Our road trip begins as we head west across Texas to the Mexican Border towns.
Pedernales Falls State Park (28-7-14)
We had a difficult re-entry to the US following our “holiday” to Mexico. After the initial threat of deportation, a less vehement immigration officer agreed a further three month visa but on the understanding that we would then leave for a “substantial” period of time. If we were to visit all the National Parks on our initial list, we would have to leave Austin and get on the road pretty quickly. So after celebrating Ian’s birthday, we spent the weekend saying goodbye to friends, packed up the RV and set off on Highway 290 towards Fredericksburg.
On the way we stopped for the night at Pedernales Falls State Park. A clear, spring-fed river flows gently down sloping limestone to create the twin falls which we cycled and hiked to on the first afternoon. Sadly the first three miles of river (the best bit), including the falls area are closed to wading and swimming. The lower river was shallow and pretty uninteresting, but we had a relaxing float at the end of the day.
Next morning we were up early to mountain bike the 6 miles of the Wolf Mountain Trail, so called because it is still home to the “prairie wolf” or coyote. We really enjoyed this track which was a little more technical than we had so far experienced and included a visit to Jones’ Springs at the boundary of the park.
After our close call with immigration, we needed to reassess our overall journey. We now had just three more months until we would have to leave the USA for England. We needed to get a move on, or we would not see all the National Parks that we had originally planned to visit.
It was Ian’s birthday when we arrived back in Austin from Mexico, and he chose to spend the evening at “C Hunts Ice House”. This was a small bar we had found in North Austin, whilst cycling to the thrift store one day. We had enjoyed a few early evening beers while listening to good old country music! It was just how I had imagined an authentic Texan bar to be.
Michelle came with us to join in the celebrations, and no sooner had we entered the bar, we were engaging with a couple of locals who on hearing it was Ian’s birthday, bought us all a beer. We sat with them as they told us a bit of history about the bar which was owned by Chester Hunt. They pointed out Chester, an 88 year old, sat quietly at his domino table on the far side of the bar. “Go and talk to him, he won’t mind”, suggested our new friends.
We all went over to say hello to Chester, and before we knew it Ian and I were sat, enthralled as he told us the history of the bar.
Chester’s wife (now passed), had bought the property over 50 years ago for $12,000 and they had made a business, first as butchers and then as a traditional “Ice House”. More recently it had become a bar and Chester still lived above it whilst he ran his “posy” of women, all university graduates, who looked after his customers with extreme professionalism. It was an all “cash” bar and we quickly discovered how astute Chester was and what he thought about America, its current difficulties and the future of money as we know it!
So far on our Texan adventure, we have enjoyed various RV hangouts, which have for the most part been free. These have included numerous Walmart car parks, outside the Hostel on Riverside, Pecan Grove RV Park in the centre of Austin and in front of Michelle’s house in North Austin.
As we ventured a little further afield, we discovered the Texas State Parks and decided to pay the $70 annual subscription which allows us free entry at any of the 90+ parks and attractions across Texas. We no longer have to pay an entry fee (average $4-6 per person, per day), and now only pay around $20 for a full hook-up. This means we get mains water, electricity (air-conditioning), and somewhere to dump our “grey” and “black” water tanks. There is the added advantage of a beautiful park with rivers, creeks or swimming pools to cool off in the hot, Texan sun.
The State Parks often have far superior RV parking spots compared to privately owned RV parks. Primarily because they have space, and plenty of it! We have stayed in parks where we could park the RV and comfortably house up to eight people in tents. Together with picnic tables, fire pits, BBQ’s and shade, these parks have become our “home” of choice and we have mapped out our route west to stay at as many of the parks as possible on our way to New Mexico.
McKinney Falls, just a few miles south of Austin, was our first choice. A quiet, natural retreat on the bank of Onion Creek, we quickly made our way to the waterfalls to cool our bodies, which were struggling to acclimatise to the near 100 degree temperatures. The water was not clear, there were too many people stirring up the sediment, but it was deep enough to swim and have fun in the spray of the falls. We shared the water with turtles and fish, and we have become ardent “turtle whisperers” as we stalk them in the rivers, trying to get as close as possible without scaring them. They do nip occasionally, so we stay away from the big ones!
There are two falls at McKinney, the upper and lower, where Onion Creek laps gently over the smooth white rocks that allow for a spot of bouldering. We preferred the upper falls as the water was consistently deep, allowing for better swimming and floating in our Walmart inflatable chairs!
A spectacular natural event at a car lot in Austin
Last night we were invited to join the locals to watch an amazing spectacle in a parking lot behind a “Jack in the Box” fast food outlet in Central Austin. The instructions told us that we should bring a lawn chair, a hat and binoculars!
Until mid-August, Purple Martins come to roost here in just a few trees for the night. After migrating to Brazil for the winter, the birds travel back to their homes in the US and Canada each spring, where they lay eggs, raise their young and prepare for travel. Some birds leave as early as July, whilst others stay as late as October.
When not breeding, the martins form large flocks and roost together in great numbers. We are not talking about a few birds here. We were told that from 8.00pm until sunset, somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 birds would swarm overhead. This was not to be missed, and so we headed down at around 7.30 in the RV to claim our spot in the car park.
When we arrived, the car lot was already filling up with couples and families, many seated and ready to watch a natural phenomena that has been occurring in this same spot, we were told, for many, many years. No-one seemed to know exactly how these birds “home” back to the same few trees each year and we were fascinated to see how so many would all find space to roost!
It’s hard to believe that a month has passed since we arrived in Texas – home of BBQ, Lone Star State Beer, The Alamo, Texan Longhorns and the crazy Texan beard!
The second largest state in America, Texas is 660 miles across its width and 790 miles long, and probably a little larger than France.
Texas is BIG! But Texas is also BEAUTIFUL!
Before we left our island home in Panama, friends would enquire with dubious probing,
Why indeed? Our adventure was to start in Texas, primarily because this southern US state would allow us, as Brits, to buy, register and insure an RV (recreational vehicle) – something we couldn’t do in many other areas of America. Our plan was to buy a motor home in Houston, travel South to Austin and then further west to Big Bend National Park. Our flexible route would the wind up through New Mexico, Arizona and possibly to Utah.
But, it’s now early July and we haven’t made it any further than San Antonio, a brief weekend away from our new temporary base in Austin, the “music capital of the world”.
We left Panama on 10th May and after a long, drawn out journey we arrived in Dallas. It’s not easy leaving Panama on a budget. It involves a boat ride from the island to town, a further boat taxi to Almirante, then the “chicken bus” to Changuinola, a busy transit town close to the Costa Rican border.
The town is surrounded by banana plantations and has little of value to offer tourists. Most of the cheaper hotels are run by the local Chinese and we ended up at one on the main road not far from the bus station that would supply our onward transport to San Jose. After an uneventful evening we made our way early to catch the more comfortable bus to San Jose Airport where we sat in relative luxury at the Illy Coffee shop (departure lounge with free WiFi) waiting for our red-eye flight to Fort Lauderdale.
Unfortunately, due to the random decision of the immigration staff NOT to expedite travellers with immediate transfers, we missed our connecting flight to Dallas.
By now we’d been awake the best part of 24 hours, but undeterred we studied a map and managed to find a local RV sales centre just a couple of miles away by bus. We didn’t really expect to find a vehicle, but it was a great opportunity to see what was available in our price range. As expected, there was nothing there for us but we were able to finally see what space we would have available to us in a 30ft A Class motor home and I was pleasantly surprised. We managed to escape admirably from the high pressure sales pitch and found a small Lebanese diner for lunch. Back at the airport we claimed some of the only seats without armrests, and completely exhausted we slept for most of the afternoon.
Fort Lauderdale is an older airport, lacking any modern facilities or decent food outlets, so it was with some relief that we were called at the last minute and rushed onto the evening flight to Dallas. We landed a couple of hours later where we were met by Sue and her friend, Daphne.
Ian had met Sue as part of his 100 goals when she was living on a ranch in Oklahoma. She now had that up for sale and was living in north Dallas and had kindly offered to host us for a few days before we continued on to Houston.
We were pretty much straight to bed but woke fresh and keen to start our new adventure in Texas. The day started with a big brunch. It was Mother’s Day so the restaurant was very busy but after a short wait I experienced ribs “Texan Style”, so full of tender meat and coated with a delicious BBQ sauce. Of course half of them were packaged up in a “to go” box for later!
Suitably refuelled after our long journey we set out on a whirlwind tour that encompassed some of the more eclectic areas of Dallas. Of course we had to visit the Dealey Plaza Historic District, the location of the assassination of John F Kennedy on November 22, 1963.
