Burro Creek BLM camp

[Note: I had to post-date a few entries due to no Internet, so you may want to scroll down and start with  April 5, Lake Mead NRA.]

Our trip is winding down now.  We’ve been on the road for two weeks and it’s time to head back to home base.  Work and home projects await.  My Airstream “to do” list has grown to an impressive size as a result of this trip, and I’m eager to get going on it because it won’t be long before we head out again in May.

We have to be home by Tuesday night at the latest, which is quite a lot of time to cover about 470 miles starting on Sunday.  The general plan was to break it up into days of 210 miles, 160 miles, and 100 miles so that we wouldn’t have a rushed ending.

Departing Valley of Fire and heading back into the Lake Mead Nat’l Rec Area, the ranger at the entry station told us that there was a high wind warning for the desert southwest.   At the time the air was entirely calm, and we’ve had plenty of experience with high winds, so we thanked him for the warning but didn’t think much of it.  The drive back down the north shore of Lake Mead was as beautiful as before, and then we were flying high above the Hoover Dam, and before I really thought about it we were somewhere on Rt 93 heading south in Arizona.

That would all be fine but I had not done my fuel calculations well.  Eleanor had even asked the night before if we were going to have to make a stop for fuel and I said I thought the half-tank we had would be fine to reach I-40.  But at Boulder City (our first fuel opportunity along the Lake Mead shoreline) it should have been clear we were not going to be fine.  There was a touch of wind by then, and it was knocking down our fuel economy by 1 MPG.   That may not seem like much, but going from 13 MPG to 12 MPG represents a 9% loss of range.  I forgot to double-check the fuel status as we passed Boulder City, and out in this part of the country you need to double-check fuel consumption because stations can be a long way apart.

Fortunately we encountered the charmingly-named Uranus Gas stop midway on Rt 93 (between Hoover Dam and I-40).  Despite a “we gotcha” price of $4.85/gallon for diesel, I was grateful to find the place and buy four gallons to extend our range.  At that point the trip computer was saying we had 45 miles of range left and 48 miles to the next gas stations at I-40…

We stopped in Kingman AZ just before getting on I-40 to pick up more diesel.  The last mile of Rt 93 north of I-40 is a traffic nightmare, and I don’t recommend stopping there for fuel until they get some stoplights and maybe another lane installed.  Also, although at least four stations offered diesel, and they were all basically next to each other, the prices ranged from $3.79 to $4.49.  Go to exit 51 instead.

Our route took us along I-40 a short distance, then back on Rt 93 where it is named the Joshua Tree Forest Parkway.  Not far down here, just north of the unincorporated town of Nothing (seriously), the Bureau of Land Management has placed a very nice campground called Burro Creek.  The sites are pleasant, the facilities are limited, there’s a nice view of the Rt 93 bridge over Burro Creek and from a few sites you can see the creek, and it’s quiet.  $14 is a lot for no hookups but it felt worthwhile anyway.  I broke out the grill for one last fiesta and we grilled everything we had:  shrimp, salmon, pineapple, and green onions.  Eleanor made a marinade, jasmine rice, potato soup (using up some leftovers), and a salad.  It was too much but we loved it anyway, and then we slept with the windows open to let in the blessed silence and cool night air.

Valley of Fire State Park, NV

I have to say that the drive along the north shore of Lake Mead, by itself, makes going to Valley of Fire State Park worthwhile.  The road dips and twists for fifty miles or so, covering some beautiful desert terrain.  I found it to be enjoyable towing the Airstream along this road, and Kyle (following us with his 34-footer) seemed to feel the same way.

We had expected that the campgrounds at Valley of Fire would fill up quickly, and so we were not surprised to see “CAMPGROUND FULL” signs upon arrival at 10:30 a.m. on Friday.  But we’ve learned not to take such signs seriously.  It’s always a good idea to inquire, especially in the morning when people are departing.  The campground hosts (usually volunteers) and rangers can’t keep putting up and taking down the “FULL” sign, so they generally just leave it up and let the people who are more timid or great respecters of signs turn around and go elsewhere.  We are neither timid nor great respecters of signs, so we plowed ahead a few miles and (after passing yet another CAMPGROUND FULL notice) readily found two vacant sites with water & electric hookups.

Valley of Fire campground2The camping area is beautiful, reminiscent of the Squaw Flat campground in the Needles district of Canyonlands NP, but with one important difference.  The state park prohibits climbing on the rocks, except in a few designated areas.

This was unexpected, and curious.  A big attraction of these sorts of parks is the hiking and climbing amongst the rocks.  We had figured on the kids being able to explore a bit.  Was the park management concerned about human-caused erosion of the sandstone?  People getting hurt?

The other surprise was the dearth of established trails.  On Friday afternoon we hiked every trail in the park, and they were great, but they were short.  The experience left us wanting more and there just wasn’t more to be had in “Nevada’s largest state park.”

