Monday, March 31, 2014

Riding the Range from West Texas to Big Bend

Suzanne and I saddled up our ponies (er, Winnies) and pulled out of the corral at Balmorhea State Park on a sunny and breezy West Texas day (are there any other kinds?).  We were on our way to a week’s stay at Big Bend National Park, but wanted to take our time and enjoy the scenery along the way, so made the 200 miles a two-day trip.

Wild Rose Pass and the canyons south of Balmorhea were looking a whole lot prettier in the morning light than when I’d boondocked there a few nights ago.  Bluebird blue skies and spring green on the cottonwood trees! (thanks for the photos of my Winnie, Suzanne!)

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We had our walkie talkies to chit chat as we drove, and both fired up our iPhone playlists to sing along with as we drove.  Suzanne started hers out with John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” (her favorite road trip tradition).  I, on the other hand, like to match my playlist to the area I’m traveling in—if it’s driving back to Chicago, it will have “Sweet Home Chicago” in there somewhere, so today for West Texas, my playlist was loaded up with cowboy songs by Gene Autry, Sons of the Pioneers, Roy Rogers, and more.

This was my view as I sang along with Gene to “Back in the Saddle Again”!


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Rockin' to and fro
Back in the saddle again

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It was lunchtime when we reached Fort Davis, so we herded the Winnies next to another RV near the picturesque courthouse and left Millie to “yodel” out the window to her new pals-- a much calmer, quieter well-behaved pair of RV doggies!

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Meanwhile, Suzanne and I headed to the Fort Davis Drugstore for lunch.  It’s a time-warp and the real-deal.  An old-fashioned soda fountain with all kinds of ice cream delights served up by teenaged soda jerks fully dressed the part with bow ties and paper hats.

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Suzanne came to get the cheeseburger that Kimbopolo had raved about during her trip here last year.  Yep, she reports that it was as good as it gets!

After lunch, we returned to our saddles and moseyed down the road to Marfa.  The winds were really blowing by then and tumbleweeds were rolling across the highway as fast as we could dodge them.  Queue up the Sons of the Pioneers!

I'll keep rolling along
Deep in my heart is a song
Here on the range I belong
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.


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Suddenly, there was a panicked voice on my walkie talkie.  Suzanne’s awning had become unhooked and was now flapping violently in the 30+ mile-per-hour crosswinds. We pulled over to a wrestle the wayward vinyl back around it’s awning pole.  Thankfully, no rips or lasting problems with it, just a roller lock that had not been fully engaged.

We got to Marfa in the mid-afternoon and tried hard to figure out what all the recent publicity (i.e. a 60 Minutes TV show feature, various travel articles, etc).  The town was cute enough with a picturesque courthouse, church, and old movie theater, and it did have a few trendy hot spots, but not much more impressive than any of the other cute west Texas towns such as Fort Davis.

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But Marfa did have something we had not yet seen on our trip—an honest to goodness chain-gang!  All dressed up in their Texas orange and white with a gun-toting Sheriff to supervise their work. 

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After getting the Winnies settled in their boondock spot for the night, we unhitched my yellow Tracker and rode out west of Marfa to the tiny ghost town of Valentine, TX.  Here, just beyond the run down Hi Way CafĂ© and the old abandoned general mercantile…

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was the infamous Prada Marfa “store” in all it’s pop-art glory beneath a spectacularly moody sky of an approaching storm.

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The storm chased us all the way back to the Marfa Lights Viewing Center where we had hoped to boondock the night and see the infamous “Marfa Lights”.

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We toured around the viewing platform, and looked through the viewing scopes a few times, but never saw much more than the rising full moon, or the midnight stars over the Winnies (but, apparently Suzanne bolted out of bed in the middle of the night convinced she was now seeing something!).

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A brutal wind, rain, and cold front had moved into the area making for a very long night as the Winnies were battered about.  In my haste to walk Millie as fast as possible the next morning, I neglected to notice that the dirt beneath the entry step was now 4 inches of mud.  What a way to start this miserably cold day!

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We quickly packed up and drove up over a ridge to the day’s appropriately-named town of Alpine, TX where it was actually snowing on the peaks surrounding the town!

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Alpine was cute with some neat murals and a longhorn-toting Cow Dog food truck, but we were most interested in it’s impressive full-service grocery store on this blustery morning.  Just exactly what we needed to finish our provisioning before our final push on to Big Bend.

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With the boondocking night under the stars and moon still fresh in my mind, and the approaching mountains of Big Bend in the windshield ahead of me, I queued up some Roy Rogers for one last sing-along to “Don’t Fence Me In”:

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don't fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don't fence me in

Let me be by myself in the evenin' breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don't fence me in

Just turn me loose, let me straddle my old saddle
Underneath the western skies
On my Cayuse, let me wander over yonder
Till I see the mountains rise

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can't look at hovels and I can't stand fences
Don't fence me in

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Sunday, March 30, 2014

Deep in the Heart of West Texas

“The stars at night are big and bright (clap, clap, clap, clap!)
Deep in the heart of Texas
The prairie sky is wide and high (clap, clap, clap, clap!)
Deep in the heart of Texas”
-- lyrics by June Hershey, music by Don Swander

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I drove up to Balmorhea State Park to rejoin Suzanne for a few days since she had the supreme foresight (that only a native Texan could have!) to grab a lone extra campsite for me that had just become available online a few weeks previously.  All of the State Parks and many of the private campgrounds were completely booked up for Spring Break week, so while Balmorhea might not have typically been my first choice of a travel destination, I was happy to have a real campsite for the rest of the week, and even happier when the ranger assigned me to the site right next to Suzanne.   Views and Trackers just look better together, don’t cha think?

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Balmorhea (pronounced Bal-mor-RAY) is a thimble-sized state park in the vast ocean of dry and dusty West Texas prairie.  It has no hiking trails, no bike paths, no kayaking, and not much of anything else to do except camp and swim.  Balmorhea’s “one trick pony” is it’s enormous natural spring-fed swimming pool with depths ranging from 3 feet to more than 25 feet, and a constant year-round temperature of around 75 degrees.  Suzanne raved about her daily dips, so I couldn’t wait to give it a try when I got there.

Now 75 degrees surely feels refreshing on a hot 100+ degree summer day, but today’s wind-whipped Spring day when the air temp struggled to get above 80, this water felt pretty darn COLD!  But, I was still bound and determined to give it a go!  It seemed that the warmer water would likely be on the shallow end of the pool since the sun was out to warm it up further, so I made my way over to the kiddie pool stairs and slowly immersed myself.  

I tried to like the pool as much as Suzanne… I really did!  And, once in the water, the temperature was really not that bad.  But two things just creeped…me… out – the slime-covered semi-concrete/semi-rock floor of the pool, and the hundreds of little minnows swimming all around me!  I was looking for a nice warm “sit and soak”, but this pool was not going to be THAT!  I endured for another 10 or 15 minutes, and finally concluded that I liked looking at this pool a lot more that being in it!

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Bored and looking for something to do the next day, I decided to pay a visit to Pecos, Texas about 45 minutes north of Balmorhea.  Pecos (pronounced “PAY-cohs”) was much more of the West Texas I was expecting.

Time stood still in it’s lonesome downtown…

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Nothing was moving at it’s old closed up drug store either.

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Buster’s Barn had busted..

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and The Last Picture Show had played at the State movie theatre long ago…

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No cowboy had called this home for quite a while, but credit the owner for still trying to rent the place anyway!

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Surely, Pecos must at least have a grocery store.  After all, they have plenty of hotels and restaurants clustered around their exit on I-20.  But, nope, not this one…

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They hav a thriving cowboy church though!

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And what do cowboys like to eat more than anything else in the whole wide world?  Bar-B-Que!

Despite the lack of a full-service grocery store in town, Pecos has a world-class BBQ joint called Pody’s, which was ranked one of the Top 50 BBQ places in the World last year by Texas Monthly magazine. 

My friend Suzanne (raised on a small cattle ranch in central Texas) is always ready for a little meat-eating, and since it had been nearly a year since I last ate meat, I figured I could take a momentary vegan time-out and partake in this special occasion food too.

Pody’s is only open from 11:00 to 2:30pm, so I arrived at 1:15 to get some early dinners to-go to bring back to our camp.  But, apparently, Pody’s is EXTREMELY popular during Spring Break Week in Texas, as this was the sign on the door when I arrived:

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The door was open, so I walked in anyway to double check, and yes, the sad truth was confirmed—Pody’s had run out of world-class BBQ after only being open for 2 hours that day!

So, 2 days later, I made one more 90-mile round-trip trek up to Pecos to get there earlier.  This time, I was finally successful and scored two Brisket and Rib dinners to-go.

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The line was already long as two ladies worked feverishly to dish out the good stuff.

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I was soon heading back home in the most incredible-smelling Chevy Tracker!  Yes, this vegan-on-pause rang that bell!  Pody’s was the best BBQ I’d ever eaten, and one of the best Suzanne had ever had as well!

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On our final night at Balmorhea, the West Texas winds had finally died down enough for Suzanne, Millie, and I to enjoy a campfire cookout.  Suzanne had a big load of firewood and mesquite charcoal that she wanted to get rid of, so I brought my lone veggie burger over to get grilled up next to her week’s worth for BBQ chicken that she was cooking up in anticipation of our following week’s visit to Big Bend National Park.

The moon was rising and nearly full by the time dinner was ready.

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But Suzanne just donned her camping headlamp to finish up the grilling.

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The warm campfire felt great and we enjoyed taking a few photos of the Winnies beneath the moon glow and canopy of stars overhead.  Yes, indeed, the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas!

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