You Have Mail. Maybe.

Those of us of a certain age may recall backpacking in Europe and receiving mail at a local American Express office. This was long before cell phones, email and internet cafes with faulty keyboards. I mention this “old school” delivery system because the modern post office provides a similar service. Yes, General Delivery still exists.

Theoretically.

Before I go on to trash the USPS, I want first want write about the important contributions of this once noble institution.

For starters, the postal service was considered vital to democracy, so much so that it’s written into the U.S. Constitution: Article 1, Section 8, known as The Postal Clause, empowers Congress “To establish Post Offices and post roads.”

From a review of How the Post Office Created America: A History,  written by Winifred Gallagher and published in 2016:

“The founders established the post office before they had even signed the Declaration of Independence, and for a very long time, it was . . . the central nervous system of the new body politic, designed to bind thirteen quarrelsome colonies into the United States by deliverying news about public affairs to every citizen — a radical idea that appalled Europe’s great powers. America’s uniquely democratic post powerfuly shaped its liverly, argumentative culture of uncensored ideas and opinions and made it the world’s information and communications superpower with astonishing speed.”

The role the Post Office played in establishing roads cannot be overstated. Transportation routes in the orignial colonies were primarily along bodies of water on the Eastern Seaboard. The Post Office was responsible for building roads, often at a rapid pace, that connected much of the country. In 1790, about 2,400 miles of post roads linked 75 post offices; by 1820, 72,500 miles of postal roads linked 4,500 post offices. Expansion was not limited to roads and post offices but to employment, too. By 1831, nearly 30,000 postal employees accounted for 76% of the civilian federal workforce. As January 2016, the postal service had close to 31,600 post offices; 500,000 career employees and 132,000 non-career employees (often part-time employees hired at lower hourly wages with limited benefits).

Unfortunately, few of these 632,000 employees care about customer service. I know because I have experienced the following:

  • Been turned away in Arizona from collecting my General Delivery package because I was there in the afternoon. At this particular post office, General Delivery can be collected mornings only.
  • Failed to receive a critical part for my RV that had been mailed for overnight delivery from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Diego. Tracking showed it was on its way. After five days, tracking continued to show it was on its way. The postmistress explained mail is not considered “lost” until after its gone missing for at least 30 days. Naturally, the package appeared a week after I repurchased the missing RV part.
  • Saw a handwritten sign in a Los Angeles area post office notifying Passport applicants that due to a lack of film, no Passport photos would be taken that week, nor would passport applications be accepted. So here’s my question: Didn’t the person responsible for taking photos notice the dwindling film supply? I won’t even bother to ask why digital cameras aren’t used.
  • A particular decorative stamp was not available due to its popularity. It had sold out almost immediately. Can you think of any other business that wouldn’t order more of a fast-selling item? Me neither.
  • A package marked “Hold for Delivery” was returned to the post office because I had not provided a site number for the RV Park I planned to be at. Could the package have been left at the park office? Yes. Was it? No. Interestingly, the post card I received letting me know why the package couldn’t be delivered used the same address, i.e., no site number. This piece of mail WAS delivered to the park office. Go figure.
  • The website for a local post office in Texas indicated it provided General Delivery services. Turns out this means it will SEND General Delivery, not actually ACCEPT it. Why didn’t I call first? Because the post office does not answer its phones. Must be because the career and part-time employees are too busy serving customers by not taking passport photos and not selling popular stamps.
  • The postmaster of this particular Texas post office that didn’t accept General Delivery had the option of forwarding my letter, which contained a new debit card to replace the one that had been compromised, to the one post office that actually ACCEPTED General Delivery. Instead, he chose the “Return to Sender” option. It was returned to the sender. Eventually. Call me paranoid, but I sensed some hostility in this transaction.
  • My favorite hostile encounter occurred in Quartzsite, AZ, site of an annual January pilgrimage by thousands of RV’ers, some of whom want to receive their mail. I knew I was in trouble when I pulled into an empty post office parking lot on Monday. It was Martin Luther King’s birthday. I returned the next morning to the following scene: A post office employee (career? part-time? who cares?) opened the extraordinarily loud, screeching gate to the counter without a nod or greeting or apology to acknowledge those of us in line with our hands covering our ears to help
    post-office-outside

    It looks so welcoming. 

    block out the almost unbearably annoying sound.  When it was my turn at the counter, he informed me I would have fill out a form to continue receiving General Delivery mail. When I said I didn’t understand why this would be necessary, he recorded my name and in large, bold handwriting added an expiration date 3 days hence. He explained his branch would have to return any mail more than a week old, starting from Friday, the day the mail had arrived. No matter that the post office’s official delivery date was listed as Monday, not Friday, and that the post office was closed on Monday. Anything received after the coming Friday would be returned. By this time I realized he thought I would be in Quartzsite for the winter, not just a few days. He’s probably still wondering why I left the counter not angry, but chuckling.

