Drunk with (solar) power

We’ve always known that we wanted more solar panels on our roof, but we just hadn’t gotten around to doing it, even after almost 3 years as full-time RVers.  This winter was the first time that we were on the road rather than in an RV park with power, and we really started to feel the limitations of our small system.  The problem wasn’t so much that we wanted to be able to use a ton of power, but rather that we had too little up top to recoup what we were losing.  One little panel is ok for long summer days, but with only a few good hours of charging near the winter solstice, we needed more capabilities.

On Monday, we drove back to Yuma, AZ, and spent the night in the parking lot of Starlight Solar, so as to be ready for our early morning Tuesday appointment.  Our appointment started with the owner and 2 techs up on our roof with cardboard cutouts the size of the panels that needed to find a home.  Our roof is tiny and cluttered with skylights, but they found a good layout that allowed us to keep our old panel, too.  By then end of the day, we had a system with 5 times as much solar generating power as our old one.  It will be awesome to always have enough to run lights and charge our electronics, even on cloudy stretches in the winter!


I know that I said last time that I would wait to assess our work situation until we had the first weekend under our belt, but I’m still not sure what to make of the whole thing.  JJ and I are both working in festival kitchens, where the majority of other workers are kids from ROTC, or part of a local halfway house program. A few folks are downright crazy, but for the most part, I like a lot of my co-workers.

JJ and I were both thrown in our areas a bit haphazardly, and only given snippets of instructions on what we were doing.  He is baking pizzas, and I am making taco salads and filling drink orders for the cash handlers who interface with the public.  They are definitely “hurry-up-and-wait” sorts of jobs, where you have an enormous rush when a show ends at a stage near your area, and then long lulls where there’s no business.

The days are long, starting at 8am, and generally finishing around 6:45 or 7pm.  We are on our feet, on concrete, the whole time, and for the first time in my life, I’m having foot and back pain from the standing.  I think the problem might be from just being in one spot for hours on end, rather than walking and moving. That first weekend was really tough, and we were ready for 5 days off!  This upcoming weekend is 3 days long, including President’s Day, and hopefully, we’ll be more comfortable with our duties so they feel easier. More on all that next week.


I just wanted to give a huge shout out to Amazon, for a really useful invention: the locker pickup.  When you check out and choose your shipping address, you now have the option to pick up from a Amazon locker.  Since we don’t have an address for a couple months, it’s a really handy way to get deliveries.  When you item is ready for pickup, you get an email with a barcode in it.  You locate the lockers (tucked into the side of a strip mall in our case), scan the barcode from your phone screen, and a door pops open to reveal your prize!  This a perfect solution for full-time RVers!

Until next week!

Our Firsteval!

I’ve been to exactly one Renaissance Festival in my life, and it was at least 20 years ago in Southern Ohio.  I remember the elaborate costumes, the great performances, and spectacles in every direction.  When we signed up to work at the Arizona Festival for February and March, I didn’t really know what to expect from an experience working in the back. And even after being here for a week, I still feel just the same!

This festival is HUGE–attendance can often top 15,000 on a nice day. In addition to the festival grounds being gigantic, there’s acres and acres of land surrounding the “village” for camping, parking, and elephant storage.  (More on that last bit later.)  The parts that the public sees are just the tip of the iceberg, and every area is a completely different, with different festival folks living in different areas.

We are in the main campground, which is just a large field with no defined sites, and no water or electrical hookups. Most of our neighbors work for the craftspeople who sell things here, and they travel a circuit with their employer, staying about 2-3 months at each festival before moving to the next.  A lot of the full-timers are in travel trailers or RVs, but a decent amount are tent camping.  We’ve also seen just about every possible funky mobile home possibility, from a homemade truck camper that looks like a pirate ship, to a mutant hybrid of a trailer with a truck topper welded onto the top for a second story loft.  There are port-o-potties and dumpsters throughout the campground, a drinking water spigot close by, and a small showerhouse on the far side of the festival.

The festival is arranged in a circle, so the crafters can have their RV and living area behind their shop. These sites have electric hookups, but apparently not sewer, because I see that most of them have arranged for a port-o-potty to be set up on their site.  The craftspeople must have ongoing contracts with the festival, because they have gorgeous storefronts customized to what they are selling, rather than cookie cutter boxes like at an art festival.

Finally, there is the coveted full-hookup area, and that’s where the festival puts up the acts who are paid to perform on the many stages at the festival: acrobats, comedians, magicians, and one guy who apparently does musical whip cracking.

We had orientation last Saturday for our department, Food and Beverage.  We are working for the festival itself,  but we are in the minority when it comes to the demographics for our department.  See, the festival needs to hire about a million weekend-only employees to handle food service, and it seems that about 99% of the manpower is supplied by some unique temporary agencies: The Junior ROTC, and residents of an enormous drug and alcohol rehab residence in Phoenix.  I’m trying to keep a positive perspective, but I’m a little concerned about working with people like the woman who snapped at me to leave her alone and stop asking personal questions when  I inquired if she had even worked at the festival before.  Or the guy who really needed a bath.

We met our kitchen managers, and toured the facilities.  We are working in the oldest, smallest, tightest kitchen complex which is also the first food place you come to as you enter the festival, and therefore the busiest.  Day one training was a bit haphazard, but as far as I can tell, I will be working the soup and bread bowl area, and JJ will be making pizzas.  We’re in different kitchens, but just a few doors down from one another.  My manger seems like tyrant and a stickler for detail, but in a good, kindly way.  He promised to try to get us breaks before we pass out from the heat, as has happened in past years.  Any other opinions about the job would just be conjecture until we work it for a weekend.  Opening day is tomorrow, and I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit of dread, but hoping for the best.

Our respective locations:

We’ve gotten out and explored around us, and there’s lots to do in the this area to keep us busy on our 5-day “weekends”.  We hiked up in the Superstition Mountains, and visited the mining town of Superior, AZ .

Hieroglyphic Canyon featured a spring fed waterfall and pictographs:

Superior, AZ:

Little Soupy is most pleased, as we can let her run around outside.  She loves the green grass that’s everywhere, and has a fine time chasing lizards and sniffing in ground squirrel holes.  The only downside is the cholla cactus that leaves little segments all over the ground underneath it.  Soup came home with a couple feet stuck good with the spines, but as soon as we pulled them out, she was begging to go out again.

The one part that I do really like is walks around the festival loop. It’s good people watching, there’s often folks rehearsing their acts, and lots of activities going on. The “village” is still getting readied, and many shops have scaffolding up for painting. I also feel like I see something interesting every time I’m out. A couple days ago, I stopped dead in my tracks, not comprehending what I was seeing out in the field. I thought for sure that it was a life-sized elephant statue, and then it moved! There is a petting zoo and animal rides here, so I can see elephants, camels, llamas, horses, goats, sheep and yaks on my route.

Box office:

The Royal Stables:

Pray for us, and we’ll let you know how it goes!

Silence cannot be photographed

JJ and I were craving a bit more solitude before we reported to work again, and Soupy demanded room to run.  We headed southwest from Tucson, to Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, where we hit just the right time of year to be absolutely alone.  Hunting is allowed on the refuge, but the season had just ended before we arrived.  It’s not prime birding season, or time for spring flowers.  We got all set up, settled down outside, and just gaped at each other in amazement; it was totally silent.  On the day we arrived, there wasn’t even a whisper of a breeze, and we could hear the blood pumping through our ears.

It’s the kind of place where there’s not too much to do, and we were fine with that.  We went on walks on the roads that wind through the refuge, got educated at the visitor center, and went on a few short hikes.  We watched the sun change colors on the Baboquivari mountains, far across the valley to the west of us. For the Tohono O’odham, the highest peak in the range is the center of the universe and also the home of the creator, I’itoli.  The grassland area where we were camped was both a link to time immemorial, as a homeland for antelope and deer that have been there forever, and a reminder of the very recent past, with invasive mesquite trees planted by the cattle ranchers of the 1800s.

That sort of landscape is not for everyone, but it definitely served the purpose we wanted.  We slept great in the dark silence, saw a million stars, and felt safe letting little Soupy run free until the coyotes started to howl at dusk.  The pictures that I have seem dusty and dull, but it was a great stop for all the things that you just can’t capture in a photo.

Baboquivari Peak, tall in the center:

Wetlands trail through an important riparian habitat:

Arivaca Creek Trail led past the homestead of Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce, author of “A Beautiful, Cruel Country”:

Next up: we move to our spring job at the Arizona Renaissance Festival, in Gold Canyon, AZ. And boy, will we have some stories for you!

Tucson Mountain Park photo essay

After a thrilling week of Mexican dental work and Yuma guard dog attacks, we were ready for a week of very low key adventures, rest and recuperation.  We toyed around with the idea of Joshua Tree National Park, but with temperatures between 25 and 40 everyday, it just didn’t sound like all that much fun. Anza-Borrego State Park was only going to be a few degrees higher, and so many other places just seemed like too much work.  When a week of vacation seems like excessive effort, you know it’s time to slow down and really take some time to recover.  And that, friends, is how we find ourselves again in Tucson, after only a 4 week hiatus.

Tucson is nominally on the way back to Phoenix, our February destination, and it’s the location of one of our favorite campgrounds ever: Gilbert Ray. This campground is just lovely, with tons of greenery, mountain views, and hiking trails all around.  As a financial incentive, with electric hookups only, it is also really cheap.  Plus, we could pop in on Ann and Nathan, and just generally veg the heck out.

We didn’t do much at all this week, and barely got into the car.  Besides a hike with Ann and Nathan, we just walked the trails around the campground, slept in, played board games, and started to feel more human again.  This was just what we needed, and we feel ready for a bit more adventure before we report to orientation at the Renaissance Festival on 2/4.

Some of the mountains have almost Sedona-like colors:

Cheery teddy bear cholla:

View from the top of Brown Mountain:

When saguaro do meth:

Hiking to Bowen Stone house ruins:

With Ann and Nathan:

Somebody got new boots!:

Fishhook barrel:

Next up is a short stay in Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, a huge grasslands area with nothing prickly.  I would say it’s for us, but 99% of the reason we’re going is so that little Soupy can run free without getting anything ouchy in her paws!

Yuma, AZ: no thank you

I appreciate that not all cities can be the civic equivalent to a beauty queen, but some get such the short end of the pretty stick that it’s hard not to feel sorry for them.  Yuma, AZ, is near the top of my list of places that just don’t seem to have any draw and that I’d prefer to avoid.  So why, then, did the intrepid travelers spend the better part of 10 days there?! Well, that all boils down to teeth and torrential rain.

A few weeks ago, JJ mentioned that one of his fillings wasn’t feeling so hot.  It was actually the best time for a minor dental issue, because our friends Dave and Max were headed to Yuma in order to go to the booming Mexican dental town of Los Algodones.  We decided to join in on their adventure, camping out in the parking lot of a casino two miles from the border.  Even with the interludes of dental care, it was good to see them and enjoy their company.

We were all ready to make a loop through sunny Southern California, when I started looking at the weather.  While “Pineapple Express” sounds like a good time, it actually means lots and lots of rain and snow for the Pacific coast, and I saw nothing but precipitation for the next week.  And also high wind and flood warnings, and other good reasons not to hang out boondocking in the desert. So we aborted travel plans, and plunked down at one of our membership parks in Yuma.

And then something happened that really cemented my dislike for Yuma.  I went out for a long walk on the rural roads around the RV Park.  I had watched a group of bicyclists head out earlier that morning, and I figured that it was a safe area for me to be out.  As I passed a large ranch complex with a huge perimeter fence, I heard tons of barking.  And then, a pack of at least 6 big dogs ran out the open gate, crossed the road to me, and surrounded me.  I fought every urge to scream and run, and just pulled my hands up near my chest and talked quietly.  Even now, I’m feeling my pulse speed up, just thinking about it again, and it was one of the few times I was truly scared that I might die.  One of the German shepherds circled around behind me, and bit me in the calf.  It speaks to my adrenaline that I didn’t even feel it, but just kept talking low and backing up.  They stayed in place, I kept moving back, and eventually, I was far enough away to turn and walk fast and call JJ to get the hell in the car and start driving, and I would explain later.

He got me back to the park and Animal Control came out.  The officer took a statement and asked if I could identify which dog.  But, there were multiple German shepherds, and I can’t.  So, the best he could do was go over to the ranch, confirm all the dogs were current on their rabies vaccines, and issue a citation of $50 per loose dog. The one lucky part is that the bite was only a couple puncture wounds, and I had a stash of antibiotics for just such an occasion.  The worst part of the whole thing is that I feel really scared to be out alone now.  I appreciate that I could buy any number of products like a mace spray, or other deterrent, but none of those would have been effective in this particular scenario.  I need to use my sociologist brain to remember that nothing like that has even happened to me before, and instead focus on the million times I’ve walked alone with no problems.  It’s going to be some time before I feel calm again.

I once read a book whose formula really beat me down.  (World Without End by Ken Follett) At every turn, the protagonists could either experience situation A or situation B.  And I quickly realized the pattern, where each and every time, the bad option would happen to them.  I don’t mean to say that I have a Truman show disorder, but I’m starting to feel like maybe Ken Follett is writing my life, too.  Last year was really tough for me, including a lot of things that happened, both personal and public, that I never even mentioned here.  I keep trying to see the good, but I have to admit that I’m feeling a bit defeated, and ready for a new story line.  Thanks for listening to a departure from the usual travelogue, and I sure could use some good thoughts sent my way.


We did get out and do a few things that were pleasant.  Telegraph Pass is a super steep hike up a service road that leads to commanding views and an array of communication towers.

At the top is a registry book left by the “Mystery Hiker”, who says he’s been to the top over 1000 times:

This might be one of my favorite pictures of JJ, ever:

We also visited Imperial Dam Wildlife Refuge, where the Colorado River provides a home for tons of wintering birds:

Painted Desert Trail:

Next up: somewhere that is not Yuma.

Organ Pipe National Monument Picture Post

Senita on the left, Organ Pipe on the right:

Close ups, including a crested Organ Pipe:

We spent 5 nights in the NPS campground right in the heart of Organ Pipe National Monument, and totally loved the whole place. This park had been on my bucket list for a while, but because it’s so out of the way, and frequently very, very hot, we hadn’t gotten around to it. This was a great week to be there, with mild temperatures and not many other tourists.

This park is the northernmost refuge of two different kinds of columnar cactus, the Organ Pipe and the Senita. Both varieties are common in Mexico, but are so frost intolerant that they only show up in this very warm part of the US. Besides the cactus, there’s lots of other greenery, since it’s part of the Sonoran Desert, the wettest desert in North America.

There were plenty of formal presentations if your tastes run that way. We attended a night sky program at the outdoor amphitheater and took a ranger-led van tour around Ajo Mountains scenic drive. There were also daily lectures at the visitor center and night hikes.

We sampled a good portion of the hiking trails, many of which are just old paths between mining claims that dot the landscape. Our favorite was the Estes Canyon hike, with a great first view of the canyon that makes you say “WOW!”, but can never quite by captured in a photo.

Remnants at the Victoria Mine:

Cholla cactus skeleton:

Blooming ocotillo:

Estes Canyon:

Pale pink mountains as far as the eye can see:

We had a bit of a rough time at first because of some overcast days, where our solar panel just wasn’t producing anything. With limited power coming in, we had to be really conservative with our usage, so we just decided that we were camping, but in a really nice tent with indoor plumbing. We made the most of all the daylight, and finished dinner by sunset. Then, we’d take a long walk around the whole campground to enjoy the colors of the sky as they changed from vivid to dusky to completely dark. When we were tired of walking, we stargazed from our patio, and talked until we were sleepy.  I realized that it’s easy to feel a bit disconnected from your partner, without even knowing it. This stop truly felt like a vacation, primarily because JJ and I had the time to really *be* with each other, and share our thoughts without any time pressure. It made me think that we might want to turn the lights off more often at night, and walk and talk, and just enjoy each others company.

Free nightly light show at the campground:

Also, happy 12th anniversary to us!

From the big city to the tiny town

Our lives can have a funny rhythm.  We’ve spent a week or 10 days in exactly the same quiet spot, mostly taking walks and reading, and the time seems to move so slowly. And then we sometimes have a week where it’s all movement and bustle, and when we land at the end of it, I’m amazed that only a short time has passed.  Although this week did encompass some solitude in the desert, we also crammed a whole lot in before that.  Plus, we have big news!

We left Tucson on New Years Day, in a heavy rain and dark skies. A friend had invited us to hike at a peak that was on our route, but the nasty weather deterred us, so we continued onward.  As we got closer to Phoenix, the skies cleared up for the first time in days, and we headed to the far west side, to overnight in a free regional park, Buckeye Hills.  Our friend Becky (Interstellar Orchard) and her friend Julie were staying there as leg one of their 10 day southwest Arizona ramble. It was the perfect overnight stop.  Soupy the adventure cat was free to have an outing, we climbed some nearby hills, and slept in complete quiet for the first time in months.

The next day, we headed into Phoenix proper to take care of appointments, the first being an RV repair that was done quickly and inexpensively. Yippee! We moved over to a casino for the rest of our stay, where parking lot camping is free for 3 days. It’s not the most peaceful place to sleep, but it was centrally located, and way better than $40/night in a big city RV park!

I’m not much for Phoenix as a city, but we made the most of our time. We got to see our friend, Trey, and meet his partner, Lisa. We also did some hiking that’s right in the center of town. Papago Park is a a great city park filled with funny lumps that are great for scrambling, and Piestewa Peak was a leg-burning challenge with amazing views.

Papago pouting:

The law of urban trails is that no matter how hard it is for you, someone else will pass you, jogging it for funsies:

And now for the big announcement! One of the tasks in Phoenix was a job interview. Our holiday jobs just weren’t as lucrative as ones we’ve had in the past, so we needed to pick up a bit more work before we return to the resort in May. And what did we pick? Here’s a hint: I’m going to be a wench. We’re going to be kitchen help for the Arizona Renaissance Festival! The Festival is every weekend from February 11-April 2–we will work long days on Saturday and Sunday, but then be off Monday-Friday. We can camp on the festival grounds for pretty cheap, and we’ll be right next to the Superstition mountains for our days off. Plus, I’m looking forward to meeting lots of mobile, non-retired folks! If nothing else, this gig will make for some really good blog posts!

With all our chores squared away, we headed out for some traveling before we report to the festival at the beginning of February. First stop was way down south in Arizona to go to an area that’s been on our bucket list for a while: Ajo, AZ, followed by Organ Pipe National Monument. We found out that Becky and Julie were “coyote camping” in the BLM outside of Ajo, so we joined them for a few days. This area is the antidote for too much city. We camped down old ranch roads that wind through the Sonoran desert, with a whole lot of space around us.  We were also inbetween the national monument and a wildlife refuge, which is an important animal corridor.  While were sitting out and stargazing, a pair of kit foxes scurried right past us, fully visible in the moonlight.

This old windmill was part of a ranching corral complex, and still bringing up water for the trough at its base:

Most of the saguaro in this area were very unattractive, and kind of misshapen. I’m not saying that mining is bad for these babies, but maybe it wasn’t all good!

Besides walks, enjoying the sun, and evenings with Becky and Julie, we also took a trip into town to explore historic Ajo. It was a decent sized city when the copper mine was in operation, but since that closed, it’s a lot more quiet. Artists are starting to move in, and it’s worth a few hours to explore, but it mostly just felt like the remnants of a once thriving town. We went on the self guided walking tour, peered into the defunct copper mine, and perused the Historical Museum.

Beautiful square still decked out for Christmas:

The old copper mine is a mile and a half across and 1000 feet deep.  With the viewing platform facing south, you’re guaranteed the worst possible picture of an already ugly place:

Great murals all over:

The former school has been turned into artist’s residences for weekly, monthly or yearly rental:

The town did have gorgeous light.  This picture is without any filter!

Next up is Organ Pipe National Monument!