Within minutes of our pulling into the Molino Basin Campground – a small slice of Arizona’s Coronado National Forest less than an hour’s drive north from Tuscon – the camp host, a grizzled but jovial guy named Richard, was telling us how much we were going to like it there. Then he told us which sites would be best for our solar panels and, within minutes of that conversation, we were settled into a lovely spot. There was coyote scat drying in the sun on the roadway behind us and there were rock-strewn and tree-dotted hills rising up to a crown of marbled red granite pillars and buttresses in front of us and I thought, oh yes, we’re in Arizona now.
We’d spent the night before at a run-down and noisy RV park right in Tucson, it’s only merit being its proximity to the restaurant where we met an old friend for dinner. In contrast, Molino Basin felt like another world altogether, as if the sprawling busy city down below it didn’t really exist. Looking at the landscape around us I felt as if, in getting to Arizona, we’ve reached the apex of this trip and that all the miles we covered so far were only meant to lead us here. Once we leave this state, will the rest of the trip be a gradual slide back into that other world of crowded highways and crowded places?
I’ve carried Arizona in my heart for decades now. I lived here for three years, long ago. Two while I was at NAU in Flagstaff and my parents were in Lake Havasu City and one right after Roland and I got married, when we came to Havasu to help my parents build their second home. If I could, I might live here again. I think. In southern Arizona probably. But not in an RV park. I’d put up with the hellish summer months – and yes, I remember how hellish they are – just so I could sit and watch the sunsets paint the mountains in all those heart-swelling unbelievable colours and see the spikes on the Joshua trees or barrel cacti turn from pale yellow to deep gold at dusk.
I never imagined I’d ever be free to spend any length of time Arizona again. After my parents’ house was finished and Roland and I returned to BC, we put our time spent in the sunshine of the American western states into the memory drawer. Bloom where you’re planted, Roland likes to say and, with our roots in the soil of British Columbia, we were content to bloom there. And yet, fast-forward through a few decades and pinch me, here we are.
When we decided to go on this trip we of course knew we’d be coming this way and I’ve looked forward to it and also dreaded it for months, both for the same reason – because I still carry so many old Arizona memories around with me. Hoping those memories stand the test of time, I’m afraid they won’t. Just as, when we briefly drove through Flagstaff and Sedona in 2011, both places were unrecognizable from what they’d been during my university days.
Anyway. Be here now. Three weeks in and Arizona and we barely made it further than a two-hour radius outside of Tuscon. This is partly because, almost as soon as we got here, we launched into a round of impromptu social visits that kept us close to the city. Then, even after we were done with visiting our friends, we found Molino Basin and it was hard to leave. Richard the camp host was right because, as much as we didn’t care for Tuscon – it’s too big and it takes too much time to navigate through crazy traffic – we loved the Molino campground. Five dollars a night (with an annual national pass and ten without it), no on-site water, no dump station, no cell reception (that one was tough) but lots of elbow room, a good choice of scenic trails, and such lovely country. And oh, superb sunsets! We stayed almost a week.
Prior to camping at Molino Basin, we spent a weekend in Pearce, with our friends Kathryn and Randy. Once upon a time Kathryn and I were NAU dorm-mates and, although we’ve maintained sporadic contact, the last time we all saw each other was thirty years ago, in Flagstaff. Now they welcomed us, like family, to their lovely, artsy, hand-built home set among the vast open spaces and grandiose skies of what was once Cochise country. It was here that, back in the late 1860s Cochise, a Chiricahua Apache chief, resisted the forced relocation of his people to distant reservations in Florida and Oklahoma by hiding out in the mountains at what’s now known as the Cochise Stronghold. From the stronghold, he waged guerrilla-style warfare against the US army until he finally signed a peace treaty with the US government in 1872.
We’ll take you to see a beautiful place, Kathryn and Randy said on our second day there and then drove us along a winding rugged road from the East Cochise Stronghold, over the Stronghold Divide, and then to the Council Rocks area. It’s said that Council Rocks is where the treaty was signed though there’s some dispute around that. At the very least, it’s the place where the signing is commemorated by a small historical marker set into the rocks. It’s a fairly popular spot I think but, when we got there, there was only a young couple just finishing up a picnic and they didn’t stay long.
We had the place to ourselves almost the whole time we were there and it felt sacred. I wouldn’t want to be there at night, when the shadows fall and the ghosts come out as I bet they do, but in early afternoon it felt welcoming. In the pervading silence, it was easy to forget the brutal anguished history. We climbed the trail and clambered around on the rocks looking for pictographs, just the four of us and that incredible landscape. It was there that, like a whisper, some of that “Arizona energy” I remember from other hikes, long ago, slowly started coming back – the feeling evoked by the warmth of the sun, the dry touch of the breeze, the silence and boundlessness of a warm-hued, multi-layered landscape under a clear blue sky. A few days later, hiking the Bellota Ranch Trail at Molino Basin, the feeling surfaced again, even more strongly, and I revelled in it.
I know, I’m seeing Arizona through biased eyes. I’ve loved it in the past when I thought of it as home and I want to love it still, so I selectively absorb the stark spacious beauty, draw a sense of peace from it, and think “what an awesome place this is”. It’s not like it’s hard to do that when the sun is still reasonably benevolent, when the scorpions, tarantulas, and rattlers are still sleeping, and when, after a day of hiking in a vast sunlit wilderness, I can retreat to the sanctuary of our cozy and comfortable camper.
