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.