At the funky Desert Air Motel, soak in a cowboy tub and watch the stars pop out

At the funky Desert Air Motel, soak in a cowboy tub and watch the stars pop out

The Desert Air Motel in Sanderson opened in 196 0. Pam LeBlanc photo

I find myself in some pretty unusual places on a regular basis, but last week’s whirlwind trip to Sanderson, Texas, notched a new experience for me.
For the first time ever, I soaked in a horse trough filled with warm water in the courtyard of a retro funky hotel while a four-piece band performed a private concert.
I tilted my head back, swirled the water around the “cowboy tub” where I was lounging outside my room at the Desert Air Motel, and watched stars pop out against a velvet sky as the Terrell County Buzzards strummed and sang Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground” and Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” A 6-foot metal T-rex looked on from a corner.

That’s me, soaking in a “warshtub” pm the patio outside Room 117, the Ocotillo Room. Jim Davis photo

A T-Rex looks over the patio. Pam LeBlanc photo

The old-school, drive-up-to-your-room motel opened in 1960 in tiny Sanderson, Texas, a short drive from Langtry, former home of Judge Roy Bean. Sanderson is mostly known as a stop along the railroad and the site of a tragic flood in 1965 that killed 26 people, but I’ve been hearing good things about it lately and wanted to check it out.
Sara and Nick Ryza of Dripping Springs couple discovered the West Texas town by accident on their way back from a camping trip in Big Bend National Park two years ago.
“It all began with a wrong turn,” Sara Ryza says.
“All the sudden we were seeing signs for Sanderson,” Nick Ryza says. “We didn’t have any GPS signal, so we couldn’t see where we were until we got into town.”
They’d never been to Sanderson. They’d never even heard of it before. But when they made a return trip to Big Bend with some friends a few months later, they purposely stayed at another old motel, since closed, at the opposite end of town as the Desert Air. “We joked that the rooms were so cheap, let’s just rent entire place – let’s just buy it,” Sara Ryza says.
When their friend, Joe Godin, was driving out of town the next morning, he noticed a for-sale sign in front of the Desert Air. Three months later the Ryzas and Godin owned their own motel.
In the two years since they bought the place, they’ve renovated the iconic sign out front, ripped out the old carpeting and installed new flooring in all the rooms, and replaced the bedding and upgraded the cable system. They’ve installed cool wooden benches outside the rooms with personalized metal brackets, and created a nice picnic area under some big trees in the parking lot.
Now they’re adding a community kitchen, and creating another “backyard,” where guests will be able to sit on top of an old school bus to watch the sun set. The best part? You can get a room for less than $100.
It’s a groovy little spot, and Sanderson’s a crusty looking town with a community of kind (and opinionated!) residents. I got the local’s tour, visiting a memorial to the flood victims, driving through the cemetery where a couple of train robbers are buried, hiked a ridge above the high school football stadium (which doubles as a retention pond), bought a metal roadrunner at the Z-Bar hardware store, and ate an amazing burger at the Ranch House, where the wait staff all wear pistols on their hips.

The rooms have been renovated. Pam LeBlanc photo

Nick Ryza climbs to a platform he’s building above an old school bus behind the Desert Air Motel in Sanderson. Pam LeBlanc photo

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This Thanksgiving, the ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot goes virtual

This Thanksgiving, the ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot goes virtual

Two turkeys lead off the 2018 ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot. Chris LeBlanc photo


Add the 2020 ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot to the list of races forced to go virtual this year because of the pandemic.
I love this race, and the way you can run alongside folks dressed as pilgrims or wearing hats shaped like turkeys on their heads. It started in 1991, and has grown into the state’s largest 5-mile run. It’s also Texas’ second largest Turkey Trot, behind the one that takes place in Dallas.
This year, though, we’ll have to run on our own, and the competition will be internet-based.
The 30th edition of the race is still scheduled for Nov. 26, Thanksgiving Day. Registration is $20 for the 5-mile run, the 1-mile walk and the Kids K. (Prices increase Oct. 14.) Raffle tickets for a chance to win a brand new Honda Accord are available for $25 each, or five for $100. Register at
https://thundercloud.com/register/.
All proceeds will benefit Caritas of Austin, a non-profit organization that works to prevent homelessness in the Austin area and provide safe housing, groceries, jobs and educational opportunities for those experiencing it.

A couple of turkeys lead the pack at the 2018 ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot. Chris LeBlanc photo


I plan to run, even if it’s not with thousands of other turkeys in downtown Austin. I hope you’ll run, too. It feels great to knock off a 5-miler before sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast.
Volunteers are still needed at packet pickup. For more information about volunteering, email elewis@caritasofaustin.org

Participants in the 2018 ThunderCloud Subs Turkey Trot show off festive hats. Pam LeBlanc photo

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What’s it like to ride a camel through the West Texas desert? I found out

What’s it like to ride a camel through the West Texas desert? I found out

I joined Doug Baum and the Texas Camel Corps for an overnight trek in the West Texas desert. Pam LeBlanc photo


I’ve traversed West Texas by foot, mountain bike, horse, raft, canoe and kayak, but last week’s overnight camel trek through Cibolo Creek Ranch south of Marfa felt like no other.
Riding through the Chihuahuan Desert on a camel feels sort of like riding a rocking chair strapped to the top of a stepladder that’s being dragged across a gravel road. It’s a combination of rough and rolling, with the bonus that camels turn around and give you big goofy grins now and then.

Camel fur comes with a natural wave. Pam LeBlanc photo


Camel nostrils squeeze shut to keep out sand. Pam LeBlanc photo


Camels are groovy. They’ve got three stomachs, finger-thick teeth, nostrils that squeeze closed to keep out sand, peach-sized eyeballs fringed in 4-inch lashes, feet the size of fruit pies, wavy hair, pecan-shaped turds, and fuzzy topknots. Their breath stinks and they fart loudly, but they’re gentle, curious and sweet.
I rode a one-humped dromedary named Cinco on my trip with Doug Baum and the Texas Camel Corps. We also had a heftier, two-humped Bactrian camel in our squad of five heat-resistant beasts. Together, we strode about 12 miles over two leisurely days.
To climb aboard, we asked our straw-colored steeds to “kush,” the command to kneel. While they’re lowered, it’s easy to gently swing one leg over a camel’s back and settle into the padded saddle. You’ve got to lean back as they stand – they rise rump first, and the motion tends to heave you forward.
I managed to stick in place without any trouble.

Our trek took us through Cibolo Creek Ranch south of Marfa. Pam LeBlanc photo


Highlights? That swaying, high-rise ride. Watching scenery that looked straight out of a John Wayne movie scroll past in slow motion. Stopping at a spring-fed creek in a canyon, which had filled neck deep with water following a 4-inch rain. (Perfect for skinny dipping!) Eating traditional Moroccan food. Listening to Baum sing and play guitar around a campfire. Waking up at midnight to the yip of nearby coyotes.
Baum, who is well-versed in the history of camels in Texas, offers treks both in West Texas and Egypt, where he keeps a second home. He narrated our trip with stories of the U.S. Army’s use of camels here in the 1850s and ‘60s, when they were used as pack animals for the U.S. Calvary.
Look for my upcoming story in Texas Co-op Power Magazine.

Sunrise at camp. Pam LeBlanc photo

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River crossings, longhorns and hills: Fifty miles of gravel biking around Mason

River crossings, longhorns and hills: Fifty miles of gravel biking around Mason

Deb Richardson and Mike Drost roll past a cliff. Pam LeBlanc photo

My mustard-colored Specialized Diverge got a taste of real gravel this weekend, when I crunched over 50 miles of undulating two-lane roads around Mason.
Highlights? White-tailed deer that bounded over ranch fences and streaked in front of our small group. Real Texas terrain, complete with burnt orange and white longhorns, prickly pear cactus and vultures perched atop telephone poles, their wings spread like capes to dissipate heat. And lots of wide open spaces.
Our group of four – me and my husband, plus Mike Drost and Deb Richardson, who (along with Janie Glos) put on the Castell Grind each spring – met at the Dos Rios RV park south of Mason Saturday morning. I’ve been riding my new gravel bike on dirt roads around Bastrop, but have been wanting to try the terrain farther north.
I didn’t disappoint.

Chris LeBlanc and Mike Drost push their bikes through the James River. Pam LeBlanc photo

Deb Richardson says hi to a longhorn. Pam LeBlanc photo

From the RV park we pedaled south about a mile until the paved road turned to dirt. That’s when I knew my legs were going to get cooked.
We passed a gorgeous rocky escarpment, blasted over some bowling ball-sized rocks that nearly shook my fillings out, dismounted our bikes and tiptoed across the slippery James River crossing, then biked past the entrance to the Eckert-James River Bat Cave Preserve, where 4 million Mexican free-tail bats roost each summer. Our lollipop-shaped route took us alongside big ranches, wide open fields and up a few big hills. We didn’t see much traffic – except for a pickup truck whose driver stopped to chat with us. (Somehow the conversation turned to politics, and I opened my big mouth. Luckily nobody got shot. Lesson learned.)

Deb Richardson takes a break next to a rocky escarpment during a 50-mile gravel ride near Mason. Pam LeBlanc photo

My legs felt like overstretched rubberbands when we rolled back into the RV park about five hours later. I collapsed on a saggy hammock for a few minutes, sucked down some lemonade, and then headed down to the river, where the cool water brought me – and my worn out legs – back to life.
I’m heading back in a couple of weeks, and can’t wait.

That’s me, attempting to recover after a discussion about politics with a random stranger in the middle of nowhere. Chris LeBlanc photo

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This company makes women’s cycling gear designed to fit all body types

This company makes women’s cycling gear designed to fit all body types

Tonik sent me this jersey to test drive. I like the back pockets – and the way it’s not gathered at the bottom. Chris LeBlanc photo

I’ve got a problem with most of those stretchy, made-for-bike-racing jerseys.
They’re mostly too tight, for one. Also, I hate the way they gather at the bottom, then ride up my belly as I pedal.
That’s why half the time when I head out on my bike I end up wearing just a regular, loose-fitting tech-fabric shirt. It’s not ideal. No pockets, for one. And I look a little rodeo clownish, with big padded shorts on the bottom and a flappy shirt over that. Ug.
Last week, a California-based company called Tonik, which makes performance cycling clothes for women, sent me some goods to try. I slid a black jersey with horizontal, candy-colored stripes out of the package, along with a pair of bright-colored wrap-around skirts.
The material felt slightly thicker than most of my jerseys – making it a little hot for summer riding in Texas. But I loved the three roomy pouch pockets and single zip pocket on the shirt’s back. I also liked the cut – no gathered bottom, and a little longer than most.
Tonik was founded in 2014 by two women who were looking for cute but well-made short-sleeved jerseys to wear for a 100-mile bike ride. They couldn’t find one they deemed both comfortable and flattering, so they set out to make their own, with the mission of fitting all body types. The result is a jersey actually designed for a woman’s shape, with a broader chest, a longer back and fabric that drapes in a flattering way.
“There are lots of jerseys out there made for skinny Italian men,” says Kristina Vetter, who bought the California-based company two years ago.

The jersey has three pouch pockets and one zip pocket in the back. Chris LeBlanc photo


The line has expanded to include tanks, long-sleeved jerseys, cycling dresses, jackets, and wrap-around skirts, which can be worn over cycling shorts or worn as a swimsuit coverup.
“Our customers are a lot of recreational riders and they like to get off their bike and put something on around their bike shorts to grab a coffee,” Vetter says. “It has the wrap design so it doesn’t interfere with pedaling, and it’s also small enough that you can stick it in your jersey pocket.”
I’ve been using my skirts over my swimsuit when I head to team practice, and when I get on the boat for a morning of waterskiing. I wish it had a little more Velcro, so I could adjust the waistband a little more, but it’s useful and cute paired with my bikini.
“We’re really all about fit,” Vetter says, noting that the clothing fits up to size 20. “And we make you look great at every size. A number of our customers were women wearing their husband’s biking jerseys. It looked awful and it felt ugly. We’re all about giving people things they can wear to make them feel fantastic.”
Now, if someone could just do something about those padded bike shorts…
The jerseys sell for $99; the wrap skirts are $65. For more information go to www.tonikcycling.com.

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