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Archive for January, 2008

Appliance joy

Sometimes working on a house feels like climbing Mt Rainier in a blizzard: one step forward, half a step back. Today three appliances were delivered and installed: washer, dryer, and refrigerator. This felt like good progress until we discovered that the painters crimped the copper water line for the refrigerator so we couldn’t attach it — it needs to be replaced with a flexible line. One more item for the “handyman list”.

The gas plumbers did an excellent job upgrading our line to supply four appliances instead of two. Now the house has natural gas to the cooktop, dryer, furnace, and water heater. This is helpful in several ways. Not only does Eleanor insist on cooking over gas flames, we are able to free up some breakers in our electrical panel because we no longer have an electric range and electric dryer. We need those breakers for other things, not the least of which is the 30-amp plug to the Airstream in the carport.

Eleanor spent the afternoon happily spinning clothes in the new high-efficiency washer and dryer, and they seem to have her stamp of approval. The new water-saving toilets are installed as well. Without getting into details, let’s just say that they were tested today and so far we are happy with their performance. They use less than 1/3 of the water of the old ones, and the washer uses about 1/2 the water of a top-loader, which is a good thing here in the desert.

The refrigerator seems massive. It’s 26 cubic feet, the biggest refrigerator I have ever owned, by far. Our Airstream’s refrigerator is 8 cubic feet, and we have lived happily with it for over two years, so I am sort of wondering what we will do with all the space in the new one. It does have a few advantages over the typical RV fridge, however, including room for a full-size frozen pizza and a gallon of ice cream. So guess what we ran out to the local supermarket to buy today?

Our cooktop and stove hood came in too, but we can’t install those until later in the process. So instead we are beginning to map out the kitchen with the appliance boxes. To one side of the room lies a big box marked “FRANKE” — that’s the sink. Atop it lies a box from Kohler, containing the faucet. Opposite is a box with the cooktop, and next to it a box from Braun contains the hood. It’s not a functional kitchen but at least we can see it growing. The only thing out of the box is the fridge, and the installers took the empty box with them. Hey, that’s the fun part! I bet they keep those boxes and play in them after work. I know I would.

tucson-cracked-windshield.jpgSafelite came by this morning to replace the windshield of the Armada. The ding I picked up in the glass last week (thanks to a truck spewing gravel on I-10) turned into a large crack overnight, and so glass repair ceased to be an option before I even had a chance to try it. That was a quick $230 out the window — or should I say, “out the windshield” — since our deductible is higher. I would have liked to have captured the license plate of the truck that did the damage, but at the time it seemed the prudent thing to do was to slow down drastically and get away from the hailstorm of rocks it was tossing. So he got away and I got stuck with the bill. Between that and the slight bumper damage, it was not a good week for the Airstream or the Nissan.

This weekend we are expecting a few Airstream friends to drop by. None, however, will be bringing their Airstreams. In fact, we are expecting our first houseguest on Saturday. Since the house is still rough and sleeping quarters will amount to an air mattress on the rug in front of the fireplace, it makes sense that our first houseguest will be one of the most resilient people I know: Brett. We’ll use his visit as an excuse to take time off from hunting for house components, and go play around Tucson instead. But maybe he’ll help me fix the bumper too.

Backed into my corner

quartzsite-rich-flag.JPGThis morning in Quartzsite dawned a bit cloudy, and the usual break of the sun over the mountains was obscured by my new neighbors in their enormous fifth wheel trailer. Colder air has come in to southern Arizona too, all of which added up to a lot more power usage (for the furnace) and not much solar gain. I’m glad I had already decided to go today.

Amazingly I managed to get home without encountering another rock in the windshield or ripping parts off the trailer. So Eleanor may allow me another trip by myself someday. I even backed the trailer into the carport myself, a tricky job, and got everything set up for the family to come home tonight.

