Day Fifteen: The Tao of Taos: New Mexico (Taos)

Had perhaps the best sleep of the trip so far on the sweet little bed tucked away at the end of the boxcar. Could totally have been a hobo. Totally. Feasted on homemade granola and enjoyed a leisurely soak in the slipper tub. Debated saying “screw Taos” and spending the day nestled in cozy comfort. BUT-that is not what your intrepid explorer has set out to do, so explore intrepidly we MUST!

First up on the docket was a visit to Taos Pueblo-one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the US and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Pueblo sits on a reservation of roughly 95,000 acres encompassing some rolling foothills along with the sacred Taos Mountain. Only about 100-150 Native Americans still live there, but their homes are devoid of electricity and running water and they still adhere to many of the ancient traditions and customs.

I got there just in time for one of the free guided tours, led by friendly college student Jerome. Jerome started us off at the church of St. Jerome (no relation) which was built in the late 1800s. The walls are made of a three foot thick layer of adobe (basically mud, straw, and water) and the church still celebrates a Catholic Mass every Sunday. No photos are allowed inside, but the wall behind the altar is covered in brightly colored saints and images of the Virgin Mary (who they worship for her close resemblance to Mother Earth).

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Next we visited the ruins of the original church from the 1600s. It was destroyed once when the Pueblo natives revolted against the colonizing Europeans, and again by the US Cavalry. The cemetery was still in use until a few years ago. A closer look shows a pile of wooden crosses stacked near the old bell tower. These crosses, which have fallen from older graves, are neither replaced nor destroyed, simply kept in the cemetery out of respect.

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This next building is the pride of the community: North House. The dwelling has been continually occupied for over 1,000 years, and holds historical significance as one of the few remaining multi-story adobe homes. It’s basically like an apartment house, and each door leads to a separate dwelling. Originally, the only access would have been through ladders leading to ceiling entrances. So if you lived on the third floor you had to climb up three ladders and then one down into the house. That’ll get your cardio up!

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Many of the homes have been partially converted into storefronts where artisans sell their wares. There are also loose dogs roaming everywhere, but as the Pueblo people do not regard dogs as pets, I left Annie at home to avoid traumatizing her with the sight! I “may” have purchased a cool silver bracelet stamped with symbols of varying meanings and some traditional fry bread cooked in an adobe oven.

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On my way out of the Pueblo, I crossed over a river which the people still depend upon as their primary source of water. The trees surrounding it have given them the name “People of the Red Willows.”

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All this learnin’ had worked me up a powerful appetite, so I headed to the central Taos Plaza for lunch at The Gorge, of which I was told two things: 1.) the site of the restaurant was originally the site of the “hanging tree” where revolting Pueblo people were murdered, and 2.) it would be a great spot for people-watching due to all the activity in the plaza. (please note all the bustling Plaza activity)

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After days when my typical mid-day meal consisted of a handful of granola and a cheddar cheese chunk, a proper lunch with black bean soup and chicken tacos left me feeling like this…

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I sluggishly drug my bloated belly along the Plaza which was comprised of: one half tacky souvenirshops (AGAIN with the ELVIS?)…

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. . . and one half cool galleries featuring the paintings, pottery, and jewelry of local artists. As the plaza was all but deserted, and I HATE being the only customer in a shop, as you then become the laser focus of all attention (seriously, getting up from your chair in the back and coming all the way to the front to literally hover over me does NOT make me want to relax and peruse your goods for sale), I only peeked my snout into most of them.

Even when not shopping, it’s neat to see how different a retail zone looks when most of the buildings are adobe, even the McDonalds…

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After a quick jaunt back to the boxcar for Annie’s afternoon constituitional (she was having a snoozy day), I set off for a place I had heard much about and was eager to visit: Ojo Caliente Hot Springs. Basically a really cool spa with hot springs (duh) in cliffside pools and a mud bath area and loads of intriguing offerings. Hey-it can’t be roughing it all the time! So, under the guidance of my new sherpa, Google Maps, I set off down the typical twisty, windy, dusty, bumpy roads that seem to comprise all of Taos’ infrastructure (sorry-my mind is struggling to think right now as a STOOPID FLICKER WOODPECKER IS INCESSANTLY DRUMMING ON THE SIDE OF THE BOXCAR!) and then suddenly, I was on a different type of road altogether. This one was dirt and gravel and potholes and bumps and maaaybe a lane and a half, and going straight up into the sky, and did I mention OHMYGOD THERE IS AN ENORMOUS GORGE ON THE SIDE AND NO GUARDRAIL, WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!

