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Arizona and New Mexico – searching for friends in the desert

When you have a whole year to travel, time feels different. The trip stretches out far ahead of you and, once you have acclimatised to the slower pace of life, the release from the pressure of going and seeing and doing and packing it all in is immense.

If you want to hang around somewhere for a week because it’s nice, you can do it. If you want a lazy day, have one. There is no pressure to be ‘up and at ‘em’, cramming in those ‘highlights’ so that no second is wasted (and ensuring that by the end of your holiday you are so exhausted you need another one to recover).

If you want to hang around somewhere for a week there is nothing much to stop you.

Then we hit Arizona and New Mexico and things shifted. Instead of heading south along the western length of America, we were heading east. Looming in the distance was the Rockies – a literal hump that represented a much bigger marker, the half-way hump of our trip. After we crossed these two States we would be closer geographically and on the calendar to our departure point.

As anyone who has travelled knows, when you are closer to going home than you are to arriving, time suddenly goes more quickly. Instead of all the time in the world, you have 5 months, 4 months, 3 months…. countdown is progressing.

We have been on, alongside or to the west of the Rockies (the darker shaded area) for the whole of the trip.

The shift in how we see our trip has had an effect on all of us. Guy and I are obviously trying to ignore it – keep the dream alive and all that – but the boys suddenly started thinking of home. Our eldest, particularly, got the hump (sorry – too many hump references?!) about it all and started hibernating with a book instead of going outside.

I supposed we shouldn’t be surprised. The focus on home is because they miss their friends. We always knew they would do but we’d hoped new American buddies would distract them. This hasn’t exactly gone to plan.

Lonesome travellers

It’s tough to be 9 and have no pals to hang out with.

In the UK, you can barely pull up in a campsite before the kids have escaped the car, bonded with the neighbour’s kids and run off to do something muddy.

We assumed that this would be the case in America; we would meet families on campsites and the kids would have instant playmates everywhere we went. We merrily talked about joining home-schooling families and sharing learning, ticking all those ‘social development’ boxes that our headteacher had advised was important for kids their age. It was a big part of the reason we chose America.

Are they forced to act like grown ups or are we forced to act like kids?

Current estimates suggest there are as many as 8.5 million people travelling up and down the country in RVs and as many as 3.5 million living in them full-time (i.e not just in the summer holidays). We follow lots of families on social media who live on the road, but we were starting to think that America had hidden all her children. We simply couldn’t find them.

Falling in with the wrong flock

Trailer and sign
The Kunkels live here… come join them for a chat about pensions and military history

I have just finished reading Ghost Riders, Travels with American Nomads by Richard Grant. He is a born traveller himself and wanted to learn more about the American love of the road. He worked his way around the U.S, spending time with Indian tribes such as the Apaches, the Freight Train riders of America (the FTRA), cowboys on the rodeo circuit, the Rainbow Family gatherings and finally a group that he describes as the ‘most numerous and powerful of the contemporary nomadic tribes’ the RV travellers.

These caravans of enormous trailers and fifth wheels are affectionately referred to by their local name of Snowbirds, a name that covers their “southerly migration in winter and hints at their white plumage“.

According to Grant’s book, as many as 90% of the 3.5 million full-timers I mentioned are above the age of 55. Families and Skoolies may take up most of my Instagram but as we really should know by now, the internet skews reality! Families are a drop in the RV traveller ocean and so it makes sense that the vast majority of the people we meet are retirees.

A turning point

Dry and empty landscapes were very common in Arizona. Yes they are beautiful but they are also inhospitable and, if I am to be a little critical, a tad samey!

I had high hopes for Arizona as the state in which our friend fortunes would change. The stark and barren plains were at odds with the festive, colourful fun that we had planned, but we didn’t care – Arizona is the land of winter -promise.

For months we have been hearing people’s plans to head down south to hotspots like Quartzsite to chill out for the winter. These quiet desert towns are unbearably hot in summer but perfect for winter. The land is arid and largely unusable so camping is free or very low cost. Pop-up businesses provide everything an RV traveller might need and people reunite with winter friends. At peak times it is not unusual for Quartzsite or Yuma to have half a million extra residents wandering around town. Surely amongst those folk we’d find those elusive families?

Arriving in Arizona – Thanks (giving) for nothing!

Our Thanksgiving feast – noodles in the rain at a truck stop. When I tried to tag it in Instagram the location marker came up as “shit town”!

Long days driving in the desert gives your mind ample time to wander. By the time we arrived in ‘Q’ (Quartzsite) on Thanksgiving, I had leapt from a friendly hello to visions of us all being invited in to someone’s camp for a massive feast. Turkey, pumpkin pie, bubbles, laughter…. yes I was well ready for all that.

