By now, you may be wondering what happened to that crazy girl, her dog and their RV.

After 39 states, hundreds of interesting characters and thousands of cities and towns, I’d like to tell you we rode off happily into the sunset… which wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

I made it back to Washington at the end of December in time to surprise my mom on Christmas morning.

I have since moved to a small city in an area of the country that I love.

Please visit my archives to get the full story behind this blog.

Salvation Mountain


They say the media is the message. For Leonard Knight, 78, it holds the message, too. His media — a hand-built straw and adobe hill in the California desert — is painted like a giant birthday cake with Bible versus, hearts, flowers and other symbols.

It's at the entrance to Slab City, a self-governed, off-the-grid community of people living in tents and vehicles.

Knight, who lives in a gutted Chevrolet truck year round, has been here since 1984.


In his former life, about 50 years ago, he was "running from the church."
"One day I said, 'Jesus I'm a sinner, please come into my heart.' I kept repeating it. 'Jesus, I'm a sinner.' And I became Paul instead of Saul," he says.

A giant advertisement of God's love for sinners it may be, but the paint-covered hill has drawn ire from various groups who insisted it was toxic and should be bulldozed.

Salvation Mountain volunteer and Slab City resident A.J. Pixler, 23, (below, right) told me Knight used money he received as an inheritance from his mother to pay for a counter study showing the mountain was not leeching harmful levels of chemicals. IMG_5604

His art project seems to be safe, now. In 2002, Congress declared it a national treasure.

It's also received widespread exposure in the 2007 movie "Into the Wild" and through an appearance just months ago on GoogleEarth, which more than tripled the number of visitors Knight says he sees each day.

James Rantesescher, 16, (pictured on the left) of Indio, Calif. has known Knight for most of his young life and was watching over the place while Knight had lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Niland, the nearest town.

"The United States needs this message right now," Rantesescher told me. "Because right now we just live in a civilization that is steeped in fear. And love is the opposite of fear. God is love. It's a simple, yet powerful message. "

An escapee to the desert


In 2006, Ken Wozniak moved from Chicago to Chapparal, New Mexico, a small town near the state's arid southern border.

Friends at the time thought he was crazy.

A retired U.S. Army veteran and the bearer of three purple hearts, Wozniak builds custom motorcycles and works as a security guard to pass the time. He lives for a fraction of the price he did in Chicago on 7 1/2 acres with his wife, nine dogs and assortment of other pets.

He wasn't too sad to leave behind the cold weather and traffic.

"It's a totally different lifestyle. You come from the hustle and bustle to laid-back and easy customs," he says. I would never go back."

Beware the eyes of Texas


Texans definitely have a swagger. Even if you spoke to no one and only observed the signs, you'd still get a sense of their confidence.

In addition to this colorful warning at a rest area, scores of no-litter signs proclaim, "Don't mess with Texas."

I even saw a sign on a desert highway in the panhandle that said simply: "MAINTAIN YOUR VEHICLE."

Don't think a Texan is gonna come bail out your behind!

Shakespeare cowboy


With less than a thousand year-round residents and an economy based largely on tourism, Bandera is the self-proclaimed "cowboy capitol of the world."

Bandera resident Jon Curry, a musician, has a way with words to go along with his style.

"In most tourist towns, there is a sense that it's orchestrated or contrived," he tells me in a born-and-raised Texan drawl. "But here there is a palpable genuineness seldom found elsewhere."

About his outfit: "It's really just a pair of blue jeans and boots."

Though on closer inspection, we counted six layers, which qualifies as deliberate dressing, in my book.

Slideshow from Texas – everything is ______ here



Like this couple making their way across the Guadeloupe River, near Center Point



As evidenced by Doug Northern's fair food




Like the Alamo, which reminds visitors "never to surrender nor retreat"





In the way purposely nonconforming Austin juxtaposes its artsy stores and restaurants with a glistening modern skyline



As the changing winter sky above endless miles of ranch land



The way only a trip to downtown San Antonio at Christmastime could be

When there’s frost on the port-a-potty…


I solicited travel advice from jeweler Meredith Ott at a Christmas craft fair in downtown Comfort, a small town in the picturesque hill country region of Texas.

Ott has a home IMG_5243 in Canyon Lake, northest of San Antionio, but travels the craft fair circuit much of the year in a Volkswagen pop-top camper with her cats.

"I love the Texas hill country in winter and Colorado in summer," she says. "I have a rule: when there is frost on my little port-a-potty, it's time to come back to Texas."



Ever had a Mexican egg roll? Neither had I until I happened into Conchita's Mexican Cafe in sleepy downtown Kerrville, population 22,000.
The crunchy shell wrapped around chicken and avocado, with a delicate green sauce on top is the creation of owner Theresa Womack.
"I love to create – every day something new," she says.


Her inspiration is grandmother Conchita Garza, who at 18 moved from Mexico City to San Antonio. There Conchita met her husband and the pair settled in Kerrville, where she lived to be 101.
"We were always in the kitchen. She always had her hand in the skillet," says Womack of her grandmother.
"Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) – that was her deal.
"I remember grandpa eating frijoles (beans) with grandma's thick tortillas and then wiping his face with them."

In the wake of Katrina, a better, brighter animal shelter

The Humane Society of South Mississippi is a testament to the resiliancy of southern gulf coast residents.

Less than a year after Hurricane Katrina wiped out homes and hope, the Gulport, Miss. shelter was rebuilt through a single donation of $1 million and a matching $1 million raised in the surrounding community.

Donations, along with proceeds from an on-site pet store and thrift shop, help the not-for-profit survive.

It's a clean and cheerful place where cats in cages line the hallways and dogs share large wire kennels with a friend.

I was happy to see the shelter adopts out friendly, well-adjusted pit bulls, since one-third to two-thirds of dogs that find their way to shelters in most areas of the country are full or part pit bull and for that reason alone, often euthanized.

Adoption Supervisor Timothy Sartin says he has three of his own IMG_5147and does what he can for the breed.

Recently, an all-white, deaf pit bull made the humane society a donation of its own.

Gunther, formerly known as Ghost, won the ASPCA's "Adopt-a-Bull" contest, bringing in $9,000 that went straight back to his buddies at the shelter. He has been adopted.

Go here to view the shelter's donation wish list.

It's just $75 to adopt a dog over six months of age that has been fixed, microchipped and received necessary shots. The dogs have all undergone behavioral evaluations and come with a free month of pet insurance and an educational DVD. Puppies are $95.

The clinic also hosts several free rabies vaccination and microchipping clinics in gulf coast communities each year.

A much-needed community paper

To keep people informed after Hurricane Katrina, a locally owned biweekly paper called The Sea Coast Echo gave out issues for free.

The Bay St. Louis paper has had layoffs, though they were linked more to the the depression that started four years ago. Comparatively, the national recession was a ripple in the bucket.

RaNDY“We're hanging in pretty well,” says editor and publisher Randy Ponder. “Revenue is pretty steady. Our circulation numbers are a bit higher than we were 'pre-K' — pre-Katrina,” he decodes for me.

Ponder echoes what I've heard from other community papers: People still want news about their hometown and the Internet isn't yet a great source for that.

The Sea Coast Echo doesn't run national news, anymore.

“That's all we are is a local community newspaper and we are doing quite well because we have a product that no one else has,” says Ponder.

Two full-time and two part-time reporters, a news editor and a publisher emeritus, cover all the typical issues. Reporters have been snapping the photos in the paper for more than a decade.

The paper competes for circulation with the Biloxi SunHerald and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. But Ponder says when it comes to consumer choice, the two bigger papers often cancel each other out.

Given three choices, residents of Hancock County, where Bay St. Louis is located, often opt for the smaller paper.

And since the paper has never had much national, real estate or auto advertising, it didn't notice a huge dip when those companies slashed expenses.