Friday, December 30, 2011


It's that time of year again, when people make New Year's resolutions. Mine are a litany of repeaters: Lose weight, eat more vegies, exercise daily, don't say negative things about other people especially if it would constitute gossip, etc, etc. Same old same old.

In Boots N All, , there was an article today about Quarterlies, resolutions/goals made on a quarterly and therefore more accountable basis. I'll pass on that idea, not because it's a bad idea, it isn't, but because I have a book.

In 2009, my company made deals to all us "older" workers that was a clear disincentive to keep working for Honeywell. If we retired by September 1, the company would subsidize our health insurance until we qualified for Medicare. Otherwise, we would lose that benefit. I still had 13 months before I reached the golden 80 points, figured on time at the company combined with my age. I had planned to retire then. After checking a few websites for single person health insurance, I called Honeywell and retired that second.

Of course the Los Alamos National Labs still had the job open for me and I continued to work for another 18 months at the same job with a different contractor. Fortunately that contractor provided NO benefits, they just paid a gob of money. I didn't need benefits, I had health insurance from Honeywell, so I socked away a tidy sum and when the job finally ended, it was time to start traveling full time.

When Honeywell made that announcement, I got a bit worried and wondered how on earth I might survive financially with a mortgage, a son in high school, and their dinky little pension. So I began to write in a blank book with the words "Listen To Your Heart, Follow Your Dreams" on the cover. Normally I don't go for hokey girly stuff like that, but somebody had given it to me, and it seemed perfect for what I was about to do.

I listed on the front pages, all the long term goals I ever had. World travel, downsize to practically nothing, find a career I could 'do' on the road, learn Spanish (finally), write a novel/book, a reading list, etc.

Then I listed very specific goal, little steps to get to the bigger ones. I needed to sell my house and downsize into a condo. With the equity in the house and some savings I would be able to pay off the condo. That goal took a lot of time and work, mostly because the condo (very cheap) came on the market before I could sell the house, and then the house didn't sell for almost a year. Yikes! But once it was over, I was debt free, and I had an asset that could be traded in a house swap or rented for additional income.

I went on a 'starter' trip to Mexico, to the safest place you can imagine, San Miguel de Allende. It was so Americanized I could have gotten away with speaking no Spanish at all, but I happened upon a romantic Mexican architect and quickly got swept into the same mode Hector and I used when I was 18, he spoke English to me, and I spoke Spanish back. Except Spanish is so much more romantic, and thanks to Hector forty years ago, I didn't have to learn any new words in that sphere!

The book allowed me to make the long term goals a reality by letting me plan, think things through, and decide directions. Writing it all down kept goals on track. It's far too easy to forget the plan, or even the rare brilliant thought, when months have gone by.

The book is now two years old and about 3/4 full. So far I've accomplished many of those early set-out goals, and added more as time has passed.

As 2011 draws to an end, I need to update the latest accomplishments; the Eastern Trip completed, tickets purchased for 6 months of actually living in a foreign country (Mexico again), good health reports from the doctor, a renter lined up for the entire year, and weight loss as I'm still too fat. I know in Mexico, even with all that walking, the incredibly wonderful Mexican ice cream is going to sabotage any goal of weight loss. Sigh. Knowing that probably won't stop me from eating plenty of it!!

Happy New Year to all the readers of this blog. The feedback I occasionally get is a big motivator to keep writing and improving. My heartfelt (too girly?) thanks to all of you!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Last few days of the Eastern Trip!!

After Louisianna, I whizzed through the eastern part of Texas to Austin to visit an old friend. Our relationship was that of acquaintances who go back a very long distance. After high school, I lived with Becky, and after I moved out, Marcy moved in. Becky's little house, behind the pharmacy where she worked was the hang-out for all our high school friends who still lived at home while attending CU in Boulder. John, now Marcy's husband, was one of those hang-out buddies. He was the acknowledged genius of our school, and went on to invent a very cool hearing aid, as well as many electronic devices having to do with audio. He even has an Oscar for tech work in the movies. Needless to say, he's done well, and they have a home in Colorado, and a condo in Austin.

John was gone so I visited Marcy by myself. We used her I-phone to call Becky and do "face time". It was great for the three of us to hang out like we did 40 years ago. And Becky hadn't seen Marcy's condo so we gave her a visual tour, she gave us a tour of her dogs wrestling and her hubby rummaging in the closet.  We went for a short dog-walk down 6th street where there was at least one bar with a live band on every block. And good bands too! The next day we took a bus tour of Austin and ate lunch at the world's largest Whole Foods. In fact, though it's been remodeled and enlarged, I do believe it is the first Whole Foods too. What an experience. It's somewhere between a health food joint, a food court, and a grocery.

Austin was just lovely, breezy, warming up, full of walking trails and a river that is damed up into several lakes where people were out boating, running along the paths, where bats live under the bridge, and there are lots of dogs on leashes. I was sorry I'd only scheduled one day to hang out with Marcy. We had a great time together, and there is so much more to see. I would have loved to be there over a weekend and really experience the Austin night life.

On to Bandera where my aunt and uncle, Judy and Bob, have parked their RV for the winter. It claims to be the cowboy capital of Texas, if such a place might be said to exist. A cute little town with charming shops and a good Mexican restaurant where I got the first enchilada I'd had in months. Soul Food. It made my belly's heart pitter with happiness.....

RV park near Bandera, TX
I spent two days with my relatives. We drove around the area, it really is gorgeous countryside. A limestone uplift, there are ridges full of fossils, valleys, steep hills, tight curves, and small towns where the root business is apparently ranching as there is no top soil for farming. Quite a number of second home mansions dot the hilltops, but in the little towns people live in modest frame homes on quiet streets. Towns where churches seem more numerous than businesses. There are feral wild pigs that uproot gardens, dig in ponds, and terrorize the population. Years ago an entrepreneur let some African Black Antelope lose, and now the countryside is awash in those. The males are black with interesting horns that look somewhat like small moose antlers, the females are buff colored with smaller racks. Larger ranches have fenced in the beasties and they let city slickers come out and shoot them for the trophy heads (and meat too, I hope!) A few ranches also raise buffalo, kept inside with electrified fences. A concept that reminds me of Jurassic Park. I think the buffalo stay there because there's not much to eat anywhere else.

Poor Texas. It has suffered such a terrible drought. It was so dry most of the grass had crumbled and blown away. Usually they get 14 -18 inches of rain per year, and last year, only one inch fell. Much of the state has burned up. What ought to have been the brown and gold landscape of winter was instead dusty gray.

A collection of Christmas bears.
On Friday night we drove to a nearby town to a cowboy jam session. There were about 20 players and 50 audience members. It was in the bottom floor of the Masonic hall, a large rectangular room with a bathroom and "kitchen" along the back wall and metal support poles down the center. They'd set up tables with white paper covers and Christmas decor, and more tables along the edge of the room for the potluck. We got there a bit late and there wasn't much left to eat except turkey and some carrots with dip. However, the dessert table was still overflowing. My aunt Judy has a reputation for making pies and her coconut cream pie was obscured momentarily by bodies crowded round it, then vanished entirely.

The jam session was a riotous and fun affair. Most in the audience were over 50, some in their eighties, including a couple who also played. The musicians were all good, except for one poor man who has apparently been trying to play the fiddle for the last five years and is almost as good as when he started. He squeaked and squawked his way through Little Town of Bethlehem. The only way I knew which song he was playing is that the other guys played the actual notes and kept the rhythm. But, God bless him, he was up there trying and everybody clapped when he was done. (Was the cheering from those grateful he'd stopped?)  Some of the tunes were traditional Christmas carols, but most of them was just good ol' Country/Western songs with lyrics like this:

But my tears have washed I Love You
From the Blackboard of My Heart
It's too late to clean the slate
And make another start
I'm satisfied the way things are
Although we're far a-part
My tears have washed I Love You from
The Blackboard of My Heart.

On Saturday I drove forever. You know, Texas is a big state. People know that, but you don't really know it till you've driven the breadth of it. All in all, I drove for two whole days to get across. Spent Saturday night with my cousin Bryon and his wife LuAnne in Farwell, TX. We had a great time catching up since we've not seen each other much in the last thirty years.

Then, another five hour drive across New Mexico to arrive home mid afternoon on Sunday. Whew.

Aunt Judy and Sachs.
It sure was nice to get into countryside I recognized and didn't need a GPS or a map to traverse. I sure know how Dorothy felt after visiting OZ. There's just nothing like home.

This is the last entry for the Eastern Trip. Over 4,000 miles in two months.....

Stay tuned for a new series of Mexican blogs that should start showing up mid January. Nos vemos!

Los Alamos, New Mexico. So beautiful in early winter.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Red Neck Riviera

Beach Wildlife
The Gulf Coast. I dropped down off I-10 at exit 50, on the advice of two ladies at the Mississippi Visitor's center. The first little town was Ocean Springs. Its downtown area is a street full of up-scale craft stores and art galleries, restaurants, and a chicken that wanders in and out of the stores.

The ocean is right there, with soft sugar beaches and at least on Monday, no wind or clouds.

Further down the road is Biloxi. Some large casino-hotels block the view of the ocean, but there is also an enormous public beach. At the fishing pier, a sign commemorates the "wade-ins" that were part of the sometimes violent Equal Rights protests of the 50s and 60s. It was an all-white beach (not just talking sand here.....) and it took 10 years for black people to legally go there. There are signs of the past all over the south, plaques talking about the Civil War, the home of Jefferson Davis is in Biloxi and streets named for him. At the same time there's a Martin Luther King Blvd and the same signage on the struggle for equality.

The reality of the south that I experienced is a comfortable existence between many peoples, and plenty of indication that black and white isn't much of an issue any more. I saw bi-racial couples, people of several ethnicities eating at the same tables, and public access is granted to everyone. I'm sure racism still exists. In North Carolina, my friend pointed out a restaurant where they wouldn't serve me if I weren't the right color, presumably white. But other than that, and a few Confederate flags and bumper stickers on big trucks, I didn't see much evidence of overt racism. And in fact, black people struck up conversations with me, and vice versa, with no indication of nervousness or constraint.

Empty beachfront property.
Along that coast, east of New Orleans, an entire city appears to be missing. From Biloxi all the way to New Orleans, the landscape a hundred yards off the coastal road is full of old oak trees but few buildings. Lots of foundations and for-sale signs, but not many homes or businesses. Katrina was six years ago and the rebuilding has been slow to non-existent.

A fellow who was fishing on the pier told me the insurance companies didn't pay people for the loss of their homes because they didn't have flood insurance, and it was water that destroyed the homes. That whole strip along the beach had once been beautiful houses. Everything was wiped out when the 10 foot tall storm surge came up. The homes that have been rebuilt are now up on columns with parking and storage in the open space beneath. Some look like Antebellum mansions, only up one level with large impressive staircases leading to the first floor landing. Looks great from the front but rather odd from the sides.

I spent some time along the Mississippi beaches, got my pants soaked, and was almost pulled out to sea a couple of times by large strong waves. Would have killed my camera! A front was moving in and by nightfall the rain was so fierce the windshield wipers couldn't keep up. I pulled into a Hampton Inn. December is their desperately low season so I got a beautiful suite for a nice discount. It was lovely to have a bathtub to rinse out the salty and sandy pants, enjoy a leisurely evening and watch TV for the first time in a while.

Bottle tree in Ocean Springs, Miss.
Popping back up to I-10 and going into the next state, I began to notice there are five things of major interest to people in Louisiana, based entirely on signs and billboards:

1. Food. Crawfish, shrimp, catfish, gator, frog legs, BBQ, deep fried turkey, hush puppies, boudin and cracklins. Restaurants everywhere claim to be the most Cajun, the best southern cooking, just like gramma's......

2. Fishing and hunting; gun stores, bow ranges, classes for concealed-carry of hand guns, boats, RVs, and signs pointing out access to lakes and the ocean.

3.  Gambling. Casinos appear to be everywhere, even the Love's Travel Center loves to have you come gamble in their little slots parlor.

4. Sex: Adult Superstores (Batteries Not Included), Titty bars, and Gentleman's Clubs are to the right or left at every other exit!!

5. And if life is miserable, unfulfilled, or loaded with guilt (see above), there were plenty signs pointing the hell-bound soul to Jesus.

Public art in Ocean Springs.

Sure Thang.....another place to come and stay longer, hang out on those incredible beaches, and eat more crawfish etouffee.

Some big waves when the front moved in.

A dead jellyfish washed up on shore.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


Savannah is another city so steeped in history that one cannot possibly explore it in a week or a month. Its beginnings harken to the earliest settlers in the Americas, when Gen. James Oglethorpe got the local people, the Yamacraws, to give him the land where Savannah now sits. Little did they know.....

It was the site of skirmishes during every war, and has survived invasions, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Like Charleston, there are many brick buildings held together with earthquake bolts. The architecture of the buildings is very similar, it's the same climate. But the layout of the city is unique and from a walker's point of view, fabulous.

A square decked out for Christmas.
A grid system has been modified to include multiple small squares. Oglethorpe was familiar with many military layouts for forts and originally intended the squares to be open spaces for the colonists to perform military exercises. But now they are the most charming part of the most charming Southern City.

Driving in the streets, each square is treated as a traffic circle, keeping traffic slow. Walkers can easily make it across the street into each square and then across on varying types of walkways, as each one is unique. Of course, this time of year, the squares are decorated for Christmas and it's kind of funny to see palm trees decked out in red bows and lights. But I suppose if that's how Christmas is done here, it seems perfectly normal to everyone.

River Street is full of candy stores where
 they make pralines & fudge before your very nose!
Bay street must be on the original cliff the city was built upon. River street is down steep cobblestone driveways and is the hub for entertainment and restaurants, plus some very old hotels that overlook the river. On this Saturday afternoon, there would be a street parade at 5:30 and all afternoon there was a craft fair along the river walk. The local dance and theater schools provided entertainment to large crowds.

The river constitutes a major shipping port. I was chatting with some "Occupiers" when an extremely loud horn blew from the river. Sliding slowly by, on the other side of three story buildings was the largest ship I've ever seen, albeit my experience is quite limited, that took a full ten minutes to pass by.

A container ship passing on the river.
Many tours are available including several ghost tours and neighborhood tours based on the novel In the Garden of Good and Evil. Just outside Savannah, maybe two or three miles, the countryside opens up to reveal small farms and woodlands. It's a relatively small city to have so much importance.

A city that needs further exploration.....another southern trip seems to be in order, maybe in a year or two.

The river street, seen from Bay
Street. Note the Xs, those
are earthquake bolts holding the
building together.

One of many duplexes that face the squares.
Middle aged "hotties" who entertained at the craft fair.
Typical residential street in the historic area.
Famous Savannah songwriter, Johnny Mercer

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Hunting Island State Park, SC

Hunting Island State Park, SC
There are many buffer islands in South Carolina, that keep the ocean from getting to the mainland. The sea takes beach from one and delivers it to one further south. It's been a pattern for a long time till people came along and started putting in levees and groins and messed up the system. Now some islands are washing away as easily as Elmer's glue is washed from your hair.
Poor Hunting Island is one of those unfortunates, so I am glad I've gotten to spend some time there while I could. The beach is littered with the bones of dead palm and pine trees, bleached skeletons that haven't quite been taken out to sea yet. The light house is in its third location and the ocean is creeping up on it fast. It's a relic from a long ago past, but once the ocean reaches it, I don't know if people will care enough to save it by moving it once again. The first one was 1/4 mile from the ocean but during a hurricane in the 1800s it was obliterated and the remains are over a mile out to sea. The second one was near the northern part of the island, was sectional just so it could be moved if needed, and sure enough, it had to be moved within a few years of it's creation. Now it's been in the current location for a hundred years, but back then it was almost in the middle of the island, now it's on the edge.

