Old Bones in a Familiar City

The city of Waco, known as the home of the couple of Fixer Upper, favorite spot of mine as the midpoint between home and Austin, also apparently has a National Park site. Twenty-four mammoth bone structures were found after a flash flood, an impressive amount, and only a couple years ago this was made into a National Park.

I was on my way to Austin when I decided a little morning stop here for a tour would be a good idea. The tours are all scheduled with no entry without a guide, which was a bit unusual in my experience. I browsed the gift shop while waiting for the tour to start, and was honestly impressed with all the Mammoth-themed items.

There was also a small little digging site supposed to teach you how fossils and bones are uncovered by the professionals but it was “under construction” so that crushed my archeological hopes and dreams. When the tour started, it was a beautiful walk through the woods to the ravine where they had originally excavated the first mammoth. Then we entered the big building which had been built to better preserve the largest complete skeleton they’d found.

It was very impressive! It was weird to think about a mammoth pack moving through Texan plains. But these weren’t wooly mammoths, they actually were a hairless species. Ah, looking at old bones always makes me believe I could still be Indian Jones (ha).

Till next time Waco!

Vastness of Cliffs, Depth of the Valley

One day was left of our jam-packed National Park New Mexico road trip, so I woke up right at opening for the Aztec Ruins. Turns out they were not actual Aztecs, they were just Native Americans called that by the white settlers who found their settlement ruins. Not having too much time, we powered through a a few buildings and then hit the vantage point which showcased the whole layout of buildings.

Down the path, I heard commotion and actually caught a picture of the fleeing rabbit! When heading back through the visitor center, the rangers there told us they’d seen a bobcat chasing after something – the rabbit we’d seen! Day two and already off to a wild start.

New Mexico is such a scenic drive, I had a nice time heading to Chaco Culture National Historic Park. We spent more than hour on a big dirt road with no signs, and free-range sheep and cattle right in the middle of the road! The cliffs were so impressive and big; there wasn’t a bad sight in any direction.

Most of the Chaco Park was about taking the long winding drive, so funnily enough by the time we made it, we’d already been experiencing what it had to offer.

As always, we spent more time than we’d thought so we knew we’d need to hurry to Pecos National Park if we were also going to make it to our last stop. Pecos was an adorable little town, but the Park reminded me a lot of the Aztec Ruins. There was a lot of pottery left behind that was very beautiful and allowed them to recreate what it would look like when it was new.

Our final stop was back towards Los Alamos with the security checkpoint. Instead of turning left toward Bandelier, we turned right and made our way to Valles Caldera. It was massive. I was expecting a small valley, but the vastness of everything was truly impressive on this trip. It was fall so the valley wasn’t really in bloom, but it’s golden expanse was still breathtaking.

Finally not in a rush for the first time that day, we took our time exploring the nature in the valley and the surrounding Jemez Mountains. I searched for a small hiking trail that allowed the dog with us to be on it, and we climbed a bit and stretched our legs. It was truly a day of seeing new parts of the world. I was the pictures I took could do it justice, but I’ll always have my memory!

Timing is Everything

There are a ton of National Park spots in New Mexico (basically double the amount in Texas). Not having a lot of vacation to burn, I decided to try my hand at a jam-packed weekend trip that included eight Parks. We left at midnight after our last work day and raced the sun for 48 hours, making it back home only hours before it was time for work again. Spoiler alert: we got all 8 spots!

Our first sunrise found us at Capulin Volcano National Monument. Though it’s been inactive for quite a long time, it was still pretty majestic as we made our approach. The trail was easygoing and led us straight into the middle of my first volcano!

It was amazing to stretch my legs after driving for so long, and I was glad to be treated to such a beautiful sight first thing. At the rim of the volcano, it was super windy and cold, but also offered another great view of the landscape. I almost didn’t want to leave, but I’m a stickler for a schedule (and I didn’t want to miss anything else planned for the day).

Next up was Fort Union, and while not the biggest fan of forts and battle sites, the fact that the Santa Fe Trail crosses right through it was cool to me. The buildings still standing after so many years were impressive too, especially since they were made with adobe. Also I ran into a snake right on the trail! Very cool any time I run into the wild.

Back to the car it was, and then on our way to Los Alamos, which is home to one of the major Manhattan Project sites. This park is also run by the Department of Energy. I went in thinking this wasn’t of much interest to me since massive destructive weapons aren’t really my thing, but the old Park ranger was delightful. He told us the town was built to house the scientists and their families who were apart of the Manhattan Project.

