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.

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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.

Mountain Dog Meets Sitting Bull

Once again we retraced our route along Route 70 through Roswell and then south to Carlsbad. We again left the green Rio Hondo valley and descended to the flat dry desert. Despite our earlier negative experience with a KOA, we were booked to stay three days at the KOA in Carlsbad. This resort boasted of tremendous reviews and they were accurate. This was an extremely well-maintained park with very nice bath facilities and a spotless laundry. They even offered trailer delivery of their own tasty barbecue!

 

IMG_0744The back of the menu for their barbecue offered ideas of things to do in the area. Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area was one idea which drew our attention. It said they had great facilities and were dog-friendly. We’re up for any place receptive to our four-legged roommate. The next morning we packed a picnic and headed out.

We turned off the main highway to Carlsbad and drove for miles through the desert. Along each side of the road, hills of jagged rock erupted from the desert floor. The rock was variously colored shades of tan and brown with streaks of red or white rock breaking the monotone. There was almost no traffic, just an occasional passing truck. Periodically we passed oil derricks and other signs of energy harvesting. There were no houses except for one clump of three at about the halfway point.

Our highway terminated at the park. High mountains surrounded the parking lot and picnic area. The park was created in 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps--another tremendous gift to posterity grown from the roots of the Depression. The picnic shelters were constructed of local rock and looked like they could withstand the winds forever. The wind was blowing with some strength so it was a good bet they had been tested. Signage on the wall of the comfort station warned against the usual perils of rattlesnakes and added warnings and combat strategies against mountain lion attacks. That was sure to keep me looking over my shoulder even as I scanned the trail ahead.

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The falls of Sitting Bull are reached by a short trail. They stand 130’ tall and the water cascades into a swimming hole. Despite the March date the day was hot and there were quite a few children frolicking in the water.  Rather than swim, we opted to head out on the more challenging system of trails which run through the park.

We climbed a trail which wound up a mountain next to the falls and, as we progressed, we encountered fewer and fewer people. The terrain was beautiful. Tan and sand colored rocks were punctuated with scrub, bushes and twisted trees. Life was hard in this country, but abundant. We passed wild flowers and cactus in bloom.

Our trail headed across the valley floor and then snaked up the side of one of the big hills or tiny mountains depending upon your perspective. It was warm and the sun was strong, but the wind whisked away any drop of sweat. It was work climbing and stepping on the rocky trail, but it was very beautiful. We stopped periodically to just look around and marvel at the contours of the land and the play of the sun and clouds across the hills.

Dakota was proving yet again he is Mountain Dog. He was smiling and leaping over rocks like a young dog. He was number two in line and I was the caboose. Following Jim inspired him and I could keep an eye on him. We stopped frequently for water breaks. He insists on wearing that fur coat every day and it had to be pretty warm on a day like this. We forded several streams and Dakota got thoroughly muddy. He could be counted on to wade through the deepest muddiest mud.

We ate our sandwiches sitting on big rocks looking out across the valleys. The warm wind was whipping past us and the clouds flew overhead. It was an amazing scene and we could see the trail threading across the top of yet another ridge which would have an equally breathtaking view.

We wanted to go on forever. There was a big network of trails to be discovered and it was calling to us, but we also knew we had to make it back. No one was going to come carry us home. Hiking over rough terrain is much more demanding than a nice level walk. Reluctantly, we turned and headed back.

The return drive was equally striking. We reached the KOA in late afternoon and it was good to take advantage of their facilities and enjoy a nice long hot shower. We had ordered their barbecue for dinner. It was delivered to our trailer promptly at 7. It was pretty darn good barbeque and a treat not to have to cook. Pulled pork for me, ribs for Jim and coleslaw, potato salad with Texas toast on the side. It was good.

The KOA is situated next to Brantley Lake State Park.  Brantley Lake was yet another manmade lake created in the 1980’s when a dam was erected across our old friend, the Pecos River. This area is where the Pecos River gets its start. The lake’s size and shape shifts constantly depending upon the flow of the river and the current climate conditions. We had opted not to stay at the state park and were curious to see what we might be missing.

Surrounded by desert, the lake seems an incongruous mirage. It is popular for boating and fishing, but while the lake is stocked with many kinds of fish and is considered a destination fishing spot, high levels of DDT prevent the fish from being eaten.

The campground is fairly small and sits on a bluff overlooking the lake. As always in this part of the world, the wind blew ferociously and the sun was merciless and hot. We walked on a rocky nature trail which encircled the camp ground. It was not a tremendously inviting setting. The bathhouse fan was really noisy and could be heard through much of the campground.

 

 

We were pretty glad we had chosen to stay at the amenity-rich KOA. Let it be hot and dusty; we had a nice shower facility.

We were pretty glad we had chosen to stay at the amenity-rich KOA. Let it be hot and dusty; we had a nice shower facility.

 

Finding Our Better Place

We re-traced our path back to Ruidoso. Earlier I had called a few RV parks. Many of them were closed for winter, but Circle B, purported to be the largest, was open for business. A gruff voice told us to drive on over. Circle B was in Ruidoso Downs just across from the racetrack and the Billy the Kid Casino.IMG_0413 Despite how that might sound, it was still rural and the hills were covered in trees; pines, mesquite and juniper.

The proprietors of Circle B were Rip and Judy Van Winkle. How can you not like a guy called Rip Van Winkle? Gee, wonder how he got that nickname… Rip was somewhere in his 70’s. It was hard to tell. He had a wiry frame and weathered visage. He sported a billed cap declaring himself a Navy veteran. Vietnam perhaps? Affixed to his cap was a button, “I’m a deplorable…”

We got a site high on the hill at the back of the park with mountains on all sides. The sound of the road was distant. The air was cool and we were transcendently happy to be away from the heat and dust and to be perched on the hillside.

Ruidoso is a tourist area. A place for Texans and other New Mexicans to escape the desert heat in summer and the best southern NM ski destination in winter. It boasts the aforementioned race track and also features several casinos some of which are on the nearby Mescalero Apache Reservation. There are shops and galleries and all the accoutrements of a tourist area. Rip had given us a very helpful visitor guide from the previous summer’s season which became our bible.

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Rip had suggested we drive the Billy the Kid Byway and see the old western town of Lincoln. The Billy the Kid Byway is a somewhat triangularly shaped route which begins in Ruidoso, continues along Route 70 following the Rio Hondo to Hondo where it takes a left onto Route 380. We were just under way when we spotted an historical marker. We pulled over to take a look. The John H. Tunstall Murder Site, now who was that? It was an appetizing teaser to all that we were about to see and learn.

The road runs through lovely valleys flanked by brown hills spotted with cottonwood trees, pines and brush. It is incredibly pretty and the constant fluctuations of the hills make for successively remarkable views. We traveled past ranches and horse farms and reached the town of Lincoln.

Lincoln was the original seat of Lincoln County, once the largest county in the country. It is known as the best preserved western town and also was one of the most violent. Back in the mid-1800’s one sheriff alone covered the entire county which meant there was essentially no law. This lawlessness gave rise to the Lincoln County War from 1878-1881.

Sparked by the murder of John Tunstall, a wealthy British man who had arrived in town to establish a store to compete with the monopolistic Murphy/Dolan store, the two factions burst into conflict over control of the town. Gunfights, murder and assassination marked the next years as outlaw groups battled each other. Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, the Regulators—these are some of the infamous names from the period.

The main street of old Lincoln town is bounded on each end by museums. To the east is the Anderson-Freeman and on the west end is the Courthouse Museum.

The Anderson-Freeman is not a large museum, but it has a beautifully curated collection. Moving through the circuit of rooms, the first holds a collection of apache clothing and weapons. There are beaded shirts, moccasins and quivers with arrows and bows. The beaded apache mocassins and clothing were incredibly exciting to see. I could not imagine creating that embellishment with the tools they had at hand.

There is an exhibit on Buffalo Soldiers from nearby Fort Stanton with photos, artifacts, weapons, uniform items and a tent. The next room has a replica of a contemporary store complete with cash register.

The final room is dedicated to the Lincoln County War with representations of the key figures, archival photos, weapons and letters. One of these key figures, of course, was Billy the Kid. Was he simply a ruffian or popular hero? In this geographical area, he is considered a popular hero, but I must confess, he seemed more outlaw than hero. There is an excellent twenty-minute video documenting the events which led to the Lincoln County War and ties it all together.

After our visit to that museum, we gathered Dakota from the truck and strolled the main street. Along the street were many well-preserved buildings including the Tunstall store, the old hotel and dwellings of key figures. It was all so well-preserved. Closing your eyes, you could imagine yourself back in a time when gunshots rang out all too frequently in the dusty street.

We took turns visiting the Courthouse Museum—one of us waiting with The Dude outside. This was once the Murphy/Dolan store known as “The House.” The store had a monopoly on commerce in Lincoln until John Tunstall turned up. After the hostilities ended, Murphy died, the store went out of business and was re-purposed to become the courthouse—an ironic transformation given its history.

The museum featured more exhibits on the town, an old stagecoach and a chronological retrospective of the Sheriffs of Lincoln County. The second floor was preserved as the courthouse. Here Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced to hang to death. A large hole in the plaster wall at the foot of the stairway is purported to be the bullet hole from Billy’s pistol as he made his successful escape.

When we finished with Lincoln, we were hungry and literally down to our last dollar bill. The next stop on the Billy the Kid Byway was Capitan, home to Smokey Bear. We all remember Smokey (the) Bear and the “Only you can prevent forest fires” campaign. Seeing this country and the history of devastating fires, it is easy to comprehend the seriousness of fire danger. Smokey, of course, was rescued in 1950 in the wake of the disastrous Los Tablos and Capitan Gap fires. He was found clinging to a tree. We stopped at a marker for the Capitan Gap and Smokey Bear to consider the ravages of fire.

Fortunately, Capitan had a bank and a cash machine and, reinforced with greenbacks, we headed to the Oso Grill for some lunch. This welcoming corner restaurant had an excellent chef. I ordered a Green Chile Corn Pancake with Red Beans for lunch and it was one of those meals which will live in my memory for a long time. I will be trying to recreate it when we get home.

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After our delightful meal, we headed to the Smokey Bear Historical Park. Having had a photo-op with Smokey en-route to Capitan, we skipped the park. It was not dog-friendly and we didn’t want to put Dakota back in the truck alone.

The last leg of the Billy the Kid Byway triangle was Route 48 leading from Capitan to Ruidoso. We motored past more ranches, hills studded with trees, and then we hit a terrifying vastness of burned and gutted trees and barren scorched earth. We had caught the edge of the devastation from the Little Bear Fire in 2012. The fire began in early June and was almost contained when the winds came up. It raged out of control and wasn’t contained for another three weeks. Altogether it scorched more than 44,000 acres and destroyed almost 250 homes. I can’t quite imagine how terrifying it would be to have this fire as a neighbor for three weeks.  Smokey Bear is still a much-needed reminder.

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Wednesday was what we call a home maintenance day. We visited the ranger station to get some hiking information. Due to the Little Bear fire not all of the local trails are open. We also hit the grocery store and the car wash. The big event Wednesday was finding our own Smokey Bear.

Not surprisingly, there were bears everywhere on signs and as statues decorating stores, motels—pretty much everything. Jim and I lusted after our own bear. We wanted to take Smokey home with us. Many of the figures were sort of tacky, but we found the perfect spot. “Grizzly’s” offered hand-crafted bears and other sculptures created with chain saws. We met Bob, the artist, and found our perfect Smokey. He will ride along with us as our new, 4th roommate.

Thursday we were ready to hike and headed out to an area called Cedar Creek Trail System in the Smokey Bear Ranger District of the Lincoln National Forest. The Lincoln National Forest is enormous. It covers more than 1.1 million acres and was named for our 16th president. It includes four separate mountain ranges. If you drive through southeastern New Mexico, you encounter the Lincoln National Forest over and over again.

Ruidoso lies at an elevation of 6400 feet. We were slowly getting used to the height, but our hike would take us up over the mountains as high as 7400 feet. The trail was extremely well-maintained and the weather perfect with sunny skies, a reasonable wind and a temperature just about 70 degrees. We were bushed after our arduous hike, but it was excellent.

Watching the news the night before, the weatherman had warned of an impending storm. High winds and a cold front were predicted to sweep through the area. After our hike, we headed to the trailer for lunch and a rest. Suddenly, the sun and the mountains disappeared. The wind blew furiously and a dense fog of dust and moisture engulfed the world. It was truly unsettling.

Despite the ominous weather, we headed out to visit the Hubbard Museum of the American West.  Everyone else seemed to take this storm as a normal occurrence so we did our best to ignore it.

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This museum is housed in what once was a giant skating rink.   Almost all of the museum features the private collection of Anne Stradling. This is an extensive collection of Native American artifacts and art. The museum also featured historical photos of Ruidoso and the Old West.

For us, the high point of the museum was the collection of various buggies, carts and stagecoaches including a Conestoga Wagon in amazing condition. Like seeing the town of Lincoln, these artifacts fired our imagination.

