We have had a few lovely trips since I last wrote about our extraordinary cruise to Alaska.
I have also started working full time in a special school here in Houston. It is a school for kids with neurological deficits. Its challenging rewarding work but I must say I enjoy it. Of course, I am teaching online at the moment. It is a bizarre role for any teacher but with the learners I teach, it can be both frustrating and hilarious. My students have adapted really well on the whole. I am very proud of them.
Having a fulltime teaching job has really put a stop to our free-range holidays. We are no longer in holiday mode; rather this is where we live. Friends who have moved did warn us about this sudden swing to this is our normal, but I was not really prepared for how I would feel.
The best part is that we have had a few visitors in the last few months and that has given us the opportunity to see a bit more of Texas and show off the bits we have loved seeing too. We decide the must sees are the San Antonio River walk, Fort Worth old town and cattle drive but also some spots in Houston like the BBQ and fabulous Mexican food. We have nearly exhausted the “within a day’s drive” places around Houston.
At the end of October an exciting change started to occur in the US (and it wasn’t the perpetual media coverage of the democratic nominees). We entered what is known as holiday season. The entre’ to this is Halloween. Houses were decorated with pumpkins and ghosts and cobwebs. Although it is not a true holiday many people say Halloween is their favorite event. I made enquiries of the locals and armed myself with a bucket of candy (each individually wrapped). I had some scarecrows to put in the front garden as my contribution to the festivities. I waited…..We are at the edge of our estate and there are not many kids in our particular cul-de-sac, but finally at about 7pm a few people started to drop by. Yay!! My last visitor was a family filming their daughter’s first Halloween. She was cute as a button dressed as a princess. I think she was maybe about 14 months old. Mum and Dad were dressed up and the family pug was also in his finest, with hat and vest. The little princess was quite keen to help herself to the candy and then decided she might take the whole bowl. When that didn’t work, she tried to invite herself in. Fortunately, she was retrieved by mum and went on her way, but she made my night for sure.
The next holiday is the big one for the US. As soon as Halloween was over the decorations came down and the thanksgiving decorations went up. Beautiful door wreaths, nervous turkeys and lots of food being bought in the supermarkets. When I compare now to then it’s like we were living in a different world… actually I guess we are.
We had our first thanksgiving in the US in Phoenix Arizona with BFFs who live in California. Phoenix was fascinating. It is the home of the giant saguaro cactus in everyone’s backyards and the Sonoran Desert. These are the ones you see silhouetted against the sky in old westerns. They are really slow growing. On our tour of the botanical gardens we were told that a 10-year-old saguaro cactus may be only 1.5 inches tall. That’s remarkable when you think that they can grow to 40-60 feet tall (12-18m). At some stage in their lifecycle they may grow arms. Apparently, this does not happen until the cactus is 50-100 years old, depending on the availability of water. They dominate the landscape in the Sonoran Reserve where we took a twilight bike tour. We were riding on eco-bikes which helped you up the hills (ditches) if you needed it. It was a lot of fun and the weather was perfect (cold for Phoenix). We had intended going to Sedona, but it snowed that weekend and the road was closed from Phoenix. We enjoyed looking around Scottsdale and visiting the craft shops and the craft brewery.
Staying with our friends was great. I was introduced to cinnamon buns in a tube. What an amazing invention. You are supposed to whack the tube on the edge of the bench and the tube pops open. We have since discovered the same idea for pizza bases and even (sort of) bread rolls.
December was lovely. The decorations in the houses around made it look like fairy land. We happily put our lighted kangaroo in the front yard, and I got to indulge some of my decoration fantasies; like a stair case bough and a beautiful new wreath. Like every city, there were of course some houses that were completely over the top. We trundled around to see the lights just like in Sydney and it was so nice, just a lot colder.
Three family members visited us over the Christmas break. We traveled around to San Antonio, Fort Worth and to NASA in Houston. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and NASA was remarkably interesting. We actually saw the control room that was involved in the Apollo moon missions. It was very cool.
We all went to New Orleans for New Years eve. It was such a brilliant place to be and the fire works were great. This time Rob, Josie and I spent a bit more time in Magazine Street. The hop-on-hop off bus was busy, so we ended up doing a lot of walking. On New Year’s Day we took the Paddle Boat up the Mississippi. As we were lined up to get on we were entertained by the steam organ on the top of the boat. It was terrific and although I was a bit skeptical about whether the boat ride would be worth it, we thoroughly enjoyed it. We also discovered some interesting facts about the river and river traffic. There were many barges on the river to carry grain. Sometimes they were tied, three or four across; one barge holds as much grain as 15 rail-cars or 58 semi-trailers of grain! They just look like shallow barges. Amazing.
Well, holidays require a bit of a road-trip. After arriving home from New Orleans we headed in the other direction and took the ten hour drive to Big Bend National Park.
