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.
It was always a good possibility that we would leave home for the road with Truck, but not return with him. (Yes I think of my husband’s large white diesel truck as Truck and a him, for no clear reason).
In the town and with the people I grew up with, a person’s car was often as much a part of their identity as their personal style. Truck has been a part of my life since I met my husband in 2009. Kurt somehow had all the qualities I wanted in a partner (not that I was looking!). So I joked to myself (never out loud) if he rode a white horse the deal is done. Then I saw he was driving a big white truck and I figured that had to be close enough.
Over the years Truck has been a problem. There was us stuck in the middle of no where in a sugar sand back road because Truck is more of an Egyptian pyramid stacking brick than an ideal off-road vehicle. Oh Truck could tow, but was not created as a 4 wheel drive, a much needed aspect of having a truck in the north. Lucky for us a plucky 4wd came along and pulled Truck out of the predicament. While me and Kurt’s kids watched.
Kurt came home with a topper for Truck so our dog at the time, Baby, would be able to travel around with us, especially back and forth downstate. The particles of that topper are still with us. It fell apart and had to be dismantled for the trash. Not all of it made it yet…
I had to buy a car (instead of a tiny truck like my Tacoma) so Kurt could make efficient monthly trips downstate. While I was more than happy to make that sacrifice, I would be left with Truck. And often you could find me laying in a mid-winter snow bank crying next to Truck. Truck idling on a sheet of ice with cat litter scattered around all the tires, chunks of wood, carpet remnants, and whatever other idea I could come up with to get the giant useless block to move. I failed time and time again to move that mule. 5,000 pounds of two wheel drive.
I gave Truck it’s first dent down the side of the bed. Years later Kurt gave the other side a perfect match.
You could find me attempting to park the beast in any lot, with any amount of room. Then watch me walk away cackling, swinging the keys, as that extended cab With an eight foot foot bed careened across however many spaces I needed. Of course I was parking away, far, far away from the doors, way over yonder.
I had to run errands with the step-daughter and in the middle of traffic Truck starts smoking inside the cab with that telltale electrical fire smell. I know things here and there about cars and their problems, but cars smoking and maybe on fire? Nope. It was a panic response to get the kid safely out of Truck, then we had to wait an hour for Kurt to come. It was luckily only the end of the speakers. I think one one worked, sometimes. Maybe. We haven’t listened to the radio in months on this trip.
When we were still driving in Michigan, when our road adventure was fresh, there was foreshadowing of Truck’s doom. The engine light came on briefly and then we forgot about it.
Until Death Valley.
When the engine light comes on there things get complicated. We just finished coming from Racetrack Playa, which was 26 miles (52 miles round trip) of washboard gravel one way. We had 60 miles of moonlit desert blacktop to drive when the check engine light came on announcing the end of the alternator. We waited four days for a new alternator to be delivered to the Post Office and Kurt had to be there waiting for it. But it didn’t work. And Kurt did things. We drove Truck with a charged battery to civilization and got a part to regulate the charging, for whatever reason the truck’s brain was going bad. That fix caused over charging.
After days of Kurt fiddling and researching…
The end has come for Truck, 2000 Dodge 2500 with 396,451 miles in Las Vegas, Nevada. All the things wrong and all the things we needed from a vehicle just made it impossible to keep Truck on the road.
No more crooked driver side seat. No more cracked windshield. No more “shut the radio off, I can’t understand it.” No more rattling rusty Michigan body. No more fighting with the tail gate. Or the doors that were possessed. On the other hand we definitely didn’t attract the wrong attention. No one was looking at Truck and thinking “I want what they have inside.” I’m sure it was thief repellent.
Truck, you were there for our first date and us falling in love driving around seeing the sights in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. You kept us safe on long trips. Hauled all the materials we needed to fix our house. Rescued the other cars when they broke down. And you got us over 10,000 miles across the country.
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.
Cotton fields. Cotton Fields. Cotton Fields. And the pines. We Stayed the night in northern Alabama at a woodsy state park with a history of iron mining before the Civil War. The drive up through the pines had me nostalgic for my childhood in Georgia, and looking at a map that was geographically only a few hours away.
The surprise was the South had industrial capabilities, that is not what was taught to me in public schools. What I was taught is the North held all of the industrial might and the South depended on outside sources. Of course the site at the current Tannehill Ironworks State Park was strategically targeted by the Union.
Unfortunately we only drove along the Gulf coast. White sand beaches lined with shore birds on one side, coastal houses up on stilts on the other. Blocks free of development filled with mature Live Oaks. Later we learned that these areas were once filled with antebellum homes lost to storms.
