Archive for the ‘National Parks’ Category

Joe Skeen BLM campground, El Malpais

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

You’d think that after weeks of delays we would be ready to go, but it’s never easy.  Eleanor had too many things on her “to do” list the past few days (including finishing the curtains) and despite heroic efforts we ended up with a late start of 11:30 a.m.  This was a big problem because I had planned a 380 mile drive and now we’d be arriving at night, which is never ideal.

I considered going an alternate route (the Interstate), but that would have completely trashed our planned scenic drive and the choice of campsites along the mid-New Mexico section of I-25 is pretty poor.  So we got in the car and headed toward I-10 (the mandatory part of any eastbound trip from Tucson) and I figured I’d think about it for a while.

Except that we started having other problems right away, which were distracting.  First I got a warning from the car: “TRAILER TAIL LIGHTS OUT”.  I’ve seen that one before, and it has never been a tail light outage. It’s always the result of corrosion on the 7-way trailer plug.  After sitting in Vermont in the high humidity, the copper connectors get very tarnished.  We’ve had quite a few good thunderstorms this summer in Tucson too, which haven’t helped.  I unplugged the connection, gave it a perfunctory cleaning, and plugged it back in.  Problem solved.

But it wasn’t.  The Prodigy brake controller began acting funky.  It is very sensitive to mis-wiring or poor connections, usually flashing “n.c.” when the connection is loose.  This time it reported “c.” which means “Connected—all is well” but when I pressed the brake pedal it refused to activate the trailer brakes.  Nothing happened.  Normally it would report the number of volts being sent to the brake, but the thing just kept saying “c.” at me like it as being willfully stubborn about not wanting to work.  Then it would flash a brief moment of voltage, and go back to doing nothing.

It also began reporting that it was off-kilter intermittently (which shows up in the display as “–”).  The accelerometers in the Prodigy require that it be mounted within a certain range of angles.  It has been mounted in the same position for three years, so I knew it was correct, but today it decided that maybe it wasn’t.  All of these odd behaviors baffled me, and I began to think that our trip was going to be delayed while we went 20 miles out of our way to go buy a new Prodigy.

Then the car reported “LEFT TRAILER TURN SIGNAL OUT,” and I decided the whole thing was the result of crappy corroded connections.  So we stopped and I broke out some emery cloth and very meticulously scraped all the connectors on the 7-way plug until they were at least a little shiny.  Ten minutes later, we were on the road and all the weird symptoms stopped.  I need to do a more thorough job later with something better than emery cloth, and perhaps a little liquid electrical contact cleaner.  Otherwise I’m sure the problem will re-occur after another few rains.

With all going well at last, I decided to stick with the scenic route plan.  The real trick with scenic routes is to remember to fill up the tank before you get into the remote country.  We made a stop in Safford AZ (about 170 miles into our drive) to get 14 gallons of diesel and a few hours later in the boondocks of New Mexico I was very glad I did.

One highlight of the trip was Mule Creek a.k.a AZ-NM Rt 78.  The road winds a bit and there is a 40-foot restriction on trucks and the speed limit drops to 30 for much of it, but it was beautiful and worthwhile.  Then we picked up Rt 180 northward (a little bumpy and uneven in spots but generally OK), and then Rt 12 to Rt 32 to Rt 36, which are good roads.  All the while we were climbing, eventually peaking out at 8,200 feet, and as the sun dipped lower and summer thunderstorms drifted along the horizon we enjoyed fantastic skies and rainbows all the way.

I was racing against time but you can’t really go terribly fast along this route.  60 MPH was about the max, and most of the time it was 50 or 55.   When we got to our final leg on Rt 117, the sunset was upon us and the light began to get dim.  Still, we were treated to some really great scenery along the edge of El Malpais National Monument and the Acoma Reservation.  Rt 117 demarcates the border between these two properties. Along the southeast are impressive bluffs of sandstone, and to the northwest are plains studded by volcanic mountains.

Our stop for the night is a little BLM campground along Rt 117, called Joe Skeen.  It is free and provides no services at all except for pit toilets.  It’s barely marked at the roadside, and the entry road is rough.  I figured that being mid week it would be empty, but we were surprised to find most of the spots taken by tent campers.  Only two sites were left, both of which were drastically unlevel.  It was almost completely dark at this point, and I couldn’t see Eleanor at all when she tried to help me back up, so we finally left the Airstream cocked in a campsite with all of our leveling blocks under the curbside wheels, and called it “good enough”.  It was a messy parking job but there seemed to be no other place we could go in the campground that would be any better.  Even with a small mountain of leveling blocks under the wheels, inside the trailer we still had a little curbside tilt.

Eleanor’s pre-cooked meals are already coming in handy.  She brought out a smorgasbord of leftovers and new goodies (cold chicken, Indian rice, grilled zucchini & mushrooms, etc.) so we were able to eat quickly and keep the dishes to a minimum.   Good thing, since with the time zone change it was now nearly 9 p.m.   I went to bed early, with confidence that we would have a very quiet night in this remote and rustic campground.  The long day of towing for this trip is over, and from here on in our travel should be much more relaxed.

