Dispatches Tagline

Winter Trip 2017-2018

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018: Mojave Desert, Trips.


I’d been in chronic pain for 3 years. Hiking was my stress relief, but I’d lost the ability to hike. I’d spent the past three months forcing myself to stick to a rigorous 3-hour-per-day home therapy regimen which hadn’t yet seemed to make much difference, and I’d attended 6 weeks of physical therapy that didn’t do me any good at all. I was so frustrated that I’d succumbed to several uncontrollable outbursts of anger in public, and felt on the edge of some sort of breakdown.

The winter solstice was approaching, and right after it, my annual holiday visit with family back east. After 25 years of faithful personal solstice observations, I’d had to ignore the winter solstice completely for the past few years while dealing with my physical problems and meeting my family obligations. The solstice observation was an important part of my identity, a way to connect with natural cycles and take stock of my life and the changes of the past year, and I really needed to resume this long-standing practice, especially now that my sanity, or at least my emotional stability, was in question.

The solstice observation is something I need to do in nature, in a place where I can observe the sunrise and sunset – preferably from an elevated place, like a peak. My preferable location is in my desert, in my mountains, either on our land or at the sacred Native American site nearby. So despite the fact that long-distance hiking is the main thing I do out there, and in my present condition I wouldn’t be able to hike more than two miles, I decided to drive out there for the solstice, camp for a few days, then drive to Las Vegas and fly back east for the family holidays.

On my return after the holidays, I could spend more time in the desert, or just drive back home. I’d prearranged to meet a friend in the mountains, but he had to cancel, and my itinerary was now completely up for grabs, except for the flights I’d booked from and to Vegas. I love not having plans, and being able to do just what I feel like doing from day to day, ready to take any back road and camp anywhere at any time. The weather forecast for the Southwest continued to be warmer than usual, and dry. At worst I could expect nights in the high 30s and a day or two of high winds which might force me to seek shelter in town.


I have a tendency to rush the packing process and get stressed out, so I forced myself to pack slowly over a two day period. But on Sunday, my day of departure, I woke to a snowstorm, and two inches had accumulated by afternoon. Even an inch of snow on the roads will disable my 2wd pickup. Up to the minute I left, I was unsure if I could get away, but when the storm cleared up in the afternoon and snow melted off the roads, I loaded my remaining bags in the truck and headed north.

Despite my efforts to stay relaxed before leaving, I was so wound up and distracted on the lonely drive north through the mountains, I momentarily lost control of the truck at one point, on an icy stretch through a high pass, and barely avoided hurtling off into a ravine. And then when I encountered traffic in the little mountain towns, I overreacted when other drivers displayed little rudenesses like cutting in front or failing to use their turn signals, and I had to struggle to avoid road rage – a typical sign that stress has taken over and you’ve lost control of your feelings and your behavior. I was really afraid that I was on the verge of losing it, and that something terrible would happen on this trip – especially with my family, because we regularly have traumatic conflict during our visits. In the meantime, I made a little sign saying “DON’T REACT!” and stuck it next to my speedometer.

Leaving Sunday afternoon, I knew I’d have to stop for the night somewhere east of Flagstaff, where I was planning to shop for the camping trip. But from past experience I was not looking forward to the lodging and dining options in the towns along the way. With that in mind, I’d done a little research online, and found a restaurant on the far side of Holbrook that seemed to be a local favorite. After arriving and checking into a cheap motel, I found the restaurant, a “gourmet Italian” place that turned out to be staffed by friendly Navajos and had a small wine list featuring cheap California wines I’d never heard of. I ordered spaghetti and meat balls, which seemed to be the safest bet, and a glass of cheap pinot noir that turned out to be surprisingly good. Finally, a decent place to eat in Holbrook!


Shopping in hectic, upscale Flagstaff on Monday was stressful as usual. In search of a new liquor store, I got trapped in a series of detours through a downtown construction zone, with the resulting traffic jams, finally giving up on my search and making my way through congestion and urban sprawl to the westbound interstate. I’m always relieved to put Flagstaff behind me, but there seemed no relief in sight for my stressed-out, distracted condition.

The high-desert miles flew past. I stopped in Kingman as usual for dinner at El Palacio, then ended my day with a drive west to Needles, where I arrived after dark and stayed in one of the least-bad chain motels next to the interstate. The slowly dying town of Needles has dozens of cheap motels, none of them particularly good, and one ridiculously overpriced Best Western that I’ve never been willing to try.


