Our first road trip during COVID was from Spring Branch, Texas to Missoula, Montana. Once in Missoula, we still had to drive 4 hours to get to the Salmon River put-in spot for our multi-day whitewater kayaking trip on the river. Because we wanted to be sure that we knew how clean our lodging was going to be, we actually thought about taking our travel trailer and parking it (with the permission of the Holiday Inn in Missoula) at the Holiday Inn, where everyone was going to meet the night before the trip.
However, the trip was going to take 4 days as it was. If we were to take our trailer and keep our speed under 65 MPH or so, the trip would have taken at least 5 days. Complicating that was the fact that not all RV parks were open. Some were closed because of the virus, and the situation with the RV Parks could change at any moment. We decided, therefore, to stay in hotels on the way.
The first part of our trip would take us to Amarillo, a distance of 500 miles and a driving time of at least 8 hours. Younger people can do that in a heartbeat, but not us.
My wife, Donna, planned the trip, looking for hotels that had kitchens. Why? Because most of the hotels that offered free breakfasts were no longer doing so and their restaurants were closed. We were not about to go out for dinner, either (it turns out that a lot of restaurants in some cities were also closed).
To make sure our food was fresh, we always bring along a portable Igloo refrigerator.
This refrigerator will work on the 12 Volt outlet in your car or 110 V outlets. Because we have an inverter in our F-150, we run it on 110 V.
It appears that this item is hard to get. The best price/availability I have found is on Amazon.
Here is the link:
Staying in hotels, especially those you believe would be clean, can be very expensive. So, Donna came up with an interesting idea. She researched credit cards that gave points for specific hotels and that had no annual fee. It turns out that you can get some pretty good deals.
Here is another important piece of information: if you are going to use points for a stay in a hotel, don’t pay with nothing but points. Instead, pay with some points and a credit card. If you do that, you may not be charged sales tax, occupancy tax and other taxes that get loaded on top of your hotel cost. That can add up to a lot of money.
Here is a link to the type of credit card deal you can get:
IHG Credit Card
Anyway, when we took off for Missoula, we avoided Fredericksburg because of the traffic we always encounter there, and instead used county road 473 to get to I-10. There is not much to see on I-10, but once you get off, there are some interesting sights. The following are some of the more interesting places we saw along the way.
Menard is the county seat of Menard County, Texas. The city has a population of about 1650, which seems quite small for a county seat. Frankly, there is nothing in the city to suggest that it is a county seat.
With the arrival of the first train run by The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, Menard went through a bit of an economic boom. Menard’s population stood at 1,969 in 1930, 2,375 in 1940, and 2,685 in 1950. However, the population of Menard began to decline during the 1950s and 1960s, as road improvements made travel and shipping less dependent on rail service.
Driving through Menard is like driving through a ghost town. It was a very hot day when we did, but, still, you might expect to see one person outside. We did not. According to several sources, 79% of the population in Menard lives below the poverty line.
There is an RV Park in Menard located at 894 West FM 2092. Most online reviews state that is z pretty park, but not very clean and is filled with transient industrial workers. It uses a pay by honor system and the website for the park is asking for donations for upkeep.
The population of Menard is just about 50% white and 50% Hispanic. (City-data web site). Here are some other statistics:
- Menard crime rates are 44% lower than the national average
- Violent crimes in Menard are 44% lower than the national average
- In Menard you have a 1 in 70 chance of becoming a victim of crime
- Menard is safer than 57% of the cities in the United States
- Year over year crime in Menard has decreased by 7%
All of the above is good news. However, in general, I found Menard to be pretty sad.
If you look at Menard using Google Maps, you will see what appears to be a lot of businesses. On the main drag, though, I saw mostly shuttered business.
One of the reasons I found it to be depressing is that there are many, many abandoned businesses. For example, here is a photo of the historic Menard Mission Theater, originally constructed in 1927, and closed since 1953. There is an effort to rehab the theater but, given the impact of COVID on theaters, I’m not sure how that effort is going.
This is a picture of one of my favorite abandoned businesses. I have searched and searched for information about this café, but cannot find anything.
Go down any side street and you may see one closed business after another. Not all the businesses are closed, though. Here is one that (I think) is open – Andy’s Beer Barn.
Also, on the way to Menard, you will see signs like the one below.
There is, apparently, battles raging over how much underground water people are using. That’s about all I know. Finally, you will also see these signs.
I wondered why we had seen a lot of downed/mulched trees along the route. Here is what I discovered: Hundreds of landowners of Gillespie, Hayes and Blanco counties were blindsided by a letter and a voicemail stating that the Kinder-Morgan 42inch high pressure Permian Highway pipeline will be coming across their land by rule of eminent domain. And the construction of the pipeline will begin by fall of 2019 and entail clear-cutting a 50-foot-wide permanent easement, along with an additional 75-foot-wide construction easement. This will go through family farms, ranches, orchards and wineries, rivers, streams and three major aquifers that supply all the fresh water for Central Texas.
Needless to say, the lawsuits are abundant.
The things you learn when you are on the road.
Eden, Texas is a one stop light town with a population 0f 2,766, half of which consists of inmates housed at the Eden Detention Center. The Eden Detention Center incarcerates male federal prisoners who are primarily criminal aliens who will be deported upon release.
It seems to be another economically depressed area, based on the number of closed business you will see while driving through it.
There is an interesting landmark in Eden – the Eden Mural. This is a 30-foot mural painted by Calina Mishay, a Texas artist with a passion for the beautification of small towns. The mural, to me, is “hippy-ish” and seems out of place in Eden, given its voting demographics, but it is quite interesting.
Mason is another tiny town that is also a county seat, in this case, Mason County. It is a place where you can stop to get gas and something to eat. There are also two RV parks in Mason, both of which get very high reviews. They are the Dos Rios RV Park and the Fort Mason City Park.
Ballinger is yet another tiny town with a population of 3,767. It is (of course) the county seat of Runnels County. We always stop in Ballinger to go to the “Shoppin’ Baskit” store, which is also connected to an Ace Hardware. There are restrooms in between the two stores, which is why, along with getting gas, we stop there.
When we went into the grocery store, we were shocked to see that virtually no one had a mask on, even though use of masks inside stores had been mandated. People were even saying “Hi, y’all” to each other and hugging. Worse, the employees in the deli/bakery were not using masks. Research the voting demographics of Ballinger and you can figure out why.
Sweetwater has a population of 11,000 and is the seat of Nolan County. The town seems to be quite well-known and is referenced a lot in popular culture. For me, though, the most interesting sights are the many, many wind turbines.
Picture by Donna Hansen
Even though we went blasting through Sweetwater on an Interstate, there was something that caught my attention – junk yards. I assume what I saw were junkyards. They could have just been places where old cars and farm machinery go to die. Not sure. Nonetheless, the wrecked vehicles were emblematic of the drive through Sweetwater.
After Sweetwater, we jumped on main interstate highways and left the local roads, so there is not much to show. We stayed in the Candlewood Suites, Amarillo-Western Crossing. This was a very clean, comfortable hotel in which masks were required. Of course, once some people got in the hotel, they found it unnecessary to wear masks, even in elevators. The hotel offers a guest reception and breakfast, each of which was cancelled because of COVID. The rooms, however, have full kitchens, so we (meaning Donna) were able to make our own dinner and breakfast.
Next: Amarillo to Fort Collins