Westward Ho

Missouri to Arizona – July, 2017 We left Missouri and headed west. The first day, we drove all day and put the entire state of Oklahoma behind us. Then we slowed a bit, averaging about 3 hours a day, and only taking one day completely off during that first week.

It wasn’t a bad trip but it wasn’t terribly exciting either. There certainly wasn’t much to write home about. We found Tucumcari, New Mexico the most interesting stop of the trip.

We pulled in to the Cactus RV Park before lunchtime.

We thought it was one of the more interesting RV parks we have stayed at. RV spaces are in the courtyard of an old Route 66 hotel originally known as the Cactus Motor Lodge. The property was built in the early 1940’s and originally included a dance hall.

The motel rooms are no longer in use but are still cool looking.

They have some neat features including this detail in the handrails.

It’s a shame the buildings have fallen into such disrepair. Here is a postcard I found online promoting the hotel in its heyday.

Tucumcari turned out to be an interesting little town full of similar establishments. Some were in operation despite being a little rundown.

Others were lovingly restored.

There were some fun gift shops with classic Route 66 souvenirs.

We walked the strip a couple times, first in the afternoon, and again early in the morning while some of the neon still glowed. The Blue Swallow is a 1939 built motor court with garages attached to most rooms. It is beautifully restored.

Following is my favorite picture of the Blue Swallow. I took some liberties with it and the photo editor app, Snapseed.

The town of Tucumcari is relatively flat but is lorded over by the imposing Mount Tucumcari. You can see it from almost any place in town. We thought we might drive up it but didn’t get too far before the rough road made us turn around.

I doubt we could have entertained ourselves in Tucumcari for a whole other day. But it was a pleasant stopover on a long road trip and we certainly would stop again. The Cactus RV Park was peaceful and clean and you can’t beat $20 per night for a full hookup site with a Passport America discount.

Reflections on a Year Well Spent

Ajo, AZ to Kingsville, TX – January, 2016 The passing of the calendar year coupled with the one year anniversary of us hitting the road is a logical time to reflect on our expectations, realities, and what’s next.

We have been incredibly pleased with our first year on the road. It is everything we had hoped for and more. Any minor concerns we had have virtually vanished. Do we feel safe boondocking in remote locations? Yes. Can we really live on this budget? Yes. Are we gonna strangle each other if we spend every waking moment together and live in less than 400 square feet? Not yet!

Many of our goals revolved around our health. Together we lost over 40 pounds this year. More importantly we are stronger and the aches and pains I feared might worsen with exercise have instead improved.

We try, and generally succeed, at walking no less than 3 miles every single day. But are we ready to tackle mountains? Not yet. Have our eating habits changed? Not significantly.

We nicknamed this first year “The Highlight Tour.” We endeavored to see all the sights out west that we had not yet seen that we would be really disappointed if we never made it to. Many destinations we cheerfully checked off our bucket list. Others were checked and then moved to the growing list of places we plan to return to for a longer visit in the in the years to come. A small few we just didn’t get to but they got moved to the list of places we’ll see on another western roadtrip, hopefully in 2017.

The west was so much more than we expected. Arizona was more mountainous, southern California was greener, everywhere people were friendlier than we ever imagined. Our expectations were surpassed at every turn. But the southwest just wasn’t warm enough for us to want to spend a whole winter.

We experienced several weeks of nighttime lows in the 20s and 30s. It got chilly very quickly in the late afternoon and it often took until almost lunch for it to warm up in the morning. That’s too many hours that we are stuck in the camper staying warm instead of outside being active. We certainly plan to spend a lot more time in the southwest but we will go further south, hopefully to Mexico, for the coldest months of the year.

Since we had committed months ago to being in Houston by mid-February and that was still four weeks away, we decided we were ready to move it on over to Texas. Last year when we were at Padre Island National Seashore we had been too excited about heading west to explore any further south in Texas. So now we wanted to go as far south as we could in Texas to spend a couple weeks before going to Houston as planned.

We had just boondocked for seven days so we stopped in Benson, Arizona at the Escapees Saguaro Co-op for a couple nights to dump our tanks, fill up on water, and recharge our batteries. We loved this park when we passed through last spring. They charge $20 per night plus electric which after taxes averaged out to $27.50 per night. It is a friendly park, convenient, and has one of the cleanest and least expensive laundromats I’d found all year. I was behind on my laundry so this appealed to me.

