Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Lotus Pier Fishermen: Adapting to the Drought at Brazos Bend State Park

 AQUAPLANT is a wonderful website, part of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service of the Texas A&M System.  AQUAPLANT provides detailed descriptions, photographs and management options for a number of pond plants, including the American Lotus. The AQUAPLANT website and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service website are well worth “bookmarking” and are easily found using a Google search.
The AQUAPLANT website describes the American Lotus as follows: 

“American Lotus is a perennial plant that is often confused with water lilies. Leaves are simple, round, bluish-green in color, up to 2 feet in diameter, attached to the stem in center (no slit like water lilies). Leaves are flat if floating or conical if emergent and can stand above the water’s surface as high as 3 1/2 feet on the rigid stem. Flowers are large (to 10 inches across) yellowish-white to yellow with more than 20 petals. The center of the flower, the seed structure, is cone-shaped (or like an inverted shower-head) and has openings in which the seeds develop. Lotus can form large colonies and spreads by seeds and large fleshy rhizomes.  Submerged portions of all aquatic plants provide habitats for many micro and macro invertebrates. These invertebrates in turn are used as food by fish and other wildlife species (e.g. amphibians, reptiles, ducks, etc.).”

And so last Thursday, August 25th 2011, while spending a day photographing the drought impacts on Brazos Bend State Park, I once again found myself “Seeing Green”: 

The “Seeing Green” of a former June blog post bemoaned the challenges of woodland birding on a favored backcountry trail of Brazos Bend, as I was surrounded by the extravagance of an early summer forest. The bounty of full-leafed hardwood trees prevented my spotting the white-eyed vireos that teased me with their calls, playing hide-and-seek with me from behind the tree canopies-- and winning that day's game. 

But this August Thursday I was seeing the green of an aquatic habitat, a miniature forest—or more accurately a large colony of American Lotus (Loti?).  This complex habitat would delight the seasoned birder, as well as any outdoor nature enthusiast (willing to stand quietly in the sun, the heat and the humidity of this three digit temperature day).  I was rewarded with multiple sightings of what appeared to be an adaptive lifestyle for the gorgeous, silent fishermen of the marsh and wetland habitat.  The large Lotus leaves, “floating” in the thick mud of the lake’s drought conditions, were serving as fishing piers for these summer Texans. 

A Green Heron, on Lotus "fishing pier" with surrounding leaf shade:

Throughout the morning I watched these beautiful Aves species “cooling their heels” in a Lotus leaf bath, providing a relief platform from the muck and mud of the drought-stricken Elm Lake.

More Green Herons:

A Little Blue Heron--note the diameter of the Lotus Leaf "pier" as well as the flat floating leaves in the background:

A "teenager" Little Blue Heron, looking just as awkward as its human teenage cousins, molting from its juvenile spring white plumage into the beautiful dusty blue of adulthood:

A juvenile Purple Gallinule, parents not in sight:

And a juvenile Common Moorhen appears to be a probable candidate for the "Gifted and Talented" program at the local school district.  The Lotus flowers seemed to be favored food sources for multiple Aves species, perhaps due to the insects housed in and around the flower bud.  This high IQ Moorhen youngster had maneuvered a flower stalk atop an adjacent Lotus leaf, providing balcony viewing and creative brunch dining.  But I could just hear her thoughts:  "Now how do I...?"

And more beautiful Lotus flowers:

And even an avid birder can stop and note the future generation of Moorhen predators, hiding in the Lotus colony, waiting to pick a fight with each other:

This amazing habitat--unusually visible due to the severity of drought, made for a delightful day of August birding at Brazos Bend.  It was miserably hot--and only the Lotus Pier Fishermen could make me smile.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Drought Conditions at Brazos Bend State Park

Brazos Bend State Park is not one of my usual summer destinations.  I certainly don’t camp at this beloved park during the heat of summer.  My blog “Seeing Green” (see June 2011 list of posts) explains the woes of summertime birding in this habitat; not to mention the summertime heat and humidity; and mosquitoes; and lack of song birds. 
But this summer is different.  This summer is setting record heat and drought conditions across Texas.  I felt a deep need to visit my beloved Brazos Bend, and see firsthand the impact of a drought that would surely alter the lush wetlands of this jewel of a park.  I was shocked, but not surprised, by the severity of impact on the complex habitat.  This blog post will speak louder with photos, rather than words, sentences and paragraphs.  I’ll limit my writing to serve as a roadmap for comparison of photographs from past days in this wonderful field and photos from a day trip on August 25, 2011.  (Please note that you can "click on" the photos to enlarge, then just use your browser's "back arrow" to return to the blog.)
Many visitors to Brazos Bend State Park do not explore the multiple miles of backcountry trails, and most would be surprised by the diversity of habitat that these trails cover.  But almost every visitor is familiar with the observation tower that overlooks 40 Acre Lake and Pilant Lake.  The severity of drought on this lake area was extraordinary. The below photo captures the absence of water:

