October 25- March 17
Well, it’s been over four months since my last update here. Or has it been four years, or maybe only four weeks? Who knows? Time has no longer has any connection to reality.
During those four months, we’ve been floating around the Arizona desert seeking out the warmest spots while avoiding the crazies, keeping ourselves healthy, and trying our best to occasionally socialize with friends in a safe manner.
In some ways, we are fairly well equipped to deal with all the challenges that this year+ of pandemic living has brought. Work from home has long been the norm in our house, Zoom meetings are nothing new, we’re used to spending most of our time together in a small space, we thankfully don’t have kids who are suddenly at home all day every day, and most of all, we have the option to live where the weather allows us to get outside!
It hasn’t been all desert rainbows and skipping unicorns though. These last few months have had their difficult moments. Mostly because we’ve spent soooo much time alone. I mean, let’s face it, we would never have lasted this long in this small of a dwelling if we didn’t like each other enough to spend nearly every moment of every day together. But we all have our limits.
Back in the “normal” times, we had developed what felt like the perfect balance of social and non-social times. We would spend a few weeks camped with friends and then go off on our own for a few weeks. We would immerse ourselves in the energy of the city for a week and then go into the wilderness the next week. Now there is no balance. The scale has been tipped in the direction of all hermit all the time, and that’s not good for anyone.
But here we are in the middle of March and while our circumstances have not changed much (we’re currently on week 12 of desert boondocking) there is an undeniable feeling of hope in the air. Our parents are getting vaccinated, there’s a chance that even us healthy folks in our forties will be eligible for the shot sooner than we had originally anticipated, and we’ve started planning a trip east to see our families for the first time since the fall of 2019.
We’ve also been busy planning and even (gasp) making reservations for the summer. So far we have a bunch of reservations at state parks on the Oregon coast, a plan to visit Mt. Rainier, and even a place to stay next winter that is guaranteed to be the complete opposite of the desert. Making these plans has been a real morale booster for us. During those dark winter months when it felt like one day melted into another, even just dreaming about future adventures helped lift our spirits.
Here’s a quick(ish) summery of what we’ve been up to lately. I hope to post more often when we start doing things and going places again!
We left the South Rim of the Grand Canyon ahead of an incoming snowstorm. Sometimes we like snow. Sometimes we even seek it out. And sometimes, we drive as far as we can to avoid it. After a few weeks of chilly temperatures, we were ready for a warm-up. The storm was predicted to bring cold as far south as Sedona and Prescott, so we went farther south than that. Even though it made for a ridiculously long day of driving, we went all the way to Tucson where our favorite area campground, Gilbert Ray, welcomed us with (warm) open arms.
This was our first time back since they implemented the new reservation system. The H loop was still first-come-first-serve until December 1, but we knew we would be arriving late in the day – possibly even after dark – so decided to make a reservation just to be on the safe side. We arrived right around sunset and pulled up to site C13 to find someone already in it. So much for making a reservation. Fortunately, it was one guy car camping without a tent and when I told him that we had reserved this site he immediately offered to leave. Less than 10 minutes later he was gone and we were parked.
Apparently, at the time (end of October) the campground was operating with both reservations and FCFS sites without any oversight. I don’t think the camp hosts start working until November and the office doesn’t open until December which means anyone could come in and grab an open spot regardless of whether it had been reserved online or not. There was actually a sign on the office door that stated, “For those that have made a reservation. If you arrive and someone has already occupied your site, simply pick a nearby site at your discretion.” Umm… so what happens if the new site I pick turns out to be already reserved? Anyway, it wasn’t a big deal and when we returned a few weeks later a slightly better system had been put in place, but I still don’t understand why they switched to reservations.
Our week at Gilbert Ray was as wonderful as always. This is the earliest that we’ve ever visited southern AZ, and even though it was on the hot side (low 90s) we got by with a few hours of AC during the hottest part of the day followed by late afternoon hiking as the cool evening air settled over the desert.
With more hot temps expected and no great ideas for where to go next, we decided to move over to an RV park for the next few weeks. We chose Desert Trails based on favorable reviews and the fact that we know a few people who have stayed there. It was okay. On the plus side, the owners were great at check-in, the price more than reasonable, the outside mail room convenient (getting packages is our #1 reason for staying at RV parks), and the multiple laundry rooms were clean and in working order.
There is also a great network of trails behind the park that connects to the larger Tucson Mountain Trail system. Just watch out for those jumping chollas when riding your bike back there!
On the not-so-great side, the sites are close together, and at one point we had an RV on each side and another behind us. I hate this kind of set-up. Because we are smaller and shorter than most RVs, when we’re surrounded on all sides by 100-foot tall fifth wheels (I swear those things are getting taller) it’s like living in a dark tunnel. Okay, maybe not that bad, but my tolerance for living in close quarters with strangers is at an all-time low right now and after two days I was ready to leave.