I was looking forward to making our next stop a winery a couple hours east of Benson. The St. Clair Winery just off I-10 east of Deming, New Mexico, participates in the Harvest Host program which allows RVs to stay at farms and wineries for one night. I joined the program and used it to stay at Tularosa Vineyards near Alamogordo, New Mexico last spring. I had heard about the St. Clair Winery shortly after we had passed that way and was disappointed we had missed it.

I read that you could fill your own containers at this winery with very reasonably priced wine. I couldn’t believe I had missed such a gem! We actually decided to travel further that day but I insisted we stop anyway. This place was awesome! Unfortunately this past year they stopped letting you bring your own containers. Instead you have to buy their container and then you can bring it back as many times as you like.

The prices were still great and the wine was too. They will sell you a filled magnum, the equivalent of 2 bottles of wine, for about $10 and if you bring their bottle back they will refill it for around $6. I loved their sweet white and sweet red. It is probably for the best that I don’t live nearby.

We generally prefer to travel no more than 2-3 hours a day but Jim said he was willing to put in some longer days in order to reach southern Texas’ warmer temperatures. So we passed up staying at the winery in sweet bliss and instead set our sights on the other side of El Paso. After a late start and too short a stop at St. Clair’s we were slated to arrive late on a Friday afternoon.

I kept reading references to bad traffic conditions on I-10 in El Paso and was not terribly excited about heading into that late on a Friday afternoon. So when I mentioned that the Texas Welcome Center at Exit 1, a good 15 miles north of El Paso, had good overnight RV parking Jim agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to stop by on our way through and see if it would suffice for the night.

We had not yet spent a night in a rest area even though Texas has some rather nice ones and 24 hours of parking is allowed at each. The problem is that they are generally very close to the highway and, more importantly, you have no idea how many semis might join you before morning. Semis are rather noisy and not our first choice for neighbors.

The nice thing about this welcome center was that it was set back a fairly good distance from the highway and there were three parking lots; one for cars, one for RV’s, and one for semi-trucks.

We arrived before 3 and were the only ones parked in the RV lot so we took the only spot that had a yard.

We walked in to talk to the folks in the welcome center. They were very friendly and, well, welcoming. So we put out our slides and made ourselves at home. We walked around the parking lot and next door to an RV dealer. Then we made some dinner and watched TV. It turned out to be quieter than some RV parks we’ve stayed at.

When we awoke in the morning one pickup truck camper had joined us in the RV lot and a dozen semis had stopped in their lot. Surprisingly a couple motorhomes had chosen to stop in the semi lot. Weird! We were pretty pleased with our free camping location especially since we had gotten a good night’s sleep and saved $40 on the campground we planned to stop at.

We got a very early start the next day and drove about 450 miles to Junction, Texas. I had read about a city park in Junction that had free camping and all the reviews were good. We decided to drive through and if we didn’t like what we saw we could head over to one of the town’s RV parks. We expected a large gravel parking lot but what we got was amazing. The park was spread out near a small dam. There was a motorhome parked along the lakeshore and we nabbed a spot at the other end of the park below the dam. This was the view out our front door.

There was plenty of room for lots of other rigs but it was just the two of us on a Saturday night. I imagine it is a very popular place in the warmer months.

We got going the next morning intending to make it all the way to our destination about 6 hours away. But when we ran into construction on Highway 77 near Kingsville we agreed we had had enough driving and that this was close enough. I found us a campground on the nearby Baffin Bay for a couple nights and that is where we began the south Texas portion of our journey.

New Mexico to Oklahoma

Navajo Dam, NM to Quapaw, OK – June, 2015

We decided to spend the month of July in our home state of Missouri. We wanted to arrive at the end of June so we could catch one of our granddaughter’s t-ball games and enjoy Independence Day with our friends. We plan to stay through a family reunion at the end of July then resume our journey. Once we made that decision we thought of a ton of ways it would make life easier and save us money. We scheduled doctors’ appointments we’d intended to skip, maintenance on the truck and trailer with mechanics we know and trust, and work on a rental house we would have hired out. It cost us about $300 in fuel to make the trip and it will cost the same to get back on track but we’ll spend most of the month camped on the properties of our friends and family so the savings in campground fees alone will balance that out.

We had a little time before we wanted to start back and had decided on a southerly route through Albuquerque so we thought we’d spend a few days at Navajo Lake in New Mexico. Jim had hoped to do a lot of fishing in Colorado but many of the rivers on his must fish list were flooded during our visit. He heard the fishing at this lake was good and that the San Juan River was not flooding below the lake where its waters are controlled by the dam. We made a reservation at the Navajo Lake State Park through Reserve America. One of the few reservable sites still available was in the Juniper Loop. The description said it was large enough for a 40 foot rig, plenty big enough for our 35 foot 5th wheel. Because I had heard such great things about New Mexico State Parks and the only one we had visited had supported this praise, I never thought to check campground reviews. Lesson learned!

