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.

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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.

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Crossing Texas

Goose Island was without doubt a beautiful park and breathtaking location, but after four days of mostly rain, I was pretty glad to shove off. Before we left, we met the fellow who would be taking our site. He was from San Antonio and a frequent visitor. I asked him if it was ever sunny and he replied, “Almost always.” Oh, well. After a week of rain, our luck was sure to change with another geographical location.

Our plan was to cross Texas as quickly as possible. Due to the state-wide spring break, we had been stymied in getting reservations at the parks where we wanted them and we had decided to head for New Mexico. We would return to Texas once everyone was back in school.

Of course, with a state as big as Texas “crossing quickly” is a relative term. We headed south to Corpus Christi.  As we crossed over the Corpus Christi Harbor Bridge and sped west we could see the tall buildings of downtown to our left and the enormous port and beginnings of a long string of refineries to our right.

The refineries stretched quite a distance to the west of the city and then ceased as the wide open land reclaimed precedence. At first we were on four lane highways and the fields we passed extended to the horizon and were verdant with tall grasses and dotted with cattle grazing across them. Decorative iron ranch gates interrupted the vast land.

They announced the name of each landholder’s property and were often decorated with appropriate figures or animals. As we got further and further west, the landscape became dotted with mesquite and cattle. Cattle was definitely the one constant.

The roads in Texas are often designated as either a county road with a numerical designation (e.g. CR 599) or Farm to Market Road with a numerical designation (e.g. FM1466). This all seemed kind of strange to us when we first hit Texas, but we had become accustomed to it. I am just not sure how one remembers the numbers better than a proper name. Some of the FM or CR roads, do have secondary names and I guess that is why.

About two thirds of the way through our trip, we turned off Highway 59 on to a 68 mile stretch of FM 468. This was a two lane highway which undulated like a baby roller coaster. Up and down we went for mile after mile. This was tough driving made only a little easier by our chosen soundtrack: the Garth Brooks channel on SXM. To each side all we saw was mesquite and cattle and an occasional ranch gate.

Soon oil derricks joined the mix as did signs offering fracking water for sale. Everything of value was being extracted from this land. As the frequency of oil derricks increased, so did the appearance of small encampments. These were worker’s quarters. Sometimes they were mobile homes, sometimes a sort of generic white rv and sometimes simply a glorified container. Alex lived in a container when he was deployed so I guess it isn’t as bad as it might sound. Signs hawked two bedrooms and full kitchens, but it all looked pretty basic.

Our goal for the night was the Triple R RV Park in Crystal City. We were out in the middle of nowhere and feeling a little anxious about where we were headed. We pulled in to what turned out to be a very large park. There were rows and rows of pull-through sites sitting on gravel with patches of dusty grass. A row of the generic white rv’s sat to the left along with some Fifth Wheels and Class B’s which had clearly been in place for a long time. We pulled up to a cute little house which was the office and met Rashell, the park manager.

At this point we had seen the front of the park.  Rashell explained that the park extended for a mile along the Nueces River and was actually part of a working ranch. She directed us to drive back to our section of the park along the river to its far end. This seemed to be the end of the park designated for transient guests. A small lake wound around the end of the park and situated in front of it was a fairly large pavilion.

Our site was quite lovely. Beyond the lake we could see cattle grazing. In the  pavilion were spotless showers, a laundry facility and a big recreation area with a wide screen tv. It was all very nicely done, completely peaceful and lovely. We did laundry, ate a simple dinner and hit the hay after a long day of driving.

The next morning we were sorry to leave the oasis of Triple R and tempted to stay, but the road called to us. We had somewhere to go and our next stop in the big hop scotch across Texas was Fort Stockton.

Natchez: It’s Not Just for Nabobs

We headed west across Mississippi to Natchez next. We traveled Route 98 for most of the trip and rolled through softly rolling landscape which was just at the beginning stages of greening up for spring. There weren’t many towns. This was very sparsely settled country. Homes dotted the roadside and, of course, small churches.

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Leaving the highway, we took the State Park Road for about six miles to get back in the woods to the Natchez State Park. This was a smaller park and mostly dedicated to fishing. It had a very nice, large fishing lake. There were two campground loops, but one of them was out of commission because there was a problem with the water system. This was typical of this park. While it was an attractive park, it was not as well maintained as many parks we were used to.

