Day 16, Montgomery

Our days at the beach have come to an end.  It’s always sad to leave the beach behind, and today was no exception.  We set out first thing in the morning, back across the roller-coaster bridge, and onto the mainland.  Our destination for the day was Montgomery, AL.

Our first stop in Montgomery was the Alabama State Capitol.  Outside the south entrance of the capitol building was a U-shaped drive lined with the state flags of all 50 states.  At the base of the flag was a flat 1ft x 1.5ft chunk of stone representing the state. It was neat to walk along and see what kind of stone represented each state.  South Dakota and Wyoming had pieces of petrified wood, which I thought was really cool! Unlike many of the capitol buildings we have been in lately, this one is no longer used for the main offices or House and Senate Chambers.  Those have been moved to newer buildings nearby. So, we had the run of the place without all the hubbub that we had in Texas just a week or so ago. State Capitols often have unique and interesting details that strike me. Alabama’s was its carpets.  There were several unique patterns in vivid colors. On the wall of the old House of Representatives chamber was a plaque commemorating the signing of the declaration for Alabama to secede from the United States.

After checking out the State Capitol building, we walked across the street to the First White House of the Confederacy.  Inside, we were greeted by a very friendly and chatty docent, who just happened to be a yankee from upstate New York. Kinda detracted from the ambiance, but what can you do.  It was a smallish house, definitely not on par with the original White House in Washington DC. Also, this house only served at the home of the Confederate President for about a year or less before the capitol was moved to Virginia.  There were quite a few artifacts preserved that were actually used by Jefferson Davis and his family. In my experience of touring old houses, that seems quite rare – usually there are only a few pieces from the original owner and most are collected from various sources from the right time period.

Our next stop was the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (more commonly known as the new Lynching Memorial).  Rob and I first heard about it on NBC Nightly news. Lester Holt did a segment on it, in which he found the name of a relative who was lynched.  I felt like these lychings and the atmosphere of our society that allowed such things to happen in such numbers is a part of US history that is too often glossed over.

As expected, the memorial was a sobering site.  The enormous hanging steel blocks memorialize the 4,000 souls who were violently ended; most for the smallest infraction: yelling at white teenagers, looking the wrong way at a white woman, knocking on a white person’s door.  Looking back from where we are today, it’s hard to imagine a world in which enough people thought this kind of behavior was okay that it prevailed as the norm.

From the Memorial, we moved on to its companion museum, the Legacy Museum, which tells the story of slavery through modern day.  The focus here is on how the tradition of racial terrorism continues from organiized slavery, through Jim Crow Laws, and on to today with our the biases against people of color that continue in our current justice system.  Today, the effects of slavery followed by white society’s systemic vilification and violence against people of color continues to affect the the way both blacks and whites see each other. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.  I don’t wish to be political in this blog, but as I read the stories in the museum, I couldn’t help but see parallels with the current administration’s vilification and generalizations that all the migrants gathering at our borders are drug dealers and rapists.  That is not the case, these are people just like us, fleeing from dire situations in their homelands. And if we treat them as criminals we risk creating criminals where there were none and show that we have learned nothing from the civil rights movement.

Getting back to the lighthearted travel blog, we moved on from Alabama and into Georgia.  Tomorrow we drive the last leg of our trip home. It will be good to see our house. From the outdoor cameras, it looks like we should have tulips and redbud trees in bloom and fresh spring leaves on our trees.  Any maybe even a visit by the bears.

State Capitol carpet patterns

Day 15, Beach and Birds

Today is our last day for relaxing at the beach.  We started off the morning with another trip to the Lighthouse Bakery for pastries.  When finished, we went over to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary at the east end of the island.  We didn’t see very many birds, but we did see a bunch of turtles. They swam right up to us.  There were both Softshell Turtles (plain brown and with a funny shaped head) and Pond Turtles (more colorful).  After 30 or so minutes walking through the bird sanctuary we were finished and moved on to check out Fort Gaines at the very eastern tip of the island.  I was expecting a ruined fort with not much there, but it was still very much intact, with an entrance fee to match. We have all seen similar forts, so we opted not to pay the fee to go in, just checked out the Civil War plaques near the parking area and one cannon battery that was outside the walls.  

