Three National Park Units in Oklahoma

As we look to wind up our two-turned-into-two-and-a-half-year road trip in October of this year, we are now paying more attention to routes, remaining national parks (16 at the time of this post), missing states (five) and figuring out how to efficiently get to all of our remaining sites before turning Charley back to the Midwest and calling our trip “complete.”  It was with this in mind that we pointed north to Oklahoma.  Being in Texas, we were close, and we weren’t sure how we’d loop back to this area in these next several months if we didn’t do it now.  So with that we drew up our plans to visit Oklahoma, our 46th state.  [Our remaining states now include only Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.]

We took in all three of the national park units in Oklahoma during our time there, each being very different in place and purpose.

Chickasaw NRAPublic art to honor the Chickasaw in Sulpher, OKChickasaw National Recreation Area — Located in the town of Sulpher in Southern Oklahoma, this NRA preserves natural mineral springs and nearly 10,000 acres of forest land and recreational lakes.  Initially preserved as Platt National Park, it is today Chickasaw NRA in honor of the Chickasaw Indian Nation and in recognition that the lake as a recreation area serving northern Texas and southern Oklahoma.

As with many old national park units, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had a hand in building many of the picnic shelters, campgrounds, dams, and bridges here.  It is, indeed, a beautiful area — from the town’s public art that honors the rich Native American history to the Travertine Nature Center built over Travertine Creek to the hiking trails, springs and lakes.  We are, once again, grateful that many saw fit to protect this special place.



Oklahoma City National MemorialOklahoma City National Memorial — This solemn place remembers April 19, 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a bomb in the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.  One-hundred sixty-eight people were killed in the attack and now 168 chairs sit empty next to the reflecting pool representing those who died.  The memorial also remembers the survivors, the rescue workers, and all those who have been forever changed by this event.  A survivor wall, memorial fence, children’s area, and old elm tree that survived the blast also sit on what is now sacred soil and make up this memorial.

Written on one of the twin Gates of Time, “We have come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever.  May all who leave here know the impact of violence.  May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope, and serenity.”  Amen.

Oklahoma City National Memorial



Washita NHS
Washita Battlefield National Historic Site — The word ‘battlefield’ should be removed from the official title of this national park unit; this was a massacre, not a battle, of an Indian village full of defenseless women and children by the U.S. Army who was directed to make war on the Cheyenne people.

In the mid-1800s, decades of conflict had been playing out across the southern plains that are now Oklahoma.  In the name of Manifest Destiny, early settlers moved westward though these lands, assisted by the newly-laid railroad lines that brought more and more people through the area.  Feeling threatened by the Native Americans who were protecting the land that rightfully belonged to them, tensions increased as fundamentally different cultures clashed over who should live on these lands and how they should be used.  As the U.S. government attempted to force Native American tribes to reservations, inter-tribal battles took place as did rebellions by revenge-seeking young Native warriors avenging the attacks against their ways of life.

Washita NHSWhile the exact events of the morning have been debated, it is a fact that peace-inclined Chief Black Kettle, his wife, and scores of Cheyenne woman and children were killed in a surprise attack at dawn’s early light on November 27, 1868 at the hands of Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his men.  In a particularly brutal move, Custer also ordered the slaughter of some 800 Indian horses and mules, a move which crippled the remaining Cheyenne communities.  Washita NHS protects this sacred site, and while it is not a busy park unit, it is a very important place for reflecting on the price of progress and the cost of peace….


For a more in-depth accounting of this tragedy, read here.

A new girlfriend in Galveston

K,A,L&FThis past weekend we traveled down to Galveston to visit our nephew Kyle who’s serving in the U.S. Coast Guard.  After spending about a year and a half at a duty station in south Florida, he’s been stationed in Galveston for nearly four years and he recently put in for another year there.  The reason:  Alyssa.

You may think us biased because he is our nephew, but Kyle is a really wonderful young man, and now he’s got a cute, sweet girlfriend.  Alyssa finished culinary school recently, worked in a bakery as her first job after school, and is now part of a team opening a new restaurant in a hotel a bit north of Houston next month.  According to Kyle, she’s a great pastry chef!  We shared five meals with Kyle & Alyssa during our 2-1/2 day stay there, and lots of delicious Gulf [of Mexico] seafood was enjoyed by all!  Yummy deserts, too!!