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I wish these photos conveyed how truly terrifying it was. If my eyes weren’t squinting you could read the sheer panic in them. AND there was no cell service to call for assistance once I plummeted to my demise. Halfway up my nerve failed me. I decided this wasn’t the hill I wanted to die on, and made my way back down. I couldn’t believe ANYONE would endure this for a spa treatment. Surely the return trip AT DUSK would undo any destressing that had been accomplished. Once I could reattach myself to the internet, a perusal of the spa’s website revealed this to be an ALTERNATE route. For those who enjoy “spectacular scenery.” Thanks Google Maps.

Sufficiently shaken, I repaired to my boxcar and faithful hound for a lite dinner, some good cuddles, and a soak in the hot tub.

Day Fourteen: The Time Has Come, the Walrus said, To Talk of Many Things: Pistachios and Lava Flows and Boxcars Fit for Kings: New Mexico (Alamogordo, Taos)

Annie and I slept like logs at the KOA, so much so that we were both a little slow to get started the next morning. I appeared to have sunburned my self (typical) at the sand dunes, and she appeared to have OD’d on the ginormous corndog from the drive-thru burger joint. We decided to pass on the church service being held in the KOA annex, and got Marigold rolling along again, although in somewhat muted spirits. But that all changed a hop, skip, and a jump outside of town when we happened to stumble upon a delightful bit of insanity that my friend Kate had previously brought to my attention…

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NO! YOUR EYES ARE NOT DECEIVING YOU! THAT IS, INDEED, THE WORLD’S LARGEST PISTACHIO! (Annie is cross because I explained to her it wasn’t the World’s Largest EDIBLE Pistachio.) It stands a robust 30 feet tall outside of The Pistachio Tree Ranch and Winery (a natural combination). The proprietors sell every flavor of pistachio you could want, and many you don’t! (Ranch was my fave.)

Spirits lifted, and back behind the wheel, it strikes me that New Mexico is flatter overall than Texas, with large mountains rising up in the distance, some of them cool and wavy. The grass is a very pale yellow punctuated by stubby blobby tree bushes and the occasional cow seemingly unattached to any form of habitation. A sign informs me that we are entering “Billy the Kid Country,” and not long after we’re stopped at a railroad crossing as an impossibly long train stretches across the emptiness. I can almost see Billy TK riding up, if Billy were interested in boxcars full of low quality Chinese made goods, which is what the labeling seems to indicate is onboard here.

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It’s becoming more and more common to go long stretches of time with no cell service. It’s startling how much emptiness there still is in America.

And soon I see a site that lifts my spirits even more! You will recall that yesterday we had been shutout of our first choice in camping locales. This was an intriguing sounding National Recreation Area I had also hoped to take Annie hiking in. I had assumed it would no longer lie on our rerouted path, but low and behold, it rose up before us like the answer to our prayers, just when we needed a break . . .

THE VALLEY OF FIIIRREEEE(S)!!

(Remember that S, it will be important later on in the trip.)

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The absolute bestest thing about the Valley of FireS is that it’s almost entirely composed of LAVA FIELDS!! LAVA! FIELDS! That you can actually walk on (a bit). The lava flow occurred about 5,000 years ago when “Little Black Peak” erupted, leaving a trail about five miles wide running through the desert. The lava has all kinds of plants growing in and around it, and critters residing there, and gaps and bubbles and tubes, and is genuinely quite awesome. It just doesn’t photograph well…

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I’m pretty sure this is Little Black Peak. The name doesn’t lie.

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And yes, the eagle-eyed will spot that I am growing increasingly more sunburned. Recall my previously referenced inability to translate past consequences into future actions.

Annie and I enjoyed about an hour exploring on and off the nature trail, and were still making good time for the afternoon. Now, originally the plan had been to spend a day and night in Santa Fe after Valley of Fires, but, if you recollect, we lost a day due to the infamous Gruene Hall detour. Taos was next on the agenda, and I had made Air B&B reservations there well in advance, so we’ll have to backtrack a bit and catch Santa Fe AFTER Taos, which isn’t ideal, but such are the dues we pay for spontaneity. And the place I’d arranged for us in Taos is MEGA UBER FANTASTICO SUPREME! Are you ready for this jelly? I’m not sure you can handle this jelly… IT’S AN ACTUAL, OFFICIAL, ORIGINAL 1898 CHILE LINE BOXCAR THAT HAS BEEN REPURPOSED INTO A MINIATURE HOUSE! But wait, there’s more! It has been gorgeously decorated with stained glass panels and a CLAW! FOOT! BATH! TUB! But that’s not all! Outside there are sweeping views of hundreds of acres of pasture land AND ACCESS TO AN OUTDOOR HOT TUB!!

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Day Thirteen: The One I Never Came Up With A Name For: Texas, New Mexico

Fair warning. Yesterday (make that two days ago now-this is attempt two to finish the blog post) about wore me out. Even after a full night’s sleep, I’m exhausted as I write this, and facing another long day on the road, so lapses in editorial brilliance may abound.

As you may recall, Day Twelve saw us rerouted from Balmorhea to Fort Davis in an attempt to find suitable lodging.  My original intent had been to return to Balmorhea (the country’s largest spring-fed swimming pool) in the morning to explore the site as originally planned. But a little research showed that Fort Davis may actually be WAY more interesting. The area is the highest town in Texas, and the historic site is a well-preserved old army outpost from the late 1800s established to protect travelers on the San Antonio-El Paso Road from Comanche and Apache attacks, and also to control Native American activity as the Indian war trails were located nearby. Now I’m not normally one for military history, but Indian related stuff fascinates me. We arrived first thing in the morning, and Annie immediately showed all due respect to the former soldiers.

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To get a feel for the place, I watched the short film offered at the Visitor’s Center. Which was . . . narrated by Kareem Abdul Jabbar?? OK. Sure. Kareem told me lots of cool stuff, like that the fort and surrounding mountains were named for Jefferson Davis: then Secretary of War, but later Charles in Charge of the rebel forces during the Civil War. Also, that the fort was home to two regiments of Buffalo Soldiers-basically dudes that we had formerly held in slavery who were now commanded to quash the rebellions of the latest ethnic group we were trying to suppress.

Once back outside, I saw that the fort consisted of a square of buildings around a small parade ground: upscale officer’s homes decorated in the latest Victorian styles, depressingly bare bones enlisted men’s mass bunks, and the crumbling remains of a commissary and hospital. One of the coolest parts was that periodically as we strolled grounds bugle calls would sound, for which we were provided with an accompanying guide as to what each call represented: rise and shine, supper time, exercise drills, etc.. I realized I too “enjoy” all these calls as part of my daily routine, just provided by a BARKBARK terrier, not the boogie woogie bugle boy from company B.  It was easy, in a mind blowing kind of way, to imagine living there, still so isolated today and yet astoundingly so then. And there were women in the camp! Some of the officers brought wives with them. Their homes were lovingly decorated with fine crystal and china, and if that was all transported to the site via rutted wagon road, they do MUCH better at packing than I ever will!

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The fort even had an irrigation system in place to maintain some lovely cottonwood trees, which Annie took the opportunity to bask in the shade of.

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After exploring the main fort, Annie and I hiked a trail down to the old cemetery and water pump, walking just a few feet past the main quarters shows the utter isolation surrounding the place.

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I returned to the Visitor Center to purchase some postcards and the souvenir pins I’m collecting everywhere we visit thanks to an excellent suggestion by my friend Trish. Yet again I encountered another unhelpful, unfriendly Ranger Dude manning the desk, this one a burly gray beard named Floy (no that’s not a typo). He had earlier seemed disgruntled that my fancy shmancy All Access Park Pass saved me the three dollar entrance fee. As he rang up my modest purchase, I commented that the day had certainly heated up quickly. No response. Then I spied some stuffed camels on the floor in the kid’s merchandise area. I remarked that that seemed like an odd souvenir for the site to be selling. No response. As I made my way out the door, a book caught my eye: Army Camels. Curious, I picked it up. What’s this?? Apparently for a brief period in the mid 1800s the U.S. Army used CAMELS?!?! Including in this area to help survey a shorter route to Fort Davis?!?! (The horses weren’t really down with their camel compatriots, so the experiment was short lived, but still.) So basically, one of the coolest things I learned at Fort Davis I stumbled upon in the Gift Shop. *shakes head*

After our tour, it was time to saddle up Marigold and hit the trial once more. The drive away from Fort Davis passed through yet more stunningly beautiful scenery.

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And once again, I visited a ladies room at a highway rest stop with yet another cool mosaic (Finally got the earlier one to load, the new one is on the right).

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After many miles, there was much rejoicing as we passed into New Mexico! Land of Enchantment! So, we’re tooling along through New Mexico, hot, tired, both of us having to pee, but alllmmost at our destination, so trying to hold out, when all of a sudden the weirdest thing happens. We’re pulled over into a Border Patrol Station?? Umm… this is NEW Mexico right? I’m using Google Maps now, so they BEST not have sent me that far astray! I’ve not left the country, what the heck is going on? Of course, I was prepared to pass a border checkpoint when we hit Canada, but now I’m just flustered, flummoxed, and flabbergasted. And driving a vehicle that SCREAMS “I’m hiding drugs and immigrants!” (Thank GOD I wasn’t in Lady Luck!) The guard is bemused by Marigold, and shocked by my claim to be just a gal and her dog tooling about for a few months, but ultimately lets us go. I still have NO idea what that was all about.

