Day 8:  Journey’s End…for now!

Today I will arrive at my new home! I’m so excited that I have butterflies!!! Rocky senses the excitement as well. I notice an extra spring in his step. 

It takes a conscious effort to focus on being “where I am” I don’t want to be so focused on my destination  that I mentally skip past this phase of my journey. 

I see  the desert with new eyes today. What I thought was just dry, dull earth is really  golden grass. Low growing shrubs and the occasional ‘tree’ add depth to the terrain. Rugged mountains rise toward the cloudy sky, completing the portrait.

 

I spot a sign: Desert Tortoise terrain 13 miles. Shockingly, I veer off the highway with high hopes of spotting a tortoise in the wild. 

Ten miles pass without a sighting and I return to the highway. 

Oil pumps slide by on my right. A wind farm begins at the foot of the mountains ahead, stretching over its peak. This ‘farm’ is unlike any I’ve seen in my travels. In addition to the giant turbines, there are smaller turbines of varying sizes as if baby wind machines are growing beneath their parents. 

I’ve been transported into a new world! The desert has disappeared and I am surrounded by rolling hills and mountains clothed in green grass. Many of the slopes display blankets of purple and yellow flowers. I desperately search for a safe place to pull over for a picture, but without success. In this moment I realize that I’ve missed the lush green of grass and leafy trees.  

 Another diversion calls to me in the midst of the green mountains. It is the Cesar Chavez National Monument. He is known for his efforts to improve the lives of the farm workers and for his gentle spirit.  I enjoy this chance to learn a bit of history surrounding my new home.  

     

  

 The mountains are behind me and for a brief period the desert has returned.  It ends in a sudden starling appearance of lush green. This transformation of dry earth to an  oasis of greenery springs from the innovation of irrigation systems. Groves of citrus trees and vineyards slide past my windows, all supported by the wonder of irrigation systems. I exit the highway and continue through flat farmlands, trying not to be disappointed that the mountains have disappeared. 

I am only a half hour from “home” when they mountains return!   

      I have traveled through 8 states and 3 time zones, listened to 5 audiobooks, slept in 6 campsites and one motel, survived a creeper and now I am here! I couldn’t be more satisfied with my little mother-in-law apartment. And my landlords feel like long lost friends!  

 Thank you for journeying with me! 

Day 7: Nothing ventured Nothing gained 

“Gotta find my keys.” That’s my first thought as I wake. I slept soundly last night after being  lulled to sleep by a screeching child- a welcome change after lastnight’s  adventure, but before tucking into my sleeping bag I realized the keys were  missing. 

Keys in the ignition, freshly showered I look at my itinerary: Montezuma’s Castle, a place I visited my last trip here, is on 89, but I’d learned of The Red Rock Highway  on 179.  I opted for the unknown. 

The Red Rock Highway is breathtaking! 

  And it is not just a highway. About every 3/4 miles are parking areas with breath taking views and access to trails to hike into the towering formations of red rocks. You do need to stop at the Ranger’s station for a pass to park long enough to hike or bike (national park pass is accepted)

179 takes me into Oak Creek Village.   

 This is a bustling community with homes built into the mountain, restaraunts for every palate and what looks like a McDonald’s with teal  colored  arches? 

There are several jeeps with logos on the side panels and I wonder why so many people would choose this option over taking their own vehicle. Oak Creek is definitely a place to return too.  

   
Beyond the village I head toward Devils Bridge. I’ve programmed it into my GPS and I take in the magnificent views. 

Ahead the road turns to dirt littered with near Boulder size rocks–hence the jeeps. With no time to hike and my Chevy Aveo, Devil’s Bridge will wait for another day. Next destination: Mojave National Preserve. 

I take 89 back to I-17 and the views on this route do not disappoint. I am so near the Grand Canyon that I’m tempted to divert off my path yet again. But I want to save that visit for when my hubby is with me, so I steer past the exits that try to draw me into the canyon.  

    
 The desert that slides past me is dry. The only plant life are scattered patches of grass and parched shrubs. Miniature dust funnels appear randomly. There is no one behind me so I slow to try to film one of these miniature dust tornados…but I’m not sure how it will come out through Rocky’s window that is smeared with paw prints.

I’ve finally reached the Mojave Preserve and it is another beautiful desert terrain. 

  I pass a sign with flashing yellow lights warning me of desert tortoises crossing.  I hope I see a tortoise! 

To my left are the Kelso dunes.  

 Golden sand rising up to the sky. My GPS wants me to turn toward them. I look warily at the dirt road and then ahead at what appears to be some sort of structure. I choose the structure ahead. 

The structure is the Kelso Depot and Visitor Center. It’s only open Thursday through Sunday.  

