Sunday, December 20, 2015

Back at Big Bend

The Mary Joan in Chisos Basin Campground (note the large boulders at the side of the road they will be revealed)

From Seminole Canyon State Park, we continued west on US90 to Marathon, TX. We stopped in Marathon long enough to collect the mail we had delivered there and to acquire provisions. The plan was to explore Black Gap Wildlife Management Area which my research told me is some of the wildest and most pristine land in West Texas. Located just east of Big Bend National Park, it was on the way. Unfortunately, when we arrived at the headquarters, we learned that the area was closed for hunting. The caretaker let us camp at the headquarters that night and the next day we made the short drive into Big Bend National Park.
Beep Beep. This roadrunner wasn't too shy

Two years ago when we visited Big Bend we wanted to camp in Chisos Basin Campground, but thought that our trailer was too big since there were signs posted "Not Recommended For Trailers in Excess of 24 feet". At that time, we stayed in Rio Grande Village, which is essentially a parking lot where people can dry camp (no water, electricity or sewage connections). While it was close to the hot springs, it was a 30 minute drive to the best hikes in the Chisos Mountains. That year, after driving through the campground, I realized that I could have maneuvered the tight turns on the road into the basin as well as those in the campground. When we arrived at the park this year, I asked if the length limit was a regulation or an admonition. The ranger said it was the latter. So, we drove into Chisos Basin Campground with the Mary Joan. It was tight, but manageable. In fact, while we were there, two drivers of pickup trucks ran into the rocks placed to keep vehicles on the roadway. However, while I was able to maneuver the Mary Joan through the obstacle field, when leaving the brightly lit trailer to set up the telescope in order to see the stars, I tripped on one of those large boulders and broke a rib. It is healing, but coughing, sneezing, laughing and sleeping are painful.
Our campsite and the offending boulders
At Panther Junction visitor center we saw this incredible self made Motorhome. (we saw it again two days later, it was leaving Guadalupe Mountains National Park as we were arriving). I have a feeling we will see it again.

We did a number of hikes in the beautiful Chisos Mountains, the climax of which was the hike to Emory Peak, the highest in the park. The trail to the summit from the campground is 10 miles with an elevation gain of about 2,700 feet. The trail passes through many ecosystems and provides beautiful vistas and pastoral images. Despite a broken rib and except for the rock scramble at the summit, it was a most enjoyable hike. It was cold and very windy so I put my camera in the backpack for the hike down. Of course it was on the way down that an eight point white tailed deer ambled within 10 feet of me. He was wary, but not afraid, and just slowly walked off the trail to get around me and continue on his way.
Emory Peak Summit
On Friday evening we drove to Terlinqua, just outside the park, to dine at The Starlight Theater. While driving, a strong weather front moved over us. We experienced an infrequent event in the desert, a powerful thunderstorm with strong wind and rain. While the view of the sunset on the Chisos Mountains from Terlinqua is legendary, the local residents were thrilled to watch the lightening and rain of this storm.
We enjoyed our special rainbow on the way to Terlinqua
The clouds were building

Ready for Rain

Marfa, Texas was our next stop. Sarah spent a few weeks here two years ago while I went home to deal with the damage to the house caused by a frozen heating pipe. She made friends here she wanted to visit again. We stayed at the same campground, The Tumble In, just a half mile from town.

Welcome to the Tumble In

After Marfa, we continued west on US90 to Texas 54 north and Guadalupe Mountains National Park's Pine Springs Campground on the Texas side of the park. During our last visit to this park, we entered through Dog Canyon on the New Mexico side. This park is a hiker's and backpacker's destination. The terrain is rough and challenging. About the only way to see the wondrous sites in this park is to do it on foot, which is exactly what we wanted. Guadalupe National Park is the home of Guadalupe Peak, the highest point in the State of Texas. The "campground" for RVs is a parking lot with no utilities except for flush toilets.
Looking east from Guadalupe Peak
The park is on the Butterfield Overland Mail Route and the remains of one of the stops on the route is a short walk from the park visitor's center. Preceding the advent of the Pony Express, The Butterfield Overland Mail Route delivered mail and passengers from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California. I was surprised to find at the summit a stainless steel pyramid erected by American Airlines in 1958 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Butterfield Route.

Guadalupe Peak

We'll post when possible, stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Back In The Southwest

Businesses all over town have frog themed murals

One of the most enjoyable parts of traveling is enjoying the culinary traditions of so many areas of the country. And, Louisiana certainly does not disappoint when it comes to food. In the spring of 2013 Sarah and I stopped at Rayne, Louisiana to eat at Chef Roy's. (see the post here) and I made a return to this wonderful restaurant an absolute must. I arrived in Rayne late in the morning and secured a site at the Frog City RV park. As soon as the Mary Joan was settled in I headed to Chef Roy's for lunch. A cup of seafood gumbo followed by Catfish Acadiana was a taste sensation. That evening I further indulged by returning to Randal's in Lafayette for crawfish and music where Sarah and I had also enjoyed a fine evening two years ago.
In Rayne, Louisiana it just might rain frogs
Frog sculptures are everywhere
The next day I drove to Double Lake Recreation area in Coldspring, Texas just north of Houston. This put me just 45 minutes from an RV storage facility near the Bush International airport where I left the Mary Joan safe from snow, sleet and salt for our return in early December. 

Sarah and I returned to Houston on December 5th. The owner of the RV storage facility, Ralph, was kind enough to pick us up at the airport and deliver us to the Mary Joan. When we checked our trailer electrical connections I noticed that, while the brake lights and turn signals on the trailer were working properly, the running lights and trailer brakes weren't working. It has happened before that slight oxidation on the connections could cause this and usually just unplugging and reconnecting the plug would fix the problem. Not this time. With a couple hours of daylight remaining I decided it was safe to drive to this day's destination, Stephen Austin State Park which I calculated we could make just before dark. I just needed to be very cautious about stopping without trailer brakes.

Before leaving the Houston area we needed to secure provisions for our trip at a large grocery store. We found HEB to be a well stocked and reasonably priced grocery store. When we returned to the Mary Joan with our food and wine water was pouring from the belly pan of the trailer. It was the fresh water from our water tank. I had treated the tank with chlorine prior to storing it because we had gotten bad water somewhere on our last trip. My first thought was that I had overdone the bleach and a gasket had failed. Being late on a Saturday afternoon I knew there were no RV service centers open until Monday. Not wanting to be delayed by two or more days we decided to press on with bottled water for drinking and depend on our next park to have a hydrant from which to get more water. 
Deformed tubing. We don't need the drain until next year. A simple plug from Home Depot solved the problem.

We almost made it to the park before dark, but we had to drive for about 15 miles in the dark without running lights on the trailer. Even with a perfectly functioning rig, I don't like to pull the trailer at night. Too many things can go wrong. This knowledge was reinforced when the driver of a car entering the freeway decided not to yield but to cut dangerously close in front of me. I was leaving about 150 feet between me and the vehicle in front to avoid the danger of needing to stop suddenly. Just as the car pulled in front of me, the car in front of that swerved suddenly into and out of the breakdown lane. At first I thought it was someone driving while distracted by their cell phone. Then, from beneath the car in front of me came a large piece of truck tire that the first car avoided. There was no time to react and the tire hit the front left part of the truck. Fortunately, it didn't go under the truck but was deflected to the side and it missed the Mary Joan. 

We arrived at the state park in the dark after the office had closed only to discover that the road into the park itself was closed. Recent flooding had damaged a bridge into the campground. A sign  was posted on the office door stating the park was open and to ask for directions around the road block. I guess it didn't occur to the sign maker to include those directions for late arrivals like us. Without lights and brakes, water for the trailer and not knowing whether we had sustained any damage by the flying tire, we elected to boon dock in the parking lot next to the park office. 

We got up early the next morning and found that the damage from the tire was minimal, a broken license plate holder and the lower air dam below the bumper was cracked and partially dislodged. Using a small fingernail file I cleaned the contacts on the trailer connection and decided to push on. We knew we could wait to diagnose and fix the water problem at our next stop, McKinney Falls State Park which is just outside of Austin, only about 150 miles to the west. 

At McKinney Falls State Park I removed the access panels to the water tank and water pump. I discovered that during the manufacturing of the Mary Joan the drain pitcock had been installed about 3/8" to high and the installer had severely kinked the short vinyl hose that connected the valve to the tank. The hose had cracked open at the flexure, allowing the water to drain from the tank. Since the only purpose for the valve is to drain the tank for winterizing or flushing and I didn't have the tools to reposition the valve I decided to put a plug in place of the fitting on the tank to which the hose connected. A twenty minute drive to Home Depot and back plus $0.85 later solved the problem.

With the happy feeling that we had weathered a rough beginning to our trip, we eagerly pointed the truck west to enjoy the scenery and the bright warm Texas climate. If you have read much of our blog, you know that Sarah and I like to avoid the Interstate Highway system whenever possible. Google Maps makes this so much easier because of the ability to literally "see" all the roads. Most road maps cannot display the details as well as the computer. In addition to the details, street and satellite views give us more confidence to use lesser known routes. Taking US290 from Austin we turned north in the beautiful town of Fredericksburg onto Texas 965 which took us to Enchanted Rock State Natural Area. 
Enchanted Rock
Vernal pool on the summit of Enchanted Rock

Enchanted Rock is a portion of a 100 square mile piece of granite that has been uplifted to expose a nearly 500' high monolith.  Sarah and I spent a couple hours here to climb the rock and enjoy the views. Rather than retracing our path back down Texas 965, we continued north to Rt16 to the town of Llano then west on Rt 29 through the towns of Art and Mason. At the town of Grit we turned south onto Rt377 to Junction and the South Llano State Park.  On these roads we saw hundreds of deer, prong horn sheep, herons, turkeys and even some roadrunners. At the park Sarah was delighted by the antics of the armadillos that are abundant there.
I want to go home to the armadillo. Actually, it tried to jump into Sarah's lap
Friendly armadillo

To reach our next destination, Seminole Canyon State Park, we traveled Rt377 through the towns of Telegraph and Rocksprings to the city of Del Rio. At Del Rio we stopped to purchase a few more provisions and avail ourselves of cell phone service which we had been without for the previous two days. 
Seminole Canyon

From Del Rio we took US90 to Seminole Canyon and easily cleared the Border Patrol checkpoint at Comstock arriving at one of our favorite parks in Texas.  We checked in early enough to get our bikes out and ride the Rio Grande Trail to where the canyon empties into the Rio Grande river. It felt good to be warm and in the sun for the six mile roundtrip ride in the desert. 

The next morning we took the tour down into the canyon with the guide to revisit the ancient pictographs we enjoyed so much on our last stay in Seminole Canyon State Park. The site is restricted, which is why we had to have a guide. But, hearing a different perspective about the origins of these paintings and the people who created them made the second visit more meaningful. 

We don't know where we will go tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Highway 61 Re-re-visited

It's been a long time since I updated this blog. Our travels were seriously curtailed while we focused on repairing and restoring our home after the water damage caused by a frozen pipe nearly two years ago. While there are some minor jobs to do, that work is mostly finished and we are content to leave any unfinished details so that we may return again to the southwest and avoid the darkest days of the upcoming winter.

Since our son and daughter in law no longer live near Louisville, where we previously brought the Mary Joan to avoid exposure to the harshness of the salt and snow of New England's winter and from where we would launch our southern travels, I decided that taking her further south would be a good idea. I chose Houston as our jumping off place. Flights are frequent and inexpensive and there are secure places to store the camper as well as the usual hotel chains close to the airport where I can stay after storing the camper and truck.

I gave myself ten days to complete the nearly 1,900 miles. My plan was to put in two long days to get well below the Mason Dixon line leaving another week to take slowly cover the rest of the way and enjoy the fall weather and scenery as I went. On the first evening I got a little way south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a distance of 413 miles. While the state parks were still open, I decided to park alongside the big tractor trailers at a rest stop saving the time to get to and from a park.
 The next day, following Sarah's suggestion, I headed for Skyline Drive in Virginia. This road would then connect me with the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had returned north along the Parkway in the spring two years ago and the idea of seeing it in the fall was appealing. I had a good night's sleep despite the noise from the road and awakened at 4:30 AM and was on the road by 5:30 AM.
All the views were great

I reached Skyline drive just before dawn and was rewarded with a most beautiful sunrise.  Choosing this route, however meant that slowed down more than I expected. The steeply curving mountain roads demanded a maximum speed of 40 mph. That, combined with stopping to take in the numerous stunning vistas allowed me to travel just better than 30 miles each hour. I reached Rocky Knob Campground south of Roanoke at 4:30 in the afternoon, another 400 miles toward my destination. Despite the fact that the driving required a lot of diligence to safely negotiate the challenging road, the frequent stops and the stimulation of the scenery made the day much shorter than a similar number of hours behind the wheel would have been on an interstate highway.

Looking east toward the piedmont, sunrise on Skyline Drive

Unfortunately, when I talked with Sarah after I arrived at the camp site, I learned that my mother had been admitted to the hospital that day. From what I could gather from the limited information Sarah could give me, it seemed prudent for me to get home as soon as possible. One option was to get to a large city close to my current location, make arrangements to store the trailer and fly back home. But, the next day being Sunday, it would have been impossible to find a place to store the truck and trailer. I would have to wait until Monday. I calculated that I could get to Houston by Monday and since I already had a place picked out to leave the vehicles, that pressing on made the most sense. I knew, I could make good time on the interstate system. I don't like driving 65 mph pulling a four ton camper, but it is not an impossible task. I spent twelve hours on the road, stopping every three hours for a break and made it to Roosevelt State Park just east of Jackson, Mississippi, a total of 700 miles. There I got the good news that the doctors didn't find any life threatening problem or condition requiring invasive procedures. Relieved, Sarah and I decided I could continue with my original itinerary.
Two lane parkway for hundreds of miles

With Houston now less than 500 miles away, I could slow down and enjoy the remainder of the trip. Roosevelt State Park is only about 50 miles east of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a beautiful two lane road that roughly follows an ancient path between Nashville, Tennessee and Natchez, Mississippi. We had traversed most of it two years ago, but had not been on this section. With the tunes of Louisiana native, Lucinda Williams on the stereo, I enjoyed the magnificent southern scenery. The drive from Roosevelt State Park to Natchez took only three hours and I stopped at Natchez State Park, a mere 15 miles outside of the city of Natchez.

For the most part, Natchez escaped serious damage during the civil war. It was occupied and held by the Union Army early on in the war. As a result, Natchez boasts the greatest amount of surviving antebellum architecture of any southern city that was contested in that horrible war.

My first stop in the city was the Visitor's Center. At the visitor's center there is a compact 'museum'. There are exhibits and a mural that represents a timeline of Natchez history.It was here that I learned how one man from my dad's home town, Westborough, Massachusetts, unwittingly quadrupled the demand for slave labor in the deep south. Prior to 1795 the growing of cotton as a cash crop was not profitable. Too much labor was required to separate the fiber from the seed. But, with the invention of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney, suddenly changed that. So much land quickly became cultivated for cotton that demand for slaves to plant and harvest the crop skyrocketed. Immense profit was suddenly generated from cotton. Massive plantations were created, importation of slaves from more northern states occurred and an intense market for buying and selling human beings was set up in Natchez. Strolling the streets and seeing the magnificent edifices built here caused me to reflect on how much profit was made on the backs of these suffering people. Many of the cotton growers had large plantations in the country and built beautiful homes in the city. The enslaved workers never saw the opulence their labor afforded their keepers. Nor did they ever see any white people other than their over keepers.

Yet, at the same time some enslaved people were afforded relief by those that enslaved them. It was common for slave owners to have relationships with women they owned. Some of these men appeared to have tender feelings for them and the offspring created by such relations. These men often manumitted them. In Natchez and New Orleans, there were thousands of freed black people living alongside white citizens, albeit with severely restricted liberties.  William Johnson was just such a man. Along, with his mother, he had been manumitted by his owner/father. He learned the trade of barbering and became a successful free black man living in Natchez. But, the most astounding fact is that he himself became a slave owner. In the short time I had in Natchez, I couldn't delve into his story more deeply, but it is something I surely will do.

I left the center with a self guided walking tour map and spent the afternoon following my paper 'guide'. At many places along the walking tours are informative signs that tell the story of Natchez, its people, economy, slavery and its importance as a shipping port on the Mississippi.

Choktaw, a cotton planter's mansion

The Kyle house. Home of a freed woman of color, Nancy Kyle, who bore the daughter of Christopher Kyle, a wealthy Natchez merchant.
The Blue Cat Club where Jerry Lee Lewis first performed at age 13 in 1938
The home of freed black man, William Johnson who was also a slave owner

Another short drive, two hours, brought me to the capital city,Baton Rouge. I traveled on  scenic Highway 61, made famous by Bob Dylan who dedicated an entire album to this road, Highway 61 Revisited. So, it was only appropriate to play his music as I enjoyed the drive. I checked into a seedy RV park that I chose for its location convenient to the downtown area. My plan was to explore the city's museums and catch some live music. Alas, there is not a single art museum in this state's capital and not a club I could find has live music on a Tuesday night. That is the reason that I have time to, finally, update this blog. Next, I am off for another short morning's drive to Rayne, Louisiana.

Stay tuned