Final days in the Sonoran Desert- AZ

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Our winter stay in the Sonoran Desert this year began in January and seemed to just fly by. After my birding excursions at Patagonia, we returned to Tucson recently to wrap up a few appointments, hike with friends and socialize before beginning our slow migration north.

Mount Lemmon was dusted with snow when we returned to Tucson at the beginning of March

While setting up camp we heard the military ‘birds” overhead, giving us a free air show that went on for the entire weekend.  I attempted to get good photos of them flying in formation as they flew right over the highly-populated city.  We learned that nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the Arizona Air National Guard were practicing maneuvers, and it looked to us like they were doing a great job!  It was fun to watch, but the noise did get a bit old after a while.

I wouldn’t want to be the enemy and see this coming at me!

They even practiced some large explosions on the ground

We got a show of our own, as Betsy received her annual professional wash and power wax:

This team seems to have a lot of supervisors

Something we like to do when friends visit us here is show off our favorite cactus, the awesome saguaro.  When Mike and Jeanie came to town we drove over Gates Pass and into Saguaro National Park (west).

At Gates Pass overlooking Saguaro National Park

Jeanie and I tested our new “Peak Finder” app by pointing our iPhones at the mountain peaks.  It identified them just like the plaque in front of us!

We made a stop at Old Tucson Studios, which remains an active filming location for Western-themed movies, television, cable shows and commercials – also dubbed “Hollywood in the Desert.”  Here is my post about our first visit in 2016.

Old Tucson Studios

Gunfight on the street

This is a fun stop if you’re into old Westerns (Steve is a big Gunsmoke fan)

On another day when Steve was getting some work done on the car I joined John and Pam on their last hike at Tucson Mountain Park.  A nice thing that happened on this particular hike was that they named a crested saguaro after me! (little pleasures 🙂  Are they the coolest or what?

John urged us up to a nice spot for a lunch break

The Mona Liza Crested Saguaro!

Knowing we won’t be here again for a couple of years, we tucked in two more hikes – one on Star Pass Trail and the other on Ventana Canyon Trail.  Following recent rains, the desert had awakened.  The saguaros were plump, the ocotillos were budding and the rest of the desert plants perked up ready for spring.  Happily, we had the trails mostly to ourselves as we enjoyed the quiet scenery and said goodbye to our thorny friends.

And he says I’m a ham!

A saguaro forest basking in the morning sunshine

View of Tucson from the top of the ridge along Ventana Canyon Trail

We spent our last evening in Tucson with Gay and Joe of good-times rollin.  They prepared delicious beef fajitas, which Joe and Steve cooked while exchanging notes about their cancer journeys.  We were so happy to hear that Joe is now cancer free!

Beef fajitas – yum!

About 164 miles north of Tucson is the small town of Black Canyon City, our last stop before exiting the Sonoran Desert.  It’s where the Sonoran Desert transitions to the coniferous Arizona mountain forests at higher elevations.  This was a revisit for us, as we had discovered a couple of nice hikes here a couple of years ago.

We were excited to meet up with the Wandering Camels once again for a fun hike.  Dave and Faye joined us for our swan song hike in the Sonoran Desert.  It’s always a hoot hiking with this great couple whom we have trekked with in southern Utah and Banff National Park.

A hike with Dave and Faye is always fun!

New River

Dave caught us bidding goodbye to the saguaros

But we were itching to move on, even if it meant missing the desert in bloom and the flowering saguaros.  We experienced it last year, enjoying a whole different desert during the spring and summer months.

Just for smiles 🙂

We spent so much time hanging around the saguaros that I imagined personalities for some of them.  What do you think?

Dave and I created a “human” saguaro

 

 

Next up:  So much to do around Cottonwood!



 

Return to the Sonoran Desert- AZ

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Saguaro

Welcome back!

We always look forward to driving back into the Sonoran Desert for our winter stays.  We feel like this desert full of Saguaros is waiting just for us – are we becoming desert rats after all these years?  Whatever it is, being here makes us feel as if we’re in our “comfort zone”.  I’ve published over 30 posts during our past stays, click here to view all we’ve seen and done in this area.

