We Finally Made A Plan

We like to cultivate an air of mystery.  People often ask us, “where are you now?”  “In our RV,” we will reply, mysteriously.  It’s a solid gag, but to be honest, we really do hate planning or doing anything to restrict our future selves.  (Gotta leave room for laziness.)

But we did it:  we finally made a plan!  Our goal of meeting up with people on the road, along with the grim reality of National Park reservations, meant we could put off our strategery no longer.  Of course, because we didn’t actually make any reservations yet, or even research any of this, everything is still subject to change.

Nonetheless, the first step is the hardest, so please enjoy our soaring, graceful leap into a marginally structured life.

Check out the itinerary below, slightly vague for our own protection, and let us know if you’d like to meet up anywhere.  (We’re getting rather good at sightseeing.)  Our hope is to visit as many national parks as possible before the trip ends or we run out of money, because this country’s national parks are amazing.

Since you’re probably now wondering, the tentative end of our road trip is September/October 2016.  Final destination still TBD.  After, we’ll have to head back to work, relying once again on our wit and our skills to make it to the top.

The Plan

last updated March 29, 2016

We’re nearly at the end of March.  We’re finishing up in the Bay Area, then heading north to check out the redwoods in northern California / southern Oregon.  That should take about two weeks.

For the rest of April, we’ll be swinging up the coast to Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver.  There’s lots of good stuff along the way, including Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park.  (Here’s hoping we don’t have to ford any rivers to get there.)

In May, we’ll head southeast and drive a circuit around Utah, visiting Salt Lake City and the many, many national parks in this area, including the Grand Canyon, Zion, Canyonlands, and Arches.  Should be a pretty good month.

In June, we’ll keep the nature rolling by driving north into Wyoming, visiting the Grand Tetons before spending two weeks at Yellowstone National Park (hopefully).

In July, we’ll head even farther north to Glacier National Park, where we will meet up with family (also hopefully) forbiddingly far from civilization.  We’ll also explore the rest of Montana and the “Duelin’ Dakotas,” as they’re probably known.

In August, we’d like to visit whatever is scenic in Minnesota and Wisconsin, including Madison and Milwaukee.  From there, we’ll drop down to our old friend, Chicago, and… well, here’s where things get really hazy (read: unplanned).  We may continue on to a few more adventures (bourbon distilleries in Kentucky?  Florida Keys with an RV?), but at some point we have to return to mundane life.

Where that will be?  Hard to say.  Could be somewhere old, could be someplace new.

As we said, it’s TBD.

Cheers from your friends in full-time teamwork,

Jake and Heather

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Week 24: A Forest of Stone

One of our goals of our road trip is to see all the cool stuff you always hear about, but rarely get to see.  Lots of people visit the Grand Canyon in their lifetimes, but how many go to Death Valley?  (a million people per year, actually)  Well, a big item on our road trip bucket list was seeing the Petrified Forest in northern Arizona, the next stop on our tour after Albuquerque.  The idea always just amazed us – wood that turned to stone?!

So we checked it out, and we have to say, petrified wood is pretty cool, but it may have been a little too high on our bucket list.  That said, the park has more than just petrified wood, and is definitely worth visiting.

Mmm, Dessert

We entered Petrified Forest National Park off interstate I-40 (easiest national park to get to ever), which started us in the northern half of the park.  This area doesn’t have petrified wood; instead, it’s a preserved part of Arizona’s Painted Desert, a huge stretch of beautifully colored badlands in northern Arizona.  (Badlands is the term for when the area is dry, hilly, and covered with ridges like bunched up fabric.)

The terrain was mostly flat, so we could see for miles in every direction from the overlooks.  With bright colors and numerous striations in an otherwise featureless desert, it was extraordinarily scenic. Reminds us of the surface of Mars (probably).

While exploring the Painted Desert, we stopped at the Painted Desert Inn, which is now owned by the park service and serves as an art gallery.  (It’s also home to an extremely lucky artist-in-residence!)  The upper floor features a preserved 1950’s style diner that we found pretty groovy.

Downstairs, we found a single room with some cheese and crackers set out.  A lonely-looking volunteer employee told us that the park service was having a party for the whateverth anniversary of the Inn, but it seemed like they forgot to send out any invitations.  (Or maybe it had something to do with being a Tuesday afternoon in December in the empty part of Arizona.)

The volunteer proceeded to talk at us for a while, in a heartfelt but misguided attempt teach us about a local historical figure we have definitely since forgotten.  [Ed. note – we think it was this guy]  We were too polite to interrupt, but we got to eat a lot of cheese while they rambled, so all in all it turned out pretty well.

Mmm, More Dessert

After admiring the scenery in the Painted Desert, we drove back over the interstate to the Petrified Forest proper.  There were some petroglyphs along the way, but we couldn’t get any good pictures of them.  Honestly, after Gila, Albuquerque, and Bandelier, we were feeling petroglyphed-out, so we moved on quickly.

There are petroglyphs all over these rocks, but it was hard to see them.

The scenery continued to be beautiful, subtly changing from area to area but still maintaining a stark beauty.  We saw the pinks and reds of the Painted Desert shift to blues, purples and grays in the next section of the park, where the ancient Blue Mesa rock formations can be found.

Hard Woods

We soon came to the Petrified Forest.  Cool fact time!  The trees that created this petrified wood fell more than two hundred million years, then became encased in silt and volcanic ash.  Over millions of years, silica leeched into the trees via the groundwater, replacing the organic core with solid rock.  They still look just like wood from the outside, but it’s pure stone.

Break off the bark or look from the side, and you can see that the rings have been fully replaced, sometimes with dazzling colors.  Interestingly, the crystalline structure of petrified wood causes it to cleanly break apart into round sections.  Although it’s the hand of nature, it looks for all the world like two people with an old-timey saw went through and cut it into pieces!

Petrified Forest National Park features a huge variety of petrified wood, although it’s not the only place it can be found.  In fact, there used to be much more wood at the Petrified Forest, but people have been stealing it for over a century.  Luckily, plenty remains, including some really huge pieces that would be rather… difficult to acquire.  The largest weighs 44 tons.

As a final note, you may have noticed a lot of crow pictures in the galleries.  Well, aside from being easy to photograph, crows were everywhere in the park, and not remotely afraid of humans.  Crows: the squirrels of the desert?

Extra Credit

While visiting Petrified Forest National Park, we stayed in Holbrook, Arizona.  The RV park was fine, although a little odd.  The attendant was friendly, and we definitely were taken care of hookup-wise, since each spot had row after row of sewer connections.  This is pretty weird because we really could only ever use 1; it felt a little like getting 20 calculators to “help” take a math test.

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Still in Napa, California, writing a million blog posts.

Next location?  Somewhere northwest of here, probably Arcata or Eureka, CA, to see more redwoods and do a little maintenance on our car and RV.

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Week 23: That Albuquerque Sun

We left behind Truth and/or Consequences, and traveled north, to Al… Al…buquerque! We first spent the day shooting our holiday card photos in Elephant Butte State Park, so we didn’t make it into Albuquerque until nightfall.  This was when we learned the iron law of the high desert:  it gets really cold at night.

Like, 70 degrees becomes freezing.

Hooking up our RV with gloves and a winter hat on, we suddenly realized:  we made a huge mistake.  The sunny, warm climate of El Paso was gone.  It was December in Albuquerque, and as we later discovered, Albuquerque is at a higher elevation than Denver.   The winter just got real.

The Wrong Amount of Sun

The days were still warm, but night came to our little metal box with a vengeance.  Freezing our butts off is definitely not what we expected out of New Mexico, land of sand dunes and chili peppers.  To make matters worse, we were parked west of the city, and the short winter days meant the sun was constantly setting into our eyes as we drove home.

For whatever reason, Albuquerque’s highways are designed so this is especially brutal.  It’s a lot of staring straight into the sun, but we have to say, the long highway curves that bring you from dim light into blinding death at high speed are a particularly nice touch.  We thought we had escaped winter this year by fleeing to the Southwest – but we didn’t flee far enough.

It constantly put us in mind of this classic Simpsons quote:  “Ever since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun!

Oh well, no use crying over spilt milk, even if the milk was probably spilled due to being blinded by the goddamn Albuquerque sun.  Now, let’s put aside our seasonal rage and move on to the good stuff.  Luckily, there was a lot of that too!

Real Americans

After seeing the Gila Cliff Dwellings, which were cool but not life-changing, we found ourselves wanting more.  Continuing on the Native American theme, we stopped to see petroglyphs in Albuquerque.  Petroglyph National Monument is in a volcanic crater literally surrounded by the suburbs, but somehow it was awesome.  If you like petroglyphs, this is the mother lode – there are more than 20,000 in this area!

We don’t have a picture, but one looks just like a bullseye, despite being created more than 400 years ago.   In more modern times, someone added a bullet hole to it.

We also drove north/northeast from Albuquerque into the mountains, past Los Alamos, the government research lab that designed the atomic bomb.  The lab is still in operation, and with all the apparently-rich scientists (?), the houses in the town of Los Alamos were conspicuously nice (let alone the super contemporary visitor center).  Sidenote: We were on to something; according to Wikipedia, “Los Alamos has the highest millionaire concentration of any US city with 12.4 percent of households having at least $1 million in assets.”

We kept moving, and after the requisite switchbacking, we arrived at Bandelier National Monument.  It’s located in pristine forest wilderness, minus the occasional Los Alamos satellite dish or two, and features a beautiful rocky cliff face with numerous round dwelling spaces inside.  These were smaller than the town-sized rooms at Gila, more like large storage areas, which is basically what they were.  Occupied by the Pueblo people, there is evidence of human habitation at Bandelier from as long as 10,000 years ago.

The iconic National Park Service images of Bandelier always show the ladders.  Well, we climbed them in real life.  The biggest ladders lead to the largest and highest alcove, are definitely not recommended for those scared of heights, and are very, very cool.

This Tent is a-Rocking

A hidden treasure, the slot canyon trail at the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks was one of our favorites hikes of all time.  The trail winds through a long, narrow slot canyon, shrinking and growing continuously.  It was our first experience in a true slot canyon, and we loved it.

After traversing the canyon, we climbed steeply up to an overlook of the canyon and the eponymous tent rocks.  These rocks (also called “hoodoos”) are eroded away by wind in unusual formations, here forming large pyramid shapes that do look a little like tents.  (Some also seem, um, anatomical.)  It weathers this way because compared to the rest of the pillar, the rock on top is extra hard.  (No comment.)

We really enjoyed the hike.  The tent rocks and the beautiful view were the cherry on top after the trip through the slot canyon.  Definitely a good one!

A Tale of Two Cities

All of our Albuquerque adventures (save the one below) were nature-related, because there wasn’t a ton going on in the city.  Everyone lives outside of the urban core, so when we went downtown on the weekend, it was deserted – hardly anything was even open.  We then tried to visit the touristy shopping area, but a parade blocked every possible path between there and us.  Sometimes, you just have to listen to the universe and let it go.

An hour away from Albuquerque, Santa Fe had a lot more going on, even though its population is much smaller.  Santa Fe is very old, and very pretty, with all the houses in an adobe Pueblo-style.  And it’s got a lot of culture:  there is an entire, very nifty, street of art galleries.

We drove around for a bit and had a semi-famous green chile cheeseburger (New Mexico is famous for its red and green chiles).  We can confirm, it was mouth-wateringly worthy.

Honestly, we really liked Santa Fe, but it’s not the kind of place we would ever move to – the elevation effect is just too much.  What’s the elevation, you ask?  Oh, just a little ways up:  7,200 feet!

Never mind, Santa Fe.

Up and Atom

Found on Yelp, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History was surprisingly great.  It had a huge amount of information on the U.S. and world nuclear programs, including numerous artifacts.  A lot of it related to the Manhattan project and the incredible effort taken to build the first nuclear bombs.  The resource uses were mind-blowing.

There were also replicas of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, along with a fair and haunting exhibit showing the devastation they caused when they exploded.  Sad all around.  But after that, things got more cheerful, as we headed outside to check out their large display of combat aircraft.

The best part is that the New Mexico airplane identifier is the “Tacos.”  Amazing.

There were also a lot of exhibits dedicated to the dawning of the Atomic Age and its place in pop culture (including the Simpsons!).  Lots of good, extremely cheesy stuff in here.  Our personal favorites, both funny and sad, were the numerous consumer items created from or containing uranium or radium, due to the purported health benefits.

As it turned out the “benefit” was radiation poisoning.  Oops!

Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Napa, California.  Drinky drinky!

Next location?  Somewhere northwest of here, probably Arcata or Eureka, CA, to see more redwoods and do a little maintenance on our car and RV.

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Week 22.1: White Sands

While staying at Elephant Butte Lake State Park, we took a day trip to White Sands National Monument, and it was such a cool and crazy place that we decided it deserved its own blog post.  But rather than try to list all the fun facts about White Sands, we’re going to… wait, actually, that list thing sounds like a good idea.  So easy!

OK, here’s a list of fun facts about White Sands:

  • White Sands National Monument is located inside the military’s White Sands Missile Range. Approximately once a week, although not while we were there, the road leading to White Sands is closed for missile testing.
  • The dunes at White Sands are bright white because they’re not made of regular beach sand, but instead are made of gypsum. As we nerdily learned from the visitor’s center, a “sand” designation is based on the size of the grains involved, not the material they are made from.
  • Gypsum sand dissolves in water, and is freakishly cool to the touch. Even on a warm day in direct sunlight, the sand felt like it was probably around 50F.  In bare feet, which was the optimal choice for playing on the dunes, it was kind of cold.
  • The dunes are enormous, and they stretch for miles. You can drive around between the sand dunes, like driving between little mountains.
  • It’s really easy to take awesome pictures of sand dunes. Their lines are so sharp and clean, and the natural shapes they form are endlessly fascinating.  (We have a lot of these!)

To make it even cooler, just as we were leaving the park, a GIGANTIC moon started to rise over the dunes.  It looked surreal.  And huge.


There aren’t really “sights” to see or trails to hike at White Sands.  There’s a little boardwalk, but it wasn’t very interesting.  Mostly, you just walk around and do whatever you feel like.  So we went sledding!


(Link for mobile)

We tried, but it turned out that sand sledding is pretty hard.  (It didn’t help that we accidentally purchased the “child-size” sled.)  We eventually got it working, more or less, when we found a really steep slope.

Really, though, all that is just a lead-up to this gif of Jake attempting to sled, getting stuck, and… gracefully… continuing on:

(Link for mobile)


Roadtrip Status

Still alive?  Check.

Where are you now?  Napa, California.  Drinky drinky!

Next location?  Somewhere northwest of here, probably Arcata or Eureka, CA, to see more redwoods and do a little maintenance on our car and RV.

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Weeks 21-22: Facing the Truth or Consequences

After spending several weeks retooling our RV in El Paso, it was finally time to get back on the road. Our first destination? The oddly-named town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The town was originally named “Hot Springs,” but it changed its name in 1950 to win a radio show contest. The show has long since ended, of course, but the town kept the name anyway.

A real marketing success, if you think about it.

We visited the town and had some “mind-blowing” waffles (according to Jake), then wandered around. It’s a strange place in a good way, with random incredibly-pink and purple buildings, and a window covered with cassette tapes.  (We forgot to get a picture, but here is one by someone else.)  There were a lot of shops but we have no idea what they are like, since at around 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning, almost everything was closed, and wouldn’t open until noon. (Or “noon-ish.”) Retail was apparently suffering a hangover.

As for the hot springs baths in the former Hot Springs, which are supposed to be quite enjoyable, we’re sorry to report we never tried them. We fully planned on it, but then, we kinda just forgot?

Whoops!  What can we say, we do a lot of stuff.


Our campground during our stay in Truth or Consequences was Elephant Butte Lake State Park. “Butte” here is supposed to be pronounced like “She’s a beaut,” and not like “Elephant butt,” but to be honest, we pretty much called it “elephant butt” the whole time we were there. I mean, how could you not??

Anyway, it’s a popular destination, and for good reason. The lake itself is large and very pretty, and very man-made – not many natural lakes in this part of New Mexico, we reckon – and the lake is surrounded by scenic-looking mountains (the “buttes”). Our RV parking spot was more or less right on top of the lake, and the view was fantastic.

Before and since, it’s the most beautiful place we have parked. The sunsets were glorious.

There was one quirky aspect to the view, though. Imagine a beautiful lake with beaches and sand, glistening in the sun.  Picture it in your head. Nice, right? OK, now, just sprinkle some port-a-potties around out there.

Yeah, you read that right.  Just mentally drop them right out there by the water, or maybe in a nice scenic area. That’s how they do it at Elephant Butte Lake.

At first, we thought the restrooms were ugly, and probably a little unnecessary, since we never even saw one get used (and there were many). But in time, we came to appreciate: these are the most majestic port-a-potties we will ever see.

This must be what port-a-potty heaven looks like.

We Are The Ones Doing The Knocking

Portable facilities aside, we liked the view at Elephant Butte Lake so much that we decided to shoot our Breaking Bad-themed holiday cards there.

Not with a view of the port-a-potties, of course.  Those were carefully avoided.

It’s March, so this is dumb, but: Happy Holidays 2015!

The shoot entailed driving out on one of the park’s dirt roads with our RV to what we hoped was a quiet spot. Then, we put on our costumes: santa hats, hazmat suits, gloves, goggles, and fake respirators. We set up a tripod, mounted the camera, and… wasted 20 minutes trying to figure out how to trigger the image remotely using our phones (while wearing goggles and santa hats, mind you).

We eventually gave up and just had Jake trigger the 10-second timer, then run back down the hill in his hazmat suit into a pose.  (Many poses.)

It turned out pretty awesomely, even if some of the resulting scenes were… strange. (We may have been practicing our rap poses a few times.) Three different cars ended up driving by the road while we were doing our photo shoot. Two of them were curious about what we were doing, then laughed and drove on when we said it was “for our holiday card” (why does that make it OK?).

The third driver stared straight down at the ground the entire way. As he drove past the two people wearing hazmat suits and respirators and Santa hats, with an RV, taking pictures on a dirt road in a state park in the desert. We aren’t exactly sure what that driver thought might be going down, but we are pretty sure he thought it would only be real if he acknowledged it.

Switches Get Stitches

While staying in “T or C” (as they say), we took a “day” trip to see the Gila Cliff Dwellings.  During this trip, we learned two important things.  First of all, we naïve Northeasterners learned that Western states are insanely gimungous (real word) (probably). It was 117 miles to the cliff dwellings, each way, which is a pretty normal distance for things to be apart in New Mexico.

Second, we learned that there are LOTS of mountains in New Mexico.  So many mountains!  Just mountains everywhere, really, and switchback roads going back and forth, up and down them, forever.

And those two reasons are how it took us almost four hours to go that 117 miles to the cliff dwellings.  Granted, we stopped to take some pictures on various mountains – and one mountain pass – but mostly we just switched back.  And back.  And back.  And back again.

For 117 miles.

After gawking at the snow capped mountains and pine trees of New Mexico, we finally made it to the cliff dwellings.  Set in a steep-sided, lush forest valley, 10-15 Mogollan families at a time lived in these caves, for hundreds of years, before every resident mysteriously departed in the 1300s. We wandered around inside the larger caves, marveling at the building and the black ceilings (due to soot from the fires).

We have to say, they certainly picked a good spot: the view looking out from the caves was amazing.

On our way back, since the sun was setting, we decided to take a less adventurous route.  Well… turns out that we could have easily just driven most of the way to the cliff dwellings on a highway, if only we had come from a different direction.  And not just any roads, but classic New Mexico super-straight, totally empty highways.

So, our recommendation:  see the Gila cliff dwellings, but don’t come from the east.


What’s now:  We are in Mariposa, California, right outside Yosemite National Park.  Beautiful and Internet-scarce.

What’s next:  Drinking wine in Napa!  We have a rough life.

Obligatory social media self-promotion:  If you want to follow along and you haven’t yet, please Like us on Facebook and/or follow us on Twitter (@NothingMundane) and/or Instagram (NothingMundane) to make sure you get all the updates.  They aren’t three months behind like these blog posts!

Shamefully missed a prior post?  We made a list of the most recent ones, just for you.  To see every road trip blog post, click here.


Weeks 18-21 (ish): Docked in El Paso

After a week in Marfa – and an epic day in Big Bend – we continued on to our final stop in Texas:  El Paso.  A mere 850 miles from the eastern edge of the state, El Paso is on the border with both New Mexico and Regular Mexico, and it’s a pretty big city.  Driving in from Marfa, a town with a population of 2,000, the change was jarring – like returning to civilization after living in the desert (which is accurate).  We also went from sleepy, empty highways to a busier world, with much narrower lanes.

Luckily, we managed to avoid slamming our 12,000 pound house into anybody or anything, and soon enough, we made it to our home for almost all of November:  Jake’s mom’s house.  Basically, we parked our RV there while borrowing her electricity, sweet sweet Internet, and power tools.  We have since learned that the RV term of art for this type of visit is “moochdocking,” and we moochdocked to full effect.  Along the way, we made some upgrades, met some great people, and really got to know the layout of Home Depot.


