Snowbirding 2016: Quartzsite

Camp in the desert, walk around dusty market stalls, buy cheap stuff you likely don’t need, soak up the sun, watch amazing sunrises/sunsets, repeat.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
– Return to Wickenburg
more to come…

Quartzsite, AZ, is a special place — special in its oddity. It’s a small town on I-10 about 18 miles east of the Colorado River. With a total area of about 36 square miles, the 2010 census counted 3,677 people. Those are “permanent” residents, of course. During the month of January, some estimates say the population swells to about 100,000.

Quartzsite from the Air
A broad look at Quartzsite from the air in January 2008.

You read that right. 100,000 people in a town where less than 4,000 normally live.

Where do those people stay, you might wonder? The answer is obvious if you drive down I-10 through the area in January: in RVs parked in a handful of RV parks but mostly all over the desert on the BLM land that surrounds the town.

Circle the Wagons!A closeup looking almost straight down at groups of RVs.

The desert around Quartzsite is relatively flat with a rocky surface that makes it easy to drive through. Over time, “roads” have been made through the area that lead to suitable campsites. RVers — mostly retirees in big motorhomes or dragging giant fifth wheel trailers like mine — gather in clusters for miles in every direction. This is pretty amazing from the air — indeed, I took a French photographer out over the town back in 2008 and he sent me a handful of the resulting photos for my blog.

Why do they come? That’s a pretty good question. I think there are a few reasons:

  • It’s a cheap place to stay. Camping on BLM land is usually free for up to two weeks, although Quartzsite has a handful of “long term” areas where you can stay longer for a $40 fee. (Of course, there are so many RVs out there in the free area that it’s unlikely a BLM ranger is actually keeping track of the length of your stay.) Retirees — and a lot of other people I know, including me — like free. Keep in mind that to get this free camping with a certain level of comfort, you need an RV that’s fully contained with water, power, propane, and sewer holding tanks. That can be a huge investment. You can haul in water and propane, have a solar panel and/or generator for power, and minimize use of your plumbing. I talk a little about what it’s like to camp off the grid in the previous post of this series, “The Colorado River Backwaters.”
  • Other snowbirds go there. If there’s one thing I noticed about snowbirders it’s that they like to gather in popular places. Often Quartzsite is the meetup location of snowbirds from all over the west to see each other annually.
  • There are “shows.” The entire town is like a giant flea market with all kinds of merchandise for sale, usually cheap. But among those ragtag markets are also scheduled events like those at Tyson Wells: a gem and mineral show, an art show, a classic car show. The big show in January, which lasts 10 days and gives RVers a good excuse to come is the big RV show. Indeed, I bought the Mobile Mansion in Quartzsite back in 2010.

I’ve written extensively about Quartzsite throughout this blog since I’ve been going there even longer than I’ve been blogging. Search for “Quartzsite” to see what else I’ve written.

I should point out that Quartzsite has changed dramatically since I began going there in the early 2000s. There used to be more, better, bigger shows — Cloud’s Jamboree and The Main Event come to mind. Prices for goods and services were lower and the whopping 10.1% sales tax wasn’t looming large in every transaction. There didn’t seem to be as much junk. While back in the mid 2000s, there was plenty to do and see on the north side of the freeway, these days it’s a collection of seasonal RV dealers and clusters of booths resembling yard sales more than cohesive shops or show booths.

Friends of mine who have been selling their artwork or other merchandise at shows in Quartzsite since the 1990s tell me that the main reason for the change is greed — the town’s primary source of revenue is sales tax collected during the winter months from tourists. Little by little, good shows have died off to be replaced by seasonal RV sales lots. The town collects huge sums of money from the sale of these high-ticket items. God knows what they do with it. Off-season, the town is pretty much a shithole (if you’d pardon the expression) with a pair of truck stops and a handful of fast food joints the only reason to stop there. Year after year, the roads remain in poor condition and the lots where the shows are held are as dusty and dirty as ever. And traffic in the middle of January? Don’t get me started.

At least it was warm and sunny.

Getting to Quartzsite

Understand that I didn’t need to stay in Quartzsite to visit the shows and buy the odds and ends I wound up buying. We were camped out in the backwaters of the Colorado River, which was about a 30- to 40-minute drive from there. But my friend Janet is an artist and she was booked to show/sell her work at Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama. She’d park her little RV in her booth space — as most other vendors did — where she’d have a full hookup and be able to keep an eye on things for the 10 days of the show. This show runs the same time as the big RV show and is right across the street, so it has the potential for the most visitors and best sales.

Her husband, Steve, wanted to be close but had the horses with him. He decided to relocate to the BLM land east of town where he could set up camp for free. I didn’t want to stay out at the backwaters by myself, so I’d camp out with Steve and the horses. Janet left on Wednesday; we’d leave on Thursday.

I’d packed up the Mobile Mansion on Wednesday afternoon, leaving just a handful of things outside to put away in the morning. I’d also hooked up the truck so I was all ready to move out. My goal was to stop and get the Mobile Mansion washed, dump the holding tanks, and replenish my on-board fresh water supply on my way to Quartzsite. So on Thursday morning at about 8 AM, after making coffee for myself and Steve, I finished packing up, closed up the RV slides, and headed out.

Moving Out at Dawn
Here’s my rig, ready to move out just after dawn on Thursday morning.

Steve remained behind to get the horses on board his trailer, gather up his fencing, and pack up. He’d meet me in Quartzsite at Tyson Wells.

The Mobile Mansion was filthy. Not only had it gathered dirt and dust on the 2 years it had been in almost constant use on my property, but it had an extraordinary amount of road dirt on its bottom half — especially in front — from my long drive down to Arizona from Washington. I’d spotted a truck wash at the Ehrenberg exit of I-10 when I’d come into camp on January 2 and had walked over to ask if they did RVs. I got a quote of about $45 to wash the entire rig — $55 if I wanted my truck washed, too. It was too good a deal to pass up. The trick was to get there early enough in the day that I didn’t have to wait behind someone else.

RV Wash
Here’s my truck and the Mobile Mansion getting washed at a truck wash.

I was the first one there at 8:15 AM that morning. I pulled in, put Penny on a leash, and walked over to the Flying J truck stop next door, leaving my rig in the hands of two young guys.

Someone on Twitter asked if “they use Mexicans to wash trucks.” I replied that I believed the guy doing the work was the actual owner. He was a heavyset man in his late 20s who looked to be of hispanic heritage. But he spoke English with no accent and was extremely polite. His co-worker was a young, thin black guy of about the same age with the same excruciating politeness. I don’t think I’ve ever been addressed as “ma’am” so many times in such a short period of time.

The Flying J had a Cinnabon kiosk inside. I like Cinnabon, but I don’t like the fact that they’re usually smothered in sticky, super-sugary icing. I asked at the counter and learned that if I waited until a fresh batch came out of the oven, I could get them with the icing on the side. So that’s what I did. Seven minutes after arriving, I walked out with four steaming hot cinnamon buns in a box. I’d add a bit of icing to one and enjoy it in the sunshine while waiting for my rig to be washed, then have the others for dessert or breakfast over the next two days.

The truck and trailer took about a half hour to wash. They came out great. I paid the bill and included a $10 tip and headed out again.

