Saturday, June 30, 2007

Border Music by Robert James Waller: book review

Robert James Waller is also the author of "The Bridges of Madison County", of which nearly everyone has heard. I haven't read that one or any of his other books, but this one caught my eye. When I picked it up and flipped through it, I saw references to Alpine, TX (the seat of the county Terlingua is in) and the Holland Hotel (wherein lies the brewpub where I had lunch, on my first visit to Alpine). At that point, I had to read it.
I guess a given book can have different meanings to different people, depending upon their viewpoint, interests and experiences in life. The official description on the inside jacket has "Texas" Jack Carmine and Linda Lobo, two complete strangers, heading out the back door of a bar in Dillon, Minnesota; bound for wherever the road takes them, but eventually to Southwest Texas and the ranch Jack has called home since boyhood.
I can't disagree with that version, but to me that is but a part of the larger story; a Skeeter Skelton-esque story of a man hanging onto the modest ranch his father left him, living in the small ranch house with his dog and his best friend, the Mexican hired hand who has worked for Jack's father and then for Jack for over 50 years. Living in that simple but safe harbor, and going out every summer to lay pipe or work with a traveling combine crew in the Midwest during the wheat harvest for some operating capital, and also to experience life in the wider world for awhile before retreating to the ranch again for the winter.
The story is about that, and about some of the more important people Jack has known in his life; and about how those people feel about Jack.
Here is an excerpt from the book that somewhat describes what sort of person is Jack Carmine: "Few months before his thirtieth birthday, in that ol' Jack Carmine way of his, he just drove over to El Paso and enlisted. That was in the summer of '69. I dunno how he ever got through basic trainin'. Jack never has done well with orders. What was it he used to say?...said he had a built-in taste for anarchy of all kinds. I asked him what he meant by that, and he said he liked situations where the borders weren't in sight and you had to go out and find 'em or make 'em up yourself." That quote is from page 183.
Did I like the book? I think that's pretty obvious.
I've added a link in the right border of this page, if you would like to buy a copy for yourself.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

A Point to Ponder: a short story

This story was posted at the Yahoo group Texas Outback [Link] by the owner of the group, my friend and fellow Terlingua Ranch landowner Kathleen O'Keefe. I am reposting it here with her permission.

A Point To Ponder
A boat docked in a tiny Mexican village. An American tourist
complimented the Mexican fisherman on the quality of his fish and
asked how long it took him to catch them.

"Not very long," answered the Mexican.

"But then, why didn't you stay out longer and catch more?" asked the

The Mexican explained that his small catch was sufficient to meet his
needs and those of his family. The American asked, "But what do you
do with the rest of your time?"

"I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, and take a
siesta with my wife. In the evenings, I go into the village to see my
friends, have a few drinks, play the guitar, and sing a few songs . .
I have a full life."

The American interrupted, "I have an MBA from Harvard and I can help
you! You should start by fishing longer every day. You can then sell
the extra fish you catch. With the extra revenue, you can buy a
bigger boat."

"And after that?" asked the Mexican.

"With the extra money the larger boat will bring, you can buy a second
one and a third one and so on until you have an entire fleet of
trawlers. Instead of selling your fish to a middle man, you can then
negotiate directly with the processing plants and maybe even open
your own plant. You can then leave this little village and move to
Mexico City, Los Angeles, or even New York City! From there you can
direct your huge new enterprise."

"How long would that take?" asked the Mexican.

"Twenty, perhaps twenty-five years," replied the American.

"And after that?"

"Afterwards? Well my Friend, That's when it gets really interesting,"
answered the American, laughing. "When your business gets really big,
you can start selling stocks and make millions!"

"Millions? Really? And after that?" said the Mexican.

"After that you'll be able to retire, live in a tiny village near the
coast, sleep late, play with your children, catch a few fish, take a
siesta with your wife and spend your evenings drinking and enjoying
your friends."

And the moral is:
Know where you're going in life... you may already be there.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

And Furthermore... more thoughts about RV Power Sources

In the previous post, I wrote about the inherent inefficiency of automotive alternators as a continuous power source, specifically for powering an air conditioner. In response, I was asked what makes them so inefficient. The following is my (somewhat educated) opinion.

