Texas and Beyond!
“If an ass goes travelling he will not come home a horse.”
-- Texarkana, TX (Wright Patman Dam, Clear Spring Campground)
East Texas was not really at all like we expected, because we were picturing arid, hot, and empty. Instead, we crossed the border from Arkansas and the landscape was lush, forested, and enormous. There were more billboards, on really really tall posts. And advertisements for gun shows. And a gazillion churches. And I was expecting the size and the churches and the gun shows. But green meadows, rolling hills, oak and pine trees, high humidity, lots of rain, and abundant waterfowl?? Nope, not expecting all that.
Whatever else you might have to say about them, the Army Corps of Engineers Do Infrastructure. Clear Spring Campground was gorgeous - tall pine trees, perfectly level pads, hookups, sparkling stainless steel bathrooms...plus a lake that's been flooded for a year and a half due to the highest water levels in 35 years, with no sign of receding! So the swimming beaches were closed.
It also rained the evening we came in, right about exactly when it was time to set up the camper. Ivy's chigger bites (we think; they erupted in Memphis and were very different than mosquito bites, of which she also got plenty) had been preventing her from both falling and staying asleep. And then I woke up at 1:46 am (to kill what turned out to be seven mosquitoes that were trying to see if they could fully thwart my resolve to be matriarch of a Family Who Lives Outside), and discovered that our camper had become, Arthur-Dent-Like, simply a non-existent obstacle for the East Texas Ants.
You know how every so often you'll see a large Cushiony Thing on the sidewalk, and upon further inspection the entire “Thing” is actually a moving, wriggling mass of thousands of tiny bodies? Well, in this case, our camper had been boarded by about three million ants, organized in approximately five cushiony superhighways, with ants quietly, briskly, traversing our camper from side to side, up to the roof, through the cabinets, through our clothing bags, through the garbage (thank god we don't keep food anywhere but the fridge!)...and over our beds. And therefore us. And the ants showed no sign of ceasing, thousands more climbing up and into the camper every moment. It was unbelievable, how anty everything had gotten in a few short hours.
And therefore we broke our rule of Not Traveling Two Days In A Row, and pushed onward.
-- Onalaska, TX (North Shore RV Resort on Lake Livingston)
We spent a large portion of our stay here trying to eradicate the ants, which were mostly undeterred by a four-hour, hundred-degree, hugely-humid drive in our camper. And by "try" I mean "Attempt Something Supremely Futile," because not only did we not succeed in getting rid of them all, but we also learned that ants are _everywhere_ in East Texas, even in our new campsite, and we discovered new varieties every day: bumbling red-headed ants, speedy large ants, bi-colored black and red ants, teensy tiny ants, biting black ants, fast ground ants, impervious enormous ants, slow yellowish ants, and many, many more.
Why east Texas, you might at this point be asking?? Well, because the town of Livingston (just south of Onalaska) is our new domicile. Which is something we had no idea we needed to have until several months ago, so let me explain. Basically, when you've sold your house, and you live full-time in your camper while traveling, you don't technically have a home address. And yet, you need one of these for many necessary tasks in this modern world: registering/inspecting your car/camper, obtaining drivers licenses and voting privileges, reporting to homeschool authorities (if any), and getting health insurance. You also need to be a citizen of somewhere so banks and the IRS and other important institutions can charge and tax I Mean Contact You At It. So anyway, a few states are especially friendly for full-time travelers (and New York is NOT one of them), so we picked Texas, because in the end their homeschooling laws are especially friendly, it’s In the Middle, and...well, it all made sense at the time.
So here we were, spending some time in Livingston to get paperwork completed, cars inspected/registered/etc., and new drivers' licenses issued.
The campground was extremely kid-friendly, what with a splash park and a swimming beach just yards from our door (plus a bar across the street showcasing live acoustic music), and our site actually had a shade tree (100% more tree than any adjacent sites possessed) - but like I said: we were not banking on the East Texas ants and the insane humidity. The weather was causing even apps to resort to superlatives: "feels extremely muggy”, and “very hot”, and "is 95f degrees, but Actually Feels like Seventy Billion."