Throughout the drive west I’d been trying to decide where to camp first in the desert, and where to spend the solstice. Now I had to decide. I wasn’t really excited about any of my options, primarily because I’d had so much trouble with my truck on recent trips, destroying tires on remote back roads. I had a feeling it was really dry out here, resulting in poor traction in the sand, and increased potential to get stuck many miles from help. I had provisions for increasing my traction and getting unstuck, but the possibility was still adding to my stress. As usual, I’d be completely alone out there, 20 miles or more from maintained roads and other humans.

I’d also been losing interest in my property as a destination, as my passion to learn about native prehistory rekindled. There are native sites near my land, but I’ve explored them thoroughly already, and in any event they require more hiking than I’m capable of now. And as a biologist friend points out, our land is trashed with unsightly mining and ranching ruins.

Nevertheless, out of all my options, our land was the only place I was relatively confident of being able to drive to and from without getting hopelessly stuck, so that’s where I headed on Tuesday morning.

The first surprise I encountered was in the ghost town a few miles off the highway that used to be the gateway to our side of the mountains. Last spring I’d discovered new, distinctive graffiti on the ruined buildings there, and the artist had been back since with at least one friend, adding art all over the abandoned, wrecked tungsten mill. I haven’t been able to locate the artist online, but I wonder where they’ll take it from here, since they’ve covered almost all the available surfaces at this point.

The first half of the road to our land leads to a natural gas pipeline, where there used to be a pumping station that was dismantled and removed a few years ago. And as usual, I’d forgotten that since the gas company no longer needs to maintain this part of the road, and it runs up an alluvial fan, crossing hundreds of natural drainage channels, it’s deeply eroded and a very slow road to drive. Whereas we used to be able to drive it at 50mph, now you have to stick to less than 15mph, the same speed that’s required on the abandoned mine road beyond. Hence, what used to be a 45 minute drive from the highway now takes about two hours.

When I got to the turnoff to our land I could really see how deep the drought has become out here. There was one deep, apparently recent, set of tire tracks, coming up from the south, which I attributed to the son of the local rancher who occupies himself by driving back into all the drainages around the range, crossing wilderness boundaries, and our property, to inspect the springs and wells, despite the fact that they’re no longer used by his family. His tires had thrown up tall banks of deep, dry sand, that I had to plow through with my little low-clearance truck. But as usual, I’d lowered my tire pressure before entering the mine road, and was able to back up, build up some speed, and bounce through.

It was a mild afternoon, clear, with temps in the upper 60s, when I arrived in camp. I’d opened and started on a new IPA from Flagstaff upon entering the mountains, and after parking, I immediately started hiking toward the shade house back in the side canyon, but only made it 2/3 of the way before I had to turn back to keep from straining my injured foot. I found that the rancher had indeed driven all the way into the gulch, and I found a single set of footprints leading up to the shade house, which were suspiciously exactly my size and shape. The rancher is much bigger than me, and in any event only leaves his truck to open and close gates. Could my footprints from last spring still be here, uneroded by wind or rain?

The day was short this near the solstice, and the sun was setting as I returned to camp. I realized that it had been many years since I’d camped in the desert in the winter time. Firewood is scarce and precious out here, and my desert shopping list includes firewood, but being out of practice, I’d ignored it. My friends all bring firewood when they come out here, and there was still some around camp that I could take guilty advantage of. As I wandered around gathering up a few pieces, I noticed bees following me, and one landed on the back of my hand at one point. But as the sun went down the temperature dropped quickly and they disappeared. I lit a small campfire for warmth, and by the light of my old kerosene barn lantern, chopped garlic and serrano chiles, which I added to a mess of bacon ends I’d picked up cheap back home at the Co-op and browned them all in my cast iron skillet. I warmed a can of black beans to mix the seasoned bacon in. I had a second beer with dinner, unusual for me, but I was still so stressed out, I seemed to need it to unwind. It was a simple but delicious dinner, with plenty of leftovers for the next night.

It got cold that night, and I was so wound up with stress and tension that I couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning there on the ground in my too-warm down bag and watching the progress of the constellations and the Milky Way. Orion rose in the east soon after sunset. Cygnus was setting in the west, and Cassiopeia was directly overhead, with the Milky Way connecting them all in a dusty trail from horizon to horizon. I’d brought my field glasses to bed, and spent some time resolving the Pleiades and trying – but failing – to locate the fuzzy spot of the Andromeda Galaxy near the trapezoid of Pegasus.


