Thursday, March 25, 2010

Abstract Painting

A friend mentioned how she was interested in an ebay painter who sells abstracts in the $100-500 range. So I started looking at a couple of  these artistes: Libby is the friend's favorite; Crabtree is mine.  That got me  interested in dabbling some more with the paints and canvas. Feeling the need for some creative outlet before the next trip, which is now shaping up for after April 7 and possibly to the gulf coast of Florida.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Bee-Line Alignment in Columbus

I was a little concerned about Morty's tires before the last trip, so I took him to a national chain tire store for his oil change and asked them about the tires. They could do the oil change, but didn't know much about the tire situation. What? Tire is their middle name!

Now Morty was starting to show a little cupping on the front tires so I called R&S Tires about checking the alignment and they suggested Bee-Line for that work on a truck chassis. I called and they had me bring it over. Wow! Another great service experience. They got right on the alignment and suggested that a tire rotation would be necessary to stop the excessive wear. Starting the rotation job at 11:45 meant that the tech would have to delay his lunch break. No problem. He got the job done in a half-hour and that included balancing both the new front wheels. 

I couldn't have asked for anything more from these guys. Plus, both jobs were completed for what I was expecting to pay for the alignment alone. Morty is one happy RV camper again.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ms Garmina Gets Glamorous

One of the inter-trip rituals, is downloading new maps for the Garmin Nuvi 200 that we use to find our way. That process can be very frustrating unless you remember to switch your browser to Internet Explorer. My favorite browser is now Google Chrome, but using that one lets you do a three-hour download that seems to be unable to run. Unfortunately, there is no prior warning about this requirement on the Garmin site.

I finally got the new maps loaded onto Ms Garmina and then noticed that there was a new program which could also be loaded, so of course, I did that. Then I noticed that there was an "Extras" choice on the menu screen that was available for user-content. After digging around a little on the net, I found a site which has numerous point of  interest files available for such things as campgrounds, museums and photography. This is a real gem for travelers like us. The site is POI Factory -- pretty amazing. Before I knew it, I had downloaded a couple of dozen files with 6,500 points of interest into that little GPS. I don't think there is any way to tell how much space is left -- snooping while attached to the computer shows no storage at all. Must be magic. Anyhow, the new availability of things like seaside campgrounds in the Southeast should be very useful.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Turboed Taxes

Getting the taxes done was one of the main reasons to get Morty back home in this time period. The experience was just as eye-opening as ever -- even for a former CPA. Some random observations:

The price of TurboTax seems to have leveled-off somewhat this year. The price at Amazon seemed a little better than I could do locally, and so that was my source.

You don't have to give the publisher Intuit all your contact information. Just skipping that screen is allowed, and you can thereby avoid some future spam if they don't have you from prior years. Unfortunately, I always used to be fully compliant.

I had over 300 trades in our taxable brokerage account last year -- all needing to be reported to the IRS. My broker provided downloaded tax files for the first time this year and that was generally pretty smooth. The problem arose with the broker doing too good job on wash-sales to the extent that TurboTax couldn't understand how there could be zero cost transactions as the second half of the wash-sale. The solution I used was to enter a penny in those 20 transactions to replace the zero. This worked pretty well without distorting the transactions substantially. The proof will be in a couple of years, if the IRS continues happy.

As one who usually bypassed all the medical deductions, I was surprised to find that Ohio was allowing a deduction for unsubsidized health insurance premiums. I suspect that that is not a new thing, but in any event, this was the first year that we had such an outlay. Saved a couple of bucks.

The Turbo package I bought included one state return, but the e-filing the state was $20 extra. As usual, I found that entering a dozen or so numbers on-line at the state site was not quite worth that much to me. If you think about it, when TurboTax is already e-filing the federal return, anything extra to do the state at the same time is almost all pure extra profit -- not from me, thank you very much.

Our city joined the regional tax authority this year, and Turbo even prepared that return, but provided no e-file capability. So I went on line there also and found out that they already had our information including a $15 credit balance from a couple of years ago. That is something that was a complete surprise. Given that this should be our final year with city-taxable wages, this was probably the last chance we would get to claim the benefit of that credit. So here was an added plus to the TurboTax approach, even though it wasn't really directly responsible for me checking in on line.

So, we are glad to have all that behind us for a while longer. One more thing out of the way for the next trip in Morty.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

6500 Miles and Morty is Home

Morty rolled us another 400 miles today and we are back home for the next month or so. This has been the trip I've always dreamed about. It was even more fun than expected.

 Now to figure out where it's good to go in April!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

David Crockett St Pk, TN

Morty did 400 miles today to roll through the second half of Mississippi, the northwest corner of Alabama and into Tennessee. This leaves us another 400-mile day on Wednesday to make it back to Columbus. We are in David Crockett State Park, which just reopened for the season on March 1. We are getting a few showers but that is welcome compared to the sustained downpour we experienced early this morning. Except for that heavy rain, we have pretty much been on the advancing edge of the low pressure area moving across the country all day. Actually, this is fairly decent travel weather in that it doesn’t impede us the way it would if we were pursuing almost any other travel-related activity.