Anyway, each day between 10am and 5pm, to deal with a UV index hovering around 11, we mostly huddled under the beach umbrellas, building sand castles. Or rather, _I_ built sand castles. And my happily imaginative inventions, "flat sand castle bases" (free to order, free to ship, and free to install!).” Then, Jeff helpfully noted that the curvy-bottom pails we have actually make sand boobs, which totally captivated Eliza's imagination: she decided to fashion sand "boob covers" (bras), and Jem helpfully noted that his patent-pending "poop dribble" silt-sand-water mixture could be utilized to make nipples.
Like I said, lots of fun was had by all.
And the ants? By the end of the week their numbers were still dwindling, and by the time we got to Dallas there were mere thousands of them left in our camper. Which was now a few pounds heavier due to the installation of ant traps, and the acquisition of a Dust Buster.
-- North Richland Hills, TX (John's Driveway)
One of the downsides of traveling is that, just like when you're at home, many of the same Annoying Issues plague you and keep you from feeling like a Million Bucks. (Night-waking, urinating, demanding, exhausting children, I am looking at YOU! And mosquitos who sneak into our camper, it goes without saying that I'm looking at you, plus I hate your blood-sucking guts.) (Sorry, I get punchy when I'm super tired.) (And yeah, I know that houses often have screens.) (And yes, my Dear, Darling, Ever Wonderful and Sweet and Loving Husband, I promise to stop complaining about the mosquitoes. Right after I become a sweet, bland, extremely boring old lady who just nods and smiles and sits around eating candy bars with her feet up.)
However, one of the upsides of traveling is that, even after a truly bad night's sleep (coming on the heels of some Really Bad Night Sleeps), you wake up in the middle of an adventure. True, you may be too exhausted to do very much adventuring, but half the battle has been won, because you are Already There - in this case, camped out in your husband's very good friend-from-college's driveway, in a suburb just north of Dallas Fort Worth, enjoying a visit that's been otherwise delayed for nearly 20 years.
Jeff and John got to hang out, listen to music, meet each others children for the first time, and look at old photo albums. Ben and Jem and Eliza got to play Unprecedented Amounts of Video Games, and were totally thrilled. We got to chat with John’s very sweet daughter, visit the local playground, take a field trip to an awesome science museum (well, I was actually so tired that I stayed home with Ivy and instead took a nap), and shop for a LOT of groceries (Dallas has many Shopping Opportunities. We even found a fantastic little store that sold at least five different varieties of local grassfed beef, not to mention frozen paleo pizza, raw cheese, fantastic sausages, etc. etc.) I took a little walk around John’s suburban neighborhood, and admired the hacienda style porches (and I am so proud that I remembered and had reason to use the word “hacienda”!). And I wished so bad for a slightly less skewed ratio of sleep:stress.
Whenever we have a particularly nice time with a friend on this trip, and one or more of my children says, "I wish we could stay for longer!" (or comments, "this is such a nice house! I wish WE had a nice house again!"), I get this twinge of guilt. And yet these visits and chance encounters wouldn't be happening if we hadn’t sold our house and hit the road for the first time since our kids were born. We'd be home, struggling to get out of our stuck-inside ruts... Plus, we never got many comments of appreciation for our beautiful house back during all those years when we lived in one, that's for sure! So I tell myself that while no existence is perfect, this traveling gig presents unique and special opportunities for our kids.
Plus, like Calvin, traveling builds character! The kids are finding fun adventures at literally every turn. And cultivating appreciation never killed anyone that I know of.
-- Quanah, TX (Copper Breaks State Park)
This day’s drive was punctuated by Ivy waking up prematurely from her nap, suddenly screaming and totally upset, with nothing visibly wrong - except she kept signing "dog" over and over while she screamed. We finally assumed, after ensuring she had no mortal wounds, that she must have had a nightmare about dogs - which is ironic, really, because of how hard I've been trying to make sure she has only good experiences with dogs so that she - unlike me - will actually enjoy them someday!
Jeff managed to comfort her in the car, and while we drove north from Dallas, the scenery finally started looking like I'd imagined Texas would be. Ben and Jem were so incredibly excited about seeing an “ACTUAL CACTUS!!” at a rest stop that they went racing out of the car, sunhats flapping in the breeze, to go harvest one of the prickly pear pads. ("I wish I had their energy!" said an elderly man who was watching.) Despite multiple warnings, they got cactus thorns embedded in their hands, and were instilled with a suddenly large amount of respect for the changing landscape around us.
