Border Crossing and Sandhills

It was difficult to muster up any enthusiasm for leaving our comfy spot at Pancho Villa State Park to move to a gravel parking lot with a pit toilet. The wind was howling! It was cold and generally pretty crappy. We were lured into staying another day by the idea of sneaking across the Border into Palomas MX for a look-see and lunch at the Pink Store, where we were assured the food was good, beer was cheap, and the mariachi band would play all afternoon.

John unloaded the bikes from the truck, and we set off on a brisk three mile ride to the Border. It doesn’t take long when a screaming north wind is at your back! We chained our bikes to a bench on the US side of the Border, and strolled across like we did it every day.20170130_192312.jpg Never got a look from anyone. The Pink Store is a half-block from the Border and can not be missed. Its PeptoBismol color stands out in a row of dental offices, eye surgery clinics, and pharmacies.wp-1485829527440.jpg Cross-border healthcare services is big business in these border towns.

Lunch was mediocre, and the acclaimed mariachi band was horrible! The three guitarists were OK, and the guy with the violin or fiddle tried hard, although he had a hard time keeping up. Hilarity ensued when the trumpeter blasted away. Omg – he was absolutely terrible!! If the rest of the band was playing in B-Flat, he was playing in D-Flat minor. We had a hard time not laughing. Perhaps that was their method from keeping the 100% senior citizen American crowd from hanging around. In our case, it worked.

We wandered around, checking out the sights.

A huge Pancho Villa Statuewp-1485829508744.jpg

Villa and Black Jack Pershing shaking hands before they became enemies.wp-1485829540191.jpg John tried to broker peace, but that apparently didn’t work.

A beautiful old Catholic Church.wp-1485829473829.jpg A bare playground at an elementary school jammed right up against the Border fence.wp-1485829494999.jpg

Lots of other interesting sights.wp-1485829558736.jpgwp-1485829449863.jpgIt was interesting – my first trip across the Border since a Cancun vacation 25 years ago. I swore at that time I’d never vacation in Mexico again. The Have/HaveNot gap is too large to be comfortable for me.

The next to day, we departed for Whitewater Draw under improved weather conditions. Whitewater Draw is a wildlife sanctuary in the extreme SE corner of Arizona. It’s the place where thousands of sandhill cranes winter. We visited in 2015, and have been eager to reprise this trip ever since. Here’s a link to our first visit. Check out the video for sure.

It could not have been more different. Alhough there were fewer cranes in 2015, the circumstances were far different. There was much more water in the Draw. The cranes stand in the water all night, probably as protection from predators (there are lots of coyotes around). This year, there was very little water, and the cranes were spread out over a huge area, not massed into one big clump as before. We watched them arrive at dusk (they fly out to feed all day long).

Groups of up to a few hundred flew in from all directions – the noise is amazing. If you look closely at the photos, the dark sections in the middle are cranes – thousands of them. wp-1485829880819.jpg In 2015, we were there in March. Better, longer light (warmer!), and the cranes weren’t spread over such a great distance.

We couldn’t wait until morning to see the Grand Departure, thinking it would be the same as 2015. Temps were in the 20s, as we huddled with our coffee on the observation deck at 5:30am. We could hear the kerfuffle of groups of dozens or hundreds of cranes arising from the water to fly out, but it was too dark to see them at all. But the sounds….! Incredible. I did get a few shots, and a few short video snips, but it was a completely different experience than 2015. By the time it was light enough to see, most of the birds had departed.

wp-1485829794132.jpgWe were disappointed. We hung out for two hours, until we were so frozen that it was painful to shuffle back to the Fireball, parked in our little corner of the parking lot, where we had slept for the night.wp-1485829920423.jpg We warmed up with more coffee, and headed to Tucson, our final stop before heading up to a mountain cabin for a month in Green Valley. Have to admit, even though we were disappointed this year, it’s a magnificent experience. And Whitewater Draw at dawn and dusk is gorgeous.wp-1485829911236.jpgAfter two quick nights in Tucson, tucked amid the saguaros at Gilbert Ray campground,wp-1485833591322.jpgwe’ve moved on to a cabin we rented for a month in Madera Canyon, just south of Green Valley.  Jackpot!! It’s the most incredible location. We’ve got a huge wraparound deck, complete with swing and numerous bird feeders. Space to move – John can actually stand up straight without bumping his head on the ceiling. That’s a treat for him. Photos to follow next time as we get settled in.

Ahhhhh, life is pretty good. We are lucky, and we know it.

Cranes, Cliffs, and the CCC

The highlight of our week?  Hands down, this is it.    I didn’t shoot this video – it was taken by our neighbor, and emailed to me.   Hers was much better than mine!

In a full-out windstorm (blowing 25-40mph, gusting 45-55mph), we headed to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, hoping to see the thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes that winter there.  It was a spectacular success.

But, let’s back up a wee bit.  Facing a short travel day, we actually elected to take the long route to Whitewater Draw.  This would take us through Tombstone, AZ, home of the famous Boot Hill Cemetery, and also the location of the Shootout at the OK Corral.20150302_110440 This town has more kitschy western-y stuff going on than all the rest of Arizona put together.  Tombstone may have been the center of the Wild Wild West back in the 1880s.  To wander through the cemetery, it sure would reinforce that idea.  Many of the tombstones have a name, followed by the designation ‘murdered’, ‘hanged’, or ‘shot’.  20150302_110842My favorite is the grave marker of the famous Lester Moore.20150302_111308Howling wind made it uncomfortable to stay out too long, even though the temperatures were in the low 60s.  How windy was it?  Ask Jezzy.20150302_130908We sought shelter in Big Nose Kate’s Saloon.  BNK was the girlfriend of Doc Holliday, one of the infamous participants in the Shootout.  John was persuaded to step behind the bar and pretend to draw a beer for me.  “Put your hand on the tap, but DON’T PULL!”, were his instructions.20150302_123910Maybe you had to be there to appreciate this, but the funniest thing was the stagecoach which could be hired for a brief tour.  The driver, in full stagecoach regalia, was pointing out places of interest to his four passengers.  But, it was a recorded presentation.  That didn’t stop this driver from giving it his all – he was waving his arms, and giving a full theatrical presentation, as if he was performing at the Met.  His passengers were most likely oblivious to this, being sheltered inside the stagecoach.  As he passed by, John and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.  But, maybe you had to be there……20150302_123514The Courthouse Museum was our next stop, where we learned everything one could possibly want to know about the Shootout at the OK Corral, starring Sheriff Wyatt Earp, his two brothers, and Doc Holliday against the bad guys, who were all killed.  Wyatt Earp was the only one not wounded or killed that day.  As I said, Tombstone was a tough place to live in the 1880s!

We rolled into Whitewater Draw around 2:30, and established our spot in the ‘campground’.  This is actually a small circular parking lot, with a vault toilet in the center, and about six parking spaces surrounding it.  Other cars can pull in and park for a few hours, but this is the only overnight spot.  Our neighbors were from Switzerland – halfway through a two year tour of the US.  Nice folks!20150302_144058We knew this was a Sandhill paradise, as we follow the excellent blog of Ingrid, who describes herself as a ‘non-birder’, but who takes the most fabulous bird photos.  Check out her post by clicking the link above.

We quickly set up, turning the Fireball around, so that our door would be downwind.  If not, we would not have been able to open it from the inside – that’s how violent the wind was.  But, where are the Sandhills?  We saw ZERO CRANES!  Ah, we remembered that Ingrid mentioned that they depart at first light in the morning to feed in area fields, and return to the water at dusk.  The flock here is estimated at times to be nearly 30,000 birds, although we didn’t expect to see that many.

Around 5:30, we wandered down to the water, binoculars and cell phone cameras at the ready.  We quickly met our Swiss neighbors, and our California neighbors in the huge RV directly across the parking lot.  Soon, we could hear the racket of Sandhill Cranes, coming in for a landing.  20150302_17522620150302_182138They were in packs of 100-200, flying directly into the fierce south wind. Wave after wave landed, taking spots in the water, where they stay for the night.  There must have been 10,000-12,000.  We speculated that they stay in the water as protection from predators – there were lots of coyotes hanging around, and we dreaded hearing any confrontations.20150302_175226 Unfortunately, the very dark clouds and late hour of the day precluded any decent photos.  But, we (and our new neighbors) kept murmuring ohmygawd as another batch landed.  The noise was incredible!!  I downloaded an app for my phone to record sound, which I did.  It’s magnificent.  BUT, it doesn’t allow me to share the sound files.  So, if you see me sometime, ask to listen.  It’s a wonderful raucous symphony.

We set our alarm for 5:30 am to be sure to be out at first light.  It was in the 40s and raining.  But, we stuck it out, and were rewarded with liftoffs of several hundred Cranes every minute or so, heading out to feed.  It poured all morning, finally clearing up around noon.  Jezzy and I headed out to explore.  Check out these feet – would you want them in YOUR camper?20150303_103725We decided to stay one more night to see if we could get a better view, hoping that the dark clouds of the storm would have passed.  We were rewarded, in spades!  The Cranes were all huddled along the far shore when apparently a sprinkler went on in the massive field, causing the uprising that you see in the opening video.  It was unbelievable.  Thousands and thousands of Sandhills.  wpid-wp-1425749304050.jpegAgain at 5:30 the next day, we stood on the water’s edge.  Cranes flew away in huge numbers, with the entire 10K (or so) leaving within a space of 10 minutes.20150303_183511 We could see the in the dim light through our binoculars, but there wasn’t enough light for photos.  I will never forget this sight.

