By Bill Vossler
Bruce Rowen of Sartell calls himself a daydreamer -- and while some of his daydreams will never come true, one long-time dream became a reality in 2020. The dream...living off the grid in the southwest.
A Little History
The seed of this plan was planted in 1956 when the entire Rowen family traveled from Marcus, Iowa, to Phoenix.
“My parents and my twin sisters and I took a two-day train trip to see my cousins, and we slept overnight. I was nine years old and I just loved that trip because it was Christmas time, and nice and pleasant and warm down there. Our relatives took us to visit Nogales, Mexico, a native-American pueblo, and a desert botanical garden, and other fun stuff. I really liked it.”
That triggered Bruce and his wife, Fran, to wintering three months each year at Lake Havasu, Ariz., after their retirements, from 2000 through 2009.
“That’s when I saw people out camping in the Sonoran desert, and I thought, ‘Gee, that would really be fun, camping out in the boondocks--’ call it boondocking, off-grid camping, or dispersed camping. I thought it would be great fun.”
But with the birth of grandchildren, the Rowens decided to stay in Minnesota during the winters to spend time with them. But Bruce’s desert camping dream never died, and he began thinking about it in earnest again.
However, Fran was not interested. Though they had camped over the years with their children in their pop-up camper, Fran remembered the hassle of getting everything ready, and her Multiple Sclerosis (MS) now limited what she could do.
So that left it up to Bruce. So in 2018, about 10 years after seeing the desert campers, he began planning his own desert off-grid camping adventure.
“It was something I wanted to do, so I spent a year thinking about the idea, and researching it on the internet. I watched many You Tube videos, especially Bob Wells and his www.cheaprvliving.com channel, and also Slim Potatohead.”
He decided the family pop-up camper would work for his home away from home.
“After deep research I realized the regular 120-volt plug-in would run only the lights. So I‘d need a 12-volt electrical system to power a refrigerator, electric blanket, and my BiPAP, and charging my computer, camera, and cell phone. So I designed two 6-volt deep cycle AGM batteries in series to make a 12-volt battery.”
Expenses mounted as he bought a portable power generator, portable 100 watt solar panel, portable propane space heater, and a portable toilet with a bagging system using Poo Powder, which makes a glob for disposal.
Bruce prepared the camper in stages. “I worked on it over a year straight, not every day by any means, but as I could afford getting equipment and stuff.”
Bruce received a great deal of help from Andrew, owner of All Campers near Rockville. “I showed him my plans, and asked if this would work or wouldn’t work. If it was a yes I had them do the work.”
“It took a lot of preplanning,” Bruce said, “getting the camper ready, and since my mentality is as a systems person, I divided the trip into what I wanted to do, how I’d do it, and where I would go. It was a lot of work.”
He ordered PDF-format state maps for his laptop, like the De Lorme Atlas and Gazetteer, and the Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas.
“They are so detailed and listed a lot of fun places to go--state parks, national parks, and national forests, so I came up with a whole list before I started. Then I built up the route I was going to take.”
Because he would be traveling in January, Bruce realized he didn’t want to take the camper on winter roads. So in the fall of 2019 he pulled it down to Elk City, Okla., for storage.
A Nutty Proposition?
By this time friends knew that he wanted to spend three months by himself in this pop-up camper in the southwest.
“Their reaction was pretty universal. They all thought I was nuts,” he laughed. “I don’t think anybody said, ‘Wow, that’s a great idea.’ Not many people want to do this kind of thing because of the inconvenience. I knew this would not be normal life.”
Trip of a Lifetime
Bruce left on Jan. 3, 2020, for a planned 90-day stay in the southwest.
“On the way I picked up the camper in Oklahoma, attached it to the back of the van, and headed further south. My plan was to get as far south as quickly as possible. So I drove to Amarillo, Texas, then to Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas. At the entry gate I still had 56 miles to go until my campsite! Sightseeing took me all day. It’s huge, so I didn’t really cover that much of the rough desert and rugged mountainous area, and I thought it was just beautiful.”
