Monday, April 3, 2017

Pine Top Pimento Cheeseburger


      On our way home we were stopped for a few days at the Scott AFB Fam Camp and the urge came once again to indulge in one of our favorite meals, grilled cheese.  Delicious any time of year, this can encompass a wide array of styles, flavors, and materials........as long as it's grilled cheese, usually accompanied by Tomato Soup.  Several years ago we toured the Tillamook Cheese Factory in Tillamook, OR.  This is one of the nation's best cheeses and can be found in stores throughout much of the country. They have an incredible website featuring many different recipes featuring their products, but by far our favorite is the Grilled Cheese Sandwich Page.  I should mention that the website provides recipes for any type of Burgers, Grilled Cheese, Mac n Cheese, Sandwich, Pie, Pizza, Salad, and even beverages.  There are 242 recipes in all.
      They feature 73 different grilled cheese recipes for just about any flavor, palate or taste buds seeking different that you can imagine.  We have made several of these and this is just one of our favorites.  We love the Texas Grilled Cheese, The BABS, Cheesy Mac n Rib Melt, Salami Olive n Eggs, and NY Pastrami Melt. 
      The recipe actually comes from the 'Burger Page'. www.tillamook.com/recipes/index.html#burger  This page provides another 19 recipes for burgers.  I love different and this burger definitely qualifies.  The addition of a fried egg is a taste of home cooking. 
      Let's face it.......the burger is the key, from beef to spices to cooking......in a burger the meat is everything.   Opinions on ground beef for burgers vary immensely, but I have found that fat provides flavor and juiciness.  In fact leaner beef, such as sirloin or round can actually be a bit dry and less flavorful when cooked.  Ground Chuck (80% beef, 20% fat), about 1/4 pound meets this requirement nicely.   Another tip for great burgers:  Add and massage (NOT knead) gently any spices you wish beforehand.  Meat is your baby, handle tenderly.  When frying.......just let it fry, depending on tastes, but DO NOT PRESS, this releases any juiciness you are trying to accumulate.  Flip once and repeat the cooking times depending.  A digital meat thermometer is very handy here. 

MEDIUM-RARE BURGER: 125 to 130 degrees, 2 to 3 minutes per side.
MEDIUM BURGER: 135 to 140 degrees, 3 to 4 minutes per side.
MEDIUM-WELL BURGER: 145 to 160 degrees, 4 to 5 minutes per side.

     The recipe includes their own recipe for Pimento Spread, but you can use commercial if it's easier.  Just be sure to add the appropriate heat via another ingredient.  I can easily list the entire recipe here, but it would just as easy (for you) to link directly to the website for everything.  It also allows for you to change/modify ingredients as you see fit for your tastes.  Besides, it opens the door to the other 241 Tillamook Cheese recipes!
      The recipe does call for Brioche Buns, but Sesame Seed Buns, Focaccia, Whole Wheat, Kaiser, or any other you prefer work just as well.  For the bacon........I love Wright's Applewood Smoked Bacon, thick cut and very flavorful.....it adds just the right finish. 
      Be generous with the toppings; layer that burger as tall as you want  A long wooden skewer here is helpful.  This is delicious indulgence.  Of course, you can always add more HOT SAUCE as you wish.  I know I do.  This is a delicious, meaty, burger that will not disappoint.  In fact, it just might become your favorite. 
Photo courtesy of Tillamook Cheese

