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.  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. 
      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!  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:

      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