When the sun did rise, I watched and waited for its light to creep down the peak behind camp and touch my sleeping bag before getting up and struggling, stiff and sore, into my thermal pants, sweater and jacket. With cold hands, I filled and lit a burner under my little enamel coffeepot, dumped granola into a bowl and sprinkled pomegranates from my bush back home over it, and began grinding coffee beans.

After breakfast I decided to hike out into the central basin, across the rolling ground of the bajada, toward a giant boulder pile on the other side where I knew there was a good resting place with shade. I didn’t think I could make it with my injured foot, but at least it was something to do with my time. That’s the problem out here for us civilized people. There’s nothing to do but hike, especially if you’re alone with no one to talk to.

While I was loading my pack, I heard a screech, and looked up to see two redtail hawks wheeling over the peak behind camp, one following the other. I quickly realized they were male and female, courting. I’d never seen this up close before, and they stayed nearby for a half hour. The male was distinctly smaller than the female, something I’d never been able to observe before, and another joined them for a little while but was driven away by the first male. Unfortunately, I was still so stressed out that I couldn’t figure out to get my camera to focus on them, and although I tried to take a video of them, I later discovered the camera had been set on low resolution. I’d been so distracted I hadn’t even thought to check.

Leaving the hawks to their love affair, I started walking out across the bajada, down into gullies, up onto rises, and around shrubs and cacti, and made it about 2/3 of the way to the boulder pile before my foot began to get tender and I knew it was time to turn back. So frustrating! Despite the drought, there were both annuals and perennials blooming, phainopeplas were active everywhere, and I encountered hummingbirds near camp, but couldn’t get my camera to focus on them.

By the time I arrived back in camp, my foot was really sore, which freaked me out, because I’d worked so hard for the past few months to eliminate all swelling and tenderness and encourage healing, and I was afraid I’d reversed those months of progress in just a couple of hours. I’d brought a cold pack in my ice chest, and I immediately sat down and set my foot on it. As I sat there, a bee started circling me, buzzing loudly and acting aggressive. I needed to use my bone stimulator device, and as I retrieved it from the truck I noticed more bees buzzing around the area. A couple more followed me back to the chair and started exploring the sweaty boots I’d taken off and set beside the chair. By the time the bone stimulator was finished, there was a swarm of bees around my closed water jug, on the tailgate of the truck. The spout is watertight and had been sitting there long enough to evaporate any spillage, but there must’ve been a trace amount of vapor they could detect – or had they become familiar with water jugs in general? After being chased out of camp by bees last spring, I was spooked and paranoid. More bees were arriving by the minute. Soon they would fill the campsite.

Trying to avoid any rapid or threatening movements, I gathered up my gear and loaded it into the truck and the truck bed, staying as far away from the swarm around the water jug as I could. Then I got in and started driving away, moving slowly so the water jug wouldn’t tip off the open tailgate. I drove like that halfway out of the mountains, then stopped to see if the bees had followed. They hadn’t, so I was able to close the tailgate and get everything better organized. Bees had chased me out of the mountains the last two times I’d tried to camp in this range! I’d been told by the BLM that all the bees out here were Africanized by now, and during a volunteer effort years ago, I’d been taught by rangers that they were extremely dangerous and could easily kill you if they caught you in a swarm. I’d started this trip dangerously stressed out, and now I was afraid I’d permanently lost my sacred place on earth to lethal Africanized bees.

Alone and feeling vulnerable, I kept driving out of the mountains, until I reached the main track, where at first I turned right toward the highway as if I were heading to town. But then I had second thoughts. I can’t even remember what I had in mind, but I backed up into our side road, then turned left into the deep ruts left by the rancher’s truck and immediately got stuck, half-burying the rear tires in the sand.

Of course this is the eventuality I’ve learned to plan for. I had scrap plywood in the pickup bed and a camp shovel. I dug out behind the tires for a yard or so, then muscled a piece of plywood under each of them. And backed right out onto more solid ground, and turned around to head out of the mountains as originally planned.

