When we talk about wanting to share our travels with those who are not able to travel, at first that mostly meant my mother. She always wanted to travel, but because she started a family early there was no time. Later she was a foster parent and adopted three small children in her later years. There was really no time or money for travel other than occasional visits to see family. She told me once that she loved following our travels, with the photos and video she felt like she was there with us. With us living in Texas and her in Oklahoma, we didn’t see each other as often as we would have liked, but our travel blogging was a way to let her keep up with what we were doing. Ren and I talked about our travels with my parents one evening and they both encouraged us to pursue what made us happy, and not to put it off.
Last year we lost my mother in a car wreck. In September we took her ashes to Piggott, Arkansas, to be buried next to my Father’s family, where he will one day rest. I had not been back to Piggott since we moved away when I was twelve. Since she loved our travels so much, we decided that we would do something special on this trip. The burial was to be on Saturday, so we left a few days early, and set out to visit seven new state parks in seven different states. She would have been amused by us cramming in as much as we could.
We set out on Thursday morning and our first stop was a few hours up the road on Grand Lake. Twin Bridges State Park in northeastern Oklahoma. This is a very pretty area and was extremely peaceful when we were there in the middle of the week. Here we were able to see an old stone barn being used by the park to store their landscaping equipment. We had seen this type of structure in the area, but often those buildings are no longer in use. The highway 137 drives through the middle of the park separating two campgrounds leading down the hill to the boat ramp area. It was here we were able to see a squadron of pelicans on the Grand Lake on their yearly trek south.
After a brief detour to the OK – KS – MO Tri-State marker, we headed up into Kansas to visit Crowley Fishing Lake. Now we have been to a lot of parks on a lot of lakes, probably hundreds by now, and we always try to find something that makes each special. This particular park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps back during the depression, as a way to put young men to work. That in itself is not unusual, so many state park systems got their start from the CCC, and we always enjoy seeing the CCC construction. It has a very distinctive style that we really like. This particular park had a monument to the CCC and an outdoor museum.
That was it for parks for the first day. Now we had to put some miles behind us as we headed across southern Missouri to our hotel in Sikeston in the SE corner of the state. We were driving through the northern Ozarks, and it was our first trip into Missouri. We found it just a beautiful as NW Arkansas and were making our plans to return. We would have six counties left to someday collect, but this was not one; however, by the time we reached the hotel, we had collected 15 counties in Missouri. The next day we would get more, but now it was time for sleep.
Friday morning we got up and headed the short drive down into the Missouri bootheel to Big Oak Tree State Park. Most of the old growth forest in this area was logged long ago, but they preserved this small patch. It contains some of the largest trees of various species in the state. The area is a bit swampy, but they built an elevated, metal walkway through the forest. The trees were awe-inspiring, though the forest was dense enough that it blocked any breeze, so it was muggy and buggy, but worth it. On the way out Ren tripped and hurt her ankle. She insisted we complete the trip, but it did limit our activities for the rest of the journey.
After we left Big Oak Tree we headed up the west side of the river to Cape Girardeau where we crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois, where we gave into our inner bunny and briefly entered bunny-trail mode. We found a historical marker that led us to Thebes the original County seat of Alexander County. Abraham Lincoln once practiced law here and Dred Scott was held in the jail while awaiting trial. We then headed up through Jonesboro where we stopped at a park where one of the Lincoln – Douglas debates was held.
Exiting bunny-trail mode, we headed up to the town of Makanda and Giant City State Park. We immediately fell in love with this park. The trees, the creek running through the gorges, the beautiful drives. We were not able to take any of the hikes to see the parks best features, due to Ren’s ankle. But what we saw of the park we loved; we seem to be suckers for big rocks and massive elevation changes. After a quick picnic, we got back on the road. Due to our detours, we were behind schedule.
We headed south to the town of Cairo, the current county seat of Alexander County. Located at the southern tip of Illinois, on a narrow peninsula between the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. This is where we were to cross the river into Kentucky. Cairo itself is not much of a tourist destination. Just south of town is Fort Defiance State Park, once it was a state park and before that, it was a fort during the Civil War. This is at the point where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi River and it was there we took a photo of us standing “in the confluence.” It was pretty, but we did not linger; this whole area did not feel like a place you wanted to be after dark.
We headed across the river and drove down the eastern side of the Mississippi headed toward Columbus Belmont State Park in Kentucky. This is the site of another Civil War battle and runs along the Mississippi River where the Confederates placed a large chain across to keep the Union at bat. By this time it was getting dark, and Ren was in extreme pain causing her to not leave the truck; this is definitely not like her, so it must have been really bad. We drove through the park, and I got out to take a few pictures from the bluff overlooking the river.
We continued South along the river and passed into Tennessee. By now it was fully dark and we had one more stop to make before heading to our hotel room in Piggott. Reelfoot State Park. We certainly did not do this park justice. It was dark and we were exhausted, but we did do a quick drive through to see what could be seen from the road. Grabbing the first state park sign we could, we took what we could; however, within a mile, we were able to find the actual state park sign. Unfortunately, Ren’s ankle was causing her too much pain to do anymore and we just took a photo of the sign without us in it.
Finished, we headed south to the nearest bridge across the river, crossing back into the Missouri bootheel before crossing the St Francis River and finally entering Arkansas. Piggott is tucked right up into the bootheel and we were quickly at our hotel. After visiting with the family awhile and getting Ren’s ankle up and iced, we headed to bed. Our total for the day, four parks, and Ren was sure Mom was cheering for us all the way.
Saturday was spent with family as we buried my Mother’s ashes, and spent time getting acquainted with family we hadn’t seen in many years. Ren and I made time to tour the places where I spent my childhood such as the elementary school I attended was closed and abandoned. The giant hill I used to race down on my bicycle, looked so tiny and hardly terrifying at all. We also took a few hours and visited Later a few of us drove over to Paragould where my Mother’s parents are buried.
Sunday we got up and hit the road as early as we could; everyone needed to get home. We headed back to Tulsa on highway 412, crossing Northern Arkansas. It is definitely not the fastest way home, but we’ve always thought the journey was something to savor; we seldom take the interstate unless we are trying to get to a specific place in a short amount of time. We dropped south to visit Davidsonville Historic State Park, our seventh and final state park in our seventh state. Located on the Black River, this park has a lot of history to explore. It was originally the country seat for this entire area of the state before being broken up into several other counties. We are suckers for the historical parks and spent more time here than we planned.
Leaving the park we continued west into the town of Hardy. My grandfather had been the pastor of the Methodist church there when I was very young, but I remember visiting them at this river town. Ren and I took a few minutes to see if we could find the old parsonage; I’m still not sure if we did or not. We spoke with someone who worked there, but she had no information she could share. Deciding it was time for lunch we found a very nice little park next to the Spring River, where we stopped for lunch. Ren tries very hard to make sure we always have plenty of food that we will eat when we travel. It has helped us to keep our expenses down. She had not let us down at this point either.
We continued west across Northern Arkansas, and I can’t say when I’ve enjoyed a drive more. This is some of the most beautiful country anywhere, and we’ve fallen in love with Arkansas. Ren thinks it is because it is our “home” and wants to live in the Arkansas Mountains, but when does she not what to live where we visit?
Eventually, we made it home, much later than we had planned, but we always do. It probably sounds strange to say that I really enjoyed the trip to bury my mother; it sounds strange to me too, but the burial was several weeks after the funeral, and my memories of that weekend are an odd jumble. The burial, visiting both of my grandparents’ graves, spending time with family, revisiting where I grew up, and all the wonderful places we visited, all just kind of blend together. Travel is how I cope with the stresses of life. It’s how I heal and how I nourish my spirit, and I am so lucky that I have a wonderful and amazing person to share all that. I returned from that trip feeling at peace and I know Mom would have appreciated and approved of it; she would have asked to see the pictures for sure.
Sitting on the cliff above Petit Jean State Park outside of Dardanelle, Arkansas, watching the birds fly below me is one of my favorite things to do. This was the place my parents came for their honeymoon 55 years ago this month so it has a special place in my heart. I could sit in this place for hours and spend days exploring what this park has to offer. Unfortunately, this trip and all of the rest of them are not everyday life for us. I wish it were so, but at this time we do have a mundane life that happens Monday through Friday.
I often wonder if people who read our blog and watch our videos think we live in our SUV. It must seem like it because we take so many videos and photos of us in it. Then, of course, you are only hearing about our adventures while we drive down a back road and sleep in our hammocks alongside flowing rivers. We decided you may want to know just a little bit more about what our normal day-to-day lives.
Until August 2017 we lived in Texas and for five months prior to then, we lived in a 122 square foot RV park hosting at Eisenhower State Park. Due to family issues, we decided to move back to Oklahoma and help out our parents and spend time with our children. We sold the RV and moved into a 1910 apartment building that was used at one time to house teachers of a school. The building is old and has plenty of issues, but we love it here. If you want to know more about the apartment, check out our blog post on our website: It’s All About The View.
Scott has a job that pays the bills and provides insurance while I work daily on creating. The creating is not just here blogging and posting photos on social media, but it is working in a place called Fablab where I work with various types of machines such as vinyl cutters, laser cutters, and a wood mill. It is here I create t-shirts and county themed trinkets. It is not much, but it will hopefully turn into something someday so we can get on the road permanently. I am working on the goal and that what’s important.
For me, the day consists of many other things other than just creating. We have been trying to become healthier and lose some weight. I, myself, have tried many diets and none have really been able to keep me focused until we started on the Ketogenic Diet. At one point we tried this diet in November of 2017, but with the holidays in full swing and us not understanding how it worked exactly, we failed at it. However, we started it again in May 2018 and have had amazing results. Please know that we have discussed the diet with our doctors and are extremely careful to watch our numbers. Because of this extreme care, I spend a lot of time researching recipes and cooking almost every meal to make sure we are doing it correctly. If you are interested in more information about the Ketogenic Diet, please take a look at Thomas DeLauer (a doctor of nutrition) and Keto Connect (a couple of who teach about the diet and recipe creators).
