This post appears to embed multiple videos. There are actually only a few videos, inserted repeatedly, but tweaked to start at different points. (Never mind that YouTube displays the same image for each embedded instance: the video will start at different places.) The video segments, and the following table of contents, are for those who want to pick and choose within the full itinerary.
Starting Point: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Cottonwood Falls, Kansas: Chase State Fishing Lake
Kiowa State Fishing Lake, Greensburg, Kansas
Clayton Lake State Park, Clayton, New Mexico
Thompson Grove Picnic Area, Dalhart, Texas
Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, Fritch, Texas
Amistad National Recreation Area, Del Rio, Texas
Live Oak Park, Ingleside, Texas
Beach at Port Aransas, Texas
Mustang Island State Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
August 1, 2013. They let me stay over in my old apartment (lease technically expired at midnight last night). By dawn I was out. Spent several hours swapping items in the storage unit and packing them tightly into the Honda Civic. Hot. Got an appraisal of front-end work needed at the Honda place. Hit the road. By 3 PM, I was out of Arkansas. Made it to Chase State Fishing Lake in central Kansas. Set up the old Cabela’s bivy sack (a low, one-person tent) with foot end slightly downhill, pointing toward the edge of the lake, maybe 25 feet away. Very tired. Sleep. Thunderstorm. I am cozy and pretty dry in my bivy.
Cottonwood Falls, Kansas: Chase State Fishing Lake
August 2. Hot, sunny day. Some moisture has accumulated between lower bivy layers: tarp/tent/plastic. I spread these components out to dry. My campsite has a concrete square – probably the only one like that, in this basic campground. No electrical; pit toilets. The concrete slab gets hot in the sun, so things can dry faster. Set up my nice, new $120 Coleman screen house, an 8’ tall tent with mesh instead of fabric for sides and no floor. Measures something like 15′ x 13′ at base.
Spend much of day organizing camping equipment, organizing laptop. Crap everywhere. Spend several hours writing. Drink beer. I see the thunderstorm coming for several hours, across this fairly flat Kansas landscape, but not to worry. I know about thunderstorms. Go to sleep. Awaken to fierce wind and hellacious rain, nearly flattening the bivy on me. Kind of a spooky experience. Reminds me of war, with the lightning really cracking and booming all around. It soon occurs to me that the screen house, an eight-foot wall of mesh supported by flimsy metal posts, must surely be toast. When the nasty wind dies down, I climb out. The screen house is gone. The trail of debris seems to suggest it has flown to the east. I walk around, but in the continuing rain the little beam from my headlamp reveals nothing. I go back to sleep. I awaken with a sense that my thigh is wet. This is an odd thing to notice first as, actually, my feet are underwater. The lake has risen. I come to consciousness saying, “We are floating! Time to move!” I drag the bivy uphill and go back to sleep.
August 3. A tromp through meadow and hillside reveals nothing. The screen house has been thieved or perhaps flattened in some inconspicuous bog. Retirees from the nearby town, tooling through the campsite to see what’s new, all stop and ask about its absence, offer condolences. I feel awful. Stupid not to have taken it down when I could see the entire western sky lit with lightning. I drive to the big town, Emporia, KS (pop. ~25,000), twenty miles away, but Walmart has no real substitutes; this one was mail-ordered. At end of day, fishing from the pier, a man named Virgil Martin sees the screen house swimming at the bottom of the lake. He pulls it out, folds it up, and returns it to me, looking very pleased with my profuse thanks.
August 4. I slept many hours in the rain and dark. Very snug. I am one of few in this place. Interrupted the sleep to get up and skinny-dip at around 4 AM. Bathing facilities are scarce. Rinse off in the rain. Back in the sack. Warm and sleepy. Wander in the rain for a while, setting up the screen house to inspect the damage. Two major posts are badly bent. It still stands, but sadly we need to form plans for its eventual replacement. I go to the Strong City truck stop (~5 miles away) to eat at the Subway while recharging the deep cycle marine battery that recharges my laptop. The charging takes place outside, using an external power jack, so as not to allow hydrogen gas to accumulate indoors and blow up the joint. This is my first opportunity to go online since August 1. A couple of friends express an interest or concern in what I’m up to, so I decide to start this log/journal/diary. To my pleasant surprise, the deep cycle battery is hardly discharged, takes only two hours to recharge, and then I’m back to camp.
August 5. On the way here from Arkansas, I stopped at a place in Parsons, KS that sells tombstones. I was tired; I took a nap on a nearby concrete wall. Later occurred to me that I was practicing. I used that line today, when a lady from Wichita, vacationing out here, asked if I was the one sleeping in the coffin-like tent. She was referring to my bivy sack. I said, Yeah, I’m practicing. She laughed. Morbid thought. On a more positive note, I am getting some writing done. This place is quiet. I resumed running this morning, for the first time since leaving Arkansas. It will take me a little while to get back in shape, after these days of sitting around. This afternoon, Tim and Tina, Baptists, stopped by to say hello. I met them the other day, when I was asking if anyone had seen any sign of my screen tent, and we had an interesting talk about religion. Late in the day, Beth arrives. She is a Jewish writer who decided to live in and write about Harlem. I get the sense that her friends find poverty on 148th Street more exotic than the much larger problem of white poverty in America, as illustrated on the streets Beth drove through on her way here. I was tempted to suggest that Beth stop in at the gas station, up on the main highway, and ask for Susan, who works two minimum-wage jobs, and see how she’s doing with the dental pain that she can’t afford to fix. But I don’t get a chance to propose this course of action; Beth has relocated herself to the far end of the campground promptly after hearing me describe myself as “homeless.”
August 6. An uninterrupted day of writing. In the morning, a heron, standing three feet tall, lands at the shoreline 15 feet away from me. He didn’t know I was there, but he saw me quickly enough. I turned my head back to my work. I thought disinterest would calm him down, but my head movement was too rapid: he took off again. We’re having lightning and rain every night, but no more of the wartime drama of several days ago. In late afternoon, I rearrange things and try to pack everything back into the car. It doesn’t look like it will fit. I don’t know how it got here. In the evenings, I am reading Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, a classic piece of sci-fi. Tim and Tina didn’t stop by tonight. I probably scared them away with my remarks on astrological signs. Not a strong point for Baptists, if memory serves. I had time today to reflect on the pit toilet building. “Here there be spiders,” I was recalling from (I think) The Lord of the Rings. The smell had apparently killed a number of lesser insects and possibly larger mammals that now lay decomposing within. The quarter-inch plate steel toilet paper rod with the Master padlock is certainly ambitious, promising a delivery that we have yet to see. It’s alright. They say you can’t take it with you when you go. This, I find, is not true of toilet paper. I have at least four rolls in the car, courtesy of a slight overpurchase back home. I’m sure I’ll get a chance to use it up eventually. I’ve decided that toilet spiders are mostly benevolent, at least if there are signs that they eat mosquitoes. Mosquitoes in the outhouse are bad news.
August 7. Second trip to Emporia, the big town 20 miles away. I get a nice workspace at the public library, spread out my stuff, and update this blog for the past several days. A fine day of freezing in excessive air conditioning. Oh, well — at least I didn’t have to put on sunblock! A key ingredient of surviving in this mess of stuff in this car: I have to be patient. I have to calm down and realize I have all the time in the world to find things that are buried somewhere deep within this mess, even if I’m doing it while kneeling on the driver’s seat, facing backwards into the headrest, groping around behind it, in an incredibly hot and humid car. Bear in mind that I’m over 6’1″ and this is a Honda Civic.
August 8. Rain, rain, rain. I dictate this item into my digital voice recorder (DVR) while sitting in my old North Face tent. It is 11 years old and the seam seals on its rain fly have dried out. It is leaking like a sieve. There are no dry spots. So I migrate into the park pavilion, where the wind whistles through. I am wearing wet shorts. I wrap myself in a black plastic garbage bag. I’m wearing cheap Walmart flip-flops. The strap keeps pulling out. I’ll have to return them. I’ve ordered new sandals; the old ones (maybe 13 years old) have just torn a seam. This is a trip for reducing old possessions.
August 9. It has rained for the past two days almost nonstop. My bivy sack pole broke; I am trying to decide whether to replace it. I have abandoned the North Face tent and everything in it, a sort of self-contained swamp, and am sleeping in a brand-new $30 Walmart special. One side is watertight; one side is not. I’ve strapped a tarp on top, so hopefully no more influx, and later today I’ll scoop out the pond that has formed inside it. Right now, I’m sitting at the posh Grand Central Hotel in Cottonwood Falls, waiting for brake work on my car. Can’t afford a thing on the menu, but I still have a business card to give the stylish owner that says Ray Woodcock J.D. I knew that law degree would be useful for something eventually.
August 10. Amazon and UPS have screwed up my order for a pair of replacement sandals. I know this because I am sitting in front of the closed Cottonwood Falls Public Library, using their leaky WiFi to go online. I indicated “General Delivery” at the local Post Office. They dropped the “General Delivery” line; they only show the city. So no sandals. I have blisters from wearing flip-flops. Can’t wear shoes in the rainy/dewy grass; they soak through immediately and take forever to dry. On a more positive note, today I ran a better distance, after yesterday’s start: I’m back up to maybe six miles. Sunshine, clear blue sky. Maybe the rain is gone for a while.
August 11. Seed ticks you-know-where. I retreat to the tent and apply clear fingernail polish. We’ll see if that gets rid of them. Back out and working at the computer, curiosity killed the bumblebee. He’s coming too close, just a few inches away. I swing at him with the flyswatter, which I’ve been using to reduce and discourage the supply of flies willing to bite my ankles. Swatting seems to have a deterrent effect: you have to kill them for a while, but then there aren’t many left. Don’t know what it is about my ankles, but evidently they contain flynip. The bumblebee seems to be attracted by motion. The flyswatter just interests him. I swing again. And again and again. Can’t seem to hit him. He’s really agile, for such a big guy. Not trying to sting me or come any closer; just hanging out until my next stroke, which misses again. Finally the flyswatter handle nicks him, and that apparently freaks him out. A reminder of mortality. He takes off for the flowers and weeds, where he belongs. In other news, it’s August. The grasshoppers are out.
August 12. Beautiful weather yesterday too. Nice while it lasted. Powerful wind at 5 AM nearly flattened the cheap Walmart tent with me inside. The North Face tent, sitting inside this park’s pavilion while the new seam sealant dried overnight, blew on its side. Lucky it didn’t get ruined. I have figured out the basic principle of Kansas weather prediction. If a storm can come at you from the west, it will do that. If it can come from the east, it will do that. Main thing is just to have a storm, if at all possible. If you can see lightning in any direction in the night sky, just stay put: eventually it will find you. Breakfast was sausage & gravy on a muffin, in a plastic container at the Casey’s General Store (convenience store). Charlie the mechanic fixed my brakes, let me use some of his tools to reattach the failing wires on the battery clamps on the adapter that lets me recharge my laptop. In other news, dinner last night at Tim & Tina’s place. They have visited a couple of times now. Dinner was very good. Talked until 10:30. Two or three other couples visited yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, cruising along the gravel lanes in the park and its camping areas. Their timing was good — I was feeling alone. Things are starting to get organized in the car. I’ve given away and thrown away a number of items. Gave Tim an external frame backpack last night. Haven’t used it for years and don’t plan to. It was taking up too much space in this little Honda. He’s giving it to his son. Coleman is going to replace the screen house. Kudos for them! That may be my only shade in western lands. As I become more familiar with where everything is, in all these Rubbermaid containers and elsewhere around the car, I think the hassle factor will recede and this way of living will feel more normal. It does already. Last night was the first time I’ve been in a residential building since August 1. I miss its conveniences. But it was nice to go to sleep under stars, visible through the tiny porthole atop that cheap Walmart tent.
August 13. Cold. Wind pants and thick fleece. Makes me look at the map, wondering if it’s time to head to New Mexico or other points south.
August 14. Beautiful. Big orange glow of sunrise over the lake. Mist rising from the warm lake water. Already took my morning dip there. Dew on the grass. It’s been a long time since I’ve had Ramen noodles but, you know, this morning I did, and they were really good. Creamy chicken. My present feeling is that I don’t want to go back indoors. It’s just too nice out here.
August 15. Breakfast included a piece of cooked squash and some other items given to me by Anais, wife of Billy Yeager, the filmmaker. They lived on the road for two years, including a wintertime stint in Death Valley, searching for truth, and wound up producing a movie called Jesus of Malibu. They stopped by to talk yesterday afternoon. So did Tina and Tim, who had much to say on religion. Much. Tim says those aren’t bumblebees; they are wood bees. He shows me the holes where they are slowly ruining the pavilion. We need a new CCC to fix up these parks. There’s also a bird, living up in the rafters, who can’t find her nest half the time. She comes in with a mouthful of fresh bugs for the little birdies, but where the hell did they go? She circles around, finally gives up and lands on the rafter, looks up, eventually figures it out. The itches down under have resumed, sometimes nastily. I may have to become more aggressive with the fingernail polish. Today, I am back in the Emporia Public Library. Had to drive over here anyway because this is as far as UPS will go in delivering my sandals to me. I have discovered meanwhile that Old Navy flip-flops do not wear or worsen blisters and sores that the cheapo Walmart flip-flops generated. This morning, a 6.5-mile run. Was going to make it 12 miles, but got a late start; don’t want to run under the sun. Needn’t have worried; turns out to be a gray day. Dropped some items at Goodwill this morning; generally continue to reduce the load of stuff in the car.
August 16. Computing in front of the public library at 3:45 AM. WiFi always available there. Need to do this because miscellaneous tasks online chewed up the day yesterday at the Emporia public library. Up at this hour because I had a beer last night and beer often screws up my sleep. Had a beer because I should have eaten more yesterday morning. I guess I’m still on a non-running diet. Splitting headache all afternoon. Beer provided anaesthetic and food of sorts. Temporary fix. Sat in the car and read last night before bed. Almost finished with Foundation Trilogy.
August 17. Sitting in the Cottonwood Falls public library, open 2-5 PM. The librarian is helping a man, who happens to be 364 days older than I, to set up his Facebook account. Being an October baby, of course he seems like a happy, agreeable sort. It’s 3:05 PM right now and they’re sampling the salsa that he brought with him to the library. Don’t ask me. I was out at the lake, but got bored and “needed” online access. A troop of Boy Scouts has moved into my precious solitary space for 48 hours, from last night through Sunday afternoon, but they have proved to be largely nonoffensive. Well-behaved, and not many of them, and the scoutmaster has come over to shoot the breeze once or twice. Spent a couple hours yesterday talking to Bill and Anais about their film yesterday. I’m going to do a blurb or endorsement of some kind. My new sandals are wonderful. Dinner and a shower tonight at Tim & Tina’s. I’m going to semi-repay by unloading some more random stuff on them, courtesy of yesterday’s thorough review of the crap I have brought along with me. Objective of the review: to enable me to sit on the passenger side of the car with my laptop in the wee hours, parked in front of this very library or something like it. Funny: I couldn’t buy social life in the university town, where I was the wrong age and/or attitude for the relevant demographic groups, but in this place with so few people, everyone is friendly. Eleven-mile run this morning, starting in the rosy predawn, along roads bisecting Kansas fields. Beautiful. I left my red duffel sitting out, and now it’s gray from a dust coating from cars passing the campsite. My car has been a dustball for weeks. The rain alleviates it, but the dust is stronger: it stays and it comes back.
August 18. The Boy Scouts were all asleep by the time I got back to the campground, so I quietly tucked into my tent and slept eight hours under a waxing gibbous moon, punctuated by one wee-hours rise to wee. Orion was flat on his back in the southeastern sky. I thought about midwinter in the dark desert, or wherever I might be by then. Crawled the Honda quietly out of the campground at dawn to breakfast at the Casey’s; spent two hours blogging in front of the public library. The WiFi is good, but power was getting low, so I went around back to the external outlet cited by the kindly librarian. Nobody is home, but the juice flows. Here I perch on a PVC drainpipe. . . . I am beginning to feel that the flies and mosquitoes have really raised hell with me. I have lots of itches, some really intense. What kind of bites are these?
August 19. Things turned out pretty well with the Boy Scouts. They’ve changed, though. They left their fire smouldering when they took off on a hike, covering me with smoke; had to go down and throw their log into the lake to put it out. Their scoutmaster left me four pounds of really tasty beef stew. I ate it all. Hiked across the dam yesterday, saw the waterfall down the far side of the dam, from lake overflow. Very pretty, but I took a muddy fall when I wasn’t watching my step. Lucky I didn’t break an elbow or a head.
Last goodbyes, last night, to Tim and Tina, who are putting a small box of items in the attic for me: too heavy to ship back, too frequently used and relatively pricey to give away and repurchase when I have an apartment again. The theory is that I’ll retrieve the box sometime.
So anyway, I hit the road this morning. A crazy old man pulling a cart along the highway, out in the middle of nowhere, wearing a sandwich sign that says “Love Life!” I wave as I go by; he waves back. Maybe he’s walking across the country to raise awareness of life. Stopped in McPherson. It’s a real city, with a Post Office that stays open all day. Picked up my replacement Coleman screen house at General Delivery. Nice lady, but a more harried tone. Not like out there in the countryside, with other drivers waving hello as you pass in opposite directions, people you’ve never seen before and will never see again. The car has enough room to hold the screen house easily, now that I have unloaded so many small items; I was able to squeeze it in with only 10 minutes of repacking. Drive on to Lyons, go to the workplace of Georgia, to whom I sold a computer years ago on eBay. We’ve been in occasional touch ever since. Not sure why; just sort of happened. . . . I think being in the outdoors continually makes an impact on a person, but also these special moments (beautiful sunsets, impressive storms, whatever), when you stop and think, Wow, what a great place.
August 20. Georgia stops by the city park on the way to work; says that, if I want, I can do my computing in a space at her workplace. I’m there from 10 to 3. Probably overkill, for two people who have just met. Her coworkers keep asking her who that guy is. She has lots of dogs and cats at home, she says. Late in the day, it occurs to me that she takes in strays, probably offered me that space because she was worried about me. She is a sweetheart. The park is actually a great place. Small but clean, breezy, free electric, water, restrooms, showers. They allow a five-day stay. So I’m here until Saturday. Limited computing at the public library: they won’t let me plug in my computer, saying their wires are flaky and they can’t be responsible for damage, so I’m limited to battery power there. Went to the Pizza Hut yesterday, but no WiFi and air conditioning set to stun. Sunsets in this park are beautiful: straight out there on the horizon, big and orange. It’s drier and flatter here than it was in Cottonwood. Felt like I crossed into the West at McPherson. Interstate 135 is the dividing line. Still have mosquitoes and flies here, but they’re fast. Hard to kill. A while ago, I killed one of those big ones, though, the Gallinipper type. Those drill you, but they’re slow; easy to nail.
Today I recalled the story of the Scrubby Dutch. Someone I used to know in Missouri said that, where she grew up in St. Louis, the old folks laughed to tell about the German immigrants who would clean everything, including the sidewalks in front of their house. I remember feeling a bit defensive at the time, as I was the only person I had ever met who would scrub a picnic table before using it. I decided that was a silly thing to do, and I stopped. Well, I have just spent more than two weeks on birdshit-covered picnic tables at Chase State Fishing Lake, and I have decided, enough of that. So today I broke out the scrubbing brush and the dish soap, and cleaned two picnic tables here in the shelter. I feel better already. The tables still aren’t clean by any stretch, but at least the birdshit has been properly laundered.
August 21. I’m sitting at a picnic table. I’ve been out here since before sunup. I’m cold, thanks to the 69-degree breeze, but that will change soon: forecast 94 degrees, according to the weather report via a weak wireless signal leaking from some nearby house. My second clear, beautiful morning in this free place with electricity, restrooms, showers, and only one fellow camper, actually a pair of males with a pickup truck and camper trailer, who are mostly not here and who avoid eye contact when they are. . . . Later in the day, I smear seam sealer on the seams of the new Texsport bivy sack. Realize too late that I’m putting it on the outside. You’re supposed to put it on the inside. No problem; I flip it over and start again. Use up all my seam sealer, some of which is years old. A job half-assed-well done.
Question on my mind: where do I go when my five days are up? Looking at the weather. My reverie is interrupted by a fly bite. Didn’t know flies bit, until I got to Chase Lake. Just killed one who was coming back for a refill, and he actually had some of my blood in him. Yecch. I’m gonna die of some tropical disease. They are just incessant. I have broken down and have begun using bug spray, which I probably should have done long ago but didn’t want to. But now it’s 4 PM and I have to move to the other picnic table: the sun is advancing on my position. Besides, I haven’t showered, and haven’t eaten lunch yet. . . . And it develops that the shower faucet has only one knob, and it ain’t Hot. Good thing I waited until the hot part of the day to take that shower.
An hour later, here I am at the Subway, listening to generic country and posting these notes. I have moved away from treating the car like a kind of cupboard, loaded up with food. There’s just not space for that. . . . It’s a little dusty here. Sometimes dust hangs in the ballfield to the west of the Lyons City Park. But today I saw a picture of a campground out in Saudi Colorado. Rocks and dust. In January, it would be attractive. Right now, it looks incredibly oppressive. I am not quite ready to move further west. I am still having childhood nostalgia over the light in August, hanging hazy above the grass at dusk.
August 22. Running down the dirt road at sunrise, the drivers slow way down when they approach me. They are spreading dust everywhere, flying down the road; but when they get to me, they are crawling, the air stays clear, and I am dust-free. Sweet people!
I really like that this place is dry enough that there’s no condensation from my breath overnight, on the inside of the tent. Things dry out quickly. I’ve missed that about living in dry places. No molds. My ankles and shins are past the point of itching. They feel like they have been scratched with sandpaper.
Later in the day, a guest: Scott from Detroit is biking to Oregon via central Kansas, presumably on the American Discovery Trail. He says he’ll be glad to leave this place because he is just getting eaten by flies and mosquitoes. Bug spray, my friend. And a flyswatter. Mine perches here next to me on the picnic table. It is swift and deadly. I do wonder if towns attract more flies.
I mention something about biking through the Rockies in the snow. He thinks I mean December. I mean September. But maybe not this year. He’s gotten here just in time for a heat wave. Biking across endless miles of empty Kansas in 95-degree heat, against the wind. I am almost talking myself into another beer, just thinking about it. Scott clears up the mystery of the crazy man walking down the road with the Love Life sign. He is walking through all lower 48 states, pulling 120 lbs. of gear in a wagon. Actually, I’m not sure that clears up anything. But that’s what Scott can tell me on the matter. He says he stopped and talked to the guy for a while when he was biking past. In the end, we’re all westbound — apparently on the same road.
I tell Scott I’m starting to have my doubts about the drinkability of the water here in the city park. He looks a little ill when I say this. But it’s a fair question. I saw a sign on my run this morning (eight miles!), said “non-potable water” and then “hydro-” something; reminded me of fracking. During my run, I was wondering if this area was so flat because it was once an ancient seabed. Then I realized I was smelling the coast, like in Maine, that soggy, fishy kind of wet-sand smell. I look around and, yoo hoo, the whole place is sand. I am on a giant beach. No wonder the corn is struggling.
In the evening, I visit Georgia’s place. Animals everywhere. She has a menagerie. Goats, different kinds of hens and roosters. A coyote attacked a bunch of them; she is nursing a goose back to health.
August 23. First night’s use of the Texsport Bivy Sack. It’s more like a tent than a bivy. Shaped like a sleeping bag, but much bigger. You can take off the rain fly, like my other (much smaller) Cabela’s bivy, and then it’s just you, the mosquito mesh, and the stars. Now that the storms have passed (or since I moved out of the wetter part of Kansas), it’s been clear night skies, watching moon and stars pass when I wake up intermittently, and rising to clear or nearly clear morning skies. Just fantastic. The Texsport bivy is kind of screwy — things don’t entirely fit or make sense — but it’s a step back in the right direction. I’d rather not be stuck inside a tent when I can be lying out in the open.
I’ve gotten things organized in my car now. In those first days at Chase, I had crap lying everywhere around the campsite. But I’ve given away, thrown away, used up, and repacked. It’s still definitely a full Honda Civic, sagging low in the rear; but I can usually keep almost everything in the car now, and it all goes with me when I run errands — so no worries about someone making off with a Rubbermaid full of stuff.
August 24. The Subway restaurant woman is frantically getting set up when I arrive at 8:10 AM. We compare notes on going back to a small-town home after 20 years away. Later, when I go to get ice at the Casey’s, the redhead with the tattoos and the thick blue eyeliner is on the phone, having a hard time counting my change. I was wanting to ask the cops if I could stay another night here — definitely dragging my feet on the idea of plunging further into the driest, hottest part of the heat belt — but the Subway lady said I would probably have to leave a message. Apparently she’s right: nobody home at the cop shop when I stop by. These towns are, I’m sure, all paring their budgets to the bone these days. I think that’s why they offer free camping — they’re hoping to entice tourists to spend a few bucks in town. We’re a sorry lot for that purpose, me and the pair of teenagers hanging out in a tent over in the corner of the park. I get a feeling their parents may be parking them here on weekends. The two guys in the pickup have left. There’s another big RV, kind of showed up here when I wasn’t looking, but I haven’t seen those people at all. Visiting grandkids?
A friend sends me links to great waterfalls, hikes, and scenic routes in Kansas. I’m inclined to take it slow, drive no further than necessary, enjoy the ride. Midday, I felt cranky to the point of being stir-crazy. I thought it was just the heat, or some kind of impatience. You know what it was? Cold water. I needed cold water. I went off to the grocery, bought ice, a beer, some OJ, a banana, etc. Felt better almost immediately. It helped to get in the incredibly hot car. Did I mention it has no air conditioning? Once I got out of it, everything felt cooler.
In the evening, the young couple in the tent join me at my clean picnic tables under the pavilion. They invite me to join them in a round of Farkle, a dice game. They are engaged and are evidently stitching together a life, part of which entails living in the park for a while.
August 25. Another beautiful dawn, after a night spent with the waning gibbous moon smiling down through my mosquito mesh. Just lovely. Midday, it is business as usual in the city park. The young couple have played a game of Farkle on the next table and then have marched off to his or her mother’s house for the day. The RVers are gone now; it’s just me and the occasional car passing on the adjacent street. The flies are giving me my midday break. Lunch was some handfuls of Walmart’s Mountain Trail Mix (M&Ms, peanuts, raisins, some other stuff) and cheese and water. It’s probably around 90, which is perfect with the shade: just the right temperature for a summer day. Perfect to swim, drink beer, or nap. Or write. I am closing in on my latest blog post. I’d like to get it done and then head out to the next place around 5 PM, when it starts to cool; right now, the car is an oven, even with the door hanging open.
Toward day’s end, I drive ten miles down the road to Sterling, find their city park, set up the Texsport bivy in the grassy area reserved for tents. Kid at the Subway restaurant, where I get dinner, is spaced out. I have to tell him three times what I want. Yes, it is a college town. People out walking and biking at dusk. Very different from Lyons.
August 26. The campground area here is laid out in layers or strips. At the back, there are train tracks. The train blast is loud in the wee hours; it sounds like it is coming through my tent. The RVs are backed up against the tracks. They could pack in a dozen of them, but right now there are less than half that. There’s a gravel lane running along in front of the string of RVs. On the other side of that lane, there’s a grassy strip for tents, maybe three carlengths wide. (Shade & picnic tables for the RVers; none for the tents. But it’s hard to beat free, which the RVers don’t get.) Then the street. Then some grass and a pedestrian walkway, and then the lake. The street, grass, and walkway run all the way around. There are also several pavilions, a bathhouse with swimming pool (reaching the end of its season when I arrived), and some playground equipment.
The lake is very pretty. It is maybe three city blocks long. Definitely feels like a more well-to-do kind of city park than what I was seeing in some other small Kansas towns. There is, however, some bad news. First, they have streetlights everywhere, at this park, and they leave them on all night. So no stargazing for me. I can see two or three stars and what’s left of the moon, and that’s it. Lights up my tent pretty well too. Worse, they have a pesticide truck with a really loud machine on back. The truck makes one or two trips around the lake in the middle of the night (maybe just on weekends?) and sprays a continuous stream of insecticide. I am sure it is there for a reason, but it seems unhealthy, and it is loud.
August 27. I see, during this morning’s three-mile run, that there is some industry here, some chemical plants of some kind. Main Street is still kind of dusty, but it’s got that college and a feeling that it is surviving the times. It doesn’t feel so friendly, though. On this morning’s run, on the dirt roads outside the city limits, the drivers came barreling past, not even hesitating to cover me in dust. They have probably never spent any time walking or running on these roads themselves. I was thinking about that, on one run, when I saw a big tree alongside the road: thinking about how we lived on the roads, on our bicycles, in the summertime, when I was a kid; we would have spent countless hours at that tree, whereas there were no bike tracks in today’s dirt roads. Talked to a bicyclist, the only other tenter I’ve seen here: biking from NYC to San Francisco, says he’s in the last wave of the season before the Rockies get too cold and icy to pass, expects to be there in a week.
I drive to Hutchinson, the big town, for groceries. Lady in the used bookstore says they do occasionally get people biking or walking across the U.S. in this area. I’m reading Ken Follett’s story about World War I, purchased in Emporia, but I’ll need something else soon. Hutchinson public library does not have WiFi! They direct me to a grocery store that does. This seems exactly backwards. Lunch in a Hutchinson Chinese buffet persuades me they are deliberately turning the air conditioning down as cold as humanly tolerable, so that people won’t stick around and stuff themselves unduly. I do, though; it is delicious. I guess my mission is succeeding: the hot outdoors feels normal; the cold indoors feels weird. Got myself a nice set of shorts at the Goodwill, with a pattern that will conceal dust.
I make it back to the Sterling Public Library. Nice, friendly little place. Feels a bit outdoorsy, familiar even, with a fly and a mosquito harassing me. A sweet young woman is holding hands with her boyfriend on his break. In the evening, there’s a big collection of high school orientation people yelling and running around, a few yards from my tent. I hope nobody drives over it.
August 28. Made an early start. In the pavilion I am using as my workspace (electricity!) before it even starts to get light. Then the other sprinklers come on. I thought I had chosen a good table, far from the spray; then I have 20 seconds to grab my laptop and everything and switch tables. The cool and the spray remind me of autumn. Kind of nice, but a little scary too. I’m not ready for fall. Two old guys drive pickup trucks up to the park at 5 AM, sit there looking at the lake. It’s OK, buddy, I know what it’s like: I was married myself, at one point.
Weird thing later yesterday afternoon: the cop lady stops by, asks me if I’m going to stay awhile. I say yeah. She gets a look on her face, as if to say this won’t be acceptable. We come around to the fact that, actually, the rules do allow a 14-day stay. Why is she hassling me? Yes, my car is dusty; yes, it is loaded to the gills; yes, I am drying my sweaty running clothes on the windshield. So what? *You* try living out of a Honda Civic! Irritating. It occurs to me, as I think of it, that people here aren’t waving hello, either. Of course, we are in town; it wouldn’t be typical to do so anywhere.
There is, however, an important exception. Suzanne, who lives across the street from the pavilion, came out with a plate of *delicious* food in late afternoon, a jar of almonds, and a quart of iced tea. We talked a little bit. Sweet lady! She agrees that going away from your hometown (this is hers) for a period of years, and then coming back, can sharpen one’s appreciation for it. Great person. Glad I met her. So, OK, I’m reserving judgment. I’m sure there are all kinds here. I also met a little grey kitty, when I was sitting on the bench reading my novel, drinking a wine cooler. He followed me toward my car, but then swerved. There’s no accounting for cats. Lunch was at the Broadway-themed cafe on Main. Delicious sandwich. I am enjoying this place, everything considered. Nice to be here. But then, after midnight, a couple parks across the street from my tent. They get out, laughing, and hang out on the park bench for a while. Yoo hoo, this is a tent! It might contain a sleeping person! (Did I mention that they test the city’s tornado alarm at 7 AM on some weekdays?)
August 29. So far, on my morning runs in Sterling, not one driver has slowed down when passing me on a gravel/sand road. I cover my mouth and nose with my hanky as they approach, but it seems not to convey any particular message. Maybe they think I’m preparing to rob a bank.
I’m getting lots of sun. Haven’t worn sunblock for a while, except on my forehead. Suzanne brings me food again. I ask if she has an unmarried sister. I probably should have said “or aunt.” She looked like she didn’t know what to say. I fear that, if you don’t meet someone in high school here, you may be doomed to spend the rest of your life alone, or maybe going off to Sin City (i.e., Wichita) or something. They’re predicting 100+ temperatures for the next several days. I don’t think it’s going to happen. It’s too late in the season. That kind of heat makes it oppressive to be in the sun, but I seem to be OK with it in the pavilion; there’s almost always a breeze here. There’s a timelessness about these days, reminding me of words that an article attributes to Robert Louis Stevenson, 140 years ago: “You have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer’s day that you measure out only by hunger, and bring to an end only when you are drowsy.”
When Suzanne drove back to her house late this afternoon, she walked over and we talked for maybe five to eight minutes. It’s getting to be a pattern. I’m eating it up. After the social desert I’ve lived in (i.e., university towns) in recent years, it is nice to talk to friendly adults. When I get back to my tent, I see that the mowers have sprayed grass and dust into it. My sleeping bag and pad are gritty. I left the cover off so that it wouldn’t get too hot and could air out. Never occurred to me that they’d do that. At dusk, the grey cat comes up to see what I’m reading, does a loop around my legs, takes off up the road. We have an understanding. I meet Jay, living in the last RV in the row. He’s been here a couple months. I guess they don’t enforce that 14-day rule. No surprise: tenting is free, and so is the visit from the cop, but the RVers pay $15 per night. This row of retirees is funding the city government. I feel like a guy from the wrong side of the gravel road. Jay tells me to feel free to put my tent next to his RV, says they won’t bother me even though it’s not where the list of rules says the tents should go.
August 30. My weather forecast was mistaken: another hundred-degree day at work on the laptop in the pavilion. I think I said the wrong thing to Suzanne. I said I’m not poor. I wonder if she took it that I feel she is bothering me. Please, God, don’t let her think that. That food was just too good. Why is she so different from these other people here? . . . Tomorrow is shower day. I showered on Wednesday; I’m showering on Saturday. I could shower every day — there’s a shower by the swimming pool, at the opposite side of the lake from this pavilion — but they want $3 each time, honor system, and anyway it’s not exactly a charming shower facility. Exposed lead pipes, concrete floor, a bit of trash lying around, built in maybe the 1940s. It’s still hot water; just not a place to linger in.
August 31. It was pretty loud last night. Small town Friday night: kids racing their cars around, loud walkers/talkers around the lake. Lots of Baby Boomer music in the restaurants and grocery stores here, I’ve noticed. Maybe the college hasn’t started its semester yet. Today, a tiny, overpriced sandwich at Gambino’s. I felt like thanking them for the appetizer. Hard stares from two old guys in the park, using the water faucet near the pavilion. Feeling more distinctly unwelcome. Even when people walk past or right into the pavilion where I sit with the laptop, they don’t want to make eye contact. In the campground restroom, the parks department hasn’t taken out the trash since I got here. It was flowing onto the floor, but apparently the guy who stopped by to fix the clogged toilet shoved it back into the trashcan. Very friendly people at the Dillon’s grocery store, though; nice conversation with one of them about life in Colorado and New England and other places where we’ve lived. Thinking I’ll stay the full 14 days permitted by their rules, because my plans are unsettled. At night, it is hot and the air is still when I crawl into the Texsport bivy after 9 PM. My schedule is getting calmed down, to where going to bed at 9 or 10 PM feels normal. I like that.