Birds, bats, bugs, bulbs

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Waking up each day with the birds chirping and the cool morning air streaming in the windows has been a great part of the Guadalupe Mountains experience, for me.  It has been such an antidote to the heat that we’ve found everywhere else.  I had been pining for a tenting trip up our local mountains in Arizona just so I could sleep in the fresh forest air without an air conditioner running, and had even pitched the idea to Eleanor.  After four days in Guadalupe, the need has mostly faded.  Being here has been terrific.

Our Sunday plan was really more of a wind-down.  Our ambitions have weakened each day as we’ve settled into an increasingly lazy pattern.  After puttering around in the morning we headed over to the Visitor Center so Emma could complete her research to achieve both Junior and Senior Ranger patches, plus a Guadalupe Mountains National Park badge to add to her collection.  Eleanor says this is #65.

We also walked the Pinery Trail, but it was just a 1/3 mile nature trail which ended at the ruins of a Butterfield Stage stop.  This is what I meant by not much ambition.  We really should have gotten an earlier start and hiked McKittrick Canyon, which is about eight miles east of the campground.  Although it runs about four or five miles, it’s not a terribly hard hike since it follows a stream through a canyon (thus not much elevation gain).  It has a good reputation for scenic beauty.  We’ve left it for a future visit.

Back at the campground we did finally meet up with the other Airstreamers who parked right next to us despite the largely empty RV parking area.  At first I thought it was because birds of a feather flock together, but I think now that it was really just so that they’d be in the shade.  The trailer turned out to be a 1974 Trade Wind.

We spent the afternoon in the Airstream, me reading,  Eleanor making a big lunch and mixing up cold soft drinks, and Emma doing various kid-like things such as hunting interesting insects.  I took a few shots of the more curious or colorful bugs and butterflies she found.  It was rather warm in the afternoon but not intolerable even without air conditioning.

By 5:30 we had accomplished our primary goal of not doing much and took the car north to Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  We had always wanted to do the  9.5-mile scenic loop drive (a rough gravel road) but never had because on all of our prior visits we’ve had the Airstream in tow.  This was our chance, and it fit right into our program as a low-stress “activity” that required us only to look out the window.  Of course, we did step out of the car long enough to check the Rattlesnake Trail from an overlook and ponder whether we’d want to hike that one on our next visit too.  It looks interesting.

The real point of driving 45 miles up to Carlsbad was to see the evening bat flight.  This is another thing we’d missed on our prior visits.  If you’re interested in bats, it’s well worth the time, as a park ranger spends about 30 minutes answering questions and then everyone goes quiet as thousands of bats begin to stream out of the cavern.  It takes two hours for all the bats to leave, but after about 30 minutes it’s too dark to see them anymore.  No photos or even cell phones are allowed, as they disturb the bats, so if you want to see this you need to show up in person.

It was the right call to stay boondocking in Guadalupe and dismiss the Siren’s song of full hookups at White’s City (nearer Carlsbad).  Our elevation was the key to comfort; at White’s City it was running 10 degrees warmer.  And when we got back at night, the stars were absolutely amazing.  I can’t recall such a vivid view of the Milky Way galaxy in years, even in other famous “dark sky” parks.  Speaking of which, Bert Gildart has written and photographed a great article about Dark Sky Parks which will appear in the Fall 2012 issue of Airstream Life.

I’m really happy with the LED lights we recently installed.  They’re working perfectly, and so efficiently that lights are no longer a factor in our power budget.  We can leave as many of them on as we need, and it’s rare that they even consume a single amp.  Since we’ve also put in an alternative to the power-hungry furnace (a catalytic heater), this leaves only the laptops, vent fans and water pump as major power consumers.  There’s not much we can do about those items, and they don’t really matter much when the sun is shining.  After four nights of boondocking, we are leaving with 79% of our battery charge still available, and in a few hours it will be back up above 90%.  Based on this success I’m planning to order more LEDs to outfit the rest of this trailer and the 1968 Caravel, when we get home, which will be Tuesday.

Another day at Guadalupe

Sunday, July 15th, 2012

Saturday morning yielded a decision to stay another day here in the Pine Springs campground at Guadalupe National Park. We’ve just enjoyed being here so much that now going anywhere else seems foolish. There’s almost nowhere we can go that won’t be over 100 degrees anyway, and after so many contiguous days of driving last week it feels very good to just stay here and soak up the scenery.

It doesn’t hurt that the campground is still dead quiet and virtually unoccupied. It wasn’t like this on our last visit, in October. I am guessing visitation is low now because people think it will be hot here—since it is scorching hot everywhere else in Texas. From a glimpse at the NPS weather data, it seems that the average daytime high at Guadalupe is only about 88 degrees all summer, and it cools into the upper 60s at night, so it’s reasonably comfortable by our standards. The awning and a couple of fans running during the day is all we’ve needed. There’s an Airstream Life tip for you: take advantage of this great park in the summer before everyone else figures it out.

We have been joined by one other camper, a 1970s Airstream (probably an Overlander but I haven’t peeked closely yet), making a total of three RVs in the lot. The only other people around are the day hikers, who began to arrive around 6:30 a.m. in their cars to start up the trailheads that begin at the edge of the lot. Being Saturday, there was a small wave of day hikers, eventually reaching about a dozen cars. I was glad we did our big hike in solitude on Friday.

