It's almost eight years to the day since we left the US to go to Britain to spend Christmas with family and to sell our apartment in London. Our intention was to return within six months and continue travelling. Circumstances took over and we spent the next six years living in North Wales in a village called Llan Ffestiniog and nearly a year living in Olvera, a small town in Andalucia, Spain. In September 2012 we finally returned to the US and are back on the road travelling full-time.
Our first priority was to deal with the Lance and the F550 both of which had been in storage during the intervening years. Sterling has promised to write a Notes article about this challenge so I'll leave the gruesome details of that process for him to record. Having said that, don't mention the front window in my hearing and expect me to remain calm! Suffice to say it took us over two months, off and on, to have everything as it needed to be.
Leaving Wisconsin we headed to Sioux Falls, our official domicile, to get new drivers licences and for me to apply to the Federal High Risk Pool Program which in South Dakota is administered by the state itself. This program is one of the first stages in implementing the new health care reform law and aims to provide health insurance for people like myself with a pre-existing condition that precludes us from getting coverage through the health insurance companies. On paper I met all the criteria but was refused on the basis that I had an address that is one of the mail forwarding services used by full-timers. South Dakota claims to be full-timer friendly and when it comes to issuing drivers licences or vehicle registration they have found ways around the particular problem of full-timers choosing to domicile in the state. In terms of pre-existing conditions and health insurance they have chosen to hang us out to dry. It was time to change our domicile. These things are always easier said than done and we have yet to complete the process but are hopeful that I will qualify for coverage in our new base, Texas, under the program operated there.
From South Dakota we planned to head south west and what follows is a somewhat boring whistle stop tour of our stops along the way. Our first stop was Waubonsie State Park in Iowa. Sat amid the predominantly flat lands of the state, the park is an island of woodland set on an outcrop of hills along the course of the Missouri River. It was pleasant enough but the park itself fades into insignificance when set against the torrential downpour and our realisation that the front window was leaking like a sieve!
We headed down into Missouri to the Escapees park at Hollister, just outside Branson. We settled in there for a couple of weeks to concentrate on further repairs to the rig, including the dreaded front window. Hollister is on the outskirts of Branson, the mecca of country and western music shows and home to the likes of Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede and Andy Williams' Moon River Theatre. The Branson shows also seem to specialise in a particular type of humour that makes us both cringe. On top of this, C&W and musicals in general are not high on our list of favourite entertainments and so we didn't join the masses crawling along the roads and swarming into the shows every day.
Hollister deserves some mention of its own in spite of being overshadowed by its gaudy neighbour. For reasons which are not entirely clear, two local entrepreneurs decided to build a mock Elizabethan/Tudor village in Hollister. In reality it consists of one short road named appropriately enough Downing Street. Number 10 is a hairdressers in case you're wondering. The focus is Ye Olde English Inn providing accommodation and what they mistakenly think is an English pub.
Table Rock State Park is not far outside Branson. It's a small park on the shore of Table Rock Lake and has a paved trail out to Table Rock Dam which is operated by the Corps of Engineers. There are tours of the dam but we were unable to go as only American citizens are allowed! The fact that people may be legally in the country having been vetted within an inch of their lives by the Citizenship & Immigration Services is of no consequence - we're somehow just not safe. Some years ago we happily visited the Hoover Dam and out of interest I checked whether they were also now confining tours to US citizens alone - I'm pleased to say they are not and can only conclude it's either a difference in approaches in the two states or perhaps a difference between the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation which administers the Hoover Dam.
Our next stop was Joplin, unfortunately famous for the tornado which ripped through the city in 2011, utterly destroying thousands of houses as well as various businesses and schools. While there is evidence of rebuild there are also still large swathes where the more obvious signs of the disaster have been cleared leaving tell tale indicators that these areas where once more than empty plots - foundation blocks, remnants of car parks and unused roads that disappear under surface rubble. It's a sad reminder.
We were in Joplin to get the cab-over struts installed. When we bought the F550 back in 2004 we thought that the extra carrying capacity of the truck would dampen the vibration between the camper and the truck, doing away with the need for the struts. This proved not to be the case. The first few weeks back on the road reminded us of this and we decided to install the struts. Happily the ride is now a lot smoother and my teeth are no longer rattling about my head on uneven roads.
We followed parts of old Route 66 off and on, stopping to visit one or two of the iconic sights along the way, including one of the original Steak and Shake Restaurants in Springfield, Missouri, and the National Route 66 museum in Elk City, Oklahoma where I got to sit in the front half of a 1959 pink Cadillac!
Coming across Oklahoma we made a number of stops including Sequoyah Bay State Park, Oklahoma City, Lake McClellan Recreation Area and Red Rock Canyon State Park, only the last of these warranting much of a mention. While it's nowhere near as dramatic as the word canyon might suggest it is never the less pleasing with it's red rock walls, mixed woods and meandering trails. A very short nature trail through a sea of horsetails is a little like stepping back to a time when reptiles as large as the camper strolled unconcerned. Signs of a much more recent past can be seen in the rut marks worn in the sandstone by the wagon wheels heading west on the California Trail.