Back at the house, we relaxed for a bit, checking on the progress of the snowstorm currently hitting Minnesota.  For lunch, Mom, Dad, and I went out to the Islanders Restaurant. The food was so so and the atmosphere about the same.  But it was nice to have seafood so near to the sea. After lunch, Rob, Mom, and I walked about 1.5 miles down the beach. The seas are rougher today than they were yesterday, with lots of churning waves, still warm and enjoyable to walk in.  It’s also very windy. We are all a little sunburnt and wind blown. Rob and Mom did some more feeding of hamburger buns to the seagulls. And we saw a couple of larger birds, a heron and a crane (I think).

Just before dinner we watched the successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, live.  It was pretty amazing.

Day 14, Relaxing at the Beach

It’s time for us to relax at the beach.  Ahhhhh.

We started the day with a short walk along the beach, picking up seashells along the way.  The water is warmer than the Atlantic on most summer days in Massachusetts (which is where the ocean beaches I’m most used to are).  Mom and I walked with our feet in the water. As we were walking back to the house, Rob joined us with a suggestion welcomed by all: a trip to the Lighthouse Bakery for cinnamon rolls and cream cheese Danishes.  

After our pastries, we settled in to relaxing.  After lunch, Mom and I did a bit of shopping. There aren’t many shops on Dauphin Island, we spent only 1 hour, and that included driving time from our end of the island to the “town”.  We did each buy a little trinket from a local artist whose art is all abstract animals that can be found here on the Island.

Later in the day, Rob decided to feed some old bread rolls to the seagulls, right from our deck.  As expected, we suddenly had about 20 seagulls hanging around. They lingered for about 20 min after Rob stopped feeding them, perching on deck posts and squawking their loud squawks.  We took another walk on the beach outside our house, then after dinner drove to the west end of the island, where the houses stop, and walked along the beach some more, just as the sun was setting.

Day 13, Driving and more Driving

Sunrise at Kemah

We began our morning with a beautiful sunrise over Galveston Bay.  I even managed to get some good pictures of it. Once everyone was up, we hit the road as early as we could to try to avoid Houston traffic.  Today was our longest travel day, spending about 10 hours on the road (including charging time). We traveled in 4 different states, starting in TX, then on through LA, and MS, ending up in AL.  We are spending 3 nights in a beach house right on the water in Dauphin Island, Alabama.

Along the way, we mostly just drove.  We saw some rice fields out the windows of the car, lots of trees, and lots of water.  Louisiana had so much water. At one point, we spent about 5 miles driving on bridges elevated above swampy bayou.  We also crossed several rivers on huge bridges high enough for ships to pass under. Most of them were so tall that it felt like we were on a roller coaster climbing up and up and up.  It was a tiny bit scary.

During our charging stop in Baton Rouge, we tasted some classic Louisiana fare at Acme Oyster House.  We each had a Po-Boy sandwich. They were okay. But, we all thought our sides were much better. Mom had seafood gumbo.  I had hush puppies, and Dad had the most amazing sweet potato fries.

We also stopped in Mississippi in the town that Mom spent some time helping with the Hurricane Katrina cleanup back in 2006: Waveland, MS.  We stopped at the city’s public beach, which clearly had nice, new facilities, set up on stilts. All the houses in the area were up on stilts.  A few of the lots were still empty. It was good to see that people were learning from the storm and seemed to be better prepared for the next one.

We arrived at our beach house in Dauphin Island just as the sun was setting.  It was a pretty sunset. And our beach house is pretty amazing. Mom and I stood outside after full dark and listened to the waves crashing out front and watching the stars above.  There are lots of oil rigs (we counted 13) off shore out front. Some are not that far away.

Day 12, One Small Step

Our reason for staying at Kemah was to visit the Houston Space Center, which is only 15 minutes away.  We were pleasantly surprised to find electric vehicle parking with charging at the Space Center. Yessir happily sucked in some juice while we were inside.  We arrived, along with lots of other people, right at 10:00am when it opened. Our first destination was the Tram Tour that took us onto the grounds of the Johnson Space Center next door.  Our first stop was Mission Control. We were able to go into a viewing area above one of the old mission control rooms. They currently use this room for training purposes. Since there was a space walk currently going on, the video from the space walk was playing on most of the screens.  We watched as the astronaut fumbled around trying to put a tool back into a bin that wouldn’t close. The bin kept opening and the tool kept floating back out.

