It’s been a mild fall across almost all of the United States. While it cooled down enough in November to require that the RV be winterized, on the whole it has been a pleasant season, with none of the Arctic outbreaks that can sometimes happen. The lack of freezing temperatures means that the fall colors have been muted; in fact when the date for our departure arrived, the oak trees around our house in the Indiana Dunes were still holding on to about half their leaves. Our natural landscaping means we don’t have to rake them, but this was an indicator of the unusual weather.
But that was OK with us. We were spring-loaded to launch if the weather turned bad, but the halcyon season hung on long enough to let us launch the day after Thanksgiving, which gave us one last chance to visit with family before we started on our Odyssey.
Our route southwest is familiar to us now, but we added a few tweaks. One change is that we can no longer park overnight in front of our friends’ house in Springfield, IL due to a city ordinance. Many towns and cities are enacting such RV parking bans, ostensibly to keep up appearances. We think our travel trailer is pretty spiffy looking, but realize that not all RVs are so beautiful, in either reality or perception. In any event, our friends had family guests for Thanksgiving weekend, and we didn’t want to disturb them. So Cracker Barrel dry camping it was!
We are becoming aficionados of all things CB. This one was fairly quiet (set back from the highway and nobody else pulled into the RV spots), except for the adjoining McDonald’s drive thru speaker, which squawked until about 10 pm, and a bunch of rowdy teenagers that spooked us as they walked through the parking lot about an hour later. But otherwise it was a fine place to rest, and we caught up on our biscuits and gravy deficit.
We needed to stretch our legs, so we walked across the street to the Barrel Antique Mall (no relation to Cracker Barrel). Apparently a bit of a destination, it is a football-field sized simple steel building fairly stuffed with old items that, evidently, some people find interesting enough to purchase. Everything from photographs to furniture was there, very loosely organized, and in apparently decent enough shape to not be considered junk. I don’t know how the business model works, but at least it wasn’t just another big box store, and maybe that explains the appeal in semi-rural Illinois.
We were up early the next day and on our way to our next stop, another Cracker Barrel in St. Robert, MO. As you can gather, we prefer CBs over our other common just-passing-through dry camp option, Wal-Mart. CBs tend to be smaller, quieter, right off the highway, and in small doses, the food is decent. Cheap, too. We need to eat anyway, since our refrigerator and pantry are empty at the beginning of the trip, so we accomplish multiple objectives with one stop. That said, the menu and the Christmas music playlist both get repetitive pretty quickly. So we “ventured out” for dinner and went to a Buffalo Wild Wings (we had a gift card). Let’s just say it was a Bad Dining Experience. The CB parking lot was quiet, though, and we slept pretty well.
Up and out the next morning, we crossed the rest of Missouri into Oklahoma. It’s always a surprise to me how hilly Missouri and eastern Oklahoma are, with their long-wave undulations that start as soon as you cross the Mississippi and continuing as far as Tulsa. This is on the north edge of the Ozarks, so really it shouldn’t be a revelation, but growing up in Illinois makes any hill a novelty to me, I guess.
That night we settled into our first “real” campground, Arrowhead State Park, a return visit for us. The sites are modern, and we opted for the luxury of full hookups after two nights of roughing it. This gave us the flexibility to sanitize our fresh water system without having to hitch back up and head to the dump station.
Sanitizing means filling the fresh water tank, adding two tablespoons of sodium dichloroisocyanurate (essentially just pool chemicals, but I love making it sound like a research project), running a bit of this solution through the faucets, waiting 15 minutes, and then pumping it out. I held my breath when I first turned on the water pump, hoping that my winterizing job with an air compressor to blow out the lines and a touch of antifreeze for the water pump was properly done. When I threw the switch, the pump ran continuously – not a good sign, as it should stop as soon as the pipes are pressurized. I had visions of a bad leak somewhere, but as it turns out, I needed to switch the water heater from Bypass to Normal, and then all was good. Phew! I fired up the water heater and we enjoyed nice, long, hot showers and a good sleep.
The next day, highs were going to be in the low 70s, so we hit the first hiking trails of our trip. We climbed up to the top of the hill overlooking Lake Eufalah, meeting some nice horseback riders along the way visiting from Tulsa and Muskogee. We did some casual birding (Bird of the Day: Eastern Bluebirds). At night we had a campfire. This served two purposes: it lightened our load (we’d carried firewood all the way from Arizona back home – dumb) and it might be our last chance to do so, since many campgrounds in Arizona have burn bans. Also, it was a warm, starry night, and we had s’mores fixins!
After two nights in the Sooner State, we headed south into Texas, heading for Lake Mineral Wells State Park west of Dallas. This was the most stressful driving of the trip so far, as we juked and jiu jitsued our way around the metro area, with its surprise tollways and aggressive drivers. The icing on the cake was my arch nemesis, the gravel truck. Since we had left home, winds had been steady from the southwest with up to 20 mph gusts, contributing to our underwhelming 11 mpg fuel economy. This wind, combined with an open truck bed (there should be a law, oh wait! I think there is a law) blew the perfectly shaped sharp stone out of said truck, impinging at a perfect angle on my windshield, chopping a nice little chip and crack dead center in my field of vision. Oh well, I believe it’s fixable when we get to Tucson. But note to self: avoid Dallas in the future. We pulled into Mineral Wells (another return visit) and set up amongst the live oaks.
