Weather, Bad Tires and a Really Bad Dog

Magnificent Site in the Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

Magnificent Site in the Chisos Basin, Big Bend National Park

I am writing this at the tail-end of our final trip with our trailer.  It is not being “published” until now, but this writing is the sort of activity that suits a heavy thunderstorm, with threats of tornados here and there, in rural Mississippi.   Trace Park, near Tupelo, and the weather supposed to improve.   In this series of retrospectives, bad weather features often.   I have been digging into old Christmas letters, and other material in my archives, and apologize to those who feel that they may have read this before.   Again, mainly the tribulations, since good news is even more boring.    If all the tales of woe put you off the “RV life”, I should mention that it was nearly all fun, and we will miss it.

Chisos Mountains, Big Bend Park

Chisos Mountains, Big Bend Park

This is different from other postings since the pictures are not relevant to the text.  Rather than show depressing images of snow and mud, I have put in a few of our “happy pictures”, showing some of the beautiful places we visited during the past 15 years of travels. If you want to enlarge the pictures, just click on them.  This rather long post concludes the fifteen enjoyable years of “John and Elaine on the Road”.

Our First Visit to Tucson, Arizona

Our First Visit to Tucson, Arizona

We really started 2001 in the dying days of 2000, and we came close to expiring ourselves, of frostbite.  The snow started in November, and by Christmas it was formidably deep.    Undaunted we carved a small trench through to the trailer door and loaded up to our usual astonishing degree.   Maybe the weight is what did the tires in … but that’s later!     Still exhausted from Christmas we hitched up the van, determined to get out before the next blizzard.   Not being well organized, it was afternoon before we dug everything out and slid down the hill.

We had the whole of White Rock, Arizona site to ourselves.

We had the whole of White Rock, Arizona site to ourselves.

As darkness fell, we were approaching London (that’s the one in Ontario), and we realized anew that weather forecasting is an inexact art.  The overnight snow started falling early, and the visibility deteriorated.   We decided that London would be a good motel stop, unaware that London does not have many motels that accept dogs:  it’s that kind of town!     Like fools we headed down Highway 402 towards the American border in the snow.    When the truck 30 feet ahead of us started to disappear in the snow, and the “Highway Closed” signs appeared, we took an exit, and then in the sky was the ultimate vision:   “Motel”  “Vacancy”.    Heroically we backed the trailer into a corner of their snow-field, and hit the office.  The man was awfully nice, had a room, and explained kindly that the whole motel was allergy free:  i.e. no dogs!   He suggested leaving Boris in the car, but we love Boris, and clearly he would be no hot-dog in minus 25C temperatures.   With a sigh we turned on the furnace in the trailer, and left him there.  He was lonely, and did not seem to appreciate that over $15 of propane was needed to keep him warm overnight.

North Padre Island, TX.   Tow out of soft sand

North Padre Island, TX.
Tow out of soft sand

Could things get worse?  Of course!   The snow had almost stopped so we headed for the freeway anew.   It was still closed.    Undaunted we prowled the back roads, and crawled slowly down to the American border, where the US immigration guy seemed to welcome us.  After all, with the freeway closed he didn’t have much other business!  We reassured him that our avocado was not grown in Canada!!

Our Bigger Motor Home. On the Galveston Ferry

Our Bigger Motor Home.
On the Galveston Ferry

It remained extremely cold through Michigan, and then in Indiana it got colder, and snowed again.   “Never mind,” I said, “it’s bound to get warmer in Kentucky.”   It did: staggered up to an astonishing –10C.   Quite balmy, so we turned out the antifreeze (from the trailer plumbing) and turned on the heat.    The sewage end of things was frozen solid, but this confident idiot felt that once we hit Mississippi it would be warm and all would be well.

Dawn in the Chisos Mountains. Big Bend National Park

Dawn in the Chisos Mountains.
Big Bend National Park

I digress a moment to mention that around Kentucky we called home for phone messages.   The guy looking after our house was a bit excited:  our central heating was not working and things were looking desperate.  I would love to provide details, but suffice to say that it was my fault, and I did suggest how it might be fixed.    The biggest problem was that the Kentucky pay phone was outside (it always being warm in the south, right?), and my fingers kept freezing on to the metal numbers.

View from Trace State Park site. Near Tupelo, Mississippi

View from Trace State Park site.
Near Tupelo, Mississippi

Tupelo, Mississippi is where Elvis Presley was born.   There was a big picture of him on the door of the toilet in the campground.  (Many years later, our trailer toilet died in Tupelo, and I blamed Elvis). Fortunately there was a toilet in the campground, since ours was still frozen and it was still around –10C.  We headed south in quiet desperation.  Now Fiona had a lady working with her who lived for many years in Natchez … right at the southern end of Mississippi.   She had told us that it was always warm and never snowed there.    The highway maintenance people believed this too, which is why they didn’t buy any kind of snow-moving equipment or sanders.

