Traveling & Hiking in the US SW #7: Culture Surprises   (Spring 2011)


Such Nice People

We were immediately taken with the kindness and good cheer of the larger RV’ing community during our trip to the US southwest.  The warm fuzzy feelings began with the 2 men from whom we rented the RV in Las Vegas and continued on through to the campground staff and to our fellow RV’ers.

The RV park crowd was a bit more outgoing with their friendliness than the wilderness campground set, but everyone was so cheery, so easy going, so happy--so contented. It seemed that the combination of sunny (though sometimes cold) weather, the semi-outdoor lifestyle, and being retired or in a low-output job sat well with many.

These Freightliner rigs looked a little too serious.

A  man from Massachusetts hopped out of his RV at dinner time to help Bill when he was contending with our low water pressure problem. The east coaster said he’d noticed that we were in a rented rig and correctly assumed that we might need some help. He diagnosed the problem--a clogged regulator--and answered several of Bill’s other questions about fluids and fuels.

Several people were quick to move their vehicles so we had room to park at trailheads, which was make-or-break assistance. The single logo on the rear of our rig that indicated it was a rental added to their sympathy with our challenges.


I was surprised by the absolute lack of expressed or implied one-upmanship among the RV’ers. None of this “mine is bigger than yours” boy-game stuff at all. We immediately felt like members of the club despite being first timers in a rented rig.

Introducing ourselves as ‘first-timers’ always triggered a “Welcome to our world, hope you love it as much as we do, have a great trip....”  And when we literally went door-knocking and inviting ourselves in for a tour of other people’s RV’s, everyone one was quick to tell us what was good and bad about their current mobile home and compare it to their prior purchases. There was no face-saving when it came to talking about regrettable choices, current or historical.

My first impression continued on through the trip: that this was the nicest, most supportive incidental community that I had ever experienced. I doubt that our political views and values were in sync with the general RV’ing community we were sampling--and we were careful not to find out--but we enjoyed being in their neighborhoods.

Rare Unpleasantries

Our unpleasant encounters were few and far between. On the interstate, some truckers were obliged to honk at us as they passed, presumably registering a complaint about our slow speed even though we only occupied 1 of 2 lanes in our direction. We finally settled upon accepting their honk as meeting their need, a need which carried with it no worthwhile information for us.

Other drivers were exceedingly patient with us on lesser roads when there was no way around us and we were slowing them down. I apologized to one driver at a traffic light whose passenger window was down and he responded with “Don’t worry about it.” Several gave us the ‘shielding’ help we needed when we were making blind right turns or merges by keeping the lane we were entering free.

Over the course of a hundred or more brief encounters on the trails and in the campgrounds in a week’s time, we averaged less than 1 grump.  And it was usually men who appeared to need to stake out territory by being rude, confrontational, or obstructionist. Normally those little incidents would hardly have registered at all but against a backdrop of exceptionally pleasant and upbeat people, their unprovoked, non-specific bits of hostility looked wildly out of place and pitiful.


Competitiveness in the Campgrounds

One aspect of the state and federal campground culture that I loathed was the ‘first come, first serve’ policy. It was a nice policy in that we didn’t get shut-out by local campers booking their favorite places a year in advance and yet it demanded an unpleasant amount of competitiveness to stay in a given area when there were few other options.

The iconic look of Chiricahua.

For example: Bill planned our itinerary expecting to spend 3 nights in the campground at the base of the rocks of the stunning Chiricahua Monument but when we discovered it only had about 25 sites, we understood it was a ‘snooze and you lose’ place. And lose meant ‘lose-out on the only campground for 35 miles’ and that distant option was a gravel-pit type RV park.  So if we didn’t get a spot, we’d likely abandon hiking in the Monument altogether and move-on to another venue.

Online research revealed that check-out time at the campground was 11:00 am so we stayed at the dreary RV park 35 miles away the night before and we were in Chiricahua, trolling for a spot, by 10:30 am. We were lucky in that one of the few spots big enough for us was available when we arrived. It was being ‘reserved’ by a ranger who had parked his mini-backhoe in the slot. We accepted his invitation to move his digger and grabbed the campsite.

