Monday, June 5, 2017

AZ to WI: The Not Quite Last Waltz

April Fools Day. We were on the road once more, headed to experience spring in Wisconsin. Our route, compared with past years, was a bit more direct (if you call going through Texas “direct”). It was also going to involve longer mileage days we typically try to avoid. But while our route involved fewer extended stops, it was a far cry from some RVers we know who dash headlong from their summer spot to their winter spot and back again without ever taking time to enjoy the journey. What’s the sense then of living in an RV if not to explore and enjoy?

Tombstone Territories RV, AZ to Anahuac, TX
Our first stop was Rusty’s RV Ranch in Rodeo, NM (with a detour for breakfast at the Bisbee Breakfast Club). We’ve stayed at Rusty’s several times before on our way to and from Arizona. It’s like old home week whenever we stop.
Our agenda included breakfast with Facebook friend, Steve Wolfe, a transplant from the L.A. area now settled in Portal. Steve is one of a handful of Facebook friends we had never met in person. Until now.

Steve's back porch view of Cave Creek Canyon
Breakfast with Steve at the Portal Peak Cafe was followed by an invitation to Steve’s house, a very well constructed modular home sitting on four acres of land at the intersection of Foothills and Portals Roads. Strolling out onto an expansive covered deck at the rear of the house we were gob struck by one of the best views yet of the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon.  Nestled in the Chirichuahua Mountains, we have often said - and we’ll say it again - that the entrance to Cave Creek Canyon is one of the most scenic we’ve encountered.
Our stay at Rusty’s lasted three nights. Time enough to explore/hike South Fork in Cave Creek on the lookout for any early returning trogons (there were none), the Southwestern Research Station (Blue-throated Hummingbirds were present), and drive the winding narrow road to high up Rustler Park Campground in search of Montezuma Quail (nope), Pygmy Nuthatches (yep) and Mexican Chickadees (nope). We did find a group of young hikers just setting out to hike down to Portal which for them about a three day hike. Oh, to have young legs again.

Larry and Carol Dole
We caught up with RVer friends Laura and Steve Paulson. They had just arrived to begin their volunteer gig at the Cave Creek Canyon Visitor Center, one of a few reliable places to see nesting Elf Owls (when they're nesting but they weren't yet). The Conrad's, Lori and Mark, were off on a trip to California so we missed seeing them. So glad we had caught with them on our way back from Colorado in January. However, the day before leaving Rusty’s, Larry and Carol Dole arrived on their way back east. As we pulled out of Rusty’s on the last day, it was not without a bit of sadness given that our decision to get off the road meant we would not be staying in the Portal area again. At least not in an RV.

Old Mesilla
Las Cruces and Sunny Acres RV Park was our next destination, a mere 160 miles away. Another nostalgic stop as we’ve stayed at Sunny Acres numerous times in the past. It’s where we first met Frank Beylan and Paul Mach who at the time were parked in their RV. Since then they have built a home in an historic part of the city where we parked our RV in their driveway for a week in February 2015. Given the time of year, they were, as expected, deeply involved volunteering at a local community center helping people with tax returns, But we still managed a brief get-together at our RV after work.

Old Mesilla
Our short time in Las Cruses still allowed for a walk about in Old Mesilla and a bit of birding at Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. We had visited the park in 2015 when it was then relatively new. Nice to see how the plantings and gardens have matured. However, as we had discovered while birding in the Chirichahuas, we were still a bit early for much in the way of the migrant bird activity.

The Shed
The next morning on our way out of Las Cruces, we’d hoped for breakfast at the Cafe de Mesilla. Unfortunately for us, it was closed for two weeks. Fortunate for Joyce the owner - she was on a well-deserved vacation with family in Mexico. Our second choice? The Shed, formerly known as the Old Pastry Cafe in historic Old Mesilla. A serving of green eggs and ham with a basil-pesto sauce was quite yummy.
In order to hit some of the places we’d planned to stop in a timely fashion before reaching Wisconsin, required us to put up with hours of numbing Interstate driving that we otherwise would avoid. Thank goodness for Audible books while enduring miles of mindless Interstate scenery.

