. . . an easy escape from our daily grind . . . That is
exactly what we both need right now!!
We're finally on the road for our Winter 2009-2010 trip,
which was delayed by two weeks for medical reasons. I was starting to
feel like a
rat in a maze of doctor's offices and testing sites. After
one final curve ball that came out of nowhere on our last day in Roanoke --
yet another high-tech scan to
rule out some sort of malignancy on one of my lungs, for goodness sake -- it was time to leave.
Stop the merry-go-round! I want to get off!
We literally pulled out of the driveway within an hour of getting the
results that a suspicious nodule was "only scarring" and wouldn't require a
biopsy. How they found the nodule in the first place is a long story.
These "Gypsies" don't like to stay in one place too long, but sometimes
practicality (medical continuity, in this case) requires it. If I'd needed a
biopsy, we might still be in Roanoke and not enjoying the solitude of McKinney
Falls State Park in Texas.
PACK RATS GONE "LITE"
The main packing for this
three- to four-month foray to the Southwest took parts of three days.
We waited until close to the day of actual departure because it was such a
moving target this time.
I had to stop loading the camper for a
few minutes to photograph this beautiful sunset
from our ridge on the last evening at our house (next
We have duplicates of many items that we take on these expeditions, so not
everything gets carted inside and back outside each time we come and go from
our house. But there's still a lot to haul up and down stairs and neither of us
is in a position right now to do a lot of that -- Jim because of his
sore foot and hand, me because of my granny knees.
Jim's got the drill down more efficiently than I do but both of us rely on
lists we've refined over the years to make sure we don't forget something
important, especially things that would be expensive to duplicate.
we head out my list of "necessities" gets a little shorter as I
learn that some of the things I'd like to take -- particularly heavy
food items and supplies -- are better purchased along the way. Jim's
been nagging me about this for years. He's right, because the less weight we're
hauling in the camper, the better our gas mileage will be and the less wear and
tear will occur on the camper and truck. My rationale has always been to haul
extra items I've already purchased at a low price in Roanoke, assuming we'll have to
pay more somewhere else. Besides, we've already paid for them!
Jim finally convinced me of the folly of that reasoning when he reminded me
that we almost always buy food and supplies at WalMart and Sam's Club, whether
we're at home or on the road. Those stores are everywhere. (They will be this trip, but they aren't convenient in
the summer in Leadville and Silverton, CO.) And the extra items that we leave
behind can be used when we return. We always keep a good supply of
non-perishables in the house for emergency situations.
He's right. I'm not sure that taking less laundry detergent, fewer canned
goods, etc. improved the gas mileage by very much on the way to Texas, but at least there
was less to carry out to the camper!
Cody was as excited to finally hop into the truck on the morning we left the
house as Jim and I were. He'd been watching us haul stuff out to the camper for
days, and he knew exactly what was going down. He clearly understands
the word "camping," just like he knows d-o-g spells "dog."
(We can't spell "supper" either; he knows that one, too.) He's smart. And he
loves to go anywhere we're going.
When the camper is involved, Cody knows it's
going to be more than just a trail run or shopping trip -- it'll be an adventure.
He's part Gypsy, too.
[Note: the remainder of the photos in this entry illustrate early
life in Austin, TX, a transitional area between prairie and desert. I didn't
take any pictures along the way to Texas.]
When we drive across country in November or December we run the risk of
encountering dangerous wintry weather. So far we'd had no snow in southwestern
Virginia. Last year the first snow fell at our house much earlier than normal,
in mid-November -- on the very morning we left town. This time the worst we expected
was some rain along the way to Austin, Texas, a way stop to break up the long
drive to Arizona.
Early December in Austin, TX: a mix of
pines and deciduous trees.
In the remaining photos, note the
grasses that are still bright green.
We followed the same route as last November when we aimed for the
campground at Fort Hood (wonder what it's like to camp there this winter, after
the recent massacre on post?). This time we went just a little farther south to the
It took us two ~ 9-hour days and one 5½-hour
day to reach our destination. Those are reasonable hours that don't
leave us exhausted at the end of the day. Good roads, decent weather, minimal
construction, and moderate traffic with no accidents delaying us were also
helpful. Even though I hadn't driven our Ram 2500 truck for several weeks, it
was easy to get behind the wheel again and take off down the highway; it
is so much quieter, smoother, more powerful, and easier to maneuver with the
camper than our old F-250 was.
I was a little concerned that most of the rest areas along our route would
be closed. I know various states, including Virginia, are closing some of their
rest areas to save money during the current economic recession/depression. We
were pleased to see that most of the rest areas we passed were open, and we
stopped at a couple of them to fix lunch and let Cody run around in the grass.
McKinney Falls State Park in Austin
still has lots of green groundcover
It takes us at least half an hour to reach 1-81 west of Roanoke from our
house. We followed it southwest through Virginia and into Tennessee, then
merged into traffic going westbound through the Volunteer State on 1-40. The
first day was the hilliest (and most scenic, even with the leaves down) through
the southern Appalachian Mountains.
We spent the first night at a WalMart west of Nashville where we stayed on
our trip west two years ago. We covered 479 miles that day.
I was so relieved to be on the way that I had my best night's sleep in about
a month. No joke. I was beginning to shed the stress I'd felt from the unusual
medical maze I was in for the previous two months. We were also both tired from
packing the camper, doing all the things we have to do when we leave the house for
several months, and being on the road all day. Ear plugs completely blocked
out all noise in and near the parking lot. The
almost-full moon was about as bright as WalMart's security lights but nothing
bothered either one of us that night. We slept like logs,
assuming Cody would let us know if someone tried to swipe my nice Terry bike
off the rack on the back of the camper or Jim's trail bike from the bed of the
truck. (Both were fine for two nights at WalMart stores in transit.)
Prickly Pear Cactus patch at McKinney Falls SP
The second day we continued on 1-40 through western Tennessee, drove
diagonally through Arkansas on 1-40 and 1-30, and stopped for the night at
another familiar WalMart near New Boston, Texas, about 25 miles inside the NE
corner of the state. We covered 512 miles that day.
That left just 367 miles for the third day. We continued on I-30 toward
Dallas, followed I-635 and I-20 around the southeast metro area, and hung a
left on I-35 south.
The road looked familiar until we got south of Temple, TX near Fort Hood.
Neither of us has ever been to Austin before, so it was fun to drive through
some new territory.
This part of Texas, the northern edge of the Hill
Country region, intrigues me because it's part farm/rangeland and part
desert, with big ole prickly pear cacti surrounded by bright green
grasses and deciduous trees. The terrain is schizophrenic, caught
between prairie and desert; I find the combination interesting:
Unusual juxtaposition of plants: cactus
+ green grass + prairie grass + deciduous trees
Most of the trees were bare through southern Virginia and across the width
of Tennessee. South of Little Rock, Arkansas we were far enough south that an
increasing number of trees were still colorful; some looked like
Bradford pears, which were still partly leafed out in the Roanoke area when we
Fuel prices were a little higher this November/December than last year but
instead of getting cheaper as we headed west, they got a little more expensive
this time. Jim filled the tank with diesel in Roanoke for $2.59/gallon the day
before we left. The lowest prices we found through southern VA and across TN,
AR, and TX ranged from $2.61 to $2.66 at WalMarts and Flying Js, using both
company's shopping/discount cards with our credit card. The highest price
($2.79) was at a Love's station; we don't have their discount card.
Last year we paid more than the price above in Roanoke but about 10¢
less per gallon in the other three states as we headed west. However,
because the Ram gets better gas mileage than the old Ford truck, we paid less
out of pocket to drive a little farther into Texas this year. Both years were
much less expensive than in December of 2007. For that we are grateful.
Prickly Pear Cactus
(For those who use regular gasoline: when we left Roanoke it was
$2.34 at WalMart and Sam's Club -- about 20¢
a gallon higher than when we got there in September. We never saw it in
the $2.30s on the way to Texas. Prices were more like $2.45-2.49 at Flying J
and higher at other places.)
TEXAS STATE PARKS: GETTING BETTER ALL THE TIME
We are big fans of the Texas State Park system. If you've read our winter
journals from 2007-8 and 2008-9 you know we've enjoyed camping at Huntsville SP
several times. We like HSP so much, we spent the entire month of February there
this year. We've also camped several nights at Galveston Island SP (in January,
2008, before Hurricane Ike devastated it) and at Mustang Island SP in January
of this year.
During this recession/depression, states like California that are in dire
financial straits have been closing or threatening to close their parks to save money. Besides other
more important repercussions (like folks losing their jobs), it has affected
some ultra trail races that have been cancelled or relocated.
Texas has done the opposite. It hasn't added any units to its
extensive system of over 90 state parks and historic sites, but in 2008 the
legislature appropriated over $180 million in additional park funding
for improvements to the infrastructure, increased staff, and more programs.
I think that is remarkable in this economic climate. One project we know
about first-hand is adding sewers to the campsites at Huntsville State Park
this winter. We look forward to that amenity when we return there in January.
Many states that are not closing parks are increasing their rates for entry,
camping, and use of facilities. Not only are camping fees very reasonable
at Texas' state parks, I don't believe they have increased this year --
even at Huntsville SP after the improvements made this winter.
Pencil Cactus( ?) at McKinney Falls SP
looks very Christmas-y growing above bright green grasses.
are even more reasonable at Texas parks that have weekly rates (seven nights for
the price of six) -- and with the four discount coupons you can get if
you purchase the annual state park pass. The main savings with the pass,
however, come from the free entry fees, which usually cost $4-5 per person per
day in addition to the campground fees. That can really add up.
We made out like bandits last year with our first $60 pass. By purchasing it
on February 1, 2008, it was good for a whole thirteen months, not twelve --
until the end of February, 2009. In that span of time we used it to stay at
Huntsville SP three times for a total of about two months, plus almost two more
weeks at Galveston and Mustang Islands. I can't quickly find the entry from earlier this year
where I tallied up our total savings in entry fees and discounts, but it was
probably over $400.