West Texas is every bit as open and flat as last time we were here with very little breaking up the endless miles, an occasional stand of trees appearing as quite a landmark in the monotony. The great scar in this landscape that is the Palo Duro Canyon is both unexpected and dramatic. I have written before about the State Park so won't cover old ground. Suffice to say it remains one of our favourite places in Texas with enough trails and biking opportunities to ensure it's a place we'll return.
In pursuit of kitsch and Americana our stop in Amarillo required a visit to The Big Texan Steak Ranch - the home of steak and every characature of Texas. Of course there was nothing vegetarian on the menu and Sterling had to resort to dinner simply minus meat - rarely the most tasty option. This wonderful establishment was only a mile from where we were stopped for the night so we walked - needless to say there was no pavement but decided to make use of the free "limousine" service to get back. We shared the ride with a few people heading back to their hotel who were amazed that we'd walked all that way which together with the lack of sidewalk reminds me again how difficult it is to travel by foot in town and therefore how unusual.
The highlight of our Amarillo visit was The Jack Sisemore Traveland RV Museum. It's a place born of the love of RVs and the folks at Sisemores have restored a number of classics as well as leaving various others in the condition they were found in. Many of the units are open and we were free to wander about them looking in the cupboards, checking out the bathrooms and generally being amazed at how some things have changed so little. The 1966 Kenskill was one of our favourites and of course it was the 1970 Avion truck camper that warranted most of our attention although some of the 1970s fabrics left the most lasting impression on the retinas. The staff at Sisemores were delightful and appeared genuinely pleased that we had arrived to see the museum and intrigued that we were full-timing in such a small rig. While we were wandering around the museum they were apparently speculating on their chances of surviving such an experience with their respective spouses.
Caprock Canyons State Park is the home of the official bison herd of Texas and while this is of passing interest it was the dramatic red rock scenery that captured our attention and sent us out on the trails. We crossed the dry bed of the Little Red River so many times on one particular hike that we lost count and weren't even sure if it was the same waterway until we consulted the map. We were stopped here over Thanksgiving and of course had a full vegetarian version of the traditional meal & pie - no small feat in a kitchen this small.
Our generator hasn't been working since before we put the camper into storage in 2004 and our next stop was Lubbock motivated by an attempt to get it repaired. We took the opportunity to do the usual city things: we ate out, went to the cinema a couple of times and Sterling bought various electronic devices not to be had in small towns. We also visited the American Wind Power Center just on the outskirts of the city. The winds in west Texas can be formidable; we have already experienced several high wind warnings one of which prompted us to put the camper back on the truck, just in case. The museum is fascinating with every variety of windmill imaginable from the replica post-mill to the modern turbine whooshing away outside. One of the items on display inside was the remains of a windmill hit by a tornado, the tail vane wrapped around itself four times over.
Lake Colorado City State Park looked as though it had seen better days. The lake level was low with its docks and ramps high and dry. A considerable section of one of the camping loops was closed and evidenced by the grass growing up through cracks in the paving had been for some time. The opposite side of the lake was dominated by a power plant of the large cube with various pipes variety - officially known as a steam electric station. However named, the blot on the landscape was transformed into a thing of beauty when a full moon rose behind it.
A brief stop at Monahans Sandhills State Park followed; the sand encroaching on all sides of the small camping loop tucked down in what the park are obviously continually waging a battle to maintain as an artificial inter-dune area. The early morning and late afternoon light on the dunes was soft bringing both subtlety and definition. In spite of being close to an interstate the background noise was minimal - until that is the arrival of a troop of unruly boy scouts who had obviously not learnt the scout law as still recited by Sterling.
O.K. we're nearly up to date. I'm just going to say a little about Pecos where we stayed for a couple of weeks predominantly to catch up on some work and to have a temporary stationary address to take delivery of various items we wanted to order. Pecos is unusual. It's an interface between considerable poverty, run down housing and a deserted down town area and the effects of the latest oil boom triggered by newer drilling methods, giving rise to a large, apparently migratory work force. Numerous hotels have been built in the last few years in an attempt to accommodate their growing numbers but more interesting is the development of a workforce housing lodge. Known as Crew Camps these developments have grown up in other states experiencing this boom and offer luxury private bedrooms, catered meals, gym and recreation areas and 24-hour security. While the high levels of employment and influx of workers are obviously benefiting the town in some ways, the empty lots, closed businesses and deserted buildings don't suggest that they're having much effect on the overall prosperity of the place. It may be that the money just takes longer to trickle down but I have the suspicion that the employment is by and large low paid unskilled work attracting people disinclined to bring their families here to settle.
The Escapees park just on the edge of town is unlike any that we've stayed in. One unusual thing about this park is that the vast majority of longer term residents are not typical Escapees but rather from the oil field workforce. This lends a very different feeling to Tra Park - not a problem - just different. The problem lies in the fact that the individual sites are so cramped that on a couple of occasions we were hemmed in by huge fifth wheels, their slide outs about a foot away. I swear we could have heard someone sneeze! Having said all that the staff were friendly, the location reasonably quiet and it met our needs as described.
I apologise for such a long and sometimes tedious first log but at least it brings us to a few days before Christmas when we left Pecos heading south west towards what we hoped would be a break from the flat horizons of the majority of Texas.