Charming as it is to use old-fashioned General Delivery, I now use UPS or FedEx when I can. By the way, were you aware the Postal Service lost $5+ billion in 2015, 2014 and 2013, an improvement, nonetheless, from its nearly $16 billion loss in 2012.

Gosh, I wonder why.

Imagine My Surprise

I missed Rene yesterday while wrapping a calendar for a Gift Exchange. Rene was a gift-wrapper of extraordinary talent. Actually, she excelled at several crafts involving small muscle control and an artistic eye. Joe and I framed the baby blanket she crocheted for Michael rather than risk what would most certainly happen to this piece of art in the crib of a newborn.

As you may know, Rene was my travel companion when I started this adventure 3½ years ago. I introduced her to parts of California she had never visited, including Lake Tahoe. It was here that I learned of workamping opportunities with the Tahoe Heritage Museum, where I plan to be this summer.

I mention Rene not to merely mourn her absence, but to write about an unexpected outcome of the memorial blog post I published in April 2014 about her passing. One of the people who read it was a man searching for his birth mother. That man was Rene’s son.

Imagine my surprise when I opened his email.

All I knew (and I had found this out inadvertently 40 years before) was that Rene had a son who she gave up for adoption with the condition he be welcomed into a Jewish family. The last name of the man who contacted me indicated he was a member of the tribe. To protect his identify, I’ll call him RS (for Rene’s son); his wife, RD; his son, RGS; and his daughter, RGD. Yep, there’s a whole mishpocheh (Yiddish for family). Rene was a grandmother.

I forwarded RS’s email to Rene’s oldest sister (Cousin 1) and remembering my shock when I innocently opened it, called to give her a heads-up. If she was surprised I knew about RS, she gave no indication. Based on his birth date, place of birth and other information, Cousin 1 and Rene’s other sister (Cousin 2, aka The Dame) confirmed that yes indeed Rene was his mother. Cousins 1 and 2 sent RS a lovely email identifying themselves as his aunts.

Then the real fun began.

Although we’re a fairly small family, few were aware that Rene had a son. So they had to be told. I found myself in the unusual position of knowing something my brother didn’t. I was exceedingly proud of myself for keeping this secret for as long as I had. I had never told anybody, ever, unless you count my Mom, who is now  92 and anyway had forgotten.

Thus began a flurry of email exchanges between RS and the family, with everyone hitting the highlights of their lives and the various successes of their children. Think glowing Christmas letters summarizing the past 45 years, skipping over any inconvenient developments such as children not staying in touch, multiple divorces, drug addictions and alcoholism.  You know, the usual.

This was followed by actual plans to meet. My brother, Gary, and sister-in-law, Faith, who travel frequently (sometime even together!), would be the first to find themselves in the same city as RS. Naturally they made plans to visit him and his family. Unbeknownst to them, the aunts were somewhat put out that they themselves wouldn’t be the first to meet RS. I explained it probably never occurred to Gary and Faith there would be any feelings of propriety. That just pissed them off more. Fortunately, the aunts finally realized the benefits of  having RS meet the family members with the best social skills. I know I was pleased when my son’s girlfriend was introduced to my family at a Gary and Faith BBQ. They are normal, nice people who live in an actual house, for example, in contrast to my son’s mother (me), a kind of gypsy who travels around in an RV and spins tales. Although I don’t mind not being normal, I understand why my lifestyle might cause my son some concern.

RS and his entire family eventually flew out to Los Angeles to meet his aunts, uncles and assorted cousins. Although I wasn’t there, I understand the visit was a tremendous success. Apparently, RS and his family weren’t put off by effusive people with odd obsessions who constantly interrupt each other. Although I was the conduit and get credit for the family reuniting, I have yet to meet RS. I have, however, seen family photos and the physical resemblance to his parentage is eerie. There is no doubt whatsoever that RS really IS Rene’s son.

