Been on the road for three weeks in a rented RV, and loving life on the road. This 29-footer has everything we need, and we are one-hundred percent comfortable in here. Could probably last a year, but alas, we only have it for a few more days.
As soon as we picked it up in Riverside, our plan was to get the heck out of Dodge (i.e., Riverside County at rush hour). We hustled to Barstow and found a campground called Owl Canyon. This place had 35 campsites, but we were the only ones there! Decided to enjoy the silence and the downtime (Mark and I have been literally travelling every other week since Christmas—Mammoth-Japan-Rosarito-San Diego-Zion-Vegas-Mammoth-Akumal-Hawaii), and so we both just embraced doing NOTHING! A couple long runs for Mark, a good book for me. Then we both caught up on work. The dogs enjoyed endless fetch in the desert, and Xolo I believe is permanently the color gray now.
After two nights we headed back to Barstow to provision at Walmart. Ok, we’ve been to Walmart before, but usually the one in Mexico, and man, can I say, the Walmart in Barstow is amazing. It literally has everything you would ever need. We bought fresh produce, an extension cord, some cooking utensils, a mountain bike, a few tools, some WD-40, and an HDMI cable. Coming from Mexico this one-stop shopping thing is pretty awesome. Let’s all say a thank you to Walmart for making life easy! Ha!
From there we headed to the Mojave National Preserve and camped a mile away from Hole in the Rock, a lovely hiking spot, with many holes in the rocks made by wind. Pretty impressive! Dogs didn’t like it much, though, because alas, desert hikes are full of cacti and stickers. Not good! Taking them out of my dogs’ paws was not easy, either. I had to muzzle them both to keep them from biting me. Ok, no more hiking in the desert with these culo dulces!
Next we spent a long day driving east, eventually arriving to the Grand Canyon just before dark. In my whole 43 years I had never set eyes on this glorious spot (Mark had done a solo trip back in college), so this was a high point for me. We found this awesome forest area just a few miles outside the park that allowed dispersed camping all by ourselves, and so we spent three nights at Hangman’s (we named it that because, weirdly, between two trees a branch had been hammered up there with a noose hanging down).
So, the Grand Canyon was grand. We loved everything about it: the scope, the breathtaking views, the happy tourists oohing and awing around every corner, the well-planned National Park and organized shuttle system. This place rocks. Mark planned a perfect first day in which I rode the South Rim trail on my bike, stopping at every overlook to gasp at the view, while Mark ran it. We bumped into each other occasionally, but both had amazing days on our own.
The next day we enjoyed our remote campsite in the morning, and in the afternoon headed to the Yavupai Lodge to use the internet and catch up on work. Then we did a two-hour sunset Rim hike with the dogs. It was lovely, and we even glimpsed a small cat (a lynx?) running across the trail in the near dark.
Our last day Mark dropped me at Grand Canyon Village and I rode the 25 mile pass to the Desert View Rim. It was awesome (but tough!) and I loved it. Mark “killed” some time at the Desert Rim with a 12 miler across a rough trail, and had a blast as well.
After a few days in Flagstaff, i.e. civilization, where we caught a Cavs game, played some golf, and bought a computer (mine died).
Next we headed east in the direction of the Petrified Forest National Park, the second National Monument ever formed, courtesy of President Teddy Roosevelt. We didn’t quite make it, though, because we got distracted by signs to the Meteor Crater outside of Winslow, Arizona. This was pretty neat! Apparently 50,000 years ago a meteor hit this spot and created a crater 4,000 feet across and a mile deep. We stood at the edge and were quite impressed. But we were even more in awe of the extensive Visitor Center created around this geological oddity. Seriously, one of the nicest Visitor Center/Museums we’ve ever seen!
So that meant we didn’t get to the Petrified Forest before the gates closed. We ended up camping at a campground just outside the park called Crystal Campground. Not very private as we are surrounded by other campers, but we still enjoyed the sunset and had some delicious grilled veggie burgers and asparagus.