When our two-week sentence was up and we had recieved our appoximatly 1001 packages, we went back to Gilbert Ray for another week. This time, we didn’t bother to make a reservation. Instead, we showed up on Sunday at 11am and grabbed a nice site in the H-loop which was still FCFS for another few weeks. I can’t beleive that I forgot to take any photos of our site becuase it was a really nice one!
As Thanksgiving approached we made plans for a small outdoor friend gathering at Las Ceineagas National Conservation Area. At this point, we hadn’t socialized with anyone since leaving Idaho Springs way back at the beginning of September. While we desperately wanted to gather with friends, we were also nervous since the pandemic was beginning to pick up speed again around AZ and we didn’t want to contribute to the spread or get sick ourselves. Fortunately, our friends all felt the same way and we made some ground rules to stay safe. Namely, that all social interactions would take place outside six feet apart, and any food sharing would be done with the utmost safety in mind.
Despite some very cold weather and unrelenting north wind that made outside socializing a challenge, it was a great success. It was even cold during the day, but we bundled up in winter clothes and wrapped ourselves in blankets so we could sit around and chat with friends who we hadn’t seen since before the pandemic began.
Thanksgiving itself was very low-key. After the now-required family Zoom gatherings (anyone else find this way of celebrating holidays wholly unsatisfying?) we prepared a small-scale feast. About half our group chose to eat within their own households while a few of us decided to have a pot-luck. It was small but mighty. Eric smoked a (very small) turkey on the Trager grill and we had all the sides, even including a surprisingly delicious jello salad that Lauri made to show off her mid-western roots.
After Thanksgiving, we had two weeks reserved at Catalina State Park on the north side of Tucson. These were the only reservations/plans we made for the winter and I give full credit to our friends Shannon & Dave for giving us the idea. When we saw them back in August they mentioned that they had Catalina reservations. With no idea what the winter would bring, I jumped on it and got ourselves a site for the same time period with the caveat that we could simply cancel if it all went awry.
I had forgotten how nice Catalina State Park is. Even though there’s little to no privacy between sites (because, you know, desert), the spacing is so generous that it doesn’t really matter. Our site was on the corner of the A loop which gave us tons of extra space and some pretty sunset views.
Sadly, there have been several wildfires around and in the park over the past year that left behind some seriously charred landscape. Because of that, we limited our hiking to some of the less affected trails.
Aside from hiking, we spent most of our time at Catalina hanging out with Shannon & Dave. Their site was not far from ours and we met up most days for an outside happy hour. Sometimes went on a walking happy hour around the campground. We also had a couple of weekend pizza parties with dueling pizza ovens, fancy toppings, and even a dessert pizza. We always have a blast hanging out with those two and although we didn’t know it at the time, it would be the last we would see of them this winter so I’m very thankful we had those two weeks.
As our two-weeks came to an end, we started to think about where to go next. By this point, the pandemic was raging in Arizona. Even though the only public place we ever went was the grocery store, it still felt like moving to a location with a smaller population was the best course of action. So we headed to a familiar place where the cactus population far exceeds the human population.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
When I messaged my friend Jeanette to say that we planned to head to the Organ Pipe NM her reply was, “Great minds think alike! We’re headed that way too!” Perfect. The Twin Peaks CG inside the National Monument operates on an FCFS basis until the end of December and they allow a three-week consecutive stay. That would give us a place to stay and friends to hang out with through the Christmas and New Years’ holidays.
Even though the campground was (possibly still is?) only partially open with roughly half the sites closed off, we had no problem scoring a primo spot in the no-generator loop. In fact, throughout our entire three-week stay the park never filled completely even during the holidays. We stayed there once before during the month of February and it was much busier which leads me to believe that December is not the busy season.
The social aspect of our visit left a little to be desired. The cold north wind persisted most days, and with dark setting in before 5 pm and all of us working during the day, that left few options for outside social time. We had a couple of very early 4:30 dinners together and a fun Christmas day pizza party including our friends Lauri & Jase who drove over from Yuma for a long weekend visit.
We’ve spent enough time in this area that we’ve hiked all the designated trails at least once, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable. We repeated all our favorites – including the grueling trek up Ajo Mtn. for the fourth time and made up some of our own trails by following the numerous tracks that the border patrol leaves behind all over the park.
After our time was up in Organ Pipe and with no desire to travel far, we moved less than an hour north to Darby Well Rd. near the town of Ajo for some boondocking. Our initial two weeks turned into three, and before we knew it we had stayed in the area for six weeks!
We moved around to a couple of different spots, used the dump station at the Shadow Ridge RV Park in town as needed, and extended our tanks by filling water jugs at one of the water filter kiosks. Ajo has just about everything one needs for extended boondocking including an electronics store where you can have mail and packages delivered and a small, yet cheap and clean laundromat.
The thing that Ajo lacks most is groceries. Yes, the Olsens IGA has a surprisingly robust selection of produce (better this year than I’ve ever seen it) but most other items either cost twice as much or are simply not available. It’s understandable for a town this remote but I can’t help but feel bad for the residents who have to choose between paying $6 for yogurt or driving two hours to a bigger town.
