Friday, April 28, 2017

#53 - Friday, 28 April 2017 - Alpine, Texas

ALPINE, TEXAS

SCENE FROM ALPINE … The old cowboy at the gas station counter asks for a tin of smokeless tobacco. He has that sixty year old body and 100 year old skin look of a man who doesn’t spend much time indoors on the couch. He was about 6’4”, but probably didn’t weigh more than 175 and he seemed twisted and bow-legged. His wavy salt & pepper hair was windblown below the white Laredo cowboy hat. Wrangler jeans, big belt buckle. Weathered cowboy boots, faded bandanna. I walked up with my tacos and drink and noticed the young man serving him. It was a striking contrast. The chaw-dipping, tall drink of ranch water was handed his can of Skoal by a pretty boy with pink finger nail polish. The boy wore impossibly long false eyelashes and spoke with a flamboyant swish quite dissimilar to the cowboy’s Far West Texas drawl. I looked around the store and saw a half-dozen other cowboys in white wide-brimmed hats, belt buckles and boots, but no other glamorous gender-fluid clerks. But the young girl who said hi to the effeminate clerk looked like she was from Manhattan. Welcome to Alpine.

Alpine sits at about 4500 feet and is surrounded by 6000 foot plus peaks of desert scrub and rock. It is a far west Texas town of 7000 people and the county seat of Brewster, which also includes Big Bend National Park 100 miles south. It is definitely cowboy country, but the town is full of food trucks, art galleries, book stores, coffee shops, artsy craft shops, and other trendy establishments. The grocery store I visited yesterday had a huge selection of craft and imported beers and many of my fellow customers looked like they’d just stepped out of a jamband festival or alternative performance art cafe instead of a cattle ranch. Two businesses in town I want to visit are Big Bend Brewing Company and Transpecos Guitars.

I had always thought I might spend a night in the Alpine area and it was most likely occur between Big Bend National Park and Guadalupe Mountain and Carlsbad Caverns National Parks north of here. But I never planned on spending a week here with air conditioning and cable TV. Yesterday afternoon I arrived at Lost Alaskan RV Park at the north edge of town and booked a week anyway. My primary stressor during my 2017 travel has been my work as Editor of the Journal of the British Tarantula Society. The next issue needs to be printed like yesterday. I’ve plugged away at it as I could at various locations, but the only way I can fulfill my commitment is to hunker down and sequester myself and get the job done. So Guadalupe and Carlsbad may have to wait until some time after my scorpion chasing in southern Arizona beginning on May 6. I confess that after a week without electricity in Big Bend National Park, where the thermometer hit 106ºF and days get warmer every hour until dark, and then see temps in the 90s two hours after dark and I slept in my own sweat each night, it isn’t bad to have full hookup, wifi and cable TV. It’s just want I need to finish editing and designing the new Journal, and a week’s stay in civilization affords me the ability to receive mail and packages, restock provisions, do some maintenance, and get my truck’s oil changed.

I thought seclusion in civilization (how’s that for an oxymoron?) would enable me to set aside my cameras and not chase creepy crawlies and the occasional bird or other charismatic megafauna, but fifteen minutes before I reached town I caught a six-foot red racer. I had taken the park road west across Big Bend and then took 118 north to Alpine. Ten miles south of town the big western coachwhip (a large, fast, diurnal snake that is red to pink here and called the red racer) was coiled in the southbound side of the two-laneroad. It was midday and about 82ºF. I pulled over as soon as I could and on the walk back a few hundred yards told myself how foolish I was for walking back for a piece of hose or rubber. Road cruising is an effective dusk or nighttime snake hunting method, but midday doesn’t normally yield many snakes because daytime active species like this red racer move quickly across. If it was a snake I decided it must be dead. As I approached I saw no blood or injury. That is a miracle as most people are wastes of carbon and will veer at a snake and intentionally reduce it to roadkill. The next miracle was that when I picked it up I didn’t get covered in snake shit and my own blood. Coachwhips are feisty and usually bite repeatedly and evacuate their bowels all over you at the same time. This one just hissed and made a few closed-mouth bluff strikes. The bigger miracle was that I picked it up at all. These are are faster snakes and this six and a half-footer could speed slither away pretty quickly. Then again, it wasn’t my first rodeo and I would have grabbed it even if it was a biter. Photos taken, snake released, I had to resign myself that I wasn’t snake hunting for the next week.

Big Bend National Park is amazing and vast. I will return soon and probably will overwinter there. The April heat was already sweltering and the warmth was stifling at night, but the terrain and wildlife are all that I care about. The night before I had found a very uncommon Mojave rattlesnake and couldn’t have been happier. It was in Boquillas Canyon where I had spent the day crossing into México, and the previous night black-lighting for scorpions. I had returned to release a tarantula and scorpion that I had found the night before after my flash batteries had died. [BTW, I guess this is a good spot to announce once again, that I am not posting pix in the blog because I do so via Instagram and Snapchat. If you don’t choose to use you are shit out of luck and I am not bothered. But, for those of you savvy readers who are following my images, I posted 14 new Insta pix last night and they include rattlesnake, coachwhip, scorpions, tarantula, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, jackrabbit [American Desert Hare] and more].

But let me tell you the tale of my border crossing. The village of Boquillas del Carmen sits on the Rio Grande in Boquillas Canyon. Hiking the canyon trails leads you to many hop, skip and jumps into another country. But there is one legal port of entry and it is pedestrian only. Closed for 13 years after 9/11, the 250 villagers are again earning their livings exclusively by serving the Big Bend National Park visitors who choose to visit their home. A passport is all that’s required. That, and the $5 round trip fare for the fifteen second flat bottom row boat trip to México. After showing the park ranger your passport and listening to rules regarding conduct and what you cannot return with, you walk down a little path to the river and your boatman paddles you into México. You then have the option of a very hot and dusty 3/4 mile walk to the village down a road of deep sand, with or without a “guide”, or you can opt for a truck, horse or donkey ride into town with someone who will show you around the small village. For $8 I rented a horse. My guide led it by the reins as it was not pleased with the large gringo cowboy on its back. As we approached town I tried my best steering it with my heels, but I was wearing sandals not boots. The horse was not amused with my faux cowboy skills. I guess that is one photo that I will share here. Miguel, el caballero. 






My guide tied off the horse beneath a wisp of a desert willow sapling that provided pretty much no shade (see left side of above image) and led me into the village and to the immigration office. I was surprised the town had such bureaucracy, but it took both sides of the border to work out the post-9/11 reopening of the crossing three years ago. A pretty Latina in a white and blue uniform scanned my passport and filled out the necessary document. I would have to return again upon departure. My amigo (I don't recall his unique name) led me to a restaurant where I enjoyed a plate of tacos and a couple of Carta Blanca beers. During the ride/walk into town I had impressed him with my Spanish and he had impressed me with his English. Speaking English allowed him the work of dealing directly with the tourists and it was why he learned. He told me that when tourism ended he was forced to leave his family in Boquillas and make his way into the U.S. and then east to Alabama where he worked as a house painter. I told him that I chased scorpions, spiders and snakes, and he told me he made special wire scorpions for souvenirs. Him and everyone else in the village. It was remarkable how every house displayed exactly the same small variety of handmade souvenirs. Everyone had wire scorpions and other animals. But after I finished my lunch he led me to his house, which was located at the edge of the village next to the solar farm. The only electricity they have is solar-powered and the government had built a nice solar farm and installed meters on their homes. The people of Boquillas were proud of their green energy and happy about American tourists like me. I asked what they had the most difficulty getting and they said gasoline. You wouldn't think they'd use much, but there were about a dozen old trucks in the town. The nearest town is 160 miles over bad road. The village had a little health clinic and a shiny new ambulance, but the drive to the town's hospital takes four hours. Once a week trucks come selling meats, produce, dairy products and other essentials. Prior to 9/11 they could shop at the National Park camp store. Now the crossing is mostly one way. Very few people can visit the American side. I bought a couple of the wire creatures and then paid my guide "what is in your heart". That turned out to be $25 for hanging out with me for two hours. I returned my ornery horse friend and three or four strokes of the boat oars later I was back in America and walking back to the Boquillas Crossing building where I spoke to a Customs Officer via camera and telephone.

The previous night I had hiked into Boquillas Canyon to search for scorpions. My friend Dr. Brent Hendrixson, who I will meet along with three students near Tucson in two weeks, told me about almost a dozen species that inhabit the canyon. The most interesting is found nowhere else. It is a psammophile – or sand lover/liver – and specialized to living in the sand dunes that sit from the mountain base to the river at the end of the canyon trail. I hiked to the dunes as the sun set, using a new GPS app I have on my iPhone to set waypoints that I could use to navigate back out of the canyon after dark. I am still a bit unfamiliar with the app and it's built-in maps failed a bit right at the river, so before darkness fell I hung four neon glow sticks from trees to lead myself from the dunes back to recognizable path points. Then I waited on the shore of the river and laughed at the idea of building a wall here. Once it was dark I turned on my UV flashlight. For those who do not know, scorpions fluoresce under "black light". They glow greenish and with the power of the flashlight I use I can see them as much as fifty feet away. The dune scorpions (<i>Paruroctonus boquillas</i>) sometimes would be just a speck of yellow-green as only a bit of their bodies broke the surface of the sand. Often you'd just see the claws sticking out of the dunes. They were wary and even if fully on the sand's surface a disturbance would make them vanish instantly. I used my forceps to flick them back out of the sand for photographs. I ended up only finding three species, but it was good fun. Brent and his students and I will be looking for specific scorpions in Arizona starting May 7.