We have to move on.  Leaving Arizona in our rearview mirror, we head to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in New Mexico.  This area’s most famous inhabitant was probably Geronimo.20150304_13105020150304_161306It’s my day to drive.  Unfortunately (for John), this involved one of the most hair-raising 40 miles of road we hope to ever travel.  Twisty, turny, up and down… took us two hours to climb and descend into the Park area.  They sure didn’t build these cliff dwellings downtown!    Had to pry my sweaty, cramped hands off the steering wheel.  What we didn’t realize was that the ‘campground’ was (again) a parking lot with some walk-in tent sites.  There was only one other camper here, so we hogged an entire corner of the parking lot and set up camp.20150304_172403The Cliff Dwellings here are accessible on foot from a pathway about 1/2 mile from our campsite.  After spending a very chilly night (the temperature was 14), we set off to explore. 20150305_102603 The natural caves in this area had been inhabited over several thousand years, but were only built up inside the caves and inhabited for a very short period – perhaps as little as one generation.  The mystery of why the Puebloan people of the Mogollon era left this area is unresolved.  The site is spectacular, and we were fortunate to have a volunteer docent walk us through the area.20150305_110804 He explored lots of questions, persuading us to think about scenarios that may have affected the inhabitants.  Although this is a difficult area to reach, and one with limited facilities once you finally DO get there, it’s a worthwhile trip.  Here are several different views from the dwellings.20150305_10325520150305_10510920150305_10552720150305_10564420150305_11043420150305_11061020150305_110834 It’s interesting to note that the remnants of several thousand years of habitation in this area were destroyed by the building of the current road that leads to the cliff dwellings.  Knowingly.  Only in America….

Cold again at night.  Minus 14.  John is wishing that I would relax my prohibition on running the heater at night.  It’s only 35 inside the Fireball in the morning.  Fine, until our feet hit the floor!

The week is beginning to blur on me.  Our “3 Night Minimum Stay” policy is in the toilet after our first week.  We’ve had three locations of two nights each so far, and it’s getting worse.  We press on to Fort Davis State Park, in the middle of West Texas.  For those who haven’t visited this area, West Texas is the largest area of nothing one might ever hope not to visit.  Mile after mile of……nothing.  Our site is unremarkable enough, that (perhaps for the first time), we neglect to take even one photograph of our campsite.  The park is very clean, but very old.  Sites are small.  It’s packed!  Why does everyone DRIVE to the bathroom?  We’ve never been in a park with so much truck traffic!  omg!

This early Texas State Park has many CCC buildings and features.  We decide to explore the Trail that leads to a lookout over Fort Davis.  It’s an uneven, uphill trek.20150307_105914 At the peak is a stone lookout shelter, with a great 360 degree view.  There’s also an old CCC era stone water storage tank.20150307_132134 Instead of taking the 4.5 mile (long-way) return, we decide to hike out to the Fort Davis overlook.  What a smart decision that turned out to be!  The trail led through a lava field, with enormous black boulders squeezing a narrow trail.  After 3/4 mile, we came to the edge of a cliff, overlooking the historic Fort, a frontier post during the Indian Wars. 20150307_121905 From our high vantage point, we can see the entire complex, and learn one very interesting fact.  The officer’s quarters (red brick buildings in the lower right corner) were built pointing to magnetic north, while the enlisted men’s barracks (the foundations to the right of them) were lined up to true north.20150307_122056 We loved this big view.  The Fort was also briefly occupied by the Confederate Army, an was decommissioned shortly after that.

We’re trying to figure out how to push on to Texas Hill Country, where John wants to search for BBQ nirvana.  Brisket!  Bummer for us, we badly need to find a laundromat.  One of the pitfalls of having a tiny camper is the equally small amount of clothes we can pack.  We’re good for about a week between laundry stops.  Out here in West Texas, there are few towns large enough to support a laundromat, so we find ourselves camped for the night in Fort Stockton at the RV Park.  Yikes!  A couple hundred large rigs and us.  The RV three slots away has painted on the side, “Private Coach Not For Hire”.  We think we’re going to hand-letter a candy wrapper with this, and tape it to our door.  Ha!

Headed toward Austin for a couple of days.  We’re in the middle of an endless TX Spring Break.  There isn’t a State Park campsite available for the next two weeks (and we purchased a TX State Park pass for $70!)  We can get one night here, and one night there, but we’re exhausted with the effort of driving and moving.  Hope we can figure this out!