Monday, April 28, 2014

Red Bay Alabama - Where our motorhome was made

We visited Red Bay Alabama to tour the Tiffin motorhome factory and see how the coaches are built. This is a small town of about 3000 people and would probably be gone if it wasn't for Tiffin. They employ about half the town.

The tour was interesting. The factory is not that modern and many of the operations are done by hand. Even without automation they pump out about 12 motorhomes per day. 

They fill the interior before the walls go up. 
A beautiful Cummins diesel engine waiting for it's home
Walls up. Waiting for slide-outs to be installed.
We also visited the paint shop a few miles away in Mississippi. They use several coats of paint with careful taping in between to achieve the desired graphics. 

Worker removing tape from painted coach
Emerging graphics

There is a free campground adjacent to the factory and it was filled with at least a hundred Tiffin's waiting for service, with several coaches in an overflow area dry-camping. Some people told us they had been waiting for 2 weeks and were just managing to get an appointment. Fortunately we didn't need any major service and therefore only stayed a couple of days to take the tour and check out the scene.

Although we enjoyed the visit, we both came away from the experience hoping that we never have to return to Red Bay for service. Everyone who was there seemed to be extremely bored and frustrated sitting around waiting. There is nothing to do and no restaurants worth visiting, so it's not a very pleasant way to spend 2 weeks. The factory service currently has a first-come first-served policy (no appointments) which is not very customer-friendly. We'll keep our fingers crossed that we don't have to return. 

Hot Springs National Park

We visited Hot Springs National Park in our quest to hit all 59 parks (this makes 35... only 24 to go). I have to say that this one is different and doesn't really measure up to most of the parks. It's located in and around the city of Hot Springs AR and is based on the natural hot spring baths of the 1920's. The visitor center is located on a street with several historic bathhouses.

Quapaw Baths in Hot Springs National Park
We toured the Fordyce Bathhouse - it's like stepping back in time. The contraptions look pretty scary but I guess this stuff was pretty luxurious and modern back in the day. 

Therapeutic whirlpool from the 1920s
Either a multi-head shower or some kind of torture device

I wonder if people 100 years from now will look at our modern spas and think the same thing as we thought looking at this stuff.  

There is also a nice drive and hiking area in the Ouachita mountains around the town - pretty but certainly not anything to compare with the bigger National Parks. 

In any event, we enjoyed the day and checked the box. Onward to the deep south. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

View from Oswald's window

We visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas Texas. This museum is located in the old Texas School Book Depository building on the very spot where Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK on that fateful day in 1963. The museum does a fantastic job of describing the culture of the 1960's leading up to the assassination, the event itself, the subsequent investigation and various conspiracy theories.  

Shooter's view from the 6th floor window 
The investigation concludes that Oswald shot Kennedy from this window. The motorcade made the sharp left turn from Houston onto Elm street. Three shots rang out just after Kennedy's car passed under the green road signs seen on the right in this photo (the white car all the way to the right is about where JFK's car was when he was hit). 

Looking at this view from the 6th floor window was bone-chilling. You could see how easy it was to make a shot, even for a moderate marksman. I always thought it was a lot further away, but it's pretty close.

Oswald's window is on the 6th floor
(the square one on the right)
Like many, I still remember that day in 1963. I was in the 3rd grade in school when it happened. They let us out early - and when I heard the news from a schoolmate I didn't believe it. Once we got home I saw the news on TV. 

View from street level of a car driving through the spot where JFK was shot 
If you look carefully at the photo above you will see an "X" on the street just ahead of the car. This is about the spot where JFK was first hit. 

The museum does a good job describing the investigation and various dissenting views to the theory that Oswald acted alone. If you look to the right of the photo above, you can see the grassy knoll - the spot where many believe some of the shots came from. We went up there to take a look, and it's clear that an assassin would have an easy shot from there. 

We both came away from the museum believing that Oswald acted alone, although there will always be that sliver of doubt. The museum was fascinating on many levels - it invoked in us many memories of the 1960's, described the facts of the investigation and brought back the feelings of a nation in mourning. We highly recommend a visit.

Remember the Alamo!

We made a one day stop in San Antonio to see the Alamo and River Walk. The Alamo was pretty interesting, and seeing it helped to explain why Texans are so proud of their state. The description of the fight for Texas independence was compelling .

