Part 3 - Windy Texas
This is the third part of a series that describes a trip we took several years ago. If you have not read the first part, click here.
We woke early to find all of our neighbors finally asleep. The campsite was peaceful and quiet, and I almost didn’t want to leave. We only hurried because clouds were forming, and just as we pulled out of the park large drops began to fall. We drove across the long bridge over the lake, and as the sky cleared we hit the highway and headed towards Texas.
We noticed fewer trees, and soon the land was empty and rolling. Deep ravines were cut into the grass, and high hills weaved away from the road. We stopped for lunch at the Texas Welcome Center, which also passed as a tornado shelter. Laughing, we hoped that wasn’t prophetic.
Everywhere I saw signs of that famous Texas pride, from the Welcome signs to the camp grills shaped like the state. The land was so beautiful; I was really enjoying the drive now. Our next stop was a KOA at Amarillo, and we hoped to play in the pool and relax.
Living in a metro area, I had forgotten to keep the gas tank full. Gas stations were farther apart than expected, and I watched the needle inch closer and closer to E. The road was empty, and the pretty waving landscape was gone. Everything was barren and flat, and there were no gas stations in sight. Trying not to worry I pressed on. Finally we saw a gas station, with prices much higher than I had seen yet. Obviously many drivers were desperate. Full, we drove on, quickly passing cheaper gas stations.
We began seeing signs for Amarillo, including signs proud of the 16 oz steak. My stomach churned at the very thought. Everything was so flat. We drove through downtown Amarillo, a Wild West modern town, turned one block off Main Street and pulled into the KOA. One advantage to tent camping is since everyone else is traveling in mega sized RV’s, we have our choice of tent pads. Like most nights on this trip, we were the only tent campers.
The land was flat and wide and looking out across the west we could see a storm way off in the distance. I mentioned the storm when we stepped in to the camp store to pay for the night.
“Don’t worry,” the hostess said. “We’ve had storms come that way the last couple of nights, but they break up and pass around us.”
I bought fuel for the stove, and as the kids set up the tent I finally reheated my home cooked meal from three days ago. Dinner was wonderful, sitting on the picnic table. We were near the swimming pool, beside an empty field, but also close to the game room and bathhouse. Showers or a swim, I couldn’t decide.
Having grown up backpacking and camping in wilderness areas, a KOA is a different kind of camping experience. The sites are close, and neighbors can talk while washing the dishes. Several people expressed surprise at our camping in a tent, and one family invited us to join them in their cabin when the weather turned bad. The wife looked at me as if I were crazy. “I’m from Texas, and I would never sleep in a tent here. Too many tornadoes.”
I thanked her, but told her we were fine. I enjoyed watching the different travelers pull in with their fancy RV’s. These adventurers set up camp chairs, antennas, little camp decorations such as fake mail boxes and lights, then settle inside to watch TV. It looked to me like they recreated a miniature version of their house and yard, only to step inside and recreate a normal evening at home.
A motorcycle pulled into a lot near ours with his tiny A-frame pop up. Smiling, I could imagine my husband and I doing that in our future.
A tractor pulling a hay wagon drove past the campsites, his radio loudly blaring “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and “Amarillo Rain.” Laura jumped up and down. “A hay ride. Can we go, please.” This was not my idea of camping, but once I let go of my expectations I was able to enjoy myself. There was a whole world of people travelling along these entertainment-oriented campgrounds that I had not known about. Joseph wanted to read, so the girls and I hopped aboard the very loud wagon. People appeared from nowhere and everywhere. Were there really this many families in such a tiny campground? We were squeezed onto the hay bales, hip to hip with strangers, all smiling and friendly. Around the campsites we drove, washing everyone in the loud country music. Suddenly we heard an even louder noise, the crack of thunder. We were instantly drenched. Campers scattered everywhere, returning to the RV’s.
We jumped in the car, not wanting to get the tent wet. Soon the storm passed. Collecting dry clothes we decided to take showers. Tornado sirens, possibly even louder than the hayride music, screamed their warning, and all of us ran into the game room. Tornados had been spotted in various areas, none of which I had heard of. We talked to other campers who said that most of the tornadoes were not too near. The bathhouse was part of the tornado shelter, so the girls took their towels and clothing to the showers. I walked back to the tent to retrieve the forgotten shampoo. One of the KOA employees saw me and ran over to talk. “You the lady in the tent, aren’t, you?”
“Um, yes, that’s me.”
He squinted at me. “You might want to go and take it down. Weather service says we got a 60 mph linear wind coming our way.” He was busy, so I didn’t ask what that was, but it didn’t sound good. I found Joseph and we talked. The wind was already heavy and ominous clouds were building up again. I could smell rain. Actually the huge thunderhead coming our way was beautiful with the sunset colors as the day ended. We debated taking the tent down. It was rainproof, and there was no room for sleeping in the car, but I didn’t want the wind tearing up the tent either. Standing outside the tent discussing these ideas, a crack of lightning sparked the air and electrified our skin. Yelling, we jumped into the car. I turned on the radio and heard the word tornado and flood, but not much else over the fury of rain that pelted the car. The rain descended upon us so hard we couldn’t see the hood from the front window. Darkness fell about, lightening flashed, rain and thunder competed in sound and fury, and wind beat upon the car. The girls were in the shower, we were in the car, but I felt a need for us to be together. The truth was Anna and Laura were much safer in the bathhouse.
“Thank goodness the girls are in the storm shelter. At least they are safe.” Just as I finished speaking, through a slight break in the rain, I saw Anna and Laura walking down the road to us, carrying all their now soaked clothes and towels. I opened the car door and yelled for them to get in the car, not the tent. So far the inside of the tent was dry, which was more than I could say for the inside of the car. In the dark of the storm the sun set. Fiddling with the radio I heard the announcer mention there had been four tornadoes around Amarillo, flooding in the streets of the town, and a rescue of campers from a church camp somewhere south of town.
Eventually the rain slowed down. We decided to move to the tent and sleep. The goal was to allow 4 wet people in a storm to open the tent door and climb in without getting the inside wet. Listening to the rain, we judged a slow moment, jumped out of the car, ran to the tent, returned to the car for Laura’s stuffed animal, returned to the tent, slipped inside one at a time and zipped the door closed. Just as the tent was sealed another surge of rain fell. We were pretty cozy, and quickly everyone was asleep except me. When the rain slowed, the wind picked up. Since we were basically camping in the middle of town, we had streetlights. I watched the wind fold the tent wall nearly in half. The side would press down completely, covering the sleeping kids. It looked like the tent was trying to eat them; only their legs were sticking out, like little hobbits being eaten by a tree. Then the wind would release its grip and the tent would stand up again. I was afraid they would suffocate. The next wind gust pushed the tent down and I tried to push back. The wind was stronger. I could feel the power of the wind through the vinyl tent. It felt like I was trying to hold back the ocean. Once again, only legs could be seen. How could those kids breathe with the tent pressing down over them?
I was determined to stay awake all night and protect my babies. For hours I struggled, holding back the wind, or at least the tent side, but exhaustion took over, an eventually I fell asleep too. Luckily my fears were just that, fears. We all slept well, and woke to a dry but windy morning.