The Catch Up Post

Well, it’s been a while. I could use covid as an excuse, but why lie. I’m lazy. Since we’re getting ready to head back out on the road after two months quarantined in Mesa, AZ, I figured I should catch up on blogging. This one will pack 6 months of travel into what I hope is a short post, meant to be read in the voice of that fast talking micro-machines commercial guy. Because if I don’t write it now…

As best as I can tell we left off in Florida or thereabouts, heading towards Tampa where we’d attend a wedding in early November. First stop was Silver Springs State Park near Ocala. Silver Springs started off as a tourist attraction, and over the years many movies and tv shows were filmed on location (most famous being Tarzan, Sea Hunt, and a James Bond movie but I forget which one). When we rolled up it seemed a little spooky, like an abandoned theme park, which I guess it kind of is. The state of Florida bought it in 1985 and since then it’s been a state park.

Seems Like There Should Have Been More People, I Guess We Were There Out Of Season
Glass Bottom Boat Tour

The park offers a glass-bottom boat tour, that allows visitors to peer through the crystal clear water to view the spectacular springs, tropical fish, turtles, and alligators. Yes, this is where we saw our first alligators of the trip.

What I remember: The weather was hot and humid, the springs were beautiful, we wish we’d seen a manatee but it wasn’t quite the season yet. The campground was very nice, with large spaces and plenty of privacy, hot showers, a playground, and laundry. I was into jump-roping at the time.

Next was our week in Tampa, where we’d get to see family for the wedding. We stayed at Fort De Soto State Park, and besides hanging out with family we spent the whole week on the beach. The beach at Fort De Soto was a white sand paradise, with gentle waves great for swimming. The campground was nice, albeit the most mosquitoey yet.

The showers were hot, and it was nice to have electricity to run our AC. Unfortunately it was a short drive from the campground to the beach. We celebrated Halloween while we were in Tampa. Naturally, we chose a wealthy neighborhood and made out like bandits, but paid the price in itchy skin (those damn Florida mosquitos). I saw a shark pretty close to us one day at the beach, it was small though and with no qualifications I deemed it not a threat.

Yeah it was pretty nice.

Next up was Manatee Springs, up Florida’s smooth inner thigh. Surely we’d see a manatee here. Of course, we didn’t but that’s ok. There’s a 70-degree spring that is popular for swimmers. 70 degrees is a bit cold for my liking but my traveling companion did go for a swim.

The highlight of this leg of the trip was our short day excursion to nearby Cedar Key, made famous in the Jimmy Buffet classic “Incommunicado”. “Travis McGee still in Cedar Key… That’s what John MacDonald said”. The reference was lost on my traveling companion who claims to be a parrothead, but we played the shit out of that song once I explained it.

Cedar Key was an awesome place. A tiny town with big ocean views, but not much in the way of beaches. The water didn’t seem great for swimming, but the small waterfront business district was real cute. Locals fished from the pier. We saw a large drumfish being landed, apparently too large to keep. It seemed like a good place to not be found and thus moved to the top of my list of places to move to when I become a deadbeat dad.

Cedar Key Waterfront
Main St. Cedar Key

Up to the panhandle we traveled next, to the heart of the Apalachicola National Forest where we crashed for a few nights at the Camel Lake Campground. It was nice, although I always heard the faint sound of banjos. It was the middle of nowhere but quite pleasant, with few mosquitoes and warm sunny weather (except for our first day when it was cold and rainy). We did quite a bit of hiking around the lake, and I jogged on the quiet forest roads every day.

The forest was a nice change of pace, but in Florida the beach is the main attraction and we headed over to the appropriately named Niceville where we stayed at Fred Gannon Bayou State Park. Niceville is just a few miles from the pearl of the redneck riviera Destin, which can be accessed via a toll bridge over Choctawhatchee Bay. Our state park camping permit got us into Henderson Beach State Park, one of the best beaches yet. The white sand squeaked when you walked on it. The weather was a bit cold, but we pretended it wasn’t and made the most of it.

Henderson Beach State Park near Destin FL

We only stayed a couple nights at Fred Gannon before moving on not to far west to Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola. We spent several days on the beach, again the weather wasn’t too beachy, but it was comfortable. Pensacola is home to a huge naval air base, home of the Blue Angels, and has a nice (free) air museum. Highlights of the museum was the actual “mission accomplished” jet of George W. Bush fame, and also a small moon rock. There were also some old coastal forts, similar to others we’ve seen along the way. We spent one day exploring nearby Gulf Shores Alabama as well. We had another seafood feast, thanks to the “World Famous Joe Patti’s” seafood market. Stone crab, shrimp, oysters, clams, and sausage were on the menu, with a desert of key lime pie.

Next we crossed the border into Mississippi, where we stayed at Davis Bayou, part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Biloxi. The nice beaches ended at the Florida border, but the campground was nice. We saw many raccoons, and more alligators. We took a day to tour Biloxi, it was ok, nothing special, lots of casinos.

The “Big Easy” was next, that’s right we partied it up in New Orleans. Well, not really. We found that it was another one of those places that would be funner without kids. We gobbled down Beignets at the famous Cafe Du Mond, then pretty much just walked around the rest of the day. The architecture was cool, old buildings and whatnot.

Bourbon Street

We visited a playground, then found ourselves on Bourbon Street. We were welcomed by a dead rat. We didn’t make it too far down Bourbon Street before deciding it might be best to find a different street to walk down (and we’re not uptight!). We visited the big catholic church, took in a street performance, and then got out of dodge. New Orleans is dirty, not necessarily in a bad way, definitely gritty. We drove to a park not near downtown, before heading back over Lake Ponchatrain to our campground at Fontainbleu State Park. This is also where we celebrated Tommy’s 3rd birthday. We went to a children’s museum, then a playground, then Chuck E Cheese. It was a great day.

After New Orleans, we spent a Harvest Hosts night at Bayou Teche Brewing Company. Breweries are my personal favorite Harvest Hosts for obvious reasons. The beer was good, and they also served pizza. Can’t beat that. I forgot to mention that our furnace had been on the fritz since Florida. It hadn’t been too big a problem, but as the nights started getting cooler it was getting more urgent to find parts. I needed what is known as a high-limit-switch. We stopped at several RV dealers along the way but no luck.

We hopped across Texas, staying at a couple Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds. One was near College Station where we visited the George Bush (not Dubya) Presidential Library on the campus of Texas A&M. It was interesting, and I’m glad we went.

Boys in front of the George Bush Library in College Station

We posted up for a few days around Thanksgiving at Crane’s Mill Campground on Canyon Lake in Central Texas. It was conveniently located about halfway between San Antonio and Austin. We took care of several loose ends including getting my bike fixed (all it took was a new cassette, doh!), and finding the part I needed for the furnace. We ordered a pre-made Thanksgiving dinner, and in the process found the world’s best grocery store HEB. They are only found in Texas and feature Walmart prices, but a huge quality food selection.

The campground itself was quite nice with hot showers and a closed loop which the boys could ride their bikes on without fear of cars. I did a little mountain biking. There were mollusk fossils everywhere, which the boys liked. We made a trip to Austin but didn’t do much except drive around and visit a playground.

We made another (long) day trip down to San Antonio. First we visited several of San Antonio’s historic missions ending at the most famous one, The Alamo! The Alamo was pretty neat, a lot smaller than I was expecting. Near the Alamo is San Antonio’s second most popular tourist attraction River Walk. River Walk is a flood control canal with walking paths and shops and restaurants on both sides. It’s another one of those things that would have been more fun if we had money and no kids. We ate at our first Whataburger, it was good.

