Our Readers' Road Trips
Trip to Big Bend
High on Route 66
We left early last week headed up US 287 for a visit with friends in Gunnison, Colorado. We were in the brave little RV, pulling our “toad,” a little Chevy 4x4 Tracker. However, at the first night in a RV park in Amarillo, we heard the news that a big snowstorm was descending on Colorado. Well, we thought, maybe our little RV is not that brave. So, we abruptly changed our plans and decided to continue west on Interstate 40 (nee Route 66 – The Mother Road) bound for Flagstaff and Sedona, AZ, rather than take our chances by continuing north up US 287.
For me, the most important road marker for entry into the High Southwest from the east is at the iconic sculpture, Cadillac Ranch, on the western side of Amarillo. From there, west along that most famous stretch of open highway, my mind is always filled with lyrics of the great Road Songs it has inspired. The most famous, of course, is Route 66, with its exciting naming of towns that lay before us – Albuquerque, Gallup, Flagstaff, and not to forget Winona! Also, Woody Guthrie’s Ballad of Tom Joad and the vision of Grapes of Wrath and the migration out of The Dust Bowl. It’s very easy to imagine the sight of those old cars, loaded high, driving on the old 66 pavement, which is still very much in evidence for long stretches beside Interstate 40.
Passing through Winslow, AZ, the lyrics of The Eagles’, Take It Easy, came to mind: Well, I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona and such a fine sight to see. It’s a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me. Come on, baby, don’t say maybe. I gotta know if your sweet love is gonna save me… Take it easy, take it easy, don’t let the sound of your own wheels drive you crazy.
Driving The Mother Road between Amarillo and Flagstaff is a wonderful history lesson -- filled with the marvelous wide-open vistas of The Great American West at her most remote and awe-inspiring best. There is also a sense of great melancholy about ghosts while looking at the old road bed and long-abandoned filling stations, tourist courts, and road houses.. The best stretch is between Gallup and Flagstaff. The high desert flowers were in unexpected late bloom beside the road and continued uninterrupted, except for those places where truck drivers had gone to sleep and left deep ruts. I thought about Willin' by Little Feat -- I been warped by the rain, driven by the snow...Driven every kind of rig that's ever been made...taking the back roads so I wouldn't get weighed... There were other songs too, some inspired by the Santa Fe railroad tracks that run along side the route. You know, tunes about Hobos and Railroad Bulls, big rock candy mountains and cigarette trees….
While we missed the frigid snowstorm in Colorado, the weather in Arizona was also fairly brisk but very enjoyable. The temperature by day was in the 50's, bright and clear blue without any clouds, but well below freezing by night. It felt very good to snuggle up in our sleeping bags. We set up our primary camp at a very pleasant RV camp just south of Flagstaff and from there made a tour of the area in the little car, driving out to the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Jerome, and other interesting places. We put over 500 miles on the little car and over 2000 on the RV, in summary, it was an excellent trip. And-- although it is very good to be back home to our own bed and tub and geriatric cat, Annie -- I’d be Willin' to hit the Open Road again first thing in the morning.
Terlingua Revisited, February, 2005
There are many reasons why people come to live in The Big Bend Country and in the course of conversation with them the subject seems to come up invariably and quickly. Maybe it’s because of that Enormous Landscape – so rugged and remote – which seems to somehow demand an explanation for every living thing that lives there.
Last week, Judye and I made the long drive – 600 miles from Fort Worth. Bert & Leon rendezvoused with us in Study Butte where they pitched their tent close to our RV. The next morning, the four of us took a very enjoyable drive through the Big Bend National Park, returning to our base camp at Study Butte in the late afternoon to ready ourselves for the primary purpose of our trip – a party being hosted by our friend, Blair Pittman, at his interesting abandoned mine site home in the middle of the Chihuahua Desert well off the lonesome road between Terlingua and Lajatis.
Blair had promised an opera singer performing in a natural cavern the early Cinnabar miners had busted into a hundred years ago, about 75 yards deep into the base of the large mesas on which his cabin sits. He said this event would be followed by an excellent BBQ dinner and other entertaining events to be held in the ruin structures on the surface. We were not disappointed!
The party group – we counted over 80 people – was composed of many eccentric people who, like Blair, have come to live in the Big Bend; plus, a number of outsiders – like ourselves – mostly friends of Blair’s from his photojournalist time spent with the Houston Chronicle and National Geographic. There were also lots of Blair’s fellow Spelunkers for whom he is something of a celebrity, having written a number of books on the subject and almost single-handedly invented the art of Cave Photography.
