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November Travels and Back to Mesa



November was a travel/tourist month for us.  We drove 4,377 miles and spent $922.15 for fuel - yikes! We drove thru 10 states,  stopped in 4 of those and I had my National Park Passport stamped 6 times.  We left the Chicago area on Sunday, 11/6 and arrived in Mesa, Arizona on Monday 11/28.  This is definitely the most miles we've traveled in one month.  It sounds hectic but it was actually fun - not rushed - we spent at least 2-4 nights in places we stopped to visit.   

Our last nights in Chicago were spent at a Cook County Forest Preserve Campground, Camp Reinberg, in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.  It worked for us mainly because it was the closest one to Chicago that was open in November. That was important because The Cubs Won the World Series and we couldn't leave Chicago until all the celebrations were over.

The campground was a little tight for a rig as big as ours and the back swing from our trailer hit a sign as we were leaving and we were stuck.  The rangers came and helped us and asked if we wanted them to fill out a report that we could turn in to our insurance company.  That sounded like a good idea so we said yes.  Their boss heard them talking and said they'd have to give us a ticket for the damage that we caused??  If we had known that we would have just taken care of it ourselves.  Oh well, just another lesson learned - one 75.00 ticket later we were on our way.  The rangers were very nice and let us know that if we showed up in court on 12/13 they were sure it would be dismissed but we have better places to be than in Illinois in December!

Ouch! 
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Our goal for this trip was to be in Mesa, AZ by December 1st.  That's when we are scheduled to start work at Good Life Resort for the winter season.  We had a little over three weeks to get there and a lot of sights that we wanted to see.  We spent the first night in a Walmart parking lot in Salem, IL and then it was on to Tennessee for a few days.  We spent a few days in Montgomery Bell State Park which was about 45 minutes west of Nashville.  It's a beautiful park and our site backed up to a creek.  We weren't there often enough to do much (any) hiking but I can see us going back some day.  They have great rates for Seniors but you have to be over 62 so we have a few years to go.  

While traveling down to Tennessee our rig's rear tire was losing air so we took it to a nearby Goodyear Tire store.  It had a leak caused by a "road hazard" and couldn't be fixed.  Luckily, when we bought the rig we also bought tire insurance and this was covered.  We've never had to use it and almost forgot we had it! 
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Our first day trip in Tennessee was driving part of the Natchez Trace down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

Thanks Wikipedia:
"The Natchez Trace, also known as the "Old Natchez Trace", is a historic forest trail within the United States which extends roughly 440 miles (710 km) from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee, linking the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers.
The trail was created and used for centuries by Native Americans, and was later used by early European and American explorers, traders, and emigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Today, the path is commemorated by the 444-mile  Natchez Trace Parkway and Bridge, which follow the approximate path of the Trace, as well as the related Natchez Trace Trail. Parts of the original trail are still accessible and some segments are listed on the National Register of Historic Places."

It took about 2-3 hours to get there.  Why Muscle Shoals? Because it's the Motown of the South! Many musicians recorded there including Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Etta, James, The Staple Singers, Willie Nelson and the Allman Brothers. When we got there we had missed the morning tour at Fame Studio so we came back for the 4:00 one.  It was interesting but they didn't let us touch any of the instruments or controls - darn!

 






Even the Osmonds recorded here












 


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Since we had a little time to kill before the FAME tour we drove over to the neighboring town of Tuscumbia, Alabama to visit Ivy Green, home of Helen Keller.  The museum volunteer showed us the first floor and then let us go up the bedrooms on the 2nd floor by ourselves.  We also saw the cottage where Helen and Annie lived and the famous water pump.  It was fascinating walking around the property, I read the book a long time ago and had forgotten much of what I read.  I thought she was born blind and deaf but she actually became sick at 19 months and lost her hearing and eyesight - how tragic!  What an amazing woman Helen Keller was, it's time to read her biography again.

"The Miracle Worker", the play about Helen and Annie Sullivan (her teacher) is produced each summer on the ground of Ivy Green and there is a Helen Keller Festival the last weekend of June.  Sadly, we will probably never be in Alabama in June or at any time in the summer. 

Helen Keller's House


and Helen Keller's bed



W-A-T-E-R

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Marty and Mary Jo
The main reason to visit this area was to finally see Marty's cousin, Mary Jo.  We tried to catch up with her back in 2013 when we first started out on our journey but my map reading skills weren't as finely tuned as they are now and we missed her.  This time we met her and her daughter, Tammy, for lunch in Franklin, TN which is a very cute old town.  We had a great time visiting, catching up and learning some more Konopacki family history.
Mary Jo, Mary and Tammy



















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The next day we visited Nashville and took a tour of Ryman Auditorium home of the original Grand Ole Opry.  It's an amazing old building with so much history.  I'm not a huge fan of country music but I am "Crazy" about Patsy Cline and a few others.


