Saturday, January 19, 2019

Biking and birding in Mission, TX

We’ve been wanting to get the bikes out for a longer ride, and I had read online that the Bentsen - Rio Grande Valley State Park was a favorite biking location in the area, and also part of the World Birding Center.

We’re not true “birders” but we do know how to identify some of the more popular birds, and it was a great day to get out on the bikes.  Plus, we’ve been wanting to check out the Mission and McAllen areas, so we loaded up the bikes and headed out.

The park is south of Mission, bordering the Rio Grande River, and is right next to two very popular RV Resorts – Bentsen Palms and Retama Village.  The parking lot is actually outside the park, and there’s no personal vehicle traffic allowed in the park at all.

We rode our bikes over to the Visitor Center to pay our $5/person entry fee and get our wristbands.  For people who don’t want to ride bikes or walk through the park, there is a tram that will take you around the park, and there are tram stops at each of the trails within the park.

From the Visitor Center, we showed our wristbands and proceeded into the park.  Our first stop was the Kingfisher Overlook along the La Parida Banco, which is a small lake that was formed when the Rio Grande River changed course and left behind this small area of the former river.












It was a beautiful view, but we did not see any Kingfishers or other water birds. 

We continued along the waterway, and stopped at the Green Jay Blind.


This was a pretty cool structure – there were benches inside, and any of the horizontal boards could be tipped down to give you a view of the feeder area where the Jays like to hang out.

While we were there watching, there were about 6 cardinals and several Green Jays going back and forth between the feeders and the trees,



and a javalina hanging out to catch all the feed that got knocked onto the ground.

This is the closest we’ve ever seen one!


There’s the Green Jay on the feeder,


and two Cardinals on the other feeder.  We stayed and watched them all for several minutes, before continuing on around the park.



We continued along Mesquite Road – keeping our eyes open for birds, and javalinas!

We reached the next trail, the Rio Grande Trail, which was about 2 miles long.  It was listed as hiking only, but wheelchair accessible, so we figured it would be perfect for the bikes.

We were right – it was a nice wide trail, and the surface was finely crushed gravel – perfect for the bikes, and with enough twists and turns to keep it interesting.


We thought we were going to see the river, but apparently the trail only takes you to where the river used to be, when it was wider and deeper.

There’s a survey marker that used to mark the edge of the Rio Grande River, and a twin marker exists on the Mexico side of the river – the center line of these two markers indicates the boundary between the two countries.


Back at the main road, we took the spur trail to the Hawk Tower.  It was a short trail into a tallgrass area,



leading us to a boardwalk in the grass that took us up to a raised observation tower.


There were a couple of women there looking for hawks.  They had one zeroed in on their spotting scope, but I think it looked more like a Osprey than a hawk (maybe I’m the real birder!! lol).












Back on the road, we spotted some type of hawk up high in a dead tree.


We watched it for a while,



and we were going to ask the tram driver what kind of hawk it was, but as the tram got close, the hawk flew off.


As that tram driver went by, I got a quick look at him, and I thought he looked like somebody we had volunteered with in Florida several years ago.  Tom didn’t see him, and just thought I was crazy.

We continued our ride around the park, stopping at the picnic area to have some snacks we had brought with us, and then went back to ride through the inner loop.  There was another bird blind in the inner loop, but no activity at it.



We did see a few Chachalacas at a feeder near the picnic area.  I only got a picture of one of them, though, the rest scattered when we stopped.


Back at the entrance station, Tom asked the volunteer if she knew the guy driving the tram, but she didn’t.  As we were standing there talking to her, though, he drove up, and it turned out I was right – he did volunteer with us at Camp Helen in Florida back in July of 2015!  Small world . . . and his name is Mike.

We all chatted for a few minutes, and I got some pictures of the birds at the feeders there by the entrance station.  The volunteer had just refilled the food, so there was lots of activity!

There were Green Jays,


and Kiskadees,


and sometimes both!


We were fascinated watching as the birds flew all around the feeders and the surrounding trees.  It was really cool when I could catch them in action and get a picture of the hovering near the feeder, with their wings flapping.









