There IS a way to stay in this beautiful desert park for several months:
be a campground host! Someday when we stop traveling around to races so
much we'll consider that option more seriously. The deal in most places is free
camping for X number of hours of work each week. The downside for us at this
point in our lives is being stuck in the same place for several months.
We began the year at McDowell Mountain Regional Park at the beginning of
2009 and now we're back to end the year in not only the same campground, but
the same campsite! We were lucky to get it when we drove in last Sunday
morning; it's one of the most popular of the 76 sites in the park
and it had just been vacated shortly before our arrival:
The HitchHiker Hilton sits high, dry, and all by itself.
The site is on the high end of one of the two camping loops,
with no other sites close to it on either side or across the road. With only a
quarter to a half of the sites occupied this past week, we've had plenty of
privacy. The panoramic views of surrounding mountains are awesome and an access
trail to the park's network of over fifty miles of trails is very close. It
doesn't get much better than that.
Here's how I began my
January 17 journal entry at this park
eleven months ago:
"After the weather started warming up to normal January temperatures in
the 60s two weeks ago in the Phoenix area, we were very happy campers. Literally."
Ha! Deja vu all over again. We've been seeking warm sunshine
since we left Roanoke three weeks ago. We were a little disappointed by the unseasonably cold
(two mornings near 26° F. ) and
wet weather most of the time we were in Austin earlier this
month and had high hopes for warmer, drier weather in the
Our front side yard; a picnic table and grill
are to the left, above.
Except for some rain the first day here, our expectations have
been more than met -- sunny and dry the last seven days,
mostly in the low 70s at our campground at an elevation of about
2,000 feet and several degrees warmer lower in the Valley of the
Sun (AKA Phoenix) when we drive into town to go to the YMCA and
run other errands. Those temps are above normal, though, and we
don't expect them to last indefinitely. In fact, cooler weather
and rain are expected in a couple of days as a new storm system
comes in from the Northwest.
We feel a little guilty that we're enjoying such great weather,
considering the huge storm that dumped record-level snows this
weekend from North Carolina to the New England states. Philadelphia, where my sister lives,
reportedly got its second-deepest
snowfall since such records have been kept. Baltimore, where one
of Jim's sons and his family live, was slammed with enough snow
to shut down the airports, bring traffic to a standstill, and
generally create havoc.
Kids and skiers love it, of course. Snow-phobes just wanna go South.
And Roanoke . . . oh, my!
Roanoke officially got just under 18" of snow
on Friday and Saturday,
the most they've gotten at one time in fourteen years and more than we saw all
winter at our house in 2004, 2005, or 2006 -- before we
started playing sunbird and going away for several weeks or
months during the winter. Yowza.
Jim's sure glad we aren't there right now! I'd love to see what
our house and woods look like. I like snow as long as I don't
have to shovel it or drive in it -- and the electricity
stays on. This time I'll have to be satisfied
with photos on the
and reports from friends and neighbors.
Jared Soares took this pretty
photo for the Roanoke Times:
Pedestrians walk through a snow-covered
Sherwood Avenue in Roanoke on Saturday morning.
Sixteen inches of snow had already fallen
when Jared Soares took this photo.
An Arctic blast of cold air is expected to prevent the snow from
melting this week, so Virginians and everybody up the eastern
coast will probably have a white Christmas. Another storm is
brewing out in the Pacific and will probably dump a bunch of
snow on folks in the West and Midwest, too.
Jim and I might joke but we aren't smug about being in warm,
sunny Arizona. It's only temporary. Soon it will rain, snow at the higher elevations,
and get unseasonably colder here in a couple of days, too. We do feel sorry for
everyone who is inconvenienced by these storms; the one
on the east coast has ruined a
lot of peoples' holiday travel plans, caused accidents and
deaths, and strained our dismal national economy even more than
it already was.
PART OF THE ADVENTURE IS THE JOURNEY . . .
. . . from Point A to Point B. That's why I share some of
our travel stories and tips.
We knew we had a little over a thousand miles to drive from
McKinney Falls State Park to McDowell Mountain Regional Park so
we planned on taking one full day and two half days on the road
to make it easy on ourselves. It's always slower and more tiring
to tow a camper somewhere than it is to just drive a car.
We left Austin late on a cold, overcast Friday morning and found
sunshine about three hours later.
The shortest way from McKinney Falls to I-10 west is
via US 290 through the Texas Hill Country. It was a fairly
scenic drive even in December on mostly four-lane roads with
little traffic once we cleared Austin. We passed through fertile
farm lands, wineries, orchards, fields full of goats or cattle, and even
saw a camel in one pasture! That got our attention.
Unfortunately, we didn't do our homework about what we'd see
along the way until we were in Arizona. We missed several things
that are worth a return visit to the area.
The "back yard" of our campsite at McDowell
Soon after leaving the outskirts of Austin we noticed two signs
along US 290 that designated the road as both a Texas Wildflower
Trail and the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway. That was my clue to
look in our Texas AAA guidebook for more information -- but I didn't.
