North to Alaska

Disenchantment Bay

If you follow me on Facebook, you would no doubt know that we have recently had a trip to Canada and Alaska.

This has been a bucket list trip for me for as long as I can remember so when I booked the trip when I was on a cruise with my mum and sister last year, I was very hopeful that it would live up to my long held dreams.

We flew to Vancouver Canada from Houston on Thursday morning. It was an early start and I think we had a stopover in Calgary for second breakfast. I have never been to Canada before but of course it was also on my list. Vancouver proved to be a pretty fun place and the downtown area near the harbor was very charming. Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Sydney-siders reading this will sympathize. It is a harbor city bounded by mountains and the ocean. Real estate is very expensive- it ranks in the top 10 of most overpriced cities in the world. However, Vancouver is also one of the most livable cities in the world. The public transport is pretty easy to use and there are lots of beautiful parks and green spaces including the massive Stanley Park. The harbor only has two bridges, one of which was financed by the Guinness family of Ireland, when the developer couldn’t raise money for the bridge at home.  It was pretty around the harbor. We went to a night market across the bay to a new swanky area and tried some local made gin and cute crafts.  Vancouver seems to be rebuilding its industrial areas to become chic residential areas.

The forests in British Colombia are temperate rainforest. Stanley Park and the fascinating Capilano Park have beautiful maples, red cedars and douglas fir trees. Both parks have lovely creeks running through them. The first day we were there was quite hot and there were people swimming in the water holes. The water was so clear it was mesmerizing. Of course, for us the main objective was to see the wildlife. The trees and creeks are beautiful but where are the bears….?

Vancouver has an historic area called Gastown. I thought it was because of the gas-powered clock but its actually named after its founder Gassy Jack. Such an unfortunate name to have for history. Anyway, the gas-powered clock is fun, and the wine bars are plentiful.

Now to the ship…

So, Alaska is an unusual shape. I thought, before I booked this trip that it was just the big part up in the north, but Alaska actually comes right down the west coast of Canada in a narrow strip called the Inside Passage. This was the area where we cruised. The most northern point of the cruise was Glacier Bay and the amazing day at Hubbard Glacier (pronounced “Glasha” for all you Aussies). Our cabin was at the back of the ship. I figured that if there were things to see on both sides then you want to be able to see both sides. It worked a treat. We were so lucky with the weather. On the first day which was an at sea day it was pretty foggy and I was worried that we might not see anything. We had been told that August was a really rainy month in this region of Alaska, but (thanks to climate change) we got lucky and the rain and fog stayed away for the rest of the trip.

We only made three land stops in the 7 days of the trip, but they were really memorable. The first was a tiny native Tlingit settlement called Hoonah and the port called Icy Straight Point. The locals have set up the longest zipline in north America and a whole lot of tours that get the cruise liners in. apparently its one of the busiest cruise ports in Alaska. We went on a bear searching tour with a local guide. The bus is met by other local guides with huge shot guns to keep us safe in case the bears need scaring away. We headed down to the creek and stood on viewing platforms. We had just about given up when a bear appeared in the distance. It was a long way off, but we could claim to have seen a bear. We moved onto the next platform and were again about to leave when we were told not to move because there was a bear headed our way. It was so cool. A big brown bear turned up in the creek quite near us and started fishing. He caught a salmon and stood there eating it for a few minutes while we all went crazy taking photos and feeling very happy with ourselves.

first bear

On the way back to the boat we chatted with the guide about how they live through the various seasons. He hunts in the hunting seasons to provide for his family and his parents and grandparents. When he has met his family quota then he will hunt for elderly people in the village. They have a deer, salmon and duck quotas. They preserve the meat by drying freezing or canning it. They also collect and berries and fruit and grow and preserve vegetables. There is a supermarket in town but its really expensive so they travel to Juneau once a month or so by boat to buy household things like nappies, toilet paper and so on. It’s a tough existence but they love where they live and it provides for them if they are careful with resources.

Our next stop was Hubbard Glacier in the unfortunately named Disenchantment Bay. We had a perfect day, we were far from disenchanted. The weather was calm and clear and the captain was able to take the ship as close and any boat is allowed to the glacier (about ¼ mile). Hubbard Glacier is huge, about 400ft above the water and 600 below. It is one of the few Glaciers to still be advancing. It starts about 122 miles north and drops about 12000ft on its trip to the ocean. Apparently, it takes ice 400 years to travel the full length of the glacier. The color change of the water was fascinating to me. As you get into the area where the moraine and all of the tiny suspended particles are in the water it is a milky green color. There are a number of other glaciers in the bay all heading into the water, but it is only Hubbard that is meeting the ocean. The noise of the ice calving was unexpected. They call is white thunder and it sounds just like thunder. You hear the noise and then see the huge sheets of ice falling into the water. Because we couldn’t see the whole length of the glacier (its 6 miles wide where it meets the bay) sometimes we could hear the noise but not see the ice falling. It was the most exquisite thing. After a few hours on the deck we retreated to our balcony and toasted the grandeur of nature; (thank you God). It is a sobering point that our grandchildren may not be able to visit these amazing places. The naturalist on board showed us pictures of the glacier when she visited it as a child. It was very different to now. The biggest change was in the other glaciers in the bay. Something to think about. We were so happy to have such a great glacier view that seeing the seals and birds in bay almost went unnoticed.

Next stop was Juneau. This is the capitol of Alaska. It seems to be in a strange place to be the capitol but I guess the other parts including Anchorage may have been cut off in the winter and most of the people probably live in the southern parts. Juneau also boasts the beautiful Mendenhall Glacier. It was a very pretty place. The indigenous craft museum was really fabulous as were the MANY gem shops. The opalised ammonites were particularly interesting to me. Some of them were enormous. We did not buy anything but looking was fun.

Anyway, for us, Juneau was whale day. We took a boat tour doing a bit of scientific data collecting; dip netting and crab potting and then headed out to see the whales which we were identifying and recording. Straight away we saw 3 adult humpbacks in the bay, feeding and coming up for air. There was a bit of tail flapping too. They were quite close, but it was pretty tame compared to whale watching at Byron Bay. We then got word that there was a mum and baby a bit further up. Our captain asked if we wanted to go there or go look at the seals. Fortunately, the Kiwi lady and Rob and I prevailed, and we went to see the baby and mum humpback whales. They were being quiet and just feeding. I asked the guide if the babies jumped much and he’d said no, when this little fella started flapping his tail. Well, he jumped and flapped and played around for about 30 minutes. He even dived right under our (little) boat and came upright next to us. Amazing. It was the best day.

We thought….. our next stop was Ketchikan. On this stop we went to a nature reserve where the locals had built boardwalks over a creek where the salmon run. The outside of the reserve was open and bears were free to wander in. And they did. We had really wanted to see lots of bears well this was amazing. The salmon were everywhere in the river and there were bears everywhere. It was so interesting. The bears only eat the bits of the salmon they like and just leave the rest lying about for the birds. Bald Eagles and seagulls were dropping in for a feed of the leftovers. While we were there a mother bear and her cub came across the bank on the other side. The cub was very cute trying to mimic his mum and wanting to eat her salmon. They swam across the creek and mum just casually picked up another salmon as she got out of the water. We were so close, maybe 10 meters away. I got some fabulous photos of the bears almost right under me. This may have been another best day. Best bear day.

