Big Bend National Park

Since we are returning residents to the state of Texas, we planned to go to Big Bend National Park over my Spring Break. With some reports of the Covid-19 contagion coming in, we decided to pack our own food for the trip and to camp, so as to be able to isolate ourselves as much as possible. We left the Austin area and drove across the beautiful central hill country, where the sides of the highways and byways are carpeted with bluebonnets during the month of March.

Ever since Lady Bird Johnson was First Lady, the Texas Department of Transportation has sown more than 30,000 pounds of bluebonnet seeds around the state annually.

Before entering Big Bend, we took a spin around the town of Marfa, a place I had heard of (due to the mysterious “Marfa lights” and also from their reputation as a Bohemian artists’ colony). I wish we could have stayed in town and eaten there, but we were already heeding warnings to not bring any outside germs into small rural communities so we just did a pass through.

With a population of only 1800, you stand a good chance of exploring all of Marfa in a long weekend. Keep an eye out for celebs like Matthew McConaughey

We spent the first day at Big Bend driving the scenic Maxwell Drive, which is essentially the west half of the park. We headed all the way to the Mexican border, where we hiked into the Santa Elena Canyon, fording an off-shoot of the Rio Grande River. The area was busy with hikers and kayakers, but people were staying a fair distance apart. The amazing effects of the eroding power of water were on full display in the canyon, with 1500 foot towering cliffs on either side of us.

Santa Elena Canyon
Chris hiking up the Santa Elena Canyon
Deah fording an offshoot of the Rio Grande to get to the Santa Elena Canyon viewpoint

Later, we drove the Chisos Basin drive. It was approaching sunset and there were some beautiful views. On the way out of that area, we spotted a coyote and were able to snap a pic. We also spotted some golden eagles flying around and Chris got a nice shot of those.

Spotting the wildlife around the park
A Golden Eagle

We camped near the ghost town of Terlingua. There are a number of cabin rentals, small hotels, bars, and restaurants there. Of course, they are most famous for their annual chili cook off in November. We had our own dinner to cook at our campsite so we just took a drive through town to see the dusty sights.

Terlingua: population 2,000 but this small town swells to over 10,000 annually with the chili cookoff
High on a hill overlooking the road into Terlingua

The next day we explored the eastern half of Big Bend. We made up a breakfast at the picnic tables at Dugout Wells. There we encountered a woman waiting for a scheduled ranger talk, but soon found out that the visitor’s center had been closed and all ranger talks and guided walks were canceled for the time being (campgrounds still open for the week). We continued our drive all the way to the eastern end of the park, to the Rio Grande Village, and hiked a bit into the Boquillas Canyon. Along the way, we saw small homemade souvenir “caches” of trinkets made by residents of the village of Boquilla, Mexico (you can leave the money in a jar and they come collect it later). We were serenaded across the border river by a man with a wonderful singing voice, his song echoing across the canyon. In normal operating times, if you bring your passport (kids just need a birth certificate or proof of citizenship) you can cross the river at Boquillas Crossing ($5 rowboat round trip) and have lunch and explore the small Mexican village. However, the crossing was closed this week.

A small souvenir stand
Recent rains had the cacti in full bloom while we were there

Along the southeastern edge of the park, we were able to hike to and enjoy a hot springs. Many years ago there were actually cotton plantations in this area, with dozens of workers and a somewhat-thriving industry. In fact, in the 1860s they even imported 30 camels and their handlers from North Africa to use to explore and patrol the area!

A hot springs built on the sides of the Rio Grande River

With more and more dire news coming in every time we stopped to check messages, we decided to cut our trip short and head home. We made one final stop on our way out of the park at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit (built in 2017), where some of the largest fossil finds in the US have occurred. Over 1200 fossils spanning 130 million years of geohistory have been found there. You can see a replica of some of the largest dinosaurs that ever existed, such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Deinosuchus (an alligatoroid bigger than a school bus!), and the Quetzalcoatlus northropi (the largest flying creature). Fossil finds from all three giants have been found in the park’s perimeter.

Xiphactinus, a giant spiny fish from the Late Cretaceous Era

We exited the park via the Persimmon Gap entrance, and spent one more night in the area, and drove home the next day. The bluebonnets, Indian paintbrushes, and other wildflowers were a welcome sight to us as we headed home to make a decision about Chris’s Pacific Crest Trail hike plans.

