Hunkered Down in Austin, Texas

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

We left South Padre Island on Monday, and headed to Brownsville, where we had hotel reservations for the night. The hotel had several electric vehicle chargers, all but one occupied by non-electric vehicles. We squeezed our Tesla in and didn’t leave until we checked out the next day. Before we left the island, we stopped at the supercharger, which worked just long enough to get us about 5% more energy than we had stored.

Many thanks to the Homewood Suites in Brownsville for letting us into our room mid-morning. They even offered a dinner that evening. I doubt we would have found any restaurants that were open. Once again, I have to recommend the HiltonHonors loyalty program which has helped us out of jams more than once.

To add to our worries on Monday, our car’s communication system went down. Tesla uses the AT&T network, so we think their cell towers were down. The car was drivable, but we had no GPS, nor any way to see if other superchargers along the route would even be powered. Fortunately, it was back in service by Tuesday morning, so we were able to head out. We kept our speed under the limit to conserve power, just in case any more of the superchargers were down.

We had some food and beverages left over from our condo stay, so we weren’t too concerned about starving. At one stop by an H-E-B grocery store in San Marcos, the line to get in was stretched about a block. With more bad weather on the way, people were stocking up. At another stop, we went into the nearby convenience store to pick up a few things, but the power went down before we could pay.

Along the way to Austin, we saw cars that still hadn’t been pulled out of the ditch from the last storm. We also saw the effects of several accidents that had occurred this afternoon. Icicles hang from road signs, snow blows off of passing trucks, overpasses and underpasses are treacherous since the ice forms there first, and melts last. Electronic signs on the freeway recommend no travel.

Much of Texas is still without power, and other areas are experiencing rolling blackouts. The wind turbines are not winterized, so many of them have become inoperable, which is a small part of the reason for the outages. Much of the natural gas and oil industry as well. Texas was completely unprepared for this type of emergency. Much of the power grid is shut down during the winter months, and not brought back on line until summer when there is increased demand for air conditioning.

We drove by a few tent communities in Austin, and I do hope those people have been able to find warm shelter somewhere. The roads are slippery, sidewalks are not walkable, lights are off at many of the establishments we passed.

We’re so happy we made our hotel reservations yesterday, as it was sold out by the time we got here. We are staying at a Homewood Suites, a fairly good sized one, and only three people were able to make it to work here today. They are doing all of the checking in (and turning people away), housekeeping and other services. These hardworking young people are doing an amazing job. Reminder to self: Big Tips!


We were told that a local pizza joint was still open, but the line was around the block. We have tuna, meat, cheese and crackers, not a feast, but it works. We will stay here tonight and tomorrow night for sure, then decide if we can hit the road again. The plan is to be home in Minnesota by next Tuesday at the latest, but we’ll see. What an adventure!

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Are We Really in South Texas? Ice and Snow!

Monday, February 15, 2021

The last few days on South Padre have been windy and definitely cooler. We’ve given up walking on the beach because it’s hard to stand up. When we do go outside, we’re actually grateful for our COVID masks because they keep us a little warmer. No outdoor lunches because we’re afraid our food will blow away.

This morning was the worst, though. The temperature outside was 24 degrees, with 40 mile winds. I think I saw whitecaps on the swimming pool.

The temperature inside our condo was 66 degrees, and there was no power anywhere on the island. We had no cell reception either. We quickly packed up, and headed to Brownsville, where we plan to spend the night, waiting out the storm. Fortunately, our hotel has electric vehicle charging since the Tesla Supercharger was without power on the island. We were able to check in this morning. Hotel loyalty programs can offer some nice benefits in times like this.

I am ready to go home. It’s cold there too, but we have a generator and we have a fireplace, so we’ll at least be cozy. South Padre was a good destination, and we’ll probably stay there again, since we do have a granddaughter living in Brownsville. The beaches are beautiful and very walkable, the grocery store was about 1.5 miles away, and there are several waterfront restaurants within walking distance. We even enjoyed a movie at the local theater, social distancing and masks in place, of course. Island Metro is a free shuttle service, with three routes, that can take you around the island, and even across the causeway to Port Isabel. If you’re a SpaceX fan, you might get to view a launch from nearby Isla Blanca park.

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Port of Brownsville

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Fog!!! We couldn’t see much this morning except for fog, but hoped for the best as we headed to board the Danny B for a Port of Brownsville Cruise. The Danny B is a 50 foot used primarily for fishing charters, but twice a week, for a few months a year, it is used for this particular tour. In fact, today’s tour was the first one of the season.

Our captain, Darryl Stiers, was confident that the fog would lift, and we’d get to see what we came for.

It took about an hour to reach the Port of Brownsville from South Padre, and on the way, we passed under the Queen Isabella Causeway, a 2.5 mile bridge that we’ve crossed many times this past week and a half, while traveling from the mainland to the island and back. On September 15, 2001, four barges crashed into the bridge, causing three 80-foot sections of the bridge to collapse. It was foggy that day as well, which contributed to the accident. Before the bridge could be closed, several vehicles plunged into the water, and five people were killed. The bridge was closed for about two months for repairs. People and vehicles were ferried off the island during this time.

We cruised into the Brownsville Ship Channel, a 17-mile channel that was dredged between 1935 and 1936 when it opened for boat traffic. The channel is currently 42 feet deep, but around the clock dredging will in the works to increase that depth to 52 feet. The $350 million project is designed to accommodate ships that come through the expanded Panama Canal.

The channel is home to many shrimping operations, from one boat to as many as 47 boats. The largest shrimping company was started by the Zimmerman Brothers in 1952, and markets their shrimp under the Texas Gold brand.

The Port of Brownsville is also home to several ship recycling centers. From shrimp boats to naval carriers, these ships are systematically dismantled and the materials are sold for scrap or reuse. Just last fall, five former Navy warships were shipped here for recycling. Those five ships were the USS Charles F Adams, the USS Barry, the USS Stephen W. Groves, the USS Hawes, and the USS Ticonderoga (the fifth US Navy ship to have that name.) All of the ships have had their identifying marks removed, so we couldn’t tell which was which.

Mark was especially excited to see “Deimos,” one of two oil platforms that were sold for scrap, and purchased by SpaceX for use as launch platforms in the Gulf. Moving the launches away from land will help to mitigate the loud noise that a launch causes.

On our way back to South Padre, we were escorted by several dolphins riding the waves kicked up by the boat.

We got a better view of the Queen Isabella Causeway as we returned to the island. It was still somewhat foggy, though, and by sunset, it was as thick as it had been this morning.

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Relaxing on South Padre

Thursday – Monday, February 5 – 8, 2021

Time gets away from us when we’re doing a whole lot of nothing. The weather has been fairly good, although we have experienced fog some mornings. The temps have been in the upper 60s and lower 70s, with some wind. It’s been great for walking the beach, and we usually get 3 – 4 miles in each day.

We see people fishing, flying kites, building sandcastles. We even watched a sandcastle building class for a few minutes. This class was being taught by Andy Hancock, who has won several sandcastle competitions.

I had read about Sea Whip, which is a type of coral that occasionally washes up on the beaches here on, so I was excited to actually find some. Besides that, I found an interesting shell, actually a clam shell that appears to have been covered in coral and smaller shells.

The Laguna Madre Nature Trail is a public boardwalk near the South Padre Island Convention Center, covering about four acres of wetland and bird habitat. While walking this, we saw several herons, pelicans, terns, ducks and fish, including several flying fish!

Tomorrow, we plan an early cruise to the Port of Brownsville.

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Sandcastles and Sea Turtles

Wednesday and Thursday, February 3 – 4, 2021

Wednesday was a very quiet day. We tried driving to Boca Chica Beach (where yesterday’s launch occurred), hoping to see what the launch pad looked like after the crash. However, the road was closed for cleanup, so we returned to our spot on the island.

We then took a walk to locate what is billed as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Sandcastle.” It’s located just a couple of blocks from our condo, just in front of the South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce. This is an ongoing project by sand castle artist, Andy Hancock, a former American Sand Sculpture Champion. Hancock also teaches sand castle classes if you are interested.

South Padre Island considers itself to be the Sandcastle Capital of the World, and celebrates Sandcastle Days every October (except for last year, due to COVID.)

