Chapter 1. Heading to the Border
© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2000 All rights reserved.
(Bert) Heading west from Lewisville, we escape the Dallas metropolis and its ever-growing tendrils into rural ranchlands. Open countryside and wide roads better accommodate our 102-in. width and 56-ft. length, including towed car. Westerly, Post Oaks thin out into fields painted winter brown. Mesquite and prickly pear spread across rolling plains. The road climbs, almost imperceptibly, as we notch upward into the High Plains. Near Sweetwater the distant horizons are broken by the raw edges of mesas, still higher than the flat plain we ride. Pump jacks teeter-totter, pulling oil from the depths. Near Midland, we drive through a Texas fitting the desolate image outsiders have of our state - much unlike the more lush reality of eastern Texas where most of the population lives. As I drive, Shari practices her Spanish vocabulary. She is halfway through the course taught by her computer tutor. Amazingly, the computer program even grades her pronunciation as she talks through its microphone. In a few days we'll find out how good her new language ability really is. For tonight, we stop at Monahans Sandhills State Park - a strange desert-like oasis with flowing hills of sand, the color of creamed coffee. Some dunes are anchored by sand bluestem, others are unbounded and kids ride disks downhill as if it were slippery snow. Birds are sparse, but a pair of Cactus Wrens amuses me as they scamper through a grove of Shin Oaks. Darkness settles in and a clear sky reveals a million starlights.
(Shari) Normally we travel about 150-200 miles per day on the back roads of America, enjoying the scenic beauty of our great country. Today we travel 392 miles along I-20 from Dallas to Monahans, TX. By January 3 we need to be in Nogales, AZ, for the start of our Mexican adventure and we want to have plenty of time to get to our destination in case of any Y2K glitches. The news has been full of Y2K this and Y2K that and warnings about having extra water, food and money. As full-timers, we have that with us all the time, but I do wonder about fuel for the motor home on January 1, 2000 - hence, our beeline to Arizona. I entertain myself by re-studying my Spanish vocabulary from the flash cards I made with each lesson. I am dismayed to learn that many words I memorized in October, have left my mind completely by December. I can look at the English word and not have a clue as to its Spanish equivalent. Languages are not my forte and this trip is going to be interesting. We reach Monahans Sandhills State Park at 3:30 and I am tempted to rent one of those 36-in. diameter disks that kids use to slide down the sandhills. It looks like so much fun. Unfortunately, the disks have to be returned by 4 PM and that is not enough time for me even to climb the hill, let alone slide down it. I have to be content watching our neighbor's two kids ride down with their disks. We park in one of the 11 pull-thru spaces beside the dunes and find we only have two other neighbors on this eve before New Year's Eve. We have water and electric for only $9 and a unique view with sandhills surrounding us. I cannot restrain myself from climbing the hill next to us, but am dismayed when I get out of breath before reaching the top. Bert just scampers up as if he still is 18 years old. The late afternoon sun is warm and I walk four times around our little circle for some much needed exercise before retiring to R-TENT, my name for our Discovery motor home.
(Shari) New Years Eve 1999 and all the hype has finally arrived. I remember reading a book as a 10-year-old about a girl who celebrated the turn of 1900. I thought to myself about the year 2000 on every New Year since. And here it is already. As a girl I always thought I would be one of those partying in Time's Square and here I am partying with my family in R-TENT. Who would have thought? As we travel during the day, we keep track of the midnights all around the world and are pleased it all goes without a hitch. We gas up at the two Flying J's we come across in our path and retrieve our email at the one in Pecos, Texas. It has wonderful facilities with separate modem jacks at each table. Hurrah for the Flying J's of the country. We travel I-10 most of the day, through El Paso and into New Mexico. We finally stop at the Escapees park in Deming, New Mexico. We find our good friends, Clyde and Sarita are still in the park and we spend a few moments catching up on their news. We are invited to the parks New Year's Eve party and enjoy the company of others on this ever so historic night.
(Bert) In the predawn light, a freezing stillness adds crisp edges to sand dunes when I step out from R-TENT. As the bright and pleasingly warm sun peaks over the horizon, it casts long shadows across the dunes, forming Ansel Adams studies in contrasts. We leave Monahans and the southern High Plains, cross the Pecos River by mid-morning and cruise I-20 and then I-10 through West Texas. Appropriately, as we change time zones the mountains begin to form: first wind-worn sandstone hills, then marble tilted skyward. We cross into New Mexico and just short of our Deming destination, a Golden Eagle struggles to gain altitude, then crosses in front of us. At the Escapees Dreamcatcher RV park, I pop the champagne bottle and we begin the millennium festivities. With the aid of our satellite dish, even in isolated Deming, New Mexico, we celebrate multiple midnights in Rome, Paris, London, New York and Washington D.C.
