(South)Westward Ho! – Part 1

Lava formation at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area on Bureau of Land Management federal property near Carrizozo, New Mexico.

Winter in the North Country can be beautiful, but there is simply too much of it.

Especially for an Old Coot whose arthritic joints ache and creak whenever January temperatures dip below the bright blue line that marks zero degrees Fahrenheit on the thermometer on our deck. That’s 18 degrees below zero on the right side of the thermometer with the Celsius scale, which seems even more brutal before I have imbibed my morning dose of high-caffeine coffee and ibuprofen.

By February 1, we had enjoyed more of this winter than we could bear. We packed six plastic tubs with clothes, hiking boots, hats, groceries, dog food, an assortment of tools, and other vacation gear and stacked them within and atop the shelving unit I had built into the box of the Ranger pickup in preparation for our escape from the Arctic. I shoveled the Scamp camping trailer out of the two-foot snow drift that surrounded its parking pad, hitched it to the towbar of the truck, hooked up the chains, connected the electrical cable, and begged a favor from the winter gods that everything would work properly. It did.

Midmorning we told our French spaniel Abbey to leap into the back seat, and we climbed aboard after stowing the last of the bags and boxes of books, notebooks, binoculars, two dog beds, leads and tie-out ropes, a roadmap travel atlas, cell phones, computer laptops, Kindles, I-Pads, I-Pods, and a dozen charge cords and other accessories. “Did you remember to pack the mole traps?” I asked my Beautiful Blonde Wife. She was not amused. So far, we have not needed the mole traps.

I shifted the transmission into 4-wheel-drive, and we busted through a snow drift that had blown across our driveway. A gale force wind was howling from the west-northwest, and the North Country roads were snow-swept. Because I have not had a lot of experience towing a trailer, especially a trailer with the high profile of the Scamp, I crept along with white-knuckle caution at 50 miles per hour. Consequently, we arrived at the first destination of our winter travel adventure – Omaha – after sunset.

First three days of our trip we stayed at our daughter’s family’s home in Omaha. Sub-zero weather in Nebraska discouraged our plunge into a night of winter camping in the Scamp.

Searching for an unfamiliar campground along a pitch-dark, narrow, two-lane county road with no shoulders is no way to end a seven-hour drive on a wind-tossed February day. Eventually we found it, and surprise!, although the campground’s website reported it was open with several sites available for trailers, it was not.

In retrospect, that may have been a blessing. Setting up during a sub-zero Nebraska night would have put too much strain on our nascent winter vacation. Fortunately, we had a Plan B.

We drove to our daughter’s family’s home in Papillion, backed the trailer and truck into her driveway, and crashed at her house the following three days. Three bitter cold days with high winds and the forecast of a possible snowstorm insisted that we stay snug and warm and well-fed. Also, our son-in-law, a retired U.S. Navy flight officer, has the best military aviation private library in the nation, so I had unlimited reading material to peruse in a comfortable easy chair in front of a fireplace. An added bonus: we had supper one evening with long-time friends who live in Omaha and all of us agreed that the world is going to hell in a handbasket and we don’t like it.

The morning of February 4, we were back on the road with the Scamp in tow. The wind was still blowing 20 miles per hour, and we were driving into the teeth of it as we headed west on I-80, a stretch of interstate highway that is the equivalent of a Xanax entrèe with a main course of Prozac. After too many hours on the road we pulled into the Nebraska Game & Parks public campground at Johnson Lake, about 10 miles south of Lexington. This was our first real attempt at winter camping, and it went smoothly, at least as smoothly as possible for people who believe that an electric heater will keep the Scamp as warm as the trailer’s propane heater. It did not.

After a breakfast of bagels and coffee heated in the microwave, we were on the road again, headed southwest to Dodge City, Kansas. First settled in 1872 as a station on the Santa Fe Railroad, Dodge City quickly became a railhead for shipping cattle driven overland in huge herds from sprawling ranches across the shortgrass prairie. Practically lawless and teeming with wild and inebriated cowhands who entertained themselves by patronizing the saloons, gambling halls, whorehouses, and engaging in almost nightly gunfights, Dodge was known as “The Wickedest City in the West.”

Our observation was that it may have slipped to a lower rank on the “Wickedest” list but still rates high in the “Nastiest” category with its slaughter houses, casinos, railroads, disingenuous tourism attractions, and sub-par KOA campground. And that’s all I got to say about that.

Off we went the next morning, bidding farewell to nasty Dodge and headed for the tiny Oklahoma town of Boise City. For those who plan to drive a couple hundred miles through southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma panhandle, I offer this advice: DON’T. However, if you insist on making this journey across a Martian landscape, I do recommend staying at Wild Bill’s RV and Trailer Park in the heart of Boise City, population 1,138 and the county seat of Cimarron County.

Wild Bill’s is spartan but clean with much better amenities than the aforementioned KOA, including a putt-putt golf course which we were unable to play since it was buried in six inches of snow. Just four blocks down Main Street there is a good Mexican restaurant, operating in a remodeled 1950s-era Texaco service station, one of the dozens of two-pump, “last chance” fuel stops, built of cinder blocks with white stucco facing, trim paint fading and peeling. These empty husks along state highways in rural states were once thriving places that have been driven out of business by the sprawling supersized service plazas with 20-plus gasoline and diesel pumps, a convenience store, and a fast-food restaurant. One-building ghost towns.

Shortly after sunrise we took our leave of Boise City and Wild Bill’s, vowing to stop there on our return journey – one night only, and only if we retrace our route across Oklahoma. Admittedly, an unlikely scenario.

The Cimarron region of the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles may have a certain beauty when its shortgrass prairies burst into bloom in the spring. In February, however, it is a desiccated and drear landscape, a featureless flat plain where starving hawks feed on road-killed jackrabbits. The highway we drove bridged several rivers and creeks; only one had a trace of water, and its stagnant edges were crusted with alkali.

But for all its harsh and desolate appearance, the Cimarron open range was far better than the miles and miles of cattle feeding operations at Dahlhart, Texas, an ecological nightmare that makes you wonder if people would dare to eat this beef if they could witness how it is produced in these manure and urine-soaked feed lots. This is stark evidence that America’s food production system has evolved into something that even Mordor would shun. It is almost as bad as Iowa’s farm country which is covered in hog manure and poisoned by herbicides and nitrate fertilizers that have made the state’s soil lifeless and its surface waters the most polluted in the nation.

After three days of driving across the flat and featureless shortgrass prairies of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, we were suddenly into the rolling hills, mesas, mountains, lakes, playas, and arroyos of New Mexico.

As we slogged along the final miles of Texas highways, the sun was shining but our mood was in the dark cave of a vile necromancer when suddenly – Hey! Presto! – we crossed the border into New Mexico where the bright magic of some benevolent wizard transported us into a realm of rolling hills, mesas, mountains, playas, and arroyos. And cattle grazing on the sparse native grasses of the open range. Now this was more like it.

We rolled into the town of Logan and took a state route that paralleled the Canadian River Valley to the Ute Lake State Park, a place that will forever hold our affection because for the first day and night on this southwest excursion the weather was warm. Sweatshirt and ballcap warm. Sleep under a single blanket warm. Bask in a camp chair in the sunlight warm.

We camped two nights at Ute Lake State Park, two more at Sumner Lake State Park, and then gambled on a stay at a federal Bureau of Land Management Recreation Area known as the Valley of Fires. Formed by lava flows that erupted from a valley floor 2,000-5,000 years ago, this area is one of the most stunning and ruggedly beautiful places we have ever camped at.

We decided to stay here four days, at least, to learn about this area, do some hiking, and of course bake the North Country winter chills out of our bones.

Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore. Our trailer house has been whirled away on cyclone winds high over the rainbow to the fabled Land of Oz. Although we did not meet any Munchkins, we certainly enjoyed a warm welcome, and we found the first paving stones on the Yellow Brick Road that will lead us further south.


About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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8 Responses to (South)Westward Ho! – Part 1

  1. Katie Stracke says:

    We are going to Mexico the last week of March! Meet us there! 🍹

    • We will probably remain in New Mexico until we head north at the end of March (or April if winter is not yet over in the North Country). Lots to see and do here. Enjoy your vacation!

  2. Fred Petersburg says:

    Enjoyed your blog tonight.we are in San Antonio now.
    Left Illinois on Feb 1 to arrive at our Air B&B in Tucson on the fifth. We booked this place last August after our friends Ann Highum and Jerry Fruend suggested we meet them there.
    We should have left a day earlier.
    We tried to skirt the storm to the west, but got caught in it between Amarillo and Albuquerque. Don’t know how we survived it after several close calls, but we did. Driving the Expedition rather than the car probably saved us.
    Took I-25 south of Albuquerque on the morning of the 3rd with plans to stop in Payson, Arizona that night which we did. Along the way, we stopped in Magdalena, Mew Mexico for a break, and had a long talk with a 72 year old proprietor of the small town trading post/visitors center/gift shop. Learned about the great Elk Hunting and Scaled Quail there.
    Enjoyed good weather in Tucson for five days, and then began the long trek to Houston, Texas, which we will hit tomorrow. Visiting relatives there.
    If you get far enough south, Big Bend is worth the trip.

  3. Fred – Whew! Thankful that you survived the drive through the winter storms, We skirted the worst of them by driving west on I-80 before we headed south.
    We lived three years in West Texas, near Midland-Odessa, and agree that Big Bend National Park is well worth the trip. Especially the Los Chisos Mountains. We liked Lajitas, too, but the last time we were there a few years ago it had become quite touristy.
    See you at the next Coots-Together in the spring.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the update, tell Patty no matter how she fells it not worth it , the Law will Eventually find out

  5. Anonymous says:

    Jerry, another great read you provided us in frost-bite Winneshiek county.

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