Ketchikan was a really interesting visit. When the local indigenous populations leave their houses and gardens, they allow them to just decompose to replenish the site. I guess they take away anything that won’t decompose but its an interesting idea. They have the luxury of space but perhaps we could all learn from their recycling and patience: understanding that time is also a part of respecting their environment.

It was such a fabulous cruise and really lived up to expectations. So much so that I have booked another Alaska cruise next year! Different itinerary- one way to Anchorage.

We had another couple of days in Vancouver before heading back to Houston, so we hired a car and drove to Whistler. This was a beautiful way to finish our trip. We did a bit of hiking and went on the most amazing gondolas going between peaks at the ski resort.  Like all of the other ski resorts we have been to in summer Whistler was full of mountain bikers and hikers. It was also a public holiday in Vancouver so there were lots of families having a day out. The we had a great time travelling between the peaks. The village was full of flowers and nice places to eat. It was lovely.

When we arrived back in Houston, I started teaching in the charter school system as a substitute teacher. What an amazing experience that has been.

I’ll tell you about it in my next blog.

Rocky Mountains High

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We ticked two long held dreams off our list in one weekend in the second week in August. For a long time we have wanted to go to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, I guess all of those John Denver songs from years back had melded into our DNA, and we wanted to see Billy Joel in concert while we were in the US. The stars aligned.

A few months ago, we were looking for Billy Joel tickets and discovered he was playing Corrs Stadium in Denver. Bingo! Two ticks. We booked tickets in about March (I think) and made some tentative plans for visiting the Rockies in the days following. Wow!

We flew into Denver on Wednesday evening and caught an uber into town. We were surprised by the flatness of Denver. Colorado and Utah sit on the Colorado Plateau; a massive area at the foot of the Rockies. Denver is called the mile-high city because it has an altitude of 5280ft (1600m). This plateau gets a lot of sunshine and not much snow but quickly rises up to the huge mountain range with many mountains over 14,000ft (called the 14ers). The Uber driver told us that Denver has more days of sunshine than just about anywhere else in the US. 300 days of sunshine in fact. However, the truth seems to be that the 300 days is actually a myth. Denver gets 300 days where, at some point, the sun shines. Anyway, that being said it was mostly sunny when we were there.

Once settled into our downtown hotel we went for a walk to find some food. Denver downtown has a terrific mall that stretches from Union Station to the Capitol Building. As the weather is so nice, there are lots of cool alfresco eating places and good bars. A free bus/tram system runs up and down the length. It was super pretty. The flower boxes were abundant and overflowing everywhere, the streets were clean and people rode bikes or walked much more than we see in Houston (which isn’t difficult).

We found a late-night bar and sat watching the sidewalk. Nearby there were tables on the median strip area with chess boards. It’s true most seats were occupied by drunks and homeless people sleeping haphazardly across the tables, but some were being used for chess. (Later that weekend, I did see people sitting playing chess in the afternoon sun.) Colorado has legalized cannabis and like Nimbin (where I don’t think it is yet legal) they advertise hippy trips to cannabis dealers etc. Now, I’m not saying it necessarily has a direct correlation, but, compared to Houston, there did seem to be quite a lot of homeless people who were either having intense conversations with themselves or screaming abuse at passers-by in that “I’m really disturbed and paranoid” kind of way. I think that was the only downside of a wonderful stay.

Denver on the first night

The next morning, we got up early and headed to the capitol building for our free city walking tour. We arrived quite early and viewed the impressive statue of a civil war soldier. The morning was beautiful and the flowers in the gardens were lovely. The group swelled to nearly 40 by the time the guide started. Our guide Janice was a little dynamo. Full of energy and enthusiasm. She explained that the Capitol building was constructed in the late 1800s out of Colorado granite and that the dome on top is really gold (leaf). This is because Denver, Colorado was really (European) settled by gold miners in the 1850s. This followed a period of Spanish then French ownership and Colorado was sold in the Louisiana deal to the USA by the French in 1803. The borders of Colorado were finally decided in the mid-1800s and it became the 38th state in 1876. Denver became the capitol and flourished as a silver and university town until gold was found again in the 1890’s. Another fun fact about Denver and gold: Denver has white fire engines and the story is that they ordered fire engines in the late 1800’s and decided that they wanted gold fittings on the outside as befitted their gold city status but when they had done that they found that there was no money left for red paint so the engines stayed white.

As I said, the capitol building has a dome covered in gold, really. Originally it was Colorado gold then Italian and now again its Colorado gold. As it is gold leaf it has to be replaced every 20 years or so. Impressive.

the gold dome on the capitol building

We headed down into the flower filled parks and streets. Denver has quite a lot of street art and we found a giant chair outside the library with a horse on it. Apparently, the chair was originally commissioned for a school but when the artist decided to add the horse, the school didn’t want it anymore, so it ended up in Denver outside the library. The Convention Center has a huge blue bear looking into it. It’s very cool. It was a lovely morning walk. We really recommend the free walking tour in Denver; we try to do these types of get to know the place tours when we can. We probably would have just walked by most of the buildings without understanding the significance and the history. The walk finished at the Union Station which has been beautifully restored. Railway stations were so important to settling the west, but Colorado was not on the main line. It was a spur built from Wyoming, no doubt to help with getting all of those rich minerals and mine owners safely back to the east.

art in the parks

One of the main reasons to go to Denver was to go to the Billy Joel concert on Thursday night at Corrs stadium a huge baseball stadium for the Denver Rockies baseball team. It was a magic night and when 50,000 fans sang Piano Man it was spine tingling. We (naively) thought we would just pick up food somewhere on the way to the stadium but as we walked towards it we realized that 50,000 other people were thinking the same thing and there was just nowhere to fit. That is until, of course, we got to the stadium which easily catered for that number. Our seats were actually on the field just in front about 14 rows back, it was awesome.

Next day we picked up a car and headed into the mountains. We took a scenic byway (Highway 9) through to Frisco via Fairplay, Alma and Brekenridge. Fairplay has a street called South Park City where the shopfronts like a wild west movie. We ended up in a shop that seemed to sell everything, chatting to an old couple about the animals that visited their home just out of town. Bears, moose, elk were apparently regular visitors. They also described some Aussie tourists they had rescued after they were stuck in the snow, completely unprepared for the weather. Not surprising really when they also said that they usually got 10ft of snow each winter. The backdrop is straight out of an old western movie. Alma is the highest town in the USA at 10578ft. The scenery soon became amazing. Huge mountains and deep valleys forged by glaciers and rivers. It was (naturally) rocky and steep but there were wildflowers growing everywhere and towering pine trees. We passed through a few towns that had been or still were involved in mining at some stage.

