There’s No Place Like Home

Happy New Year! We’ve been back on the desert for just over a week having spent Christmas in New York with our son, daughter-in-law, and four of our grandkids.

We had a terrific visit — we attended Christmas Eve Candlelight worship (and rang our bells!), marveled at Santa’s generosity, learned some new games, enjoyed some local cuisine, watched some favorite movies, visited the Corning Museum of Glass, and took the kids bowling.

Bowling — we ALL could have used the bumpers. We had our own cameraman.
Mira bowls a strike!

I even taught our 5-year old granddaughter to knit–she’s a natural!

Brynn chose the yarn and needles herself.
After the demonstration given to hundreds, Graham and Dean had a special opportunity to get up close and personal with a glassblower and his furnace!

We also visited with our daughter and her family on Facetime and look forward to our upcoming time with them in Vancouver, B.C. this spring. In the meantime, we’ve ordered our own copy of a fabulous new game that our daughter had gifted to our son’s family—5 Minute Dungeon! We’ll certainly learn about many other games when we visit B.C.—board games have become a staple in all branches of our family. Such fun.

While in New York, we found ourselves making a huge shift in our thinking; we started referring to home and ‘going home‘ —To. The.  Camper.

It’s hard to believe that I was feeling so isolated early last month. In the last six weeks, we’ve been swept up into the desert lifestyle and this wonderful community. We’ve been busy and it’s hard to decide which things to do!

A friend has asked me a couple of times—what do you do there? There’s nothing. It looks so desolate.

Well, yes, the desert itself is sparsely vegetated but there is a LOT going on here — we just needed to investigate!

We found a LOCAL church (just a couple of miles away) and it’s been so nice to get to meet and worship with some great folks. They have a charity quilting group that meets weekly and I attend.

Lots of snowbirds attend this church.

We have a couple of favorite restaurants in town. A lovely little diner for breakfast and a Mexican restaurant with fabulous fish tacos! We don’t eat out a lot but it’s nice to take a break once a week or so.

There’s a new coffee shop in town that boasts an entire room of fresh produce. It’s terrific and not only do they have fresh fruits and vegetables but dozens of recipes on display each week for the taking. We had a scrumptious vegetable soup and a squash soup, too. It’s a treat to visit the shop each week and see what they’ve stocked.

I joined the local Quartzsite Quilting Guild and it’s great fun to gather at the Sr. Center each Tuesday (we’re not all seniors but most are) for six hours of quilting—lots of chatting and collaborating and a guaranteed show-and-tell each week. Tomorrow, the owner of a quilt shop in Yuma is coming with fabric, threads, etc. for sale. It’s much more fun sewing with a group and making lots of new friends than it is to sew alone.

And, oh, the SHOWS!! We had heard the Quartzsite, AZ boasts about being the Rock Capital of the World.  (I’m pretty sure many other places do, too.) It’s a huge destination for rock hounds as there are many places to search and find amazing stones. However, we had NO idea that this was also the destination for so many kinds of shows during the Jan/Feb time frame. Just this week, a huge Rock and Gem Show started at the local “fairgrounds” with more than 2 miles of storefront across hundreds of booths. We had a ball with our cameras taking dozens of shots of gorgeous rocks and gems — a total blast! We’ll go back for sure.

Click on a picture for a full-size slide show.

But beyond that, there are three huge quilt shows, a big Embroidery show in Phoenix, another rock/arts/crafts show here in Q, a bluegrass festival, a hot air balloon festival, etc., etc. Honestly, it’s hard to keep up and to decide which ones we’ll visit in a given week!

This is also a HUGE mecca for ‘tribute bands,’ e.g., groups that perform hits made famous by everyone from The Eagles to Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles to Ricky Nelson, and the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys! I guess they know they’ve got a captive audience with so many snowbirds of a ‘mature’ age.

A Peter, Paul, and Mary tribute band will perform in Quartzsite this month.

AND, we’ve made the decision to get back into ham radio. We purchased an HF radio so that I can get back on the air and talk to people all over the world. We also got two handheld radios for local communication. We’re both licensed but haven’t been active in amateur radio for well over a decade. It’s a very active hobby here; we attended our first local radio club breakfast here this past week. So many friendly and fascinating people, many of whom have been involved in the hobby for upwards of 50 years! Fortunately, this group is also dedicated to bringing young people into the hobby and is working hard to make that happen.  Al has already volunteered to help with some repeater maintenance. And yup…there are TWO huge ham radio events coming up this month. We’ll be there.

This afternoon we’ll move our camper a couple of miles down the road for a few days to another stretch of BLM land so that we can participate in another Grand Design RV Rally–much like the rallies we attended in IN and DE, there will be workshops, seminars, and lots of camaraderie.

This morning, the desert smells like spring. We actually had some rain over the weekend and there has been a pollen alert for a couple of weeks. The moisture in the air is apparently working its magic on the desert flora and it’s glorious to enjoy a preview of the spring desert bloom.  Our cameras will get a real workout this March and April.

So, that’s how we’re spending our time here in our new home on the desert. We’re learning about new opportunities every day! No rest for the retired (although we are enjoying sleeping in frequently).

When we don’t sleep in, it isn’t hard to start each day when you can see this…

Sunrise on the desert!

And from a different point of view…

Now that we’re pretty much settled, we have time to play with toys (repeat after me: “Toys are good!”) and take day trips.

Not too far from here are the Blythe Intaglios.  If you don’t want to click the link, briefly these large desert drawings were created by early indigenous people by scraping aside the dark stone layer at the top of the desert floor, exposing the lighter colored earth below. Also called geoglyphs, these are very hard to date.  However scientists believe they appear to be between 2000 and 500 years old.

They’re very hard to see from ground level, so our drone whispered in my ear…

#1. Considered the best preserved of the intaglios, this human figure is 105′ from head to feet.
#2. Depiction of a man, 102′ from head to feet. The line across the knees is part of what was originally a circle; only the part inside the fence is still easily visible. If the figures were sacred, is it possible the circle is the remnant of a dance ritual?

The intaglios were first “discovered” by modern man in 1932 by a pilot flying from Las Vegas to Blythe (CA).  The intaglios were fenced in in 1974, after it became clear that off-road vehicles would destroy them.  There are visible tire tracks in both pictures above. There are several theories about their original purpose and of course what set of theories wouldn’t be complete without one or more about aliens!

We are constantly in awe of the scenery here.  I know that the desert landscapes don’t appeal to everyone, but they really strike a chord in me.  See if you can spot the Colorado River.

We’ll go back in the new year (we’ll be camping in another location closer to them), to try to find the remainder of the intaglios.

Back at the ranch (OK, camper), I’m enjoying getting familiar with the drone, and with video editing at which I am a COMPLETE newcomer.  Here is a quick view of our current location.  We are in the camper near the bottom, just to the left of center.

At some point I’ll post a video with audio, or with multiple scenes composited. I’m not good enough at that yet!

Hope you have a great day!

It’s Gettin’ Real – and We LOVE it!

Boondocking. It was a new word for me. Just over a year ago.

We had already purchased our RV — let the planning begin!

While we were dreaming about what might be ahead for us as we neared Al’s retirement,  he mentioned (with great excitement) the possibility of boondocking. It sounded like something out of a 60’s sitcom, but I soon learned what it meant.

No hook-ups. What?!?!

So, when you camp with an RV, you can camp in a campground or state park that might have hook-ups, i.e., a spigot that you can attach (with a hose) to your camper, a pedestal with electric power (30 or 50 amps) that you can connect with an electric cord to your camper, and a septic hook-up—you got it! You hook up your sewer hose to the hole in the ground. You get the idea.

In some of the campgrounds we have visited en route to Arizona, we stayed *very* close to our neighbors.  It’s not unusual, if the campground is near a tourism hot spot (a National Park, a popular city), to be lined up very close together.

Another name for boondocking is DRY camping.  It can also be called dispersed camping—as you are outside of a campground. You bring your own water, provide your own electricity (if you choose to), and have to dispose of your own waste—both black (septic) and grey (shower, kitchen sink) tanks. It’s just you and your “campsite.” And lots of room.

We knew we wanted to be in the Southwest for the winter. We’d visited Arizona several times and loved it. Less than a year ago on our last trip to Arizona (before we took delivery on the RV), we drove around to check out some boondocking sites.  I remember my stomach doing a little flip as we drove through some fairly desolate areas. I couldn’t help wondering…will I feel safe? Will I feel isolated and lonely? What if we run out of water? And on and on.

Al assured me it’s something he’s sure I could handle but there was absolutely no pressure. We took delivery of Rhett (our fifth-wheel coach) in April and had lots of fun dreaming about where we’d take him. Occasionally, Al would mention the boondocking “thing” and soon he started investigating solar power for the RV.

For those of you who know Al, you will understand when I say that he researches everything VERY comprehensively. He’s been a regular on the Grand Design Owners’ Forum  online for over a year — and has learned SO much from SO many.  As he learned more about solar and helped me to understand what it would allow us to do, we soon decided to get a recommendation for an installer.

Al already told you all about that install in an earlier post.

So, here we are now. On the desert. So what’s it like? Here are the good points:

It’s dry, dry, dry.  (NO snow!)

There is lots of sunshine, but it never gets too hot. We’ve been averaging in the mid-to-high 60’s and sitting out in the sun is a pleasure. The nights are cool and we sleep with a bedroom window open. Love it.

We have been able to run everything from our eight solar panels, and haven’t run the generators yet. It’s going to be quite overcast for the next couple of days (it’s actually raining right now) so we may end up turning on the generators to keep our batteries topped off.

We have plenty of water and if we need to refill, we either drive the RV just 2/10 of a mile to fill up OR Al puts the large water bladder into the truck bed and takes it to fill.

We have a good deal of space to ourselves;  Here, we’ve got several acres of desert to ourselves. It’s nice! And, as you can see, Al can fly the drone here—he’s quite happy about that.

The sunrises and sunsets have been absolutely glorious! (If you follow me on FB, you’ve probably seen my photos — it’s so hard not to share them!)

    A magnificent sunrise—I took this pic from bed!
Sunset on the desert.

There is lots of space to ride our bikes (although some of it is a bit, um…challenging! More about that below).

The surrounding scenery is magnificent. There is so much to explore—a number of huge wildlife refuges included—yeah!

I’m sewing again—and I seem to have my cooking mojo back, too.

Sewing again!

Black bean enchiladas with Hatch chiles. Yum!

And the not-so-good stuff:

Wi-fi has been spotty at best when camping. Luckily, my Messenger and Words with Friends games don’t use much data so I’ve been able to keep up with folks. I’ve even been able to still participate in my Maine church’s Bible Study via Facebook video. And email works, too, but on its own schedule.  But forget it if you want to use the Internet—downloading or even just following a link is impossible 90% of the time. (I know—first world problem!). We’re in the public library right now because they are hard-wired for the Internet—it’s like buttah! (And this is a pretty amazing library for such a small town—we need to find out about library cards for snowbirds.)

DUST…DUST…and you guessed it, MORE DUST! I know—we choose the desert.

Biking off-road on the desert can be a bit tricky.  I took another spill off my bike this week. When you’re trying to cross the desert (think: bushwacking), you never know when you’re going to hit a patch of deep sand or rocks, and those desert washes can be a challenge!

Off we go! Pretty innocuous.  We’re actually on a four-wheeler track here. It’s all fun and games until you decide to  cross the wash (it’s where the water collects when there’s rain—and therefore, it’s quite thick with bushes and undergrowth—and steep gulleys). Like this…

I’ve been kinda lonely.   Don’t get me wrong; Al is great company! But I am missing my family and friends and this week, the desert grey-brown got to me.  It didn’t feel like Advent at all. And being together 24/7…well, we all need some independent time occasionally. So Al encouraged me to take the truck and go off for the day. It was *just* what I needed! I drove 80 miles south to Yuma (just shy of the Mexican border) and it was wonderful. Flowers, large trees, lush green fields of all kinds of crops, beautiful mountains, and a huge shopping area that went on forever. It was great to see lots of Christmas decorations and it really put me more in the mood.  And it was simply nice to be around lots of people. It’s a balance.

So, it’s official. We are BOONDOCKERS. And SNOWBIRDS. We’re learning how to live on the desert — and for the most part, it’s awesome!

On the moon?

Early on in our trip planning, White Sands National Monument was on our list.  But then we decided that we’d like to see some of Utah “before it got too cold,” so we planned to go west on I-40 all the way into Flagstaff and then north.  We decided that we’d do White Sands, NM some other time.

Well, “too cold” seemed to be following us all the way across the country (local temperatures were often 15° to 20° below normal—we started to think that it was our fault!).  We decided that we would drop down to a more southerly, i.e., warmer, route—I-10—after Bosque del Apache.  Yea!  White Sands was back on the route!

White Sands National Monument visitors’ center, built in the 1930s.

We knew that there are basically two “White Sands” things.  There is White Sands National Monument, and also White Sands Missile Range, the largest military base in the country in terms of area. The Missile Range is closed to the public (of course), so we focused our imaginations on the Monument, which we thought was completely separate.

It turns out, it isn’t so separate.  The Monument is completely inside the missile range; it closes to public access any time the military launches a missile. Phew!

The other thing we didn’t know was that the missile range has a museum open to the public! Did I mention in a previous post that I like space-oriented things?

White Sands Missile Range Museum

The first day, we went to the museum.  Since you’re entering a military base (by all of about 100 yards), you must present ID, and they run a quick check with the FBI to see if you’re a baddie. (Sorry, no pics of the entrance station where we had to register.  That is apparently a serious no-no.)

Outdoors display

We spent most of the time at the museum outside at the rocket display.  It was neat to actually see some of the rockets whose names I knew from the ’60s.

The Patriot, launched from a truck
Some of the missiles in the outdoor portion of the museum

 

The OH-50, an unmanned helicopter developed in the 1950s for anti-submarine warfare. Drones aren’t new! Although it is no longer in use in combat, it is still the only unmanned helo to be combat certified.  The OH-50 is still used at the Missile Range to tow targets.
WSMR is an Army base, but used by all branches of the military. This is a Navy guided missile launcher tested here.

The rockets on display here were almost all developed for the military, but they also enabled our manned space program.  Until the Apollo program’s use of the Saturn V booster, all of the rockets used for our manned space flights were repurposed military rockets—Redstone, Atlas, and Titan.  The Redstone held a special place in my memory because it was used for Alan Shepard’s and Gus Grissom’s sub-orbital flights at the start of Project Mercury, the beginning of the US manned space program.

I didn’t know that the Redstone was designed to be “transportable.”  From the information sign in front of the rocket:

As a field-artillery missile, Redstone was mobile and transportable by plane, truck, or train. However, when on the move, it needed a convoy  eighteen miles long, with 200 vehicles carrying approximately 10,000 individual pieces of equipment and more than 600 men.  The Redstone itself was carried on three trucks—its nose section (warhead), midsection (power plant and fuel tanks), and tail section—to be assembled in the field.

Transportable?  Maybe.  Stealthy? No way!

Indoors

There was also a nice indoor portion of the museum. Part of it covered the computing resources used in the early days of the missile age.  Here is a “patch panel” used to program a computer in the days before software.  This is from a computer used into the ’70s!

A quote on the information card: “You had to be a bit crazy to work on the patch panels!”

One way of gathering data about test flights is to track the rockets visually, with “cinetheodolites.”  Each of these required two operators, and many were used around the range.

A cinetheodolite ($75,900 on eBay!  Get yours today!)
Housing for a cinetheodolite

Trinity

There are moments that change the course of history forever; one happened here. On June 16, 1945, the world’s first atomic explosion happened on White Sands Missile Range, at the Trinity Site.  The Trinity Site is only open to visitors twice a year so we weren’t able to see it first hand, but a good portion of the museum’s indoors display space is devoted to it.

A one-third scale model of the bomb that was detonated at the Trinity Site.

The Trinity bomb was the same design as the second bomb, dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, to end World War II.

White Sands National Monument

On the second day, we went to the National Monument.  Mile after mile of white “sand,” actually gypsum.  After having seen the delicate gypsum florets in Mammoth Cave, it was amazing to see this much gypsum, literally piled up.  Kathe thought it looked like we were on the moon!

This plant’s root system causes these hills to remain even after the dune has moved on.

The leaves of this tree are thick and very waxy

It was interesting to walk on the dunes.  I have lived near the water all my life except for our time in New Hampshire, and am used to walking on sand—including the sand dunes on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.  The gypsum packs much more tightly than sand,  and is very easy to walk on in comparison.

We went sledding down the dunes on a plastic saucer (like would be used on snow).  Despite waxing the bottom of the saucer, other than the color of the dune’s surface, it wasn’t anything like sledding on snow!  It was quite sticky, but once you got going, it was fun riding down the dune.  Kathe got some good rides, but I fell out of the saucer each time! Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good video of me tumbling down the dune. (Sand-sky-sand-sky-sand-sky…)

The dunes are always moving, driven by the wind.  Keeping the tourist area road open is a constant problem.

Harder than plowing snow? I don’t know…

We had a really good day there, walking some trails and seeing the scenery.  Al finished with a ranger-led walk just before sunset.  The guide is an astronomer by training,  working as a paleo-geologist.  He described some of the research going on at the whole White Sands site, much of it outside the bounds of the Monument.

On the desert floor (where there isn’t currently a dune), the water table is only a foot or two below the surface. The geology  of the area depends on this.

A wet stick shows that there is water about 18 inches down this hole. The water table (the level of the water below the ground) is closely monitored.

The yucca plant below may be 30 or more feet tall.  It is rooted on the desert floor, and as a dune comes along it grows to keep its leaves and flowers above the level of the dune.  Unfortunately, when the dune passes, the yucca can’t support its long stem.  It collapses and dies.

You didn’t think I’d leave without a sunset shot, did you?

Blue sands at sunset

If you get a chance, do plan to go.  White Sands National Monument is other-worldly.  (Lunar?)

Bucket list: √ and √

Go get your bucket list. I’ll wait while you go find it.

