Finding magical places on the long road from Alberta to Texas

Not having a definitive travel plan can pay off when you unexpectedly find the remarkable – amid the people and the landscape

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(Troy Media) You would not want to go on an RV trip with me. Plans are inevitably last minute and unpredictable. An innocuous road sign may result in a quick U-turn – and a two-day detour to places unknown.

In early fall, we packed our modest motor home and slowly, circuitously ambled from Red Deer southward toward Texas. While impatient snowbirds zoomed by on the interstate en route to a quick, warm Arizona fix, we meandered the back roads, stopping to smell fall’s decaying flowers.

Our destination was the Texas Gulf but we ultimately took more time getting there than we spent in the Lone Star State.

We had no reservations, just a vague malleable plan that, malleably, seemed to change every day. An open travel agenda often leads to pleasant surprises, particularly if one foregoes the freeway for those tranquil country roads. In every backwater town, knowledgeable locals are anxious to share wisdom about local pearls. Preconceived plans may go into the rubbish bin but … c’est la vie.

That’s how we stumbled upon Great Sand Dunes National Park. As usual, we had eyed the map one morning, fired up the RV and started to wander. We were lost, headed down the Arkansas River in south Colorado. It was late afternoon. I pulled over and asked directions from a local lady walking her dog.

“Excuse me,” I enquired apologetically of the woman curbing her canine. “I’m a little displaced. Do you know of any campgrounds near here?”

She looked at me, astounded. “Don’t you know that one of America’s great treasures is right there?” She pointed toward a distant, sandy pile fronting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains: Great Sand Dunes National Park.

We rolled in just as lengthening shadows crept over the vast dunes in a remarkable, rippling display. We set up camp as a bloodshot sun set on the Sahara-like landscape. Coyotes howling at the moon lullabied us to sleep.

In the morning, I stepped out into the crisp mountain air. The sand was now shadowed from the east. We enjoyed a cup of morning joe as dark images, reversed from the night before, played across the dunes. After breakfast, we huffed and puffed a thousand feet to the summit of the sand; then ran down, child-like, to the flat plain.

At the visitor centre, I told a park ranger that we were headed toward Texas and asked if there were any other such magical places along the way.

“Have you ever been to Palo Duro Canyon State Park?” she asked, pointing to a map of Texas. Palo Duro was directly in our path to the Gulf. Perfect.

That afternoon, we descended from a Colorado Rocky Mountain high to the bleak, flat scrubland of west Texas. We stopped for the night at Happy Plains RV Park in the sleepy town of Texline. We were the only guests. The proprietress, a lonely retired school teacher, was happy to shoot the breeze during check-in.

“You’re from Canada? Well, welcome to Texas. My late husband and I drove through Canada once on our way to Alaska. Very friendly people. What’s the name of that national park? Barff? Great food there, not too spicy.”

I averted my eyes. Florence yawned in an effort to speed up the check-in process. The old gal continued undeterred.

“But Canada was just a little too clean for me. I’ve never been happier than when we finally got to Alaska and saw all the cars jacked up on blocks. Made me feel I was home again. Don’t get me wrong,” she continued, “there is no reason for you to feel ashamed. In fact, I believe there is no reason why we wouldn’t welcome you to join us and make one big country.”

“Good idea,” I responded. “We could call it Canada.”

She looked at me quizzically. It hadn’t occurred to her that Canadians might actually cherish their northern independence, that we might like our clean, polite wasteland and that we enjoyed our bland dishes, even if they were served up in “Barff.”

In the morning we hastily broke camp and tried to sneak out the Happy Plains gate. But there stood the lonely matron, blocking our escape route, a basket in hand. She handed me a fistful of chocolate bars. It was Halloween.

“I’m sorry about that nonsense last night,” she said, “sometimes I say silly things.”

Don’t we all, sister.

Late that evening, we descended into Palo Duro – the “Grand Canyon” of Texas – near Amarillo. Palo Duro is famous for its spectacular red-rock vistas and endless hiking and biking trails. As usual, we arrived without reservation. It was a busy weekend.

The ranger greeting us was a mountain of a man. His nametag said simply: Moose.

“Geez, you’re lucky,” he said. “We’re full up but just had a late cancellation for one of the finest spots in the park.”

I shrugged happily. As I affixed the park pass to the windshield, Moose remarked, “Sometimes it pays to travel by the seat of your pants, last-minute like.”

Yup, it does.

Troy Media travel writer Gerry Feehan, QC, lives in Red Deer, Alta.

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