Tennessee, Briefly

What a week! After our last night underwater in Arkansas,20170503_173005 we charted a course to Memphis, and headed out. Oops…after a couple of hours on the road, we hit an Arkansas State Highway which was closed by flooding. Detour. Oops…this other State Highway is also closed. To make a long story short, our 4-1/2 hour trip to Memphis turned into an eight hour ordeal.

First impressions of  T.O. Fuller State Park (12 miles from downtown Memphis) weren’t encouraging, but that was quickly overcome. The thick brush alongside the campsites was overgrown, and the campground had kind of a forlorn look to it. But we were won over by an onsite washer/dryer (only $1.00/ea), and a free ice machine! Not to mention sparkling clean, if aging, bathrooms. Fuller SP was the first State Park east of the Mississippi River to admit blacks. And, this was in the 1930s! It seems incredible to me.

The National Civil Rights Museum was our target for our first cycling trip into town. It was a long, crazy ride through some rather sketchy areas, punctuated with 20 minute wait for a freight train. The Museum is located at the old Lorraine Motel, site of Martin Luther King Jr’s. assassination.20170506_140122 The Museum is a testament to the everyday struggles non-white Americans have shared over the years to be granted equal rights. Why should that ever have been an issue? The bus on which Rosa Parks staged her quiet protest is there. 20170506_131845Remember the lunch-counter sit-ins?20170506_132258 Bus bombings? 20170506_132842One of the most moving areas (for me) was the section devoted to James Meredith’s struggle to gain admittance to Old Miss. The film clips are devastating to watch. So many reminders to all the shameful eras of US race relations. The lines to get into the Museum stretched way down the street – blacks and white, old and young. There are lessons to be learned here.20170506_134609Next stop was David Crockett State Park, where we had another history lesson. Near US64, the park encompasses portions of the original Trail of Tears, the route taken by the Cherokees (and some other Native American tribes as well), when they were forcibly relocated from their homelands in NC, GA, VA, and SC to new reservations west of the Mississippi. The sections here were along the route taken by 650 Cherokees led by Captain Bell. 20170508_112759Nearly four percent of the group died on this three-month trip. Lots of history to be absorbed here.20170511_113416 Jezzy was tuckered out after all the learning.20170508_135739 Camping at Crockett SP was great. 20170510_142613We had a huge campsite, and met our Canadian neighbors in their brand-spankin’ new Alto trailer. What a gem. It’s a step up we could seriously see ourselves making.

Onward to Tims Ford State Park in Lynchburg. The only game in town there is the Jack Daniel Distillery, so we took the tasting tour. 20170510_12321020170510_121339If you’ve been reading this blog for long, you’ll know that the word ‘whiskey’ has probably never been seen in print here. We’re beer drinkers! But, when in Lynchburg… And, we are happy we did take the tour – there’s much to appreciate here. Let me give you a few fun facts.

  1. Jack Daniel owned his first distillery when he was about 14, through an odd combination of circumstances. He was a small man – only 5’2″ (with a size 4 boot!). In a fit of rage, he kicked the safe in his office one day, and broke his foot, which never healed properly. After several successively more aggressive amputations, he eventually died of gangrene, after having the rest of his leg removed at the hip. This statue is entitled “Jack on the Rocks”.20170510_122214
  2. They make all their own barrels onsite, and also produce all their own charcoal, which is used to filter the whiskey. All the water used comes from a spring on the property.
  3. All the Jack Daniel’s whiskey sold in the world are produced in Lynchburg. Even more crazy is the fact that Lynchburg is located in a dry county in TN – the only place to get a drink in the county is on a paid tour of the distillery.
  4. During many sections of the hour-long tour, photos are off-limits. But we got to sniff and look at all areas, and watched a portion of the specialty bottling line.

Then is was time for our tasting. 20170510_130737To my surprise, I really enjoyed four of the five selections (the exception being Tennessee Fire, which is JD + cinnamon liquor).

Southern Tennessee is beautiful, rolling country. 20170510_16223220170510_105856Our travels from camp to camp were enjoyable as our eyes feasted on lush green forests and barns of every shape and age.

Crossing back into the Eastern Time Zone for the first time this year, we’re now camped at Thunder Rock Campground, along the Ocoee River. 20170512_151356This is the site of the whitewater course in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and our campsite is right on the river. We’re so fortunate to be here on this day (Saturday), as the dams have been opened for the day, and water is rushing along at 1400 cubic feet per second. Daredevil kayaks, river rafts of all sizes and careening downsream, with sometimes unexpected results.20170513_11590920170513_12013320170513_111738 It’s thrilling even to watch.

We cycled down to the area near the National Whitewater Center, and parked ourselves along the rocks to watch. It brought back memories of my rafting down the Gauley (WV) River two times many years ago. What a thrill. Our National Forest Service Campground is fabulous as well, with the only drawback being its proximity to US64. Lots of car and truck traffic. There are dozens of  hiking and mountain bike trails here. An adventurer’s paradise.

Sorry I haven’t included any links to these places or any additional background information. We haven’t had any phone signal or WiFi for a few days, so I’m sitting in the truck in the parking lot at the Whitewater Center, grabbig a bit of signal. The longer I leave these posts unwritten, the worse they get.

This is our last week of camping before turning the big red truck north and scampering for home. We still have Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and our Blue Ridge Rally to finish off this long trip. Can’t say we’ve enjoyed EVERY minute, but it’s certainly been an adventure.

California Days

Boy, have we ever covered a lot of ground since my last post. Funny how a bit of time trivializes all of the things we did – it seems really silly to detail activities to the extent that I usually do. So, we’ll go with the Cliffs Notes version here – bits of commentary. Photos. And California is so beautiful that I have dozens that I would like to share.

Before leaving Crystal Cove State Park, we had to take one extended bike ride to Coronado Island to see the iconic Hotel del Coronado. Wow. I couldn’t take any photos from a vantage point that made any sense, so you’ll have to enjoy the linked ones instead. There is even a sand sculptor on the beach there, creating fanatastical castles.wp-1489722400006.jpg It really is a look into another vacation world. Our bike ride took the biggest chunk of a day, and covered 50+ miles. Loved the fact that probably probably 45 miles of this was on dedicated bike paths, AND a brewery was right along the route.

Moving on to San Clemente State Beach was interesting, as noted in my last post. Our campsite was overgrown with weedswp-1490289949242.jpgand a couple of feral cats seemed to adopt us – drinking from Jezzy’s outside water dish, hanging out by the warmth of our campfire, and sitting on our picnic table.wp-1490289471717.jpg And yet? What a great campground – kids, bikes, tons of tent-campers. The campground itself is perched atop some delicate-looking sandstone cliffs. wp-1490289999739.jpgIt’s amazing (to me, anyway) that these cliffs are still standing – you can scratch them with your fingernail. But they are beautiful, especially strewn with spring wildflowers. wp-1490289917234.jpgwp-1490289739477.jpgWandering down the beach, we spied on Nixon’s old house – Casa Pacifica. wp-1490289890597.jpgwp-1490289864289.jpgLots of surfers. wp-1490289851524.jpgwp-1490289830255.jpgWe cycled down a beach path, and wandered out on the San Clemente pier. wp-1490289812166.jpg20170323_102117.jpgwp-1490289621329.jpgwp-1490289588089.jpgSan Clemente vs Laguna Beach? Old money vs new artsy money. Both fun.

It was a shock to leave the beach and head back into the Mojave Desert, but that’s what we did. Owl Canyon Campground near Barstow, CA was our next stop. With our senior pass, camping was $3/night. It couldn’t have been better.wp-1490669231753.jpg About 80% of the 30 campsites were empty, so we grabbed a good one, and set up for two nights. Ahhhh, so quiet. Huge, starry sky. The only bad thing was that it was super windy, so we couldn’t enjoy a campfire, or even an evening cookout. The wind was howling!

We did hike into the Canyon the next day, taking Jezzy on the two-mile loop.wp-1490669266731.jpg Sadly, as we neared the end, we found a rocky wall obstacle. We could have gotten up and over, but there was no way we could have boosted Jezzy over. So, we had to turn around and trudge back. There’s not much else out there – we learned that we were lucky not to have been there on a weekend – it turns into a Jeep off-roader wild party. So happy not to have blundered into that!

Death Valley was our next stop, but that deserves its own post.

Nixon, Revisited

Move over LBJ. We may have just replaced your Museum with a new favorite, and an unlikely one, at that. We visited the Nixon Museum two days ago, and were absolutely blown away. It starts with the gigantic portrait by Norman Rockwell inside the door.20170317_094411.jpg As always, we began our investigation of the Museum by watching the introductory film. No pussy-footing around here – the opening scene is Nixon’s emotional exit speech, and we see him and Pat getting into the helicopter. President Ford wipes a tear from his eye. Bang! What a beginning. This scene is echoed in another exhibit as well, showing Nixon from inside the chopper looking out.wp-1489722399890.jpgClosed for six months last year while the Museum’s exhibits were re-tooled, I can only say that the results are stunning. There are all sorts of interactive displays, and huge sections both on Watergate and Vietnam. Timelines on both are really helpful in sorting things out.wp-1489772426258.jpgIt was disquieting to see the weekly Vietnam stats that were kept in a safe. Take a close-up look at the document on the right.

Actual conversations can be listened in on using old-style big push-button phones. We found things to like about Nixon – things that we forgot, or that had been overshadowed by Watergate. He signed Title IX into being – ending gender-based discrimination in education and sports programs. Anyone who went to school in the 60’s knows how huge that was. When I was in high school, there were ZERO sports for girls. None. Nixon also abolished the draft, and ushered the all-volunteer army into existence. Loved the photo showing mail and telegram response he got after referring to support of his Vietnam policy by the Silent Majority.wp-1489722399830.jpgThe War on Cancer. The opening of diplomatic relations with China. The introduction of the Space Shuttle program. Signing of the SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) with Russia.wp-1489772405859.jpgThe creation of the EPA. And, surprisingly, Nixon championed a health insurance program, with subsidies to help everyone afford coverage, which was shot down by the Democratic congress. It’s interesting to remember all the things we’ve forgotten. Here are a few other photos from the Museum. I think these are the same drapes Trump is currently using.wp-1489722399676.jpgwp-1489722399529.jpgwp-1489772488550.jpgwp-1489722399372.jpgNixon was a voracious note-taker, and went through thousands of yellow legal pads during his career. His college roommates nicknamed him Iron Butt, for his ability to sit in one chair for hours, making and reviewing notes. Maybe that’s how I’ll remember him. Make it a point to visit this spectacular site if you’re near Yorba Linda, CA.

Our home for the last three nights has been Crystal Cove State Park, perhaps the most beautiful campground we ever stay in. wp-1489722399742.jpgwp-1489722399716.jpgwp-1489722399395.jpgThis is our third time here, and each time we make plans for another visit. Our campsite is perched right over the Pacific Coast Highway, and the pounding surf lulls us to sleep every night. One oddity this trip has been the dense fog, which rolls in after dusk every night, and doesn’t clear off until after noon. Makes for a short day to whale watch. While wandering down the beach, we did see this sand castle, which pales in comparison to the professionally crafted one at Coronado Island that we saw a few days ago. But beautiful, nonetheless.wp-1489722399306.jpgwp-1489722400001.jpgWe are heading off today to a new camp at San Clemente State Beach, just a few miles to the south of here. San Clemente was the site of the Western White House in Nixon’s time. wp-1489722399527.jpgThe Nixons spent many weekends there while he was in office, and returned to San Clemente after he left. We’re looking forward to exploring a new Park – camping on the CA coast is astonishingly expensive. Our basic site – no water or electric is $50/night. Showers are coin-op. It certainly is the most we have paid for any state park camping, but it is oh so worth it for a week.wp-1489722399181.jpg

Wandering West Texas

Since leaving Big Bend, we’ve hit a number of eclectic spots – some planned, some by accident. In any case, it’s been a terrific week for the Campshaws.