The main problem is that automotive alternators are designed to produce enough voltage to maintain the battery, even at an idle speed. This means that at any speed above idle, they are wasting much of their capability. They can be rewound for efficiency and converted to a permanent-magnet configuration, and there are sellers on Ebay who sell just such an alternator, primarily for building your own wind generator.
This would actually be a pretty good solution. What you would do is run this as a second alternator, dedicated to the "house" battery bank. You would need to find a seller who winds his own stators, and consult with him about what you want to do. The alternator would need to supply about 50 amps at the battery bank terminals, at your normal cruise speed. You would then need to buy (or build; they're not that complicated for an electronics hobbyist) and install a diversion regulator which dumps excess power into a load anytime the battery bank exceeds 13.8 volts (for a 12 volt bank), such as when the air conditioner cycles off or is not being used. This regulator is necessary because such a modified alternator outputs unregulated power. If you are not going to be using the A/C (such as cool weather), just remove the belt from this alternator. The load you dump into can be an electric water heater. Sounds complicated, but it is probably the best alternative to having a separate, mounted generator.
Personally, I would go with the mounted generator (preferably diesel) and a good inverter with a built-in high rate battery charger and transfer relay (which transfers the load automatically from the inverter to the genny anytime it is running), because you can use it when you are parked, as well.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Inefficiency of Automotive Alternators for Continuous Power

I posted this on the Vandwellers Yahoo Group [Link], in response to a poster who wondered about the feasibility of running a window-unit air conditioner in his RV while driving; powered by a battery bank, inverter, and the heavy-duty alternator on his engine. Another poster opined that inverters are too inefficient for that use, and I disagreed, saying this:

"I have a couple of comments based upon my experience living offgrid, fulltime, on an eclectic and ever-changing, designed by myself, system.
First, inverters: I have several cheaper ones for portable use etc. plus a GOOD one, the old style Trace 2500 watt modified sine wave unit. I have never seen a need for a true sine wave inverter. I have been using my Trace for years with zero problems, powered up continuously. It starts and runs air conditioners better than public power, because of better regulation. This is not theory, it is my personal experience.
Modern inverters really do achieve 90% efficiency, over their entire range. A good one will specify efficiency for all loads, and will guarantee those specs.
Where you WILL have efficiency problems, however, is in the alternator. Automotive alternators are less than 50% efficient; usually much less. Also, their output drops substantially after just a few minutes. I tried running just a 5000 btu air conditioner on my battery bank and Trace (already proven efficient over a couple of years' use) inverter, charging with a CS144, 140 amp Delco alternator powered by my 6 hp Lister-pattern diesel engine. After just a few minutes runtime, the system was operating at a deficit. The regulator in an automotive alternator just isn't designed for a steady, large load; and it can't keep up.
With the same setup, I put a 1500 watt load (measured with a Fluke meter and current probe) directly on the alternator, for the few minutes it would supply it. This was enough to cause my engine to load down and produce black smoke. At 746 watts per horsepower, the engine produces just under 4500 watts. By comparison, my 7.5 kw generator head can supply 3600 watts from the same engine, using the same serpentine drive belt. This serves to illustrate just how inefficient an automotive alternator is.
In closing, I agree with the previous suggestion of using a mounted RV generator for your power needs, in addition to an inverter for when you are not running the genny. "
There are actually more inefficiencies in such a system than just the alternator itself, but there was no point in getting any more in-depth, because of the constraints of the forum.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Creek Fishing for Redeye Bass

It has been a hot weekend around here. I took some time yesterday to go creek fishing for redeye bass [Link]. Here [Link] is a good article about how to catch them. A buddy and I wandered along about 3/4 mile of a local creek, casting into likely spots. We only caught a few small fish, but it was a good time. We released all we caught. Redeye bass are wonderful eating though, and I have enjoyed many fish dinners caught from this particular creek.

Monday, June 18, 2007


This is an average sized, adult timber rattler; about 4 feet long. Around here, when it's this dry, they come down off the mountains in droves, looking for water. I don't bother them, unless they are near the house; although I did promise a friend I would kill any I found in his cattle pasture. Apparently they bite cattle in the face or neck, causing them to die of swelling-induced asphyxiation. This friend passed away last winter, but his son still maintains cattle on the place, so I will still honor my promise if I ever run across a rattlesnake in the pasture.
When I do kill them, I eat them and preserve the skins. I've heard all the stuff about boiling them until the "snake oil" comes out so it won't be bitter or even make you sick, etc. It's all a myth. There is no "snake oil", and it doesn't have to be boiled. You can skin and gut it (although it will fight you every inch of the way; better cut off the head so you don't get bitten by a dead snake!), then cut it into chunks and grill or fry it. Tastes good; even better than alligator tail because there's no fishy taste. Good with hot sauce or barbeque sauce.
I let this one go on its way peacefully, same as I do most of them. They're generally docile as long as you don't push them. They're also beautiful snakes. I wish I'd had a better camera along; I took these pics with my camera phone.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Urban Squatter Living in Underground Home

Now this man [Link] is truly 'possum living! It sounds like he has a pretty good setup. They call him "homeless" which is why I figure he's a squatter. I wish I had more info, maybe some photos, but that would infringe on the guy's privacy. I'm just glad that they seem to be leaving him alone.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Diamond Prospecting

According to this story [Link], a 13 year old girl found a nearly 3 carat diamond at Crater of Diamonds State Park [Link], a state park in southwest Arkansas.
I've been there. Didn't find any diamonds, but I had a great time trying! I tent-camped, followed the hiking trails to the river every morning, and prospected every afternoon. I definitely plan to return. It's like lots of my favorite places, not on the way to anywhere. Ya gotta be specifically going there.
Not only that, but Arkansas is one of the most camping-friendly states I've visited. Lots of state parks, state parks all have a campground (unlike some states I've been to; neighboring Missouri for example) and campers are welcomed even if they're driving a cheap old vehicle or RV. No matter what you're driving or where you are in Arkansas, you are probably within 20 miles of a cheap, decent place to camp.
Oh, and people really do find diamonds in Crater of Diamonds SP, and there is an assay office in the nearby town.
I recommend it as a fun place to go.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Update on Terlingua Ranch Water Wells

In this post [Link] I discussed the water situation on Terlingua Ranch, and had this to say about water wells: "Wells are not out of the question, either. I've been told that water is about 300 feet down in most areas of the ranch. That's not bad. I don't know how much a drilling company charges in the area, but I think $10 per foot is an average rate in most areas."
I have since received better data from what I consider a very reliable source, to the effect that the average well is between 600 and 1000 feet deep; and that drilling costs $20 per foot. Also that a large percentage of attempts come up dry.
Now I don't know about you, but that takes it out of the realm of being an option for me. I can haul an awful lot of 3 cents per gallon water for that $20,000. In fact, I can haul water for years before finally building a catchment system, without spending 20 grand.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Terlingua Ranch and Big Bend Part IV: Exploring the Ranch

