Saturday, February 27, 2016

Retirees Take a Day Off

You may justifiably ask – a day off from what? Aren’t you retired?

Yes, but…

I am not sure what it is called when retirees take what working people call a vacation. Retirees look forward to their golden years, envisioning days of doing nothing, or doing anything they want whenever they want, a vacation extending for years. And that idealized image may happen – sometimes.

But life interrupts. Family, friends, and the mundane aspects of life must be attended to, preparing meals, cleaning, doing laundry, paying bills, activities ranging from volunteer commitments to golf games, babysitting, maybe cards or Mah Jongg or gardening or…

The list is endless.

But retirement definitely offers advantages over the traditional working lifestyle. It allows the freedom many 20-somethings indulge in nowadays – traveling for extended periods of time. (I did not have the funds or the foresight to do anything like that during my 20s).

Travelling and sightseeing are tiring activities. Young folks can be on the go from dawn one day until dawn the following day with no ill effects. When hub and I are on the go from dawn one day until dusk the same day we are exhausted.

Halfway through our eight week trip hub and I decide we need a break.

A day off, an entire day not driving or sightseeing or walking more than a couple of blocks.

We stayed home, relaxing at our casita – little house – in the Big Bend National Park area of southwest Texas.

We cooked scrambled eggs on the grill for breakfast. We sat on the porch of our casita, coffee mugs close by, catching up on the news, Facebook and social media happenings, reading books dragged along but not yet begun, talking with friends and family back home. 

We strolled next door to a Mexican restaurant for lunch. The afternoon passed wandering around our temporary neighborhood, empty and quiet as other guests spent the day indulging in local activities hiking, eating, canoeing, eating, horseback riding, eating, shopping, and eating.

Early evening we drove to the nearest town, the ghost town of Terlingua. A thriving mining town of 2,000 from the1880’s to the 1940’s, people fled when jobs disappeared. The abandoned town began coming back to life decades later as new inhabitants moved in, mainly artists, outcasts, and national park employees.

Terlingua today is home to half a dozen restaurants, a general store, artist studios, and off-the-grid homes and campsites.

The Starlight Theater, the original town theater, resurrected as a restaurant offering music most evenings, offers the best culinary experience in the area, according to locals, Yelp and Trip Advisor. Dinner at the Starlight highlighted our day off.

The following morning, rested and re-energized, we headed out for the day, eager for action – at a retiree’s tempo, or at least this particular senior’s pace - relaxed and reasonably calm, as stress-free as possible.

Retirees on the road, rolling along, we appreciate a day of rest. 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Discovering the Caverns of Sonora

Sonora Caverns, Sonora Texas
 The billboard caught my attention. Driving for miles with little diversity in the landscape, deviations catch the eye of passengers whizzing by at 80 miles per hour (the speed limit) or more.

Hopefully drivers ignore the boards, the chauffeur’s attention on the road ahead.

Billboards appear sparingly on desolate Interstate 10 west of San Antonio, a good thing anywhere, including the plains of Texas. The signs form a blight on the landscape (in my humble opinion), but one promoting a tourist attraction grabbed my attention - Sonora Caverns

Never heard of them, but that was not unusual. I knew about major sightseeing places, but not smaller, less popular but nonetheless often interesting ones.

Reaching for my AAA tour book and iPhone, I researched the site. The caverns received positive reviews and sounded fascinating, deserving a detour. I was amazed major travel websites and publications included Sonora on lists of the top caves/caverns in the world.

Signs off the highway directed us to the Caverns, eight miles off the exit. The two-lane meandering road seemed deserted and surroundings uninhabited, only barbed wire fences announcing the fact this is privately owned land. No buildings in site. A few grazing cattle ignored us as we followed the road to a crooked sign at the top of a mountain and the end of the road announcing Sonora Caverns.

We were not the only people around, a surprise. A dozen RVs occupied a campground at the end of the parking lot and half a dozen cars in the lot indicated activity.

And the most ominous sign – a bus.

Not to be arrogant or snotty, hub and I have taken bus trips. But at times a large bus indicates lines at the rest rooms, long waits for a tour, and/or crowded viewing areas.

The bus transported students, probably fourth through sixth graders. Just beginning their tour, the cashier in the gift shop informed us the next tour would begin in an hour, when a guide would be available. No wandering around the caves without an escort permitted.

We waited. We did not want to forego the opportunity, which hopefully would be worthwhile.

This new friend kept us company while waiting for our tour.
We strolled through the gift shop, sat on the porch in comfortable rocking chairs, and took pictures of the resident peacocks and roadrunners. Finally an employee announced our tour.

Six people crowded around the tour guide, a retiree on a second career, as he explained the ground rules. Photography allowed. Do not touch, handle, or take any stones, crystals or other natural phenomena. Stay together, watch your step, and no food or drink. Cameras were the only objects permitted in the caverns with us – no backpacks, pocketbooks, etc.

First impression on entering the cave was the humidity, registering 98%, the warmth (72 degrees but feeling over 80), and darkness. Our guide switched on dim lights as we progressed through the caverns, turning lights off leaving one cavern and others on when entering the next room, the term used by the guide. Each room is named, for example the Christmas Tree room.

Moving from one cavern to the next, we descended 155 feet below the entrance.
Each cavern presented magnificent rock and crystal formations in a palette of whites, beiges, browns, and deep reds.

Two hours later, after a two mile walk and negotiating 360 stairs, our tour of the caverns and lecture about the cave’s history, geology, and formations concluded.

Veering off the main travel path can offer rewards, and at other times disappointment. This particular detour offered an astonishing wonder. 

Fossils of creatures millions of years ago,
when the caves were under the sea.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Visiting the Home of the Alamo

The Alamo
San Antonio relishes its diversity. For five days our Road Scholar program immersed us in the city’s history, unfolding the story of how the land became home to settlers native and foreign.

The Spanish conquered and sparsely inhabited the wilderness in the 17th century, establishing missions, intent on converting the Indians. A few selected and unlucky soldiers stayed to protect the priests and natives. Then Spain forgot about their distant possession.

Decades later the French started a colony, which ultimately failed, doomed by marauding Indians. The Spanish then decided, since someone else wanted the land, to colonize this vast empty territory previously deemed worthless. In the middle of the 18th century, hoping they could coerce 400 Spanish families to excitedly brave the ocean voyage and inhabit the undeveloped boonies, they settled for 16 Canary Island families, about 56 people. 

American settlers began trickling into Texas territory at the dawn of the 19th century. Spain wanted to control these immigrants and arranged a deal. The Americans were supposed to convert to Catholicism, renounce their American citizenship, and learn Spanish. The pioneers met none of these conditions, but before the Spanish could make a fuss, Mexico won independence from Spain.

Texas became a Mexican state.

And Americans kept coming.

Meanwhile Santa Ana rose to power in Mexico and did his despotic best to rule. In far away Texas settlers balked at his tax demands (sound familiar!) and other indignities.

Santa Ana marched into Texas to pacify the rebellious Texians (as they were then called).

The result was the battle of the Alamo. Most of us know the story from the John Wayne movie. It was not a fair fight. About 189 defenders faced estimates of anywhere from 1,800 to 6,000 Mexican troops. The defenders died (David Crockett - he was never called Davey and never wore a coonskin hat, Jim Bowie, William Travis and others); the only survivors a dozen women, children, and slaves.

The Texians lost at the Alamo, but Sam Houston used the rallying cry “Remember the Alamo” to win a resounding victory a few weeks later at the Battle of San Jacinto, a rout lasting 18 minutes.

Santa Ana’s reign concluded at the end of a rope.

Texas wanted to join the U.S., the year 1836, but a bunch of Northern congressmen did not want to accept the territory as five separate slaveholding states. Texas became an independent republic – temporarily. It took a few years, but Texas became the 28th state in 1845.

Meanwhile immigrants kept coming. Americans, Germans, English…Creating a cultural melting pot in San Antonio today, an anomaly in the great state of Texas. It is one of the few blue counties in the state.
Sculpture at the Briscoe Museum
of - what else? - cowboys!

We visited the Alamo, a restored Spanish mission, the Briscoe Western Art Museum and the McNay Art Museum - interesting as a museum but even more fascinating was Mrs. McNay’s life story. One tidbit – she had four husbands (not at one time). We strolled along Riverwalk, an engineering response to a devastating flood in 1921. The long-term plan halted future floods within the city and sparked a growing tourist industry.

Philadelphia is not the only city with LOVE.
This one is at the McNay Museum.

A series of lectures by long-term, proud Texans, including a ninth generation descendant of the first Canary Island settlers, provided a personal and in-depth perspective on the city and sights visited.

We sampled local cuisine – Tex-Mex, Mexican (including a cooking demonstration), barbecue, Texas steak and other local favorites…

Then it was over, time to pack, load the car, and head out of the big city (relatively speaking) for the Texas wilderness – Big Bend National Park.

It is nice, easy, and convenient having someone else (Road Scholar, in this case), plan everything – hotels, meals, speakers, tours.

Now we are on our own again. 
Along Riverwalk, San Antonio.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Exploring The Texas Hill Country

“Too many wineries today,” my excuse to our waiter when hub asked for a napkin, only to be told there was one in his lap.

It had been a long day touring the Texas hill country, a region brimming with wineries, museums, ranches and small picturesque towns. A cozy two-bedroom apartment – located on airbnb - served as our headquarters for five days. Walking into the second floor apartment the pristine white furniture, white walls and white bedding overwhelmed, but we quickly adjusted to the contemporary design of our hosts, two young (twenty-something) owners of a hair salon occupying the first floor of the two-story building.
The courtyard of the Museum of the Pacific War

Our days began with a leisurely homemade breakfast before heading out to explore. One day we toured the National Museum of the Pacific War (we are history buffs). We strolled slowly through the six acre complex, took a lunch break, then returned to the museum. I tired out before hub, sore feet dragging my tired body to a nearby coffee shop. I admit I did not see the entire museum, but did my best…

Another afternoon we hiked hilly, rocky terrain in Enchanted Rock State Park. We did not hike to the top of the rock in the hot sunny weather (I would not hike up in any weather). My mountain climbing, rock climbing, repelling days are over – actually those days came and went, passing me by completely.
Hiking in the Enchanted Rock State Park.
Following our hiking adventure we sampled the products at a local winery. The day ended savoring dinner at a local restaurant - the location of hub’s napkin faux pas. It was Friday night of Valentine’s weekend, and no indoor tables were available. Settling for a table on the patio, we watched the sun set and night descend, but as the temperature dropped left for our warm apartment and a cup of hot coffee.

More hiking along the Guadeloupe River, sampling local cuisine – German (the first settlers in the area), Mexican, Spanish and good ole American, a visit to the LBJ ranch, and suddenly it is time to pack up and move on to our next stop. San Antonio, here we come… 
Lunch after hiking along the Guadeloupe River.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Landscape We Love (Sometimes)

 Crossing the Mississippi River.
Hub enjoying Mardi Gras in Natchez MS.
Road trips are a great way to see the country. Drive sparsely populated open roads and occasionally clogged, smelly highways. Stop at well-known and more obscure tourist sights and pass others by, eager to rack up the miles, hours later driver and passengers exiting the car with sore, cramped muscles. Meet people. Eat food sometimes terrible and other times wonderful, but no matter how carefully one orders, most dishes contain an excess of calories with too much salt and sugar.

Racing through countryside, the landscape may be desolate desert, hilly, mountainous, lush green or full of autumn colors, or steeped in gray winter barrenness. It is nature glimpsed first-hand, if not in-depth. For that one must stop the car, get out, observe the surroundings and wander off road.

The United States is a huge country, the largeness not appreciated by Easterners like me traveling through metro areas for endless miles and hours, past towns that transform into countryside then merge with other towns. Trips in the past to Colorado and Utah hit this Easterner powerfully with its awesomeness, but we are (at least I am) forgetful once back on the populous East coast.

There is the natural landscape, and then the man-made panorama.

Unfortunately too much not pretty, and actually ugly, man-made scenery dots the land. 

Gas station/convenience store combos spring up everywhere.

Auto salvage shops and junk yards also seem to be everywhere. Not many people or houses, but lots of abandoned vehicles.

Driving through northern Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, towns are first revealed by a road sign with the town name and population. I wonder how the population number remains accurate. I am sure babies are born, people move out, move in and die…

Maybe people do not move away – or move in.

One of the first retail stores greeting a driver entering town is a Dollar General store, a Family Dollar and/or a Dollar Tree. Often two sit across the street from each other.

