Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Magical Ozarks– A Springtime Oasis!

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Spring is my favorite season.  After 4 months in the Southwest with it’s subtle color variations, I was really longing for a good old Midwest “knock your socks off” panorama of vibrant green as far as the eye could see!   So I planned to stop a few days in the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri during my trip back to Chicago where I’d be sure to get my spring green fix!

I started seeing a few vistas of green in Oklahoma, and by the time I crossed the Arkansas border near Fort Smith, there was no mistaking that I was now it brilliant green Ozark country!  I decided to spend the night, appropriately, in the town of Ozark, AR just a few miles off of I-40 along the Arkansas river.

I stayed at a nice Army COE campground called Aux Arc Park (using the classier French spelling of Ozark) and got a spot right along the river
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The next day I wanted to drive north to the Buffalo River area around Harrison and Jasper.  I took Scenic Route 21 from Clarksville and it was a delightfully rolling and twisting drive up and down the Ozark mountains and past fields of crimson clover and yellow canola

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I had been thinking about staying a few days around Harrison to do a paddling trip along the Buffalo, but I wasn’t finding the right blend of scenic campground with hookups that I was looking for (and I also found out the Buffalo water levels were quite low so I’d not be able to paddle the section I was most interested in).

So…on to Plan B.  I continued on towards the Ozark National Scenic Riverways park in southeast Missouri stopping first at a large, quiet Wal-Mart parking lot for the night in White Plains, MO to stock up on supplies.

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I don’t know why driving into the small town of Eminence, MO always reminds me of the song “Dueling Banjos” from the movie Deliverance, but there are more than a few old rundown houses in town that have an assortment of old recliners, appliances, and even ATVs parked on the front porch!  Combined with spotty to non-existent cell phone, TV or radio reception, and a city slicker could certainly feel a bit apprehensive in this part of hillbilly country.

But, truth be told, the people are honest and friendly, and it’s a wonderful get-away from the hectic pace of the modern world.  There are so few places in the eastern half of the U.S. where you can do that!

The park protects two natural spring-fed rivers—the Current and the Jacks Fork.  Both are crystal clear and nearly completely devoid of any mud or sediment.  Millie tested out both rivers and gave them her highest “Four Paws” seal of approval!

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The afternoon sun on the still Jacks Fork river also made for some terrific mirror reflections:

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I badly wanted to paddle one of these rivers, but I also really wanted to photograph the natural springs that feed them and didn’t have time to do both.  So, the springs won out this time (I know I’ll be back!)

I started my explorations at the southern end of the park near the down of Van Buren, MO to see Big Spring.  It’s adjacent to a large NPS campground and picnic area which must be quite busy in the summer.  Thankfully, on this quiet spring weekday, I had the place virtually all to myself!  What an idyllic spot to enjoy the afternoon!

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I took a different route back home towards camp so that I could check out Blue Spring, supposedly the deepest of all the Ozark springs.  It, indeed, was a brilliant blue and looked pretty darn deep!

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The photo below initially appears to be a mirror reflection of the trees, but click it to look a bit closer at the water—it’s the rocky cliff beneath the surface heading down into the spring!

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The spring poured out onto a brief stretch of rapids that I followed alongside via a short path that led to a nice view of the Current river where the spring water ended up.

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Back at the Alley Spring campground, I noticed the tell-tail sign that a change of weather would be coming within 12 hours—altocumulus clouds in the sky!

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Sure enough, the next morning we awoke to rain and significantly colder weather.  As soon as the rain let up a little bit, I hopped in the Tracker to head over to nearby Alley Spring. 

I was first enchanted by this place in the Fall of 2010.  As wonderful as it was to photograph in Autumn, I was intrigued by what it might look like in the Spring.  I now have to say that I like it even better at this time of year!  See if you agree--  .

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As pretty as the little creek and waterfall were, the vibrant aqua spring itself is the main attraction here.  Of course, the rains resumed just as I started photographing it, but no worries!  I had my camera on a tripod and just slowed my exposures down enough to smooth out the water surface of the steady raindrops.  The rain also ensured that I could have this special “Heaven on Earth” place all to myself for the morning.  What a delicious oasis to return to after so many months in the desert!

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We left camp the next day to drive back home to Chicago.  I had hoped to photograph the final spring, Round Spring, on the north end of the park, but the park service had it closed off to visitors for the weekend.  Guess I’ll have something new to explore the next time!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Dodging and Dashing Across the Plains

I don’t know how the snowbird RVers from years ago did it—dodging snowstorms in the winter to get to their warmer roost, and then dashing between rounds of thunderstorms in the springtime to return home.  Yes, we modern-day snowbirds still have to contend with those same challenges, but thankfully, some of us now have iPads and smart phones with near-realtime weather maps to help us better navigate around such calamities.

My Weather Channel app predicted a cold front and rain would be arriving to Arizona on Friday so I knew that’d be the day to leave.  But driving too far would put me into thunderstorms and tornados in Oklahoma and Texas.  In between, in New Mexico, extreme winds were predicted to start Friday afternoon and through Saturday.  So, I decided to leave by 4 a.m. to make it to New Mexico before the winds arrived, and then hunker down there for the weekend and make a mad dash across the Plains once a window of clear calm weather was available.

I must be inching closer to becoming a full-fledged Senior as I actually liked getting up in the middle of the night and on the road by 4 am!  It allowed me to finish my day’s driving by early afternoon before winds started blowing too hard.  What a nice change to arrive to the campground without racing to set up before darkness sets in!

