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:
The Colorado River Backwaters
Back to the Backwaters
Return to Wickenburg
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

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 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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Living with Dial-Up Networking

It really isn’t that bad.

When I left the golf course RV park in Quincy last week, I also left behind the incredibly frustrating Internet service I’d been stuck with there. I knew that wherever I camped on or near the orchard belonging to my last client of the season, WiFi access would not be an option. (Heck, I didn’t even know for sure if I’d be able to get an electric or water hookup.)

I’ve had Bluetooth tethering capabilities on my Verizon Wireless service for more than 3 years now. It costs me $15/month extra for unlimited bandwidth. (Don’t look for that plan now, folks; current plans all cap the bandwidth; I’m grandfathered in.)

Tethering, in case you’re not familiar with the term, involves introducing your computer to your Bluetooth-enabled smartphone to pair them wirelessly via Bluetooth. Your computer can then use your phone to “dial into” the cell phone provider’s Internet service. This is referred to as dial-up networking or DUN. Once connected, you can surf the Web, send and receive e-mail, and do just about anything else you could do if you were connected by WiFi. The connection isn’t fast, but it isn’t agonizingly slow, either. The only drawback is that when an incoming call connects, you can’t work online. But when you hang up, you can continue working — a feature I just discovered today.

The image below shows what the right end of my computer’s menu bar looks like when I’m connected. The modem menu shows connection time; in this example, only 12 seconds. The Bluetooth menu shows that I’m connected to a Bluetooth device (my BlackBerry). I keep AirPort turned off because there aren’t any WiFi networks around and keeping it turned off saves a tiny bit of battery life. When I want to disconnect, I choose Disconnect Bluetooth DUN from the Modem menu. After a “disconnecting” message scrolls by a few times, the connection is severed and the timer disappears. To connect, I’d choose Connect Bluetooth DUN from the same menu.

Connected Menu Bar

(If you’re interested in how-to information about DUN, check out “Setting Up Your Mac to Use a Smartphone’s Internet Connection,” which I wrote for InformIT a while back. It should still be up-to-date enough to be useful.)

I used tethering for most of my Internet access the first season I was in Washington state. Back then, I’d arranged for Internet service but it was disconnected because an involved party had been beaten with a stupid stick. I fell back to DUN for access and was glad I had it.

Back then, however, my computer and cell phone didn’t talk to each other very well. I had a Treo 700p in those days and maybe that was part of the problem. If an incoming call disconnected me, I’d have to do a battery pull on the phone, restart the computer, and repair to get a new connection set up. It was a pain in the butt so I tended to stay online for very short periods of time, dreading the possibility of an incoming call.

The memory of that has stuck with me. But either my BlackBerry Storm (v1) is more gracious about disconnections or Apple has improved its Bluetooth connection routines in Snow Leopard because I’m not suffering the same symptoms. If I get an incoming call, I tell my computer to disconnect, talk on the phone, and then reconnect easily when done. No battery pulls, no computer restarts.

As a result, I’ve been staying connected for as long as an hour at a time.

Where I AmMind you, I’m camped on a construction site across the street from a cherry orchard 8 miles up a canyon from Wenatchee, WA. (The tiny red X on the map marks the approximate spot.) It’s amazing to me that (1) my cell phone works so well up here, usually giving me five [legitimate] bars and (2) I’m able to stay connected to the Internet for so long.

But — and I hate to rub this in for all the iPhone devotees out there — I chose Verizon and skipped the iPhone thing because I often go to places like this and I often need tethering for Internet access. Does AT&T have coverage here? Maybe. Does the iPhone offer tethering without a complex, warranty-voiding jail-break? No.

Yes, it’s a pain in the butt to have to literally dial in every time I want to connect to the Internet. But for $15/month unlimited access, I can live with it — at least until I get home.

Walking the Fence

Part of ranch maintenance — even for our tiny “spread.”

About 10 years ago, interested in finding a summer place where we could go with our horses to escape the summer heat of the Phoenix area, we purchased 40 acres of ranch land in northern Arizona. Our lot at Howard Mesa Ranch is high desert land atop a mesa between Williams and Valle, AZ, about 40 miles south of the Grand Canyon.

Originally, we had high hopes of putting a vacation home up there. Our lot has 360° views that include Red Butte and the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the north, Mount Trumbull and its companion mountains on the Arizona strip to the west, Bill Williams Mountain to the south, and the snow-covered San Francisco Peaks to the east. We envisioned a 2-story home with a loft bedroom and big windows looking out over the views.

In preparation, we got a pair of water tanks, put in a septic system, and had the entire place fenced off with a 4-strand wire fence (smooth wire top and bottom, barbed wire in the middle per the CC&Rs). When we came up with our horses, they had 40 acres to wander and graze on.

But things change. We never built our vacation home. Maybe we will one day in the future, but I don’t know when that day will come. In the meantime, we camp out there on long weekends throughout the year. We’ve spent numerous July 4th weekends, several Christmases, and even one Thanksgiving at our off-the-grid retreat.

Like this weekend. We came up, mostly to check on the place and take care of some maintenance tasks. There’s a shed on the property that needs to be checked on regularly. And, of course, the fence.

Mike at Fence

Mike standing by the east side of our fence. That’s the San Francisco Peaks in the distance.

We walk the fence each time we’re up here. There’s over a mile of it, so it makes a nice walk. We’d put up the fence to keep our horses in, but now it worked primarily to keep the open range cattle out. I didn’t keep the elk out, though. They could — and did — jump the fence. Sometimes, their weight on that top strand of wire would shift the fence posts and bend the stays between them. Walking the fence meant repairing problems caused primarily by the elk.

In the old days, when we still had horses, Mike would ride the fence on horseback. He’d saddle up his horse and my horse would follow them. I’d busy myself with some other task, leaving them to get the job done without me. But with the horses gone, the walk would take longer. Jack the Dog wouldn’t be enough company for Mike. So I went along with them.

I carried a roll of wire, Mike carried the fencing tool. We walked the fence line, stopping occasionally to straighten stays, bang post deeper into the earth with a big rock, or tighten wires. It was easy to see where the elk had jumped the fence. It wasn’t just one or two elk, either. It was likely an entire herd. We didn’t mind the elk on our property. After all, they didn’t damage anything, like cows would.

Except the fence, of course.

Frost Heave

The southeast corner fence post. Over the years, frost heave has pushed the post up.

The fence had been professionally installed by a company based down near our Wickenburg home. They’d come up about a year after we’d brought the property and camped out until the job was done. The workers probably enjoyed being away from the low desert heat for a week or so. I wonder what they thought of the dark sky with its billions and billions of stars at night, or the coyotes that trot through the property as if they own it.

On the whole, the fence guys did a great job. Where they dropped the ball, however, is on the corners. Sure, they dug about three feet into the ground and secured those corner fence posts with concrete. But what they didn’t count on was frost heave, which is something you just don’t see down in the Phoenix area. Each winter, the ground freezes solid. As the soil freezes, it expands. It pushes up whatever it can to make room. Over the years, it has pushed the corner fence posts out of the ground. The fence is still sound, but the four corner posts no longer stand properly. One of these days, we’ll have to fix them.

Dead Animal

One of two partial skeletons we found while walking the fence.

Along the way, I caught sight of something odd about 200 feet from the fence. I went to investigate. It was the partial skeleton of a medium sized animal. Based on its size, skull, and the length of its neck, I think it may have been a young elk or perhaps a mule deer. There was no sign of antlers, so I don’t think it was an antelope. The bones had been picked clean, as you can see in this photo. The legs and entire hindquarters were missing. Mike found the lower jaw about 30 feet away. We think it may have been injured jumping the fence — or perhaps had starved when the ground was snow-covered — and the coyotes and birds had finished it off. Later, not far from the north side of the fence, we found another partial skeleton that also included the neck and part of the skull. Another unfortunate animal. I wonder how many others are within our 40 acres — or beyond it.