Cousin 2 found an envelop of memorabilia when she cleaned out Rene’s room that she was sure Rene kept for her son. Rene had accomplished much of what she had wanted to do when she passed away just short of her 65th birthday. One unfilled wish, however, was to reunite with her son. She had registered with the adoption agency that handled her case, indicating she would welcome contact. Unfortunately, it came too late for her, although not for the rest of us.

close-upIn going through her room, Cousin 2 also found a jean’s jacket that Rene had embroidered. It is now being worn by Rene’s granddaughter.

One final lament on how much I miss traveling with Rene. She was funny and smart and considered everything that happened, whether good or bad, as part of the travel experience. I hold out hope that one day Cousin 2 will find Rene, whose ashes she apparently has misplaced, so that a small part of her can continue traveling with me

Gulf Coast: Part III/Final Installment

Zihuatanejo. Apalachicola. Homosassa Springs. Thanks to my travels these difficult-to-pronounce places now roll off my tongue.

Zee-wah-tah-NEH-ho, as you may know, is a Mexican town on the part of the Pacific Coast known as the Costa Grande, about 150 miles northwest of Acapulco. I was there 25+ years ago on a family Club Med vacation, courtesy of my Mom. Ap·a·latch·cha·CO-la (best not to visualize the spelling because you’ll trip up by saying “Appalachia” and from there it’s impossible to recover), is a charming town in Florida that attracted our attention when we spotted Hillary signs posted on its outskirts, a rare sight indeed. This was pre-election and before the impending apocalypse. Ho-ma-SAS-sah Springs is the site of a nature preserve that met all of Suzi’s deepest desires apart from her oyster ‘Po Boy. In the Muskogee language, “sassa” means ”some there” and Homo means “pepper” (or “whiskey,” depending on whether your source is the Chamber of Commerce or the Seminole Indians, descendants of the Muskogee tribe).  Cousin Suzi sought neither peppers nor whiskey, but The Dame refused to leave Florida until she saw alligators and manatees.

As you may recall, Suzi joined me in New Orleans and we traveled together along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama; and the Florida Panhandle. I accomplished my mission: Suzi liked Florida.

alligator-sign

“Do not approach, frighten or feed the alligators”

After leaving New Orleans (Louisiana), then touring the Beauvoir Estate and eating at Slap ‘Ya Moma (in Mississippi), Suzi and I made our way to Gulf State Park on the Alabama barrier of island of Gulf Shore.  It was here that we spotted a sign warning us not to approach, frighten or feed the alligators. Since we wondered who in their right mind would do ANY of these things, we of course warned each other not to take these actions whenever we encountered a situation that could possibly involve an alligator. Although such occasions arose frequently, we never grew tired of the joke. Well, at least I didn’t.

The roughly 100-mile stretch of land from South Alabama to Panama City, Florida, is known as the Emerald Coast. It was along this section that we pulled in after-hours (not to worry, Suzi was driving after sundown) at a truly nice resort in Navarre, Florida, listed as a Passport America half-price park. Waking up the next morning I thought it was too good to be true.

It was.

For whatever reason — probably because it was such a lovely park — the resort was no longer part of Passport America. Suzi and I had been viewing Facebook photos posted by close relatives who were in Hawaii and other exotic locations. Not to be outdone, we stayed another day so we could post our own resort photos on Facebook. Then we stayed yet another day when my Smartcar battery died. Apart from being towed to a place that didn’t service Smartcars, the entire incident was nothing more than a hiccup. The battery was old and was considerate enough to die at a convenient location.

Once the battery was replaced, we continued driving, leaving Florida’s Emerald Coast and entering the state’s Forgotten Coast. The term “Forgotten Coast” was promoted by (who else?) the regional Chamber of Commerce. The Forgotten Coast refers to a relatively undeveloped section of coastline stretching from Mexico Beach on the Gulf to St. Marks on Apalachee Bay. Whereas the Emerald Coast is an unofficial name, the Forgotten Coast is a registered trademark. Some regions take designations more seriously than others.

Missy and me walking on Mexico Beach

Missy and me walking on Mexico Beach

We stopped along the Forgotten Coast to take a walk on Mexico Beach. I am fond of Mexico Beach because three years ago I stopped here for a night and ended up staying several days on a local resident’s private property. I had a logo’d Mexico Beach sweatshirt for a couple of years but it met the same fate shared by my shoes, socks and pants: bleach spatters. As I recall, the incident involving the sweatshirt went way beyond splashing. It was more of a deluge. Here’s a helpful hint: Use a funnel when pouring bleach into your water holding tank to deodorize.

