Posts tagged arizona

Breaking Bad and Breaking Down

Taking The Mother Road to Albuquerque to indulge in some Breaking Bad fandom before climbing around El Morro National Monument and standin’ on a corner in Winslow, AZ.

Running alongside many stretches of the I-40, Route 66 has become a deserted road that can still take you across the country – if you’re willing to go 55 mph and drive in a single lane the whole time. Taking it on smaller stretches makes for a much more interesting and historic drive and also feels pretty cool following in the footsteps (or tire tracks) of so many folks in the past that had driven on it to get from LA to Chicago. The 66 took us through Tucumcari for a look at a really rad mural commemorating the road and a chrome statue commissioned in 1997 that kind of reminded me of The Bean in Chicago. We try to at least get gas in some of these towns because despite having an attempted artistic revival, they’re mostly abandoned and very run down with the decline of Route 66 tourism. One strip of the eastbound road in Tijeras is called “The Musical Highway” with a rumble strip within the lane that when driven on at 45 mph, sounds like America the Beautiful is playing. Definitely worth the u-turn if you’re en route to Albuquerque or Santa Fe.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Tucumcari
Mural in Tucumcari featuring some badass 66 motifs

Continuing along, we headed toward Albuquerque while I frantically googled which Breaking Bad spots along our route were actually worth stopping for. As I mentioned last time we were in New Mexico, the owners of Walt and Skyler’s house have put up a fence and seem to spend their days sitting in front of the garage warding off and yelling at tourists. Understandable? Sure. Comical? Very. I guess when that many pizzas have been thrown on your roof, you gotta do what you gotta do. Why they don’t just move is beyond me but we decided it probably wasn’t worth the stop. Los Pollos Hermanos, as most people will point out, is actually just a fast food chain called Twisters that still has the mural inside but just didn’t feel the same. In any case, my two priorities were getting some blue meth candy at The Candy Lady in Old Town and seeing Walter White’s headstone in the random strip mall that it dwells in. The Candy Lady’s “crystal meth” is the actual blue candy that they used on the show in the first two seasons made by the local Albuquerque candy shop. Stopping in just for “meth,” I ended up leaving with some delicious red chili chocolate and a vanity plate for the front of the van since New Mexico has the coolest license plates.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque License Plate
Those colours!

The drive through Albuquerque from the eastern side of town was definitely not the nicest but the Old Town had similar charm to La Mesilla of Las Cruces before opening up to the more countryside looking neighbourhoods of the north. Finding Walter White’s headstone gave some strange directions but eventually made sense after reading that it was originally in a cemetery but the relatives of the actual dead people found it offensive so had it moved to the plaza where most of the funding came from. Once you find its discreet location, you see that it’s a legitimate headstone. If you didn’t know better, you’d think someone was actually buried beneath the walkway of this random strip mall. Justin never watched the show so I paid my respects and we headed on.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Walter White Headstone
R.I.P.

Usually camping within a National Park or Monument is for a fee and requires a reservation but thanks to some friends we made in Mexico, we learned that at El Morro, it’s free! In fact, in 2013, they made entrance to the campground and the monument itself completely free to encourage people to visit, I’d assume. We arrived in the evening and camped the night before exploring the actual park the next day. We opted for the 3km hike to the summit and back down to see the relics of the pueblos that archaeologists uncovered in more recent years. Passing through Inscription Rock, there are etchings and carvings left by all the people that passed through here in the 16 and 1800s. This was a hotspot for nomads wanting to reach California or the Colorado River because there is an oasis of clean drinking water that flows year round in the middle of the desert. Some of the inscriptions were absolutely insane – as design nerds, we couldn’t believe how precise and elegant much of the signatures were considering they had to be chipped away with rocks or other tools. Over the years, people essentially wrote “[insert Spanish conqueror’s name] was here” all along this rock until the Parks service decided to close it off in 1905 to preserve the historic inscriptions and petroglyphs and prevent modern day trolls from leaving their mark.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro Inscription
These people clearly didn’t mess around when it came to penmanship

