Several days ago I was thinking about the job I left almost a year ago now. In my past pre-travel life I worked for the Public Service of Canada, as executive assistant to the director of a large and busy department. Seen from a distance, it was a good job as jobs go. My boss was someone I respected and, for the most part, those I worked with were hardworking, dedicated, and conscientious people, all of us trying to be efficient and effective under the demands of a bureaucratic system that sometimes verged on lunacy. No, I didn’t like the bureaucracy – countless rules and regulations invented by people at the other end of the country and far removed from the field in a generals/foot soldiers sort of scenario. But that’s the nature of bureaucracy and is secondary to my story because, most of the time, I felt good about the work I did and about my place in the department.
Our offices were in a stylish business tower in the heart of downtown Vancouver. At lunch, weather and schedule permitting, I’d break away from the computer and paperwork, change into my Salomons and exercise clothes, grab my music and earbuds, and head out for a brisk fifty minute jaunt around the scenic seawall. It was a comfortable routine and I liked it. A lot. Walking along the seawall and the busy downtown streets, dodging tourists and other lunchtime walkers or joggers, I had a sense of belonging. Of place. This was my city and my beat and I knew where to get a good salad, or a good espresso, or a good bowl of Udon.
I thought about all of this the other day, as I sat on a sun-warmed boulder on a mountain slope high above Rockhound State Park, looking down at the valley below and the soaring jagged mountain range beyond it. I struck me how, in this new life of mine, not only has my sense of self-identity completely changed but, also, I don’t know sh*t. There’s no regular beat and no having a sense of place when the place we’re in changes each time we take to the road, drive somewhere new, and end up in what often feels like alien territory. Moving from province to province and state to state, even familiar icons, such as Walmart, often offer up different products depending on what part of the country we’re in. It’s fascinating and disorienting both.
As these thoughts came and went, I felt the slightest trace of a feeling of loss. But it was brief. The feeling only lasted for as long as it took me to realize that the flip side of letting go of the sense of belonging to an organization and/or place, is freedom. That routine can be both a comfort and a prison. And that had I not let go of my old life and all the things that bound me to it, I wouldn’t be sitting up here in this golden place, with those I hold most dear in the world – human and canine – near me, watching the clouds write ribbons of shadow and light on the valley floor and the hawks ride the air currents. Letting go was a good decision.
OK, having gotten that bit of stuff out of the way, on to Rockhound State Park. Set at the feet of the Little Florida Mountains, the campground here is small and new – only a couple of years old. The facilities are immaculate and the surroundings are humbling – the Little Florida Mountains on one side and the Florida Mountain Range on the other. No matter where you’re camped you can watch the colours of the peaks change throughout the day from pale buff at dawn to the deep crimson of the reflected light of sunset at dusk. The sunsets are full-blown drama and at night, on clear days, the night sky is full of stars. Even on the grey days, and we had a good share of them, the clouds are an impressive show in themselves.
That said, it seems like most people come here, at least in part, to climb the hills and hunt for a variety of native rocks and minerals, hence the name. The lucky ones go home with thunder eggs and/or large or small chunks of common opal, jasper, agate, and other such treasures. The hills, trails, and campsites themselves are peppered with rocks and bits of what looks like petrified wood and almost everyone has their “daily catch” displayed on their picnic table. Here, taking away souvenirs is fine. The people at the park office gladly appraise the finds people bring in to show them and there’s a rock shop just outside the park, where they’ll cut your thunder eggs in half to reveal the insides and then polish them up if you want them to shine.
We spent three days at Rockhound before heading to City of Rocks and then came back for almost two weeks more – the longest stretch of time we’ve done at any one place in eight months. But it’s been wonderful to not drive for a bit, to just absorb. It’s what we were hoping to do once we hit Arizona so this pause came just a bit sooner than we planned but that’s fine by us. We’re saving on fuel and, at $10-$14 per night, on camping costs. And we’re finally able to take the time for those things we had to put on hold in the “drive someplace new everyday” part of the trip. We’ve taken time to play around with our cameras and to read, draw, and hike.
There’s lots of trails, most of them leading up into the hills and all but the main campground trail are rugged and rock-strewn. Hiking here means winding past giant boulders, outcrops, or bits of broken rock and clumps of prickly pear, desert grass, and thorny shrubs. But playing at being a mountain goat is wonderful. I was fighting a cold during our first visit so Roland did the first few hikes on his own. But we did eventually take the main trail together nearly everyday. From it, we climbed the winding, narrow, rugged “spurs” (as R called them) to the shoulders of the mountain ridge and then down it’s back up to a second slope behind it, or to other random sections of the mountains where, even we, did some rock hunting. I came away with a couple of small rocks I thought were pretty, probably jasper, and Roland had his own little collection most of which he left behind. We didn’t find any treasure. But then again, we have no idea what treasure would look like even if we tripped over it. For us, it was more a hunt for beauty and the attempt to photograph it.
