At the Meriwether Lewis Campground on the Natchez Trace, RVing neighbors came over to ask about our Roadtrek, where we had been, and where we were going. They invited us to see their new motor coach, share some wine and hors d’oeuvres, and continue the conversation.
They described themselves as “destination RVers.” That is, they pick a place to visit and return home. Pick another place. Rinse and repeat. It is like flying on Delta. No matter where you are going, you are going to get there from Atlanta. They are perfectly entitled to travel that way.
We do not.
Last month this column was about how Shirley and I choose routes that are not straight lines out and back but loops with many planned detours and stops along the way. That’s why it takes five or six weeks to reach our ultimate winter destination, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Arizona. The plan is to pause for several days to a week at Fort Pickens near Pensacola, Padre Island near Corpus Christi, Big Bend National Park, Cave Creek Canyon, Whitewater Draw, and Tucson, before we finally arrive at Organ Pipe.
On the way home, our objective is to visit different places than we did going. That can get a little complicated because of spring break. That was traditionally the week after Easter, but today school districts and colleges may schedule their break anytime in March or April. The result is that college kids and families fill up campgrounds that would otherwise have numerous vacancies. (More about that shortly.) What with Covid, there is no telling when spring break will come in 2021. Or if there will even be such a thing. Besides, if you are a student doing remote learning, you have undoubtedly figured out that you can do it from a beach or campground regardless of what the academic schedule says.
When we leave Organ Pipe in the middle of March, our first stop is likely to be at Painted Rocks just west of Gila Bend, AZ. The campground, operated by the Bureau of Land Management, is the site of ancient Indian petroglyphs. Though called “painted,” the images are actually etched into the stone. There are petroglyph sites all over the Southwest. There are also pictograph sites that actually are painted rocks. But leave us not become too pedantic.
From Painted Rocks it is a short drive up to Phoenix where our friends Joan and Doug have lived since they finished school. Joan insists on an extended visit. I remind Joan of my grandmother’s observation: fish and guests stink in three days. Even so, Joan and Doug feel obligated to find ways to keep us entertained. This in spite of our insistence that the only entertainment we require is their company and a chance to gossip about classmates and brag about grandchildren.
When we start to smell like fish, we’ll head over to see Sandy and Bill for two or three days. Same rules apply.
Technically, at this point we have been on our way home for more than a week but haven’t gotten very far. The next possible stop is also not very far. Roosevelt Lake is just over the Apache Pass, east of Phoenix. Or, perhaps, we will return to an old favorite, Las Cienegas National Conservation Area just east of Tucson. Las Cienegas is 45,000 acres of rolling grasslands and mesquite with the Santa Rita Mountains on the horizon. There is no campground, but there are a few campers. We like it there because unlike Roosevelt Lake, there are so very few campers. Boondocking, or camping without a campground, is available to people with self-contained RVs at most BLM sites and in many national forests. There are no services of any kind, but there is glorious solitude for people who enjoy that sort of thing. Nearest neighbor may be a quarter mile away. Or more. Unless you count the pronghorns and cattle. This is open range, so curious cows wander through on occasion just to see what we are up to. Perhaps they are attracted by the smell of a ribeye searing in a cast-iron skillet.
East of there is Chiricahua National Monument. It is named for the Apache Indian band led by Cochise that eluded the US Cavalry for years by hiding in the Dragoon Mountains. From way up there, Apache scouts could see approaching riders from a great distance and had plenty of time to take refuge in the maze of narrow canyons. “Way up there” is why Chiricahua is an iffy proposition in late winter. It may very well snow, and the steep grades make travel hazardous. We were advised to leave one year or risk getting stranded up there indefinitely.
At Las Cruces, NM is the exit towards Alamogordo and White Sands National Park. It is 275 square miles of pure white dunes created by the fine gypsum powder carried on the wind from the mountains to the west. The sand looks like snow and is treated like snow by visitors who bring snow boards and toboggans. You can rent a plastic snow disc at the visitor center if you came unprepared. This is also where Shirley made friends with Samson the camel who had a velvety smooth nose. And though he was as stubborn as camels are expected to be, Samson didn’t spit on her even once. But, then, who would? Before it was a park, White Sands was more famous as a missile range and the Trinity Site where the first A-bomb was tested in 1945. The road through the park is still occasionally closed during missile testing of the non-nuclear kind.
A little east and then south is Carlsbad Caverns, right on the Texas state line. There was a time when Shirley was inclined to feel a little claustrophobic in caves. At Carlsbad, though, claustrophobia is impossible unless a domed football stadium is still not spacious enough for you. We descend 750 feet on the 1.5-mile, steep switchback trail at the Natural Entrance to the aptly named Big Room. Will Rogers described it as “The Grand Canyon with a roof over it.” The trail through the Room is another 1.5 miles. With a tour book you can easily manage a self-guided loop past amazing formations such as stalagmites and stalactites (the “mites” come up, the “tites” come down), stone tubes called soda straws, wavy rock draperies, totem poles, and a few eerie cave pools. We take the elevator back to the surface because, at that point, we are the equivalent of about 75 stories down and too pooped to climb all that way back up.
Just across the state line is Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The first three times we visited there we had no trouble getting a camp site. After all, have you ever heard of Guadalupe Mountains? When we arrived in 2017, though, there were ranger cars with flashers blocking the entrance. That spring break issue I told you about? A ranger with clipboard explained that college kids down at Padre Island had bragged about the park to their friends, so hundreds of them had to come check it out. Unless you had reserved a camp site and/or a permit to use the park trails, you weren’t getting in. The camp host said he would see if there was a site left. His wife responded by radio that there was one short space that we might squeeze into. Turned out to be a handicap space. Though he objected, she pointed out it had never been occupied in all the time they had hosted there. If someone showed up with a hang tag, she would find us an “overflow” space a few miles up the road. Nobody with a tag showed up.
The route we take from the far western tip of Texas is determined by the weather and the continuing implications of spring break. I-20 is the most direct route, but that requires contending with traffic in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. There are several Corps of Engineers campgrounds in the area (typically quite good), but the local population is aware of that—even more so when families are on break. So, we are more inclined to take I-10 with stops at state parks. Pending availability, of course. In 2019 Shirley got us the very last site at South Llano River SP.
Another pleasant stop is at Fredericksburg, near Austin, founded by German immigrants in 1846. Local restaurants offer interesting options of traditional Texas and German cuisines. Think brisket or a sampler plate of sausages with cabbage and beets. We share the sampler because only real Texans could eat the whole thing. The main street is lined by shops that sell fancy Lucchese boots, $400 Stetson hats, and hand-tooled saddles. Tourists are welcome to come in and admire the merchandise even though only real Texas cattle barons can afford any of it. Fredericksburg has a Walmart where the merchandise is usually less expensive. More importantly, RVers are welcome to overnight, so we don’t worry about campground availability.
Once upon a time, we paused at Fort Pickens near Pensacola on the way west and returned there on the way east. But you already know that spring break put the brakes on that. And it is not just the kids. In recent years, more Boomer retirees have discovered the advantages of RVing. Once upon a time, and this is no fairy tale, we just pulled in and registered for a site in the highly desirable Loop A. These days, you’re not getting into anything A through F unless you have a reservation.
So, instead, we will turn left at Baton Rouge and head up to Natchez, Mississippi. There is a nice national forest campground east of Natchez and a state park just a few miles to the north. Odds are better in the national forest—unless turkey hunting season has just opened and the place fills up with bearded guys in camouflage. If space is available, we look forward to seeing Miss Virginia again. It just occurred to me that we have accumulated quite a list of people we look forward to seeing again as we travel the country. Most of them are camp hosts at places we visit repeatedly.
But back to the attractions at Natchez. In 1850, half the millionaires in the US lived in Natchez where wealthy people tended to have opulent, show-offy plantation homes. Today, many of those homes are open for tours during the Spring and Fall Pilgrimages. (Think of the Old West End Festival on steroids.) We particularly recommend Longwood, Rosalie, Stanton Hall, and Dunleith. Melrose is operated by the National Park Service near Mile 0 of the Natchez Trace. Docents in period costumes have fascinating stories to tell about life in the Antebellum South. What you probably don’t know is that many of the super-rich “Southern” plantation owners were actually Yankees who returned north or went to Europe during the hot, muggy Mississippi summers.
From Natchez, the route north is via the 444 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway. The Trace resembles the Blue Ridge Parkway in that it is a long, narrow national park that is closed to commercial traffic. Perfect for geezers who are in no particular hurry. There are dozens of places to visit along the way ranging from ancient Indian burial and ceremonial mounds to the boyhood home of Elvis.
The Trace was originally an Indian trail, and then, from about 1800, it was the route taken home by flat boaters who floated downstream with goods from the Ohio and Upper Mississippi Valleys. They disassembled their boats, sold the lumber, and walked north to Nashville and the connecting highways. (You could not paddle a flat boat back against the current.) Young Abraham Lincoln was introduced to the ravages of plantation slavery as one of those flat boaters. The Trace became obsolete with the arrival of steamboats and railroads.
The distance from the terminus of the Trace to Toledo can be driven in one day. But there are even more potential stops along the way. How much we do is heavily influenced by the weather. You have probably heard that it sometimes rains in the spring. An advantage of RVing is that you can use rainy days as travel days.
Like those “destination travelers” I mentioned earlier, many people just want to get where they are going. Weeks at a time on the road sounds more like torture than recreation, but for Shirley and me the trip itself is just a walk in the park.
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.