There were also Cardinals ( I thing these are both Cardinals),


and I got this classic Cardinal shot.


After the tram drove away, a few chachalacas showed up, too.


It was a nice day – we enjoyed watching the birds that we saw, and got in about 7 miles of riding in the park.  When we left the park, we rode through both RV Resorts, adding another couple miles to our ride.  They are nice RV Resorts – probably the nicest in the valley – but Mission is at the far western end of the RGV, quite a bit further from the Gulf, if you like to go to the beach.  It seems like the area we are in is a little more centrally located, although there are more activities aimed at the Winter Texans in the Mission/McAllen area . . . I guess it depends on what you are looking for.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

2018 Year in Review

Staying at the top

2018 was another year full of new experiences and new friends, as well as catching up with old friends and spending time with our family.  It’s hard to believe we’re in our 7th year of fulltiming, and our 3rd year on the road without the boys!

We visited 13 states, staying in 34 different locations:

  • 27 private RV Parks
  • 1 State Park
  • 1 Military Campground
  • 4 businesses (while getting work done on the motorhome)
  • 1 night Wally-docking

Many of the locations and RV Parks we stayed at were new to us, but we only added one new state this year – Arkansas,

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bringing our total to 44 of the contiguous 48 states.

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We tried our darnedest to add West Virginia, and we did travel through, but we just couldn’t work out a camping stop – hopefully we’ll be able to pick that one us this year, along with Mississippi, Wisconsin and Kansas.  Alaska is still on our list, but it will have to wait a few years.

So, where did our travels take us?

For the 4th year in a row, we spent the winter in Florida with three 1-month stays – two new locations for us, Titusville on the Atlantic coast, Kissimmee South RV where we really took advantage of our site directly across from the pool,

Site E-3 Set up fpr the month












and a return to Pleasant Lake RV Resort in Bradenton for March.  We caught up with old friends in Bradenton, and Bryce and Hannah joined us for their Spring Break week.

IMG_7785I think they had a nice time in the Florida sunshine, and we enjoyed having them with us!

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After 4 months in Florida (Dec – March), it was time to get back on the move.

Spring Travel

Making our way out of Florida and into Georgia, we avoided the big interstates as much as possible and stuck to the smaller, less travelled, state highways. 

We caught up with family in Georgia (possibly future RVers),

Dinner at Copperwood Pizza

and RV friends who are now stationary in Franklin, NC (beautiful country!).

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The Great Outdoors RV Resort – Franklin, NC

Our site at Great Outdoors

We rode out the last of the chilly nights in the mountains, then made our way into Virginia for the summer. 

After 6 years on the road and 10 years after our first meeting at the Branson RV-Dreams Rally, we finally made our way through East Tennessee to visit Jenny Johnson!

Dinner with Jenny










Unfortunately, that stop also resulted in the little incident between our bay doors and a guardrail . . . but we got that fixed up later in the summer!

We made our way along I-81, and met up with Nicolas outside Charlottesville for a few days, before settling in as his neighbor in Suffolk for a month.

Davis Lakes & Campground – Suffolk, Virginia

Neighbors

It was great being able to spend some time with him, taking care of a few projects that he had on his camper, and exploring areas new to us in Norfolk and Virginia Beach. 

Mother’s Day at Currituck, NC, in the Outer Banks

Horses on the beach


Taking a break while I take pictures

Tom’s Dad flew down to Virginia while we were there, and stayed with us for several weeks – both in Suffolk, and after we moved across the Chesapeake By to Kiptopeke State Park.  He enjoyed spending time with Nicolas and seeing where he lives and works . . . and the warmer temperatures we were having in Virginia, compared to the cold they still had back in Michigan, didn’t hurt either.




Colonial Williamsburg

Capitol

Just before Memorial Day weekend, we got settled into our Camp Host site at Kiptopeke State Park, where we would stay through the end of July.

Added some shade to our site

We enjoyed our time exploring the Eastern Shore of Virginia, including many great sunsets over the Chesapeake Bay,

Assateague Lightand a visit to Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.

