Brake for Nature

Boondocking Test in the Mojave Desert

Back in early November, before flying to Maryland for Thanksgiving, we decided to test out our boondocking skills in the Mojave Desert for a week. Up to this point we had been living in RV parks with amenities like water, sewer, and electricity and sometimes even Wi-Fi and cable TV. However, the whole point of this journey is to live a more minimalist lifestyle close to the wilderness.  On top of that we would like to stretch our budget as far as we can, so we plan to boondock for most of the rest of our travels. (Boondock = park our RV on public land and live off of our batteries powered by a solar panel, propane, and our fresh water tank that we fill wherever we can).

Amboy Crater

We started off at the Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark.  We discovered this free campsite and all of the other campsites on this trip on Campendium, a great website for finding free campsites all the way up to fancy RV resorts with detailed descriptions, maps, photos, and reviews by other campers. It’s now my go-to website each time we pick up and move on to the next place.

Our truck and trailer parked in the overflow parking lot with desert scenery in the background and Michael putting the hitch away

Setting up camp at the Amboy Crater

I think my personal journal entry, written while we were there, describes our time at Amboy best, so I’m going to share it with you here.

We are sitting outside our trailer in the overflow parking lot for the Amboy Crater National Natural Landmark. I am stretching on the ground, on my yoga mat, and Michael is in his chair reading The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. It is almost silent except for a grasshopper here and there and the occasional car or train in the distance. We are trying boondocking for the very first time. We sanitized our fresh water tank back in Riverside and hitched up early yesterday to make it up and over the Cajon Pass before the 30-35 mph gusts began. We chose to start with this overflow parking lot because it’s easy.

Before putting our slide out, we want to see how much battery power we use for other important items like lights and the water pump and how long it takes for our 160-watt solar panel to charge our two 6-volt deep cycle (golf cart) batteries. We wouldn’t want to put the slide out only to be stuck that way and not have enough power to pull the slide back in. So, we are living in a tighter space than usual, but we are enjoying our time outside.

So far, I am realizing that this boondocking thing is precisely what I have been yearning for since about three and half years ago. We got the truck and trailer and started traveling several months ago, and while traveling is certainly rewarding, I felt a bit let down. It didn’t feel like my dreams come true. I thought maybe it was my health problems or maybe this trailer is just too much like a house, and I was longing for something more minimalist. I had a strong desire to go back to the basics, to have less stuff, but my health problems were making that difficult.

Being out here in the desert on our own, camping for free, and using the least amount of water and power possible – boondocking as they call it – is exactly what I had in mind. This is it! Finally, six months after picking up the trailer, I’m finally living my dream!

Last night we were completely alone in the desert under clear skies full of stars, Venus and a crescent moon were in the southern sky. The air was slightly cool and calm, comforting. Michael seized this rare opportunity and stripped down and ran around naked under the stars! I, having never done anything like that before in my life (well, maybe when I was too young to remember) decided I owed it to myself to give it a try. I stripped down to my undies and gave it a go! I am loving this! This is freedom!

We then set up our trail camera for the night, and this morning we discovered that we caught a kit fox walking by!

Kit fox with blond fluffy body, black tipped tail, tall ears, and glowing eyes on our nighttime camera

We hiked out to the Amboy Crater this morning before it got too hot. We then had a lunch of cucumbers and tomatoes with mission fig vinegar and olive oil (from Lucero in Corning, California), Manchego cheese, salami, and Kalamata olives. Now we are relaxing, communing with nature, enjoying the vast silence and dry red and brown mountain peaks of the Mojave Desert. Every now and then, a colorful train goes by, and a butterfly just landed on the corner of my mat – possibly a painted lady on migration. This is perfection.

