Canada Photography

It has been a while since I have written, but basically that’s because not many note-worthy events have occurred lately. I was recently sent back to Canada (this time it was -2 degrees C instead of -23 degrees C!) but the trip was relatively uneventful – no lost baggage, no crashing taxis, and no missing rental car. It all went pretty smooth. I was up there doing A LOT of traveling, so between my different projects that I had going on for the week, I was able to sneak in some photography opportunities.

Being that it was the very beginning of Spring, there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife, although I did see two coyotes (and heard a whole pack somewhere in the distance)

Coyote on a frozen pond

Coyote on a frozen pond

and I saw two snowshoe hares (a new mammal species for me!).

A happy pair of snowshoe hares

A happy pair of snowshoe hares

Snowshoe hare

Snowshoe hare

I also got to see a Bald Eagle but didn’t get a great picture of it, because by the time I realized what I was looking at and took the time to stop the car and grab the camera, he had already soared to distant skies. I was on a mission to see a Snowy Owl while I was in Alberta, but that didn’t happen, although I did see a very interesting nest that I was hoping someone would be able to help me identify!

Mystery Nest - Check out how it is built AROUND the branch, so it's more like a wreath....?

Mystery Nest – Check out how it is built AROUND the branch, so it’s more like a wreath….?

I also SWORE I saw a wolf out in a field hunting mice in the snow. My heart started pounding and I did a quick U-turn and grabbed my camera. Turns out it was wearing a collar. And was a German Shepherd. But I was right about the whole hunting mice in the snow thing, so that’s worth something, right? And hey, it was snowing pretty hard too.

The "wolf" I saw

The “wolf” I saw

Also the whole area was covered up in horses. And I’m talking huge draft horses everywhere. I got to see some great ones, of all different breeds:

Clydesdales

Curious Clydesdales

Gypsy Vanner

Handsome Gypsy Vanner

Beautiful Percheron

Beautiful Percheron

But the best one was the very first one I saw. He was a monster. He was a beauty.

I think his name should be Sampson.

I think his name should be Sampson.

I’m positive, just by looking at his huge chest, that he’s regularly used to pull sleds in the winter. He was probably the biggest horse I have ever seen. And I was in love. I wanted to take him home and cuddle him. I wanted to jump the fence and go riding. He was spectacular.

Handsome Sampson

Handsome Sampson

Sampson and Delilah

Sampson and Delilah

There is also a very common barn style that is beautiful but doesn’t seem to last (or all the barns were super old), because they all seemed to be falling apart.

Beautiful Old Barn

Beautiful Old Barn

Falling down barn

Falling down barn

 

Falling down barn

Falling down barn

Barn and horses

Barn and horses

Falling Apart Red Barn

Falling Apart Red Barn

And on my last full day I was blessed with a gorgeous sunrise through the fog. I even had time to pull over onto a side road and get some good photos of the sunrise over a farm.

Pink Farmhouse Sunrise

Pink Farmhouse Sunrise

Pink Foggy Sunrise

Pink Foggy Sunrise

Foggy Sunrise

Foggy Sunrise

And finally I found an old truck graveyard that was really neat to see!

Coca Cola Truck

Coca Cola Truck

Sun Reflecting off of the windshield

Sun Reflecting off of the windshield

Cool Old Trucks in the Snow

Cool Old Trucks in the Snow

Old Coca Cola Truck

Old Coca Cola Truck

Cool Old Trucks

Cool Old Trucks

It was a great trip, and I think I got some great photos. I can’t wait until I get my new computer with Photoshop on it so I can play with the different filters and everything, and make these photos really pop. Some of these pictures were taken in the middle of the day so the sunlight reflecting off of the snow was really too bright for taking photos, but I thought, “hey, how often am I going to be in Alberta? I gotta take these photos while I can!”

I hope you enjoyed my trip as much as I did!

Reclaimed Wood Table

A few months ago I was able to get my hands on some great old wood when a gentleman I know rebuilt his front porch.  When I asked, “do you have a plan for all that old wood?” (trying to hint around that I wanted it) his response was, “a good match.”

055

I couldn’t stand idly by and watch him burn that beautiful wood, so I asked if I could have it. Now, the tricky thing was this was in Louisiana. I live in Texas. And I had flown to Louisiana on this trip. I went to LA a lot for work at the time, and I knew that eventually (because of project circumstances) someone would have to drive the work truck out there instead of fly, so I would just ask them to bring the wood home for me. Easy peasy. I selected some nice pieces because I knew I wouldn’t need all of it, and I stored it away for the next team to drive up. However, there was a miss-communication and the gentleman that let me have the wood thought that I wanted all of it afterall! So when the next team drove up he helped them load a half-bed full of old lumber. Geez.

I ended up taking more than I had planned, but I felt terrible that the rest was thrown away. NO ONE WANTED IT! And I definitely didn’t have space for all that lumber. I couldn’t even fit it in my car – I DRIVE A PRIUS!

So several months have gone by, and I finally got the guts/energy/inspiration/whateveryouwanttocallit to finally do something with the old lumber.  However, since I have had it for several months, Hubby thought it was taking up too much room in the garage (which it was), so he put it outside next to the garage. Where it got rained on, and full of spiders and roaches, and started to grow fungus. Grreeeaaattt….

I was able to wipe all the surfaces down with a wet rag, kill all the spiders and roaches, and then I set the wood out to dry because it had absorbed so very much rainwater.

All set up and ready to dry. Three minutes later there was a major domino effect because of the clumsy lab, trying to get me to play fetch.

All set up and ready to dry. Three minutes later there was a major domino effect because of the clumsy lab, trying to get me to play fetch.

Cibolo trying to help me by knocking everything over trying to get me to throw his toy.

The Clumsy Lab.

That's a dog head, staring at the toy he just dropped.

That’s a dog head, staring at the toy he just dropped, which also knocked over my drying boards.

Also, I raided the barn at my parents’ house recently, and turned up with this:

Old bench

Old bench

This is an old bench that my mother has had forever, and it was her grandmother’s. Obviously something along the way had removed the top, so I decided this would be a great base for my first attempt with this old wood. And the bench was already a beautiful color, so there was no need to re-stain it.

