Taking Care of Details (May 17 – July 10, 2023)

On Wednesday, May 17th, we drove 144 miles to Sunkissed Village RV Resort in Summerfield, FL.  We had spent the winter of 2021 at Sunkissed Village but, this time, the park was only at about 20% of capacity.  We arrived at about 2 pm.  We had a few hours to get set up before driving to Orlando to pick up Sheila Gaskin, who joined us for six days. 

On Thursday, we took the Ram 3500 back to the Dodge dealer to get the “check engine” light issue resolved.  It took them two days but they were able to fix the problem, at no additional cost to us.

Jan and Sheila spent most of Thursday and Friday shopping for Jan’s outfit for Jarrod and Jess’ wedding.  Phil spent these days working on minor RV repairs and talking to a multitude of insurance agents.  Since Hurricane Ian’s devastation last September, many insurance companies have stopped writing homeowner’s policies in Florida and the rates have skyrocketed.  On Friday night, we headed to Eaton Beach for dinner.

As we were walking into Camping World on Thursday morning, Phil received a call from Brandee Sherwill, the Senior Closing Coordinator, wanting to schedule the close on our home purchase.  She proposed a walk-through on June 20 and the close on June 26.  Phil was stunned by this call, since the purchase agreement had mentioned a likely close date sometime between July 23 and September 15.  This set off a flurry of phone calls and we ultimately settled on a close date of July 10.

In the meantime, we were dealing with issues with our living room air conditioner.  Although we had had issues in the past with the air conditioner tripping the circuit braker during hot weather, it became a frequently occurring event during our stay at the Bradenton KOA.  We had hoped that there was a power issue with the KOA’s electrical pedestal but, when we continued to have these issues in Summerfield, it was obvious that we needed repairs.  Although the bedroom air conditioner helped cool the living room somewhat, the inside temperature reached 81 degrees each afternoon.  Phil got a referral from the Sunkissed Village office and called PPL Motor Homes, who were right next store, and scheduled an appointment for between 9 am and noon on Friday.  Unfortunate, PPL had a RV tech out sick on Friday and wasn’t able to make the appointment until nearly noon on Saturday.  The service manager diagnosed the problem as a capacitor issue but proposed to get us a whole new air conditioner.  Unfortunately, he needed to get approval from our extended warranty company before beginning the repair and, because it was the weekend, that would have to wait until Monday.  While he was here, Phil got him to add our broken ice maker to the list. 

Rather than sit in the hot trailer, Jan and Sheila spent all Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the pool.  Phil joined them for part of the time each day.  On Monday, we took Sheila on a tour of The Villages.  We visited the three town squares and got out and explored Lake Sumter Landing.  We then had lunch at Flipper’s Pizzeria.  Upon returning home, Jan and Sheila headed to the pool but were chased home by a heavy thunderstorm.  On Tuesday, we drove Sheila back to Orlando for her flight home, stopping at Chuy’s for lunch.

On Wednesday morning, the PPL service techs arrived with the new air conditioner and ice maker.  After the air conditioner was installed, the thermostat was showing an error code.  Unfortunately, it started to rain but they did return in the afternoon to finish the job.  It felt great to have a cool house again.  However, they discovered that they had the wrong part for the ice maker so that repair would have to wait.

Phil had an appointment that afternoon with a local dentist.  He had expected to be getting a small filling.  Instead, they only took x-rays, did a brief examination and scheduled the filling for the next available date, July 6th.

On Thursday, May 25th, we had a Facetime meeting with the builder’s preferred blinds supplier, Zinga’s.  During the hour-long call, we decided on window treatments for the entire house.  Unfortunately, the lead-time for the order was estimated to be 8-12 weeks and we were only about six weeks away from our closing.  The salesman did assure us that he would install temporary window treatments for the interim period.

Heading to Florida (April 30 – May 5, 2023)

We left Kerrville on Sunday, April 30th and drove 245 miles to Katy, TX (a suburb northwest of Houston).  We spent the night at Katy Lake Resort. 

On Monday morning, we waited until after rush hour and then headed out on I-10 for a drive that took us through Houston.  Although there was steady traffic, it wasn’t too bad.  We drove 235 miles on I-10 to Duson, LA, where we spent two nights at Frog City RV Park.  The campground was nice and, although it was very close to the interstate, wasn’t too noisy.  The best part was that they offered the Passport America 50% discount, so each night only cost us $26.

On Thursday, we drove to Avery Island where we toured the TABASCO visitor center and factory, as well as exploring the Jungle Gardens.  Avery Island is not truly an island.  It’s actually a salt dome, squeezed up from the Earth’s interior.  From a distance, it looks like an island because of its height and encirclement by wetlands.  The Island climbs about 160’ above sea level, stretches 2.5 miles across, and covers 2,200 acres.  Its deposit of solid rock salt is thought to be deeper than Mt. Everest is high and is currently mined by Cargill, down about 2,000 feet.

We began the tour in the museum, where we learned about the history of TABASCO and the production process.  In the mid-1860s, Edmund McIllhenny began growing peppers using seeds believed to be from Mexico or Central America.  Around 1868, he created the first bottle of his now-famous TABASCO brand pepper sauce.  TABASCO has remained a family-owned business, run mostly by descendants of Edmund McIllhenny.  These descendants had a variety of interests beyond the business.  One was a Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt; another was an explorer of the North Pole and pioneered the introduction and commercial cultivation of bamboo in the United States. 

Three single ingredients – aged red peppers, natural vinegar, and a dash of Avery Island-mined salt – produce the spicy flavor of TABASCO red pepper sauce.  The tabasco pepper is picked at the perfect shade of red, then immediately crushed, mixed with salt, and aged in white oak barrels for up to three years.  The aged “mash” is then blended with vinegar and stirred intermittently in 1,800-gallon vats for 2 – 3 weeks, then strained to remove the pepper skins and seeds.  The finished sauce is then ready to be bottled.  Our self-guided tour took us through the real-life operations of the greenhouse, barrel aging, blending, and bottling facilities. 