We decided based on the name alone not to camp at “Tate’s Hell State Forest.” We figured with an appellation like that the forest would likely include something called “Mosquito Swamp.” We later found out we weren’t far off. Turns out that in 1875, Cebe Tate entered the forest swamp with his hunting dogs and a shotgun in search of a panther killing his livestock. Tate was lost in the swamp for seven days and nights, bitten by a snake, and drank swamp water.  When he emerged near Carrabelle, he murmured, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell,” and then died. In other words, we made the right decision to skip the forest, continuing on until we spotted the Hillary signs outside Apalachicola.

We stopped at the town’s Visitor’s Center and were directed to a parking lot under the Big Bend Scenic Coastal Trail Bridge (US Hwy 98) where RVs were welcome to dry camp for free. The following weekend Apalachicola was hosting the Florida Seafood Festival and our free camping spaces were going for $160 for three days. The bridge we parked under crossed the Apalachicola River, which emptied into Apalachicola Bay, which was created by St. George Barrier Island. Given its location along waterways, Apalachicola’s pre-Civil War economy was based on warehousing cotton.

We also visited St. George Island and swam in the Gulf.  The island is beautiful, with Apalachicola Bay on one side the the Gulf of Mexico on the other.

apalachicola-bridge

st-george-island-beach

St. George Island beach on the Gulf side

As we continued along Hwy 98 we crossed the Suwannee River, at which point it’s traditional to sing, Way Down Upon the Suwannee River.  We also stopped at the Suwannee River park, where we examined the old Fanning Springs Bridge. According to local lore, people danced all night on this bridge when it was first constructed across the Suwannee.

We continued our tradition of stopping for lunch at local BBQs and I discovered that pork ribs in the South are far too fatty for my taste. How very odd to travel 2,000+miles to find out I prefer Phil’s in San Diego to Southern BBQ. Go figure.

We arrived at my destination in Central Florida as scheduled on November 1. Suzi, having seen her alligators and manatees at Homosassa Springs wildlife center, flew back to Los Angeles from Orlando a few days later.

A good time was had by all.

We made it to Florilows Oaks RV Part

We made it to Florilows Oaks RV Park

Actual alligators that we somehow managed to avoid disturbing

Alligators that we did not disturb, frighten or feed

 

About

So I had this idea to travel the U.S. in an RV, visiting new places. Not only are there a lot of places I’d never been, there’s also a lot I didn’t know. I’m writing Driven Crazy primarily to entertain, but if you learn something along the way, I’d like to think I’m responsible.

Friends and family are welcome to join me for up to a week. My RV is small!

Source: About

Gulf Coast Part II

Galveston

Galveston is the source of yet another entry in my multi-volume book of “What I Didn’t Know.” Although I was vaguely familiar with the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, I wasn’t aware that this natural disaster is still ranked as the deadliest single-day event in U.S. history. A storm surge of 15 feet washed over this barrier island, knocking buildings off their foundations and destroying more than 3,600 homes. The death toll is estimated at  6,000 to 12,000 people. By way of comparison, disasters numbers 2 and 3 are the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, with an estimated death toll of 3,000 to 6,000; and September 11th, with 2,977 dead (or 2,996 if you include the 19 hijackers, who I figure don’t count since they presumably went on to their rewards from Allah).

ocean-star-museum

Ocean Star Museum

Of particular interest to me was the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig Museum, a “jackup” rig that operated for about 20 years in the Gulf of Mexico and was turned into three floors of exhibits on the offshore oil and gas industry. Ironically, in light of the recent movie Deepwater Horizon about the April 2010 offshore (Louisiana) oil rig explosion that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history, the Ocean Star exhibit emphasized the importance of safety.

I also took great delight in looking at the accommodations aboard the rig so as to feel smug about the comfort and convenience of my RV. I partook of this exercise at the Space Center in Houston, too.

New Orleans

My Cousin Suzi, an aficionado of hard-boiled detective crime novels, styled herself as “The Dame” when she took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to New Orleans to join me in The Big Easy. She posted a great film noir poster on Facebook to announce her trip. Cousin Suzi (oops, I meant “The Dame”) accompanied me along the Gulf Coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida to my destination in Central Florida. Since we spent two-plus weeks together in a tight space, we soon came to an agreement not to take and post photos on Facebook of each other in positions that involved bending over, tempting though it often was. We stuck instead to postcard perfect scenes.

Now in the spirit of the new administration, I will note that I have heard some people say they do not trust Catholics because those who adhere to this religion can sin with impunity and then be forgiven soon after by going to Confession. I must say that New Orleans, with its multitude of bars and day-time drinking, and the spectacle of Mardi Gras, did little to dissuade me of this biased and possibly blasphemous opinion. On Bourbon Street one early afternoon I partook of a Mudslide on an empty stomach and greatly regretted it later that day when I experienced a blinding headache. Welcome to New Orleans.

In addition to the usual and sinful haunts in New Orleans, we visited the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The highlight was an exhibit, “Southern Louisiana Landscapes” by Simon Gunning. Who’s he, right? Well Gunning is an artist from, of all places, Australia. He left Down Under 40+ years ago fully intending to attend art school in England, but first traveled throughout the United States. When he arrived in New Orleans, according to his website, he was “captivataed by the city’s urban landscape amongst a lush backdrop of tropical flora and cypress swamps.” He never did make it to England, settling instead in The Big Easy. 

In keeping with my tendency to seek out places from movies and television series I like, I took a photo from the Museum’s rooftop with the Crescent City Connection (formerly the Greater New Orleans Bridge), in the background. The bridge is featured in a favorite and relatively unknown movie, Deja Vu. 

suzi-with-oyster-po-boy

Ask the Dame about the ‘Po Boy bread.

The RV Park we stayed in was (as always) close to a railroad. This time, however, we were behind a switching yard. Instead of waking to the sound of trains thundering through the park in the middle of the night, we were greeted in the midnight hours by trains colliding. It was a nice change. We were within walking distance of a terrific hole-in-the-wall restaurant (actually, it was more of a cafeteria in a convenience store) that served Suzi’s dream meal: an oyster po’boy sandwich. According to our tour guide and local lore, the po’ boy was created in 1929 by Bennie and Clovis Martin, former streetcar operators and owners of the Martin Bros restaurant, during a transit strike. They served the “poor boys” on strike free sandwiches full of meat on a new type of thinner and crispy bread that easier to cut into equal slices created by a local baker at their request. Suzi can — and does — wax eloquent about the quality of the bread, which she contends is related to the humidity  of Louisiana. 

From New Orleans, we followed US Highways 90 and 98 east along the Gulf Coast. The route is simply beautiful, with white sand beaches and dunes on one side (to the right, or south) and lovely homes built on stilts on the other (on the left, to the north).

As a side note, in addition to wildflowers and barrier islands, another interest of mine is American architecture. 

house-on-stilts-example

Southern style along the coast (NOT one of the prettiest) 

Much to our dismay and disappointment, my handy-dandy go-to reference book, A Field Guide to American Houses: The Definitive Guide to Identifying and Understanding America’s Domestic Architecture, had nary a single entry on this distinctive Southern stilt style. We concluded that author Virginia Savage McAlester is Yankee-centric.

Mississippi and Alabama

As we headed into Biloxi, Suzi exclaimed when she saw a sign for Beauvoir. I had no idea what it was but said I was willing to turn around and go back. Fortunately, Suzi took me up on my offer. Turns out the Beauvoir Estate is the post-war home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and where he wrote his memoir, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. I had taken a tour of Jefferson’s home in Richmond, VA, and had no idea of his long history in the Mississippi, including stints as a Representative to the U.S. Congress and as a U.S. Senator. Beauvoir became a home for old Confederates and their wives and is the burial site of the unknown Confederate Soldier.

tomb-of-the-unknown-confederate-soldier

Buried at Beauvoir in Biloxi

Most important of all, Suzi asked our tour guide for recommendations to local BBQs, which is how we ended up at “Slap Ya Mama,” a place reputed to be so good that you want to slap ya mama.

slap-ya-moma

Gotta love this place — and we DID!

At the aptly named BBQ we were served by a cute and lively little waitress who’d never been out of the state and refused to go into the Gulf because she didn’t want to be in water where she couldn’t see her ankles. Her dream was to go to California and swim in the Pacific Ocean. Suzi and I looked at each other and silently agreed not to tell her that you can’t see your ankles in Santa Monica, Malibu, La Jolla or any of the other well-known Southern California beaches, either. 

gulf-on-right-side

The Gulf Coast as seen from the RV

 

 

 

 

The beautiful beaches and homes continued as we drove through Alabama. We were rewarded with more breathtaking water views during our 10-mile crossing of Mobile Bay. Our route followed the Old Spanish Trail (OST) — whose existence I was not aware of. According to Wikipedia, the OST was an auto trail that once spanned the U.S. with 3,000 miles of roads along the southern U.S. border from ocean to ocean. It derived its name from the cities along the route, which shared a heritage of Spanish missions, forts and colonies. Also from Wikipedia: Preparations have begun for a decade-long (2019-2029) Centennial Celebration, called OST100, ending with a motorcade finale from St. Augustine to San Diego. OST100 volunteers are collecting oral histories, travel logs and news articles related to the Old Spanish Trail to conserve the roadways, businesses and historic sites of the original auto highway.