It wasn't too hard to figure out the wildflower designation,
since the LBJ ranch is out this way. So is Johnson City and the LBJ National and State
Historic Park, all honoring President Lyndon Baines Johnson and
Lady Bird Johnson's family. Lady Bird was an avid
environmentalist, particularly promoting native wildflowers.
I realized that I could easily check off one of the 391 national
parks/historical sites on my list but we were on a mission to
get down the road so I didn't suggest stopping.
That's OK. We'll get there another time. I now know that it will
take several hours to do justice to the two districts in this
park that are fifteen miles apart: Johnson's restored boyhood home
in Johnson City and the LBJ ranch. The ranch can be reached
only via a bus tour from the visitor center at LBJ State
Historical Park near Stonewall.
HONORING OUR WAR HEROES
US 290 is also designated the "Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway"
because of the National Museum of the Pacific War that is
located in the town of Fredericksburg, which is about 70 miles
west of Austin and 60 miles northwest of San Antonio.
The large indoor/outdoor museum honors the men
and women who served in the Pacific and on the home front during
WWII. It features artifacts from Pearl Harbor, Midway,
Guadalcanal, the Mariana Islands, and the Philippines. Some of
the displays honor Admiral Nimitz, commander-in-chief of the Pacific Theater,
who was born in
Fredericksburg. The George Bush (Sr.) Gallery includes life-size
exhibits like the deck of one of the warships. There are outdoor
memorial walks, walls, plazas, and a re-created battlefield with
tanks, vehicles, artillery, and aircraft.
We had no idea this national museum even existed
until we got well past it. We'd like to see it if we're in
the vicinity again.
Trail access near our campsite at McDowell
Mtn. Park in Arizona
We really liked the looks of the town of Fredericksburg with its
Bavarian architecture. We noticed there were a lot of German
names on the businesses, rural roads, and creeks. I read later
that the town was settled by German farmers who arrived in the
area in 1846. Many of the wooden and stone businesses and
homes have been renovated and the town is considered one of the
most attractive in Texas. We agree.
THE SUN HAS RIZ, THE SUN HAS SET, AIN'T WE
THRU TEXAS YET??
I learned that little ditty many years ago on my first trip
through Texas. Even starting from somewhere near the center of
it, we didn't get to the state border at El Paso until our
second day on the road.
US 290 was clearly the most interesting part of the first leg of
our journey. After we hit I-10 west of Fredericksburg we still
had 477 miles to go before we reached New Mexico. We've done
this drive both east and west several times. We know it gets
lonely out there -- and tediously boring -- so we
hit cruise control, crank up the Sirius (satellite) radio, and
bring along some interesting reading material. The reading
material is for the passenger, not the driver! With as little
traffic as we saw, however, it was tempting for whoever was
driving to have some distractions. We saw as many semis as
passenger vehicles and RVs. We're glad to see that evidence of
commerce as the economy limps along.
While we were in Austin, Jim finished reading Vince Flynn's riveting
political thriller, Extreme Measures. I picked it up
and dived right in after we hit I-10.
I used to enjoy reading U.S. vs Russia espionage novels back in the
'60s and '70s but I haven't read any of the newer genre that
have been written about the
U.S. vs Muslin terrorists since 9-11. I will now. I got through
the book in only two days on the road -- had trouble
putting it down and missed most of southwestern Texas! Now
we want to read the continuation of the story, Pursuit of
Honor, but we'll wait until it's in paperback.
Dramatic sunrise over McDowell Mtn. Park's
campground the rare morning I was up that early.
In transit to Phoenix we spent both Friday and Saturday nights
at Wal-Marts in Ft. Stockton, TX (not a superstore, but has
plenty of parking) and Benson, AZ (that one is a superstore).
As soon as we got off the freeway in Benson after driving 519
miles on the second day, Jim guessed we might have trouble parking at
Why? There are four private RV campgrounds in town, a likely
scenario for a city ordinance against overnight parking at any
of the other businesses.
Jim was right; we saw an inconspicuous sign as soon as we
entered the Wal-Mart parking lot ("But officer, we didn't see
any signs!"). We were tired and really didn't want to
drive farther up the freeway that day -- or pay for a
Since we needed to get some supplies we went
inside the store and simply asked the nice lady at the
service desk if it would be OK for us to park overnight and she
said, "Of course!" When we went back outside we
moved the camper to the far side of the parking lot where we'd be
out of the way of customer traffic, prepared supper, and settled
in for the night.
These no-parking ordinances
aren't Wal-Mart's policy, they are restrictions enacted by some
of the towns in which they are located -- local
officials brow-beaten by RV park owners who lose some business
because they charge 'way too much to people who merely want a safe
place to park for a few hours during the night. Under such circumstances I
worry more than Jim does about a knock on the door at 2 AM with
the sheriff telling us to move on, but so far that's never
happened to us.
By dark, there were half a dozen campers sharing our distant
corner of the store's large parking lot, within sight of a
private RV park across the main street. The private campgrounds
we passed looked full so I don't think they were hurting that
LAND OF ENCHANTMENT
I'm always happy when we get through El Paso and enter southern
New Mexico. The drive across the southern part of that state is
shorter and the terrain becomes more interesting, although I-10 is
still a relatively lonely road.
Somewhere in New Mexico on I-10
I noted that the freeway west of Las Cruces is also designated
the "Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway." That got me curious. A
quick internet search turned up a dozen other states from New
Hampshire to California with segments of highway with the same
designation. Without more digging, my guess is that every state
has a section of road called the "Pearl Harbor Memorial
Highway," even if they don't all have big museums like the one in
After spending the second night in Benson, AZ we had only 192
miles to drive the third day (last Sunday) to reach McDowell
Mountain Regional Park east of Phoenix.
I like driving through Tucson on I-10 and the eastern side of
Phoenix on US 101 and 202 because the freeways have such
attractive landscaping (lots of red flowers on some kind of
shrub, e.g.,) and interesting southwestern motifs on overpasses
and retaining walls. It's hard to photograph them going 65 MPH,
however! The colorful tile art work below is in Tucson; I
prefer metro Phoenix's more subtle freeway art that blends into
Our travel distance from Austin to Phoenix was 1,063 miles; the total from our
house near Roanoke, VA was 2,421 "camper miles" (we drove
additional "truck miles" in Austin).
To our dismay, diesel prices have been higher this year than
last and they've gotten higher as we've gone farther west. We
haven't seen anything as low as the $2.59/gallon Jim paid in
Roanoke when we left home over three weeks ago. The cheapest we found
in Austin was $2.62 at Wal-Mart (with their 3¢/gallon
shopping card discount). On the way to Phoenix we paid
$2.62 east of El Paso, $2.72 in Lordsburg, NM, and $2.64 in Eloy,
AZ, all at Flying Js along I-10.
Sign of the times: Arizona has closed
most of its freeway rest areas. State parks are next on the hit
In the Phoenix area, prices are mostly $2.89-2.99/gallon for
diesel. At McDowell Mountain Park we aren't anywhere near a
Flying J, which usually has the lowest diesel priced. Regular
gas averages about $2.69 here. Everything seems to cost
VALLEY OF THE SUN
We arrived at McDowell Mountain Regional Park right about noon
last Sunday, which is check-out time for departing campers. As I
mentioned at the beginning of this entry, someone had just
vacated our favorite campsite that morning and we were able to
[One of our best tips for folks heading to campgrounds that
cannot be reserved in advance is to arrive on a Sunday or Monday
afternoon, soon after most weekend and week-long campers have
used the dump stations and pulled out. That's when you'll find
the largest selection of sites and have the best chance of
reserving a site for one or two weeks. Get there on Thursday or
Friday and you may be out of luck.]
Where's the sun?? Photo I took right
after we got to McDowell Mtn. Park.
We knew rain was predicted that afternoon. Clouds were already
coming in as we set up the camper. As soon as Jim was done
hooking things up outside, it began to rain. Good timing.
Uh, oh. Here comes da rain!
By morning, we were
in severe sunshine for the next seven days.
We feel like we're in an aviary and we haven't even put out the
hummingbird feeder yet. Lots of Gambel's quail chatter and scurry around
through the desert shrubs behind our camper. Their unusual
angled head plumes make them easy to identify.
The same silly Gila woodpecker that tried to snack from the
hummingbird feeder in
January is back (or one of his kin), only
this time he's taken to watching me from the bike rack just
outside my desk window and/or pecking on the side of the
camper. Perching is OK; pecking is not.
The view from my desk inside the camper,
sans woodpecker (bike rack is to the left a bit)
So far we've seen pocket gophers, several kinds of birds, and
some long-eared Jackrabbits around our campsite but so far no
Although the camping limit is fourteen days we're hoping to extend
that by a few days if the park doesn't fill to capacity the week
between Christmas and New Years. We'd like to stay here until we
move to the Victory Lane complex where the Run to the Future
24-hour race will be held in Glendale, about forty miles west of
McDowell Mountain. According to the race director, we can park
our camper in the sports complex's large parking lot the night
before the race (December 30) and the night of the race (New
After the race we plan to
explore an area south of Tucson that is new to us during the
first week of January.
We originally wanted to come back to McDowell Mountain Park for
a week after the race but since Maricopa County raised its
camping fees this winter we are cutting our visit short. We
haven't heard any scuttlebutt about the county closing down its
ten regional parks, but apparently the state of Arizona is going
to close many or all of its state parks soon because of its
serious budget problems. Sounds like California. We've also
heard on news reports that both the state and some local areas
have plans to impose "temporary" (ha!) sales tax increases.
That's harsh, considering how steep their sales taxes already are
(over 8% in metro Phoenix).
Sunset from our campsite to the southeast
Our solution to Arizona's high prices? Go back to Texas sooner!
In the next entries I'll show you photos of the RTTF 24-hour race venue
and tell you about our latest efforts to stimulate the RV
industry. We've also been busy running and walking the great
trails at McDowell Mountain Park the past week and enjoying some
road cycling. One of these days we'll get out on the trails on
Jim's mountain bike. Jim says the bike is fine but we still
haven't ridden it since my $10,000 crash in August.
That reminds me; with all the hullabaloo in Washington
recently about heath care reform, I oughta briefly summarize for
you what my memorable medical year cost!
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil