Uh oh. We are liking this Christmas in the desert thing quite a lot. So, it seems, are the offspring. This may become a new tradition. In all of these campgrounds, and during all of our desert hikes, we are cognizant of how horrible it could all be in the summer heat. We are being careful about freezing temperatures overnight, but winter hikes make all the difference in terms of enjoyment.
We left Red Rock and made a stop at the Barstow Home Depot. You gotta love Barstow for being an oasis of services conveniently located in the middle of a huge expanse of nothing. Our goal was to pick up pipe insulation and zip ties because we didn’t get to that project before we left. So, on Christmas Eve Day, we found ourselves in the plumbing aisle, looking up files and posts in the Altoistes group about what size we’d need if we wanted to protect the water pipes against freezing. Every winter, there are dozens of posts about this, as people who live in other areas have to winterize their trailers. I brazenly ignore all of them. I understand the concept, but that’s about it. Thank God for the Facebook search feature and for Altoistes who are willing to talk to us even when we’re being obnoxious. Really, we were just looking for overnight low protection and figured we could dump the fresh water if need be by leaving the outside drain valve open. In any case, we left Barstow with a full gas tank and a couple lengths of insulation in the car.
The Hole in the Wall Campground is first come, first served and is accessible only from the south, off of Interstate 40. There are long stretches with no services, so do be careful out there, people. Filling up in Barstow left us with just over a half a tank of gas by the time we arrived, but there is one other gas station slightly closer, plus it’ll be mostly downhill when we leave, so I think we’ll be ok. On December 24th, the campground had people, but there were still multiple sites available. We even got to choose between a couple of really nice ones. Again, the desert landscape is just gorgeous, and again, we were overwhelmed by the nighttime starry sky.
Our Christmas Eve dinner was a new Omnia experiment and it’ll surely be a repeat. I used packaged crescent roll dough, put in a piece of ham, some shredded Swiss cheese, chopped olives, and some tiny asparagus spears for a nice little roll up. Pro tip: wait for the steam. Always. Just wait for it. Using the rack kept the dough from getting over done on the bottoms. After the 3-minute base only, then 1-minute oven on flame high, warm up period, I lowered the flame and set the timer for 14 minutes because that’s what it said on the package. It was at least five additional minutes, maybe ten, after the timer dinged before we saw steam. We doubted a lot of that wait time, but were rewarded with a perfectly cooked dinner. This is also a pretty low clean up meal, which was great because we also did Omnia Cinnamon Rolls for Xmas breakfast. Once more: steam = perfectly cooked.
Christmas Day brought us the gift of a friend, but a bit of dehydration for me. It’s easy to lose track of drinking water when it’s cold, but the air is very dry, and the wind and heater blowing on me all the time really will deplete a body’s moisture. Also it doesn’t help if you sip wine all evening and don’t alternate that with water. Richard went and checked out some of the shorter hikes, but I opted to replenish and do some thank you cards. Linda the full timing Altoiste pulled into the campground in the afternoon and got set up in the site right next to us. For dinner: another Omnia experiment with an adorable tiny ham, green beans, and fingerling potatoes. We just placed everything inside and cooked for 30 minutes, since we couldn’t really rely on steam. At that amount of time, everything was reheated and cooked nicely except the potatoes. We just cooked them another 5-10 minutes and they were done, but in the future, I think I’d cut them up smaller. It was lovely to entertain for Xmas in Dory!
We tackled one of the longer hikes on Wednesday, taking the Barker Peak Loop Trail about 6 miles total. This is a well signed trail and the only tricky spot was finding the gap in a barbed wire fence, because it was hard to see. The geology is pretty diverse, with sudden protrusions of white rock making Flinstones-like neighborhoods on the side of the mountain. Much of the rock is volcanic and the holes were apparently formed by pockets of trapped gas, covered by ash and then buried. There was also a surprising section with shimmering Opalite stones covering a small area of hillside. The hike down the western side of the loop took us through what looked like a professionally designed cactus garden. From there, it was a scenic and gentle descent through a valley and up to the decision point for whether to take the “Rings Trail” or go another mile around the base of the mountain back to the Visitor Center. Richard had tried it and gave me good beta. The two important pieces of information were: it’s easier than the ladder of the Notch Trail, and you only have to go up, never down. So I went for it and I concur that it was not scary because you are kind of wedged in the rocks and the rings make solid hand holds. The only trouble was one place where it was a serious stretch to reach the next ring and this apparently is a common complaint amongst the vertically challenged. But I made it! And did not have to go down.
Linda got to be hostess that night and treated us to pure comfort food with turkey, potato salad and barbecue baked beans. She has done an amazing job organizing her Alto and her interior looks completely different from Dory. She’s got the 1713, which is the retractable roof model without the shower. It makes a huge difference in terms of spaciousness inside and we were quite comfortable having three of us around the table in the bedroom area. She also has the BFW rather than the storage cabinets at the front, and that also adds to the open feel. It’s amazing how much you can talk about trailers. I think we got in some other topics though too.
The south side of Mojave is really quite remote and anything town-like is at least 60 miles away. We needed to replenish some groceries and we also wanted to fill up the gas tank, so we spent the day Thursday going to Needles. There is a high priced gas station 7 miles down I-40, but it doesn’t have 91-grade gas and is priced for the desperate. We weren’t quite there, so we kept going. Needles lies in a wide valley with several other little towns. There is full shopping to be found if you’re willing to drive. We opted for the dependability of Walmart, just across the state line (Colorado River) in Arizona, and got groceries as well as other odds and ends. Then back to Dory for some generator time before quiet hours.
Friday we did a few housekeeping projects before gaining another Altoiste in the campground. We’d been keeping a close eye on nighttime temperatures and decided to go ahead and insulate the drainpipes. The process was straightforward, but logistically challenging. First off, it’s pretty tight lying under the trailer and I was conscious of how much I was relying on the sturdiness of the leveling blocks and chocks to keep me from getting squished. It was also really tricky to shove the insulating material over and behind the axles and wiring harnesses. One of them came out pretty good, but the other I couldn’t cover fully without interfering with the caravan mover housing. So I just did part of it. I also could not get to the pipes that go from side to side under the trailer because they seem to be hidden in R-series trailers, either under the holding tanks, or inside the axle cover. In the end, I think what I got to is pretty secure and good insurance for surprise overnight lows, but when we know it’s going to go below 32, we’ll do what we did: turn off the pump, open the drain valve, and leave open interior faucets. It seems to have worked but we might have been ok doing nothing. Better safe.
The other project of the day was to dump the grey tank using portable grey tank #3. We officially approve of this one. There was no spillage dumping from Dory and we were able to tow the thing all the way on a rocky, unpaved road to the dump station. The lower location of the outgoing dump valve makes for an easy operation and good rinsing. I recommend getting a dry sack to carry the two dump hoses after they’ve been rinsed, just to have somewhere to put them. Thumbs up on the Barker.
That night, the second Linda arrived and we got to hang out and celebrate an early Happy New Year together. That put three different models of Alto in the campground, with the 2114 being the clear winner in terms of space. It was comfortable for the four of us to gather around her front dining table while her three dogs sprawled out on the rear king size bed. She kept the heat nice and balmy, helping take off the chill from the freezing winds outside.
Saturday we all decided to go for a road tour (and propane run) in the heated cars. We took Bruce, while the Lindas went together in the dog-runner truck. Mojave is a huge park, so just driving from one side to the other will push close to 100 miles. It’s 20 miles just to get from the campground to I-40, then another 20 to get to Kelbaker Road, which runs North-South through the middle of the preserve. Along the way, we stopped at the Kelso Dunes, so now I’ve seen in person the desktop image for Apple’s Mojave operating system. There you go. There is also a Visitor Center not too far away at Kelso Station, but it was closed due to the government shut down, leaving a long desperate line of people waiting for the two-stall bathroom outside. Richard does so enjoy visitor centers, so it was too bad to miss the standard informational movie. The rest of the drive up to Baker, CA took us past cinder cones and Joshua Trees where we’d occasionally stop to snap some photos. We all wound up at the propane filling place so we could be assured of lasting another couple of cold nights, then we all filled gas to ensure we’d make it back and be able to tow ourselves outta there. Distances between services are quite far in the desert.
Sunday was our final day in Mojave and since the cold and windy weather had eased up, Richard got out for a bike ride. I met him up at the CA State Park, situated at the tippy top of an impressive climb. Here is where you can book tours for the Mitchell Caverns and we were lucky to get two spots for the second (and last) tour of the day. I think this is the third cave system we’ve been to now, and we do enjoy them. I am getting to know the terms: speleothem, shield formation, and soda straw. The interior of the cave system maintains a consistent 65 degrees and represented a nice warm shelter from the cold winds.
Following a night of early Happy New Year toasting and giggles, we all woke to a snowstorm. Well, ok, maybe storm isn’t quite the word. But it was legit snowing. I mean, it was frozen water that came out of the sky. Flurries were gathering on the ground. Well, maybe not flurries so much as dozens of unmelted particles, visible for a short time on the step. Listen, we were impressed.
And that’s a wrap for our weeklong desert adventure in the middle of a government shut down. What is sad is that other national parks did not fare as well. This one, because it is well off the beaten path, seems to attract normal nature-y people who are tame and do kind things like restock the bathrooms with toilet paper. Joshua Tree was the subject of multiple news stories, citing general bad behavior and disgusting conditions with trash and human waste. We had already decided to bail before we got the official email saying all campground reservations were being cancelled. Eventually they fully closed the park and I approve. Those who flocked to the national parks simply to avoid paying the entrance fees are not the kind who appear to value national parks. Nor are they folks who do “honor system” very well when it comes to unregulated reservations. These are not our people and we were glad to avoid that whole scene. I’m sad for the damage done to those beautiful places and once again not very proud of my species as a whole. On the other hand, it is inspiring to hear about those who volunteered their time cleaning, re-stocking, and trying to protect the natural beauty of the parks. They are heroes. We are donating the unused cost of our reservations to the Friends of Joshua Tree Society.
Total miles from Red Rock: 217.2, 16.3 mpg, 4 hours 16 min. Site 21. No hookups, vault toilets, potable water at the dump and at some spigots. Sometimes LTE for both of us, sometimes no service. Nice bathrooms at the Mitchell Caverns State Park, but no showers anywhere.