Our next stop was across the freeway at the convenience store “mall” where we’d been buying lottery tickets and filling water jugs. They had a dump station there where I could dump my holding tanks and fill my water tank. It took a bit of piloting to get my big rig into position, and even then I barely had enough sewer hose to reach the dump. But once I was set up, the job went quickly.

When I was finished and all the hoses had been stowed, I got on I-10 and headed east. It wasn’t a long drive, although traffic at the first Quartzsite exit was already starting to build at 10 AM. I headed east along the frontage road and turned into the parking lot on the west side of the Tyson Wells show grounds. Fortunately, the parking lot was mostly empty. I was able to turn the rig around (without backing up!) and park it in a large RV spot facing the exit. I locked up, put Penny back on a leash, and headed into the show grounds.

Tyson Wells has one show after another starting in December. So although the big Sell-A-Rama wasn’t due to start until the next day, there were already plenty of vendors set up on the east end of the show grounds. I found Janet’s booth, where Steve was already helping her set up. They’d found some almost new carpeting dumped in a dry wash nearby and had scavenged a few very large pieces in excellent shape to use for the booth floor. (Janet had other carpeting she normally used, but this new stuff was not only nicer, but it matched her booth walls.) We worked together for a while and then Penny and I wandered off to get a bite to eat, returning with some fresh fry bread drizzled with honey and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

My Snowbird Stay in Quartzsite

It was mid afternoon before Steve was ready to move on. Penny and I waited for him to pass us in the parking lot with his truck and horse trailer, then pulled in behind him. We continued east on the frontage road for about a mile or two, then turned right onto one of the “roads” out into the desert. We headed almost due south along a pretty easy-to-follow roadway, crossing a few shallow dry washes along the way. On either side of us were hundreds of RVs, already parked and set up — hundreds more would arrive over the next few days. Our goal was to be as far away from these clusters of RVs as possible. We knew from experience that too many these people liked to run their generators for hours on end, especially in the evening, and we simply didn’t want to listen to them. Besides, Steve wanted to set up the horses as far as he could from people who might bother them. The farther we went, the less likely people would come out our way.

This has always been my goal when camping out at Quartzsite — even the few times I did it with my wasband. It amazes me that so many people would be satisfied living in crowded communities nearly right on top of the noisy freeway when they could drive a half mile farther into the desert for quiet and privacy. But it’s a good thing they do. That means fewer people out where we want to be.

Steve picked a place and parked. I parked nearby, checked the level, put down two leveling blocks, and parked the Mobile Mansion’s driver side tires on them. Then I went about setting up camp.

Quartzsite Campsite
Setting up camp consisted of putting up my wind ribbon, setting out a mat, and taking out my barbecue grill.

I’ll be honest — I wasn’t interested in doing too much unpacking. The trouble with living on the fringe is that there are fewer people out there to keep an eye on things. Our closest neighbors were what Janet refers to as “rainbow kids”: young, hippie-like people living out in the desert. Apparently some of them aren’t adverse to appropriating things they find in unattended camps. We made friends with our local rainbow kids right away, but Steve still didn’t trust them. And he didn’t want to leave the horses alone. So for the next few days, one of us would be in camp almost all the time.

Broken Part
Finding a replacement for this part would have been difficult anywhere else. But in Quartzsite, I had it replaced within an hour of finding it broken.

Real Women Drive Real Trucks
I’ve been buying custom license plate frames from the same booth in Quartzsite for years. This one is (obviously) for my truck.

Wok Man
With just two items on his menu — fried rice or fried noodles — the Wok Man makes good, fresh food in a screened-in wok.

I discovered almost immediately that the plastic do-dad that holds the RV door open when parked had snapped off, likely in transit put possibly during the RV wash. Anywhere else, this would have been a royal pain in the butt, but in Quartzsite during January, it wasn’t a big deal because of all the RV parts dealers there. I set off with Penny to get that part replaced, pick up a license plate frame I’d ordered the previous week, grab some lunch, and get the water jugs filled at Janet’s campsite for the horses. Along the way, I found an RV windshield repair guy set up in a motorhome alongside the road and had a chip in the truck’s windshield repaired before it could crack.

And that’s the thing I like about Quartzsite — if you know the place well enough, you can find just about anything you need, normally at a fair price. (Okay, maybe not food.) And you can walk from place to place. I left my truck at the chip repair person’s spot and walked to get the license plate frame, replacement part, and lunch. When I walked back, the truck was done. During the winter season, it’s a lot like a little city full of goods and services.

In the evening, it got very dark out our way — so dark that Janet had trouble finding us when she came to join us for dinner. We didn’t have firewood, so we couldn’t have a campfire. The magic of the backwaters was clearly absent in Quartzsite.

I should mention here that Quartzsite treated us to amazing sunsets and sunrises nearly every day. In the beginning, I took photos. But by the end of my stay, I didn’t even bother.

Sunset Sunrise
A beautiful sunset on Thursday was followed by a beautiful sunrise on Friday. And so on.

On Friday, I went to see the Tyson Wells show, with every intention of checking out the RV show in and around the huge tent. I bought a few things I wanted or needed — bungee balls, disposable gloves, carabiners, small tools, Dremel bits, kitchen gadgets, etc., etc. There’s no shortage of this stuff in Quartzsite and it’s all cheap, mostly because it’s all made-in-China grade. Most of the vendors who sell this kind of stuff also give away DC flashlights that you can keep in your car’s power port to charge and have handy when you need it. I managed to collect three of them and gave one to Steve.

Mortar and Pestle
I bought this marble mortar and pestle from a rock shop for only $6.

One of the better buys was a marble mortar and pestle. I thought I’d brought the one from my Arizona home, but I can’t find it in any of my boxes so I likely left it behind. The one I bought from a rock shop is the perfect size for grinding nuts or spices and was on sale for only $6. How can you beat that?

I visited Janet in her booth. She’d been pretty busy and expected to get a lot busier the next day. The booth looked great, as usual, and she had lots of beautiful original art to share including her matted and embellished framed paintings on feathers, spirit feathers, and canvas artwork. She really does beautiful work.

Janet's Booth at Tyson Wells
Janet’s booth at Tyson Wells.

I was a bit disappointed when I went over to the RV show and discovered that it didn’t open until the next day: Saturday. I dreaded dealing with the weekend crowds and planned to return on Monday.

I got back into the truck and went across the freeway to the north side of town. I was hoping to find some other small shows there, but most of what I found was just plain junk. I did notice a lot of RV dealers, though, and figured I’d start visiting them the next day. Although the Mobile Mansion has not been sold, I’m already thinking about its replacement and wanted to get a good idea of what was out there.

Before heading back, I did check out an area of shops on the far west side of town, on the north side of the freeway. One of the shops specialized in flags and wind streamers, but also had an amazing selection of brand new, colorful neon signs.

Years ago, when I lived in New Jersey, my future wasband bought me a neon sign as a gift and it hung in our living room. It was big and orange and said “Live Entertainment.” I later got a second sign but never got a power supply for it. When we moved, we packed up the signs. But we never unpacked them in Arizona and, to my knowledge, they remained packed in the garage when I moved out in May 2013. I simply did not like either sign enough to take it with me to my new home.

Cocktails Neon Sign
How could I resist? Here’s what my new sign looked like set up in the Mobile Mansion briefly before I packed it away to keep it safe until we got home.

But I still love neon, so when I saw the Cocktails sign, I had to have it. The price was fair and the owner of the shop accepted credit cards. I almost bought a second sign — it said “Ford Tough” and had the Ford logo and I thought it would be fun to hang in the garage — but despite a bunch of bargaining, I just couldn’t justify the additional expenditure. Besides, I didn’t want anyone to think I was Ford brand loyal. I’m not. So I left with just one sign.

But the shop is open through February….

On Saturday, I went RV shopping. I stopped at several dealers, looked at several RVs, and wasn’t struck by anything of interest. I spoke to several managers about them buying my RV or me leaving it on consignment for a few weeks but no one was offering any deals worth considering. They were there to sell their inventory, not add to it or sell mine. I understood that and despite one really insulting offer, generally respected it.

Lunch
Sinfully good.

I made one more stop before heading back: the smoked turkey leg booth near the RV show. I bought a turkey leg for later and a fully dressed baked potato with smoked brisket on top for lunch. Yum.

I got back to the campsite by noon so Steve could spend the day helping Janet in her booth. It was a dull afternoon. I regretted doing all my maintenance chores at my last campsite — they would have helped kill time while I horse-sat in Quartzsite.

On Sunday, I didn’t know what to do. I’d seen everything in Quartzsite that I wanted to see except the RV show. But it was Sunday and it would be crowded and I hate crowds.

But maybe if I went early enough?

I left the campsite at 9 AM and headed straight to the RV show. I got a good parking spot out on the road and bee-lined it to the big tent. Things were just opening up and there was no crowd. I bought a breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, and machaca, and walked the perimeter of the tent while I was eating it.

There was quite a bit to see, but not much of it was of any interest to me. I did get a good demo of LED lighting that would likely save a lot of power (and spare me the use of a generator) and see an interesting tool that precisely calculated angles for wood cuts. I also saw some motorcycle bumper lifts that would make it possible to take along my motorcycle on future RV trips — if I was willing to spend $4K on the hardware and installation.

Inside the tent was disappointing, as usual. Too many vendors selling blenders and cookware and microfiber cleaning cloths. Too many booths for back pain and “natural remedies.” I think a quarter of the booths were for RV parks or related time-shares. Anything available inside that was also available outside the tent cost 25% to 50% more and that was 25% or 50% more than you could get it across the street at Tyson Wells Sell-A-Rama.

Two things of interest:

  • Amazon’s Camperforce program, which gives seasonal warehouse jobs with full hookup RV sites to full-time RVers. This program would actually be perfect for me, keeping me busy for November and most of December while earning some money and meeting people. Trouble is, the closest location is in Texas and I really have no desire to go to Texas with the Mobile Mansion.
  • Little Red Campfire
    A portable fire pit might make a good centerpiece for my patio table.

    Camco’s Little Red Campfire is a propane fire pit that can be packed into a can. While it might be fun for camping, what interested me is its potential use for adding a propane fire pit to the table on my deck. They were selling for just $75, which turned out to be a very good price.

I goofed off a bit more, visited Janet, bought some dates and other odds and ends, and headed back to camp to give Steve a chance to get out.

Marshmallows by Rake
Turns out that a collapsible RV rake makes a good tool for roasting marshmallows over a campfire.

Later that evening, I cooked up some pork tenderloins on my barbecue grill and Janet brought over a salad. We had a campfire with some pallet wood I’d found and brought back to camp. We made s’mores for dessert, using a rake to hold the marshmallows over the fire.

Ending My Trip

By Sunday afternoon, I felt pretty much done with Quartzsite. Trouble was, I was waiting for a package to be delivered to Ehrenberg’s post office for me. The post office would be closed on Monday for Martin Luther King Day. That meant I was stuck in Quartzsite until I could get it, assemble the roof rack for my kayaks (which is what was in the package), and pack up. I was looking at another two full days in Quartzsite.

Unless I could get the package earlier.

On Monday, I went into Ehrenberg to get fuel for my truck, then to Blythe to do some food shopping and pick up hay for Steve’s horses. I worked the phones. I discovered that my package was at the UPS office in Blythe and I made arrangements to pick it up that day. The automated system assured me that the Blythe UPS office would be open from 9 AM to 5 PM.

It wasn’t. It was open from 9 AM to 10 AM, but although I’d arrived before 10 AM, a sign on the door said that due to staffing problems it wouldn’t be open until 3:30 that afternoon.

I was livid. I was looking at a building with a full parking lot and a locked front door. That locked door is the only thing that prevented me from leaving Quartzsite a full day early.

And, for some reason, I was very anxious to leave.

I can make a long story longer or shorter. Let’s take shorter: A UPS truck came into the lot and I flagged down the driver before he could leave. I told him my situation and he very kindly went inside to find my package. It took him a full 15 minutes. Turns out, the office is so small that it’s staffed by the drivers. When the drivers go out to deliver, the office closes for the day.

Small towns, huh?

I had my package, the hay, some groceries, a full tank of diesel, and five bales of alfalfa by 1 PM.

I stopped at the Tyson wells and bought 8 LED bulbs for the Mobile Mansion. I planned to put them into the fixtures I used most. If they’d been cheaper, I would have replaced every single bulb. But those eight bulbs cost $89 and I really thought that was enough to spend on lightbulbs that day.

I also stopped at the RV show and picked up the fire pit. That’s when I learned that they were about 40% cheaper than list price because they were refurbished. Didn’t bother me. The one I bought looked good as new.

By 3 PM, I was back at camp, starting to assemble my new roof rack.

That’s when Steve asked me if I wanted to go for a horseback ride. You see, he was trying to work with one of the horses and the other two were going nuts about being left behind. He figured he may as well saddle another one, put a pack on a third to keep her busy, and go out for a ride.

So we rode off into the desert, heading west toward town. I rode Cerro, Janet’s horse. He’s a gaited horse with a very smooth trot. (I still think Flipper has a better lope.) We made our way past campsites, across shallow washes, and eventually to Route 95, which we crossed when there was a gap in the traffic. Then west a bit south of the big RV Show tent until we got to Tyson Wash. We followed that north, crossed the road that ran past Tyson Wells, and rode right into the Tyson Wells parking lot. Since we’d gone that far, we went all the way — to Janet’s booth, where we dismounted and tied the horses up to her van. We turned a lot of heads, but not as many as you might think. After visiting briefly with Janet, we mounted up, leaving poor Janet to clean up the poop two of the horses had considerately left behind. Then we retraced our steps all the way back to our camp. I didn’t have my tracking app running, but I figure we rode a total of about 4 miles and were out for two hours.

By then, it was too late to finish mounting the roof racks.

We made steaks over the fire for dinner. Janet had bought mesquite charcoal. I’d bought dessert, but forgot to serve it. We sat around a campfire afterward and talked about my plans for the next few weeks.

On Tuesday, I finished assembling the rack and started loading the kayaks. (I should mention that I bought the roof rack because I was tired of lugging the kayaks in and out of the Mobile Mansion for transit.) Steve helped, but I think I can do it alone. (I hope so!)

While I was working, two retirees from a big camp that had set up near the rainbow kids (remember them?) came by looking for four folding chairs that had disappeared overnight. They claimed that the kids had been very rude to them before moving their site away. I told them it was likely because they didn’t expect so many RVs — there had to be at least 6 big rigs — to park so close to them and run their generators so much. The two old guys got a bit testy with me, telling me that they’d been camping in that spot for 15 years — as if that mattered. The desert is huge, I reminded them. Most people camp this far out because they don’t want to be close to others. They told me that they suspected the kids had come back during the night to steal the chairs. I told them I didn’t know anything about it but pointed vaguely out into the desert where Steve had told me they’d moved. The last time I saw the old guys, they were wandering around out there.

