Day #6 of the West Trip: White Sands National Monument is a stark, eerie wonderland.

We got up at 6:00 a.m. for White Sands and were on the road just as the sky was turning a slate gray. We absolutely loved staying in Paisano Village, so leaving that wonderful place behind was hard for both of us, especially after the wind storm cost us our last day in Big Bend. We discussed staying an extra day, but we both agreed that this is not our last road trip, and if we start staying extra days in places here and there, that means taking away some of our stops, which neither of us want to do.

The drive north into New Mexico was breathtaking. Texas said goodbye with one of the most amazing sunrises I have ever witnessed. The roads leading out of Texas were extremely curvy, which is a bit nerve-wracking in an RV, but seeing the mountains bloom around us made all of the twisting and turning worth all of it. Amusingly, we did have to go through border patrol about half an hour into our drive, and we approached the checkpoint with some apprehension. Were they going to want to look through the RV? How long would this take? We approached, and the guy in the dark green suit and dark sunglasses smiled at us, asked two quick questions, and sent us on our way. I guess we weren’t acting squirrely enough to warrant more investigation.

Big Bend Sunrise
A beautiful goodbye from Big Bend National Park!

The thing that sent my blood pressure through the roof came a bit later: the tiny towns we had to drive through. Oh, goodness. Narrow roads and curves I can handle, but the low-hanging powerlines and low bridges left me muttering “Getmeouttaheregetmeouttaheregetmeouttahere” under my breath like a religious chant. We have an amazing RV-specific GPS that accounts for the height, weight, length, and width of our RV when selecting our route, but I don’t trust it to know everything. When we went under the lowest bridge, I held my breath until we came out the other side. So far, our GPS has been amazing, and I hope it stays that way!

We crossed into New Mexico at noon. Up until this point in our trip, we had stopped at visitor centers and taken pictures at the “Welcome to …” signs. New Mexico was a little different …

After five minutes of not seeing the visitor center, we gave each other confused glances. The visitor center is usually no more than five minutes beyond the state line. The sign that did eventually greet us, though, read “Do not pick up hitchhikers. Prison in area.” The one after that read something along the lines of “Military area next 20 miles. Explosions may occur.” We immediately gave up looking for a visitor center, made sure the doors were locked, and drove just a smidge faster.

Amusingly, we had taken a route that hugged the U.S.-Mexico border and went through El Paso. When we reached Alamogordo, we were shocked and amused to discover that we had to go through Border Patrol again! We approached the guard, who was also in dark green with dark sunglasses, grinning, and he definitely didn’t find us squirrely, since we spent less time at the second Border Patrol than the first!

We got to White Sands just before 2:00 p.m. One of the first things that stood out to us was the “White Sands Missile Range” just before it, and when we stopped to give the park ranger our “America the Beautiful” Pass, which is another thing that is worth its weight in gold, he gave us a map of the park. Come to find out, it’s shared with the military, with some areas off limits to visitors. It also did not escape me that the park is sometimes closed due to “missile range tests,” which left me glancing at the sky nervously. The guard never said anything, so we went into the park and decided not to worry about it.

There’s something that immediately happens when you encounter the white sand dunes just beyond the entrance.

Your retinas begin screaming.

Holy moly, this place is appropriately named! This place isn’t off-white by any means; it is a pristine, pure, stark, and white. With the afternoon sun beating down, it essentially glows. I would not be shocked if the astronauts in the space station have to put on sunglasses to look down on this place.

We stopped at the first place we could. I’m not a hat person, but after getting fried in Big Bend yesterday, I took one look at the sand dunes and went straight for the sunscreen and a hat. We stopped right by a sign that recommended a gallon of water, too. Not a water bottle, not a couple of water bottles, but a whole gallon of water. I glanced at the fluffy white mounds of sand, which look a lot like some of the beaches in Florida, minus the ocean, and raised an eyebrow. It was in the low 50s, too, so I wasn’t too concerned. I heard other tourists laugh at the sign, too.

