Our rig had sat for most of January in an almost ready to go state. When we arrived back from Nicaragua we hooked it back up to power, turned on the water and opened the valves on the propane bottles. One of the bottles came up red on the indicator so that got filled on Saturday morning. Then we had a relaxing weekend off. On Monday morning the truck went back to Discount Tire for more work on the vibration issue. Some intense road force balancing and the replacement under warranty of one of the new tires bought in December and everything was within spec. If I want to buy two new rims it could be better, but it certainly is much improved.
Getting back from there we had lunch and started buttoning things up and set the goal of leaving today if we were ready at two, and leaving tomorrow if we were ready after three. We were ready shortly before three and thinking of rain tomorrow morning we decided to roll.
On Tuesday morning it was raining and we carried on to Victoria, Texas. The registration person said the park does not offer the Passport America 50% discount before April but they gave us a Good Sam discount and it was only for two nights and they had concrete sites that were pull through and cable TV and wi-fi so we decided we had enough of driving in Seattle style weather and paid up and followed the golf cart to our spot. We walked up to the club house and had a cup of coffee and complimentary doughnut each. There were a couple of couples playing bridge. We visited with a retired veterinary and afterward pondered life living in a recreational vehicle without SOWER projects to look forward to.
The park had some issues with its wi-fi.
Lunch was at McDonald's and was extended while we took advantage of the free wi-fi to catch up on news and e-mails. Then we visited the Museum of the Coastal Bend a pleasant museum that doesn't take long to walk through. Learned a few things about the attempts of the French to colonize the area and looked at displays of Indian and French artifacts. Then we found the town mall and walked though a lot of empty space with very few people in it.
The next day we topped up our T-mobile wi-fi hub so we could surf without eating at McDonald's. We went for a drive and did some shopping, but mostly relaxed for Wednesday. On Thursday we had a relaxing three hour drive from Victoria to Victory Camp, in Alvin, Texas. I followed the advice of the GPS most of the way and then changed routes. It is a very well tempered GPS. Once I ignored all its suggestions for u-turns back to Highway 59 it got with the program and started giving advice for the alternate route I had started driving.
At Victory Camp we parked and got hooked up and met a few people we knew from past visits and one or two new people. After driving in the rain I felt I needed comfort food and we went to Kelley's for the daily specials and took doggy boxes home with enough for a second meal. Then we went to visit Juanita's sister and her husband in Friendswood.
National Museum of Funeral History
Saturday was almost too nice weather to be indoors, but not quite that nice either. We looked at touring an old mansion in Galveston, but realized with Mardis Gras weekend activities in Galveston we wanted to be as far away as possible so we went north to the north side of Houston and visited the National Museum of Funeral Practices. I'm kind of quirky at times, but Juanita is more normal and even she enjoyed this museum. They had all sorts of hearses (including horse drawn sleigh hearses) and coffins and history exhibits. They had burial details of notables and funeral cards for many celebrities.
They explained the origin of the term "basket case". Some of the most interesting coffins to me were the ones from Ghana in the shape of boats, and cars and animals. I had seen them in the National Geographic years ago, but it is always interesting to see something in real life. Imagine getting buried in a coffin the shape of a tiger. Wouldn't want to be the grave digger digging down an extra three feet to fit in the legs, though.
Victory Camp - February SOWER Project
Victory Camp is a kids' camp in Alvin, Texas. It was our second SOWER project ever back in 2006. We worked at ALERT Academy in March of 2006 on our way north after wintering in Mexico. When we came back south in the fall we worked at Victory Camp on the November SOWER project. Very shortly after we arrived (the first night?) they held their annual carnival as a healthy substitute for Halloween. In more recent years the growth of the Christmas train ministry has required more resources and the Halloween event is no more.
November 2006 there were two SOWER couples including us. The ladies "fluffed" hundreds if not thousands of Christmas trees taken out of storage and set up for the December Christmas Train. The men did some roof repairs and built a display for the Christmas Train and built a counter for the serving line. It was pleasing to see the counter still in service and even more pleasing to hear that the attendance has grown from about five thousand attendees during December then to over thirty thousand this December just past.The train track has expanded and they have added a train and have a spare locomotive, but the theme is still the same. In the course of the journey the rider is shown the Christmas story and is presented with a clear Gospel message.
