Despite Covid, we are managing to get out and do a few field trips during our winter here. One was to visit Biosphere 2, located an hour or so north of us. I have long wanted to visit the site — I remember hearing about it back in the 90’s. As a lifetime sci-fi geek, the concept excited me.
Biosphere 2 was originally intended to demonstrate the viability of closed ecological systems to support and maintain human life in outer space. It was named Biosphere 2 because Earth itself is the original biosphere. The habitat was built to house eight human volunteers (biospherians) for a two-year mission. The facility includes a fog desert, rainforest, ocean with coral reef, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, agricultural area and human living quarters. Power is supplied by onsite power generators and an extensive air conditioning / heating system is built under and around it. The volunteers would grow their own food, conduct experiments, care for farm animals, and maintain the facility in a completely enclosed and self-contained environment.
Covid precautions required us to pre-book our timed ticket. We downloaded their app, which led us through a one-way self-guided tour of much of the facility. There were only a couple of other visitors present, which made social distancing easy!
The careful thought that went into the facility was evident as we wandered through the surprisingly spacious facility. The variety of species present was fascinating, as was the overall design. I could only imagine what it must have been like for the biospherians to live in this — their entire world for two years.
The two-year experiment was launched with much fanfare in September 1991. The project was ultimately plagued by problems: depleting oxygen levels, die-off of species, overgrowth of others (like cockroaches, yuck!), difficulty growing enough calories for the biospherians, and politics among the project leaders. With low oxygen and insufficient calories, the biospherians became tired and cranky. About 18 months in, concerned for the volunteers’ health, the project leaders decided to pump supplemental oxygen into the habitat. Touted as “entirely enclosed”, lack of transparency with the media about this decision caused the experiment to come under heavy criticism. Nevertheless, the two year experiment was completed. Ultimately, power struggles within the company resulted in the facility’s sale and now it is owned and operated by the University of Arizona as an environmental research facility. For more about the history and Biosphere 2 story, a new documentary (Spaceship Earth) is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. The documentary goes into much more detail about the origin of the concept and includes footage and interviews from the original participants.
I found the whole Biosphere 2 concept to be completely fascinating. The sci-fi geek in me would love to be part of that kind of experiment — for maybe a week or two. Not two years, though! Maybe a Biosphere 2 camp for grownups?
We’ve been here at our Tucson winter spot for a couple of months now. With a four month stay, we knew we would need more diesel fuel at some point. Last year, we simply packed up and drove to the local truck stop midway during our visit. What we hadn’t counted on was the high level of challenge to maneuver in and out of this year’s site.
This RV park has a different site layout than any we’ve seen thus far. Casually looking at the site, I originally thought that our site extended from paved patio to paved patio with bus and toad parking in between. But, no. Our site extends halfway out from the paved patio on both sides, with RV parking on one side and toad parking on the other. This, combined with the mid-site placement of the sewer outlet makes for a narrow and awkward back-in parking challenge. When we arrived, it took a village to help us insert ourselves into the space. (It didn’t help matters that our late afternoon arrival placed the sun directly in Jeff’s back up camera, completely obscuring his view).
And that was when the park wasn’t full. Now, at peak occupancy, we have neighbors on all sides. We can’t even begin to move the bus out without our neighbor moving his tow vehicle. We just weren’t looking forward to the whole “go out for fuel” effort. But, as our tank neared one-quarter full, we knew we had little choice. Diesel fuels our aqua-hot heating system, necessary for the frigid desert nights. Once we drop below one-quarter tank, auxiliary systems such as our generator and Aqua-hot boiler won’t work. Fuel, we must.
I figured there had to be a better way, so I started searching for fuel delivery services. Trucks deliver propane, so surely diesel delivery options must exist, right?
