What exactly is the appeal in heading off in a van into the desert for a few weeks with no defined itinerary? It’s the closest thing to freedom that I know. Freedom to explore new places and to decide on a whim where to head next. Freedom from the routine and pressures of everyday living, and to turn off the internet and immerse oneself into some good books. Freedom to explore the local history and culture. Freedom to pull off on a remote road and call it home for the night. Freedom to step back and reflect on the journey of one’s life.
This trip would give us all of that, and more.
Day 1: Eugene to Half Moon Bay, California.
We had to drive in two vehicles to Half Moon Bay, so that we could drop off the Acura for Stephanie to use on her return there after our trip. The key takeaway from 9 hours on I-5: the Promaster’s fuel mileage drops pretty quickly as its speed goes up. Which is of course not surprising, given its aerodynamics. Unlike the gently cruising at about 65 that yielded 21 mpg on a trip to Portland and back, and 18.5 on our trip to eastern Oregon, now I had the cruise control set at ten over the limit, meaning 75 in Oregon and closer to 80 in California. Mileage dropped to about 16 mpg. Still not bad, considering it’s a 7,000 lb brick, and there’s a lot of grades along the way.
It’s a very pleasant drive for such a bulky vehicle. It never feels ponderous, steers easily and accurately, and handles quite well. And the very high seats make for a true chair sitting posture, which I find much less tiring and ache-provoking than slumped low in a typical car. I never felt fatigued even after a 12 hour day behind the wheel. And there would be several of them on this trip.
Day 2: Half Moon Bay to just north of Lake Havasu City, AZ.
We spent the night in the driveway of our friends in Half Moon Bay. I decided to take a few interior shots during breakfast so you get an idea of what it’s like in there. It’s still not completely done, and a very detailed build article is coming soon.
One enters from the rear, normally just the right door. I’m not going to explain my home-built potty just now, except to say it works wonderfully. A 5 gal propane tank feeds the cook top and furnace. The smaller 2 gal bottle is a backup. Shoes go on the shelf above it, and jackets and back packs above them.
The counter over the pottie flips up normally, except during meal time. It greatly expands counter space for food preparation. And there’s plenty of room for both of us at the galley during meal preparation.
Here’s the sink. A 30 gal fresh water tank is in the base of this cabinet, bolted to the floor.
The last thing I installed was this trick little table, which has a clever base made by Lagun from Sweden that allows it to swing and turn in several directions.
I made the folding top from some black walnut I had around; it flips together and then swings into this position while driving.
And at night, it swings out of the way between the two front seats. Much better than the tables with a fixed post in a hole in the floor.
Here’s quick look at the storage drawers and the fridge, which is a $129 3.5 cf 120V Energy-Star rated under-counter dorm unit that runs off the DC-AC inverter, which gets its power from the two 6V golf cart batteries. They get charged from the 300W solar panel on the roof, and/or the van’s alternator. On top is a little 700W microwave that a tenant left behind. That’s quickly become one of our favorite features. Meals in a pouch! As I said, all the details are coming soon. But it all works like a charm, exceeding my expectations. We were very happy in here for over two weeks, and could easily have done another couple more.
The drive to Arizona was pleasant enough, except for some obnoxious knots in the traffic on I-5. When are they going to add a third lane? But from Bakersfield to the Colorado River is a fairly scenic drive, and the traffic was light.
It was getting late and I was eager to call it a day after crossing into Arizona. I managed to find a dirt road off the highway just a bit north of Laka Havasu City. It led behind this hillock, a perfect quiet place to spend our first night. It felt good to be back in the desert, with a stellar star show as I stepped out the back door. We had a new(ish) moon for much of the trip, meaning very dark nights and blazing stars, thanks to the dry desert air.
Day 3: Lake Havasu City, AZ to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ.
We drove into Lake Havasu City as we just had to see the London Bridge. Yes, a genuine 1830 London Bridge that once spanned the Thames now sits here out in the desert spanning a man-made canal. Only in America.
It was bought for $2.46M in 1967 by Robert McCulloch, chairman of McCulloch Motors, makers of chainsaws and other two-stroke engines as well as the Paxton supercharger that powered the Studebaker Golden Hawk, among others. He was given a giant tract of land here for free by the state of Arizona in exchange for developing it. Things got off to a slow start until someone suggested buying the bridge, which could no longer support growing traffic, and then moving it to this site.
Of course it wasn’t the whole bridge he moved; the facing stones were cut off like veneer, and then reapplied to a reinforced concrete structure. It worked, and Lake Havasu City became a success. And we took a long walk along the canal to stretch our legs on a rather chilly but sunny morning. A very cold storm was moving through the Southwest, bringing snow and unusually low temperatures.
We skirted the Colorado River for a while, and then headed southeast, avoiding Phoenix, and then south.
We pulled into Organ Pipes Cactus National Monument in the late afternoon on New Years Eve, and like many other national parks during the government shutdown, it was open but there were no services. So we just drove in on the loop road that goes through the heart of the park, and after a few miles we pulled over at a trailhead to stretch our legs and park for the night. That would have been a no-no normally, but there wasn’t a soul anywhere. There was enough daylight to take a bit of a hike and savor the desert plants, like the spindly Ocatillo in the background there. It was the quietest New Years Eve in a long time. No bottle rockets anywhere.
The park is named after these guys, which are not nearly as common in the US desert as the iconic saguaro cactus. The organ pipe cactus is a bit touchier about where it will grow, mainly hillsides up to about 3,000′ elevation.
The saguaros are more widely distributed in Southern Arizona, but they also prefer to be off the valley floors, where the coldest temperatures can occur. In some places, they are remarkable dense. And of course comical.
Their branches can extend in odd angles.
These extensions don’t typically appear until a saguaro is closer to 100 years old, and they can live to be 200 or more. And weigh a couple of tons, almost all in water weight, as that’s what they’re all about: an efficient water storage device.
And that water is well protected from any that would like to access it.
