We were so ready for our vacation. I thought I would need to set my alarm to get myself up to finish packing, but the kids beat me to it. Even after the disappointing Christmas Eve revelations that we were the ones who fill their stockings every Christmas Eve, both kids couldn’t wait to see what we had left them in their stockings. While it was sad to see that phase of childhood gone, there was something refreshing about our kids thanking us for their ornaments and stuffed animals, finally realizing just how carefully we plan the traditional Christmas ornaments that go into their stockings every single year.

After getting dressed and finishing up what we just couldn’t the night before, we headed down the road towards Garner State Park, about 300 miles from our home in northern Houston. About an hour out, we made a stop at Buc-cee’s, a southeast Texas staple, so that we could top off our gas and grab some lunch before we continued down the road, not stopping again until we made it to the state park.

While we were there before the office was supposed to be closed, it appeared that there were no state park rangers on duty during the Christmas holiday. We were left on our own to find our unassigned camping spot in a park with over 500 camping spots. I looked at our reservation, looked at the complex map of the campground, and sent Jeff in the wrong direction. After taking a loop that took us past the scenic river that runs through the park, we went the opposite direction and found the correct loop listed on our reservation. It was one of those tense moments as dusk settled in; Jeff was tired of driving, and I was flustered because things weren’t working out as smoothly as I had planned. We were supposed to just pull in and park in an assigned spot without any additional searching after nearly six hours of pulling a camper. Instead, we were left to figure things out on our own without any direction from park staff.

We picked our spot in the nearly empty campground, our few neighbors speckled throughout the loop. Jeff backed in, dogs were put on tie-out lines, and the kids started running around the campsite, completely oblivious to the wind sweeping across the park and the dark closing in. They had been in the truck for nearly six hours and they were ready to stretch, our son exclaiming “This is so much fun” while kicking his loose sandal in the air, much to the amusement of his older sister.

The kids finally went into the camper, unpacked all of their stuff into their drawers and cubbies, and got out their new checkers board. I put the pulled pork enchiladas, prepared the night before, onto the Traeger and then took the dogs on two separate walks around the dark loop. By the time I was done stretching out the dogs, we sat down to dinner so we could decide the rest of the evening.

We knew before we left Houston that there was a burn ban in Davis Mountains State Park, so the only real chance we were going to have at a campfire was going to be at Garner. Since we already had a single box of wood left over from Campsgiving, we decided to finish it off so it wouldn’t take up unnecessary space in the bed of the truck. The only problem was the wind and lack of homemade fire starters, which I hadn’t had time to make before we left. It was a long fight, but with the use of purchased fire starters Jeff’s sister had left with us before we all left Louisiana, all the extra paper and cardboard we could find, and a couple squirts of butane from Jeff’s refill bottle (he wanted to make sure it was the wind that was causing his Zippo to go out and not the butane), we finally had a fire that lasted long enough for us to enjoy its warmth before heading back inside to settle in for the night. For the first time in a long time, I snuggled up with a book and enjoyed the quiet of knowing that I was on vacation and away from everything.

We woke up to rain and wind, not the best conditions to wake up to when you have a 340-mile trip ahead of you. We packed up as quickly as we could and by the time we were ready to leave, the rain was dying down, but the wind would follow us all the way west.

Only three hundred miles from Houston, we had already entered the no-man’s land. There was little to no cell service for miles, and I was thankful that I had printed out our reservation information and directions to every single planned stop along the way. I pulled out the directions, told Jeff which way to go, and then kept hopelessly messing with both of our phones until one of them finally picked up enough signal to work Google Maps and eventually Waze.

It didn’t take long after leaving Garner that we began to see border patrol agents and then cars with Mexican license plates and finally Border Control Checkpoints. It was clear that we were close to the border, but we never got close enough to the border to see the Rio Grande. We did get to experience our first ever Border Control Checkpoint, watching a German Shepherd and his human agent companion walk around our truck and camper before we were quickly released to continue on our way.

Well aware that the wind and extra weight were taking a serious toll on our gas mileage, we stopped just over a hundred miles into our trip to top off our gasoline. I set a sandwich making record that would make a Jimmy John’s employee jealous, getting food to the rest of the family before we headed back down the road.

Over the next several hours we watched the landscape change from the hill country to the wide open desert and then to mountains growing up around us. When we finally arrived at Davis Mountains State Park, thirty minutes after the office closed, we found directions with our name on it and our site number, which I found significantly more helpful than the “pick your site and good luck” treatment we had gotten from Garner State Park.

I quickly made spaghetti and the kids settled in for another game of checkers. When I left the camper to take a walk to the bathroom, I looked up. The stars. So many stars, and the Big Dipper clear as day right in front of us. That has always been one of my favorite parts of camping in Texas. The song doesn’t lie; the stars at night really are big and bright in Texas. I called the rest of the family outside so that they could also take in the starry night. While I initially heard complaints about going out into the cold night, those complaints died down when Jeff and I pointed out just how many stars they could see in the dark campground, light pollution completely nonexistent in the middle of the mountains.

We ended our night with an attempt to conquer the Oregon Trail, our wagon train dying with only two card sets of five left to complete. We were exhausted but content, ready to explore Davis Mountains the following morning.

Audiobooks day 1: I Survived the Hindenburg Disaster, 1937; Extra Credit; I Survived the Great Chicago Fire, 1871

Audiobooks day 2: I Survived the Destruction of Pompeii, A.D. 79; I Survived the Eruption of Mount St. Helens, 1980; I Survived the Children’s Blizzard, 1888

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