Snowbirds
Steve took this photo of me and Penny on the steps of the Mobile Mansion that last morning in Quartzsite.

I made a bunch of phone calls to arrange for the Mobile Mansion’s landing gear control card to be replaced. I’d wanted it done near Phoenix, but I wound up making an appointment in Quartzsite. That actually worked out much better for me, since they’d let me park it there until I returned in February, saving me the bother of worrying about parking until then.

By about noon, I was ready to go. I hooked up the Mobile Mansion and pulled out. Just two stops before I left Quartzsite: a dump station to dump all of the RV’s tanks and the RV repair place on the other end of town. Traffic was horrendous. At one point, stuck in traffic on a highway overpass, a man stuck in traffic going the opposite direction gave me the thumbs up and said, “Nice rig.”

Nice Rig
Nice rig, eh? You betcha!

I flashed my own thumbs up back at him and called out, “Thanks!”

By 2 PM, Penny and I were headed east on I-10 with the Mobile Mansion left behind. We’d be at our next destination within 90 minutes.

General Delivery

How you can get mail delivered to you anywhere in the country without having your own mailing address there.

I’ve been living for more than a week or month at a stretch in temporary homes at various times for about twenty years now, mostly for work but increasingly for vacation. Sometimes it’s a hotel or motel, sometimes its at a short term rented space, and, sometimes it’s at a location that simply does have a mailing address — like the backwater campsite where I spent nearly two weeks at the beginning of the month. Often, I’ll need to get something shipped to me while I’m away — perhaps a package of mail being forwarded or an item I ordered from Amazon. That’s easy enough when I’m staying someplace with a regular mailing address, but what if I’m not?

Last week was a good example. Tired of transporting my kayaks inside the Mobile Mansion on this year’s snowbirding trip, I decided to order a roof rack with kayak supports for the roof of my new used truck. I did some research online, found a good solution at a reasonable price on Amazon, and ordered it. I didn’t want it shipped to my home, since neither the kayaks or the truck were likely to be back there for a few months. And I didn’t want it shipped to my friends in Wickenburg, where I’d be staying much later in the month. I wanted it shipped to where I was then: Ehrenberg, AZ.

Amazon Shipping Label
Here’s the FedEx Home delivery label on my package from Amazon. Because I included the post office’s street address, it was delivered to the post office and held for me. (Please do not ship anything to me at this address; it is temporary and I won’t get it.)

So I used the post office’s General Delivery service.

General Delivery is a service that makes it possible to ship something to someone who doesn’t have a mailing address or even a post office box in a specific town. You address the package with the recipients’ name, the words General Delivery (very important), and at least the city, state, and zip code of the post office you want it to go to. The USPS has a format example on their website. Add postage and mail it. When the package arrives at the destination post office, it is held for the recipient, who normally has to provide identification to claim it.

On Rural Post Offices

I just need to say a few things about rural mail and package delivery. It’s not like you might experience in the big city.

The biggest difference is that the postmaster and mail carrier, as well as the UPS and FedEx drivers, really get to know the people they serve. The post office will call when you receive a delivery of something unusual — for example, live chicks — so you can come pick it up as soon as possible. UPS and FedEx know where it’s safe or not safe to leave a package on a doorstep. When my gravel road is difficult to traverse because of snow or my UPS driver has a lot of deliveries, she’ll text me to meet her somewhere on her route or make arrangements to leave my package with someone else or at the Post Office. She’ll also let me take packages she might have for my neighbors to save them the bother of retrieving them at the UPS office when snow keeps her off our road.

In some rural locations, the post office is a center of the community, with publicly accessible bulletin boards for posting For Sale items, access to local news, and people who gather outside to chat with neighbors.

And there’s almost never any sort of line in the post office.

There is one big drawback as far as my local post office is concerned: they close for about an hour every day at lunchtime (so the clerk can get lunch) and are only open for two hours on Saturday. And you thought “bankers’ hours” were bad.

This works extremely smoothly for anything sent via US Mail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up General Delivery packages sent to me in places I’ve visited throughout my travels.

There are a few caveats:

  • Some post offices that receive a lot of General Delivery mail for seasonal residents may request that you get on a General Delivery list in advance. Ehrenberg, which gets a lot of Quartzsite snowbirders, is an example. To my knowledge, this is not required, but if you expect to get a lot of mail you really should talk to the postmaster or clerk to see what they prefer.
  • The post office has no way to notify you if it receives a package for you. If you don’t know something is coming, you probably won’t pick it up. So if you give the address to a friend or family member, remind them to let you know if they’ve sent you something.
  • The post office receiving the item won’t hold it forever, so you want to pick it up within a reasonable amount of time. Each post office varies on how long it will hold an item.
  • You normally have to wait on line with other customers to ask for the package at the counter. So if you have several post offices near where you want the item sent, pick the one that’s the least busiest to save time at pickup. (I chose the Malaga post office over the Wenatchee post office for my summer mail forwarding from my old Arizona home because there was never a line in Malaga. Oddly, not only did I meet one of my best friends there — who happens to be the postmaster — but I wound up moving to Malaga when I relocated in 2013.)
  • Some cities have multiple post offices. Make sure you use the zip code that applies to the post office you want an item delivered to.
  • This is pretty much guaranteed to work with any item shipped via USPS. Items shipped by other means — FedEx or UPS — might not be delivered. It depends on the post office and how the item is addressed. If you include the street address for the post office, which you can find in Google maps, the carrier may deliver to that post office. What the post office does with it is likely up to the postmaster there. In Ehrenberg (and Malaga, for that matter), they will hold the item like any other General Delivery shipment. Other larger post offices might not. When in doubt, ask in advance or use USPS for shipping.

Unfortunately, Amazon shipped the two components of my kayak rack system separately. One arrived via FedEx at the post office on Friday. I called ahead to make sure it was accepted before I drove over. (You can do that with small post offices; try that in Manhattan or Phoenix.) The other is scheduled to arrive on Monday — Martin Luther King Day, when the post office is closed! I can only assume that the rural FedEx driver knows not to attempt delivery on Monday. With luck, I’ll be able to pick it up Tuesday.

So the next time you spend an extended amount of time away from home and need something shipped to you, consider the local post office. It’s easy and safe.

Snowbirding 2016: The Colorado River Backwaters

Nearly two weeks at my first destination: stress-free to the point of euphoric.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
– Return to Wickenburg
more to come…

I arrived at my first snowbirding destination before lunch on January 2 after four trying days on the road.

Well, the last day wasn’t trying at all. I left an RV park in Las Vegas where I’d overnighted so I could flush the winterization fluid out of the plumbing, fill my fresh water tank, and fully charge the RV’s batteries. I also stocked up the fridge and pantry. Ahead of me was an easy 3-1/2 hour drive almost due south. Somewhere in California, on the dip-filled road between the Nevada border and Blythe, CA, the last bit of Wenatchee snow blew off the RV’s roof and smashed onto the pavement behind me.

By that time, I was feeling so happy to be on the road with my rig that I was almost in a state of euphoria.

