Being from Nebraska, I’m no stranger to open spaces. But the landscape of my home state is soft, rolling, covered in grass or crops, and dissected by roads at regular, reliable intervals.
At Organ Pipes, nothing is soft; nothing is reliable. Jagged peaks, high enough to catch clouds, jut, without prelude, from flat earth. Hard spines cover nearly every plant audacious enough to grow out of this parched, gravelly dirt. You can not trust your eyes. Cuddly looking teddy bears turn into needle-covered cacti. One mile stretches to ten. A trail that, from a distance looks smooth, turns into ups and downs, dips through washes and scrambles up hillsides.
It’d been about six years since our last visit to Organ Pipes. A million things have changed, I’m sure. But, to our eyes, the increase in motorized Homo sapiens was the biggest difference.
Imagine a time before smartphones, before online reservations, before reservations were even necessary. In those RVing dark ages, we found campgrounds in a publication called “Woodall’s Campground Directory.” It was the size of a Manhattan phone book (what’s a phone book?). In addition, we used a 10” x 15” spiral bound Rand McNally Road Atlas to find the routes to get us to the campgrounds.
In the dog-eat-dog world of scoring an Arizona (or Florida) state (or county) park campsite during the winter months, patience sometimes pays off. Open sites at Catalina State Park northeast of Tucson are as elusive as a good hair day coinciding with date night. We’ve never gotten in. Usually I don’t even check. But, early one morning, to put off starting on taxes, I pulled up their camping reservations site and—eureka!—3 nights were available! In the following days I kept checking and found two more nights, and then two more nights! Seven nights in a row at Catalina State Park in February!
“Mitch is going to freak out,” I said out loud to myself as I peered up through the windshield at the low-hanging branches. I was in the Jeep leading Mitch, in our new (to us) 12-foot-2-inch tall, 28 foot long class A RV, to our campsite in the Bonita Canyon Campground in the Chiricahua National Monument.
Remember when you were a kid and you ran just because you could? Not to keep your blood pressure down or to be able to eat that chocolate thunder hot fudge sundae, but because you were outside and you had legs and those legs wanted to move. Trail running feels like that to me. But not just any trail. Playful trails, single track, curvy trails; trails that go up and down through dips and gullies; trails that say, “You gotta see this.” Those are the trails that give me the elusive runner’s high. You finish out of breath, noodle-legged, but you say, “God, that was fun.” In the hill country of Texas, about an hour west of San Antonio, we stumbled upon a city park campground in the town of Kerrville with a small system of trails that were made with me in mind. A trail runner from Colorado or Vermont or any area with more than one contour line on their topographical map might consider the Kerrville trails child’s play. But where we live in southern Delaware, elevation is measured in inches, and single tracks are short, and soggy, and end at hunting blinds. Six sections made up the trail system in Kerrville-Schreiner Park, and most were short—1.5 to 2 miles. Connector trails combined the sections to create a grand loop of 9ish miles. About 350 feet of elevation gain made for some short heart-pumping, but not toss-your-cookies, climbs. Did I mention these trails were great fun for my green-level mountain biking skills, too? Icing on the cake was the paved bicycle trail, accessible from the park, that followed the clear, blue waters of the Guadalupe River into downtown Kerrville (six miles one-way). We’ve been RVing for nearly 15 years now and less than a handful of campgrounds make it into the coveted top tier of the Mitchell-Adams-Mitchell rating system – Anastasia, Grayton Beach, McDowell, Dead Horse Ranch. Our scoring system is purely subjective but some factors include exercise options, how close the sites are to each other, park vegetation, what type of clientele the park attracts (loud, obnoxious versus quiet, respectful), etc. Unfortunately, Covid put the brakes on one of the most important categories in our rating system: quality of bars within biking distance from the park (extra points for cute microbreweries). Kerrville has great potential in this area. And while, at this point, it’s looking pretty good for Kerrville-Schreiner, our scoring is incomplete. We’ll have to return after Covid for the final rating.
Check out Mitch’s fantastic St. Augustine video. My role in it was very painful:
Usually we freeze in St. Augustine. Winter in north Florida can be cold, and it’s a damp cold – the worst kind. Those that live out West don’t understand. “Fifty degrees?” they say. “Fifty degrees is nice.” In Moab or Steamboat or Fountain Hills, fifty degrees is shorts weather. But in Florida, a damp wind-blown fifty degrees penetrates stocking caps, gloves, winter coats, and especially bones.
Because we’ll be in Delaware the majority of the winter this year, I am determined to do something active outside, if not every day, then every other day. So far it hasn’t been difficult. We’re enjoying the autumn we didn’t have in October/November. But I know the real test is coming
Although there’s not much to Bluff—a few dusty streets fit between incongruously orange bluffs and a snaking river, a handful of old Victorian homes, and a cemetery with a beautiful view—we’d like to go back. We had an appointment in Flagstaff so we had to pass through without thoroughly exploring the area. (I think you’d need a lifetime to really explore this corner of the earth!) Through the years, Bluff yo-yoed between multiple booms and busts (agrarian, livestock, coal, gold, oil, uranium) so it has an expectant feel to it as if biding time for the next big thing.
The sun is setting. “How long are we on this road?” Mitch asks, not hiding the irritation in his voice. We’re inching along, everything down to our fillings rattling as we swerve back and forth, trying to find the path of least wash-boards.