November/December 2005

 Back in the Saddle Again

Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas

As I write this, we’re sitting in eastern Texas.  The sun is shining and it’s 82 degrees outside.  We’re wearing shorts and considering getting out the fans.  But we don’t have to think very hard to remember what it was like just a few short weeks ago…….

We squeaked out of Rapid City just as the snow curtain started to fall…..and it chased us all the way down here.  We’re now in Livingston, and even though we’re currently enjoying some lovely weather, we also have weathered some not so lovely nasty cold spells.  You can’t get far enough south to really be assured of constant warmth in the winter!

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We were pretty cozy in Rapid City, but knew it couldn’t last – we needed to start moving further south.  We talked to someone who said they targeted October 20 as a departure date; we should have followed his lead!  By the first of November it was very chilly, and although we still had many pretty days, fall was falling.  We hung around, in part, to fit in some medical appointments, but we finally left on November 16, after staying a day longer than we had intended in order to wait out a bad wind storm.  This storm brought snow with it, as well as frost on the insides of the windows (it was only 20 degrees), batteries low even though we were plugged into electricity, and low tire pressure.  The coach was trying to tell us something!  So we bid goodbye to the deer, the wild turkeys and the squirrels, and beat feet.

We pretty much sprinted due south as fast as we could handle.  Rapid City is at 3400 feet, and the snow we picked up there stayed with us for the following day as we crossed the Cheyenne River, passed the turnoff to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations, and found our way into Nebraska (Go Huskers!)  We picked up the only scenic highway in the state (it wasn’t), passing through Alliance on our way.  This little town has special significance to us; we’re great fans of author Ann Patchett, and her novel The Magician’s Assistant is partly set there.  (The book is better than the town.)  All the way across Nebraska we kept passing trains going East carrying loads of coal; reminded me of Mojave, although there it’s not coal.  The ponds we passed were all frozen over.  In all honesty, Nebraska isn’t a total loss; we will visit more thoroughly another time when we can be there earlier in the year.  Some of the countryside looks a lot like the Black Hills; worth more extensive exploration – when it’s warmer!

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Then to Kansas.  We went through Oberlin, the site of the last Indian raid on Kansas soil, between Chief Dull Knife and the boys from Fort Dodge, in 1878.  Doesn’t all this just make your heart beat faster…..?  We noticed that as we moved further south, and somewhat further east, we were dropping slightly in elevation; the land slopes gently toward the Missouri River.  Onward through WaKeeney, home of elevators, water towers and Bob’s Concrete Treasures (honest – next time I’ll take pictures).  We saw our first oil wells of the season.  Through Ness City, home of the Skyscraper of the Plains (3 stories).  Each little town had brick streets in the “downtown” area, built like a “brick intersection”, as Rick said; cute maybe, but bumpy.  Greensburg is home to the world’s largest hand dug well (I thought it was in Wyoming…..), 109 feet by 32 feet; who cares?  As the highway went through the tiny town of Cullison, the sign said 4 exits; it turns out each of them was a driveway in this little burg of perhaps 120 people.  After crossing the Arkansas River we sped through Sharon, Kansas, home of Martina McBride; everybody has to be from somewhere.

And we spent the night in Medicine Lodge.  Now, quick, this is a test.  We’ve been to Medicine Lodge before, and have told you all about it.  So…..what happened here?  I’ll give you a hint – it was in 1867.  No, silly; the Civil War ended in 1865.  That’s right – it was where an important Indian treaty was signed.  Extra points for which tribes:  the Kiowa, Arapaho, Comanche, Apache, and Cheyenne.  Sherman (Atlanta and…..the sea) was there, and a reporter named Stanley (of Livingstone fame).  So now you know.  WRITE IT DOWN THIS TIME.

