Yuma, AZ – Prisons and Balloons

A developer's palm tree lined neighborhood street. 

The homes were never built.

A Salton Sea inlet where there once was an RV park.

Long Fall shadows from our legs and a

walking stick.  Winter was coming.

The landscape of a mixed green salad

Yuma is the capital of leafy greens.

Lakeside in Yuma

Redondo Lake Boondocking

The dust storms are like blizzard white-outs

The morning greeted us with a spectacular sunrise

Steaming tea

Cheery moment - a sailboat passes through

Yuma en route to San Diego

Fantastic adobe houses with brightly glazed tiles

Old Town Yuma

The "Coolest Bar Downtown"

An old-time restaurant

loaded with antiques

and memorabilia



Colorado River Crossing Balloon Festival

Heating up the balloon

Keeping the basket grounded

Balloons of all kinds

The Balloon Glow

Yuma Territorial Prison

Prison Guard

Cell block. No one ever escaped from these cells.

Double doors for each


9' x 12' and 6 to a cell

Hike to the Towers

Yuma Lakes RV Park, submerged!

Yuma, Arizona

November 1-30, 2008 - We left San Diego in high spirits, the memories of the fog horns, the salt air, the fresh sailing breezes and

warm air still filling our senses.  So it was quite a shock when we climbed the mountains to the east on I-8 and had to brace

ourselves against a nasty wind storm that forced us under way too many blankets at night while the heater ran full blast.  We were

in denial about winter coming, and it was a relief when the storm passed and the California deserts at the base of the mountains

warmed us up again.  We stopped near Salton City for a few days, and heard the sad tale of the sadly exploited Salton Sea.

Salton Sea - lost treasure

The Sea was once a playground, filled with fish and boats and laughing

kids throwing sticks in the water for their dogs.  Sadly, now the beaches

are layered in dead fish on thick beds of bleached non-native barnacle

shells.  We rode our bikes through virtual ghost towns along this huge

inland salt lake's shoreline.  Palm trees lined would-be neighborhood

streets amid developers' evaporated dreams.  Half-built homes had long

ago given up hope for windows and siding, and their yawning open frames

were a stark contrast to the beautiful mountain, beach and waterfront


All are victims

of pesticide

runoff from

adjacent farmlands and

ever-rising salinity

caused by the Sea's

constant evporation.

Former picnic areas, RV

parks, tiki bars and

housing stand vacant,

disintegrating and

forlorn, longing for the

return of ecologically

healthier times that may

never come.  The only life is huge flocks of pelicans and ibis that feast on the sole

surviving fish, a tiny non-native species.  After talking at length with several long-

time residents about this miserable state of affairs, we moved on, our spirits badly


Yuma: desert + water = produce

We went to Yuma, Arizona, hoping for sunlight and some good cycling.

We found both, along with a great place to camp near a small lake along

the edge of vast farmlands.  This corner of the world is rich in lettuce,

kale, spinach and other leafy greens.

We hooked up

with Yuma's

Foothills Bike

Club and did

several terrific

rides with

them, getting to

know the back

roads and canal banks around town.  Yuma is blistering hot in the

summer but comes to life each winter as residents of the northern states

and provinces arrive in flocks during their annual "snowbird" migration.

Most people we met around town lived in an RV, and there was a festive

air everywhere as old friends arrived and got together again.

One morning we awoke to a spectacular sunrise, but "red sky at morning"

proved true as an amazing wind storm blew into town.  The dust swirled until

you couldn't see, making white-out blizzard-like conditions on the roads.  The

temperature dropped

and suddenly we were

thrust into winter for

several days.  Suddenly

we were drinking

copious cups of hot tea

and taking long turns

over the heat vents to

warm our bones.

We had left San Diego

just a week or so ago, yet all that summertime fun was

quickly fading into a beautiful, distant memory.  Sigh.

Winter is not our favorite season.  Even in Arizona it is just

too darned cold for too long!

We cheered up immensely one afternoon when we found

ourselves in traffic behind a yacht hauler taking a brand new

boat from Florida to a dealership in San Diego.  How ironic that

this very same dealership had taken us on a "test sail" of this

very same boat model just a few weeks ago.

Yuma's Old Town

Yuma has a lot of history, and we spent some

happy afternoons wandering around the Old Town

district.  Most of the buildings, dating from 100

years or so ago, are made of adobe brick, so the

walls are enormously thick.

Many are decorated with pretty, brightly

colored, glazed tile, and we learned that

this is "Anglicized Sonoran" architecture.

We wandered down some stairs and

found ourselves in the middle of The

Garden Restaurant, a charming little spot

with tables on many levels, overhanging

branches offering colorful flowers and shade, and birds of

all types singing and squawking in cages along the


In winter especially, this is definitely an outdoor

community, with lots of little boutiques for shopping.

We saw the outside of the "Coolest Bar Downtown" but went

inside the famed Lutes Casino where antiques, memorabilia and

goodies from another era fill the restaurant from floor to ceiling.

A popular hangout for marines from the nearby Air Station, Lutes

has a display with a letter from a homesick marine in Desert

Storm who wrote longingly of how one of their "especial" dinners

(a hot dog and a hamburger) would taste so good right about


As we started to turn back towards the parked truck

we heard the most amazing electric guitar riffs in the

distance.  Someone was having fun -- either

listening to something very loud or playing loudly

himself.  We followed the sounds to the Mustard Seed Restaurant.  The door

was propped open, and a musical firestorm filled our ears as we poked our

heads inside.  A young fellow was playing his heart out.  He stopped when he

saw us and introduced himself as the Owner-Operator-Chef of the restaurant.

"I'm just checking out the sound system.  Come back tonight at 9:00 and I'll be

jamming with some friends."

Balloon Festival

Yuma hosts the Colorado River Crossing Balloon

Festival each year, and we went to the fairgrounds to

see the Balloon Glow one evening.  One by one, at

least 25 balloons were laid out on the grass and filled

with hot air.

Balloon teams come to Yuma from all over for this festival, and each team expertly

raised their balloon to vertical and kept its basket tied to the ground so it wouldn't

float off.

There were traditional balloon shapes, a few with advertisers' names displayed, and

even one lady bug balloon.

As the sun set the spectators streamed in and the glow

began.  An announcer would get the balloonists to

coordinate their flame blasts so that all the balloons would

light up together.  The balloons can't take the hot air for

too long at a time, or they will try to float away,

so the balloons would glow together for just a

few moments and then go dark to cool down.

There were two balloon launches during the weekend as

well, but they required getting up and driving a long ways

before dawn, and both mornings we opted to stay in our

warm bed with the down comforters pulled over our heads.

Yuma Territorial Prison

Back when Arizona was young -- in

1876 when it was just a territory and

not yet a state -- it became home to

the Territorial Prison.  Arizona

distributed its various government

responsibilities between the three major

settlements:  Phoenix vied for the eventual

state capitol, Tucson nourished the seedling

public university, and Yuma got the prison.

This shaped the future state's personality:

Phoenix is the hub of commerce, Tucson is

the cultural mecca, and Yuma, well, Yuma

gave the prison to Florence in 1909 and

concentrated on agriculture and winter visitors.

This prison was nicknamed "The Hellhole of the West."  Out of ~3,000

prisoners only 26 ever escaped from the cell blocks.  No wonder: the cells

were steel cages covered with granite, and

each cell had a double door.  The first

prisoners had the privilege of building the

prison before moving in, which reminded me

of New Hampshire's modern day inmates

stamping out license plates with the motto

"Live Free or Die."

Each cell had six bunks, but as the years

went by they sometimes had to house more

than six men.  The single, shared chamber

pot was emptied once a day.  Bedbugs

lived in the wooden bunks and ate the

prisoners raw until the wooden bunks

were finally burned and replaced with

steel.  There was a "dark cell" that offered solitary confinement for disruptive prisoners.  We crept

into this pitch black hole that had housed a 5'x5' steel cage where prisoners spent anywhere from

one to over 100 nights.  The only light came from a tiny shaft above.  No chamber pot here:  the

floor of the cage was cleaned every few months.  Yikes.  Several women were rewarded for their

bad behavior with a stint in the dark cell too.

Hikes and Walks

There are pretty hikes in the hills around Yuma, and we ventured up a

very steep hill one morning to get a commanding view of the farmlands

and city.

Winter pressed on as November drew to a close, and we were deluged

with two days of torrential rain.  Nearby Yuma

Lakes RV Park became submerged, and the

reflections of the rigs in the standing water made

some colorful photos on our daily walks.

We stayed in Yuma for all of November, 2008, slowly adjusting to the fact that

winter was here and wasn't going to leave any time soon.  We got word from

friends we had met last year in Quartzsite that they were returning, so we

finally packed up and made the short trek north to one of the world's oddest

temporary communities:  the BLM land surrounding the truck-stop town of

Quartzsite, Arizona.  For the next two months we hovered in and around

Arizona's Deserts.