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RV Camping South West

Week One

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MAR 25, 2021. OAK POINT CAMPGROUND

 

BACKGROUND NOTES. Wanda and I are starting our first travel venture in 2021 - a four-month trip through Southwest US.


Our current RV configuration includes a small 18’ NuCamp T@B 400 travel trailer that we affectionately call V-Jer, referencing an obscure Star Trek movie. We pull V-Jer with a Ford Transit cargo van, a support vehicle and toy wagon that hauls our electric kayaks and electric bikes. In keeping with the NASA theme, we named the van Saturn V, or Saturn for short, after the heavy-lift rockets that took Apollo to the moon in the 70s.

The eyes fought hard to stay shut at 4 am. It took 12 minutes to pry them open, then another 3 minutes to emerge from the warmth of the cocoon of blankets wrapped around me. However, we were determined to turn the ignition key to start our trip at 5 am sharp.

Yesterday was a whirlwind of last-minute packing and house cleaning. Every thirty minutes or so, I'd luckily run across some vital piece of equipment lurking in a dark corner that we nearly left behind. By 8 pm, our camper, nicknamed V-Jer, was hitched to our van, nicknamed Saturn. Like a saddled horse, our setup was itching to go, as we were.

Our final chore was to wipe down the floors. We cleaned every nook and cranny of the house for the past two weeks, except the floors. We found old lost socks behind the washer and dryer, extra chargers and charging cords in drawers that no one opened in months, dust bunnies the size of softballs, and spiders that built web mansions behind furniture that no one moved in a year. That is our insanity. We are messy when we live at home, but when we leave, the house sparkles. At 10 pm, we put the final touches on the floors. It was time to shower and head to bed.

It was 5:18 am when Saturn and V-Jer launched from our driveway. Not quite 5 am sharp but darn close. Today's goal was both simple yet profound. We were going to leave any remnant of winter completely behind. March and April in Wisconsin can be sneaky. These two mischievous months can lull you with a preview of mild spring weather only to blindside you with blizzards of thick wet snow, laughing at your gullibility.

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I was surprised at how well we set up camp for the first time this season. Wanda's expert hand signals guided me to a perfect parking spot for V-Jer. Oak Point Campground is the only National Forest Campground in the Shawnee National Forest with electric and water hookups. It is pricey for a National Forest Campground at $22 a night. Even with our Senior Pass, it was $16 a night. However, we got a large level site near a lovely lake at a price far cheaper than a comparable private campground.

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The electric and water hook up went smoothly, V-Jer's porch awning slid into place with few hiccups, and with our doormat laid out, it was time to eat. I made a batch of chicken soup last night and filled up several thermos bottles with hot soup just before we left. It was still hot at supper time and tasted fantastic. We were tired from basically sitting on our butts all day long, so we both laid down to close our eyes for a second or two. Thirty minutes later, we both awoke disoriented. Ah, yes, on the road again. It started to rain, negating my idea of walking the hiking trail around the lake.

 

Tomorrow, we will explore some trails and land formations in the National Forest. Then, either Saturday or Sunday, we will make one last long push for Texas before we take smaller chunks of the road. Eventually, we will roam New Mexico and Utah and somewhere else.

MAR 26, 2021. BELL SMITH SPRINGS, CAVE IN ROCK, ELIZABETHTOWN

 

*V-jer is our T@B 400 NuCamp Trailer.

*Saturn is our Cargo Van that tows V-jer


Gosh, we needed that! A spectacular day like today is why we love this stuff. Not only did it become shorts and short-sleeve weather by the afternoon, but the trails and the scenic drives were spectacular.

I had forgotten how comfortable V-Jer's bed is and waking up refreshed after a deep sleep filled with dreams we can never remember. It was already 54º when we rendezvoused with a mini-canyon and a natural bridge at 8:30 am.

 
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About 18 miles from our campsite, Bell Smith Springs comprises four trail loops totaling some 12 or so miles. The area is a sand-stone canyon carved out by a small jade-colored fast-moving river. The tall limestone cliffs that boxed in the river were multi-colored with layers and stripes. Some giant boulders were also curiously pockmarked, providing an odd but interesting texture. I read somewhere that this is the only spot in Illinois that features a natural arching stone bridge.

To access the canyon at Bell Smith a set of narrow steps were squeezed in between these two limestone monoliths. Wanda emerges at the end of the stairway.

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We blew the whole morning in this heaven-on-earth spot, yet according to my Gaia GPS Trail app, we only covered three miles. Stopping every three feet for a photoshoot didn't help to add miles. If you add in all the vertical miles scrambling up and down rocks, boulders, and cliff sides, I'm sure we could triple that number.

