We were sad to leave the peacefulness and beauty of the Big Bend area. Initially, the area presents itself as harsh and desolate but once you have had a chance to spend some time and look beyond the initial perception, you realize what the area offers. There is a stark beauty and overwhelming sense of being a part of something that is bigger than you. You begin to appreciate the lifestyle of the people who call the area home and begin to understand the attraction for those who are not only willing to live in this environment, but clearly feel that this is the only place they want to live. There are sacrifices to be made, but once you have had the experience you begin to see that those sacrifices for some are not as important as the what the lifestyle offers.
Although we had the alternative of leaving Lajitas in the opposite direction from which we had come, and that was recommended for the views, we decided to go back on route 118 because we had to stop in Alpine again to fuel up and Eileen wanted to stop at a store in town. Somewhere about fifty or sixty miles up route 118 we were forced to stop at a border patrol station. We were asked if we had anyone in the RV and if we were citizens. We both thought it strange that they were so far from the border. With an apparent “crisis” at the border, it seemed inefficient to utilize resources so far from the border.
We arrived in Alpine, did what we had to do, and then made our way to route 90 for the trip to I-10 and onto El Paso for the night. Route 90 took us through a couple of very interesting towns in West Texas, Marfa and Valentine. An interesting facet of West Texas is the mix between people who live off the land and artists. The landscape and environment lend themselves to mining and oil fields as well as vast areas for ranching, but the independent spirit that accompanies working in these fields also spawns and relates to the artistic mentality. Marfa is a really interesting example of an artistic oasis that exists in this hard-scrabble area. It was featured on 60 Minutes some years ago as an artist enclave in the midst of the rough exterior of West Texas. One of the unique features is an art installation that was featured on the show, and which we passed on our way up route 90. It is a faux Prada store-front that sits on the side of the road which is obviously meant to illustrate the juxtaposition between the desolate and rough area that surrounds it and the sophistication of the fashion world.
Half-way to I-10 we began to see acre after acre of trees off the highway that were perfectly aligned and spaced in rows for as far as the eye could see. We were curious as to what kind of trees they were and what they produced. It was obvious that they were meant to produce a crop. It was not readily apparent until we got to El Paso, and while talking to our neighbors in the campground, we learned they were pecan trees. Later we crossed paths with more pecan farms that advertised, “The Best Pecan Pie in America”. I was willing to sacrifice my time to be the judge of those claims, but thought better of it. Besides, I knew where the best pecan pie was made – by our good friend Ellen back in Connecticut.
After spending a restful yet unremarkable night in El Paso we pushed on to Tucson. In order to get to Arizona via I-10 one must cross the entire expanse of southern New Mexico. Aside from long stretches of empty space there were two distinguishing aspects that stood out along the path. The first was the largest collection of cows we had ever seen in one place. For about a five mile stretch next to the highway in southeastern New Mexico there was farm after farm with hundreds or possibly thousands of cows. Neither of us had ever seen that concentration of livestock in one area. It was hard to stay focused on the road.
The other aspect which was a little more of a concern was the omnipresent warnings of sand storms posted along the route and instructions on what to do if one were encountered. Traveling past mile after mile of desert on a reasonably windy day, and reading the warnings, you could not help but be a bit concerned about the possibility. On more than one stretch of the highway, you could see the small twisters of sand off in the distance and hope that they were not traveling toward the highway. Later we would understand that this is a constant focus throughout the western desert areas and an aspect of daily travel that is commonplace for those who live in these areas.
As we entered Arizona the skies were cloudier and some fairly ominous clouds sat in the distance. We waited for the rain which is never fun to drive in but is usually nothing more than a nuisance. The clouds were present but the rain held off for most of the trip. When we arrived at Voyager RV Resort a light drizzle started as there was a perceptible drop in the temperature.
Voyager RV turned out to be a very large RV community with close to 1,000 units in all. Many of the units were park models where people either live year-round or at least spend the winter months. There are also RV units inter-mixed with the park models. All of these units are packed in like sardines and spread across about twenty-five to thirty acres of land. There are also about 200 sites for those of us who are coming in to spend a month or less. These sites offer a bit more space with concrete pads and crushed stone around them.
The park has a central area that consists of the main office, a bank, two pools, several activity rooms, and a gym. In an adjacent area there was a hotel, a restaurant, market, laundry room and a hair salon. Eileen actually decided to get her hair cut at the salon and was actually pleased with the result. The park also has a par 3 golf course and a hitting area where you could hit balls for free.
