Gateway To Mars…!

While we were in South Texas, you may remember we got the chance to visit Boca Chica Beach, home of the official Gateway to Mars. Well, official in the mind of Elon Musk, anyway. This is where you’ll find Starbase, which is Musk’s bid to create his own spaceport, capable ultimately of sending people to Mars. Starbase is currently the focus of his Starship heavy-launch project, and it was truly amazing that we were able to stand right next to it and take this video of the set-up…

It’s All About The Sea In Corpus Christi

We have encountered countless Spanish, Native American, French, and German business names and locations during our journey, and, after a while, our brains automatically translated them into English, sometimes with humorous results. We were looking forward to visiting Body of Christ – Corpus Christi – an iconic port city along Texas’s Gulf Coast, named for the Roman Catholic Feast Day that was going on when the place was “discovered” by the Spanish in 1519.

We had two major attractions in mind, along with more fabulous Mexican food, and a heaping helping of seafood, at least for Simon.

“You like dessert, Jennifer, not coffee.”
My go-to line when Simon orders a sweet coffee drink. This time, though, it was a milkshake.

The city’s personality is defined by its beaches, its fishing, and its bridges, one of which can be seen for miles in every direction. As big as it is, though, an even bigger bridge is taking shape next to it, presumably to accommodate the ever-growing size of ocean-going vessels that make their way into and out of the port.

Existing bridge is too low.

New bridge will be gigantic.

The skies were a bit grim to start with, but it was still pleasant enough for a walk (and a drive) along the beach. Ruthie was okay with the hard-packed sand, and happily trotted along when we made a trip out to Padre Island National Seashore.

Happy girl! She loves the hard-packed beaches.

The first attraction we wanted to visit was the huge aircraft carrier parked in Corpus Christi Bay. Ruthie couldn’t be left alone for an hour or more, so Susan waited with her in the car while Simon toured the ship. He’ll take over the blog for this part:

Walking up the ramp to the main deck entrance of the mighty U.S.S. Lexington is like walking back in history, to the turmoil of World War II and the life-or-death struggle in the Pacific theater, where aircraft carriers were the big dogs of most battles and the USA’s fleet helped to carry the day in some of the bloodiest exchanges of the War.

You feel that heritage almost immediately as you enter the gaping Hangar Deck, where the aircraft were stored when not on a mission. Amazingly, up to 60 planes could be stored here, but the area – which covers 40,000 square feet – is now given over to a variety of exhibits, video presentations, a Pearl Harbor memorial, several flight simulators, and a few vintage aircraft.

The Lexington has a long and illustrious history, from her commissioning in 1943 to service with the Seventh Fleet out of San Diego, when it was on call to serve as a major deterrent in places such as Formosa, Laos, and Cuba, before taking up training operations from 1962-1991, when she was decommissioned and eventually moved to Corpus Christi as a permanent museum and tribute to the many men and women who served in the carrier fleet.

All this history is available on a series of self-guided tours, and I did two of them, starting with the Lower Decks tour that takes visitors deep into the bowels of a ship that needed a crew of about 3,000 during the War (and 1,550 in later years). It includes a visit to the engine room, galley, medical and dental facilities and much more, including several memorials to other aircraft carriers and their crews.

The other must-do tour is the Flight Deck, the vast open space that is the carrier’s “airport,” covering two full acres. It is 910 feet long and 460 feet wide and had to be reconfigured for jet aircraft in the 1950s, but is an immense experience that includes more than a dozen different aircraft. You can also visit the captain’s bridge for an excellent overview of the Flight Deck.

There is a LOT to like about the whole experience and it would take you most of the day to take it all in. It remains a formidable figure on the Corpus Christi shoreline and presents an educational history trip through a grim period of the 20th century. The ship was actually hit and badly damaged by a Japanese Kamikaze plane in late 1944, killing 50 crewmen and injuring another 132, and there is a very heartfelt tribute to all the victims, which really brings home the full magnitude of the War’s horrors. Perhaps a bit much for young children, but a valuable lesson for older ones. 

(Susan here again) With crummy weather heading in the next day, we drove out to the Texas State Aquarium for some time exploring what’s under Corpus Christi’s coastal waters. Obviously, we know SeaWorld in Orlando very well, with it’s big-scale experience, and this was on a much more intimate scale. Where the Lexington may have been beyond most youngsters, the aquarium is ideal for them and the grownups who love them.

We have a thing for themed environments when it comes to educational experiences, and the aquarium didn’t disappoint.

The most peevish beings in the world. They are SO LOUD, and they squabble constantly, which is actually quite hilarious

There was also a dolphin show, but we only arrived in time for the finale.

Our five days in Corpus Christi went by fast. We tried a few recommended restaurants, we spent a lot of time on the Island, and we were glad to have been there during the calm before the storm, when Spring Breakers and then the summer crowds would descend on this wonderful gem of a city.

Missions, Caverns, And A Whole Lotta Food

Our itinerary had been thrown into chaos compliments of Ruthie’s turbo-charged backside, but as things settled down for her, we ventured out again to pick up on the highlights. Some of our plans had to be scrapped, some fell through due to a major college football bowl game that had most of downtown San Antonio in worse chaos than Ruthie’s gut, but there was still plenty to enjoy, if our stamina allowed.

Ruthie gets a lot of love when we venture out. She’s incredibly patient and gentle with children.

Mission San José was known as “The Queen of Missions” for its larger-than-average size, and indeed, the church does cut an imposing figure over the huge courtyard outside. Simon and I both thought a mission was a just church; instead, it’s typically a community with living quarters, trades, agricultural work, and a church. But the mistake is an easy one to make, since the goal of forming the “community” was to convert native peoples to Catholicism, which would then generate new taxes for the King of Spain.

Conversion was the native peoples’ path to safety from the very people who were making them unsafe. Their diets would change, their spiritual lives would change, their clothing and housing would change. And the names they were given at birth? Yeah, those changed, too. The timeless dilemma: what would you do to keep your children and the people you love safe?

We were part of a guided tour, but Ruthie was getting so much attention we backed off a bit. Even the ranger was (fondly) distracted by her.