The Petrified Forest was not what you might think. Millions of years ago it was a tropical forest way down near the equator. But as the plates shifted and the climate changed, the trees died and became crystallized. Now in the middle of the desert of Arizona you find beautiful petrified logs. Besides that, you are surrounded by the Painted Desert, and we really enjoyed the scenery for running and biking. This bike path in an area called Blue Mesa was super fun to ride and run on.
From here we headed north to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay) in Navajo Nation. Mark and his dad had been here about 30 years ago together, and had fond memories of this natural, sacred place. Sort of like a mini-Grand Canyon, this place is gorgeous, peaceful and quiet.
I was jonesing to ride a horse. Mark said, “Go ahead, not interested.” So I called Justin, the only horse guy in Canyon de Chelly, and asked him if I could ride the next morning for an hour or two. He said, “Sure. But by the way, I’ve got a couple who has organized an all day trip tomorrow. I’m gonna trailer the horses to Spider Rock Rim and they’re gonna ride with a guide down the rim through the whole canyon, back to the mouth.” I told him I was in! I reported back to Mark and whaddya know, the guy who hates horseback riding was in, too!
The other couple never showed up, so Mark and I had our own guide, Irving, a 29 year old Navajo who was probably unique in that he had embraced the old ways and was resisting the new ways. He believed in simple living, in preserving your family histories, and was still very much mourning the death of his grandmother, who had passed away a year ago. She sounded like an amazing lady, camping and hiking through this rough country, til she passed away. She would take him out for days at a time to camp and hike and ride, and he had learned everything from her.
As we started off, we got on our horses and without any instruction, he started heading through the bush. There was no trail, but our horses followed him up and over rocks, through trees, and occasionally thick sand. He hadn’t said much at first and I wondered if he was not going to talk at all, but over the course of the 17 miles, he spoke once and awhile, telling us stories that had to do with what we were seeing. I appreciated his unhurried style and his calm way of not “chattering” like some guides do.
The trail down from the rim was SKETCHY! Irving recommended we walk our horses, but it still felt sort of disconcerting hiking with a 500 pound animal hopscotching over rocks just behind me. None of us fell, and we made it to the canyon bottom in time to see a herd of deer and a gaggle of wild turkeys.
The day was perfect—blue sky and white fluffy clouds. The cottonwood was blooming, and at times it looked like it was snowing with all the cotton in the air. We crossed through green shady areas and dry dusty ones too. We passed by two groups of wild mustangs, one who whinnied at us, perhaps curious about the strange apparatus attached to our horses.
We stopped for lunch at Irving’s family’s camp, which had nothing on it but an old palette, but the camp was used sometimes for camping and family picnics. He told us about his family’s land, their cattle and horses, and how the wealth of a Navajo was measured in cattle and horses, not houses or cars. He and his extended family watched over the cattle and horses that grazed in the valley, with no plans to sell them, just to keep them.
As we walked into one wooded area, Mark’s horse suddenly got spooked, and nearly buckled. Mark bounced up and down but managed to stay on the horse. We looked to our left and saw a dead cow, which had spooked his horse.
Irving said the cow had been tied to a tree and died of thirst. He said, “I know we Navajos all seem friendly to each other. We wave hi as we ride by. But there are problems, arguments over land, cattle. Someone did this to our family. I will have to talk to my aunt.”
That sobered the mood for a bit. Later in the day Irving talked more about the Navajo people. He admitted that most young Navajos these days can’t wait to get off the reservation, but he felt that if they leave, they don’t exactly find what they are looking for. Travelling is part of the culture, he said. “We like to explore, but if we are in a crowd, we tend to wander.”