As soon as I got a phone signal, I called my co-owner to report on the bee situation. Unfortunately, he reacted, as he often does, by questioning my experience, insisting in a patronizing manner that I’d encountered wasps or hornets instead of bees, and repeating the insistence later in an email. After all, the thing whose buzzing around my face had awakened me on my first morning in the mountains, thirty years ago, had probably been a wasp or hornet, not a native solitary bee looking for its burrow as I’d observed at the time. The damaged hive with dripping combs that I discovered at the Native American shrine the following year hadn’t been a bee hive but a nest of hornets, just like the hives I discovered in early years on our land and at other springs and seeps around the range, and have revisited over the decades. All the bees I’ve found year after year rolling in cactus flowers in the springtime, their legs heavy with pollen, were no doubt wasps, and the young grad students I got to know in recent years at the ecological preserve were most likely studying hornets, not bees as they claimed, in the microhabitat of larrea. To have my experience questioned this way is something I’ve come to expect of my harried, citybound partner – to compensate for his own insecurities, he habitually attempts to undermine the confidence of others – but it was coming at the worst possible time.

Depressed, I refilled my tires with a 12 volt pump in the ghost town, and drove back across the desert to Needles, where I wanted to check with the BLM. There was nobody onsite who could advise me about bees, but the clerk at the counter referred me to Mystic Maze Honey, a quaint operation just down the road, where I found an old beekeeper who dismissed the whole Africanized bee phenomenon. He said he’d never run into aggressive bees in the desert, but he confirmed what I’d read about bee foraging: bees in the desert don’t normally venture more than about two miles from the hive, and he’s seen bees die of thirst five miles from a hive. In our mountains, during this severe drought, the drying up of historically perennial water sources now means that hives are likely to be isolated from each other, and knowing where the water is means knowing where the bees will be. I suspected that his business agenda might bias his observations, but I did feel better to hear that the BLM’s warnings about lethal behavior might be exaggerated.

What to do now? Tomorrow would be the Winter Solstice, the goal of my entire trip. But the day was already late, and I didn’t know where I could safely camp at this point. Whatever plan I had was in shambles. Still depressed, I checked into one of the cheaper and less comfortable motels of Needles to punish myself for my failure. At least I had last night’s leftovers to warm up for dinner on my camp stove in the room, to compensate for Needles’ lack of a decent restaurant.

Thursday: Winter Solstice

On the morning of the solstice, I thought what the hell – before giving up on the desert completely, I would try the other side of the mountains, the sacred Native American site, which I doubted that I could even reach with my truck in this severe drought. At least I could console myself that I’d tried.

After the 25-mile drive down the rolling, bumpy, deeply eroded dirt-and-sand powerline road, there are two ways to access the sacred site: a shorter uphill track through sand, and a longer, slightly less uphill drive that’s only partly through sand. The shorter road twists and doesn’t allow me to get up enough speed to carry me safely through the sand, so I thought I would try the other. And after letting air out of my tires yet again, I was able to make it, by speeding through the sandy part, bouncing and sliding around bends, surprising a roadrunner, until I finally reached the high end of the alluvial fan at the foot of the mountains, and more solid ground. I knew there was a campsite there, the only good campsite on this side of the mountains, which had already been occupied on my previous visit. Maybe I’d get lucky and have an actual campsite for solstice night. But on the other hand, I also knew this campsite was directly below a major spring that had a long-established hive of Africanized bees. This would be a further test of the new reality in my mountains.

There was yet another challenge on this solstice: wind. A high wind advisory had been in the forecast for today, supposedly dropping by mid-afternoon. It’d been windy all the way out from Needles, and temperatures had dropped twenty degrees since yesterday. After parking outside the gate of the sacred site, I had to put on all my thermals, my shell, knit cap, and snow gloves to keep warm outside in the wind. I knew two of my best friends, old desert rats, had been driven out of the desert previously in conditions like this, but I was hoping the wind would die down soon.

I started off on a hike to revisit some rock art in a side basin, a half mile away. It was farther than I thought, and I turned back after reaching the first rock art panel. Then I cut across a deep ravine to the sacred site. I made my obligatory visit, but neither my mind nor my heart was really there. I was just cold, frustrated, and depressed. I ate a sandwich and walked back to the former campsite of the caretaker, an old desert friend, but it was stripped and lonely, so I returned to the truck to head over to the public campsite.