The registration process in Oklahoma versus Texas was revealing. Not to start any more Sooner vs. Lone Star debates, but let’s just say Oklahoma is still analog, while Texas is digital. In OK the ranger at the park office called the camp host on his flip phone to check site availability and was unable to reach him, so he assigned us a spot based on his best guess (the park was practically empty, so it worked out). He used a two-part carbon-paper notepad to write up our fee.
In TX the ranger looked up their site inventory online, found our personal information stored in our Texas State Parks account, and quickly printed out tags for our tow vehicle and trailer and a receipt. In other words, Oklahoma felt like the antique mall, and Texas was more like a Wal-Mart or Amazon experience. I wouldn’t read too much into this, but clearly, state parks and modernization are a priority for Texas, and our experience is that they are very well run.
We spent two fine days at Mineral Wells, stocking up our pantry and refrigerator and taking a nice long hike along the water’s edge (Bird of the Day: a pair of Belted Kingfishers).
Hopping back on I-20, we drove 320 miles to Monahans Sandhills State Park, a new campground for us. This is more distance than we normally like to do in one day, but the miles were pretty easy on the interstate, and we were balancing a long day of driving with two days of resting. This pace seemed a reasonable tradeoff between the effort of campground set up and tear down, and the fatigue of long driving legs. By now the winds had died down, making for a smooth ride and better fuel economy.
Monahans Sandhills is like a miniature version of White Sands in New Mexico, except here it’s real silica sand and not white gypsum. The campground itself consists essentially of wide spots in a loop road, but it served its purpose. Because it’s close to the highway (but far enough to be quiet) most people stay here just one night and move on, but after our long drive we decided to stay two nights. The next day we took a walk to the visitor center and were pleasantly surprised by the bird activity (Birds of the Day: Loggerhead Shrike, Western Meadowlark, Brewer’s Blackbird).
There’s an oil well pump jack at one of the picnic areas, which gives me an opportunity to comment on the furious petro industry activity in the Permian Basin. From Midland through Odessa, on to Monahans and Pecos, the breadth and vitality of the oil field business in this region is stunning. The interstate is jammed with all manner of trucks driving at high rates of speed, from the ubiquitous white pickup trucks carrying welders, surveyors and roughnecks; to semi-trailers hauling drilling pipe, pumps, engines, chemicals, water, frac-ing sand, cable, hoses, and tanks of all shapes and sizes. On the frontage roads of the highway are oilfield supply businesses, tanker trucks and drilling rigs stacked up like Matchbox trucks in a toy store, and ubiquitous “pop-up” RV parks where roughnecks live while working the oil fields. Stretching to the horizon, pump jacks bob up and down, interspersed with drilling rigs, storage tanks, pipeline compressors and gas flares. Occasionally the odor of hydrogen sulfide drifts across the highway.
If nothing else, it’s an amazing spectacle of labor and capital investment. Based on nothing but my own observations of this activity, I’d say we’re still solidly in the boom part of the boom/bust cycle that is the oil and gas industry. It does seem that with this breakneck speed of extraction, all these materials will be pulled out of the ground in a matter of days, but I presume the quantities remaining are yet so vast that the end is not in sight. The Texas oil wildcatter is alive and well.
Regardless of what you think about fossil fuels, there’s no doubting that this business is an economic force that is providing lots of well-paying jobs. And as I’ve noted before, wind power is also growing feverishly in Texas. The presence of whirling wind turbines in this region is almost as striking as the oil rigs. Texas has one foot firmly planted in energy’s past and one in its future.
Our last stop before Arizona was Deming, NM. To get there we endured an even longer drive of 350 miles and the circumnavigation of El Paso, TX. We’ve learned to avoid the madness of the downtown area of El Paso by exiting I-10 on TX-375, which takes us around the Franklin Mountains on the east and north. We jumped off to get diesel and lunch at a Chick-Fil-A (we had another gift card!), maneuvering through heavy weekend traffic to park at a Wal-Mart while we ate. El Paso also appears to be booming, so this was probably not the best place to make a pit stop, but our small size makes us comparatively nimble, and we got through without a problem.
Finally we arrived at the Escapees Dreamcatcher park in Deming. We rarely resort to carryout dinners, but to celebrate successfully navigating our way here we ordered a pizza from our favorite pizzeria, Forghettaboudit (I don’t have the guts to tell them that it’s supposed to be “fuggedaboutit”; maybe they couldn’t get the trademark?) and settled in for a little NFL football.
It had been a slow sprint across the middle of the country to the Land of Enchantment, taking nine days vs. the two weeks it took on Odyssey #1. Now that we are back in the land of mesquite, creosote and sun, we can slow down even more and exhale.