He ain’t heavy, but his new shed is: helping my brother with a build, after Hurricane Harvey

Let me start by telling you what we didn’t do.

I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea: We did not go rolling into Port Aransas like white knights on horseback to help rebuild the town — although that was kind of my original intent in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. See?

What's next for us? This screen cap of a text I sent back in August helps tell the story. In short: More hard work, but it'll be more personally meaningful. In long: It's now been just over four months since Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast. My brother's family lives in one of those coastal towns. Their house sustained minor damage. Their business, quite a bit. Their hometown of Port Aransas was devastated and faces many more months of recovery. So in lieu of a traditional Christmas celebration, we're gathering the family — including our two sons who are both skilled in construction — for a New Year's working party in Port Aransas. Our caravan of 7 departs San Antonio tomorrow, and we'll spend a week building a replacement fence and shed at my brother's house, and might be able to help some other folks out if time allows. We did not exchange traditional wrapped-in-a-box gifts this year. We chose to spend our money on this experience. And that's how we like to roll. #thebestgiftscantbewrapped #familyworkparty #bestchristmasgiftever #hurricaneharvey #harveyrelief #portaransas #portastrong #ownlessdomore

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We didn’t even rebuild anything at my brother’s house, which survived comparatively unscathed after the Category 4 hurricane came through on August 25, 2017, leaving 75-85% of the town’s homes damaged or destroyed. (Source: Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan, in this article from weather.com)

Although we thought we were going to be rebuilding his fence, which had been damaged by the hurricane, needs dictated a storage shed as top priority. While he and my sister-in-law continue to search for a new location for their shop, some of the shop’s contents are taking up a significant chunk of their garage space — space they need for supplies to rebuild the fence and fix other damage. Make sense now?

So here’s what we did do.

We cleaned and repainted some siding on the house, which looked pretty dinged up after having who-knows-what-all hurled at it during Harvey’s 110-132 mph winds.

And with the help of several construction/renovation experts in the family — including our 20-year-old son who drove down from Austin, and our 22-year-old son who flew in from Washington — we built a shed over four days, to the point that my brother and sister-in-law can handle the finishing touches themselves.

It was our family Christmas Vacation, just delayed to January because of our jobs at Amazon.

It was the first time all of us had been together in more than two years.

(And by “all” I mean the two of us, our older son and his girlfriend, our younger son, my parents, my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, my sister-in-law’s mom and her husband, and the 9 cats, 2 Great Danes, 1 bearded dragon, and handful of exotic fish that rule my brother’s house.)

And it was exactly what we wanted.

For those who’ve never heard of Port Aransas, Texas, it’s a quirky little beach town just east of Corpus Christi, on a barrier island along the Gulf coast.

Population of Port Aransas: about 3400 (before the hurricane, anyway)

RV parks in town have reopened, and seemed to be doing booming business, with what we surmised to be a combination of regular Winter Texans, temporarily displaced Port A residents, and workers who have been hired or are volunteering for rebuilding efforts.

And what do I mean by quirky?

Well, scenes like this weren’t unusual even before the hurricane.

Yes, you can drive on the beach, and also camp overnight in an RV or a tent.
But don’t just show up. An inexpensive permit is required, and there are restrictions on location and length of stay.
You can find all that information right here.

How bad was the damage from Harvey?

Here are some numbers from the Island Moon, in an issue published just over a month after the hurricane hit.

Further statistics, including a staggering amount of debris removed from the island, are in Mayor Bujan’s Facebook post dated October 2, 2017.

What’s Port A like now?

It is a town with an already strong identity, in the process of repairing itself. The sights and sounds of renovation, regrowth, and rebuilding were unmistakeable, unavoidable — and encouraging. Some of our old favorite places like the San Juan Restaurant, Gratitude, Irie’s, Stingray’s, and Winton’s Island Candy have reopened, and more businesses will reopen as repairs are completed.

But as mentioned in the graphic above, some will not return at all. We have no doubt that new friends — and just about everyone in Port A is your friend — will bring fresh ideas and establishments to take their place, and we look forward to our next visit!

Scenes like this are still common on sidewalks, although my brother assures me that this is nothing compared to the debris piles that lined the streets in September.

And if the town didn’t have an official flag before, it does now, at least temporarily: the blue tarp.
They’re festooning buildings all over town, because as you might imagine, roofers are in high demand and hard to find at the moment.