It was a feeling I’d have again and again during the subsequent days and weeks.

Getting There

Backwaters Map
There are numerous backwater areas along the Colorado River in Arizona. This is BLM land where camping for up to two weeks is free.

My friends Janet and Steve were camped out on a backwater arm of the Colorado River about six miles south of Ehrenberg on the Arizona side. Janet had assured me that there was plenty of room for the Mobile Mansion and, after a quick stop at the truck wash near the Flying J truck stop to find out what it would cost to wash my RV, I turned onto the gravel road, homing into my destination.

At Camp
The Mobile Mansion at camp.

Janet was waiting for me about 1/2 mile before the turnoff. I followed her into a large, level campsite with gravel and dirt surfaces just far enough off the road to be completely private. Her little RV and their big three-horse slant load horse trailer were already parked and set up. Steve pointed to an area where they suggested I parked. After getting out, sharing good-to-see-you-again hugs, and setting up my parking cones — visual guides to help me back up — I backed my rig into the spot. A quick check of the level just inside the door showed I was already perfectly level. No need for leveling blocks. Within minutes, the landing gear was down and the Mobile Mansion was unhitched. A few more buttons pushed and the four slides were out. They gave me a hand pulling my two kayaks out of the living space and shoving them underneath.

We chatted over lunch and I went back to the Mobile Mansion to finish setting it up. You see, when I’d picked it up at the sale lot in East Wenatchee that Tuesday, it had been empty. After all, it had been for sale and I’d cleaned it out. Fortunately, because I expected to replace it with another rig, I’d packed all of its gear into a pair of large plastic bins I had. So when it came time to get the gear back on board, all I had to do was put those two bins in the Mobile Mansion’s basement — that’s what I call the storage area underneath — along with linens, clothes, and the other odds and ends I wanted with me. I loaded everything into plastic bins so that if I sold the Mobile Mansion while I was away, I could pack everything back up, toss the bins into the back of my truck, and later unpack them into a new RV. Or just drive them home.

I’d set up my bedroom on Wednesday morning, while I was waiting for the Ford dealer in Pasco to fix my old truck. (You can read all about the fate of that truck and its replacement in another blog post.) And I’d set up part of the kitchen while I was in Vegas the night before. My job that afternoon was to unpack the remaining the bins, put everything away, and then pack all the bins into one of the big bins in the basement. It didn’t take long.

I should mention here that in my excitement to take delivery of my new truck and get back on the road on Thursday, I’d forgotten my small suitcase at the Ford dealer. I was about halfway between LaGrande, OR and Boise, ID when I realized it. It wasn’t a catastrophe. I had plenty of clothes in the RV. But I was missing some toiletries and my glasses, which would become a royal pain in the butt if I had to pull one or both of my contact lenses. I’d already called the sales guy who’d helped me and he promised to put the suitcase in the mail to get it to me in Arizona. I’d given him a General Delivery address at Ehrenberg. Of course, he had to wait until Monday to do all that because of the holiday. I had it by Wednesday.

Once I was unpacked and had opened a bottle of wine — I brought a case and half with me from Washington so I could share my local favorites — I got a chance to take a closer look at our campsite. I was parked on one side of a clearing facing Janet’s little trailer, which was facing away from mine. Outside its door was a campfire pit shaped like the number 8, with a big area for a campfire and a smaller area for grilling. Behind her trailer was the horse trailer with some portable panels and electric wire fencing creating a very large enclosed space for the three horses Steve had brought along.

To one side of the campsite was a gravel boat ramp that went — as you might expect — right down into the water. Beyond that was the backwater, lined with tall reeds and normally glass smooth. We had the place all to ourselves.

Backwaters View
I shot this photo from the boat ramp at our campsite on the day I arrived. If you look closely, you can see Janet fishing from one of their boats.

We spent the evening polishing off two bottles of champagne in front of the campfire to celebrate our reunion.

The Routine

Over the next almost two weeks, our lives at the backwater settled into a sort of routine. I’d wake up, normally before sunrise (which was at about 7:45 AM) and spend some time in bed catching up on Twitter and Facebook and reading a book or the news on my iPad. Once the sun shined into my bedroom window — my front door faced east — I’d get out of bed, get something warm on — more on that in a moment — and then make my coffee and breakfast.

Sunrise
Sunrise was absolutely amazing one morning.

The Dogs
Janet and Steve’s two dogs: Tasha and Lucy (or Lulu).

Janet and Steve and their two dogs would emerge from Janet’s camper a while later. They’d start a fire and I’d go over with my coffee and sit around with them. We’d make some plans for the day and eventually do them — sometimes together, sometimes separately.

Campfire
The campfire was the center of relaxation in the morning and almost every night.

Then, at dinner time, we’d make a joint meal. One night, Janet made fish tacos with fish she caught nearby; another night, I made pork tenderloin; another night, she made pasta; another night, I made sausage. One or the other or both of us would come up with accompaniments: a vegetable or salad or bread. We usually ate around the campfire but we did eat inside the Mobile Mansion a few times. When we ate around the campfire, we’d follow up with conversation, often reminiscing about “the old days” when we all lived in Arizona. When we ate inside, we usually played Exploding Kittens after dinner.

Living Off-the-Grid

Understand that we were camping completely off the grid. No hookup at all. That means we had to have enough water and power and holding tank capacity for toilet flushes.

I started the stay with the Mobile Mansion’s 60-gallon tank full of fresh water and its three holding tanks — black, gray, and galley — empty. I’d also brought along all four of my 6-1/2 gallon water jugs, full of water. So I had 86 gallons of fresh water. Janet’s smaller rig had considerably less on board, but they’d also brought along three 6 gallon water jugs full of water. During the almost two weeks I was there with them, I wound up emptying four of my water jugs into my RV for use. So I used just over 80 gallons over the two weeks for washing dishes and myself. I didn’t shower every day, so that saved water, but Janet and Steve each had at least one shower in my rig, mostly because it held so much more water than Janet’s. I used bottled water for drinking, making coffee, and cooking.

The rest of the water pretty much went to the horses. Although Janet and Steve originally led the horses down the boat ramp to drink a few times a day, we started giving them water from our jugs early on. That spoiled them and they sort of decided they didn’t want to drink river water anymore. (You can lead a horse to water…) Fortunately, an odd little convenience store in Ehrenberg let you fill as many water jugs as you liked for $1. So every few days, one of us would go over there with the seven jugs and a short length of hose and fill them up. Sounds like a pain in the butt, but it really wasn’t a big deal. We’d do it when we went out to do something else — often to buy lottery tickets. (The huge Power Ball jackpots were during the time we were there.) While we were out, we usually refilled the drinking water jugs at a place with RO water, which was generally better. The horses didn’t get that.

Electricity was another story. Janet did fine with a tiny solar panel attached to her one deep cycle RV battery and the electric fence for their horses was powered by its own solar panel. I had a sizable solar panel on my roof that charged my rig’s two deep cycle batteries — and provided a charge monitor to see battery levels in volts. Trouble is, the Mobile Mansion, like so many other rigs its size, is designed to be used in a trailer park with a full hookup. It has numerous devices that draw power from the battery all the time — standby, phantom, or vampire power, as it’s sometimes called. So between the stereo (which is always lit up, even when not in use), the water pump (which is constantly sensing pressure), the water heater (which is constantly sensing temperature and then igniting when necessary), the furnace (which is constantly sensing temperature and then igniting when necessary), the refrigerator (which has a light inside when the door is open), the various smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and god knows what else, the batteries simply weren’t holding enough charge to last though the night. The result: when battery power dropped down below a certain level — usually around 9 volts — the furnace wouldn’t fire and it would get very cold.

