As we travel up the familiar road into the alpine region of the White Mountains. We are still in the desert south of Globe, there is a grey threat in our previous turquoise skies. The monsoon’s thunderous torrential storms are around us, but none have changed our day, so far. They travel around in bursts. In the vast wide open sky, you can see them, drowning distant landscapes. You can never know where they might hit next, anymore. The consistent patterns that we knew disappeared back in 1989.
The pattern had been a timely early evening black wall of water coming from the southeast and covering the Tucson valley with moister, which floods washes. We would time dessert to the spectacular lightning show. In the dark clouds lightning shot in fingers and in long stretches across the sky. A huge bolt lights up the entire valley. The consistent monsoon has become unpredictable across the state. From day to day, no one knows when it will hit, where, how long, nor the intensity. It is now an unpredictable rainy season. We are traveling up into mountainous terrain. A deluge, or clear skies, it is hit and miss.
We stop at the drop off into the Gila River from which tubers and kayakers float downstream toward Kingman. Today there are no people navigating the gentle flow. It is filled to the brim with brown muddied water. It is Monday. We discover that the place is to ourselves.
I park the SUV next to a trash bin suitable to fend off pesky wildlife in this remote a spot. There is a restroom of slump block, his and hers. I don’t like the public waste buildings, with those definitive odors, looking for rattlesnakes behind the toilet, or the messy floors. Once the door is closed, it is a trap to the nude inside, if a fellow driver pulls in and parks. There is rarely a place to park a piece of cover-up clothing. I opt for the cover of the trash bins from the view from the road. I pull over, placing the car in the line of view. I open the door, turning off the motor and I listen. No cars are on the two lane highway. Stepping out, I walk over to the hillside next to the bins. DF is digging for ready-made sandwiches that are in the cooler.
I double check my level of coverage and angles of sight. I then complete my brief chore.
My choice is better than a cell-like concrete block room. I hear the sound of the rolling thunder coming from somewhere beyond the walls of the canyon and on the other side of a mountain. I look up, attempting to judge the direction of flow and intent of the grey clouds to the east, where I face. A bullfrog croaks down by the river. All feels calm here.
With windows down, doors open, breeze cooling our recipient bodies, we enjoy our sandwiches and drink. As DF is putting things away, a truck is heard from below. It is odd for someone to be here today. It is the maintenance truck. I wait to see his intentions, using my truck as a clothing cover. The old fellow passes, smiling and with a wave wishes us a “good week.” He disappears down the highway, his work completed.
Continuing on this winding steep road, climbing and descending through rugged slopes, we are soon engulfed in thick torrential rain. At some points, others are pulled off of the side of the road. The wipers are turned from slow to fast and back again as the visibility through our windows changes. I am leaning up in my seat, alert, watching for falling rocks on the road. Occasionally, I have to drive around a pile of the debris.
The humidity is not what we desert rats are used to. I recall lessons from my time back east, years before. The windows fog and I slide the switch to a seldom used defroster setting. The air conditioning becomes too cold, even on low settings. I have never experienced this while carnuding. The sensuality of it is different than when I have been isolated by clothes. I remember how clammy my clothing would feel and the extra chill when the air temperature went down. The naked body seems to adjust better and of course there is the heightened awareness. The air conditioner is turned off; because the event of rain cooled fresh air coming through the outside vents seems to work out for the better. Then, we receive heat from them, around a few more bends in the road.
As others pass, spray pelts our truck as being hit by strong waves. We watch flows of muddied water flowing down the cliffs, gouging out of the slopes to make its way for the road. This storm is unusually thick. I slow for brown streams across the road, some wanting to float us off and over the cliffs. Each is full of rocks of all sizes and debris. I am dodging rocks as they float across the road at times. All the while we are making adjustments to keep the windows from being fogged and experiencing the plethora of changes of air and humidity.
It dissipates as we pass to the other side of the deluge. We see clouds of fog hanging on distant mountains looking like smoke from a blaze.
I put on a Beatles collection. As they and an obscure British variety show host sing “Moonlight Bay,” we open the windows and the breeze is delightful.
These mountains are now green from several rainy events. The agave stalks with their bright yellow/orange blooms are a distinctive contrast to the verdant hillsides.
We are amazed and in disbelief, to find ourselves in snow flurries, and, as we pass a small pinon pine filled with Christmas ornaments. Out in a roadside field, a cow is trudging knee deep in sticky thick mud.
This hard driving has demanded focus. I note that the sole of my right foot is sore from constant pressure on a small pedal by a bare foot. Japanese don’t make adjustments for carnuding.
Ahead, there is a mass of low clouds hanging and marking the valley of the Salt River Canyon passage. I hope that the treacherous descent and ascent back out, isn’t in a thunderstorm.
We pass through the canyon and through the clouds and find the road still wet where my parents hydroplaned off the road to wrap around a pine tree, decades before.
I use caution to avoid this myself. I note that the old pine tree has died, since last year’s trip.
Show Low, the town named from a poker game, brings us a restroom at a drug store. We quickly gather some clothing in the parking lot as a family approaches. They back from across the street, where they have garnered a milkshake each.
We use the restrooms, buy the needed batteries, and decide to treat ourselves to a soda.
As we are to leave, we see rain storming outside the door. We stand with a gentleman waiting. I look down and see some free magazines and explain, “Oh, good.” I bend to grab one. They both are wondering what my delight is about, wondering what I’ll be reading while we wait. They laugh in surprise, as I place the paper over my head and go out the door.
I pull up over the curb in the 4×4 vehicle for DF’s closest opportunity for entrance to keep her dry. She scurries out. I have forgotten to unlock the door. She stands disgruntled, as I fumble for the switch. I offer my apology, “just me being stupid.” I manage to convince her that it was not just a prank, even though I am suppressing a grin.
We stay dressed until we have come to the other side of town where we purchase the cheaper gas at the Hon-dah Indian gaming casino. Disrobing in the parking lot, we continue this journey and are soon approaching alpine wilderness at over 9000 feet.
We have two desires for this trip. We would like to find a herd of elk and sight a black bear. Other wildlife are always icing on the cake. Originally, we were to spend some time in a designated wilderness area where this might occur, backpacking in. The weather and the duration of only three days, one day guaranteeing rain have left us with only preliminary exploration as an option. I also plan to spend long periods up here in the coming years and want to explore possibilities.
We have pulled over to the side of the road to adjust into four wheel drive. I climb out to twist the front lockers at the hubs to make the trip less slippery. The hot summer desert rat is stepping out into the cool mountain air. It doesn’t take long to realize that a long sleeve t-shirt should be at hand.
In the warm vehicle, we come to the fork in the road marking the route to what is more familiar to the right and what is not, to the left.
We recognize that the landmark high point that is filled with communication towers is before us in the middle. We will be testing my smart phone for internet signals. This would make an extended stay in the future more habitable.
Wandering down where I have previously noted Forest Service roads, mapped them and then surveyed with the satellite images on google, we see a trail disappearing into a deep forest. It has begun to rain. We would like to find a place to make camp before the possibility of deluge and certainly before darkness. We are a couple of hours behind the intended schedule. For the record, we are having fun.
The journey leads us through a changing forest, of spruce, pine and stands of aspen. It is frequently puddled and the truck slips from side to side as it grinds through the mud, sometimes side slipping. Exposed rocks are constant speed bumps.
There is a spot that takes our eyes. It is a dammed pond, probably deep enough to skinny-dip in. We stop to check its suitability. I put on a wind and rain breaking jacket to ward off the cold penetrating drizzle.
I soon decide on a kilt to stop the breeze, but know the air.
One thing that I’m looking for are four or more trees to tie the 14 by 20 foot tarp to. We will then set up the 3×3 meter dome tent under it. The old tent doesn’t do well in heavy storms. The tailgate of the SUV becomes a kitchen counter under the tarp, which is tied to the racks on the roof of the truck.
There are several stands of trees. One is close to the pond. I see that the old dammed creek bed continues as a clearing into the distance. It is a guaranteed secluded spot to walk, or hike. The road has told us that we would rarely see others in those woods. This is miles of seclusion opening up into huge meadows with potential for elk herd sightings. But the rain continues.