Valley of Fire Airstream viewOK, so no more hikes, no climbing on rocks, and also no cell phone service.  This meant no blog, no work (yippee!), and enforced downtime.  I spent a lot of time just sleeping, eight or nine hours a night and a big nap in the afternoon.  At one point Eleanor looked around at the scenery, and me uncharacteristically lying in bed with a book, and said, “Shouldn’t we be doing something?”

“Yes,” I replied, “and I’m doing it.”  Or words to that effect.  It was a guilty pleasure.  Usually time in the Airstream is tinged with work.  This time I had a chance to finish Umberto Eco’s “The Island Of The Day Before,” which has been sitting on my bedside table for over a year.

But really we did do more than just lie around.  We made dinner outside again, I baked breakfast in the Dutch Oven (mentioned in the previous blog entry), talked about things we don’t normally have time to talk about, and on Saturday we went to a little classic car show that was organized in the park’s Visitor Center parking lot.  It was enough.

We didn’t have to worry about Emma and Kathryn at all, except to ensure they didn’t wander off somewhere.  They have kept each other company for three weeks straight.  At one point this weekend Eleanor handed them a bottle of soap bubble solution, but otherwise they were entirely self-entertained in Pokemon talk, co-writing a story (about two girls who acquire mysterious superpowers at the hands of evil scientists), developing a code language, and whatever else 12-year-old girls do together.  I don’t really want to know.

On Friday I noticed Stupid Camper Trick #2:  Somehow, our neighbors managed to establish a cell phone call with friends who were apparently coming to the park. (How they did this, I don’t know since I had “No service” on Verizon.  Maybe Sprint or AT&T works better.)  They stood outside their trailer and loudly conducted the call on speakerphone.  The sites are widely spaced here, but I can guarantee that everyone within the surrounding 200 feet clearly heard both sides of that conversation.  It wasn’t an interesting one.

Valley of Fire sunsetSaturday night Mary made what I thought of as “Farewell Brownies,” since they were the last meal we would share together.  It has been a good three weeks with them, camping at our house and traveling together.  There aren’t many people with kids who we could last three weeks with.  We made tentative plans to cross paths again next February, when they will be coming to Alumaflamingo in Sarasota FL, and we might have the Airstream there too.

Kyle was close to pulling off Stupid Camper Trick #3, but he owned up to it before he did it.  For logistical and work reasons he had to get on the road at 3:30 a.m. Sunday morning.  The only problem with that plan was the fairly loud Dodge diesel, which could wake everyone up.  We have encountered this one before, and it’s really only an issue when the owners let the engine idle while they hitch up.  Kyle was thoughtful enough to hitch up the rig the night before so they’d be ready for a quick getaway, and so we granted him absolution in advance of his sin.  I promised him I’d roll over in my sleep as a sort of salute to their departure, but in fact we never heard a thing.  They slipped away in the night and started their run up to the Pacific Northwest.  We’re wishing you guys clear skies and smooth roads.

Lake Mead NRA

It has been several days since I posted and I have a very good reason for that. We were at one of those wonderful confluences (for a working person) of time & space, specifically, a state park where cell phone signals barely penetrate AND a two day period where I was not obligated to be online for work reasons.  It doesn’t happen often these days.  I’ll tell you about that in greater detail in the next blog entry.

Our stay at Lake Mead National Recreation Area was fine, if uneventful.  On the way over Thursday afternoon Kyle discovered a leak in his AirSafe hitch (which is basically an airbag contraption to soften the ride), and after we were parked the campground we spent a couple of hours effecting a field repair.

All hitches have their failure points, and so I don’t hold it against any particular brand when there’s an issue, unless it’s a design flaw that repeatedly causes problems.  When (early on) we had problems with our Hensley I noticed there were always people eager to step up and use the breakdown as evidence that the hitch itself was not worth using, which I think is a case of a pre-determined conclusion looking for supporting evidence.  I haven’t seen the hitch brand yet that never has failures, be it Reese, Blue Ox, Hensley, AirSafe, EZ-Lift, Equal-i-zer, or whatever.  The important thing, to me, is that when it breaks down in the middle of nowhere—which is where they always go wrong—that you can make some sort of repair on the spot and proceed on your way.  The real failure is when a part breaks and no substitute can be found locally, and nothing can be rigged up temporarily.

In this case, the field repair was fairly simple.  We deflated the air bag fully and wedged in a chunk of wood to lock the AirSafe in the deflated position, which effectively nullified it but made it possible for Kyle to continue towing.  The local ACE Hardware store was kind enough to let us borrow a hand saw to cut a 2×4 to the correct size.