They call this the top of the Rockies because there are so many 14ers; (these are mountains over 14,000ft). So, we started the day at around 5300ft in Denver and went across the continental divide and Hoosier pass, which is 11,500ft. We got out at Hoosier pass as we had decided to do a short 3mile walk to the top of a lookout are which took us to 12200ft. While we were aware that we needed to drink lots of water to help stave off the altitude headaches we were completely unprepared for the tiredness of walking at that altitude. Seriously, (I’m pretty fit I jog regularly in Houston and usually work out more than 3 times a week) we really struggled to walk up to the lookout even at a slow pace. It was a good lesson in the effect of altitude. My brain was just taking all the oxygen for itself and vital organs so the little mitochondria in my muscle cells were starving. My heart was racing, and I was breathless. Not nearly enough ATP being produced on that day to go for a walk. Lucky, I didn’t choose the 6mile up to 14000ft hike I was thinking of doing. The guidebooks do warn you that everything will take longer at altitude but of course I didn’t believe them. We were much better after a couple of days up in the clouds.

The treeline ends at about 12000ft so looking across at the mountains all around you can take a guess at the altitude. There was evidence of avalanche damage in some valleys along the road; the trees are just missing or pushed over in the downward direction and then up a little bit on the other side of the valley too. We were glad we were driving in summer. Another great thing about this area was the number of cycle paths. There seemed to be paths all along the roadside and we saw quite a few intrepid cyclist peddling up these enormous mountains.

Towering mountains with snow and flat grassy plains in front.

Brekenridge was a busy place. It was full of summer holidaying families and flowers. The shops wer generally upmarket and beautiful. We went into a shop selling huge crystals: they were thousands of dollars but staggeringly beautiful. You would need an enormous atrium to display one. Brekenridge has a series of chairlifts and Gondolas that will take you up to 14000ft but we arrived too late in the afternoon to do it that day. Instead we sat in a lovely outdoor pub and ate pizza and drank wine. 😊

We were staying just a few miles out of Brekenridge at a cute little town called Frisco. Its main street had some older buildings and lots of places to eat. The whole area was having an art festival that weekend so there were lots of stalls and fetes going on all over.

Next morning, we headed out on a mini road trip to Aspen and back. We took a byway on the way there which took us through some impressive mountains and the ski resort of Vail. Vail was busy having a kids festival. Lots of tiny kids racing through a series of challenges including tubing down the river, mountain biking and running. It was packed. We didn’t stay very long, but it was beautiful and very European looking. The road continued to wind up through fabulous mountains and wide glacial valleys. Again, the wildflowers were everywhere.

Towering mountains with snow and flat grassy plains in front. We stopped at the lookout near Camp Hanes. This place was where the US trained their snow soldiers during the second world war and for a while after. There was nothing left of the camp that we could see but it was certainly steep and remote. As we walked to the lookout Rob struck up a conversation with an old gentleman who was walking very slowly. It turned out he was from Houston! During the walk, which was about 150yrds and back he told us a story about his father who served in PNG during WW11 and how he thought that Aussies were the toughest breed on the planet. We heard that story at least twice on our slow walk.

We finally arrived in Aspen. It was much bigger than Vail or Brekenridge but the ski area did not seem as large. Again, it was busy having end of summer festivals and there were lots of people around. We wandered through a lovely tranquil park dedicated to the memory of John Denver, an Aspen local and had a drink outside a pub where we met a guy who had been riding his dirt bike through the mountains for a few days. He was living in the UK but was another Houston local. Small world.

The drive back was via a different route on a major highway. We were very surprised to see that the cycle path continued for nearly the whole 200 odd miles of the trip. Because the road and bike path followed the river it was also mostly flat. Well done Colorado.

On our final day we went back to Brekenridge to ride the Gondola and hike down. Unfortunately, it was raining this day and we were not able to go right up to the top of the mountain. We did walk down through one of the ski routes called the 4o’clock trail. It was a wide path. We saw a sign indicating moose crossing but sadly didn’t see any moose. Back in Denver, it was sunny again and warm. (Back in Houston it was HOT. The next day the thermometer hit 104F with a “feels like” 108F.)

Colorado was flowery and fabulous, and the Rockies were magnificent. We sang a lot of Rocky Mountain High and of course Billy Joel. We ticked off a couple of bucket list points and had a lovely time being tourists. This is a quick turnaround because as I write this, we are sitting in a plane bound for Vancouver and a cruise to Alaska. Stay tuned for the next blog post.

Critters and NOLA

the very tiny Spiny orb weaver spider that made this great web in our backyard

In the past few weeks things have really warmed up here in Houston.

Just as we got home from our fabulous Utah trip, Rob left for a work trip and I went to New York to visit my sister, who was at a conference there and also stay with friends for a few lovely days. New York Central Park in summer is so beautiful (I have only seen it in winter before).

Central Park New York-summer 2019

Anyway, since getting back the weather has been HOT every day. We have had quite a lot of summer storms but that is to be expected when it is so hot and humid. Houston has a latitude of about 29N. It is about 3300km from the equator (similar to Grafton in NSW) but the proximity to the warm Gulf of Mexico, lots of lakes and rivers and the flat topography combine to make it extremely humid. Its weather patterns are really like a tropical region, with just two seasons, rainy and dry. The annual average rainfall in Houston is over 1200mm, more than Townsville Qld, so it is very wet. We have been having big thunderstorms most days for the past couple of weeks. (I love thunderstorms….just saying..). The water lies around in big dish gutters once it rains and the flood mitigation reservoirs are close into the suburban areas and are huge areas of low-lying greenspaces, all adding to the humidity. The streets are briefly completely flooded when it rains hard. Its is most humid in the mornings around 90%. The condensation on the outside of our windows is remarkable. We use the air conditioner at night to keep the house cooler and so the windows fog up on the outside! The evening humidity is usually less, around 70% but it depends on if we are having a storm. Consequently, even though the temperatures are around 33C most days, the humidity makes it feel over 40C.

These nice warm temperatures really suit the reptiles and insects. I drove out of our garage on Thursday last week and as I closed the garage door I glanced across towards the front of the house and there was a large snake quickly slithering towards the front door garden. I think it was about 1.2 meters long and stripy. I reflected, that if I was in Australia, I would be thinking tiger snake. It was moving very fast, (I guess I just about ran over it) but stopped in the low hedge out on the verge area. I got out of the car to take a photo incase I needed to get a snake handler to remove it. I was thinking how crazy that seemed but, I had seen that it wasn’t a viper which are the most likely poisonous snakes around here. It didn’t want to have its photo taken and headed for the hedge right next to our front door. One of my neighbors was out the front of his house and came over to have a look. He put his hand into the bushes to push them aside to have a look! (As an Australian I thought that was a bit crazy) and he assured me that because the snakes head and body were about the same diameter it was not likely to be poisonous. That is not a rule of thumb to follow for Australian poisonous snakes, by-the-way. Anyway, that was a bit of up-close excitement. I expect the snake was after the little skink lizards that are everywhere around here. I’m pretty sure it was a rat snake.

A couple of weekends ago we went to Corpus Christi. It’s about a three hour drive south west from Houston, with a stop at Aunt Aggie De’s Praline shop in Sinton. There is a statue of a big squirrel out the front and an excellent little shop selling yummy pecan praline and pecan brittle.