Once again, who knew? Not me.

To Be Continued

 

Gulf Coast – Mustang Island & Houston

WHERE I AM NOW

Greetings from Florilow Oaks in Bushnell, Florida. What? Where? A singles (mostly) RV Park that describes itself as outside Orlando. The description is accurate up to a point, that point being how you define “outside.”  To me the term generally connotes a distance of 1 to 10 miles. To the copywriter for the park it is code for “the closest city is Orlando, which is about 60 miles southeast.” (This same copywriter wrote about the park’s “coy” pond. Seems there’s a body of water filled with teasing fish that act shy.) Here are some other “nearby” towns and cities for those who be may be familiar with Florida: Ocala (30 miles north); Gainesville (70 miles north); Tampa (60 miles south); St. Petersburg (70 miles south); and Daytona Beach (90 miles east). We’re also 15 miles south of a place called The Villages. Their copywriters describe the area as a “fun and affordable active adult community where everything you could possibly want, need or dream of doing in your retirement years is just a golf cart ride away.”  Here we just call it expensive.

Ah yes, I seem to have entered the land of the golf cart. They are everywhere and used as transportation, although not necessarily on the golf course itself. More like a smaller, open-air Smartcar, only without any safety features, such as lights. I learned right away to keep my flashlight on when walking Missy at night and jump to the side of the road when I hear anything coming my way. Other than the nearby train, that is. Remember when I wrote that RV parks are nearly always near trains or other auditory annoyances? Sometimes I hate it when my observations are true.

THE JOURNEY – PART I

This is my second cross-country trip and rather than taking I-10 all the way from California to Florida, I opted to detour southward along the Gulf Coast. It turned out to be a great decision. From San Antonio I headed to Corpus Christi and from there traveled to Mustang Island, an 18-mile barrier island. One of my goals is to visit as many barrier islands in the U.S. as possible, in part because they are “foreign” to me. As someone who grew up in Chicago and then spent 40+ years in California, I had no idea of their existence. Yet more material for my “what I don’t know would fill books” reveals. In California we have the Channel Islands, which are so far offshore they’re considered, well, islands. Same for Washington State’s San Juan Islands. West Coast islands are accessible only by boat or plane. Barrier islands are so close you just drive over a causeway to reach them.

Mustang Island is simply beautiful. The weather when I was there in October was so hot and humid that I actually entered the Gulf water to swim. Now there’s another surprise: the water temperature. Entering the water was like getting into a tepid bathtub. Quite a contrast to the Pacific Ocean, where even in San Diego in August most people enter gingerly and once the waves have reached their tummy they finally work up the nerve to dive under. Once you’re in the water is fine, but I’ve seen even SoCal surfers wear wet suits in summer. Of course they are “summer” wetsuits, with short arms and legs. No one in their right mind enters the Pacific Ocean in the San Francisco Bay Area without a winter full-body wetsuit.  I’ve gone into the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco as far as my ankles, and my feet have promptly gone numb.

Missy, who has romped on the beaches of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, really enjoyed the Gulf Coast. On Mustang Island she dug up sand crabs and, best of all, played with the large frogs that hopped around the RV at night. Well, at least they started off hopping. 

grass-at-sunset

What astounded me about Mustang Island was the vegetation: sheaves of grass as well as colorful morning glories.  I first attempted to photograph the flowers at dusk and had to remind myself that they are called MORNING glories for a reason.

Not only are the grasses and morning glories gorgeous, but they grow in nothing more than SAND. Beautiful white sand. But still sand. How is that even possible? And oh that big blue Texas sky filled with large white clouds.

texas-sky-and-sand2

That blue sky, those white clouds, that beautiful water!

Following my GPS (when will I ever learn?) to leave the island, I was taken to a ferry that crosses the Corpus Christi ship channel from Port Aransas to the mainland. Much to my delight, the ride was free. It took all of 5 minutes. I noticed that the ferry service provides employment for scores of people, from the ferry pilots to the guys directing traffic. A local overheard me wondering why the ferry hadn’t been replaced by a bridge and he explained that the height needed to allow ships to pass under the bridge would require a span that would take vehicles past the commercial area — an idea vehemently opposed by the island’s merchants. I also read that it’s more economical to continue running the ferries than to build and maintain a bridge — and that’s before the cost overruns! I’m not being cynical; just realistic. I offer as proof the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The project was projected to cost just over $1 billion and take seven years. When it finally opened in 2013, costs had risen to $6.4 billion and took 17 years to complete. Contributing to the cost overruns were relocation issues for the double-crested cormorants and other birds nesting in the original bridge. Should a new Port Aransas bridge run into similar aviary challenges, I can’t help but think that Texas wouldn’t be quite as environmentally sensitive as Califonia. I won’t even go into the fact that since global warming doens’t exist, environmental sensitivity will become an oxymoron under Trump. I promise to restrict politics to Facebook. 

ferry2

View from five-minute ferry ride

While traveling the Gulf in Texas I stopped in Houston and Galveston. Did you know that Galveston is actually a barrier island? I certainly didn’t. As far as I can tell, neither does anyone else outside of Texas. Here are some other facts under the “Did You Know – Because I Sure Didn’t” column:

  • Despite the extraordinarily quotable line uttered in the movie Apollo 13 by Tom Hanks/Jim Lovell, “Houston, we have a problem,” Mission Control is not in what I would consider Houston proper but rather in Nassau Bay, a good 30-minute drive south of Houston and about half-way between Houston and Galveston. “Nassau Bay, we have a problem” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
  • To further set the record straight (and this I DID know), what Jim Lovell said was, “Houston, we had a problem.” Apparently, Tom Hanks also says this. That the line is movie-posterrecalled in popular culture as uttered in the present tense is either what is known as the Mandela Effect, meaning what we remember as a certainly turns out to be wrong, or a vast Hollywood coverup. The term “Mandela Effect” comes from people remembering Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the ’80s. Mandela, who died only once, actually passed away in 2013. I do recall Mandela dying severall years ago, but then again I also recall Tom Hanks using the present tense. Internet conspiracies posit that the movie has been re-dubbed but said re-dubbing denied. This may not be a case of mass nerd paranoia since the quote is featured in the present tense in the original movie poster. Ah, the things you learn from travel.
  • Tom Hanks looks nothing like Jim Lovell. Not that Jim Lovell ever complained.

 

mission-control

  • The Mission Control many of us are familiar with was closed in 1985. That means the technology is so outdated — for example, note the red land line — that tourists can take as many photos as they want. Back in the day, NASA used multiple $3.5 million mainframe computers, each the size of a car. Although NASA doesn’t specify the size of the car, I think it’s safe to assume the agency was not visualizing a compact. Think Cadallic. With fins. Total memory capacity of NASA’s Cadallic computers was in the megabyte range, less than a USB stick or a WiFi router, let alone an iPhone. Something I recall from when I visited Kill Devil Hills, site of the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903, is that the time between the Kitty Hawk in December 1903 and the moon landing in July 1969 is 66 years. 
  • Understandably, the job of becoming a NASA engineer is highly competitive. But when the agency was first created the average age of those manning Mission Control was 26! Imagine being an astronaut and trusting someone in their early- to mid-20’s with your life. Talk about brave.
piggyback-planes

STILL can’t take a decent selfie!

TO BE CONTINUED . . . 

 

Tales from a Small Town

To make my way across 2,500 miles of America as economically as possible, I joined an RV organization called Passport America (PA). For a mere $44 a year, PA makes it possible to stay at selected RV parks for half price. Notice I wrote “selected” — not to be confused with “exclusive.” Many of the parks limit PA stays to only 1 to 3 nights, and many do not offer PA pricing over the weekends.  Although there are cheaper ways to park an RV in the U.S., these methods typically involve camping without hookups. The heat and humidity in the parts of the country I’m traveling through, including Arizona and New Mexico in the Southwest and the southern parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, make it not only attractive but a life affirming experience to have access to electricity to run air conditioning. Not for me, mind you, but for Missy, particularly when I leave her in the RV while I sightsee during the day.

