Diving the Rainbow River

May 27, 2013

When I turned 16, the first two things I did were get my driver’s license and my scuba diving certification. Years of Jacques Cousteau as a child (I was even a member of the Cousteau society at one point) had me thinking that I might want to be a marine biologist.  That passed, but the desire to dive and explore remained.  In the many years since, I have dived (dove?) in British Columbia, Hawaii, and Thailand but always with years passing in between outings.

I wanted to take a scuba refresher class with hopes of doing some diving down in the Florida Keys.  The manager at the American Pro Dive shop in Crystal River asked Diane if she would like to try diving.  At first she said no, but apparently she enjoyed snorkeling with the manatee enough to consider it.  After a retreat to the RV for lunch to consider it, she returned to the shop the same afternoon.  We made arrangements to do a combined class, a refresher for me, and Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) for Diane.  Win-win.

Diane at the counter in the dive shop

Diane signing up

We arrived at the dive shop just after lunch the following day.  Our very young instructor Rich wore a beanie but was very professional.  After getting geared up, Diane watched a short video while I tried to figure out the cheap underwater camera that I’d purchased to record the event.  We also met our captain Zac who ate his lunch while the video played.

Diane standing on 1 foot putting on a wetsuit in a room full of wetsuits and diving gear

Diane getting geared up

We both took the short Discover Scuba Diving quiz.  I kept thinking that since I was doing a refresher course, that I should have received something more or different, and a record for my log book (which I don’t have with me anyway), but I basically did the same as Diane.

Driving the Dream Machine, we followed them and our dive boat about 20 miles to K.P. Hole Park in nearby Dunnellon.  The park charges $5 admission per person which is common in American state and some county parks.

A pontoon boat with cover being pulled by a white pickup truck

Chasing our dive boat

The very clean Rainbow River is fed only by underground springs.  It is very popular with kayakers and inner tubers, who float down the river enjoying the water, the wildlife, and the sunshine.  The county helps to keep it clean by banning disposable drink containers of any kind on the river (a $75 fine).

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boat while the captain stands at the helm at the rear

Heading up river

We headed up river, enjoying the scenery, while Captain Zac gave us the safety lecture.  We put on our wet suits and got ready to go.  Diane was nervous.

Diane standing beside Rich in their wetsuits while Patrick completes putting his on

Getting ready

Zac anchored our boat near the river bank and took pictures while we were in the water.

Diane, Patrick, and instructor Rich standing in shallow water in full scuba gear

Class in session

Rich led us through the basic scuba drills starting from the beginning…

Diane and Patrick with faces in the water while instructor looks on

Breathing with only your face under water

Patrick, Diane, and instructor just below the surface of the water

Breathing while sitting on the bottom

We then progressed through other skills like using the buoyancy compensator, regulator remove and replace, mask clearing, and equalizing the pressure in one’s ears.  The pace was fine for me, but I thought rushed for Diane or anyone who hadn’t done this before.  Diane had to try the full mask clear twice and seemed a little apprehensive, but did well.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich posing for a photo just before heading downstream

Posing (Patrick on left, Diane on right)

After a quick photo op, we headed down river.  Rainbow River is a drift dive, where for the most part you can just let the current carry you along.  Very relaxing.  The river is shallow, varying from 3 to 23 feet deep, which is great for a beginner.  Plenty of opportunity to practice ascending and descending.

Sign with words "Shallow Area" with a bird sitting on top

Shallow

The river bottom is sandy and mostly covered in long grass, which bends gracefully downstream.  The visibility is amazing.  Crystal clear water allows you to see over 100 feet (30 meters).  There are lots of fish and turtles.

We drifted down 1 mile of beautiful river for about 40 minutes.  I took pictures of Diane to record the event.

Diane diving just above gras with a blue water background

Diane in the grass

Diane scuba diving and pinching her nose to equalize her ears, with only blue water in the background

Diane equalizing her ears

Diane with black wetsuit and yellow framed mask with a blue water background

Diane looking like a pro

Closeup of Diane's face wearing a scuba mask with bubbles

Diane — It’s time for my close-up Mr. DeMille

Diane asked to come up at one point, “just so I knew I could”.  Despite the wet suits, we both got a bit cold by the time we were ready to board the boat.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich floating on the surface just behind the pontton boat

Fun’s Over – Ready to board

Diane was happy.

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boar wrapped in a multi-coloured towel

Diane smiling

Until she saw the alligators.  You see, there are almost no bodies of fresh water in Florida that don’t have alligators.  And snakes.  We passed 2 alligators on the way back, both about 4 feet long.

Alligator floating on the surface in the weeds

Let’s go swimming!

Alligator head among the weeds

Time for his close-up!

Diane said that if she had known about the alligators in advance, she wouldn’t have done it.  Perhaps that’s why Zac and Rich didn’t point them out until after her first scuba dive.

Oh, and I had a great time too.  Now I have visions of Diane and I scuba diving together in exotic, crocodile-free waters around the world.  Diane’s not so sure.

Patrick on the pontoon boat wearing black swim trunks

This guy needs a tan!


Impressions of Louisiana

May 14, 2013

Louisiana has a very different feel from Texas, even though they’re adjacent. Sometimes the things I notice the most are those that contrast with the place I’ve just been.

• Louisiana is very flat and swampy. The ground underfoot even feels softer than Texas. As a result, there are a lot of raised roadways and bridges.

Patrick pulling a thick rope to pull a ferry across the water

Ferry crossing, the old-fashioned way

• The music is zydeco and jazz, with a lot less country. There are hardly any hats, boots, or buckles.
• Bar-b-que is replaced by Cajun food like boiled crawfish and shrimp, étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, rice and beans, and beignets. But they’re not the only kind of food here:

Diane eating a slice of pizza off a white paper plate

Pizza near Bourbon Street

• There are more African-Americans, and a lot fewer Hispanics than Texas. Louisiana has no common border with Mexico.
• Louisiana has a laid-back, convivial atmosphere, living their common expression Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)
• Like Texas, people here like to dance. The dance floor is always full, even outdoors on sunny afternoons.
• Louisiana has visible French roots. It was named after French King Louis XIV. It is the only state in the union to have parishes rather than counties. The Fleur-de-lis is everywhere. Most streets and places have French names.

A gold fleur-de-lis on a blue fabric background with a gold border

Fleur-de-Lis

• The United States paid $15 million to France in 1803 to purchase the Louisiana Territory, 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. These lands stretched from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Thirteen states were carved from the Louisiana Territory, and the Louisiana purchase almost doubled the size of the United States at the time.

A white cathedral with three pointy towers fiewed form the Mississippi River

The Saint Louis Cathedral, the oldest in North America, from the Mississippi River

• Louisiana has a vibrant Cajun culture. Cajuns are an ethnic group, descendants of Acadians, French-speakers who came primarily from the Canadian maritime provinces in the mid-1700’s because they refused to swear allegiance to the King of England.
• Cajuns speak their own dialect of French which evolved from 18th-Century French.
• The Creoles are another ethic group in Louisiana. They are descendants of African, West Indian, and European pioneers.
• Tabasco sauce has been made by generations of the McIhenny family on Avery Island, Louisiana since 1968. It’s ingredients are tabasco peppers (Capsicum frutescens var. tabasco), vinegar, and salt.
• Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana on the morning of August 29, 2005. The eye of the storm hit St. Tammany Parish as a Category 3 hurricane at 9:45 AM, causing massive flooding that extended over 6 miles inland, from 7 to 16 feet deep plus wave action. By August 31st, 80% of New Orleans was flooded. The historical French Quarter, the highest part of the city, was spared.

A reddish corner building with 2 white metal balconies over a street full of people

French Quarter Spanish-style Building

• Louisiana appears to have a lot of obese people (perhaps too much bons temps), many of which seem to be African-American.
• There is still a cotton and sugar cane industry here.
• There are alligators in most of Louisiana’s bodies of fresh water. They can run up to 40 mph (60 kph) on land over short distances.

A yellow sign showing a black alligator and the words "No Swimming" against a white sky background

Alligator warning sign

Alligators are hunted and eaten here. Like Diane, they also love cats.

2 large alligators lifted by a backhoe with 2 men posing beside them


River Road Slavery

May 7, 2013

At the River Road plantations that we toured, there was only a brief mention of slavery, despite the fact that each of them relied on the forced labour of approximately 200 slaves.  Although both plantations retain some slave quarters, and the topic received an obligatory acknowledgement in the guided tour, not enough information was provided about this critical aspect of the plantations.  It would undoubtedly interrupt the sense of fantasy and glamour that these mansions and their beautiful grounds tend to evoke.

Slavery existed in the United States from the early days of the colonial period.  Slavery had its early roots in indentured servitude, where people of all races could pay off their debts with their labour (for example, the cost of their passage to the Americas).  Over time, as more captive slaves were imported from Africa, state laws were passed that racialized slavery, restricting black Africans and their descendants to slavery. By the time the United States sought independence from Great Britain in 1776, slavery was firmly entrenched.  By 1804, all states north of the Mason Dixon Line had either abolished slavery outright or passed laws for its gradual abolition, but slavery continued to grow in the South with the expansion of the cotton industry.  The fledgling nation became polarized into slave and free states.

The United States and Great Britain both prohibited the international slave trade in 1808, but the domestic trade in the United States continued and expanded.  The South was vigorously defending slavery and supporting its expansion into the new American territories. After Abraham Lincoln’s election, eleven Southern states broke away to form the Confederate States of America.  This led to the Civil War, during which (not before) the abolition of slavery became a goal.  On January 1, 1863 President Lincoln unilaterally freed the slaves in the territory of his opponent, the Confederacy, by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.

Black and white photo of Abraham Lincoln's head and shoulders wearing a black suit

Abraham Lincoln

This decree was based on the president’s constitutional authority as commander in chief of the armed forces, not a law passed by Congress. It proclaimed all those enslaved in Confederate territory to be forever free, and ordered the Army to treat as free all those enslaved in the 10 states that were still in rebellion (3.1 million of the estimated 4 million slaves in the United States at the time). The Proclamation could not be enforced in areas still under rebellion, but as the army took control of Confederate regions, the slaves in those regions were freed rather than returned to their masters.  After the war, the 13th Amendment, effective December 1865, abolished slavery throughout the entire United States and its territories.

From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas (South, Central, and North). Of these, only an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States.  But by 1860 the slave population in the American South had grown to four million.   Of the 1.5 Million total households in the 15 slave states, nearly 400,000 held slaves (one in four), which was 8% of all American families.  The great majority of slaves worked on plantations or large farms, cultivating cash crops like rice, tobacco, sugar and cotton. By this time, most slaves were held in the deep south, where the majority worked on cotton plantations.

A small building with a tiny front porch

Slave Quarters for 2 families

Slaves could gain freedom only by running away (which was difficult, dangerous, and illegal), or by rare manumission by owners, which was regulated by states and became increasingly difficult or prohibited.  Slaves resisted through non-compliance and rebellions, and escaped to non-slave states and Canada, facilitated by the Underground Railroad.  Even after abolition, freed slaves in the South were forced into second-class legal and economic status through Jim Crow laws intended to enforce racial segregation and white supremacy which persisted until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The terribly scarred back of a black slaves, seated with no shirt on

The first African slaves were brought to Louisiana in 1708.  On the River Road, and throughout Louisiana, slavery was governed by The Code Noir.  Passed by King Louis XIV in 1685, it defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire.  Among other things, it also restricted the activities of blacks, forbade the exercise of any religion other than Roman Catholicism, and forbade Jews from living in French colonies.  Ironically, it required that all slaves be baptised in the Roman Catholic church (they were apparently still concerned with their immortal souls while disregarding all their earthly human rights).  The Code Noir outlawed torture, but institutionalized corporal punishment like beating, disfigurement, and execution (not much of a difference in my book).

A small grey and white building with porch out front and a museum sign on the lawn

River Road African American Museum

One place that I learned about slavery was at the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville.  Founded in 1994, this small museum is a labour of love of one woman, Kathe Hambrick.  She created the museum to celebrate the culture and contributions of African Americans in Louisiana, and to provide a more accurate historic account.  Like me, she noted that the plantation tours which bring thousands of people to the area provide little information about slavery.  Unfortunately, her museum is sparsely attended, and was only open by appointment when we visited.

Some small black dolls in front of a wall with signs saying, "White", "Coloured"

Museum Artifacts


Are Canadians paying too much? What can we do about it?

May 2, 2013

Canadians pay more for most retail goods than Americans living just across the border, despite the fact that the Canadian dollar has been near or above parity with the U.S. dollar for several years now. We are constantly reminded of this when we see American advertisements on television, when we shop online, when we buy books and magazines that have 2 different prices on the back cover, and when we visit the United States. My recent investgation into this matter (Are Prices Higher in Canada than in the U.S?) confirmed my suspicions. The price differences in certain product categories are glaring – gasoline (20-35% higher), automobiles (other than economy models), groceries (especially dairy and poultry products), alcoholic beverages, etc. Are we being gouged?

Our unelected Canadian Senate recently looked into this matter, releasing its study on the reasons for price discrepancies for goods between Canada and the U.S. (The Canada-US Price Gap).  They did not look at the price of services, which are harder to compare, nor supply-managed goods (e.g. eggs, poultry and dairy products, which we definitely pay more for but are a political hot-button issue). Although their report was anything but definitive, they concluded that in many cases retail prices are higher in Canada, and the reasons for this difference include: lower economies of scale, a higher level of retailer concentration, higher transportation costs, higher Canadian tariffs and taxes, the high volatility in exchange rates, and different regulatory requirements (like bilingual packaging and product safety standards). For its part, the Senate recommended that Canada review its tariffs, better integrate safety standards between the 2 countries, and consider an increase in the minimum threshold at which low-value shipments from the U.S. are taxed. One of the biggest reasons for price differences that they identified is country-specific pricing by international manufacturers who charge more in Canada simply because Canadians appear willing to pay more.

In order to maximize profits, manufacturers attempt to segment the market, creating real or imagined differences that allow them to sell their products at different prices in the two countries. An example of this are car manufacturers who don’t allow their warranties to be transferred between the two countries. Some manufacturers charge Canadian retailers 10% to 50% more than U.S. retailers for identical products. Manufacturers try to justify this by saying that their higher prices subsidize the cost of maintaining operations in Canada and are necessary to compensate Canadian distributors and wholesalers who face higher costs than their American counterparts. But they also openly admit that they charge more because Canadians are used to paying more (which seems like a chicken-and-egg situation to me). Manufacturers may price more aggressively in the U.S. because in order for their brand to succeed globally, it is essential that it be a success in the U.S. American consumers benefit from this effect. In fact, market segmentation allows manufacturers to lower their prices in the United States, effectively subsidizing their prices using earnings from higher profit territories like Canada.

In addition, American retailers are more competitive. They enjoy lower labour rates, higher productivity, and are quick to respond to competitive pressures. Many Canadian retailers have failed to pass along to consumers the benefit they’ve garnered from a stronger loonie.

Ultimately the price gap is about Canadian’s willingness to pay. Sellers simply believe that Canadians will pay more, and they appear to be right. Canadians don’t shop as aggressively as Americans, and aren’t as quick to seek out deals. Canadian retailers and consumers are failing to put the sort of pressure on manufacturers needed to bring prices down.

This situation won’t improve by itself. Neither the increase in the Canadian dollar nor the arrival in Canada of giant U.S. retailers like Walmart and Target has had a significant effect. So, what can we do about it?

  1. Shop Local

    Where possible, buy locally made or Canadian made products that provide good value for the money. This doesn’t solve the problem of higher prices for Canadians, but at least the profits are going to Canadian manufacturers.

  2. Switch to cheaper brands or basic commodities

    As the Canadian economy has matured and we have become wealthier, we consume more and more differentiated goods rather than basic commodities. The manufacturers of differentiated goods are able to increase their prices as long as consumers demand their products. e.g. They can charge more for Pizza Pockets than no-name pizza snacks, and much more than for wheat flour and tomato sauce.

    Canadians can increase competition and lower prices by switching to cheaper brands whenever possible or using basic commodities instead. e.g. Buying generic brands in the grocery store. Buying unbranded products. Buying commodity items like bulk foods, fresh produce, etc. Choose brands that don’t practice country-specific pricing (or that minimize it) and that are competitively priced to those in the U.S. Manufacturers will lower prices if Canadians don’t pay their marked-up costs.

  3. Check prices and shop smart

    The Senate report noted that, “As more Canadian consumers become aware of smartphone applications and Internet sites for price shopping and comparison, and become price-savvy consumers, competitive pressures in Canada will increase and the price for products in Canada will converge to U.S. prices”.

    Compare prices and buy where things are cheaper. Price comparison web sites make this easy (e.g. Shopbot.ca, ShopToIt.ca, PriceGrabber.ca, NextTag.com, Shopzilla.com). Smart phone apps that scan bar codes and compare prices make this even easier (e.g. RedLaser, Google Shopper, Amazon Price Check, Pricegrabber).

    Choose retailers that offer prices competitive to those in the U.S. Retailers will lower prices if we shop elsewhere.

  4. Speak up

    Let manufacturers, retailers, and governments know that you’re fed up with paying more, and that you’re voting with your wallet. Join consumer associations that advocate for fair pricing.

  5. Shop cross-border

    Canadians have a long-standing tradition of cross-border shopping. 75% of us live within 161 kilometres (100 miles) of the U.S. border. The total number of Canadians travelling to the United States by automobile is closely correlated with the movements of the exchange rate. According to Statistics Canada, in 2011 an average of 3.4 million Canadian travelers crossed the border into the United States by automobile each month, including 2.4 million Canadian travelers (69.7% of all Canadian travellers) who made same-day trips (which likely involved some shopping). Duty-free exemptions for Canadians were increased effective June 2012, making it easier to bring back more stuff. Although the duty-free limit for same-day trips is still zero (unlike Americans who get $200), Canada Customs often doesn’t bother with smaller purchases like groceries.

    Shop online. The price advantages of shopping in the U.S. (or even other countries like England) often more than make up for the costs of shipping, a customs broker fee, and duty (if applicable). More U.S. companies offer free shipping to Canada, and downloaded items (like music, movies, and software) don’t need to be shipped at all. Many items are duty-free under the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Canada Customs doesn’t charge duty on items valued under $20 Canadian (an amount which has effectively increased with the rise in the value of the Canadian dollar relative to the greenback).

I can hear some patriotic Canadians squealing, those who believe that we have an obligation to ‘Buy Canadian’. Hopefully I’ve covered that with my Point #1 above. Please note that while we are smart shopping, I believe that Canadians should continue to pay whatever sales or other taxes are required. I believe that in the long run, Canadians will be better off if our manufacturers, retailers, and government remain competitive in the global market. Competitive retail pricing will benefit all Canadians, rather than line the pockets of international manufacturers.


Scott Boudin Festival

May 1, 2013

We drove out of Texas and into the swamps of Louisiana. The tourist office at the state boundary mentioned something called the Boudin Festival happening in the town of Scott. We had no idea what boudin was, but when we learned it was food, Diane set a course for Scott.

Brightly coloured festival poster with a train and pig engineer and boudin!Boudin is a dressing of meat (usually pork), rice, traces of vegetable, and spices that is packaged in a sausage casing (i.e. pig intestine) and boiled. Not as much meat as sausage, and no oatmeal like haggis. Like sausages everywhere, it’s something to do with the leftover bits of slaughtered pig (like liver and butt). Boudin has been made in southern Louisiana since the mid-1800s, probably originating with French Acadians, ancestors of the Cajuns, Some modern versions of boudin substitute crawfish or shrimp for pork.

We arrived hungry on the opening day of the festival. The announcer put out a call for anyone from out of state who had never tried Boudin before. I volunteered and soon found myself onstage and being introduced.

The announcer worked the crowd saying, “We had to go all the way to Canada to find a person who had never tasted boudin before!”  Cheers from the crowd. After some pleasantries, I was handed a foil wrapper. Fearing a set-up, I opening it carefully.

