Our first trip! I had mapped out a route to take us out of Missouri across Oklahoma and into West Texas, leaving at 2 in the morning to get a start and be camped by 3 in the afternoon. Camping that first night at Caprock Canyon State Park, one of two Texas state parks that are associated with the Palo Duro Canyon, which after the Grand Canyon is the next longest canyon the United States. The park also has an active herd of Plains Bison, descended from a herd of bison that had been rounded up by the pioneering cattleman, Charlie Goodnight. Goodnight, along with Oliver Loving, are best known for establishing the Goodnight Loving Trail leading from West Texas into the New Mexico territory, up along the front range through Colorado into Wyoming. At the insistence of his wife Molly, Goodnight rounded up a herd of wild bison in 1876; the thinking was that they would be extinct within just a few more years, and they probably would have been so if not for conservationist like Charlie Goodnight. Stock from the Goodnight bison herd were used to replenish the herds that now roam Yellowstone National Park, and Custer State Park of South Dakota. And it might not have happened had Molly not insisted the Charlie save some of the Bison; a man will usually do the right thing if he listens to his wife. The JA Ranch, who received the Bison Herd after Goodnight's death in 1929 donated the herd to the state of Texas in the 1990's, and it is now the official State of Texas Bison Herd.
We had to be careful while hiking along the rim trail of the canyon, as there were bison roaming near the trail head at the campground. But we kept a safe distance and more importantly downwind. As Pea-Eye Parker once said, "Them buffalo'll hook ya!"
I'm glad I brought Marilee to Caprock Canyon before we went to the Grand Canyon. She had never seen either one. I had back packed and tent camped at Caprock in the days I was living in Lubbock, before the bison, and I wanted to see it again. I remembered how I felt the first time I saw it; it was like you were on location in a movie western. A few years later, parts of Lonesome Dove were filmed at the park because of its stark unspoiled beauty. One of the few remaining landscapes in the United States that looks the same as it did the first time any Europeans ever laid their eyes upon it.
We only stayed one night at Caprock Canyon, although I wish I had planned for more. No craft beer here, no breweries in nearby Lubbock either, and officially your not even supposed to drink alcohol at the park. (I have found this rule in place in other state, too, and I have also discovered that if you are discreet, no one is going to say much about it).
When Kodi and I got up the next morning for his AM constitutional, stumbling out of the RV bleary eyed, I came to attention rather quickly; we had a friend grazing in our campsite. He was far enough away and paid little heed to us, but I was still going to be cautious. The bison (I say it's a he, it could have been a cow for all I know, except it didn't have a calf and it was the spring season), head down was to the north of us about 100 feet, and the breeze was light from the west, so Kodi and I went east. By the time we had walked and he had made water and dropped a deuce, our neighbor was gone.
Heading west, we climbed the Caprock Escarpment up onto the Llano Estacado, "The Staked Plain." The largest mesa in the United States, the Llanno is a flat plain- as flat a piece of land as you will ever see- that stretches from Amarillo in the north, southward to the foothills of the Guadalupe Peaks, from the Caprock Escarpment and the Permian Basin in the east to the Mescalero Escarpment and Pecos River valley in the west. 249 miles long, 149 miles long, and nearly 37,500 square miles.
The first European to see the Llano was Conquistador Francisco Coronado, who described the plains:
"I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues ... with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea ... there was not a stone, nor bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by."
When I first saw it in 1981, I said "Holy S#1T, this place is flat!" By the time I saw the Llano, the sea of grass was gone. After the Texans had killed all of the bison on the plains and run off the Comanche- perhaps the first tribe to have harnessed the power of riding horseback, and had lived and thrived on the Llano for nearly 3 centuries- ranchers came onto the the Llano, but the real change in the landscape came in the mid 20th Century, when drilling and irrigation technology made it possible to extract water from the vast Ogallala Reservoir. The Ogallala is a huge underground water table stretching from Ogallala Nebraska in the north to the Llano Estacado in the south. With that, the farming of cotton in west Texas exploded. White Gold. Unfortunately, because of uncontrolled use of water from the Ogallala, there may be no water left by 2050. Perhaps the Llano will return to the sea of grass that it once was. Wind farms are now popping up across the plains, taking advantage of the almost never ending winds. The future of land usage across the Llano is currently up in the air.