Since we had nothing in particular planned for the day, it became one of those great relaxing camping days where everything happened at a leisurely pace and we just did what felt right. Eleanor started the day by making pancakes—a rare treat, especially when camping without hookups. Normally on a long boondock we’ll be super cautious about water use, which means we avoid choosing meals that will require a lot of dish cleaning afterward. But since there’s a dishwashing sink nearby, I have been encouraging Eleanor to cook, and she has. I take all the dishes over to the outdoor sink in a box and it’s quick work to clean them all up in the giant sinks provided by the NPS.

The extra day also gave us a chance to spend some quality time in the Visitor Center, where one of the park rangers gave us a quick personal tour, describing the birds of prey we might see on a hike to Smith Spring. They also had a good collection of pinned insects that allowed us to identify some of the dramatically colored bugs we photographed while on the Bear Canyon hike. Emma picked up four workbooks: Junior Ranger, Senior Ranger, Junior Paleontologists, and Wilderness Explorer. The ranger programs will be completed here for a badge, and the others will be mailed in later for special patches.

By chance I discovered that the Visitor Center offers free wifi, a fact which does not seem to be advertised anywhere. This is always welcome because it means I can post my blogs and do some research about where we are heading next. This is always unwelcome because it means the evil email temptation will be there, and I could end up spending more time in front of the computer than I should while in the beauty and diversity of a great national park. I am going to pretend that the wifi only works for blog posts.

Since the ranger enticed us to visit the springs, we headed over to the historic Frijole Ranch, where early American settlers lived here from about 1906 through 1942, and then followed the Smith Spring trail to Manzanita Pond (where white-chested swifts were aerobatically dipping into the water) and then to the spring itself, in the shadows of tall trees at the edge of the escarpment that was once a massive reef on the edge of an ancient sea. This hike is 2.3 miles and maybe 300-400 feet of elevation gain, which isn’t much, but it was mid-afternoon by the time we arrived which means a fair bit of sweating. At least this time we were well stocked with water.

Other than birds, we have seen no wildlife. Not a single rabbit, badger, deer, elk, mountain lion, coyote, snake, or even a rodent. They’re all here, somewhere, but not hanging out where we have been. We have seen a lot of curious insects, scat, interesting holes, even a few snails that manage to eke out a desert life, and are getting to know the plants fairly well too. Now we talk about the red-green Texas Madrone and the odd Gray Oak, the Jewel Beetle, and the Jimson Weed as if we were locals. That’s a sign of a good visit, in our book.

Eleanor cooked up a fantastic dinner of spicy tilapia and we finished off some chicken with rice and molé sauce, which meant lots more dishes for me but that’s a fair trade-off for a great meal in a peaceful national park. In the evening we went to a ranger talk about ethnobotany (native uses of plants for food, medicine & clothing) and we were three of the five people in the audience. Back at the trailer we played games on the iPad and ate frozen “tacos” with peanut butter ice cream & chocolate sauce.

Guadalupe has turned out to be a better “find” than we expected, so you can understand why we want to stay yet another day. We aren’t due in Tucson until Tuesday and the evening bat flight program at Carlsbad sounds interesting. It’s a 45 mile drive from here to there. We could move the Airstream up to Whites City (the nearest campground to Carlsbad) but even the promise of a full hookup isn’t motivating me to take the Airstream out of this location. Our water supply will stretch for one more night, and we have plenty of electricity from the sun. So I’ll get some change from the rangers this morning (campground fees are cash only, $8 exactly per night) and happily fill out one more self-registration slip.

Bowl hike, Guadalupe Mtns National Park

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is known for great hiking.   For years I’ve been wanting to go explore the back country of this park, ever since Eleanor and I first happened upon it in early 2000 on a pre-Airstream road trip.

Emma was in the womb then, and at seven months pregnant Eleanor wasn’t prepared for hiking many miles (and also it was winter), so we made a note of the place and vowed to come back.  Come back—yes, we did, several times, but each time one circumstance or another kept us from going on a serious hike.

Like a lot of national parks, Guadalupe isn’t convenient.  It isn’t near anything, being 50 miles from Carlsbad and 120 miles from El Paso.  It isn’t just off an Interstate highway, and there are no accommodations other than tent or RV for at least 20 miles. Even now, parked here in the comfort of our Airstream we have no hookups and no dump station to use when we leave.  So you have to really want to come here.

Being here is only the beginning, because to see the back country you must hike up mountains that erupt steeply from a desert landscape.  We pulled out all of our gear yesterday morning and got assembled for a full day of hiking, with the plan to make a circumference of some of the mountains that would run about eight miles.  As always, our gear included sun hats, sunscreen, packs, snacks, trail shoes, cameras, and lots of water—although not quite enough, as we discovered quickly.

Some hiking friends of ours will read this blog, so I’ll detail that we left the campground at 9:30 a.m. and took the Foothills Trail to Frijole, then up Bear Canyon, left on Bowl (now above 8,000 feet), and followed Bowl to Tejas and back down.  That makes it seem straightforward (you’ll need a map from the Visitor Center), but the really relevant part of the description is we didn’t get back until 5:45 p.m.—eight hours later.

