Desert Solitaire (Tribute to the original desert rat, Ed Abbey)

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August 29, 2009

By Bob Difley

Before my wife and I began fulltiming we took several week-end and Christmas holiday vacation trips wrapped in the chilly blanket of the Northern California winter. One particular trip we camped in a state park redwood grove and there was no one else there except for a ranger or two passing through. In fact, the ranger had to open the restrooms for us, since they didn’t expect any campers and had kept them locked. No heat either. We decided then that when we got to fulltiming we were going to spend our winters in the southwestern deserts, where it was warm and the sun shone most of the time. And when it infrequently rained, it didn’t last long. And so we did.

We were desert neophytes, assuming like many other RVers that the only reason to go to the desert was to spend the worst of the winter months in a dryer, warmer location. Period. Man, were we wrong. It didn’t take long to find out that the desert was teeming with life, it was just a different kind of life than we were used to. Nocturnal life, for instance. The critters and varmints hid in burrows or caves during the heat of the day and came out to feed and prowl after the sun dipped below the yardarm, or rather, the saguaro arm.

Wildflowers, that lay dormant under the barren gravel and sand of the desert floor, would mysteriously and miraculously spring forth in a riot of color if just the right amount of rain fell at just the right time. Shrubs that appeared brittle and dead through most of the winter, burst with tiny lavender, white, yellow, and red flowers in the early Spring. Cacti exploded suddenly mid-Spring with neon-bright flowers specifically designed to attract day and nighttime pollinators.

The desert and its flora and fauna, it turned out, functioned on a delicate balance of heat and cold, moisture and aridity, evaporation rate and flash flooding, blazing daytime sun and nighttime covertness. But you didn’t tend to notice much of this desert life if you stayed cooped up in a manicured RV resort on the outskirts of Phoenix, Tucson, or Casa Grande. You had to get out into the open desert, away from the asphalt, the unnatural and alien green grass of the water hungry golf courses, and the rows of dwellings (of any kind) where all these wildflowers, cacti, coyotes, kit foxes, kangaroo rats, and jack rabbits used to be. Into the boondocks, that’s where.

The desert was what got us kicked off—more than sixteen years ago—into the real pleasures of boondocking. When we found our special spot, off the highway, away from the sound of tires on on the highway, away from city lights that dimmed the stars of the Milky Way, away from the dune buggies and ATVs, that was where we found the real, natural, untrammeled desert. Next week: How to boondock in the desert, in both communal locations like Quartzsite, and in solitary sites under a lone desert willow. To learn more about boondocking, check out my new 65-page eBook, Boondocking: Finding the Perfect Campsite on America’s Public Lands on my Web site.

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  3. Bob San Socie

    Thanks for more great writing!! I love to sit back and read Abbey’s writing as I enjoy yours.. He was right in his world view. Wonder if he could board a plane today? If you love the outdoors read Abbey.

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  5. C Condit

    I moved from a tent to a old Roadtrek because of a bad back. I am interested in dry camping, but as a woman, wonder about safety. Not just 2-legged badguys, but getting struck on a road that just ends, or a sandy spot, or mud, or …… I guess the thing to do is read a few articles and books on locations others have found, and start out with friends?
    Here in CA state parks have just skyrocketed to $50-85 a night, so lots more boondocking will be happening.

  6. Rick

    You forgot to mention those mean little wild piggys with the jaws of an alligator

  7. Ron Butler

    Had a good response back on why we rv and when I went to sent it, the bloody connection burbed!! Will try later!

  8. GMAs

    While were on the questions about boondocking and camping… I am sure others have issues about heading off too… places they want to go…

    Question is… where did you go.. old or new place?

    Question is… when you go do you find it to be the way you expected?

    Question is… after you got their did things become mondane or was it a real adventure causing improvision.

    Question is… did you have a adventure and fun when you went out or was it a total disaster and never do it again.

    Question is… what did you find you needed and will get before going again

    Question is… when you read about boondocking.. will you try it?

    Question is… what fears or issues do you have about being out “boondocking” or camping alone?

    I am sure these things all must somehow figure into the question of mind ” does this interest or make you want to try it?

    hello!!! I don’t think I am the only one in the campground out here boondocking… sure others have input too..

  9. GMAs

    No I was refering to our fearless leader Bob the lightweight …

    Of course those great nights of sleeping under the stars with that perfict 58 deg temp and light breeze to keep the bugs away… Nice perfict temp 70 deg days… with cotton puffs floating around… ahhh yes … ideal… but most of the time a dream. My luck the forcaster says clear and sunny.. and I get their and its “storm watch” …. 😉

    Naw.. think of it this way… you get to go experiance what our forfathers , the great pioneers, who settled this country did. I think that is the true idea behind camping…. anywhere other than a commercial park with pool and sana. But, Ron your right different strokes for different folks… and each deserves what they want to make of it… after all they worked hard all their life to enjoy it. No problem their.

    Change out the tow vehicle for a set of horses or in old days mules or ox’n, the RV trailer for the old contastoga waggon.. and what do you have… 🙂 camping ?

    So why do you go camping Ron .. and no this is not a put down… I am always interested in compairing notes as to why we RV’s do things…

  10. Ron Butler

    GMAs – you go there you manly stud! Enjoy your cold weather boondocking while us “lightweights” enjoy the warmth!! Whatever happened “to each his own?” without some sort of put-down! Oh well, glad that your still a manly man type to pattern ourselves after.

  11. GMAs

    wow bob your really getting good at this… next I expect a script and movie to follow…

    You know I just can’t … keep from doing it… YOU LIGHTWEIGHT…

    Cold is good… nothing like that first breath in the morning that damm near chokes the heck out of you.. makes your lungs revolt and suck into about the size of a marble… causiing you to gasp .. but every gasp brings more unusual pain and ….

    Well we cold go on into a horror story but …. Cold camping has its fun also… Yes no one else is around… because they are lightweights… and don’t understand the joy of camping when the snow flys or its cold cold…

    Heating the RV is indeed a challenge… as we have had the orginal heater in the AS come on and run conteniously when it got to 15 below “0” … but that didn’t stop us.. as the (then butane) quit flowing and we went electric heating… we were perpaired with plan A,B,C and D just in case…

    It is the experiences that you remember most.. such as the PU doors were frozen shut…like someone glued the rubber seals to the metal… hot water off the stove took care of that when you ran it around the door seal… but then the nights rain before caused the rubber tires to weld themselves to the ground… and a veteran of the cold came over and said not to move it or you will tear the tires apart… instead he suggested we cover the hood with a blanket or two… start the engine and let the heat from it warm the underside of the truck as well as the tires… etc.. so we covered the truck with a canvas.. started the engine…(surprised that it actually did start and no problems.. it was GAS not diesel like one other had and it was so stiff it wouldn’t trun over) and it did heat up the tires and all… with just a outlet for the exhaust pipe outside the tent…

    But, when the mechanical things are left alone… it is the crunching of the fresh snow..under foot… the crisp air… and the sights , sounds and social fun that makes it all worth while… all of which you don’t get much of along the coast of Calif.

    This is why you RV.. to go experiance nature at her best in different places and environments…

    And true.. while some are more adventursome by tenting .. such as the time we stayed in trailer village next to the x hippy dude and his grilfrined (we have written about the experance before) Getting up in a nce warm 72 deg AS trailer after having slept under a light blanket all night…. opening up the window shades and seeing the world has changed over night from brown/green to a white white… getting that cup of hot coffee.. taking a hot shower … and then seeing the natives next door hopping around to keep warm outside… is part of the fun of owning a RV I guess… shareing a hot cup of coffee with the gal… the hippie in the VW bus would have no part of the modern generation and its tech advances… grin..
    is also part of the great social aspect of the RV camping…

    Seasonal camping is just one part of owning a RV… and seeing how much fun you can have with as little as you can use…

    Be it mountan, desert or shore camping each has its own set of requirements and problems. Part of the challenge of being alive and making memories of…

    I am still wondering about boondocking.. ranger has to open the restrooms for you??? Thats not boondocking thats campground camping… ya lightweight… 🙂 🙂

    Good work keep it up… but, I am sure others have experiances they want to share on the subject of boondocking… hello!!!

    By the way our new PU weekender camper is coming along great… it is a slide in camper that is being designed and built for the outback and boondocking. What I refer to as a 3/4 cab over.. its not as wind prone as a full cabover… at only 40 inches above the bed of the truck… but allows one to get into the back country and under some of them low hanging branches.

    We moved the ham/cb antennas from the rear of the old camper cap to now the front brush guard area… so that it can do two things…sense the height needed so as not to hit the camper top… and provide better radio coverage.

    We also went to the new alternator that provides both 200 amps of 12 power and 4kw of 120/240 volt AC power. Dual battery (required for the winch) This then can run the truck, camper and trailer if need be out in the boonies… The PU also provides the hot water from the engine through the lines to heat both the water for shower/and/or another souce of heating for both the RV’s.

    We are getting lots of help from vetrans who have gone where roads don’t exist as to what works and what doesn’t…

    If you want we can send you drawings of the camper and the items that are being added to it for a great 4×4 outback boodocking vehicle… (and no we are not extream geovehicle people like some are) Its just that we hate to get stuck and enjoy being confident in taking care of our own… (something to be said about the stafaction of compedence)

    We still are going to use the AS as the base camp but the PU now has the abilty to go into the back country and do some boondocking /roaming around… for a couple of days before having to return to base… best of both worlds… oh and it also has room inside for a quad runner… (which works good in snow too) for getting back into areas that the PU can’t to go fishing etc…

    ah yes the adventure contenues… but we are not into making a book about it… yet… 😉

  12. Ron Friedel

    Your article brought back some good memories of a couple of bicycle trips across the US where we mostly tent camped in fairly small and remote locations. We had an agreement that if anyone stepped out of the tent at night to answer a call of nature and saw the milky way, they should wake the rest of us so we could share the awe of the vastness of space. Unfortunately, we really didn’t have many of those stupendous displays of twinkling, bright stars. Too much light pollution in much of the country.

  13. bob smith

    Bob we always spent one to two weeks boondocking when our kids was young and really enjoyed it we don’t do it much any more because of health reasons but really do miss it. I’s a great way to get next to nature and see what the world is really like. the stars are brighter and air cleaner

  14. Carson

    I throughly enjoyed reading this it was as if I was right there feeling calm and peaceful. Thank you