Painted Rock Petroglyph Site is about thirty miles northwest of Gila Bend. It’s a BLM dry-camping site with a camp-host but no amenities other than pit toilets, tables, and fire rings, and it’s a fair distance from developed civilization. It is also, according to the “shaman” we met there, a very spiritual place. If you meditate on the sky for even five minutes and then look at the petroglyphs, he told us, you will see them glowing. Maybe you will see the Light shining through. There is a lot of power here. His name was Luc, he was 67, and he was from Quebec. Somehow, that came as no surprise, even in the middle of the Arizona desert. There’s something about those Quebecois!
Luc was camped three sites over from ours and was in the midst of building, or rebuilding, a bare-bones little house on wheels. He told us later that a friend had put it together for him before he left Quebec and now, after a month or so on the road with it, Luc was amending it and adding a peaked roof for better wind-resistance. The tiny structure was just big enough for a single bed on one side and a couple of feet of space on the other, for storage. He was a trained acupuncturist and had spent most of his working years as a healer – a career which brought him substantial wealth – but now he was living a simpler life. To say his little portable home was humble is an understatement but he loved it. It’s all I need, he spread his hands out across the desert as if to say: with all of this, you don’t need more.
That said, when we first got to the Painted Petroglyph Site we were a little dismayed. At first glance it seemed somehow lacklustre. Maybe because we were comparing it to Molino Canyon, also a non-amenity dry-camping campground though it’s managed by the USFS. At Molino Canyon the surroundings were immediately more imposing and dramatic, the campsites scattered throughout grassy rolling hills. In contrast, at Painted Petroglyphs the land is almost flat, with only a few rocky but naked-looking hills, hazy in the distance. The campsites are all on the same plane and, while large and well-spaced, all are in sight of each other. Also, the Petroglyphs which give the place its name, hundreds of them, are all in one area – a large fenced-off mound of rocks near the park entrance. On the other hand, the campground wasn’t overrun with campers and there was ample space. Seeing we’d be far away from the drone of any generators, we paid for two nights and picked a spot on the less populated side of the campground.
On our way back from the fee station we passed Luc’s site and, curious about what he was building, stopped to talk. He told us about his plans for his little home and for the journey he was on but, before long and as if we’d known each other for years and were just picking up a prior conversation, we were talking about deeper things: the universe, spirituality, meditation, inner strength. He said Painted Rock was a mystical place and that in the past, young men from local native tribes would take mescal or peyote and then come, alone, to spend the night at the petroglyphs as part of their rite of passage into adulthood.
As I stood looking at the petroglyphs later, I thought about that. What would it be like to be there at night, stoned on hallucinogens and all alone among rock drawings some of which are believed to date back to 7,500 BC? Would some of their stories come to life? Would you understand the secrets? How could you come out of such an experience unaltered?
That night, we grabbed the dogs and our after dinner coffees and went to join Luc. I have a lot of wood to burn from my construction and I will make a nice campfire, he grinned. The sky was clear, a giant round moon climbed up behind us, and the warmth of the fire mellowed the bite of the night air. In such a setting, it was easy to return to the things we’d touched on earlier that day. Our discussion covered the nature of the soul, Taoism and Bhuddism, Light and Darkness, and music. But also gratitude.
Every morning, Luc said, I wake and I say ‘Thank You. Thank You’. It’s a powerful prayer.
After we got back to our site Roland and I stayed outside for a while longer. Although we’d had nothing to drink but coffee, we felt high and the night around us seemed charged and full of presence. I think Luc may be right, I said. I think this place is a very spiritual place.
In the morning, we paid for one more night and then took the next two days to allow ourselves to absorb the atmosphere. Contrary to our first impressions, Painted Rock has an abundance of beauty. There are no formal trails but the landscape is open and generally free of stabbing, piercing plants. What cacti there are, are easily avoidable. There’s an ATV road but we skirted it. We crawled up onto a couple of small basalt-studded outcrops – the basalt “desert-varnished” to dark roast brown by thousands of years of wind, rain, and alkaline.
