“The mountains are calling and I must go”, John Muir wrote in a letter to his sister in 1873, and after being in the Sierra Nevada mountains for the last few weeks, I can understand how he felt.
By mid-June, Chris and his hiking bubble had completed 25% of the trail, ending the “desert” portion of the trail. Starting June 14, he hiked out of Kennedy Meadows South, and began traversing the southern Sierra mountains. This part of the trail included the longest stretch of the trail with no access to resupply points, and no cell coverage. I camped with him at Cottonwood Meadow Campground, up in the Alabama Hills just west of Death Valley and the little town of Lone Pine on 395, and brought him a giant Subway sandwich and enough dry foods for eight days of hiking. Which makes a really heavy pack! When he left the next morning, he began the trek to get to the top of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US.
Chris set off in late April to hike the PCT, hopefully in its entirety (2,650 miles). Visiting some friends and family along the way, he was able to leave our car with our friend Touch in San Diego, and arrived at the start of the PCT on the night of May 3rd. Months before, he had applied for a PCT permit, and had a start date of May 4 at Campo, on the California/Mexico border.
The PCT starts off hot and sandy, with moderate hills and few water sources in low-rainfall years. Chris hiked his way past small towns such as Julian, Warner Springs, and Idyllwild, and up and then down mountains such as San Jacinto (10,883 feet). Taking a long weekend, I flew to San Diego, picked up our car, and drove to the point where the PCT meets I-10 near Palm Springs. Thanks to the Garmin InReach GPS/SOS Chris’s parents bought for the hike, we actually timed it really well, and Chris arrived at our rendezvous only 15 minutes after I did. Having just hiked 20 miles down a mountain ridge, in an extremely windy area (known for its wind farms), he was happy to take a “zero” and a “near-o” to spend some time together, resupply his food pack, and rest his feet. We also visited Joshua Tree National Park (although, he was not interested in hiking any trails there… I wonder why).
While flat, grassy plains may not sound like an interesting place to take a vacation, the panhandle of Texas actually has stunning physical nature, a fascinating history, and great food and wine options. Visitors can easily spend a few days touring this part of Texas and exploring the delights of the “llano estacado”.
With a population of around a quarter million, Lubbock is perhaps most famous for being the home of Texas Tech University, and Buddy Holly. Even if you’re just passing through Lubbock on the way to somewhere else, it’s still worth a stop at the Buddy Holly Center, and a pass through the American Windmill Museum– the largest windmill museum in the world. And, you can’t leave town without passing by George Bush, to see what holiday costume he’s been dressed in. After a quick tour of the grounds of Texas Tech University, founded in 1923, it’s worth the drive out to the Llano Estacado Winery for a tour or a tasting (currently only open for curbside pick up due to Covid-19 restrictions).
Advancing farther north into the panhandle, the city of Amarillo has its share of quirky delights as well. For starters, the historic Route 66 runs right through town, and the shops and restaurants along that stretch of road reflect the architectural styles of the Route 66 heyday, ranging from vintage 20’s motels to 40’s service stations. The 13 blocks downtown are part of the National Register of Historic Places.
If you’ve driven along any stretch of Texas highway, then you’ve probably seen signs for The Big Texan Steak Ranch. Yep, home of the 72 oz steak. Free…..if you can consume the entire meal (including shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad, roll, and the steak itself) in under one hour. Otherwise, you gotta pay for it, at a whopping cost of $72. For a list of winners, click here.
Just like the 72 oz steak, everything else in Amarillo is big too. You can visit the 22′ tall “2nd Amendment Cowboy”, just down the road from Cadillac Ranch. An art project born of a strange union between some hippie artists in San Francisco and a billionaire from Texas, Cadillac Ranch consists of ten classic Cadillacs, buried nose-down in the Texas dirt. The art installation is free of charge to visit, and is open every day of the year. Littered with discarded half-empty cans of spray paint, visitors are welcome to add their own tag to any of the vehicle and photograph them to their hearts’ content.
