Tuesday, January 31, 2017

What is the Worst Place You have Visited?

Not long ago, a new friend was asking for travel advice. We're used to question like, "What's the favorite place you have visited so far?" We always struggle with an answer because we have been blessed to see so many great places in the last two years. We are also amazed at the neat places we have found when we weren't even expecting it.

Then our new friends asked a unique question, "What is the worst place you have visited?" That's another tough question, as we always seem to find something fun to do wherever we land. But then Denisa remembered our stay two years ago in Van Horn, Texas. This tiny town along I-10 has a multitude of hotels and RV Parks for an easy overnight option traveling through west Texas. But they don't seem to have anything to tempt you to stay for more than one night. 

We stopped here to do our taxes two years ago, because we needed a place so boring that we wouldn't be tempted to leave the motor home until we got them filed. Van Horn completely fit the bill. There is no hiking, no waters to kayak, no biking trails. The town museum was free, and worth every penny. So we told our new friends that Van Horn, Texas was the worst place we have visited.

Guess where we are now?!?! Welcome to Van Horn! In our search for some warmer weather, we landed here at the same RV park we visited two years ago along I-10. Actually, Desert Willow RV is a great park with full hook-ups, 50 amp power, free wifi, and cable TV for a bargain price. We even have a view of the mountain range just south of town.

With full hook-ups, we got caught up on the laundry that has been stacking up since we left Mission, Texas.

We planned to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park--about an hour's drive to the north. But with temperatures AND winds in the 30's, we decided not to make the trip to the mountains where it is even colder and windier.

So we are getting good experience in how to prepare the motor home for cold temperatures at night. Mark drained the water lines, disconnected the water and sewer hoses, and turned off the ice maker with its tiny water line. We kept the slides in so we have less space to heat and have less open wall space to get exposed to the cold. We don't run our electric heat pumps with their venting in the ceiling. Instead, we are running our propane heaters with floor vents that also warm the bays where our water lines are hiding. With night-time temperatures in the 20's, this is the most serious cold spell we've run into since we've been full-timing. We even bought a thermometer at the Van Horn hardware store with a remote sensor. Now we can monitor the temperature in our water bay where many of our water pipes run.
As you can see, running our propane heater is keeping the temperature in the water bay at a balmy 39.2.

When we thought the weather couldn't get worse, it even started snowing big white snowflakes one evening!

So we enjoyed another day of rest and relaxation, glad to have HBO--compliments of the RV Park's cable system. We aren't movie-watchers, so we can always find movies that we haven't seen before. We watched "The Intern" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2" just a couple years behind the rest of the world! In between the two movies, we ate at the highly recommended local restaurant--Lizy's.

So we no longer consider Van Horn, Texas, as the worst place we have visited. It obviously couldn't be the worst place if we chose to return! It's actually our favorite place--to get things done and relax.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The World's Largest Spring-fed Swimming Pool at Balmorhea State Park

The reason we stopped at Balmorhea State Park was to experience the world's largest spring-fed swimming pool located there. We don't make advance reservations because we like to have the flexibility of changing plans with the changing weather. We've been seeing a lot of that changing weather lately! After studying the forecast, we wanted to be at Balmorhea on a beautiful blue-sky day with temperatures in the 80's. We got our wish!

The picture above is of just one of the "legs" of the pools. To get a good description, we need to start at the beginning with a panorama shot of the entire pool. It gives the false fish-bowl angle to the situation, but it helps to understand the layout. There is the main pool that goes from 3 feet in depth all the way to 25 feet. The leg that continues in the distance on the left is around 20 feet deep, while the leg on the right is 3-5 feet deep. As you can see, there are several diving boards, and we're guessing this place is really busy in July.

But in January, people would have to be crazy to consider swimming, right? Welcome to crazy-ville, because after we scoped out the pool, we changed into our swim suits. You can see the difference in the color of the water, as the depth goes from 3 foot to 25 feet. It's in that deep section that we saw the scuba divers in their wet suits practicing their skills later that day.

The pool is a result of the San Solomon Springs, which discharge 19 million gallons of water per day. Because it comes directly from the springs, the water in the pool has a constant temperature of 75 degrees. Even on an 80-degree day, that feels a little cool when one first gets in. But after a few minutes it begins to feel better (or your entire body goes numb--we're not sure which is correct).

