What is freedom if not a 4-wheel drive campervan, a street-legal dirt bike, an electric mountain bike, an electric skateboard, some hiking boots and all the time in the world? I have spent the last decade and a half staying home with my amazing daughter. I have taken her all over the world in search of adventure, and now it’s my turn to see all those places at my pace and go where I want to, with only myself to educate and meditate. These are the chronicles of some of these journeys as both a journal and a guide for those who would follow.
The Desert Southwest: Arizona & New Mexico :
The distances out here are so far, and with so little in between it feels completely silly to imagine that our planet is overpopulated in any way. In the winter the temperatures at night plummet into the teens and in the summer soar well above 100. The best time to go is late winter or fall, when it’s sunny and warm, but not when the heat keeps you cowering in any air-conditioned space. Except for ONE place that’s perfect any time of year, and is a must see before you die, which I will explain later…
I begin my trip heading out of Southern California and head for the southern Arizona desert around Yuma. There’s not much in Yuma, except for incredibly cheap gasoline ($1.59 a gallon!), endless miles of border fencing, RV parks by the dozens filled with motorhomes with license plates from snowy states, the massive sand dunes so popular with the ATV and Side by Side crowd (rent one, it’s fun for a few hours), and one spectacular mountain bike road to the top of a mountain called Telegraph Pass. There is a convenient trailhead, and unless you have an electric assist mountainbike or legs of steel I wouldn’t attempt it, it is that steep. The view from the top is fantastic and very much worth the hike/bike, but no motorcycles or vehicles are allowed. I would say you can skip Yuma, but I wanted to drive along the Colorado river up through Lake Havasu and Las Vegas, so that’s as far south as you can go without showing your passport.
Every single night on my 2-week road trip I spent for free in the middle of nowhere without another soul or vehicle in sight. The desert southwest is one of the best places to simply find any dirt road leading away from the highway (99% don’t have “no trespassing signs” so respect those signs when you do see them) and travel about ½ mile or until you see a nice flat turnout and park for the night. Be careful if you don’t have 4-wheel drive, these roads can become unexpectedly soft or rocky at any moment without a way to turn around.
I headed north towards Lake Havasu. This is a lake created by the tiny Parker Dam, and is glorious in the summer, filled with crazy people on 100mph boats, albeit quite dangerous for the same reasons. In the winter it is empty and open, with wonderful single track mountainbike trails leading out to a formation called “Pilot Rock” which has a homebuilt tiny lighthouse on top of a giant protrusion into the Colorado river. You can climb up there from the side on the left, but be careful of snakes and loose rocks. The town of Lake Havasu itself is quite large, but I was here to explore and ride so I’ll have to come back this summer with my boat.
Something interesting in this area is called “Quartzsite”. This is a tiny town but more importantly refers to an area that is free for RV’s to camp in the desert by the hundreds. Maybe more than a thousand scattered about. I would go stir crazy sitting there all day, but many had ATV’s with them, and most were from parts of the country buried in 10 feet of snow so I guess it was either sit at home and stare at the fireplace or drive down here, pick a spot in the desert and stare at the cactus. At least it was warm. And free. In the winter many people with RV’s head to warmer climes, but In San Diego and Miami RV spaces are $100 per night.
Onward to Vegas! What can I say, Vegas is Vegas. I always prefer nature to man-made fakery. It was interesting to see it in the rain, completely devoid of people. Usually it is shoulder to shoulder, but this was a weekday and gloriously empty. I spent the night stealth camping in a parking lot just off the strip next to the giant Ferris wheel. It’s $12 for a 24-hour period and gated and quiet. But of course, you can’t show that you’re sleeping there, even though most of the vans and RV’s parked there had people in them overnight. It was a 2-minute walk to Caesar’s Palace. For $12…
Off to Phoenix. My next stop was one of the best off-road drives I know of in this part of the world: Back Road to Crown King. You start off at Lake Pleasant north of Phoenix. If you want you can pay to stay right next to the lake, or do like I did and drop off the paved road down any of the many dirt roads and stay for free with no one around. Well, almost no one. The only problem was that there are wild burros wandering about and in the middle of the night they bray loudly to announce it is time to party. Throwing rocks helps. A little. I spoke with one person who was in an RV in the campground and he said they come there too so I guess it makes no difference where you park. Such Asses.
The back road to the little town of Crown King was beautifully muddy at the bottom, and then progressively more difficult, culminating in some serious rock crawling requiring at least a Jeep Rubicon or a lightweight motorcycle with a lot of skill. Some of the water crossings were over the front tire and unfortunately down into my boots. At the top, after a 5,000-foot elevation gain it became so cold that I used my heated pants and jacket to stay cozy. Lunch at the top in town and then turn around to do the same 30 miles again in reverse. Most of the year it’s warmer and there is not as much water but this trail is amazing for its scenery and challenges. Cacti at the bottom and pine trees at the top.
Side note: The only reason I feel safe doing a trail like this by myself is the Garmin Inreach Explorer Plus. This handheld GPS leaves a breadcrumb of check in dots that my wife can see anywhere in the world using a satellite connected website. And if I get in serious trouble (fall down a hill, break a bone and no phone reception) I can push a button on the side that summons help using those same satellites, as well as send and receive text messages. Get one. It’s the best $500 peace of mind you can own. I also use my iPhone and an app called “AllTrails” which lets you download the map when you have good cellular connection and use the onboard GPS to find your route on that map when you don’t.
Onward! Following a short drive down into Phoenix from Lake Pleasant, I decided to explore “South Mountain”, which has some truly amazing mountain bike trails and old structures and petroglyphs. Following the mountain biking I was covered in sweat (even with electric assist it’s quite a workout) and took a shower on the side of the road. Nothing feels better than taking a shower in the afternoon sun outside and then carrying on with your day, making or finding dinner and finding a place to park for the evening. You just have to hope no one happens to want to talk to you right as you're standing there naked on the side of the van! It has (almost) happened with a park ranger.
That evening I was heading toward Tucson, and I as I’m driving down the freeway, I see many dozens of gigantic aircraft tails sticking up out of the desert. I knew this had to be one of the famous airplane graveyards that are scattered around the southwest where aging airliners are flown to be either stored in the dry, corrosion free heat or ripped up for parts or scrap metal. It’s kind of sad to see these amazing machines which once were so precisely assembled sitting there on flat tires, their engines missing, giant holes ripped in the sides. For an aviation history buff like myself it’s a peek into the future of even the most sophisticated machinery, and a reminder of how fragile these monstrous machines really are. I even saw a TWA 747, that’s how long some of these planes sit. Of course, there was a wonderful small dirt road leading off into the brush which I followed for about a mile and then settled on a nice flat patch of open dirt to pop the top, watch the sun set over the tails of the airliners with a glass of wine and listening to Pandora on the Bluetooth speaker. The great news is that every single night I seemed to have 100% full LTE 4G signal. They are really getting good coverage in the middle of nowhere these days, especially in the desert.
After 5 solid days of beating myself to a pulp with the motorcycle and the mountain bike, I needed a break from the brute physicality of riding off road. So, I decided to continue my adventure in an educational manner. The desert southwest is full of science, it is the birthplace of the atomic age, nuclear weapons, aviation testing and rockets.
My first stop was more grounded in the form of the Biosphere 2. Located less than an hour from my airplane graveyard campsite, this $250 million science experiment rises out of the dry shrubbery like a giant white grounded spaceship, which it kind of is. Years ago, this building was constructed to exacting standards to let nothing in or out, no air, no water, nothing. Huge greenhouses with jungle, an ocean, a forest, a desert, living quarters, livestock pens and two enormous “lungs” took up many acres of land, into which were sealed 8 people for two years to see if they could survive. The drama which unfolded was worthy of the best science fiction, as the human ego reared its head to great effect, including the sabotage of the second mission by stone throwing glass breaking members of the first. See the Wikipedia article for all the juicy gossip but suffice it to say this is really something worth seeing in person at least once.
Next stop was the excellent Pima Air Museum. This place has more aircraft that any other museum except the Smithsonian, with whom they are affiliated. Everything from WW2 bombers to a brand new 787 Dreamliner you can walk right up to. The overwhelming sense of the bravery of people who flew these cutting edge, and to my eyes ancient, aircraft made me realize I could never be a test pilot. I don’t even ride my motorcycle without a satellite rescue beacon and heated clothing. The funny thing is that someday the aircraft we now consider modern, like the Dreamliner or the F-22 will be looked upon as quaint and archaic museum pieces one day as well, with people gawking in disbelief that actual humans risked their lives in such dangerous claptraps. I geeked out there for about 4 hours until I realized my feet were killing me and I was starving.
I did miss out on something, as I later learned. Near the Pima museum is an actual Titan missile silo you can take a tour through. I will have to check it out next time…
I went from aching shoulders (riding) to aching legs (hiking through museums) so it was time to find a place to park (done just before sunset) and make dinner (soup on a small stove) and a campfire (Duraflame log; Bear Grylls I am not).
The next day I drove through to the single most impressive place I may have ever seen in my life, which is perfect to visit at any time of year and at any temperature or weather: Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
Now, first I have to explain that being a National Park in the United States is a very big deal. Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, these are National Parks. So, when you drive up to this bland looking building and parking lot in the middle of nowhere in a bland looking area with nothing but some bland dry shrubs all around, you’re thinking “well, ok, why this is a National Park???”. And you go inside the building, and you pay some money to get in and take a tour, and you gather for the tour, and you walk over to the elevator. Well the building is only one story tall, so there’s only one way this elevator can go. Down. Way way way way way down. 750 feet down. No, that’s not a typo. There’s a digital display in the elevator, but instead of floors it shows feet (you can also walk into the natural entrance but I’m lazy). As your ears pop and adjust to dropping 75 stories into the earth, the doors open onto a small atrium that houses a small snack shop and some bathrooms. Your eyes get used to the subdued light and you realize that no matter what the temperature is at the surface, it’s always comfortable and cool 55 degrees in the caverns. You walk a bit away from the elevators and enter what they took a lot of imagination to call “The Big Room”. Now, I’ve seen a lot of amazing things in my life. Many caves, giant blimp hangars, Notre Dame cathedral, but nothing, and I mean nothing has made my jaw hit the floor like this Big Room. It is FOUR THOUSAND FEET long and 300 FEET high. All lit up with soft LED lighting and covered in the most massive cave formations from the ground and ceiling I have ever seen. Words simply cannot do it justice, it is truly Nature’s church. I went on a one-hour lower cave tour that involved crawling around in the dark, but you don’t need to go on any tours, just walk the 2-mile self-guided tour, it is simply astonishing and you will have to stop and stare every 20 feet, so it takes hours to complete. Taking pictures requires a tripod and knowledge of long exposure or HDR photography, as well as stitching panoramas because outside of VR there is probably no way to digitally capture the magnificence of this experience without depth perception. In the summer around sunset they have a large seating area near the natural entrance where you can watch thousands of bats take flight to catch food for the evening. That’s actually how the caverns were discovered, a 16-year-old ranch hand in the late 1800’s saw what he thought was smoke coming from a mountain in the distance which turned out to be clouds of bats. He then explored the caves by himself using a home-made ladder and a lantern with three matches. At one point he was crawling around and his lantern, which was on the ground near him, went out. He struck one match to find the lantern, and the second match he used to try and light the lantern, but it was a dud, and the third match lit the lantern. My hands are getting sweaty just typing that story. Today we have 16-year-old kids who can’t handle not having internet connectivity (but not mine).
