Southeastern AZ

Co-pilot Jora Johnson (see the second Smoky Mtns. entry from December) returned to the van for a few days of exploring southeastern Arizona. We had it in mind to find hot springs and do some camping/hiking. Starting in Phoenix we drove south to Picacho (sp?) State Park, located off of Highway 10. This lovely little park is situated below some fine mountains. The campground consists of paved loops and sites with firepits and benches. The shower and bathroom facilities were top-notch. We arrived in mid-morning and set out to hike Picacho Peak (seen in the photograph BELOW... at least I think that's the peak. If not that one then a similar-looking formation to the right of it).

The park brochure warned that the hike was 4 hours round trip and had two parts: first, a moderatly-difficult beginning in which you loped through the desert, and second, a difficult portion of mountain climbing, using cables, as you ascended the peak.

ABOVE: The first half of the hike included many Saguaro cacti, ranging from robust, multi-limbed monstrosities to little knee-high baby Saguaro to long-dead Saguaro skeletons.

ABOVE: The difficult part of the hike. You are expected to scale the mountain using these cables. It turned out to be easier than it looked although many less-fit hikers and hikers with pets / small children couldn't attempt it. I liked it, though. It felt good to use the arms a little instead of the legs. Bits of controlled peril sprinkled throughout a trail always make for a good day hike. The peak had a fine view of the surrounding flatlands.

From Picacho we drove south to Red Rock where, according to a document provided by the Arizona Tourist Dept, there are free hot springs. This document did not provided exact directions just stated that the springs were "in and around the town of Red Rock". Perhaps they were describing another town? We couldn't find any nor anybody to ask for help. Consulting tourism officials, rangers, and locals resulted in us being sneered at as if we were dirty. I didn't realize that hot springs had such a bad reputation. It's not as if I was asking where to get laid.

We continued south and wound up at Colossal Cave Mountain Park.

"Mountain" of mountain park is the key word. Not "state" park. Although Colossal Cave uses the reassuring brown signs of state parks to lure you in, it seemed to be a private enterprise and a very touristy one at that. $5 just to get inside the park then $7.50 per person to enter the caves. The visitor center was full of swarming bees and little children cacophonously tooting flutes purchased in the gift shop and the whole thing made me want to run away. We hoped to see some bats but we learned that the bats aren't really present until the summer.

We passed on spending $16 to see the caves, but did decide to spend the night in the park since we'd paid the entrance fee already. I'm not sure what the story is with these campgrounds but they seem to be from another time. They're on the premises of Colossal Cave but seem only peripherally related. The roads are in sorry shape, the pit toilets few and far between. Only two of the sites are big enough for an RV. Then came the real shocker: a sign stating that Colossal Cave Mountain Park actually LOCKS campers inside the grounds from 5 pm to 9 am!

I thought this must not be true. We must be misreading the sign. So when the "ranger" (notice the quotations) came by to check us in for the night I asked him about it.

"We can't get out?" I said.
"Nope," he said, recording the van's license plate.
"Not until 9 AM?"

Then he suggested that we might be able to escape 15-20 minutes early if we waited around the gates for when the employees arive. Oh, and there's a 9-1-1 call box down the path. THANKS! I've never heard of campers being physically locked inside a campground for 16 hours. That's the stuff horror movies are made of. Usually there is an exit-only gate (enforced by an electronic code or metal spikes). Of course it fit perfectly into the weird and somewhat disturbing entity that was Colossal Cave Mountain Park. The ABOVE picture is of night fall at our campsite there.

We were out of Colossal Cave State Park by 9 AM, I can assure you. We drove to Safford and got a site at Roper Lake State Park where, unfortunately, I forgot to take any pictures. But I can tell you it was a pleasant little campground. We parked by the fishing lake; we soaked in the hot tub (which is fueled by hot spring water). Roper provided free firewood - a nice bonus.

The next day, en route for Phoenix, we stopped off at Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park (ABOVE picure). Although the trails are a little muddled direction-wise, it makes for a good day trip, with many beautiful / strange / gigantic / unique plants and trees to see.

While the weather is still cool I'm going to take a peek at Quartszite and Slab City. I'm not sure when I'll have wi-fi for another entry...


Into eastern AZ...

Upon leaving Santa Fe, I drove southeast to Villanueva State Park. This delightful little place is accessible only by a very twisty, narrow road and for that reason I suspect is not hugely popular. But I found it to be quite lovely. There were excellent shower, toilet, and water facilities, a simple network of roads around camp, and a good hiking trail accessible right from the grounds. It had a very "nestled in the mountains" feeling.

BELOW: Looking up at the campsite where I stayed.

