Rock On

18 01 2011

The quiet of a winter desert day is broken by the clink of metal on stone. Just a tap-tap sound as the pick pries loose a piece of quartz captive in a hunk of sedimentary rock. It’s a beautiful piece and sparkles pink in the sunlight. We’re hunting on the side of Mineral Mountain east of Florence, Arizona, looking for interesting gems, minerals and other odds and ends. The collection we’re accumulating near the Ajax Mine includes some hand-forged nails, an old, brown medicine bottle and different colored quart and other minerals. I don’t know what half are called, but we’ll hit the gem and mineral reference book back and the campsite.

It’s part of the world of backcountry camping in Arizona. Good friends, open sky, bright campfires, and camaraderie. This new area to explore is not one with the beauty of the Four Corners Region or Mogollon Rim. The canyon we’re in is nothing when compared to the Grand Canyon. The spirit here is enjoying the weather, the sky, and the tidbits we’re finding on our day hikes. Even Hershey is finding things of interest as she sniffs and stares at new smells and sights.

Several friends have said they don’t like to camp because of snakes and bugs and wild animals. In more than 30 years of camping, I have yet to see any snakes or wild animals in camp. Once we saw some coyotes. Another time we saw some javelina in the distance. The only bugs around are flies, bees, moths, and butterflies. Hardly a deterrent I would think.


You’ll live, but you won’t be warm

16 01 2011

“It’s a 32-degree sleeping bag. Great for spring and summer. I mean, who goes camping in the winter, right?” and the novice camper I was back then, it seemed a great idea to get the matched zip-together pair. Living in Arizona in 1975 and summer camping, I just knew we’d never go camping when the temperature was that cold. In August on the slopes of Mt. Lassen, I’d learn that America’s then only active volcano is not going to keep you warm when the temperature drops.

The real lesson was about camping equipment specifications.

California was in the midst of a six year drought when I whipped into Redding, California, and my sister and her new husband for a camping weekend at Lassen Volcanic National Park near Susanville. I was less than a year in the West having lived the previous 25 years in Illinois and Michigan. We tooled up to the Park’s south entrance in the southern Cascade Mountains and settled into the Southwest, the walk-in campground just past the entrance gate near Bumpass Hell. At 6,700 feet, it was the highest elevation (at that time) at which I’d ever pitched a tent. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, the sky was crystal blue and the temperature rested in the low 80s—relief from the more than 100 degree weather in Redding. California had not seen a rain storm at all that summer, but that night, the temperature dropped, the clouds rolled in and it snowed. I was frozen during the night, despite the fact that the air temperature never actually dropped below 32 degrees.

So, as soon as I had the chance, I bought a “25 degree” sleeping bag. Several years later, in a similar surprise temperature drop, I was still cold and the temperature was nowhere near 25 degrees. I even checked for assurance it was rated in degrees Fahrenheit and not Celsius.

A number of years passed and I was now living at 4,000 feet up the Sierra Nevada mountains between Tahoe and Yosemite. High elevation camping was routine, but new sleeping bags were needed. With experience and newly gained knowledge from REI, I learned that the temperature rating on a sleeping bag is essentially, “you won’t freeze to death at this level, but you won’t necessarily be warm.” Now days, every sleeping bag coming into my gear collection has a rating of 15 degrees or lower. And I’ve had to test that too, but not on purpose. I can say that I’ve never been cold since I got my Kelty.

Total Eclipse of the Parking Lot

14 01 2011

During the recent total eclipse of the moon, I joined up with a group of singles from the Phoenix Singles Meetup group. The largest group in Phoenix, and one of the largest on MeetUp, the Phoenix Singles has over 3,000 members and one or two activities going on almost every night. The idea of getting together with a big bonfire for the evening was too much to resist. We assembled at the group campground in Usery Mountain Regional Park in northeast Mesa. Usery is part of the Maricopa County Parks and Recreation Department, and is a beautiful desert setting. The County has preserved the natural landscape while still working in a large campground and massive group area.

Well, camping means of course Hershey goes for the trip and this time she had playmates. It was fun watching the dogs wrestle and jump around.

The weather was semi-cooperative. None of the threatened rain appeared, but heavy cloud cover made it challenging to watch the eclipse with eyes or any of the telescopes or binoculars we brought. Steve shot some really great photos and I had my share as well, but his deserve a special mention.

The reason all this has come up three weeks later is a discussion with friends about the merits of camping. We were assembling a group for a desert camping trip, and the discussion wandered towards, “Well let’s reserve a group campground.” My camping group, the Gang of Three, always camps as a group – in the middle of nowhere – away from crowds. The idea of a group campground brought laughter to my lips. As nice as Usery Mountain Regional Park has been designed, its group campgrounds are essentially large parking lots with small gravel. Sure, there’s a fire pit to end all fire pits, a great ramada and hot showers, but setting up a tent on the parking lot between a couple of RVs is not my idea of camping.

Give me the open desert any day.

Keeping warm camping in cold weather

17 10 2010

“It’s going to be in the 30s overnight.”

Brrr. Canceling the camping trip? Not on the agenda. Sure, there’d be concerns if storms were on the horizon, but getting in that last camping trip to the Grand Canyon is something really special right before winter sets in. Preparing takes a little more thought than during a summer trip, especially when the destination is that on-the-rim campsite so hard to reach. It’s not like we can make a run for the Jacobs Lake Lodge if we forgot something; the Lodge is more than an hour over gravel and dirt roads. So it takes a little up front effort.

Packing Lists

Since I seem to be enjoying more senior moments than before, packing lists are more important when the weather turns cold. When the outside temperature is ranging from 100 during the day to high 80s at night in Phoenix, it’s hard to anticipate the Canyon days in the high 70s and the nights in the lows 30s. I break my lists into three groups: clothing, gear, and kitchen. Creating the checklist took a lot of time about a year ago. I kept adding, deleting, moving around, and revising. In the end I had five lists—one for each of the plastic tubs where camping equipment and supplies are kept for quick loading.


Temperature swing is one interesting aspect of desert camping. Growing up in the Midwest, the temperature might vary by ten or fifteen degrees between the high and low. In the Four Corners region, the difference can be 40 or 50 degrees. For our weekend trip, there was a projected near 50-degree swing expected—and it was the difference between frost and sweat. Layer is the word. Pack clothes layering up from coolness to warmth to add or subtract depending on the temperature of the moment. The mistake I made was putting the cold weather gear on the bottom—after an eight hour drive from Phoenix to the North Rim, the coats should have been packed for easy access on the top since we would arrive around sundown. Live and learn. I had to scrabble through the duffle bag in the dark to find my coat.


In addition to the obvious gear, I added a couple of items for cold weather. This included an extra tarp protecting exposed kitchen gear left out overnight from frost. The extra effort saves having to dry everything before use in the morning. An extra tube of fire starter was added to the list along with an extra box of storm-proof matches. Extra batteries for lamps and cameras were wrapped in thin foam. Extreme temperature changes cause batteries to lose power. I’ve been switching to rechargeables, so I also packed the recharger (my Santa Fe has an AC power inverter, so I can charge batteries on the go). Two extra flashlights were packed in the car. Cold weather has an added bonus: clear skies. We packed telescopes for stargazing. Oh yeah, we bought a quarter cord of wood to take along…and we used most of it.


The nice thing about the plastic tubs is that they hold all provisions. I added extra cans of soup and chili (homemade) so that there were two per day. Normally, I might pack one can of soup or chili. Nothing warms up the body furnace like a cup of soup while sitting around the campfire. In addition, I took a quick run over to REI and purchased a 12-pack of handwarmers. The chemical-based packs of magnesium and iron oxide generate heat that fits into pockets, socks, or gloves…or if hair-challenged, under the hat as well.

Even with all the preplanning—I still forgot my wool cap and gloves. However, the remembered handwarmers made up for that. As far as the tent, it holds heat pretty well, especially when shared with a chocolate lab.

Good morning Starshine

12 10 2010

Away from cell service, away from running water, away from civilization…that’s the weekend on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Picked because of no moon, we headed into the darkness on October 7 and set up camp under a moonless sky. The Milky Way was so bright, we actually saw starlight shadows. That was a new experience. Our home galaxy ran from the south horizon to the north horizon like a stream of white smoke. So thick were the stars that at one point, flashlights were not needed. It’s moments like this when one stands at that great abyss, the heart and soul become one with the view.

Camping! One last trip before the Fall

7 10 2010
North Rim Grand Canyon sunset

Sunset viewed from the "secret" campsite


Sure, I know that Fall starts on September 22nd every year. That doesn’t matter to the Gang of Three. We are going to get in one more camping trip to the Grand Canyon this year. The forecast for this coming weekend includes scattered thunderstorms, high temperatures in the 60s, and overnight lows down to 30; that mix could even mean some snow. We don’t care. There are times when it’s just necessary get outta Dodge. We’ve been talking about going to our secret spot on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for months. I guess not so secret anymore, especially since I featured it in one of my articles. That’s why we’re going up on a Thursday instead of Friday. 

Telescopes are one of the items packed in our cars before we head to the Colorado plateau. We picked these dates with no moon because this is the weekend we’re going to look to the stars. All my gear is ready. After camping for 30 years, I finally organized by camping gear. Following one trip to many of forgetting something, I realize that the “senior moments” always result in my leaving something that I wanted. This time it was an absolutely crucial piece of camping equipment: the coffee. If the Gang were camping at the developed Happy Valley Campground, forgetting coffee or a can opener is only an inconvenient drive. The Gang of Three, however, set up camp that weekend more than two hours from the nearest paved road. After two years of monthly camping experiences, the rest of the Gang depends on me to bring the coffee. 

