No Trace at Trace!

The park map of Trace State Park shows a large lake with three “fingers.” The two isthmi between the  three fingers feature on one the fishing piers and on the other two campgrounds. We were elated when we made our reservation to get a prime spot in the Eagle Ridge Campground looking out over the lake.

Our drive from Grenada was quite lovely. Northern Mississippi is green rolling country. We headed north towards Oxford and then east. I had desperately wanted to visit Square Books, a renowned independent bookseller in Oxford, but Google Earth made it pretty clear that a 48 foot trailer and truck was going to find no haven anywhere near town center. Ah, well, we’ll save that for another day…

Trace State Park sits just west of Tupelo. I was excited to see this city with the beguiling name and we planned to do both sightseeing and hiking. We pulled up to the ranger station at the park gate and got checked in. No mention was made of anything out of the ordinary at the park. I did ask after ticks and the ranger said they were pretty bad.

 

We pulled the trailer along the park roads, found our site which was right across from the comfort station/laundry and backed in. It wasn’t until we were backed in to the site that we noticed one tiny detail which deviated from expectations. The lake had disappeared! There was no lake. Instead there was a vast expanse of brown mud extending in all directions. How do you lose a lake?

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We were completely nonplussed. Rather than a glorious vista, we faced a mud horizon. We sniffed the air which was redolent of a smell redolent of cow manure. I kind of like the earthiness of a sometime whiff of cow manure, but three days of it seemed a bit much.5217 643

The earth around our site was barren and grass-less. The thought of sitting out on the scrabbly dirt staring off over the muddy lake-less expanse was less than attractive. On the positive side, the bath house did look quite nice and the laundry was spotless.

We weren’t too happy as we unhitched. There was cell signal and I hot spotted to go online and see if there were other places to stay. Jim went on-line to find out what happened to the lake.

It seemed that the lake’s dam had been slated for repairs. The contractor had been moving slowly when an inspection revealed an imminent danger of collapse. The lake was immediately drained to avoid flooding downstream. This had all happened six days before. It sure seems like they might have mentioned to those planning a stay that the lake had disappeared. They didn’t even mention it when we checked in. Did they think we wouldn’t notice?

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It was quite warm and late in the afternoon. We decided to drive in to Tupelo and poke around. Jim needed to visit a hardware store and we both thought it was time for some barbecue. A trip to the grocery store and a re-stock on our boxed wine was also on the docket. It was forecast to storm that night. We would batten down the hatches, stock up the larder and decide our plans the next day.

Amazingly, after some excellent barbecue and a successful foray into town, life looked rosier. Bishop’s Barbecue had multiple locations and one was right on the way back to the park. It was very good barbecue. I had fried green tomatoes and pulled pork. They looked a little surprised when I asked for a container to take half of it home. From the looks of it, most of their customers belonged to the clean plate club. Meow.

The predicted storm was just a normal boomer and banger. The next morning was sunny and clear. It would get hot later, but a morning hike would be an excellent undertaking. Jim had done some research and found a very nice sounding Rails-to-Trails just west of us.

Rails-to-Trails are pretty dependable hiking locations. The former railroad beds run straight and true, are often elevated and paved. We had walked one when we were in Navarre and could find no hiking trails. This would fit neatly into our tick avoidance program (TAP) and give us some good outdoor exercise.

The Tanglefoot Trail runs just under 44 miles from Houston north to New Albany. We decided to pick up the trail at Pontotoc. The trail was gorgeously maintained. Where we parked there was a lovely rest stop/picnic area. It was so new we half expected to see a hammer still lying around.

We hiked along the trail enjoying the fresh air and sun and feeling quite confident that we were tick free. It felt good to stretch our legs and glimpse bits of Pontotoc as we walked along. It looked like a nice town and we could see the community park with ball fields from the trail.

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Pontotoc means “Land of Hanging Grapes” in the Chickasaw language. After our walk, we drove around Pontotoc. It was a suburb of Tupelo and had nice houses, a modest town square and some small businesses. At this point we had abandoned any thought of changing campgrounds. We spent the end of the day doing laundry at the campground and we drove around the park roads to see other parts of the park. The funny cow manure smell had disappeared after the rain.

One thing about Mississippi that we loved was the ubiquity of public television. Whether it was Natchez, Grenada or the outskirts of Tupelo, PBS came in loud and clear. The same was true for radio broadcasts. We were able to indulge our love of PBS NewsHour and the local radio broadcasts in the morning. For some reason I would not have expected this of Mississippi, but we thought much better of the state for its commitment to this media.

On our final day at Trace State Park, we returned to the Tanglefoot Trail and Pontotoc and hiked in the opposite direction. The weather during this second hike was humid and heavy. The sky was a little overcast and the trail cut through a more urban area. We were glad we had headed south the first day through a less urban part of the trail. It was still a good walk, but not quite as good this second outing.

In the afternoon, we headed in to Tupelo. We had an extremely tasty lunch at the Neon Pig. This butcher cum restaurant and bar was a fun spot. I am not a fan of pictures of food, but I will break my usual practice and share a visual glimpse of the tremendously tasty pork belly sandwich I split with Jim.

We worked off that tasty lunch wandering the streets of Tupelo’s historic district. The old courthouse stood squarely next to its more modern iteration. Many of the historic homes were now law offices. It must be a pretty nice life practicing law in a small city like Tupelo. A short walk from the office to the courthouse, a comfortable living and enough urban sophistication to make life interesting with the great outdoors is a stone’s throw away. Not a bad life.

Our early discomfiture with the disappearing lake had likewise disappeared. We enjoyed seeing both Tupelo and Pontotoc and would be happy to return anytime. With any luck the lake would also have returned and that idyllic campsite with a lake view would be part of the package.

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?

Restoration East of the Mississippi

The Arkansas we drove through after leaving Cane Creek flattened out and the sun burned down on the planted fields. We were heading south and east. This seemed to be mostly farm country with small towns parsed along the highway.

At McGehee we passed the Japanese Internment Camp Museum. Sadly, it was closed and we could not stop. It was late April and the thermostat already registered over 80 degrees in late morning. There were two internment camps in southeastern Arkansas, one in Jerome and one in Rohwer. Most of the Japanese interned in the two camps here were relocated from California. Life had to have been incredibly difficult and uncomfortable. The climate was tough, not the gentler climate they must have known in California. The camps were spartan at best. These people were held for years. The Museum opened four years ago. George Takei, who was interned at Rohwer as a small child, was on hand for the occasion. That was big news in these parts.

We flew across the graceful Greenville Bridge over the Mississippi at Greenville. Built in 2010, this was the fourth longest cable-stayed bridge in North America when it opened. It replaced an older bridge which was obsolete. There aren’t that many places to cross the Mississippi. We were back on the eastern side of this dividing line. We were back in a state which had earlier charmed us with its beauty and the grace of Natchez.

Our destination was Grenada Lake just outside of Grenada, MS. We were staying at the North Abutment Campground which proved to be nestled at the northern end of the Grenada Dam.

We didn’t quite know all of this at the time. What we did know was that Grenada was a fair-sized town in central northern Mississippi. We drove through town noting that every fast food chain one could imagine was represented. Blindly following the GPS instructions, we left town along Scenic Highway 333. The road wound through woods. We really didn’t have a clue where we were going and struggled to read the signs.

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Suddenly we broke out of the woods and the most enormous lake appeared to our right.We both exclaimed at the gorgeous blue water reflected under blue skies with fantastically puffy white clouds. We crossed the 2.6 mile length of the mighty Grenada Dam and found our campground at its northern end.

The Yazoo Headwater Project which created Grenada Lake with the construction of the eponymous dam was completed in 1954. Built by the Army Corps of Engineers, this was a massive project. Designed to protect approximately 1.5 milliion acres of the Yazoo River Basin from flooding, it also provided endless opportunities for outdoor recreation.

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Those army engineers weren’t fooling around. We drove across the enormous dam admiring the lake to our right and, far below to the left, the protected valley and the Yalobusha River flowing through it.

The North Abutment campground consisted of two separate camping areas. Unlike most parks, there was no real entrance gate and we felt our way to the site which had been designated on our reservation.

This was the flattest, longest and most perfect campsite ever constructed. We barely bothered to check our side to side and front to back levels. Of course, when we did, they were perfect. Even more perfect was the breathtaking view. Jim dubbed this the country club of campgrounds and he was right.

Early in the week, the campground was pretty empty. We relished the delightful weather, the gorgeous view and the serenity. It was deeply restorative.

We had only two nights booked at North Abutment. That left us with one day to enjoy the place. We didn’t do much at all. We relaxed at our campsite. Oddly enough, we almost never sit around relaxing. Unless the weather is bad, we tend to be out and exploring. It was a nice respite to spend some time reading and knitting and listening to music.

In the afternoon we made one brief foray into town. There were a couple trails to hike, but we didn’t have the heart for it. We talked a lot about the need to avoid ticks moving forward. To say we were obsessively haunted would not be totally overstating things. We needed to undertake a tick avoidance program (TAP). Hiking those trails didn’t seem worth it.

Grenada Lake is a big destination for fishermen. The lake when full in summer consists of 35,000 acres of water. It boasts 148 miles of shoreline. In the winter they draw down the water and it shrinks to less than a third of its summer size. At flood level the dam can hold back 64,000 acres of water and the shoreline swells to 282 miles. The whole project is immense.

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We hated to leave after our second night. We toyed with staying another day, but rain was predicted and it seemed best to move on and keep to our schedule. Hitching up was a dream on our perfect pad. The truck and trailer practically hitched themselves and we headed out to the next adventure.

Ticked Off in Arkansas

We left Texas via Texarkana. Our route into and through Arkansas was atypical in that we were on a major highway. Interstate 30 headed northeast taking us in a direct line past Hope (birthplace of that most famous Arkansan) and directly up to the Hot Springs area. The truckers in Arkansas appeared to be fierce and not terribly thoughtful. Usually, truckers make space for us to change lanes and there seems to be a brotherhood among us. These truckers seemed intent on running us right off the road.

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Our next stop was the Lake Catherine State Park. The land for this park was donated to the state in the 1920’s when Harvey C. Couch, a very successful local businessman, built the Remmel Dam to generate hydro-electric power. The power station was later switched over to natural gas and oil. This is one of a pair of man-made lakes and dams serving the Hot Springs area.

The park is quite pretty. The campground at the park has two sections for rv camping and a group of cabins. The park caters especially to fishermen and golfers. Just before you reach the park, there is a large public golf course with housing and a restaurant.

5217 362Our site was beautifully situated right on Lake Catherine. Our lounge backed up to the shore just a few feet away. Tall maples ringed the site. Our neighbors to either side were a discreet distance away from us. Groups of quacking ducks and honking geese were our constant companions for our stay along with a heron or two. Once again, we got out all of our paraphernalia and decorated our site.

Did I mention the power plant dominates almost any view of the lake? Yes, right in front of us on the opposite shore of the lake sat the hulking power station. It was an omnipresent anchor to our, and anyone else’s, view of the lake.

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Of course, without the power station there would be no Lake Catherine. It gleamed in the sun and emitted a constant low-level hum. At night it was aglow with light and continued to emit that low-level hum. Like an unwanted dinner guest with bad table manners, it had pulled up a chair at the head of the table and anyone else at the table could only avert their eyes to enjoy the otherwise sumptuous spread.

This we did. We sat out in the evening air and watched as the sun slowly set and the world darkened around us. The power plant glowed and hummed and we steadfastly enjoyed a quiet evening at lakeside.

This park had quite a nice system of trails so the next morning we packed our lunches and headed out to hike the park. At the trail head there were interpretive signs informing us that this park, too, owed its infrastructure to FDR and the CCC.

We had a planned route but, as happens all too often, we missed a trial turn and ended up taking a different route. We both agreed this was actually much better. The first trail was called the Falls Branch Trail. It was a wooded trail and mostly followed the course of a small brook winding up and down rocky, mossy hills. There were lots of little water falls and it was cool and comfortable hiking in the woods.

To get to our next trail, Falls Creek Falls, we crossed the Falls Creek by the pretty waterfall for which it was named and headed up a steep and rocky trail. Our plan was to break for lunch at a spot on the top of a ridge with views down to the lake (and power plant) below.