The campsite, east-facing, was already in shade, and bitterly cold in the still-strong wind. At least I wouldn’t have to worry about bees – they couldn’t leave the hive in this weather. But I realized that after remembering about the need for firewood the day before yesterday, I still hadn’t picked up any in town. This being a popular campsite, I certainly didn’t want to collect wood in the vicinity, but without firewood, there was no way I could camp here in this wind and cold. My solstice was just thoroughly doomed, so I decided to drive to Boulder City, outside Las Vegas, to get another motel room and wait for my flight back east.

Friday – Saturday

My time in Boulder City was spent reading in the motel room. The important thing about the Winter Solstice is the night and morning after – the longest night of the year, and the first sunrise, marking the turning from its southward swing back toward the north, with days growing longer again and life renewing. I spent that night and that morning in my room, meaninglessly, alone and disappointed.

I emailed my desert friends about the bees, and heard back from a scientist who said a friend of hers had been chased out of the desert by bees that were desperate for water in a dry year. I began to suspect the drought, and the bees’ desperate thirst, was the problem, not “Africanization.” I realized that some hives were probably dying out completely as their water source dried up, and I remembered having seen something like that happen long ago, without really understanding it. In humid climates, we think of bees as drinking nectar and collecting pollen from flowers, not relying on water sources.

My flight was scheduled for 5:45am Sunday, in the darkness before dawn, so I had reserved a room nearest to the airport, in a Best Western situated in an industrial no-man’s-land next to the economy parking lot, for Saturday night. I did laundry in Boulder City, then drove over the pass into Las Vegas and parked in the economy lot. I left all my camping gear in the truck, with my ice chest, water jugs, and gas can outside in the bed, and caught a shuttle to the terminal with my travel bags. There, I called the hotel shuttle, and learned that it would start running in the morning at 5:30, too late to catch my flight.

But on the ride to the hotel, the shuttle driver showed me how I could walk from the hotel to the terminal in the morning – a little less than a mile through the industrial wasteland.

I’d cooked a meal in the Boulder City motel, with leftovers planned for Saturday night, but I’d forgotten and left them in the ice chest, in my truck, so there I was stuck in an industrial wasteland with nothing to eat. I walked out of the hotel, and found a bizarre cavernous liquor store hidden behind a postal distribution yard, completely isolated from the street and any other retail, so at least I could get a good can of beer. But my only food option was an Arco station, where I ended up getting one of those frozen microwave burritos. Everywhere I went, even around the airport, hung the smell of cigarettes. Vegas, last bastion of the Old West.

Sunday: Christmas Eve

When leaving the parking lot on Saturday evening, I’d noticed big signs at the exit warning patrons not to leave anything visible in their vehicles, so in my already stressed-out condition, I began to worry about theft. I’d taken pictures of all my stuff on Saturday, just in case, and realized that some of my gear, like the old Swiss Army surplus backpack, was irreplaceable, and the rest of it, although acquired cheaply long ago, could be very expensive to replace. The economy lot was open to anyone from outside the airport and virtually unsupervised. So on Sunday morning, I got up before 3am, walked over to the lot, and transferred my truck to the parking garage next to the terminal. I’d end up paying about $60 more, but the peace of mind would be worth it. And then I checked in, and boarded my flight.

Christmas – New Year’s

I always look forward to seeing my mother in Indianapolis, but I dread sharing a cramped house with my morbidly obese, emotionally volatile brother, trying to occupy the long days with no space or privacy, and trying to sleep in the overheated bedroom. And this visit would be worse than usual because of my own limited mobility – I wouldn’t be able to get out and relieve my stress with long walks.

But it turned out even worse than expected. After arriving on Christmas eve, sharing dinner and Christmas breakfast at restaurants with my little family, I came down with my dreaded winter respiratory infection on Christmas night, and knew I would be miserable for the rest of my visit.

It was as bad as ever, and on the second day, my mom took me to an urgent care facility, where I was prescribed an antibiotic (to treat the sinus infection that always follows the virus) and some codeine cough syrup, which turned out to be most essential after I returned to the desert more than a week later.

While I was sick, the usual traumatic conflicts arose, with both brother and mother, and afterward, as I reflected on what really happened, I realized they all happened because of my stressed-out condition. I had been lying upstairs in bed, sick, moping about how everyone made life hard on me, but I had brought my own problems from out west.

When I visited them at Thanksgiving, my mom had seen a Monopoly game in a store and wanted to get it. It hit me that she saw it as the perfect family activity to keep us engaged and prevent us getting on each others’ nerves. It was her brilliant idea. So I had ordered Monopoly for her as a Christmas gift, and we played a few games while I was there. And it really helped.

