Monday, March 7, 2016

Road Trip to Houston:The Drive Home and Wrap Up

Day 21

We always enjoy Las Vegas and this trip was one of our best, but we were anxious to get home so we were looking forward to hitting the road for the last leg of our trip.  As usual, despite our best intentions we didn’t get a very early start, but we knew we’d be sleeping in our own bed tonight so it didn’t really matter.  We did make our usual stop at the Primm Outlet Stores, which are just on the Nevada side of the border with California and visited the Williams-SonomaOutlet store there.  After shopping we had a quick lunch in the food court and were on our way.  It was a long, but easy drive home as we missed most of the traffic and were unloading the car by 6:30.  It was a great trip in many ways, but it sure feels good to be home.

Wrapping It Up

This was a long trip; we traveled 4500 miles in 21 days and it seemed like most of it was in Texas.  We learned that Texas is big and the people are very friendly and welcoming.  We also learned that Texas is not one of the more scenic states in the US.  The west part of the state is mostly flat, dry and desolate, Eastern Texas is greener, but very flat and the Texas Hill Country in the mid-section is nice, but nothing to make a trip for.  I think though, if we came at a different time of the year and spent a little more time there we would have found scenic countryside and a different opinion.  My brother and his wife were there last spring and they really enjoyed it with everything green and abundant wildflowers.

After having said that, we did enjoy our trip.  My favorite spot was the San Antonio River Walk.  It is a great place to hang out, relax and enjoy an excellent meal at one of the many restaurants.  Big Bend National Park while not as spectacular as some of the Western National Parks, was still worth a visit and has its own unique features.  The Houston Medical Center and particularly MD Anderson has to be one of the best concentrations of medical expertise in the country.  We did enjoy visiting the Texas Hill Country particularly the small towns that were scattered through the area.  Our problem was that the middle of winter was just the wrong time to visit which we should have known.

Although not in Texas, we really enjoyed Carlsbad Caverns.  It probably would have been better if the elevators were working as we could have spent more time in the caverns, but now we can say that we made the long walk in and out.  We also had a really nice time in Las Vegas.  It was a low key, but very relaxing visit and Val came away with a tidy profit which you can’t say very often.  I think the biggest surprise of the trip was the weather.  We didn’t know what to expect so we came prepared with heavy coats, sweatshirts and rain gear, but the weather turned out to be beautiful with warm to hot temperatures.  When Las Vegas is the coolest place (temperature wise that is) place you visit, you know you’ve had good weather.

Of course the most important thing of all on this trip was the great medical report Val got in Houston.  Although we expected it, it was still wonderful to hear from one of the leading experts in the country.  All in all, a great trip and well worth the long drive.

We have nothing else planned until our 35 day Voyage of the Viking cruise starting next July.  We leave from Boston and visit Eastern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, The Netherlands, Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Mann before returning to Boston.  This will be our longest cruise yet and we are really looking forward to it.  So unless we decide to do something between then and now, that will be the next time I’ll be posting on the blog.  See you on down the road.

Road Trip to Houston: Las Vegas

Day 17 - Winslow to Las Vegas

Today we had a pretty easy four and a half hour drive from Winslow to Las Vegas.  We knew we would gain an hour when we crossed into Nevada so we were in no hurry to get on the road this morning.  After being on the road for over two weeks we were really looking forward to spending four days in one place.  We arrived at Harrah’s Las Vegas around 1:30 and quickly checked in. 

Our room was ready and we were happy to see we had a mini-suite as the regular rooms are really in need of an upgrade.  Despite the need for room refurbishing, we still prefer to stay at Harrah’s because of its mid-strip location that works well for us.  We did find that they are in the process of upgrading all of the rooms which should be completed this year.  We unpacked our bags and got settled in and then went down to the casino to do a little gambling and get something to eat and that was about it for the day.

Day 18 – 20

Rather than go into a detailed account of our stay in Las Vegas, I’ll just give a summary of our stay.  We had no real plans as we just wanted to relax after spending the last two plus weeks on the road.  We didn’t go to any shows and pretty much just ate when we were hungry instead of planning anything.  We did eat at one restaurant we hadn’t tried before; the Border Grill located in the Forum Shops in Caesar’s Palace, which we found to be quite good and will eat there again.  We visited some of the other casinos on the Strip, took some afternoon naps and basically took it easy during our stay.

One thing notable on this visit to Las Vegas was the gambling.  We gamble for fun and don’t expect to win, but this trip we both did well and in fact Val did very well!  I didn’t come out ahead, but I did come home with most of the gambling money I’d brought.  Val, on the other hand, not only came out ahead, but quite a bit ahead.  Her best win was almost $1400 on her favorite Buffalo slot machine.

Val has a nice $1366 dollar win.
And gets paid.
The most remarkable thing though, was something that happened to us together.  Just after I retired in 2012, Val surprised me with a train trip to Denver.  On the way back we stopped in Reno for a couple of days and ended up winning $12,000 on a dollar slot machine.  We call these a “double, double, double” machine as the big jackpot is three double symbols lining up.  Ever since then whenever we see one of those types of machines in a casino, we each put in twenty dollars and try to bring repeat the magic.   

This trip was no different and so every day we would each put in our twenty with little success, but on the second to last night we played a “double, double, double” machine at the Linq Hotel and as the wheels lined up the first column showed a double, then the second column showed a double.  We held our breath waiting to see if a miracle would happen and history would repeat itself – well it didn’t, but what did happen was instead of a double symbol coming up a triple seven symbol came up and we had won $800.   

We didn't get the third double, but got the next highest symbol...
And as you can see, we were very happy with our win.
That’s a far cry from $12,000, but we were pretty happy, but that’s not what makes this story remarkable (at least to us).  What shocked us was the next night (our last night) we tried the “double, double, double” machine at Harrah’s.  Once again the double came up in the first column, but the suspense ended early as the triple seven symbol came up in the second column and we were pretty sure the third symbol would be a blank space.  What shocked us was that another double symbol came up in the third column – we had won $800 for the second night in a row.  That is the second highest win you can have on that type of machine and to have it happen two nights in a row on two separate machines seemed impossible.  Of course Val and I were elated and couldn’t believe it happened, but it certainly was a great way to end the trip.

Our second $800 dollar win in two nights.

Road Trip to Houston: The Drive to Las Vegas

Day 15 – Tajitas to Las Cruces, NM

Today we headed to Las Cruces, New Mexico where we are staying tonight.  We got a good start this morning and saved some time by just having juice and muffins for breakfast.  For the first 40 miles or so we traveled through Big Bend Ranch State Park on what has been called the most scenic drive in Texas.  It was a scenic drive following the Rio Grande River on one side and mountains on the other.  There were access sites to the river all along the way and we saw people canoeing and fishing.  I will say though, that if that is the most scenic drive in Texas, it doesn’t say much for the rest of Texas as it was nice, but nothing really spectacular. 

Driving into Big Bend Ranch State Park.

The Rio Grande River

You can see how shallow the river is.
As we left the river and the park, the land once again became arid and empty.  The one thing we did see was plenty of was border patrol. Mexico is right across the river so there is a real concentration of enforcement.  There was a checkpoint where all vehicles were stopped and at one point out in the middle of nowhere we saw a strange blimp like thing.  That turned out to be a tethered radar blimp that is used for border protection and drug enforcement.

We spent the rest of the day traveling through the open land with a few small towns until we reached El Paso, Texas, which is right on the New Mexico border.  El Paso is by far the largest town in the area with a population of over 600,000.  We crossed over into New Mexico and we had finally gotten across Texas – Texas is a very large state!!  It was a short drive from El Paso to Las Cruces and we arrived at our hotel around 4:00.

We were tired and didn’t feel like going out to eat so once again we opted to go to a nearby market and get some food we could bring back to the room.  Tomorrow will be a long day as we make our way North and West to Winslow, Arizona where we’ll be staying.

Day 16 – Las Cruces to Winslow, AZ

Today we had over 400 miles to drive so we were up early and on the road before 9:00.  Surprisingly, Val was feeling much better today and her sore throat was gone; that was a very short cold.  The first part of the drive was what we have experience quite a bit on this trip, it was empty and arid, but as we neared the Arizona border the terrain changed.  We entered the Gia National Forest and the land became more mountainous and greener.  It was a very pleasant drive with great scenery and although much slower going, it was worth it.

As we got within 50 miles of Interstate 40 we came out of the mountainous area and were once again in a flat arid area.  We got on I-40 in Hollbrook and made the short drive west to Winslow where we are staying tonight.  In October of 2014 on our way back from New Mexico we stayed at the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, which had been recommended to us by some friends and we liked it so much we are staying there again.

The La Posada is a historic hotel, but rather than go into the details I will link back to the old blog post which talks about the La Posada and has pictures of the hotel.  In the La Posada there is a restaurant called the Turquoise Room.  The Chef, Jon Sharpe, has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard award, and the restaurant was awarded the Conde Naste best food award. It's a world-class restaurant in the very unassuming desert town of Wndslow. Once again the dinner was just outstanding, it is really an excellent restaurant.

Tomorrow is a relatively short drive to Las Vegas where will spend four days before heading home.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Road Trip to Houston: Big Bend National Park Day 2

Day 14

We woke up to bad news this morning; Val has a sore throat so it looks like she’s getting my cold.  Hopefully it’ll be a light cold and she will get over it quickly.  I still have a bit of a cough, but pretty much feel back to normal.

We had a lot we wanted to do today so we went to the bakery, split a cinnamon roll and orange juice, and headed back to the park.  The first thing we wanted to do was drive up into the Chisos Mountains where the lodge was.  It was a short drive off the main road, but we went from an altitude of around 2000 feet to 5400 feet and although it was still arid, there were a lot more trees and everything seemed a greener.  The end of the road is called the Windows Area because a gap in the mountains offers a window looking out on the vast desert area.   

We make our way up into the Chisos Mountains
This is the lodge and camping area.  The gap in the mountains on the right is known as The Window and when you get to the lodge you can see the through "the window" and get a view of the valley spread out below.
After spending a little time at the top we drove back to the main road and drove to Rio Grande Village, which is at the far eastern side of the park.  We were considering whether to take a twenty mile off road trip to an abandoned mercury mine and after getting encouragement from a ranger we talked to we decided to do it.

The route we are taking is part of what is called the River Road, which follows the course of the Rio Grande, but you never actually get very close to the river.  The River Road is just over 50 miles long and ends in the western part of the park where we were yesterday.  Since it is an unimproved road it takes five or six hours to do the whole drive and we just didn’t have the time so we were doing the first 20 miles to the Mariscal Mine historical site.  The Mariscal was a quicksilver (mercury) mining operation that was last used in the 1940's.

The road was very narrow and pretty rough in places, but it didn’t require 4-wheel drive although it is advisable to have a high clearance vehicle.  The drive was very interesting and the land we traveled through was much more interesting than the area adjacent to the main roads.  There were many dry wash crossings and we wondered what that area would be like during heavy rains.

We arrived at the mine and the temperature was up to 90 degrees so it was pretty warm.  The mine itself was located up on the mountain side, but on the flat land you could see many abandoned buildings that housed the workers when it was operating.  Although you could see the mine buildings from the parking area, you had to hike up the hill to get them and I decided to take the hike, but Val just didn’t feel up to it today so she opted to stay near the car.
The walk was a little steep, but it was very interesting with all of the old buildings still standing although in a state of disrepair.  Another climb led to a point above the mines which gave a near 360 degree view of the surrounding desert.  I can't imagine working in this desolate, isolated spot in the middle of summer, but like the ranchers that settled here, the miners found a place where they could support themselves and their families.

Despite the heat, it was a very interesting hike and well worth it to me.  I felt bad leaving Val sitting there for a so long, but she drove around and explored some of the old buildings down on the flat while I was gone.

There were a number of old buildings scattered around on the flats below the mine which housed the miners.


There were quite a few openings down into the mine, but they had all been gated closed.
You can see just how dry and desolate this area is.

By the time I got back to the car, it was mid-afternoon and we had one more thing we wanted to do today so it was time for us to head back.  Where we were headed was out of the park so we said good-bye to Big Bend and headed west.  Val had seen a three part TV show on the National Geographic Channel called "Badlands, Texas" which was about a town called Terlingua, which is actually located between the park entrance and Tajitas where we are staying.  The show was about a murder that occurred in the town, but also talked about its quirky residents.  Checkout this short video and this one to get a feel for Terlingua.  She never dreamed we would actually be near the town so we couldn’t leave the area without paying it a visit. 
Terlingua was a mining town, which was all but abandoned when the mines shut down and was called a ghost town, but at some point people that really wanted to get away from it all started moving there and it came back to life.  The town looks pretty down and out with pretty much all sorts of residences ranging from teepees to trailers to whatever thrown together; there are very few what might be called normal homes in the area.  We were told the place to visit was the Terlingua Trading Company and the Starlight Theatre located next door, which is actually a restaurant and bar.

