A Weekstart Trip with the Turtleback

Or 28 hours off-the-grid.

I brought the Turtleback home on Wednesday and left it on my truck on purpose. I wanted to take it out for a short trip before I put it away.

I wanted to test it out in real off-the-grid conditions. I wanted to see how comfortable it was, how well I slept in it, how hot the water got, how loud the heater was. I wanted to cook a meal in it, wash dishes in its kitchen sink, and use the toilet in the middle of the night. I wanted to take it on a narrow gravel road and squeeze into a parking space I couldn’t dream of fitting into with its predecessor.

I’d do it locally — or relatively so. There’s a campground called Rock Island about 17 miles up Icicle Creek near Leavenworth Washington. The total driving distance is about 75 miles. One of my favorite trails, the Icicle Gorge Loop Trail, runs right past it. I thought I’d get a campsite, set up camp, and do the loop trail.

The campground page on the USFS website said Rock Island Campground got “heavy use.” I hate crowds so I didn’t want to do the trip on a weekend. I figured I’d do it on a “weekstart.” (If Friday through Sunday is the weekend, then Sunday through Tuesday should be the weekstart, no?) The way I saw it, most people left the campground on Sunday; I’d pull in on Sunday evening, get a good site, and avoid the crowds.

Heading Out

Of course, things don’t always turn out the way you want them to. I lost about two hours of my Sunday to a bee swarm call that was a total bust. (Don’t ask.) Then I spend another 30 minutes looking at new grills. By the time I got back home to pack, it was well after 4 PM. There was no way I’d have time to shower, pack, and head out before the friendly propane suppliers closed. I’d leave the first thing in the morning instead.

I was ready to go by 7:30 AM with the refrigerator packed, clothes and dog supplies loaded, and water tank topped off. I got a mile from my home before I remembered that I needed to harvest some broccoli that would flower if I didn’t and that I’d forgotten my Nikon. Twenty minutes later, I was headed out again.

I stopped at Ag Supply on North Wenatchee Avenue for propane. I asked for a “strong guy” to help me. Lots of places won’t load full propane bottles back into your truck. They’re not required to. But friendly places do. And the main drawback to the Turtleback is that the two 7-gallon propane tanks are in a cabinet about level with my head. Getting them down when they’re empty will be easy. Getting them back up there, not so much. And I had no idea how much propane was in them. I didn’t want to run out on my maiden voyage.

The kid who helped me used my stepladder to get them down and put them back. They were each about 1/2 full. I like to run one tank empty before switching to the other and refilling the empty so I always know I’ve got a full tank. These tanks have fancy gauges that I didn’t think worked. They do. They just read a little low.

The next stop was in Leavenworth: Safeway. I needed a gallon bottle of water — I don’t drink what comes out of an RV’s tank. (Ick.) And some orange juice. And an almond croissant. And a veggie platter to snack on. And bacon (which I forgot).

Once the groceries were loaded, Penny and I continued on our way with me munching a croissant. And then a donut. We drove through town and turned left onto Icicle Road. Soon we were winding up the canyon beside Icicle Creek, which was rushing madly with spring snow melt. Few cars were on the road — it wasn’t even 10 AM on that Monday morning. Pavement turned to gravel and we kept going, passing one campground after another. It was when we got to Chatter Creek Campground’s turn that I saw a pickup truck at the campground entrance. A woman was out of the truck moving a ribbon that stretched across the entrance drive. I stopped my rig and called out to her: “Is the campground closed?”

She came over and we chatted. All the Campgrounds past Johnny Creek were closed. Some biologists were checking out trees. Bark beetle was an issue. Was Rock Island closed? Yes. I pointed out that the website didn’t say the campground was closed. She had nothing to say about that. I asked her if the ranger station up the road had more information and she told me that was closed, too. But there’s some distributed camping, she said in a sort of wink-wink-nod-nod-say-no-more kind of way.

“Yeah, I’ll just find one of those sites,” I said. “This is set up for off-the-grid camping.” I thanked her and shifted into gear.

She took a step back and said, “Nice rig.”

I laughed and thanked her.

I kept driving. I took it slow. The truck handles a bit differently with the Turtleback on it. Higher center of gravity, exaggerated bumps, lots of squeaking. One of the things I’ve learned over the past few years is patience. I’m seldom in a hurry to do anything. I think it’s got to do with my relaxed lifestyle. So when I want to drive slowly, I can.

I passed one of the Icicle Gorge Loop Trail trailheads and kept going. Then I reached Rock Island Campground. It had the same red ribbons tied across its access roads with signs that said, “Closed to Public Use.” I kept going.

I stopped for a while in a parking area where I’d gone mushrooming with a friend the previous fall. Penny and I got out for a short walk in the woods. It was wet — I think it had rained that morning — and there was some flooding down on the trail. We didn’t stay long. We didn’t see any mushrooms either. Seriously: what was I thinking? It was way too early in the season for chanterelles.

We continued down the gravel road. The only thing left was a horse loading area, a horse campground, and the Icicle Creek Trail Trailhead at the very end of the road. The horse campground was closed (of course) and a pretty good water flow crossed the road just past it. Although the ford had a concrete bottom, I didn’t see any reason to drive through. I couldn’t camp at the trailhead. So I turned around and started looking at some of the side roads I’d passed.

One of them about halfway back to Rock Island Campground looked pretty good — but narrow. I parked the truck on the side of the road and got out with Penny to scout it out. I’d lost my cell signal before the pavement ended and the last thing I wanted was to get stuck on some dirt road in the middle of nowhere. Better to look on foot than explore with the truck and Turtleback.

The road was narrow with scattered potholes, many of which were deep and full of running water. Branches came low over the road. The Turtleback is at least 12 feet tall and more than 8 feet wide — it would be pushing these branches aside as I drove. But there didn’t seem to be anyplace to drive to. One by one, we passed right turns that we either short or extremely narrow paths unsuitable for my rig. We kept walking. We’d gone about 1/3 mile when I saw it: the most amazing campsite I’d ever seen. Nearly level with a mix of sun and shade, a fire pit, logs to sit on, and Icicle Creek rushing past.

Not the best video in the world, but it gives you an idea of what the road was like. If you can, watch it fullscreen.

We went back to the truck and climbed on board. I used my phone to video our 4-minute drive back to the site. You can hear the truck and camper pushing through the branches. It sounds like I’m beating the crap out of my rig, but there wasn’t any damage.

I backed into the campsite and killed the engine. Icicle Creek was about 50 feet from the camper door. I could hear the water rushing — it was about the only thing I could hear. It sounded wonderful.

My Campsite
Here’s a panoramic view of the campsite with the Turtleback parked in it.

And, of course, we were the only ones around — possibly for miles.

Setting Up Camp

There wasn’t much to setting up camp. That’s the beauty of traveling with an RV. You park it, open a slide (if you have one), and you’re good to go.

In my case, there was a bit more work. Although I’d brought linens with me, I hadn’t made the bed. So I did that. I also stowed the few items of clothing I’d brought. And the medicine cabinet items I planned to leave in there.

I’d also brought along some MatchLight charcoal, scrap lumber, and newspaper, all in a box. I put those outside beside the fire pit, along with a new grill I’d bought for cooking over the fire. I wasn’t going to “cook” — I had some smoked ribs that needed sauce and grilling to finish up before they were ready to eat. I was going to reheat them there. The only other alternative for reheating them was the convection microwave and I had no desire to run the generator.

Penny on Guard
Penny on guard duty.

I should mention that while I was doing all this, Penny was sitting outside the camper door on high alert, shivering a bit in the cool air, watching the forest around us. She’s pretty funny sometimes. She’s incredibly brave for a small dog, always running far ahead on hikes and challenging other dogs that give her the weird eye. But there in the forest, in a place completely unfamiliar to her, she stuck close to home. I suspect it was because she couldn’t hear much above the sound of the rushing creek and she was likely smelling all kinds of wildlife that could include something as exotic as bears.

As I was finishing up, I started thinking about all the things I needed to set up a good camp. Some of the things were things I already had and could leave in the camper but had neglected to pack them: folding chairs, lantern, BBQ tongs, Dutch oven, steamer basket. Other things would have to be bought or otherwise acquired: battery monitor, stiff broom, outside door mat. Of course, I didn’t have a pen and paper to write these things down. So I fetched a pen from the truck and made lists on the back of the cardboard insert that had come with the BBQ grill. I added notebook w/pen to the bottom of the list. Duh.

I’d periodically add items to this list over the next 24 hours. And two more lists: things to fix/add (outdoor shower, DC outlet near stereo) and things to modify (bedroom closet, key hooks, mattress top).

The Hike

Penny and I went for a hike right from the campsite. There were narrow trails leading up and down Icicle Creek. I picked the one heading up and we started out.

Spring runoff had streams running all over the place.