He pointed at a little empty field outside the window of the visitor center and told us that’s where the original site was. We would pass the new scientific building on our way to the next Park, Bandelier National Monument. We passed the National Laboratory responsible for working on the next rover being sent to Mars and cancer cures.

Immediately past security checkpoint gates, I was driving into the woods. The road was secluded, empty, and gorgeous. It was such a nice scenic woods drive, with just a little bit of drizzle to give the end of our day a dreamy feel. We didn’t have much time at Bandelier, but the trails couldn’t allow dogs anyway. The drive alone – funny considering we’d spent hours driving this far – felt completely worth it.

On our way out of the Monument, we spotted several deer in the trees too! There were the most is ever seen out in the wild, and were weirdly close to the road. The sun was setting and we idled on the side to watch a family of deer lazily pick their way through the woods. Then Jenna’s dog, Florence, started barking like crazy after spotting them and they fled. It was great!

It was a tough goal, but this trip taught me a lot on how to plan an efficient road trip (for the first time I put gas and food stops into the schedule). I also learned that no matter how much beforehand research I do, it’s hard to really know what will catch my interest when I’m there. Some of the places I’d planned to spend little time at, I’d wished I had longer and vice versa.

As always in life, it seems there’s never enough time to see and do it all! I’m glad to be using my own time wisely!

Lead to Hot Water Hills by a Reiki

It was time to venture into Arkansas! Even though the temperatures were easing up only slightly in Dallas, I’d been dreaming of taking a bath in some natural springs. I thought the Hot Springs National Park was the obvious venture, but I’d soon find out all you’d find there were some cool bath houses with fancy spa packages – not exactly the hidden adventure I’d expected. Fortunately, there was still plenty of adventure to be made!

After an early start to get on the road, we headed to the Arkansas Post National Memorial. While mostly another battle site, it also offered some great views of the Arkansas River, which had once been a famous trading post. I’d not explored much nature in Arkansas, but this was a great introduction.

Next stop was one of America’s most iconic stops, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. While the high school is pretty much an average high school, the history behind it was amazing to revisit. As the building most known for our country’s desegregation, it was really touching to get a closer look at the Little Rock Nine – the students who went through the hardship of this necessary education equal rights.

This National Park site was honestly the one we scoured the most. I wanted every detail and enjoyed the personal stories so much. Even if you’ve heard of the (in)famous nine in passing, following their journeys in detail through the years was much more eye-opening. In class you think of this education desegregation as one day, when in reality just this event took years.

It was time to head to the Hot Springs and we were pretty excited. Even though we wouldn’t get to bathe in healing waters in the wild, after arriving we found ourselves in a run-in with a karmic Reiki healer who lead us to a “pure natural source that hadn’t been tarnished by the rusting underground pipes” where I quickly filled up my whole water bottle. He kept talking about the energy he felt and how he swore his body felt stronger, and I couldn’t help but think we were just as enchanted as they’d been years ago when the Springs had claimed to heal all sorts of terminal diseases.

We took a quick tour of the old bath houses, but after our authentic healer-taught experience by an actual spring, the commercialized spas and large bath houses just weren’t as impressive. Luckily for us, that night was the annual Hot Water Hills Festival, which was sure to offer us more of the strange and mystic.

They’d set up the festival in the middle of the town square, putting up lots of local craft and artisans, delightful food trucks, and a score of live bands. It was a lot of fun to look at everything and y’all with the locals. I certainly looked at close to a thousand crystals and enjoyed sipping my blueberry-infused draft beer. The music was pretty great too, and you could tell people were enjoying letting their “weird” out more than usual.

After an eventful night with a hard rest, we got on the road and headed to our last stop before home – President Clinton’s birth home. It was kind of weird to us that this little house was a National Park site, but we checked out Clinton’s family photos and headed on our way.

No matter what I go in expecting, I’m never let down by these adventures! I may not always get what I picture, but I always find something new and unique to experience. At this point I’ve hit a lot of National Parks site and I can’t wait to see where I’m going next!

Bad Luck is Based on Perspective

After blowing a tire twenty minutes from home at the start of a day trip, I was prepared for anything that would happen next. We’d gotten three hours behind schedule because of the forced car change, but me, Jenna, and Gian were finally on our way.