But not far enough south for us.  We picked an itty-bitty road to cross down into Oklahoma, and immediately wished we’d chosen larger.  Oklahoma roads aren’t as well maintained as those in Kansas, and we sure could see the difference.  “I …bumpbump ….. don’t think ….bumpbump ….we’re in Kansas…..any more….bumpbump.”

The roads never did get much better, all through the state.  The interstate going through Oklahoma City was like none ever we’ve seen.  My.  Rick made a joke about the composer of the musical (Richard Rogers…..or was it Oscar Hammerstein?) singing his newly finished “Oklahoma” theme song with a wavering tone, then explaining that he’d been working on it in the car.  It seemed funny at the time. 

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When we left Kansas we also left the wheat and corn, and saw our first cotton, and fresher grass.  And more oil fields, interspersed with cattle.  We passed close to Enid (of crossword puzzle fame), and suddenly were in pecan country.  Across the Cimarron River and on into Kingfisher, one of the largest wheat markets in the world (but a lousy road runs through it), and then suddenly we were in Oklahoma City.

We spent a nice couple of days in OK City, seeing the sights, catching up on movies, and enjoying a great steak dinner to celebrate Rick’s birthday.  It’s a friendly town, a city of horse trailers and cowboy apparel.  Oh yeah, and guys in tight jeans, hats, boots and buckles.  A girl’s dream town (Rick points out that Cow Girls wear those tight jeans too).  There was a huge quarter horse event going on at the fair grounds.  And I was seeing the first of the Texas grapefruit in the grocery stores.  YEAH!!! 

Further south, the countryside gets hillier and brushier as you get closer to the Red River.  Saw our first dead armadillo on the side of the road – dang me!  And then … and then ….. it was Texas.  

Familiar territory, that’s for sure.  We’ve spent time in Texas every year since we first hit the road.  Starting to feel like home.  We’d not spent much time this far north before, and weren’t planning to linger now.  We ducked down between Dallas and Ft. Worth (the Metroplex, they call it), with an ultimate goal of San Antonio after a few other stops.  It was finally warm again, and we decided to stop for a few days to catch our breath, do laundry, all the good stuff.  We ended up in a campground next to a golf course.  Cool, we said, a good place to walk in the mornings.  Well …… yes and no.  We did walk, and it was just fine.  But you remember Kevin Costner’s golf course in “Tin Cup”?  This was close.  No armadillos out on the fairways, but pretty dry and rugged and run down.  And I’ve never met a golf course I didn’t like.  But I sure kept looking for Cheech around every corner!  See the movie if you haven’t.

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We did manage to get a nice day of bike riding in, the first time the motorcycle had been “out” since we bought the Jeep (tells you how cold it has been).  First rule of riding in Texas:  regardless how close it looks on the map, it’s still going to take all day.  Second rule?  Even if it’s listed as one of the best rides in Texas, IT’S STILL ONLY TEXAS.  But we had a good time, and it was great to be on the bike.

A week later, we hit the road again.  South of Waco, we went by Cow Bayou (I’m fine, cow bayou?) and Cameron, home of Yoe High School and Tooterville RV Park (truth!), and Godley.  Won’t touch that one, except to wonder what expectations there are for new residents.

We’re surprised to see some trees still have leaves turning, mostly rusty reds and yellows; it adds more color than we had expected at this late date.  Almost December by now.

And now we had to deal with a logistics problem.  Due to Kathy’s latest in a long series of logistical errors, we had mail coming where we weren’t.  She thought Round Rock (a town just north of Austin, our next destination), but said Round Top, a little town significantly further east - remember the Woodstock debacle of a few years back?  Well, okay, screech; left turn; off to find a place to hang out while we waited for the mail.  Round Top is an adorable little community, very old, in rolling hills filled with prime horse flesh.  We had meandered far enough east in Texas to be closing in on Houston and its greater wealth and cosmopolitan feel.  We suspected that folks were retiring to the area around Round Top and making themselves at home.  

