Buslife Months 3-7, A Southwestern Winter
Alright everyone, we’re going to do our best to quickly get everything up to speed. We let this go way too long, and now there is just too much time to cover to get us back to the present, so this is going to be a long post, which may read a bit like a bulleted list. The internet tells you that blog posts ought to be around five hundred words, but we are just chucking that advice out the window in order to make up some ground. Buckle up kids, we’re looking at a solid twenty-six hundred word ride here (just think of it as a little more than five normal blog posts).
We last posted in Mid-December of 2020 when we were out in Borrego Springs, California staying on the property of our friend Jess. After a few months on the road, it was time for some proper showers, and she invited us to spend the week before Christmas with her in a timeshare in Palm Springs. We showered, watched TV, cooked up a storm, and spent the rest of our time lounging in a hot tub. Hard to beat that.
From Palm Springs we returned to one of our favorite spots, The Hippie Hole. For those of you that haven’t heard of it, the hippie hole is a little cove off the Colorado river outside Cibola, Arizona. There’s free camping (with no apparent limit), pit toilets, trash cans, and a little beach. While it ain’t the ocean by any means, it was a beautiful place to spend the Christmas holiday. Ayana’s friend, Nancy, visited from San Diego for a few days, and we enjoyed a yuletide feast. We rang in the new year drinking cocktails and dancing by a fire on the beach. When it was just beginning to feel like time to leave, our neighbor Bruce beat us to the punch, and granted us the best site in the campground, complete with its own private beach, so we had to stay a bit longer. It is hard to turn away from a free campsite with a private beach, am I right?
But eventually we did leave. We headed back to Borrego to help Jess build a few things on her property, and then struck out for new country. The road led northeast to a quiet, secluded, and beautiful spot called Kelbaker Boulders in the Mojave National Preserve (see the image at the top of the top). We celebrated Andy’s birthday with steaks, tres leches cake, miniature beer pong, and a one-day break from the dry January that we’d been doing.
On the day that we departed Kelbaker Boulders, there was an unusual weather pattern in the area, and we woke up to all of our gear outside soaked and slightly frozen from freezing rain that rolled in overnight. With our hearts set on making Vegas that day, we pushed Bea through the worsening storm. What began as a bit of sleet reached its peak at probably four inches of snow on the road, but the bus ploughed her way through and before too long we descended a few thousand feet and the snow again turned to cold rain.
Unfortunately, that cold rain lingered for a while. When you live in a bus, cold rain, particularly wintertime cold rain, can really bring you down. The rain makes it unpleasant to be outside, which means that two adults and a puggle are trapped in less than one hundred square feet for days on end. On top of that, short days, low-angle sun, and cloud cover all cause the solar panels to produce less power. So, all those things that you want to do when you’re trapped inside all day (watch movies, play video games, run the lights) have to be cut back on to ensure that the batteries stay charged enough to keep the fridge running.
In a state of boredom we made a risky decision (that didn’t seem so risky at the time) to step into the nearly-empty casino we were parked outside of for a beer. It was our first time out in eleven months, and we had a blast. Well, a mid-pandemic-style blast. We left Tori with a brand new serrano ham bone and popped inside. We wore our masks, drank two free beers a piece, gambled away twenty dollars, and were back in the bus in less than two hours. The full trouble wouldn’t catch up to us for another week or so.
In the meantime, we stopped by Andy’s new favorite campsite: Telephone Cove. It is a campsite on Lake Mead, where you can park right on the beach for free for a week. There are pit toilets, dumpsters, and beautiful scenery. We both felt a little tired, but that is not unusual for late January, and we thought nothing of it.
After a quick resupply in Lake Havasu our next campsite was a so-so place called the steps. On our arrival there, the covid we’d unwittingly picked up at the casino had sufficiently multiplied in Andy’s body and sent his immune system into a frenzy. For around ten days he had a high fever, terrible headaches, and could barely get out of bed. Ayana, despite sharing a tiny, one-room motorhome with him, didn’t show a single symptom. On that tenth night, he woke in the pitch dark soaked with sweat, but finally on the mend. We lingered a few more days while Andy recovered and then drove to Yuma, Arizona for a covid test to be sure that we were safe to re-enter society. It was a tough virus, but we were lucky that only one of us got sick and that Andy did not experience any significant complications.
After a few more days of rest in Yuma at a place called Fortuna Pond, we headed east, to the land of saguaros. We spent a few days in Ajo, Arizona enjoying the magical early spring of the Sonoran Desert at a site surrounded by saguaro and organ pipe cactuses.
The next stop was Cochise, Arizona, where we met up with Ayana’s mother for a weekend. She was looking at a property in the area, and it served as a nice excuse to see family after a long time on the road as well as to make a brief foray into the Chiricahuas.
With Ayana’s birthday on the way, we had to quickly turn tail and head back west toward San Diego, where we would meet a few friends. On the way we stopped at the first hot spring of our trip, a little oasis south of the Salton Sea called five palms. The spring was warm at best, but sitting in that tepid water beneath a canopy of palms was a huge relief after so many months in the dry and treeless desert. Unfortunately, the clientele of this hot spring were a bit too much for us. I’m not here to judge folks or yuck anyone’s yum, but the group of swingers at the spring seemed unable to stop flaunting their sexual escapades (including those happening in the bushes right next to the spring), and it really ruined the vibe for us.
In a few days we were in San Diego for Ayana’s birthday bash. We had a bonfire on the beach, saw live music for the first time in ages, ate lots of amazing food, caught up with some old friends, and even found time to get tattoos. It was a whirlwind weekend, and a wonderful chance to see some folks, but as quick as we arrived, we were gone, this time headed north.
The drive toward the Alabama Hills was one of the most harrowing of our lives. Much of the drive was northward up a two-lane highway, with a constant stream of tractor-trailers coming in the opposite direction. There was a powerful (30-40 MPH) crosswind from the west. The square-sided bus acts like something of a sail in these situations, so in order to keep it driving straight in those conditions, the wheel needs to be cocked around ten degrees into the wind. The real trouble is that each time one of those eighteen-wheelers passed, it blocked the wind for a second, which caused the bus to lurch into oncoming traffic. Or, rather, it would have, if the wheel weren’t immediately, almost preemptively, straightened. Of course, as soon as the windbreak was gone (which happens fast when both parties are driving 65+ MPH), the wheel needed to be immediately turned into the wind again to keep the bus from being driven off the highway in the other direction.
After around four hours of this sort of white-knuckle driving, we’d had enough, and pulled off at the next available free camping area, a spot called fossil falls, about an hour shy of the Alabama hills, our intended destination. It must be a function of a lack of expectations, but these surprise campsites are so often our favorites. What we found was a series of small dry lakebeds surrounded by brush, and so much color. The lakebeds were pale sediment, but all around there was black and red volcanic rock and pockets of their respective sands. The contrast was alien and stunning. Our one night turned into a week, and we couldn’t have been happier.
But the time to move on always comes, usually when the food, booze, or water runs low, and come it did. This time we were finally going to make it to that fabled vanlife destination: The Alabama Hills. If you haven’t heard of this place, it has to be one of the most popular Bureau of Land Management (the other BLM) sites out there. Mount Whitney is in the background, and the foreground is made up of a jumble of granite boulders. Historically it was used to film westerns, but nowadays it is largely used as a backdrop for girls to take pictures of their butts (and other vanlife cliches). Even in March, when it was still pretty cold, it was so busy there that it took us around two hours to find a campsite. It was beautiful and relatively peaceful in the secluded spot that we finally found, but the number of boondockers using the cell towers made our internet unbearably slow, and we chose to move on after only about a week.
The other factor in our move was a chance to meet us with our first (and best) buslife friends, and owners of Sweet Bea’s twin: Cat and Aaron of Stu the Bus. They were hanging out just a bit down the road in Bishop, California, and we seized our chance to meet up with some good friends in a beautiful place and drink too much for a few days. They had to take off before too long in order to make their vaccination appointment in Reno, but we stuck around another week and enjoyed the scenery, including a sunset cliffside sushi feast, certainly the most vanlifey thing we’ve done to date (it was pretty wonderful).
The next few weeks were spent bouncing across Nevada from hot spring to hot spring. We stopped in Fishlake Valley for a few days at an amazing little spot with almost everything you could want: free camping, a nice, hot pool, and few visitors. What it unfortunately lacked was cell service, and we only had a few days before Ayana needed to be back on calls, so we had to make it back into good service before long. And that is when disaster struck.
On our way to Tonopah, Nevada, after the fourteen miles of washboard road it took to get to and from fishlake valley hot spring, we had our first breakdown. While making a right turn from one state highway to another, Andy glanced in the side mirror and saw that the entire side of the bus was coated in a fresh layer of motor oil. He quickly pulled over, killed the engine, and started inspecting the damage.
The driver’s side of the engine compartment was sprayed with oil, which the internet told us could be something as minor as a hole in a line, or something as major as catastrophic engine failure. Ayana made breakfast burritos and poured us a couple shots of morning tequila, and we called for a tow.
I’ll spare you all the details, but the long and short of it is that everyone we met in Tonopah, Nevada was over-the-top nice to us. The tow truck driver (Dave?) was a sweetheart, the folks at the Best Western sent the maintenance guy to pick us up to save us walking half a mile, and the mechanic (Mickey) not only took great care of Bea, but also picked us up after breakfast in his own truck and got us back on the road in less than a day for a very reasonable price. When we saw the oil down the side of the bus, we thought all of our buslife dreams might be over. Instead, that little one-eighth inch hole in our oil cooler line was just the push we needed to relish a night spent drinking beer and eating pizza in a hotel room, and to be reminded of the kindness of strangers, before hitting the road once again.
We only drove so far as the Alkali Flat Hot Spring, around thirty minutes south, where we relaxed for a few days. This hot spring is no fishlake valley: the pools are a whole lot smaller, and the lack of washboard roads means it is a lot busier, but we still enjoyed it and made a few more bus friends. But, after a few days, it was our turn to hightail it out of there to make a vaccination appointment, ours in Cedar City, Utah.
We blasted our way across the vast emptiness of southern Nevada in a day. We were sure to fill up on fuel in Tonopah, and were thankful we did, as from there we drove upwards of two hundred fifty miles without seeing a single filling station. There aren’t many places left where you can have such an experience, and, as barren as it is, there is a real beauty in such untouched land.
In Cedar City we bought some groceries, got a quick jab (J&J, if you’re curious), and headed to yet another hot spring. Meadow Hot Springs is a travertine deposit, with three connected springs of crystal clear water. Only one is hot enough to really enjoy in the cooler days of spring, and enjoy it we did. Until, that is, Andy was suddenly overtaken by an extreme shivering fit. We crawled back to the bus and into bed, where we got our butts kicked by the vaccine for the night. We both had headaches, ran fevers, and were knocked flat for a couple of days by the J&J vaccine, but we were happy to have it.
The biting gnats drove us out of Meadow Hot Springs after a few days, and we started making our way back to Boulder for our long-scheduled month of family time. We popped up to Orem, Utah for a few days, but the wind was ferocious, so we continued eastward for a while. Outside Vernal, Utah we found something that we hadn’t experienced in a while: real solitude. We pulled off the highway onto an area of BLM land and drove to a little mesa top. There were a few rigs in the distance, but far enough off that it was hard to make out any detail. For around ten days we stayed and enjoyed the peace of the desert in spring.
The next stop was meant to be Dinosaur National Monument. Andy used to do field work there every summer, and was excited to return to some favorite spots, but our plans were thwarted by the failure of our second inverter. Ayana had too many calls lined up for us to charge her computer from the generator, so that plan had to be canned. It was time instead for us to traverse those familiar Rocky Mountains and settle into Boulder, Colorado for a few weeks (or so we thought).