We stopped for coffee in Wichita Falls, saw a sign for the “World’s Littlest Skyscraper” and even as we got more behind schedule, allowed a secondary pit stop to check it out. It was cute, but pretty much just a narrow two-story building. We continued on our way to our official first stop: the Route 66 National Museum.

It was a little hokey, mostly outdated, but overall enjoyable to check out the historic highway (we’d find ourselves on this road a lot, you’ll see). Our main goal on this trip was to finish our first state on the National Parks list – Oklahoma! No better way to celebrate trips than appreciate the most iconic highway in America.

Still behind schedule, we got to Washita Battlefield National Historic Site with no time to really explore. Which turned out okay by me, because it was really just an open field where Native Americans were caught unaware and attacked. So while the prairie lands are pretty, it’s still a bit of a sad memorial. No time for hiking, so on to the next stop.

It was back to Texas for us, headed to the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument which was paired with the nearby Lake Meredith. Our winding road through this area was a beautiful (somewhat treacherous in the smaller car) ride. Texas sure has a lot of different landscapes and it was a nice day. We did a bit of hiking at Alibates, short trails with big sunflower beds.

Lake Meredith wasn’t exactly the most picturesque lake, but there were lots of families enjoying the water so it was relaxing. After watching lots of full picnic tables, we remembered because of how behind schedule we were, we hadn’t stopped for food in our mad dash across state lines to pick up all three National Parks stamps. We dried off our feet, and headed back into town for something to eat.

We stopped for local Tex-Mex, enjoying the evening on the patio eating salsa and getting our energy back. Gian, who was familiar with the area, mentioned that Cadillac Ranch was nearby and worth a stop. So, after a day of rocky mishaps and easygoing itineraries, we decided we might as well check it out before heading home.

Not being super into cars, I wasn’t prepared for what this Ranch was supposed to offer. Giant Cadillacs stuck in a row covered in spray paint wasn’t exactly what first came to mind. But it quickly became my favorite part of the day! Tate weather was turning bad so lots of people cleared out and left behind lots of spray cans up for grabs.

Not minding the light drizzle, we crawled all over the cars and sprayed what we could. Everything became unintelligible because of the layers and layers of color and mismatched patterns. It was unexpectedly delightful being seemingly out in the middle of nowhere with big machinery to crawl on and add art to.

It started storming so we headed home in the rain and in the dark. It was weird, thinking about how many things had gone wrong for the day. The busted tire, the racing time, the depressing battlefield, the rain – but it had been such a great day! I truly think “bad luck” is just a perspective.

Stop for the Alligators

I had a random day available so after checking my (Southwest region) National Parks list, I decided a day trip to Louisiana was in order. There’s a few National Park spots near New Orleans but there’s one random spot in the middle of the state in Natchitoches. My friend Jenna and I couldn’t tell much from the website, but we were headed to the Cane River Creole National Park.

Our drive started early since we both had plans in the evening, but it was nice after a little break to be back on the open road again.

We only encountered one “problem” on the way – lovebugs. Apparently it was mating season for these bugs and as soon as we crossed into Louisiana our car was covered. It was fields and fields of them. Disgusting, but to be honest, we literally couldn’t keep the windows clean for how many we kept running into. We eventually made it with one gas stop to throughly wash the windshield.

When we eventually found the Park (the visitor center in town looked like it’d been closed for months) we found ourselves at the Oakland Plantation, with only a handful of older people. I’ve definitely noticed that not too many young people are on the same National Park journey I’ve embarked on, unless they’ve been dragged there by their parents. Which is crazy! There’s so many great things to see and history available near everyone.

We hit up the main center to grab the stamp for our passport, realizing there was not even a ranger in sight. I don’t think they were used to too many visitors so we explored the little “museum” on our own. They had a little antiquated shop set up that looked authentic and had some of the things an old-timey general store would sell. They also talked about the plantation being a cotton producer.

Next we hit up the main house which was two stories, very old, and locked. We explored the best we could (peaking int the windows) and nearly had a heart attack when we discovered an old man was in a rocking chair on the porch. He fit in so well I thought they’d put a mannequin there. He was waiting on his wife who was currently on the tour, which we’d just barely missed.

We’d seen what we wanted so we headed home making a point to follow the Cane River on our way out. It seemed pretty but was mostly inaccessible due to all the homes along the river’s edge.

While a bit interesting, the day wasn’t super fun so I knew we needed something to make the drive worth it. Jenna and I agreed that if we saw anything that seemed even remotely worthwhile on the way we would stop. And just our luck, right before hitting Texas we spotted a “Gator Park & Exotic Zoo”.

Of course we stopped! Who could pass that up – especially when we discovered it was a petting zoo! There was a whole pond full of alligators, swimming in the murky waters and lounging along the sand pit. We stared at them for a good half hour, I kid you not. Then it was off to hold a baby gator! It was so cute!

I bought some feed and headed deeper in the park, spotting all different kinds of deer immediately. We passed goats and sheep. Things I’d never seen up close like emus and ostriches. Some of them were pretty intense with their big glassy eyes, but they all approached when they realized I had the food.

My mission was to pet as many animals as I could, which was at some points extremely terrifying. Large birds are basically dinosaurs, okay? And anything bigger than me deserves caution. The lemurs were hilarious though.

I have to say besides the alligators, my favorite part was making friends with a baby kangaroo. I had never seen a kangaroo, let alone a baby, let alone it jumping to me! It was so soft and adorable, I decided it was going to be my next pet.

And then of course I started to feel a bit bad for all the animals because they should probably be free, right? Then I looked up their mission which was largely educational and responsible for research and promotion of understanding of all animals, no matter if they’re exotic or not. So I can definitely get behind that!

I can also get behind impromptu stops based on billboards offering adventure!

Be Open to Not Having a Plan

Not only does Oklahoma have a special place in my heart because both of my parents grew up in small Oklahoma towns, it’s also home to my alma mater (Boomer Sooner)! It may be surprising to some, but Oklahoma has some truly beautiful natural landscapes. I remember being young and going on a lot of drives through the sprawling countryside and it’s honestly a really lovely view on a roadtrip.

While it is mostly plains, they have a lot of interesting waterways and of course, their famous red dirt. It was a bit weird to discover that this entire state only has two spots in the National Parks system. And one of them I passed within 20 miles of a million times on my way from home to college! I decided it was time to make a day trip to the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.

I guess it’s because of how comfortable I am with visiting Oklahoma, but I did next to no research for this trip. I’m big on planning, but for some reason I let myself become the tagalong on my friend’s trip. I was surprised how busy it was for a Friday, but it was summer so we ran into a lot of kids off from school. After visiting the visitor center, we walked the local flower park and spotted the state flower Indian Blanket.

The four of us, made up mostly of new friends I’d just made on the short roadtrip, decided to try a real hike before taking a dip in the many pools of water. The flowers had not been enough. The main probably with this was I had come completely unprepared. I had no water, was wearing jean shorts, and hadn’t showered before I was to go trekking into the summer heat.

We meandered through the Antelope and Buffalo Springs, checking out the different areas of the water fun, before we found the Travertine Creek trail. It was about a three mile hike, there and back, with hidden views of the spring and giant pools of water. I’m not going to lie, I wanted to nix the hike and jump in the cool natural springs.

I’m not good without a plan. I guess you could say I’m an easygoing control freak – I will be easygoing until things run out of my control. But I was with new friends and everyone was having a good time. And I honestly love hiking! So I stuck to the back of the pack and practiced patience. There are worse things to happen out of someone’s control. This was a simple summer hike. With a promised treat within sight!

The end of the trail led us to an awful smelling sulphur spring, and I was pretty glad at the group’s agreed disappointment. Now we could head double time to the swimming fun! In fact, we didn’t even make it all the way back to the super populated springs and instead took a side trail that led us to a big pool with a pretty cool waterfall.

We shed our clothes and hit the water fast. Even though it was freezing – seriously, in the middle of July! – I was so excited to be swimming. Not going to lie, there was a lot of debris and weird nature in the natural pool, but I was so glad to be swimming instead of hiking in the heat, I didn’t care a bit!

A few of the locals had spotted our waterfall and kids began lining up to slide down it. With them came the parents, who we chatted with about the summer break and where they’d come from. We were the only Texans, but I was surprised how many small town folks had made the hour drive to the Chickasaw Area. Then I remembered what a beautiful spot it was and how many swimming areas there were and it made sense.

We swam until our fingers pruned and got out shivering. It was a nice little hike back to the car and the promise of stopping for Mexican food before returning home had my mood a complete 180 from hours before. Everything had turned out great – I just need to remember to be open to new experiences!