How cold? Have you ever seen your breath while you were still in bed? I was very glad to have flannel sheets, a blanket, and two comforters on me.

Although I don’t have my outside air temperature gauge in the Mobile Mansion anymore, local weather forecasts had nighttime lows in the mid thirties. I’m pretty sure it was about that inside my RV one morning when I got up. I know that I really enjoyed sitting on my steps each morning when the sun came up and it soon got warmer outside than inside.

Generator
My Honda generator is small and relatively quiet.

Fortunately, I had a solution. I’d brought along my 2KW Honda generator. Although I hated to use it, I hated being cold even more. After a few experiments, I realized that if I ran it for about 2 hours after sunset, I’d “top off” the batteries enough for them to last through the night. The batteries were even more likely to last if I also shut off the water heater and water pump before going to sleep and set the thermostat at about 55°. The heater cycled on and off fewer times and kept the chill out. Then, when I got out of bed in the morning, I kicked it up to 65° and was warm enough inside by the time my coffee was ready.

Of course, none of this would be necessary if (1) the days were longer and (2) it was warmer at night. Still, since I usually ran the generator while we were eating dinner at the campfire and Hondas are pretty damn quiet, it didn’t bother anyone. As an added benefit, I got to charge all my devices a lot quicker and even used the microwave one night.

As far a the toilet flushing is concerned, RV toilets give you control over how much water goes into every flush. I used very little. Not only did I not fill that tank in two weeks, but I didn’t smell it at all.

Activities

We spent our time at the backwaters doing a number of things.

Janet Fishing Again
Janet shows off excellent casting skills on the Colorado River.

Fishing.
Janet went fishing just about every day. She learned that the fish start biting at 4 PM and was out there from around that time until after sunset. She came back with at least one fish every day. I wanted to fish but I didn’t have a license and suspected that I lacked the patience and know-how to actually succeed.

Penny on a Kayak
Penny usually sits on the front deck of my kayak when we’re paddling. One day we paddled all the way down to the end of the backwaters.

Kayaking.
I brought along two kayaks and went out a few times. The first time, Janet took the other kayak along with her fishing gear. She quickly learned that she couldn’t properly control the boat while she fished, so that’s the only time she kayaked with me. One day we had Steve drop us off about two miles up the Colorado River from our camp. I paddled my kayak and Janet took her little pontoon boat and flippers (with her fishing gear, of course). We went down past our camp, then paddled up one of the nearby backwaters where Steve picked us up again. Total distance covered was 3.7 miles.

Flipper
Here’s Flipper, a 25-year-old mare who didn’t seem to mind having me on her back. She still has a wonderfully smooth lope.

Janet on Cerro
Here’s Janet on her horse, Cerro.

Horseback riding.
We went out twice. They put me on Flipper, a horse they’d had for about 15 years. I’d ridden her once before, long ago. She did fine. Afterwards, they told me I was the first one who’d ridden Flipper in about five years. The rides weren’t long, but they were pleasant. We did both of them on cloudy days and were drizzled on once. We saw lots of signs of wild horses or burros in the area.

Rock Slide
It might look as if I could squeeze by those boulders, but with a 50-foot drop down with loose soil on the left in this shot, I wasn’t about to try.

Ruins
I have no idea what this was, but I do know a lot of spray paint ended up here.

Exploring.
I took the truck south along the Levee Road one day. I’d driven that way years before with my wasband, not long after buying the Mobile Mansion. We were looking for free places to camp back then — so odd that years later I’d be camping in one of them without him. This time, I went much farther. At one point, there was a rock slide that left boulders in the road. I got out and tried to move them but couldn’t. I backed up along the narrow road to where I could turn around and a huge tow truck passed me toward the slide. So I followed him back there. The truck stopped, two guys got out, and they rolled all the boulders out of the way. They continued and I followed them. Later, I stopped at the ruins of some sort of vandalized building. I crossed the river to the California side and tried to come up the river on that shore. I eventually headed into Blythe where I had lunch and did some shopping before going back to camp.

Lock
Fixing the lock on my door was pretty simple to figure out once I’d disassembled the whole thing.

Cleaning the Awning
I used my truck as a ladder to clean the underside of my awning.

Maintenance and repairs.
I did a lot of little maintenance and repair jobs on the Mobile Mansion. For some reason, the bottom lock — the deadbolt — on my door didn’t work. That meant I couldn’t lock the door from the inside. I wanted that fixed so I took the door latching mechanism apart. A screw had come loose and a bar that worked the locking mechanism had slipped off. A little work with my screwdriver and it was good as new. Another day, I extended the awning and cleaned the bottom side. (The top was already remarkably clean.) Another day, I took everything out of the basement, swept the floor, and washed it before putting everything back neatly. I added oil, a tiny bit of Gum Out, and fuel to my generator. I worked some WD-40 into the hinges on my front steps. I went up on the roof to clean the solar panel and check for cracks in the roofing material. (There were some along the edges that might need attention.) I thoroughly cleaned my stovetop, under the stovetop, and oven. I neatly recoiled all of my electrical cables and hoses and hung them in their proper places in the basement. I added distilled water to all the cells on both of my batteries. I organized all of the equipment in my truck.

Trips into town.
As mentioned earlier, we occasionally went into Ehrenburg to get water or lottery tickets. I headed into Blythe a few times to do grocery shopping, buy things I needed at the excellent Ace Hardware Store there, and do laundry. I went to Quartzite once to buy propane and see what was going on.

Dutch Oven Pineapple Upside Down Cake
Steve made an amazing pineapple upside down cake in his dutch oven using coals from the fire.

But the best part of our stay — the part I seemed to enjoy most — was the evening campfire, especially when we cooked over the mesquite coals. Steve made us a pineapple upside down cake in his dutch oven twice and it was amazing both times. And the stars — I’d forgotten how clear and dark the Arizona sky can be.

SAD, Cured

I have to admit that 15 years living in Arizona had spoiled me. It’s not the temperature. It’s the sun.

Back in Washington, I realized that despite the general brightness of winter days at my home, I needed sun. As December set in and the shadow time at my home began, I realized that I was suffering from SAD: Seasonal Affective Disorder. I was feeling out of sorts. Not quite depressed, but not my normal active, upbeat self. Some friends advised me to get sunlight light bulbs. I opted for the real thing: sunshine in a warmer climate. That’s the main reason I headed south at December month-end.

It worked.

I can’t remember ever feeling so relaxed. It’s like I haven’t got a care in the world. As I mentioned earlier, I feel almost euphoric. No one is putting any demands on me, there are no meetings to attend, and there are few chores to take care of. I do what I want every day, when I want to do it. While this is also true at home — and home tends to be a lot more comfortable than the Mobile Mansion, especially on a cold night — there are always things that must be done at home: chores, little construction projects, etc. On the road, there’s very little of that and none of it can’t be put off for a few hours, days, or even weeks. Even the maintenance and repairs I listed earlier are things that didn’t really need doing. I think that’s what made me enjoy doing them.