The roads straightened out after Dallas, and got flatter. The heat was blazing. And after many hours of driving, we arrived at Copper Breaks, an incredible little state park. Empty, but for one other camper. So quiet and still! Except for the rabbits and road runners and butterflies and beetles and coyotes, that is. Big Skies. Stars popping out.
But that night, Ivy would not go to sleep, and at bedtime she yelled and whined and cried and flopped and poked me until my balloon of seething exhaustion and frustration went POP, and I was suddenly so angry and rageful that I had to Get Away Right Now.
I stormed out of the camper, asked Jeff to put the girls to bed, and I went stomping down the road, through the empty campground which I couldn't see very well because it was pitch black by this time. Copper Breaks is an "international dark skies designated area," which basically means hardly any humans live nearby, and artificial light is kept to an absolute minimum. For a rare moment in this crazy modern world, one can be In The Dark.
Down the vaguely juniper-scented lane I stomped, more and more angry as I went.
It's SO unfair!! Stomp stomp stomp. It’s been so stressful for twelve freaking years! And I'm freaking TIRED of stress! And being responsible!! And being woken up at night!!! Putting aside Jeff's and my own health issues (because that's what we do! Constantly put ourselves last), I'm sick of screaming babies, kids’ ‘special needs,’ digestive problems, spending hours a day in the kitchen, anorexic children, never ever getting to sleep or wake when I want to. I hate all the freaking laundrycookingcleaningbabywatchingkdwhiningbedtimewranglingschleppingunpleasantlogistics!!! Also [STOMP STOMP STOMP] I hate how most people assume that homemaking happens via an Act of God. I hate that I’m always trying to do more than one thing at a time, and the to-do list is never done. It’s been twelve fucking years and I'm still hardly taking “time to myself”, to do things that _I_ want. I can’t even REMEMBER what I want!!
I DO want to homeschool our kids, do fun and interesting activities with them, feed them nutrient dense meals, and co-create a single-income household with my True Love. I DON’T want that to be so freaking difficult!!!"
Stomp stomp stomp stomp STOMP.
Yeah. I KNOW I’m lucky. But I am not counting luckies right now. And I knew it would be stressful to travel, really I did. But now I just want things to be easier, because I am FINALLY out of my beautiful-house-with-a-beautiful-kitchen-type-jail, and Jeff and I are FINALLY finally traveling with our family, which is what I've wanted for so many years. I wanted it so much that when this chance came, I promised everything. Anything. “I’ll work as hard as I need to, whatever we need to make it work!” is what I promised myself. I just refused to imagine: what if Jeff doesn’t feel better? What if his fatigue continues to be just as crushing as before? What if...well, what if, after days and months of minor and major stresses, doing a shit ton of chores, and facing the financial and energetic stress of making healthy meals in a world of shit food, plus getting shitty sleep...I just can't do it any more? What happens if I am so full-up on the responsibility front that I literally can't figure out a reasonable time to just sit down and Not Do Anything?? And what if, no matter how awesome the places are that we’re traveling through, I am just too burnt to appreciate them? What if I just snap? What if it’s like Jeff and I are the counterweights holding up the elevator that is our children, and we snap at exactly the same time??
Stomp Stomp Stomp.
I had reached a silent intersection in the road, and the milky way was bright in the deep, dark sky. I dutifully noticed this, and stared into the limitless vastness of the known universe. But my fury was human and enormous in my own personal heart, and I wasn't soothed. I hate the fatigue that saps Jeff’s energy! I hate how I try to work MORE than my ass off, to compensate! I hate my car passenger phobia, I hate how many of the interactions I have with my kids are annoyance-related, I hate how few dates Jeff and I get, and how often we have to wake up early, and how many poops we have to clean up, and how many Annoying Stressful Things we have to Deal With instead of us just listening to romantic music and sleeping in and making love and going back to sleep again. Like even once a year it would be nice to sleep in!!
Stomp Stomp Stomp. I’m freaking tired of Not-Having Fun!!
I mean, of course, apart from the fact that my True Love and I just sold our house and moved into a camper with our four kids and are currently traveling full-time with Ultimate Plans and Destinations Unknown. Well, yeah - I mean, apart from living that dream, I mean.
I could tell that everyone was still awake when I got back to the camper. Very solicitous, and fairly quiet.
I was so tired that I actually forgot to problem-solve, and just went to bed.
Finally, everyone was asleep in the gorgeous silence. It was the middle of the night. And Ivy woke up again, screaming. Not night terrors - she was signing and saying "doggie", and kicking and pinching each time she would settle down for a short time, at which point I would rouse and remove her pinching fingers and kicking feet, and she would scream some more.
Here we were again, exhausted, dealing with…a screaming baby. Who kept screaming. And was awake for the next several hours, eroding all parental patience, compassion, and sanity. In the otherwise quietest fucking campground of the entire fucking trip.
Jeff eventually took her for a walk sometime well before sunrise, and I was too exhausted to offer to take her myself. She finally quieted and went back to sleep (please do not ask me why she is always reluctant to lie down quietly or cuddle up in bed…because I have no idea in hell why not).
Sleep. All Jeff and I wanted was to sleep and sleep and sleep. And sleep. And SLEEP!
One night on our cross-country bike trip, we got woken up by Rude People. We felt like shit the next day. We were so "tired". And that was One Single Freaking Night of getting woken up ONCE!!! Out of an entire summer of travel! Now, every shitty night is just one more in a countless string of awful nights, too many thousands to count.
It’s hard to feel good when sleep is bad, let me tell you what.
It was so hot at Copper Breaks, and the park was so beautiful, that we had decided to try for a morning walk the next day. (It was supposed to be 97f by mid-afternoon, but "feel like 110f”.) After such a night, it wasn't clear whether life was worth living anymore. But we staggered (well, the kids were bright and chipper, since they had slept right through the hours of Ivy screaming, and Ivy herself had slept it all off and was eager to greet the new day) out of bed, climbed into the van with a picnic breakfast, and picked a trail.
And then we arrived at the trailhead, bananas and cricket bars and pemmican in hand - and honestly, it was just what I'd always dreamed a cross country trip with my kids would be.
"Copper Breaks" refers to the copper deposits that streak through the local cliffs, and the rough geology of the area, which used to be a sea bed but is now a sort of badlands with canyons and sandstone and pretty little rock formations. There was the gorgeous smell of juniper, and these lovely little flowers, and tracks that were raccoons and also possibly bobcats. And it was just us, and the cicadas, and the intensifying sunlight, and the bright blue sky, and this vast World that we were out exploring! All the kids were happy at the same exact time. Ivy walked halfway (and all uphill!) before she reluctantly let me carry her. Jem bounded up and around, and kept exclaiming things like, “Hey look at this cactus! I've never seen one like this in my WHOLE LIFE!!" Ben was looking things up in his nature guides, and reciting trivia on the local flora and fauna. Eliza sang songs from Frozen while she hiked.
We enjoyed the views, exclaimed over all the new-to-us plants, posed for photos, and examined rocks. It was all so really and truly FUN!
And then. We had almost completed our half-mile loop, which…
Here I must back up a little, and change the subject entirely, to recount how, when I was an Earnest Young Thing, I once asked: “…but how will I KNOW if I have an orgasm or not?!" To which the person I was questioning replied, bemused: "don't worry - you'll know!”
Which was totally the correct answer, if you know what I mean.
In this case - back to the present moment now - I had always kinda wondered: if I were to encounter a rattlesnake, would I be able to identify the sound of that rattlesnake’s rattle?
At this point I was walking along with Jem and Ivy, through the last little grassy and woodsy section of the trail, when I heard an amazing noise - sort of like a cross between a gentle Whir and a directly proximate jet engine. And in an all-knowing moment, I KNEW. There was not a shadow of a doubt in my mind concerning the identity of that sound.
About seven nanoseconds later, Jem and Ivy and I had run tremendously fast to higher ground (well, I was carrying Ivy), and with trembling legs we were yelling to Jeff and Ben and Eliza to “WAIT WAIT WAIT!!!! DON'T MOVE!!! DID YOU HEAR THAT?! DON’T KEEP GOING ON THE TRAIL!!” so we could figure out an alternate path forward for them…
Once we had arrived back at the trailhead, and were gathered in the blazing 11am sun, various members of our party were chatty, grumpy, tired, whiny, happy, oblivious. But beyond doubt, one thing was clear: we had collectively experienced something transformative, after which life, in some ways that were not yet entirely clear, would never be exactly the same.