Apart from visiting Jake’s mom (whom we will call Ginny from here on out to make things a little easier), our main goal in El Paso was to make a few small DIY modifications to our RV.  One quick week, we thought, which stretched into 10 days… then two weeks… and then three.  We won’t rehash all the upgrades we made, since you can check out our blog post on the renovations for pictures and the blow-by-blow.  Suffice it to say that we made a lot of trips to Home Depot and Lowe’s (so many trips!), ordered a lot of things from Amazon (so many things!), and took over all of the unused space in Ginny’s house (we are so messy!).

It was even worse than you might think, actually, since Ginny has been graciously storing all of our “old life” stuff in boxes in her garage.  We started ripping those boxes open on the very first day we got to El Paso, but didn’t exactly get around to cleaning them back up until the end.

It was basically this Simpsons gif:

Thanks again!


Aside from our daily work on the RV, our biggest activity in El Paso involved art.  We went to multiple galleries, including shows featuring impressive work by Ginny, her friend Karla (already wisely following Nothing Mundane), and the talented and unusually-named Random.  We saw was some really great work, and Heather even got to contribute a cool little painting of her own.

The best part of these shows was not just the pieces, however, but the extremely friendly people.  We’ve been to a lot of very friendly places on this trip, but El Paso might have been the friendliest of all.  Everywhere we went, we were treated fantastically well – not just with the sometimes sharp-elbowed politeness of the South, but real, genuine niceness.  In fact, at every gallery we went to, we were invited by total strangers to numerous other events, including parties, shows, and even an artistic hairstyling gallery event (!) which we were sadly unable to attend.

Stylin’.  via GIPHY


Separate and apart from the visual feast described above, we undertook a lot of actual feasting in El Paso.   We had great BBQ at the State Line restaurant (on the border between Texas and New Mexico), including bread with honey butter we are drooling about as we write this post.  We grabbed gorditas from the Little Diner, an amazing local hole-in-the-wall (“Make Gorditas, not war!”).  And Jake had an incredible burger from a local restaurant, Angry Owl, which came with tongue-melting ghost pepper cheese.  Ghost peppers, if you don’t know, were once the hottest peppers in the world, and rate at over 1,000,000 SHUs (400x higher than Tabasco sauce).  “A delicious mistake,” he said, through his tears.

Of course, we also had lots of great homemade meals, since Ginny is an excellent cook, including an unnecessary but oh-so-necessary amount of bacon for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner.  Mmm, bacon.  And to top our stay off, we were treated to an awesome Thanksgiving meal every bit as good as it looks.


There was lots more than food and art, of course.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to do much hiking, but we did enjoy wandering around downtown El Paso and taking pictures of some of the local landmarks.  (Ginny has many more.)

We got to play with the “DIGIE-wall,” which is a wall composed of large outdoor touchscreens that displays information about El Paso.   The digie-wall was pretty cool; you can swipe around to see the geography of the city, check out local attractions and historical information, and take washed-out photos of your group.  Mostly, we were impressed by the moxie of the local business that somehow uploaded billboards for itself into nearly every corner of (virtual) El Paso.

What else… We tried an Escape Room, which we failed pretty spectacularly.  Oh, and you know how we mentioned digging into our boxes on our first day there?  Well, it was Halloween, and since Jake had an old costume in storage, he decided to dig it out…


What’s now:  We just finished a week in Pinnacles National Park and Monterey, California, including a harrowing three days without Internet.  Technically, we survived.

What’s next:  San Francisco, and then Yosemite National Park.  Semi-winter hiking, here we come…

Obligatory social media self-promotion:  If you want to follow along and you haven’t yet, please Like us on Facebook and/or follow us on Twitter (@NothingMundane) and/or Instagram (NothingMundane) to make sure you get all the updates.  Your technical survival is assured!

Shamefully missed a prior post?  We made a list of the most recent ones, just for you.  To see every road trip blog post, click here.


Week 17.1: Around The Big Bend

We talked in our last blog post about our week in Marfa, a cool desert art town in the middle of nowhere, but our day trip from Marfa to Big Bend National Park deserved its own post.  Big Bend is a remote desert wonderland, a giant wilderness preserve chock full of crazy mountains, beautiful vistas, and incredible surprises.

It’s so spectacular, it nearly made us sick.

Location, Location, Location

Let’s start with location: to say Big Bend is “remote” does not do it justice.  The park is about 100 miles south of Marfa, which we have already established is in the middle of nowhere, so it is fair to say that Big Bend is 100 miles south of the middle of nowhere.  You might call it the edge of nowhere.

The edge of the edge of nowhere is the Rio Grande, which is also the U.S.-Mexico border.  The other edges are desert.  There are few roads that lead to Big Bend, and the closest airport of any size is in El Paso.  The closest “city” is Alpine, Texas, population 6,000, about an hour away.  As you will see, the only nearby town, Terlingua, is part ghost.

Suffice it to say, getting to Big Bend is not an easy task, and we saw few other people when we visited (probably less than 100 total).  Adding to the feeling of isolation is the park’s huge size:  about 800,000 acres, slightly larger than Rhode Island.  Unlike Rhode Island, of course, there are no cool hippy markets or walks along fabulous oceanside mansions, but on the plus side, there are a lot of bears.

Wait.  Is that really a plus?

Ye Olde Ghost Towne

Our first stop on the way to Big Bend was at Terlingua, a ghost town with a twist.  Terlingua was once a mining community, before it went bust, and the ruins of the town still remain, slowly decaying in the desert.  Spooky ghost town graveyard?  Sign us up.

Terlingua’s twist is that some flesh-and-blood humans still live there, right alongside the ruins.  These hardy folk provide services to park entrants and visitors to the edge of nowhere, running a few restaurants, a cafe, and a gift shop.  We might have thought they were ghosts too, but no ghost would have the gumption to charge $4.50 for a large iced coffee.  (We would have been mad except that the coffee was delicious, and also, there were no alternatives within 60 miles.)

One of the few shops in town is an art gallery, and surprisingly (?), they had some cool sculptures on display outside.  Our favorite was a piece called “Blow Out Survivor,” which the accompanying text explained was created from the melted remains of a natural gas well that caught fire.  It burned for three days, and at the end, portions of the crankshaft, engine, and gearing were fused together.

We don’t have a gas well, but we were reliant on modern engineering, in the form of our poor Honda Fit.  The question of whether it would be “blowout” or “survivor” was yet to come.

Bear Patrol

After we had finished being gouged by the local merchants, we headed into the park itself.  On the way in, we got to live the dream of anyone who has ever visited a National Park:  we bought a National Parks Pass!  $80 for one years’ free access to every federal park and national monument.  Access fees are normally $10-$25, so it’s a decent deal if you plan to visit 4 or more parks in a year.  It’s an extraordinarily great deal if you do something crazy like, say, quitting your job to travel around in an RV for a year.

And so, pass in hand, we were ready to Big Bend it like Beckham.  As we mentioned before, the park is massive, but there are essentially three distinct regions:  mountain, desert, and river.  Part of the charm lies in how they all pile up on top of each other, particularly the mountains and the desert.

The remainder of the charm is how stinking beautiful it all is.

Our first stop was at the visitor center, located in the mountains.  We had planned our trip to Big Bend the way we usually plan things – which is to say, not at all – so we asked about the hikes and the best places to see.  While there, we noticed a map on the wall with lots of yellow sticky notes:

The sticky notes turned out to be recent bear sightings.  We ended up doing the Lost Mine hike, which is relatively short but offers an amazing view of the nearby valleys.  As you can see, the hike also was smack dab in the middle of a field of bear-related post-it notes, but we trusted to blind luck and nobody got mauled, not even a little.  There was a tense moment where we heard leaves rustling right next to us on the trail – a moment in which we considered whether cacti could be used as a weapon – but it just turned out to be a family of deer.

After catching our breath and cursing Bambi, we continued up the trail and were treated to some spectacular views.

However, the Lost Mine hike is where we discovered one of the iron laws of hiking:  if you ever start to feel like a badass, for example by hiking up a mountain full of bears 100 miles south of the middle of nowhere, you will immediately be disabused of that notion.  In this case, it was via the couple that passed us, with an infant strapped to their back, hardly breaking a sweat.

We really wanted to ask why you would ever bring a baby to Big Bend, but they seemed like they knew what they were doing.  Instead we just had them take a picture of us, shortly before before they continued on the trail and we wussed out and headed back.  Thanks guys!

Just Deserts

After a picnic lunch, we headed down out of the mountains and began exploring the rest of the park.  Or, at least, the small slice of it we could see in one day.  For two people raised in the temperate Northeast, the desert sights were fascinating.

Colorful mountains and cacti!