After doing some product tasting in the Country Store and making some purchases, we had lunch at the 1868 Restaurant.  We then did a drive through Jungle Gardens.  Edmund McIllhenny’s son, “Ned,” grew up on the island and studied plants and animals.  Around 1895, Ned developed a semi-tropical garden on the island.  In 1935, it was opened to the public as Jungle Garden, covering about 170 acres.  We drove the circuit and stopped at all 14 points of interest.  We spotted two alligators, including one whose movements had us scurrying back to our car.  One of the stops was at a Buddha from about 1000 AD, a gift from two of Ned’s friends.  Jan discovered a wallet on the ground in the parking lot by the Buddha and was able to find the owner.  He was extremely grateful.

Ned also built an aviary on the island, known as Bird City, to help save the snowy egret, a species that had become endangered due to its feathers being prized by hat makers.  In 1895, he hand-raised 8 snowy egrets in a cage above the water.  Egrets prefer to build their nests above the water because the alligators in the water deter other predators from harming the birds.  In the fall, Ned released them to migrate south.  The following Spring, they returned to nest and raise their young.  By 1911, an estimated 100,000 egrets nested in the rookery.

On Wednesday, we drove 185 miles to Bay St. Louis, MS, where we spent two nights at Legends of the Bayou RV Park.  Phil had learned about this brand-new RV park on Facebook.  The campground was largely a gravel-filled parking lot on the edge of a bayou.  The office, restrooms and laundry were up on stilts but, fortunately we didn’t need to climb the stairs, except for the view.  The owners did provide a fishing boat, rods and bait, but we never had time to take advantage of them. 

That evening, we headed to downtown Bay St. Louis and had dinner outdoors at Cuz’s Old Town Oyster Bar & Grill, across the street from the bay.  We then visited Hollywood Casino briefly and left with more money than we had risked.  We wisely decided to quit while we were ahead.

On Thursday, we headed to Old Town Bay St. Louis.  Our first stop was at the visitors’ center in the historic train depot.  Upon getting handed numerous brochures, it was readily apparent that we could easily have spent more than one day in Bay St. Louis.  After walking through the Mardi Gras and Blues exhibits, we headed upstairs to the Alice Moseley Folk Art Museum.  A young girl gave us a guided tour through the museum.  Alice Moseley’s mother had developed Alzheimer’s when Alice was in her 60s and, to deal with the boredom while caring for her mother, Alice took up painting.  Over the next 30 years, Alice developed a reputation as a nationally acclaimed folk artist, humorist and story-teller.  We watched her on video, telling her jokes and stories, and could clearly see the appeal.  We bought a couple of prints of her artwork.

We next drove to the bay to see the largest of the “Angel Creations,” Hurricane Katrina-damaged live oak trees transformed into sculptures by chainsaw artist Dayle K. Lewis.  This tree had been used as a life raft by three Katrina survivors.

We then spent a couple of hours doing the historic walking tour through Old Town Bay St. Louis.  Using the guidebook we had obtained at the visitors’ center, we learned about the history of 24 houses and buildings that dated back to the late 1800s / early 1900s.  One of the stops was a building that had been the centerpiece for a 1966 Sidney Pollack film, This Property is Condemned, starring Natalie Wood, Robert Redford and Charles Bronson.

After all that walking, we were ready for lunch.  We ate at The Blind Tiger and had a table overlooking the marina.  Our final stop for the day was at the Ground Zero Hurricane Museum in the neighboring town of Waveland.  Waveland had been ground zero for Hurricane Katrina.  We watched a very sobering video containing film footage of the storm and interviews with survivors of Katrina who had ridden out the storm in Waveland.  The museum, in a former school building, has a line painted 11’ above street level showing how high the water had reached during the hurricane.  In the school’s hallways, they have a timeline showing the activities of each day, from before the storm through the aftermath.  In total, 1,833 people died in Katrina, including 25 from the little town of Wavelend.

Relaxing in Kerrville (April 16 – 30, 2023)

We have little to share for the two weeks following our Caribbean cruise.  We managed to squeeze in several doctor and dentist visits before leaving Texas again.  Phil played pickleball a few times a week, mostly indoors at the Methodist church.  Other than that, we spent a lot of time reading and preparing for our upcoming trip to Florida.

On Saturday, April 22nd, we decided to visit Luckenbach to listen to some music.  We had not checked to see if there was anything happening that day and were surprised to find the parking lot quite full at 2 pm.  We discovered that they were holding their 2nd Annual Bluegrass Festival.  Fortunately, we had our folding chairs in the back of the car, so we had a place to sit.  As we entered, we were told that the entire area in front of the stage was full so we would have to go across the bridge and sit on the hillside.  This gave us a somewhat limited view from the side of the stage but, once they shifted one of the speakers mid-afternoon, we could hear the music clearly.  Upon looking online, we learned that the festival had started at 11 am and the headliners, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, were scheduled to begin at 5:30 pm.  Although we had only planned to stay for a couple of hours, we then knew we would be there for the duration.  The crowd continued to grow throughout the afternoon and the hillside was quite packed by the time Ricky Skaggs performed.  All of the groups were very good, and we were glad we had chosen to attend.

Our 20th Anniversary Cruise (April 5 – 15, 2023)

Although we had celebrated each of our previous 19 wedding anniversaries, we had not really done anything particularly memorable since our 5th anniversary trip to Hawaii.  This year, we decided to celebrate our 20th anniversary in a big way.  After considering various options, we chose a 9-day Caribbean cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas, leaving from Galveston, TX.  The cruise had stops in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, Belize, and two ports in Mexico.