Because it is coming straight from a spring, the water is perfectly clear and a beautiful color. This is a natural environment, with no chlorine or chemicals added to the water. So you share the water with other natural water-dwellers, like hundreds of fish.

The bottom is cement in the shallow sections, but has its natural base when it drops off to the deep sections. For the first time in two years, we got to use our snorkel gear. Using our masks, we could look down at the natural rocks and fish and water plants through the perfectly clear water.

In the deepest section there was a high dive, and of course Mark would jump off it while we were swimming. It was at this end of the pool where most of the tiny fish live. We had hundreds of three-inch fish around us. They must have been hungry, because they kept nibbling on us. We were told that people spend big money for a spa treatment that uses this same fish-nibbling technique to remove dry skin, and we got it for free!

Some people might get a little creeped out with sharing a swimming pool with fish. Those people would probably also be creeped out knowing that there are ducks in the water, as well as turtles.

But because it's the world's largest swimming pool, there is plenty of room for everyone, and the ducks and turtles didn't even try to nibble on us.

When we returned in the evening, we could see a larger flock of ducks, enjoying the fact that the dozen swimmers we saw in the afternoon were now gone. The ducks could now enjoy having the place to themselves.

The pool at Balmorhea was a fun and unique experience, and we were so blessed with a beautiful weather day to enjoy the water. As we walked back to the motor home, we saw the most curious cloud overhead. It was a single cloud with an unusual ripple effect in the middle of a beautifully blue sky.

What we didn't know was that other things were unusual in the atmosphere. The same forecast that brought us this wonderfully warm January day, would also be bringing us some chilly weather. We checked the forecast and saw that there were night-time temperatures well below freezing in our future. Living in a motor home with water pipes and tanks that are vulnerable to freezing temperatures, we looked at our options. No matter if we drove north, south, or further west, we were stuck with some cold weather. So we decided to just hunker down and spend another couple days at our very comfortable spot at Balmorhea State Park.

We spent our time in constructive ways. We sorted through all the citrus fruit, looking for soft pieces that needed to be used quickly.

We used our covered picnic table as a pecan shelling station, getting the pecans we gathered from the city park ready for some homemade desserts. We did our shelling while we watched programs on our outside television.

We took walks in the park, keeping an eye on the San Solomon Cienega in our backyard. Connected to the swimming pool by a system of canals, this wetland area is bordered by native tall grasses and reeds. It is protecting two rare and endangered species of small fish.

Just like the swimming pool, it is also home to some water birds like red-eyed coots.

Denisa also spent a good amount of time chasing after the local roadrunners. They have grown used to camera-toting tourists, and will stand still for portraits.

She really enjoyed getting to see the details of these steely-eyed hunters.

So while we sit a little longer waiting for some warmer weather, we will enjoy the wildlife of this area. Too often we run down the road too fast and miss seeing the beauty of the roadrunner.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Two Fast Moves to the West

As we left South Llano River State Park, we had an interesting moving day. The day was windy, and we didn't look forward to a 3-hour drive west along I-10 with a stiff side wind. So we checked out of our site at 2:00 at the state park, and headed into the nearby town of Junction. The city has a nice park along the river, where they invite RVers to spend the night for free. We just needed a spot for a couple hours until the winds subsided. After parking beside the river, we went to explore the park. The old pecan trees in the city park produced a bumper crop this year, and today's winds had blown more ripe nuts down to the ground. So we spent part of the afternoon picking up a nice bag of pecans.

We headed down the road around 5:00 when the winds were calmer. This is one of the few times we have seen the sunset through the windshield of the motor home, as we are usually parked hours before that time.

Our destination was the Walmart parking lot at Fort Stockton, Texas. Two years ago, we saw that more than twenty RVers parked here overnight in March. There was a smaller crowd in January, but there were still more than a dozen of us camped here by the next morning.

The reason we were spending the night in Fort Stockton was to make an early morning appointment with a company in town to repair the new chip in our windshield. Denisa took pictures of the process from the inside of the motor home as the apparatus was attached and the resin was inserted. This was all working out perfectly, until the technician announced that there was moisture in the chip, and continuing to apply the pressure would cause the crack to spread. So now we have a half-sealed chip that will probably still cause us problems. The good news is he gave us our money back since he didn't fix the problem. The bad news is because the chip has been partially sealed, that process won't work for us. Bummer!

