Mountain Dog Meets Sitting Bull

Once again we retraced our route along Route 70 through Roswell and then south to Carlsbad. We again left the green Rio Hondo valley and descended to the flat dry desert. Despite our earlier negative experience with a KOA, we were booked to stay three days at the KOA in Carlsbad. This resort boasted of tremendous reviews and they were accurate. This was an extremely well-maintained park with very nice bath facilities and a spotless laundry. They even offered trailer delivery of their own tasty barbecue!

 

IMG_0744The back of the menu for their barbecue offered ideas of things to do in the area. Sitting Bull Falls Recreation Area was one idea which drew our attention. It said they had great facilities and were dog-friendly. We’re up for any place receptive to our four-legged roommate. The next morning we packed a picnic and headed out.

We turned off the main highway to Carlsbad and drove for miles through the desert. Along each side of the road, hills of jagged rock erupted from the desert floor. The rock was variously colored shades of tan and brown with streaks of red or white rock breaking the monotone. There was almost no traffic, just an occasional passing truck. Periodically we passed oil derricks and other signs of energy harvesting. There were no houses except for one clump of three at about the halfway point.

Our highway terminated at the park. High mountains surrounded the parking lot and picnic area. The park was created in 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps--another tremendous gift to posterity grown from the roots of the Depression. The picnic shelters were constructed of local rock and looked like they could withstand the winds forever. The wind was blowing with some strength so it was a good bet they had been tested. Signage on the wall of the comfort station warned against the usual perils of rattlesnakes and added warnings and combat strategies against mountain lion attacks. That was sure to keep me looking over my shoulder even as I scanned the trail ahead.

IMG_0636

The falls of Sitting Bull are reached by a short trail. They stand 130’ tall and the water cascades into a swimming hole. Despite the March date the day was hot and there were quite a few children frolicking in the water.  Rather than swim, we opted to head out on the more challenging system of trails which run through the park.

We climbed a trail which wound up a mountain next to the falls and, as we progressed, we encountered fewer and fewer people. The terrain was beautiful. Tan and sand colored rocks were punctuated with scrub, bushes and twisted trees. Life was hard in this country, but abundant. We passed wild flowers and cactus in bloom.

Our trail headed across the valley floor and then snaked up the side of one of the big hills or tiny mountains depending upon your perspective. It was warm and the sun was strong, but the wind whisked away any drop of sweat. It was work climbing and stepping on the rocky trail, but it was very beautiful. We stopped periodically to just look around and marvel at the contours of the land and the play of the sun and clouds across the hills.

Dakota was proving yet again he is Mountain Dog. He was smiling and leaping over rocks like a young dog. He was number two in line and I was the caboose. Following Jim inspired him and I could keep an eye on him. We stopped frequently for water breaks. He insists on wearing that fur coat every day and it had to be pretty warm on a day like this. We forded several streams and Dakota got thoroughly muddy. He could be counted on to wade through the deepest muddiest mud.

We ate our sandwiches sitting on big rocks looking out across the valleys. The warm wind was whipping past us and the clouds flew overhead. It was an amazing scene and we could see the trail threading across the top of yet another ridge which would have an equally breathtaking view.

We wanted to go on forever. There was a big network of trails to be discovered and it was calling to us, but we also knew we had to make it back. No one was going to come carry us home. Hiking over rough terrain is much more demanding than a nice level walk. Reluctantly, we turned and headed back.

The return drive was equally striking. We reached the KOA in late afternoon and it was good to take advantage of their facilities and enjoy a nice long hot shower. We had ordered their barbecue for dinner. It was delivered to our trailer promptly at 7. It was pretty darn good barbeque and a treat not to have to cook. Pulled pork for me, ribs for Jim and coleslaw, potato salad with Texas toast on the side. It was good.

The KOA is situated next to Brantley Lake State Park.  Brantley Lake was yet another manmade lake created in the 1980’s when a dam was erected across our old friend, the Pecos River. This area is where the Pecos River gets its start. The lake’s size and shape shifts constantly depending upon the flow of the river and the current climate conditions. We had opted not to stay at the state park and were curious to see what we might be missing.

Surrounded by desert, the lake seems an incongruous mirage. It is popular for boating and fishing, but while the lake is stocked with many kinds of fish and is considered a destination fishing spot, high levels of DDT prevent the fish from being eaten.