We were out of the wooded area and hiking through tall grass and bushes at this point. It grew much warmer in the sun. We had feared we would leave behind good hiking as we headed east, but this trail made us feel there was hope for more good hikes in the future.

We made it to a bench overlooking the wooded hills and peaceful lake below us. We broke out our sandwiches. We were happily munching away when we became aware that we were sitting in the middle of a huge tick colony. Ticks were falling from the bushes onto us, crawling up our legs and swarming Dakota. For some reason, that ended our lunch break quickly. We gobbled last bites and retook the trail at a fast pace.

The rest of the day’s trail was easy walking and we made good time looping back to the Falls Creek Falls. From there it was a short hike along the banks of Lake Catherine back to our trailer.

The first thing we did back at the trailer was get out the tweezers and flamestick and check Dakota for ticks. There were quite a few. Ugh. We checked ourselves as well. The ticks made a satisfying popping sound when they were incinerated.

Rather than do more hiking at Lake Catherine, the next day’s plan was to head in to Hot Springs and visit Bathhouse Row and hike in the national park. Hot Springs National Park claims to be the first national park. The hot springs in the area had been drawing people for years and the area had slowly been developing in a haphazard fashion. In the 1830’s the federal government took the unprecedented step of “reserving” large parcels of the land for use by citizens. The creation of Hot Springs Reservation was the first attempt by the government to protect a natural resource. It was a bit ham-fisted, however, and failed to clearly delineate boundaries.

Over the years the bath houses in town had evolved from tents and crude lumber shacks to wooden structures. Hot Springs Creek ran right down the main street. The town was subject to frequent fires and the creek regularly flooded. In the 1880’s the federal government covered over Hot Springs Creek so that it ran under the main street of town. Next the government approved private development of new and more elaborate bath houses. Hot Springs’ reputation and popularity soared.

This popularity endured until the 1950’s when healing cures fell out of fashion and the bath houses slowly declined. Today only two of the bath houses are still in operation. The Fordyce, arguably one of the most elegant, now serves as the Visitors Center for the national park.

We drove into town and parked the truck on Central Avenue. Dakota was immediately engulfed by adoring fans. Central Avenue is the dividing line between the park on one side and the town’s business development on the other. Small shops and touristy places are on the town side and the row of preserved bath houses are on the park side.5217 467

Walking through the Fordyce was a treat. We took turns. One of us stayed with Dakota on the wide front porch while the other savored the vestiges of a bygone era. It was beautifully preserved, an elaborate and gracious emblem of the past.

After The Fordyce, we strolled the main street past the balance of the bath houses and back to the truck. We headed up Hot Springs Mountain Drive as it snaked back and forth up Hot Springs Mountain to the very top. Here we planned to walk the Goat Rock and Dogwood Trails.

The parking lot gave us a grand vista from the top of the mountain across wooded hills and the town below. It was very warm as we hit the trail. The sun was strong and the air heavy. We stepped off the trail to enjoy another overlook. When we got back on the trail, I noticed Dakota already had a tick on his paw. I removed it and we continued.

There were a few other hikers on the trails which was surprising since they seemed somewhat overgrown. I was feeling twitchy about ticks. We stopped for lunch at a stone shelter by the road. Sitting there eating my sandwich, I found another tick crawling on my arm. We never did see Goat Rock. If there was an actual Goat Rock, it eluded us. We completed our hike on the upper loop of the Dogwood Trail. I couldn’t find any dogwood either.

Back at the parking lot we checked Dakota for ticks. They were everywhere. We kept finding them and scrunching them into the pavement. I lost count around thirty. It was a total nightmare. Every time I ran my fingers through his fur, I found more. And more. Finally, it seemed we had them all. We got back in the truck and headed home, stopping in Hot Springs at a Kroger for groceries.

As we entered the park, I found a tick in my hair. We both felt itchy all over. When we got back to our camp site, I swept off the mat and laid Dakota down for another tick check. Unbelievably, we found more ticks. We found a few dead ones which meant we had missed them from before. We also found a few which had latched on to his skin. With dark satisfaction, Jim incinerated each tick, even the dead ones, with the flame stick. We felt terrible that we seemed not to have been diligent enough to protect him.

5217 363Sadly, we were no longer comfortable in this camp site. As I stepped into the trailer, a small tick fell from overhead onto my hand. In my research on ticks, the CDC said ticks can only crawl up their hosts. Experience proved otherwise. Later while sitting on the bench seat, I looked down to see another tick beside me. We felt under assault. Obsessively, we continued to go over Dakota checking for missed ticks.

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We holed up in the trailer. No more sitting outside on our mat enjoying the night air and scenic view of the lake and power plant. We contented ourselves with the view through the screened window.

No, Not That Atlanta, The Other Atlanta

We arrived at Atlanta State Park the Saturday before Easter Sunday. The park was alive with families enjoying the special weekend. The Easter Bunny had just presided over an Easter egg hunt and the excitement level was unparalleled. We saw the Easter Bunny zip by in the ranger’s golf cart. It was also quite warm, nay hot, and sunny.

The site we were assigned was very short. Short and uneven. In order to get the Airstream intothe site, we had to hang out in the campground road blocking traffic. This is precisely the kind of situation which Jim finds intolerable. He hates to be in the way or inconveniencing anyone. Of course, this meant we were trying to rush and that only prolonged the process. We needed to deploy the Andersons to level the trailer side to side. We got our signals crossed and had to rework the process. I thought Jim’s head might explode. He was quite literally a very unhappy camper. Finally, we were able to unhitch and get out of everyone’s way.

We were dead tired and hot and unhappy. To re-spark the magic, we got out all of Jim’s Airstream toys. We deployed the awnings and got out the palm tree. From the awnings we hung the strings of lights shaped like flamingos and flip flops. This was their maiden appearance as I had brought them back from my visit east. Of course, the flamingo from the Quilt Museum was on display. Smokey took a bow as did Jim’s replacement balloon from Ruidoso. We were the most festive and happening trailer in the park!

We sat in our chairs under the awning to enjoy the late afternoon and dusk. Jim sipped his beer. I drank my wine. A large red wasp began buzzing around us. Soon swarms of gnats were flying in our faces. We got out the citronella candles and remained steadfast. Just as darkness fell an enormous black beetle crashed into my head with his hard shell. My shriek rang out though the campground. I bounded inside the trailer. That was just one bug too many for me. I hate, hate, hate insects. I hate bugs. I really hate big red wasps and black, hard-shelled beetles that fly. I began to pine for west Texas and its bug-free environment in earnest.

