Daily accounting of the (third) westward journey
Lake Valley Ghost Town, New Mexico (DAY 08)
( DAY ONE )
Dec 28, 2020 — PINE GLEN RECREATION AREA
Choccolocco Valley, Talladega National Forest — Alabama
The wheels are rolling once again. Much ground had been covered on the first day heading out along a new Southwestern route that goes through Atlanta and towards Birmingham. I hoped the more southerly route would avoid the cold, rain-soaked areas of the upper mid-west. In addition to that, it would line up on a near perfect western heading towards Hatch Valley and then on towards Scottsdale, Arizona which would be my final end point.
The weather was 50° upon reaching the deeply secluded campsite in the Talladega National Forest. Already into central, “slow time,” the scenery immediately altered itself from the bustling expanses of the Atlanta metro into the more serene and peaceful accommodations of a freshly fallen, leaf filled forest.
Here we are! Back in the wilderness with my back leaning on the sleeping area scoping out the scene while the Coleman stovetop cooks away at some foil-wrapped potatoes. It’s nice to already be in the company of some other outdoor enthusiasts. I liken myself to these folks, no matter their level of commitment, no matter their rig, their timelines or interest in moving into the far reaches of remote territories. The fact is, whenever I see someone out here, we are one of the same.
A couple reviews for this campsite had even gone so far as to issue a warning to steer clear of it as too many people have found out about it. And while that can be a hefty omen, its often highly dependent upon the time of year. But what's intriguing about a statement like that, is what draws so many people to this location. Is it in close proximity to a large city. Is it a favorite amongst locals or is it simply a genuine state treasure hidden within twenty miles of leaf covered forest roads?
A cold winter haze has transfixed itself within the cool December day and I was ready for the worst the sky could throw at me. When the summer and fall seasons have ended, all that is left are the marginally occupied, if not completely vacant campgrounds that are destined for my arrival.
Learning from the trips prior, I now come equipped with extra warming layers, like lined boots capable of enduring snow drift, ten ounce work pants made out of a durable, canvas, firehose material that won't allow any shearing winds to penetrate and the full gamut of covers ranging from sleeping bags to 12V plug-in warming blankets. I packed lightly, bringing only the necessary layers to keep myself warm with perhaps one or two options in case there's a delightful sixty degree, wind-free day to enjoy.
In addition to clothing modifications, a whole heap of customizations went into truck, just like in the lead up to the trips prior. Outlined in the video below, I took on the task of installing an entire leaf and shock suspension kit, changed out an axle bushing, performed oil changes on both the engine and differentials, swapped in some new speakers and did a few small tweaks to the interior spaces as well.
mandogsays build 2.0 video
The additions had me mentally nervous as I drove down the road, wondering if I skipped over a step or forgot to tighten something down. Should I get out and check to make sure everything is still snug? It certainly drove different, having been lifted near three inches all around, but for the most part, it drove tight and the adjustments from the alignment center had it on point.
With those thoughts aside, the drive was quite joyous, knowing I've embarked on this truck-travel adventure two times already. The feelings of accomplishment and confidence were leading the charge towards this newfound adventure.
There’s a chill in the air, nobody could care, how ya caught up in the fight of your life. —O.A.R
1,500 miles to go — AM temp: 45°
Talladega Scenic drive, 1300’ elevation
Shoal Creek, AL
Dec 29, 2020 (DAY 02) — HARLOW’S CASINO
Truck lot in Greenville — Mississippi
After a leisurely morning, taking the time to make a full breakfast at camp, I started out from the scenic forest roads and headed out through Alabama towards the Delta Rhythm & Bayous Highway in Mississippi. I finished out the long day of driving at the Harlow Casino where they allowed me to overnight down in the truck lot. I ended up sleeping quite well, even with being inside an encampment of tractor trailers, tall parking lot lights beaming through the night and situated about eighty yards from the Hwy 278 bridge that crossed the Mississippi. Traffic here was minimal. I was really out in no-man's land, Mississippi. Or at least to me, it seemed it was.
1200 miles to go — AM temp 63°
Dec 30, 2020 (DAY 03) — LAKE DAVY CROCKETT CAMP
Outside Paris, near Plano — Texas
Everywhere the tall Loblolly pines of the bayou stood tall and prominent. The scenery driving through here reminded me a lot of the pine flatwoods of Florida, but multiplied by a thousand. These tall, rapidly growing trees are the leading commercial timber for the Southeast, and all along the flat, empty wooded roads were their home.
The roads were sparse with exception to the occasional logger traveling with their work in tow. As the clouds thickened, I thought to myself a line straight off of a Led Zepplin album, "The rains in the Bayou gon' fall."
