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.

Where I’ve Been

It’s been quiet on the blog for the past few days. There is a reason for this silence. This past weekend, I went backpacking in the Rincon Mountains with a couple of friends. Now, I’m a pretty experienced backpacker (in my opinion, at least), if not an avid backpacker, since I usually only make it out a couple of times each year. This is important background information.

I’ve been the Rincon Mountains once before and it wasn’t the best experience. At the time, I chalked it up to relative inexperience. I hadn’t been backpacking for several years and during those previous trips, I was always a follower. Everybody I went with had the necessary equipment. All that was really expected of me was that I show up and be able to carry my gear.

My first backpacking trip to the Rincons was difficult for a couple of reasons. First, I lacked some very important gear and second, I grossly miscalculated the water situation and ended up taking three gallons with me for the trip. You can Google the weight of that much water if you didn’t do the math in your head. Now add that number to the weight of a typical pack and you can see why this first venture was doomed before it even started. Perhaps doomed is the wrong word; we did survive the trip, after all.

It’s been a few years since that first effort and I’d completed many more backpacking trips since. I was familiar with my equipment and my needs. I felt comfortable trying out new bits of gear to see what worked. And since I’d been to the Rincons before, I knew the area and what to expect. These were all factors that I felt would guarantee a good trip and if we’re willing to redefine what makes a “good trip,” I suppose I could call it that.

There are two kinds of backpacking trips, in my experience. There are the ones that resemble a nature walk. Your mileage isn’t terribly high or the terrain isn’t terribly rough or both. You don’t really have to push yourself; it’s more about you and nature than any feat of physical endurance.

Then there are the other backpacking trips. The one that seems to be uphill the entire way. The one that burns your leg muscles until they feel like corded steel for days afterwards. The ones that aren’t as comfortable or relaxing as the nature walks, but they’re also the ones that, when it’s over, you can look back on your trip and say, “damn, I really achieved something there.”

This return trip to the Rincons was an achievement trip.

It started out well enough. We got an early start and the weather seemed cool enough. The problems didn’t develop until we were well underway.

1st problem: half my water supply leaked out in the first few hours.

I’d planned on bringing 6 liters of water for that day, with a resupply at the camp site. So imagine my surprise when I found that my 3 liter Osprey was already empty after only a few hours. Maybe I’d been drinking more than I realized? It wasn’t until I saw the puddle collecting in the bottom of my pack that I realized I had a major leak. That was bad. Now, instead of having six liters of water with me, I had three. Not good.

2nd problem: the “mountain spring” did not live up to its name.

This is a mountain spring.

This is not a mountain spring.


Care to guess which one we drank from?

Fortunately, my water filter did its job well enough and prevented horrible giardia infections. Still, it was pretty gross to expect the flowing stream that I’d encountered on my previous hike and be confronted with a stagnant puddle that challenged me to relive all the best Survivorman episodes I’d ever watched. Even when I resupplied our water, I was still down to 50% of my intended carrying capacity, which meant I was running on empty almost immediately on the second day.

Anyway, this all added up to the fact that water was a huge issue for me during the entire trip and as a result, I was rocking a pretty good case of heat exhaustion and dehydration by the end of the trip, which contributed to my overall bleak mood. I’m glad that we toughed out the trip and I did have a good time. But it was more a result from what I achieved and was subjected to, rather than the aforementioned nature walk.

I’d be willing to tackle the Rincons again; I’ve yet to make it beyond the first camp and I want to see what else is out there. I have a feeling that there’s some pretty beautiful scenery hidden beyond its craggy borders. But for the meantime, I think the next trip will be something nice and restorative at good old Aravaipa Canyon.