By 2:00 pm on this week day the campground was full and a stream of distraught campers were being turned away. The next morning, the first trollers were in the campground at 7 am when the park gates opened--no doubt folks who had lost out the day before who didn’t want to lose twice.  Our outdoor morning exercise routine had the added, painful to watch, entertainment of people jockeying for campsites as they were vacated.

Delightfully, Chiricahua had a shuttle bus that took hikers to the highest point of the windy road so they could spend the day walking down through the dramatic rock formations. But getting a seat on the free bus was competitive too. The bus made one run a day for the lucky 14 who signed up the day before--in person only. We were too late the first day we tried to reserve seats but we had a reprieve: their bus was in the shop so they were making 2 runs with the smaller replacement van--a van in which we both got seats.  It was unwelcome to repeatedly rally so much aggressiveness to grab a spot so we could then enjoy the peacefulness of being in nature.

More ‘Law of the Jungle’ in Campgrounds 

A few days after being double winners at Chiricahua, we were the losers at Roper Lake State Campground even though we arrived around noon. The bad news was that all of the coveted hook-up spots were taken but the good news was being able to secure a no hook-up place for the night. Our after-lunch activity became walking the hook-up area to count the number of spaces being vacated in the morning.

We carefully inspected the current payment tags to identify the departing campers and the posted reservation tags to select our top choice among the few sites that would be available to us. Our top pick was a lakeside campsite with a covered concrete pad for our exercises. Unfortunately, the current occupant was one of those rare obstructionists: when I asked when he thought he’d be leaving the next day he responded with “When I feel like it.” Of course we all knew that there was a 2pm check-out time, so it wasn’t as open-ended as he boosted.

Normally my question would have prompted a sympathetic and helpful response. Everyone staying in the first-come, first-serve state and federal campgrounds (Roper Lake had both reserved and non-reserved sites) quickly learns that it is a very competitive situation. In our limited experience, departing campers had been universally happy to lend a hand to the next arrival, but not him.

Lacking his help, we’d need to be up early, hoping to edge out any fellow RV’ers overnighting with us in the service-less area (with horrific smelling chemical toilets sans the chemicals) with the same ambitions, hoping that the time it took to score a better campsite wouldn’t cost us the day’s planned hike. We resented the time it would take but decided to stay an extra night to get a better return on our investment in the upgraded campsite.

So the game began. At 7 am the next morning Bill and I were both out cruising the campsites to see who was up among the departing campers. Unlike other campgrounds, this was a late-sleeping crowd and none of the folks occupying the half dozen sites coming available that day were even stirring. We took turns doing our morning run/walk in sight of the our top 3 picks to monitor their slow progress.

The yellow-headed blackbirds at Roper Lake watched on.

The minutes turned to hours and we split up, one staying with the RV while doing their exercises, the other discreetly in sight of the choicest spot. Once again on this trip I felt like a big cat on the savannah stalking prey, or perhaps a hit man with a contract.

I imagined that I should have been saying “Arctic Fox 1 to Arctic Fox 2” on the cell phone when I called Bill with updates. “The guy in the camper has been fiddling with his awning for 20 minutes; his hook-ups are still connected. The family group is still hours from departing. The lakeside Obstructionist has linked his truck and trailer but his slide is still out. Over.” How incredibly silly: we’d resorted to cell phones to stay in touch while Bill took possession of a lesser site with hook-ups while we still hoped for the lakeside one with a highly desirable concrete pad.

Three hours had passed since we first began our morning campsite site surveillance. The Obstructionist had been puttering to break camp the entire time. I had finished my run, I’d done all of my exercises, and Bill had brought me my breakfast. I started getting tense as the morning heated up while I watched from under the cover of a just-abandoned but reserved site’s picnic area. “Soon, it had to be soon” I thought as I started to get sweaty as I hoped or sensed The Obstructionist was about ready to make his move.

Suddenly, the couple occupying the site between me and The Obstructionist was almost ready to leave. “Of course” was their response when I asked if I could claim their spot by sitting at their picnic table as they finished hooking up their trailer. The Mrs. and I were talking when The Obstructionist appeared to get into his truck for the last time. “I’ve been watching that lakeside spot for hours” was my hurried interruption as I scampered off to the backside of the site, the Mrs. wishing me good luck in getting it.

