We’ve just spent a week camping completely off the grid in the Colorado desert, which was a first for us. We camped for free in a tract of the desert belonging to the Bureau of Land Management just south of the Joshua Tree National Park, which had no water and no electricity; nothing, actually, apart from miles of sand, but thanks to a full tank of water and our new solar panels, we pulled it off.
Before we left New York, we had researched the various solar panel options for trailers, so we could stay in the many amazing camping spots that don’t have electrical power. Portable solar panels are becoming cheaper and more efficient all the time and this certainly seemed a better option to a noisy, gas- guzzling generator.
However, when we bought our trailer, the dealership salesman suggested that our twin, 12-volt, deep cycle trailer batteries could last for three to four days without being charged, so we decided to see how we fared living off battery power alone before purchasing a solar kit.
It turns out the salesman was extremely optimistic. When we camped off the grid on Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, our batteries provided us with enough juice to run the water pump and a few lights for three days, but not enough to retract our trailer’s mechanical slide out section when we were getting ready to leave. We ended up having to borrow a kind fellow camper’s spare battery pack to get the job done.
We weren’t going to deal with that again, so we ordered solar panels to be delivered to us in Tuscon, the next private campground where we were staying long enough to receive packages.
Our folding, Eco-Worthy 120-watt solar panels couldn’t be easier to use. We stuck them outside when we arrived in the desert and attached them to our battery terminals and that was it. We had direct sunshine the whole time, which clearly helped, but after a few hours of sun, our batteries were fully charged again.
No amount of DC power from the batteries will run AC appliances, obviously, so we also bought a cheap inverter to attach to our batteries, which gave us enough AC power to charge our phones, camera, video camera and laptops. A lot of campers install powerful inverters inside their trailers so they can run more AC appliances, but we don’t need to watch the TV or use the toaster when we’re camping off the grid for a few days and our makeshift solution can be unplugged from the trailer and plugged into The Beast when we’re on the go, so we have AC power in there as well.
Anyway, we were pretty happy that the sun successfully kept us going for a week and allowed us to camp in a beautiful desert location free of charge. After The Chiricahua National Monument Incident, getting a flat tire in Phoenix and losing both our wifi hotspot and one of Shane’s crowns, which required an emergency dentist visit, we began to wonder whether we would emerge unscathed, particularly when we discovered we were camping right on the San Andreas fault. But aside from helping some campers who got their rental motorhome stuck in the sand, we enjoyed a no-drama week and some peace and quiet. We took Sonny exploring (watching out for scorpions), admired the desert flowers just starting to bloom, saw a golden eagle, enjoyed the beautiful sunsets over the mountains and watched the stars.
This was also a great location to explore Joshua Tree National Park, The Salton Sea and Palm Springs (see the gallery at the end for more photos). The vegetation of Joshua Tree National Park changes dramatically as you travel north and west from the Colorado desert into the Mojave desert and climb to higher elevations. All the Joshua Trees are in the Mojave part of the park, but after recent heavy rains, the Ocotillo and Cholla cacti in the hotter and drier Colorado desert were also green and covered in new shoots. The view from Keys View, at 5,185 feet, over the whole Coachella Valley was also spectacular.
Meanwhile, The Salton Sea, which was formed by accident when the Colorado River flooded in 1905 and has been getting saltier ever since, was the strangest place we’ve visited. On its north eastern shore, there are lush vineyards and attractive beaches, despite the heaps of dead fish, but traveling south from there was like driving into a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with decrepit power plants belching smoke, ground fires burning and brown wastelands as far as the eye could see. I thought I might have to stay there forever as there was a border control checkpoint as we headed back north and I didn’t have my green card with me that day, but after a sniffer dog decided that The Beast only smelt of cats, not drugs, we were waved through.
Having honed our survival skills in the desert, hopefully we’re prepared for Los Angeles. We’re heading there next!
While having a crown replaced by a great dentist in Tucson, I asked the dental assistant for restaurant recommendations. She informed me that anyone passing through the Tucson area should try a Sonoran hot dog. She said that they were bacon-wrapped dogs with guacamole, and I was sold. After some research, we chose Yamis HotDogs, which was highly lauded online as authentic and conveniently located near a wine and craft beer establishment.
We followed our iPhone directions to an unfamiliar neighborhood, north west of downtown Tucson, and found an empty, perhaps long-empty, gravel lot. A broader phone search found a different address only a few miles away, so we headed there. We drove right past the 'pin' on the iPhone screen, confused again, and pulled over. "It’s possible," I said, "that I saw a hot dog cart back there, maybe it is a cart.” Yelp had indicated that there were tables, but maybe the gravel lot was the former brick-and-mortar incarnation. We went back and found out that Yamis (this seems to be the business name, although it is treated more grammatically as “Yami’s” in some of the literature) is actually an elevated hot dog cart, on an unused portion of a car wash parking lot, connected to a tent that provides seating, lighting and coolers full of drinks.
Our Spanish is poor, but fortunately there is only one item on the menu and we settled on hot dogs with “everything". The dogs at Yamis don't come out of dirty water, they are heated on the cart griddle. Then each dog is wrapped in grilled bacon, and quickly fried, sealing on the bacon wrapper. Next a spoon of cooked onion stuff is added, and a spoon of standard chili-dog-consistency chile con carne. Then some fresh onion and tomato and the sauces. After watching a few get made, I asked the proprietor about the three sauces that went on each dog. Full disclosure, other customers helped with the translation. Each dog gets mayo, mustard, and guacamole sauce. A final key difference from a standard cart hotdog is the long, sturdy, bakery-quality bun, freshly buttered and fried to perfection on the fatty griddle, just in time for filling.
Each order also comes with a medium hot pepper of some sort, also wrapped and fried in bacon, and stuffed with some yummy unidentified meat and dairy matter for no additional charge.
Yamis gets 5 out of 5 stars for food. The dog itself compares favorably to Crif Dogs' bacon-wrapped offerings in New York and any hot dog anywhere. The bun is a particular treat.
Service: 5 out of 5, universal language of meat spoken.
Price: Dirt cheap, insane value.
Atmosphere: In some places, a car wash parking lot tent might not meet restaurant zoning requirements, but you know what? Just shut up and eat your dog.
We have had great luck with regard to campgrounds and equipment, despite learn-as-you-go approaches to both bookings and RV maintenance. Recently, however, the odds have started catching up with us. We thought that Big Bend had prepared us for heavy winds, but then we had our trailer door sucked open by the notorious gale-force winds at Guadalupe National Park. Since this occurred while we were away from the campground, we have a thoughtful neighbor to thank for slamming the door, and likely for Sonny’s presence on our return. One popular theory contends that Sonny spent the day exploring and befriending ring tails and mountain lions before returning to the trailer, after which the neighbor noticed and shut the door. No evidence exists to refute this claim and Sonny has invoked his right regarding self-incrimination, offering only his usual “do I look like a filthy rat” look.
This wind also blew our safety chains around and frayed off the 'breakaway cable', which connects the truck to an emergency switch on the trailer that applies its brakes if it breaks away from the truck. At some point during our bumpy, blustery tow across north Texas we lost the hinged plastic propane cover cap as well, so both of these items were priority repairs to tackle at our next stop, White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
We were stopped at the first of several US Border Control roadblocks on this leg of the trip. At some of these, every car is eyeballed and waived through, and at others they are asked one screening question - “US Citizens?” Kathryn had to stow Sonny and find her green card and we have now learned to have it at the ready in both New Mexico and Arizona. I am not sure what security purpose this serves, as I have never been asked to prove my stated citizenship, but it feels weird being asked for our papers just for being on the road.
Our campground outside of Alamogordo near White Sands was affordable and very friendly (we added an extra day) with the best sunsets so far, no small feat. Our next-door neighbor was a semi-permanent resident originally from Maine, who informed us that he preferred New Mexico, but that unlike White Sands, much of New Mexico was truly “open country.” That must mean completely uninhabited. We'd had doubts, but the White Sands National Monument itself was worth the stop. It is a truly unique and desolate place. The drive into the park alone was worth the trip, invoking instincts that I was driving on and around snow instead of gypsum.
Despite a high density of trailer parks, and a curious number of ranches featuring trailers parked on the property, there was almost nowhere to buy RV gear. We managed to get a breakaway switch, but ordered a propane cap from Amazon and got back on the road. A tip – the breakaway cables and the plug they attach with are not proprietary – they are standard and sold as one piece. Just pull the old plug out of the box under the trailer’s hitch (this takes a lot of force) and the new one snaps in easily.
We’d booked two nights in the campground at the Chiricahua National Monument. The web guidance was that the maximum site size was 29 feet, only two feet longer than our 'gross RV length', but we’d squeezed into shorter spots. We followed Google directions to Chiricahua, which brought us back onto Route 10, the trucking artery that runs from Santa Monica to Jacksonville. That section of the interstate is lined with a barrage of giant signboards attempting to convince the driver that a true oasis, a rest area promising apache blankets and crafts, pecan delicacies, ice cream, and other temptations, lay in store for travelers with the fortitude to hang on for just 20, 50, or 120 miles beyond the rest stops promising similar on competing billboards. Advertising signs for a mystery attraction billed as 'The Thing' begin at least 150 miles away from the exit.
We didn’t make it to The Thing, which is apparently a mystery mummified object that you can visit for $1, before we took our own exit, leaving the highway for a shortcut, the Apache Pass Road. This was the first time Google Maps has really led us dangerously astray. After we drove through cows in the road, poorly maintained curves, and the invisible boundary beyond which Sonny will no longer countenance backtracking, we reached the Apache Pass itself. There we were presented with a drive-at-own-risk sign announcing a steep, rough, dirt road. This normally would evince only a derisive chortle from The Beast, our four wheel drive, Ford F250 tank, except that it was pulling the trailer. In a testament to the strength of our marriage and vigilance regarding tires we survived the wincing 8-mile grind through the pass with gritted teeth.
Nerves flayed, we enjoyed a descent into striking country and onward to the bottom of the gorge at Chiricahua. We raced against the darkness to find the campground entrance and our reserved space. Then we saw signs informing us that no vehicles over 29 foot long were allowed past the visitor center, and realized that the maximum site listings were not due to campsite dimensions. It turns out there are turns that cannot be navigated by large vehicles, as well as dips for long RVs to get stuck in. The Beast itself is well over 20 foot long even without the hitch, and the camper, as mentioned, is 27 foot.
I could write a long story about the next few hours, but in summary, we made it through the dips without damage. We executed the turns, even as it became dark, and other campers stood outside their rigs with flashlights, convinced that it was not possible for us to proceed without hitting their vehicles, dogs, or trees hanging over the road. We reached our site, and found it was designed for a motorhome to pull into, not to back a trailer into, due to the arrangement of rocks and trees. We proceeded back to the tightest intersection and the flashlights emerged again to watch us back the trailer 90 degrees around it, turning the entire rig around to proceed the wrong way around the one-way loop back to the site, before we backed the trailer in easily.
Having accomplished all of this in the darkness, we high-fived and congratulated ourselves on being professionals. We mocked the other campers for ever having doubted us. For the first time ever, we forgot to put the chocks under the camper tires. When we jacked it off of the truck, all 6000 lbs of our Keystone Bullet lurched forward, then rested awkwardly across the ball hitch, centimeters away from irreparable damage to the truck, hitch, and trailer. Just 15 minutes after escaping that disaster, Kathryn nearly broke her neck stepping out of the trailer in the dark after we forgot to put the stairs down.
The trip out of the campground two days later was, if anything, worse. Because we had no choice but to proceed the wrong way again around the one-way loop, other traffic had to wait for us to make many slow attempts at the most difficult curves, backing up their trucks while Kathryn advised me on how many inches of clearance remained on either side before we hit a tree trunk, large rock or slid into a dry creek bed. The New York license plates on the ridiculously oversized vehicle going the wrong way surely reinforced deep ancestral biases in the pre-cambrian cortexes of our victims.
Chiricahua, however, was worth it. Truly spectacular and completely uncrowded. There were probably less than 50 other people in the whole park, and few other cars at the peak of the scenic driving path, which overlooks a mountain view to rival Big Bend in one direction, and a vast canyon field of stone spires reminiscent of the iconic Bryce Canyon hoodoos in the other.
We avoided a repeat of the Apache Pass Road by proceeding west across Arizona to the infamous town of Tombstone. From the movies I always pictured it situated in the middle of flat desert, but to approach it from the west (through hundreds of miles of starkly rural ranch land) is to glide into a mountain valley, pierce a nimbus of dust, and set upon a town among the hills.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.