But I’ve learned pretty quickly in the short time we’ve been in the desert that it’s one thing to explore from a designated and maintained trail system and another to veer away from the path and then navigate around the stabbing, piercing, thorn-studded vegetation. Yesterday, at the Gilbert Ray Campground in the Tuscon Mountain Park, Melo and Pix weren’t allowed on the trails. There was a wash we could take them to, the woman at the office suggested, and we did take them there. But when we climbed up out of the wash to marvel at the hundreds of Saguaros everywhere and then wound our way through the seemingly open spaces, a cholla cactus jumped me. I swear it did.
Just the change in air current as we passed by alerted the cactus to my presence and suddenly I had a tennis-ball sized monster, two-inch spikes all around it, clinging to my pant leg. A few of the spines even made it through the fabric and into my ankle where they drew blood. The landscape fights back, here, so it’s best to stay on the trails, the tour guide at Kartchner Caverns State Park (we spent a night there on our way from Pearce) told our tour group at the end of our cavern tour. At the time we all laughed yet here I was, a week or so later, off the trail and paying the price.
My run-in with the cholla made me think about the people who try to come into Arizona, from Mexico and from parts of South America beyond it, by crossing the mountains and the desert. The illegal aliens Trump is promising to keep out. The desperate people, hoping to find a new home here. I’ve heard they’re mostly families – women and kids among them, longing for a shot at the American dream, running from circumstances that are so unendurable even the possibility of death in the desert (because some apparently do die) is a risk worth taking.
I think about the landscape fighting back and wonder, how do these people make it through? In the dark when it’s harder to be seen but also harder to see where to step, or in daylight, when the sun beats down and makes it harder to fight off dehydration? What would it be like to be out in the Arizona desert, in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night, hearing the coyotes keening? And how do they evade border patrol even if they do make it through? Yesterday we drove past a dozen state trooper trucks, semi-concealed at intervals along the side of the road, and we passed two inspection stations where uniform-clad gun-toting Hispanics stood on the lookout for anyone who might try to sneak in.
In Tuscon, we had lunch with a couple who, like many people from the east, spend their winters in Arizona. They have a home in New York state and a home here but, unlike most other snowbirds, they spend most of their days here hiking through the remote areas of the desert to leave supplies, mostly water, at specific spots where people died trying to make it into the US. The couple we met belong to some humanitarian organization – I can’t remember the name of it. I’m not sure what the success rate is but what stands out for me is that someone has to die before those who leave supplies in the desert know where to place them. The further irony is that those who do die, probably do so in one of the very same solitary places I’d find so beautiful.
It’s not the illegal aliens who are the problem, Randy told us when we talked about this during our Pearce visit. It’s the drug cartels and the criminals who are responsible for most of Arizona’s issues with Mexico. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know. Synchronously, a few days ago on Allstays, the app we use to find camping sites, I came across a warning in the write-up for a BLM site in the South Maricopa Mountains Wilderness area. The warning says something like: We list this area for awareness but it should be avoided. This is a major smuggling route for the Mexican drug cartel and there have been shootings. Hmmmm. We definitely won’t be going there but it makes me realize that there are those who enjoy the vastness of the desert for other reasons than ours.
Yesterday, we finally left Tuscon and drove to Organ Pipe National Monument where we hoped to do some hiking. I watched the scenery flowing past the windows: the thousands of saguaros, the suddenly green arms of the ocotillos – their red fingertips just readying to burst into bloom – the bent and twisted chollas, the pink/orange/purple/chocolate hills in the distance. Later, after dinner, the moon was almost full again and we walked along the campground perimeter trail, without flashlights and just guided by moonlight. The night was so warm we were in T-shirts and another distant memory came alive – the warmth of the nights, after the earth has soaked up the sun through the day and radiates the heat back out.
For the dozenth time in the last four weeks I thought about how beautiful this landscape is and how forcefully it resonates with me. My parents felt it too. That’s why they chose to cut their ties with Toronto and move to Havasu in the first place. It was here, in the desert, where my dad was most creative and where he painted his most inspired pieces. Could you get tired of this, we ask each other once a day. No, I don’t think so. And we’ve only seen such a small piece of it so far, with so many other places to visit and revisit.
That said, tonight we’re spending our second night in the controlled, landscaped, and crowded campground – a “glorified parking lot” Roland called it – at Organ Pipe National Monument. It seems to be a place where fellow snowbirds come to roost in droves. Foolishly, we paid for two nights but our dreams of hiking haven’t materialized because Melo and Pix aren’t allowed on any of the good trails. We’re SOL and feeling jaded because we have to contend ourselves with only two short campground loops and one of them runs parallel to the park access road. There’s a fancy amphitheater where the park people offer star-gazing programs every night but when we took our moonlit walk last night there was so much light pollution, probably from Mexico four miles south of here, that the stars were dim in the sky. We compare this place to the campground at Molino Basin and, for all the lovely scenery and unique pipe organ cacti, it falls short, dump station or not.
Hopefully, tomorrow we’ll get lucky and find another place like Molino Basin. A place where you can step out into the night after ten and not worry about waking the neighbours. Maybe there’ll be some coyote scat drying in the sun on the roadway behind us and we’ll know that we’re in a wild place where the landscape fights back but which, nonetheless, feels oddly like home.
To read about Roland’s impressions of Arizona, go here: