My Great American Road Trip

To Americans, there’s nothing that holds more appeal than the classic road trip.

Moody Mansion, Galveston, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Moody Mansion, Galveston, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the ’20s, the car was a symbol of freedom—a chance to escape your small town or rural America.

As the highway system was developed in the ’50s and ’60s, a wave of young people set out on the road to explore the country, giving new life to America’s car and road trip culture.

And to this today, Americans have an ongoing love affair with the car and great open road. And no road trip holds more mystery and allure than traveling cross-country. It’s the king of all road trips.

In 1986 on a working road trip across the U.S. we drove our truck and fifth wheel trailer across the U.S. from west to the east and back west again.

Leaving our home in the Northwest we spent over eight months traversing the country, getting as far east as Virginia Beach, the Outer Banks, Charleston, Savannah,  and Jacksonville, and as far south as Orlando, Miami, the Everglades, and Key West before turning back west, driving across the southern states with numerous stops along the way including Pensacola, Mobile, Pascagoula, Galveston, San Antonio, El Paso, Las Cruces, Tucson, and Phoenix. But we barely scratched the surface of what America offers. We saw and experienced a lot—from the Rocky Mountains, to the Black Hills, across the Great Plains.

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights
Our Grand Circle tour included Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights

But you don’t realize just how vast the U.S. is until you’ve been driving for twelve hours and notice you’re still in Texas.

The U.S. is big and there is still so much more of it to see.

During the past 18 years, we’ve driven over 130,000 miles in varied RVs as we explored America from the Oregon Coast to the Charleston and from the Upper Peninsula to the Rio Grande Valley.

We have traversed the U.S. along varied interstates and scenic routes and byways further exploring the beauty and uniqueness of this vast country. There is prodigious variety in the cities and towns and scenic attractions and offerings in various regions, a country of many impressions.

From Memphis to Montana, Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, Wine Country in California, Utah’s Grand Circle Tour, Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Mobile, and much more, we continue our exploration in our trusty and comfy motorhome.

“What’s your favorite place to go?”

Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sedona and Red Rock Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course that’s what we’re asked. It’s the polite thing to ask, after all. People like to seem as if they’re interested in what you do. In this case, the question also always has a twinge of yearning.

I always give the same answer. I find something I like nearly everywhere I go, and it’s hard to pick just one or even two places.

People hate that answer.

“Come on. If you could pick just one place, where would you want to go again? Just one place.”

They all want to hear something exotic and bucket-listy. They want to hear the Key West or Santa Barbara, the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, Sedona or Santa Fe, Charleston or Savannah. They don’t want the truth. Can they handle the truth?

The truth is, we have visited 34 states and 4 Canadian provinces in the past 18 years, and found something that we adored in every one of them.

Our decade and half of RV travel stoked a love affair with American and Canadian attractions and historic sites, local towns and cities, and national and state/provincial parks.

Historic Downtown Charleston has stood throughout Charleston’s history as the cultural capital of the South and is considered by many to be a living museum, with a wonderful variety of things to do and see. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Historic Downtown Charleston has stood throughout Charleston’s history as the cultural capital of the South and is considered by many to be a living museum, with a wonderful variety of things to do and see. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I did begin rereading John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley — an incredible rumination on the America that he experienced as he took a road trip around the country with his wife’s standard poodle as a companion. Steinbeck was 58 years old in 1960 when he began his journey, and he felt compelled to get out and really see the country for the first time in a long time. He said he felt like a criminal writing about a country that he didn’t know enough about anymore.

After all these miles and varied experiences, I still feel the same way.

The “Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise”, the best is yet to come as I have quite the long route in front of me. Please stay tuned!

Worth Pondering…

You’ve heard the old Willie Nelson country music song with the lyrics, “On the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again…” We’ll be singing this song for sure.

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Texas is BIG—Beautiful & Diverse

Texas is big, beautiful, and diverse.

Big Bend National Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Big Bend National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

In a state as diverse as Texas, there’s always an adventure around every corner and unique attractions at every turn.

From West Texas to the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast, El Paso to Texarkana to Brownsville, from outdoor enthusiasts to foodies to culture buffs, there’s always something to see and do in Texas.

Even those of us who visit Texas frequently and spend a big chunk of our time traversing it leave most of the state untouched.

We’ve driven through Texas numerous times over the years. But yet, it always amazes us just how big Texas really is.

Charting any RV trip through the state can be a daunting task. So many miles, so many routes, and even after all our years on the road we’ve still not seen large portions of the Lone Star State. Every trip through, we explore new areas—and revisit favorite haunts.

The state overflows with awesomeness at every turn, places we find completely captivating.

Monahans Sandhills State Park  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Monahans Sandhills State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually we just follow I-10 in from the west. Yes, it can be boring but it is the most direct route.

We take our time and schedule varied side excursions along the way and make the journey—and not the destination—the highlight of the trip. It is the journey that is the joy of RVing.

We’ve explored the Big Bend area, including Big Bend National Park, Terlingua, Alpine, Marfa, and Davis Mountain Observatory. If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

The wind-swept, dynamic rippling sandscapes in Monahans Sandhills State Park is one-of-a-kind. A half-hour’s drive west of Odessa it’s well worth a visit. The park consists of 3,840 acres of wind-sculpted living sand dunes, some up to 70 feet high. The Park is set in one of the areas where the dunes are still active and constantly being shaped by the wind and rain. The dunes grow and change shape due to seasonal prevailing winds and you can watch them change whenever the wind is blowing.

Blue Bell, Brenham  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Blue Bell, Brenham © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ice cream. For us aficionados, ice cream is one of the four food groups. Blue Bell has become the best tasting and certainly the most successful ice cream in Texas (and that means the best in the world). Would my taste buds lie? To learn what makes an exceptionally good thing good, we visited “the little creamery” in Brenham: I think we found out but every few years we require a refresher course.

Lockhart is the Barbecue Capital of Texas. Out-of-towners and locals flock to four smoked-meat emporiums—Black’s Barbecue, Chisholm Trail Barbecue, Kreuz Market, and Smitty’s Market. Several tons of barbecued beef, pork, chicken, and smoked sausage links are served each day. Aside from the barbecue, Lockhart is a wonderful old town to visit. This small Texas town exudes a rustic, slow-paced charm arising from its Western heritage, rooted in cattle and cotton.

One of the great joys of RVing is visiting new places and making interesting discoveries. Another is just the opposite—revisiting those places that demand a closer look. Sometimes that second chance leads to a third—and a fourth. City Market in Luling, is such a place. The meat-market-turned-barbecue-restaurant started in 1958, and over the years has become a barbecue icon. This is the arguably the best barbeque in all of Texas which helps explain why Luling is perennially included on our Texas itinerary.

Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Spoetzl Brewery, Shiner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Texas, the mere mention of the word “Shiner” immediately brings to mind thoughts of a cold longneck and the distinctive brew within. However, before the beer, there was the town. Not surprisingly, the best way to learn the history of Shiner is to learn the history of Shiner Beer, as the two have been intertwined for more than a hundred years. So, we headed to Spoetzl Brewery and joined a tour. The tour gave use a firsthand look into the brewing process and, of course, a firsthand sampling of the final product, from flagstaff Shiner Bock to the Extra Pale Ale, Haymaker. A day trip to Shiner goes down as smooth as the namesake beverage. As they say when toasting in Shiner, “Prosit!”

There’s more—much more—adventure in Texas. Space does not permit to detail our numerous other unforgettable adventures and experiences from The Alamo, River Walk, and San Antonio Missions National Historic Park in San Antonio to Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, and Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park in the Hill Country. Galveston, Johnson Space Center, Big Thicket National Preserve, Caddo Lake, Rockport, Goliad, Rio Grande Valley, Palo Duro Canyon, and Austin.

Don’t Mess with Texas, Y’all!

And, of course, because we haven’t yet been quite everywhere, we’ll keep exploring Texas

What’s Next?

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

After 7 days of trial and error,

God created Texas on the 8th day.

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5 Must-See Stops on a Road Trip Across America

Every RVer’s bucket list should include at least one road trip across America.

Remember the Alamo! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Remember the Alamo! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Want to make it extra memorable? Consider stopping at one—or all—of these must-see places along the way.

The Alamo

One hundred seventy-nine years ago The Alamo was the site of a pivotal moment in the history of the Texas Revolution where 250 or so Texian and Tejano defenders held off an estimated 1,500 Mexican soldiers for 13 days. The Alamo is remembered as a heroic struggle against overwhelming odds—a place where men made the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. For this reason the Alamo remains hallowed ground and the Shrine of Texas Liberty.

If you travel to San Antonio to take in The Alamo, you’ll almost certainly visit the River Walk. They’re just a couple blocks apart, connected by an “alley” with waterfalls, snazzy shops, and lush gardens.

Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and continues to captivate people around the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and continues to captivate people around the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Route 66

No matter where you decide to go on your road trip, a stop along the historic Route 66 is absolutely mandatory. Nicknamed Main Street of America and the Mother Road, the famous highway holds a special place in American consciousness and evokes images of simpler times, mom and pop businesses, and the icons of a mobile nation on the road.

Completed in 1938, Route 66, which once served as the main corridor taking drivers from Chicago to Los Angeles, sparks excitement and a feeling of freedom in many travelers who love the open road.

Sedona

Sedona and Red Rock Country
Sedona and Red Rock Country, a vacation hotspot, has appeal for every member of the family. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sedona easily makes the “A” list of RV destinations due to its rugged western appeal and colorful rock formations. Tourists come from around the world to absorb the natural wonders of Red Rock Country and Sedona, its centerpiece. Located at the base of Oak Creek Canyon, another scenic destination, Sedona is renowned for its stunning rock formations such as Coffee Pot Rock, Cathedral Rock, and Courthouse Butte, as well as its surrounding lush forests.