Certainly, all that rock exploring aside, there’s no shortage of beauty. A few miles away from Rockhound is another gorgeous place, Spring Canyon State Park. Apparently there are herds of Ibex, fifty or more strong, but we didn’t see any. I did talk to a hunter who told me the hunt is by lottery only and only bow and arrow and that makes the odds in favour of the Ibex. In my mind that’s a good thing but that’s just me. Spring Canyon park is day use only. There’s a long row of picnic shelters along a steep and winding road and a mile-long hiking trail pretty much straight up through the towering Florida Mountains to a point called “Lovers Leap”. The day we were there it was cold and blustery and, at two hours before the gates closed, we were completely alone both in the park and on the trail. It allowed us to let Melo and Pix race and allowed me not to have to – my pace going up mountains tends toward the slow side and this trail lived up to the “Steep grades ahead!” warning. Of course, the payoff was huge and the views, vistas of prehistoric landscapes all around, were incredible and well worth the five dollar day fee.
The one surprise was our weather. It was lovely during our first visit but took a turn for the worse during the second one. The shift began on our last day at City of Rocks already where, after a stretch of warm golden days, clouds and rain rolled in and it poured. Really poured. All afternoon and night muddy streams rushed down to join spongy muddy roads. In the morning, everything lay shrouded in fog and mist, the sky was a sheet of slate, and the temperatures had dropped.
By the time we got to Rockhound, a strong wind had picked up – so muscular we couldn’t get into the camper without one of us holding the door open for the other – and it was cold and miserable and, at five in the afternoon, already down to 5C. It would have been a good night for an electric site and our little heater but there were none vacant except in the group overflow where four sites sit plastered together, much too close. No thank you, we said, and opted for our propane furnace and a more remote non-electric spot, and that’s when things got a bit dicey.
During our first three nights at Rockhound and then six more at City of Rocks, we relied solely on our solar panels to charge our batteries. We didn’t consider it might be too long a stretch because we’ve already had eight months with no issues and for five of those months we camped almost exclusively without electric hookup. But we also always either drove for long enough to charge the battery, or had our solar panels well exposed to the sky. Now, the way we sat positioned at our lovely sheltered site at City of Rocks gave us limited direct contact with the sun and the hour’s drive between City of Rocks and Rockhound wasn’t long enough to charge the batteries fully. Our six days among the monoliths had cost us. Our juice was running low and since our inverter, stove fan, and furnace fan all use battery power, we started getting a bit tense.
Normally, even on cloudy days, our battery monitor shows a charge above the 12 volts we need for best power. That night, as we anxiously checked it each time the furnace clicked on, it showed us dipping down to 11.8 volts, about thirty percent of the charge. That was our lowest ever. We didn’t have the furnace on during the night. We don’t generally run it while we sleep unless there’s a threat of freezing, but we woke to the meter still only showing 12v and another overcast day. Reluctantly, we moved to one of the tight electric group sites to plug in and bring the charge back up. It was unpleasant, we felt really crowded, but it worked. After that we had no more battery issues and even though the days stayed cold and the sky was overcast for several of them, we never got below 12.3v. Still, it was a lesson. Going forward, particularly as we’ll probably do more dry camping in the coming weeks, we’re going to have to make sure we keep an eye on where those solar panels are facing.
That said, on Saturday night, on what we were sure was our last night at Rockhound, we were in an electric site again and pretty happy about it. Not because of the battery now but because we were going to need some help keeping warm and we didn’t want to waste propane doing it. It was bitterly cold outside. Extreme winds had been predicted and arrived on schedule, blasting into us at 40-50mph all day long and then into the early hours of the morning, shaking us as we haven’t been shaken since Blow Me Down Provincial Park in Newfoundland. The jagged peaks of the Florida Mountains were white with a new coat of snow and a couple of hail storms added rhythm to the wailing winds.
We holed up all day, the electric heater keeping things homey as we read our books and lazed around, and we watched other campers – the campground was almost full again – bundled up in winter wear and sauntering around like sailors trying to get their land-legs after a long sea voyage. Then, when we took Melo and Pix out in the afternoon, cocooned in our multiple layers we were just like the others and had a hard time walking with the wind trying to shove us around. We made the walk short. It felt like it was time to get out and hit the road again. We both agreed we’d had a good run here, recharged our own batteries along with Snowflake’s, and climbed to the top of a few new hills. Wunderground showed the weather to be a bit warmer Arizona and it beckoned. But that was Saturday night.
On Sunday morning the wind was history and, beyond the thin sliver of frost on the skylight above the bed, the day was sunny and clear. We sat sipping our coffees and planning our imminent departure and next destination, trying to figure out what it would be. Look, Roland pointed outside. They’re gone. Sure enough, the people camped in the site next to us weren’t there anymore. When the camp hosts came up shortly after this to check things out, we knew it meant only one thing. There was now a non-reservable, first-come-first-serve site with electric hook-up, great views of the mountains, and lots of elbow room just there for the taking.
We’d been at Rockhound long enough by this point, mostly site-hopping, to know that this type of thing doesn’t happen too often here. It was a gift. The camp hosts not only confirmed the site was ours if we wanted it, they said we could have it for as long as two weeks if we chose to stay that long. What would you do? We checked the weather, succumbed to the temptation, tossed our plans to start making our way to Arizona and booked for a modest three more nights. What the hell! I may not know exactly who I am yet in this new life of ours, but I do know this: we’re free, aren’t we?
For a deeper look at our days at Rockhound State Park see Roland’s post: