Camping in the Sedona dispersed area, even though we weren’t completely alone, really reaffirmed how freeing camping in a place with fewer restrictions can be. First of all, in a place with lots of other campers, everybody watches everybody else. I know this, because we ourselves also fall prey to what I, remembering Bewitched, call the Gladys Kravitz syndrome. We’re curious about our neighbours just as they’re curious about us. Maybe it’s a self-preservation thing: Do they have dogs who will attack ours; will they build a giant bonfire that’ll choke us out; will the play loud country music that’ll piss someone else off and start a brawl (read Roland’s post on “Campground Rage” for that story). Also, we’ve always been night owls. We thought that would all change on this trip and we’d be going to bed really early and getting up really early too. That hasn’t happened. But staying up late, past eleven even, can be an issue when you’re surrounded by neighbours who all go to bed at ten or earlier. Taking two terriers out to do their stuff just before we tuck in at midnight, for example, can be tense – make sure they don’t see anything that might make them bark, watch how we wave those flashlights around, make sure we’re quiet going back into the camper, that sort of thing. It’s amazing how loud the crunch of gravel underfoot can be when everything around you is dead silent. Maybe other people wouldn’t care but we’ve spent a lot of time on this trip looking over our shoulders.
In a setting where everyone is in an RV with thin walls or, worse, a tent, even something as basic as talking to family back home (and there was a four-hour time zone difference between us for months), needs planning. Generally, we phone home from an RV park where we have reception. But then we’re also within an arm’s length of the people at the next cement pad, so calls need to be scheduled early in the evening in case the reception is crappy and forces us to raise our voices. It got better as we drove further west but still. This is why, on the rare occasions when we find ourselves somewhere where everyone isn’t clustered side by side like cutlery in a drawer, it’s positively heady. Except that, until we got to Arizona, these times were rare. Or we were alone not because we were in a place of seemingly unlimited vastness, but because it was off-season and the campground we were in was deserted, and the weather was cold and the ground was full of fallen leaves. Which, good as it was to have our pick of sites, could be kind of creepy. Or melancholy. Kind of like a deserted playground on a windswept grey day – an image I always associate with the sad notes of Eric Satie’s music.
It’s true, less controlled campgrounds can be, as we’ve discovered, the garbage dumps of the ignorant. But now I see they can also be places where you can stop worrying so much about who’s watching you. The boundaries are further away. In a place of great vastness, small everyday problems lose their might and become less significant. This is why, two days after camping near Sedona, we were boondocking again. And boondocking in a place that validated our reasons for trying to search out less commercial camping options. During my latest search for those options, along our route to Quartzsite, I found the Saddle Mountain BLM area. It’s listed in both Allstays and the Ultimate US Campground Project where a link leads to last year’s review by Cherie at Technomadia. Her write-up, “Boondocking Nirvana” was a definite hook. We left Camp Verde and the fanciest RV park we’ve ever stayed at behind and drove to the “one-horse” town of Tonopah. There, we found the BLM area without much trouble, thanks to the GPS coordinates on Allstays, and had no problems navigating the gravel rock-pitted road. It dips and gets rougher the further you go in and it’s likely that RVs with less clearance might potentially have some issues with reaching all the available camping spots, but that’s where Snowflake came into her own beautifully. We were able to drive beyond the bigger rigs who had to stay closer to the beginning of the road.
We bumped along almost to where the road ran out, passing several potential camping spots, and finally pulled into the one we liked most and got out to look around. I’ve learned to check out the fire ring first, if there is one, because that’s where Melo and Pix like to scavenge. Their ideas about what’s good to eat differ from mine. How disappointing to see, at first impression, the fire ring at the site littered with toilet paper. Again. Disgusted, I was about to go off on a rant when I took a second look and saw that the bits of white stuff scattered among the rocks of the ring actually weren’t toilet paper at all – they were crystals. Or chunks of some white glistening mineral left there by a previous camper. (We eventually found dozens of similar ones on our hikes but, on that first day, I took seeing them at our site as a good omen). Then, other than some rusted bits of metal tossed around, the spot was nearly pristine.
But not only was the place clean, it was in the midst of pretty spectacular surroundings – the looming jagged remains of ancient volcanos, their slopes covered here and there in a thin veneer of green and splashes of yellow. Wow, we said in tandem. The only hints of civilization we saw from the site were what seemed to be distant transformer station far below us to the right and Hwy 10, maybe five miles away as the crow flies. There, the traffic flowed by silently – too far away for the sound of it to reach us – vehicles gleaming in the sun like an endless string of white ants. Yes, there were other campers. But with so much potential camping space at Saddle Mountain – alternate roads leading to secondary areas – even our closest neighbour was a long way from us. We saw altogether fifteen other RVs, most of them only visible when we climbed the surrounding hills. It felt as if we were alone and we remained alone, with unbelievable space all around us, for the entire twelve days we were there.