Just down this trail's path, headed toward Elm Lake, is a footbridge that allows hikers and bikers to cross Pilant Lake.  In Feburary of 2005 I took the below photo, to document my delight in seeing a Great Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tri-colored Heron, and Snowy Egret, all in the same spot, fishing beside each other.  I am standing on the footbridge as I take this 2005 photo:

This past Thursday, I stood in the same spot and captured the below photo:

Or, another view  that shows the dry Pilant Lake bed on both sides of the footbridge:

In April of this year I took the below photo of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron:

The same area as photographed this past Thursday:

And, from April, two photos of a Little Blue Heron as it fishes:

The same area this past Thursday:

Note the soil, normally underwater, is deeply cracked from the drought conditions:

Elm Lake, the largest body of water, and most frequently visited from the picnic area, was not completely dry--but it had become a mostly muddy habitat:

The view of Elm Lake from the picnic area's new viewing platform--the platform's stilts stood on dry ground:

The day brought many surprises and several delights. In this post I simply want to capture the drought conditions.  I plan to post more photos and stories of this day trip, with glimpses of nature doing what nature does:  surviving; evolving; and taking life one day at a time.  There will be some delight with these next blog posts.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Love-Hate Relationship

I don’t really like you very much.  You usually intimidate me, but then after just a few minutes together, I realize you are quite boring.  And yet here I am, spending time with you again today.  Seems I’ve been spending time with you almost every day of late.  But after an hour together, I’m always ready to leave.
My close friends are busy most days, and I can’t just sit at home.  It is too hot to go pursue my birding and hiking passions.  So I drive over to see you.  You are always there for me. Well, almost always.  You don’t make me feel good about myself when we are together, but I always feel better about myself after I leave you.  It always feels good walking away from you.  Well, almost always; sometimes you hurt me a bit.
I don’t exactly keep our relationship a secret; I just don’t tell people about your being a part of my life.  You know how people are—if they know about us they’ll start asking me about our relationship. They’ll start having expectations; then I’ll probably distance from you and that will do me no good.
It seems that we are never alone together.  Sometimes it would be nice to just have you all to myself.  But there are almost always other people around you.  You seem to surround yourself with beautiful people, often young and beautiful twenty-somethings.  They also intimidate me and usually make me feel old and worn.  I keep hearing Paul Simon’s lyrics in my head when we are together:  “Why am I so soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard.”  But then I stop and think about the fact that those young and beautiful people regularly seek time with you. So in a way, it makes me feel good that you seem to be just as happy with me as with them.
I’ll probably ignore you this fall, when I can go and do the things you can’t do with me:  long walks and bike rides; hikes in state parks; birding my favored locales and faraway haunts.  I’m starved for outdoor time.  But it is too hot this August.  And so I go spend time with you.  And you always welcome me back, even after I’ve ignored our relationship for awhile.  Although, I think you would have to admit, you are especially hard on me when I first come back to you.
Maybe I don’t appreciate you enough.  I do feel better about myself after we’ve been together.  Maybe I even stand a little taller.  Maybe you encourage me to take a little better care of myself—skipping the cookies and grabbing the fruits and vegetables.  I’m never hungry after an hour with you.  You leave me relaxed and de-stressed and give me a “good tired” that helps me sleep at night.  And so maybe I don’t tell you enough, but I am thankful for you.  I hope to always come back to you, even when I’ve ignored you for awhile.  Thank you for being a part of my life.
It is time for me to stop writing and get in the car and drive over to see you.  Because if I don’t, I’ll start heading down that slippery slope of opening the fridge and trying to find some comforting snack foods.  Some people call you the gym; others call you the weight room.  But I think of you as the elliptical machine, the rowing machine and the treadmill, and I hope I’ll always have my love-hate relationship with you.  But really, an hour of you is about all I can stand.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Some Days are Tougher Than Others

