Friday, December 7, 2018

Setting up our ERPU and Exploring Southeast Texas Parks, Preserves, and Historic Sites

Picking up where I left off in my last blog, we returned to TX to set up on our ERPU lot.  I don’t need to be psychic to know you are saying to yourself, “What the heck is an ERPU?”  Let me fill ya in.

ERPU stands for Escapees Rainbow Parks Unlimited and, in our case, refers to a long-term leased lot program right at Escapees flagship Rainbow’s End Park in Livingston, TX (which is also where their mail forwarding service is located).  The 24 leased lots consist of a gravel site for your rig/vehicle, a concrete patio, and a shed.  The 5-year lease costs $12,500 and is renewable for each subsequent 5-year period for only $1.  Currently, we pay a $715 annual maintenance fee, which covers water, sewer, trash, and maintenance of our lot when we are not on it.  Unlike Escapees Co-ops, we cannot sublease the lot or have anyone else’s RV setup on it when we are out of town.  If and when we decide to relinquish the lot, our $12,500 investment would be returned, in full, as long as there is someone still on the waiting list who wants an ERPU site.  Spending a mere 6 weeks/year on the lot more than covers the cost of the maintenance fee.  We spend that much time here anyway, returning for Dad’s doctor appointments semi-annually.   Not a bad deal, right?  If you manage to get to the top of the list and are offered a lot, you have the option to reject it (we did this once due to the lot’s limitations to fit our medium duty truck Big Boomer).  You can reject two lot offerings with no repercussions.  However, if you refuse the third lot offered to you, you go back to the bottom of the waiting list.  There is a $20/year non-refundable deposit to be on the waiting list.  When we joined the waiting list in April 2015, we presumed it would be 5-10 years before a lot became available, particularly since there were 28 people on the list ahead of us.  We really did not want a lot now since we don’t plan to stop traveling.    Getting an ERPU lot was my parents long-term future “exit plan” from the nomadic lifestyle, whether coming off the road for longer periods of time or permanently, by choice or due to health issues.  (I highly recommend everyone who enters this traveling lifestyle consider “exit plans.”).  But I think Dad’s heart attack last October spooked Mom a bit.  (She was grateful to the Park staff for working with her to extend our site reservations from 2 weeks to 2 months, but realizes Park staff may be unable to accommodate a similar request should a future need arise.  Not to mention Dad’s doctor appointments also seem to coincide with major Park events, making it even more difficult to get reservations).  With that all said, we signed our lease agreement and are all settled in.

Speaking of Dad’s heart attack, he got good report cards from his docs, and is cleared for another 6 months.

So what else have we been up to?  Quite a bit, actually!
Visiting Texas State Parks, for one.  Rather than get our 5-mile walks within Rainbow’s End and surrounding residential areas, which has become quite problematic with more and more unleashed, viscous dogs (specifically on Providence Road), we used our Texas State Park Pass several times for day use at Livingston State Park, a mere 20 minutes away.

This was one busy spider!  Its web was about the size of my head!

We also enjoyed hiking in solitude at Huntsville State Park, although its 6.8 mile Chinquapin Trail does not fit its description of being “challenging” nor “teeming with wildlife”.  Signs all around the Park teased me with warnings of alligators.  But all we saw was 1 squirrel, 2 waterfowl, and the bobbing butt of 1 whitetail deer.  We worked up an appetite, so we waved to the gigantic statue of Sam Houston and sought out Golden Corral, which has lots of options for Dad’s dietary requirements.  Lo and behold, Golden Corral, after 30 years, has shuttered its doors at the Huntsville location.  There is now 7 Leguas Mexican Restaurant on the site.  OK, Mom had never really eaten Mexican and is normally quite boring on her cuisine choices (a meat and potatoes gal), but since we were all hungry, we gave it a whirl.  Great stuff.  A cart roams the room offering guacamole ($7.99), made fresh, specifically for your consumption.  It tasted terrific!  Mom and I shared a fajitas combo to die for--beef, chicken, shrimp, veggies, and a portion big enough for 2 dinners, while Dad stayed true to his plant-based diet and ate a veggie fajita.  Definitely a 5-cheese dining experience.   

The steaming hot fajita dish 

Fresh guacamole

We spent a day in Tyler, first visiting the Rose Gardens.  It was the last day of the Rose Festival and many of the flora were beyond peak, but the grounds were still lovely.  There is a garden for everyone, including kids.  I particularly enjoyed the Butterfly Garden and the Idea Garden, where horticulturists shared clever ideas for planters and suggestions of plant combinations.

We then went hiking within Loops A and B at Tyler State Park, which bestowed upon me a wonderous site—an armadillo that was alive and kicking!  Usually, I only see armadillos that have met with their arch rival—a vehicle bumper.  So this was very exciting!  We topped off the day with another first for us—Thai food at Chiangmai Thai Kitchen.  Mom’s been a trooper trying new things, and so far, we all have enjoyed our international cuisines.

