The sun had reached it's zenith, casting a warm glow over the vast desert landscape as I embarked on an unplanned New Year's Eve adventure that would eventually lead me to bustling Quartzsite, AZ, surrounded by a million other nomads. But first, let me regale you with tales of the sand trap story...
It all began once I left my daughter Aroon and her Fiance Aleem in chilly Reno, after a fun filled Christmas together. On December 26th I headed South quickly, as always, chasing that fireball in the sky. I knew I wanted to settle somewhere for a week or two and get some fresh art created for the New Year. I decided upon one of my favorite camping spots, BLM land on the South side of Joshua Tree National Park. I've been there a couple of times and relish soaking in the winter sun, imbued with the beauty of the vibrant sunsets that colorize the desert mountains in rich hues of pinks and golden yellow, and a road to ride my bike just steps away.
I've always found peace and quiet here, even with other nomads camped within viewing distance, but still far enough away that we all live in our own tiny nomadic bubble of peaceful solitude. I, however, was in for a rude awakening this time! Alas, I arrived mid day only to realize that my spot tucked further away from the rest of the masses had been discovered. I was understandably a little perturbed, haha, but it IS public land after all, and can't be too upset that someone else found the best spot, in my opinion, to park up for a couple weeks. The limit for most BLM (Bureau of Land Management) dispersed camping sites is 14 days in a 28 day window. So, I trudged along on the teeth jarring washboard road that took me further and further from the paved road, my only place to ride my trusty steed, aka my road bike. I figured I would have to do some hike a biking along with a bit of riding on the dirt road to get back to the paved road to ride, not ideal, but it was doable. I continued to drive further and further away from the crowds, until I spotted a new perfect home site! It was tucked just a little off the road, far enough I could let Mikee (my cat companion) out, supervised, and not worry about her going into the road, although it didn't seem there was much traffic this far down. There was an abundance of trees and Ocotillo bushes peppering the sandy landscape, with towering piles of richly colored red rocks casting a shadow against the Joshua Tree mountains. And even a little solar powered light to brighten the shortened days, left behind by the last adventurer to this serene little piece of land us nomads are blessed to call "home".
Before I pulled into my newfound camping site, I climbed out of my van and gingerly tested the sandy spots to make sure I wouldn't get my 7,000lb home buried up to it's kneecaps. I knew there had recently been a rainstorm that dumped record amounts of rain and caused flooding throughout the region, along with the after effects of flooding from hurricane Hilary earlier in the summer. These kinds of rainfalls can cause the earth to literally move in the thirsty desert as the sand instantly transforms from dry and dusty to raging rivers where there had previously been none. And a lot of the dispersed camping sites are near washes, which I've since learned to identify and avoid at all costs. There were some questionable spots of loose, crumbling sand, but I trepidly found my way to a safe, level spot to set up home, and the relief settled in that I could now relax and enjoy working out of my mobile studio in a beautiful, serene setting for the near future. I peacefully went to sleep that evening, underneath a sky full of twinkling lights, excited to wake up and get to work on new artistic creations.
Well...the locals had other plans for me, haha! The next morning I was suddenly jolted from a peaceful, solid state of sleep, much needed after two days of driving, to the sound of Mad Max warriors right outside my van. Both Mikee and I jumped out of our skin, shocked out of our dream slumber to the sound of SxS's and dirt bikes churning up the dirt outside. I quickly peered through my covered windows to see billows of sand stirred up by riders in all directions as they took off down the various dirt roads surrounding me. The raging noise of their engines and blaring music slowly faded as they tore off into the distance. I shrugged it off and started the day with my ritual of coffee and computer work, while Mikee cuddled under the blankets, soaking up every last bit of warmth they provided. When all of a sudden, they were back, or rather a new bunch of rowdy riders tearing up the land! The noisy desert beasts were once again piercing the desert silence with their screaming machines and vociferous howls of unbridled joy by the riders. I simply laughed it off, assuming it was just another group enjoying the holiday break doing what they love. I had never experienced more than a handful of "bikers" spaced out over many days while staying at Joshua Tree, so I thought nothing more of it, and expected to see, or hear, very little of them over the next two weeks. Welp, I was wrong! Over the span of the next several days they were a constant presence all throughout the day and even into the dark of the evening hours. The jarring sounds were enough to bother me, but more importantly Mikee was terrified and would seek a hiding space every time the noise started up again. It was just not an ideal situation for either of us, so I sadly decided on New Years Eve to pack it up and head to another favorite spot not far away, hoping to find some solace and peace for Mikee and I.
I carefully manuevered my home through the slippry sand and made it back onto the open road middle of the day, knowing my other spot was roughly an hour away. The dispersed camping site I was headed to I had found on the Ioverlander app a couple of years ago, and it's one of my go to sites for finding solitude and the perfect place to ride my bike. It's tucked back off a lonely, desolate road in the middle of the desert, so, next to no traffic, the ideal place to ride my bike. I was jonesing to ride as I hadn't been anywhere to touch rubber to road in weeks, and I live for riding my bike!
I stopped to grab a few needed supplies at a small town on the way, along with topping off my water supply, so I knew I could comfortably last a two week stretch without having to fill up. And then back on the road. I pulled off the highway onto the deserted road and drove the six miles to my camping spot, without another soul in sight. As I neared the spot I noticed a tall flag waving gently in the wind, and realized, yet again, my little known haven was occupied. I quickly took stock to see if it looked like they had been there awhile, or might be leaving soon, but it was too hard to tell. They had a large trailer, a truck, and a SxS parked outside. I decided to keep working my way down the 18 mile road to find a new place. I had, once before, parked at another location off this road, but talk about loose sand to get stuck in, this was it! That camping spot was the closest I had ever come to getting stuck in the sand in my two years of van life, and I knew with the recent rains it was not an option. My van has basic tires, and is only rear wheel drive, so getting into a sticky situation of any kind will never be good. I drove along, surveying the landscape on both sides, looking for a spot to park that wouldn't get me into any trouble with the sand. I spotted what looked to be a large gravel road with a good open spot further down to set up camp. I put the van in park and got out to survey the shoulder going onto the gravel road. I walked it, stamped it, moved the top cover of sand around and it felt super solid. And, just to be sure the whole path back to the camping spot was safe as well, I walked it too. Feeling pretty confident that I would make it to the camping spot, I got in the van, backed it up to give me a decent amount of power to get over the tiny little ridge of rock hard sand between the shoulder and the gravel area, I gave it some gas - welllll...
Uh-Oh...that sinking, literal, feeling of my tires not budging and digging into the deep, freshly moved sand - happened. I quickly stopped any attempts at forward momentum and got out to survey the damage. Underneath that deceptively hard packed sand, was the bane of any vanlifers existence...sugar sand. I dug out the dirt around the wheels and placed some wood in front of the tires, hoping this handy trick would get me out, but alas, the tires dug even more firmly and deeply into the unforgiving depths of the sinking sand. Thus, it all began, and I found myself stuck in the sandy clutches of the California desert. Slight panic set in, but with a deep breath, I realized my only option was to hop on my bike and pedal my way to salvation, hoping the camper in my old spot was the good Samaritan I desperately needed. I first thought, however, to check with any nearby tow trucks to winch me out, and discovered the nearest one was 20 miles away with a hefty price tag of $600...for a winchout! I used to have AAA, but on a $300 tow (destroyed tire, story for another day) AAA only covered $30 of it, so no point in that service. I decided the bike ride was well worth the ride to see if the other camper was able to help, besides I had wanted to ride my bike for awhile now, so win-win, haha!
Five miles later, as the stars began their dusky twinkle in the desert sky, I approached the would be good Samaritan I was hopeful would rescue me from my sandy predicament. Grateful and relieved there was someone nearby to even ask for help, I couldn't help but marvel at the serendipity of the situation, and beyond thankful for the kindness of strangers. I slowly walked up to the campground with no one in sight, loudly announcing myself and calling out if anyone was home. It took a couple of hollers when suddenly a man appeared from behind the tall, jacked up 4x4 250 Ford truck (I'm a Ford fan, haha, why I drive a Ford Transit van!) He was clearly taken aback at the sight of a woman in a bright pink helmet and sparkly aqua bike standing before him in this desolate part of the desert. I quickly introduced myself and the situation I had gotten myself into. He seemed hesitant at first, as he pondered whether he would have the equipment to get my tiny home unstuck from the greedy grasp of the sandy desert. He dug around in his toolbox, looking for a strap that would handle the weight of my van as we chatted about camping, our lifestyles (he's a weekend nomad warrior, and police officer) and how to get me unstuck. I always follow my gut and intuition and thankfully I didn't get any scary or unsafe vibes from Chris, and I also was in constant contact at the time with Aroon (my daughter) so she knew where I was and what was happening. As a solo female traveler, safety is one of my top priorities, so I'm always vigilant at anything and anyone around that could pose a danger - Chris was not. Chris was my sandy salvation and I will forever be indebted and grateful for his willingness to help me out.
He finally found the only tow strap in his arsenal of tools, and even though it wasn't rated for the weight of my van he was happy to give it a shot. I was just happy he was even willing to try! So, we loaded my bike in the back of his truck and took the short trip up the road to survey my sad, tiny home buried up to it's waist in sticky, soul sucking sand. Even he was worried about his own safety, and politely asked me to open the back doors to make sure I wasn't harboring anyone who might harm him. I happily obliged so as to set his mind at ease and let him know the only occupants were my cat Mikee and the little chipmunk that had decided it wanted to hitch a ride from my earlier campsite. Luckily the little wire chewing monster wanted to have nothing to do with this sandy predicament and was never seen, or heard from again, thank goodness! A bonus to getting stuck, as they are hard to get rid of.
Chris kneeled down in the sand, taking stock of how deeply embedded in the sand my tires were and looked for a spot to attach the tow strap. I don't have any towing equipment on my van, or even a tow strap (getting one asap!), so he decided to attach the strap to a portion of the frame. I popped the van into neutral, put Mikee in her carrier and placed her outside a safe distance from the van. I knew she would freak out, and/or accidentally step on the door locks and lock me out, one of my van cat fears, haha, which is why I NEVER leave my keys inside while I'm out. I also moved back a safe distance from the van, and strap, watching to see if anything damaging might occur to the van, and put a quick stop to the tow if needed. Before putting his truck into gear, and making the first attempt, Chris yelled out a disclaimer "just a friendly warning that anything can go wrong and damage can occur to your van pulling it out like this, so be prepared for that possibility!" I gave him a half-hearted wincing smile, shrugged and yelled back "go for it!" The strap was strung under the back of the van, through a tear in the bumper that was already damaged, bought it that way and will replace one day, and strapped off to the hitch of Chris' truck. He put the truck into gear and revved it up. There wasn't even a smidgeon of movement on the van's part, and suddenly Chris' tires were spinning and not going anywhere. He quickly backed off the rescue mission, and we exchanged looks of trepidation that this might not actually work. He climbed out of the truck, not saying a word and looked over everything again, double checking the sturdiness of the strap and tie off location on the van. I silently looked on, knowing I may very well have to bite the bullet and pay that $600 winch out, ugh. Chris got back into his truck and geared it up, and again, no budging on the vans part, but this time his wheels weren't spinning, and then all of a sudden, boom, it came loose! I shrieked in absolute joy and screamed, "keep going, keep going"! And he miraculously pulled my beastly home straight out of the sand and onto the pavement; I've never been so happy over concrete/asphalt in my life, I didn't even know that was a thing, haha! The relief that washed over me was exhausting and exhilirating at the same time, whew, got to save that $600 for another rainy, or rather, sandy day. But, no, actually I'm sooooo paranoid about sand now, that should never happen again!
Chris and I were grinning from ear to ear on the successful rescue mission, and he insisted on taking a photo of the van, my bike and I, to prove to his friends how he saved the day for a crazy van life lady on a bike! I was happy to oblige and posed with my safely planted home on the concrete and profusely thanked Chris again and again, he truly was my "sandy salvation". I offered to pay him for his time and trouble and he absolutely insisted no, he was just doing the neighborly thing for a fellow camper, and wouldn't think of taking payment, so incredibly kind of him. He said he was heading home the following day, and I pondered whether I should take over my old camping site, but was so nervous about any sandy encounters I may come across I decided it wasn't worth the risk - especially since Chris wouldn't be around to save the day! When I initially rode my bike to get to Chris and the old camping spot, I had noticed it was much sandier in spots than it had been in previous times I'd spent there, so definitely not an option for me to camp there this year. At the end of the road, where the off/on ramps are onto the highway there is a big, paved, spot that a lot of truckers will use to catch a quick wink, so I ended up going there for the night and assessing what my next move would be.
My Van Safely and Securely Back on Solid Ground After Being Stuck in the Sand
Now, with my van back on solid ground, I faced a choice: head back to my original Mad Max/Joshua Tree site, or embrace the unexpected and venture into the heart of Quartzsite, mere minutes away. In the past I've driven through this part of Arizona where droves of nomads flock to Quartzsite every year for the month of January, and would always speedily drive through, off to find a non-inhabited place to camp. Van life for me, is not just a mode of travel; it's a philosophy that thrives on the freedom to choose the path less taken. While the Quartzsite RTR and Gem Festivals would undoubtedly offer a kaleidoscope of experiences, this wanderer's heart and soul yearned for the quietude of boondocking, for the solace found in the untouched corners of nature. So, what was I going to do. Brave the throngs of other nomads or find a new, undiscovered to me boondock spot? Well, at this point I was tired of all the moving around and wanted to just settle for a bit and have some creative time in the serene silence of the desert. I definitely knew I wasn't going back to the "Thunder Dome" that is now Joshua Tree! Instead I found a Dome of another kind, Dome Rock BLM land just outside of Quartzsite. Life is never NOT interesting as a solo female van lifer!
Curiosity had won over, and I decided to brave what I thought would be thousands, if not millions of other nomads all around. I drove the 30 minutes to the BLM land of Dome Rock, an area that I had driven past many times and was not interested in stopping, after seeing the sea of white that is vans and RV's. I pulled off onto Dome Rock Road and was instantly, pleasantly surprised to see how spread out all the nomads actually were. From the highway it was a deceptive scene, that made it look as though everyone was camped right on top of each other. But, the rolling hills and vegetation of this desert landscape actually provided much sought after privacy. I happily covered some distance and suddenly spotted a fantastic spot right off the road. I was able to park far enough off it to allow Mikee to roam freely without being too close to the road, one of my criteria for any camping spot. The only downside was the highway nearby, but it's a low, steady hum, almost white noise sound from inside the van, so was not too concerning at all. The side road I was camped off I had initially thought I might be able to safely ride my bike on, but, there ended up being too much traffic and no shoulder to escape the cars. At this point I was just so happy and relieved to finally find somewhere to set up camp and get some much needed work done, that I gave up on riding my bike for the time being and instead decided I would have to do some local hikes, which I also thoroughly enjoy in addition to cycling.
Epic Sunset at Dome Rock on BLM Land Just Outside of Quartzsite, AZ
Once I was settled and had the van set up for an extended stay, I started to do a little more research on the phenomenon that is Quartzsite come January of every year. Quartzsite, Arizona, is a nomadic haven, especially during January when it transforms into a melting pot of RVs, campers, and adventurers. The infamous Rubber Tramp Rendezvous (RTR) organized by Bob Wells attracts a diverse crowd of nomads seeking community and knowledge about the art of nomadic living. It's a celebration of the simple life on the road, a stark contrast to the bustling city life most of us are trying to escape.
The influence of the award-winning movie "Nomadland" hangs in the air, with many nomads drawn to Quartzsite by the allure of its on-screen portrayal. The movie, featuring Frances McDormand, captures the essence of a nomadic lifestyle, showcasing the beauty of nature and the challenges faced by those who choose a life on the road. When I watched "Nomadland" it definitely sparked some intrigue into the allure of Quartzsite, but I never felt wholly drawn to partake in the festivities and surround myself with other like minded individuals in a setting with millions of other nomads. To me, it seemed more like it was a temporary city springing up in the vastness of the desert. Yet, as much as Quartzsite offers a unique sense of community, I found solace in my quiet spot outside the chaos. It allowed me to reflect on my preference for nature and solitude, away from the throngs of people. The vastness of the BLM land, with its open skies and untouched landscapes, resonated more with my soul than any crowded festival or bustling city ever could.
As the New Year came and went, I enjoyed the solace amongst the masses, never having thought that would ever be a possibility in this part of Arizona, this time of year, and yet here I was. I felt inspired to create my first van life painting, which got me to thinking...I should actually set up a booth myself for next years RTR Festival - light bulb moment! I don't know why this idea had never come to me before, ever since learning about Quartzsite some time ago. Here I am, a nomadic artist, living on the road, experiencing what all other Quartzsite nomads do, and painting those very travels as a full-time artist. I could sell my art, and art inspired products such as stickers, journals, postcards and more to my fellow nomads at RTR! It obviously was too late to enact upon this venture this year, as RTR is already here. But, I will definitely be researching it more and building up an inventory of nomadic, travel related art for next year.
My first Van Life Painting "Living the Dream"
In hindsight, the sand trap was a blessing in disguise, for several reasons. I got rid of my hitchhiker chipmunk, found a great new BLM camping spot, and have a new plan for selling my art wares next year at RTR! It's funny how life on the road is so unpredictable, and yet, offers immense rewards and opportunities. As I embrace the ups and downs wholeheartedly in this van life, lifestyle, I look to the future with excitement for whatever comes my way as a nomadic creator following the open road to places unseen, and adventures unrealized - inspired to paint the world around me.
Ordering a heavy duty towing strap first thing when I get to a convenient place to receive some mail! Thinking this one should do the trick, but hopefully never have to actually use it ~ Tow Strap
I also need to invest in some of these...
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