Big Bend

I thought we were “deep in the heart of Texas” until we got to Big Bend National Park – a place that is as far south as you can go in the American west. The park borders Mexico for over 100 miles on the Rio Grande.

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This park is one of the larger National Parks, but receives far fewer visitors than other parks (it ranks 147th!) due to its remote location. There are no airports or even interstate highways nearby. Most of the visitors who venture to BBNP do so during the late fall and early spring, when the weather is most pleasant. Summer temperatures can be brutal, so several of the visitors centers and campground are closed during the summer.

We stayed in the Chisos Basin, which is right in the middle of the park at about 5000 feet elevation. The campground was a bargain at only $14 per night. The elevation allowed for cool temperatures (mid 80s during the day and 60s at night), but some CRAZY winds and pop-up storms. Our tent really took a beating, as it tends to catch the wind pretty easily. The wind and threat of wildlife kept me up at night – either we would blow away or be eaten by a bear!

We camped next to a retired teacher and her husband and son, who stayed up playing guitar into the night. Camping (and travel, really) can be about the relationships you form along the way. Albeit brief, Christy and her crew made for a memorable meeting and some interesting conversation. The struggles of teaching are universal!

site #16 in the chisos basin

site #16 in the chisos basin

fear induced insomnia for me...

fear induced insomnia for me…

casa grande 7,326 feet

casa grande 7,326 feet

the window - the rio grande lies beyond and far below the chisos basin

the window – the rio grande lies beyond and far below the chisos basin

We spent an evening exploring the backroads of the park. There seemed to be tons of gravel roads that led into the far reaches of the park. I was hoping to spot a javelina or two, but all we spotted was lots of roadrunners, jackrabbits, and an impressively huge spider.

the open and empty road

the open and empty road

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desert landscape

desert landscape

backroads of the park

backroads of the park

windmill on a backroad

windmill on a backroad

prickly wildlife!

prickly wildlife!

After we left Big Bend, we headed due north to the hip, weird town of Marfa – more on that later!

Deep in the Heart of Texas!

I feel the need to preface this post with a few quick claps , but I can save it for another day. After a fun-filled day in Austin, we headed to San Antonio to see the famed Alamo and walk the River Walk. Touristy, yes – but still fun.

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the alamo


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gardens outside of the alamo


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clint checking out the architecture

We splurged on lunch at Boudro’s on the River Walk – well worth it! We ate Mexican food for four meals in a row while in this area… when in Rome?

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fresh guac made tableside


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prickly pear margarita and texas tea

After leaving San Antonio, we headed southwest along the Mexico border en route to Big Bend National Park. Although we knew we were taking the scenic route, we were surprised at what the two lane had to offer along the way. We stopped at the Amistad Reservoir for a quick photo op and kept on trucking toward Big Bend.

amistad reservoir

amistad reservoir


amistad reservoir

amistad reservoir

We stopped for lunch at a visitor’s center dedicated to Judge Roy Bean, a justice of the peace and self-proclaimed “Law West of the Pecos.” Bean ran a saloon and often held court right there. A man after my own heart…

cactus garden

cactus garden


the jersey lilly saloon

the jersey lilly saloon


cactus garden

cactus garden


may need this sign for my classroom ;)

may need this sign for my classroom ;)


love it! you go, texas.

love it! you go, texas.

Next up – bears, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and javelinas?! Big Bend National Park!

 



Weird and Wonderful Austin

Austin has been on my bucket list for years, so I was stoked to be able to visit the Texas capital city on this trip! We are staying between Austin and San Antonio for a couple of days, so our time is split between the two cities (and a service shop where we are sitting right now getting my wheels aligned). 

We started the day in Beaumont- about 4 hours away- and drove into the city in time for a late lunch at Magnolia Cafe South in the hip SoCo neighborhood. They had an extensive menu with breakfast, Tex Mex, and lots of sandwiches. They also claimed to be open 24 hours a day, 8 days a week. Love it! After lunch, we made our way down South Congress, popping into the unique shops along the way. Our favorite was the Big Top Candy Shop, where we indulged in some shaved ice (of course)!  