Heading out of the Park, we were intrigued by the Terlingua Ghost Town which appeared on our map.wp-1485537560601.jpg It wasn’t far off our route, so we detoured. This was originally a mining site for cinnabar, from which mercury is derived. Most of the old structures have fallen, but there’s a quirky ghost town economy at work here. Along the road into the town are several spots where you can camp in a teepee, or a beatup Airstream. wp-1485537508473.jpgThere’s a real estate office that looks like a spaceship. wp-1485541029427.jpgWe wandered around the fallen buildings, then headed over to the cemetery, which was a real treat. Most of the graves are above ground, because of the difficulty of digging into the rocky surface. wp-1485537526157.jpgModern graves are decorated with objects that reveal the personality of the deceased.20170127_114239.jpg It’s a very interesting place to wander. We topped off our visit with breakfast at a small cafe there (fabulous Mexican breakfast burrito!), and hit the road.

Balmorhea State Park was our destination for two nights, a spot we picked by its location, not its interest. It’s home to a natural spring with a year-round temperature of about 70 degrees. In the 1930s, the CCC built a gigantic pool enclosing the spring, and the Park was born. wp-1485537090527.jpgwp-1485537463120.jpgwp-1485537479921.jpgThere is a bare-bones campground, and motel-type rooms available. It must be packed in the hot summer months, because there sure aren’t any other lakes around. But, it was so chilly and windy that none of the campers ventured in the water. If you look closely at the photos, you can tell from the water surface how windy it was. The pool ranges from 3-30 feet deep, with several diving boards. It was a nice stop, but we wished that we hadn’t reserved two days – we truly didn’t understand that there was nothing around, and nowhere nearby to visit. But, how about this cool door?wp-1485537427688.jpgWe chose a route to our next stop that took us past Guadalupe Mountains National Park, a place that I had never even heard of. We stopped into the Visitor Center, watched a brief slide show about the area, then headed down a trail to check out an old stagecoach stop. wp-1485537411335.jpgwp-1485537399749.jpgFrom 1858-59, the Butterfield Overland Mail stopped here on its route from St. Louis to San Francisco. What a grueling journey it must have been for the nine passengers along for the trip with 12,000 pieces of mail. 24 hours a day for about 25 days – with brief stops to change horses. Yikes. We didn’t have time to explore any other areas of the Park – saving that for another trip.

Hueco Tanks State Park was a gem of a find for our final night in Texas. wp-1485537360354.jpgTanks refers to depressions in the rocks which collect water, and there are hundreds of these in the rocky formations in the Park.wp-1485537348111.jpgwp-1485537330656.jpgFor thousands of years, indigenous people lived or traveled to this area, as evidenced by the petroglyphs which are scattered around the Park. Sometimes, you really have to lie underneath the rocks to see and photograph the petroglyphs.wp-1485537265734.jpgwp-1485537243134.jpg Most of the really great spots are available with a guided Ranger tour only. We were unaware of this, and didn’t allot enough time to do that. But, we did hike three trails, all with great views, and interesting rock markings. wp-1485537220068.jpgGraffiti has taken a huge toll over the years, probably one reason why permits are required to even enter the area, and are limited to 70 people a day. About half of the people we saw were rock climbers, as there are several areas here which provide challenging climbs.20170127_114753.jpg We enjoyed our great campsite. This is another spot which merits a longer stay – we left far too much unexplored.

See ya, Texas! Now we’re in Columbus New Mexico at Pancho Villa State Park. What an interesting spot this is. Columbus was the site of the last hostile action by foreign troops in the US – a raid by Pancho Villa’s troops in March 1916. wp-1485537115250.jpgThis sparked retaliation by troops led by General John J (Black Jack) Pershing into Mexico, with the intent of hunting down Pancho Villa. After a year, the troops came back to the US, emptyhanded. So many historic events surround this event – it was the last gasp of US Calvary troops, the first time gasoline and diesel-powered trucks and cars were used, and the first time airplanes were used for surveillance. Eight two-seater “Jennies” were deployed, and flew into Mexican airspace. However, the planes were not very maneuverable, and most were unable to fly back over the mountains to Columbus HQ. None of the eight lasted past the first month.

We really enjoyed wandering the Museum – check out this photo which shows Villa and Pershing in happier times. wp-1485537126670.jpgNote the caption of the man standing behind Pershing – Michael Collins was the last US astronaut to stand on the moon – a fact we learned a few weeks ago at the Johnson Space Center.

The Columbus Historical Center Museum also has a site there, which we very briefly visited. I lusted after this tiny little tricycle – what kid wouldn’t look great pedaling this around?wp-1485537146389.jpgwp-1485537166654.jpgThe downside to this area is the really lousy weather. Altough dry, the winds are unrelenting and merciless. Temps are in the 40s, and with a 20mph wind, it is most unpleasant. I feel grit etching my eyeballs.

In spite of that, we plan to ride our bikes into Mexico this afternoon and wander around the little town of Puerto Palomas, which is just three miles away. We hear there’s a great little cafe there. It will be a quick ride there, with that north wind pushing us, and a tough slog home. Oh well….

Big Bending

We’ve been in Texas so long already, that we might quite possibly be honorary citizens by now. Our plastic 2017 Texas State Parks pass already has the greasy patina a of a well-traveled credit card.

Leaving Laredo, the Grand Plan was to head to Big Bend National Park. That’s three days of travel, since we tend to move less like roadrunners, and more like armadillos when we are camping.  (A bit of Texas metaphor for you!)

Our first overnight was Garner State Park.wp-1485118480143.jpg We arrived early enough to take a pleasant four mile hike, and view this lovely State Park from an aerial perch.wp-1484679875709.jpgwp-1484679862102.jpg Part of the walk was through a juniper forest, where most of the trees were 10-12 feet high. I had the unusual (and quite pleasing) feeling of being a kid in a kid-sized forest. I liked it a lot.The park was quiet, the aging restrooms clean but unloved. For us, it was a good stop.

A change in plans found us happily stopping for a night at Seminole Canyon State Park, a repeat visit from our swing through this area four years ago. We had a pleasant campsite, and had enough time for a hike with Jezzy along the rim of this beautiful canyon.wp-1485118366645.jpgwp-1485118306292.jpg I loved the sculpture that overlooks the canyon from the Visitor Center. wp-1485118412159.jpg It celebrates the many petroglyphs which decorate the canyon walls here, and along the Pecos River Valley. There are enough hikes and sights here to easily keep a traveler happy for an additional day or two.

Ahhhhh, Big Bend. This isn’t a National Park anyone is just going to stumble upon. It’s remote, and big enough that it requires a full day just to travel from end to end to catch some of the popular sights. Our plan was to make the Chisos Basin campground (the highest at 5400′), our home for three nights, then move on for two nights to the Cottonwood Campground on the western end of the Park. But, we managed to grab a spectacular campsite at Chisos, and couldn’t bear to vacate, so we stayed for five nights. wp-1485118197936.jpgwp-1485118116433.jpgNo regrets at all about that choice.

Our first hike was to The Window, which combined a walk down through the bottom of the Basin with a gradual climb up a spectacular rocky canyon.wp-1485118178885.jpg Steps carved into the steep sides by the CCC in the 1930s made this a hike that anyone with even a moderate level of fitness could accomplish.wp-1485118160216.jpg The The Window at the end is the reward for your labors -a narrow keyhole which provides a grand view to the desolate valley below. wp-1485118149785.jpg We didn’t venture too close to the steep edge – the shiny patina on the rock was plenty of warning that footing was likely to be treacherous. We detoured on the way back to an overlook that provided not only spectacular views, but also a bit of unexpected cell service at a high peak. (There’s WiFi at the Visitor Centers, but no cell signal in the Park at all. In addition, we also couldn’t find any English-speaking radio stations – a blessing on inauguration day).This was a great hike – probably only 6-7 miles total, but packed with grandiose views.

We decided to haul out the bikes for the next day and do a Crankshaw Triathlon – truck, bike, hike.We drove down the steep switchbacked road from camp to a spot near Grapevine Road, a 7-mile gravel washboard, which would deposit us at the trailhead to Balanced Rock. The panniers on my bike were bulging with our hiking boots, extra water, lunch, and snacks. The ride to the trailhead was a nightmare! Grapevine Road runs downhill for these seven miles, and the bright sunlight on the white gravel made it impossible to see (and avoid) the worst of the ruts. Oh, it was a painful ride. When we arrived at the trailhead, I actually had to pry my fingers from their deathgrip on the bars. wp-1485118085914.jpg Lucky for us, we were again rewarded with a great short hike down a sandy wash through a boulder field. wp-1485118005132.jpg I love these Out West sights -there isn’t anything in my experience to compare them with. We scrambled up and around the giant boulders of Balanced Rock without interference by any other hikers. wp-1485118017417.jpgwp-1485118041496.jpg It’s such a treat to have a spot like this to yourself. As you might guess, the uphill ride back to the truck was tough. I had to stop three times, which really pissed me off! (once for a car, once for a gulp of water, and once from sheer exhaustion)

We knew bad weather was heading our way for Day 4. Winds of 25-40, gusting to 50mph were forecast, along with a 40% chance of rain. Sounds great, doesn’t it? We decided to stay close to camp – we took down our awning, rolled up our mat, and packed away all loose stuff. John actually bungeed our grill and stove to the picnic table, which was partially covered by a sun shade. We leashed Jezzy up, and hiked the half-mile up to the Chisos Basin Visitor Center, in order to check news, and update our library books, (we could not survive without digital books from the GR Public Library). Jezzy started to get a bit antsy, and we knew the storm was upon us – as we looked west, blue sky was replaced by an ugly yellow/gray smudge – dust kicked up by high winds. We were slammed all night. The Fireball held firm, but bounced back and forth as we were buffeted by big gusts. Rain came down in dirt blasts. It was the roughest we’ve experienced.

The next morning was clear, but still very breezy. It was our last day, and we were unwilling to sacrifice it to hanging around camp. So, we hiked to the Lost Mine (we never did figure out where the mine was supposed to be). We climbed steadily for about 2.5 miles, with a few great views of the Basin. Our campground is in the middle of this photo. wp-1485117911597.jpg At the top, a wide-open expanse across slickrock made the going a bit hairy – the thought of being blown off a 6700′ peak gives one pause.wp-1485117867984.jpgwp-1485117886775.jpg The thrill of an incredible view pushes us on. Rewards are ours.

That last evening, we joined up with our neighbor, an amateur astronomer with an incredible set of super-highpowered binoculars mounted on a very sturdy tripod. I actually saw the Andromeda Galaxy – a first for me. I can’t comprehend this vastness of space, but I love having the chance to cogitate on it all. Big Bend is a Dark Sky Park, and one of the least light-polluted areas of the US. There are thousands and thousands of stars you can see with your naked eye. I can’t begin to capture the fantastic sky with a cell phone camera.wp-1485117961911.jpg It is indescribable -my wish would be for everyone to get to experience this sometime.

I’ll quit here – this post has certainly dragged on long enough. Big Bend has cemented itself in our camping repertoire as a place we will happily visit every few years. Upon leaving, we were surprised to realize that we spent five days here, and never even saw the Rio Grande. How is that possible??