On Wednesday, April 5th, we left our rig in Kerrville and drove 315 miles to Galveston.  We departed at 9:45 am with the goal of avoiding Houston’s rush hour traffic.  The weather was quite windy and we had rain for the last half of the drive.  We hit the outskirts of Houston at 2:45 pm and immediately ran into heavy traffic that we fought for the next two hours.  The GPS didn’t help, calling for several multi-lane crossovers in short distances in bumper-to-bumper traffic.  After a couple of stops in Galveston, we reached the Best Western Plus hotel at 5:45 pm.  Our room was very nice, with a view of the gulf.  We had selected this hotel because we could park our car there for free for the duration of our cruise, saving us over $150, even after paying for taxis to and from the ship.

On Thursday, we checked out of the hotel at noon and took a taxi to the ship.  After checking our luggage and clearing security, we boarded the ship.  Although access to our stateroom wasn’t available until 2 pm, we were able to sneak in and drop off our carry-ons.  We spent the next two hours exploring the ship.  It started to rain at 3 pm and the Sail Away Party at 4 pm had to be held under cover.  We headed to dinner at 5:30 and had a table for 10 all to ourselves.  This would continue to be the case for the rest of the cruise, with the exception of one night when another couple joined us.  After a prime rib dinner (Jan had escargot as her starter), we attended the Welcome Aboard Show, starring comedian JR McCollom.  We learned that the ship had a crew of 900 from 52 countries, taking care of 2,200 passengers.  After watching a game show, we were ready to call it a day by 9 pm.

Day 2 of the cruise was spent at sea.  After breakfast, Phil played pickleball on the sports court on Deck 12.  High winds made the games rather challenging.  Jan attended the Shore Excursions Talk and we met later to attend the Caribbean Port and Shopping Show.  We then watched the World’s Sexiest Man Competition by the pool.  Although almost all of the contestants were young studs, the winner was a 35-year-old with five kids.  After lunch, we headed back to our room for a brief nap.  We then played three games of Bingo but didn’t win.  After our Dress to Impress dinner, we headed to the theater for a performance by Mo5aic, a 5-man a cappella group who both sang and vocalized the sounds of a wide range of musical instruments.  Our final activity for the day was round one of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition.  Three winners from the field of 13 contestants were selected to advance to the Finals on the last night of the cruise.

Day 3 was spent in Cozumel, Mexico.  We disembarked at 9:20 am and headed to the All-Inclusive VIP Dolphin Encounter at Dolphinaris Cozumel.  We spent 40 minutes with marine mammal specialists who led us onto a shallow submerged platform to interact with two dolphins, a 5-year-old female named Aria and a 4-year-old male named Leo.  After getting to rub their bellies and backs, we each shook hands with the dolphins, got them to spin using our hand signals, and received kisses on our cheeks.  After leaving the water, we received an a la carte lunch.  Upon our return to the ship, we had dinner and then attended the evening show with musical and dance performances.

Day 4 was Easter Sunday and we spent the day in George Town, Grand Cayman.  Since there was no dock in George Town, the ship moored offshore, and we had to take a 15-minute tender boat ride to the port.  We had not signed up for an excursion but were immediately approached by some people hawking a tour of Grand Cayman.  When others from our ship signed up for the tour, we decided to join them.  As the tour guide drove the van around the island, we learned a great deal about Grand Cayman.  Although Grand Cayman is only 72 square miles in size, it is the largest of the three Cayman Islands.  Grand Cayman is home to 600 financial institutions and is considered the fifth largest financial district in the world.  Residents of the Cayman Islands pay no income or property taxes and, according to the driver, there is no crime.  The Caymans are still a British territory, with a governor (largely a ceremonial role) appointed by the British.  We stopped briefly at the Governor’s House.  Our next stop was Hell.  This bizarre rock formation is millions of years old.  In spite of its volcanic appearance, it is actually limestone and dolomite rock, eroded by algae.  The name “Hell” is said to have evolved a long time ago when a British commissioner was touring the island.  It is alleged that he took one look at this site and exclaimed, “My God, this must be what hell looks like.”  The site then forever became known as “Hell.” 

We next stopped at the Tortuga Rum Distillery and sampled rum and rum cakes.  We then spent 30 minutes at Dolphin Encounter but, although we were able to see a lot of dolphins, there were no guests in the water due to it being Easter.  Next, we were dropped off for an hour at Seven Mile Beach.  We enjoyed swimming in the warm Caribbean water and laying out in the sun.  After returning to the ship, we got cleaned up and headed to dinner.  We then watched the Perfect Couples Game Show, in which three couples competed in various events which were hilarious to watch.  Our last activity for the day was Round 2 of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition, where another three contestants advanced to the Finals.

Day 5 brought us to Falmouth, Jamaica.  After having an early breakfast, we left the ship for our 5-hour excursion, titled “Go Native, Jamaica.”  The excursion began with a long ride in an air-conditioned motorcoach to Montego Bay, during which our tour guides provided lots of information about Jamaica’s culture, history and cuisine.  After driving past the fine all-inclusive resorts that line the bay, we turned inland and began to see how the less affluent Jamaicans live.  Since we had honeymooned in Jamaica, this wasn’t totally surprising, but it was definitely different than the wealth we had seen the previous day in Grand Cayman.  Our first stop was at the 248-year-old St. James Parish Church.  We viewed the ornate stained-glass windows, 18th century sculptures and numerous memorial plaques dedicated to local dignitaries.  The church continues to operate but, after COVID, is down to 150 active members. 

Our next stop was at Mt. Olive Basic School, a private school with 72 students, ages 3 – 7.  Although school was closed for the Easter holiday, several local students sang for us and the faculty showed us through the schoolhouse.  The classrooms were quite cramped but somehow they manage. 

