Snowbirding 2016: Back to the Backwaters

I return to the backwaters to share a different campsite with friends.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
Return to Wickenburg
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

My alarm went off at 3:10 AM on Wednesday morning. Although I’d gotten only about 2-1/2 hours sleep, I jumped out of bed. I’d set the alarm with a minimum amount of extra time. I needed to be on the road in my Jeep by 3:30. Penny looked at me as if wondering why I’d turned the light on to make one of my bathroom trips. But when she saw me getting dressed, she jumped out of bed, knowing something was up.

My bags were already packed. I’d slipped my small wheelie bag into my large wheelie bag so there was just one bag to check at Alaska Air. It doesn’t matter as far as cost goes — I’m an Alaska Air MVP member so I get two bags checked for free. It was more a matter of waiting for luggage in Phoenix. And the simple fact that I didn’t have enough things to take with me to fill both bags but wanted both with me.

The last thing I packed was the ribs. I’d wrapped them in foil and plastic the night before and had put them in the fridge. They were still warm when I pulled them out and put them in the big wheelie bag, along with the ketchup squeeze bottle I’d filled with my honey barbecue sauce. As I zipped the bag around them, I wondered what the TSA would make of them and hoped they’d be neat about opening up the wrapping.

I’d left the Jeep out overnight, not wanting to deal with the garage door in the morning. (No, I still don’t have automatic garage door openers; it’s on my list.) I started it up and set the heat to high when I brought down the first load of luggage. It was 27°F out and the snow crunched under my shoes. I made a second trip to bring down Penny’s travel bag and the garbage and locked up. My house sitter would not be back for a few days. Then I loaded up the Jeep, got Penny cozy on the passenger seat, and got on my way.

It was 3:35.

Getting to Phoenix

My road was still mostly covered with snow and ice, but my Jeep with its new tires doesn’t care. The rest of the roads were clear. I made it to the airport by 4:10, parked in short-term parking, went in to check my bag, and then came back out to move the car to General Aviation parking, which I’d arranged for a few days before. Then Penny and I walked back to the main terminal, enjoying the quiet of the cloud-covered predawn hour. By 4:45, we were through security and I was sitting in the waiting area with Penny in her travel bag at my feet.

It was an uneventful flight to Seattle. It usually is. The total distance is only about 90 air miles and the flight is usually less than 30 minutes long. Driving there, however, would take about 3 hours. I believe time is money and take the plane whenever possible.

At SeaTac, we had a very tight connection. I let Penny walk on her leash from the plane to almost the next gate. Then back in her bag for boarding. They had already boarded the flight and we were the last to get on. Twenty minutes later, we were airborne.

And twenty minutes after that, I was asleep.

I only slept for about an hour, but it was long enough to miss the food and beverage service. I didn’t know that, so after I woke up, I was waiting patiently for the cart with my credit card out for a cheese platter. When the cart came, however, it was a beverage cart and the flight attendant asked, “Do you want anything else to drink?”

Anything else? I wondered to myself. That’s when I realized I’d missed breakfast. I must have been sleeping pretty soundly.

Our flight arrived a full 30 minutes early. Alaska Air does that a lot. It was 10:30 when we rolled into the gate.

Cheryl or Mike or both were picking me up. I’d told them to get to the airport at 11:30 so they didn’t have to wait for me to get my bags and walk Penny. But by 10:45 I had them and Penny had already visited the doggie area. I texted them and Cheryl hopped in the car to get me. I waited outside in the cool shade, munching on an apple muffin I’d bought inside while other people came and went.

When Cheryl arrived, I tossed my big bag into the trunk with Penny’s travel bag and climbed in. Penny settled down on a pillow in the back seat. Cheryl had some errands to run and so did I. I needed to pick up my camera at Tempe Camera. They’d checked it out completely, found nothing wrong with it, and had cleaned it for me. I needed it for my upcoming trip to Valley of Fire and Death Valley. I’d planned on driving out to get it after picking up my truck, but Cheryl didn’t mind taking me on her way to do her things. So we stopped there before heading out to Ray Road near I-10 to visit a lighting store, a Bed Bath and Beyond, and a Home Depot. I treated her for lunch at Wildflower Bakery, where we ate outside and I began soaking up the sun in earnest.

Afterwards, we went back to her house where my truck waited. I had a choice to make: spend the night with her and Mike or head out to Quartzsite to retrieve the Mobile Mansion and join my friends at the backwaters. It was nearly 3 PM and the RV dealer in Quartzsite closed at 5. It would be tight. I decided to go for it; I figured I could always spend a night in one of the few motels out there if I couldn’t get the Mobile Mansion. So I thanked Cheryl, said goodbye, loaded up the truck, and headed out.

Getting to Camp

Google put me on southwest Phoenix back roads to wind my way north and west toward I-10. We finally got on the freeway at 3:30 — just a bit too late to use the HOV lanes — and we headed west. Soon the scant city traffic was behind us and we were cutting through open desert at 75 mph. The kayaks on the roof shook a bit, but didn’t shift.

I pulled into the RV dealer’s lot at 4:50 PM. The owner/manager remembered me and commented on how I’d just made it. I paid the bill — which was about $200 less than I expected — and took the truck out back to hook up the trailer. That’s when I realized that the hitch pin — a metal rod with a cotter pin at one end — was missing. I did a search, then went back inside to see where it might be. But it was gone. While I fumed a bit, they came up with another pin that would do the job. I finished hooking up the RV, stowed the landing gear, and headed out.

My friends were waiting for me at a new campsite about seven miles south of I-10. This one was right at an inlet between the Colorado River and one of the backwater canals. They’d voiced some doubt about whether there was room for my big rig to turn around and park and I admit I was a bit stressed by that. But when I arrived, I saw that there was plenty of room. In fact, they’d saved me the best spot, right in the corner of the campsite where my big back window would look out over the Colorado River and I could look up the backwaters from the window at my desk. With some guidance from Steve, I backed the Mobile Mansion in. Then I set about disconnecting the trailer and setting up camp.

Mobile Mansion Parking
This photo, shot from the levee road after I unhooked the Mobile Mansion and took down the kayaks, shows most of our camp. I think I got the best spot.