Then there are billboards. Rarely seen are electronic ones popular along highways around my home state. Along Southern highways billboards advertise car dealerships, fast food outlets, law firms, local motels, or display a Bible quote, the passage too long to read in its entirety while speeding along.

It is difficult avoiding BFTs – big f**king trucks. I guess their proliferation are a sign of a thriving economy, but it is no fun driving behind, next to, in front of, or passing these behemoths. Driving near them in the rain is even worse.

Waffle House restaurants turn up all over. We have not yet eaten a meal in one on this trip. We did once, years ago, in Florida. It was memorable, in a not good way. I do not plan on repeating the experience…

Burger King, Hardee’s, Whataburger, Sonic Drive-In, McDonald’s dot the landscape. Do people in these states eat anywhere else? Or eat anything besides cheap burgers?

I think everyone south of the Mason Dixon line living outside major cities drive big pick-ups. A lot of city people own them, too. Driving behind one you see nothing except the back of the truck.

I do not think there is anyplace anywhere in the country without some kind of road construction, from minor repairs to major roadwork. But I guess that is a good thing. People are working…

Then there are the pluses of driving through parts of the lightly populated south –

Few stoplights or stop signs.

Four lane roads - two in each direction - with wide shoulders.

No pot holes.

No traffic (most of the time).

Natural landscape. Sometimes pretty, sometimes not so much. Occasionally boring as mile after mile of similar scenery becomes monotonous.

Polite people (Donald Trump, take note…).

And the states roll by as our car pushes on into Cruz country (a.k.a. Texas)… 
Lunch stop in Collins, MS

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Rocky Road to a Rollover

Hub officially retired December 31, 2015, his two-year retirement-in-training program ended. We began a new chapter in our lives.

One order of business before fully enjoying a carefree existence required rolling over his 401(k) to an IRA, a strategy encouraged by his employer (ex-employer, to be strictly accurate).

Hub initially tried handling the rollover online, but faced obstacles when the completed online form would not print. He contacted via phone the firm administering his company’s 401(k) plan, and a customer service representative walked him through the rollover steps. It seemed straightforward and uncomplicated.

First step: downloading and printing a one-page form. Hub filled out the form immediately, clearly printing the information requested, including the name and address of the financial institution where the funds were to be delivered. He then drove to the nearest fax machine, located at a mom-and-pop grocery a few blocks away. The form could be dispatched snail mail, but the rep indicated faxing was the preferred method, if possible.

Our next step: wait.

A week later an envelope from the financial firm appeared in our mailbox.


This was not good. The check should have been sent to the financial institution where hub’s IRA languished (what the account was doing during a market sinking almost daily).

Opening the envelope and glancing at the check I became livid, realizing a serious problem confronted hub, an issue the firm needed to unravel and correct.

The check was made out to hub, not the financial institution, with 20% federal taxes withheld, required under federal law for a distribution. The firm processed the request as a distribution to the account owner, subject to taxes, not as a direct rollover from a 401(k) to another qualified retirement plan (in this case, an IRA).

Hub immediately called the company. Following discussions with a couple of reps and being pushed up the food chain, hub finally reached an individual who could – hopefully – help.

The rep pulled hub’s distribution form up on her computer screen. Reviewing it, she noted it was filled out correctly.

Why was the check made out to hub, sent to him, taxes withheld?

The rep had no idea, but agreed the firm made a mistake and promised to correct the error.

We placed the check in an envelope and immediately sent it back to the company in care of our new personal customer service representative.

A few days later hub received an e-mail indicating the check arrived at the firm, was voided, and the original request sent for processing. With any luck it would be handled correctly the second time.

Days pass. Another e-mail arrives requesting hub confirm to whom the check was to be made out and the forwarding address. Hub verified the information (clearly stated on the rollover form).

Again a number of days pass and another e-mail appears. Hub’s rollover request had been completed and a check mailed to his IRA custodian.

Readers may wonder – why not an electronic transfer from the 401(k) to the IRA? Because electronic transfer was not an option offered, although it should have been.

The money now rests in hub’s IRA account. Now we must decide how to invest it...Any ideas? 

Monday, February 8, 2016

This Week's Boomer Bloggers Have Issues on Their Minds

Our airbnb cottage in Natchez.
I love the name!
Remember the movie If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium? For a few days I felt I was living an American version of that movie. Every day hub and I, traveling our country's byways, moved from one motel to another. But when we landed in Natchez, MS, a small town on the Mississippi River time forgot, we settled into an airbnb cottage for a few days. Immersed in antebellum history, we toured the mansions of wealthy 19th century citizens – most plantation owners. Many lost their plantations and their wealth following the Civil War.

We enjoyed the opportunity to unpack, relax, cook a meal, put our feet up and watch the Superbowl. Almost like home!

While I was sightseeing my fellow bloggers took time this week to ponder important questions, such as does anybody miss their job after retirement? Laura Lee over at The Adventures of the NEW Old Farts discovered that some exactly do!

Tom Sightings examines another issue. Sightings Over Sixty this week takes a look at the political scene -- not from a partisan point of view, but from a demographic perspective. And you can tell from the title of his piece that he is being completely fair and objective. The post is called Never Trust Anyone Under 30.

Linda Myers writes Thoughts From a Bag Lady in Waiting. This week she reposted a piece from two years ago concerning a major episode in the lives of her and her husband. Read CPR in the Real World and hope you act as quickly and responsibly as she did when faced with a sudden crisis.

It’s early in the year, still a good time to review your financial situation and set goals. On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, starts February out with articles on how personal loans are skyrocketing, but they aren’t for everyone. Most Americans have spent more than $100 on an impulse item. No wonder so many need a personal loan!

Friday, February 5, 2016

Days and Nights Traveling America’s Roads

Heading north from Tampa, Florida, on US 19 on the way to Florida’s Forgotten Coast, miles of fast food joints, car dealerships, and strip malls slid by. This modern American landscape finally gave way to a two lane road bordered by pine trees, cattle ranches, and small towns comprised of auto repair and salvage shops, and churches.

It was dark when we rolled into Chiefland, Florida, where more fast food eateries, a couple of gas stations, and a row of shuttered and dark commercial buildings greeted us.

We could continue on, but following hours of driving, drowsiness overcame us as darkness descended.

It was 6:00 p.m.

Faced with the reality of winter, we gave in to weariness. Summer travel allows us to stay awake, conscious and alert for hours beyond winter’s late afternoon sunset and onset of darkness. Years ago we could drive all night if necessary. No more.

Our stomachs demanded food. I slowly drove through town while hub kept eyes peeled for a place to eat. Locating an open establishment proved difficult in the dark. No street lights assisted our search.

Proceeding slowly through town, the road once again became black with no buildings on either side of the highway. We turned around and, repeating the Chiefland town tour, spotted lights illuminating a storefront in a strip mall.

The lights belonged to a restaurant devoid of patrons, but the food proved plentiful and very reasonable. During dinner additional customers strode in and occupied three or four tables. Everyone, except the two travelers from New Jersey (hub and I!), seemed to know each other.

After dinner we found a room in one of the two motels observed traveling across town. Our room looked almost exactly like rooms encountered previous nights – a queen or king bed, desk and desk chair, a small couch or chair, one or two nightstands, one piece of furniture on which the flat screen TV dominated the space, and a bathroom ranging in size from barely adequate to almost spacious.

All of the motels offered free breakfast, probably using the same vendors, whatever the motel chain might be. Most have waffle makers, kids’ favorite, and offer a variety of cold cereals, oatmeal, and breads - white bread, English muffins (not Thomas’), an item looking like a bagel but not a real bagel by any stretch of the imagination - and possibly some kind of pre-made rubbery eggs.

Sometimes the coffee tastes good.

Such is life on a road trip across America, or at least across parts of the country. Hub and I drove down the East Coast from our home in New Jersey to our son’s place in south Florida. We avoided one of the worst roads in America most of the way, forced to drive I-95 - along with too many other cars and large trucks - through Georgia.

After visiting family on the east coast, we drove across Florida to visit friends in Tampa, then headed north to what the tourist bureau dubs Florida’s Forgotten Coast, a big bend in Florida’s panhandle dotted with state parks and wilderness, beaches, and one of the state’s oldest cities, Apalachicola.

Soon we will spend more than one night in one place, staying in places with a kitchen area and breathing space.

We have only just begun our road trek…