Monday, July 17, 2017

Texas and Southwest Wildlife

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Seeing different wildlife continues to be some of what I enjoy most about traveling to various parts of the country.  Florida alone can present unique wildlife encounters from one part of the state to the next.  After all, we came across gators, manatees, and bottle-nose dolphins just to name a few.  But most recently we've enjoyed, or rather experienced, what Texas has to offer.  

East of Dallas - Lake Tawakoni, TX
     LJ, Baby A and I are on an evening bike ride along the mostly paved campground roads.  The sun is slipping behind the far edge of the lake.  An orange glow blankets the wooded paths as the falling sun sends streaks of light between the trees, making things slightly hard to see in the glare - until it's almost too late.  I notice a snake on the road a half second before the left wheel of the bike trailer takes off the snake's head.  But just in time the snake recoils, barely avoiding a quick and painless death.  I pull the bike around to show LJ the snake.  We stay about 10 ft back, the snake maybe a foot and a half long itself, and observe.  LJ eggs me on in an attempt to get me to agitate the creature into moving.  
     Throw rocks or a stick, he asks.  
     I tell him when you encounter wildlife, particularly snakes, you keep your distance and never touch.  
     "Throw water on it!" is his only response.  
     "No, you just stay back and can look."

     Just then, a family cruises by on their golf cart and offers the typical campground friendly hello.  "How are you this evenin'?" the man, about my age, asks while still rolling.

     I say good, just checking out this snake.  That's enough for him to pull over for a closer look himself, along with a second golf cart coming up from behind joining in on whatever it is we have going on.  Just as I'm reminding LJ to stay back and that we don't touch snakes, the man walks right up to the snake and brings his tennis shoe covered foot smoothly down on the snakes head.  It seems he is planning on picking it up to transport it off the street and over to the forest.  

    The second man, from the second golf cart, chimes in.  "That there's a copperhead.  Just rip its head off.  We don't want that 'round here."

     So the first man, with his foot securely on the head of the snake, grips the tail end with his bare hand.  "Yeah, my brother got bit by one of these.  Hand swelled so bad it split open three places.  Nasty suckers," he says while getting a better grip.  

     From his golf cart I hear his wife, while shaking her head back and forth, say, "Bo, you're such an idiot.  You're gonna git bit."

     Bo, apparently his name, pulls the snakes tail with all his might.  It looks like the snake is stretching to twice its original length before springing back.  At this point I'm trying to turn my bike and trailer around to get some distance between what I see is a bad situation.  Just in case the snake gets lose or is thrown by Bo in some sort of struggle, I'd like to be well clear.  

     The second man chimes in again.  "Just crush its head!"

     So Bo, in his tennis shoes, grinds this snakes head into the crumbled asphalt road until there is nothing left of it.  LJ and I both look on in horror, wanting to leave but unable to turn away.  The gruesome scene has us captivated. 

     Thanks to Bo, the campground is now safe from this small copperhead.  As for my lesson to my son about not touching snakes, Bo may have destroyed that too.  

...And Tawakoni offers some excellent bass fishing in the lily pads to boot!

Lavon, TX
After pulling into our campsite for our first evening, still needing to get the trailer parked and settled in, we come across a visitor.  The boys are quite excited.  Brynn, on the other hand, is not.  A Texas Tarantula has apparently become enamored with our RV "front yard", creeping back and forth between the tires to the front doorway.  Maybe he likes the lingering bits of shade as the sun sets?  Or maybe LJ is small enough to look like a tasty treat?  A second tarantula is spotted near the truck tire.  Brynn makes it clear from the get go - if one tarantula is found in the trailer, we're listing it for sale, no exceptions.  

     One of the campground hosts, when we share of our animal discovery, says, "Oh yeah those spiders love to come out just about this time every evening.  They're all over the place!  Makes you feel right at home."

She wasn't kidding.  Brynn sees another three that evening. 

