Tales from a Small Town

To make my way across 2,500 miles of America as economically as possible, I joined an RV organization called Passport America (PA). For a mere $44 a year, PA makes it possible to stay at selected RV parks for half price. Notice I wrote “selected” — not to be confused with “exclusive.” Many of the parks limit PA stays to only 1 to 3 nights, and many do not offer PA pricing over the weekends.  Although there are cheaper ways to park an RV in the U.S., these methods typically involve camping without hookups. The heat and humidity in the parts of the country I’m traveling through, including Arizona and New Mexico in the Southwest and the southern parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, make it not only attractive but a life affirming experience to have access to electricity to run air conditioning. Not for me, mind you, but for Missy, particularly when I leave her in the RV while I sightsee during the day.

This, then, is how I ended up in the small West Texas town of Van Horn. The RV Park was as basic as they come but then again I paid only $13.50 a night, the cheapest price to date. One horrible park billed itself as a “resort” and cost $22.50 a night. What makes a park horrible? Well, let me show you just two of the many  “amenities” provided by my neighbors:


Open air workshop (note nearby garbage bins)


Dine al fresco with bug spray and dog provided free of charge



Outdoor exercise equipment (circled) with conveniently located refrigerator

But back to Van Horn. The town was obviously dying. I asked the campground manager, who by the way had been given the job by Central Casting, about the economic conditions of Van Horn. Why did I think the manager was from Central Casting? Well for starters her name was Billie Sue and she weighed in at least 300 pounds, smoked like a chimney and had 3 dogs and 9 cats. She fed the felines by heaping kibble on the sidewalk outside her office around 5 pm every night. That’s why.

According to Billie Sue, all the young people left years ago to work in the oil fields. I did some research and found out the following:

  • Van Horn is the county seat of Culberson County, which has the distinction of being the westernmost location of the Central Time Zone. Although entering Van Horn resembles stepping into the past, I found I actually was entering two hours into the future since I had no idea I had been in the Mountain Time Zone for days. As one who is time-zone challenged to begin with, I never know what time it is in Arizona given that the state does not observe daylight savings time (although the Navajo Nation does). To state I’m confused in the State of Arizona is only the beginning of the problem.
  • Van Horn’s population has been steadily declining. At its peak in 1970, the town had about 2,900 people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population declined nearly 17% from 1990 to 2000; and more than 15% from 2000 to 2010. In 2015, the town had declined 6.5% to 1,900 residents. The numbers have certainly taken their toll on the downtown. For example the one grocery store is long gone.
  • As I visit towns, cities and states, attend museums, and take tours, I am astounded at all I learn. I joke that what I don’t know would fill books. I think of these realizations as “duh” moments. For example, I was not aware that, to quote Wikipedia, “The petroleum industry influenced long-term trends in Texas and American culture. Conservative views among the early business leaders in Texas led them to help finance the emergence of the modern Christian and the American conservative movement.” Wow. Was this reflected in the TV series Dallas? Not that I watched it. But really, just where did I think the Koch brothers’ money came from? Talk about a “duh” moment.
  • Van Horn’s current economy is based in large part on its location: it’s a convenient stopping place traveling between San Antonio and El Paso, a 500-mile journey. It’s also on the route for those visiting Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. State Highway 62 runs north from Van Horn to the Caverns from I-10, a major interstate freeway that takes you from Los Angeles, California, to Saint Augustine, Florida. For the record, I’ve traveled this route from the West to the East Coasts. Since every exit off I-10 is populated by the same fast-food chains, gas stations and convenience stores, you would never know which state you were in.
  • More Location. Location. Location. Van Horn’s wells provided water along the San Antonio-El Paso Overland Mail route in the 1850s and supplied the Texas and Pacific railroad in the 1880s. The railroad is still up and running. I know this for a fact because it came through my RV around midnight every night. As far as I can tell, RV parks are required by law to locate next to a major highway or railroad crossing. Once, when I was at a park east of San Diego and far away from any traffic or locomotives, it took me days to spot the catch. We were located on the road used by dump trucks on their way to the dump. Trust me, there’s always
  • More than 40% of the 600 employees in Van Horn are classified as being in the retail trade. That sounds fine and dandy until you realize the “retail” trade refers to gas stations. Accommodation and food services (hotels and restaurants, which include Wendy’s) account for the next largest group of employees — 30%. Virtually none of the 600 people working in Van Horn manage companies or enterprises, are in education services, or in the arts or entertainment business. Oh look: A bit over 14% are involved in “health cate (sic) and social assistance.” (For all you Seinfeld fans, this reminds me of when George played Trivial Pursuit with the Bubble Boy and a critical answer was the “Moops.”)
  • But — and this is YUGE — all this may change in another year or two. That’s because Blue Origin, the private aerospace company founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to enable people (rich ones, at least) to orbit Earth from space, is located in Culberson County, Texas. As I mentioned earlier, Van Horn is the county seat.
  • According to Fox News, Blue Origin will begin test flights next year with commercial flights beginning in 2018. If I’m still on the road in 2019, I plan to revisit Van Horn to see how Billie Sue’s cats are faring and Blue Origin’s effect on the town.

Shown below are some of the boarded up buildings in downtown Van Horn, Texas.

  • around-the-corner boarded-up cactus-bar-groceries closed-for-business mural-full


Disaster Number ? — but at least it’s an OLD disaster!

Because I want to post weekly, I’m “borrowing” from something I wrote and published close to three years ago. I’m happy to state it’s been a while since I’ve had a disaster. I can’t believe I just tempted fate! 

I have long realized that I can best serve society not as a role model, but rather as a dire warning. But a particular incident several  years ago exceeded even my high (low?) standards. Here’s what happened: A gas station attendant filled the tank for my diesel engine with gasoline.

How is it even possible to miss this warning?

How is it even possible to miss this warning?

I was on the New Jersey Turnpike and decided to stop at a rest stop to fill my tank. From lessons learned in the past, I now fill my tank when it is around the half-full mark. No, I’ve never actually run out of fuel, but there was the time the gauge hovered around Empty and there I was, in the middle of the kind of deserted road in Texas described in Jack Reacher novels. Every town was forsaken and the gas stations abandoned. Keeping me company on that lonely road was the voice in my head that sounded an awful like my late ex-husband, saying, “You know you’re never supposed to go past half-full. Why didn’t you fill up when you had the chance? How many times do I have to have tell you this before you’ll learn?”

So that’s why I stopped on the New Jersey Turnpike, where Sunoco gas station attendants fill your tank, and entered the line labeled “Diesel.”

I figured that since (A) I was in the diesel line; (B) my tank was clearly marked “Diesel Fuel Only; and (C) the tank opening accommodated a diesel hose only (or so I thought), these factors ensured my tank would be filled with diesel.  Wrong.

The attendant noticed the “Diesel Fuel Only” label when he removed the hose. That was when he notified me of the error. I was shocked, dismayed, horrified, and annoyed. I asked him to call the Manager.

Eventually the Manager came over. He was delayed because he first called his District Customer Service Department to find out how to proceed. He advised me to drive to the nearest repair facility, have the gas drained, and send Sunoco the bill, which would be forwarded to the company’s insurance company for my reimbursement.

I said I didn’t think so.

I demanded Sunoco drain the tank then and there. He said they weren’t equipped to do so. I said then call a tow company to take me to a repair facility. He asked if I had insurance to cover the tow. I said I certainly wasn’t going to pay for the tow with MY insurance. Sunoco would have to pay for the tow. And the repair.  He asked me to move my RV out of the pump area while he called the District again. This is when I made my only mistake, but it was a doozy: I moved my RV.

Why did I move it? Well so as to not inconvenience the people in line behind me, of course. Why was this is a mistake? Starting the motor and driving the RV circulated the gasoline in the tank and fuel lines. It also occurred to me—later, naturally—that perhaps inconveniencing other customers would not have been such a bad idea after all. It may have cut the ensuring rigmarole from three hours to only two.

But that’s hindsight. Move it I did.

The next several hours consisted of the Manager getting in touch with the District to inform them of the difficulty he was having with this lady who continued to insist that Sunoco pay for a tow and all necessary repairs. At one point he put me on the phone with the District Customer Service Representative, who explained, “It isn’t company policy to pay for towing and repair.”

As much as I wanted to tell him what he could do with company policy, I calmly informed him that I really didn’t CARE about company policy, that I had been GREATLY inconvenienced and that I wanted Sunoco to pay for a tow truck to take me to a repair facility, where all repairs would be covered by THEM. I was firm. I was calm. I was insistent. I wasn’t budging from my stance that they would need to figure out a way for Sunoco to cover the cost of towing and repairing my RV. They finally realized hey, I guess we’ll have to figure out a way for Sunoco to cover the cost of towing and repairing this lady’s RV.

In the meantime, having just come from a Convention of RV’ing Women and participating in the workshop, “How to Avoid Stressing Out on the Road,” I was having difficulty convincing myself to follow the leader’s  advice to tell myself, no matter where I found myself (particularly when lost, which for me occurs with great frequency), “This is a good place to be.”

I was pretty sure it wasn’t.

In any event, three hours later a huge tow truck appeared and my RV, my toad, my dog and I were taken to a truck repair facility about 30 miles away. By this time it was well after 5 p.m., the repair facility was closed; and it was dark. Good news, though: I was able to stay in the RV, which was parked approximately four inches away from a busy highway with truck traffic 24/7.

The following morning I was at the shop office as soon as it opened. For all the good it did. Special parts needed to be ordered. Special parts needed to be delivered. Special time needed to be found to squeeze me in.  And the diesel fuel they were supposed to have on hand to fill my tank? Oh they were so sorry but they only had five gallons.

When the repairs were completed and I pulled out after 4 p.m. to head to a gas station, a dashboard warning light indicating “Water-in-Fuel” immediately appeared. I drove to the nearest gas station, asked the attendant fill the tank with diesel and WATCHED TO MAKE SURE he filled the tank with diesel, and then returned to the repair facility. As you can imagine, they were thrilled to see me.

So they hemmed and they hawed and came up with the following story: “Oh the sensor must have been jiggled out of place. We can order a new sensor this afternoon and it may come in tomorrow and we may be able to fit you in. But really it’s nothing to worry about. You could drive this RV back to California and it would be fine. It’s perfectly safe.”

At this point I needed to be in New York State the following day. I demanded that the repair facility, which at this point in the story I’ll call Repair Place #1, indicated on the invoice to Sunoco that the Water-in-Fuel sensor would need to be replaced and to expect another invoice, from me, to address this issue in the near future.  Repair Place #1 did fulfill this request.

I made it safely to my destination, where I parked RV for a week.

Then I drove the RV to Repair Place #2, which was outside York, Pennsylvania, where the sensor was replaced.  When the repairs were completed and I pulled out after 4 p.m. the next day to head for a gas station, the dashboard warning light indicating “Water-in-Fuel” immediately appeared. I drove to the nearest gas station, asked the attendant to fill the tank with diesel and WATCHED TO MAKE SURE he filled the tank with diesel, and then returned to Repair Place #2. As you can imagine, they were thrilled to see me.

So they hemmed and they hawed and came up with the following story: “Oh the sensor and the computer need to sync.  The light should go off in the next 50 to 100 miles.  But really it’s nothing to worry about. You could drive this RV back to California and it would be fine. It’s perfectly safe.”

Well I drove 50 miles, then 100 miles. And guess what? But you already know, don’t you. The dashboard warning light indicating “Water-in-Fuel” stayed on.

At this point I figured since the engine is a Mercedes diesel engine, I would take it to a Mercedes dealer. Interestingly, my first reaction was, “Oh no, that will be expensive.” Then I got ahold of myself and realized the repair costs were covered under Sunoco’s insurance.

Off I go to the Mercedes dealer/Repair Place #3. With no hemming or hawing, they came up with the following story: “The hoses going to the sensor are twisted. This caused the Water-in-Fuel sensor to light up, and has allowed fuel to leak in the engine.”

So much for “nothing to worry about,” driving back to California being “fine” and all in all everything in a state of “perfectly safe.”

The third time was the charm. After only four weeks, 325 miles of driving, often on toll roads, from one repair facility to the next and then to another, the Water-in-Fuel warning light no longer appeared.


You may recall this sign from the opening sequence in Season 1

You may recall this sign from the opening sequence in Season 1

Motel where Michonne was shackled to the post.

The Governor’s and Rick’s confab site.


* If you have to ask, you probably aren’t a fan of zombies. 

As many friends, family members and former colleagues know, I tend to become somewhat obsessive about selected movies and television series. I’ve even wondered if perhaps I suffer from Asperger’s light. The good news is that although others may worry about me, I know I’ll get over my fixation, if only to move onto the next one.

For example, when visiting Warner Brothers Studio several years ago, I was delighted to find a collection of items from the Harry Potter movies. I was less than pleased, however, when I realized as I ran from Hermione’s Yule Ball gown to Tom Riddle’s diary pierced by a Basilisk tooth to Horace Slughorn’s pajamas, that not only could I identify each and every of the 100-plus props on display, I also knew which scene in which movie they were featured. Surely this kind of dedication could have been better applied to learning Latin or building Habitats for Humanity.

Firefly is another series I became, shall we say, fond of. In addition to knowing all the famous lines (I swear by my pretty floral bonnet I will end you), I read anything regarding Firefly that I could get my hands on. Turns out I’m not alone in the ‘verse because there’s lots of literature.  One day my boss threatened an intervention, so I had to stop talking about Firefly. At work, at least.

My visit to Albuquerque was inspired by Breaking Bad. So naturally, as a fan of The Walking Dead (TWD), I took not one but two zombie tours when I was workamping outside of Atlanta.

Sidenote about Workamping: Workamping is when you volunteer to work for an organization, typically an RV park or national park, in exchange for a free full hookup (water, electric and dump).  I spent 3 months volunteering with the Army Corps of Engineers in Lake Alatoona, which is outside Atlanta. I was in charge of posting the required notices on the bulletin boards at all 30 beaches and docks. It took me a while to learn the ropes but here’s some inside advice: Honor Boxes. Honor Boxes are the locked containers that hold the envelopes you fill out and place money inside of when a ranger is not present.

My workamping job provided a campsite in exchange for 20 hours of work a week per site, which meant that married couples who were both able-bodied needed to put in only 10 hours a week each. They quickly caught on that both of them could sign up for the Monday Honor Box pick up route. Given the size of the lake and the far apart locations of the boxes, they easily knocked off 16 hours of their 20 weekly hours in one day. On those rare occasions that the Honor Box assignment wasn’t taken by the hucksters (oops, I mean the married couples), I could put in 8 hours in one day.

But back to the zombies: As fans of the show know, the program is filmed in Georgia. Season 1 was filmed almost entirely around Atlanta. Both the tours I took were led by zombies. Although neither was in costume, they did provide guidance on how to walk like a zombie. It’s harder than it looks, which is why the extras have to attend Zombie School. Those who do well receive an “A” and are placed in the “A” Group, which means full makeup, prosthetics, and maybe even a close up or two. The B group gets placed in the background with a little makeup while the C group is in the far background. All they get is dirt thrown on them. Those who earn a “D” or, even worse, an “F”, are let go. I’m proud to state that both my tour zombies were “A’s.” My Tour 1 zombie (Z1) was the one who fell on Andrea during the big attack at Herschel’s Farm. Z2 attacked Michonne when Merle had her shackled to a motel post while he was hotwiring a car and set off its alarm. Z2 noted that he was given leg protection, which didn’t help much since Michonne’s blows landed on his middle. Apparently in addition to walking funny an actor seeking a zombie role also needs strong abdominal muscles.

I learned from Z1 that, not surprisingly, it was fairly easy to become an extra on The Walking Dead for Season 1. After the program’s popularity, not so much. In fact, the producers now post on Facebook but do not identify the show. There are, however, hints: They seek people who are very slim and have large eyes, thin faces and long necks. According to Z1, due to the volume of the response, the post is taken down only minutes after it goes up.

The sites I visited during  Tour 1 included the Vatos camp; the department store where a furious Andrea threatens to shoot Rick (but neglected to release the gun’s safety); the fence and alley Rick and Glenn used to escape the walkers; the street where Rick ran into a hoard of walkers who attacked his horse; the street corner with the army tank; and the Jackson Street bridge, site of the camera shot of Rick riding a horse along the freeway to Atlanta. I use the Jackson Street Bridge photo as my picture on Gmail.

Most of these sites are shown below. If this site works as I hope it does, the captions identify where the photos were taken.

Tour 2 took us to the town of Senoia, Georgia, an hour south of Atlanta, used for the Town of Woodbury run by the Governor. Sites included the building where Rick and the Governor met to discuss their communities’ fates, over a glass of scotch (or was it whiskey?); the drug store visited by Maggie and Glenn to replenish supplies; and the houses where Carl ate chocolate pudding and Rick ran into the Claimer thugs. (My goodness, who knew how harmless the Claimers gang would appear after Terminus, the Wolves and the Survivors. What with Rick and Michonne hooking up — repeat after me: HIGHLY UNLIKELY — and the Season 6 finale, I’m not sure how much more I can take of the show.)

To return to more amusing subjects, I asked Z1 about Dale’s RV. Turns out the producers bought an old Winnebago from an older local couple and — shocker — the rig gave them so much trouble that they had to stop using it! Talk about authenticity.

Sidenote About Zombies and Babies: As many fans know, the actor who plays Rick Grimes, Andrew Lincoln, is English and remains in character between takes. What you may not know,  however, is just how this Englishman got the role of a Southern sheriff. The story as told by Z2 is that Lincoln sent in a tape to the producers that he recorded after being up all night with his newborn son. He had exactly the haggard look the producers were seeking. Upon hearing this, my son observed, “So what you’re saying is that having a baby is like surviving a zombie invasion and the end of the world.”