River Walk San Antonio

West Texas was our next destination. On the way over we stopped at another Harvest Host brewery, Bandera Ale Project in Bandera, TX. The beer was excellent, and we had the place to ourselves. As with most Harvest Hosts we stayed just one night, before moving on to our next destination, Amistad National Recreation Area. During the day’s drive the landscape turned from hill country to Chihuahuan desert. Lake Amistad is a manmade reservoir on the Pecos River near the US/Mexico border. The campground was nothing special, but nice enough and not busy. It was a nice overnight on the way to the big prize, Big Bend National Park.

On our way over, we stopped at the Judge Roy Bean Museum. There were some cool exhibits and a desert garden. We spent the night at an RV park in Marathon TX. The onsite restaurant was having an all you can eat special, trying to get rid of the summer’s excess food. We opted against it and judging by the state of the public restrooms the next day, it was a good decision.

The next day we finally made it to Big Bend National Park, which would be the highlight of our winter camping season. We stopped at the visitor’s center and then continued on to a roadside fossil exhibit featuring many of the dinosaurs who once lived in the area. The boys knew all the scientific names and were super excited.

Deinosuchus Skull (reproduction) at Big Bend’s Fossil Discovery Exhibit

We stayed at the Rio Grande Village campground, and it was very nice, with the only downside being the total lack of internet. We hiked just about every day. We found new friends at the campground who were also travelling full time with little kids.

I mountain biked quite a bit on the primitive jeep roads. The weather was pleasant most days, even hot some days, most welcome in December. We drove about every paved road in the park. We soaked in hot springs on the banks of the Rio Grande, just a stone’s throw from Mexico (not really, I kept trying but I could never get a stone all the way to the other side). We saw plenty of coyotes and road runners. We even took a rowboat over the Rio Grande to the town of Boquillas Mexico, a town entirely dependent on tourists visiting from Big Bend.

At the river’s edge on the Mexican side, we hired a guide and two burros for the boys to ride into town. They were both pleased with their burro riding skills. Once we got to town we corralled the burros and walked through the streets bombarded by trinket sellers. We ended up buying some bead-and-wire art from our guides mother (he was in his mid-teens). We had a delicious lunch at one of the towns two restaurants (both owned by the same family), then headed back to the good old USA. Other highlights included a day trip to dusty yet artsy Terlingua, and Big Bend Ranch State Park.

Headed to Mexico
Boquillas Restaurant
Typical Big Bend Rio Grande Scenery

Big Bend was our last big destination for the year, and we slowly started back towards Colorado where we’d spend Christmas with family. We stayed a couple nights at an RV Park in Alpine Texas, visited the famous “Marfa Prada”, and spent one night at a Mexican cheese farm near El Paso. The Mexican cheese farm was a Harvest Host and was even equipped with a petting zoo which entertained the boys. A baby goat was apparently born the night of our stay.

Our last stop for the year was in Alamogordo, where it all began nearly a year prior. We visited White Sands yet again, and stashed the camper in short term storage before making the drive back up to Colorado.

Marfa Prada

After about three weeks in Colorado we were eager to hit the road, and once again found ourselves in Alamogordo. This time around we spent more than two weeks exploring everything Alamogordo had to offer.

We camped at Oliver Lee State Park at the mouth of Dog Canyon just south of town. What did we do you ask?

  • Visited White Sands (just officially made a National Park) several times.
  • Visited the New Mexico Museum of Space History.
  • Went to the zoo.
  • Toured McGinn’s Pistachio Farm.
  • Visited Cloudcroft, then on to the Solar Observatory at Sunspot (elevation 9186).
  • Hiked around Oliver Lee, and toured the historic ranch.
  • Mountain biked the BLM land surrounding Oliver Lee
  • Spent a day in El Paso (mostly just for shopping).

At Oliver Lee we met another full time family traveling with a youngster, and even caught up with our old friends from Big Bend who were crossing back eastward.

Great Site at Oliver Lee State Park
The Solar Telescope at Sunspot

Eventually we had to say goodbye to Alamogordo, and headed just a few miles up the road to Three Rivers Petroglyph Site. We only stayed one night at Three Rivers, which allowed enough time to walk the loop trail and see some wild, 600 year old, Jornada Mogollon rock art.