When I am not cooking, I am helping my parents out and picking my grands up from school. Then, of course, there is the laundry to take to the laundromat, an apartment that always needs straightening, and taking care of the fuzzy butt Cordie. In the evenings we are plotting our next big trip and trying to keep our website, videos, social media, and photos up-to-date. We have recently found a new medium called “Steemit” and that is helping to add to the amount of upkeep for us, but we have been lucky that people there like us. If you are interested in looking us up on Steemit and dtube we are xcountytravelers.
As for Scott, he is busy trying to get his photography good enough that people will be interested in purchasing his photos. We have been lucky because he was able to sell a couple of photos a few weeks ago. It seemed to be the thing he needed to see that he was good at it. Now to figure out just where to go to sell more. When he isn’t dealing with photos, he is playing music on his guitar. He started this in about 2014 and he is better than he thinks he is. I would love for him to get the courage up to start making music for our videos. That would just top the amazing scale for me.
See, we are just your normal, average people with our fears and busy everyday lives who enjoy hopping in the SUV as much as we can to drive down the backroads to find adventures in as many counties as we can.
When Ren and I travel, often we do not have a definite plan in mind. In many cases, we didn’t even plan that we were taking a trip, let alone plan out the trip. At some point during breakfast, one of us will ask what we want to do this weekend, and an hour later we will be hitting the road. Some of our best trips have started out this way much like our trip to Houston. Other times we plan things out in detail. We know when we are leaving, how far we will drive, where we are staying, what gas will cost, and what our budget will be for the trip. Both of us exhaustively research the area, to see what is available. Sometimes we even have a list of specific things that I want to photograph while we are there. Our Davis Mountain Trip is a great example of this. Then there are trips that start out with a very detailed plan, but we end up scrapping it all and winging it. Our latest trip was one of those. I have been crazy about astronomy since I was a kid. I got into photography three years ago because I wanted to do astrophotography. Specifically, I wanted to take photos of the Milky Way. When I told Ren I wanted to get a camera and learn photography, she supported me. One of the things I love best about our marriage is how we support and encourage each other. I never imagined how much I would love photography, or how much it would change my outlook on life.
If you want to do astrophotography, one of the things you have to deal with is light pollution. You have to get where it is dark, far away from the city lights. Living in Fort Worth, that was not terribly difficult. I was about an hour and a half from reasonably dark skies, and three hours from very dark skies. The other thing you have to deal with is that you need to shoot when the moon is not in the sky, so the New Moon is ideal. Once we moved back to Tulsa, really dark skies were further away. Looking at the Light Pollution map on http://darksitefinder.com I saw that the darkest skies in Oklahoma were found at the far western end of the panhandle. In fact, these were as dark as any place in the continental U.S., and right there in the middle of these wonderfully dark skies was Black Mesa State Park. I wanted to go. The problem was that it was over seven and a half hours away; this would be a major trip. I had suggested it a few times, but Ren had not been enthusiastic because she was worried about the heat and the distance. When I saw the August New Moon was going to fall on a weekend, and that it was going to fall during the middle of the Perseid Meteor Shower, I told Ren that I was going to want to be somewhere DARK that weekend. I was surprised when she suggested that we go to Black Mesa. It took me about half a second to agree. We started our planning. More accurately, Ren started planning. She presented me with three plans with a break down of costs, driving times, and the number of new counties we could get.
We figured out what we wanted to see while we were there, which counties we would visit, how much gas it was going to take, and even where we would buy our gas, as we were headed into areas where you could not count on gas stations being nearby when you ran low. We knew we were headed to the park. There were three tri-state markers we wanted to visit, (A tri-state marker is where three states meet. If it’s not in the middle of a river, there will usually be a marker of some kind.), and, since Ren loves geology as much as I love astronomy, we were going to visit the Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico.
Taking a half-day Thursday off from work we hit the road as soon as I got off work. We drove straight to the park along Highway 412, with only a minor detour to visit Gloss Mountain State Park, which was right on the way. We arrived at camp just after dark and got our first surprise. For a park that brags about their dark skies, they had the place lit up like downtown. Street lights everywhere. We would have to get away from the park to get our stars. We set up our hammock stand camp for the first time in the dark, but they are very straightforward and it went quickly. It was cloudy that evening, with a small chance of rain Thursday and Friday, but we got lucky, while there were storms around us, they passed us by. We spent Friday, as planned, exploring the park, visiting two of the three tri-state markers, and a couple of canyons in Colorado. Friday evening I found a location and set up to take pictures, but it was pretty cloudy and I didn’t get the dark skies I had anticipated. Saturday the plan was to get the third tri-state marker and visit the Capulin Volcano National Monument in New Mexico. We left camp and headed toward the Oklahoma-Texas-New Mexico border. When we got close enough to civilization to get a cell phone signal, I checked the weather forecast. The clear skies that had been predicted, were looking more and more unlikely. I wasn’t going to get my stars, again. I wasn’t too upset about it because we were having a great trip, and if you do astronomy long, you know that this is just part of the hobby. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
As we headed into Clayton, New Mexico, on the way to the Volcano, I looked at the map and told Ren, “If I can’t have stars, I want mountains. Lets go to Taos.” She asked how far it was, and I told her it was just over two hours. I expected a little resistance to scrapping the plan she had worked so hard on, however, to my surprise, she agreed right away. At this point ,we knew nothing about Taos except that there were mountains. While Ren drove, I tried to figure out what we wanted to do when we got there. We aimed to stop at a place called Eagles Nest Lake State Park, and figure out where to go from there. While I looked over Google Maps, I saw a marker for Cimarron Canyon State Park, but it wasn’t clear what it was. We drove on toward the mountains, which were becoming more and more impressive the closer we got to them. Reaching the town of Cimarron, we stopped at a tourist information booth to pick up some brochures and spoke with the attendant. I noticed a National Park Passport stamp and asked her what it was for. It turns out that Cimarron Canyon was a National Scenic, and Historic drive and we were driving right through it to get to Eagles Nest. We always try to take any Scenic Byway we pass. This was as beautiful as any with its huge cliffs and thick forest while the Cimarron River flowed the length of the canyon. I love Rivers, and the Cimarron is not just any river, it flows into Keystone lake just a few miles from where we live in Oklahoma where I have camped many times. It had an entirely different character here near it’s beginning. The middle section of the canyon was the state park, with lots of campsites along the road. We were in love with the place.
Reaching the town of Eagles Nest we had decided that we could see lots of interesting places by taking the Enchanted Circle Scenic Loop, which includes Taos and goes through large areas of the Carson National Forest. The only issue was that it was nearly 3:00 pm and we were about three hours from camp if we skipped the volcano. I wasn’t willing to skip the volcano because I knew how much it meant to Ren. I called my boss, asking if I could take an extra day of vacation, while Ren tried to find a reasonably priced hotel; turns out that reasonably priced and Taos, don’t really go together. After a bit of searching, we found a room right in Eagles Nest so we booked the room. While we chatted with the manager, he told us that if we were driving the Loop, we should be sure and drive over to the Gorge Bridge, and told us how to get there. We were set with a basic plan for the afternoon so we headed out on the Enchanted Circle Scenic Loop and it was well worth taking the extra day. There is something about the mountains that call to me, something that feels like home. Whether it’s the Davis Mountains in Texas, the Ozarks in Arkansas, or the Sierra Nevadas in California. I love the mountains. These were no exception. It was a gorgeous drive through mountains, forests, and quaint little towns. The highest pass we drove through was just over 9,800 feet. There were several roadside parks that were part of the Carson National Forest when we stopped at one to stretch our legs a bit, we crossed a small stream flowing gently over the rocks. To my surprise, it was the Red River. We had lived on the Red River for five months when we were park hosting on Lake Texoma for Eisenhower State Park. We had even made a point of crossing every Red River bridge from Texas to Oklahoma, and here we were crossing it again in New Mexico; it was so small.
As we made our way around the loop we reached the intersection where we turned left to go to Taos, or right to go to the gorge bridge. We turned right. Wow! Just Wow!. On this trip, we had seen mesas, huge mountains, beautiful lakes, canyons, cliffs, forests, and scenic rivers, but this was by far the most majestic, and impressive thing that we saw. It was the Río Grande del Norte National Monument. The Rio Grande. We have traveled extensively in Texas, spent the better part of three years trying to see as much of Texas as possible, yet this was our first time to see the Rio Grande. It was amazing. This is the seventh highest bridge in the US, 565 feet above the river. There is a parking area on either side, with a scenic overlook, and you can walk out on the bridge. It was truly awesome, in the best sense of the overused word.
Reluctantly, we left the gorge and headed into Taos. I won’t spend much time on Taos, as this is getting rather long enough already. We drove around for a few hours, loved the place. Ren wants to move there; of course, she says that about every place we visit. I guess it’s a good thing we plan to buy another RV someday so we can live wherever we visit..
I suggested that we visit the Taos Ski Valley before heading back to the hotel. This was the first place I got any real pushback from her. Not that she didn’t want to go, but she is frightened about driving down twisty, turny roads, especially since it was getting late in the day; however, me driving scares her even more because, in her words, she is a bad passenger. One of the things I admire most about Ren is that she does not let her fears get the better of her. It took her a few moments to work up her nerve, but she agreed. The Hondo Canyon Road is the road that leads up the valley to the ski lodge. I know I’ve said this several times already, but it was a beautiful drive through the valley with huge cliffs and tall trees, and is a valley, there was, naturally, a stream named the Hondo, Rio. As is usual in this area, we were in the Carson National Forest and there were lots of scenic roadside campgrounds. We drove up to the lodge, but it was getting late, so we didn’t get out of the car, then headed through the valley again, stopping at a few of the parks. It was time to be heading back to the hotel. The last leg of the drive was the twistiest and turniest road of the entire trip, and it was full dark, so we didn’t see most of it. When we got back to the hotel, Ren went to bed; she was exhausted from the last leg of the drive. The hotel manager told me earlier I could get a good view of the milky way from the deck on top of the hotel overlooking the lake. I went to take some pictures, but between the hotel and city lights, they were not the skies I had come seeking, but they weren’t bad.
The next morning we found the entire town socked in with fog. We were not eager to drive through the canyon again until the fog lifted, so we walked through town to find breakfast. What we found instead was there wasn’t anywhere in Eagles Nest to get breakfast at 8:00 on a Sunday Morning. Did I mention that Eagles Nest is tiny? Did I mention that Eagles Nest is at an altitude of more than 8,200 feet? We hadn’t really paid much attention to that before taking our walk, but as we were walking back the thinness of the air became apparent. We were huffing and puffing by the time we got back. When the fog burned off we headed back through the valley to Cimarron then north to Raton, where we found breakfast. Then we took the Raton pass into Colorado where we visited Trinidad State Park, before heading to the Capulin Volcano National Monument. This is an extinct, cinder cone volcano, with the cone remarkably preserved. There is a visitors center and a road that wraps around the cone to a parking lot near the top. From there you can hike down into the vent, or around the rim. We intended to hike around the rim, but between the altitude, our exhaustion, and general lack of fitness we turned back well before we reached the top. It was still worth the trip, and even from the parking area near the top, it is an impressive view.
It was time to head back to our camp in Black Mesa and Google wanted to take us back to Clayton, but we hate taking the same road back as the road we came on, so we took the road less traveled; literally. What a difference. We went north through Folsom then took a small road east. It alternated between paved and gravel, and usually, the gravel was smoother, but it was so worth it. The road led through a canyon we didn’t find on the maps, and where there is a canyon, there is a stream. The canyon, river, and road were all named the Dry Cimarron. Yes, another branch of the Cimarron River. The canyon went on for hours, almost entirely empty. Huge, rugged and beautiful in a very different way than the other Cimarron Canyon, but no less impressive. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
We got back to camp at a reasonable time, and as we were settling in, it became apparent we were going to have clouds again that night. Realizing I was not going to get the perfect night sky photo, I suggested we pack up camp and head south into Texas. In visiting the Texas Panhandle a few weeks earlier, we now had visited all but two counties in Oklahoma. The last two were down south and we decided to go get them. In no time we were on the road. An hour and a half drive, and a minor crisis involving so many bugs hitting the windshield we could barely see out took us to Lake Meredith National Recreation Area. Being Sunday night the place was empty and we found a nice site overlooking the lake, and slept under the stars, with a cool breeze to keep the bugs away. The next morning we visited the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument. Walked through the visitors center, watched the informative movie and took a short hike, then got back on the road. We headed into Oklahoma to get those last two counties. On the way to Kiowa County, we were passing right by Quartz Mountain State Park. We couldn’t be this close without stopping. It is a very pretty park, though the lake was very low at the time. We spent about an hour here before heading to our next destination.
The Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge is a place I had to hear about for a while but had not yet managed to visit. It was getting late and I was thinking we should just head home, but Ren knew how much I have wanted to go here and insisted that we take the time. I’m so glad I listen to her. I had been afraid that after seeing New Mexico, that Oklahoma would seem dull and unimpressive by comparison. I needn’t have worried. The mountains of Oklahoma may not be as tall as those of New Mexico, but they are no less beautiful. We ended up staying much longer than we intended and it was getting dark by the time we headed home.
Arriving home late, we were tired and sore, however, the trip had been more than we ever expected because we abandoned our plans and took a chance. Sometimes having a plan is important because it tells you the when, the where, and the how; but it often causes you to miss the unexpected treasures of traveling along the backroads. Our motto is “Get out, live life outside your box,” sometimes that means getting outside of your plans. Take a chance, do something unexpected, live your life to the fullest. I still want to go back to Black Mesa. I still want those dark skies. But I wouldn’t trade this trip for the one we planned.
Scott and I drive a lot when we do our travels. There are 3,144 counties in the United States and we intend to pass through each of them; driving tends to be the way we are best able to do this. It enables us to stop and visit a town, getting to experience the people, their foods, and their culture. This is a bit slower than flight, but we both feel the hours getting to a destination is well worth it when we see the colored in space on the maps.
When we decide to go on what we call “Collecting Grab” trips, we sit down with Google maps or even a paper road map to plan the best route there and back going through as many different counties as possible. This often means never taking the same road twice. It is extremely rare for us to take the major highways or toll road unless we need to get through previously collected counties.
If we are on trips that are more than a day trip, we will fill our SUV up with delicious food, changes of clothing, and hammock/sleeping gear. While Scott is at work, I am able to get everything together and packed away; this enables me to pick him up as soon as his workday is finished and we can be on the road towards our destination.
Since we started doing these three to four-day trips to cover as much ground as possible we find National Forests and State Parks that are along our route to rest when we can no longer drive. We will pull in to a camping area and set up our hammocks or, due to weather, we will inflate the air mattress and sleep in the back of the SUV. Both are quick to set up and take down so we are able to pull off the road as late as we need and leave as soon as we can minutes after we have woken up.