(Shari) Well, well, well! We are all still alive! The world did not end and no computer glitches downed an airplane, stopped an elevator or eliminated running water. Surprise, surprise! Traffic is light as we make our way west on I-10 toward Tucson, AZ. We find a fancy-dancy RV park to spend the next two nights. Since it is my birthday, I get to treat myself. Ha! We pull into Voyager RV Resort at noon, only to find the Y2K bug hit the registration desk. They have 350 rigs, with reservations, pulling in today and many more like us, without reservations, and they do not know what spaces, if any, are available. They cannot accept money and already are pulling out their hair. I offer the simple suggestion of typing in yesterday's date and continue on. The man tells me they are not touching those computers until the programmer comes to fix them. So I am told to pull into space 40-105 and pay with cash. I get a hand written receipt and am led by security to my long narrow spot next to other rigs in their long narrow spots too. For $35 per night this is one pricey place. It was voted best resort in the nation (by whom, I do not know) and it is very nice, even if the sites are narrow and gravel. I am given a small booklet describing the place: 3 swimming pools - one indoor - an exercise room, a golf course, a restaurant, a store, two tennis courts, many shuffleboard courts and a Bocce course. Included in the packet, the list of activities and calendar could keep even the most social person happy. One unique feature is their assisted living area and an inn for those not having their own rig. The clientele here seems to be younger than the average RV'er we have encountered in other places and I can see why. If you are paying for all these things, you better use them and you will need some stamina. And by golly that is just what we do. Swimsuits on, we make our way to the indoor pool. I am surprised that I can swim ¼ mile of laps and not be pooped. Now what is next on the calendar to do? Square dancing anyone?
(Bert) Interstate 10 through Southeastern Arizona ranks near the top of my list of most picturesque U.S. highways. The flat desert yields an unbroken horizon and makes the azure sky appear immensely large. As we bypass the Chiricahua Mountains, it takes willpower for me not to detour into this favorite birding spot. But the excitement of birding in Mexico keeps me on the road. Mexico has been on our travel wish list for the past few years. We've shopped the Tex-Mex border towns, taken a bus trip to Monterrey, a boat to Ensenada, a plane to Club Med in Ixtapa and once ventured for a day by car about 70 miles beyond the border to Puerto Penasco. But all of these were just a tease, and never gave us the feeling of traveling the countryside. Nevertheless, we hesitated. Virtually everyone we talked to about traveling in Mexico had a horror story to relate: thefts, murders, disappearances, bad roads, and on and on. Of course, almost all of these people had never traveled the country themselves and were merely relating stories of a friend of a friend. Yet, we were cautious. So when the opportunity to travel together with a fleet of other RV'ers - half of them birders and half interested in non-birding activities - we jumped at the opportunity. A caravan led by a couple experienced in the route and with prearranged campsites sounded like just the ticket for us.
(Bert) We attend Sunday morning church services held at Voyager, the RV park where we are staying a second day. I am surprised at the attendance - over 400 crowd the ballroom - and almost all of them are older than us. That's so unlike College Station, our hometown and that of Texas A&M University, where almost everyone seems to be younger than us. After services, I talk to the couple sitting next to us. They're originally from Dallas, but spend much of their winter here at Voyager. I tell them we aren't ready to settle on one place to stay and still want to travel. They traveled for 20 years before limiting their stays to a couple of places. Sounds like a good plan to me!
(Shari) It is cold and rainy today. I thought this was supposed to be the desert. I put on my slacks and fleece jacket to walk to the ballroom where the Community Chapel is held each Sunday at 10 AM. We get there at 9:45 for a Hymn Sing and find most of the seats already taken. Also most men have suits and ties on and women are wearing heels and a dress. I told you this was a fancy-dancy place. Everyone makes us feel welcome, however, in spite of our casual attire - it must be the gusto with which Bert sings the songs. This is a non-denominational service and many of the songs in the hymnal are unfamiliar to us, but pretty nonetheless. Chaplain Merris Brady gives the message and something he mentions really gets me thinking. He relates a story of a mother getting irritated at her daughter for dawdling in the dandelions. The mother says they do not have time for that. The little girl asks then, "What is time for?" The chaplain asks us the same question. Through the years, time has meant different things to me and I always thought I had plenty of it. Now it seems to go too fast and I wonder how much I have left. Am I using it wisely?