As we walked, it was clear that a lot of snow had laid upon the ground for a long time. The long, dried grasses were flattened out as if they’d borne the weight of deep, heavy snow for weeks on end. I could imagine animals jumping the fence, looking for food. I could imagine young or weak or injured ones dying, providing food for the carnivores and carrion eaters.

It took about 90 minutes to walk the fence and make the necessary repairs. By then, it had clouded up a bit and we were ready to take a break in the warmth of our camping shed. The job was done — until next time.

Off-the-Grid Camping in the New RV

Working out the kinks.

One of the improvements I made on my old RV was to add a solar panel to the roof. It was connected to a battery charger which, in turn, was connected to the camper’s batteries. When the sun was out — which is during most daylight hours here in Arizona — the batteries were charged. This made the camper extremely useful for off-the-grid camping. My husband and I did a lot of that last year on our way back from Washington to Arizona. We never ran low on power, which was a good thing because we didn’t have a generator.

There are a few things that won’t work in an RV without a connection to A/C power:

  • A/C power outlets. This means you can’t plug in and use any device with a standard plug.
  • Certain light fixtures. Some lights are A/C while some are D/C. A/C fixtures won’t work without an A/C connection.
  • Microwave. Even if it’s standard equipment on an RV, it’s plugged into an A/C outlet.
  • Air Conditioning. It’s A/C and it sucks a ton of power when it is plugged in and running. That means that even if you have a generator, you need a pretty powerful one to run the A/C when you’re not hooked up to campground or city power.

There are a few things that will run on propane or battery (D/C) power if you’re camping off-the-grid:

  • Refrigerator. Setting the refrigerator on “Auto” tells it to look for A/C power first; if that’s not available, it uses propane from the onboard tanks (assuming the valves have been opened).
  • Stove/Oven. Obviously, they’re propane. It would be dumb to put an electric stove in an RV.
  • Water pump. If you’re not connected to a pressurized water line, a D/C pump activates when you run the water to pump the water from the onboard fresh water tanks.
  • D/C devices. Some RVs include D/C outlets — think of power ports or cigarette lighters on a car. My old RV had one and I added a second; my new RV had three and I added a fourth. These are handy for charging cell phones or plugging in low wattage inverters to plug in low wattage A/C devices like laptops.

Other appliances use D/C power all the time, but if you’re plugged in, your battery is being charged all the time, so it’s no big deal. The heater, stereo, and certain light fixtures are good examples.

As you can see, RVs are pretty much designed to be self-sufficient when you’re off-the-grid. There’s a limit, of course, to how long you can live in an RV without a hookup, though. The solar power (or a generator) helps take care of electrical needs. Eventually, however, you’ll run out of water or fill up your black water sewer tank. There are ways to get around these issues — for example, minimize toilet use by using public toilets whenever possible, carry extra water in external tanks, etc. — so two people can easily live in a well-equipped RV off-the-grid for several weeks if they need to.

Oddly, however, most RV owners do not live in the RV off-the-grid. Instead, many of them tend to pull their RVs from one parking lot-like RV park to the next, cram them into narrow spaces between other RVs, hook up power, water, and sewer lines, and retreat inside their luxury boxes to watch television.

I’m not like most RV owners.

Before trading in the old camper, I pulled the 135-watt solar panel off the roof. This past week, I had it installed, with a new battery charger and controller, on the roof of my new RV.

This weekend, my husband and I are out in the desert about 25 miles west of our Wickenburg home, testing the trailer’s off-the-grid setup. I’m out in Aguila, at a private “resort” where my clients are testing some wireless networking equipment. The test requires me to fly their equipment around in the helicopter to see how well it works with ground-based mobile and stationary equipment. There’s more to it than that, but for the sake of my client’s privacy, that’s really all I’m willing to say.

At Robson'sThe job has a lot of down time — time when I’m just waiting around for them to be ready to fly. It made sense to bring the RV out here for the weekend. It gives Mike and I a chance to get away and relax away from home and we can bring along Jack the Dog and Alex the Bird. And, of course, we can test the off-the-grid setup of the RV close enough to home so that if there’s a serious problem, we’re not suffering. So the RV is currently parked about 100 yards from the helicopter’s landing zone out in the desert.

We’ve discovered a few things:

  • When the refrigerator works off propane, it makes a noise that sounds like a fan running inside it. We’re not sure if it should be doing that. It seems to work fine and the fan noise does stop when the refrigerator reaches the correct temperature. But my last two RVs had silent refrigerators, so we’re a bit concerned.
  • The fresh water in the tanks smells like shit. I do mean that literally. We’re not drinking it, but we are washing with it. It’s making the RV stink a bit on the inside, so we have a lot of windows open to keep the air cleared out. This is our fault. We should have flushed out the system before using it. We’ll do that after this trip and likely run at least one tankful of clean water through it, too.
  • The new solar setup works great. It had the batteries fully charged before 10 AM. While it was doing that, we were using the lights, stereo, cell phone chargers (all D/C) and a 300-watt A/C inverter to charge my MacBook Pro and some aviation radios.
  • The 2000-watt Honda generator I bought so I could run A/C devices if I wanted to works great. It’s easy to start and can be very quiet. We gave it a good test on Saturday night when we ran it to see if we could watch a DVD (Up) on the 32-inch (or thereabouts) flat screen TV the RV came with. It ran hard when we first started it — likely to recharge the batteries we’d run down a bit after sunset while giving us A/C power — then settled down to a lower, quieter power setting. I don’t think I’d run it in the future just to watch TV, though.

Everything else works exactly as expected.

At this point, I consider this second test a success. It proves to me that the new RV can be at least as comfortable — more so, of course — than the old one when camping off-the-grid. Even though I didn’t get the solar power system I wanted, I think my less expensive solution — one solar panel to charge the batteries and a portable generator for more power when needed — will work fine.

One thing’s for sure: having a portable house along on these weekend long gigs is very nice indeed — even if I’m not plugged in.

Getting Away from it All

We spend a weekend at our “summer” place on Howard Mesa.

It’s no secret that central Arizona, near Phoenix, gets brutally hot in the summer time. Daytime shade temperatures in July and August typically 110°F or above, and you can add 20 to 30°F if you happen to step out into the unyielding sun. We realized after just a few short years in Wickenburg that we’d need a place to escape to.

I heard about Howard Mesa on a radio commercial advertising 10-, 36-, and 40-acre parcels near the Grand Canyon. Mike was away at the time — he telecommuted to a job in New Jersey and spent about a week and a half each month there — so I hopped in my Toyota and made the 154-mile drive alone to check it out. I was soon seated in a big sedan beside Larry, who would be our sales guy, driving up well-maintained dirt roads to the few lots that were still available on top of the mesa. I fell love with the second lot he showed me, a pie-shaped wedge near the mesa’s highest point. The wide “crust” of the pie shape was flat and bordered state land, where I was assured nothing could be built. The rest of the land dropped off gently toward the west. Every inch of the property was buildable, but the obvious building site was right before the dropoff, where an old two-track road used by ranchers and hunters led to a clearing, where a single cow rested in the shade of a pinyon pine.

The land was off-the grid — that means no electricity, water, telephone, gas, or cable television — five full miles from pavement and about ten miles from the nearest store where one could buy a quart of milk. Williams, AZ, which had a supermarket and restaurants, was 20 miles south. Valle, the crossroads of Routes 64 from Williams and 180 from Flagstaff, was 14 miles north. The entrance to Grand Canyon National Park was another 30 or so miles north of that.

It was the quiet, beauty of the place that hooked me. Not a single building was within sight — just rolling hills of golden grasses, studded with the dark green of juniper and pinyon pines. Once Larry shut off his Buick, all I could hear was the wind, with the occasional call of a crow or raven.

San Francisco PeaksBut it was the 360° views that sold me. To the north, is Red Butte and the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. To the west and northwest, are distant mountain ranges near Seligman, as well as Mount Trumbull on the Arizona strip 85 miles away. To the south is Bill Williams Mountain, just south of Williams. And to the east is snowcapped Mount Humphreys and the San Francisco Peaks, the tallest mountain in Arizona.

The price for all this amazing remote beauty? Less than $1,000 per acre. And our lot was priced higher than most others because of the view.

That’s how it all started. And what we realized just last night is that we’ve owned this place for ten years now. It was the Toyota that trigged the date memory. I bought my Jeep in the summer of 1999 and I was still using my Toyota as my primary car when we bought the place. That meant April/May 1999.

Our use of the place has varied over the years. In the beginning, we camped there on weekends in a pop-up camper, which we kept folded up on the property when we weren’t around. We had a round pen for the horses, which we’d bring with us. We got the entire 40 acres fenced in so the horses could run free. Then we began preliminary work on getting a house built. After a false start getting ripped off by Lindal Custom Homes — they told us we could build a home for $60/square foot but needed $600 to draw up the plans; the plans resulted in a home that would cost $120/square foot to build — we started exploring other modest custom home solutions. We had a septic system put in. I spent the summer of 2004 in a trailer up here while I flew for one of the Grand Canyon helicopter tour operators. And then, to give us a place to store our stuff while we were preparing to build, we put in what we call our “camping shed.”

And that’s where things got stalled.

You see, although I still love our place atop the mesa and would love to build a full-time residence up here, Mike thinks it’s a bit too lonely and remote. With so much going on for us in the Phoenix area these days, we don’t come up here nearly as often as we used to. To further complicate matters, the future of the area has become questionable. Much of the land up for resale and several property owners have put up commercial style buildings or trashed up their lots with a lot of junk. All this takes away much of the charm of the place. It seems senseless to pour a lot of money into a permanent residence when we’re not sure whether our new home will be looking out over a bunch of used shipping containers and broken down cars or another oversized Quonset hut or a second-hand mobile home left to deteriorate in the sun and wind.

Camping ShedSo we come up here on the occasional weekend and soak up the silence or the sound of the wind. If the nights are moonless, we can see almost as many stars as Hubble — or at least it seems that way — along with the distant glow of Las Vegas, 173 air miles away. Jack the Dog spends most of his time investigating the rocks, looking for lizards or pack rats, or chasing rabbits. Alex the Bird hangs out in his cage, playing with his toys and whistling along to the music on my iPod. Mike and I go for walks or do odd maintenance tasks to keep our camping shed in good condition. Sometimes we’ll go for lunch and a walk along the rim at the Grand Canyon. Other times, we’ll drive out to Flagstaff for some Thai food and to pick up some odds and ends in Home Depot or the RV repair shop. Still other times — like this weekend — we’ll just lounge in the shade on the camping shed’s “porch,” reading or talking.

Its restful — the perfect antidote for the poisons of modern civilization.

When I’m finished with this year’s cherry drying gig, I’ll probably spend a month or so up here with Jack and Alex. Mike will join me on weekends. I’ll work on the last of the three books I have contracted for this year. I’ll make day trips to Williams or the Grand Canyon or Flagstaff. I’ll enjoy the violent thunderstorms that roll through during monsoon season. I’ll take my Jeep to explore the forest roads bordering Grand Canyon National Park and likely find one or two new places to look down into that vast abyss without a tourist in sight. At night, I’ll look out at the stars and listen to the coyotes. It’ll be a simple life — an escape from reality.

Something I need more often than most people.