It snowed in Villanueva but none of it stuck. I grumpily got my cold weather gear back out - the sleeping bag, the Coleman lantern, the quadruple layering of socks, pants, and shirts. You take the toothbrush from your mouth and its steaming like a ladle of soup.

The next day I drove west on Route 40 for Arizona. BELOW: I spent a night at this little rest-stop outside Springerville along Route 61 (a very peaceful and scenic road at the easternmost fringe of AZ).

Springerville seemed like a neat little mountain town. Perhaps it thrived on tourists like myself who drive in, buy coffee, buy a used paperback, buy gas, and so on. I continued to travel thinking it would be interesting to drive through Tonto National Forest. The first 50 miles, however, were the most psychologically grueling of the road trip thus far. There was a violent north-blowing wind and for those 50 miles I was driving directly west across flat, steppe-like plains where not a tree nor building stood to impede the gusts. In those scenarios the high-top on the van becomes a sail. I had to perpetually steer slightly leftward to keep from blowing off the road. I kept thinking, "This is it. This is the day the van is going to tip over. Its inevitable. It's going to happen..." and all the while cursing myself for buying a high-top van rather than a normal one. Little sedans and SUVs buzzed by me, annoyed and unsympathetic to what I was going through. I couldn't take my hands off the wheel for a second. My iPod, which was set to shuffle, played songs at random without my intervention and so I had to sit through odd tracks from Books on Tape and what not.

My only comfort was knowing that as soon as I hit the town of Show Low, the road turned south. And, as I'd hoped, it did, and the wind ceased. At the same time, the terrain changed dramatically. It seemed I'd emerged in the Swiss Alps:

There were many valleys and gorges to my right and so I pulled over to take pictures.

BELOW: The view I am seeing from the picture ABOVE.

BELOW: Extreme muddyness around the cliff.

The road descended and the snow and firs vanished, replaced by big red rocks and shrubs and small fruity cacti. BELOW: another vista off the side of the road. (This road is Route 60 and if you're ever in the area I highly recommend it).

ABOVE: Exactly 2 months after Frank inscribed this legacy I arrived from Rhode Island to photograph it. How are you, Frank and Jessica? How did you celebrate Valentine's Day? Are things OK? How lovely of you to grace the Arizona desert with a tribute to your blooming relationship. Thanks. Thanks so much.

I'd gotten off to a late start and the sun began to set. I didn't want to navigate those twisty roads with the sun in my face, much less in the dark. So I spent the night at a rest stop beside the ABOVE bridges. Painting a bridge goes a long way toward making it handsome, doesn't it? This was a fine place to park overnight. As the sun set I crawled down to the river and soaked my feet.

The next day I continued on, aiming for Superior, AZ but like the day before I was caught by the setting sun. I saw a sign for "Oak Flats Campground" and followed it. I had heard of these free BLM Arizona campgrounds but always envisioned more of an empty plain. But this was a real campground with firepits, tables, and toilets (no potable water, though). It was a little more rundown than a state park, but so what? I got to park the van beside a little river of snow run-off. All night long I heard it babbling.

Now, for some "Reader Mail". Kate from Purchase, NY writes:

"Take pictures of you and of people and put them on your web page. Thats what i want to see. And animals. More you and animals. And videos. I basically want your face in every picture. In some goofy state! Like with your eyebrow raised or your tongue sticking out. Haha...yea. I can't go to sleep cause i'm tipsy. How about a video you talking to yourself then?"

Thank you, Kate, for reading the blog and for feeling compelled to write me. Unfortunately, since I'm traveling alone, pictures of me with others would be something of a farce. As for animals, I'd love to photograph them and I have (see the San Angelo entry) but for the most part they're evasive. I do have a video camera but at this time have no plans to embed video on the site. Keep reading!


More New Mexico...

After leaving Oliver Lee SP, I spent a few days longer in Alamogordo than I intended as I awaited forwarded mail. I slept for 4-5 nights in the Alamogordo Super Walmart and noted numerous other van-dwellers and RVers. This included a pleasant talk with a New Zealand woman who parked her little Class-B van next to mine and who was on a 10-month van-dwelling stint herself. Less pleasant, though, was the dickhead who parked his truck camper in the middle of the lot and ran a noisy generator non-stop, day and night. He even had the little accordion-shaped stairs down and everything, as if he were out in the woods. What the hell?

I visited the much-hyped White Sands National Monument but left feeling dissapointed and grumpy. Or perhaps I was grumpy to begin with. You know, the sand was a little brighter than what I encountered at Monahans Sandhills SP, but not by much (or so it seemed). I didn't like how you had to drive the 8-mile road rather than get a chance to bike or walk it. Then came the real pisser: at about the halfway mark, the paved road inexplicably turns to dirt. It was so severely riddled with bumps and holes that I began to hear things breaking in the back of my van. This is a road you pay $3 to drive down and it's only 8 miles long. They claimed the road was friendly to all vehicles - sedans, trucks, trailers, and so on. I disagree! Is there some ecological reason they couldn't finish paving it? If you know, please post the answer below, so I can forgive them...

As soon as my mail arrived, I drove south to Las Cruces, then north again but on the opposite side of the mountains. I spent a night at Elephant Butte State Park...

ABOVE: My campsite over the lake, or reservoir, whatever it was. The view was pretty but overall Elephant Butte SP was my least favorite state park thus far, mainly because it revolved around watersports, which don't interest me. Also, the "freshwater" coming up from the pumps was brackish.

From Elephant Butte, I drove north to Albuquerque. I'd heard that Albuquerque was an up-and-coming city... well, it was so up-and-coming I'm not certain it really exists, yet. Construction everywhere. And where there wasn't construction, then strip malls. I parked at a church downtown and walked around... the downtown area seemed to have that same lousy city-planning syndrome that Providence had, where too many too tall buildings crammed together kill any sense of community or rhythm from block to block. It makes you feel small.

BELOW: My impression of Albuquerque...

The next day, I drove north to Santa Fe. Perhaps the city-planners in Albuquerque decided not to make it interesting because Santa Fe is so close - and so interesting. It's immediately appealing for a visitor. The roads are wide, the signs clear, and the buildings low, giving you a view of the surrounding snowy mountains. It was chillier in Santa Fe than anywhere else in NM and there was old snow on the ground in places.

ABOVE: I was able to park overnight at the visitor's center, since the Santa Fe Walmart supposedly forbids camping.

ABOVE: The whole "clay abode" style architecture was refreshing. It may be a gimmick but I'm all for gimmicks if they're pleasing to the eye, modest-looking, and make for a fun downtown area. The "Plaza" in Santa Fe was geared toward tourists (BELOW: one of the many vendors), but it was very pedestrian-friendly and vibrant.

I walked all day which included a jaunt up a sidestreet to enviously look at the houses. On my way back I had a burger and some beers at a hotel restaurant where nothing was more expensive than $6. Another bar-goer told me that New Mexico should be called "Land of Entrapment" rather than "...enchantment", due to how often people tend to fall in love with the place and stick around.

Today I will begin the trek westward into Arizona. But before I go, check out this awesome little truck camper I spotted:


Van life observations thus far.

I've been on the road for 3 months and so here are my van-dwelling observations thus far. Perhaps some of the tidbits in this entry will prove useful or amusing to other van-dwellers or people thinking of van-dwelling. Warning: if you're not into van-dwelling this entry may make your eyes glaze over.

When I was on the east coast, it was often hard to find reasonably priced campsites. It was winter and so many state parks (normally the cheapest) were shut down. I spent the majority of my nights in parking lots of Walmarts and Costcos. As I've inched westward, it's become easier to find open state parks where you can get water, take a shower, enjoy the outdoors, and sleep overnight for $6 - $12 a night...

But those prices are still too expensive for me to do every night. I mix it up with parking lots and rest stops. My van is small compared to other people's rigs; it fills 1 parking space. I don't run a generator, I try to keep a low-profile, I arrive late and leave early. I aim for 24-hour stores like Super Wal-Marts where you're less likely to get in the way of a night crew that cleans the parking lot.

Ill will towards the labor policies of Walmart aside, there are many advantages to camping in these parking lots. Those towering, glaring security lights can actually illuminate the van enough that I can move around without my lantern or flashlight (when it comes time to sleep I just put on an eye-mask if it's bothering me). You always have access to a real bathroom as well as groceries. There is a security presence in case something goes wrong.

I eat cheap. It hasn't broken my budget. I usually eat fruit and eggs for breakfast. Nuts or a snack for lunch. Dinner is often some kind of canned food, preferably beans, or a sandwich, or both. A tall can of beans may cost 60 cents and last for 2 meals.

Water is easy so long as you're frequenting state parks. On one occasion, in the midwest, I asked the folks at a little coffee shop if I could fill up my water container in their kitchen. They let me come in through the back and fill it up. But other than that, I've always managed to subsist on water from campgrounds.

Early on it seemed wasteful to use my good drinking water for dish-washing, while meanwhile I was dumping my melted cooler water. I compromise by filling a gallon jug with the waste water from the cooler and using that for my dishes. This doesn't always work. Sometimes the cooler water gets contaminated by the food floating around in it.

