NM & AZ: Cacti, tire drama and making the Falcons lose

Unlike the last post, this one is 100 percent true with no April Fools jokes.

Elephant Butte State Park, New Mexico


Elephant Butte State Park came highly recommended and the whole place seemed to be set up for some HUGE summer weekend crowds. So many sites!

It’s named Elephant Butte because on of the buttes around the lake allegedly looks like an elephant. We never saw it. On the positive side, Braden did randomly find an Iron Man figure on the lake shore, buried with only his hand sticking out of the mud. Being the super hero-crazed kid that he is, he was pretty excited about the discovery.


What I will remember from Elephant Butte is watching about half of the Super Bowl. A little confession here: I caused my Atlanta Falcons to lose the Super Bowl.

I’ve been a Falcons fan since about 1997 and gone through terrible seasons, a quarterback being jailed for killing dogs, bad ownership, bad players and overhyped teams that flop. While the Braves and baseball will always be No. 1 in my sports world, I’ve attended 3-4 Falcons games in person, owned shirts and hats and had watched more than half of their games most seasons since I was in college.

Finally, this season I gave up on them. I decided with the traveling, I didn’t have time to watch them, and since I always ended up disappointed, I was done. No watching the NFL for me. I stuck to this throughout what was probably the Falcons best season ever. I stayed away through the playoffs. I stayed out even in the Super Bowl as we drove through New Mexico until I saw the score was 28-3 Falcons. I figured it was safe for me to watch and so we began to stream the game. I literally turned on the game and the first thing on screen was the Patriots player diving into the end zone for their first touch down. I should have taken note and turned it right off. But logically, one guy turning on the game 700 miles away has nothing to do with the outcome. Right? Right?!? The Falcons never scored again and lost in overtime, in what many people have called the biggest Super Bowl choke ever. It’s all my fault.

City of Rocks State Park, NM

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Part of what makes City of Rocks so unique is that there’s no clue that it’s coming. You  are driving through a flat plain and then all of the sudden you see these giant boulders strewn around. It’s like someone went through a garden, pulled out all of the stones and piled them here — except each one is the size of an SUV.

We had a good time there exploring the rocks, including some mountain biking, which Jess is getting more comfortable with. The campground is small and very popular so we were only able to stay one night. Out of the whole trip so far, this may be the campground where we wish the most we could have had more time. The place was very cool AND New Mexico State Parks were the cheapest on the trip at only $14 per night with an electric hookup.

Tucson, Arizona

IMG_6224From City of Rocks, we chugged across the state line to Tucson and started seeing the big, iconic saguaro cactuses. They are the classic “two-armed” cactus that based on movies, you would think are all over the Southwest. As it turns out, they are primarily found only in a certain area of Arizona.

We had been to Tucson before to visit a couple of dear friends before, but unfortunately, they were in Germany for a journalism fellowship. At least in our previous trip, they had shown us the high points.

The Desert Museum in Tucson is one of the coolest zoos we’ve been to. It’s more built into the natural landscape than any other place like it, with a botanical garden feel. The hummingbird aviary is every bit as cool as it sounds.

Around Tucson in Saguaro National Park they use the term “cactus forest” which sounds weird if you’re thinking of the little prickly pears and short, stout barrel cacti. But when IMG_6246you see a hillside covered in 14- and 17-foot saguaros, you realize it’s a very appropriate description. After two trips now to see Saguaro, Jess and I both believe it may be the single most underrated national park. There’s just something about the lovable, towering saguaros that make you feel like it’s a special place. We took an 8-mile bike ride through the eastern section of the park, that, while being very steep, was a great way to see the park. Being February, it was very pleasant and we got back to the car right as the big full moon was coming up. Watching the sunset and the bats come out among the giant cactus was a highlight for us.

The Tucson stay was only for a couple of nights, but we did have a chance to go to our first ever Trader Joe’s. It was okay, but we don’t really see what the fuss is all about. In the grocery store parking lot I met another Falcons fan and told him what I had done. Jess thought the guy might hit me.Screen Shot 2017-04-30 at 11.37.59 PM

Gila Bend and Organ Pipe National Monument, AZ

From Tucson, we meandered just north of the Mexican border to Organ Pipe National Monument. The park gets its name from another type of cactus called organ pipe. While old organ pipe cacti can be very tall, it doesn’t have the appeal to us that the saguaros do. Organ pipes look like nice lawn decor. Saguaros look like your buddies.

Organ Pipe National Monument also gets the reputation as one of the most dangerous units in the park system. I had just finished “The Devil’s Highway” which is an account of the deadly gambles unauthorized border crossers take in such inhospitable terrain. The book is heavy, but a great read and perfect timing for me to have read on this trip.

It’s not uncommon for rangers to find bodies out in the park when the temperatures climb in Organ Pipe. We could see jugs of water people had left out for the crossers off IMG_0269the highway as we drove by. It’s one thing to hear about illegal immigration and border security as a concept, but it’s different altogether to see how dangerous the land is and realize that jug of water could very likely save the life of a fellow human being (whether he should be there or not).

At the visitor center there’s a monument to a ranger who was gunned down when he was trying to stop drug runners in the park. We spent about an hour there and then headed out.

We had to stop at a couple of border patrol checkpoints along the highway, just like last fall in Texas. In one spot, the drug-sniffing dog jumped his paws up on our hood and was disturbingly frantic around the RV. The agent asked us a couple of times if we had any illegal or prescription drugs on board. We explained that we did not, and when our black dog Wrigley hopped up on Jess’s leg in the passenger seat, the agent looked relieved and said the dog acted that way when there were dogs in a vehicle. On we went.

At another checkpoint, the dog went around the RV just fine until he started sniffing our sewer dump compartment and the border patrol agent quickly steered him away.

Smugglers, take note, I suppose.

We stayed one night at a KOA in Gila Bend that was relatively near Organ Pipe. I say relatively because there is nothing really near there. The closest town is Why, Arizona and I think it’s a valid question.

Tire Drama in Yuma

We knew on Sunday morning that we had scheduled ourselves a long travel day from Gila Bend to San Diego. It’s at least a 5 hour drive, but Braden continued to be excited about getting to California and since it wasn’t a work day, we tried to stretch it.

We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

We stopped in Yuma at the first In-N-Out Burger we’d seen. It’s a California chain with only a few locations outside it’s home state so anytime we see one it’s a treat. (In my book, Five Guys is still better). While we were parked in the Sam’s Club parking lot adjacent to the In-N-Out, Jess heard the tire pressure gauge alarm signal that the front driver side tire on the Fit was loosing air. A Sam’s Club parking lot is not the worst place for that to happen, so I unhooked the car, pumped the tire back up with air and drove it over to the tire center bay.

They began working on it while we wandered around snacking on free samples. We did warn Braden that growing up, Sam’s was always THE WORST store for a kid to have to visit, but he liked the samples of a waffle, grape juice, meatballs, Hershey’s and pina colada mix.

IMG_6262Unfortunately, there was a problem with the car. When I had put the tire back on in Texas after the brakes got so hot, the warm lug nuts had apparently cross-threaded themselves onto the studs and then locked up when things cooled down. This meant Sam’s could not get the tire off the car and couldn’t replace the tire while it was on. It was getting into the afternoon on a Sunday so our options were limited, but we found a Pep Boys three miles away that said they could fix it. We pumped the tire back up and Jess nervously drove the Fit with its hissing tire to Pep Boys while I followed in the RV. When we made it, they were able to fix it, but said the front brake pads, rotors and calipers were “cooked” from when the brake box had engaged while we were driving in Texas. They had the rotors and pads in stock but we had to call around to get the calipers. Their delivery guy didn’t work Sundays so they asked me to take the RV over to Autozone and get the parts. I dropped Braden and Jess at the Yuma Goodwill (one of the few places open between Pep Boys and Autozone), got the part and returned in time for them to put the calipers on.

Luckily, I had just gotten the front brake pads and rotors replaced at a Pep Boys in Chattanooga a month earlier. Aside from the $90 I spent on the calipers, Pep Boys replaced the pads and rotors all under warranty and my bill was a blessed $113, including a new tire. I was upfront and told them about how we were towing the car and the brake box engaged the pedal causing the damage, but they still honored it. My thanks to the Yuma Pep Boys staff.

They closed at 6 and we pulled out at 5:47 p.m., before making the last three miles into California.

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