Now add these two items which are in New Mexico, if they’re not already on your list:

  1. The Very Large Array,  otherwise known as the VLA, and
  2. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.

√ and √!  Our bucket lists are now two items shorter!

The Very Large Array

I’ve been a space fan since the late ’50s, when my dad took me out in the yard and showed me one of our first two satellites—Explorer or Vanguard—at this point I don’t remember which.  I remember watching all of the Project Mercury launches on TV with him.

I’ve known about the VLA for a long time (yes, even before the movie Contact!), but I had never been there.  Now we have!  It is even more impressive in person.

The VLA is a radio telescope, one of the most sensitive in the world.  From the National Science Foundation website:

Among a broad range of scientific capabilities, the VLA addresses four primary science themes: measuring the strength and topology of cosmic magnetic fields; imaging young stars and massive black holes in dust-enshrouded environments; following the rapid evolution of energetic phenomena; and studying the formation and evolution of stars, galaxies and active galactic nuclei.

Phew!

The VLA is open to scientists all over the world who must submit research proposals to compete for telescope time.  The proposals are reviewed for scientific worth and feasibility. It is so highly competitive that, “Even highly ranked proposals are not guaranteed to receive observing time.

The VLA is a long way from anywhere.  We approached from the east, from I-25, and it is over 50 miles away—50 miles of passing almost nothing but beautiful scenery!

Typical central New Mexico scenery (not actually on the way to VLA–where I neglected to take pics!)

Located on the Plains of San Augustin, the site is both high at approximately 8,000 feet, and ringed by mountains. The height reduces the amount of atmosphere-induced distortion of the radio waves, something I had never considered.  The mountains block most of the man-made radio interference.  Any electronic devices you may have with you like cell phones, tablets, fitness trackers, smart watches, etc. must be turned off—completely. Digital cameras are (surprisingly) OK.  Needless to say, having your cell phone off doesn’t matter as there is absolutely NO coverage!

Approaching the VLA—still a fair distance away

The 28 antennas are huge!  The dishes are 25 meters (82 feet) across, and they over 200 tons each. When pointed up, they are 90 feet to the apex. You can’t really get an idea of how big until you have something to use for scale.

Four flights of stairs and we’re not even up to the pivot!

Twenty seven are in active use; there is always one in maintenance; they rotate through all the antennas to keep them all in good condition.

The VLA has four configurations, called “A” (far Apart), “B”, “C”, and “D” (Darned close together).  The configuration is changed every four months, and we were very fortunate to visit when the telescope was in configuration D.  In configuration A, each of the three arms of the telescope is thirteen miles long, and photography wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun!

Antennas close together! The beauty of Configuration D.

The VLA is laid out in three legs radiating out from the center, spaced at 120°.

Looking out the north leg, currently comprising 11 of the 27 antennas.

To reconfigure the array, and to bring antennas in for maintenance, they use a transporter. Top speed is 5 MPH; however when transporting an antenna, it usually moves about 2 MPH.

Zero to two in… several minutes.

The reason for the different configurations is that antenna spacing controls the field of view, how wide a portion of the sky it can view, and resolution, how small a feature it can distinguish.  Close spacing (like now) offers a very wide field of view, but relatively poor resolution.  The widest spacing, configuration A, views a much smaller portion of the sky, but can distinguish much smaller features.

At its widest spacing, the telescope is about 22 miles across.  To allow even finer resolution, the VLA is one component of the VLBA, the Very Long Baseline Array, which has a maximum distance between antennas of 4971 miles (8000 km).  The VLBA is controlled from the same building as the VLA, in Socorro, New Mexico; the antennas are spread out from Hawaii to the U.S. Virgin Islands and points in between.

If you want to see the VLA, go soon.  Its replacement is currently in the works, called ngVLA, which will increase its power and its resolution at least tenfold. The individual dishes will be smaller, but there will be many, many more! More information is here, and here (FAQ).

√ The Bosque del Apache NWR

Several years ago I heard about a great place for bird photography, especially for sandhill cranes and snow geese.  It wasn’t over-hyped! In the two days we spent there, we took on the order of 3,000 pictures!

The peak of the bird population happens during the depth of the winter in December. At that point they have approximately 20,000 sandhill cranes, 50,000 snow geese, and 50,000 ducks of various species.

The refuge is heavily managed.  The staff plant several food crops during the summer to feed the birds through the winter—mostly corn.  They plan to feed 100 pounds of corn per bird across the winter.  That is a LOT of corn! They also flood fields with water from the Rio Grande river to give more shallow water areas so the birds have safe places to spend the night. When we were there,  only a few of the fields were flooded; more to come!

Even now in November, there are a phenomenal number of birds here. During the day, the birds are spread out widely across the 58,000 acres of the refuge.  Even so dispersed, the density on any of the feeding areas is pretty high!

Sandhills feeding
Snow geese soaking up the rays.

At night they congregate in a few, relatively small wet areas—being in shallow water protects them from many predators.  This congregation into a few areas results in massive “fly-ins” and “fly-outs” at sunset and sunrise. Photographic heaven!

Go ahead! Count the sandhill cranes. I dare you!
Predator spotted! Snow geese flying out.
Incoming! Sandhills arrived in groups like this continuously for over a half hour.
Three sandhills landing simultaneously.

During the second day, we took two  (free!) tours with naturalists to find other birds which were located on the Reserve. Many were too far away to get good pictures of, but here are a few of the birds we saw.

A trio of cedar waxwings – one of Kathe’s favorites!
Phainopepla, the desert black cardinal.
We think this is an American Kestrel, a small falcon.
A bald eagle, in a snag.

In addition to so many birds including quail and turkey, there are many other species of animals on the refuge including mountain lion, bobcat, jackrabbits, and lizards.

It will take us weeks to work through all of our refuge photographs! Based on this fabulous experience, we’ve decided we’d be thrilled to visit as many wildlife refuges around the country as possible. Fortunately, there are quite a few in Arizona where we will spend the winter. Yahoo!

Canyons, Cadillacs, and Caravans

We spent several days in Amarillo, Texas. There is more to do there than we had thought!

General Texas Thoughts

We enjoyed our time in Texas, starting with our stop at the I-40 Welcome Center as we crossed in from Oklahoma.

Texas does things BIG!

And we had some reminders that we “aren’t in Kansas” (i.e., Maine) anymore!

Well… Maybe we ARE in Kansas, Toto!

Texas is the state with by far the largest wind power capacity, about 22.6 gigawatts, as of 2017.  And they’re still building. There are wind turbine “farms” seemingly everywhere! Go, renewable power!  What you can’t see in any picture is that these farms go on for miles. They are beautiful and quite mesmerizing.

Palo Duro Canyon

When you’re looking at the Palo Duro Canyon, don’t try to compare it to the Grand Canyon.  If you do, you will do yourself a disservice and miss the beauty here.

Palo Duro is the second-largest canyon in the country, and has its own beauty to explore.

The colors in the layers indicate how old the layer is.  The panhandle of Texas was once a seabed, and this stone was laid down across millenia.

Unlike the Grand Canyon, Palo Duro has a road to the bottom of the canyon.  There are campgrounds down there and people bring their large RVs.  We went to the bottom, but I’m very glad that we weren’t pulling Rhett!

Take a look around the canyon!

 

 

The canyon is still being formed by the action of the river.  The day we were there, the river was about 6 feet wide and flowing slowly.

However, flash flooding is a big problem.  Wherever the road crossed the river there were flood gauges at each end of the bridge, measuring road flooding up to 5 feet above grade.  And the bridges were 15 to 20 feet above the river!

They don’t need to shovel snow here (at least very often), but they have a lot of work clearing the road after a flash flood!

“Snow” shoveling after a flood…

Cadillac Ranch

You’ve probably heard about this unusual place, where some artists buried eight Cadillacs nose-down with the backs of the cars sticking up.

It was nearby, so… Why not?

We didn’t realize that it was an ongoing art project, encouraging people to contribute by spray painting the cars!  It was fun to see the cumulative effect—wow!

Some people sprayed expanding foam as well as paint.

RV Museum

We didn’t know about this one ahead of time… Jack Sisemore, the owner of an RV dealership in town, created an RV museum.  It was highly recommended to us by the folks at the next campsite (who happened to be from NH!). I expected a small garage with a few RVs in it.

WRONG!

This is a serious museum of the history of RVing, containing many firsts or only remaining examples of units.

The oldest Airstream, 1935.
One of the first tent trailers. We spent many happy vacations in its descendants!
Another tent-extended camper.
The unit from the Robin Williams movie, “RV”.
Itasca by WInnebago. Serial number 1.
What would an RV museum be without a VW microbus? Al’s family went camping through the Canadian maritime provinces in one of these in the 60’s.

I didn’t know until we were in the museum that Jack had started the Keystone company, one of the behemoths in the RV industry, in 1996.

Jack is a motorcycle fan as well, and has many exhibited through the museum.  Impressive!

Here are two that caught my fancy.

One-half of all the known cycles of this model and year with  a left hand sidecar
The Harley WLA from WW II.  Since most of these were modified for civilian use after the war, very few remain in their wartime configuration.

Big Texan: 72 Ounces of Beef

Near our campground was the Big Texan, a restaurant, kitsch (sorry, “gift”) shop, and hotel. (The company also happened to own the campground we stayed in.)  For nearly 100 miles on I-40 as we were approaching Amarillo, we saw billboards for this restaurant advertising “FREE 72 oz. STEAK!”

The hitch, of course, is that you have to eat it all in an hour.  Not only the steak, but:

  • Shrimp appetizer
  • Salad
  • Potato, and
  • THE STEAK.

And they mean ALL of it.

This is what 72 ounces of beef looks like! Yeah.  Four and a half pounds.

I was told that about 1 in 7 finish in under the time limit.  According to our server, you have to pay first, which is returned to the lucky few.  And you eat it on a stage, so everyone else can watch your valiant efforts!

The fastest time (according to the web) is by a small woman who finished the steak in under 3 minutes! You can find it on You Tube pretty easily, but trust me, you do not want to watch it!  It isn’t pretty.

Want to try? Neither did either of us.

Finally, just want to note that Kathe has driven every single one of our more than 8,000 miles of this adventure!  Way to go!

A Difficult, Humbling Day

I admit it. I’ve been thinking about this post for several weeks and needed time to let it percolate.

Truthfully, I’ve been procrastinating. I’m not sure I can do this experience the justice it deserves but I’ll try.

While exploring what to see in Memphis, we learned that it is the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum is actually on the site of the the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. This destination jumped to the top of our list for our Memphis stay.

We had no idea.

The balcony where MLK was murdered. Notice the small kiosk on the right; there were a half dozen of these spread out on the plaza — you could lean into one and learn important details about the time and place.  The shape of the kiosk kept the sound enclosed so as not to disturb others’ experience while taking it all in.

The NCRM has two large buildings— the Lorraine Building  (the motel) and the Legacy Building across the street, which was the boarding house from where the assassin James Early Ray took aim.  The path of the bullet is depicted in the pavement that runs between the two buildings.

Notice the path of the bullet, the dark stripe in the sidewalk.

From the moment we stepped inside the museum, it was very clear that it had been designed with incredible precision and purpose.

The museum was incredibly text rich—it took us several hours to read our way through the museum and I’m sure we didn’t read all that was posted.  (It did make me wonder how someone who isn’t able to read English well would experience the museum.)

The expanse of coverage was overwhelming both in size and scope—the museum’s floor-to-high-ceiling exhibits span the Civil Rights Movement in the United States beginning in the 1700s  with resistance to slavery and continuing into the current day with worldwide events that not only conjure inequality but also call us to work for equality—for all.

We were overwhelmed by the impact the exhibits had on us.  I felt a combination of breathlessness, anxiety, regret, and anger.  There was so much to take in. So much to learn.

This stunning two-sided bronze sculpture, Movement to Overcome (Michael Pavlovsky, sculptor), stands 14 ft high, 21 ft wide, and 6 ft deep.  It depicts the slow, uphill struggle for Civil Rights.