We ended up visiting Olsens once a week for fresh items and driving once to Tucson and once to Casa Grande for large stock ups on items we couldn’t or didn’t want to buy in Ajo. Considering that we stayed in the area for a total of nine weeks, that’s not bad.
The very best part of our extended stay in Ajo was the endless hiking and biking opportunities right outside our door. Since this area was once used for mining and ranching there are countless old roads that zig zag all over the land south of town. These days, the old roads are mostly used by people like us on bikes and foot, with the occasional OHV or Jeep thrown in the mix.
We logged some serious miles during these six weeks – both on and off the roads. After an early attempt at summiting one of the nearby peaks where the loose rocks, steep grades, and plentiful cactus made for a poor combination, we mostly stuck to routes that went around the mountains instead of up them.
Despite all the outside fun and some really great weather, these six weeks dragged on. For a while, we felt that we were simply waiting for time to pass by. Waiting for fewer people to contract the virus, waiting for fewer people to die, waiting for the feelings of sadness and hopelessness to pass. We’ve all had to deal with our own struggles during this year of Covid, and I know that in many ways we’ve been more fortunate than others. But it has still been hard to bear the immense weight of all the people who have died and families who will never be the same. Not to mention the division and hate that seems to permeate every aspect of our society. No amount of “outdoor therapy” can cure these feelings, but we keep trying.
AGM & Return to Kofa
Finally, in mid-February, we made the decision to move on. During the entire time we were in Ajo we only had one afternoon visit with fellow RVers Michele & Mark, and a couple of conversations with a nice couple from Colorado who parked near us. They probably thought we were crazy people based on how eager we were to chat with them! So when friends told us they were headed to AGM (American Girl Mine Rd) we eagerly agreed to join.
We’ve never been big fans of the area west of Yuma known for its convenient and plentiful boondocking. I am all for the desert landscape, but this barren land takes it a few steps too far.
It is a convenient spot though, especially if you want to cross the border into Mexico for some cheap dental, prescription drugs, or liquor. We didn’t need any of that this time around, but we did appreciate the proximity to Yuma where I happily shopped at Sprouts for the first time in many months and got us take-out from Chipotle marking the first non-home cooked meal we had eaten since December! It really doesn’t take much to excite me these days.
The week flew by and while the wind once again made it hard to socialize outside (the word of the winter was WIND) we managed a few happy hours and even a pizza night with the oven tucked in the back of the truck for maximum wind blockage. Mostly, it was good to fill our social meter again before parting ways for a few more weeks of solitude.
Our next stop was King Road about an hour north of Yuma. We’ve stayed here before. In fact, this was the same place where we spent the first three weeks of the pandemic last March. Kind of a strange coincidence that we ended up back here almost exactly a year later.
It was busier than last year, but not so busy that we weren’t able to get a great spot on the opposite side of the road from where we stayed last time. King Rd is one of a series of roads along the Hwy 95 corrider between Yuma and Quartzsite that provides access to the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. This road is the farthest south and in our opinion, the best one because of the rugged mountain views.
We stayed two weeks and did our normal work/hike/eat/sleep/repeat routine. There are no trails out here aside from the dirt roads, but there are tons of places to hike. Our normal routine involves picking an interesting-looking landmark on Google Maps, plotting out a loose route using the satellite view, and then going for it. Coming from the densely forested northeast this kind of hiking used to be a foreign concept to us. But out here where we can often hike for 4-5 miles and still see our house or the spot where we parked the truck, it’s our favorite way to hike.
One of the coolest things about this type of non-trail hiking is that we often end up in places no one else has visited in a long time and get to see things that would have been picked up/moved/or taken if there was a trail. Like this desert tortoise shell. It was just laying out in the open and had obviously been around for awhile. Such a cool find!
Kofa is also a great place to see desert bighorn sheep. We had two different sightings this time. First, in the same area where we stumbled upon the tortoise shell, and a second time over on Palm Canyon Rd. where we did some desert wandering over to a place Google calls Hidden Canyon. No photos because I only hike with my phone these days and it doesn’t zoom well, but if you want to see bighorn sheep, Kofa is the place to look!
When it was time to leave King Rd we drove north into Quartzite for a tank refresh at the RV Pit Stop and then back south to MST&T road. This is another of the roads that travel back into Kofa and another place where we have spent a lot of time over the years. Since it’s not nearly as scenic as the roads farther south, MST&T is a place that’s best for gathering with friends. We’ve spent several holidays here with friends and honestly, being there with just the two of us was kind of boring.
We didn’t stay long though. The weather was on the crappy side with lots of cold wind and even some rain. We stuck it out just long enough to make it through the work week and then…we drove into California!
As I write this we’re currently hanging out in the Mojave National Preserve where we had a surprise snowstorm a few nights ago. We plan to stay in the CA desert for a couple more weeks before moving north to the coast for spring.