Travel isn’t always freeing.
On the last leg of our journey west to California, we ventured through territory none of us had seen, and we reentered a reality that we/I wrestle with regularly as an American. We encountered it all along the I-8 from just west of Tucson to San Diego, and it played with our emotions.
Driving through West Texas, New Mexico and southern Arizona made for a mostly peaceful and stunning tour. There is so little out there, except in El Paso and Las Cruces, that travelers have the landscape to themselves. White Sands, the Sonoran Desert, low mountain mesas rising to pointy ancient peaks, flat desert peppered with all varieties of cacti and brush. It is actually quite serene and, in many places, off-the-grid in the most appealing of ways: There is no one or nothing for miles, and one can imagine life as it might have been in the U.S. before the influx of land grabbers and fortune-seekers, more or less. It was so alluring that there is no doubt of our return. The desert speaks in quiet tones.
But then we hit Yuma for an overnight en route to the Pacific, and it was there that reality set in for this family. To begin, it was very hot and dusty a few hours before our arrival and after we departed. It keeps the driver’s watchful eyes on dashboard gauges for sure. As we approached Yuma, the desert gave way to miles and miles of farm land in green gradients. Were they lettuces? Wheatgrass? Were those pecan trees? We weren’t sure. Then we noticed the irrigation canals surrounding all of the agriculture. Having passed the sign for the scant trickle that was the Colorado “River” beneath us, we figured it out: This was Southern California farm country, and we were witness to man’s need to feed and our manipulation of nature for our sake, at a high cost. It was a bit depressing. We were in mourning.
Known for its dramatic canyons and whitewater rapids, the Colorado is a vital source of water for agricultural and urban areas in much of the southwestern desert lands of North America. The river and its tributaries are controlled by an extensive system of dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts, which in most years divert its entire flow to furnish irrigation and municipal water supply for almost 40 million people both inside and outside the watershed. The Colorado’s large flow and steep gradient are used for generating hydroelectric power, and its major dams regulate peaking power demands in much of the Intermountain West. This intensive consumption has dried up the lower 100 miles (160 km) of the river, such that it has reached the sea only a few times since the 1960s. (Wikipedia)
To add insult to injury, our campground — in Winterhaven specifically, a huge place with almost five hundred sites — ran along the Colorado. Quite literally, the river was at our doorstep, and it was the saddest thing we’d ever seen. The once mighty Colorado is without pomp this far south as it has been rerouted so many times along its path for agriculture and power generation, and it injured our senses. Irrigation canals line the perimeters of the chartreuse and evergreen rectangles, or are pooled below each and every tree in rows that go on forever. The river, slowly moving and absconded by tall grasses along its banks at the campground, left me disinterested in going near it, ashamed by my participation in its abuse. As it turns out, the greens of the farmland are indeed lettuces, and broccoli. If you buy greens all year long, they come from this place, and the need to feed sucks the river of its water wealth. It was kind of a bummer.
So there was that reintroduction to reality. Most of the campgrounds along the I-10 and I-8 generate quick revenue from transient travelers like us, who prefer to have a pull-through site in order to stay hitched so that resuming the drive east or west can continue without much interruption. However, most of the snowbirders that reside at this campground near Yuma, whether full time or part time, do so because of its proximity to Mexico, where they go for dental work, medical care, inexpensive prescription drugs, cosmetic tattoos to replace what chemo or illness has taken away, experimental drug treatments for cancer and a plethora of other things unbeknownst to me. It is a bizarre world, but necessary, because so many folks live on fixed incomes and limited health care coverage, or without it. They endure extreme temperatures and long drives — some as far as Alaska — so that they can help themselves. It is a fascinating and contemplative way of life, and it creates a whole new way of thinking about Mexican and American relationships.
People — mostly white people so far as we have seen — of the southern United States have a unique and intertwined relationship with healthcare professionals and retail shop owners of northern Mexico. In the South, a year round camping/resort lifestyle is possible, unlike up north, and probably more affordable than attempting to live a conventional life in a brick-and-mortar structure. Modern North Americans have been living this way for a long, long time actually — not out of luxury, but out of necessity. There are entire worlds like this in the South, and it was more evident than ever in Yuma.
When we left Yuma, we hadn’t even been driving for thirty minutes when we encountered a California inspection booth, whose inspectors asked whether or not we had citrus fruit on board. We did, about twenty pounds of it, and told them just that. We pulled over to juice the fruit, or else the inspectors would have tossed them. Then they took pictures of our rig, apparently to validate to their supervisors that they were doing their jobs, and asked if we were done juicing, which we weren’t, but they handed us the certificate of inspection anyway. Then, while we juiced away, there was a shift change. An entirely different inspector approached the camper to be sure that we had a certificate and gave us another one just in case. He just wanted our trash. The other inspectors were gone. We could have said nothing about the fruit and gone about our merry way, because it was like dealing with Larry, Mo and Curly. It made for an awkward entry into California.