     

After exploring SoCo, we headed over to the iconic Barton Springs Pool. This place has been on my radar since I saw it online years ago, so I was so excited to be able to finally take a dip! Barton Springs is a man-made, 3 acre, spring fed swimming pool located right in the heart of Austin. It was built in the 1920s. The water is a chilly 68 degrees year around- and it is colder than you think! Once we got in, the cold water was so refreshing and calming on a hot summer day.  

         

We thought Austin was another Southern city to love! 

The Forgotten Coast – Cape San Blas

beautiful gulf sunset!

beautiful gulf sunset!

I heard about Cape San Blas and the St. Joseph’s Peninsula State Park through several travel blogs and decided that we should start somewhere new yet familiar for the big trip. After a couple days visiting with family in Georgia, we made our way down to the Florida peninsula for a couple of days on the beach.  I have been visiting the Gulf Coast since I was a kid, and Clint and I have traveled there together several times, so it still feels a little like home.

sandy feet

St. Joseph’s Peninsula extends far out into the Gulf from Port St. Joe. The road out is long and pretty empty- I guess that’s why they call this coast “forgotten.” I didn’t notice a single hotel or motel on the Cape, but there were tons of beautiful beach houses and long, sandy roads out to the beach. The peninsula is pretty narrow, and there are even some spots where you can see both the Gulf and the bay at the same time!

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sunset walk

We camped on a cute site that had just enough room to tuck out tent away behind a few trees. The “backyard” of the site was actually a marsh! It was beautiful, but I did imagine an alligator creeping up on me in the night. Alas, the only creatures to worry about were the swarms of mosquitoes and a rogue possum that went face-to-face with Clint the first night in. There was no rain in the forecast, so we slept without the rain fly. There’s something to be said about looking up through the palms into the night sky.

the new rei kingdom 4 sporting some eno led lights!

the new rei kingdom 4 sporting some eno led lights!

home for the night - hidden in the palms

home for the night – hidden in the palms

the campsite's backyard

the campsite’s backyard

It was hot, hot, hot and the humidity was truly oppressing – even at night! Our gracious camping neighbors, Jim and Karen from Atlanta, loaned us a big fan, but it was just not enough to touch that humidity. I think that this park would be much more enjoyable in the early fall, but the beaches were gorgeous and the water was just the right temperature. We hit the beach early to swim and escape the heat!

I can’t finish this post without mentioning Weber’s Little Donut Shop, which is a teeny tiny shack selling donuts each morning until they are “sold out or worn out.” The owners treated us to a deep fried glazed croissant, which may have changed my life. Yum!

weber's donuts - made fresh each morning!

weber’s donuts – made fresh each morning!

Next up, Texas – maybe the donuts will be even bigger there?!

Planning an Extended Road Trip

road

When you do a quick search for “road trip planning,” the typical results include vague suggestions like bringing healthy snacks, saving money on gas, and fun car games for kids. That’s all well and good for a nice little drive in the country for a few hours. But what about a real road trip? 5,000 miles plus?  In the throes of planning our next great adventures,  here are my personal “tried and true” tips for planning a successful extended road trip.

1. Don’t overschedule.

This seems a bit conterintuitive, especially when you consider that you’re reading a post about planning. Some of my favorite memories involve the most spontaneous moments! I learned this lesson the hard way when I booked 4 nights in Las Vegas before a trip and the stay seemed about 3 nights too long! Unless you are traveling to a very popular destination on a busy holiday weekend, campsites and cheap hotels are pretty easy to come by. Hotwire and Priceline often offer the best deals at the last minute – I’ve booked many hotels day-of without any troubles. You can often extend your stay by talking to the check in folks when you arrive – they can sometimes match the rate you found on Hotwire if you simply mention it!

2. it’s not all fun and games

Unlike a relaxing beach vacation (which I looooove), a long road trip is a little more ho hum at times. There will be grocery runs, hours wasted at the local laundromat, lots of sandwiches and granola bars, and your life’s quota of questionable showers.