But you’ll also be greeted by scenes like this in Port A…

… and this …

… and this.

What can you do to help?

Visit, and spend money. Many hotels, RV parks, restaurants, and shops have reopened, and Port Aransas needs your business!

Or use your internet search skills to find ways to donate your time, skills, money, and/or supplies. As ever, research any charitable entity before you commit your dough, although I will help get you started by pointing you toward the Rebuild Port Aransas Facebook Page, which seems to be a locally run clearinghouse for relief efforts.

And finally, watch this 3-minute video. It shows the extent of Harvey’s destruction, and says a lot about the strength of the people who call Port Aransas home.


Author’s note: This post was unsolicited, and I was not compensated in any way by any entities mentioned above. I do not represent Rebuild Port Aransas or SandCastleMinistry.org (appears at end of video in link above), nor should my mention of them be considered endorsements. All opinions are my own.

RV Travels: 13 Ways You Know You’re in a Small Texas Town

I have spent almost ten years of my life living in Texas: a four-year stint in college, and nearly six years in my 40’s, due to a military move. My parents, my brother, and his family have lived there for more than two decades, so we’ve visited a lot too.

Plus, although we spend most of the year traveling, San Antonio is still our home base, and our younger son is a second-year physics and math major right up the highway at UT-Austin.

That’s my way of telling you that when it comes to small towns in Texas, I’ve got some familiarity. And after a truck breakdown left us stranded in one of them for two weeks earlier this year, I became an expert on observing the endearing quirks that make these places special.

1. The local tow truck driver doubles back after spotting you on the side of the highway with your hazard lights blinking, figuring you’re going to be his next call anyway. And he is correct.

If you’re gonna travel in an RV, get the best roadside assistance plan you can afford.
You will not regret it.

2. The RV park your 5th wheel is towed to is so new that nobody at the service shop knows the name of it, but they know exactly where it is and that it’s open for business.

The Wagon Yard RV park was nothing fancy, but wow, were we ever glad to have it!

3. You are very thankful that the RV park is new and unheard of because that means it has space available during spring break week in Texas. Every public grade school and university in the state gets the same week off for spring break, which makes last-minute lodging arrangements nearly impossible to obtain.

4. You become celebrities in the grocery store because you got there on bicycles instead of in a pickup truck. The clerk, upon hearing that our truck was in the shop, felt so sorry for us that she even helped load the groceries into our backpacks.

Of course we were all ready to go when we discovered the tires were flat.
Why wouldn’t they be?

5. All heads turn when someone walks through the door of the dinette.

6. And when that someone is a big ol’ farmer wearing denim overalls and work boots, the waitress greets him with a smile and a 2-syllable “Hey,” to which the farmer replies simply, “Sweet tea.” And the waitress sets it on the table by the time his fanny hits the chair.

7. Every store on Main Street, whether it’s open for business or appears to have been vacant for 20 years, bears a sign supporting the local high school team, with the obligatory incorrect apostrophe. “Go Zebra’s!”

8. Other than the dinette mentioned above, socializing occurs in one of two places: under the Friday night lights or in the Sunday morning pews.

9. You’re never allowed to forget which state you’re in here. Never. Not even in the bathroom.

Jesus ‘n’ Texas, y’all.

10. Your camera roll boasts photos of a BBQ plate, wildflowers, a road runner, and a spray-painted sign for a tractor pull — all from the same day.

11. And the tractor pull causes a significant uptick in traffic.

12. Being located right between two airports means nothing, as the options lack anything resembling a terminal or even planes. They are grass strips suitable for landing crop dusters, and there are cows grazing on them.

Someone out there in the country has a good sense of humor.
(source: Apple Maps)

13. Related: more of your neighbors have four legs than two.

The RV park where we stayed for that little “detour” was in fact 8 miles from one small town we visited (Grandview), and 10 miles from the other (Cleburne).

Of all the places for the truck to break down? That was the middle-of-nowheriest.


Author’s note: a version of this post appears at Heartland RVs. It is printed here with permission

In the battle of RV Show vs RV Expo, our kid wins!

Sometimes, life has a way of helping us make an easy decision.

While we were parked in San Antonio for our biannual visit last month, there were two popular RV shows going on in Texas, but unlike last year when we were able to attend each one, both the Houston RV Show and the Austin RV Expo were scheduled for the same weekend in 2017.

The former: 200-mile drive, heavy traffic, overnight stay required. Houston? We have a problem.

The latter: 90-mile drive, heavy traffic, day-trip distance. But… our younger son, a second-year University of Texas Longhorn, lives there and as you might expect, he happily allows us to take him out for shopping and dinner. Austin? We have a winner!

For those who might need a different set of parameters before making a decision in time for the February 2018 shows:

The Houston RV Show is big. As in, TEXAS BIG. In fact, according to the event’s web site, this is the largest RV expo in Texas, with 9 dealerships offering more than 600 recreational vehicles, plus RV-industry related vendors and campground representatives, and daily educational seminars.

In 2017, the show ran from Wednesday through Sunday, with admission prices of $12.00 for adults, $5.00 for children ages 6-12, and free for those under age 6. It is held in the NRG Center, which is adjacent to NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Houston Texans. I’m telling you: big.

When we attended this RV show in 2016, we ended up spreading our visit out over two days in order to take looks and second looks at everything we wanted to see, and by the end of Day 2, I literally resorted to drastic measures (grabbed another man, then faked death) to get out of there.

By contrast, the Austin RV Expo is petite. There were only 6 dealerships and a single row of RV-industry related vendors in the Austin Convention Center, which stretches over six city blocks in a highly congested downtown area. I was unable to find an estimate on the number of recreational vehicles offered, but this preview of “just some” shows 95.

Now there’s a familiar name.
Just look how clean and shiny it is!

In 2017, the show ran from Thursday through Sunday, with admission prices of $8.00 for adults, $6.00 for seniors and children ages 7-12, and free for those under age 7. In 2016, we spent several hours there, as we were intentionally shopping for a new RV at the time. Since then, we’ve decided to keep and upgrade our 2008 Bighorn, so this year we made it in and out in a record 90 minutes!

Know before you go to Austin

Tip 1: City traffic is notoriously heavy, and the convention center is surrounded by narrow, crowded, one-way streets, half of which always seem to be under construction. If you want to score a surface lot or street parking, arrive early. We ended up getting a late start, arriving after noon, and had no choice but to park in the garage at 2nd and Brazos, two blocks away. Although we made it in and out safely with our 1-ton dually, it was a white-knuckle experience watching the top of our cab just barely clear the concrete ceiling beams, and we will not repeat it.

Source: austinrvexpo.com

Tip 2: Visit the event web site for $2/off general admission coupons, or try what worked for us in 2016. On our way to Austin, we stopped at an RV dealership to take a look inside a few models on the lot. When we mentioned to the salesman that we were heading to the expo next, he handed us a pair of complimentary tickets from a stash in his desk drawer, as thanks for visiting his business!

Tip 3: The convention center concessions are overpriced and unpalatable. Pack a lunch, or leave the building to dine in one of many nearby downtown restaurants. Just remember to get your hand stamped if you plan to return!

Tip 4: That said, there’s a bar. Inside the expo. You can walk around the exhibit hall with beer in hand, if that’s what it takes to get you through.

No lines, no waiting.
I can fix that.

Tip 5: Austin is full of places to have An Experience, whether you’re into food, microbrews, indie book stores, live music, athletic/outdoor endeavors, museums, people watching, shopping, or any number of interests and activities. Open your favorite internet travel resource, search “Austin,” and then take or make time to explore more than just the RV Expo while you’re there. You won’t regret it. After all, friends do let friends get weird in Austin.

Go with it.
Let it happen.

(Author’s note:  a version of this post appears at Heartland RVs. It is printed here with permission.)

Some funny things happened on the way to the Grand Canyon

We departed from Home Base San Antonio a week ago today, and arrived yesterday in Williams, AZ, which will serve as our base camp for a week or more as we explore the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and other northern Arizona destinations.

Our first stop was only an hour outside San Antonio, in Kerrville, TX. We wanted to spend some time with our friends, Jay & Kris, plus we had some tools of theirs to return, so we hung out with them for a few days at Kerrville-Schreiner Park.

It's a city park now, but until 2004 it was a state park, with the acreage, trails, riverfront and wildlife to show for it. Very pleasant stay, and highly recommended as a camping destination.

It’s a city park now, but until 2004 it was a state park, with 517 acres of trails, camp sites, cabins, wildlife, and riverfront access to show for it.
Very pleasant stay, and highly recommended as a camping destination.

Funny Thing 1: Giant crawdad at the boat launch. I really don't like knowing they grow this large, but...

Funny Thing 1:
Giant crawdad at the boat launch. I really don’t like knowing they grow this large, but…

... if we hadn't found it, we wouldn't have learned that Jay is some sort of crawdad whisperer! He unhooked the leash from one of his doggies, dangled it in the water, and used to to lead the crawdad out. I. Almost. Died.

… if we hadn’t found it, we wouldn’t have learned that Jay is some sort of crawdad whisperer.
He unhooked the leash from one of his doggies, dangled it in the water, and used it to lead. the crawdad. out.

The doggies, however, were most amused by this new plaything.

The doggies were most amused by this new plaything.

You think regular old dog breath is bad? Tim got a kiss from Pixie, who'd just licked the crawdad. Eeeeemwwww!

You think regular old dog breath is bad?
Tim got a kiss from Pixie, who’d just licked the crawdad.
Eeeeewwww!

Funny Thing 2: Unexplained teepee in the park

Funny Thing 2:
Unexplained teepee in the park

Funny Thing 3: There were signs everywhere advising against touching or feeding the deer, but I ask you, who can resist a face like that?

Funny Thing 3:
There were signs everywhere advising against touching or feeding the deer, but I ask you, who can resist a face like that?

Funny Thing 4: We took in downtown Kerrville's 2nd annual Chalk Fest. Let's just say that Linus and Charlie Brown weren't the only two characters we saw.

Funny Thing 4:
We took in downtown Kerrville’s 2nd annual Chalk Fest.
Let’s just say that Linus, Snoopy and Charlie Brown weren’t the only characters we saw on those sidewalks, and it. was. awesome.

We also went into the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center (it's free!), and looked up. Trippy!

We also went into the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center (it’s free!), and looked up.
Trippy!

Funny Thing 5: I giggled. And I make no apologies for having the sense of humor of an 8-year-old boy.

Funny Thing 5:
I giggled.
And although I make no apologies for having the sense of humor of an 8-year-old boy, wouldn’t “Kerrville Public Library” have been a less cringe-worthy name?

Funny Thing 5: It's not funny. The day before we left, Jay helped Tim tighten up our trailer brakes. And that's when they noticed we've got some suspension issues, probably relating the Tire Incident in January. I don't understand all the details, but we figured we could make it safely (albeit bumpily) to AZ with the springs and shocks in their current condition. We'll get everything back in better working order before we leave, though.

Funny Thing 6:
It’s not funny.
The day before we left, Jay helped Tim tighten up our trailer brakes. And that’s when they noticed we’ve got some suspension issues, probably relating to the Tire Incident back in January. I don’t understand all the details, but we figured we could make it safely (albeit bumpily) to AZ with the springs and shocks in their current condition. We’ll get everything back in better working order before we leave there, though.

Our itinerary: Three days of driving, from Kerrville to Roswell to Ruidoso to Pie Town to Williams

Our itinerary: Three days of driving, from Kerrville to Roswell to Ruidoso to Pie Town to Williams

Funny Thing 6: Pie Town, NM, is about as big as that crawdad we found, but the people there know it and play to it wisely. They're friendly as hell too. Our receipt might say we stayed at the Pie Town RV Park, but according to some folks we met it town, we stayed at Penny & Jay's.

Funny Thing 7:
Pie Town, NM, is about as big as that crawdad we found, but the people there know it and play to that particular strength wisely.
They’re friendly as hell too, as you can see from this welcoming sign on the RV park bath house, which is open to anyone who may need it. Our receipt might say we stayed at the Pie Town RV Park, but according to the folks we met in town, we really stayed at Penny & Jay’s.

Few things make me smile like an honor system cash box. This is how we paid for our spot, one of six in the gravel lot adjacent to Penny & Jay's.

Few things make me smile like an honor system cash box. This is how we paid for our spot, one of six in the gravel lot adjacent to Penny & Jay’s.

And yes, when in Pie Town, you find whichever of the three restaurants is open (unusual hours: plan ahead), and prepare to be treated like family when you walk in the door.