Sedona has developed into a center for traditional and contemporary arts and offers a variety of galleries, boutiques, and specialty shops. The Sedona community offers so much—history, archeology, arts, culture, hiking, biking, off-road adventure, and spiritual and metaphysical meditations.

Santa Fe

A block east of Santa Fe Plaza is St. Francis Cathedral, named for Santa Fe’s patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A block east of Santa Fe Plaza is St. Francis Cathedral, named for Santa Fe’s patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A combination of altitude, desert, and pueblos has produced a magical city that bears little resemblance to nearby Albuquerque or anywhere else for that matter. Santa Fe is the United States’ longest continuously occupied state capital. Located high and dry in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, this well preserved center of Southwestern art and architecture attracts visitors with its galleries, cuisine, and play of light on its adobe buildings.

Santa Fe is referred to as “the city different,” a city that honors its Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo heritages and embraces its natural environment unlike any other in the United States. A city whose beautiful, brown adobe architecture blends with the high desert landscape and a city that is, at the same time, one of America’s great art and culinary capitals.

Alabama Gulf Coast

Mix two parts sugar-white sand with one part crystal blue water. Add a generous helping of Southern hospitality, and you have the key ingredients of the beautiful Alabama Gulf Coast.

Fresh seafood is the standard along the Gulf Coast. Seafood markets offer shrimp, oysters, crab, and snapper. There are numerous seafood restaurants with an endless assortment of dishes.

One of the most charming small towns in America, Fairhope is located on the beautiful Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay. A growing arts center with quaint boutiques, specialty shops, bookstores, cafes, and galleries line its quaint downtown streets. From the business district, Fairhope Avenue funnels toward grand homes and parkland down to the Fairhope Pier and Mobile Bay. The pier’s picturesque setting makes it a wonderful place to view gorgeous sunsets.

Sparkling turquoise Gulf waters and stunningly white sand await the RVer on the Alabama Gulf Coast. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sparkling turquoise Gulf waters and stunningly white sand await the RVer on the Alabama Gulf Coast. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, the highway that’s the best.
Get your kicks on Route 66!

—Bobby Troup

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RVing Is The Freedom Lifestyle

Home is where you park it.

Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and continues to captivate people around the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway and colloquially known as the Main Street of America or the Mother Road, was one of the original highways within the U.S. Highway System and continues to captivate people around the world. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Freedom is a wonderful thing. The kind of freedom offered by the RVing lifestyle is the ultimate.

The country overflows with awesomeness at every turn, places we find completely captivating.

What a life. Today, it’s Arizona, last month it was California, and before that we were in Oregon. Soon it will be New Mexico.

Whether it’s dry camping in the wilderness or enjoying the comforts of a full-hookup RV park, RV enthusiasts agree—it’s all about the joys of camping.

For some hardy souls, camping means pitching a tent, snuggling in sleeping bags, and cooking on a Coleman stove or a grill balanced on a fire ring. Yes, I’ve been there, done that!

For the rest of us—and some us have left those days behind—we freely admit to enjoying a soft queen-sized bed, a plug-in coffeemaker, home-cooked meal, and hot shower.

The best part of RV camping with all the comforts of home: your own bed, your own shower, and being able to cook whatever you want to eat. Even after six months on the road I’m not ready to come home.

Live it well! Enjoy today! Do something fun! Do your dream! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Live it well!
Enjoy today!
Do something fun!
Do your dream! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No matter what you see when you look outside your window, you’re at home in your RV.

Yes, home is where you park it in this beautiful country of ours.

Many of us cringe when we see fuel prices climb, but the pleasure of RV camping can be had without driving for days. The “here” can be just as enjoyable as “there.”

So, let me remind you…whatever you would like to accomplish in your life, do it now! Don’t put things off too long! Life goes by all too quickly.

So, do what you can today, as you can never be sure about tomorrow!

Life is a gift to you. Make it a fantastic one!

Live it well!

Sunrise with mist rising at our campground near Unadilla, Georgia.
Sunrise with mist rising at our campground near Unadilla, Georgia. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy today!

Do something fun!

Be happy!

Have a great day!

Life is too short to let even one day be frenzied or frazzled or frittered away.

Life is too short not to take time to do the things that will hold the most meaning for you.

So let yourself float like a leaf on a stream, relax with your memories and let yourself dream.

Throw out your list that’s impossibly long, and dance a few steps to a favorite song.

Turn off the news and go find someone real who’ll listen and talk and affirm what you feel.
Life is too short and flies by if you let it, so choose what you want every day—and go and get it.

The distance doesn’t matter. It’s what you see out your window in the morning that counts.

ferry boat returns from Cumberland Island to the dock in St. Marys
It’s the end of a wonderful day as our ferry boat returns from Cumberland Island to the dock in St. Marys. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

What a Wonderful World

I see trees of green, red roses too
I see them bloom for me and you
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
I see skies of blue and clouds of white
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night
And I think to myself what a wonderful world.
The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces of people going by
I see friends shaking hands saying how do you do
They’re really saying I love you.

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll never know
And I think to myself what a wonderful world
Yes I think to myself what a wonderful world.

—lyrics by George David Weiss, George Douglas, Bob Thield; recorded by Louis Armstrong

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5 Great State Parks

In an earlier post I detailed My 5 Favorite State Parks. With nearly 8,000 state park in America, there are hundreds of state parks worthy of a visit.

A short loop nature trails at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A short loop nature trail at the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park visitor center. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here are 5 Great State Parks.

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

The largest state park in the contiguous United States, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is flanked by rugged mountain on three sides and the Salton Sea to the east. Its 650,000 acres contain spectacular desert vistas, a variety of plant and animal life, and numerous archaeological, cultural, and historic sites.

Varying from stark dry desert mountains and canyons to lush palm-tree-lined oases, the park contains more than 100 miles of trails for hikers, backpackers, and mountain bikers, 500 miles of dirt roads to be explored by bicycle or motor vehicle, and steep paved roads for road cyclists who love a challenge.

Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Dead Horse Point State Park features a dramatic overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park.
Dead Horse Point State Park features a dramatic overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parking lot at Dead Horse Point State Park, 30 miles from Moab, is a few steps from one of the most dramatic vistas in the desert Southwest—looking down 1,000 feet to the top of Dead Horse Mesa, which itself towers a thousand feet above the Colorado River doing a 180-degree turn and wrapping around its sandstone base.

From the overlook, canyon erosion may be viewed on a grand scale. This erosion process has taken approximately 150 million years. Much of it is caused by the river slicing down into the earth’s crust as land is forced upward. These powerful forces are still sculpting the fantastic shapes of the precipitous bluffs and towering spires.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas

Enchanted Rock rises 425 feet above ground, 1825 feet above sea level, and covers 640 acres.

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area is one of the most popular sites in Texas for several reasons—the scenery is unusual, the summit is easily reached and has fine views over the countryside, different habitats harbor varied wildflowers, cacti and other plants, and there are good hiking trails and rock climbing routes.

There are two main trails. The steep and heavily traveled Summit Trail leads directly to the summit of the main rock, while the Loop Trail makes a four-mile trek around the entire complex of domes.

Visitors to Enchanted Rock enjoy numerous activities, including hiking, backpacking, technical and rock climbing, primitive camping, picnicking, birding, geological study, stargazing and nature study.
Visitors to Enchanted Rock enjoy numerous activities, including hiking, backpacking, technical and rock climbing, primitive camping, picnicking, birding, geological study, stargazing and nature study. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palo Duro State Park, Texas

At 120 miles long, 20 miles wide in some places, and 800 feet deep, Palo Duro Canyon is the second-largest canyon in the country, behind the Grand Canyon. The Technicolor walls here make for high-desert scenery more commonly seen in southern Utah.

You can explore the 20,000-acre state park by hiking or horseback-riding, or even take a leisurely drive across the canyon floor. There’s tent, equestrian, RV camping, and three stone cabins built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (since modernized), set on the rim with sweeping view of the canyon below.

From the end of May until mid-August, more than 60 actors, singers, and dancers take the stage at the park’s amphitheatre to perform Texas, a rousing musical that depicts the settling of the Texas Panhandle.

Hunting Island State Park, South Carolina

Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hunting Island State Park: South Carolina Paradise © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Approximately 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, Hunting Island State Park encompasses 5,000 acres of pristine sandy beach, maritime forest, the only publicly accessible lighthouse in the state, and saltwater marsh. It is classified as a true semitropical island. Hunting Island, the most popular state park in South Carolina, attracts more than a million visitors annually and was recently named a top 10 beach Trip Advisor.

Hunting Island possesses the best developed slash pine-palmetto forest in the state and is one of the best sites to observe South Carolina’s state tree, the Cabbage Palmetto, in its native habitat.

Hunting Island State Park is only 29 miles off Interstate 95, the main corridor between Florida and the Northeast, approximately halfway between Savannah and Charleston.

Worth Pondering…

Remember that happiness is a way of travel, not a destination.

—Roy Goodman

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My 5 Favorite State Parks

Every year, America’s nearly 8,000 state parks see more than 720 million visitors—more than two-and-a-half times the number of all visits to national parks, which include marquee names such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These state parks tend to be smaller than national parks, and relatively modest in comparison, but they form the backbone of the park system and enjoy fierce loyalty from families who visit year after year.

Chances are you’re not too far from a state parks. Visit a state park today.

Everyone has lists and seldom do any two lists agree. But lists can be interesting fodder for discussion, debate, and sometimes agreement.

Here are My 5 Favorite State Parks.

Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park, Texas

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center. Witness hawk migrations and enjoy bird walks and natural history tours at this key migratory stopover.

You can spend a whole day exploring bird life along a one-mile walking trail through sugar hackberry, Rio Grande ash, and Texas ebony; and the six-mile paved inner and outer loops. Or take the tram or rent a bicycle to meander around the loops.

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina
Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Catalina State Park, Arizona

Catalina State Park, one of the many gems in the Arizona State Park system, offers beautiful vistas of the Sonoran Desert and the Santa Catalina Mountains with riparian canyons, lush washes, and dense cactus forests. The environment at the base of the Santa Catalina Mountains offers great camping, hiking, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home.

One of the special features at Catalina State Park (among many!) is an amazing population of saguaros. There are about a half-dozen large stands within the park, each numbering close to 500 plants. Along with hundreds of scattered individuals, these stands account for an estimated saguaro population of close to 5,000 plants.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

The Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas
The Valley of Fire State Park near Las Vegas derives its name from red sandstone formations, formed from great shifting sand dunes during the age of dinosaurs, 150 million years ago. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With its blood-red sandstone cliffs and weird rock formations, there’s an other-worldly feeling at Valley of Fire State Park. The terrain at Valley of Fire so resembles Mars that the Mars scenes of Total Recall were almost all filmed here.

Popular activities include camping, picnicking, photography, hiking among the intriguing rock formations, and soaking in the fascinating story of the area’s geological evolution. Park features include Fire Canyon/Silica Dome, Rainbow Vista, White Domes, and Beehives. Valley of Fire State Park is 55 miles—and a few light-years—northeast of Las Vegas via Interstate 15 and on exit 75.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Consisting of 6,150 acres with two miles of sugar white sand beaches and three fresh water lakes, Gulf State Park has a modern full-service campground, cabins, cottages, back country trails, and the largest fishing pier in the Gulf of Mexico.

The park also features an interactive nature center, nationally recognized scenic nature trail, new tennis courts, beautiful beach pavilion, 18-hole Refuge Golf Course, and a 900-acre lake for fishing in the picnic area on Lake Shelby.

Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Relax and enjoy the beauty of Gulf State Park. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park, South Dakota
With its pine-clad mountains and striking stone spires giving way in the south to gently rolling grasslands, the 71,000-acre Custer State Park occupies one of the prettiest corners of South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Drive on the windy Needles Highway in the north, through narrow tunnels carved through the rock, to mirror-like Sylvan Lake, the “crown jewel.” To the south, the 18-mile Wildlife Loop is the place to find pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, elk, and the famous “begging donkeys”.

Custer State Park touts itself as one of the few remaining wild sanctuaries in the country. Elk, mountain goats and nearly 1,300 buffalo roam this 71,000-acre park, set in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Worth Pondering…

Take time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean…the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of flowing streams. And the voices of living things: the dawn chorus of the birds, the insects that play little fiddles in the grass.

—Rachel Carson

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Half-Century Old Texas BBQ Legends

The popularity of Texas BBQ—primarily Texas-style smoked brisket—has launched a frenzy of new activity.

Prause Meat Market
For a real taste of Texas tradition, look no further than the wonderfully quirky Prause Meat Market right on one corner of the town square in La Grange. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New slow cook joints pop up with frequent regularity, and relatively new pitmasters are hailed as masters of the craft. Many deserve considerable attention and high praise, but let’s not lose sight of what came before, the historic barbecue joints that built the foundation of Texas barbecue many decades ago. The places that began operating a century ago, before barbecue gained its current popularity.

The average age of the celebrated barbecue joint is getting younger. In the statewide Top 50 barbecue list from the June 2013 issue of Texas Monthly, more than half of those listed—27—were opened this century. The average age was was just over 22 years old. In comparison, the oldest barbecue joint in Texas, Southside Market in Elgin, is 132 years old.

While age is not the only appropriate measuring stick for a barbecue joint, just staying open is something to laud.

The Texas Historical Commission has even created an award to help recognize these storied businesses. It’s called the Texas Treasure Business Award, and any business that has been open continuously for fifty years is eligible. I first noticed this award when I noticed it on display at Prause Meat Market in LaGrange.

Prause Meat Market
At Prause Meat Market I enjoyed a plate of brisket, sausage link, and their signature pork roll. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a real taste of Texas tradition, look no further than the wonderfully quirky Prause Meat Market right on one corner of the town square in La Grange.

From the customer parking lot we walked through the back entrance, past the smoldering pits, and were relieved to find that they still had barbecue left for lunch, as they’ve been known to sell out quickly.

Established in 1904, this is one of the oldest BBQ joints in Texas, and one of the better ones. This historic joint is run by a fourth generation of Prauses who still operate a full-service meat market up front and offer smoked meats from the back.

