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Rock Hound State Park

April 20, 2006—Shortly after I got up, my friend Kate called to say that she'd heard there would be a big windstorm across the southwest, so she and Terry had decided to stay another day in Bisbee. I decided to go ahead, since wind doesn't worry me. Besides, I'd emailed my friend Sandra Bishop that I'd meet her at Rock Hound State Park that night, and I didn't want to change my plans. In short, all my reasons for driving into bad weather were stupid ones.

I'd been trying for six months to rendezvous with Sandra, but we just seemed to keep missing each other. I'd known her via email since before she went on the road—back when she had just quit her job as an art teacher in a small Tennessee town and was trying to sell her house so she could become a fulltimer in her 29' Minnie Winnie motorhome. The year before, Sandra had been diagnosed with cancer, but after treatments left her in remission, she decided to quit her job and go on the road—a decision I heartily applaud.

It was indeed very windy and dusty, but it didn't bother me much until I crossed from Arizona into New Mexico. Then, just 65 miles from my destination, I saw a gray wall looming ahead, and heard on the CB that Interstate 10 was closed due to a severe dust storm that had caused a highway accident. I felt a chill: that accident could have easily been me, driving into zero-visibility conditions in my haste to reach my goal. I promised myself that I'd never make this mistake again.

Dust storm

The state police had blocked off the highway, and hundreds of cars, RVs and 18-wheelers were diverted onto a desolate, middle-of-nowhere service road that paralleled some railroad tracks. There was a truckstop (completely filled, of course), but nothing else for miles in any direction. Listening to the chatter on the CB, it appeared that there were no good alternate routes... so I pulled over on a nice level spot, opened a container of mint chocolate chip ice cream and relaxed for a few hours until the road opened up again. What a luxury to have my home with me! I passed the time by chatting with my father and some friends on the cell phone... then I read a couple of chapters in Heinlein's "The Door Into Summer," one of the few science fiction books in which a cat plays a prominent role.

Finally the road opened up again. I waited until all the trucks had rumbled away, then swung back onto I-10 and headed east. An hour and a half brought me to Deming, and a few miles further on was Rock Hound State Park. It was 8:30 p.m. and quite dark by the time I arrived, so I slipped my $14 fee in an envelope into the "iron ranger" payment box, then blundered around the campground in the dark (I hate doing this) until I found an empty spot. It wasn't particularly near Sandra's site, but she was kind enough to walk down to my rig to meet me, and we chatted for an hour or so before retiring.

Sandra's not afraid to tackle almost anything. After buying the Winnebago, she turned the bedroom into a pottery studio, sold her Tennessee house, and took to the road as "Sandra Bishop the Wandering Potter." She travels through the southwest making ceramics and selling them through her website, which also tells the story of her adventures. The morning after my arrival, we sat around talking for hours. By now I'm used to meeting people whom I've already known for years, but have never met face to face.

Rock Hound State Park has the same kind of stark beauty as Picacho Peak SP in Arizona. Nestled against the foothills of the Little Florida Mountains, the park offers a dramatic view across the plain to Deming, about ten miles to the west. Sandra's campsite, like mine, had a great view of the mountains on one side and the plain on the other.

Sandra's rig at Little Florida Mountain

It was a perfect place for Sandra, who is in fact a rockhound. As we walked around, she'd occasionally stoop to pick up a promising specimen. A tumbler in the back of her rig ran day and night, smoothing down the rocks she gathered. Her earrings were made from some of the tumble-polished stones, while her rig was decorated with others.

Sandra Bishop

Sandra's cat "B.C." (short for "Bitchy Cat") was a solidly built tabby who enjoyed prowling the campsite while keeping an eye on the local mice, lizards and birds. (True to her name, the first time I met her, B.C. half-growled at me while rubbing against my legs.)


A few mornings later I took a hike up into the hills overlooking the campground. It was a pretty steep climb, and I was breathing hard after the first hundred feet or so. I stopped frequently after that to rest and drink water.

On the hiking trail

The Little Florida mountain range that towers above the campground is even more impressive from close up. And at the high point of the trail I found a panoramic view out across the plain. The mountains cast a miles-long jagged shadow, but ten miles away I could see Deming brightly lit by the early morning sun.

Deming panorama Pebble

Since this was after all Rock Hound State Park, and Sandra had been collecting pounds of rocks while all I'd collected were pictures, I thought if I didn't bring back at least one rock, everybody would make fun of me. So I picked up a 2" long pebble by the trail. Nothing special about it; I just liked its shape and striations.

After I got down to the campsites again, I looked up at the trail and was appalled to see how low on the mountain it actually was. It had seemed like an endless, arduous climb upward, but in fact I was only 200 feet up the slope! Just to put this into perspective, a couple of days ago Sandra climbed ALL THE WAY up to the mountaintop—1,300 feet above the campground. Although she looks delicate, she's in far better shape than I am!

After I'd been at Rock Hound a few days, my friends Kate & Terry arrived in their 30' Lazy Daze, and occupied the site next to me, which I had reserved in their name. Turns out it was a good thing I did: it was the last available site in the park that weekend! The sites at Rock Hound are nicely graded and fairly level; the park's terraced layout gives almost every camper a great view... sort of like stadium seating in a theater.

Gertie at Rock Hound

Kate and Terry went off in their Tracker one day, and came back in late afternoon with a load of groceries and a load of rocks. They had been out to an area beyond Deming that's rich in fluorite, and had brought back about thirty pounds of rock. (I hasten to add that all but a few ounces of it stayed behind when they left Rock Hound.) Kate just loves anything sparkly—she must have been a magpie in a previous existence.

They went and got Sandra and made her look at all the rocks, then fetched over the volunteer park ranger, Art, who told them where to find more. He was a cheerful fellow with lots of good information, and presently his wife joined the chat. When talk turned to the Deming aerostat, I brought out my C90 telescope and we all had a look at it in the twilight. I managed to get a few good pictures at sunset, including one fairly dramatic shot.

Sunsets at Rock Hound were almost always dramatic... in some cases I'd have to say "lurid," looking almost as if a hydrogen bomb had been set off just over the horizon. Each one was wonderful, and each one was different.

Deming sunset 2

We stayed at Rock Hound for almost three weeks—the maximum time allowed in a New Mexico state park. Sandra left after awhile; then our friends Jonna and Mimi showed up for a few days; other Lazy Dazers stopped by from time to time... we relaxed and enjoyed the scenery. Kate & Terry drove the Tracker into town every few days, and I worked on various projects.

One project I worked on was making a cover for Marie's sleeping cushion. I'd made the cushion many months ago from a super-soft stretch-knit jersey, filling it with styrene foam microbeads so fluid that it almost felt like a waterbed. But I used the wrong stitch; the edges were coming apart; and those damn microbeads were leaking out and getting all over everything. So I tried making a slipcover from sturdy cotton broadcloth—not as soft, but much more durable.

But for some reason (probably the heat that afternoon), I botched that job as well. I was really feeling like a chump. I mean, when you can't even sew a straight seam in cotton broadcloth...! Microbeads were still leaking out like crazy. So finally I gave up, tossed out the whole mess, and on one of my trips into town with Kate, bought an oval cat bed for Marie. She seemed very happy with it.

Marie's new bed

Another project during my stay at Rock Hound was a website called "Shoot That Quilt!" that my friend Holly and I had been working on for some months. If you're not familiar with the world of "art quilting," this will take a little explaining. Art quilts are not bedclothes, but textile art made with quilting techniques. A good example is the 39.5" x 16" quilt "Canola Fields" that I commissioned Holly to make for Gertie's upstairs bedroom, based on a photo of canola fields in bloom that I'd taken a few years before in Saskatchewan. There are plenty more art quilt examples on Holly's website; she's a wonderfully talented artist.

Canola Fields

Art quilts have become a significant new artistic medium in the past few years, as witness the scores of regional and national shows every year. But making a quilt is one thing; photographing it is another. And you need good photos if you want to enter shows, get your work into galleries... or of course display it on your own website. Photographing this artwork requires skills and lighting equiment that are different from what the average snapshooter posesses. Over the years Holly and I had often seen great quilts badly photographed, and we felt that was a shame. On the other hand, we knew of quilters who routinely hired professional photographers to shoot their artwork, paying as much as $100 per quilt—an appalling cost.

Holly and I both knew that a few inexpensive tricks could make a huge difference in the results. We're both photographers; I know the technical end fairly well, while Holly has plenty of experience photographing her own quilts. And we're both pretty decent writers. We saw a need that we could fill, and before I went fulltime, we were planning a "how-to" book on quilt photography. In fact, one of my first stops after leaving New Jersey last year was Holly's place in upstate New York, where we spent a week discussing the topics we'd need to cover, and shooting photos for the book.

I ended up having too much fun on the road, while Holly was too busy creating quilts... we never got around to writing the book. But the need was still there. We'd done all that preparatory work. Why let it go to waste?

In January, I got the idea of doing a "Shoot That Quilt!" website—it seemed like a realistic, manageable project. We wouldn't make any money from it, but at least we'd get the information out there. We worked on it for several months... choosing the illustrations, laying out the pages, writing, rewriting and polishing the text. It was great fun to collaborate with Holly. We'd done it before, of course, when we'd worked together on a major software project at our former employer... but "STQ!" was our own project from start to finish, not some unwieldy designed-by-committee behemoth. We thoroughly enjoyed doing it.

By mid-April we were ready for our beta testers—a few of Holly's fellow artists—to look the site over. Some final tweaks and last-minute rewrites, and we were ready to go public.

Shoot That Quilt!

"Shoot That Quilt!" was an immediate success. Letters of praise and thanks poured in: "Bless you! This is just the information I needed and didn't know where to find!"... "Thank you for the wealth of information you so generously shared—you've just saved me a zillion dollars!"... "Your article was a big help. The directions were so simple that even a 'direction phobic' person like I am could follow them." Those emails were intensely gratifying to both Holly and me, because they proved that we'd hit the nail squarely on the head: we'd shown non-photographers on shoestring budgets how to get great results for a minimal outlay of cash. I was glowing for a week afterward, just from reading the scores of thank-yous we received.

Back at Rock Hound, the desert flowers were blooming. Ocotillos sent red-tipped stalks seven or eight feet skyward, while barrel cacti showed off their brilliantly colored blooms.

Cactus flower

Kate and I made a colorful discovery at a Family Dollar store in town: a $1 "laser top" whose multicolored LEDs flashed a seemingly infinite variety of patterns when the top was spun. We bought out the store's stock, and began giving tops to all our friends. Everyone loved them. I'm playing with mine as I write this... I never seem to get tired of it.

Laser top

Given Kate's love of flashing toys, our next project was probably inevitable. We had often admired the cool blue lighting on the rooftop "Datastorm" satellite dishes of some RVs, and Kate wanted to do something similar to her tripod-mounted satellite dish.

She had a set of eight solar-powered amber canopy lights that were too dim to be useful. I helped her cannibalize the lights and reassemble all eight amber LEDs in a sealed dental floss container, then reconnect the solar panel/battery unit. We mounted the floss container to her dish's LNB arm... et voilà!

Dish lights

The lights come on automatically at sundown, and cast a cheerful orange glow over her dish. Useful? No. Fun? Definitely! That's what's great about being with Kate: she gets me involved in goofy, enjoyable projects like this.

Kate's dish

One more Deming sunset: flaming oranges streak the sky behind the purple mountains, while the lights of the city twinkle at us across the plain. Tomorrow we drive across the border into Mexico—it'll be my first visit there, and I'm a little nervous. But tonight all is peaceful.

Deming sunset
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