Inside the church.

This area formerly housed the missionaries and lay people who ensured the communities’ regimented schedule of toil and thrice-daily prayer were upheld.

This is one-third of a working family’s “apartment.” Up to 15 people lived and slept in each apartment, spaces so small they wouldn’t even qualify as a “tiny home” today.

Apartments from the outside. They run the full length of three sides of the compound. The structure out front is a communal oven.

We’d been given a reservation at a downtown hot-spot’s outdoor patio (where dogs are allowed) for lunch the next day, but when we arrived, we were told they weren’t seating anyone outside. The line to get in was, in our estimation, more than an hour long, which just wasn’t going to work, especially since we had plans for the afternoon.

This is about one-quarter of the line waiting to get in.

Instead, we returned to the Pearl area and grabbed a quick taco lunch.

In 1960, four students from a nearby college “discovered” what is now Natural Bridge Caverns, and Simon joined a guided tour that afternoon while Susan kept an eye on Ruthie. Kennels were available, but in her still-delicate condition we didn’t want to leave her.

The two flat slabs that form a bridge above the cavern’s entryway were the inspiration for its name.

10,000-year-old stone tools, projectile points, and a pre-historic cooking hearth were discovered in the cavern when the entrance was being excavated. How cool is that?

Ponds formed in the lower level of the canyon, with incredibly clear water due to filtration by the surrounding limestone, and the lack of pollution and debris.

You can see the smooth, dark walkway in the center of this photo, which gives you an idea of size.

We were glad we only had a taco for lunch when we reached Backyard on Broadway that evening. Boasting the most enormous outdoor seating area we’d seen at any restaurant, anywhere, we grabbed a picnic table away from a group gathering and a load of excited children, and were rewarded with a quiet meal. It was incredible how little the sound traveled.

This is about one-eigtth of the outdoor space.

Simon ordered Hummus Spread with veggies to share, and the Viva Las Tejas sandwich (two beef patties, two cheeses, bell peppers, onions, jalapenos, and spicy sauce), which he devoured. Our server also recommended the Sweet Potato Fries, which we both devoured.

Susan went for the Not Your Father’s BBQ (pulled pork sandwich), and managed about half of it, minus the bun. Damn you, tempting Sweet Potato Fries!

Two Bro’s BBQ Market was our lunch stop the next day, and we’re glad it came as a recommendation, because A) we never would have found it otherwise and 2) we might not have chosen it due to its rather rustic location. It turned out to be one of those “locals” spots that no one wants to reveal so that tourists don’t mob it.

When a meat joint has a skull on their buffet table, you know they’re confident in their beef.

This guy is going to make sure Simon gets all the right stuff.

“What should we try?” Simon asked the manager, and he came away carrying a tray loaded with smoked jalapeno poppers wrapped in bacon; BBQ baked beans; Texas-sized bread slices; a massive Big Bro Sandwich piled high with smoked brisket, smoked pulled pork, and an entire sausage, topped with pickles and coleslaw; and a pint of “Cheesy Chop,” made up of chopped smoked brisket and mac & cheese. Lord help us!

Good God!

Drinks were an informal affair. Simply choose one and push the dispenser button on a Home Depot five-gallon jug. And yes, that most Southern of drinks, Kool-Aid, was an option.

I may have been bundled up a bit, with a shirt, two sweaters, and Puffy Coat. Don’t judge me!

Straight away, we knew we were beaten. After a generous sampling of the obscenely-large sandwich, Simon pulled out a half of the sausage, made it into a smaller sandwich, and we saved the rest for later.

So, that white part at the top of the sausage isn’t the sausage. It’s the graphic on Simon’s sweatshirt. Every time I see this photo I think, “What’s that…?” so I thought I’d mention it.

We ate as much as we could of the rest of it, but it was like mice had nibbled on it. That meal ended up making two more meals the next day, and our microwave still smells like a smoker, more than a week later.

The building at the very back and the one on the left are where the goodness happens. You can smell the meat smokers even when they’re not doing their jobs.

Stuffed to the gills, a long, slow walk around the nature retreat of Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy was in order, where, we were told, we’d find the Land Bridge and Skywalk. The park’s trails reminded us of Kensington Metropark, a favorite place for getting away from it all when we lived in Michigan.

It may have been a bit chilly.

Ruthie engaged in her favorite activity (sniffing).

The Skywalk goes on for a long, long way. We only did part of it, since Ruthie really can’t do much hiking and she’d already walked a bit too far to reach it.

We had been booked in for a meal at Breakaway Brewing Company, but we were all food-ed out. Instead, we popped by to sample some of the brewpub’s beers, and ended up having a nice chat with the bartenders. A warm, homey feeling ended the day.

Our bartender was adorable, and knew her beers well. Great choices!

Twice we’d made attempts to visit Historic Market Square in San Antonio (originally a gift from the King of Spain in 1730, and former home of the “Chili Queens” who served up that comforting dish in days gone by), but the chaos of Christmas week made parking impossible. Determined to give it one more try, we headed into town, and finally succeeded.

Note the person walking into the shop, to give you an idea of size.

What a fun place, filled with Latin sounds, bright colors, every tourist souvenir you could imagine, lots of umbrella drinks, and a general air of Christmas cheer! We were so glad we made the effort. Take a little stroll with us:

Strollin’ through the market.

Those allergy symptoms Susan had were no longer acting like allergies, and when Simon came down with them we knew we were in head cold territory; the unwitting victims of an unwanted gift. Annoying, yes, but considering all the other cr@p going around, not the worst thing in the world.

We knew we needed a mental and physical break at this point anyway, and our upcoming five weeks in the Donna, Harlingen, and South Padre Island areas of extreme southwestern Texas were arriving just at the right time.

Heading North Into The Great Southwest

Simon wanted a trip up to Sante Fe for its Western and cowboy-movie history, rich cultural reputation, and the chance to see northern New Mexico, which we’d heard was spectacular. Reusable canvas grocery bags packed (because we both thought we brought a carry-on bag for the occasional hotel stay, but didn’t), we locked up Fati and hit the road in Nippy for two days visiting Santa Fe, Taos Pueblo, and Albuquerque.

What we found when we got to Santa Fe was even more compelling than we expected. Adobe buildings, a billion restaurants, and art right out there on the street where anyone could swipe it, if they had a crane and a big truck.

What is it about adobe houses? They’re so cute and different and Southwestern, and we were immediately smitten.

San Miguel Chapel, Santa Fe’s oldest church, dating to 1610 A.D.

The oldest house in the U.S.A., dating back to 1646 A.D.

We’d been given several recommendations for great dining in the Old Town area. What we didn’t know was that New Mexico closes at 3:30pm. We arrived at our first choice at 3:29pm and got a hard “No” when we asked if they could at least do soup as a carry-out after our 4-plus hour journey.

The franchise-sounding Burrito and Co. was open, though, and we’re here to tell you their homemade Tortilla Soup with fresh tortillas and wedges of lime on the side was so warming and delicious, we were almost glad we didn’t have another choice. Oh, the heavenly lusciousness of it all!

Ruthie saying, “Throw some in here!”

Old Town’s plaza was dressed up for Christmas, and a group of Native American guys were performing traditional chants that evening. They may have been doing it for weekend beer money, as young people are wont to do, but it set a tone so evocative we were spellbound for quite some time. It was the sort of cultural experience we’d been hoping for when we planned this trip, and put a human face on our upcoming visit to Taos Pueblo.

Restaurants reopened for dinner, so we got a carry-out from La Choza. We shared an order of tamales (one vegetarian, one shredded pork,) but Susan can’t do spicy food anymore, and these were up there a bit, so Simon ate most of it and Susan had a few little Biscochito, New Mexico’s official cookie.

The next morning, Ruthie helped Simon get a coffee from the hotel…

…then we set off for nearby Taos Pueblo. We knew it was a 1000-year-old “living village” with adobe buildings dating back to around 1400 A.D. and shops offering authentic Native American arts. There was a cost to get into the public areas and a code of conduct while visiting (basically, don’t be a jerk, and don’t take photos of residents without their permission).

Only a couple of shops were open, but we were primarily there to see the buildings, which have neither water nor electricity. Residents live in modern homes within the Restricted areas, and use their traditional homes during gatherings and events, and as a source of income from selling arts and crafts.

It was a fascinating window into a world that was chipped away so profoundly that what’s left of it in this country qualifies as a National Historical Landmark. That weird mix of awe and of despair for a lost way of life remained with us for some time afterwards.  

With a few hours of daylight left (it was getting dark around 5:30pm) we pointed Nippy to the Enchanted Circle Scenic Byway for some mountainous sight-seeing that would take us back to Santa Fe.

The cute little town of Eagle’s Nest. We stopped at a cafe here for hot drinks, which, I kid you not, took about half an hour to make.

That night we grabbed another carry-out for dinner, but this time we won’t mention the restaurant’s name, because it went pretty badly wrong. Susan worked in restaurants in her younger years and knows things happen, but it’s still disturbing when you get a whomping great shard of broken metal in your El Salvadoran Plate’s tamale.

The photo we sent the restaurant so they knew what to look for. Penny was for size.

It was good while it lasted, but it was back to the biscochito for her. Simon was able to finish his Chili Relleno (just; Susan’s metal was off-putting), but he did place a call to the restaurant, who comped Susan’s meal and went out of their way to figure out where the metal came from (it was the tip of a knife, they later told us). They also threw out all their tamales that night, to save anyone else from a potential E.R. visit while they figured out what had gone wrong.

Before leaving town for Albuquerque on our return trip to Fati the next day, we popped into Loretto Chapel to see the “miraculous staircase” built in 1878 by an “unknown carpenter” using wood that is “not of this world.”

As legend has it, the chapel’s 22-foot-high choir loft was not accessible to the nuns running the place, who (presumably because they were wearing habits that anyone could look up) could not use a ladder. They made a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, and soon a carpenter arrived on a burro with a toolbox and a solution.

He worked for months, then disappeared without saying goodbye or asking for payment, leaving behind a magnificent circular staircase with no nails to hold it together and no visible central support to hold it up. And what the heck kind of wood was it? It certainly wasn’t wood that was available in Santa Fe. There were questions.

The work of Saint Joseph himself, some say. The wood is spruce, scientists insist. Nail-less construction was far from unknown. But it’s a great tale, and a gorgeous example of craftsmanship, wonky structural safety notwithstanding.

The railing wasn’t part of the original build. It was added later, for obvious safety reasons. Those nuns would have been bouncing precariously due to the double helix design (meaning: springy!), with nothing to hold on to.

We gabbed about theories and doubts and storytelling on the way to Albuquerque, but by the time we arrived a serious exhaustion had begun to creep in, and our hearts weren’t in it. It was time to return to Fati and let our brains cool down for 24 hours before making the two-day drive into Texas via an overnight at a Rest Area before reaching our Alpine campground retreat.

Three Crosses, One Outlaw, And A Snowy Sandscape

Ten whole days in Las Cruces, New Mexico! We arrived at the superbly welcoming Las Cruces KOA Journey campground full of enthusiasm for the billion things we had planned, using the city as our base; a list so long that sane people would have taken a month to complete it. But not us! We were ready to pack it in tight and see absolutely everything! YAY!!


We know better, too. For decades we’ve been admonishing excited visitors to Orlando who think they can do it all in two weeks. But this isn’t Orlando, and we’re professionals. Right?

Would professionals take a photo this bad? I don’t think so!

Normally we stay home on our arrival day because breaking camp, traveling in Fati, and setting up again can be taxing, and we like to start fresh. This time, we headed straight to the adorable town of Old Mesilla, not far from our campground, for its Mexican and Billy the Kid history, and its central plaza decorated for Christmas.

Everything about the tiny burg surrounded by pecan groves worked for us. Cute little one-off shops, strings of red chilis strung along the walkways, and the county courthouse (now a gift shop) in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang by his neck until dead for the crime of murder. He escaped, of course, and went into hiding before being shot to death at the age of 22.

We’re not sure what Ruthie is doing, but Simon seems happy.

Ever-aware of not adding any more weight to Fati than absolutely necessary, we broke our “don’t buy anything frivolous” rule and purchased two gorgeous woven placemats with the kind of bright, geometric patterns so prevalent in New Mexico. We use them every day, and they only added a few ounces of weight. We put on more than that just in belly bloat during the hot summer months, so this wouldn’t even register for Fati.

A take-away dinner from La Posta gave us our first taste of New Mexico, with tacos for Susan and Posole stew for Simon. And we’re here to say, that slightly spicy, hearty-flavored stew was the kind of “gimmie more” soup we both love!

We scarfed our food down and didn’t remember to take photos until it was half gone.

So, the tacos were fried (who fries tacos?!). I have no gallbladder. You can guess the unhappy results.

Eat this. All the time!

After a blissfully quiet sleep with none of the all-night-long train noise we’d had over the past week, we made White Sands National Park and the nearby town of Alamogordo our first full day’s excursion. We didn’t know what to expect from White Sands, but we didn’t expect the park’s 25-square-miles of dunes to be so completely like a wintery snowscape that we literally had to remind our brains it was pulverized gypsum crystals, not snow, a task made harder by all the people sledding down the slopes (albeit in bare feet and shorts!).

Now, Ruthie hates sand. You know that if you read our Michigan blogs. But this? She LOVED it. She went prancing and dancing and hopping all over the place, full of puppy energy and joy! We continue to wonder if she was a Midwestern dog that got lost from her family while they were on vacation in Florida, and that she was fooled by the familiarity of a snowy landscape.

From there we went to Alamogordo, where a giant pistachio convinced us to buy a few packets of the real thing, locally grown…

…then we headed up through Lincoln National Forest to Cloudcroft, a place so mountain village-y and so cold it felt like a winter’s day in the Colorado Rockys. Here, Ruthie got to walk on her first patch of real snow (that we know of), and she seemed to enjoy it.

El Paso, Texas, our next day’s destination in Nippy (we’d only be able to drive though it in Fati on our way south), should be an entire blog. It’s iconic. Everyone knows the name. It’s filled with Spanish missions and great Mexican food, and we set off from Las Cruces with visions of authentic cuisine and spectacular history on our minds. But that’s not what we found.

El Paso is a sprawling city. This was taken from high on a hill where rich people live.

We’re certain we didn’t get the best out of El Paso. Everything felt a little bit “off.” It didn’t help that the Visitor Center was located in an area that was entirely boarded up and abandoned, and the center itself had long since skipped town, too.

We tried. We really did. But, for whatever reason, we kept running into closures and locked doors. Need the restroom? Forget it. They’re all locked unless you buy something. We did find a nice market near the Old Town that opened their restroom doors for us, and we were told there is a problem with people experiencing homelessness that has caused local businesses to make the decision to lock up.

And then there’s that big whompin’ border wall that commands attention no matter where you are in town. It’s like a lurking presence. We bounce back and forth between understanding the necessity and being horrified by the inhumanity of it all.

The yellow sign and the overhead digital sign further along read, “Watch For Unexpected Pedestrians.”

The big red X across the border in Juarez is a sculpture that represents the blending of Spanish and Aztec cultures.

To lift our spirits again, we took to the Billy the Kid Scenic Byway the next morning, hot on the heels of the infamous outlaw. Our launching point was Smokey Bear Historical Park, the burial site of the little bear who was rescued after a deadly blaze and became the nation’s advocate for preventing forest fires.

A cute museum told his tale, and honors the country’s longest running advertising campaign (say it with me: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”).

Next up was Lincoln, where Billy the Kid was jailed for murdering a sheriff, and he then shot and killed two deputies while escaping. The tiny burg has hardly changed at all since the 1880s.

Mule deer (or, they might be elk; we never can tell) are all over this town, which added to the yesteryear Wild West feel of the place.

The mountainous drive itself was just stunning, and again, it reminded us how little we know about this country. We didn’t expect such enormous mountains in New Mexico.

But we weren’t done yet. We had two nights booked at a hotel in Santa Fe for a trip in Nippy that would also include Albuquerque and Taos. But we’ll cover that part of our journey in another blog.

Roswell and Carlsbad Caverns were also on our must-do list while in Las Cruces, but as we returned to Fati from Santa Fe we came to an energy-crashing halt. We just couldn’t add another 500 miles to our touring, not to mention having to leave Ruthie in a rented crate while we did a cave tour. It was a bridge too far.

We consoled ourselves by remembering our time in Postojna Cave Park in Slovenia, a spectacular, other-worldly experience during which we were taken “behind-the-scenes” to a pitch-black area where the blind, pure-white, salamander-like Olm (Proteus anguinus) lives. Unbelievable luck allowed us to see this magnificent creature, which lives to 100 years old and only needs to eat every couple of years. We’re not sure anything could top that cave adventure, so that’s the sentiment we stuck with when dropping Carlsbad Caverns from our journey.

One infinitesimal part of the massive Postojna Cave. That thing in the middle is a walkway bridge.

Simon and our guide looking at the tiny Olm that lives in darkness here.

And Roswell? One too many people told us it’s entirely skippable. Two people mentioned issues with crimes against automobiles. We really wanted to go anyway. But we’d been talking about having unfinished business in New Mexico, and we’re sure another visit to the state – next time for longer – is on the cards in the future.

Air, Space, And The Silver Screen

Most of our touring focuses on natural areas, National Parks, small towns, history, and getting a flavor of how people really live in this country’s diverse landscapes. We do occasionally visit “attractions,” and Tucson had two Simon was eager to see.

Pima Air and Space Museum features about 400 historical aircraft, and we spent about two hours wandering through the indoor and outdoor exhibits. We’ll just show you a few, though if you’re a fan of aircraft this is certainly a must-visit place.

Susan was delighted to see the exhibits began with suckers, squeezers, bangers, and blowers.

Blue Angels for Susan…

…Red Arrows for Simon.

There was even one just the right size for Ruthie.