This is a no-frills kind of place which serves amazing barbecue from its back room. Service is the old fashion way—you stand in line around the side of an old meat market counter that winds through the building to the door. Once you get to the front you tell the friendly folks what you want; they put it on a old time scale then calculate what you owe. You pay in cash as no credit cards are accepted.

Black's Barbecue
Lockhart, the official Barbecue Capital of Texas, is home to four major barbecue restaurants including award-winning Black’s Barbecue, which has been owned by the same family since 1932. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I get the feeling that the butcher shop is the main business and the BBQ was an afterthought which used to be true of most meat markets/BBQ pits in the distant past.

The taste is amazing. Smoke is the name of the game here, and the rub has a lot of pepper and salt and a great bark.

Everything is good so try it all from the brisket, to the sausage, to the pork—you can’t go wrong. I enjoyed a plate of brisket, sausage link, and their signature pork roll.

Fat has melded into a soft buttery smoky goodness that will leave you wanting more.

A sign near the door says “Seven days without meat makes one weak.” It’s one of many hilarious quips throughout this quirky market.

Numerous trophies hang on the wall. Signs with Texas wisdom also adorn the walls.

“We do not assemble sandwiches” to “My wife is like a bull… she charges everything” to my personal favorite “If a man is in the woods and no woman can hear him, would he still be wrong?”

New Braunfels Smokehouse (established 1952) is the only other barbecue joint with the Texas Treasure Business Award designation.

City Market
Barbecue fans head to downtown Luling to satisfy their craving for City Market’s succulent brisket, hot links, and pork ribs. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fifty-plus year old barbecue joints also deserving of recognition for their storied smoked meat history include:

  • Southside Market (established 1882) in Elgin
  • Kreuz Market (established 1900) in Lockhart
  • Black’s Barbecue (established 1932) in Lockhart
  • City Meat Market (established 1941) in Giddings
  • City Market (established 1957) in Luling
  • Gonzales Food Market (established 1958) in Gonzales
  • Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que (established 1963) in Llano

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

You don’t need no teeth to eat my beef.

—from Legends of Texas BBQ

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Top 7 Snowbird Hotspots

Cold winter weather is inevitable. But there is an escape.

Coachella Valley Preserve: A Desert Oasis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Coachella Valley Preserve, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Residents of the northern half of North America have long found respite from winter’s chill by fleeing to the southern half. As refugees from the frozen north, snowbirds avoid winter’s bite, snow and blowing snow, and treacherous icy sidewalks and streets by migrating southward.

Northerners have a bounty of options for destinations. Many snowbirds are north-south creatures with Florida remaining a top spot for Easterners. Snowbirds from the Northwest settle in Arizona and southern California while those in the Mid-West are attracted to Texas. But these states aren’t alone in luring snowbirds, and even within each of these states there’s a bevy of choices to suit every traveler’s taste, interests, and budget.

While many snowbirds head directly south from their northern home and enjoy long-term stays at RV parks and resorts, others cut across the country in a diagonal direction, exploring a whole new longitude. Still other snowbirds follow an itinerary across the Sun Belt sampling a variety of regions and roosts.

Here’s a look at six places that snowbirds might call their winter home.

Yuma and the Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Yuma and the Colorado River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Palm Springs

Rich in natural beauty and blessed with glorious weather, Palm Springs and the desert resort cities of the Coachella Valley is a snowbird and vacation paradise, the ultimate desert playground. Part of the Colorado Desert, the area is bounded by majestic mountain ranges—the San Jacinto, San Gorgonio, and Santa Rosa mountains close by, the little San Bernardino Mountains to the west and the Chocolate Mountains to the east. This desert oasis is also known as a golfing paradise.

Key West

The southernmost tip of Florida has been the end of the line for eccentrics, free spirits, and creative types for a century or more. Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams are among its former residents.

Yuma

Yuma’s wonderfully temperate winter climate makes this southwestern Arizona city a popular destination for snowbirds escaping their cold winter homes. Arizona’s warmest winter city and the sunniest year-round spot in the U.S., Yuma has an annual average of 4,133 hours of sunshine.

Yuma is a major growing region for lettuce, dates, broccoli, cabbage, and agricultural seeds. Some of the major attractions around the Yuma area include the historical Territorial Prison, the Yuma Crossing Historic Park, and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge.

green jay
Green jay at Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center near Mission © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Diego

San Diego is the last major city in southern California before the Mexican border. Cosmopolitan, and upscale, the area is blessed with a Goldilocks climate that’s never too hot nor too cold, a natural beauty on the Pacific Ocean and a deep restaurant and entertainment scene centered around the central and walkable Gaslamp Quarter.

Mission

Located in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, Mission welcomes the thousands of Winter Texans that call Mission their temporary home. Mission offers some of the most spectacular locations for birding and butterfly watching on earth. The Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park/World Birding Center and the National Butterfly Center have created havens for the special species unique to the area, and invite birders and naturalists to their sites by offering viewing stations, watching towers, interpretive centers, and various programs.

