Stars Did Not Align

Editor’s note: this post should have preceded the post entitled Restoration East of the Mississippi. Apologies for the inadvertent geographical diversion. 

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Just outside Star City is Cane Creek State Park. We arrived on a sunny and warm afternoon. The drive from Lake Catherine had been short and it was just past 1 p.m., early for check in. The woman in Ranger Headquarters said she wasn’t sure our site was free yet. We drove past and it didn’t look like anyone had thought about hitching up yet.

We needed a place to wait. Jim had looked at the map and saw there were two roads, one led to a boat launch, the other to the picnic area. Both roads were shown to have loops at the end. We headed down the road to the picnic area only to discover to our dismay that here was no loop, just a dead end. Uh oh.

At the picnic area, there was a small parking lot near the bathrooms and Jim pulled in. Some folks were sitting at one of the picnic tables. We figured they were probably wondering what the heck we were doing. Choosing to flee this potentially volatile scene, I headed to the rest room and left Jim to it. When I emerged, he had managed magically and gracefully to get turned around in the small parking lot. We had to laugh. Those people at the picnic table must have thought he just happened to drive me to use the ladies room with the trailer hitched even though we had a bathroom in the trailer. It was pretty funny.

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Right on time, the previous tenants pulled out of our site and we got backed in and settled. This campground is pretty small, only 24 sites and most were unoccupied. It was wooded and shady which felt good in the warm afternoon air. The lake was just visible through the trees down a hill from our site. Given our concerns about ticks, we did not set up the mat or our chairs outside. The great outdoors held little charm for us.

The ranger had warned me right up front the ticks were bad. Having just had an upsetting tick experience, we weren’t really anxious to get on the trails. We lounged around for the afternoon and managed to get the weather before the tv began pixilating wildly. A big thunderstorm was predicted.

It was a boomer and a banger all right. The lightning and thunder were impressive and the rain prodigious. It was still spitting the next morning. We spent the morning reading the paper and cleaning the trailer. We had just enough cell signal to send emails, hot spot and even make calls.

The park rented kayaks and I walked back to the ranger station to inquire about rentals. Due to the rain, they weren’t renting any that day. I had been obsessing over the tick issue since we left Lake Catherine. I was so worried about Dakota and totally grossed out that we seemed inundated with ticks. I asked the ranger if she thought I was over-reacting. She was most commiserative and sympathetic. Rangers have to do many things in their jobs, I guess therapy should be added to the list.

Lunch was an appropriate rainy day meal of soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. Right after lunch, I headed in to Star City’s sole laundromat to do the laundry. It was actually a pretty nice laundromat. Having spent quite a bit of time in various iterations of laundromats in the last few months, this was a happy surprise. I was so content sitting there knitting, I didn’t even notice when the wash cycle ended.

Late in the afternoon the skies cleared. Dakota and I took a (hopefully) tick free walk down to the fishing pier. The air was incredibly fresh and clear. Some couples were taking pictures down at the dock in full prom regalia. They seemed very happy and excited. I would expect prom is a pretty big deal in a very small town like Star City.

Since hiking the trails was off the list, the next day we decided to drive up to Pine Bluff. For some reason Pine Bluff sounded terribly familiar to us. Jim had done some research and discovered they had a series of murals painted on the walls of buildings in the downtown area in the 90’s. The walls depicted scenes of local history.

Pine Bluff was about 40 minutes north and we drove through open country. We followed the signs for the downtown and parked the truck. It was a sunny and comfortably warm day. Jim had noted the locations for all the murals and we decided to make it a walking tour.

The murals were still there, but Pine Bluff’s downtown was deserted and the buildings were crumbling. It was beyond creepy. Store windows were boarded up. We walked the sidewalk past a couple of store front lawyers’ offices proximate to the county courthouse. Otherwise, there was nothing left.

Going out of business signs decorated the fronts of buildings which were now roofless with walls beginning to collapse inward.

Railroad tracks split the downtown. A train signaled its approach and we stood by as it rumbled past us through the desolate town.

The Historic Depot Museum was defunct. We peered through windows to see the empty lobby. The ticket desk displayed its open hours and pamphlets were littered across the counter. It was as if the people had simply disappeared one day.