We didn’t get far before our path was blocked by a rushing stream. I didn’t want to get my feet wet and there didn’t seem to be a way to cross. But Penny was already finding another trail. I followed her up the little creek into the woods. After a while, the path turned back toward the creek and another chance at crossing. It was wider there, with strategically placed logs that looked crossable. But there was a lot of water flowing and falling in would not be good for either one of us.

Penny and I crossed the stream on this log. Her way was blocked by the log and branch lying across the larger log.

Still, before I could make a decision, Penny had already started across, jumping from one stone or patch of earth to another and pausing on a center island. I knew I could get at least that far so I followed. Before I could stop her, she began trotting down the log that went to the other side. Trouble was, there were other logs on top of that log and her way was blocked. So she tried to find another way. Worried that she’d misstep and fall into the rushing water, I inched my way across the log, stopping near where she’d found another island to stand on. I coaxed her into my grasp, picked her up, and tossed her the final four feet to the opposite shore. Then I followed, hoping we wouldn’t have to go back the same way.

Seriously, though: my dog is very brave.

Or maybe not. The trail was narrow as it wound through the woods. For a while, there were signs of horse traffic — after all, the horse trailer parking area was just up the main road. Then that disappeared as the trail got really narrow and the brush seemed to close in. Penny ran ahead, as she usually does. At one point, she stopped along the trail, sniffing the air. She growled and then barked. I looked and saw nothing.

But although my sense of smell is better than most people’s, it’s no match for a dog’s. She was smelling something I couldn’t and it was getting her riled up. What was it? Could it be a bear?

Yes, there are bears in the area. No, I’ve never seen one there. But one of the signs I’d seen earlier in the day was all about keeping a bear-safe campsite. And here we were, in a thick forest, and Penny was barking at something I couldn’t seen.

Talk about creeping me out.

I hustled her along the trail, eager to keep moving, trying to remember if I was supposed to be quiet or make a lot of noise if I encountered a bear.

Pacific Trillium, White Pacific Trillium, Pink
I did stay focused on the walk enough to take some photos of some of the flowers we saw along the way. These two look like two different colored versions of the same thing: Pacific Trillium. (Correct me if I’m wrong, please.)

After a while, the trail turned toward the road and dumped us in the horse trailer parking lot. We walked down the road as far as the ford, then turned around and followed it all the way back to the side road we’d turned down to camp. I’d had enough of the dense woods and Penny barking at things I couldn’t see.

Camp Trail
Here’s my track for the hike we took from camp. It was only 1.7 miles. You can find the stats and photos for this hike on the Gaia GPS website.


Penny in Bed
Of course I brought Penny’s bed with us.

I had a lunch of sardines with scallions on crackers — don’t knock it until you’ve tried it — and then stretched out on my bed with a book to relax. Penny couldn’t jump up on the bed so I had to lift her into place. She settled right down in her bed for a nap. Soon I was dozing off. (I’m still fighting a bit of a cold that I’ve had for over a month now and I get sleepy in the afternoon if I exert myself too much early in the day.) I found the sound of the creek soothing.

I dozed and read most of the afternoon. Outside, the sky changed from sunny to cloudy to sunny to cloudy more times than I could count. I was glad for the sun; the solar panels on the roof would keep the batteries charged. I was very eager to see whether they’d hold enough power to run the heater as necessary overnight. (The Mobile Mansion had failed me on a few nights on the previous winter’s snowbirding trip.) It was very windy, as it had been at home, but the wind was mostly up in the trees.

By 6 PM, I thought it was time to get dinner ready. The sun would sink behind the hills to the west long before the 8:30 PM sunset. So I built a fire, which took just one match on the dry paper and wood and MatchLight I’d brought along. While that burned down to coals, I got the broccoli I’d brought along ready to steam on the stove and opened a bottle of wine. I sat on the steps in the doorway, sipping wine and watching the creek rush past while Penny went on patrol, at one point barking at an invisible foe safely across the creek.

Ribs on the Grill
In hindsight, I don’t think it was worth building a fire just to heat up these ribs. Next time, I’ll bring my portable propane grill.

My new grill didn’t work as well as I’d hoped, but I made some modifications and got it to perform. That got the ribs sizzling enough to bring inside. I would have eaten outside if it had been a bit warmer, but with the sun gone behind the mountains, it chilled down quickly. I went inside and sat at the table facing the creek where I could see and hear it through the open door. Penny got two rib bones.

We didn’t stay up late. I crawled into bed before nine with my iPad and an ebook. I’d put Penny up there long before that. I killed the lights and read for a while in the dark. When my iPad fell out of my hands, I took off my reading glasses and went to sleep.

Morning in Camp

I slept pretty well. I’d set the heater to 60°F and it came on a few times during the night. It was remarkably quiet, especially compared to the one in the Mobile Mansion. I think it’s because it had a smaller blower since it had a much smaller space to heat. I was warm enough under the sheet, blanket, and comforter I’d put on the bed. But that didn’t stop me from waking between 4 and 5 AM, as I usually do.

I spent some time looking out at the stars through the big skylight over the bed.

I did a crossword puzzle on my iPad and was reading again at 5 AM when I began hearing a weird, rhythmic beeping sound. Three tones, repeated the same way, over and over. They were soft and got progressively louder and then got softer again. At 5:07, they stopped completely. Weird doesn’t begin to describe it. Eerie. I still don’t know what the sound was.

Up Icicle Creek
A morning look up Icicle Creek from my campsite.

I got out of bed around 6 AM and made coffee. I sat at the table to drink it and read some more. It was weird not being able to access the Internet to check the weather and read the news. The sun was up, touching the tops of the snow-capped peaks across the creek. But the campsite was still in shadows and would be until nearly 8 AM.

By that time, I was starting to pack up. Although there wasn’t anything preventing me from spending another day away from home, I didn’t see any reason to. The purpose of the trip had been to test out the Turtleback by actually living it in for a day. It had passed all tests with flying colors, surprising me with features I didn’t even know it had. For example, I discovered that the skylight over the bed opens and that it has two shades: one for dimming the light and one for blocking it. I discovered that the stereo has an audio in port. I discovered that the television mount enables it to pivot all the way around so it can be watched from the dining area. (Not that I could watch TV; I was really off the grid and don’t have a satellite subscription.) I discovered that the refrigerator door shelf dividers break very easily. (Oops.) I discovered that the water heater makes the water very hot. (Ouch.) I discovered that the bathroom is indeed smaller than one on an airliner and that if I was still as heavy as I was in my late married days, I might not be able to close the door. I discovered that one of the cabinet doors just doesn’t want to stay closed in transit.

I also discovered that the previous owner had left a can of Monkey Butt Powder in one of the bathroom cabinets.

So the plan was to drive around a bit to see if there were any more really good campsites and then do the Icicle Creek Gorge Trail.

Packing Up

Another nice thing about camping in an RV: packing up is very easy. I left the scrap lumber for the next camper and put the box with the MatchLight in it back into the camper. I turned off the water heater and water pump. I secured all the cabinet doors. And then I pushed the button to move the slide back in.


While I was doing this, Penny had caught sight of a squirrel and had chased it up a tree. I swear that she’d still be watching that damn rodent if I hadn’t called her away to get into the truck.

Squirrel Penny Looking at Squirrel
Penny chased this squirrel up a tree and then stared at it, trembling with anger and frustration as it taunted her with squirrel noises.

Icicle Gorge Loop Trail

Purple Trillium
More trillium, hiding beneath the fir trees.

Fairy SlipperA patch of fairy slipper.

The Icicle Gorge Loop Trail is my favorite area trail. It’s got everything going for it: sun, shade, forest, meadow, rushing streams, small waterfalls, wildflowers. The 3- 4.2-mile well-worn trail is narrow and winding, climbing up and down gentle slopes all the way. Strategically placed benches give hikers places to rest in comfort. I’ve done the trail at least three times before yesterday — once alone and twice with friends.

There was only one car in the trailhead parking lot when Penny and I arrived with the truck and Turtleback. I slipped inside without opening the slide and raided the fridge and cabinets for something to drink, some cheese packets, and an energy bar. With my fanny pack filled and secured and my camera slung over my shoulder, Penny and I started down the trail.

Yellow Flower
I have no idea what these are. They grew in a relatively clear area not far from the creek. Anyone know? Tell me in the comments for this post.

Harsh Indian Paintbrush
Harsh Indian paintbrush. I played around with bokeh — keeping a foreground item in focus while throwing the background out of focus — as much as I could.

Woodland Beardtongue
I’m pretty sure these are woodland beardtongue. They grew in patches near the creek.

Lupine were all over the place. The trick was making an interesting composition.

Mountains and Creek
Snow-capped granite peaks were visible in many places towering above Icicle Creek.

Little Waterfall
Little waterfalls like this one were visible all along the trail.

Rushing Water
In many places, giant logs in the streambed attested to the power of rushing water.

I always hike the trail clockwise. I don’t know why, but I do. Yesterday was no different.

Everything was cool and lush and green. It was early May and although it’s been warmer than usual at home, it’s still nice and cool up in the mountains. And it was just after 9 AM — a good time to take advantage of a hike like this.

Penny ran ahead, as she does, and I took my time. Although I walked briskly when I was walking, I made lots of stops to take pictures both for my Gaia track and myself. I like to photograph wildflowers and flowing water and this hike gave me plenty of opportunities. There were lots of places were tiny streams crossed the trail. I suspected that much later in the day, after the sun had done its work on the snow-capped peaks around us, there would be even more water flowing.

And it was sunny. An absolutely perfect day. Hardly any wind, blue skies with puffy white clouds.

I took a lot of pictures.

The far side of the trail showed some serious winter damage with fallen trees across the trail and one that had even crushed one side of a bridge. It would take the efforts of many workers — I assume volunteers — to get the trail back in shape for the easy-to-moderate hike audience it is intended for. I found myself doing a lot of climbing over tree trunks and picking my way around blocked area of trails. I’d look into volunteering to help on the trail, but I suspect the work is done during cherry season when I have to be near my base and reachable by phone. (I’ll make some calls later today.)

I had the Gaia GPS app running on my phone and it counted off the miles one by one in Siri’s voice. I thought the hike was three miles long and was very surprised when Siri announced “Three Miles” when we reached the Rock Island Campground at the far west end of the loop.

“It can’t be three miles,” I argued. “The whole loop is only three miles.”

“Three miles,” she repeated. Which was weird because she never counts off a mile marker more than once.

Siri was right, of course. It was 4.2 miles. I don’t know where I got the idea it was only 3 miles.

It was only 1.2 miles back to the truck. During the hike, we’d passed a pair of older women once and three young women twice — they were all walking in the opposite direction. We exchanged cheerful greetings with each meeting and everyone had something to say about Penny, who darted around in front of them as if she wanted to play. For a while on the return leg of the loop, there was a single male hiker behind me. He stopped by the river for a while and then caught up again. I stopped to let him pass. He pointedly ignored me so I said loudly, “Good morning!” He grunted a response. I honestly can’t believe how unfriendly some people can be.

I was starting to stumble about a half mile before the end of the hike. Stumbling is my body’s way of telling me I’ve hiked long enough. In the old days, when I was a very big girl, the stumbling would start after about a mile. Later, when I was very thin, I could go eight miles before the stumbling started. Now that I’m somewhere in the middle, I start stumbling after three miles. I really need to get back in shape.

Back at the trailhead, I consulted the hike information sign, still not believing the hike was more than 3 miles. But it was there on the sign: 4.2 miles. According to Gaia GPS, I’d gone 4.6 miles.

Icicle Creek Gorge Trail
Here’s my track for the Icicle Creek Gorge Trail. You can find the stats and photos for this hike on the Gaia GPS website.

Heading Home

We headed home a while later, making a stop in Leavenworth for a bratwurst sandwich and some smoked meats at Cured. (Love their buckboard bacon.) My cell phone went nuts with missed calls and text messages once it picked up a cell signal. I answered one or two but decided to wait until I got home to get to the rest. If they waited that long, they could wait a few more hours.

It was about 1:30 when I pulled into the driveway and backed the Turtleback onto the concrete pad in front of my big RV garage door.

It had been a short but important trip. It showed me just how perfect my new rig would be for travel during my off season. Whether I wanted to go away for a single night or months, the Turtleback will give me a comfortable, affordable, and convenient place to stay. It also got me fired up for future travel with the Turtleback. I’m already planning a trip to the North Cascades in August, when cherry season is over. And there’s a very good chance that it’ll be my home away from home next winter for work and play. I can’t wait!

The Turtleback

Downsizing…because I can.

One of the great things about being single — and believe me, there are lots of great things — is the fact that you simply don’t need as much living space. While two might be able to live as cheaply as one, two can never live comfortably in as little space as one. So not only can I live in a smaller home (1200 square feet vs. 2400 square feet), but I can also travel with a much smaller RV.

And travel is something I love to do. Whether for a weekend, a week, or an entire season, nothing beats hitting the road and exploring new places or revisiting old places with friends. That just wasn’t as easy as it should be when I was towing a 36-foot fifth wheel with four slides. Yes, when I parked, I was extremely comfortable, with enough living space to throw a party for a dozen friends. But getting the damn thing parked took a lot more effort than I wanted to put into it. And finding a place where it could fit wasn’t always easy.

I bought the Mobile Mansion back in 2010, after my then-husband promised he’d hit the road with me during the summer months when I came north for cherry drying. I needed enough space for two full-sized people and a mid-sized dog to live comfortably for four to six months. The Mobile Mansion was perfect for that use. Unfortunately, I wound up not needing all that space, since my husband apparently had no intention of joining me as he’d promised. In 2012, he started the wheels turning to become my wasband. (That turned out to be the best thing that happened to me in a very long time.)

I lived in the Mobile Mansion while I built my new home — so it was a very good thing I had it. It was comfortable, except during the winter months when I made other arrangements. Last summer, after moving into my new home, I used it as an AirBnB rental parked right on my driveway, getting $79/night with a two night minimum almost every weekend from July 4th through October 15. Then it went on a sale lot in East Wenatchee.

Quartzsite CampsiteThe Mobile Mansion parked in the desert near Quartzite in January 2016.

By December, I decided to spend the winter snowbirding and fetched it off the lot for a trip south. I spent a happy six weeks in Arizona, Nevada, and California, living mostly off the grid along the Colorado River with friends between stays in another friend’s guest house. Truck problems got it stuck in California for a while, but I brought it home again last month, cleaned it up again, and put it on a sale lot in North Wenatchee.

Over the winter, I’d been thinking hard about options for replacing the Mobile Mansion with something smaller and easier to travel with. My first inclination had been to go with a small — think 16 to 20 feet — bumper pull trailer. Then I happened to take a look at a truck camper for sale in Quartzsite. I struck a deal to trade the Mobile Mansion for the camper and pocket about $12,000, but I hesitated. I hadn’t wrapped my brain around the huge downsizing yet. By the time I was ready — only a week later! — the rig was gone. So I stuck with the Mobile Mansion for the rest of the winter.

But that truck camper had planted a seed. When I got home and placed the Mobile Mansion in the sale lot, I started looking for a truck camper I could live with.

My truck is huge. It’s a 1-ton diesel with 4WD, a crew cab, and a long bed. They don’t get much bigger than this and still fit in a regular garage. Because of its size, I could get a large truck camper. In fact, I sort of had to get a large truck camper.

I looked at a few dealer lots in the Tri-Cities area, then started combing Craig’s List. And that’s when I found the 2005 Lance in Moses Lake.

I went down to look at it. Moses Lake is about a 90-minute drive, although it’s only 55 miles away. The couple who owned it were the original owners and they had taken very good care of it. It was parked in an RV garage when I saw it. It was clean and it was loaded.

The Slide
The dinette and refrigerator are on the slide.

There’s plenty of storage beside the bathroom.

Want a list of features? Here are the highlights: slide for dinette and large refrigerator with separate freezer, queen sized bed, double sink, convection microwave, three-burner stove, television, satellite dish antenna, regular antenna, AM/FM stereo with CD/DVD player, landing gear with remote, two awnings, 2500 watt generator that can be started with the push of a button, tons of storage, skylight in bedroom, lots of windows, day/night shades on most windows (they’re not allowed in kitchen areas, probably due to fire hazard near stove), outdoor shower, wet bathroom (that’s where you shower in the same space as the toilet and sink), air conditioning, heat, two 7-gallon propane tanks, ladder to roof, solar panel that keeps the batteries charged. These are just the things I can think of off the top of my head. The slide is quite large — when it’s open, there’s a ton of floor space. So even if I did happen to go camping with a friend, we wouldn’t be tripping over each other.

The kitchen is small but functional.

Wet Bath
“Wet bath” means you shower in the same space as the toilet and sink.

The price was a bit more than I wanted to spend, but it was in line with Nada RV Guide pricing for a unit its age. And it was in very good condition. The couple was nice. They clearly loved the RV and had made a lot of memories in it. They were sad to sell it. But they’d just bought a fifth wheel almost as big as mine and although they thought they’d use the truck camper once in a while, they realized they wouldn’t. After a year of owning both, they’d decided to sell.

We talked money. I suggested lower price. I hate haggling but he accepted my offer. I got the feeling that they wanted to sell it to me.

I told them I needed to sleep on it and research the truck modifications I’d need to get done to get the camper fastened down on my truck. On the way home, I stopped for dinner at Cave B Winery. Before I was done, I’d decided.