This was one of the worst campgrounds we have ever seen. The Juniper loop is quite a ways down a pretty poor dirt road but the loop itself was so tight we had no business taking our rig around it. It was a narrow road, the turns were too tight, and there were pylons lining it so there was little room for error. The site we had reserved was possibly 40 foot on one side but because of its angle I doubt it was even 30 foot on the other. It also had pylons lining its perimeter. If by some miracle we could have maneuvered in to it a corner of our rig would have stuck out in the already narrow road.  We left, grateful to have only suffered some minor scratches from tree branches. We stopped at the first campground in the park, which was paved and had a campground host, to inquire if they had any first come first serve sites available that we could fit in but did not find any. This loop was also very badly laid out and the sites were small and crowded. Later we called Reserve America and did get a full refund.

We headed to the town of Navajo Dam where the next closest camping options were. After our frustrating morning we were happy to find a gravel parking lot with electric sites at Abe’s Motel & Fly Shop for $20. We paid for one night not certain what our next move was. After lunch we headed out in the truck to explore the river. The state park has another campground on the river called Cottonwood Loop that we were told is newer and well laid out. We headed that way but the road to it was horrendous. After a mile or so at 2 miles an hour we gave up and turned back. I can’t imagine they don’t have a better way to reach that campground but I sure couldn’t find any evidence of it. We decided we’d had enough of this place and we would start the trek to Missouri the next morning. We agreed that this was the worst experience we’ve had since our journey began and also that if this was the worst thing to happen to us that we have it pretty darn good.

The next day we drove a whole 5 hours and stopped in Santa Rosa, NM. We had a pleasant stay at the Santa Rosa RV Park for $30 and enjoyed a spectacular New Mexico sunset.

The following day we made the short 2 ½ hour hop to Amarillo, Texas and stayed at Amarillo Ranch RV Park for $35. As RVers we just had to visit The RV Museum. It is behind the Jack Sisemore Traveland RV store. There is limited parking and you walk in to the store wondering “what museum?”. But just ask and they will be happy to escort you out back to a large building with dozens of vintage RVs. It really is a great collection and there is no admission fee. We enjoyed about on hour of poking around all the cool exhibits.

Jim loved the Flxible Bus from the movie RV.

The next day we decided to drive as long as we could stand to. We could have made it all the way in under 10 hours but after 8 we were pretty road weary. So we set our sights on a place we were familiar with and only 90 miles from our final destination. Downstream Casino is in the very northeast corner of Oklahoma. In fact, most of their parking lot is in Kansas and their convenience store and RV park are in Missouri. They built an awesome RV park just a couple years ago. It’s all paved, the sites have water and electric, and we’ve never seen it crowded. I love their neon sign.

We are not much for gambling but we have come here several times to meet friends, to see concerts, and sometimes even to gamble. It is basically free. You have to get one of their player’s cards and then each card owner gets one free night. So a couple can stay for two nights free. If you gamble, you can earn points and get more free nights. The best thing about this place is they allow registered RV guests to use their pool. One of our favorite trips we stopped on the way back from a weekend camping in Arkansas and spent a whole day at the pool. We had so much fun we agreed to stay and do it again a second day. We never set foot on the casino floor but spent the money we would normally have budgeted for gambling on food and beverages at the pool bar. I don’t think we’ve ever gone to this pool that we didn’t meet someone interesting. After 8 hours on the road we had a light dinner and headed over. It was great to cool off, wind down with a couple adult beverages, and make another new friend.

Southern New Mexico

Roswell to Las Cruces, NM – March 2015

After two days at Carlsbad Caverns I was ready to move on. I decided to head a little further north to Roswell, New Mexico as it was only 100 miles away and I thought it’d be fun. I had also heard of an interesting state park a few miles outside of town. Bottomless Lakes State Park has small round ponds that are actually sink holes. They appear bottomless because of their blue green color but the deepest is 90 feet. This lake had a very large and then a smaller sink hole side by side.

They are often dived by scuba divers which would have been fun but it wasn’t quite warm enough for that. The park had a nice campsite with generously sized sites and a price right in my budget.

