Rt 54 in NM, TX, OK, KS

We made a mistake last night, when we impulsively jumped on the $10 RV park in Carrizozo without checking the Valley of Fire Recreation Area.  After leaving the park in the morning we went the extra four miles to check out Valley of Fire (administered by BLM) and discovered a beautiful campground sitting atop a height of land and surrounded by the exotic and mysterious black lava flow that gives the area its name.

Well-developed trails ran through the lava flow, so access looked easy, and from our experiences at the lava sites in northern New Mexico and Hawaii, I know we would have liked exploring the area.  Best of all, had we stayed here overnight we wouldn’t have heard the trains honking at the grade crossing all night.  It definitely would have been worth it to us to skip cheap full hookups and stay here.

Because of this, Eleanor suggested that we start a list of places we’d like to visit during our return trip in September, which Emma is now keeping on a notebook.  I used to do that sort of thing when we were full-timing, since we kept crisscrossing the country, and it paid off with an abundance of ideas no matter where we were.

As I had expected, following Rt 54 has given us a very different and worthwhile path to follow through New Mexico.  The road rolls and winds through a series of decayed villages and outposts, past mining ghost towns and recreation areas, and tiny slices of humanity clinging to remote homesteads despite the loss of any economic rationale.  There aren’t a lot of people, but for the independent and sharp-eyed traveler the road still has stories to tell.

Part of the story can be gleaned from the dead motel signs, all former neon, advertising places that seem to follow a narrow theme: Sands, Sun & Sand, Desert, Western.  Route 54 joins the famous Rt 66 in Tucumcari, and of course there you’ll find a slew of old road artifacts, but even when Rt 54 travels alone the signs hint of a past when this road was a main byway through the west.

For the most part the road is fairly smooth, but there are a few rough spots.  I hardly notice these in the Mercedes, cushioned by a full air suspension and extensive soundproofing, but poor Eleanor felt every kidney-pounding pothole and pebble thanks to the stiff suspension of the Miata.  That may have accounted for the bathroom breaks every 60-100 miles.

In Oklahoma and Texas the road flattens and straightens as it passes through vast grasslands and mammoth feedlots.  There’s not much to capture your eye except vastness, and the intermittent towns filled with grain silos and businesses that service the farming industry.  Oklahoma has one notable town (name withheld) that seems to be solely populated with single-wides.  The place gives the impression of being one tornado away from returning to grazing land permanently.

In keeping with our plan, we tried to make some mileage today, and ended up going 400 miles to Liberal, KS.  There was no firm plan of where to stay but Eleanor put in one criterium: stay away from the rail line, so she could get a good night’s sleep.  Unfortunately the rail line follows Rt 54 apparently forever.  We immediately rejected the first RV park we spotted along the highway because of the nearby railroad grade crossing.

This led to a minor “find” just a few miles further, the relatively unknown Arkalon Park & Campground, which I believe is run by the city of Liberal.  It’s a mile down a dusty washboard road, across the railroad tracks, and past the house with the Alaskan Husky who will pace your car for several hundred yards.  The campground sits in a shallow river valley, surrounded by tall cottonwood trees.  A railroad trestle is visible perhaps 1/2 mile away, but no crossing, so no horns.  The camp host was glad to see us since most people stop at the first RV park, and take our $15 for an electric site with concrete pad.

The only fault of this park, from my technophile perspective, is that Verizon offers only a weak bit of  “extended” signal here.  That means I have no Internet connectivity and intermittent data services on the iPhone.  I was able to post a tweet from the iPhone last night with some effort, but this blog is being posted from the road after leaving the campground.

We aren’t sure where we are going from here.  It’s still sunny, warm, and dry out in the west, and we know for sure that we will soon cross into the humid and flooded central states.  It’s hard to get psyched to continue plowing east (even though I picked up another obligation yesterday that requires our presence in Elkhart IN by Thursday), so we will probably will find a place to hole up on Monday for purposes of doing some work and malingering.  Also, as we were leaving the washboard road from the campground, the Miata’s “Check Engine” light went on, so we’ll need to look into that sometime (the engine is running fine and there are no other symptoms, so I’m thinking something got jostled loose).  All of those factors define our goal for today: find a halfway decent spot somewhere in eastern Kansas to spend a day or two.

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