As with any expedition, I had plans. I had expectations to see the bighorn sheep that inhabit the rugged, austere Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. There is something about expectations that lead us to …elsewhere. I wanted to see them. Having spent days wandering the Basin & Range areas of the Southwest over the past 11 years, I never spotted them.
It’s good to have goals. That is what compels me to spend nights in the desert freezing my ass off and days, getting burnt by the sun. Still, being fixated on an outcome lends itself to inevitable disappointment.
What I did experience was something else. The difficulty of traversing the range made me realize the limits of my body and the courage of my resolve. I climbed up into those volcanic crags hoping for something that never arrived. The answer might be patience. My pain and frustration was a demonstration in surrender.
To paraphrase Annie Dillard, any good hike will do. The more arduous the terrain, the more determined I was to continue on. It wasn’t a smart decision. I could have lost my footing. There are endless possibilities. What I did find is the stark answer that I am not any more entitled to what I want than the next animal.
On the rocks, I watched clouds and the agave and brittlebush that shift in the wind. Spectacular sights are random. They are miracles in their accidental nature. A woman who spends 24 hours alone in the wilderness is not deserving of miracles. Things appear with time, patience, and silence. Gifts arrive when the receiver is most open to them.
There are many distractions. Everything wants us, from the screens to the friends we have yet to call back, to the traffic honking, to the lists of endless things we have to do. This life can overwhelm us in every single instant.
Then, there is stillness. If we allow it to be.
Each morning I ask if I want the quiet. It is really my choice. If I allow the stillness, what will it ask from me?
A story is told as much by silence as by speech.
— Susan Griffin
Our minds, as well as our bodies, have need of the out-of-doors. Our spirits, too, need simple things, elemental things, the sun and the wind and the rain, moonlight and starlight, sunrise and mist and mossy forest trails, the perfumes of dawn and the smell of fresh-turned earth and the ancient music of wind among the trees.
— Edwin Way Teale
I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.
— Henry David Thoreau
What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach. Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.
When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace.
― John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace
At a certain point, you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there. There is nothing but those things only, those created objects, discrete, growing or holding, or swaying, being rained on or raining, held, flooding or ebbing, standing, or spread. You feel the world’s word as a tension, a hum, a single chorused note everywhere the same. This is it: this hum is the silence. Nature does utter a peep – just this one. The birds and insects, the meadows and swamps and rivers and stones and mountains and clouds: they all do it; they all don’t do it. There is a vibrancy to the silence, a suppression, as if someone were gagging the world. But you wait, you give your life’s length to listening, and nothing happens. The ice rolls up, the ice rolls back, and still that single note obtains. The tension, or lack of it, is intolerable. The silence is not actually suppression: instead, it is all there is.
― Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters
Observing sacred mind in nature’s creativity can help us to reconnect to our own sacred mind as well. It releases a deep knowing that we inhabit a world rich with meaning—an ebbing and flowing ocean of intentionality that creates complex relationships between beautiful forms.
― Julie J. Morley, Future Sacred: The Connected Creativity of Nature
Who would deduce the dragonfly from the larva, the iris from the bud, the lawyer from the infant? …We are all shape-shifters and magical reinventors. Life is really a plural noun, a caravan of selves.
― Diane Ackerman
Why are we such tortured human beings, with tears in our eyes and false laughter on our lips? If you could walk alone among those hills or in the woods or along the long, white, bleached sands, in that solitude you would know what meditation is. The ecstasy of solitude comes when you are not frightened to be alone no longer belonging to the world or attached to anything. Then, like that dawn that came up this morning, it comes silently, and makes a golden path in the very stillness, which was at the beginning, which is now, and which will be always there.
This was the first time I had backpacked in years, and I could feel it. These muscles haven’t been in use in some time and, while I consider myself to be a decent hiker with good stamina, one mile with 30 pounds strapped to my back felt like ten. It didn’t help much since I had been impatient and packed quickly, and, of course, hauled in the water I would need for the night. I felt terribly inept, but stubborn enough to press on.
