Saturday, March 18, 2017

That's Right (You're Not From Texas)

Note: As I write this, we're just now coming out of a cold snap in the Missouri Ozarks, where the forecast high temperatures have been in the thirties. Meanwhile, in the Texas Hill Country, the highs have been a comfortable 75° to 80°. What follows is part observation, part salutation, and certainly part lamentation. - bs

One of the first major purchases that I made when I was setting up my commercial photo studio in the late 1980s was a capable stereo system and enough speakers to irritate the neighbors. At first, I used a six-pack-loader for CDs, and eventually changed over to 3 300-disc jukeboxes. They sat right next to the twin Mr. Coffees. You see, commercial advertising photo studios run on coffee and music.  It takes most clients several hours to go through the music catalog of 21,000+ titles and select what they want to hear as they work. By then, the project had legs and we were on our way to actually accomplishing something before they could interfere. When I first dropped Lyle Lovett's 1996 album "The Road To Ensenada" into the "A" jukebox, I thought "That's Right (You're Not From Texas)" was a catchy uptempo swing tune, perfect for keeping projects moving and clients distracted and out of my thinning hair. I had no idea that it contained immutable truths about the 28th state.

Now, after spending most of late fall and early winter in Texas, my level of understanding of that song and of the state of Texas has been, let's say, elevated.

Perspective: I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, although I was born across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas. Explaining the importance of that invisible, but rock-solid boundary takes more time and energy than I have right now. My home town and the region around it has an ingrown inferiority complex. The city sits at the confluence of the meandering and shallow Kansas River and the muddy "too thin to plow, too thick to drink" Missouri River. Except for the cave-riddled limestone bluffs that the city sits on, that is the entire extent of the city's physical distinctions. No mountains, no oceans or large lakes, no beaches. Kansas Citians, always aware of their city's Cowtown identity, constantly compare themselves to the coasts. The cosmopolitan atmosphere of New York is thought as way too rarified, and Californians are often seen as belonging to a shallow, inch-deep. mile-wide subculture that no level-headed Midwesterner would ever want to emulate. I confess, I at times fell into both traps. My short-lived newspaper column was called "The Flyover".

Culturally, Kansas City was mentioned in the musical, "Oklahoma" and proclaimed it to be "up to date". Wilbert Harrison and everyone from The Grateful Dead and Sammy Davis Jr. to the Beatles sang of the crazy little women in Kansas City, though I'm not sure Wilbert ever went to Kansas City. My own exposure to crazy little women in Kansas City has left me with deep emotional scars and a less-than-pleasant set of bachelor memories. KC has BBQ, and might I add, damned good BBQ. It hosts the World Series of BBQ every year. The town hides under a thick, year-round pall of oak and hickory smoke. The area also gave birth to a particular flavor of jazz and blues, and in spite of the largest stockyards and packing plant district this side of Chicago, never fully embraced any kind of western heritage. Non-chain Western stores are few and far between, and after I moved back to the area after some years in Colorado, I never bothered to replace my last couple of pairs of Tony Llamas that were essential to my work uniform as a carpenter. Did I mention my boot-cut square-butt Wranglers and pointy-toed galoshes?


"They're OK in Oklahoma,
Up in Arkansas they're fair,
But those old folks in Missouri,
They don't even know you're there."

It's rare to see western dress anywhere outside the American Royal Horse Show and Rodeo, and locals look at someone wearing a good pair of boots - or God forbid, a cowboy hat - as expressing drugstore cowboy affectations.

Farther down I-70, graduates of the University of Missouri, many of them photographers and journalists of the highest caliber, can be lured out into the light by shouting out "M-I-Z!". Their Pavlovian response is always "Z-O-U!" Otherwise, it's pretty quiet on the long, pothole-infested stretch of I-70 between Kansas City and St. Louis.

Thus does the inferiority complex silently manifest itself in "The Flyover".

"Texas wants you anyway"

Texas is different. From the moment we crossed from New Mexico into West El Paso, the Lone Star symbolism is in constant evidence. We picked up our "Don't Mess With Texas" litter bags and stickers at the welcome center, grabbed a couple of maps, and was surprised when the young woman who was working at the welcome center actually welcomed us. She gave us directions to the Mission Trail, suggestions on where to eat, and generally made us feel at home.

It didn't sink in right away, but the thing that seems to set Texas apart from most anywhere else I've been is pride. Texans are proud to be Texans, proud of Texas, and proud to show you around. The Lone Star emblem is everywhere you look - on stickers on cars and trucks, flying outside private homes, and every other available flagpole. Texans know where they come from, and how the State of Texas came to be. I am told that Texas kids recite two pledges every morning - one to the flag of the United State, one to the flag of Texas. Their roots go back generations, and some I've met live on family spreads that have been in their families since before the railroads first came through. Maybe I envy this close affinity to one another because my own family was so scattered and uninvolved. There is no inferiority complex in Texas.

Exposed to this level of pride, regardless of what your license plate says, when you spend any amount of time in Texas, you slowly. . . very slowly, start to become part Texan. It gets in your blood. You want to belong to something that's bigger than you are? That is the precise definition of Texas.

If you broke it down by geographic features and micro-climates, Texas would make seven tidy separate states. The Panhandle, Piney Woods, Southern Plains, the Prairies and Lakes, West Texas and Big Bend, and the Hill Country are all as different from one another as Texas is different from Iowa.

It's big. It's a two-Kansas-wide 880 mile drive from El Paso to Beaumont, the same from the Panhandle to Brownsville, and the highways are smooth as glass, with speed limits that challenge you to keep up. You have far to go, you might as well get there quickly.

I ran into an long, tall, octogenarian at a grocery store in Johnson City, Texas, and after the requisite "Howdy!", we stood in the vegetable aisle and talked at length about the Hill Country, where to eat in Blanco County, and how he knew LBJ and how he once eavesdropped on a phone call between his sister and the 36th president on the details of his inauguration. A firm handshake and he went on about his business, an ambassador without portfolio. We had talked to one another as though we were family.

The full conversion takes years, or so I'm told. It takes a while to absorb the pronunciation of place names. Lord help me, I may never get this worked out. They apply sounds to letters that don't exist, and drop letters randomly, based on local custom. You just have to pick a name, stick your neck out and let them have a good laugh at your expense. The state park we volunteered at - Pedernales - is pronounced Pardenells, or some other variation, because, we're told, LBJ couldn't parse out all the syllables in the spanish pronunciation. You also have to figure out what their particular regional flavor of BBQ is, and how to use "y'all" effectively. (The answer is, if you can't do it without thinking about it, don't do it. You'll sound like a cartoon character.) Just don't, y'all.

There are also regional loyalties to be respected, many of which revolve around football. The Texas Longhorns, The Texas A&M Aggies, and the Texas Tech Red Raiders  - not necessarily in that order, thank you, very much - lead the list of tradition-bound pigskin and school loyalties. I bought a sale-priced shirt at a New Mexico WalMart that for all intents and purposes, is Texas Orange. I still would have bought it if it was green or blue. I'm never sure whether to wear it or not outside of Austin. Even in poor light, it doesn't pass for TAMU Aggie Maroon. Loyalties are strong and demonstrative. Small town Texas on Friday night is about the local high school team. The high school stadium in Kerrville looks like Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Do not expect to get waited on in a restaurant until the game is over. An ambulance might come load you up if your ticker fails, but I wouldn't bank on it. This is serious stuff.

Texas is more than a nation-state, and much more than the sum of its parts. Mesquite to sagebrush, prairies and cotton fields to beaches, mountains and oil fields, Texas is a state of mind, a reminder that it only takes one star to make an emblem, a flag and a state. There is a cowboy culture here, and the difference between Texas and everywhere else is that the culture is honest and real. I saw a young man at the H.E.B with spurs on his boots and a thin layer of Texas dirt on his Wranglers. It's a way of life, not a style statement.

I'm a believer. We're coming back. We left a lot unseen here, and many people unmet and thus, unphotographed. We were able to see and meet many wonderful people in Texas. Galveston saw us in the company of my dear friend Pamela, her spouse Jamie, and the amazing Peternelle van Arsdale. Turn around, and we're standing backstage at the Grand 1894 Opera House in the gracious company of the aforementioned Lyle Lovett, April Kimble, most of his Lyle's family, and Robert Earl Keen. In Austin, we were the guests of Carrlyn and Lee Miller at Texas Traditions Boots where we marveled at the amazing art and craft of the custom boot maker.

We got to meet Twitter pals Tim Walker, Audrey Coulthurst, and Paula Garner at a book event, and with more time to spend, we could have met quite a few more. Even though we travel a lot, our time at the State Park had us spending more than 150 hours a month at work. Subtract time for necessary errands and shopping, and time just got away from us. A fresh compass-rose tattoo at a South Congress shop in Austin put an exclamation point on our stay, and off we went.

"So won't you let me help you, mister,
Just pull your hat down the way I do.
And buy your pants just a little bit longer, 
And next time somebody laughs at you,
You just tell 'em, You're not from Texas,
That's right, you're not from Texas
That's right, you're not from Texas
But Texas wants you, anyway."

Texas, the feeling is reciprocal. We'll see you again soon. Thanks, Lyle.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Closing the Circle

This week marks our anniversary on the road. On February 27, 2016 we left our home of thirty years, handed the keys to the realtor and headed out towards an unknown future on the road.

We started here:

and headed into the Missouri Ozarks to spend some time at Bennett Spring State Park. This really was our shakedown cruise. We had stayed at a couple of state parks after we picked up the trailer, but for most of the previous year, Highlander had been parked at a friend's farm, while we modified and customized our new home.

We were ready to roll, and long story short, the house sold almost immediately, and after we finished up our three months at Bennett Spring we headed west.

Here is a bare-bones, compact itinerary* for our last year:

  1. Kansas City to Bennett Spring State Park, Missouri- 165 miles - Three month stay
  2. Bennett Spring to Cross Timbers State Park, Kansas - 234 miles
  3. Cross Timbers to Kanopolis Lake State Park, Kansas - 168 miles
  4. Kanopolis Lake State Park to Cedar Bluff State Park, Kansas - 125 miles
  5. Cedar Bluff State Park to John Martin Reservoir State Park, Colorado - 346 miles
  6. John Martin State Park to San Luis State Park, Colorado - 191 miles
  7. San Luis State Park to Mancos State Park, Colorado - 190 miles - Three month stay
  8. Mancos State Park to Monument Valley Tribal Park, Utah - 180 miles
  9. Monument Valley to Canyon Gateway RV Park, Williams, Arizona - 210 miles
  10. Williams, Arizona to Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Arizona - 96 miles
  11. Dead Horse Ranch to Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona - 145 miles
  12. Lost Dutchman to Catalina State Park, Arizona - 90 miles
  13. Catalina State Park to Rose Valley RV Ranch, Silver City, New Mexico - 219 miles
  14. Silver City to West El Paso KOA. El Paso, Texas - 134 Miles
  15. El Paso to Balmorhea State Park, Texas - 209 miles
  16. Balmorhea State Park to Fort Stockton RV Park - 62 miles
  17. Fort Stockton to Kerrville Koa, Kerrville, Texas - 240 miles
  18. Kerrville, Texas to Whispering Oaks RV Park, Weimar, Texas - 212 miles
  19. Weimar, Texas to Stella Mare RV Resort, Galveston, Texas - 135 miles
  20. Galveston to Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas - 266 miles - Three month stay
  21. Johnson City to Mustang Island State Park, Padre Island, Texas - 238 miles
  22. Padre Island to Jamaica Beach RV Resort, Galveston, Texas - 234 miles
  23. Galveston, Texas to Palmetto Island State Park, Louisiana - 240 miles
  24. Palmetto Island to Southern Living RV Park, Shreveport, Louisiana - 252 miles
  25. Shreveport Louisiana to Hot Springs National Park KOA, Hot Springs, Arkansas - 201 miles
  26. Hot Springs to Petit Jean State Park, Morrilton, Arkansas - 112 miles
  27. Morrilton, Arkansas to City of Branson Lakeview RV Park - 177 miles
  28. Bennett Spring State Park, Lebanon, Missouri - 96 miles
A bit over 5,100 miles for travel between the stops. We'll figure a few thousand more for road trips and photo safaris at every stop, and call it 8,000+ truck miles for the year. Eighty-seven Gigabytes of raw and processed images. I count six hundred gallons of diesel, two oil changes, one wrinkled rear fender in Silver City, New Mexico, forty-five stops at WalMarts and other stores for supplies, two tattoos, one totally relaxed cat, a king's ransom in Verizon data fees, and a couple of very fortunate retirees being able to do what many people only dream of.

We don't do long hauls. There's no reason to. Pulling a rig this size through traffic is stressful enough. Doing it while road-weary and drowsy is unnecessary. I learned that lesson after a near-catastrophe coming back to Kansas City after a wonderful concert in the Flint Hills of Kansas in 2015. A big shout-out to whoever invented rumbles strip on highways. They saved our lives.

All this accounting falls far short of being able to tell how amazing this has been. To open your front door in the morning, and see a new place you've never visited and perhaps only read about is exhilarating. As I write this, I am watching turkey vultures perched, with wings outspread, on a bare-branched hickory tree, warming themselves in the morning sun. Dozens of them. Are you kidding me? (I haven't cleaned the windows yet. Photographing them this morning was all but impossible.) This is why we travel. To then capture these places, these things in a photograph and share it with thousands via social media is nothing short of a dream.

I was really late to social media, and still only participate on Twitter and Instagram, but this trip has solidified my opinion of the real value of reaching out to people. Through precious new-found friendships, Kath and I (and Moxie) have been able to meet some extraordinary people - Pamela and Jamie, Peternelle, Lyle Lovett, April Kimble, Robert Earl Keen, Carrlyn and Lee Miller, Tim Walker, Audrey Coulthurst, Paula Garner - this is only my face-to-face Twitter list. Other Twitter pals have given us recommendations for places to stay, places to eat, and things to see. Sarah Smarsh gave me a heads up about a new regional magazine, New Territory, that celebrates the land, culture, and people of the lower Midwest. My images of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts are in the latest issue.

Every day is a celebration of the possible, of new new challenges to seeing what's in front of us, of new opportunities to really live our lives, and to appreciate where we're from and where we're going, although we usually don't know what's ahead. That kind of thinking is, for both of us I think, a revelation. Once risk-averse, we are now willing to live based on the outcome of a series of coin tosses.

This is not at all a bad way to live. We'll keep doing it. Thank you for coming with us.

*If you would like information on any of our stops, drop me a note. I'm always happy to share our experiences.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Cyber Monday Deal (Shameless Self-Promotion)

Good morning!

To celebrate the fact that I'm not shackled to a brick-and-mortar retail edifice this year, I'm offering a $20 coupon on any of my prints at Fine Art America.

This includes matted, framed prints, unframed prints, even the popular stretched canvas prints in any size.

This promotion ends Saturday, December 3.

p.s. If there is an image of mine that you'd like to see offered, but doesn't show up on the site, let me know. I will happily upload the image for you.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Story So Far

February 27 through November 4, 2016

What we've learned so far.

  • Selling everything and moving into a 40 foot trailer isn't really all that scary if you make the mental adjustment and fully accept the change. You can't lie to yourself. You have to be fully engaged, fully committed.
  • It will not change who you are. If you have unresolved issues in your life, cramming them into a trailer will not solve them, although ridding yourself of your daily grind in favor of a nomadic lifestyle, may, in some cases, help you work through the rough spots and shed some baggage.

  • A good friend asked us what was our biggest surprise in taking on this adventure. The answer is the realization that this is so easy once you've made the required commitment in your mind. The rest is just shuffling things around.
  • We've lucked out on fuel prices so far. When I was originally crunching numbers for this concept, I was allowing $4.00 to $5.00 per gallon for diesel. The reality has been much nicer. We have averaged $2.15 per gallon over the last eight-plus months. Tug has chugged along happily at about 12 miles per gallon. A bit less in heavy, stop-and-go traffic or in the mountains. We got about 9.2 mpg coming over Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado. This an 8,000 pound truck pulling a 15,000 pound trailer over all kinds of roads from sea level to 10,000 feet.
  • We have made so many new friends that I'm often concerned that I may have dreamed all of this into existence, like Ursula K. Le Guin's George Orr. I have Twitter pals that have become real friends, people whom I love as though they were my own family. 
  • Trailers are better designed to move forward than backward. The entire process is mostly visualization process put into practical action. (In other words, don't think too much.)
  • State Parks are, in general, some of the nicest places to stay if you're in a trailer or RV. Commercial parks may have the amenities edge - laundry, WiFi, etc., but the parks are well-maintained and offer an edge in affordability.
  • Not all state parks are created equally. Colorado parks are extremely nice, as are Missouri's green jewels. Arizona parks are some of the best, but the staff and volunteers all seem unhappy. Texas has some of the most amazing places to stay available anywhere.
  • As I write this, (October 17) I am in a Texas KOA campground that has about two hundred spaces. The wifi is spotty, the lot is dusty and the speed limit is mostly ignored.
  • The highways in eastern Colorado are horrific, especially if you're hauling 15,000 pounds of bucking trailer. Rough as a dry cob.
  • Southwest Colorado is an under-appreciated part of the country. There are multiple micro-climates, geological wonders, stunning scenery, and amazing food. 
  • Our stay at Mancos State Park, Colorado was extraordinary. The air was cool and dry at 8,000 feet. We had an ever-changing view of the dazzling La Plata Mountains.There is nothing in the area that is trying to eat you. No mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, or other biting things. There are bears, but they are not aggressive, and sightings are rare. The town of Mancos has several great places to eat, all the necessary staples, a decent liquor store, and two weed stores. One is called The Bud Farm. Seems like a good fit.
  • Contrast with Missouri's Bennett Spring State Park. Ticks start appearing in April, small at first, then substantial as the season progresses. By the first of June, they're the size of dinner plates. (Almost.) Chiggers inhabit every inch of grassy areas, and the mosquitoes have registry numbers on their wings. It's seventeen miles to the closest grocery store, and there has never been a useful car wash in Lebanon, Missouri
  • Best car wash on our trip: Main Street Car Wash in Kerrville, Texas. No shit.
  • Phoenix drivers obey the speed limit. Perhaps it's out of fear that Sheriff Joe Arpaio will send them into hard labor wearing pink jumpsuits, but the freeways in Phoenix are positively civilized.
  • To the dressed-all-in-dark-colors, no reflectors, no lights bicyclist that crossed a main thoroughfare against the light as we were coming home from late dinner in Fountain Hills, Arizona: I'm glad we didn't hit and kill you, but I hope we scared the living shit out of you. Dumbass.
  • El Paso drivers are practicing for Daytona. I was going fifteen over the limit and being passed as though I was going backwards. They honked angrily at me.
  • Weekend stops should be planned for low tourist-interest places. Attempts to visit bike-clogged Jerome, Arizona and bumper-to-bumper Sedona were frustrating and generally a waste of time and fuel.
  • A one-ton GMC dually is eight feet wide. The ATM we visited in Silver City, New Mexico is 7'8" wide. Paint was exchanged.
  • I have managed to avoid scratching up the trailer in any way.
  • We were mentally snakebit by the unseasonably warm temperatures this fall. Part of this is old Missouri-think, where ninety degrees feels like two hundred. Here, (Arizona) ninety in the sun equals eighty in the shade, and a quick spritz of water is as good as central air. On more than one occasion,  I looked at the temps and decided against an outdoor activity that now passed, will likely never come around again. That's just dumb. We're not going to live forever.
  • Bennett Spring State Park, Missouri to Galveston, Texas - 2,988 direct travel miles. Total vehicle miles: about 6,000, including numerous side trips for photography, sightseeing and errands. I have amassed a data file of 370 GB in images
  • I have adopted a Picture-Of-The-Day format every morning on Twitter to keep my eye sharp, and an occasional post on Instagram featuring our buddy Adventure Rabbit. This was my original plan to keep looking forward, create opportunities to meet people, and push myself to constantly create new content that I could be proud of. I wanted to find new markets for my fine art photography, but never at the expense of our adventure.
  • Having said that, I do plan on reaching out at every opportunity to push my limits. Everything I create is for sale, and at popular prices. Just ask.
  • My Proust questionnaire plan has fallen victim to my natural shyness. I have to work on this. I always allow myself to fall back on the "I don't want to bother anyone." trap. Self-fulfilling failure prophecy.
  • There is no shame in avoiding congested urban cores. We found pleasant bypasses around El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston that didn't involve worming our way through the middle of the city with our fifty-foot rig in rush hour traffic. Having said that, we did manage to hit every red light on Texas 6 from Galveston to Sugarland. Our trip to the Hill Country wound up taking 6-1/2 hours.
  • I'd like to go back to Galveston after our time in the Hill Country is up. This time, not so many motorcycles, and a bit cooler, please. We didn't get nearly enough beach time.
  • We volunteer. State Parks are amazing resources, but many receive very little funding from their respective states, and instead rely mainly on park-generated revenues for upkeep and improvements. We're able to give back by cleaning restrooms and campsites, helping campers get settled and generally being the public face of the park for visitors. Next time you visit a state or national park, pay attention to that person that's helping you find your way. Chances are that it's a volunteer. Tell them thank you.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Grand Canyon

Let's be perfectly clear: there is nothing I can say, no bucket of superlatives I can string together, that will in any way approximate the extraordinary scale, beauty, and pure grandeur of the Grand Canyon. So, here, in a feeble attempt to illustrate, are a few pictures from Grand Canyon National Park.