Call it bucket list. Call it dream vacation. Call it whatever you want. Between reading novels, watching movies, the history, the food… I’ve been enamored with the place. It was as dark and damp as I imagined. The old buildings tended to. Narrow streets with Spanish architecture smashed together. Narrow glimpses of courtyards behind locked wrought iron gates.
But then you get to Bourbon Street. I did not know about Bourbon Street before I went there (or maybe I didn’t pay attention?). Among the crowds of tourists there were street performers, they appeared to be families. The atmosphere was so loud, so cacophonous, I couldn’t think straight. Then I saw white middle age business suite guys standing on the balconies lurking with their beads clutched tight. Not looking like they were having one bit of fun. Their beady eyes tracking the flows of people. It was Wednesday at 6:00pm.
New History and Old
If you go to New Orleans the cemeteries are as amazing as they say. I’m not one for tours, but tour is the only way to see St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and it is worth it. I only regret that I could not wander with my camera as I wished.
Within view of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the most recent tragedy in New Orleans. While we were traveling and galavanting, workers were still trying to retrieve the the two bodies from the hotel collapse. Which was visible from almost everywhere in the French Quarter, looming over the revelry.
All along the rivers the plantations of old divided up the land. Some still working plantations, some gone, and some tourist attractions.
Antebellum is such a pretty word…
And they are such pretty structures, with the mature live oaks lining the drives up to a symmetrically built house. The one that caught my eye was colorful. Turns out that was typical of the creole plantations before British/American colonial influence came to the area. Because the creole were influenced by the French, Spanish and island culture.
But I had to tune it out and walk away. Slaves. Slave quarters. The tour included innuendo to all the things that happened to women slaves. Including documentation of births.
Here we were touring a plantation for fun. In an area where the descendants of the slaves and the descendants of plantation owners could still be living side by side. And my insides feel ugly. Because I think about my friends and my family being treated as 3/5ths of a person. It is too real. And there is rage. I think about the people I care about and then in my mind take away all their autonomy and tell them they aren’t human. I don’t know if antebellum is such a pretty word anymore.
We took US 90 through the delta swamps of Southern Louisiana. To my Michigan eyes the raised roads through the cypress swamps were magical. All egrets and Spanish moss dotting the waterscape with cypress rising unbelievably from the murky standing water. When our first attempt at staying on the Gulf failed we drove even further south on the delta to Grand Isle State Park. The cypress trees gave way to golden grass islands and deep waterways crawling with fishing boats, shrimp trawlers and more types I have no name for.
Ohio as I remembered and expected it is still farms and wayward old farmhouses, a very similar vista to southern Lower Michigan. I was able to stop and catch, what was for me the quintessential Ohio landscape, a lonely old abandoned farmhouse.
Southern Ohio was the surprise. Hills and what could be defined as mountains set back from the empty fall fields with morning fog rolling back. Winding narrow roads with old wood barns built up tight to them covered in vines and bereft of paint. Covered wood bridges heaving their last breath of life, or in some cases carefully conserved. Federal Style houses set neatly right up to the sidewalks in tiny towns or elsewhere abandoned to the woods. New builds up in the hills with winding driveways and gated across from the river. On the river little houses toggled together defying paint and right angles. Indian burial mounds both set aside in state parks to enjoy and popping up lonely in farmer’s fields.
Kentucky and Tennessee are combined in my memory as one big green drive from before. On this trip we crossed into Northern Kentucky from over the Ohio River and drove along narrow winding tree covered roads hugging the side of a small mountain. Eventually this gave way to rolling green hills with little farms as far as the eye could see. My first thought was “this must be that Kentucky Blue Grass.” I felt like we were high up in elevation maybe we were, maybe it was my imagination. Each turn another perfect vista. Old barns with tobacco drying. Cows and horses and sheep in the fields. The horses. Tall delicate golden, brown, black, white, silver stately dancing horses. Huge horses. Running horses. Horses to make you weep they were so perfect.
Tennessee sticks in my head as all mountains and huge valleys containing the roads and the houses. This human felt very small driving through those valleys trying to see all the rocky outcrops. The houses changed to a lot of tin roofs and front porches. The cities we saw were busy building and it all felt new. Brick paver sidewalks and the muted fall colors just starting at the beginning of November.
We took an unplanned lunch in Nashville and walked German town. Checked out the farmer’s market. There was a moving monument to Tennessee’s history from the geological formation of the area to the state’s part in the Civil War through when it the monument was constructed.
The Upper Peninsula was so untouched by the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement for example, that as we drive through towns and cities richer in American history for better or worse, I am not tempered to its realities emotionally. And there I am reading on a stone wall about the end of a nation. About Tennessee’s role in the downfall of the Cherokee, this thing I read about. This thing that I watched documentaries on. There. In stone in front of me, because this is one of the places the people should be.
It will not be the last time I will walk away feeling mixed up. And it wasn’t the first.