Corpus Christi is an interesting place. As you drive in its highly industrial with oil and gas processing plants all along the river. Then you come to the business area of town and an enormous bridge over the river with an old aircraft carrier moored next to it. The ship is the USS Lexington which was commissioned in 1943 and served in the US navy until 1991. It is now a museum and was quite an fascinating place to look around. I thought how frightening it would have been to be inside it when it was involved in combat during the war. Apparently, the Japanese announced on four separate occasions that it had been sunk so it was nicknamed the grey ghost.

Corpus Christi and the Lexington Museum

The beach at Corpus Christi is on the Gulf of Mexico, so, no waves, except those caused by the wind, and it was very windy. Along the Gulf coast from Mexico to Galveston Island are a series of long sand barrier islands that protect the mainland from the water of the gulf; handy in hurricanes. The area off Corpus Christi is designated a National Seashore. Which is a national park on the sea. It is called Padre Island National Seashore and is an area rich in nature. Lots of turtle species nest on S. Padre Island and it is managed by the national parks service. They allow the public to come and watch the baby turtle release early in the morning. Unfortunately, there was no baby turtle release the day we were there but we know about it now, so might be back. The Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle is unique to this area and lay their eggs on the beaches, along with leatherbacks and green sea turtles. The  nesting areas are carefully protected and monitored. The national parks officer told us to go to a jetty near town to see turtles in the wild. We saw about four juvenile green sea turtles swimming around. It was lovely to see although there was also a large amount of plastic debris in the water too.  We were really struck by the juxtaposition of the heavy industrial and nature trying to coexist. The national parks service is obviously doing a great job, but I fear one oil or chemical spill and it will be all over.

S. Padre Island National Seashore

The beaches (and parks) of Corpus Christi are beautiful with white soft sand. When you go to the beach, you park right on the sand. It felt kind of bizarre driving our 2WD Audi onto a beach. Despite being quite hot, it was a very windy weekend so (spoilt Australians) did not feel tempted to get in the (not blue, kind of brown) water.

Our drive home took us further up the barrier islands and we crossed at the biggest domestic car ferry terminal I’ve seen. There were 6 ferries crossing a very busy but short waterway. There were oilrigs sitting in the river waiting to go into service, huge boats going up and down, tugs pushing barges and these 6 car ferries. In the middle of it all was a big pod of dolphins, just having a great time like there was nothing else about. Again, an example of nature adapting (I hope).

Last weekend we ventured the other direction (East) and headed to New Orleans Louisiana, or NOLA as it is known. This was a five-and-a-half-hour drive, so we got a fairly early start. Like Houston, the coastline towards Louisiana is flat, flat, flat. We soon seemed to be on bridges more often than land roads. Crawfish ponds were everywhere. Crawfish are freshwater yabbies. The ponds are rotated to grow rice in the other year. It’s a great idea. We stopped in a little place outside of Lafayette called the Gator Chateau. Here you can hold baby alligators and talk to the handlers. The babies are quite cute, like most babies, and their underbellies are super soft. We enjoyed that little break and it got us interested in doing an airboat swamp cruise. We picked up a few brochures and booked one on the Lac Des Allemande, about 30 minutes out of New Orleans.

After we left Lafayette, we travelled over one of the longest bridges in the US. It’s over the Atchafalaya Basin and the bridge is 18.2 miles long of mostly dual bridges, two lanes wide. The Atchafalaya basin contains the largest connected block of forested wetlands remaining (about 35%) in the lower Mississippi River valley and the largest block of floodplain forest in the United States. Its about 70% (cypress) forest sitting in the water and 30% marsh lands. Its really quite remarkable. The birdlife, even from the road at 60mph was amazing. The wetlands of Louisiana are under threat due to the flood levies put up in the 1930’s and the damming of the Mississippi River which would naturally dump tons of sediment into the delta everyday but now does not. Balancing the needs of the resident people with the natural environment is difficult at the best of times but climate change seems to be having a huge effect on this already damaged ecosystem. Our tour guide suggested that a football-field size of wetland is being lost every day (or was it every hour?). The impact that will have on the gulf coast is significant.

We traveled to Baton Rouge where we looked on trip adviser for somewhere to have lunch. We found Louie’s café. Wow it was a real picture postcard classic diner. The food was good too. We drove around the university lake in Baton Rouge and it felt like we were in “Gone With the Wind”. The mansions were beautiful, and some were that classic “southern” white house. Gorgeous.

From Baton Rouge we headed to the airboat tour. We sat on the first row of seats on the airboat, collected out ear protection and headed off. Going up the river was pretty with water hyacinth, ducks and little turtles. As we got into the swamp the egrets and cranes became more abundant. The Whooping Crane is the tallest bird in the US; it has a wingspan of 2.3m and stands 1.5m tall; and we saw a couple of them at the Zoo in Houston a few weeks ago but did not see any on this tour. They are beautiful white birds and have black tips on their wings that you can see when they fly. However, we did see some other enormous birds: the Great Blue Heron; it has a wingspan of up to 2m, and the Great Egret; wingspan 1.5m, which is a large white bird that was endangered due to over hunting for their pure white feathers in the 1800’s early 1900’s; they are making a comeback.

The real interest in the tour was of course the alligators. They are really very different to crocodiles; they seem much less threatening (from the safety of the boat). Our guide fed two big males each about 12 feet long at different places and I was brave enough to pat one. There is a clip on my Facebook page if you haven’t seen it. There would be no way I would get that close on purpose to a salt water croc. I was surprised and pleased to note that the gator, who climbed onto the edge of the boat to get fed, reminded me of the crocodile in the original PeterPan. I do not know why that stuck with me, but it did. Disney must have used an alligator to mimic rather than a real crocodile.

Alligator up close

Finally we arrived in New Orleans and checked into the hotel, walking distance from Canal and Bourbon streets. That evening we walked along Canal street to the river and watched the steamboat go out. The Mississippi River is still used as a transport corridor. It starts way up north in Minnesota and is the second longest river in the US. (The longest one is the Missouri River which empties into the Mississippi.) Apparently, a raindrop that falls in Lake Itasca where the river begins, takes about 90 days for it to reach the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans. It was flowing quite quickly even though we were right at the delta. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mississippi_River_-_New_Orleans.jpg

We kept walking until we found Jackson square. This is sort of the heart of the French Quarter and reflects the history of European New Orleans. Jackson Square was the site of the hand over of Louisiana from Spanish to French and then the signing of the Louisiana Purchase. Louisiana territory in the mid 1800’s stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, and Louisiana to Montana; it was big. Napoleon apparently traded New Orleans for $7, but the whole purchase cost more than $11 million. It must have really opened up the continent.

Jackson Square also has the beautiful St Louis Cathedral which is apparently the oldest cathedral in the USA. It was rebuilt in stone and brick after the great fire of New Orleans in the late 1700’s. There are lots of great restaurants all around the area of course but we decided to try a seafood one right on Jackson Square with a view of the river walk called the Moon Walk. Cajun food is spicy but not as hot as Mexican. We loved it. Next time we will do a food and history tour. and try more Cajun and Creole food.

