Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

December 23, 2004. Camping in the Cold.

When I made my travel plans, I figured Iíd visit the northern parts of the continent in the summer, and stay south in the winter. My van doesnít have heat when Iím not driving, and the air conditioning doesnít work even when I am driving, so this way I figured Iíd be okay on temperatures all the time.

Little did I know! Iíd never been at elevation before, Iíd never been in the high desert before, I had no idea what the southwest is like in the winter. Snow at the Grand Canyon should have been a warning, but I figured it didnít snow further south so Iíd be fine.

Okay, weíre not talking Boston winters here, and in the desert it does generally warm up when that blazing sun comes out. But living in a van thatís the same temperature as the outside world takes getting used to. Iím not sure I have.

When I stayed with Karl in Phoenix it was in the thirties at night. Cold, but my sleeping bag and the wonderful fleece blanket a friend gave me are great. Under the covers itís always toasty warm. And when morning came I could zip into the house instead of staying in the cold. By nine in the morning the chill was gone, and by midday Iíd be out in shorts and a t-shirt. Afternoons were positively hot.

When I went down to Tucson it was raining. When it rains the sun doesnít come out, and when the sun doesnít come out the overnight chill never goes away. For a few days it was wet and nasty and cold. Fortunately there was a nice Y in Tucson Ė two of them Ė with good gyms and nice hot showers, and Catalina State Park, where I stayed, also had showers.

At the hot springs, the solution was to just stay in the water. After a quarter of an hour it was too warm to submerge, so I rested half in and half out, raising an arm or leg into the chilly air to cool off, or lowering it into the water to warm up, as needed. I spent evenings that way, reading by the light of my headlamp or enjoying the moon and stars. At Faywood Hot Springs in New Mexico, I woke to an unexpected phone call at 5:00 in the morning. Once Iíd crawled out of my van to listen to a garbled message, I figured I might as well get in the pool instead of going back to sleep. For two hours I enjoyed the warmth of the water, listening to coyotes yapping in the desert and watching the sky slowly change from black to charcoal to deep royal blue to hyacinth to a clear brilliant light as the sun came up and shone through the slats of the fence around the pool. Once I got back to my van and packed to leave, though, my hands were numb with cold, the air temperature still below freezing.

I watch the temperature in my van carefully. Iím curious to see how cold it really is, or what Iíve come to consider warm. Fifty is like being in a nice heated house by now. Thirty five isnít really bad, though it will make my hands pretty cold if Iím not careful. One morning my thermometer said thirty when I headed out for a walk. As I walked I got colder and colder, my lips were numb, my legs were freezing. When the sun finally rose I warmed up, but as soon as I stepped back in the shade it was icy again. When I got back to my van, parked in the shade of a canyon, the thermometer read twenty four. I must have been warming it up to thirty degrees!

During Chanukah I felt briefly Jew-identified, and decided to light a menorah. That warmed up the van quite nicely, and I eagerly waited for the holiday to progress so I could light more candles each night once the sun went down. But I had to crack a window all the time, lest the limited oxygen supply burn up. And I had to watch those candles with an eagle eye; I really donít need to start a fire in my little van. So Jewish holidays werenít quite a solution to the cold.

Right now southern Texas is having a cold snap, along with most of the US. Thank goodness weíre not having the blizzards or freezing rain or near-zero temperatures hitting the mid-west, but itís still cold enough. And it's windy,

wild swirls of leaves rattling in corners and banners tearing off of buildings to flap wildly in the gusts. Iíve been camping at the rest stops on I-10, which is legal in Texas. Itís quite a scene, actually. The night before last I pulled into a stop just west of Sonora at 7:30 in the evening. There were a couple of RVs there, and a truck or two passing through. I pulled up behind the RVs and closed all the curtains in my van so I was in a cozy bright cocoon Ė albeit a cold one. Much later I headed to the bathroom to brush my teeth. To my astonishment, the whole rest stop was filled with trucks, there was hardly room for any more. Who knew? I never realized how many people spend the night at rest stops. In the east itís not allowed. Iím not sure where the truckers sleep out east, but in Texas the rest stops even have RV dumps and signs that the trash bins may only be used by campers, not for household waste.

Alas, whoever designed rest stops in Texas doesnít seem to have noticed that winter happens here. The bathrooms are fine and clean, and the hand driers pretty good for thawing frozen fingers, but the walls donít reach the ceiling, and cold winds sweep through the place. Maybe they donít want us folks in unheated vanagons to decide to camp inside instead? A lot of the trucks ran their engines all night. Wimps, those macho truckers canít even handle the cold! Under my blankets, with the hood of my fleece jacket pulled over my head, I was lovely and warm. In the morning I lay in bed for an hour, ruefully aware that soon the need to go to the toilet would overcome my fear of the cold, and force me out from under my covers. Who ever knew that going on the road would include such improbable experiences?

Last night I stayed in a rest stop on I-10, en route to San Antonio. I pulled in past eleven, and almost couldnít find a space to park. Up at the front I saw an old Westy with California plates, so I pulled ahead of him and hoped Iíd find out later who was inside. Sure enough, this morning as I was packing up, I saw a young man shivering in a hooded sweatshirt as he took a photo of his van and mine. His bus was a 1971 that he had restored the previous fall, and from the outside it looked quite lovely. But he didnít have funds to replace the poptop canvas, so as he drove the wind whistled through the whole van. Poor kid, he was even more shocked by the cold in Texas than I was!

Maybe if Iím still living in Matilda next winter Iíll spring for one of those interior heaters that they keep arguing about on the Vanagon list. On the other hand, thereís something rather nice about adapting to the cold, maybe I wonít.

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