Pied-billed Grebe
Balhmorea State Park in Texas was a park we’d visited before but never had parked. Until now. Thank goodness we had thought to make a reservation. We got the last site available with full hookups.
Officially opened in 1968, the park features a 1.75-acre fresh water pool fed by a constant water flow from fresh water springs. Water temperature ranges from 72 to 76 degrees F. The pool is mainly used for swimming and scuba diving although given how shallow it is, scuba diving is probably just for scuba classes. There were a few hardy souls swimming (too cold for us given the time of year), sharing the pool with a pair of Pied-billed Grebes. Grebe's? Probably because the pool and surrounding springs serve as habitat for two endangered fish: Comanche Springs pupfish and Pecos gambusia.
Construction of the pool and the adjacent San Solomon Springs Courts was by the Conservation Corps between 1936 and 1941. The court’s rooms still may be rented but tent and RV camping is the main draw. Our pull-through RV site was set off from the main tent camping area but still within easy walking of the pool.
Next up was the Quiet Creek RV Resort, Fredericksburg, TX, 317 miles away. A longer day and as result we arrived too late to tour the “Southern White House”.
Before we made the decision to stop full-time RVing, we had been mulling over a couple of options for our 2017-18 winter volunteer positions. One option was becoming tour guides at the “Southern White House” in the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park near Fredericksburg.
The park is divided into two main units: the site of Johnson’s boyhood home in Johnson City and his birthplace near Fredericksburg which later became the LBJ ranch and the “Southern White House” where then President Johnson entertained political friends and foes as well as a long list of foreign dignitaries. Our volunteer opportunity would alternate between leading tours of the Southern White House and at his boyhood home in Johnson City. Our RV would have been parked near the still working cattle ranch.
Our first visit to the park was not long after the house had been opened to tours following Lady Bird Johnson’s passing. Since then the tour has expanded to include more areas on the first floor of the home. Without an RV we would not be volunteering and eventually informed the park's volunteer coordinator to take us off their short list.
While we did miss the opportunity to tour the LBJ ranch, we did find time for an evening meal in downtown Fredericksburg at Hondo’s, a very casual self-help restaurant. Order at the inside bar, find a seat where you can, and pick up your food at the kitchen window near the stage when it’s ready.
The interior was filled with memorabilia and photos of Hondo. So who was he? No - he wasn’t the John Wayne character, 'Hondo Lane', from the 1953 western “Hondo”. He was John Russell “Hondo” Crouch, a singer, song writer, humorist, and the owner-self proclaimed Mayor of Luckenbach, Texas, where the town’s motto is “Everybody is Somebody in Luckenbach.”
We settled on a plate of delicious, slow-smoked pulled pork covered in Hondo's BBQ sauce, accompanied by cheddar cheese ‘smashed’ potatoes and a tangy slaw. It went down well with bottles of Shiner Boch while a large photo of Willie Nelson on a nearby wall looked on.
In 1972, in the spirit of parody, Luckenach put on the "First Annual Luckenbach World’s Fair". Twenty thousand people came. The crowd managed to go through nine thousand cases of beer. As advertised, Willie Nelson came, but sadly, in all the commotion, he and Hondo never met. Later, Hondo would never know of the song Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings wrote memorializing Luckenbach. Hondo died in the fall of 1976 of a massive heart attack. “Lukenbach Texas” was released in 1977.

blue bonnets and poppies
Again, we seemed too early for significant bird activity but we did hit the peak bloom time for Texas bluebonnets. Between Fredericksburg and the LBJ Ranch were fields of bluebonnets. We couldn’t resist stopping at a large garden center, Wild Seed Farms, where not only were there massive plantings of bluebonnets but also large adjacent fields of poppies were ablaze.
Our next opportunity for more than just a night stay was at the Anahuac RV Park, Anahuac, TX some 290 miles by Interstate that took us through Austin and Houston. If we don’t like driving on Interstates, we surely do not like towing a large RV through congested metropolitan areas.

King Rail, Anahuac NWR
We’ve been to High Island with the RV three times in the past. Twice we were able to reserve a spot in the one and only small RV park in the town of High Island. That would have allowed us the opportunity to travel more closely along the Texas Gulf Coast and take a free ferry south of Houston to the Bolivar Peninsula. But, since the RV park was much closer to the east side of Houston, we had to settle for the shorter but much more congested route.

