Cavalry fort and star gazing in Fort Davis, TX
For a couple hours this morning, it was cool enough to roll down the Winnebago Aspect motor home windows and smell the sagebrush as we drove across the desert in southwest Texas headed for Fort Davis.
An old Army freight wagon on the grounds at Fort Davis. The fort once housed 800 soldiers who provided protection for settlers, freight and travelers heading west to California.
Like most of this huge state, this is cowboy and Indian country and no small town in Texas says it better than Fort Davis and the nearby original army fort by the same name. Locals wear boots and hats and wide belts with big buckles. They are real, not the drug store cowboy types but the real working models. Most are long and lean, sport heavy sun baked tans and smile when they say “hello” passing on downtown streets. They wave to passing strangers from their dust colored pickup trucks which all carry at least one rifle racked in the back window and “Don’t mess with Texas” bumper stickers. It’s flat desert country with the Fort Davis Mountains in the distance and known as the highest town in Texas at just over 5,000 feet. Most every ranch flies an American and Texas flag.
The parade grounds at U. S. Army Fort Davis in southwest Texas.
Our campsite at Davis Mountain State Park near Fort Davis, TX.
Having grown up in an era when youngsters played cowboys and Indians, Fort Davis feels almost familiar after seeing replicas of the old army forts on local movie screen western movies. The fort is the largest and most well-preserved cavalry post in the west.
Fort Davis was built in the 1850’s along the fabled San Antonio to El Paso route in an effort to provide protection for westward bound settlers, mail, and freight through the dangerous Pecos region of West Texas. Seven forts were established along the route to protect travelers from frequent Comanche and Apache raids.
Records show that “In 1850 the largest supply train to use the road” left Fort Inge for El Paso with 340 wagons, 4000 animals, 450 civilians and 175 soldiers.
Some original fort buildings have been restored and open to the public. Foundations of others were also preserved, giving visitors a better understanding of the fort’s original layout.
McDonald Observatory, near Fort Davis, TX., houses the world’s third largest telescope.
Later in the day we drove the 74-mile Scenic Loop Road through the nearby mountains and canyons. The road begins and ends at Fort Davis.
On the second day of our stay, we visited the McDonald Observatory, which is less than 15 miles away from Fort Davis. Built on top of Mount Locke in 1939, the observatory at one time had the second largest telescope in the world. It is operated by the University of Texas. We took a tour of two of the 10 large telescopes at the facility, including the world’s third largest Hobby-Eberly Telescope, and heard an interesting presentation on ongoing observatory research including planetary systems and stars.
Visitors touring the McDonald Observatory.
One of the telescopes from the McDonald Observatory Visitors Center.
Scenery along the 73 mile Scenic Route Loop road through the Davis Mountains, near Fort Davis, TX.
Visitors to the area should not miss the Observatory tour. The high and dry peaks of the Davis Mountains make for some of the darkest and clearest night skies in the region. We visited during daytime when the observatory showed live photos of the sun but special nighttime viewing of star and planets visits are available.
From our campsite at Davis Mountain State Park, we watched a family of deer grazing alongside a nearby creek and mountain goats on a hill overlooking the campground.
NEXT: Las Cruses, New Mexico and Billy the Kid
Big Bend: Dry, dusty and hot
After three days in Big Bend National Park, Texas, we had seen enough scorched earth, rocks, cactus and desert heat and broke camp today, driving to Alpine, Texas to visit the nearby funky town of Marfa and hopefully fix the tow-car air-conditioning.
Big Bend was not a disappointment but day after day was more of the same. We had expected more, not sure what, but maybe we missed something. The scenery hardly changed from one location to another.
An overlook of the Rio Grande River and artwork, purchased on the honor system, left on a rock for visitors to Big Bend National Park.
First time visitors to one of the nation’s largest and among the least visited National Parks, should be prepared for the stark landscape and heat–even in April when we visited. Nights were nice and cool but by noon the temperature was hovering near the 100 degree mark every day and climbing. Don’t expect an afternoon rain shower to cool things a bit because it only rains here about 12-13 inches annually. Ain’t gonna happen.
It didn’t help that the air conditioning quit on our tow car the day we arrived. Sightseeing was comfortable in the morning without the cool air but unbearable mid-day and afternoon . The nearest mechanic was 100 miles away in Fort Stockton so we left the park and spent afternoons in the RV under Winnebago air.
The main national park campground supports RV’s and the facility is nice although somewhat tight. There’s a store for food and camping supplies at the campground and the Rio Grande River and the Republic of Mexico are within walking and wading distances. There are walking trails nearby.
A black hawk keeps watch over a nearby nest.
We camped at Stillwell Grocery, about eight miles north of the park boundary which has full camping services, including internet, but no cell phone connection. We paid the campground office a small fee to use their landline to make reservations tomorrow at Maverick RV Resort, Lajitas, TX. The hour ride to Lajitas took us through a different section of Big Bend with dramatic mountain scenery and some flat terrain and canyons on smooth paved roads.
Also, only the main roads are paved in the park. Side roads are all dirt or gravel.
RVers looking for a fancy place to stay will enjoy Maverick RV Resort. The entire community is part of one large development that includes a hotel, golf course, upscale restaurant and shopping. Martha noted in her trip journal that this place is so nice it almost seems out of place. The campground cost $45 a night but comes with full hookup which is hard to find in this part of Texas.
Unusual rock formations inside Big Bend National Park.
Early the next morning, mindful that we have no air conditioning in the tow car, we took a short drive on Highway 170 toward Presidio, TX. The highway follows the Rio Grande River which in some areas is not much wider than a creek and very shallow. Wading across the border here would not take much of an effort. There is no sign of civilization on the Mexico side of the river, other than a few grazing cows. Not far from town is an International Airport sign, which reflects the clientele the resort attracts. We could not see the airport for the mountains.
We are on the edge of the Big Bend National Park and frustrated with the heat and lack of air conditioning in the car and no mechanic within miles. Did I say it is really dry here? The only green spot is at the resort golf course where green grass greens and fairways stick out like a sore thumb, and this afternoon no golfers willing to challenge the heat.
Camping at Lajitas, TX., just outside Big Bend National Park, Texas.
There’s no economy here to speak of that we can see. Jobs are mostly clerical positions at the resort. The landscape mirrors areas of the national park–flat, hilly, dry, knee-high bushes, no trees and dead grass. Local residents are living in old school buses, trailers and shacks cobbled together with scrap lumber. Not sure some of the houses have electricity or running water.
We packed up the next morning and drove to Fort Davis where we will spend a couple nights and check out the small town for an air-conditioning expert.
NEXT: Marfa, TX., “Capital of Quirkiness.”
A roadrunner struts across the parking lot at Big Bend National Park Visitors Center. The roadrunner is the Texas state bird.
Quick trip through Jasper, Banff National Parks
It rained most of the evening and was still drizzling when we left Hinton, Alberta, Canada
drove back through Jasper and joined the tourist traffic south on the Icefield Parkway through Jasper and Banff National Parks.
We heeded the warnings to gas the RV before leaving Jasper since there are no service stations until Banff. There were no campground vacancies between Jasper and Canmore. Even the huge provincial parks were full. Martha managed to get a camp site in Calgary, a distance of 300 miles from Hinton where we left this morning.
Passing through Jasper National Park, there were plenty of turnoffs to view more mountain, lake and waterfalls scenery but parking lots were already full. We managed to find a parking spot in a large gravel lot in the Icefields area for one photo opportunity but gave up trying to find one at the Columbia Icefields Discovery Center. Tour buses, RV’s and automobiles got there ahead of us. Traffic was just as crowded as we drove through Banff National Park and chose to pass up Lake Louise.
Roadside wildlife was also sparse, spotting only one bighorn sheep but again, there was no place to park. Elk, deer and an occasional bear are commonly seen along the highway. We saw a small black bear in the Bow Lake area, eating berries alongside the highway. Mountains through the icefields were still topped with snow when we drove through the area.
Columbia Icefields in Jasper and Banff National Parks, Alberta, Canada. The icefields give visitors the opportunity to walk on a glacier.
