Landfill, Or RV Infested Campsite? Take Your Pick.
By Kevin Franklin
WITH A TRUCK full of camping gear, it hardly makes sense to stay in a freeway motel. On the other hand, if you're trying to make time and get to a distant destination, you don't want to be wandering all over creation looking for a camp site.
On our way to Baja, the Out There crew ponders this dilemma. Pouring over the Southern & Central California Atlas & Gazetteer, we discover a solution: the Yuha Desert Recreation Area, just west of El Campo, California. It's close enough to our Tecate, Mexico, crossing point that we can make it to our first beach camp in Baja within a day. On the other hand, it's not so far west of Tucson that our late-afternoon departure will make it unreachable.
The bone-dry Yuha Desert sits in the hot valley just before Interstate 8 winds up into the boulder chaos and cooler climate around Jacumba. The little hamlet of Ocotillo marks our turn-off for the Yuha Recreation Area. It's dark and we're tired after the long drive, and rush to get everything for our 12-day venture packed. At this point we're just looking for a place to throw down our bags.
We make our exit and drive down the dirt road. Soon we find ourselves bouncing in a maze of worn and pitted tracks. We pull into a little box canyon and throw our gear down. The surrounding hills are completely denuded of vegetation. Our flashlights cut through small pieces of the dark, revealing small sections of rock and dirt, but doing little more than adding to the sensation of having landed on the dark side of the moon.
After a quick meal I roll into my bag. The wind is gusting heavily tonight. It's picking clay particles up off the surrounding hills and hurling them directly into my eyes. I try retreating down into my bag, but the night is too warm. I pick my bag up and try a different spot. It's even worse. One of our crew tries setting up a tent, but the wind beating on it creates a horrific noise and it's hot in there, to boot. All the air in this place seems hot, rank and oppressive. I finally drop my bag in the lee of the tent, face downwind and endure a mostly sleepless evening. I drift off wondering just what hellish kind of place we've stumbled into.
The next morning I wake to the beep, beep, beep of a backing truck. I sit up in my bag, like a startled inch-worm. Just over the rise a garbage truck is backing up to a pit and dumping its load. A bulldozer moves in after, herding discarded food and miscellaneous house debris. Another garbage truck waits in line.
Oh my god, we've camped next to the municipal dump. The Out There team has hit a new low. We hurriedly throw our gear together and head out, hiding our faces as we drive through town.
When it comes to finding a place to crash on the return trip 12 days later, we vow not to make the same mistake twice. On our map we find an actual designated campground: "Lake Morena County Park." It even has a little tee-pee drawn on the map--a sure sign of dump-free camping.
Once again we pull into our roadside camp after dark. Only darkness never falls at Lake Morena. Hundreds and hundreds of RVs and trailers are parked cheek to jowl. Camp lights and generators fill the night with the light and sound of modern man. Each proud camper has thrown down his Astroturf landscape and set the prerequisite barbecue fire to stake his claim here on the wild frontier. Some of them brought the TV along with them. Perhaps out of some misguided anthropomorphism, they've parked the telly outside, given it its own lawn chair, and a fine view of the surrounding madness.
A remarkably friendly ranger pulls up in a golf cart.
"Howdy, you folks looking for a place to stay tonight?" he says in the sort of jovial tone I could never manage late at night while in charge of this herd of Winnebagos and fi-fi dogs. "We're all full up here, but if you go over to the primitive camping area there should be some space," he says. I could see the desperation in his eyes just beneath the thin veneer of the friendly ranger bit. They screamed for us to get out while we still had our humanity. They spoke volumes of the unmentionable and violent acts he dreamt of inflicting on the mass before us. Perhaps he would snap soon; maybe within days, perhaps hours.
We take his advice and head around the lake. Primitive camping certainly sounds more appealing than this crush of civilization. We don't understand it. These folks left the city to enjoy the open space of the outdoors, yet now they're living just like they do at home, except here their neighbor is five feet away instead of 20 and separated by only the tinny wall of an RV.
We reach the primitive campground. While it's no John Muir wilderness, at least it offers a campsite a good lawn-dart's throw from everyone else. We'll make do here, we say. But then we shut the engines off on the trucks. The screech of Metallica instantly fills the void. A hundred yards away the shop-class flunkies are having a bonfire party and kindly sharing their musical interest with the entire population of the Lake Morena Primitive Campground. Passed out revelers radiate out from the campfire, their wallet chains shining like shrapnel.
A few dozen roadies-in-waiting circle around the keg, daring each other not to spend the whole night flipping the same tape back and forth. A spirited game of push me-shove you starts up.
With hardly a word to each other, we climb back into our trucks and head down the Interstate toward Ocotillo, and the town's lovely, peaceful and quiet municipal dump. Ahhh, wilderness.
If you get to the Yuha Desert Recreation Area before dark and drive well past the dump and away from the loose clay mounds, there are actually some nice campsites to be found back in the rugged hills.
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