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Like a dummy, I forgot the Illinois Gazetteer with all of our stops planned out, so a return to V-Jer after our morning hike was necessary. Backtracking set us back quite a bit, forcing me to modify the agenda and giving up the Garden of the Gods area to follow the Ohio River to Cave In Rock State Park.

Along the way, we stopped at quaint little towns that caught our interest. Every review of Elizabethtown's tiny Ohio River town bragged about the E-Town Restaurant floating out into the river. I was drooling for a good old-fashioned hamburger, the first of the year, as we walked up to the gangplank. Sadly, it was closed, another victim of COVID-19. Hopefully, it is just temporary, as the website promised.

PHOTOS: I asked the owner of the property if the blooming tree was a magnolia. He said he only knew it by the name “beautiful tree”.  On the right is a barge crossing in front of the famous E-Town Restaurant in Elizabethtown.

 
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The village of Cave In Rock, population 350, has two claims to fame. With the nearest bridge over the river being an hour's drive away in Paducah, Cave In Rock's ferry is a vital link to Kentucky. The ferry constantly runs from 6 am to 9:30 pm and seems to never cross the river empty.

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Cave In Rock State Park is on the outskirts of the town of Cave In Rock. So, what is all this business about a cave in some rock? It just so happens that a short stretch along the Ohio River's northern bank next to the town is a tall lonesome limestone cliff. At the foot of the cliff is a rather large cave that thieves and robbers used to hang out in, waiting to plunder boats and rafts floating down the Ohio River in the 1800s. The cave was large and muddy from the dripping ceiling.

 
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After slippin' and slidin' in the muddy cave, we decided to take the ferry to Kentucky. There is a QT (quaint town) 15 miles south of the crossing that needed a visit. Marion was indeed a quaint town well maintained with brand new streets and well-kept buildings. However, there weren't any interesting shops or funky bars with the kind of character for quaintness.

But the countryside was stunningly beautiful. We drove a 45-mile loop of back roads back to the ferry. The skinny blacktop roads with no shoulders climbed and dove and wound around a prosperous and clean rural countryside. This end of Kentucky was visibly more prosperous than southern Illinois, just across Big Muddy Ohio River.

With many more trails to explore, like the Mini Grand Canyon and the Garden of the Gods, we expect to return to the Shawanee National Forest in the future. Shawnee National Forest would be an excellent first stop on the way to North Carolina for another trip.  

It is time to continue southbound. Back at camp, we packed as much as we could for another early morning departure. Tomorrow we head for Piney Point Campground on Wright Patman Lake near Texarkana, Texas.

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MAR 27, 2021. PINEY POINT CAMPGROUND

 

*V-jer is our T@B 400 NuCamp Trailer.

*Saturn is our Cargo Van that tows V-jer


We broke camp last night. All we had to do was pack the electric and water hookups and mate V-Jer's hitch to Saturn's ball. We had even backed Saturn up to match V-Jer's waiting hitch before going to bed perfectly.

 

Still, it took nearly an hour to leave the campground, mainly because it was pitch black at 5 am. We also had to drive up to the water dump station and jettison our grey water tank in the dark. Being the first time this season, Wanda and I were like the Keystone Cops. First thing, I drove up on the wrong side of the dump station. Then we fumbled with assembling the sewer hose components. Finally, at 6:18 am, we turned onto the highway.

It was another 9 hours of driving southwest down to the Texarkana area in Texas's northeast corner, just over the Red River separating Texas from Arkansas and then Louisiana. Google Maps guided us along the expressways that made for a boring ride.

We did see our share of southern billboards. Most prevalent were the personal injury lawyers. One firm specialized in accidents involving 18 wheelers. It wasn't clear if they represented the truckers or the drivers in the other schmucked vehicles. Another lawyer in a big cowboy hat lassoed the lucky phone number of 777-7777. A lady detective bragged, "She Spies - Private Eye."


My favorite billboard depicted a woman on her knees with her handcuffed hands held out pleadingly in front of her. The caption was, "Shackled by Lust? Hope in Jesus."

We reached Piney Point Campground at 3:30 pm. It was a terrific campground laid out on the southern bank of Wright Patman Reservoir with electric and water hookups next to the perfectly level parking pad. We were only going to spend one evening here and didn't even unhitch V-Jer.

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No sooner did we get everything situated than the sky opened up. The rest of the evening and much of the night knocked us around with heavy winds, wicked lightning, booming thunder, and torrential rain. The nature trails that we had hoped to stretch our legs never got touched by our feet. I did manage to scope out the bathrooms, which turned out to be clean with tiled shower stalls.

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MAR 28 2021: JIM HOGG CAMPGROUND, TEXAS

 

*V-jer is our T@B 400 NuCamp Trailer.

*Saturn is our Cargo Van that tows V-jer


I got up to witness the most spectacular full moon hovering over Wright Patman Lake Reservoir at o’dark thirty in the morning. With little to do except drive off, we drove off.

 
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The expressways to Austin greeted us with our familiar personal injury lawyers. They must spend millions on billboards. The same dozen lawyers cornered the lion’s share of the billboards from southern Illinois to Austin. I noticed that one lawyer had to settle for the phone number 888-8888 since the lucky lawyer already hogged all the 7s.
 

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This trip was a bit shorter, arriving at the Jim Hogg Campground at 1:30 pm. This Army Corps of Engineers’ operated campground on the Georgetown Lake Reservoir, near Georgetown, and near the Texas capital of Austin. Jim Hogg, whoever he might have been, would be proud of this manicured campground in his namesake.

With our lifetime America The Beautiful Senior Pass, these federal campgrounds are half price. We paid $13 a night for this campground, including electric and water hookups. For once, it pays to be a geezer.

We hit our stride and had V-Jer set up in a half-hour. Time to explore the area. The Army Corp of Engineers administers the land around the entire reservoir. They have many campgrounds, beaches, a couple of boat landings, and a 26-mile hiking trail circumscribing around the lake.

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Russell Park, across the lake from our campground, is also an ACE (Army Corp of Engineers) campsight. Although the sun was toasty warm, the breeze coming off the lake was cool. One brave young couple was sitting out in the water in lawn chairs. The woman explained that this was her only day off and, damn it, she would spend it at the beach. She further explained that it was too cold to swim and settled on sitting in her chair in the water - it made sense to me.

 
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Next, I got my rugged Ecco hiking sandals on, Wanda and I lit out for a portion of the trail that followed the San Gabriel River that feeds into the reservoir. The Wright Patman Lake and the Georgetown reservoir are very low, so the small San Gabriel wasn’t helping much.

 
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The trail, lined with areas of dense thickets and open expanses ladened with cactus, kept us entranced as we hoofed an easy 4-mile trek, according to the Gaia GPS app.

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We got back to V-Jer around 6:15 pm. As Wanda set up a table outside in the warm but fading sunlight, I cooked up some veggies. We will spend the rest of the evening figuring out what to do with the next three days in the Austin area.

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MAR 29 2021: QUAINT TOWNS AROUND TEXAS

 

*V-jer is our T@B 400 NuCamp Trailer.

*Saturn is our Cargo Van that tows V-jer


What an incredible day! The weather was picture perfect, and we were on the go, flittering here and there all day long. Our primary goal was to visit the many quaint towns (QTs) that ring the Austin area. Funny thing, when I Googled quaint towns in Texas, 90% that popped up were within 50 miles of Austin.

Burnet: We rolled into Burnet around 8:30 am on a cold Texas morning - only 43º. The stores were not yet open for business. The historic town square was small and anchored by the town hall. In the front of the town hall was a unique walk-the-tile history of the area, which turned out to be a fun way to get an overview. The stores that surrounded the square were mundane. Burnett was the first QT (quaint town) that didn't seem to be living up to the QT label. After a quick walk around the square, we left for the next QT on the list. However, for those who want to visit Burnett after 8:30 am, I found The DayTripper informative.

 
 
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Falkenstein Castle: Once we left Burnet, we entered what is called The Hill Country. We finally left the urbanization around Austin behind and experienced the natural hilly countryside of central Texas. The roads are gorgeous, with rolling backroads that snake through a forest of miniature trees.  
 

We knew that Falkenstein Castle was closed to tourists, but we wanted a photo of it from the outside. We visited the famous Ludwig Castle in Germany and loved the setting, and according to all the reviews we read, the Falkenstien Castle is also in a fantastic setting. 

 

The reviews were right. The setting was fantastic. The problem, however, was one of photographing the majestic scene. The road that provided the nicest overlook had no shoulder and tons of "No Parking" signs along the roadside. What did we do? We stopped, quickly ran out of the van, took the picture, and popped back into the van before anyone could object.

 
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Longhorn Cavern State Park: This park is home to the longest cavern in Texas. Being only a million years old, it hasn't had the time to build the stalactites and stalagmites that a much older cavern, like Carlsbad, has, but it is beautiful nonetheless.

 

Before taking the cavern tour, we were determined to get in some hiking. Longhorn Cavern State Park has three miles of pleasant hiking trails. The thick forest of Juniper trees was more like miniature deformed intertwined cedar trees and very different from Wisconsin's Junipers. Without an actual trail, you could never just walk through these forests full of tightly packed thickets of low juniper branches.

