I took last weekend off to go camping for a few days. I came back intending to write about my experiences camping in the Pinaleno Mountains, but as the days passed, I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to say about it. Words were an inadequate medium for conveying the beauty and tranquility of this place. They still are.
The Pinaleno Mountains are one of Arizona’s “Sky Islands.” If you live anywhere in southern Arizona, you’re familiar with sky islands. The Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson are a sky island range. There’s a big difference between the Catalinas and the Pinalenos, though.
When you drive up the Catalinas, you’re on a paved road the entire way. The speed limit stays around 40ish the entire way. There are guard rails and vista points the entire drive. At the top of the mountain, there’s a small town, a ski resort, and even a restaurant. The cabins resemble small mansions. All the campsites are developed. There are always people around. I think the only time I’ve ever hiked a trail in the Catalinas and didn’t see another person was when I did the Butterfly Trail in January and there was snow on the ground.
The Pinalenos, on the other hand . . .
There are a handful of cabins on the mountain, but most of them are actual cabins. The pavement quits about halfway up the mountain and turns into dirt. There are no guardrails. There is no town. There is no ski resort or restaurant. About half the campsites have fire pits and tables; the rest do not. When we took a day hike on one of the trails, we didn’t see another soul the entire time even though it was August.
The Pinalenos are special. They are more pristine and more primal than the mountains of the Catalinas. Don’t get me wrong, the Catalinas are beautiful. But they are beautiful in the same way that art is beautiful. The beauty of the Catalinas is interwoven with human presence and human development. It does not feel like the wilderness. It feels like a large park without fences.
The Pinalenos feel like wilderness. There is a sense of refuge and sanctuary in that place. It is a true sky island, its ecology serving as relief from both the heat and desiccation of the desert floor and a primal refuge from human development. Its beauty is without parallel. The fact that it is largely untouched makes it special.
I spent two nights on the mountain and when it was over, I didn’t want to leave. I still don’t; I’ve spent most of my time this week thinking about those mountains and when I can go back. It’s not even that hard to put together a trip; the drive is about three hours each way. Easily doable. All of my camping gear is ready to go. I could leave this weekend if I want.
I can’t escape to the mountains every weekend, of course. The state of my apartment is a testament to my inattention on matters close to home. But home isn’t where my mind is right now.
Even as I attend to my chores, my mind is there among the trees and the streams and the meadows. My mind is on that mountain.
A few tribes of Native Americans consider the mountain to be sacred and though I am agnostic on the existence of the divine, there is something undeniably spiritual and fulfilling about that place.
I have often wondered what true believers feel when they stand in their holy places and when they attend their churches or temples. For me, the feeling was always one of obligation; this is what I should be doing, this is what I should be feeling. But if the true believer feels in church as I felt as I walked the trails of that mountain, I think I now understand.
Make no mistake, I do not see this mountain as evidence of the divine. I don’t need the divine to appreciate such a place as this. The mountains themselves are sufficient to earn my appreciation and my awe.