Yes, it was a bit beyond what the parks usually describe as a “strenuous” hike.  Still, none of us regretted the hike, and it had many rewards like spectacular vistas throughout and lots of little surprises in geology, plant life, and scenery.  The climb up through Bear Canyon was particularly rewarding, which was crucial because this was the steepest and longest climb of the hike, taking us over two hours to complete.

Before we reached Bear Canyon Eleanor and I realized that we had drastically underestimated our water needs.  I had my big 100 oz. Camelbak filled, but they did not have their Camelbaks on board the Airstream and so (on my hasty and poor advice) had only three 16 oz. water bottles each.  They should have had at at least five bottles each (80 oz).  We had a conference after two miles of hiking to decide whether we should continue or abort the hike.

A big part of the problem was that the air temperature at our starting altitude was already in the 80s and climbing, plus the first few miles of trail offer no shade.  Eleanor and Emma consumed 1/3 of their water before the serious climbing even began.  Still, we decided to proceed because I had more water than I needed and could share.  I filled an extra 16 oz. bottle for each of them from my supply and we continued up.

The steep climb through Bear Canyon, with its many switchbacks, would have been psychologically demoralizing if it weren’t for the great scenery.  None of us had done any serious hiking in about a year, and we also didn’t have any time to acclimate to the altitude, which atop the water concern gave us plenty of psychological challenges.  The trail was rocky and hard on the feet even with hiking boots.

I knew that we would make it physically, but in situations like this the big enemy is your own brain telling you that maybe it’s time to panic because you’ll never make it, you’ll be stuck here halfway up a mountain without rescue and no water and you can’t go another step, etc.  And maybe your brain is right, because running out of water plus a twisted ankle could easily equal a very bad situation.

Of course we did make it, with lots of rest stops, photo opps, happy conversation, and a few energy snacks.  Atop the mountains we found a beautiful park-like glade with scattered pine trees, and sat down on a bed of needles to have lunch.  This long break seemed to re-energize everyone, and of course from there on the trail was gentle and fairly easy.  It wasn’t long before we were looking down from a high cliff and realizing with a slight sense of awe just how far we’d gone.  The vertical ascent of this hike is claimed by the Park Service to be 2,300 feet, but I can tell you that it looks and feels like a lot more.  I felt like I’d climbed the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

We predicted early on that we’d run out of water before we got back, in the last mile or two, and we did run out right on schedule.  No matter, at that point we were down to nearly base camp elevation and it was an easy final stretch back to the Airstream (with plenty of motivation).

I want to point out something significant.  During our entire eight hours of hiking, we did not see even one other human being.  This has never happened to us before on a long hike.  Such solitude is like nirvana for hikers, with the caution that this also means if something happens to you (like a twisted ankle or running out of water), you’re on your own.  There’s no calling 9-1-1 out there either, so self-rescue is your only option.

Late in the hike after we’d run out of water Emma wanted to take an extended rest break, thereby handing me a wonderful parental privilege, the opportunity to say with a straight face, “Would you rather hike back to the Airstream with us and get an nice drink of cool water, or stay here and die?” —and have it be perfectly true.  Too often parents have to resort to exaggerations in our attempts to motivate children, but out here the forces of nature make exaggeration unnecessary.

By the time we dragged our enervated bodies back to the campground we were bone-tired, dry inside and sticky outside, with eyes burning from drips of sunscreen and joints aching from miles of walking on uneven rocky trails.  We had covered 8.5 miles.  One of the great joys of such a hike comes afterward: stripping off the dusty clothes for a shower, then slowly re-entering the civilized world of Airstream living. Eleanor assembled a casual smorgasbord dinner of bread, several cheeses, cold cuts, salad, guacamole, and cottage cheese, and picked over it in our zombie-like state, then I made some popcorn and we watched a movie before collapsing into bed.

When we first came back to the campground after our hike we were struck by the lack of campers. Being Friday night we had expected that the place would fill up.  After all, the weather is beautiful and I would expect this to be peak hiking season. But nobody showed up. It’s still just us and one other guy in the RV camping area.  I’m amazed but I can’t complain.  The campground is dead quiet most of the time (just a few day hikers driving in, or tent campers walking over to use the bathrooms), and it feels like was have the park almost to ourselves.

So we are seriously contemplating spending a third night here.  It’s only $8 per night (no hookups, no dump, but there are bathrooms and a dishwashing sink to help extend your holding tanks) and the climate is far better than where we are about to go.  Our solar panels are getting the batteries up to about 95% of capacity because it’s summer, so electricity isn’t an issue, and we have plenty of food.

If we do stay today, there’s another hike nearby that I’m tempted to sell the family on, called Devil’s Hall, and it’s only half the length of yesterday’s hike with a piddling 400 ft ascent.  There’s also the park Visitor Center that we should visit, and if nothing else I could be happy just reading a few books and listening to the birds.  At this writing, everyone else is asleep, so we’ll hold a family conference later this morning to decide.

Colorado National Monument, Grand Jct CO

Saturday, May 19th, 2012

As we expected, the cool night in Sunset Crater National Monument’s “Bonita” campground was excellent for sleeping.  The first night in the Airstream is sometimes a little hectic, since we are adjusting to life in 200 square feet again, and we are usually still figuring out where things should go.  That tends to keep us up late, but this time I was so exhausted I collapsed at about 8:45, and E&E were not far behind.