After we climbed up the dunes, I could kind of understand the rule, particularly if you planned on hiking out. We stepped out into the blinding sea of white with our photography gear, and the lack of plant life allows the sun to beat down on you, making it feel at least ten degrees warmer than it is. I was suddenly grateful that we had decided to travel in the winter. I can’t imagine how hot White Sands must feel in the summer!

Ghost tree
Our favorite little “ghost tree” in White Sands!

The area we stopped in had more plant life than, say, the back of the park (which we found our later), and since it was winter, everything appeared dead. It gave that area a very eerie vibe, and we immediately went to take some pictures of the scenery. My partner takes a little longer because of her professional gear, and after I was happy with my investigation of that area, I did what is becoming my usual routine and went to find some nice views … and animal prints. I’m very aware of the fact that we are outside the city, and I like to know what may be watching us. In today’s case, it was a few birds, a mouse, a lizard, and a beetle. I think I found fox prints later, but it could have also been someone’s dog. White Sands is surprisingly alive, and the sand allows you to see the perfect footprints that the animals leave!

White Sands with plants
The beginning of White Sands has a surprising amount of life!

We didn’t come to White Sands for desert plants, though. What we really wanted to find was the iconic white dunes, devoid of anything but sand and with beautiful, white ripples that have been created by the wind. We started to head back, and I discovered my first instance where I began to understand all the signs in the park. I was walking toward the parking lot, and I heard my partner call out, “Where are you going? The RV is this way!” I turned around to see her going in the opposite direction. I felt my hair stand on end a little bit when that happened. I told her I just wanted to see what was over the ridge, and behold, twenty feet farther was the RV. So, I see White Sands’s point. It is easy to get turned around out there!

We drove to the halfway point in the park, and that’s when I noticed on the map “Pavement Ends.” We’re in a RV. We like pavement. There was a boardwalk area right before that, so we stopped and decided to look for our dunes there. It worked out, because we got to see all of the other RVs that went by and didn’t meet a horrific end. We ended up walking far enough that we found where the pavement ends, only to realize that it was a very well-maintained sand road.

We felt like we had a small victory when we found that, because we were afraid we were only going to get to enjoy half of the park. RVs are not by any means off-road vehicles, and we have no intention of this one becoming one! We jumped back into the RV and went all the way to the end of the road.

White Sands and Me

The good news is that the dunes in the back are higher, and the plant life almost disappears. You also get beautiful views of the San Andres Mountains and the Sacramento Mountains. The bad news is that it’s extremely crowded. It was late when we got to the end of the park and stopped, so we ended up cranking up the generator and eating dinner while watching kids slide down the sand dunes on vibrant colored sleds. Come to find out, they sell them in the gift shop, and after watching children play for half an hour, we decided that we are definitely doing the same tomorrow!

After dinner, it was almost sunset, so we picked up the photography gear and set out. Imagine my surprise when I noticed the couple hiking with us was walking their cat! Stewart, come to find out, was as adventurous as his humans, and his female human was hiking with a pink backpack on her back equipped with a window, just in case Stewart got tired!

White Sands close up
So pretty. So impossible to climb with dignity. 

After hiking out as far as we felt comfortable, we wished we were Stewart and had our own backpack! Hiking in sand was hard, and it gets cold when the sun starts going down! I’m talking a twenty degree drop in twenty minutes. At least, it felt like that! We snapped pictures as quickly as we could, and then we raced back to the RV. Then, it was a thirty minute drive to our RV park. I had been annoyed to find out that our RV park was so far out, but it suddenly made sense when I realized the military controls all of the land around White Sands. There are no RV parks close to White Sands!

We rolled into Boot Hill RV Park just a bit after dark, so we barely broke our “no driving at night” rule. We’re exhausted from our adventures, but that won’t stop us from taking sunrise pictures tomorrow at White Sands!

Boot Hill
Thank you for the wonderful accommodations, Boot Hill!

Day #5 of the West Trip: There is always a silver lining.

We slept in today when we realized the winds would probably be unruly, and there was no point in getting up to see Santa Elena at the crack of dawn. It was a smart move. The moment I stepped out to check our hookup connections, three people practically ran at me shouting “Are you guys okay?!”

It was a rough night with little sleep, but we made it through unscathed. The winds were much lower when we got up, but my weather app warned me that it wouldn’t stay that way.

The next thing out of everyone’s mouths was “Please, please don’t go into the park today!” When the experienced RVers are telling you not to drive, they mean it. I assured them that we do not have a death wish, and they all let out a collective sigh of relief.

However, we only had two days in Big Bend before heading out to White Sands, and we weren’t about to spend it sitting in the RV. I called around, but absolutely none of the tour groups had availability. The next time we visit Big Bend, we definitely won’t be doing it during this region’s Spring Break! We decided to strap on our photography gear and walk into Terlingua. We were staying in a ghost town, and while it wasn’t Big Bend, it was definitely worth exploring. As we set out down Highway 170 and stopped to take pictures of the stone ruins right outside the RV park, one of our neighbors rode up to us on his motorcycle (We didn’t feel comfortable towing a vehicle for this trip, but we may have to next time!) and handed us a hand-drawn map. Apparently, there are hieroglyphics in the mountains in Terlingua. I say apparently because we never did find them. Amusingly enough, he’s never found them either!

Abandoned building
This adorable, abandoned home was within walking distance of Paisano. 

We had a fantastic time wandering the desert looking for them, though! Terlingua is literally a ghost town. There is nothing here. As soon as we stepped off the road, that was it. The town was gone, and we were in the wild.

Hiking Terlingua
Terlingua has its own beautiful scenery! 
Terlingua 1
Big Bend is not the only place with gorgeous views! 

We ended up finding this incredibly creepy cowboy graveyard out in the middle of nowhere, and we immediately turned tail and went in the opposite direction as soon as we found it for fear that we had stepped on private property. Our misadventure led us down a path, and we saw high rock walls in the distance. We had been stopping and snapping pictures for a while at that point, and we were about to turn around and go back, but I dragged us around yet another corner, and behold, we found an old, dried up river that had probably been enormous and beautiful thousands of years ago.

Dried up river
If you get the chance, go looking for this gem! 

We had SO much fun in that river bed. We were quite disappointed that we couldn’t go into the park today, but that was probably one of the best hikes I’ve ever been on. We spent five hours out in the desert, and we ended up frying in the sun. It was so worth it!

For lunch, we dragged ourselves into one of the two restaurants in Terlingua (that we are aware of!). We had been eyeing the Chile Pepper Café since we got here, and we were not disappointed with the tacos or tres leches!

Chili Pepper
The Chile Pepper Cafe in Terlingua, Texas. 

We finally dragged ourselves back to the RV as the wind started to pick up, so it was a good decision not to drive today. The wind has largely calmed down as I type this at 9:00 at night, and the wind should be gone by the time we leave in the morning.

We absolutely want to come back here one day. Big Bend gets a 10/10, and when we come back, the first places we want to stop at are Santa Elena Canyon (and the Rio Grande) and the Chisos Mountains. We might even be brave enough to venture into Mexico! One of our neighbors raved about a restaurant called La Kiva, so that is where we will eat next time.

All in all, we are disappointed that we didn’t get to see as much of Big Bend as we wanted to, but we did manage to drive all but maybe two roads that were accessible to our RV. That being said, we have twenty-seven stops on this trip, and bad weather was bound to impact a few! It just means that we have to come back to Big Bend one day, and we certainly aren’t sad about that!

Day #4 of the West Trip: Big Bend National Park is unbelievably beautiful!

