Sunday, April 25, 2021

Trekking from AZ to NJ, Part I - Enjoying our Harvest Hosts (HH) Membership Along the Way

 I have been remiss in staying current with my blog posts.  Needless to say, time flies when I am having so much fun!  Let me catch up a bit…


We started our trek to NJ to help Aunt Maureen and Uncle Ted at Misty Lee Farm, home to rescued cats, dogs, and horses.  After leaving AZ, we stayed our first night at the Visitor Center in Marfa, TX.   This was a much different experience than when we overnighted here in January.  We were one of only a handful of spectators in January.  Good thing we arrived early in the day this time, ‘cause the parking lot became like a freeway exit.  People were coming and going all hours of the evening until late at night, slamming doors and leaving headlights glaring, making it difficult to adjust our eyes to the night sky.  While in January we were thrilled to witness the phenomenon known as the Marfa Ghost Lights, we saw bupkis on our latest visit.  I think all the human activity spooked the spooks!

We did another stopover at Escapees Lone Star Coral in Hondo, TX (fortunately well before the RV Park suffered from a devastating tornado and hailstorm) before reaching our lot in Livingston, TX.  We took care of a boatload of business within a mere 24 hours of arriving home—picked up our mail, did laundry, pumped and dumped.  We also disconnected our swivel wheel which carries Rat Patrol II, our Polaris-RZR side-by side.  We knew the swivel wheel’s extra 6 feet in length would make it nearly impossible to fit into the RV park we reserved in NJ.  Lastly, Mom went to renew her Class A non-commercial CDL driver’s license.  For anyone with this class of license in TX (required because of the weight of our RVing set-up), take heed. On-line renewal is prohibited.  You can only renew it by mail with the submission of a certified eye test to be paid by the license holder OR by visiting the Department of Public Safety (DPS) in person and immediately receiving a temporary document (with a permanent license to be mailed within 2-3 weeks).  Mom preferred the latter method, and by scheduling an appointment, the process was painless and seamless even during COVID (NJ Division of Motor Vehicles should take a lesson Polk DPS in TX!)  After a terrific lunch at Joe’s Italian Grill in Livingston (vegetable pizza with our own vegan cheese), we hit the road and spent the night at a Harvest Host (HH) brewery in Southeast Texas, one of the few Host breweries we have visited that offer its beers in cans for takeout.  Dad and I had a “guys night” of sampling and purchasing several brewskies before the pub closed to the public for a private party.  We returned to Mom in Suite Retreat and were all sleeping soundly by 10 p.m. after a busy day.  Then we had a weird incident—a knock at the door at 10:46 p.m.  We were the only HH guests that night, so who could it be?  This is where the peephole we paid DRV to install on our 5th wheel door would be useful—if any of us were tall enough to reach the height at which they installed it!   Anyway, it turned out to be a woman by herself who wanted to tell us that she liked our medium duty truck, Big Boomer.  Well, OK, thanks much, good night.  They don’t kid around when they say Texans are VERY friendly folks!

Rain and high humidity greeted us as we hit the road at 8 a.m. enroute to John Schneider Studios in Holden, LA.  I was excited to possibly meet the actor who played Bo Duke in the Dukes of Hazard and, more importantly, to see the original General Lee!  But alas, we had to change plans when we learned heavy rain created flooded and muddy parking.  Very disappointing news for this stuffed rat since this was the second time we attempted to visit and were detoured due to weather (we were scheduled to visit last fall but had to reroute through Branson due to a hurricane projected for the area).  We made alternate arrangements to arrive a day earlier than planned at Escapees Rainbow Plantation in Summerdale, AL.  But what was to be a 3-hour travel day turned into 9 hours of driving in heavy rain.  Fortunately, Mom shares driving duty with Dad.

Our site at Rainbow Plantation was puddled, to be expected when you consider you are parking on grass--there are no concrete or gravel pads.  But overall, it is a much nicer, better maintained park than Escapees Rainbow’s End in Livingston, TX.  The leased lots at Rainbow Plantation are in their own secluded section, are twice the size of ours in Livingston, and have plantings and bushes to lend privacy between lots.   We went to do laundry at their facility.  Like every Escapees Park we have ever visited, it had at least one broken machine.  And the COVID protocol in the laundry room was non-sensical.  The washers and dryers could be utilized but using the table to sort/fold laundry was prohibited, with the area cordoned off with caution tape.

During a brief reprieve from the next day’s rain storm we toured Battleship Memorial Park in nearby Mobile, AL, a very cool place that is home to the USS Alabama battleship and the USS Drum submarine.  Hard to believe that 65 enlisted men and 7 officers lived aboard the sub, while the battleship housed 2,500 Navy personnel.  I learned that 27 seamen slept in the same quarters on the battleship and that a typical dinner consisted of navy beans.  Can you imagine the stench that must have emanated from that bed chamber!  Sleep—I think not, unless of course, you passed out!  The Memorial Park also contains assorted aircraft, where I learned about the bravery and talents of the Tuskegee Airmen.  The grounds include a Memorial for Vietnam and Korean War Veterans as well as a tribute to canine soldiers.

We booked several nights at Rainbow Plantation because we had grand plans for peddling our ‘Lectric bikes along the many trails at Gulf Shores.  But the perpetual downpours and heavy winds prevented us from pursuing the endeavor.  Phooey!  Sure glad we toured Gulf Shores previously in 2019 ‘cause this visit was a bust! You can read about it here...Visiting Gulf Shores At least I met someone who loves rodentia as much as my Mom.  Check out these lights!

Of course, the weather got lovely as we departed Rainbow Plantation.  Our drive to our next HH location in Central AL was easy and uneventful.  This HH winery offers electric hookups free of charge though we did not need to use them.  We did some taste testing to help us decide what wines to purchase as gifts for folks we would be visiting along our travel route.  Then we perused the pristine property, examined the grapes on the vines, and enjoyed a sensational sunset.  We topped the visit off with a toast and some stimulating conversation with the other HH guests staying overnight.



Our next destination was Stone Mountain Park Campground in Stone Mountain, GA for a 2-night stay.  The site fit our set-up comfortably.  We had a fire pit along with a private deck complete with picnic table and gas-fired grill.  The Campground has a multitude of amenities like pool (which was open for use), horseshoes, free Wi-Fi, free cable, and children’s playground (still closed due to COVID—does that make any sense?).  But this all came with the hefty price of $65/night.  Due to COVID, the Campground only accepted on-line reservations for our mid-April visit, for which they charged an additional $7 processing fee.  We forked over another $20 to enter Stone Mountain Park, within which the Campground is located.  Yet neither Memorial Hall or the scenic train ride, which were to be complimentary with the $20 entrance fee, were operating due to COVID.    If we wanted to ride the gondola or visit Historic Square during mid-April, it came with yet another charge of $25/adult.    WHAT!  Are they trying to bankrupt my cheese bank?  But the biggest kicker of all was the FREE laser light show that usually projects daily during the summer months right on the Stone Mountain bas-relief will now cost visitors $20 for a designated 6-foot socially-distanced “square” painted on the field, each square large enough for a party of 4.  Do I hear the words “rip-off” coming from anyone else?