"I always say eat clean to stay fit; have a burger to stay sane" 
Gigi Hadid


WiFi courtesy of Verizon MiFi

Thursday, March 30, 2017

AWACS Reunion Luncheon, Celebrations of Life, and Long Time Friends


      Departing Texas for this winter we headed straight up I-35W north towards Oklahoma City.  Enroute we boondocked overnight at the Fort Worth Cabelas.  If you did not know you can boondock for one overnight at any Cabelas store. They have set aside long RV spots (watch for the signs) as well as a water and dump station that can be used with a code you receive inside if making a purchase.  Easy for us; we're always in there.   We gassed up at the Bucees Store @Exit 70 in Fort Worth for an amazing $1.99/gal for diesel.  Averaging 13.4 mpg we arrived in the OKC metro area we steered east into the Tinker AFB Fam Camp located on the south side of the base just off I-240.  Another one of those "Veteran Perks", full hookups for $19/night or $116/week.  Very nice showers and laundry with washers and dryers at only 50 cents per load.  They even have a very large ice machine.  Propane is available at Uhaul just across from the base. www.militarycampgrounds.us/oklahoma/tinker-afb-famcamp  It gives us complete services and security and very close proximity to the Base Club for the AWACS Luncheon, BX, Commissary, golf course, hospital, and gas station as well as allows us to sneak away for a day or two for shopping and to visit extended family.
      It has been 24 years since I retired from the Air Force and even though I have kept in touch with most of my good friends over the years, this was an opportunity to catch up with many others; fellow 'crew dawgs'.   I saw crewmembers and friends I had not seen in many, many years.  These gatherings are held twice a year at the club and I have always been just out of range to attend till now.  This was a special treat for my wife Barb as she is also an AWACS veteran, having served 5 years at Tinker AFB and Keflavik, Iceland.  Although it was quite the "Gathering of Eagles", I found myself looking in the mirror when I got back from lunch. 
      Another reason for our stopover in OKC, and perhaps more important, was to attend the Memorial Celebration of Life for Anna Doris Shanks who passed recently.  Anna was the wife of 59 years to our good friend Col. Jesse Shanks . We felt it important to pay our respects on our way home. 
      Miss Anna was a dear woman, his 'Irish Lovely' as he called her, and even though we only visited with her twice my wife and I always felt like part of her family whenever we stopped by.  Miss Anna and I were on opposite sides of many issues, but I always loved our discussions.  She always made it a point to cook or bake for our visits so I was so very proud to present her with a wild boar ham for her Easter Dinner in spring of 2016.
      Col. Shanks made it a point to open the evening to anyone and everyone who ever knew Miss Anna as her heart and soul intertwined with so many folks, both Air Force families from around the globe and her time at Rose State College.  Everyone who knew her was touched by her love of life and convictions of belief.......always centering on family.  It was an evening filled with warmth, memories, love, and a celebration of a life well lived. 
       To Mrs Anna Doris Shanks, thank you.  As you have taught me, I will always count my 'gratitudes'.  I wake up each morning hoping that I too am able to cherish as much of a fulfilled life with my wife and family.
We ate out probably more than normal while in the Oklahoma City area as there are plenty of good venues, but Barb did enjoy the following meals by her personal 'In Camp Chef':

Wild Boar Ham Steak with Peach Salsa, Garlic Sour Cream Redskin Taters, & Salad

Cajun Sea Scallops w/Honey Carrots and Sunflower Seeds
Fusilli Alfredo w/Beef Sausage, Diced Heirloom Tomatoes, Garlic Bread, and a Salad

      Departing Oklahoma we continued our course north towards Kansas City, MO, once again boondocking overnight at the Eldorado, KS WalMart.   This is a nice location with a quiet corner to park in next to a convenience store, bank, and Subway inside of WalMart.  This is always my favorite Flatbread Black Forest Ham, Eggwhite, and Cheese Sandwich for breakfast when on the road.  This was two nearly identical days of 188 miles of easy travel, although I'm not a fan of turnpikes.....or big cities. We sat in traffic on the outer loop I-435 of Kansas City for 2 hours as a result of several fender benders and a boatload of rubberneckers. I should get extra points for negotiating this type of mess hauling a 35' RV successfully.  Arriving in Grain Valley, MO just east of KC we stayed at the East Trailside RV Park.  http://trailsidervpark.com/rv-park-pricing/ 
      This visit for Barb and I has been long overdue.  Gordon Wiltse is someone we have both known, worked for, respected, and admired for over 36 years.  We always plan on stopping in to visit, but plans as they often do....inevitably change.  This year we 'set it in stone'.  Few people have had an impact on the AWACS system, research, and development as 'Gordie' has.  His USAF career spanned 26 years and even more with Boeing and the Delaware Resource Group.  He is one of a select recognized few that have significantly improved AWACS Surveillance development.  Since retirement, Gordie lives comfortably with his wife Gloria in Grain Valley, MO enjoying their grandchildren.  For both Barb and I it was a treat to visit with him again. 

      Leaving KC we head east on I-70 for now, taking our time and measuring distances and weather at home.  We are planning on a variable length stay in East St. Louis at Scott AFB Fam Camp, keeping an eye on the forecast, in order to time our arrival in Michigan without the presence of 'the white shroud'.   We stay in contact with friends and neighbors in order to find out if we can get up our driveway or not.  Our ETA is April 8th.  Last year we ended up hiding out in Missouri for nearly 3 weeks to avoid the last winter storm of the year at home, arriving May 1st.  Again this year the weather, to say the least, has been unpredictable.  We didn't boondock too much this winter, totaling only 19 days, saving $570, figuring $30/day for RV parks.   We used generator power 45 hours totaling 9 gallons at $18. The other 408 hours was solely solar/battery bank.  This equated to a net off grid savings of $552 this season. 

"A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles" 
                                Tim Cahill

WiFi courtesy of Verizon MiFi

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chicken Soup for the Retiree Soul

     
      It has been a wonderful 4 years to date since retirement, traveling across the country 3 times as well as Alaska and Baja California.  We have seen so much and been able do pretty much exactly as we pleased during this adventure.  We planned for this for many years and have no intention of stopping.  But, there are several lessons both easy and those that can be pretty damned difficult that need to be learned along the way.  These are tasks to improve your mental health through stress relief. 

