Apache Junction Seekers

Al and Linda enjoy visiting new places and having new experiences. In 2006, we spent 4 months in Europe and originally created this blog to keep friends and family informed. After a long delay, I'm trying to catch up with what we've been doing since then and hope to carry on into the future.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Spring in Apache Junction is just about over and the summer heat is upon us. The season is going out with a glorious bloom of native palo verde trees, probably the best we’ve seen in the six springs we’ve lived in our current home. For most of the year, the native palo verde is a scrubby, spiny, green-barked tree, mostly topping out in the 15-foot range but with some older individuals of certain varieties going to perhaps 30 feet. They started blooming in April and built to a crescendo of yellow waves across the desert around the first of May. On our 1.3 acre property, parts of which had been brutally cleared at one point, there are somewhere around 15 or 20 native palo verde which gives you an idea of the typical density of the trees on residential parcels. On the public lands to the north and south of us, the density is even higher. The bees are so thick in the palo verde that there is a constant humming everywhere in the yard.

The ironwoods are also blooming, although much more subtly with their dusty lavender-rose blooms, and not as exuberantly, with only about half the trees participating. The last couple of years have been a real bust for the ironwoods, so it’s good to see any of them blooming. The two trees we planted the year we moved in are finally showing a bit of color, which is a milestone we’ve been waiting for each year.

The native wildflowers were not as spectacular as we had hoped although the state of Arizona is doing a good job of planting poppies and lupine along newly-constructed sections of highways. In our yard, the penstemon have finally achieved critical mass and are nearing the status of weeds, popping up in the most unlikely places. But the early spring flush is long gone and the yard is preparing to go into desert summer mode. Still there are a few things to enjoy. One of the chollas that I planted in my cactus garden surprised us with dark magenta flowers. The fairy duster has been sporting its bright red tufts for months it seems and the desert milkweed is topped with its own pale yellow flowers, which the butterflies adore. Many of the more-or-less native plants we’ve planted are attractive to the butterflies but have less conspicuous flowers, like the three dalea varieties which are interesting close-up but are not showy from any distance.

This seems to be high season for the lizards. One small one had been living under the brittle bush that I tolerate near the steps at the edge of the patio. After it quits blooming, I regularly prune it way back because its summer version is not particularly attractive. The lizard obviously had a run-in with some predator because it showed up minus its tail one day. Then, a few days ago, I happened to look out the window to see a cactus wren running back and forth through the remaining stems, a very odd behavior. Suddenly the tail-less lizard bolted from the leaf litter and streaked across the patio with the wren in hot pursuit, flying just inches above the flagstone. They had disappeared before I could get to the door to see the outcome. I was feeling a bit down about this until a couple of days later when I saw a lizard with a growing-out tail under the bursage in the wash.

In the meantime, a much larger lizard has moved in and seems to be underfoot every time I pass through the patio area. He had a hole near the pole for the hummingbird feeder into which I saw him disappear completely, at least ten inches including his tail. He must be very limber because no sooner had the tip of his tail vanished than his head reappeared, eyes evaluating the threat of me in my frozen position. Sometimes we will be sitting on the patio and he will start across, then notice us. You can just hear him say, Dang, people, where’d they come from? He’ll freeze, as if scoping out his escape route, then sprint for cover.

The other morning when we were out for a bike ride, a very large lizard crossed the road in right front of us. He was holding his body so high up on surprisingly long legs that at first my brain was confused and thought he was a rodent with a long tail before I realized he was a lizard motating in his own unique fashion.


Summer Vacation August 2008

It was time for a long-delayed family reunion, this time scheduled near Portland OR, so we decided to make a road trip of it. The plan was to drive up the east side of the Sierra on US395 then cross the mountains north of Yosemite, then slog north on I-5. The return trip would take us across the Cascades in Oregon then southeast toward Reno, then south to Las Vegas to visit the grandchildren. Along the way we would visit railroad museums at Bishop, Jamestown, Sacramento and Portola, all in California.

As usual, we hadn't made any reservations. A couple of hours out of Lone Pine, I suddenly realized that towns were far and few between and thanks to an old Best Western map I dug out of the side pocket and a cooperative clerk at the sold-out Best Western, I was able to find a room at another motel in Lone Pine. By the time we arrived at the inn, there was a line of travelers being told there were no more rooms. We had failed to take into account the fact that this was high season in the mountains and that Lone Pine is the jumping off point for hikers planning to scale Mt. Whitney.

