Monday, January 16, 2017

The Big Piney Woods

      One of our goals this winter was to save money for next summer's trip to Alaska, but we also planned to look at regions of Texas for a possible winter get away (or retirement) home.  The trip from Louisiana across into Texas follows the old Camino Real Trail.  During the Spanish Colonial Period this historic trail provided the only primary overland route from what is now Mexico and across the Río Grande to the Red River Valley in what is now Louisiana.  Along this route you cross Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Sabine River.  This marks the border between Louisiana and Texas.  You cross the Pendleton Bridge which spans over 2.5 miles, but looks much longer.  We only averaged about 11.1 mpg towing on our trip here, probably due to the freezing rain, sleet, snow, and constant driving adjustments therein. 
Photo courtesy of TDOT
      This was our first area of interest.  We camped at Ratcliff Lake in the Davey Crockett National Forest.   LOVE that our Senior Access Passes our fees were half price.  (Insert smiley face here). 
      This is a National Forest Campground with electric hookups and water which for 2 weeks totaled $184 (Senior Access Pass discounted)....not bad.  As you notice the firewood stacks in the above pictures of our campground and one other, this wood is provided FREE.  The USFS cuts down timber it needs to and the camp hosts buck it up and are happy to provide campers with all the firewood they need, spit or not!  Obviously in the winter this goes much farther as there are not nearly as many campers.  It will easily serve as our 'base of operations' for this stop.  We arrived in the midst of another cold front; some more of this winter's crazy weather.  It was 38 balmy degrees daytime highs with nighttime lows forecast in the mid 20s for our first weekend after arrival.  Our first two mornings, however, we awoke to lows around 16!  Thank God for sufficient propane, an extra space heater, and Polar Package Tank heaters. 
      The biggest lure for our possible relocation to Texas are the taxes, or lack of them.  There are no income taxes in this state and sales taxes are on service only, NOT taxes exist and they can be a boom or bust depending on where you look.  The Texas state sales and use tax rate is 6.25%, but local taxing jurisdictions (cities, counties, special purpose districts, and transit authorities) may also impose sales and use tax up to 2% for a total maximum combined rate of 8.25%.  That may seem a bit steep, but after spending time in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Louisiana I assure you it is not.  Texas is very retiree friendly especially so for us military retirees, and depending on any disabilities one can gain a property tax benefit as well.  As such we have narrowed our search to a couple of areas that may meet our expectations for a decent quality of living in our sunset years. 
      We begin in the area known as "The Big Piney Woods".  This is an area in the NE part of the state bordering Louisiana and including such towns as Lufkin, Nacogdoches, Conroe, Crocket, San Augustine, and Huntsville to name a few.  This country is heavily treed which accounts for it's name.  Lufkin is the center of some major forestry products industry.

      We have always loved the forest and this area appealed to us.  We concentrated primarily on the counties of Nacogdoches, Houston, Trinity, Polk, San Augustine, Jasper, Sabine, and Angelina.  We spent each day trip traveling looking into the real estate, taxes, values, and possible other 'plusses' for the area.  There is a VA Primary/Specialty Care Clinic located in Tyler (80 miles) and a VA Outpatient Clinic in Lufkin (23 miles).  The nearest VA hospital is in Waco (163 miles). 
      We spent many of our days here just driving and looking at areas, picking up real estate brochures along the way, taking pictures, having lunch, and then researching corresponding real estate broker sites online when we got home to collate our data.  We're not buying this year, but comparing the data from each area.  Next year we'll hunker down and look seriously within our final area of choice. 
      Within days we realized that any and all real estate information would only be available online or at one of the bigger cities (i.e.) Nacogdoches, Lufkin, San Augustine.  We tuned our search to 'about 5 acres' with a small cabin or home on it.  Waterfront is not a necessity, but being in the country is.  The rural areas of 'The Big Piney Woods' can be quite poor at times.  Our final numbers (within our specs) for the Big Piney Woods: 

Lufkin (Angelina County) area, Average value:  $122K  Taxes: $1445
Ratcliff (Houston County) area, Average value:  $115K  Taxes:  $1200
Groveton/Trinity/Apple Springs (Trinity County) area, Average value:  $99K  Taxes $950 
Huntington (Angelina County) area, Average value:  $122K  Taxes $1450
Broadus (San Augustine County) area, Average value:  $96K  Taxes $910
Brookeland (Sabine/Jasper Counties) area, Average value:  $118K  Taxes $640-$860
San Augustine (San Augustine County) area, Average value: $96K  Taxes $910
Nacogdoches (Nacogdoches Country) area, Average value:  $92K   Taxes  $1030

      All of these areas are easily within an hour drive (or less) from Lake Sam Rayburn or Toledo Bend Reservoir.  Lufkin, Huntington, and Nacogdoches are the main population areas offering shopping and amenities, but with higher prices as well.  There aren't than many homes that were built as weekend getaways, log homes, etc. unless you get close to the two lakes.  We have also considered buying land and then building our own.  We were a bit surprised at the lack of BBQ eateries throughout the area.  The one we did eat at (Bodacious BBQ, Lufkin) was decent, but not on the level to which we have become accustomed in Texas.  We were VERY SURPRISED with one of the finest burgers we have ever eaten at TX Burger.  Delicious beef (provided by Nolan Ryan Beef) and what a selection!  We did not look as far north as Palestine or Tyler or as far south as Conroe, preferring to keep our searches within the main areas of rural forests and lakes.  This is one of the three main areas we will look at during the next 3 months in the Lone Star State. 
      We did have several campfires while here in this beautiful forest and even managed to get a couple of steaks over it during our stay.  Other meals that I prepared here included Queso Fundido, Cholula Green Pepper Wings, Boudin Stuffed Cabbage w/Parmesano Reggiano, Crispy Fried Quail, Chef Salads, Lasyones Crawfish Pies, and Boudin with Rice, Peas, and Gravy. 
Queso Fundido

Crockpot Boudin Stuffed Cabbage w/Ricotta, Corn, and Garlic Bread
Georgia Crispy Fried Quail w/Garlic Sour Cream Smashed Taters & Asparagus

Boudin, Peas, Taters, Brown Cajun Gravy

      After our initial weekend the weather and temps increased significantly.  Daytime highs easily in the mid to high 70s with lows at night in the low 60s.  Roux and Bones LOVED the area and we gave them both several hours outside time daily to enjoy themselves (Squirrels/Racoons/Possums 39, Roux and Bones 0).  It did, however, rain some each of the last 5 days we were there.  Diesel in the area ranged from $2.29 to $2.69 so we were careful to top off our tanks when available.  From here we take a short break and travel to Salado, TX to visit our good friends, Jody and Juanita Arnold for about a week.  I'm sure Barb and Juanita will reinforce the barricades within the sewing room leaving Jody and I to our own mischief.  Might be a fair trade, especially if chicken gizzards are involved. 

“The life you have led doesn’t need to be the only life you have.”
                                                    Anna Quindlen
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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Back to da' Bayou....Happy New Years Chere!

     The one thing you can always count on with Cajuns, they NEVER need a reason to throw a party.  "Buy a new pair shoes, Chere?   PARTY!  The typical Cajun party includes something for every member of the family, regardless of age.....just fun.  A very family setting.  Now, let's blend New Years Eve into the mix.....

      Once again this winter we visit Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.  This is the Heart of Acadiana.  This IS NOT New Orleans with it's renowned Creole Cuisine and Culture.  This is South Central and Southwestern Louisiana, the Belly of the Cajun Beast.  We fell in love with this suburb of Lafayette during our last trip.   Breaux Bridge and the surrounding area has everything you want to experience Cajun.  We stayed at Poches RV Park just NE of town.  This is a very nice RV park with full hookups, pool, laundry, showers, several free fully stocked fishing lakes, a club house, and small store for a 'set' price of $40 per day.  Good Sam Club members are discounted 10%.  A bit pricey, but centrally located and WE LOVE THE AREA.  The people here are some of the friendliest you'll find anywhere. 
      We were a bit surprised to find the RV park not even half full upon arrival.  They said the economy has really hit rock bottom in the area and they haven't been full since last winter.  Even the famous Café des Amis closed it's doors recently.  This small building has been in existence since 1890 undergoing several remodelings with the current café open since 1992.  Even though we had reservations we pretty much had our choice of spots along the lake so we chose one on the far corner fairly isolated from others yet still on the water.  I had a hook and line in the water catfishing within an hour of our arrival, but with temps at 50 with a stiff North wind it was not to be.  Still I enjoyed my Barley Pop with Roux and I enjoying a nice sunset; not a bad beginning.
Photo courtesy of Poches
       Our first day we headed into Lafayette Camping World to pick up a short hose and a battery cover lid.  (Don't ask)  First, I stopped at Poche's Market and picked up a bag of my favorite snack, cracklins.  Of course these aren't the healthiest food around as they are made from the fried skin and outer meat layer of pigs as they are butchered.  But, boy ARE THEY TASTY!  Their cousin, the Pork Rind, is nowhere near as good as these are fresh.  They cost about $4.90 for a 1/2 pound bag.   If you get them in the morning right after they're put out, you can enjoy a crunchy exterior followed by a soft, warm meaty interior with the flavor of the best bacon you've ever eaten!  The Bomb!!! Yeah, I know.....insert the sound of hardening arteries here. 
Food of the Gods
Then we toured about looking at other RV parks in the area and their monthly rates.  In the end we pretty much like the place we're at.  The monthly rate here is $600.  We stopped at Crawfish Town U.S.A for some Crawfish Etouffe and Catfish lunch before stopping at the market to order some fresh turtle to pick up in a few days.   I have to admit that as much as I love Poche's Market, Crawfish Town has some delicious food as well. 
    We dined about every other day at Poche's Market and Lunchroom.  The daily lunches at their in-town market are to die for!  Crawfish Etouffee, Red Beans & Rice, Gumbo, BBQ Chicken, Pork Steak, Pork Backbone Stew, Smothered Rabbit, Stuffed Pork Chops, Beef Roast, Fried Fish or's all here, Chere!  The best Cajun food in Acadia!  In another life, I think I was actually born Cajun.  This is the heart of Cajun Country complete with thousands of acres of Crawfish Farm Ponds.  This was a comfort zone stop for us.
      As such our stay included stocking up on several specialty meats we love or wanted to try in the future RICH KITCHEN adventures:  gator, andouille, tasso, crawfish, boudin, and this time rabbit and turtle.  This took a bit of coordination as we shopped in Breaux Bridge, Henderson, and Carenco to fill our freezer.  We both love Cajun cooking and this will really diversify our larder for the trip to Alaska this coming summer.  New Years weekend was very, very wet as it rained nearly all the time.  In fact we got nearly 5" of rain.  It didn't really dampen the spirits of the locals who came out with their families for a good time.  Roux and Bones.....not so much. 

Don't ask me why, but they decorated this tree...yes, those are Mardi Gras beads.

There were several large bonfires during the day/evening which made a great backdrop for the NYE fireworks. 

Everybody gathers around one of the many viewing areas for the fireworks.  This one is the clubhouse/fishing pier on the far pond.  Amazingly it did not rain for about 90 minutes around midnight.

      In the end New Years Eve turned out pretty good.  I had gone to bed earlier, but with these festivities who could sleep?  I discovered that an area around the antenna coax junction on the roof had developed a small leak (much like last winter) that always drips through an electric outlet in the kitchen roof.  Not exactly where you want it, but I dried it up again and sprayed some more Rescue 911 Spray Rubberized Leak Sealer.  I figure that with all the work a couple weeks ago installing the new TV antenna a moving coax developed another crack in the junction seal.  I am going to build up this seal a couple of times during the next couple of days before our departure.

      In addition to the local fare, I prepared Stir Fry, Alaskan Whitefish Corn Tortilla Soup,  Pork Stew, and Crockpot King Ranch Chicken.  
Whitefish Corn Tortilla Soup
Crockpot King Ranch Chicken
      We did a bit of research on taxes here and were a quite surprised.  Property taxes for $155.000 home run only about $500 per year, CHEAP.  But, Louisiana more than makes it up in other areas.  The state sales tax is 5%, but each Parish and local municipalities add their own tax as well.  St. Martin Parish and Breaux Bridge's sales tax is 15%!  The state income tax for Barb's and my income runs 6% which equates to about $5233 per year!  Then, of course.......there's Federal Tax.  Texas is looking so good these days. 
      Unfortunately it rained about half of our week here with some severe storms and tornado watches, but we had a relaxing time nonetheless.  I did manage to find the same seasoning that a couple of the local places cook with for my spice closet.   Our last day we just walked around old town Breaux Bridge taking in all the antique shops and coffee shop/bakeries.  I got a few more decent BW shots too. Diesel was a low of $2.38/gal and we averaged 13.5 mpg during the trip down here.  Great food, great times, and great people.  We'll be back. 

"Once in a while it really hits people that they don't have to experience the world in the way they have been told to" 
                                                                         Alex Keightley

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