I fell in love with the desert from the first time I took my ’68 Dodge A100 van, my first van conversion, into the Anza Borrego Desert east of San Diego after moving there in 1976. It’s a magical place; the plants, the light, the stars, the air, and the solitude. The ability to just walk through it and head up a distant hill, especially at night in the moonlight, or even just starlight. It exerts a very strong pull on me.
Being in the desert in a van substantially changes my state of mind. No internet to keep up with, and no distractions of any other kind. Just living in the here and now.
And taking the time to settle into some good books. The first was a highly appropriate choice, one that Stephanie had bought and read, and brought along for me. I’ve been a fan of Michael Pollen going way back; his “A Place Of My Own” stimulated my latent building desires. And his “Botany of Desire” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” are best-seller classics. And now he’s taken on a subject that has always fascinated me, psychedelics.
Before you see red and people jumping off roofs having read the words “psychedelic” or “LSD”, take a deep breath. Psychedelics were demonized by a well-organized government/media backlash to the somewhat irresponsible over-popularization of them by Timothy Leary, Ken Keasey, and just the 60s. The word “psychedelic” was coined back in the 1950s when LSD was the subject of hundreds of serious scientific studies, and was defined as “mind manifesting”, not DayGlo or a genre of music.
LSD was shown early on to have very encouraging results in treating various mental conditions including alcoholism, depression, addiction, and other ailments by breaking through the patterns that lock the mind into repeated negative thoughts and subsequent actions. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, credited his sobriety to a mystical experience he had using the psychedelic drug belladonna at a hospital in 1934. Few members of AA realize that the key AA concept of having a spiritual awakening leading one to surrender to a “higher power” is based on a psychedelic drug experience. He later had several LSD sessions, and felt that there might be a place for LSD therapy in AA, but was shot down by the other AA founders.
Federal funding was steadily withdrawn in the late 60s and 70s, and scientists either stopped or went underground. But a revival of psychedelics (Psylocibin specifically, so as to avoid the stigma of LSD) in a number of scientific settings has occurred in the past 15 years, with very positive effects. This is ushering a new rapidly-expanding age of research of these very powerful drugs. Pollan not only takes a deep dive on the scientific aspect and its convoluted history, but also takes his first trips, three actually, with LSD, Psylocibin and MEO-DMT, from the glands of a toad. he describes his experiences in great detail.
This is familiar territory for me, as I used LSD quite a number of times between the ages of 16 and 18. I now understand much better my experiences then, as users’ experiences are strongly affected by “set and setting”. The mind on psychedelics is highly suggestible, which also explains why throughout history shamans and priests always led psychedelic experiences and religious ceremonies. And trained guides lead them today. That’s the key to safe and positive experiences.
All of my LSD trips except the last one were instigated by my older brother. They were colored by his interests and influence, and were mostly the usual silly stuff like wowing over all the visual effects and listening to music, etc. I enjoyed that, and I learned to become so comfortable with the effects that I could drive and take LSD while with my family. But learning how to maintain control under the influence was actually missing the whole point.
The last time I took LSD, in the summer of 1971, I was supposed to meet some friends at a familiar rendezvous spot, the Little Falls Friends Meeting house on a knoll out in the country north of Towson. My friends never showed up. It was supposed to be a party, but it became something quite different.
I laid down on the grass at the edge of the old cemetery, stared up at the stars, and just…let go, of everything. I felt layers of myself begin to melt away until there was nothing left, just the pure awareness of being and merging with the earth and the cosmos. There was no more distinction between myself and them; I was made of earth and stardust.
What I thought of as “myself” was just a fleeting momentary construct, and something that our ego guards most jealously, as it can’t exist without it. And it tries to lock us into perpetually rewarding that construct, with all sorts of defenses and the constant chattering of its internal dialog to keep our minds busy (anxious, all too often) worrying about the future and regretting the past, or mythologizing it.
I had what is typically called a mystical, religious or psychedelic experience. I was a breathing corpse as I laid there motionless for some hours. And as the first light of dawn broke, I slowly reassembled the components of my personality bit by bit, and finally drove myself home in the 1971 LTD loaner I had “borrowed” from Towson Ford for the weekend. And you wonder about my complex relationship to ’71 LTDs?
Later that day, I decided never to take drugs again, which I adhered to with a few minor exceptions. Drugs had taken me as far as they could, and I now wanted to experience this without their help. Not long after I learned to meditate. I was able to replicate that experience repeatedly, although not in exactly the same way. But that experience was a key one in my life, and shaped me in who I am. It’s also what drives me into the desert, or any kind of nature. Nature is now my psychedelic of choice.
Pollen’s superb research, both scientifically as well as historically and subjectively, has resulted in some very elucidating explanations of how the mind really works, and why humans have always had a tradition of mysticism in order to mediate some of the intrinsically less-than-positive mental tendencies that have resulted as a consequence or side-effect of the evolution of such a complex organ.
There’s nothing more important than to gain an increased understand how our minds really work, and why it tends to work in certain ways, all-too often pathologically. Yes, it’s even more important than how cars work! And like car engines, the mind can be “tuned” to function more smoothly and with less stalling and other driveability issues. I’m afraid too many minds seem to be stuck in a permanent Malaise Era of functioning. But there is hope, and Pollen’s book gives an excellent look at one approach to that. I can highly recommend it; don’t be afraid, the pages are not laced with LSD.
Day 4: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to Tucson, AZ
In the first morning of 2019, we took a longer hike. And then we drove back out and saw the real campground, which did have some visitors. But we didn’t leave yet, as I saw on the map that there was a 21 mile back-country loop road through the other section of the park east of the highway.
It was a great drive into a whole other valley, and the road was in reasonably good shape. The loop’s far end was here, in Two Arches Valley. If you look just left of the saguaro, you can see the large natural arch up there.
In this crop, a second little arch is also visible, directly above the bigger one. The trail sign said there was an easy mile or so along the valley floor, and mentioned a difficult climber’s trail up the back side of this formation to the top. Given that Stephanie was historically a bit wary about exposure and scrambling (she’d never done any real mountain hiking before we met), I assumed that was not going to be for us.
But when we got to it, she was raring to go.
I didn’t know just how difficult it was, so I went ahead, but every time I looked back, she was right there, keeping up with me.