We are pleased to report back to the family that Alyssa is a really terrific young lady.  It’s clear she and Kyle are very happy together and we’re all very happy for both of them.

K & A — We hope you can join us on the road in the near future – there’s always room in Charley for you!  xoxo –AL&F

Our Thankful Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving meal is prepared!
Fred, Kyle, Daryl, Jennie, Jackie, Kristen and Rachael – ready for our Thanksgiving feast

What a blessing it has been to be with Jackie, Daryl, Jennie, Rachael, Kristen, and our nephew (my sister’s oldest son) Kyle to celebrate Thanksgiving!  Indeed, we all have so much and are so grateful for our many blessings!  We missed being with other members of our family who weren’t with us, but we toasted them, prayed for them, then proceeded to enjoy our traditional Thanksgiving dinner!

We Wisconsinites were really looking forward to the Packers / Bears game.  Unfortunately only one of us was happy with the outcome — that would be my husband, the Bears fan.  But we did all enjoy seeing Bart Starr make an appearance to celebrate the retirement of #4 at Lambeau Field and Brett Favre’s induction into the Football Hall of Fame this year.

Slowin’ down in San Antonio

Home Sweet Home in San Antonio
Home Sweet Home for the Thanksgiving holiday in San Antonio

November 21 — After a couple of long days of driving down through New Mexico and across a lot of Texas, we arrived at my college roommate’s home just north of San Antonio.  As you can see, it’s not a bad place to be taking a little break from the road where we plan to unwind and celebrate Thanksgiving.

With a nice big kitchen in which to cook — actually big everything here in this house; we are in Texas, you know…! — I am running “Auntie Laura’s Cooking School” with Rachael (9th grade) and a couple of her friends, and Kristen (7th grade) for a few days as we lead up to Thanksgiving.  Jennie, their oldest, is away at college this year — wow, are we getting old; Jackie has a daughter in college!

Like the last time we were here, the thing I am enjoying most, besides the company of friends, is sitting down together at the dinner table for family meals.

It’s sure nice to have a home here in Texas to come to to slow down, unwind, and enjoy some family time….

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

El Capitan at Guadalupe Mountains National Park
El Capitan, the massive sentinel for the Chihuahuan Desert, and entrance to Guadalupe Mountains National Park

March 18-20 — Guadalupe Mountains National Park is our last destination in Texas.  We drove through some rain to get here, which we didn’t mind, for Texas has been in a five-year drought and they need the rain.  Our drive wasn’t too lengthy, and we pulled in in time to get one of the first-come, first-serve parking spaces in the national park campground, Pine Springs.  If you arrive and there’s no spot, you’re about 35 miles away from the next campground up in White’s City.

Charley in Pine Springs campground in the Guadalupe Mountains NP - this is a cool spot right in the canyon
Charley in the middle at our campsite/parking lot right inside GMNP

Guadalupe Mountains National Park showcases the remote wilderness of the American West, and it is world famous for its geology; I’ll come back to that.  It’s quite far from anyplace around here, but we were very good with that.  We dry camped, meaning there was no electricity or water source at our campsite that sits in the base of Pine Spring Canyon inside the park.  As campsites go, this one resembles more of a parking lot than a campground, but we couldn’t beat the proximity to our hiking, especially when compared to Big Bend where we drove an hour to get to anywhere.  We ran our generator to heat our water for dishes and showers, and to provide a bit of heat to take the chill off in the early morning and later evening.  At this time of the year, the evenings are a comfortable-for-sleeping mid-40°s and the days are climbing into the 70ºs; it’s a wonderful time to be camping.

As I mentioned was the case of South Texas in my Big Bend post, this area, too, was under water some 250 million years ago as a reef on the edge of an ancient sea.  As the sea evaporated, the reef subsided, then was buried by a thick blanket of sediments and mineral salts.  The reef was entombed for millions of years, but then re-surfaced as a mountain range that today is like an island in the Chihuahuan Desert.  The Guadalupe Mountains, although not close to very much, attract geologists from all over the world who come to marvel at this extraordinary phenomenon.

