My husband and I lived full-time in a travel trailer from 2006-2009, towing the RV with a truck that ran on waste vegetable oil. We spent those years migrating around the West, and this is a description of one of our days from March 2008, which we spent in the California and Arizona deserts, camping for free on BLM land.
I wake at the BLM camping area at the southern border of Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert, where the smell of flowers is strong and the RVs are perched on the edge of a gradual hill down to the interstate a mile away. We are surrounded by open desert expanses in red and brown, with distant mountains sloping at the horizon and rising into jagged points.
Outside, the smell! And the green! Desert green, the kind that you can’t really take pictures of because a zoomed out image would just look brown to anyone not familiar, and close-ups of the flowers don’t explain what it’s like to see these going on forever into the distance – what it’s like to walk outside and smell growth and flowers in the desert. The smell of plant life in the desert! Amazing.
After lunch we remove the chocks and pull forward off the blocks of wood leveling the trailer and leave our spot. Take the dirt road to the main road and head down to the interstate. East. Windows down, music on, sun on my arm.
We stop in Blythe to use the free dump station at a small park and a group of young ATV guys come over to talk to my partner about vegetable oil, which we run our truck on. He’s like the vegetable oil ambassador. Every few days he’s patiently answering someone’s questions and explaining the system, and, in the case of these guys, opening the hood to show them the lines and the back of the truck filled to capacity with greasy buckets. Last year in Borrego Springs an older lady who saw the “Vegetable Fuel System” sticker on the truck door said something like, “Vegetables, eh?” and when he said yes she was taken aback: “Oh! Really? I thought you was being facetious.” (In Blythe diesel was $4.35 a gallon. I tend to forget about everything other than the environmental aspect of our fuel choice, so once in a while it’s a pleasant shock to remember we would not be able to afford to travel otherwise. Free fuel! It’s unbelievably amazing.)
Once the conversation is over we get back on the highway. Cross into Arizona and instantly there are Saguaros. Then we are coming down on Quartzsite (snowbird capital of the world), where off in the distance to the south of town there’s a swarm of silver dots – RVs. We pull into town and it’s not at its height of visitor population because it’s already too late in the season. But there are still all kinds of tents set up selling rocks and jewelry, colored flags blowing, hand-painted signs, and RVs everywhere on the dusty, kinda weird main street.
We head north through town and out a few miles to the BLM land where there is free 14-day dry camping. We see RVs parked all around, their steps down and mats out, potted plants, tents, lawn chairs, signs saying their names and where they’re from, and lots of little dogs. We pass an Airstream grouping with all the silver bullets arranged in a circle: RVers love to circle the wagons. Their fires and lawn chairs are in the center.
We decide to park in the same spot we were in last year if it’s not occupied, and…oh yeah, if we can find it. There are miles of camping with dirt roads heading off the paved one everywhere. Well, last year there was a yellow ribbon and a tiny American flag stuck to the pole at the turnoff to our spot, and I think it was slightly past the second mile marker. Maybe this is it? There’s the flag! It’s pretty tattered now. We pull off and bump along the packed gravel through the ditches and the spot’s open. We liked this one because of the Saguaro and Palo Verde tree growing together and because someone arranged the rocks all pretty. Now it’s even more cleaned up than last year and no one else is parked close to it. We pull in and circle around a few times to get the trailer on level ground. Decide to stay hitched up because we need to keep heading east the day after next, to be in Tucson by the middle of the week. We pull out the lawn chairs and sit in the bright afternoon sun as it sinks to orange.
Inside the RV the light is so familiar. I feel as though I’ve been transported back to last year. One of the things that I wouldn’t have expected about this life is that my memory of places is based very much on the way the light comes in the trailer (as well as temperature and the angle of the breeze). When your home is constantly in new places the way the light comes in the windows is always changing. Here, in the same spot as last year at the same angle, my memories tangle.
We stay up late talking. The desert is quiet and there are no lights to be seen.