In my head I hear this stately gentleman’s voice, like the Nat Geo guy from the 60s and 70s, walking us through what we are seeing in this incredible, one to one encounter with everything from insects to archeology. Am I smart or just a parrot repeating a previously recorded message from being immersed in this reality. A city kid with absentee parents, handed off to who ever had time for me. Off in a rant…
So I’m experiencing life on another level, and with understandings of my mind, through the eyes of many. I have a 360 degree vista of the Sedona wilderness I’ll call it. The low drone of the occasional UTV or Pink jeep tour going to the native ruins down the trail a bit breaks the desert silence. The colors of the late afternoon sun deepen the reds and cream colored sandstone cliffs and mesas surrounding us until the last pink and orange of the setting sun paints the landscape. The night soon takes over and dismisses the last of the blues and purples for its inky blackness.
We decide to have a fire, which is my hypnotic friend. It takes hold of your consciousness and transports you to a dream like state of reality. Tomorrow I explore the Boynton Canyon vortex. The fire transports me into the universe and the energy that surrounds us. My senses become alive with the vibration. The warmth and brilliance of the flames brings me back. I take the last sip of my drink and head off to bed.
The night brings tormented dreams of a long gone past. I wrestle with the memories and wake up from a fitful sleep with tears running down my face. I quickly close one hand then the other and still my mind…it was only a dream I tell myself, but this place has a way of seriously messing with your psyche. I find Chris and reassure myself that I am here and now and drift back to sleep.
The morning comes early these days. We have parked so the sun comes in the windshield and begins to take off the chill. We sleep in today, making up for too many fitful nights for me. I roll over and snuggle in deep to Chris’s chest and drift back off. Gandaulf will have none of this and decides its time to get up. Licks all around, and he begins running circles over top the covers then bounds towards the door.
I get up and open the door. A rush of cool air fills the van and I shudder with it, standing in only my oversized tee shirt and bare feet. I mill about the van making coffee and getting breakfast for the dog. Chris finally slides off the end of the bed, sleep still hanging on her eyelids. A cheerful good morning as I slip on my jeans and shoes and head out the door.
The morning air is still and I survey the vista that surrounds us. I can smell the fire from last night and hear a small bird in the trees. I take a deep breath in and raise my arms to the sky, stretch and release into the day. The coffee is beginning to perk and the heavenly aroma fills the senses.
Today I go one way and Chris another. She’s not much into the spiritual sights so she decides to go for a trail ride on her bike. We pack up for the days adventure and I get Gandaulf in the UTV and head towards the Boynton Canyon trail.
The dusty road to the trailhead covers me, Gandaulf and the UTV is a fine layer of silt and I squint as my eyes become dry and irritated. Only six more miles and we will be free from the choking dust. We putt along trying to read the heavily dusted brown USFS signs to the trailhead. As soon as the NO PARKING signs begin to appear I know I’m close. I secure a parking spot, glad I am in the UTV since the parking lot was quite full.
Gandaulf springs up and stands up, paws hanging on the door barking with joy…the dog loves to hike. It’s only a mile hike but I soon realize, it’s all uphill. After quite a bit of slick rock scrambling I reach a ridge and I see hundreds of carrins stacked in every direction. I can see Kachina Woman, the female portion of the vortex. She stands stoically in deep burnt orange against the clear blue sky. There are trails leading all around her base and makeshift alters under the cedar trees and along rock outcroppings. I stop for a minute and feel the energy. Gandaulf looks up at me tilting his head inquisitively.
Another hundred feet or so and I crest the saddle between Katchina Woman and her male counterpart. Several juniper trees stand atop, twisted and distorted in ways unlike anything I’ve seen. Cacti grow bent into circular shapes. The piñon pines grow in abnormally twisted trunks and branches, as if drawn towards the vortex.
Sitting atop the male pillar is a gentleman playing a Native American flute. It’s shrill soulful melody calls out the native in me and I transform into energy. I ground myself under one of the twisted junipers and sit upon its gnarled roots. Gandaulf cuddled up beside me and drifted off to sleep.
For what seems like hours, I sit quietly in meditation. The energy flowing through me, giving and taking from Mother Earth. My mind empties and not a thought exists, only the vibration and ebb and flow of the energy. In my minds eye I become one with the tree, feeling my roots deep in the earth as if in a lovers embrace. I see the ancient cliffs and feel the ancestors speaking of peace and love and deep sorrow. I can feel a troubling sadness and want to weep in this sadness. I am startled by voices and return to my place under the tree. I hold the tree and let it hold me in an embrace of loving kindness. I thank the Mother for this time and the message she gave me. Gandaulf rolls over and I scratch his belly as I return to the present. I breathe deeply and rise, scanning the 360 degree horizon and feel gratitude for this beautiful encounter.
I stand at the edge of the vast canyon laid out before me. The various colors of red, orange, greens and browns all delight my senses as I stand quiet, feeling the chill of the early morning breezes.
The ancient sandstone pillars stand silently atop the massive plateau dotted with grey sagebrush. On the thermals soars a raven, circling ever higher in a balancing act of wind and wing.
I stare deep into the deep grandeur of the canyons below and imagine the strength of the river and wind… what marvelous architects.
Again I feel the warmth of the sun and I’m brought back.
The mountains stand steadfast in the distance. Dark purple and grey, climbing high above the desert floor in a majesty all their own.
The songs of the past whisper on the wind, telling stories of hardship and a love of the land… a spiritual connection to the vast night sky full of starts and the brilliant blue of the day. The blazing sun and the parched land yielding only enough to eek out a living. I can hear the cries of the warrior, the yelp of the coyote, the singing of the canyon wren, the rustle of the dry yellow leaves of the mesquite.
My heart sighs, my mind settles and my eyes take in all it sees with gratitude for this new day.
We pulled in late last night, as is our norm with the short days. Since we crossed the time line in Nevada, and lost an hour with DLST, sunset at 4:30, dark is around 5:15-5:30. Of course, fire restrictions are on high alert, so we pretty much retreat to our van after gazing at the sun fire red clouds and the darkening skies of sunset. On our new schedule, that means we have about 4-5 hours to play/drive, before it’s dark.
We come upon the park at about 4 pm. The parking lot that the NFS calls a “campground” (Sunset) reminded me of parking at a drive-in movie. It was all that was available. No fires, dogs on leash, just our kind of place. Not.
The morning comes super early as well and by 6 am it’s full on light outside. By 7 am the big RVs in the “campground” have turned on their generators. The van is pretty well insulated from sound so it’s just a dull roar. We decided to set out early and explore the other campground above us. We drove through last night and checked it out, but it fills everyday by around 2-3:00 pm.
After some Coffee and a quick breakfast we grab our e-bikes and are off to seek out our new home base. The host told us to go up around 11 am to secure a site, so we grabbed our chairs and a backpack and headed up to the campground to find a spot. After riding around for 20-30 minutes, we found a few empty spots, got together and picked one. #71 Home base.
It ended up being a lazy day. Chris was still recovering from some gastric issues (day 3) so our bike ride was about 3 miles too many. We are desperately in need of showers…going on day 4 tomorrow. We rode around to find the “showers” that showed on the maps but they never materialized. I’m guessing tomorrow will be bath day…
Ya know what sucks about National Parks is that they are so “structured”… ok, strict?… in the year of COVID or *rona, that’s people on people. Everybody and their uncle is out in the parks, wilderness, trails and so forth. We all practice social distancing and depending on the state/county, some will wear masks. We are incredibly paranoid about getting this. Maybe we won’t die but what if we have a month in the hospital? That could literally bankrupt so many families and ding us pretty good.
Social distancing in DEATH Valley… I think I read somewhere that like 1.7 million people come to Death Valley every year… Hmmm that means that from late October to early March, which are tolerable temperatures, over 635,000 a month, 21,000 people a day, entering the park in those 4.5 months, from all over the US, the hotspot of the pandemic.
