After Houston, the thought was to head a bit further south for a couple of extra degrees of warmth, and hit the Gulf of Mexico coast for a change of scenery. The drive itself was a short one, but was almost exclusively in drizzle, some rain, or really low hanging clouds (like, 200 feet low). And the closer we got to Corpus Christi, the foggier it got.
Port Aransas is located on a barrier island to Corpus Christi; specifically, Mustang Island. To get there, you have to cross over a relatively short, but fairly high bridge leaving Corpus Christi, then take a left onto Mustang Island. As you can see from the photo below, those low hanging clouds completely obscured our visibility going over that bridge!
Grateful to be at the end of our drive that day, we settled into Pioneer RV Park, just a few short miles away from Port Aransas proper. We chose it because it had beach access just a short walk over some dunes. Our spot ended up being about 200 yards away from the gulf, which meant we heard the surf constantly. Really nice when you have the vent covers open at night. Good park. WiFi was OK, nice cement pads (a bit narrow for my taste) and they picked up your trash every morning if you left it out for them.
Unfortunately, while the park and location were both nice, the weather refused to cooperate for the entire week we stayed there. Rained just one night, but foggy and misty until our departure morning when the sun finally peeked up over the dunes. One night we had winds so fierce, I almost brought in the slides to keep our toppers from being damaged! And even though we had hoped for some warmer weather, it remained cooler than normal throughout the week. Only had the top down on the Mini Cooper one day, which when you find out about what is so cool regarding Mustang Island, ended up being a huge disappointment.
This is not to say we had a bad time; just that it could have been soooooo much better.
Taz got to see and walk on her first beach, even if the big chicken wouldn't put her paws in the water.
We spent a day touring the retired aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lexington, now based out of Corpus Christi. Nice self-paced tour up and down lots of ladders, a $5 sort of-kinda-almost F/A-18 “simulator” ride, and a good collection of Navy planes on deck that show the progression of U.S. Naval aviation.
We used our new Texas State Parks Pass to check out potential camping sites at Mustang Island State Park for visits later this year.
But the coolest thing we found out about Mustang Island is the driving beach. Yes, you can actually drive onto the beach for about a 12-mile stretch. In fact, it's the only legal roadway in the U.S. on a beach. There are 3 access roads from in-town Port Aransas to almost the state park where you can just drive your car, truck or even RV onto the hard packed sand. Free to drive, $12 to be able to park on the beach if you're going to rough it in a tent, and $40 will allow you to camp for up to 3 nights once per month for a full year – IN YOUR RV! Just pull onto the beach, keep your RV 25 feet away from the dunes, and 50 feet away from the water, and you can wake up on the beach for 3 successive mornings. Definitely on our to-do list!
Since we already had a spot at Pioneer RV Park, we weren't going to shell out the $40 bucks for the beach RV experience, but it is sure on our minds for a return trip to take advantage of this unique opportunity. We did, however take the Mini for a spin on the sandy track.
Met some nice people while we were there, but didn't do too much socializing as Barbara was under the weather for the last 3 days of our visit (she's better now, thank you). All-in-all, Port Aransas is a potentially really nice place, but we just had a run of bad luck for the week. Otherwise, it's on our list of places to return to in the future.
After three great nights in Frisco, TX, we head south towards Houston. It's not supposed to be a long drive, but our GPS program (CoPilot RV) has been set to avoid toll roads, and unfortunately Houston is overrun with toll roads. So instead of a direct drive down I-45 with a quick run across I-10 to our campground, we end up taking some smaller back roads through rural Texas. This ended up turning our 5 hour trip into more than 6 hours, including some very slow sections running through small towns.
But the drive was worth it. We ended up staying in Stephen F. Austin State Park in San Felipe (once known as San Felipe de Austin), but that's a story for later.
Stephen F. Austin is a wonderful state park, with plenty of sites big enough for the largest rigs down to primitive camping. The RV sites are pull-thru semi-circles with full hookups, and the only downside is that they just have 30 amp electric available. It wasn't a problem this trip, but I'm sure during the scorching days of summer when high amounts of air conditioning is needed, this would be a problem for bigger rigs like our 36LA. Level sites (typical of Texas in general) with a large circle of mowed grassy area, fire pit and grill and a picnic table at each site. If I had to estimate, our site #11 was at least 60' wide by 80' deep. Past the mowed areas the rest of the park is left natural for deer, coyotes and other wildlife to inhabit. Two or more hiking trails for visitors to enjoy.
There is a golf course adjacent to the park, but it was closed for renovations while we were there. It used to be associated with the state park, but is a private concern now. Looked nice. Would have liked to play a round there.
But as good as the park was, we were there to visit with an old friend I hadn't seen in more than 40 years; Bob Johnson and his wife, Susan. Bob just recently retired from the ministry, and he and Susan bought a Ford F150 pickup and a new Lance travel trailer. They've been enjoying it for short trips over the past year, and we've both been looking forward to meeting up once Barbara and I finally got around to retiring to full-time RV living. Really, really nice people who introduced us to things around Houston, including Galveston, while we introduced them to nightly mini ice cream cones for dessert!