The cave wasn’t too far from the truck, maybe a mile or so. Besides, I had included my day pack for canyon exploration and would have time to trek around the side washes and rock outcrops I have come to know. The Goldfields are surprisingly isolated for being so close to the city and adjacent to the popular western Superstitions.
I am a wilderness snob, preferring wilderness to actually be wilderness. The western Supes feel much like the National Park atrocity of eager hikers waiting to break in their REI accoutrements and the endless number of Subarus and souped up jeeps in the parking lots. In a way, I kind of prefer the miners and ranchers. It’s sad to know that wilderness areas must be regulated now. Great efforts to keep their wilderness criteria intact is all but lacking. I have a feeling we’ll see ticket purchases and cotton candy at the gates soon.
Enough of my curmudgeon speculations…I am here and the sun is a strange orb of orange behind a microwavey cloud. This light makes it feel hotter than the 82 degrees, but I press on down the wash, careful to not tumble over with this damned pack. Lizards dart across hilltops and rest their one-two, one-two positions on hot rocks. A single red-tailed hawk floats overhead and behind Blue Ridge. A lone ATV sits parked in the wash. This, unlike the Superstition Wilderness, is strictly public land and there are numerous old jeep trails and abandoned mines all around. I’ve found that the OHV riders tend to stick to the popular roads and ignore much of the rest of the range.
The Goldfields span from Usery Pass to the west to the Apache Trail to the east, north to Canyon Lake and south to the city of Apache Junction. To traverse the Goldfields, it’s approximately 14 miles in distance, east to west, which you can hike in a full day if you’re motivated to do so. I prefer to take my time here.
Winds and rain have swept out great crevices in the rhyolite and conglomerate along the canyon walls. The walls also contain polished chalcedony that shines in the right light, making an ordinary sandy wash quite lovely. Once into the canyon, the only noise you can hear is the jets going over. It is quiet in terms of man-made noise, but the ever-present songbirds and occasional raptor give way to another music.
Here, I am most content. The mindless chatter of my own thoughts dissipates and I settle in to noticing everything around me: small traces of a snake’s journey, the patterns of a thistle plant in full bloom, the intricacy of ironwood roots. I could get lost in reverie here, but know that this is not my place. It has its own hardships.
The desire to live outdoors is often fairytale. Realistically, after a few nights sleeping on rock, I am all too happy to return to my cozy bed. The voyeur in me is short-lived and the romance of the simple, off grid life is too often laced in self-deception. We are animals used to dependency, and rightly so. We need each other and the help that a community provides against our ego bravado that says otherwise. We die on our own. Sometimes horrible deaths. And being simple isn’t going to change the course of this civilization’s rush to destruction. It’s illusory, at best.
I lean down to inspect a piece of rusted pipe from former gold mining efforts. They must have pumped water down the wash for their operations. I suppose you could learn more about the short boom here at that little tourist town, Goldfields, along the Apache Trail. You know I won’t go.
The sun is starting to set so I make my way back to the cave. It’s not really a cave, in all respects, but an overhang with a considerable amount of room in its three distinct caverns. I choose the one that is most exposed because it is dry and because I can actually see the floor. Of course, I will be sleeping amid mouse turds and guano, but it appears dry and I have my ground cloth. I chose the lightest pad and can feel the stone beneath me as I crouch down to make my dinner. The evening wind picks up and I feel chilled and grab my flannel. Heating up my soup, I hear the low murmur of an owl and see antelope squirrels emerge and run alongside the cliffs above me. They use the small holes in the rock as refuge during the day and are now out comically inching along the vertical steppes. I wish I was so agile and swift.
I had plans to write tonight, but pick up a well worn copy of Plants of the Sonoran Desert field guide instead. I settle in as the wind picks up and moves around the contours of the cave. The thermals bring warmth from the sun-touched stones below. Could I live here? It seems like a viable option. I have little money and no plans, which is a combination that can lead to great adventure, or a deeper level of despair.
