Saturday, March 10, 2018

March 2018


The sun is shining and the youth of Texas are enjoying spring break. Many of them have taken the party to the Corpus Christi area along the Gulf of Mexico, where we were recently vacationing ourselves. We have now left the beaches to the young revelers and moved to the Texas interior. Springtime weather in San Antonio can be a lesson in shifting moods, from cool, dry northwestern air currents to the hot, humid gulf flows. When they collide, look out! Rolling thunder and a bright, electric sky full of hostile hail can result. During our short stay this year we have been lucky. It has been mostly dry, mostly warm and quite suitable for Riverwalk strolling and disc golf playing. Though we only get to Texas every couple of years, Corpus Christi and San Antonio are as comfortable and familiar as a pair of old sneakers. May spring find you in a place of ease and contentment as well.  ~  Brian and Andi

Wish You Were Here  

 Pirates and Poets Annual Songwriter Invitational, Padre Island, TX

Have you heard of a style of music called "trop rock?" It stands for "tropical rock" and is a genre characterized by island or beachy lyrics set to the sound of Caribbean rock or pop instruments such as guitar, steel drum, Latin percussion and slide guitar. Think of Jimmy Buffet songs and you'll be on the right track. When we travel to places like the Gulf Coast, we listen to trop rock and had recently discovered an internet radio station called Radio TropRock. Much to our surprise when we pulled into the RV park in Corpus Christi, we saw an RV plastered with a giant windshield screen featuring the distinctive parrot and palm tree logo of Radio TropRock.
It turned out that our campground neighbor owns the station and runs it out of his RV. He was in town for a weekend-long festival called Pirates and Poets 8th Annual Songwriter Invitational, and he encouraged us to attend, which we did.

The cute little beach resort town of Port Aransas on the barrier island just beyond Corpus Christi sustained too much hurricane damage to host the event as it usually would, so they held it at a nearby water park and resort called The Schlitterbahn. We began our experience on a Friday evening, finding our way to an upstairs private deck attached to a full indoor bar. We had heard that tickets would be limited to 120 people, which made for a nice, intimate audience. As we were strapping on blue Tyvek wristbands that would admit us to the next day's events, it gradually became evident that many of the attendees already knew each other. Folks with icy drinks in hand mingled with the comfortable ease of a friendly cocktail party. We chose chairs right near the front for an acoustic-electric evening of guitar, steel drum and miscellaneous percussion.
Donny Brewer, backed by Melanie Howe and Mark Mireles
The first headliner was Donny Brewer and we were among the tiny minority who had never heard him before. On all sides of us were groupies who basically follow the trop rockers on their circuit to places like Key West and coastal Mexico. Most of the audience sported grey hair or no hair; we were about the youngest in attendance. The music was cheerful and the delivery spontaneous, with much humor and good-natured interaction among musicians and audience. Next up was Jerry Diaz, acknowledged as an early and influential trop rock artist. Some of the Saturday night musicians joined in here and there, too, and the party finally came to a close after four hours.

On Saturday, we missed some daytime music because we were giving a performance of our own. Saturday night we drove back to The Schlitterbahn, donned our favorite new Key West parrot tee shirts and headed inside for the next event of Pirates and Poets. This time we were indoors beside the same private bar as the previous night, and as before, it was bustling with festival patrons.
Three singer-songwriter guitar players sat on stools before the small audience and performed in rotation. Each talked about the process of composing their songs and the influences that inspired particular pieces. We decided that this was the "poets" part of the festival balancing last night's "pirates." The same audience of supportive friends attended and seemed familiar with Eric Erdman, Cory Young and Kitty Steadman. There was a kind and easy kinship among musicians and crowd. The last tune of the festival was a joint composition about Pirates and Poets, with each musician contributing a personalized verse. Then it was all over but the hugging and the promises to see each other at the next event. We left slightly stunned, having fallen under the spell of these fun, kind, talented folks who were so eager to welcome us into their world.

