Friday, June 17, 2011

Heat and Fire (and a Walmart Parking Lot)

Stating the obvious, it is hot in Texas--and dry.  The extreme drought conditions are visible across the state, endangering habitat, and the livelihood of those that live off the land.  For the rest of us, the three digit temperatures are simply miserable.  As a good friend of mine says, there are two ways to find cooler temperatures—go north, or go up; in elevation, that is.  
And so the rick-man and I headed north, ready to get out of the Texas heat, and excited to begin a long dreamed-of road trip to the great northwest.  We would seek cooler summer temperatures, great hikes, and new species of birds within our binocular view.  (And I have some self-imposed botany challenges in mind, per former blogs.)
But first we needed to drive out of Texas.  That would mean pulling the Airstream for two long days, through hot, dry conditions, hoping our tow vehicle would handle the 10,000 pounds of trailer, air conditioner, and three digit ambient temperatures. 
With Colorado our first goal, we pointed ourselves toward the Raton Pass of northeastern New Mexico.  This pass is the favored route, by many a Texan, destined toward Colorado summer vacations. We’ve tried the Oklahoma and Kansas route in past years, and my saying that the Oklahoma roads are bumpy is a polite understatement.  So the northwest Raton passage was our goal, and off we headed toward Ft. Worth, Wichita Falls and Amarillo.   As we left the Upper Gulf Coast, driving through central Texas, we watched the temperatures climb.  With a first day’s planned stop at a roadside RV park just south Ft. Worth, we soon realized that it would be a miserable night.  Very late afternoon we reached our goal, but the ambient temperature was still above 100.  Stopping was not a reasonable option. 
And so we headed toward Wichita Falls, with a first intentional nighttime drive with Airstream in tow.  Surely the temperatures would drop, and the Airstream’s air conditioner could meet the challenge of cooling off our condo on wheels.  (For those readers that are not RVers, expecting an RV’s air conditioner to drop the temperature 20+ degrees, from an extremely hot starting point, is asking for a miracle.)
Without going into detail, let’s just say that a communication failure between the female driver, the male passenger (with phone) and the RV park attendee (recipient of phone call) caused us to arrive in Wichita Falls after 11:00 p.m. without clear directions to the RV park.  

I drove around Witchita Falls for 30 minutes. (in rain and lightning!) No attendee was going to answer the phone at 11:00 p.m. and the website’s map, visible on the tiny screen of a smart phone, was, at best, missing critical details.  

And so the first night’s adventure began when I stopped at a Walmart parking lot, somewhere around midnight, and sat in the Airstream with no air conditioning, no lights, and no water.  The temperature was close to 90 degrees inside the trailer, with windows open.  And those that know the rick-man and me are aware that we were already operating under serious fault scenario conditions by arriving anywhere at midnight, much less a Walmart parking lot. 
The rick-man has an amazing skill that I have never come close to acquiring:  instant sleep.  As he slept, I sat and listened to the sounds of the Walmart parking lot:  our parking lot neighbors, the 18-wheelers, stopped for the night with diesel generators “humming” to provide the driver a cool cab bed for the night; the comings-and-goings of middle of the night shoppers, mostly young twenty-somethings with a surprising number of children in tow.  

And at four a.m. EXACTLY, the sound of ALL the shopping carts gathered from the parking lot by a diligent young Walmart employee.  You know the sound of shopping carts crashing into each other as they are mated into a long snake-like chain.  I looked out the Airstream’s front window and watched the Walmart employee create long snakes of shopping carts, listening to the crash of metal on metal, with each additional cart’s mating.  

Sometime after, I drifted into sleep, until 5:30 a.m. when the 18-wheeler neighbors began to exit the neighborhood.  I woke up the rick-man, and day two began.  I expected a long day of exhaustion, but I knew that our destination would be an RV park, with cool temperatures, at the top of the Raton Pass.  And so my cup was half full, and loaded with caffeine to keep me awake.  And let me remember to say a huge thanks to Walmart and their parking lot “camping” policy—it served as a night’s safe haven, if not a haven of comfort.  It felt good to get back into the air conditioning of our tow vehicle, and continue heading northwest, wearing the same clothes of the day before. 
We made it through Amarillo by 10 a.m. and I was feeling good about crossing the border into New Mexico, at Texline, before the temperature hit 100.  It seemed we were caravanning with a steady stream of RV and other traffic through the few small towns on the somewhat remote Highway 87, all headed for Raton.  

On the New Mexico side, major roadwork was the current dilemma, and I was feeling the aftermath of the Walmart slumber party.  Fresh asphalt was being laid on the west bound side, and frequent halts were occurring as both directions of traffic shared paths, orchestrated by the familiar site of two men with walky-talkies and signs that either said “Slow” or “Stop”, depending on the eastbound or westbound traffic’s turn.  We were about 25 miles east of Raton and about 35 miles from the pass and our RV destination.  Good things would soon happen. 
Suddenly we saw a flashing billboard traffic sign, the temporary kind of sign on wheels that sometimes will alert you to your speed.  But this sign was flashing a cryptic warning that Raton Pass and I-25 north were closed, due to a fire.

CLOSED!  This can’t be right; I’d been watching the news all week and the fires were on the Arizona and New Mexico border, not the northeast corner of Raton!  I thought I was having a sleep deprived hallucination.   

Along with other RVers and confused drivers, I pulled off the road.  I sought information from road workers, inhaling the fresh asphalt that burned my nose, and wondering at their daily work habitat.  I was trying to convince myself that an entire Interstate highway could not be closed due to fire, especially since no signs of warning had been posted at earlier locations.  

I was wrong.  The signs were correct.  I had three choices:  turn back to Texas and the 104 degree afternoon heat, go to Raton and drive south, or take a back road detour a hundred feet ahead.  

A local was providing advice:  the detour would take at least 3 hours on roads that were extremely bumpy and not designed for RV or 18-wheeler traffic; the detour would include 60 miles of Colorado’s Highway 160, a difficult drive into Trinidad, Colorado where no RV parks were to be found.
My long day just became extended, under extremely difficult driving conditions.  And so I thought of the Walmart shopping carts as we became a part of the 18-wheeler and RV traffic that snaked through the bumpy, winding back roads of New Mexico.  I just hoped to NOT hear metal clanking against metal as driver patience was taxed by all.
Around 5:00 p.m. we arrived at an RV park, close to Colorado City, less than 100 miles of our next day’s goal of Colorado Springs.  I'd been on the road and behind the wheel for eleven difficult hours after my hour and a half of sleep at Walmart, with the smell of smoke accompanying us for most of the detour’s three hours. 
The Raton Pass fire’s smoke was visible many miles into Colorado: 

Commercial RV parks are not my favored destination, but this Colorado City KOA park seemed an Eden to me:  shade trees, shower, and relief from the road and heat. 

I slept hard, lulled to sleep by the Airstream's open windows providing a cool breeze and the sounds of unfamiliar bird calls.  Sometime during the night I pulled a blanket over me, as I got cold.


  1. Your Retama NeighborJune 18, 2011 at 11:07 PM

    Oh My!! What a memorable adventure. It would have been so boring if all had gone to plan. Enjoyed your tale and it caused several chuckles. I enjoyed this post and could relate to it so very much. Especially the Walmart stay.

  2. LOVE this!! Interesting, engaging, even a bit suspenseful . . . keep the stories coming!


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