Go to Part I

Go to Part II

Go to Part III

I was glad to be off the road, and on the ranch. Although it was still daylight and would be for a few more hours, I was too tired from the trip to set up camp, so I got one of the rooms at the lodge for the night. After unloading some stuff, I went for a drive around the near perimeter of the headquarters, visited the rifle range and fired a box or so of .45 Long Colt from my Ruger single-action revolver, then went beyond the range a mile or so until the road started climbing. I actually climbed about halfway up the hill in my Cherokee, but the road was gumbo mud from the earlier rainstorm, and I chickened out when I imagined sliding off the edge. So I backed down gingerly, got out and climbed the hill on foot. It was a beautiful view from up there, but it was getting pretty close to sundown so I snapped a few photos and headed back to headquarters for a good meal and some shut-eye.
Next morning, I got up at the crack of noon (just kidding! It wasn't that late), ate breakfast and drank coffee, then wandered on foot down to the office. There were a couple of landowners already there, so I drank more coffee while socializing. There is a room at the office with topo maps nearly floor to ceiling on three walls denoting all the areas of the ranch, and with all tracts marked. The 4th wall has bulletin boards covered with memos about tracts for sale and other things of interest to current and potential landowners. In the center of the room is a long table so you can sit, drink coffee, shoot the breeze, and peruse maps and such. Topo maps are for sale in a rack on a table against the fourth wall, and there is also a computer on that table. Loaded on the computer is an up-to-date, searchable database of all the tracts and their owners; so if for example you bought some land from this particular land company, liked dealing with them and wanted to see exactly what else they had available as of today, you could search under those parameters, write down the tract numbers that looked promising and find them on the maps. That's exactly what lots of people were doing, myself included. By this time I had decided that I definitely wanted to buy a second tract; a smaller one, closer to the main road for easy access.
About noon I headed out to find my land. I arrived there about 2 hours and 30 miles later, just north of the middle of nowhere. Beautiful, but chilly and breezy. I definitely plan to keep it, but I knew that it was a place to trek to from the
main camp, perhaps camp there on occasion but the main camp needed to be more sheltered and easier to get in and out of.
I spent the rest of the day leisurely wandering around the ranch, getting a feel for some of the different areas to help me decide exactly where to buy my "base camp" tract. The next several days were the same; make a list of a few promising tracts
for sale, then head out to find them. That's not all I did, of course: I was there to have a good time and decompress from what is euphemistically referred to as the "real world"; so I spent lots of time just going to interesting areas, getting out and exploring on foot. I even explored a few canyons; something I definitely wouldn't want to do during the summer due to the proliferation of rattlesnakes, killer bees and other such nasties. As it was, I kept an eye peeled for mountain lions and bears. I know bears are supposed to be in hibernation during the winter, but it wasn't very cold and I'm not sure if they really hibernate when it isn't cold.
During these outings, when my stomach let me know it was lunchtime I would dig a can of something out of my food box, heat it on my old Optimus 8R Hiker stove and eat lunch wherever I happened to be, then continue exploring. That way I could stay out there all day. Besides, there's just something about eating in some lonely canyon far into the outback that really improves the flavor of Beanie-Weenies and saltines.
Even back at camp, most of my meals were canned goods and a few perishables, including a large chunk of leftover Christmas ham, that I kept in a cooler. I only ate one restaurant meal during my entire stay on the ranch, and that was at the ranch restaurant. I heard lots of good things about a particular restaurant in Study Butte, but never got around to checking it out this trip.
I did go to Study Butte once, and on to Lajitas, where I stood on the bank of the Rio Grande and looked across at Paso Lajitas. I enjoyed the visit and will probably spend more time there next trip, but I spent most of this trip getting to know the ranch. Didn't see all of it either, not by a long shot.
I ended up camping in the primitive-camping area at the edge of the HQ compound. It was out of the way, yet very close to the bathhouse, office, restaurant etc. It was also very cheap. I won't say how cheap, because landowners get a break in the price, but suffice to say that even a cheapskate like me didn't mind at all paying for several nights. Let me put it another way: had I camped on my tract, the gas expenditure would have exceeded what I paid in camping fees. Of course, I did visit my tract a couple more times, but most days I didn't drive all the way to that corner of the ranch.
Camping where I did, I was able to watch the comings and goings at the ranch HQ, while still getting the flavor of camping in the wild. For example, one night about midnight I was awakened by what sounded like a bunch of orcs coming towards my camp
from a small draw about 100 yards south of me. I grabbed my .45 Blackhawk and lay still, listening to the rapidly approaching grunts and squeals. By the time they arrived, I knew what they were. Javelina. I lay there grinning and stifling laughter
as they poked around my campsite, occasionally bumping my tent in their search for food.
For the most part the weather was very mild. It was early January, but the temperature reached the 50s most days, even occasionally climbing into the 60s. Nights, however, were cold; and I was glad I had brought a 0 degree mummy bag. Not that it got that cold, but it did drop well below freezing. The woodstove made for comfortable evenings, but once I let the fire die down at bedtime, it would get almost as cold inside as out. Tent canvas just doesn't insulate very well.