This month there were three SOWER couples, including us. The focus at this time of year is getting ready for the camping season and the annual health inspection of the food preparation and storage areas. The ladies cleaned stoves, pizza ovens and the motel style conference rooms. They did laundry following some weekend events and they shredded many sheets of personal information to protect peoples' privacy. The men worked on getting the dorms ready. They fixed lighting and emergency exit and emergency lighting and did extensive painting of shower stalls and shower stall and bathroom stall doors and partitions.
We met up with other SOWERS for a pot luck at the SOWER project in Hitchcock, Texas about half an hour drive "around the corner".
One Sunday afternoon while consulting the tourist map for the Alvin area we noticed Froberg's Farm. We had been there some years ago and I could kind of remember the fried pies, but not much else. That was good enough to go for a drive.
The map showed it on the north side of highway 6 which didn't seem right according to memory, but we carried on west in the right lane looking to make a right turn and saw the farm on the left out of the corner of my eye when we had just about passed it. It took a mile or more to get to a spot to turn back but that worked and we turned into their long driveway and drove between strawberry fields to the parking lot behind the main building. The parking lot was almost full, but we managed to find a spot and parked and walked into the produce building which was busy with people buying produce and fried pies and preserves and paying for the strawberries they had picked. The way it works is that you buy one or more of their buckets for a buck apiece and go out into the field, pick all you want in an area designated for that day and then you return to get your bucket of strawberries weighed. I think they were selling for $2.25 a pound. Should take better notes.
Juanita and I were not interested in picking strawberries so we checked out the produce (good variety, but on the pricey side). I bought a fried pie and ate it. Juanita is skinnier than me for a reason. She thought that with it being so busy that maybe coming back Tuesday afternoon with the other SOWER ladies, might make for better picking in an area that had been opened for that day.
I talked to a man who had been picking with his family. They had spent about two hours to half fill four buckets. Cost? Around twenty bucks. It's a nice family outing, but not good economics. Juanita found strawberries from Froberg's Farm in the supermarket on Monday for four cents a pound more than the u-pick price. At twenty five pounds you would break even with your bucket. Certainly a nice family outing with small kids, but the ladies did not go berry picking on Tuesday or any other day.
Our Christmas gift from our daughters this past Christmas was a brunch cruise on the Star Cruiser, one of the Star Fleet boats operating out of a marina near Kemah, Texas. They bought the gift with some trepidation after all the challenges booking the balloon ride they gifted us with a few years ago. No need to worry. The boats run rain or shine and we are well out of the hurricane season.
The day of the boat ride we went to the early service with Gary and Ninabeth and then went our separate ways. Our way led to a marina on Clear Lake. People lined up at the rope at the top of the gangway to the Star Cruiser. I amused the waiting crowd briefly with curved illusion tracts. When it came time for the crowd to board, a staff member set up to take pictures of each couple or group next to a life preserver with the boat's name. She had problems with her camers so we all got to skip that step. Boarding we were offered a complimentary glass of champagne and we were able to opt for orange juice instead. Probably worse for you than champagne, but nevertheless our choice of poison.
Seating was preassigned. We ended up next to a couple next to the window, but the dining area is surrounded by glass so we had a great view of the passing scenery. There was a reasonably talented musician/singer who had CD's available, but didn't make a big deal of selling them to the captive audience he entertained. The lunch buffet was well varied and had sufficient quantities that when it was the crew's turn to eat there was still lots left even after passengers had partaken of second and third helpings.
