Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Topsail To Tucson

Valentine’s Day put us "on the road again" and headed 240 miles west to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. We left Topsail with bittersweet feelings and took the scenic route 98 to Pensacola before hopping on I-10 for what would be a twelve-day trek ultimately to Tucson, Arizona. The drive through FL, AL, and MS was generally uneventful aside from crossing the Mississippi River.

Our second day sent us over an enormous swamp which was possible because there was an incredibly long bridge traversing it (something like 40 miles). We spent two nights at a campground in Westlake, Louisiana after first stopping at the local grocery store: Market Basket. This was a challenging shop; we found some organic mixed greens, oranges, and a $5.69 half gallon of organic milk. Lily got to wear shorts for the first time in her life and we put out the awning and our chairs to soak in the beautiful evening sun.

Thursday was a windy drive into Texas. I was driving when we passed through Houston (A.K.A Huge-ston) and we saw a number of chemical plants in Eastern Texas along with much ranch land. A quick one-night stay in Columbus, TX was plenty for us. We stopped at the H-E-B grocery store, another slim-pickins experience for us as we try to support local and organic produce and products. This was our tightest campsite ever; Chris actually didn’t believe the host when he pointed to where we should pull in (between two huge motor homes with about 5 feet on either side). However uncomfortable this campground felt, it was all made a little better by the sign Chris discovered in the laundry room:
SPIT anywhere,
this trashcan 

It was hung above said trashcan. The pool was empty and the neighborhood showed clear signs of economic stress.

We scooted out of Columbus nice and early and arrived in San Antonio ready for the three night stay we planned as a little respite from the road. This drive included more ranch land and many live oak trees. We often have a pick of many campgrounds when we research towns and San Antonio was no exception. We passed a couple on the way in that we were glad to not be staying at. The host at the campground we chose actually joked that when you check into some places, if you don’t have your own knife or gun, they issue you one. The big rodeo was going on so interestingly many people were camping in their RV/Horse trailers. We learned there was a Whole Foods nearby and ventured there one afternoon and spent the evening doing a big food shop. Saturday we took the public bus into the city (about a 15 minute ride) and strolled along the Riverwalk. It’s a loop off of the main river, below street level, that has shops and restaurants all along it and boat tours through it. The drizzly morning burned off to a beautiful afternoon. We were glad we decided on the sling rather than the stroller as the Riverwalk is not easily accessible at all. I have a new appreciation for good wheelchair access design and really feel for people who have to weave around places just to get up or down somewhere. We ate at a place called Café Ole and enjoyed some live mariachi music…paid for by other customers as the schpiel went like this: “Hello folks, would you like a song? (sure!) Ok, something traditional? romantic? funny?  (romantic!) Great! Sir there’s a $10 fee for the song is that ok? (uh, sure.)” Chris learned from the table prior to ours and so declined the song altogether. I learned that if I want Mexican food, we need to search out an authentic place rather than settle for yellow cheddar, canned beans, and rice from a box. After lunch, we headed over to see the Alamo and learned some Texas history. You could never learn it all in just one visit so we felt encouraged to learn more about the places we’d visit before we actually go to them.
Riverwalk...Lily woke up for the photo op
The Alamo
I have to admit, I was nervous leaving San Antonio and heading further west. El Paso does not have a good reputation being so close to the most violent city in the world (Juarez) and western Texas is very rural with minimal services on I-10. We planned gas stops and made use of the state rest areas which turned out to be quite nice. This drive was amazing because it moved us into the “hill country”. Mesa views, oil rigs, wind farms, miles-long ranches and desert scrub bushes made this a vastly different terrain. I gazed with awe at places where humans had flattened and cut through mountains to make the road bed more passable. The striated rock layers were beautiful and the mountain slices are truly works of art (these feelings conflict with those of distaste for the busting up of beautiful hills of course). We passed through Segovia (not much there but a truck stop) and stopped in Ozona where we found our first empty gas station (luckily there was another around the corner). The highway is dotted with exits to places literally 20 miles away with nothing in between and we had very few comrades on the road this day. Fort Stockton was our 315 mile goal and aside from overshooting our exit (bad Google directions) that was a fun stay. 

We ate dinner outside for the first time and met some really nice campers who came from where we were going and calmed our fears. 

One night’s rest had us back on the road for another long day of 285 miles to Las Cruces, New Mexico. Mountains! Beautiful views as we followed I-10 along the border with Mexico. This trip introduced me to what a border patrol inspection station and border wall look like. The desert grows a beautiful soft yellow grass that covers large swaths and tumbleweeds line fences where they get caught. We approached El Paso eventually and noticed a smog cloud over the city. In some ways it is like any other city I’ve seen but bars over windows and Mexican slums just on the other side of the highway made it a new sight for me. As Chris drove, I struggled to read the huge white lettering inscribed on a mountain overlooking Juarez and El Paso : “CD Juarez, La Biblia es la verdad. Leela.” I being a non-spanish speaker looked this up and found “City of Juarez, The Bible is the truth. Read it.” 
internet pic of the inscription...I was busy trying to read it as we passed.
Just outside of El Paso were  a whole bunch of dairy farms right on the highway. We were reminded of why we support local, organic, grass-fed practices whenever possible. It is so important that we know where our food comes from.   

Arriving in Las Cruces was comforting especially given that it was a beautifully maintained campground with mountain views. Las Cruces is famous for its Old Mesilla section which was the stomping grounds of “Billy the Kid”. We enjoyed the city and its wider selection of services such as the Mountain View Food Co-Op. It is home to New Mexico State University as well. We decided to spend three nights here instead of two to give us a break and allow for a trip to see White Sands National Monument.