Our hikes were all solitary as well. There are countless places to hike to and explore and, Melo and Pix off-leash the whole time, we went out every day except for the last one, when it was too hot. But other than several ATV roads there aren’t any trails so every hike meant stepping over boulders, climbing in and out of several dry rocky gullies, and skirting cacti and thorny mesquite trees seemingly intent on keeping us from passing through. All this while trying not to step on and crush the millions of golden California poppies everywhere and, each of the few times I failed brought the fragment of a French song I used to listen to years ago and still love to haunt me:
Ne pas parler de poésie
en écrasant les fleurs sauvages…
(Don’t talk about poetry
as you crush wild flowers)
Then, at other times, there were terrifying stretches – for one of us anyway (guess which one) – usually after we climbed to the summit of some random hill, crested it, and then had to navigate a steep downhill slope strewn with fallen rock, much of it loose. It was always so much easier going up. By the end of the week we got very good at recognizing which rocks might slide out from under us and which would hold, but I think I owe my unbroken legs to my walking stick. It got a good work out every day.
But pretty much no matter where we hiked, the one prevailing thing – besides the sun-drenched weather – was the silence all around us. We saw a handful of other campers head up into the hills at odd times during our stay, one guy stupidly wearing flip-flops, but we were completely alone on our own hikes and almost completely enveloped by silence. Now and then there might be the call of a bird echoing off the walls of the cliffs, or the hum of a jet visible only by the streak of white it cut across the blue of the sky, or the whisper of the breeze as it swept past our ears and danced through the branches of the mesquite. But, mostly, the hush around us in the valleys we explored each day was so deep it felt tangible. And sacred, like the silence inside an ancient cathedral. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I’d find myself chanting in my head, remembering Luc, not quite sure who I was thanking but full of gratitude anyway.
Silence was with us at our campsite as well, except for the few odd times when someone drove to park at the base of the hills near us to go geocaching and except for the concert the birds put on each morning. Mornings were like being inside one of those ambient soundtracks people put on as soothing background noise when they want to shut out the world. This one would probably be called “woodland” on account of all the birds, even though it’s a long way from any kind forest grove. Anyway, the sounds of silence. We sat outside in the afternoon and basked in it; we felt the weight of it when we took Melo and Pix to do their stuff after darkness fell and the stars and moon came out. Silent night, holy night, all is calm. God I love the desert!
We boondocked at Saddle Mountain for twelve days, at a couple of different sites just for a change of scenery. After the first four days we spent Saturday night at Tonopah’s Saddle Mountain RV Park to dump the tanks and get fresh water, and then had five more days at the BLM followed by another stop at the RV park, this time on a Friday. Finally, we did three more days in the desert wilderness before heading to Quartzsite. I’d like to say the RV park was also lovely but, no, that’s not the case. It was well-maintained and pleasant enough, with a large wild area behind it for Melo and Pixel to romp, but it was a thinly disguised fenced-in cement lot full of giant RVs and was a stark contrast to the vastness of the BLM campground not fifteen miles away. It was also pretty close to an egg farm the smell of which came in strong on the evening breeze and which brought hundreds of flies to harass us. So it’s the kind of place we would have stayed in once and then happily moved on but we had to go back there twice because, on that first Saturday, Roland discovered he’d lost his US dollar credit card. That meant my card got cancelled along with his when he called the loss in and, not having a permanent address, we got the replacement cards sent to the park.
It’s a long frustrating story so all I’ll say is that it all went sideways, the cards never got delivered and were in fact returned back to our bank in Canada by UPS and then had to be resent to a different place somewhere ahead of us. We spent a week more at Saddle Mountain than we originally planned for, or probably should have, and moved on. At this point of the trip, we’re starting to feel the pressure of our time in the US running out and still have a few stops to make before we cross the border back to BC. That said, our Saddle Mountain days flew by and it was a golden, golden place. As with other places we’ve loved along the way, it was a hard one to say goodbye to.
Most of our experience of religion happens within the walled frame of church or temple. Our God is approached through thought, word, and ritual. The Celts had no walls around their worship. Being in Nature was already to be in the Divine Presence.
— John O’Donohue [Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong]
On our last morning, I sat outside with my breakfast and coffee, listening to the birds, trying to soak it all in one last time. God knows, none of the dozens of photos I’m taking away with me do more than hint at how immensely awesome it is. I realized that Saddle Mountain, and to a lesser degree the Sedona USFS dispersed area, reestablished my faith in what I read on the internet. Or, at least, my faith in the articles talking about how great boondocking in Arizona can be. The people who wrote them, bless them all, weren’t making things up after all. Not that I totally lost that faith but it did get a bit of a beating at Bartlett Lake recently. Camping at Saddle Mountain surpassed anything we could have hoped for. There, the “Divine Presence” John O’Donohue talks about was everywhere around us. I felt it – the Universe in glory and in play. It’s the very kind of place I try to envision each time I look at one of those little “dispersed camping” place markers on Allstays or the Campground Project. Now I only hope the next few boondocking sites we find won’t suffer too badly in comparison. The bar has been raised.
Roland had his own adventures and impressions at Saddle Mountain…