The Cavern tour started at 11 am with 20 other masked amateur spelunkers. The $20 excursion was over a mile long and lasted 1 3/4 hours. The cavern was primarily various shades of creamy pastel colors featuring several open rooms connected by long hallways. We have experienced more spectacular caves, but few this long. The tour guide, Sam was so informative.

 
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The cave was populated by 125 of the world's tiniest bats, as counted by the state park staff. We saw a dozen or so, and they were cute little things.

My favorite room was the crystal room. It was like walking through a giant geode. Huge crystals refracted the lights expertly set up to show thee gem sparkle.  Human History . Civilian Conservation Corps . Texas Parks and Wildlife .

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Llano: Llano bragged of having a BBQ joint that George W. Bush especially liked. The downtown was a step up in my view of quaintness when compared to Burnet. The town hall was courtly with its brownstones and clock tower. There were a handful of the offbeat bars that one would expect in a QT. Although Burnet had a handcrafted winery, Llano had a brewpub, a distillery, and a winery on one side street just off the main drag. Scattered throughout the town were more breweries and wineries. The Hill Country is the capital of handcrafted spirits of all kinds, as we discovered during our road tour.

Well, George W. Bush, whatever one thought of him, did know his BBQ. Of course, we stopped off at Cooper's Old Time Pit Barb-B-Que joint for dinner. We split the Texas-sized thick pork chop marinated to extreme tenderloin tenderness, seasoned to perfection, and grilled on an outdoor pit. Of course, a side order of macaroni and cheese with jalapeños and grilled bacon made for a complete Texas-style treat. Beans and sweet tea are part of the menu and all made for a scrumptious takeout dinner on a rugged bluff we found while driving the Willow City Loop.  

 
 
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Willow City: Well, that was a bust. Willow City was more like "Willow Bend In The Road." It is mainly the gateway to the Willow City Loop Drive.

 

Willow City Loop: Highway 16 from Llano to Willow City is beautiful, however about 10 miles north of Willow City, a famous side road takes a roundabout route through the most picturesque backcountry. Called the Willow City Loop, this narrow blacktop road follows a rocky ledge through ranch country. 

 

The topography and the road forced us to drive at 25 mph, but who would want to go any faster? We just wanted to soak it all in. We enjoyed our takeout BBQ at the bottom of an exceptionally rugged bluff. The chop was so perfectly flavored that we couldn't bear to alter it with the BBQ sauce. Fortunately, we had asked the cook to cut the chop into slices. We wouldn't have been able to gnaw the whole thick piece of meat.

 

Fredericksburg: Fredricksburg is what a QT is all about. Founded in 1846 by a German immigrant named Meusebach, Fredericksburg is a vibrant small city with character. Meusebach successfully negotiated peace treaties with the local native Americans allowing the town to thrive quickly. The Nimitz family were also early settlers. Of course, a famous descendent from the Nimitz family line, Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz, was the US Naval hero of WWII in the Pacific theater. Fredericksburg lavishly honors him downtown with a statute and historical information plaques. 

The town has taken advantage of its German heritage, sporting various German cuisine restaurants and more than its share of craft brewpubs with beer gardens. 

 

But, in The Hill Country, wineries are king, and Fredericksburg has its share of wine gardens. The competition in the wine-making business must be brutal in The Hill Country. 

 

Fredericksburg is a charming mixture of antiquey western funkiness, loud German overtones, and some Wisconsin Door County small-town charm. Wanda and I liked Fredericksburg, Texas, a lot.

 
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Luckenbach: “Let’s go to Luckenbach Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys.” - Waylon Jennings.

 

We had to check out Luckenbach, a population of three. It may be small, but it is the definition of Kool. The town is country music, pure and simple.

 

Many excellent acoustic musicians were rippin' out some incredible tunes with tight harmonies and soulful lines even on a late Monday afternoon. Wanda ordered a bottle of Texas Hill Country red wine, and I got a Shriner Bock beer. The tab came to $4.10. What? The red wine was a 12 ounce corked bottle of the locally made stuff. The buildings were down-home. The music was down-home. Even booze prices were down-home. I can't say enough about Luckenbach, Texas. 

 
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Johnson City: This was the hometown of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. It wasn't much of a town but the town hall sandstone buildingwas impressive. We walked around the one block, noticed the expected winery, and noted a moonshine distillery on the same block. There was a sign pointing down the road to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, but it was getting late. That was just about all there was to see in Johnson City.

 

Wine country: The Hill Country road between Luckenbach and Jim Hogg Campground was lined with wineries. Jeez, it was one winery after another, after another, after another. As I said, the competition must be brutal.