EPISODE NUMBER TWENTY-SIX– DECEMBER 10 TO DECEMBER 13, 2007
Once we returned home, I reluctantly said goodbye. Lou has a busy week coming up, and will be leaving to visit his daughters Karissa and Danika who live in Maryland for Christmas, and I did not want to impose any longer on his hospitality. I am pleased that I had a chance to meet him after hearing fond things about him and Kim for many years from my friend Lynn.
I had thought about going on to Dallas and Fort Worth where the zoos have two animals which I helped to raise – an orangutan named Chantek in Fort Worth, and a gorilla named Patrick in Dallas. However, another gorilla whom I had also raised named Jabari, was murdered by the SWAT team in Dallas, when the animal climbed out of his exhibit. Hence, I have very mixed feelings about visiting, and have chosen not to go after all.
Instead, I will go north only as far as College Station (about 75 miles north of Houston) to visit Leah Silverman, the daughter of an old friend.
COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS
Lou kindly drew me a diagram to find my way out of Houston and on the road to College Station, a small town northwest of there. On the way I passed many cattle ranches with the traditional upside down U-shaped posts at the entrances.
Leah Silverman is one of twin daughters of Frances Burton, whom I had stopped to visit at her cottage at the beginning of this trip. She and her husband Peter Silverman have been friends for twenty-odd years, and indeed it was Frances who inspired me to start university as a mature student. Leah and her husband Dominique moved to College Station so that Dom could accept a job teaching civil engineering at Texas A&M there. They have a two-year old son named Javier. I had arranged to have some mail sent to Leah, and she graciously agreed to act as postmistress for me.
I tried to find their address on my GPS, but it didn’t show up, so I contacted Leah, who had Dominique call me to give me directions to their house, which is in a new subdivision; hence the failure of my GPS. Dom, on his way home from the university, and I arrived at their house at the same time, by coincidence. We took Ripley into the fenced back yard for a run after I parked the RV on the street in front of their house until later, when I moved it into the driveway overnight.
Leah and Dom invited me to have dinner with them at a Mexican restaurant, so I left Ripley in the RV, as Leah and Dom have five cats and we didn’t think it was a good idea to leave them alone. We stopped at the daycare centre to pick up Javier and went on to Los Cucos, where we had a lovely meal (I had beef fajitas). And of course, as usual there was too much and I asked for a doggy bag. Javier, being a typical two-year old, decided to show off for me by dropping food. It didn’t bother me, but I think that Leah was getting a little concerned. Dom just took it in stride, as he seems to do with everything. He has a spinal problem which makes it difficult for him to walk or to hold things in his hands, but he doesn’t let it deter him from getting around, As well as being handsome, he is a very courageous man.
Upon our return, Leah suggested bringing Ripley into the house to see how Hannah, Chloe, Oscar, Violette and Zilla might get along with her. Zilla unfortunately hates the other cats and is miserable, so they are reluctantly taking her to the SPCA after being unsuccessful in finding a home for her. All was going well until Ripley found a ball and started chasing it around the living room. This was too much for Hannah who leaped out with Oscar close behind and grabbed Ripley. I quickly jumped in and picked Ripley up before too much harm could happen, but she did receive a slight wound on her leg. I thought it might be best for Ripley and me to stay in the RV, but instead Leah locked Hannah in their bedroom.
When I realized that they have a wireless connection, I brought my laptop into the living room and sat beside Leah and Dom, both of whom were working on their own laptops. It was an amusing sight to see the three of us typing away. Leah is a published author of short stories in the science fiction genre, and has submitted her first novel to a publisher. She is already working on her second, and is involved in several chat groups to assist other authors. I’m not sure what Dom was working on.
Even though Leah and Javier have bad colds and are not feeling well, she insisted that she would make up the spare bedroom and that I should sleep there, even though I offered to sleep in the RV. The bedroom is filled with autographed memorabilia from stars of various science fiction programs.
TUESDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2007
When I awoke, I took Ripley into the back yard, where she soon found one of Javier’s beach balls. She had a great time pushing and chasing the ball around the yard, barking every once in a while. Shortly, Javier joined us outside, and showed me “up” and “down” by running up and down a small hill at one end of the yard, joyfully shouting “up” and “down” as he did so. But he wanted to get into the play with Ripley and threw the ball for her. I was afraid that she was going to bite the ball too hard, and sure enough, she did eventually puncture it. She then went after another ball, so I asked Javier to put it inside his play house. He thought it was very funny to let Ripley in and out of the house.
It was then time for Leah, Dom and Javier to leave—Javier to daycare, Dom to teach his classes and Leah to continue her work on her novel at the university.
Javier, Leah, Dominique
It was lovely to spend this time, and I appreciated the invitation for me to stay longer, but Leah was truly not feeling well and I didn’t want to impose any longer on their hospitality.
I had earlier picked up a brochure announcing a special exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, called Lucy’s Legacy. Lucy is the name of a famous fossil that was discovered in Ethiopia in the 1970’s. Her scientific name is Australopithecus afarensis and is the most complete hominid skeleton found to date. She is considered to be an ancestor of modern Homo sapiens, and was discovered by Donald Johansen. There is quite a story of the bitter rivalry between Johansen and Louis Leakey, another famous anthropologist and during their lifetimes, they wrote nasty articles about each other’s finds. I believe that Johansen may still be alive, but Leakey has since passed away. His work was continued by his wife Mary until her death, and now their son Richard is active in conservation in Africa and stirring up controversy.
In any event, since I studied anthropology in my undergrad courses, I wanted to see this exhibit and made my way to the park across the street from the museum, where I left Ripley, after having the remainder of the beef fajitas for lunch in the parking lot. Fortunately the weather was not hot today, and with the windows open, she was quite comfortable while I spent a few hours at the exhibit. On my way across the park, I took this photo of Sam Houston, after whom the city is named.
As an introduction to the actual fossil, the exhibit led off with a history of Ethiopia from King Solomon up to the last emperor Hailie Salassie (his original name was Ras Tafarian, which led to the Rastafarian cult in Jamaica who considered him almost a god) , with artifacts from various periods. After moving through several rooms, I came to the fossil itself. It was quite something to be able to gaze on the actual bones themselves (not replicas) and to spend some time examining them. Lucy is dated as being 3.2 million years old, and was brought to the Houston Museum through a special arrangement with the Ethiopian government. No photographs were allowed in the exhibit itself, but I did take a shot of the mural outside.
Passport America showed an RV park just south of Houston, so I headed to Safari Mobile Home & RV Park in League City. There were a number of permanent mobile homes in the park, some looking run-down, but others well cared for. One had many, many plants and even a small pond with koi fish (giant goldfish). The site I was given included a concrete covered pad with a picnic table – a nice change from some parks, where the site is sand or grass, and dirt gets into the RV very easily.
As I took Ripley for a walk, a flock of snow geese flew overhead. Around 10:30 p.m., I heard an owl calling ahooo-hoohoo. I don’t know the calls of owls well enough to know which species it was, but it was answered by another nearby.
WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2007
JOHNSON SPACE CENTER
The day started off being muggy and warm, as I left the RV park after a lovely hot shower.
After visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I was curious to see the other site that is most involved in space flight, located in south Houston, a short drive from the RV park. The price was a reasonable $12, but the security was tighter. I had to go through a security check to get in, and later when I got on the tram for the tour, I had to go through an x-ray machine, and as usual I set the alarm off because of my titanium hip.
Model of current Rockets
The central attraction in the main building consists of a Kids Space Place and
Martian Matrix, where children can pretend they are on a rocket taking off for Mars. Near here you can find out how much you weigh on Neptune or Jupiter, climb into a harness and be suspended in the air while you turn in somersaults, walk a tightrope wearing a harness, or dress up in various costumes. I chose the Starship Gallery where a movie on the history of space travel is shown. After the short movie was over, on the far side of the theatre, doors open allowing entry into an exhibition gallery where there was a progression of the history of the
space program with dioramas, then leading into a room where some actual moon rocks are on display in carefully controlled chambers,
along with descriptions of where they were found and how they are being studied. The next room explains the plans for a colony on the moon and how this would benefit earth with its technology, as well as a mock-up of the International Space
Station (ISS) area, where you can actually walk through and see the different areas that the current astronauts are living in out in space, plus memorabilia from various flights.
There are also IMAX presentations, but I chose instead to grab lunch in the Zero G Diner while waiting for the next tram ride out into the facility itself. I was amused to see this astronaut made out of Lego in the diner.
Every person getting on the tram was required to have a photograph taken, and this is where I set off the x-ray alarm. When we arrived at our stops, the driver and tour guide both ensured that we went only where we were supposed to go, and that all of us got back on the tram afterwards.
Our first stop was at Mission Control where we visited the actual room where the first manned space flights were followed. A presenter took us through the details of what went on in this room and explained that more modern technology has been installed in the current Mission Control on the floor below us, which we did not see. He answered various questions, and clarified for me that there were two separate projects now being worked on, in addition to the International Space Station. One is a return to the moon, to set up a colony there (projected to start in about 2010), and the second is to fly to Mars (projected for about 2040). I have to admit that I was not really aware that these plans were continuing in addition to the current space station, and I regret that I most likely will not be around to see people going to Mars. I have been a Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs fan since my teens. In fact, I own a copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars by the latter author.
The presenter showed us a short film that has been shown on Discovery TV, and then gave us live feed from the special swimming pool where astronauts were practising placing heavy equipment into place, in preparation for the real thing in space. Underwater is the closest method that we can get on earth to the conditions in space. We also saw live footage from the Spacelab itself, where the astronauts were getting ready to sleep.
ASTRONAUT TRAINING CENTER
Continuing on our tour, we stopped next at the Astronaut Training Center. We were led into a catwalk overlooking the training area, where there were mock-ups of various parts of the Spacelab, with equipment that is used to train the astronauts so that they are well prepared when they get into space. At one end
was the Canadarm. We were told that the actual astronauts wear civilian clothing in these circumstances and that some of the people whom we saw on the floor could very possibly be actual astronauts in training.
SATURN V ROCKET
Our third and final stop was at the rocket garden where the Saturn V rocket has been refurbished and placed inside a special building, as a historical heritage site. We were allowed to walk around the huge rocket and take as many photos as we liked.
Apollo 11 Crew - The Eagle Has Landed
We paused for a moment at a special grove of trees – a memorial to the Challenger and Discovery astronauts who perished on their missions.
The guide who had accompanied us was very knowledgeable, and like all the staff members wore a blue jumpsuit, with various patches sewn on. He had a Constellation patch which is the official emblem for the mission to Mars, and was very helpful in answering my questions.
As we returned to the main compound, we passed by fields with longhorn cattle, and it was explained that this was a joint project with local agricultural schools.
It was getting late in the day and the Center was closing soon, so I did not have an opportunity to see either of the movies “To Be An Astronaut” and “Inside the Space Station”, nor was I able to see “Living in Space” (which may have been the same film that I did see at the Kennedy Space Center). So I chose to investigate some of the simulators where you could land a spaceship (I crashed), dock with a shuttle, etc. Beyond this was a place where Luke Skywalker’s costume in Star Trek III, plus his light sabre were exhibited. The light sabre was actually taken into space on one of the flights. And a fan had
built a replica of a starfighter, which was on display as well – an interesting touch since it is science fiction side by side with reality.
Behind this was a wall with photographs of every astronaut from every mission. I looked for Roberta Bondar, and found her photo. I have had the privilege of meeting this Canadian astronaut, and having my photograph taken with her a few years ago. She is a remarkable woman, as I am sure all the astronauts are.
The Johnson Space Center is not as elaborate as the Kennedy Space Center, but nevertheless, it is very informative on the other aspects of the space mission. Their responsibilities are mainly to train future astronauts and to monitor the progress of missions. Occasionally some of the missions land in Houston instead of Florida because of weather conditions, and the rockets then have to be transported at a huge cost to Florida.
I wanted to make this a cheap evening, so sought out a nearby Wal Mart using Maude as my guide. She took me to a non-existent store, and on the way I turned in the wrong direction, finding myself in a suburban area. The street I was on had very steep driveways, and in turning into one to turn around, the rear end of the RV caught the curb and unbeknownst to me, ripped the bikes off the back end as I backed up. As I drove forward, I could feel a drag and stopped to check, only to find that I had driven over the bikes and damaged the mountain bike severely. This is the one that my brother had given me and which I was afraid to use. The other bike, which I had bought in Virginia, was also damaged, but not as badly (the front wheel was twisted), so I carried it inside the RV until I could see in the morning how badly the carrier on the back of the RV, as well as the bike, had been damaged, as it was dark by this time.
I finally stopped at a garage to ask where the nearest Wal Mart was, and was directed to one a few miles down Highway 45 in Santa Fe. I was pretty shaken up by the time I got there after my accident, and discovered that the electric step was also damaged. I am guessing that the wire leading to the 12 volt battery was damaged, but it is only a guess.
Since I was at Wal Mart, I went in to buy Ripley a beach ball, since she had had so much fun with Javier’s. I don’t really like to patronize Wal Mart because they are notorious for wiping out local businesses, and they buy much of their materials from China instead of locally, but I confess to opting for convenience, since I was already in their parking lot.
I took Ripley for a walk on the small amount of grass next to Wal Mart, and she picked up a burr or two in her paws. There is some kind of grass (which I think is called St. Augustine grass) which has tiny burrs, and she picks them up as she walks.
THURSDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2007
I had an uneventful night, but when I woke up the temperature was 47 degrees F, cold and raining – very uninviting. My hands were especially itchy today, with hives on other parts of my body. Over the past few years, I have experienced this rash and have even gone to a dermatologist who tested me for all common allergies, without success. He said the only way to find out what caused the allergy was to eliminate one thing at a time from my diet and from my environment – a nearly impossible task. I have not been bothered with this allergy since I started the trip; it is disconcerting, as I had thought that possibly stress was the factor, and I don’t feel particularly stressed – not like I was when I was holding down two jobs and chairing COTERC. I took an antihistamine, in the hopes that it would clear up.
As I was uncertain as to how to get over to the highway I wanted, in order to head down to Corpus Christi, I went into Wal Mart, and asked the greeter who was a local. I should probably not have heeded his advice, as he sent me south instead of north, and I ended up driving about 40 miles further than I needed to, in order to hook up with Highway 35, going south. On my map, this looked like the most direct route to my next destination, and I was lucky enough to find gas at $2.58/gallon in one of the small towns that I passed through. This area of Texas is very flat and appears to be mostly agricultural, with the odd oil well.
GOOSE ISLAND STATE PARK, ROCKPORT, TEXAS
I chose to stop at Goose Island State Park, near Rockport and next to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, and as I entered the park, I passed under some very tall oak trees whose boughs formed a tunnel to drive through. This park is located on a bay next to the Gulf of Mexico, and is known as a migratory bird hotspot. As I drove to my site, I passed a dock where a number of brown
pelicans and two white pelicans were resting. I was happy to be given a spot by the bay (which cost more -- $21) and was eager to explore the birds in the area. Ripley and I set off, with my camera and binoculars, and we soon came across a great egret and a great blue heron. Fishermen live inside the park and I expect that some of the birds at least are beneficiaries of their catches, intended or not.
We passed a large marsh where I imagine many birds were, but I chose not to go into this area, not only because it was partly wet but also because there are venomous snakes in Texas. As we continued on our walk, we came to the shore
where I saw a willet and a black bellied plover. There was a lot of fish leaping around in the bay itself.
According to the local visitor’s guide, “Aransas County is known as one of the hot spots in the United States for observing birds. Birders and nature enthusiasts from around the world are drawn here to get a glimpse of the whooping cranes who winter in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge”. I was not fortunate to see any. This same guide mentioned that the whooping crane population is continuing to grow and reached a record high of 237 cranes in 2006. In the Canadian nesting grounds in Wood Buffalo National Park, 76 chicks fledged from 62 nests, and 45 of these made the fall migration safely to Aransas. The international cooperation on this endangered species is something that is happening more and more across the world, in an effort to preserve species for future generations.
The Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail is a 500-mile long route of which the first official marker is in Rockport, just south of Goose Island State Park.
I probably should have made a stop at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, a 115,000 acre coastal refuge protecting not only birds, but many species of mammals as well. However, I had not done my homework and passed by without realizing how important this particular refuge was.
Meanwhile, at Goose Island State Park, I looked forward to a hot shower, and was very disturbed to find only tepid water. As the outside temperature was hovering around 50 degrees F, I was not amused. Furthermore, my hands had become quite swollen over the period of the day and were terribly itchy. My left hand, in particular, was twice its normal size, with the skin stretched so much that it was hurting and cracking. I resorted to taking a Reactine, which knocked me out.