March 14, 2015

Good-bye Texas, Hello New Mexico and Arizona

After more than two months in Texas, we finally left the Lone Star State on February 17, 2015.  We had planned to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park after our stop in Van Horn, but the weather was not cooperating, so we decided to save the park for another time.  The interstate was the only reasonable way to travel, so we braved the traffic, including the craziness that is El Paso.  Luckily, I had read about a more agreeable loop around the city, which turned out to be a very smart detour. 

Texas Was Great, But It Was Nice to Cross into New Mexico

Our destination for the night was Las Cruces.  Tim was happy to be back in New Mexico and to have easy access to green chilies, one of his favorite foods.  Getting his chili fix was a top priority.

We had a mission while in Las Cruces.  For longer than I care to admit, our electric sofa had been making a grinding noise while being lowered to its position as a bed.  For those who are not familiar with our RV, we have a sofa at the rear of the RV that converts to a king-size bed.  When the sofa/bed would not revert to the sofa position, we knew that we finally had to deal with it.

Luckily, we found a mobile RV technician in Las Cruces who was able to fit us into his schedule.  We were envisioning having to replace the motor and/or gear box and were preparing ourselves for a costly and time-consuming repair.  Larry from Larry’s RV and Marine Service arrived right on time the next morning and determined that it was an easy fix.  Who would have guessed that a bit of grease would solve the problem.  Wow!  That was a huge relief.  Larry was so professional and so good at figuring things out.  We would highly recommend him.

We took advantage of our stop in a large city to visit Walgreen’s and Walmart.  It had been more than a month since we had been to one of the “big” stores, and there were a few things that we needed.  Errands complete, we were ready for an adventure. 

We left Las Cruces and drove into the mountains toward Silver City, New Mexico.  It was nice to get off the interstate and onto a more peaceful state highway.  We had picked Silver City because it was supposed to be an interesting small town and a good base to visit Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.  It turned out to be a great choice.

We checked into Rose Valley RV Ranch, a great campground with a Western theme.  The campground’s location in Silver City was perfect, and we were amazed that a private campground had so much character, as well as so much space and privacy between sites.  Although we would have enjoyed hanging around the campground, we had other plans.

We drove to Gila Cliff Dwellings the next day on the Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway.  This winding, mountain road passes through the Gila National Forest and offers wonderful views of the surrounding wilderness.  The Gila National Forest actually includes the first designated wilderness area set aside by Congress in 1924.

Winding Our Way through the Gila National Forest

Panoramic Views from the Trail of the Mountain Spirits Scenic Byway

Crossing the Gila River

The road ends at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a park that provides a glimpse into the homes and lives of the ancient Puebloan people who lived in the Mogollon area more than 700 years ago.  These people built a village within five of the natural caves of Cliff Dweller Canyon, and these cliff dwellings can be visited today.

As we hiked up the path to the cliff houses, we caught our first sight of the natural caves, which are located high above the canyon bottom.  Tim and I were fortunate to join a tour led by a wonderful volunteer, who helped us think like an archeologist (Tim didn’t let on that he is an archeologist!).  Why did the ancestral people come to this area, and why did they construct their dwellings in the caves?  Why did they leave after only a few decades?  There are many theories, and it was thought-provoking to ponder the possibilities.  Walking among the ruins and contemplating the culture that flourished there was so inspirational.

Our First Sighting of the Caves in Cliff  Dweller Canyon

What a Location for a Home
Cliff Dwellings Were Built into the Caves

How Amazing It Was to Walk in the Footsteps of the Ancestral People 

We also spent some time at the visitor center where we met the park’s superintendent.  We were amazed to find out that Gila has only two paid staff.  That’s nuts!  How can a park function that way?  One answer is with volunteers.  It seems as if volunteers virtually run the place, and they seem to be a very dedicated bunch of folks.  We were impressed.

The next day we left Silver City and headed back to the interstate on our way to Arizona.  What a dramatic view as we drove down from the higher elevation of Silver City and encountered the wide expanse of desert before us.  You may be wondering why we were moving at such a rapid pace, when our stated preference has been to spend up to a week at each destination.  The answer is an easy one.  We had registered in January to attend an event in Phoenix and had only a short time frame to get there. We had not figured on working at Fort Davis for two weeks when we originally planned our timetable and route.

Good-bye New Mexico, Hello Arizona

Tim and I stopped for the evening in Willcox, Arizona.  Although our campground was bare-bones, its saving grace was pie.  Yes, pie.  The owner bakes pies, and we placed our order for rhubarb, one of my favorites.  We also found Girl Scouts in town selling cookies, only the second cookie opportunity we had found this season.  We were certainly fixed for sweets.

There's Always Room for Pie

March 11, 2015

A Gem of a State Park

Davis Mountains State Park continued to be our home while Tim and I worked at Fort Davis National Historic Site.  The park is only four miles away and is one of the best state parks in Texas.  Not only did we have a fabulous campsite with full hookups, including cable, but we also had lots of trees and privacy.  I don’t think we could have found a better site for us.

The Davis Mountains are an oasis in the desert that is west Texas, and the state park is the crown jewel.  Davis Mountains State Park was mostly built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and was one of the earliest CCC projects in Texas.  The CCC constructed a five-mile scenic road, known as Skyline Drive, to the ridgetop where it seems that one can see forever.  A stone lookout shelter at the top includes a picture window that frames one of the stunning views.
Panoramic View from Skyline Drive

The View Goes On Forever

Stone Shelter Built by the CCC

Looking Through the Picture Window at the Stone Shelter

The CCC was also responsible for the construction of Indian Lodge in 1933.  Located on a hillside within the park, Indian Lodge complements its natural surroundings.  In designing the lodge, the architects were clearly influenced by Native American pueblo villages, and construction materials included handmade adobe blocks, local pine and river cane. Although the pueblo-style design of the lodge is perhaps more suited to New Mexico than to Texas, Indian Lodge is still a beautiful building and a wonderful addition to the park. 

Indian Lodge as Seen from Skyline Drive

Pueblo-Style Architecture at Indian Lodge

We were fortunate that the weather was mostly good while we were at Davis Mountains.  Our first free weekend was delightful, and we enjoyed the park as well as the nearby towns.  We did get a bit of a shock one morning when we awoke to a winter wonderland.  The amount of snow we received was a bit unexpected, but it melted quickly and made for great photos.

Winter Wonderland at Davis Mountains State Park

We were really looking forward to spending a final weekend at the park after completing our two-week project at Fort Davis.  Unfortunately, it was not to be since all campsites were reserved.  We had forgotten it was Presidents’ Day weekend, as well as Valentine’s Day.  Apparently, that’s a big camping weekend in Texas.

Final Sunset through the Trees at Davis Mountains

We reluctantly left Davis Mountains State Park and made our way to Van Horn.  We drove through Valentine, Texas, on Valentine’s Day, but could not even find a good spot for a photo opportunity.  Valentine is past its prime.

Heading Down from Davis Mountains

Tim and I stopped at the Van Horn KOA for what we thought would be a one-night stopover.  We kept extending our visit, however, and ended up staying for three nights.  It turned out we needed a little R&R after working non-stop for two weeks.  We’re not exactly used to this full-time work thing!  Although the KOA was not the prettiest of parks, it fit the bill and was fine for what we needed.  Our favorite amenity was the on-site café where we enjoyed breakfast and dinner a few times.  Even Kitty had fun exploring the campground.

Ride 'em Kitty!

Unusual Weather Station at Van Horn

March 9, 2015

Serendipity at Fort Davis

Fort Davis National Historic Site was established in 1854 to protect emigrants, freighters and mail coaches on the overland route to California.  It is one of the best preserved frontier forts in the Southwest and has a wonderful collection of adobe and stone buildings.  Tim and I had been very impressed with the fort on our visit to the park three years earlier, and wanted to check out the new museum exhibit at the visitor center. 
Fort Davis National Historic Site

Several months earlier, Tim had send proposals for museum services contracting to a handful of parks on our intended route through Texas. Fort Davis was one of those parks.  Based on our earlier visit, we thought it would be a great place to work.  Although Tim had not heard back from the park, we decided to stop by for a visit while we were in town.  When we arrived at Fort Davis on Thursday, January 29, we learned that the park historian whom Tim had originally contacted was on vacation for two weeks.  Drat!  We still had a pleasant time talking with one of the park rangers and explained who we were as well as the services that Tim could provide.  A drop-in visit had been worth a shot, but it seemed there would be no work for Tim this time.

The Horse and Goats Are Best Friends and Hard-Working "Staff" Members

Although we wanted to spend time touring the new museum exhibit, we were hungry and decided that lunch was the priority.  The exhibit could wait until later in the day.  Tim left a business card and note for the historian, and we headed out to a highly-recommended Mexican restaurant in town.  As we were returning to the fort to finish our tour, Tim received a telephone call from John, the Chief of Interpretation, who wanted to meet with Tim.  The ranger we had met had spoken with John about us, and John had also seen the proposal that Tim had sent.

Within five minutes we were meeting with John, who immediately expressed an interest in contracting with Tim for a two week project. Wow!  What fortuitous timing that turned out to be!  It was so refreshing to find someone in the federal bureaucracy who would seize the opportunity of our being there, ready to work, and immediately act on it. John told us that the superintendent would be back the next day and that he would present the idea to him.  He requested that Tim call back on Friday

On Friday we stopped by the park and met with John and the superintendent, whose name is also John.  They offered Tim a contract and requested his recommendation as to which project he should undertake.  We received a tour of the collection, and Tim took paperwork home to review over the weekend.  We were so excited to be working at Fort Davis.  It is a very cool park and the staff is great.  

While Tim got paid for his work, I worked directly with him as a volunteer.  I really enjoy this rapidly evolving part of our full-time adventure.  Although I dearly love the traveling part of our lifestyle, I also enjoy undertaking projects like this and spending extended time at different parks.  It adds another dimension to our new way of life.  Yes, the money is nice, but it’s also good to keep our minds sharp and to contribute our expertise to the parks.  We don’t want to work full-time, but a two-week project every so often is perfect.  Projects like this also enable us to get to really know the staff and the park.  That’s actually one of the best parts of the job.

We were also very fortunate to be able to adjust our plans to stay at Fort Davis for the next two weeks.  Again, that’s the freedom that comes with this lifestyle.  We give ourselves a lot of flexibility and try not to make too many time commitments.

Unlike Tim’s previous contracts, we didn’t have a particular project when we started our stint at Fort Davis.  Instead, the park wanted Tim to prioritize the work that needed to be done.  Fort Davis had been without a curator for quite some time, and so many options were available.  Tim decided to wrap up the loose ends resulting from the new museum exhibit that had just been installed.  This is a great exhibit and one which the staff put so much time and effort into.

"What Did I Get Myself Into?"

We accounted for and updated the catalog records for all objects in the exhibit; re-housed objects that had been removed from storage for the exhibit; unpacked boxes and housed objects returned from conservation; and organized the curation areas.  We also spent quite a bit of time cleaning and performing generalized housekeeping duties.

It Even Snowed One Day We Were at Fort Davis

Living History Is a Major Component of Interpretation at Fort Davis -
Ranger Chelsea Is Perfect in the Role of an Elegant Officer's Wife

The staff was so appreciative of what we did, especially the organization of the curation areas.  Tim and I both felt that we had made a real, concrete contribution to the park.  It was hard, physical work at times, but it was very rewarding to see the finished product.  (Actually, the most difficult part of the project was getting up in the dark at 6:30 am and making it to the park by 8:00 am!)  We hope to return to Fort Davis at some future time to continue the work we started.

Housekeeping Is Hard Work

I Think the "After" Photos Show a Significant Improvement

March 8, 2015

San Antonio Memories

Although Tim and I had driven to San Antonio several times while staying at Buckhorn Lake Resort, our visits were for shopping or running to the airport.  We had decided that commuting through rush hour traffic to visit the city highlights would feel too much like work.  So, after leaving Buckhorn we planned to move to an RV park inside the city.  Even with a GPS, driving through construction zones on multiple interstate highways was a challenge, and we were relieved to finally arrive at the San Antonio KOA.

It was a beautiful day when we settled into our site, and we enjoyed an afternoon outdoors.  The next few days, however, were cold, rainy and windy, so we huddled inside the RV and extended our stay so we could do our touring on pretty days.  We used the yucky days to take care of an oil change for the Subaru, as well as other necessary errands.

When we awoke to a beautiful morning, we made our way to San Antonio Missions National Historical Park, an amazing collection of missions built along the San Antonio River in the 1700s.  The missions, established by Spain in an attempt to push its empire northward from present-day Mexico, form the largest concentration of Catholic missions in North America.

While touring the four missions that comprise the park, we learned the difference between the Texas and California missions that we had visited several years ago.  The Texas missions were established not only to spread the Catholic faith, but also to make Spanish citizens of the Indians in an effort to colonize this portion of Texas.  The mission communities were located just three miles apart and provided to the Indians a sanctuary from their enemies.  It was interesting to discover that the Indians came to live in the missions by choice, not force or persuasion.

Mission Concepción is the best preserved of the four missions.  A very helpful volunteer told us about the original murals for which this mission is known.  Although the church looks much as it did in the mid-1700s, it was somewhat surprising to find out that the weathered stone walls were once decorated with colorful geometric designs.

Mission Concepcion
Original Murals

Interior of Mission Conception

Imagine the Church Painted in Colorful Geometric Designs

Mission San José is the most well-known of the missions and has been called the “Queen of the Missions.”  The park’s visitor center is located here, and ranger-led tours are offered on a regular basis.  We were able to participate in one of the tours and came away with a much better understanding of the mission community, where more than 300 residents lived and worked.  Thanks to the reconstruction efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps, as well as a multi-million dollar restoration in 2011, Mission San José gives the most realistic look into what the original complex must have looked like.  The architecture of the complex is magnificent, especially the elaborately carved entranceway to the church.

Mission San Jose

A Beautiful Entrance to the Church

The Mission Resembled a Small City

The rural setting of Mission San Juan Capistrano lends itself to interpreting the agricultural heritage of the mission communities.  San Juan was known for its fertile farmlands, and this self-sustaining community supplied goods to the surrounding regions.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Mission Espada is the southernmost mission in the park, and it was here that we fully understood the role of these churches as the heart of their small communities.  The churches are active parishes, and mission descendants continue to worship here.  We arrived at Mission Espada to find a wedding about to start.  Although we were unable to visit the interior of the church, it was very special to watch the bridesmaids as they lined up outside the church.  After a long wait the beautiful bride finally emerged from her pickup truck and proudly walked through the door of this historic site.

"Here Comes the Bride" at Mission Espada

Broken Arch Over the Entrance to the Church

Our final stop on the mission trail was the Espada Aqueduct.  The success of the agricultural operations at the missions depended on acequias, or gravity flow ditch systems.  Dams and aqueducts along the San Antonio River ensured the flow of water into the system, and the Espada Dam still performs its original function.  Water is carried by the Espada Aqueduct, the oldest Spanish aqueduct in the United States.  Amazing!

Espada Aqueduct

On another lovely day, we drove downtown to explore the San Antonio River Walk, the city’s signature attraction.  What a wonderful resource for the city!  Although Tim and I had both visited the River Walk many years ago, we were even more impressed this time.  For a new experience, we took a barge ride which offered a different perspective of the bridges and surrounding buildings.  We stayed for lunch and enjoyed great barbeque while watching the activity along the river. 

Enjoying the San Antonio River Walk

Scenes of the River Walk

Tim and I decided that we couldn’t leave San Antonio without visiting the Alamo.  Although the Alamo was one of the original missions, it is known primarily for its role in Texas independence.  The Alamo is a beautiful building, but I was not too impressed with the exhibits inside the original church.  I can appreciate historic firearm displays, but why did they decide to feature this exhibit inside the church?   To me it was very odd. The Alamo is definitely a shrine in the true sense of the word, and visiting seems to be an almost religious experience for Texans.  Although I would love to make a return visit to the San Antonio missions, one visit to the Alamo was enough for me.

