Road Trips

Road Trips

On The Rocks

California’s Joshua Tree National Park encompasses nearly 800,000 acres, including parts of two deserts; the lower elevation Colorado Desert and the higher Mojave Desert. Reg and I were here about 40 years ago, tent camping with friends Tom and Joan during a blazing hot spring weekend. Neither of us had much memory of the park, so we were up early to reacquaint ourselves and beat the crowds.

In addition to the Joshua trees, the massive rock formations draw crowds to the park.

While the park is large, the most popular sights are located in relatively small areas. We began our day with a short walk along an unmarked path through a spectacular maze of boulders. We turned back before too long, not wanting to lose our way. I’m sort of a chicken about that.

In 1994, Joshua Tree National Monument officially became Joshua Tree National Park, adding 234,000 acres. Much of the park is designated wilderness. There are no facilities beyond vault toilets, so bring a full tank of gas, your water and a picnic lunch.

In addition to Skull Rock, we couldn’t leave the park without visiting Arch Rock and Heart Rock, two more “must see” stops. It was a challenge to snap photos of the three iconic rock formations without the crowds. Even on a Tuesday with the cool weather and gray skies, parking was tight and visitors were scrambling all over the rocks…so don’t expect to have the place to yourself!

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One For The Road

Our last night in Arizona was spent at Desert Diamond Distillery, a member of the popular Harvest Host program. We pulled in their parking lot near the Kingman airport, just off Historical Route 66, where we had a reservation for a free spot to park for the night. In return, our Harvest Host hoped (expected) us to get in the spirit of things with a visit to the tasting room.

Desert Diamond Distillery offers tastings of their award-winning spirits, along with mixed drinks and more.

Our “campsite” was nothing fancy, but we had a level spot and the tasting room looked pretty comfy. Reg and I are, for the most part, wine drinkers, (although lately I have been known to occasionally sip a Manhattan) so neither of us claim any knowledge of the craft distillery business. Little did we know, we were about to get a detailed lesson.

We wandered through the train yard, peeking in all the windows we could reach. It all made for a fun display and a nice little garden area for warmer days. Our next stop…the tasting room.

While the experience didn’t make a rum or vodka sipper out of me it was fun to try the 5-taste flight, just a quarter of an ounce each. Reg chose the 2-taste flight of the highest quality rums offered. He also helped me sip mine. I’m a lightweight.
This is a business that is run from the heart. The owner is obviously proud of her products (and rightly so) and enjoys sharing them with her guests. A lovely way to spend an afternoon.

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Lunch With The Gunslingers

A rich history of gold and silver mining during the mid to late 19th century brought the Wild West to Prescott, Arizona. Memories of those rowdy times remain strong in the historical downtown district and nowhere are they more apparent than at The Palace Restaurant and Saloon.

The Palace is the oldest business and the oldest bar operating in Arizona.

Reg had worked up an appetite, having been dragged through every antique store that caught my eye. It was finally his turn to choose which door to step through and we quickly found ourselves in oldest business and bar in the state of Arizona.

The Palace Saloon was built in 1877. At the time, it was one of more than forty bars standing along what was, and is still known as Whiskey Row. We were led to our table through the bar, following in the footsteps of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and some poor woman known as Big Nose Kate.

The corn chowder was delicious and warmed us up on what was a surprisingly cold day. Reg’s Reuben sandwich and my salad rounded out our lunches…perfect!

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Cactus With Charisma

Saguaro cactus welcome us to the trail with happy waves.

Tucson Mountain Park was our choice for a day hike during our short stay. The park has a network of trails and an abundance of saguaro cactus scattered throughout the mountains and valleys.
Unique to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, these slow-growing giants can reach 40-60 feet and live 150-200 years.

Saguaros have the classic cactus look, and are easily identifiable . Standing tall, arms pointing upwards, waving at all who pass by. They are the charming, charismatic hosts of the Sonoran Desert.

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The Trail West

We had just two nights outside of Las Cruces at this New Mexico State Park.

We literally blew through Las Cruces, New Mexico on our way to Leasburg Dam State Park. The wind had been gathering strength as we traveled west and we were looking forward to getting off the road.

