On Hummingbird Wings

We arrived in Texas today on hummingbird wings and are camping at Walmart.

Woooooo Boy!  I have had to focus mightily on the hummingbird sticker that is mounted on the lower left corner of my windshield quite a bit lately.  We crossed the Mississippi River on I-10 at Baton Rouge yesterday morning.  That is one tall bridge.  Thankfully, the wind was manageable and the bridge didn’t feel too rickety.  In fact, it has a beautiful steel superstructure that I was able to semi-appreciate out of the corner of my eye that was glued to the pavement flashing by under my left front bumper (my emergency focal point–thank you hummingbird).

On the way to Baton Rouge the day before, I was amazed at how close the muddied waters were to I-10 and I-12 north of New Orleans.  The misery index from those record-breaking rains of late last week continues to climb as resulting floodwaters roll southward to the Gulf.  These weren’t just lazy brown waters, either.  No, indeed, there was quite a current flowing along the side of the highway.  At one point, I passed a whirlpool that was in the process of gobbling up all sorts of roadside garbage.  I counted three plastic water bottles disappear before training my eyes back onto my hummingbird.

Continuing west after Baton Rouge, I was reminded just how low Louisiana is while traveling a 20 mile stretch of I-10 that is on stilts.  Cement stilts, yes.  But stilts.  Looking off to either side, all that could be seen was water with trees sticking up out of it.  In a few spots, the road arches up into a bridge formation to allow the passage of watercraft in sections that could perhaps be defined as rivers, identifiable simply by the lack of treetops sticking up out of their channels.

It started out to be a short travel day–Dawny is always grateful for those–as we pulled into our next stop just 30 miles away from the Texas border, Sam Houston Jones State Park.  The park sits in a bend of the Calcasieu River and has a beautiful lagoon with some great walking paths throughout.

Dawny and I saw our first alligator since setting out 20 months ago (I’ve seen them before when I lived in north Florida and was young and stupid and would swim in the same waters they swam in).  We watched as a delightfully young and stupid fellow waded into the water to try to coax the alligator closer to shore.  The gator was at least five or six feet long.  In the picture at the start of this post, note the turtle in the bottom left corner.  That turtle is bigger than my head.

We had a couple of great afternoon walks.  It is a lovely park, although the campground is a bit rough–lots of potholes, poorly marked, small sites, and they charge a “service” fee on top of the nightly camping fee that bumps the rate up 30 percent, from $18 to $24 a night.

So here we are relaxing after our second walk, and I’m getting ready to prepare dinner.  I have the local news on, and I hear them talking about the possibility of closing I-10 at the Louisiana-Texas border.  Apparently this little town just north of us, Deweyville, was totally under water and the Sabine River, which traces the border as it runs to the Gulf, hadn’t even crested yet.  Then they mentioned the rising waters of the Calcasieu River.  And showed pictures of all the poor people who were losing their homes and businesses.

Mandatory evacuations were spreading, and they were spreading in our direction.  The icing on the cake was the mention of more rain on the way.  Not right away.  In a few days.  But all I could picture was being trapped in southwest Louisiana with rising floodwaters filled with snakes and alligators…  It wasn’t too hard to make a decision.

I quickly fed the girl, packed up the house, and unhooked the electric (I never hook up water and sewer, so it doesn’t take long to pack up to leave).  I wolfed down a few spoonfuls of cold pasta and beans, poured myself a nice cup of Poor Man’s Starbuckles, and we hit the road, waving bye-bye to our $24.  Oh well, it was a pretty break.

Holy cow.  As we crossed the Sabine River into Texas, I figured we’d pull into the Welcome Center to stretch our legs.  Not going to happen.  It was under water.  The bottom two legs of the giant Texas star that sits out front was in water up to its knees.

We continued onward towards Beaumont.  By this time the sun was low in the western sky, glaring at us with its gigantic orange eye.  I didn’t want to go blind from looking at it, but where else am I supposed to look?  How about at the cement barriers that are inches away on the right side of my lane… or maybe the painted lane markers that don’t track at all with the reflectors that are supposed to tell you where the lane is?  Holy crap.  I guess I’ll just look at the hummingbird as traffic roars past my left ear at 80 miles an hour… this is Texas, after all.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post (“White Knuckles, Yellow Lines, and Hummingbirds,” August 7, 2014) that no state claims the hummingbird as its state bird.  I shall claim it now as my own state-of-the-mind bird, and for any fellow travelers who would like to share claim to its blessed flexibility, you are welcome to do so.  Should we hover or zip away?  Feed or flee?  Focus on those sweet lifelines as if our survival, or our delight, depends upon it?  I’m grateful for its steadfast, guiding wings.

Off to bed now.  Grateful also for Walmart’s RV-friendly policy that allows RV’ers to spend a night in the parking lot of many of their stores.  Nice, level site.  Good lighting.  Security cameras.  Groceries just steps away.  Lines marking parking spots quite logical and clear.  Speed limit 5 mph.  Floodwaters far behind us.  And all for free.

Dry Camping 12.0… Oh no!

I have a few observations on dry camping (known more romantically as boondocking) before I return to state parks and electrical hookups.  Being of a totally non-techical ilk, many of my points are related to comfort and lifestyle.  When I attempt technical explanations, reader be warned, it can be a bit of a convoluted mess, but I’ll do my best to keep it concise and accurate.

First, my hat’s off to all those boondockers who are equipped and smart enough to handle the challenge.  There are RV’ers out there who have installed additional house batteries, plenty of solar panels, and perhaps even a windmill here and there.  They venture into the wilds with their little houses, secure in their self-sufficiency.  Should the zombie apocalypse befall us, they will likely be among the last survivors, able to pick up their little houses and run like the wind to the next safe location of their choosing.