One of the things we find ourselves saying when we travel is that it is never a true adventure until we have left the pavement. Surprisingly, this happens to us a lot. We have been driving along a perfectly good paved road when “BLAM!” we have crossed onto a gravel road. These roads, however, have been some of the most beautiful places and there is almost always a surprise waiting for us.
Yes, we drive a lot. This means gas is our largest expense when we are on the road. Because of our style of travel we do and not needing to use a hotel room, we are able to afford it. There have been times we needed to stay at a roadside hotel or motel, but we will stay in the most inexpensive place we can. We have been able to find some really awesome deals at Priceline Express Deals. However, a room with a view is a very rare occurrence for us.
Scott and I enjoy driving along the county roads within our country. This has enabled us to see what each state has to offer its people and how the people live and celebrate their lives. We love the miles we put behind us on the roads we drive upon no matter if they are paved, gravel, or dirt. We enjoy the adventure of having our expectations changed because the trip shows us so much more to a place. Yes, we drive, a lot; but, it is what we love to do.
Over our travels, Ren and I have had our disagreements over the way we travel. or more specifically the way we sleep while traveling. We both love the outdoors, but Ren also likes her comforts. I would camp every chance I get, Ren often prefers a hotel room. When we had the RV, this was not an issue. We got to camp and have our beds with us at the same time. When we are ready I expect we will have an RV again, but meanwhile, we needed another option.
We have slept in the back of our SUV a few times. A full-sized air-mattress will fit snugly in the back, and this works reasonably well in colder weather. It is not a good solution when it is hot. A tent with an air mattress on the ground is less and less acceptable as we get older, and we never found a cot setup that we really liked.
We stumbled across the answer by accident. While we were camp-hosting at Eisenhower State Park, I picked up a cheap hammock. When we set it up, it turned out to be more comfortable than our beds in the RV. A little research showed that a lot of people camp in their hammocks. This thought stayed in the back of our minds. As we were planning the remodel of the RV we even considered replacing the beds with hammocks, but couldn’t figure out how to fit it in. Hammocks are rather longer than beds. We had even picked up a few hammocks we found on clearance at the local outdoor shop.
After we sold the RV, we decided to give the hammocks a try. On our trip to Palo Duro Canyon, we spent the night at Copper Breaks State Park. Ren slept in the SUV, while I slept in my hammock, hung from two support poles under the shelter. It was a beautiful, clear summer night in Texas, with a nice breeze to keep the bugs away, and I slept out under the Milky Way. I was hooked.
A few weeks later we were headed out to Tennessee and planned to spend the evening at a National Scenic River in Missouri. When we called ahead to see if there were suitable sites, we were surprised to learn that the Park did not allow hammocks to be hung from trees. We had the proper straps to keep from damaging the trees, but a lot of people just used ropes, and the Park had just banned all hammocks on trees. Fortunately, Missouri State Parks had no such policy, and we spent a wonderful evening at Lake Wappapella State Park. Once again we were fortunate to have good weather, and this time Ren slept in the hammocks as well. On the way back from Tennessee we spent another evening in the hammocks at Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas. By now Ren was hooked too. We now knew that we were hammock campers. We also knew that we could not depend on always having great weather, and would need to upgrade our gear.
A few weeks later, as we were planning our trip out to western Oklahoma, we found out that a lot of campsites out that way, don’t have suitable trees, or even any trees. We also learned that we might not be allowed to hang our hammocks from the trees even if we found a suitable site. While we could not find any official policy banning the practice in Oklahoma State Parks, we did find several reports from people who were told by the park staff to take theirs down. It was time to look at other options.
We looked at a few stands on Amazon and found that the cheap options were not portable, and the portable options were not cheap. We had a budget for this trip, and it was not going to stretch to buying portable hammock stands. So we turned to YouTube.
A quick search on YouTube turned up just the thing: The Turtledog Hammock Stand. As near as I can tell this was developed by members of The Hammock Forum and copied widely. The design is simple, functional, relatively inexpensive, and can be built in an hour or two with minimal tools.
I won’t go into too much detail here, because we filmed making the second one, and it will make more sense to just watch the video.
Here is a breakdown of the parts list and what we paid at the local Home Depot. Your prices may vary. This is what we bought to make 2 of them.
12 2X2 pine. Cut to 6.5 ft. 3.98 each $47.76
3 10 foot 1-3/8 inch fence top rail. 9.72 each $29.16
4 5 inch Gate hinges 4.47 each $17.88
4 packs of 4 T-nuts, 5/18 inch 1.18 each $4.72
90 foot of paracord 0.10 / ft $9.00
4 1/4 inch shackles 2.67 each $10.68
16 5/16 x 1-1/2 in bolts 0.20 each $3.20
4 Rail end caps. 0.98 each $3.92
Total cost to make 2 sets. $126.00
We chose to have our rail that the hammocks hang from to be 12 feet long, for our 10 foot hammocks. Using 10 foot long fence rail we needed three rails to make 2 stands. Be sure and get the rail that has one tapered end that fits into the next rail. We cut our rails in half so they would fit into the SUV. It’s all explained in the video.