We used our Texas State Park Pass to visit the Battleship Texas (although starting January 2019, this site will no longer accept the Park Pass, and Pass holders will be required to pay the full entrance fee).  Texas (commissioned 1914) is the only battleship still in existence that was used during both World War I and World War II.   Its engines alone weigh 2.5 million pounds!  Sure glad I was never serving on board—I’d suffer from claustrophobia and a lack of privacy!

Right next door is the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, where Texas won its independence from Mexico in a pivotal battle led by Sam Houston along the marshes and prairie of Buffalo Bayou.  The monument is massive, rising nearly 570 feet high, giving it the distinction of surpassing the Washington Monument.  It is topped with a 34-foot star, Texas’s great symbol of freedom.  The museum is free, but we forked over a few bucks for the documentary film (Mom NEVER misses a flick) and observation deck.  Due to their looks and being there in the middle of a work day, my parents were charged the “senior” price.  Why won’t any place offer stuffed rat discounts?  Oh well, it was cheese money well spent.  The film is informative and captivating.  I felt like I was there alongside the Tejanos fighting Santa Ana’s troops!  The view from the observation deck is truly spectacular, overlooking the Houston Ship Channel.  The Port of Houston was bustling that day, and I learned it is one of the busiest seaports in all the USA.  Although we opted to walk, you can drive along the site’s roads to see various historical markers for positions and camps during the Battle of San Jacinto.  We also walked along the Marsh Trail as far as we could go—much of it has been closed due to damages sustained during Hurricane Harvey.   We enjoyed dinner in a small, obscure Thai Kitchen located in an older strip mall.

View from the Observation Deck

But wait!  Once again, we used our Park Pass to visit Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site.  Known as “the Philadelphia of Texas”, it is where Texas signed its Declaration of Independence from Mexico and formed its own Republic.  We perused the Visitor Center and learned our Pass entitled us to a complimentary Ranger program which turned out to be a private tour since we were the only ones there at the time!  Ranger Jason gave a thoroughly entertaining, yet informative, narration of the events leading up to and culminating with the convention of representatives signing the Declaration.  The original building in which the signing occurred is long gone, but a replica stands in its place.

The grounds of the Historic Site are lovely, adorned with mature, towering pecan trees, one of which is nearly 200 years old, having taken root in 1821.  Ironically, pecans are not native to the area.  It is believed that a pecan fell from a traveler’s bag on what was once a main thoroughfare from Mexico to Louisiana. 

Etching of what the town once looked like.

Though several hiking trails are closed to the public, there are walking paths throughout the premises.   We walked over to Barrington Farm, a living history museum representative of the property when it was owned by Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas.  Run primarily by slaves, the property bore fruits, cotton, a variety of vegetables, and livestock.   The Jones’ homestead is original, and in remarkable condition considering it dates to the mid-1800s.

The outside buildings are all replicas, but house many heritage animals.  It is funny how smart animals can be.  They clearly associate guests with food, and the minute the chickens, turkeys and swine heard us, they clucked, gobbled, and grunted, just begging for treats.  Though we are transplants, we are proud to be Texans now (In fact we purchased the perfect bumper sticker, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could”), and we are doing our due diligence in learning our State’s history.   We have completed the Big 3 on the Road to Texas Independence:  Alamo, San Jacinto, Washington-on-the-Brazos (although I still want to get to Gonzalez, known as Texas’s “Battle of Lexington”).

Just when I thought the day couldn’t get any better, I learned that friends from Amazon, Ewan/Lisa were meeting us for a picnic lunch on these lovely grounds!   It was so great to see them face-to-face instead of just chatting on Facebook and Messenger!   Before we knew it, the sun was starting to set, and so we put an end to a perfectly wonderful day.


We hit up a couple of movies while here in Texas, something we haven’t done in quite a while simply because nothing was of much interest to us.  But when Bohemian Rhapsody came out, we just had to go to the Cinemark in Lufkin, which has more comfortable recliners than what we have in our RV!  Excellent performance as Freddie Mercury, and the cinematography combining actors with old concert footage was phenomenal.  I felt like I was at Wembley Stadium for that Live Aid concert!  The other film we viewed was Gosnell, mainly because his atrocities took place in Philadelphia and we recalled the story vaguely--it was not highly publicized.  The movie was not a commentary on abortion.  Instead, it focused on the deplorable conditions of his office, a health risk to his patients, some of which ended up dead, and the fact that he did late term abortions (beyond the legal limit), delivering healthy babies naturally and killing them afterwards by severing their spinal cords.  It was a gruesome topic, but a real eye-opener, no matter where you stand on the abortion issue.

Me nice and comfy in the recliner at Lufkin Cinemark.

On a more cheerful note, we saw a comedy show at Houston’s Improv, which was hysterical.  For her birthday, we took Mom for a nostalgic night of dancing at Etro, a retro 80s music dance club.  Rather small compared to the clubs my parents went to in the 80s, but a nice crowd of assorted ages (though all seemed over the hill to this young, spry rat.)   Interestingly, there is no cover charge, something very different from the clubs in the 80s.  Anyhow, my parents relived their early days of dating and I played a few games of Ms. Pac-Man to remove myself from the embarrassment of watching them dance.  Beforehand, we enjoyed a light dinner at Houston Local Fresh Foods, a small cafĂ©/grill/pub specializing in all fresh, wholesome, locally grown/raised ingredients.  They had a varied menu, with offerings for carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans.  De-Lish!

Thanks to “All Trails”, an awesome app we use to seek out new hiking places, our hiking and exploring has not been  limited just to State Parks.  For example, Big Thicket National Preserve offers several trail options including Big Sandy (9 miles, one way in, one way out.  We did a round trip of 6 miles) and Woodlands Trail (5.4 mile loop).  These trails are not heavily traveled and are readily impacted by levels of rainfall.  There are lots of fallen trees and washouts.  Although lots of bayous and swamps, we witnessed very little activity of waterfowl.

Some cool spores growing on a downed tree.

We also located Pat McConico Park in Lufkin through this app.  This place is a real little gem.  We would go late morning/early afternoon, which was perfect--we’d finish before the Mom-driven SUVs and mini vans filled with young soccer and baseball players arrived and covered the playing fields.   It has several different wooded trails that, when looped together, total 5.17 miles.  Though we saw lots of animal tracks, there were no animals to be seen.  But the solitude is blissful, offering a oneness with nature, making the trek so very special.

Fungus among us!

My parents have moved over to the other side of town.   Between going to weekday movie matinees, eating early bird dinners at Golden Corral, Casa Del Rio, and other area restaurants, and partaking several times of the free breakfast served every Wednesday at Natskila Gaming, they are officially residents of Seniorville!  Natskila is a small casino about 15 minutes from downtown Livingston run by the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas.  It has no table games, just slots.  But it is a nice complex, with several large parking lots to accommodate tour buses and RVs.  They even have complimentary shuttle service. They operate a lovely campground with reasonable rates, too, nestled in the woods and boasting a stocked lake.  I’ve got my own Players’ Card and use my “free play”, but I haven’t hit any jackpots yet.  I’m getting the gambling fever as bad as my Aunt Laurie!  1-800-GAM-PROB!

Despite the abundance of rainfall this Autumn, we did manage to get a few days of gorgeous weather, enabling us to do some motorcycling trips around Lake Livingston and its surrounding towns.  The result of damming the Trinity River, Lake Livingston is HUGE.  Spanning 31 miles long by 9 miles wide, it’s got 450 miles of shoreline with a profusion of egrets, herons, turtles, and pelicans to see.  We traveled along some curvy rural roads, with bucolic, pastural views—horses, cattle, goats and hay fields, as well as roads with some high-end McMansions and sprawling ranch properties.  We almost rode right off 1514 into Lake Livingston, admiring one home and its waterfront view.  You see, it was a dead end, but there was no sign stating that at the start of the road.  It was not until 200 feet before going “swimming with the fishes” that a sign appeared saying “road ends”.  Talk about an abrupt stop!

We’ve been quite the social butterflies here, despite Mom being a self-proclaimed loner by nature. Within our first week, we enjoyed dinner at El Taquito with Lisa/Jim, who stopped back for coffee and desert at our place.

Shortly thereafter, we joined Escapees Rainbow Park volunteers for a get together at Patron Grill.  Friends Sherry/Matt arrived at the Park in early November, coming to dinner at our place to catch up since we last visited together in August at the Balloon Festival in Hot Springs, SD.  Sherry is quite a talented artist!  Look at the rock portrait she did of me!  She truly captured my cuteness and my playful nature!

Later in the month, Lisa/Jim, Sherry/Matt and my family enjoyed another evening of fun and grub at Patron Grill.  Having not seen them in person for a whole year, we joined Romalee/Tim for another great Mexican dinner at Patron Grill.  (As you probably guessed, there are not many good restaurant options in Livingston, and Texans do love their Mexican food.)  Escapees are the consummate example of camaraderie, and you are guaranteed a good time whenever and wherever you get together.  Our wonderful friends from Grand Canyon, Kathy/Al were in town briefly, and made sure they stopped by to see us.  Another evening of great food, fun, and fellowship.

I hope you had a happy Thanksgiving—ours certainly was.  Mom cooked another 5-cheese rated plant-based/whole foods dinner.

We followed tradition, kicking off the holiday season with decorating the rig and watching National Lapoon’s Christmas Vacation.

But then we did something we had done only once previously in all our lives—Black Friday shopping.  You see, we needed new cell phones, and after monitoring various store offers for several weeks, found Wal-mart had the best value.  So we were part of the “doorbusters”.  I must say Wal-mart was very organized, had plenty of staff on hand, and handled lines and crowd control professionally.  

I’ve got so much more to tell you about since we’ve been participating in lots of holiday activities.  But I’ve got to do some cookie-tasting for Mom, so I've got to cut this post short.  But I will talk to you again real soon.  In the meantime, I wish you and yours a blessed Christmas and a 2019 filled with peace, love, laughter, good health, and prosperity.