Sunday, January 29, 2012

3 Down, Many More to Come

Three years ago today, the movers came and packed up our furniture and other "stuff." Then we drove our 5th wheel to Chatfield State Park. We have been living on the road, full-time in our RV, ever since. We love it. We have no plans to end this way of living any time soon.

Since that time, we have volunteered in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, and now Texas. We have traveled around the perimeter of the eastern two-thirds of the country and spent quality time exploring southern Arizona and New Mexico. It is a wonderful life.

We have learned the freedom of getting rid of our "stuff." Granted, it took two more summers to do that, but it really gives us a good feeling. We are happy in something just over 300 square feet of living space, as long as we have a new view out the front window every few days or months. After all, that is our living room most of the time.

New people, new places, new challenges and opportunities. This is the life we love in our retirement. Wave if you pass us on the road. Or send us an email when we are nearby and we will get together to talk about our life on the road.

Happy travels. Remember to keep the rubber side down.

By the way, this is the 500th post on this blog? Who would of thought I would write that many posts?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Slice of Heaven

On January 13, we moved into the Bit-O-Heaven RV park in Donna, TX, while we attended training for our assignment at Santa Ana NWR. We couldn't park in the RV slot at the refuge until the people working the first half of the season finished up. This was our site in Heaven.

The park has RV sites and park models and it is full of Winter Texans. The sites are fairly small and crowded, but we had a grass front yard, something we hadn't seen in some time. It was the friendliest park we have ever spent time in. In the 12 days we were there, we met all of our neighbors. When we went out walking in the park, everyone, and I mean everyone, waved or said "hi." On our last morning there, a neighbor three spaces down knocked on our door just before 8 am. When John opened the door, she said, "It's baking day" and handed him a plate with two warm cinnamon rolls. From a stranger! Here are the rolls and three grapefruit we had picked the day before.

As we walked around the park we saw the following sights.

Anyone know what these flowers are?

Another cool golf cart.

What a creative planter for hen and chickens.

I'm not sure we were staying in heaven, but it was a good place for a time. Yesterday, we moved to our site at Santa Ana, where we will be parked through April. This is a little closer to heaven as a great RV site.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Monday, we--the three couples in training to be tram drivers at the refuge--went birding with Martin, the director of the Valley Nature Center, which operates the tram. This is what birders look like in the field.

Birding is really big business here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. A recent survey showed that tourists who come to the valley for birding and other nature-related activities spend over $300 million a year while in the area. Like I said, big business. None of us training to operate the tram are serious birders, but we all want to know enough to talk reasonably to all those birders. Thus, the day of birding.

We drove to Brownsville to The Nature Conservancy's Southmost Preserve. It provides native habitat for birds and wildlife. As you can see from the sign, the non-profit Nature Conservancy has corporate sponsors.

In this part of Texas, 95% of that habitat has been cleared to allow farming and ranching. Wildlife agencies are piecing together parcels of land to provide a wildlife corridor where the animals can travel around the open farm land. The Southmost Preserve is not open to the general public, but Martin works with the director of the preserve and we were able to go there.

We walked to this viewing deck on a small resaca (oxbow lake that is intermittently
flooded then dries up).

What little I knew about birds didn't include anything more about waterfowl than that some of them are ducks. This is what a bunch of ducks, stilts, and other waterfowl look like floating on the resaca.

Now I know that this is an American Avocet.

And this is a Black-necked Stilt.

On the far side of the resaca we saw a small stand of Sabal Palms, the only native palm in Texas. Once there were 50,000 acres of Sabal Palms along the Rio Grande. But they where cleared for farming, as well as to provide pilings for bridges and docks. Today only about 500 acres of palm forest remain in the U.S., almost all on this preserve and the nearby Sabal Palm Preserve.

Here is our trusty group walking to another area of the preserve.

As we walked down the path, we saw that GM is another sponsor of the preserve. By the way, the "Turk's Cap" is a small shrub with bright red flowers that are a real favorite of butterflies.

We drove on to the Sabal Palm Preserve, where we ate our picnic lunch and had a chance to walk through the palm forest. It is really impressive.

This coarse grass is everywhere in the preserve. It is Guinea Grass, imported in earlier decades by government agricultural agencies and ranchers seeking a drought-resistant grass for cattle. The cows wouldn't eat it and they found it didn't provide good nutrition. But the grass thrived and chokes out native plants. You know what they say about "the best laid plans."

We learned a couple of other things as well. This is a blurry photo of a bug trap. We saw a lot of them along the roads. Martin explained they are there to catch the boll weevil. Remember hearing about that bug in songs years ago? It is still a problem for cotton farmers, but now they have a way to determine where it is so they can spray the plants to prevent damage.

We saw a lot of these concrete pipes in the fields. Turns out, they are stand pipes connected to underground irrigation pipes. They contain valves that can to opened to irrigate the fields.

