Tarantula Hawk

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I knew nothing about the tarantula hawk.  I have seen them around the yard for years, and even though they make a fearsome showing with their blue-black body and bright red wings, they never seem aggressive, and we leave each other alone.  Until yesterday.  I was hiking with my pack along a county trail near my home, and noticed a tarantula hawk dragging a tarantula across the trail.  I’ve seen video of this behavior a time or two before, but never in person.  With no camera, I whipped out my cell phone and tried to get close enough for a pic.  When I get within about 6-8 feet of the subject, the wasp left the tarantula prize and flew directly at me, very menacingly.  It turned out to be a warning, or a bluff, and when I jumped back to the proper distance (according to the wasp), she returned to her quarry and continued on across the trail:

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Back home, I did some quick research.  Seems these are critters you don’t want to mess with.  First, it’s the female that does the hunting, so that’s reason enough to leave it alone.  Second, they don’t actually kill the tarantula, but merely paralyze it and drag it back live to their nest, where they lay an egg into the abdomen of the tarantula.  When the egg hatches, the larvae has a ready and fresh food source.  Very macabre.

Now, here’s the interesting note that concerns us all:  the sting of the Tarantula Hawk is the most painful of any sting in the northern hemisphere, and second only to the Bullet Ant anywhere in the world, according to the Schmidt Pain Index.  It is not fatal, nor particularly dangerous, but it is excruciatingly painful for many minutes, described as “…simply shuts down one’s ability to do anything, except, perhaps, scream.”

Seems like a good reason to give them plenty of space and simply observe from a distance.

Big Bend National Park’s Black Gap Road

It’s April in the Chihuahuan Desert, and that means road trip.  Jodie and I hooked up the Palomino Banshee popup camper to the Jeep and headed off into the backroads of Big Bend National Park, down one of our favorite, although less traveled roads, the Black Gap Road.  This is the toughest road in the park from the standpoint of technical offroad travel, although it is very tame compared to many other routes we’ve navigated throughout the country in the past.  So, we took off for three days of solitude, seeking the colorful variety of blooming plants found this time of the year in the Chihuahuan Desert.

Our first encounter was an old friend of the desert this time of the year, a snake called a red racer.  They are a bright copper-red color, and this one was about 5 feet long:

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Some of the cactus in bloom are the claret cup, cane cholla, and strawberry cactus:

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Our campsite on the Glenn Springs primitive road, on the way to Black Gap:

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One of the many small, unnamed side canyons along the road:

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The Black Gap Road is barely a road in places, as it snakes across dry creekbeds and into and out of drainages that run from the Chisos Mountains to the Rio Grande River.  Elephant Tusk peak and the Chisos Mountains are in the background:

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The road gets its name from the “black gap,” a cut through the volcanic intrusion that separates two drainages.  The old surface through the “gap” is crumbled away and users of the road keep the drop-off filled with loose rocks to form a ramp to keep your rig off high center.  It’s a very easy route, but requires high clearance:

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The remnants of the Mariscal Mine, an old mercury mine from the early 20th century, provided a nice backdrop for a break:

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We join the River Road, and pull down a side road to an old fishing camp/campsite along the Rio Grande River…U.S. on the left bank and Mexico a stone’s throw across on the right:

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Prickly Pear cactus blooming with the Chisos Mountains in the background:

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When Jodie tells me to “go fly a kite,” I take her literally:

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Nearly full moon over our camp, and Orion setting in the west with the last glow of sunset:

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We awoke the third, and last morning, to a beautiful sunrise over the Sierra del Carmen Mountains in Mexico:

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The Big Bend is in Bloom!

After two years of drought, following severe freezes of 2010, the desert is finally recovering.  This week, Jodie and I hopped on the motorcycles and covered 550 miles over two days to capture the Texas Bluebonnet, Prickly Pear, Ocotillo, and myriad of wildflowers reaching peak bloom at the lower elevations near the Rio Grande River.  Here are a few pictures reflecting on the changing of seasons, and also the recovery of the blooming wild after a dormant period of “sleeping.”

The Big Bend bluebonnet, Lupinus havardii, is a much taller and showier cousin of the more familiar bluebonnet that was designated as the Texas state flower in 1901, although all lupinus in Texas are now recognized as the official state flower.  The Big Bend bluebonnet grows to a height of 3-4 feet.  The tallest of these were over 3 feet in height:

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In one spot we found a white mutation mixed in with the traditional brilliant blue groups:

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On the way to the “ghost town” of Terlingua, TX, famous for the Wick Fowler International Chili Cookoff, we began seeing large groups of prickly pear cactus flashing their brilliant yellow/orange blossoms:

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Also, the brilliant red seed pods of the ocotillo, not a cactus, but common to the Chihuahua desert of the Big Bend, wave like flags in the wind:

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As we travel beyond the last parcel of civilization, and the last gas station, in Lajitas, TX, we follow the Rio Grande River, the international boundary between Texas and Mexico (assuming as most Texans do, that Texas is a nation unto itself), and stop for lunch along the river near a pool formed by the narrow constrictions in the river, and are treated to more bluebonnets:

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This belies the actual volume of water flowing down this mighty river, because just around the corner it is obvious that our borders are separated in many places by a mere trickle of water.  If you look closely at the narrowest constriction of the river in this photo, you will see that an adult can easily step across the Rio Grande here without getting feet wet.  Here, the U.S. is on the left bank and Mexico is on the right.  The flow on this day was only 24 cfs, whereas normal flow on this river used to be around 400-500 cfs, and sometimes approaches 20,000 cfs after periods of hard rain:

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Bluebonnets abound everywhere, another group along the roadside, some of these nearly 4 feet tall:

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Here, from a hill overlooking the Rio Grande, you see more bluebonnets in the foreground, with the Rio Grande separating Texas on the left and Mexico on the right bank:

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From a similar vantage point, more prickly pear cactus “just showin’ off” along the border:

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In most other parts of Texas, the wildflowers reach peak in early to mid April, but down here the growing season starts early, and early March to late March is the time to catch the desert in all its splendor.

Homeward Bound

After three wonderful days visiting friends in Tampa, FL, we’re back on the road again, this time heading up the Florida coast to the gulf town of Crystal River, Florida, famous for their manatee tours.  A manatee (also known as a sea cow), is a gentle mammal found in the warm clear waters along the gulf coast of Florida.  They move up into the warmer waters of the natural springs during cool weather, so this is the perfect time of year to see these gentle giants.

A few images taken from our kayaks while paddling in Three Sisters Spring:

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Also in Crystal River, FL, is the Manatee Education Center.  This is a “must see” if you’re in the area.  It includes a boat ride through a protected watershed, to an area where endangered and rescued animals from the Florida habitat are on display.  A few (and I do mean only a few) of the animals we observed and enjoyed on our visit:

River ecosystem:

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Swans and egrets:

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Alligator:

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Bobcat:

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Birds of prey:

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Endangered Red Wolf:

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After our day of encounter with wildlife, we watched a wonderful sunset over the Gulf of Mexico:

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Moon over Miami (almost):

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Our campsite at Crystal River, AdventureDavid’s truck camper and our pop-up at Crystal Isle RV Resort:

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And so, it’s time we split up and head our separate ways home.  Our route takes us up the gulf coast of Florida to the town of Port St. Joe, Florida.  This is one of the best-kept secrets of the gulf coast.  The beaches are spectacular, as are the sunsets:

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Too bad it was 47 degrees…we wanted to go for a swim!

Key West No Bust

If you are following our journey through the south, specifically Florida and all the way to Key West, you will know that we are picking up this entry on Day 8, with day dawning on Key West, Florida.  We are camped at Boyd’s Key West RV Resort, about 5 miles from the heart of downtown Key West and the historic district.

Sunrises have not been nearly as spectacular as sunsets, and this one is pretty typical, as viewed from the end of the little peninsula where we are camped:

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One negative to camping on this side of Key West is the proximity to the Naval Air Base.  From dawn to dusk, with a few unpredictable breaks in the action, fighter jets from the base do “touch-and-go” practice maneuvers, the blast from the afterburners making it impossible to talk to one another until after they pass by.  A couple of the fighters running sorties over the bay:

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Day 9 is our day to explore the old historic downtown area, hopefully before the cruise ships unload and clog the shops.  Breakfast is the first order of business, and if you find yourself in Key West, be sure to check out “Two Friends” patio restaurant.  Clean, well-run, good wait staff, and good food, served on an al fresco patio…what more could you want on an island:

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After breakfast, I recommend a walk to the nearby port where the cruise ships are moored.  We found a Disney ship docked and disembarking, with another ship due to arrive later in the day:

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Ernest Heminway’s drinking and partying is legendary, and his most favorite watering hole was “Sloppy Joe’s.”  The original Sloppy Joe’s was located a block from the current Sloppy Joe’s, but they both remain true to the flavor of a beach bar, originally intended for locals.

The 1933-1937 Sloppy Joe’s:

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The current Sloppy Joe’s, about a block away:

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Having brought our Point65 tandem kayak all the way from Texas, it was imperative that we get out in the bay for a paddle.  We put in at the boat ramp in the RV park and paddled out to the furthest boats at anchor, just shy of the ship channel.  We found many abandoned wrecks, perhaps a remnant of Katrina 8 years earlier, perhaps some just lost as a result of being abandoned.  Jodie and I found that most of the boats at anchor in the shallow (2-5′ depth at most) were mostly old, delapidated garbage scowls with people living on them, sort of the migrant farm workers of the high seas.  A few scenes from our kayak with Jodie at the helm:

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Next day our friend David takes the kayak for a spin around the bay.  It’s a nice workout:

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Our last evening on Key West, we return to Salute on the Beach Italian Restaurant for dinner and sunset, complete with beach volleyball and reggae music:

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The perfect way to wrap up 5 wonderful days in Hemingway Country:

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And so, the next morning we get a fantastic send-off with this sunrise, and we’re off to Tampa:

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Florida or Bust

It’s 25 degrees in Marathon, Texas.  It’s 81 degrees in Marathon, Florida.  Solution:  ROAD TRIP!

Having never been to the Florida Keys, it’s only logical that our next destination, especially in February, be Hemmingwayville (not to be confused with Margaritaville).  So, the next couple of weeks we will chronicle our trip from west Texas to Key West, FL, some 1950 miles away.  We will be joined during the journey by good friends, David and Marcia (see their blog on our Blogroll “AdventureDavid”.

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First two days were fairly short days.  First night was spent near Amistad National Recreation Area, at a private campground with clean bathrooms, a very friendly counter person, and very few amenities.  Exactly what we needed.  Second night just outside of Houston, TX, at an RV park similar to the first night…easy to get into and easy to leave, with a friendly staff.  No amenities here, either…close to the highway, but far from restaurants or grocery stores.  No problem.

First night at American RV Park, Del Rio, Texas:

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Day 2, Houston West RV Park, 35 miles west of Houston, Texas:

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Day 3 dawns cool and clear, and it’s time to hit the road for real, this day.  540 miles to go, so we’re off by 9:00 a.m.  Met up with our friends, David and Marcia, on Dauphin Island, Alabama.  and checked into Dauphin Island RV Park.  We highly recommend the ribs at Dauphin Island Barbecue.  When something exceeds your expectations, it makes you smile…these ribs had us grinning from ear-to-ear.

The next morning, a short walk over to the beach just after sunrise, then it’s time to pack up and head to Florida.  An osprey was underwhelmed at our presence, an intrusion upon his hunt for breakfast.

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Happy to see the last of I-10 for awhile, we turn south at Tallahassee on Alt 27 and drive the Georgia-Florida Parkway, a reminder of slower cars and times, much like the travels I remember as a kid on Route 66.  The glory days of Florida vacation travel.  Logged another 450 miles today, putting us at a 4-day total of 1,500 miles

Finally in Florida, at Cedar Key, I check my weather app for home and at 10:00 p.m. it’s 63 degrees in Marathon…while my indoor/outdoor thermometer here at the RV park in Cedar Key, Florida, is reading 27 degrees.  Let’s see, what was the motivation to drive 2000 miles to Florida?

And how I love technology.  It’s 6:15 a.m., and I wake with a cold head.  Dark.  Really dark.  It dawns on me that nothing in the camper that uses electricity is working, especially the heaters…and it’s 22 degrees outside!  No lights…no heat.  Troubleshoot.  An inspection of the converter box reveals that the one 20 amp fuse is blown.  No backup fuses (lesson learned).  I steal a 15 amp fuse from another socket in the panel and pop it into the 20 amp socket.  Voila…heater and lights come on.  However, still no 110v heater, or any other 110v outlet, for that matter.  Battery power shown on my volt minder is 12.44 volts.  If the 110v ac power was going through the converter, that should be about 13.85 volts, so nothing is going through the converter.  Walking outside I find a dark campground.  Totally alien, given the fact that half of all RV’ers burn some sort of decorative lights all night long as some sort of RV park ritual or something.  I pull my volt meter from my truck tool box (it’s still dark and 22 degrees), and there is no power at the 30 amp plug.  Relief, because I thought I had blown a converter.  Alas, it’s them and not me.  Hooray!

Cedar Key is quaint…a word totally overused, but in this case, quite appropriate.  A small, historic, old downtown is the Florida of Hemmingway novels.  The restaurant selection is small, but Tony’s is simply the best.  So good, in fact, that we ate there two consecutive nights.  Have the internationally recognized clam chowder.  Do not get the “Super Bowl”  unless you are either starving, or simply want everyone in the restaurant to run over with their cell phones and photograph you eating it.

The operative phrase for Cedar Key is “laid back.”  Some of the flavor:

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Up early, it’s a long day’s drive from Cedar Key to Key West, Florida (about 550 miles), and speed limits once you reach the Keys drop to 45-55 mph.  We arrive at Boyd’s Key West RV Park just in time to set up in the dark, a somewhat daunting task with short, tight camping spots necessary to maximize valuable real estate on this island.  Success at last, and we settle in for a good night’s rest.

Next morning we check off a required visit to Ernest Hemingway’s House in old historic Key West.  The 6-toed cats are as advertised, and the house is well worth the $13 entry fee.  Second floor veranda and lighthouse in background:

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Jodie with one of the sweet 6-toed cats:

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The study, desk and typewriter, where Hemingway wrote his most famous novels:

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The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory is perhaps the most unexpected treat of our trip so far.  It is a must if you ever get to Key West.  A couple of the more exotic bird-sized moths at the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory were these:

Attacus Atlas Moth (the largest moth in the world).  This one had a wingspan of about 10 inches:

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And the Actius Luna Moth, with a wingspan of 5-6 inches:

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Some other notable butterflies whose color, shape and delicate grace made this a memorable experience:

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A hitchhiker on top of David’s hat:

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From the pier at the end of Atlantic Blvd., we are at the southernmost point in the continental United States.  To say the sunset was spectacular would be a lie…it was one of the finest sunsets we have ever seen, anywhere.  On the horizon you can barely define 3-masted sailing ships, probably out for an evening sunset cruise:

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If you enjoy beautiful sunsets, 80-degree weather in February, and clam chowder, hang with us the next few days as we explore this tropical extreme right here at home.