Balcones the Final Chapter, or Is It?

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In my first post covering our stay and duties at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge I concentrated on our activities surrounding the work we were doing. I failed to discuss our visitors and of course there is some to say about our time following our visit to Big Bend National Park. I intend to rectify those omissions now.

We had several visitors during our stay. It is safe to say that all were in the area for other reasons and added us to their agendas. Of course we would like to think they came just to see us, but as you will read that just wasn’t the way it was.

People go to Texas in the late winter and early spring for bird migration. We have done it in the past and we certainly tried to take advantage of being here this year for the same reason. Well, with no knowledge that we were going to be in the area, a couple of our friends from the Loons and Larks made plans to visit Texas early this spring to do some bird watching. Mike and Margaret were to fly from Detroit to Austin, spend the night in the area then drive to Corpus Christi and work their way down to and then up the Rio Grande River stopping at all the hot birding spots. When Margaret realized we were just west of Austin she immediately changed the plan and we got to spend a good part of a weekend with the two of them. Since we had the keys and permission from our boss we were ready to take them to tracts on the refuge they would otherwise not be able to visit.

To our great delight, our friend Carla Morey, another Loon or Lark, was coming down from the Dallas area to see Mike and Margaret. We offered to let Carla stay with us and she accepted. As you can guess from any previous get together of more than two Loons and Larks there was great food and even greater camaraderie as we were able to spend a few days together. Mike and Margaret got to add a few birds to their life lists and all had a good time.

One of the fun dining experiences we had with them was the second night they were in town. Margaret had asked at their hotel where one should go for good Mexican food. She was given the name of a restaurant nearby. She related her conversation to Connie, but she couldn’t be sure of the full name of the restaurant. Connie tried to find it on our GPS and I drove to the destination found. We found ourselves in a residential area adjacent to the east side of Interstate 35. There was significant road construction going on in the area making finding the place a little tough. What we found was an absolutely delightful restaurant built in a house. The food was fresh and authentic and absolutely wonderful. The staff was friendly and we were certainly made to feel at home. When I told the proprietor how we got there she said she hoped we would return. We promised we would and we did.

Later we learned that the lady at the hotel had been recommending a chain restaurant and not the one we found. Oh well!

I have this friend. He has been mentioned several times in this blog, because he is a true friend and we spend as much time together as we can even though we live nowhere near one another. Pat McGahan has been a big part of my life since we met in 1993 when I worked for him indirectly. Over the years we have shared several major events together. Pat decided he wanted to ride his bicycle across the country starting in St. Augustine, Florida and ending on Coronado Island, San Diego, California. I had asked Pat if his route would bring him to Austin. The route he had chosen would take him significantly south of Austin, but there was an Austin Loop that could be added to the route. Pat felt he had the time in his personal schedule to afford the Austin Loop. So, we planned to have him visit and stay with us for a few nights. Stopping here would give him a chance to rest a bit and since it was really pretty close to the halfway point in miles it was an appropriate place for such a rest.

As part of his planning for the trip Pat developed a list of people who would get daily text messages when he was settled in camp each night. These text messages would serve as our daily update as to his progress as well as confirmation that all was well. Some days we didn’t get our update until later in the evening than we expected or as was the case a couple of times we got no update at all. The no update days were caused, we would learn from him either being in a dead zone or in a weak enough signal area that he thought he was sending a text, but in reality the phone was just saving it until it had a better signal. All these days caused some anxiety for those of us monitoring his progress. The entire time he was in the state of Texas I had a sense of responsibility for him. I was prepared to jump in the car and take off towards his last known location to start a coordinated search for him. Well, that need never arose, thankfully. I did have to scold him one time because he got busy and forgot us.