Eventually, I got well enough to get dressed and leave the house, just as temperatures in Indianapolis dropped below zero. We fell to eating TV dinners because it was so hazardous to go out. I received another email rejection of my book project from the last of the literary agents I’d submitted to; people just weren’t interested in a story about artists in the 80s.

Wednesday after New Year’s

Since I was flying nonstop into Vegas instead of trying to make connections through to Silver City, I’d been able to reserve an afternoon flight and didn’t have to get up hours before dawn as usual the day of my departure from Indianapolis. But in the airport, I was shocked and saddened to see dogs everywhere, from the ticket counter to security and even the gates. It seemed that about ten percent of travelers were traveling with pets. We’re not content with our own escalating consumption, we have to increase the human ecological footprint even more with domesticated animals. Originally developed for hunting, herding, and pest control, the current ecological role of pets is destructive – as consumers of resources, producers of waste, and predators on wildlife – and their dysfunctional social roles range from living toys to surrogate children. Few of their owners can be bothered to train them or give them adequate exercise, many of them end up neurotic or obese, and more and more of them end up abandoned on the streets, abused and feral. Bred for an unhealthy master/slave relationship with humans, they are now replacing the wild animals we never see anymore and are driving to extinction. This is not the kind of world I look forward to living in.

The afternoon flight got me into Vegas in the dark of early evening, and I drove back to Boulder City and another motel room.


I might’ve been back in the desert, but I was by no means free. My truck was overdue for an oil change, so after breakfast I located a nearby shop, which agreed to take me in a half hour. I quickly packed and drove over. And in the waiting room, they had a museum of film cameras.

I drove from the auto shop past Boulder City and south across the Hoover Dam into Arizona, ostensibly heading home, but once across the dam I realized I wasn’t ready to leave the desert. My trip had been a disaster, and I had unfinished business. I pulled off the highway and unpacked my maps to refresh my memory of options.

The stark, colorful mountains and canyons around the dam have always intrigued me, but I’ve always passed through there intent on getting somewhere else. To the south, between Boulder City and Kingman, there was a mountain range I’d often wondered about. And the map showed a dirt road that climbed to the top, where there appeared to be campgrounds.

I had no interest in campgrounds – my experience is that they tend to be occupied by giant RVs running noisy gas generators to power their owners’ massive stereos that blast all over the landscape. But that road might be a novel way to see a new desert mountain range up close.

It turned out to be easy to find; there was a sign along the highway listing the campgrounds and distances. And it was a well-maintained dirt road, although as it rose toward the ridge top it became much too steep for RVs. That was a good sign.

What I found was a surprise in many ways. It was a true sky island, with an unusual road running along the ridge at 6,000′, with views to both sides for a hundred miles over the desert. And the vegetation was characteristic of much farther south, with desert chaparral (scrub oak and manzanita) covering the upper slopes, between stands of pinyon and juniper, with frequent boulders and outcrops of metamorphic and igneous rock. My botanist friend tells me it represents the northern limit of the characteristic vegetation of the Mogollon Rim. It was beautiful, and according to the guest books I saw, seldom visited despite its closeness to cities.

Signs indicated a peak trail at the end of the road, past the campgrounds, so I kept going. The campgrounds appeared beautifully sited, and the trailhead was like the portal to wonderland, leading down into an intimate grove like a tunnel. Most of the trail ran on the east side of the ridge, and I was able to hike 2/3 of the 2-1/2 mile distance, with an elevation gain of about 700 feet, before I had to start thinking about my foot. On the way, I kept watching a plateau on an outlying ridge several miles to the east, a hanging valley with meadows and surrounding forest that was hidden from the desert below. I wanted to go over there and check it out!

It was still only early afternoon when I returned to the truck, but I was so excited by my discovery of this place, there was no way I could leave. I decided to check out the campgrounds.

The first was called Windy Point, on a point of ridge to the west. You really felt like you were on an elevated platform thousands of feet above the desert, but the boulder-strewn point was covered with sheltering groves of pinyon and juniper, and as I drove around the loop, I could see that each campsite was well sheltered. There were two small vehicles parked at the back, and although none of the campsites appeared to be claimed, I saw some retiree types wandering about. I had passed a site at the entrance that appeared to be the most private, so I returned to that and parked. The site had been designed so that the parking space at front was isolated from the actual camping area at back by rocks and trees, and I realized that the whole campground had been designed strictly for tent camping.

