Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 3: Beautiful Borderlands

Our last installment took us as far as Presidio, TX, on November 6. Read on to learn about our next several steps.

Nov 7-8 (Wednesday, Thursday): We drove to Big Bend National Park near Cottonwood, TX. The drive from Presidio was described by our RV campground host as “the prettiest road in the US,” and she may very well have been right. We were awestruck by the breathtaking views along the narrow, winding, roller-coaster road as it followed the Rio Grande River, although Pat seemed to have turned a pale shade of green by the time we arrived at Big Bend. While her discomfort was due to motion sickness and trepidation over the steep drops next to the road, we were both more sickened by the thought of despoiling the beauty with a giant wall erected to salve the irrational fears of the anti-immigrant crowd. Perhaps if more people would come to look at this place, to gaze out across the river at the nonexistent hordes of imaginary invaders … but I digress.

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After our free entry into the park (with my National Parks Senior Card), we drove to the Chisos Basin Campground, located as implied in a large basin amidst the Chisos Mountains. By the time we had navigated the road into the campground with its multiple switchbacks, hairpin curves, and severe grades – first up and then down – Pat’s color had morphed into a frightening puce. But she immediately perked up when we found a vacant campsite – probably the most dramatic one we’ve had so far.

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We paid a whopping $7 per night with my Senior Pass discount. There was no electricity, water, or sewer, so we were again dry camping / boondocking. The site was very uneven, and we couldn’t level out the camper with our existing stock of leveling blocks, so I felt a bit like a drunken sailor as I walked back and forth inside. It was also a grueling half-mile, uphill hike from the campground to the Visitor Center area, which included a store, a restaurant, and several lodges for non-camping guests. But none of that mattered as we hiked the scenic trails, covering about ten miles over the two days, or sat quietly in our lawn chairs drinking in the scenery. We had one nice lunch at the restaurant but prepared the rest of our meals in the RV. It was near freezing at night, but the daytime temperatures were very comfortable.

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Nov 9-(Friday): We awoke to find the Chisos Basin campground shrouded in fog; temperature in the upper30s and a chill wind required our jackets when we were outside. We had intended to drive to the southeast corner of the park for scenic views of the Rio Grande, but after navigating the campground road in the fog, creeping along at a snail’s pace, barely able to see anything, we decided to just head off to our next destination. The fog persisted for a couple of hours as we wended our way toward El Paso, TX, and both of us were nervous wrecks from the tough driving conditions by the time the fog finally lifted. After some five hours of driving, we decided to stop at an RV Park in Van Horn, TX, where we payed $14 for a site with full hookups (with a Passport America discount). This place even had cable TV and, having procured a cable at Walmart a couple of days previously, we enjoyed a bit of junk TV. We took showers in their excellent facilities and were ready to go again in the morning.

Nov 10-11 (Saturday, Sunday): On Saturday we covered 370 miles from Van Horn to Willcox, AZ. The El Paso metro area freeway was jammed, requiring a relatively slow pace of 50 – 55 mph, but the rest of the trip was free sailing, with little traffic other than innumerable semi-trucks carrying America’s goods to market. The freeway spanned seemingly endless miles of flat desert areas, surrounded on all sides by distant mountains. Every so often we would actually reach the mountains ahead, at which points the road would wind up and down through a mountain pass and emerge once more into the desert, with mountains again far off in the distance. The drive was very easy, but I was impressed by the incredible vastness of the southwestern landscape. We stopped at another RV Park with full hookups, wi-fi, and cable TV, though the Passport America rate was not as good at $23 per night. So why did we stay two nights? There was a golf course only two miles away, so naturally I had to play on Sunday. I’ll say only two things about the golf: 1) it was a good deal at $17 for 18 holes with a rented pull cart, and 2) I really need those new irons.

Nov 12 (Monday): We drove about 40 miles to the Chiricahua National Monument, named for the Chiricahua Apache tribe who occupied the area from the 1500s until being driven out by white American settlers and the US Army in the 1880s after some 50 years of warfare. The area was named a National Monument in 1923, to protect the unique and beautiful rock formations. RVs larger than 29 feet are not allowed due to the narrow, winding roads, but we easily navigated our 25-foot Unity into the Bonita Canyon Campground, where we had actually reserved a spot for a change. It cost $10 for a gorgeous site with no hookups.

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We took a nice, 4-mile hike through the Riparian zone of the park past some historic structures collectively known as Faraway Ranch – since it was so far away from any place else – which in addition to being a working cattle ranch provided lodging for park visitors from 1917 to 1973. Interestingly, the place was founded by Swedish immigrants after the Native people had been driven away to reservations in Florida and Oklahoma.

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Nov 13 (Tuesday): We drove the RV from our beautiful campsite to the Visitor Center and parked there so we could take the free hikers’ shuttle to the trailheads near the top of the mountain, along with three other hikers. The narrow, winding, 6.5-mile-long road with a vertical climb from 5400 ft elevation at the Visitor Center to 6780 ft at the trailhead might have been a challenge in the RV. We then spent about two and a half hours descending along the Echo Canyon, Upper Rhyolite Canyon, and Lower Rhyolite Canyon trails, a total distance of 4.2 miles. The hike began with spectacular vistas highlighted by the fantastical rock formations that have been carved out f the rhyolite rock originally laid down millions of years ago as volcanic ash. It was about 35-40 degrees, with a severe wind, so we needed to wear stocking caps and gloves to keep from freezing, but we hardly noticed because the sights were so incredibly beautiful. Gradually, the trail habitat morphed from the Mountain Zone back to the Riparian Zone, showcasing the incredible diversity of flora and fauna this gem of a park has to offer, and the temperature rose to a more comfortable mid-50s.

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After the hike, we headed off to the west again, stopping for the day at an RV park in Benson, AZ, which had excellent and much needed laundry and shower facilities along with full hookups for the RV (all for a rate of $25 per night with our Passport America discount).

The next phase of our trip will take us to some slightly different environs than the beautiful borderlands – check back in a week or so for the next update …

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Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 2: Canyons and Caverns

We last left off on October 29, in Woodward, OK. What excitements did we encounter during our second week? Read on to find out.

Oct 31 – Nov 1 (Wednesday, Thursday): Drove to Palo Duro Canyon State Park near Canyon, TX. The canyon is known as the “Grand Canyon of Texas,” the second largest canyon in the US. The state park was fantastic – we descended 600 ft along a narrow, winding road to our campground and found ourselves for the first time completely isolated from the security blanket known as the Internet. (Amazing – there are places where a smart phone can not get a signal!) We had no problem finding a space without a reservation, though rumor has it they fill up completely on weekends this time of year. This was the most expensive park fee yet at $34 per night, but it was definitely worth it. All around us were spectacular canyon views accessible by miles and miles of hiking trails. We were also visited by a road runner and a group of wild turkeys during our stay. We arrived late in the afternoon on Wednesday so didn’t go on any long hikes, just wandered about getting the lay of the land. On Thursday we hiked about 6 miles on easy trails, while on Friday we hiked 5 miles on a more difficult trail to get an overlook of a feature known as The Lighthouse before heading off for parts west.

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Nov 2-3 (Friday, Saturday): Drove to an RV Park in Artesia, NM. Our lucky streak of finding places to stay without reservations almost ended when we were told the place was full, but the person in the office clicked away at her computer for a while and discovered that one reserved guest had delayed his arrival by a few days, so we got the only vacant spot. We paid $41 per night for the privilege, with my $2 per night senior discount, including electric, water, and sewer hookups, laundry, restroom and shower facilities, wireless, and cable TV service (although we did not at that time have an actual cable to hook up to the RV to WATCH cable TV). There wasn’t much of interest in Artesia, but we needed a place to do laundry, rest up from the hiking at Palo Duro and the long drive, and prepare for our next, more exciting location. We did have a nice walk around the town on Thursday, lunch at a local brew pub, including a Crude Oil Stout, and a lovely evening sky just before sunset.

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Nov 4-5 (Sunday, Monday): This part of the trip included a bucket-list highlight for me – my first ever trip to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico. I developed an interest in caves as a small boy, perhaps when visiting Wind Cave in South Dakota on a family vacation as a 4-year old. Later, I did some research on Mammoth Caves for a 4th grade school report on Kentucky. My first adult cave visit was to a rather disappointing Crystal Cave in Wisconsin. Subsequent cave visits have included Mystery Cave State Park in Forestville, MN, Oregon Caves State Park, and the aforementioned Mammoth Cave (with Pat, Nick, and Brian in 2004) all of which I enjoyed very much. But I always knew that Carlsbad Caverns would be the best, if I ever got there. And it was. THE. BEST. EVER.