Endless wilderness!

Road runners! (!!!)

It’s nearly impossible to capture the grandeur and the magic of Big Bend; whatever you’re picturing, it’s much cooler than that.

Unfortunately, we ran into a small, slightly murderous issue.  A day that started off comfortably warm, around 70 degrees, continued to grow hotter as the sun progressed across the sky.  By mid-afternoon it was approximately 90 degrees, and even though the park is mostly traversed by car, we had spent a deceptively long amount of time walking around at each of the different stops.

Dehydration is always a special concern in the desert, because of the heat and the sun, but it can sneak up on you.  Your sweat evaporates so quickly in the intensely dry air that you don’t realize you’re sweating.  We had brought two Nalgene bottles full of water, but they were draining at an alarming rate, and the extreme size of the park meant that we were miles away from refilling stations.

Oh, and remember how we mentioned we don’t always super-plan ahead?  Yeah, well, it’s normally fine, but every once in a while, it really bites us in the ass.  This was one of those times, because we stupidly split a bottle of wine the night before we went to Big Bend.  There was probably a good reason for it, like being a Monday, but we were definitely a bit dehydrated before we ever arrived.  Combine with the sun and the heat and that oh-so-dry air, and you’re gonna have a bad time.

Well, one of us, anyway.  We both have our strengths and weaknesses:  Jake doesn’t get blisters or sunburns, and he can open jars, but he’s bad with heights, or anything requiring “stamina” or “dexterity.”  Heather is pale like a ghost and can’t reach the top of our cabinets, but she’s graceful and a trooper, and, as it turns out, immune to dehydration.  So she continued driving and taking photos of the beautiful landscape, as Jake slowly curled into a ball in the passenger seat.

We did eventually get more water, at one of the park’s campgrounds – after first refilling a bottle from a bathroom faucet with water so awful-tasting, it must not have been potable – but it was a little too late, and things were progressing from bad to worse.  Our final stop of the day was the beautiful Santa Elena Canyon, split by the Rio Grande and therefore standing in both the United States and Mexico.  Heather wanted to ford the river for more photos, but the shadows were growing long, so we decided to head back.

A Bump In The Night

Just one problem:  actually getting back.

You see, the Big Bend scenic drive is about 45 miles long, and although it looks like a loop, the paved part ends at Santa Elena.  The final leg of the loop is actually a dirt road, recommended for four-wheel drive cars only, although a ranger had told us regular cars (like our Fit) drive on it all the time.  There’s no other exit there, so the only options were to drive an hour back the way we came to the park entrance, or take a short, 12-mile drive over Old Maverick Road, which is unpaved.  (lower left on this map)

With Jake feeling really awful, we picked the dirt road.  Let us advise you if you ever visit Big Bend and face a similar scenario:  do not pick the dirt road.  Why, you ask?  Well, it’s more like a “loose fist-sized rocks” road, and every single one of the twelve million bumps will (1) cause you to think your tires are going to explode, just like that gas well in Terlingua, leaving you stranded in the desert emptiness; and (2) make your sick passenger’s stomach do flipflops, to the point where you both begin to wonder whether throwing up in a National Park is a violation of federal littering laws.

Oh, and because the road is in such horrible condition, your max speed will be something like 10 miles per hour, meaning that the route is actually slower than just driving back on the well-maintained, non-tire-exploding scenic drive.  Except you’re also racing the setting sun, because the only thing more difficult than driving on that spin cycle of a road is doing it in the all-encompassing darkness of night in a desert National Park located 100 miles south of the middle of nowhere.

Not to spoil the ending, but we did eventually make it out alive, thanks to Heather’s skillful driving, a Honda Fit that didn’t quit, and our old friend, blind luck.  Plus, Jake avoided littering in a National Park!  Once we made it back to Terlingua, some general store aspirin and Pepto Bismol set him right as rain, and the drive back was smooth sailing (emphasis on smooth).

We finished off a looooong day with food from the Sonic Burger in the big city of Alpine, tired but happy.  Big Bend is an extraordinary place, but it will likely be a long time before we go back – which is just fine with Jake.


What’s now:  We are leaving Morro Bay to visit Pinnacles National Park.  Another notch for the National Parks Pass!

What’s next:  We’ve got a few short stays planned, because everything in California is brutally expensive.  Monterey (and Big Sur), San Francisco, and then YOSEMITE!

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