Even when scrambling over boulders. She would not have likely attempted this 40 years ago. Or 30. Stephanie said she learned to stop saying “no” sometime since then (about 20 years ago). It’s a good thing we stuck it out together past that point.
The views from the first high spot were stellar. The visibility in the desert never fails to amaze. 30, 40, 50 miles or more; it’s hard to judge unless one knows just how tall the mountains in the distance are.
And on the way to the other high spot near the arch, we could see the back of the bigger one.
From up there I could just barely pick out our parked van (in white circle) from where we started walking. Just need a zip line (or hang glider) to get back down there for lunch, which turned into a very late repast. I’m guessing we climbed almost 2,000 vertical feet.
It was mid-afternoon as we drove through Why, Arizona and headed east through the vast Tohono O’Odham Reservation. The O’Odham peoples were agrarian-based and had relatively little adverse engagements with the Spanish and Anglos since their land was very sparse and could not sustain European-style cattle ranching or agriculture, and therefore they were never relocated. More on that later, as we went back to visited the main Mission there.
Day 5 & 6; Tucson, AZ
We headed into Tucson to visit a very old friend of mine. She and her husband retired there just last year, to a place up in the foothills, north of the city.
Norma was the youngest daughter of Elinor, who became something of a surrogate mother to me after I left home at 18. I thank my introduction to the desert to Elinor, as she encouraged me and Susie, her oldest daughter and my then-girl friend, to follow her out to San Diego in 1976 from Iowa. A bit complicated, but my second family is the easiest way to put it. And they’ve made it into several chapters of my Auto-Biography; Norma was in the ’69 Fury in this account.
We spent the morning catching up and went for a hike in Ventana Canyon, which is very close to where she lives. Snow was falling and a rare hard freeze was predicted. It got down to about 20 or so for several nights.
We went to the Tucson Botanical Gardens the next day, and many of the more tender plants were covered.
We then went to the historic Presidio in Tucson, and had an excellent tour by a docent. The way these outposts of the Spanish (and later Mexican) governments worked was fascinating. The soldiers typically took (or already had) native wives, and were supplied with some basic staples and uniforms and weapons, but had to largely fend for themselves. Against the Apaches, that is, who raided Anglo outposts repeatedly for over 200 years. And there were times the Apaches had the upper hand, and all the settlements to the south had to be abandoned while folks hunkered down behind the walls of the Tucson Presidio, the partial remnants of which have been restored. It was of course much larger originally.
The docent at the Presidio recommended the Mission San Xavier del Bac, about a half hour southwest of Tucson, on the O’Odham reservation. Turns out it’s widely considered to be the finest example of Spanish colonial architecture in the US. It certainly exceeded our expectations by a good margin. First founded in 1692, the original church was razed during an Apache raid, and the current church was built between 1783 – 1797. And it was extensively restored in the 1990s, as it had become in poor condition.
The interior is variation on the theme of Baroque, but not quite the way I’m familiar with from Austria. There’s a Spanish quality to it, and the statues have a bit of a folk-art aspect. If I remember correctly, the statues came from Argentina.
After touring the church, museum and grounds, we stopped by one of the food vendors on the plaza, where we procured most excellent Indian tacos, made with fry bread and chili, from a local who has been making and selling these here for 41 years.
Then the daily question arose: where to go next? I looked at my map and the hiking book that Norma lent us, and decided…to…go…to Cochise Stronghold, in the Dragoon Mountains to the east.
Cochise Stronghold, you say? What’s that?
From the cochisestronghold.com site:
Born in present-day Arizona, Cochise led the Chiricahua band of the Apache tribe during a period of violent social upheaval. In 1850, the United States took control over the territory that today comprises Arizona and New Mexico. Not hostile to the whites at first, he kept peace with the Anglo-Americans until 1861, when he became their implacable foe because of the blunder of a young U.S. Army officer, Lt. George Bascom. In that year, Cochise and several of his relatives had gone to an encampment of soldiers in order to deny the accusation that they had abducted a child from a ranch. The boy was later proved to have been kidnapped by another band of Apaches.
During the parley, Cochise and his followers were ordered held as hostages by Bascom, but Cochise managed to escape almost immediately by cutting a hole in a tent. Bascom later ordered the other Apache hostages hanged, and the embittered Cochise joined forces with Mangas Coloradas, his father-in-law, in a guerrilla struggle against the American army and settlers. The capture and murder of Mangas Coloradas in 1863 left Cochise as the Apache war chief. The U.S. Army captured him in 1871 and prepared to transfer the Chiricahua to a reservation hundreds of miles away, but he escaped again and renewed the resistance campaign. The following year after negotiating a new treaty with the help of Thomas Jeffords, the band was allowed to stay in their homeland.
Cochise is reputed to have been a master strategist and leader who was never conquered in battle. He died peacefully on the newly formed Chiricahua reservation in 1874. His son, Taza succeeded him as chief. Upon his death, he was secretly buried somewhere in or near his impregnable fortress. The exact location has never been revealed or determined.
It looked like a good destination to camp and to hike the next day. We pulled in after dark, and found a spur with some dispersed sites in this National Forest.
Day 7: Cochise Stronghold – Tombsone – Bisbee – Coronado Peak National Memorial
It was another cold night and morning, but the sun quickly warmed up once our trail up to the Stronghold came out of the frozen shadows of the canyon. There was still snow down there and in the shaded spots, but that just added to the colors and textures of a delightful hike.
We reached the high pass below the rugged towers of rocks. I assumed that was going to be our turnaround. Not so. “Let’s climb up one of them”. Ok.
Not the highest one, but it was a bit of a challenge bushwhacking through the prickly plants and getting up to this outcropping. Once again, views to near-infinity.
Any reasonable retired couple would retire to their campsite after a long hike and chill out and spend another night. But we’re just a wee bit manic in our travels, always eager to see something new. So in mid-afternoon, we pulled out and headed for Tombstone.
Tombstone is a legendary Old Western…tourist trap. Well, it’s more than that too, as it once was the largest city in Arizona, during its boom days in the mid-1880s, with a population over 14,000 at its peak. In addition to the silver, it became famous for the shoot-out at the OK Corral.
Tensions had been simmering in Tombstone for some time before it blew up. The mining capitalists and the town dwellers were mostly republicans from Northern States. But many of the ranchers (some of whom were also rustlers) were almost invariably Confederate sympathizers as well as Democrats. Tombstone was only some 30 miles from the Mexican border, and there was an open market for cattle stolen from ranches on the Mexican side. This was primarily the doing of a loosely organized outlaw band known as The Cowboys.
The Earp brothers—Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan, as well as Doc Holliday, arrived in late 1879. The Earps had ongoing conflicts with Cowboys Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom Mclaury and Billy Claiborne. The Cowboys repeatedly threatened the Earps over many months until the conflict escalated into a shootout on October 26, 1881. The historic gunfight is often portrayed as occurring at the O.K. Corral, though it actually occurred a short distance away in an empty lot on Fremont Street. That location is now accessible to paying tourists who can see a reenactment, over and over.
The mines broke through the water table in the mid 1880s, and that was the beginning of the end. Expensive new pumps were brought in, but afire in 1886 destroyed the main pumping plant. The town dried up. But after WW2, an effort grew to capitalize on its remaining resources and reputation, and turn Tombstone into a tourist destination. It worked, exceedingly well.
It was mighty quiet the January day we were there, but in the summer, the place is apparently popping. It must be, as it’s wall-to-wall tourist shops and attractions. Just as well we came when we did.
We headed south to Bisbee, and arrived in the rather magical last light of day. Bisbee was a another famous mining town in Arizona, home of the Copper Queen mine and a few others. The center of town is the convergence of two narrow canyons, and the houses were built up the steep hillsides. It’s an architectural gem.
We quickly parked and scurried around, trying to take in as much as possible. We climbed up the public stairways, which are often the only access to many of the cottages, which were the miners’ houses. There once were many more, but the combination of fires and collapse due to poor retaining walls means that there are now many gaps.
I did take this one shot as we were looking back down from where we had parked. We actually saw a fair bit of the town before darkness descended and we headed for a bookstore as Stephanie was in need of new reading material.
On the way there were a few interesting automotive sights too, like this Econoline pickup.
And this faux-brick van clearly belongs to a local.
Eventually all the mines came under the control of the Phelps-Dodge corporation, and after WW2, new technologies made strip mining for lower grade ore profitable, the result being that right across the highway is one of the more impressive canyons where once a small mountain had stood. The mine finally shut down in 1975, and Bisbee slowly and painfully transformed into what it is today: an artsy town along with a lively tourist business.
We should have found a quiet parking lot in town and spent the night. But we chose to head east to the nearest federal land, at Coronado National Memorial. The drive through the thinly-populated desert in the dark of night had strange visual effects. Because the clear, dry air has such exceptional visibility, it’s difficult to judge distances from the lights of distant towns or cars on the highway. The highway ran perfectly straight for some 20 miles, and as it was on a very slight incline, it appeared from the many headlights stacked close together that there was going to be heavy traffic ahead. But there were actually huge gaps in opposing traffic when it arrived; I was seeing the headlights perfectly clear some 10 or more miles ahead. And it made judging the size of distant towns difficult. What looked like a city from a distance turned out to be a small town. It’s kind of like being in outer space.
We pulled into the Memorial late, which commemorated the entry point in 1540 of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s vast multi-year expedition into what is now the US. In search of elusive riches, he got as far as near present day Salina, Kansas. His expedition numbered several thousand strong, and was financed by pawning his very wealthy wife’s estate. Since he never found the mythical golden city of Cibola, he returned wounded and broke, and had to declare bankruptcy.
Coronado’s incursion marked the beginning of a long period of Spanish control and influence in the region. This area has a deep and complex history, with lots of conflict. Southern Arizona didn’t become part of the US until the Gadsden Purchase in 1854. And then it took over 30 years to subdue the Apaches. It’s both an old and young place, depending on the perspective. Arizona didn’t become a state until 1912.
Day 8: Coronado National Memorial, Sonoita, Patagonia, Harshaw
I had pulled over in a pull-off on the side of the road pretty late that night. I thought we might have crossed into the Coronado National Forest. But at breakfast time, we were visited by a National Park ranger, which I did not expect because of the shutdown. He gave me a verbal warning, but was quite genial about it. I was hoping to get to the east side of the Huachuca Mountains, into the next valley, via 6,575′ high Montezuma Pass. Given the recent snow storms that had affected all of Arizona, I was concerned about making it over. I asked the ranger if he knew what shape it was in. He said he hadn’t tried it since the snow storm, but said he would put his Tahoe into 2WD and check it out for us. And then he drove off.
I was still taking in what he said, and not 100% sure I heard him right. We finished breakfast, cleaned up and put things away, and lingered over our books a bit, and about 30 minutes later he pulled up again. He said he had fishtailed a bit in the snowy/icy sections near the top, but made it in 2WD. Good enough for me. And thanks!
At the top of the pass there is a parking area and a government electronic installation, undoubtedly part of the very extensive border security. On the mast there were devices that looked like cameras or scanners of some sort. This is just a mile or two from the border. Everywhere we went within 10-15 miles of the border was something of a militarized zone, with check points, sniffing dogs, and Border Patrol pickups and SUVs could be seen sitting along the side of roads and on distant hillocks throughout the area.
This is the view back down the road we has just driven up, but the steepest parts at the end are not visible. The snow can be seen on the cool north-facing hills. It was already balmy up on the top. There’s a short hike up to the summit of Coronado peak, and the views were once again stellar.
Looking south into Mexico. That’s the border on the left edge.
And the view to the west, which shows the road we would be taking into the next valley. These were all dirt roads, which quickly get greasy in the wet if they’re not naturally on rocky soil.
Not all of Southern Arizona is desert, by a long shot. In addition to mining, it was the cattle ranchers that were drawn to vast range lands with native grass growing chest high. Unfortunately, these were quickly overgrazed, especially in the few years leading up to a drought in 1892. The combination of overgrazing followed by that drought permanently destroyed or damaged much of it, although some has come back albeit not nearly as lush as it originally was.
The area around Sonoita, where we stopped for lunch, is now also becoming a wine-growing region. And the large ranches have been cut up into many little ranchettes/home sites.
Next up was Patagonia, another cute old mining town that we both fell for quickly. Of course now it’s populace ismostly urban escapees, retired folks, artists and the like, but it’s not gentrified yet, and has a real sense of community. They even started up a very high quality weekly paper run as a non-profit and with lots of volunteers. And there’s many little former miner’s cabins like this one, with its one-holer and Model T booth still semi-intact. We could easily see ourselves spending a few months of the winter down here, based in Patagonia or someplace similar.
We walked up the hill to the old Patagonia School that was in operation until 2003 or so. It’s now a local history museum, and a volunteer, originally from the Netherlands, showed us around. We never tire of little local history museums like this as they really give a sense of how folks actually lived in any given place.
On the way down from the museum, we walked by this very charming old adobe house, looking quite forlorn. There’s a large crack in the wall, and the adobe is wearing down from being exposed to the rains. I still get a pang in my heart when I see old houses like this, wanting to fix them up, but at my age I finally know better. We once came very close to buying an old Iowa farmstead with a wood frame house in similar condition, along with a number of outbuildings, all very original. And all needing massive work and money.
Stephanie picked up one of the fallen ears from this giant prickly pear cactus, and I brought it home and it’s now in a pot, awaiting to see if it takes. Supposedly it should, or may. We’ll see.
The problem with traveling in the winter is that the days are too short. It was getting dark, so we looked on the map for the nearest road into the surrounding National Forest. That was Harshaw Road, an old dirt road heading to the townsite of Harshaw, once a prosperous little mining town with 200 buildings, hotel, and newspaper. It had once been the Spanish town of Durazno, named after peach orchards there, but the town was attacked and destroyed by Apaches in 1743.
There’s nothing left now except for a few crumbling adobe walls and this cemetery, where Mexican-Americans who were from this area originally still bury their dead, and maintain the graves. Some of them have biographies of those interned there, and they make for interesting reading. We parked there for the night.
But mining in the area is now having a major revival, as a huge new mine is under construction. lead, zinc, silver and gold are all expected to be harvested with the latest technologies. We were awakened by a steady stream of white pickups heading into the mine at the shift change.
Day 9: Harshaw, Nogales, Tubac, Madera Canyon, Tucson
The road now lead south again, to Nogales, Arizona, on the border. We had no intention to cross the border at this trip, so we just looped through town and headed up I-19 north.
I-19 is unusual in that its distance signs are all metric, the only one in the US. it didn’t start out that way, but in 1980, at the height of the push for metrification in the US, ADOT let a contract for all new signage. There was a tentative effort to switch back to miles some years back, but local businesses resisted because they didn’t want to all have to change their directions. Of course with modern navigation and Google maps, that’s essentially irrelevant now, but the metric signs endure. Speed limit signs were planned to be changed to (88 km back in the double nickle era), but that never quite went through.
We pulled off at historic Tubac. The presidio there, established in 1752, was the first Spanish colonial garrison in Arizona. In the 1840s, the fort and town had to be abandoned due to Apache attacks. We visited the remains of the presidio, which is now a state park, as well as the museum. Tubac became an artist’s colony starting in the 1930s, and art galleries and shops are pretty much the town’s sole businesses anymore.
We were wanting another hike, so we headed to the Santa Rita Mountains and Madero Canyon State Park. We hiked up a trail along a creek and went up several miles, until the snow finally stopped us.
Once again, we were impressed by the huge Arizona sycamores that grow along the sides of creeks and rivers. Their massive smooth arms sometimes reach almost right back to the ground.
Although we have bathing facilities in the van, albeit a bit limited, we were in the mood for a good long hot shower after that big hike. So we headed to I-10, and in Littletown found a truck stop and paid our $12 for the pleasure. Lest you have memories of truck stops of yore, things have changed, quite a bit actually. This is what greeted us, after having been prepped by the attendant. We left feeling well-scrubbed. Two showers were our only travel expense other than gas and food. No campgrounds.
I looked at the map and saw that the nearest national forest access was at Tanque Verde Canyon, at the northeast corner of Tucson. We hadn’t planned to go back to Tucson, but here we were, back in the saguaros. So we drove up to a trailhead parking lot. The bright lights of Tucson sparkled below us, and the bright stars twinkled overhead.
Day 10: Pima Air & Space Museum to Somewhere Along AZ Hwy 88
We woke up without a plan. It was our anniversary. We were just a few miles away. I was reluctant to suggest it, but Stephanie was on board. So off we went to to the Pima Air & Space Museum.
The deal was that we wouldn’t linger; just keep moving and take in the incredible collection without losing myself in any of them. And I’m not going to even try to give you a comprehensive tour here either. Just some of the highlights, like the SR-71 Blackbird, the worlds fastest plane.
Since much of the collection sits outside on the many acres of the grounds, it was a way to combine a nice brisk walk with taking in the scenery. That’s just about our favorite activity anyway; it’s just that the scenery is a bit different. Like rows and rows of fighter planes from the golden era, when new ones hit the tarmac seemingly every year or two.
And transport planes, like this splendid Constellation, whose curved fuselage was unique and considered by many to be the most beautiful of its kind.
Its competition, a DC-6 (VC-118) sat nearby. it was a former Air Force One, and was still used by JFK. Its replacement, a Boeing 707 sits next to it. These two represented the end and beginning of the two major eras in civilian transports.
Here’s one of many planes here I’d never seen before in the flesh and aluminum, a Douglas C-124 Globemaster II. I remember these as being the biggest military transport planes when I was a kid. They were based on the C-74 Globemaster, which was developed during WW2 and was the largest production plane at the time, although only a handful were built. The C-124 has a much larger fuselage, and was the first genuine heavy lifter, able to transport tanks, trucks, guns, and up to 200 troops. It was still hauling supplies to Vietnam.
A couple of Boeing Stratofreighters up ahead. Based on the b-29, it had a short operational life as it was replaced by the C-124, which had twice the payload capacity. The civilian version was the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser.
I didn’t look at the signage, but this has to be a Boeing KB-50J air-to-air refueling tanker, as it’s one of 112 that had a GE J-47 turbojet engine added to each wing for improved performance.
And there it is, the mammoth B-36, from the rear, where its six huge propellers can properly appreciated. The B-36 Peacemaker (really?) is the largest mass-produced piston-engined aircraft ever built and had the longest wingspan of any combat aircraft ever built, at 230 ft.
The six P&W R-4360 engines delivered a total output of 22,800 hp. The B-36 was the first and only truly intercontinental bomber for quite some time, until the B-52 replaced it. But the B-36 still had a greater payload capacity.
The twin jets just barely visible were added later, to improve take-off performance and dash speed near the target.
There’s lots more superlatives for this giant of the skies, but we’ll move on.
To its replacement, the B-52, two of them visible here. There was a B-47 too. And so much more.
Another view of the B-52s. And there are still B-52s in front line operations today, and will be yet for some time.
This row was dedicated to foreign trainers and such, if I remember correctly.
A B-58 Hustler, the first supersonic bomber, capable of Mach 2 flight.
A row of Russian MIGs.
And here from another angle.
Stephanie was a good sport, but she really got a kick out of these two Lockheed C-140Bs sporting Eugene-style paint jobs.
I didn’t look to see who the artists were and why they were created, other than to amuse us in an unexpected way.
I did not take pictures of all the outside exhibits nor in any of the several large indoor exhibit halls. But it’s a splendid place to see airplanes not likely to seen in the air anymore except the B-52s.
We drove into town, bought some groceries and at the downtown Goodwill, I found the perfect book for my next read: Going Back to Bisbee, by local author Richard Shelton, who first came here via the military in 1956, and had his first teaching job in Bisbee. His account of a trip back to Bisbee is filled with the colorful history, fauna, flora and insights into the region we had just been exploring, between Tucson and the border. That and his own experiences and relationship to it. Very well written, as it really brought this area alive.
We hadn’t really planned to leave the Tucson area so soon, but something called us to the north. So we skirted around the west side of the Tucson Mountains via Catalina, and then east to Oracle, then north to Globe. It was another great drive through the desert, which varies constantly; never a dull moment.
We headed into the Tonto National Forest on 188, and finally found a little dirt road to pull off for the night.
Day 11. Somewhere along AZ hwy 188 to somewhere along AZ hwy 89
One doesn’t really know what the surroundings look like when pulling in late at night, except for the ever-present brilliant stars. In the morning, we got out and found ourselves on a little ridge.
And we could see Theodore Roosevelt Lake (a reservoir) off in the distance. I looked at my map, and decided not to take the main highway there, as I saw another marked route, AZ 288, branching off to the right just a few miles ahead. It led to a place on the map called Young, and its route was completely through National Forest, but since it had an Arizona highway number, I assumed it was a paved road.
It started out that way, as it wound up and up through beautiful rock outcroppings, higher, and ever higher. We were on the south face, so it was sunny and dry. But once we got to the top, the pavement ended and AZ 288 turned into a red dirt road, the kind of dirt that gets very gooey when wet. And that’s how it was once we arrived at the top of this very high wooded plateau, due to the snow that was still abundant and melting. There were some hairy moments, as the road was a bit chewed up from 4x4s in some dark, shaded turns.
Looking at this Google satellite map (which was not available to me at the time) I can see just how rugged the country is that we traversed.
We were deep in a remote area of the Tonto Forest, and encountered only two vehicles the whole time, hunters in 4x4s. I asked one how the road was to Young. “About the same”, was the droll answer. Well, as long as it didn’t go up anymore, I figured we’d likely be ok. What concerned me now was the road out of Young to the north, as Young was clearly in a valley. If the road was this bad or worse, it could be a problem. I had assumed Young was a real town.
This shot was taken after the challenging shady sections, when I was too absorbed to think about taking pictures.
There was more to Young than this abandoned stone house, but not a whole lot more. Still, there had to be a way for folks to access this sleepy town in the winter other than the road we came. Sure enough, hwy 288 was paved heading north, and stayed paved. Whew!
The highway headed up again, and even higher now, right to the top of Mogollan Rim, which is a 200 mile long escarpment that defines the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau. Roughly speaking, Arizona is divided between the lower deserts to the south (Sonora Desert), and the high country to the north, the Colorado Plateau. That reaches up to 8,000′, and snow is common in the winters.
We pulled off for a break, and savored the intense contrast of the red soil, white snow, green pines and deep blue sky. To bad I didn’t have my cross-country skis along. The van was now sporting a two-tone paint job.
We had reached AZ 260, a genuine highway, and felt connected to civilization again, for better or for worse.
The plan now was to head to Jerome, another old mining town clinging to the side of a mountain. And the route I picked, via Pine, also was via a small back highway, but this time I asked someone in Payson as to its condition. I was assured it was paved the whole way. Very scenic, but then that goes for pretty much every mile we’d driven so far.
We climbed up the long grade from the valley, and arrived in Jerome once again at dusk. But that only added to the character of this remarkable old town built on the steep side of Cleopatra Hill at over 5,000′, and looking across the vast Verde Valley, where the lights were now twinkling far below.
Like Bisbee, Jerome went through numinous ups and downs, depending on the price of copper and other factors. Its mines too eventually ended up in the hands of Phelps-Dodge, and mining finally ended in 1953. Population fell to under 100. But it to had a renaissance starting in the 1960s, when a new generation of artists and alternate-lifestyle folks saw it as a cheap place to call home, and one with lots of character.
We walked around town, and found a place to eat. I was hoping to spend the night in the National Forest just past the town, but the road goes up steeply, and there was too much snow for us to pull off. So reluctantly we headed on, once again driving a bit more in the dark than I’d have preferred. Prescott Valley and Chino Valley are now quite developed, so it was a bit of a haul to the next National Forest, near Drake. We were covering a lot of territory.