  I see a sign that indicates campgrounds are 26 miles away. It’s a few minutes befor 5 and I decide not to chance the trip to a campground that I may or may not be able to check into. Instead I explore the Depot. There is an old post office building,  a ‘cage’ claiming the title of Kelso jail.  

  

 I can’t imagine being confined to this jail, baking in the desert sun all day and then shivering in the cold at night.  

 it’s nearing 6 pm and I make the decision to stay in a motel in Barstow  tonight. 

I call the Days Inn- the picture and ratings look good. But when I arrive it is not what I saw in the pictures. I hesitate, but I’m tired and don’t want to keep looking. I drive around to where my room is, but I don’t even go in. I drive back the front desk and tell them I am not staying. I’d feel safer back in my tent at Collosal Cave with the creeper! 

Six miles up the interstate I discover a Comfort Inn Suites. This is my home for the night. 

  I soak in the hot tub, then Rocky  gets a bath too.  He’s actually happy about it and races around the room after he’s dried off. 

It’s nice to be sleeping on a bed, but part of me misses the sounds of night time. 

Day 5: There and Back

 I am awake. And I’m excited, not just because of the amazing sunrise or the way the sun sets the mountains behind me on fire! 

    
 I am excited because today,  for the first time, I know where I am going. Years ago I visited Collosal Cave Mountain Park and fell in love with the surrounding desert, so when I realized that I could make this one of my stops I was ecstatic. I am ready to go back! But I’m also working on embracing the here and now, so before I hit the road, Rocky and I set out to explore one of the trails at Rock Hound State Park. 

On our journey, I spot a cottontail. He freezes on the path, waits for us to get closer than hops a little farther down the path. I can’t help wondering if I’m following Peter Cottontail down his bunny trail or if I’m Alice being led to wonderland!   

 At the end of my walk, I notice this sign. And I think: if this was the end of the road for me, it’s a good place to be.  

 On my way back to the interstate I discover a Walmart!!  Yay! So happy to stock up on real food.

In the parking lot I meet, Tim.  He strides over to my car with his white cowboy hat, black vest, faded jeans and cowboy boots wearing a smile beneath his oh-so-western mustache and a sparkle in his blue eyes and says, “Maine, now you’re a long way from home.” 

I spent the next half hour learning bout Tim: retired after thirty years in the military, Forester, engineer and now Pecan Farmer.  He tips me off to breakfast at Si Senorita and I have my first Mexican breakfast…Yum!!   

 Per my usually ADHD while driving,  I wander off the interstate in search of another historical Fort. This time I find it!  Rocky and I head down the 1.5 mile trail to the fort. He really isn’t up to the task and I find myself carrying him most of the way. 

  

  

  

After about a mile I am stopped by two border control officers. They want me to know that they are after an illegal who is here in the woods. He’s wearing a red hoodie. I hesitate for a moment, then decide to finish my hike. 

I meet a few people, but no red hoodies. And here’s where I’ll probably irritate a few people. When I think of illegal immigrants, I don’t want them crossing the border illegally…but then I think of the person and I wonder what they are running from that would drive them over the mountains and into this desert.  It’s easy to feel strongly about a concept, but more difficult to apply that to a living, breathing person. 

 I considered another tale about finding the illegal hidden away in my car….

I arrive at Collosal Cave and it’s everything I remember. 

    
   
Camping is only $5 and there are only two other people in the section of the campground I’m. I pick a site way in the back so that I can have privacy for the first time this week!  

 The one strange thing… The gate to the campground is locked at 5 and opened at 7:30 am. There is no cell reception, but if need to, I can run a 1/4 mile to the 911 phone that rings automatically to the sheriff.  

Filled with plans for morning and thankful that it’s not dropping below 60 tonight, I settle in to sleep.  

   

Day 4: Deserts and Desserts

I unzip my tent and shiver in the cool air.According to my phone it’s only 34 degrees.  For a moment I consider crawling back into my sleeping bag to wait for the sun to rewarm the earth. And then I glimpse the colors on the eastern horizon.   

 I’m ten miles away from I-10 and even  though the posted speed limit is 70 on this “back” road, I have it to myself so I take my time. I think the desert creatures have come out to see me on my way. Hawks perch in the branches of trees along the road.  

 They wait patiently for me to snap my shot before flying off. A beautiful buck grazes on the dry grass a little farther up.  

 And then a roadrunner dashes into the brush. Vultures line up like sentinels on the fence posts. On the ground before them is what looks to be a wild pig. Flowers add splashes of color along the roadside and mountains stretch toward the sky creating the perfect backdrop.  

 I discover a white chapel- a historical landmark.  

 An hour later I finally merge onto I-10. 

The needle of my gas gage is hovering at 1/2 a tank when I spot a lonely gas station at the top of the hill.  

 If there’s one thing I learned yesterday, it’s that gas stations are few and far between on this stretch of highway. 

Not long after I fill up, I spot a scenic overlook. Rocky and I run to the top of the hill. It feels good to stretch my legs and get my heart racing!  

   
My next stop is The Cattleman’s Ranch Steakhouse at Indian Cliffs. 

 The surrounding landscape has been used to film a few movies.  Not only is the food amazing, but Rocky is allowed to join me! This is the first sit-down-inside meal since I started this trip, so I treat myself to cheesecake! The only thing that would make it better is hubby by my side. He would love this place! 

 More and more vehicles crowd around me as I near El Paso, Texas. But thankfully not enough to slow my pace.  

Stretched across the road ahead of me is a yellow sign with red letters. I have entered New Mexico, The Land of Enchantment.  

    
 I made it! I’ve reached Rockhoud State Park and it is beautiful. Rocky and I take advantage of the sunlight and hike one of the trails. I love these desert plants: Prickly pear cactus, yellow, purple, orange, white desert flowers, mesquite, beargrass, yucca. Some of the cactus  look like they’ve been eaten and I keep my eyes peeled for wild boar or pigs (and I’m in the lookout for rattlers)!But all I see are quails, glimpses of squirrels and cottontails, and various desert  birds.  

    
   
The sunset does not disappoint. It’s been another full day! 

  

Day 3: The problem with boredom 

I would make the absolute worst long distance truck driver on the planet!  You see, I don’t seem to last more than 2 hours before I need to get out of the car, if only for a minute. And it was this propensity to boredom that led to the story that follows. 

  After San Antonio, Texas I-10 is an never ending stretch of high desert landscape scattered with prickly pear cactus,  colorful flowers, shrubs and low growing trees. Mesas rise up toward the endless blue sky, providing an array of tabletops for the gods. It really is beautiful country.  On occasion, herds of cows graze on the dry grasses. A wind farm stretches across a row of mesas. Oil pumps bob slowly up and down. And I love it! Its exciting and breathtakingly beautiful.   

 But after oh, 300 or so miles I begin to crave a change of scenery, even if only for a moment. So when I spot a sign for an historical fort, I flip my blinker on and off I go. 

My car winds along the deserted road as I search for another sign. Miles clicked by. Rocky gives up on the adventure and curls up in his seat, sound asleep. 

 Still, there is no sign of the fort.  I spot a section on the side of the road large enough for me to pull into. With the car in park, I take out my phone to google the fort. Rocky doesn’t even lift his head. 

My door flies open. Strong hands grasp my shoulder and rip me from my seat. 

I kick and twist. I can’t break free. 

Behind me I here a sound. A howling canine screech. I glimpse a flash of brown and black fur fly past me. 

The iron grip releases and I leap away.  

 My attacker screams. His arms flail trying to free himself from the Yorkshire terrier attached to his neck.  Rocky’s jaw is clamped shut, his body swings outward as the man spins. His hands close around Rocky. He rips the dog from his neck and flings him out into the road. The  little body sails through the air and lands with a sickening thump. 

Blood pumps from the gaping hole  man’s neck and my hands reach to apply pressure.  But the instinct to survive overtakes my training as a nurse and I step back. 

I watch him fall. I watch his blood seep into the dry thirsty earth. My eyes never leave him as I go and scoop up Rocky. He barks and a piece of flesh falls from his mouth. I let out the long breath that I hadn’t realized I was holding as I cradle my pup and climb into my car.

The light fades from the man’s eyes. I press a 9 and a 1 on my phone and then stop.

 The police will take hours. 

I have a campsite waiting for me. 

I turn the key and the engine comes alive.  As I drive back down the lonely winding road,  a shadow crosses my path. And then another. I look up. The vultures are circling. 

Just kidding. 

That was true right up until the man. 

But I’m on my third murder mystery by Nevada Barr set in National parks and maybe my inagination got away from me!  

Here’s a few photos from my real day which included, barbecue for breakfast, cactus love from Texas on a nature walk at a rest area, a giant roadrunner and a perfect end to my day watching the sun set from my campground. I sure do love Texas! 

     
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Day 2: Into the night…

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” J. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings 

The soft patter of rain on my tent is soothing, so much so that I tap the snooze button on my phone and nestle a little deeper beneath the covers. But after a moment my eyes open and I toss the covers off.  California isn’t coming to me, after all. 

Rocky springs up, brown eyes bright with anticipation as he looks up at me wondering what we are doing next–excited about whatever it is. 

 Getting up was a good thing.  No sooner had I repacked my car when the soft drizzle transitioned into steady rain. By the time we reached the road it had escalated to a downpour.   
 Mississippi ushered me on my way with lights and sirens of the thunder and lightening variety.

I wish I could safely  pullover to snap a picture of this bridge that is transporting me into Lousiana! It isn’t so much the bridge, but the lush green trees rushing by beneath me. You see, Louisiana is one big mysteriously magical beautiful swamp.  

   
And I have to spend a little time exploring it! 

Moments later a visitors center sign beckons to me and I pull off the interstate. A charming white house  surrounded by green grass and flowers laid claim to the title of ‘Visitor’s Center’. Standing just as proudly, but in startling contrast across the road is the Swamp Shack gift shop.  

   
I spend some time chatting with the owner of the Swamp Shack, a friendly woman with a bounty of southern charm. She proudly shares with me that very soon I will be traveling  across an 18 mile bridge that will carry me across the largest swamp in the US. And she tried very hard to get me to buy an alligator head or claw (Nope!)

The 18 mile bridge really is 18 miles and it crosses the Atchafalaya swamp. Right in he center of it is another visitor’s center.   

    
   

Louisiana with its swamps, wading birds and Spanish moss slips apast the windows of my car until I reach Jenkins and I once again leave the interstate for adventure. 

At the Gator Chateau a line of kids, maybe ages 6-10 filed through the door before me. For a less than a moment I consider abandoning my quest. After all, I seemed to be the only grown-up interested….So what‽   

   
As I sat on the bench and stroked the surprisingly soft skin of the baby alligator, I ask if all this human contact effects the gators when they are released (The Gator  Chateau is an alligator rescue and release program) 

No, she reassures me, gators don’t form bonds. I think about that as I drive away. Does that mean the gators are like sociopaths? Then why does a mother protect its nest and babies? Is it really just instinct?  

 By the time I reach Texas, my second audio book was done, and I still haven’t determined if gators are sociopaths…

Houstin is huge! At least to this Maine girl it is! And I manage to hit it around 4 in the afternoon. Fourteen lanes, tangles of overpasses above me, buildings towering in the distance. I’m glad my tank is full and my bladder is empty! 

 And now I’m here at Stephen F. Austin State Park, 45 short minutes beyond Houston, bundled into my sleeping bag as I listen to the night time songs of insects, the occasional hoot and howl from the woods behind my tent and enjoy the warm smell of wood smoke.   

 

 

Day 1: In the manner of Bagginses

 “It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step onto the road and if you don’t keep your feet there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (The Lord of the Rings, #1-3)

As I pile the last of my belongings into my little car, I feel like a Baggins. 

Okay, so I won’t be facing a dragon, saving middle earth, or even walking, but I do feel as though I’m being swept up in the thrill of an adventure! 

I glimpse the waning crescent moon through the clouds as I leave the apartment that I’ve called home for the past three months and my heart races! This adventure–a journey to the west coast– is my most exciting so far!!

Only a few other motorists have ventured onto the road in these early morning hours, so I claim the interstate as my domain and press play on my Nevada Barr audiobook.

The combination of clear roads and a good story causes the hours and miles to slip away. Suddenly I find myself on I-10, the road that will be my companion for the bulk of this trip.  

  A glance in my rearview mirror reveals a sky bursting with color and memory after memory of new friends, fabulous coworkers and oh, so many adventures brings a smile to my face. Yes, the East coast ( Maine, North Carolina, South  Carolina and Florida) has been good to me. 

Chapter after chapter, mile after mile fly by and I know I’m nearing the Florida border when I feel an intense gaze emanating from my shotgun-riding-pup. I see the urgency in those brown eyes and I shift into the right lane, then off the interstate to a nearby rest area. There, as if frozen mid-turn  atop a pole is a Blue Angel navy plane and now a memory from long ago rushes back to me.   

 I’m wearing white capris with tiny colored stripes. The air is filled with the smell of sausage and fried dough. Jumbled conversations from the crowds of people surrounds me, but my eyes are on the sky.  Five planes turn as one. Their wing tips seem only inches apart and I wonder at the skill and fearlessness of the pilots. 

I duck involuntarily as the planes dive toward the ground, pulling up in a graceful arch and soaring up into the blue sky… 

Rocky’s  psychotic barking at a dog 100 times his size rips me back into the present and I wrestle his twisting, writhing little body back into the car. 

Alabama comes and goes in what feels like minutes and the car barrels across the Missippi state line. 

Now I wonder if I’ve ever been to Mississippi…I’m not sure, so I decide to check out the welcome center.

   

 Once again I’m awed at what I find. The remnants of three trees have been carved into various birds. I am amazed at how some people can look beyond what is and see what could be…and then turn that could be into what is… So thankful for the people who have this gift of creativity!

And now here I am, tucked away in my tent and thinking back on my day. It’s been a good day…my only wish is that my hubby could have shared it with me.