Young Great Egrets and a green tree frog
High Island sits atop a large salt dome that raises the elevation of the area to around 38 feet, giving High Island the second highest elevation of any point on the Gulf coast from Mobile, Alabama to the Yucatán Peninsula....and hence it’s name.
Over the years birders have come to realize that neotropic migrants flying across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatán concentrate in large numbers at High Island, their first point of landfall, in order to refuel after their long and often dangerous flight across open water. Eventually, Houston Audubon recognized the significance of the location and established four High Island sanctuaries: Smith Oaks, Eubanks Woods, the S.E. Gast Red Bay Sanctuary, and Boy Scout Woods, the latter serving as the sanctuary headquarters.

Snowy Egret above; Roseate Spoonbill below
Location, location, location. The possibility of so many birds concentrated in one location sets the stage for what birders dream of: “fall outs", when tens of thousands of birds drop into in a small area in a compressed amount of time. This is why each spring, High Island becomes a mecca for bird watchers from far and wide. The ideal time frame is usually the third week of April through the second week in May. We were early but hoping we would still catch some of the early action.
Parked as we were 30 minutes to the north, we commuted each day, dividing out time between Boy Scout Woods in the morning where the bulk of birders gathered and Smith Oaks in the afternoon, the site of a large rookery filled with nesting wading birds and Roseate Spoonbills. Midday was spent checking the beaches on Bolivar Peninsula, known locally as the “Bolivar Flats”.

Lisle, Sam and Iain
This was the tenth year that guides from Tropical Birding, an international bird tour company based out of Ecuador (and more recently Maryland), offer three free tours daily, Thursday through Monday. Having used Tropical Birding services in the past we’ve gotten to know most of the guides. This season Sam Woods, Iain Campbell and Lisle Gwynn were leading the field trips. Sam and Iain we knew well from previous encounters. We first met Lisle when he was one our guides in South Africa in 2015. It was decidedly entertaining  hanging out with Lisle as he garnered several life birds on this, his first real birdwatching trip to the states.

Neotropic Cormorant feeding young at Smith Oaks
Storms on the Yucatan side of the gulf apparently were holding birds back so the birding remained slow. What's considered "slow"? Any day a field trip count of species seen is out numbered by the number of birders is a slow day. Specially when the highlight of a field trip turns out to be a green tree frog. Still, our time at High Island was worthwhile for us as we got to chat with the Tropical Birding lads, and meet fellow birders. In particular, Bridget and  Tim from western Wisconsin and recently retired. They were tent camping in the High Island RV Park and this was their first visit to High Island. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t ideal to be tenting (high winds and a fair amount of rain).

Ruddy Turnstone above; Marbled Godwit below
We birded some of the field trips together and spent a day visiting Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge where we shared an amazing encounter with a highly vocal Black Rail - a life bird for all (and the last of the bird family Rallidae needed to complete our ABA list of rails).
After three and a half days of High island, and in spite of a life bird, we had little else to show for our efforts in terms of boosting our annual list. Typically this would not be a concern since our ‘regular’ route north would have taken us over through coastal Louisiana, central Mississippi, eastern portions of Kentucky and Tennessee and central Illinois, all birdy areas for species we were missing. However, one of our main goals that didn’t involve birding was a stop in St. Louis to visit family. To that end our route north took an abrupt left turn.


Anahuac, TX to Dale, WI
Two more overnights. The first being at Shady Pines RV Park, Texarcana TX. A comfortable park with amazingly low fees. Big easy pull-in welcomed after a long 320 mile day. Good wifi and if one needed an small RV parts store, the park was part of an RV dealer.

site at Davidsonville Historic SP
The second overnight was at Davidsonville Historic State Park, Pochahantas, MO. Every once and a while we stumble upon a state park that has large sites with lots of space and hardly anyone else in the campground. As we backed into our site, we immediately had a singing male Northern Parula overhead. Might we run into a few more warbler species?
The site of the park was once a the town, established in 1815, which included Arkansas Territory's first post office, courthouse, and land office. Bypassed by the Southwest Trail, an overland route from St. Louis to the border of Mexico, the town faded by the 1830s. Archeological excavations uncovered remarkable finds of streets, foundations, and objects, all part of exhibits and interpretive stations chronicling life in this frontier town. Interpretive displays along pathways laid over former town streets, told an interesting tale of town life.