I passed into Southern Arkansas and met by more flat, calm and lonely roads with the occasional logging truck. There was maybe a town every 40 miles.
I stopped off at Paris Texas to see the Eiffel Tower and fill up on water. It’s a well-furnished city campsite, but I had energy to drive a little further in order to land myself in something more scenic and remote.
Tempted by a few pay campsites that had showers, I retracted this desire to take into consideration my last two meals had been accomplished by dining out and could do just fine with a free/cheap campsite instead. Davy Crocket Lake would do just that.
At $5 with an interagency pass (national park) I had the place to myself, aside from the patrolling Coots down in the waters edge. I backed right up to one of their marshy hideouts and positioned myself to enjoy the cold rainy views of the water from my shell. I wasn’t sure if the rains would continue, but as a precaution, practiced setting up the rain tarp and used extra guy lines to help with the blowing winds.
It was a chilly 40° evening and no real sunset happened with the thick overcast sky. The light just simply disappeared.
900 miles to go — AM temp: 36°
Enduring the cold rains in Texas
Dec 31 - Jan 01, 2021 (DAY 03/04) — LAKE MACKENZIE
Silverton, SE of Amarillo. Texas
Multiple packs of coyotes were heard screeching in the night and early morning at Davy Lake. There were also three men in yellow rain coats down along the shores of the lake fishing. It was pouring down rain and 36° out, but that didn’t stop them. Fishermen are some of the most robust and committed people I’ve ever come to know.
Just east of Gainesville, along Hwy 82 is Lucky’s Café. A great stop off for cheap fuel, friendly staff and a banging' breakfast menu. I chatted with the gals there, practicing my Spanish and got a couple of their zucchini breads to go.
While coming into Turkey Texas (home of country legend, Bob Wills), I had hoped to catch a spot at the Caprock Canyon State Park. I had such a stellar time in Palo Duro, I figured any canyon in Texas was worth checking out. The people in this small, dusty single-street town were friendly. I would get waves from the guys in their enormous Texas-sized trucks as I approached the township. And by wave, I do mean the lifting of a single finger as we passed, but it really does say a lot about a town that they're willing to do even that. Some places just rip right by you, too bothered to care that someone else is around or perhaps on their way into their town for the first time.
As I pulled in to Caprock Canyon I listened in on the conversation taking place ahead of me with the park ranger. Apparently they were at capacity for ANY site within their park (I figured there had to be at least 80, but don't really know for sure) and that due to the incoming winter weather, would not be allowing people to leave until roads had been cleared by park officials. I sort of slacked my jaw at this and when it was my turn had to ask her, I asked her to repeat these statements once again.
I said, "You're expecting snow right?" The lady looked at me concerned and said, "Oh yes. 2-3 inches." "Mhmmm," I nodded and said, "and not to be indifferent towards your concerns, but what exactly are the concerns for motorists in 2-3 inches here in Texas?" She said, "well there's drift... and then melt water," trailing off without really outlining anything else for me as to what the major concerns would be for campers. Certainly not would require them to stay put until rangers had declared the roads safe for passage.
I was new in town and certainly aware of the flash flood type scenarios and had no desire to press her any further as the subject was moot. They hadn't a single spot for me to camp in and so she named a few things in the area that I'd already seen while tooling around on the maps. She of course warned me that they'd be in the same situation there for wintery weather and to take precaution through the night. I nodded and headed out, returning up the way I came in through the dusty town which was now turning orange in the twilight hours. In the sky I could very well see that weather was indeed on its way, but this was Texas we're talking about. Winter weather must not be in their wheel house and so panic had hit them.
I wheeled down the road just to inspect the nearby Lake Mackenzie for its potential, even though it too would be affected by the weather. It was late and I would try my closest options first before pushing on to likely head off into New Mexico through the night. Lake Mackenzie looked very promising. There was a self check-in at the front and modest rates for their dry sites. There was hardly a soul here despite the over-filled Caprock being a short ten minute drive away. I managed to catch an off-roader before he headed out on his sunset 4-wheeler drive and got the scoop. He said of course there's room here and that it sounds like the people in the park were over-reacting. He assured me this was a low-key place to camp and I'd be in good shape spending the night here. I drove around checking out the sites that all seemed to back right up to the towering cliffs over the man-made lake intended for summer time skiing. There was a little island in the middle that represented the loop boaters could take. On the far outskirts of the large, expansive OHV park was a line of RV's that seemed dormant as all of them were without any parked vehicles, but fixed structures around them.
I took my time setting up camp and enjoying a fresh, 39 degree New Year's Eve. Having loved this spot so much, I ended up staying two nights and tackled a few necessary camp projects and filmed a walk around video tour of the truck.