As usual, our first day was dedicated to getting a feel for the park. We explored all over.

On the way to the park office, we came across an impressively large and thankfully dead rattlesnake stretched across the road. A cogent reminder that this country was full of life and sometimes danger. We stopped in at the ranger station to have a chat. There were nice picnic pavilions next to the lake and at the far end of the park were cabins. The remaining campground numbered 22 sites and was quite nice. Our site sat up on a hill overlooking the lake.

This country is so lush and teeming with life. Life and renewal are balanced with death and decay. Just take our rattlesnake. He was stretched out dead across the road and carrion birds were feasting on his flesh. He had lived, killed and feasted and was now food for another creature. In the humid warm air the cycle of life seemed to have sped up. Life burst forth, flourished and when quickly spent, made way for more life.  Even though it was clearly winter, we could almost see the buds beginning to leaf before our eyes. Each day the grass became greener and the azaleas were bursting into bloom.

There weren’t a lot of hiking trails at this park. We did attempt the nature trail on our second day. The trail began right at the campground but just a hundred feet into the woods, it crossed a deeply ravined creek and the bridge was down and impassable. We decided to attempt the trail from the other end and hiked along the park road to where we had seen another sign for a trail. The woods were quite thick with trees and underbrush. The trail wound through the trees and popped out for views of the lake. We got almost all the way back to the campground when we ran into the same creek and ravine. Again, the way over was no longer negotiable. We retraced our steps looking for another trail and ran into the same problem. Finally, we gave up and left the trail. We wound our way through the brush carefully remembering that impressive rattlesnake. Poor Dakota had lots of logs to jump and brush right at eye level. We finally made our way through the woods back to the park road.tick

On our way back to our site, we chatted with a woman at another site who warned us to check carefully for ticks. Bingo. We embarked on beauty parlor and I found one on Dakota. You can’t kill these things easily. I incinerated it with our flamestick. “Die you nasty little creature!” I found another one on the dinette where Jim had been sitting. He was also quickly incinerated–the tick not Jim. After lunch I headed to the showers. Much to my dismay and disgust, I found my own tick and mine was affixed. Yuck. I finished my shower and sped back to Jim for surgical removal. This third tick was promptly incinerated. These woods are alive with ticks in the summer, but going off trail allowed us to find those winter-hearty souls. I really, really hate ticks.

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Following Tick Day, we decided it was time for some civilization and tourism. Natchez has a really together tourism operation. They have a gorgeously produced 50+ page guide to the city with touring info, restaurant listings and lots of glossy photos. It is available for download and in print at their attractive and informative Visitors Center. We headed into Natchez and parked at the Visitor Center. A very friendly and helpful lady greeted us and gave us our printed edition. We stayed to watch the nicely produced 20 minute film about Natchez’ history.

Armed with a map, we gathered Dakota from the truck and walked up the road to the center of town. It was a sunny and cool day just perfect to be out and about, but Natchez was oddly deserted. It was almost noon on a Saturday, but the streets were empty. The roads were devoid of traffic. Natchez was a ghost town. Where was everyone?

As we walked, we noticed broken strings of colorful beads strewn across the sidewalks and scattered in the streets. An alarming number of Solo cups and beer bottles lay about in drunken profusion. Finally we chanced upon a sign in a shop window advertising the Mardi Gras parade and celebration. It had taken place the night before. Realization dawned, Natchez was sleeping off its Mardi Gras.

People down in these parts take this whole Mardi Gras thing very seriously. Mardi Gras is not some distant bacchanal taking place in New Orleans, it is a multi-week regional build up to days of revelry. We had noticed this preoccupation for quite some time. Local news broadcasts featured special Mardi Gras graphics. Television ads offered Mardi Gras special deals. Every town had at least one parade scheduled and gaudy parade floats sprouted in parking in lots and passed us on the roads as they were hauled into position. The local radio station even had beauty tips for celebrants to help them look their best after days of festivities: stay hydrated with water, always use sun block, be sure to remove eye make-up each night, always moisturize and sooth under eye bags with cool cloths. This Mardi Gras lifestyle is serious business—a girl needs to stay looking her best.