St. Petersburg

Along with beautiful beaches, St. Petersburg attracts visitors with the Salvador Dali Museum, Fort De Soto Park, and the St. Petersburg Pier. Beach Drive features a variety of dining and shopping opportunities. Glimmering between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg is known for its warm weather and delightful breezes, and fun in the sun.

Stretching outward, an army of saguaro cacti waved at me with their massive prickly arms. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Saguaro National Park near Tucson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tucson

There are numerous reasons to visit Tucson and the many other historic towns and sights around Southern Arizona. Some snowbirds come for a week or two. Others stay for the season.

Some of the major attractions include Sabino Canyon, Saguaro National Park, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, San Xavier del Bac (White Dove of the Desert), Catalina State Park, Kit Peak National Observatory, Tohono Chul Park, Pima Air and Space Museum, and Old Tucson Studios.

Worth Pondering…

When you are young, you dream of leaving your house on a set of wheels. When you retire you dream of living in a house on a set of wheels.

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Magnet For Birds & Snowbirds

They may be blue in the North Country, but in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, the jays have bright green backs, purple-blue heads with black trim down to the chest, and yellowish-green underparts.

green jay
Take up bird watching. Many of the colorful birds found in Sunbelt regions are tropical species, reaching their northern range limits. The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Valley, as it is affectionately called, is an area near the Mexican border that stretches from Brownsville and Harlingen in the east to Mission in the west—a distance of about 65 miles. Starting in the east and heading west, there’s Brownsville, Los Fresco, Rio Honda, San Benito, Harlingen, La Feria, Mercedes, Weslaco, Donna, Alamo, San Juan, Pharr, Edinburg, McAllen, and Mission.

The Valley is one of North America’s meccas for birders. And the green jay (pictured above) is the official bird of McAllen, the area’s largest city with 135,000 residents.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park—an area well known by both birders and the U.S. border patrol—is a great spot for bird watching.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, just south of Mission, is not only Texas’ southernmost state park, but since October 2005, the headquarters of the World Birding Center.

Dozens of green jays along with the raucous chachalacas (pictured below), great kiskadee (pictured below), and Altamira orioles (pictured below) congregate around a series of feeders a short distance from the roadway at the first stop on a tram ride from the visitors center.

The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.
The raucous Plain Chachalacas are just one of the very common birds you can find congregating at feeding stations placed throughout the nature centers in the Rio Grande Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

This is bird watching made easy in what is touted as one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the United States.

From an observation tower in the park’s south end, visitors catch a glimpse of the meandering slow-flowing Rio Grande and neighboring Mexico. Sharing the park with birders and cyclists, are numerous border patrol vehicles, keeping watch along irrigation canals for people trying to enter the US illegally.

The green jay, along with some 500 other species that stay in the Rio Grande Valley year-round, is one of many head-turning attractions for the tens of thousands of Winter Texans who flock to The Valley annually.

Those who like to combine birding with spectacular architecture do what we did and head to the city-owned Quinta Mazatlan, one of the largest adobe-style mansions in the US.

There, staff relate stories of Jason Matthews, the adventurer who is said to have fought the Turks with Lawrence of Arabia and who built the estate, including a rooftop “hooch” made of sticks.

The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The great kiskadee has yellow on its crown that is often obscured by the black stripes that frames it. However, if you get a view of the top of its head as I did in this photo, the yellow brightly stands out on this Rio Grande Valley specialty. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The place was nearly demolished after being damaged by a hurricane in 1967 but a local couple bought it for a song and restored it to the point it was honored for its splendor by the State of Texas.

At the end of the ’90s, the property was once again up for sale and the city outbid developers seeking to raze the mansion and develop the site. Now Quinta Mazatlan, like the state park, is one of the region’s most important birding areas and one of the most photographed spots in McAllen.

Edinburg Scenic Wetlands and World Birding Center sits on 40 acres within an Edinburg city park. Built on re-claimed farm fields adjacent to the city’s effluent and floodwater ponds, Edinburg Scenic Wetlands is a showcase for wildlife and a native habitat site set amidst an urban setting. Surrounding the Interpretive Center, the 3.5-acre native butterfly habitat offers some of the most diverse habitat in the region.

Waterfowl and shorebirds like the green kingfisher, black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, and American avocet have a home here, and can be easily viewed from platforms overlooking peaceful freshwater lagoons. At least 13 species of ducks flock here in winter months.

Estero Llano Grande has a well-deserved reputation as a can’t-miss birding destination. At the geographic center of the World Birding Center network, Estero Llano Grande in Weslaco attracts a spectacular array of South Texas wildlife with its varied landscape of shallow lakes, woodlands, and thorn forest.

The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The Altamira Oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the United States, it makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Estero Llano Grande shares some of the same specialty birds as Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Commonly seen species include the great kiskadee, plain chacalaca, Altamira oriole, green jay, groove-billed ani, tropical parula, common pauraques, green kingfishers, grebes, coots, black-bellied whistling ducks, and an assortment of wading birds like the great blue heron, roseate spoonbill, and long-billed dowitcher.