At sundown, more coyotes could be heard and I imagine the area was pretty thick with wildlife due to the amount of criss-crossing game trails I found throughout the brushy Texas hillsides. The winds whipped through the plains like a swirling, howling exhale and through the night it’s restless sounds could be heard tossing and turning like a baby sick with colic.
600 miles to go — AM temp: 27°
Scenes from Texas on my way out towards NM
Jan 02, 2021 (DAY 05) — FORT STANTON DISPERSED
Enter: Land of Enchantment. New Mexico
On my way out from Lake Mackenzie, I’d seen a guy off to the side of the highway, waiting with his spare tire out. I pull alongside and ask if he's good and he says he doesn't have the tire iron for removing the lug nuts. I park the truck and grab the set of deep sockets plus a breaker bar. Within five minutes we had the blown tire off and was rolling down the highway towards a tire shop with his hazards on. He thanked me for stopping, but my response was simple in that I hope someone would do the same for me. He did have help on the way, but I guess it was nice that someone gave him a head start.
I was off in a similar direction, heading east towards Tulia. I honked as I went by and he waved. I was nearly to the New Mexico border and was hoping one of these remaining Texas towns had a place to get one last Texmex burrito. Sure enough, at the edge of Tulia was a restaurant titled, El Burrito. Parked there were six cars, squeezed together, another five in the drive-thru and more were pulling in. This was either the only place in town to get a bite to eat at this hour or the absolute best place in town to eat. Either way, I was inside asking in Spanish for a couple potato, cheese and egg burritos to go. They filled up my coffee and a laughable, older gentleman was comically saying he didn’t want to go back out there as he exited the door and into the cold, gusty winds. He said have a nice day to me as I walked past and hopped back into the truck.
As I approached the New Mexico border a swarm of vultures took off from the splattered mess in the middle of the highway. Not an unusual sight, however one bird remained fixed to that spot. As I barreled closer, I locked eyes with a peregrine falcon that cold stared me back and didn’t move a muscle as I drove past. What a boss!
In Texico, just over the border I stopped for gas and was met with the public road signage displaying mandatory mask usage and a 14 day quarantine period. It seemed as though the traveling gas patrons all had theirs on, but I watched as the county sheriff pulled in and went inside to order a taco without one. I guess the rules here are as flexible as they are in Florida.
Beyond here, as I was coming up the Billy the Kid trail towards his resting place of Lincoln New Mexico and another weird wildlife moment happened. A few horses were circling their pen and one frisky one seeming to be showing off to a mare slipped and fell quite awkwardly. The billowing, dust-filled winds masked its accident and it hopped back onto its feet like nothing had ever happened. I can’t say I’ve ever seen a horse fall like that!
Lincoln, for the most part, was shut down entirely short of one gift and souvenir shop. They had a lot of neat authentic memorabilia from BTK’s era and some tacky, usual gift store items as well. I complimented the busy store owners on their shop and thanked them for being open before stepping back out into the tenacious 30kt winds.
I was at the base of my mountainside camp area, so I slow rolled my way up the gravel path towards the Fort Stanton dispersed camping areas. I went past the closed cave site and it’s three adjacent pull-along campsites and traveled further up the off highway trail to hopefully find a lee along one of these ridges to tuck in for the night. I found a couple wide pull-offs and used the mostly-dense juniper trees for added shelter. The hills here were prime for getting out and getting the legs and lungs pumping, as well as an ongoing equestrian trail that seemed to run alongside the ridge for quite some distance.
Tonight would be some leftovers and a bundled up gander at the sun setting overtop the snow covered peaks of the Capitan Mountains.
515 miles to go — AM temp: 27°
Hatch Valley & Nutt Corner Babyyy! (Middle of Nowhere)
Jan 03-04, 2021 (DAY 06/07) — HILLSBORO, NM
Ruidoso!! This town was so cool and thriving. An unexpected sight in New Mexico as inhabitants struggle their way through the series of rigid lockdowns.
Dropped down through the Coyote Hills and on into the flat, sandy-white valley floor of Alamogordo. The extensive and highly securitized missile range is flanked by the rugged peaks of the San Andreas Mountain range. Once through a series of military patrol stops, you climb a rapid fifteen hundred feet through what looks like the broken teeth of a giant, better known as the organ mountain pass.
Rolling steadily towards the west, all of this area was familiar to me. I intentionally set out to visit Hatch to see if any the friends were around and stopped to pick up some green chili flakes. It was a Sunday during the middle of a lockdown, so things were mild and I motored on towards Nutt Corner. Setting myself up for the scenic drive in to Hillsboro through Lake Valley, I was rewinding the past visits in my head.
