Tuesday, January 31, 2017

AZ to WI 2016

The day Vicki and Lynn left Portal, headed back to Tucson, we packed up the RV and began what has become our annual trek back toward Wisconsin. Ultimately our goal was to get back as soon as possible since our stay there would be relatively short this time. About two months. Our shorter stay was due to our plan to revisit the PNW on our return to our wintering grounds in Arizona. and a revisit was going to take a good chunk of time owing to the distances needed to cover. But while our timetable to reach Wisconsin was short, we still had a few key stops along the way including a swing through Texas.
Our self-imposed time table pushed us well over our overall daily mileage average of just under 200 miles, up to 275 miles/day. Our first overnight was the Star RV Park in Van Horn Texas, 288 miles away. Along the way we stopped for breakfast in Columbus, NM, where on March 9, 1916, the soldiers of General Francisco "Pancho" Villa attacked this small border town and military camp, the first armed invasion of the continental United States since the War of 1812, and also the last one.

Patio Cafe
 We had stayed at nearby Pancho Villa State Park in 2009 during our first year on the road so we were familiar with the restaurant. The park’s museum contains extensive historical exhibits depicting the raid (including Army vehicles built by then 4-Wheel Drive in Clintonville, WI). The only attack in Columbus today, however, was our attacking breakfast at the Patio Cafe.
There’s not a whole lot to see in Van Horn, TX, however, an excellent writer and friend, John McAfee, grew up in the area. Checkout Pat’s “On Rims of Empty Moons”, drawn from his early childhood in the Van Horn, Ft. Davis, and Alpine area. Or his critically acclaimed, “Slow Walk in A Sad Rain”.
A 300 mile next day brought us to Del Rio, TX, the county seat for Val Verde County and home to the present day Laughlin Air Force Base. In WWII the base was used to train crews to fly Martin B-26 bombers. In 1945 the base was mothballed. However, in the 1950’s, at the start of the Cold War, the air base was resuscitated when its remote location turned out to be ideal for basing secret long-range high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft such as the U-2 “Dragonlady”. It was a Laughlin based U-2 that took the first photographs of medium-range ballistic missile sites being constructed in Cuba which turned out to be a political nightmare known as the “Cuban Missile Crisis” during the Kennedy administration.
Dinner at the El Palenque Tacos and Grill in Del Rio, helped take the edge off a long day’s drive and an uninspiring overnight at the Holiday Trav-L-Park.

Day three on the road turned out to be a relatively short 150 mile tow to Laredo, TX. Texas Hwy 90 took us through the small town of Marathon (population under 500). For most travelers, Marathon is where Hwy 385 and Hwy 90 intersect, the shortest route (if you call 69 miles short) to the headquarters in Big Bend NP. Marathon hosts the historic Gage Hotel along with a few interesting small shops including the Oasis Cafe where we tanked up on breakfast.

A second familiar stop along Hwy 90 (watch for the signs or you’ll pass right by) is the postage stamp sized town of Langtry. The main attraction (pretty much the only attraction) is the Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center extolling the life and times of Judge Roy Bean, the self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos”. One can visit the “Jersey Lillie Saloon” where Bean held court. Folklore called him a “hanging judge” although factually, he only sentenced two men to hang. And one of them escaped.
So what was the attraction in Laredo that caused us a shorter travel day? Was it a cowboy dressed in white linen? The annual Washington Birthday Celebration that attracts thousands of tourists? The Jalapeño Festival, Border Beer Fest, or Princess Pocahintas Pageant? Nope. None of the above. It was simply a small bird. A White-collared Seedeater.
While many birders we know have managed to see this occasional Mexican immigrant, it has remained our nemesis ABA life bird during the four years we wintered in the Rio Grande Valley. Try as we might, after countless attempts, often in the perfect habitat, we had never managed to see one. But this time we had an ace up our sleeve. We had bumped into a volunteer at the Roy Bean visitor center who just happened to be a birder. A well known birder in west Texas as it turned out. And someone who happened to know a birder in Laredo who knew the best place in to look for White-collared Seedeater.
So desperate were we to find one we we had made arrangements for an overnight in Laredo to give us plenty of time to look. After dropping our at RV Lake Casa Blanca State Park, we made our way down to the Rio Grande River that very afternoon to an area we’ve been to before. This time, though, the birds were vocalizing and within five minutes of arriving, we had our seedeaters! Certainly time to celebrate with dinner out - Antojitos y Refresquera El Paraiso filled the bill quite nicely. And, we were relieved we wouldn’t have to make an early morning dash into Laredo if we had missed the bird that afternoon.

Departing Laredo we enjoyed a second low mileage day as we retraced the now very familiar Highway 83 south along the Rio Grande River past San Ygnacio, Zapata, Falcon Dam, Salineño (all places we had tried for the seedeater in the past!), Roma, Rio Grande City, and finally arriving at the Ratama Village where friends Harvey and Gayle Pagel were now living.
We first met the Pagels during an exploratory visit to Bentsen Palm Village RV Resort prior to our spending four winter seasons after going fulltime RVing in 2009. During our third year at Bentsen, Harvey and Gayle purchased an RV pad/casita in Ratama Village. A couple years ago when they finally gave up fulltime RVing, they purchased a small home in same Ratama Village. They still owned the RV lot which they rent out each winter. Just our luck, the site happened to be vacant when we arrived and they offered us its use.

Harvey and Gayle
It was like old home week being back in “the Valley”. However, our air conditioner had quit ‘conditioning’ back in Laredo so it necessitated calling an RV repair person whom Harvey recommended. It was late Friday afternoon when the repairman arrived and diagnosed the problem: low coolant. The good news was that it was simply a matter of recharged the coolant. The bad news was that the he didn’t have what he needed to do the job there and then and wouldn’t be able to get to it until Monday. And it was already well into the daytime upper 80’s in Mission. Fortunately the skies were somewhat overcast which helped minimize the temperature inside the RV. That evening we were invited to Harvey and Gayle’s for a surprise early birthday celebration  of Carol’s birthday.

at Estero with Jose (left) and John
Our time would be limited so we made the best of it. First up was to drive to Estero Llano Grande State Park, our favorite state park in all of Texas. Working that day were Jose Uribe and John Yochum who we still follow on Facebook. We’ve tried to volunteer at the Estero in the past but circumstances never aligned. Either they didn’t have any slots open or, when they did invite us to work, we had already made other volunteer commitments. Perhaps one of these years…

black-bellied whistling-duck, South Padre

The next whole day was spent driving to the coast for a stop at one of the world birding centers on South Padre Island. The day was windy and overcast and unfortunately the tide was in, limiting the number of species we expected. But the island also has another draw - seafood. We opted to forego Dirty Al’s this time and opted instead to sample seafood at Blackbeards’. We were not disappointed.

plain chachalaca
red-crowned parrot
On Monday we needed to devote some time waiting for the RV repairman who was able to successfully recharge the air conditioner coolant. That left us a little time to drive around the area looking for local birds - mainly parrots and parakeets. Tom even managed a walk through the adjacent Benston-Rio Grande Valley State Park where we had volunteered as ‘wandering naturalists’. Unfortunately the birding at the park has slipped over the years and Tom’s walk was very quiet indeed.

By Tuesday we were back on the road and facing three very long driving days. The first night was to La Grange, TX (mainly on Hwy 77 avoiding Austin and Houston) and overnight at Colorado Landing RV (315 miles). The second night was to in Texarcana and the Shady Pines RV Park (341 miles). As this was officially Carol’s birthday we celebrated with some very large margaritas and dinner at Las Fuentes. The third night we stopped in Caruthersville, MO at the Lady Luck Casino (364 miles). And no, we did not try our luck at gambling, especially in a casino that allows smoking! Our three day driving marathon at least allowed us to go through some of our audible books we’d been neglecting. And spend a whole lot of money on diesel fuel.

swamp in southern Illinois
Crossing over into Illinois we were in need of a short day of driving so our next stop was the Hilltop Campground RV Park in Goreville (129 miles). This has always been a popular stop during our spring migration to Wisconsin. The park is ideally situated near one of our favorite birding spots in southern Illinois: Ferne Cliff State Park. It’s usually a good stop to pick up some of the eastern wood warblers migrating north. However, as were a bit late this year, our numbers were lower than usual. Unfortunately, this trend would continue even after we had reached Wisconsin. This part of southern Illinois is also well known for its vineyards. One of our favorites is Owl Creek, but, given our schedule, we missed visiting this year.
the menu is simple but delicious
Driving through central and northern Illinois is, quite honestly, boring. But if we wanted to make time, this is what we had to endure. At least we were back in Cracker Barrel country for our breakfast stops. We’ve discovered that Hwy 51 (mostly four lane) has been an acceptable alternative to the interstates. Hwy 51 also passes through the small town of Vernon (don’t blink) where we’ve become accustomed to stopping for breakfast at Joyce’s Cafe. Great food and service and you simply must try one of her pies.
Our northern Illinois ‘go to’ RV stop has always been at the Hickory Hollow RV Park outside Utica (294 miles). Large, easy pull-thru sites and fast check-in. Never have to make a reservation. And it put us in the home stretch for one more day on the road.
However, hearkening back to the incident when we had lost our wheel and tire, there was still some unfinished business with regard to body work. We had put off getting any work done until we could get an estimate from our trusted RV dealer, King’s Campers in Wausau. So rather than a 240 mile drive from Hickory Hills to Dale, we needed to first swing through Wausau which tacked on another 120 miles.
We had alerted the service department of our impending stop so fortunately it didn’t take long to get someone to look at the RV. They would send us an estimate once they had crunched the numbers and checked on parts they had to order.

Todd and Cindy - back in Dale
By late in the afternoon we had backed into our usual spot at the Ward’s. Todd and Cindy were not home but they were due back the next day from a birding trip up north. It was good to be back in Wisconsin again, excited at seeing family and friends, even though our 2016 stay would be shorter than usual.

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