I'm pretty sure Mt. Whitney is one of the peaks in this shot from the motel parking lot. We were literally the only people with English as a first language in the breakfast room that morning.

There is a loop road westward from the town of Lone Pine that is noted as the setting for many western movies. Well worth the side trip.

By the time we reached the museum at Bishop, the temperature was reaching toward 102 F. I thought at this altitude we'd left the blazing desert heat behind. I liked the weathered effect on this old wooden box car and would like to replicate for our model railroad. The museum contained a number of funky buildings that could be inspiration for more modeling. Frankly, though, I was too hot and sweaty to appreciate the finer points of all the exhibits and retreated to the shade while Al made his leisurely way through each and every one.

This time we had learned our lesson and called for a motel reservation at Mammoth Lakes earlier in the day. Long a winter ski resort, now the town caters to mountain bikers in the summer. You and your bike can ride a bus to the bottom of the ski area, then ride trails downhill back to town. The next day, we drove to the ghost town of Bodie. Every California guidebook sold to the European tourist must rave about Bodie because English was a minority language. Near the headstock shown in the photo, we met a couple from Italy (she's the one in the photo) and since neither of us has any Italian, we conversed in a kind of French, which worked. I took more photos of picturesque buildings and ruins than anyone would want to see. It was hot this day also, at 6000 feet, and despite sunblock, I got a mild sunburn.

From Bodie, we turned west on one of the most interesting mountain roads we've driven outside of the Alps, state highway 108 which goes up to over 9600 feet. A sign near the turnoff warned that there was a 25% grade ahead, and they weren't kidding. There was a switchback at the bottom of this grade so you couldn't get a head of steam up and Al had to manually shift our poor little Honda CRV into first gear to make it up the hill. Wonderful scenery and I recommend the drive highly.

Our next stop was Steamtown 1897 State Historical Park at Jamestown. I snapped this shot of assorted junk next to the roundhouse because this is the kind of thing that model railroaders are always trying to model to add realism to their layout. We had purchased tickets for the train ride and were lucky enough to see the steam locomotive being backed out of the roundhouse and onto the turntable. Another hot day--maybe we bring the desert heat with us.
From Jamestown it's a quick hop to Sacramento where we made a return visit to the wonderful rail museum.

The family reunion was a great success and we finally managed to get north of the heat. My sister told me I should quit complaining about the Portland weather, it wasn't raining all that hard and I certainly wasn't made of sugar and wasn't going to melt in a little water. Always nice to see the family.

On the way home, we stopped at the rail museum at Portola which was a complete disappointment since we weren't there when anything was happening and the museum aspect is a bit unpolished. But as we headed east toward Reno, we realized we were being swept along in a great tide of humanity headed toward the Black Rock Desert for the annual Burning Man festival. This "vehicle" was the only one that I was able to photograph, but it was a delight to see all the creativity streaming toward that magical place. I'd love to attend but that desert is definitely way too hot and I suspect we're also way out of the demographic so I just follow it on-line.


Winter Vacation 2008

January is high season in the desert southwest, with cool nights and temperate days just made for leisurely hikes or sitting in the sun on the patio. So of course we decided to take a trip in the motorhome to Texas.

We had two motives for going to Texas: first, there were some birds that I hadn’t added to my life list the last time we’d been to the lower Rio Grande Valley and second, we needed to eat some Texas BBQ.

When you live in Arizona’s lower desert year-round, there is a tendency to forget that other parts of the universe have seasonal variations that are way different. This was brought home to us quite dramatically the first night out, in Deming, NM, where the mercury dipped below the freezing mark. Fortunately, we didn’t have the water hose hooked up, but it was mighty cold inside our laughably-insulated rig. The second night was even worse, in West Texas where the thermometer registered around 20 degrees F. Ice had formed on the inside of the windshield, separated from the marginally toastier living area by a flimsy curtain designed only to keep out prying eyes. The electric space heater ran all night, but the propane furnace died somewhere in the wee hours. The wind was blowing, of course, and what we had packed for heavy clothing failed to keep the arctic blasts from thoroughly chilling us on the short dash to the restroom building. For us tender desert flowers, a full-body survival suit with mask would have been a better option.