From there Bruce visited the McDonald Observatory in Davis Mountain State Park in west Texas. “I took three tours, learning about their large Harlan J. Smith telescope, with a nine-foot base, which is trying to find out about dark matter and dark energy.”
“The air in the area is clear and dry, which works great for the telescope. Also, the small towns in the area do special things with their lighting so it doesn’t interfere with the telescope.”
A Typical Day
Most of the time Bruce camped at a place like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which was five miles from the Mexican border. He visited Chiricahua National Monument, Fort Bowie, and Indian Bread Rock, all in Arizona, and many more sites he’d always wanted to see.
Bruce hiked or drove around sightseeing in the mornings. “I‘d come back at noon, and I’d stick that solar panel on to charge the batteries.”
Afternoons he often read or painted with watercolors.
“There were lots of things I enjoyed doing.”
Some food came from his little 12-volt refrigerator. “Breakfast was dry cereal or oatmeal, and other meals were meat and cheese sandwiches. Or lunch might be a peanut-butter sandwich. Evenings was canned spaghetti beef stew, green beans, and so on, or I’d go to town and order enough for a couple of days, comfort foods and stuff like that. It was really fun. I really enjoyed it.”
He had wanted to get out into more wild places, “But once I found a comfortable spot at Orange Pipe Cactus National Monument, I stayed there twice, for two weeks each time. I also traveled to Ajo, Arizona, to a small library and had access to the internet and email. There was also a grocery store and post office, so I didn’t rough it as much as I thought I would when I started out. I decided I wanted to be more comfortable, and it was nice there, so I was OK being there. Nothing says you have to be a hundred percent pure in boondocking.”
Bruce said he never got lonely. “After a week alone, I interspersed my time with visits to friends and family. Sometimes I stayed in a motel. 34 days were off-grid camping, and 26 involved travel or in motels or family and friends.”
Bruce said several things surprised him. “I was shocked when I stayed overnight in a Texas town that had four motels in a row, and behind all of them was a nonstop big concrete block wall--with concertina wire on it, spotlights at night, and iron grates that went from the back out to the street. It was like a prison.”
He said he learned different things about himself. “I found out I enjoy the planning about the same as the actual thing. I really did have a good time figuring it all out, and planning it, and going to all these places.”
Bruce said his major bit of advice to anyone who might contemplate doing what he did was to know what you’re doing.
“I’m kind of a perfectionist, so I try to understand everything to make sure everything goes right. So it seems to me it would be more fun for you if you’re prepared.”
Though most things went well, Bruce said he had a few limitations, like using the portable toilet. “I preferred to find a regular toilet, which still didn’t mean running water or showers.”
The electrical connector between his van and the camper got loose in West Texas. “It banged on the highway and got wrecked, so I was without taillights until a guy in the village of Fort Stockton fixed it.”
Bruce also discovered his van was too low, which restricted where he could go.
“Other problems included discovering that my BiPAP and electric blanket drained the batteries quickly, so I stopped using those two. Or else I’d have to shut things off, or get up in the middle of the night to use the generator, and I didn’t want to do that because of the noise.”
He stopped traveling in the mountains because of how cold it got at night. “I didn’t want to use the propane space heater, because of the danger of having it on and falling asleep. So I went further south rather than into the mountains.”
Bruce’s plan was to be gone for 90 days after his Jan. 3, 2020 leaving date, but he returned on March 1, 2020, exactly 60 days later. “I came home early because the pandemic was setting in. I would have stayed longer if not for Covid.”
A Remaining Fantasy
“I still have fantasies of doing this, of getting a new trailer with all the bells and whistles, including a toilet. I even picked out a trailer. I think it would be wonderful, one person traveling all over the country, but I don’t think I’ll ever do it again.”