We got to experience a bit of early Texas history not generally taught. Everyone knows all about the Alamo, Sam Houston and Texas' fight for freedom from Mexico, but many people (ourselves included) didn't know much about how Texas was founded BEFORE the nasty business at the Alamo. The guy who got it all started was whom the park we stayed at was named; Stephen F. Austin. He was responsible for receiving land grants from Spain (via Mexico) in order to bring immigrants from the U.S. Into the territory of Texas. These people would, in turn, receive grants of land from their local “empresario” (Stephen F. Austin) and they would build, farm and generally make a new life for themselves while developing the land for commerce and paying taxes to Mexico. The Stephen F. Austin museum, located just a few minutes away from the state park in a plot of land that was once part of San Felipe de Austin (the original settlement of Americans in Texas), is an excellent way to learn about early Texas history and a very interesting man. Even if you don't stay at the park, it's a good day trip to take on it's own.
A sculpture outside of Stephen F. Austin museum depicting the flight out of town in advance of Mexican troops. The fleeing Texans burned the town of San Felipe de Austin in order to deny the invading troops anything to make their stay comfortable. Interesting fact: The sculpture initially didn't include the dog I was posing with. It was determined that a blind person trying to access the museum with a cane could possibly hit the woman with the lantern, so the dog was added to block that part of the sculpture!
One big plus from our Houston trip was finding the last couple of skeins of yarn in the right dye lot for Barbara to finish her crocheting project. I was getting pretty tired of hitting every Walmart at every stop we made to find the right dye lot!
A day trip to Galveston got us our first view of the Gulf of Mexico, and even though it wasn't a great day weather-wise, whetted our appetite for our next destination – Port Aransas – a barrier island between Corpus Christi and the Gulf.
We didn't have time to see NASA's space center this trip, but we'll be back another time.
After a quick dash to Texas, it was time to spend some quality time with friends and former co-workers of mine from many years ago at Xerox; people we hadn't seen since 1996 during the Atlanta Olympics.
I used to work FOR Rhonda Lea. I used to work WITH Allen Lea. Rhonda was usually working hard to keep Allen and I from committing professional suicide with our sometimes quirky sense of humor – always funny (to us), but not always understood by others. Fortunately we both survived and lasted many years at Xerox. But we hadn't seen each other for many, many years. So when in Texas, it was a natural thing to head to the northern suburb of Dallas known as Frisco, TX. We don't usually pay as much per night ($60) as we did for this campground, but there is a dearth of available campgrounds in decent places north of Dallas, and as it was also situated on Lake Lewisville we felt the three days there were worth it.
The nice thing we discovered about Texas is that it is very flat, therefore there is little trouble finding level sites upon which to park the motor home. Our levelers have always done a great job of leveling our 36LA, but the more it needs to level, the harder it is to get it just right so that the shower door doesn't slide open while in use, or that the half bath door doesn't fly open when using it. An added benefit is that the lower step is always very low, making it easier for us and our guests to get on up into our home.
The campground we stayed at was Hidden Cove Park and Marina. It's quiet, with very little light spillage due to it's remote location. But it's also close enough to Frisco to get food (I can recommend the Nolan Ryan beef at Kroger) and meals if you want to. Warning signs for this park included being on the lookout for coyotes and bobcats. Didn't see or hear either, which was fine by me. The sites, as you can see by the attached picture, are fairly large; either pie shaped to the back or to the front due to the curves of the roads onsite. Our back-in site was just long enough to tuck our tow dolly underneath the back of the 36LA and still have room to park the Mini across the front of the coach.
Texas features many strange and quirky places; none more strange than the Toxic Waste Dump Farm, featuring the tag line: “Beef To Die For”. OK, so it's not a real cattle farm (or any farm for that matter), nor does it contain any toxic waste on the property. It DOES contain a very disgruntled owner whose next door property is being developed as a pretty posh neighborhood of brand new and expensive homes. Doesn't sound like a big problem, unless you're the guy next door who didn't want the property developed but didn't want to buy it on his own, either. So in his own fashion, he's finding a way to protest development on his terms. Not sure how effective it will be, but I give him high marks for creativity!
After a little sightseeing in historic downtown Denton, TX, and a couple of really good meals where some tall tales were swapped, we headed to our next destination; Stephen F. Austin State Park just west of Houston in San Felipe, but not before we encountered our next Texas institution: Buc-ees.
If you have never experienced Buc-ees before, well – it's hard to describe. The first thing you notice is the unbelievable number of gas pumps. Nearly 100 at the Melissa location, and that's not even the largest Buc-ees in the state! The interesting thing about Buc-ees is that tractor trailers are NOT allowed in any Buc-ees; it is NOT a truck stop. But it can accommodate our 37 ft RV just fine. Diesel is available for pickups and RV's as well, but NO 18-wheelers! But that's only part of the Buc-ees experience. Spotless restrooms (a miracle given the huge number of customers who stop by). A bakery, a sandwich counter featuring real Texas brisket, homemade candy and fudge, an incalculable number of flavors of jerky, and enough souvenirs to make any traveler happy. Think of your average CVS or Walgreens store, quintuple it's size, and stuff it with all of the above. It is a sight to behold, and their gas prices are the lowest around.