After three solid days of driving, we let ourselves sleep in. My weather app was giving me alerts about nasty weather, so we decided to take it slow and see what happened before we went into Big Bend. Little did we know what it was predicting …

We got to experience our first shower since we set off, and it was magical. Paisano Village has a public shower that would seem more appropriate in a five-star hotel, and we loved it! We seriously can’t say enough nice things about this RV park. It was absolutely silent last night, and it was one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.

At noon, after we’d eaten, showered, and organized some supplies, we decided that it appeared to be a mild day, and we headed out for the park. We decided our first stop would be Santa Elena Canyon. We took the Ross Maxwell Scenic Road to get there, and let me tell you, that drive will not let you down! We started jumping out of the RV and taking pictures as soon as we turned onto the road. As soon as the first mountain jumped into view, I thought that was it, and I was seeing the full beauty of Big Bend National Park in all of its majestic glory.

Big Bend 2Big Bend 3

That was absolutely not the case. I’ll admit that I was a little bit skeptical about this park versus all of the others. I considered scratching this one off the list as I was planning and giving its days to other parks. I’m so glad I didn’t. Big Bend has such diverse, gorgeous scenery. Every mountain range was a little bit different, ranging from red rock to black stone or mountains with layers of colors. Some mountains were almost square in appearance, others looked like they had bubbled up from the Earth, and others were sharp like crashing waves. The main mountain range here is the Chisos Mountains, and you also have the Rio Grande at the southernmost end of the park. Once you get there, you can look out and see Mexico. If we had wanted, we could have crossed the border, but we decided we were having enough of an adventure for today. It’s spring here, so all of the wildflowers have started blooming. The bluebonnets were our favorite, and because of them, I finally understand the line “For purple mountain majesties” in “America the Beautiful.” There were so many bluebonnets that the mountains literally looked purple, and it absolutely took our breath away!

Big Bend 4

The scenery wasn’t the only excitement, though. We had to survive getting to it, first!

After nearly thirty hours of driving to get to Big Bend, we were feeling fairly confident in our driving skills. Big Bend certainly tested them. We’ve realized that things like speed limit signs, “Bump in Road,” “Curve Ahead,” etc. are not meant for regular cars. They are meant for us. You guys do what you want in your zippy little cars, but to us, road signs might as well be scripture, and we dare not go against what they say. Big Bend has a lot of curves as well as elevation changes. The scariest thing for us was a double hairpin curve at a 10% downhill grade. We and a bunch of other RVs did it with no mishaps, but I promise, you are clenching everything while you do it.

Big Bend 1

Between driving like senior citizens and stopping to photograph everything, it took us hours to drive the approximately forty miles to the canyon. We got there only to realize that we weren’t the only ones who wanted to see it. Sadly, it’s Spring Break here, and the parking areas around Santa Elena were full. We got to see it from a distance and take some breathtaking photos, but we never got the opportunity to get out and hike it.

Santa Elena

We decided we’d get up early and be the first ones to the canyon tomorrow, so our next target was to backtrack and see the heart of the Chisos Mountains. Unfortunately, that’s when the weather got REALLY exciting. That wind storm they predicted came out of nowhere, and the first gust as we were climbing a steep hill felt almost like the gods had drop kicked us from the sky. We both glanced at each other, shook our heads, and turned to go home. Thank goodness we did! We parked in our overflow site and hooked up (with the neighbors visibly sighing in relief that we were back. They knew better than we did!), and as soon as we got inside, the RV really got to rocking. When it got dark, the wind got more violent. The best I can compare it to is when my partner, dad, and I went fishing off the coast of Florida a few moths ago. The ocean was really choppy, and the boat bucked underneath us for four hours, making it almost impossible to stay upright. It was like the wind was attacking the RV, and it finally got to the point that I started Googling at what m.p.h. we could expect to tip over.