Since this was a short trip, I brought along the Dutch Oven and the Weber grill, and Eleanor packed ingredients for both.  We had agreed before we left that we would do a lot of outdoor cooking, which is uncommon for us because we usually don’t have time, but really more fun.  Thursday night I grilled hamburgers and attempted a “Lazy Peach Cobbler” in the Dutch Oven.  The cobbler came out OK but the oven sat low in the gravel, and this partially smothered the charcoal beneath it, so it was a bit underdone.  Lesson learned.

The grill was already out, so I grilled Teryaki Chicken on Friday, and Saturday morning I made a country breakfast thing in the Dutch Oven, which was sort of like a frittata.  That came out well, and I think may have fooled our friends into thinking I know how to cook.  In reality, I have a secret tool which allows me to avoid most horrible mistakes and season things to perfection.  It’s called Eleanor.  Thus the peach cobbler contained ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon, which was far more than the recipe suggested.

Hoover Dam view Tillman BridgeOn Friday we took our friends over to Hoover Dam, since they’d never seen it.  The new Pat Tillman bridge is now in place, and so the thru traffic now flies high over the dam, but the traffic on the dam is really no better because of all the tourists.  We walked the dam, took some pictures, and then walked the new bridge (spectacular views) but fled fairly quickly to get away from the crowds.

As we’ve been traveling I’ve been noticing stupid camper tricks and meaning to document them. Friday morning we encountered a great one.  The guy next to us used a hammer drill (a.k.a. impact driver) to raise his stabilizer jacks.  Now, I use a cordless drill myself, which quickly winds up the stabilizers and makes a small amount of noise for a few seconds as it goes.

But an impact driver pounds the metal as it turns, and that creates a whole new level of excitement as it resonates.  Especially at 7:30 a.m.   Especially since his giant fifth wheel had eight stabilizers.  And they were big ones, so the noise went on for quite a while.  It was like someone had decided to jackhammer the sidewalk next to us.

The best part was an hour later, as he was about to climb into his truck.  He stopped and said to me, “I hope I didn’t bother you with the noise.”  Nah.  We like waking up to heavy construction sounds.

We headed out on Friday morning because our next destination was Valley of Fire State Park, about 60 miles north.  My research revealed that it was a beautiful place of red sandstone formations, it had a few campsites with water & electric, and it didn’t take reservations.  My conclusion:  get there early on Friday before the weekend crowd arrives, and hope to snag two spaces for the Airstreams. So at 9 a.m., we were off …


Las Vegas, NV

As I had mentioned before, the demands of work brought us to Las Vegas. We didn’t have any particular desire to head this way, and if I had my choice we would have gone west to the coast, but hey, we’re still traveling in the Airstream and I can’t complain.

Well, actually I can complain a little, because Las Vegas is not a place with great choices in RV parks.  It’s usually a choice between overpriced asphalt parking lot and inexpensive noisy eyesore asphalt parking lot.  I’m sure there are exceptions, but we haven’t found them yet. Read RVParkReview about the situation here and you’ll find lots of similar comments: “basically a parking lot,”  “noisy,” and “overpriced.”

The place we tried this time was particularly disappointing.  Cramped sites, extremely noisy traffic from the road nearby, dilapidated rigs in half the spaces, zero appeal.  It was, as so many RV parks are, just a place to park and get hookups for a short stay, not a place you’d choose for your vacation.  The low-rent motel version of an RV park.  Convenient, but otherwise unimpressive.

It was a forgettable stay, with a few exceptions.  The big one was that our traveling buddies Kyle & Mary took Emma for an evening and so Eleanor and I got to go out on the town for dinner.  We walked The Strip and found it more crowded and money-hungry than ever.  Growth over the past two years has been so massive that at some points The Strip now resembles downtown Hong Kong. It was interesting to compare the changes to our last visit, but I have long since lost any desire to remain there for more than an hour or two.

This trip has been extremely useful for identifying little issues with the Airstream.  For the most part our recent work has proved out well.  The refrigerator is staying put, the new laundry bin is useful, and the new floor is great. But I’m finding quite a few things that need attention before we head out for the big summer trip in May.  Obviously I need to finish the new cabinets, and that will get done in the week or two after we get back to home base.  We’ll install a new microwave oven at the same time.

Also I’ve been finding lots of small things as we travel, like the rusty latch on the propane tank cover, that won’t budge anymore.  There’s also a Hehr window gear mechanism that has stripped (so the window won’t open).  These are little things but they require parts that I will have to order or get from a dealer, so I’ll fix them when we get home too.

It’s time for some upgrades, too.  The rear view camera is mounted too low.  I put it on the bumper and it doesn’t get a good view there.  It needs to be relocated higher up on Airstream, above the rear bedroom window.  If I could find a compatible camera with a narrower field of view, I’d change it out too.

The cellular router we have used for the past few years, a Cradlepoint CTR500, has become obsolete.  The new Verizon 4G card we use makes the Cradlepoint go batty when we hit some 4G service areas.  Despite firmware upgrades and “locking” the thing into 3G mode, it just won’t work under all circumstances, so I’m going to get a new model and at the same time install a good external antenna to replace the very obsolete 2G antenna (wrong frequency) that’s currently on our roof.

We’re also wondering about the LED lights.  They are excellent except for an annoying strobing effect that occurs when the water pump is running.  The pump seems to be causing a rapid series of voltage drops as it cycles, which causes the lights to go on and off very rapidly.  At night when doing dishes or showering it’s like we’ve installed a disco mirror ball.  None of our friends are reporting this problem with the same LEDs, so we suspect the pump—but the pump works fine.  So I’m trying to weigh alternatives:  do we replace it and hope a new one solves the problem?  Do we install some sort of voltage regulator?  This one needs more research.

This is all good stuff to think about now.  I’ll have about 5-6 weeks to finalize everything in the Airstream before we head out again, which means I’ll be busy but we should leave in very good shape for extended travel.

Lake Mead Airstreams

Now that the bulk of the work we came here to do is done, we’ve fled the RV park in Las Vegas and moved to a much nicer setting along the shores of Lake Mead.  We’ll spend two nights here, maybe go see the Hoover Dam, and then head out for a three day weekend at some location where phones don’t work.

Slab City

Slab City is one of those places that approaches a mythical reputation by dint of repeated reports from “people who’ve been there” and told fantastic tales, like 16th century mariners who encountered sea monsters and the edge of the world.  I won’t confirm or deny anything here; I’ll just say that it’s an American cultural phenomenon and whether that’s good or bad in your mind is entirely up to you.

Certainly it’s a good thing by many of the residents, who feel they have escaped the confines of modern society and are living in “the last free place.”  Or so says the bumper sticker that now adorns the back of our Airstream.

For those who don’t know, Slab City is a collection of squatters who live on abandoned military property at the eastern side of the Salton Sea.  They’ve lived there for years, and built a ragtag community there.  It’s a hard place to describe, so if you are really interested, the best thing to do is just drop in and check it out.

Shave the QuailsWe had decided to drop by on our way north, at the suggestion of Brian and Leigh, who wanted to attend the biggest party of the year in The Slabs (which is a place that loves parties, so that’s saying something).  The seasonal residents would soon be leaving, and so it was “Prom Night,” when people would dress up and crown the Slab City Prom King & Queen.  We organized a caravan of B&L, Kyle & Mary, and ourselves, three Airstreams trundling about 65 miles from Borrego Springs, around the southern tip of the Salton Sea and then up to Niland, CA.

visiting Michael DepraidaThe key to our visit was a good (Airstream) friend, known in Slab City as “Radio Mike.” He has been wintering at The Slabs for several years, and operates a pirate radio station from 9 am to 9 pm daily, along with selling art, t-shirts, decals, and DVDs.  We knew Mike would set us up and give us the insider’s tour, and we were not disappointed.

Settling in was simple:  find an open spot of dirt and park on it.  No hookups of any kind.  The residents dig old fashioned “gopher holes” for sewage disposal.  For just one night, we didn’t need to make such accommodations.  All three of us parked near Mike’s trailer among the creosote bushes.  I spent the afternoon quizzing Mike about life in The Slabs and then we had dinner in our Airstream.  It was very hot, and we ran all three fans all night long.

The “Prom Night” was very interesting.  It was held at one of The Slabs few gathering places, a conglomeration of stage, castaway couches, and trailers known as The Range.  This open air bar/stage/dance hall made a strangely compelling scene, once it was filled with lights and Slab residents in their finery and duds. To the side, photographers were capturing prom night photos, although most of the people posing were decades past their high school years.  We stayed long enough to see the Prom King and Queen get crowned, and then walked back along the dusty Low Road in the darkness, back to our Airstreams.

Salvation MountainIt was a memorable place to be for Easter.  Mike, Brian and Leigh went over to the community hot spring for a soak (clothing optional, but they were modest) while we stayed back in the Airstream.  The bunny found us again (it’s amazing how he keeps doing that), and so breakfast was mostly chocolate.

Our last stop was Salvation Mountain, to get a look at that astonishing, crumbling, painted spectacle.  The man who created it is gone, and already the monument, which is a thin veneer of paint over dirt and straw bales, is starting to fail.  It may not be long before it is gone too, so I really wanted to document it before we left.  The “mountain” looks like a cartoon confection, covered in colorful frosting and religious platitudes writing in white icing.

Our stay could be only one night.  By Monday I had to be in Las Vegas for work, and Kyle had to be somewhere he could get online reliably.  We said goodbye to Mike, Brian, and Leigh, and set off for points north.  Our caravan was back to two trailers:  ours and Kyle & Mary’s for the next 300 miles.