Finally we roll in to White Sands National Monument, an enormous sand dune made entirely of gypsum rising out of the scrubby desert surrounding it. The gypsum is brilliantly white, soft to the touch, and cool even in the hottest part of the day. The place was packed, and it seems that some midwesterners use it as an erstwhile beach, setting up camp for the day to tan and cookout and chill with the fam. But the vast expanse of the dunes meant it still wasn’t difficult to find some solitude.

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Lots of people rented saucer gliders to slide down the dunes like a snowbank. Others found this prospect dubious at best.

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OK, so by now I’m sure you’re wondering where we chanced to rest our weary heads for the night. So, early in the day I researched my intended campground only to find that the sites were non-reservable, first-come first-served. So around 4pm, after our sandy silliness was winding down, and the campsite was about an hour away, I called to check. Filled up since 2pm. Major suckage, but since we couldn’t have realistically made it there by 2pm, I reasoned this one was not on me. Some additional sluething revealed that our best option, without having to drive to hell and gone, was a KOA in a nearby town. Now KOA gets something of a bum rap from serious campers: they’re rarely in rustic or scenic spots, they are usually crammed with huge, ugly, noisy RVs, and they are corporate and homogenized. All true. BUT: they were SUPER friendly, went out of their way to find me the best spot, were comfortable, safe and convenient, AND even had an special treat for Annie Butler.

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Our lodging firmly in place, we returned to the dunes for a delightful sunset stroll…

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And then I ate at this AWESOME old actual drive-in hamburger joint that’s been around since the 50s and has since  been declared a New Mexico Culinary Treasure. The Hi-De-Ho was AMAZEBALLS! (Didn’t photograph well in the dark though.) A short drive back to the campsite, I crawled back onto the bed, and was sound asleep in my clothes before my head hit the pillow!

Day Twelve: Deep in the Heart of Texas: Texas (Fredericksburg, Sonora, Balmorhea, Fort Davis)

Let’s just get it right out in the open. I’m an idiot. A full fledged maroon. I am incapable of applying past consequences to future actions. After the egregious debacle that was last night, do I call ahead and confirm a camping reservation at my intended destination for tonight? Noooo! Of course I don’t! I just toodle right along without a care in the world!

After a stressful evening, and a night spent tossing and turning despite my posh accommodations, I can’t tell you how happy I was to see a stack of these at the free Bright Eyes Breakfast Buffet.

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The day appeared to be dawning sunny and clear, which boded well. Unwilling to encounter any further delays, I made the executive decision to get the heck out of Fredericksburg without partaking of any of its myriad delights . . . well, except maybe one. I had spotted a kolache shop during all of my circuitous circumnavigating yesterday and I decided to pick a few up for a picnic lunch. The Asian proprietor was quite friendly, and quite enamored of Marigold. He asked me loads of questions and started waxing poetic about how wonderful it would be to live in one. So great was his delight, he even gave me a little lagniappe, because…

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I did. I really did. Soon Annie and I were saying Auf Weidersehen to Fredericksburg (the town has a heavy Germanic influence, and that’s what the signs are marked with as you exit) and speeding along out on the open highway. And if there’s one thing the highways in West Texas are, it’s open. I mean there is jackall to see except limestone hills and road cuts and scrubby little treelets. You can easily go fifty miles between gas stations.

Since there’s not much to dazzle you with about Highway 10 West, let me share a joke I overheard in the Luckenbach P.O. yesterday.

“What did the horse say?”

“I’ve fallen and I cain’t giddy-up!”

This is what passes for humor in Luckenbach Texas. …

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We resume our 80mph drive through the vast enormity of Texas . . .

. . . In Texas, fireworks are Buy ONE, get ELEVEN free!!! . . .

OK, time for a lunch break. We’re passing Senora, which looks to be an actual town, so I decide to see what’s afoot. TripAdvisor tells me they have a nice little nature center with some hiking trails to stretch your legs, but despite using two different GPS apps and searching by name and street address, danged if I can find it. So we pull over under the one little quasi bit of shade we can find on historic Main Street, in front of the offices of the local rag, Devil’s River News. They have a rather realistic looking, pitchfork-wielding diablo painted on their storefront, which I assume is in reference to the “river” which “runs” through town,  Dry Devil’s River, but is still a bit of an unsettling mascot for the paper of record.

Annie and I make quick work of our, frankly mediocre, kolache.

We resume our 80mph drive through the wasteland . . .

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, when I was at The George’s show at Gruene Hall the other evening, at one point, while the band was performing, some woman set her iPhone to video, mounted it on a selfie stick, and proceeded to dance around not more than a foot from the face of the lead singer, recording herself with him. Soooo . . .  I’m not the biggest goon with a selfie stick is alls I’m trying to say.

Driving, driving, driving . . .

Just as I’m thinking about pulling out the ol’ SheWee ’cause my bladder can’t take it anymore, a rest stop emerges from the ether. The rest stop had a cool mosaic of an old timey cavalry man and his horse in the ladies room, but the photo won’t load. Instead you get Annie staring at the same scenery we’ve been looking at for the past three hours.

