My next trip after the rally involved the Roadster, but only peripherally. I was still on the hunt for parts for the car to repair the deer damage, and my friend Bob from the Solvang trip had told me that he had a matched pair of fenders from a ’68. These weren’t exact replacements, as the ’66-’67 fenders have a noticeably smaller flare on them, but I figured if they were both the same nobody but the roadster geeks would notice. However, the fenders lived in Arkansas with Bob, so a road trip would be involved.
Around the same time, my friend John was planning a storm chasing trip around the southwestern Texas region, so I figured I could kill two birds with one stone—head over to Arkansas to see Bob and pick up the fenders, swing down to Texas and meet up with John to chase some storms, then head back to Vegas via New Mexico and Arizona. Whee!
Since I was picking up some fairly large car parts, taking the Roadster was out of the question, so I turned to my 2nd favorite vehicle, my trusty 1992 Toyota V6 ‘Xtra Cab’ pickup truck. I’ve driven a 1992 Toyota pickup with only a couple brief interruptions since they were new in ’92, and it’s consistently been one of the most reliable and versatile vehicles I’ve ever owned. Between several seasons of hauling a race motorcycle all around the western US, running for parts and supplies for work, making more than a few cross country road trips, and generally just daily driving the thing, I’ve probably got somewhere north of half a million happy miles in a Toyota pickup. Sadly, you can’t buy a small pickup in the US anymore—the best you can hope for in a ‘compact’ truck is something like a Tacoma or a Frontier or a Colorado, which are actually mid-size trucks that dwarf vehicles like my Toyota. Why is that? Two reasons: The Chicken Tax, and the new “footprint” rules for average fuel economy. In any case, they’re a vanishing breed, which is sad because it’s a great vehicle segment.
I had a short gig rigging stunts on Fast & Furious 7 (aka “Furious 7”) in LA, after which I headed back to Vegas and got the truck ready to go (oil change, tuneup, the usual.) I decided to take the southern-ish route, which would re-trace some of the path of the original road trip. On my first night, I went from Vegas to Flagstaff and crashed there for the evening, then early the next morning I took off across the desert toward Monument Valley. The desert wildflowers were still in bloom, and the terrain was as beautiful as always. I continued through Monument Valley, past Four Corners, then up to Durango, Colorado for dinner. I stopped in at the same saloon where I’d stayed on the first trip, had the same enormous burger, and had a nice chat with the same bartender.
As it was still relatively early after dinner, I opted to keep driving a bit rather than stay at the Strater again, and ended up camping up in the southern Rockies at Big Meadows. The camping area had just re-opened after its winter hiatus, and everything was lovely and clean and fresh. It rained a bit overnight, but the truck needed a bath anyway after the dusty trip through Monument Valley and southwestern Colorado.
I got up early and caught a nice sunrise, then hiked around the lake a little before continuing the trip eastward. Cruising across southeastern Colorado, I came upon an old abandoned power plant outside of Walsenburg and did a bit of exploring. It was a really neat looking old building, and there was a hole in the fence, and I am not one to pass up an invitation like that. It turned out to actually be a really cool building on the inside too, and interestingly, it’s actually for sale. It’d make a really great residence and shop (still has the original gantry crane!), but it’d take an enormous amount of money to make it habitable, and even then you’d be living in…Walsenburg. So probably not.
Anyway, after a bit more geeking out around the steam turbines and generators, I continued through a bit of northeastern New Mexico and into the very “Grapes of Wrath”-looking Oklahoma panhandle. As I’d seen on a lot of my previous trip, the small farmer seems to be continuing to suffer against the onslaught of big agriculture like Cargill and ADM, as the roads were dotted with one abandoned farmstead after another. I stopped here and there to take in a few of the sights (including a cool little impromptu collection of abandoned Fords), but for the most part it was solid, flat, farmland all the way to Tulsa, where I stopped for the evening to visit a friend.
