When Yellowjackets Invaded Our Airstream

This is a story from the earliest days of our Airstream Adventure. I’ve told it many times in person, and somehow never got it down for the blog. Well, friends, that’s going to get remedied right now. 

It Was a Bright and Sunny Day

We’d just recently moved into our shiny new airstream and were parked at the lovely home of our good friends Jeff and Kate. Fall colors were beginning to show themselves and the heavily wooded driveway was such a picture perfect scene that it remains my favorite image of our rig. Kia, our ever watchful tabby cat had become intrigued by something on the floor. A closer inspection revealed it to be a dead yellow jacket. I swept it up and figured it must have come in when we’d had the door open.

We headed out for morning errands and returned to find additional dead yellowjackets. There were also a few that yet lived but were flopping about on the floor or seats, clearly on death’s door. The cats seemed to now be used to this state of affairs and paid the bugs no mind. So now we had two mysteries on our hands: where were they coming from, and why were they in such a sorry state? We cleaned up the dead and dying and set about looking for any holes where the bugs could get in. As we searched high and low, new yellow jackets would suddenly appear as if from nowhere. The rate at which they were getting in was very slow, and they were sort of dazed and confused, often dying not too long after making an appearance.

This is the site of the yellowjacket invasion and a lovely spot for a photo of our home and it’s noble steed.

Looking for Answers

We called up our Airstream Dealer to see if they had any answers. They did not but would be happy to inspect it for us if we made an appointment. We did, but we’d have to wait a week before they had an opening. Until then, we were battling the bugs alone. We consulted the oracle of modern wisdom, aka we googled “how are yellowjackets getting into my airstream?” The most common answer was that they come in through the refrigeration vent at the top of the trailer. Apparently, the heat of the exhaust and the smell of the refrigerant attracts them and they crawl inside. This expanded our search from the more obvious points of entry. If they could get into the shell, they could conceivably come from anywhere.

The rate of their appearance began to escalate over the next couple of days. We’d armed ourselves with bug spray and fly swatters to battle the beasts, but we could never actually catch one emerging from wherever they emerged from. Despite whatever trauma they were suffering and our waging war on them, they never turned aggressive and attacked us so it remained more an annoyance than a hazard. The cats were more irritated at our swatting and spraying than the were put off by our new roommates. By the end of day two, they were accumulating pretty quickly.

This is a queen, if you see one of these in the spring, it is looking for a place to set up a nest.

One Mystery Solved

Around day 3 I came up with a theory. I found that the dead ones tended to be near the central skylight. It had no obvious place for them to come out of but on closer inspection the protective lip had a tiny crack running around up at the top. It was not visible standing beneath it, but you could sort of see it reflected in the plastic dome of the window. This also gave me a clue as to why they were so weak on emerging. Trying to wiggle through that gap left them injured and/or exhausted. I wadded up paper towels and stuffed them around the frame to see if that would stem the tide.

Sure enough, another day passed and the rate at which the invasion was progressing had slowed. A few were still appearing but it was entirely possible they also pushed through the paper towels. I removed them for a bit to see what would happen. It was then I saw in the reflection of the plastic that there were piles of dead wasps up there, a yellowjacket charnelhouse. I could see a few more twitching among the dead. I put the paper towels back up and used masking tape to ensure no more could breach the barrier. 

I think the are really lovely creatures, but if you are allergic to them, they can pose a real danger.

And Then The Other

A little further research turned up that come fall, all but the queens are slated to die, and that they leave the nest to do so. They spend their last days looking for food to bring back to fatten up the queens. That explained why they were dying in such large numbers. Likely they only had a little life left in them and the ordeal of trying to find the source of the sweet smells emanating from our freezer was just too much for them. It also meant there was no real danger that they were setting up a nest inside the trailer. 

When the day came for our dealer appointment the influx had abated. All that was left was to clear out the dead and figure out how they were getting in so that we could prevent further invasions. The service shop discovered that some of the interior seals had not ben properly installed at the factory. This allowed the wasps make their way from the fridge exhaust into the main cavity of the airstream and then through our skylight. They kindly fixed these problems with our warranty covering the repair costs.

Happily Ever After

Our foes vanquished, we rejoiced in our wasp free home. To help secure others against such a fate Trail wrote up a guide for keeping pests out of your Airstream

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Airstream Love

One question I am asked fairly often is this, “How do you like your Airstream?” I’ve written more objectively about why you should buy an Airstream. I’ve also written about some things I don’t like about my Airstream. But until now, I’d not written a blog entry about why I personally love my Airstream Trailer.

No Place Like Home

I love my Airstream foremost because it is my home. I’ve been living in her now for 18 months and she’s kept me safe, comfortable, and happy all this time. So take anything else I say with that in mind. I have an emotional attachment to my trailer because it is where I live, work, and spend time with my lovely wife and fuzzy kitties.

Built to Last

I have a great deal of confidence in the durability and quality of my Airstream. Not everything was perfect when we got her. There were kinks to work out to be sure. We had a yellowjacket invasion, door trouble, jack malfunctions, and other misadventures early on. I was warned this happens with every new trailer and we prepared for it by staying close to the dealer for our first month of living in the trailer. But compared to the stories I read of other new trailer owners of other brands, I feel very lucky. Our problems were all fairly minor issues and never took us off the road to deal with. 

We have been through some crazy storms with wind, lightning, hail, and enough rain to soak you in a second. We’ve been warm and dry inside our Airstream through it all. Not so much as a drop of water has gotten inside through anyplace it is not supposed to. We have been in some scorching heat and some freezing cold. Neither has caused us any trouble. Wherever we have been good to our trailer, she’s been good to us.

Yamato parked at Mountain Gate

Ahhh, a thing of beauty!  Ready to rocket across the country.

Easy Rider

The Airstream is very easy to tow. The aluminum body and compact design means that it is both lighter than traditional trailer’s its size and more streamlined as well. All that makes for easier towing and less nail biting when we come up on a low overpass. They are the most stable trailers on the market due to being bottom heavy compared to other brands. I feel safe and confident towing my Airstream in a range of circumstances. It also means we can move our home without having a truly monster truck. Our Dodge 1500 does the job very nicely.

Modernist Styling

To each their own, but I am not a fan of the most popular interior style I see in other trailer brands. The dark wood cabinets and country kitchen aesthetic doesn’t do much for me. Our International is full of gleaming chrome and sleek shiny bamboo. It is bright, cheerful, and modern looking to my eyes. Of course, the outside is really a kind of retro style, but when they were created that style was really harkening to the future, and I still find the sleek shiny aluminum surface to feel both modern and beautiful, especially when compared to the design of other trailer brands. Only some of the highest end Class As give me that same sense of styling and craftsmanship when I look at them.

airstream international serenity

The serenity interior, with some unlikely but pretty table settings.

Built for Comfort

There are some things along these lines I could do with more of, but overall, I find the airstream very comfortable. The bed is lovely and I sleep soundly in it. The couches are nice. The appliances all work great. The awnings are first class. And the windows, ah the windows are wonderful. When all the blinds are up, and you are parked in a great setting, you can almost feel like you are sitting or sleeping outside. It’s fantastic.

That’s All Folks

I think that about sums it up. I am comfortable and happy in my modern trailer. It’s easy to tow and park. And I’m confident it is going to last long into the future. But most of all, it is my home wherever I go in the big wide world with my lovely wife.

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Cave Country RV Campground: Cave City, KY

Cave County RV was our base of operations for visiting Mammoth Caves in Kentucky. It is not a fancy park, but what it does, it does very well.

We Paid: $34 per night for  nights
Discounts Used: Weekly Rate
Address (GPS Link): 216 Gaunce Dr.  Cave City, KY 42127
Website: www.cavecountryrv.com
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Wireless, Bathrooms, Showers, Laundry, Exercise/Game room

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Great Landscaping
  • Nice Bathrooms
  • Location

Worst Features

  • Train Noise
  • Weak Wireless

Whoever does the landscaping here has a great eye for shape and composition.

The Details

As we moved north in Kentucky, the rich forests have given way to meadows and huge grass lawns. Without those forests, Cave Country just can’t quite achieve the idyllic tranquil beauty of the last few parks we have stayed in. None the less, the caretakers here have done a fantastic job landscaping their small park and making it something of an oasis of charm in an area occupied by lots of gas stations and cheap hotels. The surroundings may be less than amazing, but the park itself feels welcoming and peaceful.

Cave Country RV is quite close to Mammoth Caves National Park and is also close to food, shopping and vehicle service earning its location a best feature accolade. Amenities are limited to what I’d call full-service standards: full hookups, bathrooms with showers, and laundry. The bathrooms were both roomy, and sparkling clean which is enough to earn them a big thumbs up from me. The whole place seems very well cared for. The lots are nice level gravel, and each includes a small lawn and fire pit.

There were only two downsides to Cave Country. The wireless signal was on the weak side and had a hard time penetrating our RV. There was also a bit of noise from a nearby train track that penetrated the trailer, as well as just a hint of road noise from the nearby highway.  Neither are right next to the park, but without any big trees to soak up the sound, it makes its way into the park.

The price is what seals my recommendation for Cave Country RV. It is the fist time in a while we have been able to stay under $40 a night. It isn’t low enough to call it a great bargain, but it is very reasonable considering the quality of the park and it’s location close to a popular attraction.

The small office is surrounded by little gardens. The back side is a butterfly garden with an iron butterfly bench and fountain.

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The Bay Area Renaissance Fair

While in Florida, we decided to try and visit a friend we met playing Dungeons and Dragons online many years ago. Though we stopped playing a while before we set out on your wanderings, I’ve maintained contact with a large number of players through facebook. Back in Seattle, we spend nearly all our time with friends who shared our interests in all things Geeky and Gaming. On the road, we spend a lot more time with folks who have never even heard of Dungeons and Dragons, much less played it. So it is always a treat for us to get together and talk geek with folks.

Speaking of Geekdom, of course they have one of these, and of course, I had to sit in it for a picture.

Twas a Fair Fair to be Fair

It just so happens our friend David was working at the Bay Area Renaissance Fair during the time we were in his neck of the woods. My father used to run such a festival up in Alaska so I have a long-standing affection for them. I’d also been a paid actor in the Three Barrons fair which is still held in Anchorage Alaska. We decided we would don our costumes and head over to the fair to enjoy the afternoon and then have some dinner and conversation after the fair closed up for the day.

While every fair has their own particulars, they are somewhat of a kind. The Bay Area Renaissance Fair (never to be referred to as the BARF) was very familiar to me despite never having attended it before. Like most of its kind, it is about 70% merchant booths and 30% performance theater. The performers and promoters of the fair clearly do this work out of a love of fair and the money earned tends to perpetuate the enterprise rather than make anyone wealthy. The communities surrounding fairs are a mix of locals and travelers who make a circuit of such festivals around the country. I feel a kinship with them all.

The Bay Area Renaissance Fair is located in a wooded lot near a college and had a very nice vibe to it. It was probably the largest I’ve been to and it took more than two hours to fully tour the sprawling grounds. They had a healthy mix of performance and merchants. Attention to detail by the organizers and vendors seemed average to high for Ren Fairs I’ve attended. Some fairs make the mistake of letting in vendors who just don’t “get it” and end up ruining the vibe with too modern looking booths and offerings. There is always a lot of anachronism going on, but keeping it to the fun or necessary sort is the way to go.

Here is Trail in her full regalia. We each keep a costume for such occasions.

Here is Trail in her full regalia. We each keep a costume for such occasions.

Making the Rounds

We checked in with David who was working as a barker for the mermaid booth where fair guests could get their pictures taken with mermaids. I asked him in character as to what type of offspring I could expect were I to take a Mermaid as a wife. Apparently, it was the first time in his memory anyone had thought to ask so he didn’t have a ready answer for me. Inquiring minds want to know David! We made arrangements to meet up after the show and asked which were best performances to catch. He suggested the Washer Women, and if we were not easily offended, the Bastard Monks.

Most Ren fairs have an in-house staff, volunteers, and then traveling performers. The in-house staff tends to divide into “courts” that run parts of the fair and perform there. The queen’s court travels the whole of the fair and glues together the other courts. Most fairs have a group of commoners who do comedy performances, a fairy court that does face painting and the like, a group of pirates to man the tavern, and so forth. The Washer Women and Bastard Monks were traveling performers who make their living doing shows at fairs. Usually, the park pays them a bit, but they make most of their money on performance tips by passing the hat after the show.

This tree was walking around the fair grounds collecting “seed money” and generally being very cool.

The Play is the Thing

Both of these were bawdy shows, something you see often at fairs. The Washer Women were very PG and family friendly. The dress up as rag cleaner women and make play with burly men in the audience. Much time is spent warming up the crowd by flinging wet laundry at the audience. Good times, though their show was 70% warming us up and 30% actual comedy. The charisma of the performers carried the show far more than the material did. The core amusement comes from making audience members do silly and embarrassing things, a ren fair staple, but a good one.

Bastard Monks was an adult only show, the first I’d seen during normal hours at a fair. At the Baron’s fair, we put on some shows like this after the public weren’t home for our own amusement so I was happy to check it out to see what mischief they would get up to. Mind you, the adult content here was all in the words spoken, not nudity. Bastard Monks is two friars discussing their love life and their understanding of God. One brother is cynical and brash, the other trying to play the innocent and faithful despite the usual passions of a young man. Their show was far more about the clever material and the two actors carried the weight of it but still got the audience to feel connected to the performance. Well done Bastard Monks.

One thing this fair was doing I’d not seen before were their food tours and tasting events. They had a beer and bacon tasting that paired various beers and pork products together. They also had a kind of tasting tour where you could pay a fee and get set drinks and food items throughout the fairgrounds. We didn’t partake since we were going to be eating after the fair, but I thought it was a good idea. All in all, we had a nice time at the BAR… at the Bay Area Renaissance Fair.

Here is the royal court at the Bay Area Ren Fair wishing folks well as they leave for the day.

Fare Well to Fair Friends

By the time the fair closed up and we met up with David and his wife Monica the four of us were thick with clinging dust, something of another classic fair tradition. Everyone was a bit worn out but also hungry so we hit up a local Chinese food buffet to refuel and get to know one another face to face. We had a great time chatting about the Ren-Fair life and our travel adventures while scarfing down all you can eat Chinese standards. The food was decent, the company was wonderful.  A big thanks to them both for the adventure and camaraderie!

Here we are with our friend David in half costume at the endless buffet.

Here we are with our friend David in half costume at the endless buffet.

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Leveling Your Airstream

When we bought our Airstream from the dealership they gave us a tiny little bubble level and a bit of advice. “Getting your trailer level is important,” they told us, “the furnace and the fridge won’t work right if it’s too far off true.” They also told us to use the bubble level in a few different places to make sure we got it all just right. Since that time, we’ve leveled our trailer a hundred times or so and I thought I’d share a few things we have learned.

How important is it to level out your Airstream?

It can be more important than you might imagine. The key reason for this is the refrigerator used in most RVs. They are called Absorption Refrigerators. They work by evaporating the refrigerant using heat. The refrigerant then re-condenses and returns to the reservoir it evaporated from. They key here is it returns using the power of gravity. If you Trailer is too far off level, it cannot properly return to where it needs to be.

This causes two problems with your fridge. Firstly, it stops making things cold which will result in spoiled food. Secondly, it can lead to the evaporation unit overheating to the point where it could catch your trailer on fire. While there is no guarantee you will end up burning down your trailer, it has happened to a good many people who discovered this the hard way. A quick google search can show you the result in horrifying detail. 

This is also the reason you should turn off your fridge when you are on the road and should never just leave it on for long periods if you are not occupying your trailer.

There are other reasons beyond your fridge, though they are less dire. Trailers are somewhat flexible so if it is sitting at an angle some things might not fit like they do while it is level. Rivets can pop out, doors can fail to close true, furniture can get cracked and so on. Most trailers are designed with some give in them, but you don’t want to push things. Finally, it’s just nicer to be in a level trailer. Trail can seem to detect fairly minute deviations from true that I am incapable of noticing and I can attest she is not fond of them.

Exhibit A in why it is important to level your trailer! I couldn’t quite bear to show you the melted Airstreams.

There are two directions you can level your Airstream. To level it end to end, you use the jack at the front of your trailer. This will pivot you on the axels under the wheels. This is a pretty simple and straight forward process.

Leveling side to side is a little less convenient. What you need to do is to drive your trailer up onto some kind of leveling block that sits under your wheels on the side that is too low. Our Airstream dealer gave us a set of interlocking plastic blocks for this task. We have the Tri-Lynx brand and they work nicely for the task. The new hotness, however, are these Andersen levelers which both level the trailer, and work as wheel chocks. (Chocks keep the trailer from rolling forward or backward.) What makes them cool is the curved shape gives you a full range of heights as where the blocks can only take you up in increments of the size of the blocks. The downside is they cost a fair bit more, especially if you have double or triple axels. 

What you should not try to use to level your trailer are the four stabilizers you winch down when you park. They are not designed to lift up your trailer, only to keep it from wiggling around once it is in place. You want to get your trailer all leveled out before you deploy them and you want to tighten them firmly, but not so firmly that they shift the trailer. Crank on them too hard and you can undo the leveling you just did and possibly damage the stabilizers.

Here are the two types I mentioned. The arch ones give you perfect leveling while the blocks are also good for your jack and stabilizers.

How to Know it is Level

The reason I wrote this article is that we recently changed how we measure how level our trailer is. For quite a while we used the tool that the dealer gave us when we got the trailer. It’s a small square bubble level about a half inch on a side. We were taught to take that inside the trailer, find some fairly central, flat surface, and see where the bubble lies. It was recommended we try it in the fridge and on the kitchen counter top.

This technique and tool had a number of small problems. The tool itself is so small, that it is hard to get a really clear reading on just how level you are. The second issue has to do with those stabilizers I mentioned above. You don’t want to put them down until the trailer is level, but you have to go inside the trailer to use the little bubble level. If you go inside the trailer before the stabilizers are down, you shift around the trailer and thus muck up your measurement of it. Sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Also, it is inconvenient to jump in and out of the trailer to do the measurements. The result was our level often wasn’t quite right. Good enough to be safe, but not enough to satisfy Trail. That means bringing up the stabilizers and having another go at the somewhat flawed process.

There was also a small level bubble on the power jack, but it was nearly useless. Its small size, coupled with its position at the far end of the trailer made it about useless for getting a precise measurement. Worse, the jack case it is on can wiggle around a good deal and as a result, it’s a better indicator if the jack case is level than the trailer itself.

Our solution was to get buy these Hopkins exterior bubble levels. They have an adhesive back so you can stick them to the trailer on the outside. This means you don’t have to enter the trailer to check your level, which in turn means it is faster and more accurate. They also have a bigger range on the level so it is easier to get a precise read of if you are on the mark exactly. Finally, you can’t loose them because they are glued to your trailer. So far, they have stayed on just fine through heavy rain and gale force winds.

You do need to make sure you get them stuck on such that they are marked level while the trailer is level. We found that by placing them flush with the bottom trim, they leveled out perfectly for us. I’d still double check them with another level before you glue them down.

Looks like we are leaning forward just a tad, but it’s pretty darn close to level.

 

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Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Cane River Creole National Historical Park was our first foray upon entering Louisiana. Right along Cane River Lake, reside two French Creole cotton plantations both covering a little over 63 acres. Established as a National Historical Park in 1994, the preservation and completeness in their historical setting are what makes both plantations unique. In fact, they are the most intact French Creole cotton relations in the United States, complete with 65 historic structures and over a million artifacts. The National Parks Service has done an excellent service to the history of the area and brought together the perspectives of slaves, workers, farmers and owners to light.

Cane River Creole NHP

Cane River Creole NHP

Magnolia Plantation

Magnolia was our first stop on this 200-year-old site. Amid 10 acres of open flat farmland, the big house is surrounded by several 150-year-old live oaks and magnolia trees. The raised plantation house is very traditional with a square floor plan and post galleries. In its hay-day, this 2½-story structure contained 27 rooms, complete with an extensive collection of Southern Empire and Louisiana furniture. In addition to the main house, the surrounding area also contained slave quarters cabins, a plantation store, a corn crib, a blacksmith shop, a pigeonnier, and a cotton press-gin building.

Magnolia Plantation Slave/Tenant Farmer Cabins

Magnolia Plantation Slave/Tenant Farmer Cabins

Blacksmith & Bousillage

At the blacksmith shop, we examined a construction technique where a mud infill was used between the wall framing. Called Bousillage by the French colonials, this infill was held in place with sticks, then small lumps of mud and grass or cotton were stuck between the wood sticks until the wall was filled in. In other buildings, such as the pigeonnier, they used Spanish moss instead of grass. The term is derived from the French bouse, or cow dung. When used as a transitive verb, bousiller literally translates as “to fill up with dung.”

Inside the Smithy

Inside the Smithy

Squab for the Rich

Another curious building we happened upon was the pigeonnier, also known as a dovecote depending upon where you’re from. Pigeonniers themselves are pretty old and date back to medieval Europe. These freestanding buildings generally contain pigeonholes for the birds to nest. Pigeons and doves were an important food source historically in Western Europe and were kept for their eggs and squab for food, and dung for fertilizer. When the colonials came to this region, they brought the Pigeonnier with them. In the Louisiana region, Pigeonniers denoted wealth among the rural French Creole, and as in France, only landowners had the right to have pigeons.

Pigeonnier

Pigeonnier

Brick Cabins for Slaves & Sharecroppers

In a field just off the main area, we take a trail leading to a group of brick cottages. Each cabin has two rooms, with a central chimney, and gable parapets. We both wonder at the quality of construction to have lasted over 200 years; even the paper guide notes of the unusually high-quality construction for slave cabins. We noticed that one of the cabins is open for display and wander in. According to the kiosk, each cabin held two slave families, and then after the emancipation, they provided homes to sharecroppers.

Slave Tenant Farmer Cabin

Slave Tenant Farmer Cabin – These cabins were still in used by the 1960s

Cotton Gins & Slavery

Across another field, we wander over to the cotton press-gin building containing a rare cotton press and two types of cotton gins. As I gaze into the old machines, I take a moment to imagine slaves operating the cotton gins. In principle, how a cotton gin works is fairly simple. First, the cotton bolls were put into the top of the machine. Next, they would turn the handle, which turns the cotton through the wire teeth that combs out the seeds. Then the cotton is pulled out of the wire teeth and out of the cotton gin. After the cotton fibers were separated from the seeds, it was moved into the cotton press, using donkeys or mules to turn the screw, compressing the cotton into bales.

The cotton gins and press stand in silent testimony to the increasing demand for textiles in the 1800s. The cotton gin created a massive growth production in cotton, and as a result, the region became even more dependent on plantations and slavery for profits By 1860, black slave labor from the American South was providing two-thirds of the world’s supply of cotton. The enslaved who worked the cotton did not profit from their labor, only the plantation owners.

I find the remains of this building and its contents to be valuable despite it being tucked away within a dusty barn. In being there and seeing such a place, I come away with a deeper understanding southern agricultural practices before the Civil War.

Whitney's Cotton Gin - Also, his invention offered Southern planters a justification to maintain and expand slavery even as a growing number of Americans supported its abolition.

Whitney’s Cotton Gin – His invention offered Southern planters a justification to maintain and expand slavery even as a growing number of Americans supported its abolition.

Oakland Plantation

Oakland Plantation is the plantation house of Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme. Constructed by slaves, it was erected in 1821 and has housed seven generations of the Prud’homme family. Much like Magnolia, many of the 17 original outbuildings are intact, include two pigeonnier, an overseer’s house, massive roofed log corn crib, carriage house, mule barn (which was originally a smokehouse), carpenter’s shop, and cabins.

Oakland Front Gate

Oakland Front Gate

The Oakland Main House

I would say that the most defining feature of Oakland, is the short alley of towering live oaks just near the small garden adjacent to the house. Both Hitch and I got a kick out roaming beneath their gigantic bows. The house itself looks to be in good condition, although we weren’t allowed in at the time due to reconstruction.

Oakland Main House

Oakland Main House

A Slave Village

At its peak, Oakland Plantation had over 100 slaves, and it was necessary for them to grow food crops and raise livestock to support their population. Buildings such as the blacksmith and carpenters still remain standing along with other support structures. Here visitors can completely understand life on a plantation prior to the Civil War.

Wagon Shed & Dipping Vat

Wagon Shed & Dipping Vat

Store at Oakland Plantation

Out of all the 17 outbuildings, the plantation store is a poignant reminder of the post-Civil War era. Built to cater to the freed African Americans and sharecroppers at the plantation, the store tied the tenants to the landlord. Their work was heavily supervised, nearly as much as slave plantations were. Much of the time the plantation store harmed tenants more than helped. There were many cases of high-interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous landlords and merchants often keeping sharecropper families severely indebted. Loan holders (usually the landowners) compounded the debt from year to year leaving the sharecropper vulnerable to coercion and fraud. Nevertheless, such abuse appeared to be inevitable since there were no serious alternatives apart from the croppers leaving agriculture. Today numerous artifacts and information about the area fill this building.

Oakland Plantation Storef

Oakland Plantation Store

Understanding Racial Divide Through the History of Slavery

Today, the consequences of slavery can still be felt in American racism. There needs to be a deeper recognition of the role that slavery and its aftereffect played in the development of the United States. Modern Americans cannot begin to understand current racial tensions without looking at places such as Cane River Creole National Historical Park. Here I discovered a new understanding as to why blacks work so hard for equality today. So I encourage American Citizens to visit historic sites associated with the slave trade in America to learn the foundation for today’s racial strife.

Wagon Shed & Dipping Vat Cotton Gins

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Airstream Trailer Cats: How They Roll!

A question we are commonly asked is, how do you manage the cats when driving place to place? And how do they cope with it? The short answer is: we take them in the truck and they are chill with it. But that was not always the case… read on for the secrets to our kitty transport operations.

The Wrong Way

Our first experiment with this was a failure. I had thought that it would be less traumatic for the cats to hang out in the Trailer than to get moved to and from our truck. They would have access to hiding spots, a comfy bed, cat litter and would not be otherwise disturbed. Well, I was totally wrong about that. The Airstream bounces around a fair bit and cats apparently are not keen when their entire world is set into motion. On arriving at our destination, I opened the door to find Kekovar pitifully trying to bury his head in the corner of the couch with the cushions tossed all over creation. The look in his eyes spoke volumes of how much he did not feel comfortable with this event. We both felt horrible! Kia decided to stay hidden under the bed for a good long while and seemed nervous that the world might start shaking at any moment.

Keckovar the Couch Keeper prefers salmon treats over our Pet Tube, but then again who doesn'? Salmon is tasty.

Want to know how I roll, this is how I do it!  Now touch my tummy. I’m totally defenseless, I promise!

Bad humans! So, we decided we would make the switch to taking them in the truck for the next trip. The question was how. We had carriers for them, but they seemed pretty small and on a longer trip, we were worried they might need to use the bathroom. We took some measurements of the back seat area and hit up a local pet superstore to see what we could find. Most of the large pet carriers and enclosures just didn’t fit in the back seat. The angle of the front seats meant the space behind them was more a triangle; wide on the bottom and narrow at the top. But persistence paid off and we found a product that works for us.

The Right Way

We picked up the Petego Pet Tube Kennel which looked like it might fit in the back seat. And indeed, thanks to the fact that the sides are not rigid, it did. We have to set it up with the seats forward and then move them back into place which squishes the tunnel a bit. This doesn’t do it any harm and it helps keep it securely in place. It’s quite large and takes up almost the length of the back seat which leaves room for both cat litter and cats. To make the kitties at home, we stock it with a thick towel and some fuzzy blankets. When we put them in the tunnel we cover them with the blanket which seems to keep them calm for the trip. We use our normal cat carriers to move the kitties from the trailer into the tube and back again. 

Product Images of Pet Tube

This is what they look like. We have the larger one.

The tunnel collapses nicely into a flat disk for storage int he bed of the truck. To collapse it you just smoosh it end to end and zip-it up to keep it smooshed. Un-zip it and it just pops back to its full size. We have found it to be very durable, and it the material is very easy to clean with a rag or sponge as needed. So far, nothing has ripped or frayed on it. I have read that if you have a very determined cat they can possibly tear through the material or force the zippers open. Our kitties have never made a concerted effort to escape the tube. I’ll also add that it is not especially useful outside of the car because of its round shape. If you put it on a hard, flat floor, it rocks back and forth, but in the car, it sits put nicely.

Our first trip with the Petego worked well. The kitties were a bit upset at this new shelter, but after a bit of meowing they settled in under the blankets to ride out the ordeal and at the end looked more sleepy than frightened. Trail, knowing how cats work very well, rewarded them both with their favorite wet foods. From then on, after every trip, they get special treats only dispensed after car rides. After about three trips they connected these two events and would eagerly hop into their carriers knowing that in a few hours, delicious fish and chicken await them. During the ride, they just nap quietly. Treats are your key to happy traveling cats. And they are best given when your cats are feeling calm, after the event you are trying to condition them to.

This is what our Pet Tube looks like once we've put everything but the cats in it.

This is what our Pet Tube looks like once we’ve put everything but the cats in it.

Note on The Litter Box

In more than a year of taking the cat’s on trips, they have used the litter box once or twice in transit. We still put it in there just in case, but there seems to be some consensus that cats will mostly not use a litter box on the go.  Our trips tend to be limited to 3 hours of driving or less, so a longer trip might increase the need for it. 

We collapse the Pet Tube and store it in the truck bed.

We collapse the Pet Tube and store it in the truck bed.

Pet Tube Closed and in the Back Seat.

Pet Tube Closed and in the Back Seat.

 

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Birding in the Rio Grande Valley

Down in the most southern tip of Texas, near where the Rio Grande exits out into the Gulf of Mexico, there exists a land where birds of all manner flock. The locals call the area a valley, but in truth, the land surrounding the river is a floodplain, containing many oxbow lakes or resacas formed from pinched-off meanders in earlier courses of the Rio Grande. From the rich soils, farmers grow citrus fruits, sorghum, maize, sugarcane, and cotton. In between these farmlands, government agencies preserved natural habitats for both local and transient creatures. Birds and bugs migrate over this fertile land, along two major routes: the Central Flyway and the Mississippi Flyway. As they make their way through, they take rest in refuges of wilderness set aside by both cities, state, and nation. The result is a collective paradise for the avid birdwatcher.

Male Summer Tanager

Male Summer Tanager

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park

One of top birding spots in the nation, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park draws birders across to see a treasure trove tropical birds found nowhere else in the United States. Centuries of Rio Grande flooding formed layer upon layer of sediments, forming a rich and fertile alluvial plain. Large growths of Cedar Elm, Sugar Hackberry, Rio Grande Ash, Texas Ebony and Acacia trees create a valuable habitat of intact riparian woodlands along the Rio Grande.

Every Sunday & Wednesday morning for about a month, I would join the hike lead by a volunteer or park ranger to spot birds. We would leave the visitor center either by foot or tram. Stops included the Nature Center, the Resaca, the Green Jay Blind, and the Hawk Tower.

Green Jay

Green Jay

The Nature Center is where a majority of the bird action happens, thanks in part to the bird feeders. Volunteers are the ones who set out grapefruit, seed, and suet every morning. The volunteers also run the Nature Center itself and are a wealth of knowledge answering any question you have on the park and its inhabitants, avian or otherwise.

At the resaca or oxbow lake, where we viewed water birds. From the platform, we saw kingfishers, pelicans, herons, egrets, and plenty of cormorants. Sadly not many waterfowl were found, due to invasive tilapia eating all the underwater plant life.

The Green Jay Blind is possibly the best bird blind I’ve seen to date. It’s a permanent structure made of wood viewing slats at various heights that open and close. Here I was able to get intimate shots with various birds and the occasional javelina.

During May through October, the best spot for viewing raptors is the Hawk Tower. I was out of raptor season when I visited, and the only birds of prey I saw were stalking smaller birds at the Nature Center.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Quinta Mazatlan

Another place for viewing birds is a 1930’s country estate in the heart of McAllen city: Quinta Mazatlan. This a historic Spanish Revival adobe hacienda is surrounded by lush tropical landscaping. First built in 1935, the estate only changed hands twice before being bought by the City of McAllen in 1998. Today Quinta Mazatlan serves as an urban sanctuary where people can learn about birds, plants, and the environment. 

Timing is everything at this location — birds can be seen regularly in the morning along with the occasional tropical migrant birds.  This is where I saw parakeets, parrots, flycatchers, thrushes and warblers within a thriving tropical garden with whimsical art installations. Inside the mansion, I also enjoyed the art gallery and the self-guided tour of the house.

Blue Bunting

Blue Bunting

South Padre Island Nature and Birding Center

South Padre Island Birding & Nature Center is a magnificent introduction to a rich birding destination. The 50 acres contains Dune meadows, salt marsh, and intertidal flats from which to spot a variety of shore birds. Also included are thickets of native shrubs and trees that are compelling to migrating birds in their season.

South Padre Island is a crucial first landfall for birds making the strenuous migration across the Gulf. Many of them come from Southern Mexico and northern Central America. If you happen to be on the island after a spring storm, you will be witness to a rainbow of warblers, tanagers, orioles and thrushes taking shelter in the shrubs and trees, while shorebirds and waterfowl stick to the wetlands and waters.

When we visited, we were delighted by the museum, the watch tower and of course the boardwalk which took us among the thickets and shoreline. Birds here felt safe among the humans and didn’t shy away as in most other preserves. I just loved the look of Roseate spoonbills, ibis, and herons, while the terns, gulls, and pipers seem to rule the place.

A mess of Terns!

A mess of Terns!

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Spanish moss draped on trees and noisy chachalacas within the underbrush are easily found within this U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service managed refuge. In 1943, Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge was established as a protection for birds due to its ideal location. Surrounded by farmland on three sides and the Rio Grande on the south, this 3 square mile area serves as a juncture for two major migratory routes. Santa Ana also happens to be the northern-most point for many species whose range extends south into Central and South America.

When we visited Santa Ana we took the tram tour, which is a nice overview of what the park has to offer. On a later day, we took a quick hike to the bird tower, hanging bridge, and bird blinds. We were told that ocelots and bobcats roam the woods in the early morning or early evening, but we were not lucky enough to spot either. This is where I saw my first set of nighthawks and buntings.

common pauraque

common pauraque

Additional Locations

Apart from the three places I got to visit, there are also six other locations that we didn’t have time to visit. 

Lesser Nighthawk Neotropic Cormorant quinta mazatlan White Ibis Ringed Kingfisher Kiskadee & Green Jay Common Nighthawk Double-crested Cormorant hooded oriole Great White Egret Audubon oriole Male northern cardinal Anhinga Cooper's Hawk Green Jay Roseate Spoonbill Great Blue Heron Painted Bunting Desert Cardinal White Pelican Black Phoebe Crested Caracara South Padre Island Birding Center American White Pelican Female northern cardinal Greater Kiskadee yellow bellied sapsucker Brown Pelican Green Kingfisher

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Wild Winds in the Smokey Mountains

And So It Begins

During our stay in the Smokey Mountains, we were caught up in a rather nasty wind storm that blew through the area with gusts up to 80 miles per hour. Trail keeps close tabs on the weather so we knew a storm of some kind was inbound the day before. We took the precaution of putting away our patio gear and battening down the trailer before tucking in for the night. It rained and thundered through the night but by morning the skies had mostly cleared up. It was then that the wind began to blow in earnest.

I could hear it blasting through the trees as I sleepily ate my breakfast. Trail was already up, alert, and looking at the weather reports, watching as the wind warnings were being escalated. From the shelter of the Airstream, it was hard to tell just how bad things were getting. It was then that we heard the first tree snap. It sounds like a series of loud firecrackers going off in quick succession; a series of pops and cracks loud enough to carry through the howling winds and the walls of our Airstream.

The force needed to snap a tree like this is nothing to take lightly. 

The Danger Zone

Our predicament was that we were sitting right in the middle of a forested. We hopped out of the trailer to assess the situation as the winds grew stronger and stronger. Outside, the trees around our trailer were gyrating wildly while leaves and small branches hurled past us. Cautiously we tried to figure out just how much danger we were in. Just then we both heard the cracking sound of a tree giving way near us. I couldn’t see which one it was so in a split second I sprinted away from the sound. In a safe spot for the moment, I spun around to see a small tree in the empty lot next to us had snapped and crashed into the site.

Clearly, this was not a safe situation. I decided our best course of action was to get in the truck and drive the short distance to the office building of the RV park. Trail wondered if we should move the trailer, but I didn’t see anywhere in the park that looked especially safer in the park than where we were at. Trying to drive on the roads in these winds would be twice as dangerous so we would just have to see to our own safety and hope for the best. From inside the park office, we could only sit and wait out the storm, hoping our trailer would come through it. A few others also gathered with us as we listened for snapping trees and worried for our property and those who chose to ride it out in their RVs.

We watched as one of the other residents scrambled to move their trailer. We learned later they could hear a big tree near their lot start to come loose at the roots. They quickly got hooked up in the raging winds and moved to a less threatened spot in the park. It turned out they made the right call because that tree did come down shortly after. While the site they were in didn’t take the full force of it, the one next to them did as the tree smashed through a picnic table and filled two empty spaces with its branches and trunk.

Smaller trees can snap, but big healthy ones can come down like this. Every tree is a potential danger in a big wind.

Aftermath

By the time the wind died down, there were downed trees throughout the park. Our Airstream was spared and only one other RV in the park suffered a hit, and fortunately, it was superficial damage. After the wind died down and the weather reports signaled the all clear we went out to inspect the aftermath. Limbs and leaves were everywhere. Both the lots to the right and left of us had a tree down in the. Behind the park property, a truly massive tree had come down on the corner of an old church. It wasn’t until we went to move our truck back to our site that we noticed one of the side mirrors had been broken by flying debris.

Everyone felt fortunate that no one had been hurt and that property damage was minimal. Since it was the off-season, there was only a handful of us in the park. Had it been full, there would have been serious damage done. It hit home that this is simply one of the increased risks you face with life in an RV. Even with good planning, if you want to travel through the country, you are subject to the relative unpredictability of the local weather. While we were fairly well prepared for the storm, when it came to snapping trees and blowing debris, we simply had to hope for good luck to see us through.

It did inspire me to put together a guide for other travelers in being prepared for storms. If you are thinking of going on the road, or already are, I suggest giving it a read.

We had trees come down in the lots on both sides of our trailer. You can follow the 3-Bs but Be Lucky is also helpful.

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What to do in a windstorm, tornado, or hurricane in an RV, trailer, or Airstream

Encountering a storm in an RV or Trailer can be a very frightening experience. This year alone, Trail and I have found ourselves in the path of a potential tornado and in a forest during a windstorm that was snapping trees all around us. Thankfully, we have emerged unharmed, and the worst our rig has suffered was a broken side mirror. I wanted to try and come up with a concise set of tips for avoiding, preparing for, and weathering storms for RV and Airstream owners. So I give you, the 3-Bs:  Be Aware, Be Prepared, Be Safe.

Be Aware

When you live or travel in an RV, the weather is something you experience more intimately than in stick and brick home. It is in your best interest to keep tabs on the weather that will be impacting your journey.

Climate Awareness

Weather is what is happening day to day in the atmosphere, the climate is the general trend based on location and season. Before you travel to a place, you should do a little research on the expected climate for the time you plan to be there. Jump on the internet and google something like “Florida Climate” and you should find what you need. Wikipedia pages for states often have good climate information. I strongly suggest that you avoid areas known for storms at times of year where storms are common there.

Weather Awareness

Someone in your party needs to make a habit of keeping track of the weather. Most importantly, you want to have as much warning as possible for storms of all kinds. If you don’t have a favorite weather source, just google “weather” and you should find many good options. There are also numerous good weather apps for your mobile devices.

Once a storm does start shaping up, you will want to keep close track of it, as well as any national and local weather alerts from the authorities. Knowing what is happening and what is likely to happen in the future lets you make smart decisions. When the weather gets bad enough that the authorities issuing advisory messages, you should do your best to follow their instructions.

Location Awareness

Know the dangers for your location. Are you in a flood plane? Are there tall trees that could fall on your RV? Is there debris around you that could become dangerous in a high wind? If a storm does threaten you, knowing the possible dangers saves you valuable time in making decisions about what to do.

You should also take note of where you can shelter in the event of a serious storm. Find out where the nearest official storm shelter is. Keep an eye out for the sturdiest public building in the immediate vicinity. Stone buildings and buildings with few or no windows are ideal. Often the bathrooms in a park are the safest place to head in a serious storm since they are accessible, sturdy, and have few windows. If there is a storm shelter near by, program its location into your GPS for quick reference.

We had trees come down in the lots on both sides of our trailer. You can follow the 3-Bs but “Be Lucky” is also very helpful.

Be Prepared

Being ready ahead of time is your best step to weathering a storm. Before the winds blow, you are in full control. Take advantage of that fact.

Prepare Supplies

Having a portable survival pack is a good idea for any RVer, not just one threatened by a storm. I like to keep mine in a backpack so it is ready to go at a moment’s notice and is easy to carry. A good kit will include first aid supplies, non-perishable food, clean water, and a light source at a minimum. You can buy one like the Ready America 2-person kit, or make your own. The big advantage of making your own is you know exactly what is in there. We keep ours in our truck, in a water proof box.

If you know a storm is incoming, I also recommend charging up all your electronic devices. That includes making sure battery powered devices have fresh batteries. The last thing you want is a drained cell phone or dying flashlight during an emergency situation. If you have multiple devices, use them one at a time to get the most life out of them.

Prepare the RV

At the first sign that a storm has a decent chance of impacting you, it is time to get the RV ready. Start by assessing if there is a safer location for your RV to be. If you are parked next to some trees and a big wind is coming, see if you can find an alternate spot that is not as threatened. If you are in a low-lying area in a flood plane, try to find some higher ground you can park on. Don’t try to get out on the road unless you know you can outrun the weather, or get to a known safe location well before the storm hits. An RV on the road during a storm not only puts the RV in great danger, it puts you in much greater danger as well. Driving an RV in strong winds is a terrible idea.

Gather up anything not nailed down and put it away. Flying objects are a danger to yourself and others. Turning off the propane is a good idea for a severe storm. Put blinds down to protect yourself from windows shattering. Close up vents and retract awnings. Make sure your trailer is firmly stabilized. Shore power can be disconnected for an electrical storm to help protect the RV systems, but it won’t pose a danger to you.

Prepare Yourselves

If a storm is coming, you want to get dressed for rough weather. Get your sturdiest shoes on ahead of time and have a coat handy. If things get crazy, you want to be ready to get moving, not struggling to get your shoes on. If you have pets, you want them ready as well. Smaller animals should be in carriers and for larger critters, have a leash at the ready. Including food for your pets in a survival kit is a good idea too.

Talk to everyone you are traveling or living with and go over what you plan to do if the storm hits and things get dangerous. You don’t want to be having debates or discussions while the wind is howling and your RV is shaking. Get a plan sorted out ahead of time and get everyone to agree. It isn’t always easy to think clearly when the wind is roaring and trees are flying past. Know what you plan to do, and under what conditions you plan to do it.

It’s a good idea to contact someone you know outside the potential storm area and let them know where you are and that you could be in some danger. Set a schedule for checking in with them, that way, if the worst should happen, someone knows where you were and can contact authorities on your behalf.

Smaller trees can snap, but big healthy ones can come down like this. Every tree is a potential danger in a big wind. This was right next to our RV Park.

Be Safe

Making good decisions during a storm is often the key to survival. You will not always have control of the situation and events may not always go according to plan. These principles should help keep you safe.

Stay Calm

Once a storm gets going, you need to try and stay calm and think clearly. Follow your plans and follow the directives of emergency authorities whenever possible. Try to act out of logic rather than fear. Take the action that has the least risks and that maximizes your personal safety and those of your loved ones. Remember you are more important than your RV. If you see others panicking, try to help them focus on what they can do to maximize their own safety. Focus on what you can control and try not to worry about what you can’t control.

A simple pattern of thought can help deal with these types of situations if you become uncertain. 1. Identify your biggest risk. 2. Consider what you can do to reduce that risk without creating a greater risk.

Seek Shelter

Physically, you want to make sure you are in the safest place available to you. If there is an actual storm shelter, that’s where you want to be. If not, you want to be in the sturdiest building available. Stay away from windows and put as many walls between you and the storm as possible. An RV is not an especially good place to be, but if it is your only shelter, then it is better than nothing. Again, stay away from the windows and in a part of your RV that has the most structure. There is also safety in numbers during a storm. You can help others and they can help you. Weathering it alone is not a good plan if there is an alternative.

Stay Informed

Keep monitoring the weather and any official sources of information about the storm. Don’t let your guard down until the authorities say that the danger has passed. Once it has, you should look around to see what kind of damage has been done. First, assess your own health and the health of those in your party. Next, check out your RV and see what may have been damaged. Identify any lingering hazards, and work a plan to remove them as best you can in the safest way possible. Also, keep others informed. If you have loved ones who know you were in harm’s way, be sure to let them know you are OK and they needn’t worry further for you. 

Lucky for us, the only damage we suffered was this broken mirror on our truck. It was hit by a flying branch during the storm.

Last Thoughts

Following my “be” theme, don’t be afraid, be ready. Life on the road has risks, but don’t let them get in the way of living life to the fullest. If you are reading this, then you are already taking the proper steps to being safe on the road whatever may come. Take what wisdom I can offer, and add to it the wisdom of others. The more you learn, the better your chances of staying safe in our wonderous, but sometimes dangerous world.

 

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