Sandi Wheaton's photographic journey from Chicago to LA with a Jeep, an Aliner trailer and a bunch of cameras

random encounter at the hot springs

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Special delivery: yesterday I realized that a package I picked up 2400 miles back still had another 175 miles to go before its destination.  This is a fun story about chance meetings on the road.  It’s also one that might make my mother squirm.

irrigation canal under Imperial Valley sunset

irrigation canal under gorgeous Imperial Valley sunset

On the way back to Canada after the Route 66 trip, I took a more southerly route to avoid winter conditions since the triangle doesn’t have brakes.  After exchanging farewells with Container Charlie and Technomadia at Slab City, I headed southeast across California’s Imperial County.  The drive that  evening was a mixed blessing: I encountered one of the foulest stenches I have ever had to endure (massive cattle farm), followed by a most jaw-droppingly beautiful sunset.

NASA image of the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley (All-American Canal runs lalong bottom-right of image)

NASA image of the Salton Sea and Imperial Valley

The agricultural fields here are divided by a network of roads and irrigation canals that divert precious water from the Colorado River to the desert-locked growing areas.  This grid of smaller aqueducts branches off the 82-mile All-American Canal running near the Mexican border, the largest irrigation canal in the world.  Moving over 26,000 cubic feet of water per second from the Colorado River into California’s Imperial and Coachella Valleys, the All-American Canal irrigates over 500,000 acres of farmland.  Personally, I find this amazing.  Looking at a satellite image of the area, you instantly notice how the agricultural patchwork north and south of the Salton Sea is surrounded by a whole lotta empty, dry desert.  Water is a huge issue in these parts.

Below the mesh of crisscrossing canals, geothermal activity bubbles up the occasional hot springs.  I tried to hit the springs near Holtville, but naturally, they were closed for maintenance of some kind.  (I say “naturally” because this tends to be my luck.  It began back in the 80s, when I visited New York on a high school art class trip: the Statue of Liberty was covered in scaffolding.  A year later, my first trip to London saw Big Ben also laced over with girders, and the statue of Eros at Piccadilly Circus had been sent away to Scotland for cleaning.  England also had the biggest snowstorm in over 40 years during my stay.  My friend and host Gavin found this all quite amusing, but we were sure my unlucky streak would end at Stonehenge.  The massive stones don’t need cleaning or maintenance, and they certainly aren’t going anywhere… what could possibly disrupt a visit?  Gavin almost split a gut when we read the sign at the entrance gate: they were sorry for the inconvenience, but a TV commercial was being shot there that day.)

"Do you like my jugs?!?!"

"Do you like my jugs?!?!"

Anyway, after cursing my “when-I’m-there-it’s-closed” pattern, I found a spot to camp for free on nearby BLM land.  The following morning I was parked next to the East Highline Canal checking maps, when I looked up with a start to see a man on a bike stopped outside my Jeep window.  “Ontario!  Hallo!!” he gleefully chimed (he had noticed my plates).  “What part of Ontario are you from?”  He was from Kitchener, about three hours from my home in Windsor.  Many campers in the area get water from the nearby hot springs, which explained why he had two 1-gallon water bottles hanging around his neck.  “Do you like my jugs?!?” he quipped in his heavy Austrian accent while gesturing at his chest.  This dude was hilarious – the most seriously jolly fellow I had perhaps ever met.

I told him about my project and what I was up to.  When he saw my cameras, he told me that he had recently picked up a good tripod at a flea market for his son.  He asked if I would bring it back to Ontario with me, to save him shipping it.  “But I’m in Windsor, and he’s in Kitchener…” I hesitated.  “Oh, he needs a good road trip!  I’ll tell him to come and get it from you!  Come on!”  And with that, he hopped on his bike and I followed him back to his campsite.

Raimund Artl and his wife Eva spend their summers back in Ontario and their winters down here, camped out in the Long Term Visitor Area (LTVA).  Incredibly, you can purchase a yearly permit for only $180 that allows you to park here in the desert from September 15 to April 15.  Of course there are no facilities and you must provide your own water and power – but that’s what hot springs and solar panels are for.  The nearby town of Holtville also has dump stations and water facilities, so everything you need is close by.  It’s bloody brilliant.

the outdoor shower setup

the makeshift outdoor shower area

They proudly toured me through their temporary compound, showing me their charging solar panels, the outdoor “living room” space, how they shower outdoors, and their cute birdfeeder on a tripod.  They seemed so joyful and relaxed, living under the sun in the desert for next to nothing… it looked like a great plan to me.  Sure there were a few flies in the ointment to disrupt the idyllic peace and quiet – the recreational ATVs buzzing around on the sandy trails, the constant hum of the nearby geothermal power plant, and the alarming sound of military helicopters chopping by overhead on their way to the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma (three flew over as we chatted) – but that seemed a small price to pay.

Raimund and Eva Artl's winter camp in the desert

Raimund and Eva Artl's winter camp in the desert

Raimund dug up the heavy-duty used tripod he got for a steal (a Manfrotto, I was envious!), and Eva gave me her son’s business card, with phone numbers and email addresses.  They also gave me a small package of calendars to deliver to their son along with the tripod.  I threw it all in the Jeep, we said our goodbyes, and I got back on the highway.

“What if they gave you drugs??!”  I can hear the motherly protests now.  I know, I thought the same thing.  But all I can say is, “it’s different when you’re on the road”.  From the point of view of sitting safely in our homes, jobs and daily routines, this sort of random encounter does NOT compute as being safe.  The message we constantly get, whether explicit or just a subtle undercurrent, is the same: the world is dangerous, everyone is out to get you, and you must use vigilance at all times.  Just watch a newscast!  “Coming up at six, we’ll tell you how to keep your family safe from <insert exaggerated fear-inducing news item that your local TV station can spectacularize for effect, thus generating higher ratings and subsequent ad sales>.”

East Highline Canal, with I-8 overpass

East Highline Canal, with I-8 overpass

Wasn’t it possible they could be using me as a drug mule?  What if I was being made an unknowing smuggler?  It’s highly unlikely.  I’m not saying that these sorts of things don’t happen in the world – of course they do.  I’m just saying that they’re the exception to the rule, not the norm.  Yet sometimes fear makes us treat it like the norm.  And think about it: I was the one who stopped briefly next to the canal while Raimund just happened to be cycling by on his morning water run.  It wasn’t like I was being watched and targeted and they descended to plant their illicit substances on me… it was just a fun, random meeting of two Ontarians on the road.  I was heading to home turf.  They had gifts to send back.  It just made sense to do the favor.

So yesterday I unearthed the package and tripod, dug around to find the son’s phone number, and called him.  He knew who I was right away.  He worked for a food company that had a store near my house, so he could arrange to have it all shipped to his office.  I drove to the store, dropped off the items, and the field consultant would deliver it on the next run between Windsor and Kitchener.  Done.  Easy.

And really, Raimund and Eva were the ones taking the chance with giving me their stuff (I would have liked that tripod, you know!).  But they trusted me and I trusted them.  Why wouldn’t we?  Time and again on this trip I was reminded that people are generally good.  Really, they are.  Get out on the road and see for yourself.

happy campers Raimund and Eva Artl

happy campers Raimund and Eva Artl

(To read more on my experiences and thoughts about life on the road, be sure to check out the awesome article recently published on’s newsletter.  There was also a recent story on, and I was tickled to be featured on this past week, too!  Thanks so much to Jane Kastner, Ron Stang and Louise Brown for the interest and support.  I’m feeling the love this Valentine’s Day!)


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