That pass expired at the end of February so we purchased another one when we
arrived at McKinney Falls State Park this week. It's still only $60 and with
daily entry fees here that cost $5 per person, we'll pay it off after only six
days; we're here for eight days. We also plan to stay at Huntsville SP
up to a month in January-February, and may camp at one or more state parks
before and after that for several weeks. We plan to be back in Texas next November and December. This pass, which is good through the end of December, 2010, will give
us free entry to each park each day.
Ka-chink -- more money saved!
Close-up of Pencil Cactus in December
Flipping through the attractive 112-page color booklet that comes with our
pass, we're practically drooling over all the interesting places to camp in
Texas. OK, they aren't as spectacular as most of our national parks, but
they are very impressive for state parks. Texas is so large and the terrain
so varied that you can camp near white sandy beaches on the Gulf, near rugged canyons
or mountains, in dry, sandy desert or moist, green "piney woods," or near wetlands
full of migrating birds.
When we get our more permanent pass in the mail in a few weeks, it will have
four coupons worth 50% off one night's camping fee (worth $8-10 each for a
total of $32-40) and additional discounts for goods and services within the
These passes are a great deal for Texas residents, vacationing couples and
families, and RVers who hit the road for weeks or months at a time. This type
of camping is not free like the boondocking we do in Colorado during the
summer but it's a reasonable alternative in the winter when it's tough to find free national forest and BLM sites in
warm places. Besides, sometimes it's nice to have the convenience of
water and electric hookups, picnic tables, and grills at our very own site, and
nearby dump stations and bathrooms with running water and showers -- at
a much lower cost than most private campgrounds charge.
MCKINNEY FALLS STATE PARK
Several months ago when Jim was researching potential races to
add to our winter schedule, he found a little-known fixed-time
race called Run Like the Wind in Austin. Its location, date, and
varied time options were all good for our last planned race of
the year, the 24-hour race in Phoenix which will replace Across
the Years on December 31. Further research into camping options
yielded an urban state park (very unusual!), McKinney Falls,
that fit our needs.
We also considered a new 50K the same date in early December
that partly replaces the defunct Sunmart races at Hunstsville
State Park, a two-hour drive east of Austin. We made
reservations at both parks, knowing we could modify them when we
decided which race we would run.
Several things happened subsequently to mess with those plans,
like finding out I shouldn't do any more ultras because of
my knees. Jim withdrew from Run Like the Wind for various
reasons, including his lack of training from plantar faciitis.
When we couldn't leave Roanoke as early as originally planned,
we cancelled three weeks' worth of reservations at Huntsville SP
and decided to head directly to McKinney Falls for our first
destination. Even though neither of us would be running a race
there, it still looked like an inviting place to chill out and
give us a break in the long drive to Phoenix:
Nice place to chill for a while . . .
It was a good decision -- we love it here! We found a
nice campsite with lots of privacy. We're busy exploring the
hiking and biking
trails, old homestead buildings occupied by the former
landowners, rock shelters used centuries ago by Native
Americans, interesting limestone ledges, and scenic waterfalls. I'll talk more about the park in another entry,
after we've had time to see all of it.
LET'S GO SOUTH TO AVOID COLD TEMPS AND SNOW .
On a final note, you'll love the delicious irony of this:
You know how we joke about leaving Virginia for a few
months to avoid the "ravages of winter" there? We did get out in
time to beat the first snowfall in Roanoke this time, only to
discover that today Austin was supposed to get up to 2" of the
Remember, we came south to avoid snow. You should have
heard Jim muttering!!
I thought it was pretty cool. I envisioned a peaceful walk in
the snowy woods near our campsite and throwing wet snowballs for
Cody to catch. The snow would be very pretty, melt soon, and we
didn't have to shovel it or drive in it -- we could just
hunker down in our comfy camper and watch non-stop news
broadcasts about the unusual event on TV.
Austin rarely gets snow, especially this early in the season, so
the reaction by locals in the 24 hours preceding the expected
event was about like it is when snow threatens Atlanta (where I
lived for 25 years): near panic mixed with excited
anticipation. City workers were up last night prepping the
streets, schools announced they would close early this
afternoon, shoppers flooded the stores purchasing emergency
supplies . . .
. . . and we got ZERO snow!
Where's the snow?? By this afternoon,
the sun was out and the storm clouds had moved east.
Well, darn. A few snowflakes fell around Austin today but nothing
stuck. The storm that dumped several inches of snow to the west,
north, and east of us just skipped right over this fair
city. Houston, which is even farther south, got a rare 3-4" of
white stuff in some places. The storm looks like it's heading to the east coast now. Wonder
how much snow Roanoke will get?
Jim's happy that we didn't get any snow. I'm disappointed. We got gypped!!
There's more irony, however. Now that the sky has cleared up,
the predicted low temperature tonight in Austin is a
bone-chilling 26° F. That's very
unusual here, too. Heck, that's unusual in Roanoke. Good
thing we have thick flannel sheets, warm fleece blankets, and
two electric space heaters to supplement our propane furnace.
We've never had problems with water pipes freezing in the camper
as long as the interior is heated -- but we usually don't
run into temps this low.
Just adds to the adventure of
Next entry: spectating at the Run
Like the Wind 24-Hour race
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil