“Are you taking a gun?”
You’d be surprised how often this question was asked when we announced our plans to spend three months touring the southwestern United States, primarily primitive camping in a rooftop tent on our 2008 Land Rover.
Only once did I wish, sort of, that I had one.
Instead, this blog, the first after our 79-day road trip, is a five-gun salute to a few of the many Americans who elevated our holiday from great to outstanding.
“Is it all right if the girls pitch their tent under that cottonwood between our campsites?” Polite Dad asked us at the well-named Furnace Creek campground where the temperature was 100°—unseasonably hot for mid-March. “Where are you headed after Death Valley?” he then asked, nodding his approval as we ran through our itinerary: Anza Borrego, Big Bend, Chaco…
“Do you know about the annual bike race at Gila in April? You might want to check the dates because they close the roads up there for a couple of days.”
We’d planned to be there April 22; the Tour of the Gila international bike race was April 19-23. Thanks to the heads-up, we reversed our itinerary. In early May, the only racers on the winding roads through the Gila wilderness were deer, campsites on the Gila River were free for the taking and the on-site ranger at Gila Cliff Dwellings was available to answer our questions for as long as we wanted.
Perhaps volunteers are always on hand at the Anza Borrego Desert Nature Center or with the Super Bloom attracting people from all over the world (doubling the town’s population of 5,000), maybe the locals decided to help out. As soon as we walked in the door, a kindly man about our age in a green T-shirt with a clipboard and a volunteer name badge (Dale? I wish I’d written it down and when we returned a few days later to say thanks, he wasn’t there) greeted us and asked how he could help.
We needed a camp spot, which you can imagine wasn’t going to be easy. Especially at 6 pm. On Saturday night.
“Where are you from?” asked Dale. “How long will you be in the area?” Dale gave us some camping options. Then, he paused, adjusted his glasses, looked at us keenly and said, “You have a four-wheel drive right? My son and I were out at Glorietta Canyon a few weeks ago. If I were primitive camping, that’s where I’d go. Although I can’t promise there’ll be any spots left, if you drive to the end of the road where it gets pretty rough, you should be able to find one.”
Thanks Dale. Glorietta Canyon was one of favourite campsites. And we’d never have found it on our own.
Dale also told us where we’d see the best blooms. But on our slow drive out from the remote Ibex Dunes in Death Valley where we had camped for a night, we were so surprised to see another vehicle that we stopped to chat with its owner, a grey-haired woman I’ll call Flora. “I’ve just come up from a week in Anza Borrego,” she told us. “Be sure to go to Palm Canyon—it has the most spectacular display of wildflowers right now,” Flora said.
The locals concurred with Flora. “We’ve lived here for forty years and never seen anything like it,” a couple we met on the hike exclaimed. “Just imagine this area all brown and grey. That’s what it’s usually like in the spring. “ They were surprised we hadn’t heard about the Super Bloom on the news—that we’d just lucked into putting it on our itinerary. “It made the cover of the New York Times. People were flying in from as far away as Finland and Singapore.”
They told us something else, a phrase we heard from several fellow hikers in California. “Thank you for coming despite what’s happening in our country.”
The Palm Canyon hike was so spectacular that when our friends Liz and Mike drove up from Indio, we hiked it again. Thank you Flora. (And Liz and Mike for the big bed, laundry service, home-cooked meals and lemon-drop martinis.)
Another person whose name we don’t know—“Ranger Persimmon.” He was the first person we met in in Big Bend National Park in Texas when we stopped at the ranger station at Persimmon Gap.
While Big Bend is yuge, covering more than 800,000 acres, it has only 55 primitive campsites. “They have to be reserved in person at one of our three ranger stations in the park and for sequential days,” Ranger Persimmon explained. “And unlike what you’ve experienced in Utah, primitive campsites in Big Bend aren’t free.”
After spending an hour with us coordinating our list of thirteen hikes with nearby campsites, he peered at me and said, “Now there’s one hike you asked about that we haven’t worked out.”
“Mules Ears. Santa Elena Canyon. Lost Mine. South Rim. Balance Rock…” I read, scanning my list.
“No. You mentioned it early on. I can’t tell you about it, but if you ask for information, I must give it to you,” he said encouragingly.
The price for his consultation, guidance on secret and not-so-secret hikes, booking fees and camping reservations? $12.
Funding for the National Parks in the USA, as you probably know, has been cut. At Mesa Verde National Park, David Nighteagle, a lean, spry man with a braided ponytail that belies his age (68), a ranger all his life, has to reapply yearly. After David led us on a tour of the Balcony House, we submitted notes to the authorities declaring him a national treasure and suggesting he be employed permanently for as many years as he wanted.
Our admiration began with his “Be Careful” speech before we ascended the stairs and ladders into Balcony House, a cliff dwelling from the thirteenth century.
“Don’t do anything foolish and hurt yourself. If you fall, it’s a $6,000 helicopter ride out and you’ll get to meet my wife. She runs the emergency department at the Durango hospital. If you really want to meet her, for only $2,000 you can come to dinner at our home tonight.” He continued in the same laconic vein. “Okay, that’s the end of my federal-government sanctioned safety speech. But I’ve done it with 15 seconds to spare so we’ll have to wait,” he concluded, silently eyeing his wristwatch.
Infused with intelligence and wisdom, David’s tour was one of the best we’ve been on— anywhere in the world—and will have its own post here one day. But here’s a memory.
In the largest room of this cliff dwelling, David asked us all to stop. No cameras. No talking. “For a minute, I want you to stand in silence and look across the canyon to Soda Mountain.”
“What did you hear?” he asked.
Only a few people commented. “Nothing.” “Wind.”
“Last year I had a woman guest who began crying soon after I asked everyone to stand in silence,” said David. “’Are you okay?”” I asked her. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I live in Manhattan and I’ve never heard silence before.’”
Words, what words evoke more power than silence?
In that minute of time, our imaginations became entwined with the spirits of the Ancients as they looked across the canyon eight centuries ago, sharing views that remain timeless. The splendour of the moment. Love for our families. Keeping safe.
As David said, his last name, Nighteagle, probably means owl. Thank you Mr. Wise.
And the night I sort-of-wanted a gun?
Bottomless Lakes campground, New Mexico. Nothing special, a gravelly site beside a creek after an unexpected long and rewarding day at Carlsbad Caverns. (Where we took the advice of a young ranger and spent four hours there.) Most of our fellow campers were RVers, most of them travelling with dogs.
I awoke to a crunch-crunch on the gravel. Probably our neighbour out with his little dog, I thought to myself.
The second time I heard the crunching sound of walking on gravel was a little scarier. My mother, who is not a worrier and at 88 has just started locking her door, had asked me about the danger of strangers climbing the ladder to our rooftop tent. Whoever was down there sensed my awakening. The scrunching stopped. Eventually, I fell back to sleep.
The third time I woke up to sounds around our bins. Magellan had purchased three, large marine bins with sturdy handles. The dry food bin was locked in the car. But the kitchenware bin and the miscellaneous bin were sitting out under the stars.
I nudged Magellan. “There’s someone outside,” I whispered.
He reached for our big solar light and unzipped the window screen on his side.
All of a sudden there was a scampering of feet, a loud thump and the sound of a bin lid hitting the ground.
Blinded by the light, three big, ugly, long-tailed, four-legged creatures stood still, gazing up at us.
Scampering down the ladder with our headlamps and big light, we made it down in time to get a good look at them. They were in no hurry to get away.
Soon we realized why they’d raided us.
Having over-shopped for food in Santa Fe, I’d left a Ziploc bag of trail mix, yogurt-covered almonds and peanut brittle in our miscellaneous bin. Attracted by the smell, three big ol’ possums had mounted a combined charge on the bin—powerful enough to snap open the lid and steal our hiking treats.
Really, when you think about it, for their ingenuity, these vermin probably deserve a five-gun salute too, don’t they?