After dinner we walked to Frenchmen Street to go to the Spotted Cat Music Club. It was packed and the band was fabulous. There were lots of these little music bars all along Frenchmen Street. As it was summer and the fourth of July week, the whole street was busy and felt like a party. We caught the St Charles Street streetcar back to the hotel around midnight. FUN!

The next morning, we headed back over to Jackson Square to get on the Hop-on Hop-off bus. We have found this a really good way to get to know a city (in a bit of a hurry). New Orleans seemed to be freshly washed down; although, as it was early there were a few drunks passed out in the gutters. The police were picking them up as we wandered by. We did the entire bus tour which took us to places like Basin Street Station and Armstrong park (I thought how much my dad would have loved it). We drove through Tremẻ‍, the Garden District and the French Quarter. It was beautiful in places and run down in others. The garden district was very grand and pretty. We also discovered something called shotgun houses. In a shot gun house there are no walls inside; so the story goes, you could fire a shotgun from the front door through the back door and not hit anything. We also learned about the difference between a balcony and a gallery house; it’s what holds up the top floor verandah (or not). Support columns mean it is a gallery and no supports make it a balcony.

After our tour took us back to Jackson Square, we walked through the French markets, which were just the same as all flea markets of the world, and had a stop to listen to some more great music in a café nearby. We finally made it down Bourbon street and peered into the shady courtyards behind the bars.  We must come back again. What a fabulous and interesting town.

Road Trip to Utah

I’m back in the US from Australia. It was great to go back to Oz and see family and friends. Being away helps you to appreciate things that are so familiar but that you might take for granted. One of my signature strengths is the appreciation of beauty and I express that most in connection with the natural environment. So, I really noticed the vivid blue skies, the different green of Australian trees, the morning bird song and the crashing of waves on the amazing golden beaches.  I’m sure everyone reconnects with Australia in different ways when they return even from a short time away; but I feel I do glimpse an understanding of how the indigenous people deeply feel their connection with this remarkable and beautiful land called Australia. Despite all of that, I was excited to come back to Texas and continue our adventure.

Just a few weeks after getting back to Houston we had the opportunity to take a week holidaying in one of the most astonishing places I have ever been. I have wanted to go to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks since we visited the Grand Canyon about 6 years ago. In truth I didn’t know they existed before that. Anyway, Rob had a short window to have a week off, so I quickly made plans to get away.

It turned out to be one of the most relaxing and breathtaking holidays we have ever done. We flew into Las Vegas late on Friday night and picked up a car early Saturday morning. Of course, there has to be one mistake in my planning, I had actually booked the car for the Friday not Saturday (no big drama). As expected, we nearly fell over at the cost of rental insurance but that aside we headed off without a glance at the strip or even going near a casino- we’ve been to Las Vegas before. Our shuttle driver told us that the casinos are actually about third on the list of things that bring people to Las Vegas now; behind the shows and the retail outlets! Interesting fact Las Vegas means the meadows although our driver says you remember it by thinking of “the vegies”. It is a big flat space surrounded by enormous desert hills. On Saturday there was even snow on the distant mountains even though it was about 30C in Vegas itself.

The drive from Las Vegas (Nevada) to St George (Utah) was surprising. We wove between huge rock walls with fantastically twisted strata. My Dad would have loved it, he was a geography teacher (and so much more). Our kids will understand the reference. It made me wish I had done more geology in my science degree. However, it was clearly desert, barely any vegetation to be seen and no grass. The most predominant living thing, other than the people on the freeway, were strange looking trees like the ones in Dr Seuss books, these are Joshua trees. (There is a national park in California called Joshua Tree National Park.) We pulled over for lunch in the town of Mesquite and had a picnic on their beautiful grassy park. It was so lovely and such a contrast to the area around. Big tick to the council.  Its on my trip advisor list of reviews.

Anyway, we continued on increasing in altitude and still amazed at the scenery. My plan had been to go to the north part of Zion NP to a place called Kolob Canyon. The road winds through Taylor Canyon to the final stop overlooking the most stunning view of an area called the finger canyons. It was late in the afternoon to the color in the rocks was very dramatic. We were dumbstruck and wising we had thought to do some hiking here too. Maybe next time…

We stayed at Springdale that night, our evening view was of huge cliffs with eagles flying above them. The colors are incredible. I haven’t been to the Kimberley (guilty) but Rob has, and he thought that some of the colors we were seeing in these landforms were reminiscent of that area. Over about 270 million years the Virgin River (not kidding) has cut 2,000+ ft canyons through the rock. At first glance I thought the rock would be igneous, but it is a fine sandstone called Navajo sandstone. Apparently, the desert sand dunes were blown layer over layer forming red and white cross beds. That accounts for the mindboggling layering in every direction. Older layers underneath were laid down in ancient shallow seas, so contained lots of marine fossils. Younger strata have dinosaur bones from the Jurassic and Cretaceous. Then the river and winds continued to erode the sandstone until you stand nearly 700m (2200ft) down in the valley.

Many of the longer hiking tracks were still closed following a long winter but we did two day hikes and used the shuttle for little walks to the view points (known as lookouts in Australia).

The second hike we did was Angels Landing. It’s a famous hike in Zion. We started very early (about 7am) as we had heard that it was a very popular hike especially because some of the other longer hikes were unavailable and we had stayed at the lovely Zion Lodge overnight. Angels Landing rises from the bottom of the canyon to about 1500ft. It was so high that someone said, “only the angels would be able to land there”, hence the name. The walking trail was apparently the idea of one of the first national park superintendents who wanted people other than mountain climbers to be able to see the whole canyon from above. The 21 switchbacks are named after him, “Walters Wiggles”. It’s a dangerous hike with apparently 8 deaths since 2004. There are signs all over saying no children, don’t do it if you’re scared of heights, have a heart condition, are taking certain medication etc. The reason for the warning is not the switch backs but that the last 500ft is along a narrow ridge which at times is only a few feet wide. The drop offs on either side are very deep; some as deep as 1000ft. There is a chain to hold onto, but I must say it was still pretty scary. Mind you when you get to the top the view is amazing and breathtaking. An added bonus (for me) were the chipmunks. They were very bold, trying to get into people’s packs for food. I had not seen a chipmunk before so was very excited. As I sat on a rock to have a drink, they were running across my boots. (I did shoo them away, as they are rodents of course.) I’m very glad we went early; trying to pass people on the steep climb down, as it got busier going up, required a lot of patience. I’m sure many of the fatalities would be people trying to get around the queue. It was an exhilarating experience to do the climb and get back down in time for morning tea on the lovely grass at Zion lodge.

After Zion, we headed out along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway towards Bryce Canyon. Wow, what a stunning drive. As the canyons are so huge, a tunnel has been dug through them to make the highway. I know that we have lots of highway tunnels these days but this one was dug in the 1920’s and completed in 1930. It’s 1.1 miles long. Because it was made way back, large vehicles like buses and campers (RV’s) have to get right into the middle to get through so now the national parks has traffic control so that they can only go through one way. Cars can go through at any time but wide and tall traffic has to be regulated. It’s so cool.

