We first visited the tiny town of Ajo, AZ way back in the winter of 2013. It was our first winter of full-time RVing and our first stop in Arizona where we promptly fell in love with the “lush” Sonoran desert. With giant saguaros, gangly armed alien-like organ pipe, deceptively cuddly looking cholla and a whole host of bizarre (and always spiny) shrubs and trees, it didn’t take long to realize that our preconceived notions of a flat and barren desert were very wrong.
Back then we boondocked with friends just south of Ajo on Darby Well Road. This well-known patch of BLM land is located alongside an open-pit copper mine that was shut down in the early ’80s. The abandoned mine has left a massive scar in the earth that dominates the landscape for miles.
We returned to Darby Well this year and easily found ourselves a nice spot near a patch of stately Saguaros. The road travels into the desert for several miles with a network of side roads that split off in all directions. After parking in the first suitable spot, we took out our bikes and rode around to check out the neighborhood. We found a handful of open sites, but nothing better than our first choice. The cell signal disappears the farther you travel from the main road, so we ended up only a few miles from AZ-85.
If it hadn’t been for its generous size our spot would have been nearly perfect. The problem with a big site when boondocking is that it practically invites others to park near you. Sure enough, after a few days with only one other RV in sight, a bunch of rigs rolled in and parked near us. I wouldn’t have minded except for the fact that one of the RVs had a nasty habit of running their generator all night long. Sigh…I will never understand people.
Throughout the week we went for a number of random desert walks and bike rides. It took us a few years to realize just how easy it is to create our own hiking routes in the west. I guess we were conditioned by the northeast landscape where the thick trees and dense undergrowth make it nearly impossible to simply set a course and go. Out here in the desert, we simply pick a random hilltop or landmark in the distance and find our way there. With no trees to block the view, it’s usually possible to hike for miles without ever losing sight of the Airstream.
One of the reasons we returned to this area was to visit my mom and stepdad. For the second year in a row, they are spending the winter at the Coyote Howls East Campground in the tiny, tiny, tiny town of Why about 10 miles south of Ajo.
Coyote Howls East is a unique kind of park. There are no utility hook-ups (aside from some scattered water spigots) and the sites are spread fairly far apart. Most people who stay there rely on solar power (some have generators but they seem to be frowned upon) and either tote their sewer to the dump station in a blue boy or pay for a weekly honey wagon visit. There are a few overnight spots, but this is mostly a park for full or part-time residents. The majority of people return to the same site every winter and have created their own desert gardens with rocks and funky yard art.
We visited one afternoon and joined the crew for their daily happy hour. Everyone was very nice and it was interesting to spend time with people who live in RVs versus people who travel in RVs. For us, the travel part of RVing is extremely enjoyable and the thought of moving the RV only twice a year is not very appealing. We think of RVing as a way to explore the country, not as a way to get from point A to point B. But that might change someday. It seems that a big draw to this type of RVing is the community it creates. Most of the people we met have been coming to Coyote Howls for many, many years. They take trips together to Mexico, go on group hikes, organize events and look out for each other.
Last winter my mom joined the quilt guild in Ajo and our visit happened to coincide with their annual quilt show. I volunteered with her one day and we spent an enjoyable two hours selling tickets and admiring the quilts.
Ajo is one of those places that takes a bit of effort to discover. A quick drive along the main drag reveals a sad town with shuttered businesses, heaps of scattered trash, and not much in the way of retail establishments aside from the two Dollar stores. But as you continue south on AZ 85, the adobe town plaza lined with palm trees comes into view and a large area of brightly colored murals invites you to stop and look a little closer.
One day, we took our bikes the back way into town and rode around the square and residential streets. Ajo was originally built as a mining town and has understandably struggled since the mine shut down. Unless you work for the massive border patrol compound south to of town, there is very little industry to attract people to the area. As a result, the population seems to consist of 90% retired folks who spend the winter there and then leave when the weather reaches the scorching zone.
Ajo is trying to transition into an art-centered community and it will be interesting to see how it develops over the years. For now, it remains a sleepy town near the Mexican border with a small population and a steady supply of winter tourists. I am sure we will be back!