As he worked his way across Texas towards our location we began to realize that he could show up about the same time Carla would be staying with us. Now, that would have posed a bit of a problem in that both were scheduled to stay with us in the motorhome. That would have been complicated to say the least. As it turned out, Pat was well ahead of his published schedule. He arrived, we partied, he sort of rested and we showed him around the refuge and took him out to do some birding, an activity he was previously not all that interested in and he left before Carla arrived. He told us upon his arrival when he would be leaving, which worked well with Carla’s arrival. I am happy to say that Pat has developed a pretty strong interest in bird watching while hanging around with Connie and me. We are hopeful to be able to include him in some of our adventures in the future.

Relatively early in our stay Dede Patz came from Alaska to visit her daughter and son- in- law just southwest of Austin. We were fortunate enough to be able to go visit them all and had the bonus of spending some time with Dede’s eldest son, Joe, who now works and lives in Houston. Later, during her visit we had the opportunity to have a private dinner out with Dede to catch up on all that has gone in her life since I last saw her at my Aunt Lena’s funeral last November. It was good to see her and see for ourselves how she is doing.

Another of my former shipmates who retired a few years ahead of me has been working in the Houston area since his retirement. For the last few years he has spent most of his time in South Korea supervising the construction of several deep sea oil drilling vessels. He intends to retire again fairly soon, so he and his wife are building a house in a neat community in the Canyon Lake area. Canyon Lake is west of New Braunfels, TX and north of San Antonio. We thought we would be able to spend a few weekends with Ron and Cathy as they were making fairly frequent visits to the home sight when Ron was in the country. As it turned out our schedules only overlapped for one such weekend. We spent that weekend at a great hotel in New Braunfels. The house was framed in when we saw it. Ron and Cathy gave us the super tour and we left feeling we knew how it would look finished. It will be a wonderful home in just a few more months. Ron, Cathy, Connie and I have spent a number of evenings dining and partying together over the years. We were shipmates in Scotland and Italy some ten years apart. During the Italy tour we were together a lot. It seems that whenever we get together the passage of time has no meaning because we just continue from where we left off the last time we were together. We hope to spend more time with this super couple in the years to come. They claim one of the bedrooms is ours. We will see.

Last, but certainly not least, we have this other Loon and Lark friend from Auburn, Alabama who is also a cat person. I mean she is really a cat person. She and her husband have several rescue cats and they are also raising and showing Havana Brown Cats. Just before we were to leave Balcones we got word from Shelly that she would be in Fort Worth with one of her cats for a show. We jumped at the opportunity to get to see her again and made reservations to stay at the same hotel. Our schedule only allowed us to stay one night, but that was a terrific night of reunion and education as to how the showing of cats business works. We were fascinated by the process. The show takes place in a big room such as a large ballroom. There are several show rings set up in the center of the room. The cats are kept in their own cages setup on tables around the perimeter of the room. The holding area or whatever it is called doubles as the location where the cats are groomed and otherwise pampered during what can be very long days. Each of the show rings is manned by a judge. Each judge is judging one show. If there are eight rings then there are eight shows going on at the same time. Cats from different groups are brought to a ring when called for and put in cages facing the “stage”. The judge takes the cats from the cages in order and carries them to the stage where he/she then judges the animal making notes along the way and then returns the cat to the cage. Once each cat in the group has been judged the owners can come back to remove their cat to the holding area and await the call to the next show. This particular event was a two day show with eight show rings. That means that Shelly’s cat and a second one she was showing for another breeder were involved in sixteen cat shows each over the two day period. It sort of boggles my mind to think about it.

While the cat show was truly very interesting we were as interested in catching up with Shelly and finding out what else was going on in hers and her Frank’s lives. We had a great get together over dinner and a few glasses of wine. Shelly had to make it an early evening because she had another full day of showing ahead of her. All we had was a drive back to the Austin area. The only disappointment about this little sojourn was that we had hoped to see another of our friends, Bonnie, who lives on the other side of Dallas. Early in the planning she had thought she would come down for the evening, but she realized it would be a tough drive and the return would be at night, a time she prefers not to be driving. So, we missed Bonnie, but we did toast her with our wine.

