the (often) meandering travels of a student anthropologist
The time passes quickly in Ehrenberg. The group I camp with is fluid. People come and go. I make new friends, and far from being dull in the desert, the days seem too short.
There are potlucks, campfires, and always a project, whether making improvements to our wheeled homes–or fixing something that has broken.
Once a week I spend a full day packing up, driving the four miles out of the desert along washboard roads to Ehrenberg. There I do laundry, dump my tanks, refill my fresh water, check my mail and take a shower. Then, I trundle across the Colorado river and California state line to Blythe for shopping–grocery stores, Dollar Tree and the Ace. Another day of the week always seems to be dedicated to cleaning. The dirt, sand, and flies are everywhere. It's a constant losing battle. I will wipe down the table and five minutes later as I shift my laptop, it crunches across the surface again.
Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allows camping for 14 days. In Ehrenberg, however, it has traditionally not been enforced. There are overlapping governmental agencies as much of the land is also state land. Short on staff, it's been a no mans land for years, and so the nomads gather there for much of the winter without fear of being harassed or told to move on.
Until this year. A sheriff's SUV pulls in first, fast, and turns around in the middle of our camp. The windows are tinted. It spins back out, the sheriff seemingly mindless of the sand that is kicked up. Next, a ranger's SUV pulls in. I see it slow by my rig so I step to the door only to see a hand raised to take a photo, before this vehicle, too, shoots on down to the dead end where a few more of us are camped. They talk to someone down there and leave again as fast as they came in.
Soon, the word spreads, a sandstorm of both rumor and fact.
A new thread is started on the CheapRVLiving.com forum. A group closer to the entrance did manage to pin the sheriff down, and has been told that they are now enforcing the 14-day limit. Leave before January 2nd, or risk fines. This was not communicated to our group–the ranger only wanted to ensure no one was parking on the road, they said. In light of this, now the photos make sense.
Debate as to why the sudden change in policy enforcement rages–too many people know about this place–it's been too publicized by the 'celebrity' YouTubers, or we are being blamed for trash left by previous campers, or it's new federal policy across all the states, or the ATVers we share this space with (at cross purposes) have complained...
I only know that I feel uncomfortable. Even though our group has been a good group, quiet, keeping our pets leashed and mindful stewards of our area–cleaning and clearing the firepits of glass shards and metal, one even hauling out an old car door, shot full of holes–we have exceeded the time allowed and well, rules are rules. We all knew them going in. So why do I feel harassed? As I ponder it, I recognize that it was the way it was handled that felt intimidating. It was as if law enforcement were sneaking their photos, and hoping to catch people by surprise when 14 days were up so they could hand out tickets. They have created an us against them mindset, even though, in theory, this is 'our' land.
After Christmas the group breaks up.
In order to attend the RTR, also on BLM land, we all need to be over 25 miles away for the next two weeks. Some head towards Phoenix, some north to Lake Havasu and Parker, and others check into the Long Term Visitor Areas where they can purchase a permit to stay two weeks for $40, or for the entire season, six months for $180. Same desert, but controlled, gated, and with varied amenities such as trash cans, dump and water stations.
I join Dave, who installed my roof solar panels, and head down to Yuma and meet up with another couple. We all want to try 'medical tourism' and go across the border into Los Algodones, Mexico–a haven for snowbirds looking for cheap prescription drugs, dental work, and to buy eyeglasses.
Our first stop is Fortuna Pond just north of Yuma.
This is a little oasis in the middle of agricultural fields accessed by another washboard dirt road, this one perched high atop steep sided levees.
We only stay one night, however. The side of the pond that gets the low winter sun across the southern sky is full. For that one night, however, it is blissful to watch the ducks and listen to the wind rustle through the reeds. Freyja is in heaven and it isn't long before she's in the water and I am bemoaning the subsequent mud I can't get cleaned off.
It is with some regret we leave, but it was also a noisy night. New Years is coming and lots of folks are celebrating early. Crop dusting planes regularly fly over and a train track is nearby. A parade of ATVs go by. I expect at other times it is more peaceful.
During New Years, and the following week, we stay outside of the Pilot Knob LTVA in two small designated free BLM areas. Prior to our stay I've researched online, and the pictures do not look inviting. It looks desolate.
And, it is–the scrub in the washes is lower than it was in Ehrenberg, the land flatter. To the south the border fence is a black snake across the hills, alleviated only by a gestapo'esque tower. It was erected six years after the Berlin Wall fell in an attempt to curb the burgeoning illegal drug trade, which some belive to be a unforeseen consequence of America's War on Drugs. To the north, power lines run along the dirt road we are parked near, then more desert, some desolate buildings, I-80 beyond that, and finally, a train track just past what I notice one morning seems to be an endless stream of RVs. In the distance the Center of the World Chapel perches on a hill. To the west are sand dunes and to the east is Pilot Knob. We choose this area because it is the closest place to the border, other than the Quechan Casino Resort, to boondock. It is busy there, and noisy, and the couple we meet found it less than ideal for their young lab, who issues greetings to every other dog he encounters in reverberating howls.
Surprisingly, despite this having all the hallmarks of an undesirable place to camp, for the first time in months, I relax. I find myself sitting in my camp chair for hours. Sometimes I chat with my traveling companions, and other times I do nothing more than watch the ever-changing skies above. I soon come to think this is what it would be like if only we could live on the ocean floor; the Ocotillo scattered across the inhospitable rock, and rustling in the wind currents, under an endless abalone sky.
I hang the hummingbird feeder, and make it a priority to watch each sunrise and sunset.
Once I walk out into the desert. There are endless fields of small rocks among the sandy washes, some a quarter mile long and broad, unburdened by scrub. As I examine the aronwa I find they are of all types and all colors. I am still surprised by texture and variety this arid land has to offer the senses. It is hypnotizing to walk into the desert, and it's easy to let my feet stray farther on this flat landscape. I watch for snakes. I am happy not to find any.
Freyja, however, is not as enchanted with the desert as I am. As I discovered in Ehrenberg, without trees and water to interest her, she never wants to leave camp. She looks at me as I try to entice her beyond the 25 foot perimeter she appears to have set as the boundary line. Why would you want to go out there? Back here is more interesting. There is food here, and other dogs. There's nothing out there but dirt. Trust me, mom, I know.
I have learned not to argue and sink back into my camp chair while she stretches out and rolls, belly up to the sun.
Short 180-degree sweep of the first of the two BLM areas, where we camped near Pilot Knob LTVA. RVs line themselves up around the edges, designated by signs. My traveling companion's solar panels hook directly into his system with long cords which serve well when camping in forested areas in the summer heat–he can park the rig to take advantage of the shade but still have his panels out in the sun.
Roxy, a delightful lady, who often joined our group in Ehrenberg, for potlucks and campfires, posted this video about her stay at Fortuna Pond. In addition to offering video footage of the area, a specific incident she relates, her reaction, and her subsequent thoughts, offers what could be considered a uniquely gendered perspective from the nomadic experience.