Wednesday, November 8th I crossed the New Mexico/Texas border around lunch time and popped into El Paso, TX to try a burger chain I was unfamiliar with, ‘Whataburger’. Seemed very stereotypical Texas to order a small coke and get a 32 oz cup. WTF Whataburger??
Shortly outside of El Paso I hit a border patrol check along the highway that all eastbound traffic had to pass through. Answering “yes” to “Are you a US citizen?” was all it took to be waved through.
I was bound for Guadalupe National Park which contains the highest point in Texas, Guadalupe Peak, at 8,748 feet and the drive east out of El Paso was beautiful. I drove across the plains with mountains of all shapes and sizes rimming the horizon. As I approached the park the road started to climb in elevation and soon the road plunged into a cloud bank and driving got scary. Visibility was poor and as the road twisted and turned up into the mountains I had that feeling of losing sense of what’s up and what’s down. I crept along with my hazards blinking, hoping not to go off the road, praying I wouldn’t get smashed into by some idiot driving way too fast. I was SO relieved when I arrived at the park and found my way the campground.
I chatted with a fellow camper and apparently the thick fog had rolled in the night before and had blanketed the park all day. Well, this wasn’t what I had expected. It was kind of cool to be inside of the clouds and to stroll through the roiling mist. It was quite moist, everything wet to the touch. The thick cloud cover gave the place a mysterious, otherworldly feel but I did hope that the morning would bring better weather so I could at least get a glimpse of the mountains before I pushed off. And I really didn’t want to drive in the thick stuff again.
Thursday, November 9th I woke to a beautifully clear day and to find the mountains right there outside of the van. WOW!
Roo and I did some hiking and I geeked out over the unfamiliar plant palette and scenery and checked out the ruins of an old stage coach stop that predated the Pony Express. Much of the mountain range is formed from an ancient coral reef that used to lie under a shallow sea that covered the area approximately 250 million years ago. How freaking cool is that!
From Guadalupe National Park I headed southeast bound for Marfa, TX. Along the way I stopped off at Davis Mountains State Park and Roo and I hiked around for a bit, enjoying the beautiful day and views.
After Davis Mountains State Park, I continued the drive south towards Marfa, but made a stop to poke around the Fort Davis National Historic Site, a frontier military post that operated from 1854 to 1891. They have many well preserved barracks and a collection of old artifacts like cavalry, military, hospital and kitchen equipment that provide a good glimpse back into life during that time.
From Fort Davis, I made my way to Marfa, TX and rolled into El Cosmico, a funky campground/RV park with refurbished vintage trailers, teepees, and safari tents to rent as well as sites to set up your tent and park your RV/camper. Unfortunately their RV/camper sites were essentially in the parking lot on the outside of the fence and it made me a feel bit isolated. But once I realized that El Cosmico is a magnet for wanna be hipsters I didn’t mind being slightly removed. It was like being at a zoo featuring free roaming, beard bearing, skinny jean wearing hipsters.
Friday, November 10th I spent poking around Marfa, sniffing around, trying to get a bead on the place. It’s a funky, sleepy little town, now known as an art hub. If you don’t know where to look or to go you could easily pass through the town without blinking an eye. A little patient poking around leads to fun discoveries and encounters.
The Chinati Foundation is the anchor of the Marfa arts scene. Unfortunately I hadn’t planned ahead and was unable to get a reservation for a guided tour of the full collection. But I did tour the concrete and milled aluminum pieces of Donald Judd’s and Robert Irwin’s untitled dawn to dusk installation.
I popped into Building 98 to see the wall murals that had been painted by German POW’s held in Marfa during World II.
The day ended at the beer garden at Planet Marfa, where I enjoyed good beer and nachos and a chat with one of the owners about the town. Like many places that start out as havens for artists (which generally means inexpensive cost of living) the town was becoming more popular and well known and as a result more expensive and less affordable for artists and locals.
Saturday, November 11th, I was making my way out of town in the morning, bound for a night of camping in Big Bend State Park, and I remembered I needed to buy more propane if I wanted a warm meal for dinner and, most importantly, coffee in the morning. I pulled over to check google maps for the closest hardware store. As I was about to pull away from the curb I looked over to see a man trotting towards the van waving his arms with a huge grin on his face. He was a VW collector and enthusiast and super excited about Greta. We chatted and I learned that he practices the craft of building with adobe, a dying trade and something that had greatly piqued my interest since encountering the beautiful adobe buildings of Santa Fe. He generously offered to show me an adobe structure project out in the desert later that afternoon. I couldn’t pass up that opportunity. It meant I’d arrive at Big Bend State Park much later than I had originally planned but these kind of fortuitous meetings with people are the gems of road trips and I had to see where this would lead.
While I waited to meet up with my new VW friend later that day, he suggested I check out Fort Leaton State Historic Site, an excellent example of traditional adobe building.