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But then! Annie met a friend! Named Andi!

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Andi (also a terrieresque lady of distinction) is traveling around with a dude named Ricky. Ricky is cute in a 24ish, dreadlocked (but black so it’s OK), Batman t-shirt, skinny but fit kind of way. Ricky is traveling around for two weeks on some sort of twisted route that started in TexBarkana, went east to South Carolina, south to New Orleans, and will eventually be working its way up the California Coast to catch a ferry to Alaska where he has a job waiting for him at a mine in Juno. Ricky shares that he prefers staying in hotels over camping, but mostly for his dog because she’s a bit spoiled and loves to jump around on the beds as soon as they check in. Andi and Annie share a knowing look. We wish Ricky safe travels and continue on our journey . . . across the endless miles . . .

. . . we start to see wind turbines scattered across the lumpy hills . . .

And then, finally, at long last, after yet another stupid MapQuest detour, we pull into Balmorhea . . . Only to see an enormous sign: CAMPGROUND FULL! (expletive deleted). As I’m standing there, marveling at my own incompetency, a nice ranger fella ambles over. (People amble a lot in Texas). He confirms that yes, the campground is indeed full, and additionally the giant spring-fed pool I’ve come to see will be closing in about 20 minutes, so maybe not worth the $7 entrance fee. But I MIGHT be able to find a vacancy at Fort Davis . . . THIRTY FIVE MILES AWAY!

And that was a loooong 35 miles my friends. Unlike the area I’d been cast out in last night, there was NOTHING for MILES. Just giant cliffs looming up looking ominous and unwelcoming. I still had half a tank of gas and I was afraid I might be stranded and never seen again. If it had been dark I think I may have truly lost it. It was like a scene from some old Western where you just know there’s a Comanche lurking behind a rock and you have nowhere to run. I wish I had pictures, but I was too terrified to stop for even a second. Coming around a bend I saw salvation looming in the form of a rundown old motel and accompanying RV Park. I pulled in immediately and asked the nice non-Native American but the other kind of Indian you don’t expect to see here dude if he had any camping spaces available.  He replies that they don’t offer camping. I point to his sign and say “But you’re an RV park.” Apparently he doesn’t consider that camping. He’s yet further perplexed by Marigold and her non-traditional nature. But he has a spot! And while it’s not the MOST scenic place I’ve ever been, facing certain directions it’s rather picturesque.

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And it has FREE ICE!! FREE ICE! AS MUCH AS YOU WANT!! I CAN HAVE A DIET COKE WITH ICE! And fill my cooler, and my “fridge” and have a whole ICE PARTY!!

AND, I am so energized by this fortuitous turn of events, that I break out the propane stove for the first time and cook myself some Spaghettios! (With cookware that clearly wasn’t cleaned since the last occupant…)

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The night is filling with stars . . . apparently I’m near McDonald Observatory and the skies are super clear here . . . might need to toast to that . . .

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Day Eleven: Texas Messes with ME: Texas (Luckenbach, Willow City, Enchanted Rock, Fredericksburg)

Oy! What a day! It exhausts me just thinking about it. I don’t even know where to begin, but begin we must.

The day started out gray and blustery. Exceedingly blustery. Wind is my least favorite element, so this should have been a portent of what lay ahead. Also, the breakfast bar manager at the La Quinta threw away my bagel from the toaster. And it was the last one. Fortunately, I knew just the tonic for such an inauspicious start. . .

Luckenbach Texas is basically a post office/general store/saloon and dance hall, and was all but a ghost town until shortly before that song was recorded. Nowadays it’s little more than a tourist attraction for country music aficionados and bikers. On a blustery gray Thursday in March it’s all but deserted save for a handful of Harley riders, Annie, and me.

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The town still has live music pretty much every night in its dance hall, and a closer examination of the evening’s star attraction caught me more than a little by surprise!

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I was fortunate enough to catch ShAnnie doing sound check (a pure acapella act apparently), and was impressed to see they already have her stage name immortalized on the wall of fame.

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Also! Confidential to my cat ladies:

The P.O./General Store even has a resident shop kitty!

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After splitting a pulled pork sammich and a cherry limeade (delish!) we were on the road again to see if we could espy some of the legendary Texas bluebonnets I’d heard so much tell of. Our own little blossom, Marigold, took us down to a place called Willow City in search of the elusive native wildflowers. Alas, we only found a few sparse patches, like much else on this trip it seems as though we’re just a few weeks too early. The views we saw were breathtaking though, but alas, this particular loop road does not allow stopping or parking ANYWHERE, and as awesome as my iPhone 6 has been at capturing amazing photos so far, it just can’t do the distance shots justice.