September 1. What a cluster. Last night was awful. The racing cars and trucks were louder and more numerous, shooting past my tent (some at maybe 50-60 MPH on a 20 MPH lane). The worst part was the pesticide truck, at 10:40 PM. Not sure what changed. Maybe the absence of a breeze meant that the pesticides had more time to waft into my tent. I really got a lungful. Maybe I should have moved my tent back where Jay said, even if it meant breaking the rules, being right next to the tracks, having a limited view of the sky, and being next to an RV. I coughed for two hours; started coughing every time someone else woke me up just as I was starting to drift off. I may be spending $120 (?) a week here in gas, food, and miscellany, but I don’t think this town wants tent campers. I make a point of buying my gas here; there are Sterling residents who can’t say as much. A young couple, laughing at midnight across from my tent. I finally got up and sat on a park bench near them and kept coughing until they left. Then a young woman with a loud laugh, initially infectious but sounding more and more forced, the longer I had to listen to it. No idea who she was yelling at. On the positive side, staying up meant that I got to see the gray cat again.
I was coughing again when I got up this morning, but a cough drop fixed it. Took off for a run. Decided to run to a grain elevator that I saw the other day. Looked like it was probably two miles beyond where I had gone previously. Miscalculated. Total run of almost 15 miles. Had to walk toward the end, coming back: sore knee. But I had an incentive not to walk too long. Dripping with sweat, once again I made a very attractive salt lick for the biting flies. Sand volleyball games in the park at night. People yelling and having fun. Beautiful sunset; much cooler evening.
September 2. Labor Day in the park. Mexican family and friends, maybe 15 people, humbly use a few tables in the pavilion. Nice people — offered me some of their food. They don’t owe me that, and I am a bit militant now about not being a bum, so I declined. I think this may have offended them; they kept their distance after that. Loaned the ladies my flyswatter, but they just waved it around: flies were loving the spread of food they had laid out on the tables. They seemed to have a nice day, with one of them playing a guitar and singing in Spanish over by the lake while the young people fished and the older folk looked on. They leave, and the mommy bird is able to resume feeding the chicks in their nest atop one of the posts here in the pavilion. A thousand dragonflies swooping around at another beautiful dusk. Finished Follett’s World War I novel the other day, started a Robert Ludlum novel, but it’s completely hokey; I toss it. Can’t believe I used to read that stuff. Started McCullogh’s Caesar. Another historical novel, like Follett’s. I have dragged my tent back where Jay suggested, more or less: now it is really lit up by a streetlight, but the car and pedestrian noises are farther away. I sleep well. Maybe that makes it easier for me to notice the low but constant roar in the distance, probably from Hutchinson and, beyond that, Wichita, 70 miles away.
September 3. Another clear night sky in the wee hours. I have previously decided it’s time to get up when the neighbor backs his rumbling pickup out into the driveway and leaves it running for 15 minutes. But no, this morning he doesn’t. Cool this morning — in the 50s (again) when I get out of the tent and see a crescent moon above the horizon in the east, fully illuminated by the approaching sun. Lake has a tiny layer of mist on it. Lovely! For breakfast, the rest of the half-dozen eggs and 12 ounces of bacon that I started yesterday. The fear of extreme heat has abated: thinking about next steps. Seems my operating temperature range is between a nighttime low of around 55 and a daytime high in the low 90s — less if I have to be out in the sun.
Suzanne yells hello as she drives away this morning. Maybe she’s just been busy. I realize we never will have a real conversation, though. Little girls on the old steel jungle gym next to the pavilion. They’re here with their grandma every morning. I have yet to catch her eye, but that may be my fault — I’m usually typing away. But now, what’s this? Here’s the gray cat, but she’s yelling at him, trying to chase him away. Aw, leave him alone! He’s a nice cat! That finally gives us an excuse to exchange a few words, if only because I’m grinning foolishly at the cat while she’s yelling and clapping her hands at him. Why would she not teach the girls to pet him? Maybe she’s afraid he has worms.
I think I’ve spent too much time in civilization. I need to think about heading out to a more remote location, even if it means not having conveniences. Poorer, less ambitious people, less judgmental of my rundown car. There are all these cool camping places out there, but for some reason I get stuck in one place. I guess I’m always afraid I won’t have such tolerable conditions in the next place. One other logistical concern: temperature, on the cool side, over the coming month. Weather.com seems to say we lose about three degrees a week, in September, in this region. In late afternoon, Hank and Maria stop over, introduce themselves, ask if I need food or blankets. Hank says he is worried about me. We talk for a half-hour about novels and other topics. Maria does not make much eye contact; I get the feeling Hank dragged her into this. He invites me to visit them tomorrow or the next eve for some real food. Great! By the end of our conversation, I feel more welcome.
September 4. I start this day in the gazebo, at a different corner of the park. Lets me see the sunrise, and I don’t have to sit on plastic bags until the picnic tables in the pavilion, soaked every night by the sprinklers, finally dry out. The gazebo makes an instant difference in my social acceptance, because now the trail is only 15 feet away. People have to acknowledge me, and apparently they want to. They’re friendlier when you’re in their face. It seems to help that I trimmed my hair in the grungy old bathroom here last night. Dick the maintenance guy stops by, asks what I’m up to. Tells me about his trip to New York. Says he really liked it. We’ll have him marching in the Halloween parade in no time. I’m really enjoying these conversations. People are proud of Sterling. A number of them have asked, What do you think of our little town? I say it’s pretty. I complain once or twice about the fumigator. I don’t go into the sense of unwelcome. Seems pointless: they, themselves, in talking to me, are not contributing to that.
I go for my run. Another miracle: a semi driver does slow down and pull way over on the other side, on the dirt road, to avoid coating me in dust. Masses of Black-Eyed Susans in the ditch alongside. When I come back, Sharon, walking her dogs, stops and insists on saying a prayer for me. It is true I have lost weight, but I think I must always look hungry. She is convinced I am starving. She insists on going to the ATM and giving me $100. I don’t know what to say. Surely she does not have this kind of money. She says she does. I tell her, if I come back through a year from now, that might be a different story: then maybe I’ll need her financial assistance. But she is adamant. I am blown away.
In midday, back in the usual pavilion, three women walking around the lake on the path. First time around, they ignore me. Second time around, I make sure I have my wire whisk and my stainless steel bowl out. I am whipping up some lunch. Third time, they are all looking at me. I feel like Jesus of Nazareth: can a man with a wire whisk and a stainless steel bowl emerge from a dusty, rusty, crusty old Honda Civic? But I realize I should have a little sympathy for these people. If some guy had come to a town near our house out in the countryside, when I was a kid in Indiana, and had planted himself in the park, we would have been asking ourselves, Who is he? What is the matter with him? What does he want? I don’t think this town has a newspaper, but if it did, surely I would be in it by now. In a small article, buried on an inside page.
In the evening, I decided it was an unnecessary imposition to have Hank and Maria feed me. I went over after suppertime. Maria was minimally civil. We didn’t talk. I get the feeling I am too poor for her taste. That would be odd, given that they live in subsidized housing. Maybe I’m misreading her aloofness. Anyway, Hank and I had a long and, I think, mutually rewarding conversation. He has a good book collection, gave me several to read.
September 5. The two women who run by my tent, chatting away at 5:30 AM, are my alarm clock. I can tell it’s going to be a big day: the maintenance guy has finally taken the trash out of the restroom, and I am going to spend $600 on repairs for my old Honda in Hutchinson. Sitting in the gazebo predawn, I consider replacing the car. But who can afford that? The Honda mechanic says I need repairs that they didn’t mention at the last place I took it. Will this car survive the journey?
While I’m in Hutchinson, the mowers blow grass and dirt into my tent again. The grass didn’t even need to be mowed, but evidently they saw an unattended tent and could not restrain themselves. It’s still definitely not all peaches and cream here: stony looks from an old couple riding a golf cart. In late afternoon, just after I pitch my beer can in the trash, Officer Carter pulls up, talks to me. Does this little town need two separate police vehicles patrolling its streets at the same time? Friendly cop. Gives me his card. I didn’t know police officers had business cards, aside from the kind they leave imprinted in your skull with those batons. Encourages me to let him know if I need anything. A real contrast from the woman cop who accosted me before the dust had even settled on my arrival. He says the bicyclists who come through mostly camp in another part of the park, over beyond the bathhouse somewhere. Evidently their sources have already clued them in, regarding the fumigation.
Regarding Suzanne, I am starting to wonder whether her deal is just that I seemed to be downtrodden and she wanted to help me not to starve. Feeling welcome would be another matter. I wasn’t presumptuous about it; I was just delighted to have a bit of friendly contact in an otherwise socially limited setting. But if I have to be poor to qualify for friendliness, then it’s not really about me; it’s just about my status. I might just serve as an opportunity for people to pat themselves on the back. Anyway, I’m in a deficit at this point: I feel worse than if she had just kept her distance, like I have actually done something wrong.
Anyway, the day progresses. At 10 PM, a young woman is walking with a guy past my tent as I’m sleeping. She is telling him a story. The part I hear is when she says, “Suck my long dick!” I yell out through the mesh, “Hey, guys, this is a camping area!” There is a moment of silence, and then she says, “Sorry.” You gotta love that about Kansas: at least some people here still apologize for their mistakes. I say, “No problem,” which was only true in a relative sense. I’ve really got to get back out to the wilderness somewhere.
September 6. On this morning’s run (8.3 miles, watching the sun rise as I left town eastbound), out of several cars strewing dust on the dirt road, I did have one driver slow way down as he passed me. This was, again, a professional, like that semi driver the other day, driving what looked like an oilfield supply truck. Wasn’t much disturbed as I got further east: no cars at all. Lots of traffic on the main east-west road coming back into town. Out there, almost everybody swings out at least half a lane to get around the runner; many go into the other lane altogether. We trade a wave and move on. Back in town, a woman gives me a really friendly wave, like she knows me. I think she must have seen me before, either running or in the park. Maybe they need two cop cars after all: I run past a “Neighborhood Watch” sign that warns, “We do call the police.”
Beautiful morning in the pavilion. Went to Paddy’s restaurant for their buffet lunch. Weird experience. The waitress seated me and that was about it. No service at all — refilling the water glass or anything. She was refilling the glasses for others; just not me. I had to stand up and walk over to her to get water, and again to ask about dessert. And no eye contact with the customers, almost all men, almost all working class. The environment actually felt hostile. But why? I was in there the other day and didn’t get this. That time, the waiter wanted to talk; the other customer or two were friendly enough. Is it because this was lunchtime? I looked in a mirror afterwards. Nothing in my teeth, hair not sticking out farther than usual. If anything, I look better than some of those other guys. They don’t like sandals, maybe. The mood in that room made me think about what happens to atypical young people in a town like this, once their elders decide they don’t like them. Move out or be marked.
Then I get back to the pavilion, after lunch, and I see this blog has a comment. I moderate comments, meaning that it hasn’t appeared for public consumption yet. It’s apparently been sitting there since yesterday afternoon, but somehow I overlooked it. The writer, whom I’ll call Donna, said this:
We’re delighted you’re here. We do wish your thoughts were more positive about us though. The “woman cop” is our Chief of Police and didn’t intend to come off badly to you, I’m sure. Isn’t it nice that we check out strangers who linger in our pavilion for days? We do have a newspaper. I’m sure they would be happy to write a story about you and I would guess it’d be on the front page. You’re newsworthy in your own way…sitting for hours and hours contemplating and using someone’s Wi-Fi. Sharon has plenty of money, by the way. And Suzanne [Donna used her real name] probably felt like you were a little too eager. Her husband comes home next week. She’s simply a nice person. She doesn’t believe for a moment that you are “downtrodden.” Welcome to small town, rural America.
At first, I liked this comment. It was a relief to hear that “we” (Donna’s family? the entire population of the city? the “cool” people?) were “delighted” that I was here. But then, as I thought about it, those people in Paddy’s, the waitress and all, hadn’t seemed delighted to see me. Donna appeared to be confirming that there was a gossip circuit, and apparently I was a topic. She had included her email with her comment, so I wrote back. Her comment (above) and these other messages suggested an interest in at least making a mutual introduction. I had no idea who or where she was, in the grand scheme of things, so I did what I could: I invited her out to the park to meet me. She said she was busy tonight, and tomorrow I was leaving. I was? I didn’t know that. See, you need to stay plugged into the chat loop, so as to stay informed on what you’re doing. I appreciated Donna’s act of responding, and the upbeat tone, but in the end she didn’t really seem to be delighted that I was there.
But she was right: this was small-town America. Specifically, this was a part of small-town life that big-city people might find hard to accept. I grew up in the country, so I’m no stranger to this; but in the cities where I’ve lived — New York, for instance, and L.A. — they don’t talk to you, and they also don’t talk about you for the most part. They don’t know you; often, they tend to be too busy. But out here, life is more leisurely. There’s always time for talk. So when one of Donna’s emails said something about having way too much stuff in my car, I agreed — but a part of me wondered whether this, too, was grist for the rumor mill. And the big-city part of me also wondered why the stuff in my car would be anyone else’s business. Yes, it wasn’t impressive-looking. I hadn’t expected it to be.
Throughout the Sterling stay, I kept thinking of that Doors song:
People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone
Women seem wicked
When you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven
When you’re down
One of Donna’s emails said they would all throw a party for me, next time I passed through. But no, I thought, they probably wouldn’t. If they had been inclined to do that, they would have done it already. I had been there for the better part of two weeks. It sounded like Donna liked to put an upbeat, fun spin on things, and that was good as far as it went. But her remark about “using someone’s WiFi” seemed rather catty. It seemed that it might contain a hint as to the kinds of things folks might be saying about me. I also wondered whether the part about “sitting for hours and hours contemplating” carried a trace of ridicule. Anyone who walked or drove past could see that, in fact, I was writing, not just staring off into space — and, by the way, writing doesn’t require much bandwidth, especially when it is happening offline. So I wondered: Donna, you want me to see only the positive side of your town, but is that how you folks are seeing me?
Donna claimed to know that Suzanne didn’t believe for a moment that I was downtrodden; but then why did she bring food out to me? Maybe Suzanne was just being neighborly. But why would a neighborly person suddenly curtail contact? It did seem that there might be more than meets the eye in that situation.
I wasn’t happy with Donna’s remark about me being “a little too eager” toward Suzanne, given that her husband was coming home next week. That was a strange comment. Apparently there was a view, invented by Donna or perhaps encouraged by Suzanne, that I indulged romantic notions toward Suzanne. That was not likely. Putting it delicately, I run distances; the two of us together would constitute a substantial physical mismatch. I neither expressed nor entertained any romantic interest in her. She was the one who approached me. I never so much as knocked on her door. The only times I even entered her property were to put her dishes back on her doorstep and to hand her daughter a Lowe’s 10% discount coupon, which I thought Suzanne might be able to use; she had said something about having to do some repairs at her brother’s house. What kind of charity is this, that the person offering it would then turn around and use it against the supposed beneficiary? It brought to mind Thoreau’s advice: if you see someone coming to help you, run for your life.
Suzanne did volunteer, at one point, that her husband was “never home.” If Suzanne truly didn’t consider me downtrodden, then her act of feeding me could support scenarios that might explain this talk about romantic interest. For instance, one could ask whether Suzanne made a point of getting to me right away, and encouraging my positive reactions, so as to position herself as the one who was sought-after. Certainly there was something odd going on, in this pattern of being very outgoing, inviting friendly attention, and then suddenly very aloof. I cannot know what Suzanne may have been thinking or telling others.
But for my purposes, there was a separate issue. It seemed that my blogging had given me an introduction to what life might be like for me, in a place like Sterling. First, I had this phenomenon of Suzanne. It came at a sensitive time. I had just written up a post about a traumatic encounter with a mentally disturbed individual. I was attuned to the damage that a woman with a warped sense of reality can do. What would happen if someone in Suzanne’s position took it into her head to call the police and file some bogus complaint against me? After all, as noted in the materials supporting that other post, this is a country where a woman can get a restraining order telling David Letterman to stop beaming thoughts into her mind through her TV set.
It now occurred to me that the visit from the friendly officer was probably no coincidence. Had the Chief read my blog post and sent him on a diplomatic mission? That would be nice, if that’s as far as it went. But someone like Suzanne — someone behaving erratically, that is, and giving rise to disparaging comments about me — could provide a pretext for an alternate solution, and the police in some small towns would surely consider it. Was I going to find myself suddenly being bundled into a police car and hauled off to jail? Were local rowdies going to give me a hard time in my tent late at night? A guy passing through in an overloaded Honda Civic does not tend to have much protection, if it comes to that.
Practical (or perhaps one should say cynical) people know that you don’t draw attention to yourself if you want to get through small towns without being victimized. For all the talk (with which I am somewhat sympathetic) about an overly powerful government in Washington, there is the countervailing reality that local cops, bullies, and gossip circles can be quite powerful and abusive in a small town. These are the concerns that drive people – especially those who vary from the norm – to move away to the freedom of the big city, and to support a powerful central government with relatively consistent protections for everyone.
Such were the thoughts going through my mind as I sat there, in the pavilion, and tried to understand what Donna was saying. In the meantime, I had emailed Hank twice, but that yielded another strange development: after that long and friendly conversation, I never got a reply. Everything considered, the situation didn’t smell right.
I doubted anything nasty was going to happen to me. I certainly hoped nothing nasty was going to happen to me. But now I had to stop and think.
I had planned to take off on Sunday or Monday. It was Friday. One problem with sticking around was that it was hard to sleep in a tent in that park on Friday and Saturday nights, with all the young people racing their cars through, walkers and talkers on the path around the lake, and so forth. I mean, I was glad they had that kind of activity, or at least the walking part. It seemed healthy. I would just have to stay up until after midnight or 1 AM, and then still probably awaken before 6. Despite its warts, that had been my plan.
But now I was a bit spooked. What I had intended as a simple blogging report on my camping trip had become a matter of me vs. Sterling. That might have been OK, too, if I’d gotten straight-up responses and felt confident that people would be fair and everything would be handled appropriately. There could be positive scenarios in such a situation. For instance, I could imagine getting an invitation to attend a meeting of some planning group, for purposes of improving visitors’ camping experiences in the city park. Or as another example, I would expect myself to answer reasonable questions from a reporter. I would have been reassured if some city employee had said, “Ray, we’re sorry about the conflict between the tenting instructions and the fumigation truck. Yes, please do move your tent back to where we said you shouldn’t put it.”
Or whatever. There were things to talk about and sort out. But leaving much of the city’s message to people like Donna and Suzanne was not working too well.
I decided that the situation had become complicated enough. I was supposed to be camping and writing, not doing municipal psychotherapy. Besides, as a point of presumably unrelated superstition, Suzanne had just mowed her lawn. Her house was going to be presentable for the weekend. Maybe she could get it sold. I did not want my presence to be an eyesore in that endeavor. In other words, it felt like it might be time for me to shut down the Sterling project. I went to the bathhouse and took a shower, ran an errand at the Post Office, came back, and fired up the laptop one last time, just in case Donna or Hank or anyone else had sent a message that would call for further discussion. They hadn’t. I filled my water jugs and got a Gatorade at the grocery store. The cashier who had been so friendly the other day, talking for several minutes about the times we had spent in places like Denver and the East Coast, acted like she had never seen me before. End of Sterling.
I hit the road. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether you live in a small town or a big city: if you want a complicated life, just get involved with the locals and their issues. Resolution to self: if I camp in any more small towns, do my blogging after I leave.
Kiowa State Fishing Lake, Greensburg, KS
September 6. I left Sterling at around 4 PM on a 98-degree day, in a car with no air conditioning, wearing a red shirt that soaked up the sunshine. This was not what I would have preferred. I had been assuming I would make a cool and leisurely late-evening or early-morning departure, not a flight for my life under the burning desert sun. But you know what? I was reasonably comfortable in those clothes, in that heat. This is a sure sign of a sick person.
Actually, I was kind of proud of myself. I could tell it was ungodly hot. I could tell that I went some miles down a gravel road that turned to sand and then to a cowpath before I really registered that I was off the map. It seemed that others shared this malady. The city of Pratt, as I drove through, seemed especially heat-impaired. People kept driving out from driveways and businesses out into the street, and then realizing they had forgotten to stop, so they backed up. It happened three times just as I crossed that little town. And then, at a four-lane red light, cars in both directions just sat there when the light turned green. We were simply too hot to realize that it was our turn. I was only an hour or two west of Wichita, but it felt like I had transitioned into a desert.
But in the end, I did make it to Greensburg, where I had intended to spend the night. There were a couple of problems. One was that I was early. That mattered because Kiowa State Fishing Lake had very few trees. Another was that there was no place to set up the tent. There was a lot of tall grass, but I was not sure whether it would have chiggers. A third problem was that part of me wanted to get on to the next phase of things. I knew right away that I would not be just hanging out in Greensburg, though in retrospect I was not sure why. They might have had a perfectly serviceable public library. I might have enjoyed an opportunity to tour the world’s largest hand-dug well, just three blocks off the main drag. But no, I was eager to go on. In part, I guess, the Sterling experience had unsettled me. I needed to try something different.
As I continued west, it got darker and more beautiful outside. The lights across the prairie, sometimes visible 15 miles away, became fewer. The stars became brighter. There was nobody there. I stopped to pee, with the car just sitting there in the middle of a federal highway. Nobody near. I may as well have pulled out a book and my headlamp, and sat down to read. We transitioned from dark with lots of oilfield industrial stuff to dark, period. It felt like the long drive through the dark was purifying me of that small-town chaos. Stop at a convenience store at Hugoton and ask the teenage cashier how far to New Mexico. He doesn’t know; he says he’s never been there. Turns out to be about two hours away. As I cross into the Oklahoma Panhandle, I calculate: it’s been 27 years since I was last in this state.
Clayton Lake State Park, Clayton, NM
September 7. I reach Clayton just after midnight. The convenience store is the place to be, at this time of night: there is a fifteen-minute wait for the bathroom. In a sign of fatigue, I take off on a ten-mile fool’s errand to the south, hoping there would be some kind of freebie in the Kiowa National Grassland. Don’t know how there can be all these millions of acres and hardly anyplace even to pull off the road. They have it fenced; I guess it must be leased to cattle ranchers. Turn around, head north, and, whoa, I’m suddenly in a tight little valley, going too fast for the turns. Just about lose it. What happened to the flatland? It seems I am encountering the edge of the Rockies.
When I arrive at the state park sometime after 1 AM, I read the instructions, write them a check for $8, slide it into the box, and pull into their parking lot. The bathhouse facility is nice and clean. Something about it – maybe the clean smell from their disinfectant – reminds me of state parks from somewhere before, maybe from my last camping visit to New Mexico, circa 1999. A welcoming, positive memory. Feels like it would be nice to buy a New Mexico annual park pass and see how much of a year I could spend in their parks. Too cold in midwinter, even in the south, but much of the rest of the year would work – they have mountains for midsummer, though those campsites might be booked up early.
Anyway, tonight there’s a light, cool breeze. I find a camping space and set up the North Face tent. It’s my ten-year-old backpacking tent with no-see-um mesh. Blocks wind even without the rain fly. That would have been a liability in a warmer place (e.g., Sterling), but here it’s good. Really dark too: new Moon, and a billion stars. Fantastic! I see a campfire still going, further down in the campsite loop I’ve selected, but otherwise there doesn’t seem to be anybody around. Exciting to be here. Use the red light on my headlamp, as usual, to set up the tent without attracting bugs. Incredibly quiet. Finally, a place without lingering background industrial or highway noise. I’m whispering notes into my DVR, so as not to bother the neighbors; seems like they would hear a pebble drop at my site. So quiet that the loudest noise is that sound of your own head – the voices! No, seriously, the sound like when you listen to a seashell, the quiet roar that you never notice because there’s always so much other noise going on. Thank God for the quiet, after those weeks in those towns. It’s so nice.
I awaken around dawn, pack up, and drive back to Clayton. On my way out, I scare a huge elk. He goes bounding across the fields, jumping a fence. Magnificent creature. . . . The Post Office was going to be open at 8:30 AM, so I could pick up the mail that I’d had forwarded to General Delivery at this town since August 1. Got some groceries at a local store and reached the Post Office at 8:40. Still closed! What’s the problem? Oh, wait. New Mexico. Mountain time. It was only 7:40 here. OK, I went off to the convenience store, bought some chocolate milk, came back, and set up my laptop in the Post Office lobby. Finally got my mail. The Post Office comes through: about eight letters, from a period of more than five weeks. God only knows what happened to the rest of it. Later, I find out that a book supposedly being forwarded from McPherson is still sitting there: the bookseller chose to ship it by DHL, for some reason, so it wasn’t forwarded. But the Post Office lady says she’ll forward it to me at another address on down the line.
Thompson Grove Picnic Area near Dalhart, Texas
September 7. From Clayton, it is less than an hour to Thompson Grove Picnic Area, part of the Rita Blanca National Grasslands. And no more hints of the Rockies: we are very much on the flatlands here. Beautiful day – just flying down thin little Texas “ranch roads” with posted 75 MPH speed limits. The roads turn to dirt less than a half-mile from the picnic area, but that doesn’t keep it from being an inordinately hot, dry, dusty place. The drought has halfway killed most of the cottonwoods that used to make this a prettier place; some are completely gone.
Flies attack me upon arrival. I am relying on sunblock, bug spray, hat, shoes, and socks. This is not enough: the heat seems to make the more aggressive flies really crazy; nothing stops them, not even Off! spray with 25% Deet. I rush around to get the screen house set up, before the sun cooks me and the flies eat the jerky that’s left. I decide to position the screen house in a corner of the parking lot, where I can tie it to steel rails. After the Chase Lake episode, I’m afraid anything less will leave it flying, if the wind comes up. Temperatures aren’t quite as high here as they were in Sterling – due, I think, to higher elevation – but 95 in the screen house feels a lot hotter than 100 in a city park pavilion. The fabric at the top of the screen house doesn’t block the sun completely, and meanwhile the screen sides block some of the cooling breeze. I set up shop on the little folding table that I have brought along. As the sun moves across the sky, so also my blue Walmart tarp moves across the perimeter of the screen house, so that my whole body and not merely my head is out of direct sunlight; and the table follows along, moving throughout the day so that I am always facing a blue tarp but knowing that the rest of Texas is out there somewhere.
For the first day, this works pretty well. I have work to do. I’m not completely alone: somebody has set up a camper trailer, but nobody home. There is a house about a half-mile away, but the only signs of life I see are about three pickup trucks per day passing on the dirt road, and a handful of cars a half-mile away on the paved road. Later, two guys and a kid come back, pack up the trailer, and are gone. It’s just me for the duration, sitting there in that foolish screen house in the corner of the parking lot.
The dragonflies come motoring through at dusk. Kill those mosquitoes! Not that I’ve seen many. The sunset is excellent. The usual fantastic sky full of stars, with only a crescent moon at sunset – not quite as bright as at Clayton Lake, probably because of dust. A funny thing happens: not long after, the flies go home to sleep. So I have a half-hour of light to eat, which is too bad, because I didn’t know it would work that way: I ate already, generously sharing my meal, my gear, my skin, and everything else with the biting, harassing insects.
But no matter. The sunset has mesmerized me. I perch on the concrete picnic table for another hour and a half, maybe two, and just watch the dusk fade to deep blue. The temperature is perfect. Light breeze. Just a fantastic place to be. Didn’t read a word of Caesar; too busy just watching and thinking. Another funny thing happens when it really starts to get dark: the cicadas decide the party is over and they, too, go to bed. You don’t realize how loudly they’ve been screeching ALL DAY LONG until they stop. They don’t all quit at the same time. There are a few diehards that keep going much longer. But it’s kind of magical, this gradual auditory tapering off into night. Now I can hear a constant hum in the distance, probably from drilling or pumping equipment. Very nice evening. Stars everywhere. I find myself yawning. Within a few minutes, it’s my turn to retire.
September 8. I slept nine hours! I should make a point of spending two hours each evening, staring at the western horizon. I get up at the first lightening of the sky in the east and fry up a full package of bacon and add three eggs for breakfast. Orange juice. My life is complete. Looks like there will continue to be some ice in the cooler through today, at least. It’s mostly water though. I intend to chill half the fried bacon and then just warm it up tomorrow morning, but I forget and leave it lying out on the table, in a plastic bag, until after noon. I get all this done long before the flies are up and about. I decide to set a trap for them: I leave the pan with the bacon fryings sitting out on the picnic table. I have visions of them either doing my dishes for me or dying by the millions in that grease – or, preferably, both. I put the rain fly on the Texsport bivy (so as to keep the dust out, I hope). The beautiful sun is rising.
I go to work. Like yesterday, flies find their way into the screen house. The flyswatter swings every couple of minutes. But it’s OK. I’m adapting. I’ve got food, water, and hopefully battery power to last several days. As the day passes, I realize that things are starting to get dirty. It’s the dust that filtered to the back of the car, coating all these pieces of black luggage; it’s the brown streaks and stripes at strategic points on shorts and shirts. It hasn’t yet reached the point of being the food that I eat, although I have on occasion employed the Ten-Second Rule for food dropped on virtually any surface. I dunno; maybe the theme of the month for August was the bugs; maybe for September it’ll be the dust. I’ve already bagged a mass of clothes for laundry at some point, but I’m still working through the assortment I threw into the car back at that storage unit in Fayetteville.
I do find, however, that there are quite a few things I cannot do without an Internet connection. Some will find this unsurprising, but for me, it is a revelation. I mean, I know I can live without it, and to a considerable extent I have been doing so for more than a month at this point. Maybe I am just feeling the need to check more things than usual. But what I really think is that this quasi-wilderness, quasi-primitive setup is affecting my views. The heat gets to me more than usual in midday. I was hesitant to move on from previous camping locations, for fear that the accommodations at the next one would not be as good – and now, at last, that time has arrived. I need to nap, but the only place where the heat would be tolerable is in the screen house, and the only way of sleeping there is to sleep with my head on the table, student style, and for some reason that doesn’t work. My feet are hot from the socks and shoes; I’m used to sandals, but the skin on my feet has been dry and the flies like them. There’s hardly any breeze. I can stand up in the screen house, but there’s noplace to go. I feel trapped. Later in the day, compounding the problem, the wind shifts and my only option is to tie a corner of the screen house to the back of the car.
It turns out to be a very unproductive day in the ordinary sense: starting at around 12:30, I spend the balance of the daytime thinking rather depressing thoughts about my car, my life, and everything else. I decide I have had enough of this. In a different season, without the flies and the heat, I would enjoy this more. But for now, I need to move on. I need a little more contact with people. The fly trap proves to be a failure: in the evening, I am wiping out the grease with paper towels into the trash cans that some local yahoo has shot holes through, so as to make perfect fly breeding grounds. Another beautiful sunset, though. When the flies are out of my hair, so to speak, I close down the screen house and pack the car except for the tent.
September 9. Yesterday’s leftover bacon turns out to be edible despite its extended exposure to outdoor temperatures, though much of the flavor is gone. I whip up the remaining eggs and finish the orange juice; climb in the car and roll out of Thompson Grove, tapping the horn lightly at the farmhouse nearby; stop in Dalhart to confirm that the nearest Walmart is in Dumas, pronounced DOO-mahs. The cowboy-hatted convenience store cashier I ask is very clipped: he answers every question, with not a word or facial expression more than necessary. It might cost him something to smile. It might be misconstrued. Friendly Mexican-American woman at the donut shop is more helpful: wouldn’t have had to ask her, but I was so busy being distracted by the weird cowboy that, by the time I came out of the convenience store restroom, I forgot whatever he told me. Actually, I was distracted by him and also by the sudden realization, as I went into that restroom, that I should not sing on the toilet, as has become a habit in various relatively solitary settings over the past month.
In Dumas, I get the car tires balanced and rotated, using my lifetime deal at Walmart. This is because the car was vibrating as I drove west across Kansas. This noise and feeling wasn’t there until I got the axle “fixed” at Conklin Honda in Hutchinson. The last time I felt something like this, it was a bad axle. But when I called a Honda service guy in Amarillo, he asked if maybe the wheels were just out of balance. Sadly, Walmart’s rebalancing didn’t solve the problem. The vibration is still there. I will have to do something about that. While waiting at the Walmart, a cohort of flies assemble on my laptop. They are humping each other on my keyboard. They know I don’t have access to my flyswatter. It is obscene.
Lake Meredith National Recreation Area, Fritch, TX
I ask the Walmart guy for directions to Lake Meredith. He says to go up to “the four-way” and turn there, and it will take me where I need to go. I think he must be referring to some major intersection that will be obvious when I leave the Walmart parking lot, but I will soon discover that he is referring to the entrance to the parking lot itself. I say, “OK, what’s the number of that highway?” He says, “Hell, I dunno.” Fortunately, I have a map; better yet, there is a visitor’s center just up the street, and they are helpful.
They warn me, though, that the water level in Lake Meredith is very low. This proves to be an understatement. Crossing the dam, I see what they were telling me. Lake Meredith is now at about 1% of capacity. Water depth is just over 20 feet. At its peak in the 1970s, it was almost 130 feet. Apparently the lake was built to supply Amarillo and Lubbock, but they almost drank it dry. Lake Meredith is now a large canyon with a moderately sized lake at its bottom. I go to the Sanford-Yake campground, one of a half-dozen scattered throughout the National Recreation Area. (This would be the kind of NRA that interests me.) There is one couple camping there. The woman says they were the only ones in that whole campground the previous night. I look around. It looks OK, but I decide the Fritch Fortress campground will be closer to town.
I make it to Fritch, Texas (pop. 2,117). It’s hot. I stop in at the tourist information office for the NRA. The lady, all smiles, is glad to see an actual tourist. She asks if I want to hike. I say no. She gives me hiking trail maps. She asks if I will be interested in the archaeological museum, or whatever it is. I say oh, maybe. She gives me another map and a brochure. She’s telling me about horse trails. It goes on like this. I was really sorry that I had not arrived with a busload of quadriplegic butterfly collectors from Korea, because I am sure they would have had some sort of accommodation just for us.
September 10. The Fritch public library is open 9-5, M-F, except for lunch from 12:30 to 1:30. The librarian, Delena, is a sweetheart. We will become occasional chatting buddies over the days to come. She is from here, has traveled elsewhere, but this has always been home. The library is a holdout from the last Ice Age: its air conditioning is set to about 50 degrees, and in the future I will be seated here in one if not two layers of nylon and fleece. The library shares its building with the community center and some kind of extension of the county recorder’s office. Basically, Delena is this town’s FedEx Kinko copy center equivalent, with her multifunction printer/copier/fax machine and two computers for public use (and WiFi!). People call Delena to chat; some come in here and have their various papers and other records photocopied; once in awhile someone will stand around and talk. On one or two occasions, there are hugs; sometimes there is laughter; there are conversations about when so-and-so’s baby is due, and where somebody went to find work, and how what’s-his-name used to live in Oklahoma City. I am in one of this community’s social centers. It is nice. Delena says that, while the Texas Panhandle is still in drought unlike Kansas, the water level in Lake Meredith has actually risen two feet this year.
My campsite, which was once not far above the lake’s water level, now surveys a vast expanse of territory down in the valley and on the north side. In the coming days, I will repeatedly marvel at how enormous, pretty, and remote it feels. The coyotes cry, but the Fritch Fortress campground is up on a sort of peninsula, apparently a hassle for critters to visit. No mammals here to speak of, or at least none that I see, except for one invisible whimpering beast that freaks me out one night. The desert-like feeling reminds me of life when I lived in southern California in the 1970s: broad vistas, dry winds. I really like it, especially when it’s not too hot. Virtually no problems with flies. I put on Off! a couple times a day, mostly dawn and dusk, for mosquitoes, but for the most part there are few of those. (For all this talk of bug spray, so far I have used only three cans on this whole trip.) We do have the occasional midge, but nonbiting; just distracting. There is a spring-fed lake with coldish water below the dam, a half-dozen miles from my campsite; I join a Mexican-American family there to cool off.
My tentsite is right down the hill from the restroom building. At dusk its interior lights come on and shine very brightly out of the restroom windows. That intense yellow beacon attracts no bugs until you get a couple hundred feet away, at which point I guess the yellowness wears off, because sometimes the moths just swarm out there – but not at the restroom building itself. The light is so bright that my campsite might as well be in a Walmart parking lot. I take some tinfoil and duct tape up there and cover the window on the inside. Praise the Lord! I am returned to my former darkness, and am destined to spend the next week watching anxiously whenever a janitor-looking ranger type approaches the building. Several days later, I do notice a particularly threatening one, broom in hand. I rush up there and plead for my tinfoil to be left in peace. He says, Oh, I wasn’t going to take it down. I breathe easy.
The ranger lady said this place was built in the 1970s. In one of our later conversations, Delena will tell me that Fritch used to be a busy town, with swarms of tourists and boaters coming in to use the lake. Someone else will tell me that the lake used to have 300 miles of coastline. These remarks give my campsite the feel of a sci-fi movie, where the former occupants from some ancient race set up a mechanical system that will function on its own for a thousand years. The incredibly bright bug light comes on at sunset and turns off at sunrise; the water flows in the stainless steel sink and toilet; everything keeps chugging away and doing its job; but there is nobody here. Although that’s not quite right. There’s nobody here but me and an apparently substantial staff of rangers, groundskeepers, and administrative people working at various posts around the huge recreation area.
September 11. On this morning’s three-mile run, a schoolbus passes. The driver honks and waves. The remarkable thing is, the bus has kids in it. In these various towns, I’ve been seeing schoolbuses with zero, one, two kids. But this one looks like it has kids in most of its seats. What’s going on? In most towns, I guess, the folks take the kids to school in the minivan. Anyway, my run continues. A friendly dog runs out – ears flapping, tail wagging, wants to be petted. Wants to get in front of me and trip me onto the pavement. Go away, you pest!
After a day in the library, I return to the campground. I am watching rain on the north side of the lake. None for us. A kid pulls into the first campsite, a couple hundred yards up the lane, as many people will do in days to come: it is apparently a popular place to hang out and take in the view, especially as we approach sunset. There is also a parking spot at the other end, past my site (I am in the middle), and people go down there and hang out too. There are maybe a half-dozen such visitors, at one of these sites or the other, most days.
So the kid arrives, I was saying, and he is playing his car’s radio loud and chatting on his cellphone. His noise pollution reaches my site. I am irritated. But then – what’s this? – I smell the rain. Is it coming over here? I look. No, it’s not; it’s just the smell from the north shore. And then, a minute later, the mosquitoes hit. Instant mosquitoes – just add water! The air is alive with their buzzing. The rain has made them happy, and they are riding the wind. A heavy dose of Off! does not even faze them. They force me into the car. A minute later, they hit the kid, and he piles in and takes off. This is how you use rain to turn down a noisy radio. I am sweltering inside the car for an hour or more, until the skeeters blow on past.
September 12. I was going to shower or bathe somehow this morning, in the wee hours, before the locals start drifting through. It’s not that there are many of them; it’s that they arrive without notice. I can’t hear their cars coming up the other side of the hill. I also can’t hear them approaching when I’m in the bathroom. This is problematic because my bathing options include (a) the lake or (b) hanging up my Walmart water bladder and standing under its tinkle. I am hesitant to try to clean myself while swimming out in the middle of the lake, as there are logistical difficulties. The shampoo bottle and the Ivory soap will both float, not sink, but they will float away from me, and anyway there is nothing for me to stand on while applying soap. I am not sure whether soap has been proven to have effective submarine cleansing capabilities, and it anyway is not something I would particularly care to drown for while attempting. But hanging the water bladder brings its own difficulties, not only because of the everpresent risk of a neighbor’s advent over the hill, but also because mosquitoes particularly love dawn and dusk, and Off! is notoriously unhelpful when you are sudsing it away. I arrive at a solution: research indicates that the bathroom has a drain in the floor, and I am able to jury-rig a web of nylon straps so as to squat-shower myself in a three-foot space between the bottom of the dangling bladder and the dusty floor tiles, in the golden glow of the incredilight. Ah, perfect!
September 13. It’s kind of bizarre to be sitting late at night at a picnic table, working at my laptop on a story about my experiences at the University of Michigan, with coyotes howling out there and the wind blasting around me.
September 14. The full moon is less than a week away, and last night I got my first reminder. I came out of the bathroom at around 10 PM, and – what’s this? – a girl with a golf club, ready to swing; her father (I assume) advising her, standing in the glare of their car’s headlights. Eleven PM, on the ground next to the restroom in an otherwise abandoned recreation area campground, and they are practicing golf. I start to walk down into the darkness, toward my campsite, and then I see my car. The thought comes together. I stop and turn around. I yell, “You’re not going to hit golf balls over here, are you?” He looks at me and says, “Go ahead!” I say, “What?” He says, “Go ahead?” I say, “Go where?” He says, “We’re not going to hit them over there.” I say, “OK.” I think they must be used to an empty campground, and are just assuming that my car’s windshield is not sitting down there in the dark. A minute later, they are gone.
This morning, I make the trip to Amarillo, 40 miles south, to get some expert advice on my car. First stop: Firestone, where I have a lifetime alignment deal. I’ve gotten my money’s worth on that: we bought this 1995 Honda new. They tell me I have to empty the car before they can do the alignment, because the weight of all my stuff is causing the wheels to splay out. I guess things have gotten pretty organized in the car: I am able to empty and refill the car without much hassle. At this point, I could probably do without half of the things in there. Firestone says I need a new hub bearing. Evidently the Conklin mechanic found a way to screw that up too. It was OK before; now Firestone wants $370 to replace it. The guy at the O’Reilly Auto Parts next door, seemingly knowledgeable, says a hub bearing costs $33. Next stop: Discount Auto Tire. They detect a need to replace my tires, and with respect to the right rear tire they are absolutely correct. Discount Tire is a hothouse of activity: all bays open, mechanics playing loud rock music, people flying around. I spend several hours in the Amarillo public library while Southwest Honda, the dealer, actually gives more than they get: the lady authorizes a repair that I did not want, and writes it off – no charge –when I complain. A quality operation. Wish I’d had my work done here rather than at Conklin.
September 15. This afternoon, we have our first real rain since I arrived here. By the time I am in my tent for the night, it is really pelting down. And, of course, the wind; there is almost always wind here. I get soaked while running for the bathroom and re-staking a tent stake in the middle of the night. Sunblock has long since ceased to be a part of the daily routine.
What I eat, out here, has been a matter in development. I can’t stock a cupboard-full that I will just pick among as the mood hits. I have to have a few items that won’t take up unnecessary space – that I actually will eat – and that are compatible with the limited capabilities for cooking and refrigeration. One thing I’ve decided: I have to eat meat. Otherwise I eat crap. I bought a ham steak for $3.50, and that’s a real meal. Much better than chowing down a bunch of sweets. One somewhat odd breakfast: “everything” bagels with a bowl of olive oil and balsamic vinegar; the latter are among the strange things I jammed into the car at the storage unit on August 1.
A ranger stops by. He wants to know my story, apparently because of the beat-down look of my car with its assortment of dirty clothes strewn around the space behind the driver’s seat. Everything has its place. But I suppose it doesn’t help that the plastic shopping bag prominently pressed against the rear window says “Goodwill.” The ranger starts out on a kind of aggressive note: says he’s been here a couple of times, but nobody was here (I was probably in the library) and tells me that they have to dispose of unclaimed camping equipment that people leave behind. I’m thinking, you would trash my stuff without leaving a note? He calms down, says there will be some camping activity around October 1, when deer hunting season opens. But tonight may be the busiest night of camping I will see: there is a Baptist couple in a camper at the start of the loop, and a pickup truck with a quiet, older man and woman who are just sleeping in the shell covering its back, and other random people driving through.
Late at night, I grab my recorder to make a note for this blog, but when I turn it on, it shines a really bright light into my face. Turns out I had grabbed the headlamp instead. Talking into your headlamp achieves nothing, and may leave you with a headache.
September 16. The Baptists and I have breakfast at the Subway. John tries endlessly to convert me. Tiresome. I give Mary a link to my post on religion. That may be the last I hear from them.
I like Fritch. It seems pretty sweet here. Delena says we got an inch of rain yesterday. It was beautiful at dawn today, but that changed quickly. By 9 AM, it was cold and gray again. Just like September in Indiana. It rains more today. The inside of the tent has been dry, but now there is moisture accumulating. I use a tarp below the tent and a plastic layer inside. These multiple layers of protection leave the sleeping bag only a bit damp from general moisture, and it’s warm when it’s damp anyway – or as warm as a $10 Walmart special, ten years old, is likely to be. It’s funny – each of these places feels kind of alien, when I arrive; but by the time I’ve spent a week, they feel a bit like home. I’m expecting the rain to blow past in a couple of days. Weather.com says that the averages here in mid-September run from lows in the 60s to highs in the 80s. Sounds good to me. In late afternoon, after a day of intermittent spitting, I see a wall of rain advancing up the Lake Meredith valley. Spooky and beautiful. As usual, I have moved my backpack and most of my other loose stuff to the car, and am hoping just to perch atop the picnic table under the shelter awning. But no luck: the rain is blistering all the way through on a high wind. I run for the car and read for an hour or two. I finish McCullough’s Caesar and start Grisham’s Client. Reading novels has turned out to be a very acceptable substitute form of entertainment, in place of movies and videos.
This morning, it’s a sponge bath in the stainless steel sink in the restroom building. It spurts water for about three seconds, and then you have to push the button again. I have a 24-ounce cup, so I fill it and have to refill it with several button pushes, halfway through the process of washing my hair in the sink and getting the soap out of my eyes. Note to self: if you’re going to do sponge baths with baby wipes, don’t buy the lemon-scented variety; it makes for a funky social-olfactory effect. Also, when I do this trip in the next life, I will use a van. People rarely enter the restroom building; but when they do so, they arrive without advance warning, and there you stand. Sponge-bathing out by the Honda Civic is an adventure, given the tendency of vehicles to erupt over the horizon at fairly high speed on this campground’s 25-MPH entrance road. I could also benefit from a better mirror than the funhouse distortion that I get in the chrome cover of the Xlerator hand dryer in the men’s room.
September 17. As usual, I’m up before dawn. Prediction was that it would be 65 degrees, and I think that’s about right. I’m wearing double-layer nylon wind pants and a shirt, fleece, and windbreaker, and I am cold. It’s not the temperature per se; it’s sitting out in the wind for hours. I tough it out until the library opens, with the aid of a run after the stars have faded, when my post-run sweaty running clothes can blow dry (on me) without freezing me in the process. The alternative is to let them sun-bleach in the back window, and that is not ideal: that approach imparts a sort of moldy musky odor to the car and everything in it.
John and Mary, the Baptists, are leaving. They pause while exiting past my site. We shake hands and wish good luck. Mary says she hopes I find what I’m looking for. I laugh and say, “I’m finding it.” Later, I see my first tarantula, out in the middle of the road; I read something that says the males cross the roads in search of females. Size of a mouse. I have been thinking that I wanted to locate myself on the trailing edge of summer – staying until colder temperatures forced me south or indoors, rather than racing to get myself back into excessive heat. Especially since not every place is going to have a covered picnic table. It’s not so cold yet as to compel me to move. I had hot chocolate and hot oatmeal yesterday. I don’t feel like having them again today, but I can see the merit. This is the first day when, for a good chunk of the day, it is too cool to wear shorts comfortably. In midafternoon, I wake from a nap to see junior-high kids – a half-dozen boys and one girl – running around this camping area. Their physical ed teacher or coach, a somewhat severe-looking guy who can’t be 25, is yelling at them to keep going.
September 18. Let me try to sum up what this has been like. I decided that the best word for my camping experience at Lake Meredith National Recreation Area is “wonderful.” I decided it’s not “fantastic” – it doesn’t have every pleasure known to mankind, and in some regards it’s a bit challenging – but it is really wonderful. The people have been nice. The mechanic working on my car, Shane Wooton, gives every sign of being both knowledgeable and honest – undercharging what he said he would charge for repairs, which was already less than what they were asking in Amarillo, and not charging me at all for some work. As already noted, Delena, the librarian, is a kind, personable individual. She has started to treat me as a regular: she says, “See you tomorrow” when I’m leaving, even if I don’t necessarily plan to go to the library the next day; she says she wondered how I was doing with the wind or rain or whatever the condition was on the previous evening. The people in the grocery stores have not seemed snide, nor overly endowed with false smiles. I’ve met a few nice campers. And the outdoors living experience – well, that part of it really is fantastic. I spend a lot of time smiling. I never did entirely stop singing in the bathroom. I look around at the sunrise, sunset, and even just midday, with the susurrant wind bending this tall grass, and I just laugh out loud. It happens every day. I cannot believe how pretty everything is. The days last so long – we see long sunrises and sunsets. There is time for everything. I am grateful for my orange juice and all this other stuff that tastes so good. I am writing these words at a laptop under a full moon that’s bright enough to read by. As usual, the temperature – compensated with appropriate sun shelter in the daytime and layers at night – is nearly perfect. Just wonderful. Could not ask for nicer conditions. I do not want to go back indoors. It would be more comfortable to be back in my old apartment in Arkansas. But this is better. The song that keeps coming to mind:
This must be just like living in Paradise
And I don’t wanna go home
I ain’t never goin’ home
And, you know, it has just occurred to me that that may have been the issue with Sterling. It may not have been that Sterling was an especially bad place. It may have been just that I came back into contact with civilization, to a greater degree than I had been during the several preceding weeks, and various things about it surprised and hurt me. I have been away from people, or perhaps from excesses of people, or perhaps from people who have become too complacent. Maybe I have just been away from whatever it is that Sterling represents, that I would find in a thousand other communities around the country; maybe there was just a bit of reentry shock.
September 19. An autumnal day, and that is fitting: we are just a couple days short of the equinox. I sit at the picnic table and work on the laptop, wearing my multiple layers, as the beautiful morning gives way to bouts of rain and cloudiness. A week ago, I was growing weary of the sun-baked life, and was glad to welcome high, fluffy clouds. Now I am wearing my multiple layers of synthetics until after 12 noon. Mechanic Shane Wooton has replaced the axle and repaired the torn transmission seal that Conklin Honda gave me, but the vibration is still there. I need to look into further front end-repairs to undo Conklin’s bad work. If that can come together, I think I will feel confident enough to continue with the road trip. I have a neighbor down at the far end of the campground, yesterday and today: a minivan with somebody evidently sleeping inside, though I see or hear barely a clue.
September 20. This morning was the first time when I lay in the tent for fear of the cold. Clock on the bank said 59 degrees at 8:45 AM; a later check of the weather will suggest it got down to around 55. After the first day or two here at Lake Meredith, I put the rain fly on the Texsport bivy tent, because of the rain, and I have left it on ever since, because the site I chose doesn’t really have a place to put a tent other than on the concrete, which is mostly under the steel picnic table cover, so I can see stars only at an angle, not straight up. With the rain fly on, the tent holds heat; and since I am actually trying to use up two of those ten-year-old Walmart sleeping bags, I have one to crawl into and another to use as a blanket. I did get out and work at the picnic table, as usual, before going into town. This was also the first morning since arriving here when we have had a solid overcast gray sky. That goes away soon; most of the day is sunny and beautiful, high in the low 70s I think. We did have one cold night, but this is the first of the cold days. I am not worried: it is supposed to be warmer for the rest of the week. I can’t leave here yet; I am waiting for the Arkansas DMV to mail my license plate stickers to me here. The old ones expire in 10 days. In the afternoon, I do something I should have done days ago: I string up a tarp to block the sun from the west in late afternoon, so I can remain at the picnic table instead of having to go down to a shady spot at the boat ramp from about 5 to 7 PM and read my novel.
Today, I encountered a bit of the Sterling experience, and now I think I understand it better. I went into the Fritch Dairy Queen at lunch. There was a workingman there, similar to the workingmen seated at Paddy’s in Sterling: crusty, dirty, poorly groomed. I got a sense of overt hostility. Not sure how – his look toward me, his manner, something. I hadn’t gotten it that morning, when I went into the diner for breakfast. There, the ambiance was at least modestly welcoming. The difference, I think, was that he could see my car, whereas the people in the diner couldn’t. Of course, it may also have been a different crowd in the diner. I only glanced at the people there – a busy and cheery place, I should mention – but it was around 8:45 AM, and the only blue-collar people were two mechanics in a party of five or six. I think what happened, here and probably also at Sterling, was that I encountered rejection from the blue-collar people, once they got a load of my car (assuming those in Paddy’s had had opportunity to do so during my ten- or twelve-day stay in Sterling) or perhaps of my sandals.
I have encountered rejection from the middle class as well, but theirs is different. For one thing, I’m used to that, having been a graduate student for some years: I am accustomed, that is, to being a powerless and low-paid flunky. Middle-class people tend to take this in and move on. What I’m not used to is people who glare or stare at me on the basis of socioeconomic inferiority. In Sterling, Suzanne conveyed a discreet but clear rejection, once she realized I was not to be pitied, and I have surely been getting much the same from others of her class. But the fear that someone might beat me up – this is new, or at least it is not something I have experienced for a long time. A separate element, not yet parsed, is that the working poor may also derive a rare sense of superiority when they encounter someone who appears to be even poorer than themselves: they may feel entitled, that is, to look down upon me; the authorities may tend not to interfere as the dispossessed sort out their own pecking order among themselves. On the other hand, it may be that these working men resent somebody who could come in here and live a simple, happy life right under their noses, without anyone’s approval. I mean, all I’ve got on my side is the federal government that created and continues to maintain places like this, and the federal government is not exactly beloved here. A friend says this is the explanation: they’re jealous that they don’t have my freedom. They could, but they won’t. Granted, this is just one workingman. My treatment will evidently depend upon the restaurant I choose. But I am somewhat alerted to a potential for harm that had eluded me previously.
I have tentatively decided that, for purposes of writing, I am not necessarily less efficient out here, working on my laptop, than I would be at my desktop computer back in my old apartment. I would be less efficient, I think, if the things I am writing needed me to have multiple PDFs and webpages open at once, to be consulting and synthesizing their remarks, but I’m not doing that kind of writing now. The main inefficiencies I notice are that I cannot do some kinds of computer maintenance tasks, and I cannot do video editing. The latter requires more processor power; the former (and sometimes the latter) requires time. I mean, I can’t keep the laptop running for days on end while a hard drive is being secure-erased or encrypted or comprehensively checked.
September 21. It’s not that anything in particular is happening. But on several occasions I have been inspired to dictate poems, including one I’m especially pleased with. This feels good. The temperature seems to be a little cooler: today I didn’t shed the layers down to shorts and T-shirt until after 2 PM. By 9:30 PM, I’ve had the layers back on for hours; and while I’m not particularly cold, I feel like the wind has just been beating on me forever. Which, really, it has. I’m done. At bedtime, it appears that I have been wearing my T-shirt backwards all day. The tag is in front. It should have been tickling my throat. I guess I was so larded down and overstimulated with wind and layers that I didn’t notice.
September 22. At 4:30 AM, I am up and dressed. Full winter gear. On bottom, I have polypropylene thermals, lined wind pants, and down ski pants. On top, I have polypro, fleece, a windbreaker, and a down vest. I am wearing my warmest hat and nylon glove liners so I can type. Judging from yesterday’s experience, I will still have to get up and walk a bit to warm up now and then, but I should be pretty much OK to sit at the keyboard despite gusts of 15-20 MPH. Nice fading full moon in a clear sky. And the cooler air actually makes the mosquitoes walk across my keyboard for warmth. Bizarre sight. There are a dozen of them on the table, walking toward me. Flies have not really been an issue here.
I have wondered how long I’m going to stay on the road, or how far I should go. Some of that depends on the car. Of course, cold mornings also make it more appealing to go back indoors. I have to hang out here this week, at least, awaiting those license plate tags. But we’re looking at lows in the 50s all week. One way or another, it really will be time to move on before too long.
I nap from 7 to 9 and return to the picnic table, clad now only in polypro thermals, T-shirt, and wind pants. I look up and do a startled double-take: there is a walking stick on my backpack. I flick him off. He lands on the bench and strides toward me. I am his Messiah; and this time, when I flick him into the weeds, he just lies there for a while, clinging to one, his hopes crushed.
It will be an interesting week. Perversely, just when I could justify sleeping twelve hours a night (now that we’re past the equinox), I find I’m actually sleeping less. I think it’s because I am impatient to finish my current writing project. It’s a journal about a year I spent in graduate school. The innovation of putting up a tarp to block the late afternoon sun has run into snag, namely, the wind. The tarp bulges out from the strong breeze, and now it has begun physically disintegrating in the middle, where the constant push is wearing it to a frazzle.
It doesn’t really warm up to the point of shorts and T-shirt until around 3 PM, and even then it’s certainly not on the hot side. Warm enough in the sun, but with this breeze it’s coolish in the shade. I’ve tentatively decided that 60 degrees is the bottom end of my preferred nighttime temperatures. Lower than that seems to mean I will spend a lot of the day sitting out with multiple layers. At 2 AM, the wind is a giant waterfall rushing up the slope from the lake toward me, over the rocks and grass and a few short trees. Exciting. It’s really whacking the tent around. But I have it roped to the steel picnic shelter and the built-in steel barbecue grill. It won’t go anywhere until its seams split.
September 23. I get up around sunrise. Weird thing: when I’m stepping out of my tent, I see a pickup truck parked at the very next site; and when he sees me, he suddenly takes off and goes racing out of the camping area. Don’t know what that was all about. Today’s errand is to repair another part of what Conklin Honda did to me, an apparently damaged hub bearing that Wooton can’t fix. This part requires a trip to Borger, a bigger city about 12 miles east of here. I drop the car early and make my way downtown. The library doesn’t open until 10 AM. I visit the Chamber of Commerce. The lady gives me a conference room with a table and asks if I want coffee or a beverage. Like I’m here for a meeting or something. Can’t believe how hospitable she is. When the library does open, it’s sort of a trip: there’s this guy using the public library computer, complete with speakerphone, to set up his account with Charles Schwab, the brokerage firm. She’s telling him his password, he’s repeating it, etc. He explains that he has $48,000 in one of his accounts. Distracting, odd, kind of touching. I hope nobody robbed him.
The garage replaced the hub bearing for $200. Chinese buffet for lunch. I reflect on how lots of people may rarely if ever experience what it is like to be in a place like this – not the restaurant, I mean, but this kind of life. I don’t have to be anywhere. I could walk out of here, get in the car, drive in any direction, and fly to Israel or Japan; or I could just go to sleep on a bench out in the park. It really doesn’t matter to anybody but me. And I know that, whatever direction I go, or don’t go, will determine the next phase of my life. Not that this is great, or terrible; it’s just different. I guess it’s sort of like retirement used to be, except that I’m not particularly looking down a long straight highway from here to my death. It’s more like I’m just out in the lake, floating on my tube, for whatever period of time. Not that it’s perfect freedom. I do have the constant lingering question – what next? How long will this continue, and then what?
September 24. This is a great country – that it has places like these, where I could locate myself for all this time, by myself, and have scarcely a thought of safety, except in Paddy’s Restaurant. This morning’s run takes me to the Sanford-Yake campground again, an eight-mile round-trip. The lake is prettier here – deeper and blue. Today, I finish Caesar and start reading Follett’s second novel in his Century trilogy: Winter of the World. In this one, he does World War II. My to-do list is packed: organize my computer, clean out my car, eat.
The situation with the weather seems to be this: you get past the summer heat, you put up with a few cold nights here and there, but mostly you enjoy moderate temperatures as the place gradually descends into autumn. The high today was well into the 80s. Can’t beat a can of beer and $1.24 for a cooked chicken leg from Love’s. My dinner was interrupted by two motorcycle guys, my age, from Stinnett: my first visitors here. We just stood around and talked for maybe ten minutes. The one, especially, seemed really happy that I was here. Not odd; just a very upbeat kind of guy. Delightful end of day.
September 26. Forecast is for a low of 49 for Saturday. That’s a little on the cold side for my blood. Re-raises the question of where I’m going next. On the other hand, if I can stand a chilly weekend, the advance forecast is for another set of perfect days next week. In Fritch, it’s cosmopolitan day: the woman ordering breakfast at the Subway, immediately after me, is from Sri Lanka; the woman temporarily replacing Delena (she’s out today) is originally from Chicago. In the evening, Park Ranger Sullivan stops by. Starts out on the wrong foot, shining his light in my eyes as if to see whether I’m sober and mentally competent. He later says it was because he couldn’t see me clearly, because at first I had my headlamp on and pointed in his face, but I don’t think that’s true; I walked right out into the full glare of his headlights, in front of his vehicle. He isn’t aware of my conversation with the other ranger, asks me, “Is this home?” America has a war on homelessness – as in, if you are, you had better not tell anyone, because this marks you as not belonging – as if we didn’t know that already. He conveys that there has been a complaint: someone has noticed, and reminded the rangers, that I have now been here more than 14 days. He says he’s not going to evict me tonight; he says he’ll check with his supervisor. He seems like a decent guy generally; we shake hands. But my equilibrium is definitely broken. I spend maybe an hour pacing in the lane, thinking about big and small issues arising from the question of where next, and watching across the lake as Ranger Sullivan’s SUV prowls the roads on the north shore. The cop behavior shook me a bit. Not being welcome here anymore is an overstatement, but I am not sure by how much. I don’t feel like going back indoors yet. I haven’t resolved some of the things that brought me out here. On the other hand, I am concerned that maybe there are more car repairs in my future, and I’m also not keen to do a lot of additional driving to warmer spots with free camping.
September 27. This morning, Park Ranger Jones stops by. He says he is Sullivan’s supervisor. Sullivan hasn’t briefed him on our conversation, and neither of them seemed familiar with the fact that I had had a conversation the previous week with yet another ranger. It is clear that I have become an issue. Jones explains why. I misunderstood the rules, though admittedly I had not bothered to check them too carefully after that conversation with the first ranger; it sounded like the important thing was how they interpreted the rules. Being the only camper in this vast place, it didn’t seem to matter much. It now develops that I am allowed to stay only 14 days in any 30-day period. So I have used up my time for September, in Jones’s reckoning. He doesn’t seem to be evicting me per se. He did want to notify me, however, that there is a huge storm brewing, with the possibility of “tornadic activity,” and that I am especially vulnerable on this exposed high point. He recommends that I relocate to one of the lower campgrounds – although, he admits, the mosquitoes are really bad down there. I think I get the message, at this point: I think they must have an agency directive to avoid actual evictions, but my continued presence has become something of an issue. If I moved to a different campground as Jones suggests, I would perhaps no longer be visible to whoever complained, but whether I would enjoy staying is another issue.
By about noon, I am packed up and on my way to town. I check the Post Office for any last General Delivery items for me; I pick up the recharged deep cycle marine battery (for recharging the laptop) at Wooton’s (I got 85 hours of laptop use out of the previous charge!); I do some thinking and online browsing at the public library. At 4:45 PM, I’m headed south, and I can see the ranger was right: there is a dark storm coming from the west. I get to Lubbock by maybe 8:30 PM, through sometimes intense rain, and there I face a decision: should I go straight and drive all night toward Big Bend; should I veer left and drive all night toward Del Rio; or should I veer right and camp in Brownfield?
Amistad National Recreation Area, Del Rio, TX
September 27. I decide to head for Del Rio and the Amistad NRA. Big Bend’s covered picnic table camping spaces are $14 a night, and anyway I want to be camping in open spaces, not in canyons. Weird thing on the drive: Texas state trooper gets into the fast lane on the four-lane highway, like he’s going to pass me, but he just hangs there and follows me. It feels like a cop game. Eventually there’s a broken-down semi along the side of the road, and he stops for that. Good riddance.
I pass a drive-in theater at Lamesa. We are way out in the middle of nowhere. The vast emptiness doesn’t excite and delight me as it did when I was crossing western Kansas; it has become familiar. That’s not necessarily bad. I drive back a nearly mile-long, potholed dirt road and arrive in the San Pedro campground at Amistad NRA. I set up the tent in the first campsite I see. It is dark and empty here. This time I’m using my new Eagle’s Camp tent: it has lots of mesh, like the Texsport, but it’s long enough to accommodate me without having things brushing against my face every time the wind blows. Hassle, trying to figure out how to set up this new tent in the dark, with the wind blowing the black tent across the white, chalky dust. You know you’ve been camping too long when you become fluent in different kinds of dust. By 4 AM I am inside the tent and trying to sleep. The vegetation suggests that I am somewhere near water, and I am a little worried about crocodiles: there was something about a 50-foot crocodile at Big Bend, though I suspect he was prehistoric.
September 28. I drive through the campground and see that I am the only person here. I also see that the site I chose, in a thicket, is not nearly as good as another one, about a quarter-mile away, with a wide open vista. Rather than pack up the sleeping pad, sleeping bag, tarp, plastic sheet, and everything else inside the tent, I just pick up the whole package and carry it on foot to that other site. There are ranks of 1970s steel shelters, on three different dust streets, not just scattered around like they were at Lake Meredith. Nice colored stones used in some of the construction; looks a little like New Mexico. It turns out that I am at least a half-mile from the water. I am looking over a very slight decline to a row of – horrors! – houses on a ridge. They aren’t that close — maybe a mile away — but this is not desolate.
I drive to the NRA information office and ask the nice Mexican-American lady all kinds of questions about safety, the location of a Chinese buffet and a laundromat, etc. She says there is still a risk of government shutdown on October 1, but they won’t know until that day arrives. I’m off to the buffet and my first look at Del Rio, ten miles from my tent. It’s a real city, mostly Mexican-American. Customers at tables in the Chinese place don’t really look at me. I fear this may be because they have bad attitudes toward white people, and then I realize that white people in Chinese buffets don’t really look at me much either. There are some palm trees on the streets, though they seem to be an affectation, brought in primarily by businesses that want to look different. Forecast: highs in the 90s and sunshine, lows in the low 70s, for most of the coming week. My mail from Arkansas has been forwarded to the Del Rio Post Office since I left Clayton, weeks ago, but the Post Office has only two letters for me. When I get back to the campground, I see I have company: a white van. Has to be a blue-collar Baby Boomer, I speculate: that’s always who drives vans. The guy plays music loud enough for me to hear upwind, halfway across the campground, late into the night.
September 29. In the early morning dark, I go for a long run. I decide to head west on Highway 90, convinced that it crosses the Amistad reservoir somewhere. It’s really too dark to see much: no moon and not much light pollution. It’s not a dirt road, so the only way that drivers can be rude is to keep their bright lights on, blinding me if I don’t cover and/or avert my eyes. I run past various RV parks. This is evidently a snowbird haven. The highway divides. This is promising. I cross over to the other side. It develops that some dumbass has put a concrete curb out there in the dark somewhere, right where I can trip over it and make my right arm bleed. It hurts, but I actually have very few scratches, as these things go, and no broken bones or damage to hands or wrists. It seems that my commando training and/or repeated experiences of falling down like this have trained me to roll with it. I plod on, but I am already 65 minutes into this run and I said that an hour would be my turnaround point. A few minutes after falling, I turn around, wash off the blood at a gas station clogged with pickups pulling boats in the predawn darkness, and head home. I never do get a clear daytime look at the reservoir. Later, when I look on Google Earth, I see that there really was a bridge, and that I was only a mile from it.
Back at the campground, I mix some chocolate syrup into my milk – a new habit on this trip – and reflect on how pleasant it is that there are virtually no bugs here. Ranger Erin stops by and chats with me for maybe a half-hour. I’m thinking Erin’s boss must be more laid-back than P. Jones of Lake Meredith. She says that the slight decline between my campsite and those houses used to be under water: the water level here has dropped 50 feet, and that’s why the campsite is empty. She says they’re following news on the government shutdown. I tell her I’d be glad to serve as volunteer ranger for a week or so, if it would help to keep the camping area open, but she is not persuaded.
Then another visitor: Mark – about 40, I’m guessing – has ridden his Kawasaki from Saskatchewan via the Front Range (i.e., Montana, Denver, New Mexico) and is planning to ride on down into Mexico. We’ve talked for 20 minutes when here comes a thirtyish woman wearing a trenchcoat, of all things. Turns out I was wrong about that Baby Boom male in the van. It actually has six occupants: three human females (her mom and her daughter), two canine females, and one four-pound male Chihuahua. She says that’s probably about as much male as they can handle. She is visiting my site on the way back to hers, after being out there yelling into the wind: it seems her biggest dog was just begging and pleading for freedom to chase the deer, and finally she just had to do it. That’s not permitted, but maybe she doesn’t know that. I can hear the dog barking: she’s got to be at least a half-mile away. Between this and the late-night music, I am thinking these are some self-entitled individuals. This party, too, is headed down through Mexico, on the way to Belize.
Mark comes back by, later in the day. We talk for almost two hours – about Mexico’s gang wars, women, motorcycles, bikes, etc. It’s good. He invites me to stop by later and drink beer. I say I might if my laundry doesn’t keep me too late. But it does: I am rigging up a clothesline in the dark. Laundry is like showering: it’s something that a man should do at least once every two months, whether he needs to or not, even if it means the only garment left is a short-short pair of 1970s swim trunks that just cry out, “I’m looking for a date!”
This campsite is even better than the one at Lake Meredith. No wind, lots of stars, faint desert fragrance from blossoms or trees. It feels like it has become easier for me to be dirty, out here by myself, without having to worry about it. Turns out to have been a low-key day for recovering from that longish run this morning. Really nice.
September 30. This place is not as dry as Lake Meredith. Lots of dew, and some grass and blooming bushes to drink it. As it gets light out, it appears we are actually in the middle of the clouds. Damp and breezy. At 8:20 AM, we still have patches of fog all over the area. I guess it wouldn’t be September without some foggy misty crudliness. If it’s cool here, I’m thinking it’s cooler where I came from up north. No insect problem here at all: the occasional mosquito is easily deterred with a few daily administrations of Off!. I have seen no snakes on this whole trip except one on a road somewhere and a dead baby one on the path to the bathroom at Lake Meredith. The New Mexico ladies blew out of camp yesterday, to be replaced last night by a pudgy father and son (?) in an RV, walking around with cameras, looking like geeky tourists, yelling at each other, apparently about what they are observing on the visitor information signs or in the bushes or something. This morning, they depart.
My luck holds. The tire that several mechanics have warned me about – that could have blown in a thousand different wilderness locations, on a hundred different curves in the middle of the night, on the long drive down from Lake Meredith, chooses instead to go flat in Del Rio, amid what may be one of the world’s richest concentrations of mechanics and air hoses. I refill the thing four times, dashing from the Goodyear to a used car lot to a couple of new and used tire shops, and finally decide to race across town to the Walmart, where I deposit it, completely flat and partly blocking entry to one of their service bays, and cough up for a pair of new tires: $136. This trip is not so much a voyage of discovery as a voyage of automobile repair. My shower technique is improving. I have discovered that you fill your water bladder in the morning and let it cook in the car all day, thus giving you a nice hot shower at day’s end. I’m the only one here.
October 1. I’m up at 5:30 AM for an hour or so, sitting at the laptop with my layers on. It’s probably close to 70 degrees, but my blood has thinned. Back in the hay an hour later. At 8 AM I awaken, think to myself about words that start with L that would describe my glorious feeling: languid, lissome, lazy . . . This does not continue too long. Around 8:15, the rangers pull up and get out. I have only the mesh – took down the rain fly – so they can see me lying there in the Eagle’s Camp tent. I say, “I bet I know why you have come to visit me.” They laugh. It’s official: nonessential federal government services are shut down, including the National Park Service; therefore this place has to be closed, effective immediately. They tell me they are going to fake-lock the front gate, and ask me to close it on the way out.
I learn a way to get ants out of a Rubbermaid container that you have let sit on the ground: put it up on the car and watch them bail out, once they discover that their path back home has been erased. Wipe them off the hood of the car. Repeat as needed.
I spend until around 11 AM having breakfast, stretching out the tent and tarps and all, to dry in this overcast, humid morning. The sky clears. It is a really beautiful place to be. It is August here. I am not rushing to leave. No, let me express that more strongly: I really do not want to leave this desolate campground. But eventually I do depart, and make my way to the Del Rio public library, to research my next step.
By day’s end I feel that I like Del Rio, despite its traffic and all: it feels very Mexican at sunset – the music and the cowboys in their big pickup trucks. Walking through the Walmart is a different experience: much more chaotic. I hear a lot more laughter, I think, than in white America. But they’re not chaotic in the parking lot: there’s no cutting at angles across empty rows. They drive down to the end, where they’re supposed to go, and come to a full stop. Speaking of the Walmart, I noticed that they have men’s fall clothing on the racks: wool, fleece, plaids. My God. The temperatures are in the 90s. I also notice that these Mexican women in the Walmart are subtly paying more attention to me than I have had for some time. At first, I think it’s because I’m tall. Eventually it occurs to me that it’s because I look like a lunatic, with hair pointing out everywhere. Einstein could pull it off but, you know, I’m no Einstein.
I spend all day in the library looking at the news on the government shutdown and digging around for free or inexpensive places to camp. It’s pretty slim pickings in this neck of the woods. Even commercial campgrounds seem to be few and far between. In my experience, campgrounds are like grapes: the more you pay, the worse they are. Not that a KOA (Kampgrounds of America, a chain) is ever bad; it’s just preformed and compact. Of course, I can always pass the night in my car. Not sleeping in it, God knows, or at least not for long: it’s much too packed for that. I’m thankful I can still *breathe* in it. But driving. Get on the road, consume some caffeine, and the hours … well, the hours drag by, actually. But at least I’m accomplishing something. And so I decide to head east.
Live Oak Park, Ingleside, TX
October 1. East of Del Rio, drivers are incredibly considerate. Drivers on a two-lane highway pull over onto the shoulder – maintaining full speed – when you come up behind them. They just want to let you get around. One last golden prairie setting sun in my rearview mirror.
I did consider camping somewhere around San Antonio, but free camping was scarce. The S.A. KOA wanted $27/night. State parks are cheaper, but not terribly much so: $15-20, from what I can see, unless you take a space without shade or shelter. I didn’t even want to leave Del Rio, much less go all the way to the coast. It feels like I’m being rushed along, especially since it was only a few days ago that I made the epic journey from the Panhandle. But if I want to settle into a place for multiple days, it seems the most likely option. So my road lies to the southeast. I’m headed back toward the land of trees. I’m going to miss the big, wide, open spaces.
Checkpoint cop near Uvalde says, “I was going to ask if you are carrying anyone with you in your vehicle, but it doesn’t look like anyone else could possibly fit.” Once dark falls, the big highway becomes less pleasant. The usual circus of people flashing bright lights in my rearview mirror because they do not understand that a car loaded in the rear will tend to have low beams that point upwards. I reach Corpus Christi by 1 AM. I have started chortling at an accidental new habit of calling it “Corpus Crispy,” inadvertently converting the holy body of Christ into a Latin menu pick at KFC. Like an imitated stutter, I can’t lose it. I’m going to say it to a cop and giggle, and he’s going to think I’m stoned. Yes, there’s a bit of road caffeine giddiness in process here.
Corpus greets me with a spate of refineries and the inevitable shacks of the poor. On the outskirts, I wander the access road in search of Labonte Park (shown on Google Maps as Nueces River Park), which is supposed to offer free camping. It does, though the sign says it’s by permit only, and City Hall is certainly not open now. In its quest, I stop to ask directions of these two Mexican guys fishing at a crudly river or trench, next to the freeway. They tell me how to find the park, but they reasonably point out that I could also just sleep right there under the freeway. They are nice guys, but this suggestion is just a tad freaky. I drive through Labonte Park. Nobody here. Looks like a good place to get robbed and killed. Maybe I’ll check it out again in daylight. Someday. It feels like a long, long time since I was in Kansas. Talk about living every day to its fullest.
I continue on to my next option, Live Oak Park in Ingleside. This takes a while to find, partly because it’s a half-hour further, on the northeast side of Corpus, and partly because I get off on the wrong exit and am asking directions from a seasoned convenience store clerk, outside for a smoke as the bored speed-trap cop looks on from across the street, pushing 2 AM. No petroleum town would be complete without its Dow Chemical Plant. Bank’s thermometer sign say 82 degrees. They have more palm trees here than in Del Rio. Finally, the park. Its sign clearly confirms, as at Labonte, that I will need a permit. City Hall opens at 8 or 9 or something. So, OK, it’s a test of passing seven hours in a Walmart parking lot, where they have a restroom and I am allowed to hang out all night. I drink beer and read my book. I drink more beer and read more of my book. I go inside, I come outside. I walk around. I sleep sitting up in my tiny Honda’s packed front seat. I wake up. I go inside again; I come outside again. I prowl the Lowe’s parking lot, across the street. There is a flat spot behind a pallet of lumber. The cricket ignores me until I finger him; then he walks all the way across the concrete to the grass. He’s not going to hop. He’s not going to even hint that I might have scared him. I sleep another half-hour there on the concrete in the shelter of the flat spot. I eat a banana. Jesus, who knew there were so many hours in “seven”?
The government shutdown thing seems to be half-unknown by the public. Late-night cashier in the Walmart hadn’t heard anything about it. Her manager was there. He said, yeah, they’ve shut down the Statue of Liberty and everything. She said, “You know, they ought to just quit it.” Give that lady the vote!
October 2. I get my permit from City Hall. Five days of free camping every six months. Will I be coming back here six months from now? Hard to say. In the park, city sounds of Corpus Christi are not bad. Corpus itself is some miles away; what we have here is Kiewit, which appears to be some kind of marine services company and an omnipresent employer. I think Kiewit is a noise culprit, blowing the whistles at the start and end of lunch and all sorts of work shifts, day and night.
The urinal in this campground’s bathroom is a DBI model – Designed By Idiots. When you flush, the water rushes into it from the rear and shoots right out the front, spraying your pants and legs with whatever was accumulated along the urinal’s bottom. The bottom is a long, flat pan in this steel unit, so it does accumulate quite a bit of aged urine, along with hairs, cigarette butts, and dead insects. I have learned, with these, to get out of the way before punching the Flush button, but even that is not quite good enough: the purifying tempest throws a cloud of urine mist into the air overhead, sufficient to spray your hand as well. You really have to get completely out of the way, punch that button, and run. You know, they talk about old men victimizing little boys, but there’s a lot that they fail to mention.
This part of Live Oak Park is incredibly lit at night. It’s warm. I can’t sleep until the lights finally shut off automatically at 10:35 PM. That may seem like a reasonable hour, but the sun these days is going down at, like, 5 PM or something. Seriously, I think it’s around 7. I don’t wear a watch, and anyway I’m not usually paying attention when it happens. I find that, at this park and previously, I’m absorbed in something, and suddenly I notice everybody is gone and everything is quieter – not that there were too many people in the park to begin with, typically in the range of zero to one.
October 3. I’m settled in. Time for a morning run. I get a late start. Running under a 9 AM sun, I attempt a loop around Ingleside. I get most of the way through a seven-miler, but have to walk a mile or so. Too hot, and possibly there’s some altitude adjustment underway, now that I’m at sea level. Pass a big stand of Black-Eyed Susans. When I get back, I reflect that I miss the desert air already. I like being able to throw down a sweaty shirt and, an hour later, it’s dry. I don’t miss the wind that these trees cuts so well, but I do miss being able to see anything more than a hundred yards away.
Under the tarp hanging over the picnic table to block the sun, I spend a quiet day working on the laptop. I am much less likely to wash dishes than before: I eat stews and soups from the pan, and I find that wiping the pan out with one or two paper towels works better than soap, at least when you’d have to run the burner to have hot water. I’ve also found that letting water sit in soup pans for a day seems to break down some of the grease. I still use soap before putting the pan away, or if I think any residue might make me sick, but otherwise my dishwashing chores are much reduced.
This is a day that will go down in history. After two months of being on the road with an itchy back, I have finally dug out the dull steak knife that I use as a letter opener and back scratcher. It was here all the time; I just needed to focus on getting it out of the Rubbermaid container where it was hiding. Its emergence is a gift from the gods. I am in bliss.
A guy walks through the park with two dogs. There are maybe a dozen walkers and doggers and so forth altogether, concentrated especially at day’s start and end. One of this guy’s dogs takes off and comes over to see me. Sweet little thing. I bend down from the picnic table to pet it. Turns out it isn’t here to be petted. It runs right past me, goes another half-dozen feet over toward the rear of my car, and squats down to pee. I’m, like, What? Get the f*ck out of here, you greasy little rat. So much for our bonding experience. Thing was ugly to boot.
I have finally figured out that I have a chapped lower lip because of the bug spray. That’s probably why the skin on my feet was so dry-looking in August. I know you’re not supposed to spray it in your face. I have tried explaining this to the mosquitoes.
Later this afternoon, I got a visit from Jim. He drove his van into the parking space next to my camping area, got out, came over, and we started talking. Tall, gangly guy, probably in his 60s. It’s an OK conversation.
After Jim leaves, Joseph arrives. Joseph seems glad to have a new friend. We talk for a while; he departs; he comes back with – would you believe – an electric guitar and amplifier; he plugs into the place where I’ve plugged in the laptop (free electricity in this city park); he proceeds to blast forth a completely screwy mix. He seems to just be playing whatever kind of riff or noise might sound interesting or funky, a few notes or chords at a time before switching to something else entirely different, in no connection with anything. I would call it mind-blowing, but I’m afraid he’d take it as a compliment. After my head can stand no more, I walk over and politely ask if he’s interested in playing rhythm, or lead, or what. He says, some of each. Eventually Joseph and the guitar disappear. Around dark, he’s back with just the radio in his car blasting. Completely distracting. Joe, my friend, I cannot think. I walk over and say so. He shuts off the radio.
It develops that Joseph is homeless and is planning to sleep right there tonight, in his car, next to my tent space. He shows me two incisions on his torso. He says he made them with a screwdriver. The one on his chest, he says, healed instantly when he held it together, whereas the one in his stomach did not heal well because he held it apart. The explanation, he says, has to do with magic crystals and energy fields. It seems I have made a friend. But I have also made a decision to draw lines on letting screwy people into my world. I go to the Pizza Hut, have dinner. It is incredibly noisy. I think I must be acclimating to the wild. When I can collect my brains in the uproar, I call the cops to ask for a hand with Joseph. The lady says she needs to know what clothing he is wearing. I say, lady, he’s right there. There is only one car in the whole park, and he doesn’t have a permit on his windshield. I return from the Pizza Hut, see he’s still there, go back out, park in the driveway of a self-storage facility, call the cops again. This time they get a clue. I work on my laptop while parked at the storage facility. After 15 or 20 minutes I try again. This time, the cops are in the park and Joseph is gone. Cop says he’s been dealing with Joe for years. No idea why the lady gave me a hard time on the first try.
In the night, for the first time on this trip, I get what I believe were ant bites. Just a few, but they make themselves known.
October 4. Eleven hours in the tent, minus about two in the middle. Sleep is a gift of this trip. It’s been better pretty much since the beginning, and at times I think I might be on the cusp of experiencing those huge sleeps that I have heard about from other societies. I am only barely roused by a self-absorbed yuppie, laughing and hooting on her cellphone as she walks through at dawn. Don’t mind my tent, lady – it’ll be vacant soon anyway. Counterpoint: a little while later, I have a nice conversation with Sandy, who is here to walk her two dogs, tell me all about life here and in northern California. Sandy says they have not only coyotes here – no news there; I’ve heard them howling – but also a herd of javelinas (i.e., wild boars). They cross the far corner of the parking lot. Just stand still and they’ll pass you by, she says.
Funny thing they do here – wish I could see it coming, and catch it on video: the truck comes into the park, the lady yells “OK!” and the big dog jumps out of the back end, without the truck even entirely stopping, and races along beside as the driver does a loop around the park. I’ve seen two different people do this here. There are lots of other drivers who come out, drive a slow loop through the park, and leave. Not sure why. I guess it’s probably like Cottonwood Falls, but I can see how people would want to get out of town there, whereas this is just a little closed-in city park. Maybe it’s the same instinct, and this is the only place where they can express it in a more urban environment. But, you know, there appears to be a whole vast area of Ingleside that could be converted to lanes for driving and biking in the outdoors.
A Kiewit welder comes over here to hang out and play with his cellphone for a while. He says he’s a class whatever welder, has a job title that basically means he has a job for life. I do not immediately reflect that jobs for life are only as durable as the company. It’s just as well. Kiewit may be durable indeed. He seems like a good guy.
It’s weird to be thinking of South Texas as a normal place in which to find myself. I have only a couple of days left in this particular location, and am scouting my options at the library. I notice that I’m not having the feeling that I’m in a special place here, like I did out in those national recreation areas. This is way too tame and complicated for that. Those empty places were really different.
Jim in the van comes back to talk some more. He rants about Obama for a while. I finally offer my own opinion. It even involves a complaint about Obama – about how he should have given that money to the people, working on practical projects (e.g., infrastructure) – instead of just beefing up the banks’ balances, back there circa 2009. I was sure that Jim would like it that I was complaining about Obama. But evidently it wasn’t the right kind of complaint. He looks disgusted and says, “I gotta go.” Last I see of Jim.
In the evening, kids are playing basketball. Closer to midnight, there are three cop cars, lights flashing, down in the far corner of the park, where somebody said the kinds do drugs during the daytime. I’m still awake, to see this, because I am trying to engineer a shower with my five-gallon water bladder hanging from a tree branch, and the unfortunate thing about this park is that cars arrive with literally no warning at all. In fact one of those three cops arrived when I was just about two-thirds done with rinsing the shampoo out of my hair. Is this legal? I have no idea. The law on it is written down somewhere. So I do the logical thing in this type of juridical quandary: I jump behind a tree, slip back to my car when the cop cruises by, and try to think of what to do instead. In the end – after about two hours of screwing around, hiding, and getting half-wet, due to cars showing up without notice every ten minutes on into the wee hours, I give up and do a Handi-Wipes bath instead.
October 5. It was a lot cooler last night. I noticed that I actually had to pull the sleeping bag over against one side of my legs. Temperature was similar in Del Rio, but there we had a wind. It’s not absolutely muggy here; it’s just not dry enough for me. Still, I like this park. I don’t have to leave yet, but I’m sorry that I will have to soon. Upon awakening, as usual, I formulate my plan of action before getting out of the tent, so as to assist in truly waking up: get water, put in contact lens, etc.
Today, a Frisbee golf tournament in the park. Doesn’t actually make any difference to me – I am quietly mixing chocolate milk and working on my laptop – but I do notice that the parking lot is filling up with noisy college-age kids.
Joseph is back. This time, he has purchased a remote-control helicopter. I have visions of it decapitating me or crashing into my laptop. I greet the news coolly. He charges it, again using the same outlet I was using; then he unplugs it, except that what he has unplugged is actually my computer. After a while, Joseph departs. He alienates people, and I think he probably does not know exactly how. I’m not hostile or unsympathetic. I just have limited resources out here, and I am a bit on guard.
October 6. Another cool morning. Makes for a cozy couple of hours in the tent predawn, dozing and listening to the sounds outside. My hair is still gooey from that last abortive shower attempt in the park. Fortunately, the cool air is prelude to a monsoon. I decide to go for a run. I didn’t get much summer rain running this year; this is my chance to make up for it. For maybe three or four miles of my 11-mile run, I am running under a downpour. Not horizontal rain that could scar a person for life; this is just a heavy, drenching cloudburst that has people stopping to offer me a ride. We quickly achieve saturation, after which a guy stops worrying about getting wet and just starts enjoying how nice it feels. By midafternoon, the clouds are gone, the sky is clear, and the sun is warm. In evening, Captain Joe stops by on his bike. He’s in his 80s, has been retired from being a Navy diver for almost 35 years now; stopped running marathons because of knee problems when he was 75. Two cute little Mexican girls interrupt to ask if we lost a cellphone. Joe wishes me luck.
It’s my last night in Live Oak Park. I’m doing the final read-through of the blog I kept during my year in a school of social work. The part I’m at now is funny. I’m sitting here at the table laughing. Another cool evening.