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From Nashville it was a short trip to our next stop, West Memphis, Arkansas.  I've read many reviews of the "Tom Sawyer RV Park" right on the banks of the Mississippi River and wanted to check it out.  Our site wasn't right on the river, we were in the 2nd row but for most of our time there no one was in front of us so we still had a nice view of the barges going down the river.  It was a very relaxing park and I think we'd stay there again.  They do flood quite often in the spring and are usually closed for a month or so - what a pain that must be.

Our view from our rig of the Mississippi River
West Memphis is in Arkansas separated from Memphis, Tennessee by the Missisissippi.  We drove over the bridge into Memphis and visited the National Civil Rights Musuem at the Lorraine Motel.  The Lorraine Motel is where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and the room he stayed in is part of the museum tour.  We spent 2-3 hours here, it was emotionally exhausting.  Every American should visit here, maybe it would help many to understand the frustration of African-Americans.  It was quite a musuem and we highly recommend it.  

The Lorraine Motel, site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.


When we left the Musuem there was a protest going on across the street.  It was peaceful, just people expressing their concerns and frustrations with our next president.  We watched for a little while but managed to restrain ourselves from joining in and speaking out (and that's all I'm saying about this very scary election result!)






Just can't get away from my Cubbies
We drove around Memphis for a while and stopped at Sun Records.  The play "The Million Dollar Quartet" is based on the day that Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins played here.  The tour was all booked up and it was crazy crowded so we left to find some Memphis barb-b-que.  I checked out Yelp reviews and we found Pollard's which was on the same street as Graceland.   After a delicious lunch we drove past Graceland, waved, and drove back to the rig.




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From West Memphis we continued west on I-40 to the tiny town of Ozark, Arkansas.  We stayed at a lovely COE park (Corps of Engineers) right on the banks of the Arkansas River.  This was another beautiful park, very peaceful and uncrowded.  The town of Ozark was tiny but we did visit their museum which was in the old train depot and checked out two antique stores.


What a beautiful sight and site - that's our rig right on the Arkansas River
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While staying in Ozark, we took a drive West on I-40 to Fort Smith.  Our first stop was at Miss Laura's Visitor Center, the most unusual visitor center we've been in.  It used to be a brothel!  All we wanted was information on the town but we were greeted at the door by an elderly docent who gave us the grand tour of the whole building.  The first floor was parlors and a bar and the second floor held the bedrooms with the girl's names etched into the transom glass above each door.  It looked as you would expect an old-time brothel to look like - lot's of red velvet furniture and fancy wall coverings.

After leaving the brothel, oops - I mean the Visitor Center - we headed over to the Fort Smith National Historic Site to learn a little history.  The most fascinating thing we learned is Fort Smith was the home of the "hanging" judge, Isaac C. Parker who actually didn't believe in capital punishment but did believe in the law and sentenced accordingly.  We did get to see the courtroom where he worked and also the area where prisoners were kept.
 
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By this time we still had two weeks before we needed to be in Mesa and needed another place to visit.  Big Bend National Park is waaaaay southwest in Texas pretty far from everything and we wanted to go there last time we were in Texas but didn't have time.  This trip we did have enough time so we drove across most of Oklahoma and then southwest into Texas.  We found a very reasonably priced rv park (12.50 per night) in Seymour, Texas so we spent one night there.  The next night found us in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Midland, Texas.  Our third night in Texas finally brought us to Lajitas where we stayed at the Maverick RV Park for three nights.  We might have stayed longer but it was the weekend before Thanksgiving and they were already fully booked.  This was a nice park to stay at, it's part of a Resort and campers can use all the Resort facilities.  This was the priciest place we stayed, one night was 1/2 off and then full price for two nights but that's why we also stay at WalMarts - it all evens out. 

Lajitas is a tiny Texas town right between Big Bend National Park and Big Bend State Park.  Maverick RV Park is a "dark sky" park,  all outside lights must be turned off by 9:30 so that you can see the stars better.  It was REALLY dark!


We spent most of one whole day in the National Park, we even crossed the Rio Grande River and visited Mexico.  That was an adventure - to cross the border you go thru the U.S. border building, down a shaded path which takes you to the river.  There is a row boat and a Mexican oarsman to paddle you across.  Once across, you pay your $5.00 each for the ride and hang on to your ticket for your return trip.  It's about 3/4 of a mile to the town of Boquillas, Mexico and there are three choices to get there - burro, car, or walk - we walked.  The town was a sleepy little border town with two restaurants owned by the same family.  We went there just to say we ate lunch in Mexico.  The food was disappointing - blander than I expected, I like Mexican food in Chicago much better.

Hiking in Big Bend National Park and enjoying the sun

Border Crossing

Enchiladas and Tacos in Mexico

Welcome to Mexico!

