After leaving Benson we headed east to the high plains of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico. The land is flat and open and the highway is riddled with signs informing one on what to do in the event of a sandstorm. It’s basically pull off the road and wait to die a gritty slow death by sand. After a couple hours of staying upright in the wind and not getting hit by any of those sand storms we arrived in our next destination, Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The translation of Las Cruces is “The Crosses,” or as the late great Chris Farley would say, “Las Cruces is Spanish for ‘The Cruces’.” They must have gotten rid of the crosses though as I didn’t see any.
We stayed at Sunny Acres RV Park just about a mile from downtown. Not only is it rare to find an RV park inside city limits, the sites were reasonably spaced and the roads were almost wide enough to do a u-turn with the fifth wheel attached.
There’s a couple of good breweries in Las Cruces. We had dinner one night at Pecan Grill & Brewery where I had some tasty chicken wings and Kendra had a salad that came with a large grilled pepper. Las Cruces is just down the road from the town of Hatch, claimed to be the chile pepper capital of the world and famous for Hatch chiles. As I was about to find out, the peppers here have a lot more heat than the stuff I could find in Michigan. Kendra’s not a fan of hot peppers so she gave it to me which I promptly ate without a second thought. After a few minutes of I-can’t-feel-my-face delicious fiery anguish I ordered a second beer. No bartender, that pepper wasn’t hot, I’m crying with laughter and sadness cause I was remembering Chris Farley. Their Peanut Butter Pecan Porter did wonders for soothing the minions in my belly running around with their hair on fire.
Just a short walk from our campground was the High Desert Brewing Company. With an outdoor patio it was a perfect way to spend a few hours Sunday afternoon sampling the beers while a sad looking dog stared at me from the next table.
We paid a visit to the White Sands National Mounument, the largest field of white gypsum sand dunes on earth. To get there it was a drive on a flat straight highway that was straight out of the X-Files through the White Sands Missile Range. The road is actually closed sometimes for missile tests which fortunately were not scheduled for this day.
White Sands is a vast, desolate, disorienting sandbox with miles of sand dunes in every direction surrounded by distant mountains. Bring a compass.
Being Roadside America attraction junkies, after leaving White Sands we had to stop at Mcginns’s Pistachio Tree Ranch in Alamagordo, home of the world’s largest Pistachio. Also home to a sample bar of a whole bunch of different flavored pistachios I never knew existed.
When looking for a place to go hiking closer to our campground we came upon Dripping Springs Natural Area, BLM land that included the Organ Mountains. If you make it past the sign that states in no uncertain terms that you will die, Dripping Springs trail leads up into a canyon at the base of the mountains where the ruins of Van Patten’s Mountain camp hotel and Boyd’s Sanitorium sit near the spring. The spring is not impressive, more like a leaky faucet. But hey, we’re in the desert after all.
Cautiously optimistic about winter being over, we began our trek eastward from Tucson, stopping for a few nights in the small town of Benson, Arizona. The campground was, uh, “questionable” with ramshackle campers that had obviously been there a while, including a Fleetwood Bounder that was probably used in Breaking Bad as well as a matching fifth wheel. It turned out to be an okay park, if a little noisy.
We chose Benson for its proximity to a couple of places we wanted to go check out, the first being Tombstone, the town famous for the shootout at the OK Corral with Wyatt Earp and company. We had been there before so we didn’t feel the need to explore the town or watch the gunfight reenactment. After grabbing a burger at Big Nose Kate’s we headed straight to the Tombstone Brewing Company for a few samples which turned into a few more samples which turned into a few pints and after a night of lively conversation with patrons and the staff we left well after closing. They claim to have the best beer in Arizona and I’m not going to dispute that.
I have mixed feelings about Tombstone, on one hand it’s full of original historic buildings but it’s a major tourist trap which completely ruins any old west ambience. Tombstone’s motto is “The Town too Tough to Die” but it’s certainly not too tough to pander to tourists. Only after sundown when the tourists flock to their buses and flee the town can you walk down the deserted streets and imagine what it was like in the wild west days.
Our next destination was south to Patagonia, winter home of Michigan writer Jim Harrison and where he died with a pen in his hand. Ever since visiting the Hemingway house in Key West I’ve been compelled to visit the haunts of writers on our travels. Fun fact: When he lived in Michigan Harrison would frequently travel to Key West in the winter where he would hang out with the likes of Jimmy Buffet. All roads lead back to Key West. The road to Patagonia, while not anything like the road to Key West, was surprisingly scenic and a nice change from the barren desert. We stopped in at the Wagon Wheel Saloon where a picture of Harrison sits on the fireplace. It’s easy to see why he liked the place; it could have been any place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
The final day trip of our stay in Benson was to Bisbee, an old mining town built into the mountains with an iconic main street and now full of art galleries and shops. Wandering into the David Kachel Photography gallery we encountered a bowl of dog treats and a sign informing us that the ferocious dog must be appeased before we could enter. That “ferocious dog” turned out to be a timid Lab that could barely muster the courage to come and get a treat.
After a few hours of walking around I was getting thirsty so after walking up Brewery Avenue we came upon, oddly enough, Old Bisbee Brewing Company.
After a flight at the brewery we drove over to check out the open pit mine when something that looked like an old gas pump caught my eye. Driving down some side roads we discovered the town of Lowell. Well, it’s not really a town anymore. The town of Lowell was swallowed up by the mine in the 1950’s leaving behind just a section of downtown along Erie Street which is preserved to look as it did in the 50’s complete with old cars and a Greyhound Bus.
Bisbee marked our last exploration in Arizona. Bring on New Mexico!
After riding out the worst of winter in Yuma and just missing the freak desert snowstorm of February 22, it was time for us to begin our trek eastward. After the relative desolation and endless lettuce fields of Yuma, we decided to stay in Tucson for 2 weeks to get reacquainted with civilization.
But not too much though, as Tucson has some cool outdoor activities, such as the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum where you can see most of the animals that always are hiding when you’re out in the “real” desert.
And in addition to getting reacquainted with civilization, we sought out ways to destroy it.
After never finding a rattlesnake out in the desert, we finally found one downtown.
Not too far from our campground we found this neat little place with the wordy name of Gadsen-Pacific Division Toy Train Operating Museum.
Of course we had to go for a hike in Saguaro National Park…
and stalk Great Horned Owls during their nap time…
A few months earlier we had made a day trip to Tucson to visit the Kon Tiki, this time we went to The Hut, another tiki bar with a giant Moai head that’s almost big enough to live in. Our next house will be a giant tiki head.
Driving around the outskirts of the city we stopped at the old Spanish mission San Xavier del Bac,
and drove up to the top of Mt. Lemmon where there was still a couple feet of snow. Let me tell you, the snow here is way better than Michigan snow because when you get tired of it just turn around and head back down the mountain.
Of course we couldn’t spend some time in Tucson without hitting up some of the breweries. A short bike ride away from the campground was 1912 Brewing. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to take our bikes someplace. We tried to go to another brewery downtown but the Friday rush hour traffic was so bad we went to Dragoon which was also near the campground.
Tucson has quite a few places to go and things to do, we weren’t able to do everything we originally planned during our 2 weeks. One question though, why does everyone dress like the homeless around here?
One night I was pondering all the campgrounds we’ve been to since we started this adventure and realized that when we got to Tucson it would our 50th campground. I started thinking wouldn’t it be cool to throw together a slideshow of all our campsites? Followed by, “dangit, I should have paid more attention and taken pictures of our campsites.”
However after searching through our photos I found my habit of randomly taking pictures of everything paid off and I was able to find a campsite picture for almost every campground we stayed at. I also found out that Tucson wasn’t our 50th, but 54th. Whoops.
Most of the state park campgrounds were pretty nice. RV Parks were hit or miss, some were nice and some were just parking lots with everybody crammed in like sardines. Gulf State Park in Alabama was our favorite, and Florida takes honors for both the best and worst campgrounds.
Anyway here’s a slideshow of our 54 campsites since July of 2017. Enjoy!
Coming down from the mountains of Flagstaff we stopped for a week in Camp Verde, Arizona. At an altitude of nearly 4000 feet lower us flatlanders could finally breathe a little easier.
We stayed at Zane Grey RV Park which turned out to be quite nice. Although the sites weren’t much bigger than most rv parks creative use of fencing and trees made each site seem much more private.