Seeing as how I HATE spending money on things that I can make myself, I looked online for a nice pattern that I could turn into a stencil and I found this:

The stencil

The stencil

I thought about simply putting it into the corner of the bench and having two or four corners be decorated instead of the center, but then I thought that I really need to expand my horizons with stenciling, so I decided to put this into the center of the bench and using the same stencil four times to make a circular pattern. Also, I decided against doing my chalk method and instead attempted to cut out the pattern from a clear transparency, since I was going to be using the same stencil multiple times I didn’t want it to get stuck to the roller or soggy with paint.

Also, thanks to some advice from Ashley over at Domestic Imperfection, I got some clear polycrylic to protect the beautiful blue paint that was already the amount of distressed that I loved. The last thing I wanted to happen was for the blue paint to chip away the first time someone sat on the bench! Also thanks to Ashley’s advice, I tried it out on some extra wood first to see how it would behave. What I discovered was this: It looks much better brushed on than sprayed on – when it was sprayed it didn’t seem to go on evenly, and I could see bubbly marks. Luckily it dried slow enough that I could spray it on and smooth it out with a foam brush. Also, I tested what it would look like when I painted over the polycrylic. I did NOT like how this made the paint look. Because of the now smooth painted surface the new paint didn’t go on evenly. So I decided that I would paint on the pattern and then spray it with polycrylic to seal the final product. Also, as several DIYers have pointed out, I bought water-based polycrylic because the oil-based kind is known for causing discoloration in your paint over time.

The wood in place, and the stencil sort of in place

The wood in place, and the stencil sort of in place

The next step was to build a frame for the wood to screw into place. I didn’t want to attach the reclaimed wood directly to the bench wood, because I was afraid that I would screw it up terribly, and ruin perfectly good wooden bench legs. So instead I spent $1.67 on a 1″x2″x8′ dowel to use as a frame. I wasn’t quite sure where I was going with this because I have never framed anything out like this before, but after one or two miscalculations (this bench is a very weird size, so there aren’t exact inches. The measurements were like 11.62 inches instead of 12) I got the frame set.

Old legs plus new frame

Old legs plus new frame

I also was nervous about attaching this to the bench legs, but I guess I needed some sort of stability, so I bit the bullet and screwed the frame into the legs.Sort of.

Too scared to drill through the old wood, I didn't quite get the hole deep enough for the screws. Oops.

Too scared to drill through the old wood, I didn’t quite get the hole deep enough for the screws. Oops.

I drilled some cheater holes into the wood first, and then put in the screws. Unfortunately though, I was so concerned about drilling too deep and going right through the bench frame, that I didn’t drill deep enough so the screws started stripping before I got them flush with the wood. Good thing they will be hidden by the top :)

After a few cold snaps and not wanting to work in the garage/yard because I just wanted to be warm, I sucked it up and got the energy to work on it again. Also, and I will say this was the real hold up, I didn’t have a good way to steady the boards while I attached them to the frame. I was worried about them being too far apart from each other after I screwed them into the wood, and being stuck with them that way.

Until just a couple weeks ago, when Hubby and I went to Harbor Freight so he could buy a manual log splitter. I saw these awesome, huge, heavy-duty clamps, (that were only like $10 each) and I knew that was what was missing from my garage repertoire I had been trying to build up. A few days later, I had the top attached.

Top Attached with Pattern

Now, in order to do the pattern on the top, I had a couple ideas. I thought I could do the chalk method I had used in the past, but then I was afraid that the pattern would be too busy for the chalk to work. I thought about stenciling, but I had recently had bad luck with a home-made stencil, so I was a little gun shy. And the last thing I want to do is screw up this beautiful reclaimed wood! So I decided that I would cut out the negative (white) space, and use it to trace with a pencil. As I was cutting out the negative space, the positive space tore in a few places, so I was definitely going to have to trace with the pencil instead.

And I also discovered that the pattern was actually too big to put into the center and repeat it 4 times, making a perfect circle. Whoops, I guess I should have checked that. Oh well, I like the idea of the corners being decorated too!

I taped the stencil down and drew the shapes in with a pencil. I made sure to have lots of light in the form of a head lamp to make sure I could see what I was doing clearly.

Stencil in Place

Stencil in Place

Here is a close up of what the penciling looked like.

Penciled Stencil

Penciled Stencil

I did two layers of white paint and then added a light gray to the edge to make it pop out a little bit, but not too much.

And this is the final product!Finished Product

Detail shot

Staging

  So now I have a beautiful accent piece that cost $0, and an extra seat if needed!

Thrifty Gifty Craft #3

I have great friends, but I also have FRIENDS. Like from the TV show. Pretty cool, I know. And they tried to do this in the show and it didn’t really work, but in real life it certainly does. Joey and Rachel live behind me. Jealous much?

Contrary to the episode where Rachel is terrified of a pigeon that flies inter her apartment, my Rachel loves birds. She has bird feeders in the back yard and a beautiful bird bath for them too. So when I saw this idea (also from Pinterest) I changed it a bit to fit her style more.

Finished Product

Rachel and Joey also have three cats (not a chick and a duck) so although I loved the idea of this project, I changed it to fake candles so that their house doesn’t burn down. Cats are somewhat evil, and they have a cat that likes to drink out of our glass, so I thought it would have been asking for trouble with real ones.

All I did was decide on a design and cut out the bird. Then put blue painters tape on the jars and trace out the bird on each one.

Now, of course you can do this with any size jars, really. I had one jelly jar that I saved but that was the only one I had, so I bought a mason jar to complete this.

001 (2)

After tracing the design onto the blue painters tape I cut out the design with an exacto knife and removed the rest of the tape.

Then just roll up some newspaper and stuff it into the jar. This does two things: keeps spray paint from getting into the inside of the jar, and gives you a handle for holding onto the jar while you paint it.

So therefore, by default you know the next step is to spray paint the jars. Then remove the blue painters tape and you have some perfect designs on the glass!

The finishing touches were white border paint around the edge of the birds and twine wrapped around the top with a pretty little bow. I love how they turned out, and I hope Rachel did too (I wasn’t there when she opened it)!

022 (2)

 

Thrifty Gifty Crafts #2

I made a few gifts for friends of mine for Christmas, and I really tried to put a lot of thought into what they would like. Like Trixie with JD I knew that my friends Dr. and Mr. Smerek would love this:

Finished Product

I did get this idea off of Pinterest, but only the general idea. I used the wood that was reclaimed from an old patio that I used for another project that you will see soon!

This was a really easy project. I used the same technique for the lettering as I did for my Rustic Sign DIY and added a black shadow on the lettering to make it pop out against the blue background. I also used some twine for the hanger, and I used some steel brackets to connect the boards together. I did have some issues with connecting the boards together because the wood was so old that it was sort of bending and not looking at all like a finished product. I also tried to get some of those wood bracket things like these:

bracket

because I was low on tiny screws, so I was trying to not use any. THESE DID NOT WORK.  The super old wood was too hard to hammer them into the wood, and they ended up just bending and looking horrible. So I ended up getting some long steel bars that were made for this exact thing, and lo and behold!  It worked, and ended up looking great!

When I gave it to Dr. Smerek for Christmas, she loved it, and even hung it on their mantle just in time for their family Christmas. And when they decide to have their 6 kids, I left room for each name or birthday, or whatever they want :)

The Human Garbage Epidemic

[Warning, this post is not as Light-Tight-And Bright as I normally keep my posts.]

While I was teaching biology labs in Grad School, I had the opportunity to get on my soap box from time to time, and say the things that matter most to me, and hopefully pass on some knowledge other than what was in the textbooks.

It’s been a while since I was on my soap box.

I have missed my soap box. [Steps up, and clears throat]

I posted this on my Facebook page here, but I felt that it was not quite enough to get my words out. It didn’t cover enough ground. I needed a bigger outlet. So I’m re-posting it here, with a little more oomph.

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I saw this video posted on Facebook about Midway Island. It’s a tiny island 2,000 miles from the nearest continent, that is frequented by seabirds like the Albatross, a huge seabird that flies for miles on end searching for food to feed their chicks which are hatching all over Midway Island.  The thing is, that the video was not so much about the island, but it was about how we are killing the next generation of Albatross because the island is covered in garbage.
Not only do the chicks find interesting things to eat while they are waiting for their parents to return, but the parents are bringing back interesting items that are floating on the surface of the water. They are easy to collect because they don’t fight back, and they fill up the stomach, so they must be tasty morsels of food, right?
Except that those interesting items that they are eating are pieces of plastic that have washed ashore or are floating in the ocean.  True, they fill up the stomach, but they also don’t break down and take up space that true tiny fish morsels could be taking up. No nutrients are getting to the birds, so they die with a full stomach. Full of plastic cigarette lighters and bottle tops and whatever else will float on the water long enough to be picked up by the birds.
Bird body, full of plastic

Bird body, full of plastic

After fighting it’s way back from extinction (also caused by humans), the California Condor has started to fill their babies tummies with plastic bottle tops as well, killing the recovering population with what is termed Anthropogenic Junk.  Vultures, gulls, and crows are known for frequenting dumps to find food scraps let behind by people. The best place in the US that you can see the Tamualipas Crow is at a dump in South Texas.
It’s not just birds, either. I have found a dead calf in a pasture once, that had a stomach full of plastic grocery bags, baling twine, and all sorts of other garbage. I have seen cows in pastures chewing on plastic bags as I drove by, helpless. Bears are known for frequenting dumps as well, and I found picture after picture of camels, goats, turtles, seals, and dolphins dead or dying from eating or getting tangled in anthropogenic junk.

Turtle_eating_bag

Photo courtesy of The Center for Biological Diversity. Photo taken by Ewan Edwards / The Clipperton Project

Photo courtesy of The Center for Biological Diversity. Photo taken by Ewan Edwards / The Clipperton Project

Have you ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? This post is getting pretty long, so that will have to wait for another day.
Below is what I posted on Facebook regarding the video. It’s a little emotional, but for good reason. Please feel free to repost this. Either the video or my blog post as well. I don’t care. I just want to get the message out there. Maybe it will reach enough people. Maybe it will change some minds. Maybe it will help…
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It’s amazing to me that people think that it’s ok to throw plastic on the ground and leave it there, as if someone else is coming up behind them and cleaning up the mess they leave behind.  It’s also amazing to me that those same people do …not seem to understand how massive an impact they are making on wildlife populations. It doesn’t matter where you live – your litter will find its way to a place where it shouldn’t be.
Doesn’t it disgust them to walk on the beach and see garbage everywhere? Doesn’t it worry them that they will cut their foot on the broken bottle that someone else left there? Doesn’t it bother them that there are dirty diapers and household waste where their children are trying to play?
How is it any different for animals? Why should they live amongst the garbage that humans produce? Why should their needs be ignored?
Because we are human? Because we are smarter? If we were so much smarter, than why are we letting this happen, year after year? Why have we not been able to stop being selfish? Why are we killing off the only place we can possibly live?
Doesn’t sound very smart to me.

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I always like to end my posts with a positive note, so below are some links to how you can help. You can also find similar efforts in your local area.

http://www.keepaustinbeautiful.org/

http://www.txdot.gov/inside-txdot/get-involved/volunteer/adopt-a-highway.html

http://www.supcleanup.com/whoweare.htm

http://www.pickupamerica.org/about/press/picking-trash-organization-trying-heighten-awareness-reducing-roadside-litter

http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/

http://www.cleanuptheworld.org/en/

If you made it this far, thanks for reading. I (obviously) feel very passionately about this and other conservation topics, and would love to discuss such things in the future if you would like!

What have you done, or what will you do to help clean up our planet? Let me know!

Thrifty Gifty Crafts #1

I made these things as Christmas presents for a few of my friends, and I have to say, I’m pretty proud at how they turned out. And they aren’t Christmasy, so they can be made any time of year.

First I will start with the Pet Portrait.

Jake's Portrait

Now, I’m not a painter. I try to be. I pretend to be.

But I’m not.

So believe me when I tell you, this was one of the easiest projects I have done, and guess what? I DIDN’T GET THE IDEA OFF OF PINTEREST! I know, right? I’m sure this idea is ON Pinterest, but I didn’t see it there. It just came to me. Like an epiphany. I’m sure it will never happen again, so I’m enjoying this craft project for all it’s worth.

So to start from the beginning, I have this friend named Trixie. And she moved far, far away, and I miss her terribly. And she has this dog. His name is JD. He is Trixie’s pride and joy.