Cowboys watching a fiesta at a local school
Back at Big Bend National Park

Looking out at the Rio Grande River and Mexico


Chiso Mountains

We spent our last day driving thru the State Park and doing a little hiking.  This area is beautiful but so far from everything.  It's definitely a destination not just a stop along the way.  November was a beautiful time to be here, temps were mostly in the 60's and 70's and the skies were not cloudy all day.

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Holidays on the road for us have usually been spent traveling.  Since we still had some time before we needed to be in Mesa we decided to take advantage of our "Escapees" membership and visit their park, "The Ranch" in Lakewood, New Mexico for Thanksgiving.  Escapees are very friendly people and this park was the friendliest of the ones we've been in.  When you arrive they ring their outside bell (like a dinner bell) to announce that they have new visitors.  Anyone nearby came to welcome us with hugs, they're a very "huggy" group!

The Ranch is in the middle of a working ranch, the cattle are kept out of our sites by an electrified fence
We stayed at the Ranch for 6 days taking advantage of their $50.00 per week for newbies. We did have to pay 19.40 for electricity but 69.40 for 6 nights is still a pretty good deal.

Cougar at the zoo
Since Thanksgiving Dinner at the Ranch didn't start until 5:30 we decided to take a quick trip over to Living Desert State Park.  This is more of a zoo/museum/visitor center but it was nice for a quick afternoon trip.  We talked to the rangers about volunteering in New Mexico State Parks; there are excellent opportunities in New Mexico - cool weather in the mountains of northern New Mexico in the summer and warmer weather in southern New Mexico in the winter.



Thanksgiving Dinner was a potluck - turkey and potatoes were supplied by the park and everything else was supplied by the campers.  They had three kinds of turkey; deep-fried, smoked and roasted - YUM!  I tried the deep fried for the first time, it was delicious.  If there had been a "kids" table, Marty and I might have been put at it - we were definitely among the youngest ones there.  We sat with Lawrence (86) and his wife, Lanie, a youthful 71. They've been full-time rving for 21 years!

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There were two places nearby that we wanted to check out - Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands National Monument.  Roswell was also close by but once you've seen one alien you've seen them all.

White Sands was 2 1/2 - 3 hours away so we got up early on Friday and headed north and then west.  This was a good test for us because when we leave New Mexico we're heading west to Mesa and the GPS seemed to be taking us way out of our way.  The road to White Sands looked like it would work with the rig and we wanted to verify that.  It was a four lane highway all the way so this is the way we are taking when we leave The Ranch.  The GPS sometimes just doesn't make any sense.  I'm glad I can still read a map.  Rather than the 2-3 hours it was supposed to take it ended up taking closer to 4 because of a quick fast food stop and then, at the gas station, a casino (no luck there). 

Whites Sands National Monument is a "gigantic sea of sparkling white gypsum, the glistening white sand covers nearly 300 square miles".  At the gift shop you can purchase a disc to slide down the dunes and many people do.  We hiked up to the top and then walked along the ridge - very "Lawrence of Arabia".  Marty was very happy taking photos of this "other-worldly" landscape.















 
We took a short cut home so it only took us about two hours to get back.  It was a pretty drive thru the mountains, it wouldn't work with the rig but it was perfect with the truck.

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We visited Carlsbad Caverns on Sunday, our last day at the Ranch.  Carlsbad Caverns was amazing.  They have ranger guided tours which were all booked (that's ok, when I read that you need knee pads and gloves and lights I'm not interested anymore).  There are two self-guided tours: the Big Room Route and the Natural Entrance Route.

The Big Room Route is 1 mile around the perimeter of the largest room in the cave.  You can take an elevator 750 feet down and then walk the loop path.

The Natural Entrance Route is more strenuous, it descends over 750 feet following steep and narrow trail called the Main Corridor.  This route takes you to the Big Room so if you're energetic you can do both.  We only did the Big Room Route (I didn't think my knees would make it down the steep trail - sorry Marty).


 
 
Caves are always cool (literally) to walk around.  It took us a little over an hour to walk the perimeter and then it was back on the elevator to check out the gift shop.  It would be neat to come back when the bats are back - there are thousands of them.  From early spring through October a ranger gives a "bat-talk" at the amphitheater at the Cave's natural entrance and then the bats fly off into the night.  They migrate south during the winter so we didn't see any.

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We left the Ranch on Monday, November 27th headed west to Mesa.  It was too far for a one day drive so we spent the night in Deming, New Mexico where they have a security car to guide your rv into the right area of the parking lot.  First time that's happened!



There was a Kmart going out of business next door so we went shopping.  Everything was 50-75% off, we bought a few shirts and I bought a pair of black jeans for $3.00! They were also selling all their fixtures so we picked up a few display signs to take to our favorite museum. 


I Love Great Deals!

That's it for our big month of travel, we are back in Mesa until the end of March.  December was an excellent month but you'll have to wait a week or so for that post.