Texas Road Trip: Diversion to Fort Davis

Sunset at Davis Mountains

I turned away from the path of the eclipse onto a route that would take me to deeper and darker skies.  There are a number of dark sky areas in Texas, and one of them hosts a famous observatory-  McDonald Observatory, home of the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (10m aperture, tied for 2nd largest in the world).  The nearest town is Fort Davis (population ~1000), a 45-minute drive away. 

Just outside of Fort Davis is Davis Mountains State Park, where, earlier in the day, before leaving the wifi and phone services of Leakey, I was able to reserve a campsite.  I learned by calling that there was a lodge at the state park, but it was full (and had been and would be for quite a while).  Similarly, I learned that the campground was nearly full—six sites remained!  So I provided my credit credentials and reserved one. 

I am still adjusting to the new way of getting away, through the use of smart phones and websites to make camping arrangements.  I understand this can make the process of accommodating an ever-growing set of camping clients more efficient, but it removes some of the spontaneity of life on the open road– exploring without fixed destinations, and deciding at whim the right place to stop for the night.

On my way to claim my reserved campsite, I was diverted from the highway to a Border Patrol checkpoint.  Two uniformed officers, one with a dog, questioned every vehicle.  I asked what they were looking for.  “Narcotics and human trafficking” was the response.  I replied I had neither, eliciting a harsh look.  After noting my Minnesota license plates, they gave me a pass and I continued on.

This was on US-90, at a location a hundred miles or more from the border.  It seemed odd to me that there would be a large permanent checkpoint here.  But I don’t know the patterns of drug and human smuggling.

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Texas Road Trip: The Historic Leakey Inn

The Historic Leakey Inn

The times of traveling all day and then stopping and finding a place to spend the night are becoming rare.  Places fill up, and it is now necessary to make reservations ahead of time, even for campgrounds, maybe especially for campgrounds during the travel season.  On this day however I was lucky.  Of the few hotels in Leakey TX, The Historic Leakey Inn” still had a room available as I pulled up at around 6:00.

The reception desk was empty when I found it and so I waited, anticipating that someone would eventually notice me.  While I was there, the rustic fireplace lobby was filling with people, locals who greeted each other by name and seemed to be looking forward to some sort of event or activity.  A number of the women were wearing the same style sweatshirt, decorated with a yellow ribbon and declaring “Prayer is the Answer”.

Eventually the manager/owner/wife found me at the check in counter.  Her past training as a flight attendant probably contributed to her natural style, being very friendly and helpful as she located a room for me.  I learned that there was a large patio and dining room that was offering their nightly specials—drinks and a few food items.  This was what had attracted the locals to this time and place.  The host told me that they had hatched this idea a few years ago, but it had now become this popular “monster” that they had to keep up with.  Oh, the burden of a successful business!

After settling into my rustic but clean room with stone walls and too few outlets for my collection of digital gadgets, I went back to the patio lounge and ordered a margarita.  The young bartender had to check my ID.  Not for my birth date, but for membership.  Seeing my confusion, a man next to me explained that the Texas rules for small town liquor licenses required I join a private “club”, before they could serve me.  The man turned out to be the manager/owner/husband, and he went on to explain that this was one of several defects in the state’s liquor laws, which for some reason the governor had not seen fit to correct in a recent update to those laws.  The last thing I wanted to do was discuss politics in Texas, so I said (aware of my Yankee accent) “That’s interesting.” 

I am now a full-fledged member of the “Leakey Inn Club”.

I also ordered one of the food items offered that evening: “Tacos Tapatio” a descriptor I had to look up, which meant “tacos from the city of Guadalajara”.  Maybe the two cooks working furiously in the small kitchen were from there.  The tacos were unique rolled up tortilla tubes of carnitas, deep fried, then covered with lettuce and veggies in a white sauce like coleslaw, with sliced tomatoes on top.  Delicious!

In fact the Mexican food has gotten even better the farther south I go!  The previous night, in Llano, I enjoyed a burrito with beef, jalapenos, and other goodies.  This just kept proving there was more to discover.

The Texans in this rural area are hard to describe—they seem like ranchers, mechanics and laborers, often wearing seed caps, usually with short-cropped hair but many with extensive beards of various forms—full beard, chin beard, mustache, each trying to be distinctive if not distinguished.  They are boisterous, in a way that is both polite and rebellious, which, to my surprise, I found endearing.

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Texas Road Trip: Hill Country Eclipse Survey

A valuable reference for finding observing sites. No batteries or network connection required.