DF, who has been waiting for my results in the truck, joins me. I want her opinion as to the suitability. We like the place, but it continues to rain and we are not certain if the set up will work without our extensive hacking of dead branches etc. We do know that the place where we set up last year is there. We know that it works. We decide to be cautious and to head to the tried and true location, for now. We can always return later. This is only a few miles and less than a half an hour to drive.
A Special blessing:
We are attempting to identify what is only a track that heads across a meadow off of the main FS road. As the rain continues, we make a turn into what may be the wrong meadow. Before we are certain, we head across a track on the grassy plain. The ruts are mud and gobbling up our tires, as I drive not too slow, but not too fast, so as to not get stuck. When I’m not dealing with the mud, volcanic rock chunks slow us down.
Creeping across this open area, to the right, through the wet rain streaked window. I notice an animal in the distance. I alert DF to get her camera out, which is in its case by her feet. At first, I figure by the size, that it is a deer, when it takes off running nearly parallel to our course. Something is different. It doesn’t bound or bounce like a deer. It is slow and steady, a grey mass. It runs like a large dog. It has to be a Mexican Grey Wolf! It continues running in the open space as DF moves blindly to pull her camera out of the bag while we both watch this sight in disbelief.
It continues to run without a break. I have heard that wolves run down prey which are in a fright and flight response. The prey burn up their energy in spurts, but the wolf continues at pace until the prey tires in excitement. Always, a wolf is portrayed standing still, creeping, or attacking with a pack. I’ve never given thought to one running. It seems to be running for the fun of it. There is no prey. We are the only moving thing out there. It is as if a dog chasing a postal truck from a distance. DF fumbles with her camera, deciding whether to open the window in the drizzle as the wonderful sight continues toward the edge of the forest. In the end, she is too late to capture the shot.
I am flabbergasted. Our first trip to the area, more south, we heard the howl of a lone wolf in the night and felt blessed for that touching sound. Last year, we heard two or three howling in communication across the distances. I never thought that I would be so lucky as to actually see such an elusive creature, and for a sustained time. Time did seem to slow. I shake my head and my disbelief, “wow.”
Further, we come to a barbed wire gate. We don’t remember this. We decide to drive a little farther, in case it is new. I climb out, stepping carefully around puddles of slippery mud onto islands of tufts of grass.
I struggle with the tight wire loop that latches the gate to the thick wooden fence post. I have to push with all of my body weight to free the old stick from the loop. As I pull it open, the section of barbed wire and sticks collapses like a rag doll. I drag it across the ground. I drive through, reset and continue on.
It is not our familiar spot. We reverse direction and slowly backtrack. We find our correct bearings and follow the familiar route.
The rain stops for us as we arrive and orientate the SUV between trees. There are four trees that fit our 14 by 20 foot tarp. With a short ladder, we tie it high, set up ground cloth and then our 9×9 dome tent, and then attach it to the truck. I create a slew for water to drain off. DF warms soup as I make our bed, a thick twin air mattress with a thick wool carpet next to it.
We have been lamenting not being in a completely new spot for discovery, but the wolf sighting will make it worth it. Even if we have the same vacation again during the next two days, that blessing will sustain our memories as a unique adventure.
The skies clear in the night. We walk across the lawn-like carpet of grass through the trees, toward the field beyond the canopy of the forest, to look at the abundance of stars on a moonless night, in the dark sky, which is cleaned by rains.
Our flashlights bring another surprise. There is new growth on the tips of the spruce trees. Our LED light makes them glow.
Everywhere, certain plants, and highlights of trees light up aglow. My mind wanders to wonder if the idea for the forest of the Avatar movie originated in a forest on a night like this.
We return to a tent of candlelight. Four candles produce enough heat to allow us to remove clothing.
I step out into the night one last time. I stand and hear the low chirp of a frog across the way.
I then crawl into the soft, warm and cozy old Coleman sleeping bag that has turned blanket, with DF.
The story continues next week as the shies clear….
And here I was thinking about Bristlecone Pines, White Mountains of California.