At 10:00 p.m., our saviors came for us. Paisano Village RV park is incredible. They knew we were first time RVers, and they were very protective of us. In the middle of the night, they moved us to another site. They came out in the pitch-black darkness, with the wind kicking dirt into our eyes and pelting exposed flesh so strongly that it stung, and they helped us unhook our utilities, back into our new spot, and hook back up. Thank goodness they did! As soon as we were nestled in with the other RVs – most of them much bigger than us—the RV stopped bucking and swaying for the most part. I doubt we would have been able to sleep where we were, though we didn’t do much better after we moved. I had read that winds above 30 m.p.h. can damage slide-outs, and since our bed doesn’t come out unless we slide it out, we opted to pull out the couch and sleep on that instead. Not at all comfortable, but we were safe.

That was our first day in a national park. We went looking for adventure at the edge of the country, but I think the adventure found us! They are predicting even worse winds tomorrow, so I guess we’ll see what happens in the morning!

Day #3 of the West Trip: Wait … Is this Cartoon Network?

We woke up at 6:00 a.m. with the intention of being ready to go as soon as the sun was up, but between Daylight Savings Time and changing time zones, we missed the mark a bit and ended up waiting for the sun for nearly two hours! I started driving as soon as we saw the sun peak out, and we were off! As usual, the universe tested us. We got to deal with wind, rain, and on and off construction zones in Dallas, which were less than fun, but we handled them well. Luckily, nothing was severe enough to force us to stop like the first day

Once we were out of Dallas, the landscape changed tremendously. We went from city to virtually nothing for the remainder of Texas. After the Mississippi River, the landscape began to change. Alabama and Mississippi look a lot like Georgia, but once we crossed into Louisiana, we encountered the wetlands it is so well know for immediately.

Lousiana fog
Louisiana’s landscape can be very eerie! Photo credit: Debora Cartagena (Instagram: @deboracphotos). 

Still, Louisiana isn’t completely alien in appearance. After Dallas, Texas began to look very strange very quickly. Tall trees gave way to patchy bushes and short, squat, twisted goblin-esque trees. As we moved closer and closer to Big Bend, the trees got shorter and meaner looking until they completely disappeared. Up until hills and mountains began appearing, it was mainly ghost towns and oil refineries, with great big machines out in the land digging for oil.

Digging for oil
Scenes like this were all we saw for hundreds of miles in the middle of Texas. 

Once we turned off I-20 toward Big Bend, humanity vanished. Aside from the road and the fences on either side of us, human beings might as well have ceased to exist. After our hectic lives as graduate students in Atlanta, it was exactly what we wanted for this trip, but for human contact to vanish so abruptly in one turn was startling.

What humanity
Hello, Texas! Goodbye, human contact! Photo credit: Debora Cartagena.  

We didn’t have a reservation at a RV park for today, and we realized our chances of finding a truck stop to stay in out in the Middle of Nowhere, Texas, was probably nonexistent, so we called the RV park we are staying at to see if they would let us come early. They were full, but they do have a cozy overflow site by their storage units, and they were kind enough to let us have it. We were even more excited when they let us know we could use their shower (We only have a six gallon water heater. Taking a shower in under five miutes is hard!).

When we reached Big Bend after nearly twelve hours of driving, we immediately became tourists. We were constantly jumping out of the RV to see things, more often than naught shouting “Look at that!” as we both pointed in different directions and tried to pull the other one to look at what we had found.

Big Bend
After three days, we reached Stop #1! 

We found our first Looney Tune that way. We had literally been in the park for two minutes, had jumped out for the very first time, and Wile E. Coyote ran beside us. It was so cool! I managed to get a quick video of him before he vanished. We got back in the car and were giddy, realizing the city was far behind us.

Little did we know, every other animal representing the cast of the Looney Tunes would want to say hello, too.

About twenty minutes later, the sun was starting to set, and I was focusing on getting us to the RV park before it got dark.

Then, boom, Porky Pig is in the middle of the road. My response was the squeak “NnnoooOOOoooo” as this little, black pig darted in front of us, giving us a passing glance as if we had inconvenienced him as our 10,000 pound (probably?) machine barreled toward him. RVs are nowhere near being like cars when it comes to breaking, meaning that you break 100 feet back or you don’t break at all, so it was a miracle when Porky got across the road.

Another half an hour later, my nerves still frayed by Porky, Bugs Bunny jumped out in front of us, and I’m telling you, I came up with a lot of creative nicknames for that inconsiderate lump of fur as I clenched the steering wheel and some other things. This sucker was easily the size of a medium-sized dog and probably larger than the pig, and I’m glad he cleared us, since it was debatable if we would win. My partner kept checking to see if I was alright after that, since I spent the remainder of the drive laughing so hysterically that I was crying.

We thought we were in the clear when we got to the ghost town of Terlingua, Texas, where Paisano Village RV Park is, but no. Turns out our GPS, which is worth its weight in gold most of the time, got confused, so there I was, driving down a one-lane road in the heart of Terlingua, while my partner and I leaned out the windows, squinting, going “Is that it?”

When we finally rolled in to Paisano Village at about 9:00 p.m., they were waiting for us. We had told them we would be in at 6:00 p.m., and these saints waited up for the city girls from Atlanta to arrive safely. They walked back to the overflow site with us and helped us back in, and they even connected our utilities for us. After thirteen hours of driving, we were grateful.

Paisano
We love Paisano Village RV Park! Thank you for everything! Photo credit: Debora Cartagena. 

So, we are here, Big Bend is gorgeous, the animals are prolific, and this RV park is quiet and all around lovely. We’re so happy to be here! Tomorrow, we explore!

But the Looney Tunes are welcome to stay home.

Day #2 of the West Trip: Sometimes, technology lies!

We woke up this morning to find that it had poured rain all night, but the skies were clear, and the bad weather had passed by the time we started making our morning caffeine. We found that driving the RV goes much smoother when you don’t have to battle the wind, though passing semi-trucks are still a bit of a nuisance.

It was an easy, uneventful day of slowly and carefully making our way toward Big Bend National Park. We arrived in a very soggy Louisiana at about 11:00 a.m. and reached Texas at about 4:00 p.m. We got to have horses for neighbors at the Texas visitor center, with two women pulling up with their horse trailer just after we arrived. It was a joy to eat our mac and cheese while two beautiful horses were allowed to graze just outside our window. We may or may not have also allowed our inner kids out to play and indulged in a Pokemon Go break.

Louisiana
It was rainy, but we got through State #3!
Texas
Followed quickly by State #4 and the home of our first destination!

Our only learning experience came at about 7:00 p.m., when we were ready to stop for the night. We passed a rest stop as we were approaching Dallas, and as it passed the passenger’s side, I had the quick thought that we might not see rest stops like that in Dallas. So, I asked our extremely useful (seriously, this thing is a lifesaver) GPS to find the nearest rest area. Turns out, we wouldn’t see one for another 100 miles! Since it would be dark in an hour, and we have a strict rule about driving at night, that didn’t work for us.

So, I looked on my Campendium and AllStays apps for alternatives. I recommend these apps for travelers. While our GPS is fantastic, these apps do know things that the GPS does not. The good news is that there were plenty of rest stops on the apps. The bad news is that they were all poorly rated and unsafe. As a bonus, none of the RV parks in the area were open. By the time I finally found a place, my partner was exhausted, and the sun was swiftly setting. We drove half an hour out of our way for this safe place in Waxahachie, Texas, only to pass it on the highway and realize it had been condemned for probably a decade.

App fail.

Thankfully, we found a Love’s Truck Stop only five more miles down the road. We’re exhausted and have hunkered down for the night here. We did a quick walk through, and the place is clean and appears quiet and safe, so we are satisfied that we’ll get a good night’s sleep here.

Tomorrow, we finally arrive at Big Bend National Park for the first of our twenty-seven stops. We’re so excited!