While touring the fort, Roo and I stumbled upon a gigantic wagon and I had to ask a park ranger if it was true to size and how one of these devices had been used. He indicated in fact that they were often even larger, with 12′ foot tall sides and pulled by teams of oxen. Holy hell, that must have been quite a feat to navigate thru the scrubby desert plains.
Later that afternoon I met up with my VW friend and headed out to check out the adobe structure. The views across the plains to the mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico were spectacular!
Seeing an adobe structure up close with someone who practices the craft to explain the process was fantastic. The buildings are not in great shape as they have not been maintained properly over time but it did provide an opportunity to see the various layers of building materials used in the process.
I was reluctant to leave this magical setting but the sun was starting to sink in the sky and I had to push on if I was going to make it to my campsite in Big Bend State Park before I lost daylight.
The road into the park winds along the Rio Grande river and it was just kind of shocking to me that this narrow ribbon of swift moving water was all that separated me from the country of Mexico.
The road along the river was a roller coaster ride, up and down and around curves, and my stomach was doing somersaults as I cautiously glanced away from the road to try to take in views now and again. I made it to the campground just as the sun was setting and chatted up my neighbors to find they were from Woodinville, WA. Small world! They were just lovely people. We swapped travel tales over cocktails and they pointed out constellations as the stars came out.
Sunday, November 12th, I was up early and watched the shades of pinks and purples work their magic over the surrounding landscape as the sun rose.
I pushed on from the state park heading for Big Bend National Park. I stopped along the drive so that Roo and I could dip our feet in the Rio Grande.
I hit the National Park entrance and decided to check out the 30 mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive before hunting up a campsite for the eve. WOW! WOW! WOW! The views were amazing.
After the Ross Maxwell scenic drive I headed up another scenic drive into Chisos Basin, elevation 5400 feet, and secured a campsite.
I spent the evening sipping cocktails while watching the light and shadows play over the surrounding hills. Best TV ever!
Monday, November 13th I was up and on the road early. There was hardly any traffic as I sped across the high desert, glancing off at the cloud shrouded mountains in the distance.
I SO wanted to divert to go see what goodies these distant mountains contained but Thanksgiving was approaching and South Carolina was still quite far away. I had to get serious about covering distance and I left the side roads and hit the Texas interstate.
The interstate was not fun. I figured I’d be traveling long flat stretches of road but instead encountered rolling hills. It was drizzling rain and windy. The speed limit was 80 mph and truck traffic on the two lane highway was heavy. I couldn’t maintain a consistent speed on the highway with the headwind and hills. Tractor trailers sped by me on the uphill stretches, practically blowing me off the road and temporarily blinding me with the water they kicked up off the road. I was STRESSED and wanted this stretch of driving to come to and end as quickly as possible. Unfortunately I pushed Greta too hard by trying to keep her at 80 mph while fighting the headwind and I caused a major mechanical failure. So dumb!
I found myself stranded in Junction, TX in the late afternoon, trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do. Things looked pretty bleak but the road trip gods were on my side and the right people at the right time materialized to help me through this rough patch. Customer service at AAA, a kind mechanic and tow truck operator helped me work through the best options and I landed on a plan to overnight it at the Best Western Hotel in Junction, TX and then tow Greta to a VW dealer in San Antonio the following day. SO glad I signed up for the AAA Premier RV membership before hitting the road! It was coming in handy.
Tuesday, November 14th started off with breakfast at the hotel in Junction, TX with Texas shaped waffles. AWESOME!
Greta was towed 2.5 hours to San Antonio, TX for repairs. I chatted with the tow truck driver who had grown up in the Junction, TX area. His family had lived in the area for several generations and his grandfather had been a mohair goat rancher, an industry that had anchored the area at one time but died out suddenly. He had witnessed the slow decline of his home town. Drugs and poverty were now a big problem. On a positive note, the recent addition of a major truck stop hub just off the highway was providing a bit of a boost to the town and is probably why a Best Western hotel existed there at all.
While Greta was in the shop, I spent 3 days exploring San Antonio. San Antonio had not been on my planned route but in terms of places to get stuck for a few days, San Antonio is a great place to be stranded. I walked all over town the historic part of downtown checking out the colorful Market Square, the historic architecture and reacquainting myself with the history of the Alamo.
The historic riverwalk, a Texas version of Venice (sort of), in historic downtown San Antonio, was a pleasant surprise.
There was no shortage of public art to enjoy while wandering around downtown.
I geeked out on weird and wonderful plants at the San Antonio Botanical Garden and enjoyed seeing how they approach holiday decorations.
The number of butterflies in San Antonio was amazing. I’d never seen so many butterflies flitting around before and witnessed a feeding frenzy while touring the botanical garden.
San Antonio boasts a high number of restaurants per capita and I ate very very well while poking around town. I drank pretty well, too. An evening sampling bourbon concoctions at The Esquire Tavern, the oldest bar on the riverwalk and home of the longest bar in Texas, was a treat. The Friendly Spot, boasting 70+ taps and a dog friendly outdoor setting, was another favorite.
