Boondocking Sedona, Some Thoughts on Snowbirds, and Another Awning Incident

Since leaving Ashville we have broken new travel ground, briefly visiting places we have never been. Our 2015 and 2017 routes westward were more southerly than our current I-40 drive thus far, while 2016, 2018, 2019, and 2020 were spent in the eastern half of the US and Canada. With our last stop at Petrified Forest and this stay near Sedona, however, we have intersected a portion of our 2015 passage through Arizona. Such repeat visits are one of our growing pleasures in this, our seventh grand RV tour.

Ennui for which only the desert or sea may remedy…

And just as our routes vary across years, so too does our timing, allowing us to experience some of the same regions across multiple seasons. Having lived most of our lives, as well as started and ended each RVing year there, we have seen full years’ worth of weather in the Southeast, but with our travels we have also witnessed, for example, the Great Lakes region from July into October. With this tour through Arizona, we are seeing some of the Southwest for the third time, each in a different month.

Our culture can often look a bit down on, or at least askance at, mere seasonal residents. However “true locals” view tourists, often loving their money while hating their crowds, snowbirds and the like are in a different class. Not content with inflicting themselves on “our town” for months at a time, they have the gall to do so as if it is their town too! Yet I think it an excellent lifestyle choice, and one we might explore ourselves down the road, particularly since it is not merely wanderlust that drives us, but also a strong desire to avoid lengthy weather extremes.

Many people do not have the means, freedom, health, or even desire to spend more than occasional vacations away from their home, but for those of us retirees who do, I am glad there are so many options. I am also glad that, whether full time RVing, part time with a home base, or having a second home far away, there is an abundance of information and support to show us how to do it. But for all those resources, there is nothing like direct experience, and these repeat visits across multiple months help narrow things down and crystalize our thinking: returning might reinforce our love, but it can also reveal the flaws, and perhaps help answer the question “What about this place, could we spend a major part of every year here?”

Such musings are all well and good, but its also important not to tear your motorhome awning off the side of the rig at 65 mph on the interstate, as we did this late May in route to Sedona. It is hard to enjoy any place, much less serenely assess it’s potential for long term livability, while hunting down and then dragging the remnants of the 14′ structure along the highway. The shame of it is we replaced the awning canvas less than three years ago and the entire rear arm assembly and two brackets following a comical series of accidents back in 2016.

We were barely able to get this in the door of the RV: it needed the perfect angle to do so.

I am not sure whether it was the age of the remaining hardware, the weather degraded condition of the attachment points, my failure to properly secure the front locking bracket, or a combination of them all that caused the destruction, because it all happened quite fast. Whatever gave way first, the front of the awning started to deploy, and at highway speeds the assembly rapidly turned into a large sail under high winds, easily tearing it free from the the passenger side of the rig. Fortunately I was able to recover the entire roller assembly and both arms, so I will only need to buy the new canvas and a couple of brackets to get it fixed.

We have the parts now, but have not been in one place long enough for a pro to do the repairs. Tow places I checked with were booked solid a month out. Might have to get brave and do this myself.

That was stressful. What we needed was a deeply unstressful spot to spend a few days. Serendipitously, Sedona, less than three hours west, was our next destination. Our first visit here, back in 2015, started with a white knuckle drive south from I-40 on 89A, which was replete with steep downhill grades and hairpin turns alongside ravines, further complicated by people just pulling out into the shoulderless road from obscured driveways and entries. That drive made a lasting impression, and we chose to avoid it this visit by taking the longer but safer route south on I-17.

Six years ago our stay in Sedona was pure magic, largely due to our last minute decision, aided by a knowledgeable local, to “boondock” in the desert. Back then I explained the different types of off grid and nearly off grid camping like this:

Within the RV community people debate the specific definitions of “dry camping” vs “boondocking” vs “overnighting” with a few additional terms thrown in.  Some see dry camping and boondocking as exactly the same thing.  I tend to side with those that make a distinction:

– Overnighting: staying in a parking lot, e.g. Walmart, for a night, no hook ups. Usually free.

– Dry camping: staying in a campground without hook ups. May include small campground fee.

– Boondocking: staying in wilderness area, not a campground, with no hook ups. Usually free.

As I also wrote “We would not be having a typical Sedona visit: no jeep tours or aura readings, just a couple of days in the outdoors alone.” As most of us can admit, it is quite difficult to recapture the magic from a previous special event or location, but we were determined to give it a go. As such, we researched various camping websites, and on Campendium we found the exact same stretch of dispersed camping on Forest Road 525. Located right off of (the non insane portion of) 89A, FR525 starts as a paved turn off that gives way to washboard dirt and gravel within a quarter mile. We continued along this path, passing various packed dirt pull offs suitable for camping, and selected one about a mile from the highway. With more than a dozen sites, most suitable for multiple RVs, some occupied, we can’t be sure it is the exact same spot as 2015, but it sure looked like it, so we settled in for three wonderful days.

One of the differences caching out here compared to back east is how much longer caches last. The lack of rain and humidity allows even half-hazardly created containers and logs to last years.

We spent those days exploring with daily outings in the Geo Tracker, but did so “on the cheap” with no boutique stores nor restaurants, just beautiful landscape and near perfect weather. Taking advantage of Loki’s limited off road capability we continued further up FR525 into the desert hills, venturing from the gravel road onto dirt tracks for a short way to find a particular old geocache, placed in March of 2001, hidden among the scrub trees. The evening before our departure I hiked a loop near our campsite to gather four more.

Four found caches (the yellow circles) in the foothills surrounding our camp site, and the old one a few miles further up the road. This geocaching map gives you an idea of how close we were to the main highway, though you would never know it by the views from our site.

Though just a mile from a major road and less than ten from two towns, the desert hills and rock formations provide a much greater sense of isolation than one might expect. The lack of any buildings or power lines and general open space on public land apparently makes the area quite suitable for hot air balloons, something we learned early one morning when we were awakened by a loud, ongoing noise, which turned out to be a balloons getting inflated right next to our rig. Just one more joyous thing to witness during an already wonderful stop.

On our last day we loosened the purse strings to visit one wine bar, Oak Creek Vineyards, just a couple of miles from our campsite, for a shared antipasto plate and flight of local reds in a lovely outdoor setting. We ventured ten miles north into Sedona and eight miles south to Cottonwood, finding in the latter a small but very nice farmers markets that had plenty to tempt us despite the limited number of vendors. For a modest $15 we left with a dozen duck eggs, local beef jerky, and fresh Italian bread.

I have been meaning to give duck eggs a try for some time, and the Cottonwood Farmers Market gave me the opportunity. They taste like… eggs. The shells are much thicker though, and each one is almost twice as large as a chicken egg by weight and volume.

New Mexico and Arizona have been so good to us this trip, just as they were during our past two circuits of the west. We look forward to seeing more of them in the future, but next up is California.

A Return to Petrified Forest National Park

In the computer gaming world, particularly in role playing games, there are goals that players must do to advance. In addition to these plot-advancing requirements there are extra, optional missions, popularly referred to as “side quests,” that players may do, and while they are not necessary to complete the game, they often add richness, complexity, and challenge. In the game of full time RVing, level 2021, our latest mission was “Go West” and the next necessary milestone was “Visit Dolores in Concord, CA.”

Accordingly, we developed a plan to get there, along with a list of possible “side quests” we might undertake along the way. We would not have time for all of them; distance off the route would be a major factor in deciding which to do, but Petrified Forest National Park involved practically no deviation from our current path since I-40 passes directly through it. Even if it had been a couple of hours off the route we likely would have done it anyway since we really enjoy The Painted Desert region, but being right along the way made it a no brainer.

We left our last stop, Red Rock Park in New Mexico, and made the short drive to the Painted Desert Visitor Center at the north end of the park, immediately off I-40. After getting our bearings, we headed for the park entrance, prepared to purchase an $80 annual pass for all national parks (we have tentative plans to see up to a dozen during the coming year) and were quite pleasantly surprised to learn that, as of Veterans Day 2020, all national parks are free to all veterans. Yay us! That almost makes up for having to pay a Tricare health insurance monthly fee starting this year.

Petrified Forest has a 28 mile road running north-south through it that allows visitors to see and experience a lot of the fascinating geology and beautiful scenery from easy pull outs, parking areas, and trail heads. In fact, during our 2015 visit, short on time and lacking a tow vehicle, that is pretty much all we did; driving from the I-40 exit through the park, stopping at various spots along the way, and then turning right around at the southern end and doing it again.

This year we allotted two days for the park, and since we had prepositioned fairly close we arrived in time to really enjoy day one. But first: accommodations. In 2015 we finished our “down and back” tour of the park around sunset, and lacking reservations anywhere we picked the first RV park on the interstate. It was cheap and perfectly serviceable, but current reviews suggested it had gone down hill since then while the price had doubled.

Instead, we chose to stay at the Petrified Forest Gift Shop, a privately owned place just beyond the park’s southern entrance gate, which was perfect. It does not look like much when you pull up, but for $15 a day we got 30 amp power, plenty of space, some nice views, and extraordinary convenience. The gift shop proprietors were very flexible about site selection and how we set ourselves up, which made a difference in our shade and privacy. The gift shop on the other side of the road, Crystal Forest, has pretty much the same RV parking deal, and some of their sites even have a little covered area and picnic tables, and it would have been quite acceptable as well, but we stuck with our first option since the sites looked just a touch more spaced out.

You would never know this is the gift shop parking lot rather than a beautiful desert RV resort, right?

Frequently the first day of an RV destination is a bit of a loss: we don’t start our travel days early unless forced, and after a four hour drive and campsite set up time, well, it’s cocktail hour. Though we had just driven through the park in the big rig, thanks to having prepositioned relatively close at our last New Mexico stop, we were early enough to really enjoy that first day. We took Loki back into the park, and made multiple stops along the park road, staying late enough to really enjoy the views as we neared the golden hour.

A wider view, showing how much space we enjoyed.

Day two we explored the nearby town of Holbrook where we particularly enjoyed the very large Jim Gray’s Petrified Wood store. They have an an astounding amount of petrified wood, a wide assortment of other rocks and minerals, and a very nice sort of museum/art gallery as well. If you visit the Petrified Forest National Park, you will find plenty of souvenirs and interesting things at the official gift shops and the two privately owned ones immediately just outside the parks southern gate, but for the best possible selection and prices we recommend heading into Holbrook and seeking out places like Jim Gray’s.

We also geocached the area for an hour or two, finding ten or so caches in addition to the National Park Service approved caches within the park proper. Geocaching is an ideal hobby for those of us who don’t enjoy shopping as much as our spouses; I can drop Rosemarie off at Michael’s or Ross and find a few local caches until she is ready for pick up. In this case, however, we both went a-huntin’, which is helpful since Rosemarie’s eye is a lot better than mine when searching for camouflaged containers in heavy foliage.

Holbrook and the two entrances to the Petrified Forest form a triangle. We had taken the southern leg of it to town, but for our return we took the northern leg back to the top of the park, allowing us to make one more exploration of the place before the early evening gate closures. We focused on a few of places in the north we had not visited on day one, but revisited some of our favorites. The Blue Mesa loop is not to be missed.

There are national parks where a short visit can’t conceivably allow visitors to see even a fraction of the wonders available. Then there are places where a couple of days is sufficient to take it in, or at least the highlights. We consider The Petrified Forest in the latter category: clearly worth your time, but you don’t need to plan for a week here. If you are passing through Arizona on I-40, it is well worth a stop, even if you only have a couple of hours to drive through it.

Next up: Sedona and our first true boondocking since leaving Florida.

We have been fortunate enough to spot a pronghorn during both of our Petrified Forest visits.

Selecting Our Route to California and Another Short Stop in New Mexico

Despite two full months in Asheville, time spent with the full knowledge that we were going west this year, we had somehow not managed to develop a plan much beyond “California, then clockwise.” Don’t get me wrong: we were committed to a western circuit and had a bunch of places out there on our wish lists, but I think, perhaps, we were not yet committed to the painful process of deciding what not to see, i.e., those fantastic spots that just would not make the cut due to time, distance, and opportunity costs. This, plus uncertainties about COVID reopening and family obligations, gave us some cause to delay developing the details (or anything even approaching a detail, apparently.)

Thus late May found us executing Phase 1 (Just Go West) of The 2021 Grand Western Tour not knowing the specifics of said phase nor what Phases 2, 3 and so on entailed at all! But more than six years of doing this whole full time RVing thing had given us faith in our ability to adapt and find wonderful places on the fly. After all, Phase 1 was going pretty well so far.

But a few days actually on the road and eating up miles at a fast pace forced us to the actual business of longer term planning, at a minimum the general route of Phase 2 (Texas to California.) As has been the case for much of our RV travels, we were letting national parks, both new ones and old favorites, define at least the outline of our route. But with so many we wanted to see, our available time (roughly two and a half weeks) would simply not allow us to visit even half of the locations on our list. And so, between Arkansas and Oklahoma, I mapped out three very different general routes to use as a starting point for Rosemarie and I to discuss, modify, and select.

I started with a northern option, a path that would involve turning north from I-40 as soon as Amarillo, TX to reach Southern Colorado’s Sand Dunes and Mesa Verde national parks. From there it would be west into Utah for Bryce Canyon, Capital Reef, maybe Zion again. Then we could continue on to Las Vegas and perhaps Death Valley before heading to Central California. 0f course, we would not expect to visit all of these places; they were just options along the way. The same holds true for the other two routes as well.

Next I looked at a southern route which would entail staying on I-40 into New Mexico before angling southwest towards Las Cruces and White Sands National Park, one of our newest, having been upgraded from a national monument in 2019. From there we would likely continue west into Southern Arizona and Saguaro National Park near Tucson. Finally we would turn northwest, possibly stopping at Joshua Tree, a place we had not really gotten to appreciate during a difficult initial tour.

Having experimented with so many possibilities making the first routes, the third, central option, came quick and easy. For this path we would stay on I-40 all the way to Arizona and the Petrified Forest National Park, one of our favorites from 2015’s grand tour. Continuing west could take short detours to Sedona or the Grand Canyon before continue to California and all those national parks in the central part of the state (Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Pinnacles, Yosemite.)

We discussed the pros and cons of all three options: north had the most national parks but was by far the longest route; south had three national parks plus Tucson and Phoenix but they were not at the top of our desired list, while the center route was the shortest and allowed us to revisit some favorite locations though it did not allow a new (to us) national park until deep into California. Though to some it may seem the least exciting, we chose the central option. The opportunity to visit the Petrified Forest and Sedona again, along with significantly more time for the California parks, were major factors, but some specific plans for the late summer and fall also had an impact.

Walking the cat before geocaching, which will involve finding a route to the top of those sandstone cliffs.

We finalized the plan while at the Tinker Air Force Base Family Camp in Oklahoma City, and our selected route meant that, rather than make a sharp turn in either direction, we would continue along I-40 deep into Arizona. Per last post we had already made a nearly 400 mile run to Tucumcari, about 30 miles across the Texas-New Mexico border. With another 414 miles and perhaps seven hours of driving left before our intended campground in Arizona, we elected to stop for another one night stay along the way.

With a mileage-based goal of “somewhere close to the Arizona border,” I had tentatively picked a free, Bureau of Land Management site a few miles off of the interstate along some unimproved gravel and dirt roads. It was right off the interstate, and had a few (though critically, not universal) positive reviews. When we pulled off at the designated exit and tried to work our way to the coordinates, the roads and turn around options got worse and more confusing. We decided to do a painful multi-point turn (made possible only because, contra our early RV days, I now know how to back up a towed vehicle without jack knifing it, a skill roughly learned fishing with friends in Key West) and regroup back near the main road. We checked a couple of RV apps and web sites (All Stays, Campendium) and continued down the road a few miles to Red Rock Park, a Gallup city owned place with mixed and even contradicting online reviews.

Sometimes you just have to pull into an empty parking lot and regroup.

For us, it was near perfect. Admittedly, the both the lay out and walk up check in process were a bit confusing. Site lines were unmarked, services available unclear, and even the roads were awkward (“Is that part of the road loop or a big pull through site?”) We never saw the camp host even though “wait for them to come around” was supposedly one of the payment methods. Regarding all of that: the negative reviewers of this place were right, even about the large (but friendly!) dog that apparently lived semi-feral at the park.

But in our eyes the environment vastly outweighed those minor inconveniences. Under the shadow of red sandstone cliffs, sand dunes, and beautiful rock formations, the campground is right at the head or along the route of several hiking trails. The electric and water equipped sites were spacious and most were under at least one tree. I did a short but arduous hike with some scrambling up the dunes and sandstone bluffs to find an old geocache that had been placed by a hot air balloon crew during a rally years back. We had a beautiful evening under the New Mexico sky, surrounded by natural beauty. This would have been a great place for an extra day or two, an we will consider doing so should we be passing through the area again.

Geocaching. The view from near the top of the bluff overlooking the campground.

Next up: revisiting Petrified Forest National Park.

Heading West: Asheville to New Mexico and Three Short Stops Along the Way

We left Asheville in the rear view camera, headed west, eager to make up a bit of time in both the recent “we’re getting a late start on this year’s travel” and the long term “we haven’t been able to go west in three years” senses. Regarding the latter: we had planned to do our third tour of the US West in 2019, moved it back a year to accommodate a trip to Cuba, and then pushed it off again in 2020 due to COVID.

As such, we did what for us was a sprint across the country, putting in more miles per day than our usual comfort level (four hours or 250 miles) allows, and making a series of one day stops with almost no prior planning or reservations along the route. We wanted the flexibility to push on if we felt like a long drive or stop short if not. To the extent that we did plan, it was “head west on I-40,” at each night’s stop select a few possible campground options for the next day, and hopefully have our actual western destination sites selected by the time we get to New Mexico.

It worked out quite well. We eased into things with a five hour run to Central Tennessee the first day, stopping at only our second Corps of Engineers campground ever, Seven Points in Hermitage. Seven Points is an excellent campground located on a large lake reservoir, and like most COE campgrounds, it is well maintained and firmly managed. The sites are large, spaced out, and under modest tree canopy, just the way we like them.

We did not have reservations since, as stated above, we were not sure how far we would drive that day, but I had checked the web page the night before and noted a handful of available sites. By the time we got there we ended up with the last open spot. Huzzah! It was $26 a night for electric and water, which is a solid price considering the proximity to Nashville. Given less urgency to keep moving, we would have enjoyed a couple of nights here. Alas, it would be but one this trip.

The second day we picked up the pace, crossed the Mississippi and pushed deep into Arkansas during a six hour, 366 mile run. We made it as far as Little Rock, which has an Air Force Base with a Family Camp (the Air Force specific name for their RV parks and campgrounds.) While writing this post I could not for the life of me remember anything about the place, and having failed to take any pictures I resorted to looking it up on U.S. Military Campgrounds and RV Parks, where the reviews and photos sparked my memory.

Using the perhaps tiresome “Good, Bad, and Ugly” framework, the park is conveniently located less than five miles off I-40, safe in the way that all parks actually on a military base are, and dirt cheap at $20 for a full hook up site near a major city. “The Bad” would be the crap shoot as far as which section of the park you end up in, with the back section an extended loop in a partially wooded area, while the front is an ugly parking lot. “The Ugly” is the surprisingly poor maintenance of the area, particularly the front section with muddy, fire ant infested sites. At $20 we weren’t concerned about such things, but if we were staying in Little Rock for more than a one nighter it would be worthwhile to do a bit more planning and aim for the back, nicer section.

Day three we put in another nearly six hour drive, logging another 329 miles west to Tinker Air Force Base FamCamp in Oklahoma City. With nearly 1,000 miles under our belt since Asheville we rewarded ourselves with a two night stay. There we learned that the Air Force’s Frequent Camper Program, an excellent in concept but shakily managed program designed to encourage greater use and exploration of the many AFB parks, has been cancelled. This is a real shame, and the cynic in me assumes that the reason for the cancellation is that it was so poorly managed that someone decided to just chuck it rather than fix it.

A quick primer on the now defunct program: for $40 bucks you bought the initial package, which gave you a passport type booklet, five free night certificates, and some swag (patches, pins, stickers, etc.) One free night cert could be used on a stay of two nights or longer. Once you stayed at ten different FamCamps you sent in copies of the appropriately stamped passport, for which you would receive five more free night certificates. The two main problems with the program management were the lack of available initial packages (it took us four bases to find one back in 2016, and we hear it has gotten worse) and the lengthy delays in getting follow on certifications after sending in your stamped passport pages (it took us months and several follow up emails to get ours.)

Ah well, RIP that program. If you have the passport booklet you can still get it stamped at most places, and at least some FamCamps are still honoring existing free night certificates if you have them. We used one of ours for our second night at Tinker, though it feels a bit wasteful on a site that only costs $20 for full hook ups. The campground itself is decent, though a bit tighter than we are used to at FamCamps, and with a couple of sites roped off due to flooding.

While there a Facebook update resulted in multiple inquiries from Sigsbee friends and acquaintances, and after some coordination we were able to meet up with Terri and John for dinner. We wanted steak, because when in Oklahoma what else should you eat? They picked Bandana Red’s Steakhouse, a local, low key joint with well priced sirloins, for an excellent meal. The only downside was the place had apparently lost their liquor license, so there were no adult libations to accompany the meal. Thanks for a great time, Terri and John, until next time.

Time and distance precluded us meeting up with Sigsbee stalwarts Eddie and Tina, and after our two day recovery stay at Tinker we continued west, putting in another long day. We exited Arkansas, passed through the top of Texas, and after nearly 400 miles made it to New Mexico. Having run out of Air Force Bases and COE parks, we turned to Passport America, our sole remaining discount program, for another one night stop. We ended up at Blaze-In-Saddles RV Park, a well maintained place in Tucumcari. For $20 we had a spacious full hook up site just a couple of miles off the interstate.

So that’s that: a 1,356 mile, six state run that gets us to “The West” only a few days after leaving Asheville. Next post we decide between three, significantly different route options for the remainder of our journey to California.