Sweetwater, TX  (Stop "A - Day 1")     It's hot, dry and very dusty.  I'm not exactly looking to go for a nature hike.  We've still got to get settled into our campsite and get dinner going anyhow.  So we pull into our first spot.  A pull-through site, which will make things easy.  I go to open up the electrical box and makes sure everything is working properly.  Lifting the lid is just enough to cause a wasp nest to drop to the ground, flying insects of pain and misery caught off guard.  I run long way around the trailer and jump back in the truck.  We'll try the next spot over, I think.

     So I venture to the next spot, and carefully open the electrical box.  A large and mean looking spider has set up home, web and all, right on top of the 30 amp outlet.  Maybe we'll keep looking.  

     We find a third spot one row over.  Wasps.  This time I don't even touch the box.  I know they're in there.  

     We pull the trailer back to the spider's hideout.  A spider doesn't fly, so I figure I can handle it.  He's clearly more scared of me than I am of it, because as I reach the electrical cord up to plug into the box, the spider retreats into the hole for the ground of the 30 amp.  Well, this is easy, I think to myself.  I plug the the cord in and the spider is never seen again.
      Sweetwater is also apparently home to the most millipedes I've ever seen in one place, to very large and very red looking ants that don't so much as make an ant hill, but excavate the earth, and home as well to the usual cottontail rabbits. This place has a strange beauty to it, and certainly feels very wild.  

Carlsbad Caverns* ("Stop A - Day 2")
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A treat for nature lovers.  Our stay is at Brantley Lake State Park, a reservoir in the desert about 45 minutes north of the Caverns, and there is no shortage of wildlife here.  We see quails scurrying about as they chatter, doves cooing from our front shade trees, bright yellow bellied  Western King birds zipping from limb to limb, a scorpion perched outside the bathhouse, jack rabbits moving about in their strange-for-a-rabbit kind of walk, cottontail rabbits hopping all over, wild looking striped and colorful lizards, and roadrunners frequently spotted running along, not surprisingly, the road.  If it counts, we even see a porcupine on the road after it was introduced to the front end of a truck, but still plenty recognizable.  We don't catch a glimpse of any mule deer, but we know they're out there too, somewhere.  The desert seems to come alive in the evening, transforming from a hot and inhospitable climate into a beautiful wilderness with large skies and endless views.  

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 The Caverns themselves treat us to cave swallows that seem excited to share their home with us human outsiders, swooping, flying and chirping all over the natural cave entrance.  Inside the cave the boys learn about cave crickets, and LJ is quickly concerned of the possibility of these crickets being very lonely.  And of course we saw bats.  Many thousands of Brazilian free-tailed bats, which every evening escape the cool confines of the cave to join in mans' battle to eradicate mosquitoes from the natural world.  It was a long wait to see the exodus of flying fur balls, but we enjoyed the experience, particularly after having hiked down the same route they fly out each evening.  

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Albuquerque, NM 
    We went to the ABQ zoo, but those animals can't be included in our regional wildlife records.  What we do see, however, is a horny toad, or horned frog, depending on what part of Texas you hail from, I figure.  Like us, it was enjoying the cool climate 9,000' up in the Salida Mountains.  

South Colorado
     After visiting a small, but lovely zoo in Carlsbad, we learned of the pronghorn.  A small, gazelle like creature native to our very own country.  And capable of, get this, a speed that rivals the cheetah - running up to 70 mph.  And wouldn't luck have it that while driving up a small highway with the Rockies a stones throw to our left is the occasional pronghorn.  None outran the Excursion down the highway - probably too hot out - but we saw at least a dozen grazing or relaxing in the cattle pastures.  When I was finally able to get AJ to pull away from his Dragons movie and glimpse this creature, he said "Yeah, I see it" and turned back to the zombie screen.  There were many occasions where the movie was paused for our children to enjoy the world around them, even if only for 5 minute chunks.  