Nearing the top of Guadalupe MountainHere in Guadalupe Mountains NP we hiked 15+ miles over two days and we must confess that we felt it, especially since the second day involved 8.4 miles of some strenuous rocky trails, some steep ascents, a rock scramble at the top, and all of this at altitude.  But hikers come here to tackle Guadalupe Peak, which, at 8,751 is the highest point in Texas, and we were here to do the same.  Unfortunately the morning we chose to summit began with a thick cloud cover that stayed with us for most of the day, but as the photos below show, we did managed to get some decent views.

Here in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, and especially up on top of the peak, I couldn’t help but ponder the awesome forces that shaped this place.  And once again, I felt a profound gratitude that parks like this are protected for us all to enjoy.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then click on the arrows to scroll through our photos from Guadalupe Mountains National Park:

Fort Davis National Historic Site

Fort Davis NHSMarch 17, 2015 — We noticed this place on the map and realized we were going to be driving right by it, and given that our goal on this road trip is to see all 59 national parks and as many of the other national park units as we can, how could we not stop?  We were so glad we did, for we really enjoyed our afternoon visit here on our way up to Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

Officer's Row at Fort DavisThe Fort Hospital - the best aroundFort Davis is one of several old Army posts that were established to protect emigrants, freight wagons, mail coaches, and those traveling through the American West during the late 19th century.  It sits on the San Antonio-El Paso Road and the Chihuahua Trail, where wood, water, and grass for grazing were plentiful.  Backing up to a box canyon provided a protective barrier to the rear and side, and for nearly 40 years (1854 to 1891) the fort's primary role was to safeguard against Indian attacks and raids.  

As the Indian Wars came to an end in West Texas, garrison life at Fort Davis became more routine.  The soldiers stationed here repaired roads and telegraph lines, escorted railroad survey parties, and pursued bandits.  In June 1891, having outlived its usefulness, Fort Davis was abandoned.

Park volunteer depicting life as Col. Benjamin H. Grierson's wife at the fort around 1882

Fort Davis became a national historic site in 1963, and through a continued program of restoration and preservation, the National Park Service has been able to save many of the structures from the old military post.  Today, 20-some buildings are restored, taking them back to the way they were in the 1850s and 1860s.  The Enlisted Men's Barracks, the Post Hospital, the Officer's Quarters, Kitchen and Servant's Quarters, the Granary and the Commissary are all available to tour – they're very well done.  Ruins and foundations of other buildings – Storehouses, Privys, Stables and the Corral – all still exist, as well.  

In the Visitor Center museum, Fort Davis tells the story of the importance of African Americans in the West and in the frontier military.  All-black regiments, known as Buffalo Soldiers, were posted here, and notably contributed to the settlement of western Texas and southern New Mexico.  And as we've encountered in many other national park units, the volunteers serving this particular unit really added to our experience.  We really enjoyed a talk given by three of them.  Dressed in period attire, they told us of what life was like here back in the late 1800's – living history, indeed, at a fort very much worth visiting.

Miles and Miles…

… of nothing but miles and miles.  That's how my mother described driving through Texas, and that's exactly what we have experienced as we've been driving through this part of the country these last several days.  It's beautiful, but oh-so-very isolated and remote.  In every direction, we see ranch land, fences, steers, mesquite trees and cactus-choked, arid land far and wide with a mountain range thrown in every now and again.  This is West Texas….

West Texas - miles and mies of nothing but miles and miles....


Big Bend National Park

March 10-16 – Extraordinary was one of many adjectives we used on a regular basis as we drove through the arid southwest Texas desert and mountains en route to, and then within, Big Bend National Park.  Impressive, amazing, vast, beautiful, remarkable, incredible, striking… I could keep going, but I think you'll think the same when you see some of the sights we enjoyed while here.  

Taking a break on our hike along the banks of the Rio Grande ~

Laura overlooking the Rio Grande

Big Bend National Park was formed on June 12, 1944, a week after U.S. troops stormed the beaches at Normandy.  The name was derived from a large bend in the Rio Grande River, the "Big Bend."  The drive to get here is quite long, but well, well, did I say well? worth the effort!

I thought it might be fun to consider Big Bend National Park by the numbers:  

  • 7 is the number of days/nights we stayed at the park.
  • 33 miles is how far we hiked in the park, but Big Bend offers over 200 miles of hiking trails – from short, nature walks to mid-range hikes in the 5-14-mile range (which is what we did several times) to multi-day backcountry backpacking routes – this place is truly a hikers paradise!
  • 1,000+ is the number of miles the Rio Grande River forms the international boundary between Texas from Mexico; 118 is the number of miles that border the park.
  • 1,200 species of plants, 450 species of birds (we especially loved listening to their beautiful songs), 56 species of reptiles, and 75 mammal species – Big Bend is teeming with life in spite of the harsh conditions species must face here in the Chihuahuan Desert.
  • 801,163 acres; that's 1,252 sq mi, making it the 14th largest national park by size.
  • 5 is the number of Visitor Centers – we visited them all and got our passport stamps.
  • 616 is the number of miles we drove while visiting the park.  One thing you do a lot of in Big Bend is drive, but the scenery is so spectacular and we enjoyed every minute in Toad!

View from South Rim Loop TrailView from the South Rim ~ 

We had a fantastic time in Big Bend, in fact, we extended our stay by two more days so we could visit the entire park; five days wasn't enough.  We hiked several trails including one 12.4 mile hike up, up, up into the high Chisos (CHEE-sos) Mountains to the South Rim of the Chisos Basin.

We took several other hikes, but perhaps our favorite was a 6-mile out and back trail that ran through the desert and along the cliffs of the Rio Grande to a hot springs.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then click on the arrows to see photos from our favorite hike:

The wildlife and the wildflowers were incredible, unique, and beautiful way down here in the desert.  Bluebonnets, the state flower of Texas, were as tall and lush as they've been in years, per the Park Ranger.  The five-year drought stifled their growth in recent years, but a little bit of rain brought the desert into bloom.  We saw several little Roadrunners dashing about.  These guys can run up to 20 mph, pursuing lizards and small rattlesnakes, then pecking their prey to death.Wildflowers in Big Bend National ParkRoadrunner 1  

















Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then use the arrows to scroll through some photos of the beautiful wildflowers and critters in Big Bend:

As I said before, I could go on and on about all we saw and all we did and all the fun we had in the Chihuahuan Desert and Chisos Mountains and along the Rio Grande here in Big Bend, but perhaps it's best to just let the photos do the talking.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then use the arrows to scroll through photos (trust me, we have hundreds more!) of Big Bend:


San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Charley's "home" outside Big Bend NPAfter nearly two weeks with our friends in San Antonio, we said 'goodbye' to the metro mix and headed west on I-10 for 300 miles or so, then turned left and headed south another 100 miles.  That was last Tuesday, and that trip brought us to the middle of nowhere outside of Big Bend National Park, right on the Mexican border in southwest Texas.  We love the remote campground we found just outside the park, but as the picture shows, it is so remote that Verizon hasn't seen fit to provide cellular service out here, and the campground's Internet service has been intermittent at best.  Unfortunately, this has translated into some delays in connecting, and thus posting.  

Before I share our Big Bend adventures, I wanted to catch up on three other national park units we visited, all within an hour of San Antonio, while we were there.  I didn’t want to spend a lot of time writing about these places at the time because I wanted to visit as much as I could with Jackie and her family, but I have been able to catch up on these three different park units in the evenings while here in Big Bend, so I share them with you now:

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

During the late 1600s and early 1700s, Spain was looking to extend its dominion northward from the land we know today as Mexico.  To do so, they began to establish missions in what we now know as Texas, offering food, shelter, and protection to Native Americans in exchange for their conversion to Christianity and their loyalty to Spain. 

Mission ConcepcionGroups of hunter-gatherer Indian bands, collectively referred to as Coahuiltecans (kwa-weel-tekens), had been living on these grassland plains for thousands of years, but about this same time found their nomadic lifestyle and gentile ways being threatened by warring Apache and Comanche Indian tribes who were encroaching on their territory from the north.  These Spanish missions provided sanctuary from their enemies, so many of these dwindling bands sought refuge in mission life. 

Espada Mission - these missions were built like a big compoundWhile “Cross and Crown” were provided, along with protection inside the missions’ massive stone-walled compounds, Franciscan friars also taught skills such as more sophisticated farming and gardening, spinning and weaving, iron forging, masonry, soap and candle making, and pottery.  But in return, these Indians were subject to strict religious, social, and moral discipline, and in most cases, their tribal cultural and ethnic identity were destroyed. 

