushed out an “ooh” or an “ahh” when appropriate. At the Pisgah Mountain, we turned around taking the back way to Waynesville and then on to our camp. Beautiful trip—I can only imagine what it must look like in a prime year! We hope to find out.

Blue Ridge Scenic

Blue Ridge Scenic 2

Funky Blue Ridge Wall

Top of Watterock Knob

Old Trucks
Here are five old trucks from Maggie Valley.

Old Truck 1

Old Truck 2

Old Truck 3

Old Truck 4

Old Truck 5

Blog 294: Casino Royale

From Cherry Creek State Park to Elkhart County Fairgounds

Loveland, CO
From Cherry Creek State Park, we took the short trip north to Boyd Lake State Park. As the name implies, the main attraction at this state park is the lake. We had a nice lake view from our site and enjoyed the many paths on which we walked the pups.

Day Trip: RMNP
Being this close, we couldn’t resist the opportunity of visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. We have been there many times, but every time is worthwhile. We took the one-way, dirt road up to the Alpine Visitor Center, and then circled back on the main drag. On the way up, we stopped by a stream and Jan built (I helped) a cairn in memory of her cousin Harlan.

Marmot

Harlan Cairn

Ft. Collins, CO
Another short drive north put us into the Ft. Collins KOA on the northwest part of the town by a major reservoir. On Labor Day, we hooked up with old Pine Island friends who have a house in Ft. Collins for a nice lunch.

Day Trip: State Forest State Park
We took scenic Highway 14 north and west bordering the Cache la Poudre along the way to State Forest State Park. North and west of Rocky Mountain National Park this isolated area is one of the prettiest places in one of the prettiest states. As we approached the park we saw three really big moose in the exact spot we viewed them several years earlier (hey, they might have been the same ones!). After a nice lunch at Walden, we worked our way back to camp.

Massive Moose

McCook, NE
From Ft. Collins, we took 14 east to 6 east and found a “city” park in McCook. The small park has sites big enough for big rigs and 50-amp power. They do this as a public service—camping is free except for tips. You certainly could tell you were in the Midwest, because about every fourth vehicle you meet is a tractor, combine, or other motorized farm implement.

Fairbury, NE
Continuing east across the plains, we camped overnight at the Rock Creek Station Recreation Area. Another isolated but very pretty setting.

Osceola Iowa: Casino #1
Continuing east and north we spent a night south of Des Moines, at the Waterside Casino campground. Clean and easy to navigate—good one-nighter.

Coralville, Iowa
Our next stop in eastern Iowa was the Coralville Dam, another Corp of Engineer campground built along Coralville Lake. Huge sites, great views—very relaxing…we spent several days there and will come back again.

Coralville Campsite

Coralville Campsite View

Day Trip: Casino #2
We drove south for an easy half hour to meet my two sisters for lunch outside of the town of Riverside at the Riverside Casino. Great catching up on families and a pretty good buffet!

Joliet Illinois: Casino #3
There are relatively few RV parks or campgrounds in this area, and the Hollywood Casino is probably the best.

Kalamazoo, Michigan
From Joliet, we headed east and dropped the coach off at the Thor factory service center in Wakarusa, Indiana, on a Friday mid-day. With our two pups and a loaded jeep, we drove an hour-and-a-half mainly north to spend time with a longtime friend. We had the chance to enjoy beautiful weather and reconnect with many old friends.

Trip to South Haven
Other good friends had recently built a house in South Haven, a two-minute walk to Lake Michigan. We timed dinner right so that we took in a beautiful sunset from their private beach.

Lake Michigan Sunset

Lake Michigan Sunset II

Beach Walkers

Dog Park
As always, we enjoy a dog park whenever we get the chance.

Mitzy and Buddy

Run, Jack, Run

Goshen, Indiana
We drove back down to Wakarusa, picked up the coach, and drove the 30 minutes into Elkhart for the yearly chassis service. After checking out this town for three hours during the servicing, we picked up the coach and headed south and east to Goshen. Here we set up camp at the Elkhart County Fairgrounds to attend a five-day Thor Diesel Rally of 135 coaches similar to ours. Lots of seminars, get-togethers, and group meals. They had a dog parade in which Jan made costumes for both Mitzy and Jack. I think the judging was rigged, as it was apparent to anyone with class that Mitzy should have won the best costume, with Jack a close second. Oh, well, we didn’t like the prizes anyway.

Butterfly and Bat

Old Trucks
Here is an old truck shot in Michigan.

Old KL Truck

See you next time.

Blog 293: Eclipse Chasers

From Cheyenne Mountain State Park we took the short drive up to Cherry Creek State Park on the eastern side of Denver. Bigger than Central Park in NYC, it shares the status of being right in the city of Denver, so one is close to just about everything. Nice, spacious campsites, trails everywhere, water to swim in or fish—just a wonderful place to stay.

Dog Park
Regular readers know how impressed I am with the quality (and size) of the off-leash dog parks in Colorado, and the Cherry Creek State Park dog park is right at the top of the list. Below are a few pics taken over several visits.

Big Stick Jack

Fluffy Pup

Reflecting Ernie

Run, Jack, Run

Run, Jack, Run II

Shoeless Mitzy

Football
Austie’s flag football team was undefeated for the season, and we got the chance to see the championship game.

Championship Opening Ceremony

Grab it, Austie!

Hut-Hut

Fishing
Jan and I (mostly Jan) watched the G-kids a few times over our stay in Denver. During an overnight stay at our campground, we took Austie and Nattie out fishing. Everybody had a great time.

Fishing Austi

Fishing Nattie

Total Solar Eclipse

Cherry Creek State Park to Scottsbluff

Early Preparation
I knew total solar eclipses were cool, but I hadn’t considered them at a “bucket list” level. Then over lunch one day (about three weeks before the eclipse), I saw a TED video of a scientist who made the case that viewing a total eclipse should be one of life’s top priorities. As he described the visual treats he saw, the totally unexpected sounds, and the intense feeling he experienced, I changed my mind. Doing a little research, I found that Denver was not far from the path of totality (200+ miles or so), so I vowed to make the journey, if at all possible. There were three main challenges:

1. Total Eclipse Glasses: Now this seemed easy, at first. Should be able to pick up a couple pair for a couple of bucks each…not! These special glasses were sold out everywhere. However, getting close to giving up (down to eight days), I found that the Grease Monkey chain (quick oil changes) was giving them away as a special promotion. I called and found that the last two pair within Colorado were at a location 20 minutes away. We jumped in the Jeep, and when we arrived I put Mitzy in my arms (hey, she is quite persuasive) and went in. The person I met hemmed and hawed a little (he said people were lined up before store opening to get their glasses), and I just kept saying how much we appreciated it and petting Mitzy. Finally, after smiling at the cute pup in my arms, he miraculously found two pair tucked away in the back of a cabinet. I thought about hugging him, but a grease joint is a macho place. Challenge Number 1 handled.

2. Lodging: As you probably guessed, hotels, motels, B&Bs, RV parks, and campgrounds were all jacking up prices (e.g., they were asking $1,200 for one night at a Motel 6!) and most all were sold out. We had decided upon going to Scottsbluff, Nebraska (all the people I had talked to said they were going to Wyoming), and I called the tourism center, the visitor bureau, the Scottsbluff National Monument, the Chamber of Commerce, and even with local knowledge could find nothing available that cost less than a first-class ticket to London. However, checking back three days before the event, a private rancher was advertising dry camping spots for $75—sold! Challenge Number 2 handled.

3. Photographing the Eclipse. Ideally you use a special solar eclipse filter, or the poor man’s version is solar eclipse film that you use to cobble together a homemade filter. I did not anticipate an issue until going to the B&H website and finding all options were out of stock, and all were backordered and not anticipated to arrive soon. Well, of course, I checked out Adorama, Amazon, and a dozen other places. Next, I called camera stores. Finally, I decided, “Oh, well, I can document the spectacle. Furthermore, I could shoot filterless during the one-minute-and-forty-two seconds of the total eclipse—good enough. Challenge Number 3 partially mediated.

Getting There
There were lots of horror stories about 600,000 people leaving Colorado and heading north to Wyoming or northeast to Nebraska for the total solar eclipse. So, we had some mixed emotions and a little angst and prepared ourselves mentally for possible traffic gridlock. In an attempt to at least minimize the potential pain, on Sunday we got the coach ready, and by 6:40 a.m. we were heading out of the park on our 214-mile trek to Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Traffic on I-225 was light, modest on 70 East, and almost nothing on East I-76. Highway 52 was wide open, and although a little rough at times, we kept a good pace as we passed through the gentle fields of the Pawnee National Grassland. 71 East was quiet and smooth—almost lonely! We stopped at the Kimball Diner for breakfast (50% locals after church with the remainder Eclipse Hunters). 71 north of Kimball was a just-paved, four-lane road, smooth…easy-peasy.

We kept seeing signs along the road saying, “Expect Heavy Traffic,” but even stopping off at the diner, our journey was only four hours.

Once set up in our grassy field, we decided to check out the Scottsbluff National Monument, where Jan got her passport stamped, and then went on to adjoining Legacy of the Plains. We then drove around looking for the best place to view the eclipse and decided that where we were staying was just fine.

Scottsbluff NM 1

Scottsbluff NM 2

Preparation
I decided I would set up two cameras and attempt to get photos and video footage during the one-minute-and-forty-two seconds of the total eclipse. I was a little nervous, as it didn’t seem wise, as I had only seconds to adjust the tripod, frame the sun, manually focus, and shoot the eclipse.

At 10:25 the partial eclipse started, and Jan and I watched the changing shadows every few minutes for over an hour—very cool. Our only regret was that our Grease Monkey shades weren’t very sexy, and there were very few people that were envious.

At about 11:47, I started the video. At 11:48, the full eclipse started, and with both cameras I quickly took off the lens caps, adjusted the tripods to frame the sun, and then manually focused for the one-minute-and-forty-two-second duration.

At least I wasn’t skunked! Here are two photos I took of the total eclipse.

Total Eclipse Diamond Ring

Total Eclipse

If you’d like to see the 3:22 second video featuring Janny’s play-by-play commentary, click here. Note that there is only audio for the first one minute or so.

The Trip Back
After lunch (our host kindly fed us hot dogs, hamburgers, and the trimmings), and then we were off. Yes, there was some going-so-slow-you-could-shine-your-shoes moments, but we still made it home in slightly over five hours.

Unbelievable experience! We are ready for Total Eclipse 2024. How about you?

See you next time.

Blog 292: Dogs and Rabbits, Turkeys and Bear

We took the easy but slow hour-and-a-half journey from the Chatfield State Park campground in SW Denver to the Cheyenne Mountain State Park campground in SW Colorado Springs, about 10 miles south of the Air Force Academy and close to the Cheyenne Mountain of NORAD fame.

The last time we camped here was when the big fire burned a few years ago, with soaring temperatures, darkened skies, and the ever-present smell of heavy smoke. We could clearly see the fires that threatened the Air Force Academy and much of the Colorado Springs area. This year was much different. Heavy winter snows and lots of spring rain kept everything a bright green color. It rained almost every day, and hail touched the ground twice during our stay. The park has a heavy population of rabbits, deer, prairie dogs, and wild turkeys for the pups to watch and try to chase. In addition, a juvenile bear was sited directly behind our site, but we never saw him.

Here is a view from our campsite.

Cheyenne Mt. Campsite View

Dog Parks
Like so many places in Colorado, the area has several very nice off-leash dog parks. Here are a few dog pics from our stay (including one bluebird that lives in one of the parks).

Bluebird

Black and Grey in Sunflowers

Black and White in Field

Black and White with Ball

Black Dog in Field

Bounding Brownie

Happy Gunner

Jack and Gunner

Running Brindle

Running Loki

Three-Legged Pup in Field

Pretty Girl

Wolfish Smile

It's my ball, Bucko

Where is Jack?


Old Trucks
Here are three old trucks from the Old Truck Reserve.

Old Truck 1

Old Truck 2

Old Truck 3

See you next time.