I’m still wondering how I’ll know when it’s time to go back inside. I’m not sure. Maybe some opportunity or idea will grab me. Maybe I’ll just keep heading south until I run out of warm-weather opportunities. Of course, I could still stay in my tent, even in the snow, as long as there’s a public library or some other place to go during the daylight hours. But that doesn’t sound nearly as fun as this.
October 7. I get up early, work in the dark, freeze. By the time the sun rises, I am creeping out onto the parking lot to soak up sun rays in my black wind pants and windbreaker. Warm up, eat breakfast. Let the tent dry out, removing layer by layer and hanging them out to dry: tarp, tent, plastic sheet, foam sleeping pad, sleeping bag. There’s been a guy in a pickup truck here most mornings, sitting for hours. This morning, a weird thing happens: a woman pulls in by my campsite and sits there in her car for maybe two hours. I assume she’s talking on her cellphone. Shortly after she arrives, the guy in the pickup leaves. I get one of those stray thoughts that you get when you are weird, or occupy weird circumstances: they’re watching me. It’s the FBI. The guy was shadowing me, and now the woman has taken over. I don’t really get this suspicion so much as a stray speculation: well, if they were following me, why would they be doing that? I think to myself, wow, maybe my traveling around is so unusual, maybe for someone of my education or something . . . maybe I fall into a profile. Maybe I am the kind who would bomb an orchard. When I finally pack up and drive away, I decide to turn off on a side street. There’s a cop! At the end of a cul-de-sac, sitting there, nowhere near traffic, doing nothing. He’s ready to grab me! I take another loop through the park, decide this is ridiculous, and proceed to the Chinese restaurant.
Port Aransas Beach
October 7. I was thinking I would just drive down to Aransas, take a look at the camping layout, and then probably have another couple hours back in the Ingleside library before it closed. Then I could just cruise back down to Aransas, set up the tent, and call it a day. What I was failing to appreciate was that Aransas and Port Aransas are two different creatures. Following the signs led me to – what’s this? – a ferry! A rather massive affair, feels more like a moving bridge. Next thing you know, I am enduring a short wait, a short ride, and I am out on the barrier island, in Port Aransas, a pretty resort town. And now it seems like too much of a hassle to go back across. So, goodbye Ingleside. And now, after nearly a week on the Gulf of Mexico, I finally get to see it. There is, it develops, this sprawling archipelago of islands, waste strips, industrial (especially petrochemical) facilities, and other detritus, probably running all along the Gulf coast, before one finally arrives at the beach resort community, with its palm trees . . . and its beach. Bring a smile to your eyes.
The beach is wide, flat, and edged by a road of packed sand, up against the barrier dune that thankfully impairs sight of the condos offering Gulf views. I choose the North Face tent, bought to replace one lost in the divorce nearly a decade ago. Back at Chase State Fishing Lake, I resealed the seams on its rain fly, but now I find I’m going to set up just the tent, without the fly. I choose the North Face for the sturdiness of its three poles – there is a constant wind here – and for its no-see-um mesh: I read someone’s complaint about no-see-ums along the Gulf Coast. I use the long stakes and tie a corner of the tent to a wooden post for good measure; I can tie it to the car on the other side if necessary. The spot I choose for the tent is a tiny hillock, maybe eight inches higher than the surrounding sand. It develops that it’s here because the road grader that levels the road and parking area has neglected this little space. The height gives me dry rather than damp sand, and at least a bit of extra elevation in case the waves creep across this flat beach.
October 8. I’ve been getting sleepy at dusk, so I already have a good first sleep under my belt when I decide to get up and go for a run at 2 AM. Two miles down the flat, hard, sandy, nearly deserted beachfront road in one direction – passing two camping parties with generators chugging, and perhaps a half-dozen others all told – then two miles up the other direction, to the pier. They’re not charging admission now, so I jog all the way out to the end. Whoa – fish clustering in the waters under the lights – hordes of them! And yet the two fishermen I passed on the way out to the pier’s apogee didn’t seem to be catching anything. “Dead end,” I said to the one as I returned shoreward, intending no metaphorical implications. Too much light pollution to see even the Big Dipper landward, but Orion is dramatically ascendent.
My eight miles have warmed me up. 3:30 AM. It is time for another attempt at bathing. In the spirit of two birds, one stone, I put on some shorts that needed to be laundered. Mini shampoo bottle in one pocket; Ivory bar soap container in the other. Towel in a white Walmart plastic bag, so I can find it on the sand in the dark. March right out into the tiny waves, then realize the flip-flops are getting stuck. Why am I wearing these? I retreat and park them next to the towel. Back out. Now, thigh-deep, I stick my head under the water. First thing I notice is the taste of salt. Hard to see or feel if I am getting any shampoo from the bottle onto my palm. Shampoo doesn’t suds much. Soak my head and try again. Better this time: more suds. A bigger wave hits me. Wait – is the tide coming in? I race out of the water and move the towel further inland. Now the water feels warm. Back out, but only knee-deep: I fear some floating beam will skewer me in the surf, or perhaps I’ll be victimized by a jellyfish or a Portuguese Man-O-War. Can’t see shit; sucker could sneak right up on me. Besides which, the Gulf is kind of scary in the middle of the night. I mean, it just goes on like a huge black stretch for thousands of miles. There are sharks. I could fall out there and drown somewhere. Now it’s time for the soap. But, what’s this? My soap has stopped working! Literally no soap bubbles in my hands. I rub harder. Nothing. I am reduced to standing out here in the middle of the ocean, futilely grinding the soap bar against my face and arms and chest like a sanding block. Is none of it coming off, or am I plastering myself with soap streaks? Impossible to tell. As sole judge on this bench, I rule that it must be about time to rinse. Decide to just sit down in the water. Soap container pops out of my pocket, erupts through the surface, catches a wave and moves away. No! I yell. This, and everything else, makes me laugh almost nonstop. Who knew nature intended cleanliness to be such hard work? First I couldn’t tell if the soap was going on; now I can’t tell if it’s coming off. This salt water is a curse. I am still laughing when the sun comes cresting into my tent and awakens me hours later. I don’t want to get up. I am just too cozy and warm – and clean.
First day in the public library. It feels a little like a Unitarian Church meeting. Old guys (my age plus) coming in to use the computers or their own laptops to blog, do Facebook, etc.; old women chatting endlessly around the reference/circulation/information desk (it’s not a very big library), super-friendly environment. I guess oldsters are to be expected in a sun/beach destination in autumn. It really feels cheery. I am pretty much busting my butt all day long to wrap up a 400-page journal that I kept during my last year of social work education. It has been four years since I started it, and today I post it! Fantastic! I do think being out here on the road has helped me to focus on getting that project done. I have been editing it for nearly a month now, and although I will continue to tinker with it, I finally finish it in late afternoon and am ready to leave the library and get a late lunch.
I would have been able to post that journal a half-hour earlier, but a snowbird in the library decides to share his research with me. He is an architect, working on a team that is designing enormous (e.g., two- to four-square-mile) self-contained communities. All they lack is funding. I start to feel some doubts about this project when he clues me into some of his other research. He says he just came back from giving a presentation in Minneapolis. Thanks to – what does he call it – psychic remote viewing – he was able to present what architecture will be like fifty years from now. He says people with this ability have gone back to visualize Christ on the cross . . . OK, anyway, he has just gotten a book through interlibrary loan. It costs $450 – there are only three copies available for loan in the U.S. – and it reveals the truth about things like the flying saucers that followed the Apollo spacecraft as they circled around to the far side of the moon. I am looking at this guy and thinking, Are you for real? A reminder of the importance of a philosophy course in every undergraduate education. Then I turn back to my project of blogging about life as a social work student, and I laugh. It occurs to me that, ultimately, we’re all cranks in our own ways.
It was hard to finish and post that journal in the library, and not just because of the frown on the flying saucer guy when he finally registered that I did not sound like another South Texas Republican male harping on Obama. I was working on a headache from him and project-completion stress and insufficient . . . something. Chocolate, perhaps; I ran out of milk yesterday. Alcohol . . . no, the thought of beer was actually not very appealing. But it occurred to me that what I was doing here, with the writing and the living outdoors and even the headache, was not remotely as stressful and unhappy as my year at the University of Michigan, or most of the years that preceded it, ever since I returned to higher education in 2002. Quite aside from the opportunity to talk to ordinary people, out here I’m getting sunshine and warmth. The library ladies were talking about how it’s nice to have some cooler weather – highs in the 80s today – after so much hot weather. I, meanwhile, am thinking that this was the first September in memory when the combination of cold grayness and summer post-partum depression did not plague my mood. Still not quite ready to go back indoors.
But I did go indoors long enough to have my first Whataburger. Truly, it was a large burger; and now that I have become adapted to the idea that a fast food meal can cost $8, I enjoyed it all the way through to the hot apple pie, made using a recipe very reminiscent of what I considered McDonald’s superior hot apple pies back in the 1970s. I roll out to the beach. Still a tad too hot in the direct sun; I seat myself in a trench/walkway cut through the barrier dune, at the bottom of some stairs that condo owners climb when crossing the beach to return home. I’m posted on the bottom step, partly covered by lovely white dusty sand that would grace this entire beach if it weren’t so damp and flat. I get up and apologize for my intrusion, to each passing condo owner, as he/she returns home from a day of staring out across the full blue emptiness. This, I hope, will keep them from calling the cops to evict me back out into the sunshine. Two women nearly my age materialize, pulling and then carrying a huge ice chest, laughing and falling all over themselves. “We weren’t drinking on the beach – we promise!”
October 9. Weird thing during the night. I could swear that I saw a clunker, an old Buick or something, chugging down the beach on the wrong side of the posts, out where cars are not permitted, where the driver could be running over tenters. In the morning, I walk down to the next tent north of me, maybe the equivalent of two city blocks down the line. I look inside. Guitar, all kinds of possessions, nobody home. I turn to go. Here comes this Bohemian and his woman, both about 5’5”, tanned, beach people in maybe their late 40s. They were sitting out by the waves. I ask him if he saw the clunker. No. She is sort of hiding behind him. They look like they are completely suspicious of me, like I was going to break into their tent. I’m seeing the tire tracks on the sand. He says he was up late, saw nothing. OK, I leave. Thinking that, well, of course, we’re in a resort community, you get drifters and then you get locals who are suspicious of the drifters, so of course people are not going to be very sociable. Then I pass a retired couple, walking along water’s edge. Tourists. They are beaming. She looks at me and says, “Isn’t it wonderful?” I say, “It’s really great.” She says, “It is.” Really nice to see them.
Breakfast at the gas station, with Powerball ticket, costs $3.07. Eat in the shadow of the station. Guy on bike rides up with his greyhound. Says the Gulf water is rarely as clear as it is now. Buys coffee, takes off, dog pulling him along while he drinks. My muffler sounds louder. Spend the day in the public library. This one is temperate, but I still have to remember to wear long pants in buildings in Texas. Some of these restaurants are absolutely frigid. For lunch/dinner, I grab fried chicken and potato wedges from the IGA deli counter, eat them sitting in my car, in the shade of a self-storage facility. Buy beer and read my book on the beach as the sun sets. Horrors! They have a fogger truck, just like Sterling! except that this one is running at sunset, not in the middle of the fricking night. I, myself, have hardly seen any mosquitoes. Too much of an onshore breeze.
October 10. Walk on the beach from 1 to 3 AM, looking out and thinking. That interrupts a sleep from about 8 PM to 7 AM. Brush my teeth over a trash can, as usual. Time to pull up stakes, literally: my three days in Port Aransas are over. As I’m packing the tent, here’s Jerry, a retired plastics engineer walking to the Port-A-Potty. We talk maybe 15-20 minutes. Friendly guy. He’s with the two campers and three pickups parked the equivalent of maybe two city blocks south of me, flying a pirate flag. I finish loading the car and head south along the beach, drive all the way to Corpus Christi. On the way, I stop at an empty spot. Condos over the barrier dune – they can see the Gulf, but they can’t see me. Essentially nobody here. Change into swimming shorts – same as the ones I took a bath in, which still don’t look very clean – and go sit in the waves. They’re breaking over my head in water up to my shoulders (while seated). They knock me around gently. Something about the surf just makes me laugh. Semi-cloudy day; not much worry about sunburn. Stay as long as I want. Nobody is there.
Mustang Island State Park, TX
October 10. The young woman at the entry booth is minimally friendly. Points me to the office where I have to pay for camping. The lady in the office is really not very friendly at all. Costs $15 a night for primitive camping (i.e., same as Port Aransas: Port-O-Sans on the beach). Sign as I enter: “Dangerous Rip Current – Watch Your Children.” The facilities are not impressive; Port Aransas was better. The place does have a building with showers, but it doesn’t feel very clean. They invest in the cheapest toilet paper I have seen yet – and I have seen a real variety: it is basically a paper string (i.e., as narrow as possible) that doesn’t quite have enough tensile strength to allow you to pull it off the huge roll. A part of the short road into the beachfront primitive camping area is potholed and rutted. The sandy beach road hasn’t been graded – it has bumps and dips that threaten the underside of my low-clearance Honda. When I first arrive (but not later), there are as many campers in a little space here as there were in a mile of Port Aransas beach. The beach is narrow and feels a bit trashy. Still a pretty place overall; just not at the same level as P.A. This is decidedly not a federal facility or a New Mexico state park. It feels like Texas is charging money for the parks but not plowing that money back into the parks.
I don’t have the right kind of stakes for the tent for sand. My only way of really securing the tent against a wind, here, will be to tie it to the car. There is a roaring gale, and it gets worse as the day and evening progress. Decide not to set up the tent until I come cruising back here at day’s end. For me, this park is essentially a bedroom facility. I take the bridge across the glassy inland bay, mirroring the sky’s bright blue (clouds seem to be disappearing), and spend much of the day at the Corpus Christi public library. The branch I choose is pretty, but is unfortunately located next to a set of junior and senior high schools. Signs on the library restrooms indicate that the restrooms are locked from 3:30 to 5:30 daily due to vandalism. I see why: kids talking at the tables labeled “quiet zone”; kids yelling outside; kids in and out of the library, concerned with the things that are important in junior high. Part of me says that I was that way, when I was a kid; part of me says that kids in other cultures (e.g., Scandinavia) do it differently, and better. The security guard is OK with the kids, but confronts me for using my laptop in the lobby (to talk on Google Voice).
I bail out, go to a Taco Bell. Have I been outdoors too long? In one fast-food place after another, I notice this incredibly high noise level. This one is the worst. There is a piercing alarm going. It runs for what must have been about ten minutes. I ask the counter girl if she can please turn it off. She says she doesn’t really know where it’s coming from. It runs for another several minutes – long enough for me to use their WiFi to complain to Taco Bell headquarters. I go back to the library. Oops: it is closing just as I arrive. Now what? I drive to Padre Island National Seashore. I’ll get to that part of the story in a minute. But from there, I go back to Mustang Island, set up the tent just as the sun is setting, go for a walk, go to sleep. I figure out that the delusions of crazy late-night drivers are probably my own disorientation in the tent in the middle of the night, because it happens again: I somehow get the impression that there must be another highway on the other side of the tent, when it’s actually just one or two cars driving by in the middle of the night on the beach road. Get up at 3 AM, run for an hour, walk for a while, go back to sleep. Up at maybe 7:30; take a shower. First real shower since Sterling – woo hoo!
October 11. The Padre Island visit yesterday afternoon took me as far as the gate. There was a sign, indicating that the park was closed. I could have gone on in, but might have gotten into trouble, and to what end? I wasn’t about to camp there. It was eight to ten miles in the wrong direction, along a pretty, lonesome two-lane highway, just to get to the park sign. I needed to be back to set up the tent before it got dark.
As I viewed the “park closed” sign, it occurred to me that my trip was over. My original trip plan had me going this far, and then driving back home. To be sure, I had considered return routes through Dallas, Houston, even Miami. But it occurred to me that there was another fact about my arrival at Padre Island entrance, and that is that today, October 11, is the day before my birthday.
I was a bit burned out on camping. I mean, not camping in pretty, solitary places, and also not burned out on sleeping in a tent. But here, I was close enough to the surf (which itself was nice) to have the mist and salt and sand blast onto the tent and drift inside. I’ve slept with and on sand before, but this mix didn’t seem inclined to let go. Everything is gummy. With the wind, I was going to have to take down the tent anyway, and set it back up at day’s end; we didn’t want another Chase Lake experience of having the thing blow over hill and dale.
I don’t know. It all felt like a hassle. I was paying $15 a day to sit on a beach and look at a small surf under a darkening sky (scattered thunderstorms forecast for the next week! ) without a picnic table shelter or even a picnic table, nobody to talk to, 15 miles from the library or anything else. In a way, it was like being back in Thompson Grove, the only other camping location that I had really not enjoyed.
I guess my mood had changed with the onset of gray weather. I had achieved my mission, which was to get to Padre Island, or as near as Congress would let me, along a circular route that would put me here not too early and not too late. The government shutdown was looking like it might end — but not until the following week, sometime in the middle of the thunderstorms.
In retrospect, this trip turned out to be much more complicated than a person might have expected at the outset. I could have reduced much of that complexity with a better vehicle and a preset plan, though of course the latter would have hampered the spirit of exploration.
I did a map comparing my anticipated and actual mileage. By the map, a straight drive would have taken 2,010 miles. That would have included a substantial loop through New Mexico. Worries about the car and advancing temperatures (and the well-advised detour to Lake Meredith) called for a more direct route down through west Texas. Even so, the actual mileage, from Fayetteville to Corpus Christi, was 3,161 – about 50% more than the map would have suggested. Funny how those little side trips add up.
So anyway, I decided the trip was over. Corpus Christi was as far as I had specifically wanted to go. It wasn’t like I was ready to die, happy or otherwise; it was just that I did not yet have a plan for whatever might come after. It was time to be 58 and to begin a new phase of my life. What that might entail, I really couldn’t say.