But then there was more sensory overload. We began to venture through the very hot and vast Imperial Sand Dunes. Barren much like White Sand National Monument, the Imperial Dunes glowed French vanilla yellow and sucked up the heat from the sun. The temperature was rising and the desert was changing. Running parallel with and adjacent to the Mexican border, power lines began to share the landscape with the searing hot mountains, and a naval air base, too. Once we saw a cattle farm (not a ranch) with literally thousands of cows hunkered in pens in the desert in the scorching heat; they went on so far into the background that we couldn’t see its end. Then long fences and border patrol stops. Anyone or anything working or living out there, or anyone daring to cross, would be in for a long and arduous day. No breaks, no water, no trees, no shade, just one long, scalding interstate. Down there, one needs to be on the cool side of the day or the right side of the law. Otherwise, it would be no fun at all.
Thankfully, we started to ascend into the Cleveland National Forest, past gorgeous and pronounced wind turbines, over the Tecate Divide, among golden boulders and the occasional ram, onto green forests and hidden villages. Up and down the steep grades we went, turning off the air and monitoring the RPMs to avoid overheating. We felt a sense of relief in this region. The air was cooler, the environment significantly less harsh. The off-the-grid feeling settled us down a bit and we enjoyed the drive as we descended.
Just went from 97° to 79° after traversing the Diegueño Mountians. Also spotted a big horn sheep in this stuff. pic.twitter.com/QZxeKY8Bu2
— Scot Rumery (@srumery) April 20, 2016
The mountains of the Cleveland National Forest still make up most of the landscape in Southern California near San Diego. It makes for a meandering journey into the city. But there is more that adds to that journey. It is traffic. Vehicles, cars and people. If San Diego — all of Southern California at that — is a parade, then everyone is trying to squeeze into the front for a piece of candy and a peek at the action. More than I ever remember, San Diego is jammed-packed with cars and humans. There is nary a square foot of real estate to be had. It is completely impossible for me to imagine what Alta California was like once upon a time; it all has been paved. Paradise is a parking lot — and a highway and a Costco and an Albertsons and an airport. Driving a rig in the city (and I was driving that day) was an all-systems-go event (but the drivers were a bit friendlier and easier-going than the ones in Tampa!). We found our KOA, unhitched, went to market and our conference and, a week later, moved to our summer residence in El Cajón.
But now I am intimidated by exploring a piece of the American Way that I don’t like so much. I am overwhelmed, too, by extreme consumerism and capitalism. I just am. It is gluttonous and a bit grotesque. We are situated at the top of one of the nearby mountains and surrounded by more, and I’m a bit afraid to go back out, over and into the city, the region, that has gobbled up nature so and offers up anything and everything at whim. I did not expect to feel this way, but I do. I don’t want to be at the front of the parade crowd, but I do want to experience something about this part of the country. So what is it and what can I do about these feelings I have?
There is no doubt that it costs a fortune to live here. We already have met lots of folks — grocery clerks and former city dwellers, for example — that simply love the sunny side of sunny California, as well as the mountains, the ocean and the abundance, but they have to live way inland to do so. They’ve accepted the fact that they might not get close to the parade, but at least they can see a little bit of it, maybe even hear it, too, and someone will throw candy their way. Access is Coronado Island, downtown San Diego on the waterfront, La Jolla. Personally, I am reminded of our want to explore Tampa: It takes a lot of effort to do so among so much expansion and highway. I am building up confidence to make my way into the pinball world of Southern California.
We have plans to visit Imperial Beach, the last bastion of quiet, uncluttered SoCal and uncontested beach parking. I heard that the best farm market in San Diego is there, too. We are planning visits to the zoo and downtown and the meditation gardens. We want to hang out in the mountains, we want to hang out with new friends. We’d like to spend some time in Oceanside and Encinitas. Late summer plans include camping in L.A. and possibly Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park. There is a lot to do, and everyone wants to do it. I would like to feel more positively about it.
There are lots of folks out there who think that my type of perspective is full of shit, that we’re on top of the food chain and that is how it goes. They may feel fully entitled to cross the border into Mexico seeking services, while joining a growing trend of prohibiting Mexicans from using ours. There are more that see no sense in what I’m saying about damming mighty rivers all along their routes. And there are still more who are totally cool with consumer abundance. It is expected and assumed; we are entitled. Life will go on like this with or without my vapor. So I will sit and wait to see.
Three months in one place will help me clear the sensory overload noise. This is the slow travel way for us. Quiet time in the mountains, a good plan always helps, and a picnic and a backpack. Avoiding back-to-back downtown adventures is also a good idea. And until I can find local resources, I will rely on the same grocery store layout as Anywhere Town, U.S.A., where all the food is lined up by color or sameness for ease of shopping, where all of the water is bottled and I can find super foods year round. It is looking like California may not be for me or for this family, but this is what we came to discover, for it isn’t just California, it is the American way — abundance, demand and the occasional sense of entitlement. I feel it here, but I hope to feel differently by the end of this leg. Perhaps this California sunshine will improve my optimism.