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.


Do it now

20 07 2010

Grand Canyon National Park. It’s been there since time memorial, but chances to visit the Park don’t always come easy. I look around at many of my friends and realize how lucky I am to still have a living parent; a healthy, active, unconstrained parent. Early in the visit, she mentioned a desire to come for a longer stay next time in order to see the Grand Canyon. “I’ve always wanted to see it.”

A couple of days later, we were driving to Tucson to see a former neighbor from back in Park Forest, Illinois, where I grew up. During the two hour drive, we were talking about others from the neighborhood. There was Mildred, who has serious hearing and memory challenges and is rehabbing from a broken femur. She may never live independently again, and she is younger than my mom. There’s Nan, who seems to be in early stages of Alzheimer. Another friend has a debilitating illness, a second is in early stages of dementia. My aunt is bedridden and may never be able to get out of bed again. Even our former neighbor has her issues. All of these women are anywhere from a couple of years to more than ten years younger than my mom. This doesn’t count the deaths among my mother’s friends.

After listening to this litany, I looked at my mom and said, “Can you handle a long day in the car?”

“Sure. Why?”

“Want to go see the Grand Canyon tomorrow?”

“Isn’t that a long day driving for you?”

“I can manage.”

And so, Friday morning we set off early towards the Grand Canyon (and a 25-degree drop in temperature from Scottsdale). I took her in through the east entrance, Desert View, and working our way towards Grand Canyon Village, we stopped at every other overlook. My mom was just thrilled with the views. Nature cooperated and gave us a couple of thunderstorms on the North Rim and a downpour while we were ensconced in a restaurant for lunch. The monsoon ended just as we finished lunch, and we drove back to the Valley of the Sun.

My mom got to see the Canyon, and I will never have the regret that “I wish I had taken mom to the Canyon when it was possible.”

The North Rim: Less visited, more heartfelt

5 10 2009
The setting sun paints the north rim of the Grand Canyon at Crazy Jug Point

The setting sun paints the north rim of the Grand Canyon at Crazy Jug Point

Gazing from the camping chair in the shade of a scrappy pine tree at the scene before us, it was agreed upon that this was the finest campsite view any of us had ever seen in our lives—and that coverered more than 30 years each camping all over this place we call “America.” Skeptics say that the Grand Canyon is a “tourist trap,” “too crowded,” or muse that it’s best seen in pictures. How wrong. How sad.

For many years, I felt the same way—if everyone went there, it was a good place to avoid. After years of trapsing on and around the Colorado Plateau, I made a visit to the Canyon and was transformed.

A newspaper, cup of coffee, and a viewIt was August 2001, and we were returning from a pilgrimage to Chaco Culture National Park. There was no hurry to return to California, and at the last minute, a decision was made to go to the Grand Canyon as Flagstaff was approaching on I-40. From the moment of arrival, it was a transformative moment. Have you ever seen something so amazing that there are no words, so large it cannot be seen with one glance. Welcome to the Grand Canyon.

Without a doubt, the South Rim is crowded in the summer with hundreds of thousands of visitors tromping the scenic overlooks. Thousands working their way down the main trails crowd the south at Grand Canyon Village. Few take the hours necessary to go to the North Rim, more than 200 miles away. Although the Canyon is only about 18 miles wide, to get to the North Rim requires driving east to pick up US 89, then shifting to US 89A before Page. At Jacobs Lake, Arizona 67 is the Grand Canyon Highway. It’s a good two hour drive; more if you sightsee.
Sunset, Friday, September 25, 2009

Sunset, Friday, September 25, 2009

Fewer than 25% of the Canyon’s visitors go to the North Rim. However, for campers, there is something that is a greater draw. Around Crazy Jug and Monument Points, the National Park boundaries only come to the edge of the rim. The Kaibab National Forest manages the land on the plateaus. This means that unemcumbered dispersed camping is permitted. Dispersed means to bring in everything you need—and pack it out. Some waste, however, is buried.

Dispersed camping is not for everyone, but on the North Rim, those who love camping need to suck it up at least once to camp at one of these locales. The sunset alone is worth any inconvenience.