Desert Time - Mojave and Sonora

San Diego was our longest stop yet on this trip. We spent three weeks there and really enjoyed our time. However, our last few days there, we were getting itchy feet again and we knew it was time to move on. It seems that two-three weeks is about the max we can stand being in once place, now. How crazy is that? It certainly explains why, when I was in regular "sticks and bricks" homes, the most I could stand was about two-three years in any one home. I'm curious to see if I'll get tired of our RV after two-three years and get the itch to trade to travel in a new way?

Having come from the North and lacking a passport for Crayton, leaving San Diego we were left with but one direction to go and that was East. The next campground I had picked out felt like a bit of a crapshoot. It was a small private campground just north of Joshua Tree National Park. It only had partial hookups and the pictures on the website that made the place look a little tired, but the price was right and apparently being way out in the desert, the star-gazing was supposed to be good, so we went for it. It turned out to be a real gem. It hosts a music festival twice a year, the Joshua Tree Music Festival, so there was a lot of sculpture and random art all around. There was a fishing/duck pond (in the desert!), a small playground and a little store. Crayton LOVED the ducks and spent a lot of time this week feeding them. Best of all, we met another full-time family. Mark and Paige are from Colorado and just launched about two weeks prior, so they were still getting their feet wet. It felt weird being the 'experienced' full-timers for once.

Crayton the ConDuckTor

A Desert Sunrise

Almost immediately after arrived Monday afternoon, I started to feel a little under the weather, developing a cough and feeling tired. Sure enough, overnight the first night, I developed a fever and was full-on sick. By Wednesday I was miserable and realized this wasn't a mere cold. Looking for Urgent-care options in the area, there were two, but both were rated one-star with comments along the lines of "if you come in with anything more than a scratch needing a band-aid, expect blank stares." The nearest better rated ones were in Palm Springs which was quite a drive away. Looking for alternatives, I turned to remote-care. I found a service where you can video chat online with a doctor for a flat fee. If they're able to diagnose you that way without referring you for tests and if whatever you have is treatable, they can send prescriptions to a local pharmacy for you to pick up. I was able to get an appointment within an hour and after a 30 minute chat, she determined I almost certainly had the flu. We caught it in time for me to use Tamiflu and a couple of hours later I was on my first dose. This is the future of medicine, folks, and it was awesome. I remained fairly sick all week, finally starting to get some strength back by the weekend, but didn't feel 100% for several weeks.

Tuesday night we had a pizza party with our new friends and their two kids (4g and 2b) which I was barely able to participate in given my health. The rest of the week was filled with me working what I could to save PTO and sleeping the rest of the time. Pam and Crayton played with the ducks, watched people fish, played with Paige and Mark's kids, played on the playground, etc. Not exactly how we wanted to spend the week, but somehow they both managed to dodge this sickness/flu and stayed healthy. We had some torrential rains (of course!) and flooding a few days after arrival and the overnight temps were a bit cool, but the weather wasn't terrible. One afternoon toward the end of the week I was feeling well enough to venture out a bit so we took Crayton to the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley. It was a free, small, but nice museum about the local history, flora and fauna. We met a local woman and her 4yo boy who totally hit it off with Crayton. She had moved here from the LA area to escape the high cost of living of the coast and loved the Yucca Valley area. We could see why, there's something nice about the area. The curator of the museum was a super-nice British woman who was great with the kids and Crayton had a blast in the kids play room they had.

Playing at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum

By Saturday, I was feeling well enough to head into Joshua Tree National Park for a few hours. We drove into the park, had a picnic lunch, and then did a 1+ mile loop hike at Hidden Valley. It was a really nice day and a nice hike. Though I think I coughed up half a lung-lobe, the time outside was good for me, I'm sure. The park was crowded with weekend visitors from nearby LA and SD, but it was still nice to get out in the desert and explore a bit. Before long, my energy was depleted and we retreated to the camper. Sunday was spent doing laundry and other chores. It was a bit odd, though, being a tourist town that between the towns of Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley there was exactly one laundromat and one place to refill propane. What should have taken a couple of hours took half the day, but we got it done. There's a business opportunity if ever there was one. "Laundry and propane" on the east side of Yucca Valley. When we got back to camp, after a rest, I joined Pam and Crayton down by the pond and Crayton talked me into renting him a fishing pole and we fished for a while. It turns out that when trying to improvise bait and you're vegetarian, you don't have much for options. We tried wet cat food chunks and bits of veggie-bologna. Oddly the fish liked the veggie-bologna best, but all we did was feed them, as the fish that were biting weren't big enough to take the hook. Crayton had a great time, though, and we promised to buy him a rod at some point. The campgrounds we're staying at near San Antonio and Houston have lakes, so we'll get him something before then.

Hiking in Joshua Tree National Park

NOT a Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree Family Selfie

Our week was up before we knew it. It seemed especially quick for me since I slept through the bulk of it. But now we were off for our first boondocking adventure. Boondocking is RV camping without hookups, generally on public land. This week we headed to Quartzsite, AZ. It's a sleepy town of <1000 during the summer months, but in the winter, the place explodes with seasonal RV'ers. During the peak weeks in January when they have the big Gem & Rock show and the big RV show, there can be as many as 100,000 RVs in local RV parks or 'boondocked' out in the desert. We were doing the later. We joined 70-80 or so other RVs for the Winter West-Coast Grand Design Rally. Grand Design is the company that made our RV and this was a chance to meet up with lots of other folks with similar rigs to ours, trade tips, see the modifications we'd all made and make some new friends. We were also looking forward to seeing Wayne and Rachel again. If you've been reading the blog for a while, you'll recognize them as the couple we met in Ashland and then met up with again in Yellowstone. This time we would get nearly a week to hang out and get to know them a little better.

It's really hard to describe the wild experience that is Quartzsite in the winter, but here's a video that does a fair job. Note I did not produce this.

Knowing that we'd be running on the generator and wanting to take advantage of all the gathered knowledge, I took the week off of work to truly soak this in. One thing I was really looking forward to was seeing other people's solar and battery bank installations. I was not disappointed. There were many different set ups in attendance at the rally and I had a chance to chat with the owners of several. As you may recall, we put our own solar install on hold after we got an astronomical quote. We decided to get a Thousand Trails membership and consider installing our own solar setup instead. This was our first time bookdocking and we wanted to see how we liked it before investing in a large solar array and battery bank. It wouldn't make much sense to spend a lot of money on it if we were never to get our investment back in campground fee savings. We were pleasantly surprised. We had no trouble making it 5 days on a single fresh water tank fill of 60 gallons and could probably have made it a week or more with little effort. We were able to run our generator a few hours a day to keep our single battery functional and make coffee, etc.

Our boondocking site outside Quartzsite, AZ

We've decided that since we intend to stay on the road more or less indefinitely and we enjoy boondocking, we intend to piece together a self-installed system over the course of the next six-eight months before we head back south and west next winter. It was encouraging to see so many different options for how to mount panels and route wires, see different battery options in practice from flooded lead-acid, to AGM to Lithium, and see different system sizes in use from small two-panel ground-deployed 200 Amp-hour systems to monster roof-mounted 8-panel 1000 amp-hour systems with a 3000 watt inverter. Most of the systems we saw were self-installed, too, giving me more confidence that I can pull this off myself. I now have a system and an approach in mind and it will be a lot of work, but a fun challenge!

We went into town a couple of times to see the flea-market and gem shows. It's hard to describe, but pretty much anything you can imagine is for sale at fairly cheap prices. The trouble is that some dealers take advantage of the temporary nature of the whole thing to rip people off and likely never have to see them again. So if you come, this is really a buyer-beware type of situation. We bought a few things, but nothing big. Some solar motion sensor lights for the front-porch area of the camper, some bungees, velcro strips, a tee-shirt for Crayton and a skirt for Pam, a few small kitchen items and such. Nothing that would kill us if the item failed. Still, it was fascinating to roam about and soak it all in.

Walking around Quartzsite

Some Typical Vendors in Quartzsite

Crayton Enjoyed the Gem and Crystal Vendors

The rally itself was a lot of fun as well. There were big campfires every night, a couple of pot-luck meals and a big catered meal on the last day sponsored by Grand Design. Lots of folks brought dogs, so while Crayton was literally the only kid there, there were tons of dogs for him to play with and with a median age of attendees in the 60s, there were lots of folks to dote on him and he got to play surrogate grandchild for hundreds of retirees. I'd guess probably half of the attendees were full-timers and as I mentioned, all but a few couples were retirees. The weather was a mixed bag. Some days were sunny and warm, but we also had a couple of days of rain (of course!) and some wind that made a few of the rally days less productive than they would have been otherwise as we were cooped up indoors mostly. One day was set up for folks to show off their modifications and I got to show my cell booster, wired and wireless network and upgraded entertainment system to a few curious folks. Likewise, I took the opportunity to tour a few solar installations.

Just a few of the Grand Design RVs at the Rally

Crayton with some of his surrogate grandparents

The epic campfire we had one night

It was great to get to know Wayne and Rachael more while we were here. Crayton loved having them right next door and spent a lot of time playing games with Rachael and generally adopting them. We learned to play Settlers of Catan with them one night, shared a few meals and had a great time. Wayne owns a drone and flew it a few times. Unfortunately, he posted his videos to Facebook where I can't directly link to them, but he took some great aerial shots of the rally. I've been thinking for a while about getting a drone and Pam had given provisional approval to the purchase some time ago. It turns out that the make of drone Wayne had was a real bargain right now. The company is getting out of the consumer market and will be focusing on military and commercial use. So their line of personal drones can be found for really cheap. They were $1200+ when they first came out and can now be found for about $300. It's true that eventually they'll no longer support them, but it's an inexpensive way to find out if it's a hobby I'd want to pursue. So I ordered one for in-store pickup in Tucson, our next destination. For those interested the make is 3DR and the model is the "Solo". Best Buy often has bundles with the gimbal mount for the camera, an extra battery and such for about $300. I already had a nice GoPro camera which the Solo is designed for and I already have an android phone for use as the screen for the controller, so there was nothing else I needed to invest in. Between the drone and getting the GoPro out more, I hope to produce more videos and possibly video blog (vlog?) in the near future.

Somehow this is the only photo I have of Wayne and Rachel

We only planned to stay in Quartzsite for 5 nights in case boondocking or the rally turned out to be a bust. In hindsight, we wish we'd planned to stay longer. The Xscapers, a sub-group of the Escapees club, which focuses on working-age full-timers, was also having a rally nearby. It would have been nice to spend a few days there getting to know other similarly-aged folks, but it was time to keep moving east. We'll definitely be back to Quartzsite sometime, though, for a longer stay. Likely next winter once we have our solar installed.

Saturday came and it was time to head out. Friday had been super-windy all day, so we were concerned about travel safety since Saturday was predicted to be windy, too, but in the morning the forecast had been downgraded and we felt safe pulling out. Sure enough the travel day was nice, quick and trouble free and we arrived in Tucson a bit before dusk.

As with most of Arizona, the majority of the RV parks are 55+ retirement communities, so a youngish family like ours simply isn't welcome in most places. Finding an RV park where we could stay that also had openings was tough even when I was making the reservations a couple of months prior. One of the only places I could find with availability was the KOA. They tend to be nice family-friendly parks, but they're also expensive. This was no different. Easily one of the nicest parks we've ever stayed at, but also the second-most expensive. The place is immaculate. Two pools, a game room, a bar and restaurant, two laundry rooms, a small store, two huge solar-canopies totaling over two acres of solar panels, citrus trees bearing fruit all over the property (all the oranges and lemons you can eat!), lots of other kids, a duck pond, mini-golf, etc and all of it meticulously maintained. Our first night in Tucson we were determined to find a mariachi band. One of our favorite bands, Calexico, is from Tucson (and oddly very popular in Europe) and we had hoped they'd be in town playing somewhere while we were here, but nope, they are in Belgium and Scotland that week. So to compensate for that disappointment, we felt mariachi could help. Some quick googling and we found a restaurant, Rosa's, that had a band on weekends. We got there just in time for them to play their last song of the night, a mariachi version of Orange Blossom Special. The food was great, too. We also picked up the drone I'd ordered while we were out.

Our first full day here, Sunday, we went to Old Tucson Studios. It's a replica of what Tucson looked like during the old west and was used to shoot hundreds of movies and TV show episodes over the years, mostly from around '45 thru the early 70s, but still occasionally used today. For instance, a few scenes from The Three Amigos as well as scenes from Young Guns were filmed there. They had a lot of neat exhibits about the film history, but the best parts were the rides ( a train, of course!) and the stunt shows. Crayton really loved the stunt show where the actors showed how they pull their punches, shoot blanks, fall from buildings and such. He was literally cackling with excitement and laughter for the whole show. On the drive back to the RV park, we were looking for somewhere to fly the drone, but struck out as most of the areas we found were too full or brush for my first flights. We couldn't fly it at the campground as the FAA forbids doing so within five miles of any airport. Our RV park was within five miles or not one, not two, but THREE airports.

Old Tucson!

Part of the stunt show at Old Tucson!

We took a Stagecoach ride

On Monday, we all slept in a bit and then went to Saguaro National Park around lunchtime. The visitor center was really nice with small quality displays and a short film about the park. We then drove over to the Valley View Overlook Trail where we walked the trail over to a ridge line with great views to the west. Pam took something north of 200 photos. She LOVES cacti. The walk was great with nice interpretive signs about the local flora and it was a beautiful day to be out and about. Back at the truck, we decided to take the Golden gate Road out of the park and it was a fun road. Love it when you see a sign that says "High Clearance Vehicles Only" followed by a twisty arrow sign. I'm starting to like having a truck a little too much, I think.

A stereotypical Saguaro. Did you know the 'g' is silent?

Pam photographing cacti

Oooooooooo... This road looks like fun!

Tuesday it was back to work for me after over a week off. It's always hard to get back in the groove after time off and this was no different. Oddly, I think folks had gotten used to not having me around, so the day wasn't full of interruptions as is usual, I actually got a lot done. After work, I decided to take advantage of the fact the the RV park will let you wash your vehicles and RVs for a small water charge of $8. It only took about an hour and a half and I have both our truck and camper sparkling clean. I then used the Wash-Wax-All 'wax' that I started using on the truck, over the next few days and finally, after five months on the road, the camper is clean again. We've been trying to do this for months, but haven't found an RV park that would let you wash onsite or found a drive through wash big enough to handle our rig. Hopefully it won't be so long between washes next time.

Wednesday after work, we went in search of mudflaps. Weird story. So it turns out that in Texas, all dual-rear-wheel vehicles must have mudflaps by law. That was not the case in Wisconsin where we bought our truck, so our truck is flap-less. We had just found this out and we'd be entering Texas on Saturday, so we were in kind of a mad rush to find mudflaps that will fit our truck. We visited three truck accessory stores and struck out on all three. One of them, however, pointed out that in Arizona you must, technically, have mudflaps on all duallies as well, they just don't enforce it as strictly in Arizona as they do Texas. Great, we've been inadvertently breaking the law for a couple of weeks, now. In the end, we gave up and I ordered some online that will be delivered to our RV park in El Paso. In the meantime, I printed out the order confirmation to show any officers that may pull us over as proof that we're trying to comply.

Also on Wednesday we met three other fulltime families here in the park, with 13 kids between them. Big families tend to be the norm amongst RVers, which seems odd to me, but hey, if they can do it, great! I only got a chance to talk with two of them. One who does longer term on-site contract work before moving every few months. The other family has only been on the road a few months, but in a gorgeous converted school bus. Hopefully we get a chance to get to know them all a bit better before moving on Saturday. They all seem like nice folks.

Thursday, Pam took Crayton to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum while I worked. I'm sorry to have missed it, but there just isn't enough time here to do everything we wanted to as a family. They had a great time, though. Saturday came and we hit the road again for El Paso!

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We went from 3700 square feet in the suburbs to 370 on wheels. We work and travel fulltime with our son and kitty.


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