So we headed down the road for our second destination just an hour west down the road. We started to see a change in the landscape to plateaus and a rim of rolling hills in the distance as we went down Interstate 10.

We pulled into our spot at Balmorhea State Park. Again, we had to learn the correct pronunciation from the ranger--Bal-more-ray. There was a welcoming committee at the park, which was a little shy at first. Can you see it?

By moving to a different angle, Denisa got a clearer picture of the roadrunner living in the brush beside our motor home.

The other part of the committee was a pair of bunnies. The sun was shining through his see-through ears, but we felt his earnest gaze wishing us welcome.

His friend seemed to be more interested in grooming his lucky rabbit's foot than posing for the camera. But with this welcome, we feel good about our two fast moves and now our stay here at Balmorhea State Park.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Maiden Voyage of Our New Kayak

We haven't blogged about our beloved inflatable kayak for months. That's because it developed a tiny new hole, and we decided it was time to replace it. After doing lots of research, Mark picked out an upgraded Sea Eagle inflatable kayak--the 385FT. We had to wait for Christmas, where it became our gift from our parents and from each other. We have done business with InflatableBoats4less.com before, and found that they had the best deals again. So we ordered from them and had it delivered while we were in South Texas. Mark inflated it for the first time inside our motor home.

At 12.5 feet long, it stretched from the dining room, through the kitchen, past the bathroom door. That would have described a very long boat in our old sticks and bricks house.

Since Christmas, we have been waiting patiently for the boat's maiden voyage. It's usually way too cold to boat in January, but we were blessed with a beautiful day while we were staying at South Llano River State Park.

There are several differences between our old Sea Eagle and this new improved kayak. The side pontoons are smaller, and the bottom is much firmer. We can even stand up in this boat, and it can be used like a stand-up paddle board. In order to save some money, we ordered only the new hull, and used our old seats and paddles.

We heard good things about the South Llano River, and the ranger advised us to put in at the bridge at the entrance of the park. Since we didn't have a shuttle vehicle, we headed up-stream against the gentle current.

We didn't see a lot of wildlife on our boat trip. Our main entertainment came from the resident turtles. This little guy was hanging on to a branch, and decided he would rather be photographed than to dive into the cool water.

We snuck up on this guy from the back. He had been sunning himself long enough that his shell was dry. We were the only kayakers on the water this day to interrupt his solitude.

Even though this area received over an inch of rain in the last week, there were still some rocks showing in the water. We would have to portage up-stream three different times in these shallow areas. We can confirm that the water is a little cool in January.

Rain doesn't have a big effect on this spring-fed river. Because its source is a spring, the South Llano flows all year round. Also, because it is spring-fed, the water is incredibly clear.

We could clearly see our paddles dipped into the emerald green water.

Mark gave the boat purchase his seal of approval as he rode in the rudder position at the back of the boat. We rowed over two miles up-river before we turned around to float back toward the state park entrance.

It was a beautiful blue sky day with high temperatures near 80 degrees. There was virtually no wind, as the emerald water stretched before us. What could possibly go wrong on a day like today?

When we got back to our put-in spot, we decided to continue down stream to a take-out spot that is used all summer by tubers. Denisa had read that it was close to the campground and that should work great for us, right?

There weren't any signs for the best take-out spot, so we stopped at a well-worn bank. When we carried our new boat up the bank, we realized we were a very long ways from the campground. We also realized that cars weren't allowed on these hiking trails, so it looked like we were carrying the boat home. We got to know our new boat very well as we carried it for a half-mile.

Except for its rough ending, we really enjoyed our maiden voyage of the new kayak. We also really enjoyed this state park. Every evening around 4:30, the resident white-tail deer cross the meadow into the woods beside the campground. We could see them making their way through the trees from our camp site.

We also saw large herds of axis deer. The axis deer were brought here from India, and have taken over much of Texas Hill Country. The adults have white spots on their backs, and the bucks have impressive velvety racks. Now a nuisance, there is open season on axis deer throughout the year.