Atlanta State Park has two campground loops. We were on the lake loop. The other loop was deeper into the woods. Rather than place the campsites right next to the lake as is most common, the sites were lined along both sides of the road leading through the campground to the picnic area. This picnic area was a peninsula which jutted out into the lake. The loop was ringed with tables. It was quite lovely. We pondered the democratic choice which had been made to leave the campsites in the woods and the public access picnic area on the prime spot.

 

The next morning we walked the picnic loop and admired Lake Wright Patman. It was a little rainy and the sky was cloudy, but all in all a pretty day. We spent some time cleaning the trailer. Living in a small space, there isn’t much to clean, but it does need fairly frequent attention. Cleaning is also a good way to exert control over one’s environment. It serves dual purposes.

Atlanta park was unusual in its lack of hiking trails. There was one trail which connected the two campgrounds, but it was uninspiring. We were still a little tick-shocked from Mission Tejas. Rather than explore the trail, we decided to see if the ranger had wood for a fire and head in to town.

The ranger actually gifted us with some firewood someone had left behind. We headed to WalMart for some firestarter sticks. When we got out of WalMart, Jim suggested we go to Sonic for burgers. It was already 3 pm and it seemed a little late for a heavy fast food meal. As Jim likes to say, I crushed his soul once again. We returned to the park. All was not harmony and happiness. We hunkered down for another evening dodging bugs.

The next day was humid and somewhat cloudy. At this point we were both ready to leave Atlanta. We were trying hard to be happy and content, but it wasn’t happening. It was time for some serious intervention. In the pantheon of tools to engender happiness on the road, doing laundry ranks at the top—even ahead of trailer cleaning. It was time to do the laundry. We were seriously intent on getting happy.

5217 342Jim had researched and there seemed to be just one laundromat in Atlanta. If it didn’t really exist (not an unusual occurrence) or was awful, we would have to go to Texarkana which was quite a ways away. We drove the twenty minutes back to town. With 34 years of happy matrimony under my belt, I suggested we try Sonic before the laundromat. This girl didn’t survive this long without knowing when to uncrush a soul. We don’t eat fast food very often at all. But Jim had this bee in his bonnet and it seemed the best course of action. It was okay. I don’t think I ever need to eat at Sonic again.

After Sonic, we found the Washateria. It wasn’t the cleanest place, but it had the necessary appliances. Jim and Dakota stayed in the truck and I headed in to get the job done. Doing laundry, even in a less than spotless environment, is good for the soul.

The next morning we were ready to hitch up and get underway. Our next door neighbor wandered by on his way from the bathhouse to his trailer. He was friendly and very interested in our hitch. We have a Pro Pride hitch which has tremendous stabilizing strength. It resists the gusts from wind and passing semi trucks and makes hauling a trailer much safer and easier. Lots of people haul with a simple ball hitch as did our neighbor.

Over time Jim and I have worked out a good process for hitching and un-hitching. By now we had done it many times. We barely need to speak as we work through each step. We each have our own self-assigned tasks. Despite this familiarity, having an audience threw us each into silent performance anxiety. As our neighbor peppered Jim with hitch questions, we performed each task, but without our usual level of concentration.

Once early on in our journey, we had had a near disaster in hitching. We could have totally crashed the Airstream and, even all these months later, we remained battle scarred. After that near disaster, I developed the oft-recommended hitching up checklist. Ever since we were religious in running through the checklist each time we hooked up no matter how confident we felt. Like a pilot preparing to take off down the runway, the checklist was our salvation.

The hitching in front of our kindly observer went well. Jim nailed putting the stinger in the hitch. He hooked his over center, I took the tool and hooked mine. My favorite job is to cross and hook the tow chains, hook the emergency brake release cable and seat the seven pin plug which makes the brake lights work on the trailer. All of that took place. Our satisfied guest wandered off pondering the joys of our Pro-pride Trailer hitch. Jim and I both breathed sighs of deep relief. We went through the hitching up checklist with the fervor of were newly ordained priests performing our first Eucharist.

Eastward Ho!!

The drive from Pedernales Falls to our next stop at Mission Tejas State Park was tougher than we expected. The mileage wasn’t that far outside our normal range, but the drive seemed to take forever. We stopped for diesel once and then again for lunch.

We were hungry and I had just remarked that the Texas highway department would do us all a favor if they put more rest stops along the highway when a blue rest stop sign appeared. I guess they heard me. It was a little late for lunch, but the rest stop looked green and serene. We pulled into a nice long spot by a picnic table and opened up the trailer. I was in the midst of making sandwiches when another Airstream pulled in to the rest stop! It was very exciting and seconds later our new neighbors were knocking at the door.IMG_2288

Susan and Bob live in east Texas and had bought their Airstream in 2008. They actually bought their Airstream at Colonial from Patrick! (Patrick Botticelli is a legend in Airstream circles for his videos available on YouTube). That makes us sort of related. Cousins in Airstream ownership. We had two good chats. They were very friendly and enthusiastic. That is how Airstreamers tend to be especially with each other. It is a special society.

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Buoyed by our close encounter with another Airstream, we pulled back onto the highway right behind our fellow Airstreamers. We followed them through mile after mile and town after town until a construction stop light divided us. “Goodbye Airstream Buddy!”

It was after 5 when we reached our destination. Mission Tejas State Park is an old CCC camp and was founded and built in 1934. Not a big park, it has only 14 camp sites about half of which are for tent camping. It looked like they were in the midst of building a new park entrance when we were there. We never really did ask about that.

The site the ranger assigned to us was one of the worst we have ever had. It was narrow. It spanned a rise with trees on the street side and behind. The pavement was laughably uneven. It was supposed to be a full hookup, but we could see no evidence of a sewer connection.

In a comedy of errors we hadn’t dumped because we thought we would have a full hookup. When we saw no evidence of a sewer connection, we pulled off the site to head back to the dump station. We were so tired we were almost staggering as we returned to the site and worked with the Andersons to level the side to side of the trailer. We finally got it level. As we finished connecting shore power and water, we found the tiny little opening which was the sewer connection. We never did bother hooking up the sewer, we had already dumped. The site was so uneven we decided not to un-hitch. We would just stay put in the park for two days.

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Despite these rather sad beginnings, we liked our site. The trees surrounded us. It was green and leafy. The first day there were few campers. On the second day several families arrived and the forest rang with the kids’ excited voices and happy laughter and the deeper voices of parents chatting and catching up.

 

The park didn’t have a lot of trails, but there were enough. We hit them first thing the next morning. There was almost no cell signal at our site and we figured we would follow the trails and end up out at ranger headquarters where we could hopefully catch some signal.

Heading out to hike the first thing we did was to walk up the hill behind our site to check out the bathhouse as well as the Commemorative Mission building next to it. The bathhouse looked perfectly fine. It was a study building and clean. It is always reassuring to know a hot shower is attainable.

Next we headed to the Commemorative Mission. This was a replica mission building was erected by the CCC when they built the park.

It was a beautifully crafted replica of an old log building. Mission Tejas got its name from the Spanish who tried valiantly to settle the area and convert the local Caddo tribes. Tejas means “friend.” The Caddos were farmers. Ultimately, the Spanish attempt to convert the Caddo and other local tribes was a failure. Disease decimated the local tribes who attributed their illness to baptism.

The park is heavily forested with pine, oak and maple. We first walked a nature trail around a pond which let to yet another trail called the Cemetery Hill Trail.

We took a brief detour onto the Lightning Trail. This trail zigzagged through the woods, hence its name, and met back up with the Cemetery Trail which led, as one might suppose, through the woods to a cemetery. This was the local cemetery and still very much in use. The oldest graves, dating back to the 1800’s, intermingled with the newer graves charting generations of local inhabitants. We spent some time assimilating a bit of family history based on the names and dates on graves.

One of the highlight historical sights in this park are the CCC baths. The park literature and signage on the trails exhort the visitor to see the CCC baths. In my mind I was picturing some good-sized bubbling springs which one could paddle around in to get clean and cool. I idly imagines if it was warm enough I could give them a try. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we got to the springs, we saw three holes which punctuated the earth. They were glorified puddles. There were the initial spring, the soaping and cleaning hole and the rinse hole. Imagine scores of sweaty, dirty men bathing in succession in the tiny, mud-lined holes.

The men on the CCC crews lived in primitive conditions and worked really hard. They earned $30 per month, $25 of which was sent home to their families. Most of the men came from poor homes and in the depths of the Depression, these jobs saved their families from starvation and gave them skills and a sense of purpose. They built roads, bridges, parks like this, strung telephone and electrical wire and planted quite literally a billion trees. These CCC camps were stationed all over the country and did so much to build the park system which Jim and I have been so thoroughly enjoying. I give FDR full props for this. The CCC saved lives and constructively employed what would otherwise be lost resources.

After viewing the CCC baths, we headed along the Big Pine Trail to ranger headquarters. We sat on the old buggy seat on the front porch and Jim downloaded the paper (sadly only part of it came through) and I tried to send a couple emails with little luck. Oh well, the hiking was good enough even without a digital payoff.

Another major sight at the park is the Joseph Rice Log Home. This cabin was originally erected in another location along El Camino Real (the King’s Highway). Joseph Rice and his wife added to the cabin as they added to their family. It became a stopping off point for travelers. Eventually the cabin was no longer inhabited and was used for storage until it was donated to the park by the family.

 

Most fascinating in looking at the cabin was the interpretive information about building techniques. Squaring off the logs, smoothing them and then maneuvering them into place was a substantial undertaking. It is hard to conceive of the painstaking labor involved and the craftsmanship required to get a roof over one’s head. It is possible to see the marks from the shaping tools on the logs. It is all beautifully preserved.

Our return hike to our site followed the Karl Lovett Trail through a pine woods. The ground was thickly carpeted with pine needles and the red earth shone through in spots. The woods we had been in before were dense and green, this section of the park was much more arid and piney. We paused to look at the signage for the old fire towers. Jim always loves a good fire tower. He climbed one once in northern Michigan and it takes little prompting to get him to reminisce about the experience.

When we had spoken to the ranger at headquarters, she warned us the ticks were bad. When we got back to the trailer, I spread the blue quilted movers blanket we keep in the truck and began a tick check. Bingo. Dakota had a pretty good crop of ticks on him. Jim grabbed the tweezers and fire stick and we removed some ticks. This was an unpleasant reminder that we were no longer in the dry country. We would need to be careful moving forward.

IMG_2304We spent the afternoon reading and knitting (I was knitting, not Jim). It was a delight to use the sturdy bathhouse with hot running water and not the CCC bathtubs.  We enjoyed the quiet and relaxing afternoon. We had a cozy dinner. Since we had not unhitched the next day’s getaway would be swift. We would head to our last park in Texas. The eastward push was really underway.

 

We’re On the Road Again, Willie!

Despite my deep desire to get back to San Antonio, re-entry was a bit challenging. Simultaneous with the challenges in getting a flight back, I suffered a technical challenge with my email support. Verizon was discontinuing email service and when I tried to move my account, it was frozen. Two lengthy calls with Verizon later, the upshot was I needed to change email addresses. This was a huge and unwelcome task. So I spent that first day back in San Antonio dealing with Delta in trying to get a refund for my ticket (down to a ninety minute wait) and changing email addresses.

It was hot at Blazing Star and we did not want to be there. We were missing one of the parks we had most hoped to see: Pedernales Falls State Park. Finally, common sense rallied and the next morning I called the park to see if they could still accommodate us. We were assured we could salvage two days of the four we had planned to spend there. We immediately felt much better.  We hitched up and were were back on the road in no time.

The same ranger I had spoken to on the phone was on duty when we arrived. There had clearly been a major downpour at the park. When we arrived at our site, there was quite literally a river running through it. A stream ran though our site and the step into the trailer was under water. We were a little daunted, but the site was really pretty. We had our very own little meadow. There was lots of space around our site. We decided to stick it out. As we un-hitched, we could see the flow of water beginning to diminish. By the time we returned from a get-to-know-it perambulation around the campground, we were almost on dry ground.

The two nights we were able to salvage at Pedernales (locals pronounce it Perdernales, per the park ranger this pronunciation dates back to LBJ, I don’t know about that, but everyone really does pronounce it with the “r”), gave us one day for hiking. Looking at the map, it was hard to choose where to hike. There were so many attractive options. We decided to hike Trammel’s Crossing and the 5.5 Mile Loop to which it led. When we got to the trailhead, all bets were off.

We were just beginning to understand that Pedernales Falls was a flash flood zone. Due to yesterday’s very heavy downpour, the river was up and running hard. Trammel’s Crossing was under deep and fast running water. Reaching the 5.5 Mile Loop was impossible. A nearby camper directed us to the nearby Twins Falls Trail. We took that as a warm up hike and visited the little waterfall on the trail.

After some debate between the Wolf Mountain Trail and the Pedernales Falls Trail System, we opted for the latter. It was a very fortunate decision. We would never have wanted to miss the falls for which the park was named.

The Pedernales Falls Overlook was fairly crowded, but we headed up the trail and were soon totally alone in a very beautiful landscape. It was a beautiful landscape with a frisson of fear attached to it.

We walked out onto the rocks. Signs warmed to watch the water even on a sunny day. If it turned muddy and brown, run for the hills. Literally. We ate our picnic lunch sitting on some rocks looking at the glorious view.

We got a bit turned around with the trails and wandered onto the North Loop Equestrian Trail. It was hot and very sunny as we followed the wide track. There were enormous colonies of fire ants. We picked our way around them, but they made me wish we were on horseback.

Eventually, we ended up back at the park road which wasn’t our goal. There was room for improvement in signage at this park. We realized if we headed back towards the parking lot, we could pick up the Hackenburg Loop Trail. We followed what we thought was the correct track and encountered a sign which said “river” with an arrow. This seemed a bit inscrutable, but beneath the wood cut letters was a small dymo-label “Hackenburg Loop.” Someone else recognized the signage shortfalls.

This proved to be a lovely trail through meadows and along the river downstream from the falls. Spring was in full flower and we marveled at the bountiful wild flowers. It was thrilling to see a prickly pear cactus in bloom. We had admired so many on so many trails, we finally got to see one in bloom!

The river was running hard and fast. No wonder our first choice trail was closed. This water was impassable and deadly. The force of the water was apparent along the banks. Trees hung onto their ground with tough, exposed root systems. Hold on guys, it is just a matter of time. The water will win.

When we finally returned to the beach below the Pedernales Falls Overlook, we were footsore, but happy. It had been an especially rewarding hike.

Back at our campsite, we visited the Camp Host and bought some fire wood and a fire starter. It was a complete delight to relax after dinner by the cozy fire and gaze at our private meadow as the darkness deepened. We were so fortunate to have made it to Pedernales Falls. We could stay a week at least, but tomorrow the camp would fill and we were expected elsewhere. Maybe its good to leave wanting more, we hope to be back one day.

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The force of the water laid leaves in a lovely pattern.

Lost in Maples Paradise

About halfway from San Angelo to Vanderpool, right about Eden, we lost cell signal. After a while it became apparent that we would not be getting that signal back anytime soon. We hadn’t expected it and had failed to let our children or anyone know we would be out of range. Not much to be done about that now. It may have been the lack of contact with the outside world or just the park itself, but our two days at Lost Maples State Natural Area were way too short.

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Entering Lost Maples is like discovering a verdant, hidden valley. It is hard to do the tremendous beauty justice. Turning off the highway one is immediately surrounded by tree-covered ridges. It feels safe, secure and delightfully isolated. After a few weeks in the very arid desert in both Texas and New Mexico, the effect of all this green and tree covered hillsides was all the more welcome.

This park has a small campground with 24 sites. The park was about half empty, but we later heard that it is an incredibly popular park especially when the leaves turn in the fall and people book sites a year in advance.

We did a full camp set up with mat, chairs, Jim’s site toys and awnings. Our site wasn’t completely even. In fact we ended up with a very long last step out of the trailer and we were unable to deploy the back stabilizer, but otherwise this was a very charming and congenial camp site. The afternoon was quite warm, but there was a nice breeze to keep us cool. We crossed our fingers that this park experience would not devolve into some terrible storm event.

We sat out in the afternoon and evening and enjoyed the stillness and bird song. Our site was sheltered by some lovely tall oaks. With no television and no cell service, we relished the quiet. No news from the outside world could disturb our peace. As the sun slipped behind the valley walls, a gentle darkness fell and we crawled into bed with the windows wide open to catch the sounds of the night.

One reason it felt so tranquil here is we had finally escaped the west Texas wind. For the last two weeks we had been continually swept by unrelenting winds. From the beginning of our transit across Texas to the interlude in Ruidoso to Monahans Sandhills and San Angelo, whether we were in a storm or just normal weather, there was the unceasing wind. I don’t know if I could take that on a permanent basis. It was a relief to feel the stillness in the air.

Lost Maples is known for and named after the bigtooth maples which are found on the rocky slopes of the Sabinal River. Cypress and sycamore trees and several varieties of oak trees are also found in the park. The park offers quite a few miles of trails and it was tough to make a choice. We only had one day to hike.

We decided to hike the East Trail. We chose this trail because it promised the most exposure to the bigtooth maples. These are the maples for which the park is named. This trail follows the Sabinal River and even cuts back and forth across it quite a few times. Dakota was really enjoying crossing the river. This dog who once disliked getting his feet wet was now wading with abandon through the rippling water.

From its beginning on the valley floor, the trail winds through wooded areas overhung by rocky slopes and outcroppings. The rock formations are remarkable. One highlight is Monkey Rock–named so for obvious reasons.

The trail gradually gains altitude until, after some steep stone stairs, it hugs the top of several ridges and eventually descends another steep and rocky grade back to the valley floor.

We enjoyed our picnic lunch up on top of one of the ridges with a dramatic vista across the valley. The sun was warm on our faces and looking out across the ridges covered with trees was dramatic. We sat on two large rocks eating our lunch and meditating on the view.

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The last stretch of the trail was a steep downward grade. It was very rocky and easy to slip or twist an ankle. We had to walk carefully. It was also incredibly tough on poor Dakota’s paws. He was a game fellow but finally we ended up carrying him over a good portion of it. We needed two pairs of doggy hiking boots. Those rocks are tough on little paws.

