We had been planning our maiden voyage in our VERY UNFINISHED Ram Promaster High Top 2500 van for a month or so. Our plan was to travel via I-40 out as far as Santa Rosa, NM, then jog southwest to Carrizozo, NM, and pick up US 380 and then US 60 to travel along the route Shawn and his buddy, Bob, had ridden on bicycles 5 years earlier all the way into Phoenix, AZ. We hoped to visit Bob and his mother, visit Sedona, hike a few trails, then head back. It would be about a week worth of traveling, which is what we had available with Spring Break. Not a bad little trial run. Enter the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Plans started changing even before we left home.
Shawn had pushed the last couple of weeks to get the van to a point of usability. It had a fixed bed at the rear of the van, a refrigerator, a wet bath with running water, hot water to the shower faucet, and a diesel-powered air heater. He installed a make-shift counter on top of the kitchen galley so that we would have a work space. One of the main things lacking at the moment was usable storage space. We used a big plastic tote for all our kitchen necessities, including food, and smaller fabric totes for our clothes. The other thing missing that made life a little more difficult was an actual sink. We used a small wash basin and water from the shower spray wand to do our washing. It was functional, just less convenient.
We departed from south central Oklahoma on Saturday afternoon and headed out US 70 and then caught US 287 near Wichita Falls to head for Amarillo. We stopped at a rest area and boiled water on the single burner propane/butane stove we had for a backpacking meal that had been stashed in our pantry for a year or two. (In the van eating at its finest. Or at least most expensive!) We arrived at the Cracker Barrel in Amarillo around 9 pm. Arriving shortly thereafter were a couple of other van travelers, whom Shawn had met on the Promaster Forum. They have been travelling in their van for about 5 years, so they had some good ideas about storage and other aspects of van life.
We spent the night in the Cracker Barrel parking lot because we had heard that they would let you stay overnight there for free. It was a cold night in Amarillo, and our heater worked well, when we had it on. The only problem was that it was draining the one battery that was hooked up. We were awakened by a beeping noise which we figured out was the battery meter. He started and ran the van for a few minutes to recharge the battery, but we were awakened again by the beeping. Shawn finally turned off the heater in the early morning.
We decided that since we were allowed a free place to park, the least we could do was eat breakfast there, so we did. Looking around the store after breakfast, I found an OU t-shirt that was on sale, and I couldn’t resist. Shawn decided that free parking wasn’t necessarily cheap!
WanderVan took us around downtown and various parts of Amarillo, just to see what it was like, since our only other experience there has been on the interstate. It seemed pretty nice, the most interesting thing to us, though, was the Federal Railway Administration Car that was parked on a railroad overpass. We attended worship service at the Church at Quail Creek because we know the senior pastor and his family. Due to concerns about the coronavirus, there was a “no handshake” policy at the church, like many other churches that day. Elbow bumps, foot taps, and courtesy bows were the common greetings.
After lunch with Pastor Kyle and his family, we headed west out of Amarillo in a cold, drizzly rain. It would remain overcast and cool throughout the afternoon. Finally, when we were about an hour away from Carrizozo, NM, the sky began to clear, and by the time we reached the Valley of Fires recreation area, it was sunny and beautiful. When Shawn had visited the Valley of Fires previously, the park was nearly empty. This time was a different experience. All the state parks in New Mexico had been shut down to camping that weekend due to COVID-19, but Valley of Fires, run by the Bureau of Land Management, was still open – and very full. We saw sites that had two or three RVs in them. We talked to a man on an ATV and he let us back into the end slot of a parking area – for the full $12 dry camping fee. We didn’t need the hook-ups, so that was fine with us. It was rather nice because we weren’t right next to anyone and we had a great view of fields and mountains in the distance out our back windows and slider.
We walked the trail through the lava field twice that evening, once before and once after our dinner. I made homemade macaroni and cheese for supper, which oddly enough, is something I had not attempted while camping or RVing before. Topped with some fresh salsa, it was quite tasty! We took advantage of the showerhouse in the campground (improvising some shower shoes!) before heading to bed. We knew what to expect from the heater, so we let it get a little colder in the van before turning it on around 2 am. Around 6 am, Shawn started the van for a few minutes to let the battery charge back up. Our finished van build will contain four golf cart 6V batteries, and low battery issues will no longer be a problem.
After a breakfast of scrambled eggs, banana nut bread (brought from home, obviously), and coffee, we headed toward White Sands National Park. Interestingly, White Sands only became a National Park in December of 2019; it had been a National Monument before that and all of the signs still said National Monument. At the Visitor Center, I stamped my National Park passport book and we looked at a few exhibits. Then we took the Dunes Drive to the end and back, stopping near the end at a high point to get out on the sand and see the beautiful white sands in all directions. We saw families with sleds going down the small hills in multiple places throughout the park. We also stopped to walk the Interdune Boardwalk and the 1 mile Dunes Nature Trail. For lunch, we made a sandwich in the van and then turned toward home.
A friend had alerted us that the President would be making some sort of announcement that afternoon regarding Coronavirus precautions, so we were anxious to know if that was going to impact our travel. We knew we were heading home, but would we have to drive straight through? No, there were no travel restrictions, just a 10 person limit on gatherings. We could manage that. We stopped at a city park in Roswell, NM, where we walked on the walking/biking trail for 10-15 minutes.
I really wanted some New Mexican green chili before leaving the state, so we stopped at a Mexican restaurant in Tatum, NM, for supper. Again, we saw the beginnings of the precautions against the spread of COVID-19 as half the tables in the restaurant were closed off. It wasn’t a big deal, though, because at 4:30 in the afternoon, there was only one other person in the restaurant. I had a green chili smothered chicken burrito and Shawn had the chicken enchilada dinner, topped with green chili sauce. We had looked for some free camping options on the way home and found a couple of city parks on our route. Unfortunately, their locations put them one hour away from our dinner stop (a little early considering we still had 8 or 9 hours of driving ahead of us), so we pressed further on to a city park 4 hours away from Tatum. We were pretty tired by the time we drove into the city RV park in Haskell, TX, at 10 pm. We used the RV park’s sewer hookups to empty our tanks the next morning before heading out and driving back home. The policy in Haskell allowed one night free with a charge for future nights.
Our trip had been shorter than expected, but we were happy to get a few days of van travel and camping in before travel became seriously discouraged. We look forward to a diminished virus impact and future trips.