My next stop was Farmington, AR to see Bob and pick up the parts for the car. Being a ridiculously generous guy, he loaded both fenders, a complete spare R16 engine, and a few other odds and ends into the back of the truck, accepting no payment for any of it with the excuse of “I’ve got to get rid of all this stuff anyway; we’re moving.” We had a nice lunch, and then I had to get going if I was going to meet John in Texas on time—I’d spent a bit more time camping and exploring old powerhouses than I had expected to, so now I had about a 650 mile shot to make down to Midland that night, which included a pretty daunting bit of Texas. At about 2am, I stopped for gas at a little one-light town somewhere between Wichita Falls and Abilene, where an enormous pit bull came over to either threaten or greet me. Being an optimist, I went with “greet”, and he turned out to be terrifying looking, but pretty friendly, and he enjoyed a good scratch behind the ears while I filled up the truck. There was a bit more drama with my new friend to come, though—I walked over to the gas station convenience store after filling up to grab some water and a snack, and as I approached the door, the clerk and a local cop who was inside started waving their arms and shouting something. Too late, I opened the door, and then realized all that yelling and arm waving was them warning me not to let the sneaky dog (who was then right behind me) into the store. I got about halfway in the door and he got about halfway through my legs before I figured it out, and I managed to close my legs just behind his shoulders. So, there we were, half inside and half outside, with the dog just hunkered down and refusing to move. The clerk just sort of looked resigned and sad, and the cop was laughing at all of us, and I could not get that dog to move. He wasn’t angry or aggressive, he just wasn’t about to go back outside, and he was basically one solid chunk of muscle. Finally, the clerk sighed and said “It’s OK, just let him in”, and my new friend happily trotted off to the snack cake isle where he laid himself down with an extremely smug look on his face.
I grabbed my snacks and apologized to the clerk, who informed me that it was OK, the dog generally made it inside one way or other. Topped off with gas, I headed back out into the central/west Texas wasteland. The storms we were hoping to chase were starting to make themselves known, and although I didn’t see a lot of rain, there was a substantial amount of lightning and thunder, which was pretty entertaining.
I finally got to the hotel in Midland where I’d agreed to meet John in the very wee hours of the morning, and noticed that the parking lot seemed to have a lot of storm chasing vehicles parked there, mostly SUVs that were loaded with antennae and various forms of armoring and protection. I figured I had the right place, grabbed a room, and then grabbed a nap before meeting up with John for breakfast a few hours later.
John had gotten some weather forecasts and had some radar software as well, but for the most part chasing seemed to involve looking for suspicious weather patterns and then driving off in that general direction and hoping that something interesting developed. For most of the day, we were just missing storms that had recently passed, and it looked like they were pretty good ones—at one location, a flash flood had ripped the asphalt right off the roadway and demolished the flood gauge post, but it looked like that had happened at least an hour before we got there.
We checked the radar again and headed northwest toward some clouds that looked like they might be gathering into an anvil formation. As we got closer (which took a while, as the formation was some 35 miles distant and moving away, but in that part of Texas you can practically see far enough to watch the earth curve), it started looking stormier and stormier, and by the time we got close it had actually developed into a pretty respectable storm. An actual successful storm chase! We went after it from a couple different angles, narrowly missed getting hailed on, and got some really neat pictures. The photos don’t really do it justice; it’s hard to convey just how enormous and foreboding the whole thing is when it’s looming over you like that. As night fell, we got a little lightning show from the remnants of the storm as it blew itself out, then headed back to the hotel, had some dinner, and turned in.
The next day, John was headed out in a new direction for some more storm chasing, but I was headed westward toward Vegas. I decided that since I was on that godforsaken side of Texas already, I’d just push through to New Mexico and try to get to White Sands before sunset. As you may remember from earlier in the trip blog, I had missed my opportunity to see White Sands on my earlier visit due to the USAF crashing a drone there and closing the whole National Park, but hopefully this time there wouldn’t be anything falling out of the sky.
I figured out a new-to-me route out of Texas that took me on some pretty great roads—I stopped in Silver City for lunch, and at Gila National Forest for a quick hike. The chili verde in Silver City was excellent, and my hike in Gila was quite a bit quicker than I expected, as the catwalks that make up a substantial portion of the hiking trail had been damaged by flash floods earlier in the spring and the trail was closed after only about a mile. Still, it was very pretty, and I’m intrigued by the concept of a catwalk hike on a cliff face, so I’ll need to come back and visit when the whole thing is open again.
Finally, I made it to White Sands late in the afternoon, a couple hours before sunset, and headed off into the sand on a nice little hike. It was one of those bizarre off season weekday hikes where you don’t see another living soul, made doubly bizarre by the fact that I could see miles in any one direction across the brilliant white gypsum sand. It felt like I’d been dropped into a particularly weird episode of Star Trek, as the landscape was really pretty alien looking, both due to the windblown shapes of the dunes and the pure white color of the landscape stretching out to the horizon. If you ever find yourself in the neighborhood, I highly recommend a visit. The sunset was very nice, and after watching it sink behind the dunes I headed back to the truck and left the park.
I was fairly eager to get home at that point, so the remainder of the trip was a pretty solid blast across the desert. I did stay off the interstate as much as possible, but there’s a lot of open space out there and I wasn’t off hunting for adventure, so other than a few interesting little roadside relics, it was an uneventful trip back to Vegas from White Sands.
Next trip: Off to Pennsylvania for a bit…