Pump up the wow factor on these pics by at least eleven.

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After our mini wildflower jaunt, it was time for the MAIN EVENT! Climbing Enchanted Rock! You remember how I mentioned that the Texas State Capitol Building is made entirely from native red granite. Well this is a big old dome of it rising up out of the earth. You’ll be shocked and amazed to learn it is the largest pink granite monadnock in the entire United States!! (Google it.) I entered the Visitor Center to check in, and was surprised to see the sizable spinning postcard rack had only 4 or 5 cards of random yellow flowers left. I pointed this out to the ranger dude and suggested he might want to reorder. I was told they will “no longer be carrying” postcards, as they started with 10,000 and it took them 10 years to sell them all. WTH?! I know I’m a throwback with my snail mail ways, but NO postcards at a tourist site? Maybe don’t have a whole rack of stupid ones, but a small display of an aerial shot of the rock wouldn’t go amiss surely? The things sell for 50 cents-what do they cost the park? A dime each? The hits kept coming when I was told I could NOT pay for a tent camping site and sleep in my van. When I enquired as to why, I was told “because we don’t allow it.” I MAY have gotten a bit snarky at this non-answer better suited for a four year old wanting chocolate pie for dinner, and this brought TWO supervisors out of the woodwork. Apparently, the site is super popular with visitors, and they have very limited parking. So some days this can be a problem and they have to cut off admission to the park until spaces open up. Some enterprising souls apparently started sleeping in their cars in order to gain prime AM access, so the “must sleep in a tent or hammock” rule is now strictly enforced. I’m not sure I fully understood the problem or the solution, but unless I could pull a tent out of my tuckus, I wasn’t going to be sleeping at Enchanted Rock that night. I was handed a flyer for a nearby campground (more on this anon) and sent off to hike.

Undeterred by the lack of Southern hospitality, and actually grateful not to have been shot (it IS Texas after all), Annie and I put our climbing paws/boots on and set off up the dome! (Again, my pics won’t do this justice, but I couldn’t buy a damn postcard to insert!)

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The initial ascent was more of a rock scramble, and Annie enjoyed poking her nose in lots of interesting places.

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Before long, we reached the midway point from which it’s pretty much a straight half mile ascent up a sheer rock face. And did I mention it was super windy? It was super windy.

So here’s the thing about me and hiking. I love it. But I suck at it. Always have. Ever since I was a kid I’ve had an issue with stamina. I can go for miles on a flat surface, but make it an incline, and my lungs give out way before my legs do. The day twice a year when we had to run the 600 yard dash for the fitness testing in school? My biggest nightmare days ever. I ALWAYS came in second to last. And the last place finisher was literally twice my weight. Until my twenties I was stick skinny, and even now I only have a little extra padding, so I LOOK like I should be able to keep up, and most folks don’t understand when I can’t. Heck I don’t really understand it. So I HATE hiking with other people. I can never go as far or as fast, and I feel like a total loser when I have to stop all the time. I won’t go hiking on dates even though I love being outdoors and in nature. But Annie makes the perfect hiking partner. Although she has proven time and again she can easily go further and faster, whenever I have to stop and rest she runs right over and nuzzles her head in my cheek. And gives me the biggest smile.

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There were a few times I let anxiety get the better of me. Fearing I couldn’t make it, even though school kids were whizzing past me, worrying about tripping or stumbling and falling down the steep surface. But with Annie’s encouragement we ascended to the top! It’s a lame accomplishment. It’s no Everest by any means, and most folks didn’t even bat an eye flying up the side. But I did it! And yes, Annie “planted her flag” at the top.

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The wind was gusting so hard it almost blew us off the rock, so we made a much hastier descent. Feeling energized and accomplished, and with the sun finally showing his face, we decided to explore the loop trail around the base of the rock. Gorgeous scenery and greenery. Annie even VOLUNTARILY waded into a stream! #badass

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Park fully explored, it seemed time to think about making camp for the night, So remember that handy flyer Ranger Dude gave me? Well, it directed me to a ranch with camping about 20 minutes away from the rock in the direction I wanted to travel anyway. The flier said there was no need for reservations as they always have plenty of room. I left the park well before sunset to have plenty of time to set up camp and relax. When I finally found the ranch (Yes, MapQuest is still screwing with me) there was no one around. And no information as to how to check in otherwise. Just a little BARKBARK Chihuahua named Toby (as I learned from their Facebook page). I called the phone number and no answer. After doing some additional research, it seemed my next best option was to go to a KOA approximately a 30 mile drive back the direction I had just come. Frustrating. When I arrived at the KOA, they told me they had no tent sites left, or anything but cabins, which they don’t allow pets in. They then directed me to Lady Bird Johnson Park another 10 miles back in the direction I just came. When I got to that park, the office was open but the Ranger was out, so I had to wait 10 minutes for her to return only to tell me they also do not allow you to sleep in your vehicle, unless you have an RV, and all their RV spaces were full. Apparently the park is owned by the city, and this is a city rule. WTF? As it was now 9 PM, and fully dark, and I seemed to be out of any other options and was exhausted, I saw no choice but to pony up for another unexpected stay in a La Quinta. Well, at least one of us is happy . . .