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It was just a short trip over the Bay Bridge-Tunnel to visit Nicolas in Norfolk, and he made a few trips out to see us when he had weekends off.

Enjoying a beautiful day











He even managed to get a few days of leave in July, and brought his camper over.

Nicolas arrived!

As our time volunteering wound down at the end of July, we made our travel plans back to Michigan. 

August Travels

Rather than going back over the Bridge-Tunnel and through Hampton Roads, we decided to drive north into Maryland,

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and after a stop in Ocean City to watch the Chincoteague Ponies swim from Assateague Island, we crossed the Chesapeake Bay at the north end of the Bay and threaded the needle right between Washington DC and Baltimore, MD.


Traffic was a little crazy, but manageable, and we were out of it pretty quickly.  We stopped in Hagerstown to visit a couple of Historic sites,



Antietam Battlefield

Potomac River











Chesapeake & Ohio Visitor Center

(and I missed an awesome quilt and wool shop that I heard about later – I need to get back through there!) and then made our way into Ohio.

After a couple of quick stops, we made our way to Elkhart, IN where we had appointments to get our engine & chassis maintenance done, and our bay doors repaired and painted from the little incident in Virginia.  We thought were were only going to be there a few days, but it ended up being a 3-week stay.

1st weekend -- waiting for new doors












We’re no strangers to this area of Indiana, so we visited many of our favorite spots, but the extended stay also gave us time to explore some new areas and discover a few new favorites. 

From there, we finally ventured back into Michigan, taking a slightly round-about path so that we could spend a couple days with Bryce before he started his Fall classes.  We saw his apartment and took him shopping for some necessities while we were there, and got caught up on what he’s been doing.

After our visit with him, we spent a month in southeast Michigan near the family taking care of appointments and visiting,

Totem Pole Campground

Our site at Totem Pole Park

then a few weeks in northern Michigan vacationing, visiting friends, and volunteering with RV Care-A-Vanners/Habitat for Humanity,

Indigo Bluffs RV Resort – Empire, MI

Indigo Bluffs Resort












and catching some great fall colors.

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The cold weather moved in while we were up north, and we found that we were having to use our Aqua-Hot for heat quite a bit!  We eventually discovered that we had a leak in one of our heat exchangers, and that became a big project.  With the assistance of our go-to Aqua-Hot tech on the phone, we managed to get it replaced, but there were some additional repairs needed that were going to necessitate a trip to Arkansas.  Well, it was on our way to Texas, anyway . . .

Tom was ready to get the heck out of Michigan by then, but we had one more month planned in the metro Detroit area, spending more time with family, and Nick was coming up for a visit.

Bryce was very busy with football at MSU, so we didn’t get to see him too much,

One of the better photos of Bryce in action









but we did get the perk of free tickets to a couple of games, including one while Nicolas was there, so he got to spend some time with Bryce, too.  I don’t want to call myself a good luck charm or anything, but they did win both of the games that we went to . . . in an otherwise less than stellar season!

We were glad that Nicolas was able to get some time off to come up to Michigan while we were still here – he enjoyed visiting with the family before heading back to Virginia in time for his ship to finally get out of the shipyard and back to the pier in Norfolk.  I would have loved to be there to see that giant ship move up the river, but had to settle for watching it on Facebook live.

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By mid November, it was time for us to get back on the road.

Fall Travels

After a stop in Dayton, OH for my nephew’s wedding (yes, that’s why we stayed up north so long!),

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we celebrated Thanksgiving in Renfro Valley, KY, with friends.  We stayed in the RV Park in the Entertainment Center . . . I’ve heard it can get pretty wild in the summer, but it was very quiet while we were there!

Enjoying our natural spring water

Happy Thanksgiving

Renfro Valley RV Park – Kentucky

Quiet camping in Renfro Valley

No Black Friday shopping for us . . . we were back on the road, making our way toward our Aqua-Hot appointment outside Little Rock, AR, with just a short weekend stop to explore Memphis.  With our heating system back in business, we made the turn toward the south . . . where hopefully we wouldn’t need the heat anymore!

