April 24 – May 4
After our amazing adventure in Big Bend National Park, it was time to get a move on and start heading in a northeasterly direction. With springs storms ravaging the middle of the country, this is worst time to travel through these states, but sometimes you do what you need to do. The plan was to watch the weather carefully and skirt around the storms as best as possible.
We left Study Butte RV park and headed north back up Hwy 118. About two miles past town, we saw smoke coming from the wheels on the driver’s side. You have got to be kidding me! Many swear words were uttered as Tim quickly pulled over on the soft shoulder. This time we didn’t have a flat, but the wheel was so loose it almost fell off when Tim wiggled it. He quickly got out the ramp (a must have for any DIY trailer owner), took the wheel off, and inspected the bearing and brake assembly. It was not looking good. Not only had the bearing gone bad, but it had caused the entire brake assembly to fall apart. I should have taken a photo, but as we were in a somewhat sketchy spot on the side of a busy road, I was more focused on how we were going to get out of this one.
With the wheel in pieces, and our current location not optimal, the best choice was to back into a pull-off about 75 feet behind us — with only three trailer tires. It was nerve-racking to say the least. We waited until there was a break in traffic and Tim veeeery slowly backed up and off the road. The lone tire on the driver’s side compressed into the road as it took on the extra weight. I walked alongside and watched while holding my breath. Surely this is not correct trailer towing etiquette. But we made it into the pull-off, Tim turned us around so the bad wheel was no longer on the roadside, and he put a bottle jack under the Airstream to relieve some of the pressure of the single tire.
The town of Terlingua, TX is a lot of things, but a retail haven it is not. After calling around, it was determined that our best option was to drive up to Alpine to look for wheel parts. But first…BBQ!
Since we spent most of our time in the area exploring the national park, we didn’t get a chance to eat at any of the popular restaurants in Terlingua. Everyone raves about the Starlight, but the place we really wanted to visit was DB’s Rustic Iron BBQ. Rated one of the top 10 restaurants in Texas several years in a row while operating out of a simple wooden-sided truck, we had been dying to try this place. Unfortunately, it has limited hours and was closed for a good portion of our visit with plans to re-open on Wednesday at 11 am. Well, guess what? By this point, it was after 11 on Wednesday and with little chance that we would be getting out of there that day, we decided to take a short detour for lunch before driving to Alpine.
Ten minutes later we were in line and five minutes after that we were chowing down on what might be the best BBQ ever! I had the pulled pork, Tim had the brisket, and we shared a side of beans & slaw. I could rave about this meal forever if I didn’t have so many other things to cover in this post. Instead, I will just say that it was tender, flavorful, and presented a with surprising attention. During our meal, the owner came out to check on us and made sure we knew where to find the bucket of wet wipes. BBQ priorities you know.
With full bellies, we hopped back in the truck and made the 1.5-hour drive to Alpine. Despite visiting two auto parts stores and a trailer supply place we struck out and ended up having to order the needed parts. The guys at O’ Reilly Auto Parts promised they would arrive by the time the store opened in the morning. Back to our roadside spot we went. It seemed like an okay spot to spend the night. We were far enough off the road to feel safe, and no one had come by to tell us we had to move. As evening set in the traffic died down to barely a trickle, the sky turned a dusky rose color, and a rainbow appeared above. Not a bad way to end the day.
Tim drove back to Alpine in the morning to get the parts while I stayed behind in case anyone stopped by to question why we were still there. Over the course of our unauthorized 24-hour stay, a surprising number of people stopped to see if we need help. There was really nothing we needed, but it did not go unappreciated that so many people took the time to stop and ask. It wasn’t until later in the afternoon when Tim had returned with the parts and was almost done with all the repairs that a sheriff stopped by. He was a young looking guy with a giant cowboy hat and a soft Texas drawl. After making sure we were okay and had everything under control he wished us a good day and left. Not sure if it’s the small town effect or Texas in general, but everyone we encountered during this week in the Big Bend area was so warm and friendly.
After replacing the brake assembly and the remaining wheel bearings we were all set to go in search of some new tires to complete the repair. Fortunately, the tire from the latest incident had no visible damage, but we were still rolling on one spare and decided a complete new set of tires plus a new spare was in order. We still had a LOT of distance to cover in the next few weeks and were hoping to get these wheel issues behind us. Under the guise of taking the Airstream for a test drive before heading out of cell service range, we drove back into town and indulged in another BBQ lunch. What can I say, Texas has some really, really good BBQ!
Our best bet for new tires on the way north was the town of Midland. It was a little to far to make it that night so we just started driving with plans to find a spot along the way. As we approached dinner time I checked the Campendium app and found an interesting sounding state park on our route.
Monahans Sandhills SP is a small park smack in the middle of the massive oil and fracking area that dominates much of western Texas. Its claim to fame are the mounds of sand dunes sandwiched between the oil and gas operations. We pulled in close to seven and used the self-pay station to claim one of the last open sites.
While not even comparable to the sand dunes we’ve seen at places such as White Sands, the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado, the coastal dunes in Oregon, or the Kelso Dunes in CA, it made for a great overnight stop.
In the morning we drove to Midland for tires and groceries. It was quick and painless and soon we were rolling through the Texas countryside with a brand new set of shoes. We try our best to stay off interstates while traveling. It’s not always possible as sometimes it really is the best way to get from here to there, but usually, it’s much more interesting and less stressful when we don’t have to share the road with giant semi-trucks and clueless, impatient drivers. The route we chose north-east through Texas had us traveling small, two-lane roads past oil fields and farms. Occasionally we would pass through a town with a ghostly looking main street full of shuttered businesses. It was in one of these towns that we decided to spend the night at a small city park.
Slaton, Texas is located about 20 miles southeast of Lubbock. It contains a dusty square in the center of town, a few streets filled with modest houses, and a grassy town park. It was here that we found a row of RV sites noted by padlocked electric pedestals. The story goes that the town decided to offer free camping and installed the electric poles. It was then decided that these free spots with electric would take business away from the nearby RV parks, so they had them locked. Fine with us as we don’t need a power hook-up for a single night. There were no signs anywhere indicating that it’s okay to stay the night, or anyone around to ask on a Friday night, but the very in-depth review that I read on Campendium assured us that it was legit. Besides, the worst thing that could happen is we would be asked to leave.
The park was well used with teenagers milling around on the picnic tables, a pick-up basketball game across the way, and at least three little league games occurring around the park. After dinner, we went for a short walk into town. The town square had seen better days but upon further inspection not all the stores were empty. We saw an antique store, two or three insurance offices, a place offering tax preparation, a lawyer’s office, a couple of interesting looking art galleries, and even an event space for rent. It felt as though the town was making an effort at rejuvenation, but judging by the fact that the square was totally deserted and all the businesses closed on a Friday night, I am not sure it was going very well.
The baseball games were just wrapping up when we returned to the park. Soon we had the place to ourselves and we spent a very peaceful night parked in the grass.
It didn’t take long in the morning to cross into Oklahoma. Soon we were driving through a landscape that looked a lot like west Texas expect it was now dominated by more farmland than oil drills. We wanted to find a spot to stay for the weekend and into the first part of the next week when storms were predicted to roll through. Our first choice (a state park whose name has escaped me) was a complete bust. All the sites were first-come, first-serve and we stupidly thought we could just roll in on a Friday evening a claim a spot. Silly us. Why we continue to deny the determination of the weekend warriors to camp regardless of weather or season is beyond me.
We drove through the campground twice, searching in vain for a spot with no luck. Time for plan B, or more accurately, time to make a plan B. The best nearby option looked to be Great Plains State Park. I called to make sure they had availability and the ranger said they still had spots and to come on in, find a site, and the hosts would be around to collect our payment.
We chose a partial hook-up spot with a kind-of water view and happily settled into for a few days. The campground was almost full and appeared to be a popular area for boating and fishing. Altogether we stayed four nights with an extra night tacked on to avoid some bad storms that were predicted for the area we planned to drive through.
The weather was clear and warm on Sunday making it a perfect day for hiking. Oklahoma is not the first place I would think of for stellar hiking trails, but while searching around I came across the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. In addition to providing habit for bison, elk, and hundreds of bird species, the refuge also boasts some great trails.
We combined a couple of trails to make a 7-mile route that took us along the river, over a jumble of rocks that required some serious scrambling, and up to the top of Elk Mountain.
The rest of our stay was filled with cloudy skies and occasional rain. We took the time to catch up on some computer stuff and both used the paved walking path to get in a little running – not fun but necessary as we enter the land of flat.
On Wednesday we packed up and headed out with plans to drive as far as possible while avoiding the thunderstorms, hail & tornados that were all around us. I don’t know how people live around here. My blood pressure would be dangerously high every spring while I worried that at any minute I was going to be swept away by a tornado. I monitored the weather apps while Tim drove us past Oklahoma City and Tulsa to a small town on the very northeastern edge of the state. By some miracle, we were able to stay ahead of the storms and didn’t even get touched by a drop of rain.
Home that night was a Walmart parking lot in Miami, OK. The only notable thing that happened was a guy towing a newer looking Airstream was driving by and stopped to say hi. Turns out the Airstream he was towing was John Mellencamp’s dressing room. You really do meet the most interesting people on the road.
In the morning we drove into Missouri and traveled through a landscape filled with green rolling hills and dense forests. Our destination was the Lake of the Ozarks State Park. True to form, we had no reservation, but it was only Thursday and they have a good number of first-come sites so we felt pretty confident that we could get a site.
Sure enough, we found a really nice empty site on the lakeshore in the no hook-ups section. I have grown to fear no hook-ups sites at busy state parks because the chances that we’re going to be listening to a cacophony of generator noise is high. But it was a really nice site and, at least for the time being, the only other camper nearby was a van so we went for it. A whole bunch of weekend campers arrived the next day but happily everyone around us was either in a tent or generator free.
It was another partly rain-filled weekend (oh spring, why you gotta be so wet?) but we were determined to get out, so on Friday we took ourselves on a long hike. It was okay. The trail was really muddy in spots and aside from the one tiny section with a slight water view, it was more of walk in the woods than anything. After spending time in the west, I always have a hard time adjusting to hiking with no views.
The weather was warmer and drier on Saturday so we put our boats in the water for a little kayaking. It was no trip on the Rio Grande, but we enjoyed a short paddle around. These types of lakes are sometimes hard to enjoy when kayaking because of the large number of motor powers zooming around, but we stayed in a shallower area and only saw one boat.
After dinner, we sat outside for a bit and enjoyed the evening light. Overall, we really liked this campground and would stop again if in the area, but I am not sure it had enough of a wow factor to make it a true destination.
Sunday morning we were up and ready to go earlier than normal. Today’s drive would take a few hours east for a little time in the city. More on that next time…