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Old New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns (Stop A-Day 2)
The Wandering Whitehursts have ventured to one of the largest cavern rooms in the Western Hemisphere.  Carlsbad Caverns sits about 15 miles south of Carlsbad, New Mexico in the Chihuahuan Desert.  We decided to hike the natural entrance to the cavern, a 1.3 mile descent 75 stories underground (750 below the surface).  I, personally, was curious to see how long the kids would last.  But they have hiking in their blood.  Not a complaint from the kids, even during the second hike of 1.3 miles around the "Big Room" of the cavern.  Even Baby A hiked some of it.  The deep drop-offs and steep descents kept her in her carrier on my back for the most part. She even napped for a bit. 
After our cavern adventures last year in Skyline Cavern and Mammoth Cave, this was by far the largest cavern we have experienced.  Each have very unique characteristics, so it's difficult to choose a favorite.  But I think the kids would vote for Carlsbad since we kept them up way beyond their bedtime to watch the bats leave the cave in search of food.  AJ, our 'shy' child, even got up the courage to ask the Ranger questions in front of an audience of about 500 people. (Proud mom moment)  I love how much the kids learn on this journey.  Things that they would normally learn from a great library book they are experiencing in person.  Ask AJ, he's pretty much an expert on the Brazilian Free-Tail Bat now. ;)

Campground comments:  We stayed at Brantly Lake State park.  While a little bit out of the way it was a really neat, clean campground.  It was in the middle of, well, the desert (And apparently the largest oil and natural gas field in the country).  Nothing around for miles.  We had roadrunners, jack rabbits, cottontails and one scorpion in our backyard.  Our stay here was a great opportunity to talk with the kids about being intentional about where you put your feet while walking, what to do if you hear rattling, and how to take care of our environment so these animals have a safe place to live (like conserving water in the desert).

Albuquerque (Stop B)
Oy it was HOT!  Like 104, hot.  And this coming from someone who had just previously spent a week with no air conditioning in Haiti.  We stayed on base in New Mexico which was perfectly located to all the adventures we wanted to hit up in Albuquerque.  We hit up the museum of Natural History, ABQ Biopark, Explora (a children's science museum) and the Sandia Sky Tram.  I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Taos- not really (Stop C)

The original plan was to stay in a State Park outside of Taos, but we had to accelerate our trip to Colorado Springs in order to, once again, get the truck into a shop. So we stayed at the State Park, but we didn't get into Taos.  With that being said, my goodness is New Mexico beautiful!!  What a versatile state.  From White Sands to the Caverns to the northern Mountains, what a cool state.  We took the kids on a very technical hike that they surpassed with pride and amazing agility.  It lead to one of the best views we've experience so far.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Day 2 - A New Kind of Drama

We awake in the morning and leave Sweetwater to continue our journey west to "Stop A - Day 2".  

     The truck looks to be working fine, and I focus much of my attention on the Engine Oil Temperature and battery voltage to see if there are any repeats of the issues we've seen in the day and weeks prior.  Unexpectedly a different light appears on the dash.  It's the low fuel light.  Not to worry.  I've got 50 miles range remaining per my vehicle trip computer.  We'll pull off at the next stop.  

     Except... the next stop doesn't appear to be coming up any time soon.  Brynn manages to get enough cell service to pull up the nearest gas station - 22 miles away, and yes it has diesel.  We're showing 46 miles on the range at this point.  We should be good, right?  But knowing that towing near max capacity (10,500 lbs) runs the fuel down considerably quicker than the computer claims, which I learned early on, I bounced the odometer against the range ticker for the next 5 miles.  