A butterfly does his thing

Feeling Terrific in the Pacific

Blue Pacific Ocean waves crashing near Abaiang Island Kiribati

Guest post by Chris

After “settling down” in Austin and spending way too much time at Home Depot, I wanted to travel again.  Deah was busy with her new job, but suggested I go solo on the condition that I write a guest blog-post.  I’m no Shakespeare, but ventured out regardless for a three week Pacific trip to Marshall Islands, Nauru, and Kiribati.

I spent several days on Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands on both ends of the trip. It’s accessible via the United Airline island hopper flight starting in Honolulu. Due to the Compact of Free Association with the USA, Majuro has a somewhat American feel to it; brands, beers, T-shirts, people with relatives in the States, etc. It’s a long, skinny island, but easy to get around by frequent taxis and infrequent buses.

The international airport of Majuro, Marshall Islands. Tiny place but has a cafe, bar, wifi, etc.
The Peace Park build by the Japanese and Marshallese governments commemorates all those killed in the Pacific during World War II. About 30 minutes by car from Majuro.
This guy (?) was about the size of my little fingernail. There were lots of critters on the reef that were easy to see by walking out during low tide.
A “flame tree” outside the Flame Tree Restaurant.

After a Nauru Airlines flight delay of 48 hours, I arrived in Nauru; an island nation that used to be one of the world’s richest per capita, but is unfortunately now one of the poorest.  This change was due to over-exploitation of massive phosphate deposits by foreign countries and later Nauru itself.  The removal of the phosphate left a lot of coral pinnacle formations.  It only takes about three hours to hike around the entire country; four if it’s really hot and you stop for the occasional beer or dip in the ocean. 

Welcome to Nauru. This is the entire country.
Coral pinnacle formations.
Cantilever used to load and unload ships. Currently ships can’t get closer than the edge of the reef. There is a quay under construction.
Weightlifting is popular for both women and men on Nauru.
Weightlifters need loads of protein, so these little piggies better be careful.
Engine from a phosphate train on display outside of a tiny museum on Nauru’s history.

Next up was Kiribati; one of the world’s smallest countries by landmass, yet one of the largest by sea territory.  I visited two islands; Tarawa and Abaiang.  South Tarawa was full of small villages and towns, busy, and easy to get around in by mini bus. One of the main Tarawa attractions is the World War II battle site and its Japanese coastal guns and bunkers. Abaiang was less developed, rustic, and more laid back. I got there and back by two-hour boat ride, but there is a occasional plane option. Both islands had lots of places to swim (high tide) and walk out to look for various critters (low tide). The Kiribati people I met were all friendly and helpful. I enjoyed both islands.

Blue on the ocean side and green on the lagoon side of Tarawa atoll, Kiribati.
Japanese gun and bunkers left over from the World War II battle of Tarawa.
Looking back at Tarawa during low tide.
Passengers first ride a 25-passenger boat from Tarawa, then transfer in groups to a tiny motorboat, and finally walk through the swallow water to arrive to Abaiang atoll.

All in all it was a fun trip to three countries with three distinct personalities. The most challenging parts were getting a Nauru visa and scheduling flights. The best part was meeting lots of really friendly people in a relaxing part of the world.

Christmas on the Coast: the Gulf Seashores of Mississippi

If you’re dreaming of a white Christmas, but don’t like snow- then I suggest a trip to the US Gulf Coast. Stretching from Florida to Texas, the white sand beaches and quaint coastal towns, coupled with 70 degree days, are a delight in the off-peak winter months.

A “sandman” greets us at Christian Pass, Mississippi

The Gulf Coast isn’t complete without a ‘Pascagoula Run’, so avoid I-10 and take Highway 90 instead to Pascagoula. Are you a Parrothead? Look for the Buffet Bridge near Buffet Beach, a 2015 honor for local-boy-made-good Jimmy Buffet. You can also stop by his childhood home on Madison and see a plaque, and imagine a young Jimmy listening to tales from his grandfather, a ship captain.

Buffet Bridge, Pascagoula

Ready to fuel up on some lunch? According to Charles McCool of McCool Travel, you can’t beat the po’boys at Bozo’s Seafood Market. Order seafood at the deli, a sandwich from the counter, or just pick up some groceries at this market, which has been around since 1956. I recommend their shrimp or their oyster po’boy, or if you can’t decide, get their half-and-half. Watch out for their cocktail sauce- it has a nice kick!

Bozo’s Seafood Market, Pascagoula

On your way out of town, stop in at the Lighthouse Park. For $2, you can climb to the top and see the 360 degree views. Take a short walk to the boat launch, and look for the plaque commemorating the 1973 alien abduction of two men fishing the river one night. Hoax? True story? Decide for yourself.