Now to say this doesn’t weigh heavy on our minds everyday we have to use a gas station, toilet, go grocery shopping? Sometimes I find myself in a pure panic and can just envision the germs invading my nostrils. LOL. Then I’m reminded that we are all dying anyway… so live your life as safe as you can but not in fear. Not buying into any herd mentality mind you. More like impermanence.
Day two. Lazy morning. Coffee outside in the sun. Slight breeze blowing and the sound of new campers driving around looking for a camp spot. The low murmur of people talking to one another. Our van has been quite a hit and we continue to get compliments. It’s a conversation starter for sure. Gandaulf has also touched so many hearts. Kids and adults alike. It’s really hard to draw boundaries when people are kind and interested. I really don’t want to be afraid of people but I am.
The parched landscape of Death Valley whispers solitude and isolation. The multi-colored rocks, sand and salt bring to life thousands of years of history. Scattered along the landscape are brilliant green oasis where the brutal force of tech tonic plates grinding together forcing super heated waters to seep to the surface. From this violent beginning comes life in all its magnificence. In the middle of the hottest, driest place on earth, life in its simplest form can survive.
The color pallet laid out before me in the rocky landscape is soothing to the eye. The earth tone browns, yellows, reds, greens, a whole miriad of colors, blending together. Countless eons of time, layer upon layer, thrust up into the air by forces I can’t even begin to know, but my mind imagines the violent beginnings. Now all that remains are majestic, multicolored mountains, outlined in cobalt blue and wisps of white.
After a day of exploring the depths of the once inland sea -301’ below sea level, we wandered over to the Devils Golf Course. It looks like a frozen river at thaw… huge chunks of salt crack and move. We stood quietly and listened to the metallic ting as the salt moved in the heat. The beauty and starkness boggled my mind and my child just wanted to explore… so we did. Chris one way and I the other.
We drove around and did a few hikes and took lots of pictures. We had lunch on the side of the road and chilled taking in the view. We drove back to the camp site with our jaws dropping view after view.
The sun sets so early these days. I am grateful that it is so warm outside when it is “pitch black”. The campground looks like a small encampment of like minded people. Fires blazing against the inky blackness. People laugh and there’s music drifting on the warm air. The sky peppered with millions of pin pricks of light. The stars are thick and the milky way shows itself against the absolute darkness. I stare off for untold minutes loosing myself in the vast starlit sky. I am one with the universe. My mind mingles with the infinite wisdom and light… I feel minuscule but incredibly voluminous. I return to our little village, as Gandaulf tugs on his leash trying to relieve himself.
4,000 feet Day 4:
We decided to pull up stakes and head up into the foothills in the Death Valley Wilderness area. The breeze is blowing and it’s 15 degrees cooler. There is an abundance of life and even a solitary big old cottonwood in showy yellow. I just want to hug that big ole cottonwood and listen to its stories. At the mouth of a wash dug deep into the desert floor and that tree. The image is burned into my mind in all its ancient glory.
Our camp is quiet, except for the occasional vehicle going up the narrow canyon. The road said 25’ maximum length… I didn’t see it until I was already committed so I crossed my fingers and carried on. It was one of those scary windy 1 1/2 lanes wide. The turns were tight and 40’ meant hogging all of it through the turns. We arrived at Wild Rose Camp and picked a spot over looking the canyon and trees.
We settled in and set up camp. We kinda messed up and went to a camp with not much to do around it. We made the best of it and explored further up the canyon, minus the trailer. The hills up above the valley floor look like they are covered in velvet. The rolling folds accented by the late afternoon sun were a sight to behold. The fact that anything can eek out a living in this bone dry place is amazing in itself. Quite the contrary, this place is teaming with life from wispy grass like plants, sages, to several varieties of hardy trees. Nature has found a balance of life and death in this DEATH Valley.
I step out of the van and feel the soft powdery sand beneath my bare feet. I like the way the coolness poofs between my toes. I open the side door and find my hikers and pull on the socks that are stuffed inside to keep out any little night creatures. I look at the trail map quickly and find my pack, which I prepared the night before.
A cool breeze awakens my sense of smell to the fading sage and the dry dusty air. I look up at the plateau as the sun peeks over. I squint instinctively and shade my eyes with my hand. The trail is laid out perfectly across the desert wash and into the slot canyon. Only a simple hike of 5 miles in and out, the first in the sand of a wash and scrambling around on a slot.
I find my thermal shirt and my hat, look around the van and turn off the lights. It’s me and the desert silence for the next several hours.
I listen as the wind tells its tale of winding through the canyons cool sculpted walls and into the warm light of morning. I acknowledge and plan to follow its path back into the canyon.
The stark contrast of the pinions against the red rock excites my mind and I fall into a stead stride. My plan is to hike about a mile on the Wire Pass to the opening of the first slot canyon, then another mile into Buckskin Gulch trail if there is time. Gets dark at around 6pm so I need to keep track of time.
The low angel of the sun in the mid-fall sky is still quite warm on my back. It accents the fall colors of the desert foliage that has survived another hellishly hot summer. I stop and shoot a picture on my phone and and check the sky before I enter into the wash.
The amazing cobalt blue cloudless sky stretches as far as the eye can see. The painted desert vermilion cliffs soar against the clear sky exuding their colors brilliantly. The ancient earth is exposed in front of me in the rock. I am intrigued by the years of history told in the colors and layers of sand and rock. The geology of time.
Aside from my boots on the sand and small stones and shells, there is only silence. My mind drifts away and my steps become methodical. I am overwhelmed with the magnitude of this isolated place. My mind visualizes the upheaval and twisting of the earth that formed these twisted layers of rock. The violence that lead to such beauty. How perfect.
I am brought back by a raven cawing as it hops along the ledge above my head. I feel a cool breeze blow out of the slot canyon and hear the swish of the raven wings as he takes flight. I look into the darkness until my eyes can adjust then up as the looming canyon closes in. In my minds eye I can see this crack in the plateau above, some 800-900 feet. I suddenly feel very small.
I turn back to the slot of mystical swirling sandstone, dancing and twirling in an intricate choreographers production. The amount of water that occasionally flows through these canyons, the very life force that created this menagerie, is evident in the huge logs jammed 15 feet above my head.
As I continue on the slot opens and closes, as if the walls themselves are alive and breathing. I have to gather myself from an oncoming panic attack when I see a huge choke-stone ahead and I don’t see the floor. I have come to the precipice of the hike and a down climb that is quite a technical climb. I toss my back pack and poles down to the floor 10’ below and inch over the edge on my belly, while my foot searches blindly for purchase. I slip a little further and find a perfectly placed hand hold that allows me to finally find the next rock below my feet. I down climb quickly and take a mental picture for my return trip.
I continue on, entranced by the shafts of light that constantly change the colors from drab to brilliant oranges and deep burgundy reds, adding depth to the deepening darkness. It opens up rooms in the darkness not seen without the lights illumination. Stunning!
An hour later I see the end of the slot. The brilliant sunlight pours in to meet and mingle with the darkness. The canyon shows off one last time as I exit it’s cool chamber and into the soothing heat of the sun. There are huge lakes of deep red sand piled high at the entrance of the canyon junctions. An old gnarled cottonwood eeks out a living in this sandy oasis protected by 1,000 foot walls. A few aspens struggle to secure the sandy bank they call home. Huge cholla cacti stand fuzzy with white spines protecting them from the kangaroo rats living under the canyons undercut banks.
On the far wall is a few panels of Native American pictographs, depicting the struggles and triumphs of raising a family in such a sparse environment. Such simplicity amongst such hardship. The solitude and isolation living in these canyons must afford… such as I am searching for in my own life during this time of viral invasion.
I sit down on a large piece of driftwood perched perfectly on two large rocks. I pull off my socks and sink my feet into the deep cool sand and daydream for a few quiet minutes. In my mind I climbed skillfully to the top of the wall of rock in front of me. I could feel the course rock on my fingertips and the vibration of the universe in the rocks against my body. Again the raven brings me back from my dreaming. I take a sip of cool water and eat a piece of fruit. The sweetness of the fruit soothes my parched throat.
Looking down at my phone I notice the time and pack up and head off to explore Buckskin Gulch. I was hoping the fabled pools of knee high standing pools of water were reserved for the early spring hikers. It’s early November and only about 70 degrees in open air. In the canyon you can take 15-20 degrees off the outside temperature plus the absence of the suns warmth could spell hypothermia. I crossed my fingers and continued on.
This slot canyon is different in many ways from Wire Pass. The rock is much darker, almost charcoal, and it is more vertical. The walls tower much higher and are about 4-5 feet apart. There are weeping walls and plants and trees seemingly growing right out of the rock.
Again the shafts of sunlight light up the eerily looming cliffs ahead. The sandy bottom was littered with huge boulders dislodged from far away cliffs and deposited during a flash floods fury. At times the sand was almost impossible to walk in causing my calves to cramp. The pace was slow and arduous and every now and then one of the boulders became a convenient seat to empty the sand from my boots.
At precisely 4:00 I turned around and headed back to the van arriving just in time to watch the sun sink over the bluff and a lone coyote call.
We are but babes when it comes to living on the road. We left the comforts of a masonry four walled building to the comforts of our van/RV. We gave up only the creature comforts that require you to spend mindless hours staring at something that turns your mind to mush. We still have hot water showers, a toilet, a bed, AC, heat, a stove, running water and a sink, chairs to sit on, an IK, a UTV, hiking poles, fishing gear, decorations in the walls and plenty of cabinet space. What more do we need?
Living on the road requires a little more attention than falling through the routine that is “responsible living.” We both have jobs… I take care of the mechanical breakdowns and fix-it stuff and Chris takes care of organizing and anything financial. We both share in driving, cooking, and clean up.
Our routine varies, depending on where we camp or the weather. Coffee is of course first on the agenda and we make some of the best! Italian expresso makers, Hydro Flask mugs to keep it piping hot and the finest ground coffee.
We find the most perfect vantage point, looking over a river or canyon, in the early morning sun to warm up. Then we set up and sit as we listen to the sounds, or lack there of. We talk about the day and what we might do or see. Maybe a day in the hammocks reading, maybe a river float, fishing, hiking, sight seeing, or shopping for the weeks meals. The world is our pallet we choose how to color it.
It took a little time to trust leaving our camp unattended without locking down the place like Fort Knox… After all, this is now everything we own and our home space. We choose to live mostly outside which is where we both feel the greatest connection. There is an unspoken rule between campers that needed to be trusted before we could go away from camp and be ok that no one will mess with your stuff. So far we have not had any incidents.
We rely heavily on maps and Garmin. Trip Advisor is a good source, as is local word of mouth, for finding the out of the way gems that tourist tend to over look. Although electronics are pretty reliable, they don’t always show you the single track road that goes to the most beautifully isolated valley, stream or lake. In a way we are explorers in own own back yard, after all, the world is our back yard.
Sometimes we are forced to stay in established campgrounds, rest stops, gas stations or a neighborhood or parking lot. This is just part of life on the road. We prefer dispersed camping on Forest Service land or BLM lands. Sometimes the only human life is miles away and the silence can be deafening. I enjoy being very still and slowly allowing my senses to awaken to the intricacies of the world around me. The colors, smells, sounds, feeling of the sun on my bare skin, the vibrations of all around me, all these create a world of peace and imagination.
How would it be to spend a week, 10 days, a month, a year without worry? Without the daily grind of home, work and paying bills. It’s a dream come true for us.
The last 30 years have been the most stressful of my life. The career we entered was a 60 hour a week, every week, no paid vacation, no sympathy and no gratitude for a job well done. Ruthless and cut-throat. We started planning over 15 years ago to make our escape. We stashed away all the money we could and left enough for essentials. We invested in property, 401ks, annuities, and savings. As our nest egg grew so did our health problems from the stress. It was time to go and soon. So, in November 2018, we bought a 2015 Ford Transit 250 hightop shorty van, (we call her SleepyTurtle or The Turtle) in November of 2019, we sold our house. In March 2020, the business and in June 2020, we hit the road.
We spent some time on the van in the past three years but in April 2020, we hit it full time. I learned about solar, electrical, plumbing, carpentry, and gas. No one showed me how, but the internet did come in handy.
The last week of May we finally finished up the van and selling off all our belongings, and on pJune 1,2020, hit the road in our custom designed RV/Van, SleepyTurtle. All the amenities of our home built into a tiny home space. Hot water, a way too comfy bed (almost king size), running water, lights, solar, electric and a great stove.
What we learned during the build and equipping the van was that this is going to be our home… one should not skimp! We bought a Camp Chef Mountaineer 40,000 btu stove, a pure sine wave generator, a custom rack and rock rails/tubular running boards and a mattress that would keep you in bed cozy and warm.
All cabinets were custom build and made strong for rough washboard roads. We carry 50 gallons of water, 24 dedicated primarily for cooking and drinking and an additional 18 gallon tank for hot showers with an on demand ECOtemp hot water heater and the 7 gallon RoadShower solar hot water heater on the roof for emergencies.
Built into one of the cabinets is a SnoMaster Classic 40cu chest type fridge. It holds a weeks worth of food and drinks. We chose the chest type for efficiency. The cold air stays in the fridge when opened vs a standard door which when opened, allows the cold air to pour out.
We have a sink and grey water collection tank under the sink. We run off a 200ah AGM battery charged with a single 300w solar panel mounted on the custom rack. We have a 2000w pure sine wave generator which provides us with power on cloudy days or when parked in deep woods.
Our biggest purchase took the most debate… the toilet. We debated over a cassette type or compost toilet. After a great amount of research we decided on the compost. We went with the Natures Head for ease of use. It was a major investment ($1,000) but after using it we find it worry free and no messy cleanup. The liquids and solids are kept separate for ease of cleanup, which requires the liquids tank to be dumped at least every 3 days of constant use. Every 6 months on the composting solid side. No smell no mess.
The other thing to consider when you’re in your design phase. Do you want more storage or more living space? Everything must fit in this small space. We chose the storage over living space. Our bed frame is 40” tall providing a large enough garage space for all our water tanks, 2 mountain bikes and all necessary equipment. We built a 4 foot, 600 lb. slide to accommodate accessing the heavier boxes without climbing through the garage.
We each have 2 large boxes for our clothes, a small box for socks, underwear, etc., and a box for personal essentials. We chose to keep everything in sealed plastic containers after a small mouse invasion early on in Colorado. We travel with Gandaulf, our 11 year old Corgi. Gandaulf even has his own cabinet for his food and toys.
We decided on dual swivel seats. It is amazing how it opens up the living area when they are turned around. It also creates a small den behind them for Gandaulf to sleep and get away.
The coolest part is our soft storage areas. We used the cargo nets from cars to organize our soft gear. Ingenious! We have hung them strategically so that it’s easy to access but tucked out of the way. They can be hung on the back doors for extra shoes, water hoses, and power cords, on the headliner for blackout blinds, window coverings, gloves, hats, etc. In the 12’ trailer we haul, we’ve hung them from the ceilings to make our space 3 dimensional. We travel with a 50” Can-Am Maverick UTV and two electric assist bikes, for getting around where the van can’t go.
We also added one small item as a last minute booster for our cell phones. We are now a personal cell phone tower that can boost our reception (in theory) so we can be a little further off grid but still in some service in case of emergencies. The jury is still out on this device.