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:
The Colorado River Backwaters
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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Getting There

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

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

At Camp
The Mobile Mansion at camp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Routine

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

Sunrise was absolutely amazing one morning.

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

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

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

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

Living Off-the-Grid

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Honda generator is small and relatively quiet.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SAD, Cured

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

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

It worked.

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

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

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

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

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

The Next Stop

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

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

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

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

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

More on that in another post.

The Wild Horses of the Yakama Nation

Thousands of acres, hundreds of horses.

Yesterday, I flew my helicopter back to the Wenatchee, WA area from some maintenance done in Hillsboro, OR. In a perfect world, the weather would be clear and the air calm and I could fly a direct route that would take about 90-100 minutes. But as we all know, the world is not perfect and, once again, I had to take a longer route, this time to skirt around the edge of some very nasty rain showers that stretched west/east from Mt. Saint Helens to route 97 and north/south from Mt. Rainier to the Columbia River.

A direct route, which I’ve done twice back in 2012 (see video), takes me between Mt. Saint Helens and Mount Adams. Yesterday’s route had me following the Columbia River from Vista House east of Troutdale to just past Hood River. From there, I headed northeast, right on the edge of the rain, keeping a sharp eye out for lightning that would indicate thunderstorm activity. Although I didn’t see any flashes, radar in Foreflight and my RadarUS app clearly showed some very dense cells off my left shoulder all the way and the rain was intense. The air I flew in was remarkably calm, though, and I only flew through rain as I followed the route of Route 97 northeast of Goldendale, where it goes through a pass. From there, I cut away from the road, aiming for Sunnyside. I modified my route to go around the south-east corner of the restricted area northeast of Yakima and fly home along the Columbia River from Mattawa.

Hillsboro to Wenatchee Route
Here’s a rough sketch of my route, drawn in Skyvector. The red box is a TFR for firefighting; oddly, the rainstorms were centered right over that box.

It was over the Yakama Nation (not a typo), between Route 97 and Route 12 that I saw the wild horses. I knew they were out there, of course. You can often see herds from Route 97 between Toppenish and Goldendale. But east of the road is where most of the horses seem to live.

The land forms there remind me of the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, long, flat, finger-like mesas stretching to the southwest, where the land drops off in a steep slope. The horse herds are dotted mostly along the mesa tops, although I did see a few herds in between. I flew over them, perhaps 300 feet up, and was close enough to clearly see the coloring of the horses I few near. Most herds seem to include a youngster or two who took off, running back to mama, when he/she heard me coming.

When I say there were herds of wild horses, I’m not talking about two or three herds. There were at least that many herds on each of the mesas I flew over. Each herd had 5 to 20 horses in it and I must have seen at least 20 herds. That’s hundreds of horses.

Wild Horses
I had my GoPro “nosecam” going while I flew. Here’s one of the shots captured along the way. The video clips show how some herds ignored me while others took off running at the sound of my approach. And no, unlike other pilots — a famous Phoenix area news pilot comes to mind — I don’t chase the horses with my helicopter.

Now some folks who see the horses along the road seem to think that they’re not wild. They confuse a new fence likely erected to keep open range cattle off the roadway with a fence to keep the horses on someone’s property. But having flown over the area, I can assure you that these horses are not fenced in. I flew for miles, covering thousands of acres of land, and didn’t see any homes or ranch buildings, no feeding stations, few two-track roads, and no additional fencing. These horses don’t belong to any one person. They’re wild.

Like the wild horses on the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. Or those along the Verde and Salt Rivers not far from Phoenix. Or the ones along the Gila River, west of Chandler, AZ. And in who knows how many other places?

Seeing things like this is one of the perks of being a helicopter pilot able to fly in some of this country’s remote areas. I’d love to do tours to show off the wild horse of the Yakama Nation. Unfortunately, like so much of the incredible scenery I get to fly over on long cross-country flights, it’s just too far away to be affordable to the typical Wenatchee sightseer.