Our overall experience this past winter and spring at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge was really quite positive. Sure we had some whines along the way, but when we looked back at the overall experience it was a lot of fun. We both like the area a lot. We found some fun restaurants and our site on the refuge was just wonderful. So, when we had our end of season conference with Rob we asked him if he wanted us to come back. He said yes. We told him what time we would need off (spring wedding for a great nephew) to which he agreed, So, next March we will return and spend just a little less time there as this year.

From Balcones we were off to Yellowstone National Park. We left the refuge two weeks ahead of our committed arrival date at Yellowstone. By having two weeks we knew we could make the trip slow enough to enjoy the journey while giving us plenty of options regarding routes depending on the weather conditions. As everyone breathing can attest to, the weather this spring has been destructive and very difficult to predict. We wanted to be safe, but we also wanted to arrive on time. The good news about our plan was that if the weather was cooperative we would be able to visit relatives and friends along the way.

As it turned out, that is exactly what we did. However, there were some points of excitement along the way. Just a day or so before we left Balcones our living room air conditioner decided to stop working. Fortunately we had a few cool days there at the end and we survived without it. However, we didn’t have time to get it to a technician. After our first day on the road I went to the manufacturer’s web site in hopes of finding either a troubleshooting guide more detailed than the one in the owner’s manual or direction on where along our route we could stop and get a real tech to take a look. What I learned scared me. The manufacturer has gotten out of the RV A/C business. Our model is no longer sold. I remembered back to the day we took possession of the motorhome and the fellow who was doing the walk through of all the systems with us pointed out that Carrier A/C systems could be fixed by any authorized Carrier technician in the country. We would never have to take it to an RV A/ C specialist. Well, so much for that plan.

In San Angelo I got a tip from a guy working at the RV Park for two good places to call. I called them both. Neither could help me, but one recommended an independent A/C guy. When I called him, he was happy to come out early the next morning and give it a shot. He found a bad relay on a circuit board and told me that the entire board would have to be replaced. However, he went on to say that Carrier was no longer stocking parts for these machines and I would likely have to have the entire unit replaced. He was able to jump around the relay causing the unit to run continuously so long as the breaker was closed. That would certainly work for us while we were still in Texas and southern Colorado, but when got to the point of needing heat again we would be in trouble because another circuit board in the living room unit controls the gas furnace. We could not change the mode from Air to Heat with the jumper installed.

Armed with what seemed like straight information I decided to get a new unit. We had noticed that Camping World was having a sale on Air Conditioners, so I called the Denver Camping World and talked to a service department representative and told him my story of woe. He of course told me that Camping World doesn’t sell Carrier air conditioners. Of course I knew that, because no one does. He also told me he would have to call the vendors of the machines they do carry to see if they would fit in our motorhome. That statement bothered me on a couple of levels. First it was late on Friday before Memorial Day meaning there would be no meaningful conversations until Tuesday. Second, in the catalog I could plainly read that both manufacturers and all their supported models carried by Camping World would fit a 14 by 14 inch hole in the roof. That seems to be the only thing that is standard across the RV industry. Anyway, I had not been prepared for all the questions the service rep had for me, so I had some lookups to get. When I called back I got his boss. The boss was certain that they could exchange our unit for one they had in stock. Now, I have to say that I was straight forward with both these guys. I told them both that my system was ducted and that the problem I was having was with the control circuitry which is housed in the lower or internal portion of the system. What neither of these guys told me was that the compressor, evaporator, fan section is sold separately from the control unit and that they had no ducted control units in stock. But, guy number two made an appointment for us to have our unit replaced with a quoted price the same as the sale catalog had indicated. We made the appointment for early on Tuesday morning and we would be allowed to dry camp in their parking lot over night ahead of the appointment.

Boy what a relief. We had a plan and the solution was on sale. Not so fast! When I checked in on Tuesday morning the service writer who I think was the first guy I had talked to on Friday, presented me with a document that was nearly twice as much as I had been quoted over the phone. So, I started asking what specific line items were. One was an extended service agreement which I didn’t ask for nor want. Another was for the interior unit. Boy did the warning flags pop up when he said that. I told him that my problem was in the interior unit. Had I known I could just replace the interior unit that is what I would have asked have done. He said that not all interior units could be mated to any exterior unit and asked if mine was a ducted or unducted system. I told him that it was ducted and that I did not intend to go away from that configuration. He then told me he didn’t think they had any interior units in stock that went to ducted systems, but he would have the tech check before any work was started. I felt steam building between my ears and decided Starbucks should be in my immediate future so no one got hurt.

After checking to make sure he had my phone number correct, which he did not, Connie and I left for Starbucks. I was not feeling good about our immediate future. Shortly after arriving at Starbucks my day turned around as the woman behind me asked me what the emblem on my jacket was. I was wearing my Marine Corps Marathon wind breaker. Connie told her what it was and the lady went on to say that she was retired Navy. We spent the next hour with her and her mother swapping Navy stories. Both she and her husband retired from the Navy. We even sort of know people together. About midway through our conversation my non-buddy from Camping World called me to tell me they didn’t have an interior unit and it would take ten to fourteen business days to get one. I canceled the job and we eventually went back and picked up the coach. We did go some ten miles away to a mall first though.

Our next stop was to get the motorhome washed. We try to stop at truck washes a couple of times a year and I do hand washings in between. While we waited in what at first seemed like an endless line for the wash I started roaming around the Carrier web site and eventually stumbled onto a tech support site for our model air conditioner. I called the 866 number and after talking to a screener who tried to vector me to a service technician near home (Florida) I was given the number of the in house tech support engineer. I called that number and got voice mail. I left a message. To my surprise the engineer called back soon after we got on the road headed north. I handed my phone to Connie who did a good job of explaining our problem, what we had been told about Carrier support for the model etc. The engineer assured us that they do in fact still support the unit, but they no longer manufacture them. He then spent several minutes trying to get us to a technician that could verify what component was really bad. It was his opinion that replacing the entire control unit was the best route to go, but he didn’t want to just send us one without one of their people first verifying the problem. Well, finding a tech would be too hard for the foreseeable future due to where we would be. When Connie got off the phone we discussed our options. We decided that the best move would be to remove the jumper from the unit so we could have heat because we both knew we were going to need heat and probably sooner rather than later. We also thought that one unit would probably take care of us this summer since we will be in a much cooler and dryer climate. Then we could do what needs to be done on our way out in the fall.

When we got settled in camp in Cheyenne, Wyoming I took that jumper out and while I was in the area I smacked the relay a few times with the handle end of my screwdriver. Then I turned the air conditioner on and low and behold it worked. In fact it worked better than it had ever before. The fan came on ahead of the compressor and when it reached the set temperature the first thing that happened was the fan down shifted to slow and five minutes later the compressor shut down followed immediately by the fan. Just like the book says it is supposed to work. I then cranked up the heat to make sure the furnace would come on and sure enough it works too.

Connie said, “So how we gonna spend that thousand dollars you just saved?”

I need to back up a bit. While we were living through this air conditioner issue we were still proceeding along our track northwest through Texas to New Mexico, then north through Colorado. We stayed in some strange places and ate in some stranger restaurants, but it was all part of the adventure. Our Denver stop was to include a visit with my brother John and his wife, Sandi and their daughter Kristina and her two children Tyeden and Rheanna. After John and I made plans for them to come visit us at Camping World and then go to a great Italian restaurant just up the road about a half mile he called my sister Mary Ann who lives east of Greeley and invited her and her husband Jerry to meet us at the restaurant. I called Mary Ann to try to make arrangements to see them the next day as we rolled northward. She was happy to come to us this time because she would be off work anyway due to the Memorial Day holiday. Tuesday would be a bad day at work because of the holiday and she would likely as not be exhausted by day’s end.

