Splendid Isolation Within City Limits

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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.

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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.

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Curious Inhabitants

Granted at this point Jim and I have a little more than one month’s experience on the road, but it doesn’t take a sociologist with a Ph.D. to analyze the difference between life in an rv resort and life in state parks and what it is says about the inhabitants of each. Of course, as with any generalization, there will be exceptions, but overall this seems to be true.

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RV resorts almost always have full hook ups. A full hook up means water, electric and sewage. A full hook up means that you truly have all of the comforts of home. No rationing of water, all the electricity you could want and you don’t have to watch the contents of either the grey or black tanks. Dumping is as easy as flipping a switch. RV resorts are primarily the domain of the big Class A’s and Fifth Wheels. These big rigs are designed for supplying all the comforts of home. They sport big screen tv’s, comfy reclining chairs, faux fire places, full-fledged kitchens and heaven knows what else. They can be very large with popouts for extra space. They are also somewhat cumbersome to drive and are best designed for staying in place rather than ranging wide and far. There are lots of permanent inhabitants in rv resorts.  It is easy to tell them by the elaborate set ups on their site including little gardens, fences and we’ve even seen bubbling water fountains. Even without these custom environs, a permanent or semi-permanent inhabitant can be recognized by their wheel covers. They have no plans to go anywhere in the near term.

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RV resorts are communities. Because they have longer term inhabitants, rv resorts offer a calendar of events. There is the weekly free donut and coffee breakfast. They usually have a bingo night. They often offer exercise classes and group walks. Some have quilting groups which meet weekly and other special interest groups. And, because it is a community of people, there is usually a board and group meetings where grievances are aired and issues discussed. Dog poop is pretty much always a hot topic. All of this can be very nice if community is what you are looking for.

So, you can think of camping choices on a continuum. Full hook ups are the apex of camping civilization. At lower cost rv parks and in most of the state parks, there is the next tier of camping civilization and that is partial hook ups. A partial hook up eliminates the sewer hook up and leaves the camper with water and electric and the need to monitor both the grey and black tanks. There is pretty much always a dump station on hand at no cost, but getting to that dump station means going through the entire process of hooking up and un-hooking. This is pretty much every step involved in getting ready to leave for the next destination so you don’t really want to have to do that until you do plan to leave.

Of course, you can find plenty of Class A’s and Fifth wheels in state parks. But you can’t find them in all state parks. Parks with smaller campgrounds, dense vegetation or simply smaller sites will have length restrictions. If you’re looking to commune with nature, then a big rig is a definite liability.

On the far end of the communing with nature continuum is boondocking. Boondocking is the camping equivalent of living off the grid. Boondocking lets you camp on government land, by the side of a pretty stream or in the middle of a vast plain. Boondocking means you’ve still got your comfy bed, but you have the added entertainment of trying to manage your fresh water, power and tank levels to stay as long as you can. Can you make it five days? Seven? More? One blogger I follow boasted of going 12 days and elucidated the somewhat extreme measures they went to. A brand new competition–extreme boondocking. It might get a bit ripe.

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Not to stray too much off topic, but there is one other kind of boondocking and it has nothing to do with nature. That is the overnight in a parking lot. Many Walmarts and Cracker Barrels will let you overnight in their parking lots—it helps if you shop or eat there, too. We have yet to engage in this behavior, but there are many who do.

We think we’ve hit the sweet spot with our 27-foot Airstream. We have plenty of creature comforts. With some careful choreography, the three of us can move around inside just fine. The big rigs tower over us, but we’re pretty agile and there are few parks where we can’t go. We have no desire for the confines of community. A full hookup is nice, but we’re down with conserving tank capacity. A night or two in a rv resort is fine for some civilization, but given a choice, we’ll take a park and a partial any day.

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So, the partial hook up is fine by me, but one realization I have come to is that I really miss wifi and a decent cell connection. I can give up a shower and I can wash dishes with a scant amount of water, but after a couple days with no wifi or cell service, I wilt like a hot house flower. I need connectivity.

Connectivity extends to reasonable television reception. I am completely addicted to watching the local news.  It is a reflection of what people in a given area care about, how they view the world and how they express themselves. Local anchors do not conform to major market requirements for cosmetic sophistication. They often exceed the average age, weight and lack the grooming requirements of a big city anchor. But what they might lack in aesthetics, they more than compensate for in a feel for their town. We’ve watched local anchors editorialize to their communities. We’ve watched with amusement and some respect as these anchors have admonished and chastised their communities. You wouldn’t catch Lester Holt doing this, but it says something about the value and relationship of the news cast when someone knows you and can tell you where its really at.