We stayed in a little town halfway between Zion and Bryce Canyon NP called Duck Creek Village. Its off the main road and high up, around 8,850ft (much higher than Australia’s tallest, Mt Kosciusko). Anyway, I booked us in for three nights in a cabin in this little village. As we drove in, the altitude started taking affect and we both were dealing with headaches, especially Rob. The place has the feel of an alpine ski resort but is way too flat. We were perplexed. We checked into the Duck Creek Village Inn and the hosts Eddie and Shauna, had some relief for the headaches on hand. It turns out that Duck Creek Village is ATV heaven in summer and snowmobile central in winter. I don’t really get it but each to their own. It is a serene picturesque place and fortunately (for me) we were a week ahead of the opening of the ATV season.

Every evening we sat on the porch soaking up the noise of nature. The town church bells played How Great thou Art and Rock of Ages on the hour at 5 and 6 pm respectively; it was so quaint. While we were at Duck Creek, we were visited by Hummingbirds. I have never seen a hummingbird before. They are so pretty and tiny- just beautiful but too quick for a photo. We also saw a beaver two mornings as we set out on our drive to Bryce Canyon. He was in his little place next to the creek both days. It was a lovely place and I really recommend Duck Creek Inn.

We visited Bryce Canyon on quite a cold day. It was mostly sunny, but we did have some sleet at one point on our rim hike. What a surreal place Bryce is. The Hoodoos are like huge stalagmites made of red rock. Bryce Canyon is high up on the Paunsaugunt Plateau which was uplifted by the Colorado Plateau due to tectonic movement and subduction of the heavier Colorado Plateau. The cracking that occurred from the uplift allowed water to seep in and erode some of the softer rock such as the mudstone more rapidly while the limestone caps stayed put. Because Bryce is so high the water also freezes. Ice expands and causes cracking. It doesn’t rain most of the year because it’s a desert but apparently, when it rains at Bryce it is like a monsoon. The rain and gravity erode more, and you end up with these incredible structures. The mudstone is iron rich and as it washes down the spires it leaves a red plaster like coating on everything below. Amazing. We attended a ranger talk about the geology; it was fascinating. A similar story to inland central and South Australia: shallow sea, layering, iron rich layers and uplift. I wish I was better at geology.

The next part of our day was really phenomenal. Because the Colorado Plateau is so high, as the water from the plateau runs down through the various canyons such as Bryce to get to the Colorado River it picks up a lot of sediment. When is reaches lower areas such as Zion it has deposited these sediments in what are effectively three distinct layers over an area of 1.9 million acres into an incredible landform called the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. You should google the pictures of this area I cannot really describe it except to say this may have been the MOST wonderful part of our trip. After our visit to the information center at Kanab we were directed to a dirt road called Cottonwood Canyon Road. It follows the Paria River about 46 miles from US 89 to a little town called Cannonville in the Kodachrome Basin State Park, where it meets Scenic Byway 12. The whole drive is exhilarating, amazing and like another planet. We continued on to Escalante where we had an excellent dinner in a delightful and well patronized tavern. What a brilliant and unexpected day. I had not made any firm plans and it was remarkable. The scenic byways of Utah booklet is a really good start when trying to decide on where you could go.

Anyway, onward. We visited the North Rim of the Grand Canyon the next day. We have been to the south rim a few years ago and hiked down and up the canyon from that side. The park only opened the day before and there was still quite a lot of snow on the plains as we drove into the park. There were bison crossing signs on the roadside. Sadly, we didn’t see any on that day, but it was pretty cool to see that they are around on these plains. It was blowing a gale on the North Rim so we wimped out on a long hike but we were glad we visited. I had forgotten how absolutely enormous the Grand Canyon is. It was nice to see something completely different for a day and re-calibrate.

Our last day of sightseeing and we decided to venture to Page in Arizona to go to Antelope Canyon. A friend in Houston had also told me about this marvelous place so we booked into the Navajo guided tour for 11.45 am. apparently, its best to try for as close to the middle of the day as possible because you want the sun directly overhead to avid shadows. The canyon is on Navajo land and they own the rights to the very popular tour. It was certainly not a disappointment. Our guide, was so helpful with photographing tips and even took some shots for us. The tour was about 45 minutes and moves pretty fast. The canyon is a deep slot canyon also formed by water moving through cracks in the sedimentary layers. The rock is very blonde but with the light shining into the canyon it forms wonderful colors. The minerals in the rocks bring out beautiful purples, pinks and orange. We did Lower Antelope Canyon just because that was the one we could get into at the right time but it turned out that it is the longer canyon and much steeper with more corkscrew shapes. The canyons are caused by flash flooding due heavy down pours in the summer. The water rushes through and causes these remarkable sweeping patterns.

Page is also home to the second largest lake in the US; Lake Powell. The Glen Canyon Dam is at Page and is quite impressive. Robert was transported by the huge boats. Some of them were so large that they were being delivered to the lake by semitrailer. The launching ramps were 8 lanes wide! It seems to be a very popular fishing and house boating spot. We took a cruise along the canyons towards Antelope Canyon. The coastline of the lake is actually longer than the combined coastline of mainland USA. It was very pretty and protected; perfect for house boating.

Finally, our holiday had come to an end. We reluctantly drove back to Las Vegas and flew back to Houston. Writing this feels a bit like a travelogue but I can honestly say I was completely amazed and in awe of the grandeur of South Western Utah and northern Arizona. What is more incredible is that there are still half a dozen other National Parks in that same region we did not even make it to. Each region had its own distinctive characteristics; it certainly did not feel like we were just seeing the same thing over again. What a wonderful restful and regenerating holiday. #UtahLifeElevated

Deep in the (flowering) heart of Texas

Last blog I told you that we would be taking our driving tests this week. This is the last official residency thing we needed to do. It will also provide us with photo id rather than our passports or NSW drivers licenses.

Like NSW we booked a specific time at a center about 30 minutes from our home. I think it is called a mega center because of the number of people they try to cram into the two big waiting rooms.  It was packed. People can wait all day at these places. Bad luck if you have to be at work. Anyway, we couldn’t really work out what we needed to do and despite asking two uniformed people who seemed to be directing the waiting masses where to go, we still were not sure. Finally, I went back to the harried looking concierge and reexplained that my appointment was now, and I had to do my driving test. He sent me to a clerk who then told me I had to go with my car (of course) around the back of the building and do the test from there! We headed around the back and joined that queue. There were eight cars ahead of us and only one stressed looking woman taking paper work and then going on the drive with the candidates. The driving part was only about 10 minutes each. I was so nervous- I haven’t done a driving test for more than 30 years. When I finished, Rob had to rejoin the queue for his turn. It was quite chaotic. The system seems completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. All-in-all it took from 1pm to 4.50pm for Rob and I to do our tests and PASS (yay!). Anyway, we are now waiting (again) for the cards to arrive in the post (sigh).

Well we have been to some interesting places the last two weekends. This will probably be the last of the quick trips on weekends because apart from a few local sites we are nearly at the end of the easy to get to places.

I did not really know much about Dallas except that JFK was shot there and there used to be a show in the 80’s with JR and a whole lot of big hats and big hair. Not a high level of knowledge, I agree. So, my approach to this weekend visit was to first book us into a JFK tour on Saturday morning. I figured we should get educated. We left Houston at about 6am as it’s a nearly four-hour drive.  The fog was pretty thick early, but it warmed up to a beautiful day. It was nice to get out of the city.

We made it in time for the tour and joined our slightly manic guide and a couple of other people from Las Vegas (there was a hockey game in town). It was quite fascinating but sad too. There was a big emphasis on how the shooting of JFK sort of marked the end of innocence in the states.The guide was completely sure that Lee Harvey Oswald was the shooter and that all of the conspiracy theories are just crazy and misinformed. The lack of security was what really struck Rob and I. Compared to today, the president’s tour was so casual. How the world has changed.

We went all over the old part of Dallas; Dealey Plaza, the Texas theatre even to the backyard of someone’s house to see the picket fence where a photo of Oswald was taken (we were a bit worried we were actually trespassing). We ended the tour at the book depository where there is a fine museum on the 6th and 7th floors.

I was a bit JFK’d out by that stage, so we went to the farmers market for crawfish and margaritas (as you do). The markets were fun and were celebrating St Patrick’s day. It seems that St Pat’s day is a very big deal in Texas (probably all over the US). Anyway, I have never eaten crawfish. From what I can make out they are freshwater yabbies of a type and must be pretty abundant because the special cookers that are used to cook them are enormous. We ate them at a Cajun street food stand and had them three ways: deep fried tails, pistolette and etouffee (like a chowder). It was really yum.

We wandered around for a while and then bought a tasting plate of local cheese and a bottle of local wine for dinner. Dallas was a really worthwhile visit.

The following day we headed to Fort Worth. Dallas Fort Worth is one of the biggest city areas in the country but quite a contrast. Fort Worth stockyards were great fun and really the highlight of the weekend. About 30 longhorn cattle are driven down the main drag twice a day. Apparently, longhorns developed from escapee cattle from the early settlers and became their own feral breed. They are well adapted to the dry hot conditions in Texas. After the civil war, there was very little stock left in the north and the ranchers of Texas became very rich rounding up the longhorns and driving them to Fort Worth where they could be put on trains to go north for sale. That’s when the Fort Worth stock yards started. 

Longhorn cattle were nearly extinct by the mid 1960’s and are still listed as critically endangered. They are pretty lean so while good for those of us who don’t like a lot of fat on our steak, they are not so popular in the bigger market. Still, Fort Worth stockyards keep a small herd of rescue cattle and there are breeders who also keep them.

 We took a free walking tour and it really helped with understanding the place. Fascinating little piece of information- bulldogging (now cattle wrestling) was started by a bloke called Bill Picket who watched how trained bull dogs pulled down escaping cattle by biting them on the lip. He decided he give it a go (as you do) and that’s how bulldogging started. He actually did bite the cattle on the lip as he wrestled them down (not recommended). He did it for the crowds at rodeos all over the place for many years.

We finished off the day in a honky-tonk saloon chatting with a bunch of people from Oregon and enjoying the music. Fun.

The drive home was a bit of a drama as we ended getting a flat tyre. (my US computer does not like how I’ve spelled tire). The roads here are not only crowded but the potholes are extraordinary. When you add to that the speed, it’s tough on tires and expensive.

The Texas wildflowers are out and so we thought we would take a long weekend and drive up to what is known as the hill country and then onto San Antonio. Wow, wow, wow. This was probably the best weekend so far.

The drive up to the hills went close to Austin then headed west along state highway 29. The wildflowers are mostly a blue/purple flower called bluebonnets, but there are also buttercups, primroses and Indian paintbrush. They probably needed another weekend to be perfect, but it was still spectacular. We really enjoyed being out of the towns and found the scenery a bit reminiscent of the northern tablelands around Tenterfield although not as hilly. There is a big granite uplift called the Llano uplift and in it is a pink granite hill called enchanted rock. We thought we might go into the state park and have a look but the queue just to get into the park was about a mile long. We gave it a miss and continued onto Fredericksberg. This is a German settlement town a lot like Hahndorff near Adelaide. Unfortunately, we did not find any apple strudel.

We did, however, find some wineries. Some grapes are grown in the area although we discovered that most are grown in north west Texas and then brought to the “Hill country” because its more accessible to the big cities of Texas and therefore is more of a tourist destination. The winemakers no doubt prefer to live in Fredericksburg too. We enjoyed the short visit to winery 4.0 where four wines are showcased, all but one is made from 100% Texas grown grapes.

On to San Antonio. Our son and daughter-in-law told us about San Antonio and how pretty it was. Really it surpassed my expectations. There are two main things to do in San Antonio: the river walk and the Alamo. The Alamo is almost sacred to Texans. A bit like how Australians celebrate Gallipoli, Texans revere the Alamo. Two hundred rebels held off 6,000 Mexican soldiers for a short time before they were defeated, and all were killed. However, it became the battle cry for the rest of the war between rebel Texans and the Mexican army. A few days after the fall of the Alamo, the Mexicans were defeated at San Jacinto and Texas became a republic. I don’t know really what I expected but the Alamo is a very small fort with a few lovely old brick buildings including a Spanish mission style church. It’s a well-done exhibit with long queues every day.

The River walk is another thing altogether. It is beautiful. The gardens and bridges along the way are artistic and interesting. It reminded me a lot of Italy but cleaner and newer. We used the hop-on-hop-off bus to get around and have an overview. One spectacular place was the Pearl, on old brewery site now turned into residential high-rise with market places and restaurants. As it was Saturday there was music and lots of people sitting on the grass eating ice-cream and shopping at the markets. We walked about 3 miles from there to the main part of the Riverwalk area which is restaurants, gardens and artwork; so pretty and restful. At night the restaurant area is full of people music and food; excellent fun.

There is lots more to see in San Antonio. We loved it.

Luckily, petrol (Gas) is pretty cheap here, so, these long drives are not too expensive on the fuel. When you go to a service station you pay up front at the bowser. Put in your credit or debit card and choose your gas. There is no 98, only standard (83%), 87% and 93%. The price for 93 per litre is about cents (US). Its no wonder everyone drives, and they have not bothered with public transport infrastructure. I am travelling to Australia next week and will be there for most of April. I may not post again until May.

Hair meets Humidity

This week something seemed to change in the weather. The flowers are starting to appear on the trees in the estate, the clouds are clearing and I have BIG hair. As I told you a couple of blogs ago, I have ventured to the hair dresser a few times now and they have always made comment about how much hair I have. I have bought lots of product to help keep it in order and have even learnt how to wield a blow dryer and straightening iron, things I have avoided as much as possible in the past. Alas, all of my hard work is going to be for nothing. I spent about an hour trying to straighten it to less than frizz on Saturday before heading out to the Rodeo and within no time it was back to big hair. I feel like a character in a 70’s sitcom. Rob says he thinks it looks good, frizzy, (we have been married for a lot of years) so I am just giving in.  Embrace the big hair.