Indeed they do. The first firm I found was based in Phoenix. They quoted a $750 delivery fee plus over $4 per gallon for the fuel. Um, no thanks! Taking the bus out was looking like the better option. However, the SECOND firm I found was based here in Tucson. Andy’s Mobile Fuel Service only has a Yellow Pages listing, no website or social media presence. Still, I gave the number a ring. The nice lady that answered quoted $50 delivery fee and $2.71/gallon for diesel (much closer to the market price). She gave me Andy’s cell number for scheduling. When I reached Andy, he set us right up. He was familiar with the RV park, having fueled their onsite generators. With a truck already deployed out in our area, we scheduled the delivery.
We weren’t sure what to expect, but within a couple of hours, a clean and professional-looking truck pulled up to our site. Since one of our neighbors also wanted fuel, Andy split the delivery fee between us! The process was efficient and was completed without incident. We paid on the spot (check or credit card accepted), and were provided a receipt. We now have a full tank which should last us through the rest of our stay. Done!
2020 started off so normally, with Jeff and I spending the holidays with family in Indiana. We were enjoying our winter in a great Florida RV resort. January saw us putting the final touches on our newly restored Gatlinburg cabin which had been damaged in a June 2019 dryer-fire. It took longer than expected to complete repairs, but by the end of January it was back on the rental program, better than new! In early February, we embarked on a fabulous Southern Caribbean cruise with my sister and had an absolutely fantastic time.
Then … COVID. The pandemic threw our plans into disarray (as it did with everyone). We paused our travels, hunkering down in our cabin for a few weeks to see what was going to happen. By the end of May, we resumed our planned Northeast loop, albeit in a limited fashion. We made the most of our planned stops, and did what we could at each, considering pandemic closures and risks.
For me, the Northeast was just …. meh. Maybe it would have been different in a non-COVID year. There were certainly highlights ….. walking the Boston Freedom Trail, delicious fresh seafood (lobster!) from the Portland fish market, the beauty of Acadia National Park, ascending Mt. Washington on a narrow winding road, visiting a maple syrup farm, touring the Lancaster Amish area … to name a few. But, on the whole, we found campgrounds to be older and not so big-rig friendly and the roads confusing and expensive (tolls). There are some cities I’d like to re-visit, but I wouldn’t do it in the RV. It would be far easier to just stay in a hotel near the tourist areas.
The most challenging aspect of 2020 for me was the feeling of social isolation. Our lifestyle tends to be isolating anyway (because we’re constantly on the move), but we found we could compensate by staying at resorts with planned social activities. This year, that strategy didn’t work out so well. My family began holding weekly Zoom calls, which helped greatly, but just wasn’t the same as that in-person connection.
On the other hand, we have so much to be grateful for. Our family members have stayed healthy throughout this pandemic. Financially, we’re all doing fine. We stayed safe during our travels this year and didn’t experience any major issues or breakdowns. We tried to make the best of our situation …. just like everyone else.
I made the (controversial) decision to fly home from Tucson for the holidays. I mitigated the risk as best I could by self-isolating for 10 days prior to travel and obtaining a negative COVID test. I flew on an off-peak day (Christmas Day), and even sprung for a first-class Delta ticket to facilitate social distancing. Hopefully, that will prove to be good enough. So now, I’ve come full circle, celebrating the holidays with my family, looking toward the New Year.
And, there are many things to look forward to in 2021. Vaccines are being deployed, promising an eventual return to normalcy. We have made friends in our current winter spot, so can enjoy some limited socializing the remainder of this season. We have an interesting West Coast loop planned, including visits with family and friends. We have TWO cruises booked, one to Alaska in the summer and one back to the Southern Caribbean after Thanksgiving.
And the biggest joy of all is that our son is getting married! He finally popped the question last May to his long-time girlfriend and they are planning an October wedding near the Smoky Mountains. I couldn’t be more delighted! We love her, and I already think of her as my daughter. They are planning an intimate destination wedding, with essentially just her family and my family. The prospect of a joyous weekend event spent with loved ones, and WITHOUT the spectre of COVID, just makes my heart sing.
Last year, I wrote about staying at Recreation Plantation for the winter. RP is an active RV community with mostly seasonal residents. With a full-time activity office and variety of recreational facilities, the place is hopping! There are any number of activities and social events to plug yourself into. If you are bored — it’s your own fault! I made some great friends, learned new skills, kept super-busy, and just loved it.
When we decided to winter in Arizona this year, we looked at a variety of RV parks and zeroed in on Rincon Country West, in Tucson. At over 1100 sites, the park has beautiful facilities and offers a wide variety of activities for residents. We arrived in mid-November and settled in for a four month stay.
The facilities are quite extensive. The main recreation center is equipped with a large auditorium, meeting hall with kitchen facilities, swimming pool, indoor hot tub, lending library, fitness studio, and a dozen classrooms equipped for specific activities: cards, sewing, lapidary/silversmith, pottery/ceramics, stained glass, general crafts, digital photography, ham radio, billiards, and a large wood shop. An enormous outdoor model train facility sits just outside the rec center and is regularly maintained and run by the Garden Railroad Club. Other outdoor facilities include shuffleboard, tennis, pickleball, basketball, horse shoes, putting green, and bocce ball. There’s even a beauty shop right on site! The Loop paved bike trail is just outside the back gate, and mountain biking trails are a short riding distance away. Jeff can literally hop on his bicycle and ride out to his trails. The facility hosts more than 100 activity clubs including musical ensembles, arts and crafts, and sports. This place looked to be right up our alley!!
But ….. Covid.
For the 2020 season, most of the activities simply aren’t safe to hold. So there goes my exercise classes, card games, choral group, theater group, and arts/crafts lessons. Although the park is still hosting reduced-occupancy Bingo and concerts, I’m not comfortable attending indoor events, not with COVID spiking the way it is. Frankly, it really got me down — staring down at an entire season of boredom and isolation. On the other hand, Jeff found a mountain biking buddy literally the first day we were here. All of the months we’ve traveled, he’s had to bike by himself. But here, he’s found other kids to play with! Johnny is even more hard core than Jeff when it comes to biking (if you can imagine that).
Johnny is also into craft beer and is the ringleader for a “12 days of beer” event. The premise is that 12 folks meet on 12 consecutive evenings. Each evening, one person brings a new craft beer for the group to try – and usually brings a light snack as well. The event is held outside at Johnny’s site (bring your own chair) to facilitate social distancing. Jeff signed us up!
Joining that group has probably been the best thing I could have done. It has given us a chance to meet and bond with some really nice folks here. I showed off my latest Swedish Weaving project, and the ladies want me to teach them how to do it. So, we’ve planned a class for after the first of the year. It gives me something to prepare for and look forward to. Being able to regularly interact with real, live people has definitely given me a psychological boost.
It’s not the season I wanted ….. but it’s a start.
Pros: Beautiful pull through site, great amenities.
This was our second stay at this large, immaculately maintained resort campground. There are other campgrounds in the Las Cruces area, but this is by far the nicest, in my humble opinion. The cost is a bit higher than some places in the area ($55/ night), but the amenities and location are well worth it.
The resort sits conveniently off of I-10, but is far enough away that the highway noise is negligible. We chose a pull through site, which was long enough for our rig, toad (parked sideways) and motorcycle. The pull through sites are oriented back to front, meaning that the hook-up sides for every pair face each other. It’s a little tight side to side, but a landscaped fence separates the patio sides, making every site feel a bit more private. We didn’t have a picnic table or fire ring (not enough space), but the gravel site was immaculate, level, and solid as a rock for our heavy jacks. The interior roads are paved and big-rig friendly. You see a lot of large buses here.
One note — the sites are all elevated from the road. You bump over a curb to enter and exit, which creates a bit of a trip hazard. Jeff slipped and twisted his ankle (not badly) while unloading our bikes. It’s just something to watch out for.
Our site was full hook up (50 amp electric, water, sewer) and cable TV. During our last visit, the cable signal was snowy, but this time it was just fine and we used it extensively. Maybe it was just the site we were on last time? Our site was also satellite-friendly for our Direct TV channels.
Our AT&T signal was great and our internet connection worked adequately. The campground offered free wifi, and it worked reasonably well, better than last time. We were nearer the office, which may have helped. The campground info stated that the water pressure was high and advised using a regulator, which was no problem for us since that is our standard practice.
Amenities at the resort include a workout room, a fabulous hot tub, laundry facility, individual showers, restrooms, covered patio with fireplace, meeting facilities, living room area and gift shop. However, during our COVID-era visit, the beautiful hot tub was fenced and locked, preventing access. The other amenities were secured with card key access and were immaculately clean. Not only did they accept packages, the office diligently called to notify us every time one arrived. For shopping, a super WalMart is literally across the highway with everything you might need.
There are ample activities in the area including the historic town of Mesilla, the Organ Mountains, White Sands National Park, the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Museum and the city of Las Cruces itself. Don’t miss the fantastic Farmer’s Market in downtown Las Cruces on Saturday mornings.
Bottom Line: Great resort and a great area. It’s a favorite spot!
As we continued winding our way toward our winter-over spot in Tucson, we stopped at one of our favorite little cities — Las Cruces, NM. We stayed a couple of weeks here when we made our original swing out west, and we couldn’t wait to visit here again.
We arrived on a Friday afternoon, and first thing Saturday morning we headed out to the Las Cruces Farmers Market. For a relatively small town, they offer a fantastic Farmer’s market with lots of vendors and variety. We had hoped against hope that our favorite vendor was here …. and he was! This guy makes the best kettle corn in the world. No, seriously. We’ve eaten kettle corn all over the country and this guys’ is the very best. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the ratio of popcorn to sugar, or maybe it’s the Love. In any case, it’s just the best. We bought two enormous bags; one regular and one cinnamon-sugar. YUM! The market also has the best price on honey I’ve found anywhere at only $15/quart. (Going price is typically $20/quart or more). We perused a variety of local goods, including strung locally-grown red and green chilis. I could have picked up a burlap bag full of fresh-picked chili peppers — if only I knew what to do with them! I love this market.
Another day we headed out to White Sands, previously a National Monument and now a National Park. I had to get my updated Passport stamp! We drove through the park and walked over the dunes — such an unusual place.
We dined again at the historic La Posta de Mesilla restaurant to enjoy some fantastic New Mexico cuisine in the 1850s-era building. Wandering through the historic village of Mesilla, the dearth of visitors was apparent. I wonder how many of the little shops and restaurants just won’t make it through the next year.
We also headed back to Heart of the Desert pistachio farm to pick up a supply. I don’t think they are doing their farm tours right now, but we stocked up on flavors you just don’t see elsewhere such as red chili, and garlic/green chili. We attempted to find the Dos Viejos winery that we liked so much on our last visit, but alas, it seems that it is now entirely defunct. We also tried to find the winery that stocked the Monks Reserve dessert wine that we liked, but that one had changed ownership and none of that wine was left. Too bad.
Unfortunately, during this stay, there several things things that we just couldn’t do, thanks to COVID. All of the museums were closed, including the Farm Museum and Art Museum. We had hoped to catch the Museum of Space History in Alamagordo this trip, but no luck. We also looked at going back to the hot springs in Truth or Consequences, but access was extremely limited due to COVID, so we decided it wasn’t worth it right now.
Despite the limitations, Las Cruces remains a little town that we like to visit. After Las Cruces, onward to Tucson and our winter-season spot!
Pros: level FHU sites, reasonably near the Caverns
Although there are several campgrounds closer to the National Park than this one, we thought the Carlsbad KOA was the nicest of the lot. This KOA offers the usual RV sites and cabins, along with a number of amenities. While the other campgrounds appeared to be little more than gravel parking lots, this KOA has trees and nice landscaping. The layout was good for big rigs, with wide and solid interior gravel roads and sites.
Our gravel pull-through site was hard-packed and perfectly level. It was fully long enough for bus and vehicles, and included a picnic table, fire ring and full hook ups (50 amp electric) including a very decent cable TV hookup. We couldn’t get many over the air channels way out there, but between the cable TV and our satellite Direct TV, we had all the channels we needed. We were escorted to our site by staff, which is typical for KOA. They did not provide daily trash pick up, but the dumpsters weren’t far away.
One note about the water: I found it to be extremely hard with a very high mineral content. It was hard to create suds in the shower, the water was so hard. I didn’t like the taste (and it didn’t altogether agree with me), so I ended up drinking bottled water for the most part. YMMV
In these COVID days, the pool was closed/drained and gas community fire pit was turned off. The main men’s bathhouse was being renovated during our stay, but the central bath house was open, which provided several individual bathroom units. The main women’s bath house facility was open and functioned fine, but was a little tired looking. Perhaps that will be next on the list for renovation during the off-season. The playground, horseshoe pits and basketball court were accessible, but I didn’t see anyone playing at them. (The campground was only lightly occupied during our stay, even during the weekends.) There is also a dog run area.
The campground smokes BBQ on site to supply their small restaurant. Due to COVID, the dine-in area was not available, but they would deliver full BBQ dinners right to your door. During our short stay, we didn’t take advantage of this option, but other reviewers rave about the food. We were too busy stuffing our face with New Mexico food from a delightful food truck (El Charro) in Carlsbad to go anywhere else!
The KOA is located about 20 minutes north of Carlsbad, and about a half hour from the entrance to Carlsbad Cavern National Park. Shopping and dining options can be found in Carlsbad. After my ValueCard discount and cashing in some points, our cost was a moderate $49/night.
Bottom Line: Great choice near Carlsbad Cavern National Park.
No visit to the Carlsbad area is complete without a visit to Roswell, home of the most famous UFO crash site. So one fine day, we mounted the motorcycle and rode north to see the aliens! It was election day, so somehow that seemed appropriate …..
Roswell is also home to the international UFO museum. The museum described the events of the 1947 incident in great detail through first person accounts and affidavits. Allegedly, all of the physical evidence was taken by the military (soon after, Area 51 was formed) and eyewitnesses were threatened to stay silent about what they had witnessed. The eyewitnesses seemed pretty credible to me! The truth is out there …..
The museum isn’t very large — essentially just one big room. It only took us about an hour to peruse the exhibits and take a few alien pics. After fortifying ourselves with a hot beverage and snack at the local Stellar Coffee, we continued on our motorcycle loop.
Our ride took us from desert floor upward into the nearby mountains. As we increased elevation, we entered pine forests and passed small lakes. We even saw snow, melting along the hillsides. We soon arrived at the town of Ruidoso, home to several casinos. We popped into one, just for fun. I tossed $20 into a couple of slot machines and won a quick $1.50. Woo-hoo, winner winner chicken dinner!! However, on the whole, casinos just aren’t that much fun in these COVID days. With many restrictions and social distancing, it just isn’t the same experience.
Back on the bike, we headed down the mountain almost reaching the town of Alamagordo, then turned left, back up the mountain to the tiny hamlet of Cloudcroft. Perched at 8700 feet, it was 20 degrees cooler here than at the desert valley floor. We stopped at a small local pub and tucked into a tasty burger and beer, while perusing the unusual wallpaper. (The pub’s TV channel was tuned to early election results — couldn’t get entirely away from it!)
After our late lunch, we climbed aboard for the nearly 2 hour ride back to our campground, arriving just as the sun set. It was quite an epic ride for us, about 270 miles. But it was an absolutely beautiful journey through desert, mountains, forest …. and aliens!
Carlsbad Caverns National Park has been on our bucket list right from the beginning of our RV adventure. We wanted to hit it on our first loop West, but it was just too far out of our way. So, we routed specifically there as we head out West for the second time.
Carlsbad Caverns did not disappoint. We visited Mammoth Cave National Park last year, and loved it. But, Carlsbad was even more impressive. Mammoth Cave is a huge interconnected network of enormous caverns, with a limited area of cave formations. Carlsbad offers the largest underground chamber in North America, and it is literally covered with formations — stalactites, stalagmites, columns, draperies, soda straws, popcorn, etc.
In this COVID time, there were no guided ranger tours offered, but we were able to do a self-guided tour. We waited a bit at the entrance — groups were spaced to allow for better social distancing. After hearing the customary ranger talk (no touching the formations, etc), we walked down and down through a dozen switchbacks into the gaping mouth of the natural cave entrance.
The paved path led us steadily downward as the light from the entrance slowly dwindled to blackness. Our eyes soon adjusted to the dim artificial lighting. After about a mile or so of walking (mostly down), we entered the famed Big Room. Photos really cannot do justice to the scale and beauty of the formations therein. The path snaked around the perimeter of the enormous chamber as we walked, agape. Our minds constructed fairy villages, huge chandeliers, and frozen waterfalls from the crystal-rock. We saw what appeared to be bottomless pits, one with an old abandoned ladder snaking down it. No, thank you! I wouldn’t make a good spelunker, the dark crevices are way too creepy!
We estimated that we walked over 3 miles in the cavern. Finally, the one-way path led us to the elevator that would take us back up to the Visitor’s center at the surface. We had descended 750 feet from the surface!
In non-COVID times, the elevator area also hosted a gift shop and snack bar. All closed. It would have been really cool to hang out down there, while enjoying lunch. But, back up we went, to the surface and reality. We didn’t hike here, but we did do the Walnut Canyon Desert drive. The one-way, single lane gravel drive was a bit rough in spots, but very scenic. I’m just sorry that we couldn’t take a ranger led tour. Our Mammoth Cave experience was greatly enriched by our ranger tours and I’m sure it would have been the same here. Perhaps on a future visit …..
So, Carlsbad Caverns has now made it to my (personal, biased) list of top 5 favorite National Parks. (OK, I know you’ll ask. In no particular order: Great Smokies NP, Glacier NP, Yellowstone NP, Sequoia NP, and now Carlsbad Caverns NP)
After our cold and wet stay in Hot Springs, we were ready to high-tail it south to warmer weather! Our next planned campground was near Carlsbad, NM — about 800 miles away. Since we try never to exceed 400 miles travel distance in any one day, this required an overnight stopover on the road. As mentioned previously, our preferred option is overnight parking at a rest area, because of the convenience factor.
Our I-30 route across Texas didn’t offer many rest stop options. Most are older/smaller rest stops, with few truck parking spaces. Where there is truck parking, most are the “parallel” parking type, which can be problematic for us. We spied one new rest stop, with ample parking, about half way along our route. Perfect! We headed that way, only to find it blocked by road construction. Oops! The remaining rest stops along our way weren’t really a good option. It was too late (after 5 pm) to book a campground for the night. We had already traveled over 400 miles and were tired. We hadn’t really planned an alternative — but we needed to come up with one in fairly short order!
Allstays app to the rescue! Using the app, I spotted a Walmart about 12 miles up, just off the highway. Those of you that are RV-ers know that Walmart overnight parking is a Thing. Walmart typically allows overnight RV parking, unless specifically prohibited by local ordinance. We’ve stayed at Walmarts before, but have found them to be difficult to maneuver due to crowded parking lots, abrupt pavement transitions (scraping bottom of bus) and low-hanging tree branches (scraping top of bus). So, Walmart isn’t typically on our radar for overnight parking. Still, needs must, so we gave it a shot.
Although the parking lot wasn’t especially large, we found a good spot on the edge. We asked, and received, permission to stay — so it was a go! Our stay gave us an opportunity to pick up a few things, to boot.
The next morning, Jeff discovered he had left an attachment to his Viair portable air compressor back at the last campsite. Major bummer. Normally, he checks the air pressure in all of our tires at the beginning of every travel day. But, no problem, we were at a Walmart! He was able to find something that worked and readied our tires for travel.
So it all worked out. We found a quiet and safe place to stay. We ended needing some things — and Walmart had them. We may just have to put Walmart back on our list of potential parking spots!