Excessive Fluctuations

Excessive Fluctuations

    From the hip, musical setting of urban Austin with its outlying regions of rolling hills and greenery, we went west and south into the vast openness of south western Texas. As we journeyed on, the landscape became increasingly dry regardless of the massive storm clouds that dumped marble sized hail on us. Just after the temperature dropped twenty degrees in five minutes. While a bit nerve racking to be driving headlong into the blackness of those whipping winds, we decided to pull off and wait out the passing storm in a conveniently located rest stop. That brief scare however, was rewarded by the blue skies and streaks of sunset orange that greeted us on the other side of the passing storm.

    What wasn’t a pleasant sight was the sudden jump in gas prices the further we headed out into desert country. Just like that change in temperature (except in the opposite direction) gas prices seemed to increase .50 cents a gallon in twenty five miles. Always the bummer that it is to see gas prices rise, I can’t say we weren’t expecting this. Just not so much of a hike so quickly. By the time we neared our destination of Big Bend National Park, we had to pay… oh never mind. You don’t want to know and I want to forget.
    And fortunately, forget it I did as we drove the sixty or so miles through the desert from the nearest town to the majesty of Big Bend. All along that southern route the mountains grew larger and the surroundings increasingly more amazing as we entered what I would call our first taste of truly “alien” territory. You see, apart from the general differences that one region has from another, all in all the overall look of the country hadn’t really changed until we reached that part of  Texas. Great expanses of hot, dusty plains with a layer of harsh, low lying vegetation gave way to the colorful, soaring peaks that surrounded us in the distance. With the browns and reds and shadows cutting into the mountains with the layers of time readily seen across their faces, I really felt like we had entered a different world.  
    The campground was top shelf, offering splendid views across the Rio Grande and into Mexico. The kids thought it pretty cool (as did I) that at one point on a short hike we took, we were literally twenty feet from Mexico with nothing but the eight  inch deep water of the river to stop us from crossing over. I had to explain that as fun as that may be, if we were to get caught we would have to travel 100 miles in either direction to get back in at a proper border crossing.

    At one point in the southern end of the park, the mountains are notched with the Santa Elena Canyon that can be seen from far off as you drive ever nearer. An impressive sight from a distance, it only increases as you get closer until you find yourself standing before a scene of epic proportions. Following the river into the canyon with sheer cliffs on either side, I half expected some dinosaur or monstrous creature to come lumbering up from between the canyon walls. As the dry, hot rock gave way to shady enclosures of lush vegetation, it felt like we had traveled back in time as the place seemed utterly void of modern interference.
    Unfortunately the time arrived when again we had to move on. With an April 1st deadline to be in southern Arizona for a month of ranch sitting, we had about a week to make it there with a few stops we wanted to make along the way, including a couple delves we wanted to take into the strange…
    First up was Ft. Davis, Texas and a look at the mysterious lights in nearby Marfa. Unexplained for over one hundred years, the lights appear and vanish intermittently in no particular order or pattern. It was very odd to sit there watching them blink on and off, and move, and not know what they are or what causes them. I hardly expect that they are of some extra-terrestrial origin, as who in their right mind (alien or not) would go on trying to weird us out for almost 150 years! Alright already! Oh well, the mystery continues.
    And the mystery continues in Roswell, NM as well, where we spent some time in the UFO Museum and Exhibit. Following the timeline of events that supposedly occurred there, it is quite convincing that something did happen and our trusty and protective government went through a lot of trouble to keep it quiet. What else is new, right? The government changed the story or explanation four times in the ensuing years to keep this event covered up. Filled with testimonials and eye witness accounts, the exhibit was entertaining to say the least and certainly worth the $5 to get in. Strange what goes on in the desert when no one’s looking…

    Prior to that though was a stay in Carlsbad and a trip to the fabled Caverns. This was the third time for me and Tan (we went twice twenty years ago) and it was just as magical and impressive this time as those. I got a specific thrill filling the kids with anticipation of what I knew was going to be an extraordinary experience. The initial descent into the darkness of the cavern is almost the best part until you find yourself in these massive caves with “decor” unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Once again my imagination took over as I envisioned some demonic creature pulling its slimy body from one of the endless dark holes or pits that are everywhere along the way. Cool stuff.  