Next door to the park a trail winds it’s way through a field of volcanic rubble and a Cottonwood forest to West Clear Creek. Imagine, that, flowing water in Arizona that’s not the Colorado River!
We took a couple day trips around the area, including Montezuma Castle, Sedona, and the mining town of Jerome.
Jerome is one of those towns that took the route of boom town to ghost town and finally to tourist trap. The streets are narrow and buildings are awkwardly built helter skelter on the side of a mountain. There’s a pretty good mix of abandoned buildings, restaurants, tourist shops, and art. It’s great.
And of course we had to check out a couple nearby breweries in the area, first to THAT Brewery (yes that’s the name) in Cottonwood.
THAT Brewery, Cottonwood
Alas, the promised food truck didn’t show up so after a flight of samples we headed back to Camp Verde and stopped at Verde Brewing Company for some more samples and tasty sandwiches. The breweries are located in sparsely decorated warehouses in industrial parks, reminding me of the early days of craft beer in Michigan. At Verde Brewing we sat a few feet away from bubbling fermenters and it felt like we were just hanging out at some home brewer’s garage which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Especially when the beer is good.
We’ve been here before, this well known city on Route 66 in the middle of Northern Arizona. Only this time we’re not heading east to west but north to south. And with some trepidation, as Flagstaff sits at 6900 feet and gets cold and quite a bit of snow and here we are at the tail end of October trying to avoid those very things. Fortunately the Arizona sun held out for the entirety of our 4 night stay keeping things warm in spite of some frosty mornings. We stayed at the KOA which provided a background of mountains and pine trees for taking moonrise shots.
Flagstaff has something we haven’t seen in a while, a historic and vibrant downtown, with shops, restaurants, music, and breweries.
Finally we had a chance to resume our Friday night brewery tradition at the Mother Road Brewing Company. Good beer and good pizza from the next door pizza shop, Pizzicletta.
We must have been suffering from brewery deprivation so after leaving Mother Road we wandered around the corner only to find ourselves at Beaver Street Brewery for another round. Flagstaff is a great place to visit, at least for us when it’s warm and not snowing.
After spending nearly 6 weeks in Utah it was time to head further south. I’ll say this about Utah, the landscapes are incredible and I could spend years there just exploring the wilderness. On the flip side, the national parks are very crowded and outside of that, well, it’s pretty boring. I can’t quite explain it but it felt like living in Utah was a very isolating experience, even in the cities. There just wasn’t a sense of vibrancy, of being something more than just existing to provide a place to live. I’ve come to the conclusion that the cities of Utah are merely there to provide support to the National Parks. And Mormons.
Anyway, on to Arizona. On our way to the Phoenix area we stayed a few nights in Page, home of several famous locations like Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and the ginormous Glen Canyon Dam.
Upon our arrival we were greeted by a double rainbow over the lake to welcome our triumphant return to civilization.
Although Page is a small town, it still felt alive and a world away from the sleepy hamlets of Utah. Ok, I admit it, being able to buy reasonably priced and non-watered down craft beer helped. We were only there for 3 nights so we didn’t have too much time for exploring and we probably spent too much time in the hot tub soaking and rinsing away the red Utah dust that got everywhere. We did make it out to visit the dam and take some photos of the lake.
We did not go to Antelope Canyon as I really have no interest in paying 200 dollars to go in a narrow canyon with a bunch of other people all taking pictures of the same thing. We did make an early morning visit to Horseshoe bend for the sunrise and although the sun failed to make an appearance it was still a nice experience. Partly for the view and partly from the tension of wondering if anybody perched up on the rocks at the very edge would fall off. Yes, it happens, a man had fallen off earlier this year in May, then after we had left a girl fell in December. Kind of hard to show anybody your pictures after that.
Living with me as long as she has, Kendra has acquired a bit of skepticism when it comes to my hiking plans. Can’t say I blame her, as most of my “easy” hikes usually turn into things like an endless slog through sandy deserts,Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Utah
or up the side of a “small” mountain,Grand Teton Mountain, Grand Teton National Park
or alongside a cliff with 1000 foot drop-offs,Canyon Overlook Trail, Zion National Park
or up 700 vertical feet of switchbacks,Bryce Canyon National Park
and usually in places where things like snakes live. You get the idea. Copperhead, Kentucky
She tends to prefer a more relaxing nature hike, taking in the scenery and looking for interesting plants and non-venomous animals. Whereas I tend to be like “Hey, what’s that over there?” and go tromping off to places unknown, places that were probably last visited by the Donner Party.
Fortunately there’s Zion National Park, which offers plenty for both types of hiking. Our first foray into the park was down the Riverside Walk, a trail on the floor of the canyon. The trail is paved and can get busy but there are plenty of spots to go off trail and explore or just sit and relax alongside the Virgin River.
Although there is wildlife in the park, the only animals you’ll probably see in the heavily trafficked parts are the squirrels. Since feeding the wildlife is prohibited I can only assume that the squirrels are so fat because they eat the remains of people who have fallen off Angel’s Landing.
The canyon is full of things that fascinate us landscape photographers, things like walls with plants growing out of them.
Trees. Big rocks. Rivers. And rivers with big rocks in them.
The Riverside Walk trail leads up to the Narrows, where the canyon walls close in and most of the hiking is in the river itself. We didn’t venture that far as we didn’t have the necessary equipment and I hate wet feet. Besides, I knew our next visit would be one of my “easy” hikes, the aforementioned cliff side hike up to the canyon overlook.
I should add that my so-called easy hikes usually have a well-earned reward in the end. In my wanderings I seem to have an uncanny ability to find a nearby brewery.
Even better, a brewery that didn’t have the typical watered-down Utah beer. And good food too, a rarity in Utah. This was the first brewery we’ve been to since leaving Montana way back in August.
Next door to the RV park in Jacksonville was the Pecan Park Flea & Farmers’ Market. It may have had more fleas than farmers but it caught our attention by advertising a Tiki Bar which of course we have no choice but to pay a visit. The Tiki Island Tap House is built out of car port shelters and is more like some guy’s back yard bar than a tiki bar but still offers a good time.
We stayed in Jacksonville, Florida for 3 months, not because we really liked the place, but because we were tired of struggling to find an affordable warm place to ride out the winter. Our site at Pecan Park RV Resort was fairly spacious, safe and the chance of seeing snow was fairly low so we felt it was a good place to camp out for awhile. Plus watching the planes taking off and landing at the nearby airport was pretty cool. Internet availability was ok but a little flaky, not due to signal strength but rather because all the cell towers in Jacksonville seem to be overloaded.
As a bonus,they had brand new washers and dryers with card readers that didn’t require ginormous bags of quarters saving us from having to make numerous trips to a laundromat. Three months would give us enough time to plan out our future travels and get some income generating activities lined up. Well I don’t know what happened to that but anyway, on to all about Jacksonville…
Jacksonville proudly claims to be the largest city in the continental United States by land area at around 850 square miles. I’m not so sure that’s something to be proud of as there is a lot of empty space and it takes forever to get anywhere. From the RV park we were staying at to one of the breweries we visited, Veterans United, the distance was 27 miles which took at least an hour of driving. And both are in the city limits of Jacksonville. That’s not a trip across town for a beer or two, that’s a day trip. In fact other than the 5 minute jaunt to Walmart going anywhere required at least a 1/2 hour drive. Just because you’re in Jacksonville doesn’t mean you’re near things in Jacksonville. It just makes more sense to consider the neighborhood names as as individual cities. So from our place in Pecan Park, (a.k.a. North Boondocksville), would you like to spend a day traveling to Riverside (Brewery Town) or Southside (Ikealand)?
Anyway enough complaining about travel times, Jacksonville has quite a thriving brewery scene. I counted at least 15 in Jacksonville and a couple more in the nearby beach towns of Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville Beach, so many that our plan of visiting breweries on Fridays meant we weren’t able to visit all of them.
One of our first visits was to Intuition Ale Works near the football stadium where the air smells like coffee thanks to the Maxwell House factory just up the road.
Bold City is a popular one with 2 locations, the production facility and a downtown restaurant. Us being sticklers for authenticity we went to the production tap room where we found a food vendor, La Bodega Original that made the best Cuban sandwiches I’ve ever had. That started a trend of trying Cuban sandwiches at other places but so far none have matched La Bodega. Midland Brewing Company in Michigan has a pretty good one though.