     2 to 1.  For every mile I drive, two miles disappear from my range.  That means the we'll get to the gas station with somewhere around one mile range remaining, if we make it at all.  Past experience tells me our range ticker is pretty accurate.  It got down below 2 miles before the vehicle came to a stall and stranded us in Indiana with a repair bill souvenir.   I don't want that to happen again, so I know before 2 miles range appears, whether I am at the gas station or not, this truck is pulling over to the side of the interstate and I'm hopping on my bicycle with a gas can.  Its already 104 degrees late in the morning, so every mile closer to the gas station, the better off I'll be biking, and more importantly the less time the family is waiting for my return.  (We may be able to run the A/C in the trailer off generators, ironically also low on fuel, so they aren't left stranded in the heat).  The difference between a 2 mile and 10 mile round trip bike ride is fairly substantial in this heat.  

     Every 1/10th of a mile counts at this point.  I share with Brynn the predicament.  She immediately, and wisely, cuts the A/C.  We have 15 miles to go... in a black SUV... with windows seemingly straight out of a greenhouse... in 104 degree West Texas.  If I wasn't sweating from the stress of the situation, I'm definitely sweating now.  We slow our speed from our usual 60 mph to 50, reducing RPMs by 500 and ever so slightly improving our fuel economy from 10 mpg to maybe as much as 11 mpg.  Every little bit counts. 

     I pull up our "fuel remaining" read out on our Scan Gauge.  It's given in percentage: 4% remaining.  If  it's all usable fuel, we are looking at 1 and 3/4 gallons remaining, or about 17 miles.  We just might make it.  I frantically scan the instruments and then back up to the black top, heat waves blurring the horizon.  1500 RPM - 11 mpg - 3% fuel remaining - 24 miles range (which is actually closer to 12 miles).  11 miles to go.  We can do it.

     The stress is nearly unbearable for me.  If I'm driving down the highway on my own, no big deal.  I can handle a bike ride in the desert sun.  But how could I be so irresponsible as to do this to my family - again!  Sweat has me plastered to the leather seats.  I wipe sweat from my brow with each passing second.  We creep along at 50 mph, the cabin temperature surely now 15 degrees warmer than just minutes before.  The boys holler out, "Daddy, I'm getting warm."  I know buddy, hang in there.  Brynn's recent trip to Haiti with no A/C seems to have prepared her for this, as she doesn't seem to be bothered by the heat at all.  

    Two miles to go!  I see the exit in the distance and its all downhill from here.  We can make it!  I hope...  

     Two minutes later I'm coasting off the interstate.  Now for the tricky part.  Pulling the 55 ft truck and trailer into a small gas station, making sure the pump is lined up on the proper side, and not sideswiping anything in the process is challenging enough when not running on vapors.  This may take some luck to pull off.  As we approach I see the diesel pump is perfectly positioned for me to pull straight in.  We're going to make it after all!

     But it just can't be that easy.  A gentleman is already using that very pump (for gasoline, not diesel, as is always the case), and I don't have another option.  I open my window and tell him I'm completely empty and may not even have one more minute of fuel to idle here while he finishes.  Basically I'd like him to stop and leave, even if his tank is only half full.  Fortunately the fuel nozzle clicks off as I'm explaining my plight.  He surely understands the gravity of the situation, so my anxiety lessens.  And then he begins the tedious and unnecessary step of "topping off" his tank, little click after little click, making sure to get that crucial last 1/64th gallon of gas into his tank.  Just as I'm about to lay on my horn to get this guy moving, he removes the nozzle, and returns it to the pump stand, moving as though he just received two new hips, impossibly slow as he inches those last couple of steps.  (I hope he really did have some mobility issues, because otherwise evil has overtaken even the most benign of human encounters).  I'm preparing myself for the old man to begin a squeegee wipe of his windshield, but he spares me the suffering.

     He leaves, we pull in.  2% fuel remaining, 4 miles range on the trip computer.  A little more than 43 gallons is required to fill up the 44 gallon tank.  So far as I can tell, we just made it.  Never again, I say to myself, as I breathe out a long sigh of relief.  


My wonderful family has already made the best of the situation, and they are treating themselves to some Dairy Queen to cool off.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

Texas Westbound - Day 1

Day 1 of our journey and the excitement has already begun - yet again vehicle related.  

Quick backstory: a few weeks ago we found our truck batteries dead upon attempting to start the truck.  A kind RV neighbor supplied the rather challenged jump start, and we were on our way.  But once moving the truck Service Engine Light illuminated (Code P0197; Engine Oil Temperature Sensor low volatage) and the truck nearly stalled with RPMs bouncing wildly.  The truck shook and shuddered and no matter how much I pressed the throttle, it merely crept forward ever so slowly, shaking all the while.  For fear of damaging the vehicle, we turned it off, walked back to the camp site (just a 1/4 of a mile) and had the truck towed to the nearest shop.  End result - two new batteries and we were good to go.  Easy enough!  Days later the Service Engine Light popped on again, this time for indicating a bad alternator.  After confirming with my multi-meter and again by the ever helpful auto parts store staff, and new alternator was provided under warranty.  Brynn, ever the mechanic, swapped them out in my parents front drive, and we were back to a well running automobile.  
     Days earlier I replaced the rear brake pads, rotors, calipers and caliper brackets with some higher end parts, so the truck has been a bit of a sore thumb sitting up on jack stands in the driveway of an otherwise fancy HOA neighborhood.  But with a four month road trip ahead, it was important to make sure the truck was ready for the task.  And it was, right up until the first day of our journey.  

     After a quick fuel stop somewhere east of Abilene, TX, I start the truck and low and behold, the Service Engine Light (Code P0197) is back, same as before.  I clear the code and immediately the truck shudders, RPMs erratic, and no power available.  Uh oh, here we go again.  The only difference this time is that my house is attached to the truck and we are sitting at the gas station lot blocking a good portion with the trailer.  Not an ideal way to get stranded.  
     Another bad alternator pushing low voltage?  So it would seem.  It's only showing 12.1V, when 13.5-14.1 is what we usually see on our Scan Guage.  I turn off the engine and then back on.  The RPMs stabilize and the shuddering stops, but the voltage is still low with the Service Engine Light.  What to do now?  We're 20 miles from the nearest town and temperatures are soaring over 100 (we see 107 later in the day - a scorcher!).  We could chance driving the 20 miles and risk being stranded roadside in the blistering West Texas summer.  I think we can make the drive to the parts store, and if need be replace the alternator in the parking lot.  Only a 30 minute job, so doable even in this extreme heat.  
     So off we go with a prayer for safe travels.  We make it to our auto parts store and patiently wait for our store associate to bring out his fancy test equipment to check the alternator.  But I already know what he'll say.  The voltage had returned to normal range during the last portion of our drive to the store.  Nevertheless, the test is performed and the alternator checks good.  Which is good, right?  No issues means the truck should be fine.  Meanwhile, our exemplary store clerk also attempts to read the code for the Service Engine Light.  We already know it is P0197 from our own scanner, but I'm hoping his might provide more detail to the issue.  But once plugged in the only reading shown is "NO SYNC".  I point out that his cable is frayed, and the yellow wire is completely cut in half.  He says, "No, that can't be it.  I think its something with your vehicle.  I've seen this before and its usually a problem somewhere in this area in front of the steering wheel."  He says this as he gestures from the steering wheel to the front bumper, completely serious as he does so.  Thank you, Sherlock, for narrowing things down.  I'll be sure to tell me friends of where they can find such helpful service.  I'll take it from here, thank you.  

     We proceed with our journey to our Sweetwater, TX* campground.  Upon arriving I notice the voltage keeps falling below 12V when idling.  Not good.  I rev the engine as Brynn gets us checked in.  That does the trick for now, and we pull into our spot for the night.  We'll see what tomorrow brings.  

*Sweetwater, TX is the answer to Picture "A", first on our "Guess-Em" blog post.  Congratulations to our "Donut Farm" Family for correctly guessing the first stop!
Our Sweetwater, TX backyard