Reaching the top made for some stunning panoramic views of the area and the canyon within it. One of the coolest parts was seeing the pueblo where the Zuni people lived in over 800 different rooms atop El Morro in the interest of protecting their resources. Archaeologists have uncovered about 30 different rooms but decided to leave the rest uncovered in order to not subject the materials to further weathering. To think that thousands of people used to live in these tiny stone rooms was pretty crazy but also very impressive considering what kind of tools and materials they had to work with. After parting ways with El Morro, we drove through the town of Zuni where the modern generations of the people that once lived there now reside.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro View
View from the summit overlooking the canyon at El Morro
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque El Morro Pueblo
Zuni Pueblos – those bedrooms are van sized!

And just like that, we were back in Arizona. Arizona’s been one of our favourite states so we were stoked to be back. The fist order of business was stopping in Winslow so Justin could fulfill his Standin’ on the Corner dream. He was clearly not the only one on this pilgrimage as there’s a statue, mural and a bunch of Eagles-themed shops and merch all around. There were many other people there to have their picture taken and relish in all the musical glory. Luckily, there is a park just south of Winslow that you can camp at with a view of a river and the surrounding farmland. Unluckily, it got uncomfortably cold at night so we kept on truckin’ in search of the warmer temperatures that Southern Arizona has gifted us with before.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Winslow
No caption required…

Driving through the Coconino National Forest is so glorious and diverse with the severe elevation changes that make it go from desert to boreal forest real fast. With the mountain driving, Clementine started making that pinging sound again and didn’t seem to be too happy with all the steep grades. We knew the octane booster was just a temporary solution and we’d need to revisit the situation again soon but knowing something was up was definitely stressing us out. We needed somewhere to crash for the night so we headed toward New River and set up shop at a super cool BLM surrounded by wild burros and Saguaro cactuses.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Cactuses
This view never gets old

After working the day away, we closed in on Phoenix and got ourselves some overdue showers and stocked back up on groceries. We settled at a Walmart just outside of the city in Buckeye and got down to business troubleshooting what could be wrong with the van. My only idea was that the EGR valve needed to be replaced, which would be pretty straightforward and would set us back a mere 25 bucks. Long story short, we popped into an O’Reilly and had a chat with the admirably knowledgeable and friendly staff to conclude that the EGR was fine we were at the beginning of having some carburetor problems. The manager/our new best friend said he was confident that we could rebuild it ourselves since it’s meticulous but not overly difficult. Within the hour, we had a carburetor rebuild kit on order and were shitting our pants a little. We slept at the store and spent the next day carefully labeling and cleaning every piece while photographing our every move. All in all, it had its challenges but it really wasn’t all that scary. My obsessive-compulsive tendencies majorly came in handy in staying organized and keeping foolproof notes of the disassembly in order to zoom through the rebuild.

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Dirty Carburetor
What was once a dirty scary carb…
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Cleaning Carburetor
…got all deconstructed and scrubbed…
Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Clean Carburetor
…and is now a clean happy carb!

While we were getting down and dirty into the mechanical grease, we upgraded a few other parts and prepared ourselves for the carb tuning process. I personally find this the most challenging part because it can be so finicky but it’s all part of getting Clementine driving back to the way she should be. Doing this all ourselves kept our costs down immensely (the carb rebuild kit was $43 while a new carburetor is $400+) so we treated ourselves to a mini projector! We had contemplated getting a small TV to not have to hold a hot laptop while watching a bedtime movie but it just seemed like it’d be awkward and bulky in our small space. We ended up finding this teeny-weeny pico projector at Walmart for 100 bucks and grabbed a pull-down blind from Lowe’s for a whopping $7 and just like that, had a sweet little theatre setup! This is a pretty no frills projector but we didn’t need all that built-in Smart TV stuff since we’re rarely on wifi. It suits our needs way better than a TV would and we can even take it outside to project movies onto the side of the van. For any vanners looking to upgrade their screen situation, we 100% recommend a pico projector (no, we don’t have shares in the company…).

Generic Van Life - Albuquerque Projector
The van is now a theatre!