Despite the excessive costs and the cool, windy weather, we had a great time.  We rode our bicycles everywhere within the Park Campus.  We enjoyed time with friends Gary and Brenda with whom we worked at Grand Canyon Conservancy in 2017.  When they learned we would be camping at Stone Mountain the same time they were there visiting family who lived nearby, they were excited to get together, as were we.  We hiked to the summit of Stone Mountain.  Its elevation of 1,686 feet above sea level offers a terrific view of Atlanta in the distance.  And, of course, we viewed the Mountain’s carving of Confederate Leaders Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis.  The family who owned the mountain land was allegedly connected to the Ku Klux Klan.  It was the Daughters of the Confederacy who hired sculptor Gutzon Borglum (subsequently to become famous for carving Mt. Rushmore) to design and complete the relief.  But there were lots of monetary problems which resulted in Borglum being terminated from the project and he, in turn, destroying all the plans and models.  The partial work he completed on the mountain was blasted away, and it was back to Square One.  Disagreements, disharmony, and delays like World War II ensued.  Long story short:    The carving did not get completed until 1972, nearly 50 years from inception.  While lots of controversy surrounds it, it is still an incredible work of art and holds the distinction of being the world’s largest bas-relief.


Saw this little squirrel emerge from his tree hole!

Friends Gary/Brenda from Grand Canyon Conservancy.

View of Atlanta skyline from Stone Mountain Summit.

Another view from the summit of Stone Mountain.

The carving from a distance...

...and up close.

Check out the painted socially-distanced squares on the grounds for which you will now pay $20 for a group of 4 to watch the laser show that was free of charge prior to COVID.

All aboard for our next HH overnight destination:  A huge equine center in SC about 30 minutes outside of Augusta, GA.  Cindy, the owner, greeted us warmly with her new rescue dog, Ella.  The property is comprised of ~1,000 acres, including a training center, boarding stables, competition arena, and a LEED constructed pavilion that is the perfect venue for a wedding or other special event.  As a HH location, it offers free RV boondocking sites or electric hookup sites for an upcharge.  Additionally, there are homes and cabins on the premises that can be rented through Airbnb.  Though few horses were on the property during our visit, those present made a point to come say hello as we walked the grounds and surrounding trails.  We clocked 6 miles and only enjoyed about half the trails on the property.  My parents made the requisite purchases of shirts.  I sprung for a slop rag to be put to good use when we begin helping to care for Aunt Maureen’s rescue horses at Misty Lee Farm in NJ.  As with most of our HH says, this was a very enjoyable stopover.


Despite many dead branches, this tree produced lots of pine cones.

We spent the next two nights at yet another HH in SC, this time a mushroom farm.  With Dad being plant-based, he was excited to hand-pick mushrooms.  But alas, it was not to be.  Shitake mushrooms go dormant when temperatures get very cold or very hot, and we had the misfortune to arrive during a cold spell.  But it sure was interesting to learn how these mushrooms grow.  The owner demonstrated the process for us.  You start with a fresh cut log (easy to do here since they own acres of forest land) and drill rows of holes about an inch apart.  Then you utilize a $500 gadget made in Japan (similar to a plug filler) to insert fungus culture and a Styrofoam cap into each hole.  Place the log within the humid, moist forest and watch mushrooms proliferate.  That’s how it is SUPPOSED to work.  But despite our numerous attempts, we were only privy to seeing ONE solitary mushroom bloom as we walked among the many trails of “planted” logs.  All was not lost, though.  We purchased greenhouse tomatoes, newly harvested asparagus, and a succulent plant topiary.  Plus, I enjoyed the company of the farm’s friendly moo cows and caught glimpses of elusive deer who reside in the forest.  

You can see all the styrofoam plugs in the logs.  When the mushroom blooms, the styrofoam is pushed out of the hole.

The one solitary mushroom that bloomed during our stay.

However, the absolute best thing about this HH was its location nearby to our relocated NJ biker bros Jeffrey and Donny/Sandy and family.  We spent an entire fun-filled day with them along with other friends/family who were visiting them from NJ.  Jeffrey is a superb cook, from grilling meats to smoking fish to baking bread.  He is like my Mom when it comes to entertaining—the food is plentiful and delicious and you leave at least 5 pounds heavier than when you arrived!   We had a blast and are blessed to have these wonderful folks in our lives.


