Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Texas Plains and beyond: Palo Duro Canyon, Caprock Canyons, and Dinosaur Valley State Parks

Our longest trip to date in our Airstream Interstate was also our solar shake-down trip, with seven days and six nights spent off-grid.  Here's a brief photo essay of our adventures (note that, especially in mobile formats, Blogger downsamples embedded post photos - tap individual photos to expand for clarity).
Waltz Across Texas, from the coastal plain to the high plains and back again for that proverbial storybook ending, just like the famous song says.  
We set out later than planned on a Sunday morning (isn't it always that way?), and made it as far as the Hardeman County rest area in Chillicothe Texas (here's the complete list of TxDOT Safety Rest Areas).
It's a beautiful rest area and I believe it's one of those that is staffed 24 hours per day because I saw people inside who looked like they belonged there (I did not go inside because I was walking our dog).  The PSA advisory that flashed on the interior TV screens was "Rest or Rest In Peace".  
My only advice to RV-ers is don't park near storm drains.  The place was plastered with these warning signs and guess what??  If rattlesnakes are present in abundance, it's because they are feasting on something - in this case, rodents.  The bad news is that we weren't there an hour before we observed a rat trying to get into our chassis.  When disturbed, he scurried down a nearby curb slit.  We promptly moved to a different location which hopefully disincentivized him and his many kin from trying again.  
The good news is that the facility was not noisy or crowded.  This was an impromptu stop for us, the kind of decision that is easily made when one does not have to worry about hook-ups.  We had planned to press on to Childress so that we could Wallydock there, but we ran out of time.  See, The Walking Dead aired at 8 p.m. that day and we can stream TV shows over our phones (soon to be streamable via Apple TV to our in-rig television).  Everything must stop for TWD!!

As it turns out, Childress would have made an excellent Wallydocking location.  It's the only Walmart I've ever seen that intentionally created an area for big-rig overnight parking as well as RV parking.  Such is the way of things in these sparsely-populated areas where services are few and far between.  
Now for some context regarding our state park system.

In short, much of it is a mess right now.  While it is true that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department issued this major news release about a month prior to our trip, a release that described "historic" legislation intended to restore the park system after years of neglect and deferred maintenance, it's going to take some time before those improvements are realized.  Furthermore, they are facing a huge catch-up problem.  Texas' population has grown by approximately 10 million additional people since 1990, and in that same period of time, the state park system has mostly contracted (as near as I can tell).  The net result is a grotesquely under-capacitied system that is not even remotely capable of meeting basic public needs.  Access to many state parks via the conventional reservation system requires advance planning of several months to a year.  It was for these reasons that we adopted the travel strategy that we did.  In fact, it was the decline of the state park system that was a partial inspiration for our purchase of an Airstream Interstate in the first place.  I wanted the chance to see many of them before they disappear, because this kind of escalating access pressure coupled with funding mismanagement makes them effectively unsustainable.
The reason why they are taking reservations 11 months out is that many parks are booked that far in advance.  That is what I mean by grotesquely under-capacitied.  
Because of these pressures, we were unable to reserve in advance at our target parks on this trip (except for a primitive camping area parking spot in Caprock Canyons).  However, there are functional alternatives as well as last-minute cancellations that can sometimes be had.  And with a solar system that allows us to remain off-grid for extended periods, we can take more chances with refusals and rejection than conventional travelers, because we have the option of simply parking (boondocking) overnight in whatever permissible locations we can identify in real time.  Here is now we navigated three parks during Spring Break, which is arguably the busiest week of the year for state parks in Texas.
Our Interstate in the Palo Duro primitive camping parking lot at dawn.