HAVE A HOBBY:  I have been perfectly happy being retired with no ambition other than to cook for us, hunt, fish, and my blossoming photography.  In fact I often wonder if I have always been a bit ADHD.  I do not often enjoy simply relaxing, but need something to constantly occupy my time.  Something constructive.  Barb is very happy just to sit for hours reading or playing games on her IPhone.  She also dabbles in prospecting, rock hounding, and jewelry making at times.   We both love to Geocache, but don't do it as much as we should; great exercise.

SELF IMPROVEMENT:  I am nearly 64 and retired.  I have a PhD in Educational Psychology and retirements from both the USAF and Kalkaska Public Schools.  It took me awhile to realize, but that is all behind me.  Been there, done that, but it doesn't really count anymore.  It is important to continue your education throughout life, whatever interests you, be it online courses or local opportunities.  Gardening, photography, crafts, and cooking to name a few. 

EMPLOYMENT:   This doesn't mean going back to work in the education or postal field, but it is available.  In fact, Barb has been offered employment seasonally each holiday and I have been asked if I was planning on Guest Teaching.  There are plenty of other options available when traveling.  Work camping in parks, state, and national forests including camp hosts.  The work load is minimal (somewhere between 10-24 hours a week and you get your camp spot free)  For example at Lockhart State Park in Texas work camping provides you with a free campsite for at least two months, free golf at their course, and a full time cart at your disposal.  This appeals to us except that we don't want to be tied down in one spot for several months.  There are also availabilities for retirees in resort areas for part time help.  Yeah, I can mow a golf course.  Some feel the need to keep busy via employment and these are some of the options.  For me it has been this blog and photography.  I self published my first photo journal coffee table book last year and am currently working on my second.  This is an individual choice. 
MONIES & BUDGETS:   This has actually been the easy part of us.  Our house was paid off a full year before retirement so our only outstanding bills are taxes and insurance.  All our utilities are turned off and the house winterized when we're on the road.  Barb switched all our account to online banking prior to retirement and although I was always like the 'cat on a hot tin roof' the first year she has done a wonderful job.  We do budget ourselves fairly close and boondock whenever possible.  This saves a tremendous amount of money.  Boondocking alone saves us around $1100 per year.  We do the local coupon thing to save at the stores which are usually Wal Mart and H-E-B (a Texas store I LOVE).  All our bigger purchases or gas we use our Cabelas Card which accrues us a good deal of points redeemable at their store amounting to around $200 a year.  Never fail to save for longer trips, such as Canada, Mexico, or Alaska.  Everything always costs twice as much as you plan.  IMPORTANT:  If at all possible do not use your cards outside of the U.S. as their ATM software is not anywhere as good as ours and you can't believe how many travelers are the victims of identity theft each year, including us our first year.  Thank God for Life Lock.  It really works.  Plan on getting foreign currency before you leave the country at YOUR bank.  YOUR bank usually doesn't charge you for this service, but others do.  Wells Fargo (not our bank) charged us $65 to change $1000 into Canadian.  We already have Canadian money scheduled for pickup with our bank prior to our Alaska run in May.  We'll use this to cover gas and whatever camping costs up and back.  Don't forget your passport & drivers license and be sure to occasionally check the expiration date.
Mail forwarding for us changed this past year.  USPS keeps changing the rules, never making it easier for the consumer.  We finally just got a P.O. Box and gave a key to a friend of ours who forwards our mail when we request.  About every 5 weeks is sufficient unless you're expecting something. 
TAXES:  We are nowhere near home during tax preparation time.  Most of our 1099Rs and 1095s are available online and I print them out when available, usually during February.  If not, then wait for the mail.  Barb maintains contact with our accountant at home so that when everything is ready on our end we send it certified/insured.  Our taxes are submitted online and any refunds transmitted to our accounts.  One particular 'snitch' on our end is the fact that my military retirement doesn't take out any Michigan State taxes and I have not been able to remedy this problem yet.  Michigan only recently began to tax retirees and the government is always a 'bit' slow to catch up.  We remedy this by having extra taken out of Barb's so that it somewhat balances out in the end.  Remember, that if you do work during retirement you'll need to get those forms as well. 
HEALTH CARE:  This may seem a 'no brainer', but on the road adds new challenges.  For us it mandated carrying up to date copies of our entire medical records.  These are easily accumulated if you coordinate with your local health care provider.  These are instrumental if issues arise on the road so everyone is playing on the same field.  Get all your checkups, physicals, and dental cleanings done while home.  Also prescriptions can be a 'snagglewoppy' as well.  You have to keep current with your physician before departure and then manage the constant coordination game between CVS, Rite Aide, Walgreens, and whoever.  SNAFUs here can cause delays when they have to contact your physician for coordination and hopefully, resolution.  None of these franchises are in every state.  A relative of my wife suggested we use WalMart because they are in every state.  This has worked out beautifully for me this winter.  There are NO coordination worries and they even send me a text when it ready for pickup, usually within 15 minutes while I am shopping in the store.  EXERCISE, more important now than ever.  Several times in the past couple of years I have realized that my morning stretching and walking goes a long ways to a happier day.  You'll notice I don't mention mental health, but I figure this entire blog chapter addresses that.   Health Care applies to your 'furbabies' as well.  Plan on checkups and shots while home, get enough meds for 6 months on the road, and take their medical records as well.   Roux is a hunting dog so we carry an extra pack full of all the first aid and necessities while in the field.  If crossing borders into Canada or Mexico be sure to check their requirements for pets as additional veterinary and shot documents are required.
VEHICLE/RV MAINTENANCE:  A stress filled subject often overlooked by new retirees.  After all, our camping/traveling experience was limited to about 30 days a year which didn't require much effort or planning unless something broke.  Plan for it.  It probably will break.  Nothing ever goes as planned and everything costs twice as much on the road.  I keep extra lightbulbs, fuses, extra hose washers (even an extra hose/3 total), water line parts, plumbers tape, trouble light, and all the tools necessary to fix the most important things.  One piece of equipment I have found very handy is a can of Rescue 911 or Flex Seal.  It came in handy for the little leaks resulting from replacing the roof top TV antenna and cabling.   Don't underestimate Duct Tape, rope, 550 cord, or WD-40 as well.  Sometimes you just have to go to a service center, but this can help keep the simpler costs in check.  The vehicle or tow truck is a bit more straight forward.  I carry extra Power Diesel Cetane, windshield wiper solvent, air compressor, jumper cables, two 5 full gallons gas cans (unleaded & diesel), and the myriad of other supplies/tools necessary for boondocking.  More times than not we are farther from service than we want to believe.  If you need to, get that oil change/tire rotation done early.  I carry an extra spare tire and oil/filter for longer trips into Mexico or the Alaskan Highway.  Oh yeah, don't forget the Fabreeze Air Fresheners for your vents........Barb, Me, Roux, and Bones on the road for months.  Yeah, got it? 
MAINTAINING MARITAL BLISS:  Here we go.  After so many years of marriage and work Barb and I both welcomed retirement with open arms, but perhaps for different reasons.  I remember the first year after I retired from the US Air Force we nearly imploded as nobody was used to me being home all the time.  That took some time and compromise on my part to keep things on track.  This retirement has been better, but.....?  I was so very ready to get back to rededicating myself to "Rich n Barb Time" while Barb was very happy to relax, travel, and spend time together....probably in that order.  After many years of marriage NOBODY are the same people anymore.  We have grown as individuals as well as a couple.  After about a year on the road I discovered I was asking "Are you okay, is anything the matter?" about 374 times a week.  Sometimes even the littlest issues caused the most friction.  Travel plans never seemed to be a problem unless it was deciding how much time for the kids or our families and how much time on the road for ourselves......little stuff.  We did have to make it VERY CLEAR that while we are retired and can afford to travel as we see fit, we do not have money to throw around.  We're on the road 6 months a year yet have had to explain to family that we aren't planning to spend 50% of it with them.  We help when we can, but sometimes the word "no" needs to be utilized. Harmony in our home has been improved by realizing that we each need some "ME TIME".  One way we have solved this is CHORE DAY.  I take the laundry/grocery shopping wherever to do, while Barb cleans the RV.  It accomplishes two tasks as well as gives each of us at least a couple of hours.  But, occasionally a different reminder is needed.   Recently I had to make a trip to Cabelas in a town about 30 miles away and just figured Barb would want to come along.  She asked to be taken to the RV instead and when I asked why......her look told me everything I needed to know.  Her internal pressure relief valve had to be placed in the 'solo bleed' position.  Ah yes, ME TIME.  I took my time and even brought back KFC for dinner.......bingo!  I don't always see it, but Thank God for a woman that will remind me.  Yeah, yeah, I know.....behind every great man is.......We also try to dedicate about 2 days a week with absolutely no plans at all and there won't be.  Do what we each want to do ourselves unless it is an agreed upon shared activity. The last bit of adjustment came in the arena of the kitchen.  I love to cook, but sometimes my meals can border on the extravagant while my wife likes simple.  Additionally, I had to learn to cook smaller meals because an RV refrigerator is not as roomy as the one at home.  I do plan large meals for the day before departure with leftovers for travel days which provides easy meal prep on arrival the first evening.  Our 2 quart Crockpot works very well for this.  We both love to try regional specialties as well as dine out at nearly every destination, but I have scaled back my menu a bit so that she isn't overwhelmed by "Le plus grand repas jamais"  You have to realize, and this is important, that in marraige these adjustments are, and should be, a never ending process. 
LAST BUT NOT LEAST:   DON'T BE IN A HURRY.  You're retired for goodness sake. Don't stress over anything that you can't do NOW, but just plan to do it soon.  Recognize that neither you or your spouse is perfect, but is your soulmate.  We couldn't do any of this without each other.  Tomorrow is promised to no one.  Give thanks everyday for what you are able to enjoy, it won't last forever.    Having a Bucket List is important, but it is so much more fun if most of it is mutual.  Retirement is a change of lifestyle, but it doesn't have to be limiting as long as you plan for it.....both of you, together.  Lessons learned from the road....

"A happy marriage is a long conversation that always seems too short"
                                                                                Andre Maurois


WiFi courtesy of Verizon MiFi

Friday, March 10, 2017

Butchering and Preparing the Wild Hog

      This has become a tradition for us, our 3rd winter south and another wild hog hunt in Texas.  To date we have been 100% successful with both handgun and rifle.  This began as a 'Bucket List' item, but quickly became a hobby.  Both of my pigs have been 'feeder pigs' of about 120 pounds, yielding about 50 pounds of meat.  You are also allowed to kill all the piglets you wish, but these have very little meat on them.  This is a wild animal, nearly a legend, capable of large scale destruction and mayhem if allowed.  This year I was fortunate to kill my best hog yet, a 169 lb boar. 
Hog rooting destruction on the golf course Lockhart State Park, TX

      These hogs run wild in nearly every state, but most notably in Texas where with nearly 3 million hogs they are almost out of control.  They can reproduce every 115 days with a dozen piglets per litter.  They can weigh as much as 600 pounds even on the ranch I hunt.  This is also an animal to be wary of and respected, even when down.  Their adjacent tusks maintain razor sharpness and if they get ahold of you.......well, it won't be pretty.  They are aggressive. 
      Wild Hog has a questionable reputation for taste, but I have found this to be quite the opposite.  By no means do I imply that it tastes gamey. If cleaned properly and cooled quickly after harvest the meat is actually very tender and tasty if properly seasoned.   In fact we have found it to be a bit bland if not seasoned properly.  We discovered that the meat lends itself very well to sugar cure or garlic herb injection, or brining, and then roasting, frying, or grilling. 
      Although the ranch provides gutting, skinning, quartering, and cooling we butcher/vacuum seal/freeze our own hog right in the RV within about 6 hours of harvest.  With our added freezer we have about 70 quart capacity.  This equates to about 95 pounds of meat.  There is no great secret to this; we simply use a chart and carve to our liking.  With the exception of the ribs we bone out everything.  This year we even boned the ribs to save freezer space. With this year's hog weighing 169 lbs it just about topped the freezer completely off.  This meat will be very tasty for stew, fajitas, carnitas, or taco meat.       
First of all you need a good set of knives, including a cleaver and saw.  We own the
Outdoor Edge series of butchering knives.  We also use very good quality German Wusthoff Trident Boning Knives, both long and short.  This allows us to remove all the meat from the bones with leverage, yet still sharp enough to slice as delicately as we wish.  Sharpened correctly, these are the best knives in the world. 
       We end up with tenderloin steaks and whole back strap, ribs, 2 front shoulder roasts, 2 hams, and whatever is left or trim is used for fajita/taco meat.  You can use damaged front shoulders for trim or flatiron steaks as well. 
       Once the butchering is complete we divide the meat into portions for individual meals which are sealed and frozen.  Barb loves her Food Saver Vacuum Sealer.  I must admit I was stubborn to purchasing one of these for many years, but after we bought our first (5 years ago) I'm sold.  It has seen many, many hours of use.  In fact we are now on our 2nd Food Saver. 


We have found several good recipes for front shoulders and there are many good recipes for ribs, tenderloin, and hams.
Wild Hog Ribs
Wild Hog Fajitas w/Mango
Crockpot Wild Hog Tenderloin

Pit Roasted Wild Hog Ham w/Peach Habanero Glaze
(Boar's Head Brown Sugar & Spice works well too)

These sites offer several recipes with which to prepare wild pigs: 

www.tabasco.com/tabasco-recipes/recipe/4072/pork-roast-with-spicy-cranberry-orange-glaze/
http://ntxe-news.com/cgi-bin/artman/exec/view.cgi?archive=55&num=87701
www.brokenarrowranch.com/Recipes/index.htm
www.askchefdennis.com/slow-cooker-wild-boar-and-pulled-pork-sliders/
www.neworleansonline.com/neworleans/cuisine/recipes/wildboarshouldersaucepiquante.html
www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/melissa-darabian/pork-carnitas-recipe

      Of course there are many other resources and you can even modify your own current pork recipes to prepare this wonderful feast.  We have thoroughly enjoyed this addition to our wild game pantry the past couple years and am sure that once again we will enjoy many good meals on our way to and from Alaska this summer! 

"Cooking certain dishes like roast pork, reminds me of my mother"
                                                                               Maya Angelou

WiFi courtesy of Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife

Sunday, March 5, 2017

South Central Texas East of I 35


     PREFACE:   I have to add that before we left Canyon Lake we had to go back to the village of Gruene and pick up some more Pecan Roca.  As a kid I used to love to eat Almond Roca, something we used to sell for fundraisers when I was in school, but Pecan Roca is SO MUCH BETTER.  I told Barb that this time she needs to hide the container from me. 
Photo courtesy of Lockhart Chamber of Commerce
      On the heels of our financial 'reawakening' in the Hill Country the final stop to our Texas Real Estate Adventure winds up in what I call the South Central Area including Lockhart, Lulling, Fentress, Gonzales, and LaGrange, Texas.  These smaller towns are located easily within the San Antonio, Austin, and Houston triangle on a map, but still very much out in the country. Property taxes here can be an adventure.  As we learned prior, it is important to seek out properties with Agriculture Exemptions.  This is a dry region with plenty of cactus, mesquite, farmland.  We have been here a couple of times before.  We timed this visit with my Annual Wild Hog hunt in Gonzales as we stock up the RV pantry for this summer's trip back to Alaska.
      One of the biggest draws to this area is the cuisine.  BBQ is King in Texas and 4 of the Top 10 Rated BBQ joints in the state are in this county, many more within an hours drive.  There is also plenty of good Tex-Mex and home cooking in many local eateries within the area.  The cuisine is EXCELLENT. 
Photo courtesy of Black's BBQ
      Nothing is very far away if you seek the convenience of the BIG CITY with San Marcos at 30 miles, Austin at 40 miles, San Antonio at 70 miles, and Houston at 150 miles (range approximate).  Yet, you are in the country with exactly that 'country feel'.  Small towns, friendly folks.   Besides the busy I-35 corridor there is also Texas 130 Toll Road which begins near San Antonio and Seguin, heading north and detours 130 miles around the greater Austin Metroplex.  There are no toll booths, everything is done electronically with cameras and the US Mail.  We have used this is the past, $13 from Lockhart to north of Georgetown. 
      We set up camp for a week at Lockhart State Park and then another 5 days at Palmetto State Park near Gonzales.  Reservations are getting tougher with the increasingly nice weather.  Fortunately this state park has it's own very nice 9 hole golf course; unfortunately this state park has no WiFi. 

Our findings for 5 acres of land (without utilities) average:
Lockhart:   $120.7K    Taxes:  $1690
Bastrop:      $102K   Taxes:  $1890
LaGrange:  $96K    Taxes:  $1160
Gonzales:    $106.5K    Taxes:   $1440

      All the realtors for the above areas are located in the Lockhart, Kyle, or San Marcos area.  Besides driving and visiting these communities we chose many of our listings out of the these Realtors Offices and Guide.

The nearest VA clinic is Austin (40 miles) and the nearest VA hospital is in San Antonio (70 miles).  Both are reasonable distances.
     
      During our stay I prepared Alligator Etouffee, Jambalaya, BBQ Baby Back Ribs, Cajun Mac n Cheese, Chicken Shrimp Creole, Finger Food Night, and Crab Salad to name a few.  On the night I made Jambalaya we were joined by our good friend, Jesse Shanks who brought some of his famous Jalapeno Cornbread......Yumdoggees!  Of course we had lunch at several of the local BBQs. 
Alligator Etouffee
Hickory Grilled Baby Back Ribs

 
Quick Crab Salad w/Mango & Eggs
      Before we left we restocked whatever little onboard freezer space we had with more chorizo and Southside Market Sausage Slammers.  These delicious treats are cheddar stuffed jalapenos stuffed inside sausage wrapped with bacon and finally smoked over oak.  They are wonderful sliced finger food snacks or even for breakfast or dinner.  Barb worked very hard to accommodate room in the freezer.  Next up for us is 4 days of wild boar hunting near Gonzales before finally resetting our sails.
      As we will soon begin to turn the 'rig' back north slowly but surely I don't really know where this leaves us for now.  We knew this winter was a fact finding tour; investigating prices, taxes, demographics, and location.  We plan on working with a realtor seriously next winter, but for now?  We do love the Hill Country.  In fact Barb has her heart set on it.  I am sure that we will be discussing this for several months to come.  It's a start.  Diesel prices in this area ran about $2.29.  Propane was a flat $22.50 per 30 lb. bottle. After our hog hunting sojourn we will head north on I-35 towards Oklahoma City. 


"Not all those who wander are lost" 
                                                                         J.R.R. Tolkien

WiFi courtesy of Verizon MiFi

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Texas Hill Country and Our Ranchette Revelation


   

      Fresh off our week sabbatical moochdocking with friends in Salado we spent a week at the Joint Base San Antonio Canyon Lake Recreation Area ($20 @ night).  This is one of the 'perks' afforded to active duty, guard, and retirees when traveling near US Armed Forces Installations.  The area consists of two campgrounds on the shores of Canyon Lake as well as full facilities including store, laundry, showers, and a very nice day park area.  This is a secure gated area with regular patrols by USAF Security Police.  We decided to 'throw caution to the wind' traveling down I-35 right through the heart of Austin rather than take the 130 Toll Road for $26.  Some traffic slowdowns, but no real delays.  Salado to Canyon Lake, 144 miles 3 hours towing at 12.9 mpg. 

