Our 2017 journey: Chasing the solar eclipse in America’s heartland

Map of RV route through Midwest
Our 2017 nomadic journey

In our third year on the road, we’re not so much full-time rving, as living in a tiny house that we can move. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about this nomadic life, it’s that our plans are always changing.

Freelance work was slow, and our budget tight, so we decided to park in New River for awhile. “Awhile” turned into nine months. In January, we spent a week in Tucson at the Pima County Fairgrounds RV park, visiting our daughter and some friends. And then at the end of April, we drove The Toaster to Saguaro Man, a regional Burning Man event near Snowflake, Arizona.

We hadn’t been to this event in two years, and it was great to reconnect with our Burner friends. We created a camp called Jack Ass Acres, after the sort-of-famous — and now extinct — gas station at the New River exit on I-17, and camped with our friends Joe and Marguerite. They had been to Burning Man a few times, but never to a regional event. It was cold, but amazing as always.

Our only solid plan this year was to see the total solar eclipse in August. (OK, that was more my plan than Julie’s). We decided to keep our traveling to a minimum to save money, but we needed to get away from the oncoming southern Arizona heat for the summer.

We planned to get an RV site in Prescott or another part of Arizona’s high country for June and July, then make our way north to Wyoming to intercept the eclipse. But we waited too long and couldn’t find a single RV spot in the high country that wasn’t reserved. So, practically on a whim, we decided to spend June in Albuquerque.

New Mexico: Hanging out by the Rio Grande with Walter White

On June 2, we left New River and drove to Winslow, Arizona and parked at the Elks Lodge. Julie had joined a Phoenix Elks Lodge a couple of months before, partially because it gave us another option for parking our RV, especially for the short term.

The next day we stayed on I-40 and drove to Sky City, New Mexico and spent the night at a casino RV park. It was a short drive the next morning to Albuquerque. When we got off the freeway, our GPS gave us bad directions and the next thing we knew we were headed directly into downtown. We pulled over and found a back way to the RV park, where I had made a reservation.

The RV park was a dumpy little place that catered to long-term stays, which is why I picked it so we could get a good monthly rate. It certainly had a depressing atmosphere and, horribly, a cockroach problem. Our site would be crawling with them at about 10 p.m. The owner of the park basically said “Yeah, Albuquerque has a cockroach problem,” and offered to come spray but we never saw anyone. So we bought some pesticide and sprayed it ourselves, which helped but didn’t eliminate the little bastards.

What this park lacked in comfort, it made up for in location. We were only a couple of blocks from the Rio Grande, and the Paseo del Bosque multi-use path. We loved walking down to the mesquite-lined river a couple of times a day or riding our bikes along the path.

It was also a good location from which to explore the city. One day we were driving and Julie said “That looks like the car wash in Breaking Bad.” That’s because it was the car wash from that hit series about meth dealing in Albuquerque. So we looked up other locations from the show and had some fun hunting them down. There’s now an entire tourist industry based on touring locations from the show.

Our friends Mark and Lori lived in Los Lunas just south of the city, and met us at the Albuquerque Isotopes stadium to watch a baseball game. Later, we joined them for a great weekend at their lake house on Elephant Butte Reservoir.

One day, we rode the Rail Runner commuter train to Santa Fe for lunch. Any day we can ride a train is a good day.

We spent the Fourth of July with our friends Gordon and Brenda at Gordon’s parent’s house in Rio Rancho. His parents had just relocated to Albuquerque from California. They were super nice and told us we could stay with them anytime we were passing through. Tragically, Gordon’s dad passed away less than a year later after a freak accident.

We had been planning to drive up through Colorado to Wyoming to see the solar eclipse, but changed our minds and decided to head up through Oklahoma and Kansas. There was a park in Kansas we knew of that we would feel safe leaving our RV while we drove into Nebraska for the eclipse. And besides, we had never really seen that part of the country, so why not?

Oklahoma: Humidity and small towns along Route 66

On July 7th, we left Albuquerque and followed I-40 east, parking for the night at the Elks Lodge in Tucumcari, New Mexico. Now here’s the thing about the Elks: They love to drink, and the drinks are cheap. When you visit a lodge they often buy your first drink. You feel guilty, so you buy another drink. If you’re not careful, the drinks start flowing and you think that’s alright because your bed is just parked outside the door. Pure evil.

But we were good, and left without a hangover the next morning and drove out of New Mexico, ascended the Llano Estacado and crossed through Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle, stopping for the night at a casino parking lot in Hinton, Oklahoma. Casinos often welcome RVers to park for free. And it remains free as long as you stay out of the casino, away from the slots and the bar.

The next morning we continued on I-40 through downtown Oklahoma City. It was Sunday, and we were now in the Bible belt, so thankfully the city traffic was mild. We stayed on I-40 to avoid the tolls of I-44, then turned north on Highway 377 until we hit Route 66 in Stroud. We followed that toward our next home site at Oaklake Trails near Depew.

It was hot and humid. We might as well have gone to Florida, I thought. At least there would be a beach. But it was also surprisingly pretty. This part of Oklahoma was hilly and forested with oak trees between stretches of farmland. We were parked on a hillside and looked over a rippling expanse of velvety green that blended with the water-hazy air.

One day, our forward air conditioner stopped blowing cold air. I couldn’t get anyone to come out and fix it, and since the unit was pretty old, we decided to just buy a new one. So we drove up to Tulsa one day to pick it up. I wasn’t sure how to get it on top of The Toaster without damaging it or killing myself, but fortunately a local had a front loader and with the help of a couple of other guys we got it up there easily. It took me about 45 minutes to complete the install, dripping and soaked from the extreme humidity.

We explored the little communities around us, and drove one day down to Oklahoma City to see the memorial to the Federal Building bombing victims. Again, it was extremely humid, but the memorial was beautiful and heartbreaking, and a few tears mixed with the sweat running down my face.

Kansas: Staging ground for the eclipse

On July 28th, we left Oaklake Trails, Julie driving, and headed north up Highway 99 to Kansas.

These back roads in Oklahoma were often narrow with no shoulders and a drop off, and I wasn’t used to sitting in the passenger seat. I would nervously watch as the tires got close to the edge when another car was coming our way.

We wound through sometimes hilly countryside, crossing the Arkansas River above its inlet to Keystone Lake, and then eventually rolled into Kansas. The roads were in better shape in Kansas. We took Highway 166 east to Highway 75, and followed that to our RV park at Prairie Haven about 25 miles south of Topeka.

We parked here for a month as our staging ground to see the eclipse. We thought it would be much easier to leave our RV here and drive our Honda the 120 miles up to Nebraska to intercept the path of totality. In the meantime, we explored the surrounding towns and cities.

We enjoyed an excellent martini at Union Station in Kansas City. We walked the streets of Lawrence, a cute college town. We grocery shopped in Topeka, a city that looked like it had seen better days. We ate turkey fries (turkey testicles) at a terrible steakhouse outside of Scranton.

On August 21st, the day of the eclipse, we followed another couple from the RV park up to Salem, Nebraska. We left at 2 a.m., driving up Highway 75 through Topeka and into Nebraska, in order to beat the predicted crowds and find a good spot.

We had planned to find a road into one of the farm fields and had even bought a little portable toilet and pop-up privacy tent to help us wait it out. We were the first eclipse chasers to arrive in Salem, and we found a spot under a gazebo at a small city park. It was clouding up and there were periods of rain as more people arrived and set up chairs. The only bar in town, across the street from the park, opened and was selling eclipse t-shirts and letting people use their bathrooms.

But when the moment of totality came, the sky completely clouded up. We couldn’t see the sun, but we knew it was happening because darkness settled on the tiny town. Streetlights turned on and Peanut whimpered. A few minutes later, the clouds thinned and we could see the eclipse.

Disappointed, we started driving back, hoping to avoid the crowds. Highway 75 started jamming up with traffic, so on a whim we pulled off onto Nebraska Route 36, took that west then followed Route 63 south, eventually getting on Kansas Route 99 and making it back to Prairie Haven by about 7 p.m.

It was a longer route, and probably didn’t save us time, but was much more enjoyable than sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It was pretty on those country back roads, through the Flint Hills, and small town America.

By the time we got back to The Toaster, I was feeling a lot better about missing totality. It had been a great day, actually, and we did experience the surreal darkness even if it was cloudy. Our big moment of the summer was over. Now it was time to start heading back to Arizona.

Colorado: Some water time before returning to the desert

We started driving west on August 25th, basically following the route of the old Santa Fe Trail. We passed through Osage City and Council Grove on narrow country roads, then turned south and spent the night outside of Hutchinson.

The next day we continued west through Dodge City, which I had expected to be an Old West tourist town like Tombstone, Arizona. Instead, it looked even more crass and commercial with no Old West atmosphere. We didn’t stop, and spent the night at an Elks Lodge in Garden City.  On Sunday, we followed Route 50 to Pueblo, Colorado and our next home site at Lake Pueblo.

We stayed there for the next five days. We explored the town, which was full of charming Victorian-style homes. We hiked in the hills above the lake. We floated in the lake on our inner tubes. We drove up to Cañon City and drove into the mountains to the Royal Gorge Bridge.

On September 1, we left Pueblo and drove south on I-25 to Albuquerque, then west on I-40 to a truck stop outside Gallup, New Mexico. It was the longest drive I’d had done in a day piloting The Toaster, about 470 miles. The next morning, we left early and drove back to our reserved site in New River, where we settled in for a long winter’s nap in the southwestern sun.

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