I moved camp and headed in to Roswell that first afternoon. It was a nice town and larger than I thought but I’m glad I hadn’t driven any further out of my way. There are a couple of blocks of quirky little shops downtown near the UFO museum dedicated to “the incident”. It took me all of an hour to check it out. The most exciting part of the visit for me was discovering that Roswell had the same chain of shoe store I usually shop at and they had my favorite hiking boot in stock. I had done so much hiking I had worn holes in both my hiking boots and tennis shoes but hadn’t been in a town big enough to find replacements.

The second day I spent a pleasant day in camp, hiking the pools, riding my scooter, and catching up on some maintenance on my trailer. It was Friday and I realized I had to get some business done on Monday and needed a decent size town to do it in. I decided Las Cruces, NM would fit the bill and made a plan to get there by Sunday afternoon. It was a whole 184 miles away but I had two days to get there so I planned to cover half of it Saturday putting me in Alamogordo for the night.

Turns out this area has quite a few wineries so this was the perfect opportunity for me to try out my new $40 Harvest Hosts club membership. They have a ton of participating wineries and farms that will let RVers park free for the night. Of course, you are expected to patronize their business. I chose Tularoso Vineyards for its convenience to the highway. I got there early in the afternoon. They had a large field of red dirt and told me to park anywhere I wanted. I set up, visited their store, and picked out a $12 bottle of cherry wine that would go great with a campfire one night in my future. I went in to town to visit the New Mexico Museum of Space History which was interesting and a good value at only $6.   When I got back the winery was closed for the night and I had the place to myself until they opened at noon the next day. This was the view out my door.

The place was quiet, a short way down a gravel road to seemingly nowhere. About midnight some rowdy kids drove by howling in to the night and I thought “here we go” but they didn’t come back and those were the only sounds I heard all night. I had a very good first experience with this membership and am especially looking forward to patronizing some of the farms this summer.

I headed to Las Cruces the next morning and it took me a whole hour to get there. I decided to splurge on a private campground in town as my next option was a state park 20 miles away. After setting up I went to explore all the historic areas of the town which didn’t take long. The next morning I took care of my business in short order and then decided on a nearby hike.

Dripping Springs trail was just about the most perfect hike I could imagine. It is 3 miles round trip, it’s uphill on the way in and downhill on the way back, and at the destination you are treated to beautiful scenery and the historical ruins of an old resort.

I was the first person on the trail at 9 am on a Monday morning. The park ranger said the day before they had 400 visitors. I’m very glad I was there early as I had the place to myself and that added to my enjoyment of it. I didn’t see another soul until I started back to the visitor center and before I got back I had passed about 2 dozen people. I would definitely recommend this hike to anyone that visits the Las Cruces area.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Carlsbad, NM – March 2015

I was tempted to leave Texas and haul tail to Arizona. I had been enjoying mostly spring like weather since the beginning of my trek and I really was ready for some heat. 70s would be nice but I’d prefer 80s. To find that I’d have to skip one of the items on my must see list and that seemed to miss the point of keeping such a list so I pointed the truck north to New Mexico.

Carlsbad Caverns was my primary destination. I have always wanted to visit it and had never been closer. There is a campground right outside of the park’s gates called White’s City RV Park. It was well over my budget at $36 per night but I justified the cost in convenience and gas savings as the only significantly cheaper options were 35 miles away. The top side of this part of New Mexico is not very attractive in my opinion but what’s under the earth more than makes up for it.

I got to camp at noon, set up quickly, and headed to the cave. The self-guided tour consists of two parts: a walk down in through the natural entrance and then paths through some of the more amazing sections of the cave. You can access the lower paths by way of an elevator and skip the natural entrance if you like. Here is the natural entrance.

The natural entrance trail is described as a strenuous one and a quarter mile, 750 foot decent into the cavern. You can’t help but think “how strenuous can a 1 mile walk downhill be?” By the end of this walk you will likely agree with that description except you might question if it really is just over a mile long because it seems much longer. There were plenty of people that should not have chosen this route and were clearly regretting their decision. I absolutely would do it again but would likely start fresh in the a.m. instead of doing it after a morning of driving.

I went back the next day and was there just after opening. I took the elevator down this time and walked the main cavern again without the crowds. It was great enjoying the beauty without all the noise.

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I then took the guided tour that they offer every day. The tour was fine but it didn’t offer anything special over the self- guided portions of the cave. They offer some longer tours, a different one every day of the week. But those were booked a month in advance when I was there. I’d love to plan another visit and reserve a tour every single day.

WOW! is about all I had to say during my visits inside the cave and sums up my opinion of Carlsbad Caverns. I’ve seen quite a few caves but none come close to the beauty and size of this place.