Day 14: 01/09/2016 – Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Destination: Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Route: US-180W, US-62W

Mileage: 40

Today is a day trip to Carlsbad Caverns! Well, with a side trip to the Carlsbad, NM proper for some fun with house sale closing documents. Our house went under contract in December 2015 and since we are clearly no longer in Delaware, we are doing something called ‘signing outside of closing’. In other words we sign all the documents prior to closing, scan the signed documents, email the pdf files back to our closing coordinator, and get the originals in the mail to return to the coordinator post haste. If all is timed just right the originals will be in the attorney’s hands the day of closing. If all does not go well, the electronic documents suffice while the originals documents enjoy the hospitality of the USPS.

The closing documents arrived via email Friday and we printed all the documents in the Carlsbad public library. What we need on a lovely Saturday morning is a notary to witness and notarize several of the documents. As luck would have it, the Wells Fargo in Carlsbad has a public notary. We spend approximately an hour waiting for the notary, one of the bank managers. Papers signed and notarized, we continue south to the caverns.

Abby parked at the Carlsbad Caverns visitors center.
Abby parked at the Carlsbad Caverns visitors center.

We arrive at the caverns and get Abby and the dogs tucked away. It is a cool and partly cloudy day so the dogs will be find hanging out in the RV with plenty of water and the ceiling vents cracked. We initially forget our National Parks Annual Pass, and Dave returns to the RV to get the pass. This will save us the admission fee and paid for itself on our 2015 RV trip.

Going into a hole in the ground.
Going into a hole in the ground.

The elevator to the caverns is broken with an unknown repair date (weeks, months, years?). We are going to have to hike in and out of the caverns. Alex is snug in his Osprey and we head towards the natural entrance. Just before we enter, a ranger goes through the rules of the caverns – no food, no throwing coins in pools, don’t touch the rock formations, and no loud voices are among some of the don’ts. We have some misgivings about being able to comply with the no loud voices with Alex, who has just entered a shrieking stage. This could be interesting.

The natural entrance after our initial descent.
The natural entrance after our initial descent.

As we start our descent, Alex lets out a couple good shrieks and discovers – ECHOES! And continues making a wide variety of noises and giggling hysterically at the echoes. Fortunately, Alex settles in and stops the loudest noises before we get too far into the cavern. The walk down is rather steep in some places and deceiving. We reach a point where the descent seems to stop and think we have reached the bottom. It is just a brief breather before the second, steeper descent begins. It is going to be an interesting climb out.

On the descent to the Big Room, with some pretty intense switch backs.
On the descent to the Big Room

Due to our late start, we follow the advice of the rangers and push through the descent quickly in the hopes of seeing the Big Room in its entirety. Walking in is off-putting. The lighting was done by a stage lighting expert the majority of the path is in shadow and you often discover the angle of the slope only after you have started to walk down it. We make good time and start our journey through the Big Room.

Lion's tail.
Lion’s tail.

It is fascinating how many different forms the rock takes. The caverns were formed by hydrogen sulfide rich water migrating through the fractures and faults of the Capitan limestone. When the water mixed with oxygen, sulfuric acid was formed and dissolved the limestone, creating the caverns. Gypsum (calcium sulfate), silt and clay deposits were left behind. As the water levels dropped, speleotherms (cave formations) started to develop, but this action ceased approximately 4 million years ago.

Speleotherm
Speleotherm
Cavern pool.
Cavern pool.

We also learn that it takes approximately 8 months for surface water to make it into the caverns. The National Parks Service has inadvertently altered the flow of water into the caverns with the construction of roadways the visitors center. These structures increase water run off and divert water from percolating into the caverns. Years of drought have also been detrimental to the amount of water entering the caverns. The water in the cavern pools is high susceptible to contamination when people throw in coins. Minerals leach out of the coins and foul the pools; the water is stagnant and the contaminants are not washed away.

Miniature speleotherm formation.
Speleotherm formation.
Hiking in the caverns. Alex is fixing our hair.
Hiking in the caverns. Alex is fixing our hair.

We encounter a ranger at an intersection of two trails. We can go the longer route, which will take about an hour, or we can take the cutoff and be out of the Big Room in about 20 minutes. We choose the longer route. We are glad we did. We look into the lower caverns and the ‘bottomless pit’. It is hard to imaging exploring these caverns without the modern conveniences of high intensity lamps or the walkways. The early explorers of the caverns were very brave people. The Big Room complete, we take a 15 minute break in the cafeteria to prepare to the walk out of the caverns. Dave takes Alex and packs him out into the daylight.

Dave carrying Alex out of the caverns.
Dave carrying Alex out of the caverns.

Overall, we have a great experience at Carlsbad Caverns. There were very few people in the caverns, perhaps due to the main elevators being out or the fact that it is early January. Whatever the reason, it made the experience very enjoyable.

Day 13: 01/08/2016 – Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Day13RouteDestination: Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Route: TX-118N, US-90W, TX-54N

Mileage: 245

New State: New Mexico

In terms of days, we have reached the halfway point of our travels! We have also continued making good progress in a westerly direction. We leave Big Bend and head north towards Alpine, TX. It is a very long, very desolate drive. We notice ranches all along our route and see a half dozen cows at best. The low number of cow sightings might be due to the complete lack of forage. Just south of Alpine we get to interact with other humans! Specifically, at a US border patrol station where they are conducting a citizenship check. A simple answer of ‘yes’ to the question are you citizens, and we are allowed to continue on our journey.

As we get closer to Alpine, we start to climb and the town seems more appropriately named. In Alpine, we are hoping to stop at the Big Bend Brewing Company for lunch, but a quick perusal of their website indicates no food, so we push on. As we continue on 90, we start to get pushed around by some big winds. It is a fight to keep Abby steady on the road, so we bleed off speed to make her easier to control. We decide to stop in Marfa for lunch. This little town is odd in the fact that there are some very nice ($$$) restaurants. We opt for the Dairy Queen. While Jess is inside ordering, Dave enjoys the return of data coverage and is reviewing the weather for Guadalupe Mountain National Park, our targeted camping location. It is supposed to get rather cold tonight.

Dave takes the wheel after lunch and gets to enjoy rain/snow showers in addition to the gusting wind. We continue on and driving conditions improve when we reach TX-54N. The sun comes out and the winds die down. The landscape appears rather inhospitable, and then the Guadalupe Mountains rise up out of the desert, appearing lush in comparison to their desert surroundings. These mountains were used by the Nde (Mescalero Apache) as hunting grounds; elk mule deer, wild turkeys, mountain lions, black bears, golden eagles, and peregrine falcons can be found at higher elevations. These animals live in a dense forest of ponderosa pine, southwestern white pine, Douglas fir, and aspen that is reminiscent of the cooler and moisture climate of 15,000 years ago. For explorers and pioneers, the mountains served as a landmark with valuable water and shelter.

When we arrive at the Guadalupe Mountain National Park visitors center, there is snow on the ground. At the visitors center, we learn that the Guadalupe Mountains are an exposed fossil reef that formed 260 – 270 million years ago. A tropical ocean covered portions of Texas and New Mexico. The reef was composed of calcareous sponges, algae, and other lime-secreting marine organisms. They, along with the lime, form the horseshoe-shaped Capitan reef. Over time, the sea evaporated and the reef was buried in layers of sediments and mineral salts and remained entombed for millions of years. During a mountain-building uplift, part of the reef was exposed in the Guadalupe, Apache, and Glass Mountains. Carlsbad Caverns are also part of this exposed reef.

We recheck the weather forecast and the lows for the night are forecast in the 20s, winds steady at 30 – 40 mph, with gusts up to 60 mph. We decide to check out the RV camping area and get some fresh water. While the water tank is slowly filling (extremely low pressure), Penny and Chewie romp in the snow. Penny is absolutely thrilled to roll in the snow and enjoys herself thoroughly.

GuadalupeSnow
Guadalupe Mountain National Park Pine Springs RV Campground.

The RV camping is a bit disappointing, just extra large spots in a parking lot at a trail head. There is very little shelter and the wind is really beginning to whip. After a brief discussion, we decide that we cannot spend the night here. We have no arctic package, the cold will tax our batteries, and the furnace will likely run all night (further taxing our batteries and reducing our propane). We look at the map and decide to push on to Brantley Lake State Park in New Mexico.

Day13Route2Destination: Brantley Lake State Park, NM

Route: US-180E, US-62E

Mileage: 75

New States: New Mexico

Brantley Lake is our scheduled overnight stop for Day 14. We know we will have an electric hook-up so we can run the space heater. This will save wear and tear on our batteries and our propane supply. We arrive after the welcome center has closed, so we fill out the self pay form and ensconce ourselves into site 24.

Prison style toilet and Brantley Lake State Park
Prison style toilet and Brantley Lake State Park

The campground is very nice. The sites are spacious and level with a very nice picnic pavilion. There is a playground for Alex to enjoy during daylight hours and the bath house is clean. We have one complaint about the toilets . . . according to Dave, a wee bit cold in the poorly heated bathrooms. This confirms the choice Jess made to use the RV bathroom.

We are sad that Guadalupe Mountain National Park did not work out for us due to the weather conditions. The hiking trails are extensive and we are putting this on the list to return to. Next trip we will check out Dog Canyon, which is at the northern boundary of the park and accessible from New Mexico.

Day 11 & 12: 01/06 & 01/07/2016 – Big Bend National Park, Chisos Basin

Destination: Big Bend National Park

Route: I-10W, US-385S

Mileage: 350

Day11Route

LongStraightRoad
Flat and straight road to the horizon

Day 11 is truly a westward ho day! On the way to Big Bend National Park we end up over 250 miles west of our starting location. We have beautiful weather for traveling and lots of long, straight, Texas road. The road is good, except for a few unmarked ‘dips’ on US-385S that are reminiscent of a roller coaster.

On the way, we stop at the Wal-Mart in Fort Stockton for a resupply. Normally, this is not our first choice in shopping, but there are certain brands we know that we can get at a national chain. The Fort Stockton store has to be on of the saddest stores we have seen. A woman tried to sell us a puppy on the way into the store. Selections are limited and the beer is primarily two types, Bud and Bud Lite. We are thrilled to find Shiner Bock tucked away at the end of the refrigerated case. RV restocked, we turn south.

RoadBends
A bend in US-285S gives us a preview of the mountains we are heading towards.

We are camping in the Chisos Basin campground at Big Bend National Park. The basin is in the Chisos Mountains, the only mountain range in the United States entirely within the confines of a national park. The mountains are significantly cooler and receive, on average, over twice the annual rainfall than surrounding Chihuahuan Desert. The flora and fauna found in the mountains were stranded when the great ice age ended and reflect a cooler, moister climate. An example of an animal unique to the Chisos is the Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer, which are not well adapted to deserts. The mountain lion (local name: panther) is also present in the mountains. The Chisos are the only nesting area for the Colima warbler, which winters in Mexico. The Arizona pine, Douglas fir, Arizona cypress, quaking aspen, and big-tooth maple are trees that are ice-age remnants.

AbbyBigBend43
Abby squeezed into spot 43.

Abby acquits herself well on the climb from the desert into the Chisos Mountains. As we descend into the basin to camp, we get to experience the switchbacks and the hills we will have to climb in a couple of days. It has been a long trip, and experience has caused us to have some paranoia regarding taxing Abby’s transmission. We arrive to find a full campground and are glad we have reservations. It is winter break for colleges and this is a popular destination for the young whippersnappers. We are a tight fit in site 43, but manage to snug our rig in.

With Alex tucked away into bed, we enjoy the night sky. Big Bend was named an international dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association in 2012. The park is also recognized as having the darkest measured skies in the lower 48 states. What does this mean? Simply put, we have never seen so many stars. It was difficult to pick out Orion because it was easy to lose the constellation among the thousands of stars. We see the Milky Way, not as a band, but of light and dark blotches. It is truly breath-taking. We do not get any pictures that do the sky justice.

Our rig attracts the attention of a park ranger on our first night, but after hearing we are staying only two nights, he decides to move on. We feel relief that we don’t have to pack up and move at that very instant (10 pm).

AbbyBigBend35
Abby in our new site.

The next morning Dave chats with the campground host and finds out that site 35, the old host site is not occupied that night. To avoid attracting the attention of a less tolerant ranger, we pull the slide in and quickly hop campsites. This site much more spacious (we are able to use the our awning), but is first come, first serve site.

View of the 'Window' from the Chisos Basin loop trail.
View of the ‘Window’ from the Chisos Basin loop trail.

Chisos Basin continues to impress and we are very sorry to have only a full day here. There are great hiking trails and the park brochure provides excellent details regarding the difficulty of each trail. Due to time constraints, we only able to hike the Chisos Basin loop, with a slight detour on the Laguna Meadows trail. We will be more careful to read trail signs and consult with our trail map in the future.

Family photo with the 'Window' as our background.
Family photo with the ‘Window’ as our background.
AlexOsprey
Alex in his Osprey carrier.

This is also our first hike with Alex in the Osprey Poco Plus carrier and he loved it. The carrier positions Alex so he is able to see over his human pack mule’s head and he is more engaged with us and our surroundings. The pack mules found the pack to be comfortable, easy to adjust, and is easy to load and secure Alex.

BigBendAlexRockAlex had fun in the campground climbing on rocks and following a road runner as it made its way through the campground. The roadrunner wasn’t sure what to think of his human shadow. Alex also made friends with a group of young men. Friends from a Houston high school, they had all gone to different colleges and were spending the weekend camping together. They let Alex join them in there game of Frisbee and Alex proved adept at taking a the football hand-off and running with the ball.

We plan on coming back. Our future trip will be scheduled with a date range of late January to early March in mind. This time frame will bring warmer weather and the spring wildflowers. We are also planning to come back in Abby sans the cargo trailer. Shortened to 24 feet,we will have our pick of spots.

The sun sets on our second day at Big Bend
The sun sets on our second day at Big Bend

 

Day 9 & 10: 01/04 & 01/05/2016 – Kerrville, TX

Destination: Kerrville, TX

Route: I-30W, US-67S, TX-220, US-281S, US-84W, US-183S, TX-16S

Mileage: 296

Day9Route

What happened to Day 8? It was a rest day where we spent more time catching up with family.

The past few days have not detailed any huge amount of westward progress. We are further west than when were on Day 7, we have been putting on some extra miles ping ponging north and south of the ideal route.

What takes us to Kerrville? Family! Dave’s family is not just limited to the Dallas area, they are spread through the southwest.

The drive to Kerrville was uneventful. Upon arriving Dave’s cousins Jim and Donna graciously put us up in their casita. The dogs are thrilled to have a yard to run around in. We tuck the RV next to Jim and Donna’s garage and enjoy a delicious steak dinner and Alex eats his weight in asparagus.

The next day (Day 8) we tour the area with Jim and Donna. Texas hill country is beautiful and would be wonderful to visit in the February/March time frame in order to avoid the heat of summer. More laundry is done – sheets, towels and other bulkier items that is was too much of a hassle to take care of in Addison.

Alex got to see his very first horse and pony up close and personal. Jim and Donna’s granddaughter was kind enough to let Alex visit her equine friends. Alex seems to enjoy the horses, despite consistently mooing at them. We need to work on the many types of animal other than cow. Alex also delighted in seeing blackbuck antelope. There was a herd near the horse barn and as they bounded away, Alex laughed and laughed. If he hadn’t been strapped into his wagon, he would have tried to run after them.

Dinner is at Rails Cafe in Kerrville; and their Italian style food is done very well. We enjoy creamy penne with chicken and artichoke chicken alfredo. Alex works the room, charming the next table over with waves and blown kisses. Dinner has to end sooner than anyone would like because of a certain toddler’s bedtime, combined with a long day at the wheel of the RV.

 

Day 7: 01/02/2016 -Addison, TX

Destination: Addison, TX

Route: US-190E, FM-356N, TX-19N, US-287N, US-175W, I-635N

Mileage: 213

Day7Route

We are off to see more family! Dave has many cousins in the area of Addison, TX so this trip is the perfect opportunity to stop by and say hi. We haven’t seen them since Alex was 6 months old, and he is almost 19 months now.

We opt to take the scenic route on this leg on the advice of Dave’s cousin Jodi. She warned us the drivers on I-35 can be very aggressive and since we cannot travel near the speed limit, it is best to take the roads less traveled. During this leg, the rigidity of our schedule is exposed. We passed an interesting looking petting zoo and thought about stopping for Alex. Since we have make time and have a fixed deadline for arriving in California, we can’t take the fun diversions.

AbbyCourtyardMarriottWe stop at the Courtyard Marriott on Proton Drive. We have stayed here before as hotel guests due to the great location – a few blocks away from family, next to a green space park, and a large, empty parking lot (this was less important when we flew into Dallas). We debate on just parking the RV and waiting for someone to say something, or asking. We opt to ask. Dave goes in and a few minutes later comes out – we are okay to stay! Perhaps it really isn’t guerrilla camping if you ask, but better than a knock on the door after Alex is asleep.

We fill up our water tank, do some laundry, and enjoy some pizza with family before settling in for the night. Even the dogs had some fun at the fenced, off-leash dog park that is part of the green space next to the hotel. All creatures are happy!

Day 6: 01/01/2016 – Lake Livingston, TX

Destination: Lake Livingston, TX

Route: I-10W, US-287N/US69-N, FM-1293W, TX-146N, US-190W

Mileage: 219

New state: Texas

Day6Route

 

We are back on I-10W in Louisiana! The road improves slightly west of Lafayette as the ground it is built on turns from swamp to real land. We are initially concerned after crossing into Texas because the first 5 or so miles are rough due to construction. The construction ends and the road is concrete and as smooth as glass. A true joy to travel on. Thank you Texas, thank you.

The speed limits in Texas, even on the county/farm roads, are 70 mph as a minimum. We can only dream of obtaining these speeds in Abby without the trailer; with the trailer the speed limit is truly out of reach. We push on and pull on to the shoulder to let cars pass as needed. We are quickly learning that on beautifully straight roads, good sight lines, passing zone, and no one coming, Texans are highly reluctant to pass. Perhaps they would prefer and element of danger, but it becomes annoying very quickly moving over every time a car is on our tail when we are in a perfectly viable passing zone.

We arrive at Dave’s cousin’s family’s lake house (how is that for a string of possessives?), park the RV at the top of the hill, and settle in for an evening of drinks and laughs with family. The drinks are strong and everyone is having a great time, even the dogs who get to participate in some off leash frolicking. Someone happens to mention the model train set and that is okay to try and run it. Thanks to the liquid confidence, Jess decides to try. There is some success! Two trains get moving and Alex provides supplemental sound effects with ‘too too’.

DaveLivingston
Dave with his vodka cranberry by the lake.
JessAlexTrains
Jess and Alex running the train set.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just before Alex’s bedtime, we realize his portable crib is still at the RV, and the hill is awful steep. Lake house gator to the rescue! We drive to the RV, collect Alex’s bedtime gear, manage to misplace his pajamas along the way, and return to the house to tuck a little boy in. A few more hours of relaxing, then we get to carry Alex (Jess) and his crib (Dave) back up the hill.

Day 5: 12/31/2015 – New Orleans and Lafayette, LA

Destination: Lafayette KOA, Scott, LA via New Orleans

Route: US 98W, FL 281N, I-10W,

Mileage: 379

New states: Mississippi, Louisiana

Day5Route

We finally made the right turn to head west! And thanks to that stationary front, we enjoyed more rain. With Google Maps providing the directions, our route includes FL 281N and we pay a $7.50 toll to travel 1.5 miles. We knew we would be on a toll road, but weren’t expecting to be subject to highway robbery.

We join I-10W, which takes us out of Florida and right back to Alabama, then into Mississippi. It is amazing how smooth a road can be without frost heaves. Our romance with I-10W quickly hit rough spots in Louisiana, but nothing we couldn’t tough out. We are looking forward to our lunch stop with our friend Serene, who moved to New Orleans 9 months ago. We chose to meet at City Park because of the large parking lot available and the relative safety during day light hours.

Driving to City Park is eye opening. It is shocking how parts of the city clearly haven’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina (2005). The dichotomy of adjacent neighborhoods is striking. The roads especially reflect the hardships of New Orleans. We struggle to find a direct route to our meeting location in City Park due to road closures; those that we did travel on were in such disrepair the concrete had turned to gravel.

AbbyCityPark
Abby parked at City Park in New Orleans.

Serene is kind enough to drive us to Brown Butter Southern Kitchen and Bar a restaurant serving southern style food. There is no way we can find parking for Abby and trailer in the city streets. Dave is thrilled to try the poutine sandwich. (If you are unfamiliar with poutine, a trip to Canada, specifically Quebec, is highly recommended to get this delicious frite dish smothered with cheese kurds and gravy. Just devine.), Serene orders a pimento cheese sandwich, and Jess has the buttermilk chicken and waffle sandwich. Alex decides to apply his culinary license to create an open faced sandwich by stealing one of Jess’ waffles.

After a leisurely lunch, we return to the RV so we can push on to our destination for the night; Serene has a long night at work to report to. On the road again, I-10W, even in its poor condition, is a relief from the streets of New Orleans. This relief is short lived because I-10W quickly becomes a teeth-rattling, bone-jarring road where the concrete joints are emphasized every nine feet. We drop our speed to 45 mph from to ensure that we arrive to the KOA mostly intact. Genuine relief is felt when we arrive at the KOA. The unexpected speed reduction has added significant time to our travel day.

The Lafayette KOA is technically in Scott, LA and is only 0.1 miles from I-10; a more careful inspection of the map would have revealed this and we may have selected a different campground. The sites are very cozy, typical of what one would expect from a commercial campground and small enough that large rigs may have trouble getting in or out of their assigned spot.

Our spot is near the laundry and restrooms. Even though we have been on the road less than a week, Jess decides seize the opportunity and wash our accumulated dirty clothing. Bathroom facilities were clean and there was hot water and plenty of water pressure. With New Year’s Eve came the fireworks set off by the other campers. Rain, now welcomed with open arms, arrives to puts a stop to the fun. Well done rain, well done.