So when I saw this picture on her FB page I knew I had to do something with it. My epiphany was to print it out in black and white and paint him onto a square canvas with fake snow popping off the canvas. Being a black dog and VERY photogenic made this project easy. I didn’t have to worry about hair pattern or shading or any kind. Easy Peasy.

So, if you want to paint a lovely Pet Portrait like this, here is what you do:

1. Print out a black and white picture about the size of the painting you want to make, and make sure that you are confident in recreating the image. If you get discouraged by the complexity of the painting you will either never finish it, or never start it to begin with.

1.5 Make your husband go out of town so you can watch Princess Bride while you work on this and other presents, and he’s not in the way.

2. Cut out the outline of the dog and trace around it onto the canvas or other medium you selected.

Tracing Jacob

3. Suck up your fear of screwing up, and start painting, keeping the original photo close by for reference.

Reference Photo

4. Allow the paint to dry before you go crazy with glue. This part is usually pretty hard for me. I’m always trying to rush the drying process so I can just get it done.

5. Now, this Christmas present was a little Christmasy, but that’s really only because the picture was taken in the snow. I tried to make it a little more cheerful by adding “Let It Snow” all along the edge of the canvas, thinking that it needed a little extra something. I hated it. But it was too late. So how did I fix it? I covered it in glitter! That way it’s much less obvious that my painting/handwriting skills are terrible, and it’s still quite festive.

Edge

I couldn’t find my teeny tiny paintbrushes when I was doing this project, so those probably would have helped and I wouldn’t have ended up hating the edge, but it’s fine.

Also, I would have sworn that there was a “fake snow” product out there for crafting.

You know, something like THIS?

fake snow

But for some reason, I couldn’t find it anywhere. So I had to improvise. Instead I bought glitter. Glitter that I will probably never use for another project again, and it was a container of like 2 pounds, but it was cheap and it got the job done.

When Trixie received it in the mail (and she was not expecting it) she was so excited! She loved the painting of JD and I hope it will last a long time.

Why I Love Canadians

My Canada trip started out pretty rough.

But the saving grace for the entire trip was that I was in Canada. You know what else is in Canada?

Canadians.

I swear, they are the nicest people you will ever meet.

They go out of their way to make you feel welcome and comfortable. It’s quite refreshing.

After my terrible first day, things started looking up.

My baggage showed up in the middle of the night…

My warm clothes!

And even though I had asked them to, the front desk people didn’t call me at 1 am to tell me it was here. And you know what? I’m glad they made that decision – what was I going to do with that information at 1 am? Run down and get my bag? No, I would have said ok, great. I’ll pick it up in the morning. So why call and wake me up about it? Better to just let me sleep and figure it out later. They are so nice.

I found out that my rental car wasn’t going to be ready until 10 am. I notified the people I was in town to see, and instead of waiting around all day for me to show up, they offered to pick me up at my hotel and take me to the property. Nice warm truck being driven by someone who knew where they were going? I’m in.

And when I was done for the day, he dropped me off at the rental car place. And this was my rental car…

Super Awesome Rental Car

Super Awesome Rental Car

They said that because I was so nice and patient with them since they had run out of cars the day before, they were only charging me for an economy car, but gave me an All Wheel Drive Kia Sorrento.

And a free GPS Rental.

See! When you are nice, nice things happen!

However, I didn’t have time to go see the polar bears.

It was an hour drive and they close early in the winter, so instead I drove to nearby Hersey Lake and took some photos, adding 4 new species to my bird list in the meantime!

Ruffed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Black-capped Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Red breasted Nuthatch

Red breasted Nuthatch

And I also got to see something completely new and foreign to me…

Hersey Lake, frozen solid

Hersey Lake, frozen solid

First time in my life I had seen a lake frozen solid. It kind of scared me, I’m not going to lie. I was sure if I ventured too close to the edge I would fall through, even though those are snow-mobile tracks going across the middle of it!

Snowy path around the lake

Snowy path around the lake

Sunset and snow

Sunset and snow

Birch Trees

Birch Trees

Birch Trees in the Snow

Birch Trees in the Snow

I met up with John again in the hotel bar that evening. The hotel staff were all having their staff Christmas Party, so it was me and him watching hockey in the bar and showing each other pictures of our dogs.

I had told him the night before after he so kindly paid for my dinner, that I would pay him back the next night. I’m sure he thought I had forgotten, but I always try to keep my word so I made sure to meet up with him again. Since the hotel staff were having their Christmas party and the restaurant was closed, we went to The Restaurant (I’m not making that up).

It was a dive restaurant (my favorite!) that was attached to a gas station.

I told John that I had to have the traditional Canadian dish of french fried and gravy, what the Canadians call Poutine. He said that The Restaurant was the best place in town for that, so that’s where I wanted him to take me.

Poutine

Poutine

We didn’t realize that they were close to closing when we walked in, but we ordered our Poutine (Quebec style, with cheese curds) and a couple sodas and sat and talked for a good while. There aren’t many people that I can just sit and talk to as if I have known them for years, so it was nice to be able to do that after I had had such a crappy trip.

After dinner the waitress came and got our plates with her purse in her hand, ready to go. We didn’t even notice that she was waiting on us! We got out as fast as we could and apologized over and over for making her wait. I paid for dinner like I told him I would, and then he asked if I had ever been to Tim Horton’s.

I had never heard of Tim Horton’s.

But apparently it’s another Canadian thing to do.

We ordered our coffee (decaf since it was like 9 pm by this time) and John had me pick out a Christmas ornament. He refused to let me pay for the coffee and ornament, saying, “it’s Christmas!”

Then he gave me a “toonie” which is the Canadian $2 coin, because he wanted to make sure I had actually seen a Polar Bear on my trip.

toonie

Again, we sat and talked like old friends, and enjoyed our coffee. He talked about once when he thought his eye was about to pop out of his head and I talked about when both my eardrums blew out in grad school. Then we discussed the differences of healthcare in Canada and in The US. It was great. John said that he had been trying really hard to NOT say “ahe?” the whole time (he apparently wasn’t doing a very good job of it because it was like every sentence) because “it’s so typically Canadian,” but all I did was laugh and say something along the lines of “I think it’s fine – you are Canadian afterall….”

The second day of my three day trip was spectacular.

John was a welcome new friend, and I hope we keep in touch.

Everyone else I met was so nice and made me wish I lived in Canada, simply because everyone in the country is automatically your friend.

However, seeing as how this was the temperature the entire time I was there…

That's in Fahrenheit.

That’s in Fahrenheit.

…I don’t plan on making the move any time soon.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

The Steve Martin/John Candy movie always seemed a little depressing to me. One guy keeps getting screwed over and the other guy doesn’t see anything wrong with that.  Well, today that movie seems to have come to fruition, and I’m Steve Martin.

planes_trains_and_automobiles1

It all started with Expedia.com.  I was trying to book a flight to Timmins, Ontario for work and the only way to save the budget for the project was to book through Expedia.  I was on a personal trip and attempting to book the flight from a hotel room. I was getting so frustrated because every time I selected a flight, I would go through all the hoops of selecting my flight, my seat, and everything else when I would get the next screen that would say this flight is no longer available.”

This should have been taken as a sign (Sign #1). Maybe I should have just put off the trip a little later and book it through a real airline instead of the discount site. But no. I was able to book a flight, a hotel, and a rental car, and it ONLY took 1 hour. When it should have taken 20 minutes.

I was continually getting emails from Expedia about booking my trip to Timmins. It was a little confusing because THEY of ALL PEOPLE should be well aware that I already booked my flight to Timmins, right? (Sign #2).

Yesterday I got the email to check in for my flight within 24 hours of my trip. I tried to do that and it kept saying that it couldn’t do that. Call customer service. When I tried to call customer service, this was the recording. “Thank you for calling United Airlines. We are currently experiencing a large volume of calls. All of our representatives are currently helping other customers. If it is not an emergency, try again later.” Well it wasn’t an emergency, so I wasn’t too worried about it. (Sign #3).

Then this morning I headed to the airport in Houston and tried to check in for my flight. No dice. Every time I slide my card into the card reader, it said there was no itinerary that matched my name. (Sign #4). Probably why the website wouldn’t let me check in online either. The lady behind the counter, who looked like a 4-foot tall, black, female version of Dr. Frank-N-Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show, was not remotely helpful or in a hurry.

Seriously.

Seriously.

However, it seemed that everyone was having issues with the kiosks, so I wasn’t so worried about it (take it back to Sign #3). I was finally given one boarding pass, from Houston to Boston, and Ms. Dr. Frank-N-Furter told me these exact words, “This is your boarding pass for Boston. When you get to your gate in Boston, ask for your other boarding passes. This will get you to Boston, but your bag will go on to Timmins.”

Awesome. One less thing to worry about. So I had enough time to get through security and even grab a breakfast sandwich before I walked right onto my plane for Boston. Easy right? Of course I still had two more flights to catch…

I landed in Boston and it turned out I had to go through security again. I thought that was weird, but the only flying I usually do is domestic and small airports, so having to go from Terminal E to Terminal B, it makes sense that I would need to go through security again. No big deal. The airport was pretty awful, but I also blame this on Expedia. See, since I couldn’t check in online, I had no idea what terminal I needed at which airport. I had the flight numbers and the flight times, but that was pretty much it. I had to ask around for where I could find Air Canada, and the guy told me to go to Terminal B. Follow the signs to C Terminal, go across the street, and you’re there. Across the street? How big is this airport? So I followed the signs, found the C Terminal, and was stuck. It took me a while before I could find Terminal B, and it really was across the street. Then I had to go to the ticket counter to get my boarding passes. Not the gate like Dr. Frank-N-Furter said (because I had to go through security again) but at the ticket counter. I got my tickets and was on my way. Then the Boston TSA guy said this.

“You’re going the wrong way!”

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All I could think about was Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (Sign #4 again). I knew people were just saying that because it is December and I’m from Texas, and going to Canada in December is probably suicide, so I didn’t think anything of it.

The flight from Boston to Toronto wasn’t bad, even though this was my “window seat” on the plane.

My "window seat"

My “window seat”

Toronto is actually a much bigger city than I thought it was. I would love to actually spend some time there.

Toronto as far as the eye can see

Toronto as far as the eye can see

When I got off the plane in Toronto everything in the airport was very well marked and stress-free. Where it wasn’t well-marked, they had employees yelling directions of where we needed to go. Flawless. I went through Customs and security again before I got to my Terminal for my final flight of the day.

Last flight of the day

Last flight of the day

This was a tiny little Turbo Prop that we had to walk out onto the runway to board. In the snow. Granted there wasn’t much snow, but it was still about 25 degrees F outside. The plane wasn’t full, so even though it was the smallest plane of the day, I had the most room.

The plane was making me a little nervous though. There was this ear-piercing whine for most of the flight. I’m not sure if it was the particular altitude we were at, or if it was when they turned the heat on in the plane, or what, but I really thought my eardrums were going to start bleeding if it didn’t stop. Of course, as soon as I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, the shrieking stopped, and I was able to read in peace. Then when we started to descend it started again. I would have preferred a crying baby. At least you know why that sound is being made and you aren’t afraid that it’s a breach in the bulkhead.

When I landed in Timmins I went to the rental car counter to get the keys for my rental car while I waited for my luggage. Apparently they were expecting me to pick up my car at 10 am. When I was in the air between Houston and Boston.

Since I hadn’t shown up, they gave away my car. And didn’t have any other cars either. Not exactly sure how you can overbook rental cars, but the girl behind the counter said that they were still expecting two more drivers, and they had no more cars to rent out?! Anyway, I blame Expedia for this too.  I booked my rental car through Expedia, and USUALLY when you book a car through the airline, it automatically sets the time you will get there for when your flight lands. But for some reason Expedia decided that I would be able to pick up the keys on my way to Boston first, so they set up the rental agreement to start at 10 am. True, it was my responsibility to double-check the rental time, but remember how I said it took 1 hour to book flights and a car? I didn’t remember what time my flight was supposed to get in. I was just glad I remembered what DATE I was flying in.

Rental car girl set me up for a rental car for the morning, and I finished waiting for my luggage. I’m still waiting for my luggage. Because Dr. Frank-N-Furter doesn’t know how her job works. My bag is still in Toronto. Apparently I was supposed to get it off the conveyor belt in Toronto and go through customs with it, and then re-check the bag. NOT WHAT I WAS TOLD IN HOUSTON. (Sign #12).

So I called a cab from the airport and waited. And waited.

People came and left in taxis. Mine never came.

I called again, and the guy on the phone said that there had been an accident and he was trying to re-route a taxi to me.