Following four days without coffee, when I returned home and cleaned by camping gear before putting it back in its plastic tubs, I took a tablet and made a list of everything that was in each of the tubs. I took the list and made it into a checklist. Attaching a sheet protector to each of the tubs, I slip a checklist on top of each one. Now before I go camping, I pull out the checklist and physically check everything off. I haven’t forgotten anything since then. Well almost. I once backed out of the driveway and saw that my sleeping bag was still sitting on the garage floor waiting to be packed.

In the Still of the Night

12 09 2010

The cold chill running down the spine is the last feeling desired camping on a dark, moonless night in the backcountry of the Arizona desert. It doesn’t matter that three of your close friends are by your side around a warm campfire in the chill air; doesn’t matter that your faithful dog is snoring away, curled on her pad next to you toasting by the fire. This campsite was picked for its isolation. Planning a camping trip, the group wanted to pitch tents on the far side of Picacho Peak in the middle of the Ironwood Forest National Monument.

“Camping!” always ends with an exclamation mark when my camping group, the “Gang of Three,” plans a weekend under the desert sky. Once a month Steve, Kelli, and I, plus occasional friends, gather our gear, pack our vehicles and head out from Phoenix—to the desert in the winter in the mountains in the summer. Riding shotgun in mine is my six year old chocolate lab, Hershey, the official Gang of Three camping dog. Like most chocolate labs, once out of puppyhood there is mellowness to her demeanor.

Ironwood Forest National Monument is located between Phoenix and Tucson Arizona-Sonoran Desert. About 20 miles west of the interstate, the National Monument is not near anything. The Bureau of Land Management warns of no facilities, abandoned mines and primitive roads. “Be prepared to rescue yourself,” warns its Web site. Knowing this and undeterred, our caravan headed south from Phoenix on the two-hour journey to our preselected campsite. A dozen miles west of the interstate, we leave the pavement behind; a dozen more and we pass a sign warning “road maintenance ends.” Churning our way across the soft sand at the bottom of wash, we climb the far bank and pass a nondescript sign stating “Ironwood Forest National Monument.”

Staring into the breathtaking Arizona desert sunset, we slowly move down the rutted road with GPS receivers glowing in the growing darkness. We pass an abandoned mining town, mining equipment painted a mottled ghostly brown by the shadows. Slowly rounding a bend with the GPS showing our destination approaching, we see a bright and leering warning sign: “Warning. Drug and human smugglers may pass through this area.” That, we knew in advance and didn’t care.

Darkness upon us, we pitched our tents, started our camp fire, ate our dinner, and settled back in in our chairs with cold beers, chips, and salsa. As the temperature dropped, Hershey curled up next to me on her camping pad. First she lay with her paw pads facing the fire and as they warmed, she would turn over with her back facing the fire. Unlike many dogs camping, Hershey is quiet. To that very moment, I could never recall her barking while camping. All that changed in an instant.

As we talked, drank, and laughed, Hershey slept, snoring quietly. Outside the perimeter of the campfire light the night was pitch black, even the nearby mountains were merely a deeper black in the darkness. Suddenly, Hershey’s head popped up, her eyes brightly alert. From deep in her throat came a low warning growl unlike any noise I had ever heard from her. She stared across the road deep into the darkness to something we could not see, hear, or smell. Our conversation and laughter stopped instantly and we all stared at the dog. We could tell this was serious.

Hershey stood up and I grabbed her to hook up her leash. Steve, a gunsmith by trade, moved to his truck and took out a pair of handguns. Handing one to me, he moved deeper into the darkness saying “I’m going to sweep around behind whatever that is.” With the leashed growling dog, the rest of us moved away from the fire into the darkness behind one of the vehicles.

We knew about where Steve was located, but he was moving quietly, so we could not hear him at all. Time seemed to drag, and Hershey’s growls grew more ominous and louder. Kelli turned to me and said, “I’m getting a little nervous about this.” Her friend, Bill, just nodded. Hershey who dropped to a sitting position next to me while still growling suddenly leapt to her feet and increased the growl volume. From the darkness we heard Steve’s voice shouting, “Identify yourself! I have a gun and I’m not afraid to use it!” He repeated the warning in Spanish. Only the quiet of the desert night answered him.

It was silent again and after waiting what seemed a lifetime, I shouted, “Steve, are you OK?” He responded by shouting, “I can see you! Stand and identify yourself! We just want to know who you are and you can go on your way!” He repeated it firmly in Spanish. Nothing but darkness and quiet. In the darkness, we could clearly hear Steve pull the action on his pistol. The three of us looked at each, other our faces showing something between concern and fear. Hershey continued her incessant growling.

From a new position, Steve shouted one more time, “I can see all of you well enough to aim; identify yourself, now!” This time we heard a rustling in the underbrush; braced for whatever would come next, we froze as the night’s quiet was slashed with a long, baleful, “Mooooo.”

Hershey immediately barked three times, wagged her tail against my leg, sat down, and looked at me with her, “Did I earn a treat?” expression. Our laughter echoed from both sides of the road against the nearby mountain. Tension relieved, it was back to the campfire, the beer, the chips and the salsa. For Hershey, it was back to the sleeping pad with a treat to chew.