The campground is fairly small and sits on a bluff overlooking the lake. As always in this part of the world, the wind blew ferociously and the sun was merciless and hot. We walked on a rocky nature trail which encircled the camp ground. It was not a tremendously inviting setting. The bathhouse fan was really noisy and could be heard through much of the campground.

 

 

We were pretty glad we had chosen to stay at the amenity-rich KOA. Let it be hot and dusty; we had a nice shower facility.

We were pretty glad we had chosen to stay at the amenity-rich KOA. Let it be hot and dusty; we had a nice shower facility.

 

Finding Our Better Place

We re-traced our path back to Ruidoso. Earlier I had called a few RV parks. Many of them were closed for winter, but Circle B, purported to be the largest, was open for business. A gruff voice told us to drive on over. Circle B was in Ruidoso Downs just across from the racetrack and the Billy the Kid Casino.IMG_0413 Despite how that might sound, it was still rural and the hills were covered in trees; pines, mesquite and juniper.

The proprietors of Circle B were Rip and Judy Van Winkle. How can you not like a guy called Rip Van Winkle? Gee, wonder how he got that nickname… Rip was somewhere in his 70’s. It was hard to tell. He had a wiry frame and weathered visage. He sported a billed cap declaring himself a Navy veteran. Vietnam perhaps? Affixed to his cap was a button, “I’m a deplorable…”

We got a site high on the hill at the back of the park with mountains on all sides. The sound of the road was distant. The air was cool and we were transcendently happy to be away from the heat and dust and to be perched on the hillside.

Ruidoso is a tourist area. A place for Texans and other New Mexicans to escape the desert heat in summer and the best southern NM ski destination in winter. It boasts the aforementioned race track and also features several casinos some of which are on the nearby Mescalero Apache Reservation. There are shops and galleries and all the accoutrements of a tourist area. Rip had given us a very helpful visitor guide from the previous summer’s season which became our bible.

NM_BillytheKidTrail

Rip had suggested we drive the Billy the Kid Byway and see the old western town of Lincoln. The Billy the Kid Byway is a somewhat triangularly shaped route which begins in Ruidoso, continues along Route 70 following the Rio Hondo to Hondo where it takes a left onto Route 380. We were just under way when we spotted an historical marker. We pulled over to take a look. The John H. Tunstall Murder Site, now who was that? It was an appetizing teaser to all that we were about to see and learn.

The road runs through lovely valleys flanked by brown hills spotted with cottonwood trees, pines and brush. It is incredibly pretty and the constant fluctuations of the hills make for successively remarkable views. We traveled past ranches and horse farms and reached the town of Lincoln.

Lincoln was the original seat of Lincoln County, once the largest county in the country. It is known as the best preserved western town and also was one of the most violent. Back in the mid-1800’s one sheriff alone covered the entire county which meant there was essentially no law. This lawlessness gave rise to the Lincoln County War from 1878-1881.

Sparked by the murder of John Tunstall, a wealthy British man who had arrived in town to establish a store to compete with the monopolistic Murphy/Dolan store, the two factions burst into conflict over control of the town. Gunfights, murder and assassination marked the next years as outlaw groups battled each other. Billy the Kid, Pat Garrett, the Regulators—these are some of the infamous names from the period.

The main street of old Lincoln town is bounded on each end by museums. To the east is the Anderson-Freeman and on the west end is the Courthouse Museum.

The Anderson-Freeman is not a large museum, but it has a beautifully curated collection. Moving through the circuit of rooms, the first holds a collection of apache clothing and weapons. There are beaded shirts, moccasins and quivers with arrows and bows. The beaded apache mocassins and clothing were incredibly exciting to see. I could not imagine creating that embellishment with the tools they had at hand.

There is an exhibit on Buffalo Soldiers from nearby Fort Stanton with photos, artifacts, weapons, uniform items and a tent. The next room has a replica of a contemporary store complete with cash register.

The final room is dedicated to the Lincoln County War with representations of the key figures, archival photos, weapons and letters. One of these key figures, of course, was Billy the Kid. Was he simply a ruffian or popular hero? In this geographical area, he is considered a popular hero, but I must confess, he seemed more outlaw than hero. There is an excellent twenty-minute video documenting the events which led to the Lincoln County War and ties it all together.