    Luckily, we stayed in some very nice state parks along the way, usually two nights in each place. Most sported some fantastic views of the surrounding areas with desert vistas as far as one could see. That’s the thing about it out here. Lots of desert. I particularly like it in the evening, a couple hours before sunset but not so much during the day. In the evening, things are starting to cool down and it’s nice to sit and take a load off after a day of touristy activities, work in the local library, or a few hours driving during the afternoon hours under a blazing sun. It’s those seemingly endless drives through the hot desert expanses that begin to make me feel uneasy. Don’t things happen in deserts that no one finds out about for weeks, months or years? Especially during the day?
    But in the desert we are, as we ranch sit in southern Arizona for the month. Just forty miles from the Mexican border, we took a ride down to check out the town and give the kids their first experience of a different country. I’m pained to say that it was very much a disappointment. I certainly understand that you’re not going to experience the true culture of any country in a border town, but Agua Prieta was a dirty place that, as we were reentering the U.S, the American border patrol agent described in much less than favorable terms. I did joke about it a bit on Facebook afterwards, but I was truly heartbroken that my kids’ first foreign country experience was this little slice of… whatever. We should have been clued in when we strolled into Mexico no questions asked. As we continued walking it suddenly dawned on us that we were actually in Mexico. Talk about anticlimactic… and I said so to Tan and the kids. We’ll try again, maybe in Nogales. I don’t want their vision of Mexico to be of that.  
    So, the closest town with any sort of real amenities is forty miles away in the opposite direction. This is seriously the middle of nowhere. Acres and acres of dry scrub sectioned and fenced off into homesteads of various sizes from the small (like the eight we’re on) to the truly massive. Aside from school, Mercy tends to the animals, comes up with crafts, and cuts my hair (with Tan‘s help)! Riv and I started some driving lessons (what better place than on back ranch roads) and he even drove a few miles down empty Highway 181! The days are hot, dusty, and dry and the nights are cool and cloudless, with the stars shining brightly. The evening quiet of the desert is only interrupted by the far off howls of coyotes and the nearer responses of the neighboring dogs keeping watch over their territories. A month of desert life will be enough for me but it’s the peace, calm, and tranquility of the evenings that I most enjoy here.

BIG and Beautiful BIG Bend

BIG and Beautiful BIG Bend

As our drive out of Austin took us south into some vast open land, my soul felt as if it was headed north into some boundless open air.  This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy our time spent in Austin. I most certainly did. I love city living. I love city working. I love city partying. It’s fast, its social, and it’s a necessary balance when one is living on the road. Nevertheless, there’s something to say about being at peace with nature…..for me anyways.

For one reason or another, we never made it to Big Bend during our travels 20 years ago.  And, to be honest, I wasn’t even really sure what the draw was, then or (up until) now.  It is not one of the busiest National Parks and in doing my research, I hadn’t found much information outside of the fact that it was in the desert, very picturesque and pretty far off the beaten path .  It was more or less word of mouth that convinced us to make it a destination this time around and I am convinced that the decision to stick with this plan was by far the smartest one yet. I must admit that due to the reality of its remote location, our time constraints, and the outrageous jump in gas prices, we almost nixed the plan entirely. What a grand mistake that would have been. I now know and understand the reason why the majority of the visitors to Big Bend are return visitors.   We had 2 days  to explore and experience this enchanted land, and that we did!

Located in southwest Texas, the  park expands along the Rio Grande River, occupies the upper third of the Chihuahuan Desert and contains the entire Chisos Mountain range.  The unique geological structures, formed years ago by the earth’s faults are absolutely stunning!  Rising up from the desert floor into the openness of the blue sky, these formations of nature extend as far  into the horizon as the eye can see. Waking up to these views of grandeur each day was more of a perk than my morning cup of coffee.

We hiked along the river that serves as the boundary between the US and Mexico.   We descended down into a canyon laden with volcanic rock.  We climbed limestone cliffs embedded with prehistoric evidence.

We stood at the foot of a 1500 foot high canyon wall.  We sat  in the naturally purifying hot springs.

We witnessed colorful sunsets with the bats.   We enjoyed the starlit night sky with the coyotes.

We camped without hookups, without cellphone service and without wi-fi.


The Calm of the Whirlwind

The Calm of the Whirlwind

Texas has been an interesting place for sure. The day we pulled into the state, at the beginning of February it was close to 80 degrees. Since then it has dropped to almost freezing and then risen back up at least three times. As I write this it’s 75 and I’m sitting at our camp sight near the bank of Lake Austin. This is the third place we’ve stayed at since arriving in Texas (fourth if you count the one night we boon docked outside the Renaissance Festival) and this one is packed to the gills!

First place was McKinney Falls State Park which was a welcome stop after so many nights of boon docking and traveling so much. We decided to bite the bullet and plunk down the cash to stay for two weeks. Let me say that getting to park it for a couple weeks brought a great sense of security and relaxation. That’s not to say that moving around a lot is SOOO stressful, but it does come with the drawback of wondering if the place you’ve decided to “land for the night” (I really love that expression and the visual it conjures, so you will hear me use it again) is 100% safe. That being said, is anywhere 100% safe? …Exactly.

But anyway, it was nice to plant it for a while and look up an old friend who we hadn’t seen since we got married. We picked up right where we left off as if the past sixteen or so years were sixteen days. On the other side we hooked up with some new friends who we hadn’t actually ever physically met (the wonders of the internet folks!) and found ourselves in the company of this great family who we are glad to call real friends now!