Sandy trail through lava rock heading towards Amboy Crater in the distance

Side-blotched lizard half on sand and half on some lava rock at Amboy Crater

Side-blotched lizard

Christina on the trail to Amboy Crater surrounded by sand and an extensive field of black lava rock

The first time I’ve been to Amboy Crater when it was actually cool enough to hike over sand and lava rock all the way to the crater and not die of heat exhaustion!

Looking down into the crater from the rim

The Crater!

Panoramic of Amboy Crater from the rim Selfie of Michael and Christina on top of Amboy Crater

Hole-in-the-Wall in the Mojave National Preserve

After Amboy Crater we stayed at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground in the Mojave National Preserve for two nights. There, we could get fresh water and dump our wastewater tanks before moving on to another boondocking site. The campsite was $6 per night with our Federal lands annual pass. We had a great campsite near the end of the campground where the Barber Peak Loop Trail starts. There are fabulous views of desert mountains and rock formations from this campground. It is peaceful and very remote – no cell phone signal or electricity. There is a visitor center and nature trail with plants labeled.

Christina standing by the entrance sign for the Mojave National Preserve

 

Our truck, trailer, and camping chairs in our campsite at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground

Campsite at Hole-in-the-Wall

Jackrabbit sitting under some desert shrubs at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground

Jackrabbit near the campground

Visitor Center set up against the desert mountain at Hole-in-the-Wall

Hole-in-the-Wall Visitor Center

Yucca on the nature trail at Hole-in-the-Wall Campground with the sun setting on the desert and mountains in the background

On the first afternoon/evening, we took the nature trail and then attempted to climb down the narrow Banshee Canyon on the metal rings that were nailed into the walls to assist with the climb. I’ve never been a climber, so scaling down walls, even small ones, is terrifying for me. Some of the rings were in awkward positions and far enough apart to require a certain level of strength and flexibility. Unfortunately in my current state of health, I am weak and unsure of myself. I chickened out on the second set of rings as the sun was setting, and we returned to camp.

Christina standing at the top of the slot canyon peering down at the rings in the sidewall judging whether she can handle the climb

Boondocking was going really well. We pulled the slide out here, and it barely used any battery charge, or the solar panel immediately recharged the batteries. The solar panel certainly does its job, at least out here in the sunny desert. I even took a super quick shower with the propane water heater.

On Saturday we hiked the Barber Peak Loop Trail from the campground – 7.22 miles and 912 feet of total ascent. We hiked around rock formations and desert scrub and through cactus “gardens.” Cholla spines got stuck in the bottoms of our shoes – impossible to avoid on this trail. Cottontails scared us as they leapt out from under shrubs one to two feet away from us! We saw black-throated sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, a golden eagle, crissal thrashers, cactus wrens, chipping and Brewer’s sparrows, and a ladder-backed woodpecker. There were petroglyphs at the end of the trail as we returned to the visitor center. Overall, it was a great desert hike, though seven miles was probably a bit much for my feet that day.

Christina's reflection on a sign of the Barber Peak Loop Trail map

Christina on some rock steps over a rock formation on the Barber Peak Loop Trail View of Barber Peak trail through desert shrubs with mountains on the left Barrel cactus on the Barber Peak Loop Trail with desert mountains in the distance Barber Peak Loop Trail as it winds through some dark brown rock formations Christina sitting next to a boulder with petroglyphs near the end of the Barber Peak Loop Trail Petroglyph of a bighorn sheep near Hole-in-the-Wall Visitor Center

Kelso Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve

On Sunday we ate breakfast outside, packed up, and headed first to a rest stop to do some Internet business, and then to another boondocking site by the Kelso Dunes, also inside the Mojave National Preserve. We chose a site by a cluster of old tamarisk trees in the middle of a rounder adjacent to the dunes. The sunset on the dunes was gorgeous – all kinds of pink in the sky.

Our truck and trailer under the tamarisk trees at Kelso Dunes

View of the three tall peaks of Kelso Dunes from our campsite

View of the dunes from our campsite

Pink, orange, and glowing yellow sunset from our campsite at Kelso Dunes

The waxing crescent moon appeared along with Venus, and I noted that Venus was moving further from the moon each night. Only when camping do I notice these things. Living in an apartment and going to work everyday, I almost didn’t know the place I lived. I got up, went to work, came home, maybe took a walk or hike in the local park, ate dinner, and went to bed. Sure, I knew about some great local parks and restaurants, but unless the full moon was in view on my commute, I usually had no idea of the moon phase or location on a given day. I remember sitting at the kitchen table in my apartment one Saturday morning looking out the window at the tree there and missing the bird feeder outside my parents’ home when I was growing up. I craved a stronger connection with nature, like I had when I was growing up – knowing the local wildlife that visited the yard daily and seasonally. Getting to know a place, the natural part of a place, the landscape, the wildlife, and the changes in the sky and weather, is important to me. The boondocking lifestyle enables that, though staying put for at least a little while is key to getting to know a place as well.

The next day we woke up at 4 am and hit the Kelso Dunes trail just before 7 am. It was the perfect time to hike the dunes for the first time. It has been too hot every other time we have visited. This early November morning was the ideal time to start. We hiked out to the dunes, investigating tracks of kangaroo rat, pocket mouse, kit fox, jackrabbit, and even a sidewinder! We continued on to the first tall peak on the east.  Then we wandered around looking for the best route to the dune on the west side, the one famous for sliding down. We spent a lot of time in deep sand, slogging up and sliding down. My shoes got so full of sand that they felt way too tight on my feet! I finally gave up and took them off and walked in my toe socks! (Sand is still leaking out of these shoes. It never ends!)

At the beginning of the trail to the top of the dunes with the dunes in the distance and our shadows in the foreground

We have a long way to go to get to the top…

Long trail of the hind feet of kangaroo rat in dune sand

Hop-hop-hop of a kangaroo rat across the dunes

Curvy tracks of the sidewinder (snake) in dune sand

Sidewinder tracks

Hind feet and tail tracks of a kangaroo rat in dune sand at Kelso Dunes

Kangaroo rat tracks

Michael about to start hiking the ridge of one of the dunes towards the peak, contemplating the vastness of the dunes Christina dumping sand out of her shoes while sitting on top of the Kelso Dunes

Christina slogging through the sand on the peak of one of the dunes Our shadows (with really long legs) on the rippled dune sand at Kelso Dunes Christina sitting on the peak of Kelso Dunes with more dunes peaks in the distance and the desert mountains beyond Shot of the Kelso Dunes with the rippled slope of one dune in the foreground and the curvy peak of another dune in the distance

Christina standing on the ridge of one of the dunes with just her socks on and shoes in her hands

Socks in the sand and shoes in the hand

We made it to the top of the second dune and peered over the edge. It was steep! Could we really slide down it without killing ourselves? We decided to have a snack first while taking in the views from the top of the dune. We packed everything up to prevent sand from getting into our stuff and gingerly stepped over the peak and sat down on the sand. As steep as that dune was, we didn’t move! We had to slide our butts down the dune by using our legs like rows in a rowboat, one stroke at a time. The sand would pile up in front of us between our legs, and we would have to get up and over the pile to continue on. If we “rowed” fast enough, we could hear the vibrating “voom, voom” of the sand sliding against the dune, the sound that makes this dune so famous.

That day we hiked a total of 5.8 miles in sand, and it warmed up on our way back at around 11:30 am. I was exhausted and my calves were tight and sore. I was afraid I had set myself back again, but the next day, I felt fine. I just never know which hike is going to set me back and which one is going to push me forward.

We had a lovely warm and sunny week in the desert, and boondocking was a success! Unfortunately we would go on to have a nearly three-month hiatus from traveling, but at least we are confident about boondocking in the future. The fortunate part of that hiatus was the time that we enjoyed spending with friends and family, one of the most important parts of life.

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