Playing In The Backyard

All 40 gazillion acres of it!

A travelogue and advice essay in hypertext by Scott Bidstrup

My home for six years
It has been everyone's dream to quit that job, tell that boss what you really think of him, say goodbye to telephone solicitors, mortgage companies and bill collectors, and pack it all up and go on the road to experience true freedom.

For six years, I did just that. Instead of wearing a shirt and tie to work every day, traveling when I didn't want to travel, doing what someone else wanted, and giving my life up for most of my waking hours, I was able to go where I wanted, when I wanted. I saw many things I'd heard about all my life and had never seen, did what I wanted, when I wanted, and worked only a few months out of the year. I enjoyed life like never before.

All that because I got laid off.

In May, 1988, I had been working as an RF systems engineer at Centro Corp. in Salt Lake City. My responsibility was to design and supervise the installation of the satellite transmitting and recieving equipment in satellite news trucks. I was successful at what I did; at one point, seven percent of all the satellite trucks on the road were trucks I designed. Even today, eight years later, many of them are still on the road. I still see one occasionally.

But Centro had a problem. A downturn in the economy in 1988 meant that TV stations weren't buying new trucks, and Centro was in trouble. A wave of layoffs hit, and pretty soon I found myself "pounding sand" with quite a few of my co-workers.

For a long time, I had considered chucking it all, moving into a van and enjoying life. I had even bought a van (it had been used to haul sides of beef around), and had a bubbletop put on it and four-wheel drive added (which proved on many occasions to be extremely helpful), and had started the conversion process. When the layoff came down, I was about a third done with the work. I decided that I would go through with the idea, planted in my mind years before by Richard Oddo, a man who was doing just what I was dreaming of. I had met him while vacationing in Southern Utah, and his devotion to spiritual growth and personal exploration had a big impact on me. He was a man who truly enjoyed living, and living very simply. His van conversion was a beautiful example of a labor of love, carefully and elegantly constructed of exotic hardwoods and simple though it was, it was clearly comfortable to live in. Life for Richard was an example of the late Joseph Campbell's admonition to "follow your bliss." He really had. It was quite evident in his obvious satisfaction with life.

For the next several months after leaving Centro, I worked most of my days on the construction of my van conversion. Some of my friends from Centro, intrigued by what I was doing, helped out, some of them very generously with their time and expertise (thanks, Rex!). I was determined to live comfortably, and fitted it with forced-air heat, a stereo, hot and cold running water, a toilet and a shower. It was a very condensed version of a full-sized motorhome. By the middle of November, my house was sold, the van was complete, and I moved in and went on the road.

My campsite that first night on the road was a pretty unlikely one. It was the parking lot at Circus-Circus in Las Vegas. They allowed RV camping in their parking lot in those days, and I was happy to take advantage of their hospitality. I was in Las Vegas to visit some of my friends in the broadcasting business attending a convention there. After that, I set my sights on the Arizona desert for the winter. I set up camp for the winter in Quartzsite, Arizona.

Quartzsite (yes, that's the right spelling) is a town that lives for people like me. A dusty, windblown desert town of a about twelve hundred in the summer, Quartzsite becomes the second largest city in Arizona during the winter months, when "snowbirds" by the hundreds of thousands descend on the town after Labor Day. Estimates are that about thirty percent of those "snowbirds" were like me, living permanently on the road. Sociologists who have studied "full timing" say that there are more than a million "full timers" or "roadies" in the U.S.

The snowbirds camp out on the desert land near the town in special areas designated by the BLM, called "Long-Term Visitor Areas" (or LTVA's for short), where, for $100 you can camp for six months. Some LTVA's offer water, sanitary disposal and garbage removal. But the most interesting offering is a collection of thousands of people like yourself -- people who've chucked it all and gone on the road. The favorite activity during the winter months in the LTVA's is visiting with neighboring campers, exchanging advice and war stories of life on the road, living with true freedom.

That first winter in Quartzsite I met several people who would end up as good friends. There was a young couple, much younger than me, who had done as I had done and left job and family to live on the road. They had lived for years in a tiny travel trailer not more than 12 feet in length, and lived by gold prospecting in California and Idaho in the summer and occasionally Australia in the winter.

An elderly man, retired for many years from the New York City fire department, and his wife, had been all over the world, including sailing much of the way around it. Back in the early 50's, his doctor had advised him to start walking a couple of miles each day if he wished to avoid the wheelchair. He had two fused vertebrae, and in those days not much else could be done for him.

So he and his wife started walking, and forty years later, they had walked the Pervian Andes, the Canadian Arctic, India and the Middle East and countless other places. Their stories of life on the road hiking and sailing were endlessly fascinating to listen to. John, at the age of 85, could still out-hike me, in spite of a bad heart and serious problems with arthritis. I spent many a pleasant evening in their travel trailer listening to their stories of their travels of the world, and their playful sense of humor.

In the spring, the weather in Quartzsite quickly warms to over a hundred degrees every afternoon. It can get quite insufferable, so about April, I'd take off from there and head for southern Utah, to my favorite spots in the Colorado Plateau desert. The canyons carved out in red sandstone in much of the "four corners" area of Utah is truly magnificent, and was an ideal place to spend spring and fall.

Harris Canyon near my campsite in the
"Behind the Rocks" area near Moab.
I headquartered myself in the Moab area, and spent time camping in places that would be familiar to movie-goers as the places where many John Wayne films were made. One spring, the movie "Geronimo" was being made there in a place called "MGM Bottom." One of the places I often camped at ended up in the movie as a site for an indian village. Another of my favorite campsites, "Fisher Towers" is familiar to Star Wars fans as the site of one of the chase scenes.

Occasionally, my friends from Salt Lake City would join me for the weekend. Gordon and Ron and Don and many others were visitors in my camp, and I in theirs. We caught up on all the old gossip and revisited many of our favorite places, such as the Schafer Trail and Upheaval Dome. Eventually, the Moab area would get too hot and bug ridden, and I'd have to head out for cooler places. This was about the start of the forest fire season, too, and one of my customers at U.S. Satellite had hired me to do satellite telephone equipment setups at forest fire camps. It was an ideal way to make a few dollars -- I got to live in the van at the forest fire camp, have all my meals provided for me, and get paid $100 a day. I towed the satellite trailer behind the van from fire to fire, and in so doing saw a lot of the west I had never been to, including the mountains of New Mexico, Colorado, Montana and Arizona. I truly loved the job, but my employer was so successful they attracted the attention of a lot of competitors, so I soon wasn't getting enough fires to make a living. I had to think of something else to do.

During the summer of 1990, I was camped near Payette Lake in northern Idaho, when my brother Chris, who is an electrician, had a job offer to go to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands to help wire a fish processing plant. He turned it down, but in describing the offer to me, I thought that since I had been an apprentice electrician in my youth, I might be able to land it. I called, and the company accepted my application, and so I drove the van back to Idaho Falls, stored it on my mother's patio, got on a plane and was off to the Aleutian Islands.

The harbor at Unalaska on Unalaska Island.
The onion-domed building is a Russian Orthodox church
built in 1845 during the Russian occupation of Alaska.
I knew the job wouldn't last long, but it was for very long hours at very high pay, and so I didn't need long to make enough for a year. As it turned out, I was there only three weeks, but made $4500, which was easily enough to last me for the rest of the year.

Dutch Harbor was a typical Alaskan town, but in a magnificent setting of tundra-covered mountains, decorated with whitewater streams splashing to the sea. For all their isolation and dreary weather, the Aleutians really are stunningly beautiful, especially in the rare moments of sunshine. While I was there, I described my lifestyle to my colleagues, who expressed a great deal of envy.

That summer, I was able, for the first time, to go where I wanted during the summer months. I decided to really do the Sierra Nevada mountains in California the way I had always wanted to, so it was off to the Sequoia National Park vicinity.

It was beautiful there, certainly one of the most beautiful places I had ever been. Magnificent groves of mostly second generation sequoias, with the odd old-growth tree here and there, and lush mountain meadows making beautiful campsites, often with distant vistas of snow-covered peaks. The hiking trails were some of the most scenic I had seen.

A hiking trail in Sequoia N.P.
These are second-growth sequoias.
I fell in love with the beauty of the sequoia redwoods. I found several places to camp just outside the park boundary, and hike in. That fall, I spent time in the Sequoia National Forest, and even found a campsite in a sequoia grove. It was an awesome campsite, with a beautiful view of the high peaks of the Sierra, framed by thousand-year old trees.

In search of warmer winters, I tried camping in the Hot Springs LTVA near Holtville, California. The winters there are about ten degrees warmer than Quartzsite, and there is a hot spring where one could get daily showers and a long soak in warm mineral waters every day.

While camped there, I met Jose, a retired aerospace engineer who was responsible for the packaging design of the Apollo "Moon Buggy" that the Apollo 16 astronauts used to explore the moon. His descriptions of the engineering that went into that project were fascinating.

Even more fascinating were the philosophical discussions. After leaving NASA, he became a philosophy instructor at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and had been a colleague and close friend of the late Joseph Campbell. Campbell, the author of "Hero Of A Thousand Faces" and subject of a series on PBS television, was a personal hero of mine, a man who I regard as one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. Campbell's insights into the nature of religion were remarkable, and many of them were shared by Jose and myself. My conversations with Jose often lasted well into the night.

Having a lot of time to hike, backpack and just sit and think, I gave a great deal of thought to life as I saw it. I came to understand and reflect on the nature of man in the universe, the nature of the universe itself, and on culture, politics and society. Having this time to think for myself, unencumbered by the need to make a living, gave me some insights into myself, the universe and my place in it. It became evident early on that reality is considerably different than people generally assume. Our lives are generally driven by a need to make a living and deal with our day to day problems, and seldom do we have the time to think critically and analytically about our nature and our place in the universe. Being free in living this lifestyle was not only a means to do this thinking, but a stimulus to provoke this kind of analysis. The conclusions I came to are reflected in my essays, and can be found elsewhere at this site. Many of those essays were conceptualized during this time, but not written down until years later.


Eventually, the money from the Dutch Harbor job ran out, and I found it neccessary to seek a real job and make some real money. In the fall of 1990, I went to San Diego and sought temp work as an electronics technician. I worked for several months there at Raytheon, during the Gulf War. During that war, one of Raytheon's defense products, the Patriot missile, was one of the star performers. There was a lot of patriotic flagwaving at Raytheon that winter.

Knowing that that job would run out, and looking for something more substantial, I decided to pursue an opportunity to travel to Africa to work on television station construction for the state governments of Nigeria. The account of that travel is in my "excellent adventure" essay, but is an interesting story all by itself. I spent a year and a half traveling in Nigeria, returning in the fall of 1991.

After returning from Nigeria, I was flush with cash and didn't need to work. So I concentrated on checking out places I'd wanted to visit but hadn't been to. One was the "behind the rocks" area near Moab, Utah, a favorite of the mountainbiking crowd. While camped there, I met a fellow who had also lived in Nigeria and had been some of the same places there that I had been. I also was active on my ham radio during this time, and managed to talk to another ham in Senegal, not far from Nigeria, from right there in the van.

Hiking and backpacking consumed my time. I saw a lot of the Moab area, and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Summers were spent in the Arizona rim country, near Flagstaff, and enjoying the beautiful vistas of that state. Fall and spring in the Moab area, easily one of the most beautiful places on earth. I used to say of it that the Colorado Plateau around Moab is the 'filet minon' of deserts. Hey, western Utah is a nice 'hamburger' of a desert, and Southern Arizona is a nice 'T-bone steak' of a desert, but the 'filet minon,' well, that is in the Moab area. There's truly nothing like it.

My decision to abandon life on the road came in the winter of 1993, while camped at the Hot Spring LTVA. I hadn't realized it, but at night the hot spring was a gathering spot for local gay men to make contact with each other. Even during the day, in some spots near the hot spring, gay men could occasionally be found "cruising." One day I was "cruised" and seduced by a very handsome 24 year-old hispanic man. My dim and suppressed awareness of my own homosexuality came to the fore, and for the next several nights I slept very little, thinking about Roberto and what a wonderful experience my brief time with him had been. I decided that the time had come to settle down and look for a husband, so I eventually found a job in Riverside, California and then eventually moved to Phoenix.

I never did find a husband, and I still own the van.

And from time to time, it still beckons me.

Full timing: Is it right for you?

Many people have told me that they envy my experience. And an equal number have said they've dreamed about it, but don't know if it is right for them. I've put together a web page that can help to answer that question. It's full of the sorts of questions you should ask yourself before you decide to try it, many questions that probably would not occur to you. And if you decide to do it, it will help you decide what kind of RV to buy, or, if you build as I did, how to go about it.

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Revised 10/20/00