Big City Camping – a month in Houston

Rayford Crossing, A “Luxury RV Resort”

When we made our plans for this year’s Odyssey, we decided to try spending a month in one place – to minimize setup, breakdown and travel, to save some money, and just to experience what it’s like to stay put for a while.

Since we were starting out in Texas, we asked around for recommendations for a place to stay. Our friends Sid and Julie, who we met last spring in Fredericksburg, TX told us about the RV resort near Houston (Rayford Crossing) where they are staying. It sounded good, and the reviews checked out, so we booked it for the month of December.

So what makes Rayford Crossing a “resort” as opposed to just an RV park? There’s not a precise definition, but the sites (full hookups, of course) are on nice concrete pads with reasonably mature trees, it has a pool and spa, a clubhouse, laundry room, game room, services like trash pickup and propane refill, and a regular schedule of events. This one also has a cheerful, hardworking and professional staff that seem genuinely interested in helping you. Also, there are no “park model” trailers here, only high end Class A motorhomes, fifth wheels and a few travel trailers. It has a slightly upscale vibe, for an RV park. Our travel trailer Sempre Estate is definitely on the low end sizewise (but classy otherwise!) For this, we paid $750 for the month, which is less than we would pay at many state parks with only a water/electric hookup.

Nice pool, although not heated until January

When we first arrived, we were put into a site near the pool, which would have been great, except for the holiday music which was clearly audible from the pool house speakers morning till night. Nothing against holiday music, but that might have harshed on our mellow after a few days, so we asked to be moved. As fate would have it, the only other open space was next to our friends Sid and Julie. Bonus!

The experience here is more like living in a regular neighborhood than a campground. Although maybe a quarter of the sites are allocated to transient visitors, most people are here long term – for several months or years in some cases. The schedule of events included several pot-luck dinners and game/movie nights, and a few of the residents are very involved in organizing those.

Potato Night!

We were really made to feel welcome, including for Christmas, which included another pot-luck dinner (featuring smoked turkey – OMG) and a white elephant gift exchange (my elephant hunting skills are poor – why did I end up with the sample size liquors when I could have got the 1.75L bottle of Evan Williams bourbon? Also, what’s up with all the Bailey’s?)

White Elephant Gift Exchange – note the massive bottle of Evan Williams that is not in front of me

But the best part, by far, was hanging with our friends Sid and Julie. We traded making dinners in our rigs, including one occasion where they shopped and I cooked at their place (including a last-minute audible from Chicken Marsala to Chicken Coq Au Vin, because you can’t buy Marsala on Sunday in Texas because it’s a fortified wine!) using their awesome induction cooktop. Another time they made us brick-sized filet minons with their sous-vide setup. They were like buttah. And Julie would magically produce appetizers for cocktail hour on their patio.

Thanks Sid and Julie!

Sid was kind enough to bring me along when he went out for beers with his buddies. We went to Back Pew Brewing (so named because it is located in a former (cowboy?) church). The standard deal at Texas microbreweries, it seems, is to pay for a pint glass that comes with three tokens for three pours (that’s the minimum – everything really is bigger in Texas!) And there was a food truck that turned out ginourmous barbecued pork loin sandwiches.

Back Pew Brewing

Speaking of barbecue, we sure enjoyed the food in Houston. On Sid and Julie’s recommendation we went to Corkscrew BBQ in Old Town Spring, which turns out probably the best I’ve ever had – intensely smoky, moist, and yuuuuuge portions. Customers line up for hours before opening, and it closes when they sell out, usually by 3:00.

People who know barbecue (and Texans know barbecue) drive long distances to come here. I was not disappointed. The after-lunch food coma was testament to its awesomeness.

Smoked Nirvana

We also were delighted to visit with former coworkers of Maureen’s, including dinners out with John and Karen (Tex-Mex), George and Cindy (upscale coastal Mexican / seafood) and Chris and Linda in Galveston (Greek / seafood). The occasion of our trip to Galveston was Dickens on the Strand, a festival that includes period costumes, steampunk vehicles and a variety of entertainment and street food along Galveston’s Victorian-era main street.

