This adventure has chapters!
Even before we signed the papers for the camper Mama and I decided that the 4th of July weekend would be a great weekend for us to get away and enjoy some time in our new camper (provided things fell into place and we actually got it). Mama wanted a place in the woods, where it was cool, by a stream and away from people. Suspecting that we would encounter some of the challenges that we did. I was prepared to settle for anyplace other than our yard. But we embarked on a search for campgrounds anywhere within a day’s driving distance. As we would soon discover we had several forces working against us:
- Eastern Arizona is on fire.
- It is summer and everybody and their dog (and ours) wants out of the scorching heat of the valley.
- It is a three day weekend (this only exasperated the previous bullet point).
- We have a family commitment Saturday morning, July 2nd.
We searched high and low and we eventually found one open, reservable, camping spot. Bonita Canyon Campground. It sounds like it might be an interesting place to explore in the cooler months, as the recreation.gov describes it:
Bonita Canyon Campground is located in Chiricahua National Monument, known as the “Wonderland of Rocks.” Visitors love Chiricahua for its stunning rock columns (hoodoos), hiking trails, and birding opportunities…
But the creek is dry most of the year, its hot, there are no facilities, and the closest town is Wilcox, so really not a great place to venture on our second ever use of our camper (remember we are complete newbies at this).
The other thing that we noticed is that a lot of the campgrounds in the Payson area have a lot of walk-up camping spots. Mama was insistent on being in a cool climate so we were just going to hope that a least one of the places we had found had an opening. Did you ever hear the phrase, “Hope is not a plan”?
On Friday afternoon, July 1st as most every person in the valley started the mass exodus, Marshmallow and I went and bought some essential equipment that we needed to outfit the camper with, while Hershey and Mama did some errands to support our Saturday morning commitment. By about 1 am I had most everything loaded except for medicines, essential toiletries, pillows, and stuffed animals; took a shower and finally made it to bed. At 5 am I was back awake and off to start our Saturday commitment, with Mama and the children following about an hour or so behind. The morning went smoothly and we were even able to finish up a bit early. Back home we made a mad dash to finish packing the camper and get going.
I ran into my first major complication with the camper. I could not get the fresh water tank to fill. It just kept blowing water back out of the fill port and on to the ground. The control panel said that my black water tank was almost full (which the previous owner said was probably a dirty sensor), the gray was empty and so was the fresh water tank. The water pump was sucking air when I tried turning it on. There was definitely no water in the tank! I read and re-read the manual. It just says stick your hose in the fill cap and fill. There are NO valves or anything else to select between the city water hook up and the tank. Maybe it was because the camper was at a bit of angle and the fill port was on the low side? So I moved the camper around, no luck there… I see one of my neighbors out who has an RV, so I go grab him, and his dad tags along. They are both experienced campers and his dad even use to own a truck camper. We play around with things, switch over to the city water and purge some air from the hot water heater, fiddle with the drain valves and eventually get some more water into the tank, though I have no idea how much, but judging by the amount of time that had past, I knew I had at least 10 – 15 gallons of water. The control panel said I was about a ½ full but I wasn’t I the mood to trust that control panel. I fill up some water cans that I had and take along an extra 15 gallons of fresh water with us just in case.
It’s about 1:00 pm, Saturday July 2nd.
Finally, we load up the family, and the dog, and we head off. Mama is busy trying to call the campgrounds to see if there are any open spaces. All the campgrounds ring back to the main ranger station and nobody is answering the phone. But we press on. It was a nice drive up to Payson, the truck (and I) did well. We head east out of Payson and start looking for a place to camp. We tried Christopher Creek, Kohls Ranch, and the Ponderosa camp grounds. All had signs out front that say “full”. We headed back to Payson, Mama had one more place to check out, Houston Mesa Campground which is on the north side of Payson. It was full as well. At this point I am ready to bail and revert to my plan E. But Mama finds one more campground, Flowing Springs. Flowing Springs is according to the map about 10 miles away, out in the forest somewhere. So I decide to make my plan E, plan F, and give this one more shot. Hershey and Marshmallow convince me that plan F stands for for failure.
Hershey and Marshmallow passed the time by creating their own whacky A to Z story telling game. In this story/game they took a crazy trip to (A)lbuquerque in a (B)us with their pet (C)aterpillar to (D)rive….you get the idea!! It is one fun thing to do on the road for sure. But by time you get to Z you are struggling to remember how the entire story goes and once game is over and the laughter dies down no one can get it back to their memory in completion. – Hershey and Marshmallow
Okay, I need to back the story up a bit here. There is one more thing that I need to mention before we move along. About three quarters of the way up the hill to Payson it dawns on me that we forgot the bag of chocolate chips. Marshmallow likes to have a few chocolate chips as a bed time snack. So before we head out of town we stop at Walmart for a potty break and to get a bag of chocolate chips. I stayed in the truck with our dog Lucy. She surprised me a bit, she was trying to peek out the window and was whimpering the whole time wondering where her people went. Lucy did amazingly good on this trip, in fact I found it hard to believe it was Lucy. I think somebody swapped her for a different dog at the groomers.
Shoofly Village Ruins
So we headed out along Houston Mesa Rd. We kept driving and driving and driving… I see lots of great spots with wonderful views where I would love to just pull over and setup shop for the night but I am not yet sure of the rules of where I can put down and where I can’t. So we continue along… I am tired and truthfully a little mentally drained from driving. I have driven vehicles way bigger and heavier than this, but never for so long and never with my family in it.
So it was good that we stumbled upon the Shoofly Village Ruins. Mama and the kids were wanting to explore, I was hoping this was a place we could camp. I was a little disappointed when I saw the no camping sign. But none the less this was a good spot to get out and stretch our legs.
Shoofly village is a Native American village that was occupied between 1000 and 1200 AD. The site sits on about 4 acres and they believe that approximately 250 people use to live in the 80+ room community here.
As we got out of the truck the sun was starting to get low in the sky, it was clear, cool, a light breeze, and just us. We went for a walk along the paths and had fun reading and learning about the people who use to live here long ago. I enjoyed watching Hershey and Marshmallow explore the area. For as young as he still is, I really didn’t expect Marshmallow to be too impressed, all that is really left are low rock walls where buildings use to be. But Marshmallow was able to look at the signs and maps and pick-out from the rocks where the rooms and courtyards use to be. Hershey had fun trying to pick out the different types of vegetation that the people use to live on. I think her favorite find was the young pinions. By the time we were done Marshmallow had yet another business venture that wanted to start, an online business selling kits so people could make their own rock homes, he is sure it would be a big hit.
We stayed and explored for about a half hour and then decided it was time to move along. My nerves fray almost immediately. Just around the corner from Schoofly the power lines cross the road and drop dangerously low to the road on the right side. Not that this was a terrible thing at all, again it is actually something I have had to deal with many times in the past, but here it was. The terrain dropped steeply off the side of the road and the power lines dropped with the terrain. I had to go all the way over to the left shoulder of the road to safely cross underneath them (they were that low). What had me nervous was the fact that this was on a blind corner on a mildly busy road.
We continued along the road for another mile or so with what looked to be ever degrading road conditions. I decide I had had enough fun for the day and started to look for the first spot to turn around. I was now executing plan F, though I am no longer sure what plan F is. Plan F was originally to go back down the hill and into the Roosevelt lake and Apache Lake areas and look for a spot there, but I am thinking it is getting to late for that. As luck would have it, not to long after we passed back by Shoofly, I see an Arizona Game and Fish truck tucked up off the road. So I decided to pullover and go ask if she knew what the rules for camping in the area were. She did know! And to my delight she told me that I could pretty much pull over and camp where ever I felt like it, no permits required as long as it wasn’t posted otherwise. I asked her if I could stop where she was parked. She said yes, but she would recommend moving a little farther off the road.
I think the people building a home near by were all pointing at us and thought we were lost or something. – Hershey
6:00 pm, I now have a camping spot.
Is inadvertent boondocking anything like inadvertent IFR? It sure felt like it to me.
What is inadvertent IFR you ask? It’s an aviation term, the IFR part stands for Instrument Flight Rules. I am really going to simplify the explanation here and bend it a little bit to my situation. Inadvertent IFR is basically when a pilot who is only licensed and trained to fly only in clear weather accidentally finds him/herself in the middle of a cloud and is solely reliant on their instruments to keep the aircraft upright and under control. How does one usually end up going inadvertent IFR you ask? It is usually a result of bad planning and poor judgement. Please refer back to my previous comment about hope is not a plan.
So here I am in the middle of nowhere, almost on the edge of night, not really prepared to undertake a boondocking experience. Boondocking is something I look forward to doing in the future when I have a little bit more experience under my belt. But doing so this night was definitely not part of the plan.
It been raining in the high country and even though the ground was reasonably solid under foot and the ranger’s truck, it is giving way under out 14,000 pound behemoth. We aren’t sinking, but I fear hitting a soft spot. I get the camper tucked in behind some trees about a 150 ft off the road. At which point Mama declares this is one step above camping in a Walmart parking lot and the children agree. Hershey declares this the “camping spot”.
