Desert Road Trip

Every winter I swear I’m going to get away from the cold and go to Arizona, where I have quite a few friends. This year I finally did it.

I planned to camp for the first five days, but after that I’d be staying with friends until the last part of my trip, when I would leave Tucson for Carlsbad Caverns. So although this was a road trip (3,000 miles), it wasn’t really much of a camping trip.

Originally, I had planned to just go to Arizona. But then my BFF John found out I’d be in Phoenix, and he talked me into meeting him and his partner Joe in Tecopa, California. So I added that to my plan, with Tecopa first on my list of stops. Then my friend Jan found out I’d be in Tecopa, and she talked me into going to Palm Springs, where she and her wife Sue were spending a month. My friend Ranae lives in Arizona, and because Ranae, Jan, and I are old friends who hadn’t all been together since the early 2000s, Ranae decided to join us in Palm Springs. So my trip expanded, which turned out to be great.

I left Berthoud on Monday, February 3. For the previous week, I watched the weather forecasts carefully because I had to drive over Raton Pass that first day on my way to the California desert. Raton Pass is deceptive-looking. When the weather is good, it doesn’t seem like much of a pass. But when it’s snowing it can be deadly. I wanted to avoid that. I saw that it was supposed to start snowing in Berthoud about 4:00 a.m. on Monday and that the storm would move south, so I decided to leave quite early in the morning. I had planned to get up at 3:30, but as usually happens the night before a trip, I couldn’t sleep. I decided to just go ahead and get on the road. I went out to my van at 3:00 to find it covered in ice and the driveway slippery. I’m thankful I got an early start. It was sleeting in Berthoud and north Denver, but by the time I got to south Denver, the weather cleared up. Raton Pass was dry and sunny. Whew!

I had scoped out a place to camp the first night near Grants, NM, west of Albuquerque. The Joe Skeen campground is in the El Malpais National Conservation Area. I arrived there in the late afternoon, after stopping in Santa Fe for lunch. It was sunny when I parked. I made some dinner in the van and settled in for the night.

It was sunny and beautiful when I got into the campground.
This is a free campground, and it’s well maintained.
The view from my bed. It’s so cozy in my van, and I love the not-so-beautiful cabinet I made. It works perfectly for what I need.

In the morning I woke up to this. The temperature in the van got down to 32, which wasn’t all that bad. I had left the windows cracked, so there wasn’t any condensation inside. My combination of wool and down blankets works great in the cold.

I looked around the campground and didn’t see the other vehicle I’d spotted the night before.
I’m glad I brought an ice scraper!

It wasn’t as bad as it looked, though, and once I got to the interstate the roads were dry. My plan for that day was to drive up to a truck stop south of Las Vegas, where I was supposed to meet my friends John and Joe the next morning. I passed a quiet, if cold (32 degrees inside the van again), night there and then drove to a Walmart in west Las Vegas, where I met up with John and Joe. Our plan that day was to drive through Red Rock Canyon on our way to Tecopa, California.

This is where I stopped for the night. It was quiet because the big trucks had a different parking area.

I had never heard of Red Rock Canyon, but John and Joe had spotted it the other times they’d gone to Tecopa and had always wanted to visit it. I’m glad we did. It’s a beautiful canyon.

Red Rock Canyon–on the way from Las Vegas to Tecopa.

Then I followed the guys in their rental car to Tecopa (if I’d had just one more seat in the van they wouldn’t have had to rent a car). I’d never heard of Tecopa until John mentioned it. There’s nothing there. Nothing except mineral hot springs. Lots of hot springs. There are several RV parks, but John and Joe always stay at Delight’s Hot Springs, which also has small cabins you can rent. They rented a cabin, and I slept in my van.

I love how Delight’s has set up the hot springs pools. They have individual rooms that lock. Each has a shower. This is great for privacy, since I doubt anyone wears a bathing suit in the pools. You have a time limit of 30 minutes, which is more than enough. They empty the pools and clean them every night. Since there’s nothing anywhere near Tecopa except desert, it’s great for stargazing (no light pollution). The pool rooms don’t have roofs, so it’s great to relax in them after dark.

All the available water in the park comes from the springs. I brought a lot of water from home (I always carry a lot of water when I camp), and we used that for drinking and cooking. John said that you definitely don’t want to drink the mineral waters.

The view from John and Joe’s cabin (I was parked to the right). These buildings are the individual hot springs rooms as well as “cabins.”
This is a typical room. The water is wonderful!

While we were in Tecopa we took a couple of road trips. The first one was to Death Valley, somewhere I’d never been. It was incredible.

Joe takes his picture while I take mine.
Definitely the lowest I’ve ever been!
The rocky-looking stuff on the ground is salt. They call part of it The Devil’s Golf Course.
Zabriskie Point

The next day we drove to a nearby canyon called China Ranch that has a palm date grove. The canyon itself is really pretty, and I had my first date shake.

Colorful date palms. They grow several varieties.
John and Joe explore.