Steampunk cosplay

The costumes were cool, but the highlight for me was the centuries-old architecture from when Galveston was the most important city and trading hub in Texas for cotton and oil. Chris gave us the VIP tour of Galveston – as a long-term resident he was able to tell us details about the city and its history that we would have missed had we been touring on our own.

Stunning Galveston Victorian Architecture

Other cultural sites we took in during our visit included the Museum of Fine Arts, with which we were very impressed. It had a Degas exhibit on, plus a fine show of objects from Chinese emperors, photography by Helen Levitt and Dawoud Bey, Islamic art, and a solid exhibit on the history of photography.

James Turrell light installation at MFAH

We also visited the Menil Collection, housed in a beautiful new Renzo Piano building, and particularly enjoyed the Picasso and Surrealists exhibitions on display.

The Menil Collection / Renzo Piano architect

A few blocks away we stopped into the Houston Center for Photography, which had a show curated by Keliy Anderson-Staley, and also houses a wonderful library of photo books. In the parking lot, a photographer was making wet plate collodion tintype portraits. The old view camera and the smell of ether was a bracing throwback to photography’s origins.

New tintypes at Houston Center for Photography

To work off the barbecue, we hiked local parks, including Huntsville State Park to the north, Brazos Bend State Park to the southwest, and the Spring Creek Greenway nearby our resort. Brazos had some fine birding, and I was able to add some new birds to my lifetime list, including the Little Blue Heron, White Ibis, Common Galinule, and my favorite, the Black-bellied Whistling Duck.

Little Blue Heron

So what are our general impressions of Houston? It’s is a very large city, there’s no getting around that. And it’s growing rapidly. From 2010-2015 the metro area has grown 12%, the fastest of all major U.S. cities. Evidence of this growth is everywhere you look. New housing developments, shopping centers and roads are sprouting up like mushrooms after a rain storm. Traffic is heavy seemingly 24/7 (compounded by aggressive drivers, dense retail and bizarre traffic engineering). Like anywhere, development is double-edged: it’s great to see such economic vitality (here largely driven by the oil and gas business). Culturally, the city has a lot to offer, including diverse fine dining, entertainment and museums. But the congestion and retail blight can become numbing.

Weather-wise, it’s a subtropical climate, and highly variable. The first part of our stay we were under the influence of an arctic outbreak in the eastern part of the country. While Chicago was shivering at -15F, we fell below freezing for a few nights, and spent several days wearing sweatshirts (I’m not complaining, just observing!) The last few weeks, things have moderated, with highs in the 80s and lows in the mid 60s. This is the flip-flop weather I came for! But it’s also humid – showers can pop up at any time, and our towels never seem to dry out. While this is much better than winter weather, I much prefer desert climes.

And our experience living in a suburban RV resort for a month? Rayford Crossing is a very comfortable and livable place. We were definitely spoiled by the full hookups, easy access to laundry, cable TV, WiFi (slow and intermittent, but useable), and proximity to stores and restaurants. The people we met here were interesting and friendly. And it was great to chill out for a month and take a leisurely pace without having to worry about finding another grocery store, laundromat, or our next campground.

But without our friends Sid and Julie as neighbors, we probably wouldn’t choose to stay here again. If I’m going to spend a month somewhere, I want it to be special – in a forest, or by a lake, or with a view of the mountains, or near great hiking or birding. Being in a built-up suburb of a big city doesn’t do much for me – I can find that back home. But having had a taste of relative comfort (and unlimited long showers) for a month, we may occasionally indulge in full hookups more often.

Rayford Crossing sits in one of the last small, relatively undeveloped areas of Spring, TX. Just down the street are small ranches with free-range chickens, horses and even a longhorn steer.

Samson, the Longhorn

This seems more like the real Texas, and I’m ready to move on and see more of it.