Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Texas kind of Christmas

As I write this I'm sitting on the porch watching the early morning fog drift between the live oak and the mesquite, listening to the birds sing. It was 80 degrees yesterday, and promises to be even warmer today. It's a little bit strange to adjust to this kind of "Christmas weather" after spending 30 years in the cold and rainy northwest - but we're managing!

We've noticed some interesting Christmas traditions around here. For one, I've never seen so many wreaths on the grills of pickup trucks. And reindeer antlers, attached to the car or truck widows. I've never seen them for sale but folks are finding them somewhere! Corny? A little - but fun.... and if there's one thing we have come to understand, Texans don't care what YOU think. If they enjoy it, or their kids enjoy it, it shall be.

There's still a small-town temperament around here too.

We were up in Kyle the other evening for dinner with the kids, and ran into Mr. and Mrs. Santa and their helpers, who strongly resembled the local fire department.

Kendra said this was their second or third evening to visit the neighborhood, singing and calling "Merry Christmas" over the loudspeaker. Yes, people say that here, with no apologies.

Folks in the neighborhood show a  lot of creativity with their decorations. There's one with the fancy computerized gizmo that twinkles in time with the music - you tune in with your car radio - I'm sure the neighbors appreciate that feature rather than loudspeakers.

There are a lot of cartoon characters reflecting the young families in the area, and there's one yard that clearly belongs to a football fan.Guess we'll have to forgive the uniform not being UofO green and yellow!

The decorations in this yard suggest Santa will be flying with only 7 reindeer this year.   We can't decide if the family is celebrating their favorite hobby or just trying to irritate the neighbors. Either way, you have to admit it's unique!

Steve's favorite is this longhorn bull. You just cannot beat anatomically correct Christmas decorations, and what's more "Texas" than a longhorn?

We'd like to wish a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone! and... Go Ducks!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Pining for piñons

Back in early November I mentioned harvesting a few piñon cones while we were visiting friends in Nevada. My intention was to get out the nuts and see what I could do with them. First came the challenge of picking the cones without getting covered with sap. I mostly enveloped them in a paper bag and tried to get them off without touching them, and then I did manage to remove the sap that got on my fingers with nail polish remover and salad oil. Not very efficient, but then my harebrained projects seldom are.

A few of the nuts fell out in the bag, as the cones were really ripe, but I didn't have time to finish up the project on the road, so saved it "for later". Today, while I was cooking up some spiced pecans for the holidays, I remembered the project and figured I'd better get'er done. I looked up some "advice" on the Internet.... sheesh. 'Sorry, but as a librarian (by profession as well as temperament) I just have to correct some of what I found. More about that later.

Following what seemed to be the most reasonable advice I could find on the web I first heated the cones to get the sap to melt into the wood so I could handle the cones and so the nuts would fall out. The one short-coming of this approach is that I almost killed my dear husband, who has plant allergies. Other than that it worked OK, and the house smelled really nice! The nuts all fell out of the cones, the cones were shiny from the melted sap, and as soon as Steve could breath again I closed up all the doors and windows and went on to the next step. [Next time I'll try the alternative method and freeze the cones. The frozen sap falls out in chunks.] There's more info here if you are interested in experimenting on your own.

Next I toasted the nuts on a cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, then put them in a baggie and crunched them slightly with a rolling pin to crack the shells so I could peel them.  I had eaten a few fresh off the tree and the shells were so tender I hadn't noticed them, but as the nut ripens and dries they get pretty hard. After the nuts cooled I peeled the shells off. The amount of nuts in the bowl yielded less than 1/4 c. of finished nuts. . . . which leads me to think about how hard the Native Americans and pioneers had to work to get their food. If Americans today had to work that hard I doubt we'd have a problem being overweight! We'd also waste less food if we had to put this much effort in to getting it to the edible state.