We didn’t have time on this trip to go to the companion park, Wupatki National Monument (connected by about 20 miles of loop road), so we made a note to come again sometime.  Wupatki offers five ancient pueblos and some box canyon dwellings, all of which we’d like to see.  We packed up and headed out at 8:30 with the intention of making some serious miles—but also covering some seriously scenic territory.

The route we planned was sort of a Arizona/Utah dream trip, up Rt 89A and then Rt 160 deep into the Navajo Nation, then up through the incredibly beautiful red cliffs and buttes of Monument Valley, and then up the edge of Utah past some great parks we’ve visited before (Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands), through Moab, and finally into Colorado.

The route goes up and down quite a lot, but I never saw us below 4,400 feet and never much about 7,000.  The important thing is to bring three items:  a camera, a bucket of time so you can stop frequently, and a full tank of fuel.  There are fuel stations but of course prices tend to run high in the more remote areas.  We had the cameras and fuel but not as much time as we would have liked, so for us it was primarily a driving tour (and a fine one).

I am happy to report all systems are functioning well on the Airstream and Mercedes.  The Merc did an odd thing yesterday during a steep climb, giving us a Check Engine light.  It wasn’t overheated and the light cleared itself overnight.  I can’t detect any issues with the car, so I’m not going to sweat it for now.  The car’s computer will store the fault code and we can get it read out later if we want.  The Airstream seems perfect. The fridge is cold, the tires needed no air at all (after five months of storage!), the hitch is silent, etc.  At this point we’ve run up about 700 miles and everything is fine, although I’m noting a few things I’d like to update soon.

We stopped at a rest area south of Moab where there’s a great sandstone arch that you can easily climb to.  If you are in this area and missed Arches National Park, this is a nice consolation prize.   You can also get a nice shot of your Airstream down below in the parking lot if you want (and of course, I did).

We decided to make our overnight stop at Colorado National Monument, in Grand Junction CO.  Faithful blog readers Jay & Cherie suggested we stop at the James Rob Colorado River State Park, which is just off I-70 at the same exit as the National Monument.  We checked it out and it does look very nice, but this we had our hearts set on driving up to the monument.  We’ve been here twice before and never managed to camp in the monument’s Saddlehorn campground, so it was nearly a mandate for us.

There was another reason for coming up the extra few miles to the monument.  We’ve recently acquired a GoPro Hero2 sports video camera for use at Alumapalooza, and I wanted to try it out shooting a video of the Airstream climbing the hairpins and tunnels that lead up to Colorado National Monument.  We shot video looking forward on the way up, and we’ll shoot video looking backward tomorrow morning, on the way down.  I’ll have the video edited and uploaded to YouTube in the next few days, and I’ll post when it is available.  Should be very interesting!

 

Guadalupe Mountains National Park, TX

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Guadalupe Mountains is one of those worthy national parks that we’ve repeatedly failed to explore adequately despite good intentions.  The park includes some historic sites that we have visited, but the big attraction is a network of hiking trails that have a great reputation and are undoubtedly beautiful.  We’ve never stayed long enough to do the big hikes.

Sadly, this visit will be the same.  Our stop here was on impulse, because we were tired and the idea of sleeping in the midst of the mountains in a national park sounded a lot better than parking in some nondescript RV park near Las Cruces.  Guadalupe has no hookups or dump station, but at $8 a night it’s hard to complain.

The tent area of the campground is pretty nice, surrounded by natural high desert vegetation.  The RV area is an asphalt parking lot with closely spaces sites delineated by white painted lines, and a bathroom nearby.  Our 48-foot combination just barely fit in the length of a campsite space, saving me from having to unhitch.  The fifth wheel guys all had to park their trucks elsewhere.

I can’t recommend the campground on amenities but the access to hiking trails and the views are spectacular.  The morning and evening light plays on the surrounding mountains and changes dramatically with the passage of clouds.

Having just hiked in Carlsbad we weren’t inclined to do much more than take a short walk around the park roads before dinner.  Eleanor had a pork loin she’d defrosted and which had to be cooked, so that was dinner.  She had planned to see a grocery store before cooking the pork, but the closest one to here is about 70 miles away, so she improvised with canned pears, red wine, and onions, and it came out great.

There had been an ambitious suggestion by Eleanor that we get up early and do a quick 4.2-mile hike on the Devil’s Hallway trail, but that was a non-starter.  Or to be more accurate, Emma was a non-starter, waking up slowly.  And then it rained, sealing the fate of our hike.  But we have pledge to visit Guadalupe again sometime (which will be our fourth visit) and really spend a few days to hike the trails.

Carlsbad Caverns National Monument, NM

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

We aren’t huge fans of the camping options near Carlsbad Caverns, so we devised a strategy:  we’d spend one night at White’s City with full hookups ($33) and then haul the Airstream up to the parking lot of Carlsbad Caverns, about 6 miles away.  A quick look at Google Maps revealed that there was plenty of space in the lot for long rigs, and being a Monday we figured park visitation would be fairly low.

This worked out but the park was far from deserted.  We got one of the last long spaces in the RV area of the lot.  Tour buses had shown up early, disgorging dozens of seniors and possibly a school group or two.