The park map warned the trail would be strenuous and challenging and they weren’t kidding. By the time we descended and joined the East-West Trail for the last mile of our hike we were walking mighty slow. Despite our fatigue, it was a really wonderful hiking experience and we were very sorry that we would have no more time for the other trails in the park.

IMG_1067We were a weary crew after our hike, but not too tired for a campfire and s’mores. The ranger’s station offered all the makings for s’mores and, unbelievably, Jim had never had one. We enjoyed our dinner sitting outside at our picnic table. We had been hauling some firewood with us since Ocklochonee (a big no-no we discovered, you’re supposed to only burn local wood) waiting for the right moment. It had seemed that there was always an impediment to make a fire undesirable—too much wind, rain, too much heat. But on this evening all systems were go.

We sat and watched the fire for a long time. Its warmth was welcome in the cool night air. We were pleasantly tired and very peaceful. It was truly a delightful evening and stay and we wished it could be longer.

Angling Towards San Angelo

Our drive would take us east to Odessa and Midland and then south to San Angelo. My Blue Beacon app told us a truck wash was to be had in Odessa. We stopped, got cleaned up and headed through the arid west Texas plains.

Right outside Sterling City we saw our first big wind farm. We couldn’t count the number of turbines standing at the top of the ridge silhouetted against the bright blue sky. It was quite striking and in this easterner’s opinion, much more beautiful than the oil derricks dotting the west Texas landscape. But I know that would be a minority opinion among most in these parts.

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San Angelo lies south east of Midland and north east of Fort Stockton. We had almost closed a giant loop of travel through west Texas and up into southeast New Mexico. The San Angelo State Park is just west of the city of San Angelo. The park sits just outside the city which is slowly encircling the park. The park is shaped somewhat like a bent hourglass with two distinct sections joined by a narrow middle.

We were camping in the Red Arroyo section of the park which abuts the O.C. Fisher Lake. The O.C. Fisher Reservoir Dam was visible to the right of our campground and beyond the dam was San Angelo. The other section of the park contained the North Concho and Bald Eagle campgrounds.

Our campground sat on a plateau above the lake and was sparsely populated. The sites were spaced well apart.

Our site overlooked the lake but the water’s edge was still quite far away. When we got to our site, we were pretty excited to see our next door neighbor was another Airstream. The wide spacing between sites was not conducive to campsite chatting and we never did speak to them.

It was very hot and sunny when we un-hitched. The picnic table and shelter were a cooler oasis and caught the breezes. We sat there as dusk deepened to night sipping our wine and enjoying the vast sky. It was a sweet magical evening. The ever-present west Texas wind was soft and gentle.

The next morning we got ourselves up and headed out to find one of the park’s trails. Darn if we could find it. We ended up following the park road back to the ranger headquarters to ask where to pick up the trail. Of course, it had been just inside the bushes and brush the whole time. We followed a big loop trail through our end of the park. It was very hot and the sun was strong. There was no shade and I had an eye out for snakes and other dangers. The thermostat read 92 degrees and I worried about Dakota in his heavy coat.

Once we had the trail, it was no problem to follow and we wound through our end of the park ending up quite close to our campsite. We were hot and sweaty and surprisingly tired since it wasn’t that long a hike. We got cleaned up and decided to head into town. We needed to re-supply groceries.

The parking lot at the H.E.B. was packed and hotter than hades. We had grown to love these Texas supermarkets named for Howard Edward Butt. They had great produce and pretty much everything else was first-rate. Traveling through small towns you are at the mercy of the local supermarket and some of them had been pretty dismal affairs. Of course in this kind of heat, we couldn’t leave Dakota in the truck alone so poor Jim was relegated to the firey-hot parking lot while I shopped. I felt vindicated to hear the checkout people complaining to each other about the excessive heat.

We succumbed this second night to the high winds and heat, closed the trailer and put on the air conditioning. The news broadcast predicted more heat for the next day and the arrival of a major storm front which would ultimately break the heat wave. It was a quiet night in the campground and we were grateful for the creature comforts of our Airstream.

Despite the weatherman’s prognostication, the next morning seemed cooler. A hike in the other section of the park was on the docket.

It was actually quite a long way to the other park entrance, a matter of six or seven miles. The ranger at the north entrance was very excited that the Wiener Dog races were taking place in the park. Indeed, the parking lot was packed with vehicles and wiener dogs were everywhere. Given Dakota’s predilection to lose his mind barking at small dogs, we hustled him off to the trailhead.

It felt good to hike the trails in the north end of the park. It was much greener with trees, a creek and more bushes and vegetation. The trail signage was inscrutable and had nothing to do with the trail map the ranger had given us. Not only were the trails not where we expected them to be, there were trails which never appeared on the map. Despite those frustrations, we wandered up and down and all around. We had a picnic lunch sitting on a bench and left the north end of the park tired and satisfied.

Tired and dusty, we got back to the trailer and cleaned up. That afternoon we drove into San Angelo and poked around the downtown. San Angelo grew up next to Fort Concho in the 1870’s. San Angelo regards itself as the Wool Capital of the World which should have been enough to endear it to me forever, but I didn’t see any sheep. We had just missed the Rodeo in February which was probably quite an event. I am sure there are amazing things to be seen in San Angelo, but either we just weren’t into a cosmopolitan experience or it was lacking there. After a brief reconnaissance, we headed back to the park.

The evening skies were spectacular. Huge white clouds stretched thousands of feet up into the atmosphere. The wind was blowing fiercely. The storm was blowing in from the south and east. The wind was so strong it was almost impossible to stand outside. It would wrench the door to the trailer from our hands every time we tried to go in or out.

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We watched the weather with rapt attention. The storms were severe. To the east of us hail and tornadoes were threatening and entire counties were on alert.

The storm actually hit after we were in bed and we lay listening to the thunder, rain and wind as it rocked the trailer. The lightning lit up the sky. Dakota hopped up on the bed for comfort. The storm lasted for hours. All I could think of was how much I wished we had a surge protector and vowed we would get one first chance.

We were spent and tired the next morning from a night of worry and suspense. All was well, however,  and we hitched up to head out with a sense of relief along with our fatigue.