After viewing Mission Control, we got to walk through a gallery above the Crew Training Facility.  Here they have mock-ups of various parts of the space station. Crew can use them to train for various situations they might encounter when on the space station.  At one end, a group was working on a humanoid robot. Our final stop on the Tram Tour was Rocket Park. Outside were 2 rockets, I don’t remember what kind. Inside the massive shed was one of the last surviving Saturn V rockets.  We could walk all the way around it and pose for pictures near its massiveness. It really was a huge machine! Amazing that they sent all that up into space and each one was single use only.

After the Tram Tour we had a little lunch in the food court inside the Houston Space Center. There was lots more to see inside the center.  Rob was especially interested in the old computing equipment that NASA used to use. Mom enjoyed checking out the different types of space suits used throughout the years.  We were all fascinated by the story of the astronaut who almost drowned on a spacewalk in 2013.

For dinner, Mom, Dad, and I ate at the Flying Dutchman on the Kemah Boardwalk.  The food was so, so. The entertainment was a pair of brawling cats. We sat outside along the boardwalk and a pair of cats came over shortly after we sat down; an all black cat with bright yellow eyes and a brown stripy cat that sort of looked like Jon.  The brown one turned out to be a meany! Several times he attacked the black cat, grabbing him by the back of the neck and wrestling him to the ground. They would howl at each other and tussle about for a bit, then separate and lie down peacefully, each watching the other.  Surprisingly, the restaurant staff didn’t do anything to shoo the cats away.

Day 11, Kemah

Today was our first driving day with Mom and Dad.  The car is pretty full with all of our stuff, but we still manage to get ourselves inside, too.  The drive, itself, wasn’t all that interesting. The only thing of note – something I was not expecting – was a border patrol checkpoint about 85 miles north of the Mexican border.  It’s a permanent station with about 30 cameras recording your arrival and sniffer dogs checking your car as you stop to chat with the border agent. He simply asked if we were all US citizens and then waved us on our way when Rob answered, “yes.”  

Our destination for today was the Galveston Bay waterside town of Kemah, TX, just outside of Houston.  We are staying in a waterfront house with great views of the water. There’s a long dock out front and a large deck wrapping around the entire house.  Part of the deck has a tiki bar and an old oak tree grows through another part of the deck. There is small, blue and white lighthouse right next door.

After exploring our lodgings, we set out to explore the Kemah Boardwalk.  It has a few classic carnival rides, including a wooden roller coaster. There are lots restaurants and bars right along the water.  We found some fish feeding stations (repurposed gumball machines with something that looked like cat food) and fed the catfish (and, inevitably, the seagulls).  On the way back to our house, we stumbled across some chairs in the shape of hands outside a bar. Said bar plays loud music we can hear until 2:00am from inside our house.  Ugh!

Day 10, Picking

We didn’t do much today.  Mostly we helped Mom and Dad “summer-ize” their trailer.  It will sit here, empty, for 9 months through the hot, Texas summer when we leave tomorrow.  So there is a lot of cleaning that needs to be done. One task assigned to Rob and me was to pick all the remaining grapefruit from two trees in their yard.  If you don’t pick and throw out all the grapefruit, they will rot either on the tree or on the ground and breed lots of flies and other nastiness. Dad has a fruit picker on a stick that we could use for most of the fruit.  It is an extendable pole with a grapefruit-sized basket on the end. One side of the basket has tines that extend out and bend in, so you can kind of grab the fruit with them, twist, and get the fruit to drop in to the basket.  But, the picker couldn’t reach all the fruit, so Rob had to climb up into the tree to get some. His arms sport several new scratches from little barbs that protrude from the branches. My job was to duck under the branches and collect the grapefruit from the ground, while dodging those that Rob was still dropping from the tree.  In all, we picked 3x 5-gallon pails of past-their-prime grapefruit destined for the trash. We ate a couple, but they weren’t the greatest; the season for good grapefruit has passed.

Rob picking grapefruit

Day 9, Flowers

Mom, Rob, and I took a morning walk in the park, and checked out a little flock of black bellied whistling ducks who live in the park.  I tried to get a good photo of them. It was tricky; they kept walking away from me.

We didn’t have much planned for today, but we did make one excursion.  We drove north to the Sal del Rey salt lake. We were expecting salt flats.  We did not really see any salt flats, the lake was salty (Mom ventured through the mud to dip her finger in and taste it.). We did enjoy the flowers all along the mile walk from the parking area to the lake.  See photos below for some colorful blooms. We also kept watch for javelina, a type of wild pig. We could see trains through the underbrush that they had made, and footprints, but never did see an actual javelina.  We had a pair of turkeys cross the path in front of us, but that and some small lizards were all the wildlife we spotted.