Because we arrived only a few minutes before the 10 a.m. “Kings Palace Tour,” we had to skip hiking down the vast and dramatic Natural Entrance route.  This is the first time we’ve ever ridden the elevator down to the Big Room.  It’s an ear-popping experience equivalent to a high-speed elevator in a 75-story building.

The caverns stay at 56 degrees all the time, and it’s fairly humid.  It’s fine for an hour or so in almost any clothing, because you’re walking around, but even with a sweatshirt I always get cold after a couple of hours.  Sitting on the concrete benches speeds up the chill, too.  We tried to keep moving so we could stay long enough to see everything.  Volunteers were in the cave, meticulously cleaning lint that has accumulated from the 35 million people who have visited, and they were dressed sensibly for the “weather” inside.  You can see them in the picture above, working by the light of their headlamps.

Not many people choose to exit the cave through the Natural Entrance.  It’s a steep hike (on paved trails) about 1.3 miles long, ascending 750 feet.  In fact, we didn’t run into anyone heading the same direction except for a solo Park Ranger.  Halfway through the hike I finally warmed up enough to take off my sweatshirt.  With this route out, we figured our total walking distance for the day was about 4.0 miles, all underground.

Since Emma didn’t yet have a Junior Ranger badge from Carlsbad, we stopped for lunch and she worked on it at the table in the cafeteria.  This is the only Junior Ranger badge she’s earned on this trip, since we’ve uncharacteristically made very few stops at National Parks.

Our “America the Beautiful” pass expired in September too, so we just renewed it while at Carlsbad.  It’s still a great value for anyone who visits more than a couple of park sites each year.  Back home in Tucson it gets us free parking at Sabino Canyon, free access to the Catalina Highway overlooks and parking, and free access to Saguaro National Park.

Our plan from Carlsbad was to head down to I-10 (El Paso) and look for overnight camping near Las Cruces, but after all the underground hiking we were more inclined to take it easier and just crash somewhere nearby.  Forty miles away we arrived at Guadalupe National Park (Texas), which has a small campground, and pulled in to spend the night among the mountains.  More on that tomorrow.

Showering with tree frogs

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

Life in Florida is very colorful.  The brilliant white sands of the panhandle make a perfect backdrop to emphasize the vibrancy and exotic aura of the subtropical things that live there.  And of course, when camping you are close to the earth, facing nature at almost every step, rather than being insulated from it by man-made structures (hotel rooms, concrete walkways, swimming pools).  On our last day we started to count up the colorful things we had encountered — for good or for ill.

Item #1:  Emma took a break from homeschooling on Monday afternoon to visit the beach one last time.  The waves were still moderate, but at little higher than on the previous calm days.  The red-fringed jellies we had noted earlier seemed to be absent, but while splashing around she got stung by jellyfish tentacles and in that moment discovered just how much that can hurt.

We never saw the jellyfish that did the deed, and fortunately Emma got only a glancing swipe that left three 2-3″ marks on her leg — enough to get her attention (she likened it to a bee sting), but not enough to do any serious damage.

Item #2:  In the campground shower we’ve noticed a few peeping Toms, or to be accurate peeping Green Tree Frogs.  They sit up above the showers on a shelf, or stick to the walls with their three-toed suction cup feet, and just silently stare at you while you are showering.  They’re sort of cute, benign little companions, and we favored their participation in the shower since (we theorized) it helped hold down the mosquito population.

Item #3:  Right across the bay is the Naval Air Station where the famous Blue Angels are based.  If you are camped here during the week there’s a good chance you’ll see them practicing overhead.  We got a free air show on Tuesday morning while packing up to depart.  If you aren’t a fan of jets streaking overhead and nearby, you might want to consider someplace else, or find a week when the Blue Angels are doing a show away from home.

Personally, when I hear military jets practicing I’m reminded of the comment I heard in England from an old guy who remembered the Blitz during WW II.  A British jet tore by, making an enormous racket, and I said something like, “Wow, that’s loud.”  The old guy smiled and said, “That’s the sound of freedom.”

So that’s green tree frogs in the shower, red jellies in the water, and blue angels flying overhead.  Florida was a magical place even before Walt made it official.

With Pensacola behind us, we’re obligated to make some miles now.  Our goal is near Ft Worth, where we have arranged to have a new air conditioner installed on Friday.  So for Tuesday it was drive-drive-drive, with only one significant stop, at the new “Airstream of Mississippi” dealership in Gulfport MS.  We parked the Airstream in their lot next to inventory of about a dozen new Airstreams, and met president Rick Foley and sales rep Gillis Leger.  Both of them are great guys, very friendly.  Gillis and I bonded a little when he learned I was an LSU grad, since he’s from Baton Rouge.

Being new, they haven’t gotten full up and running for service (otherwise we’d have had the new AC installed there) but it’s obvious that Rick means to have a top-notch Airstream dealership.  Once they are fully ready, I expect we’ll see Airstream of Mississippi in the pages of Airstream Life.

We made it Alexandria LA on Tuesday (417 miles) and spent the night tolerably well given that the daytime high here was 94 degrees.  You can do amazing things with three vent fans.  Still, it  will be nice to have our air conditioner fixed soon.  Since the forecast along our route is for temperatures in the mid-90s, we’ll spend today in the air conditioned car and stop only after the heat has begun to abate.



Nothing to do … isn’t that great?

Monday, September 26th, 2011

I deliberately booked four nights here at Ft Pickens State Park so that we’d have time on our hands to do nothing.  A two or three-night visit is always busy; setting up, seeing the local sites, running an errand, making dinner, etc., until the final tear down, which always comes too soon.  With four nights I knew we’d have time to visit the downtown, spread out, see most of the state park, and visit the beach … and then have another day with “nothing special” planned.  That’s today.

It would be better if today weren’t Monday — the day my phone is most likely to ring and the day I receive the most emails — but the people who really might need to reach me all know better than to expect an immediate response.  My motto has always been that there are few true emergencies in a quarterly magazine schedule.  Whatever it is, it can wait until Tuesday, when I’ll have lots of time in the car as we tow the Airstream westward along I-10.

Sunday was our day to visit Fort Pickens, which is only a mile from the campground and technically part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore rather than the state park.  I think I was last here in 1983, as a senior in college.  Pensacola was one of my favorite hangouts, four hours drive from Baton Rouge in my heavy old hand-me-down 1977 Camaro.  I loved coming down here and seeing the dazzling white sands and the long empty stretches of dune covered with sea oats, along Santa Rosa Island.

The island has of course changed with the tropical storms and hurricanes that stretch and replenish the island, but Fort Pickens is still the same as I remember.  It was fun to show it to Emma and Eleanor, with the ghostly dark passages and dramatic brick arches.

The interpretive museum adjacent to Fort Pickens is currently empty, having been devastated by Hurricane Ike, and so all we saw there was a 25-minute video and the historical buildings that now house the park staff.  Nearby on the bay side is a small fishing pier, and further along toward the west end of the island is apparently a popular diving spot.  We saw families surf fishing, people zipped past on jetskis and in larger boats, aircraft practicing approaches from the Naval Air Station across the bay, and schools of fish jumping all at once. Yes, it was hot (86 degrees) and humid (don’t ask), but I can see why many people pay the $8 entry free to the National Seashore — there’s so much to do, and the park is beautiful.

More than once we were asked by someone where we came from.  To keep things simple, we usually just say “Arizona,” rather than try to explain the complexities of our current tour.  Then they say, “Oh, well you’re used to this heat!”  or “So this is nothing to you!”  I guess they think that Arizonans don’t feel the heat.  We do; It’s just that we don’t stand around in the direct sun for long when it’s 108 degrees, even if it is only 6% humidity.  Since we were out walking in the sun most of the day, we had broken out the same gear (clothing & sunscreen) that we’d wear in Tucson in June.  When it came time for our picnic lunch, we chose a fine spot in the shade of a grove of Live Oak trees.

Afternoons like this were made for the beach, or perhaps the quartz-white sand of Florida’s panhandle were made for hot days.  The sand never gets too hot for bare feet, and it squeaks as you walk on it.  The water was crystal clear and bathtub-warm.  The water’s edge at first seems sterile, with few shells to collect, but when Emma and I waded out we made some little fish friends, who circled us curiously and seemed to be wondering if we might be carrying a bit of seaweed that they could nibble off.  Tiny schools of fish wandered by, and there were occasionally clear jellies with pinkish edges floating by (all dead for reasons unknown to us) many of which were hosting cute little scavenger fish taking their lunch from the tentacles.  We were three of perhaps 20 people spread out over a half-mile of beach.  There was nothing to do but make sand castles and play in the water …

Having learned from prior nights, we wrapped up at the beach an hour before sunset so that we never saw a mosquito.  That left plenty of time to rinse off in the campground showers and enjoy a moment of coolness.  We were lucky last night; our neighbors’ charcoal fire was carried off in a different direction by the wind, so we finally got that blissful evening of fresh breezes in the trailer while Eleanor made a fine dinner for all.

That brings us to today, the Monday that we will pretend is Sunday, part 2.  We have no plans.  We may go somewhere, we may not.  Looking ahead on the travel schedule I see many long days of driving and absolutely no beach time, so this is our last chance to soak up la dolce far niente and we will make the most of it, or perhaps more accurately, the least of it.

Weekend on Padre Island

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

This morning we are moving out.  Our stay at Padre Island has been more than I expected, which is good because one of the joys of traveling is the unexpected experience.  I had anticipated a rather solitary stay on a gray sand beach but instead we found a lively community of people and diverse scenery, backdropped by the constant white roar of big ocean waves and fresh sea air.

Despite being here for four nights, we have hardly found time to explore beyond the island.  I spent half a day at the public library again on Friday, but otherwise we have not ventured into Corpus Christi, which means we have left the major sights of the city for another visit: the USS Lexington, the Corpus Christi museum, the aquarium, etc.

Our Friday afternoon was taken up with the campground’s fish fry.  About fifty people showed up, which I think was nearly everyone in the campground.  Most of the fish was whiting, which is rather tasteless until you batter and fry it, but there was also some black drum, and about an hour before one of the surf fishermen came by with a huge red drum too.