Now about those corrections: First, piñon trees are pines, but not all pines are piñons (some folks spell it pinyon. There are about 115 species of pine, only eight species of true piñon, and a few others that some experts include in the group, so when I read on one site that "pine nuts with the shell on are piñon nuts" I got a little crazy. Pine nuts are pine nuts whether they have the shell on or not. Piñon nuts are piñon nuts, whether they have the shell on or not. Piñon nuts only come from piñon trees. I also read a suggestion to use a nutcracker to get into the shells - hummmm, they must have been working with much larger pine nuts, as I never met a nut cracker that would deal with something less than a quarter of an inch across. And to get to the important point, it is one heck of a lot of work to get the little devils out so you can eat them!

Pine nuts in general, including piñon nuts, were one of the most important foods for Native Americans in the Great Basin region. They traditionally heated the nuts over coals and then winnowed them through a series of baskets (which they had to weave), and then after the nuts were removed from their shells they toasted them over the fire again before grinding them into a flour. Talk about a long process! Considering the time and effort it took for me to get a quarter of a cup of useful nuts I probably would have starved to death in "the old days".

Nowadays we can trot down to the grocery store and buy a bag of pine nuts already prepared, but like baking your own bread or growing your own vegetables, harvesting and preparing wild foods is a life lesson like no other to teach us appreciation for the abundance we have.

Driving Ms. Daphne

We are at our home in Central Texas and have pretty much unloaded the truck and trailer. I thought I would give my take on the overall adventure and mention the pluses and minuses of our six months on the road.

We left June 6 and returned on December 2, 2010. We traveled 11,537 miles, burned 1017 gallons of diesel and averaged 11.3 mpg on the trip. We camped in primarily state and county parks in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Oregon. We spent a few nights in federal parks, private parks and Elks Clubs in our travels. We were fortunate to be able to spend some nights with friends parking on their property. We averaged $490 per month for camping or $17.00 a night. We spent an estimated $3500 for fuel.

Camping fee's were varied and seemed to get more expensive as we went west. The lowest state park fee was $14.00 a night and the highest was $28.00 which was charged in both Idaho and Washington. These were full hook up sites. We paid a low of $8.00 in a BLM campgroud in Oregon. Overall, most state parks were nice but Oregon had the best parks on the trip. We did not stay in a California state park on the trip so can't comment on that system. One of our favorite parks was Armitage Park in Eugene, OR. We stayed there several times this while attending National-Championship-Bound Oregon Duck football games early in the season.

We had no problems with the truck ( a 2003 Chev. Silverado Duramax Diesel.) It pulled our 2003 Arctic Fox 30 U well. I had to replace the toilet in the trailer as the flush cables broke. The front jack shear pin broke and I repaired that. Everything else worked with no problem.

In accessing the equipment used on this trip we found that having AC was nice while in the South West, the Olympia Wave gas heater coupled with an electric oil heater worked well for those chilly nights without and with hookups. The Vu Qube 1000 Sat. antenna performed flawlessly and the Dometic 3 way cooler worked well after we got used to it (I figure we saved about $600.00 for ice purchases since we acquired the unit in July.) The unit was around $400.00. The Dometic/Sea Land residential type bathroom throne is a nice upgrade. I used a Delorme Topo navigation system with a small Dell laptop and maintained communications with a Verizon Cell phones and Broadband Card with Cradlepoint 1000 router and Cyfre amplifier. One of the biggest problems was a switch from Dish Sat. to Direct TV. It is a very long story but has turned out OK in the end. When I compare the two services there isn't much different.

My power system consists of a Progressive Dynamics converter w/ charge wizard when hooked up. I have a 100 watt solar panel and a 2400watt Yamaha Generator for off-grid camping. We currently have 4 Group 27 12v batteries monitored by a TriMetric 2020 and have a 1500 watt inverter. We are definitely going to upgrade the solar system this winter and access our battery condition. I will build a 180 watt portable panel system and replace the batteries with 6 volt batteries.

It was a great trip where we maintained connections with family and friends and reconnected with other friends we haven't seen since junior high school.

"Driving Ms. Daphne, the 2010 Edition" was great start to "living the dream".

