Every good story deserves a sequel. Five years ago, I wrote what some consider to be a good story about a star-crossed camping trip. I described it as “...not a long story, ...filled with happiness, embarrassment, laughter, disappointment, steak, and 150 miles of driving.”
If that story was Home Alone, this is Home Alone 2. Except with less steak. So sit back and cast your thoughts aside for a few moments while I entertain you with another adventure.
We had planned this trip for a long time. When I say, “plan”, you might conjure up in your mind such descriptors as “outline”, “schedule”, “purpose”, or even “call ahead to see if they allow overnight camping”. No.
When I say we planned it, I mean Daniel Dawson and I desired to go camping. Greatly desired. We simply wanted to drive to the desert, light a fire, grill some steak, get some rest, and shoot some photos. You know, camping.
After finally setting a date, Daniel and I split some basic responsibilities and necessities and met on a Friday afternoon. We piled everything up in the trusty van, and set off northward toward the Needle Rock area, which was the spot of many camping adventures in the past, including the ill-fated camping trip of 2006.
We thought we were so well prepared. We had our tent, steak, our “trundle” of wood (as christened by me, it being three bundles of wood) and plenty of daylight. We should have realized our night’s true destiny then, when we pulled up to the Needle Rock entrance and saw pavement instead of a dirt trail. Yes, the forest service had taken hold of this land, paved it, and blessed it with bathrooms. And wanted money for the experience. Permits required.
No matter! Onward and forward we thought, pulling into the well-manicured campground, loveingly named “Needle Rock Campground”. Our first stop was a parking lot, where we found our second revelatory hindrance; a “No Overnight Camping” sign.
Allow me a brief diversion; does not the word “camping” denote the overnight variety? Forgive me if I lack the intellectual fortitude to fully grasp the mountain man’s vision of camping, but when I say, “I’m going camping” to someone, you better believe they’re thinking I’m not coming back until at least the next day. Hmm.
So, thus disenchanted but never discouraged by our discovery, we decided to take the first unpaved road we saw and forage our way ahead to see what else we could find. Not even 100 yards on this path we met our third hiccup in the night’s affairs by nearly getting my front-wheel drive family mini-van stuck in some nasty sand. Luckily, it lasted only a moment, and we turned back, proverbial tail between our legs, a nasty taste of deja vu in our mouths.
As I had AT&T and had ventured outside of my 25-foot grace period of the city limits, my phone would do us no good as we turned to the Internet for help in our search for suitable camping arrangements for the evening. Luckily, Daniel had Verizon and was somehow pulling down about 5mbps out in the boonies, so we quickly confirmed our fate at the current campground and headed south.
After several unanswered phone calls to family members resulted in a quick Google search. As good fortune would have it, there was another campground only three miles to shy of us called McDowell Mountain. It seemed a literal utopian paradise for us; we were wrong.
A few hundred yards from the entrance to the park, I noticed something awry. Another snag in the fibers of the night. There was a line of cars, campers, and trucks waiting to get in. Yes, it was a holiday weekend, but still...a line of near 50 vehicles seemed hardly warranted at this point. When you’re faced with this unfortunate set of circumstances, you have very little choice. You pull in and mark your spot in line, noticing that no one is being turned away. Faithfully, you dig in, and wait.
I turned to Daniel about 20 minutes into our queue and revealed to him what only I could see past the careening sequence of autos; a “Campground Full” sign. I was flabbergasted. How could this be? We were still 10 cars back at least, and no one was driving the opposite direction from us. There had to be a mistake. Fate could not possibly hold such unmitigated sway over our endeavors.
The sun setting before our very eyes, we had little options. After a few more excruciating minutes in line, we pulled up to a very congenial looking gentleman. Pleasantly, he glanced in the car at us and said, “You running?”
I was perplexed. Did he think us fugitives, evading the law at the nearest 45 minutes line of cars we could find?
“Are you running?”
“Ex..excuse me?”, I stammered. I could no longer hide my utter confusion at this curveball of a conversation.
“Are you racing this weekend?”, he blustered back. Consternation knit my brow.
“No..no..We’re camping. Camping. We want to camp.” I could only muster the vocabulary of an eight year old at that point. There was a lump in my throat. Tunnel vision clouded my processes. Daniel laughed and guffawed at my side.
“Oh, you’re serious,” he said, looking very sympathetic. “I’m sorry. You’ve waited for nothing. We’re full." He stammered a bit; shuffling his feet for stability. "We don’t have anything for you. We’re holding the Ironman Triathlon here this weekend. I’m so sorry.”
I don’t recall very well what I said next. For all I know, it was probably a few hesitated inflections about how I really just wanted a place to grill some steak. Nonplussed, the gentleman carried on.
“You know, if you drive not four miles to the North, there’s a campground there you can stay at.”
“We know”, we said nearly in unison. “We just came from there. There’s no overnight camping allowed anymore.”
“Well, that’s unfortunate. I just sent a few others there this evening. Look, do you know where the Bush Highway is?”