Just one of over 20,000 petroglyphs at 3 Rivers New Mexico

Next up was Valley Of Fires Recreational Area near Carrizoso NM. I can’t count how many lava flows and volcanoes we’ve visited so far, but this was another very cool one. There was a nice hiking trail that meandered its way through the lava flow.

This was also our base camp to explore the nearby pueblos, all of which pre-dated the Spanish arrival by hundreds of years. Most of the pueblos continued after the Spanish invasion before slowly being abandoned. They are ruins now, but still quite remarkable. We visited Gran Quivera first, then stopped in Mountainaire where the Salinas Pueblo Missions Visitor’s Center is located. We watched the short NPS film about the missions, and then headed to the next Mission on the list, Quarai. Our last stop was Mission Abo.

Valley Of Fires, NM
Quarai Mission

We had planned to head east through Ruidoso, and then over to Roswell and Carlsbad, but mother nature had other plans. February in New Mexico is unpredictable and a big storm was coming. We headed for the relative lowlands of Elephant Butte Reservoir near Truth or Consequences to ride out the weather. It was still cold, but we missed any measurable snow. We did some shopping in town. It seemed to be a popular place for RVers to winter. It wouldn’t be our first choice to stay for any measurable amount of time.

Once the weather passed we made our way down to Las Cruces. On the way we stopped at Sparky’s in Hatch to try their world famous green chile cheeseburgers. It did not disappoint. From that point on we’ve made green chile cheeseburgers every few weeks. Frozen Hatch chiles are typically available at Walmart.

Lunch at Sparky’s in Hatch NM

We decided to stay at the Aguirre Springs campground just east of Las Cruces. We’d stayed there the prior year and loved it. When we arrived we saw a group of Orex, known to live around the white sands missile range. These animals were released in the 60’s and 70’s for the purpose of big game hunting. The state later decided that was a bad idea, but allow the herd to continue.

When we arrived at the campground it was nearly empty, and there was still snow on the ground. We grabbed the nicest spot right at the top of the loop and hung out for almost a week. While in the area we did a lot of hiking. We visited Prehistoric Trackways National Monument, where there are apparently dinosaur tracks. We didn’t see any, but did find a lot of marine fossils. We stopped at Old Mesilla, which reminded me of a mini Santa Fe. We drove around Las Cruces, and decided we were too harsh last time we were here and that it is a lovely town.

Old Messilla

Another storm was coming so we left the higher elevation of Aguirre Springs and camped at the Baylor Pass West trailhead for one night, and at the Las Cruces KOA the next night. We did get snow at the KOA. While in town we bought surgical masks. It was Feb. 10th. The goal now was to get over to Carlsbad where we could get a national parks twofer’ with Guadalupe Mountains National Park and Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

The trip over was fairly uneventful, we spent one night at a Harvest Host winery that was unfortunately closed. The next day we made it to the Chosa Campground just outside of Carlsbad Caverns. It’s hard to call it a campground. In fact its just an old fracking pond that had been drained and flattened. It was free however, so we weren’t complaining. There were at least 10 other campers every night we were there, but it was a big parking lot and so we had plenty of space to spread out.

We had been to both National Parks before, but a long time ago, before kids. Both seemed to have not changed other than being a lot more busy. We spent one day hiking in Guadalupe Mountains. We visited an old homestead and did the first part of the McKittrick Canyon trail. We took two days for Carlsbad Caverns. The first visit we walked down from the natural entrance, then took the elevator out. The second visit we rode the elevator both down and up.

Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance
McKittrick Canyon Trail, Guadalupe Mountains

After Carlsbad, we headed back west through Las Cruces yet again, and on to Deming. We wanted to stay at Rockhound State Park, but it was completely full, and not even a weekend. We ended up at Lescombes Winery, another Harvest Host we’d stayed at almost a year prior. We stayed the usual one night and then moved on to City of Rocks State Park south of Silver City.

We feared getting shut out of another state park, and as we started the loop around the campground, it wasn’t looking good. Fortunately we found a nice spot right up next to the rocks on the backside of the loop. This was another example of New Mexico State Parks at their best, cheap, clean, hot showers, and a nice visitors center.

While in the area we visited Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in the heart of the Gila Wilderness. It was a pretty long drive up, but well worth it. There was fantastic mountain scenery all the way there. We stopped at the visitors center. By this point the passport stamp books were nearly full. We hiked up to the dwellings, took a good look around, and then hurried back down. We took a different route home and got some more awesome scenery.

We spent another day poking around the town of Silver City. Silver City is often mentioned in promotional materials as being a great place to retire, and indeed there were many retirees to be found. It was gritty but I quite liked it. The rest of the family isn’t sold on the place, but that’s OK, we’ve got a long time till retirement. We walked the main drag, went to the museum, then hit the playground.

Our Site at City of Rocks State Park
Gila Cliff Dwellings

That was it for New Mexico. Next we stayed in Wilcox AZ (same as last year), and went to Chiricahua National Monument (same as last year). It’s a place so spectacular we just needed to see again. We didn’t linger long though and moved on quickly to the Bisbee area where we stayed at another harvest host. This was a small winery on a private residence. They let us to stay two nights which allowed us to visit Bisbee and Tombstone on separate days.

Bisbee was a very cool old mine town. The first thing you see upon entering town is the huge open pit copper mine. No mining is happening currently, and nowadays the big draw is tourism. The cool thing about old mining towns is the old architecture from whenever the mine was booming. Bisbee is no exception, and the opulent main drag was a sight to behold.

Tombstone on the other hand was a tourist trap. We didn’t hate it, but didn’t love it either. There were actors dressed in wild west garb, hourly gunfights, and a host of other attractions aimed at an ‘older’ demographic. We got bored and decided to drive down to Sierra Vista. There wasn’t much to see there either, we stopped at Walmart where we bought hand sanitizer and cold medication. It was Feb. 27th. To close out our far southern Arizona tour we spent a few nights with several thousand sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw State Wildlife Area, then one night at another Harvest Host winery near Sonoita.

Bisbee AZ

From there we swung north to Tucson where we’d stay for one night at the Pima County Fairgrounds, and then several nights at Gilbert Ray Campground. While in Tucson we did a lot of hiking, biking, and oh nothing we visited the Biosphere 2. Oh yes, that big glass greenhouse you heard so much about in the 1980’s and early 90’s. No one lives inside anymore, but it is a huge tourist draw. We took the tour, and it was pretty great.

Inside Biosphere 2
Campsite at Gilbert Ray

After Tucson we headed further north and stayed at my parents condo in Mesa, AZ for a couple weeks. The hot showers and cold pool were welcome after almost two months on the road. Jackie and I made one day trip to the cliff dwellings in the Tonto National Forest, while the boys spent time with their grandparents. Other than that we just enjoyed condo life. We received a pulse oximeter in the mail from Amazon. It was March 16th.

Tonto Cliff Dwellings

By now the coronavirus story had blown up, so we figured we’d better get back out on the road while we could. We headed down to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near the US/Mexico border. We stayed at the Twin Peaks Campground and enjoyed the nice weather, hiked, biked, and visited the border wall. We were aware that the campground would likely be closed due to the ‘rona, and on March 29th the campers were finally kicked out. We were allowed one night at the Gila Bend KOA where Jackie took care of laundry, before being forced back into the hot desert.

Love those Organ Pipes
“The Wall”

Our final destination before full-on lockdown was Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, just west of Gila Bend. There was a big pile of volcanic rock with ancient drawings, very similar to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico, but on a smaller scale.

We stayed at the nearly empty BLM campground for about a week. It was hot, and we were tormented by black flies. On April 5th, with no other options, we retreated back to the condo for almost two months of isolation. As I write this, it’s May 27th and we’re heading out on the road again tomorrow, first stop Flagstaff AZ. Hopefully I’m better about blogging because writing this post was a bit much.