The Alamo - San Antonio Texas

In 1836, Mexican troops under General Santa Anna laid siege around the Alamo for 13 days before launching an assault. All of the Texan defenders were killed. This event inspired many Texans to join the army, and motivated by revenge they eventually defeated the Mexican Army and established their independence.

The River Walk is an area on the banks of the San Antonio river, one story below the street level, lined with bars and restaurants. It was originally devised to control river flooding in the 1920's after a disastrous flood took 50 lives. Today it's a successful tourist area. We found the River Walk to be an enjoyable stroll with many beautiful views, but it was a bit "too touristy" for our tastes. The restaurants were just ok and there were few locals around. 

Overall, we enjoyed our day in San Antonio but it doesn't compare to Austin. 

Austin Texas

We spent 8 days in Austin Texas enjoying good food and music. Austin bills itself as the "live music capital of the world," and although Nashville and New Orleans may quibble with that claim, there is no doubt that Austin rocks. On any given night there are over one hundred venues staging live music. What sets Austin apart from many American music cities is the variety - you can find rock, jazz, blues, country and everything in between. We sampled jazz and blues in 3 different venues including the Elephant Room, Continental Club and Brass House. 

On Wednesday's it's "Big Band night" at the Elephant club. Professional jazz musicians from the local scene assemble and perform originals and standards. Thirteen musicians including trumpets, saxophones, trombones, piano, (real) bass and drums were jamming when we stopped in. Here is a sample: 

I was talking to a regular at the bar and he told me that most of the musicians have advanced degrees in music including many PhD's. We had a great seat right in front, and the wall of sound was fantastic. 

The other 2 clubs were equally impressive, and the restaurant scene is also very good (we especially enjoyed Uchi and Sway). Austin is a place that we definitely want to return to.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

We're staying in West Texas and decided to take a side trip to Carlsbad Caverns NP in New Mexico. The last time Denise and I were here was in 1977 - on our honeymoon! The cave hasn't changed much. It's still the most impressive cave we've ever seen with huge rooms and amazing formations.

Big stalagmites in Carlsbad Caverns
We decided to retrace our steps from 37 years ago and walk down rather than take the elevator. Here is the view down into the entrance to the cave. To get the "Big Room" you walk down 1.25 miles and 754 vertical feet. 

Looking down into the entrance

Looking back up to the natural light at the entrance

The walk down took about 45 minutes and we encountered several large rooms along the way. We passed from one room to another, linked by passageways, until we entered "The Big Room", a natural limestone chamber which is almost 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 225 feet high. That's 8.2 acres!!

The entrance to the Big Room
The walk down is pretty easy, and then you walk around the "Big Room" for another mile and spot amazing spelotherms (aka cave formations). Here are a few - pictures don't do them justice.

"Whale's Mouth" - aptly named

These look like mushrooms to me

More spelotherms 
The ambience in the cave is hushed - the lighting is low and people are encouraged to whisper. We were lucky because it wasn't that crowded. When you are done with the self-guided tour you take an elevator up 754 feet to the visitor center. 

We also stopped at another National Park nearby - Guadalupe Mountains NP. Not as impressive but still very interesting and worth a stop.

Guadalupe Mountains NP
Two national parks in one day is a good day. We especially enjoyed retracing our steps from our first visit to Carlsbad Caverns in 1977. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Back on the road - in a sandstorm

We were on our way to Las Cruces, traveling east on I-10 on a windy day near the AZ-NM border. Just as we got into New Mexico the wind starting gusting and the sand started blowing - a desert sandstorm!

Dust devil ahead - the start of the sandstorm

We heard later from the police that the visibility was zero down the road - a complete brownout - and there was a pile-up involving several tractor-trailers. We were routed off of I-10 to a truck stop to wait it out. 

I-10 is closed

Waiting with the big boys for the wind to die down
(our motorhome looks small next to them)

We waited for about 10 minutes and then I decided to talk to the police about the situation. The state trooper thought it was going to be several hours before the wind subsided, and he gave me some advice about a side route. We gave it a go, heading south to Route 9, then east, then back north to I-10. The wind was fierce and there was one short short stretch where I couldn't see even 5 feet in front of the vehicle. I slowed to 5 miles per hour through that stretch and then it cleared. The motorhome (and towed car) held the road pretty well - thanks in large part to the tax axle. 

Finally we made it to Las Cruces, arriving only an hour late at about 7 pm. I read later that I-10 was closed until 8 pm, so we definitely made the right choice taking the detour. 

We plan to spend a couple of days in Las Cruces and then head east toward Austin TX.