North of the tracks there was still some activity. A few small and dilapidated houses stood. The convention center was flanked by a now-closed hotel. A government building stood next to the post office. We turned back towards the downtown and passed a recently erected brick structure housing the Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas.

We spied a deteriorating brick building. Painted on its side was the legend “Tear Me Up.” Not “Tear Me Down”, but “Tear Me Up.”What did that mean? Was it a plea for restoration? Was it a protest against the rampant neglect? A cry of anguish from a heart wrenched by loss? Another building seemed to sport the beginning of the same plea, but it remained unfinished. What happened?

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Back in the truck, we drove through some depressed residential areas and up to the campus of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. This is a predominately black institution with just over 5,000 students. The campus included a stadium, some dorms, academic buildings and, while not architecturally outstanding, it appeared to be in good shape.

We were deeply saddened at the state of Pine Bluff. The city is 75% black with about 20% of inhabitants white. The median income in the city is $30,413 and almost 1/3 of the population lives below the poverty line. How had this been allowed to happen to these people? They had been abandoned by all appearances as their city collapsed around them. In 2013 CNNMoney reported the crime rate in Pine Bluff was second only to Detroit. Recently the city was awarded $2 million to stimulate development. Hope for the future?

We drove back to Star City. Back at the park, we walked down to see Cane Creek Lake on the park road. Standing on the dock, Dakota began ferociously scratching at his leg. I checked only to discover a large tick embedded in his flesh. We walked briskly back to the trailer to perform yet another tick check.

While we were in Arkansas, a big story on the national and local news was that state’s plan to execute inmates on death row before the expiration date on their death serum. Popular opinion in the state seemed to hold that this would bring closure to the victims of heinous crimes. Others suggested taking a life under even these circumstances was unacceptable. This was not the first time that we experienced the collision of local and national news. It always made for thought-provoking juxtaposition and this was certainly the case in this instance as the state did successfully carry out four executions, two in one evening, during our stay.

The next day we would head back to Mississippi and we were glad of it. Arkansas had been a difficult state for us. We had been beleaguered by ticks. We felt uncomfortable and often unhappy. It seemed a strange state with scenic lakes anchored by hulking power stations and cities left desolate and crumbling. It was a state where even the truckers seemed malevolent. Was it us or was this really a state where good and bad seemed to fit into the same glove?

Splendid Isolation Within City Limits

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The drive from Fort Stockton to the Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso was a straight shot across Interstate 10.

 

IMG_1989Franklin Mountains State Park is the largest park in the country to be contained within city limits. Its 24,000 acres are divided by a central mountain range into several distinct areas. Reaching our portion of the park meant driving Interstate 10 through the heavily trafficked heart of El Paso. We didn’t see much more of El Paso than the gritty interstate lined with truck stops, gentlemen’s clubs, sale outlets and fast food joints. There is no doubt that parts of El Paso are lovely, but we were relieved to reach the far side of town and the entrance to the Tom Mays camping area within Franklin Mountains State Park.

We would be dry camping in the park for three days. The campground ring designated for rv’s had five sites. We joined one Class A who was parked in the center area. We chose a spot where our trailer backed up to the most breathtaking spread of mountains we had ever seen. This was a sight we could never tire of.

Our site was incredibly uneven and a challenge we could not have faced just weeks ago. It was actually fun to get our side to side and back to front levels flat and we used every chock, the Andersons and a few handy rocks to achieve it. We were very, very proud.

Dry camping means camping with no hook ups. We were self-sufficient with our fresh water tank and grey and black tanks. Our power would come from the solar panels on our roof and the energy stored in our battery. If we needed it, we had two generators we could break out. We rationed our water usage washing dishes with as little water as possible, foregoing showers for navy baths. Of course, it was at this moment the gauge on our grey tank decided to go crazy and it kept telling us we were at 90% when we knew we couldn’t possibly be.

It was warm in the desert sun and we set up our chairs in the shade of the trailer. For the three days we camped there, we enjoyed the cool mornings which gave way to increasingly hot sun. In the afternoons the wind would come whipping up from the valley and then as the sun set, the wind subsided and the air cooled to a delightful temperature. It was very dry. So dry we felt desiccated no matter how much water we drank. We had also gained elevation. Our site was at about 6,400 feet. The taller peaks in the park topped out at 7,000 plus.

The park was loaded with great hiking trails. Our first trail was the Shaeffer Shuffle. This was a 2.65 mile trail designated as moderate in difficulty. I think we might quarrel somewhat with that designation. The trail was rocky and led across a valley and then up and over a ridge of mountain and then back down again.

It was a super hike packed with outstanding vistas, multiple kinds of cactus breaking into blooms and a brilliant blue sky. We broke for lunch at the apex of the ridge and surveyed this arid and beautiful landscape so unlike anything we were used to. The hike took us three hours and we finished just as the heat of the day spiked.

Dakota proved himself to be a true mountain dog. He deftly navigated the rocks leaping up and over the obstacles in his path. It was pretty hot to be hiking in a custom-made fur coat and we made frequent stops for water breaks. The rocks were tough on his paws. After our hike, he was exhausted and his paws were sore.

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Our camp circle had been joined by a Class B, but on our second day both the Class A and Class B left and we were completely alone. Day camp sites dotted the mountains around us and those were used by people with tents or small campers. So there were people around but no one anywhere close to us.

Our hike the second day was on a trail called the Upper Sunset which ran along the ridge top across the valley from us. This part of the trail was only 1.4 miles, but they involved hiking up and down and up and down the ridge line. The views were spectacular and way down below in the valley we could see our silver Airstream and Big Blue Truck glinting in the sunshine. We returned to our site on the Tom Mays trail which was a gentler trail, but it was hot and we were all tired from two days of hiking in the hot sun and high elevation. It felt good to relax in the shade when we were done.

This was in so very many ways the exact experience we had sought to have on our trip. We were in a foreign and exciting landscape. We had access to hikes to test our endurance and give us exercise. We were left alone to enjoy the experience. It was pretty much close to perfection.

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Transiting Texas to Fort Stockton

The second day’s big push across Texas took us from Crystal City to Eagle Pass and Del Rio on Highway 277. The scenery remained much the same with some brief interludes with less and then more vegetation. The area around Del Rio was dry and dusty, but the same could be said for much of the drive.

Our route followed the line of the border for a great distance. Border patrol cars were much in evidence. They seemed to be very active in insuring there were no incursions. Just past Del Rio, we encountered a surprise (for us) border patrol station. All traffic in both directions was being funneled into this mandatory stop even though we weren’t crossing the border. We pulled in and were confronted by an imposing and humorless border patrol agent. Where were we going? Where were we from? We showed him id which he scrutinized carefully. I felt guilty even though I knew we had no illegal aliens or substances on board. Dakota didn’t need to show id which is a good thing since he doesn’t have any. We were let through and breathed a sigh of relief. Not quite why we felt so anxious, but that is how we felt.

amistad reservoirWe motored on and our anxiety was slowly replaced by hunger. We began looking for a place to pull off and make a little lunch. Off to our left was the enormous Amistad Reservior. It continued for miles with signs directing traffic to different parts of the giant reservoir. It was an oasis totally at discord with the surrounding dry hills.

Just before we hit Langtry a sign appeared to our left which said “scenic picnic area.” We pulled off the highway onto a road which led upwards and around. Entering uncharted roads is always a little hair-raising. Would there be a turnaround? Would the road be passable for our Airstream?

At last to our right a magnificent vista appeared—far below us an impressive bridge spanned a wide river which had cut a deep ravine through the surrounding cliffs. It was breathtaking all the more so because it was so unexpected. IMG_1937

I felt a little dizzy taking it all in. We pulled to the curb in a large parking area with picnic tables and shelters. The wind was blowing and it seemed like we could topple on down the cliff.

Back when we were in Navarre on the Florida Panhandle navigating the main road we had seen a remarkable vehicle ahead of us. It was an extremely tall and ungainly looking camper van. It was like nothing we had seen before. It perched on enormous tires which looked like they could have supported a tank. The strange looking camper sported french license plates and two motor bikes were strapped to the back. Clearly these intrepid souls had shipped their beloved camper to the States for a big tour. It was an odd and unforgettable sight.

Hundreds and hundreds of miles later in this parking lot perched high above the Pecos River, here was what looked like the same strange contraption. French plates, motor bikes and giant tires. Could there be two of these vehicles or had we miraculously re-encountered each other?

