What’s it like to camp full-time?

One month in: Random thoughts about the camping life

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“So… can I return to using porta-potties and baby wipes after two weeks’ of indoor plumbing?”

“Will we be OK with going back to an air mattress again?”

These were questions that we’d been bracing ourselves for.

I mean, I hog the sheets and Dale tends to take up more than half the bed, issues that become more pronounced when you’re sleeping on an air mattress more appropriate for a large child than two adults.

But we’d adapted, you know?  We were sleeping well, and I’ve mostly gotten over my squeamishness about using public bathrooms.   We’d made some good progress.

But, after four weeks of camping, we’ve now moved indoors for side trips to Las Vegas, Idaho, Portland, and Seattle.  These were planned stops and we knew this time was coming, but we had to wonder–would our return to the civilized world for two weeks thwart our desire to go back to the nomadic life?

I’ll tell you how our first month went, and then we’ll answer the pressing questions I posed above.

Stops 2 & 3: New Mexico and Arizona

After leaving Fort Davis, we headed due north to the high-altitude forests of northern New Mexico, staying there for over two weeks before moving to a campsite outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.  We’ve been doing lots of sightseeing, of course; all of our campgrounds were great jumping-off points for cities, national parks, museums, and other activities. We’ve also adapted to the altitude, finally, an onus that undermined our every move for the first couple of weeks.

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Welcome to my office! (At our campsite, Hyde Memorial State Park)

And it’s been a productive month. I’ve been writing everyday, anywhere from 3-8 hours a day; in fact, that was one of the reasons why we mostly sat in place for 1-2 weeks at a time, so that I could focus, both on the book (which I’m getting closer to finishing) and these blog posts. Dale is also writing, working on photography for the blog, and reading voraciously like he always does.

More about our home bases

New Mexico

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The Palisades Sill, cliffs created by the Cimarron River (in Cimarron State Park)

Cimarron Canyon State Park: July 11-14

Hyde Memorial State Park: July 14-July 27

The two New Mexico State Parks in which we stayed, Cimarron Canyon and Hyde Memorial, couldn’t’ve been more different.  Both were in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, both were under stands of tall trees, and neither place had showers.  That’s where the similarities ended.

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The Cimarron River
Cimarron Canyon State Park

IMG_1014Cimarron Canyon, 7500-8000 feet in elevation, is 33,000 acres of land set within the Carson National Forest and about an hour outside of Taos.  We stayed at Maverick, one of three established campgrounds. The Cimarron River flows through the park, and Maverick also had a fishing pond onsite;  both the river and pond were apparently full of trout, as many people flocked to the park to fish.  We saw a few of our neighbors catch trout in the afternoon and then fry them up for dinner.

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Every evening Dale and I sat on a bench by the lake and admired the stars.  Having just been to McDonald Observatory, we had a renewed appreciation for the night sky and could pick out the visible planets and a few constellations.  We sat in the dark, listening to the fish break the surface of the water, and enjoyed the quiet, while also being mindful of the fact that black bears made a pilgrimage to the dumpster each evening (we never saw any).

Maverick was small and densely populated, the campsites in some sections practically flowing into one another.  If you want privacy, don’t camp at Cimarron Canyon State Park in July.  It was like a tiny town where everyone knew everybody else, and we became acquainted with several of our fellow campers.

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Our campsite (what you don’t see here is that our neighbor’s campsite starts on the other side of our car)

Our first neighbors were Suzanne and Randall, from Taos.  Suzanne was a native New Mexican and full-blooded Native American, while Randall was originally from Washington State.  For many years they lived near Dallas but didn’t care for it, so when they retired they got outya there and moved to Taos, close to where Suzanne grew up.

Suzanne’s father was a technician at Los Alamos when the atomic bomb was being developed, and he worked on the project to separate plutonium.  Sadly, he died in his 80’s of skin and brain cancer, most likely related to radiation exposure, and she said that many people in the area had developed cancer.

Both Suzanne and Randall were clearly enthralled with New Mexico and named off all kinds of things to see in and around Taos, and I furiously scribbled notes as they talked.