"Remember the Alamo"

After two months, Tim and I finally left the Texas Hill Country on January 27 and began to make our way west.  We really enjoyed our time there, but it was time to move on.  Tim and I split up as we left San Antonio.  I made a detour back to Kerrville to pick up our mail at Buckhorn Lake Resort, and he drove directly to Amistad National Recreation Area.  Located right on the Rio Grande and the United States-Mexico border, Amistad is best known for its water sports and fishing opportunities.  We camped at the park, where we overlooked the reservoir.

Fishing Boat at Sunset at Amistad National Recreation Area

The next morning we stopped at the visitor center where we watched the movie and learned about the rock art that is a significant resource at Amistad.  Unfortunately, the rock art can only be visited by boat, so we missed seeing the sites in person.  We then left Amistad to begin our long drive across west Texas, a very desolate area indeed.  A border patrol stop and a short break at the Pecos River High Bridge helped to break up the long (for us) journey.

Pecos River High Bridge

We finally arrived in Fort Davis, Texas, and made our way to Davis Mountains State Park, a truly wonderful park.  I had read so many good things about the park, and all were true.  We found a lovely, huge shaded site with full hookups, including cable, and settled in for a few days.  It was so nice to be back in the mountains.

A Great Campsite at Davis Mountains State Park

March 4, 2015

Exploring the Texas Hill Country

Although the weather continued to be cold, rainy and gloomy during much of January, Tim and I took advantage of a few sunny days to get out and explore parts of the Texas Hill Country.  First on our list was a visit to the LBJ Ranch, which is a part of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical ParkWe had visited LBJs boyhood home when we first arrived in Texas, but this was our chance to tour the Texas White House.

The Hill Country of Texas was the home of the Johnson family for over a century, and it was here where LBJ felt a sense of belonging.  The LBJ Ranch was a working ranch, and it remains one today.  The Johnsons, who donated a portion of their land to the National Park Service, made that stipulation, not wanting the ranch to become a “sterile relic of the past.”  Located along the Pedernales River, the LBJ Ranch includes several properties associated with President Johnson’s life, as well as the gravesites of the President and Mrs. Johnson.
The LBJ Ranch

A Beautiful Setting on the Pedernales River

Johnson Family Cemetery

We signed up for the ranger-guided tour of the Texas White House and were able to visit the entire first floor.  Tim and I have toured several homes of presidents and have always come away with a better sense of the person behind the presidency.  A quote on a pillow in the office perhaps best sums up LBJs personality:  “This is my ranch and I do as I damn please.”  We learned just how much he did as he pleased, often much to Mrs. Johnson’s chagrin.  

The Texas White House

Fondly Known as "Air Force One Half"

LBJ conducted a tremendous amount of official business at the ranch, and countless dignitaries were guests there.  In addition to a guest register, President Johnson created friendship stones.  Guests signed their names and the dates of their visit into blocks of wet concrete, and these stones were used as pavers throughout the property.  It was fun to try and identify the names.

Friendship Stones

On another day we drove to Bandera, the “Cowboy Capital of the World.” We can’t attest to that, but I have to admit that I was tempted to purchase a pair of cowboy boots.  They weren’t real boots, just rain boots that looked like cowboy boots, but they would have been fun to wear in the rain.  Alas, I behaved and left without them.

Bandera County Courthouse

Tim’s big excitement for January was a trip to Tampa, Florida, and the Florida RV SuperShow.  This was the same show that Tim and I attended in 2014 and is one of the largest RV shows in the country.  We still haven’t ruled out getting a somewhat larger RV, but so far we have not found one we’re in love with.  Although Tim toured lots of contenders, he is still happy with the one we have.  Besides, our RV will be perfect for our summer in Alaska.

While Tim was away, the weather finally cooperated, and we had several beautiful days.  Everyone had been holed up in their RVs, and it was nice to talk to folks and spend some time outside.  We had several very nice neighbors during our stay at Buckhorn Lake Resort, and several offered to help if I need anything while Tim was away.  That's the thing about most RVers - they are so friendly and always ready to pitch in.

As soon as Tim returned from Florida, our month at Buckhorn ended, and we said farewell to resort living.  We didn’t go far – just down the road to San Antonio.

Kitty and Tim Relaxing at Buckhorn Lake Resort