Lubbock hadn't changed much in nearly 30 years. I could have avoided driving through the Hub City of the Panhandle all together, but I wanted to see it at one more time. The last time I had been there was 1991, and other than some minor cosmetic things, it looked completely the same.
As we drove west of Texas towards New Mexico, the cotton fields dissipated, replaced by scrub brush desert. Crossing the New Mexico state line, we decided to stop and grab some lunch. As we approached the town of Tatum, a billboard announced "Ramirez Authentic Mexican Cuisine; 1 Block left at the Stop light." I pulled into the lot and went in and ordered enchiladas and chile rellenos, both with salsa verde, to go. It was a little past one in the afternoon, there were no customers in the place, however there were a half dozen tables that had empty plates, bowls, baskets and glasses, signs of a recently busy enough lunch crowd that had not been gone long. A beautiful young lady of obvious hispanic descent with no accent what so ever took the order, then delivered it to the kitchen, where she spoke to another woman, from her voice I assumed she was older, and they conversed in Spanish. The young lady returned and I told her I'd be back in a few minutes. I went and walked Kodi around the metal building, letting him stretch his legs and do his business.
The town of Tatum didn't look like much. The sign at the city limits said 683 people, but looking around, I couldn't imagine that it was much more than half of that. Tank brick and metal buildings, the town lacked almost any color. Even what trees there were, and there were very few, were tan. I discovered later that the Tatum served as a service industry town for the local oil drilling industry, and recently, the oil industry hadn't been doing well in eastern New Mexico.
Leaving Kodi with Marilee, I went in and got our food and tipped the young lady generously, from the look on her face I don't think she was accustomed to gratuities of that size. She thanked me, I thanked her, we took the food and headed west out of town, hoping to find a roadside park to eat our lunch but after 15 miles we settled on New Mexico Highway Department gravel dump and enjoyed some of the best enchiladas and chile rellenos, with beans and rice, that we had eaten in a very long time.
Continuing west we crossed the Pecos River, then went through Roswell, but were disappointed that we didn't see any UFOs or aliens, and then ascended the Mescalero Escarpment and into the Sacramento Mountains, through the Mescalero Apache Reservation, then down into the Tularosa Basin and White Sands National Monument.
The one thing that makes White Sands amazing is because it really shouldn't be a thing. A left over lake bed from the last ice age; as the climate warmed Prehistoric Lake Otero dried up, leaving behind the minerals that had been dissolved in its water, and one mineral in particular. The white sand if actually gypsum, what we make sheetrock out of, and it's water soluble. Rainwater normally dissolves gypsum and carries it away to the sea. But the unique geography of the Tullarosa Basin preserves holds the gypsum particles in the valley. Rains falling on the Sacramento and San Andreas mountains dissolve gypsum as the water flows to the basin, and because the basin has no rivers flowing from it, the rainwater forms small surface pools and subterranean aquifers and the gypsum in the water crystalizes to make more sand. It's perhaps one of the most unique landscapes in the United States, and is the largest gypsum dune field on earth, covering almost 275 square miles.
One of things that those of us who don't live in an arid climate always seem to take for granted is water, but once you've spent anytime in the west, you quickly realize that those who have scratched out a living in this environment are survivalists, flora, fauna, human. Other than the polar climates, there is no other climate that is less forgiving. Water is everything; our bodies are 70% water. Water is undoubtedly the key to survival for all living creatures.