No Wake
How can anyone have any stress in their life when they’re relaxing in peach and quiet with friends in such a beautiful place?

And I don’t think I’ve ever slept so well: four nights in a row, I slept a full 10 hours straight. Even on the nights when I reverted back to my normal 6-8 hour sleep cycle, I slept solidly, almost like the dead. I was very surprised to have missed a torrential downpour one night that resulted in a puddle so large in the campsite that I named it Lake Louise. (It dried up within a day.) Could it be because the Mobile Mansion’s queen size bed is comfy and cosy with flannel sheets and plenty of blankets? Climbing into bed is like slipping into a warm cocoon. And when I wake up and eventually climb out of bed, I’ve got tons of energy, ready to face the day.

I’m thinking that all this has got to be because of the plentiful sun, slightly longer days, and relatively warm air that’s giving me an emotional and physical boost. Back home, the short winter days and abundant (this year, anyway) snowfall made me feel closed in and almost trapped. Here in the sun, with the desert all around me, that closed in feeling simply can’t exist.

And no where is that more apparent than in the backwaters, camping in total privacy with good friends.

The Next Stop

All good things must come to an end and our backwaters stay is one of them.

On January 13, Janet packed up her van and little trailer and pulled out. She had a booth at one of the shows at Tyson Wells in Quartzsite and needed to get her trailer into position before the booths around her set up.

Steve and I spend most of that Wednesday packing. He had to pack up the horse trailer and I had to pack up and secure loose items in the Mobile Mansion. On a whim, I brought the kayaks to Janet’s space in Quartzsite that evening so I wouldn’t have to pack them inside my living space. When I got back to camp, I hooked up the Mobile Mansion so I could pull out without a lot of fuss in the morning. I wanted to take the Mobile Mansion to the truck wash and was hoping to get there before anyone else so I wouldn’t have to wait.

Steve sat alone by the campfire that night. I stayed in and wrote a blog post to introduce this Snowbirding adventure. My generator hummed under the window at my desk until I was ready for bed.

In the morning, I’d make us both coffee before putting away the last few things and heading out.

More on that in another post.

Snowbirding 2016: Introduction

I officially become a snowbird.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
– Return to Wickenburg
more to come…

If you’re not familiar with the term snowbird, it refers to a person, normally retired, who migrates seasonally to more appealing weather. Usually, the person lives in a northern climate and migrates south for the winter, like a bird might. Occasionally, the person lives in a warm climate and migrates north for the summer. I have friends in Arizona who do that. And then there’s a whole separate class of snowbirds who live full-time in RVs and travel around the country for the best weather and activities and places they like.

When I lived in Arizona — which has brutally hot summers — I was fortunate to have summer work that took me north to cooler climates. Now that I live in Washington, I’m fortunate to have free time and late winter work that makes it possible to go south to warmer climates.

I’m not retired — not yet, anyway. I feel semi-retired and often tell people I am. Most snowbirds are retired because usually you need to be retired from a job to have the freedom to travel seasonally. When I wrote books for a living, I could have had the same lifestyle, but I chose to stick with the man I thought was my life partner; unfortunately, he valued a steady paycheck over a flexible lifestyle. Fortunately, I don’t have him holding me back anymore.

I did some traveling to Arizona last year. I house/dog-sat for some friends in Wickenburg while they were away and turned my visit into an extended stay. It was nice getting back into the sun and seeing old friends. But I had a lot of work ahead of me at home — I’d started construction work on my living space that winter and was eager to finish up and move in. So my visit was short — about two weeks? — and I didn’t really get the snowbird experience.

This year is different. When I’d had enough of this winter’s extraordinarily generous snowfall and began really craving sunshine, I consulted a mostly empty calendar and started thinking of the invitations that were trickling in from points south. I had at least three potential destinations:

  • Some very good friends in Wickenburg (northwest of Phoenix, where I used to live) told me that I was welcome to stay in their guest house “as long as I liked.” While I didn’t think they meant the two months that I was interested in, I knew I’d be able to stay there at least a week. I looked forward to seeing them and visiting with other friends in town.
  • Some other friends were staying in their RV in the Quartzite area. My friend is an artist and shows her work there. But before the show, they camp out in the Colorado River backwaters south of Ehrenberg, AZ where they relax and fish and have campfires at night. This year, they’d have three horses with them.
  • For the fourth year in a row, I got a frost control contract in California’s central valley. The contract normally runs from the end of February to the end of April. Although I’m not required to stay with the helicopter at my base there — they pay a generous call-out fee that covers the cost of me flying down from Washington when needed — I really like the area. I also get a great deal on an RV parking spot at the airport where the helicopter is based. I have friends there and even learned to fly a gyro with one of them back in 2014. It’s a great third destination.

I had other invitations to visit friends down south, too. A friend of mine in Salt Lake City invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with her and her son. Other friends with a new home south of Phoenix had a guest house bedroom waiting for me. I even had an invitation to spend some time with a friend in Tucson, if I decided to go that far.

What made traveling south for the winter a lot easier was having a place to live when I wasn’t a guest at a friend’s home: my unsold Mobile Mansion.

The Long Drive
The long drive. I had overnight stops in Pasco, WA; La Grande, OR; Boise, ID; and Las Vegas, NV.

So on December 29, I got the Mobile Mansion off the sale lot in East Wenatchee where it was waiting for a buyer, hooked it up to my truck, and headed south, leaving my home, chickens, and barn cat(s), in the capable hands of my house-sitter and her doberman.

Along the way, I got delayed due to truck mechanical problems that eventually killed my truck, bought a new used truck that puts all my past trucks to shame, and kept on going. I missed out on the New Year’s Eve celebration in Salt Lake, drove through an area of severe cold (like -19°F) that turned the wine and champagne stored aboard the Mobile Mansion to slush, spent my first night in the Mobile Mansion at an RV park in Las Vegas (of all places), and rolled into my friend’s Colorado River campsite in time for lunch on January 2.

Sam's Town
I bet you didn’t know they had RV parks in Las Vegas.

And I’ve been having a ball ever since.

I’m going to do my best to blog about each of the stages of my snowbirding experience. I don’t expect it to be what anyone might consider typical.

On the Misinformed

When lies make us stupid.

Mark Twain Quote

This morning, a typical quote + image meme appeared in my Twitter stream, shared by @Phillipdpl1974. The illustrious person in the photograph who was being quoted was none other than my favorite author of all time, Mark Twain.

The quote hit hard, primarily because of the events of the night before, which I’ll get to in a moment. It said:

It’s easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.

Later in the day, while surfing Facebook, my friend Stewart shared a link to an article on Five Thirty Eight titled “Trump Supporters Appear To Be Misinformed, Not Uninformed.” It also hit hard because of the previous night’s events.

What Happened Last Night

It started innocently enough. I’d mentioned to my two companions — we’ll call them Sally and Joe — that I’d talked to guy at the concealed weapons permit booth at Quartzite. They were both familiar with him and both seemed to agree that the guy was a jerk. I told them that in the course of our discussion, he’d insinuated that California was not part of the United States. He apparently thought that was funny. But with all the NRA signage around his booth and his obvious close-minded, anti-liberal attitude, I didn’t think it was funny at all and let him know before turning my back on him and walking away. (In all honesty, the NRA signage was enough to prevent me from spending any money at all at his booth.)

My discussion last night with my friends naturally segued to the topic of the President’s recent executive orders related to gun controls, specifically those new rules for background checks. Joe immediately got testy. He said he didn’t understand why the president was making laws that already existed. When Sally and I asked him what he meant, he told us that background checks were already required for all gun purchases.

Sally reminded him that he’d bought a gun in Arizona at a gunshow and no background check had been required. I told them my wasband had done the same thing.

“When was that?” Joe demanded? “Twenty years ago?”

We admitted that it had been quite a while ago but that we didn’t think the laws had changed. Joe insisted that background checks were required in all states for all gun purchases. The discussion elevated to shouting, which really surprised me. Already yelled at by Joe for interrupting him “all the time,” I shut up.

While Sally and Joe continued arguing, I pulled out my phone and Googled, “In which states can I buy a gun without a background check?” Then, when there was a gap in the shouting match, I began to read:

Eight states require background checks at the point of sale for all —

Joe cut me off. “Where does it say that?”

“Wikipedia,” I replied.

“Oh, Wikipedia,” Joe responded in a tone of voice that made it clear he thought I was an idiot for relying on anything I read there.

I clicked another link. This one displayed the Gun Show background Checks State Laws page on Governing.com. I mistakenly identified it as “a government website,” but I still believe the information there is accurate. I read:

Known as the “gun show loophole,” most states do not require background checks for firearms purchased at guns shows from private individuals — federal law only requires licensed dealers to conduct checks.

I held up the phone to show him a map with states colored depending on whether they required background checks for all gun purchases, including gun shows and private sales.

“It’s on the Internet,” Joe said sarcastically. “It must be true.” He then started a rant about how you couldn’t believe anything you read in the media.

I told him that some sources were definitely better than others.

He asked me where I got my information from.

“NPR, PBS, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post. These are all pretty reliable as far as facts go.” (If asked again today, I’d add the Economist, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, BBC World News, and the Guardian.) I know better than to trust far right or far left media sources like FoxNews or Mother Jones.

He then went off on another tangent related to whether it was legal for felons to buy guns. Sally and I said no.

“So in these states where there’s no background check required, it’s legal for felons to buy guns?”

“No,” we both repeated.

“But can they buy guns?”

“Yes,” I said. “Because they can lie because there’s no background check. That’s the point. The background check would help prevent people who shouldn’t buy guns from buying guns. That’s why Obama made the executive order.”

Joe responded by telling us that he didn’t trust the president. That shocked the hell out of Sally and me. While Sally continued arguing with Joe, I took a huge step back, out of the conversation. I knew then that Joe was a lost cause.

Life’s just too short to argue wait people who can’t form their own opinions based on facts.

Oh, and I should mention that what I reported above is only part of a much longer, very angry conversation about laws, guns, truth, the media, and the president. Honestly, it went on a lot longer than it should have.

The Misinformed

This morning, after reading the Five Thirty Eight piece Stew shared, I realized that my friend Joe had become one of the misinformed.

We all get crap shared by our Facebook friends — crap pushing one opinion or another, often through the use of misleading or inaccurate data, charts, quotes, or statements. A lot of it is hateful or even racist. I’ve seen some pretty bad stuff and, in most cases, I simply stop following or even “unfriend” the person who shared it. I’ve blocked more than a handful of friends of friends who share inappropriate comments on my public posts. I have zero tolerance for hate.

Some of us get angry when we get crap we don’t agree with but cling to the crap we do agree with. Others disregard the obviously misleading crap — “Obama is a Muslim” or “Syrian refugees are part of a terrorist sleeper cell” — and spend time researching the crap that might just be true. Nine times out of ten, that “might be true” crap turns out to be just as wrong as the rest of it. But that one time it isn’t — well, then we can learn from it.

My friend Joe was from the first camp. He got a lot of crap from people who thought like he did — Sally confirmed this suspicion later that night — and he believed it. Yet ironically, he claimed that you couldn’t believe anything on the Internet.

How could you argue with someone like that?

The Five Thirty Eight piece discusses the differences between uniformed and misinformed people:

Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion…. In the U.S., the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans. These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become “indistinguishable from hard data”…

… When misinformed citizens are told that their facts are wrong, they often cling to their opinions even more strongly with what is known as defensive processing, or the “backfire effect.”

The article goes on to discuss various studies and actual examples of the use of misinformation as a way to more firmly connect with supporters. It’s not a very long piece, but it’s a fascinating look at psychology. I highly recommend it.

How Lies Make Us Do Stupid Things

If we believe things that aren’t true, we form opinions based on that misinformation. Those opinions can guide actions. If we follow a course of action based on bad information, we run the risk of following a bad course of action.

There’s a pretty good example of this from my own life. My wasband somehow got the idea that he had a legal claim to everything I owned, despite the fact that I’d acquired most of it before marriage and through my own efforts. He firmly believed that he was entitled to half of everything and, for the life of me, I can’t understand why his lawyers didn’t set him straight. Or maybe they tried and he refused to believe them. His misinformed belief caused him to launch a lengthy and expensive divorce battle that he eventually lost. Still believing he was right, he couldn’t accept that loss and appealed the judge’s decision, thus launching another lengthy and expensive court battle that he also lost. Clearly, his belief in incorrect information cost him a lot of money that would have been better spent rebuilding his life with the woman who likely misinformed him and goaded him to going after my money in the first place. (Talk about irony.)

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, who was then a medical doctor in the U.K., published a fraudulent research paper that linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. It was later discovered that the patients in his study were recruited by lawyers suing MMR vaccine makers and that those lawyers had paid both Wakefield and the hospital he worked for large sums of money. Further, Wakefield had applied for a patent on a measles vaccine to be used instead of the MMR vaccine; discrediting that vaccine would certainly benefit him financially. All of these situations were a huge conflict of interest for his research paper and probably explain his motivations for committing the fraud. The report was formally withdrawn in 2010 but the damage of his misinformation was already done: a huge group of people believed — and continue to believe — the now debunked results of his research. Although there is no link between the MMR vaccine — or any other vaccine — and autism, an alarming percentage of parents around the world refuse to vaccinate their children. The result: thousands of deaths and illnesses that could have been prevented by vaccines.

Nowadays, we’re seeing opinions based on misinformation dividing Americans and filling them with hate. These people are voters and many support candidates such as Donald Trump who, in the words of the Five Thirty Eight piece’s author, Anne Pluta, “has a consistently loose relationship with the truth.” This is a man who has made many public derogatory remarks about women, wants to discriminate against people based on their religion, and claims he’ll get a foreign government to pay for the cost of a border wall that is impossible to build. He’s a narcissist with a crass personality who makes the American people look like idiots in the eyes of the world every time he opens his mouth. Very little this man says is true, but the misinformed believe him and eat up every word he utters. I think it’s safe to say that the action they might take — actually voting for this man to be our president — is a foolish one.

My friend Joe’s concerns about trusting the media aren’t outrageous. There are many, many media sources that I can’t trust to present facts that are not tainted by opinion. I already mentioned two of them — FoxNews on the far right and Mother Jones on the far left. These two media outlets present opinions supported by cherry-picked “facts” and quotes often taken out of context. But they’re only two of the thousands of sources people — including voters trying to stay informed — trust every day.

What’s the solution? If you can’t find a truly objective source of factual information, there isn’t one.

I’ve got to think that it’s better to be uninformed than misinformed.