We stopped for a few days to explore Hot Springs, Arkansas,

Hot Springs National Park – Arkansas

Bath House Row

where we met some new RVer friends from Michigan, and then we continued south into Louisiana to visit with some more Branson RV-Dreams Rally alumnae.  Don & Cheryl sponsored us to stay in the FamCamp at Barksdale Air Force Base, and we got one of the brand-new RV sites.  It was really nice, and great to catch up with them again!

Barksdale Air Force Base – Shreveport, LA

Nice new sites

Leaving Shreveport, we crossed into Texas and after a couple of short stays, we settled into our first site for this winter – in the Rio Grande Valley.

Angler’s Nest RV Park – Los Indios, TX

Fully set up

We’re settled in here for two months . . . that should give us plenty of time to explore the Rio Grande Valley and everything that brings the Winter Texans back every year!

We’re already enjoying the weather . . . and have visited South Padre a couple times.

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I was trying to keep track of how many National Parks, Monuments and Historic Sites we visit . . . but I’ve lost count . . . it’s a lot, though!

Whew – it has been a busy year, hasn’t it!?!  We’ve settled into a pretty good routine that seems to work for us – several longer stays broken up by periods of travel.  We plan those monthly stays somewhat in advance, but not a full year out, and those travel months we just put together as we go – usually scheduling 2-3 stops in advance.  So far, we haven’t had trouble finding places to stay, even in the winter months in the south – call us lucky, but it works for us. 

We still manage to get back to Michigan for part of the year to connect with family, and we’ve managed to spend a fair amount of time with both Bryce and Nicolas. We’ll see how that goes in the next couple of years – Nicolas should be spending quite a bit of time this year out to sea, prepping for deployment sometime in 2020, and Bryce will have an internship somewhere this summer, and then he needs to start figuring out where he’ll go to Graduate School after he finishes at MSU in 2020.

Financially, we’ve had a pretty good year again.  My job at Ford is going really well, although being in the Central time zone makes for some pretty early mornings, especially for meetings with my European co-workers.  Oh well, a few more months and I’ll be back on EST.  It doesn’t look like we’ll do any volunteering in 2019 – we enjoyed our stay in the Virginia State Park System, and Tom enjoyed having stuff to do while I worked, but I’m not sure we’ll be staying in Virginia quite as long this year so we’ll probably just stay at Davis Lakes with Nicolas in order to maximize the amount of time we get to see him.  We didn’t look too much for volunteer options here in Texas.  It’s so much cheaper than Florida, that it really doesn’t make financial sense.  Tom’s done a pretty good job so far keeping himself busy!

He really enjoyed the 2 weeks he spent doing construction with RV Care-A-Vanners, and we’d like to do that again, but I’m not sure if there are any that will fall within our travels this year.  We’ll keep an eye on that website and watch for projects along our path.

In 2018 we spent 3 months either volunteering or staying for free at a business while getting work done, 6 months paying for monthly stays, and 3 months travelling, staying anywhere from 1 night to 1 week.

For the year, we spent a total of $7500 on camping fees, or a monthly average of $625.  That was down $100/month from 2017 – not too bad!

Expense Summary

Groceries and dining out are the next highest category, and we’re still working on that, although we were down slightly from last year.

We spent about $2000 on RV maintenance and repairs (not including nearly $8000 for the repair of the bay doors that was covered by insurance), and it would have been slightly higher if not for the Aqua-Hot being covered by our Extended Warranty.  We’ve got one year left on the warranty, and I’m not sure if we’ll recoup the entire purchase price, but it has covered quite a bit and have provided a definite sense of peace of mind.

That little insurance claim resulted in an increase in our insurance rate, but from what I’m seeing online, our increase wasn’t that much more than what people are seeing in general, without claims.

Our last major category is fuel – both for the Jeep and the motorhome – and they actually aren’t really all that high.  We averaged less than $150/month in the Jeep, which is pretty darn good, considering the lousy fuel mileage it gets, and just about $225/month in the motorhome.