We continued our trek up the coast, arriving at North Myrtle Beach RV Resort for a 2-night stay.  Again, it cost a pretty penny ($75/night), but it is a beautiful Park with a full complement of upscale amenities that were all open and available for use during the time of our visit, though we had little time to utilize them.  We spent our first evening visiting with Kevin (Dad’s longtime buddy from NJ) and his wife Elle, who are relocating to Myrtle Beach.  We broke bread together at a local Italian restaurant, enjoying the fellowship and our meals.

The weather gods took pity on us and brought partial sunshine and cool temperatures on Sunday (rather than rain and wind like the day before), just in time for us to get together with more New Jerseyans, Mom’s friend Denise and her hubby Dean.  (Isn’t it amazing how many of our friends from NJ now live down South!)  Though long periods may go by between get togethers, there is never a lag in conversation or laughter, especially when the gals reminisce about their antics as young adults embarking on their career paths.


We proceeded on to the KOA Holiday Campground in Newbern, NC.  We are not fans of KOAs, but this one was perfect for us.  Conveniently located right off NC 17, it is laid out nicely with all paved roads.  The spacious pull through sites include brick patios with gas grills, lawn furniture, fire pits, and decorative lighting.  The Park provides free Wi-Fi and cable, and the staff is extremely welcoming and efficient.  For those traveling with kids, the Park has lots for them to enjoy:  pool, playground, giant checkers/chess set, cornhole, horseshoes, a jump pad, even gem mining.  We enjoyed walking to the pier on the property that overlooks the Neuse River.

I wish I had more time to enjoy all this KOA has to offer.  But this was just a stopover to visit with RV friends John/Shirley.  They are kind, good-hearted folks, as are their neighbors Jim/Vickie, all of whom we met during our days as members of the Montana Owners Club (MOC).  Even though we are now owners of some other brand (SOBs), the friendship remains strong.  We enjoyed spending time with them all and seeing all the wonderful projects John has completed on their sticks and bricks home.  And I especially loved playing with my canine pal, Aussie.  He has grown so big since I saw him in 2019 when he was just a few months old!  But he is smart as a whip and a very well-behaved pup!

Well, I chewed on your ear long enough for now.  I’ll talk to you again real soon to tell you about the rest of our trip to NJ.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Touring Southeast AZ - Bisbee, Chiricahua National Monument, Fort Bowie

After a terrific week boondocking at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Cienegas Natural Conservation Area in Sonoita, AZ, it was time to move on to Bisbee.  Along the way, we passed Fort Huachuca, an active Army base established in 1877.  And Bisbee is home to historic Camp Naco.  Built in 1919 as part of the border defense during the Mexican Revolution, Naco was the encampment of the famed Buffalo Soldiers.  The site, now owned by the City of Bisbee, needs major repairs and renovations, which is why the City has partnered with a nonprofit “Friends” group.

Just a block or so away from Camp Naco was our destination, the Bisbee RV Park at Turquoise Valley.  It is a small campground within 1,000 feet of the Mexican border, but it has everything we needed after a week of boondocking: full hookups, large and easily-accessible sites, free wi-fi, clean laundry facilities, and a free hookup for the streaming service Raku, all for a rate of $100/weekly or $25/daily.  Best of all, it has Bart, a loveable Labrador Retriever mix. Bart’s Dad died while staying at the RV Park, and the Park owner has since adopted him.  Bart and I became fast friends.  Of course, it helped that I had a few doggie treats in my pocket.

Bisbee, once known as the Queen of the Mining Camps, had 8 billion pounds of copper extracted between 1877 and 1975.  So, it was only fitting for us to take a tour of the Copper Queen Mine.  What an authentic experience!  Equipped with hard hats and headlamps, we traveled down the shaft 1,500 feet via the original mining cars.  John, our docent, was excellent, providing a humorous and informative narration.  His exuberance for imparting knowledge is a testament to his career in education.   We learned the various stages of mining:  shake, strike, switch, blast, and muck to remove the ore.  Unfortunately, for every 100 pounds of copper mined, 97 pounds are waste.  Mining is just one phase of copper production; thereafter are the processes of concentration, smelting, and refining.  What a fascinating tour, well worth the $15/adult admission, earning it one of my coveted 5-cheese awards.



