Impressions of Texas

April 30, 2013

This is our first visit to Texas, so it was a new experience for us.  Here are some things we find interesting about Texas.

  • I’ve always heard how big Texas is. At 268,580 square miles (695,621 sq. kms), it is the largest state in the contiguous United States, second only to Alaska among all U.S. states, and is larger than every country in Europe (except Russia which isn’t really in Europe in my mind). However, the area of Texas is not quite as impressive as its reputation. There are 5 Canadian Provinces and Territories that are much, much larger than Texas (British Columbia!, Ontario, Quebec, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut), and 3 that are almost as big (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba).
  • The word “Texas” derives from local Indian words meaning allies or friends. Reflecting this, the Texas state motto is friendship.
  • Texas has been part of or ruled by 6 nations in its modern history – Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The United States (twice) and the Confederate States of America (during the American Civil War). The words ‘6 Flags’ are incorporated into a lot of Texas venue names.
  • The Texas state capitol building in Austin was completed on May 16, 1888. It is the largest of all state capitols in the nation in terms of square footage. Its construction was paid for by bartering 3 million acres of land in the Texas ‘panhandle’ to the builders.
  • West Texas is mostly wide-open, dry desert. It is sparsely populated and there are no big cities except El Paso (on Texas’s Western border with Mexico and New Mexico). The Eastern side of Texas looks very different, with grass, green trees, and more agriculture. The dry west and green east are separated by the 100th Meridian (100 degrees West of Greenwich England), a line which happens to closely approximate the 20 inch isohyet (a line of equal precipitation, not unlike the lines of equal elevation on a topographic map) which is commonly used to demarcate arid and non-arid land

    A silhouette of a tree against a graduate grey background

    West Texas Landscape

  • Texas is part of the Southern ‘bible belt’ and has a majority Christian population, primarily Evangelical Protestants (65%) and Catholics (21%, a byproduct of Texas’s 38% Latino population

    A large billboard with black print on a white background reading "Think God"

    Texas Billboard

  • Famous from old Western movies, the Rio Grande River serves as a natural border between Texas and Mexico.

    A piicture of Patrick's muddy feet stadnign on cracked mud earth

    Muddy feet after I waded the Rio Grande into Mexico

  • Because Texas shares a long border with Mexico, there are almost 10,000 United States Border Patrol agents in the state. Roadside checks are common like in Southern Arizona.
  • A lot of Texans like to dance. There are old-fashioned dance halls throughout the state where people enjoy the 2-step, waltz, and occasional polka.
  • Texans also love their bar-b-que (BBQ), which is meat cooked using the indirect heat of wood smoke. What we usually call BBQ in Canada (i.e. cooking over direct heat or flame) is actually grilling, not BBQ.
  • Texas is a conservative place, and is currently one of the most Republican states in the United States. Republicans control all statewide Texas offices, both houses of the state legislature and have a majority in the Texas congressional delegation. Despite this, the state capital of Austin is liberal, artistic, and actively encourages individuality (‘keep Austin weird’)

    Brown building of Austin Texas seen from the river

    Austin Skyline

  • Texas allows RVs to park overnight in roadside picnic areas, which are generally nice and clean, but sometimes right beside and not separated from the roadways.

    The Dream Machine parked with slide out in a rest area beside the road

    Sleeping at a Texas roadside picnic area

  • Texans are very patriotic. There are American flags everywhere and a lot of Texas flags.

    The Texas flag flying against a blue background

    Texas Flag

  • Although George W. Bush is commonly associated with Texas (he was the State Governor and owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team), he was not born there (actually, New Haven, Connecticut). But Dwight D. Eisenhower (elected 1952) and Lyndon B. Johnson (elected 1963) were both born in Texas. Johnson spent much of his presidency on his ranch in Texas, operating from his home nicknamed ‘The Texas White House’.

    The Dream Machine parked beside a Jetstar jet under a roof

    The Dream Machine and Lyndon Johnson’s mini-Air Force One

  • Many restaurants in Texas don’t have a license to serve hard liquor, sometimes only beer and wine). Some of these restaurants allow you to bring your own liquor and they’ll sell you ‘a set up’, which is the glasses, ice, and mix that you need to make your own drinks.
  • The Texas drawl is real, not just in the movies. “Y’all” is the most common pronoun here. When people call us “Sir” or “Ma’am” we feel old, but folks are just being polite.
  • Texas’s State Flower is the Bluebonnet, a sentimental favourite, which was blooming as we passed through.

    A field of blue flowers with green leaves

    Texas Bluebonnets

  • Like Arizona and New Mexico, the Texan desert is home to the collared peccary (known in the south as javelina). They are social animals, often forming herds, and adults weight 40 to 90 pounds.

    A brown javelina on dry grass.  it looks like a small pig with stiff hair.

    A Javelina visiting our campsite in Big Bend National Park


San Fermin

April 26, 2013

I attended the incredible festival of San Fermin while in Spain last July.  The festival coincided perfectly with both the route and timing of my wife Diane’s trek along El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) with her friends Joanne and Julia.  The ladies arrived in the city of Pamplona, where the festival is celebrated, on the exact day at the exact time that the festival was getting underway.  Coincidence?

Poster with a drawing of a guy pointing outward wearing a blue hat with the words "I want you for San Fermin 2012"The festival of San Fermin has been held annually for hundreds of years from July 6th to July 14th.  The week-long celebration involves many traditional events, but is most famous for the daily Encierro (The Running of the Bulls).  The festival has become a huge international event, with an estimated 1 Million visitors flocking to the city of Pamplona during this period each year.  The town’s population is only one-fifth that amount (197,000 as of 2012), so the city is literally overrun with visitors.  A huge street party consumes the town for the entire period of the festival, which is a local civic holiday.

The festival honours Saint Fermin of Amiens (San Fermin), one of the 2 co-patrons of Navarre, the region of which Pamplona is the capital.  According to local legend (it was a very long time ago), Saint Fermin was the son of a high-ranking Roman who lived in Pamplona.  He converted to Christianity, was ordained a priest in Toulouse, France and returned to Pamplona as its first bishop.

Many people in white clothing holding their red scarves in the air

Let the festivities commence!

The festival kicks off at noon on the 6th of July with the launching of a rocket from the balcony of the city hall.  Thousands of folks cram into the small plaza in front of the hall to watch and participate.  The people, all dressed in the traditional red and white festival costume, hold their red scarves above their heads and sing.  The scarf, whose purpose is shrouded in history, may symbolize the blood of Saint Fermin, who was beheaded in Amiens, France in the year 303 CE.  Only once the festival is underway do they tie their scarves around their necks.The party gets going immediately when people open hundreds of bottles of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and spray them into the air.  Wineskins and bags of sangria are also squirted into the air, literally drenching everyone in sticky red juice.  People emerge from the square with their white clothes stained pink for the remainder of the festival.

Hundreds of people in formally wet clothes drenched and looking pink

Wet and pink

Diane, Joanne, and I were caught up in mob.   The ladies were both loaded down with their backpacks, and we took refuge in a shallow doorway to watch the action.  Police barred the street we were on, controlling access to the city hall plaza.  As soon as the brief ceremony was over, in addition to the rain of cava and sangria, people started throwing buckets of water onto the crowd from their balconies!  The party had begun.

Diane with her arm around Joanne

Joanne looking slightly uncomfortable with the craziness

The most important day of the festival is July 7th, when the statue of Saint Fermin from the Church of San Lorenzo is paraded through the streets.  This procession includes many other officials, dancers, and performers, including some giant animated figures known as Gigantes.  The festival concludes at midnight on July 14th, when people gather to sing Pobre de Mí (Poor Me) in a candlelit ceremony at the city hall plaza.

In the intervening 9 day period, the city is consumed by non-stop partying in the streets and bars.

A street filled with people wearing San Fermin dress

Street filled with partiers

Traditional sport competitions are held, usually accompanied by heavy betting.  Musical performances run all day on stages through the city.  There are bull-fights every afternoon in the arena.  Marching bands parade randomly through the streets leading huge processions of spontaneously acquired followers.

Marching band and spontaneous parade

Marching band and spontaneous parade

Each night there is a large fireworks presentation, followed by a rock concert.  All festival activities, except the bull fights and the booze, are free.

Fireworks in the sky

Nightly Fireworks above the Citadel

I have been to some big parties before — music festivals in Canada, beach parties in Thailand, Oktoberfest in Munich – but none of them begin to compare to the craziness of San Fermin.  I have never seen people party so hard day after day.

A street filled with people drinking

Drinking until dawn

2 young women and a man with a red head sitting on the grass

A break in the action

Most of the shops in town close for the week of San Fermin, covering their windows with plastic to prevent this from happening.

A guy facing the other way peeing in a corner

Not enough restrooms

Some go so far as to erect temporary walls 6 inches thick that they bolt into the pavement to cover their storefronts and prevent damage.

Glassware isn’t prohibited at the festival, and garbage constantly piles up in the gutters.  Leave your open toed shoes at home!

A guy sleeping on a narrow bech with broken glass and glasses of beer around him

Don’t fall off the bench!

The bars stay open until 6 AM.  During the night, the streets become tacky with spilled drink and mystery fluids.  In the early morning, it is literally difficult to walk because of the combination of sliminess and stickiness.

A low level picture of a gutter full of glass and plastic with piles of garbage bags

Watch your step!

Because the number of visitors greatly exceeds the number of beds, the prices for accommodation are sky-high and many people sleep outdoors in the park or on the street.

A single man in San Fermin clothes passed out on the grass of the park

‘Sleeping’ in the park

Every morning, a massive cleanup effort is required to revitalize the city after the previous night’s debauchery.

A grass park field littered with garbage

The morning after the night before

Crews collect mountains of garbage and literally scrub the streets.

Workers cleaning the streets into a garbage truck in the morning

Cleaning the streets every morning

During the 4 days I was at the festival, I stayed in the S&M Motel, parked on the street a comfortable walk from the downtown. It wasn’t quiet though.  I stayed near the Citadel where the nightly fireworks are held, just up the street from the outdoor stage where rock concerts begin every night at 11 PM.  Because San Fermin is a civic holiday, street parking is free for the duration of the festival.

One guy lifting another into the air while other San Fermin partiers look on

Enthusiastic Partiers

Despite all this craziness, I never felt unsafe during San Fermin.  Even in the crush of the crowds, the atmosphere is upbeat and friendly.  I saw no violence or even aggression, which I would have expected when you have so many drunk people in one place.  I believe that I would have been safe sleeping alone in a park or on the street, though I didn’t try it to find out.

A guy in grey t-shirt and jeans laying on the grass beside a flower bed, both littered with garbage

This looks like a good place to sleep

Have you been to San Fermin?  If so, what was your experience?  If not, what is the wildest event you’ve ever been to?

Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.


Comparing The Dream Machine and The S&M Motel

April 25, 2013

Last year we traveled around Europe by motorhome for 9 months. Our friends Sue and Martin loaned us their camper van (British for motorhome) which we nicknamed The S&M Motel. Now that we’ve been traveling in our own motorhome (recently named The Dream Machine) for 3 months, we’ve been able to appreciate some of the differences between our North American motorhome and those that are commonly available in Europe.

The S&M Motel Camper Van in front of a grassy field with mountains and a castle in the background

The S&M Motel

What follows are some of the differences between our Forest River Solera 24S and how we traveled in Europe. Most of these differences would apply generally to all Class C and Class A motorhomes in North America versus their European counterparts. This comparison is not in any way intended to be a criticism of The S&M Motel nor our generous British friends who took a giant leap of faith in loaning it to us.

Our motorhome on a gravel road by the river

The Dream Machine

Note — This comparison is lengthy and detailed in places.  Feel free to skim to the topics you’re interested in.

Size — Our Solera, although it’s on the small end of the scale for North American motorhomes, is longer, wider, taller, and heavier than most in Europe. At 24 feet 6 inches (24’6”) it is 5’8” (1.75m) longer than the S&M Motel, not including the bike racks on the rear of either unit. At 11’6” (3.5m) it is 2’3” (0.68m) taller and at 7’7” (2.3m) it is 5” (0.13m) wider.