By the time we got back to the horse ranch it was after 5 and we were exhausted, sore, but glowing. The triumphant feeling ended abruptly though as I pulled the rig out of the ranch parking lot. Lined with lovely oaks, I came around the corner too wide and caught a tree on the top of the rig. Mark yelled for me to stop, and I did, 10 feet later. During that time I had perfectly wedged the side awning deep into the stump of the oak tree. We got out to inspect, and realized that we couldn’t go backwards or forwards without ripping off the entire 14 foot awning and probably part of the side of the RV as well. Ugh. This was gonna be ugly and expensive.
Mark, my ever-constant risk analysis engineer, thought about it for awhile. Justin and his guide were gone, so luckily we only had an audience of the ranch caretaker, who was mumbling in Navajo and shaking his head. Finally, he lent us an axe and Mark climbed up on the roof to start hacking away at the tree, hoping to make some room for the rig to slip by.
Did I mention we were also blocking the driveway entrance to the ranch? As Mark hacked away a group of 10 Navajo men showed up. They had been in the Canyon and were picking up their trucks, which were parked at the ranch. I was quite afraid to see what their reaction would be seeing an obnoxious white man standing on an RV, hacking at their sacred tree. They just laughed and inspected our predicament. Finally, the old one said something in Navajo, and they young one said, “What if we all push at the same time to lean the rig away from the tree, and then you back up?” I hopped in the driver’s seat and 10 Navajo and Mark pushed the rig just enough so it wedged out of the tree as I backed up. They saved the day and didn’t seem too upset that we had hacked the tree. They did seem to think we were pretty stupid, though. Fair.
I wish I had a picture of all of this, but you’ll have to use your imagination.
Ok, we decided our time was up in Navajo Nation. We drove east to New Mexico and had a lovely night at the Three Rivers Brewery in Farmington. Our purpose was simple. Catch the basketball game. Check. After that we pulled across the street to the Walmart parking lot (if you didn’t know, Walmart is RV/big rig friendly, and welcomes overnight parking), and cozied up with a bunch of truck drivers for the night. It felt a little dirty waking up in the Walmart parking lot, but it served a purpose.
Next, we headed north to Colorado. This is another state neither of us had ever been! Man, as soon as you cross the border the terrain shifts into lovely rolling hills, green pastures, and snow capped peaks in the distance. The weather turned a bit rainy, so we pulled off the highway on a whim to follow a sign to towards an RV ranch.
We found ourselves in the “Four Corners” region of southwest Colorado (where Colorado meets Utah, Arizona and New Mexico) and I believe paradise exists here at a ranch called Echo Basin. This ranch is made up of 600 acres of beautiful green foothills at the base of the southern Rockies. From May to September it serves as a vacation ranch with cabins, RVs and tent camping. A staff of 15 runs the place, keeping up the housekeeping, bar, restaurant, campsites and immense grounds. It backs up against Rim Rock, a gorgeous mountain range full of lakes, mountain bike trails, and glorious, daisy-filled meadows.
The scenery and landscape drew us in, but the cast of characters enthralled us. First let me tell you about the cowboys. I thought these guys were extinct, but they are very real, and they live here. Generations of families living in the foothills of the Rockies, these men and women left a lasting impression on me. I got to ride with one of them, share some drinks with a few, but most of my pleasure was gained from eavesdropping at the bar.
In the dark and cozy Millwood Restaurant in a building that dates back at least a century, in a town “that has been trying to die for a hundred years,” they were sitting at the table next to us. Both were older men, at least in their late 60s, but who knows, possibly 80s. The only thing that gave away their advanced age was their gray hair (worn long) and their tan, wrinkled faces. But their mannerisms were surprisingly agile–the way one of them jumped out of his seat when the bartender reached over with a menu, the way they put down their dinners hungrily, along with a couple of Maker’s Marks as well. They were still wiry.
A third walked past the bar and caught the eye of one of them.
“Ted, hey my man. How ya doing?”
The newcomer went over to their table, shook the taller one’s hand. The taller one made the introductions.
“Pete, this is Danny. You know his sister’s husband I think, from the track. Jeb Green?” Danny and Pete nod to each other, respectfully. There’s a hint of smile on each of them, courteous-like.
Danny turned back to the tall one, Ted. “Did you go to the funeral yesterday?”
Ted replied, “Yep, we did the whole rigamarole. Guess Jack wanted a little parade so a bunch of us marched around his acres for a while.”
Pete asked, “You guys talking about that neighbor you have, up around back? What happened to him?”
Danny shook his head, “You know. Hard living.”
Ted added, “Liver. Only 51. Too soon.”
They all shook their heads a bit, but the mood wasn’t somber. This was a new concept of “hard living” for me. These characters’ banter entertained me all night.
They weren’t the only interesting ones, though. We arrived in Echo Basin a few days before opening weekend, so instead of guests, we met the work-campers. They were all were full-time RVers, a unique demographic of people I never knew existed. I suppose when I first thought about what it was to live in an RV full-time, I imagined empty-nester baby boomers, selling the house and travelling the US for a year to explore the national parks. And yes, they also exist, but make up less than one percent of all the full-time RVers. Alas, most full-time RVers, and the ones I met say there are millions of them, should actually be called forever RVers. These guys never sold their house to buy the RV, because they never had a house. They probably have never had a chunk of money at one time. Most bought their rigs used or piece-meal, fixing them up as they went along, for $10 or $15 thousand tops.
They don’t pay to stay in RV parks with electricity and water hook ups. They camp in BLM or National Forest land, which allows you to camp for free in one spot for 14 days without moving. Then they just move a few miles over to a new spot. And they are not “touring.” They move a lot like migratory birds. Further south in the winter (Arizona is the spot) and further north in the winter to avoid the heat. Do they have jobs? Sure. Nothing permanent and nothing full time though. Hence their appearance at Echo Basin to work the summer season.
So, it was moving day. For the past few weeks the work-campers had all parked their rigs on “premium spots” on the edge of the camp, with epic views of the mountains and green rolling pastures. But the guests would be here that weekend, so they were moving over to the back of the camp, where their rigs would remain for the summer.
They finished moving day with a few rounds at the bar. Mark and I had been hitting some golf balls on the home-made driving range and passed by the bar on the way back. It was stunning. We had been imagining a make-shift room with a few bottles of beer for sale, but this bar had once been the Echo Basin Restaurant, a fine dining establishment in the 60s and 70s. A long polished bar with floor to ceiling glass behind it, etched with horses and cowboys. The bartender greeted us excitedly, her first customer apart from the staff. She offered us frozen margaritas dispensed from a margarita machine (quite fancy for such an out of the way spot). We sat next to Glenda and Jon, full time RVers.
Glenda sort of laid out the lifestyle of “her people.” She explained, “The goal is to find a nice place that’s free. Some like isolation, some prefer to be close to other RVers. But all like free. There’s a spot called Courtside in Arizona, we winter there. For $180, you can buy a permit to camp anywhere over thousands of BLM acres, and you can fill up your water and dump your trash for free. So you just stock up on food and you can last there for months before you even need to come back to town. “
It blew my mind how little money these people lived on. And they seemed to be living well. Glenda and Jon were work-campers this summer, first time at Echo Basin. In exchange for 25 hours of work per week, they got their campsite with hooks up for the summer. So that means a place to park your rig in a beautiful area of Colorado, as much electricity and water as you need, plus wifi. Jon and Glenda split the 25 hours. She changed sheets in the cabins 12.5 hours a week, and Jon did welding for the other 12.5 hours. So each of them worked less than 2 hours a day. That means they had plenty of time to hang out at “home” with their dogs, tinker around with their rig, ride their motorcycles around, go for long walks, and of course, enjoy the margaritas at the bar.