My worst adventure was yesterday morning as I was to leave. During the night I woke and went into the bathroom. I flicked the light switch and the light lasted only a half second. My two batteries were drained after living without electricity for over a week. After I fell back asleep I was awakened by a periodic beep. It was my carbon monoxide detector/alarm. It wasn't wailing to tell me that I was at risk of death, but only chirping to let me know there was a fault. It needs electricity. The problem is that without power I can't break camp. I need electricity to move my slide-outs back in, lift the stabilizer jacks, and operate the power tongue jack on the trailer. I fell back asleep thinking I would just have to use my battery charger in the morning. That's why one feature for my new truck that I knew would be essential was an inverter-powered AC power outlet. Long story short ... I had problems with the brand new battery charger (only used once before so ...). It would only stay on charge for a few minutes and then would indicate that my batteries were fully charged and on a maintenance trickle. Um, no. It did it enough times that I became convinced that there was another problem and did some investigating. I even pulled out my manuals and tried to see if I could retract the slide outs manually. I gave up and walked to the camp store for coffee and a breakfast sandwich. I came back and still dead batteries. It took maybe 20 unpluggings, frustrated slaps and random expletives before the charger finally worked. I gave it fifteen minutes, saw that my batteries were at 40% and then broke camp. The batteries would be completely charged by my truck via the smart connection during my trip north.

This must be the longest blog entry yet! If you got this far thank you. I'm here until the third and then have a few days to get to Tucson. I'll post again when I am farther on down the road. All the best, M

Saturday, April 22, 2017

#52 - Saturday, 22 April 2017 - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Roughin’ It Part II
Instant Coffee. The horror. I feel like I am in the U.K. or an Asian hotel room. The tea kettle went on my propane stove and I emptied a packet of Starbucks Via freeze-dried instant into the cup. At least it is Starbucks. There would be no fresh brewed coffee this morning and I’m likely to drink more tea this week.

Yesterday’s heat was stifling. Even as the sun fell below the Chisos Mountains in the distance, the thermometer read 104ºF/40ºC. There was little breeze and despite the weather being beautiful at dark the inside of the Wheelhouse was the warmest it has ever been when I hit the sheets. My bed felt like it was heated. I went to sleep with both Wheelhouse doors open hoping the predicted winds that would bring atypically cool weekend temperatures would hurry up.

This morning it is indeed windy. The sun is rising on a day that is expected to be 35ºF cooler than yesterday. Crazy. 104 followed by a forecasted 67ºF. Tomorrow should be in the upper 70’s and then next week low 90s are anticipated.

Last night I went for a sunset drive and then waited at the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center 20 miles west of camp for it to become dark. I walked the grounds looking at the desert plants and their identification placards. In my truck my laptop was connected to the center’s wifi downloading some television episodes to watch on my laptop since I have no AC power for the week. That’s OK as I just began a David Baldacci novel. Once it was completely dark, I drove back toward camp very slowly hoping for snakes on the road. I encountered mule deer and jackrabbits, and some sort of desert rodent ran across the road. But nothing reptilian.

Today might be a good day for cool weather hiking, but it also is Saturday and the park is more crowded than it will be on Monday. When I returned from last night’s drive many of the vacant campsites in my little out of the way loop had filled up. I’m likely to spend more time editing and writing while more people are on the trails, and then begin hiking in earnest first thing Monday morning. I expect Saturday is a bit of chaos at the Boquillas Crossing, but if I don’t go this weekend I will have to wait until Wednesday as the border crossing is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and I don’t want to be stuck en México. It also is probably a good day to use the park village’s laundry and do some RV chores. One of the reasons I like staying in a place for an extended period is selecting the best days for activities based on weather and less people.


This park is so big and so remote that it actually has its own zip code and a post office at the Panther Junction Visitor's Center. "Big Bend National Park" is actually a town name as well. I discovered this last night when I walked through the desert plant exhibit outside the visitor's center. A note on the name "Panther Junction". The park has about 130 reported mountain lion sightings per year. Over half of these lions are seen from the road by visitors. There are believed to be about two dozen adult mountain lions in Big Bend National Park and they say that no matter where you are within the park you are always within the home range of one of them. Occasionally one is sighted in a campground and then the campground is closed down. Other mammalian wildlife includes black bears and javelinas. I enjoyed my javelina encounter in Laredo, but have yet to see any here. Bears completely disappeared from Big Bend years ago, but now have returned by way of Mexico. There are supposed to be about two dozen in the park now, most of which are on the other side of the park where it is more mountainous and a bit cooler.

All the best, M

Friday, April 21, 2017

#51 - Friday, 21 April 2017 - Big Bend National Park, Texas

Roughin’ It
Jesse and I are finally without demon electricity and pressurized potable water. We arrived at Big Bend National Park to find the RV hookup area fully occupied, but I never intended to stay there. It is just a sun-exposed paved lot with a bunch of close together parking slots for those who wish to be tethered to electricity and water. I’m sure they’re enjoying their air conditioning as it is 3 pm and close to 100ºF, but I shoehorned my Wheelhouse into some decent shade in a quiet area off the main campground. It is a “no generator zone” so most RV campers don’t venture back here. In much of the campground generators may be run from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for those who need to recharge or cool down during the heat of the day. I don’t have a generator (at least not yet) and I planned to start going without electricity as much as possible. My site is $14 per night whereas the full hookups are $32. That difference adds up and savings can be had if you don’t mind sweating and smelling your own stink. I mentioned Mick in my last blog. He had his RV parked at a site without electricity and hadn’t even bothered to look where the water hookup was. I sort of felt guilty that I have umbilically attached to power during this entire trip. The only place I didn’t have a water hookup was Everglades National Park. It’s only April and the temperatures are still tolerable so I may as well save money when I can. Tonight it is supposed to become very windy and cooler temperatures are expected for the next several days. My timing is spot on.

Without an electrical hookup my Wheelhouse is powered by the dual deep cycle batteries I have, which are currently recharged when I am towing and eventually will also be recharged by solar panels. They will run the LED interior lights, the USB charging ports and radio, plus other DC appliances like water pump and jacks. However, DC power only means no coffee maker (or anything I plug into normal outlets) and no microwave. I’ll heat water for coffee or tea on my range, which always runs on propane. I have two water heaters so instead of the usual electric one I will switch on the secondary gas heater. My refrigerator runs off of electricity when I am hooked up, but now is being powered by propane. I have yet to purchase propane. The two 20 lb. tanks that came with the rig have lasted this long. I am sure I’ll need to exchange them during this stay though. Setting up the RV my tongue jack, stabilizers and slide outs all operated by battery, and since I was still connected to my running truck the batteries were being simultaneously recharged. When this laptop begins need charging I can use my backup USB power pack and, once that is spent, use the A/C outlet in my truck that runs off an inverter. Sadly, I have found that outlet doesn’t give enough juice to run a coffee maker. As far as not having a water hookup, I just use bottled water for drinking and cooking and have a 49 gallon tank that I filled when I arrived at the park that will supply water for showering, toilet and washing dishes when I switch on the DC-powered water pump. You don’t need electricity to hike or read or photograph wildlife, and the only water you need is drinking and that is 88 cents a gallon at War-Mart (I have a dozen gallons in the back of my truck) or only about 20-25 cents a gallon at the water filling stations that are common in store parking lots in the southwest.

I left Seminole Canyon State Park just after 8 a.m. and arrived at Big Bend National Park at about 12:30. It was a 215 mile drive. This park is expansive and it takes some time on Hwy. 385 South before you reach the entrance gate and then it’s 30+ miles to the Panther Junction Visitor’s Center and then another 20 miles east to Rio Grande Village where I am camped. Big Bends refers to the great southwest Texas U-turn the Rio Grande makes here–defining the park boundary for 118 miles. On the other side of the river are the Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua. — I must interrupt this typing to report that a roadrunner has just invaded my outdoor office. I am typing this from just outside the Rio Grande Village store, which is my oasis for wifi, laundry and various provisions if needed. I am sipping a Tejas lager–“the beer from out here”–which is made in nearby Alpine, Texas by Big Bend Brewery.

I am here for six nights. My next destination will probably be north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and nearby Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. We’ll see which way the wind blows. Tomorrow I will probably visit Boquillas, Mexico. You hike down a trail near the campground for a couple miles and then there is a tiny pedestrian only port of entry. They call it "pedestrian only", but really you pay a Mexican to row you across the river and you can opt to be carried into town on the back of a donkey. I pity the donkey that would have to carry me. They'd need to supply a destria or a draft horse methinks. I'll walk it. From what I've read, about 43 families live in the village now. They make most of their money on tourists (ferry, donkey ride, cantina, souvenirs), but after 9/11 the border was shut down (2002) and many were forced to move elsewhere to survive. Both the Mexican and American authorities arranged for the crossing to re-open in 2012, but a book I read said that in 2013 it was still closed. So, it is good news to know this is happening again. I have my passport ready to make the little journey into Mexico for a taco and margarita.