We rested for one day then spent our second day on a trip to the monument which is about an hour and a quarter north of Las Cruces and on the other side of the mountains I mentioned. The monument is a 275 square mile surface-level deposit of gypsum (commonly known for the product made of it: sheetrock). It is bright white and makes spectacular dunes. Having just been on the gulf coast, it seemed as though the ocean should have been right over the next ridge but there was no sound from the waves and no birds to be seen. Chris and I took turns comforting Lily in the car while the other sledded down the dunes in a saucer! Given more time we agreed it would be a really special place to wander and spend more time just soaking in the tranquility.
Lily getting good at sitting now

After one more night on the road spent in Lordsburg, New Mexico we were ready to be in Tucson…
Lordsburg is a town mainly because it has gas stations I think. The campground we stayed in had the tell-tale empty pool along with a manager who was as bewildered by our English as we were with his! The welcome pamphlet explained rules such as “Pools is open 3:00 pm to 8:00 pm” “Dump Porta-Potties in Dump Station Only” “Kamp fire with permission only” “If having slide out do not go near the tree.” “No Mechanical works and oil changing allowed” (we saw an employee with his truck up on lifts near the office). And the best laugh we got was from the description of the place. Among other points, “Mostly Shady Sites.” The only shade in this desert campground was cast by the RV’s parked in it, seriously. We wondered it he meant it as a pun because of the neighborhood.

We left around 6 am for Tucson mainly because of a forecast windstorm. We learned that the weather pattern tends to include building winds through the day. So we watched the sunrise in our rearview mirrors and were affirmed in our early departure by signs on I-10 that read, “Dust Storms May Exist Next 30 Miles…Use Extreme Caution…Do Not Stop in Travel Lanes…0% Visibility Possible”. A roadrunner actually crossed the road in front of us. We saw many Chihuahuan Ravens and a few different hawks or falcons hunting along the highway. The railway runs along the highway for much of I-10 so we witnessed trains transporting cargo including anywhere from 20 to 60 freight cars carrying lumber, cars, tankers of some kind, and hundreds of shipping crates. We made it the last 160 miles to Tucson in one piece and backed into our spot to stay for ten nights: a welcome rest from the expanses southern Texas through which we drove.


  1. HI, I read you blog on the trip to Tucson and found it very interesting. I’m from El Paso and found your account of the trip really interesting coming from someone not from the southwest. I’m glad you had a fun and safe trip. It is with regret that it seems you skipped El Paso altogether due to it not having a good reputation.
    I wanted to point out El Paso was named the safest large city in the United States last year and has been in the top three for the last 13 years I believe. El Paso was also named an “All-American” city in 2010 by the National Civic League. You skipped the 29th largest city in the US along with its unique blending of Mexican American culture. Juarez on the other hand is unsafe and few El Pasoans go to Juarez anymore but as long as you stay on the US side your definitely safe
    Best place for Mexican food by far. Several El Paso restaurants have been featured on the travel channel and food network. I can think of two at this moment, Cattleman’s steakhouse a few miles east of El Paso was named one of the top 100 places to eat before you die. It has a large complex with hay rides, petting zoo, pond, small museum, and a movie set where many Hollywood films have been filmed. The other is Kikis Mexican restaurant by downtown. The Double Tree hotel has a great view of downtown from its top floor, especially magnificent at night.
    Just a few outdoor things to do are the Scenic drive only a couple of minutes’ drive from I-10 takes you up a slow winding road to the small lookout area at the top of which you can see For miles. Both Juarez and El Paso are visible from the site. Its right under the El Paso star. If you traveled by day you probably missed it, It is the largest star of its kind and it is lite nightly, it is visible for 30 miles on the ground and 100 from the air!

  2. And close by is the larger Transmountain road with Franklin mountain state park, the largest urban park in the country! It’s all inside the city limits. When the yellow poppies are in bloom , cars stop by the entrance to Transmountain road and people are out taking pictures. The peak is over 7,000 ft above sea level with two parking areas on the road to enjoy the view, there are tables and all. Don’t forget the hiking trails.
    Another spot is Hueco Tanks (pronounced Waco Tanks). It is a large rock formation with Indian pyrogliphics that are thousands of years old and is also available for rock climbing. Hueco tanks named Americas best wintering climbing and bouldering area. No equipment necessary just hike right up. Camping is available at the site.
    Wyler Aerial Tramway is another site within the city limits. The tramway will take you up the mountain for a breathtaking view for only $7.
    Don’t forget about UTEP, The University of Texas at El Paso, which is a large and expanding university with one of the most unique and talked about architectural designs. It was inspired by the mountain kingdom of Bhutan. No other university comes close to its unique and beautiful architecture. Even the Dahli Lama has made a visit to the university. The universities basketball program and national championship in 1966 was recalled in the movie “Glory Road” only a few years ago. The movie went on to win an ESPY for best sports movie.
    IF you have kids a quick stop to the Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek was from El Paso) Planetarium is a must. A quick stop off I-10 by the airport with free admission.
    Just keep in mind El Paso is not a touristy city and therein lays its beauty. It’s not an expensive tourist trap rather a city build for the locals, all two million of them. The 29th largest city in America does have its share of jewels waiting to be found. I could go on and on such as a quick stop for drinks at the Dome Bar downtown named one of the top 12 bars in the world with the beautiful dome above the bar or a quick bite to eat at Cincinnati entertainment district filled with both professionals stopping for a quick drink or students from UTEP taking a much deserved break. I love traveling myself so I like places that are not touristy or expensive but real. Hope you get another chance to travel soon, I would enjoy reading your posts.
    R. Martin.