Natchez was picturesque and we strolled the streets taking in the historic buildings. Despite the focus on tourism, Natchez was not “touristy.” These people lived in their history and it was there for tourists, but uncorrupted by tourism. Natchez lies at the banks of the Mighty Mississippi. Natchez proper sits up on the Bluff overlooking the river. Here lived the “Nabobs of Natchez,” the wealthy plantation owners who preferred life in the city to the more remote life on their plantations.

And then there was Natchez-Under-the-Hill. Quite literally down under the bluff, life here was rough and rowdy with saloons, gamblers, longshoremen and women of ill repute.

We fetched the truck, stowed Dakota and parked it next to a barbeque spot, Pig Out Inn, “swine dining at its finest.” This was seriously good barbeque and a perfect coda to our tour of Natchez.

Just before leaving Natchez, we crossed the Mississippi over the bridge into Vidalia, Louisiana. Vidalia did not have much to recommend it. Once across the river, we turned around and, with full bellies, we headed back to our trailer and home.

The next morning we were all hitched and ready to go when the ranger stopped by on his rounds. He seemed surprised we were leaving and it turned out we actually had another day reserved. But, despite what had been a very nice stay (except for the ticks), sometimes a nomad just knows when to go. It was time to move on.

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Media notes: At the Natchez Visitor Center I picked up a book by Nevada Barr titled Deep South. Although the book is fiction, it gives a tremendous sense of the country and given that the author was actually a park ranger on the Natchez Trace, almost counts as nonfiction.

60 Minutes just broadcast a story, on chess,  Chess Instills New Dreams In Kids From Rural Mississippi County, in Franklin County which is the county next to Natchez. This story, too, gave a good sense of the rural nature of this country. It was a heartwarming story well worth watching.

Our Airstream Angel

After five weeks of travel, it was time to leave Florida. Our next stop was in Mississippi and our drive would take us west through Mobile and a corner of Alabama and north through eastern Mississippi to Hattiesburg. If Florida is a state unto itself, we would now truly be in the Deep South.

It is pretty much impossible to drive through Florida and any of these southern states and not think about religion. Churches seem to outnumber other buildings and maybe even people in many places. Every road side in town and in rural areas is dotted with small buildings offering many varieties of faith: Baptist, Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, Methodist and churches with colorful names and no apparent affiliation other than the belief in a god, sin and redemption.

Our own religious experience occurred on the outskirts of Mobile. We were back on Interstate 10—the major artery leading westward. Trucks, cars and rv’s streamed westward and eastward in unending lines of transit. As always Fifth Wheels and Class A’s dominated the rv traffic. Every once in a while a Class B or Class C would appear, but they were the minority. Of course, there was almost never another Airstream to be seen. In fact, in our entire trip I think we had only seen fewer than a handful. Once in Florida we passed one going the other way on a two lane highway and we both flashed our lights and waved in happy recognition.

We were motoring along feeling pretty happy and calm. The tall buildings of the city of Mobile were ahead of us. The highway was elevated at this point and we had a grand view. We anticipated the adrenalin surge of urban traffic. Our calm was shattered in an instant with a sign announcing the Bankhead Tunnel and warning any vehicles with hazardous materials to detour immediately. Frost panic ensued. Hazardous materials? That meant us, right? Those two tanks of propane in the prow of our trailer were potential explosive devices. We knew we weren’t supposed to go into the tunnel, but we hadn’t a clue what we should do as an alternative. I grabbed my phone jabbing the Google app in a furious attempt to get some direction.

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Just then our angel appeared. After thousands of miles with barely a sighting of another Airstream, merging upward on the ramp to our right was a glorious silver bullet. Her aluminum shell gleamed in the sunlight. She steamed along and smoothly entered the highway just ahead of us. “Jim, that’s our Airstream Angel and she’s come to lead us around the tunnel!”

 

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We followed our Angel as she took a right onto Route 90 paralleling the Mobile River and then left across the Cochrane–Africatown USA Bridge. Mobile sped by to our left and was soon behind us. Just as we finished crossing the bridge, the Angel took a left hand exit and headed north on Route 43. She was gone in an instant, but she had led us to salvation.