The weather is hot here, temps in the mid 80s, so on the way back home we stopped at a Star’s Drive-in for chocolate banana milkshakes.  Yum!

Day 8, Birds

We were in the mood for some more birds (or at least I was) so our destination for today was the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco.  It is a bird sanctuary hosting a cackling array of birds nesting in the treetops. We saw and heard lots of chachalacas, a rather plain looking bird about the size of a crow, but with a noisy banter.  I wasn’t sure how to describe the noises they make, so I turned to Wikipedia. “The call is a loud, raucous RAW-pa-haw or cha-cha-LAW-ka, often by several birds in a rhythmical chorus, especially in early morning and evening, usually from well up in trees. It also produces peeping whistles and cackles. Others describe chachalaca calls as irritating noises mimicking a bunch of men arguing.”  We got some sound sound recordings of them. Click the audio file below to hear some of what we heard.

Bird Sounds

We also saw a lot of yellow crowned herons.  When you think of herons, you think of a majestic bird walking on tall legs through marshland.  These guys were more compact and sitting among the tops branches of trees. Some seemed to be guarding their nests, others seemed to still be looking for mates.  When they flew, you still got that sense of majesty as their massive wings sent them gliding from tree to tree. In the underbrush were rabbits and four orange cats.  

Just before leaving, we stopped by the turtle pond.  There was a school group at the pond and their guide had just given them all a handful of cat food to feed to the turtles.  We could tell the turtles were used to being fed because they came right up to us when we leaned over the railing, even though we didn’t have any food at first.  Mom walked over to the guide and asked if we could also feed the turtles. She got a handful of cat food and we did some feeding, too. There were a three different kinds of turtles; one that was very plain and sort of looked like a pancake, one that had mossy splotches on its shells, and the other that was “painted” with vivid patterns on their shells.  And if you threw some food and there was no turtle nearby the minnows nibbled away at the cat food piece until a turtle noticed it and came over to chomp it down.

Day 7, San Antonio

As we toured around Austin yesterday, I noticed lots of signs around town proclaiming Austin to be the birthplace of the taco.  I also noticed plenty of places offering breakfast tacos, so I was keen to have myself a true, Austin breakfast taco before leaving town.  We packed up our things early this morning, and headed out, stopping first at Magnolia Cafe just south of where we were browsing the shops yesterday.  My breakfast taco was pretty tasty. I’m glad we took the time to stop before leaving town. It had eggs, mushrooms, and cheddar jack cheese inside a fresh, flour tortilla with homemade salsa served on the side.

After breakfast, we hit the road for San Antonio.  We had pretty low expectations for San Antonio, but I felt that it was our duty to stop since we had to drive right through it anyway.  I wanted to see what was left of the Alamo and experience the famous Riverwalk. We started at the Alamo. The site at the time of the famous battle was considerably larger than what is left now.  Today there is only the old church to go in and a small park beside it. The bulk of the fort was torn down in the intervening years to make room for hotels and cheesy tourist traps, which rather detracted from the solemnity of the battle site.  We did get a requisite photo in front of the iconic church then walked around for a few minutes.

Next, we moved on to the Riverwalk.  Again, we weren’t expecting much. We had read that it was mostly all bars and restaurants along the river.  Since we were there at 9:30 in the morning, none of the restaurants were open and we had the walk nearly all to ourselves.  This gave us a chance to enjoy the waterfowl and pigeons that make the river their home. We also watched a bunch of flat maintenance boats go about maintaining the river area.  One was covered in plants in their nursery containers, ready to be planted in the landscaping along the river. In fact, the landscaper was just a bit further on. The bed he was working on was about half full of little begonias.  We also saw a guy watering the landscaping from his boat. It looked like the boat had a way to suck water directly from the river and shoot it out a hose onto the plants like a fireman putting out a fire. It was after 10:00 as we finished up the main loop, and a few shops were open in the Villita area so we stopped in to look around in those.  All in all, I think we spent about 1.5 hours in San Antonio, and that was plenty for us!

Next stop, Donna, TX.  It was a long, 4.5 hour drive south to reach my parents’ winter home in Donna.  Along the way, the wildflowers in the ditches grew even prettier than they had been north of Austin (we really didn’t see much other than urban sprawl between Austin and San Antonio).  South of San Antonio the blues of the north gave way to oranges, yellows, and purples.

We arrived in Donna just before dinner time.  We’ll be here for the next 3 days.