Five Nights of Dry Camping on the Desert Floor

Connie and I left San Diego after six short weeks with mixed feelings about our stay. We did a lot, but we wanted to do a lot more. Oh well, that’s one of the great things about our nomadic lifestyle. We can come back some time and do more.

We didn’t go far as we drove east on Interstate 8 across the mountain to Ocotillo Flats, then 18 miles north on San Diego County Road S2. We then made a right turn onto the remnants of a road that has not been maintained in decades. When we last lived in San Diego we came to this same spot for weekend stays and desert exploration. This time we intended to stay for about a week, or until either the waste tanks filled or the freshwater tank went to empty. We intended to do some flower searching, bird watching and general desert exploration.

As I mentioned in the last post, we had taken a test drive out here on our way back to San Diego from a day trip to Yuma, so we knew what to expect regarding the road. We decided to disconnect the car at the turnoff so I would have only two axles to worry about as we rolled the mile and a half to the campsite. That chore done, Connie took off with the car and a two way radio and I started easing the coach down the road. The road such as it is, is riddled with pot holes, soft spots, ruts, large rocks, remains of pavement, and long stretches of wash-board. I knew I had to take it easy or there would be trouble. I was moving somewhere around 3 to 5 miles per hour. It was difficult to see the pot holes as the sun was high in the sky and there were no real shadows to indicate depth. The wash-board was a little easier to see. I was stepping around the rocks and ruts pretty well and the speed was just right to keep the wash-board from loosening my teeth. Then I hit a pothole and started the wild back and forth rocking that is set up by the air ride system of the coach. As you roll through a pot hole, the air ride system tries to compensate and push the coach back to neutral. If you are not going very fast, that sudden shift can and will coincide with the wheel returning from the hole thereby magnifying the pitch to the other side. Once that happens, all bets are off with the stowage that we may or may not have done properly. In this case, I heard the pantry door fly open and something crash to the floor. I took a quick look back and saw olive oil flowing on the floor.

Well, you can guess how we spent the next several minutes. I radioed Connie and by the time she got back to me I was done saving things and well into the real cleanup. I would give that event a lot of thought over the next five days. You will have to read on to learn what I dreamt up to make life a little easier coming out.

The amazing part of the journey down the road was that where I had the problem was relatively benign. I had to pass through a set of S turns that were anything but level and had no further issues, but my knuckles were certainly white.

We finally got to the campsite and found it to be unoccupied which was good. In fact there were no other campers in our line of sight. We were delighted.

Leveling the coach was easy as the ground was pretty level where we parked. We went about our business putting out the slides and making sure there were no unnecessary AC loads plugged in that would rob power from the batteries through the inverter. Once the inverter was on line and providing on demand AC power we went about setting up the satellite dish for the internet system. We were successful in getting a signal with no real issues except maneuvering around a tree. We were happy to have internet, because we did not have cell service. Therefore, the internet would be our primary method of communicating with the real world.

We were something like three hours from our departure time from San Diego and we were all set up and making plans for the week. Life was good. It was so good, that we got a couple beers out of the fridge and sat outside under the trees and watched the world go round until supper time.

That first night in the desert was really pretty great. We tested the inverter and our battery bank capacity by watching television after dinner until bedtime (tough camping, don’t you think?). We went to bed happy and maybe just a little bit over confident.

When I got up on Tuesday I set about making breakfast as we would do any other day. I put the bagels in the toaster oven and turned it on. All hell broke loose within the first second of the toaster oven being on. There was an alarm on the inverter monitoring panel and the lights went dim. I shut off the toaster oven, but the damage was already done. By the time I got back to check the monitor, there were several locked in alarms, including low battery charge, internal damage requires service, battery charge too low to invert. I decided that the batteries must have been too low to make toast, so I started the generator and commenced a battery charge. While the batteries were charging, we made breakfast. Since we needed to do a full charge on the batteries, we were forced to hang around for awhile. Some two hours later the batteries were charged and I secured the battery charge. However, when I tried to put the inverter back on line all the same alarms locked in again. I was no longer a happy camper.

In deference to my better half I decided we needed to get on with our day and I would return to the inverter problem later. We drove up to Borrego Springs which is some forty miles from where we were camped. We visited the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center and gathered the information we needed to make our stay productive. We then went back to town in search of lunch, a very late lunch. We found a restaurant we had eaten at before and had what we would consider a large lunch or a combination lunch and early light dinner. Then we returned to the campsite and I went back to work on the inverter.

My first step was to e-mail the customer service folks at the manufacturers. To do that I had to run the generator since the inverter would not work. I ran the generator until the batteries were once again at full charge. I remain confused as to where all that juice went as the inverter never actually powered anything after the first charge. Then I got the owner’s manuals out for the inverter and the monitoring panel. I finally decided that the problem may be with the communications cable or the monitoring panel and not the inverter itself. So, the next morning before we went anywhere I unplugged the communications cable from the inverter and then tried to invert. Lo and behold, the inverter worked just fine.