We arrived into a KOA campground in west Calgary, Alberta at 5 pm. and parked in a hillside site that overlooked the downtown area. Calgary is a huge city of over a million people. Martha found a route that would bypass most of the city, which we took the following morning and drove all day through the Great Plains prairie region, passing miles and miles of waist high wheat, lots of dairy farms and other crops, including canola, almost ready for harvest. There was not a tree in site from horizon to horizon and the highway was smooth with little vehicle traffic. Farmers in the area bale hay alongside highways and center medians.
It felt like home when we passed through Canadian customs and into the small village of Sweetgrass, Montana, where we filled the RV with cheap gas and enjoyed a sandwich in a visitor center parking lot before getting onto Interstate 15 to Great Falls, Montana where we stayed two nights. The following day we cleaned the RV interior, took care of laundry duties and went grocery shopping before grilling Alaska sockeye salmon, fresh asparagus and corn, on the grill for dinner.
This trip started in May, 2016 in St. Augustine, Florida and continued across the United States, Canada and into Alaska, before turning around at Homer, AK.
DAYS ON THE ROAD: 86
TOTAL MILES ON THE ROAD: 9,512
GALLONS OF FUEL: 1,165
COST OF FUEL: $3,610
Bear watching in Hyder, AK
Hyder, Alaska, population 87, is the easternmost town in Alaska and the only place in the U. S. which can be entered from Canada without passing through a customs border station.
The rain has slowed to a drizzle but it’s still with us–going on five days now. Hope this nasty weather system moves out sooner rather than later. Temperatures dropped to 42 last night, helped by the 4,000′ elevation.
We over-nighted at Dease Lake and got back on the highway and made an uneventful drive to Stewart and camped at Bear River RV Park on the edge of town.
The drive to Stewart was pleasant–tall mountains on both sides of the highway (a smooth road for a change)–and an impressive view of Bear Glacier from British Columbia Highway 37A.
Salmon Glacier is located 16 miles from Stewart, British Columbia, is only accessible by road from Hyder, Alaska.
We came to Stewart and Hyder to see grizzly and black bears at the extremely popular tourist Fish Creek Wildlife Observation Site. Stewart is located in Canada and Hyder is in the United States but both towns run together. We crossed the Canadian border into the U. S. and drove a few miles to Fish Creek and found a full parking lot with vehicle license plates from both countries but no bears.
The observation area, which is elevated and mostly safe from wandering bears, was filled with tourists and only one bear which was in the process of slowly meandering his way out of the area. The bears are here feeding on hundreds, if not thousands, of pink and chum salmon spawning in Fish Creek. The water is only inches deep and easy prey for bears.
Salmon River valley from near Salmon Glacier.
Bear Glacier is located of BC Highway 37A entering Stewart, Canada.
We waited a half hour and drove back through Canadian customs (there is no U. S. border station), had dinner and then checked out Fish Creek early the next morning only to find we had just missed a couple of grizzly bears who had fed and left the area.
After waiting a half hour or so, we took a 15 minute ride on a mostly dirt road to see Salmon Glacier, one of the largest in the country which can be viewed from the road. The road climbs very quickly into the mountains past a gold mining operation and high above the Salmon River which runs off the glacier.There are steep drop-offs at the higher elevations and the road is wide in most places to accommodate the heavy mining equipment. Few tourists venture here which is nice for a change, however, leave the camper or RV at home.
Once at the top of the mountain the view of Salmon Glacier is breathtaking and well worth the drive.
DAYS ON THE ROAD: 78
GALLONS OF FUEL: 911
COST OF FUEL: $3091
MILES ON THE ROAD: 8,134
Mesa Verde boasts over 600 cliff dwellings
Day 21, Mesa Verde National Park, Cortez, CO
33-Day Western National Park RV Caravan Tour
I’ve always had a fascination with cliff dwellings, maybe because I grew up on the plains of
Visitors enter the Cliff Palace along a narrow trail on the side of the mountain.
Oklahoma and had difficulty understanding why people would build their homes on the edge of a mountain cliff and live there for maybe a thousand years.
Other than Monument Valley, Mesa Verde National Park will be the highlight of new adventures on this 33 day Western National Park RV Caravan Tour.
Entrance to one of the Kivas is through a small opening and down a ladder.
We drove from Moab, Utah, 111 miles through mostly flat farming country arriving early afternoon in Cortez, Co. and boarded a tour bus the following morning and drove to nearby Mesa Verde National Park. Here are the best preserved archaeological sites in the country, including 600 cliff dwellings. Although Cliff Palace is visible to visitors from high above a fenced overlook, entrance to the actual dwelling is available only with a Ranger-guided tour.
The kivas were used for ceremonial purposes by the Pueblo people.
Visitors must descend a narrow and somewhat steep stone stairway and follow a trail alongside the mountain before entering the dwellings. Here are 150 rooms and 23 kivas partially built under an overhang on the side of a cliff. One of the kivas, which is an underground meeting room only accessible through a small hole and down a wooden ladder, was used for ceremonial gathering purposes. The doorways and kiva entrances are small because the Pueblo people who lived here were short–about 5’5″ tall.
Getting out of the dwelling wasn’t easy, either; climbing a long wooden ladder up the steep side of the mountain. Another nearby cliff dwelling called Spruce Tree House, is accessible via a paved walkway and much easier for people with ambulatory issues.
Visitors can take a day trip to Telluride which is a 70- mile drive through scenic farm and mountain country where the elevation reached 10,000 feet. The popular ski community is also the site of the first bank robbery of outlaw Butch Cassidy.
Getting sick on the road
Every family has one–a child who always gets sick the day vacation starts.
I’m that child now grown up. Gray-haired with a stiff neck (both requirements for driving a 40-foot RV) and slightly beyond Medicare age, the unexpected illnesses at vacation time are still happening.
Several years ago in Sicily, terrible back spasms kept me up at night walking the floor. During the day I would swear I was dying. Thinking I had strained a back muscle or maybe herniated disc, I survived for five days before limping into a hospital emergency room in Sorrento, Italy only to find doctors who could not speak a word of English. After a few frantic minutes, a patient in the emergency room volunteered to share his limited English with the emergency room doctor. Notice the word “limited.”
A quick diagnosis by the doctor, translated to me by the English speaking patient, revealed a suspected strained back muscle or maybe a ruptured disc. I didn’t have time for an MRI tomorrow because the tour bus to Pompei would leave without me. I had already missed the Amalfi Coast tour because I was in the emergency room and wasn’t about to miss the city buried by a volcano. The doctor prescribed pain pills that make you sing “Everything is Beautiful” and suggested “You may have shingles. You will know in a few days if you break out in a rash around your waist.”
Two days later in Rome, I broke out in a rash around my waist. Now the pain really got serious. Shortly, a bi-lingual on-call doctor arrived in my hotel room, took one look at the rash around my waist and proclaimed “you have shingles” and prescribed more pills. The aggravation lasted a total of ten days. Yes, I got the shingle shot when I returned to the state.
A couple years ago I learned the hard way that prescriptions written by U. S. doctors are useless in Canada when I tried to renew a couple of medications in New Brunswick, Canada. I had to find a walk-in clinic and relate my medical history to a doctor to obtain refills for a couple U. S. written prescriptions. I initially had enough meds to carry me through the vacation but RV mechanical problems delayed our leaving by two weeks. Surely there’s a lesson here somewhere about being prepared.
A month or so ago, I was in Juneau, Alaska and “acquired” a mild case of hives. During my life I’ve probably had a handful of hives (notice that word is plural) during my lifetime. My hands and the soles of my feet itched and welts appeared on several areas of my body. The itching subsided but returned a few days later when we arrived back in Florida. The problem continued to come and go but tolerable.
A few days after starting our Music Festival Road Trip, we arrived in Richmond Hill, Ga., and was greeted with welts on my arms, chest, back and rear. For two days I self medicated with antihistamines before going to a walk in clinic and getting a cortisone shot and more pills.
The pills were long gone when we arrived a couple weeks later in up-state New York then crossed into Canada. However, the bothersome hives are still along for the ride. Another visit to a another walk-in and a third antihistamine controlled the problem for a few days.
I lived with on and off hives a month in northeast Canada. It has been ongoing now for 10 weeks. The internet doctor said most hives subside within six weeks. An appointment with an allergist is scheduled when we return to Florida.
Someone said the hives might be caused by eating shellfish. If that’s the case, they might as well shoot me.