And yes, when in Pie Town, you find whichever restaurant is open (unusual hours for all three, so plan ahead), and prepare to be treated like family when you walk in the door. “Hi! Where y’all from? Before I forget, we’re out of meat loaf and mashed potatoes tonight, but we can give you a second side with whatever main dish you choose. Is that OK?”

We ate dinner at The Gatherin' Place, saved room for Very Berry Pie, and left our mark on one of their door frames. Can you find ownlessdomore.us?

We ate dinner at The Gatherin’ Place, saved room for Very Berry Pie, and left our mark on one of their door frames.
Can you find ownlessdomore.us?

Very Berry Pie: just the right mixture of tart and sweet, with a wonderfully flaky crust. Worth every calorie!

Very Berry Pie: just the right mixture of tart and sweet, with a wonderfully flaky crust. Worth every calorie!

Funny Thing 7: We learned a lesson in kitchen storage upon our arrival in AZ. Don't let the pizza cutter ride next to the pastry brush. Poor thing got a bit of a trim!

Funny Thing 8:
We learned a late lesson in RV kitchen storage upon our arrival in AZ. Don’t let the pizza cutter ride next to the pastry brush.

Coming up in a few days: the best Grand Canyon photos a girl can get on an iPhone. See ya when we’re done exploring!

I don’t mean to brag, but a cowboy made a pass at me last night

IMG_7931I was in fact admiring some cows in the livestock barn at the Gillespie County Fair when it happened.

A cowboy wearing boots, jeans, hat, and a purple western-style shirt walked up to me, stopped in his tracks, drawled, “How dee do,” followed it up with an appreciative “mmmMMM,” and then sauntered over to a far corner.

Y’all.

I wasn’t even wearing my cowgirl boots or a tube top, and he wasn’t even old. Maybe they were his cows? Maybe he’d just come from spending several hours at the beer tent?

I could not skedaddle my fanny over to my husband and our friends fast enough to tell them about it, and it of course became a running joke throughout the evening. “Honey, will you go get more food tickets? Oh, never mind. I’ll just go find my cowboy, and he’ll get me whatever I want,” and “Hey, Emily. Maybe your cowboy could win you one of those giant stuffed teddy bears!”

I am on the near side of 50. I’ve let my hair go gray. I’ve had babies and breast cancer. And I will take the pick-up line and all the jokes that follow. Yee to the frickin’ haw!

IMG_7937

Anyway, this was no State Fair of Texas or San Antonio Stock Show & Rodeo, with hours and acres worth of exhibits, entertainment, vendors, and fried things, but at 128, it is the oldest continuous county fair in Texas, and it’s got a lot of heart. Plus, for $7 admission, you cannot beat the people-watching value. Reminded me of my own hometown county fair, in little old Allegany County, MD.

I love the farm and 4-H exhibits! On one side of the hall, entries from names like Shirley, Vernell and Walter. On the other, Bryce, Bailee, and Hunter. Guess which were the adults and which were juniors. Ha!

I love the farm and 4-H exhibits!
On one side of the hall, entries from names like Shirley, Vernell and Walter. On the other, Bryce, Bailee, and Hunter.
Guess which were the adults and which were juniors. Ha!

Which came first: This magnificent example of a chicken? (I named it David Bowie, and I believe that ribbon should be blue.)

Which came first:
This magnificent example of a chicken?
(I named it David Bowie, and I do believe that ribbon should be blue.)

Which came first?

Or these eggs?

Relish, pickles, jams and preserves. Yum!

Relishes, pickles, jams and preserves. Yum!

I can now say I've eaten a German Taco in Texas while listening to a polka band play "God Bless America." Life is pretty damn good.

I can now say I’ve eaten a German Taco in Texas while listening to a polka band play “God Bless America.”
Life is pretty damn good.

And I don't mean to brag, but... fence-side at the tractor pull, baby!

And I don’t mean to brag again, but… fence-side at the tractor pull, baby!

I took this photo for the sole purpose of being able to tell my husband I had a picture of a grand champion cock in my camera role. Because I am a juvenile. And he expects nothing less.

I took this photo for the sole purpose of being able to tell my husband I had a picture of a grand champion cock in my camera roll.
Because I am a juvenile.
And he expects nothing less.

IMG_7953