Saturday night found us staying on the east side of San Antonio. We asked about BBQ at the park office and were told to go to Rudy’s, a couple of exits down. Cream corn was the side dish of choice. When we finally found it, Rudy’s was mobbed but we snagged a parking place not too far from the building. We dutifully joined the line, then found out this was for the take-out counter. The main entrance was around to the other side of the funky building where we were confronted with a line that snaked out of the front door and didn’t seem to be moving. On second thought, we could do take-out: brisket and ribs, cream corn and beans. Well, three out of four ain’t bad because when we got back to the motorhome, we unpacked cole slaw instead of the cream corn we had especially desired. Maybe it was our Yankee accent. A charming touch: Texas BBQ comes with soft white bread (think Wonder Bread or Bimbo) and the cashier just asks you how many pieces you want. A whole loaf—that’s OK too. She gave us the tail end of one which must have had at least eight pieces in it, stuff I normally wouldn’t allow in my house, but which sops up the drippings quite nicely.

Was it good? Well, at the time it seemed pretty doggone good. We benefited from having stumbled upon the original Rudy’s, which has since been franchised with varying results as we were to find out later in the trip. The sliced brisket was falling apart tender with excellent flavor and texture. What did we know? We enjoyed every greasy finger-lickin’ morsel. We also bought a couple of ribs, which were less impressive, a trend that was to continue throughout the trip. In all, things were looking pretty good for the trip, especially since the temperature had warmed up significantly.

Onward to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. On our previous visit to the Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, camping had been allowed in the park. We knew that it had been closed to camping and that a new commercial RV park had been established just outside the gates. Now it was necessary to take a park shuttle or walk inside the park. Since I can’t walk long distances, this meant taking the shuttle to an area, birding for a while, then waiting for a shuttle to come by again. One advantage of this is that you get to talk to people on the shuttle. We got into a discussion about BBQ on one trip, the speaker sneered at the thought of Rudy’s BBQ and told us to head for the City Market in Luling.

Another advantage on the shuttle is that there are lots of eyes and the driver will slow or stop for longer viewing of special creatures. During our camping experience here, I don’t think we saw a single armadillo, but now they seemed to have taken over the park. The first ten or twenty are interesting, but then it’s like seeing robins in the city park. Javalina seemed to be much more prevalent than before, and amazingly oblivious to the humans sitting on the viewing benches at feeder areas. Our own Arizona variety is very easily spooked, but these were fatter and much tamer than any I’d seen before. On the other hand, the birds didn’t seem to be there the way they were when people were camping inside the park and setting up feeders. Maybe it was because it wasn’t as convenient as getting out of the rig and taking a short walk before breakfast, then another one after, etc., which exposes you to more birds.

I don’t consider myself an expert birder by any means, but I’ve been birding in a desultory fashion for over thirty years in many parts of North America and have managed to see a bunch of birds. The problem with having a reasonably large life list is that the incremental cost of seeing each additional bird continues to rise. I figure that to make a significant addition to my list, I’ll have to start taking pelagic trips and get a whole lot better at identifying gulls. I’m never going to sort out all the sparrows without a guide either. All of which costs money, big bucks, which I’m not sure I’m willing to spend. I did manage to get a few new birds on this trip: ringed kingfisher, golden-fronted woodpecker, white-tailed hawk, crested caracara. Thanks to an evening program put on by the Bentsen-Rio Grande Park, I picked up pauraque, a bird I’d probably never have seen on my own. But a large number of the species we had seen on our previous visit went unseen and despite a long drive up the river, the brown jay remained elusive.

We tried the Rudy's BBQ in Pharr and as the man on the park shuttle had said, it was definitely an inferior product. The saving grace was that this time I got cream corn and it was heavenly, almost worth the drive.

The general area hadn’t grown in charm since we’d last visited, although this time we were smart enough to find a Mexican bakery with a fabulous selection of cookies and pastries as well as ropa vieja in take-out containers and handmade tortillas to go with. Did I mention that like Napoleon’s army, we travel on our stomachs? But we’d forgotten how the wind blew all the time and made bird-watching an even greater challenge and one day it was a challenge just to stand upright. The occasional sound of automatic weapons fire across the Rio Grande didn’t add much to the general ambience. So after a few days of enjoyable but largely unproductive birding, we headed toward the Gulf Coast and Rockport, TX for a complete change of scenery.