The museum extends outdoors, where a massive yard displays more than 100 aircraft.

Everyone wants to see the 377-SG “Super Guppy.” This freaky style of plane has been used to transport big, light cargo, including Saturn rocket parts during the Apollo Program.

There were several versions of Air Force One, the airplane used by U.S. Presidents. This one was used by both President John F. Kennedy and his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson.

But our sentimental favorite was the Wright Flyer. We were fortunate enough to have been given a ride in the Wright B Flyer when we were in Dayton, Ohio, and during that visit we also spent time with the Wright brothers’ great grandniece Amanda, and their great grandnephew Stephen, who gave us a tour of Wilber and Orville’s home, Hawthorne Hill. With wine.

That thing above the sign that looks like a paper and balsa wood airplane is the Wright Flyer. Would you fly in it?

Simon back from his thrilling flight!

Susan just getting ready for take-off!

From the high-tech to the wild west, our next adventure was Old Tucson film set and “themed park.” Here, actors including John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Stewart, and even Frank Sinatra and Ronald Reagan acted in movie and television scenes that spanned hundreds of productions.

Old Tucson’s new management no longer allows dogs, so Susan and Ruthie headed back up the road for more time in Saguaro National Park. Simon will take over this part of the blog:

Old Tucson had been on my (Simon’s) radar since we first put Arizona on our 12-month map. If you were to put together the Top 5 of all-time Western settings, Tucson would be very close to the top, hence anywhere that celebrated that heritage was going to be high on my list of places to visit. And so it proved.

Old Tucson is both an attraction and a movie set; an amalgam of 84 years of acting as a time capsule of the 1860s. Since the first movie was filmed here in 1939, it has played host to dozens of other big-screen productions, as well as numerous TV shows, including Little House on the Prairie and The High Chaparral. It was a setting beloved by John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, as well as countless movie crews who adored its authentic period style. In the 1980s, it was second only to the Grand Canyon as Arizona’s main attraction.

It has been open to the public since 1960 as a themed attraction, and today it’s possible to take guided tours of the whole site, in addition to just visiting for their special events at different times of the year (notably for Halloween and the Holidays). And what a trip down Memory Lane it proved to be.

Having grown up on “cowboy films,” including all four Wayne movies that were shot here in the 1960s (McClintock, Rio Bravo, Rio Lobo, and El Dorado), it was like revisiting my childhood, seeing the iconic settings for that quartet, as well as many other visual references to the Western genre. Our tour guide was a non-stop source of info and anecdotes, including a series of continuity blunders and other errors made by the film-makers themselves!

Used in both Rio Lobo and Rio Bravo

The iconic mountains in the background showed up in two completely different geographic locations in the same movie.

The city of Tucson still has echoes of its 19th century roots in the Barrio Viejo section of the city, but it doesn’t come close to the three-dimensional reality and nostalgia of Old Tucson. The tour lasted almost 90 minutes from start to finish (it was listed as 45-60 minutes, but the tour guide growled, “I’ve never finished a tour in 45 minutes in my life!”), and it was a brilliant insight into the living history of the Western.

It is still being used as a movie and TV venue today, for Westerns and non-Westerns alike, hence you may see it in films such as Revenge of the Nerds, Terminal Velocity, and Nemesis, in addition to appearances on TV for programs like Good Morning America, various quiz shows, and others.

Exterior used in High Chaparral TV series

But it’s the Western back-drops that make Old Tucson special and, if you’re coming here for nostalgia and insight, you’re definitely on the right stagecoach!

Main plaza.

(Susan here again) On the way back to Tucson Simon wanted to recreate a photo he remembered from our first trip over the mountain pass on our way to Saguaro National Park. Simon remembered it well, describing the two of us smiling in front of a big saguaro cactus, and the railing near where we were standing. I didn’t remember it at all. I think you’ll agree we nailed it.

2023: The memory.

2008: The reality. Why is there a lake behind Simon? Because in reality, the photo he remembered was taken on the way to Tortilla Flat, not Saguaro National Park.

As our days in Tucson drew to a close, we also fulfilled another experience on Simon’s wish list (and mine) with a night-time visit to Spencer’s Observatory, where we had the small observatory and its resident astronomer to ourselves.

The observatory’s outdoor waiting area. Red lights help your eyes adjust to the darkness ahead of your viewing.

We so wish we had photos of the absolute magnificence we saw through the telescope. Saturn first, then the Moon, then Jupiter, each so clear we could hardly believe the images were real. Saturn’s rings were perfectly distinct. Three of Jupiter’s moons and its iconic red bands were easily visible. And the moon? You know it so well, from earliest childhood, but seeing each of its craters and mountains in sharp relief is next-level mind-blowing.

We’d been through 19 states, into Canada, along the border with Mexico, and now, 921.03 million miles into space. It was truly one of those experiences that burns into your brain and never leaves you.

Missions And Moral Dilemmas

Tucson is only 70 miles from the U.S. border with Mexico, and the history in this area is rich with native peoples, changing land ownership with “New Spain,” and the missionaries who came to Arizona with “saving souls” for God in mind.

And therein lies a moral dilemma.

We had soaked up Tucson’s natural side with a visit to Saguaro National Park East and a trip up Mount Lemmon the day before, where the views and an unexpected wildlife sighting were thrilling starts to our touring.

Saguaro National Park is split into two locations; East and West. East isn’t overly blessed with saguaro cactuses due to a killing freeze in 1962.

Simon: “I don’t think I can get the mountains in.”
Susan: “How about if I do this?”

It’s a wild and rugged land, with more than just saguaro cactuses. O’odham tribes used the gangly ocotillo cactus on the right for building.

This shows the road going up Mount Lemmon. There were probably more saguaro cactuses on the mountain than there are in Saguaro N.P. East.

We saw two baby mule deer hiding in the underbrush as we were driving back down Mount Lemmon. Only one can be seen in this photo.

After a quiet day “at home,” the next day, we then headed south toward what was once New Spain territory (along with Puerto Rico, Cuba, Florida, what is now the southern U.S., the Philipinnes, and Central America as far south as Costa Rica), then Mexico, but now part of southern Arizona.

