A Walk in the Park: The Sunbelt Tour - Part 1

Written by LeMoyne Mercer. Posted in Taking Care of Your Life

One of the most frequent questions we get is, “How long does it take to get to…?” Reasonable people want to know what they are facing before they commit to it. In recent years, we have spent the winters in Arizona, mostly at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument right smack on the Mexican border. So, how long does it take to get to Organ Pipe? The most direct route is 2,037 miles. But that is right through Blizzard Central. Driving time would be about four days if there were no snow in the prairie or ice in the mountains.

For many people, the thought of four days on the road is daunting even without the snow and ice. Otherwise mature adults can regress to their days as kids in the back seat constantly repeating the immortal question. So, if four days seems like too much to swallow, how would you react to the idea that it takes us about five or six weeks? But it takes that long only because Shirley and I avoid the most direct route by going due south to reach better weather as quickly as possible. Then we hit the pause button several times along the way. For us, the journey itself is the destination. You may think of 2,000 miles as a long, long trip, but we think of it as a series of connected mini-vacations.

Where and how you travel is a reflection of personal preferences. We like wildlife. Some get nervous just thinking about bears and snakes and gators. Oh, and spiders. We like historic sites that might bore you out of your mind. We seek quiet seclusion way back in the mountains, but you might be more comfortable socializing with 87 of your closest friends. We like fly fishing, but you might prefer your trout sautéed with lemon-butter sauce rather than wriggling in your hand. We like sleeping in our own RV bed, but you might prefer to have housekeeping turn down the coverlet and leave a chocolate on your pillow. And even if you personally would like to take a shot at doing it our way, you may be married to someone who is much more reluctant. We have talked about our travels with more than one couple in which the conversation ended with happy anticipation on one face and rolling eyes on the other.

When our children and grandchildren leave after Christmas, we are heading for five days at Fort Pickens in Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola. Shirley made reservations back in August hoping that we wouldn’t be locked down again this winter. Or, even worse for the folks down there, the hurricane season will shut things down. The campground normally fills between the holidays, so reservations are necessary even though we would prefer not to restrict our flexibility that way.

The attractions at Fort Pickens are the powder-sugar beach and the historic fort that guarded the entrance to Pensacola Bay from 1834 through WWII. Each morning, reveille echoes across the bay from the naval air station, and soon thereafter jets head out over the Gulf on training missions. The Blue Angels are stationed at Pensacola when not on tour. Five days at Fort Pickens is just long enough to decompress and adjust to much more pleasant weather. Actually, adjusting takes closer to five minutes than five days.

Next stop is Beaumont, TX just for the night. By the time we reach Houston the following morning, rush hour should be over and we can continue down the Gulf Coast to Corpus Christi and across the long bridge to Padre Island. Twice in the last few years we have arrived just when rangers and volunteers were releasing rescued Ridley’s sea turtles back into the surf. In 2019, when Malaquite Campground was closed during the government shutdown, we parked right on the hard-packed sand beach. This time we’ll probably stay a week or so before heading on west through San Antonio. In 2016, instead of that route, we went down from Corpus Christi to tour the King Ranch (about the size of New England) and then followed the Rio Grande up to Langtry to visit Judge Roy Bean’s saloon/courtroom. Bean was the self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos.” You may recall Walter Brennan’s portrayal in The Westerner starring Gary Cooper.

In 2021 we are planning on the Fort Stockton Walmart where RVers are welcome to overnight. Walmart Supercenters have security cameras for our peace of mind, and we restock our pantry in appreciation for the hospitality. We resisted the Walmart option for years even though several hundred RVers had tried to convince us it was safe, convenient, and free.

About 150 miles south of Ft. Stockton is Big Bend National Park. It takes its name from the long curve in the Rio Grande that gives Texas its distinctive shape. We may stay several days to a week. There are great hikes and wildlife ranging from roadrunners to javelinas. We are especially fond of walks out to the Window, back into Santa Elena Canyon, and up a bluff overlooking the river just before sunset. The Lost Mine Trail was a disappointment. It’s a long, steep climb, and we never did find the mine.

From the Bend, it is on to El Paso where our goal is to get through town before the evening rush hour. At exit 11 on I-10 is a Cracker Barrel where RVers are also welcome to park overnight. We say thanks by having supper and/or breakfast. If you are nervous about the COVID, they will bring your meal out to the RV. Cracker Barrels have smaller parking lots and, therefore, tend to be quieter than Walmarts. You may have noticed the designated RV parking spaces behind the restaurants.