While the site has some beautiful views of the Mogollon Rim to the north, the immediate surroundings aren’t much to look at. It is mostly dried, cracked, mud and rocks. Internally I agree with Mama’s assessment, this isn’t much better than ending up at Walmart. But I am determined to make lemonade out of these particular lemons .
We setup the camper and decided to go for a short walk along a fire road that goes off to the east along the tree line. I had considered taking the ranger’s advice and going back along this road but as we walked I was glad we didn’t. Even though there was a spot at the end that has some to die for views, the road was heavily rutted and had several fresh standing mud puddles. The last thing I needed to do was flip the truck and camper over in one of the puddles.
After our walk we went back, setup the table, chairs, and grill and made dinner. Mama and I had cheeseburgers and the little ones had cheese quesadillas. Soon after we retired inside and worked on a Lego set together. Once it was dark the children stuck their heads up through the skylight to checkout the stars. Mama sat on the back porch and I climbed up on the roof to keep an eye on the little ones. It was nice to enjoy the relative quite and watch the stars. Somebody was shooting some fireworks off in Payson and we could see those as well.
Finally it was time for bed. Now if you remember we picked up some chocolate chips pack in Payson, those never made it to the fridge. Well Arizona is Arizona even in the mountains and as we explored Shoofly those sweet chips of chocolate deliciousness were busy turning to mush and fusing themselves into nice big lumps. According to Mama they now resembled cow patties, according to Marshmallow they were wholly unacceptable for human consumption. He was a sad little man going to bed that night. Once the traffic died down it was nice to just listen to the critters outside as we slept.
It was still pretty quiet when the sun came up the next morning. As always Mama was up first and then I joined her. She read her bible on the back porch while I took Lucy for a half mile walk along another fire road that I found. Lucy’s nose lead the way as she excitedly sniffed everything in sight with her little beagle nose. But she is also an old dog and she is the one who eventually decided to turn around and head back to the camper.
Hershey was starting to stir as Lucy and I made it back to camp. I grabbed my bible and read for a bit as Mama got the littles up and going. Mama and I had a plan this morning. According to the map, there were several day use areas along the road ahead of us. Each of day use areas are located where the East Verde River crosses the road. So we decided if we accomplished nothing else these would be great places to explore. If by the end of the day we were burnt out, we could head home, otherwise we could spend the night here again or somewhere else if we found a better spot. So we broke camp. Mama and I worked on stowing stuff while Hershey and Marshmallow took care of the awning, slide-out and jacks.
The drive was much better now that I had some rest and we enjoyed moving along the winding roads through the forest. We decided to pass up the first crossing and moved along to a spot called the Water Wheel. Even though our rig is about one and half times the length of a regular full size car we were able to find a parking spot and not block traffic. So we disembarked, grabbed our water shoes and went off exploring along the trail that paralleled the river. We found a couple of spots where the children could put their feet in and enjoy the cold water. The river is dotted with small rapids and some small waterfalls. We had a great time and Lucy did great keeping up with us climbing over rocks and such. Lucy has always been a house dog, so this was new territory for her. Eventually we made it to a point where I was pretty sure that neither Mama nor Lucy dog were going to be able to go much farther, so we stopped had a break and enjoyed the fresh air, views, and sounds of the river. Marshmallow and I, then Hershey and I went up the path a little farther so that they could climb up on a large rock out cropping and look down on a waterfall below us and get a good view up and down the canyon. Upon Hershey and my return Mama asked if she could make it, I said “umm” and the littles said “you have a 50/50 shot”. That sounded like a challenge to Mama so off she went with the littles determined to make it a success. I stayed and watched Lucy. A short while later the trio returned. They almost made it, but Mama wisely decided that taking both of them to the edge of the cliff together was not a good idea so Mama appreciated the view set back a little bit father from the edge. We then just sat and enjoyed the sound of the falls and the cool water at our feet for a while. Our drinking water was starting to run low so we decided it was time to turn around and head back to the camper where we topped off everybody’s water bottles and decided to head up the road some more. Mama and I decided we wanted to head out to the end of the road and see if we could find the camping area just to see where it is and how full it is, then we would head back to one of the other day uses areas where the Verde crosses the road.
Verde Glen Campground
As we left Water Wheel the road started to climb with some mild switchbacks, after about 3 miles the paved road eventually gave way to dirt and there were lots of power lines criss-crossing back and forth across the road, those made me a little nervous but we cleared them all. Mama was biting nails and trying her best to bite her tongue.
Another mile or two and we were out in the forest. The area we were looking for is referred to as dispersed camping. Which means the campsites are separated from each other and there is no facilities of any sort all of which was okay with us. As we drove I saw an open campsite that was just a perfect fit for our camper. Best of all, it was empty! We pulled in and I heard some tears from the backseat. Hershey was upset, she has some sensory processing issues and this weekend as much fun as it had been so far, had majorly overloaded her little input circuits. So Hershey and I hopped out and went for a little walk down to the river that ran right behind the campsite. She was worried this campsite was a little to much like a previous campsite the children and I had been to and that she might have a bad experience. We talked and decided it would be okay if we just had lunch and played by the river for a while and if things weren’t working then we could pack up and head back to last night’s camp spot if need be. As we worked things out we continued our walk and soon spied Mama and Marshmallow a little down stream from us doing their own re-conning.
Did I mention this campsite met all of Mama’s criteria. Out of the heat – Check. In the woods – Check, By a river – Check. Though there were some other campers near by, civilization was miles away – Check. – Dada
It also met Hershey’s bad things checklist in mountains – check. has everything from worst camping trip ever – Check. so far not a wanted stay from her. – Hershey
Marshmallow put down the jacks, and Hershey put out the slide out and awning. Hershey then helped me setup the table and chairs while Mama and Marshmallow got the supplies for lunch ready. We enjoyed a nice quiet lunch. After lunch I setup the hammock that I bought for the children and they immediately climbed in and enjoyed it while Mama and I cleaned up from lunch.
After a bit we went down to the river and explored it for a while. The water was cool (or according to our two Arizona natives, Marshmallow and Hershey, it was freezing. So much so that they were worried about frostbite) After about an hour the children decided they were done since they could no longer feel their feet, so we headed back up to camp to dry off.
We then decided to play Uno, have snacks, and build a really cool 3D puzzle of a lighthouse. During this time we got several visits from the local fire department and forest rangers telling us about the heightened fire alert status and the pack-it in, pack-it out program.
Speaking of which, can I just say people are slobs! There was trash all over our site when we pulled in. Before we left I had filled almost an entire trash bag of other people’s trash. I was very disappointed. – Dada
After we finished the lighthouse. The children headed for the hammock, where Hershey read a story to Marshmallow; Mama and I just sat back and enjoyed being.
We finished off the afternoon with a second trip down to the river and a game of ring toss. Ring toss is a great game from old. Each player has two jumbo sized knitting needles and a 6″ plastic hoop (in the old days it would have been a wood embroidery hoop). You hold one needle in each hand then cross the needles in a X shape with the hoop sitting at the center of the X. You then rapidly uncross the needles to fling the hoop to your partner, who then tries to catch it with their own set of needles. We usually end up inventing some rules and patterns of tossing as we play and things can get a little crazy and silly, but it is a lot of fun.
Hershey finally announces that this site will be okay to spend the night and she didn’t want to move back to last night’s camping spot. It was also about time to start dinner. I discovered I didn’t have a clue on how to light the pilot light on the camper’s stove, so I had to figure out a way to cook a pizza in a frying pan on a Coleman stove. Marshmallow was gracious and ate most of the “pizza” that I made him.
Everybody was pretty tired from our day of adventure (and Marshmallow may have been experiencing TV withdrawal) so we quickly settled in for the night. After watching a short movie on the DVD we settled in for our evening slumber and enjoyed the sound of the water running over the rocks throughout the night. Monday morning Lucy and I went for a walk farther up the road and found some places that we might try out in the future. We enjoyed a leisurely morning. Mama and I packed things up as the children enjoyed the last bit of time in the hammock.
Mama and I both missed it, but as they children describe it, Marshmallow had a hammock experience straight out of a cartoon. Apparently he went to go get in it and it swung him around and flipped him upside down, but he clung on to the sides and tried to swing it back upright much to no avail. He finally lost is grip and dropped to the ground. At which point they called me over to help them get in without spinning.
We decided it was time to leave before the sun got too high and hot and the roads got to busy.
We had a nice drive back into Payson where we topped up on gas. We then headed down the hill back home. With the exception of one crazy person with a 30 foot trailer barreling down the hill and racing up on people and weaving through traffic it was a nice drive home. Fortunately, Mr. Attitude (that was the name stenciled on the rear of his camper) departed us about as quickly as he arrived and I believe managed to not jackknife of loose his trailer as I didn’t see him again for the rest of the drive home.
All in all it was a great weekend that we enjoyed very much.
Next adventure, learning how to empty the black and gray water tanks. If it is okay with you, I am going to pass on sharing that adventure. It is promising to be a pretty stinky situation.