The many area RV parks are packed with Winter Texans who have for decades discovered Texas as a more economical alternative to Florida.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

Winter Texan is Better Than No Texan

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Enchanted Rock: Sitting on Top of the World

The Texas Hill Country begins a little way west of I-35 between San Antonio and Austin, and from here extends a large area of rolling hills and valleys with limestone canyons, clear-water rivers, and a few scattered small towns.

Enchanted Rock is an impressive geological feature with an estimated age of one billion years, making it among the oldest exposed rock in North America
Enchanted Rock is an impressive geological feature with an estimated age of one billion years, making it among the oldest exposed rock in North America. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most of the area is quite densely wooded and can look rather featureless from a distance, with every hill covered with trees. One exception is Enchanted Rock, an enormous, pink granite dome located between Llano and Fredericksburg, about 90 miles north of San Antonio and 18 miles from Fredericksburg along ranch road 965.

Enchanted Rock rises 425 feet above ground, 1825 feet above sea level, and covers 640 acres.

It’s part of the Llano Uplift, a large region of granite bedrock that rises out of the surrounding limestone. Over the last several million years, erosion has exposed this billion-year-old dome and its smaller sister domes. It’s some of the oldest exposed rock in the world and is a prime destination for hikers, photographers, and rock climbers.

Boasting the best view in Texas, Enchanted Rock has long been a useful landmark for cross-country travelers. The rock is one of the largest batholiths (underground rock formation uncovered by erosion) formed from molten magma deep below the earth’s crust and part of an underground mass of 62 square miles, one of the largest such features in the US.

Although Enchanted Rock appears to be solid and durable, it continues to change and erode.

Visitors to Enchanted Rock enjoy numerous activities, including hiking, backpacking, technical and rock climbing, primitive camping, picnicking, birding, geological study, stargazing and nature study.
Visitors to Enchanted Rock enjoy numerous activities, including hiking, backpacking, technical and rock climbing, primitive camping, picnicking, birding, geological study, stargazing and nature study. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1970 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Enchanted Rock is part of the state park system, one of the most popular sites in Texas for several reasons—the scenery is unusual, the summit is easily reached and has fine views over the countryside, different habitats harbor varied wildflowers, cacti and other plants, and there are good hiking trails and rock climbing routes. Occasionally visitors are turned away if the carpark reaches maximum capacity. There are actually several different summits, and a few days could be spent exploring the area.

The park offers 7 miles of hiking trails, including the popular 6/10 mile Summit Trail which involves a 425-foot elevation gain hike to the top of Enchanted Rock.
The park offers 7 miles of hiking trails, including the popular 6/10 mile Summit Trail which involves a 425-foot elevation gain hike to the top of Enchanted Rock. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are two main trails. The steep and heavily traveled Summit Trail leads directly to the summit of the main rock, while the Loop Trail makes a four-mile trek around the entire complex of domes.

A more relaxed and more scenic—but longer—hike, the Loop Trail presents a completely different aspect of the park. Along the way you’ll pass through a couple of different ecosystems—through woods and brush, by a pond, over exposed rock—and you’ll see several unusual eroded and lichen-encrusted rock formations that those who do climb the face of Enchanted Rock never get to see.

A good combination is to walk half the loop trail to the far side of the Enchanted Rock summit, use a short cut along a ravine (Echo Canyon) to link with the summit trail then take this up to the peak. The southern part of the loop trail climbs through pine woodland and past large granite boulders with many colorful wildflowers during spring. There is a short side trail to a viewpoint of distant lands to the west, while the main path continues past a primitive camping area and a large pond (Moss Lake) with fish and turtles, then meets the Echo Canyon junction. The trail through here passes one of the main rock climbing areas, then meets the summit trail half way to the top.

Details

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area

Elevation: 1,825 feet (high point)

Address: 16710 Ranch Road 965, Fredericksburg, TX 78624

Phone: (830) 685-3636

Directions: From Fredericksburg 18 miles north on Ranch Road 965; from Llano, 14 miles south on SR-16 and then west on Ranch Road 965

Entrance Fees: $7; children 12 years and younger, free

The 4-mile Loop Trail, a favorite among hikers and backpackers, winds around the base of Enchanted Rock.
The 4-mile Loop Trail, a favorite among hikers and backpackers, winds around the base of Enchanted Rock. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Note: Park closures are possible on weekends and holidays. The number of people in the park is limited to protect its fragile resources. When parking lots are full, the park will close for up to two hours. This can happen September through May, sometimes as early as 11 a.m.

Worth Pondering…

I am humbled by the forces of nature that continuously -mold our great state of Texas into a beautiful landscape complete with geological diversity, flora and fauna. It is my goal as a photographer to capture that natural beauty and share it with others.

—Chase A. Fountain

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