On February 9, John and Joe left to fly back to Santa Rosa, and I drove to Palm Springs, where I was meeting my two best friends from high school: Jan and her wife Sue, and Ranae and her husband Mike. Jan and Sue live in Vancouver, BC, and Ranae and Mike live south of Tucson. Ranae, Mike, and I rented an Air B&B, and Jan and Sue were doing a month-long home exchange in a condo. We all contributed to a great Mexican dinner that night. I brought Millberger Farms pinto beans and green chile (which I managed to keep frozen all that time), and Ranae brought tamales from Tucson. We had a nice dinner together, not knowing that Jan was already sick that day but not yet showing symptoms of what would be, for her, a very serious bout of flu.

The dinner we all contributed to. Pueblo chile!
Palm Springs is beautiful, but I have to wonder about all the water used for its lawns and golf courses (like so much of the southwest). We stayed in this golf-course community. They say the Colorado River is drying up. A lot of desert communities are going to have to give up their water-intensive landscaping.
The community had a LOT of pools. This one was right in our back yard.
The back of our condo. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to sit outside and enjoy the patio.

The following day Mike and Sue went hiking, and Jan, Ranae, and I walked around Palm Springs. What a great place! About 40% of the town’s population is LGBT, and I really liked the vibe. We stopped at a restaurant Jan likes to make a reservation for dinner for that night, but by the time we got back to Jan’s place, she already wasn’t feeling well. We decided to skip dinner that night.

Ranae (left) and Jan in downtown Palm Springs. The three of us met during our high-school years. Ranae and I went to the same high school, and she picked me up every morning in her little green VW bug. Jan has lived all over the place (Ecuador, France, Holland, Canada). We’ve come a long way since our days in Pueblo! It’s hard to tell by looking at Jan that she’d be sick that night.

The next day, Mike, Ranae, Sue, and I visited Indian Canyons, where we hiked the small one-mile loop of Andreas Canyon, which was formed by the San Andreas Fault. What a gorgeous place! I think we had the slowest hike in human history. Poor Ranae had her knee replaced last year, but it hasn’t healed well. It’s an easy hike, but there are a few places that are steep enough I was glad I had my cane (I left my trekking poles at home and brought the cane instead, which worked out well for this trip). Mike had to help Ranae quite a bit in these spots (she’s a trooper!), and while we waited for them, I sat on rocks to give my back a break. I had been taking a lot of photos with my phone, and rather than keep pulling it out of my purse, I put it in my coat pocket. One of the times I sat on a rock, I slipped (it had quite a tilt to it) and landed on my side—hard. My poor phone. The glass cracked, but the phone still worked, thankfully. I was able to get pictures of this incredible place.

I know nothing about palm tree varieties, but I was impressed with the beautify of the fan palms in this gorgeous canyon.
Friends Sue (in the blue jacket on the left) and Ranae (on the far right in the red jacket).

Jan didn’t go on the hike with us. She was feeling pretty sick that day. We dropped off Sue, said goodbye to the gals, and went back to our place. The next morning, I got up very early because I wanted to stop at Joshua Tree National Park on my way to Fountain Hills, AZ, my next stop.

It was dark when I left. We were staying in a gated community. I had only driven in once (following Mike and Ranae–after dark), and after that Mike drove whenever we left, so I hadn’t paid much attention to how he got out. Combine that with the darkness, and I got lost getting out of the community. I saw someone leaving through a gate, so I followed them, but then the second gate closed (I don’t know why there were two gates), and I was trapped. Turns out you had to have a transponder to open those gates. After about 15 minutes of me feeling like an absolute idiot, the security guard showed up (he saw me on the camera) and put me out of my misery by opening the gate for me. Sheesh.

I got to Joshua Tree early. The wind was blowing so hard I could hardly open the van door and it was really cold. I took some pictures but didn’t stay in the park all that long.

I arrived in Fountain Hills at the home of friends Dawn and Virginia, and by that time I was starting to get sick. I had a cough, felt weak and ill, and wheezed. Ranae and Mike reported that they were also sick. And poor Jan. Sue called Ranae in a panic because Jan couldn’t speak and kept passing out. Ranae told Sue to take her directly to the emergency room. It turns out she was dehydrated and needed some IV fluids. She went home later that night but was quite ill for the next week. Sue never got sick at all!

Virginia and Dawn had taken a day off work to spend with me, but I was too sick and spent most of the day in bed. So I didn’t do any sightseeing around Fountain Hills (I’ve been there before), but it was good to spend time with the gals, who are warm, lovely women. I met Dawn through my Kawasaki group, and we had some fun times together on our bikes.

I left Fountain Hills and drove to Gilbert to see an old friend I hadn’t seen in about 20 years—Kate, a gal I met when I lived in Oregon. We had a great time catching up. Her poor son’s ears were worn down by the time I left. I spent the night there and then headed to Green Valley, Mike and Ranae’s home, for the last part of my trip.

Mike and Ranae have a beautiful home. They live close to the Mexican border. As I drove into Green Valley, I wasn’t too impressed until I drove over a big hill and the view opened up. The mountains are beautiful, and their yard has an amazing view.

The view from Ranae’s back yard. They have lemon and grapefruit trees, and Mike sent me home with four huge bags of grapefruit. Delicious!

While I was there (only a couple of days), Ranae and I made a little road trip to Tubac, a colony that’s famous for its galleries. So many beautiful things from Mexican craftsmen to buy there. On our way back home, we stopped at a lovely little park where Ranae often walks. Everything in the park, including all the benches and artwork, is donated by local residents.

The Tubac market.
There are painted javelinas all over the market. I took photos of a few of them.
Ranae’s favorite park.

I chose to go to Ranae’s last because I figured I could wait it out there for a clear weather window. That was a bit complicated. I could see that a storm was coming to Raton Pass and southern Colorado, but I thought that if I drove close to Carlsbad Caverns, camped that night, spent the next morning at the caves, and then camped for the night afterward before heading home, I could miss the storm. I camped that night at a little state park about 40 miles from the caverns. I took the scenic route from Green Valley. It takes you past White Sands National Park and up over the mountains. Much better than driving through El Paso.

This was the primitive section of the park. There was also a fairly good-sized RV campground, but I didn’t want to park around a lot of people. This spot was perfect. I was all alone.
The view out my van window that night.

The drive from my campsite to the caverns was only about an hour, and I got there about 9:00. Carlsbad had a strong effect on me. I’ve always wanted to go because mom and dad went there for their honeymoon. It’s just far enough away from northern Colorado that you need two days to drive down, which is probably one reason I never went. So I was pretty excited about seeing the caverns.

I took the elevator down to the Big Room, which reminded me a bit of the time I took the elevator to the top of the old World Trade Center. The elevator displays how far down you’ve traveled as you go. When I first stepped into the Big Room, a wave of emotion flowed over me and I started to cry. Part of it was being overwhelmed by the cave. If you haven’t been there, it’s impossible to describe, and my inadequate photos do nothing to show its splendor. So that was part of it. But I also couldn’t get out of my head the thought of mom and dad at 19 and 20 years old, just married, madly in love, walking along the same path I was walking. (My parents had been married 62 years when my dad died. They had rough spells over the years, but they had a solid marriage and loved each other.) I couldn’t stop crying. Thankfully, there were few people in the Big Room while I was there. In fact, there were times when it felt a bit creepy because it was so dim in the cave and many times I couldn’t hear or see anyone else. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be in there with no electric lights and only a kerosene lantern, as was the case for the first people who explored it. I was thankful for the railings and for my cane because it was difficult to see the ground at times, and it was wet in spots, of course.

These photos can’t begin to capture what it really looks like inside the cave. It’s so gigantic, and the light is dim. But I hope these give you an idea of what it’s like inside the caverns.

I had planned to camp that night, but being in the cave made me feel more sick. I think it was the mold and stuffy air. By the time I got out of the cave, I was having trouble breathing. So I drove to Roswell and got an inexpensive room. It was small, but it was clean and warm. I felt thankful to have a place to sleep and relax for a few hours.

I didn’t get as much rest as I had hoped, though, because it turned out that my room was a few hundred yards from a hospital’s helipad. There must be a lot of sick and injured people in Roswell because that helicopter took off and landed at least half a dozen times, the last time at 3:00 in the morning. I can’t describe how loud it was in my room. But the room was warm and cozy, for which I was grateful because I felt so sick. I wasn’t looking forward to the drive home in that condition.

Taken from my motel room door. It was LOUD! And they didn’t warn me.

So the next day I took my time and drove north to Raton and got a room at a motel, thinking that I would wait out the storm that was expected that night and drive over the pass the next day. As I got nearer and nearer Raton, I could see huge black clouds looming over the mountains. My timing was perfect.

My motel also had a Mexican restaurant. It turned out to be a good decision to stop there. I still wasn’t feeling well, so having a big warm room to rest in was a great thing. I had dinner in the restaurant. By the time I left the restaurant to walk back to my room, it was snowing pretty hard.

The next morning, I started checking road conditions about 5:00 a.m. I wanted to get through Denver before rush hour but I also didn’t want to drive on an icy pass. I had my free breakfast in the restaurant, then went back to the room and waited a while longer. By 10:00, the reports looked good, so I set off over the pass. The pass wasn’t icy in the right lane, so that’s where I stayed. The road was still wet, and the sun made it steam, which made visibility pretty poor. I drove past an accident that had just happened (police and ambulance were just showing up). Some poor woman had gone off the road and overturned. I saw a lot of cars that had gone off the road the night before, and I was thankful that I’d had the option to wait it out for the night. I took my time, and by the time I got to Trinidad, the roads were in good shape. I made it home by about 2:30, and the Denver traffic was fine. My van was absolutely filthy, though. As my son Topher told me, if it weren’t filthy, it would be a sign that I hadn’t had a good trip.

I’m glad I finally got away to the desert during the winter. This February has been one of the snowiest in our area for a while. It was great to be in the desert, wearing flip-flops, instead of wading through snow and dealing with the bitter cold. I plan to do this every winter for as long as I can.

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