After an hour and forty-five minutes of naked highway cruising, we’re off of the pavement leaving some huge irrigation farms behind. I stop in the middle of the road in a long straight stretch and turn off the engine. I climb out naked head to toe into the silent plains to turn the wheel locks into a four wheel drive high setting for stability. The dusty red dirt is pleasing on my feet. A sense of freedom comes over me, as I gaze out across flat miles in every direction. I would certainly be alerted to any intrusion to this space, by a dust cloud in the distance.
There are twenty-five miles of this dirt road still ahead. We’re off again. I look in my rearview mirror. A great plume of terracotta dust trails behind us, as we cruise through a plain of tall golden grasses in open range and a up a few grassy hills. The graded road turns into two tracks at a turn off created by the Forest Service. As we pass, the pompous grass grows into the road as high as our faces. As dry as this grass is, after a couple of months without rain, we both wonder out loud about the risk of brush fire from a hot exhaust pipe. There is one way in and one way out.
We find the alligator juniper, juniper and scrub oak along the dry creek. It is shading RV trailer campers.
Through a gate, hard packed dirt turns into mostly bare rock. After bouncing along on the river rock, dodging the big ones, I shift into four wheel low for a steep descent into the stream bed to drive upstream.
We notice a few familiar landmarks, a hill, a bump, or a campsite. The vegetation gets thicker and taller. Eventually, we park in a shady spot off of the road, grateful that no one has claimed this camping destination on this Monday. We have all of this to ourselves. Getting out freely nude and stretching with arms high, DF comments on the scent of those low pines and evergreens all around us.
All around, there are small patches of color amongst the evergreen trees, manzanita and low bushes. It is early November. Here in Arizona, at this elevation, the leaves begin to change and drop away in transition. Bundles of small leaves, fluorescent yellows and oranges are on well-spaced bushes. Occasionally, a colorful butterfly will flutter away from one, as if the leaves themselves are turning into the dainty travelers.
I have heard of this event and waited two years to get here. We have three days here, mid-week. There will probably be few other visitors to this remote canyon in a little known mountain range. I got a report last week that the colorful show was returning and it should be at its peak. The temperatures have been unusually high and sunny in Tucson this year. At this altitude, we are expecting to enjoy highs of mid- 70F’s. Our Fall leaf viewing won’t be bundled up in the usual warm clothing; it will be perfect naked weather.
Sunny days are forecast, but there has been an overcast coming up north from Mexico. The sky has been split in half above us here, one turquoise blue and one a shiny white grey. The sun is seen behind the curtain, glaring through, white and determined.
(There are many more than plenty of pictures and I’m probably, at times, a bit more poetic than usual in my voice. This place just draws these things out of a guy. You’ll see.)
We’ve seen pictures and have been waiting for this perfect timing. In our excitement, we don’t even take the time to pitch camp. We manage a quick snack before our curiosity and those feelings take us up the canyon on an exploration. We have a couple of hours to play.
We find the road is as rough to walk, as to drive.
Dipping into a familiar creek bed, we note the rubber marks on the rocks where people regularly get stuck. A puddle of water still lies off to the side of the crossing, but we can’t be certain that there will be any more of the liquid treasure and its reflections ahead.
As we walk, we are delighted by new discoveries of colors.
As elevation rises, the season’s effects become more evident. The foliage gets thicker as conditions change.
During the year, more water is available, as we get nearer to the sources. As so, this is a very bio-diverse area. Riparian abundance combines with elevation transitions and the collision of multiple ecosystems.
There are many types of deciduous trees here, sycamore, ash, walnut, different oaks, maple, or a box elder. All of these can combine to create a plethora of color and hue.
I have visited New England in the Fall with its thousands of square miles of color. This is Arizona, a very different place. Here, foliage is mixed in with bushy berried pinion pine, tall red pine and cactus.
Many species are dwarfed from the difficult conditions. Each riparian spot here is very very precious and generally remote. I’m reminded that ninety-two percent of Arizona’s riparian channels have been destroyed. The diversity will vary and this canyon is particularly evolved.
The rocky canyon floor has been strewn with boulders and river rock, most fallen from high above and carved by eons of weather. Most have lichen and moss covering them. They host hues of grey and subtle light greyish greens. Bold colored trees contrast with them, amplifying the distinctions.
The small stature of some of the trees can create a look of a Japanese garden.
Few of the colored trees are tall and bold with deciduous majesty like other forests. That is left to the evergreens. The greens and blue sky is the setting, the colorful stunning trees are the gem stones.,
We are exhilarated, but the sun is starting to reach the edge of the canyon walls above us and the grand shadows bring a chill. I’m reminded that there is a camp to set up, about a mile back.
Jaws tend to be dropping like leaves off of the trees.
At our secluded campsite, we begin by scavenging the forest for wood. There is fallen pine and scrub oak. There is gnarly manzanita dry, grey. It is slightly burnt from a previous fire, some time ago. Debris is scattered along the ground. Around a pre-owned fire pit of rocks, left by a previous occupant, I take my axe and bow saw, breaking the branch lengths down into manageable piles.
There is a nice bare space to pitch a tent. In the morning, there will be warm sunlight in this position. Latrines hidden in the bushes, I blow up the mattresses and lay out warm soft bedding in the tent, as DF cooks a hot meal on the tailgate of the SUV.
The clouds, which covered the sun earlier, are breaking up as the day moves past. With dusk behind the mountain canyon’s cliffs, the sky is turning from blue into lemon, highlighted by nature’s silhouettes.
Starting with t-shirts, we have layered ourselves slowly as the chill of night arrives. The campfire is a treat, set with one match. We sit in chairs, watching the pattern of flames, sipping on tea and sucking on Belgian chocolate.
The manzanita is always a fun burn. Its twists form a trail for small flames to follow. It is giving us more of a contrasting rich blue flame, something different from the other woods. There is a golden sparkle that rises and curls out of the pitch black shadow of the bark, glistening. They are like sparks resting, flakes simmering, like tiny voices shouting out.
Occasionally, I stand away from the mesmerizing light of fire to gaze through the trees at the bright moon. Even by the fire, which illuminates the trees above, the Milky Way can be seen.
As I ponder and watch the flames, I break and look upward. I send my best regards to constellation Pleiades, wondering when they might arrive.
Each year near this time, we take time for the dead, our gratitude and grief. We often march in the All Souls Processional in Tucson.
Tonight, DF sets an alter on a stump next to the fire. She decorates it with colorful leaves, a branch and a bone. We have lived through covid and known the passing from life by dearly loved ones. Amongst this ancient setting, we say a few words and we feel.
There is one piece of wood, thick, left from another camper’s chainsaw, which burns very slowly. A few hours later, I tap it with a hard stick and it crumples into charcoal, nearly spent. Our piles of stick diminished, we shovel dirt over the hot coals.
Two warm bodies cuddle in their bed under the thick old Coleman quilt.
I could say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” The thing is, it does! I’ll show you in Part 2 of the “Fall Colors” in a few days.
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