Tempus Fugit

We drove east and northward through Virginia to our next destination. Virginia flattened out a bit as we headed east. We drove through Lynchburg and gazed upon the sprawling campus of Liberty University. It lined each side of the interstate. The President had just spoken there so I, at least, was more aware of this place of Christian education. It was indeed an enormous campus. I had to wonder how the students negotiated such distances especially with a big highway running through the middle.

Next we passed the Jerry Falwell Memorial Highway. We were certainly in the white-hot center of things Christian.

We arrived at Holliday Lake State Park on a beastly hot afternoon. A heat wave had engulfed half the country so we weren’t alone in the sweltering heat. We un-hitched at our camp site. Halfway through the process we were both dripping with sweat. There was a little breeze so it was cooler sitting in the shade outside.

We needed to do some planning. We had reserved two nights at Holliday Lake. Our next stop was in College Park, MD and that was quite a distance from our current location. All told it was a 220 mile drive, but much of it was in urban traffic which would make the drive more taxing and certainly longer.

 

Sitting at our camp site, we were becoming convinced that we should only stay one night at Holliday Lake and then push on. We were also feeling oddly detached from this park. Perhaps it was the heat or the concern about the drive in two days. Maybe it was the fact that this was the last state park scheduled for us to stay in. In any case, we decided that we would leave the next morning and find an intermediate stop before heading to the DC metropolis.

However, the camp ground was deep inside this state park and any whiff of a cell signal had long since faded. We identified two potential places to stay, but with no signal, we wouldn’t know which path we would take until we were under way. This was all somewhat out of character behavior for us.

Our site was next to the Campground Host’s site. We met them coming out of their Fifth Wheel. They were off duty and it looked like they were heading to town. Reluctantly, we closed up the trailer for the night. It was just too hot inside and there wasn’t much of a breeze. We had a somewhat desultory dinner. We listened to some music and then turned in.

The next morning was cool and lovely. The campground at Holliday Lake was so deep into the forest, there was only the sound of birds singing. We had driven close to five miles from the highway through the forest to get to the campground. We hitched up in the  cool air knowing the heat would soon come.

There was one particularly enormous bumble bee hanging around the campsite. He had been there when we arrived and Dakota had barked angrily at him as if he were a small dog. That is how big he was. Now, as we put away the awnings and prepared to hitch, he buzzed around us like a small aircraft. He was an interested bystander and seemed to be watching everything we were doing. He was a benign and friendly presence.

The Camp Hosts had told us this was their favorite park. They loved being here. We tried to see what they saw. It was pretty. Mountain Laurel was in bloom and there was a bush just inside the trees. We had driven past the lake for which the park was named when we arrived. It had a wide beach and was undoubtedly popular on the weekends. There were trails all through the park, but in the heat we had no desire to hike them.

We set the GPS for one of our two proposed destinations. We drove for miles through rural countryside before there was enough signal for me to call to see if they could accommodate us. The woman on the phone at the campground paused when I asked if they had availability. Whether it was because she was checking or hadn’t been asked that question in a while was an open question. Once we got to Shenandoah Hills Campground, it seemed like the latter was the stronger possibility.

We were somewhat aware this campground had mixed reviews when we chose it. We read online that the roads were pot-holed. The campground personnel were not very friendly or nice. More recent reviews had been positive and that had emboldened us to give it a chance.

The campground at Shenandoah Hills could have been nice. There were plenty of trees and appropriate space between the sites. One of the issues with campgrounds which we had slowly come to understand is full-timers. When a campground has a significant number of full-time tenants, things begin to deteriorate. Rigs begin to age and can become covered with moss and dirt. Since this is an inexpensive way to live, the trailers and rv’s aren’t always high-end to begin with. Camp sites become untended as they fill with accumulated possessions. The infrastructure begins to degrade. It is almost counter-intuitive, but transient guests help keep a campground looking fresh and tended. This campground was almost half filled with full-timers.

Indeed when we pulled in the potholes were terrible. The woman at check in was friendly enough. Tipped off by the reviews, I asked if there had been some fairly recent change in management at the campground. She said there hadn’t although they had been a KOA campground until five years ago. She explained that they had dropped KOA because they didn’t like paying the marketing fee. Cash flow did seem to be an issue at Shenandoah Hills.

Our next door neighbors were a friendly family who had just bought their travel trailer used. They were planning a big trip west through Texas in June. That’ll be hot all right. The man was full of questions and Jim was only too happy to share his newly gained wisdom. He was no longer a newbie, but a seasoned Airstreamer with knowledge to share.

We ran our air that night for the second night in a row. We really missed the open windows, night sounds and fresh breezes. We were up the next morning ready to hitch and go. Even though we had cut the day’s driving distance in half, we had a lot of ground to cover. But there was a big payoff. A major incentive to head to our next stop.

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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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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