The entire month of March was spent in Texas – we traveled from Livingston to San Antonio to McCamey – and here’s how we spent that time:
It’s been four years since we were last in Texas and as we did last time, we traveled on two-lane roads from Livingston to San Antonio, rather than fight the traffic in Houston. What we didn’t count on was a freak accident on I-35 south of Austin which closed the interstate about six hours. An 18-wheeler lost his load of diesel fuel under one of the overpasses – wotta mess to clean up. As far as we know, there were no injuries. By the time we got there, that stretch of I-35 had recently reopened but traffic crawled as it started clearing up.
This was our first stay at Fort Sam Houston’s RV Park, our home for the next two weeks. We quickly got set up in a nice, long level pull-thru site with full hookups. Karen and Galen were to have come in the following day but Galen’s mother passed away, so they flew to Illinois to attend her funeral, joining us about five days later.
Jack and Mary, members of the folk music groups, Red Dog Jam and Long Ago String Band, were in town staying at the nearby KOA. We were honored that they asked us to play music with them one afternoon, getting a quick lesson from Jack in the process. We’d worked up an appetite after all that jamming, so we found out way to Boston’s, part of the same family of Boston Pizza that we enjoyed so much during our Canadian travels.
The following day, we met up with them again while we visited three of the five missions in the San Antonio area. We stopped at Espada, San Juan and San Jose, running out of time before seeing the most famous one, the Alamo. All of the San Antonio missions were self-sufficient, providing the area settlements and nearby forts with fruit, vegetables, and meat. All of these missions are still active parishes, with religious services regularly scheduled.
Founded in 1690, San Francisco de la Espada is the oldest of the East Texas missions. In addition to growing fruits and veggies, this mission was the only one to make brick, which is still visible.
San Juan Capistrano was moved to its present location in 1731 on the east bank of the San Antonio River.
San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayo, built in 1720, is viewed as a model of mission organization and was a major social center. The legendary Rose Window, or Rosa’s Window, demonstrates the high craftsmanship of the artisans who worked on the missions.
While in route to the San Juan Mission, we came across these sculptures in the field. They are 18 feet in height and composed of steel and hay. The sculptures are an ongoing exhibit entitled Making Hay. We couldn't resist having a picture taken with the "workers."
One day, we packed a lunch and went to a nearby park where there were six geocaches waiting to be found. The weather was ideal for walking the trails scattered throughout this park. After we bagged four, we took a lunch break, and then finished up finding the last two. Other than Lucille losing and then finding her sunglasses, losing her pen, and getting stung by a bee, it was a wonderful day.
We welcomed Karen and Galen back with a home-cooked meal, then Jack and Mary joined the four of us for some more jamming. We also joined the San Antonio River Pickers, the group Karen and Galen play with when they are in town, at a gig one Saturday at the Ag Museum in nearby Boerne. There were about twenty musicians playing that afternoon, most of which were dulcimers – it was fun and, again, we were honored to have been asked to join in.
Ron and Donna, with whom we caravanned to Alaska along the summer of 2005, were in the area and visited with us several times. We met them for lunch at Rudy’s in Leon Springs before the gig in Boerne – great barbecue, served on ‘fine china’ – freezer paper. We saw them again downtown San Antonio at Mi Tierra, a well-known Mexican restaurant.
After the gig, we met one of Karen’s friends, Shirley from Austin, and bagged a couple of geocaches in the area. It was Shirley’s first time caching – kudos to her for finding a particularly difficult one that had her almost dangling from the river bank – that’s a dedicated geocacher!
Looking back at our time in San Antonio, it was chock full of friends – new and renewed. While walking through the RV park, we met Jan walking their dog. During the course of our conversation, we found out we were all members of the NOMADS, the Methodist ministry for helping with projects all over the US. We tried really hard to recruit Jan and her husband Dick to join us at McCamey, but Jan is scheduled for knee replacement surgery and is keeping a low profile till she’s on the mend.
On Sunday, we joined Karen and Galen at their church, Coker United Methodist, kicking off the morning there with a good breakfast – a bargain at just $3. After Sunday school and the service, and meeting some of their friends, we all drove over to Los Cucos for lunch. Karen has been talking about a stuffed avocado they make there so Lucille finally got to try this unusual dish. It was an avocado, peeled and the pit removed, stuffed with a choice of chicken, beef or shrimp, lightly breaded and then fried – yum.
That evening, we had a final jam session with Karen, Galen, Jack and Mary – Jan and Dick were the sole audience – we all had a great time.
We returned to Boston’s once again for lunch. Instead of pizza, Lucille ordered the halibut which was wonderful and brought back memories of Alaska. The four of us then went over to Ken and Betty’s house to play music. We first met them in Mountain View, Arkansas, several years ago. Betty had baked chocolate chip cookies – yum again.
Another day, we went downtown to have lunch at the famous Guenther House, owned by the folks who started Pioneer Flour Mills. Karen’s sister Kathy was in town, touring with her church group from the Dallas area. When we went to pay for our lunches, we found out that Kathy’s group had picked up the tab – what a nice surprise. (We did snag another geocache near the Guenther House waiting for Kathy’s bus to arrive.)
Fort Sam Houston is steeped in history. The US Army first came to San Antonio in 1845 and occupied rented buildings, including the historic Alamo. The present installation began in 1870-75 on 92 acres of land donated by the city of San Antonio. Over the years, additional land was acquired to accommodate the expanding activities at the post – today, the post comprises about 3,000 acres within the city limits of San Antonio.
Designated as a National Historic Landmark, the fort has a collection of historic buildings and sites. Two museums are open to the public, as well as the Quadrangle (the oldest structure on the post now housing the headquarters for the Fifth US Army/ARNORTH).
The Quadrangle, built in 1876 as a Quartermaster Supply Depot, is the focal point of the National Historic Landmark District. The 624-foot square limestone structure encloses an eight acre courtyard. Storerooms for supplies and equipment were along the west, south and east side. The 90-foot tall tower in the center originally held a water tank but was replaced by a clock in 1882. Some of the distinguished soldiers who worked at the Quadrangle were Generals John J. Pershing and Dwight Eisenhower.
Apache chief Geronimo was a famous resident, of sorts, being held prisoner there for six weeks in 1886. The San Antonio newspapers described him as “approximately fifty years of age. He is something like five foot eight inches in height and 9000 feet in meanness…” Apparently his stay there was contested – it was thought that the hospitalities extended to him as a guest were not deserving for someone accused of murdering citizens in cold blood. He was eventually moved to Fort Pickens in Florida.
Information signs are located throughout the self-guided walking tour. Texas whitetail deer and peacocks freely roam the Quadrangle – they all appeared to be quite at home there and not too antsy around visitors.
The US Army Medical Department Museum (AMEDD) depicts the history of military medicine from 1775 up to the present with exhibits emphasizing the medical field service, the progress in science and technology, and the contribution of key members of the AMEDD in peace and war. Vehicles used in the evacuation of casualties, including an ambulance train and aircraft, are located in and on the grounds of the museum.
The Fort Sam Houston Museum tells the history of the fort and the US Army in the San Antonio area from 1845 to the present. The exhibits are in chronological order, highlighting important periods of growth and development. Examples of the uniforms worn in 1690 and equipment of each period are included. There is an impressive amount of artifacts located in this small building – lots of history.
After two weeks, it was time for us to hit the road - destination McCamey, about 300 miles away, located in West Texas, just south of Midland and Odessa. McCamey would be our home for the next three weeks while we worked on our second NOMADS project, the first occurring last year – painting the common areas at Magnolia Manor in Richmond Hill, Georgia. Like snowflakes, no two NOMADS projects are alike, as you’ll see in a bit.
We were met by our team leaders, Jim and Jan, at Santa Fe RV Park, a small city-owned park open only during three different festivals during the year and to the NOMADS. It is basically a large gravel lot with water and electric hookups and a dump nearby – lots of room, within walking distance to town and a short ride to our job sites. Jim and Jan had led a NOMADS project in McCamey three years earlier, so they were familiar with the area.
But first, a little bit about McCamey, taken from the Handbook of Texas online: “McCamey, on U.S. Highway 67 five miles east of the Pecos River in southwestern Upton County, developed almost overnight as a result of the discovery of oil nearby. In September 1925 wildcatter George B. McCamey brought in Baker No. 1. By 1926 seven major oil companies had leases in the surrounding area. Within six months a dusty tent and frame city of 10,000 people had arisen. The McCamey oilfield had two significant distinctions. One was the unsuccessful attempt in 1928 by the Shell Oil Company to build a mammoth storage reservoir to hold the surplus oil until pipelines to Houston refineries could be constructed. The huge earthen tank had concrete liners designed to hold a million barrels of oil, but the weight of the crude oil was too great for the underlying limestone. Cracks developed, and the tank began to leak. No solution could be found, and the project was abandoned in 1929. (More on this later.) The McCamey field also had one of the first refineries in West Texas, operated by Humble Oil Company from 1927 until 1932. By 1932 the community had declined considerably in population due to a combination of the Great Depression, oil discoveries in East Texas, and production changes in the West Texas fields. The population dropped to 1,805 in 2000.”