 

 

The Permian Basin

The highways from Carlsbad to Monahans were packed with trucks moving products associated with or derived from the oil fields, potash mines and fracking. The arid desert fields were yielding all sorts of valuable products and every mile was devoted to the serious business of extraction. Well services, pumping specialists, welders and RV lots with workers quarters rounded out the offerings in the small towns we passed.

We crossed the state line from New Mexico to Texas and immediately lost an hour as we moved from mountain to central time. The state and time may have changed, but the landscape remained the same. We would have liked to travel into northern New Mexico, but we had passed the halfway point in terms of the time we had for our adventure. We would have plenty left to see for our next trip.

We turned off Interstate 20 into the Monahans Sandhills State Park and entered another world. This park is a strange oasis of sand dunes. It bills itself as a family getaway where kids can saucer down the dunes on plastic discs. The discs are rented at the ranger station.

Far from finding hordes of families with children clambering the dunes, we found a quiet, almost deserted campground. The campground loop boasted 24 sites, but fewer than ten were occupied. The landscape was beautiful. The mounded dunes rose and fell in undulating hills. Campsites were nestled between the dunes and neighbors were barely visible. It was warm in the sun. Close to 90 degrees, but in the shade under the shelter at our site there was a cooling breeze.

We set up camp happily all the while marveling at the unexpected beauty. We hadn’t broken out our mat and chairs in Carlsbad, but now we did a full camp set up. Dakota’s tether was set so he could sit under the shelter in the shade or on the mat next to us and the trailer. We relaxed looking up at the vast blue skies with brilliant white, fluffy clouds. Jim scampered around taking pictures. We were so happy to have two nights in this amazing place.

Far off to the west we noticed dark grey clouds roiling in the sky and the unmistakable trace of rain descending from the clouds. We watched with naïve enjoyment as the clouds drew closer and flashes of lightning sliced the sky in the distance. The storm was moving to the north and east and looked like it might miss us. It didn’t. Strong winds accompanied the driving rain as it hit us and we scattered to batten down chairs, the mat, put awnings away and shelter in the trailer from the driving storm. It was a big Texas storm.

We had reception for one English language television station and we watched the constant weather updates to monitor the progression of two separate fronts which were colliding to form these giant storms. Red flag alerts were issued and at least one tornado touched down closer to Midland which was east of us. The weather woman, who was quite accomplished, urged everyone to seek their safe places. This storm was serious business.

The storms were moving north and eastward and eventually we could see the cells had passed us. The skies had cleared and blue sky and fluffy clouds regained their hold on the horizon. “Hey, Jim, let’s take a walk around the campground loop and check out the bathhouse.”  We got Dakota on his leash and headed out for a perambulation. As we walked the asphalt path, off to the west the skies dimmed again. We were only somewhat aware of this turn in the weather. Just as we reached the point in the park furthest from our Airstream, the dust storm hit.

The sky turned an ugly olive green. The air was thick and dark. The winds almost blew us off our feet and the sand stung our skin and threatened our eyes as it struck us with tremendous force. We started running to get back to the trailer to secure it against the onslaught. Dakota was dragging on his leash. I grabbed him up to shield him from the sand and wind and struggled to keep running. Jim tried to offer shelter by turning and running backwards, but it only slowed us further. “Just run for it!”

We reached the trailer as the full fury of the winds struck and Jim was almost unable to swing the trailer door shut against the blasts. The trailer rocked with the force of the winds and the dunes were whipped with lashes of sand. The television reception pixilated with the atmospheric disturbance, but the weather woman reported wind gusts from 65 to 70 miles per hour. How heavy is this trailer again?

Reporting weather in a place like west Texas must be the epitome of professional satisfaction. The young and attractive woman reporting the weather on our sole television station was the center of attention and interest. She was clearly good at her job and she sure had a cornucopia of weather events to report: rain, winds, hail and tornadoes. She urged those east of us again to seek their safe place and move their cars. This was clearly a familiar drill.

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We quelled our nervousness watching the Spanish language broadcast of the Trinidad and Tobago vs. Mexico football match. Mexico won by a goal, one nil. Eventually the winds subsided. Jim broke out his ancient iPod and we listened to The Dixie Chicks and read until bedtime. The peaceful evening was a marked contrast to the maelstrom which preceded it. Wonder what tomorrow will bring?

The next morning heated up quickly. It was easily 90 degrees in mid-morning. The wind was still blowing strongly and periodically grey clouds would skid across the sky. We were still feeling a little undone by the previous night’s weather events.

We stopped by the ranger station to see their exhibit on the sand dunes and the nature trail and ended up in a long chat with the ranger on duty who explained a bit about the back story of this amazing stretch of sand dunes. Mr. T (Tavares) demurred he was not an interpretive ranger, but he had a pretty excellent way of explaining this remarkable landscape. He said that over 10,000 years ago, this approximately 30 mile wide swath of sand was created when sands from the exposed flood plains of the Pecos River were blown and deposited against the Caprock Escarpment.  The winds had formed a river of sand.

His example of the ecosystem of the dunes employed a sponge analogy. The water table in the sponge (dunes) was what held the sand pretty much in place. Sometimes the water table was higher and sometimes lower and when it was lower the sands would shift, but they would never completely blow away or disappear because the water table held them in place.

Also helping to hold the dunes in place is the vegetation. Because the water table varies, the scrubby trees which cover the dunes extend their roots up to 150 feet into the sand. Their roots anchor the dunes. Honey mesquite and havard shin oaks are found all over the park. The havard oaks actually look like bushes, but they are actually small trees.

Mr. T. said that before Katrina, the park had gone through a 15 year drought. The water table had dropped year after year. In the wake of Katrina over 50 inches of rain fell replenishing the water table. That fall the dunes were covered in brilliant carpets of wild flowers. It was magnificent and ironic since that same weather event had also caused such destruction and damage elsewhere. We really enjoyed our time with the ranger and left with a much better understanding of this remarkable environment.

Of course, our last morning dawned cool and sunny. It was just as delightful as that first afternoon had been when we had expectantly deployed our mat and chairs only to be assailed by Mother Nature. It was time to hitch up. Our mat was still buried in sand where the wind had tossed it against the trailer. The chairs were covered by sand as was Dakota’s tether. The Airstream was streaked and dirty from the lashing of the rain and sand.