We also needed a rain tarp as there was a chance of rain in the forecast. We did not get the chance to try out the tarps before leaving on our trip, so we would have to figure it out when we set up camp. We camped for three nights in two different locations, we did not set up the tarps on the third night. The hammock stands worked just as we hoped they would. They went up quickly and easily.
The tarp system still needs some work. Normally you string a tarp just a bit higher than the hammock, on a separate rope. We were needing to hang them from the stands. When hanging a hammock from the stands, all the horizontal force from the hammock is against the pole, and all the force on the tripods is straight down. The tarps were trying to pull against the stands and not the pole, so the stands became a little unstable. We eventually figured out how to adjust them to deal with this, but in the dark after a long drive, is not the best time to be working these things out. We need slightly smaller tarps so we can stretch them on the pole and not the tripods. Stretching them from the tripods made them a little higher than ideal. We were lucky in the weather again. I’m not convinced we would have stayed dry if there had been a storm; however, it did all work.
We love sleeping in the hammocks. It is very comfortable, really more comfortable than our beds at home. Tear down is a snap, and setup is not much harder. We do still need to work on our gear with under blankets, tarps, and bug nets. But all in all I consider this to be a success, and we have ideas on how to improve.
Most of our trips tend to be quick journeys over the weekend, or slightly longer trips over a long weekend, but sometimes we like to take the time for a longer road-trip. By the middle of 2016 we had already explored fairly well the area around Dallas that could be easily reached over a weekend. We were having to drive three hours or more to get to an area we hadn’t already visited. As part of her volunteer work, Ren was having to attend meetings in Austin once a quarter, always on Wednesday mornings. This offered us the opportunity to use Austin as a jumping off point for a longer adventure. So it was that on June 14th we set off on one of our longer road-trips.
Wednesday afternoon, we left from Austin headed toward the first stop on our journey, South Llano River State Park, just outside of Junction TX. This is a pretty little riverside park with a nice swimming hole. We arrived in the early afternoon, spent some time exploring the park, before going for a swim in the river. The water was very clear and cold. Perfect for cooling off on a hot June day in Texas. The park has hiking trails, a wild turkey flock, and you can rent rafts and kayaks in Junction and float down the river to the park, where they will pick you up at the end of your trip.
This park is an International Dark Sky Park, and an excellent place for stargazing. Light pollution is increasingly a problem in the developed world as the city lights drown out the night sky making it very difficult for many people to experience the wonder of the universe under a truly dark sky. South Llano River has very dark skies. Unfortunately due to the timing of our trip moon was too close to full for the viewing to be very good when we were there, and it was also a bit cloudy, I stayed up that evening to take some photos, but none of them were worth sharing.
After breakfast we set out the next morning headed west. The further west we went the more rugged and interesting the landscape became. This was our first trip into far west Texas, and we soon found ourselves asking why we had waited so long. Every region of Texas has its charms, but there is something special about the mountains. Ren and I were both awed by the beauty we found in West Texas.
After many hours of driving, we reached our first destination of the day. Balmorhea State Park, just outside of Balmorhea Texas. This unique park is in the foothills of the West Texas mountains, built around the San Solomon Springs, it is an oasis in the desert. In the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps took this spring and made it into a huge swimming pool. Up to 30 feet deep in places, the cool, crystal clear waters flow up from the bottom of the spring at a rate of 25 million gallons a day and flow out through canals to irrigate the surrounding countryside. We were both surprised to find it home to fish and other underwater creatures. The waters maintain a temperature of 72 to 76 degrees year round. We expected to find this a refreshing stop, and we did, but we did not anticipate how beautiful the setting was.
After our swim, we headed for our ultimate destination, Davis Mountains State Park (DMSP), just west of Fort Davis Texas. Located in the Davis Mountain range, Davis Mountains State Park, (DMSP), is actually two Parks. DMSP and Indian Lodge State Park. Indian Lodge is a full-service hotel located within the larger park. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, (CCC), in the 1930s. It serves as a getaway for those who want to visit this area without giving up their creature comforts.
We are not averse to traveling in comfort when the budget allows, but for this trip, we were camping. We arrived after the office was closed, but we had already reserved our campsite online. We went to the bulletin board and found our site number. In most Texas State Parks we have visited, they mark which sites are reserved, and you are free to choose from those remaining sites. We were not used to having a site assigned to us, but we were happy enough with the site once we found it. On arriving at a new park, we always drive through the park to get a lay of the land. The office was closed, but we were able to pick up maps and ask questions at the Indian Lodge desk and gift shop. After driving through the park, we set up camp.
We had been concerned about the heat, being June in West Texas. We needn’t have worried. DMSP is between 5,000 and 6,000 feet above sea level, and being in the desert, the humidity is low. The days were warm but not excessively so, and the nights were downright chilly, getting down in the 50s. Having done our research, we were prepared for the local wildlife. While it has been many years since a bear has been sighted in DMSP, they do have a large population of Javelina. Javelina are a large pig-like animal. They are generally not dangerous to humans if left alone, but they can be dangerous if threatened. In the evening we heard them rummaging through our camp looking for food, but we had made sure to secure any food and garbage in our truck before going to bed. Our neighbors had not been so wise, and while they were away their camp was destroyed.
Friday Morning we drove into the Town of Fort Davis to have breakfast. There we found a nice little restaurant at the Fort Davis Drug Store, which is actually a gift shop, restaurant, and hotel; however, this was the actual site of the Drug and General Store during the days of Fort Davis. Their cheesy hash browns are one of the best things I ever ate, easily as good as the baked potato casserole at the Natty Flats Smokehouse. We ended up eating all our breakfasts there.
Fort Davis is the country seat of Jeff Davis County, so we had to go visit the courthouse. It is a picturesque Courthouse with a lot of historical information inside as well as some interesting wood carvings and hand embroidered quilts. Well worth the time to visit.
We very much liked the town of Fort Davis. It is a small place and mostly survives on tourism, They do a good job of making you feel welcome. The reason they get so much tourism is that within the town of Fort Davis is the Fort Davis National Historic Site.
This is a well-preserved frontier fort from the era of the Indian Wars, active from 1854 to 1892, Fort Davis was built to protect settlers and freight on the Trans-Pecos portion of the San Antonio-El Paso Road. The Fort, the town, and the county were named for Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War when the fort was established. Much of the housing and several other buildings survive, and there are many exhibits built to help explain life on the frontier. Visiting here you find yourself trying to imagine what it was like to live in this beautiful but harsh country without the benefits of air conditioning other modern conveniences.
As the day was warming up, we decided to take advantage of one of those modern conveniences, Air Conditioning. We set out to drive the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop. The Davis Mountains Scenic loop is a 75-mile loop that begins in Fort Davis, heads west into the Davis Mountains on Highway 118, before turning south on Highway 166 which will bring you back to Highway 17 and Fort Davis. The Davis Mountains are an ancient range of volcanoes, with many rugged and beautiful peaks. The Davis Mountains fill a rough square about 31 miles on each side. The Scenic Loop is one of the best ways to appreciate this amazing area of Texas. It takes 2 hours to drive if you do not stop, it took us more like 4 hours as we stopped frequently to take in the views.
Make sure you are well prepared before taking this drive. This is an extremely remote and empty country. Once you leave Fort Davis you will pass the park entrance, and a few miles later, the McDonald Observatory, after that there is nothing but a couple of ranches until you get back to Fort Davis. There is no cell phone service, and we only passed a couple of cars the entire day. The roads are in very good condition, but there are places where you are many miles from help, and you might have a long wait till someone else came along. Make sure you have plenty of gas and plenty of water. That said, this is an experience you do not want to miss. This was my favorite part of the entire trip.
Once we got back to the park we headed over to Indian Lodge to have a great dinner at the Black Bear restaurant. I highly recommend that you have at least one meal there during your visit. The service was wonderful and they made sure Ren had a gluten-free chicken fried steak and gravy. Having a few hours of daylight left we explored more of DMSP. In addition to the Javelinas, DMSP is a haven for birds. They have a nice bird blind but there wasn’t much activity while we were there since it was later in the day when the heat is up.
The highest peak in the park is Lookout Mountain. You can drive to the top where there is an observation area with a great view in all directions. From there you can see McDonald Observatory to the west and Fort Davis to the east. You can drive nearly to the top, where there is a small parking lot. Nearby is an old CCC-built shelter giving you cool shade to take time to enjoy the amazing view. One of the hiking trail leads to the top of the mountain, then continues on, out of the park and down to Fort Davis. Neither Ren or I were in shape enough to do much hiking in the heat of the day, but the trail is clearly marked and well traveled.
The lookout closes at sunset, but for a small fee you can stay up after hours. Here you can watch the sun dip down below Mount Livermore and show off McDonald Observatory. We did just that, sharing a nice sunset with some of the local wildlife. and took the time to shoot a short video. It was actually very relaxing and we spent plenty of time appreciating the view.
This is one of the darkest areas in the state and is an outstanding area for astronomy, however, it was nearly a full moon so the stargazing was not the best. Still, I took the camera to see what I could get, while Ren took the air mattress so she could sleep in the back of the truck. We met another photographer named Jim, who was also staying on the mountain, and he and I visited and took pictures, while Ren slept. While Jim was shooting star trails, I took a series of long exposures of the lights from the cars returning to the park from the Star Party at the Observatory. We hadn’t been able to get tickets for the Star Party; however, we were able to visit the observatory the next day. At one point while we were taking pictures, a deer walked between us, then walked around the truck where Ren was sleeping and looked in curiously. She seemed to have no fear us at all.
After a while, we headed back down the mountain to get some sleep. We had another big day ahead, but this post is getting long, so I will save that story for another post.