So I started thinking about Glenda and Jon’s cost of living. For the 7 months in the winter they spend $180 on rent, which includes water and dumping. Then for the summer they don’t pay any rent in exchange for 12.5 hours of work each. And what are their other expenses? Food, gas, drinks, maintenance of their rig. How much they spend on that of course varies, but I imagine they could spend less than $5,000 a year on all that. Because of their lifestyle, they are naturally not typical consumers. Shopping isn’t one of their hobbies, because there’s no need to be buying much for 80 square feet of living space. Jon doesn’t have a collection of beer signs in his man cave. They avoid hobbies that cost money. Instead of golf, they ride dirt bikes. Instead of music concerts, they prefer Spotify. But this is not a sacrifice for them. Part of their daily life is grinding it out. Making each dollar last, such as fixing the broken paper towel holder with a bungee cord so you don’t have to by a new one.
They used to have real jobs. Jon was an electrical engineer. He spent 15 years in an office, and in the middle of a work day out of the blue, he suffered a stroke when he was 39. He was in rehab for six months and turned into a different person. They assigned him a service dog to help him get out of bed. Jon was such a big guy that they had to assign him a bull mastiff….it was the only one strong enough to get Jon up.
So Buddy helped Jon get back on his feet, and his office called asking when he might be coming back. Jon had been saving for a down payment on a house, but when he “woke up” from his stroke, he wondered why. He had $28,000 in his savings account, so he spent half of it on a trailer. Hooked it up to his truck and as he was leaving town, left a voicemail on his old boss’ phone saying that he was done as an engineer.
He had always preferred working with his hands, but his ability at math seemed to force him to be an engineer. Now he didn’t have to. He worked odd jobs learning to weld, fix cars, other things. Met some full-time RVers who very openly shared their tricks and lifestyles with him. One of them was Glenda, a recent widow. Now it’s been 10 years since he “woke” up from his stroke, met Glenda, and they’ve been in his trailer ever since.
Mark and I had to drag ourselves away from Echo Basin and its loveliness, but alas, we finally headed out so we could spend the day at Mesa Verde. This is a spectacular national park with the highlight being ancient cliff dwellings, and an awesome place to ride and run. We each did our thing.
Then we spent three nights camping around Rico, Colorado, a tiny town of 252 people (two babies were born this year, the bartender informed us!). This place is pretty much all wilderness, and has some pretty awesome landscape. We had some epic rides and runs, and found the best boondocking of the trip.
Then suddenly we were in Telluride. This was sort of our “goal” for the trip, and also the furthest east we got. We were super lucky to overlap with Susan and Ellie’s visit to for the Mountain Film Festival. We had two glorious days exploring and riding in beautiful Telluride with them and about a thousand elk. This might be the most beautiful mountain town ever.
Then it was off to Moab for a few days mountain biking in Canyonlands and Arches. We found excellent trails (beginner for me, gnarly ones for Mark) near HorseThief Campground, and also found the best all you can eat pizza and salad place ever (Zax) to watch the first NBA Finals game (very depressing loss).
Then it was time to head back west. We hustled through Utah back to Nevada and had one wild night in Vegas. We stayed at our favorite hotel, Paris. Well, technically it was the parking lot of Paris—ha! Who knew they offered free overnight parking for RVs?! Well, whatever we saved on a hotel we lost at the tables, so call it even? We had a fun night but if felt VERY dirty to wake up with the blazing heat in a parking lot in Vegas, so we got out of there fast. Five hours later we were dropping off the rig to the owner in Riverside, and now we are back in our tiny car, mere mortals on the road again.
23 days and it went by so fast. Can’t wait to be on the road again. Well, won’t have to wait long, because we are off to our next trip in 5 days!
June 8, 2018 at 12:55 pm
Very good reporting. Looks like a wonderful experience with gorgeous views. Only found one typo!
Good luck on your next adventure! Be careful!
June 9, 2018 at 7:07 am
WOW, Michaela!! Fabulous and breathtaking pictures!! I loved the colorful travelogue and the amazing stories. You definitely have a gift for writing! It certainly seems like you and Mark gain so much from these adventures and become totally absorbed in each and every moment….that is awesome!
Thinking of you both as you head off to your next adventure!
I love you,