While we were setting up the rain started lightly but the wind picked up and there was a noticeable drop in the air temperature. When we finally had a chance to relax, we turned the television on and were a little surprised to find out that all of the areas around us we getting a significant snowfall. Parts of northern Arizona around Flagstaff were looking at a foot of snow and the mountains around Tucson were looking at eight to twelve inches. The traffic on I-10, where we had been just a few hours earlier, was snarled and moving slowly through the snowfall. I mentioned to Eileen that we were fortunate to be off the road and in a lower area because we just had rain.
The next morning we were surprised when we looked out the door to find fat, heavy snowflakes falling and covering the ground. It snowed for a few hours until the sun came out and the temperature rose into the high forties. We had gotten about three inches of snow and it took a couple of days for all of the snow to finally melt. Welcome to Arizona.
Snowy Tucson at Voyager RV Resort
When we were reasonably back to normal we decided to check out Saguaro (/səˈwɑːroʊ/ National Park which is about fifteen miles outside Tucson. The saguaro cactus is the iconic cactus used as one of the symbols of Arizona and is found on their license plates. They can grow up to sixty and seventy feet tall. The park is approximately 95,000 acres. It is actually separated between a section west of Tucson in the Tucson Mountain District and another section east of the city which is the Rincon Mountain District.
Scenes from Saguaro National Park
There is also a small property called Old Tucson. There is a gift shop, restaurant and a movie set of the old west. It is basically a tourist trap but a fun stop.
Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to play a little golf at the course because it was snow-covered. There are many reasons for not being able to play golf in Tucson but being snowed out is not one I would have predicted.
While in the area we decided to visit Biosphere 2 which is about seventy-five minutes north of Tucson near the Catalina Mountains. Biosphere 2 is the largest earth science laboratory in the world. The unique research facility that is designed to study ecosystems under controlled conditions sits on a forty- acre campus and includes a rainforest, a dessert and even an ocean. There are thousands of miles of piping and ducts that run underneath all of these environments that control all of the differing climates. The tour was extremely interesting and required a little bit of climbing and scrunching through areas. The facility has two very large areas that control the amount of air and air flow called the “Lungs”. These are extremely large rooms that have a giant rubber membrane roof that moves and adjust air flow in different parts of the facility.
I thought I might be able catch a little spring training in Tucson or maybe a Cactus League game. I spied a baseball complex off the highway and actually saw some players on the field. I was not aware until later that the Cactus League has consolidated all of its teams in a fifty-mile radius of Phoenix to lessen travel for the teams.
Our next stop was the Phoenix area. As we approached Phoenix on I-10 we were a bit surprised at the level of traffic. What we were stunned by was the amount of air traffic. About five miles outside the city we watched as planes took off from the airport literally minutes apart, one after the other. It is not normal to see two departing planes in the air at one time. And as we entered the city, we witnessed several planes coming into the area for landing almost next to each other. Greater Phoenix is the fastest growing area in the country and is presently the fifth most populated area in the U.S.
We had only planned a one-day stay before moving onto California. We stayed at Desert Shadows RV Park which was a fairly large RV community much like Voyager in Tucson. There was small area of pull-through sites near the front of the park for transient folks like us. The park had quite a few saguaro cacti throughout the park and a few lemon and grapefruit trees. There were actually crates of the fruits by the pool for the taking. Eileen grabbed a couple of grapefruits that later she found to be pretty good.
We didn’t have a great deal of time to do much while in the area so we decided to follow the recommendation of my old friend and former colleague Dariusz who is a frequent visitor to the area. He recommended Old Scottsdale. The Phoenix area itself is the fastest growing city in the country and presently has about 1.6 million people in the area. In fact, it is now the fifth largest city in the U.S. Scottsdale is a good portion of that population. Old Scottsdale is a small neighborhood about four – five blocks in size. The area celebrates the old west heritage of the area with several stores and restaurants. It is a fun place where you can get some good food, possibly some western wear or western or native-American art or artifacts. It is also popular with San Francisco Giants fans this time of year as their spring training stadium sits right across from the Old Scottsdale area.
Greater Phoenix was a beautiful but very busy area. It would have been good to have a couple more days to investigate the area but choices have to be made or we would be on the road for a very long time. We were also anxious to move on to our next stop in California.