Yours truly testing out one of the potty cars miner's used.

We also stopped at The Lavender Pit, an open pit mine of Phelps Dodge Corporation in operation from 1950 to 1974 from which copper, gold, silver, and turquoise were extracted.

Downtown Bisbee is an eclectic, artsy, cultural haven.  We were disappointed that so many of its boutiques and galleries were closed due to COVID and/or the fact it was a weekday.  We parked at a lot near the mine and toured the town via foot.  We learned that Bisbee holds a soap box derby race annually (pre-COVID).  I would love to watch that zaniness when they reinstate the event.    We ventured through the Brewers Gulch section of town, home to an assortment of taverns including St. Elmo’s, Bisbee’s oldest brewery (established in 1905).   There are stairs throughout the downtown, part of the Bisbee 1,000 Challenge.  I only accomplished climbing 323 stairs, mainly because I found myself hungry.  We sought out two restaurants that could satisfy Dad’s plant-based dietary requirements, but unfortunately, both were closed.  So, we walked over to Erie Street, locale of the Lowell Americana Project that depicts Main Street America circa 1950s.  There we ate at the Bisbee Breakfast Club, and old-style cafĂ©/luncheonette, complete with jukebox.  Dad enjoyed a plant-based burger and Mom and I shared a tasty roast beef club.  Afterwards, we strolled down the block, viewing the old motorcycles, cars, and storefront window displays.  

Luv this toucan flower planter!

Photo collage from prior soap box derby races

One of the many stairways within Bisbee that encompass the Bisbee 1,000 Challenge.




We popped over the next day to the Whitewater Draw National Wildlife Refuge.  Originally, we planned to boondock here.  But we changed our plans once we learned that all the birds who inhabit the area in winter had migrated already.  But we will keep the Refuge in mind for future use.


We continued on to Chiricahua National Monument, home of hoodoos, balanced rocks, spires, and pinnacles.  The Visitor Center was limited to 6 guests at a time and only gave access to the gift shop.   We were prohibited from perusing exhibits, participating in ranger programs, viewing the film, or entering historical buildings within the Park.  This was sure to make it tough for me to earn my Junior Ranger Badge here.  But a Masked Park Service Ranger outside the Visitor Center (She socially distanced by using a 6-foot walking stick as a pointer to various locations on her outdoor worktable.  She reminded me of the old schoolmarm who brandished a huge ruler.) directed me with a point of her walking stick to a pile of Junior Ranger Books which, surprisingly, came with the applicable badge attached.  Now, others would be tempted to just toss the book and don the badge to brag about the achievement.  But my parents are sticklers about honesty and integrity.   So yours truly worked diligently and studiously to EARN that badge.  Thank goodness, though, for access to the internet to educate myself about the place!


The masked Ranger also dissuaded us from remaining parked in the Visitor Center Parking Lot while we hiked the 3-mile round trip Lower Ryolite Canyon Trail, even though the trailhead originates in the lot.  She cited that our medium duty truck would be an impediment for other guests.  So, she sent us to another area to park, adding ½ mile to our hike.  But it was a nice day and additional exercise is always good. 



We wanted to go up to Massai Point; however, the masked Ranger said the shuttle buses were not operating due to COVID.  The sign for the road leading to Massai Point said maximum length was 24 feet.  However, the brochure we received from the masked Ranger said 29 feet.  Big Boomer measures somewhere between the two lengths.  Screw it, we said.  We rode up and encountered no problems.  Truthfully, we have been on much narrower, steeper, and curvier roads with our full set-up, let alone just with Big Boomer.  The hoodoos at the Point are reminiscent of a mini version of Bryce Canyon, but gorgeous, nonetheless.  We hiked some of the shorter trails at the Point, taking in the beauty and serenity.