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The first day we tried to pick up mail we arrived during the lunch hour at the post office (12:00-1:30) and it was shut up tight.  So was the enticing-looking old car museum down the road.  So we wandered on, looking for our own lunch, ending up in the town of La Grange.  A cool place, with a splendid old courthouse (nobody does them like Texas does).  We found good BBQ at a local diner that still had those flip jukebox things on the wall of each booth.  Plenty of country music, along with various polkas; this is a very German area.  We parked in front of an appliance dealer’s shop, which advertised itself as the oldest Frigidaire appliance dealer in the world, in business since 1922.  and this is the home of the Weickel Bakery, which makes the justifiably famous kolaches, a kind of pastry.  A fun town.  

Back to the post office; open now, but our mail hadn’t arrived.  So we repeated the same trip again two days later, picked up the packet in question, and, with the car museum now open for business, spent a delightful hour or so looking at shiny, lovely old cars.  This is the Stirling McCall Car Museum; the McCall in question owns a car dealership in Houston, and has, obviously, been very successful.  He has good taste in vintage wheels.  A nice spot.  It is very quiet in Texas this time of year; the elderly gentleman keeping an eye on things said we were the first visitors in about two weeks.  He was quite happy for the company, and we chatted for awhile.

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It was a nice day, and we decided to go home by way of a miniature horse farm aways up the road outside of Brenham.  The farm is run by a monastery and it was delightful.  The little horses were quite friendly, very fuzzy and obviously well fed; there was a paddock filled with weanlings and they were great.  These horses fit the area quite well; the rolling hills had many fields of horses, along with lots of healthy looking cattle.  We traveled along the country roads reading the silly signs; the best was one that asked “What will you do with your hopper boxes?”  Now I ask you!  

We passed the little town of Dime Box, so named because waaaay back in history everyone had to put a dime in the box in order to get their mail delivered, from La Grange, I believe.  And went past the Wendish Museum, whatever that might have been.  Unfortunately we also passed by lots of falling apart mobile homes – is there anything uglier?  Our wanderings took us close to College Station and Bryan, home of Texas A&M University and the Aggies.  Big time stuff.  Weirdly, the logo for the university is a  large“T” flanked on either side with a smaller “A” and an “M.”  We couldn’t help but notice the similarity with your standard, ubiquitous ATM sign.  I’m sure we weren’t the first to comment.

All along the roads are stands selling fireworks; New Years is a really big deal in Texas, and shooting off rockets and stuff is part of the traditional fun.  Want me to send you anything?  Oops, sounds like a good way to get yerself arrested.  

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Well, errands run we moved on toward Austin, where we spent a couple of days enjoying a great city.  More football.  As you may know, Texas has a second great house of learning:  University of Texas, based in Austin.  The Longhorns.  You know, the waggling thumb and little finger.  We were there on a Saturday, the Saturday of a very big game.  We were doing some shopping at one of the very upscale malls, and stopped in Nordstrom’s to use the restrooms.  Suddenly, I realized that the football score was being piped into the loo.  Only in Texas!  Or maybe only in Austin; who’s to say.  The Longhorns won, of course, wiping Colorado off the map.  The Rose Bowl is next.  It was fun being there.  

But onward.  We were starting to close in on the Hill Country and San Antonio, our destination for the holidays.  Leaving Austin, we headed west toward the first of several campgrounds, this at Inks Lake near Marble Falls, home of the fabulous Blue Bonnet Café.  On the way we passed a used car dealership, Austintatious Autos, and the little burg of Oatmeal, home of the Oatmeal Festival (in June).  Inks Lake was a great find for us; we spent a week there, among some of the best of rural central Texas.  Deer wandered the park, we saw herons and a possible osprey, the water shimmered, the trees were pretty, and it made a great departure point for some wandering.  We got down to Fredericksburg, a favorite, to pick up jam and some of the new crop of pecans, from Itz’ storefront on the main street.  We even had our first off-of-a-paved-road adventures, by virtue of following a map that didn’t differentiate between paved and dirt roads.  It was lots of fun.  We will visit this park many times over the years, we are very certain.  