That plan was just great. We got to show off our home to Tyeden and Rheanna who thought it was pretty neat and then they and their mother went home and let the old folks go to dinner without the young ones. It was too bad we couldn’t spend more time with Kristina, but I think she made a wise decision because her young children would not have been able to stand the two hour dinner that we all enjoyed so much. The reunion with my siblings was one of the best we have had and I am thankful John had the vision to call Mary Ann before I did. I think we all enjoyed one another’s company immensely.

Once the Camping World visit fell through and we had gotten the coach washed we headed to Cheyenne where we had hoped to spend some time with another of our retired Navy friends as well as my childhood buddy and neighbor. Unfortunately, Jim was out of town and his wife Beth was in the midst of getting ready to meet up with Jim near Denver before flying to San Diego to visit her relatives. At first she thought we might be able to get together, but she eventually realized her plate was just too full. We certainly understood that and we felt bad that we couldn’t have given her more notice of our intentions, but there had been too many moving parts in the plan. As for my childhood buddy, Stephan, he and his wife had plans for the evening of our arrival and would be available rather late the following night. We eventually decided on a lunch get together, which while very short was very efficient at getting us caught up with one another’s activities and near term plans. Unfortunately Kay couldn’t join us. For that we are sorry, but we still had a great time with Stephan. I think we have been friends since about the third grade and that is a long time.

Since we had so much trouble connecting with our friends in Cheyenne we suddenly had plenty of time for me to sort of rediscover my old home. We did some shopping and incidental sightseeing while going from one super market to another looking for something we never found. It was a good time and even a bit nostalgic for me.

From Cheyenne we made the drive to Buffalo in one day. For real road warriors a drive of just 297 miles is not a long trip. However, since leaving Balcones it was the longest distance we would drive in one day. First, there is no reason for us to drive long distances each day. We might miss something along the way doing that. Second, it had been over four months since we had driven anywhere in the motorhome and I realized it takes some getting used to all over again. Besides both of those reasons, I happen to like an afternoon nap now and again. It isn’t safe to nap and drive at the same time; therefore it is best to be in camp before the nap monster strikes.

We used Buffalo as a temporary home base from where we would visit my cousin Laura and her husband Hal who live in Buffalo. We could also make the short drive to Sheridan in the car to visit my Aunt Rose Marie and another cousin and Laura’s brother, Fred. I have several other cousins and second cousins in the Sheridan area, but time was limited and they are hard to get together. So, if any of you in the Sheridan/Buffalo area didn’t know we were in the area until you read this we are sorry we didn’t look you up. We may see some of you later in the summer.

On our first night in Buffalo Laura and Hal came to the RV Park to tour our home before we went to dinner at the historic Occidental Hotel in downtown Buffalo. When I lived in Buffalo I was never in the restaurant of the hotel, but I had been in the hotel a few times but never realized the history that was made there. The current owners have restored the building to as close to the original as was possible. Most of the former rooms have been converted into suites and the hotel is still operated as such. In fact it was full the Thursday night we dined there. The restaurant is a fabulous place with several very private alcoves facing the street. One such private room was actually a bank vault at one time. The food was exceptional. The chef came out and talked to us for several minutes as we were finishing our dinner. That added a little to the overall treat.

After dinner we were browsing around the lobby of the hotel looking at old photographs when we met the owner who took us on a mini-tour of the upper floor. She showed us original clothing from the original owners of the hotel. The clothing is on display in the public areas of the second floor. She also told us stories of the ghost of a young girl named Emily who remains in the building nearly a hundred years after her death. Apparently many people have seen Emily over the years. One of those ghost hunter television programs taped a session at the hotel and they claim to have made contact with the girl who seems to possibly have been molested by a man before her death. I had heard of Emily when I lived in Buffalo, but I can’t say that I ever saw her.

It was a wonderful evening and we truly enjoyed seeing Hal and Laura at a time that was not surrounding some big event like a birthday party or funeral. It is much better to spend time with relatives during the so called normal times rather than during the crisis.

The next morning we drove to Sheridan. Since the Starbucks in Sheridan is the only one we will see for the summer, we decided to stop there first. I had called Aunt Rose before leaving Buffalo and learned she was not feeling too well. She had spent a week in the hospital recently and was not quite back to normal. She indicated she wouldn’t want to go out, but would love to have us come to visit. We picked up lunch on our way to Aunt Rose’s house and spent the afternoon visiting. It was far too short a visit, but given her health it was best that we not stay too long.

We then walked through the downtown area before meeting up with Laura at Fred’s house. She and Fred had gone to Billings for an appointment and shopping. She had driven up from Buffalo, but was not feeling up to driving back by alone. So, I drove her car, Connie drove our car and Fred followed later in his car. We took Laura home as she really wasn’t feeling well and picked Hal up and then the three of us met Fred downtown at a Mexican restaurant. We had another wonderful dinner and great conversation.

We got back to the RV Park fairly early which suited us well as we had to cross over the mountains the next morning and I didn’t want to do that tired. As it turned out the drive was absolutely uneventful. The roads were clear and the weather was perfect. We arrived at our destination, a campground west of Cody in the mid-afternoon. This RV Park reminded us of some of the places we found in Alaska. It was motel, RV Park, restaurant and bar all in one. It is a rustic place but well maintained. The restaurant was serving what they referred to as the early spring menu as the heavy snow conditions in Yellowstone Park had the East Gate open only from 8 PM to 10 AM. That fact resulted in the traffic flow through the Cody area to be way down for the time of year. We had a wonderful dinner just the same. I wonder what their full menu looks like.

We had planned two nights in the Cody area, so the following morning we took advantage of the low tourist population to take in as many sights as we could. We visited the Bill Cody Dam and took some pretty neat pictures of the dam and surrounding area. We then went back into Cody and had lunch in one of the several hotels that Bill Cody once owned. After lunch we strolled up and down the streets doing some window shopping. We even found an outlet for Sierra Trading Company. You might remember this place as the one who sends seasonal catalogs printed on newspaper stock. They carry a little of just about everything. The outlet store in Cody was sort of different. The layout was really strange and the merchandise was not discounted very much, at least not for my money it wasn’t.

After leaving Cody we drove towards the park entrance several miles to get an idea of what was ahead of us. We stopped along the way a few times to take some pictures and enjoy the scenery. We decided that the first part of our drive the next morning was going to be just wonderful.

We got an earlier than normal start the next morning so that we could beat the 10 AM deadline with ease. The concern that had caused the East Gate to be open only during the colder part of the day was avalanche concerns. The park service had spent days trying to get a huge section of snow to move down a slope including firing howitzers into the snow. As we drove towards the gate we were surprised to see as little snow as we were seeing. As we started to ascend we soon came to realize that there really was a lot of snow at the higher elevations. Once we got into Yellowstone National Park we were driving on dry roads with ever growing snow banks on either side of the road. When we got near the pass it was obvious what the Park Service was concerned about. There had been a few really small avalanches along the same snow field. Had the whole thing come down it would have been a real mess.

As we approached Yellowstone Lake we could see that not only was it still frozen, except along the shoreline, but there was snow drifted on the ice. It was really beautiful.

We eventually made our way to what is to be our home for the next several months only to find the gate locked and a wood cutting crew working inside the campground area. I parked in such a way as to be able to get back to the highway while Connie walked in to talk to whoever would talk to her. She learned that water had not yet been certified and therefore we couldn’t go in without getting in touch with Ranger Allen Bush. Since there was no cell service near the campground we went to Mammoth where Allen Bush works out of. We eventually learned that Allen was on a day off and there was no one around who knew the real status of the campground. We followed another ranger to the Mammoth Campground where we stayed for the next two nights.

We are now at Indian Creek Campground and working as campground hosts. Stay tuned for the wonderful adventure we are sure to have.

In the meantime enjoy the images I have put in a web album associated with this article. Just click the link below.

Balcones and beyond


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