It took me two weeks to get the hardware I’d need on the truck installed. In the meantime, I built a small trailer for the 100LL fuel tank that was in the back of my truck and had the tank moved to it. The tank would come in handy in Quincy, where two pilots would be working for me in June. Then more delays as I had a multi-day aerial photo gig for a favorite client in the area. Finally, with rain forecasted for Wednesday, May 4, I called the owners and made arrangements to meet with them.

The owners were just as gracious to me that day as they were when I first came to see the camper. The husband spent at least an hour with me, showing me how to hook it up and pointing out all kinds of things I’d need to know. (Of course, they had all manuals for the camper gathered up in an envelope under one of the dinette benches.) He backed the truck up under the camper, gave me a wooden rig he used as a spacer to prevent himself from backing up too far, and showed me how to retract the legs. Then we pulled it out onto his driveway and fastened it down to my truck, using fasteners he threw in at no extra charge. Then, while I was doing the paperwork with his wife, he checked my tire pressures and even added air to the airbags at the back end of my truck. Before I left, he took a picture of it — he said he wanted to show his friends the truck he’d put it on. Oddly enough, he has the same truck as me — just one year newer.

When we were all done, we parted ways and I started the long trip home.

The camper, which probably weighs about 3,000 pounds, rides well on back of my truck. I can definitely feel its weight and the higher center of gravity. But my truck gets much better mileage than when I towed the Mobile Mansion and parking it was no trouble at all.

After a stop for lunch in a neat little bistro in George, WA, and a quick trip to the supermarket, I drove over to the RV dealer where I’d left the Mobile Mansion. Way back when I first bought it, I’d replaced the mattress and I wanted to swap them out. That done, I made a stop to pick up some oil for the helicopter before heading home.

The Turtleback
The Turtleback, parked in my driveway with the slide out. And yes, it will fit in the RV garage. After all, the Mobile Mansion fit in there and this is a heck of a lot smaller.

I spent a few hours loading some of the Mobile Mansion’s gear — hoses, cords, cookware, dishes, etc. — into the new RV, which I’d christened the Turtleback on the long drive home. I still need to make the bed and store some extra linens. Most of what I needed from the Mobile Mansion fits into the Turtleback — it has a surprising amount of storage space.

At this point, I’m thinking about taking it up to the National Forest at Leavenworth for a few days on a maiden voyage. There’s a nice campground about 17 miles up Icicle Creek with a good 3-mile loop trail running through it. I’m sure it will be mostly empty mid-week. If I go, I’ll report back here.

A Craigslist/PayPal Scam

Too many people are playing this game. I played along to see what it was all about.

Last week, I re-listed my RV, the Mobile Mansion, on Craigslist. I decided I didn’t want to deal with email responses, so I listed my phone number, which happens to be for my cell phone.

Text Message
The first text message I got about the camper.

The text messages started coming almost immediately. The first wasn’t too odd — except that the person texting me wanted me to reply via email, claiming she wasn’t contacting me from her cell phone. Huh? But I didn’t want a long, drawn out email discussion. So I replied that she should call me.

I never heard back from her.

By the time the second text message arrived the next day, followed almost immediately by another one with nearly the same wording, I knew something was up. (I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.)

Here’s the one I decided to investigate. It started off pretty weird:

BUYER: Good Day,i searched on CL and saw your< 2010 Keystone Montana Mountaineer 324RLQ - $29900 (Malaga, WA) >which i highly have interest to purchase from you now kindly let me know if it’s available and in Good Conditions ?

Note the deplorable English. It reeked of scam. I played along:

ME: It’s still available. It’s in very good condition. If you want to discuss it, call me.

The response came nearly 12 hours later at 10:11 PM:

BUYER: Sound excellently to me I am from Yakima WA how i wish to come over and view it in person but am currently out of town right now.I work as a Marine Engineer busy sailing on ship right now in U.S naval base.I’m really satisfied with the conditions about it,please kindly text me your actual price that you’re selling it for me ??

Yeah. He’s sailing on a ship in a U.S. naval base. I believe that. I decided to stick to my asking price, figuring that a real person would try to bargain:

ME: $29,900

If there was any lingering doubt about this being a scam, it disappeared with his response:

SCAMMER: Okay i have agree with the price of $29,900 and would have love to pay you via cash but am not around at the moment and i have no one to send to you that’s why i choose Paypal cos its safe,reliable and guarantee transaction safety of funds…so I will want you to get back to me asap with your Paypal email address so that i can proceed with the payment and you will be notify by the Paypal customer care immediately the payment is made and My Mover will be there to pick up and sign all necessary papers as soon as I make the payment …thanks for your consideration.Await your Response

So this guy is supposedly going to send me $29,900 via PayPal and “PayPal Customer Care” will notify me when the payment arrives. Without any paperwork. I don’t even have a name for the guy. I decided to see how far I could string him along.

ME: Don’t you want to see it?

Apparently not.

SCAMMER: In order to enable me to proceed with the payment could you please provide me with the following information below :
Your Full Name:
PayPal Email address:
once i receive the details i will go ahead with the payment and then i will contact my shipping agent for pick up
am okay with it that is why the pickup agent company will contact you for the pick up after payment is made and cleared and take care of the necessary paperwork for the registration after you get the payment. I will need your home address for the Picked

I should mention here that his text messages appeared in 160-character max segments that didn’t always arrive in the correct order. I had to jumble them around to figure out what he was saying. I’m not even sure I got the above quote right.

ME: I think you should see it first. Or do you trust your shipper to inspect it for you?

I heard nothing for nearly 24 hours and figured that he’d realized I knew I was being scammed. I decided to poke him a bit:

ME: I have another person interested but only offering $28,000. Do you still want it? I haven’t heard from you.

Eight hours later, he replied:

SCAMMER: are u there
i am interested have been wating for you to get back to me with your paypal email address and your full name so i can go ahead to make the payment

I made him wait two hours before replying:

ME: I’m not comfortable selling to you sight unseen. I am willing to deliver to you at no cost.
You can give me a deposit on PayPal and pay the rest in cash when I deliver.

A real buyer would be an idiot to turn down an offer like that. But he wasn’t really interested in buying. He just wanted my name and email address to continue his scam.

SCAMMER: PayPal is one of the best ways to make a payment online simply because it’s fast, easy, secure and reliable.

ME: Not as reliable as cash.
And I’m willing to deliver for free. That’ll save you a lot of money!

He replied 28 hours later:

SCAMMER: dont worry about that am okay with it and dis is not my first using them okay
all you do is to get back to me with your paypal email address and your full name so i can go ahead to make the payment right away thanks ‘

At this point, I knew I wasn’t going to get any farther with him unless I gave him what he wanted. But I also wanted to see what he’d say when I insisted on a deposit and cash on delivery. I waited until the next morning before I replied with a fake name and a throwaway email address:

ME: Send me a $2000 deposit. I’ll deliver it to you or someone you designate to accept it. He can inspect it and give me $27,000 cash. Maria Sarducci, zip98828@gmail.com. Be sure to send me delivery info.

Sarducci? Like Father Guido?

Text 2
What idiot would actually believe this message came from PayPal?

Less than an hour later, the next part of his plot arrived in the form of another text message from a toll-free number. I have to say that I wasn’t surprised. I expected to hear from “PayPal,” although I did expect it to arrive as an email message. I also expected the message to include a link which I had no intention of clicking.

The way I saw it, the link could do one or both of two things:

  • It could run an app that somehow installed malware on my computer. That malware could do any number of things that would make me unhappy.
  • It could take me to a page that looked like a real PayPal page and prompt me to enter my PayPal user ID and password. They’d then have access to my PayPal account, which could be catastrophic — if I had a PayPal account with that address.

So the scammer had played his hand: a link supposedly from PayPal that I was supposed to click to get my money. How many people fall for this crap every day? I bet it’s quite a few — over the past week I received text messages from five different phone numbers that were likely going to lead me thought this same script. It must work if they keep doing it.

I decided to pretend I’d never gotten the text message from “PayPal.” I waited until that afternoon and sent another message:

ME: Did you send the $2000 deposit? That other buyer called. If I don’t get the deposit by tomorrow, I’ll have to sell to him.

This morning, I added:

ME: Hello? I’m still waiting for the deposit. You seemed so anxious to buy. What are you waiting for now?

I don’t really expect a response. I suspect he’ll either give up. But if he does respond, it’ll likely be to draw my attention to the text message from PayPal. If he does respond, I’ll tell him I haven’t seen any money come into my account. That should chase him off.

But I don’t expect to hear from him at all again. I suspect he’s got a few suckers on the line — or people like me who are playing him for fun — to keep him busy.

Why did I blog this? I just want people to understand that there are scammers out there and they will rip you off if you’re not aware of the possibility of a scam. When someone texts you and agrees to pay full price for an expensive item you’ve listed online, sight unseen, alarm bells should ring.