After our visit to that museum, we gathered Dakota from the truck and strolled the main street. Along the street were many well-preserved buildings including the Tunstall store, the old hotel and dwellings of key figures. It was all so well-preserved. Closing your eyes, you could imagine yourself back in a time when gunshots rang out all too frequently in the dusty street.

We took turns visiting the Courthouse Museum—one of us waiting with The Dude outside. This was once the Murphy/Dolan store known as “The House.” The store had a monopoly on commerce in Lincoln until John Tunstall turned up. After the hostilities ended, Murphy died, the store went out of business and was re-purposed to become the courthouse—an ironic transformation given its history.

The museum featured more exhibits on the town, an old stagecoach and a chronological retrospective of the Sheriffs of Lincoln County. The second floor was preserved as the courthouse. Here Billy the Kid was tried and sentenced to hang to death. A large hole in the plaster wall at the foot of the stairway is purported to be the bullet hole from Billy’s pistol as he made his successful escape.

When we finished with Lincoln, we were hungry and literally down to our last dollar bill. The next stop on the Billy the Kid Byway was Capitan, home to Smokey Bear. We all remember Smokey (the) Bear and the “Only you can prevent forest fires” campaign. Seeing this country and the history of devastating fires, it is easy to comprehend the seriousness of fire danger. Smokey, of course, was rescued in 1950 in the wake of the disastrous Los Tablos and Capitan Gap fires. He was found clinging to a tree. We stopped at a marker for the Capitan Gap and Smokey Bear to consider the ravages of fire.

Fortunately, Capitan had a bank and a cash machine and, reinforced with greenbacks, we headed to the Oso Grill for some lunch. This welcoming corner restaurant had an excellent chef. I ordered a Green Chile Corn Pancake with Red Beans for lunch and it was one of those meals which will live in my memory for a long time. I will be trying to recreate it when we get home.

E2B626B7-821F-47AB-BE6D-10D8568B667E

After our delightful meal, we headed to the Smokey Bear Historical Park. Having had a photo-op with Smokey en-route to Capitan, we skipped the park. It was not dog-friendly and we didn’t want to put Dakota back in the truck alone.

The last leg of the Billy the Kid Byway triangle was Route 48 leading from Capitan to Ruidoso. We motored past more ranches, hills studded with trees, and then we hit a terrifying vastness of burned and gutted trees and barren scorched earth. We had caught the edge of the devastation from the Little Bear Fire in 2012. The fire began in early June and was almost contained when the winds came up. It raged out of control and wasn’t contained for another three weeks. Altogether it scorched more than 44,000 acres and destroyed almost 250 homes. I can’t quite imagine how terrifying it would be to have this fire as a neighbor for three weeks.  Smokey Bear is still a much-needed reminder.

619170D4-7893-439D-9291-CB92AA432CEA

Wednesday was what we call a home maintenance day. We visited the ranger station to get some hiking information. Due to the Little Bear fire not all of the local trails are open. We also hit the grocery store and the car wash. The big event Wednesday was finding our own Smokey Bear.

Not surprisingly, there were bears everywhere on signs and as statues decorating stores, motels—pretty much everything. Jim and I lusted after our own bear. We wanted to take Smokey home with us. Many of the figures were sort of tacky, but we found the perfect spot. “Grizzly’s” offered hand-crafted bears and other sculptures created with chain saws. We met Bob, the artist, and found our perfect Smokey. He will ride along with us as our new, 4th roommate.

Thursday we were ready to hike and headed out to an area called Cedar Creek Trail System in the Smokey Bear Ranger District of the Lincoln National Forest. The Lincoln National Forest is enormous. It covers more than 1.1 million acres and was named for our 16th president. It includes four separate mountain ranges. If you drive through southeastern New Mexico, you encounter the Lincoln National Forest over and over again.

Ruidoso lies at an elevation of 6400 feet. We were slowly getting used to the height, but our hike would take us up over the mountains as high as 7400 feet. The trail was extremely well-maintained and the weather perfect with sunny skies, a reasonable wind and a temperature just about 70 degrees. We were bushed after our arduous hike, but it was excellent.

Watching the news the night before, the weatherman had warned of an impending storm. High winds and a cold front were predicted to sweep through the area. After our hike, we headed to the trailer for lunch and a rest. Suddenly, the sun and the mountains disappeared. The wind blew furiously and a dense fog of dust and moisture engulfed the world. It was truly unsettling.

Despite the ominous weather, we headed out to visit the Hubbard Museum of the American West.  Everyone else seemed to take this storm as a normal occurrence so we did our best to ignore it.

IMG_0753

This museum is housed in what once was a giant skating rink.   Almost all of the museum features the private collection of Anne Stradling. This is an extensive collection of Native American artifacts and art. The museum also featured historical photos of Ruidoso and the Old West.

For us, the high point of the museum was the collection of various buggies, carts and stagecoaches including a Conestoga Wagon in amazing condition. Like seeing the town of Lincoln, these artifacts fired our imagination.

The wind blew strongly all through the night. Friday the wind was still raging. We had intended to go for another hike, but the strong gusts of wind made it seem much nicer to hole up in the trailer and putter on office projects, knitting and other tasks.

Earlier in the week, I had found a veterinary practice in town which had good reviews. Dakota needed some routine tests and it seemed like a check up after two months on the road would be a wise undertaking. I was really curious to know if he had lost any weight with all of our activity.

Ruidoso Animal Clinic was a sunny, wooden-beamed building and the staff were very proficient and friendly. Sitting in the waiting area, we fell into conversation with a man holding his chihuahua on his lap. The dog had a leather collar decorated with three silver conchs. The man was there to get an anti-rattlesnake venom shot for the dog. He explained they rode out on the mountains and he wanted his dog safe. He and his wife had moved to Ruidoso thirty years before. His face was deeply etched with lines and it was easy to believe he had been riding the hills for so long.

Dakota got a thorough checkup and was pronounced “a healthy dog for one his age.” He got all of his tests, which were negative, had a pedicure and was weighed. Our svelte boy had dropped from his November weight of 29 lbs 4 ozs to 27 lbs 6 ozs. It felt incredibly good to know he was tolerating the stress and change of travel.

Needless to say, we really loved our five days in Ruidoso. It was beautiful and engaging. Our friend from the vet had arrived thirty years ago and opted to stay. It was tempting to consider doing the same, but we had already extended our stay once and it was time to head down to Carlsbad.

Hitting Rock Bottom at Bottomless

IMG_2033When we arrived at Bottomless Lakes State Park, the thermometer in the truck read 90 degrees. Bottomless Lakes is named for the series of sink holes or cenotes which punctuate the park. The campground is set next to the largest of the cenotes, Lea Lake. This is the high desert. The landscape was all sandy dirt, rocks and scrub bushes. The far side of the lake rose abruptly into jagged red cliffs. The park is well known in the area as a great place to cool off. This I can believe since it was broiling hot in the middle of March. I cannot fathom what July and August must be like. Just because the humidity is low, hot is still hot.

 

The park has public access for day visitors and when we arrived the parking lot was packed and the lake resounded with the cries and shouts of many swimmers. We pulled into our site. It was hotter than blazes and the sun was burning everything it touched. We unhitched and set up camp with the perspiration dripping down our sides.

Our site was next to the lake as advertised, but that was actually less than ideal as it meant we were next to hordes of children jumping in the lake. The campground was barren of trees and color. A few scraggly bushes decorated our site. The picnic table was sheltered under a cement structure. Hundreds of ants swarmed the table and shelter and I quickly hustled Dakota away.

bottomless 3

Desperate to cool off, we decided to avail ourselves of the lake. We suited up and headed over. The water was surprisingly cold and we waded in. The water was brown, but the cold was a relief. I dunked under to take full advantage. The water was brackish and suddenly less appealing. Even though we were now much cooler, we decided a shower was a necessity.

We grabbed our shower items and headed to the camp bathhouse. Over at the lake we had noticed signs saying some of the public bathrooms were closed for the winter. It was immediately apparent that the overflow day campers were using the campground facilities.

Despite signage designating the campground from the day areas, people were swarming through the campground. When we got to the bath house, the campground host was in the middle of hustling some people out who had actually tried to lock themselves into the women’s room for privacy. The bathrooms were absolutely filthy and littered with detritus. I will spare any further details except the shower had a  push button and water would flow in a weak stream for thirty seconds and then shut off.

Back at the trailer, we gave up and fired up the air conditioning. We huddled in misery in the trailer. Perhaps it was just an unfortunate confluence of many factors and timing, but this was an untenable situation. We had booked five days at this place. We came the closest to snarling at each other as we have during the entire trip. Something had to give.

IMG_0404

When we decided to get only one air conditioner unit for the Airstream, there were multiple factors driving the decision. One factor was that meant we could use 30 amp, rather than 50 amp service and that would give us more flexibility when looking for campsites. Another factor was our disinclination to use air conditioning. If we got to a place which was too hot, we figured we could always hitch up and head out for cooler climes. This philosophy would now come into play.

The desert air was cool the next morning. The day visitors were gone and it was quiet and calm at the park. Nevertheless, we knew the day would soon warm and the weatherman on the news the night before had predicted a record heat wave. I remembered wistfully the drive over and how cool it was around Ruidoso. The elevation was just over 6,000 feet and the mountains were covered in cedar and pine. I called an rv resort just outside the town and we hitched up and headed out. The benefit to having your house on wheels is you can always just take it with you to a better place. This we did.

Las Cruces to Roswell: Alien Territory

Las CrucesIt was tough leaving Franklin Mountains. It is always bittersweet leaving a place which we have enjoyed. We headed north towards Las Cruces on Interstate 10 and then banked northeast onto Highway 70.

Highway 70 gave us a good ride. We passed the area around Bataan MarchFort Bliss and the White Sands Missile Range. We were puzzled to see hundreds of people out walking the desert. It was quite hot and we were both curious what they were up to and happy we weren’t out hiking in the hot sun. We found out later on the news that it was 75th Anniversary of the Bataan Death March. They were out marching for charity over 26 miles of hot sand. They even had a survivor of the march on hand although he didn’t march.

We next skirted the blazing white sands of the White Sands National Monument. This is the world’s largest gypsum sand dune. I think it was enough for me to see the glistening sands from the cool window of our truck cab.

pistachio nutOur road continued to a range of low mountains which marked Almagordo. The brown hills rose high above the sandy Tularosa Basin marked with scrub and mesquite. The road turned northward and we passed shops and stands selling pistachios. One shop featured the world’s largest pistachio nut sculpture. It would have been nice to stop, but for some reason these guys don’t think about 48’ trucks and trailers when they plan their parking lots. I don’t know why because the roads are full of rv’s. You just don’t want to get caught in a parking lot with no space to turn around or pull through.

The next major attraction on our drive was a charming looking town called Tularosa, the City of Roses. The main street featured some historic old buildings many of which now sported shops and cafes. If I worked or lived near Almagordo, this might be where I would choose to live. It had a good feeling to it. We were now thinking seriously about lunch and looking for a place to pull into.

Just outside town, a Subway sandwich shop sat next to a large empty parking lot. We pulled over and went in to order. We were finishing up our sandwiches when a big Fifth Wheel pulled in right next to us. We all commented on how thoughtful the Subway was to leave us a nice big parking space.

Past Tularosa the road began to climb. The country became hilly and soon trees appeared. The thermostat on the truck descended to a more comfortable range. We entered the Mescalero Apache reservation. My first reservation! It was a relief to see green hills after so much tan and brown. Modest homes lined the roads along with the reservation headquarters. We had been seeing billboards advertising the Inn of the Mountain Gods Casino since before we hit El Paso and now we found out that it belonged to this reservation and tribe.

Next Highway 70 lead us through Ruidoso and Ruiddoso Downs. These twin towns were full of hotels, rv resorts and more casinos. Ruidoso Downs featured a race track and the Billy the Kid Casino. During the summer season quarter horse and thoroughbred races attracted gamblers and tourists. There were also signs advertising Ski Apache, also owned by the Mescalero Apaches, and the town did have a look which was half western desert town and half ski resort—an interesting, but pleasing combination.

Highway 70 now turned eastward turned eastward following the Rio Hondo which wound through a lovely valley. We passed the towns of Hondo and Tinnie. Ranches spread across the valley with horses and cattle. The air was fresh with the scent of the pines on the hillsides. It was a very enjoyable drive.

The road descended out of the valley to high desert plains and the temperature climbed. We pulled off the road at a rest stop. Signage announced that we were in the Atlas Missile Range. It directed us to look for silos and one sat just a short way from the road.

IMG_0395

The dry and dusty road continued across flat desert plains. Our drive continued through the town and county seat of Roswell. Billboards sporting aliens sprouted from the desert. In Roswell we motored past the UFO Museum.  We were in alien territory, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why any alien would choose this barren, arid and hot place to visit.

IMG_0398

———————-

Splendid Isolation Within City Limits

IMG_1987

The drive from Fort Stockton to the Franklin Mountains State Park in El Paso was a straight shot across Interstate 10.

 

IMG_1989Franklin Mountains State Park is the largest park in the country to be contained within city limits. Its 24,000 acres are divided by a central mountain range into several distinct areas. Reaching our portion of the park meant driving Interstate 10 through the heavily trafficked heart of El Paso. We didn’t see much more of El Paso than the gritty interstate lined with truck stops, gentlemen’s clubs, sale outlets and fast food joints. There is no doubt that parts of El Paso are lovely, but we were relieved to reach the far side of town and the entrance to the Tom Mays camping area within Franklin Mountains State Park.

We would be dry camping in the park for three days. The campground ring designated for rv’s had five sites. We joined one Class A who was parked in the center area. We chose a spot where our trailer backed up to the most breathtaking spread of mountains we had ever seen. This was a sight we could never tire of.

Our site was incredibly uneven and a challenge we could not have faced just weeks ago. It was actually fun to get our side to side and back to front levels flat and we used every chock, the Andersons and a few handy rocks to achieve it. We were very, very proud.

Dry camping means camping with no hook ups. We were self-sufficient with our fresh water tank and grey and black tanks. Our power would come from the solar panels on our roof and the energy stored in our battery. If we needed it, we had two generators we could break out. We rationed our water usage washing dishes with as little water as possible, foregoing showers for navy baths. Of course, it was at this moment the gauge on our grey tank decided to go crazy and it kept telling us we were at 90% when we knew we couldn’t possibly be.

It was warm in the desert sun and we set up our chairs in the shade of the trailer. For the three days we camped there, we enjoyed the cool mornings which gave way to increasingly hot sun. In the afternoons the wind would come whipping up from the valley and then as the sun set, the wind subsided and the air cooled to a delightful temperature. It was very dry. So dry we felt desiccated no matter how much water we drank. We had also gained elevation. Our site was at about 6,400 feet. The taller peaks in the park topped out at 7,000 plus.

The park was loaded with great hiking trails. Our first trail was the Shaeffer Shuffle. This was a 2.65 mile trail designated as moderate in difficulty. I think we might quarrel somewhat with that designation. The trail was rocky and led across a valley and then up and over a ridge of mountain and then back down again.

It was a super hike packed with outstanding vistas, multiple kinds of cactus breaking into blooms and a brilliant blue sky. We broke for lunch at the apex of the ridge and surveyed this arid and beautiful landscape so unlike anything we were used to. The hike took us three hours and we finished just as the heat of the day spiked.

Dakota proved himself to be a true mountain dog. He deftly navigated the rocks leaping up and over the obstacles in his path. It was pretty hot to be hiking in a custom-made fur coat and we made frequent stops for water breaks. The rocks were tough on his paws. After our hike, he was exhausted and his paws were sore.

IMG_2017

Our camp circle had been joined by a Class B, but on our second day both the Class A and Class B left and we were completely alone. Day camp sites dotted the mountains around us and those were used by people with tents or small campers. So there were people around but no one anywhere close to us.

Our hike the second day was on a trail called the Upper Sunset which ran along the ridge top across the valley from us. This part of the trail was only 1.4 miles, but they involved hiking up and down and up and down the ridge line. The views were spectacular and way down below in the valley we could see our silver Airstream and Big Blue Truck glinting in the sunshine. We returned to our site on the Tom Mays trail which was a gentler trail, but it was hot and we were all tired from two days of hiking in the hot sun and high elevation. It felt good to relax in the shade when we were done.

This was in so very many ways the exact experience we had sought to have on our trip. We were in a foreign and exciting landscape. We had access to hikes to test our endurance and give us exercise. We were left alone to enjoy the experience. It was pretty much close to perfection.

IMG_0254

A Pretty Dry and Dusty Town Full of History

I would not want to malign anyone’s hometown, but there didn’t seem to be a lot to Fort Stockton. It seems today and yesterday to be mostly a stopping off point. Today Interstate 10 runs through it so it is an east/west artery. The town is clustered on both sides of the interstate. Otherwise, Fort Stockton is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.  The land is flat. It is hot and dry and dusty. For the most part the town seems unremarkable except for the history which had been respectfully and passionately preserved by its inhabitants.

Fort Stockton was a garrison during much of the mid to late 1800’s. It had originally grown up around Commanche Springs which was the major source of water in the area and what drew those who chose to settle nearby. The fort had boom and bust times. During the Civil War the fort was all but abandoned and then later reclaimed and re-settled. Ultimately, the fort was de-commissioned in the late 1880’s.

Only a little of the original fort survives, but local forces are working to restore it and to create a museum on the site. We wandered around the fort buildings which have been restored to date and it was possible to get a sense of life on this outpost.

The soldier’s barracks and officer’s quarters were not open to the public, but the jail had been restored and was open to visitors. Our footsteps made satisfying clopping sounds as we walked the boards of the porch. The limestone walls were cool to our touch and impenetrable. Manacles hung from the walls and the lone solitary cell looked dark and frightening. Even Dakota seemed to peer into the building with cautious interest.

Out on the parade grounds stood a lone wagon. Despite its exposure to the elements, it was a famous wagon having appeared in two films with the Duke.

There was also the local episcopal church and next to it an old one room schoolhouse. Living near the fort and the soldiers was probably a fairly safe place to be in more troubled times. Citizens had probably as much reason to fear local outlaws as any stray wandering tribes.

Being stationed at this fort out in the middle of nowhere had to be a fairly tough life. Riding patrol in the heat and storms of west Texas didn’t leave a lot of room for creature comforts.

Over in another part of town we found the “historic district.” A clutch of buildings formed what must have been the center of town long ago. The courthouse stood on a small rise. The building we see today is a newer courthouse, the former one burned down about a hundred years ago.

Kitty corner to the courthouse was the Grey Mule Saloon. Run by a notorious man who moved his family to Fort Stockton in the wake of a murder, he established a ranch and later was elected Sheriff proving how thin the line between lawless and lawman was back then. Today the saloon is a tasting room.

Along with his deputy, the Sheriff intimidated and terrorized the town until both ended up murdered. His deputy was a fellow by the name of Barney Riggs. Riggs was the second husband of Annie Riggs, a mother of ten. In the wake of her second husband’s murder, she seemed to have thrown in the towel on matrimony and at the turn of the 1900’s bought a hotel situated across the street from the Grey Mule Saloon and the courthouse.

This former hotel is now the Annie Riggs Memorial Museum. The hotel sits up high in town and has wide porches front and back. Once guests at the hotel would relax on those porches catching the breezes to counter the west Texas heat. Visitors to the hotel would also enjoy the cool waters of Commanche Springs.

Entering the hotel through the front door there is a reception area. To the right of the reception area is the front parlor complete with piano. Today the parlor features a simply produced but compelling video on the history of Fort Stockton and Commanche Springs.

A guest would continue through the reception area to reach the dining room where guests would take their meals. The dining room has two doorways, one leads to the kitchen and a door to the right leads to an inner courtyard.

IMG_0175

Mrs. Riggs was known for her cooking. Looking at the kitchen today with its period pieces, it is hard to imagine the ceaseless hard work which must have gone into preparing three meals a day for her guests. In the height of the summer heat it must have been very uncomfortable to toil over the woodstove. As soon as one meal was prepared and served, it would be time to get started on the next. Biscuits and bread would be left to rise as pies were prepared and a roast cooked in the oven. I was tired just contemplating the toil and thought how much Annie Riggs would have loved to order out for pizza or chinese. That didn’t happen back then.

IMG_0179

The interior courtyard reached from the right of the dining room was the access point for the guest rooms. The guest rooms today feature exhibits of local historical items: collections of arrowheads, a safe, old typewriter and desk and pictures of local personages. The rooms are cool and dark and must have been a welcome respite from the hot sun and wind.

The courtyard today features a collection of old branding irons hung from the walls. Above each iron the mark has been burned into the wooden beam. It is an attractive and fascinating display. An old carriage sits in a corner of the courtyard.

Fort Stockton itself seems to suffer boom and bust cycles. Sheep and cattle ranching took hold in the early 1900’s. Those occupations were followed by the addition of oil and agriculture. Today the economy is focused on the chief west Texas occupations of oil and ranching. The vital life force that was Commanche Springs, which had been the reason the area was originally settled, is no more. In the 1950’s, despite local opposition, use of the springs for irrigation managed to dry the aquifer forever leaving only the dust, heat and west Texas wind as its legacy.

