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.