We arrived Sunday around 11 AM, arranged free entry with my lifetime Senior National Parks Pass, and purchased tickets for two guided tours on Monday. My tour tickets were half-price ($7.50 for the two tours) because of the Senior Pass. That lifetime pass has to be the best deal I’ve ever gotten in my life – when I bought it six years ago it only cost ten bucks! After arranging for the Monday tours, we embarked on two self-guided tours accompanied by a nifty audio guide we rented for $5. The first self-guided tour was a 1.5-mile walk into the cave via the natural entrance, eschewing the elevator to the bottom. The walk follows a lighted, paved path with handrails, so it’s relatively easy, though there are some segments that are quite steep and others that are rough and uneven. At any rate, it certainly felt like a 1.5-mile hike, even though it was made as easy as possible for the multitude of visitors. There are many switchbacks and passages through dark, narrow spaces or arches, and with each turn or emergence from a dark area we were rewarded with another breathtaking view. Immense open rooms contained stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, and boulders, many decorated with popcorn formations or delicate etchings. The second tour was the “Big Room” route, a 1.25-mile circuit around the perimeter of the cave’s largest open room. That was a bit of an understatement – I’d call it the ENORMOUS Room. This also followed a paved path, and the most impressive features were artfully lighted. Along the route, we passed the “Bottomless Pit,” its actual depth of 140 feet proving that the original explorers were also capable of overstatement.

Monday’s first guided tour was the King’s Palace tour, passing through four highly decorated chambers. This tour also followed a well-lit, paved path but was only accessible with a guide. We spent about two hours with a group of thirty or so as our guide explained the history of the Cavern and pointed out interesting features. Finally, the Left-Hand Tunnel tour included only nine guests and the guide, as we made our way along a much rougher, unpaved path using only hand-held candle lanterns for visibility. This tour provided a taste of the conditions experienced by the cavern’s original explorers. The guided tours each included a few minutes of total darkness, a time to drink in the silence, broken only by echoes of slowly dripping water, and think about on the amazing place we were visiting.

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These photos do not do justice to the beauty of Carlsbad Caverns. The various formations were reminiscent of the Gothic Cathedrals we visited in Europe, though sculpted by Mother Nature rather than man and perhaps celebrating mythical creatures of the universe rather than the mythical saints revered by Renaissance sculptors. I was profoundly moved by the natural beauty and by the sheer immensity of it all. At one point while admiring a highly decorated formation I whispered to Pat, “That one looks like Mother Nature’s tinnavala!” (Finnlanders will understand …)

Just a brief word about our lodgings: We stayed Sunday and Monday nights at an RV Park in Whites City, a cheesy little tourist town located just outside the gate to the National Park. There is no overnight camping in the park, so that was the closest possible place for us to stay. Again, we didn’t have a reservation but were able to secure two nights for $44 per night, including electricity, water, restroom and shower facilities, and wireless service. Nothing to write home about, but it was close to the Cavern.

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Nov 6 (Tuesday): We made a brief stop at Guadalupe Mountains National Park near Salt Flats, TX, on Tuesday morning since it is so close to Carlsbad, although the strong winds nearly blew the RV off the road as we approached. The park is unique in that it includes three distinct life zones known as the Desert Zone, the Riparian Zone, and the Mountain Zone. We walked a mile or so along a trail into a canyon near the Visitor Center before driving off again into the hurricane and catching a view of the famous peak, El Capitan. Luckily, the wind died down as we made our way toward Presidio, TX.

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In Presidio, we planned to stay a couple of days at the Loma Paloma RV Park and Golf Resort so I could play golf. Unfortunately, we discovered that the golf course had been ruined in a flood nearly a decade ago. Supposedly they are “remodeling” the course, but it didn’t look like it to me. Such is life.

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We did get a site with electric, water, and sewer hookups and wireless service for $15 with a Passport America discount. We spent the evening watching election returns before heading off in the morning to visit our third National Park in as many days.

Check back for updates as we continue to explore warmer regions of the USA …

Pat and Dave’s Excellent Adventure – PART 1

On October 22, 2018, we departed from our cozy cabin home in Grand Marais, MN, for a 6-month tour in our RV (a 24-Foot Unity model by Leisure Travel Vans of Winkler, Manitoba, Canada). We’ve been talking about and looking forward to this new adventure since we got the RV back in April. We were going to do all sorts of research and lay out an itinerary for the trip. However, neither of us is very good at detail planning, and before we knew it, it was time to go. So we left, without making a single lodging reservation and with only a general notion of what we might actually do, leaving our youngest son, Brian, in charge of the homestead while we’re gone.

While I might be lousy at planning, I am certainly capable of documenting things after the fact. Therefore, I’ll be posting a series of articles with brief thumbnail sketches of where we’ve been and perhaps a few pithy observations about the joys and pitfalls of this nomadic existence. Here goes my first effort.

Oct 22 (Monday): Drove to the Twin Cities, specifically Brooklyn Park, MN for brief visits with my oldest son, Matt, his wife Shaina, and our middle son, Nick. We stayed overnight in Nick’s back yard just off the alley – in RVer’s parlance we were “dry camping,” or “boondocking,” with no electricity, water, or sewer hookups.

Oct 23-24 (Tuesday, Wednesday): Drove to Pine Lake State Park in Eldora, IA, just far enough south to find a State Park campground that was still open for the season. It was a lovely little spot next to a lake, the vibrant fall colors enhanced by a bright blue sky. We shared the park with about ten other campers scattered about the hundred-plus sites. There were no operating personnel in attendance – registration and payment of the super-cheap fee was self-service only ($22 for two nights per the Senior Citizen rate for an electric RV site). The biggest surprise of all was a 9-hole golf course just a short walk from the park; naturally, I walked over and played eighteen holes on Wednesday.

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Oct 25-26 (Thursday, Friday): Drove to Watkins Woolen Mill State Park in Lawson, MO, located adjacent to a historic woolen mill first established in the late 1860s. This place had attendants who drove around in little carts to greet campers and collect fees. We were lucky to find one electric RV site available for two nights – the campground was essentially full by Friday evening. Again, the fee was quite reasonable ($28 for an electric RV site for the two nights). This senior citizen discount thing is pretty cool! The bathroom and shower facilities were outstanding compared with the more spartan Iowa version. On Friday we went to visit the old woolen mill site which was very interesting and educational.

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Oct 27-28 (Saturday, Sunday): Drove to Eisenhower State Park in Osage County, KS. This place had hundreds of campsites located on five or six different loops on or near a large body of water called Lake Malvern. We had the option of registering with a ranger at the office or using the self-service method. We chose the latter, because they required a Social Security Number to establish an account in the office. While the ostensible reason given was to prevent use of the facilities by people who are delinquent on child support payments, I suspected a more nefarious purpose based on my opinion of the anti-immigrant views of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. At any rate, the park was excellent, and the fee was again very reasonable ($29.50 for an RV site on the “prime” lakeside Blackjack Loop, with both electricity and water supply – discounted for late season and, you guessed it – senior citizen rate). I missed the best picture opportunity – cloudless, bright blue sky as sunlight reflected off the white feathers of a flock of birds fluttering in front of a full, shadowy moon on Sunday morning. We spent a couple of hours biking around the park on Sunday after driving to town to get groceries – and succumbing to the lure of corn dogs at a Sonic drive in, our first meal so far not prepared in the RV. The Blackjack Loop was about two-thirds full when we arrived on Saturday, but when we departed on Monday, we were the only campers left.

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Oct 29-30 (Monday, Tuesday): Drove to Boiling Springs State Park in Woodward, OK. This was our longest driving day so far, roughly 5.5 hours including stops. We had our first experience with something called Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF), a consumable fluid that minimizes pollution from a diesel-powered vehicle. A warning message appeared on the dashboard stating that the DEF level had fallen to 2.5 gallons. Pat read the operator’s manual as I drove, learning that once the DEF level falls to 0.8 gallons it is only possible to start the RV 12 times. After first unsuccessfully attempting to add DEF from a pump at a truck stop (during which process I splattered DEF on various engine parts and also warped the strut that holds the hood open), we went to an auto parts store and bought a 2.5-gallon container of the stuff. Once we arrived at our RV site, I poured in the DEF and cleaned up the mess I made at the truck stop. Now we’re all set, and we will be adding another 2.5 gallons once we’ve driven 4000 more miles.

The State Park was very nice, though slightly more expensive at $40 for an RV site with water and electricity for two nights. I guess the Oklahoma senior citizen discount is a bit skimpier than the other states, or they haven’t yet enacted off-season rates (although there are more deer than people here at the campground), and/or they are attempting to raise more revenue from campers. All was forgiven, however, since there is a nice, 18-hole golf course adjacent to the park. I played 36 holes on Tuesday while Pat enjoyed hiking the nature trails. I managed to hit some excellent wood and hybrid shots but was frustrated by generally lousy iron play. At some point during this adventure, I will obtain a new set of irons to remedy this problem.

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Stay tuned as the adventure continues …