That’s when we discovered that one of the bolts securing part of the landing gear raising/lowering mechanism had sheered off. It must have happened back at the dealer, when I raised the landing gear. Steve was able to extract a small portion of the bolt that remained so we could match its size. But we had no replacement bolt.

No problem. I left the rig attached to my truck for the night. We’d get the bolt at Ehrenberg or Blythe in the morning.

A campfire was already going. I poured myself a Makers Mark on the rocks and joined my friends.

Life at the Backwaters

Sunrise
Arizona treated me to a beautiful sunrise my first morning at camp. This was the view out the window at my desk.

In the morning, we drank coffee around the campfire. There were five of us at this camp: Janet and Steve, who I’d stayed with at the previous camp, and Karen and Steve, who were friends of Janet’s that she’d camped with the year before. Janet and Steve had their small travel trailer, a horse trailer with three horses, and two dogs. Karen and Steve had their larger travel trailer and two cats. We all had boats: two pontoon rowboats, a peddle boat, and two kayaks. As you might imagine, it was quite a setup.

After breakfast that first day, Steve and I went in search of a bolt for my landing gear. We tried the little store in Ehrenberg first, since it was closest. They had a lot of random hardware there, but no appropriately sized bolts. So we went to the excellent Ace Hardware store in Blythe, about 7 miles away. The two of us put on our readers and studied nuts and bolts until we found three possible matches. I bought them all. We stopped back in Ehrenberg to fill water jugs and a water bladder before heading back to camp.

It took just a few minutes to fix the landing gear. Steve did it, cramming his body into the front compartment, which couldn’t be opened more than a third of the way because of the truck bumper and the angle I’d parked at. A short time later, the landing gear legs were down, the trailer was disconnected, and I had full use of my truck again.

I went back into Blythe to do some grocery shopping and buy myself some lunch at a chicken place. When I got back, I saw that a fifth wheel toy hauler had moved into the campsite across the inlet from us. I heard the steady hum of a generator running. This was my introduction to Generator Man. I wrote about his idiotic and inconsiderate behavior in another blog post, so I won’t rant about him again here.

We had dinner together that evening around the campfire. We ate the ribs I’d made in Washington and had packed into my luggage for the trip back to Arizona. They were fully cooked and just needed to be brushed with barbecue sauce and heated up over a fire. We used a separate campfire at Janet and Steve’s place for that. Janet made fire-roasted corn on the cob and Karen made beans to go with them. It was an excellent meal, if I do say so myself.

The generator was still going when I went to bed. Fortunately, I couldn’t hear it inside the Mobile Mansion.

Life at the campsite quickly got into a routine. Coffee and breakfast around a campfire near Karen and Steve’s trailer in the morning. I made muffins one morning and Pillsbury cinnamon rolls another morning, but we usually all took care of our own meal. We’d break up and do our own thing in the middle of the day. In late afternoon, Janet and Karen’s Steve usually went fishing — and they always came back with a few fish. Then we’d get together for dinner around the campfire in the evening, usually playing music to drown out the sound of Generator Man’s noise.

RV Light Bulbs
Examples of the old (top) and new (bottom) light bulbs. The new ones will last 10 years, are super bright, and use a fraction of the power

I went in to Quartzsite twice with Janet. The first time, I picked up another 20 or so LED light bulbs for my RV. I’d experimented with them the previous month and liked the extra brightness and power saving. The bulbs were pricey — about $5 each — but their benefits and long lives made them worth it. With them installed on all of the fixtures I used regularly, I cut my evening and morning power consumption so much that I only had to run my generator twice for a total of maybe two hours the whole time I was there. My water pump is now, by far, my biggest consumer of battery power.

The second time we piggybacked a Quartzsite trip on the back of a Blythe trip. Janet’s single RV battery had gone bad and needed replacement. She was also having trouble with the charge controller for her solar panel. So we made a few stops in Blythe to pick up odds and ends for both of us before going to Solar Bill’s in Quartzsite. I looked into a solar + battery setup for the fuel tank and pump on the back of my truck. I no longer need it on my truck so I plan to move it onto its own utility trailer when I get home. Ideally, a solar panel would keep a battery charged to run the pump. Bill showed me a solution that would only cost about $250 to set up: 40 watt solar panel, charge controller, and 2 reconditioned golf cart batteries. I told him I’d have to give it some thought, mostly because I’m not ready to set it up just yet.

Ghost RV Park
Here’s one of the shots I took when I paddled across the river to the RV park there. They had their own backwater that I wanted to explore, but I got too late a start that day. You can see my kayak parked at the boat ramp.

One afternoon, when the river was running high and fast, I paddled a kayak across to check out the campground on the California side. It was a hard paddle, requiring me to point the kayak nose upriver from where I wanted to end up. I don’t think my friends expected me to make it, but I did. On the other side, I found an RV park full of RVs but with few people. Apparently, people park their rigs there and come use them once in a while. All of the full hookup spots were reserved on an annual basis by Canadians, none of whom were there. The onsite store had very little to offer in the way of groceries. It was all kind of sad, like an RV ghost town. I took a few pictures and paddled back, missing the inlet by about 100 feet. After a rest along the rocky levee — where Penny jumped in — I paddled upstream and slipped into the inlet. Nice upper body workout.

Sandy Hill
The sand looked a wee bit too deep on these hills to take my truck up, so Penny and I walked.

Another afternoon, I decided to take my truck up onto the top of the cliff just east of our site. Most of my friends didn’t think I’d make it — they’d been up there with the horses before my arrival and said it was too sandy — but Karen’s Steve claimed to have seen another pickup up there. I figured it was worth a shot. The access road started out very steep and rocky — a very doable hill climb for a 4WD truck with off-road tires on it. Once up the first climb, a narrow road wound around on top of hard hills covered with loose volcanic rock. Deep sand had blown over it in patches, but they weren’t big enough to stop a truck moving fast enough, so I made sure I moved quickly through them. Finally, however, I faced a sandy hill with two two-track trails climbing up it. The sand looked deep and while my truck is properly equipped for off-road travel, it’s heavy and I didn’t want it to sink into the sand. So I parked and walked with Penny up one of the hills, mostly to check it out. When I got to the top, I realized I was at my destination and didn’t bother retrieving the truck. Penny and I spent about 20 minutes up there, checking out the views and taking photos. It was nice up there, away from Generator Man, where the only sound was the wind.