This amazing park is set along the Rio Grande which is the border with Mexico. There were a few highlights I had planned in the 4-day trip. We wanted to go Marfa, the McDonald Observatory star party and do a bit of hiking in the park. On the first day we drove the 650 or so miles to Terlingua. It was quite a pretty drive but a long way. Some of the town names had me a little confused, here in the middle of the desert was a town called Alpine! Seemed like wishful thinking? Not so.
We finally arrived at the Terlingua Big Bend “resort”. It may well be the worst hotel I have ever stayed in. The receptionist was pretty hostile and the room was pretty ordinary. This hotel was not cheap but it was about the only accommodation available, so we stayed for two nights. Terlingua is a fascinating town. It is an old mercury mining village that had about 2000 residents in the early 1900’s. These days it is a tourist destination with quirky buildings and the reputation of being a ghost town. The picture theatre is a funky bar/restaurant with a terrific sundown view over the Chisos Mountains. We enjoyed some yummy margaritas on the verandah but the restaurant was packed so no go there for us. We did actually eat at a Pizza restaurant owned and run by a young woman about 20 years old. It was great Pizza and we met some of the locals who regaled us with their hunting and outback stories. A very entertaining evening.
The first morning of the Big Bend trip it was seriously cold. We rugged up as best we could and headed up into the park making for the Park Office at Chisos Basin Visitor Centre. It was a beautiful desert landscape. All flat lands framed by sedimentary mountains, trees lining rivers and otherwise cactus and saltbush; but as we climbed up to the Chisos Basin Visitor Centre things started to change. The drizzle turned to snowflakes and the cactus were covered in snow! It was amazing. Big Bend NP is part of the Chihuahuan Desert and has an altitude rage from 550m to about 2400 m. The Chisos Basin Visitor center is at about 1650m. It was absolutely beautiful and unexpected to have snow in south west Texas, but it was winter, I guess.
Big Bend NP in snow
We spent a little bit of time at the visitor center enjoying the view through “the window” and drinking hot chocolate. After a chat with the park rangers we headed out on the Ross Maxwell scenic drive through the park to Santa Elena. The snow-covered cactus was so pretty and slowly the day started to warm up. The drive was really great, and we used an app called Just Ahead. It’s very clever because it gives a running commentary keeping up with where you are even when offline. The day started to warm up and we had lunch over-looking the beautiful Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook.
with where you are even when offline. The day started to warm up and we had lunch over-looking the beautiful Rio Grande at the Santa Elena Canyon Overlook.
After lunch we did the Santa Elena Canyon hike. So strange, but wonderful. It was a beautiful and fun day. We topped it off with margaritas at the Terlingua theatre. Very satisfying.
The next day we decided to walk through the Rio Grande Canyon to Rio Grande Village, called the Hot Springs trail . It was pleasant hike but quite hot in the middle of the day. As testament to the layers of sedimentary rocks we stepped over fossils on the path including an excellent and large ammonite in a step cut in the rock.
The canyon is quite narrow at this point and we could see Mexicans across the river who had swum over to the USA side and left craft for purchase. It was an honesty system so people who bought the goods left the money in a little container on the USA side of the river. There were signs up discouraging people from buying the goods; so as not to encourage the Mexican citizens swimming the river.
Back in Rio Grande Village, coyote and roadrunner were there as we had (looney Tunes) lunch, it felt very authentic Texan desert and I may have been the only one in our party to get the Looney tunes joke (daughter too young and husband who did not have a TV as a kid). But we needed to get our skates on because we had a long drive to Marfa. It is a quirky little town but has transformed itself into an arty destination. We stayed in the Hotel Paisano (look it up: https://hotelpaisano.com/), a fabulous art deco hotel best known for being host to the cast of the film Giant. James Dean, Elisabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson all stayed at this fabulous hotel.
Unfortunately for us we arrived too late for cocktails and Rob and I left too early for breakfast. We checked in and then hit the road again because we had booked into a star party at the McDonald Observatory ; another 40 or so miles but well worth it. It was a clear winter night and the observatory was set up with 10-12 telescopes looking at the moon, planets, and lovely galaxies of stars. We spent about 3 hours enjoying the views and the lovely staff helping us.
Back to Marfa, short but restful sleep and then back to Houston next morning. It is a 10 hour drive but what a wonderful way to see south west Texas.
At the end of February, we went back to Sydney for a family wedding. It was so nice to be home even though it was only for a week. I got a little bit of beach time and caught up with a few friends and family. While we were there the Novel Corona Virus was just starting to make headlines. A nursing home patient and nurse had tested positive in Sydney, the first in Australia. When we boarded the plane to come home a young male passenger near to us was wearing a mask. It made me pause, wondering if he knew something we did not. Little did I know….