So here we are, in a small town that has two sit-down restaurants, two gas stations, a hospital, a grocery store, Dollar General, and a multitude of churches. The churches, along with support from the city, formed Community Action McCamey (CAM) to fund repair projects for low-income home owners. Those needing assistance complete the necessary paperwork and once all the hurdles are met, CAM starts working on the project, with local volunteers during the year and help from the NOMAD’ spring visits. CAM had asked for four couples but for some reason, only two of us signed up. We don’t know if McCamey’s remoteness (50 miles to the nearest WalMart) keeps people away. It’s a mere 20 miles from Interstate 10 and is on the way home to many winter Texans that end up down in the Rio Grande Valley and who pass near McCamey as they migrate north. By the end of the three weeks, we decided McCamey and its projects are a well-kept secret – read on to see why.
After we got set up in our site, Earl, the NOMADS coordinator for CAM and a Methodist minister for the local town of Iraann (pronounced Ira-Ann), came by to introduce himself. He gave us a quick tour of the town and pointed out places of interest – such as the restaurants, grocery store, laundromat, as well as driving by our two respective job sites. Shortly afterwards, we met Roy, our neighbor across the street, who made sure we had whatever building supplies were needed. We also met Steve, the pastor of the Assembly of God Church, who wore multiple hats, including that of construction supervisor – a man of many talents.
Because there were only two couples, only two projects were selected, out of the many on the list. Jan and Jim were to tile around a bath enclosure and because it was a very small bathroom and wouldn’t accommodate the four of us, we were given a wheel chair ramp to build. Alas, once we each got started, our projects turned out to be more challenging than thought.
Jan and Jim discovered the bathtub had to be replaced; the floor ripped out and replaced; there weren’t enough studs for the dry wall to be attached; p-traps were missing from the sink and tub. It was to be two and a half weeks before they even started on the bath tile.
Back at the ramp site, when first inspected, the original deck was thought to be sufficient to support the ramp. When we got started replacing some of the boards, we realized all the deck boards had to be replaced, as well as the support posts, some of which were no longer solidly touching the ground. Our first day was spent demolishing the original deck, leaving only one original board in place - the one attached to the house to which we’d start adding on.
But wait! There were more challenges – according to code, for every inch of elevation, you must slope down a foot. The deck height was 33”, thus we had to extend the ramp out 33 feet. Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it a straight run because there was an obstruction near the end of the 33 foot run, so we needed the first leg of the ramp to go down about 17 feet, build a turnaround platform, then reverse the last leg another 17 feet. Add to that the fact that there were no official plans, just a rough sketch and measurements Steve had drawn for us. Larry insists we did have a plan – it was just done on the fly and never more than an hour old!
The projects were distributed in just the right manner – we didn’t have tile experience and Jim and Jan weren’t that comfortable building the ramp from scratch.
We worked Monday through Thursday each week, about six to seven hours a day. We sure were glad to see Fridays and the weekends arrive! An additional challenge we had was that the ramp was in full sun – no let up in the afternoons, and McCamey, which bills itself as the Wind Capital of Texas, had plenty of winds that continued to test us. But throughout all our challenges, we had a ball. We used several of the skills Larry knew from trade school and those we’ve picked up doing our Habitat work to help us with the deck and ramp. We borrowed several of Jim’s power tools – our supply is limited to primarily hand tools. Every day, Earl, Roy and Steve would check in on us during separate visits, offering advice when we would get stumped, bringing us additional supplies as needed, and offering moral support.
Another thing CAM did was to make sure we wouldn’t starve, nor would we have to fix any meals ourselves on work days. We had standing invitations to have dinner on Mondays and Tuesdays, compliments of Eastside Baptist and the Catholic churches; Wednesday lunches provided by members of the First Baptist Church; Wednesday evening suppers provided by the First Baptist Church; lunch with the Lions at one of the restaurants every Thursday; and finally, potluck Thursday evenings at First United Methodist Church (pastored by Claire, who was married to Earl.) We found out later that the Methodists and Baptists would compare notes to make sure they weren’t preparing duplicate menus.
One Wednesday, Tandy, one of the Baptist parishioners, prepared us lunch which was served at the church. It was spring break and Tandy said her house was busy with her children and husband at home. The next Wednesday, she hosted us at her home, a former funeral home converted to a cozy four bedroom home. That was a cool experience. We learned the kitchen used to be the embalming room and the dining room one of the viewing rooms – spotlights are still in the ceiling. The last Wednesday noon meal, Baptist church members prepared us sack lunches and delivered them to our work sites.
With the secret out now about all this hospitality, maybe in future years they’ll get a full staff of volunteers!
In between all this feasting, we did complete our project – the wheelchair ramp was built and attached to a new deck. After three weeks of hammering, sawing, measuring, scratching our heads, measuring again….and let’s not forget the ever-present sunshine and constant winds….we got it built. What a great feeling! Jan and Jim got past most of their own challenges – when they left, the new flooring, tub, vanity and tiles were in. Local volunteers would quickly finish up the walls and cabinets but the homeowners now had a remodeled bathroom. Missions accomplished!
Besides the feeling of achievement, what made our stop here truly memorable were the people we encountered and their warmth and support throughout our stay there. If you tried to thank them for their hospitality, they immediately thanked us for being there to help. It is amazing that this small town of less than 1,800 people can join forces to help each other and their neighbors. The city of Brunswick, Georgia (where we work with Habitat for Humanity for a month each year) and its churches can learn from McCamey’s generosity.
In addition to all the fun we had working on our projects, we got to see some neat things in the area.
The Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland holds the world’s largest collection of antique and modern drilling equipment and machinery, featuring a 40-acre outdoor exhibit area and thousands of objects oil-related that educated us as we toured the various rooms. In a nutshell, we learned that drilling for oil is a highly technical process, with various techniques for various landscapes and situations. Who knew there were so many types of drilling bits!
Also in Midland is the American Airpower Heritage Museum, affiliated with the Commemorative Air Force (CAF), where we spent a couple of hours. The museum was very interesting – plan on spending a full day to see all the exhibits – we ran out of time. There are ten different areas of exhibits to be seen. We kicked off our visit in the Hangar, viewing various CAF aircraft and military ground transport. The museum is currently restoring a B-29 Superfortress named Fifi. Another room was dedicated to nose art – the artwork found on noses of planes, several of them patterned after current actresses during WW II. The George H.W. Bush Exhibit tells the story of the drama of the downing of his aircraft and subsequent rescue near Chichi Jima. Just imagine what went through the mind of the crew who rescued him years later, not knowing on that fateful day that he would later become the 41st President of the US.
Neighbor and friend Roy took us to see the million-barrel oil tank which was built in 1924. The tank was needed because there were several oil derricks pumping more oil than they could remove it from the area. However, it was abandoned in 1927 because it leaked, no matter what they did. The engineer they hired may not have been familiar enough with the terrain and how it reacted to the weight of the oil. It appeared to have less than six inches of concrete for the retaining wall, with three times that amount for the floor. When oil was pumped in, it started to leak out of the bottom. They then tried putting in water because oil would float, but the water started to leak too. It was taking 15,000 gallons of water per day to accomplish this but if that had worked, there wasn’t that much water available to sustain it. You can fit several football fields inside this tank, which at one time had a wood cover. We saw the remains of a cedar wooden pipeline that was used to transport carbon dioxide, used over the oil under the cover as fire protection.
He then gave us a tour of the ‘tank farm’, once owned by Shell, now by the Plains Oil Company. Some of the tanks hold up to 80,000 barrels of oil. We saw several oil tankers, loaded with oil they’d picked up from smaller tanks near oil derricks elsewhere, emptying their loads into holding tanks. What is amazing is that these oil tankers run 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
We introduced Jim and Jan to geocaching and found three the one afternoon we went in search of them. Last we heard from them, they were researching getting their own handheld GPS device.
The Mendoza Trail Museum, part of Santa Fe Park where we are staying, is an interesting and eclectic display of life in McCamey and surrounding areas during its heyday (1926-1929) and today. Highest population then was around 15,000.
One resident of note was Pansy Carpenter. She and her husband came to town with a traveling circus in the late 1920s. They were both trapeze artists. During one of their performances in McCamey, they had an accident in which he died and Pansy suffered severe head injuries. She left the circus and stayed in McCamey. She was quite the eccentric gal. Pansy would pull her little wagon among all the oil fields and pick up scraps to use to build cheap shacks – residences for the oil workers. She even would make wooden doors for scrapped cars that they could use as an apartment.
Larry F. from McCamey, a member of the First Baptist Church, contributed his plumbing expertise to Jim and Jan’s project. One Sunday evening, he and his wife Stella picked us all up in a church van, bringing us to the Kelton Ranch, where we got a personal tour from the owners. .We had hoped to see the deer coming in to feed but found out from Mr. Kelton that they were getting plenty to eat foraging on the ranch and were currently not congregating near the barns. We did see lots of nanny goats and kids, two of which were less than a week old. Brown Jug took a liking to Larry - he kept placing his hooves on Larry, as if he were a dog begging for scraps. Several of the kids thought Larry’s shoelaces were quite tasty.
One afternoon, we drove to nearby King Mountain to get a closer look at the windmills. We were still at least a quarter mile away (for security reasons, we couldn’t get any closer) but they were still awesome at that distance. It was neat to see the different types of energy technology right next to each other – windmills and oil pump jacks.
March ended while we were in McCamey. It would soon be time to leave. We are going to miss all those with whom we’ve made friends with over the past three weeks. We’ll also miss seeing the hundreds of windmills surrounding the town – no matter which direction you look. One day we’ll return to McCamey.
Coming up: a week’s stay visiting family and friends in the Phoenix, Arizona area; heading north to Flagstaff; continue to meander up north to end up in Torrey, Utah mid-May, all the while seeing as many national parks and monuments on the way that we can.