Day 12: Off Hwy 89 near Drake to Las Vegas, NV
We hit Ash Fork shortly after breakfast, and a look at the map showed we could take the old Route 66 from near there all the way to Kingman, a more northerly route than I-40. In Ash Fork, I spotted this Rambler Ambassador, so I had to stop, although there are lots of old cars sitting out along Route 66.
It’s a 1960, and one we’ve never covered here before, except peripherally in my 1961 Ambassador CC.
We’ll call it good with a quick look for now.
A Jeep CJ-5 and a ’60s Chevy pickup were keeping it company. If I’d stopped for every old car in the towns along Route 66, I’d still be there.
Route 66 parallels the BNSF (formerly Santa Fe) main line from Los Angeles to Chicago. There was a near constant stream of trains, every one carrying only containers; full from China and Southeast Asia, empties going back. I rolled along one for some 15 minutes, getting slowed down by little towns, then catching up to it again. It was doing about 55 or so.
I finally passed its big twin engines in the lead; there was typically one more locomotive in the middle of the train too. But I’m used to seeing the freights coming through Eugene with five of these on the front end, and two more on the tail end, as they prepare to climb steep Willamette Pass.
When I spotted this tourist attraction along the highway, I had to stop, as we’ve seen it here before from Cohort posters.
Yes, this one, with the Chrysler and DeSoto out front, and a whole lot more cars scattered around. I’m going to have to do a separate post on them, as this one is already absurdly long. Stay tuned.
The advantage of traveling at this time of year is that there is almost no one else doing it. The roads were practically deserted, as were places like this along the way. It was like stepping back in time 50 years or so in that regard. And it’s why we don’t travel much in the summer.
We hit Kingman, AZ around lunch time, and got out to stretch our legs. I spotted this fine old stone home with a cupola on top, and headed to it. It turned out to be a museum now, the Historic Bonelli House, and it was open. It was built by George Bonelli in 1915 after the wood-frame house he’d built a few years earlier burned to the ground from a likely bad electric installation. This house was not going to burn down.
And it was lived in by his son until 1973, when it was sold to the city, and eventually restored and opened to the public. The original coal range in the kitchen was never replaced, and the whole house is remarkably untouched from how it was a hundred years ago.
I hadn’t really expected to find ourselves in Kingman at this time, but it just seemed to happen. Looking at the map, I realized we were less than two hours from Las Vegas. Now that would have been the last place I expected to go on this trip (no offense to LV lovers). I used to have to go there annually for the giant Broadcasters Conventions in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but was not a fan and have never been back. And Stephanie was last there in 1961, when her family drove through at night on the way to Salt Lake City. She remembers lots of bright lights, and not much else.
But I suddenly remembered that son Ted (“Ed” in his professional life) was there all week at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show), as autonomous technology is now big there too. So I called him and asked whether he had time for supper. He did, and so we set the autopilot for the bright lights of Las Vegas.
But first we stopped at Hoover Dam, which was the world’s tallest dam when it was built in 1935, then called Boulder Dam then. It was the first dam to turn the pristine Colorado riparian zone into a giant lake, Lake Mead.
We walked over the new highway bridge that spans the gorge just downstream from the dam, and gives impressive views
As well as walking across the dam itself.
As it got dark, we could see a massive glow of light on the western horizon behind a ridge of mountains as we drove west. The highway cuts through an opening in the ridge, and there it is…a mirage on the desert floor. Even from a great distance on this perfectly clear winter night I could already make out the taller buildings. It was clearly much bigger, more vertical and denser than the last time I was there.
We plunged into the bowels of the strip, and met Ted. We found a parking lot (no joke), and walked through Paris.
Not quite exactly as I remember Paris, but then that’s Las Vegas in a nutshell. It’s the ultimate make-belief world; Disneyland on steroids, with gambling.
After eating Japanese food in Paris, we walked around a bit and caught the fountain show in front of the Bellagio, as well as its lobby, which was being decorated for Chinese New Years. They know their clientele. I rather felt like I was in China, actually, from the sheer scale, density and inauthenticity of it all.
This was the most unexpected stop of our whole trip, but one needs to be open to whatever presents itself. Humans’ ability and imaginations in reshaping the environment is seemingly infinite, for better or for worse.
And where did we spend the night in Las Vegas, whose prices have risen with the height of its hotels? In the van, in the parking lot of a large apartment complex where Ted had rented an Airbnb. He came out in the morning and we had breakfast together in the van, our first houseguest.
Day 13: Las Vegas to Saline Valley, CA
“Failure to prepare is preparing for failure” (John Wooden)
This day was one of ultimate extremes. We would start out in the middle of the dense Las Vegas strip, and end in one of the most remote valleys in the country. Ending up in Saline Valley was as unexpected as being in Las Vegas, but getting there was a lot more difficult.
I had not planned to include Death Valley on this trip, as I was imagining an extended exploration of it perhaps next winter. I was there several times in the 70s, and Stephanie and I and the kids spent two days there in the 1980s. I had perused an older hiking book of Death Valley a month or so ago at home, and was intrigued by all of the hikes one could take by getting a bit off the beaten track. And our van seemed like the way to do it. I was particularly drawn to the author’s hikes and descriptions of Saline Valley, which he described as a smaller version of Death Valley without any development. And there was a hot springs, which was a major draw for us. But as I said, I thought that would happen another time. I didn’t bring my California Gazateer, or a single proper map of California except an old road atlas. I had no idea of what it meant to get there.
The hiking book did say that the road beyond the warm springs turns into a very rugged 4×4 only road. That’s all I had to go on; no distances, no idea of how long it took to get there. And with that little information, I decided to go there.
We first drove north through Death Valley from the south, via Shoshone and entered it via Salsberry Pass. It was another perfect winter day; cool but sunny. But the popular attractions like Artist’s Palette and others were closed due to the shutdown, so we just kept rolling after we stopped here at the ruins of an old ore stamping mill.
We drove along, enjoying the scenery, and next thing we knew, we were heading out again, on Hwy 190. I stopped at the Panamint Springs gas station, and did asked someone inside about how long it took to get into Saline Valley. “About an hour and a half”. Hmm; a bit more than I was somehow imagining. So I did the only smart thing on this little adventure: I bought some more gas for the van, which was about half full. The gas was priced at over $5 gallon, so I figured six more gallons would be more than enough, rather than fill the tank.