MissionsSome Coahuiltecans fled from the missions to return to their old life, but most accepted Catholicism and actively took part in this new mission society.  Missions were strong throughout the mid-1700s, but by the 1780s, they began a decline in both population and activity.  Diseases that were introduced by those foreign to them decimated many of the natives, and by 1824, with dwindling numbers and less of a need for them, these missions were secularized, with the land redistributed to the mission inhabitants and the churches transferred to secular clergy.

Today, five of the six missions along the San Antonio River still remain.  The most well-known is the Mission San Antonio de Valero, known today as the Alamo.  (See my "Remember The Alamo!" post.)  Operated by The Daughters of the Republic of Texas, this is an independent shrine of Texas history.  One of the missions was built over as the city of San Antonio was being developed, but thanks to those who saw the value in preserving such historically significant places, the other four missions that are located south of the city along the river are now protected and operated by the National Park Service.  Each of the four remaining missions includes a church which still operates as an active Catholic parish.

Mission San JoseMission San José is the largest of the missions, thus gaining the reputation as the Queen of the Missions.  It is also where the primary NPS Visitor Center is located, and it is the one that has been most fully restored.  This mission, together with its surrounding fields, sustained a thriving community of Indians and Spaniards which numbered 300 at the height of mission operations.  The church and convento were the center of life at this mission that was started in 1782.  Within the walls, Indians lived, worshipped, and attended classes; outside the walls, they tended fields, orchards, and livestock.  A granary within the compound stored enough maize to supply the population of the mission for an entire year.  

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then click on the arrows to scroll through some pictures of the beautiful Mission San José: 

Mission EspadaMission Espada is the oldest of the East Texas missions.  It was the first one we visited as it was the furthest south; 11 miles south of San Antonio.  Like the other missions in this area, Mission Espada was located along the San Antonio River where acequias, or gravity flow ditches could be built to route the flow of the San Antonio River for use to irrigate crops on which these missions depended.  Self-sufficiency was an important element of missions, as well, so like the others, this mission developed a solid economy by teaching the Indians vocations such as weaving, blacksmithing, carpentry, masonry, farming, and ranching.  Espada was the only mission that made bricks, and these are still visible today.  This simple, remote, pastoral mission made it my favorite of the four in the park system.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then click on the arrows to scroll through a few pictures of Mission Espada: 

Mission San JuanMission San Juan Capistrano was originally San José de los Nazonis in East Texas, then in 1731, it was moved to its permanent home on the east bank of the San Antonio River, a few miles north of Mission Espada.  Its fertile farmland and pastures made it a regional supplier of produce with peaches, melons, pumpkins, grapes, peppers, corn, beans, sweet potatoes, squash, and sugar cane all coming from the orchards and gardens outside the compound walls.  In 1762, it was recorded that Mission San Juan's herds numbered 3,500 sheep and nearly as many cattle.  These missions were not only self-sufficient, but they supported settlements and the nearby presidio with their commerce, as well.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then click on the arrows to scroll through a few pictures of Mission San Juan: 

Mission ConcepcionMission Concepción is another of the missions that started out in East Texas but was transferred here to San Antonio in 1731.  A quarry just outside the mission compound provided rock that the Indians broke apart to build this new mission, and today it is one of the oldest original stone church buildings in the United States.  Mission Concepcion showcases the extravagant beauty of original wall art that remains some 250 years after the church was constructed.  Colorful geometric designs that once covered the church's exterior surface have long faded, but visitors can still see light remnants of the pigments that were applied to wet lime plaster which absorbed the color.  Inside, these frescos were better preserved as they were protected from the outside elements.  The photos below show this beautiful mission wall art.

Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then click on the arrows to scroll through a few pictures of Mission San Concepción

The eternal and abiding missions of San Antonio were far more than just churches; they were communities of Spaniards and Native Americans who, for more than a half a century, had thriving economies which were important foundations for the city of San Antonio.  Franciscan friars gathered these native peoples, converted them to Catholicism, taught them to live as Spaniards, and helped maintain Spanish control over the Texas frontier.  Today these historic missions are elegant reminders of the contribution of Indian and Hispanic peoples to the history of the United States.