Our final stop for the day was at the Johns Hall Plantation, a bird feeding sanctuary.  Upon exiting our bus, we were able to sample coconut milk and sugar cane.  We then had a buffet lunch consisting of traditional Jamaican food, including plantains and jerk pork and chicken.  Upon our return to the ship, we had another lunch, despite having had the buffet lunch, and then took naps.  After dinner, we participated in a Song Lyrics trivia contest but didn’t do very well.

Day 6 was spent at sea.  After breakfast in the Windjammer restaurant, Phil played pickleball in calmer winds for 2-1/2 hours and Jan relaxed by the pool.  After pickleball, Phil joined Jan by the pool and we watched the International Belly Flop Competition.  After lunch, we spent most of the afternoon poolside and watched the Battle of the Sexes competition there (the women won handily).  After dinner, we sat in the Centrum and listened to classical musicians.  After getting tidied up, we returned and got our anniversary portrait done.  Although our anniversary wasn’t until the following day, we knew our excursion on that day would leave us looking kind of rough for a portrait.  We then found our way to the helipad on the bow of the ship.  It was very dark but the sky was clear and there were lots of bright stars visible.

Day 7 of the cruise was April 12th, our 20th wedding anniversary.  Our ship was moored in Belize City, Belize.  We met for our excursion at 9:15 am but didn’t get access to our tender boat until 10:45. When we reached the port, we boarded a motorcoach for a 50-minute drive through the Belize River Valley.  During the ride, our tour guides provided a lot of information about the history, culture and wildlife of Belize.  We stopped for a buffet lunch at the Ayiaha Eco Park.  After lunch, we were supposed to board a speedboat, but the captain was having mechanical problems with one of the motors.  It took him about an hour to fix the problem, putting us even farther behind schedule.  Since we were on an excursion marketed by Royal Caribbean, we knew the ship would not sail without us but it was still concerning that we would delay the ship.  Once we got underway again, we got a 25-minute high-speed boat ride along the New River Lagoon.  The captain did slow down for us to see several crocodiles floating near the shore. 

The boat took us to Lamanai, once a major city of the Mayan civilization, occupied as early as 1500 BC and until the Spanish arrived in about 1500 AD.  At its peak, Lamanai (Mayan for “submerged crocodile”) had a population of 60,000.  We hiked along a trail that took us to the Jaguar Temple and the High Temple (the 3rd tallest Mayan temple in Belize).  We spotted many monkeys in the trees.  We then walked past the Ball Court.  Our guide explained how the game was played and that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed to the gods.  Since this practice runs contrary to the concept of survival of the fittest, the guide speculated that it may have contributed to the demise of the Mayan civilization.  Our final stop at Lamanai was at the 108’-tall Mask Temple.  We were permitted to climb up the side of this temple and down the front steps.  We then reboarded the speedboat and returned to Ayiaha Eco Park, where we took the bus back to the port.  The tender boat got us back to the ship by 7 pm, 1-1/2 hour after the scheduled All Aboard time.  After our late dinner, we attended Round 3 of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition.

Day 8 of the cruise was in Costa Maya, Mexico.  The ship arrived in port around 7 am and left again by early afternoon, so our excursion was both early and short.  We woke to an alarm at 5 am, had breakfast, and met for our excursion at 7 am.  The excursion, titled “Mexican Salsa Experience and Beach Break,” had an assortment of activities.  The first was a hands-on cooking class in which we learned to make guacamole and two kinds of salsa.  We were provided a plate with all the ingredients; Phil was the chopper and Jan was the masher. 

We then listened to a lecture on tequila and enjoyed a tasting.  Our next activity was learning to dance the salsa.  Although we mastered the steps, we will need more than a little practice to perfect it.  After dancing, we headed outside to the beach and enjoyed laying in the sun and wading in the water. 

We returned to the ship around noon and headed to lunch.  After lunch, we spent time laying by the pool, then returned to our room and relaxed on our balcony.  For dinner, we wore our Dress to Impress outfits and dined on lobster tail, with molten chocolate cake for dessert.  After dinner, we went out on deck and watched the sunset.  We then participated in a Movie Director trivia contest, listened to a guitar and vocal duo, and attended a non-competitive karaoke session.  We then headed outdoors on the 11th deck for some snacks and watched the movie Top Gun: Maverick on the big screen for a while.

Day 9, the final full day of our cruise, was spent at sea.  Phil played pickleball, while Jan attended a Towel Folding Demonstration and watched the flag parade.  In the afternoon, Phil lounged by the pool and listened to music while Jan attended the art auction.  After dinner, we finished packing our suitcases and put them in the hallway for pickup.  We then attended the Farewell Variety Showcase, featuring the house orchestra, singers and dancers, followed by comedian JR McCollom who had performed on the first night of the cruise.  Our last event was the Finals of the Adult Karaoke Superstar competition, in which the nine contestants selected in the three preliminary rounds competed.  There were several very good performances, but the winner was by far the best of the night.

On Saturday, April 15, the ship arrived back in Galveston after traveling 2,300 nautical miles.  We awoke to an alarm at 6 am, had our final meal onboard and returned to our stateroom to finish packing our carry-on bags.  We were required to be out of the stateroom by 8 am but couldn’t leave the ship until 45 minutes later.  After retrieving our luggage, we got a taxi back to our car at the hotel.  The 315-mile drive back to Kerrville was uneventful; Saturday morning traffic through Houston was heavy but not as bad as when we had arrived.  We got back to Kerrville around 3 pm.

We had a wonderful time on the cruise, despite eating much more than we should have.  Although Jan had cruised with her girlfriends before, this was Phil’s first cruise.  We were both already thinking about a future cruise, certainly not waiting another 15 years to do it.