Some plants are 90 to 95% water. Having evolved and adapted, some dryland species of plants can go nearly a decade without freshwater, storing great reserves within, or finding water where it doesn't seem to be. Velvet Mesquite have roots that can reach 160 feet beneath the surface to find water. The Creosote Bush can live for thousands of years, the oldest being a ring of the bushes in the Mojave desert that have been alive for more than 11,000 years, making it a contemporary of the first humans to learn farming techniques. How they survive this long is complex in the science, but simple in the concept; when conditions are not conducive to growth, or even survival, the plant stops growing, basically it hibernates until conditions are more favorable for growth. The barrel and saguaro cacti have survived by making their own "shade." The parallel ridges that grown vertically on the cacti means that as the sun moves across the sky, there are always shaded lines along the surface of the cacti to help reduce evaporation from the surface of the plant. On the barrel cacti, the ridges also expand and contract like the bellows on an accordion; during the wetter season expanding to hold more water, and contracting during the drier periods.
Contrary to common misconception and Hollywood Westerns, getting water from a cactus is a BAD idea. The cowboy rides up, lops of the top of a barrel cactus and then he and his horse drink hardily. I just saw this same technique shown on a recent biography of Kit Carson. (Facepalm: doesn't anyone ever do any research? there were a lot of other stupid inaccuracies in the program, but what do you expect from "The History Channel.") The fluid inside of a cactus is highly alkalis, which means if you drink it, you are going to get sick, violently sick, throwing up, diarrhea, dehydration; in other words hastening your demise rather than delaying it. But there are ways to find water in arid regions. North facing canyon walls often shade pools of water at the base from seepage out of the stone. It's probably not going to be the best tasting but it's wet. Look for stands of green trees such as willows, cottonwoods, and sycamores; there's either a stream, a watering hole, a spring, or ground water there, because none of those species can survive without a constant source of water. Look for birds and insects- if you are seeing them, there is a water source nearby. You can eat cactus fruit, such as prickly pears, but you won't gain a lot of hydration from such. And making a ground water still by digging a hole putting a sheet of plastic over it and waiting for condensation to form is a waste of effort and time; by digging the hole you've probably expended just as much water as you will recover from the still.
So what's the best thing to do? I was told many years ago when I still went backpacking, make certain someone knows where you went, the route you were taking, and when you would return. Then think like a cowboy. Find some shade and wait until they come looking for you. You can survive in temperatures over 100 degrees for 48 hours if you excessively sweating, but trying to walk out in those conditions, you'll be dead in 3 to 5 hours from heat stroke. If you do have to travel, do it at night, and go slow. You might make it out alive.
The Native Americans- the Comanche, the Apache, the Navajo- they knew these methods of survival. When Europeans came into the desert, they adopted these methods, prior to developing technical innovations in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries that made it possible to transport water by canals, ditches, and pipelines from places where there was H2o to those places where it was not. But, despite the engineering marvels that bring drinking water from the snow covered peaks on the horizon down to the dry expanses in the basins and valleys beneath my feet, as I have traveled across these landscapes, I bear in mind to make certain we have plenty of water on board in the event of an unforeseen mishap, because besides an absence of water, many areas across the American West have no cellular service, and on some backroads, you may not see another person for a very long period of time. Looking at the photo below, imagine crossing that expanse towards the mountains on the horizon without water? A daunting journey indeed. Or you could just lop of the top of a cactus and get sick and die faster.
We left White Sands, and drove over the San Andreas Mountains to Las Cruces NM. FINALLY, we were going to stop at our first Craft Brewery; Spotted Dog Brewing. Before we headed to the campground, we planned on stopping in for a couple of brews and a bite to eat, but the Spotted Dog was having what appeared to be a bikers' rally, with motorcycles everywhere, and finding a place to park was an impossibility. We eventually headed to Mesilla, the old town of Las Cruces, where we found a parking lot for the RV and a restaurant-cantina that was dog friendly, Andele's Dog House, and we had some more enchiladas and chili releno, with Salsa Verde, and Nuevo Méjico cerveza frías. Kodi had a bowl of agua fría. After a long day of travel, it was a good end to the day.
After a belly full of New Mexican cuisine, and a couple of pints, Kodi let us know it was time to head to the campground and get a good night's rest. Our plan was to head the next day to Wickenburg AZ, but... as the Bard once said, "The best laid plans of mice and men..." or maybe it should be "of dogs and men?"