Patrick on stage with drums behind, wearing shorts and a t-shit and standing beside the annouuncer with a microphone.  Patrick opening a silver foiil package.

Opening my 1st boudin

What emerged was an 8 inch brownish tube, warm and slippery. I wiggled it. The announcer said to, “keep it above your waist”. It was family show. Laughs from the crowd.

Patrick on stage holding a half unwrapped boudin

Staring down my 1st boudin

I tasted it. The crowd held their breath. Who knew food could be so exciting?

Patrick on stage with boudin to his lips

Bite the casing and slurp out the goodness

The announcer asked me to describe it.

Tasting Boudin (P1100598)

Patrick on stage holding a boudin in one hand and a microphone in the other

Trying to describe boudin

As is my nature, I gave an overly analytical response, like a damn restaurant review, “flavourful, surprisingly spicy”. What the crowd really wanted was for me to throw my arms in the arms and say, “I love it!”.  Leeson Learned.

Patrick on stage with both arms raised in the air

Patrick whooping it up on stage

My on-stage appearance raised our visibility for the rest of the day. People approached us, we were given tastes by a couple of food vendors, and I was interviewed for local TV.

Patrick being interviewed by a reproter with the camera man int the foreground

My TV interview

An impetus for this inaugural festival is that Scott, Louisiana was recently named Boudin Capital of the World, the result of a bipartisan bill passed by both the Louisiana House and Senate in April 2012. This was done over the objections of Broussard, Louisiana which had previously been using the title but couldn’t prove it had an official designation, and despite the protest of Jennings, Louisiana which was declared Boudin Capital of the Universe in the 1970’s. The feud between the Boudin capitals even made the Wall Street Journal.

The small city of Scott (8800 people) produced 1.5 Million pounds of boudin in 2012. That’s 3 Million links! Within the city limits there are four establishments employing 80 people who make and sell $5 Million of boudin each year.

Although boudin is the raison d’être of the festival, there are other things to do. There is a busy stage with non-stop cajun, zydeco, and rock performances. People aren’t shy about dancing, even in the afternoon sun. Folks sit around on folding chairs enjoying the music. There is a busy midway for the young and young at heart. But the star of the show is definitely the food.

A street lined with food tents and filled with people

Busy food vendors

We ate our way through virtually everything the food vendors had to offer. In addition to boiled boudin, we enjoyed:

Links of boudin on a cutting board with 2 pairs of hands

Smoked Boudin

2 deep-fried balls of boudin about 2 inches in diameter in a white paper dish held by Diane

Boudin Balls

Diane eating jambalaya with a plastic fork from a disposable bowl

Jambalaya

We really liked the cracklins, which are seasoned, crispy bits of deep-fried pig skin and fat with an occasional bit of meat.  Very tasty, but not even remotely close to healthy.

A man in a red t-shirt with a long metal pole standing over a boiling black vat of oil

It’s hot work making cracklins  I

A black pot filled with boiling oil and bits of pig skin

Cracklins fryin’

Diane with a cracklin in her hand about to eat it

Diane enjoying cracklins

We still managed to find room for a grilled pork sandwich, a huge slab of tasty pork on soon-to-be-sloppy white sandwich bread.

A person standing over a large frying grill covered in pork steaks

Grilling Pork

Patrick eating a pork sandwich in one hand with a paper tray to catch the drips in the other

Tricky to eat

A suggestion for next year’s festival is to offer real beer, something other than mini-Budweisers.

Patrick holidng a small can of Budweiser beer

Even when it grows up, it still won’t be a real beer

Overall, it was a great small town festival. Comfortable and friendly. Tasty and interesting food. Terrific music. It’s wonderful to stumble across gems like this, where we can experience something new and unique.

The back of a woman with a lime green t-shirt with the words, "Where the west begins, and the boudin never ends"

A friendly festival organizer’s t-shirt


Impressions of Texas

April 30, 2013

This is our first visit to Texas, so it was a new experience for us.  Here are some things we find interesting about Texas.

  • I’ve always heard how big Texas is. At 268,580 square miles (695,621 sq. kms), it is the largest state in the contiguous United States, second only to Alaska among all U.S. states, and is larger than every country in Europe (except Russia which isn’t really in Europe in my mind). However, the area of Texas is not quite as impressive as its reputation. There are 5 Canadian Provinces and Territories that are much, much larger than Texas (British Columbia!, Ontario, Quebec, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), and 3 that are almost as big (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba).
  • The word “Texas” derives from local Indian words meaning allies or friends. Reflecting this, the Texas state motto is friendship.
  • Texas has been part of or ruled by 6 nations in its modern history – Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The United States (twice) and the Confederate States of America (during the American Civil War). The words ‘6 Flags’ are incorporated into a lot of Texas venue names.
  • The Texas state capitol building in Austin was completed on May 16, 1888. It is the largest of all state capitols in the nation in terms of square footage. Its construction was paid for by bartering 3 million acres of land in the Texas ‘panhandle’ to the builders.
  • West Texas is mostly wide-open, dry desert. It is sparsely populated and there are no big cities except El Paso (on Texas’s Western border with Mexico and New Mexico). The Eastern side of Texas looks very different, with grass, green trees, and more agriculture. The dry west and green east are separated by the 100th Meridian (100 degrees West of Greenwich England), a line which happens to closely approximate the 20 inch isohyet (a line of equal precipitation, not unlike the lines of equal elevation on a topographic map) which is commonly used to demarcate arid and non-arid land

    A silhouette of a tree against a graduate grey background

    West Texas Landscape

  • Texas is part of the Southern ‘bible belt’ and has a majority Christian population, primarily Evangelical Protestants (65%) and Catholics (21%, a byproduct of Texas’s 38% Latino population

    A large billboard with black print on a white background reading "Think God"

    Texas Billboard

  • Famous from old Western movies, the Rio Grande River serves as a natural border between Texas and Mexico.

    A piicture of Patrick's muddy feet stadnign on cracked mud earth

    Muddy feet after I waded the Rio Grande into Mexico

  • Because Texas shares a long border with Mexico, there are almost 10,000 United States Border Patrol agents in the state. Roadside checks are common like in Southern Arizona.
  • A lot of Texans like to dance. There are old-fashioned dance halls throughout the state where people enjoy the 2-step, waltz, and occasional polka.
  • Texans also love their bar-b-que (BBQ), which is meat cooked using the indirect heat of wood smoke. What we usually call BBQ in Canada (i.e. cooking over direct heat or flame) is actually grilling, not BBQ.
  • Texas is a conservative place, and is currently one of the most Republican states in the United States. Republicans control all statewide Texas offices, both houses of the state legislature and have a majority in the Texas congressional delegation. Despite this, the state capital of Austin is liberal, artistic, and actively encourages individuality (‘keep Austin weird’)

    Brown building of Austin Texas seen from the river

    Austin Skyline

  • Texas allows RVs to park overnight in roadside picnic areas, which are generally nice and clean, but sometimes right beside and not separated from the roadways.

    The Dream Machine parked with slide out in a rest area beside the road

    Sleeping at a Texas roadside picnic area

  • Texans are very patriotic. There are American flags everywhere and a lot of Texas flags.

    The Texas flag flying against a blue background

    Texas Flag

  • Although George W. Bush is commonly associated with Texas (he was the State Governor and owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team), he was not born there (actually, New Haven, Connecticut). But Dwight D. Eisenhower (elected 1952) and Lyndon B. Johnson (elected 1963) were both born in Texas. Johnson spent much of his presidency on his ranch in Texas, operating from his home nicknamed ‘The Texas White House’.

    The Dream Machine parked beside a Jetstar jet under a roof

    The Dream Machine and Lyndon Johnson’s mini-Air Force One

  • Many restaurants in Texas don’t have a license to serve hard liquor, sometimes only beer and wine). Some of these restaurants allow you to bring your own liquor and they’ll sell you ‘a set up’, which is the glasses, ice, and mix that you need to make your own drinks.
  • The Texas drawl is real, not just in the movies. “Y’all” is the most common pronoun here. When people call us “Sir” or “Ma’am” we feel old, but folks are just being polite.
  • Texas’s State Flower is the Bluebonnet, a sentimental favourite, which was blooming as we passed through.