They left the next day, and an older couple from Wichita Falls, Texas, moved in with their entire collection of grandchildren in tow. There were at least ten kids in that campsite, plus the grandparents and a parent or two. Despite the size of the group, the kiddos were well-behaved and somehow survived without cell service or electronics. The grandmother was as matronly as one would want a grandmother to be, while the grandfather was stoic and just shook his head when I observed, “You’ve got your hands full there.”

Grandma was admirably efficient and prepared both supper and breakfast for the entire brood. I’m talking real food, as in, fried biscuits with bacon and eggs for breakfast. I’m not sure how she pulled off the biscuits, but it was impressive. She also made sure that every single child was properly groomed. They all had to brush their teeth and wash their hair at the spigot using the freezing cold water. We listened to the squeals and screams as each child rinsed shampoo out of her hair, and, during the lengthy hair-washing process, Grandma told Dale, “We’ve got our own beauty salon over here. Want your hair washed?”

“Yep, I definitely need it,” Dale said and laughed.  (In case you hadn’t noticed, Dale’s bald).

On our last night at Maverick, an ambulance rushed into the park and stopped at a nearby campsite where a large family was staying.  We heard the whole story the next day from a family member— the elderly gentleman whom we’d waved to a couple of times was recovering from some sort of heart trouble and had ill-advisedly made his first recreational outing at 8000 feet above sea level.  He started having chest pain, but by the time the ambulance arrived he was feeling better and too stubborn to go to the hospital.

Ah, small town gossip.

Hyde Memorial State Park

We enjoyed Cimarron Canyon, but after a few days of such togetherness we were ready for a change, and Hyde Memorial State Park provided just that. It was as isolated as Cimarron Canyon was populated. The campsites were large and scenic, and no two were quite alike. They were also very spread out; the distance between our campsite and that of our nearest neighbors was probably 50 feet, with lots of trees in between. The only neighbors that we got to know during our two weeks there was a friendly retired couple living full-time in their beat-up RV.

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Our spacious, wooded campsite at Hyde Memorial

At 8500 feet, Hyde Memorial is New Mexico’s highest-elevation state park.  It’s a tiny, 350-acre stretch of land within the Santa Fe National Forest, and it sits fifteen minutes above Santa Fe.  A winding road runs through the park and the National Forest, climbing until it reaches the Santa Fe Ski Basin at the top of the mountain.  At 10,000 feet sits Aspen Vista,  a scenic viewpoint that provides expansive views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the forest and lower-altitude desert terrains, and the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

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Riding out a wicked thunderstorm in our shelter

Despite the proximity of the road to our campsite, we felt isolated, but in a good way.  We had a small stream just down the hill that could be heard babbling at all times.  There was a large, three-sided shelter, the picnic table situated inside, and considering that summer is “monsoon season,” as the New Mexicans call it, the shelter was quite a luxury.  We sat out some crazy thunderstorms in that little sanctuary (no trips to the car necessary).

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Our campsite (Hyde Memorial State Park)

Arizona

Mormon Lake Lodge and RV Park: July 27-August 5

Our last campground was a whole different beast, a private RV park in Arizona called Mormon Lake Lodge (about 30 miles outside of Flagstaff).  This large complex was a combination of rustic lodge (with log cabins), RV park, and pseudo wild west town, complete with a saloon and horse corral.     The compound was situated next to the mostly marshy Mormon Lake in the Coconino National Forest, and a huge herd of Rocky Mountain elk would graze here most evenings.

The park had a small reserved tent camping area ($15/night), but most of the people staying at Mormon Lake were RV’ers, many of whom lived there throughout the summer. Most of the residents had off-road vehicles of some sort or another, and the area in general was popular with off-roaders. Admittedly, the weekend was crowded and noisy as lots of folks with ATV’s converged on the park, but otherwise the place was peaceful.

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Our campsite at Mormon Lake Lodge. Attached to the car is an awning and tent that we set up during some of the rainstorms (it’s monsoon season in Arizona, too!)