We hiked five miles through a sea of weedy-looking yellow flowers that were so fragrant the air everywhere was sweet with their scent. And we made it to the first string of the hills we’d seen from the campground and climbed the highest one for a view of the valley below.
Also for one more evening, this time at our site and campfire, we compared life lessons and spiritual insights with Luc. Somehow, it was easy to talk about things not normally shared with too many other people. Listening to his stories, not all of them happy (he’s seen a lot of the world and experienced many, many things) I felt he is probably the deepest, most reverent, and most grounded and conscious person we’ve met in years. And I wondered again how strange it is that so many of the people who have, throughout my life, impacted me most on some deep inner level (for good or bad), were from Quebec.
On our last morning, we exchanged gifts. Tokens to remind ourselves of each other. Luc gave Roland a small folding stool to sit on while he plays accordion – he said the stool had been to a Rolling Stones concert with him so it had good musical vibes. Roland gave Luc the red kerosene lantern we’ve travelled with for thirty years, and I gave him some hearty homemade soup. We’d known him for three days yet, when it was time to leave, we were saying goodbye to a friend. A brother.
We left Painted Rock feeling the way you’re supposed to feel after going to church – filled with the holy spirit – and for days after, through the annoyances of traffic and other soul-sucking situations, we clung to threads of that holy feeling as best as we could. Even during our stay at two scenic but very snowbird-busy and somewhat confining campgrounds near Phoenix, Usery Mountain and Lost Dutchman State Park, where the space and light we found at Painted Rock seemed long distant.
And our stay at Lost Dutchman did have a silver lining. First of all, set as it is below Superstition Mountains, it has some pretty spectacular hiking trails and showy scenery. This is why it draws the crowds it does and why photographers come to try and capture the towering mountains, something we ourselves failed to do. We did have a good and mostly solitary hike through surprisingly green hills – somehow grass isn’t something we were expecting there – and we kind of liked it there, despite all the people.
Secondly, at Lost Dutchman, we met with Paula and Bill, who found us through our blogs and who, in half a year or so, will be starting their own extended truck-camping journey, also in a Northern Lite camper. Although they also prefer camping in places a little less crowded than the campground at Lost Dutchman, they were there to visit family for a few days. We arranged to meet up with them so they could have a look at our camper and some of our mods. In exchange, they invited us to their site for dinner and we got to have a look at their current truck camper, a pop-up.
It’s strange meeting someone who might know more about you than you know about them but in our case it definitely worked in our favour. Paula had read how much we miss grilled veggies – a favourite summer staple when we still had a house and a barbecue – and she and Bill treated us to a most excellent grilled veggie salad. It was so good both Roland and I were still talking about it a couple of days afterwards. And as the four of us shared the meal, some red wine, and bits of our life stories, hearing about some of the plans for their adventure brought me right back to the exhilaration and nervousness we felt before we set out. Even though Paula and Bill’s journey will be different from ours in many ways, I suspect there will be similarities and I felt a sense of excitement for the adventure that is still in the wings for them.
One other thing stayed with me after our brief visit with Paula and Bill. It was something Bill said and something we ourselves believe too: that it’s so very important to keep growing and learning new things, no matter how old you are. So many people our age spend lots of time and money in trying to preserve their youth through external means. Like seniors in Spandex maybe…They don’t quite succeed – youth is something only the young can own no matter how much makeup, hair dye, or “hip” clothing the “fifty-five-plus” crowd might put on. And it’s a trap that gives nothing meaningful in return. Surely it’s so much better for the soul, the ageless soul, to scrap all that superficial stuff and look for joy and sustenance in the more basic and genuine: a step forward into the unknown, a random meeting of hearts and minds under a moon-lit sky, a meal of grilled veggies that brings back the memory of summer, even on a cool February night.
For more on Painted Rock Petroglyphs and Roland’s sense of the place go here: