Time Out In Marfa, Texas

Published January 2017 with http://www.fempotential.com/marfa-texas/

Here is a copy of the text for you.

January was a good time to take a road trip, the holidays are over and nothing’s going on. Although, I’ll be honest, having been land-locked in Madrid NM for four months with only a couple of weekends away, town was feeling claustrophobic. It was driving me crazy. Winter so far in New Mexico has been pretty gentle with little snow and mild temperatures, nothing to challenge or keep me engaged. My home was finally finished enough to stay warm and comfortable, and with that in mind, I rented it for a week onAirbnb, packed the camper van, and took off south. I needed a break. I needed a plan of action. What next? How can I make a living as a travel writer? Or as a traveling writer? What’s the big deal about Marfa? Why go there?

Marfa, TX is a small town of 2,000 in far western Texas near the Davis Mountains. Big Bend National Park is 135 miles due south.  Would I head that far south? Who knew.

The night before I left town, it snowed. A good few inches covered the roads and Ortiz Mountains and in a 2wd van, the worries got to me and I didn’t sleep so well. Should I take the interstate instead of a country highway? Which would be safer? Highway 285 was shorter but would there be enough traffic to be safe? Ah, to hell with it, I needed an adventure. Highway 285 from Santa Fe was mostly clear but for some slush and a few snow banks, the traffic was light, and my pets cranky. Rosie, a lab mix, couldn’t settle down. She’d sit in the passenger seat, bounce down, push Harold off the bed in the back. Repeat. For nine hours. Stevie, the cat, hid under the bed, sulking. Poor Harold, a big baby of an Akita mix, shrugged at Rosie’s pacing energy. I drank cold coffee and kept on driving. I needed a time-out. Just like Rosie.

So, yes, why did I head to Marfa? Probably because the forecast was for it to be warm enough for tee shirts in the afternoons, plus some good friends of mine love the place. Suzie is an artist and she’d told me some of the history of Marfa. In the 1970’s, a famous New York artist, Donald Judd moved out to Marfa and created an outdoor sculpture garden of his works in concrete. The Chinati Foundation has become one of the major draws to the town, with celebrities, artists of all mediums, and tourists who all flock to the compound on the edge of town. There is also her favorite place, the Hotel Paisano, where James Dean last acted in a movie before his death. Marfa is now known for its history, the Hotel Paisano, the art galleries, the Public Radio station, and even the Marfa Music Festival in March. It has a lot to live up to.

We arrived late that weekend night and set up camp at Tumble In RV campground on the eastern side of town. I’d picked it deliberately for the proximity to town, its claim to having a walkable path into the downtown district (it didn’t), and a space for tents and campers not just RVs. Late at night, a sub-freezing night, after nine hours driving through snow half of that time, I was depleted and yes, as cranky as my critters. Tumble In was not as I’d hoped. The tent camping area is a bare patch of cut tumbleweeds with strips of gravel to show where to park. No shelter, no picnic tables, no grills or firepits. It was basically a parking lot. I hated it. So did the dogs and Little Stevie, my cat. Too many burrs, no shade, nowhere to walk as we were fenced in by barbwire and three-foot tall weeds. The shower in the morning made up for it. That and a cup of coffee.  Then once refreshed and in a better mood, I looked for a camp host but no, there wasn’t one, just a self-check in booth within a vintage travel trailer. Walking the pups around the RV park, I noticed the overflow area to the rear of the land, closer to the railway but away from the highway and parking lot. With no one to tell me otherwise, I set up camp back there and with Stevie locked in the camper, the dogs and I walked along the path to town. We had to scramble quite a bit so don’t expect a clear pathway to follow, we crossed an arroyo and down a sandy bank to get to a paved street.

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It was a Sunday morning, the church bells were ringing, and having drunk a good cup of coffee at the van, my mood improved with the sunshine and clear skies. The railway was surprisingly busy with three trains shipping containers and vehicles eastward all morning, yet I was still able to let the dogs run free along the track for a while. Until the rabbits tempted them onto the highway to the south of us and my tensions grew again. Damn it. I came here to relax, right? Putting them on leashes is never an easy accomplishment –  they’re country dogs and I’m lazy. Oh well. You do what you have to.

Judd’s minimalist aesthetic really has taken a hold of town; it was a quirky mix of old adobe structures, with rusted iron window frames and clean lines of new concrete. I liked the juxtaposition of old and new but how was it for the long-term residents to see their homes and town be so gentrified? The streets were empty though, that sleepy Sunday feeling perhaps? No, the rest of the week there, it was rare to see anyone walking around. There were few options for hanging out or talking to locals. There were few options for distractions from other people at all. I was alone with my thoughts as usual.

Walking down Austin Street, I came across a laundromat with a handful of folks sitting outside sipping coffees. Frama café didn’t exactly advertise itself but word of mouth and being the only café to be found, it stayed busy enough I guess. I got to chat a little to the others sitting outside, one fella brought Harold and Rosie a bowl of water, and we talked art, travels, and Texas. Most of them were new to town with a newcomer’s energy for the place. I still hoped to find a local who’d grown up in Marfa but never did. The latte was great though but a bagel or something to eat would have helped. Ice cream was the only option, and although it was tempting I didn’t get any. Another time perhaps? Nope, I stuck to coffee there for the next few days. It became our routine to walk to town mid-morning, exploring the four corners of town, and finishing up at Frama. Where was the breakfast place? I lived off the odds and ends in the cooler at the van instead. Oh well. My expectations were nicely lowered after a few days and I began to enjoy town for what it offered. Even the Tumble In campground grew on me for being bare bones, with hot water, little interaction and no one watching over my critters running free.

With a full moon, the Marfa Lights were not to be seen. Have you heard of them? First noticed in the 1880s by a cowboy, there is still no solid explanation for these colored lights that dance in the dark nights outside on Highway 90. My timing once again was against me; it was too bright for me to see anything. Next time? I’d better do some research before I head on another trip as this one to Marfa was the most disorganized possible. My timing sucked constantly. The best part for me in Marfa was that we walked everywhere for a week. The rest of my days I filled my notebook with web addresses and contact info for freelance writers. Researching different tangential ideas kept me busy and the sketch book let me switch off the word-brain in the evenings. As there were few businesses open at the start of the week, and little to see with high-end stores offering treats for the wealthy, but still I got to relax. I enjoyed wandering the wide empty western streets. Trucks slowed down for the pups and I, waved at us, and carried on slowly out of town. Wherever I wandered, I’d see the Presidio Courthouse. It’s an incredibly beautiful old three-story building that fills the town plaza with all roads bringing you back to the spires. It dates back to 1886 and I walked inside one afternoon, curious to see if I could climb the tower to look out the windows facing each direction. It was closed for cleaning but still worth climbing the wooden stairs that opened onto lawyer’s offices on each level based around a central rotunda. I was alone and the peace of the extensive views impressed me deeply, a sense of history and wonder.

 

Hotel Paisano was just around the corner and it quickly became my afternoon choice. The Trost building dates to 1929, and opened only just before the Great Depression. It became a place for ranchers and tourists to stay as they crossed Texas. In 1955 Warner Bros came to town to film Giant with Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Jett’s Bar is named after Dean’s character and the walls are covered with old photographs from that era. I sat at the bar one day, eating a salad from their limited menu, and chatted to Herb who was visiting. He came from Las Cruces, NM, and was a pilot for a wealthy family who’d come to Marfa for hunting but he didn’t specify what or where.  With a beer in hand, I then sat outside and that’s where I recommend fully. The building is Spanish style with a main courtyard with a fountain and tables in sun and shade. Perfect. I sat and read and listened into the conversations around me. I came back two other afternoons. Now that made me feel like I was truly on holiday. Finally.

The small-town logistics could be challenging for some city folk but since I live in Madrid, NM with a population of 350, this wasn’t a big impact on me. There were limited options for eating out, I didn’t find a decent grocery store, nor ATMs but then again, I’d come with a wallet of cash and a cooler of food in the camper van. I have a feeling my timing really was off, and that in spring and summer, town wakes back up. I’m okay with that though. I like low-key artsy towns. With no traffic lights, Marfa lulled me into a slower pace of life. It worked its magic on me. Afternoons, I’d sit outside the van in the sun and draw out quirky characters or I’d brainstorm on how to keep traveling and writing for a living. I came up with some ideas but it’s hard to make it freelance. I figured out that it’s worth me faking it until I make it. That’s the best I can do for myself.

The Chinati Foundation finally drew me in on the last day in the area. I put down my notebook and we drove over there early one morning. I’d not been too keen to be honest, as a field of concrete sculptures didn’t appeal. It was free so why not, right? I’m glad I went though. With the critters set up in the camper parked in the shade of a huge Cottonwood, I wandered into the main building and asked for the self-guided tour of the gardens. The young woman behind the counter waved me over to the path and asked me not to climb the structures. Nothing more than that, no stories, no information, just “Stay off”.

Okay, okay, so walking down past the other buildings, I strode down the slight hill to the open land with a stripe of fifteen groups of concrete slabs. From north to south, there are Judd’s famous works in concrete, a very minimalistic contemporary feel that reminds me of inner cities in the seventies. Unprepared for the magical energy, I stood and stared at the first group. Three structures made of upright walls of concrete with another identically sized slab across the top. An open-ended room in a sense. Walking to the next group, it occurred to me that I was alone on this kilometer-long pathway. In the field nearby, a small herd of Pronghorn antelope watched me nervously.

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Slowly as I wandered around these works, a peace settled on me, reminiscent of living at a Buddhist retreat in the UK years ago. A calmness came from the simplicity of how Judd played with one size of solid cleanly poured concrete slabs, putting them together in different figurations. There was nothing to explain why it appealed to me so much but an hour later, I walked out of Chinati with a relaxed smile and feeling expansive. Yep, I’d go back. First though, it was time to head north to Madrid, NM, to set up my home for another vacation rental. Yes, Marfa. I get it now. And I had a plan.

Travel can help people in so many ways. One woman took a time out type of trip to Marfa, Texas, and was inspired with a plan for her future as a travel writer.

Year End Lists

It’s the end of the year, a time for us to look back at what we did or didn’t do. Those lists and resolutions from last winter haunt us. I’m a wanderer who settled for the last eight years to build a home for myself, a home-base that is. My goals had included writing and traveling again. Goals met. I’m going to list mine in the hope that it’ll inspire you to look at your year behind and the one ahead. It helps me to see things written down by making my ideas more tangible somehow, more solid.

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Articles published in MAQ, Classic Land Rover Magazine, LRO Magazine, the Examiner, and on a couple of online small forums. Not bad, but I want to publish more, focus more on sending out and finding outlets for my storytelling.  I sent out two more travel articles this week. It’s a start. One step at a time, day by day, I aim to keep going.

Books published include two travelogues Bring a Chainsaw and Van Life.  There are also three photo books, photo essays if you like, taken from our travels around the States. Van Life and Dirt Roads And Dogs, the last one calledLittle Stevie’s Travels is in review. Oh, and one of my novels won Best LGBT Fiction in the 2016 NM/AZ Book Awards.

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It doesn’t feel like it, but we drove around a lot this last year. Here’s a list of the States we got to visit while looking for campgrounds, lakes, books and breweries. Passing through some of them a few times, we took backroads, found rivers to paddle in, and set up camp for three months over summer. Some of these places are one’s I kept returning to while based in New Mexico such as the Jemez Mountains in NM, Pagosa Springs in CO and down through Tijeras, NM on the way to other places!

  • Colorado
  • Arizona
  • Wyoming
  • Montana
  • Washington
  • Oregon
  • Idaho
  • New Mexico

Now though, it’s time for me to look ahead even as I write up my notes from the last year. If you  have any specific questions for me, let me know. I can give routes, campgrounds, and local information for many wonderful off-beat rural towns.

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The next post will be a few of my top ten picks. Top Ten Destinations. Top Ten Campgrounds. If you have any suggestions, again, let me know. Take care and Happy New Year!

 

5 Travel Tips to stay sane on the road.

It’s that time of year when it’s cold enough to make us research next year’s vacation. Or it is for me. Winter, I like it, I like the cold weather and toasty woodstoves, but dreams come thick and fast. The internet catches me for hours as I research new ideas and new destinations. Talking around the fire with friends over Christmas inspired me even more to plan the next big travels. With that in mind, here are five travel tips for the year ahead, I hope it helps.

  1. DO THE RESEARCH:  with notebooks, the web, and a basic outline, I strongly recommend doing some research. Go beyond Google’s first page and look deeper, follow the tangents, discover blogs and forums. Last winter the Expedition Portal caught my attention. The depth and breadth of posts was initially overwhelming but I discovered that although the regional sub forums were the busiest, their focus was more on short day trips and four-wheeling. Go instead to the trip reports and the in progress travelogues for true inspiration. Travelers like myself post photos, routes and even favorite campgrounds along the backroads. Ultimate Public Campgrounds is my favorite app with all the links, directions, photos, websites and even directions for all the public camping areas in both Canada and the US. Great stuff. Benchmark Maps is the other main resource I take with me because of the detailed notes on each kind of road, campgrounds, and historical notations.
  2. DON’T OVER PLAN! No, I’m not contradicting myself, honestly. However, so many people on the road get caught in the trap of keeping to schedules and timelines. For me, an outline, a body of research for options, and then the ability to see a signpost for a lake and follow that side road makes for the strongest memories. My weakness is for a hidden lake in a mountain valley so that’s what tempts me most. What’s yours? Keep your eyes open and itinerary flexible.
  3. STAY ENGAGED: With the road endlessly stretching ahead of you, it’s easy to lose track of why you’re driving. It’s not just get to the next destination, is it? Curiosity drives me, keeps me engaged and when I’ve cut myself off from the environment and focused on reaching the next pit stop, my travels become meaningless, or at least forgettable. With a handful of local newspapers, some novels written set in that area, or taking time to visit historic markers while chatting to residents at the diner, that’s how you’ll feel much more connected to each place and its people.
  4. EAT WELL: In the van the box under the bed is full of the staples that keep me sane or at least full for those days each week when I just don’t want to drive to another grocery store because I like where we are. After months on the road last summer, it became a weekly habit to restock with fresh vegetables, fruit, cheese and even creamer for the morning coffee. I’d eat salads for a few days, then move onto the eggs and veggie omlettes, and towards the end of the week, back to the canned soups, nuts, beans and chiles. When shopping, I planned for a week at a time, knowing that I’d need to eat the fresher foods for a few days, a mix of shelf-stable items, and then left-overs. If you have a fridge, it’s different of course but this mindset will help the backroad campers like us.
  5. BE PREPARED FOR THE UNEXPECTED: Yes, we all know that shit happens but are we ready for the van to breakdown? Will you still have food and water? What happens if the front wheel wants to fall off on Independence Day like mine did? Phone calls to mechanics unable to help, driving around terrified we’d get stuck in Bellingham on the side of a main highway, I drove us to Anacortes, WA, and camped on the marina’s parking lot with their permission. I waited it out, had food, and with the security guard keeping an eye out on us, felt safe to wait out the holiday weekend. And if the pets got sick suddenly? Those two dogs and a cat that I travel with? The smartphone gives me access to finding a vet, and the first aid kit under the bed can take care of more injuries than I’d hope to experience. It’s okay though, this happens, dogs spike themselves, bleed profusely, and still live on. It happens at home and on the road. I sit back, bandage Rosie up, and make a cup of tea. It’s a fact of life, right? Yep.

Now, go out and buy some maps, sit back and plan another trip okay? Then tell me about it!

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Want a free book?

Click on the link for a chance to win a free copy of VAN LIFE. Only via the app though so pull out your android and click away.
https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/54f123647530401f

 

Van Life: Exploring the Northwest with two dogs, a cat and a van

It’s true. A new book of my travel stories just came out. It’s a work in progress so forgive the mistakes, I’m working on it! This travelogue follows our adventures in the Northwest, the details about the small places we found along the way, the people we met, and the critter’s advice when I was having a hard time. Lighthearted and engaging.

Thanks!

Writer’s Life: a morning on the road

Pagosa Springs, my home away from home, thank you for being there when needed.

Mary suggested I post my home on Airbnb since the bus was already bringing in an income. Why not? she said. Okay, so I did just that. I added the homestead, and forgot about it. My smartphone beeped at me. A notification from Airbnb. I accepted without even really reading the information. The next morning, another beep confirmed the booking of my home. My home. Oh shit, I have to clean.

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Two days later, the floors were swept, bedding changed, fridge and oven scrubbed, and new towels laid out. The critters followed me nervously, unsure as to what all this meant. On opening the van and throwing in the cooler and extra blankets, Harold, the Collie/ Akita mix claimed the bed. Rosie, the Lab/ Akita mix took the front seat, passenger as she knows better than to try driving. Little Stevie, a fluffy white cat, popped up onto the top shelf, purring away in time to the engine.

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Pagosa Springs then, you saw this coming, didn’t you? Yes, an easy drive for three hours to town, stopping only one on the way for the emptying of bladders big and small. With a sandwich in hand, I nervously watched the cat follow the dogs into the trees. Trust. You have to trust him, I muttered and then stalked them all.

October in Pagosa is cold. Much colder than I’d thought, not that I’d really thought about it, I’d just loaded us up and left the home in pretty good condition. At Williams Creek Reservoir, the parking area had few vehicles, picnics and fishing rods at hand.

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“The campgrounds closed on the 26th. Three days ago,” says the Texan couple in their thick winter jackets. “You can’t camp here.” She stared at me and the critters who roamed and peed freely.

“Okay.”

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The sunrise that next morning over the lake was incredible. Just us. I bundled up and made coffee outside. Little Stevie was in heaven with trees, grass, and water, and no others to scare the bugger, he wandered around, meowed when he lost sight of me, and ran back under the van when I called, anyone hungry?

How can I just up and go like this? I blame my parents for taking us everywhere in the old Rover and Volvos. I blame my friend Shaun  for reminding me of the restlessness inside me. Casey sat me down at the computer one day and we played online, her showing me how to make an income from writing, editing, talking about what I do and love. It’s like Netflix, people are willing to pay to be entertained and inspired. And yes, I blame Mary for putting my home on Airbnb.

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It’s been a year of making changes, of understanding how to bring in the money to pay for a lifestyle I crave. My books, yes, I have five books out and they sell slowly but surely. Four novels, two of which have won Best Fiction in the NM/ AZ Book Awards, another was a finalist. The travel essays came out this year and took me up and across the NW, selling them as I drove around.
Editing, proof-reading, helping new writers publish online, writing press releases, writing blogs like this, reviewing books, and working on another book of my own. I stay busy.

I admit though, that I get nervous at times. Nothing lined up, just winging it as they say, but I’m more alive now than I have been for the last four years at the job in town. I’m officially self-employed these days. I love it. Mostly.

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After lounging around, making breakfast next to the lake, I wait until Stevie is tired and has gone back to bed inside Van Dreamy. I close the door and whistle for the pups. Time for a hike around the lake. It’s a blustery day, cool, and the trees are turning, leaves fluttering onto the path. I skip though the woods and cross the dam. Yes, it’s October. Winter is coming. I can’t wait.

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The dogs watch me eat. Begging? Us, no, never, oh look at that squirrel! They look away.

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Stevie wanders around, watching the fish flash by in the river.

We walk in the morning frost. I warm up by a campfire and cook again. I settle down for another nap. Life is good. Fear slips in, a moment here, a thought that questions my sanity, and then a golden leaf falls onto the laptop and the spell is broken. The spell is remade. I’m happy.

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In town, I soak at the free hot springs under the bridge. Since August, someone’s built up the rocks, making a twelve foot pond, and my muscles relax into the heat. I chat to a few other van dwellers but happily leave them to it so to walk the dogs around town before hitting the grocery store. The cottonwood leaves are like the colors of pears, mangos, and apples.

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This week away from home is the first since leaving Trader Joes. The first time in four years that I can be spontaneous, hit the road, and know I’m still working in a sense. Back at camp in the mornings, I pull out the table, the laptop, write up notes for Betsy about her children’s book. I check the photographs. I research nonfiction essays, reading from other’s recommendations of past and present authors. I make notes for myself. Then it’s time for another mug of coffee, a walk down the river, another log on the fire, and a braod grin. I’m a writer. This is my life now. Camping, driving, writing. I can do it after all…

Why did it take me so long though? Fear. Laziness. A resigned focus on home and job. It wore me down. This though, the quiet nights either at home or in the van, the reading, the writing, and sending out proposals and ideas, this life wakes me up. The writer’s life is one for me.

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Pagosa Springs, once again, had been a welcome home for the week, but then it was time to head back and see what the renters had done to my place. The money paid for this trip but I worried about the consequences. Rightly so as it happens: I wish I’d known to lock up my papers, my cupboards, but naively I left them to it. Another lesson learned. I’ll tell you later, when I talk about the fears, we can mix and match stories for once…

Anacortes, WA and beyond

Dirt pile. Tall and wide. Thick forests. Cranky cat. Tired driver. Dogs restless. I pull over and let everyone out. We’re hidden behind this huge dirt pile, nose of van poking out, me squatting like Rosie. Finally a moment to stretch our legs after a long and wonderful day. But long. I’d been driving for too long.

We’d left Anacortes earlier that day, not a great place for Stevie, but the marina was good for me. Watching all the sailboats on the water, hearing the chatter from the sails flapping, the chance to do laundry, walk the dogs on a beach, sit at an outdoor bar, yes it was worth $20 a night.

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Taking the ferry across from Couperville to Port Townsend on the July 4th weekend, we were lucky to get tickets on their busiest weekend. Not being sure how the critters would fare on the ferry, I’d stopped earlier on an empty beach for us all to wander round until they chose to get back inside. Perfect. On the ferry, because of the size of the van, I got to park up front, facing out on that grey morning. I tied Stevie down, gave everyone a treat, closed up the windows and left them too it as I explored. Love ferries.

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On the Olympic peninsula my day went downhill. The noise in the van was back, sometimes. The critters were tired of being inside. And I had no idea where we’d camp. That’s what it often boils down to. If I don’t have a plan, I’m stressed, needing a focus point. Which brings me back to that gravel pile on the side of a small road heading west from Clallam Bay across to Ozette, it was the last chance at a campground, all the others had been fully booked and the forest roads were neither obvious nor easy for a van like mine.

A volvo pulled up. Fuck. Really? I wave frantically at the car, asking it to slow down, give me time to grab the cat who is standing in the open. Stevie in hand, I walk back to the van, muttering evil thoughts to myself. Why here? Why not park somewhere else?

“Harold!” A voice calls out behind me. Stevie tucked in the van, I turn to see Dawn climb out of the Volvo, another woman with her. My brain can’t compute. Huh.

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“Dawn? Is this Annie? Dawn? How the hell?”

Dawn’s laughing, Harold is barking, Rosie is running around like a dervish, and Annie says “hello Sleam, I’ve heard about you! Dawn recognised Harold and the van. You’re not camping here are you?”

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Lake Ozette, a little used national park campground, rustic, bathrooms but nothing else, pack-it-in and pack-it-out. I follow the volvo as we drive through the campground once. It’s full. There is nowhere else. Damn. I’m tired and hungry but no longer worried. My closest friend is here, Dawn! She lives in Seattle, we’d met in Madison twenty plus years ago, and she’d even joined me just a week ago camping near Arlington. I’d not expected to see her again for a few years…

“IS that a campsite?” Annie asks as we walk around, stretching our legs. “It is! Quick, claim it, stay here, I’ll go get the car.”

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Dawn and I hang out in the small clearing, and catch up on the last week’s adventures, laughing at the chances of running into each other here, in the middle of nowhere. Annie pulls up, opens up the Volvo, and the dogs find her cooler.

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La Push, and Mora National Park campground is the next day’s goal. Independence Day, and we are lucky to find a secluded site in the trees, with a sense of privacy unexpected in a place with over 90 sites. Stevie gets to run around too, always the hope. The ravens hated him though, would dive at him, crow at him, harrass him, until he froze in the trees and I’d fetch him back to the motel van. Poor bugger. The eagles hovered over the beaches. Washington coast was not a kitty friendly place, just so you know.

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The next couple of days were perfect. Dawn, Annie, and I made great meals, campfires, sat and chatted until tired, and then since Dawn knew the area, we went to her favourite beaches and walked in the rainy afternoons. Yep, I liked it. Rialto Beach is worth visiting. Even on a busy weekend like July 4th, we had the space to run and hang out and not feel the pressure of containing my pups too much.

Dawn and Annie left me there, duty called back in the city. For me, the sea called. The dogs and I walked as often as we could, and in the mornings it was quiet enough to let Stevie wander on the sand with us.
And that my friends is all I experienced of the Olympic Peninsula. Oh, apart from all the signs for that bigotted presidential candidate that made my stomach turn and the van keep driving. Southwards…

Jemez National Forest, NM

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Ollie: Can I chase it?

Rosie: Can I lick it?

Harold: Can I eat it?

Me: Can I write about it?

Given these four personalities, I’d say that this quick trip to the Jemez Mtns was a success. I’d had a itch to camp atleast one more time before the nights are too wicked cold. Mid October at this altitude is risky weather wise. Last year at this time I drove to Sugarite State Park and it rained, hailed and even snowed briefly during the night, so cold that Ollie shook under the covers and all three dogs cuddled close in the back of the 4Runner. I thought I was more prepared this time. I wasn’t! I discovered that I’d forgotten plate, mug, bowl, coffee filters and toothbrush. I must remember to check the list before I leave home.

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We threw the black camping box in the back, tore off the blankets and covers from my bed, packed a small cooler and headed out for the mountains. We took a couple of pitstops on the way but I craved the Jemez Creek and that became the first stretching of legs. Highway 4 heads up from San Ysidro on Hwy 550 that takes you to Farmington area. A little past the Jemez Peublo village, there are NF fishing access and picnic areas on the river. We took our time and the dogs ran free. Rosie paddled. Harold hangs over the edge, scared of falling in.

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Up the hill a few miles is the turn-off for NF road 376 which takes you through the Gilman Tunnels. I carried on the paved Highway 4 instead, keen to get to Fenton Lake State Park. I hadn’t been there for five years or more and had a vague memory of another small lake within a thick woodland, somewhat like Morphy Lake.

The water sparkled, the entrance fee was $5, and the place was busy. A Monday morning in October is the time for family fishing. I drove through, had a looksie, and headed back down hill past the road works. I’ll come back after I’ve done more research and bought myself that annual State Park pass for only $180. It’s on my list.

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A national forest road on the left, NF144, took my fancy. I wonder if I remembered it from my obsessive map-reading? The dirt road quickly took us deep into the mountains, canyons, and thick ponderosas. I pulled off at an obvious dispersed campsite a mile in. I let the dogs out.

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A meadow, campfire, shade, and a closed off road into the hills, this was perfect. I pulled out the camping box, the three dog beds, and two folding chairs… yes, I bring two and set them up around the fire-pit, cups and books beside each one. I figure I’m less likely to get any unwanted attention if it looks like two people and three dogs are camped there.

We hiked and walked and dogs played and I sat on the grass and drank a beer. We repeated this three times one afternoon and twice in the morning. I couldn’t stop smiling at the perfect weather, sunshine, Aspens’ golden leaves, and life on the whole. The beer was chilled too.

The day passed quickly, a fire kept me warm and the dogs pre-heated my bed in the truck.

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In the morning, I decided we’d head further north and west on these roads. It looked like NF 144 would circle around to the east but that I could take NF 315 west towards 126 and Cuba, NM. Cuba has a gas station on the north side of town with the best homemade burritos I’ve had.

The road quickly narrowed as it climbed. I stopped at one overlook and quickly panicked that the dogs would chase a squirrel over the edge and fall thousands of feet into the canyon below. We drove on. After taking some photos.

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The sign said that the road ahead was Limited Use, not for wet-weather and only high clearance. It was a sunny day and the 4Runner has good clearance and big tires. I drove on. Apparently those ranger’s signs mean, don’t drive down here unless you have a 4×4 short wheel base, lifted, locked AND you know what to do. My mistake. 