Annieroom

Day Ten: Texas Forever: Texas (Austin, Blanco, Gruene)

So it appears, despite the dire cliff hanger from my last post, that I neglected to die. Feeling moderately more human, I bid adieu to the Airstream (which was cool and funky and all, but I had to use a bathroom inside the house, which was a major pain in my rear), and set off to explore the Texas Hill Country. But first! A few last tacos for the road! Breakfast tacos this time, from my new favorite Austin eatery: Trailer Park Torchy’s! The set up here is really cool at night, but my nighttime visit was the day I was MEGASTRESSED, so I didn’t get a good photo, but just picture multiple food trucks (including Holy Cacao!), picnic tables strewn under the trees, and strings of lights dangling in the branches, illuminating the whole enchilada . . .  errr . . . taco.

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The jury remains out as to whether Annie prefers scrambled egg and bacon tacos to steak tacos. Further sampling will be required.

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Oh, and one more quick detour! Our guide on the walking tour had mentioned a cool phenomena that only Austin has: Moon Towers!  These funny looking tall structures were originally erected in multiple cities across the country in the late 1800s. The towers loom 150 feet above the ground, and each has six super strong light globes designed to give the effect of moonlight illuminating the city streets. The bulbs were initially mercury arc lamps, so with the advent of inexpensive incandescent electric streetlights, the Moon Towers were mostly decommissioned and removed. From every city except Austin. The towers gained some bit of notoriety from the 1993 movie “Dazed and Confused,” when Matthew McConaughey’s character organizes a beer bust at one, but many local Austinites walk right by them every day and don’t even realize what they are. Again, nighttime pics would have been preferable, but the damn consumption prevented it. Alright alright alright…

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FINALLY, we have hit the road! The first order of business is to traverse the length of ‘Devil’s Backbone,’ a twisty-turny razorback ridge overlooking stunning vistas of the scrubby limestone hills. It’s not far from Austin, but at times can feel like you are in no-man’s land.

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The drive winds through tiny Texas backwater hamlets in which the old courthouse still looms proudly over the town square, seemingly untouched by time, while at the shop across the street, you can buy your fill of modern bling.

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After tootling around for a bit, soaking in the gorgeous scenery on a perfect sunny spring afternoon, Annie and I pulled over at a scenic overlook to enjoy a picnic lunch. Our repast for the afternoon were the absofrigginlutely OMG AMAZEBALLS Czech pastry doohickeys called kolache. They look like an ordinary dinner roll on the outside, but INSIDE they’re filled with whatever yummy deliciousness your heart desires. We tried bacon and cheese, ham and cheese, and strawberry, and frankly I could live off of these entirely for the rest of my life and die a happy woman!

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After lunch, and heeding the prodding of my dear friend Laura, we made a “quick” detour to a tiny little town called Gruene (pronounced Green). Gruene sits on the banks of the Guadalupe River (although many of the businesses which front the water won’t let you on their land without charging a fee).

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The main crossroads is lined with historic buildings selling antiques, crafts, artwork, and old timey general store candies and treats. Annie even found a new butterfly to pose with!

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But by far the jewel in Gruene’s crown, the piece de la resistance, is Gruene Hall-Texas’ oldest operating dance hall, and the place where artists like George Strait, Loretta Lynn, and Lyle Lovett got their start. Stepping inside feels like stepping back in time with the high-pitched tin roof, open-air side windows, dusty wood plank floors, and vintage advertising signs lining the walls. The bartender was even kind enough to let Annie take a sneaky peek around.

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The place was so cool, and the late afternoon so perfect, I knew I had to jettison all plans of continuing on to my chosen destination, and make a new plan that included seeing a show at Gruene Hall. No problemo right? Just a quick search for a nearby dog-friendly hotel, stash the pooch there, and back in time for dinner and some shopping before the show. I found suitable lodging on the internet quickly enough, but finding it in reality was another matter altogether. The GPS said it was seven minutes away. And then took me to a storage unit. I called the hotel and was advised it was “right next to the Chili’s sign,” so I plugged that into the phone and started anew. Only to end up in the heartbreak of a sea of hotels, none the one I was seeking. It took a pal in England to get me sorted and guide me to the other side of the giant highway. I still had one wrong turn left to make, and in the end it took me about 45 minutes for the alleged seven-minute trip. But with Annie safely settled at the La Quinta (and after a protracted period of standing outside the hotel room door waiting for the BARKBARK to subside), I rushed back to Gruene just in time for the start of the show. The band last night was The Georges, an excellent rockabilly band who play their own tunes as well as excellent covers of Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Waylon Jennings. The show was four hours long  and folks drifted in and out, danced if they felt like it, sipped their brews if they didn’t. Totally chill and totally awesome.