Campsite View
This shot offers a great view of our campsite, as well as the one across the inlet and the campground across the river. Although the Arizona side is all BLM desert, the California side has lots of farming for quite a few miles.

Fishermen and Photobombs
Janet and Karen’s Steve show off the fish we caught while Karen and Janet’s Steve photobomb them.

I went fishing one afternoon with Janet and Karen’s Steve. I don’t think they expected me to catch anything — I didn’t either, in all honesty — because they suggested I bring my own truck to the fishing hole in case I got bored. I surprised all of us by hooking a decent sized redear sunfish (or orange ear, as Janet and Steve call them) not long after Janet hooked a large mouth bass. Janet caught a slightly larger orange ear after that but Steve brought in the main catch just as the sun was setting: a very large bass. He cleaned all the fish for us later on and took his bass away; Janet, Steve, and I feasted on the remaining fish a few days later.

Penny on a Kayak
Here’s Penny, demonstrating one of the reasons I sometimes call her “adventure dog.”

On Sunday, after Karen and Steve left for their next destination, Janet’s Steve dropped Janet, Penny, and me off with our boats about five miles upriver from our camp. We launched and headed downstream, stopping at one of the backwaters on the California side along the way. The river was moving at about three miles an hour, so there wasn’t much work in the paddling. I was wearing shorts again that day and left my white legs atop the kayak to get some sun on them. Although my formerly year-round tan has faded considerably, I don’t get sunburned like I used to. It was nice to get out for a good long paddle. It took about two hours to get back.

Steve watched the second half of the Super Bowl at a sport bar in Ehrenberg that he said was surprisingly good, although not particularly busy. I stayed in the Mobile Mansion — mostly to escape the sound of Generator Man — and read, following the Super Bowl action on Twitter and participating in NPR’s #SuperBowlHaiku meme. We’d tried during the day to pick up CBS on one of my two televisions as well as Janet’s but couldn’t get any channels at all. (I guess Generator Man has a satellite dish over there, too.) I fell asleep earlier than usual — the sun might not burn me, but it apparently sucks the life out of me: I’m always exhausted after a day in the sun.

Janet on her horse
Here’s a shot of Janet on her horse during our Monday afternoon ride.

On Monday afternoon, we took the horses for a short ride back up to the top of the cliff. They put me on Flipper again and the steep climb was a bit much for her. I suspect I might be the last adult to ride her. At least I hope so. She’s getting a bit too old for such strenuous work.

Breaking Camp

By that time, we’d all decided to leave on Tuesday. Janet would be showing her artwork at Gold Rush Days in Wickenburg. I’d be spending some more time with my friends in Wickenburg. And Steve would be bringing the horses to where I was staying; there was a nice horse corral in the backyard.

So we spent some of Monday afternoon breaking camp. I put the kayaks back on top of the truck, put away my generator, and stowed most of my loose items. Steve cleaned, deflated, and broke down the pontoon boats and put their frames atop Janet’s van. Later, we had fish for dinner with salad and rice, eating in the Mobile Mansion to get away from Generator Man’s drone. We played Exploding Kittens a few times and I actually won once. I gave Janet the game to play with other friends and sent Steve home with the remains of a bottle of Honey Jim Beam, which was too damn sweet for my taste.

In the morning, there was no campfire. Janet was the first to pull out. I finished packing up, cleaned the inside of the Mobile Mansion, and closed everything up. Steve guided me to hook up the trailer. I made a wide U-turn in the campsite and pulled out, leaving him to pack up the horses.

I made just two stops before I left the area. First stop was the convenience store in Ehrenberg where I dumped the Mobile Mansion’s tanks, topped off the fresh water supply, and filled my four 6-gallon jugs with fresh water. I also bought one of their excellent Mexican iced fruit pops on the way out. Second stop was the post office to pick up a temporary license plate the car dealer had sent me to replace the expired one.

I was on I-10 heading east by 11 AM.

Snowbirding 2016: Phoenix

Visiting with friends, running errands, preparing for the next leg of my journey.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
Return to Wickenburg
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

I left Wickenburg at about 11:15 AM on Tuesday. I’d already organized everything and packed the truck, with the kayaks on top. I’d be back, but not for at least two weeks.

Although my hosts offered to let me store some things at the guest house, I declined. One thing I like about my life now is that it’s so flexible — my plans can change at any time. Although I planned to return in February, who knows what might happen between now and then to change those plans?

Lunch with a Friend

I’d scheduled lunch with a friend who agreed to meet me along my route down to Phoenix. Rebecca is a doctor and a photographer. Lately, she’s more of a photographer. Like me, she worked hard at at least one career and managed her finances so that she could follow her passion and dedicate more and more time to it. With me, my passions were writing (which became my second career) and flying (which became my third). With her, it’s travel and photography and she does more of both every year. You can see her work online at the Skyline Images website.

Rebecca had recently been to two destinations that interested me: Death Valley in California and Valley of Fire not far from Las Vegas, Nevada. I wanted to pick her brain a bit about them. I’d been to both years ago — several times, in fact — and wanted to visit again, on my own terms, without having to deal with a companion who might prevent me from doing what I wanted to do: namely, getting up before dawn to get into position for capturing images in first light. Rebecca knew all about that; she was even more serious about photography than I am.

I was very eager to visit Death Valley while the wildflowers were blooming. I’d planned a February trip back in 2012 with my wasband when I was still married, but a variety of circumstances (best saved for another blog post) made me cancel it. But since I was already down south with the Mobile Mansion and I’d eventually be bringing it to California for frost season, I thought a route that took me through Death Valley would kill two birds with one stone.

Valley of Fire wasn’t too far off the route to Death Valley. It’s a smallish state park northwest of Lake Mead, remarkable for its red rock formations. I wanted to get out and hike around a bit there with my camera and see if I could get any good images of the rocks.

I thought that with the travel time I’d allotted for myself — almost five full days to get from Wickenburg to the Sacramento area — there was a chance I could spend one night at Valley of Fire (for sunset and sunrise the next morning) and two nights at Death Valley. That would still get me to my destination a day before I needed to be there, giving me the flexibility I like so much when I travel.

We met at a Wildflower Bakery near the intersection of Phoenix’s Loop 101 and I-17 freeways. She saw me parking — how could she miss the giant truck with two kayaks on the roof? — and met me in the parking lot. I left Penny in the truck with the windows down a few inches and we went inside. Because I’d had two breakfasts already — which is pretty much unpreventable when I stay with my Wickenburg friends — I wasn’t hungry and had just a salad. Rebecca had a soup that looked very good and hearty.

We chatted for a while about life: what we’d been up to, where we’d been traveling, and what was going on in Yarnell, where she owned some land and was preparing to build. Eventually, we set aside our plates and she pulled out a Death Valley map. She pointed out a bunch of different roads and points of interest. As I expected, she knew places where few of the tourists went — I really detest being part of a tourist crowd, especially when my mind is on photography. Among the highlights were some dunes I didn’t know about and am rather anxious to see.

She also recommended an ebook by a photographer couple that provides photos and GPS coordinates for points of interest to photographers at Valley of Fire. I bought a copy in PDF format this morning and will put it on my iPad to consult it while I’m traveling. I just ordered a Death Valley map like Rebecca’s to be delivered to me while I’m on the road.

Tempe Camera

After leaving Rebecca, I continued south on I-17, following Google’s directions to Tempe Camera. I’d been having some exposure issues with my Nikon D7000 camera and was also concerned about a certain amount of “looseness” I felt in my favorite lens. Since there are no camera repair places where I live and I’m seldom in Seattle, I figured I’d drop it off at a camera repair place I knew in the Phoenix area.

Tempe Camera is one of the full-service camera stores that still exist in this digital age. Not only do they still sell film and darkroom supplies, but they have a full range of SLR and DSLR cameras, lenses, and other photographic equipment. They even do equipment rentals.

I maneuvered my giant truck into their parking lot and managed to back it into a space beside an empty handicapped space. Then, leaving Penny in the truck again, I brought my camera and its attached lens inside. The repair department is conveniently located on the first floor — they really ought to put it upstairs so people with sick equipment can look at replacements along the way, but I’m not complaining. After a short wait, the woman at the counter took the camera and lens, filled out some forms, and told me that she’d call with a diagnosis. If it could be repaired in-house, it would be ready by the following week, when I returned. Otherwise, it would have to go to Nikon and could take up to six weeks. Since that would really foul up my photography plans at Valley of Fire and Death Valley, you can bet I was hoping for an easy fix.

Back at the truck, I took Penny out for a quick walk in the grassy area near the parking lot. Then we loaded up again for our next and final stop for the day.

Hangar Haciendas

Hangars Hacienda on the Map
Hangar Haciendas is on the map — if you know where to look and zoom in enough.

My friend Mike and his wife Cheryl had bought some land a few years back at Hangar Haciendas, an airpark that no one seems to know about southwest of downtown Phoenix, just north of South Mountain. Around the time I started building my home, they were finalizing plans to build theirs. They moved into their home around the same time I moved into mine: last spring. Since then, they’ve been working on finish items, landscaping, and other odds and ends facing the owner of a brand new home.

An airpark, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a residential development that includes a runway for homeowners. In most cases, each lot will have a hangar with a taxiway that goes out to the runway. This makes it possible to live with your plane just like most folks live with their car.

Residential airparks are not unusual in Arizona. I can think of at least ten with nice, paved runways. I’ve seen one (so far) in Washington state. They can be found in just about any state if you look hard enough.

Their home is considerably more impressive than mine. In addition to the three bedroom, 2-1/2 bath house, there’s a one bedroom, 1 bath guest house and a ginormous hangar for Mike’s plane and helicopter (and a very nice looking Datsun 280Z). It sits on one side of one end of the runway, with great views of Phoenix one way and South Mountain the other way.

I’d been dying to see the house. The last time I was in town — February 2015 — the main structure was up but the walls and windows and doors hadn’t been finished. Poor Cheryl had been a bit frazzled, dealing with contractors and trying to stay ahead of the curve on the project’s construction. Now the place was pretty much finished, although there were some details that still needed attention and were driving Cheryl nuts. What’s interesting to me is that as the General Contractor for my home, I actually had an easier time than they did because I talked directly to the subcontractors and they had to deal with a general who may or may not pass along the right instructions to the subs. No wonder Cheryl was so frustrated!

When I first contacted them about a visit, I’d expected to have the Mobile Mansion with me. I needed a place to park it where it would be safe while I went home to Washington for a while. They had plenty of land and were relatively close to the airport, where an early morning flight would take me home. It made sense to ask to park it there. They had no problem with that. But when I dropped the RV off for repairs in Quartzsite instead, I just needed to park the truck. I was hoping to spend the night at their place, but was open to staying at a hotel if they couldn’t accommodate me. No problem, though. I could come with the truck and spend the night. And although they pretty much insisted that they drive me to the airport at 4 AM the next morning, I bought a ticket for a shuttle van to get me and Penny. I could never allow a friend to take me to the airport that early.

The house, as I expected, was amazing. Cheryl was working on something when I arrived, so Mike took me on a tour of the hangar first (of course) and then the house. I loved the huge windows that let in plenty of Arizona sunlight, the desert views, the big marble tiles on the floor, the ultra-modern kitchen, and the complete home automation system. I have to admit that it was the first time I’d ever been in a home with his and hers laundry rooms. And the master bedroom shower, with its five shower heads, was big enough to host a party. Even the guest house, which was probably about the size of my living space at home, was big and bright and well-designed.

We hung out and chatted for a while and Mike built a fire in a fire pit just off the back patio. A neighbor stopped by for a beer and a chat. Then we decided on Chinese food. Cheryl placed the order and Mike and I went to get it. I discovered that yes, there is good Chinese food in Arizona. You can find it at Sun Chinese Kitchen on 20th street and Baseline.

Cheryl was tired and I had an early flight the next morning, so I left them early. I pulled the two bags I needed to take home with me the next day out of my truck and locked up the truck, leaving the keys with Mike. Then I settled into the guest house with Penny.

I was asleep minutes after my head hit the pillow.

Snowbirding 2016: Wickenburg

Returning once again to my old stomping grounds.

Posts in the Snowbirding 2016 Series:
Introduction
The Colorado River Backwaters
Quartzsite
Wickenburg
Phoenix
Home
Back to the Backwaters
Return to Wickenburg
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

If you know anything about me, you probably know that I lived for about 15 years in Wickenburg, AZ, most of which was spent with my wasband — that is, when he wasn’t in one of his other homes in New Jersey or Phoenix. When I moved to Wickenburg in 1997, it was a nice western town with a real cowboy flavor. Indeed, it wasn’t unusual to see real cowboys, sometimes wearing spurs, in the supermarket. Over time, greedy real estate developers and the Realtors, mortgage brokers, and politicians that supported them rezoned much of the land to allow ever more dense housing. Horse trails in open desert were replaced by subdivisions. Since the town has very little in the way of real jobs, the new homes were bought up by retirees who often lived in town only half the year. Businesses that couldn’t survive with the seasonal fluctuations of customers regularly failed. Over time, most of our friends around our age moved away.

I started thinking seriously about leaving town as early as 2005, when I took what I commonly refer to as my “Midlife Crisis Road Trip.” For 18 or 19 days I roamed around the west in my little 2003 Honda S2000 (which I still own), exploring the countryside looking for someplace I’d rather live — at least in the brutally hot summer. I came back with the idea of building a hangar home in Cascade, ID, where I could base my business for the summer months. I even dragged my future wasband up there to see the place. But, as I soon grew to expect, he wasn’t really interested in relocating and I soon gave up.

Starting in 2008, I wound up spending my summers in Washington State, where I began to build a very good summer business that finally made my helicopter work profitable. By then, I was married to the man I’d been living with for more than 20 years. He promised me, around the time we got married in 2006, that he’d join me on the road when he turned 55 (in 2011). That’s why I wound up buying the Mobile Mansion in 2010 — I wanted enough space for two of us and our dog for up to six months a year. But in 2012, he decided he needed a mommy more than a wife who treated him like an adult and he dragged me into a long, drawn out, and oh-so-ugly divorce.

While the divorce nonsense plodded on, I spent about eight months packing up my personal property. I moved out of my Wickenburg home in May 2013. I now live in Malaga, WA, not far from Wenatchee, in a “custom home” I had built on 10 acres of view property.

I still like Wickenburg — or at least that area of the desert southwest — despite the way the town’s government and chamber of commerce seem to be doing everything in their power to destroy what once made it such a desirable place to live. The Sonoran desert is an almost magical place, especially in the winter and spring, for exploring and hiking and horseback riding. Sometimes I almost wish I kept my house there. Almost.

And I still have friends in Wickenburg. One couple, Jim and Cyndi, have been very generous to me over the past few years, offering me their guest house as a place to stay whenever I like. I dog-sat for them last winter — they have a pair of energetic golden retrievers that Penny loves to play with — for about a week and stayed for another week. This year, I decided to take them up on their offer again and spend about a week in Wickenburg between Quartzsite and my next destination.

Getting to Wickenburg

I left Quartzsite early on Tuesday afternoon, as I reported in the previous post of this series, leaving my RV behind to get the landing gear controller card replaced. I packed all of my dirty laundry, which would provide clothes for the next week, any perishables in my refrigerator, my kayaks and related gear, and anything I wanted to bring home. That last group of things included a box full of odds and ends I’d bought during my travels and the winter gear I’d brought with me when I thought I’d be stopping in Salt Lake City on my way south. So although I wasn’t dragging the Mobile Mansion, I was driving a truck full of stuff with a pair of kayaks on the roof.

Wickenburg is only about 90 miles from Quartzsite. The route is pretty straight: I-10 to SR-60 all the way into town. Route 60 cuts through a lot of empty desert with just a few towns along the way: Brenda, which seems to exist solely for snowbirds who visit Quartzsite; Salome, which features a pair of residential airports and a lot of retirees; Wenden, a farming community; and Aguila, a sad little farm town with two or three residential air parks filled with more retirees. All of these places are a lot more remote than I’d ever want to live, with miles and miles of saguaro and mesquite-studded desert between them. I knew the route well — I’d driven or flown it many times. I made it in less than 90 minutes, making only one stop along the way to check the straps on the kayaks.

Map to Wickenburg
It’s a pretty straight shot through the desert from Quartzsite to Wickenburg.

Poolside
The view from the guesthouse not long after I arrived. I brought my bathing suit, but it never got much above 70 during my stay.

I arrived at my friends’ house in late afternoon and we shared hugs all around. Penny immediately reacquainted herself with Bertie and Donny. After a short chat in the kitchen and a glass of wine, I brought my suitcase and cooler and Penny’s things down to the guest house. It sits in a separate yard where their pool is, offering quite a bit of privacy to both them and their guests. It also has the most wonderful sounding wind chimes outside on the patio when the wind is blowing just right. And hummingbird feeders that keep quite busy during the day.

I got my laundry started and settled in a bit. Later, I went back to the main house for a very nice filet mignon dinner, cooked up by my hosts. Cyndi suggested we go roller skating down in Glendale the next day and since I’m game to do almost anything, I agreed. Then we called it a night and I went back down to the guest house where I slept like the dead.

Still Life in Wickenburg

I’m an early riser but Jim and Cyndi aren’t. That means I had two breakfasts: the one I prepared when I got up and the one Cyndi made around 9 AM.

Afterwards, I moved my truck closer to the guest house. Jim unlocked the gate so I could come and go without going through the main house. I brought more of my stuff in, mostly to organize it. Then I pulled the kayaks off my truck. I wanted to fine-tune my setup and I didn’t want to drive around with two kayaks up there for a week.

By this time, I’d also finished doing my laundry and had taken a hot shower to wash off the Quartzsite dust and smell of campfire. It was very nice to be clean again and in clean clothes.

Skaters
The rink referee took this photo of me with Cyndi. I hate getting my photo taken beside petite people because they always make me look enormous by comparison.

Cyndi and I left for Great Skates in Glendale around 11:30. I drove. I’m not sure if I wanted to show off my new truck or just felt like taking it out for a spin on a drive that didn’t start or end on dusty gravel. We arrived right after the afternoon session began. There were just three other skaters: all kids. We rented skates and got out onto the rink. I was a bit rusty at first, but the more I circled the rink, the better I got. I sort of wished I had my rollerblades with me and might bring them down for next time. It took Cyndi a bit longer to get her skating legs back and she spent some time with the rink referee — what else would you call the guy with the striped shirt and whistle? — before she skated on her own. He was a really nice guy — extremely friendly and patient — and made our visit very enjoyable. We skated for about 90 minutes, during which time I was reminded again why I don’t listen to modern pop music, before calling it quits.

We stopped at Trader Joe’s in Surprise on our way back to Wickenburg. I bought some supplies for the rest of my snowbirding trip: sardines, dips, chips, cereal, chocolate, etc. Then we headed home. It was interesting to see the changes along Grand Avenue along the way.

Later, we went out to dinner in my favorite Wickenburg restaurant — which isn’t in Wickenburg: Nichols West. I had my favorite appetizer, the fried oysters, and followed that with chicken saltimbocca. I also had one of Simon’s huge martinis, very pleased to see that he remembered I liked mine with three olives. I treated for dinner and let Jim drive my truck back.

On Thursday, I started the day early with a trip to Tractor Supply. I wanted to replace the straps that came with my kayak setup with some good ratchet straps. I also wanted to replace the bolts that held the vertical supports in place with shorter bolts. The four bolts install face down and I was very concerned with the possibility of one of them scratching the roof or sunroof of my truck if I went over a bump. They had everything I needed — it’s a great store that I wish had been around when I lived in Wickenburg — and it was nice to get everything at one stop.

From there, I visited my friends at Kaley’s. They sell and repair sewing machines and offer shipping services. They provided me with all the boxes and packing materials I needed to make my move to Washington without charging me a dime. (That was probably because of all the packing materials I’d recycled with them while I lived in Wickenburg all those years.)

Then Safeway for a few groceries.

From there, I went to Screamers, where I hoped to get a breakfast burrito. That’s when I learned that the owner, Avi, had died the previous summer. Avi was an immigrant who had bought the business from its original owner years before and he made the best breakfast. I always tried to give him business when I was in town. Breakfast, unfortunately, was not being served.

I found a new place where several other restaurants had been: the Pie Cabinet. (Did you say pie? Yes!) I went in and bought myself a slice of apple pie and a latte. I also got a whole pie for after dinner. Highly recommended.

Tie Down Anchors
I ordered these while I was in Quartzsite and had them shipped to Jim’s house. When I say that this is the only thing my new used truck needed to make it perfect for my use, I’m not kidding.

I got back to the house just as Jim and Cyndi were leaving for a hair appointment near Phoenix. I made plans to get an eye exam and meet a friend for lunch in the Deer Valley area of Phoenix. After installing six tie-down anchors on my truck’s bed rails, I got changed and headed out, leaving Penny behind.

I had lunch with my friend Ruth, a Phoenix area Realtor and part-time nurse. Oddly enough, I met Ruth through my wasband; he worked with Ruth’s husband years ago. When my wasband and I split, Ruth and I became friends, mostly on Facebook. When I come to Arizona in the winter, I make a point of meeting with her at P.F. Chang’s in north Phoenix for lunch at least once. She’s really upbeat and understands the importance of making your life what you want it to be.

After lunch was my eye exam. It was nice to know that my prescription has not changed. I certainly don’t want to get any blinder than I already am.

I got back to Wickenburg by late afternoon. I sat outside on the swing by the wind chimes and watched Penny play with her friends. She’s pretty funny — stealing toys from the much bigger dogs. And although either one of them could seriously hurt her, they keep their distance and just watch her antics.


Penny the Tiny Dog is a bully.

Jim made dinner — chicken marsala — and it was excellent. I brought up a bottle of wine to share with Cyndi, but she stuck with what she calls her “tried and true” favorite. More for me!

We finalized plans we’d started making to go to Flagstaff. Cyndi wanted to do some skiing and although I prefer cross-country skiing, I agreed to give downhill a try. Jim booked two rooms at the Flagstaff Marriott Springhill Suites and we planned to head north at about noon the next day. The dogs would all be boarded at Bar S Animal Clinic, where Penny had actually stayed a few times during my last few months in my Wickenburg home.

The Flagstaff Trip

I had just enough time on Friday morning to write a blog post about Quartzsite — I don’t know why I put it off so long — before we loaded up in Jim’s Expedition and headed out. We stopped at Bar S to drop off the dogs and the supermarket to pick up sandwiches. Then it was the 2-1/2 hour drive to Flagstaff. It was a nice drive across Route 74 and up I-17. I spotted a bald eagle perched on a tree branch north of Camp Verde, up on the Mongollon Rim. We got in around 3 PM.

I made dinner reservations at Josephine’s, one of the nicer restaurants that I’d eaten at with my wasband and some friends years ago. (For some reason, people seem to think I want to avoid places I’ve been with my wasband. I don’t; I’m very eager to create new memories in good places that don’t include him.) I had a wonderful pork osso bucco while Jim had beef tenderloin and Cyndi had a salad. Cyndi and I shared a bottle of Argentinian Cabernet.

Some research told us that there was an afternoon ski session at the Arizona Snowbowl that started at 11 and ran until 4:30. We decided to shoot for that the next day.

My room at the Marriott was comfortable, although the heating system was noisy. I slept well and woke early (as usual). I was very pleasantly surprised to find an excellent buffet breakfast in the lobby at 7 AM. Lots of fresh hot and cold choices. Also lots of kids in ski pants. I started wondering where they were all going.

I’d brought along some of the winter gear I’d brought with me for the Salt Lake stop I hadn’t made on my drive south: Under Armor leggings and shirt, ski pants, and ski gloves. I put it all on after breakfast and met Jim and Cyndi at 10:30 for the 20-minute drive to the Snowbowl. When we made the turn onto the 7-mile drive up the mountain, we began getting an idea of what was ahead of us. There was a line of cars with attendants telling them that the parking lots were full. A shuttle bus would take skiers up. We told them we were getting dropped off — which was the plan because Jim didn’t want to ski — and they let us go. More crowds at the rental and lift areas up top. I bet every single one of the kids from breakfast was there with parents and lots of friends.

Cyndi and I grabbed our bags and got on line. She needed rentals. I needed rentals and a lesson. The last time I’d attempted downhill skiing had been in 1982 when I was dating an avid skier. That hadn’t gone as planned. Let’s just say I never made it to the lift line.

We were on line almost two hours. The line split. My line was shorter. When I got to the front of the line, I managed to get Cyndi up there with me. The rental people had already run out of all adult snow boards, all snowboard boots over size 10, and several sizes of ski boots. When I got to the front of the line, they announced that they had run out of skis for anyone 5’4″ or taller. In other words, people like me.

Great, I thought. I have an excuse to skip skiing. Jim had gotten a parking space and was sitting at a table upstairs in the restaurant. I started thinking about cocoa, possibly spiked with Kailua.

“I’ll give you the demo skis,” the rental clerk offered. And before I knew it, she’d grabbed a set of blue skis with a $700 price tag on them and took my credit card. Petite Cyndi got the regular rental skis. No cocoa for me, spiked or otherwise.

I won’t bore you with the details of my struggle to get the ski boots on, open my rented locker at the bottom of the locker bank, or carry my skis to the lesson area by 1 PM. Cyndi disappeared. Or maybe from her point of view, I disappeared.

Maria Ready to Ski
Heather, a girl in my ski lesson group, shot this photo of me waiting for our lessons. That’s the top of the mountain behind me.

There were dozens of people waiting for lessons. We waited some more. Eventually, they took away the people with some experience leaving 19 raw beginners behind. We split into two groups. We went with Instructor Tim to a spot about a third of the way down what I’ll refer to as the Bunny Hill.

There were lots of people taking skiing or snowboarding lessons on the hill. Easily over 100 of us. While Tim taught us basics, we were treated to a free show of wipe-outs. No one got hurt. It was all kind of funny. We’d be performing soon enough.

I also won’t bore you with how Tim taught us. It was good and thorough and it took a lot of time because we had a lot of practice. Still, it was 90 minutes before we actually had both skis on. Once we demonstrated that we knew how to turn, he set us a goal of getting to the bottom of the hill so we could get on line for the conveyor belt back up.

Snowbowl Map
Mount Humphreys of the San Francisco Peaks is the tallest mountain in Arizona. The snow bowl sits on its southwest side. The red X near the bottom of this image is the Bunny Hill, which sits at about 9,200 feet elevation.

I didn’t do badly. In fact, I was one of the few who didn’t fall until we had both skis on. I fell during practice, which was a real pain in the ass because I couldn’t get up with the skis on. So it basically took me 10 minutes to get ready for another try. And then, when I was ready to try again, a newbie on a snowboard wiped out right into me, throwing me right back into the snow, this time with both skis pinned partly under me and my knees bent in painfully awkward positions. Lying flat on my back, I couldn’t really move.

My instructor skied right up and released my two skis while reading the snowboarder the riot act. “You’re responsible for avoiding everyone downhill of you,” he said. “In the state of Arizona, what you just did would qualify as a traffic accident.”

I assured everyone I was okay and accepted the snowboarder’s repeated apologies. It bothered me more that he’d knocked me flat right after I’d spent 10 minutes getting up than the fact that he’d hit me at all.

Another try, another fall. It was getting old but I was improving.

My next try was dramatic because I went faster than I wanted to and found myself heading right toward a group of people. Somehow I managed to turn and miss them and then another group before pointing parallel to the hill and coming to a stop. My instructor was very excited and pleased with my progress. But in my eyes, I’d screwed up because I’d wound up somewhere other than where I wanted to be.

I skied over to the line for the conveyor belt and promptly fell. Sheesh.

Once I was on the belt, the lesson was over. As I rode up, I looked at the Bunny Hill. Could I ski that by myself? Did I want to try?

But I was saved by the bell. My phone rang. It was Jim. Cyndi wanted to call it quits at 3:30. I looked at my watch. It was 3:10. No time for skiing — I had to head back.

I took off my skis at the top of the conveyor belt and walked back up to the rental shop. Due to the high elevation (and too much time spent too close to sea level lately), I had to stop three times to catch my breath.

Needless to say, I was very glad to get rid of the skis and boots, change into my jeans, and wait with Jim for Cyndi. He’d fetched the car by the time she came out and we were headed back down the mountain by 4 PM.

It was the second time in my life I’d bought a lift ticket I hadn’t used. And yes, it will be the last. Downhill skiing is not for me. I can fly a helicopter, but I’ll never be a skier. I guess I’ll just have to settle for that.

We went back to the hotel for a while, then went out for pizza at a restaurant I can’t recommend. I had a calzone and it was good but it took forever to get. And I don’t think either Cyndi or Jim were happy with their pizza.

I’d had the foresight to crank up the heat while we were at dinner so my room was toasty warm when we got back. I then turned off the heat for the night so I didn’t have to listen to it.

Still, I was tossing and turning very early in the morning with pain in my left knee. Apparently that snowboarder crash incident had done some damage. Being still overnight had caused the knee to stiffen up. When I finally woke at 5 AM, I was in a bunch of pain. Ibuprofen and ice, my Facebook friends recommended. So while I waited for Jim and Cyndi to wake up down the hall, I nursed my knee, read the news, did a crossword puzzle, and heated up my leftover calzone in the microwave for breakfast.

I brought the ice with me in the car for the ride home.

Back in Wickenburg

Palm Trees
Sunday gave us another gorgeous afternoon down in the Sonoran Desert.

We were back at Jim and Cyndi’s house by noon. I’d been missing Penny since I dropped her off on Friday, but being back at the house without her really made me miss her more. But Bar S wasn’t open on Sunday so I’d have to wait until Monday morning to get her.

I relaxed and snacked on some of my Trader Joe’s goodies. Their corn and black bean salsa is very good with their multigrain tortilla chips. I also washed my ski clothes and hung them on hangars to dry. And I started this blog post.