The distant mountains put on a colorful show as sunset.

Our campsite was pretty impressive for $14.00/ night. We had a concrete parking pad, electric and water hookups and a covered concrete patio with picnic table. In addition, the park had bathrooms with showers just a short walk away. The view wasn’t so bad either.

Although it was tempting to climb back in the truck and find a nearby mountain trail, we just had one day so decided to wander without driving. We managed a 3-mile walk throughout the park, eventually arriving at the Rio Grande River that flows alongside the park boundaries.

The small-scale Leasburg Dam.

The Leasburg Diversion Dam was completed in 1907 and measures 10 feet high and 600 feet long. It holds a place in history as the first dam completed by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Rio Grande Project, built to channel irrigation water to the dry lands of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico.

But that was not the only historic site within walking distance. We took an afternoon stroll to visit nearby Fort Selden.

The fort was a short walk from our campground.

The U.S. Army established the fort in 1865 in an effort promote peace and protect westward bound settlers. Several of the troops serving the fort were the African American regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers, whose main duty was to protect those settlers and build infrastructure. Officers soon brought their wives and children as the community grew. At age four, Douglas McArthur, who would later become a five-star general and American war hero, lived at Fort Selden during his father’s brief time as post commander.

The fort was decommissioned in 1891 and left abandoned, its adobe buildings surrendering to the wind and rain and snow. In 1970, Fort Selden was listed on the National Register of Historic Places and in 1974 it was named a New Mexico State Monument.

The small museum tells the stories of life at Fort Selden with photos, storyboards and collectibles.

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One of the biggest negatives of pulling a trailer is the inability to stop quickly or turn around easily. As we drove west from Big Bend National Park along two-lane Highway 90, we stopped to do some grocery shopping in the tiny Texas town of Marfa, population 1,750 plus or minus. If you’re ever in the area, Porter’s grocery store has an excellent selection of whatever you might need.
But the real surprises came as we left town.

As we sped along the highway we passed this giant mural. (Photo credit HGTV)

There was no place large enough for Reg to pull over, and no time to do so anyway. As we sped past I questioned the display. “Doesn’t that represent a movie…Giant, maybe? Wasn’t that supposed to be James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor?”
A big part of my job as passenger on these trips is to find interesting things to share with Reg while he’s stuck behind the wheel. Fortunately, my phone signal was strong enough to provide answers.

I found that Marfa was indeed the area where the 1956 movie Giant was filmed and is now memorialized by the eye-catching roadside mural. At the time, the all-star cast, including James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, must have caused quite a stir in the small town.

But this was not the only movie filmed in Marfa. I found a long list of films associated with the Texas town. You can check this link to see if you recognize any others.

A little farther along the highway we had another surprise. (Photo credit: Vogue)

Again, there was no time to stop and investigate why the Italian luxury brand Prada had a store plopped alongside this lonely stretch of highway. A little more research uncovered the story behind Prada Marfa. This vision of artists Elmgreen & Dragset is a piece of sculptural art. The freestanding 15’ x 25’ building was inaugurated in 2005. It’s quite the attention grabber.

According to NPR, Marfa has evolved into a “mecca for art tourism.” Vogue magazine has dubbed it “America’s coolest art town.” Here’s a link if you’d like to learn more.

Tethered Aerostat Radar System

With all the recent sightings and talk of foreign air balloons floating across our skies, we couldn’t believe what we saw next. “What in the heck is that?” I turned Reg’s attention (just for a moment…he was driving) to the blimp-like object hovering above the empty landscape.
The Tethered Aerostat Radar System (TARS), used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations, provides long-range detection of low-flying suspicious aircraft used for illicit smuggling of narcotics and people. Here’s a link to a fact sheet with more info.

So, it was a day of surprises. A day when we learned that even the most out-of-the-way spots all have stories to tell. We’re on our way to a small New Mexico State Park for a couple days. To tell you the truth, at $14.00 per night, we aren’t expecting much, but then again, we might just get another surprise.

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We’re Thrown A Curve Before Big Bend

We had just one day to explore Big Bend National Park. Our original plan of a 2-day stay was foiled by leaking water lines and not one, but two visits from a mobile RV repairman. Them’s the breaks…but we arrived to our rescheduled campsite just outside the park and pulled in between a couple whose father/father-in-law lives just down the road from our old Mariposa, California home, and a young couple who are living and traveling (since 2020) in their giant 5th wheel…along with their 5 children.

With just one day, we were advised to walk the Lost Mine Trail for a taste of what the park had to offer.
This was how early we had to get up to start our day, and to be assured of getting a parking space.

This has been our favorite hike of the trip…so far. Just under 5 miles with enough elevation gain to test us. Watching the massive rock formations catch the morning sun as it rose was spectacular. I’m afraid the photos don’t do it justice.

With the afternoon ahead of us, we drove the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive stopping along the way at points of interest. Our goal was to reach the Rio Grande River, signaling the end of the road and the border between the United States and Mexico.

And now it’s time to leave Texas behind. We’ll be hitching up Minnie and heading west tomorrow. See you in a few days.

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Texas – Yesterday And Today

The Alamo was established in 1718 as Mission San Antonio de Valero.

We arrived in San Antonio, Texas on February 23, the first day of the historic Battle of the Alamo that took place in 1836. It was also the first day of the annual commemoration honoring the battle. A sea of chairs were set up on the front plaza, filled with history buffs who listened to speakers commemorate the famous battle.
I’ll leave you to do your own research regarding the winners and losers of the battle.

We took a 7-mile stroll along the San Antonio River Walk, then joined the crowds for a waterside lunch.

The following day we left the city behind and found a place to stretch our legs and enjoy a quiet picnic lunch. The 12,000-acre Government Canyon State Natural Area fit the bill. With 40 miles of trails, we chose a combination that took up and around on a loop through changing vegetation. We even found a bench with a bit of a view for our lunch.

Next stop: Big Bend National Park.

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Civilian Conservation Corps Does It Again – Bastrop State Park

One of the benefits of traveling this time of year has been the ability to reserve and enjoy a variety of state parks in multiple states…without the crowds of high season.
We pulled into Bastrop State Park, southeast of Austin, Texas for a three-night stay, and were pleased to see that the forest was making a recovery after a devastating fire in 2011.

As with so many state parks, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided the manpower in the 1930s, constructing much of what remains today. Because of their craftsmanship and landscape work, the park was awarded National Historical Landmark status in 1997.

The park pool wasn’t yet open for the season. Just for a moment we considered hopping the fence
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Buc-ee’s Gets Our Bucks

I don’t remember how or when we heard about the super-sized Buc-ee’s Travel Centers, but we were definitely curious and eager to make a roadside stop and check one out.

All we wanted was a cup of coffee to sip on the remainder of our drive.

Buc-ee’s is a Texas icon, a larger-that-life, one-stop center offering travelers everything they could possibly want or need…and more. I wouldn’t be surprised if some devotees go to wrap up their Christmas shopping every year.
We wandered through a mouth-watering food court, a really nice kitchenware and gift department. There was a good-size grocery department, a camping area and a large clothing section. In addition, Buc-ee’s has a reputation for extremely clean bathrooms…always appreciated when on the road.

How could anyone resist this warm welcome from Buc-ee’s lovable beaver mascot?

The Buc-ee’s chain was founded in 1982 in Clute, Texas. Expansion in the state began in 2001with the first travel center opening in Luling, Texas. In 2018, Buc-ee’s began to pop up in neighboring southern states and there are now 43 locations inviting weary travelers a chance to take a break and get some steps in while wandering through the department-like store.

We stopped at the Baytown center just off Interstate 10 east of Houston. According to Chris O’Connell, who visited, rated and wrote about every Buc-ee’s in Texas, listing them from worst to best, the Baytown center “felt gargantuan…just magnificent.” He ranked it 5th from the top. We obviously experienced some of best of what the chain has to offer.
So, besides coffee, what did we put in that cart that Reg was pushing? In addition to a few bottles of sale-priced California wine, I insisted on souvenir cups. Aren’t they perfect?

Reg opted for the white cup because he thought it looked classy. I went all-in on the splashy red one. I have no class.
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