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Which brings me to the latest installment of . . .

BAWOTD (Bad Ass Woman of The Day):

Meet Betty Jo. Betty Jo is 85 if she is a day, and she was cutting a rug like there was no tomorrow. I was there for over two hours, and while I can’t swear she danced to EVERY song, each time I looked at the dance floor she was on it. This photo was taken early in the evening, when there were only a few folks out boot scootin’, but she was still going strong even once the place was packed. And it’s blurry, just like every other picture I attempted of her, because she never stopped moving. You go Betty Jo! (Update: upon returning home, I learned that the most recent season of The Bachelorette visited Gruene Hall, and Betty happened to be on hand that night as well. She danced with one of the young suitors (who will be the next Bachelor) and even got interviewed on camera!)

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Day Nine: Texas Cold ‘Em: Austin, Texas

Today I woke up with a full blown cold. Tired, congested, snuffly, coughy, the whole nine yards. But I was determined not to let the entire day go to waste. Annie and I had a 9AM appointment for a walking tour of Austin, and doggone it, we were going to be on that tour! Even if I couldn’t EXACTLY remember the directions the guide lady had give me to the parking garage, so we ended up on the wrong side of the Capitol. Nevertheless! When I originally called to confirm Annie would be welcome on the tour I was cautioned we might need to hang back as some of the other group members might not be comfortable around dogs. We get there, and one dude was on his knees chatting with Annie within three minutes of our arrival, and I swear he was more interested in her than the tour.

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The tour began with the Texas Capitol building, the largest state capitol building in the country, built entirely from Texas red granite. That chick on top is holding up the single star, also found on the state flag of Texas, symbolizing the Lone Star State. Fun fact I just learned: on the front of the capitol building you can see six flags represented, the flags of the six countries that have controlled Texas over the years: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and regular America. Apparently this is also where the Six Flags theme parks, headquarted in Texas, got their name.



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From there we passed by the Governor’s Mansion which was behind a huge iron fence and patrolled by some pretty surly looking dudes. Even with all this security, seven years ago an unknown baddie threw a Molotov Cocktail up onto the front porch causing $25 million dollars worth of damage, not counting the $1 million dollars the tax payers had to fork over for Rick Perry’s rental pad. #justsayin

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We continued down Congress Avenue, the main thoroughfare, and what was, back in the day, the Rodeo Drive of Austin. We saw the Paramount movie theatre which started out as a vaudeville theatre, switched over to movies, and then to a little bit of everything. The Paramount is celebrating it’s 100th anniversary this year.

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My favorite stop may have been The Driskill Hotel, built in 1886 by a wealthy cattle rancher, he had busts of himself and his two sons perched on top of the building so that they would never be forgotten. Two years after building the hotel, his entire 3,000 strong herd of cattle froze to death over the winter and he lost the property. Since then it’s been an Austin institution. No, they don’t herd cattle through a la The Peabody (although I’m told Fort Worth has a twice daily cattle drive through town and that’s almost tempting enough for a six-hour detour). But it is where President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird had their first date. And it has an amazing bar with gorgeous stained glass and a giant steer head.

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Oh, one other highlight from the tour:

I’ve decided to add a regular feature called Bad Ass Woman of the Day, as I seem to keep encountering them. (Annie Butler aside.) Well today’s BAWOTD is Angelina Eberly, an Austin innkeeper back in the late 1800s. Back in those days there was a big folderol between Sam Houston, the first President of Texas, and his successor, Mirabeau Lamar. Lamar wanted Austin to be the capital city, and Houston wanted it to be, well, Houston. So one night, under the cover of darkness, Houston (who by this time was Prez again) got a gang of dudes to break into the archives to steal all the official records and take them to a secret location. Well Angelina heard the ruckus, figured out what the deal was, ran out and fired off the town cannon to clue in the rest of the citizenry, thwart the thieves, and save the day! Rock on Angelina Eberly!

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After the tour I was feeling pretty run down, and not at all bad ass. So I decided to pay a quick visit to one of the taco joints recommended to me and catch some Zzzzzs. The first attempt had a line for days, the second had been relocated, (and the new location was sketchy looking), and the fourth attempt was an utter GPS meltdown failure. After that I took a brief nap in the car. Finally, at long last, after only an hour and a half of searching,  Annie and I filled our fat bellies with multiple plates of TacoDeli deliciousness.

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And then we retired to our AirBnBStream to await my imminent demise . . .

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