A little cold in the desert

I often counsel new full-timers that there are only a few places in the continental US where you can go for “guaranteed” warm weather all winter.  Those places are south Florida, southern Arizona, and the southern California desert.  It’s fairly temperate along much of the California coast and a few other coastal spots too.  But for those who are “chasing 72 degrees” there really are no guarantees, as we’ve discovered this week in the southern California desert.

Normally we get 60s and 70s by day here, with nights in the 40s.  The weather this past week has been unusually cold and there’s no sign of much improvement during our scheduled stay. In the sunshine it’s not bad even though the air is only about 50 degrees (and cooler in the shadowy canyons and palm oases that we favor during hikes).  Immediately after sunset, the air plunges into the 40s and dips below freezing by morning.  We’ve been running the Airstream’s heat pump in the evenings, then switching over to the silent catalytic heater for peaceful sleeping.  This is the first camping trip that I can remember having to leave the catalytic heater on its highest setting (9,000 BTUs) all night.

anza-borrego-palm-canyon-waterfall-charon.jpgThis means layering clothes is the key to comfort.  We knew this during our packing stage and brought the right clothes, so we’re fine.  On our hike through Palm Canyon yesterday afternoon, I started with two layers on top, the midway through the uphill hike I got warm and shed a layer.  Then when we paused to sit on the cold rocks and have a snack while watching a waterfall, I got cold and put two layers back on.  I had a ski hat in my bag too, just in case.

Back at the Airstream my job was to grill hamburgers for five people out on the picnic table by the dim light of two railroad kerosene lamps (and my headlamp).  The temperature plummeted as usual, and so before the grill was even lit at 6 p.m. I had to go back into the trailer and load up on serious clothes plus the ski hat.  It’s a little challenging grilling in the dark and near-freezing temperatures, but fortunately I have experience from our life in Vermont.  All that was missing was a few inches of snow — something that Borrego Springs has rarely seen.

We haven’t let the cold change our activities, except that we aren’t spending quite as much time outside after sunset.  The desert here is still very beautiful and full of surprises, and there’s much we want to see.  We’ll pack the bags with extra layers of clothes again today and head out for some exploration.

Minor delays

Sometimes even the simple trips can get complicated quickly.  As I’ve mentioned before, we have been anticipating this trip to the southern California desert for a long time, and we’ve had plenty of time to plan and pack.  But somehow I managed to overlook one of the simple preparations: checking the tire pressure on the Airstream.

tucson-frost-on-car.jpgThis week in Tucson we’ve had the coldest weather that we’re likely to see all winter.  At night the temperature has been dropping below freezing, which is a major weather event here.  We’ve been covering the citrus trees and running the electric space heaters in the house at night.  On Thursday, a “winter storm” arrived, which translates to heavy rain for half a day, and considerable snow up in the mountains.  Our nearby Mount Lemmon (elev. 8000+) picked up a foot of snow.  Down in Tucson, we just got wet and cold.

Our original plan was to head out on Thursday and drive half of the 380 mile trip, then boondock overnight somewhere along Interstate 8, but with the crummy weather we decided to spend another day at home and do the entire drive in a single day.  I turned the heat pump on in the Airstream, so that it would be warm while we were in there packing, and we were able to complete the re-packing process without having to rush too much.

So by Friday morning at 8 a.m. we were all set to go.  Alex and Charon and their friend Laura were ready too, parked directly in front of the house with their 1965 Airstream Safari.  They had arrived the day before.  The temperature was a shocking 29 degrees and the car had the thickest layer of frost I’ve ever seen on it.  (Forgive the quality of the pictures in this blog entry — they are frame captures from a video on the little Canon digicam.)

The last thing we usually do is plug in the tire pressure monitor for the Airstream, right before we pull out of the driveway.  As we did, I realized that the tires desperately needed air.  They had been set for 50 psi back in August, and I hadn’t had to adjust them for cooler temperatures since.  We stopped just a few feet out of the carport, and checked.  Sure enough, they were reading about 38 psi cold — far too low.  The load capacity of the tires drops dramatically with lower pressure.  Although they would warm up on the road and the pressure would increase, towing at this pressure still presented a very real risk of a blowout.

No problem, that’s why I have an air compressor at home.  But it wouldn’t work.  The darned thing worked for a while, then quit.  I assumed that perhaps it was unhappy with the freezing temperatures, and took it into the house to warm up.  I also told everyone else that they might as well go back into the house because I assumed this was a problem that would take some time to resolve.

But Alex knew something I didn’t.  Last winter he gave me the extension cord I was using. Although it looked perfect and had worked for me many times before, he replaced it with one of his own and that solved the problem.  So we pumped up all the tires in the freezing temperatures and finally got on the road about 40 minutes later than we had initially planned.

bias-ply-tire-blowout.jpgWell, that was still no problem because we’d allowed plenty of daylight to get to our destination.  But along a lonely stretch of Interstate 8 (and frankly, all of I-8 is lonely) Alex called on the road to report a flat.  We all immediately pulled over into the debris-strewn breakdown lane, but we were about half a mile ahead of them. A tire on his Safari had blown out, from causes unknown. I had to stay with our rig in case the troopers showed up, as our stop was technically unnecessary and we could be cited for a “non-emergency” stop, so Alex changed the tire himself.  About 30 minutes later, we were on the way again, now about three hours into our schedule and only 100 miles down the road.

Still, we had time to stop at the tiny outpost of Dateland, AZ for a couple of bags of fresh dates and some fuel, and at the Imperial Sand Dunes in southern California — just because we could — and still managed to get to Borrego Springs CA before the early sunset at 5 p.m.  When we arrived, we immediately saw some Airstream friends (Roger & Roxie, Bill K, Dan and Marlene) who were all hanging around wearing winter clothes.  It’s cold here, too, although a few degrees warmer than Tucson. We’ll spend the next few days hiking, exploring by car, and relaxing.