November 1 – December 22, 2020.
We arrived back in Tucson and parked in front of our friends’ house in their vacant lot at the end of October. We had left from the same location in a rush back in March. The pandemic was just starting to get serious and we were afraid the city might completely close down and we would be stuck.
So we hit the road and found a camping spot in a wildlife preserve an hour’s drive south. In order to be safe and responsible, we decided to quarantine every two weeks. We bought two weeks of groceries and an extra 6-gallon jerry can in order to carry two weeks’ worth of water. We hung out in Southern Arizona moving every week or two until the heat of late spring started driving us north and into cooler higher elevations.
We followed the weather and our whims without a clear plan. Before the COVID-19 changed everything we were actively gathering information for a road trip to Alaska. But now the border to Canada was closed. We had had a list of places we wanted to visit along the way along in California, Oregon, and Washington but those states seemed off-limits now, being hard hit by the virus. We scrapped the entire plan. As we headed north we found places we could hunker down for a while but we could never stay in any one place very long, moving when the daily/weekly limit of those free public camping locations expired. As the months passed and we traveled into Idaho and Montana we feel freer to change locations more often. I studied the map when we had a good internet connection to figure out where we’d go next. Things broke. Worn-out clothing and shoes needed to be replaced. And each time I had to figure out in which city up ahead we could find stores or to get mail or pick up a package. In each new town, we didn’t know whether the businesses would be enforcing best practices for preventing the spread of the virus or whether the local citizenry would be complying.
This was the first year in the nine we have been traveling that we didn’t plan to go back to Cabbagetown for the summer to house sit and earn more traveling money. This worked out well since few people went away on vacation due to the pandemic. But it also meant we didn’t have a break. We didn’t have the convenience of living in a house with daily hot showers, uninterrupted internet, time to regroup, map out new adventures, and to work on van projects, time to pursue other interests, room to spread out, or time away from each other. We just kept moving, living each day out of our tiny abode, figuring everything out as we went along.
Even still we have been lucky. While most people were isolated in one place this past year we have been able to continue to roam. We visited 6 new states. We added a few new National Parks to our list, Bryce Canyon, Grand Basin, Yellowstone, Glacier, Theodore Roosevelt. We got to hike through lava fields, gaze up at gigantic roadside art, marvel at prehistoric fossils, meet up with friends, kayak, follow the path of adventurers, and hike among rock spires created by monumental forces and sculpted by time. But living this life 24/7 can be overwhelming. In my mind, it is carefree as we bounce from one place to another easily discovering the amazing things this world has to offer. But in reality, it is often the opposite of carefree, meal planning for two weeks has been hard, shopping each time in a new city can be stressful, figuring out how to store a whole household in just 55 square feet is daunting, adding new things even more daunting, figuring out where to live each day is time-consuming, I often fear arriving at a new place and finding bad roads or not having a spot to park, things that are simple to do in a house take twice as long in the van, we open the van doors wide to expand our space and to let a little sunshine into our cave and dust blows in coating everything, and when it rains our world shrinks back into 55 square feet.
I love this life but out here in the world, I come face to face with my anxieties every day. Traveling makes me anxious, talking to new people makes me anxious. I’m prone to depression. And some days I just don’t want to face any of it. Some days it is a chore to get out of bed.
But we do it anyway. Get up, make the bed, dress, and head out the door for our morning walk. We go looking for birds most days. It can be a slow process and I often want to turn around, go back to the van, and busy my mind with a Sudoku puzzle. But then I see a bird perched on a limb up ahead. Greg sights it in his binoculars and I slowly creep forward until I can see it clearly through the zoom lens of my camera. I take a shot or two then wait for the bird to turn the right way so the light shows the details of his feathers and I can see one of his eyes, hopefully with a reflected spark of catch light. I creep closer, continuing to take shots until my subject decides he’s had enough of me and flies just far enough away out of the range of my camera. And now I’m awake, ready to find more birds, my mood elevated, and I’m glad to face the challenges of this life I’ve chosen, living and traveling in a small vehicle.
We spent a good bit of November and December in Tucson. I had plans for exploring parts of the city and the surrounding area we have never had time for before. But somehow we always stayed busy with other things and time seemed to just evaporate. After a couple of weeks in our friends’ vacant lot, we moved into their house for two and a half weeks to look after their cat while they were away. The daily hot showers were great! And with having the advantage of a whole house to spread out in along with unlimited internet, we found ourselves doing in those few weeks what we usually spend all summer in Cabbagetown doing – chores of van life, cleaning, repairing, regrouping, planning.
Still, despite our busy weeks in Tucson, we found some spare time to bird. Tucson is an amazing place to practice this hobby. We only had to walk a few blocks down the street from our friends’ lot to be in one of Tucson’s many birding hotspots. I marked up a map with dozens of places to drive to but we only managed a few, returning to our favorites when the chores of our traveling life allowed.
Sweetwater Preserve was not the best place we found for birding but it was a nice place to take a hike in the desert. The 880-acre preserve is located on the west side of Tucson in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains about a half-mile from Saguaro National Park. It’s 15 miles of trails cater to equestrians, hikers, trail runners, mountain bikers and is one of the few wilderness areas in the area where you can walk a dog.
In 1873 a ranch and a health resort were built at the site of what is now Agua Caliente Park. In 1984 local businessman Roy P. Dragan donated over $200,000 towards the purchase of the property and today the 101-acre park features a warm spring and several ponds. Wide paved and gravel paths wander past the ponds and through a scraggly desert landscape. The ranch house still stands and serves as a visitor center and art gallery. Unfortunately, the visitor center and gallery were closed during our visit. Normally there are walks, talks, and other activities in the park but they were all suspended due to the pandemic.
Rio Vista Natural Resource Park & Rillito River Walk
Just a short walk down the road from where we were camped at our friends’ house is the Rio Vista Natural Resource Park and Rillito River Park. Rio Vista sits along The Loop, a 131-mile paved pedestrian/bike/equestrian path that circles the city. It has a playground, ramadas, and a large grassy field where people picnic and meet for “yapping hour” with their dogs in the evening. It also has a small maintained but ungroomed section with interconnecting paths that wander through desert scrub and with a few trees here and there.
The Rillito River Park is a linear park adjacent to Rio Vista and runs for 12 miles along The Loop along the banks of the usually dry Rillito River.
Fort Lowell Park
1873 seems to have been a busy year for the city of Tucson. Besides the ranch at Agua Caliente, the U.S. Army built Fort Lowell to guard the city against Indian attacks. Today, the site is home to a museum and ruins of the fort as well as a park featuring athletic fields, a swimming pool, a playground, tennis courts, and most importantly a duck pond.