Traveling, spending time in new parts of the country, is a great way to learn about lives and ways that we have never seen before. That is one of the reason we love being RVers.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Getting Acquainted

We have spent the past eight days getting acquainted with the Lower Rio Grande Valley, with Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, with the other tram drivers and the staff we will be working with, and the material we will be sharing with visitors. It has been a very busy week.

During that time, we have ridden the tram through the refuge twice. We have been encouraged to hear each of the current tram-driver couples make their presentations and we have heard two of them so far. We also explored the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco. We are actually volunteering for that organization when we lead the tram tours, as they have a cooperative agreement with the refuge. One day a week we will be volunteering in the refuge visitor center.

Tuesday through Friday, we had training each day, learning about flora and fauna, about the techniques of effective interpretation, and lots of other specifics about the job we will be doing for three months.

It has been several months since we had such a demanding schedule, so it has taken some adjusting. We were tired, but each day we adapted a little better.

One day, Martin, who is executive director of the Valley Nature Center, showed us this bit of fauna--a Texas Milk Snake.

The Milk Snake has the same colors as the highly poisonous Coral Snake. We learned the following couplet to tell them apart:

Red touches yellow, kills a fellow
Red touches black, venom lacks.
You can be sure that is something we will remember!

We spent most of our training time inside, sitting around a table. Here you can see Tom, Hermy and Judy facing the camera, as well as Martin, our trainer. My back is to the camera and Sue is out of the picture to the left. John is behind the camera. We are enjoying our coworkers and think it will be a good winter.

We also have been able to do some bird watching. That is the biggest Eco-tourism draw in the Valley and something we are really looking forward to learning more about. This is an impressive Harris's Hawk that we saw on the tram tour.

We saw this Long-billed Thrasher at the Valley Nature Center.

There are lots of these Great Kiskadees in the Valley.

I am really excited about the birds we will see here and that I can photograph. You will be seeing a lot of them.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What a Change!

We're not in Arizona anymore, Toto. That is what we felt like today. For more than a year we have been in Arizona and Colorado and New Mexico, all locations with low humidity. Now we have come to the Lower Rio Grande Valley--hereafter to be referred to as "the Valley"--and today it has been warm and humid. We expected both and came because of the heat. But it will take a while to adjust to the humidity. It helps my skin and eyes, while also making me uncomfortable. When I got up this morning, at 6 am, it was 66 degrees and 91% humidity. The high was in the low 80s this afternoon, with quite a bit of wind. Give us a few days to get used to both the humidity and the wind.

Tomorrow, we begin our training as tram drivers at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The tram is actually operated by the Valley Nature Center in nearby Weslaco. We will have training almost every day through the end of the month, including learning about vegetation, birds, butterflies, and how to operate the tram. We know we have a lot to learn, even though they sent us, in advance, a 17-page tram talk script. We have been studying it and thinking of how to make it our own and this training will help.

Since the tram has been in operation since November 1 and we don't start driving it until February 1, the current crew is still living in the RV sites reserved for us. So they put us up in the Bit-O-Heaven RV Park in Donna, also nearby. This is a very friendly place with over 700 sites for RVs and park models. It gives us a connection to other Winter Texans.

We arrived on Friday, so we have spent three days getting familiar with the area. We visited the refuge, which we had not seen before, went on a tram tour, and visited the Valley Nature Center. Now it is time to get to work.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A Long, Long Day

We are exhausted. We try not to drive much more than 200 miles a day. But today, we did 350+ miles, Del Rio to Donna, TX, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. It took seven and a half hours! Way too long.

We passed miles of pecan orchards and a few fields of goats. Miles and miles and miles (350+) of creosote bush and mesquite. And oodles and oodles of oil and gas fields. Obviously, there is a lot of oil field construction going on and lots of new jobs. There are small RV parks on noting but dirt, signs advertising RV parking. Many oil field construction companies. It is good to see an area that seems to be doing well economically.

We are parked at Bit-O-Heaven in Donna for the next 2 to 3 weeks while we receive training for our new volunteer assignment as tram drivers and tour leaders at Santa Ana NWR. We actually begin working Feb. 1, but can't move to the refuge till the folks who worked the first half of the season finish work and move on. We aren't far from the refuge and they are paying for our stay here.

Now it's time for bed.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Mini-Vacation

We spent five nights in Big Bend National Park—with no cell phone signal and only minimal internet when we walked up to the Rio Grande Village store. It has been ages since we were in this situation. No blog reading. We couldn’t look something up on Google. I couldn’t check the bank accounts. Or do any other business. No youtube videos.

We were ready to move on and get back our connection to the outside world. But the enforced isolation made this into a mini vacation. That meant we did more exercise. We did more reading. We looked out the window and then went to take pictures of what we saw. We slowed down.

In our early years of RVing, before we had broadband cards for internet and before most RV parks offered free wi-fi, going on a trip meant leaving the outside world behind. Back then, we often didn’t have TV either. At Big Bend, our satellite TV worked great. So we were only sort-of cut off.

How many of you remember going to the campground office to download email from their fax line or plugging a phone cord into the side of a pay telephone? And you needed a calling card to make phone calls. Broadband, wi-fi and cell phones have changed all that and made it much easier to live full-time on the road. But once in a while it is good to take a vacation from all that connection and just relax.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The Big Bend

The Rio Grande River begins in Colorado, west of the town of Creede. It flows east and south through New Mexico, roughly adjacent to I-25. As it enters Texas, it becomes the boundary between the US and Mexico, which accounts for the shape of the southern border of Texas. At one point, the river makes a “big bend” and flows north for a while before turning south and east to the Gulf of Mexico.

Last week we were in Las Cruces, NM, and did our run along the Rio Grande—which is virtually dry at this time of year because no water is flowing out of Elephant Butte Reservoir to the north. By the time the river reaches the “big bend,” it is a lazy stream at this time of year.

There were nice reflections of the dead trees in the pond.

Yesterday, we walked on the nature trail at Big Bend National Park, where we saw a spring-fed pond which attracts numerous birds and where we could look down on the Rio Grande.

We saw a horse with two riders splash through the lazy stream. They were riding from one part of Mexico to another by taking a very short shortcut through the national park.

We also saw displays of Mexican-made craft items along the nature trail. However, the park’s newspaper, The Paisano, as well as its web site point out that such items are contraband and can be seized by park officers. Also, if the Mexican nationals come across to collect money for the crafts, they may be arrested as illegal immigrants and shipped to Presidio 100 miles away for deportation.

Beginning next week, we will be tram drivers and interpreters at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge along the Rio Grande River near the Gulf of Mexico. What the river will look like there?

This is bird-watching territory. In April 2010, I blogged that I found bird watching boring. I wonder what has changed. Today we had so much fun watching, waiting and seeing new birds. The most interesting was this Green Heron.

We also spotted this raccoon. Eventually, it went down into the pond and swam away. We didn’t know raccoons could swim. What a treat to see one in the wild!

Our campsite has some friendly roadrunners.

This is the Sierra del Carmen mesa, across the Rio Grande in Mexico, which provides a backdrop to our campground.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

2011 Recap

I have blogged about the details of 2011. What does it look like overall? We volunteered for over six months of the year, 185 days to be exact. We were at Casa Grande Ruins in Coolidge, AZ, during January, February and March. From mid-May through Labor Day, we were at Lathrop State Park in Walsenburg, CO. That really saves on the campground fees.

We had 185 days free “camping.” In addition, volunteers for Colorado state parks receive a volunteer pass that allows us to get into all of the state’s parks for free for a year. That meant we didn’t pay the daily entry fees at Chatfield State Park and Cherry Creek State Park in September. As senior volunteers, we also get $3 a day off the camping fee Sunday through Thursday. During September that saved us $284.

Our total campground expense in 2011 was $3319.62, which works out to $9.09 a day for the year or $18.44 for the 180 days we weren’t volunteering. In addition, we spent $526.16 on electricity, sewer, trash removal, and propane during the year. Most of that expense was during the three months we spent at Valle del Oro in the fall.

We spent $3215.55 on diesel fuel. Given the cost of diesel (and gasoline) during the year, you can see we didn’t drive very much. We spent time in only three states with our RV—Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. We also spent two days in Blythe, CA, while we checked out Quartzsite in January and 10 days in New Hampshire on a visit to our son and his family there.

All in all, with the exception of two 50-year high school reunions and a trip to be with our son when he had surgery for cancer, it was a very quiet year.

We intend to change that in 2012. Who knows how many states we will visit as we drive to Alaska? And we will be in two Canadian provinces. This year will be different. All years are good, no even great.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

What a Difference a Day Makes

Monday we left Mesa and drove as far as Willcox in southeastern Arizona. We checked in at Lifestyle RV, where we have stayed before. It is a basic parking lot with good hookups, wifi, and a decent laundry. And seems to be the best park in town. This isn't a very good photo, but you can see how close the RVs are to one another. And it is all gravel.

Today we drove on to Las Cruces, New Mexico, and are parked at Sunny Acres RV. What a difference! We have good hookups, reliable wifi, and look at the space we have!

It is a friendly park and we have real grass, even if it is winter brown! We haven't seen that out our front door for I don't know how long. This small park has a number of snowbirds and we can see why. That is, until you consider the weather. Southern New Mexico just isn't as warm as Arizona, Florida, California or Texas. But we really like this park. We will stay here again when we visit this area.

We will stay two nights, then it is on to Texas for a few days at Big Bend National Park before we go on to Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge for the rest of the winter.