We parked our rig at an RV park in Williams, Arizona and made our way up Highway 64 to the park. At that same moment, 10,000 of our closest friends did exactly the same thing. I'm ok with that. I realize that this is one of the wonders of the world, and that people from every country in that world make their way here to see this, wave their selfie sticks in the air and then move on, to eventually make their way to Vegas.

Seriously, if you don't like crowds, wait for a rainy day to visit the Canyon. Even then you will be shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists from all over. This is a travelling photo-scrum. It becomes an assembly line - queue, shoot, move - lather, rinse, repeat. Everyone is jockeying for position. Exit through the gift shop.

Most people are pretty nice, most are patient enough, and for the most part, pretty civil.

The truth is, I'm not much for crowds. We drive a large truck out of necessity, and navigating packed parking lots isn't all that much fun. Once my level of personal-space weirdness starts to subside, the quality of people-watching is fantastic, second only to the early-bird buffet at a casino.

We took the free shuttles all along the South Rim, and found the service friendly, convenient and much preferable to driving and parking. The next time we visit the Grand Canyon, we would also opt for taking the train from Williams, and leave the fat-ass truck behind.

If you've never been to the Grand canyon, you really should get there, and if you're young and supple, take the Bright Angel Trail to the bottom of the Canyon. Failing that, there are mules that will gladly suffer your weight and take you to the river a mile below the rim.

Be patient, enjoy the fresh Arizon air and vast expanses of scenery, and notch the Grand Canyon into your memory book. 

Williams, Arizona 
Williams, Arizona
There's more to come. Our next jump is a shorter one. Stay tuned.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

After three and a half months at Mancos State Park, we finally had to maneuver the rig out of our comfy, tree-shaded spot and head south. Maneuver isn't the right word. Trailer tango works better. First, trim off a couple of low-hanging snags from the Ponderosa pines next to the trailer. Second, hook up the trailer, and pull it forward and slightly to the right about eight feet. Third, drop the jacks and unhook the rig. Then drive around to the other side and reconnect the trailer at a hard right angle. Then, ease it out, give it the gas, check the lights and brakes, and make for the border.

We certainly had mixed feeling about leaving Mancos, but snow isn't one of our favorite flavors, and I can't wear white after Labor Day, so travel we must.

Our destination, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Our goals were to capture some of the iconic desert scenery, see how well we do at boondocking (no hookups for our rig) and patronize the businesses of the Navajo Nation.

I could write pages and pages on the hardscrabble ways of the tribes of the Southwest, how hard it is to make a living in the desert, and how easy it is to ignore the plight of the Navajos and other tribes, but suffice it to say that this isn't an easy place to live. Creature comforts are hard to come by, water is a commodity that has to be hauled in on a daily basis, and those roadside stands where locals sell silver jewelry and fry bread represent the fine line between groceries, shelter, heat, and poverty.

We could have parked the rig at Goosenecks State Park, Utah and driven through the valley, but after being parked for a few months, we preferred a bit more company. Goosenecks is remote and beautiful, situated atop the bluffs that overlook the San Juan River meanders, but it is remote enough that leaving our rig there all day unattended is a calculated risk. See also Moki Dugway and Muley Point Overlook. The solution seemed to be Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Getting there is a pretty easy haul from the La Platas, though the roads are a bit dicey in places. Your family sedan will not have issues, but our 25,000-pound truck and trailer can be heard complaining as we negotiate the bumps and uneven highways.

Entering the park costs $20 for up to four adults, above and beyond the fees to park your rig. That entry is good for four days, and I was able to come and go as needed to refuel and grab supplies. We pulled in and picked our parking spot, and eventually got levelled up. The sites are not all that flat, and we had to take a couple stabs at it to get situated. Cycling the hydraulics this way chewed up precious battery capacity. We got everything stabilized, and headed over to the hotel and restaurant complex for dinner.

Large portions and pretty good service, exit through the gift shop for guitar-case stickers, and back home for a good night's sleep. The park is quiet at night, and the Milky Way is close enough to touch.

The next morning looks like this:

This is why we came. There are amazing views from our front door, the back window and all around. We ran our generator for a couple of hours to put a top charge on the battery, and then took off for the three-hour tour of the Valley Road. We passed the Mittens, the buttes, and countless rock formations, named and unnamed. The road is primitive, and the ruts and grooves are filling-jarring, at least with our heavy truck. A smaller, more lightly-sprung vehicle would be an advantage here, but we meandered and gaped at the sheer scale of the rock formations. Photographs don't do these places justice,  because without something to add a sense of scale, the house-sized rocks and the massive buttes and mesas are just too difficult to describe.

Not a real dog.

Remember when Benjamin got his cocktail party advice in The Graduate? "Plastics!" If I could go back in time and give myself advice, it would be "Rental RVs!" There is a rolling army of rentals roaming the Southwest. When I got up Thursday morning, twenty-four of the thirty-four RV spaces were taken up with rentals.

Considering that most of these rigs rent for upwards of $150 a day with limited mileage, there is a boatload of accumulated cost sitting here. 

Then again, look at the view behind the rental RVs sitting on their unlevel spaces.

Right across highway 163 from the tribal park is Goulding's RV resort, a full-service complex with groceries, fuel and another hotel. Another tank of diesel, an



View from Artist's Point, Valley Loop Road

Next stop, the Grand Canyon. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mancos State Park For The Summer

Let's get something straight right from the start, it's Man-cuss, emphasis first syllable, not Man-cose. I know what it looks like, and it doesn't matter. Mancos. Gateway to Mesa Verde, halfway to Durango, and pretty easy to miss if you're not paying attention.

We had been through the area twice before, in 2005 and 2007, and in both cases, we were headed somewhere else, probably Durango to ride the train, smell the coal smoke and coffee, and start our way back to Kansas City.

This year was different in so many ways. Mancos was our destination, at the invitation of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, as we have put Kansas City well behind us. There is no home in Kansas City to return to.

Our time here is to be as Campground Hosts, volunteers in service to the park. Our function here is largely janitorial, cleaning restrooms and getting just-vacated campsites prepped for their next occupants.

Mancos State Park sits astride Jackson Reservoir, with campgrounds on both sides, and the La Plata mountains as the backdrop to the east. The campgrounds are nestled in among tall Ponderosa Pines, accented with low scrub oaks and the occasional cottonwood and aspen tree. Mancos State Park is high on a ridge overlooking the Mancos Valley and Mesa Verde National Park. The added elevation, coupled with the dense forest setting means that the park, in the dead of summer, is ten to fifteen degrees cooler than the Four Corners region. The net result is a constant parade of Arizona and New Mexico license plates into the park, some on vehicles bearing campers, some with anglers looking for trout in the lake.

The park is a jewel, operated to the highest standards by a small but dedicated team of rangers, staff and volunteers. If we had doubts about other parks in Colorado, this place put them all to rest. There are few things here that eat you - no ticks or chiggers, a few mosquitoes that don't seem to care for human blood, and non-aggressive black bears.

The quiet here is palpable, to the point of distraction. The skies are dark at night, probably a  couple of orders of magnitude this side of the darkest skies in North America.

Then again, there's the dust. Many of the streets in the Town of Mancos are not paved, the same with the road into the park, the park roads and the county road across the dam. The locals defend against the brown patina by buying white trucks. I am not a local. I have a black truck. It hasn't been clean since we got here. A small price to pay, I think.

The area is as varied as it is beautiful, from desert landscapes in the Four Corners, where Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona all meet, to the winding mountain roads of the backcountry in the National Forest and the stunning Million Dollar Highway between Durango and Montrose. All-terrain vehicles are as common as bicycles here, and much more practical for backcountry outings than your basic mini-van.

If your camping style runs to aluminum slums with huge rigs all plugged in, this isn't your park. Except for two high-country-style yurts, the thirty-two campsites are without hookups of any kind, and the west side doesn't even have water spigots. Tents, small trailers, and a few self-contained rigs are the order of the day here.

Camping here is a mere eighteen dollars a day, plus the standard seven dollar Colorado day pass.

We said at the beginning of this adventure that some place might speak to us, might encourage us to again put down roots. This place has already made our short list of candidate destinations. You should come see it. If you come next summer, we'll be here again.

Here are a few visual highlights of the park and the area around the Four Corners:

Our time here is almost up. We leave soon for The Monument Valley, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas for the winter. We have friends to see in Galveston, then we'll backtrack to a park near Austin for November and December. There are bathrooms that need cleaning, and we know just the people for the job.

Stay tuned.