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The road became rocky, sandy, narrow, huge drop offs, no turning around. I kept on. A tree blocked the road. I stopped the truck and walked down. Yes, there was a way around the tree, through a thick bed of sand, but why? I had a sick stomach, and no back-up plans. I walked back to Faith The 4Runner and got the dogs to lie down so I could see out the windows on this hillside. A five point turn, and we slowly drove back up the way we came.

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Heading back down Hwy 126 towards Jemez Springs, I turned south on NF 376, a familiar graded easy dirt road. My stomach rumbled. The dogs hung out the windows. I pulled over at another campsite next to the Jemez Creek. They played. I heated corn tortillas, cheese, and green chile. We even got to drive through the Gilman Tunnels after all. They’d been built in 1924 by the Santa Fe Northern Railway for hauling lumber out of the mountains but after the Wall Street Crash, the SFNR never fully recovered and the railway stopped running in 1941. The first time I drove up here this May 2015 I had no idea. I came around the corner and suddenly  saw these beautiful short incredible to think about tunnels. The canyon drops off to the side with the Rio Guadalupe flowing fast far below. Beautiful.

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Yep, it was a successful trip. I get scared taking some of these roads but I know I’d regret it if I didn’t, if I’d stayed home instead. You see, I read maps, I read others’ trip reports, and I’m inspired. Always have been, even as a kid in the back of the Land Rover crossing Europe with my family, I read the maps and asked questions constantly then filled my scrapbooks with photos and stories. Somethings don’t change.

Backroads Camping in NM/ AZ (Part Three)

Magdelena, NM, was founded in 1884 and now has a population hovering around 1000 according to the census. There are no gas stations. Bummer.

I drove up to Datil, another 50 or so miles and pulled over. The wind was bellowing. In front of me, a little old lady climbed out of a Hyundai and her wig blew off. I waited 10 minutes for fuel. We head out again, this time stopping in Quemado. I realise we’d stayed in a small motel here some three years ago when traveling to AZLRO spring gathering in 2012. I’d been in a 1959 Land Rover and found a tire splitting. Opposite the motel was a tire shop. The dad of the girl running the motel. Yep, small towns. He set me up but overinflated everything. I’d driven off that time, pulled over and released some air before carrying on. This time, I took south turn and drove 15 miles towards Quemado lakes. Back on the NF roads, it was first Apache NF and then around the last corner at the lake it was Gila. I wanted to settle in for the night so we drove past the reservoir and headed back into the forest.

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I’d driven 280 miles in 7 hours. Oh well. I always wonder when I finally stop why it took me so long. This was well worth the wait. A primitive campsite, El Caso, free, pit-toilets, no water but for a creek, firepits (but it was too windy to dare). I let the dogs roam free and made frito pies for dinner. Followed by a beer and peanuts as I checked out the maps for the next day.

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The dogs are so good on these wanders of mine. They listen, stick close, pay attention, and take naps after dinner. Good dogs.

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Backroads Camping (Part 2)

US 60 reaches I25 and joins the interstate heading south. There is no frontage road, its the interstate south to Socorro or…I took a chance and followed a dirt road and turned west onto B12, and all dirt road that skirted Ladron Peak to the south of us. We took another break. Traveling my way is very slow by the way so don’t come with me unless you drive at a snails pace and get distracted frequently.

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The road was a mix of gravel and caliche, graded, wide and even. A good surface but still restricted to 25 mph most of the way. I did see a wooden sign with the words Magdelana 49 miles. I relaxed at that point. We were heading in the right direction.

I let the dogs out to run until we came to a junction. No signs. Both paths seemed to head in roughly the south-west direction so I took a chance. The road immediately narrowed, steeper and more intense. Uh oh. I kept going anyway. Why not, right? There were no other vehicles at all. I stopped at the peak of one range and looked down into the valley below, our road winding through the mountains ahead. Damn, it was windy and incredibly beautiful. Yep, much better than the fast I40.

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The road took to the hillside, dropping off to the wash below. I came around one corner and another junction without signs. I took the southern route and found ourselves facing a huge wide wash/ arroyo with water. I took a moment, slipped into 4WD and crossed the water and fingers. It was only inches deep after all! Oh well, I kept driving until we came to Magdelana. Those 49 miles took over 2 hours. It’s a good thing I wasn’t in a rush.

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