The wind blew strongly all through the night. Friday the wind was still raging. We had intended to go for another hike, but the strong gusts of wind made it seem much nicer to hole up in the trailer and putter on office projects, knitting and other tasks.

Earlier in the week, I had found a veterinary practice in town which had good reviews. Dakota needed some routine tests and it seemed like a check up after two months on the road would be a wise undertaking. I was really curious to know if he had lost any weight with all of our activity.

Ruidoso Animal Clinic was a sunny, wooden-beamed building and the staff were very proficient and friendly. Sitting in the waiting area, we fell into conversation with a man holding his chihuahua on his lap. The dog had a leather collar decorated with three silver conchs. The man was there to get an anti-rattlesnake venom shot for the dog. He explained they rode out on the mountains and he wanted his dog safe. He and his wife had moved to Ruidoso thirty years before. His face was deeply etched with lines and it was easy to believe he had been riding the hills for so long.

Dakota got a thorough checkup and was pronounced “a healthy dog for one his age.” He got all of his tests, which were negative, had a pedicure and was weighed. Our svelte boy had dropped from his November weight of 29 lbs 4 ozs to 27 lbs 6 ozs. It felt incredibly good to know he was tolerating the stress and change of travel.

Needless to say, we really loved our five days in Ruidoso. It was beautiful and engaging. Our friend from the vet had arrived thirty years ago and opted to stay. It was tempting to consider doing the same, but we had already extended our stay once and it was time to head down to Carlsbad.

Hitting Rock Bottom at Bottomless

IMG_2033When we arrived at Bottomless Lakes State Park, the thermometer in the truck read 90 degrees. Bottomless Lakes is named for the series of sink holes or cenotes which punctuate the park. The campground is set next to the largest of the cenotes, Lea Lake. This is the high desert. The landscape was all sandy dirt, rocks and scrub bushes. The far side of the lake rose abruptly into jagged red cliffs. The park is well known in the area as a great place to cool off. This I can believe since it was broiling hot in the middle of March. I cannot fathom what July and August must be like. Just because the humidity is low, hot is still hot.

 

The park has public access for day visitors and when we arrived the parking lot was packed and the lake resounded with the cries and shouts of many swimmers. We pulled into our site. It was hotter than blazes and the sun was burning everything it touched. We unhitched and set up camp with the perspiration dripping down our sides.

Our site was next to the lake as advertised, but that was actually less than ideal as it meant we were next to hordes of children jumping in the lake. The campground was barren of trees and color. A few scraggly bushes decorated our site. The picnic table was sheltered under a cement structure. Hundreds of ants swarmed the table and shelter and I quickly hustled Dakota away.

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Desperate to cool off, we decided to avail ourselves of the lake. We suited up and headed over. The water was surprisingly cold and we waded in. The water was brown, but the cold was a relief. I dunked under to take full advantage. The water was brackish and suddenly less appealing. Even though we were now much cooler, we decided a shower was a necessity.

We grabbed our shower items and headed to the camp bathhouse. Over at the lake we had noticed signs saying some of the public bathrooms were closed for the winter. It was immediately apparent that the overflow day campers were using the campground facilities.

Despite signage designating the campground from the day areas, people were swarming through the campground. When we got to the bath house, the campground host was in the middle of hustling some people out who had actually tried to lock themselves into the women’s room for privacy. The bathrooms were absolutely filthy and littered with detritus. I will spare any further details except the shower had a  push button and water would flow in a weak stream for thirty seconds and then shut off.

Back at the trailer, we gave up and fired up the air conditioning. We huddled in misery in the trailer. Perhaps it was just an unfortunate confluence of many factors and timing, but this was an untenable situation. We had booked five days at this place. We came the closest to snarling at each other as we have during the entire trip. Something had to give.

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When we decided to get only one air conditioner unit for the Airstream, there were multiple factors driving the decision. One factor was that meant we could use 30 amp, rather than 50 amp service and that would give us more flexibility when looking for campsites. Another factor was our disinclination to use air conditioning. If we got to a place which was too hot, we figured we could always hitch up and head out for cooler climes. This philosophy would now come into play.

The desert air was cool the next morning. The day visitors were gone and it was quiet and calm at the park. Nevertheless, we knew the day would soon warm and the weatherman on the news the night before had predicted a record heat wave. I remembered wistfully the drive over and how cool it was around Ruidoso. The elevation was just over 6,000 feet and the mountains were covered in cedar and pine. I called an rv resort just outside the town and we hitched up and headed out. The benefit to having your house on wheels is you can always just take it with you to a better place. This we did.

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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