This isn’t the first time someone tried to scam me when I was selling a high-priced item. I’d listed my old R22 helicopter for $110K back in 2004 when a scammer tried to con me. You can read about that here.

Don’t be an idiot. If it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.

April 19 Update: I got another message from a different toll-free number this morning. Actually, two identical messages arriving about 30 seconds apart:

You have 2 new messages for 2010 Keystone Montana Mountaineer 324RLQ Fifth Wheel : 15096998044.accmobusr.com/clrv1

Same domain, different link. In the meantime, I wrote back to the scammer:

ME: I’m still waiting to hear from you. The money did not arrive in my PayPal account. If you’re not interested anymore, kindly have the courtesy to tell me.

Again, I don’t expect a response. But if I get one, I’ll update this blog post.

Snowbirding 2016: Death Valley

I finally make a trip I’d postponed for four years.

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

I need to start this account with some back story to put it into perspective. If you’re tired of reading about my old life, skip the following section and start reading at The Drive.

The Back Story

One of the things that bothered me most in the last years of my marriage was the fact that my husband’s 9 to 5 job and his insistence on living in a condo in the Phoenix area instead of our Wickenburg house made it very difficult for us to have any fun together. Although my time was extremely flexible — I was still in my declining writing career and didn’t do much flying when I wasn’t away for my summer job — his wasn’t. He worked every weekday. Even when I moved into the condo with him that last winter we were together, we seldom did anything during the week. Dinner and a movie gets old after a while, but not nearly as old as watching him channel surf every evening we didn’t go out. On weekends, he insisted on making the 90-minute drive back to Wickenburg on Friday afternoon, returning with a 90-minute drive back to Phoenix on Sunday evening or Monday morning. I tagged along when I could, but the irony of our work schedules was that I was more likely to fly on weekends than weekdays. Besides, on weekends he’d spend a lot of time catching up on car shows he’d DVRed from Dish Network. Doing something “different” meant taking the same old motorcycle ride up to Prescott. He wouldn’t take his plane out unless the weather was perfect and forecasted to be perfect until after his return.

To make matters worse, he was nearly constantly in a foul mood. His job — like the others in Phoenix before it — had become a dead end, with an unpleasant work environment and a micro-managing boss who made it difficult for him to make the sales he needed to earn a better living. He was struggling financially to not only cover the high cost of the condo he refused to sell, but the loan on his Mercedes, expenses for a plane he seldom flew, his other living expenses, and his regular contributions to his niece’s education, which had entered the PhD candidate phase. He couldn’t see how his debt and expenses had made him a slave to his job. He was never happy and he seemed to take it out on me, accusing me of being the reason “we had no friends,” and complaining when I preferred reading or doing crossword puzzles over spending another frustrating evening in front of the television while he channel surfed.

When that job came to an end in early February and he seemed to have another job lined up behind it, I pushed hard for us to go away for a five-day trip to Death Valley. We’d take the Mobile Mansion, set up camp at one of the park’s campgrounds, and take our cameras out to explore Death Valley. February was the time of year when the wildflowers started blooming. Our previous trip together to Death Valley — way back in the 1980s — had been limited by the rental car we’d had; we’d be able to go a lot farther off the beaten track in a 4WD truck.

I saw the trip as an opportunity to leave troubles behind, to remember the other great trips we’d had together, to go back — at least mentally — to a better time when our relationship was better and our love for each other was stronger. I hoped it would recharge our relationship and bring us closer together again.

Unfortunately, the trip was not to be. His mother was in town — as she was every winter for a month or two — and although we’d put her in a great two-bedroom home that was part of an assisted living community in town, she was at our house every single day and long into the night. For some reason — fear, perhaps? — he didn’t tell her about our upcoming trip. As the days to departure ticked down, I kept waiting for him to tell her. Surely she could live without us for five lousy days.

Lucy the Pug
Lucy, the toothless pug, basking in the morning sun at our Colorado River backwaters campsite. She survived that February 2012 night in the desert by hiding under a neighbor’s porch.

And then the day before we were supposed to leave — the day we should have been packing — he let our dog and my friend Janet’s dog out and later let our dog in without remarking on the absence of the little toothless pug. It was hours before I realized that she was gone, lost in the desert. After spending the entire day looking for her and feeling nearly as heartbroken as Janet about her loss, I snapped. I told him I’d had enough of him and cancelled the trip. The next day, I went down to Phoenix to work on a book in the office I’d ironically moved there to be closer to him.

I cooled down after a week or two and agreed to go with him to a marriage counsellor. And although I thought things were on the mend and looked forward to him starting yet another job that would give him more free time, he apparently had other ideas. When I left in May for my summer job in Washington, he signed up at Chemistry.com. A month later, he was sleeping with the desperate old whore who convinced him to dump me — after a 29-year relationship — and go after my money. He even told the judge at the first hearing that I had abandoned him. (WTF?) You can read about the rest elsewhere in this blog.

Anyway, that’s the back story. I’ve been wanting to visit Death Valley for the spring wildflowers for at least four years. This year, I finally got a chance to make that happen.

(Funny how much I can make happen without a sad sack old man holding me back.)

The Drive

It wasn’t an uneventful drive.

I left Valley of Fire around 10:30 AM and got on I-15, heading southwest. I was just settling in for the three-hour drive with the cruise control locked in at the highway speed of 65 MPH when I felt a weird vibration in the truck. I got into the right lane and killed the cruise control about the same time the right rear tire on the truck blew.

I’d always wondered what it felt like to have blowout at highway speed when towing a 15,000 pound trailer. Now I know.

Flat Tire

I kept control of the truck and managed to bring it to a stop within about 1,000 feet on the narrow shoulder of a very long overpass. Because highway traffic was just three feet away from my door, I lifted the center console and slid across the seat to get out on the shoulder side. The tread on the tire was nearly completely gone. Moving forward to get off the overpass was not an option unless I didn’t mind destroying the rim. The tire would have to be changed right where I was.

For the second time in less than two months, I called AAA.

Mud Flap and Tire
My damaged mud flap, sitting up on the guardrail with a big hunk of tire tread on the shoulder beside it.

While I waited, I walked back along the highway. I recovered a big chunk of the tire, but more importantly, I also recovered the mudflap that had been torn off when the tire blew. I brought them back to the truck and threw the mudflap into the bed.

A flatbed tow truck arrived an hour later. A guy came out and set about lifting my truck’s rear end with a hydraulic jack and lowering the spare tire fastened under the truck bed. In just a few minutes, the tire was changed. Of course, the spare’s pressure was low, but that wasn’t a problem. The truck had a compressor and the tire was soon inflated and I was ready to go.

Honestly, anyone who travels — especially alone — really should have roadside assistance like AAA. This was the second time it helped me on this trip. And yes, I probably could have changed the tire. But it likely would have taken me hours to do it and the tire pressure still would have been low. I got the job done without getting dirty for the cost of a $20 tip.

While I’d been waiting, I’d been working the phones. I called Discount Tire in northwest Las Vegas — a location that was along my route to Death Valley — and arranged for a set of replacement tires. In all honesty, I never did like the off-road tires that had come with the truck. I just hoped I’d get a year out of them. I obviously wasn’t going to. Best to just replace them all now with an all-terrain tire that was better able to handle the weight I was towing. I wound up with a set of four Toyo Open Country tires. Even with a $100 rebate, it was quite a chunk of change. With luck, however, I won’t have to replace them for at least 5 years.

So my next stop was the Discount Tire location I’d called. There was a long line inside. I was told it might be two hours. I secured my place in line, paid for the tires, and then pulled my rig into an empty lot next door. I disconnected the Mobile Mansion, topped off the truck’s tank with diesel, and parked it back in the lot. Then Penny and I went into the RV and had lunch.

That’s one of the nice things about traveling with a house. The fridge and bathroom are always handy.

It was about 3:30 PM by the time the new tires were on and I’d hooked up the Mobile Mansion again. Sunset was two hours away and it didn’t look as if I’d get to Furnace Creek by then. But I put the pedal to the metal and drove. I got on Route 95 and followed that to Amargosa Valley. Then south on route 373 to Death Valley Junction. Finally 190 west to Furnace Creek. There wasn’t much traffic at all and I was able to do (at least) the speed limit all the way. The new tires felt great — and were amazingly quiet compared to the old ones.

Route to Death Valley
I took the highlighted (blue) route from Valley of Fire to Death Valley.

On the descent down to the valley, the sky to the west, which was full of high, light clouds, turned brilliant pink and orange and then violet. It was probably the best sunset of the trip.

It was nearly dark when I pulled to the curb across from the office for Furnace Creek lodging. I checked in for the campsite I’d have for the next two nights. Then I walked back to the truck and drove it the final half mile to the campground. It was a back-in site between a giant luxury motorhome and some tent campers. I’d never parked the Mobile Mansion at night, but it wasn’t as if I could wait until morning. I set out a lantern on the driver’s side at the back of the site and a flashlight on the driver’s side in the front. And then, with a little guidance from the tent campers, I backed it in.

Got it on the first try. Sometimes I really surprise myself.

Setting up camp was easy because the site was level and there were no hookups. I disconnected the Mobile Mansion from the truck and put out the slides. Done.

The only drawback: that luxury motorhome had a generator running and it was loud. (What is it with these people?) Fortunately, they shut it off at 7 PM sharp.

Dawn at the Dunes

Although I’d hoped to get some exploring in on the afternoon when I arrived, arriving in the dark made that impossible. So I started my explorations early the next morning after a quick breakfast. Penny and I climbed aboard the truck before dawn and headed north toward Stovepipe Wells. I had the idea of photographing the dunes near there around sunrise. Unfortunately, so did a bunch of other people. When I arrived, the parking lot was half full and there were people all over the dunes. Getting a shot without a bunch of footprints or a tourist in it was not likely.

So I backtracked down the road and parked on the shoulder. I climbed into the back of the truck with my tripod and camera and framed a few shots using my 85-300 telephoto zoom lens. The focal length compressed the perspective, as I suspected it would, bringing the distant mountain tops closer. I got a few shots I liked before climbing back into the truck to continue on my way.

Death Valley Dunes
Not long after sunrise along the road between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley.

On the Road to Skidoo

Death Valley Map
I highly recommend this map, which is available from Amazon.

And here’s where I made my mistake. Back in January, I’d had lunch with my friend Rebecca, who had been to Death Valley earlier in the year. She’s showed me some locations on a National Geographic map that I bought and had shipped out to me when I was staying at the Colorado River backwaters south of Ehrenberg. I’d studied the map and had decided to try finding a set of dunes to the west of Ubehebe Crater in the north part of the park. But I guess I hadn’t “studied” the map enough — for some reason, I thought the road through Stovepipe Wells was the right road. It wasn’t until I was at Emigrant Campground that realized something wasn’t quite right and pulled over to check where I was going. I’d gone about 40 miles the wrong way.

Pro tip: Maps can only help you when you use them. Duh. (I should have grabbed one of these maps at the Visitor Center. It’s not as detailed as what I had, but it’s easier to manage in the truck.)

So I came up with a Plan B: explore the west side of the park up Emigrant Canyon Road. The map showed two interesting townsites: Skidoo and Harrisburg. I like wandering around ghost towns and figured I’d check them out.

I headed south on Emigrant Canyon Road, climbing ever higher into the mountains on the west side of the park. Outside, the air was cooler — in the low 40s, according to the truck’s outside air temperature gauge. But it was clear and I knew it would warm up. I found the sign to Skidoo and turned left onto a nicely maintained gravel road. Ahead of me, in the near distance, were two white SUVs and a white pickup truck. Soon, I caught up with them and was driving in their dust. When I saw an old cabin on a short road off to my left, I turned and used it as an excuse to let some miles get between us.

Abandoned Shack
One of the neatest abandoned buildings I’ve ever come upon.

The cabin wasn’t anything interesting other than the fact that it was in remarkably good condition and would still make a very usable shelter. That in itself was remarkable: most unused buildings in this country — especially those in remote places — are targets for vandals who destroy for the pure satisfaction of destruction. There were no signs to keep out so I did what any explorer would do: I opened the screen door and wooden door inside it for a peek. I found an old spring bed frame and some litter inside. No smashed beer bottles, no graffiti, no vandal debris. I carefully closed both doors up the way I found them.

Door Light
I don’t know why, but I like this image.

In general, the place wasn’t very photogenic. The most interesting shot I got was through a hole in the boards covering the back window: the light shining through cracks on the door. It was the cleanest abandoned building I’d every seen. I hope it stays that way forever.

Mine Shaft and Truck
Yes, I do realize that I probably looked pretty silly driving around Death Valley with two kayaks on my roof.

Penny and I got back into the truck and crossed the road. Soon we were climbing up a hill to an old mine site on the opposite hillside from the cabin. I left Penny in the truck — I don’t like to worry about her falling into mine shafts — and explored on my own. There wasn’t much there that I hadn’t already seen before at countless mine sites in Arizona and Nevada: the support structure beside the main shaft, several smaller horizontal mine shafts going into the hillside, and the remnants of old buildings. The site was neat and clean. Thinking back on this, I have to wonder if the park service or volunteers clean these places up. Or if vandals simply avoid National Parks.

We got back on the road and continued the drive to Skidoo. In most places, the road was wide with gentle curves and a bit of washboarding. In other places it was narrow and rocky as it wound along the edge of a steep drop-off. I passed the ruins of another building on my left and decided to explore it on the way back. I was eager to see Skidoo and wanted to be there before the sun had risen much farther.

Skidoo Sign
Here’s the sign that tells you you’ve arrived at Skidoo. At the top is a quote: “Here the golden goddess is again singing her siren song of enchantment and California is again beckoning the world with a finger of gold: the world is listening, and coming — TO SKIDOO!” Apparently, the Rhyolite Herald was pretty good at dishing out bullshit back in 1907. All I could think about was where did they get their water?

When I got there, I didn’t even know I was there. It was just a flat area among the hills with lots of dirt roads going off into different directions. I drove up to an interpretive sign set alongside a turnoff in the road that announced I’d reached my destination. Wikipedia calls Skidoo a “virtual ghost town” but I don’t see any “virtual” or “town” about it. There’s really nothing of the town left other than foundation rubble and broken glass.

I’ve been doing some video journalling lately and apparently made one from the top of the hill. I didn’t turn toward the sun, probably because I knew the video in that direction would be crappy. I sound nasal because I was fighting a cold and I’m not sure if the snowcapped mountains are the Sierras.

I saw a road going up a steep hillside and decided to check it out. It would be a good test of my new tires. I drove over to the bottom of the hill, popped the truck into 4WD and started a steep climb. There was plenty of room at the top to park and (fortunately) to turn around. So I parked, shut the engine, and climbed out with Penny for a good look. From my vantage point, I could clearly see where the town had been (despite there being no real traces of it), as well as several mine shafts with towers. The two SUVs and pickup truck I’d seen earlier in the day were parked by one of the mines far below me. Off to the northwest, I could see snowcapped peaks.

At Skidoo
I could see the white trucks and the men who had been in them near a mine site across the ravine from my observation point. A photo shot with my 300 mm lens revealed the Noreas logos on the SUVs. One of the men was dressed as a ranger and had likely come in the unmarked pickup with the big antenna on the roof.

Mine Site with Truck
There wasn’t much left of the truck and what was left was half-buried in mine tailings.

I turned the truck around and headed back, realizing that the road looked a lot steeper from the top than it had from the bottom. I took it slow in 4WD low gear. Then I found my way to another mine site I’d seen from the top of that hill, parked off the road, and got out for a look, again leaving Penny in the truck. What interested me most about this site was the wrecked truck there. For some reason, I like to photograph abandoned vehicles so I really spent quite a bit of time on this one.

Rusty Car Door Wood Planks
I like the textures you can find among old, ruined things: a rusty car door, a wall made out of wood planks.

By then I was pretty sick of Skidoo and ready to skiddoo. (Sorry, but I couldn’t resist that one.) I turned the truck around again and retraced my route back to pavement eight miles away. I did stop along the way to visit that other abandoned building, but there wasn’t much there of interest so I didn’t stay long. Not even worth sharing a photo of it.

Harrisburg / Aguereberry Camp

Back at Emigrant Canyon Road, I had to make a decision: go back into Death Valley and explore elsewhere or continue on my way. I decided to go a little farther down the road to see if anything else was interesting. That’s how I wound up taking the turn to see the ghost town of Harrisburg, which was partially visible from the paved road.

I drove about a mile or two down the unpaved Aguereberry Point Road and parked with two other vehicles in a tiny parking area in front of a closed gate. The folks from the other vehicles were just leaving their cars and walking toward the ruins about a quarter mile away. They had a dog with them, too, so Penny and I hung back to give them space. I’d later discover that they were part of a group of three, two of which were in period costumes for a photo shoot. We were the only people there.

Through the Wall
A look through the wall of Pete Aguereberry’s old house.

Although maps identify this spot as Harrisburg, a sign at the ruins called it Aguereberry Camp. The main site consisted of three buildings, an outhouse, and the remains of a mine. Farther up the road I’d walked was the ruins of an old Roadmaster sedan and still farther were the ruins of the Eureka Mine, which I did not visit. (There are only so many mine shafts a person can see in a day.) While the photo shoot folks were working around the car, I explored the buildings. They were in disrepair and vandalized, just as I’d come to expect of ruins, but not nearly as bad as I’d seen at other vandalized sites.

From there, Penny and I hiked another 1/8 mile or so to the old car, passing the photo shoot folks on their way back. The car made a remarkably interesting subject for photography — at least in my mind. The original color, teal (?), could still be seen among the rusty patches. Even the logo of the car was visible in one spot — which is how I knew it was a Roadmaster. I took quite a few shots, many of which featured Aguereberry Camp’s buildings in the background. I even got to play a bit with my 10-24 mm lens, which I seldom use these days.

A wide angle (16 mm or 24mm full frame) shot of the car with Aguereberry Camp in the background.

Wide Angle Car
A very wide angle (10 mm or 15 mm full frame) shot of the car with the buildings visible through the windshield.

We walked back to the building a while later and spent some time chatting with the photo shoot folks. The two models — a man and a woman — had changed back into regular clothes. They were all sitting in the shade, snacking on peanut butter and apples and other tasty treats. They offered me some, but I declined. We talked about Death Valley and photography and they urged me to continue up Aguereberry Point road to the point. “The view is amazing,” the photographer assured me.

Aguereberry Point

Although I felt as if I’d had enough driving along bumpy back roads for the day, I’m not one to pass up a view — especially one that isn’t crowded with tourists. So when I left the photo shoot folks, I continued along the road.

Aguereberry Point was only about six miles from pavement, but much of the road was very narrow for most of the way. There was a section that it wound through a narrow canyon that I could imagine being treacherous in a rainstorm. Then it came out onto a hillside and continued climbing out in the open. Up and up and up, finally ending in a small parking lot that looked as if it were at the top of the world. Penny and I were the only ones there.

The view was good from the parking lot, but the photographer had advised me to take the trail to the point. After walking (and climbing) a bit on the wrong trail, I got on the right one and followed it as far as I could go. The view of Death Valley was unobstructed to the northeast and southeast, with a mountain due east that blocked the view that way. At an elevation of 6,433 feet, we were at least that high above the valley floor, much of which is below sea level. It was dead quiet.

Photos really can’t convey the full picture of what this place is like, but here’s a panoramic image to give you an idea. Was it worth the drive? Hell yes.

Aguereberry Point Panorama
Here’s a panorama taken at the point. Click the image for a larger version that you can scroll to see details.

Ravens like dog food. Who knew?

I walked back to the car and put out some food and water for Penny. A young couple drove up and parked next to the truck. As they donned backpacks, we chatted about places to visit in the park. I had nothing to offer except a recommendation to skip the drive to Skidoo. They told me that the wildflowers were amazing down near Ashford Canyon, where they’d camped overnight. Then they were off down the trail, leaving me to chase off the ravens that were eating Penny’s food.

On the Trail of Wildflowers

This video was released by the park service less than a week before my visit. Watch it full-screen.

From there, I retraced our route back to pavement and, from there, back down into Death Valley. We passed through Stovepipe Wells and headed toward Furnace Creek. That’s when I noticed the wildflowers I’d missed that morning on my predawn drive. The roadsides were full of them. I didn’t realize it, but Death Valley was heading for a once-a-decade “super bloom.”

I thought there were a lot of flowers here, north of Furnace Creek. But this was nothing compared to what was about 50 miles down the road.

After a brief stop to check out the desert pupfish at Salt Creek, I continued past Furnace Creek on Badwater Road. I was back among the tourist crowd, with lots of cars and buses along the way, especially at Badwater, which is the lowest point in the U.S. at 282 feet below sea level. There were lots of people walking out on the salt flats there, but I didn’t bother to stop. I was aiming for Ashford Canyon, where the young backpackers had said there were so many flowers. The further south I got, however, the more flowers there were. People were parked alongside the road where the flowers were thickest, taking photos and walking among the bright yellow blooms. I couldn’t resist a few stops myself, although I knew I’d get better shots when the sun was lower in the sky.

Death Valley Flowers
The light wasn’t as good as it could have been, but I couldn’t resist stopping for a few photos along the way to Ashford Canyon.

I was also surprised to see standing water in various places alongside the road. I’d heard that there had been a lot of rain in Death Valley that fall, but I’d assumed the water had run off or seeped into the ground. Instead, there were a few dry lake beds that weren’t exactly dry. Some were almost swampy. Although I hoped for an opportunity to get some good reflection shots, conditions were unfavorable; a breeze put just enough ripples on the water surface to break up any good reflections.

Flowers at Ashford Mills
Desert gold wildflowers at Ashford Mills.

I arrived at the remains of Ashford Mills after 4:30 PM. The same big yellow flowers — appropriately named “desert gold” — I’d been seeing along the way were scattered all around the ruins. I wandered around the ruins and took photos while Penny sniffed here and there. It was amazing to see hills in the distance yellow with blooms.

Death Valley Flowers

Death Valley Flowers

Death Valley Flowers

Death Valley Flowers

Death Valley Flowers
Here are several close-up shots of some of the smaller flowers I spotted while wandering around.

There were also some smaller flowers that were less obvious and required careful attention to spot. I did a lot of crawling around with my 16-85 mm lens — I don’t have a macro lens — to get close-up images of them. The group of four people sitting out at a picnic table near the parking lot, eating a late lunch or early dinner, must have thought I was nuts. I was really getting into it.

The turn for Ashford Canyon was right across the road from the road to Ashford Mills. It was a narrow two-track road that wound up a hillside and then into the canyon. The young backpackers had said the flowers were good up there, but as I began the slow bumpy drive I began wondering whether they meant that the flowers were good in that general area. They certainly were amazing. I drove for about a mile when I realized it wasn’t going to get any better than what I was already seeing. I found a place to turn around and started back.

By this time, the sun was sinking quite low. Mountains on the west side of the park would make sunset a lot earlier than I expected after consulting Siri that morning. (Ask Siri what time sunrise or sunset is and she’ll tell you and provide a weather report.) I wanted to head back for a late afternoon shot of a particularly flower-filled area along the road. So I headed back toward Badwater and Furnace Creek. I reached the location I was thinking of just as the light was getting very good and got out to take a few photos.

Death Valley Flowers
The carpet of yellow flowers is a stark contrast to the bare rock walls on either side of Death Valley.

Leaving the Valley

By the time I was ready to go back, the hillsides were in shadow. It was dusk when I pulled up to the Mobile Mansion.

If you’re wondering why I bothered to give you the backstory at the beginning of this post it’s because of this: While I drove and hiked around and explored and photographed Death Valley with my dog, I spent a lot of time thinking of what the trip might have been like four years earlier with the man I thought was my life partner. With five days to spend in the park, we would have seen a lot more. But would the trip together have gone as smoothly as I’d hoped? Or would he have been stressing about his mother left behind? And would the trip have been a repeat of all those amazing road trips we’d taken together in the 1980s and 1990s? Or would we have bickered over every little thing we did?

I know now, in my heart, that our relationship was like the walking dead — existing with no life, no future. In February of 2012, I wanted to go back to the way things were when our relationship was good and strong, when we were two people of one mind who shared ideas and dreams. But he had already given up and was just biding his time, waiting for his escape. I loved and trusted him too much to see the truth about what he’d become: a bitter old man, blaming me for his failures in life, eager to take revenge on imagined offenses.

Although my trip had been short — too short, I think! — it had been taken on my terms, without pressure or a need to compromise. I’ve been traveling alone since long before my 19-day “midlife crisis road trip” back in 2005. While it’s nice to travel with a companion, good travel companions are hard to come by. I lost mine years ago, many years before my divorce. While I’m sad that he’s gone, there’s no denying how much better off I am without him.

Although I’d considered doing a little early morning photography the next day, I realized that the locations I wanted to visit were too far away to get there and back and still leave the park by 10 AM. It would be better to come back another time, when I had more time to spend. My next stop was in the Sacramento area of California, where I’d be based with the helicopter for a frost contract. It was a six-hour drive and I looked forward to seeing a few friends when I arrived. Wednesday would be my travel day and Thursday would be a day to kick back and relax before taking Alaska Air home to fetch the helicopter.

To minimize the noise I’d make on departure the next morning — keeping in mind that my tent-dwelling neighbors would hear every sound I made — I decided to hook up the Mobile Mansion that evening. So I cranked down the landing gear, backed the truck into place, and lowered the front end of the Mobile Mansion onto the hitch. Within a few minutes, the chains and power plug were in place and the landing gear was up and locked. All I had to do in the morning when I was ready to go was to close up the slides.

I had a nice salad for dinner. I tried hard to ignore the sound of the generator next door. I don’t understand how I can camp day after day in my rig without running a generator when these people in their fancy motorhomes can’t seem to spend any time in theirs without their generator running full-time. Fortunately, they turned it off at 7 PM sharp.

After dinner and a quick clean up, I relaxed in bed with a book. Penny curled up in her bed beside me. I was dead asleep by 9 PM.