We have been to the Kemah Boardwalk a number of times over the years so took particular interest in sailing past that on the way to Galveston Bay. There was quite a swell running so it would have been unpleasant to stay in the Bay for the full two hour cruise, but the boat turned back fairly soon and returned up the channel past the Kemah Boardwalk and into Clear Lake where we sailed and dined in calm waters. There are a lot of shore structures to admire and lots of boat activity on the water to keep one amused. Off to one side of the lake there was a flotilla of small dinghy sailboats darting around with a couple of rescue boats in attendance. My guess is that they were Sabot class boats but my guess is not an especially informed one. My only knowledge is anecdotal information from a high school classmate who talked about his sabot. Sabot refers to wooden shoes which the boats are not much bigger than. We get our word sabotage from the practice of throwing wooden shoes into machinery gears to cause damage to the machinery. My classmate named his boat Caligula, after the Roman emperor whose nickname was "little shoes".
But I digress.
It was a fun ride and a pleasant way to spent a couple of hours. I even went outside and enjoyed sitting in the sun and thought of our drive north due to begin in three days.
Family & Friends
We got in a lot of visiting in February.
At one time Juanita had three sisters and a brother living in the Houston area. The brother moved back to Arizona and has since passd on. Two of the sisters have also passed on. There is one sister and multiple nieces and nephews still in the area. Also, the person one of our daughters is named after moved to the Houston area last year and there were SOWER couples in the area from past projects. We ended up visitiing with and eating out with many of these friends and family as well as spending time with the SOWER couples when we were not working with them.
SOWER projects run for three weeks with workdays from Monday to Thursday each week. In the last week the group leader meets with the group and answers some questions for a form that is returned to SOWER headquarters along with his answers to other questions. In a senior moment I filed that report on the second Thursday of the February project and received a reply in the afternoon e-mail thanking me for the report, but pointing out there was still a week left.
In the same batch of e-mails was a job offer to start work in Canada on March 9th. I had some questions that needed to be answered before I knew if I was interested. It was too late to talk to the person on Thursday and she wasn't due back in the office until Monday so I made the decision to act as if the answers to my questions would be favorable and we started making preparations to head north.
Juanita was concerned about the cold with this being the earliest we had ever headed north in our annual migration. We agreed that we would sleep in motels on the way and not on the frozen memory foam in the rig. Also that if it dropped below -20 once we got there we would move into a motel until things warmed back up.
I booked a spot in the Kings Acres Campground where we normally stay and gave a range of dates we might arrive with the assurance that we would phone when we were close enough to narrow down the arrival date.
The work coordinator at Victory Camp agreed to let me work extra hours on Friday and Saturday so all the agreed upon hours of work would get done and I painted and sanded and painted for Friday and Saturday. I found out later that the ladies who were booked into nearby dorms were not amused at seeing me in the distance wearing my respirator to paint the shower stalls with epoxy paint. As a part of their lenten weekend retreat they were avoiding seeing men. And here I thought I was beyond being a sex symbol!
On Wednesday of the third work week we attended devotions and did the payday thing two days early. The other SOWERS headed off to work and we did all the last minute things to the rig and hooked up and pulled it out into the parking lot and did one last bathroom break and then headed off into the Houston freeway system.
Our normal route is to come out of Houston on highway 59 and go through Northeast Texas, driving through Tyler and then Gladewater. Normally we park in Gladewater for a few days and choose our window of opportunity based on weather reports. This time we were just going to go for it. However, the weather reports were calling for four to six inches of snow in Tyler about the time we would be passing through. Dallas had freezing rain in the morning, but would be okay by the time we got there.
Dallas it was.
We set the GPS for Meadow Lake and came out of Houston on Interstate 45 headed for Dallas. Near Dallas we turned off the GPS and took the eastern loop around Dallas and through a couple of miles of construction and stop and go one lane traffic and then turned back on the GPS and set it for Guthrie, OK. Near Guthrie the roads were good and the temperatures were still well above freezing so we carried on north until I was tired of driving. About nine we stopped and fueled up in Perry, Oklahoma. There was a strong north wind blowing and worse predicted along with plummeting temperatures. We booked a room and huddled down for the night.
In the morning the winds were still strong, but had dropped to manageable levels for driving. Temperature was now well below freezing, but there was no snow and the roads were clear. We carried on north. The winds died down past Wichita and we drove to Sioux City stopping only for fuel and bathroom breaks. It was cold enough everywhere that we did not have to worry about melt water refreezing on bridges or below overpasses. At Sioux City we parked in the snow on the side of the street outside a motel. We registered for a room and brought the overnight stuff into the room. The pizza delivery person came. We ate. We slept.
We got up in the morning and I finished my bookkeeping for customs declarations and we carried on north on frozen, clear and dry roads. No slippery spots. Yay!
The GPS was still set for Meadow Lake, SK. Around Sioux Falls it tried to re-route us, but gave up when I ignored it. It tried again near Fargo and at Grand Forks. Past Grand Forks it got very insistent right up until we crossed the border when it started telling me to go the route I had planned to anyway. We crossed the border and paid the GST (Goods and Service Tax) on our US purchases less our allowed amount for being away for more than a week. They seemed to have trouble with the concept that I would have changed the drive shaft as a choice and wanted to exempt that purchase. There is no tax on purchase of repairs that needed to be done for the vehicle to get back to the country. But overall it was a quick process and we proceeded north and took the loop around Winnipeg and stopped at the Flying J for fuel.
A couple of years ago there had been trouble with the PIN pad on the frozen fuel pumps in the RV lane at this station and the credit card company had put a temporary hold on my credit card until I called them. This time we were proactive. Juanita went inside and prepaid. This time the pump's brains were totally scrambled and it would not pump. They did a reset of the processor in the back room and the prepay had to be re-entered. While I was outside with the station clerk trying the pump a second time my phone rang. They were concerned that there had been two prepays so close together. We sorted that out. No hold on the card.
The pump didn't work a second time. Moved the rig to a new pump. That worked.
Parked. Used bathroom. Bought pizza slices. Back to truck. Back on the road. On to Portage La Prairie. Lots of motels. No rooms in the inns. Hockey tournament. Proceeded westward until close to midnight there was a town with a motel we would risk driving into towing a trailer and rented a room. Clerk took my blood type and way too much credit card info. Next morning after they checked the room for damage they gave the paper back to Juanita.
Towns are a bit sparse along the Trans Canada highway through Saskatchewan. I misjudged and did not pull off when I should have. We pulled off in the next town. The sign said the Co-op station was a mile away across the tracks. There was a meat packing plant right near the highway. It was Saturday and there was one car in the large parking lot. I pulled in and went back to the trailer.
Normally during the winter we stay in the trailer each night. We use the RV toilet as sparingly as possible and make sure that we use about as much RV antifreeze as other liquid that goes into the bowl. Doing that means that the time to dump the tank is extended into a period when there are above freezing temperatures. This time we were travelling earlier than normal and had been being very diligent not to use the facilities in the rig. We had wintereized the water lines in Alvin and had less than a gallon of liquid in the waste tank. There must have been enough liquid in the tank to provide enough condensation on the toilet valve to freeze it solid.
Not sleeping in the trailer and not running the furnace each night probably contributed to the challenge. After my emergency use of the toilet I was faced with a problem. The bowl was half full of liquid and solid waste and antifreeze and the toilet valve would not budge. Everything is plastic so I did not want to force things especially being that cold. I added a bit more antifreeze hoping that would help thaw things. Nope. Just more liquid. Back on the road with visions of stuff sloshing out and under the door and down the stairs with every frost heave and bump.
We arrived at the Kingsacres campground about noon and parked in between the banks of snow and then paid for the next month. I checked inside the rig. Things had stayed in the bathroom. I wiped off the snow cone like pink slush that had sloshed over the edges of the bowl and filled a garbage bag with contaminated objects from the bathroom. The valve was still frozen. We turned up the heat and I washed up and we went for lunch and to shop. When we came back things were warm enough to flush and I spent an hour cleaning and sanitizing all the nooks and crannies and all surfaces even remotely possibly contaminated.
This was the earliest we have come north and the best driving conditions we have experienced on the way north. Looking at the weather reports, if we had left two days later it would have taken a week longer to arrive and been a nightmare driving.
We are parked here until the middle of May or the middle of October or... We'll know when we find out.