I once gambled my life on bottles of whiskey and beer. A life that seemed well spent at the time, but now that I have emerged from that…I am chagrined to accept that I like a hot shower and a nice bed.
The night is a calm force. The bats resonate as they come into the cave and back out, devouring mosquitoes. I hear the soft hoof-steps of deer.
Oh, and crickets.
What do I know of sleeping in caves? It’s an easy venture when you know a truck awaits. I can dream of danger. Danger like a whisper, a concept I am not afraid of. In a few hours, after restless sleep, I will boil my coffee and head out. A night of quiet solitude, I can say, is as soothing as the touch of a lover, and just as fleeting.
I spent a lazy Sunday wandering through White Canyon Wilderness, a hidden heaven not too far from Phoenix. No goal. No fitness hike. Just a lot of puffy clouds, silence, and the chance to soak in another beautiful view.
The best part of slowing down is taking the time to notice what you don’t when you are keeping pace on a long hike.
Small flowers, delicate blades of native grass, unusual markings etched among rock, moss, and lichen, a hidden petroglyph…these are the findings that can only emerge into vision in idleness.
I am taking the time to find God in small things. Her beauty is in the intricacies and eloquence of the understated and unnoticed.
It’s cold…Frigid, to be exact. 36 degrees in the Valley of the Sun is no joke for a desert rat, and this temperature is frosty! I’ve avoided the western Supes for some time because I always thought them to be too crowded, but changed my mind with a little prompting from a persuasive friend. I am glad I did.
Up the canyon, I can hear the quick crack of a raven and the shrill of a hawk, but I can see neither. My leather shoes are stiff from the cold and I can feel every step as we ascend the trail. Ice forms over a wash bed and rock slicks where waterfalls are made during storms.
I can understand why this trail draws so many here. There is a magic that does not diminish with each person who walks this path, whether ancient or contemporary. It’s a building up of shared memory: the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.
I’ve been thinking about the possibilities of pain that morning. One slip on black ice or a tumble off an unsteady rock, yes. That’s the risk you take when you hike, but I wasn’t thinking about that obvious kind of mishap. Life’s unpleasant pains, when we want very badly to avoid them, that’s the sort I was thinking of.
In my not too distant past, I would give way to curiosity. Well, actually, impulsivity. And when there was pain at the ready, I welcomed it because I expected it. It didn’t cause much grief because there is no real investment in the immediate.
Then, there’s the painstaking type of pain, when you put the time into something.
Time, work, more work, more time.
A mountain of moments that, oh my god, require trust and perseverance….And no guarantees.
The grueling time it takes for anything to emerge, and the elements that work away at them, that’s what a mountain is. Those needling storms and ice and the cracking open of heat, it knows.
Fragile animals, I cannot forgot this; we are no mountains. People die looking for gold or the trail they’ve lost. People lose sometimes.
There’s always a choice to turn back. I will keep going.
Without family, the only thing I can hold to on Christmas is the fact that there’s nothing to hold on to. Christmas is like the idea of finding our family waiting on the banister, caked with fresh snowflakes, declaring a love for all mankind while being embraced in kisses. It’s fantasy; the wonderful life.
My thoughts return to Christmas past, where I would spend time with my grandparents. One of the best possibilities of those trips was when I could sleep under the tree at night. Looking up through those faux branches into the sparkling glow made me feel at home, precisely because it mimicked the woods and the stars.
This Christmas, I had that opportunity, except here in my beloved home, the Sonoran Desert.
After doing some merrymaking over breakfast with friends, my friend Ellen and I packed off to the North Maricopa Mountains for some desert camping. We rambled through a short, sandy trail to Margie’s Cove, a primitive campground on BLM land, adjacent to protected wilderness and the Sonoran Desert National Monument.
This was an area severely grazed over the past few hundred years, but has been slowly returning to its former ecological glory through the efforts of closure and tightened recreational restrictions. The Monument itself contains the Maricopa Mountain ranges (north and south of the I-8), Table Top Mountains, Booth and White Hills, and the Sand Tanks.
Rife with historical and prehistoric trails and archaeological sites, there’s reason that these places, while quiet, contain thousands of years of stories. You can feel the words under the basalt and strewn across desert pavement, so much so that they sing to life any who care to listen.
Owls lift off from a place
I cannot see. Their long silence
is riddled with the same silence.
In the desert, listening is critical. The slightest wind contains more insight than your GPS. The faint trail of a forgotten sidewinder has more to show you than your cell.
As we set up camp, the clouds formed across the neighboring ridges, looking ominous. It is winter, after all, so we were prepared for both some rain and chilly nights, and the occasional snow (like we saw in 2015). When everything was secured, I set off cross country to look for bones. Like anything, looking intently for what you want results in no luck.
Giant chunks of quartz riddled the desert pavement, looking quite out of the ordinary against the patination. Wilderness boundary signs have been glazed over after a few Sonoran summers – its words barely visible. The quality of quiet shifts from a treacherous gasp of unrelentingly survival to a creosote cold, with humidity setting off any scent.
Later that evening, the campfire was welcome as we quickly ate dinner. Winter nights in the desert make me want to hibernate and wake to the stillness of the stars from under the confines of my sleeping bag and wool blankets.
Next morning, I set out on the trail with the moon to guide me. The air on my face was freezing to the touch, and my nose, permanently frosty. I had hoped to see an owl or maybe a grumpy coyote, or the mountain lion who comes down from his rocks to sip water at the wildlife cache. No sound. No movement. Just my walking motion and my short exhalations.
Walking is reverie, and I, a somnambulist walking in the desert, under moonlight, in winter.
Late morning, we set out on the sandy back roads looking for historic trails. The north country on the boundary of the Monument has rebounded and was especially lush. Sonoran Desert at its finest, said my friend, and she was right. Every few feet, we stopped to gaze at the beauty and the sun creeping over the horizon.
Another friend says, “Sit still and look. This is everything you need right here.” I believe him.
Water has quenched the desert, and everything seemed alive and happy to be so.
Impressions of place: potsherds, one busted, displaced river cobble, many hawks, rusted out windmill, Sheep Mountain (how I longed to see the bighorns), boulder climbing, desert pavement napping, scurries of owls, coyote misfits, deep wash after wash, bajada poetry, walking for miles.
If I could only stay another few nights here…But each night could easily blend into another. The desert is without time, and my time is unfortunate. I am the longing sleeper who must pack up and be fit for the other world I inhabit.
I chase it at night when others slumber.
That which saves dwells where death inhabits.
In the moments of childhood, I would stare out through the faux Christmas tree and wonder where I will end up, what life will become. I have the same childhood curiosity, and no more information as to what comes next as I did then. Here is now. Timeless.
Exploring new terrain is always exciting, but sometimes you only have a few hours to kill. The Superstitions seemed like a good bet, but I still shy away from the crowds and on Veterans Day, there was sure to be a crowd.
The Goldfield range, near Usery Pass and Saguaro Lake, is something I have always wanted to explore. Not as glamorous as the Supes, the Goldfields offer many of the same wonders of the volcanic complex to its east, but with less of an allure. It’s unusual for people to know the range, unless they’re outdoor enthusiasts from Apache Junction, or those who prefer solitude, even in the city.
Since the terrain is easy to explore with a topo, I decided to jump out around Willow Springs Wash and cross country my way southwest to the middle of the range, just north of Dome Mountain.
Here is what I experienced…
I arrived just as the sun was starting to crest over the ridge, and – of course – it was insanely cold. I’ve never felt so cold in my life as I have in the desert in the fall and winter months. There is a quality to the cold unlike any of the humid places I’ve been during the winter. It’s like touching frozen metal.
Thankfully, I was quick to warm up by hiking up a steep ridge to gaze into the eye of the sun. Its warmth was immediate.
I looked around at the awaiting cacti, jojoba, and creosote. Everyone seemed to be waiting for this precise moment of sunlight splendor.
It was a windy day and it seemed to drown out the few ATVs I could hear, probably over in the Bulldog Canyon OHV area. There are many jeep roads that transect much of the range. Relics of old mining roads, mines, pits, and former camps and equipment are what you can expect here. The sort of place you’d see burros and a rusted out Model T. I sadly saw neither.
As a matter of fact, I wondered why I hadn’t seen a soul, even a coyote, in over 3-4 miles. All I had for company was the wind.
And more wind… and the eerie sense of knowing there were plenty of critters all around, but I couldn’t see them. I was able to spot a Cooper’s Hawk flying high above the tuff pinnacles. Seeing him added to the absolute hush of the morning. Even my footsteps were silent.
Nearing the end of the jeep road, I decided to scramble down a side canyon. I had to bushwhack a bit to get down into the wash where former rains pooled in the deep sand and the grasses gave the path a rare delicacy that no desert ever really offers.
Farther into the canyon, the walls began to narrow. I came across some old wildlife caches that have long since dried up. Moisture from the shade and rains produced unknown ferns, mosses, and lichens along the ground and canyon walls. Bobcat, coyote, and javelina tracks were visible, as well as skunk.
Dropping onto the canyon floor and over a large pool of murky water, I realized I probably wouldn’t be going any farther without technical gear to assist. The vertical drops were more than I could manage and more water to deal with. A good problem.
I already had a long trek of boulder hopping and butt sliding, so I was ready to climb back up to the ridge. (It’s interesting, if you are a rock nerd, to note that the canyon walls were smooth with chalcedony. Very pretty in the morning light.)
Before making my way back to the car, I had a chance to take it all in. From Gonzales Needle to Golden Dome to Razorback Ridge. What a view. What beauty.
And NO PEOPLE.
My kind of hiking.
So long, Goldfield range! I will be back in February for the wildflowers, and maybe an overnight somewhere down the canyons.
I recently returned from an overnight trip to the Sierra Ancha. This is a range that is close to my heart, because it was one I visited briefly during my first trip to Arizona after being gone for nearly 15 years.
As my friend Ellen likes to say, this place is special, sacred. You can feel it when you are here. Something of the ethereal is close to the skin. No wonder there are many sightings of monsters and ghosts, of messages on the wind and in strange dreams beneath glowing stars.
We arrived in late morning, so I decided to hike down Rose Creek. Little did I expect, I encountered a small female bear. I was as stunned as she was. I have a certain level of fear about bears; they seem so unpredictable. Their demeanor can quickly change from aloof to threatening, and within seconds.
The bear looked at me, then Lily, my 13 pound dog. I realized that the only way out was to back up since we were surrounded by thick, thorny berry bushes. Lifting Lily high, we eased away, watching the coal black eyes look back at us. Thankfully, we escaped safely through the berry corridor.
Roaming the back roads is always a part of any adventure that I consider an adventure, and Ellen and I set off for Buzzard Roost Canyon the next day. Rocking through the boulders and slopes, and down, down, down into the mouth of the canyon, we went far away from any human activity. Spotting perfect primitive camp sites and canyon songbirds lifting off of the schist and gneiss, what else is there but this?
Lying awake at midnight in my tent, listening to the soft steps of skunks along the creek, I am here. The immensity of the night sky overwhelms me. I wish for one star to fall. Minutes later, the blaze and the descent.
Water in the desert is precious, and to find a flowing creek in the Sonoran is a magical thing. After miles of climbing and bumping down forest roads, we were delighted to find Spring Creek by way of Jerky Butte.
Even a shallow swimming hole can relieve a tired, hot traveler. I am a longtime traveler.
Waking up at sunrise, I hiked along a new road that leads to a development that’s in an in-holding of the national forest. The illuminated cliffs of the Sierra Ancha Mountains caught first light. Being in deep canyons feels like I am returning to the quiet, still place where my true self emerges. The light shines on these places, but it occurs one hour at a time.
If you pay close attention on any walk, you will notice things. Small things that can make you wonder why you ever thought you were alone.
Fall is my favorite season, which feels like a mere two weeks in AZ. I do love the winter months here, but sometimes I miss those real two-three months of serious autumn that I experienced in Indiana. The kind that reminds me of the fall foliage of my birthplace, the sound of the wood stove’s cracks-and-pops, feeling chilly enough to put on an extra big flannel shirt when the sun sets, and that deep, pungent odor of decay.
I savor it when I am in the mountains.
As with any range, a person can spend an entire lifetime exploring and never fully get a complete picture of all of its secrets. And, isn’t that the point, really, to know that a place is composed of so much enchantment it is impossible to contain?
When the disciples asked Jesus when the new world will come, he replied, “What you look forward to has already come, but you do not recognize it.” There is no outside heaven or planetary escape of tech fantasy. This is it. This is the kingdom.
I hope to continue to recognize it for years to come.
I am back, pre-dawn, scrambling up a hot jumble of granite boulders. Burning my hands, then knees, all to investigate scat, what appears to be a busted lamp someone discarded, a broken mano, a dead ground squirrel.
At 8am, it is already 98 degrees with high humidity, but I come here for the silence and solitude, like they can somehow relieve the heat. At least I will enjoy the quiet. A few minutes pass in this surreal repose until a hiker comes my way. Shit. There is still noise from the road, the distant hum of highways.
The hiker warns me that there is an old guy and some younger women having sex down below the boulders, in the parking lot. We give each other a knowing nod of what’s going on.
This sanctuary, it seems, keeps secrets. The heat drives out most people, but oh…there are the solitude seekers who come in all forms, some to praise the miserable indifference of a July morning among baked rock, and others to find a place to hide their lives from view.
Whatever the situation, I am disturbed, and angry, and ultimately sad. Why here? Why this morning of all mornings? The hiker assured me that he phoned the police and took photos of the guy’s license plate. None of this will change much, but I appreciate his concern.
“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear – the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break….I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.”
I pray his sentiment was right when he also longed for man to be an illusion and rock, and I would add all other forms of life, to be the only thing that is real.
The only thing that lasts.
The desert keeps her secrets. But after the rain it is easier to understand her – hedgehogs burst their tiny strawberry blooms. A gray fox meanders the wash where dragonflies dance above muddy tinajas.
Nothing is subtle after the rain.
I follow the delicate tracks of javelinas while fighting off mosquitoes that make a feast of this convenient, warm-blooded host. Scanning the ground, I find a bit of rabbit fur caught in cholla spines. I imagine some plump coyote, lounging somewhere nearby, smiling his sanguine smile with full belly.
Making my way to a clear patch among the cholla, I wait for the welcomed sort of morning traffic: a troop of chatty Gambel’s quail scatter from beneath an ironwood. A mockingbird sings his patchwork morning song. Behind a small clump of brittlebush, two long ears rise. I wonder if it was his friend who became coyote’s supper. Carefully, the rabbit emerges, sniffing the air.
I have a fondness for rabbits. Their fear is understandable and relatable. Our vulnerability to life is sometimes less palpable, but nonetheless just as real.
Coyote deserves our understanding, too. Feed or be someone’s food…eventually. Too often we want to align with rabbit, all of our fears protecting us from responsibility. Sometimes we want to align with coyote, never allowing gentleness to expose us to the inevitable.
The truth is that both coyote and rabbit embody life, all that life entails, all that is necessary.
The sun burns my neck and distorts my view of the world. Or maybe this is exactly how it should appear. Rabbit makes his way back to his den, belly full from the morning’s good measure of work.
As I reach the parking lot, there is no trace of the man or his Mercedes, or the young woman. The distant traffic continues to hum.
I am excited to share my essay on the Sonoran Desert National Monument as a part of a feature covering our public lands for VRAI Magazine’s Travel Issue.
Please share the link, if you would be so kind.
And don’t forget to submit your comments and speak out to protect National Monuments under threat, including the Sonoran Desert National Monument, Bears Ears, Grand Canyon – Parashant, and so many others.