The Laidoffroadtrip, Part One

Named more for the pun than the primary class of road explored, I started dreaming about a West Texas escape when I heard that my position may be on the chopping block. Big Bend has been great times with great people on several occasions, and is a great expanse for a recharge. We also did New Year’s Eve 2018 out that way, so maybe bookending this year with return out west would feel like a peaceful closure.

I recently discovered the “Texas Epic Adventure Trail,” a ~2,500 mile route prioritizing overland, unpaved, and scenic highway routes from Guadalupe Mountains National Park to Paris, swinging down into Big Bend, across the Pecos River basin, and up the Central Texas Hill Country. The whole thing would take longer than I had, but I could make some of this work.

My last workday was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Family Thanksgiving on Thursday was at my folks’ house. And on Friday, I picked up the usual tradition of joining another branch of family at the ranch between Gatesville and Waco.

On the way up, I went a bit out of the way to catch 50 miles of the trail from north-of-Lampassas to Clifton, where I was asked to fetch some groceries for dinner before cutting back south.

The day was very dark and cloudy, so the views weren’t spectacular, but it was a fun drive with neat bridges, creek crossings, abandoned buildings, and ranch animals. Also it put me into the ranch caked in an admirable amount of mud.

* Video slightly accelerated.

Once at the ranch, I sat by the fire as it got dark. I raised a glass to seven good years with some amazing people and, in ranch fashion, burned a small token to memorialize their end.

Late into the evening, an exasperated cousin wandered back up to the main house from the creek along the edge of the property. His new 2WD Chevy Silverado was stuck in the riverbed. Having packed for some light offroading in Big Bend, I had some recovery basics and offered him and my uncle a rescue. The sin of hubris.

The gravel down by the creek was loose and had been rained on all week, offering no friction and making it shockingly easy to dig oneself into a hole. Ultimately, this was a four-step operation that took far too long:

  1. Some self-service. We wedged my knock-off MaxTrax under the drive wheels of the Silverado. Unfortunately, between its road tires and light back-end, there was no grip and this gained us nothing.
  2. A sharp tug. I roped the Xterra to the Silverado with a snatch strap to try and jerk it free. The Xterra’s manual transmission and comparative light weight gave it fast enough low-end acceleration to rip the Silverado away from the river one or two feet at a time.
  3. A strong pull. With the Silverado now out of the worst of the sand, I swapped out for the ranch’s RAM 2500 and a tow chain. That vehicle had no acceleration and its automatic transmission was very grumpy. But with some encouragement and a ton of throttle, it offered lots of power to its mud tires, just enough to drag the Silverado back up to the road.
  4. A tricky reverse. This all started because my cousin wanted to turn around. Now he had to reverse back to the nearest clearing in the dark.

I left the Xterra running to keep its offroad lights on for the setup. I’d wondered if there would be any funny video to be had off the dashcam…

Apparently Xterra the Younger’s offroad lamps make great selfie portrait light.

The 2019 International Photography Award for “Offroad Recovery Audience Selfie with an iPhone” goes to David.

During the photoshoot, we three motorists continued in our labors. A more rational lot would have recognized — at some point in this hours-long saga — that we should have called it a night and returned with help and sunlight in the morning. But to the benefit of the narrative, some misguided masculinity took hold: I said I could rescue this truck, so dammit if I was still there right now, I wasn’t leaving until I had achieved victory. My cousin, proud of his new ride, couldn’t stand to leave it in the mud all night. And at some point, it was suggested that the line that got the truck stuck in the first place may have been my uncle’s idea. From a keen sense of self-preservation, I did not ask for clarification on that, but he was working the hardest of all.

After many attempts, lots of digging, legendary mud flinging, a little under-the-breath grumbling, a beer or two, and an audience who had faded from riotous laughter at our expense to complete boredom asleep in the Xterra, we got the Silverado freed.

The next morning, I had a minor difference of opinion with a dog.

After consulting my Dad (a physician) and an ICU nurse friend over the phone, I was encouraged to run into Waco to get it handled. Intent not to allow this incident to become a scene, I told my aunt I was leaving and slipped away quietly. It felt odd to ask the Xterra’s sat-nav to navigate me to the nearest hospital. What a very different request from last night’s shenanigans — which I would later discover left empty beer cans rolling around the footwells as I rocketed toward the city.

About half way there, passing through a tiny town, my hand slipped on a gear change at the only stop sign. I slammed my bloody palm into the shifter, shouting and bleeding all over it. In a place where drivers slow down to wave at each other and smile, I sure hope no one noticed me screaming expletives as I zoomed on by.

Thankfully, Waco Providence patched me up and sent me home on Augmentin, mega-Ibuprofen, and a TDaP shot relatively quickly. I credit rock climbing for being able to drive like this:

Back at the ranch, it was steak and potatoes and leftover pie night. And I was under strict orders from the doc to take the Augmentin on a full stomach. After dinner, we spent the rest of the evening under the stars by the fire. In the morning, I’ll head out to Marfa.

* This is a different dog in the background. This is Flint. Flint likes me.

The Laidoffroadtrip, Part Two

After leaving the ranch, I headed west, picking up two more short bits of the Hill Country section of the Texas Epic Adventure Trail:

I hopped off US-84 in Star and followed the trail through through Goldthwaite, my grandfather’s hometown that has become a frequent waypoint on my westbound drives. I bypassed the route’s ford of the Colorado River (😬) and rejoined it west of Goldthwaite through Richland Springs. It was another exciting drive on a beautiful day, the only event of note was underestimating a paved dip in a dirt road:

This was one of those things that didn’t look like much until I got launched into space out the other side. I have no idea where that hotel keycard came from in the video clip. I do know that the lid came off the ice chest as it bounced up, spilled water all over the ceiling, and came crashing down onto an unopened bag of SkinnyPop popcorn, which exploded all over the back of the car.

After Richland Springs, I took US-190 most of the way to Fort Stockton instead of I-10. It was much more pleasant, sparse traffic.

I stopped for the night in Alpine because it’s the only city in the region with a hospital, just in case. Thankfully, I didn’t need it. In the morning, I took off for Marfa to rejoin the adventure trail on Pinto Canyon Road, which I’d recently read about in Texas Monthy’s article The Road to Nowhere:

My favorite drive in Texas begins west of downtown Marfa, by the Texaco station. In less than a minute civilization is a memory as the road is swallowed by the waist-high grasses of the Marfa Highlands. The 7,730-foot Chinati Peak rises from the horizon under a perfect blue sky marred only by a distant thunderhead, and the rolling terrain slowly gains altitude. Telephone lines and barbed-wire fences disappear, and nothing is left but road, land, and sky.

Joe Nick Patoski. Texas Monthly, 1/2013.

Clips from the drive, time-adjusted. Pinto Canyon Road begins as RM 2810 departing Marfa westbound for Ruidosa and changes names as it goes unpaved and crosses through Pinto Canyon Ranch.

Thirty-two miles from Marfa the pavement ends and the excitement starts. At first the dirt road is almost as wide as the paved portion, but after a couple of miles, it drops precipitously, twisting and turning down hairpin curves from a ridgetop into Pinto Canyon. Scrub oak and mesquite appear in this sheltered basin, where some of the low-water crossings are so jammed with gravel and stones that you have no choice but to slow to a first-gear crawl.

The road gets its name from the Pinto Canyon Ranch, privately owned by the former CEO of Tyco International. Though access off the main road is restricted, the Center for Big Bend Studies at Sul Ross University has uncovered rich history in the area, with fascinating stories finding their way into other publications.

The article mentions continuing upriver to Candelaria, which I want to do next time I’m out that way, but after the canyon, I stopped in the mostly-ghost town of Ruidosa before picking up FM 170 through Presidio along the Rio Grande to the parks.

I also poked in on the Shafter Ghost Town that we drove by on New Year’s Day last year but didn’t have time for. Though you can see it from the road, there are a lot of fences and “No Trespassing” signs around the ruins themselves, but there’s a lot of local lore about the place, “the richest acre in Texas.”

We did FM 170 from Terlingua/Lajitas to Predisio last year and I still regard it as West Texas’s answer to Big Sur. Weaving my way back the other way was great. I also got to stop more.

Then into Big Bend National Park after a fuel stop in Terlingua. I decided to car camp at the Chisos Basin Campground, having finally figured out how to make enough sleeping space work in the back of the Xterra.

I also started Inspired, a book on product management recommended by a colleague Principal Product Manager at a company I really want to work for. It was really interesting stuff, despite being an odd read for the surroundings.

An annual parks pass, a perfect parting gift from Four Kitchens.

All day Tuesday was dedicated to a hike. I went looking for some trouble and found it. Emory Peak is the tallest point in the park at 7,800 feet. Also 10.5 miles is likely my longest single hike — I’ve walked more in a day but not on one trail. And a stout elevation gain, too.

It was stunning. And exactly what I wanted. Some sports have phrases like “leave it all on the field” (or, as a former rower — “leave it all on the water”). Not counting the drive in, this was my first unemployed weekday. On the way up, I gave a couple imagined colleagues my two cents, and by the time I got to the top of the mountain, I just stood there in the quiet of a thousand mile view. The last few weeks forgotten, left on the trail.

The Laidoffroadtrip, Part Three

My feet still hurt after that hike, but it was so great. At the peak, I met a park employee who took my picture while I was poking around. She emailed it to me and I received it as I rolled into Alpine for the night. I spent last night in town because I had a video interview scheduled for this morning, so I needed good internet access. Also I desperately needed a real shower and guest laundry. Also a burger.

Photo by SarahLynn G, NPS.

As I woke up to get ready, my contact emailed to reschedule. I realize, especially this time of year, how that happens, but it was disheartening. This was my last outstanding prospect from the round of applications I sent in early November. Everyone else either turned me down or ghosted. So it was a mixed bag that these folks rescheduled. It was a blow, but it also wasn’t a no. Maybe there’s still hope?

In the last 36 hours, I have also become entangled with a scammer who claims to represent the domain name and wants to sell it to me for an exorbitant fee. I’ve been stringing him along, trying to negotiate a lower price by email over what tiny bits of cell service I could find in the park. I discovered this morning that it is actually on a GoDaddy “expired inventory” auction. I’d imagine this individual was trying to sell it to me at a high price, then go win the auction behind my back. Some research indicated that his group does a lot of shady deals with GoDaddy that go down like this. But my myriad ethical issues with GoDaddy aside, they would not defraud me the money if I worked with them directly. Maybe I can outmaneuver this middleman.

Regardless, the word “creative” in has an industry connotation of “graphic designer in advertising,” which no longer describes what I’m seeking. Also a 6-letter .com domain is rare and valuable these days. If I can swing it, this could be part of the “rebranding” work I’m doing to try and re-key my woefully neglected online professional presence. So I put in an anonymous bid.

I had another coffee, packed up, re-wrapped my hand, and left for the park. It’s looking a lot better, and it’s finally not sore anymore.

After Pinto Canyon Road and the Emory Peak hike, I felt like I’d done what I came here to do. It wasn’t “activity” that brought me out here, anyway. It’s been such a weird ride for the last couple weeks so I wanted something relaxed this afternoon.

I decided to head up Old Ore Road to Ernst Tinaja, my favorite find from the New Year’s trip last year.

The topo map of the area shows that the gap that forms Ernst Tinaja continues through the ridge to the other side, beyond the end of the trail. I decided to figure out where it went. It just opened up onto the flats on the other side but it was a nice view. And I had the whole trail to myself.

I also decided to retake my social media profile picture here, since the last one was taken at a corporate retreat a couple years ago and I was wearing a team shirt.

It pairs nicely with a photo Evan snapped of me last year on the Lost Mine Trail that I’ve decided to use as a “cover image.” I put it up after I got home. Thankfully, the new photos attracted enough attention that no one noticed the change in “current employer” status, or at least no one said anything.

I had some lunch and sat in the canyon a while.

When it started to get dark, I worked my way back down Old Ore Road to the nearby Rio Grande Village campground — the largest in the park, but sparsely populated this evening. I had a much more secluded site than in Chisos Basin, right next to a boardwalk into the a marsh leading to the river.

Though there weren’t many campers, a zoo’s worth of animals was on the move all evening making all kinds of sounds. I had some car-supper, went through photos, and read more of my book. Not a bar of cell service for miles.

The Laidoffroadtrip, Part Four

I woke up early this morning at sunrise, well-rested, with three things to do today: win the auction on, drive about 800 miles to Tulsa, and have a conversation with a Program Manager at a massive software company.

I didn’t hear anyone else stirring around me, so I drove out of the campground as quietly as I possibly could. As soon as I pulled onto the driveway, even at 3mph, the Xterra was pulling hard to one side. Sigh. … So I had four things to do today.

Between the cold, the pathetic little tire iron that came with my car’s jack it, and still not having good strength in my hand, it took an embarrassingly long time to change that flat. I’m going to put a breaker bar on my Christmas list.

(Spoiler alert: I got a breaker bar for Christmas. Thanks Pat and Greg!!)

Once I got the spare fitted, I booked it to Fort Stockton to video call with my Red Hat contact. Normally, I would do something like that at a quiet Starbucks, but Ft. Stockton doesn’t have one. I stumbled upon a Holiday Inn Express that graciously offered to let me use their wifi.

We had an enlightening conversation that helped me learn a lot about possibilities there and other places she had connections. She helped me understand the rise of “Program Manager” as a related job title I’d never heard of before but is suddenly everywhere, and how it might be a fit for me also. And she gave me some thoughts that I could turn into some talking points for that rescheduled interview. I’m so grateful for this introduction and it gave me a lot to chew on!

After the call, I discovered I had the winning bid on, too! Not before GoDaddy extended the auction by 5 minutes multiple times as ever-higher bids rolled in. That was infuriating, but I still beat out the middleman’s best offer. Weasel. Never again — with either outfit.

Then there was an “uh oh am I going to run out of gas in nowhereville?” worry near Monahans. And I the stench of the Penwell oil fields. And an intense dust storm blew through Odessa shrouding the interstate. Finally, the drive settled out and I chewed through more podcasts and Spotify playlists all the way up to Tulsa, which was so very far away.

This leg of the trip was for a good friend’s annual Friendsgiving. He takes several days off work just to prepare this feast. It’s always amazing.

And that doesn’t even cover the appetizer table or the bread table.

Each year, George, Evan, and I spend the Sunday after the feast wallowing in post-Friendsgiving fatness, watching television and playing video games, unable to move. So on Monday, Evan and I did a little car repair. Despite my tires reaching end-of-life, I had hoped to plug that flat so we could go have a little fun.

That puncture must have come from Old Ore Road. It’s a long sidewall gash so I can’t plug it like I had planned. Also on closer inspection, these tires were showing dry rot. It really is past time.

I also replaced the struts on the lift gate that I’ve become accustomed to “helping” open.

Evan and I had toyed with the idea of going down below Keystone Dam to the Whitewater OHV park, or even taking a day or two to catch some offroading in southeastern Oklahoma on my way home. But with my shot tires and no spare, and the Land Rover’s tires which weren’t in much better shape, and so much cold, we played video games instead. A lot of video games.

Tuesday morning, I had my rescheduled interview. It was essentially a skills interview with peer Product Managers and included further conversation about the work and the company. It felt good. It also felt familiar — they’re also a client service consultancy but they work in a very different kind of software development, and even take some hardware projects! But a lot of the structure is set up like my last job, so I can walk in with useful experience. The conversation went well and I quickly got word that I would be moving on to the final round of interviews. Worth mentioning that Evan was my referral for this opportunity.

Finally, Wednesday morning, I headed back toward Austin. I’ve been away from home since before Thanksgiving. I was asked to house-sit for friends to take care of their cat. Except a quick stop to pick up a few things, I didn’t spend any time at home between their house and the ranch.

What I didn’t realize, as someone who works from home, is how sincerely I would appreciate being “shown someone else’s door” at the end of my last shift that week — doing all those final calls and goodbyes in someone else’s kitchen rather than my own. So I hadn’t been home since before my last week of employment even started.

And by the time I got to Big Bend, I’d already completely lost track of days.

The Xterra and I might both feel like we’re running on spare tires right now, but I’ve made peace with not knowing what day it is, for a little while.