In the morning, we were on the road by 7 AM, heading west on the road past Stovepipe Wells toward Panamint Springs. That drive didn’t go anywhere near as planned — but that’s another story.

Snowbirding 2016: Valley of Fire

A short overnight visit to a geologically interesting place.

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

When I left Wickenburg that Sunday morning, I was technically on my way to my late winter job in the Sacramento area of California. Indeed, I had to be in Sacramento to catch a 6:40 AM flight home on Friday to fetch my helicopter. But I’d planned the drive with enough time to make two stops along the way. The first was Valley of Fire State Park near Overton, NV.

Valley of Fire gets its name from the vibrant red rocks that jut out of the desert floor in this area of Nevada. It’s full of scenic overlooks, easy to difficult hiking trails, and plenty of interesting sandstone formations. In the right light, it’s quite photogenic. It’s also easy to visit. Only 50 miles from Las Vegas, it gets quite a few visitors on weekends — as I soon found out.

Camping with the Mobile Mansion

When I planned the trip, I didn’t realize it was a holiday weekend — since when is President’s Day right after Valentine’s Day? — and had half expected to be able to slide into a campsite inside the park that Sunday afternoon when weekenders left. I’d also been assured by a friend who’d been there weeks before that if all the campsites were taken, I could park my rig in “overflow parking.”

Wrong on both counts.

When I arrived in early afternoon after a long but pleasant drive up Route 93 from Wickenburg, the weekenders weren’t quite through with their weekends and the first come, first served campgrounds were marked “Full.” I managed to park my rig along the curb in a completely full Visitor Center parking lot and went in to talk to a ranger. She confirmed what I’d already learned on the Self-Pay Station signs: camping in designated sites only. But she was extremely helpful, offering suggestions for camping on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land west of the park or Bureau of Reclamation land east of the park.

Since the Reclamation land was closer, I soon found myself backtracking out the park entrance I’d come in and then turning north along the main road there. In a few miles, I found the gravel road I thought she’d referred to and made a right onto it. I could see a few other campers out there, quite far from the road. Since I wasn’t interested in exploring with the mobile mansion behind me — it’s seriously difficult to turn that sucker around in a narrow space — I opted for the first “pull through” spot I could find: a narrow road that climbed up a hill with a relatively level spot on top. I approached it from the east after turning around in a wide area and parked with the Mobile Mansion’s big back window facing out toward the lake. When I got it level enough that I didn’t have to worry about it rolling back down the hill, I dropped the landing gear and disconnected it from my truck. Then I put out the slides, gave Penny some food and water, locked it back up with Penny inside, and headed back into the park.

Another free campsite, courtesy of our government.

I later discovered that the location the ranger had referred to was about a half mile farther down the road where there were literally dozens of RVs, some of which were even bigger than mine, parked. I was glad that I wasn’t among them, though — I know half of them would be running generators past dark; likely watching satellite TV instead of the stars. There was no one within a quarter mile of my site and the closest campers were in tents. I had no intention of ruining their quiet evening with my generator so it was all good.

Afternoon Photo Shoot

Closer Look at Valley of Fire
Want to learn more about what’s photogenic in the park? Start with this €4 ebook.

It was nearly 4 PM and the sun was low in the west when I got back into the park. I took the road north from the Visitor Center. I was very interested in hiking out to a formation called the Fire Wave, which was best viewed in the afternoon. My photographer friend Rebecca, who had been to the park recently, had recommended an ebook about the park: A Closer Look at Valley of Fire by Isabel & Steffen Synnatschke. That’s where I learned about the Fire Wave, which is pictured on the cover, and it was exactly the kind of scenery I like to shoot.

Of course, what had been described in the book as something off the beaten path had since gotten its own marked path. The parking lot there was completely full and there were people all over the place. Even if I could have parked, I doubted I could get the kind of scenery-only photos I wanted. On top of that was the authors’ note that the scene was best shot just after sunset and numerous signs that warned that anyone out on the trails after sunset was trespassing. So it seemed to me that a walk down to the Fire Wave that afternoon would be a frustrating waste of time.

I continued out to the end of the road, finding every single parking area completely full with day trippers who were out of their cars and climbing all over the rocks. While it’s nice to see families enjoying the outdoors together, I really wish I’d come on a weekday when it would likely be a lot less crowded. I turned around at the end of the road and headed back.

Red Rocks
I spent an hour shooting various rock outcroppings with various lenses from various positions. It was nice working alone, unrushed with plenty of time to experiment.

I wound up parking at an almost empty parking lot beyond the Fire Wave’s lot on the way back. From there, I struck out into the desert to the northeast with the thought of maybe coming up on the Fire Wave or an area like it from the other side. That didn’t pan out, but I did find some interesting rock outcroppings to photograph. I walked about a mile with Gaia GPS turned on in my phone to record my track. In addition to my phone, which I used to take a few photos for my Gaia track, I had my Nikon with me, along with three lenses. I got a chance to use my 10-24mm lens, which I rarely use, to take some really wide angle shots. As the sun got lower and lower, the shadows grew, giving the rocks a three-dimensionality they wouldn’t have when the sun was higher in the sky. The tricky part was keeping my shadow out of some of the shots. And I tried to tread carefully among the sometimes delicate rock formations to keep from crushing thin rock ridges beneath my feet.

Cactus with Red Rocks
Another wide angle shot, this one featuring a type of prickly pear cactus that would likely be in full bloom with large pink flowers within two months.

I seldom share selfies — I usually don’t like the way they turn out — but was very pleased with this one.

On the way back to the truck, I stopped for a selfie with the park behind me. The battery in my camera’s remote was apparently dead — no real surprise there — so I did it the old fashioned way, with the camera’s self-timer. I was very pleased to get a good shot on the first try.

Another beautiful desert sunset, reflected on the side of the Mobile Mansion.

I explored a bit more of the park before the sun set, trying to find a good place for a morning shoot the next day. Then I headed back to the Mobile Mansion. Penny, as usual, was glad to see me. We went for a walk and I watched the sun set. Later, while I was having dinner, I watched the flickering dots of nearby campfires through my big back window, marveling at how bright the moonlight was.

Morning Photo Shoot

I was up, as usual, before sunrise. My closest neighbors had started a campfire, likely to keep warm. I could see it flickering off in the distance. It reminded me of my days at the backwaters in January and early February.

I made a cup of coffee to go and grabbed a snack bar for breakfast. Then, as the sky brightened to the east, Penny and I were in the truck, headed into the park.

Stone Walls
I love the textures of the wood window frames and stone walls at the Cabins.

Although I’d read through the Valley of Fire book looking for ideas of where to go for that morning shoot, I decided, in the end, to keep it simple: I’d go to the Cabins, a trio of stone cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to house workers years ago. The book panned the Cabins as a photographic destination, claiming it wasn’t interesting unless they were lit from inside. I disagree. I was there before sunrise — trespassing? — and began shooting almost immediately. The first light on the cabins was extraordinary and I got more than a few interesting shots. I was the only one around and, again, it was a real pleasure to shoot on my own without having to deal with other photographers or tourists. (Honestly, I don’t understand why people go on photo excursions where they have to jockey with other photographers for a good spot to take a shot.) My only challenge was keeping an eye on Penny — and keeping her out of my shots.

Cabins in First Light
The Cabins at Valley of Fire, shot with a 10mm lens at first light. No, I didn’t retouch this (or any other image) here. It really was that red.

Grass and Rock
Yet another wide-angle close up. The light had already become too harsh by the time I shot this.

Afterwards, I drove farther into the park, retracing my route from the afternoon before. It was around 7 AM, the Visitor Center was still closed, and there wasn’t another soul in sight. I parked alongside the road in one of the numbered dips where the road crosses a wash, got out alone, and began hiking down a slot canyon. The sun hadn’t climbed high enough to illuminate the canyon walls and there were deep shadows. According to the book, the canyon would eventually end up by the Fire Wave. I didn’t get that far, however — the canyon was full of water about a quarter mile in.

I turned around and went back to the truck, then crossed the road and headed off to the west. By that time, however, the light had become bright and harsh — not good for photographing desert landscapes. It was time to go.

Hooking Up and Heading Out

After taking a drive through the west side of the park, Penny and I headed back to the Mobile Mansion. It was around 9 AM. People were just starting to come into the park.

After a quick drive farther down the road where I’d parked — mostly to scout it out for better sites for a future stay — I returned to my rig and began the relatively quick task of hooking it up to the truck and getting ready to move on. Although it’s big, I’ve learned over the years that if I don’t take a lot of stuff out of storage while I’m parked, it’s pretty quick to close up for travel.

By 10 AM, we were rolling back down the gravel hill and onto the pavement. We’d have to drive through the park again — it was the shortest route to I-15. I had to show my pay stub at the ranger station on the west side to exit. Then we were on our way to our next destination: Death Valley.