The powerful introductory movie concluded with shadows of people marching across the screen. As the theater was dimly relighted, we were asked to exit by climbing a few stairs onto the stage and exiting behind the screen.  We became part of the march. Chills.

It was difficult to witness some of the bone-chilling exhibits.  In a large room focused on slavery, an alcove depicted the innards of a slave ship where life-sized bronze statues wrapped in chains were crowded together on the floor.  Their agonizing screams and groans played on a continuous loop.  It felt disrespectful to even consider taking a photograph. We were there to learn. And we were humbled.

As we tried to take it all in, the displays continued to draw us into each scene as if we were present.  The story of school desegregation was displayed in a courtroom and a classroom.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s experience in the Birmingham Jail was told in a jail cell.

We agreed that our own public education had been tremendously lacking in U.S. history past the Civil War.  The school curriculum in Stamford, CT in the 1960’s did not include anything past the beginning of the Reconstruction era. Current events were glossed over and never put into an historical context.

I felt ashamed as I realized how little I knew.  We should all know this history.  Why weren’t we taught this?

I won’t presume to be the one to teach others this history that is so new to me; hopefully you already know much of it yourself.

The Rise of Jim Crow began in the late 1800’s and continued well into the 20th century.  The 15th amendment and legislation were passed to guarantee rights to African Americans and were then destroyed by a series of new laws and Supreme Court decisions that made “Separate but Equal” the law of the land. Segregated schools. Separate water fountains. Separate. Separate. But never Equal.

The Jim Crow era led to. . .

The Montgomery Bus Boycott

The Student Sit-ins
A lunch counter sit-in.
The Freedom Riders of 1961
A burned out bus used by the Freedom Riders
Incarcerated Freedom Riders in the early ’60s.
The Sanitation Workers’ Strike in Memphis

Civil Rights Marches

In the afternoon we visited the three-story Legacy Building across the street.  On the 3rd floor, a timeline tells the story of the American Civil Right Movement up to the time of MLK’s assassination.  The entire second floor is dedicated to the investigation of the crime:  the conspiracy theories,  extensive evidence ,  and the actual spot where James Earl Ray took aim.

I felt unsettled. Is this where the museum leaves us? I was glad when the tour ended on the first floor.  Here we learned more about how the Civil Rights Movement here in the US has impacted human rights and civil rights throughout the world. We were left with the voices of many who have been called into action and who are making huge impacts globally to work toward equality for all.  In the dimly lit room, a mural of silhouetted men, women, and children led us out; again, we became part of the story.

Ol’ Man River

When we were looking for a campground near Memphis, several folks suggested the Tom Sawyer RV Park (actually in W. Memphis, Arkansas). We learned that it is RIGHT on the banks of the Mississippi and this totally intrigued us. The park’s website includes information about the importance of monitoring the Mississippi River as your camping time approaches; they’re closed when the river overflows its banks. Yikes! We checked and it looked like we’d be just fine; it takes a couple of weeks for rain far north to really affect the height of the river. We knew we didn’t want to approach when THIS was happening!

Here’s our site where it would be during a flood!

High water! Camping on the flood plain.

During our first hour at the campground, we were drawn to the river (actually only about 50 yards from our site) as a huge collection of barges (all attached, 7 barges long, and 3 across) was pushed along by ONE boat (that looked quite a bit like an oversized tugboat).

Can you count all the barges?  Most of the loads were three barges across and anywhere from three to ten barges long!

One of the best parts of moving around the country is how much we love being so close to different forms of transportation. In Indiana, we camped very close to a very active train track — it ran all day and night (never kept us awake) and reminded us of how much our nation’s commerce depends on different modes of transport. Then, of course, there are the thousands and thousands of tractor trailers (some pulling two or even THREE trailers!) that we share the road with as we move along the nation’s interstates. And while on the Mississippi for several days, a low rumble accompanied us much of the time — we could look out the bedroom window and watch the barges moving through as we fell asleep—and then again, when we woke up the next morning.  Sometimes we could tell what they were hauling, and other times, hmmm… They were mesmerizing. It’s fun to watch our nation’s commerce on the go!

So, why Memphis? Graceland, of course! We’ve learned to take others’ recommendations, whether positive or negative, with a grain of salt. We like to experience what we can and draw our own conclusions—sometimes a place that someone else told us to not waste our time with, is a favorite of ours!

So we drove to Graceland our first morning there—and spent hours poring over building after building of memorabilia not just about Elvis but also about many other musicians. We started with a tour of the mansion—and were quite impressed by all that we were able to see. I’ll let the pictures tell the story:

The Presley’s home — treasured and beautifully maintained.
The living room and music room beyond — the 12 foot couch was specially ordered
The dining room
The heart of the home
Elvis’ jungle room–his favorite
Elvis designed this pool room himself — nearly EVERY surface was covered with fabric — the walls (pleated), much of the furniture, and yup–the ceiling!
Elvis’ media room hurt our eyes!
Family graves in the memorial garden on the grounds of the mansion

But Graceland comprises much more than the house! There were a number of buildings that featured everything from Elvis’ car and motorcycle collections, gold records, a gallery featuring dozens of musicians who were/are influenced by Elvis, a huge archive of all things Elvis including items related to his military service, and, oh yes, an incredible array of bedazzled jumpsuits!

It took us at least a couple of hours to get through all of the extra buildings. We were pretty impressed and Elvis’ music serenaded us throughout the entire complex.  Not having ever been huge Elvis fans, we had a lot of fun and found ourselves humming Elvis tunes for several days!

Smoky Mountains and Sunsets

From Shenandoah we went to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).  We stayed in Big Meadow Family Campground, in Townsend, TN—about two miles from an entrance to the park. The park owners were very friendly and accommodating (we had several large packages delivered there), and the park was maintained meticulously.  Highly recommended if you travel that way.

I (Al) had been to GSMNP many times, always the weekend before Memorial Day weekend, and had several places I wanted to go with Kathe.  Late May was usually somewhat crowded, but not so much as to make getting to what you wanted to see difficult.  I was hoping that the park would again be fairly quiet now, being “after season.”  Maybe it was fairly quiet with respect to the summer crowds, but it certainly wasn’t quiet.

On our first day in the park, we went to Cades Cove.  This is a roughly 11 mile one-way loop through an area that was settled for about 100 years before the creation of the park.  Kathe and I enjoy trying to understand something of small communities by looking at their graveyards.  There are several in the Cades Cove area, along with several small churches.

There are three churches in the cove:  Primitive Baptist, Missionary Baptist, and Methodist.

We think that the Primitive Baptist church is the oldest in the cove.
The steeple and bell of the Primitive Baptist church
Interior of the Primitive Baptist church
Pulpit Bible in the Primitive Baptist Church. Note the vandalism / graffiti on the inside back cover.

Traditionally, Methodist churches had two doors, one for men and one for women.  Although the Methodist church in the cove has two doors, the practice of separating men and women was not practiced in this church.

The Methodist Church
The Methodist cemetery

We were able to see several generations of the cove’s families, and marriages between them.  We noticed that families would sometimes switch denominations with part of the family being buried in the Baptist cemetery and others in the Methodist.

The Oliver family was one of the founding families of this settlement, and remained a presence there. (Click on a picture in the gallery to see the larger, uncropped, version.)

It was hard to see the infant graves with only a single date on the headstone, or a span of only a few weeks or months.

Especially heartbreaking was to find several groupings of three infant headstones from the same family.

The cemeteries are still active, despite being in a National Park. People who lived in the cove before the creation of the park are still able to be buried there.

Two of the things we wanted to see in the cove—Abrams Falls and the mill—we had to pass on due to the crowding.  By the time we got to the parking area for the falls we didn’t have enough time for the hike, and when we got to the mill area, there was no available parking. So we headed back to camp.

Afternoon in the Smoky Mountains

After dinner we went to Look Rock to see the sunset.  This is several miles out the Foothills Parkway, a separate part of the park.  Right at the parking lot, there is a short walk to a viewpoint to the south.  While very pretty, it wasn’t going to be the best for sunsets.  As we were walking back to the car to try to find another place, a young couple asked if we were looking for the tower.  Yes!  They showed us the start of the path across the road from the parking.  After a short (uphill!) hike, we were set for some good sunset photography.

The next day we decided to drive to Clingmans Dome for sunset.

The first part of the drive is along the Little River, which has many cascades and is quite pretty.  One of the disadvantages of driving a large pickup truck is that there are very few places you can pull over for a photo stop.  We did find a few though.

A small cascade along the Little River
The Little River can also be serene

Eventually the road leaves the river and heads into the mountains.  Here we saw our first hints of fall colors, although we missed the bright reds of Maine.

This is a long drive (the Dome is in North Carolina, and the road is a twisty mountain road). The drive was worth it! At many points there are good views of the mountain range that we are in.

The Appalachian Trail passes directly under the tower we watched the sunset from, so I guess I can now say I’ve been on the AT!  (Nah.  I wouldn’t do that to my friends who have hiked the AT.)

Row after row of Appalachian mountains at sunset

In addition to sampling sunsets wherever we land, we love to eat, too! We eat out fairly often, possibly more than we should.  But here we “had” to eat lunch twice at the Black Bear Cafe in Townsend.  Their fried grouper sandwich was outstanding!

We continue to find that meeting people is one of the most enjoyable aspects of RV life.  At Big Meadow, we met Joe and Judy, and two of Judy’s sisters, Jo and Rachel.  We enjoyed comparing our RVs and the modifications we each have made (their rig is a larger version of ours), and talking about favorite places to visit. The sisters are three of seven sisters.  When we left the park the three, who were roughly in their late 70s, were heading out to have lunch with some of their friends…they hadn’t seen since elementary school!

From here, we went to Mammoth Cave, which Kathe already covered in her spelunking post.  We’ll catch you again from Memphis!

Caverns, Caves, and Bats, Oh, My!

I remember a small cave in the woods out behind my Nanny and Pop-pop’s house when I was a little girl. My brother told me about it; I decided to take his word for it.

Two weeks ago, while in the Shenandoah Valley (Virginia), we visited Luray Caverns. Luray is a commercial attraction and not part of Shenandoah National Park. We signed up for a tour and were led down a long, fairly steep staircase to an amazing underground world. I remember seeing stalactites and stalagmites in Howe Caverns in New York State as a youngster. But these…

Stalactites hang ‘tight’ to the ceiling.
Stalagmites (bottom left) ‘might’ reach the ceiling some day.

The young man who toured us thru the caverns seemed to be in training for some kind of footrace; we wanted to take lots of photographs but he kept insisting that we stay together and keep up with him. It was frustrating and we finally decided we’d take our time and take the photos we wanted to—we had paid dearly for the tour and wanted our money’s worth.

Sometimes the stalagmites reach up to join the stalactites to form pillars or columns.

The stalactites are formed by water coming down through the roof of the cavern carrying dissolved limestone. The limestone is left behind when the water evaporates.  Stalagmites are formed when those drips of water drop off and hit the ground; as the water evaporates, the stalagmites grow upward. Many experts claim that the stalactites and stalagmites grow as slowly as 10cm every 1000 years. They are precious.

We were fascinated to learn that until the 1920s, tourists were allowed to snap off the end of a stalactite as a souvenir. Once the tip is broken off, the stalactite will cease to grow. It was sad to see so many broken, flat ends as we worked our way through the passages.

The old expression “A picture just doesn’t do it justice!” came to mind when we downloaded our pictures of the reflecting pool. It was pure magic; footsteps ceased and all you could hear was the intake of air as each tourist rounded the passage and gasped as they faced the pool head-on.

Can you find the waterline? See the perfect other-worldly reflection?

On our way to Luray, we passed dozens of billboards (and I mean dozens!) advertising the caverns. Many of them called attention to ‘The Great Stalacpipe Organ’—what could that be?

Sure enough as we were nearing the end of our tour, we came into a huge room within the cave that had an organ console up on a landing. Apparently you can make arrangements to get MARRIED in this room, complete with a pipe organ accompaniment. (It’s a bargain at $1900 for just 12 guests!)

The famous stalacpipe organ in Luray Caverns.

The organ is actually an electrically actuated lithophone that produces tapping of a large number of pipes (stalactites)  throughout 3-1/2 acres of the cave. You can see the wires along the walls, weaving in and out of the limestone appendages. The tour guide pushed a button and we were regaled with the limestone version of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—you could almost make out the tune! Because of the enclosed space of the cavern itself, the song can apparently be heard throughout the entire cavern.

One of the most magnificent features in Luray Caverns are the ‘curtains’— they are beautifully translucent stalactite formations that drape down from the ceiling —almost like long sheets of beautiful linen. Glorious!

Stalactite curtains

During our stop in the Shenandoah Valley, we had the solar panels installed which required Al to be at the campsite all day. He encouraged me to go out into Shenandoah National Park by myself.  The first day I went out, I missed a sign and ended up driving across the width of the park into the next town before I realized what I’d done (without my trusty navigator with me). So I turned around (I’m getting really good at those twisty-turny mountainside roads) and found the turn I’d missed.

When I finally got through the gate, I drove up to the first viewpoint. It actually involved a 4 mile loop hike and it was not something I was up for. So I stopped into the ladies’ room—The woman at the sink reminded me of someone from back home. “Wait! I know you!” I exclaimed. It was Dot—I’ve known her for a couple of decades — we attended the same rughooking retreat for many, many years back in Maine. What were the chances? We had a great time catching up for a few minutes. Back to the park . . .

Shenandoah NP boasts its centerpiece Skyline Drive as one of the VERY BEST places to see beautiful fall foliage (don’t worry, Mainers —I don’t believe anything can top autumn in Maine); it runs the entire length of the park. Unfortunately, there was not a smidgen of fall color. There were, however, some beautiful overlooks with views that reminded me of the Great Smokies—I stopped a number of times and made a stop at the Visitor’s Center just as a few spritzes of rain appeared on my windshield.

From Skyline Drive in Shenandoah NP–no fall foliage in sight

By the time I got back to the truck, the clouds and fog had really socked in—and it was raining more steadily. Yeah, doing twisty roads—steep and downhill—and not being able to see past a very few feet in front of my bumper was NOT FUN.

I went back to the national park on the second day of the solar install and was able to spot just a few more leaves giving way to a touch of dark yellow. Many leaves appeared just brown and shriveled. Disappointing. We’ll go back another year— and for Al, it will be his first time IN the park.

Fast forward five days — poof! We’re in Cave City, Kentucky, the home of Mammoth Cave National Park.

Imagine a series underground caves and tunnels that layer, twist, and intersect for more than 400 miles! We stopped at the stunning visitors’ center and learned quite a bit about the cave system. O.K., I knew about the bats but not about the cave crickets and cave rats!

The descent into the Historic Entrance

We had pre-purchased tour tickets online for the Grand Avenue Tour for the next day so this first day in the park, we decided to venture into the self-guided “Historic Entrance.” It comprises two huge rooms with numerous placards with all kinds of information; you can read your way right through. There were lights — just enough so you could see your way around and read the signage (kind of). There were three rangers on duty. Al’s great about asking questions and learning as much as he can from the rangers. Interestingly, one of the rangers told us that since those placards have gone up, it’s rare for anyone to talk to the rangers anymore. How sad! She explained that they have so much knowledge to share but if no one approaches them . . .

During the revolutionary war, much saltpeter was mined from the cave to make gunpowder.

We stopped to speak to another ranger on the way out. I asked about the bats. They’ve lost about 90% of the bat population due to the White Nose Syndrome; it’s a fungus that has killed millions of bats across the U.S. It came from Europe and Howe Caverns was where it was first detected here. The ranger said he’d only spotted two bats today and he pointed his flashlight to a tiny black spot high up on the cavern wall. So small.

The next day’s Grand Avenue Tour comprised four miles of strenuous walking and climbing—-all at 260+ feet underground!
Two rangers accompanied us —one at the front who flipped light switches ahead of us and who taught us so much along the way. The second ranger brought up the rear and switched lights off as we moved on.

It was magnificent—see for yourself!

Notice no stalactites or stalagmites! A sandstone layer above the cave’s limestone prevents water infiltration through most of the cave.

Gypsum (calcium sulfate) “flowers” grow throughout the cave.

The gypsum takes on many different appearances but yes, it’s the same gypsum that is in the wallboard of our homes.
Sometimes the passages are wide and low; other times tall and (very) narrow.
They reminded us of the slot canyons we saw in Arizona.
The cave was a commercial attraction in the 1800s. People were encouraged to put their names on the cave ceiling, using candle soot!

At one point during the tour, the rangers had us sit at on benches along the sides of the path. They wanted us to experience TOTAL DARKNESS and turned off all the lights and just listen. It was amazing.

Can you see my hand? Neither could I!
There were side passages everywhere!

As we neared the end of our Grand Avenue Tour, I asked the lead ranger what the difference is between a cave and a cavern; having visited both, I was curious. He gave me a very simple answer: “RN!”

Toward the end of the tour we reached a section without the sandstone cap, resulting in some stalactites. Places that are moist are lit with amber light to cut down on algae growth.

As we approached the exit, the ranger stopped us and shined his light on the ceiling so we could see a large group of cave crickets. They hang out there and only leave the cave every 7-14 days to eat. Cute little critters, eh? I told the ranger I was glad to see the crickets and was REALLY glad I HADN’T seen any cave rats. “Don’t look over to your right then,” he told me. “I can’t guarantee they’re aren’t some over there.” Aaaaaand, I made a very quick exit!

The cave crickets are about 1.5 to 2 inches across.

Water, water, everywhere! It’s what carved the magnificent cave system. The Green River and its tributaries did most of the work and it still runs several layers below the tunnels that we traveled.

We hiked a trail near the historic entrance, and found river height / flood gauges…
Don’t want to be anywhere near here when there is a 56 foot flood!

Finally starting to see some color!

The cave systems we visited were magnificent and very different from each other; Luray was commercialized with a very quick, pricey tour while Mammoth Caves had a huge range of tours and with our Senior Park Pass, it was a steal! We’re so glad that we got to experience both of these amazing places. And, yes, we’re still on the prowl for some fall foliage!

Exploring the United States and Canada by RV