I stayed two nights at Hunting Island, I enjoyed it so much. The nights were quite cool but the days warmed up. I've never spent much time at the ocean so didn't really grasp what was so special, especially if one isn't into sunbathing or surfing, both are activities that would be chilly this time of year. The first night the sun set with a few thin clouds in the west that cast a raspberry color over everything. The ocean itself became silver blue....well, I'll let the pictures speak the thousand words.

Dolphins hunting in the shallow waters at low tide
near the Fripp Island bridge.

On the north side, the island is more an island in a sea of marsh grass, not ocean, but it's clearly an island. Open sections of mixed fresh and sea water snake through the grass, changing course over the flat expanses. To the south, a bridge leads to a gated town of about a thousand large homes, complete with shopping center and restaurants. It's called Fripp Island. One of the park maintenance men told me that if I were to go over to the gate house, I'd be told to "turn around and get the Fripp outa there!".

On the last morning, out shooting some of the prettier sights in the early morning sun, a old fisherman told me I ought to go over to that bridge and watch the dolphins hunting in the low tide. So I packed up my little camp and headed over. Sure enough, there was a pod of about eight bottle-nose dolphins eating breakfast in the shallows under that bridge, competing with about 20 pelicans that dropped like bombs out of the sky and flew away with fish.

Looking up inside the light house.

Marsh grass and Mansions
Light house & Museum

Sea foam and Silver Sea

Tiny birds that skittered about in a flock.

Just had to snap this one!!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Montpelier and Monticello

Montpelier, Madison's Home
Nine US Presidents were born in ol’ Virginnie. So it seemed fitting that if I were to visit Mount Vernon, I ought to go west to see Montpelier and Monticello too, after all they are only thirty miles apart.

Back in colonial times, thirty miles was a long day’s travel, so I doubt Madison and Jefferson regularly ran into each other on the street.

Jefferson by far had the nicest home, but not the best view. Madison had a view of the Blue Ridge Mountains that is simply spectacular, and hasn’t changed a bit since he was alive.

Montpelier was quite interesting from several standpoints. It was a duplex. James Madison’s parents were still alive when he added on to accommodate his new family, creating the double residency. His mother lived into her nineties. She had her own staff, kitchen, and schedule for ‘dinner’. Dolly Madison was quite the hostess and much more modern. Her family ate breakfast and had dinner a couple hours later than her mother-in-law. It seemed they all got along well, and the elder Mrs. Madison was well respected and liked by all who visited.

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains

There are some formal gardens laid out by a French couple, hired by Madison. While they worked there, several of the slaves learned to speak French. The gardens are quite nice and symmetrical, with matching lion sculptures and even hedges all round. To the east a hill rises. It was then, and is still, a forest, though quite a different one than existed two hundred years ago. Apparently there are almost no hickory trees in the older forests, they were wiped out by a disease, and the forest is thicker since there haven’t been as many fires allowed to sweep through in the last century. Today most of Madison’s land is devoted to breeding horses for racing. The house overlooks a racetrack.

Montpelier's Formal Garden
Under the house there were rooms for storage and off to the side (also underground) were the kitchens, a design that was intended to reduce the possibility of fire.  It must have worked!

It’s not clear how much influence Jefferson had on Madison’s remodeling of Montpelier. They have many features in common. The underground kitchen is one element. Both have beautiful large outdoor spaces for entertaining and exquisite views. The road up to Monticello is circular as it sits on an actual hilltop, whereas Montpelier sits up on the side of a hill with a long dramatic road leading up to it.  

Both Presidents are buried on their respective holdings along with their families. A slave cemetery is near the President’s grave at Montpelier. While no headstones exist, the wooden caskets caved in and there are depressions quite visible under the plant-cover.

The Nickel's view of Monticello
Both Presidents died bankrupt or nearly so. Their respective estates were sold. In the case of Monticello, the new owners kept it in as pristine condition as possible. However, Montpelier ended up in the hands of the DuPont family and was expanded threefold. When it was returned to the public, the restoration back to the original house cost many millions of dollars. At the visitor’s center, a couple of the DuPont rooms have been reassembled with original furnishings and they are impressive. 

While both men had extensive libraries, only Jefferson’s original books are still in place. Monticello is filled with many of Jefferson’s furnishings, scientific instruments, his interesting bed in a see-through nook (where he also died), and many of the collections he put together of native crafts, maps, and artifacts. There is a dumb-waiter hidden in the side of the fireplace designed specifically to bring up wine bottles from the wine cellar below. Double doors open and close together thanks to a system of chains hidden under the floor. It works so well, the chains have never had to be repaired or replaced. There’s also an impressive clock that runs by means of weights. One weight moves down to mark the days of the week that are printed on the wall. However, there wasn’t enough room on the wall of the entry hall, so there’s a hole in the floor for the weight to pass through. Saturday is in the basement.  

Both homes are impressive, but Monticello is better known and more frequently visited for good reason. It is a masterpiece of colonial architecture, full of innovations, the product of a true multifaceted genius.  While Montpelier is subdued and was the perfect environment for an introverted intellectual like Madison.  The country was lucky to have them both at a time when critical, creative, and rational thinking was needed the most.

James and Dolly Madison

Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson's experimental gardens where he liked to try
new plants to see how they might fare in
Virginia's climate. Now used to keep old varieties
of plants producing seeds for the future.

One of four "necessaries" in the underground work areas
of Monticello. All were connected to a 'tube' that
emptied out onto the hillside. 

Inside one of the below ground kitchens.
Taken at Monticello but Montpelier's kitchens
were almost the same.

Some of the nice countryside near
Montpelier. The area around Monticello is
fairly built up as the University of Virginia
is in the town below, Jefferson was most proud
of his role in starting that University.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Santee State Park, SC

Between the rains

On the edge of Lake Marion, an enormous reservoir created in the 1930s, sits Santee State Park. The town of Santee is just off the interstate that crosses the lake. After Thanksgiving, the park and many motels in town go into hibernation mode. It’s a wonderful time to visit. Bring your own boat though as the rental places are shut down during the week.

16' deep sinkhole, right next to the road.
It was great fun to hike through woods filled with limestone sinkholes and ponder what might happen if one gave way underfoot. Most of them are only six feet deep, but what an elevator ride that would be! Signs warned of alligator behavior and possible presence, and threatened punishment for feeding them but there wasn't a gator in sight. I went down a trail leading to a sinkhole pond. Except for distant droning of the freeway, it was very quiet, punctuated by woodpecker pounding. So, where DO gators spend the coldest parts of the winter? Do they burrow and hibernate like turtles? 

Guest cabins on stilts

By RV park standards, it’s a nice park, not great. Each site has water and electricity, but no sewer hookups. The lake is the attraction, not swimming pools and tennis courts. I saw two golf courses, one on each side of the freeway, but there might be more. It’s very peaceful. The woods are filled with squirrels and many bird species including woodpeckers.  Two campgrounds contain over 170 sites, and the maintenance man told me all of them were filled until Sunday night. People made the most of the Thanksgiving weekend. The smaller campground is called Cypress overlook, and the tall sticks jutting up out of the water must be cypress, though the view isn’t impressive this time of year.

Sinkhole pond, not a gator in sight!

The forest is an old growth long needle pine forest, kept clear of hardwood sprouts by regular fires. A sign told about the burn program, and how important that type of forest is for many animal and bird species. Not far into the hike the forest was no longer pine, but a variety of tall slim hardwoods obviously racing for some canopy room. 

Trees here seem very tall. I parked the van, which is about 6 feet, and walked down the road to judge the relative height. Many of those trees are well over 100 feet tall. The geek in me was having a field day.