As for cooking - you have to think through the entire process before doing anything. Every step must be considered because you have limited space and resources. For example, when frying eggs, you might crack the eggs into the pan forgetting that immediately thereafter you've got drippy egg shells and dirty fingers. So before I even light up the stove, I position the garbage beside it, as well as a cup of soapy water for rinsing off my hands. You also don't want to waste any of your fuel, be it propane or over a fire, while you're fumbling to find the next ingredient. I do all my prep-work before hand --- opening cans, slicing cheese, dicing vegetables, and so on. I position it all across the desk in the order I'm going to need it.

I have a Coleman two-burner propane stove. The 16 oz cylinders will last about 2 weeks. I have had some problems with them. On one occasion, the valve on a cylinder went haywire and sub-zero propane started spraying all over my van. Another cylinder was missing a thread on top, so it couldn't connect to anything. In both cases I returned them and got my $2.50 back. I don't really like using the propane stove. You're anxious the whole time about setting the inside of the van on fire; the flames, for some reason, seem to promote moisture; the hissing sound is irritating; and so on.

I keep a mini charcoal Smokey Joe grill in the back for campgrounds. This is my preferred cooking method. It's safer, it's more fun to cook outside, it's a dry-flame, and so on. I don't use lighter fluid; I use one of those brilliant Charcoal Chimneys which requires a few wads of burning newspaper to get the charcoal red-hot.

My Coleman "5 day" extreme cooler has been pretty reliable. I can't vouch for the 5-day claim. The make-or-break point seems to be whether it gets very cold at night or not. Obviously, when I was traveling on the east coast in the dead of winter, I had no problems with refridgeration. I would actually open the cooler at night to let it freeze over, or leave perishables sitting on my desk all day to stay cool. Once I crossed into Texas and struck heat, the cooler began to falter. The ice melted very quickly, even though I was only opening it 1x or 2x a day and keeping it in shade. Here in New Mexico, where it gets very cold at night, the ice has stayed more or less intact.

I don't have many perishables, though. And the ones I do have are flexible about getting warm. I keep butter for lubricating my frying pan. Cold cuts. And eggs. When I buy meat it is only when I plan to cook it that day (i.e. en route to a campground where I can grill).

One problem with the melting ice is that your groceries end up floating around in a mixture of ice and ice water. It's not a problem for a bottle of beer, but it's disgusting when it's a stack of sliced cheese or a stick of butter. My solution: a screw-top plastic jar. They're 2 or 3 bucks in any kitchen goods section. I stuff in my butter and cold cuts, screw it closed, and let it float around in there as much as it wants. It stays dry inside but still gets all the cold from the water.

My van has a regular bed built in -- mattress, sheets, pillows, blanket. On cold nights, I unzip my sub-zero sleeping bag so it's more of a blanket shape and layer it in with the other blankets. On REALLY cold nights, I zip up the sleeping bag, put it in the bed, and use it the way you're supposed to, albeit inside a bed.

I prefer to sleep in as little clothing as possible, as I hate the feeling of clothes getting caught on sheets. This is also conducive to generating body heat in a mummy bag. But I've noticed that my legs and feet tend to struggle to stay warm so I'll often wear thermal socks and long underwear. I pull the tab on the sleeping bag over my head and sculpt a hole for fresh air, and voila, I'm set for the night.

When it's not sleeping time and the van is frozen, that's different. I'm a writer and I like to sit in the van at night and type. Sitting still like that, plus the cold nights, can be hard. I'll often sit bundled in long underwear, sweats, slippers, sweaters, winter coat, fingerless gloves, and with a blanket wrapped around my legs. I get up periodically and do push-ups to get the blood flowing. What can I say? The van is cold inside and that's that.

When I burn my Coleman propane lantern, it can take some of the chill out of the air. But it's a catch-22, because when I'm burning the lantern, I always want to have a window open so as not to die of CO poisoning. If anything, the lantern, with its warm, yellow light, seems symbolic of heat and works psychologically. Just looking at those blazing mantles makes you feel a lot warmer than, say, an LED flashlight.

My deep-cycle battery and inverter have done me well so far. The battery only ran down once and that was after sitting parked, without running the engine, in the mountains during a deep-freeze for 3 days. I can run my computer and charge my phone / camera on a daily basis. If I'm at a camp-site where hookups are cheap then I'll do that and run an extension cord and splitter into the van. I have a string of yellow chain lighting for those special occasions.

Wireless internet is very easy to come by these days. Starbucks is the most consistent source. If you have a Starbucks account with at least $5 on it and you show some account activity every 30 days, you get their free Wi-Fi.

In Texas, the rest stops offer free Wi-Fi --- an amazing deal. I've also gotten free wi-fi at Tourist /Visitor Centers, bookstores, and locally-owned coffee shops. RV parks offer "free wifi" but it's not free in my book if you're spending an absurd $30 or $40 a night for a parking space.

When I'm at these places I usually take the opportunity to charge up my computer and phone as well.

I keep a jug for peeing in the van. It was once one of those large kitty-litter containers with a curved handle on top. I also have a Thetford chemical toilet for emergencies, but I've barely used it. If I have to shit I'll go into a Walmart or use the campground toilets. As soon as you start filling up the Thetford toilet, you have to consider dumping it (not to mention worry about odors or spillage).

Then there comes the time when you have to dump the jug of piss. I don't believe in dumping it in parking lots. That's disgusting. It stinks and then the poor shopping-cart guy will walk through it. Not to mention that its behavior like that which has made many Walmarts ban overnight parking. I try to find woods or a grassy area where it'll be absorbed into the earth and not ruin anybody's day (and I try to do this in places where nobody will see me dumping it, either). Obviously, if you're in a campground, you should dump it in the provided toilets, or their dump tank.

Being a little dirty is part of living in the van, in my opinion. I wear under-garments for 3-4 days, while things like shirts and pants I'll wear for weeks without washing them. If you hang your clothes up to ventilate overnight or in the sun, it can go a long way toward making them last.
Eventually I run out of clean socks, underwear, and undershirts. I know I could wash them in my bucket in the van, but it seems less time-consuming and laborious to simply find a coin-op laundromat. It will only cost you $3 or $4 bucks for everything.

As for personal hygiene --- many state parks have showerhouses, so if you're visiting them, you should have no problem getting regular hot showers. Remember that many state parks will let you enter for free or a small charge (a few bucks) to just VISIT the park, assuming you're going to hike and enjoy the scenery then vacate by nightfall. If you're discreet you should be able to stroll over to the camping area, take a quick shower, and skirt back to your vehicle without anyone noticing you're not a camper.

When I didn't have access to campgrounds, I had to do it the old-fashioned way - with a bucket, or in a bathroom sink. I have very short hair now, but early on in the trip it was lengthy, and I had to sneak into bathrooms and shampoo it in their sinks to keep the oils under control. Obviously, single-user bathrooms are the only way to do this. I found I could get in, wash, dry, and clean up in 3 minutes just by thinking through the process beforehand and arranging the towel and shampoo properly in my bag. I always wipe up all the suds and fallen hairs after, too - having had to clean bathrooms in different jobs over the years I don't like leaving a mess for anybody.

What I find to be more difficult than personal hygiene is dishwashing. It takes alot of water and time to scrub a pot clean in a van. If I could rebuild my kitchenette again I'd install a much deeper sink and a stainless steel countertop to give me a better work area. In the morning, i fill my tea kettle up with a little extra water. After I pour the hot water into my mug, I pour the extra hot water into a dirty pot for cleaning. The warm water is better at loosening up the gunk and it's easier on your hands when you're washing. Again, campgrounds often solve this problem, especially onces that have designated dish-washing stations.

Before leaving Rhode Island, I rented a mailbox at a UPS Store and re-directed all my bills to it. I talked to the manager and explained I'd be traveling and would need to call in once a month and have my mail forwarded to strange locations. The staff at this store has thus been very accomodating; when I call in, they'll sort through my mail with me over the phone, telling me what it's in there, so I can decide if its time to forward it or not. It costs about 6 bucks to have it forwarded. If I am nearing the home of a friend, I'll have the mail forwarded there. Otherwise, I have it sent General Delivery to a post office. A phonecall ahead of time to a post office to give the staff a heads-up is also helpful.

I also informed my health insurance and car insurance companies that I'd be traveling and that there might be delays in communication between us. They supposedly put notes on my record as such.

It's a major issue for living in a vehicle - one which, I think, doesn't get enough attention. You want fresh air, obviously, but more importantly, you want all your stale, wet air to constantly be on the move OUT.

In my van, the only vent I can keep open 24/7 is the one on top, which is sheltered against rain. The pair of slider windows cannot be kept open during rain. In cold weather, its tempting to close the sliders to keep out that frigid draft.

I do wind up with a lot of moisture on the walls, so much so that its caused the paint to peel. This is obviously a failure in the design of the van itself. I didn't plan properly for ventilation. If I could do it all over again I'd install a fan system in the cieling - perhaps one of those solar fans.


That's all for now; maybe I'll update these thoughts in a few months.