Once there, it was like no time had passed and I was in the company of my good acquaintances. Since there's no cell reception here or on Nutt Corner, we had missed a few of the folks, so Thomas, John and I hopped into his truck and went down to the bar to pick up Susan. I found out she would be venturing down to Mexico tomorrow and that, just like before, was my signal to stick around for a few days.
She and a few friends were headed across the border to check out The Pink Store, which is an eclectic variety store that showcases many different artisan crafts from around the country. They come in at quite the value as well. But the best part is, once you enter through their doors and are hit with the immensely decorated and festive storefront, someone comes up to you and asks if you'd like a complimentary beer or margarita to enjoy while you shop. Talk about knowing their audience!! I suckled on the icy goodness from the salted rim of a blue-glass tumbler just like you could buy there and walked around, eyes growing wide with excitement at all they had to offer.
I realized there were many different regions being represented here and made haste to find out if they had anything from the Huicholes people. They create some of the most fabulous porcelain figurines depicting their flashy, antiquated attire and also do some of the finest beadwork I'd seen, short of what I came across in South America.
None the less, they had exactly what I was looking for. Beaded puma statues as long as coffee tables, that were obviously out of my price range and upright howling coyotes and road runners, which suite me quite well. I grabbed a couple extra gift items for some dear ones and spent the rest of the time looking at each and every item in there.
I would circle around and meet back up with the pals who had eventually secured a table for us all to eat at. It was also a restaurant and I entertained the three gals with jokes and silly banter. The service was a bit slow, and so I would periodically excuse myself to get up and venture outside to chat with the kids in the street and wander around soaking up the scene. It was like I was back in South America all over again. Beating my boots into the dusty streets and feeling full of life, excited to be exchanging with the locals in their native tongues and recognizing my gringo-ness.
We walked ourselves back over the border and made the quick hour drive from Palomas to Hillsboro. It was dark and I was growing tired. They had made up a bed for me and it was divine to have showered and be treated so well. While around this town, I am constantly met with the sensation that one day I will come back to this place to either live, retire or just visit with the fine folks of these bright brown hills.
350 miles to go — AM temp: cold, but who cares, I was sleeping in a bed for the past two nights.
Inside the Pink Store, Palomas Mexico
Lake Valley Ghost Town, New Mexico
Desert Highways in New Mexico
Jan 05, 2021 (DAY 08) — SCOTTSDALE, AZ
On the way out from Hillsboro I finally visited the Lake Valley Ghost town. With all my time spent in the area, I was shocked I hadn't gotten in here to explore. It's an easy pull-off from the main road and never there is a soul there. Though, there does appear to be a modern house that perhaps is also serving as a tenant for the museum, which I did not see.
Within the ghost town there's a few signs telling about the history of the area where during the 19th century mining boom, this town popped up along the railway between Silver City and Deming. When the boom ended, so did the town and like many areas in the west, most the inhabitants went in search of something else.
Some remained here, however and I've met a few of those generational ranch owners who continue to use the post-boom practices put forth by their great, great grand parents. Right along these historic, now deserted streets where they probably once mingled like they do now up in Hillsboro, I dropped the tailgate down and fired up the stovetop to toast a couple pieces of bread for tomato and cheese sandwiches. Brilliant, warm New Mexico sun cast down on me. In the past few days, I don't think I can recall weather as grand as this, with highs in the sixties and not taking the plunge until well after midnight.
I had some miles to muster today, so I packed things up and got rolling westward, now further than I had ever gotten in my previous trip to New Mexico. I turned the highways option off on the GPS and wondered where it would take me. Before long I was running dusty highways with not a single car in sight. I think I may have passed two ranch houses and a bewildered road grader in the fifty miles I spent motoring.
I was all alone with only the trailing dust following closely behind.
The tall, cactus spires lined the road like the gate keepers of this trail. As I exited their land, I entered into a new cacti's territory, the great Saguaro. Out of nowhere, thousands of these came into being, standing up from the dense, scrubby Arizona ground cover. In all too typical fashion, Arizona welcomed me with an illuminated sunset glowing directly between the rocky cliffs as I drove in through the Superstition mountains. The iconic desert glow lingered with a fervent indigo haze washing over the many surrounding ridges. Looking back to the point where the glowing sun was still leaving its mark, the pastel colors of orange was met by a rich and blue indigo. And then these colors just hung in the air, like a blanket had been pulled over the sky.
I couldn't believe how immediate the landscape had changed once crossing over the state line. Since being in Arizona I have been wowed by the amazing niceness of every single person. The sights are great and I've hiked plenty just within the townships of Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale. All around are magnificent mountains calling my name. And with the soothing "winter" climate here in the desert, its the perfect time to get out and take in as much as I can handle.
Until the next post, readers! Do be well and saludos para todos. —mandog