My knee wasn’t bothering me much. I don’t think there’s any serious damage.

I went out to replace the long bolts on my kayak carrier. The rear rack was easy to get to — I could reach it standing in the truck bed — but the front one was a different story. I had to climb up on the hood of the truck and sit against the top of the windshield. It was tougher to get down than get up. But I like the way the new bolts fit — flush with the bottom of the rest of the hardware. No worries about long bolts scratching the top of my truck.

On Monday, at 8 AM sharp, I was back at Bar S to pick up Penny. Since I knew Jim and Cyndi slept late, I figured I’d pick up Bertie and Donny, too. They climbed into the back seat of my truck while Penny sat up front. It was good to have her back.

Around midday, I decided to take a hike on the Vulture Peak trail. Vulture Peak is the landmark mountain south of Wickenburg. It’s an old volcanic core with much of the rest of the mountain eroded away. I could write more about it, but I already have; read about a 2009 hike with my wasband and his cousin here. Of course, I’ve hiked it several times since then — in fact, it was a favorite destination during my last winter season in Wickenburg. I’d lost so much weight the previous summer that I was able to reach the summit without so much huffing and puffing.

In the old days, when my Jeep was in town, I’d drive my Jeep to the trailhead at the base of the mountain. The Jeep road was narrow and very rough and I didn’t think it would be a good idea to attempt it in my big truck. So I drove to the parking area for the main trailhead. There was just one spot open in the lot, right next to a car that looked a lot like my 1987 Toyota MR-2. As I parked, I realized that it was my old Toyota.

My Old MR-2
Although I’d given this car to someone who lived in Wickenburg, I still think it’s a weird coincidence to see it parked in that parking lot on the same day I came to hike.

Back in 2011 or 2012, I’d given it to my local helicopter mechanic and he was still driving it. I ran into him and his wife on the trail. After exchanging hugs and catching up a bit, he confirmed that it still had the same clutch — I’d bought the car new 30 years ago and had learned to drive stick shift on it. That says a lot about Toyota reliability.

Penny and I hiked on the foot trail from the main trailhead to just past the one at the base of the mountain. That’s where I stopped for a break and to eat the chicken I’d picked up at the supermarket along the way. I took a lot of photos, both with my iPhone and with my Nikon D7000, which I rarely use. The Nikon had been giving me exposure problems and I was doing some tests with it. No sign of problems that day, though.

Vulture Peak Trail
The view from the foot trail between the main parking area and the trailhead at the base of Vulture Peak. No flowers, but lots of cactus.

After a rest and some water for both me and Penny, we headed back to the truck. This time, we walked on the Jeep trail I used to drive up. It’s not nearly as pleasant a walk — it doesn’t go up and down and wind around as much — but it might be slightly shorter and I was curious to see its condition. It wasn’t bad until we got near the where it comes out of the wash. On both paths in, it was too badly eroded to take a big truck through.

Vulture Peak
This shot of Vulture Peak was taken from the foot path near one of the places where the Jeep road (on the left) comes close.

We got back to the truck a little after 2 PM. Instead of heading straight back to the house, I drove out to the local airport. I was looking for a place to park the Mobile Mansion for a few days where it would be safe while unattended. I figured the fenced-in airport area was a good option. I found a spot that was out of the way and easy to get to. And there was a good chance no one would actually take notice of it there until I was ready to hitch it back up and continue my travels.

While I was there, I chatted with one of the pilots — someone I didn’t know who knew me. (I lot of people in Wickenburg know me.) I was hoping to get a bunch of the pilots together for one of their infamous afternoon cocktail hours so I could introduce recently retired airline pilot Jim. The pilot who was there suggested that we come by on a Sunday morning for coffee and donuts at the terminal — a weekly ritual that I started when I held the airport fuel manager contract in 2003-2004. (They never stopped doing it.) I’m still hoping to get an afternoon party going when I come back to town.

Kayaks on the Truck Roof
I secured both kayaks to the roof of my truck by myself. Not terribly difficult, but I’m glad I don’t have to do it every day.

Back at the house, I took it easy for a while, then went out to prep for my departure. The main thing I needed to do was get the kayaks back on the roof of my truck. I fiddled around with the roof rack a bit to fine-tune its setup, then lifted the kayaks into place, one by one, and secured them. They’re not terribly heavy, but they are awkward. And I didn’t want either one of them to fall off before I could secure them, especially with a truck door open. The whole thing went smoothly, though, and I was able to tightly secure them with the new ratchet tie-down straps I’d bought. I then trimmed about 3 feet off each strap and using Velcro ties, secured the loose ends. I’m still not 100% happy with the way the rack attached to the roof at the front of the truck, but since everything held together, I can’t complain.

I spent some time doing a load of laundry and packing my bags. The things I had with me were going to two different places: some of the things would be going back home to Washington with me later in the week while other things were going to be stored in the truck and taken back to the Mobile Mansion when I returned. I had to be careful about how I packed so I didn’t screw things up. At first, I thought I could get everything to go home into my big suitcase with my little suitcase inside it, too. When I did that and tried to lift it, I realized that it would be more than the 50 pounds allowed by the airline. So I kept the little bag separate. Because I’m an Alaska Air MVP frequent flyer, I get two bags checked free.

Jim and Cyndi made a chicken and spinach dish for dinner and then settled down to watch the Democratic town hall meeting on television. I went back down to the guest house, enjoyed the peace and quiet of a star-filled sky for a while, and then went in to finish packing.

Moving On

Penny in Bed
As usual, Penny went back to bed after her morning pee. But Tuesday morning, I had to chase her off the bed.

I woke early (as usual) the next morning, stripped the bed, and got the laundry going again. Whenever I stay at the guest house, I leave it as clean (or cleaner) than I found it. I had plenty of time to launder the sheets and make the bed, so I did. I also had coffee and breakfast in the guest house, followed by a second breakfast at 9 with Jim and Cyndi in the main house.

I packed the truck as carefully as I packed the bags that went into the truck. I wanted all the things that would go home to be together so I didn’t have to struggle to find them at my next stop.

Then it was 11:15 and time for me to head out to my next destination.

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
Valley of Fire
Death Valley
– Back to Work

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.

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
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
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.