We walked a bit further toward the downtown, but then headed to the beach, where we walked to the far south end of the island. It was a beautiful day for walking, many people were enjoying the water and sand.

On Thursday, we drove as far north as we could on the island, planning to spend some time on the beaches there. However, when we got out of the car, the wind was so strong, we could barely stand up. It felt like we were being sand blasted – ouch! After a few minutes, we concluded that this was no fun at all, so headed back to town.

Most of our time had been spent on the gulf side, so we decided to check out the bay side. After lunch at a beachside bar and grill, we walked to a nearby display of sandcastles – yes, more sandcastles! This was the Holiday Sandcastle Village, which showcases the work of several artists, who started working on the display last October. After the sculptures are finished, they are sprayed with diluted glue, and will be on display through February. We are amazed at the skill of these artists.

From here, we visited Sea Turtle Inc., an organization dedicated to the rescue and protection of sea turtles. The organization was founded by Ila Loetscher, a former pilot (friend of Amelia Earhart), who developed a passion for turtles. She began caring for and educating about turtles, and eventually started the non-profit organization, Sea Turtle, Inc.

Most of the rescued turtles are returned to the gulf once they have healed, but a few remain as permanent residents because their injuries or defects make it impossible for them to survive in the wild. Many of the turtles have become entangled in fishing line or plastic bags, some have been snagged by fishhooks, and will end up stranded on the rocks or the beach. There were several turtles from Massachusetts, that had been “cold stunned.” This is a type of hypothermia that happens when the temperatures quickly drop below 50 degrees. The turtles are brought to this center, where they slowly warm up and become active again. Then, they are released into the gulf.

Among some of the permanent residents are those whose flippers have been so damaged that they no longer function well, or the flippers or shell are misshapen. One turtle, Alison, only had one functioning flipper, so staff developed a prosthesis for her, a rudder-like fin that allows her to swim, dive and surface for air.

The air was hazy tonight, probably from the sand being blown around, so the sunset was perhaps not as brilliant as it is some nights, but still beautiful.

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Starship Launch and Crash

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

We learned that SpaceX was planning a test launch today, so we headed to nearby Isla Blanca Beach to find a place where we could get a good view. We weren’t alone!

SpaceX’s plan was to test launch a prototype Starship SN9 (thank you, Mark, for providing this info.) The SN9 is 160 feet in height, and when boosters are added, it will be 390 feet. Like other SpaceX rockets, this one is designed to be reusable. The Starship goes straight up, then, when preparing to land, flips to horizontal – belly flop mode. This mode allows the rocket to drop more slowly, reducing the dependence on fuel to slow it down. As it nears earth, it flips back to vertical, and hopefully, lands on its feet at the original launch pad. The circled rocket is the one that was scheduled to launch today.

The launch was scheduled for 12:55 pm, and we arrived at the park around 10:00 am. The weather today was fabulous today, and I took a nice long walk on the beach while waiting. I determined that our condo is only about a mile from Isla Blanca by beach, an easy walk if we choose to go there again.

The launch was delayed a few times, and finally set off around 2:00, which really isn’t too long a delay. There are many reasons why a launch is delayed or even aborted – humans too close to the launch pad, weather conditions, technical difficulties, etc. It was challenging to watch the launch when it did happen because we were looking into the sun. However, it was well worth the wait and the effort. The rocket went up a bit over 6 miles before flipping to horizontal, and beginning its descent. The sun angle made it difficult to locate the rocket after it achieved bellyflop mode, until it came closer to earth. At that point, it flipped again, but didn’t quite reach vertical, and it hit ground in a spectacular, fiery crash – exciting! It took about 27 seconds for the sound of the blast to reach us. While this may sound like a dismal failure, remember, this is a test, and each success or failure helps SpaceX learn what they need to do to improve next time.

In spite of the crash, we’re calling this a good day. It was exciting to watch the launch. We had some time afterwards to do a little more exploring and to take another walk on the beach.

Our condo faces east, and although we don’t see the sunset, we can still enjoy its effects on the clouds east of us.

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Boca Chica Beach and Fort Brown, Texas

Sunday, January 31

We spent most of Sunday afternoon at Boca Chica beach where is was breezy but comfortable. To get there, we drove past SpaceX and the rockets that are scheduled to be launched in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll get to witness at least one of those launches.

Part of the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge Boca Chica Beach is about 8 miles long, a public beach that is always open. You can drive your vehicle onto the beach, but it helps to have 4 wheel drive, as sand drifts can act much like snowdrifts. More than one car has gotten stuck in the sand.

The beach affords miles of walking, along the water, on dry sand, even in the dunes that line the park. Just stay on the paths through the dunes so you don’t cause any damage. You may run into someone with a metal detector, you will certainly see plenty of detritus washed up on shore.

You can also get a great view of the SpaceX launch pads, where two rockets were waiting for launch now.

Monday, February 1

This morning, we went searching for the original Fort Brown site, located less than a mile form the condo where we were currently staying. There isn’t much there except an historical marker, which indicated that there were the remains of breastworks in the distance. They appear to be located in or next to an abandoned golf course. Originally named, Fort Texas, Fort Brown was an earthwork construction built to protect the new Republic of Texas from Mexico. Shortly after Texas joined the United States in 1846, it was subjected to a siege by Mexican forces. The fort commander, Major Jacob Brown, was able to mount a successful defense, although he, himself, died just hours before the siege ended. The fort was later renamed in his honor. The original fort also was active during the Civil War.

I walked over to the campus of the Texas Southmost College, where several other buildings from Fort Brown are located. The Fort Brown Commissary and Guardhouse, constructed in 1904 to replace the original fort, was acquired by the City of Brownsville and School District. The Calvary Building, built in 1869, served as a barracks until WWI. It was purchased by private industry after WWII, and later purchased by the college. The Post Morgue was built around 1870. I was excited to learn that William Crawford Gorgas had served here when doing research on Yellow Fever. When reading about the Panama Canal before our last cruise, I learned that Dr. Gorgas was truly a hero of the Panama Canal construction. He determined that Yellow Fever was transmitted by a specific breed of mosquito, and he developed the protocol used to eradicate the mosquito and the disease from Panama Canal. Prior to this, Yellow Fever was a leading killer of the people who worked on the construction of the canal.

All of the former Fort Brown buildings on campus are now used by Texas Southmost College.

This afternoon, we moved to our new lodging on South Padre Island. Our unit faces the Gulf. I spent some time on our deck just enjoying the sound of the surf. This is the life!

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Breaking the Travel Fast

Tuesday, January 26, 2021 – Saturday, January 30

It’s been one year to the day since we completed our last real trip. We had cruised the Panama Canal in January, landing in California just as COVID-19 was starting to become an issue in the United States. In fact, when I got sick shortly after returning home, I thought I might have contracted the virus. Fortunately, not.

We had booked a Mississippi River cruise in August, but that was cancelled. Although we were disappointed, we did breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps we can reschedule in another year.

We’re not used to staying home! This travel fast must come to an end. We’ve made other attempts to get away, but nothing has worked until now.

This morning, we set out on a road trip to Brownsville, Texas, where our youngest son works at SpaceX. Of course, we were looking forward to seeing him and his lovely wife, but we were most excited about seeing our granddaughter again. She and her parents had moved to Brownsville in April, when her daddy got a job with SpaceX, and she was only a few months old.

The drive down was quite uneventful, which is always a good thing. We drove our Tesla Model X, meaning we had to plan our route around the Tesla Supercharger network. Charging the vehicle does add a couple of hours each day, but it also gives us the opportunity to get out, stretch our legs, have a snack, and perform our necessary ablutions, etc. In spite of COVID, we find that the trip is fairly uneventful, most of the facilities we stop at require masks, most of the people we see are being respectful of that.

Initially, we planned four days to make the 1,600 mile trek from our home in Minnesota, where, by the way, it was only 10 degrees on the day we left. However, once we got started, we determined that we could cover about 550 miles per day without falling asleep at the wheel, so we made the trip in three days instead. Each day, our beginning temperature was 10-20 degrees higher than the day before – YAY! By the time we reached south Texas, we were enjoying temps in the 70s and 80s.

We spent our first night on South Padre Island, where a Tesla supercharger as well as several destination chargers are located. It was such a delight to wake up the next day to a warm, breezy day on the beach. Everything feels so much better when you can ditch the coats and don the shorts!

While waiting for access to the Supercharger on South Padre, Mark noticed a man approaching the Tesla parked next to us. He said, “I think that’s Sandy Munro!” He was excited, but I didn’t have a clue. However, I looked at the car next to us, and it was emblazoned with Munro Live, (https://munrolive.com) so I thought Mark might be on to something. I suggested he go talk to him.

Munro is test driving a self-driving Tesla Model 3 cross country, and had covered 6,000 miles to date. He couldn’t stay to talk, but he did allow us to take his, and his camera man’s photo. (BTW, that’s our Model X next to him.) According to the website, “Sandy Munro will give his first impressions of everything from ‘fit and finish’ to paint quality and other pre-teardown observations.”

We are hoping to see a SpaceX launch while we are here. One was initially scheduled for Friday, January 29, the reason why we tried to get here in 3 days rather than 4, but that was aborted. Now, we’re hoping for next week. Fingers crossed!

While on South Padre, we visited Isla Blanca Beach, at the south end of the island, where we enjoyed a sunny, breezy walk. We could see the SpaceX facility where our son works, as well as the location where rockets are currently being launched. This would be a good site for viewing.

The next rocket is already in place for launch, and another was being moved into place for the next launch after that. The photo on the left shows SpaceX. The circled structure on the right is being moved to the launch pad. The photo on the right shows the next rocket to be launched. Hopefully, we’ll get to see that.

We spent a couple days in Brownsville itself before realizing that we really wanted to be on the beach. Luckily, there were some great last minute deals for South Padre, and we were able to find a spot with easy beach access, plus a good view of the launch area! There was easy access to fruity rum drinks as well – always a draw for us.

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The Mighty Mississippi

July, 2020

The Mississippi River is the second-longest river in North America. It is also the second-largest drainage system on the continent. The Hudson Bay drainage system lays claim to first place in both categories. The Mississippi drains parts of 32 states as well two Canadian provinces, over 1.2 million square miles. By the time it reaches New Orleans, it is discharging an average of 593,000 cubic feet of water per second into the Gulf of Mexico.

Living on the Mississippi gives us a unique opportunity to view nature close at hand. Bald eagles are frequent visitors, as are orioles, cardinals, robins, goldfinches, pileated woodpeckers, muskrats, beaver, otters, raccoons, deer, blue herons, bats, Canadian geese, butterflies, turtles, frogs, turkeys, and dragonflies. Seasonally, we see sand-hill cranes, loons, pelicans, and swans on their travels north or south. We’ve watched dragonflies emerge from the nymph stage, looking like creatures from an aliens movie.

We live among maple, oak, birch, white pine, jack pine, mountain ash, cottonwood, elm, butternut, walnut, hickory, apple and cherry trees. Our fall colors are among the best in the nation.

Our river changes daily, with the water level rising and falling throughout the year, depending on rain and management of the dams to the north and south of us. After a

particularly strong storm, we may see entire trees float past our home. Islands grow and shrink. Those islands with sand bars provide enough shallow water to attract boaters who anchor near shore to play with their children and party with their friends. When the river freezes over in the winter, it gives snowmobilers another place to play, and it carves changes to the shoreline during the spring thaw.

We live on the west shore of the Mississippi River, on land that once belonged to France. Had Thomas Jefferson not made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, I might be writing this post in French instead of English. As President, Jefferson wanted to secure access to the river for the United States. The land had changed hands a few times since being taken from the indigenous populations living there. France had controlled the territory of Louisiana since 1699, lost it to Spain in 1762 following the French and Indian War, then regained it when Spain transferred it back in 1802. Fortunately for Jefferson, Napoleon Bonaparte’s quest for empire left the country of France cash poor, and he was willing to sell the territory. A deal was struck for $15 million (3 cents per acre), and our young nation was suddenly almost twice as large as before. What a bargain! Adjusted for inflation, the cost today would be about $340 million (64 cents per acre). The purchase included most of the land that now comprises the states of Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, plus parts of Minnesota, Louisiana, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas

We will soon be embarking on our own Mississippi River expedition, taking a riverboat cruise south from St. Paul to New Orleans. Before boarding the ship, though, we are taking a few short road trips, beginning with Lake Itasca, where we will begin following the Great River Road to St Paul, Minnesota where the boat actually sets sail.

To prepare for this trip, I read “The Mississippi and the Making of a Nation”9780792269137 by Stephen E. Ambrose and Douglas G. Brinkley. The book was written in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. The authors talk about the general history of sections of the river, and also introduce the reader to many of the interesting people who have lived or made history along the Mississippi River. In addition to good reading, it makes a beautiful coffee table book with many photographs by National Geography photographer Sam Abell. Ambrose, Brinkley and Abell traveled south to north, from New Orleans to Itasca State Park, the reverse of our upcoming trip.

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In addition, we are bringing “Road Trip USA: Great River Road,” by Jamie Jensen, a small paperback travel guide. Jensen gives short histories of small and large towns along the river, plus tips for sightseeing and restaurants. I expect we’ll be referring to it quite often.

 

 

 

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I Scream You Scream for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream!

I’m reposting this in honor of National Ice Cream Day, June 19, 2020.

Saturday morning, September 7, 2019

Today, we paid a visit to Ben & Jerry’s Factory in Waterbury. Any ice cream aficionado will tell you that this is the number one reason to visit Vermont. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream was founded by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield in 1978, and they opened their first “scoop shop” in Burlington, Vermont. In 1978, they began franchising the shops, and they now have locations all over the world. It continues to thrive as part of the Unilever family of brands. In 2018, there were 54 flavors available, including my favorite (Coffee, Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz!) and my husband’s (Cherry Garcia.)

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In 1985, Cohen and Greenfield created the Ben & Jerrys Foundation, donating 7.5% of the company’s pretax profits to philanthropy. When we chose our tour, The Flavor Fanatic Experience, we were given the option of devoting a portion of the fee to one of three charities:

  •  The Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF) is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire a love of reading and writing among children up to age 12 throughout New Hampshire and Vermont. We opted for this one which aligns so closely with our own desire to promote education.
  • Salvation Farm‘s mission is to build increased resilience in Vermont’s food system through agricultural surplus management. They also grow some of the fruits used by Ben’s and Jerry’s.
  • Migrant Justice‘s mission is to build the voice, capacity, and power of the farmworker community and engage community partners to organize for economic justice and human rights.

First we toured the factory – no photos allowed. Our tour guide explained the process and talked about some of the local vendors that they get products from, including Salvation Farm, and Cabot Creamery, a farm co-op based in Vermont. Dairy waste is returned to local farm suppliers to use for producing energy. Ben & Jerrys also source many Fairtrade certified ingredients. At the end of the tour we sampled some ice cream, which we could enjoy guilt free – almost! The flavor today was Sweet Like Sugar Cookie Dough – it was very sweet, with a crunchy texture just like a sugar cookie.

After the factory tour, we did the Flavor Fanatic Experience, which allowed us to go into the Flavor Lab and whip up a batch of ice cream ourselves – Vanilla Caramel Brownie. We mixed vanilla into the heavy cream, sampled it (of course), then poured it into the mixer/chiller (a very expensive machine). All throughout the process, we learned more about what’s involved in making quality ice cream – the correct blend of cream and milk, the best ingredients, the balance of flavors – everything that makes a delicious batch of creamy, cold goodness.

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Once the ice cream was of soft-serve texture, we took it out, spooned it into a couple of containers, then added brownies (sampling again) and stirred to mix thoroughly.

Next, we layered the caramel – lots of gooey caramel – and gave it a final mix before spooning it into a box and putting it in the freezer.

Did I mention that we sampled it? This carton will be tested by Quality Control, and if it’s not contaminated by our activities, will be served for sampling at a future factory tour. All of this was followed up with an ice cream cone! We were so sugared up that we forgot to visit the Flavor Graveyard – darn! We’ll just have to come back.

This was all before noon. What a delightful experience, and we even get to keep these snazzy smocks.

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