Fighting sickness and the desire to do too much in the Sonoran Desert
One thing most #vanlifers don’t talk about is being sick on the road. But if you travel full time, you’ll eventually have to fight a cold or the flu. For the nearly two years, we’ve been traveling in Artemis the Airstream, Jen and I have mercifully avoided serious illness—until a month ago. And while a head full of snot and a crippling fever doesn’t make for the shiny, inspirational photos that fuel Insta, there are lessons to be learned from weathering a bad patch in a trailer.
Following Outside’s Annual Bike Test, I was depleted from two weeks of hard riding and late nights. I often get sick following the event, but this year a week passed and I thought I was in the clear. Then, I woke up one morning stuffed up, hacking, and swinging wildly between paroxysms of chills and sheet-soaking sweats. Jen offered to drive 30 minutes to the store for medicine and tissues, which I think was less an act of compassion than a simple desire to get as far from me as possible. I don’t know who was worse off that first morning: me or Jen, who, knowing we were trapped together in a 200-square-foot petri dish, basically realized it was only a matter of time before I infected her.
If there’s any advantage to being sick in a trailer, it’s the compact space. Three paces got me to the stove every time I wanted tea. And the bathroom was only a couple more steps beyond. With no television and no demands of home like chores or laundry, there’s also nothing to distract you from focusing on recuperating. So I spent that first 24 hours sucking down Nyquil and Echinacea and drifting in and out of sleep, which is probably just what I needed. And fortunately for Jen, it was unseasonably warm in Tucson, so she kept herself occupied outside the trailer, reading, running, and catching up on work.
Following the test, we'd holed up at a Pima County campground, Gilbert Ray, to make work easy on ourselves for a few days with electricity and amenities. Naturally, the day after I caught the flu was the final one of our permissible seven-day stay, meaning, sick or not, we had to move on. Our plan had been to head west to Organ Pipe National Monument, but I was feeling so pathetic that I started lobbying for a hotel. A big part of the reason we wanted to visit Organ Pipe, beyond just the iconic succulents, was I’d heard that the park’s lonely dirt roads were ideal for bikepacking. We’d actually been trying to get there for two years but had been thwarted first by an unexpected international assignment and most recently by torrential rains. Now, the idea of finally making it to Organ Pipe but not getting to do what I wanted to do—in my infirm state, I couldn’t pedal a lap around the trailer, much less three or four days around the park—made me feel crabby and sicker. “Hashtag vanlife sucks,” I think I may have groused once or twice. But Jen, who still hadn’t succumbed to my sickness, simply went about packing up and driving us west, despite my protestations.
Twenty-eight species of cactus grow in Organ Pipe, but the one that gives the park its name is a magnificent and humongous specimen that grows in palm-shape clusters up to 20-feet tall. They reminded me of dry-land coral reef outcrops, and, despite my flu, as soon as I caught site of one, I was glad we’d come. Though the campground was on the compact side, with tents and trailers sandwiched into a grid, we scored a nice site in the generator-free zone with a couple of towering saguaros, and with temperatures pushing 80 degrees, I was glad to sit quietly in the desert heat and convalesce. I was slowly starting to feel better, but to Jen’s chagrin, she came down with my sickness that evening. All hopes of adventuring in the park were off.
That turned out to be okay. For a couple of days, we slept long stretches, day and night, lounged in the sun, and read our books. Once we both began to improve, we took to driving out into the park late in the day and setting up our chairs to listen to the shrill, oscillating cries of cactus wrens and to watch the sun set over the still, Sonoran desert. If we’d arrived at Organ Pipe feeling well, not sick, we never would have appreciated these simplicities. More importantly, if we’d gotten sick at home, not in Artemis, we’d likely never have taken so much down time. As it was, we not only got to see a place in a way that we might not have otherwise, we also recovered quicker than we probably would have if we weren’t in the trailer.
On our last full day in the park, I was feeling well enough that I mustered a 20-mile pedal at slightly faster than walking pace on the closest loop road to the campground. Jen, meanwhile, took advantage of the park’s awesome, twice-weekly shuttle service to get in a short hike. The ride wasn’t the big adventure I’d had in mind, but after a week of lying on my back, I was happy for the simple act of breathing the desert air a little more deeply. And riding in the Sonoran desert, on dirt roads virtually empty of traffic, through stunning, black, empty mountains festooned with needly succulents, was just as compelling as I had always imagined it would be—even at a slow creep.