We took turns photographing each other on the highway, as we took our chances standing on the X, between traffic light changes. I was slightly surprised that “health and safety conscious” America allowed this but I guess it would happen regardless. After checking out the surrounding buildings, so familiar from films about the event, we took a quick look at the JFK memorial. Philip Johnson’s design is a “cenotaph” or open tomb that symbolizes (apparently) the freedom of JFK’s spirit. It did little to inspire me I have to admit – perhaps it is better seen at night when the walls appear to float without support.
Under Daphne’s direction, Sue took us on a quick drive by of the “arty” area of Dallas before we “cruised” the “Gaybourhood”. This prompted conversation about the largest Gay Church in the World and we made a quick visit after we had checked out the Dallas Farmers Market. It was great to see that small producers had a place from which to sell their food, and we enjoyed browsing the locally made cheeses and home grown fruits and vegetables.
One of the highlights for me was a drive out to Strokers – the premier bike hang-out in Dallas and next to The Ice House where you can have a cold beer and a burger whilst taking a look at hundreds of different bikes on parade. I got to sit on a Harley Davidson and we decided this should be a “must do” at sometime – a drive somewhere on a Harley, I’d like to be a “biker babe”, if only for an hour or two!
We completed our perfect day in Dallas with a visit to a mirco brewery and bar where we sat outside for a couple of hours chatting and drinking beer in a more up-market setting in Dallas. It was a welcome change to Panama, still lovely and warm but less humid and no biting critters! Contrary to my initial belief, Dallas definitely has a lot to offer. I liked that it had different community areas each offering something different. I’d certainly like to return at some point to explore a little more.
After a further day relaxing and hanging out around the house we found an inexpensive way of travelling on to Houston. Megabus offers fares from as low as $10 and provides a very comfortable transport option with free WI-FI along the route. The four hour journey passed quickly and we were soon at the central Houston bus drop-off where we would meet our new host.
Brad Bolin had been following Ian’s adventures for some time and when he heard that we were coming to Houston, he very kindly offered to let us stay at his very stylish and comfortable town house. I don’t think any of us expected it to be home for more than three or four days, but buying an RV was to take the best part of two weeks, and Brad accommodated us throughout.
I have to say that Brad is pretty much the perfect host. He gave us helpful advice, space to do our own thing, ferried us back and forth to the RV centre, got us discounts on all sorts of purchases, fed us, entertained us and worried perpetually about our strange habit of “walking”. It seems that walking is just not the “done” thing in Houston. It’s easy to understand why. Houston really has no centre. It is a huge city, 60 miles across and is just a place to work, live and escape from at every opportunity. It seems no one really enjoys living there but as the energy centre of Texas, all the big energy companies house their head office operations on huge campuses.
We really enjoyed our stay with Brad and I think he will be a friend for life. With him we sampled our first Texas BBQ, visited Top Golf (a huge driving range complex), ate Vietnamese with his girlfriend Jessica, shopped at the Chinese Shopping Mall, went to the Greek festival and saw the Gyros eating competition, and had an evening at an old classic cinema where we visited a bar with an unmarked entrance that only “those in the know” frequented.
I hope that we gave Brad something by way of experiences to remember us by. We did introduce him to the swimming pool complex managed by his housing association – I hope he does spend more time there relaxing in the sun. I think I made him laugh too with some of my initial American “faux pas”. I took Ian to a “24 hour magazine store” that turned out to be a porn shop!
Of course much of our time in Houston was spent at PPL Motorhomes where we selected our new RV – a 34ft Fleetwood Pace Arrow, at a cost of $14,500. It was in superb condition for its 16 years and I was relieved to find a coach that was so clean and comfortable. I’d had moments of despair as we’d started our selection process. I found it difficult to even enter some of the units due to the unbearable smells that wafted out on opening the doors!
We were also excited to pick up our new book “7 Simple Steps to Goal Setting Success”. This is a book that Ian and I wrote together to help fund our journey in the US. We drew on Ian’s goal setting achievements and my business background to put together what we think is an informative and inspirational handbook. It will help with achieving your goals and living the lifestyle you always dreamed about. Yet again Brad came to the rescue, ferrying us to the printers to get the books cut and trimmed.
Again, many people questioned our visit to Houston, including Brad! But thanks to our host it will always rate highly on my list as it was the starting place of our RV adventure. Without Brad’s help it would have been much more difficult and far less enjoyable.
So it was with some sadness that we set off from Houston, on the first leg of our tour. But fortunately Brad has a boat moored at Lake Travis in Austin, so hopefully our paths will cross again fairly soon.