Due to the two week maximum stay rule at most state and national parks, we had to split the homey McKinney State Park for… Hobo Camp!! That’s right!! YEA, HOBO CAMP!!! Eventually, after we’d been there for a few hours one of the guys came over and told me everybody in Texas carries a gun. Then asked if I’m packin’. Being the streetwise cat that I am, I grinned and said nothing… then began to consider the pros and cons of this particular stopover. Considering the fact that I would be leaving for a job install in North Carolina in a couple days, I obviously wasn’t too keen on leaving everybody in the quaint gun-toting community known as Hobo Camp. However, the price was right and Tan continually assured me that she could fend off any toothless, pistol wavin’ and a’winkin’, beer guzzlin’, hobo camper.

With the friendly, genuine, good-hardheartedness of the proprietor, Hobo Camp became a cool little place that we counted ourselves lucky to have stumbled upon. I could sense that he was a standup guy who I felt would keep my family safe while on his property. He conveyed to us the history of the immediate area and regaled us with more than a few stories of ghost sightings that have occurred right there in the camp. Picture “Uncle Jesse” from The Dukes of Hazzard giving history lessons and telling ghost stories around the fire pit and there you have a good picture of Hobo Camp.

I’m going to take this opportunity to address the idea of our multiple references in this and other postings to The Dukes Of Hazzard TV show. I loved The Dukes Of Hazzard and being in the south/south west, we have run into more than a few characters who could have been… well, characters on that show. This is in no way a dis or swipe at any of these folks we’ve come across. Most have been kind, helpful people who have been more than willing to offer some friendly advice or assistance, and have been perfect examples of what we refer to as “southern hospitality”.

Austin kept us quite busy with some volunteer work we did for The Ronald McDonald House at the Live Strong Marathon, touring the set of “The Lying Game” at Austin Studios,  (courtesy of the previously mentioned old friend), conducting interviews and  being treated like royalty for a day at The Sherwood Forest Faire, scooping ice cream at Threadgills for the “Roky Erickson Ice Cream Social” during South By Southwest (SXSW), and Tan actually winning us a pair of wristbands for SXSW on the local radio station! She willed it all week long and we finally won on the second to last day of the contest (caller#9!!). You should have heard her shouting in jubilation on the radio as the DJ had to ask her to calm down!

Due to Tan’s picking up some work for SXSW and our desire to be a little closer to downtown Austin for the festival, with a little sadness we bid Hobo camp farewell and headed to Emma Long Campground. This is a place that Tan and I had stayed at twenty years ago with my sister and her husband. For the most part the place looked the same… long, winding road to get in, bathhouse where it was before, an open field with a cliff face behind it, and… a lake buzzing with speed boats and other water craft? We looked at each other and I said “Do you remember a body of water here twenty years ago?” Tan didn’t either, so she contacted my sister. She didn’t either. Clearly the lake is not a new addition and according to the locals it has always been there. How we missed it twenty years ago I’m not really sure because the place really isn’t that big! What a pleasant surprise to say the least!

Initially it was nice and quiet with a few campers, but after a few days the place became packed. We quickly discovered that this week was spring break for the local schools so folks were taking advantage of the local (waterfront!) camping. Our scenic little oasis suddenly became a bustling tent/RV community complete with loud people, loose dogs, kids cutting through our campsite (who Mercy set straight), and no privacy. Eventually things did thin out again but never back to the way when we first got there.

Our last week was a crazy time of running around enjoying the musical offerings of SXSW and spending some time with our new found friends. While in town we enjoyed the sounds of quite a few bands like The Soft White Sixties, Peelander-Z, Maus Haus, and of course the incredible Guy Forsyth (who you MUST check out) who we got to see twice! It was a difficult (as always) bidding Austin farewell, but after six comfortable, yet busy weeks it was time to hit the road again.

More to come from Texas…

Good Times in Texas

Good Times in Texas

We are currently at a state park in Texas and a few weeks ago we spent the night in a town called Stockyard Stations in Fort Worth. It is a real historic cowboy town with a lot of stores that sell western clothing and items. I bought a $40 hat at one of them and saw some hats that cost $900! There was also a maze that was featured on The Amazing Race. It was a lot harder than I thought and it took me 15 minutes to complete it, but it took Mercy 28.

I could easily picture what it looked like back then; everyone walking around carrying revolvers.

Twice a day they herd cattle called Longhorns down the street. Their horn span is about six feet, I’m not even that tall! There was also a famous gunfight that was going to be reenacted in a few days but we couldn’t stay that long. I was really disappointed about that, but the live rodeo we saw the night before the Superbowl made up for it. It was at the Cowtown Coliseum, site of  the world’s first indoor rodeo. Let me just tell you, I would go to a rodeo over a football game any day. I think they are much more entertaining. They did things like bull riding, cattle roping, and barrel racing. The rodeo clowns were funny, but I don’t think I would want their job, which is trying to get the bull to go after them. The bull riding was my favorite part. It’s hard to believe how they actually hang on, I don’t think I could. Some of the people in the rodeo are only older than me by a few years. There was even someone there who was younger than me.

That night we stayed at a parking lot that allowed overnight parking. There were a lot of people who were part of the rodeo also staying there. It was different, but fun, and I hope to see some more places like that.