Another foreign resident can be seen in the pasture beside the state park. The next-door neighbor raises Black Buck Antelope. They are rather shy, but we finally got a picture of this doe and buck in the distance. He is obviously trying to impress her with a close up of his long spiraling horns.

Even though it was January, there was spring in the air. More than one of the bucks were trying to impress the local doe.

As we wrap up our time at South Llano River State Park, we have to include another picture of the ever-present armadillos that we have been watching from our camp site.

We discovered that the nearby town of Junction was welcoming, and very proud of its South Llano River. On Sunday, we went to church at the local Methodist church, and found it to be one of the friendliest churches we have visited in the last two years. After seven different people invited us to stay for their pot luck lunch, we gladly accepted. It was nice to spend lunch visiting with several families that live along the river. They all love the South Llano River, and we have to agree!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

South Llano River State Park is for the Birds!

We need to apologize right now for the number of bird pictures that are going to be scattered throughout this blog. 

There are four different bird blinds in this state park, and Denisa enjoyed visiting each one. We have gotten used to state park words like "bird blinds," and two years ago we probably didn't know what that meant. It is NOT a place where vision-impaired birds hang out. 

Instead, it's a place for bird watchers to hide and watch birds that are coaxed in with tasty bird treats. Denisa is a lazy bird-watcher that likes it when she can sit in one place and have the birds come to her.

Then she went on the bird walk with the ranger, where she took even more pictures of birds. The ranger was pretty excited to see this Buick Wren, so of course Denisa was excited too.

Hanging out with the ranger, we also learned how to pronounce the name of this state park. Instead of the spanish pronunciation of "Yawn-oh," the ranger told us that it is the west Texas pronunciation of "Lann-oh."

Besides impressing others with our correct pronunciation of the state park, we could impress you with our amazing knowledge of birds by labeling all these picture with the common and scientific name of each bird. But since we don't have that impressive knowledge, we'll just keep it simple and call them all "pretty birds."

Denisa did learn in her walk with the ranger that this bird is called the black crested titmouse. She prefers the name she bestowed upon it instead--cute little gray bird rocking a black mohawk.

The ranger even pointed out some bird nests that aren't being used at this time of the year. This one is a ball-shaped nest, with an entrance hole on the side. It looks like it is in good shape and ready for new renters this spring.

Mr. Cardinal is always so showy, but Mrs. Cardinal is beautiful in her own more subdued way.

Her husband is more vain, often found checking out his reflection at the water feature.

This guy looked strangely familiar to Denisa. She's pretty sure he was one of the main characters in the "Angry Bird" movie.

We did do other things besides chase after birds while we were at South Llano River State Park. There are miles of trails, and we took our bikes on some of them by the river. 

The trails were wide and mostly flat--two great characteristics in our opinion.

We also did some much-needed hiking at the park. 

It was the first time to break out the hiking boots and backpack in a couple months, and it felt great to be enjoying some good exercise on a beautiful weather day.

Part of the hike was a designated nature trail, filled with sign posts that described the trees and plants in the area. We had to take a picture of this description of the "Engelmann Prickly Pear Cactus." This common cactus is named after a distant relative that was a botanist. Mark's family dropped one of the n's at the end of their surname when having German ancestry was not popular in the United States.

We were glad that we weren't riding bikes now, as the trail headed straight up to the Overlook. From this high point we could see down over the state park and the surrounding Texas hills.

Such a strenuous walk calls for a picnic lunch and a little nap right there at the Overlook point.

This park used to be the ranch, and there are a few reminders of its former agricultural life.

The hand-hewn logs are still visible in the barn built in the 1800's. The former owner, Mr. Buck, sheared his sheep here not many years ago.

Mr. Buck was a bachelor, and he decided to deed his west Texas ranch to the state. His only wishes were that the land be open to the public, and left in its natural state for the area wildlife.

We can confirm that there are many birds that are enjoying Mr. Buck's generous donation of land.

Back to the bird blinds, these pretty little birds are certainly enjoying the thistle seed in this feeder.

This bunny obviously didn't read the sign that clearly states this is a "bird blind"--not a "bunny blind." But he was just too cute not to include in this bird-brained blog.