Rockport, Texas, is a place I could spend a lot of time in. Instead of BBQ, Rockport has seafood along with access to good birding. Judging by the occupancy rate of the RV parks, a lot of people like Rockport in the winter. There are seafood restaurants, one of which not only had an all-you-can eat lunch special where the food kept coming without having to ask for it, but our table overlooked a nice little inlet where roseate spoonbills swung their heads back and forth, sifting the water for edibles while an ever-changing cast of other species provided great entertainment. There are also seafood markets if you feel like preparing dinner yourself.

The big attraction for the birder at Rockport is the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge which is the winter home for a flock of whooping cranes. We had seen the young cranes of the Operation Migration flock at Necedah, Wisconsin, but the established population in Texas migrates between Aransas and Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, Canada. You have to take a boat trip to be sure of seeing the whooping cranes, which are generally inaccessible by road or foot. Our boat, the Skimmer, gave us a great ride and showed us many species besides the whooping cranes, who were, of course, the real stars of the show. While staying at Rockport, we made a day trip down to Padre Island National Seashore where I picked up the white-tailed hawk. As usual, once you see the first bird, then there’s one on every third fencepost, but I wasn’t complaining as that was my next-to-last hawk species.

Back on the road again heading west, we made a beeline for Luling, the home of the City Market, the epitome of BBQ for many enthusiasts. Unfortunately, we arrived on Sunday and it was closed. We found an RV park and took the CRV to Lockhart to enjoy dinner at Smitty’s. This was our introduction to how BBQ is supposed to be served. The first thing you do is find the end of the line because that will take you to the meat. When you get far enough toward the head of the line, you’re in the room where the meat is actually being cooked in huge metal smokers. There must not be a state-level OSHA in Texas, or perhaps they’ve convinced the medical industry that BBQ smoke isn’t bad for you. In the few minutes that you spend there, you’ll end up smelling like smoke yourself. No matter. We ordered some brisket and some sausage. Next time I’d just order brisket. The guy with the cleaver whomps off approximately what you order, places it on a piece of butcher paper and the cashier weighs it, informing you of the price. You take your bundle of meat through the exit and into the dining area. You want sides? You stand in line again. Don’t expect a fork. BBQ is meant to be eaten with your fingers and you shoulda brung your Bowie knife. Yum yum. I could feel my arteries hardening as we stumbled back out to the car, already in a food coma. Gotta cut down on the size of those orders.

Monday lunchtime found us at the City Market in Luling. Same smoke room atmosphere with the small pile of wood burning gently at one end of the enormous cooker. The brisket was more tender, but I think that the rub they use at Smitty’s is a mite tastier. City Market’s mustard-laced sauce is, however, the best one we tasted. We groaned with pleasure. They sell the sauce in bulk for take-home, so I took some home. Did I mention that everyone is Texas-friendly?

We saw an interesting take on yard art in the Luling area as you can see in this photo. A kind of "kinetic sculpture" is attached to the oil pump jack and as the head goes up and down, the sculpture moves. In this case, the little ducks go back and forth. I guess it beats a bare pump.

Monday dinner was at Kreuz, back in Lockhart. I know, I know but we couldn't stay in Texas forever! So many BBQ joints, so much cholesterol, so little time. Kreuz is in a fairly new building so once out of the smoke room, the ambience is a bit sterile. It needs a few years. Al really loved the potato side dish. The brisket and ribs were pretty doggone good too. Boy am I glad I don’t have to rate these places.

On our way out of Texas, we wandered around the countryside until we found Driftwood and the Salt Lick Restaurant, which had been recommended. We knew we were in a whole ‘nother category because they have a menu and servers and a lot of bus parking in the back, which was handy for stashing the RV and toad, but a definite clue to mass production. They even had sandwiches on the menu and you could order something called a “vegetable plate”—downright heresy. That said, the food wasn’t too bad and we even took some ribs and sauce for the road. Probably the best part of the meal was the dessert (more heresy!), which was a blackberry cobbler a la mode. We shared a serving in a feeble attempt to save our waistlines.

West Texas was just as cold as it had been going east and there were just as many dead deer along the westbound lanes as there had been going east. We ate the last of the Salt Lick ribs our last night on the road. They hadn't given us any white bread to sop up the drippings.

I’d go back to the San Antonio-Austin area in the spring when the bluebonnets are blooming and eat more BBQ but that was probably my last trip to the lower Rio Grande even if I didn’t get the brown jay. On the other hand, there's Rockport, which just makes me want to be a pelican like in this photo. Seafood all day and then you hang out on the pier--what could be a better life?