NOTE:  I HAD SEVERAL ISSUES WITH THE FORT SAM HOUSTON SIDE OF THE RECREATION AREA.  FIRST I TOOK A PROPANE BOTTLE TO THE STORE TO BE FILLED.  YOU HAVE TO DROP IT OFF AND PICK IT UP WHEN THEY CALL.  WHEN I RETURNED TO PICK UP MY BOTTLE THE CHARGE WAS ONLY FOR 3 GALLONS WHICH THEY SAID WAS ALL IT WOULD TAKE.  WHEN I PICKED UP THE BOTTLE I COULD IMMEDIATELY TELL THE BOTTLE WAS ONLY ABOUT HALF FULL.  I WENT BACK IN TO TALK TO THE LAD WHO FILLED IT AND HE SAID IT WOULDN'T TAKE ANY MORE GAS.  I ASKED IF HE USED THE PRESSURE RELIEF VALVE SCREW TO ALLOW THE OXYGEN AND EMPTY SPACE TO BLEED OFF......HE HAD NO IDEA WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT.  ADDITIONALLY, WE DID HAVE TO FILTER THE CANYON LAKE RECREATION AREA WATER SUPPLY DUE TO A SILTY APPEARANCE NO MATTER HOW LONG YOU RAN IT.  WHEN WE REPORTED THIS TO THE OFFICE THEY KNEW ABOUT IT, STATING THAT IT HAPPENS SOMETIMES.......HMMM.
Joint Base San Antonio Canyon Lake Recreation Area @ Canyon Lake
      Texas Hill Country is prime real estate, but can be equally pricey as well.  This was our next area of interest.  Rolling hills, canyons, lakes, rivers, and recreation.  This area is located in the South Central part of the state just west and southwest of Austin, including such towns as New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Kerrville, and Boerne to name a few.  Also located only about 10-30 miles north of San Antonio you are always within easy range of whatever services, VA hospitals, and culture you desire.  There is also a VA Hospital in Kerrville, no more than 100 miles from Austin.  Our search included 12 communities.
      Our first couple of days we explored the New Braunfels, Gruene, Boerne, Canyon City areas.  It was quite the culture/economic shock as the average building lot was $50K and the average price per acre in the county was $36K when you bought at least 70 acres!  In fact the closer you got to Canyon Lake 5 acres was priced at around $255K.  We moved on, QUICKLY.  On a side note, the villages of Gruene and Wimberley are beautiful little picturesque German style settings with a myriad of shops, stores, and restaurants.
       For our next stop we set up camp at Blanco State Park for 2 weeks as our base of operations. This is another of  Texas' great system of state parks with reasonable prices with a TX State Parks Pass.  There aren't many opportunities for 'boondocking' in Texas other than Wal Mart or truck stop overnights so these parks are our next best opportunity.  $275 for 14 days.......full hookups w/WiFi......fair price.  Nice large sites with live oaks and close bathroom/showers on a beautiful trout filled river......all within walking distance of town.  YES, WALKING DISTANCE.  They also sell firewood that the camp host will deliver for $5/bundle.  It is also the ONLY state park in Texas that allows you to book a year in advance to reserve spots for a 4 month continuous stay.  Cost:  $437/month.....very reasonable.
      Unfortunately, most of our investigations into the Hill Country yielded the same results.  So, after considerable discussion, both among ourselves and several realtors we have decided to continue our search, but changed our goal.  Depending on where you look in the 'Hill Country' land prices can vary quite a bit.  We changed our plan to look for a minimum of 5 acres that we will develop by putting in water, electric, and septic.  We did learn that if property is restricted you can not place a mobile home or RV pad on the property unless a house already exists so we will ensure anything we are interested is far enough out to be unrestricted.  Also, in this area of Texas you have to have at least 5 acres to put in a septic system at all.  We will build a pad for complete RV accommodations where we can still travel to and enjoy during the winters.  This will allow us the freedom to travel during the winters yet having a fairly central base of operations.  When we decide to sell the house and property in NW Michigan we will then have a place to live while we have our 'Final Retirement Ranchette' built.  In addition we have ruled out the Big Piney Woods area of East Texas at this time.  The feasibility of the 'Hill Country' is yet to be decided. 
      Perhaps part of this blog chapter should have been titled "BBQ Along the Way".  There is no such thing as too much BBQ in Texas especially when you are on the road doing research.  One of the days exploring the area near Johnson City, Marble Falls, and Llano we stopped in for BBQ at one of the finest places I have ever dined, Coopers Old Time Pit BBQ in Llano, TX.  They are a 4 star (out of 5) rated eatery. 
      They offer all the usual fare including a 2" thick smoked pork chop, but the brisket was the best I have ever eaten, BAR NONE!  Moist, tender, tasty, and a beautiful black bark with a pepper finish.  They claim the difference is that they smoke with a mix of mesquite wood and charcoal rather than the traditional oak or hickory.  Fine by me.  I was one happy puppy that even enjoyed a nice little nap upon return to camp as well.  You can order online also at:  https://www.coopersbbq.com/  The staff is prompt and friendly ensuring you know all the sides and desserts that come with the meal. 
This is the 'serving pit'.  There are 6 other cooking pits located just to the side of this one. 

