Heading Home

It’s time. Time to head home, to face the late winter blasts and go from sunny, warm Southern California to unpredictable Michigan.

By the time I reach home base, it will have been five-plus months since first adopting Van Geist, my Solis Pocket camper van. It’s been a good, long trip wandering west, a place I did not get to travel to during my year in Tamesté, my Travato. And it’s been a chance to experience a variety of travel and camping options to see what works for me.

Looking back, it was a chance to experience staying put in one place for an extended time, that of spending three months at Imperial Dam LTVA (long-term visitor area), a BLM property highly popular with the snowbird RV travelers. In staying put so long, the dynamic and nuance of living out of the camper van became clear in part and parcel, and from the experience I’ve been able to better understand travel choices ahead in Van Geist.

On the good side of the list, the time here allowed me to complete the draft of my book, Modern Nomad: The Vanlife Alternative (working title). I expect (well, hope) to release it around May. The time also provided the chance to shift into everyday vanlife without the interruptions of gearing down to leave, and gearing up to make camp. There is a comfort, even in vanlife, of staying put for a while and settling into a pattern of living more like a physical home. Yet there is always the allure of travel and exploration, one of the many upsides of vanlife.

Here also, time on site gave me many opportunities to hike and ponder things immersed in the nature of the Southern California desert.

On the bad side of the list, there is the wind. And the dust. Always the dust. After three months, the dust has disturbed my health, but in a way I feel will improve once I head toward dustless travels and ones with humidity percentages greater than the 10% typically present here. I love the southwestern desert, the high Chihuahuan desert and all southwestern climes in between. But I now realize such visits, and there will be many more, need to be no more than short one- to three-week stays.

Some might say there’s too many solitary days camping in such a place as this LTVA for so long, but in reality, at least to me, such a solitude is a welcome companion in these times of continued Covid high-risk exposures. In the beginning of the pandemic, during the swell of first-time RV buyers, many called their new toys ”Covid escape vehicles.” I consider Van Geist my Covid safe-travel vehicle.

Now it’s time to pack up and make Van Geist ready for the 2,200 mile trip ahead, then point him in more or less a northeast direction. With weather’s cooperation, I’ll arrive safely around March 1. After a home base visit of a few months, for annual visits with healthcare providers, and some new, interesting mods to Van Geist, I’ll once again point him down the road and let him take me on new wanderings. Where and when are still evolving, but it will undoubtedly be yet another soul-satisfying and enlightening, embraced with the freedom of vanlife.

New Campsite, New Hike

Coming late to the party here at the BLM’s Imperial Dam LTVA (long-term visitor area) near Yuma, AZ, I had to take an available campsite from the handful remaining. But over the weeks, I kept my eye out for a better spot vacated by someone leaving early (season here ends April 15). Finally, patience paid off and got a spot I will stay at until I leave here in late February (my third campsite here). This one overlooks one of the deep, arroyo canyons with a nearly unimpeded view of the mountains beyond. Too bad photographs do not convey well what the human sees, relative to distance and perspective. In reality, these mountains are much taller and closer than the photo would suggest.

To commemorate catching a choice spot, I took a three-mile hike into and along the deep arroyo, a quiet, solitary hike providing continuing appreciation of this desert landscape. When I left the arroyo a few times to walk the level plain above, the landscape resembled a moon landscape more than Earthscape. Obvious that little water falls here, but equally obvious the plants and living creatures thriving here are amazing and have a beauty unique to them.

On this hike, as with many other hikes in the past, I came across a few small, hand-painted stones along the path. There must be a name for these, but since I do not know what, I coined a name for them: smile markers. If you know the name and the premise behind them, please add a comment and let me know. Whenever I come across them, whether on a nature hike or walking in a city or town, they make me smile and appreciate both the artistry and the selfless giving of something handmade to the wild and to the passing hiker.

Hermitage On Wheels

Ostensibly, I hit the road back in September to travel west, immerse in nature, and spend quiet days on writing projects. It was not until recently that I finally realized why I needed to travel: to experience an extended contactless personal retreat.

I have long desired to spend time on personal retreats, whether to an isolated cabin in the woods, or some stone-walled monastery inhabited by faithful monks seeking silence and contemplation. There are places such as monasteries, abbeys, and other spiritual retreats, where one can experience such times for a fee. But that was before Covid times and now such an endeavor is probably not a good idea. And to be clear, my contemplative reasons are not religious in nature, as would be monks around me or the influence of a monastery.

I have spent almost a month at this long-term visitor area inside an expansive BLM property on the far southeastern border of California near Yuma, AZ. Until last week, when I decided not to attend a van meet up at Quartzite from a concern for socializing with others at a time when Covid contagion is once again a high risk, I finally realized the other unknown reason I wanted to stay where I was: this semi-isolated desert place pulled me here for the solitude and sameness of days, two important ingredients for any retreat.

While, unlike hermits of early Europe who shunned society to live in stone huts void of any civilized trappings, and eating barely subsistence foods, I live in this steel cave with windows, this ”hermitage” through which I can enjoy and be inspired by the beauty of desert sunrises, and the calming effect of multi-colored surrounding hills and mountains throughout the sun’s arcing path across the desert winter’s sky. I make no apologies for eating well as opposed to the ancient hermits, nor for the breaks I take some nights to binge Netflix. My interpreted hermitage is about an open environment to spend time in contemplative and creative pursuits, but not in perpetual suffering in search of being worthy as did the hermits. I am, in my mind, feeding my practice of becoming a more effective solitary for my improvement.

Plans now are to live for the remaining two months here in my winter hermitage, spending time in quiet walks, deeper reading, even deeper journaling, and a renewed focus to complete several open writing projects. I am not completely without contact, since at least once a week I have to journey to Yuma to replenish supplies, and there is the weekly small talk at the RV dump and water stations here plus with volunteers at the service center where I get packages and propane when needed. But mostly, it is a solitary experience, and that is my need for now.

Even today in an expanded, though at times inconsistent, acceptance of behavior, many people still perceive someone walking alone, reading alone, spending a lot of time alone as lonely, or at least deficient without a partner or constantly in the company of many. The media and others would label such people as “singles,” as though the only measure of reference is “opposite of married.” Historically, some of our best creatives have been what is now coined as a more apt phrase—solitaries—for those who enjoy their own company more than that of others, such as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and the artist Cezanne. The famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton first coined “solitaries” to be a word independent of gender and without the burden of societal’s increased value for those married.

What many do not understand is that living alone or enjoying time alone is not a habit nor a “what else can I do?” predicament. A habit is a way of living, followed because you did it yesterday and the day before and so on, and is a way of being that controls you and your actions. A practice is a way of living that you create and renew each day, one that you control deliberately, and that is open to possibilities unknown. That is why such things as yoga and meditation practices and not habits, because each time they take us further, not just repeat what we did last time. Being a solitary is a lifestyle innate from within, not a choice or the best of one’s options, but deliberate and in one’s truest nature, one more open to intellectual and creative growth than any habit-driven existence.

In the silence of my solitary walks I hear the voices of the trees. I hear them singing of a solitude that admits no loneliness.

Fenton Johnson, ”At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life”

Desert Retreat

Being someone who enjoys his own company and likes to contemplate on things, spending quiet time in thought and mediation, the idea of a formal retreat appeals to me. While I have yet to do a formal monastery retreat, that is still on my bucket list.

Given the pandemic situation, now is not the best time for such a structured effort, but certainly is a great time to do a self-imposed desert retreat. That is essentially what I began on December 5 here in extreme southeast California, so close to Yuma and Mexico I could almost ride a bike there. I am at the Imperial Dam LTVA, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Long-Term Visitor Area (LTVA), until late February when I begin the arduous task of a beeline five-day drive back to Ann Arbor. For two weeks before the 5th I bought my long-term permit ($180 lets you stay from September 15 to April 15 each year) and bounced around various LTVAs in the region until I discovered the Imperial Dam LTVA. Here I have all the right supports and resources in place or nearby, from the landscape, to services (showers, water, dump, trash, mail/package service, propane, etc.), and a thirty-minute drive to Yuma, a good-sized city for groceries, laundry, etc.

I am isolated here, visually seeing other RVs but none closer than several hundred feet. My days are my own to control, and other than the infrequent chore days for refilling water, dumping waste, or driving into Yuma the van does not move and I fill my days with quiet thinking time, journaling, meditating, yoga, walking, reading, writing, etc. All that is missing to make this spot seem monastic is the chanting of monks (but I have an iPhone playlist for those if I wish).

The weather is ultra-cooperative, with nearly every day sunny in the high 60s or low 70s, with nights falling into the 40s. And dry with low humidity, so much that my hair has never been this straight for this many days in a row in recent or even distant memory! Helpful, since I am still sporting a pandemic hair style (translation: have not cut my hair in nearly a year).

Such an environment and freedom of external tasks and forces also allows for undisturbed writing time. I would love to say I have never been so productive with writing before, but that would be a little fib. Well, a big one actually. Writing projects lay orphaned, yet expectations and sheer hope remain that I will kick-start into those any day now! Not going to beat myself up about that, since I spend the days in present-mindedness and pursuing these nourishing self-care routines.

Still, I get to enjoy relaxed and unpressured days until I point VanGeist (my camper van) roughly northeast toward Michigan to begin the long pounding of interstate roads to get home between weather events. Should be fun. For now, though, all focus is on the now, on this opportunity for a desert retreat and the soul-sustaining energy that brings.

Lessons In The Sand

Does not look like it, but left hole is 18″ deep, and the right one about 12″ deep.

In my youth, I would often deny accountability or blame other factors when something went wrong. Not always, but typically unless it was too obvious to deny!

I took this photo shortly after getting towed out of being stuck, deeply enough that the bottom of the engine touched the ground. Despite efforts to dig out, layering rocks under the tires, and try my recovery boards for traction, I kept going deeper. Luckily, a good samaritan Canadian RVer camped next to me has a big pickup and carries tow chains and straps. He got me out of this jam in a matter of seconds.

But the story does not end there. Because, as hinted, above, there was no blame avoidance: just gratitude for getting stuck where there was help and remorse over not getting out of the van once I felt the front tires digging down instead of continuing to power-out of the dilemma. And yet, the positive upside is I am now more aware of my van’s limitations, whereas before this I was getting a little too cocky about where I could take VanGeist without a problem. But this was also my first long-term time in sandy areas, and sand is its own sneaky beast that eats vehicles. A front-wheel-drive, 7,200 pound vehicle is not a four-wheel-drive jeep (although I have gotten stuck in those in my youth, too, but are far easier to unstuck).

I spent the rest of the day thinking about what I could have, should have done differently, and by the end of the day appreciated the ”safe” lesson learned and now possessing new knowledge that could come in handy down the road (or, off the road more likely). Yes, it bothered me at first, but not until after getting free. During the time I worked at getting out via powering the wheels and the time spent digging and under-rocking and trying the recovery boards, I was calm and analytical about solving the problem. It reached the point where I realized there was nothing else I could do, so put out the call for the calvary to arrive and save the day.

I love where I am staying, feeling much like a retreat with a lot of introvert time, but this was a life lesson in sometimes we all need help. Self-reliance is fine much of the time, but there are those other times where one’s own effort and abilities are not enough. Will it change where I take the van? Probably not, but it will change HOW I take the van places and gave me better insights on how to see the terrain ahead. Also reinforced that the correct step is STOP on first evidence of an issue (e.g., when I first felt the tires digging down), get out, and assess the situation. Wait to take any action until remembering all you know about remedies for the situation. Here I completely forgot about the airing down tires trick to get out of loose sand. Might have worked, especially if I did that when the front tires were just 3-4″ in the sand.

I did laugh out loud later when out of the blue one of my favorite Tolkien quotes came to mind: ”All who wander are not lost.” Yea, I thought, but some who wander may simply be stuck!