For a sample of our experience, visit these sites:

Radio TropRock:

Did You Know, Part 1

You probably knew or guessed that Texas has its own way of doing things. One thing that separates the locals from the visitors is the ability to pronounce certain place names like a native. Say the following names to yourself, then read father below to see how a true Texan says them. Ready?
Study Butte

Life on the Road

Lending a Post-Hurricane Hand

Most of us remember the catastrophic devastation of Hurricane Katrina but a more recent tropical cyclone is tied with Katrina for the costliest storm on record.
Can you name it? Neither could we until we  reached the barrier island strip outside Corpus Christi to visit a favorite little resort town on Mustang Island called Port Aransas. There we saw the lingering effects of Hurricane Harvey, the brute that slammed into the Texas Gulf Coast just over six months ago. It was heartbreaking to see shops we had actually featured in our February 2016 blog entry now missing signs or walls or roof sections. 
A giant mound of debris frowned on the edge of town, and an enormous backhoe on top was using metal jaws to transfer the crushed homes, stores and dreams to vast trucks, bound for Landfill, USA. The other thing that caught our eye was a hand-painted sandwich board that read, "volunteers register here." With a free week at our disposal, we put our names on a list to be phoned for "light outdoor work, painting, moving and office work." In a couple of days we found ourselves helping a young lady get her business groomed. We were among 6 or 8 volunteers working there from Michigan, Illinois and other places, mostly retirees.
While some painted decks and pulled nails from reusable wood, we transplanted a dozen little trees. The hurricane had ripped out a small forest and we were moving the survivors to a nice location inside the back yard. Clad in jeans, hats, sunscreen, bug spray and gloves, we went to work. It was a nice day for digging and planting – mid-70s and a medium breeze, though the coastal humidity always makes it feel warmer. That chore took us the entire morning, then after lunch came the really strenuous part – moving and spreading a truckload of gravel for paths and driveways. We were completely whipped by the time we got back to the RV park and stumbled to the showers to wash off the sandy grit.
Good thing there were cold ales in the fridge leftover from St David's Day. We had a day off and then went back over to help a lady who has a lovely pottery business. She had landscaping revitalization to do as well; by now most people have drained the water, removed heaps of flying detritus and dug out the mud piled up to indoor window sills. After another day of outdoor labor, showers and ibuprofen felt really good, but so did the feeling of accomplishment and the look of hope we brought to the faces of nice folks in their time of need.

Did You Know, Part 2

Now, the moment of truth. Here is how to say these names like a true Texan:
Bexar  =  "Bear"
Study Butte  =  "Stoody Butte"
Boerne  =  "Burny"
Gruene  =  "Green"
and our personal favorite:
Refugio  =  "Re-fury-oh"
Please don't ask us to defend or explain; that's just the way they're said.

Coffee Chat

About a year ago we read an article about someone who had severely reduced her garbage output to some ridiculously enviable amount like one bag per year. In response we bought some thrift store cloth napkins and a set of hiking cutlery to carry into coffee shops so we could avoid using paper napkins and disposable silverware.
"For here" cups at Island Joe's on Padre Island
Last month we decided to take it a step further and give up disposable coffee cups. We like to call our endeavor, "put your coffee where your mouth is" and once again we began at a thrift store by purchasing a pair of mugs for 99 cents each. Many coffee shops actually offer real cups, but when they don't, we're prepared.

Spring in San Antonio

The iconic Texas bluebonnet

Friday, February 09, 2018

February 2018

Sampling conch foods in the Conch Republic

We have put more than 1300 miles on Sierra's odometer since posting the last Buzz from Florida's Space Coast, and yet we're still in Florida! That's what happens when one of your happy places is the southernmost city in the continental United States. Key West had evaded our itinerary for 8 years and almost dodged a visit this year, too, due to Hurricane Irma last September. The "Conch Republic" hurried to recover enough to revive the flow of those all-important tourist dollars, but we did see much cleanup still in progress as we hopscotched from key to key along the last 100 miles of US 1 that terminates in Key West. After a blissful two weeks revisiting old memories and creating new ones, we made brief stops in the Everglades and Tampa before touching down in Pensacola. Here we will perch at a comfortable Naval Air Station for several days of Native flute concert performances, disc golf experiences and immersion in deep south gulf coast life. As they say during this prolonged season of Mardi Gras, "laissez les bons temps rouler" – let the good times roll!  ~  Brian & Andi

Life on the Road

We witness dramatic variations in flora and fauna as we travel from region to region. Even within Florida, we can tell that we are much farther north than we were a week ago by the change in trees and birds. Key West was a subtropical paradise, mysterious and intriguing to those of us from the mountain west. Palm trees of all types share the landscape with scaly red gumbo limbo trees, pillared banyans displaying many ropey, dangling trunks, and kapok trees with their tall, wavy root structures. By contrast, here in Pensacola we look out the RV windows at tall thin pines and the same gnarly, branching live oaks we enjoyed in Savannah, Georgia. By day we watch woodpeckers navigate the ridged oak bark and just after dark we listen to the hooting of a solitary owl. In the morning we hear a symphony of forest birds, mostly small and difficult to see in spite of their lusty songs. When we were down in the southern keys, the most noticeable birds were long-legged waders like herons and egrets, with rare pink flashes of flamingos or spoonbills. Riding the highest air currents you could sometimes spot the distinctive black, v-shaped wings of a Magnificent Frigatebird. Since we are still hugging the gulf coast, there are several birds that survive in both habitats, a favorite being the brown pelicans that glide so unbelievably close to the waves. A few creatures manage to span most of the places we visit – crows, ospreys, vultures, eagles, raccoons, and ants. Though it is purely a flight of fancy, it is fun to imagine a colorful world where the dominant species are green parrots and bright pink roseate spoonbills instead of dark vultures and black crows.

Wish You Were Here

A slight detour on our trek from the Everglades to Tampa rewarded us with an amazing sight. On the map, our destination said "Manatee Viewing Center" and we were eager for a better look at these roly-poly sea mammals. An endangered species, manatees suffer in cold water and so they congregate in warm areas, like the discharged saltwater used to cool a particular Tampa Bay power station.

The Manatee Viewing Center offers a chance to see stingrays and butterflies, or even experience the wind force of a hurricane, but we were eager for the main attraction. We hustled past the snack bar, gift shop and educational exhibits, single-mindedly climbing the stairs to the wooden boardwalk overlooking the warm canal. There we joined a small crowd of gawkers peering down at the manatees.
 The creatures were drifting and lounging in a peaceful crowd – there must have been a hundred! Their brown backs and tapered shapes looked like a pool full of giant cigars. From time to time a pair of circular nostrils would appear above the surface or a rounded tail would flip up, sending the owner in a dive. Mostly they seemed content just to float in the warm bath. It was fascinating to watch the slow drama unfold and we were reluctant to leave. Finally, we pulled ourselves away and stopped in the gift shop to purchase one small manatee-shaped pin. The smooth, pewter souvenir is now tacked within our RV and an unforgettable memory stored in our hearts.

Coffee Chat

Pastry with a view

We were camped in Key West a short bike ride from the main downtown area and one morning we got up just before dawn, made a thermos of coffee and rode to the marina (after a brief stop at the local bakery.) In the cool, peaceful dawn we found a bench facing the moored boats and there we sat, as the sun came up behind our backs. We watched the docks gradually come alive, one sleepy local after another. Some came to shore by dinghy from anchored boats, others trudged along the docks in flip flops, or broken down boats shoes, or no shoes. Most had the ruddy, leathery skin reflecting a life of sea and sun. We talked to a wheelchair-bound vet and a gregarious author. We watched the charter boat crews clean the decks, coil the lines and fill the ice chests. We observed a homeless man who had "come into money" and purchased a fine boat, though his attire seemed unchanged by the sudden wealth. We did not hurry and were rewarded with what we considered to be a genuine glimpse of Key West. When the sun was full and the coffee and croissants were reduced to drips and crumbs, we wandered off to continue our explorations.

Did You Know?

You expect to see unusual flying objects in Everglades National Park – wood storks, green herons, purple gallinules, and anhingas, but Nike-Hercules missiles? Fortunately, you will not see the missiles in the air, but incongruously located in the preserved wilderness of the Everglades are relics of the Cold War in the form of three 1960's missile defense emplacements. These missiles were prepared to intercept Soviet hostilities launched in Cuba. The use of "HM-69", as the base was called, ended in 1979 and it now has national historic designation. Interestingly, its location and purpose were no secret and the unit even received a rare commendation for preventing rather than engaging in aggression.

Scenes from Key West

No end of interesting architecture in Key West

Scrimshaw: artistic pastime for bored sailors

A protected Key West rooster

Table with a view

Ernest Hemingway house

Key West lighthouse

Must have a floating tiki hut bar

Sunset cruises available

And key lime pie to finish it off

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

January 2018


Happy New Year! We closed our 2017 calendar at Patrick Air Force Base on Florida's Space Coast. As a result of hurricane Irma damage to the Florida Keys and the necessary recovery at our planned Key West destination, we wound up spending more than a month here at Patrick. Although we are still looking forward to our two upcoming weeks in Key West now that the Navy base RV parks are able to accept campers, the Space Coast has turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. We hope the coming year is full of nice surprises for you as well.   ~   Brian & Andi

Wish You Were Here

Our prolonged visit to central Florida's eastern edge gave us as opportunity for greater exploration of the Space Coast than ever before. The area incorporates a long, skinny strip of barrier island and the adjacent mainland, with Cape Canaveral at the northeast corner. Running down the narrow island, which in some places is barely wide enough to hold little highway A1A, the first town you encounter is Cocoa Beach. Below that is Patrick Air Force Base, then Satellite Beach and Indialantic.