        One day we stopped for lunch in Driftwood at the famous Salt Lick BBQ.  They are rated 3 out of 5 stars, rightly so.  We waited in the pager line for only about 15 minutes before we were seated in one of the many dining areas.  This is a BYOB area so a stop in the bar area for a Shiner Bock is a must.  That's the good news.  Barb and both found the food to be 'just OK'.......brisket, ribs, and sausage were on our plates with sides of coleslaw, beans, and terrible potato salad.  This was also accompanied by a mini loaf of bread and a plate of pickles and onions.  When we got the bill our one and only visit was complete.  We were charged $5 for two ice teas and the bread, pickles, and onions were not free!  The menu did say on request.  Total for lunch.......$37.61   One day we also ate at Bill Miller's BBQ in Bulverde, TX.  Another pass.  One day we ate at Buzzee's in Kerrville.  This place is rated 4 out of 5 stars, but I'm not on that train.  Good brisket, but that's all.  Texas is world renown for outstanding BBQ and has some of the very best.  We discovered hidden gems at Coopers in Llano and San Marcos BBQ in San Marcos this trip.  They had the best brisket I have ever eaten.  WARNING......Lockhart, TX looms in the not too distant future.   Been there, done that.......but I'm gonna DO IT AGAIN!

      On the days we explored the Fredericksburg area we also stopped in to see the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park and also Luckenbach, TX.  Centerpiece of several country songs this SMALL town has a population of 3.  But, the entire town is one big party area, several stages, restrooms, parking and dry camping areas, several large fire pits and 'pickers circles', and of course many food and beverage vendors.  When I asked about coming festivals I was simply informed that there is music every night of the week and a show each and every weekend.  Many of these are big recording artists.  It has to be seen to be believed.  http://www.luckenbachtexas.com/
Luckenbach, TX store
Luckenbach, TX Main Stage Area

LBJ's Ranch:  The Texas White House

Lyndon B. Johnson Ranch Nat'l Park Drive
     
      One day we took a trip up to Canyon Ranches NW of Austin to check out some 9 acre parcels that include power and a 'Barndominium' installed at your choice of locations.  Price:  $124K  http://ranchesatcanyoncreek.com/sale/index.html  Restrictions here are minimal, and even so the building solves that problem.  Wells would be 400-700 feet deep, costing an average of $12,000 to install.  Septic runs around $9,000.  We're probably not buying this trip, but just testing the market. 

Our findings for 5 acres of land (without utilities) average:
(Taxes are per $100K)

Blanco Area:  $78.9K   Taxes:  $1170
Johnson City/Llano Area:  $75.1K   Taxes:  $990
Fredericksburg, Luckenbach Area:  $143.5K   Taxes:  $1160
Marble Falls/Dripping Springs:  $132.9K   Taxes:  $1400
Kerrville:  $191K  Taxes:  $1330
Bandera: $109.9K    Taxes:  $1170
Leakey:   $109K  Taxes:  $1390
Bertram:  $124K  Taxes:  $1390
      Meals prepared in camp included Gator Cakes, Shrimp w/Tasso Gravy over Cornbread, German Crockpot Rabbit, Hawkeye Stuffed Quail, and Chorizo Quesadillas to name just a few.
Hawkeye Stuffed Quail w/Sweet Taters
Shrimp & Tasso w/Roux Gravy Over Cornbread

Smoked Brisket Stuffed Baked Tater with Sour Cream and Chives
      I also wanted to include a picture and recipe for a casserole I had experimented with last year while in Salado with our friends, yet they wanted again.  There are several recipes online for Reuben Casserole, but I highly recommend this one.  It is quite simple to prepare.  I used deli sliced Pastrami rather than lunchmeat.  If you like a good Reuben Sandwich, this casserole is it;  quite tasty.                                    http://12tomatoes.com/reuben-casserole/

Reuben Casserole

      Our trip wound up with another 10 day stop at the Fam Camp at Canyon Lake prior to our departure from the Hill Country.  The Air Force side was much nicer with campsites tucked away in cedars, clean water, and quiet.  Can't beat those reasonable prices, in fact this side was cheaper, only $180 for 10 days.   In all we spent 4 weeks in the Hill Country researching real estate values and property tax issues.  Restriction covenants really cramp our style, but it was an educational experience to say the least.  We do have one more area to look at, but.....the Hill Country has our hearts.  Whether our wallet can support it remains to be seen.  Average diesel prices for this month ranged $2.35-$2.43.


"Twenty years from now you'll be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do"
                                                                       Mark Twain


WiFi courtesy of Texas Department of Parks & Wildlife