It is time to take my parents to Phoenix. They flew from Wisconsin to Texas for Christmas and then hitchhiked with us to Arizona. Now their visit is almost over - a time that went too fast. We drive I-10 north, stopping at our favorite breakfast restaurant, The Cracker Barrel. The 20-min. waiting time for seating is well worth it and now we have my folks hooked on Cracker Barrels also. (By the way, I do not have stock in, nor work for, these restaurants. I just plain like them). A storm rolls past us and the wind is terribly strong as we travel north. I am not impressed with the scenery along this section of the highway: the Tucson outskirts too tarnished by industrialization and the desert too scrubby. One interesting spot is Picacho Peaks, a few miles south of Casa Grande. A mountain of rock sticks up in a jagged twin peak and I wonder why in the world it stands alone in the desert; it seems so out of place. We drop the folks off at her brother's condo and say our goodbyes shortly thereafter. If we do not leave soon, we will not have the time to finish all the tasks we have listed for ourselves before we depart for Nogales in the morning.
(Bert) Our short drive south this morning takes us past giant Saguaro cacti stationed against a backdrop of the picturesque Santa Cruz Mountains and Madera Canyon, a site we remember well from our visit one sweltering July. The temperature that month reached 115 deg and we were camping in a van, without air conditioning. By contrast, today is so cold that when I wash my windshield at a refueling stop near Nogales, ice floats in the water bucket. We arrive at our rendezvous point for the caravan and rejoin Jim and Jan, Wagonmasters for this trip. This afternoon we continue our pursuit of stocking up on fluids: motor oil, engine coolant, distilled water, windshield fluid, brake fluid, diet drinks, slide out lube, Quik Lube, WD-40, transmission fluid, everything except beer which we are sure we can get in Mexico. We take our Nissan Pathfinder in for an oil change and then decide to have the tires rotated as well. One nut on each wheel requires a special Nissan-supplied tool to unlock. I hand over the unique tool to the mechanic, but while using it on the first wheel, the tool breaks. Since the tool is unique, I have only one copy, and there is no Nissan dealership in town, we are stuck without a solution. After a long discussion between the Spanish-speaking mechanic and English-speaking mechanic's helper and me, a helpless traveler, we opt to return in the morning for a more experienced mechanic to try his hand at removing the wheel nuts.
(Shari) Nogales is only a short distance from Tucson but miles and miles away in culture. Bert and I comment that maybe we already are in Mexico. Residents use Spanish as their first language. The Walmart employees do not understand me when I ask for help in reaching an item on the top shelf. Rattletrap cars are abundant, storefront advertising is just as often in Spanish as in English, and no blonde people walk the streets. We go to the bank to get cash and then to the Officina de Cambio to exchange dollars into pesos. We wander over and around the railroad tracks in the downtown area and finally find the post office to pick up our mail. Our car needs an oil change and tire rotation also. While changing the tires, the little tool that opens the lock nut on each tire breaks off and we are told through an interpreter to come back in the morning. It seems we have to get four new locking lugs and a new tool. How they are going to get the tires off, I do not even want to know. Our spot for the next few nights is Mi Casa RV Park. It is not a very scenic place, but has all the amenities we need and is the only game in town.
(Bert) At dawn our thermometer reads 21 deg outside and 48 deg inside - not what I expect for Arizona at the Mexico border. I arrive at Newman Auto Center at 8 AM, preceding employees by 10 min. Are we on Mexican time? Mechanic No. 1 hammers and chisels away at the stubborn lug nut. I decide it's too cold to stand watching outside, so I head to the waiting room. Shortly, the mechanic's assistant comes in, telling me the lug nuts are off. When I ask him how he did it, he answers without detail, "The old mechanic came in and took them off. He has more experience." The mechanics finish the tire rotation, then vacuum the car and send it through the car wash with the explanation that they are giving me the car wash free. When I attempt to pay the cashier for the tire rotation, I learn that there is no charge, presumably because of the inconvenience it caused me. I still have to deal with getting new lock nuts and following the mechanic's directions I find Alex's Tire. Here I promptly get new nuts installed for $12, but the clerk drops to it to $10 when she apologizes that her VISA card reader is malfunctioning. For a problem - a faulty lock nut tool - that may well have been my responsibility to start with, I have received incredibly good service here in Nogales.
(Shari) It is 22 degrees outside! This is on the border between Mexico and Arizona and it is 22 degrees. Who would have thought it would get so cold here. We turn up the heaters and in no time we are all snug and warm. Already rigs are pulling in, a day earlier than scheduled. We spend the morning getting acquainted with these early birds and putting caravan ID numbers on each vehicle. The day heats up fast and by noon I am pealing off layers of clothing. We are told we need a sediment filter for Mexican water before it enters our tank. So, off to Walmart we go to buy a new filter, one where we can see through the casing and can replace clogged filters. We stop at the Chamber of Commerce to transfer e-mail, but they, like our campground, do not allow a phone connection. We find an Elderhostel office of the University of Arizona and Bert sweet talks the attractive young lady - young in his definition is mid-40s - into using her telephone jack. Later we stop at an Internet place that will allow any of our group to do e-mail. Exercise tonight is four times around the RV circle, a distance of one mile: boring but better than nothing.