Thursday, December 2, 2010

South Llano River State Park, Texas

South Llano River State Park, right outside the little town of Junction, is our last stop before arriving “back at the ranch”, and what a treat this has been! When we stayed here back in early March the only wildlife we saw was birds, but this visit was different. As we rolled slowly through the campground looking for our assigned site an ambitious little armadillo welcomed us. He was mining for his dinner, and completely oblivious to my cautious approach to take his photo.

All afternoon and again in the early morning light we were surrounded by grazing deer. These Texas deer aren’t very meaty compared to those we were used to in Oregon – and we can’t figure out why all the pickup trucks here have such enormous grill guards. You probably wouldn’t even get much of a dent hitting one of these little guys. They’re so dainty they look like lawn ornaments! And they are a soft gray-brown, making them almost invisible in the brush.There's a small arrow over the one looking at the camera in this photo. You can click on any of these photos for a larger version, making it easier to see the critters.

We’re quite a ways from city lights, so last night when we stepped out to check out the stars we had an amazing view of the sky that included the milkiest Milky Way I’ve ever seen. Too bad it wasn’t just a bit warmer, we would have stayed out a little longer. When we checked in the office staff mentioned the temperature had dipped down to 15 the night before, so before we went to bed we took the precaution of putting the water hose in the shower. ‘A good move, as it did go down to 28 during the night and froze the faucet.

This morning over coffee we watched a flock of wild turkey’s work their way around our site. This is a wild turkey nesting area. From October through March a large section of the park is closed off to people so the turkeys aren’t disturbed while they raise their families. There are other areas to hike, and a really cozy bird blind set up for those who want to photograph or just observe. The blind is a little wooden building with nice big windows and several theater style seats – very comfy! There are feeding stations right outside the windows, so there’s a good chance of getting close-up views of the visiting birds.

It’s a beautiful park, with the amazing Hill Country mix of red oak, mesquite, cedar and patches of prickly pear you can’t beat the contrast. The river is not only beautiful it’s a great fishing spot, so there’s something for everyone here. I know we’ll be back, probably some time in the spring when we can check out wildflowers and the spring birds. The only down-side to this area is that we have no cell/Internet access, so blog updates and phone calls have to wait until we’re back in range.
For more photos check the album.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Balmorhea State Park, Texas

Yeah! We're back in the Republic!
We spent the very chilly night (25 degrees) at Balmorhea State Park. At least it was calm and sunny when we arrived so we could enjoy a bit of sunshine before sundown, when the temperature started to fall.

We stopped here last trip through, as it's location seems just about right for a day's drive. It's a rather small park, as state parks go, Balmorhea State Park is located on 45.9 acres in the foothills of the Davis Mountains southwest of the town of Balmorhea, for which the park is named. Though the name sounds somewhat Scottish, it has entirely different origins. The town dates from 1906 when someone decided the presence of water warranted a settlement. The unusual name is an amalgam of letters from the names of the land developers Balcome, Moore and Rhea. It's pronounced "Ball-more-A"

The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the early 1930s, when the land was deeded in 1934 by private owners and Reeves County Water Improvement District No. 1. The park was opened in 1968, and though it has camping and a few little motel type rooms for rent, it is largely a day use type of park.

With pristine waters supplied by San Solomon spring the beautiful swimming facility and multiple canals that attract wildlife are the primary draw. The spring produces a million gallons per hour (less during drought years) so the canal waters move fairly quickly, keeping the water clear. There's a nice viewing and information area at the Solomon Cienega (spring) viewing area, which also makes for great wildlife photo opportunities.

 The swimming area has sandy beach areas, picnic tables and a concession area. Though we've only been here in cool weather when swimming isn't so appealing, I can imagine that in the summer the place is a favorite with families.
The nearby Davis mountains are worth exploring too, as well as the University's McDonald Observatory which is locate up in the mountains. It's on the list to visit next time we pass through. This time we're just gettin' on down the road.

visit the album  Balmorhea