Full of gas, we point our RV south towards the port city of Houston.
Unencumbered with family issues and the occasional drama, it's time to head out on our first big official travel. Time to head to Texas for the month of January, New Mexico for the month of February, and Arizona for the month of March. The early part of the trip has some scheduled stops to visit friends, but beginning the second week we're back to winging it. No reservations; no plans. Just travel and take in the sights.
But first we have to get to Texas; a great state with lots to see and do, and one where Barbara and I have limited past experience. Back in the 1950's, Cunard Cruise Lines had an ad campaign with the tag line “Getting there is half the fun”! This post will show you the “other” side of RV-ing; the part that most people won't tell you about.
We'd already heard about the legendary poor condition of I-10 going through the southerly route to Texas, and fortunately our initial travel to Dallas means we get to enjoy I-20 across Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi before we get to Texas. They'll be no sightseeing on this initial leg of our journey, as we have reservations in the Lake Lewisville area north of Dallas for three nights to visit with Rhonda and Allen Lea, former co-workers of mine during my time with Xerox.
In keeping with the 330 rule of leisurely Rv-ing, we try to look ahead to about a 5-6 hour drive each of the three days it will take us to get to Dallas. This will mean we drive about 330 miles per day, and try to arrive by 3:30 in the afternoon at our campsite for the evening.
The one observation I'll have about this dash to Dallas is the elevation. We've been used to hills and mountains living in North Georgia for the past 28 years, and there are a LOT of elevation changes to be had in Georgia.
Not so on this trip. It's flat. Really, really flat. Good for gas mileage, but nothing much for the scenic side of the trip.
Since this is a speed run to Dallas, we're not interested in any amenities in our campgrounds, so price becomes more important. Enter Passport America. We joined them for their 50% off campground fees that take the program; very important for the one or two night stays we'll need when heading from one place to another. Generally, they are older parks, limited in creature comforts. Usually just a pad and hookups for the RV, but a cheap way to get from Point A to Point B for under $20 per night. They also tend to have more pull-thru sites available for folks like us who are just passing through; enabling us to keep the tow dolly and Mini hooked up to save us time and effort.
Leaving our comfy spot in Cleveland, GA at Leisure Acres RV Campground (and leaving our duck friends to fend for themselves), we travel at a sedate 62 MPH on cruise control west through Georgia and Alabama, stopping at Benchmark RV Park in Meridian MS just over the border from Alabama. It consists of basically a couple of loop roads in order to facilitate the large number of pull-thru sites they offer. Cement pads separated with narrow grass that holds the hookups. The ONLY amenity is a “dog park”, which is a chain link fence where dogs can leave their droppings when owners refuse to pick them up, and a propane filling station. Power is sufficient for our RV using 50 AMP service, but there is a strict NO SPACE HEATERS warning in the office, leaving me to believe that the grid is a bit taxed due to age. But it's a short drive off of I-20, so at $20 for the night, it will do.
Since we have a shorter than usual trek the next day, we leave around 10:00 AM in a heavy rain. I'm glad that our destination is less than 300 miles away, because we have to drop down to between 50-55 MPH due to the varying nature of the rain, alternating between a heavy mist and a heavy downpour. Crossing the Mississippi River is always a thrill. The “Big Muddy” was not as wide as it would be closer to New Orleans, but it is still impressive, especially covered in a morning mist. We arrive at our next overnight stop in West Monroe, Louisiana. The rate is even better at $17 for the night, and that's a good thing. It's a park loaded with full-time residents; normally not the worst thing, but unfortunately full-time residents tend to ignore the rules that are written for the rest of us. Therefore, our site bordered a number of spots where people had more than one vehicle parked, making it difficult to maneuver our way out of the spot in the morning. We also heard constantly barking dogs all night long (another rule violation) in at least 2 sites. Frankly, we were happy to depart for Texas then next morning.
The interesting thing about Texas and I-20 is the condition of the interstate. Very, very good. It's in stark contrast with the local roads we encountered in and around the Frisco, TX area north of Dallas where we stayed for 3 days. Very, very poor.
Fortunately, the park we stayed in, as well as the company we enjoyed with good friends, made up for all the poor local roads.
We'll be spending 3 nights in Hidden Cove Marina and RV Park on Lake Lewisville. Beautiful concrete padded site on a spacious level lot within sight of the lake. A bit pricey at $60 a night, but in better weather worth the price when you can enjoy more of the park and it's amenities. But there's not a lot of RV parks in that area, so choices are limited.
Our dash to Texas completed, it's time to enjoy some Texas food and friends. But that's for another post. Stay tuned!
We're Dave and Barbara Richard, and we're living the ultimate retirement experience - traveling the U.S. and Canada in style in a Tiffin Open Road 36LA Class A motor home, playing golf and stopping at every weird and wacky roadside attraction we can find.