If you are playing along at home, the cost of the site is $20, no discount unless a Tennessean. No WtiFi or Sprint coverage except for roaming. No TV stations within our range. The restrooms are quite nice, with soap and partitioned showers to keep your clothes dry.

With the weather promising to be just as damp tomorrow, we will be off to another early start, hoping to get home by dark.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Paul B Johnson St Pk, Mississippi

Morty is finally camping in Mississippi, as we are crossing it the long way this time. We are heading more North than East; a little South of Hattiesburg in a lake-centric park named after Paul B Johnson. The senior rate is $14 for full hookups, but the sites themselves are crammed so close together  we might as well be in the ghetto. We do have a fair view of the lake, but it is a big hike around the end to the nearest restroom. No WiFi and the weather is dreary, threatening rain. The maintenance workers are wearing wide striped green and white prison pants -- must be the latest fashion thing. At least the cell is coming in strong. We had a long 290 mile driving day, so I'm a little tired, maybe it will look better in the morning.

We were initially assigned to pull-thru site 95 but after one trip to the restroom we requested a transfer to site 1. This is a much prettier wooded locale with no adjacent sites for 360 degree views. My strong advice would be to avoid the pull-thru area, unless you think you really need one. Now things are looking better already.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Return to Sam Houston Jones St Pk, TX

We have returned to an old friend of a state park in Sam Houston Jones in Louisiana. We had a nice couple of days here on our trip West. Tonight it is just a break in heading home. The last time, we were probably ahead of the curve representing the flight of most snow birds. This time we are smack-dab on the curve of the returnees. We got here around 2:30 on a Sunday, but were surprised by the large number of campers already here and arriving in a near-continuous stream. We were lucky to get in without reservations. Evidently, the $9 reservation fee mentioned on the first stop was working in our favor.

One of the things we should have remembered from the first stop is that the power boxes on the sites around the outside of the camping area are really too far from the parking spots for the standard RV power cord. This time however, a kind neighbor offered to loan us his 25 foot 30 amp extension cord. We were really grateful for his kindness and assured him that we would use only four feet or so of the total available length.

This park is especially memorable in that it is by far the most inexpensive campgrounds with full services that we have yet experienced. We get water and electricity with excellent WiFi and good restroom facilities. Recommended again.

Today we have a few pictures from the ferry crossing leaving Galveston.

Tomorrow we head to our first camping experience in Mississippi probably near Hattiesburg if all goes well. We will let you know how it goes.

Die Hard Batteries at Sears in Port Arthur

Poor Morty! His coach batteries were showing signs of failure from the second day of this trip back in January. Yesterday, we wanted to start the generator to microwave lunch, and it was just too much for the two-year old cells to handle. We could start the truck and that would provide starting current for the generator, but we would still be without continuing power for the refrigerator electronics and other things like the power step when we were disconnected from "shore" power. So we checked the internet and found a couple of Sears locations on our route home. While on the ferry leaving Galveston we called The Port Arthur store and, while I didn't know the size Morty needed, we at least established that they were open and stocked with batteries.

We pulled in a little before noon, and got the paperwork done for a marine/RV deep cycle set of Die Hard batteries that had a three-year warranty. Then while waiting for the technician to become available, we went across the road to gas up. Then we had a little lunch in Morty. The tech then started on the replacement of the batteries in the step well while we watched from the dinette. Soon, I was running the acid test: starting the generator from only the new batteries. In practically no time we were all hooked up again and on our way in the time it takes to stop for lunch most days. You can't find any better service than that, anywhere. Oh, and a word about the Sears auto manager and tech -- they were both black ladies who knew their stuff and got the job done efficiently and expertly -- very impressive! Throw in the security of a warranty from Sears -- priceless!

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Binocular Showdown in 10x40: -- Nikon vs Tasco

As a result of our new interest in birding, we had decided that it was time to upgrade binoculars. The old ones actually half stopped working because of some strange fungus growing in the left half. They also were a little too small for serious bird spotting. So we researched the choices available both as recommended by the local experts and on the internet. We soon learned that the really good ones, like Swarvoski and Leica were approaching $2000. At a Wal-Mart stop we took a look at what they had available: several Nikon (good cameras) and a niche brand were offered in a couple of different sizes, but they seemed to range in price from $100 to $200 -- a lot more affordable for a well recognized brand. Based on our testing, we decided that a 10 power with a 40 mm objective lens was what we needed.

Then we were faced with the ultimate shoppers dilemma. The Nikon we tested was $160 but there was a Tasco of the same size for only $26, but it was in one of those infernal plastic bubbles that has to be destroyed to open and there were no testers available. For the price difference we felt that we had to take the gamble on the Tasco and if it proved unusable, we hopefully could return it, or if not, just consider it part of the price of our birding education.

We took the Tasco 10x40 back to Morty and cut it free of its plastic prison. Boy were we surprised! They performed exactly as the Nikons did with very clear, bright images and no problems at all. It's hard to believe that if something nasty happens to these we can just replace them and keep doing that for six more times before we equal the cost of one pair of Nikons. I suppose some of the Swarovski-Leica clan look down their noses at the off-brands, but they will never guess how really inexpensive these are and with that kind of savings in our pocket, we actually feel a little superior to all the high-brow birders and their way more expensive eye-candy. And out in the field, we are spotting a lot more birds and wildlife now than ever before. If you are looking for new binoculars, be sure to check out the Tasco offerings -- they are the wolf in sheep's clothing when it comes to getting your birds.

Gaido's Restaurant of Gavelston

After an afternoon on the beach with Lynne, and our showers completed, we looked up a restaurant in the visitor rag. There was one with just a simple listing and no big advertising -- Gaido's Seafood. On the strength of that combination, I figured we should give it a try for an early dinner. We have not been out for dinner since early January -- before departing Columbus.

One of the first things we noticed was that it was huge, occupying what looked like a city block on the waterfront, Also, it was old -- in continuous operation for 99 years. What I immediately liked about the menu was that it featured smaller portions in a complete meal for the a la carte price -- what a concept! What we soon found out was that the "smaller portions" were only marginally reduced. For example, the dinner with eight shrimp was down-sized to five. It seemed like all the other courses were full sized -- at least to our current eating habits.

The second thing you notice about the menu is that they know how to prepare and serve fish. Everything was fresh and hot, served by a dedicated kitchen runner so as no to be sitting around waiting for the waiter. And Wow what they can do with shrimp. Mine were stuffed with pickled jalapeno peppers, cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, and stuffing, dusted in seasoned flour, wrapped in bacon and then pan-sauted, and basted in a brown sugar-chipotle glaze. "Amazing" does not do it justice.

The meal was introduced with a loaf of warm, soft bread and oil and herbs,  and a hot gumbo which was also loaded with whole shrimp. On the main dish there was a bed of rice and the fried onion rings I had selected along with slices of summer squash. The piece d'resistance was the desert of brownie and ice cream or crustless pecan pie -- either unbelievably scrumptious.

So, if you are ever looking for a place to eat in a strange city, you now have my fool-proof selection method, or if in Galveston, just head for Gaido's at 3900 Seawall Boulevard.

Galveston Island State Park, TX

When you look at the website for Galveston Island State Park you might be put off by the update which says "no showers and only portable restrooms". They are very slow in recovering from Hurricane Ike and even slower in publishing their progress. The fact of the matter is that the bayside restrooms, though only two in number, are fully plumbed and electrified and even air conditioned. You could move or remove them, but they are not what "portable" brings to mind. There are at this time two shower/restroom buildings on the beach side, which are nearly identical to those at Goose Island. There are some limitations in that there is a pretty good hike from the RV Bayside camping area to the restrooms which are in the tent camping area, but it is not a major factor. The other limitation is that the Beachside areas are still not electrified, although the hardware to do that appears to be in place. Also of the three beach loops, only two have restroom/shower buildings. There is even a strong WiFi signal at the headquarters building.

We camped on the bay and used the electrical hookup on Friday. After breakfast on Saturday morning, we rolled Morty to the beach side to walk the beach and enjoy the beautiful day. We will be showering before returning to the bay.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Songbird Walk at Goose Island

We went on the guided songbird walk and saw a couple of birds. The more experienced birders saw about twenty birds. Our new bird is the Inca Dove which is marked with a scallop pattern. We saw two nesting very close to our old campsite in the woods. They say songbirds are easier to learn and identify than shorebirds, but we can attest to the fact that they are a lot harder to see in the first place.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Sunset on Goose Island

We had some remarkable colors and tints in our sunset this evening:

One even caught a fish jumping out of the water!

Whooping Cranes in Eights at Goose Island

We relocated our site to the bayfront, where both the WiFi and cell service are much superior. Then in the afternoon we checked in on the Whooping Cranes and were rewarded with seeing four pair from one spot. Two pair were in the bay, close to shore, another pair were further away across a boardwalk, and the fourth pair were in the field were they eat the deer feed. The ones in the bay were undoubtedly feasting on their favorite blue crabs.

In the late afternoon we went to a lecture entitled Birding 101 -- very informative and well done by the park bird hosts and resident ornithologist. Some folks learned why they can never see anything through their binoculars! We learned the major things to look for in identifying birds, and the right book to carry -- the Golden Bird Book.

Later this evening we will be attending another bird lecture. They say that birding is now the number one leisure activity in the world -- or here. So we are running to catch up.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Return to Goose Island

Morty rolled us back to Goose Island, but there were no more sites on the island itself, so we are in the wooded area just before the bridge to the island. Actually, we are very happy to not be on the water, because the predominant weather feature since we have been here is the wind. and it is much more pleasant in the woods than on the bayfront.

When we last stayed here we had great WiFi because we were near a bayfront restroom which has the antenna for the hotspot. In the woods, we thought that would also apply, but alas, no WiFi at all. At least the cell phone is giving us a pretty good connection.

Around noon we biked over to where the Whooping Cranes are wintering, and were treated to a brief display of the courting dance. Very few other birds are around, compared to our last visit in January.