A Not-So-Live Post From The Not-So-Wilderness

This post is being typed in offline mode. It’s Sunday, February 9. I’m sitting on a cold bench in a little campsite just outside of Payton, Arizona. There’s a fire going beside me and the sun is setting; already, the light has gone from “hey, it’s getting dark” to “the only light source is your laptop!”

Hilariously, although I don’t have Internet access out here, I do have three bars and my 3G connection on my phone. This is an unusual luxury for me since normally I tend to operate in areas where the cell coverage is best defined as “hell, no.” We’re not really in the wilderness here, though. The main road into town is about twenty feet from my tent and there’s a Wal-mart less than two miles from here. I know it’s two miles because we stopped there to get those enviro-logs for the campfire.

Like I said, this is a little bit different than what I’m used to. Having a laptop along is another difference, if you were wondering. Fortunately, the laptop is running on battery power. If I was able to plug this thing in, I think that’s the point in which I’d call it quits and just go stay at the nearby best Western.

My phone insists that the temperature is still 57 degrees. It certainly doesn’t feel like 57 degrees at this point. I can see my breath when I exhale and I’m wearing all my layers. The forecast calls for 37 degrees as the low tonight. That will be fun. I’m not overly worried; I’ve done winter camping before, with varying degrees of success. My sleeping bag is rated to 10 degrees. I’ll be fine.

A coyote just howled from somewhere off to my right. Pretty cool.

Does it sound like I’m miserable? That I’m questioning why I’m sitting here in the dark, illuminated only by the glow of a laptop screen, with a Best Western a scant two miles down the road? I’m not miserable. The truth is, I love this stuff.

I love being outside. I love the funny little ways that nature and technology intersect and dance around each other like middle schoolers at the spring dance. No wireless, no electricity, but you still have Internet access! And you have coyotes. The park bulletin board said there were bears in the area. Bears tend to not make much noise, though.

All I really want is for my phone to admit that it’s not the brisk 59 degrees that it currently claims. It’s also not “mostly sunny,” since the sun has already gone down in this part of the world.

In some ways, camping so close to a town is an unusual experience for me. I’m virtually always either backpacking to some remote destination in the mountains or camping in some site that’s three hours away from a town. Having civilization nearby is strange. I’m not sure if it’s comforting to have that as an escape route (if the camping is miserable, there’s a hotel nearby!) or ends up making me feel more forlorn. Hard to say.

I can’t say I’ll post this when I get back to civilization, since we haven’t really left. It would be more accurate to say that I’ll post when I have an Internet connection again. It’s funny; compared to the shoddy WiFi we had at last night’s cheap motel, I think I prefer having no internet access at all. Because at least then, it doesn’t get my hopes up before half loading a page and then crashing. Maybe not, though. We’ll see how I feel when I’m bored in my tent in a few hours and I can’t get Facebook to load.

Oh wait, my smartphone still works. I think I’m going to be fine.

Signing off now from the not-so-wild wilderness.

It’s Been A Quiet Week

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.