Pascagoula Lighthouse

Heading west, consider stopping for the night at Ocean Springs. In the morning, be sure to grab a biscuit and a pour-over coffee at Greenhouse on Porter– they have a daily special combo of one sweet and one savory, and you can sit inside their actual greenhouse to eat your breakfast.

A chocolate chip oatmeal cranberry biscuit, and a cheesy broccoli with roasted tomato biscuit from Greenhouse on Porter’s, Ocean Springs

Ocean Springs is also home to the Gulf Islands National Seashore Visitor Center. You can take a guided walk with a ranger, watch the movie about the barrier islands, or fish off their piers. All kinds of pelicans, gulls, terns, and shorebirds can be spotted here. Ferries run to the uninhabited Gulf Shore islands from mid-May to mid-October.

Gulf Shores National Seashore Visitor’s Center

Crossing the Biloxi Bay Bridge, you’ll see several huge casinos and resorts- Harrah’s, MGM, Margaritaville, Beau Rivage, and more. If gambling is your thing, stay a night or two in the high rise hotels- what a great sunset view! Otherwise the beach side of Biloxi offers everything from campsites, to RV parks, motels, and bed and breakfasts.

Hard Rock Cafe, Biloxi

If you’re looking for a little bit of a different take on the standard Cajun cuisine, definitely pop in to Le Bakery, where you can get Vietnamese iced coffee, bubble tea, and bahn mi po’boys. We tried both the coconut curry chicken and the lemongrass pork. Dressed up with cilantro, daikon radish, pickled carrots, and fresh onion, drizzled with soy sauce, and served on crusty French bread, it’s really good. And under $5!

Bahn Mi Po’boys and Almond Bubble Tea from Le Bakery in Biloxi

There’s a section of the Biloxi beach front worth stopping in at for a little bit of history- the Biloxi Lighthouse Pier. A sign there tells the story of the 1960s civil rights “wade-ins” that spurred the creation of the Biloxi branch of the NAACP. From that beach, you can also get easy access to the grassy median full of old oak trees. Many have been damaged by fire, hurricanes, lightning, or old age, and artists have used the remaining stumps to carve designs into them. They are all up and down the coast, but here in Biloxi you can catch a dozen or so.

Oak Tree Carvings, Biloxi
Biloxi Beach

Heading west from Biloxi, a fun stop is historic downtown Gulfport. Plenty of small bars, restaurants, and coffee shops all back up to Fishbone Alley, covered from end to end with paintings, drawings, poetry, and street art. The paving stones used in the alley were actually discovered under the main street after hurricane Katrina destroyed part of the city, and date back to the turn of the century.

Fishbone Alley, Gulfport

At the University of Southern Mississippi Gulfport Campus is the Friendship Oak Tree, a huge monolithic oak tree (actually duolith, as it’s two trees that grew together into one!) that dates back to 1458. At over 500 years of age, this ancient tree has sure seen a lot of history. A plaque at the tree says that “Those who enter my shadow will remain friends forever”, so bring a loved one with you.

Friendship Oak, Gulfport

It’s tempting to finish off a Gulf Coast trip in Gulfport- but continue west to Pass Christian and Bay St Louis for a small town, unique beach vibe. In Pass Christian, take a short detour onto Scenic Drive and see some of the prettiest beach-front homes in the state. They look especially nice all done up with holiday lights and decorations.

Crossing the bay bridge into Bay St Louis, the small town features dozens of locally owned boutiques, b-and-b’s, bars, yoga studios, art galleries, antique shops, and ice creameries. Dotted around town you can also find four different “Angel” tree statues carved by chainsaw artist Dayle Lewis, carved from oaks destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. There’s a community garden, and I spotted at least two Little Free Libraries. Clearly this is a town that places a high value on community, which is nice to enjoy even when on vacation.

Bay St Louis
Crawfish Étouffée Omelette at The Buttercup on 2nd, Bay St Louis

There’s more Gulf Coast to see, once you pass into Louisiana and then Texas, or if you head east to Alabama and Florida. For more information on the Gulf Coast shores, visit the US Gulf Coast Travel website, or download the “My Gulf Coast” app from the Coastal Mississippi website. There’s also a few visitors centers dotted along the beach road, and their staff are always happy to point you in a good direction.

What’s your favorite Gulf Coast destination?

Housesitting in Monterrey, Mexico

Deah and Chris in Monterrey Mexico

For Thanksgiving week, Chris and I got to experience travel with a twist: we went as certified housesitters and cared for a cat while her owner was away. We’ve been members of the website Trusted Housesitters for a year now, and we finally found a gig that would match up with our schedule, plus a place we wanted to visit.

Although we could have flown from our home airport of Austin, there were cheaper and more direct flights from San Antonio. The two airports are only about 75 miles apart, and sometimes it really pays off to have that flexibility. We took an Interjet flight from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico, and stayed the first night in a hotel in the city.

Deah and her trusty Osprey backpack are ready to jet!

Before meeting our cat and her abode, we took a walk through part of Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city. Our La Quinta hotel (or LQ as they called it) was located just a block away from the Macroplaza, all decked out for the Christmas holidays. Also on the plaza was the Governmental Palace of Nuevo Leon, which is now a museum dedicated to the history of the state of Nuevo Leon (free; closed Mondays). It was a nice way to spend a few hours. I highly suggest going for lunch at El Rey del Cabrito, if you enjoy grilled goat.

Christmas at the Macroplaza

From there we took a quick Uber ride just eight miles away to Santa Catarina, and met our new friend for the week. After Bella’s owner gave us all the details for cat care and took off for the airport, we got to know the area. We walked around the small town, found some tacos al pastor for dinner, and visited a nearby bodega to pick up some ice cold Tecates and limes to drink while sitting on the roof, watching the sun set. The next day we went to Huasteca National Park and did some hiking- a really nice day to be outside. The park also features some really good climbing routes, if that’s your thing.

Deah and her new friend, Bella
Chris at Huasteca National Park

In between feeding Bella and trying to get her to like us (she’s a bit of a cantankerous old biddy), we Ubered back to Monterrey to visit the Antiguo Barrio and the Paseo Santa Lucia. The “Old Neighborhood” was a fun little area of 16 old cobblestone blocks and small, brightly painted pastel buildings, dating back to 1765. Some of the buildings are still homes, but most are now cafes, bookstores, restaurants, nightclubs, bars, and coffee shops. Definitely a fun place to meet for coffee or to hang out on a Saturday night! We also walked along the Paseo Santa Lucia, a riverwalk with boat rides and a walking path that stretched a couple of miles. Later, we visited the Museo de Historia Mexicana (40 pesos; closed Mondays)- as luck would have it, celebrating their 25 year anniversary- so we got wine and cupcakes along with a first-class museum visit!

A row of shops in the Antiguo Barrio
Wine? Mariachi? A giant cupcake cake? Plus a museum. I’m in!

Our cat owner came back from vacation and we stayed one last night in Monterrey at the SmartHotel Cintermex, next to the convention center. We explored Parque Fundidora, an old manufacturing zone of town. Most of the factories have been dismantled, but they’ve left a couple of old ones- now turned into a museum and a zip-line, as well as huge machinery pieces dotted here and there as statuary. It’s a fun place to explore, and with no cars and plenty of greenery, a nice park to spend the day in. From mid-November to mid-January, the Paseo Santa Lucia and the Parque Fundidora also feature Luztopia, a beautiful light show that runs each night. For dinner our last night, we found a little place called El Tony’s Papa Asada- seriously delicious baked potatoes topped with two kinds of cheese, carne asada, and jalapenos, all for a whopping $4.

Parque Fundidora
Parque Fundidora Paseo Santa Lucia Monterrey Mexico
Paseo Santa Lucia

All too soon it was time to head to the airport and return to the United States, where unfortunately, beers are not $1 all the time and we don’t have a cat to greet us every time we come home- and we don’t have a fabulous view from our rooftop.

Sunset over the Huastecas

Have you used housesitting as a way to increase your travels? Any funny house- or pet-sitting stories? Let me know in the comments!

Volunteering for Hurricane Relief Efforts in the Bahamas

Bahamas Strong

On September 1st 2019, a category five hurricane passed through the northern Bahamas. For 24 hours, the hurricane- the strongest to EVER hit landfall there- stalled out over Abaco Island in particular, pummeling the island with 185 mile-per-hour winds and a 25 foot storm surge. By the time the hurricane passed on to other parts of the Bahamas, more than 80% of the buildings on Abaco Island were damaged. An untold number of lives were lost- as much as 25% of the population of Abaco are Haitian refugees, who are not counted by the Bahamian government- and an estimated $3 billion of infrastructure was damaged.