This, then, is how I ended up in the small West Texas town of Van Horn. The RV Park was as basic as they come but then again I paid only $13.50 a night, the cheapest price to date. One horrible park billed itself as a “resort” and cost $22.50 a night. What makes a park horrible? Well, let me show you just two of the many  “amenities” provided by my neighbors:

workshop

Open air workshop (note nearby garbage bins)

dine-al-fresco

Dine al fresco with bug spray and dog provided free of charge

 

exercise-equipment

Outdoor exercise equipment (circled) with conveniently located refrigerator

But back to Van Horn. The town was obviously dying. I asked the campground manager, who by the way had been given the job by Central Casting, about the economic conditions of Van Horn. Why did I think the manager was from Central Casting? Well for starters her name was Billie Sue and she weighed in at least 300 pounds, smoked like a chimney and had 3 dogs and 9 cats. She fed the felines by heaping kibble on the sidewalk outside her office around 5 pm every night. That’s why.

According to Billie Sue, all the young people left years ago to work in the oil fields. I did some research and found out the following:

  • Van Horn is the county seat of Culberson County, which has the distinction of being the westernmost location of the Central Time Zone. Although entering Van Horn resembles stepping into the past, I found I actually was entering two hours into the future since I had no idea I had been in the Mountain Time Zone for days. As one who is time-zone challenged to begin with, I never know what time it is in Arizona given that the state does not observe daylight savings time (although the Navajo Nation does). To state I’m confused in the State of Arizona is only the beginning of the problem.
  • Van Horn’s population has been steadily declining. At its peak in 1970, the town had about 2,900 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population declined nearly 17% from 1990 to 2000; and more than 15% from 2000 to 2010. In 2015, the town had declined 6.5% to 1,900 residents. The numbers have certainly taken their toll on the downtown. For example the one grocery store is long gone.
  • As I visit towns, cities and states, attend museums, and take tours, I am astounded at all I learn. I joke that what I don’t know would fill books. I think of these realizations as “duh” moments. For example, I was not aware that, to quote Wikipedia, “The petroleum industry influenced long-term trends in Texas and American culture. Conservative views among the early business leaders in Texas led them to help finance the emergence of the modern Christian and the American conservative movement.” Wow. Was this reflected in the TV series Dallas? Not that I watched it. But really, just where did I think the Koch brothers’ money came from? Talk about a “duh” moment.
  • Van Horn’s current economy is based in large part on its location: it’s a convenient stopping place traveling between San Antonio and El Paso, a 500-mile journey. It’s also on the route for those visiting Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. State Highway 62 runs north from Van Horn to the Caverns from I-10, a major interstate freeway that takes you from Los Angeles, California, to Saint Augustine, Florida. For the record, I’ve traveled this route from the West to the East Coasts. Since every exit off I-10 is populated by the same fast-food chains, gas stations and convenience stores, you would never know which state you were in.
  • More Location. Location. Location. Van Horn’s wells provided water along the San Antonio-El Paso Overland Mail route in the 1850s and supplied the Texas and Pacific railroad in the 1880s. The railroad is still up and running. I know this for a fact because it came through my RV around midnight every night. As far as I can tell, RV parks are required by law to locate next to a major highway or railroad crossing. Once, when I was at a park east of San Diego and far away from any traffic or locomotives, it took me days to spot the catch. We were located on the road used by dump trucks on their way to the dump. Trust me, there’s always
  • More than 40% of the 600 employees in Van Horn are classified as being in the retail trade. That sounds fine and dandy until you realize the “retail” trade refers to gas stations. Accommodation and food services (hotels and restaurants, which include Wendy’s) account for the next largest group of employees — 30%. Virtually none of the 600 people working in Van Horn manage companies or enterprises, are in education services, or in the arts or entertainment business. Oh look: A bit over 14% are involved in “health cate (sic) and social assistance.” (For all you Seinfeld fans, this reminds me of when George played Trivial Pursuit with the Bubble Boy and a critical answer was the “Moops.”)
  • But — and this is YUGE — all this may change in another year or two. That’s because Blue Origin, the private aerospace company founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to enable people (rich ones, at least) to orbit Earth from space, is located in Culberson County, Texas. As I mentioned earlier, Van Horn is the county seat.
  • According to Fox News, Blue Origin will begin test flights next year with commercial flights beginning in 2018. If I’m still on the road in 2019, I plan to revisit Van Horn to see how Billie Sue’s cats are faring and Blue Origin’s effect on the town.

Shown below are some of the boarded up buildings in downtown Van Horn, Texas.

  • around-the-corner boarded-up cactus-bar-groceries closed-for-business mural-full