Some days are tougher than others.  And when you string a whole bunch of tough days, back to back, it kind of wears you out.  Don’t get me wrong.  Tough days are nothing compared to days that involve serious health issues, or medical emergencies, or death of a loved one.  But still, tough days, especially unplanned ones, can cause you to want to go to bed and not get up for some indeterminate period of time.  For me, tough times tend to make me want to “take the phone off the hook and disappear for awhile” as Billy Joel famously described; and so I haven’t written or blogged since leaving Grand Teton National Park. 
Tough times seem most accurately described by those with the first hand experience.  What I consider a tough time in my life may seem a thrilling adventure to others—or simply a string of stupid mistakes.  What another person sees as a tough time in their life, I may silently evaluate as a period of redirection and new opportunity.  But when any person comes out of a period of days or months or years and lumps that period of time as TOUGH, I don’t believe anyone else has relabeling rights.  So call me boring; call me a whiner; you can even call me a goober—but don’t try and convince me that my most recent journey, and unexpected last leg of the northwest trip, was anything other than tough.  I can already laugh about some of it, but I’ll never be able to laugh about all of it.  Maybe that is my definition of a tough time.
I thought I’d be exploring Washington right about now, maybe delighting in a first visit to Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula; or maybe hiking and birding the Columbia River Gorge area; or meeting up in Washington’s wine country with RVing friends that are our Winter Texan neighbors.  I thought I’d be carrying fresh memories of multiple weeks of camping in Idaho state parks; of bicycling and exploring the enchanting Coeur D’Alene area of the northern Idaho panhandle.  And maybe an adventure or two with a side trip to Glacier National Park.
But those adventures and memories will be future trips.  And that is OK.  While in Grand Teton I received a phone call.  An extended family member’s planned surgery was going to be more complicated than anticipated, and my help was needed.  And that was more than OK.  It is when family doesn’t need you that life can seem brittle.  The rick-man and I have long waited this period in our lives where travel is a lifestyle—not a vacation.  And we had previously discussed and prepared ourselves that this lifestyle would sometimes include unexpected routes or returns due to family or friends or our own needs.  So I was thankful for the rick-man’s immediate support that we needed to head back to Texas.  It was not a tough decision—it was not a tough moment.  I’d be lying if I didn’t say we were both disappointed at cancelling our northwest adventure, but that simply means we were having a good time.  We weren’t needed back for two weeks, so we cancelled Idaho reservations, and began making plans for a return to Colorado, both looking forward to two more weeks of adventure and cool temperatures, before driving back through the 100+ temperatures and drought of my beloved Texas landscape.
The tough days began, to be honest, before we reached Grand Teton National Park.  As a Gulf Coastie, I knew that them thar hills of Colorado and Wyoming would demand my driving attention, as I was pulling the 10,000 pounds-mass of Airstream, thirty-one feet in length.  I’d made a similar drive before, and knew what to expect, from myself and the Airstream.  The former experience wasn’t  bad and I wasn’t worried—I just knew that being methodically careful was a key component to safe travels.  Not to mention that the 2006 purchase of a $2,500 Hensley Arrow hitch was one of my better investments.  But as I drove us northwest, I found myself somewhat alarmed at the challenges to braking the Airstream.  And so I’d mutter out loud my concerns and the rick-man’s response was consistent:  “there is nothing wrong with the Airstream brakes.” 
The rick-man and I have a wonderful division of labor when it comes to our travels.  Wonderful because we both like the responsibilities that we each own as our “chores”.  We can set up camp and break camp in less than 30 minutes.  I can back us into any campsite that will hold our 31’ length.  The rick-man can hitch the Airstream to SUV with amazing ease—by himself and without backup cameras.  And the driving responsibilities fall mainly to me, and we both prefer it that way. The rick-man simply does not like to drive; but he is a passionate navigator.  On 4-5 hour drives, traveling around Texas state parks, I usually do all the driving. But on long trips, sometimes including ten or twelve hour drive days, the rick-man will do some of the driving to give me opportunity to “put my feet up”.  And so after leaving Cheyenne Mountain State park, driving us north through Denver and Cheyenne, I pointed us westward in Wyoming on Interstate 80, and turned the driving over to the rick-man, ready to relax for a couple of hours.  I had driven this route eastbound before, but not westbound, and had not noted that we’d soon be traversing a long interstate mountain pass with 6% incline (downward).  Quite simply, the rick-man lost control of our tow, with Airstream swaying to the point that we were within seconds of jack-knifing across multiple lanes of the interstate.  After we reached the bottom of the pass, with no wreck and no damage, the rick-man was ready for me to resume driving.  But, at this point we were BOTH still in the goober category—and neither proclaimed:  there is something wrong with the Airstream brakes!  I wrote off the loss of control due to the rick-man not down-shifting to a lower gear at the top of the decline.  I think the rick-man wrote it off to our long-standing prior agreement that he wouldn’t drive through big cities or through mountainous passes.  And so I got behind the wheel and we continued toward our night’s goal of Rawlins, Wyoming.   
Leaving Rawlins the next morning, with Colter Bay in the Grand Teton NP our day’s destination, my trusty navigator pointed me to a scenic route, new to us, along highway 287 through Lander and Dubois.  And although I was familiar with the ease of the drive continuing west on I-80, then north through Jackson, I was pleased with the idea of a new journey.  With long drive days, I had not studied the state maps. I must say that it was a beautiful drive, and one I’d recommend for road trips in automobiles.  I did note that we weren’t seeing much RV traffic, but I was still in goober mode. My navigator, having assured me that this route was shorter and similar road conditions as the Jackson route, had not noted the dreaded )( marking on the map, symbolizing a mountain pass, with italic text noting the 9,658 ft Togwotee Pass of the Continental Divide, just east of the Moran Junction entrance to Grand Teton.  I knew I was in trouble when the climb became demanding and the end of June roadside snow packs became multiple feet in depth.  We made it over and down the pass with no harm done except I think I lost a few years off my life.  It was an extremely tense downhill, with drop off at our side.  My Dad taught me years ago, with reinforcement from brotherly advice, the skill of downshifting when towing through mountainous terrain.  But still, trailer braking is critical—and the Airstream was pushing or “jumping” the Suburban as I slowly descended the Togwotee Pass.  I was somewhat an emotional mess by the time we reached Moran Junction.  We were camped at Colter Bay two nights before I was ready to do more than hike the Colter Bay area.  And still, I didn’t SHOUT:  There is something wrong with the Airstream brakes!  But, the rick-man, with his wonderful sense of humor and healthy sense of self, renamed himself at this point.  He now refers to himself as my handy Navi-guessor rather than trusty navigator. 
And so we spent two wonderful weeks in Grand Teton, with my lengthy former blog “THE Grand Teton” musing over the experience.  And then, after the family phone call and cancelled Idaho state park reservations, we headed back toward northern Colorado, taking the southerly route via Jackson to Rawlins for the night, and a second day’s drive to a nice commercial RV park in Loveland, Colorado, just off I-25.  There were no major incidents on this two day’s drive, but I was continually worn out by what seemed overly difficult towing and braking.  And so the pattern continued:  I had white knuckles; I emotionally muttered complaint, the rick-man assured me that there was nothing wrong with the Airstream brakes.  I was mentally reassessing our future travels as I drove.  I was beginning to fantasize about an alternate method of travel without our beloved Airstream.  I was beginning to feel boxed in to southern travels to rolling hills and flatland destinations.  It was not a good feeling.
We stayed four nights in northern Colorado, with the Airstream based at a commercial park in Loveland, just west of I-25.  We took three wonderful day trips. Driving the Suburban without Airstream felt like I was driving a sports car with gold-standard brakes!  We drove to Estes Park and spent a day exploring the trailheads and roadside stops on the southern branch of Rocky Mountain National Park; we enjoyed a fun touristy day visiting downtown Boulder and the University of Colorado campus; and relaxed a third day exploring parks, shops and restaurants in the Loveland area.
University of Colorado, Boulder:

When we first received the news that we needed to return to Texas within two weeks of leaving Colter Bay, the rick-man encouraged that we return to Cheyenne Mountain State Park, stay a week, and spend more time exploring the Colorado Springs area.  I was enthusiastic about this plan and ready to leave the summer crowds of the Loveland area.  Northern Colorado to Cheyenne Mountain should be an easy drive, except for Denver driving through Denver. This trip had already created an unhealthy routine for me:  fabulous stops at amazing places contrasted with emotionally and physically challenging days of driving. 
I reached the northern edge of Denver at 10:00 a.m. on a weekday morning.  I will always remember, as long as memory allows, the moment I realized I was on a gentle, but long downward slope of I-25 heading into Denver.  I knew if I drove 65 mph, and there was a sudden slow down of traffic ahead, I would be in trouble.  So with emergency blinkers on, I kept my highway speed around 45mph, thankful for three lanes of traffic as I kept to the right-most lane.  I was certain people were cursing me.  I was hoping the emergency blinkers would be a blatant warning and apology for some form of car trouble.  I drove through Denver, Colorado Springs, and safely into the state park at Cheyenne Mountain.  I had a girl moment and broke down in tears.  I told the rick-man that I was done—I could not pull the Airstream again without getting the brakes checked.  It was NOT supposed to be this hard.
Safe, for the moment, back at Cheyenne Mountain State Park:

I’m guessing psychologists and sociologists have a technical term for when people go from being REALLY stupid to just kind of stupid.  I don’t know the term—I just know about transition points for both stable and unstable systems.  But once unhitched into a lovely site at Cheyenne Mountain, the rick-man and I BOTH transitioned from being REALLY stupid to just kind of stupid as we FINALLY snapped to at least looking at the hydraulic brakes’ fluid level, accessed inside the master cylinder metal box, just behind the LP tanks on the Airstream’s tongue.  The rick-man unscrewed the cap and we both looked inside--no brake fluid was visible.  For the rick-man, this meant a specific action to be worked, which gives him comfort:  he headed out to find an automotive store to purchase brake fluid (after checking the manual for specific Airstream requirements).  For me, a knot in my stomach churned—I knew that absence of that much brake fluid meant a serious off-nominal condition—we had to have a significant leak in the line.
The rick-man returned, filled the reservoir, and we electrically hitched the Suburban to Airstream, and I tapped the Suburban brakes.  The Airstream’s master cylinder made a normal, familiar noise—then a squeal—then silence.  We walked around the Airstream.  A large puddle of brake fluid stained the site’s pad, just in front of the Airstream’s right forward wheel.  We didn’t have a slow leak; we had a break in the brake line that immediately dumped the new fluid.  I felt a weird sense of relief that I had not become a wimp driver; I felt a sense of the human nature that craves being right, a type of affirmation for the difficult and exhausting drive days.  But the sense of relief was soon overwhelmed by the realization of my stupidity at pulling 10,000 pounds-mass of Airstream through Wyoming and Colorado (and back) with little to no trailer brakes.  I should have known better; I had reached a new level of gooberness.
With a reference phone number from the state park’s staff, the rick-man called an RV repair service that would come to our campsite.  That phone call resulted in a “too busy to come” but a referral to another phone number and name.  With this call, the rick-man had commitment for someone to arrive the next morning at 9:00 a.m. 
Before you get bored with my brake story, this off-nominal towing situation is NOT why I will forever remember this string of tough days and NOT be able to laugh.  It was what happened the following day.
At 9:00 a.m. a man arrived to work on the Airstream—but he was NOT the person the rick-man had contacted by first or second phone call.  The second person called was also too busy, and sent “Bob” without coordinating this delegation of responsibility.  We are now two persons away from the original reference from the state park staff.  I’d prefer to send Bob packing and attempt another route, but believe it or not, I’ve learned to sometimes keep my mouth shut. 
To better understand that day, I need to confess the obvious.  If I stereotype myself I’d say I can be hard to live with on a day-to-day basis.  I need lots of space.  The rick-man understands this and chooses to live with me in spite of; and he gives me space as a part of our togetherness.  If I stereotype the rick-man I’d say he is very easy to live with under nominal day-to-day conditions, but when something off-nominal occurs, he has a bit of roid rage syndrome to his personality.  But I understand this, and choose to live with him in spite of, and know to give him space when his off-nominal personality shows up.  So when Bob showed up, a complete unknown, and an obvious stereotype as a biker-dude, I considered the biker-dude classification a potential positive when it comes to mechanical repair.  I chose to cast myself into the “female” category and stay somewhat out of the way, due mainly to my knowledge of the rick-man’s off-nominal personality, and maybe a little bit to Bob’s biker-dude intimidation.  But, I wanted to be in listening distance to glean confidence in the trouble-shooting that lay ahead.  Within 30 minutes Bob convinced the rick-man that a bracket on the brake line, the attachment mechanism between the line and the front right wheel’s brake cylinder, had cracked.  This seemed an odd failure to me, but also seemed an easy and inexpensive replacement part, with obvious confirmation testing to validate the solution.
"Bob" working to find the brake fluid leak:

Bob said he could get the part and return within 30 minutes.  And so off he went.  I sat inside the Airstream and pretended to read.  The rick-man stood outside and paced.  I knew the rick-man was in the familiar off-nominal mode, but I also knew he was angry with himself for ignoring the brake symptoms and my exclamations and mumblings.  And so I gave him space.
Thirty minutes came and went.  I wasn’t surprised.  We were, after all, in a state park, even if it was on the edge of town.  But by 11:00 the rick-man stood at the Airstream’s screen door, frustrated.  I encouraged him to call contact person number 2.  He did—and got a somewhat shaky story over Bob having trouble finding the part, but confident the part would be found.  A little after noon Bob returned, proudly displaying the bracket and announcing it to be from his boss’s power boat.   Hmmmm…..
OK—setting the scene.  It is now a little after high noon and the rick-man has been standing outside pacing all morning.  I’ve been in the Airstream with windows open.  It is getting close to 90 degrees mid-day.  Bob replaces the bracket and is ready for me to try out the brakes.  I sit in the driver’s seat of the Suburban, turn on the engine, and apply brakes.  No master cylinder noise; no brake fluid movement.  Bob wants to continue to trouble shoot so I sit in the Suburban and surf the web from my iphone; mainly for therapy.  The rick-man is sitting in his camp chair, close to Bob’s work area on the right side of the Airstream.  I can’t see either of them but I can hear them both.
I look up from my iphone and the rick-man is standing at the front of the Suburban, in full sun.  I’m wondering why he is just standing there, in the heat and sun—and with no hat.  He turns, facing more toward me, as I’m looking at him through the windshield. I immediately note that his skin color looks bad; a definite shade of gray.  Suddenly he takes his left elbow and leans it on the hood of the Suburban, which had to be extremely hot to the touch.  Immediately I know something is really wrong, and I jump out of the driver’s seat to get to him, just before he collapses.
Now I readily admit that I’m not the easiest person to live with.  I come from a family of introverts and naturalists.  Alone time is a precious commodity.  I’m not good at small talk or social situations; I’m not much of a phone talker; I’m perfectly happy riding in a car for hours without talking; and I need a lot of personal space to contemplate life—at both the shallow end and the deep end of the pool.  A whole bunch of years ago, back in my college days, a friend nailed my personality when he told me that I liked to be alone, with someone else around; maybe so, at least a good bit of the time.  But in off-nominal conditions, I think I’m the person you want around.  I’m not sure if my off-nominal response skills are because I’ve lived through a lot of off-nominal experiences, or if it is because my career was built on designing for, and around, off-nominal conditions.  My very first professional position, just out of college, was building math-models of flight hardware, with “malfunction” cases as a part of their design, allowing off-nominal “exercising” of the system’s software and operations, without actually breaking the hardware.  In retrospect, it could not have been a better first job:  I had to know the hardware, to build math models of it; I had to know the flight software and how to interface with it; I had to learn the system’s operational scenarios to understand the possible fault scenarios.  Seems my life, both at home and work, could be diagrammed by experiences that dealt with finding faults, isolating them, and figuring out how to recover from them.  Turns out that learned professional skill took me into management.  Human behavior, organizational behavior, and flight systems behavior—they all seem to have similar nominal and off-nominal operating conditions—and responses.  Sometimes there is a fine line between a malfunction and a mistake.
I caught the rick-man at the front of the Suburban just as his knees were buckling.  Due to multiple overt symptoms that I won’t describe in this blog, I knew the rick-man was past the heat exhaustion point and headed toward, or potentially having reached the heat stroke point.  To say I was extremely frightened would be an understatement.  One symptom scared me the most, knowing it might be stroke or seizure related.  But his color, deep gray, terrified me.  I’d seen that color twice before; within the hour of each of my parent’s dying.  It is not something I’ll forget, as long as memory allows me to remember.  But on this day, I knew what I needed to do, and I knew every second at this point was critical.
I told Bob to pause work as I was supporting the rick-man and getting him up the step and into the Airstream.  Bob was now on my bottom-of-the-barrel humanity list as he offered no assistance, and I knew, based on one of the rick-man’s symptoms, that Bob was aware that something was wrong well before the rick-man stumbled from chair to Suburban front.  I still do not understand why Bob didn’t call out to me as I sat in the Suburban’s driver seat.  I still do not know why he didn’t offer help.  But his behavior is patterned worldwide and frequently displayed on local, national and international news stories.  All I know is that I was NOT in the company of someone with a maternal genome from Samaria.