It’s finally California time and we’re stoked for this milestone of our journey. We will now have officially hit the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (and can’t forget about that Third Coast) and are on our voyage back to the Great White North. We’ve only scratched the surface on all the places we could explore in America but we’re totally on board to spend next winter out of the cold again. For now, we’re stocking up on gas, propane and pretty much everything else in Quartzsite before enduring the Canada-like prices that California is so known for.

Tucson is like Vancouver but Smaller…and with Palm Trees.

Back to familiar American cities in Tucson, AZ.

The border crossing in Lukeville makes way to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: a large park filled with towering saguaro cactuses (just a sidebar here for anyone [probably just me] questioning if I should be saying cacti instead of cactuses…there’s some debate over it but both are correct, as cacti is Latin and cactuses is English). A lot of the park is drivable if you’re taking the 85 up to Why, but of course, there is a separate paid area as well. Interesting fact about saguaro cactuses is that they’re actually protected by the State of Arizona – if you have one on your property, you are to call the Department of Agriculture to get a permit to remove it. We considered camping in the park because the thought of waking up in a cactus forest is pretty cool, but ultimately decided we’d keep on trekking. It felt like quite a treat to be back on well-maintained roads while paying just over $2 a gallon for gas (God bless America).

Generic Van Life - Tucson Cactuses
These saguaros have got a few inches on 6’4″ Justin

We found a cool spot just outside of Tucson called Snyder Hill. This is a BLM where you can camp for free for 14 days right outside of a developed area in Tucson Estates, convenient for grabbing gas or groceries. It sounds a lot fancier than it is but it’s clearly a very popular spot for people in the area as it was one of the fullest BLMs we’ve stayed at. Granted it was upward of 80°F (it was 28°C when we finished grocery shopping) and the start of the weekend, so who wouldn’t want to pop out for some free camping. Lots of trailers, vans and RVs parked across the desert park, gathering for bonfires and doggy play dates – it was almost like Quartzsite on a much smaller scale.

Generic Van Life - Tucson Snyder Hill
All about those bug nets. Flies travelled in gangs around here

After a much needed recharge, we headed into downtown Tucson the next day to check out the Arizonan city that was never really on our radar to visit. I gotta say, we were both pleasantly surprised with how much we liked it. It’s clean and full of mom & pop shops and restaurants that seem to be on the earlier stages of gentrification, AKA before it becomes lame expensive bullshit. It reminded us a lot of a smaller Vancouver that was less expensive and had palm trees. We had no trouble finding some good coffee shops to steal wifi and electricity from and we even went for brunch, which we never do. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of being in Toronto recently, people are NUTS about brunch. As someone who has worked in a weekend brunch spot, brunch is the bane of my existence. Partially because Toronto has become so expensive and pretentious and the brunch crowd is insanely particular about…everything. Anyway, we were expecting line ups of people that look way too clean and put together to be out and about on a Saturday morning (what did you do last night?! Even when I stay in on a Friday, I’m still a troll until noon on Saturday) but to our surprise, we had some awesome food in a nice low-key spot that didn’t charge $20+ for eggs benny. Score!

Generic Van Life - Tucson Downtown
Downtown Tucson

Tucson seemed like a city we could spend some time in, with lots of music venues, restaurants and colourful painted murals scattered around the downtown. There’s also a streetcar system that seemed way too cheap to be real compared to the $3.25 a ride we pay back home. Tucson had it goin’ on and we really enjoyed it. That being said, we can only spend so much time in the city before heading back into quiet, secluded parks for camping. That night, we drove into the Coronado National Forest and slept at the foot of the Dragoon Mountains. The road in was a slow crawl because it was so bumpy and uneven, but well worth the drive despite being swallowed by clouds of dust left behind by jacked up 4×4 pickup trucks barreling down it. The road seemed to be a common route for border patrol trucks to cruise on but we didn’t witness any juicy Live PD-style chases, which is probably for the best.

Generic Van Life - Tucson Dragoon Mountains
The Coronado Forest was a really cool spot!

