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Heading east

September 9, 2009—I've been traveling around New Mexico for the better part of the last four years, ever since I came out to the southwest from New Jersey in the fall of 2005. I love the state's varied terrain, scenery and climate, and it's such an affordable place for a full-time RVer—with an annual camping pass, my average nightly cost for a water/electric hookup site is $4.63. But I do still have family and friends on the east coast, and while I keep in touch via email, it's not the same as seeing them face to face. My father's 83 and not getting any younger. I'd like to see him again while I still can.

And there's my 5' x 10' U-Haul storage room in New Jersey, which is costing me $834 a year. Much of what's in there I now realize I'll never need: furniture, power tools (that I've replaced with Ryobi cordless ones), extra winter clothing, spare kitchen utensils, and so on. Eight hundred bucks a year is a lot of money to spend keeping stuff I don't need... and keeping it 2,500 miles away where I can't lay hands on it even if I want to.

U-Haul storage

Why did I save all this stuff? Because I was hedging my bets. When I became a full-time RVer back in June of 2005, I wasn't sure I'd want to continue the lifestyle indefinitely. I had four years of RVing experience under my belt, and I loved vacationing for weeks at a time... but months or years? I just couldn't be sure.

So while I got rid of a huge amount of stuff from my condo, I saved a lot of things that I thought I might need if after a year or two of RVing I decided to move into a "stick house" again. Of course, that turned out not to be the case: I love this traveling lifestyle, and I plan to stay on the road as long as I can safely drive. But meanwhile, I'm paying for a lot of unneeded items, when all I really care about are my books and some of my old artwork.

So I rented a 5'x 10' storage room in Las Vegas, New Mexico—a town that's conveniently close to my regular travels, and far enough north that it doesn't get too hot in summer. The storage facility is only five minutes down the road from Storrie Lake State Park, which makes it perfect for me. The room cost me less than half what I'm paying in New Jersey. And with that in place, I made plans for a fall trip east. I'd leave right after Labor Day, visit my friends and family, and clean out that NJ storage room... donate most of the contents to charity... and bring back the books and other irreplaceable items to my New Mexico storage room, where they'll be dry and I can get at them without driving across the continent.

Today was the first day of my trip. After spending a week at Sugarite (pron. "SHOO gah reet") Canyon State Park in northern New Mexico, this morning I packed up my big satellite internet dish and headed northeast into Colorado. It was quite a change of scenery as I descended from 7,800 feet to a little over 4,000 feet... the lowest I've been in many years. My mountaintop campsite in Sugarite's "Soda Pocket" campground had spectacular views across miles of mountains and valleys from my Lazy Daze's panoramic back windows.

Sugarite panorama

Leaving New Mexico felt strange. I've been so comfortable for so long in the state that I felt reluctant to cross the border. But I pushed on, and after a 125-mile drive, I'm camped now at John Martin Reservoir State Park in eastern Colorado. It's a manicured, park-like environment with a nice view of the water. There are no warning signs about bears here, unlike at Sugarite. I haven't seen anything more menacing than a housefly.

John Martin Reservoir panorama

Like all the Colorado state parks I've stayed in, this one is well furnished (there's even a laundromat!), immaculately kept... and very expensive. I'm paying $28 to spend one night here in a site with electricity, but no water. In New Mexico, $28 would get me a week in a site with electricity and water (but no laundromat).


Yet despite the high prices here, there are no staff in sight. A sign at the visitor center says that due to budget cutbacks, they've been furloughed for four days, although the park remains open. There are only about half a dozen RVs in the 109 campsites here at the Hasty Lake campground, one of two in the park.

Why is camping so much less expensive in New Mexico than in Colorado? I don't have budget figures, but I can make a guess. The reason mainly has to do with differences in philosophy. New Mexico runs its state parks at a loss—a big loss, from what I've heard: two out of three dollars of park operating expenses come from state subsidies, while only one dollar comes from use fees.

They do this because the parks are magnets that bring tourist money into the state. I'm living testimony to the effectiveness of this strategy: most of my income over the past four years has been spent in New Mexico, precisely because its parks are so affordable.

Colorado obviously sees things differently: they charge enough to make money from their parks, or at least break even. In short, Colorado wants its parks to be a revenue source—a "profit center," in corporate terms—while New Mexico uses its parks as leverage to attract what must surely be a much larger amount of tourist revenue. I think New Mexico's way is smarter, but then I'm prejudiced.

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