Engine – To power our bigger, heavier coach, the Dream Machine has a 3.0 Litre 6 cylinder engine while the S&M Motel has a 2.8 Litre 4 cylinder engine. Both are turbo diesel and seem to have sufficient power, especially on hills where the diesel engines really shine.

Fuel Economy – Our larger engine gets lower gas mileage, currently averaging around 15 mpg (15 L/100km) versus the S&M Motel’s 21 mpg (11 L/100km). Our motorhome has a 26.6 gallon (121 Litre) tank for a theoretical range of 400 miles (645 km). The S&M Motel has a smaller 21 gallon (80 Litre) fuel tank but a slightly greater range of 440 miles (725 km).

Fuel Cost – Diesel fuel is cheaper in North America than in Europe. I’ve estimated a blended rate of $4.58 per gallon for our route (lower in the United States and higher in Canada). The lower fuel economy and less expensive fuel balance each other out though, and both vehicles have an operating cost for fuel of about $15 per hour. However, the distances are much greater in North America.

Transmission – The S&M Motel has a 5-speed manual transmission, which is more common in Europe.  The Dream Machine has a 5-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and tip-shift, which also allows the gears to be shifted manually while driving.

Handling – With a longer wheel base, the Dream Machine isn’t as maneuverable. It drives well, but requires more room to turn, especially ‘U’ turns. With a longer overhang behind the rear wheels, the ‘swing out’ is greater and needs to be considered in tight spaces. Being taller it tends to sway a bit, particularly at slow speeds on uneven ground like speed bumps traversed at an angle or potholes.

Interior Space — Our Solera is 7 feet (2.13m) tall inside, which will allow our height-endowed friend Martin to walk comfortably inside. It’s a much tighter squeeze for him in the 6’5” (1.96 meter) tall S&M Motel. When our coach is parked the slide can be extended which adds an additional 23.6 square feet (2.2 sq. m) of floor space and 142 cubic feet (4 cu. m) of interior space. Although the Dream Machine is still very usable with the slide in, it is positively spacious with the slide out. The difference between in and out is like night and day.

Storage – Because of its larger size, our Solera has a lot more interior and exterior storage. Even though we have a lot more stuff with us, we have room to spare. The limiting factor is weight not space.

Cook Top – The S&M Motel has a 4 burner cook top (3 gas and 1 electric). The Dream Machine has 3 burners, all gas. Having an electric burner is great because it saves on gas when connected to shore power. We’re thinking of buying an electric frying pan to achieve the same result.

Oven – The S&M Motel has a decent-sized oven and a separate broiling compartment. Despite both ovens being about the same overall size, our oven compartment is only 5 inches (13 centimeters) high, barely enough for a casserole dish, and has a questionable broiler underneath.

Refrigerator – Our refrigerator has 2 separate compartments for fridge and freezer, each with their own door, and is much larger than the one in the S&M Motel. Ours runs on propane or 110 Volt electricity when connected to shore power, but can’t run on 12 Volt electricity during travel like the S&M Motel’s fridge. Ours runs all the time, automatically switching between propane and electricity if it is available. This means that we always have cold food, cold beer, frozen food, and ice in the refrigerator.

Microwave – The Dream Machine has a small microwave that is great for defrosting and reheating. It requires 110 Volt electricity though, so to use it we either need to be plugged in or start the generator.

Bed – Our rear corner bed is available all the time, and doesn’t need to be made every evening and morning.

Shower – The Dream Machine has a separate shower, so the toilet area stays dry. This uses more space, but makes cleanup easier. Perhaps because of the dedicated shower, leg room on the toilet is limited.

Vanity – We have a small sink, mirror, and cabinets located just outside the bathroom. This sink can be used while the toilet or shower are occupied, and provides convenient access to a second sink in the main living area.

Batteries – Our motorhome has 2 household batteries rather than 1, providing more capacity. We connect a small power inverter to the batteries to get AC power without a hookup (e.g. for charging camera batteries).

Electricity – The S&M Motel uses 220 V European power and requires a few adapters for the different plugs used in various countries. Ours uses 110V North American power and we also need adapters to fit the various RV plugs available (20, 30, and 50 amp).

Generator – The Dream Machine has a 3.6 kilowatt generator which runs on propane. This provides us with 110 Volt electricity if we need it, but we try to limit its use, especially if the noise might disturb someone.

Interior Lighting – Our coach has more interior lights. They are all flush mounted and so they aren’t directional, which would be nice for reading. We have installed LED lights throughout, which use less power than florescent or halogen lights.

Entrance Step – The Dream Machine’s electric step extends automatically when the door is opened and retracts automatically when the door is closed or if the engine is started.

Door screen – Our Solera has a screen door, great for keeping out the bugs.

Windows – The Dream Machine has fewer and slightly smaller windows. For its size, the S&M Motel has larger windows that any motorhome I’ve ever seen (in Europe or North America). Our motorhome is more typical of motorhomes in both countries, with smaller windows and a slightly darker interior. It has tinted, frameless, awning windows (jalousie or louvered windows with a single large glass panel) which tilt open a few inches at the bottom by turning a knob inside. This style of window, in addition to being stylish, can be left open during most rains. The drawback is that they don’t open fully. The S&M Motel’s large side windows swing up to create a glorious open feeling and are also handy for visibility at angled intersections.

Skylight – Both motorhomes have 2 roof vents in the main living area, plus one in the bathroom, but the S&M Motel also has a nice skylight.

Black and Grey Water – Our black water tank is built-in and does not utilize cartridges that can be emptied by hand. Both the black and grey water tanks must be drained via a large sewer hose at a dump station.

Tank capacities – Our fresh water tank is 41 gallons (155 Litres) versus 17 gallons (65 Litres) for the S&M Motel. Our grey water tank is 33 gallons (125 Litres). Our black water tank is 35 gallons (132 Litres) whereas the S&M Motel toilet cassette holds only 4.6 gallons (17.5 Litres), a huge difference! Larger tank capacities mean that we can easily go a week or more without filling or emptying fluids.

Propane tank – The Dream Machine and the S&M Motel both use propane gas for the cook top, oven, refrigerator, and furnace. Ours also uses propane for the generator. We have a single, fixed propane tank while the S&M Hotel has 2 separate but integrated refillable cylinders. Both coaches can be filled easily at a propane filling station. Our propane tank has 9.8 gallons of usable capacity (80% of a 13 gallon tank) and the S&M Hotel has two 6 kilogram tanks which I estimate have a total usable capacity of about 5 gallons of propane.

Furnace – Our furnace is propane only, whereas the S&M Motel furnace will run on propane or electricity. We carry a very small electric heater with us to use when we have shore power.

Air Conditioning – The Dream Machine has air conditioning in the dashboard (part of the Mercedes-Benz chassis) and ducted throughout the coach ceiling from a roof-mounted air conditioner. Running the 110 Volt rear air conditioner requires shore power or the generator to be running.

Arctic package – Our grey and black water tanks have electric heating pads that can be used to prevent them from freezing, but only when the RV is connected to shore power.

Bike rack – Like almost all European motorhomes, the S&M Hotel has a built-in bike rack high on the rear of the vehicle. On ours we had to add a rack on the rear receiver (aka trailer hitch) which led to some other issues (see << LINK Layed Up in Lynnwood >>).

Safety – Our motorhome has smoke, carbon monoxide, and propane gas detectors, which are standard in all new North American coaches.

Multimedia System — Our Solera has a built-in flat panel television that can receive ‘over the air’ high-definition television broadcasts using the adjustable roof antenna or display video (DVDs) from the cab multi-media system. This system can also display images from a CD, DVD or USB storage device. There is an iPod docking station and auxiliary input for other devices. The same multimedia system provides in-dash navigation with voice commands integrated with the audio.

Design – Overall I would say that the practicality of its design and the quality of the S&M Motel are slightly better, despite it being a few years older. Our Solera, though newer and probably prettier (though nowhere near as cute), isn’t quite as robust. Although all motorhomes seem fragile compared to houses or apartments, European design and attention to detail are noticeable.

Overall, I would say that each coach has its advantages. With its smaller size, the S&M Motel was excellent for Europe where roads are narrower, parking is scarce, and fuel more expensive. Its large windows and skylight create an open feel despite it being a smaller coach. The Dream Machine, due primarily to its larger size, has the advantages of more interior space and storage, a dry shower, a bigger refrigerator, a microwave, a flat screen television, an extra battery, and larger fluid tanks. It also has a generator, which isn’t common in European motorhomes. Each coach is well suited to its environment.

Note — all gallons referred to in this article are US gallons because The Dream Machine was made for the US market.


Picket House Pig Out

April 24, 2013

Our friends Bob and Beth recommended that we visit Picket House, a unique restaurant located in Woodville, Texas.  Woodville is just outside of nowhere, and not on the typical tourist trail, but it was on our route.

Picket House is part of a heritage village that gets mixed reviews, so we didn’t check it out.  It’s located off the highway on a side road, easy to miss, but we found it on our 2nd pass.  The old building is rustic outside and in, as if the clock has been turned back 80 years, but it’s clean and comfortable.

A building with a red roof, yellow paint, and a large porch with white posts and railings and the words 'Picket House' painted on the front

Picket House has Rustic Country Charm

A sign at the entrance explains the “Boarding House Eatin’ Rules”.  Patrons pay in advance ($10 each), are assigned a seat (which may be at a table shared with others if it’s busy), fix their own drinks, and clear their own dishes.  Food is served family style and is ‘all you can eat’.  Leftovers go to the hogs.

A brown sign on a yellow background with 5 rules that are summarized in the blog text above

Boarding House Eatin’ Rules

Although Picket House is often very busy, it wasn’t on Thursday at 1 PM when we arrived.  There were only a few tables occupied, including one with a very old, frail, African-American woman eating alone wearing a hat.  I was dying to talk to her but couldn’t get up the nerve.  The walls of the two dining rooms are blanketed with old circus posters and the tables have checkered table clothes.  The combination creates a unique and interesting atmosphere.

A white wall covered with circus posters behind 2 tables with red and white checkered tableclothes

Circus posters on every wall

Diane seated at our table with circus posters on the wall behind

Our Table

Our food was served quickly.  We barely had enough time to get a glass of tea (a classic southern beverage served cold over ice, typically unsweetened), and some condiments (pickled jalapenos, beets, and watermelon rind).  Neither Diane nor I had ever had pickled watermelon rind, and we had to ask the waitress what it was!  The menu is the same every day – fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes and gravy, greens, beans, biscuits (with butter and optionally honey or cane syrup), coleslaw, peach cobbler, tea, and coffee.  The fried chicken and the biscuits were exceptional.

White bowls of food on a red and white checked tablecloth

Southern Food!

I got my money’s worth.  I ate:

  • 6 pieces of fried chicken,
  • 2 helpings of chicken and dumplings,
  • 2 helpings of mashed potatoes and gravy,
  • 1 helping of greens,
  • 1 piece of corn bread,
  • 1 and a half servings of peach cobbler,
  • 3 pieces of pickled watermelon rind,
  • 3 slices of pickled beets,
  • 1 glass of sweet tea,
  • and 3 biscuits with butter, 1 with cane syrup and  honey
A biscuit on a white plate

Biscuit with honey on the right side and cane syrup on the left

Patrick with a biscuit in hand and cobbler dish ont he table

My friends, biscuit and cobbler

I may have overeaten.  I couldn’t breathe fully for 2 hours afterwards without pain.  I didn’t eat again until the next day.

Diane had a good time too, limiting herself to a mere 4 pieces of fried chicken.

Diane wearing burgandy fleece seated a table with coffee, tea, and cobbler

Diane enjoying her meal

Before we left, I met Brenda, one of the cooks.  With her strong accent, she was hard to understand, but she was very friendly.  Although she’s normally responsible for just the fried chicken, today one of the other staff called in sick, so she also made the biscuits (mmmm, biscuits) and the peach cobbler (mmmm, cobbler).

Patrick standing beside Brenda, a short African-American woman wearing a pink t-shirt and red apron and making a peace sign

Brenda and a bigger me

Picket house is heaven for southern hogs.


American Atheists

April 23, 2013

Atheists are perhaps the most unjustly reviled minority in the United States. Often criticized as being nihilists, anti-American, or even devil worshippers, atheists are one of the few remaining minority groups that it is not considered politically incorrect to publically criticize.

In Austin, Texas, I attended the National Convention and 50th Anniversary Celebration of the American Atheists, the most outspoken organization representing atheists in America. I had never attended any atheist event or gathering before, and didn’t know much about the American Atheists before arriving.  When I heard the opening remarks of David Silverman, President of American Atheists, and noticed that he was wearing a bullet-proof vest under his suit, I wondered if perhaps I was in the wrong place.

Founded 50 years ago by Madelyn Murray O’Hair, once branded the ‘most hated woman in America’ because of her successful supreme court challenge against compulsory prayer in schools,  American Atheists is a non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to the separation of church/mosque/temple and state.  They promote freedom of thought and religious beliefs, secular education, and humanist ethics and they defend the civil rights of Atheists and other nonbelievers.  They are a provocative, grumpy organization known for in-your-face atheism, running billboard campaigns and launching legal challenges regarding state and church separation.  Some of their recent court challenges include the erection of a cross at Ground Zero, site of the former world trade center towers in New York, and displays of the 10 commandments on public property.  In the style of many religious proponents, they practice firebrand atheism, leading the fight against the privilege of religion in America.  David Silverman argues that his organization’s aggressiveness is critical to advancing the broader acceptance of atheism in the U.S. by shifting the debate and creating space for less strident organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association.

The number of Americans who say they are religious has been steadily dropping in America, down from 73% to 60% between 2005 and 2012 according to WIN-Gallop’s Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism.  According to this poll, the number of Americans who say they are atheists increased from 1% to 5% over this same period and the number of Americans who identified as atheists or ‘not a religious person’ was 35% (Canada was 49%).  The Pew Forum October 2012 Poll  found that 20% of Americans are not religiously affiliated.  This unaffiliated group has grown more than any other particular religion and more than religiosity overall.  This trend is likely to continue as young adults aged 18-29 are much more likely than those aged 70 and older to not be religiously affiliated (25% vs. 8%) and are more likely than the adult population as a whole to be atheist or agnostic (7% vs. 4%).

Despite these trends, American atheists still face widespread discrimination.  Although Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for office, no avowed atheist has ever been elected to either of the U.S. Houses of Congress (only Congressman Pete Stark, who came out while in office, has been re-elected).  Although there are many suspected atheists in the over 500 members of the current 112th Congress, all profess to be members of an organized religion except one (an openly bisexual U.S. Representative from Arizona who won’t call herself an atheist).  Two Muslims were elected at a time when America is at war with fundamentalist Islamic terrorists, but not a single atheist.  This stands in stark contrast to Australia where the Prime Minister Julia Gillard is openly atheist.  Nonbelievers outnumber every religious group in the American military except Christians, yet have no secular chaplains to provide ethical and family counseling geared to their own non beliefs.  Atheists cannot be Boy Scouts of America nor members of its leadership.

In some parts of the country, to identify oneself as an atheist results in blackballing by the community, including the loss of one’s livelihood and friends.  In many religious groups, apostates are denounced and ostracized, eliminating their only support network.  In some families, coming out as an atheist results in rejection by one’s parents, siblings, and perhaps even one’s spouse.  Clergy who lose their faith often keep it a secret and continue to preach rather than lose their only profession, their livelihood, and perhaps their only means of funding after retirement.

I support freedom of religion.  Religious people have a right to worship, to organize, and of course to free speech, which includes the right to proselytize to consenting adults.  When I am in the home of a religious person, I follow their traditions, and I am courteous in houses of worship.  I am also a secularist and believe in an absolute separation of church and state.  The government should never promote not impose any aspect of any religion on others, nor allow this behaviour by its representatives or on its properties.  Will those promoting a Protestant Christian America, who are currently barely a majority (51%), be as supportive of public prayer and religious education when the Muslims or Catholics have the numbers to impose their will?


Diane’s Diner

April 19, 2013

We eat most of our meals at Diane’s Diner, the exclusive restaurant in the Dream Machine.  Diane’s serves a variety of locally-inspired and classic dishes at very reasonable prices.  The chef works with limited kitchen facilities and creates everything without recipes.

Diane cooking in the small galley kitchen of our motorhome with roasted green chilies on the counter

Behind the scenes at Diane’s Diner

STARTERS

Guacamole

Fresh avocado, tomato, onion, garlic, lime, and cilantro served with organic blue corn chips.

Tuna Salad

A fresh blend of romaine lettuce, green onions, grape tomatoes, avocado, olives, and tuna dressed with olive oil, lemon, and red wine vinegar.

Caesar Salad

Romaine lettuce, shredded parmesan, and a classic dressing of olive oil, fresh lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, minced garlic, ground anchovies, and spices.

Tostadas

Small crispy tortillas baked with fresh tomatoes, green onions, cheddar cheese, and Queso Fresco, served with chipotle salsa.

 

ENTREES

Chicken Spezzatino

An Italian stew of boneless chicken thighs, kidney beans, tomatoes and other vegetables.

Spaghetti Koroluk

Creamy bolognaise sauce over spaghetti noodles.

Strip Loin

Grilled strip loin streak served with crispy rosemary potatoes.

Turkey

Roast turkey breast with pan-fried potatoes, gravy and cranberry sauce.

Patrick seated at the table with a roast turkey dinner on the plate in front of him and a glass of wine

Turkey Dinner on my Birthday

New Mexican Rice & Beans

Sautéed chicken with fried rice, black beans, corn, and jalapeno.

Tacos

Ground beef, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, salsa, and fresh guacamole on small, warm corn tortillas.

Burritos

Ground beef, re-fried beans, tomatoes, green onions, salsa, lettuce, and shredded cheddar wrapped in a grilled flour tortilla.

Tex Mex Skillet

Sliced grilled pork and red potatoes fried with a tangy bar-b-que sauce.

Green Chilli Burger

A beef burger smothered with roasted green chilies sautéed with onions and garlic on a toasted bun.

Toasted bun with a hamburger piled higher with strips of green chili on a wite dinner plate

Green Chili Burger

Chicken Enchiladas

Strips of chicken sautéed with tomato, green chilies, black olives, onion, jalapeno, garlic, cilantro, chili powder, oregano, salt, and pepper, wrapped in flour tortillas, covered in enchilada sauce and baked with cheddar cheese.  Served with rice, salsa, fresh guacamole, and sour cream.

 

LUNCH

Tamales

Masa filled with potato and green chili wrapped in a corn husk.

Grilled Ham & Cheese

Sliced ham and cheese with a hint of mustard on bread grilled until brown.

Turkey Quesadilla

Roast turkey, cheese, and fresh tomato layered between grilled flour tortillas.

Greek Salad

Chopped cucumber, green pepper, roma tomato, black olives, and feta cheese in a light dressing

Picante Cristo

Ham, pepper jack cheese, and red onion sandwich dipped in an egg and milk mixture and fried to a golden brown.

 

BREAKFAST

Banana Oatmeal Muffins

Healthier muffins containing oatmeal, ripe bananas, fat free vanilla yoghurt, and cinnamon.

Pancakes

Klondike cakes with mixed fruit and syrup.

Diane seated at a picnic table with pancakes and gruit ready to eat with a lake in the background

Pancakes with a view

Oatmeal

Hot oatmeal with a mix of fresh cut bananas, apples, oranges, and strawberries.

Crepes

Thin crepes with melted butter and sugar or mixed fruit.

Omelette

Onion, tomato, greed pepper, and cheddar omelette with roast potatoes, buttered toast, and jam.

Breakfast Burrito

Scrambled eggs with red onion, sweet orange pepper, grape tomatoes, cheddar cheese and Queso Fresco topped with chipotle salsa and wrapped in a grilled flour tortilla.

Banana Double Chocolate Chip Muffins

Sweet muffins made with ripe bananas, dark chili chocolate, and Ghirardelli chocolate chips.  Equally good for dessert!


And the Winner Is…

April 18, 2013

I am very pleased to announce the winner of our Help Name our RV Contest. I would like to thank everyone who participated in this, the first ever DreamBigLiveBodly.com contest. Many creative suggestions were submitted, and picking a winner wasn’t easy, but…

The winner is Janice Ebenstiner, whose single entry was selected by an international panel of judges (Diane and me). Her single entry was our favourite.

Henceforth, the name of our motorhome will be… The Dream Machine.

We liked The Dream Machine the most because:
• it makes reference to ‘dream’, incorporating a key element of my philosophy, the blog name, etc.
• ‘dream’ conjures up romantic images of all the dreams we can fulfill while traveling in our motorhome
• ‘dream’ also suggests that we’re living our dreams
• ‘machine’ helps others know that we’re talking about a piece of equipment (namely our RV)
• it rhymes
• it’s easy to remember, and most importantly
• it just feels right

At first I thought Janice might be making a retro reference to the van from Scooby Doo, but theirs was called The Mystery Machine (admittedly a better name if one is solving crimes, but not as good in our case). Nor is this the name of the van from Josie and the Pussycats, which was nameless as far as my crack research team (me) can determine.

As the contest winner, Janice will receive:
1) The pride of knowing that she is among the most creative and ingenious of this blog’s readers
2) The self-satisfaction of seeing the name that she proposed used regularly in this blog and our vernacular
3) Our heart-felt gratitude
4) The option of a guest blogging spot on DreamBigLiveBodly.com
5) A framed photograph of The Dream Machine taken during its naming ceremony

Patrick and Diane standing in front of the Dream Machine holding a bottle of sparking wine

The Naming Ceremony

Patrick and Diane standing in front of the Dream Machine holding glasses of sparking wine and signs that say 'Dream' and 'Machine'

Formal attire for the ceremony (I put on fresh shorts)

Thank-you again to Janice and to everyone who participated!


Are prices in Canada higher than in the United States?

April 17, 2013

I’ve noticed that many prices seem to be lower here in the United States than in Canada. Am I imagining it? With the help of my Canadian friend Annette (an experienced shopper), I decided to find out.

Methodology

I selected a basket of 20 common retail items (food, alcoholic beverages, and fuel), and compared the prices for these items in Vancouver, Canada (my home) and San Antonio, Texas (my location when this crazy idea struck me). Annette and I gathered regular retail prices (not sale prices) not including sales taxes from comparable retail outlets (to the extent that they are available in both cities) within a few days of each other. The American prices were converted to Canadian dollars at the current exchange rate. Where quantities or package sizes differed, the prices were adjusted to equivalent volumes.

Findings

The table below shows the items we checked, the U.S. price, the Canadian price, and the percentage difference of the Canadian price compared to the U.S. price.

Product U.S. Canada Percnt
Frosted Flakes (760g box) $3.92 $7.23 84.6%
Cheerios (396g box) $2.90 $5.02 73.3%
Milk (3.78L = 1 gallon) $4.32 $4.56 5.4%
Eggs (12 Large Grade A) $1.71 $2.63 53.5%
Coors Light beer (24×355 ml cans) $20.39 $43.99 115.7%
Corona Extra beer (12 x 330 ml bottles) $13.25 $25.69 93.9%
Yellowtail Cabernet Sauvignon (750 ml bottle, Australia) $5.07 $12.99 156.2%
Woodbridge Merlot (750 ml bottle, California) $8.64 $13.99 61.9%
Coca Cola (12 cans) $3.04 $5.97 96.4%
Coca Cola (2 Litre bottle) $1.41 $1.87 32.9%
Chicken thighs skin-on, bone in (per pound) $5.04 $4.98 -1.2%
Ground beef (85% lean, per pound) $3.25 $6.28 93.0%
Ground beef (89% lean, per pound) $3.79 $7.98 110.3%
Ground beef (93% lean, per pound) $5.08 $9.88 94.5%
Bananas (per pound) $0.49 $0.58 18.5%
Fuji Apples (per pound) $1.70 $1.19 -30.1%
Yellow Onions, medium (per pound) $2.43 $1.28 -47.3%
Russet Potatoes (per pound) $0.90 $0.48 -46.5%
Gasoline (regular, per Litre) $0.91 $1.34 47.9%
Diesel fuel (per Litre) $1.01 $1.41 39.4%

Analysis

Vancouverites are paying a lot more!

Of the 20 items on the list, 16 were more expensive in Canada. 3 produce items were significantly cheaper in Canada (apples, onions, & potatoes), and there was a trivial difference in the price of chicken thighs. All other items were between 5% and 156% more expensive in Canada.

The price differences were the biggest for wine and beer (61% to 156% higher). The probable reasons for this are: a government monopoly on alcohol distribution in British Columbia, high government taxes on alcoholic beverages, and restrictions and tariffs on importing alcohol into Canada.

Grocery items (other than the few that were cheaper) were between 5% (milk) and 110% (ground beef) more expensive in Vancouver, with the remaining 9 items between 18% (bananas) and 96% (Coca Cola) more expensive.

Vehicle fuel was priced 47% higher in Canada for regular gasoline and 38% higher for diesel fuel. This is due, in part, to higher taxes.

I recognize that this was a very limited sample size (20 items, 2 stores, 2 cities, none of which were randomly chosen), and so few general conclusions can be drawn from these results. But it does confirm my suspicions. In my experience, groceries, alcohol, and fuel are consistently more expensive in Canada than in the United States.

Why is this the case? What can Canadian consumers do about it? Stayed tuned for more on this topic.


Down in Luckenbach Texas, Ain’t Nobody Feelin’ No Pain

April 10, 2013

On Friday morning we arrived in Fredericksburg, the popular tourist center of the central Texas Hill Country.  After 2 months of always dry and mostly flat desert, we were finally among trees and rolling hills.  Not the white peaks and green valleys of British Columbia, but a welcome change.  We stopped at the tourist office and asked our usual litany of questions.  The unusually uptight Texas host gave us unimpassioned answers about everything until I asked about Luckenbach and her eyes lit up.  Although the annual Mud Dauber Festival and Chili Cook Off (what?) wasn’t happening until the following day, she said that Friday nights were free at Luckenbach and that she was going herself.  Such a ringing endorsement from an otherwise conservative lady sounded good to us.

A large white roadside sign saying, "Luckenbach,Texas, Where Everybody's Somebody, 1.2 Miles, Straight Ahead on Right"

Luckenbach, Texas — Where Everybody’s Somebody

We arrived in the late afternoon, parking our motorhome in the huge field slash parking lot. We found a cool grassy spot along the trees where we could stay overnight.  Not knowing what to expect, we scouted across the field and around the small cluster of buildings.  Several guitar players were picking unplugged under a tree while chickens roosted precariously among the branches above (who knew that chickens could climb trees?).  People seated at outdoor picnic tables were drinking beer.  A bride that we’d seen in Fredericksburg earlier in the day was having her photos taken in the late afternoon sun.  Among the few buildings we found the empty dance hall which confirmed our decision to stay for the night.

Blue sign with white letters sayindg, "Luckenbach Texas, Est. 1849"

Luckenbach, Texas is a unique place.  Established in 1849 as the centerpiece of the new Gillespie County, by 1904 its population had only grown to 492, and by the 1960’s, it was almost a ghost town.  An ad ran in the newspaper offering, “Town – Population 3 – For Sale”.  In 1970 Hondo Crouch, a rancher and Texas folklorist, bought the whole of Luckenbach for $30,000.  He used the town’s rights as a municipality to govern the dance hall as he saw fit.

The end of an old brown building with a small porch and a large brown tree in front

Luckenbach General Store

In 1975, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson immortalized Luckenbach with the song “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”.  I remembered just one lyric from this mellow country song of my childhood, “Down in Luckenbach, Texas, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain”.  Tonight’s musical group was named The Almost Patsy Cline Band, apparently popular among the locals, but unbeknownst to us.  After a quick dinner back in the motorhome, we returned to find the dance hall packed.  The benches lining the long tables were almost full, but we squeezed into the middle of the throng.  We shared a table with several other couples, all keen to dance and have fun.

The music started and the dance floor filled instantly.  There was none of the typical shyness while people wait for others to dance first and the emboldening effects of alcohol to kick in.  Folks were clearly there to dance.  It was intimidating.  Although Diane had a long skirt on, without cowboy boots, we were clearly underdressed.  The dancing couples swarmed around the floor in a counter-clockwise rotation, raising the minimum requirement for dance floor participation above that of a basic, stationary 2-Step.

When I was 19 years old, I found myself alone on a Friday night in a small town bar in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta.  The details of how this came about apparently aren’t important enough for me to remember, but aren’t essential to the story.  I was dragged out on to the dance floor by a young woman who was there with her friends.  Little did she know that I was a city slicker from Vancouver, and completely unprepared for what she was about to do to me – the 2-Step.  She told me that she was getting married the following day, and quickly trained me to dance.  It was probably the only time that I’ve done the 2-Step correctly or since then.

In Luckenbach, all the dances were the 2-Step, with the occasional waltz or polka thrown in.  Diane and I crossed our fingers and leapt into the action.  We survived the first dance and soon had the hang of it.  The serious dancers at our table said we were doing well.  For one of these couples this was their 3rd of 4 nights of dancing in a row!  Soon we were into the swing of things, dancing as much as sitting, and sitting more than drinking.

The Almost Patsy Cline Band on stage with strings of white lights abvoe and couples dancing in the dark foreground

Luckenbach dance floor

Later in the evening, a single, older, blond lady joined our group.  She asked me to dance, and pulled me onto the dance floor.  I was suddenly 19 again, back in the bar in Fort Saskatchewan.  I hung on and tried to keep up as we spun around the dance floor.  I think that I did O.K. for a guy wearing Keens, but you’d have to check with her.

Diane and I enjoyed ourselves until the very last song.  Other than the occasional wedding, it’s very rare for us to spend an evening dancing.  We had a great time, ‘down in Luckenbach, Texas’.


The Law West of the Pecos

April 9, 2013

Judge Roy Bean once fined a dead man $40, the exact amount of money in his pockets, and used it to for his casket, headstone, and a grave digger.  He kept a bear chained behind his saloon and prisoners chained in front of it.  Roy Bean, the self-styled ‘Law West of the Pecos’ was a larger than life personality from the Old West, the controversial character in many tales of the American frontier.

By all accounts, Roy Bean led a wild life.  He was born in 1825, the youngest of 5 children in an extremely poor home that he left at age 16 with his brother to drive freight with an ox cart into Mexico.  He fled Mexican authorities after killing a man who threatened to murder him.  He fought a duel with pistols on horseback in San Diego, California to win the affections of a woman, and as a result was jailed for assault with intent to murder.  He escaped using knives that had been hidden in tamales that were sent to him by a female admirer.  He fought a duel over a lady forced to marry a Mexican military officer against her will.  Upon killing the man, he was placed on a horse with a noose around his neck and left to die, but the horse failed to bolt, and he was freed by the woman he’d fought for.  During the Civil War, he ran the blockade to trade cotton with British ships in return for supplies.

A man with a grey bear in a white shirt, vest, and dark trowsers

Roy Bean

Living in San Antonio, Texas, Roy Bean wasn’t well suited to running a legitimate business.  He sold firewood, but was cutting his neighbour’s timber.  He tried to run a dairy business, but was caught watering down his product with creek water when minnows were found in the milk.  He claimed to be just as surprised as the buyers, saying “I’ll have to stop them cows from drinking out of the creek”.  He later worked as a butcher, rustling unbranded cattle from area ranchers.

At the age of 41, he married 18-year-old Virginia Chavez.  Within a year he was arrested for aggravated assault and threatening his wife’s life, but they did have 4 children before they divorced.  In 1882, Bean sold all of his belongings, bought ten barrels of whiskey, and left San Antonio to open a saloon in a tent near the railway construction camps in West Texas.  Soon afterwards Bean was appointed Justice of the Peace for this area, a new precinct in Pecos County.

If his colourful history can be believed, Roy’s approach to life didn’t change much after he became an officer of the court.  Roy shot up the tent saloon of a competitor.  When threatened with a lynching by 200 angry Irish immigrants, he freed an Irishman who had killed a Chinese labourer ruling that, “homicide was the killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman”.

Roy Bean in black suit, white shirt, and bow tie

Judge Roy Bean

Following the railway construction as it moved, Roy relocated his saloon to a place called Eagles Nest, in a desolate area of the Chihuahuan desert, and squatted on the railroad right-of-way for the next 20 years.   He renamed his saloon ‘The Jersey Lily’ in honour of his idol,  actress Lily Langtry.  In fact, he later renamed the whole town, such as it was, ‘Langtry’, a name that continues to this day.

A woman in profile wearning a long white dress

Lily Langtry

When business was slow, Roy would stand on the porch of his saloon and ‘attract’ customers at gunpoint.  An owner of a local restaurant owned Bean money and when he didn’t pay, Bean stood by the restaurant door and had each customer pay him for their meal, with the last few customers paying the interest he was owed.

Patrick standing in front of a small wooden building with sign, The Jersey Lily" and "Law West of the Pecos"

Roy’s Saloon, ‘The Jersey Lily’

As the only judge in West Texas, Roy Bean was known for his unusual version of jurisprudence.  Roy had no legal training and only 1 law book that was more of a prop than a basis for his decisions.  He meted out a kind of down-home, folksy justice that became the stuff of Old West legend

A old photograph of the Jersey Lily saloon with men on the porch and on horseback beside it

Holding court on the porch of the Jersey Lily (c. 1900)

Court was conducted inside Roy’s saloon or on the front porch when the weather was hot.  Jurors were drawn from the bar patrons.  Roy used a Cold .45 as a gavel.  Langtry did not have a jail, so men were commonly chained up in front of the saloon until they sobered up, and all court cases were settled by fines, which Judge Bean kept, rather than remitting them to the state.  In most cases, the fines were made for the exact amount in the accused’s pockets.  He never gave change.  Often his sentences required buying drinks for those present, including the bear.Bean has often been confused with ‘hanging judge’ Parker of Fort Smith, perhaps because of their slightly unorthodox or creative sentencing.  Bean never actually hanged anyone, although he twice ‘staged’ hangings to scare criminals straight.

Patrick standing at the bar inside a wooden building

Bellying up to the bar inside The Jersey Lily

Bean conducted marriages for $5.  Although he wasn’t legally entitled to, he also granted divorces for $10, and told his superiors that if he could marry people, he needed to be able to fix his mistakes.  Roy Bean continued to try cases even after he lost his official position as a Justice.

In 1896, Bean organized a world championship boxing title fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher.  Because boxing matches were illegal in both Texas and Mexico, Bean staged the fight on a sand bar in the middle of the Rio Grande river that separates the two.  The fight lasted only 1 minute 35 seconds, but reports of the bout spread his fame throughout the United States

An old photo of a white fabric ring around a smaller ring of specatators watching a boxing match on the sand

Temporary boxing ring in the Rio Grande

Bean enjoyed his tough reputation (probably vital to one’s health in those days), and he kept his softer side hidden. Over the years in Langtry, he took some of his courtroom fines and many of the collected goods and gave them to the poor in the area, without telling others.

An old photograph of Lily Langtry, head and shoulders

The Jersey Lily

Judge Roy Bean had an obsession with British socialite and actress Lily Langtry, born Emilie Charlotte Le Breton on Jersey, one of the English Channel Islands located close to the coast of France.  She was known as ‘The Jersey Lily’.  She was a friend of Oscar Wilde and mistress of many wealthy and powerful men including the Prince of Wales.  She first toured American in 1882, and although she received mixed reviews from the critics, the public loved her, including Judge Roy Bean.  In addition to naming his town Langtry and saloon The Jersey Lily, he also named his small home behind the saloon ‘The Opera House’ in the hopes that she might come and perform there someday.  Despite his many letters to her, Roy’s dream girl didn’t make it to Langtry in time.  The Jersey Lily arrived in Langtry only 1 month after Roy Bean’s death in 1903.