We sat in our Airstream contemplating the view and enjoying lunch. Finally, I could take it no more. I had to ask. I walked over to the strange vehicle. It was so high the steps to gain access were actually a ladder. The door was open. The occupants were likely enjoying their own lunch.

“Pardon? Pardon?” A woman appeared in the doorway. “Bonjour! Parlez vous anglais?” “Non, mais mon marie parle anglais.” A nice looking man about my age appeared. “Bonjour!” I asked if they had been in Navarre near Pensacola a few weeks ago and they replied that they had. “C’est incroyable!” We saw you there and now we have run into each other again! The man agreed it was remarkable that in such a big country we would encounter each other again. He translated for his wife. There was much smiling and nodding and further expressions of amazement. We wished each other a good trip and I returned to Jim, curiosity satisfied. Shortly after, the big camper van pulled away as our frenchmen continued their journey. We followed moments later. In all the parking lots in all the world…

The landscape was arid. The air was warm. The highway wound through hills and valleys dotted with dusty scrub, mesquite and rock formations. We passed signs directing us to Big Bend State Park. Another place we would love to see, but must save for another trip.

We reached the Fort Stockton RV Resort in the late afternoon. The sun was beginning to set and, while it was still very warm, it would cool quickly once the sun was gone. The rv resort was large with a few brave trees dotting the camp sites. Half the park was devoted to transients and half the park was clearly comprised of full time residents.

It had been a long drive, but one full of new sights and adventures. We were tired from so many miles, but we unhitched knowing the next day was not a travel day. We would explore Fort Stockton. The ever present wind was blowing and we opened all our windows to catch the breeze. After Fort Stockton we would have one last leg in our hop scotch across Texas.

Crossing Texas

Goose Island was without doubt a beautiful park and breathtaking location, but after four days of mostly rain, I was pretty glad to shove off. Before we left, we met the fellow who would be taking our site. He was from San Antonio and a frequent visitor. I asked him if it was ever sunny and he replied, “Almost always.” Oh, well. After a week of rain, our luck was sure to change with another geographical location.

Our plan was to cross Texas as quickly as possible. Due to the state-wide spring break, we had been stymied in getting reservations at the parks where we wanted them and we had decided to head for New Mexico. We would return to Texas once everyone was back in school.

Of course, with a state as big as Texas “crossing quickly” is a relative term. We headed south to Corpus Christi.  As we crossed over the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge and sped west we could see the tall buildings of downtown to our left and the enormous port and beginnings of a long string of refineries to our right.

The refineries stretched quite a distance to the west of the city and then ceased as the wide open land reclaimed precedence. At first we were on four lane highways and the fields we passed extended to the horizon and were verdant with tall grasses and dotted with cattle grazing across them. Decorative iron ranch gates interrupted the vast land.

They announced the name of each landholder’s property and were often decorated with appropriate figures or animals. As we got further and further west, the landscape became dotted with mesquite and cattle. Cattle was definitely the one constant.

The roads in Texas are often designated as either a county road with a numerical designation (e.g. CR 599) or Farm to Market Road with a numerical designation (e.g. FM1466). This all seemed kind of strange to us when we first hit Texas, but we had become accustomed to it. I am just not sure how one remembers the numbers better than a proper name. Some of the FM or CR roads, do have secondary names and I guess that is why.

About two thirds of the way through our trip, we turned off Highway 59 on to a 68 mile stretch of FM 468. This was a two lane highway which undulated like a baby roller coaster. Up and down we went for mile after mile. This was tough driving made only a little easier by our chosen soundtrack: the Garth Brooks channel on SXM. To each side all we saw was mesquite and cattle and an occasional ranch gate.

Soon oil derricks joined the mix as did signs offering fracking water for sale. Everything of value was being extracted from this land. As the frequency of oil derricks increased, so did the appearance of small encampments. These were worker’s quarters. Sometimes they were mobile homes, sometimes a sort of generic white rv and sometimes simply a glorified container. Alex lived in a container when he was deployed so I guess it isn’t as bad as it might sound. Signs hawked two bedrooms and full kitchens, but it all looked pretty basic.