From here, we began making our way toward New Mexico by taking the road that continues through the rest of the forest. Beautiful views but a little hairy for Clemmie. Think lots of twisting winding roads just scraping the edge of cliffs along some rocky switchbacks. She persevered but it made for a wild ride out!

Generic Van Life - Tucson Coronado Forest
Sketchy drives always lead to sweet views

RVs and Retirees

First stop: sinking into quicksand in Quartzsite, AZ. Second stop: the land of the 55+ in Yuma, AZ.

Now that Christmas was over, the mission was on to head south toward Mexico to celebrate the New Year. We made it a point to go through Quartzsite before crossing the border because we had heard it was the mecca of everything RV – anything you can think of for mobile living, they’ve got it. And they’ve got tons of them. As you’d expect, there’d be plenty of RV parks and RV/vandwellers about…little did we know, the whole place is basically one giant RV park. Being the end of December, this was low season – a few weeks before an ultimate fortnight to come: The Tyson Wells Rock & Gem Show.

Generic Van Life - Quartzsite BBQ Sauce
Just when you thought you’ve seen it all…this sacred BBQ sauce will save you and comes with a keychain size Bible for all your portable reading needs. Quartzsite, you’re crazy!

Quartzsite gave us the vibe that back in the 70s, a bunch of hippies found their way there and just never left. And we’re not just talking flower child hippies, we’re talking crystal-worshipping, shaman-esque hippies. At the end of the day, it’s pretty cool that this town exists and people come together in such huge masses (over 1 million RVs pass through each year just in the second half of January) over common off-beat interests, but it just wasn’t really our scene. Knowing that there are plenty of free camping areas around, we pulled off into a sandy wash with the hopes of finding somewhere more quiet and secluded and less flea-market-y. As we drove just metres from the main road, Justin said, “maybe we’ll even get stuck or something!” Well. Within 30 seconds, he was eating his words. We got jammed into what felt like quicksand. We tried piling some sticks by the rear tires to gain some traction – we’re rear-wheel drive – but it just went full on food processor and mulched all of our efforts. We tried pushing and digging our tires out but Clementine was so sunken in that every attempt just seemed to make it worse.

Generic Van Life - Stuck in Quartzsite
No caption needed. We stuck!

As road magic would have it, a 4×4 truck pulled in just as we were covered in sand and despair (I’m being hyperbolic for effect…we were really just laughing the whole time cause it was so ridiculous). A man, Charlie, popped out and asked if we needed a pull. He seemed like he had been stoned since he was in the womb, so just a regular dude in Quartzsite. He hooked on, we floored it on reverse and made it out of the sandy pit. We thanked him, he carried on into the hazy desert and we climbed back in the van to find somewhere with harder ground to sleep – it was dark already by this time. We were about 5m from the main road and were stuck again. Ha, luckily this time a push was enough to get her going but we made a conscious effort to avoid any washes that looked precariously soft after this. First thing in the morning, we got our tires rotated and set out toward Yuma.

Generic Van Life - Quartzsite Yuma Proving Ground
We drove through the Yuma Proving Grounds which was just downright weird. This was on the side of the entrance gate as if it were a stone lion. And we’re fairly certain we saw a UFO…

We dillydallied a bit and didn’t reach Yuma until later in the afternoon so after stocking up on any American rations we needed before going to Mexico, we figured we’d crash at a park and hit the border early the next morn’. Free camping isn’t really a thing it seemed (with the exception of Walmart parking lots) and we were hard pressed to find an RV park that wasn’t age restricted at 55+. Eventually we found a great spot that was cheap and even had a hot tub. No wonder this was snowbird central! I think we saw more Alberta plates in Yuma than we did anywhere in America so far. We filled our bellies with sushi (they say the best Japanese food is just north of the Mexican border, right?) and caught some much needed shut-eye before hitting the border bright and early the next morning.

Christmas at the Grand Canyon

Swapping a Christmas tree for a giant hole in the ground at Grand Canyon National Park.

With the provisions for a van-sized Christmas dinner in tow, we set off on the very unassuming drive toward the Grand Canyon. If there were no signs indicating where we were going and you were trying to surprise me, you wouldn’t even need to blindfold me. It felt like we were driving through Ontario with tall boreal-lookin’ trees, rich non-desert-sand soil and snow on the ground. Definitely not what I expected for what the surrounding area would look like, but that always made the surprise that much more exciting. Also, the snow and chill in the air helped to make it feel a lot more like Christmas!

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon Xmas Lights
Getting festive with Christmas lights! What Justin doesn’t know is that I’m never taking them down >:)

I was really set on exploring the North Rim and stoked to park just metres away from the edge until I learned that the roads to the North Rim are closed for the winter. Womp womp wooooomp! Luckily, the South Rim is still ridiculously cool. This is the part that most tourists get to see so there are plenty of parking areas and whatnot nearby. Being the end of December, it was still pretty packed but not too overcrowded to enjoy. It’s hard to articulate how crazy it is to drive into a wooded area and then walk barely 10m to see that thing. I don’t think we were expecting it to be that cool but we sincerely recommend checking it out at some point in your life, if you haven’t already. We climbed onto a rocky peninsula and relished in how small we felt in the crazy landscape that surrounded us. Another thing we felt was hungry since we hadn’t eaten all day and just scaled our way into a canyon.

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon Cliff
We’d look a lot smaller if this wasn’t taken with a zoom lens

We met plenty of interesting folks in the parking lot that all seemed to come out of nowhere like some weird mirage – guess we were hungrier than we thought. We stayed to watch the sunset and immediately felt the absence of the sun as the temperature dropped significantly. We headed back to Tusayan, where we were staying for a few days, just outside of the park’s entrance.

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon Drive
Probably thought we heard an ice cream truck

We spent Christmas Eve binging on The Great British Bake Off and spending time with Justin’s parents. After doing our Christmas morning shindig, we cooked up a delicious holiday feast – complete with a tiny turkey – and made our way back to the canyon to enjoy some different views as the sun was packing it in for the day. Despite being a drag that you can’t drive along the North Rim in the winter, it’s super awesome that the road to Hermit’s Rest is open to regular vehicles in the off-season. Driving along the edge of the cliffs is a trip!! There are so many cool spots to pull over and see the landscape from a different perspective. Our favourite was Powell Point, where you can walk down onto a peninsula and be surrounded by canyon on both sides. It’s a pretty cool feeling that again, is very hard to put words to.

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon Powell Point
Ain’t no canyon for ants! This is below the memorial at Powell Point. Climb down and feel really really tiny

As we were just about done filming a time-lapse of the sunset, a guy came over and complimented Clemmie and told us he’s also a vanner. We shared proud parent stories about our vans when he told us that he had slept at the bottom of the canyon that night. We had heard of this but didn’t know if it was possible in a rig like ours. It’s top on our list to do next time we’re in the area and sounded like an amazing drive. As our new friend explained how to drive in, we realized that the turn-off is right by Peach Springs – a ghost town on Route 66 that we stayed near while boondocking in Kingman! It seems that we had literally driven past this magical road and didn’t even know it. For anyone interested, you must visit the Hualapai Lodge, just east of Peach Springs to get a permit (the last bit of the drive puts you on Native Land so you need the permit to enter). From the Lodge, you just carry on Diamond Creek Road until you reach the Colorado River and set yourself up from there! He said we’d be fine with rear-wheel drive but some other stories I’ve read might suggest otherwise. We’ll have to find out for ourselves one day – if blog posts cease to be posted after this then yes, we’ve gotten stuck in the sands of the Grand Canyon.

Generic Van Life - Grand Canyon View
Sitting along “The Abyss” – only a 3000′ drop below. That’s cool. Not scared.

Our first Christmas in the van was awesome and we hope for many more to come. We were lucky enough to spend it with some family and found good enough Internet to FaceTime in with the others. Even though the snow was pretty for Christmas but we’re satisfied. We are heading south! Hit us up in the comments with your experience camping at the Grand Canyon if you’ve ever done it – we’d love to put it on our roster.