Palo Duro Canyon
After seeing some of the somewhat questionable works of man, it might be time for some nature. Just a few miles outside of Amarillo is the entrance to Palo Duro State Park, the second largest canyon in the United States. You can spend days wandering the trails by foot, horseback, or mountain bike, and camp under the stars at night in an RV, tent, or cabin. Spot deer, fox, longhorn cattle, and coyotes in the hour before dusk. In the summer, a musical titled “Texas!” has been entertaining crowds since the early 60’s. Preceded by a nightly barbecue and followed by fireworks, the show is definitely not something you want to miss if you are visiting in the summer months. If you know anyone who grew up in the state of Texas, you can bet they attended this show at least once as a kid (I know I did).
The High Plains
The Spanish called this region the “llano estacado”, which has frequently been translated to “staked plains”, but actually “stockaded plains” is referencing the high cliffs that form the boundary of the region. If you get off the highway and find yourself chasing down little-known sights such as the Texas-Oklahoma-New Mexico border monument, you’ll find that the Texas High Plains has a rhythm and a beauty all it’s own, no matter the season you visit.
We had a four day weekend off of work this month, so Chris and I decided to spend a little time at the beach. We packed up our car and drove down to South Padre Island down in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. Now, the last time I was in SPI was 1997 and it was college spring break week- and I was there to see Vanilla Ice in concert. So I was interested to see how the island had changed over the last 20+ years.
There is exactly one way to get onto South Padre Island, and that is via the Queen Isabella Causeway, from Port Isabel. You cannot enter the island from a more northern point, so just know that if you want to visit, you will need to go alllllllll the way down to the bottom of Texas to get there. From Austin, it took us about six hours. We arrived in time to grab an early dinner at Dirty Al’s, a Cajun-style seafood joint directly on the water. You can eat indoors or outside, and enjoy the Gulf breeze while watching the sailboats come in and out of the harbor. You can also book an island tour, sportfishing boat, or dolphin-spotting cruise from some of the businesses just steps away.
The entire south end of the island is Isla Blanca Park, run by Cameron County. To access those parts, you’ll need to pay a $12 day pass, or $5 for Veterans (you can also get a monthly or annual pass). Some of the cleanest beaches and best sunset-watching spots are down in Isla Blanca Park, as well as RV spots, cabanas, and a huge statue of “Cristo de los Pescadores”. But don’t worry. South Padre Island has plenty of free beaches in the mid-island and northern island sections.
For eating, drinking, and partying, most people head mid-island to Clayton’s, Bar Louie, and The Lookout. These 3 open-air bars are always full, with food and drink specials, music, and plenty of sandy feet. At night there’s usually a DJ or a band playing at one or more of these venues. For a more mellow vibe, try a local brew at the PI Brewing Company.
While we were on SPI, a hurricane was affecting the tides throughout the Gulf of Mexico, so we took some time inland to explore a little as well. Just south of SPI you can visit the SpaceX launch site. Be warned: although only 6 or 7 miles south of SPI, it takes a while to get there- you’ll need to drive inland about 25 minutes, and then double back on another road to get to the space center (it’s just before Boca Chica State Park).
And if you’re wondering- can you walk across the border to Mexico? The answer is yes. There are 3 international bridges located in Brownsville, Texas, linking to Matamoros, Mexico. We walked across the Gateway International Bridge with our passports and $1 in quarter for the toll. On the Mexican side, you can hop on a bus to pretty much anywhere in Mexico (prepare for some long rides), or just have a cerveza and some lunch, shop a little, and head on back. Just a block or two over the border is a large shop and restaurant called Garcia’s- they have great food and specials on Mexican products and liquors. They took our temperature before we entered and sanitized our hands. The line back into the US took a bit longer than the one heading south- prepare for a bit of a wait- but it only costs 25 cents. Not bad for an international trip!
With school about to start just around the corner, Chris and I (Deah) wanted to get out of town for a few days and go camping and see some (socially distanced) sights. We packed up our car and headed north.
Broken Bow Lake
We stayed the first night at Broken Bow Lake, at the Beaver’s Bend State Park campground. At just $16 a spot, this campground was the perfect chance for us to get out into some nature. Since it was the end of July, it was plenty hot, but we cooled off in the Mountain Fork River, which was surprisingly cold. In the evening as we ate our dinner, we saw a fox stroll by, and with an early start the next morning, we saw families of deer and families of fishermen out enjoying the cool morning.
Fort Smith Arkansas
Okay, to tell the truth, we had forgotten a crucial part of our camping gear, so we had to call it a night after just one night and head to a city. We weren’t too far from Fort Smith, Arkansas, so we drove that way to learn about this town which was once the border between Arkansas and Indian Territory. Between the hanging deaths of 86 men by “Hanging Judge” Parker, and the years the town legalized prostitution, Fort Smith has an interesting history. They also have some delicious craft beers.
From Fort Smith, we headed back into Tahlequah to explore a little bit of the Cherokee history of the area. Although the Cherokee Supreme Court Museum and the Cherokee Prison Museum were both temporarily closed, we did a self-guided walking tour through town to learn about the founding of the town. Northeastern State University has a beautiful campus there and it’s just a beautiful area all around.
We arrived in Tulsa in a rain storm and had to sit out a bit before doing our sightseeing. Always happy to try some Mexican food, we chose El Rancho Grande, featured in this list of the 9 Best Restaurants in Tulsa (it was delicious). Later, we did enjoy the “Cathedral District” of the city with it’s massive churches, as well as the huge park called The Gathering Place along the Arkansas River. On the following day, we spent a few hours at the Gilcrease Museum, full of art and artifacts from the American West and Native Americans. Both their indoor spaces and their grounds (as well as the stunning views from some of their back areas) were a treat to walk around and take in.
A trip to Oklahoma never seems complete without a stop at Stillwater’s Eskimo Joe’s Jumpin’ Jukejoint. We sat at the bar and had a chopped beef burger and tried a local beer. The bartender suggested we stop off at Pop’s in Arcadia on our way to the capital, so we did.
Oklahoma City, OK
Oklahoma City is a sprawling city with a vibrant downtown area. We headed first to the Centennial Land Run Monument, commemorating the date when over 50,000 people from all over the country came to claim their own corner of two million acres of land. We also visited the haunting memorial to the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, an event I remember all too well. The memorial, and the museum next to it, is worth visiting.
We also visited the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, a sprawling museum that would take days to properly see. Right now the entrants for the Prix de West art exhibition are on display, and wow, I don’t know how the judges can tell who’s winning. They are all stunning pieces of art. In addition, there are dozens of exhibits ranging from a full size rodeo, art of the American west, an entire western town named Prosperity Junction, and Native American art. And that’s just the inside! Outside the building, you can find and play in life-size replicas of a Kiowa tipi, a Pueblo cliff dwelling, a Chickasaw Council House, a train Depot, and more. There were simply not enough hours in the day to fully explore this museum (formerly known as the Cowboy Hall of Fame).
To conclude our trip, I wanted one more night near a lake, but we had to settle for a cabin rather than camp. After a fantastic lunch at Bedlam BBQ, we headed to the lake that straddles the border between Texas and Oklahoma, and found Willow Springs Marina. They have cabins, cottages, and RV sites there, as well as a marina. We had just taken a dip in the lake when suddenly the temperature dropped 14 degrees, a wind blew in, and the skies opened. We made it back to our cabin and watched the storm for a few hours. By the next morning, the sun was out and the lake was calm again. A perfect end to our week away.
Have you been to Oklahoma? There’s a surprising amount to see there- this list is by no means comprehensive! What’s your favorite thing to see in the state?