Davidsonville had put us within a rather comfortable 235 mile drive to 370 Lakeside RV Campground, St. Peters, MO. The significance here was that we were parked less than six miles from Graham and Caitlin’s home (their first home purchase). Sweetening the deal is that they are expecting their first child.

their first home and now, expecting their first baby (small bump out!)
We’d arrived in plenty of time to setup the RV park in a very easy pull-thru. The drive to the kid’s house was less than twenty minutes. We’d seen several photos of the house’s interior as it underwent updating and improvements (mostly painting). We’d see more of the house later but Caitlin and Graham had made dinner reservations and we needed to get moving. Fortunately Caitlin drove as we had no idea where we were headed.

at Blueberry Hill in The Loop
Our destination was a St. Louis landmark restaurant, Blueberry Hill situated in The Loop, an entertainment district with more than 145 specialty shops that lined the main drag, Delmar Street. Restaurants, galleries, clothing boutiques, gift stores, entertainment hot spots, and a boutique hotel.
Chuck Berry
The restaurant was the favorite venue of Chuck Berry where he played over 200 consecutive monthly concerts in the restaurant’s 340-capacity 'Duck Room'. Rock n’ Roll memorabilia was everywhere. And not just Chuck’s. Elvis had a large display as well as many television programs from the 50’s and 60’s. Hard to take it all in with just one visit. Or two or three we supposed. Oh - and the food? The burgers were to die for and you MUST try a local favorite, St. Louis’s famous toasted ravioli.
Afterward we walked Delmar Street, gawking at the St. Louis Walk of Fame which honors notable people from St. Louis, Missouri, who made contributions to the culture of the United States. All inductees were either born in the Greater St. Louis area or spent their formative and/or creative years there. Inductees had made their marks in acting, entertainment, music, sports, art/architecture, broadcasting, journalism, science/education and literature. Names like Phyliss Diller, Betty Grable, Yogi Berra, Stan Musial, Leonard Slatkin, Ike and Tina Turner, Charles M. Russell, Harry Caray, T.S. Eliot, Tennessee Williams, and of course Chuck Berry. A life size statuary of Berry was adorned with flowers noting his recent passing.

The Jewel Box
Saturday morning we drove back to the kid’s house for a day of sightseeing. Tom had already seen the arch, the Clydesdales, Anheuser-Busch…many of the typical touristy things years ago. Today we started at Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the United States. At 1,293 acres, it is approximately 500 acres larger than Central Park in New York. Officially opened to the public on June 24, 1876, is the site of the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair), and more than 20 million visitors from around the world. Today it attracts more than 12 million visitors a year.

walking the grounds, Caitlin and Graham, part of the old Expo grounds
It’s the home to the region's major cultural institutions—the St. Louis Zoo, St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis Science Center, James S. McDonnell Planetarium, and the Muny Opera. It also serves as a sports center for golf, tennis, baseball, bicycling, boating, fishing, handball, ice skating, rollerblading, jogging, rugby and more.
There was no way we would take all this in on one morning so we simply walked around looking at some of the locations. The “Jewel Box” a botanical garden, the site of the World’s Fair Expo, and the Muny Opera (St. Louis Municipal Opera Theatre).

All that walking prepared us for lunch at another St. Louis favorite, Rigazzi’s in The Hill, a neighborhood founded by Italian immigrants where roughly 3/4 of the residents are Italian-American. Many of the restaurant’s recipes came from northern Italy and everything is made from scratch. Ooooh, the meatballs!

patience at Ted Drewes
After our previous night's stroll on Delmar Stree, Caitlin had wanted us to try some ice cream at another iconic business, Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. However, it seemed that several hundred other people had the same idea. When we arrived the lines at the windows reached around the block. Today, however, the lines were far more reasonable.
Established in 1929, the store is on Chippewa Street, a section of historic Route 66. You might not be able to get your kicks along Route 66 but you can certainly get your custard ice cream.
Terrie DuHadway, Caitlin’s mom, had graciously offered to take us out sightseeing and to dinner in St. Charles (Graham and Caitlin were tied up going out with Caitlin’s dad to celebrate his birthday). 
Founded along the Missouri River in 1769, Lewis and Clark, as they passed through in 1804, remarked that it was the last “civilized” stop on their journey west. St. Charles lies near the eastern end of the Katy Trail, a 225-mile long state park adapted from a railroad right-of-way, today enjoyed by bikers and walkers. At one point it was the temporary site of the state capitol. Daniel Boone and his family built a homestead in nearby Defiance, MO. “Boone’s Lick Road” became the eastern most starting point of the Sante Fe and Oregon Trail. The only exploring these days in St. Charles are tourists scouring numerous restored buildings, various specialty stores, and restaurants that line Main Street’s historic shopping district. We couldn’t resist stopping in at Di Olivas Oil and Vinegar Shop to sample Mediterranean and Middle East gourmet oils and vinegar. And take some home.