Spain was big on evangelizing, and many missionaries were sent to its dependency, with San Xavier del Bac Mission (completed in 1797) being one of the churches that sprang up to bring the natives to Jesus. I’m not going to go all preachy, though I surely could. Instead, let the Mission’s plaques do the talking:

Jesuit Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino “served two majesties – the Church and the Crown. For the Church, the Mission saved souls and spread the Christian faith. For the Crown, they served as training grounds for native people to learn their assigned role as subjects of the King and citizens of a growing New Spain.”

“A mission was much more than a church; it was an entire community designed to teach European ways of life to people living on lands claimed by Spain.”

So much to unpack about that, isn’t there, when compared to the history of those “people living on lands claimed by Spain,” who had successfully thrived in the area for thousands of years. When I asked the docent at San Xavier what the Tohono O’odham tribe’s spiritual culture was like before the arrival of the missionaries, he said, “They were used to converting.”

We set all of that aside and entered each of two churches with the idea that we were experiencing historical places. Let’s take a stroll through San Xavier del Bac first.

The Mission’s property ends at the wall in front of it. The surrounding 71,095 acres are the San Xavier Indian Reservation, home to approximately 1,200 Tohono O’odham people.

The tower on the right doesn’t have a dome because (say it with me) they ran out of money.

The rainbow is an important image to the O’odham, signifying unity, among other things, so it was used in the entry’s archway.

It’s impossible not to notice the two animals flanking the altar. They look like weird cousins of those flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz, but they’re really lions. Why so wonky-looking? Because the artists who created them had never seen lions, and only had a verbal description of a lion to work from.

According to the docent, the original lions were stolen. These were funded by a woman who sits on the board of directors. She hired Mexican craftsmen to carve the wooden statues, then she let the wood cure for a year, applied gold leaf, and, six years later, these beasts took their place on the altar. That woman? Former U.S. Representative Gabby Gifford’s mother.

The church honors Mary, mother of Jesus. Here, her dress includes an important O’odham concept through two embroidered “Man in the Maze” images, one on her gold vestment and one on her skirt.

Those round, gold images represent the Man in the Maze.

Made of wood and without embellishment, this statue honors Kateri Tekakwitha, the only Native American to have been recognized as a Catholic Saint.

It’s a beautiful church filled with contrasts, arguably rife with cultural appropriation, and it has the devotion of those who worship here. It reminded us of a mission church we visited in Arizona many years ago, on a Reservation that was home to the poorest of the poor. When we commented on the immense wealth that could have fed the community and its children for decades, one of the parishioners said, “Yes, there is a great deal of wealth here, but we find solace and relief from our difficult lives in this place of such beauty.”

Who are we to say that’s wrong? Perspective matters.

Tubac – a little “village” of shops, restaurants, galleries, and a museum – was next along I-10, and we had a little wander and some lunch there. We try not to bring any more weight onboard Fati, so we admired the artists’ creativity, then headed south again.

Simon had the breakfast burrito crammed full of…well…everything.

Susan had the pulled pork, and Ruthie ate the bun.

Tumacácori National Historic Park features one of the areas other missions, the oldest in Arizona. Nearly 200 people lived here at one time, and the grounds included orchards, fields, gardens, homes, a “convento” (shared workspace and governmental center, not a nunnery), and a cemetery, as well as the church.

The mission church is on the left, and a later adobe ruin is on the right.

The bell tower on the upper right-hand side of the building isn’t a ruin. It was never finished, as the parish ran out of money before they could complete it.

The church façade originally boasted bright colors – blue, red, yellow, and orange – in the Spanish style, but you can’t really see the colors today.

Tumacácori makes no bones about what Spain’s mission was: “All aspects of daily life were subject to transformation – food, language, clothing, agriculture, and religion.” There is a term for that sort of “transformation” of entire groups of people, and as much as we enjoyed immersing in the history as we walked around, it was hard not to think about the O’odham’s lives before and after “transformation.”

The interior is in pretty rough shape, but it does show the layers involved in creating the building.

The Sanctuary was also painted and stenciled in bright designs, some of which can still be seen, albeit in faded form.

The squares were “frames” for religious imagery.

After Tumacácori was abandoned in 1848, the Sacristy became a refuge for cowboys, soldiers, Mexicans, and gold-rush era fortune hunters during inclement weather. Soot from their fires can still be seen on the ceiling, and their names are still on the walls around the door.

Lousy photo, but the black is soot from cooking fires.

Lousy photo, but these are some of the signatures.

The cemetery bears silent witness to the devastation Apache raids and several epidemics wrought on the community. Most of the human beings originally buried here were children under the age of five.

The ki – the O’odham word for house – provided shelter, while the outdoor wa:ato (brush enclosure) was the place for gathering together and for cooking. The O’odham still sometimes build homes from mesquite branches, ocotillo sticks, the ribs of saguaro cactus, and mud.

The convento was originally much, much larger. Built of adobe, most of the long, low expanse of it has slowly “melted” away.  Now, only a small section (once a storeroom) is still standing.

The mission was abandoned for a year after an O’odham uprising against the Spanish and an intrusive neighboring tribe. Jesuit priests returned in 1753, were expelled in 1767, and were replaced by Franciscans who continued evangelizing until 1822.

The places we visit become a part of us, and, as small pieces of historical information are assembled into a greater picture, we find ourselves contemplating the story that greater picture tells.

A Year On The Road – The Half-Way Map

May 14, 2023 seems like a long time ago. In fact, it is just 7,053 miles ago. That’s the 6-month distance we have covered in our “A Year On The Road” RV adventure since leaving home in Florida.

From that original departure point to November 14, we have traveled through 18 states and totaled a mind-boggling 22,319 miles when you add in the mileage we have covered in our little Ford Fiesta, Nippy, as well as that 7,053 in RV Indefatigable (or Fati for short).

This isn’t quite 6 months, as Google won’t allow additional destinations after Lake Havasu in Arizona, but it should show the most recent part of the trip, to current spot Tucson (see below)

The last month has added 545 miles to Fati’s total but also 1,927 to Nippy’s. That means Nippy has now piled up a whopping 15,266 miles to date, so she is proving a real workhorse.

Of course, we should have gone even further afield, as we scrapped plans to head out to Washington and Oregon after reaching Glacier National Park in Montana, but we think that is still a pretty respectable total.

Below are two maps showing just the last month of our travels, from Kingman in Arizona to Tucson, via sparkling Lake Havasu City, Hope, Goodyear and Mesa (with 3 weeks in the greater Phoenix area in all):

From Kingman in northern Arizona, we traveled down the extreme west part of the state before reaching Interstate 10 and heading east to Mesa and then Tucson, with a week in between in Goodyear
And this shows the more detailed version, highlighting an overnight stop in tiny Hope and the (rather confusing) route through and around Phoenix before reaching the chic Voyager RV resort in east Tucson

Sedona will SORT. YOU. OUT!

Everyone told us it was beautiful. Everyone mentioned it was magical. But the person who told us “Whatever you’re dealing with, Sedona will sort you out” hit that nail smack on the head. Sedona, Arizona took all the best elements of the places we’ve visited so far, and cranked them up to eleven.

And then the emotional upheaval kicked in.

Our two days away from Fati started with lunch at Flower Child with our friends Meredith and Nathan. We knew Meredith from her time at Universal Orlando, and when she invited us to meet up while we were in the Phoenix area, we enthusiastically said, “Yes!”

Susan’s brussels sprout and butternut squash salad, and Simon’s Forbidden Rice with salmon

We thoroughly enjoyed our time with them while scarfing down a delicious healthy lunch, and Nathan did us a huge favor by recommending we take Highway 87 instead of Interstate 17 for our journey, not only because it went directly to our first night’s stop in Winslow, AZ, but also because it’s incredibly scenic.

We had been considering 87, and we were so glad he confirmed it was the right choice. It took us from flat desert to mountainous vistas and a surprising forested descent toward Winslow, perfect for driving in Nippy.

Originally, we were only going to take one overnight in Sedona, but we also wanted to see Meteor Crater National Landmark, so we added an overnight at the fabulous La Posada in Winslow. What luxury, what great music, and what good food!

The next morning we took all the necessary photos “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona,” including with the flat-bed truck, before heading west to the crater.

The now-famous corner.

Ruthie wanted her photo taken with the wings. We told her she might be too short, but she’s delighted with the outcome.

Meteor Crater is big. Very big indeed. The crater is 4,000 feet wide, 700 feet deep, and was created when a meteor hit at 26,000 miles per hour, 50,000 years ago. We stood on the edge and felt the pull of the wind that whips around inside and threatens to suck you in.

The people standing on the overlook give you an idea of how big this thing is.

Obligatory Selfie

Part of the meteor that caused this whole mishigas in the first place.


Now, don’t tell anyone – this is strictly between us. Simon and I found an elevator that took us down to the crater floor, and we popped out for a couple of quick photos. No one can know. So don’t tell.*

Then, it was on to the main event. The reason for our trip to Sedona was to bring Susan’s beloved mother back to a place she loved, as one final trip to Arizona. We’d leave it to her to guide us to a spot she wanted to “see,” and we’d do a little ceremony for her there.

Kathy looking out the front window. I could feel her smiling.

We knew nothing about the area, but first Sedona and then a place called Oak Creek Canyon kept coming up as I (Susan) browsed Google’s Arizona map. We weren’t sure where the canyon was, but we’d find it once we got to the city.

Heading south on I-17, we quickly began to descend out of the mountain along a road with a series of switchbacks, and we couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Glorious hillsides covered in trees showing off their fall colors, towering rock formations that seemed to reach to the sky, and, further down, a river that actually flowed in a state where most rivers are bone-dry most of the time. Could there really be a place on Earth this enchanting? It felt so right.

I was afraid we wouldn’t know where to go. I worried that I wouldn’t “hear” Mom telling me what she wanted. But Sedona sorts these things out, and as we drove through the lower end of the canyon, Mom left no doubt whatsoever where we should pull over, where we should walk, and where we should do our little ceremony.

Holding Kathy up so she has a good view of the mountain.

As we returned to the car, I noticed a sign with a map behind glass. We were in the heart of Oak Creek Canyon.

The canyon was intensely emotional, and sometimes you have to sit with these things for a while, which is what Simon is processing now. Along with grief, Susan felt tremendous joy. Sitting in one of the area’s many vortexes the next day, talking to her mom and dad, her turn for processing started.

This was my view from the vortex when Mom told me what she wants me to heal in my life.

But there was more to discover in Sedona, including the food, and the magnificent boutique hotel, El Portal Sedona, which will absolutely be our choice for a return visit, next time for much longer. We’ve stayed in excellent hotels over the years, but this…this just fit us like the finest of gloves.

Ample room for us and a dog.

We had dinner that first night at dog-friendly Creekside American Bistro, where we each had a cocktail, and we split Lamb Chop Lollipops and Fig and Blue Cheese Crostini. Superb!

The next morning we ambled over to The Secret Garden Cafe, where Simon chose the Breakfast Burrito and Susan had the quiche. Simple elegance blended with delicious flavors, and we felt truly spoiled.

Finally, before we started back to Fati, we took a trip up the hillside to the Airport Overlook.

Can you guess which Magic Kingdom attraction is said to be based on Thunder Mountain, in the background here?

We detoured off of I-17 for a visit to mountainside Jerome, once a mining town full of bars and brothels, now a “ghost town”…

…toured the Tuzigoot National Monument Native American ruins…

…and had a picnic lunch in a park.

But there is one thing we did not do.

We chose not to drive through Oak Creek Canyon again before leaving Sedona, because there is only one “first time,” and no return trip will ever have that same impact. We want to remember this first visit exactly as it was. Perfection.

*Okay, you guessed it anyway. It’s a photo op in the museum. But our version is way more fun.

Staying Alive In Joshua Tree National Park

Signs pleading “Do Not Die Today” served as a grim introduction to Joshua Tree National Park, but, like most visitors, we made a mental note to avoid death and joyfully headed into the desert where succulents beseeching God and the un-huggable “Teddybear” cactus both live.

Joshua Tree National Park’s star attractions – named by 19th-century Mormon settlers who decided they looked like the Old Testament’s tribal leader, Joshua, with his arms raised toward his Heavenly Father – aren’t trees. They’re a type of Agave, the genus responsible for tequila, which, when imbibed in quantity, can also make you see God.

Other agave.

Joshua Tree National Park contains the greatest number of its namesake specimens in the world, and their importance to the ecosystem has earned them well-deserved protection by law. Visitors are allowed to walk the sandy trails between the plants, and a quick touch of their spiky appendages is all the incentive needed to leave them alone.

Having driven in via the West Entrance (located on the north side of the park), we had at least two hours of good scenic driving, with plenty of stops to enjoy each elevations’ unique topography.

Every time I turned around he was poking his finger on a plant.

Among the highlights were an unexpected view of Palm Springs (our next destination) from the 5,185-foot-high Keys View overlooking the Coachella Valley, and the shocking realization we were also looking at the infamous 750-mile-long San Andreas Fault Line, an unsettling uprising where the Pacific and North American tectonic plates collide, with dramatic results (earthquakes).

The long, thin, dark mound stretching across the valley just below the furthest mountain range is the San Andreas Fault Line. Who knew?

Also visible from Keys View are the Salton Sea, which we’d visit the next day, Signal Mountains on the U.S./Mexico border, and Mount San Jacinto, rising 10,831 feet above the valley.

Obligatory Selfie.

Returning to a lower elevation, we paid a visit to Hall of Horrors and its freaky rock mounds before taking a detour south to Cholla Cactus Garden.

How artsy are we!

Some shots look so real in your mind, but maybe not quite as real when you take them,

As much as we enjoyed the delightfully wonky Joshua Trees, we were even more taken by the ten-acre grove of Teddybear Cholla cactuses that only grow between 600 and 3,300 feet above sea level. Their name is misleading. This isn’t the sort of thing you’d want your toddler to snuggle down with for a good night’s sleep.

They look so cute and fuzzy, don’t they? They’re not.

Adorable as they are, they also have a super-power that allows their needles to readily attach to anything that brushes by them, and not in a good way. Simon was tempted to give them a poke, but, somehow, he resisted. We have special tweezers in the car for just such emergencies (tick tweezers for dogs, really, but they’ll pull needles, too), but thankfully we didn’t have to use them.

We returned to Joshua Tree after our visit to Palm Springs, but in the interest of efficiency I’m going to include that visit here and cover Palm Springs separately. We ate a lot of real food while experiencing the tucked-away haven for celebrities, wealthy second-homers, and the hard-working people who keep the whole place going, and that deserves its own blog.

On our way through California from Nevada we took the northern route to Joshua Tree, traveling along roads that were not only desolate, they also featured tiny towns that were mostly abandoned, and a single gas station/café that we thought would have a restroom for bursting bladders, but didn’t.

This, but for three hours.

There may have been about 50 buildings here, but only a handful were occupied.

Need a bathroom with a flushable toilet? Too bad. Not doin’ it here!

Not wanting a repeat of that crushing emptiness and full bladders, and also wanting to see the southern side of Joshua Tree National Park, we opted for Highway 10 east, blissfully unaware of what the northern leg of the journey along connecting Highway 177 would bring.

We only needed a moderate detour into the park for Cottonwood Spring, a literal oasis in the desert. Instead of the shimmering mirage that promised a palm tree-line water hole to movie and cartoon characters who didn’t pay attention to the Do Not Die Today signs and pack enough water and their own shade, this oasis did exist, and provided cooling cover, though all of its water had dried up.

A real live oasis. I’m not even sure I knew these existed.

Tiny Simon.

With so much dense foliage around, and this being a desert, we did wonder what might be lurking in the underbrush or clinging to tree branches, but we set that aside and had a nice little wander, admiring the dry wash that ran through it while also bearing all the Flash Flood Danger signs in mind.

As pretty as the oasis was, it must be even more spectacular when this wash is flowing.

Fascinating signs along the oasis’ pathway described how the Cahuilla Indians who lived here used desert plants for food and medicine, and evidence of their daily lives remains, through mortar holes ground into granite rocks. The holes are so deep we could put our hands into them, nearly up to the elbow. Imagine how long it would take to form a hole that deep when grinding seeds for food.

On the return journey back to Laughlin, we had the same mind-numbing emptiness along Highway 177 as we’d had on Highway 62 on our way out, with two major exceptions. Out in the middle of absolutely nowhere were two roadside curiosities. Hundreds of shoes, most tied together in pairs by their laces, some just singles, and some nothing more than the sole of a shoe, were thrown over a metal structure and a fence, or strewn across the ground as if blown down by the wind or left by a careless owner.

There’s no way you can drive by something like this without stopping.

Fledgling shoe tree.

One side of the big shoe fence.

Other travelers had stopped, too, and we all wondered what it could mean. The trash and broken glass scattered around the place suggested a festival of some sort had taken place, but signs and signed objects indicated grief. Many shoes were signed with, presumably, their owner’s name, but other objects included comments such as “Rest easy,” or “R.I.P., Forever in our hearts” or the grief-ridden, “I love you, my boy, my son.”

It began to dawn on us that these could be memorials to young people who had passed during their school years, or shortly after, and the shoes were a way to show respect for their memory.

There were no schools nearby, and no town, nor even any buildings. Was the road a hazard? Did local teens dare each other to take on the desert the way only those who feel they have lots of time and are somewhat invincible could do? What happened here?

When we returned to our dear Fati we looked it up, and it turns out these shoe memorials are mainly just due to people passing by who throw their footwear over the metal “tree” or fence, presumably to combat the utter boredom of driving along that vacuous road. No one perished along the highway, though some deaths were remembered there.

We could see how people might die in Mojave, however, if they’re ill-informed or careless. At the same time, the desert held a quiet beauty for us; a beauty that was subtle and odd and blistering. We left thankful that we did not die that day in that fierce and wonderful place.