My set-up is fairly complete, but modest compared to what a serious dry camper would need.  Basically, to truly do justice to living off-the-grid, you need to have plenty of house battery power and a reliable means to replenish those batteries.  I have two 6-volt golf cart batteries–fairly typical for this size motor home–a 4000-kw on-board generator, and a 150-watt solar panel.

I am discovering that this set-up allows me to dry-camp just fine, but only if I keep those batteries juiced up.  And there’s the rub.  It means I must run the generator at least once a day to top the batteries off.  And that’s noisy.  And unpleasant for neighbors who may be in tents.  And uses gas, which, to be fair, should be added to the cost of dry camping.  I do like running it in the late afternoon/evening, though, since that is the only way I can use my microwave and air conditioner (if needed) when not plugged in to shore power.

If it is a wonderfully sunny day, I can count on the sunshine to help restore and maintain my batteries via the solar panel, a much more neighborly approach than the generator.  But in hot weather, you have to balance the need for sunshine to replenish the batteries with the need for shade to ensure comfort.  Also, in the greater scheme of things, 150 watts isn’t really all that much, so…

Let’s talk about the underrated side of this equation, power conservation.  You have to be very conscious of your power usage when dry camping.  I can run that generator for two hours, watch the display panel on my inverter or solar charger show an incoming voltage of 13.5 or more, and then when I turn the generator off, it drops almost immediately down to 12.8 volts… and quickly drops from there, especially if I have anything drawing power.

In fact, even if everything is turned off overnight, the batteries can still drop from 12.5 at bedtime to 12.2 volts by morning since there is a certain amount of electrical draw going on behind the scenes.  My refrigerator can be set for propane when dry camping, for example, but it still requires electricity for the display.  And there are other technical critters nibbling away, unseen, at the power 24/7.

On cold nights, I can use my propane furnace, thinking that will be easy on the battery, but no, the blower takes a fair amount of electric power.  If it is a really warm night after a really hot day, using my ceiling vent fan and a small portable fan will eat up a chunk of power overnight.

And forget having the TV on as constant background noise, which is how I tend to operate when hooked up to shore power.  There is one thing that can help mitigate the TV power draw, though.   If you are near a major metropolitan area and the station signals are strong, you can turn off the antenna power booster, if you have one, to conserve some electricity.

Since the TV is taking a backseat (probably a really good thing anyways), my portable transistor radio has been getting a great workout.  I am enjoying listening to classic rock, a smattering of country, and whenever possible, NPR.  Heck, when a good song comes on, poor Dawny has to watch me dance!  I also have found the local news to be so much more palatable on the radio than on TV–refreshingly succinct, with far less sensationalism and silliness.

Without the distraction of the TV, my needlepoint project is getting more attention, as is my reading list.  Speaking of reading, using an e-reader with a backlit page allows you to read with no lights on after dark.

Having a personal computer with a long battery life is also wonderful when dry camping.  A point worth noting:  If you plug your computer into the outlet when you are operating off of battery power, be aware that there is an inverter that turns the 12-volt battery power into the 120-volts needed for the outlets.  Many (maybe most?) RV inverters are modified sine wave inverters, which can damage sensitive electronics.  Therefore, I use my computer on its own battery and don’t plug it in to recharge (same with the cell phone) until I crank up the generator, since generator power (shore power, as well) provides pure sine wave power.

It is a cloudy, chilly morning here in southern Alabama and, as I type away with an eye on my battery voltage as reported on the inverter panel…  Oh no!  It has slipped yet another notch to 12.0 (that’s what I get for watching the morning news, despite what I said earlier).  12.0 technically shouldn’t set off loud alarm bells, just soft ones, since it shouldn’t fall much lower than that before recharging back to full.  Plus I want to be sure to always have enough juice to roll in my awning, pull up my jacks, and make a quick getaway before the next apocalypse!  Thank goodness the very act of driving is a highly efficient way to regenerate those house batteries before our next stop.

You Go, Girl!

I am always talking about trying to tame Dawny’s vigorous propensity to bark unnecessarily and inappropriately.  I take all that back (and that’s a mouthful).  Last night her vocal talents really paid off.

It wasn’t a big deal, really, but to me it felt huge.  We were taking our last walk of the evening and it was pitch dark out.  There were a half a dozen or so other campers near our site.  On our way back, someone came towards us, flashlight whipping around, including in our faces.  He followed us to our little house.

Dawny was all right until that point, whereupon she went into 33-pound-black-doggie-imitating-330-pound-black-bear mode.  Barking fiercely and straining at her leash, she put herself between the man and me.  I kept asking him what he wanted and he rambled on about looking for my husband (good luck, there) to help him roll his awning up.  It was disconcerting that he wasn’t backing down from my dog.  I told him to go ask another camper because we could not help him, and bid him good night.  We went inside quickly once he finally started to walk away.

The man seemed either confused or drunk, maybe both.  I don’t think anyone with their wits fully present would continue to come close to a woman alone, in the dark, with her dog straining at the leash and frothing at the mouth.

Dawny got extra cookies last night.  And extra hugs.  I would have let her sleep in my bed with me all night long (instead of just the last hour or two before rising) but I am allergic to dogs, so that’s pushing things a little too far.  I am eternally grateful for my travel buddy, though, and today I am buying her singing lessons.  Loud singing lessons.  You go, girl!

(Picture for this post is of Dawny flying after a tennis ball in our old back yard.  It’s one of my favorite pictures of her.  And, yes, she caught it!)