It turned out that a few primitive camping passes were available at Palo Duro Canyon State Park, a fact that we were able to ascertain only after completing the 640 mile drive from our home in Galveston County.  Palo Duro is one of those parks that grants backcountry access on a first-come-first-served basis, subject to a head count limit.  Basically the primitive camping staging area consists of a dirt parking lot at the very end of the park road.  Theoretically what people are supposed to do is set off into the backcountry from the parking lot and stay there.  However, there was a burn ban in effect and so we saw people using the area not exactly in the manner of intended use.  Some of them had to return to their cars to cook their food because they couldn't do it at their camp sites.  Who could fault them for that?  Basically the bottom line in a situation like this is as follows:  If you aren't bothering anyone or drawing attention to yourself, chances are good that nobody will take issue with you. 
Our million-dollar back-door view.  The primitive area was adjacent to the equestrian area, which is that similarly-cleared patch of dirt visible in the mid-ground of this photo.  The equestrian area was only occupied during the first night of our stay.  It, too, has no services and so the horse folks tend to run generators, but we noticed that they strictly observed the park's quiet hours, so that was not an issue.    
Having a place to park inside Palo Duro gave us that toe-hold of access that we needed to enjoy the trails, both official and unofficial.
The first hike we did on the day of our arrival was the 6-mile Lighthouse Trail which winds through the scenery that has made Palo Duro the most heavily-accessed state park in America (according to TPWD).  
The parking lot at the most famous trail in America's most famous and heavily-accessed state park has room for about 30 cars - for perspective, that's one parking space for every one million Texans (how many different ways can I say "grotesquely under-capacitied"?).  And the parking lot is a mess, with deep craters such as this one.  I wouldn't take our Interstate into it even if space were available - it doesn't have that kind of belly clearance. 
As a result of the lack of parking, the spill-over was intense.  Fortunately we were able to find a good spot on the shoulder of the park road. 
A rare shot of the dog and I alone on a short segment of trail.  There were hundreds of people on the trail that day; it was like strolling through a shopping mall. 
At the end of the Lighthouse Trail, the unusual rock formation for which it is named.  
The next day following the Lighthouse hike, we decided to investigate what might exist that was not on the official state park map, and we were well-rewarded.
The camping area closest to the equestrian and primitive parking lots is called the Mesquite Camp Area.  Behind this sign is a trail leading to the top of the canyon.  It's not on the map, but it is on the ground.  
And what an extraordinary trail it was.  We set out before noon and were the only people on it. A very special experience and a huge contrast compared to the crowds of the day before.  This was the number one highlight in a trip full of highlights.  
According to displays at the visitor center, the intense gold is a Pleistocene-aged sedimentary formation, whereas the purple dates to the Triassic.  They combine to create an otherworldly landscape.  
Near the top of the canyon, we occasionally had to portage our dog.  She is middle-aged and we were worried about possible shoulder injury if she jumped from too high a perch. 
Top of this world at the top of the morning.  My left big toe is pointing back toward our Interstate, which is that tiny, shiny rectangle in the cleared parking lot to photo left.  To the right and below the lower colorful ridge is the Mesquite camping area.  
The next day we did a similar canyon climb at the Rock Garden Trail.
It has a different character altogether, as it cuts through an ancient massive landslide.  There are huge boulders strewn every which way.   
We accessed that trail from the Sunflower day use area, which was rendered serviceless by a recent flood (as was much of the park road system in the same area).
Picnic tables lay abandoned in the weeds.  Riverine areas periodically flood just as sure as the sun rises in the east - that much is expected.  But in a park so pressured for access, it's essential to restore such areas for public use.  
This area had a Chernobyl-like feel, as if everyone had just suddenly up and left without warning.
"Facility Permanently Closed" said the signs on the doors.  Our incredible shrinking state park system.  
 We departed Palo Duro for Amarillo, because I wanted to see Cadillac Ranch.
But not before we stopped for a typical Texas feed at the famous Tyler's Barbecue, which made Texas Monthly's list of the best BBQ places in the world.  
Cadillac Ranch proved to be a surreal experience, but not in the way I had anticipated.
Yes indeed, all the Caddies were there as expected.  But people were so intent on spray painting them that they utterly failed to notice the incredible treasures lying unclaimed at their feet.  
By this time, the spray paint is so thick that it is spalling off and falling in chunks to the ground, each chip like a jeweled masterpiece.  This is what caught my attention.  
From Cadillac Ranch we proceeded approximately 100 miles southeast to Caprock Canyons State Park, arriving shortly after the visitor center closed for the day.
We were greeted by the resident bison instead of park staff.  You can read about the Texas state bison herd in this PDF.  Quitaque Texas has been on my bucket list for a long time because I wanted to see these guys.  And there they were waiting for us at the gate.  Sweet!!
"That's an awfully large prairie dog!" someone commented when I posted this pic on social media. The bison had no fear of humans nor concern for cars.  They did enjoy scratching their butts on park signs.  
I had managed to secure a reservation at the North Prong primitive area in this park.  Like Palo Duro, it was intended for backcountry camping.  The instructions left for after-hours arrivals said to return to the Visitors Center between 8 and 9 a.m. on the morning after arrival to complete the check-in process and settle accounts.  Sure enough, we saw cars ticketed if they did not abide by this.
Photo looking roughly north from the North Prong parking lot.  This is a more subdued canyon landscape than Palo Duro.

We spoke with one couple driving a small Class A (from my native Nova Scotia, no less) who arrived at the same time we did, after hours but with no reservations at all.  They appeared to dry camp overnight in the park's equestrian area.  The equestrian area was not full, and nobody seemed to object to this de facto overflow use. I assume they paid their fees the next morning as instructed.  
Today in the genius category, we have this bandana upon which someone decided to print the official state park map. Facepalm - why didn't I think of that?  It's the most obvious thing in the world, plus the sale proceeds go to the bison.  Everybody wins.     
Interspersed with our hikes were some practical tasks, and this kind of thing is a common sight in our Interstate (husband working, dog dozing nearby).  I mentioned at the outset of this blog post that this was our solar shake-down trip, as we just got done installing the panels and system a few weeks ago.  The system performed very well but we are still working out some of the kinks.  The house battery is six feet away from the bulk of the electrical workings, which may be causing some problems due to the resistance across the unusually long span of wire.  Add to that the fact that our electrical converter shorted out and super-charged the entire electrical system right before we left (due to a defect that the manufacturer admitted as part of our warranty claim), and we are left with ghosts in this machine.  At this point, the panels and coach battery appear to be over-charging the refrigerator (although not outside tolerances stated by Dometic), as suggested by abnormal activation of the piezo.  My husband pulled it apart to meter the voltage and investigate.  
Caprock Canyons is unique in its own right, and is distinguished by the remarkable gypsum veins that run through the Permian strata that dominate the landscape.  These reminded me of the layers of paint falling off the cars at Cadillac Ranch.  
This is a better-funded state park than most, as the small bison herd (genetically the last of its kind) has many corporate sponsors including Exxon and Walmart.  Still, signs of disrepair were everywhere.  We wondered if this sign at photo left was perhaps supposed to read, "The layered air pollution you see in the distance emanates from the DFW metro area".  This was the view looking southeast from the top of the canyon, along the Haynes Ridge Overlook Trail.  
Closer to earth, some pretty flowers, the ever-present white crystalline gypsum in the background. 
Closer still to the earth, a gypsum cave referred to as The Natural Bridge.  
From Caprock Canyons, we headed back south through Abilene.
There we purchased our second restaurant meal of the trip - burgers and rings at Wholly Cow in Abilene.  Not bad.  The rings were not Houston style but they were very good.  
We could not get a reservation - not even a primitive one - at the very popular Dinosaur Valley State Park, which is located southwest of Fort Worth.  However the weather was crummy that day (temps in the 40's and light rain on a late-season cold front), and so we headed that way, hoping to score a cancellation.  We arrived about 20 minutes before closing time and I took the first open spot that they offered to me, which was a hook-up site.  But we didn't hook up - no need.
This is a pic of Texans generally not giving a flip.  Temps in the 40's did not stop them from crossing the river barefoot to the continuance of trails on the other side. 
The water level was high due to recent rains, and many of the dinosaur tracks were submerged.  Here's my husband's hand in comparison to one of them.  
And here is the same track seen in context.  
In Dinosaur Valley, we enjoyed our final dinner of the trip in our Interstate.
Home-made spaghetti sauce, still frozen as hard as a brick after a week in our propane fridge.  Without hook-ups, it gets thawed the old fashioned way - by gently heating it on the stove.  I freeze in Pyrex (hence the shape) and then transfer to heavy-gauge freezer bags for efficient packing in the Dometic's small freezer.  
My husband noted that the most common question he receives about our Interstate is, "What's it like living in such a small space with another person for an extended period of time?"  His response is, "Well, you had better like your spouse..."
I like my spouse.  And I like to joke that, when I conjure a romantic image of his face, mostly what I see in my mind is an iPhone 6 Plus where a face ought to be, LOL.
I would like to add that you had also better like your dog, if you are traveling with one (or more).  I can't imagine why some people choose to maintain their dogs as unruly and undisciplined - that would be such a source of stress in an ultra-small space for days on end.  Fortunately (and by design), ours is not like that.
Nick-named "slut puppy", we found out about 5 years ago deep in the Big Bend Ranch State Park backcountry that she's a natural-born trail dog with superb group herding instincts.  She doesn't need a leash, but you'll see one in the photos above only because I'm nervous about rattlesnakes.  Not for our sakes, but for hers.  They don't always give warning, and all it takes to lose a dog is one strike.  
We made one final stop on the road back to greater Houston from Dinosaur Valley, and surprisingly, it was my husband's choice even though I am the HGTV junkie.
Magnolia Market at the silos in Waco.  It just opened a couple of months ago, and the news reports that the wait times to access the store can be as long as 90 minutes.  But we arrived before noon on Saturday and were able to enter promptly, although the crowds were intense (my husband estimated store traffic of a few thousand people per hour).  
My husband's interest in home furnishings is exceedingly low, but he reasoned that Chip and Joanna Gaines are growing in their impact to the point where they are influencing not only Texas culture, but American society as well (in terms of lifestyle and family values, not just in terms of home decor).  So it's interesting to bear witness to that process, which we suspect is still in its infancy (despite the cult following and the routine 90-minute waits to access their store).
As for me, I scored one of their high-quality totes - a large stand-up tote so that three hands are not needed to fill it, duh (such an obvious need but bags constructed like this are rare).  They use these as in-store shopping bags but new ones are available for purchase as well.  I don't see this item for sale on their website, which is one of the benefits of going to the store in person.  
Six nights and seven days off-grid... I can't imagine traveling any other way.  Perhaps for people living in less populous areas where park access is easier, and people who have far more free time on their hands than we have such that they are able to plan months in advance... maybe hookups make sense for them.  But not for us.  To the extent possible, we won't be traveling that way again.
Sunset in Palo Duro Canyon, Texas.  
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