I darted across the dusty common area and entered the lakeside site from the back, the picnic table side. As I reached the asphalt parking pad, I noticed a younger woman turning into the site from the road-side on a bike. I plopped my dirty cereal bowl down on the parking curb and whipped out the 3 night payment tag from my pocket that I had secured earlier. 

To an observer, it might have looked like a draw but I could tell she felt she had been beaten. I had counted on having the yellow payment tag in hand to settle any disputes and her body language projected her agreement; she knew she was up against a tougher competitor, regardless of the details.  Not as young, perhaps not a fast, but in the jungle my years of experience still topped her youth: I was the more successful big cat on the savannah this day; I was the one who had downed the prey; I was the one licking my chops while she went back the brood empty handed.

I felt sorry for her as she pouted at the disappointment and mumbled about getting a payment tag soon, but we had really wanted that spot and I felt like we had earned it. In the end, she must not have been as invested in the prime real estate as we were because her family didn’t move their nearby rig into the adjacent lakeside spot that unexpectedly became available a few hours later. Once again, the requisite competitiveness to a get a campsite had detracted from the pleasure of having one.


As I constantly assessed the range of travel styles in both the public and private campgrounds, I was always struck by how unfair the campground systems seemed to be for the tenters, the most authentic campers. They were living close to the earth, close to nature, and consuming the fewest resources and yet they were systematically discriminated against by the administrators.

No tents allowed at this pleasant, western-themed RV park.

Tenter’s got little or no price break compared with the small to medium-sized mobile homes at public or private campgrounds, which seemed rude and unfair.  And I was surprised to see how often the tenter’s didn’t have the option of throwing in the towel and going to a private campground for a hot shower because many would not allow tents.

The RV park in Sedona in which we took shelter from a significant snow storm prohibited tents because of their underground electrical system but I suspect in general it was just outright class discrimination. The KOA’s seemed to universally allow tents but their campgrounds were often 30% more expensive than their competitors, again charging tents the same price that small RV’ers paid.

In addition to the price/availability bind the tent crowd was in, there was a Catch-22 for all of us in the wilderness campgrounds. It was there that we all had our most profound potential for peace and quiet and yet it was often disrupted by the folks running their generators. Just about every mobile home has one but it is primarily the folks in the very largest rigs that run them routinely. Travelers like us in smaller rigs tended to make their lifestyle fit within the limits of the electricity stored in their batteries when hook-ups weren’t available--we didn’t turn our generator on once in our 2 months of travel.

One night I made the mistake of parking us near 3 bus-like rigs in a lovely and inexpensive lakeside campground and for almost 3 hours in the morning and nearly as long in the evening, one or more of them was running their rumbling gasoline generators. And there was no escaping their intrusive engine noise by closing our windows and door. Their use was only prohibited from 10pm until 6am, which left room for a lot of aggravation. Had we been sardines in the adjacent RV park paying 3-4 times the nightly fee, there would have been fewer trees but there also would not have been any generator noise as none were allowed to operate.

Wrapping It Up

Our 2 month tour of the US southwest concluded with us being snowed-in at Sedona, Arizona and consequently having a briefer than expected visit to the dramatic Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada near Las Vegas.

The whole event was over far too quickly, which was a great measure of the success of the adventure. It was slated as a reconnaissance trip to assess both the appeal of the region for extended and repeated hiking trips and whether or not we could cut-it as RV’ers of any variety. We loved the near-outdoor lifestyle and treasured being in bright sun during a time of year in which we’d be blanketed by dark, cold, wet weather whether at home or abroad on our bikes. 

When the notion of the RV hiking trip was conceived, it was in the “gee-whiz” category because Bill was casually casting about for alternative lifestyles. By the time the trip rolled around, EU immigration officials had helped us understand that we needed to contain our European cyclo-touring adventures to 3 months per year, so we suddenly had 9 months to fill-in with a new fitness-focused lifestyle.  Our new lifestyle choice appeared to be handed to us on a platter and we weren’t home long from the SW before we were riding our bikes out to suburban dealerships to shop for long bed, 4x4 trucks and cab-over campers. More about that to come in our next piece “Mental Voyages At Home.”

The following images are from Sedona, Arizona & Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.