On Saturday we pulled on our boots and decided to go to the Rodeo to check out the “Super Shootout” (no guns involved). It was a team event of winning rodeo contestants from some of the major rodeos around the country and Canada. There were 8 teams from Calgary, Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, San Angelo, Denver and an interestingly named Days of 47 from Salt Lake City Utah and of course Houston.  Each team had competitors for five events: Bareback riding, barrel racing (which the girls do), steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding and bull riding. Its pretty brutal. I was pleased to see that many of the competitors had safety gear like neck protectors to prevent whip lash and helmets. Still they are pretty brave and seem to be limping back after each event. Its amazing what adrenaline drives us to do. I’m sure that they must all be in it for the thrill. It was all exciting to watch but I think that the barrel riding was absolutely brilliant and the crowd really got into it.

The whole evening’s performance is such a spectacle. Of course, it is held in an indoor air-conditioned arena that holds about 70000 people. It is a bit like ANZ (-is it still called that?) Sydney Olympic Stadium with wide walkways up to the seating areas. Lots of food and drink stalls inside including my personal favorite a yard glass of margaritas. The show starts with a grand parade which weaves around itself to fit all of the riders and wagons inside. This was not a parade of the livestock as it’s only the rodeo, the livestock is in another pavilion. Then the field is cleared and they have a prayer. I must say that the Americans wear their hearts on their sleeves about God and patriotism, the cowboy who prayed really prayed. It did not feel like he was just saying some politically correct words which were designed to not offend anyone.  No doubt he was getting on the back of some bull later that night and realized he needed all the help he could get. Everyone around us stood up and was quiet, even if they were not praying, they respected the moment.

the NRG stadium

Then, came the national anthem. Like in Australia, the US has a song as its national anthem. They only sing the first verse of four. The song was actually written about the battle for Fort McHenry near Baltimore in 1814. I did a little bit of research and discovered that this battle was a turning point in a war with Britain called the war of 1812. It seems to have involved Napoleon stirring trouble in Europe and Britain and France being a bit heavy handed with neutral “colonies” (although the US was not a colony at that time). Anyway, the war didn’t last very long compared to what was going on in Europe, but it did result in this great poem which then became a song and then the national anthem.

So, back to the rodeo. A cowgirl rode in with the flag held high and went around and around the stadium while someone from the armed services sang. When they got to the bit about the battle raging, red flares and fire works are let off (great horse). There is lots of smoke and emotion and she rides faster and no hands holding the flag up and then out of the stadium. It’s a real emotional spectacle and I loved it. The cowboys then get to do their thing.

The rodeo competition finishes with “Mutton Busting”. This is different. A small area is cordoned off in the stadium and bring in a dozen sheep. Then they put little kids on the sheep and see who can hang on the furthest/longest. The kids are all 5 and 6-year old and wear helmets and chest guards. We saw a few casualties where the sheep ran over the kid who had fallen off but they mostly leave intact. They only have to fall a couple of feet. You do best if your sheep runs fast. That means you get to the end without having to hang on for very long.


The biggest boot

At the end of the mutton busting they have a very strange event called the calf scramble. This is actually an event that provides scholarships for agriculture students from high schools around the area. How it works is; the scholarship hopefuls are called scramblers and they line up at the edge of a big square box marked out on the stadium. A stack of calves are let into the area inside the box and then the scramblers run in to try to catch one. Of course, the calves run out of the box and all over the arena. When the kids catch a calf the have to put a bridle on it and lead it back into the square to get their scholarship papers. Easy right? It is hilarious seeing these kids try to firstly catch a calf and then get it back into the square. The calves weigh about as much as most of these kids and are not that keen on being caught. There are scramblers falling down all over the place and being dragged around by some calf whose tail they have hold of. The calves are even less keen on being led anywhere. They sit down or dig in their heels and just won’t move. It often takes a scrambler on the front and back to get the calf over the line. Anyway, once they are in the box the scramblers get a certificate and scholarship money to buy and raise a beef heifer or steer to show at the next years’ show. It’s a neat way to give agriculture students the chance to stay involved. The money for the scholarships is donated by people and businesses. We met a guy after the rodeo that night who had donated a calf. He was very proud to have done it.

After the rodeo there was a concert by Kane Brown. I confess I had never heard of him, but he was pretty good. Sort of modern country, I guess. The crowd all knew the words. I’ll have to let it grow on me.

We then headed over to the ranch rodeo. A lovely man and his special needs daughter showed us the way and gave us some tips. His daughter who had Downs Syndrome had been awarded a special belt buckle that day because it was her tenth year of attending the rodeo and she loved it. She had lots to say about her buckle, which was spectacular, and that we should make sure we come to the ranch rodeo because it was such fun. This was much more like the Lismore show of my childhood. Dad would have loved it. Teams of cowboys from working ranches cut cattle from herds, a bit like team campdrafting, bare back riding, roping events and cattle wrestling. At the end there was a crazy event that topped it all off. It was called wild cow milking. The teams had to rope a cow front and back, hold it still long enough for one of them to milk it enough to get a few drops in a bottle. These were not small calves but big cows. The teams all rode full belt at the cow so of course it ran away from them. I had the thought that approaching it quietly might be a better option but none of the teams did that. The milker then had to run with the milk bottle and ropes back to the judge. It took the whole team to hold it still long enough for it to be milked. Pretty sure there were some very sore cowboys going home that night from this event.

It was Saturday night, so we continued to the wine garden. There was excellent live music and local wines. Houston likes to dance it seems and there were people of all ages dancing to some gentle country and blues. The weather was warm (albeit humid!) and it was just a really nice way to finish off a terrific evening.

We went back to the Rodeo to see Santana last night. Again, it was a great night with more and different events at the Rodeo. Santana were incredible. They had three drummers who no doubt were relieved that the stadium was air conditioned. The sound was phenomenal, and the stadium was packed. We had decided to park at the park and ride station we had used last weekend and catch a metro event bus stadium. It was a good set up, a bit like the way Sydney does big events (but no trains). You still have to park fairly close to the stadium, but it was very easy. As always everyone is friendly and happy. We piled on the bus to go back to the car after waiting in the line for about half an hour. While we were underway the driver announces that we are going to a different park and ride station. Everyone on the bus exclaimed that we were supposed to be going to west loop…. He was just kidding, making sure we were awake…..having a good laugh. Happy people.

However, it rained while we were in the concert making things a bit slippery. Driving home late at about 11.30 we were overtaken by a few speeding cars weaving in an out of traffic already traveling at over 60 mph in wet conditions. Rob and I commented that they must have been going at least 70. We drove past some thick black smoke on the side road under the freeway. I heard this morning that one of the speeding cars had flipped off the freeway onto the side-road and burst into flames. A young driver was killed and his passenger is critical. So sad.

Last blog I wrote that we were going for our Texas Drivers license. We have done the paper work and are approved but have to do the actual driving test next week. Let’s hope its fine. It is a driving environment that really makes me realize more than ever that focus and caution are so important.

We are off to Dallas and Fort Worth this weekend.

Thanks for the feedback. I am looking forward to catching up with a few of you in Australia in April.