You may have noticed that I’m mostly talking about food here, what about the beers, you say? Well, it’s not that we had any bad beers, but let’s just say Michigan breweries are well ahead of Jacksonville when it comes to variety and noteworthy beers. An exception to that was Aardwolf Brewing. I don’t know what an Aardwolf is, I guess half aardvark and half wolf, but I do know that it’s not afraid to try a lot of different things with its beer. Rum barrel aged imperial milk stout? Yes please! I was also not much of a fan of sour beers until I went here. Aardwolf is in a converted ice house and has a great tap room.
The locals say that Southern Swells Brewing has really good beer. I wouldn’t know. When we first went in the first thing I saw was a dog. Awesome! A dog friendly brewery! A few people had kids there but with us being from West Michigan where people are notorious for bringing babies into bars we usually just groan and sit far away. So we went in and got a flight and a table, only then did we realize the true extent of the child infestation. Kids were running amuck with no supervision, making messes everywhere and harassing the wait staff. The dogs that were in there looked terrified of the little brats. I didn’t really taste any of the beers, I just drank them down as fast as I could and we got the hell out of there. Was it a brewery or a child care center? I don’t know, and I’m not going back to find out.
Amelia Island and Fernandina Beach
About 20 miles to the northeast of Jacksonville lies Amelia Island, a barrier island with a long history of civilization and British, French, and Spanish bickering. With miles of beaches along highway A1-A and Fort Clinch State park and the quaint town of Fernandina Beach we liked this place a lot more than the sprawl of Jacksonville. Fernandina Beach, while somewhat touristy, has numerous restaurants and art galleries and a very walkable historic downtown making it easy to spend an entire day just walking around checking things out or people watching. It’s also the home of The Palace Saloon which claims to be Florida’s oldest bar and is a piratey looking place with a tasty drink called, wait for it, “Pirate Punch.”
One of the things we like to do on our travels is to check out the art scenes, or as I call it, “Arts & Farts.” Jacksonville is quite supportive of the arts, with the Riverside Arts Market every Saturday. The day we went the market was only about half the size because there was a craft beer festival being set up at the same site. Unfortunately we were there too early and nobody would open the taps for us.
The first Wednesday evening of every month is the Jacksonville Art Walk, with artists hawking their goods, live music, and food trucks scattered around a 5 block area of downtown. Kendra bought a Manatee print and I bought a beer and pizza. Hey, brewing and pizza making is an art, right? The Museum of Contemporary Art also participates with free admission during the event.
Jacksonville surprisingly has quite a few opportunities for hiking. The Timucuan Preserve is just northeast of the city and covers 46,000 acres and has multiple state parks. Big Talbot Island State Park features boneyard beach where you can walk among the skeletons of trees that have succumbed to the erosion of the beach and salt water. That’s if it’s low tide, if it’s high tide you’ll just get swept out into the ocean.
Nearby the RV park was the Seaton Creek Historic Preserve, a place where the southernmost battle of the revolutionary war took place in 1777, so we didn’t have far to go for a short hike.
The big downside of hiking around Jacksonville is that it’s northern Florida and the land is mostly flat and full of swamps and palmettos and pine trees and most of the trails all look the same. Pumpkin Hill Creek was more like a slog through and endless field of sand than a hike and I never did find the hill. I do give them credit for trying with what they’ve got though. The Jacksonville Arboretum & Gardens probably had the best laid out trails for maximizing variety and interest.
For urban hiking though, there’s the Riverwalk, 3 miles of walkways on both the north and south banks of the St. Johns River through downtown, easily one of the best features of Jacksonville. Every city with waterfront should have a riverwalk, instead of a scrapyards and sewer plants.
Would we go back to Jacksonville? Maybe if we were staying on Amelia Island. The long travel times to get anywhere, bad drivers, and sketchiness of a lot of areas didn’t make us feel too comfortable. The prevalence of Walmarts made us miss stores like Meijer. We don’t especially like Meijer, but hey, it’s not Walmart. Most importantly, that feeling of “hey, I could live here” never really showed up.
Artwalk & Art Market
Traffic & bad drivers (Florida is really an acronym meaning Four Lanes Of Really Incompetent Drivers Always)
Breweries with children
Swampy hiking trails