Then it is Rt. 9 due west across southern New Mexico to Rodeo and south to Cave Creek Canyon near Portal, AZ on the state line. The narrow canyon has impressive sheer cliffs and tall rock spires, but, at 5,000 ft. elevation, January nights can dip into the 20s. The RV furnace is appreciated. Also appreciated is Jane, the personable camp host who, before she retired, lived in Bowling Green, Sylvania, Delaware, and Cleveland. Now she just chases the sun and scenery as a volunteer camp host. The high canyon walls block the early morning sun, so it can stay quite cool until after 9:00. Shirley will perk a second pot of coffee as consolation. How long we stay will be determined by the weather. Narrow desert canyons with streams running through are prone to flash flooding, so attention must be paid.

The next stop is Whitewater Draw to see overwintering flocks of waterfowl: 30,000 or so sandhill cranes plus snow geese, various ducks, song birds, and the occasional harrier hawk. Officially, we are not “birders.” Unofficially, 30,000 of any kind of animal is rather impressive. In mid-afternoon the cranes begin arriving in flocks of a dozen or so at the small, shallow lake where they spend the night out of the reach of predators. In the morning, though, it is as if the work whistle blew and they all jump up to leave at the same time to feed in neighboring corn fields. (Yes, corn in Arizona.) The really big show is at dawn. We might stay two nights.

On through Tombstone to Tucson where Saguaro National Park has two units east and west of town. Neither unit has a campground, so we stay two or three nights at Gilbert Ray CG in Tucson Mountain County Park. It is just over Gates Pass from the city, but the intervening mountain ridge makes it feel secluded. Very close to Gilbert Ray is Old Tucson Studios, a set for movie and TV Westerns. They stage gunfight shows and movie stunt demonstrations as well as performances by Can-Can dancers. (As in Tombstone, we don’t visit such places, but huge numbers of tourists seem to enjoy them.)

If you are interested in the real old Tucson, take a walking tour of the Presidio district where the city originated in 1775. In addition to both units of Saguaro NP, we recommend the Desert Museum, which has all kinds of exhibits with a special focus on wildlife in natural habitats. There are large enclosures to give the animals plenty of room to roam behind natural-looking stone walls and moats. We always visit the spectacular San Xavier del Bac Spanish mission on the nearby Tohono O’odham Indian reservation. After Mass, we’ll have some Indian fry bread fried by real Indians—not the Old Tucson pretend kind. We share a savory red chili Indian taco and the sweet honey-cinnamon version before shopping at the reservation co-op farm store.

About 150 miles west is our ultimate destination. Organ Pipe is in the Sonoran Desert—the green desert—where the columnar cactus reaches the northern-most extent of its range. There is an amazing diversity of plant and animal life that totally destroys preconceived notions about dull, brown, boring desert environments. Organ Pipe is simply gorgeous when various cacti and desert wildflowers are in bloom. Wildlife ranges from coyotes to good ol’ Bob the resident bobcat and birds such as Gambel’s quail, phainopeplas, cactus wrens, Gila woodpeckers, and Harris’s hawks that hunt in packs like wolves. Sunrises and sets in the Arizona desert are simply phenomenal.

Sometimes, though, even Organ Pipe is not quite far enough. Twice we have continued on up to Lake Havasu City to see London Bridge (Really. It was disassembled in London and reassembled there). Then to Hoover Dam and Lake Mead near Las Vegas for a couple days before reaching Death Valley.

On the first trip we toured Scotty’s Castle, the opulent winter vacation home of Albert and Bessie Johnson. Walter Scott, known as Death Valley Scotty, was an eccentric miner full of tall tales (i.e., he was a con man) who befriended the Johnsons. In their absence, he claimed that he had built the Castle with the proceeds of his secret gold mine. In Oct. 2015, it was nearly destroyed in a flash flood of biblical proportions—i.e., about an inch and a half of rain. The Castle was scheduled to be restored by 2021, but that estimate was pre-COVID.

The good news is that the rain and flash flood that caused so much damage also brought on a rare and spectacular Super Bloom of desert wildflowers a couple months later. Thousands of acres of unexpected flowers in Death Valley is a particularly stunning and memorable sight. We spent four days there and returned to Organ Pipe via Joshua Tree National Park because, as you understand by now, we try to return by a different route in order to maximize the experience.

After a month or six weeks at Organ Pipe, it will be time to think about heading home. Next month I’ll tell you how we make the long road home just another walk in the park by finding still more places to pause on the return trip.

LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site.