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We had picked Inks Lake State Park partly because it was close enough to the main interstate heading south through Texas for us to intercept some friends who were traveling toward Mexico from their home in Illinois.  We met up with them in Georgetown, a delightful small old town (with yet another splendid courthouse, this one being refurbished) and we had a great lunch and a lovely chat.  They had suffered a flat tire at 7 degrees, a morning when the truck wouldn’t start, and similar nasty events, and were delighted to be thawing out and heading SOUTH.  We gave them big hugs and sent them on their way.  We will follow them after the first of the year.

Then, for us, on to San Antonio.  We traversed the Pedernales River (of LBJ fame, Perd’nalis to you non Texans), through Johnson City (ditto), crossed the Guadalupe River for the first (but not last) time this season, and into our old friend San Antonio.  Our plan was to stay a couple of days in order to get some coach work done, then head out to a campground that would be more rural but still close enough for day trips back into town as well as a good headquarters for some motorcycle riding.  Son Jason was to join us for several days over Christmas, bringing dirt bike, street bike, 4-wheel-drive truck, and big plans for lots of riding along with seeing the sights of San Antonio.  We found an excellent spot in an Army Corps of Engineers campground on Canyon Lake, which we thought would be perfect for what we had in mind.

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And it was.  Unfortunately, Jason became ill and couldn’t come.  So we were left on our own for the holiday.  That was okay, although we’d been looking forward to his visit.  The weather started out funky but improved, and we were able to do some good exploring, both on the bike and in the Jeep.  This is some of the best of the Hill Country, with small ranch towns, large ranch spreads, picturesque rivers to cross, and interesting exotic animals to come across (zebras, giraffes, etc.—we understand the area is very similar to parts of Africa).  Our campground was full of deer waiting to be fed, great walking opportunities, nice folks, and a full moon at night.  Pretty perfect.  Jason, we’ll try again another time.

Earlier, while hanging out in San Antonio, we caught up on some of the December movies that were out.  But we really wanted to see “Brokeback Mountain” (we’d both really enjoyed the Annie Proulx short story that is its basis), and that was playing in Austin.  And Austin is on the way to Nacogdoches, the next stop on our meandering through The Great State of Texas, as we’d made arrangements to bring the coach back there for its annual servicing.  So on we went, really enjoying our movie (it’s VERY good, if you’ve not seen it yet), and then trekking on to ‘Doches.  

We traveled along Highway 21, a nice secondary road that follows the route all those folks took on their way from Louisiana to The Alamo:  Crockett (of Davy fame), Madisonville (where Davy stayed for awhile); you get the picture.  We went past Edge and North Zulch, where we spotted a hand-stenciled sign – BILLY BLOW FOR JUSTICE OF THE PEACE OF HOUSTON (as in Sam) COUNTY.  These little towns are mostly dying, so come see them now before they dry up and blow away.

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Arriving in Nacogdoches, we spent a few days visiting “Mother” and then moved on down here to Livingston.  We’re tidying ourselves up and working on last minute projects as we prepare to cross the border into Mexico.  In part, we’re waiting for our dear friends Syd and Sharon Lee.  They are on their way to join us, making their way down from Vancouver Island – through the nasty weather in the Northwest and California (truly ugly) – and across Arizona and New Mexico.  They will meet us here in Texas in Eagle Pass, a border crossing along the Rio Grande about halfway between El Paso and Laredo.

We are planning to be in Mexico for a couple of months, and will pretty much disappear off the radar during that time.  We hope all of you had a grand holiday season and are ready for all the new year has to offer.  Stay warm and dry, and think of us from time to time.  We’ll be hoisting margaritas and listening to mariachis as we view colonial cathedrals in some lovely old town square.  

Hasta la vista!  Rick and Kathy 

See more photos from the US in 2005

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018