I waited some more. Finally I gave up and called a different cab company. A lady who had just walked in asked if I was waiting for a cab, and when I said yes, she said, “well, there is one down there upside down in a ditch. I bet that one was yours.”

The other cab company showed up within a few minutes, and it turned out that the upside down cab was in fact the one that was supposed to be picking me up. Apparently, my driver, Dan, told me, that that guy is a horrible driver and I should be glad I wasn’t in the car with him. He is actually banned from driving with the company that did pick me up. Wow. (Sign #20).

Dan was really nice. Everyone is Canada is really nice. That’s the only saving grace for this trip so far. He told me of a place where I can see Polar Bears while I’m here. I liked Dan.

Dan only takes cash. The first cab company advertised that they took Visa and Master Card, which was why I called them in the first place. I had enough cash for Dan luckily. He took my American money. Phew.

I got to my hotel and they had my reservation. You know why? Because I booked THIS through Hotels.com. I love Hotels.com. Anyway…

I told the lady at the front desk that I’m expecting a bag, so if they could call me when it comes in, that would be great. Even if it comes in at midnight. I just want my bag.

I went to my room and saw a restaurant in the hotel with a couple people sitting at the bar. I was starving. All I had eaten all day was a breakfast sandwich and three bags of airline pretzels. I went to my room, checked to make sure the wifi was working (because I didn’t think about international charges on my phone, so I’m not sure what to do about that), and I told Hubby that I was safe and sound via Facebook messenger.

I went to the restaurant and asked if I could still order dinner. She said all she had were what basically breaks down to as TV dinners. For $7. I don’t care. I’m starving and I don’t have a car to go anywhere else.

I got her to heat up a shepherd’s pie, and while I was waiting I had a wonderful Canadian lager. I sat and talked with a guy named John for a while, and like all Canadians, he was very nice. I finished my beverage and asked how much I owe. She said $12.50. I said do you take Visa?

No, cash only.

FACEPALM.

A restaurant in a hotel that doesn’t take cards when the hotel does? I tried to use the ATM and it wouldn’t read my card.

John paid for my dinner and I ate in my room.

$7 dinner

$7 dinner

To be fair, I usually travel with cash. But my reasoning behind it was, I RARELY use it, especially when I am on company trips, and I wasn’t about to spend money switching to Canadian currency when I was just going to be here for a couple days. Everyone takes cards these days, anyway, right? Lesson learned.

I lost track of how many signs there were that this little Texas girl was going the wrong way. That something just doesn’t want me to be in Canada. But maybe it was just a bad day.

But tomorrow is another day.

Tomorrow there might be Polar Bears.

polar bear

How to Have An Awesome Vacation While Not Blowing Your Budget

Over the summer after our trip to the Keys, I wrote a guest post for my sister, That Clever Chick, about vacationing on the cheap. I had done a little plug for it here, but I thought to myself, ‘why on EARTH would I force ALL of you to divert from the post you were already reading to read another post?‘ Especially because I know you, fellow travelers, and I know that you got so drawn in by my stories and descriptions that even though you thought, ‘I’ll read this post and then go to the guest post and get two posts in one day!‘ that you completely forgot to read it, didn’t you?

So, here it is, in all its glory. How to Have An Awesome Vacation While Not Blowing Your Budget.

Enjoy!

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

My sister, Beans, has a great blog of her own, but every once in awhile I can convince her to throw some text my way so I can take a nap. Here’s her guest post about saving money on vacation:

There are many ways to go on vacation, and there are many ways to save money.  For most people, these things cannot go hand-in-hand.  That is because many people think that a vacation isn’t a vacation unless you splurge on everything that you wouldn’t normally splurge on.  That is pure insanity to me, but…to each his own, I guess.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand if you are going to have a romantic get-away, and you plan on eating fancy food, drinking fancy wine, and getting massages every day.  But usually people do not do these things on every vacation.  Vacations don’t have to be a romantic get-away, because technically you should have romance all year long, not just in the jungles of South America, living in a bungalow for a week, getting waited on hand and foot.  But that’s a rant for another day.

No, vacations mean travel, seeing the world and other cultures, and experiencing new things that you can’t experience by watching the Travel Channel (because let’s face it, the Travel Channel has just become a channel where you watch people eat weird “food” items now). There is a way to travel on the cheap and still have a great time, and I’m going to give you some tips on how to accomplish this!

The first thing Hubby and I do every year is pick where we are going to go.  That is probably the hardest part anyway, right?  I think the easiest thing to do when planning a vacation is deciding on the dates of travel, and putting it down on the calendar.  If you write something down on the calendar, you are much more likely to do it, rather than putting it off for something else.

The next thing we do is book the plane tickets.  And this is done MONTHS in advance.  Every year we book our vacations in December and plan to go on them in May, so by the time the trip actually arrives, it’s almost like you have a free trip planned, because the travel has already been paid for.  In fact, this year I had enough frequent flyer miles to get free flights to Key West, so it really was free to get where we were going!

Over the next month we book the hotel and the rental car, and pay for as much of it ahead of time as possible.  Rental cars can’t be paid for completely in advance, but if you get the Loss Damage Waiver (which we do every time we rent, no matter what) then you can pay for that before you get the car, and that is usually half the cost of the rental car in the first place.

Another tip is to go before tourist season, if possible.  Now, this has pros and cons, so this is mainly a personal decision.  One benefit is that hotels are usually not full, so you can ask for a free upgrade for your room, and you can easily get a room with a view of water for instance, instead of a view of the parking lot.  However, sometimes tours (such as SCUBA or Snorkeling tours) have a required number of people that need to be signed up for the tour before they can take the tour group out.  So, since it’s before tourist season, you are risking not being able to go on the Ghost Tour of Seattle or something because not enough people signed up the night you planned on doing it.

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Another great money saving trick is probably the simplest, but most people would never think of.  FIND THE GROCERY STORE.  Most hotel rooms have a mini fridge in them, right?  And you probably never use the mini fridge, do you?  This is the easiest, cheapest way to do several things: buy sandwich fixin’s and make a picnic on the beach.  We even brought a collapsible cooler with us on our trip, so we could keep food and drinks in the car.  Buy sodas, bottled water, and/or sports drinks to keep you hydrated while you explore the area and buy a small bottle of liquor to mix in with the previously mentioned beverages to relax by the pool.

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Remember not to buy more than you will consume while you are on vacation.  True, you can check your leftover beverages in your luggage, but if your bottle of tequila starts leaking under the plane, I have a feeling that the other passengers will not be happy with you when you land.  It is easier just to go back to the store if you ran out of something.  Also, keep in mind that some cities, like Austin, have banned plastic grocery bags, so maybe you would want to bring some reusable green bags with you too.  Sometimes your hotel room will also have a microwave in the room.  If that’s the case you just scored big, because that means that when you DO go out for dinner, you can bring your leftovers back with you for another meal! Or midnight snack, whatever.  Either way, it saves a trip to the vending machines, right?  Or you could be like my Hubby, and not even require a microwave.  (He’s not a picky eater).

One of the most expensive parts of vacationing is the food and drinks.  I know that when I was leaving for our last trip to Florida, several people told me to “drink pretty drinks!”  I’m not saying I snuck away from the restaurant to mix a quick rum and Diet Dr. Pepper and then run back to the restaurant, but while we were relaxing by the pool or on our patio over-looking the bay (from our free room upgrade) I didn’t waste my time or money ordering drinks from the hotel bar, because I had my own adult beverages that I could mix as I pleased.  The price difference? At the hotel bar, the mango daiquiris that I was drinking were about $6 each.  The Kraken Rum and Diet Dr. Pepper that I mixed in the hotel room? About $1.50 each.  Big difference, right?

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We made a plan to eat most breakfasts and lunches in the hotel room, but dinners were usually spent out on the town.  That’s the key to a good vacation – you can’t be worried about how much it is costing the entire time, because then you won’t have any fun.  If you find cheaper alternatives, you can still indulge a bit, and save money at the same time.

Also, go to the Visitor’s Center for the city you will be staying in.  They always have flyers for nearby attractions, and they usually have discount rates, coupons, or Buy One Get One Free tickets that they hand out like it’s Halloween.  Trust me on this: the guy at the Key West Visitors Center really must have wanted me to get drunk, because he gave us about 15 Buy One Drink Get One Free tickets for various bars on Duval Street.

Be sure to check Trip Advisor too.  This can be a big help in knowing what is and what is not worth spending your money on.  My suggestion is to go through all the flyers in the Visitor’s Center and pick out some things that sound interesting.  Then go online to Trip Advisor and check out the reviews for those places.  Who knows, you could accidentally find a place that lets you hold orphaned sloth babies that is $300 a person to go to, but you may find out that it’s worth every penny, because with the purchase of an entrance pass, you get a free pet sloth baby.  Some things you can’t know until you find out other people’s experiences.

Sometimes even free places aren’t worth the money it would take to drive there, so take other people’s opinions seriously, and consider your options.  That said, because Trip Advisor is so important to travelers, be sure that when you get back to your hotel that you review the places that you went on your adventures, too.  Whether they were good, great, or just plain awful experiences, people want to know what to expect.  I know I have written some awful reviews of companies in the past, but I have also written glowing ones.  YOU HAVE THE POWER.

Also there are Loyalty Programs – hotels, rental car companies, and airlines all do loyalty programs.  If you travel for work, you will rack up free car rentals, free hotel stays, and free flights in no time.

If you are going to buy Souvenirs – I have quickly learned that most people don’t want a random crappy shot glass from a bar they have never heard of, from a city they have never been to.  You don’t necessarily need to buy gifts for everyone in the family, or everyone single person at work.  If you feel the need to buy something for work people, like if you are talking about your upcoming trip to a friend and the annoying guy in the office announces, “I hope you bring us something good, since we have to stay here and slave away!” then buy something small, consumable, and that everyone will like: CANDY.  I’m sure every little town is famous for one thing or another.  Key West is of course famous for Key Lime Pie.  I was not about to buy and ship actual pies home for everyone at work, but I did consider Key Lime Pie Salt Water Taffy.  I of course didn’t get my coworkers anything, but that’s beside the point. I still THOUGHT about doing it.

Many places are not cheap to visit, but if they were, then they wouldn’t be very good vacation destinations, because they would be packed with people all the time, right?  So if you take my advice, hopefully you can plan out your next great vacation, and people can be jealous of you while you are getting a tan in the Caribbean, riding elephants in India, or petting wild meerkats on the African savannah.  Who knows, maybe soon people at your office will start trying to predict your next adventure, like the people at my office do with me?

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Safe Travels.

Clever Chick Note: Saving money is about priorities; you’re saving to do the things you want rather than thoughtlessly letting money slip through your fingers. If you approach your vacation the same way you can take MORE vacations, or more expensive ones. Have fun!

Art Walk 2013

Hubby and I went to college WAY out in west Texas. And no, I don’t mean that we went to Texas Tech. Lubbock is NOT west Texas.

texasmap

Texas Geography Lesson #1

Lubbock is obviously in NORTH Texas. Alpine/Big Bend National Park is obviously WEST Texas. Now, I probably didn’t draw these regions out exactly the way they are in real life (there are true divisions in this state), but some people consider San Antonio as part of Central Texas, and others count it as part of South Texas. So I guess I should have really put that as a dotted line instead.

Anyway, like I was saying Hubby and I went to college in West Texas, at Sul Ross State University. We loved living in that area, but it’s hard to find good jobs there because it’s so isolated and mostly ranch land surrounding it, so we ended up getting jobs back in southeast Texas (a sub-region dividing East Texas because sometimes East Texas is really just an extension of Louisiana). Every once in a while we like to go back to Alpine for vacation, especially because we still have a lot of friends in the area, and we love Big Bend National Park. Our plan was to go to Alpine for Art Walk. It’s an annual celebration that was started while we were living there. The art galleries stay open late, there is live music on the street, and every year it gets bigger and better.

This year, even Ray Wylie Hubbard was playing!

I travel a lot for work (the Zombie and Poltergeist Prevention business) so I get quite a few frequent flyer miles that we love to cash in for free trips, so we used my frequent flyer miles to buy two tickets to Midland, three hours north of Alpine, but still considered West Texas (Texas Geography Lesson #2).  This was our plan:

1. Fly into Midland and drive to Alpine – get into town just in time for a late dinner with friends and hit the bar.

2. Get up CRAZY early and head down to Big Bend National Park.

3. Hike the South Rim Trail, which I think is like 12 miles.

4. Get off the mountain just at the right time to get sunset photos of the Sierra del Carmen mountains, and head back to Alpine (more than a 1 hour drive).

5. Enjoy Art Walk, see all of the friends that we still have in Alpine, go to every bar, and see the artwork of a friend in one of the galleries.

6. Spend the day buying Christmas presents for our friends’ kids, and send them home with said friends.

7. Enjoy a leisurely drive back to Midland, and get on our evening flight back home.

8. Be home for a late dinner.

As the date of our trip got closer and closer, the weather forecast was getting grim. 30 degrees F as the high. Mixed sleet and snow. But we already had the trip planned, and we were determined to go. Hiking in the cold isn’t that bad, afterall. We got free drinks on the airplane because the flight attendant never came back to pick up our drink coupons that I love getting in the mail, and it was off to a pretty good start!

However, the temperature didn’t get above 27 degrees the entire time. We were able to get a free upgrade for our rental car, and got a Nissan Frontier truck. We were excited about this because we would have a high clearance vehicle for Big Bend, and if the roads were snowy, that would be helpful too. We got out to our truck and it was coated in ice. We had to set there for 30 minutes, letting it defrost so we could see through the windshield and windows.

On the 3 hour drive from Midland to Alpine, we were worried about frozen bridges the entire time. We finally crawled into town at 9 pm, and got a late dinner from Cow Dog, the best hotdogs you can find. Anywhere. Everything was covered in ice. We had to eat standing up because all of the outdoor seating was frozen.

We hit a couple bars, ran into old friends, and stayed out until about 2am. It started snowing and the roads were icing over. We weren’t real sure we were going to make it out to Big Bend after all. That morning we woke up and everything was coated in a thick layer of ice. There would be no traveling to the park today. For those of you who have never been to Big Bend National Park, let me explain (Texas Geography Lesson #3).

It is isolated.

I mean

ISOLATED.

If something goes wrong while you are down there, it could be a while before someone comes by. You rarely have a cell phone signal. You rarely even have a radio signal. And weather in the desert can change in an instant. The last thing we wanted to do was get stuck down in the park because they closed the roads, or worse – get stuck because there was an ice storm and we ran off the road into a canyon that three cars a day drive past.

This is what the main road to the Chisos Mountain Basin  looked like on Monday, two days after we had planned on going. If we had gotten into the park to begin with, we probably would have been stuck there until Tuesday!

So instead of risking death, or at the very least a miserable day in the cold, wind, and snow, we stayed in Alpine. We got discounted breakfast at the restaurant that is in the same parking lot as our hotel, and that place is the epitome of a small town diner. It’s called Penny’s, and it looks like it’s made out of an Airstream trailer. Food there is usually only consumed at 2 am when suddenly you are in the mood for French toast and gravy, but it was discounted and we didn’t have to drive to it, so that’s where we ate.

Now if you are looking for good service, try somewhere else in town. But if you are looking to people watch, this is the best seat around. The short-order cook makes the food right in front of you so you can watch him almost burn up the kitchen with a grease fire or try to figure out why the fryer isn’t working. You can also listen to all of the employees complain about other employees calling in “sick” or try to figure out if Hubby has been given all of his food (he hadn’t) while they make pancakes for an order that doesn’t exist. It’s entertaining at least.

Café Moca

Yummy Café Moca

Afterwards we hit the town and enjoyed the coffee shop, Plaine while we waited for our friends to meet us for lunch (this trip ended up revolving around food and bars, but we were ok with that).

T-Shirt in a hot dog bun bag

T-Shirt in a hot dog bun bag, plus free stickers!

I was FINALLY able to buy a Cow Dog t-shirt and the Cow Dog himself, Alan, recognized Hubby and me from long, long ago and we were able to chat him up a bit about moving away from Alpine.  He’s a great guy, and I’m always happy to give him my business (especially if I get a Cow Dog out of it). I really appreciated how he repurposed his hot dog bun bags for t-shirt bags. Reduce, reuse, recycle afterall!

We had heard about Big Bend Brewing Company after we moved away, and I had never had a chance to try it until this trip. I was very excited, because Alpine had once, long, long ago had a German microbrewery called Edelweiss (pronounced A-Dell-Vice for you non-German speakers) and it was the best beer we had ever had. It was actually the reason Hubby and I became craft brew snobs. Long story short, Edelweiss is no more, but you can always have a chat with the man that started it all, Harry Moise, who now owns, operates, and hangs out at Harry’s Tinaja in Alpine. Go have a drink with him, but remember, it’s cash only.

And the guy that started BBBCo was actually a brewmaster in Austin, Texas and moved to Marfa. I’m just glad he opened the brewery in Alpine instead of Marfa, but if you aren’t from that area, you won’t understand ;)

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There was an open house at the brewery with free beer, but we had just eaten lunch and it was absolutely freezing inside the brewery (it’s just an open warehouse) so we didn’t stay long. Instead we went back to the hotel to take showers and take a nap, only to find that our hotel had lost power because of the ice.  We napped for a while and woke up colder than when we had fallen asleep, and then we hit the town again for the actual Art Walk. It wasn’t that big of a turn out this year because of the weather, but it was still fun, and we still got to run into a bunch of old friends.

Christmas lights on Yucca

Christmas lights on Yucca

Ice on grass

Ice on grass

Giant grasshopper out of reclaimed metal

Giant grasshopper out of reclaimed metal

Snow on Chili Peppers

Snow on Chili Peppers

Art Walk on Main Street

Art Walk on Main Street

Ice on Lantana

Ice on Lantana

Ice on Red Yucca

Ice on Red Yucca

Bicycle Powered Parade Float - but the parade was cancelled due to the awful weather

Bicycle Powered Parade Floats – but the parade was cancelled due to the awful weather. Reindeer in the foreground, a giant bat in the background. And for some reason, a Gypsy van was there too?

Wish I could have seen this guy in action at the parade

Wish I could have seen this guy in action at the parade

Although our trip didn’t go exactly as we had planned, we still had a great time. It made me miss seeing the snow every year, but it also made Hubby remember how much he hates the snow :)  And, because we didn’t get to hit Big Bend National Park, it just made us want to plan another trip out there so we can see the beautiful desert and mountains that we miss so much. Because (Texas Geography Lesson #4) the desert gets in your blood.