Our goal for the night was the Triple R RV Park in Crystal City. We were out in the middle of nowhere and feeling a little anxious about where we were headed. We pulled in to what turned out to be a very large park. There were rows and rows of pull-through sites sitting on gravel with patches of dusty grass. A row of the generic white rv’s sat to the left along with some Fifth Wheels and Class B’s which had clearly been in place for a long time. We pulled up to a cute little house which was the office and met Rashell, the park manager.

At this point we had seen the front of the park.  Rashell explained that the park extended for a mile along the Nueces River and was actually part of a working ranch. She directed us to drive back to our section of the park along the river to its far end. This seemed to be the end of the park designated for transient guests. A small lake wound around the end of the park and situated in front of it was a fairly large pavilion.

Our site was quite lovely. Beyond the lake we could see cattle grazing. In the  pavilion were spotless showers, a laundry facility and a big recreation area with a wide screen tv. It was all very nicely done, completely peaceful and lovely. We did laundry, ate a simple dinner and hit the hay after a long day of driving.

The next morning we were sorry to leave the oasis of Triple R and tempted to stay, but the road called to us. We had somewhere to go and our next stop in the big hop scotch across Texas was Fort Stockton.

Our Airstream Angel

After five weeks of travel, it was time to leave Florida. Our next stop was in Mississippi and our drive would take us west through Mobile and a corner of Alabama and north through eastern Mississippi to Hattiesburg. If Florida is a state unto itself, we would now truly be in the Deep South.

It is pretty much impossible to drive through Florida and any of these southern states and not think about religion. Churches seem to outnumber other buildings and maybe even people in many places. Every road side in town and in rural areas is dotted with small buildings offering many varieties of faith: Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Methodist and churches with colorful names and no apparent affiliation other than the belief in a god, sin and redemption.

Our own religious experience occurred on the outskirts of Mobile. We were back on Interstate 10—the major artery leading westward. Trucks, cars and rv’s streamed westward and eastward in unending lines of transit. As always Fifth Wheels and Class A’s dominated the rv traffic. Every once in a while a Class B or Class C would appear, but they were the minority. Of course, there was almost never another Airstream to be seen. In fact, in our entire trip I think we had only seen fewer than a handful. Once in Florida we passed one going the other way on a two lane highway and we both flashed our lights and waved in happy recognition.

We were motoring along feeling pretty happy and calm. The tall buildings of the city of Mobile were ahead of us. The highway was elevated at this point and we had a grand view. We anticipated the adrenalin surge of urban traffic. Our calm was shattered in an instant with a sign announcing the Bankhead Tunnel and warning any vehicles with hazardous materials to detour immediately. Frost panic ensued. Hazardous materials? That meant us, right? Those two tanks of propane in the prow of our trailer were potential explosive devices. We knew we weren’t supposed to go into the tunnel, but we hadn’t a clue what we should do as an alternative. I grabbed my phone jabbing the Google app in a furious attempt to get some direction.

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Just then our angel appeared. After thousands of miles with barely a sighting of another Airstream, merging upward on the ramp to our right was a glorious silver bullet. Her aluminum shell gleamed in the sunlight. She steamed along and smoothly entered the highway just ahead of us. “Jim, that’s our Airstream Angel and she’s come to lead us around the tunnel!”

 

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We followed our Angel as she took a right onto Route 90 paralleling the Mobile River and then left across the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge. Mobile sped by to our left and was soon behind us. Just as we finished crossing the bridge, the Angel took a left hand exit and headed north on Route 43. She was gone in an instant, but she had led us to salvation.

 

A Clean Airstream is a Happy Airstream

After two weeks on the road in snow, sleet, rain and highway dirt, we were looking a little worse for wear. We needed to spruce up a bit. We had been watching for truck washes for several hundred miles and I even downloaded an app, Blue Beacon, to find a good one. We were very nervous about letting anyone touch our gorgeous silver bullet, but we were equally vain. Luck landed us at a Blue Beacon truck wash just minutes from our destination.

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We joined a long line of eighteen wheelers waiting their turn. From my limited experience, it seems that truck washes are pretty manual. Unlike car washes which service passenger vehicles, trucks come in varying sizes and shapes and have varying needs. The more manual process becomes more variable to needs.

We watched as the refrigerated food truck before us was scrubbed down inside and out. Then it was our turn.

We gleamed in the late afternoon sun. Our beautiful silver bullet looked brand new and we were ready for our close up with Jim’s family.