3. take it slow

Enjoy the simplicity of staring out the car window. Don’t feel guilty about hanging around to read a book instead of sightseeing. Sleep in when you’ve splurged for a nice hotel. Spend an hour using the Starbucks wifi. You’re not going to be able to see everything anyway, so don’t try!

4. Talk to strangers (and maybe even get into their van…)

This is one of those things your mom warned you never to do, but I promise it’s worth it. To me, travel is about the stories. Put yourself out there – I’ve had Spam for breakfast with a retired couple we met at the hotel pool, toured a stranger’s new camper, and taken ice cream suggestions from a few probable hoodlums in an In N Out.

5. pack half of what you think you’ll need

Frequent travelers live by this advice and it is true! Find a laundromat once a week (they have wifi now, so catch up on your email while you wait) and wash your wardrobe. I think it is kind of freeing not to have to choose your outfit – you wear whatever’s left! This applies to food as well. Get some essentials before you leave and stock up along the way. Fresh stuff only lasts a few days in the cooler anyway, so you have to do frequent cooler clean-outs if you pack it with more food than you can eat. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at America, there’s a WalMart pretty much everywhere. You can buy what you forget.

Happy Trails!

Hunting Island: Camping Paradise in the Carolinas

Our impending summer road trip is going to interfere with our annual nephew quality time trip, so Clint and I packed up the car, the dog, and Connor for a little jaunt out to Hunting Island State Park. Our other little family adventures have been well documented here.  Having never been camping, Connor was stoked to see what it was all about, declaring “Today is camping day!” when he woke up. We couldn’t wait to share one of our favorite ways to travel with one of our favorite kids :)

Of course, the little navigator had to point out the way from his car seat. “This way, then that way. Then you’re there!” It’s not rocket science, people! IMG_3537

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the trusty hooligan 3 is just over a small hill, tucked away!

After being greeted by the awesome volunteer hosts at Hunting Island (who even gave Scout a treat!), we scoped out our site. I just booked the place last week, and it was packed with Spring Break vacationers. Site 132 ended up being the perfect place to pitch a tent – wooded with pine trees, palms, and shrubs and blanketed with a thick, spongy layer of pine needles.

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There was also room to set up both of our beloved eno hammocks, which Connor loved! Our first night in, we headed out to the beach for a little photo action and a walk for Scout. Dog and kid alike loved romping in the sand!

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path to the beach

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natural dunes and vegetation

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seashell collection

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doggie pawprints in the sand

We spent the next day walking the beach, making sand castles, climbing across dunes and exploring sandbars (or “salad bars,” depending on who you’re talking to). The campground also had access to several trails for biking and hiking. We loved the Magnolia Forest trail, which wove in and around the marshes to the lighthouse. Connor declared that this place was the best jungle ever. Watch out for lions, y’all!

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Of course, there was lots of time for roasting hot dogs, riding bikes, and cuddling in the hammocks.

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best buds

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scout, chief watchdog

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greeting every camper with a cheerful “good morning!”

We can’t wait to go back to this beautiful island! There is so much more that we didn’t have time to explore this trip. At only around a 5 hour drive from home, I’m sure we will enjoy more weekends there soon.

Book Shelf: Ron Rash

If 2014 was the year of Bill Bryson  (and with 7 of his books under my belt last year, I think it’s safe to say he was a favorite), then this year must be dubbed “The Year of Ron Rash.” I’m not sure how I have somehow avoided the North Carolina native in my years of Amazon and bookshop trolling, but it happened. I have read five of his novels and one collection of short stories this year and they have all been more thought-provoking than the last. Rash is truly one of the masters of great Appalachian literature. I haven’t been a huge fan of short stories in the past, but with just a couple dozen pages, I am drawn into the dark, gritty worlds of these characters. He is somehow able to capture the unique culture of Appalachia – of yesterday and today. If you are a North Carolinian or a lover of Southern fiction, you must check him out. Read “Serena” or “One Foot in Eden” first – both are wonderfully haunting stories.

I was recently able to attend a reading of “Something Rich and Strange,” his latest collection of short stories. The experience made me want to devour this book in tiny pieces, as I savored every single story!