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.

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.