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I found a nice pull-thru site that would allow the RV to face west (towards where the strong winds would be coming from so I’d avoid the RV being rocked side to side all night long!).  I could see the lake in the distance from my site—well, what little water was still in the lake.  It looked to be at least 30-50 feet below normal levels and in severe drought.  Seems like many lakes in New Mexico are in a same predicament these days.
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While some of the cacti and junipers in the campground had shriveled up and died from the drought, a few flowers still managed to thrive like these desert primrose:
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Saturday started out so calm and peaceful that I nearly thought the Weather.com forecasters had got it all wrong!  I decided to head into Santa Rosa to do some grocery shopping and explore the town a bit more.

Santa Rosa looked like it was probably quite a nice stop back in the Route 66 heydays.  Evidence of lots of old neon signs and “drive your car up to the door” motels along the old Route 66 route through town, although now, nearly all were closed and abandoned.  But there was still a friendly little mom and pop grocery store (T & D Food Mart), and a couple of restaurants around the town square that seemed to be doing a good business.  There were also a few parks with “sinkhole” lakes around town—one called Blue Hole, even deep enough for scuba diving!  Driving along Route 91 south of town revealed a lush green valley along the Pecos river:
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And just how do those residents get from the highway down to their ranches on the other side of the river?  Across concrete berms that let the water flow beneath (and sometimes over) them!
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By the time Millie and I arrived back to camp around lunchtime, the winds had really picked up. All we could do for the next 24 hours was stay inside the View with the slide-out in and ride out the storm.  New Mexico is notorious for high winds, and this wind storm certainly was that!  Winds averaged over 35 mph with gusts up to 60 mph.  Glad I was not out trying to drive in it!  Instead, I spent most of the day busy on the computer finally getting my income taxes filed Smile

By Sunday morning, the winds finally began to calm a bit, and weather along I-40 was clear, so we left Santa Rosa to head east.  The plateaus of New Mexico began to recede and soon we were driving the vast “flat as a pancake” open plains of the Texas panhandle.  I decided to stop at a popular Route 66 photo spot just west of Amarillo to break up the monotony of the drive—the “Cadillac Ranch”!

I first stopped here back in 2007, when I did my first Route 66 drive with my T@B trailer, but today, the late afternoon sun and abundant clouds made photo conditions much more appealing.  No cattle were out grazing the field today, only a tiny little field mouse who cheerfully posed for my wide angle lens just inches away from him!  A few empty cans of spray paint were scattered about—could this little guy have done all the fancy paintwork on these cars?!!!
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Double-click this one to open it larger—that little mouse appears to be smiling at his handiwork!
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Soon the sun popped out from behind the clouds, and I got busy snapping a few photos!

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As I continued my drive through the eastern Texas panhandle, I watched a small thundershower cell ahead of me on the highway.  With the sun setting behind me, I knew there’d have to be a rainbow popping up soon….and there was!  It was fun to get to watch it for the next 10 minutes or so.
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Before leaving Texas, since I had so much fun at the Cadillac Ranch, I decided to drive through downtown Shamrock, Texas to take a quick pic of their beautifully restored Conoco gas station.  Now hanging your point and shoot camera out the window as you slowly drive your motorhome down Main street doesn’t always get the greatest images, and this un-edited one was certainly the case
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But with a little bit of editing in Adobe Photoshop Elements to remove the light pole and electric wires, and then a fun pass through a filter in Nik Color Efex Pro software, and the little gas station now looked the way I had imagined it!
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We arrived at our familiar El Reno, Oklahoma Wal-Mart parking lot a few hours later to end a long but very fun day of dashing across the Plains.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Heading to Higher Ground

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Arizona is one of the few places where you can nearly always find a comfortable temperature without leaving the state.  As Tucson and Phoenix’s forecasts were starting to climb well into the 90’s, it was time to start looking for higher ground!  I wanted to visit the Apache-Sitgraeve area around Show Low, but the weather there was still a bit too cold.  Checking the forecast around Prescott and Sedona, however, showed a string of perfect days in the 70’s.  So, Millie and I headed north!

I stayed in Prescott Valley for the first five days as the unlimited $15/night Passport-America rate at the Fairgrounds RV Park was just too good to pass up (it even included free WiFi, what a treat!). 

I had visited the Prescott area briefly last winter and remembered driving past a lake that looked like it’d be awesome to paddle in warmer weather.  So on Easter Sunday, I did just that.  Watson Lake is one of two lakes in Prescott that are in the midst of a red rock area.  Watson is a bit smaller than Willow Lake and seemed more popular with kayakers, so I headed there.

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It was a terrific lake to explore!  Lots of little nooks and a few rocky islands to paddle around… and I even saw a bald eagle!

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After doing up Prescott, I wanted to move to the northern side of the Mingus mountain range to even prettier places—Cottonwood and Sedona.  I had spent a weekend there last winter and knew I had only scratched the surface of all there was to explore. 

I was eager to do some more boondocking after staying in campgrounds and RV parks so many weeks, and I lucked into a phenomenal BLM site a few miles east of Cottonwood near the Thousand Trails RV resort.  I had a terrific view of the Mingus mountains and Cottonwood to the south, with Sedona’s red rocks off in the distance to the north….what a view out my “office window”!
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I even watched a small rain shower roll over the moutains one afternoon and make it’s way across the valley:
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Just before sunset each evening, I’d take the Tracker for a drive up to the Sedona area.  One night, I drove the trails out beyond Dry Creek Rd where all the tourist jeeps go:
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The next night, I drove the main tourist route from Oak Creek into Sedona and really lucked out with spectacular lighting (and even a rainbow!).  This area really should have been a National Park—it’s just jaw-dropping gorgeous!
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Alas, all good things must come to an end.  A big cold front was moving into the area and bringing some thundershowers with it.  Time to move back down to lower ground!   Also time to finally leave beautiful Arizona and start making our way back home to Chicago.

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