Canyon, TX (Palo Duro Canyon State Park)
An irony (one of many) is that we left Ithaca to escape all the moisture and cold winters. And ever since we've been traveling, we've had warmth all right - but also lots of rain and humidity, while Ithaca's having the warmest and driest summer on record.
We love many things about our popup, but it sucks to put it away wet. So we were a little excited about our upcoming stay at The Grand Canyon Of Texas (the second largest canyon in the US, after the Grand Canyon). We figured that we'd have some dry, less-humid weather, which would be good for the camper.
It is sometimes really crazy to remember how all that I think about and prioritize in life exists within the vast context of awesome things I’ve never heard about before. And would have totally prioritized in the first place, if I'd somehow known about them...
Case in point: the freaking amazing, incredible, awesome, and wonderful park that we pulled into (or rather descended into, because the developed campgrounds and facilities lie along many miles of a gorgeous road that switchbacks into the canyon) on September 9, 2016.
It can be hard to write about good stuff. And fun stuff. (Yeah - the fun I was previously mentioning not-having, even.) Like, what do you say? “We had so much fun here!”? "Had a great day today!"?? Boooring.
Despite my crisis of exhaustion just hours earlier, Palo Duro was so amazingly great. And we managed to deal with the logistics of meals for six PLUS doing fun activities. And we balanced the intensive amount of baby watching so that each parent could have a couple of grand adventures, and all the kids had so much fun, and there were so many interesting things to see, and the campsite was gorgeous, and the views were spectacular, and I got to go mountain biking for the first time in my life, and with my boys, and Eliza even. Wild turkeys hung out at our campsite (Ivy referred to them worriedly as "dogs"), as did some sort of prairie-dog type rodents (also "dogs"). We saw raptors ("dogs"), roadrunners ("dogs"), caterpillars ("dogs"), and heard coyotes (luckily they didn't wake Ivy in the night for her commentary).
The trails in Palo Duro were especially amazing - most especially for mountain biking. Jem discovered his passion that first day we ventured offload into the blazing red canyon with sandstone statues and lots of little dry riverbeds to zoom through, steep ascents to test our low gears, and boulders off which to catch air. I could immediately tell when a challenging bit approached because I would hear Jem say, "whee!!" and "whopee!!" ("How does he have the energy to talk so much while he's doing this?!" Ben asked later.)
Ben kept pace in a way that was AMAZING to behold, because if you were watching you would never have guessed - as he maneuvered his bike adroitly around sharp curves and over rocky ledges - that six years ago he was too weak and tired to walk to the end of the neighborhood.
Behind the boys, on the morning we rode on the Lighthouse Trail, came their proud, panting mother. And I'll admit I love mountain biking a lot more than I ever thought I would. I was much more cautious than my sons, but they were encouraging - and by mile six I was getting relatively bold, and was crossing dry riverbeds with greater speed so I wouldn't have to stop on the other side - and when I made it up a tricky bit they said, "Yay!" - and meant it.
My biggest disappointment about Palo Duro was that there was no way that Jeff and I could do any of the more challenging stuff together. That first day he stayed with the the girls. The next day, I took the girls and the guys hiked up to the rim from the canyon floor. The third day, Jeff rode down a bunch of trails with the boys (he was worried, but his heart did NOT give out)…and I met them with the girls in the van, traded with Jeff, and biked back with the boys, at which point I took Eliza for a more tame trail ride on the trail-a-bike. By the evening of that third day, the older three kids had found some pure red clay in the nearby riverbed and were fashioning a little pottery studio, Ivy was no longer super-fearful of the grazing turkeys, Ben and Jem were taking Eliza to explore on their own along the gorgeous little riverside trail that was directly adjacent to our campsite, and we were all about ready to set up permanent camp at site #4 in Hackberry loop at Palo Duro Canyon State Park.
But canyon campsites are like most everything else in life, and are not forever. We had no more clean underwear. And we were out of meat and fresh produce. And someday soon, Jeff is going to need some peaceful days during which to earn money to finance our crazy grocery bills.
And so, very very sadly, we said goodbye to Palo Duro and drove back up into a sunny Texas afternoon.
--Amarillo, TX (Oasis RV Park)
It was a fairly extreme letdown to land in the "Oasis" RV park, even for one night - after a day spent Waiting At The DMV and Buying Groceries - which was located in the middle of a (non-organic) cornfield just off the interstate, and consisted of row upon row of black asphalt parking spots separated by beds of rocks and pebbles. The showers were nice, but for the tidy price of $37, we didn’t even get a picnic table. Evidently they’d been having problems with “theft.”
So we ate dinner while sitting on the concrete driveway, and tried to identify the disgusting odor that we’d been smelling quite strongly ever since we got to town. Finally, we remembered one of the biggest reasons to leave Amarillo (otherwise a nice little Panhandle Suburban Town):
Someday, we humans will look back on this moment in our human story and feel such sorrow and shame and repentance that we as a species ever saw fit to raise animals for food in such awful, horrendous, nearly unspeakably evil ways. “Confined Animal Feeding Operations”, atrocious institutions that they are, supply conventional meat to our supermarkets, restaurants, schools, and hospitals - and it's cheap only because of the crazy externalities allowed by our economic system.
"More like factories than farms, these meat producers confine thousands of animals in long rows, supplying them with feed and collecting the manure in open lagoons or piles…
"These large facilities are geographically concentrated as well—almost 80% of the largest Texas feedlots are located in the Panhandle. Almost one third of the cattle produced in confinement in the U.S. are fed within a 150 mile radius of Amarillo. Likewise, almost 75% of all hogs produced in Texas are also raised in the Panhandle, concentrating enormous quantities of animal waste in one geographical area….
“The new technologies and mass production promote an unsustainable farming system with too much waste for disposal, too many animals in a small space, and too much dust, gas, and bacteria for a healthy neighborhood and working environment. Industrial animal producers use antibiotics to promote growth and prevent disease even though studies find that such antibiotic use results in the spread of drug resistant bacteria. Factory animal production creates large quantities of industrial waste which may threaten the quality of local waters and the air as well as affect public health. The risks posed by CAFOs include environmental contamination with nitrogen, phosphorous, pathogenic bacteria, hormones, antibiotics, and ammonia; noxious odor; habitat loss; and groundwater depletion…”
Sigh. Sigh. Triple Sigh.
And so, after two weeks of adventures, we head out of Texas to see what lies ahead in The Land of Enchantment.
Meanwhile, I’m missing most of the quotes these days, but here are a few of the -isms I managed to write down recently.
Things you don’t hear your kids say when you live in central NY: “Guess what kind of spider we just saw - A desert tarantula!”
“I just saw a beetle! Jem, come look at this beetle! …Ooh, and Jem! Look!” (Tiredly, Jem replies: What is it, a beetle?) “No, it’s a moth!”
Mountain biking: “These banking turns are great! They’re bankers!”
"I think mountain biking was built into me!"
Mountain Biking: ”Ooh, another little hill! Those are so fun! Like everything here is..."
Heading off to the bathrooms on his bike: "'I'm going to whiz up the road' means two things!"
"Papa! What's the cheapest you would chop off your pinkie for?"
Dolefully: "I wish that mothers and fathers would always say YES when kids asked them for things, like Elsa and Anna and princess things that they want."
Looking into the magnifying side of the mirror: “Gigantic me!”
“I’m gonna wear my princess dress tomorrow, but maybe not for the whole day, because it's itchy. Just for the morning.”
"'Frozen' is about Elsa and Anna and danger and freezing!"
Reinventing the song from "Mary Poppins": "Feed the world, Tubbence a bag, Tubbence, Tubbence a bag!"
The sign of a seasoned traveler is when one becomes a toilet connoisseur: "Mama, these toilets are sparkling! They're really even GLEAMING!"
I'm getting nail polish that's not here. I went to the Perot [science] Museum today, and I went with papa and his friend. We're in Texas!
“I love you” to each person [that’s you!]. At Maya’s house, I can't wait for the nail polish to arrive there.
We hiked on this tall mountain and there are more tall mountains that we're hiking on. And we had a mountain close by and it was beautiful. And we saw a beautiful white cloud. There's really beautiful places that we go to!
Today I got a flat tire and papa patched it. And we went to a cave!
We met Ben and Jem at the climbing cave that you can go into, and took a bike ride.
Thank you again, so much for all the notes along the way! It makes us feel especially like we are home on the road. :)
Lots of tired love,