So where exactly is the Sonoran Desert, you might ask?  Most of it’s actually in Mexico, with more than two-thirds in Baja California and the state of Sonora.  Here in the U.S. it covers the southwestern part of Arizona and small areas in southeastern California.

Credit: Western National Parks Assn.

The geography of the desert is interesting to note, as it’s located in two states – Arizona and California – and in two countries, Mexico and the U.S.  The metropolitan cities of Phoenix and Tucson are within the boundaries of the Sonoran Desert.

A glimpse of the Sonoran Desert

Following our recent stay in San Diego, we took a roundabout route to Tucson.  First we made a 3-day stop in Yuma and re-hiked the Telegraph Pass Trail, a 5.3-mile jaunt we first completed four years ago.  It’s the most strenuous hike Steve has done since completing his treatments, and a good place to gauge his progress.  He aced it!

Contemplating his attack on the mountain

Looking back to the starting point

Looking west toward densely-populated Yuma

Fields of vegetables east of Yuma

We saw a few Elephant trees – a rare species under protected status – along the trail

Common side-blotched lizard

Common Side-blotched Lizard

Next we headed northwest to camp at White Tank Mountain Regional Park, one of the few regional parks we’d not visited in the Phoenix area.  With our Verizon signal in the pits (one bar only), we had plenty of time to hike the many excellent trails in the warm and sunny Sonoran Desert weather.

The start of another day in the desert – let’s go hiking!

This park offers 30 miles of trails of varying difficulty.  We hiked them all, from the easiest (Waterfall Trail) to the toughest (Ford Canyon and Goat Camp Trail), racking up over 47 miles during our 2-week stay.

White Tank Mountain RP is a destination park for area hikers

It was our first time here, and we wondered about the history behind the name.  I imagined there must have been a huge white water container constructed somewhere in the mountains.  During some serious rock scrambling I learned that heavy rainfall rushing through the steep canyons scours out depressions, or “tanks” in the white granite waterways.

Ford Canyon Trail

A water tank created in white granite along the Ford Canyon Trail

The granite here has been weathered and bleached into smooth surfaces and shapes that hold water in some places

There was once a large natural water tank surrounded by white granite cliffs that spawned the name.  It collapsed long ago, and its exact location has been lost.  It was an important watering hole from 1863 to 1895, for it held water year-round.  What we saw during our hike were many smaller tanks and watering holes.  That explains why the name is singular White “Tank” instead of “Tanks”, despite the smaller features in the mountain.

When it rains this becomes a raging waterfall

Petroglyphs along Waterfall Trail

It’s a juggling act

Valley of the Sun and the Phoenix skyline as seen from Willow Canyon  Trail

Mule Deer Trail

A seemingly never-ending trail in the Sonoran Desert, seen from Mule Deer Trail

Crested Saguaro

One of Pam’s friends, the only crested Saguaro we saw (at the Goat Camp Trailhead)

Maricopa Trail

Up to the Goat Camp Trail

One day between our hiking activities, we drove about 40 miles east to check out the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) in Phoenix, which our friends Tom and Allison suggested we must see.  I was initially hesitant since we had already been wowed at the National Music Museum (NMM) at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota.  Click here to read about that hidden gem.

How a Fender electric guitar is assembled

Mechanical Music Gallery – instruments designed to play on their own

The Phoenix museum is massive (200,000 sq. ft. in two floors) and ultra-modern.  Even for folks who don’t play an instrument this place is worth a visit, as there are also dozens of displays with the actual instruments and clothes worn by famous musicians, past and present.  Instruments are organized by regions of the world, and the included audio headsets allowed us to hear the instruments being played as we read about their cultural context.  That alone made us appreciate seeing the instruments played in their original settings.

Listening to unusual musical instruments played where I was raised

This museum has the latest self-guided-tour technology we’ve seen.  The audio device was activated automatically as we approached each exhibit – no buttons to fumble with.  Watching and listening to instruments come to life was very entertaining.

Bianzhong

Listening to music played on a replica of a twenty-four bell “bianzhong”

We enjoyed a special exhibition in partnership with the Henan Museum of China, which displayed collections from its Ancient Musical Treasures from Central China.  We were fascinated with the many Chinese collections of extremely rare instruments and works of art never before seen in the United States.

Bianzhong (meaning “ordered bells”) bell chime (approx. 2,500 years old) plays a flashy musical style, and is one of only 10 surviving sets in the world

The museum has something for everyone, including the more familiar and current displays at the Artist Gallery.  This area features instruments and concert footage of world-renowned musicians and music innovators.  If you go, be aware that the museum is a popular field trip destination for kids, but crowding isn’t much of an issue because of its size.  As with most activities, arriving early is key.

This Fou was played during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing summer olympics

And of course we made social calls to our friends who were nearby!

The last time we saw Dave and Faye was at Banff National Park in 2016

With Don And Velma whom we met two years ago at Black Canyon Ranch RV Park

The weather was so pleasant, warm and sunny that we felt like we were in an endless summer!  And the sunsets!

Phoenix skyline at sunset

Warm days, cool nights and a campfire – it’s all good!

 

Next up:  Celebrations in  Tucson



 

 

 

 

 

Superstars of the desert – the Saguaro flowers

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My wish of seeing the Saguaro blooms has been granted, even though with Steve’s situation it’s under less-than-desirable circumstances.  But we’re enjoying this opportunity as our consolation for being in Tucson this time of the year.  The best way to view the white Saguaro bouquets was to revisit Saguaro National Park. Driving there was also a step forward for Steve, as it was his first outing following surgery when he wasn’t feeling like a zombie from all the drugs.

It’s said that the indicator plant of the Sonoran Desert is the majestic Saguaro cactus, the icon of the southwest.  During late April thru June, as other desert wildflowers have done their thing and wilted, the superstars of the desert awaken to fill the landscape with blooms at the ends of their arms, like a bouquet of white flowers.

In our past visits here, these tall green giants seemed to stand patiently awaiting their turn to show off.  The time has finally arrived and we are glad to be here to admire the explosion of floral beauty.

 

Surprisingly, the Saguaro flower is a short-lived beauty; it opens after sunset and by the next early afternoon the blossom wilts.  Despite this short time period, the flower attracts an array of pollinators.  During the night they’re pollinated by the Mexican long-tongued bat and the lesser long-nosed bat, while daytime hours bring the birds and bees to a feast as they continue the pollination process.

The Northern Flicker waits for his turn

The Saguaro flower clusters don’t all bloom at the same time on the plant; the blooming cycle of a single Saguaro can last up to 6 weeks before all of the flowers have opened and closed for the last time.  The road leading to Steve’s doctor’s offices are lined with Saguaros, so for several weeks we got to see the progression of the blooms each time we drove by.

Getting up close and personal, I discovered the flowers are trumpet-shaped with silky white petals, each containing hundreds of golden stamens.

The flowers are suppose to emit a strong smell, sort of like overripe melons but then I am vertically challenged to reach them so I could not confirm that.

Seeing the Saguaro flowers is a tick off from my “must-see” list and I’m really happy with that.

Steve update:

The drive to Saguaro National Park – East and West – signaled one of the first breakthroughs for Steve.  Since his hospital discharge the focus had been to fatten him up and reverse his weight loss.  It would have been an easy task if not for the terrible pain he had when swallowing.  As time went on he was able to slowly progress from a liquid diet through soft foods, and then onto “real foods” in four weeks.  His speech impediment has lessened and his energy level remains high, as he has to actually reduce his daily walking routine so he won’t walk off all the weight we’re trying to put on him!

Pancit

After a month he could handle one of his favorites, my Pancit

Head and throat pains linger, and Tylenol is his friend.  In order to distract from nagging pain he works on simple repairs.  Serious hiking is still a ways off, but we walk around the RV park and in the area several times every day.  As for me, our daily walks meet my 10,000 steps goal which is wonderful!

His next phase is radiation therapy, beginning on June 6th.  Just as he’s gained weight and is feeling better, he’ll soon be back to square one for a while.  We know we’ll get through it, taking one day at a time as we’ve been doing.

The ” fight the cancer beast team” on a cool day at SNP



 

A rendezvous in the desert – Tucson, AZ

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Humming Bird
saguaro

“Welcome to Tucson”, the Saguaro seems to say as it bows

So here we remain, at our “winter headquarters” for this year – Tucson.  The population of over a half million seems to be spread out enough that it usually doesn’t feel too overcrowded, although we do try hard to avoid commute hour traffic when possible.

We love that this city is ringed by mountain ranges offering endless hiking opportunities, especially when combined with the many miles of desert trails in the immediate area.  And we also happen to love the Sonoran Desert!  We’ve stayed in three distinct areas during our visits here, and have always enjoyed the many nearby points of interest.

Tucson, Arizona

Downtown Tucson viewed from Robles Park, with the Catalina Mountains as the backdrop

In January, 2013 we camped at Catalina State Park in northern Tucson (our tales of that stay are here and here).  Returning in January of 2016, we hung out for a month at the Lazy Daze/KOA in southern Tucson (the activities we enjoyed during that stay are detailed here).

 Mission San Xavier del Bac

Looking south toward the Santa Rita Mountains, the “White Dove of the Desert” – Mission San Xavier del Bac – takes center stage

Saguaro National Park

After the movie at the Saguaro National Park visitor center, the theater curtains open to reveal the giants of the Sonoran Desert – the Saguaros

Tucson Mountain Park

Looking down at the Western side of Tucson

Tucson

The sprawling city of Tucson

So far this year we’ve stayed on the western side of Tucson, one month at Western Way RV Resort and we’re currently residing for a second month at Desert Trails RV Park just up the road.  The choice of these campgrounds was based mainly on their excellent access to the many great hiking trails in Saguaro National Park, Tucson Mountain Park and Robles Park. We wasted no time getting started on those hikes to burn off the mega calories we packed on while partying in Puerto Peñasco.

Saguaro National Park

We always enjoy our treks with serious hikers like Hans and Lisa, this time on the Hugh Norris Trail

Sweetwater Preserve

Investigating a downed Saguaro at Sweetwater Preserve

Brown Mountain Trail

We like nearby Brown Mountain Trail, and have hiked it a couple of times so far

Saguaro

Some Saguaros gave us the finger…

Saguaro

…this one gave us many fingers!

Saguaro

This one could be hundreds of years old

saguaro skeleton

This dead Saguaro looks like a desert scarecrow

Yetman Trail

An early morning hike on the Yetman Trail via Tucson Estates

Tucson Mountains

Tucson Mountains as seen from the Wasson Peak Trail

Crested saguaro

Goofing off with one of Pam’s friends – a crested Saguaro – on the Flight Path Trail

We’ve been here for several weeks now, plenty of time to repeat trails we followed last year and to discover new ones.  For the first time we’ll be staying long enough to catch the colors of spring in the Sonoran Desert, which we’ve missed previously in our haste to head north.

The Ocotillo blossoms provide a splash of red all over the desert, just beautiful!

Crimson red Ocotillo blooms – don’t they look like mini lipsticks?

Creosote bush

Creosote bush swaths the desert a golden hue

A closer look at a creosote bloom

 

On the desert floor, area sidewalks and vacant lots was a profusion of dainty vibrant wildflowers.  I can’t help but stop, take a picture and admire them:

The birds are also enjoying the blooms, sucking sweet nectar from the flowers and whistling at us as we stroll by:

Of course, mild winters here are the main draw for us and thousands of other “snowbirds”. It’s a place where we congregate to meet up with old friends and make new ones.  I think of our meet-up here as a renewal of our friendships, and it’s always a joy to see those folks to exchange travel stories and the adventures we’ve had on the road during the past year.

Kathie and Mike of Life Rebooted.  We met them last year at Bryce Canyon after following their blog for several months

At the big gathering below, we met Paul and Marsha of Where’s Weaver for the first time. Everyone else were folks we’ve forged relationships with over the years through our blog sites – Hans and Lisa of Metamorphosis Road, John and Pam of Oh the Places They Go and Dave and Sue of Belugas Excellent Adventure.

John, David, Sue, Marsha, Paul, Steve, me, Lisa, Hans and Pam

Me with John and Pam, and “serious Jeep pilots” Joe and Gay of Good Times Rolling

Infected humanoid – stay away!

We’re always excited to meet new friends, but we were sorry we missed out on meeting up with Jim and Barb of Jim and Barb’s RV Adventure.  I was recovering from a flu bug and wasn’t about to risk infecting them.

We spent this happy hour huddled inside Betsy as gusty winds spoiled our outdoor venue

New friends Jim and Nancy of Running Down our Dreams (behind us) and good buddies John and Sharon of On the Road of Retirement

Just before Hans and Lisa left we had an alcohol-free happy hour at their coach (well, it WAS in the morning), followed by a mini-tour of Desert Trails RV Park.  They showed us around so we could note the best sites to request for our upcoming stay.  Two weeks later we got one of the most-desired sites (M28), and we are enjoying the afternoon shade here.  It’s nice to have friends to help us gather good intel!

A healthy and happy start to the day with Hans and Lisa

As we remain here enjoying all the trails and spring blooms, our friends have all moved on. We hope to see them here again, at our favorite rendezvous spot in the desert!

A post from the southwest would be incomplete without a Sonoran Desert sunset!

 

Next up:  More fun things to do around Tucson



 

On the fringes of the Sonoran Desert – Black Canyon City, AZ

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Leaving the high country (including Prescott) behind, we headed south to lower elevations. As we descended a cut in the mountains on I-17 we began seeing the stately Saguaros jutting out of the hillsides, signaling that we were on the fringes of the Sonoran desert and bringing smiles to our faces.  We were fortunate to snag a site at Black Canyon Ranch RV Resort on short notice (Steve’s review here), especially considering we would be staying over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Thumb Butte

Thumb Butte near Black Canyon City

The western half of Black Canyon City is nestled in the foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains, while the eastern half is surrounded by table mesas.  The city was so named after the color of the basalt in the surrounding rock.  We found this small rugged city surrounded by beautiful scenery to be a place that we might be able to settle down in someday – just far enough away from the hustle and bustle of Phoenix.

Black Canyon Trail

A very lush sonoran desert landscape

Having been cooped up for several days at Prescott, we couldn’t wait to see if there were any hiking trails in this area.  We learned that the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail passes through here, stretching 79 miles from the Sonoran Desert lowlands in Phoenix to the high grasslands of Prescott Valley.  The trail was originally a corridor for early Native Americans and later became an official stagecoach stop in 1871 for weary travelers on the Phoenix to Prescott line.  Then in 2008 it was designated a National Recreation Trail to be shared by hikers, bikers and horseback riders.

Black Canyon Trail

With a brochure in hand we immediately marked the trailheads that we would explore during our stay.  We picked five – Emery Henderson, Table Mesa Road, Black Canyon City, Glorianna and Big Bug – all within a reasonable driving distance of our homebase.

2015-11-23-AZ-1310362.jpg

At first glance these hikes may look boring, but we love hiking in the desert and enjoying the diversity it offers.  Trees such as the Palo Verde (Arizona’s state tree) are abundant and well developed on the desert ranges.  We hiked along thorny and non-thorny shrubs, cacti, herbs and of course the most conspicuous feature – the stately Saguaros.  We’re very happy to be back in the Sonoran Desert!

Black Canyon Trail

Saguaro cactus is the largest and the most conspicuous plant in this area

Surprisingly, each section of trail we followed offered different facets of this interesting area.  On one, the Prickly Pears were abundant, but the next was covered with Fruit Chain Chollas.  Yet another led us through a forest of Palo Verdes and Mesquites along a wash. But those Saguaros were omnipresent, standing like sentries everywhere we went.

Cholla forest

Chain Fruit Cholla forest

Palo Verde

Avenue of the Mequites?

Compass Barrel Cactus

How do you hug a Compass Barrel Cactus?  Very delicately!

Black Canyon Trail

A section of Black Canyon

Black Canyon Trail

Black Canyon Trail

Steve is dwarfed by Saguaros and Palo Verdes, can you spot him?

Black Canyon Trail

Creosote Bush

Hmm, yep this is Creosote!

Looking closely at the understory, I captured a burst of colors and prickly love.   Who says it’s all cacti in the Sonoran Desert?

Unfortunately, we also learned that the Black Canyon Trail can be a noisy place on weekends.  Lots of shooting in the desert and dust from the ATV’s and bikers buzzing by tended to interrupt our reverie.  Early in the morning on weekdays quickly became our strategy for enjoying the lushness here, and we went out every chance we got.

Black Canyon Trail

The trail is that-a-way, Steve!

Burros

A band of wild burros were amused at Steve talking to a Saguaro

Although most of our time here was spent hiking, we added one attraction we thought would be interesting.  Following a sign we saw along I-17 we decided to visit Arcosanti, billed as “an urban laboratory”.

Acrosanti

It didn’t really catch on with us.  Arcosanti is a unique community designed and built by Paolo Soleri as his experiment in marrying architecture and ecology – which he calls Arcology.  We joined a tour and learned about the philosophy, history, planning and ongoing construction of the project.  To us it sounded like another Crazy Horse Memorial, with no completion date yet predicted.

Arcosanti

The building behind us will supposedly be retail stores with residential units above – someday

Arcosanti viewed from the hill

Urban communal living in the desert, not our cup of tea

One day we had our alone time, with Steve heading off to a Good Guys car show in Scottsdale while I hiked the 2.5-mile High Desert Trail managed by volunteers from Black Canyon City.  I played hide-and-seek with a Cottontail rabbit, was spat at by a hummingbird and serenaded by a Curved Bill Thrasher.

We’re glad our stop at Black Canyon City was such a nice surprise, and those desert hikes gave us a warmup of things to come in the Sonoran Desert.  And that’s just the beginning of our winter sojourn in Arizona.

We’re struggling with bad connectivity and I’m falling behind on my blogging.  Hopefully we’ll be back up to speed soon for there is lots more to show and tell!

 

Next up:  Fun times in the desert sun!



 

Sonoran Desert beauties!

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Northern Cardinal

We just realized we’ve been hanging around southern Arizona for two months now – how time flies when you’re having fun with friends in such a beautiful place!  Being here, you can’t help but take notice and admire the abundance of cacti, succulents, birds and other critters that make the this area unique.  The area is generally recognized as the Sonoran Desert, and includes the southwestern third of Arizona, a small area of southeastern California, most of Baja California del Norte and the western half of Sonora, Mexico.

Saguaro

Sonoran Desert is Saguaro central

It is during our many hikes and drives around town that we encounter these desert beauties in their natural habitat or being used as landscaping ornaments.  In particular, the ubiquitous saguaro, (pronounced SUH-WAR-OH) a  large, tree-like columnar cactus that develop branches (or arms) as they age.  The saguaro is the largest cactus in the United States and the most famous plant in the Sonoran Desert.  It is closely identified with the imagery of the American southwest, and all of them are found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert.  This cactus is so important that moving, harvesting or collecting is strictly regulated!   Yet despite the saguaro’s popularity, the state plant of Arizona is actually the Palo Verde.

Some fun facts about this famous cactus:

It is slow growing and may take 10 years to reach 1 1/2 inches in height, and 30 years to reach 2 feet.

It begins to grow arms when it is between 50 and 100 years of age, although some never  grow arms.

Given the right conditions it can live for 150 to 200 years.

It  typically grows to heights of 40 – 60 ft.

It is more than 90% water content and when fully hydrated it can weigh between 3200-4800 pounds.

The saguaro’s blossom is the state flower of Arizona, they blossom once a year, and the flowers open at night and stay open only 18 hours total.  Imagine how breathtaking the Sonoran desert would look with all of those blooms!

The woody ribs inside the plant have been used for fences and combined with mud and grasses to build homes.

Here are a few of the many desert cacti and plants:

The chirping and singing are everywhere with all these beautiful birds.  Here are just a few that frequently visited us at Catalina State Park. Click here if  you would like to see more of my bird pictures 🙂

Butterflies!

Lastly, when the sun is low here it gives a hue to the sky and mountains that is nothing short of spectacular.

Catalina Mountains

Orange glow at the Catalina Mountains before snow…

Catalina Mountains

…and a reddish-pink glow with snow

Table Top Mountain

Red-orange glow at Table Top Mountain, viewed from Casa Grande

Stay tuned as we return to Quartzsite to join the RV show madness!