The best thing about San Antonio were the people. I found folks to be friendly, helpful and eager to strike up a conversation which I so appreciate as a solo traveler.
The only negative to San Antonio was mosquitoes. I had been relatively unbothered by bugs on the road trip so far but as I made my way farther east into Texas, the weather had become hotter and more humid. I learned the hard way that going outside without dousing yourself in bug spray first is a bad idea. By the time I was leaving town I was covered in mosquito bites, mostly on my ankles and feet. Torture!
Friday, November 17th, Greta was road ready once again and driving better than ever. The folks at North Park Volkswagen in San Antonio had been wonderful and their lead technician did a fantastic job repairing the van. I was so relieved and felt very fortunate to have connected with the right people at the right time once again and shouted thanks to the road trip gods as I drove out of town.
Because of the delay due to the breakdown I now had about 4 days to cover 1200 miles. Yikes! I tried to plot out the most direct route possible but a route that avoided major cities like Atlanta and New Orleans and that would be gentle on Greta.
I had hoped to spend Friday night on the Texas Gulf Coast at Sea Rim State Park but unfortunately I ran out of daylight and ended up spending the night in a smelly and dank hotel just off the highway in Winnie, TX. My ‘souvenir’ from Winnie was more mosquito bites.
Saturday, November 18th and I was on the road early. Buh bye, Winnie! I crossed into the state of Lousianna and popped into Lafayette, LA, which claimed to have the most restaurants per capita. (Hmmm…several cities along the way had made this claim.)
I found the cute, historic part of downtown and I enjoyed an AWESOME fried shrimp po’ boy at Pop’s, a damn good find! After lunch, I covered some ground on back roads, avoiding a nasty traffic backup on the highway around Baton Rouge, and I saw sugar cane fields for the first time on the trip.
I made a brief stop near Baton Rouge to snap a picture of the Mississippi River. Its nickname, the Big Muddy, is well earned.
From the Baton Route area, I skirted north of New Orleans along highway 10, crossed over the Louisiana/Mississippi state line and made my way to the Gulf Coast to overnight in Bay Saint Louis, MS.
My airbnb was a dump but the location was great, just one block from a beautiful, clean white sand beach in a quiet neighborhood of seaside cottages and old estates. Roo and I caught the sunset and I dipped my feet in the Gulf of Mexico, a first for me, before I headed into the adorable seaside business district part of town and treated myself to a fancy, expensive dinner to make up for the dumpy airbnb rental.
Sunday, November 19th, Roo and I were up early for a sunrise romp on the beach before hitting the road.
From Bay Saint Louis, MS I made my way northeast and crossed over into Alabama. It was a boring day of highway driving and when I finally couldn’t take the monotony of the highway, I decided to take a chance trying minor side roads. It was a relief to leave the highway and I found the side roads to be well maintained yet practically deserted with speed limits of 60. I could move out AND the scenery vastly improved as I drove rolling hills through small towns and past farms and fields.
Roo and I stopped at Chewacla State Park, not too far outside Auburn, AL and enjoyed a nice long hike.
I had hoped to camp at the park for the night but the campground didn’t look all that appealing and I was worried about mosquitoes. I decided to push on and crossed over into Georgia towards the end of the day and stopped in Columbus, GA for the evening. I was pleasantly surprised to find a cute little historic downtown area with good dining options and Too and I wandered around and I enjoyed a couple of beers before finding a hotel for the evening.
Monday, November 20th, I pushed off early for my last day of driving. Woo hoo! I stopped in Macon, GA for what I thought would just be a quick little stop. But I found the history and architecture of the town so intriguing and it was such a pleasant fall day that Roo and I ended up poking around town for close to two hours.
As I was driving out of Macon a sign for the Ocmulgee National Monument caught my eye and I went to check it out. It’s a park dedicated to the preservation of a prehistoric Indian site. They estimate people inhabited this site 17,000 years ago! It was a gorgeous fall day and Roo and I enjoyed walking the trails while checking out restored earth mounds, dating back 1,000 years.
From Ocmulgee National Monument I headed towards Aiken, SC, taking backroads. It was beautiful, easy driving and I passed cotton fields and, to my surprise, fields and fields full of solar panels. I did not expect to find solar farms in Georgia.
I arrived at my parents house in Aiken, SC that afternoon and felt a huge sense of relief and accomplishment. The first major leg of the road trip was complete and Roo and Greta and I had arrived in one piece without any major mishaps.
I looked forward to a break from the road as did Roo. Poor Roo… she still doesn’t like driving in the van although she’s ready for adventure as soon as we come to a stop. I was glad to know I wasn’t going to have to look at the sorry site of Roo looking up at me with her sad face from the passenger side floor, at least for a several weeks.
I intended to spend the holidays with my folks in South Carolina, plotting out a plan for 2018. Roo and Greta and I will hit the road again January 1st, 2018, weather permitting. Stay tuned!