Quartzsite – a winter home (Image courtesy of The Dyrt website)

No such luck. The mythical land of all things RV was like a barren wilderness – everything was closed up. The desert is a cruel mistress and without the colour and life of people the battered wooden-signs on the shops looked faded and cracked, the landscape looked dry and inhospitable and the crumbling old caravans were more ‘dilapidated shanty-town’ than ‘bohemian travel community’. We could see whole lines of white motorhomes parked in BLM land and on RV sites, their AstroTurf lawn carpets outside and Christmas decorations flapping in the dusty wind, but all the people were hidden inside. We had found the mega-nest of snowbirds!

Our hopes dashed we decided to motor on to Tucson. If we couldn’t find a community of family RV’ers, we could at least find the kind of civilisation we recognise – a cool city with bars and ice-creams and shops with artsy things.

Before we could hear the hum of life on the streets though we had to suffer the hum of the engine for miles and miles.

Somewhere over the rainbow, roads might bend. There’s a land that I’ve heard of, one that can find us friends (and hopefully some flipping sunshine!).

Nowhere does empty roads quite like the American desert. It was a long drive of nothingness; mile upon mile of scrubby land and windswept bits of tumbleweed. The bus is comfortable at max speed 55mph, so it is slow progress, and with no turnings and barely even a curve on the road, it’s a dull drive. Even our night stops were miserable – dusty, shrubby, BLM land where every rocky outcrop hid a nest of rattlesnakes (probably!) and running around is impossible because it’s inevitable you’ll impale yourself on a cactus.

Tucson – a necessary oasis

Attttttteeeeennnntion! The army of Saguaro welcomed us to Tucson.

Our fortunes changed as we drove into Gilbert Ray campground, about 20 minutes outside of Tucson near Saguaro National Park. The endless plains finally reached the mountains, which meant more greenery and life. The desert was now punctuated by an enormous army of saguaro cactus standing to attention. Tiny cactus wrens flew from spiky arm to spiky arm and hummingbirds fluttered at top speed, hovering to look at their reflections in the bus mirrors. Prickly pear, agave plants and creosote bushes (that actually do smell like creosote) covered the ground and, as the sun set orange on the mountains around Tucson, coyotes howled. We had to watch out for packrats and snakes but we could ignore those threats. After all, we were parked next to a family with three lovely kids. Yay!

We exercised our right to stay put and the boys had masses of fun with the lovely Cora, Grayson and Mara while we drank too much booze, ate too much food and laughed raucously with their parents.

How to find American full-time families

Familiarity – a mum with craft activities!

Our lovely neighbours were a full-time family, travelling in a very cool Airstream. They have been on the road for 2 years and were able to give us a great insight into where the mythical RV families are. It turns out they do exist and group together, just not necessarily on the kind of road trip we are on.

We joined them on a trip to the science centre in Tucson and bumped into another mom with two boys filling an afternoon while her husband was working. She recommended a raft of social media sites to sign up to. Occasionally they advertise a get-together week somewhere so everyone can hang out over pot-luck dinners, kids crafting and workshops. It sounded a bit too full-on. I just want the kids to run around with a football, I don’t want a bus full of moms swapping baking ideas (although I could probably use a workshop in that department!).

We may feel like we have endless time but the truth is we move on after a couple of days because we are on holiday in another country. ‘Full-time families’ are on a permanent journey in their home country. There is usually one parent working at the same time and they tend to stick around for longer in each destination, staying in towns so they can get involved in activities organised by local libraries or church groups. Apparently “organisation is key – it took us 9 months before we realised how to make the family thing work’. It takes effort and flexibility. It doesn’t always happen spontaneously.

Facebook post
It seems lots of full-time kids are on their own.

I signed onto some of those sites later that day. It was a familiar space. Just as the girls on my mum’s group use social media groups to get on top of stuff for school, share funny stories and stave off the insanity caused by having children, so do the full-time moms. There was a lot more #blessed, but they are American and so I can let them off. Interestingly though, tucked in betweenness the usual “self-congratulating” posts, cat pics and family-relevant memes, there seemed to be a fair few families talking about their lonely children. Everyone was supportive but the message was the same – libraries, church, stick around, go to Camp Whatever. Evidently it isn’t hard for kids that live on the road to make connections with kids their own age.

We had a lovely dinner with our neighbours. Although we don’t necessarily fit into the full-time American family flock either, for a few days we had created our own little ‘spontaneous fun’ flock and that seemed to work well for all of us.

Getting twitchy

Bright skies and luminescent cactus.

After weeks of barren desert, everything sandy yellow or spiky green, the landscape suddenly shifted into a state of colour, life and a touch of lawlessness. As we reached the Mexican and New Mexico border there were a few bodies of water – Patagonia Lakes and Whitewater Draw – a Mecca to migrating birdlife.

Whitewater Draw – a free spot to park (as long as you don’t mind sharing with millions of bickering cranes!)

Crested birds of different colours swooped above us; herons fished alongside our bus and owls called out at night. We got up at dawn to watch thousands of cranes take to the skies, squawking and croaking like a group of cranky pterodactyls.

Breaking bad over the border

We reached the Arizona/New Mexico border and crossed into our ninth U.S state.

It was time to head over the border and leave Arizona behind. We didn’t know what to expect, our knowledge of New Mexico was largely based on Breaking Bad. Surely that’s just T.V we told ourselves, but was it??? Of all the Snowbirds heading South, nobody had mentioned travelling to New Mexico for the winter. They are neighbours, their climate is the same, they look the same – so why not?

Whether it was our Heisenberg – fuelled imaginations, the border patrol cars, the police checkpoints or the backdrop of the Sierra Madre mountains – an area everyone knows is off-limits to anyone but the Cartel – we felt the change in State. Arizona’s neighbour was proving to be a whole lot edgier.

We stayed in Rock Hound State Park. It was beautiful but cold. The boys came back from their shower telling me “the cleaners were wearing orange and one of them had ‘committed murder’ on his top. They had a man with them with a gun”.

Hidden magic

New Mexico had some long, dull drives too – punctuated by some hilarious road signs. It’s a good job the roads are straight because you could easily get distracted by the random hits of information from enormous billboards.

Rather than head to places like Pistachio Land (although it sounded freaking amazing) we decided to search out more natural beauties.

The boys LOVED Kartchner Caverns and Carlsbad Caverns National Park. The formations and scale of the caves blew them away. The car park was less exciting for me but I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to being hundreds of metres underground.

The boys had discovered a love of caves in Arizona’s Kartchner Caverns so we took them to Carlsbad Caverns National Park. There are 119 caves at Carlsbad and you have to hike down 229m, via a one-mile underground path, to the start of them. The pinnacle is the eight-acre Big Room and the Bottomless Pit, which is 46.7m deep in itself. They said it was the best thing they had done in America. I was too scared to go in and just had a quiet cup of tea and the rest of the Christmas biscuits in the bus while Guy took the kids. I didn’t feel too bad about missing out – these days, alone time is pretty special. Carlsbad is up there for all of us!

Another surprise was White Sands – a newly formed National Park. The rolling dunes are pure white gypsum and just rise up out of the scrubby desert as if from nowhere.

One minute rocky, sandy yellow and then Maldives-beach white.

Gypsum is harder than regular sand, which makes it perfect for sledging. That’s the main thing people do here, so we joined in and hurled ourselves down the dunes. A storm was coming in and the dark skies against the white sand made it feel like we were on another planet.

The final hump

New Mexico seemed to be a mix between very flat plains and steep, severe mountains. The Sacramento Mountains were the perfect example of this – we drove across water-board flat land and wanted to follow a route through Cloudcroft to Carlsbad but it rose from 4300 ft at Almagordo to just shy of 9000 ft in 19 miles. No good for a Skoolie!

Quite by chance we stumbled across Oliver Lee State Park, right at the bottom of the cliffs. We hiked in the stunning Dog Canyon, hangout in the past for the Apaches. Ocotillo and Prickly Pear cactus, Agave and Cottonwood trees grew along the trickling canyon stream. In the distance we could see the glow of White Sands National Park.

Christmas and New Year with a difference

Our friends and family sent us some hilarious video messages – it made home feel a little bit closer for the kids.

The kids miss their friends but they also miss family and Christmas is their favourite time of year. Could it still be Christmas without our home and all those familiar faces though? We tried super-hard to make it memorable even though it was different. I’m pleased to say we totally succeeded.

It was a Christmas with some spectacular cooking failures – no change there!

We spent Christmas plugged into an RV park in Las Cruces – a quiet city that had all the things the boys (and we) wanted: swimming pool, second-hand bookshop, Mexican food, power for movies, a hot tub on-site and a cinema open on Christmas Day for the final Star Wars movie. We had a great time.

Luckily we found a campsite that accepted post for us – cue a load of literary presents!

New Year was the total opposite of our electrical Christmas – we stayed in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the New Mexico / Texas border. It was gorgeous but very quiet. Nobody celebrated the New Year except us. They probably all went to bed – we were surrounded by white trailers again, back with the sleepy Snowbirds en-route to Texas.

Seeing in the New Year and the start of a new State – Texas we are on our way!