(Shari) We spend the day getting to know the faces and names of the people on this caravan - and their dogs too. My task is to introduce myself to everyone, hand them a safety check sheet to complete and go over type and kind of vehicle. I also ask about pets, external water filter units, and inquire about non-birders in their party. Out of the 32 people on this trip, I find three other women and two men that are non-birders. We non-birders are already conspiring together and making alternative plans. One of the men says he has been called a SOB for not being a birder. Surprised, he explained to us that SOB denoted "spouse of a birder." The others in the group are the typical birder variety, most with binoculars permanently attached to their torso. Some even interrupt conversation to run after a bird flying overhead. All enthusiastically ooh and ah over some of the Mexican birds we are told we will see. In spite of the fact we have so many birders - after all, it is a birding tour - the group seems very fun loving. Two couples appear younger than we are and the rest I surmise are in their 60s or early 70s. One lady accompanying her daughter and son-in-law is 84 and another is 99. Amazing! Both love to play cards. At two o'clock we have a CB check and each of us calls out that we receive loud and clear. At 3 PM, I take my cheese and crackers to the clubhouse for our general meeting. Here we go over the specifics of traveling in Mexico: what paperwork is needed, how to sanitize our water, some unusual road rules - a left turn signal means it is okay to pass on the left - and procedures on the first day's trip through the checkpoints. It all seems so exciting.
(Bert) A few rigs checked in yesterday, but today is when most arrive. Shari and I put on our work hats and meet the new arrivals. Jim and I affix caravan labels and numbers to the front and back of each vehicle. Jim and Jan as Wagonmasters will be taking the lead and their Dutch Star motor home is assigned No. 1. Shari and I get number 17 as tail gunners and we will be at the end of the caravan when we leave. The others get numbers 2 to 16, skipping 13, but the numbers are for identification purposes only and do not designate driving order. In Mexico we will travel as a group and remain in visual and CB-contact. Today we go through a CB-check, a vehicle maintenance checklist, an orientation meeting and take care of last minute supplies, pet vaccinations, money changing, etc. While attaching caravan numbers, I take note of the variety of vehicles traveling with us. We'll have seven motor homes, three 5th wheels, two trailers, one camper pickup and one van (one vehicle dropped out owing to illness and a second will meet us in Mazatlan). I tried getting yesterday's journal out on email, but couldn't find anyone to accommodate me today. I'm sure the problem will be compounded once we cross the border. So when emails don't arrive for 3 or 4 days, it's not that we were kidnapped, but rather that I can't find an outside line.
(Shari) We attend to odds and ends today. I finish gathering all the data on the group, get last minute groceries, make copies of needed papers and attend a briefing meeting. I am not feeling well today and the day just seems to last forever with always something left unfinished. Bert fills the propane tank and I fill the gas tank on the car. We have a full tank of fresh water and empty holding tanks. We hear rumors about some Mexicans somewhere requiring a $500 fee for commercial vehicles. Since the wagon master and we have "Staff" written on our car, we decide to remove that portion of our sticker. We hear other rumors about the border being heavily guarded and gas stations running out of gas. At nine I call it a day and go to bed shivering, just unable to get warm in spite of two Afghans and a quilt.
(Bert) We're anxious to leave, but still have another day of preparations. I talk to the travelers, answer questions, checking their tires, hitches, fluid levels. Four of us find out that our newly purchased sediment filters don't have fittings for water hoses, so we chase around town for the right connectors. We top off our fuel tanks, propane tanks, water tanks and empty our waste tanks. After finishing my own and everyone else's tasks, I finally have time to finish up the Christmas Bird Count compilation forms that must be mailed before we leave the country. It's a hectic day of last minute details and just when I think I'm done for the day, I hear a knock on the door. Lee has no power to his vehicle and wonders if I can help solve the problem. We talk about it and decide it isn't causing an overnight problem and we will look at it tomorrow at 6:30 AM. When I finally head for bed, I can't fall asleep. I remember as a kid the anticipation I felt the night before our family's one-week summer vacation to a Wisconsin lake. I'd be awake most of the night thinking about the fun we would have swimming, fishing and playing. Tonight again my head is filled with thoughts of tomorrow, and I sleep haltingly in one-hour shifts.
Next Day Table of Contents