Tropical Trails – Month Two (February 28 – March 28, 2023)

While much of the U.S. was dealing with extreme cold and snow in early March, we experienced a regular dose of daytime highs in the 80s, with an occasional low-90s, albeit with strong winds.  Although Phil continued to play pickleball most mornings, we spent a lot of time indoors with our air conditioners running.

On Thursday afternoon, March 2nd, we gathered by the pool to listen to live music by Kenny Ray Horton.

On Friday, Phil drove to the Dodge dealer to pick up the rear hubcap he had ordered four weeks earlier.  It had fallen off the Ram during our trip to Kerrville in January.  Since the replacement hubcap cost $225 and attaches with a lot of easily-broken plastic clips, Phil attempted to get the mechanics at the dealership to pop it on.  After two mechanics were afraid to try it and claimed not to have the right tools, they referred him to Discount Tire.  The service rep at Discount Tire popped it on with his bare hand in a few seconds, at no charge.  However, on the drive home, the Ram’s check engine light came on.  Phil called the dealer and, although their service department was booked two weeks out, they suggested he return on Monday to have the service tech check the truck’s computer codes.  On Monday, he returned to the dealership and the computer codes indicated a problem with the emission sensor.  They suspected the wiring may have been chewed on and found rodent tracks under the hood.  It would have been an expensive repair, since accessing the sensor would require removing part of the engine.  Fortunately, they reset the check engine light and it stayed off.  Hopefully, it will remain that way.

On Wednesday, we joined 48 other campers for a tour of the SpaceX Starbase facility at Boca Chica, TX.  Construction had begun in the late 2010s, with the original intent of supporting suborbital launch vehicles.  However, in 2018, SpaceX announced that the site would be used exclusively for their next-generation orbital launch vehicle, Starship, with the ultimate goal of launching spacecraft to Mars.  The focus of the SpaceX program is to make space travel more affordable, by recovering all the components of the launch vehicles.  The launch tower is designed with cranes to lift the rockets onto the launch pad and giant arms that will catch the rocket on its return.  Although most areas of the SpaceX facilities were restricted, we were able to get quite close to the launch facility, the tracking towers, and the rocket farm.  Our guide provided a tremendous amount of information about the program, in much more detail than we could possibly absorb.  Following our tour, we were able to watch videos of several of the previous test launches.  Although several of these launches had successfully lifted off, inverted, and lowered back to the launch pad, they had exploded upon touch down.

Having driven down several miles of gravel roads to reach Rocket Ranch, our car was quite dirty by the time we returned to Brownsville.  We took it through a car wash, which got it very clean but ripped off one of our windshield wipers.  Later that afternoon, we gathered by the pool to listen to live music provided by Madelyn Victoria.

On Thursday, March 10th, we attended our second shrimp boil and listened to Shake N’ Bake, a musical duo who we had seen in 2020. 

On Saturday, we decided to spend some time on the beach at South Padre Island.  We originally intended to use the beach access by Clayton’s but found the parking lot packed solidly with Spring Breakers.  We then drove north in an attempt to find beach access.  We passed several public access entries but refused to pay the $12 parking fee.  We continued to drive several miles north on the county road, until we reached the end of the road.  At that point, we found that we could park for free on the shoulder and climb over the dunes to reach the beach.  This section of the beach was much emptier than the ones closer to town.  We spent an hour sunbathing and watching people riding horses along the shore.  Afterward, we headed to Longboard, where we had dinner and listened to music.

Sunday was the hottest day yet, with a high of 95 degrees.  We found a spot in the shade by the clubhouse for two hours of music by Leslie Blasing.

On Thursday, March 16th, we returned to Nuevo Progresso, Mexico for the day.  We had lunch at Red Snapper, then headed to our regular salon.  Jan got a manicure, while Phil got a haircut and pedicure.  We made a few purchases as we headed out of town.

On Wednesday, March 22nd, Phil participated in a pickleball tournament.  That evening, we headed to The Broken Sprocket with a large contingent from Tropical Trails.  The Broken Sprocket is home to several food trucks and provided live music until 8 pm.  Then, it was time for karaoke.  Jan joined many of the women from Tropical Trails in a rousing rendition of Under the Boardwalk.

On Thursday, we attended Tropical Trails’ Grand Opening and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony.  This seemed odd, since the campground has been open for three years.  It appears that the ceremony was related to Tropical Trails joining the Chamber of Commerce.  There were quite a few attendees from the Brownsville and South Padre Island Chambers of Commerce.  Leslie Blasing provided the musical entertainment.

On Friday, we headed to the Riverview Club in Mission, TX and took an hourlong boat ride on the Rio Grande River.  There was a group of 40 from Tropical Trails so we had the boat, the Riverview Dreamer, to ourselves.  The captain did an excellent job of explaining what we were seeing along the way.  Across the river from Mission, TX is the Mexican city of Reynosa, with a population of nearly 1 million.  Much of the Mexican side of the river was lined with privately-owned parks and recreation venues.  The Rio Grande was much wider and deeper than we were used to seeing in Nuevo Progresso, which we learned was due to the Anzalduas Dam.  Along the shoreline on both sides of the river, we could see numerous partially submerged rafts that are used by drug smugglers and human traffickers.  We cruised past a privately-funded border wall.  The captain told us that this wall cost $10 million dollars per mile to construct but is of higher quality than the U.S. government-funded wall, which costs three times as much per mile.  Following our cruise, we had lunch at the Riverview Club.  Jan had the fried shrimp basket; Phil had a pork tenderloin sandwich that was much bigger than the bun.

As we neared the end of our stay at Tropical Trails, we spent the last few days getting ready to travel again.  Phil washed the RV and our vehicles, since we had not stayed in a campground that allowed this for quite a while.

Tropical Trails – Month One (January 27 – February 27, 2023)

On Friday, January 27th, Jan had her initial appointment with her new PCP in Kerrville scheduled for 9:15 am.  Since it was 350 miles from Kerrville to Brownsville, we decided to drive separately, rather than arrive after dark.  We packed up early and Phil got on the road by 8:45 am and arrived at Tropical Trails by 2:45 pm.  Jan arrived a few hours later. 

We had stayed at Tropical Trails for three months during January – April 2000.  It had been the campground’s grand opening, and we had a good time with the small group of campers who stayed here then, many of whom we are still in touch with.  Despite this, we swore we would not return to Tropical Trails due to the nearly constant strong winds.  However, since then we have followed the activities at the campground on Facebook.  This, combined with a desire to return to South Padre Island and Progresso, Mexico, led us to give it another chance.

Upon our arrival, the most obvious difference was that virtually all 240 sites were filled.  In 2000, there had only been about 30 rigs here at the peak.  Another change was that a large number of the sites are now covered with blue canopies.  One thing that hadn’t changed was the thick mud surrounding the concrete pad.  Although there was more ground cover than three years ago, a light drizzle as Phil was getting set up quickly turned it into a mess.  He soon had mud up to his knees and was scraping ½”-thick mud clods off his shoes.

After a rainy Saturday, we headed out on Sunday to the Don-Wes Flea Market in Donna, TX.  We found the parking lot much less full than in the past.  As we walked around, we quickly learned the reason.  The main building, which had held most of the stalls, was gone.  We learned that the building had burned down in July 2022.  We made a few purchases, but not as many as we had anticipated.

On Monday, Phil went to play pickleball.  In 2000, Phil had been one of the few campers who had played the game before, and he spent a lot of time teaching the others.  This time, things are quite different.  Advanced players are scheduled from 9-11 am, with beginners from 11-12.  Phil arrived before 9 am and the four courts were already packed.  He spent more time waiting to play than playing, until people started leaving shortly before 11.  Jan headed to the fitness center, which was also popular.

That afternoon, Tropical Trails was holding a Welcome Back event, with free pulled pork sandwiches and a deejay.  Although the event was scheduled from 1 – 3, they were about out of food when we arrived at 2:15.  When we arrived, the entire pool area was packed and we quickly realized that we should have brought our own chairs.  We ended up bringing the food back to our rig.

A strong storm front brought cold weather to much of the United States over the next few days.  Kerrville got below freezing temperatures and ¾” of ice.  Although Brownsville is only 300 miles south of Kerrville, we were spared the ice storm and the freezing weather.  We still had several days with highs in the mid-40s, which largely kept us indoors.

Although it had only warmed slightly by Friday morning, Phil headed back to the pickleball courts.  There were a few other hearty souls playing, albeit bundled up.

By Saturday, February 4th, it had warmed up enough for us to venture out to South Padre Island for the first time in 2023.  We listened to music at Longboard, then headed to Pier 19 for dinner.  In the past, we drove through the KOA campground to reach Pier 19.  This time, as we drove through the campground, we couldn’t find our way to the pier.  Upon checking the Internet, we learned that Pier 19 is now permanently closed.  As an alternative, we drove to Port Isabel and had dinner at Joe’s Oyster Bar.

On Sunday, we hung out by the pool listening to music provided by a deejay.  It was good that we remembered our chairs this time, since all the pool chairs were taken.  As is typical in resorts, people come out early in the morning to claim the lounge chairs for the afternoon.

On Tuesday, we drove to South Padre Island and took a two-hour cruise with 38 of our fellow campers from Tropical Trails.  It was a windy day, with a small craft advisory, so the boat captain kept us in the bay and along the canals between the homes of the rich, and possibly famous.  We were very well fed, with servings of grilled shrimp and fajitas filled with beef, chicken and grilled fish. A couple of musicians kept us entertained throughout the trip.

On Thursday morning, Phil participated in a pickleball tournament.  It was pretty low-key and, although they did record scores of the eight games, they never announced an overall winner.  On Friday, we attended our first shrimp boil of the season.  While the food was being prepared, we sat outside and listened to Kenny Ray Horton perform.  It was rather cool and windy, so the audience was bundled up and glad to move inside when the food was ready.  In addition to the peel-and-eat shrimp, we had potatoes, Italian sausage, corn on the cob and a roll.

Jan’s cousin, Lori Davis, and Lori’s husband, Bruce, came to South Padre Island (SPI) for the weekend.  After the shrimp boil on Friday, we drove to their hotel and delivered a coconut cream pie Jan had made for them.  On Saturday morning, we returned to SPI and met Lori and Bruce at Yummies Bistro for brunch.  The food was excellent.  Jan and Lori each ordered a Spanish macchiato, a deluxe coffee concoction which the barista had decorated beautifully with a floral design.  We then took Lori and Bruce for a driving tour of SPI.  We stopped outside the gates to Isla Blanca State Park and walked a loop around the park and along the Gulf-side beach.  Afterward, we drove to Longboard and listened to live music for a couple of hours.  We then had dinner outdoors on the deck at Louie’s Backyard.  The high temperature for the day was only in the upper 50s, but the sun made it feel good.  As the sun set while we were eating dinner, it cooled off rapidly and we decided to call it a day.

The cool and windy weather continued for most of the next week.  Other than Phil playing pickleball every morning, we didn’t spend much time outdoors.  Phil participated in a pickleball dink tournament on Thursday, but found it to be a rather boring format.  Jan got a massage at the campground on Friday.

On Sunday, February 19th, we attended the Los Fresnos PRCA Rodeo.  The weather was in the upper 70s and quite sunny, so it was a great day to be outdoors.  We arrived two hours before the rodeo and spent the time wandering around the fairgrounds.  We had some lunch, listened to live music, checked out the livestock, and attended a ventriloquist performance.

The rodeo itself was a sellout, with rather tight seating for over 8,000 attendees, and the professional rodeo cowboys put on an excellent show.  The events included bareback bronc riding and saddle bronc riding; calf roping, team roping, and breakaway roping; steer wrestling; barrel racing; and bull riding.  Kids ages 4 – 7 participated in mutton bustin’, in which they attempted barebare riding on a sheep.  Kids in grades 3 – 5 participated in calf scrambles, in which they attempted to chase down calves and capture the ribbon attached to the animals’ tails.

On Tuesday, we observed the golf cart Mardi Gras parade around the campground.  The turnout was rather small, due to the extremely strong winds.  On Thursday, we gathered by the pool for live music provided by Leslie Blasing.

On Friday, February 24th, the pickleball group gathered for pictures, sporting the new Tropical Trails pickleball shirts.  That afternoon, we headed to South Padre Island and attended SPI Market Days at the Convention Center.  We then stopped at Clayton’s for some fish tacos and listened to live music provided by a couple known as The DuOver.

On Saturday, we visited the 77 Flea Market.  Despite it being very hot, we wandered through almost all the massive venue.  Although there really was not much of interest to us, we did manage to buy a nice selection of fresh fruit and only spent a total of $5.50.

On Monday, Phil participated in a Pickleball Boot Camp, in which JR, a certified pickleball trainer and former Marine drill sergeant, provided tips to improve the participants’ play.

A Short Stay in Kerrville (January 18 – 27, 2023)

On Wednesday, January 18th, we drove 74 miles from San Antonio to Kerrville, TX, where we stayed at Buckhorn Lake Resort.  Although we managed to fit in several other appointments during our stay, our primary reason for returning to Kerrville was to get Jan established with a new primary care physician (PCP).  When we were in Kerrville last summer, she had learned that her PCP was leaving her practice.  Jan had submitted the paperwork necessary to transfer to Phil’s PCP in November.  Unfortunately, the office called to say that she needed to submit one more document, requesting the doctor to accept her as a patient.  They wouldn’t email the form and it didn’t arrive in the mail for several weeks.  Jan mailed in the form immediately upon receipt, but got a call in early January saying that Phil’s PCP had stopped accepting new patients two weeks earlier.  This was very frustrating since, if they had emailed the form, Jan would likely have been accepted.  The only one in the practice accepting new patients was a Nurse Practitioner.  Even at that, Jan had to submit a new form to see if the Nurse Practitioner would accept her.  She completed this form on our first day in Kerrville and was accepted a few days later.  Since the only medical insurance option for Jan is an HMO, she needs a referral from the PCP before seeing any specialist.  Since the new PCP was unlikely to give a referral to someone she had never met, it was essential that Jan schedule a physical ASAP.  She was able to get an appointment on Friday morning, January 27th.  This required extending our stay in Kerrville by two days.  Oh the joys of healthcare in the 21st century!

The rest of our time in Kerrville was uneventful.  The weather was not really conducive for outdoor activities, with daytime highs in the 50s and many nighttime lows below freezing.  Phil played pickleball indoors at the Methodist Church most mornings.  He also played outdoors twice at Buckhorn, but the cold and wind made the drive to the church worthwhile.  Jan made several trips to the fitness center at Buckhorn.

We did make a trip to Fredericksburg to stock up on sauces and candied jalapeños at Russlin’ Rob’s.  We also strolled along Main Street but were disappointed to see so many shops out of business.

The Long Way to Kerrville, TX (January 1 – 18, 2023)

Although we were going to spend the first four months of 2023 in Texas, we first needed to return to Tennessee to visit our RV dealer in Knoxville and our property in Jasper Highlands.

We awoke early on New Year’s Day and prepared for our 267-mile drive to the Birmingham South RV Park.  Our departure seemed to be going smoothly at first, but things went south in a hurry.  When Phil stopped at the traffic light before getting onto I-10, he picked up the scent of burning rubber, but hoped it was from the truck in front of him.  When he exited I-10 four miles down the road and hit his brakes, the truck pulled sharply to the right.  This time, the smell was more pronounced.  At a traffic light a few miles down the road, passengers in car next to him pointed to his front tires.  He pulled over on the shoulder and got out to inspect.  He discovered that there was a tremendous amount of smoke pouring out of both sides of the hood.  Jan pulled up behind him and we spent the next hour trying to decide what to do.  It was obvious that we couldn’t risk continuing to drive to Birmingham. 

We had spent over $2,000 ten days earlier on major routine maintenance on the truck, including replacing the front brake pads and having the front wheels aligned.  Other than driving the truck back to the campground, we hadn’t driven it since the maintenance was done.  Unfortunately, since it was a Sunday, the dealer was closed.  Also, since New Year’s Day fell on a Sunday this year, they would also be closed on Monday.

While we waited for the tires to cool back down, we tried to find a nearby campground where we could stay for three nights while we got the truck serviced.  When we found one with an available site, the question became how to get there.  Although we do have towing coverage with CoachNet, it would have involved finding two tow trucks on a holiday; one to take the truck to the dealer and one to take the fifth wheel to the campground.  By this time, the smoke had dissipated and we decided to try backtracking 25 miles, of our original 40 miles, to the new campground.  Phil drove very slowly and tried to time the traffic lights to limit the usage of his brakes.  We even stopped at Buccee’s half-way to our destination to allow the brakes to cool.  It was stressful but we managed to make it.

We booked a site at West Wales RV Park & Light Railway for three nights, with an option to extend, if necessary.  Although the online reviews had been marginal, our site was long enough and extremely wide.  Our site was next to the train station for the light rail, but we never heard it running.  West Wales operates two train ride attractions, each of a different size – narrow gauge (2’ between the tracks) and grand scale (7.5” between tracks).  Both are reportedly big enough for even a grown-up to ride.  They decorate the facility for seasonal events.  We got to see the decorations for the Artic Express, with over a million lights twinkling in the trees and over the exhibits.

After killing time on the Monday holiday, we got up early on Tuesday morning and got the truck to the Dodge dealer when they opened at 7:30 am.  Unfortunately, they didn’t even get to look at the truck by closing time that afternoon.  Phil got a call from the service advisor on Wednesday morning and learned that the calipers and brake hoses needed to be replaced, as well as having the brake fluid flushed, at a cost of $900.  Phil tried to argue that the damage was related to the brake work done on Dec. 21st, but got nowhere with that.  The service advisor said they needed to order the brake hoses but expected them to arrive by early afternoon, with the service completed by day-end.  However, the hoses didn’t arrive until 4 pm on Wednesday and the service work didn’t begin until Thursday morning. 

Since we had needed to be at our RV dealer in Knoxville for a Wednesday morning service appointment, each delay required rearranging our travel plans.  We finally decided to reschedule the Knoxville appointment to the following week and go to Chattanooga first. This resulted in re-routing our travel to Texas.

The service work was completed by noon on Thursday and we were able to be on the road by 2 pm.  We drove 246 miles to the Birmingham South RV Park, where we overnighted.  By the time we arrived at 6:30 pm, it was quite dark.  It had been many years since we’d had to set up in the dark, but we managed to get it done without incident.

On Friday morning, we drove 170 miles to Rossville, GA, where we began a five-day stay at Holiday Travel RV Park of Chattanooga.  We were glad to be off the road for a little while. On Saturday, after getting an oil change for the Mazda, we visited our lot in Jasper Highlands.  It was only 43 degrees and had been raining for most of the drive.  Fortunately, it stopped raining when we arrived, so we were able inspect the property.  It looked quite barren with all the leaves off the trees and the overcast skies didn’t help.  We could see the markers for the septic system that had been placed by the TN Department of Environment & Conservation.

The rain became more intense on Saturday night, turning the already-wet campground into a swampy mess.  We were very glad not to be traveling that day.

On Tuesday, we went to the movies and saw an early release of A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks.  The movie was quite good.  The combination of a good film and it being Discount Tuesday led to having the theater more crowded than we have seen in several years.

On Wednesday morning, we drove 100 miles to our RV dealer, RVs for Less, in Knoxville to have our furnace serviced.  Our CheapHeat furnace had stopped heating on electric in early November.  Our testing had indicated that the problem was with the thermocouple.  Since the weather in Gulf Shores stayed fairly warm in November and December, we were able to get by using the heat pumps when the lows stayed above 40 degrees, and the furnace on propane on colder nights.  When we have had service done at RVs for Less in the past, we have always spent at least one night parked on their lot.  When we arrived around noon on Wednesday, it was clear that there was no room for us to park this time.  While the service tech began working on our rig, we made a run to the post office and stopped for lunch.  Upon our return, we found that the work was done, and they were ready for us to leave.  While the bill was being finalized, Phil found us a campsite for the night.  We drove 97 miles to Monterey, TN, where we spent the night at Spacious Skies Belle Meade.  The campground was very nice, with very long and wide pull-through sites.

That evening, as we began to plan the balance of our drive to Kerrville, the weather forecast created a dilemma.  The forecast for Thursday called for severe weather, with heavy rain and high winds.  We considered staying another day in Monterey but abandoned that idea when we saw 1-2” of snow forecasted for Thursday night.  Since the storm wasn’t supposed to hit until mid-morning, we got up very early on Thursday morning and were on the road by 7:25 am.  After about 90 minutes of clear skies, we reached the storm front.  Although it rained much of the next two hours, the heavy downpours only lasted a few minutes at a time and the one hailstorm wasn’t too bad.  Our early departure brought us to the exit for our planned stop by 11:15 am.  Since the weather had been tolerable up to that point, we decided to continue on for another 130 miles, to Tom Sawyer’s RV Park in West Memphis, AR.  When we were within 60 miles of our destination, the skies grew very dark, and we encountered a very scary storm.  The rain was so heavy that traffic slowed to 40 mph and the hailstones hit so hard that we weren’t sure our windshields would survive.  Fortunately, we reached a rest area and were able to pull off and ride out the storm for 15 minutes.  We had rain for the remainder of our drive but, fortunately, it stopped as we neared the campground.  We were quite tired after driving 326 miles under difficult conditions.

We had stayed at Tom Sawyer’s RV Park in September, and, at that time, the Mississippi River was quite low.  This time, the river was much higher.  Although it wasn’t raining as we set up, it was cold and quite windy.  After being set up for 45 minutes and enjoying the heat from the furnace and fireplace, we lost power.  After several unsuccessful attempts to reset the circuit breaker, Phil notified the office, and they sent a mechanic.  When the mechanic was unable to fix the problem and we were getting cold, Phil decided to see if he could hook up our power cord to the pedestal for the site next door.  It worked and, fortunately, no one ever showed up for that site.

On Friday, January 13th, we drove 286 miles to Texarkana, TN, where we spent the night at Shady Pines RV Park.  We had stayed at this park many times.  On Saturday, we drove 200 miles to Corsicana, TX, where we stayed at American RV Park, another park where we had stayed several times before.

On Sunday, we drove 226 miles to San Antonio, where we spent three nights at the San Antonio / Alamo KOA Holiday.  Facing headwinds of 20-30 mph for most of the trip resulted in a rough ride and low fuel economy.  After covering over 1,200 miles in five straight days of driving, we were definitely ready for a few days of relaxation.

On Monday, we caught the bus across from the KOA and rode into downtown San Antonio.  We walked along the River Walk and had lunch at Casa Rio.  Despite it being a holiday (MLK Day), there were less people on the River Walk than we had ever seen before.  We enjoyed being back in warm weather, with the temperature in the mid-70s.