Kemah Boardwalk is a development of restaurants, hotels and amusement rides on the south side of the outlet of Clearwater Lake into Galveston Bay. It is a pleasant place to walk around and enjoy the passing boats and activities. As we did one day after lunch at the spectacular East Star buffet in Webster.
We, in this case, were: Ninabeth and Gary, Juanita’s sister and her husband; Juanita; and, of course, me.
Travel to March SOWERS Project
Once we decided to delay our return to Canada to late March or early April we applied for a SOWER project. It was kind of last minute for the SOWER office, but they dealt with us with grace and kindness and accepted our application provisionally on the host’s approval. The host quickly replied the same day that it worked for them. As the first and only SOWER couple to apply for the March project at this location we were designated GL’s (group leaders). This meant that we were due to arrive on Thursday. So on Thursday, March 2nd we got up and puttered around getting ready to go.
If you wish to drive across a major city with an RV you either get up really early and leave about 5 a.m. to get on the road before rush hour or you leave to hit downtown about ten in the morning. The commuters are at work and the bulk of shoppers aren’t cluttering the roadways yet. With a slightly over two-hour drive ahead of us we opted for the ten a.m. departure and took our time getting ready and left Victory Camp just about perfectly to hit downtown just right.
The SOWERS literature suggest that you use the directions given in the project listing rather than following the advice of a GPS to get to a project. The GPS might not be up to date and it is probably, unless it is a specialized GPS, going to direct you to a route fit for a Honda Civic, not something the size of an RV. I like to use the GPS to get close enough and then switch to the printed directions. This time the GPS started getting strange as it directed us off the interstate onto a side road fairly early. So we followed it as far as a turnaround spot and ran it by hand from there. I called our contact person at Forest Glen Christian Camp and told him we were about half an hour out and got his advice on which gate to use. We have worked this project before but it was seven years ago. A person forgets things in seven years. Hey! At my age a person forgets things in seven seconds.
Since the last time we were at Forest Glen the five mile public road from the highway has been paved. That’s a nice improvement. The paving stops pretty much at the camp. The road network carries on south and links up to different area roads and highways, but it remains unpaved. Some of the people we worked with at the camp came to work each day from the south. One day one mentioned that he had to back up and find a different way to get around a fallen oak tree. Another day he mentioned that he met a bunch of hikers. The Lone Star Trail goes from the west side of Huntsville, Texas, through the Sam Houston Forest and over 100 miles of main trail and side loops east to the other end near Cleveland, Texas. At a couple of points it is routed out of the woods, along a rural road and then back into the woods. Looking at the map I saw that a few miles from the camp it does that to get around some parcels of private land. But I digress.
Some projects feed you. This is one of them. When there are campers on campus you get lunch on your work days. We were a little late for lunch once we had parked the rig and got it hooked up, but they had saved a couple of lunch baskets for us. That was thoughtful. Breakfast is provided as well, but after the first day we fended for ourselves and just showed up at the work site.
Forest Glen Christian Camp
Forest Glen is a camp east of Huntsville, Texas in the forest of pines, oaks and a bunch of other trees I don’t recognize. The last time we were here we were with four or five other SOWER couples. We made, stained and assembled bunk beds. We also brightened up a couple of dorm cabins, painting the upper woodwork white, modifying the fluorescent lighting and painting the walls some bright colours. That gave them a couple more years of useful life through a time when there were not funds available to replace them. There are funds now. Two of those cabins have been torn down and two much larger dorm cabins are under construction in their place. The previous months’ SOWERS had put the metal roofing on the two new cabins.
Normally the SOWER men work six hours a day and the SOWER ladies work three. The men do “men stuff” like carpentry and plumbing and maybe painting and so on. The ladies do office work, light cleaning and painting. Normally they all take a half hour break in the morning and the men take an hour break for lunch. Here, Juanita and I worked together working the full day doing construction work and worked the same hours as the staff and contract staff workers we were working along side of. We took one break for lunch of about forty or forty-five minutes. Most days Juanita and I quit earlier than the staff ending our day at the traditional SOWER 3:30. We also took Fridays off, except one week when they were under the gun to have the insulation done before the dry wallers showed. Spending extra time insulating is like taking an extra serving of brussels sprouts. More of the thing you like least. We can’t complain, during the same time crunches we worked a bit extra the staff person and his two contracted workers worked until nine at night.
Well, what did we do this project?
The same as every time, Pinky.
Whatever needs doing.
The wiring was mostly finished by an electrical contractor in the one dorm. We worked at running the home runs and the wiring for the branch circuits in the other dorm. In Canada the typical brand is called Loomex, in the States it is called Romex, but it is all NM (Non-Metallic) sheathed wiring. We ran it to the boxes and back to the panels, leaving enough to work with at the panel. The panels were in the utility rooms which were not going to be dry walled so they were not on the critical path for dry wall and could be worked in later. At the boxes we stripped off the sheathing and left that in the boxes to be hooked up later. Then the scissor lift showed up and Juanita and I installed the pot lights in the ceiling. Juanita was fine with working from the scissor lift but took a pass on actually operating it. The cage of the scissor lift had to be removed to get it through the doorway into the building and then reinstalled once through the doorway. Also, some center walls studs had been temporarily removed to allow the scissor lift to move between rooms. We wired the pot lights.
After all the wiring and lights were in we insulated the ceilings and the walls. The interior dividing walls were insulated for noise control. The exterior walls for thermal control. Once the one building was insulated the scissor lift was moved to the other building and we did the same insulation there. I replaced the missing studs for scissor lift access and other framing members that had been left out for moving shower enclosures into place. Then the dry-wallers showed up and we moved outside.
Juanita and I worked on one dorm building, cladding the structural wood members with rough cedar boards. John and Rob, the two contract staff members, did the other building. They worked longer hours each day, but were subject to more interruptions and had to carry their cedar from in front of our building and use the table saw in front of our building. The last thing to do was to go around the bottom of the supporting posts with one by four inch pieces. They finished their building and came to help us at this stage. They did three of our posts and we did four. So we pretty much finished at the same time but they were three posts faster overall. I thought we did pretty good for a couple of old timers against a couple of men younger than ourselves. Both buildings looked pretty good. When they are sealed they will look really good. Before we started we checked out the dorms on another circle. John did them last year. The final seal coat really brings out the grain of the cedar.
I have read a few books about stack wall construction. In one of the books the author says that the typical pattern is for somebody to build their house and afterwards, a few years later, to build a stack wall garage or workshop. Typically, the garage and the workshop have much better quality fit and finish, because of the things learned while building the house. He suggested that maybe people should build their workshop or garage first and apply the lessons to the house. As pleased as I was with the results there were a couple of things if I had it to do over I would do differently with the cedar. Nobody will notice the opportunities to be better but me, but it would be nice to do another one.
Joel, the staff person in charge of the new construction, had allowed four days to do the cladding. We took three and had worked a lot of extra hours through the project, especially considering that Juanita worked twice as long as normal for ladies each day. When we showed up for work on Thursday he said we could take the day off if we chose. We chose to work the morning and did a thorough clean-up of our work area and then laid a hundred and twenty feet of two inch water line before calling it a day at lunch time. That meant we had time to putter around the rig and put away tools and still had time to clean up before heading to town. Normally when we finish at 3:30 we are both tired and our clothes are soaking wet from sweat. It takes over an hour just sitting there in the rig with the air conditioning running to dry off and start to feel ready to start moving again and have a shower. Coming back to our rig after lunch in an air conditioned cafeteria was like gaining four hours in the day.
The next few days we puttered getting ready to roll and analyzed the weather systems to the north and decided to leave Monday morning. We brought in the slides Sunday night in anticipations of a couple of overnight showers. As usual we didn’t hit our targeted departure of 7:00 a.m. but we were rolling through the auxiliary gate before 8. Good enough.
Sam Houston Memorial Museum
Sam Houston was a man of limited formal schooling who went to live with the Indians for a while and then briefly taught school and then later got married for a while and then a couple of times more for much longer periods of time. He was an adventurer, a U.S. congressman. A U.S. senator, President of a country, governor of two different states, a general, an Indian agent and a lawyer.
Quite the life.
That life was lived a bit of the time in Texas and ended in Huntsville, Texas. You get a glimpse of that life in the exhibits and sprawling grounds of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum which itself adjoins the grounds of the Sam Houston State University. There are a number of reconstructed buildings that give a feel for living conditions during his lifetime. At some times of the year there are artisans in period costumes working the blacksmith shop etc. It was a pleasant and informative place to wander for a few hours one weekend afternoon.
Texas Prison Museum
One of the main prisons in the Texas prison system is located at Huntsville. Across the highway is the Texas Prison Museum. It has displays of prison life and history from its infamous past to the more enlightened times of the fifties and sixties. There are lots of displays and lots of stuff to read about famous inmates such as Clyde Barrow of Bonny and Clyde fame as well as other notables. Various artifacts of coercion, punishment and execution are on display as well as things the prisoners made in the work shops and on the sly. Unless you are a particularly slow reader two hours is more than enough time.
Sam Houston Statue
Just south of Huntsville is a large statue of Sam Houston. It can be seen from the Interstate. Finally after twelve years of driving by we went and visited Sam. Not sure what the point is, but it was a nice destination for a few sunny minutes to walk though the woods, stare up at the statue, hand out a few curved illusion tracts and then get back in the truck and go to lunch.
National Museum of Funeral History
A few years ago we went to the National Museum of Funeral History and found it quite interesting. I’m not sure it would normally deserve a return visit so soon. Their displays change a bit with time, but not that quickly. However we were looking for a place about half way between Juanita’s sister and brother-in-law’s home in Friendswood and our spot near Huntsville. Checking out attractions near The Woodlands and Spring didn’t produce any compelling choices. Gary and Ninabeth had not been there before so we agreed to meet them for lunch and then travel to the museum.
The choice for lunch was a Taco Cabana not too far from the museum. I was pretty sure we had been there a few times in the past about seven years ago and looked the restaurant up on Google maps. It seemed to be where I remembered and I copied out the address and punched it into the GPS in the truck when we left. Along about the time I thought we were getting close the GPS took us off in a startlingly different direction and we ended up in a subdivision a few miles away on the wrong side of the Interstate. I went with my gut and drove to were I thought it should be and there were the restaurant and the in-laws.
They had coupons! The only thing I like better than food is getting a discount on the food. Yeah!
During the meal I went through a pile of napkins for my dripping nose and during the tour of the museum I went through a wad of tissues. At the end of the tour when we parted company I decided an additional twenty minute ride toward Houston to a Harbor Freight store was totally too much and we went home and I took more drugs and lay about the rest of the day. I think Gary and Ninabeth found the museum interesting. Juanita said she enjoyed it and I found it interesting enough under the circumstances. If you haven’t been there you should give it a try.
Disc Golf Champion
One afternoon a very large newish, fifth wheel trailer (with hydraulic levelers!) parked next to us for the night. It was painted with signage advertising the owner's expertise with disc golf. I knew what disc golf was, having investigated installing a short course at Bethel camp, but Juanita had never heard of it. Apparently our short term neighbour made hundreds of thousands dollars in prize money playing disc golf. Who knew that was possible?
The Trip Home
Thursday was our last work day. Under SOWER guidelines we had the option of staying through Friday of the next week. We sifted through weather forecasts and highway cams in North Dakota and tried to decide on a departure date that would get us home before there was serious melting there and avoid bad road conditions or nasty weather on the way. Things seemed to point to Monday as the best of the trade-offs. We would work toward that and recalculate if forecasts changed.
In the last work week I had asked our co labourers in the vineyard what they did if there was a tornado. Was there a tornado shelter on campus? Not to worry. They explained that there were never big tornadoes in the area. On Friday night when a “Tornado Warning” appeared in our weather apps we didn’t know what to do. We shared thoughts of flimsy fifth wheel trailer nestled in the tall trees and decided that we would be better off in our truck and drove it to a spot that was less tree intense and sat watching the sheets of rain illuminated by flashes of lightning for about half an hour and then went back next to our rig and picked up more nasty weather reports and went back for a rinse and repeat for another half hour. Then we came home, answered the worried text from Juanita’s sister who had been watching the weather warnings, and went to bed.
Saturday we had brief thoughts of leaving on Wednesday. It was a relief not to be faced with a marathon of driving so soon, but closer examination of forecasts in Oklahoma still suggested the best departure would be to leave Monday, get halfway up Oklahoma and re-examine our options. I puttered around outside the rig, getting ready. Juanita did likewise inside. I cleaned off the bedroom counter that I do every year or two whether it needs it or not. It is hard being a lazy neat freak. Nothing pleases me. I don’t like doing the work and I don’t like the result of not doing the work. My direct reports always said I was demanding. Self supervision has its bad moments when one feels both harassed and disappointed.
Around noon we showered and headed to Huntsville to use up the last of our money on our Chili’s cards/coupons at a pleasant lowish carb lunch. Then we drove to College Station to the nearest Harbor Freight and stocked up on nitrile gloves for the next two years and tried to find a way to top up my Virgin Mobile phone. I will not bore you with the relentless but failed pursuit in College Station, Huntsville and, later, on-line. Sunday morning I tried one last stupid thing and gave my credit card address a zip code rather than its correct postal code. Bazinga! The message that it couldn’t calculate the tax was because it uses the zip code to determine which State you are in for sales tax purposes. I waited for the other shoe to drop and to be told they had punted the credit card for having the wrong billing address, but that didn’t happen.
Sunday afternoon we finalized our preparations to leave, filled the waste tanks with soap and washing soda solutions, took showers, pulled in the slides and headed off to Trinity Pines near Trinity, Texas for a few hours at a SOWERS reunion. It was great to meet a few people we had worked with recently and in the distant past. We do three or four SOWER projects every second winter so the SOWERS have not become our replacement family like they have for many members, but it is still good to visit and catch up with people.
Monday morning we unhooked and stowed the power cord, hooked up the truck to the trailer, did the circle checks on the truck and trailer, did one last pit stop at the laundry building across the street and were on our way. I unlocked the utility gate to the road and Juanita locked it back up behind us. We stopped briefly at the MacDonald’s in Trinity and then carried on north, paying careful attention to the road atlas so the GPS didn’t drag us through towns with loops around them. We always pay special attention on the loop around Paris, Texas after we missed our exit and went around it one and a half times a few years ago (“Hey! Isn’t that the same Burger King we passed a half hour ago?”).
This trip the GPS took us off the Paris loop one exit early, but that placed us in the best lane for turning right onto the highway north. The GPS is not always bad.
We had good weather with the odd wind gust the rest of the way to Eufaula, Oklahoma. About nine Juanita called the Passport America RV park near Onapa to make a booking, but they were full. We found another Passport America RV park closer to Eufaula and called them after their office opened. The woman said that we didn’t need a reservation since they had hundreds of spaces. It was a little further off the highway than the one we had originally intended to stay at, but had pull-through sites that were a lot more level than the other one had when we stayed there. We signed in and were assigned a pull-through site, but told to choose another if we liked it better. After choosing the best site we hooked up water, sewer and power and opened the slides. I flushed the tanks of their soap solutions and there we were. Ready for the night.
After we were set up we called David and Charlene, friends of Way of the Cross. He has paid for and assisted in the construction of numerous churches in Mexico and Nicaragua. We agreed to meet up with them at the Braum's in Eufaula for coffee a little later. This would be our last chance for Braum's ice cream for more than a year. Then we chose the best of the food in the freezer for supper, cooked it and caught up on e-mail until it was time to head for town.
After a good visit together we parted company and all headed back home for the night. I fueled up on the way out of town. It is always easier to find a pump when you don’t have a trailer behind you.
Tuesday morning we were up fairly early, and busy with preparations. We didn’t want to lolly gag because they had had severe storms and a row of tornadoes go through on the weekend and were expecting more in the afternoon. We wanted to be on the road to get as far north as possible to out run those and to minimize our time in the rainy weather predicted for Missouri, Iowa and South Dakota starting later that night. This was also the time we would close up the slides and winterize the water lines. The slides would stay in until after we were home in Saskatchewan. I dumped and flushed the tanks and flushed them some more. Juanita defrosted the fridge and put potentially usable frozen items in an insulated bag. We gave the last of our butter and eggs away to a neighbour. I bypassed and drained the water heater and filled the water lines with anti-freeze, leaving the waste tank valves open until the last minute to make sure that any residue in the tanks was at least 50% anti-freeze. All the hoses and power cable got a good wipe down before stowing. While we were finishing up our tasks a pair of Canada geese passed honking overhead. I guess they are no more enthusiastic to leave the shirt sleeve weather than we are. We, however, have seen the storm predictions. Gotta go! And Go we did, about nine thirty. Not really that bad.
The weather and roads were perfect. We took highway 69 north until it hit the turnpike toward Joplin. We got on the turnpike and stopped at the first plaza and fueled up. I put a couple of frozen burritos in aluminum foil on the manifold and then we were back on the turnpike. I had washed the windshield while fueling up and I guess I bumped the clip on the driver’s side windshield wiper. Back on the freeway I hit the washer button to get rid of some streaks and the wiper blade went flying off into the traffic in the next lane. Oops.
We followed the GPS off the turnpike and back onto highway 69. It started as two lane and wandered through a couple of towns. The day before I had noticed a sign on an O’Reilly’s parts store about a special on Rain-X wiper blades. We stopped and bought two at the first O’Reilly’s. Another customer getting out of his car asked if we travelling historic route 66. I guess it passes through there from Joplin to Oklahoma City. Nope. Just headed north. In not too long a time the highway became four lane and was that way all the way to Kansas City with almost no traffic until we hit rush hour in KC. We took the northeast loop around KC. Way too busy for my taste, but you just hang on, pray, and steer until it’s over and you are back on normal Interstate highway.
We often have overnighted at a truck stop near Mound City, Missouri but the gauge was getting a bit low and we stopped a few exits sooner and fueled up. We still had lots of daylight and I had lots of energy so we carried on into Iowa and through Council Bluffs. The interstate through Council Bluff has been upgraded in the last couple of years and the GPS had some challenges when it showed us flying through empty space, but it eventually recovered and figured out where we were by the time we had made it out of the City. We stopped in a truck stop in Missouri Valley, Iowa and fueled up. Then I backed the truck and trailer in between a couple of semi’s and turned on the furnace in the rig for it to warm up while we ate supper. We considered dining at the Arby’s but one of the semi drivers told Juanita that we should skip that idea. The place was crowded and the service was terrible and slow he said. We ate in the restaurant in the truck stop. It was fine.
During the night it blew and rained and was still raining after breakfast when I did the circle checks and torqued the lug nuts on the trailer wheels. Back on the road, we took our time moving along and didn’t make any sudden moves and made okay time. All the construction still going on in Sioux City had closed one of my least favorite spots on the highway in that city. It was an on-ramp that flung cars up out of nowhere with hardly any room to merge and usually a full lane of traffic next to you. Maybe the changes will permanently alter that spot. I hope so. I was just happy for now that it was closed for construction.