Homes, cars, shipping containers, and boats were tossed around in the storm

An organization I volunteer with, Team Rubicon, was one of the first to arrive to provide immediate aid. Less than a week after the deadly hurricane hit, Team Rubicon had a medical team on site, and an advance team of sawyers there to help clear roads and search for survivors. A further call for volunteers went out, and my husband Chris joined up and was sent with Wave 3, from September 27-October 8. For two weeks he cut down trees and other debris, mucked out houses, tarped roofs, and assisted with World Central Kitchen, who were feeding over 6,000 meals daily on the island of Grand Abaco.

Chris whips up a huge pan full of protein, veggies, and rice with World Central Kitchen

Another call for volunteers went out, and I signed up as well. Chris came home and gave me some of his gear, and on November 5, I boarded a flight from Austin, through Fort Lauderdale, and on to Nassau. After one night in Nassau, I arrived on Abaco Island, ready to work. The flights for me and over 50 other volunteers for Wave 6 were donated by JetBlue and SouthWest Airlines, with several other corporations donating miles, dollars, and tools needed for our work there.

The beautiful Bahamas from above

For the next two weeks, we slept in hollowed-out ravaged school classrooms. The building had been swept by the storm surge, and an earlier team had ripped out all the drywall, the ceilings, the classroom materials, and carpets. They salvaged what materials they could, tarped the roof, and used the space for our base of operations for the months of October and November. We slept on cots, with mosquito netting hung from the bare rafters. Out back we had two outdoor shower stations set up, and five portajohns. We ate MRE’s (meals-ready-to-eat) for breakfast and lunch, and had a hot meal provided by World Central Kitchen for dinner each night.

We were divided into eight or so teams, some with hand tools such as hammers, crowbars, shovels, and drills, and two teams with heavy equipment such as skid steers and earth movers. Our teams mucked out houses, carrying out everything from toys to clothing, furniture to appliances, baseboards to crown molding. Once the house was empty, we cleaned it as best as we could, and assessed the roof (if there was one). We put tarps or plywood up, which should last temporarily, and families were able to start moving back into their living spaces and begin the process of starting anew.

A homeowner who asked for our help. Photo posted with his permission.
All the waterlogged materials removed, the homeowner can now move back into his house. Photo posted with his permission.

I worked several days in the World Central Kitchen. What an amazing organization! Every day the chefs, and their island assistants, slice, dice, mince, stir, cook, and serve over 6,000 meals. Since they arrived in the Bahamas (before the storm even arrived), they have distributed just over 2 million meals. With no grocery stores, produce, fresh meat, or dairy for the months of October and September, the residents of Abaco had no other options besides World Food Program and Red Cross emergency rations. The World Central Kitchen, founded by Chef Jose Andres, promises “a hot plate of food when it’s needed”, combining both nutrition and deliciousness to those in need. From Puerto Rico, to Haiti, to the Bahamas, to the wildfires of California, this organization of “food first reponders” is getting the job done on a daily basis.

Unloading a delivery of produce to World Central Kitchen

All too soon our time in the Bahamas was over. It was time to pack it up and head home. Every day we worked on Abaco Island, at least one- most days more- islander came up to me or my group and thanked us for being there and helping. At times it felt like the work we were doing was just a drop in the bucket, but hearing the heartfelt thanks from dozens of hurricane survivors made every aching muscle, mosquito bite, and bump and bruise worth it. I know that we couldn’t help every one of the 17,000 inhabitants of Abaco, but I also know that we enabled dozens, if not hundreds, of people to return to their homes and face the future in the Bahamas.

Proud to be a “Grayshirt” with Team Rubicon

If you would like to donate to Team Rubicon, or another organization that helps with disaster relief, here’s an article about various teams that are assisting Hurricane Dorian recovery efforts.

*Also, a huge thanks to the dozens of other NGO’s and organizations that have responded to the crisis in the Bahamas, including but not limited to Samaritan’s Purse, All Hands and Hearts, NetHope, 4Ocean, USAid, HARP, Americares, Heart to Heart, Telecom Sans Frontiers, Sol Relief, and Catholic Relief Services.

**Don’t worry, we did get a day off to get out and see some of Abaco Island and nearby Hopetown on Elbow Cay. My team went to the beach and had some drinks and dinner at a local restaurant that has now opened up on a limited basis. I’m happy to report that the natural beauty of the Bahamas is still amazing.

The view from Pete’s Pub

***For more information: https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/hurricane-dorian-destruction-abaco-islands-bahamas-11279524

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/abaco-islands-letter-d-marks-site-grim-recovery-effort-n1052166

https://nypost.com/2019/11/16/damaged-caused-by-hurricane-dorian-totals-3-4b-in-the-bahamas/