Across the Indian and Banana Rivers on the mainland lie Cocoa, Rockledge, Melbourne and Palm Bay, with Merritt Island between the two rivers. With a semi-tropical climate and tons of lovely waterfront, the Space Coast is a mecca for surfing, fishing, boating and condo living. We found beautiful disc golf courses and enjoyed riding bikes on the flat Florida terrain. When the weather threw a little temper tantrum, we still had a handy Air Force Base fitness center to get our blood pumping. A lack of TV reception motivated us to check out movies at the base library for evening entertainment. Overall, we basked in the balmy, beachy feel and tropical palm trees, pelicans and dolphins. We will also never forget the warning one of us gave the other as we wound our way between cars in a parking lot – "Don't bump your head on that surfboard!" It might be a long time before we get to say that again.

Life on the Road

The church-like interior of the Ryman Auditorium
Playing ukuleles is one of our favorite pastimes while traveling and usually we strum original tunes that I composed on the road. This is Andi speaking, and I thought you might be curious about my songwriting process. It doesn't work the same for every song but I just wrote a tribute tune in response to our recent visit to Nashville. The new song is called "The Ghosts of the Ryman" and since it came about in a fairly typical manner for me, I'll tell you my method.
1. Inspiration came to me in the form of a 4-bar ditty while I was sitting in the passenger seat with my plastic "travel" uke as we were leaving Nashville. It became the introduction (and ending) of the song, establishing a casual, country feel in waltz time.
2. In keeping with the style, I found a fairly basic but pleasing chord progression for the storytelling verses of the song, then some contrasting but related chords for a repeated chorus. This all gets written down so I don't forget it.
3. The next part requires utter silence and isolation (bye, bye Brian...) I strum the chords and try humming melody lines that might make a nice song. I hate to have people hear me testing out ideas – don't ask me why. The best tune gets jotted down in a spiral bound book of music manuscript paper near the chords. Needless to say this takes some amount of pencil lead and lots of eraser rubber.
4. Now the words have to fit the melody and express the sentiment. For this song it took some actual research about Ryman Auditorium in order to get my facts straight (for example, was Sousa there before or after the Grand Ole Opry came to the Ryman?) Then I had to establish a rhyming scheme and figure out exactly how much ground to cover in each verse. For this song I realized I was going to run out of real estate before the story could be told, so I actually added a bridge and another verse. Writing the lyrics usually feels like the hardest work of the entire process; I'll obsess for days (and nights) trying to find a particular rhyme or a three-syllable way to say something. A three minute song can easily consume a dozen or more sheets of notebook paper during the difficult birthing procedure.
5. Finally I give it a test strum for Brian, change a few words that didn't work right, then put it into a legible form so we can begin to learn it together. This is when we work out the arrangement, including strumming or picking patterns, harmony parts, tempo changes and other details.
And a new song is born! Unfortunately, we can't play it well enough yet to record it for you but we hope to add "The Ghosts of the Ryman" to our repertoire soon.

"The bricks of a sinner reborn
stand empty in the Cumberland morning
but when night falls and musical stars appear
the ghosts of the Ryman draw near..."

Coffee Chat

Eight years ago we stumbled upon an unpretentious Cuban restaurant in Melbourne, Florida. There we had our first Cuban sandwich and watched part of a black and white TV documentary about the queen of Cuban music, Celia Cruz. In the tiny garage-like space there was a piano by the wall, guitars on stands and percussion instruments scattered around. It was a charming experience and we felt right at home there.
Now on this trip we wondered if we could find the same restaurant or if it had even survived. Sure enough, El Ambia Cubano is right where we left it. The layout inside had changed a bit and they added some tables and a stage outside.
The owner is the same musician and they frequently have live music and jam sessions. It was like visiting an old friend.

Did You Know?

The Guinness world record for the most surfing Santas in one location is held by Cocoa Beach. It has become a Christmas Eve tradition and we naively decided to check out this local oddity. Little did we know that we would be part of a crowd of 10,000 onlookers (most also in their Santa finery) as 837 surfers dressed in variations on the Old St Nick theme took to the waves.

Scenes of the Space Coast

Perhaps an affordable place...

Even Florida Santas get hungry

A blustery Christmas Day visit to the beach

Grapes at the beach? - Yes, Sea Grapes

A tree full of air plants

Lunch at "Roberto's Little Havana Restaurant"

No longer alive-alive-O

Seagulls beware!

Just another sunset in Paradise