with Terrie at Magpies
Terrie had suggested we stop at Magpie’s Restaurant. We had already stuffed ourselves with our late lunch at Rigazzi’s and custard from Ted Drewes so a large meal was out of the question. However, the the soups and desserts would be perfect. Seated outdoors we enjoyed a light meal while Rod and Charlie, a local acoustic classic rock and country duo played for the patrons.
If you try anything at all at Magpie’s, you MUST try the caramel apple crepe. Warm crepe filled with apples, drizzled with caramel sauce, then topped with vanilla ice cream and toasted almonds. And don't overlook the strawberry iced tea!
In an effort to walk off of our meal we cruised Main Street again plus a short walk on the Katy Trail. It didn’t escape us that friends from Wisconsin on their way from Los Angles to Boston, would be cycling past the very spot on the trail where we stood in just a few day's time. Too bad we would miss them. (Note: heavy rains a couple weeks later flooded the trail making it impassable to foot and bike traffic).

Meghan, Danny Anslee, Caitlin, Graham, Terrie, Carol
The following morning we drove to Terrie’s home for a family brunch. We had first met Caitlin’s brother Danny and her sister Meghan at Graham and Caitlin’s wedding in Wisconsin two years earlier. Danny, now due to graduate from Dental School in a few weeks, was there with his girlfriend Anslee. Unfortunately, Meghan’s husband Mark couldn’t make it due to studying for final exams prior to graduating as a Veterinary Cardiologist. More food and loads of conversation!
Caitlin and Graham invited us over for a home cooked meal that evening (this was a very food themed visit!). However, owing to the fact that it was Easter Sunday, ALL the grocery stores were all closed and they could get the ingredients they needed. A local pizza place save the day. Pizza: one of Tom’s favorite food groups.
On Monday as Caitlin and Graham returned to work, we packed up for our last overnight 250 miles away. Hickory Hollow RV Park, Utica, IL is a park we have often used as our last stop before entering Wisconsin. Not a terribly notable RV park but it always had room with large pull-thru sites. When we checked in we learned that due to a new quarry operation that has just started, this would be the last season the park would be open. Dust from the quarry along with constant truck traffic had made it unbearable for staff and RVers. How strange that given our decision to get off the road that this would also be the last year for this RV park. A shame for the RV park but we wouldn't have to worry where we would have parked in the future.
We’d arrived at Hickory Hollow with ample daylight left for us to drive to nearby Starved Rock State Park. to see what migrants, if any, were passing through. 

a brew and a bloody Mary at Starved Rock
The park sits along the Illinois River encompassing more than 13 miles of hiking trails that pass through vertical walls of moss-covered stone formed by glacial melt-water. Several tree-covered sandstone bluff tops offer broad overlooks of the river. Based on earlier visits we can attest to the fact that it’s a very popular park, probably as popular at Wisconsin’s Devil's Lake State Park. And like Devil’s Lake, it was was full of people form Illinois. Go figure.
A 1930s-era stone and log Starved Rock Lodge offers luxury lodging, cabin rooms, and fine dining. That latter point, fine dining, caught our attention. We made our way down from the Eagle Cliff Lookout, then up several flights of steps to the Starved Rock Dining Room only to discover it wasn’t open yet. Right next door was the Back Door Lounge which was open and more suited to our desire for casual dining. A Starved Rock Signature Ale, a bloody Mary, a salad (mixed greens, candied pecans, Gorgonzola cheese, strawberries and Mandarin oranges, served with poppyseed dressing) and a bowl of soup hit the spot (and also meant no cooking or dishes when we got back to the RV).
Our last day on the road covered familiar territory through southern and central Wisconsin. As we traveled north from Texas where all the foliage had been leafed out, trees in Wisconsin were now just starting to bud. Farmer’s fields had yet to be plowed. The temperature was decidedly cooler. We definitely would be experiencing spring all over again.
Mid-afternoon and we were parked again in Dale. A bitter-sweet return as this would likely be our last spring-summer in Wisconsin. But we didn't dwell on that as our calendar was already filling up with people to visit, places to go and a laundry list of RV to-do items…and of course, an eye to spring migration which we knew we were now well ahead of in mid-April.