Judye and I were among the first to be lead into the mine, which, once inside, became a maze of shafts going off in different directions. Tiny votive candles very dimly lighted the route to the natural cavern.
Ok, I’ll admit it right now: I didn’t like the experience and have since vowed that I’ll not be going underground again for as long as I can avoid it. A sense of claustrophobic panic was fast rising in my throat as I tired to pick my way through the labyrinth while holding tight to the neck of an opened 1.5 liter bottle of red wine. I could feel the pressure of more experienced people behind quickly growing irritated with my slow pace. It was taking every fiber of my being simply to place one foot in front of the other and I could hear voices behind me saying, Hey, what’s the hold up? Let’s get moving up there!”
The opera singer was excellent. She sang some selections from Puccini, each high “C” finding me looking nervously up at the stalactites on the high cavern ceiling. Everyone else seemed to find the opera cave event simply marvelous. For my part, Yoyo Ma, Django Rinehart, and John Coltrane could have been accompanying Maria Callas and I would have wanted outa there just as fast! Judye took a number of photographs with her digital camera and we were later surprised to discover that the tiny bits of mica in the cave walls reflected back, making for very interesting effects.
Blair had timed the party’s exit from the mine so that all the guests could walk up the path to the top of the mesa in time to enjoy the incredible sunset against the Chisos Mountains. the sky was simply marvelous and worth every minute of panic inside the mine. We then had an opportunity to visit with some of the other guests.
We spent some time talking with a very attractive young woman dressed in a long print skirt with tall cowboy boots who said she was building a house in the ghost town of Terlingua. She said she was carrying the materials on her back up a ¼ mile path. She had come to the Big Bend on a chance visit from her home in Seattle and found that she did not want to leave. Several other people we talked with were river guides working for Far Flung Adventures, the Rio Grande outfit that takes tourists through the rapids in Santa Elena and Boqiullas Canyon. Oh yeah, Blair’s BBQ briskets and fixings where marvelous! He had smoked many large briskets slowly for 24 hours. The resulting smoke ring and taste was simply superb.
The next day, the four of us drove deep into the Big Bend National Park and found a place to set up our camp, drink wine, cook some marvelous steaks, and lay back to look up at the Milky Way. Later, we drove to Marfa, TX where Bert & Leon opted for a night in the recently remodeled hotel where the cast of Giant once stayed as Judye and I moved on north to park the RV in the Davis Mountains.
That night, Bert & Leon drove out to the parking spot officially operated by the State of Texas for roadside viewing of the Mysterious Marfa Lights; and, actually saw them!!! They said they rose from the horizon as luminous balls of bright light – turning from blue to orange – and darted around the sky at hyper speed.
So, that’s the story, folks. Texas is still a very big, wide-open place with lots of very marvelous sights to see and interesting people to meet. Let’s hit the road again, soon. ok?
Road Notes: July 2004: South Dakota, Journal Entry, July 28:
“This morning’s sextant reading indicates 44 degrees, 18 minutes North; 96 degrees, 48 minutes West. The air temperature is 46 F. We decide that based on remaining stores, going further north is unadvisable. Our clean underwear and socks are exhausted. No opportunity at hand to renew supply of Rene Junot “vin de table.” Fuel prices have exceeded $2.00 per gallon as we have moved north. This morning at coffee, we contemplate maps and decide to return home via the quickest route. ”
In retrospect, the Wide Open Road Trip to South Dakota was very excellent, including Big Sky Western Vistas; up-close views of ranching and farming life on the Great Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. There were lots of small critters and big game spotted along the way toward The Black Hills and adjoining Bad Lands.
Much of the land traveled through belonged to the Great Sioux Nation – once complete with ancient herds of buffalo. It’s so sad that the apogee of their Incredible Freedom occurred so briefly after the reintroduction of the Horse to this continent by the very people that would eventually kill all the buffalo and put the mighty Sioux in Indian Reservations. It’s the greatest of tragic ironies ever, it seems to me.
While ordering hamburgers at roadside McDonalds and Burger Kings, I made note that many of our servers had the young faces of Sitting Bull, Big Little Man, Rain-In-the Face, Gaul; and, one assumes, Crazy Horse – although no photographs were ever taken of him. I thought a lot about Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.
We were at one time on the Rosebud Reservation and very close to the Wounded Knee Creek. But, the road to the massacre site was primitive and we could not go there in the motor home. (Historical note: After the murder of Crazy Horse by Crow Indian assassins hired by the U.S. Army, his parents found his body and cut out his heart so his Sioux Sprit might ride again to fight on another day. They buried his heart somewhere on the Wounded Knee Creek which ran beside were we were parked.
We had started our turn north in the Texas Panhandle on Highway 83, an honest working class highway for wheat columbine crews moving north, cattle trucks, tractors, and pick-up-trucks. But, mostly our highway trip was absent of other vehicles for many hours of driving. We passed through huge ranches in Texas and Oklahoma and in Kansas and Nebraska the wide-open Plains were planted with immense cornfields. Once, we stopped in a small town in Nebraska to buy some new sweet corn from some teenage girls sitting in the back of a roadside truck. There is great beauty to be admired in the healthy good looks of the young farm and ranch people growing up in this part of the country–German, Swede, and Norwegian stock mostly -- fair skinned, blond, blue-eyed, with round and well-formed limbs.
On our first night in Nebraska, we camped all alone above a lovely lake. A powerful cold front was moving in with lots of rain and temperatures that fell into the 40’s. It’s really great to get cozy in the RV with rain pelting down outside. The next morning, we diverted our route a bit to visit the huge Cabella’s store in Sidney, Nebraska. It’s a Mecca for Sportsmen–guns, camouflage hunting gear, fly-fishing accoutrement, and all kinds of neat manly stuff. There were grown men running uncontrolled up and down the isles. Judye said the smell of testosterone was so thick one could cut it with a large, shiny, hunting knife. While there, we both bought raingear jackets that came in very handy as it remained cold and wet for several days.
The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the perpetually in-process Crazy Horse Memorial, and Deadwood are “a blur of naked commercialism.” Interstate 90 provides an open door to vacationing tourists families from Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis and the road is crowed with anti-gravity houses, reptile gardens, and Indian Trading Posts offering salt water taffy and authentic rubber tomahawks and bows and arrows with suction cup tips.
Sturgis, South Dakota, on the other hand, is decidedly not family friendly, unless your family happens to be the Hell’s Angels. I’d often read about the annual gathering of motorcyclists in Sturgis–it’s something like their own Mardi Gras--and was interested to find the town very busy with preparations for the rally, which was set to take place the following week. We enjoyed shopping among the vendors tents on Main Street looking at leather gear and mountains of black tee-shirts printed with great images of skulls, naked women, and colorful slogans celebrating the motorcycle credo–Beer, Booze, Babes, Bikes; Rape, Pillage, Plunder; Apocalypse Now!
We had noted an unusual number of riders on the road, coming from every point in the nation. They were all headed toward Sturgis, gathering in groups, stopping to camp together, smoking grass, passing around bottles of Jack Daniels, exchanging addresses, preparing for the great costume drama in Sturgis! Lawyers, doctors, and accountants on $30,000 Harleys in their black leathers will soon be mixed in a crazy party with the real Hell’s Angels wearing tattoos that do not wash off.
Regarding Mount Rushmore. Like everyone else, my memory of this place is primarily based on Hitchcock’s movie, North by Northwest. I was disappointed not to see Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint climbing around on George Washington’s nose. The National Park Service has turned this monument into an extravaganza of patriotic fervor.
One interesting site nearby is called Mammoth Springs. It’s a place where many Mammoths and other creatures living 50,000 years ago–giant short faced bears, saber-toothed tigers, giant bison, camels, etc. –were attracted by warm spring waters and fell into a muddy bog from which they could not escape. Now, a huge building has been erected over the site so archeologists can carefully extract the remarkably preserved skeletons. This was a very exciting experience.
Oh yea, guess I’ve got to also mention Kevin Cosner’s eccentric–and in many ways embarrassingly egotistical and simple-minded–edifice to celebrate his newly awaked understanding of the American Indian, which occurred apparently as a result of his filming the movie Dances With Wolves. It’s located just outside of Deadwood and features a large array of life-sized bronze sculpture of buffalos being driven over a cliff by Indians on horseback. The scope of the sculpture is very impressive and the location is simply beautiful, looking out over the Great Plains. Upon entering ($6.00 a head–senior rate) visitors are herded into a movie theater to witness a lengthy film of Cosner’s remarks at the dedication ceremony. He prattles on for what seems like hours about Indians and Buffalos and the evil White People (most all of us in the captured audience) who had mindlessly destroyed a Paradise where Indians and Movie Stars could ride Free. Damn, guess I just wasn’t up for a lecture from Kevin that assumed I was not aware of History.
Our route home was south down Highway 81, which intersected with Interstate 35 in Wichita, Kansas. It had started to rain again, the windshield wipers making time, a really good radio station playing 60’s and 70’s music. We drove in silence for long periods, each involved with our own thoughts. It was good. It was very good.