When I walked out to register and pay my fee at the kiosk, I encountered the retirees. Two older men and a women, they addressed me as “youngster,” and explained that they didn’t have the money to pay the $8 overnight fee. Later, unloading my truck, I waved to them as they drove off in their ATVs. They were apparently the people staying in the big RV I’d passed down in the foothills, before the road got steep. I had the entire top of the mountain range to myself.

I explored around camp, read, warmed up a can of beans (since I hadn’t planned on camping, that and granola for breakfast was all I had with me), and after sunset I took my flashlight and walked around, exploring the other campsites. It turned out they were all very isolated from each other and private, and most had even more separation between parking and camping than mine, with beautifully laid out paths up or down through the groves to intimate dining and sleeping areas on different levels. It was the most beautiful campground I’d ever seen – and it was administered by BLM.

It was cold that night, but not windy like I’d feared, and when I got up to pee long after midnight, it was completely still and even seemed warmer than when I’d gone to bed. I had a wonderful night’s sleep, and enjoyed waking occasionally to watch the constellations change overhead, from my cozy pallet on top of the mountains.

Friday – Saturday

I had a leisurely breakfast and took my time packing in the morning, since my sleeping bag was damp with dew and had to wait for the sun to dry it. Spotted towhees, cousins of my friends from back home, foraged energetically around me in the understory. Then I drove back, stopping to explore the other, much smaller, campground, wedged into a narrow gap at a high point on the ridge.

Leaving the mountains, I stopped at El Palacio in Kingman for lunch, then located the BLM field office, hoping to get better maps of the mountains I’d discovered. In the lobby was a live exhibit of venomous desert reptiles, including a Mojave green rattlesnake that looked just like the snake I’d encountered on a field trip with wildlife biologists more than a decade ago. I’d asked the others if it was a Mojave green, and the oldest snapped “Of course not! That’s just a common mitchellii!” That’ll teach me to depend on a bighorn sheep specialist for reptile identification.

Nobody appeared at the BLM counter, so I rang the bell, and a man came out who was apparently very lonely, because he wouldn’t stop talking. I told him I’d camped in the mountains last night, and he asked me about the condition of the road and campgrounds, and where I was going next, and went on to advise me about restaurants in Flagstaff, where I wasn’t even intending to stop. I kept trying to get away and he kept coming up with new questions and advice. Finally I just said goodbye and pushed my way out the door, waving, as he kept talking behind me.

I drove straight across northern Arizona, passing Flagstaff, but making a mistake at Holbrook, where I drove south through Show Low and Pinetop/Lakeside instead of east toward St. Johns. I was hoping to spend the night in the White Mountains, but that corridor is choked with nasty traffic and from Show Low on, it’s one continuous strip mall until you reach the Apache Reservation at the end. I’d been thinking of staying in a motel along there, but ended up continuing to the isolated resort village of Greer, my familiar weekend getaway destination. The backroad to the White Mountains campgrounds was closed for the winter, so I ended up unwinding in the motel there for two nights, savoring my memories of the desert.


On Sunday morning, as I was leaving Greer, the road dipped through a ravine, and over my shoulder, I glimpsed stone cliffs that reminded me of the Arizona Game and Fish presentation I’d seen last summer. The rangers had talked about their recent reintroduction of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to this gently rolling plateau, and how the sheep gravitated to the ravines because their rocky cliffs provided the only available “escape terrain” to get away from predators.

Just after having that memory, I saw something out of the corner of my eye – animals grazing at the top of the cliff, hundreds of yards away. At first I assumed they were cattle, but then as I continued up the road, had second thoughts. So I turned around, went back, and found a place to pull over and take pictures across the ravine – unfortunately with a telephone line in the way. I’m used to seeing bighorn in the steep, sparsely vegetated rocky terrain of the desert, so it always surprises me to see them in forested country like this.


Will Max regain the use of his injured foot and overcome his chronic pain?

Will he find other ways to reduce his stress, and find peace with his family?

Will he ever get a better vehicle for exploring the desert?

Will bees and their hives survive in the desert despite worsening drought, and will Max and his friends find a way to coexist with them?

Who are the ghost town graffiti artists, and what will they do next?

Stay tuned…

  1. randy says:

    The panoramic pics from Windy Point are breathtaking.

  2. Jay says:

    Really enjoyed this one, Max. It could be an indie film.

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