We keep an itemized spreadsheet of diesel expenses, so I’m able to breakdown the total cost of $2710.43 for the year, with an average price of $3.06 per gallon.  The motorhome travel a total of 5420 miles in 2018, averaging 5.8 mpg and 50 cents/mile.  That’s not great, and continues a downward trend from last year and the year before.  This year, however, we had quite a bit of colder weather to contend with, both in our early spring travels and fall travels, so we were having to use the Aqua-Hot, with the diesel burner, for heat quite a bit.  There’s no way to measure how much of the diesel is used by the Aqua-Hot, except through it’s impact on our overall fuel economy.

Our total expenses for the year (minus college expenses and retirement investments) average out to about $3200/month, down slightly from last year, and not a bad spending level for the 2 of us.

As we wrap up this year, we’re still really enjoying our travels and still seeing and experiencing new things.  We don’t see any major changes coming up in the next couple years, as this lifestyle gives us the perfect level of flexibility in following our dreams and being where we need to be to to support the boys as they establish themselves.  They need us less and less each year . . . but we’re still there for them when they do!

We’re not exactly sure what 2019 is going to bring, but we’re starting to formulate those plans in our heads – we’ll see how it all works out!

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Happy New Year 2019!

Happy New Year!


We wrapped up the year down here in the Rio Grande Valley with a couple of chilly days, and even a couple nights when we needed to run the heat . . . but it didn’t last long and we were soon back to 80s during the day and open windows at night.

New Year’s Eve was the day of Michigan State’s Bowl Game out in California, the Redbox Bowl, against the Oregon Ducks.

It was Bryce’s last big hurrah with the football team, and he enjoyed his week in the California sun.

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His girlfriend, Hannah, and her family travelled to CA for the game, too, and they met up with Bryce at the Pep Rally before the game.

So, I at least got a couple pictures of Bryce . . .

Bryce, Hannah and Sarah

One shot of Bryce in action

Tom and I watched the game from here . . . but it wasn’t pleasant . . . a sad way to end the season!

Ready for the Bowl Game!


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On New Year’s Eve, we had a potluck appetizer gathering in the clubhouse . . . with endless frozen strawberry daiquiris, as well as many other drinks!

These Minnesotans really know how to party!  Tom and I expected the party to end early, certainly no later than 11pm here, when the ball dropped in New York City.

We were shocked to see the party continue into the wee hours of the night, well past midnight central time!


We started out with the “Expanding Waist” Band entertaining us with live music, followed by “DJ Dick” spinning dance tunes well into the night.

There was plenty of dancing!

Crazy pole dancers

Ken & Bruce - just plain goofy!

More pole dancers

Plenty of noise at midnight, too!

Getting really loud at midnight











Rowdy Group

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Ringing in 2019!

After all the parties were over, we settled back into a routine and I started back to work (at least is was a short week!)  The first weekend of each month is Market Days in Harlingen, which we heard good things about, so we went to check it out.

It was kindof a mix of flea market, craft show, and street fair – there were lots of vendors selling homemade items, antiques, food . . . pretty much anything you could ask for! 

Like dog beds! LOL

Dog beds - seriously?

We even found 2 sturdy trays that we’ve been looking for, for potluck dinners.

There were several bands playing music,

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and one lone guy on a street corner!

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There are a few cute shops along Jackson Street, too, and we walked through several of them, including this Victorian Shop that was going out of business.  It had my sister, Sandi’s, name all over it!!

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Especially the deer!! Smile

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Afterwards, we stopped at a Boot Store, but didn’t see anything we liked for Nick. 

On the way home, we stopped for an early dinner at the Longhorn Cattle Company BBQ.

BBQ











The atmosphere was fun, and the food was great!  We were stuffed for the rest of the day!  They also have steak dinners on weekend nights . . . we’re going to have to go back for one of those!

Longhorn Cattle Co.

Our last adventure of the day took us on the backroads of San Benito . . . we thought it was just a simple trip around the block (according to the map on my phone), but we ended up following a two-track through a farm field! 

Taking the backroads

These are roads down here – they even have names!

Never a dull moment in the RGV!!