Elaine's Purposeful Attack. Golf at Fort Clark, Texas

Elaine’s Purposeful Attack.
Golf at Fort Clark, Texas

I will add one bright spot to this saga of woe:  since nobody in Natchez under the age of 15 had ever seen snow (unless they were rich and went skiing), all the kids in town turned out to build snowmen and throw snowballs.    Meantime it stayed below freezing and the exit-plumbing remained an impressively solid block of ice.


Mondavi Winery Napa Valley, Calfornia

Mondavi Winery
Napa Valley, Calfornia

OK … let’s go over the bridge into Louisiana and south of here!   Ended the day in Kinder, just north of the Gulf of Mexico.   The next morning it was a balmy +2C.   The plumbing unfroze in the nick of time!   “Why are we sitting in a pond?” asked Elaine.  “It’s the Ontario snow on the roof,” I replied, “it’s finally admitting defeat.

Deer at Fort Clark, Texas

Deer at Fort Clark, Texas

Down to Rockport and Corpus Christi.  It rained, and stayed cold, though admittedly just above freezing.   We took a boat tour to see the whooping cranes, and did go on deck for a few moments to see these rare birds.  The boat heating was not great, but it was better than outside.    Everybody we met lamented the record-breaking cold, and blamed Canada.   We headed south again to Falcon Lake on the Rio Grande.   It rained, and was cold with sleet.   Faced with the choice of going south into Mexico, with some complications for our insurance, we decided to head west.     It rained as far as the little town of Bracketville, Texas,  and by this time we were in cactus country … very sad looking cacti dripping with rain.   In case you don’t know, deserts are sandy, but that’s misleading.  When it rains they become mud.  Deep, awe-inspiring mud that threatens to swallow men, women, horses, dogs … and of course all varieties of recreational and other vehicles.  Our trailer was completely painted with brown sludge.   That’s when I noticed we had collected a flat tire.

Fort Clark, Texas. A Creek Runs Through It

Fort Clark, Texas.
A Creek Runs Through It

“No problem”, said a tough old bird from Indiana with a 35-foot fifth-wheel.   Pull ‘er up to the hard-standing there and I’ll get your wheel off with my “half moon”.   Don’t ask, it would take too long to explain.  It was academic anyway, since the van couldn’t get any traction in the mud, and bogged down in an impressive hole.   But next door were some horsemen.   They had a 40-foot horse trailer which even had a working wood-stove inside it!   Unfortunately they hadn’t yet bought the horses, so we had to make do with their enormous V-10 diesel pickup with ten wheels and all-wheel drive.    By this point we had attracted quite a crowd, who stood well back and thought they were attending a mud-wrestling match.   Everyone cheered when it all came unglued, and eventually we got the puncture fixed:  it was all caused by a flint that I think was an old Indian arrowhead.  Some kind of revenge, perhaps.    The second tire did not give out until we reached Alpine, Texas, and that’s where we also had the dirtiest job of the whole trip!

Bare Bones Landscape Texas

Bare Bones Landscape

Now Alpine is not the hub of Western Civilization.   As its lone radio station proclaims:  “AM 1430 Alpine … the voice of the last frontier”.   The tire place proved to be in one of the more inaccessible spots in “downtown Alpine”, but we managed to get in … and, more importantly, out again.   Still mad about the tire, I yanked the black water valve too hard, and broke it.   Now for those who don’t know, recreational vehicles have a tank of fresh water, a tank for “grey water” from the sinks and shower, and a tank for “black water”, which is best not discussed in detail.

Elaine Exercising by the Las Moras Creek at Fort Clark

Elaine Exercising by the Las Moras Creek at Fort Clark

There is no RV repair place within 120 miles of Alpine, but the local hardware store had a valve.   All I needed was a 7/16 inch wrench (spanner for the English types).   Bought the last one in the store, and then found I needed two.   The nearest place was … you guessed it … 120 miles away in Fort Stockton.    Trolling around the “Lost Alaskan” campground (I think he got lost!) I borrowed the right wrench, and then had the fun of getting into the worst part of the whole trailer!

"The Window" Chisos Basin Big Bend. Texas

“The Window” Chisos Basin
Big Bend. Texas

South of Alpine is Big Bend … really 120 miles further from places where you can buy valves and wrenches, so I supposed it could have been worse.  Nothing really bad happened in Big Bend this year … or rather … the javolinas ate the supplies of the tent campers, as usual!    But then we went to the Davis Mountains.    Beautiful deer came right to our door.   Boris took one lunge, broke his collar, and chased the deer into the far, far mountains.   No tag, no collar, no sense, and in an area filled with coyotes, javolinas and the odd cougar.     We put out the word with rangers, camp hosts, etc., but he did not come back, and that was likely the end of the road for Boris.

Javolinas at Chisos Basin Big Bend National Park, TX

Javolinas at Chisos Basin
Big Bend National Park, TX

The following morning, around 8.a.m. we heard a “wuff”, and a ranger told us very sternly that we should keep our dog on a leash in a State Park.

Boris -- He came back.

Boris — He came back.

Poor old Boris was in a dreadful state:  covered in cactus spines, and weary beyond credence.   He knew we were camped near the toilet building (with a light), but had gone to the wrong campground and shivered outside the toilet there all night!   “Do you think he’s learned,” I asked Elaine.  “No chance,” she answered, “he’ll be off as soon as he breaks the next leash or rope.”  Except he won’t find it so easy.  Got him a Great Dane collar (had to cut it down a lot!),  and we tied him up on a steel cable.

Back in Canada Lake Huron Beach

Back in Canada
Lake Huron Beach

On the way home, I got an abscess under a tooth.   As the weather deteriorated, so did my toothache.   When we got within about 200 miles I’d had it, and asked Louise to look up what it says about dental work in the health insurance book.   “Up to US$300 for emergency pain relief,” she said “-you’re OK, so long as you’re more than 300 miles from home.”   So Elaine caught the brunt of the driving for the last 200 miles … as the snow came down sideways and horizontally across Highway 401, the busiest freeway in Canada.   But she doggedly stuck to the slow lane, and then we came to the last stretch.    The wind picked up to minor hurricane levels, and the trailer kept fishtailing sideways on the ice.   Finally we climbed the last hill into Elora … well … all but the last 20 feet.   Elaine went out and shoveled old road grit, I cursed the tooth, the weather, and fate.  Darn it … 20 feet … after thousands of miles!    Oh, I forgot to mention  … the tooth needed a root canal job, but it was reasonably straightforward and I negotiated a good price!

Cape Croker, Ontario View from our camp site

Cape Croker, Ontario
View from our camp site

We did have some fun in the summer too.  Camping at the Cape Croker Indian reserve on Georgian Bay it was hot and humid, and a really massive storm came through just after supper.   The wind howled and it rained buckets.   Trees came down, tents flew, but most of them got caught in trees rather than going in the lake.  This was fortunate for the baby inside one of the tents, who turned out to be OK.   Most impressive of all, the kayaks and canoes flew as well, wiping out bits of motor-boats on their journeys.   I have honestly never before seen a canoe flying upside down at about 20 feet altitude!    The power went out, but this didn’t bother us because we were running on batteries … at least until we went to re-fill our water tank, and found the whole area had electrically pumped water.  One disgruntled camper with a huge motor-home asked Joyce, the Indian lady at the office: “What kind of operation are you people running?”   Joyce did not miss a beat and replied: “We have a state-of-the-art computer system and water supply, sir, but we people are at the mercy of the power grid.  When the white men get the power fixed, we “people” will have water again.”   He stamped off, and Joyce and I had a good laugh at his misfortunes.

Dogwoods on the Natchez Trace, MS.

Dogwoods on the Natchez Trace, MS.

For those who need reassurances, we had a super year in 2001.  We discovered the Natchez Trace which is 440 miles of uninterrupted parkway with zero trucks and maximum scenery.  We also discovered that the coastal route, via a long ferry ride (free) into Galveston missed Houston altogether.  Hooray.   We saw the whooping cranes twice, but the real wildlife treat of the trip was this huge dog we saw while driving near the campground – at least as big as a deerhound.   Then it moved, and Elaine said, “it’s not a dog, it’s a cat!  What is it?”.   It could only be a cougar, and I mentioned the sighting to the camp ranger.

“Yup,” he said, “it’s a swamp cougar … ‘bout 90 pounds.  We saw it yesterday.”

“What’s the difference between a swamp cougar and a mountain lion,” I asked.

“Ain’t no difference, ‘cept we got no mountains round here, so we calls ‘em swamp cougars.   By the way,” he continued, “where did it go?”

Cougar Cub Print (We did not see Mom!)

Cougar Cub Print
(We did not see Mom!)

“Into someone’s back yard,” I said.

“Hey,” chuckled the ranger, “someone’s going to get a mighty big surprise when they let their little kitty out!”

“This is true,” I replied, “but not half as big a surprise as when they call their kitty back in!”    He explained that people who build houses next to Wildlife Preserves have to take their chances!   After all, this is Texas!

This is also the year we discovered Fort Clark, the Davis Mountains State Park, and rafted down the Rio Grande.  Since then we have spent a lot of time in that area of West Texas, and saved a lot of driving to far away Arizona.

Rare Desert Rainbow Big Bend, Texas

Rare Desert Rainbow
Big Bend, Texas

This is it … the end.   Just a few of the happier pictures to conclude some memorable trips  We were privileged to have so much sheer pleasure, and to visit so many out-of-the-way and beautiful places.  Our enjoyment exceeded our expectations, and you really cannot improve on that.

John … with corrections by Elaine

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