With my adrenaline levels popping, I was able to get the rick-man slouched onto the sofa of the Airstream. I was terrified due to the color of his skin and due to one of his outward symptoms.  There was a moment that I wasn’t sure if I was about to lose him—and I will NEVER forget that moment. But I also knew it would do him no good to show my alarm, and that I needed to quickly cool down his body temperature and get him hydrated.  The fighter in me kicked in—I was NOT going to let anything bad happen to this wonderful man.  So with calm but firm voice I began a series of “system health check” tests, after first getting ice to his throat, wet washcloth to his head, and sips of water into his mouth.  I carefully assessed the rick-man’s response to counting backwards, requesting him to smile, eye and pupil tracking of my finger, and other responses to questions, all the while washing his head and arms with wet wash cloth and encouraging water that he successfully swallowed. Based on his visual and verbal responses to my questions and requests, I felt fairly confident he had not had a stroke, but knew he was in the serious danger zone.  I made a real-time decision to focus on cooling his body temperature down and hydrating him, rather than throwing him in the car to find a hospital—or taking time to call an ambulance.  But if he had failed any of my “system health check” tests, the hospital or the ambulance would have been the fault-tree path to take, and I knew that.
Within an hour the rick-man’s color was normal to a little pale—but no gray.  And soon I had him hydrated to the point of needing to pee.  I kept him awake and continually responding to my questions, and he continued to improve.  I wanted to keep his head above his heart but also wanted to get his feet up.   Bob was at his truck, smoking a cigarette.  I didn’t know what to do with Bob.  It is hard for me to admit that.  I wanted to tell Bob to get lost, but I knew that IF the rick-man continued to improve, I was getting him into the Suburban at next morning’s first light, and heading home.  And IF there was any chance Bob could give me brakes, I was going to give him every chance.  Well, at least almost.
At some point Bob started tinkering with the Airstream brakes again, and he wanted to mess with the Suburban, hoping, I think, to find fault on the Suburban side of the braking system.  At this point the Suburban was my emergency vehicle and I was NOT letting Bob touch it without my hovering or approving his work.  So, I’d step out of the trailer, start the engine, and respond to Bob’s requests.  Then I’d run back into the trailer, check on the rick-man, rewet his washcloth and refill his water.  I don’t know how long this went on.  But it was hot and I was scared and I could feel my temples pounding.  The rick-man told me he was floating with water, and Bob told me he thought it might be a blown fuse on the Suburban. Without my approval Bob started pulling fuses from under the hood of the Suburban.  I was having flashbacks to a career where reckless troubleshooting was NEVER allowed—as lessons learned always pointed to more harm than good, and damaged hardware.  I told the rick-man to keep drinking water. I told Bob to NOT touch anything else under the Suburban hood and that it was time for him to admit he was CLUELESS and call for help.  I tended the rick-man and was surprised to hear Bob call his boss, rather than hearing the sound of his truck driving away. It was an ugly phone conversation.
And so by late afternoon, Bob, his boss, some other man and what I’d guess to be a twelve year-old boy concluded that the events of the day, if not before, had burned out the master cylinder pump, and maybe its controller, a custom circuit board.  Both were unique Airstream parts, and both were probably two weeks away from being available.  I’d been waiting since mid-day, after the bracket replacement’s failure to bring the brakes to life, for Bob to draw this conclusion.  I had no brakes, and wasn’t going to have any in the near future.   Bob’s boss thought he was being fair to ask me for $300 and leave.  I was ready to hand him $300 to get them all to leave so I could focus on the rick-man and have some time to think through the situation.
I spent that night waking up the rick-man and giving him water, asking him questions, and watching him go back to sleep.  He was doing really well. I looked at maps.  We would not be exploring Colorado Springs.  I was going to get the rick-man home, with Airstream in tow, for as long as possible.  If the situation got worse, I’d unhitch the Airstream and drive the Suburban to the nearest hospital or home, whichever seemed the best answer.  I was starting to feel like I was in a Star Trek episode where they would separate the Enterprise’s large saucer section (their living quarters, our Airstream) from the Enterprise’s fighter aircraft capability (their warp engines and battle command bridge, our Suburban), better equipping them for fight or flight needs.
And so early the next morning, the rick-man felt up to traveling and I made what many will consider the crazy decision to continue pulling the Airstream towards Texas.  At some point the previous day I knew that I had not had trailer brakes for most, if not all of the trip.  I’d crossed the Continental Divide multiple times, including Togwotee Pass.  I rationalized that pulling the Airstream from the south side of Colorado Springs to Amarillo, by definition, would be easier.  I decided to take a back route, avoiding the New Mexico Ratan Pass, by going east at Pueblo, to Lamar, and then dropping south through the pan handle of Oklahoma.  We arrived safely into Amarillo late that day, with the rick-man saying he felt surprisingly good, just a little tired.  I was feeling the same level of exhaustion as the last time I drove through Amarillo at the beginning of the trip, after a night in the Wichita Falls Wal-Mart parking lot.  Only this time the exhaustion was threaded with the aftermath angst over what had happened to the rick-man, and a day of closely watching him.  I was thankful to be in Amarillo, Texas and very thankful that I knew how to connect all the outside electrical, water and sewage connections.  I was also thankful that the commercial RV Park had a level, pull-through site, so I didn’t need to unhitch the Airstream.  I’d encourage all traveling companions with well-oiled (no pun intended) division of responsibilities to know how to perform all camping set-up and take-down responsibilities—be each other’s backup for off-nominal conditions.  At some point that night I got some sleep, ready to head out at first light, toward the southeast, the drought, and the extreme heat.
The next morning, driving east on Texas Highway 287, about 10 miles west of Wichita Falls, the  Suburban’s engine oil-pressure idiot-light came on, and the “ding ding ding” digital bell-like warning annunciated.  I could feel hesitation when I pushed down on the Suburban’s accelerator.  The oil pressure gage jumped to the left, then to the right, and then bounced all over the place.  My exhausted brain realized the Suburban might go dead at any moment, and I had 31’ of Airstream that would need to get off the road.  I slowed down, turned on emergency blinkers, and looked at the 108 degree ambient temperature reading.  The level of toughness for this day was about to spike.  Do I immediately stop, with no intersection or service in sight, or do I attempt to limp into Wichita Falls?  You know the answer—I kept going. 
I’m thankful to say that we safely limped into the Herb Easley Chevrolet dealership in Wichita Falls.  I rarely promote anything, but the service manager and employees at the Herb Easley dealership were OUTSTANDING in their treatment of us, and the Suburban.  It was 108 degrees when we arrived and unhitched the Airstream in their service parking lot.  They took care of us, they took care of the Suburban.  If only they had Airstream brake service capability, but they did not.  As we sat in a wonderfully cool waiting room where the manager was ensuring we had cold bottled water and continued status of repair, I FINALLY had one of those moments where someone says to themselves:  I’m DONE!  So I turned to the rick-man and said:  “I’m not pulling the Airstream past Wichita Falls.  We have to find a place to leave it here, be repaired, and then we’ll come back and get it.”  And, with that gentle spirit that he owns with such integrity, he simply responded:  “I’m OK with that.”
So, with the Suburban repaired, we re-hitched the Airstream in the broiling hot parking lot, after unloading the refrigerator and freezer and giving the unopened food to the dealership’s employees.  (The manager was so worried about the temperature inside the Airstream, he had an employee stand just outside the Airstream door to ensure I didn’t pass out while unloading food and goods.)  The Herb Easley staff gave us the name of an RV repair shop and we’d already coordinated leaving the Airstream with them, by phone calls from the air conditioned Herb Easley waiting room.  We arrived at the RV repair shop just before it closed at 5:00.  They were waiting for us and were incredibly kind, standing with us in the heat as we unhitched and quickly unloaded all the items one takes with them when they plan a 3 month trip.  But, they warned us, it would be mid-August before they could even look at the Airstream.  At this point it was an easy decision for me.  It was time to get the rick-man home.  I’d come back for the Airstream.
I drove toward Ft. Worth with the Suburban NOT in tow mode, and feeling like the best of sports cars.  We got to the northwest side of Ft. Worth just as dusk was approaching and stopped at a McDonald’s.  I stood in the parking lot eating a hamburger, not remembering the last time I’d eaten, and just vaguely remembering what time I’d pulled out of Amarillo so very early the same day.  I wanted to stand up and eat, as I’d been sitting most of the day and I’d already settled in my mind that I was driving home this night, and that would be a lot of hours ahead of me, sitting in the driver’s seat.
We got home around 1:30 a.m. with no problems.  I took a long bath.  We arrived just in time for the weekend, with a doctor’s appointment for the rick-man at the beginning of the next week.  I did NOT get into a car until driving the rick-man to that doctor’s appointment. The doctor asked me about the details of what happened and listened carefully as I described the events and my course of action.  After a series of questions to the rick-man and to me, and a full battery of tests, the doctor told me that my actions had been on the mark, and if I’d not focused on cooling and hydrating, and monitoring and testing, the rick-man probably would have had a much worse outcome.   With no off-nominal test results, and no visible side effects, the doctor just reiterated what the rick-man already knew:  high altitudes, high heat, and dehydration are not a healthy mix.
And so it has taken me three weeks to sit down and write this story.  I’ve mainly been a home body.  I have supported the family need that brought us back to Texas, and that has included a couple of long days of driving.  But all went very well.  I’ve only just begun socializing and it took me until last week to get myself to the gym.  I’ve neglected phone messages and e-mails and pretty much “took the phone off and disappeared for awhile”.  But I’m hoping friends and family will do what they always do—give me grace and love and a whole lot of patience.  And I’m hoping this blog will explain why I’ve been off the radar in recent weeks.
The rick-man is doing great and our only moment of tension was when he wanted to go jogging a few days after our return.  We negotiated a solution:  after a clean set of medical tests he could drive to the air-conditioned gym and workout—but no jogging to the gym until fall weather arrives.  And, with the gentle voice I know so well, he said:  “Well, I don’t like it but I’m OK with it.” 
A friend that learned of our experience assumed this would turn me against the RV lifestyle.  In fact, I’ve already coordinated with the rick-man the timeframe and destination for our next out-of-state trip.  And I’ll start laying plans in the next few weeks.  But before that next big adventure, I CAN’T WAIT for glorious fall and winter camping, provided by Texas’ beloved state parks; and this year, we’ll enjoy a home base that includes our RGV CoachHouse community.  But, our beloved 31’ Airstream is probably not the answer for future out-of-state travels.  The rick-man and I had already reached that conclusion before this latest northwest journey.  I’m ready to downsize.  And, I will admit, it may be awhile before I’m interested in mountainous travels.  I’m ready to chase some birds in the great southwest...