    A field of blue flowers with green leaves

    Texas Bluebonnets

  • Like Arizona and New Mexico, the Texan desert is home to the collared peccary (known in the south as javelina). They are social animals, often forming herds, and adults weight 40 to 90 pounds.

    A brown javelina on dry grass.  it looks like a small pig with stiff hair.

    A Javelina visiting our campsite in Big Bend National Park


Picket House Pig Out

April 24, 2013

Our friends Bob and Beth recommended that we visit Picket House, a unique restaurant located in Woodville, Texas.  Woodville is just outside of nowhere, and not on the typical tourist trail, but it was on our route.

Picket House is part of a heritage village that gets mixed reviews, so we didn’t check it out.  It’s located off the highway on a side road, easy to miss, but we found it on our 2nd pass.  The old building is rustic outside and in, as if the clock has been turned back 80 years, but it’s clean and comfortable.

A building with a red roof, yellow paint, and a large porch with white posts and railings and the words 'Picket House' painted on the front

Picket House has Rustic Country Charm

A sign at the entrance explains the “Boarding House Eatin’ Rules”.  Patrons pay in advance ($10 each), are assigned a seat (which may be at a table shared with others if it’s busy), fix their own drinks, and clear their own dishes.  Food is served family style and is ‘all you can eat’.  Leftovers go to the hogs.

A brown sign on a yellow background with 5 rules that are summarized in the blog text above

Boarding House Eatin’ Rules

Although Picket House is often very busy, it wasn’t on Thursday at 1 PM when we arrived.  There were only a few tables occupied, including one with a very old, frail, African-American woman eating alone wearing a hat.  I was dying to talk to her but couldn’t get up the nerve.  The walls of the two dining rooms are blanketed with old circus posters and the tables have checkered table clothes.  The combination creates a unique and interesting atmosphere.

A white wall covered with circus posters behind 2 tables with red and white checkered tableclothes

Circus posters on every wall

Diane seated at our table with circus posters on the wall behind

Our Table

Our food was served quickly.  We barely had enough time to get a glass of tea (a classic southern beverage served cold over ice, typically unsweetened), and some condiments (pickled jalapenos, beets, and watermelon rind).  Neither Diane nor I had ever had pickled watermelon rind, and we had to ask the waitress what it was!  The menu is the same every day – fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes and gravy, greens, beans, biscuits (with butter and optionally honey or cane syrup), coleslaw, peach cobbler, tea, and coffee.  The fried chicken and the biscuits were exceptional.

White bowls of food on a red and white checked tablecloth

Southern Food!

I got my money’s worth.  I ate:

  • 6 pieces of fried chicken,
  • 2 helpings of chicken and dumplings,
  • 2 helpings of mashed potatoes and gravy,
  • 1 helping of greens,
  • 1 piece of corn bread,
  • 1 and a half servings of peach cobbler,
  • 3 pieces of pickled watermelon rind,
  • 3 slices of pickled beets,
  • 1 glass of sweet tea,
  • and 3 biscuits with butter, 1 with cane syrup and  honey
A biscuit on a white plate

Biscuit with honey on the right side and cane syrup on the left

Patrick with a biscuit in hand and cobbler dish ont he table

My friends, biscuit and cobbler

I may have overeaten.  I couldn’t breathe fully for 2 hours afterwards without pain.  I didn’t eat again until the next day.

Diane had a good time too, limiting herself to a mere 4 pieces of fried chicken.

Diane wearing burgandy fleece seated a table with coffee, tea, and cobbler

Diane enjoying her meal

Before we left, I met Brenda, one of the cooks.  With her strong accent, she was hard to understand, but she was very friendly.  Although she’s normally responsible for just the fried chicken, today one of the other staff called in sick, so she also made the biscuits (mmmm, biscuits) and the peach cobbler (mmmm, cobbler).

Patrick standing beside Brenda, a short African-American woman wearing a pink t-shirt and red apron and making a peace sign

Brenda and a bigger me

Picket house is heaven for southern hogs.