The Border, Boondocking, Prison, & Prairies
The pasty, red-haired border agent hefted himself into our truck camper while a German shepherd sniffed our tires. The agent paused in our doorway to ask if we had any produce and if we’d collected any shells, then ambled back to our almost-bare refrigerator. After about 30 seconds he was out again, and, with sweat sliding down his jawline, gave us the “thumbs up”. Just like that we were back in the US, retracing the route we’d taken over a month earlier to get to Baja.
Mitch was truly relieved. He’d driven the entire peninsula (because he doesn’t trust my driving skills) and the narrow, pot-holed roads of Baja had stressed him out. I was happy to be back on our own schedule, away from the caravan and the Lenny breaks and the constant CB chatter. But crossing the border was more strange to me than anything else. I’ve only traveled a few times in foreign countries and every other time I’d gone, I’d boarded an airplane to get there and back. When you land and make your way out of the airport, you expect things to seem foreign. But simply driving across the border is, in one way, anti-climactic, yet in a different way, really wild. This imaginary “line” that people have fought and died over and still die to get to, separates two very different cultures, languages, laws, governments, ways of life. Yet in the span of a few minutes, you can cross from one world into another.
After getting our brakes fixed and shaking out the sand and restocking in Phoenix, we had five days/four nights to make it to our next destination – my hometown in Nebraska. It was painful to point our truck north but we decided that for the return trip we were going to use our truck camper for what it was made for – boondocking.
Night 1: Coconino National Forest
We’d stopped to do a trail run and ride at an area called Biscuit Flats before searching out our site for the night. So the sun was getting low as we pulled off I-17 north of Camp Verde onto FR 618 and started looking for the dispersed camping areas we’d found on our Allstays Camp & RV app.
There were two. The first one was a pretty little spot with a view of pine-dotted rolling hills. But, because I am a grasshopper and always have to know what’s around the next bend, we unhooked the Jeep and I drove on to see if I could find the next camping area. Who knows? It might be something spectacular, right? I drove over a small creek cutting through orange cliffs, past intriguing trailheads, over a large, swift moving river, past a historical park, and finally found the other dispersed campsite. It was in an open field at what looked like another trailhead. It was deeply rutted and there was a man sitting in a chair beside his truck camper. I smiled. He gave me a dirty look.
I turned and went back to our campsite, now thoroughly pleased at our choice. We tucked ourselves behind some trees to be invisible from the road, got out our chairs, opened a beer, and watched the sun set and the full moon rise.
Night 2: Church Rock
We cheated. We didn’t boon-dock on night two. Before getting back on I-17, we visited the fascinating cliff dwellings at Montezuma’s Well.
Then, I decided that since we’d lived-it-up at the Hotel California in Baja, we needed to stand on the corner in Winslow, Arizona. It was such a fine site to see (sorry – I can’t help myself!). It was actually kind of cool. Nothing much to it other than a nice mural, lots of people taking photos, and a couple of souvenir shops. But I love the fact that, just because of some words in a fantastic song, a dusty little town has a semi-legitimate claim to fame.
After takin’ it easy over lunch (OK – I’ll stop now!) at the beautifully restored historic railroad hotel, La Posada, we got back on the road. Along I-40 in eastern Arizona and western New Mexico we couldn’t find any boon-docking sites other than truck stops. We’ve done that before – spent a long night being shocked awake every couple of hours by truckers releasing their air brakes. We weren’t that desperate. So, because it was already dark, we pulled off at a campground just east of Gallup, NM called Red Rock Park.
Coming into this park in the dark was challenging because the sites were so discombobulated. We couldn’t tell which hook-up went where, which direction to face, which were reserved. I walked through the sites, trying to decipher them, while Mitch slowly followed behind me with the camper.
We finally found a site, hooked up, ate, and fell asleep. The next morning we woke to an absolutely beautiful back-drop.
Night 3: Prison
I went for a short run/hike up Church Rock with Brandi the next morning while Mitch tried to get some drone footage. Then, back on the road. I-40 to I-25 through Albuquerque past Santa Fe, now heading north for real. It was getting late again. There were plenty of national forest sites to our west, but they were quite a distance from the interstate and most weren’t open yet for the season. We found a place on our app called Springer Lake Wildlife Area. The directions said it was only 4.5 miles off the interstate past the “New Mexico Boys School”. We decided to head for it.
By the time we exited the interstate it was completely dark. We were in the plains now so it was windy and cold. We drove through the small town of Springer and headed out on the narrow, paved highway. The night was black but the sky in the direction we were headed was bright, lit up by what looked like ball field lights. They must have a game going on at the Boys School, we thought. As we got closer and saw the double-rows of fencing, each topped with razor-wire, we realized this wasn’t any “Boys School”. This was a prison!
There was no where to turn around on the small road. So we kept going. Besides, we thought that maybe the camping area was far enough away that we wouldn’t have to worry about the prison. The road turned to gravel and then we found the lake. It was a desolate, lonely, wind-swept spot with no obvious place to park our rig. The lights of the prison were still plainly visible not even a mile away. I knew I wouldn’t be sleeping much that night. So even though it was late and we were exhausted, we got back on the interstate, passing a sign just beyond the on ramp that advised “Do Not Pick Up Hitch Hikers”.
It was after 11:00 pm by the time we bounced and bumped our way along gravel roads into what we hoped was a camping spot at the Lake Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge.
Night 4: Vogel Canyon
We were in the Great Plains now. I love this land. I know a lot of people (with undeveloped imaginations) think this land is boring and ugly. But to me, this is the land where you can breath, see for miles, be enthralled watching the path of a hawk as it soars and dips, and find beautiful surprises, such as Vogel Canyon, if you take the time to look.
Vogel Canyon is in the Comanche National Grassland and the “camping” spot was in a very small parking area which, had there been another camper, we wouldn’t have fit. We took turns riding the trail on Mitch’s mountain bike. It was terribly marked so I ended up seeing more of the canyon than I’d planned. The trail passed an old stage route and, further up the canyon, a few small, swampy natural springs which had made this location a gathering place for humans for eons, evidenced by the numerous pictographs on the rock ledges.
For the last night of our trip, we grilled burgers, drank a couple of beers, and watched the night sky populate with millions of stars over the prairie.
It’s summer now which means that here at the Delaware beaches every road leading to the ocean is jammed, grocery stores shelves are bare, and people are waiting outside of restaurants for hours to be seated. It’s a normal part of the season and if it wasn’t a mob scene, we wouldn’t be able to make a living. But on those days when it is a physical battle to force my mouth into one more smile, I’m lucky enough to have a store of ‘quiet places’ to go to in my mind – the view of the sun setting over the western hills from the front porch of my family’s farmhouse in Nebraska; the periwinkle-wood-sided Victorian house sitting utterly alone backed up against the Guadalupe Mountains in west Texas, a stretch of highway in eastern Oregon, grasslands rolling out as far as the eye could see, where we didn’t encounter another vehicle for over an hour. Thankfully, this year’s vacation added mightily to my stockpile.