I spent the day driving southwest along the eclipse path visiting candidate viewing sites that I had researched prior to the trip. I found them with the help of Google Maps of course, and with the wonderful customization of it for the eclipse by Xavier Jubier. I also bought the most recent version of the DeLorme road atlas for Texas. I actively looked for the places closest to the center line with the longest totality duration. At the time I thought I was two years ahead of schedule, not two years behind! Here are the notes I made.

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Texas Road Trip: Start at the Top

I headed to the northernmost point of my eclipse path survey, to Poppy’s Pointe, an RV park with cabins on Buchanan Lake.  It reminded me, not pleasantly, of a place we had stayed along the Ontario shore of Lake Superior

As I drove in and located the office, I was met by a man in a golf cart.  I asked if he was the owner—no he was the maintenance guy, but he could take me to her, get in.  I got into the cart and he drove about 100 feet to her trailer.  She seemed a little annoyed but took me to her office in her golf cart, about 150 feet back from where we had just come.

I eventually told her about the eclipse in 2024.  She said she was contracting the whole place to someone, they just had to agree on a price.  She also told me that she had been getting calls for four years.  The property is 750 feet from the eclipse centerline.  This was the moment when I realized that despite being here two years ahead, I was already too late!

Poppy’s Pointe is a private RV park.  There are some other parks on Buchanan Lake which for some reason were not on my list to stop and visit.  I wish I had, because Black Rock Park also has camping (tents and RVs) and cabins.  It is part of the LCRA Parks system (Lower Colorado River Authority).  From their website, it looks like the reservation system goes one year out. 

There are numerous other resorts around Buchanan Lake.  Check Google Maps to find them; It may be possible to book them for the eclipse.

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Texas Road Trip: Getting There

There is a direct route from Minneapolis to the eclipse path in Texas—just take I35 to Austin and turn right.  It is not a terribly interesting route, and you’ll be sharing it with the trucking industry, but it is fast—at least where there isn’t construction. 

The cool rainy weather of early May in Minneapolis gradually became warmer as I drove south.  By Iowa, my jacket was no longer needed, and wouldn’t be again.  By the time I got to Texas, the temperature would be 100 degrees, and reached or exceeded that temperature every day I was there.

I was trying to cover the miles quickly, so I did not take on the overhead of overnight camping, instead staying at traveler’s hotels, where I still struggled to get a good sleep—perhaps the combination of too much coffee and caffeinated non-alcoholic drinks.  But I did get “free” breakfast and recharged my cooler with hotel ice and continued on, not quite reaching my destination goal each day.  I stayed at Emporia instead of Wichita, Waco instead of Austin.

As I drove along the interstate, I noticed that the roadside rest areas, which are reliably spaced every 50 miles or so in Minnesota, became infrequent, and then completely absent after Iowa.  Missouri and Kansas had none, and Kansas Interstate 35 was a tollway!  It had “service islands” for gas and snacks, but I didn’t find them very appealing and did not stop at any.  I saw one rest area in Texas, but by the time I saw the sign, it was too late to exit.

Near the Oklahoma border with Texas, I stopped for a ham sandwich at a local stop.  Outside was a sign listing mileage to cities in TX and OK.  No entry was there for Austin.  I asked the two women running the shop “Why no Austin?”  In her distinctive (and pleasant) Oklahoma accent, one replied, “Maybe no one wants to go there.”

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Eclipse 2024 Reconnaissance

A road trip to Texas, May 2022

Introduction
In May, I made a solo road trip to Texas in order to do “reconnaissance” and to plan for the upcoming total eclipse of the sun on April 8, 2024.  I had made similar explorations of the western states prior to the 2017 Great American Eclipse which turned out to be very helpful in preparing for it.

You may ask “why Texas?”  It is not my usual road trip destination, but celestial mechanics is oblivious to human-drawn political maps.  It is also oblivious to weather, so to optimize the likelihood of clear skies on eclipse day, we need to be as far south and west along the eclipse path as possible.  Here is a chart of the cloud cover for the time in April along the eclipse path.

The various colors indicate the average cloud coverage at 2 p.m. Eastern time between April 3 and 13 based on ERA-Interim data from 1979 to 2016 collected by the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting (ECMWF).  (Dr. Brian Brettschneider)

I’m not sure if this chart represents how much of the sky is covered, or how often the sky is covered, but it is apparent that Mexico is the best place to observe the eclipse.  Not eager to drive through Mexico, I am limiting the search to the US, which takes us to… Texas.

It turns out that the eclipse path runs through a pleasant part of south central Texas known as “Hill Country,” that contrasts with its flatter or harsher or more urban or more desolate areas.   For Texans, it is the equivalent of what Minnesotans call “Up North”, a place to escape the city, or to relax on vacation.  To me, it is not quite as nice as the North Woods, but I may be biased.

As I said, Texas is not my usual road trip destination.  I have not been to the state for decades, and, having observed Texas politics from afar, I am a bit intimidated.  But eclipse-viewing is something that can be enjoyed regardless of political view, so I packed up some observing gear and headed south. 

In the next series of blog posts, I’ll describe what I encountered along the way. If you enjoy my travelogues, or if you just want to glean information that might be relevant to your 2024 eclipse plans, I invite you to subscribe (meaning that you will get an email notification when I publish a blog entry). Don’t worry, I’m not prolific at this, and you can unsubscribe at will.

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Superior Circle Tour: Epilogue

[This is the final facebook post that chronicled our adventure in June 2019.]

As satisfying as it was to return to Duluth and complete the Superior Circle Tour, we recognized that we were not quite done. Just like those climbers that make it to the summit of Mount Everest, it doesn’t count until you make it back down. Our original plan was to put the bike on our trailer and triumphantly haul it home, but since the trailer never made it to Duluth (see “Getting to the Start”), we had one more motorcycling travel day.

It turned out to be a beautiful one, perhaps one of those top-five weather days of the year. And wanting to avoid the uninspiring regimen of traffic on I-35, we discovered state highway 23, a route that transitioned from north woods scenery to rural farm landscapes that we shared with only an occasional local driver.

After riding over 1500 miles during the previous week, we were now conditioned and ready to embark on the trip that we had just completed. We could now ride for extended durations, our physical and mental stamina up to the task; my clutch and throttle hands were now strong enough to actually manage the clutch and throttle, and we had our communication and navigation systems and routines figured out. And I hadn’t lost my key.

The north shore of Superior, in both Minnesota and Ontario, had been spectacular scenery punctuated with dramatic waterfalls. On the entire route we had encountered many friendly people who gawked at us, helped us, and inspired us.

When motorcyclists encounter and drive past each other there is a salute, a hand gesture of two fingers pointing down, acknowledging the shared experience of two wheels on the road. We encountered other bikers making the circle route, most notably a group of six Harley riders traveling the opposite direction, at the “Best Northern” motel and restaurant in Wawa Ontario (by far our best meal on the tour). They had spent the day riding in the rain from Chicago and were hoping for better weather since they had allocated only four days (and were envious of our 9-day schedule). We traded road stories and wished good travels as we left.

The weather that we experienced was near-perfect. Apart from the first day of rain at Duluth and beyond, we had clear skies. Cool is better than hot for me, but Poldi did not have adequate protection for her hands. Traveling at 55+ mph, the morning temperatures of 45-degrees became quite chilly. Next time we will invest in electric gloves for her.

What other things would we have done differently? Not much really. It would have been nice to take a day off from riding and spend it exploring (even God took the seventh day off), but we had a schedule to keep. After experiencing its therapeutic effects, if there were accommodations along the way that had a hot tub, I might have lobbied to stay there (not really– I prefer more modest settings).

It was an entirely satisfying life experience, one I had never expected, and I am thrilled to have shared it with my life partner Poldi, who took on my adventure and made it hers as well.

I was also able to share a few of the stories with a (captive) facebook audience. I have been encouraged by your “likes”; it seems that some of you actually read the lengthy prose that accompanies the photos. Your responses provided the encouragement for me to keep writing. I have often felt that the spark that ignites my best efforts comes from the people around me: thank you all.

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Superior Circle Tour: Oh. Deer!

Thompson Hill Visitor Center above Duluth


We had been alerted to the hazards of wildlife. In Canada, the road signs showed images of a moose charging out to challenge motorists. And everyone had a story to tell us, but all we had seen were a few deer peering at us from the edge of the woods. It was not until we reached the Northern Lakes Visitor Center in Ashland WI that we become properly concerned.

Poldi made sure that we got there in time to have our final Circle Tour credential stamped and authorized. The agent then took the opportunity to warn us about deer. That very morning, she had seen several deer on her way to work, and then witnessed a motorcyclist having a fatal encounter with one. After stopping, a wolf appeared, circled her car, and then vanished. This was all very unusual, and so she was concerned for us because we would be taking that same section of road.

With trepidation we drove the last 20 miles, without incident, to our destination that night, Bayfield WI.

We enjoyed our stay in Bayfield. We even took the morning off, spending it on a boat exploring the Apostle Islands instead of on a motorcycle avoiding deer. Our last day was deliberately light, a short 85 miles to Duluth to complete the tour. Surprisingly, this turned out to be one of the most challenging.

The route along the shore from Bayfield is through the Red Cliff Indian Reservation, a region that displays the natural beauty of this area. It was along this passage that we encountered deer crossing the road in front of us, even at mid-day. From her perch on the pillion, Poldi would scan ahead to check for deer at the forest edge, considering their dash across the road.

On several occasions they darted onto the pavement; each time I would either see it or hear Poldi’s alert in the helmet speaker, and aggressively apply the brakes. The recommendations for such conditions were NOT to attempt swerving, but to make a “panic stop” in order to reduce velocity. A swerve was unlikely to avoid the obstacle, and more likely to take you into oncoming traffic. Even if the braking did not avoid the collision, it would reduce the velocity (and the velocity-squared energy of impact), thereby making survival much more likely.

On one occasion, we witnessed a deer run out to the center of the road, look at the oncoming traffic, and then turn around and run back. Meanwhile, the lead car had braked and swerved to avoid it, and the subsequent cars swerved to avoid colliding with the first. The road was littered with cars out of place. I was glad to have made my panic stop so that I could carefully and slowly pick my route around them. Everyone was shaken but ok. We proceeded.

Eventually, we arrived at Superior WI, the connection to a post-wilderness world. Duluth was a few short miles away over the bridge to Minnesota. But as soon as we crossed that state line, everything seemed to fall apart—the pavement disintegrated into potholes, and its mitigation was at the expense of construction barrels and detours and bad signage. The rain had arrived again (can we ever bike to Duluth without rain?), and the rush-hour traffic had no patience for anyone less aggressive in getting to their destination.

We found ourselves on skyline drive, seeking to “close the loop” on our Circle Tour. Our navigation system had broken down, even in the midst of civilization, and we were momentarily lost, looking for the next major crossroad. Suddenly without warning, a fawn streaked across the road, its mother a few feet behind. I braked hard once again, and am pleased to be able to tell the story.

We did make it to our starting point, the Thompson Hill Visitor Center, and we also made it to our hotel, where we treated ourselves to a session in the jet-powered hot tub jacuzzi in the pool room. We would have further celebrated the completion of our Circle Tour, had we not collapsed into bed instead.

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Superior Circle tour: Endor


Our next destination, also not initially on our route, was Porcupine Mountain State Park. This turned out to be an unexpected treasure and we are likely to return someday. A highlight was the overlook onto the Lake of the Clouds, but we found the other features of the park to be appealing as well—the shoreline of Lake Superior of course, the various waterfalls, and the hiking trails.

This 30-second clip shows how similar this place is to the forest moon of Endor.

A Speeder Ride through Endor

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Superior Circle Tour: The Copper Butt Award


Motorcycling turns out to be more physically and mentally demanding than I remembered from my twenties. I had heard about dedicated riders who would take on long routes– there was even a recognition for them: the Iron-Butt award. It involves collecting gas station receipts along a route that would prove that you had covered 500 miles within a single day.

I had no interest in competing at that level, but we created the mini-version of it by taking the optional Circle Tour excursion into Keweenaw Peninsula. Initially Poldi did not think we would have time to include this additional day of travel, and so had planned the bypass around it. Somehow, this just didn’t seem right; we had come all this way and were unlikely to be back soon, and I was intrigued at the geology that created both the “iron range” of Minnesota and the “copper range” of Michigan.

The copper mines had closed more than two decades earlier, and the area was in transition from deriving its income from mineral extraction to tourism, much as we see in northern Minnesota. We saw towns that had seen better times, but also new businesses catering to activities like bicycling and kayaking in addition to traditional fishing and camping. The landscape provides a draw for people wanting to experience this natural beauty at close range.

We arrived at the town at the very end of the peninsula, Copper Harbor, and enjoyed visiting “Swedes”, a former tavern run by two Swedish entrepreneurs in 1900, and now a rock shop/tourist souvenir store. The owner, who seemed to be related, or otherwise had inside knowledge, had plenty of stories to tell about the mining days and its eventual ending in the 1990s.

The transformation of the peninsula to a tourist-centric economy was not complete however. I wanted to visit the various museums and visitor centers in these former mining towns, but they were closed on the weekends, the official summer season had not started, and even the next day, they did not open until after noon.

Unfortunately the requirements for the Copper Butt award demanded that we keep moving, so we were unable to fully immerse ourselves in this bit of local history.

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