We enjoyed poking around the town, but we were ready to head west on Interstate 10 and our next adventure.

 

IMG_1944

 

Transiting Texas to Fort Stockton

The second day’s big push across Texas took us from Crystal City to Eagle Pass and Del Rio on Highway 277. The scenery remained much the same with some brief interludes with less and then more vegetation. The area around Del Rio was dry and dusty, but the same could be said for much of the drive.

Our route followed the line of the border for a great distance. Border patrol cars were much in evidence. They seemed to be very active in insuring there were no incursions. Just past Del Rio, we encountered a surprise (for us) border patrol station. All traffic in both directions was being funneled into this mandatory stop even though we weren’t crossing the border. We pulled in and were confronted by an imposing and humorless border patrol agent. Where were we going? Where were we from? We showed him id which he scrutinized carefully. I felt guilty even though I knew we had no illegal aliens or substances on board. Dakota didn’t need to show id which is a good thing since he doesn’t have any. We were let through and breathed a sigh of relief. Not quite why we felt so anxious, but that is how we felt.

amistad reservoirWe motored on and our anxiety was slowly replaced by hunger. We began looking for a place to pull off and make a little lunch. Off to our left was the enormous Amistad Reservior. It continued for miles with signs directing traffic to different parts of the giant reservoir. It was an oasis totally at discord with the surrounding dry hills.

Just before we hit Langtry a sign appeared to our left which said “scenic picnic area.” We pulled off the highway onto a road which led upwards and around. Entering uncharted roads is always a little hair-raising. Would there be a turnaround? Would the road be passable for our Airstream?

At last to our right a magnificent vista appeared—far below us an impressive bridge spanned a wide river which had cut a deep ravine through the surrounding cliffs. It was breathtaking all the more so because it was so unexpected. IMG_1937

I felt a little dizzy taking it all in. We pulled to the curb in a large parking area with picnic tables and shelters. The wind was blowing and it seemed like we could topple on down the cliff.

Back when we were in Navarre on the Florida Panhandle navigating the main road we had seen a remarkable vehicle ahead of us. It was an extremely tall and ungainly looking camper van. It was like nothing we had seen before. It perched on enormous tires which looked like they could have supported a tank. The strange looking camper sported french license plates and two motor bikes were strapped to the back. Clearly these intrepid souls had shipped their beloved camper to the States for a big tour. It was an odd and unforgettable sight.

Hundreds and hundreds of miles later in this parking lot perched high above the Pecos River, here was what looked like the same strange contraption. French plates, motor bikes and giant tires. Could there be two of these vehicles or had we miraculously re-encountered each other?

We sat in our Airstream contemplating the view and enjoying lunch. Finally, I could take it no more. I had to ask. I walked over to the strange vehicle. It was so high the steps to gain access were actually a ladder. The door was open. The occupants were likely enjoying their own lunch.

“Pardon? Pardon?” A woman appeared in the doorway. “Bonjour! Parlez vous anglais?” “Non, mais mon marie parle anglais.” A nice looking man about my age appeared. “Bonjour!” I asked if they had been in Navarre near Pensacola a few weeks ago and they replied that they had. “C’est incroyable!” We saw you there and now we have run into each other again! The man agreed it was remarkable that in such a big country we would encounter each other again. He translated for his wife. There was much smiling and nodding and further expressions of amazement. We wished each other a good trip and I returned to Jim, curiosity satisfied. Shortly after, the big camper van pulled away as our frenchmen continued their journey. We followed moments later. In all the parking lots in all the world…

The landscape was arid. The air was warm. The highway wound through hills and valleys dotted with dusty scrub, mesquite and rock formations. We passed signs directing us to Big Bend State Park. Another place we would love to see, but must save for another trip.

We reached the Fort Stockton RV Resort in the late afternoon. The sun was beginning to set and, while it was still very warm, it would cool quickly once the sun was gone. The rv resort was large with a few brave trees dotting the camp sites. Half the park was devoted to transients and half the park was clearly comprised of full time residents.

It had been a long drive, but one full of new sights and adventures. We were tired from so many miles, but we unhitched knowing the next day was not a travel day. We would explore Fort Stockton. The ever present wind was blowing and we opened all our windows to catch the breeze. After Fort Stockton we would have one last leg in our hop scotch across Texas.