So, off we went to explore the desert for flowers. Boy what a day we had. I had intended to insert a link to the photos at this point, but I had a computer tragedy several days ago. I thought I had moved all my photos to an external hard drive but somehow I made an incredible mistake and wound up losing nearly every photo we have ever taken with a digital camera. Literally hundreds of photos have gone into the either. So, you won’t be seeing my wildflower photos anytime soon. Hopefully we will be able to recover them.

We spent the best light hours searching for and photographing flowers, then we continued to look around and enjoy looking at even more flowers. We covered a lot of area and it seems that every time we stopped and started walking along the desert floor it seemed that flowers just sort of appeared everywhere. There was usually some large bloom that got us off the road, but when we got up close we saw hundreds very small flowers that grow close to the ground. Many of the flowers are really small. Some had entire blooms that were less than a quarter inch in diameter. Using the macro setting on my camera I was able to grow those tiny pedals into quite visible and detailed images.

Of course as we drove around we were always on the lookout for birds. It would be wrong to call this day a birding outing. I would classify our birding style as casual. Even at that we saw some nice birds.

When we returned to the coach that evening I decided to trouble shoot the communications cable for the inverter. I removed the monitoring panel from the wall and looked at the end of the cable I was worried about. It seemed to be just fine. I decided to reconnect it at both ends and see what would happen. The entire system worked just fine. More head scratching followed. Then I checked my e-mail to see if I had heard anything from the tech guys. No news from them, except a computer generated message saying assigning a tracking number and telling me that my case was being assigned to a technician who would be in touch.

On Wednesday morning we got up early and drove four or five miles to a place called Desert Palm Spring. This little oasis provided an important stopping place and watering hole for the stage coaches that crossed the desert in nineteenth century. Connie and I have visited this place several times over the years. Each time visit we marvel at what it must have like to ride a stagecoach across the desert bouncing around, eating dust until you have no saliva left and being just too hot to care about the dust. Then, after hours of this torture your driver slows the horses and pulls into Desert Palm Spring to water the horses as well as the patrons and giving all an opportunity to regain their balance and knock some of the desert out of their clothing. That must have really been something to experience. We think traveling at five miles an hour to avoid damage to the car is an inconvenience.

In previous visits to this great spot we were rewarded with an abundance of birds. Not necessarily a large number of species, but certainly a lot of birds. This day we brought our stools and settled in for some serious observation. Thirty minutes later we had seen maybe two grackles and that was about it. I decided to walk the wash and see what I could find in the bushes along the banks. I didn’t get far before finding a good enough bird to call Connie over for a look. By the time she found me the bird was long gone. We both continued to walk the wash and before long we came upon a pair of Costas Hummingbirds. The male was doing his best to attract the female for a spring time date. She did not seem completely interested in his antics, but was very interested in making a nest for the eggs she would eventually lay. Connie kept a close eye on her and soon watched her all the way into her not quite complete nest. I came over and while she was away I got as close to the nest as I dared and snapped a couple photos of the nest. Then I planted myself several yards away and watched the bird’s behavior as she approached the nest. At first she was not sure she liked me being that close, so I tried to make myself a little smaller. Soon she came back to the nest and continued to work on it. I was able to take several photos as she toiled to make it just right. She must have made ten to fifteen trips to and from the nest, each time bringing more building materials. Sometimes she brought relatively long pieces of fibrous material while other times she returned with some small item to fill a wee imperfection within the inner shell. After installing the materials she sat in the nest, worked her body around, smoothed the outside of the nest with her beak, then having determined what was needed next she was off again in search of just the right substance. I sat under that tree so long I had a really hard time getting back to my feet. While I was there I took some seventy or eighty photos. On my initial review of those images I deleted nearly half of them. Since I had not yet moved this set of photos from the camera to the computer before losing the photos that were in the computer, you get to see what I saw.

We finally got too hungry to watch the hummingbird any longer and went back to the motorhome for breakfast. I decided to give the inverter the ultimate test. I had Connie turn on the toaster oven while I watched the monitoring panel. As soon as she turned it on I got the low battery charge alarm, the inverter shut off and a fault code locked in. This time I was able to clear the alarm after Connie turned off the now- not- working toaster oven and return to the inverting mode. There was a pretty good drain done to the batteries during that very short period the batteries tried to make toast. We recharged the batteries while we made toast and ate breakfast. More importantly, the mystery had been solved. I finally remembered that when I did all the calculations to determine what sort of battery/inverter combination we would need to run those items we felt we wanted to run we did not have the toaster oven. We had a conventional toaster that required much less wattage to run. So, we now know if we want toast, we better also want to charge batteries. Or we should eat cereal when dry camping.

In all seriousness, I was really relieved to learn that there was no problem with the inverter or its monitoring panel. We invested a lot of money in the system and expected a quality product. More importantly, I did not want to deal with the warranty issues and the down time while trying to get it repaired or replaced. Knowing that the system had actually performed as it was designed resulted in a huge load being lifted from my shoulders and mind. The rest of my day was going to be just fine.

To celebrate my good fortune, I took my book, binoculars and a very large glass of wine outside to my favorite camp chair and using our sturdy little step ladder as a foot rest, I spent the rest of the afternoon just relaxing. It was great.

After dinner Connie and I went outside to watch the sky. We knew that the international space station was to zip across the northern sky just after sunset, so I got the lawn chairs out and our big binoculars on a tripod set up. Connie came out with the wine and our regular binoculars just in time to see the space station race from rather high in the western sky across the horizon to the east as it moved toward the horizon. We then settled in and as the sky darkened we watched the stars pop out until late into the evening. What a great way to relax. We really felt fortunate to be living the lives we are living, doing what we want when we want. No trip to the center of the desert would be complete without at least one evening of sky watching. I may have just a little too much to drink given that I started in the middle of the afternoon and sipped my way late into the evening. I was able to shower without hurting myself or using too much water, so I must have been at least okay.

When I woke up the next morning I was not really sure that I had not overdone it. What the heck, it was, after all a celebration.

Friday was set aside as a final day of desert exploration. We started out with a walk due north from the motorhome across the desert floor. This was something we had done five or six years ago when we camped in this exact place while living in San Diego. This time, though, there were actually flowers in bloom, so the walk was much more interesting. We stopped to admire the flowers and the patterns in the sand made by the various plants as the wind blows their leaves and stems around. We are always on the lookout for birds, but finding them in the desert isn’t really all that easy. We were very lucky to see one song sparrow and that was just about it in a two hour walk.

After returning to the motorhome we continued our exploration in the car. We must have driven some twenty or thirty miles on roads made for mules, not cars. We visited a place called Well of Eight Echoes. Neither of us remembered having been there before until we got there. This site has a sign on the road indicating where to turn and an entry road that is better than most of the dirt roads in the area turns out to be a ten inch steel pipe (well shaft lining) that has long since been mostly filled with dirt and sand. There ain’t no echoes going on in that well anymore.

We then went looking for an old railroad trestle we had come across during an earlier visit. We never found it, but boy did we drive some wild roads looking. I tested Connie’s nerves and found her “that’s enough” point at several locations along the way. As we traveled, I just kept thinking I hope this is a loop because I don’t want to go back over that spot again. As it turned out we were able to make it a loop and we did survive the adventure. We paralleled an abandoned rail line for several miles, but never found our trestle. We were never in familiar territory for that matter. What we did find, though, were several water drops for border crossers. Truth is by the time any border crosser got as far north as we were deserved to find a barrel full of bottled water to keep themselves alive. We never left the motorhome without water and I always felt a little dehydrated. I cannot imagine what the border crossers must go through to find work in this country.

Before our exploration was over we visited another palm spring. This one is named Mountain Palm Spring as it is located on the southeast face of a mountain. The road into the spring is marginally better than most as it goes to a park maintained campground that offers composting toilets and trash receptacles as well as camping neighbors. The spring has had a wider spread effect on the environment than the one at Desert Palm Spring due in large part to the slope of the land where the spring reaches the surface. The water has not pooled as deeply as it did at the Desert Palm Spring. Therefore, there is a much longer tract of land that is perpetually watered by the spring. As a result there are several stands of palm trees that provide shelter and nest sites for many more birds. By the time we reached this wonderful oasis, we were starting to wear out. We walked up to the second stand of trees and then climbed up into the rocks and just watched what was happening below us along the small stream and in the very green vegetation. Several hundred yards up the trail exists a very large grove of palm trees. We just did not have the energy to make the hike. We were quite satisfied with what we had in front of us.

We relaxed Friday night and prepared ourselves and the motorhome to get underway for the big city of El Centro, California the next morning. We didn’t have a lot to do to get ready to roll, as we had lived the week on paper plates. Therefore there was a minimal of restoring to do.

Saturday morning all we had to do was take down the satellite dish, bring in the slides, lift the levelers and get underway.

You will recall that my drive in was not without incident. Remember the olive oil? I had decided that I would try to go out with the air suspension system operational. If I found myself on the edge I would dump the air bags and see what effect that had on my low speed stability. I barely got on the road when I found myself fighting to keep the coach from rocking and rolling. I dumped the air bags and found that I could crawl along at a comfortable three to five miles an hour and not roll at all. Connie led me out with the car while I picked my way through the pot holes and ruts without breaking a sweat. Another great lesson learned.

The drive to El Centro was uneventful. Our new temporary home was to be Naval Air Facility El Centro. We arrived early in the afternoon and after dumping our waste tanks we both enjoyed “Hollywood” showers. We went grocery shopping and did some laundry. What a perfect ending to a wonderful week on the desert.



4 thoughts on “Five Nights of Dry Camping on the Desert Floor”

  1. Oh Boy!! What a wonderful life! Aren’t you glad you retired???
    This sounds like a lot more fun than submarines…LOL

  2. Anonymous – Sorry you don’t like the blog. Sorry if I came across as boring. I can assure you that my life is anything but boring. Frank

  3. Connie & Frank, Oh does this trip bring back the memories. Lu and I would go out to that same location when we lived in SD. What a great life… keep those boring and long winded tales going they are so rich in the things that make your life style our dreams!

    Ed & Lu

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