Sunday, February 20, 2011

Oklahoma Whale Watching

The Interstate between Oklahoma City and Tulsa is a toll Turnpike.  While fast and efficient, it’s also a pretty dull drive.   Since I wasn’t all that excited about returning to snowy, cold Chicago, I decided to take the slower scenic Route 66 road that parallels must of the Turnpike through northeast Oklahoma.

I saw some vintage Route 66 stuff, and plenty of small towns….
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But the one roadside attraction I was REALLY wanting to see was, perhaps, the most outrageous Route 66 attraction of them all…the Blue Whale in Catoosa, Oklahoma just northeast of Tulsa.

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There are some great stories about how this little park was created, and later, how it was renovated and brought back to it’s original splendor.  The park is no longer operational, but still is freely open for tourists to stop and photograph.

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After this final diversion, it was time to put the rubber to the road and head on home.  Our final night of this 6-week adventure was spent the same way it began….at a Wal-Mart parking lot.   But this time, surprisingly, there was one other camper in the lot, and it just happened to be one of our old trailers, a T@B!
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What a great end to a great trip!   Can’t wait to snowbird again next year!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Two Unique Parks on the way Home

While there were plenty of free Wal-Mart overnight parking opportunities between New Mexico and Illinois, and I did indeed stay at one on the last night of my trip, I decided to bypass the Interstates for much of my drive home so I could stay at two unique parks—Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, and the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma.  Both are true geological oddities amidst their more normal surroundings.

The Texas panhandle is, for the most part, F-L-A-T.  Tumbleweeds, Windmills, and barren ranch land like this.
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So, imagine a place just 5 miles from this barren windmill, that is entirely different!  Palo Duro Canyon State Park is considered the “Grand Canyon of Texas” and indeed it is a welcome relief to descend away from the flatlands into an entirely different place.

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Within 5 minutes of arriving to our campsite, Millie and I already started seeing wildlife all around us…a few deer in the woods behind our campsite, and a flock of wild turkeys spent the night roosting in a big oak tree near our site.  Here’s a picture of one of them waltzing right through our site on the way to his evening roost--
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But the funniest animal sighting of the evening was this pair of Cardinals that had come to inspect Millie’s dinner bowl.
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Yep, that’s right!  Cardinals like to eat dog food too!  Millie was not amused.

The next day, we left the Texas panhandle and drove into west central Oklahoma.  Again, more F-L-A-T and barren land, more tumbleweeds…you get the idea.  So, I had to stop and see a place that would audaciously call itself the Wichita “Mountains”. 

Sure enough, as I got close to the Wildlife Preserve’s entrance, there was a small range of sizeable rocky hills that appeared as “mountains” compared to their surroundings.  This place also had longhorn cattle freely roaming the range and even a small lake that seemed more reminiscent of northern Ontario than western Oklahoma.

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Millie didn’t care where we were—it was a lake, and that could mean just one thing….swimming!
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The campground at the park was nestled in a very unusual, stubby, craggily looking forest along one side of the lake.  With the leaves still off these trees, and a full moon, it made for a “spooky” but enjoyable final camping evening around the fire.
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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sand instead of Snow!

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After a month in the desert, Millie had had enough!  She wanted to run and play Frisbee again, and the Sonoran desert with all it’s sticky, pokey cacti was nowhere to do that!  So, when we rolled into White Sands National Monument, Millie was thrilled that I let her do a little bit of “stealth” Frisbee playing in the dunes next to the parking lot.

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After leaving Bosque del Apache, we stopped at Truth or Consequences and Elephant Butte State Park to work for a few days. 

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While it was still a bit nippy (only in the 50’s during the day, and into the 30’s at night), Millie was happy to see water again, and she got one very quick, very chilly swim in the lake one afternoon.

I love New Mexico’s colors and laid back lifestyle and would love to spend more time here, but it’s at a higher elevation than most of Arizona, so it gets pretty cold and snowy at times during the winter.  Fortunately, winter doesn’t last long here--- so, by mid-February, it was a nice place to spend a week waiting for the right weather conditions to make my final migration home.

Chicago had been blasted with a huge blizzard and was still digging out from 3 feet of snow.  Some friends had posted pictures of their driveways where snow had drifted up so high that it nearly covered the garage door!  Ah well, the only white stuff I had to contend with was the sand Millie and I tracked into the motorhome!

Most of central New Mexico is Government land used for testing missiles (the atomic bomb testing was done on the northern portion of this range in the 1940’s). so there are few roads and even fewer people here.  Yet, just before you enter White Sands National Monument, you must stop at one of these dumb Border Patrol checkpoints that are dotted across NM, AZ, and CA.
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Each of these checkpoints seemed to be the same routine—dozens of shiney new Border Patrol SUVs and other equipment sitting unused, a half dozen or so BP officers sitting around, and 1 officer going through the motions of interviewing each motorist.  None of these checkpoints ever asked to see anything or even look at my driver’s license.  They simply asked “are you a U.S. resident?” “Ok, good.  Have a nice day!”

I’m all for protecting our borders and ensuring our border patrol agents have the resources they need to do the job.  I could also see how setting up temporary random checkpoints well inland from the borders would help catch any of those missed at the border itself.  But, whose bright idea was it to put all these permanent checkpoints across the Southwest, and then not bother to even really “check” the vehicles coming through?  If Congress is looking to cut the budget, hey fellas, here’s another glaringly obvious choice before cutting grandma’s Medicare!

Ok, I’ll climb off the soapbox now and move on to soaptrees!   Soaptree Yucca plants are one of the only plants that manage to grow at White Sands, so they made some natural subjects for photographs:

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And of course, there were the dunes themselves, and a nice New Mexico sunset to go with them:

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We spent our last night in New Mexico along the side of a mountain at Oliver Lee State Park near Alamogordo.   Wished I could have spent more time there, but 70 mph wind gusts were being predicted for the next day, so I knew we had to high-tail it off that unprotected perch to start heading home.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

An Afternoon at Bosque del Apache

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Keeping with the “Apache” theme, after the Apache Trail, I headed to New Mexico with the main purpose of visiting Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  This rather small preserve, located just a few miles off of I-25 (and not too far from where the atom bomb was originally tested back in the 1940s), is the winter home to an amazing variety of birds.  It attracts birders and photographers from around the world, and rightly so.   This place was spectacular!

Within minutes of arriving, I came upon a small pond that was jammed packed with snow geese.  I’d never seen these birds before and spent the next hour just being amazed by them.

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I then began making my way around a loop drive.  As there was lots to see and photograph, but only a couple hours of prime afternoon light, I decided to forego the tripod and just shoot all pictures from the motorhome—thank goodness for my image-stabilized telephoto lens!
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Even though Mallards are very common in Illinois, I never saw them in such amazing light before…New Mexico made them very special!

The real attraction here, though, are the Sandhill cranes.  I was a bit late in the season here for them, but there were still many of them to be seen:
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One afternoon was simply not enough time to enjoy the magic of this place!  I will certainly plan to return for a longer stay next time!

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