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Eleanor made a rice dish to contribute, and a chocolate cake, both of which pretty much disappeared at the fry-up.  The weather turned balmy and humid again on Friday afternoon, which is what you’d expect at the seaside, and so everyone was in a fine mood for eating and socializing.  I was surprised to find how many of the snowbirds were either headed for Tucson, or had spent a lot of time there in the past.  This crowd is highly concentrated with full-timers.  Several of them were thinking about buying real estate in Tucson, as prices are still low and they’ve realized what a great snowbird stop it is.

While I was working at the library, Eleanor and Emma were at the park’s visitor center.  Emma charmed the volunteers there, with her multiple visits and questions, and then she found a partial shell of a turtle egg on the beach, which furthered her status.  The shell has been added to the “touch table” of interesting artifacts in the visitor center.

Saturday dawned beautiful again.  It got so warm that we’ve been sleeping with the windows open, which makes the trailer damp but allows us to hear the roaring waves all night long.  Being here reminds me of nights camped on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, where the proximity of dunes and waves (and no commercial development in sight) evokes a feeling of utter escapism.  I couldn’t bring myself to waste an hour driving to and from the library for Internet, so I skipped it, and instead we went to the visitor center again to get Emma sworn in as a Junior Ranger.

While I was there, I asked about the cameras at the entrance to the park.  Every time you go through the gate of the park (heading in or out), a huge array of cameras will take a picture of your car’s front and back as well as you.   The pictures are uploaded via satellite to some computer, where I expect that the government is running license plate identification software and saving the photos for all eternity.  Being a person who is concerned about the gradual erosion of privacy, this strikes me as fairly obnoxious, so I wanted to hear the park staff’s explanation.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that the three staff members I spoke to really didn’t know — or wouldn’t say — what was going on.  The explanation was vague: “This is a border park,” which is really a non-answer since Big Bend, Organ Pipe, Everglades, Gulf Island National Seashore, Biscayne, and several other national park sites meet the same geographic definition of “border park” and yet they do not take your picture as you come and go.

padre-island-eleanor-trash.jpgWe grabbed more trash bags while we were at the visitor center, and drove six miles down the “primitive beach” to a random spot to do a little trash duty.  This time we came equipped for the job, with gloves, fresh water for washing, and a picnic lunch.  The five bags were filled in less than an hour, plus a few large objects that wouldn’t fit in bags.  You just would not believe the stuff that washes up here.

padre-island-portuguese-manowar.jpgAfter lunch we observed the Portuguese Man O’Wars that wash up everywhere on the beach.  These creatures are not jellyfish, but rather a cooperative of four different animals that function as one unit.  The colorful top (or “sail”) is one animal, the stinging tentacles are another, the digestive portion is yet another.  Nowhere is there a brain.  Reminds me of a committee.

padre-island-windsurfers.jpgOn the north shore of Padre Island is Laguna Madre, known as one of only five “hypersaline” lagoons in the world.  Plants manage to live at its shores despite the very salty environment.  Humans know is as a great place to go windsurfing and kayaking.  The water is very shallow and much calmer than on the ocean side, and yet there’s great wind.  padre-island-bird-island-cg.jpgA no-hookup campground allows you to park right at the water’s edge and watch the action all day, or wade into the warm shallow water for some fishing.

I think this stop at Padre Island has been so memorable for us because it is the first really new stop we’ve made in over a month.  Since North Carolina, our route has mostly re-traced stops we’ve made before, especially in Florida.  While it’s nice to visit known favorites, it’s even nicer to discover new ones, with new things to explore.

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Today we are breaking camp.  First stop will be a car wash, to rinse off the rig, and then we’ll be making miles toward the west.  We don’t have a plan.  Our hard stop is Friday, so we have little choice but to drive for the next few days.  1,100 miles of pavement separate us from our home base, and much of that is in very spread out (read: empty) parts of west Texas.

Solar report:  Full sun has continued every day. Friday afternoon we ended up with -12.8 amp-hours, which is better than 90% battery charge.  After the usual use (no furnace) we were down 44 amp-hours on Saturday morning, which was a little better than Friday morning.

However, we got zinged by our water pump.  Occasionally, the limit switch does not turn off the pump after it has been used.  You can hear the pump running slowly with a low whine.   The solution is simple: just quickly open and close a faucet, and the pump will usually shut off.  I think this problem is either a failing switch or the result of a little air in the system somewhere, because it doesn’t always happen.

On Saturday we returned to the Airstream around 3 p.m. to find that the pump was running constantly.  I quickly got it turned off with the usual trick, but the damage to our battery power was done.  Even a slowly-running pump consumes a fair amount of electricity, so it had prevented us from getting a full charge.  I have no idea how long it was running, but the net effect was that we ended the day with -17.8 amp-hours when we should have reached a 100% charge.

That’s not a critical amount of power, and in retrospect we were lucky to have solar panels supplying power so that the pump did not kill the battery.  So it wasn’t a crisis, but we will have to take a closer look at that pump to see if we can prevent this problem in the future.

Being our last night of boondocking, Saturday night was our usual blow-out night with lots of lights, movies on the laptop, washing dishes, etc.  We woke up this morning with -66.4 amp-hours, which puts us at about 60% of our usable power.  Not bad for four days in late November.  We’ve been generating about 40-45 amp-hours per day, and the sun is expected to continue for a while so if we wanted we could stay for much longer.

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