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Hiding Out In The Desert

Hiding out in the desert

My last week in the US did not go as planned at all. It was hot, it was busy and I couldn’t leave the country… But I did end up with some of the best days of the trip so far.

I left Stanford with a plan to be out of the US before the end of the month in less than a weeks time. I stopped early that day and got myself a fancier campsite so I could do laundry, plan and charge the van. When I tried to pay for the campsite my credit card payment was refused. Turns out that the van repair and flights to Europe for the wedding have maxed out my credit card. I guess I’ll just have to pay cash everywhere for a few days and luckily I always have enough backup cash in the van for situations like these.

I continued my drive to the south visiting touristy Monterey and Carmel and driving along the beautiful Big Sur coast. Because of a huge wildfire all the parks inland from the coastal road were closed. And as every time when I drive along the coast the signs of full campsites started popping up early on the day. I tried to ignore that and stopped at an elephant seal colony. Those animals are like some weird hybrid between seals and manatees. They fight a bit and make ridiculous noises that sound like a toilet with a flushing problem but mostly they just sleep and throw sand over themselves. Luckily the mega state park campsite still had an empty spot for me. I could see the smoke from the wildfires in the distance while watching a nice sunset. Now I realized I had a bigger problem with my credit card. In order to get into Mexico I need to pay for Mexican car insurance which I can only pay for by credit card. Which means I’ll have to stay in the US for at least an additional five days to wait until my credit card is reset again (assuming I could file for insurance for the same day).

Big Sur

Big Sur

So now the process of getting down to Tijuana was slowed down a bit. I made some more coastal stops. Everything was so busy. It was even hard to find a parking spot, let alone a campsite. Of course it was Sunday so everything should be better tomorrow. So back to my old trick, head inland. I visited San Luis Obispo which has a pretty monastery and a nice city center. I drove inland for a campsite at a huge lake (or the map said it would be huge, it was almost empty like most lakes in California). The difference with the coast could not have been any bigger. I think the overall park had more than 200 sites and almost all of them were empty. On one of the steep hills in the campsite I got challenged to a game of chicken by a squirrel again, and again I had to back down because there was no way the van was going to start driving up that slope once I had stopped. Then someone came up to me and said my van was leaking some fluids… That is never a good sign. There clearly was a wet trail behind me… I stopped and dove under the car to see where it was coming from. Well for once I was lucky. It was the grey water tank (the dirty water from my sink) overflow hose. With the steep hill and the abrupt starting and stopping due to the squirrel water had sloshed out of the tank. Nothing to worry about, just a sign that I should empty the tank soon. The campsite was filled with wildlife. When I walked the 10 meters from my van to the restrooms I saw 2 deer, 3 turkeys and loads of squirrels. There were so many animals and none of them were worried about people or cars. With a nice evening sun this was great photo time.

Campsite in Lopez Lake

Campsite in Lopez Lake

The next day I took an alternative route to Santa Barbara stopping at the beautifully restored mission at Lompoc. I really had the idea I was already in Mexico. The alternative route to Santa Barbara was very very steep and very hot. So another round of good fun for the van. In Santa Barbara I also visited the monastery and while it is beautiful on the outside the inside is terribly touristic. This night would be my 100th night in the van and I really wanted to stay at the ocean for once (I have been close to it many times, but none of my campsites since Alaska ever had direct beach access). The beach bit of the campsite was very nice but it was expensive and the highway was right next to the sites. But hey you don’t see those things in the pretty pictures.

Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara

Now it would be time for some good fun. Getting pas LA. That city is huge and traffic is always a pain. I planned to drive past in the late morning hoping to not have too much traffic. This way I could also go back to Santa Barbara to visit the pier and the beach. Well it looks like it doesn’t matter when you drive past LA, traffic is always bad. What should have taken me some 2 hours ended up being 4 hours. I never really had to stop but mostly just kept speeding up and slowing down. The good thing about the delay was that The evening sun was beautiful on the mountain drive up to the campsite I had picked. The campsite was at 1900m which meant is was nicely cool. The owners told me there was a black bear going around the last few days (Sadly I didn’t see him/her) and that even though only a few spots were taken today they were already fully booked for the long weekend. Crap! I had totally forgotten it would be labor day this weekend which would mean every campsite would be fully booked months ahead of time. Of course my original plan had me in Mexico already by then but that won’t work anymore. Also I can’t even make reservations now if I wanted to because my credit card is maxed out…

Time to come up with a plan. I drove to a mall in Palm Springs so I could have some WiFi and air conditioning to look up some stuff. It didn’t look good. Most campsites were fully booked. Except for the ones here in the desert. I saw that there was a campsite that I had stayed at with my parents and Jasper 15 years ago. I mostly remember that they had a pool (and that my dad cut his toe on the stairs and tried to get the lady at the reception to understand that we didn’t want to sue her but just wanted a band aid). So I drove to that campsite. It was very expensive and had no shade but it was so hot (44C) that I really didn’t want to do anything anymore.So I spend that day hanging around the pool. Side question: why does a campsite in the middle of the desert have a sauna? Doesn’t really seem necessary. When I went to bed that night at around 11 it was still 37C outside. It was very hard to sleep and in the end I pulled a water bottle out of my fridge to put in my bed to cool down a bit.


The lady at the campsite had recommended me to try Joshua tree to get past the weekend. They have first come first serve campsites and it’s 1000m higher so that should help with the heat. So first thing in the morning was to claim a spot at one of the campsites that has a bit of shade. It was Thursday so the long weekend people weren’t there yet. For the next three days I lived there in the desert. Empty spots on the campsite were filled up the latest by noon but people kept coming by looking for spots every day until well after midnight. The northern half of Joshua Tree park is a beautiful desert with loads of interesting looking plants and big stacks of granite boulders.The desert was too hot to do anything in the middle of the day. Luckily my site was on the shade side of a big pile of boulders giving me some shade at the picknick table after 11, So every day was spend with a morning hike to some old mines or other ruins often involving some detouring for rock climbing and reading a book on top of the rocks. The afternoon I would plan for Mexico or just relax in the shade. After four I would walk from the campsite to a random stack of boulders to climb and read some more while watching the coyotes and jackrabbits walk by below me. At night there was one of the best Milky Way views I have ever seen.


After four days in the desert I had run out of food and water (you drink a lot in the desert). Also I was starting to get terrible headaches from all the sun and the dry air. Plus my credit card should have been reset by now so when I find internet I can get my Mexican insurance. So I drove out of the park to pick up some groceries, get insurance and look for another remote spot to camp one more night until the long weekend was over. More heat and more mountains. My van must really hate me. But a good campsite was found for that night.

Afraid of long queues for the Mexican border I wanted to get there as early as possible. I did not want to get stuck in San Diego morning traffic so for my last night in the US I picked a campsite between the city and the border. It was the most expensive campsite of my trip so I showered twice (hadn’t seen one in at least 4 days) and made sure all electronics were charged before heading to Mexico. That night I did not sleep well, nervous for what the real adventure of my trip will bring me.

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This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Hi Maarten,
    between your blogs I have time now to read other books. In a travellers story about going down to the Antarctica, I heard about the Darien Gap between Panama and Kolumbia: still no way, to drive these 200 kms of the Panamericana. Probably you already know about this difficulty – and it is still far away for you – but this is one of the sites, where people tell you their experience in handling the ‘gap’: Anyway: check the internet before you leave Costa Rica.

    Reading your blog, I recognize, that you never did wild camping in the USA, but driving forwards and backwards over miles to find a camp site. Is there a reason for it? I remember, we were at the West coast around the Labour Day Wekend and we had the same problem as you with full camp grounds. We just headed somewhere up the hill or into a forest and stayed there over night with our campervan.

    Your credit card problem: wouldn’t it be possible to make a phone call to your banker in the Netherlands to rise the limit immidiatly (just for once)?

    I wish you good luck and all the best for your tour through Mexico ! Maria

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