We arrived around 4:00 PM and there were quite a few cars parked with many people sitting out on the long porch, drinking beer and listening to a group of musicians playing mostly bluegrass music.  We looked around the trading post for a while and then joined the crowd relaxing on porch while we waited for the Starlight Theater to open at 5:00.  Everyone was very friendly and we talked for quite a while with some couples from the San Antonio area.  They said they like to get out here once a year before it gets too hot.  The doors finally opened at the restaurant and it quickly filled.  We had a great dinner and enjoyed both the food and atmosphere.  When we left the restaurant, there were people everywhere and the parking lot was full.  Several more musicians had joined the group on the porch and everyone seemed to be having a good time and enjoying the beautiful warm evening.  We would definitely come back to Terlingua again if we are in the area, it was great fun and very interesting.

The town of Terlingua

There was a crowd on the veranda listening to the musicians tell stories and play music.  When we came out after dinner the parking lot was full and there were a lot of people.  Friday night in Terlingua.
Val got a new pair of boots.  ;-)
From Terlingua it was a short drive to Tajitas and our hotel room.  Val was worn down although she did really well today considering she had a sore throat all day and wasn’t feeling at her best.  Tomorrow we continue our trip west and will be heading to Las Cruces, New Mexico where we’ll stay tomorrow night.

Road Trip to Houston: Big Bend National Park Day 1

Day 13

I had another bad night of coughing, but did get a little more sleep because we bought some cough syrup.  The bad news was that it only lasts about three hours so I was up several times to take a dose which meant we didn’t quite get the early start we wanted to, but were on the road by 9:30.

The mountains ahead are our destination for the day, Big Bend National Park.
Today was the first of two days we’ve set aside for exploring the park.  The first thing we did after driving into the park was to take Old Maverick Road, which is an improved dirt road just inside the western entrance to the park.  The scenery at first was pretty much the same arid landscape we’ve been seeing, but we soon got into a series of mountains, washes and rock formations.  There were very few others on the road, but we did see the ever present border patrol.  I won’t describe everything we saw as it’s easier to do it with photos.

Old Maverick Road
The "home" of an early settler in the area.

A yucca plant.

We took a short side road to an early settlement called Terlingua Abaja.
It's really hard to believe that people tried to settle and ranch this desolate and arid area.

The end of Old Maverick Road intersects the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive, which is a paved road leading back to the main park road.  Right where the paved road starts there is a turnoff that leads to the Rio Grande River.  It was very interesting to stand on the shores of the Rio Grande and look across at Mexico.  The terrain is fairly mountainous and rugged here and it was also the start of Santa Elena Canyon, which is a deep canyon 8 miles long that the Rio Grande flows through.  You can hike part way into the canyon, which I started to do, but I really wasn’t up to much hiking today so didn’t get very far.  It’s a very interesting spot.

The Rio Grande River, or what there was of it.
Santa Elena Canyon. The cliff on the left is Mexico, and the cliff on the right is the USA.

I'm up on one of the overlooks.
Looking down at the Rio Grande.  Val is the lowest speck on the shore.
We drove on a little further to Castolon Visitor’s Center and General Store.  We had a pleasant lunch sitting in the shade before continuing on our drive.  Once again rather than describing everything with words, I will do it pictures we took along the way.

An old ranch house.

The temperature today was supposed to get into the low 90's, and by the time we finished our drive it was 85.  By this time it was mid-afternoon and I was getting tired so we decided to head back to the hotel so I could get some rest.

After spending the rest of the afternoon relaxing, we once again went to the hotel restaurant where we had dinner sitting out on the patio enjoying the balmy evening.  That was it for our day, tomorrow we will spend our final day in the park.

The entryway to the restaurant veranda.
Val enjoys another beautiful balmy evening in Lajitas.