It also has a huge open field that is used for several major events throughout the year, including Overland Expo, run by our friends, Roseann and Jonathan Hanson.  The field constitutes the “dry” camping area, and, for $10 a night, this is where we stayed.  No, dry does not mean that alcohol was forbidden (thank goodness); it meant that no amenities were provided.  But the laundromat and bathrooms (with showers!) were only a short walk from us, and we had a huge campsite under a cluster of trees.  (Note that most of the dry camping area is in an open, shadeless field.)

Sometimes we were the only tent campers in the park. Given the amount of luxurious and high-tech transportation options that most of our neighbors possessed, we were quite an anomaly. A few people marveled at our simple set up, while others looked at us–with our cute little tent and our agenda of tent camping across the country–as if we were some benign but exotic creature that they’d never seen before. But everyone was very friendly, and, given the lodge’s proximity to Flagstaff and the plethora of things to do in the area, we’ll definitely try to go back next year.

What do we think after one month in?

When we announced the road trip in July, we shared our reasons for wanting to undertake this journey, and it included wanting to push ourselves outside of our comfort zones. Well, I can tell you this—in the first few days, everything was a little bit uncomfortable: sleeping in a tiny tent, using vault toilets, going without showers, washing dishes, retrieving drinking water from the faucets, coping with bugs, and so on.

But turns out human beings are flexible creatures and, given the chance, can adapt.

We’ve gotten used to the extra steps needed to do just about everything.  Before, it would’ve been an inconvenience; now, it’s just become part of a ritual. We’ve gotten used to cooking on a two-burner camp stove, then carefully discarding our food to avoid attracting critters, then heating water to wash the dishes, and, finally, putting everything back where it belongs (so critical! And yet, at first, so hard for me to do!).  I think we’ve adapted quite nicely, and nothing is as difficult as I thought it would be.

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Doing the dishes at Cimarron Canyon State Park; our campground is in the distance. We boiled water first, washed the dishes, and then rinsed them at the faucet

We’re also analyzing everything we brought to see how we can simplify. Items such as our bulky wool blanket and my winter boots are luxuries that take up too much room.  And, by bringing those big boxes of kitchen supplies, Dale can make delicious, healthy meals, but that lime zester and the veggie steamer probably should’ve stayed behind. All the crap piled high in the back of the car weighs on us, and we’ll be culling the chaff as soon as we can.

So to answer the question posed at the beginning of this post:

It’s amazing to go ten feet to the kitchen and get ice water out of the fridge.

It’s heavenly to have access to flush toilets and wall outlets.

But it’s also claustrophobic to be sleeping inside of four walls again. We miss the onslaught of sensations–the wind, the sky, the signs of an impending rainstorm–and feel cut off from them. I miss the croaks of the frogs and the chirps of the birds and the sound of the moths as they hit our tent, trying in vain to get to their nirvana of light.

Mostly, it’s a relief to know that we can enjoy the comforts of “home” (as in, a building with four walls and a roof) but not necessarily need them. Sure, we can appreciate a bed that’s actually wide enough for the two of us–deprivation makes us that much more grateful for things that we used to take for granted–-but do we need it?  Nah. I miss rolling into Dale with every move, and he misses waking up in the middle of the night without any covers.  I just know he does.

 


Camping tips for New Mexico and Arizona:

One of the advantages of many New Mexico State Park campgrounds is that, in addition to reservable campsites, they also have walk-up sites that are set aside as first-come, first-serve. The price is right–$10 for a developed campsite, $14 if you want an electric hookup, and $18 for electric and sewage (for RV’ers). Out-of-staters can purchase an annual pass for $225 ($180 for residents) that allows unlimited camping for one year, so if you’re going to be camping in the state long enough, it’s an incredible bargain.

There are large national forests in both states, and both have a ton of campgrounds. For example, there were nine in Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff alone; however, they were more expensive than Mormon Lake Lodge and had fewer amenities, so we opted to stay at Mormon Lake instead.