We headed up a long grade to get us out of Death Valley proper, and at the top, we turned off on the Saline Valley Road. It was rough: rocky, washboardy, bumpy. But the scenery was superb, as we traversed a high plateau of sorts. And it climbed higher yet, up to some 6500′. And kept going.
Lacking any sort of topo map, I had somehow imagined Saline Valley as sort of a branch off Death Valley. Not so; it’s its own valley, the bottom of which is at an elevation of only 1,000′. That’s the view from near the top before the road starts down, looking down some 6,000′ into the valley floor. Wow; that’s along way down there, I though to myself.
Just past the the top of the pass where the road starts to drop, there was snow and ice on the road in a shady part. I looked at it and the steepness of the road, and decided/hoped it was going to be doable coming back up.
What concerned me more was one steep section with loose rocks and soil. Hmm. But by this time we were already over an hour into the trip, and I wasn’t in the mood to give up so readily. So we kept going, punishing the van and ourselves on the rocks and washboard.
A bit further on, a 4×4 conversion Econoline with big tires came the other way, and he waved me to stop. He wanted to know how much snow there was at the top. I asked him how far to the hot springs. “About an hour and a half”. What? We’d already gone an hour and a half, and it was now late afternoon. But he said it was well worth it. Idiot that I am, I forgot to confirm with him if the hot springs were on the main road, as I assumed. Onwards.
The whole way down into the valley had to be driven at 15 mph or less. When we hit the valley floor, the washboard was atrocious, so I accelerated up to about 40, and mostly skimmed it, although that still set off a strong vibration. It was getting late, and I was tired, having started early in the morning in Las Vegas, which now seemed a world away.
And so I barrelled along, looking for signs of the hot springs. There were none. There were a few turn-offs, but I knew there were a number of old roads leading to the many mines that had once operated in the valley. As the second hour and a half went by we now found ourselves heading upwards, as in what felt like way too high of terrain. Hot springs invariably are on the valley floor, not in the hills. It was dusty, and I was aching to soak in the springs, the reward for this long grueling drive. But it never came. It got dark, and I had to just stop, as our gas was now back to one half or less. In fact, I started getting a bit panicky about the gas, as we had come down so far, and getting this 7,000 lb van back up this long steep road at a crawl was going to take some considerable energy.
So I just pulled off a bit on the road, slightly onto the rocks to level the van. It’s not like I expected anyone to come by, and if they did, there was enough room. We had passed two other 4×4 Toyota pickups camping much further back.
It was not a very happy night. I worried about the fuel, and was mad at myself for having somehow missed the hot springs. How could we have missed it?
Here’s what we missed. Several pools out in the middle of nowhere.
And here’s the Google map I needed then. Instead we were now about where I put that orange circle. Way off.
Update: dman has left a comment that the road to the hot springs might very well have been impassible in our van. So maybe this was a blessing in disguise.
Day 14: Saline Valley to Half Moon Bay, CA.
Over breakfast I pulled out that old hiking book and looked at the Saline Valley section again. And this time, a few pages further on, there was a bit of a map(!), which clearly showed that the hot springs were not on the main road, but off a few miles just past the dunes on the valley floor. And it confirmed that the road were were on now was heading out of the valley, via the northern pass. The valley floor was new well below us.
But the book also said that winter closures from snow affected the north pass more than the southern one, because it was higher, at 7,500′. It was tempting to try it, as we were so far along already, but I didn’t want to risk it. I knew what the southern pass was like, and felt fairly sure we could manage it. Pushing off into another unknown was not going to make a semi-stupid situation any smarter. So I turned the van around on the road there, thanks to its very tight turning radius, and headed back. And although I felt we probably could make it the 13 mile detour to the hot springs, we both were just a wee bit too anxious about the gas. We couldn’t have relaxed and enjoyed it. Why didn’t I fill it it all the way up?
It was another long, rough, bouncy, dusty, shaking, rattling ride back out. The van clambered up that one steep loose section, although not without some wheel spin and a moment of dread. And I mustered enough momentum to get through the snow and icy section at the top of the pass.
And although I felt a bit dumb, it had been an incredible drive down into there. Most of all, I was glad that I had used a lot of strong fasteners and lock washers to support my cabinets and the underfloor gray water tank. It was a torture test, and the van and my build came through it just fine. And once we hit the pavement, it felt like we were flying on a cushion of air. Aahhh!
We were now ready to get “home”, meaning Half Moon Bay, where Stephanie was going to house sit for some friends at the beach. It was going to be a long drive, but a spectacular one, along the east side of the Sierras up Hwy 395.
My iPhone can’t begin to do justice to the wall of mountains that rises almost straight 10,000′ above the valley floor. They seem so much further away in these shots due to the lens. But there’s very few places in the world where one can see mountains with that much elevation difference from the valley below.
Mt. Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental US, is in that grouping. Suffice it to say, the light this day made the mountains pop out more than any time I’ve ever seen them, and we used to come up to Mammoth Mt. to ski a number of time when we lived in LA.
I didn’t take anymore pictures as we crossed the Sierra on Carson Pass just south of Lake Tahoe. It was all beautiful, but enough is enough.
We luxuriated in long hot baths and in the seemingly vast spaces of a house after living in the van for just over two weeks. In the morning I was greeted with this view of the breakers from the bedroom. The air felt unusually moist after all that desert air.
A couple of days walking along the beach path and hiking in the Santa Cruz Mountains capped off a most memorable trip. There were moments where we felt maybe we had rushed it too much, not settling down a bit in some areas. But then this trip was intended to give us an idea of an area we intend to go back to, and we certainly have a better idea of that now. And there wasn’t a minute we got tired of the endless scenery unfolding in front of us through the giant windshield of the van. No regrets, except for missing the hot springs.
Thanks for coming along; even if it was a bit long.
Our previous trip: 1700 mile Loop of the deserts and Mountains of Eastern Oregon