At this point we have to resume the house project. Those of you who are interested primarily in travel stories will need to avert your eyes for a while. Our next firm travel date is in March, but I am hoping to put together a couple of short trips before then. We also have a few other interesting things planned locally, while the Airstream is parked in its corner awaiting us.

(Photo above is courtesy of “The Airstreaming Meteorite Dealer”, Jim Breitinger.   See his other portraits of people at Quartzsite here.)

Diamonds in the desert

Tonight will be my last night in Quartzsite. Six nights has been plenty to get to understand this place, although I can’t claim to have seen everything. It’s a much more complicated picture than I had expected. Quartzsite is not just a spot in the desert that RV’ers claim as their own every winter. It’s not just a phenomenon for retirees. It has a zeitgeist that I have not encountered anywhere else.


Matt, Carrie, and Jay are good examples of why this is so. They have been coming to Quartzsite for thirteen years. Lately they stay in their 1966 Airstream Overlander in the LTVA, but in prior years they camped in a conversion van for which Carrie hand-built the cabinetry.

They are undoubtedly in the minority among the zillions of retirees who are parked here in their giant triple-axle fifth wheels and half-million-dollar Class A motorhomes, but they contribute a very important part of the overall feeling of Quartzsite nonetheless. They staff the rock shops and add to the culture. They are the folks with the bonfire in the wash at night. They help keep it lively.

quartzsite-floating-as.jpgAnd there’s much more. There’s a guy in town who runs a book shop and wears almost nothing all day (at least when it is warm). He’s a regular tourist attraction in his own right. There’s a pyramid-shaped monument to a Syrian (“Hi Jolly”) who came over here in the 1940s as a camel driver, and stayed the rest of his life. Someone has an aluminum trailer (either a Silver Streak or a Curtis Wright) on floats stored just outside town, and there are other people dry-washing the earth to find gold. Thousands of years ago people pounded mesquite seeds with rocks and you can still see the holes they wore in the stone cliffs. Every one of them has a story.

Weighed against the diversity of people who are here and who have been here in the past, the thousands of RV’ers who sit indoors and watch TV every night are not the most interesting part of Quartzsite. They are like grains of sand, amongst which a few dazzling diamonds can be found. I’ve had fun finding a few of the diamonds, and if I come back to Quartzsite, it will be to find more.

Solar report: no reading taken at 8 a.m., I was in a rush to get out and photograph Matt, Carrie, and Jay at their trailer before they went to work. At 5 p.m., batteries were at -43 amps, so after six nights of boondocking with full sun most days (and careful conservation), we’re in pretty good shape. The safe useful capacity of our batteries is about 170 amps. I’m also still in good shape on water and holding tanks, which is not a big surprise. Even with three of us in the trailer we can get 4-5 days, so six nights by myself was pretty easy.

From tanks to dune buggies

In my quest to find the lesser-known Quartzsite, I have been picking the brains of people who have been coming here for years.


One person told me of “Patton’s tanks”.   Apparently southern California and parts of western Arizona were used by General Patton to train soldiers the skills of desert warfare with tanks, in the WW II era.   I picked up Mike, Tracy, and Jim and we headed up the Plomosa Road to see if we could find them.

We were thinking we’d find a rusting old hulk of a tank abandoned in the desert somewhere, but the only ones we spotted were on display in the center of the little town of Bouse, about 20 miles from Quartzite to the northeast.   There are a few plaques there commemorating the heroic exploits of the 739th tank battalion, the 554th ordnance heavy maintenance company (tank mechanics), the 701st tank battalion, the 740th tank battalion, and other companies organized out of Camp Bouse.   No mention of Patton at all.

quartzsite-plomosa-rd-dips.jpgThe drive over wasn’t a waste at all.   The history of these tank battalions was interesting (lots of action in Europe during WWII), and Plomosa Rd from Rt 95 to Bouse reveals a lot of great boondocking spots.   This is a boondocker’s paradise, in fact, if you want to get away from crowds.   Nearly all of it is BLM land with free camping for up to 14 days, and there are primitive   roads that will get you into some very secluded and lovely desert spots.

Along the way we spotted these rocks with natural “windows” eroded into them by the wind.   Mike and I couldn’t resist, so we pulled over and hiked about 1/4 mile to them, then climbed to the top and cooled off in the strong breeze through the window.


The “window”; Mike lays in the window to take a photo  

Back in Quartzsite, Mike showed me a hidden neighborhood where people have been creating “glass gardens”. The owners of the houses weren’t home, so I couldn’t ask how they got started.   Several of these gardens exist in Quartzsite, and you might find one if you hunt around carefully.


People are doing all sorts of things here, but you’ve got to look beyond the many flea markets and swap meets to find them.   For example, I keep seeing these crazy dune buggy enthusiasts on- and off-road.   They look like something out of the movie “Mad Max” and they seem to be having a lot of fun.


I also browsed yet another flea market in the afternoon.   No doubt about it, this is an off year.   Everyone’s business is slow.   The question is whether this is a fluke caused by the recent spikes in fuel prices, or a trend?   There’s evidence that it’s a trend caused by some political and economic changes happening in Quartzsite, but it’s too soon to be sure.

quartzsite-jim-cooking.jpgMy last stop this evening was over at Jim’s place.   He invited over a few other Airstreamers for pad thai, which means I got another interview in addition to a free dinner. (By the way, the Trader Joe’s pad thai dinner is darned good.)

The other Airstream guests have been coming to Quartzsite for 13 years, so they had some good information for me about how this place is changing.   I hope to catch up with them at their trailer tomorrow to get pictures of them in it.   They’ll make interesting photographic subjects — that’s all I’ll say.

I think I have almost all the material I need for my article.   One more day of research ought to do it.   I’ve got a couple of appointments   on Tuesday, and then I’ll head out on Wednesday.

Solar report:   at 8 a.m., batteries were -68 amps.   At 4   p.m. power was – 35 amps, for a net gain of 33 amps today.   That’s a little less than yesterday despite equally sunny skies, because I used some power during the day for the laptop.   Still, I’m about holding steady. I can have a blow-out night tomorrow, with lots of lights and web surfing if I want to, since I’m leaving on Wednesday anyway.

The other side of Quartzsite

I came here to research an article about Quartzsite for future publication in Airstream Life magazine, and it is starting to come together.   I’ve been looking beyond the flea markets (five major ones), and RV parks (70 of them) that dominate this town, to try to discover the “real” Quartzsite.   It’s hard, because the little historic and natural gems of Quartzsite are scattered through the dusty hills like the elusive gold flakes so many people are seeking.


Last night I drove north of town about five miles to the Plomosa Road area, where a lot of people are camping for free (this is BLM land but outside the LTVAs which charge a fee).   Mike & Tracy were there in their Airstream 345 Classic motorhome, along with Jim D in his very nice “Squarestream”.   These are all folks I’ve met before.   After dinner, Mike agreed to show me some of the lesser-known sites today, based on his prior experience with the area, and Jim decided to come along for the ride.

So off we went this morning.   I quickly discovered that seeing the sights here requires lots of long drives down dusty back roads, and four-wheel drive is nice to have.   Around Quartzsite there are several gold mines, and many more small groups or individuals working pits. We saw plenty of them in remote places.   You can still stake a claim, just like in the old west days, and dig a pit for gold, although most people use excavators rather than shovels these days. One such pit we saw was in the middle of a wash.   The digging is done and the pit is abandoned. Rather than fill it it, the Corps of Engineers dictated that it be left to fill naturally in the next wet season.   So in the meantime it’s an obstacle for the four-wheelers that use the wash as a highway.


We did find one petroglyph site today and I got photos for the magazine.   We also encountered an Airstreamer with a 1965 trailer (a Tradewind perhaps?) and tons of solar panels.   He generates more power than he can use, which made me envious since I’m carefully rationing my power this time of year.   His tips led us to some metates (ancient Native America grinding and pounding holes) as well.


He also told me of a spot where some of General Patton’s tanks can be found abandoned. Patton used this area as a training ground for tanks that he thought might be joining the battle in WW II. I’m going to try to find that spot before I leave.

Things are still slow for the vendors.   Above, Jake the dog takes a nap at Jim Breitinger’s booth.   Nobody is sure why Quartzsite is so “off” this year but many people are claiming that there are only half the participants of prior years.   Traffic has been almost nonexistent, whereas in past years there have been backups.   You can browse any vendor’s booth for 5 minutes and get their undivided attention.   Personally I like the lack of crowds but I feel badly for the vendors who trucked semis full of merchandise and will likely be trucking it forward, virtually unsold, to Tucson for the gem show there.

The past few days have been absolutely calm, but this is unusual for the desert in winter.   Today, the normal weather started up: brilliantly clear skies and strong breezes which cause dust devils.   My neighbor has a wind generator on his trailer that is spinning madly, and my trailer is rocking in the gusts.

Solar report:   As of 8 a.m., batteries were at -68 amps.   At 5 p.m., batteries were at -33 amps, for a net gain of 35 amps today.   Not bad.   This was under completely clear skies.   My batteries are still at 80% of their useful capacity after three nights.

I saw a vendor selling a very slick electric panel tilting setup which would be perfect for improving our solar gain, but it was $700, which is a bit expensive for our needs.   I’ll wait for the catalytic heater to be installed, and maybe replace a few lights with fluorescents.   Cutting power use is much less expensive than trying to increase power generation.

Slowed down in Quartzsite

I have discovered that Quartzsite has its own pace, and it is slow. People drive slowly. They walk slowly. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because they savor what there is to see. But I have had to adapt to this, since it is not my usual mode to move slowly.

In Quartzsite itself, there is not much. The town is dominated by a series of permanent flea markets, including one called “The Big Event”, and several satellite markets. These are motley collections of tents and a few permanent structures, filled with whatever vendors go along with various “shows”: rocks & minerals at Tyson Wells, more rocks at Desert Gardens, “stuff” at The Main Event, etc. To explore all of them, you must be patient. It literally will take days to walk all of the possible flea markets. This seems to be a primary activity for the people who are here.

The town also features all the things that RV’ers on a budget tend to value: truck-stop-type gas stations, a zillion barbecue restaurants, discount groceries (several run from tents), RV supplies, propane tools, and all the usual types of fairground snack foods. Once you’ve seen that, you have to dig a bit to figure out what to do.


I drove around a little to see what else was in the area. I found seemingly endless expanses of RVs spread out across the desert in LTVAs and other unmanaged desert areas. They go for miles in every direction. I was more than five miles outside Quartzsite’s official boundary on Rt 95 before I saw desert without little white dots of RVs.

kofa-nwr-palm-canyon.jpgQuartzsite is near several pretty mountain ranges. The Kofa National Wildlife Refuge is not far away, and it has a lot of dirt and 4WD roads the bring you to tinajas, canyons, historic sites, and hikes. Bighorn sheep live up in the mountains too. I took a 7-mile washboard dirt road into Kofa because it led to the only palm canyon in all of Arizona — and I couldn’t miss that.

The hike to see the palms is only about 1/2 mile, but it is moderately steep. The views from the canyon of the desert floor are worth the trip alone, but with the prospects of bighorn sheep and a palm oasis, I felt the hike was a must-do. Unfortunately, no bighorns today.

It has been unusually quiet at Quartzsite this year, say the vendors. They are blaming $3/gallon gasoline. Hardly anyone seems to be selling much. But there are still thousands of RVs here (although they are hard to spot since they are so widely scattered), so there may be more to it than just expensive fuel.

Adapting to the leisure life, I am beginning to see how people fill up their days here. I filled my propane tank this morning and did a little grocery shopping. Then I drove out to Kofa and hiked for a while. Then a trip to the post office, some browsing of flea markets, and before you know it, it’s 4 p.m. and the sun is beginning to settle down to the west. Time to fire up a few burgers before it gets cold, and then retreat inside with a book, a friend, or TV for the evening. That’s the pace of Quartzsite.

Solar power report: at 9 a.m. batteries were at -58 amps. At 4 p.m. we had gained 29 amps, for a net of -29 amps. I did better on solar gain today because I didn’t use much power during the day. Yesterday I worked on the laptop for five hours, which dinged my overall gain for the day, and I forgot to account for that when I was figuring my power budget. Today it was less sunny (some thin cirrus clouds) and yet I got 4 net amps more.

The view from “Q Mountain”

Quartzsite is working out, so far. There’s not much nightlife, which is to say, there’s virtually none. I’ve been told that some restaurants close down at 7 p.m. because everyone eats early. So last night I hung out at Jim Breitinger’s trailer over in the flea market area. Jim is a full-time Airstreamer who travels around selling meteorites, jewelry, and rocks. (We last saw him in Denver, and previously in Vermont.)


A few of the other rock dealers came over for dinner.   On the right in this photo (with the lanyard around his neck) is Jose, who sold Emma a meteorite back in Denver last fall.   The people who travel around selling beads, rock, jewelry, gems, and other things always have interesting stories to tell, so it was a pretty lively night.

Sleeping here in La Posa West LTVA was peaceful.   The Interstate is less than a mile away, so it can be heard, but not through closed windows. The only real noise was generators running for a couple of hours starting around sunset.   The town of Quartzsite is along the north side of I-10, and the largest LTVAs are along the south side, so there’s no city lights or traffic to speak of over here.
One nice thing about boondocking in the desert is that there’s no problem getting a good position for solar gain.   The trailer is oriented so that the curbside gets hit squarely with the early morning sun, which warms the trailer in the morning and lessens my need for the furnace.   The solar panels really kick in after 9 a.m. and there’s nothing to obstruct getting the maximum gain all day.   If my panels tilted I could generate more power than I need, but since they are flat-mounted I can only get about 25 amp-hours per day, which means I need to watch my power consumption (see solar report below).


View from Q Mountain. La Posa LTVA to the right.  

Near La Posa West and the highway frontage road (Kuehn Rd) is “Q Mountain”.   It’s a hill with a giant white “Q” painted on it.   You can drive up to the base of the hill if you have 4WD and climb it in about five minutes for a nice view of the area.   In the photo above, if you follow the torn scrap of flag straight to the right, you can just barely see a speck of silver.   That’s me.   (Click on the photo to enlarge it.)

quartzsite-oliver-trailer.jpgThere are tons of RVs being sold here, most of which didn’t interest me.   But this one did.   It’s a Casita knock-off called an “Oliver“.   Actually, calling it a knock-off is somewhat unfair.   It’s actually a huge improvement.   I toured them and was more impressed with it than any other RV I’ve ever seen (barring Airstreams, of course).   It has a double-wall insulated fiberglass shell, aluminum frame, big holding tanks, electric levelers, beautiful appointments, and so many bells & whistles I can’t even list them.   They cost almost as much as an equivalent length Airstream at about $26k, but my initial impression was that they are worth the price.

Solar report: at 8 a.m., power consumed was 46 amps.   At 4 p.m., solar gained was 25 amps, for a net of -21 amps.   Given that I had full sun all day, I now know my daily budget.   I did a lot of work on the laptop today, so I’ll have to compensate for that drain by keeping the furnace set low.   Last night I kept it at 52 degrees, with an extra blanket on the bed, and was comfortable.   I can’t wait to get that catalytic heater installed in March!

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