Mysterious New Mexico
Our recent Seldom Traveled Roads trip into New Mexico was wonderful. There were great vistas, turquoise skies; and, this time, a special bent of interest toward The Mysterious: Alien visitations; the record of strange events left by ancient Indians, and monstrous modern instruments, standing like silent sentinels watching and waiting for the arrival of a Message from Outer Space.
Guess it all got started at the Alien Museum in Roswell. Our friend, Nancy Harrison, had asked us to stop there, not so much because she is a Trekkie, but because she has an extraordinarily high-developed appreciation of the Bizarre and Unusual. We looked very closely at all the exhibits and came away absolutely convinced that an alien space craft did indeed crash on a near-by ranch and that an alien survivor was taken into Government control, later died, and became the subject of a now famous and very secret autopsy that The Government Authorities Have Never Revealed to the Public!
According to the museum documentation, the autopsy took place at a top-secret hanger on the US Air Force base at Alamogordo called Site 51. Our minds raced with all the conspiratorial possibilities now exposed! Our walk through the museum was on a self-guided tour and exited through the Alien Gift Shoppe where we browsed for some time before continuing our Journey of Discovery, now much more attune to the wonderful, low-budget, Horror Movie potential of the passing landscape. Looking down the endless highway as we entered the Alamogordo Plateau, our little RV suddenly felt to me like a very well-equipped and comfortable spaceship.
The Alamogordo Plateau is so very interesting, containing at one end the White Sands Missile Testing Grounds, in the middle the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site where the images of an ancient people are seen depicted seemingly agog at the sun symbol that now adorns the flag of New Mexico; and, very close by, Trinity Site, where the first man-made nuclear explosion took place in 1946. At the north end of the valley there are huge lava beds where the folds in the once molten rock can still be seen. We stopped there for a while to admire a solitary golden eagle hunting from high above.
We drove on – inside our brave little RV spaceship -- to a higher and seemingly uninhabited plateau west of Magdalena, NM on US Hwy 60. It’s here that one can first see and then, after another hour of driving, finally get close to the National Radio Observatory VLA (Very Large Array.) Now, this is the place that will set all your neck hairs on end, should you have any curiosity about Outer Space and other Alien things!
The radio telescope is simply immense: many – maybe 25 or so -- truly gigantic dishes pointed up toward the sky, each dish the size of a 10 story building, mounted on railroad tracks to position each one so that the entire array can be pointed to peer into Deep Outer Space. It’s Our Eyes and Ears into the Galactic Past and the place from which we are most likely to receive That Telephone Call we have all been waiting for.
Interestingly, we did not see another Human Being while visiting the Very Large Array. There were signs that directed us on a walking tour that took us close to the enormous dishes. A number of the signs warned us to watch out for snakes. Turns out, the control of the VLA site is often by remote control from scientists at other locations on Planet Earth. Just Imagine: these huge monoliths in the middle of a high desert -- 8000 feet --suddenly coming alive and moving; slowly crawling down their railroad tracks, huge gears whining, electric motors humming. We found it all very interesting and, well, kinda spooky!
During the long trip toward the VLA Site, we had passed by a ranch gate and noted a newly painted sign that said “RV Camping." We stopped and drove back to explore this interesting possibility. Turns out the owners of the 50,000-acre ranch had decided to make some extra bucks by developing campsites on their wonderful land. Think we may have been their first customers!
While our little spaceship, when rigged for deep space, can sustain itself on internal power and fluids for some time, it’s still nice to find a spot to plug into external power, water, and a sewer pipe when available. It’s very rare to find this opportunity in such remote locales. The ranch owners told us, “be sure and look at the sky tonight,” which turned out to be an absolutely enormous understatement! Little wonder the VLA site it located on this plateau as there is a totally unrestricted view of the nighttime sky; stars, wall-to-wall, horizon- to-horizon. The views of the Milky Way and the rest of the Universe were dumbfounding. We drank a bottle of wine in the dark with our heads bent back, agog at The Grand Mystery of it All.
Postscript: Judye experienced a sudden need for more jewelry one evening as I was grilling steaks and the next morning we pulled up camp and headed North toward Gallup and the Zuni Reservation, driving through The Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert. We arrived in Zuni, NM on a brilliant Sunday morning and found a number of the shops open. Damn, those Zuni’s are such wonderful craftsmen with silver and turquoise! Judye came away with several very lovely pieces at which point we declared it a successful trip and pulled onto Interstate 40 and headed East for the long drive home.