Oh, it hurts so bad to walk out of the caverns and into the sunlight, but the show must go on!
On up to Roswell, New Mexico, just out of curiosity for all the alien conspiracy stuff you see all the time. It’s not worth it, it’s a run-down little town that enjoyed its heyday during the cold war, when the government poured billions into the atomic energy and nuclear weapons labs and testing facilities in this region, but which has since become a dilapidated tourist trap. Still, I had to visit the UFO museum which was filled with all sorts of crap without real scientific proof of all sorts of alien stories, many of which focused on attractive women being abducted and probed in some way. These guys need to get out more.
The drive to Alamogordo and White Sands was beautiful over the mountains, I even got stopped by a fierce snowstorm and parked my van behind a volunteer fire station to get off the road. In the morning the rear tires started to spin, which is when I was happy to have four-wheel drive.
After a quick visit to the New Mexico Museum of Space History, where the gravesite of HAM the Astro-Chimp is located, I headed south towards the White Sands National Monument. It’s a bunch of sand dunes that are crystalline white, very pretty, but not gigantic or spectacular. Worth a short stop to hike around in but be aware the sun reflects so much off the sand it hurts your eyes without really good and large sunglasses.
White Sands is well known as the location for the first atomic bomb, codenamed “Trinity” back in 1945. You cannot visit the actual site of the blast except on a special tour the first weekend in April. My understanding is that it’s just a spot in the desert and there is a stone monument in the middle, so maybe it’s worth going someday? Or maybe not? The other interesting thing to see in the area was the White Sands Missile Range Museum. This is located on an actual functioning US Army base, so you will have to submit your ID and wait a few minutes for them to check you out. Admission is free and if you want to see the world’s only completely intact V2 rocket from World War II, this is the place. There is a building dedicated to its display and it is a real sense of history to touch this terrible machine. Plan on a couple of hours walking around the missile garden and museum to see how important this area was to “winning” the cold war.
From there I began my journey to my end destination, Albuquerque. I contemplated two other side trips, one to the “Very Large Array” which is a gigantic set of radio telescopes, and also to the “Gila Cliff Dwellings” which are these large caves in the side of a mountain that ancient Native Americans used as homes, complete with walls and rooms made of adobe bricks. Both were at least several hours of extra driving out of my way, so I will have to visit them some other time.
Once in Albuquerque I took one last mountain bike tour of the local mountains, and visited what I would consider the foremost museum on the subject of nuclear weapons development and the cold war arms race, the “National Museum of Nuclear Science and History”. It is spectacular, probably due in large part to its affiliation with the Smithsonian. It starts off with basic understandings of how we first studied radioactivity (Marie Curie) and moves on to the Manhattan Project, showing a complete lab of where the experiments took place, models of the first atomic weapons, a horrifying display of the effects of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, balanced with declarations by the Japanese that surrender was not an option and that they would rather die fighting down to the last child. An actual tricycle from ground zero still haunts me. The actual casings of the atomic bombs which fell onto Europe during a B52 midair collision, the propaganda of survivability during a thermonuclear exchange, complete with a fallout shelter and a woman in heels cooking her family dinner inside blows my mind. Outside is a massive display of the tower used to blow up the first atomic bomb, an actual B52, several of the deadliest ICBM’s to ever fly and the top part of a submarine, which looks like the rest of it must be underground (now THAT would be too cool). There are also displays of modern nuclear technology, both for medicine and power. If you are a science, history and aviation nerd, go.
Thus brings me to the end of my first journey. I washed my laundry, parked my van in a storage lot and caught a flight back to Newport Beach. Sometime in the next month I shall fly back to Albuquerque, pick up the van and head north to Santa Fe, Moab, and Salt Lake City, exploring the amazing Paiute mountains and trail systems, Arches and Zion National Parks, once the snow melts of course…