By the time we got to Sioux Falls and stopped at the Flying J the rain had stopped. There was a motor home at the next RV lane with the owner dumping his tanks and making sure it was ready to head home to Manitoba. You never know if a dump station you were counting on is still closed for the winter. I had been conservative winterizing in Oklahoma. He was still on the conservative side. The very first year I relied on Woodall’s Directory that the campground in Grand Forks opened April first. That was a joke. There was nobody there at all. We managed to get into the dump station and use it and leave some money in an envelope. But I wouldn’t count on being able to do that.
We carried on under ideal driving conditions and spring like temperatures, stopping in Summit for fuel and again in Grand Forks.
As we left Fargo north on the Interstate towards Winnipeg, the GPS insisted we turn onto the east-west interstate, it being the best route “home”. We ignored it and it settled down until we were in Grand Forks and we ignored it again.
For once I had all my paperwork ready to cross the border. I had it ready when we left Texas. Normally I end up parked at a table in the restaurant in the truck stop in Grand Forks, but this time I was ready. We got to the border and waited in line. The border guard asked when we left the country and where we had been. I told him October 14th and mostly Texas, but most of January in Nicaragua. He asked what we had done in Nicaragua. I told him. He asked what we had brought back from Nicaragua and I told him nothing and he said have a nice day. I said we bought some stuff in the states and he repeated his have a nice day and smiled. I smiled and said goodbye and we left. No paperwork needed.
The GPS had only grumbled at my independent spirit a few times since Fargo but it woke up again shortly after the border and tried directing us around Winnipeg on secondary roads. We would miss the city, but we would also join the Trans Canada Highway (Hwy 1) far west of the Flying J at Headingly so I ignored it and carried on on the route we always take, north to the ring road and around on the ring road to Hwy 1.
Two blocks after we got off the ring road we pulled into the Flying J, fueled up, parked the trailer, turned on the furnace and went in for supper at Denny’s. Overnight the wind shook the rig violently and drove the rain violently at the side. At least that’s what Juanita tells me. I slept through it all. When I woke up really early the rain was dying off, but the wind was still pretty strong. The rain had stopped a little later when I went for breakfast and by the time Juanita had joined me and we finished a leisurely breakfast and caught up on all the world news on line the wind had slackened off somewhat.
We stopped a couple of towns into Saskatchewan for fuel, then again at Davidson the other side of Regina and at the Red Bull the other side of Saskatoon. When we left Headingley the GPS said our estimated travel time would get us home at almost eight o’clock. With the time change into Saskatchewan and stopping on the road a few times for fuel it worked out pretty close. The two cancelled each other out and we arrived at about quarter to eight. Just enough light to see to get into the property.
I had called earlier in the week and arranged for Willie McAmmond to plow the road and the parking area. It was just frozen enough to allow me to clumsily turn the rig around and park in the middle of the parking area. I cut and filled a bit with Juanita waving the flashlight to direct me to move to one side of the area but was making no progress and the ground was being softened up so there it will sit until the spring thaw is done and we have a few weeks of really dry weather. Debbie and the kids showed up in the dark to encourage the process and then left us alone to wait while the house warmed up and to decide how thawed the memory gel mattress needed to be before it was warm enough to collapse on in exhaustion.
Home again after almost six months. We had left the heat really low, but high enough that the inside temperature didn’t get below 38* F. during the winter. However, I did notice that the crawl space heat circuit breaker had been left turned off all winter. Oops. The lines were all filled with anti-freeze, but the next day as I shocked the well and re-established the water system there were a couple of ball valves that had been closed with water and not anti-freeze in the body. The first hissed air and then bubbled and dripped water from the body seal when turning on the submersible pump pressure system. I went to town and bought a replacement and installed it, then commissioned the next section. A supply valve to the filters dripped a bit on the valve stem. I put a bucket under it and finished the rest of the recommissioning and then went to town to buy another valve. Heat. Water. What else could a person want?
Then it was time to open mail and get tax stuff together and buy tax software and figure out what to do about the new training standards the union initiated while we were gone. But that is pretty much a next month story.