These are long days. These are long days. These are long days.
We let go of our idea of how life was supposed to be as our best layed plans fell apart. Faced with the long dark northern winter during a pandemic, not working and living in our isolated house, Kurt (my husband) and I, decided to return to the road.
The plan: Head due west into the setting sun into uncharted territory before heading to the Arizona desert.
The reality: We drove directly into the first major storm system of the year.
On an inauspicious frosty October morning we departed from our home peninsula set snuggly among the Great Lakes and headed west. At first the day was bright and full of hope. It ended with us colliding with a snow storm somewhere in Minnesota. That is where, after spending a night in a glorified parking lot, we decided to travel directly and quickly south.
South through Iowa, Missouri and Arkansas.
Here was our dilemma: The plains states were being hit with the winter storm front. It was sweeping down across Colorado, Oklahoma and parts of Northwest Texas. The southwest states were still getting triple digit heat. The fires were still burning in the west. And the Gulf of Mexico was being hammered by a historical hurricane season.
So… Texas Tour 2.0
Initially Texas was just going to be a place to stall for time while the weather cleared. Then Texas became ground zero for kitty search 2020. I think I’ll save that story for another day. However: cause and effect.
The one place in Texas I wanted to see was Caddo Lake. It was a challenge to get a reservation in the campground so I settled for just one night. We skipped around a few different Texas State Campgrounds before and after that.
We languished for weeks on the Gulf Coast and I’m not sorry for the experience. We discovered there were places along the Texas Gulf Coast where camping was free right on the beach. (watch those tides though). Imagine falling asleep to the rhythms of ocean waves, windows open, camper door open all night to humid breezes. Waking to red sunrises and going to bed after the sun bleeds into the night. Everything is covered in a layer of salt. Your hair, your skin, your bed, the floor… Great Blue Herons fishing in the waves next to you… Days filled with the zen of watching the tides erase your footprints.
After Texas we had to plan how to get to Arizona. We needed to trek across Texas, driving through El Paso (one of the Covid hot spots), and across southern New Mexico. Camping to out-of-state residents in New Mexico was discouraged in state parks. The Covid numbers were causing tighter restrictions and shut downs. Traveling in late 2020 required more planning. What is open, what is closed and what requires reservations in advance. Each state may be tighter or more relaxed on masking which might reflect on the data for infection rates. Who wants to risk getting seriously ill hundreds or thousands of miles away from home… and out of network. We avoided high Covid areas and areas that weren’t taking masking precautions.
Arizona. Reliably sunny. Warm days, cold desert nights filled with wide open starry skies and the singing of coyotes. Night after night of perfect sunsets. The days running together. This year we miss the restaurants and the arts. The excitement of new roads. This slow year. I squat in the desert making art. Mostly waiting for clouds. When the clouds come I’ll get to photograph something new.
The ground is angry here. The sky is horizon to horizon tucked across rolling hills of cattle, longhorn cattle, horses, sheep, goats, and sometimes some exotic imports that make you question your sanity. Texas, like Florida, is fenced up, the wild places gone (at least in the places I went to). To the northeast more trees than I imagined Texas to have. Closer to San Antonio the prickly pear cactus are thick and the trees grow lower and scrubbier.
I’ve seen the smallest whitetail six point buck. A perfect rack on a comically sized deer (to my Michigan eyes). My first armadillo. Then my second and third of these lumbering disinterested snuffing creatures. At one state park an angry cardinal attacked our camper for two days. I walked out of a bathroom at twilight to be greeted by a scorpion. Once, only once, I tried to get a low angle photograph and got a hand full of pickers.
And that is Texas for me, more beautiful than I ever thought, and also more angry. I found rich art scenes in small towns and the cities we stopped (Austin & San Antonio). Some towns were perfectly tidy and full of robust downtown business while others were near empty. I saw houses, lived in, that couldn’t possibly hold in a high wind. Endless, endless, endless fences of every kind. I yearn for land without fences. Ranch houses in brick. Ranch houses rustic. Ranch houses in stone. New ranch houses and old.
The Alamo was one of those places I wanted to see. Connived to see. There was always something about that place and its history that charmed me from and early age. Now it is a garden paradise nestled in a city and it is hard to convert it in the mind to the wilderness outpost it once was.
Guadeloupe River State Park
The best way to see Texas (in my humblest opinion) is by staying in the Texas State Parks. They are a big deal, plan ahead. Make reservations. We couldn’t always stay at our first picks and sometimes…
You get a spectacular gift.
My first view of the river was a limestone cliff bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun. The bald cypress trees in full fall foliage making perfect reflections against the glass still river. Twisty bunches of roots befriending each other. On the trails I found strange oaks growing in surprising directions stunted by the rocky lack of soil. One trail ended in a cliff overlook of the Guadeloupe River where we watched the sun set on a photoshoot of a child in a white dress and velvet boots.
Caprock Canyon State Park
As we drove north towards the Texas Panhandle, Texas began to look like Texas to me. Flat and dry with plateau formations in the distance. Dry river beds. Caprock Canyon rises red out of the plains. Buffalo roam the park, which makes getting to the bathroom tricky at times. Or in our case handling upset dogs that have never encountered cows let alone buffalo.
Lake Arrowhead State Park, Wichita Falls, Texas
There are a lot of places named Wichita and that can make conversations confusing. One of my friends thought I was going to see mountains.
I’ll save you the suspense. This place is flat. (We did find the Wichita Mountains later).
We were looking for a place to hole up for the holiday weekend. Anyplace. Because, as we learned, you must make reservations for the state parks in Texas. Planning is key. There is an app for that (TX State Parks).
For the last four nights I’ve been listening to the too-fast drum beat of what I like to call the tell-tale-heart of this park or its resident oil rig. A novelty for travelers, but for me who doesn’t tolerate an analog clock ticking, it was a low level feel of doom. My husband couldn’t hear it. Twenty-four hours a day pumping away at the earth. About an hour south there are miles of wind turbines rising gracefully in uneven clusters. I think even Don Quixote would take pause at these. A little further south a solar farm. Meanwhile at Arrow Lake oil derricks emerge out of the shallow muddy waters.
Side Trip Through Oklahoma: Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and Black Kettle National Grasslands
Knowing you’ll never go to a place again and having nothing but time leads to extra adventures on your plate. Why not see what Oklahoma looks like? Looks much like Texas. Has few trees and golden December grass stretching to the horizon under wisps of clouds. blue skies, and cattle.
We entered the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge under the warnings of “artillery shells passing overhead.” They do things a lot different outside of Michigan. The road wound through the low stony mountains, small deep blue lakes, rolling grass plains complete with buffalo that we saw and longhorns that we did not see.
The Black Kettle National Grasslands was a different experience. We entered through the town of Cheyenne, Oklahoma. I was excited to learn there was a cluster of museums in town, and then a bit disappointed when they were not addressing the elephant in the room, so I did not stop. I was not interested in their one-room school house.
The elephant in the room. The National Grassland is named for the Indian Chief Black Kettle, who’s village was attacked outside of Cheyanne by General Custer. A simple history of Black Kettle National Grassland was that it was Native American Land, then it was Reservation land, then it was opened to settlers, and then the dust bowl hit. Now it is a mix of private and public land and I was pressed to figure out which part was public. (Okhistory.org)
Amarillo & Palo Duro Canyon State Park
We drove into the sunset, I mean directly into the blinding fury of retinal damage with no relief, and as dusk set in so did the aromas of the Texas Panhandle. Cattle feed lots plus other mysteries. My google searches yielded an unrealistic fantasy of the prettily named Amarillo. There were enough galleries and museums around to fool this traveler.
I Googled again. The Panhandle has a reputation (one that’ll punch you in the guts) (I don’t think ax body spray could even compete). A word on the feed lots. They hit hard. Not just the smell, but emotionally. The first one we passed I saw cows standing on cows. In others they had more room. The ones in Hereford, Texas look painfully big on satellite images. Now I am not going to condemn anyones diet, but we can do this better. We can choose local and small farms. Where I am from we have a food co-op and they visit/vet the farms.
Palo Duro has the reputation of the Grand Canyon of Texas. We descended (ten percent grade warning) in the dark and woke up in the middle of a canyon. Frosty sunrise coffee. Perfect overwhelming vista in every direction. Picturesque rock outcrops. Falling rocks next 100 feet. Watch out for wild boar and rattle snakes. Texas Panhandle in December.
One word of advice, if your husband wants to go hiking here, ask questions. After traveling and sitting any movement is welcome, I looked forward to a hike. However, hiking up 500 ft of difficult canyon wall trail is not the place to start hiking when you are not used to activity. At the top we both agreed that the down descent seemed scarier then going up, so we took the “easier trail” to the road. Ladies and Gentlemen, this was not easy, we hiked further up the Canyon. Up. Further up. At the top I got a hiking stick from the Canyon Gallery. My prize for 500 ft of elevation. With the jello legs of a foal I walked with my husband down the glorious ten percent grade black top to our truck. Thankful it was December and not August.