We drove down to the parking area for Faraway Ranch.  Sweden-born Neil and Emma Erickson were among the first permanent settlers in the area when they established their homestead here in 1887.  The family graves are within a small cemetery near the Park entrance, at the very same spot that they took a family photo in the late 1800s.    I’m not sure why the masked Ranger told us a visit to Faraway Ranch was a “must see” during these times of COVID.  Not only was the building closed to visitors, but you couldn’t even glimpse through the windows—they were covered with a darkening film!  What the heck is that all about?  Anyway, the property has an interesting history (we viewed inscriptions from area Buffalo Soldiers on the home's chimney) and an abundance of wildlife including woodpeckers, Mexican jays, and two bucks who were foraging nearby.


Buffalo Soldiers etched their initials on the stone chimney at the Faraway Ranch homestead.

The following day we visited Fort Bowie National Historic Site outside Wilcox, AZ.  We relived history as we traversed along Apache Pass Road.  From this road, you see the original Butterfield Trail, where U.S. mail and stagecoach passengers traveled through the dangerous areas of Chiricahua Apache homelands.  We saw the site of an altercation known as the Bascom Riot.

After 8 miles of rough, washboard gravel roads (and me thinks some dislocated body parts!), we arrived at the Fort Bowie Ruins Trailhead.  As we hiked along the 1.5-mile trail, I was transported back in time.  From miners, to Indians, to mail carriers, to stagecoach passengers—all lives were interwoven here.  We came to an Apache camp, which was prime real estate in its time due to its proximity to the natural water source Apache Springs.  We stopped at Post Cemetery to say a prayer for the souls of those interred:  One of Geronimo’s children, soldiers, and stagecoach personnel.   We reached the ruins of the original Fort built in 1862.  A second, more encompassing Fort Bowie was built nearby in 1868 and used in the military operations against Cochise, Geronimo, and the Chiricahua Apaches.  We chatted with the volunteers at the Visitor Center and I was thrilled that I was permitted to peruse the exhibits.  


Apache camp

A photo of Fort Bowie during its peak...

...and an aerial view of the Fort's ruins. 

We took the Ridge Trail back to the parking area.  While more rigorous than the Ruins Trail, it was well worth the effort.  Such magnificent vistas and panoramic views!  When I cast my eyes upon the miles and miles of majestic mountains and the vast wilderness, I pondered why the government just couldn’t keep its treaty promises and let the Chiricahua Apaches (as well as other American Indian tribes) keep a portion of their homelands.  Why does it need to be all or nothing?

We drove back for our final night at the Bisbee RV Park at Turquoise.  I know, you are wondering why we did so much driving instead of staying at RV Parks closer to our destinations.  The answer is that we have an ornery, older but much-loved tabby cat who is not fond of traveling anymore.   So we make sacrifices.  We gave her a few extra days of staying stationary while we spent time driving/touring.  Anyway, she is going to be traveling quite a bit the rest of the year.  We are making another trip East, which was unexpected and unplanned.  But we want to help Mom’s dearest friend, my Aunt Maureen, with her small farm.  Uncle Ted has not been well, and Aunt Maureen has her hands full working fulltime and trying to be Old McDonald.  I think we were meant to go help.  We have no RV Park reservations and no summer volunteer gig lined up, which is highly unusual for my parents—our travel itinerary normally is set in stone for the full year before the year even starts.  Our only “plans” were to boondock as much as possible, play with our off-road vehicle, and tour more of NV, UT, MT, and AZ before volunteering at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta in NM in September.  It was divine intervention that we found an RV Park in NJ that could fit a setup our size, and it is within 45 minutes of Aunt Maureen’s property.  And the Park can accommodate us for an extended (2 month) stay, though not before May 1.  No problem, for us--we will do some touring along the way.


I’ll talk to you again real soon to tell you about our travels East!