All the best, M

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

#50 - Tuesday, 18 April 2017 - Seminole Canyon S.P.H.S. - near Comstock, Texas

A fascinating aspect of this life on the road is the people. It will surprise few of my readers that I far prefer wildlife, but I am intrigued by my fellow travelers and their stories. I enjoy the brief and random encounters I have with people. The very transience of these interactions is part of their charm. “Where ya from?” is a common beginning, but there are plenty of conversation starters. A tall, heavily tattooed guy with a parrot on his shoulder or a couple of big cameras slung over one is something that people notice. Yesterday I sat with Jesse perched on me underneath the ramada that shades my picnic table and I saw a familiar expression approach. It was the female half of the husband and wife campground host team. I had spoke several times with man when I first visited Seminole Canyon State Park last week, but she and I had not met. I noticed her making the grounds on the park provided golf cart checking camping permits. She parked and walked up to me and asked about Jesse. “Is that your bird?” seemed like a rhetorical question, but many of us are awkward when strolling up to a stranger, and I’m a bit intimidating I imagine.

I had just finished setting up camp when Jesse’s visitor arrived, and afterward I sat at a table beside the public restrooms and showers, which is the most reliable location to attempt to acquire the park’s weak wifi signal. Verizon has no service here and it is my only tether to the outside world. A woman approached me to ask if she could share the table. She looked weary of the afternoon sun and said she needed a shady place to have lunch. I saw a bicyclist approaching and then noticed the orange flag of the child trailer being pulled behind the mountain bike. Then I realized that the blue trailer’s occupant was a golden retriever. You meet all sorts when you travel. And, as John Muir said, travel far enough and you meet yourself.

The bike’s rider and dog’s friend had the “business up front, party in the rear” look of a mullet, but it was the most outrageous mullet ever. From the front his hair looked short beneath his baseball cap, but in the back was a dreadlock ponytail that reached below his waist. He set his bike down to use the restroom and his golden pooch obediently sat in its trailer berth looking adorable. I later found that their tent was pitched two sites away from mine. Rasta ponytail wasn’t much of a friendly sort. I’ve rarely had someone come within fifty feet of me without a greeting, but he briefly stared at me as he lit a cigarette and then looked away.

I was tired from little sleep the last night at the RV Park in Del Rio so I mostly hung around the campsite watching birds and cleaning my Wheelhouse. The vacant site between me and Mr. Rasta Mullet was soon occupied by two Harley riders. I didn’t see this many tent campers last week, but it is pretty much a 50/50 mix now. Whereas many parks have water and electric hookups for RVs in designated loops, this park intersperses sites with electricity with those without, and all but the largest pull through sites for big motorhomes have tent pads. The two gentlemen on the hogs were sixtyish and set up two tents side by side on the pad. The older looking of the two had a Harley trike that towed a matching trailer. For motorcyclists they had a lot of gear.

That’s another intriguing aspect of this life on the road … the different ways people camp and the different rigs. You see half a million dollar motor coaches. You see hippie dudes pulling golden retrievers behind their bikes. In between are a myriad of campers and I enjoy checking out license plates to see who has traveled farther than me, and bumper stickers to see who or what my fellow travelers represent. The only other RV that was set up in this campground loop when I arrived midday yesterday was also from Illinois. The spare tire on the back of his rig is covered by the Chicago Blackhawks logo. I haven’t met the lone gentleman occupying the campsite yet, but I am dying to commiserate about the fact that after last night’s poor performance the Hawks are down three games to nil in the first playoff round. He’s a silver-bearded man who has a smaller Casita RV and has been reading beneath his ramada. His camper is as small as you can go and still have a nice privy and galley inside. Two other campsites were occupied by one couple and one lone woman who were traveling together. They had camper trailers that are basically small bedrooms on wheels with an airplane style toilet. They made their morning coffee outdoors on a propane stove and showered in the public area. Others have only a small bunk inside and the rear opens to an outdoor grill and dorm room refrigerator.

I am reminded of the scene in Fight Club (in my top 5 movies and from the book from my favorite author of transgressive fiction Chuck Palahniuk and adapted perfectly to film by my favorite director David Fincher) where Edward Norton uses the term “single serving friends” talking to the unknown man sitting beside him. Brad Pitt isn’t impressed with the clever comparison of the single serving packages of condiments and liquor bottles to the one time fleeting interactions strangers during travel.

I now return to writing this after a nice little break. As if he knew what I was blogging about, my neighboring Blackhawks fan came over to my picnic table. Mick saw me sitting outside and had noticed yesterday that I also have Illinois license plates. As he approached I asked where in Illinois he was from and he replied that he was just coming over to ask the same. We then both expressed our disgust with the Blackhawks’ dismal playoff performance. Like me, Mick was listening to last night’s game via the NHL app and WGN broadcast. By some miracle I had intermittent wifi reception and was able to listen to the game with interruption from my Wheelhouse. Mick had been walking to the restroom area to pick up signal to follow the disappointing game. He joined me at my picnic table for a cup of coffee and told me some stories from his almost two years on the road and gave me his card. This wasn’t the first time I realized that I’ve always carried business cards, but don’t have an up to date one. I’m going to change that ASAP.

Mick headed off to do some hiking and invited me to tag along, but I needed lunch and to take care of a few other things first. When we chatted it was overcast, but now the sun is out and the temperature is climbing. I’ll be hitting the trail before long…

Well, my power is now out. It may just be that my surge protector has tripped, but I’m not going outside in this downpour to check. I have A/C power in my truck and can sit in there and charge my laptop if need be. Even without electricity I still have my battery powered lights, USB chargers, water pump and backup water heater, and propane powered stove and refrigerator.

All the best, M

Saturday, April 15, 2017

#49 - Saturday, 15 April 2017 - Del Rio, Texas

I am now in an RV park in Del Rio, Texas. My plan is to spend the weekend on my laptop working on project commitments. Since it is "Easter" weekend, it seems like the perfect time to hole up somewhere and try to force myself to "work". This is a quiet place where the historic downtown area leads to a strange No Outlet road and ends in a former mobile home park that is now an underused RV campground. For the first time ever my Wheelhouse is hooked up to cable TV and I have over 100 channels. It's a good thing I am not a TV watcher as I'll be able to avoid the distraction, but it was wonderful to be able to watch some playoff hockey last night and tonight I intend to watch the free UFC Fight Night.

Yesterday morning before I broke camp at Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site (SCSPHS), I hiked the most challenging trail the park and historic site has to offer. It is posted as 7.5 miles, but with the connecting trails it is about 9. Seminole Canyon contains pictographs created by the Desert Archaic people who inhabited the land 8900-1300 years ago. You may only enter the canyon itself (descend) on a guided tour, which I intend to take when I return early next week. This hike takes you to pictographs at Fate Bell Shelter near the park headquarters and is about 2 hours long. The Canyon Rim Trail that I trekked–a four hour hike–leads you to the confluence of the canyon and the Rio Grande and here lies Panther Cave, which contains many more pictographs including the namesake nine foot long panther. It is only accessible by private boat tour and when I reached the spot from the opposite canyon rim I saw the pier and stairs that leads to the cave. I didn't have binoculars so I used my long lens (420 mm with teleconverter) to view just the end of the panther's tail, which is exposed at the cave entrance. I had expected to be able to see the whole damn thing! The thunderstorms and torrential flash-flood-warning-inducing rains that fell during my stay at SCSPHS made the rocky hike a bit treacherous and the gloomy skies continually threatened rain. Most of my four hour walk was misty and if I closed my eyes to the rugged southwest Texas landscape I would have thought I was in the Pacific Northwest. My rain jacket was left on the entire trek. I encountered eight white-tailed deer that effortlessly bounded up the steep, rocky terrain. I also spooked a canid? that at first glimpse I identified as a coyote in the split second I had just because of general size, color and movement. I didn't see face or tail and still am uncertain what it was. I later researched and discovered that coyotes aren't known from the park (at least according to its website's list of mammals) and that means it may have been a fox (the largest true fox is the red fox and this animal appeared considerably larger that the 30 pounds that canid reaches - perhaps more than twice) but I am unconvinced. A look at the website for nearby Big Bend National Park does list coyotes. I've seen plenty of red foxes and my phantom buff-colored darter was so much larger. I'm wondering if coyotes truly aren't known from there or if the Texas red wolf occurs here (I'm pretty sure it doesn't). The park website does not list the coyote among the animals of the park, and the campground host I spoke to said that canids are rarely seen in the area due to local sheep producers and other ranchers shooting all on sight. The website does list "foxes" among its resident mammal species. I didn't see the face or tail so I am left wondering, but I fairly certain it was a coyote and a rare occurrence in the park ... I am still trying to pinpoint which fox species inhabits Seminole Canyon. If it is only the smaller grey fox than it had to be a coyote. I'll never believe it was a mountain lion (they are roughly human sized and only a young female would be the right size), but I'll also never believe that it was a 30# red fox. The other possibility is bobcat, which is well-known in the park but except for a very large male it, like the fox, is smaller than what I saw. My stealth friend was gone so quickly I will always be left wondering.

Also found on the Canyon Rim Trail was a beautiful female jumping spider that is as of yet unidentified but may be Phiddipus cardinalis. I will release it back in the park upon Monday's return, but right now it is living in a jar beside me and will be photographed later today.


my 2017 so far ...

J A N U A R Y

1-11    Hoffman Estates, Illinois
12    Marietta, Georgia 
13    Cutler Bay, Florida
14-17    Homestead, Florida
18    Florida City, Florida
19    Macon, Georgia
20    Bowling Green, Kentucky
21-25    Hoffman Estates, Illinois 
27    Bowling Green, Kentucky
28    Macon, Georgia
29-31    Lake Park, Georgia

F E B R U A R Y

1-5    Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida
6    Bowling Green, Kentucky
7-8    Hoffman Estates, Illinios
9    Dubai, United Arab Emirates
10    Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
11-14    Kuching, Sarawak, Borneo (Malaysia)
15 -24    Langkawi, Malaysia
25    Dubai, United Arab Emirates
26-3/1    Hoffman Estates, Illinois

M A R C H

2   Chattanooga, Tennessee
3    Ocala, Florida
4-15    Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida
16-22    Everglades National Park, Florida
23-24    Okechobee, Florida
25-30    Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, Florida
31    Holt City, Florida

A P R I L

1    Lake Charles, Louisiana
2-5    Sea Rim State Park, Sabine Pass, Texas
6-11    Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, Laredo, Texas
12-13    Seminole Canyon State Park, Comstock, Texas
14-16    Del Rio, Texas

upcoming•
17-21    Seminole Canyon State Park, Comstock, Texas 
22-28    Big Bend National Park, Texas
29->    Guadaloupe Mountains National Park, Texas

Thursday, April 13, 2017

#48 - Thursday, 13 April 2017 - near Comstock, Texas

I’ve woken to the most spectacular thunderstorm I’ve experienced since one violent and terrifying thunderstorm near Negombo, Sri Lanka in 2014. The thunderstorms and rain began back in Laredo a few days ago and, as I drove northwest along the Rio Grande through Eagle Pass and Del Rio yesterday, the skies were extremely overcast and rains were scattered. I drove 40 miles northwest of Del Rio toward Comstock and eventually pulled into Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site. The rains held off, but the skies were threatening. Seminole Canyon is beautiful and the desert is more picturesque than it had been to the southeast.

My plan for the morning was to take the most challenging hike here. It is 7.5 miles roundtrip and the trail leads along the Seminole Canyon rim past views of Presa Canyon to the confluence with the Rio Grande. You are prohibited from venturing into the canyon itself except on the guided tours that lead you to the pictographs at Fate Bell. Seminole Canyon contains vast collections of pictographs created by the Desert Archaic people, and the Canyon Rim Trail that I wished to trek this morning leads you to a view across the inlet river to a pictograph that includes a nine foot jaguar (Panther Cave). Torrential rains fall at dawn while I type this, so I am not sure when I’ll be able to get out today.

There is no cell signal here and just some poor wifi reception near the headquarters. If the rains continue I’ll drive down the road to where I get good LTE signal so I can post this and send some files I need to get to Petco for Northwest Zoological’s 2017 Catalog. A rain out day would allow me to work on the BTS Journal as well, but that is what I intended to do over the weekend while I am staying at an RV Park back in Del Rio. Del Rio is the seat of Val Verde County and the nearest town of significance. Comstock is a small old west town.

During my drive from Laredo through Del Rio to this park I saw many Crested Caracaras. In Florida I only saw these scavenging falcons at one particular spot in Kissimmee Prairie State Park, but in Texas they are abundant along the Rio Grande. I also saw many Pyrrhuloxia, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and Mockingbirds. Images of all these birds may be found on my Instagram. I also saw my first Harris Hawks, which is one of my favorite raptors.

My last day in the Laredo area I returned to a site outside of town where my friend Dr. Brent Hendrixson had given me GPS coordinates for. It was a spot he had found both of the tarantula species of the region. I had scouted it out the day I arrived and returned two days later but didn’t have any luck. During my third visit I finally found my target species – Aphonopelma moderatum. Tarantula hobbyists call this spider the “Rio Grande Gold” and most including myself consider it the most attractive of American tarantulas. Again, see Instagram for my photos.

I had intended to visit a few other waypoints Brent had generous shared, and did stop at one picnic area in between the rains. I found a couple of nice burrows, but either nobody was home or my pouring water down the holes didn’t have the desired effect due to the rains. The weather made me push on, but I may return. I first visited this stretch between Laredo and Del Rio over 30 years ago with my friend Ralph Henning. We met up with Stanley Schultz, his wife Marguerite and a young Canadian friend of theirs. Schultz is well-known for his tarantula guide, a very overrated, bloated and mistakenly lauded book that is hugely popular and in its third edition. I remember being appalled at how he collected anything that moved in the desert and had an RV with coolers full of cups of invertebrates and reptiles. All were smuggled back into Canada. As the years passed, my opinion of him only worsened, but I did get a signed copy of his first edition which was a smaller book published by Sterling. Oo-rah.

The pouring rains keep coming – and my cell phone keeps stirring with emergency flash flood alerts – (funny how you can get those when you have no signal …) so we’ll see how my two days here pan out. It is looking like today will be a laptop day. My A/C power keeps going in and out too, but I have D/C power that runs my LED lights and backup water pump and such. I was only able to book last night and tonight (Thursday) because of the upcoming holiday weekend. The area and park are beautiful and I know there are nice snakes about. I will spend Friday through Sunday nights back in Del Rio at the RV Park, but I may very well book a few more nights here afterward. If the weather is mild I could stay at Amistad National Recreation Area in the Del Rio area for cheap in a primitive site without hook-ups, but if the temperatures are hot I will need electricity for air-conditioning. I can sweat on the trail, but I have my parrot with me and I don’t wish for her to be cooked. I have to head back this way regardless as I continue west and slightly south to get to the Big Bend region. I haven’t booked any campsites there yet so I remain completely flexible.

Texas has already been terrific. Lake Casa Blanca International State Park was a bit overpopulated and chaotic at times, but I saw Javelinas, deer, raccoons, osprey, caracaras, and wonderful bird species. Lizards were surprisingly scarce and most darted to cover before I identified them except for one racerunner whiptail that I still need to post an image of. I saw another whiptail near the restrooms here yesterday. The only snake I’ve seen in Texas so far was a dead-on-road (DOR) garter snake outside of Sea Rim State Park. However, I haven’t begun to road cruise after dark yet. This area has treasures like the grey-banded king snake so when the weather improves I will be looking.

Well, my power is now out. It may just be that my surge protector has tripped, but I’m not going outside in this downpour to check. I have A/C power in my truck and can sit in there and charge my laptop if need be. Even without electricity I still have my battery powered lights, USB chargers, water pump and backup water heater, and propane powered stove and refrigerator.

Cheers, M

Afterword: I'm posting this from the outskirts of Del Rio. I had to drive 30 miles before I had a weak cell signal and another 15 before I had 4G LTE. I needed to fill up my gas tank anyway and I've been sitting in this gas station parking lot taking care of all that I need to do on the cyber webs. The storms obviously don't dissuade the bass fishermen. I've seen at least 15 fancy bass boat rigs pull into this parking lot. They're obviously all fishing the Amisatad Reservoir above the Rio Grande. It's got me thinking of Border Patrol on the water, because it connects with the border river. Now that I am driving back toward Comstock and the state park I will have to pass through a border patrol checkpoint. I did so twice yesterday. First time dude asked if I was U.S. Citizen. I said yes and he waved. Second time (the checkpoint I am passing through again shortly) the dude asked if I was having a nice trip so far and quickly waved me through.

Monday, April 10, 2017

#47 - Monday, 10 April 2017 - Laredo, Texas

Lake Casa Blanca International State Park is an odd place. Within the border city of Laredo’s city limits and adjacent to the Laredo International Airport, it is urban, noisy and over the weekend was overflowing with Mexican fiestas. I messaged a lovely friend this morning stating that I have a love/hate relationship with the park, and that’s about as accurate as a description as I can give. This morning I saw some beautiful birds and followed a pack of javelinas (desert collared peccaries) through the desert scrub. Cell signal is superb. The campsite is quite beautiful and has all I need. Those are the love aspects. The hate is having the place inundated with people over the weekend as everyone from both sides of the border seemed to be picnicking in the park or fishing the entire shore of the large lake. The hate is the revving of loud truck engines at 2 or 3 in the morning and children screaming after midnight. But now it is Monday and the park is again home mostly to fellow RV travelers. I am extending my stay for two more nights.

Wednesday morning I will head northwest along the Rio Grande towards Del Rio and on to Seminole Canyon State Park & State Historical Site. Because of Easter weekend I was only able to book two nights there. Nearby is Amistad Reservoir and its extensive recreation area, but its campgrounds are first-come, first-serve only and are sure to be chaos on the holiday weekend. Also, it doesn’t offer hookups and it’s been pretty hot for no air-conditioning. I found a real nice RV park with full hookups including cable TV and wifi at a reasonable rate that has amazing reviews and I will spend the 14th to 16th there before continuing west towards Big Bend one week from today.

All the best, M

Saturday, April 8, 2017

#46 - Saturday, 8 April 2017 - Lake Casa Blanca International State Park, Laredo, Texas

Lake Casa Blanca International State Park sits on the edge of Laredo, a city of about a quarter million residents. I’m sure there are quite a few more than that. This “urban” state park has more of a forest preserve feel than most state parks, but the camping area is set two miles into the park and somewhat isolated from the popular day use family picnic areas near the entrance. As you hopefully know, Laredo is a port of entry into Mexico and the town of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, Mexico on the other side of the Rio Grande River. The population here is largely latino, presumably most of Mexican origin, and the visitors to the park reflect that. I arrives early on Thursday morning and my fellow campers had big RVs and my neighbor was a retired couple full-timing that were from Glenview where my mother was once a teacher. Now it’s the weekend and the campsites have filled a bit with tent campers that are mostly large Mexican families with noisy kids. I’m here until Monday morning, but may extend two or three nights just to have the peace and quiet of the weekdays again. My campsite is very nice and I have a trail down to the lake behind my Wheelhouse. I’ve “retired” from fishing, but when I went into town yesterday to go to Wal-Mart for supplies and a couple of Redbox DVD movies, I ended up in the sporting goods department looking at cheap ready-to-go rod & reel combos. I thought maybe I’d make a few casts for a big ole largemouth. I decided against and while watching my movie last night (appropriately, it was Transpecos, a movie about this region and the border patrol) I had people walking past my screen door to try their hand at fishing. 

PYRRHULOXIA (aka Desert Crested Cardinal)
Cardinalis sinuatus

The wildlife highlights so far have been seeing Crested Caracaras in Texas after photographing them in southern Florida (this was outside the park), and capturing a few images of the Pyrrhuloxia or Desert Crested Cardinal. During my hikes inside the park I spooked a group of five large deer. As I pursued them a little bit and looked for other wildlife I crested a hill and saw that one park border runs behind some pretty fancy houses for the affluent of Laredo. Once again I realized how much this park is like a big county forest preserve with the unusual addition of three big campground loops and an RV Dump Station. And the word "international" in the name ;)

All the best, M

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

#45 - Wednesday, 5 April 2017 - Sea Rim State Park, Sabine Pass, Texas

Woke at 4 a.m. being eaten alive. The annoying buzz of mosquitoes surrounded me. Eventually that horrible sound was incessant. I turned on the little LED lamps above my pillows and began to kill.

I had fallen asleep with a wonderful breeze blowing across my bed and the temperature was perfect. I had run the air conditioning until dusk, but then had opened the windows to the oceanside winds. I laid in bed groggy and shut my window. It didn’t make sense that mosquitoes could fit through the screen, but I didn’t have full faculty of senses yet. As each vile little bloodsucker landed on me I swatted. Then I’d use both hands to smack the airborne. Once my blood began to circulate other than in the parasites’ bodies, I realized that the sound of the surf was a little loud. It was then that I discovered that my rear door was wide open. I had noticed some difficulty in it latching during the day, and apparently it wasn’t secured before I climbed into bed.

The mosquitoes haven’t been that bad here. They like shade and calm winds. There is little shade here and, even though the gale force winds of my first night had subsided, it is still windy along the ocean. I was bitten mostly when I emerged in the morning with the first cup of coffee, or if I did something outside at dusk. However, give them an open door before dawn and the largest mammal in the park, and it was a bloodlust feast. I just hoped Jesse had been spared. A bobcat could have come in!

I’ve really enjoyed this park. Camping 100 yards from the beach is pretty cool, and there are some people camped in tents right on the sand. The wildlife has been mostly pelicans, shorebirds and waterfowl, but I did see a couple of Texas alligators, loads of blue crabs in the marsh and spooked some aquatic mammal that I didn’t get a good enough look at to identify. It wasn’t large enough to be a river otter or nutria, which are found in the park along with coyotes, a few coyote/red wolf hybrids from when red wolves were still found here, and the aforementioned bobcats. The only snake I found was a dead-on-road garter snake.

I haven’t been able to post a few more pix from Kissimmee or those I’ve taken since I left Florida because the cell signal is poor here and wi-fi non-existent. Maybe I’ll find a Starbucks near Houston later this morning. Otherwise I’ll just use cell signal along the road somewhere (which is probably how I will post this!)

This morning I am headed to Laredo, which is about 425 miles and will take me about 8 hours. It sits right on the Rio Grande with Nuevo Laredo, Mexico a walk over the bridge. Tonight I hope to spend a free night at the Texas Welcome Center near Laredo where one of my boondocking guides says overnight parking is permitted and wi-fi is available. Then I will move to the state park for three nights and do some tarantula and snake hunting in the area. From there I will slowly follow the Rio Grande River west and north to Eagle Pass and Del Rio and eventually arrive in the Big Bend region.

All the best, M

Sunday, April 2, 2017

#44 - Sunday, 2 April 2017 - Sea Rim State Park, Texas

Second post for Sunday Funday. This entry from the blustery beach of the Gulf of Mexico at Sea Rim State Park. Those of you who caught my Snap or Insta stories today saw my campsite right along the ocean. It’s the middle of nowhere and I get cell signal for a couple minutes every five hours or so. When I arrived the volunteer at the headquarters told me that the weekend was slow due to the severe thunderstorm warnings. I sure can pick a good time to perch my Wheelhouse right above the windy beach!

After 510 miles on Friday and 410 yesterday, I was glad to only have about 100 miles today, but a leisurely stop at the Texas Welcome Center, the remote location of the park and the back highways that were my path meant that it took almost three hours. (The visitor’s center was impressive with loads of literature and a nice boardwalk through the Blue Elbow Swamp behind the building). This area of extreme southeastern Texas near the border with Louisiana is pretty desolate. The major feature during my trip south once I was in Texas was the cluster of oil refineries for petroleum conglomerates like Valero that are just north of this park. The day was gloomy and overcast and that only enhanced the bilging smoke coming out of the dirty stacks of the oil plants.

I am here for three nights. I really need to do some computer work so I actually picked the location due to its remoteness. Sun is predicted for tomorrow and I’ll definitely spend a few hours chasing shorebirds, waterfowl and gators with cameras, but I am here to relax and sit in front of this laptop and get some projects completed. Hopefully tomorrow’s draft will be the final one for the catalog I have been working on for Northwest Zoological Supply and I’ll spend hours working on the Journal of the BTS

All the best, M

#43 - Sunday, 2 April 2017 - Lake Charles, Louisiana

Rainy Sunday morning greetings from Twelve Oaks RV Park near Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana. Yesterday was a four state day. I left the panhandle of Florida and drove across the narrow southern tips of Alabama and Mississippi and on past New Orleans, through Baton Rouge across the mighty Mississippi River near its end at the Gulf of Mexico and on to this park 33 miles from the Texas border. I doubt this 2017 road trip will have any other days where I am in four states. Only a half hour from Texas, I could have easily made it five states, but my next destination is Sea Rim State Park. It lies on the Gulf coast in extreme southeastern Texas about 100 miles from here.

The freedom to choose destinations on a momentary whim is a wonderful part of this experience. As I drove along the Gulf of Mexico through four states I didn’t really consider spending any time oceanside until I stopped for a picnic lunch with Jesse at the Mississippi Welcome Center along Interstate 10. As she ate her apple and I had a can of tuna and crackers, I looked at my Texas Gazetteer and 2017 Road Atlas. I looked at the path I had driven and the stretches of ocean I had passed. State and National Parks are my sites of choice, and I spied Sea Rim State Park. I looked at its website on my iPhone and became intrigued. It has RV sites along the beach and a boardwalk that takes you along a path above the brackish marshes. It also said there were wildlife observation blinds. I decided I had to go. Unfortunately, a website glitch didn’t allow booking a campsite for the same day, so I was only able to reserve a site for the following day – today. I booked two nights, but if it is what I hope I likely will ask for another two during check in.

Since I couldn’t get into Sea Rim last night, I had two choices: crash for free in a truck stop or Wal-Mart parking lot, or find an inexpensive RV park somewhere along the interstate in Louisiana. After the picnic ended I sat in my truck and thumbed through my giant RV campground directory and chose one. It was three hours farther along the interstate. I read the guide’s brief description and three ratings system and then visit the park’s website to check out photos and more info. I’m not too choosy for only one night’s stay, but I certainly don’t want to pay $ to stay in a shithole. Twelve Oaks was certainly reasonable at the Good Sam Club discount price and I wasn’t disappointed upon arrival.

I only have two hours to go so I’ll have a leisurely morning here and am now making eggs and coffee. I plan to get a few more images up on Instagram and write a few postcards. Then I’ll break camp and drive a short distance west before heading south to explore the gulf coast for a few days.

Cheers, MJ

Saturday, April 1, 2017

#42 - Saturday, 1 April 2017 - Holt, Florida

Good morning from River’s Edge RV Campground near Holt, Florida. Yesterday morning I left Kissimmee Prairie and drove a little over 500 miles over the course of 10 hours. I will miss that state park. As I left I was treated to glimpses of the park’s two most noticeable raptors. I paused to photograph a Red-shouldered Hawk on the ground among palmetto scrub. As I neared the spot near the park entrance where one or two Crested Caracaras were often sighted, I slowed to watch one perched high on a post and then noticed another on the ground on the opposite side of the road. I came to a stop and realized that there were two on the ground roadside in addition to the one perched high above. They are wary and didn’t give me a chance to aim a lens at them. I hadn’t seen three caracaras together before, nor had a red-shouldered hawk fly right alongside my truck as I cruised down the road. It was as if the best had been saved for last. Later when the Florida Turnpike ended at I-75 north I saw my first bald eagle of the trip hovering just above the road. When I started west on I-10 toward Tallahassee and the Florida Panhandle I began to see some dead-on-road (DOR) armadillos and turtles.

Although I photograph what wildlife I can, I’ve written before how I’d rather just enjoy the animals and nature instead of being distracted by capturing the moment for others to see. Additionally, there is so much to see that I can’t capture images of. I have photographed herons, egrets and raptors because I love them, but also because they are larger birds. Aside from a mockingbird photograph from the Everglades and another odd small bird here and there, I am really not a bird photographer. I couldn’t be even if I wanted to be. My longest lens is a second hand 300 mm f4 I bought from Chad Campbell along with a 1.4x teleconverter that extends its range to 420 mm. Bird photographers use faster glass and longer prime lenses. 600 mm fast prime lenses are standard with those with deep pockets using an 800 mm behemoth. These lenses start at about $12,000 and fast 800 mm to 20-25K or more. I’ll stick to spiders and snakes.

Wildlife I saw in the Everglades, but either did not photograph or capture satisfactory images of include Roseate Spoonbills, Wood Storks, Black-necked Stilts, White-tailed Kites, Swallow-tailed Kites, Brown Pelicans, etc. At Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park I saw but did not capture with camera include American Kestrel, Northern Bobwhite, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Eastern Meadowlark, Black Racers, Eastern Glass Lizard, Blue-sided Garter Snakes, Ribbon Snakes, raccoons, fox, kites, Eastern and Florida Grasshopper Sparrows, etc.

I had thought about getting completely out of Florida yesterday, but after ten hours on the road had had enough. If I went farther into sunset and the dark beyond I would have just crashed in a truck stop or something. I decided to look for an inexpensive RV park where I’d have water and electricity and be able to rest comfortably. As its name declares, River’s Edge RV Campground sits along the Yellow River and has a boat launch that I’ll explore after I post this for waterfowl and such. Holt is off Interstate 10 east of Blackwater Bay and where highway 110 drops south to Pensacola and the Gulf of Mexico. Just northwest of here is Blackwater River State Park. My campsite is about 40 miles from downtown Pensacola. After drinking my coffee, eating an egg bagel and breaking camp, I’ll continue west on I-10 past Pensacola and into Alabama. I’m less than 90 miles from Mobile, which sits on the Gulf’s Mobile Bay. From there the Mississippi border is not much farther and I-10 continues along the southern coast to Biloxi and onward. I’ll see where the wind blows me, but I expect to spend tonight in Louisiana or Texas.

Shortly after this morning’s drive begins I will hit 10,000 miles on a truck I got a week or two into January! My truck also records how many miles each trailer is connected and I believe the Wheelhouse now has around 2600 miles on it. It has served me well and is a cozy home for a gypsy. I admit I do ogle other rigs and consider what I might have had. My gas mileage is poor so I think about the smaller RV I was going to originally go with. I also see the advantage of a self-contained small motorhome. However, one factor in choosing my rig was the fact that I have a parrot along for the ride. A small bird takes up a lot of space!

Mentioning Jesse reminds me of something … Yesterday I posted story pics and video of her riding shotgun, which in her case means sitting on my right shoulder as I cruise down the highway. My last blog entry was a compendium of LINKS. I mentioned Snapchat and my fondness for sharing my travels other than wildlife photographs using it. What I neglected to mention is that Instagram copied Snapchat and added a story feature. Those are those circles at the top of your feed if you are using the app. Since I know that both my bonus dad Joel and my sister Lisa use Instagram regularly, I realized I should just post my road pix to both Snap and the Insta story. This means that they don’t have to screw with Snapchat. For those of you who only view my Instagram photos via your web browser, this gives you a reason to download the free app for iOS (or android) and view my Instagram on your iPhone, iPad or other handheld device. You don’t have to use it for other things. Just make a quick account so you can like and comment on my photos and then click on my story circle at the top to see my miscellaneous snapshots from my journey. It’s really easy and a quick YouTube video “Instagram for Beginners” will set you straight. Just sayin’.

Cheers, MJ

Thursday, March 30, 2017

#41 - Thursday, 30 March 2017 - Kissimmee Prairie Preserve S.P., Florida

Today is my last at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. I've said that before and returned, but this time I can honestly say it is my last visit in 2017. It's supposed to reach 90ºF today after a high yesterday of about 87ºF. At 10 pm last night it was still close to 80ºF. But the weather was perfect for sleeping and a gentle breeze kept me comfortable. Tomorrow morning I depart. It will be the last day of March and it is time to get out of Florida. I've had my maps out over the course of the past couple days, but they can be overwhelming as every location intrigues me in at least some way. That's the amazing thing about America – you could spend an entire year just exploring one state. As someone who seeks snakes and spiders, Florida holds all sorts of treasures. But I am itching for the west. I love the deserts and rocky hills and mountains. My next destination is Texas and that state would require years to explore.

My plan – admittedly a strong word for my very loose ideas – is to head out tomorrow morning with no set destination. See, that certainly isn't "a plan". I looked for state park campground vacancies near Tallahassee, but they are hard to come by. I looked at RV parks in my phone book size directory. Then I realized that I just want to get west. I can crash at a Pilot Travel Center or Wal-Mart parking lot or rest area when I get tired. I'll half fill my reserve water tank and fill my propane and just keep filling my truck fuel tank until I feel like stopping for a couple days. I'm still considering a quick visit to Jackson, Mississippi, but likely will just take I-10 west across the panhandle of Florida cutting across the narrow southern tips of Alabama and Mississippi, and circumvent New Orleans as I cross Louisiana into Texas.

I have an amazing set of six eBooks that are guides to boondocking in the southwestern states. The author has been everywhere and pens her "Frugal RV" bibles telling you how to live on the cheap everywhere. The guides not only tell you where to camp free, but also the best roads to shunpike. As I've explained previously, this means using secondary highways and back roads to avoid interstates. I don't have a problem with using interstates as I like the services that are found along the way like truck stops and nice rest areas, but the biggest attractions of shunpiking are seeing out of the way places most don't visit and, even more so, circumventing major cities. As I enter Texas and look to head southwest I don't want to take the superhighway right through Houston. I'll follow her route around it and toward Austin before heading south and trying to avoid San Antonio.

Either way, the "plan" is to get to Texas for April and make my way to Big Bend National Park. Unfortunately, April 15 is the change of seasons for most camping locations. That means that the warm climate south uses reservations earlier in the year due to the influx of snowbirds. By mid-April reservations "are not necessary" and everything becomes first come, first serve. I'm going to look for an "off grid" free boondocks campsite near Big Bend, but I'd really like to camp in the state park if possible. It doesn't make sense to avoid camping fees and then spend more on fuel to drive in and out every day. There are two campgrounds within Big Bend operated by the National Park Service. Only one accommodates RVs the size of my Wheelhouse. However, it does not have electric/water hookups. That's fine for a week and can be stretched to two weeks by minimizing showers and dish washing and such. There is a third campground in the park (maybe on outskirts?) that has full hookups and is operated by a third-party vendor. I'll give them a call once I get to Texas. For the geographically challenged, Big Bend is extreme southwestern Texas so there are plenty of spots along the Rio Grande I plan to visit prior to spending a couple weeks around Big Bend. But first I need to get out of Florida and tomorrow I will try to put some miles behind.

M

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

#40 *** IMPORTANT WEB LINKS ***

Good morning from Kissimmee Prairie.

Just wanted to write a quick post about the Wheelhouse tour video I made a while ago. I had emailed the link (https://youtu.be/JMGLDaRi6FE) to family and friends, but had mistakenly set the YouTube video to "private" and wasn't informed for some time. It is now unlisted, but viewable by those with the link.

As long as I am sending out links ... (this will be last time I post these so please bookmark if interested)

  • My Instagram - Reminder: even if you don't use Insta and choose to not use app on handheld device, you can view my posts via computer browser
  • My SmugMug Photo Galleries (I will soon be updating this site and adding many more recent images. If you wish you can even order prints here.)
  • My websites: ExoticFauna.com and MJacobi.com
  • My Snapchat is exoticfauna (snap code image below for easy add). I now only post wildlife pix to Insta. Snapshots go to my Snapchat feed. This app is brilliant. Photos you take or view evaporate and don't take device memory away. They are moments in time and although meaningful in the moment they are more frivolous and fun. Each post to the story exists for twenty-four hours and then disappears. If you use Snap give me an add and follow my story. If you don't yet, it is very easy to download free app and use just to follow my daily pix. I'm trying to post 6-12 a day and it's a great way to stay in touch. Here's a video that teaches the basics and tells you what it's about.



Monday, March 27, 2017

#39 - Monday, 27 March 2017 - Kissimmee Prairie Preserve S.P., Florida

Greetings once again from the spot you're probably going to think is my favorite on Earth. It isn't. No place in Florida would rank very high. But this surely is my favorite area of Florida. The place is deserted. I am one of only four occupied campsites a month the 16 or 17 available in the equestrian campground. They had a big event here on Saturday and apparently everyone left first thing Sunday. There are still about a half dozen sites taken in the Astronomy Pad area and perhaps a dozen more campers in the family campground, but it is very peaceful here in the horse area. I can't see the other two occupied campsites and the one I can is two sites away and on the end.


My office as I type this for y'all
I just returned from a trail that cuts through a couple of deep ponds connected by a culvert with four big pipes and there must have been close to fifty alligators ranging in size from five to eleven feet in the area. I photographed some of them along with feeding great blue herons and great white egrets. I then drove out the park toward the spot where a caracara is often seen and captured some images of one perched there scanning the surrounding prairie for carrion. As I've mentioned before, the northern crested caracara is a type of falcon, but it has the feeding habits of a vulture. When I drove back to camp for lunch and to write this blog entry, a group of wild turkey was foraging around my Wheelhouse. I had seen a few hens and an immature male during my morning coffee, but now there was a larger group including a tom. They meandered off to leave me with my sardines, tuna and crackers.

I'm camped here until Friday, which is the last day of March. It is peaceful and without the hordes of savage mosquitoes that plagued my Everglades hiking. I sit at this picnic table as a gentle breeze keeps me cool as the temperature of the partly sunny day hovers around 27ºC/81ºF. I have no plan for Friday morning, but likely will pretty much go full speed ahead north and get out of Florida before I linger here any longer. I can't just stop every interesting place or I'll spend a year in one state. Texas is calling my name and I'd like to be able to visit Dr. Brent Hendrixson in Jackson, Mississippi along the way. Still, that's a bit farther north than I want to go and my goal will be to get across Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana and shunpike on back highways into Texas avoiding Houston. I'll probably head up toward Austin before heading south to follow the Rio Grande towards Big Bend National Park. Texas has two national parks on the list, but I'll spend an extended amount of time in the Big Bend region before finally heading into New Mexico. 

Cheers, M

Saturday, March 25, 2017

#38 - Saturday, 25 March 2017 - Brighton RV Resort/Seminole Indian Reservation, near Okeechobee, Florida

I woke early to the sounds of birds and cattle. I went to bed last night to the sound of good ole boys with big trucks and air boats returning to their cabins and some noisy late RV arrivals. It was the worst night of sleep I have had since I finished recovering from jet lag earlier in March. I can't blame that all on the noise I guess. I just didn't feel that tired and ended up tossing and turning.




I am in a new RV Resort that is owned by the Seminole tribe. Located on the northwest side of Lake Okeechobee, Brighton RV Resort is much more than I had expected based on the moderate price. After setting up camp I had a swim in the nice pool and had it completely to myself. The resort has a gift shop with handmade Native American items, a large "trading post" that has an attached Subway sandwich shop, fuel pumps and beautiful paved sites with patios and full electrical, water and sewer hookups. With my Good Sam Club discount, the nightly price is just a bit more than it was in Everglades National Park. Sunday morning I am headed back to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park for yet another visit. Yes, I love it there. It's a good location to spend five more nights before I start heading out of Florida. It is just over an hour north of here. The town of Okeechobee lies to the east of the path from here to the state park about half way between.

The cattle sounds are coming from across the road. I expect I didn't notice a road side pasture as I looked for the Brighton entrance sign along Reservation Road. The birds noises were largely coming from the river that runs alongside the park. Signs posted near the water warn of alligators and snakes in the area. Why else would I be here? 

As I drove north on a secondary highway (U.S. Hwy. 27), after taking the turnpike north from the Everglades and then Interstate 75,  a canal ran on the east side of the road and I saw launch ramps full of the redneck jet ski – the Florida air boat. It has to be remembered that the "river of grass" that is the everglades isn't limited to the expanse of Everglades National Park. Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake in Florida and the seventh largest in the United States. It is second only to Lake Michigan in terms of lakes located entirely within the 48 contiguous states and the largest contained within one state. As huge as it is, the average depth is actually less than 9 feet and the maximum is 12 feet. The Kissimmee River is a broad floodplain that empties directly into Lake Okeechobee and is one of the four central Florida rivers that feeds the Everglades. Air boats are popular throughout southern Florida. I'm not sure I want to know what these yahoos are doing on them*. They don't seem like fishing boats, and the only ones I've been a passenger on were larger tour boats in the everglades.



The reason I am at an RV "resort" is that the ratings and price were right and I couldn't get back into the state park until Sunday. RV resorts are not usually on my radar. Many are expensive places that cost more than a nice chain hotel. They offer clubhouses with social activities and many amenities that are attractive to sunbirds and retired couples. Those that are more moderately priced can be a little scary. Most of those I saw on my drive here to Brighton are fairly typical of the cheaper RV parks. That is, many "campers" are actually residents so the parks are more like seedy mobile home parks. Very often you will see sedentary old travel trailers up on blocks that have had screen porches built around them. I saw one park where the space between units was less than six feet and the run down old recreational vehicles were falling apart and had shacks attached patchwork-style around rusting old campers. My goal is to visit 30 national parks in 2017 and as many state parks as possible so these will be secondary choices for places to camp. My primary choice once I am out west will be boondocking sites on public land that are completely free. Of course, these won't have the sweet little swimming pool I have here, nor even the electricity, water and sewer. That's when I will be completely off the grid and focused completely on solitude and nature.

Happy Weekend! M

* I'm adding this a couple hours after I made this post. I am even more intrigued by this air boat thing now. By using generalizing slurs like "yahoo" and "redneck" and "good ole boys" I expect some of you may picture the stereotype these terms conjure. You might expect some guy in his twenties with a Florida Gators ball cap on backward and a can of Bud light in his hand and questionable bumper stickers on his lifted off road truck. My campsite neighbors arrived after I did in a brand new Ford F350 dually and a brand new large fifth-wheel Grand Design travel trailer. They appear to be late 50s to early 60s and "clean cut", whatever that means. They set up camp and barbequed dinner just about any similar couple I've encountered. The difference is that I discovered this morning that they are with the younger guy whose air boat I photographed (see above). For some reason the guy felt the need to run the air boat for ten minutes right on the drive between our two campsites. Now that they've pulled away I am intrigued by what they are going to be doing on that boat all day. They had a cooler. Just drinking? The opposite neighbor pulled in late last night in a large and twenty years old or so bus style RV. Their noise outside my open bedroom window is one of the reasons I didn't fall asleep under the cool breeze and eventually had to shut my window. This morning I discovered that they were a forty something couple with a boy about seven or eight years old and a large mastiff puppy. It turns out that the small red air boat parked with a black truck in the adjacent grass is theirs and running that boat (maybe they just like engine sounds?) at 10 pm seemed like a good idea to them. They left earlier this morning in the truck and I am now wondering if they left the mastiff pup in the RV. I would have walked him for them ...


Thursday, March 23, 2017

#37 - Wednesday, 22 March 2017 - Flamingo, Everglades National Park, Florida

I am actually posting this on Thursday morning, but it was written yesterday. I am again at the Flamingo Visitor Center using the wifi and looking out over Florida Bay toward the Keys and the Caribbean. A dolphin keeps surfacing about 50 yards out and I'm watching a pelican fishing. It is high tide, but numerous sea birds are gathered at the sandbar that becomes exposed at low tide ...

***

Greetings from Everglades National Park. I type this interrupted by scratching at my itchy bites.

It is midday Wednesday (happy hump day) and I just returned from a morning on the trails (see Instagram selfie). The first thing I did when I got back to the Wheelhouse was grab by clippers and buzz all my head and facial hair off. I was long overdue for a haircut and it was almost at a length where I’d need to buy a comb. My chin hairs were getting longer too. Less hair – less sweat and bites and more hot weather comfort. Genetics don’t allow me to wear my hear long anyway.

The mosquitoes are brutal. I wear all Insect Shield impregnated clothing and a Buff Insect Shield/UV protecting face and neck mask beneath an Insect Shield treated mosquito net over my bug spray soaked Tilly hat. That is after drowning myself in a sperm-killing and cancer-inducing amount of deet repellent. If you stand still the buzzing hordes reach cacophony levels and engulf you. I hiked around the Eco Pond (1/2 mile loop) and then hiked out to Christian Point at Snake Bight on Florida Bay (1.8 miles each way). On the latter I collected three species of spider that I am going to photograph in my little studio setup back here at the campsite. My gear keeps away the mosquitoes well, but just opening the doors to the truck or the RV lets some in and those are the buggers that get me, often when I am sleeping or driving into town.

I captured more images of ospreys and red-shouldered hawks today and saw manatees near the Marina Store again. Crocodiles can almost always be sighted near the store and I stop there once or twice a day. Next door is the visitor’s center, which I visit two or three times a day for wifi. Only AT&T users get cell phone signal here. The park entrance to camp at Flamingo is 40 miles. If I drive about two thirds of the way out I get weak signal and by the entrance I have full 4G LTE.

The mosquitoes are driving people away and the campgrounds are increasingly deserted. There are three tent site loops, but they’ve allowed one to grow over in the past year because it is tough to spend time in a tent here and camping numbers haven’t met expectations. The RV loop has over 60 sites. It was perhaps half full when I arrived, but now it is very empty due to ferocious bugs and it being midweek.

I’ve made friends with the ranger at the campground entrance (Joe) and he gave me all the days I paid for even though I arrived one day late. I then extended it by two nights (until Friday morning). I will be back at Kissimmee Prairie on Sunday so I still have to figure out where I will spend Friday and Saturday nights. I may stay at an RV park either on Key Largo or back up at Okeechobee near KPPSP. I’ll give them a call when I go back to wifi to send this. Actually, I may send this and do some other online stuff via cell when I drive north through the park later. I may cruise the roads here after sunset to look for snakes. If I am in my trailer at sunset I tend to just kick back with a beer and a movie and relax and then don’t go back out.

I am looking forward to my return to Kissimmee. I just love it there and its location allows access to some other areas that I will visit this time. I also really need to finish my BTS work and it is a great place to just sit at a picnic table with my laptop. The pest bugs were a non issue in my previous stays and I hope that continues. My final stay there will take me to the end of March and then April will see me point the rig toward Texas.


M

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

#36 - Tuesday, 21 March 2017 - Flamingo, Everglades National Park, Florida

I have extended my stay at Everglades National Park by another two nights. That is evidence of what a strange duck I am since most other campers are leaving early. The mosquitoes are vicious. It is uncommon for them to drive people out this early in the year. I’m enjoying myself, but I feel sorry for the tent campers. The more prepared have enclosed areas over the picnic table, but it is impossible to keep the little bloodsuckers out. When I return to my Wheelhouse after being out on the trails, just opening my door long enough to bring my cameras and other stuff inside allows a dozen of the ferocious biters inside and I have to hunt them down. On the trails I wear my Insect Shield impregnated hiking clothing, including balaclava and a bug net over my hat and head, and first coat myself with a frightening amount of Deet.

I just returned from driving up to the Flamingo Visitor Center to use the wifi to post some more images to Instagram. Please look for photos there. I’ll do an all photo post here soon to highlight a few of my favorites, but I don’t see a reason to post pix here on a regular basis. I recommend following my Snap story (exoticfauna) for snapshots from the road like travel, food, drink, people, etc.

Of course, you won’t find people pix often as I am solitary and not much for selfies. That isn’t to say I don’t have interesting conversations with interesting people along the road. One of my favorite books is Rush drummer Neil Peart’s Ghost Rider [highly recommend this amazing memoir of loss and healing on the road]. After losing both wife and daughter within just over a year of each other, he was broken and in need of healing. He took to the road on a BMW touring motorcycle and drove 40,000 miles. At the time it looked like the Toronto rock megaband Rush was finished. Perhaps I’ll examine the fact that after losing my dear mother and precious dog has also put me on the healing road in a future blog. For now, the comparison I am making is that he wrote of the brief but rewarding friendships he would make along the way. He had the additional problem of being famous, albeit much less recognizable than his bandmates. Like me, he is someone who keeps mostly to himself and immerses himself in books. Stardom isn’t something he is comfortable with so casual conversation is something he sought. I’ve already met all sorts along the road. My preference to wild places and natural and state parks puts me in contact with many birdwatchers and other nature lovers. I just spent about thirty minutes talking about birds, snakes and spiders, travel, life on the road, and more with Joe, the park ranger who mans the campground entrance wearing a bug net.

So, during my conversation with Joe, I booked two more nights and will depart Friday morning. That gives me more time if I do decide to head out to the Keys. It’s a four hour drive each way, plus the time there of course. I can come back at any time as the park entrance is open 24 hours. If I could have booked a site at either Pennekamp State Park on Key Largo or Bahia Honda State Park midway down the Keys, I would stay there for awhile. As it is, snowbirds have everything booked, even expensive RV resorts. It is easier for me to just make a day trip and leave my RV anyway as I get twice the gas mileage without the RV and the Keys aren’t the best place to be driving around a rig with a total length of 53 feet.

I’ve been looking into where to head next, but with limited internet I haven’t spent much time on it. There are some places I still want to explore in central Florida so I decided to return to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. The weather is perfect there, the mosquitoes aren’t severe, and it is a wonderful and centrally located place to camp. So I will return there for another five nights on Sunday and afterward begin heading north. I’ll have some cell signal and be able to research spots as I head north toward the panhandle, perhaps staying in the Appalachicola forest for a few days and then head west. I don’t plan to stop in Alabama, but may stay somewhere in Mississippi for a couple days so I can have dinner with my friend Dr. Brent Hendrixson at Milsaps College in Jackson. I plan to spend some time in the field later this year with him and his students. Then through Louisiana I’ll likely avoid Houston by shunpiking toward Austin. I have a series of six e-books written by an RV boondocker that are directories to places to camp free off the grid in the southwest, and each volume has many recommendations for roads that circumvent more populous areas.

Today I have decided to spend most of the day working on the Journal of the BTS. I have content for two issues and need to get the work done so I don’t have it on my mind any more. I have finished the 2017 Northwest Zoological Supply annual catalog I have been doing the writing, design and layout for. I sent a final draft a couple days ago and am waiting for Alex to tell me if it is good to go.

I think I will have dinner at the Buttonwood Cafe, which is the restaurant at the Flamingo Visitor’s Center. I believe I mentioned it during a blog entry during my mid-January visit here. Hurricane damage closed the original restaurant and the National Park Service seems to be taking its sweet time to spend some money restoring. The current Buttwonwood has screen walls and sits below the closed second level restaurant. The kitchen is an attached trailer like you’d see at a State Fair. I’ll stop by the visitor’s center for wifi to send this and visit social media. Tomorrow I will either spend the day visiting photo spots here one last time or, if I wake ambitious, I will head out to the Keys for the day. Write soon…

Cheers, MJ

Monday, March 20, 2017

#35 - Monday, 20 March 2017 - Florida City, Florida

How far would you drive for a Starbucks? I just drove 50 miles. I recall when my sister Lisa and I were driving across the U.S. and were in the middle of nowhere in the northwest hoping for anything better than gas station and hotel coffee. When we finally found a Starbucks we stocked up on their Via instant coffee so we wouldn't be deprived.

I'm more of a support small business sort of guy, but I've never found espresso I prefer to Starbucks. And it is the best place in the world for free and high speed internet. But what brought me here was a power outage in the southern part of Everglades National Park. Being new to my RV, I at first thought that perhaps I had a problem like a tripped circuit breaker. I didn't notice the lack of power when I first woke because my lights, water heater, water pump and refrigerator were all working. But that was from my dual battery power and converter, not from 120 volt AC. When I went to make coffee I discovered that my outlets had no power. I checked my 30 amp service outside and it was dead. I then saw a man a few campsites away miming no power to me.

I wasn't sure what I wanted to do today and had considered driving out to the Keys. When I woke I was thinking of doing a morning hike and then working on the Journal of the British Tarantula Society. Having no power to make coffee I decided to take a shower and head to the marina store to buy a cup. When I got there I learned that they were also without power. It wasn't just the campground, but also everywhere in the Flamingo area. I bought a Starbucks mocha cappuccino bottle to tide me over, and a package of pop-tarts. No electricity also meant no wifi at the visitor's center that I have been using. So, I decided I'd drive out of the park to Florida City and go to Starbucks. As long as I am here in town I figured I'd type this blog entry and maybe get a few groceries.

Yesterday was a wonderful Sunday Funday. I sat with my coffee yesterday morning along the marina piers and watched two manatees in the murky water. I photographed them – or at least their snouts – when they would grab air. I watched their huge, barnacle-encrusted grayish brown backs break the surface as well. ENP certainly must be the best place to see and photograph ospreys, and I captured a few hundred more osprey images during the day. I hiked the Mahogany Hammock and Pah- Hay- Okee overlook and watched roseate spoonbills and wood storks flying above the rookeries at Paurotis Pond. I found a couple more crocodiles when I visited the marina area at lunch time. 

More soon ...

M