I said I did not know where that was, when clearly, I knew where it was. My thoughts were with those other poor souls who were sent to Needlerock. Our eyes glazed over with disillusion.
He pushed on. “You just gotta drive south through Fountain Hills, get to the Beeline and take that north to the Bush Highway. It’s the Saguaro Del Norte recreation area. You drive down that road and you’ll be damned sure to find a place to camp there.”
We looked at each other for a brief moment to communicate our thoughts, turned back toward the man and issued our gratitude for his help. Flummoxed, we took our adventure southward again, toward the Fountain Hills area and ultimately the Bush Highway.
Hysteria and delirium clobbered the van at that point. How could we be afflicted yet again with such a destiny? Did the fates hold anything for us? Would we be able to grill any steak? Read on, dear readers.
We faced a decision. With our allotment of daylight dwindling rapidly, and no clear destination in mind, did we push forth and try to find a suitable spot? Careening through the rolling streets of Fountain Hills gave us plenty of time to both decide and complain. By the time we reached Shea Blvd, we had made up our minds. We knew our destiny, and it smelled like steak seasoning.
Peeling out while turning to the East on Shea, the fearless Odyssey minivan showing its true colors and passion to its occupants, we headed toward the Bush Highway. Headlights on, we kept our eyes peeled for any clues that might show us the way. Turning left on what seemed like a good location, we discovered only a pier that led to the lake.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted the small Lakeshore Restaurant. Daniel bade me to ask someone for directions. Spotting a woman on a golf cart, I drove up to her and sheepishly asked her whether there was a place to camp nearby.
She said there wasn’t, and we both lowered our heads in disbelief. Quickly she corrected herself however, remembering that it was in fact November, and the Park Service allowed camping along the shore of the Salt River until March. We simply needed to keep following the road until we found the Water Users Camping area, and hike on down to the shore. We finally felt a brief moment of relief and hope. Thanking the woman, we left her and made our trek back to the highway.
Light had all but left us at that point. Following the woman’s precise directions, we located the parking lot that would allow us passage to the shores of the Salt River. Letting the headlights be our guide, we passed back and forth while deciding which spot would bring us closer to the campsite.
Unexpectedly, a small animal darted in front of the van, eyes ablaze as its tapetum lucidum reflected our headlights back at us. Daniel freaked; he screamed and beckoned me to stop. After discovering it to be a lost kitten, we discarded our man-cards and parked on the North end of the lot.
It was time to investigate this campsite.
It should be mentioned that we had stocked immensely for the night. Tents, sleeping bags, chairs, wood, a grill, a cooler, and other odds and ends that would prove difficult to carry down to the river in one trip. We decided that we had better take a trip sans supplies, just to see if we could even find a suitable location. After all, the sky had darkened and time was a luxury we did not have.
Once down at the shore, we realized the last damning fact that sealed our fate. Every square inch of the area was covered in broken glass. There was no chance of camping here. While our tetanus shots were both up to date, the thought of dealing with those shards helped speed our decision to simply make a fire, grill the steak, and get home.
Home. We remembered at this point that Daniel’s car was 50 miles away, parked in the lot of an AJ’s Fine Foods. Our nightly adventure had taken us quite a few miles out of our original path.
I digress. After a few runs to the car, we placed our “trundle” of wood inside a hastily crafted fire ring, and begun the process of heating the coals for the grill. With our chairs set up, Daniel and I had a few minutes to ruminate on the night’s transpiring. We could hardly believe that we fell victim to another night of gallivanting about the Valley in search of a place to camp.
With the steak cooking on the grill, Daniel took out the potatoes that his dear wife had carefully wrapped in aluminum foil for us to cook. He dug a couple small holes a few inches deep, set in each a hot coal, placed the wrapped potato on top of the coal, and placed three more; one on top, and one on each side.
Quizzically, I inquired with Daniel whether he thought that would cook the potatoes. “Just set a timer”, he said. He was quite sure that in less than an hour, we would have wonderfully cooked steamy fresh potatoes for our culinary enjoyment. So we set the timer, and carried on.
A few minutes later, Daniel whisked around in his chair, alarmed, aiming his flashlight into the distance.
“Did you hear something?” he asked. I responded to him nonchalantly, stating that I hadn’t heard a thing, and for him to stop scaring me. This was the second time that night that he was roused by something, and his predilection for theatre was quite amusing.
“I swear I heard something. Right behind me.”
After a few minutes of swinging the lights to and fro, we concluded that we were not being harassed by coyotes, javelina, bobcats, mountain lions, or raccoons. A few times we did hear some fish jumping out of the water, which as time went on became the tidings of mer-people during their nightly dalliance.
The steak was delicious, if not a bit over-seasoned by yours truly. The conversation shifted from the serious to the insane, from intense to jocular, and we hardly remembered the potatoes that were surely ready to eat.
Carefully, Daniel dusted the coals from on top of the wrappings, and carefully peeled back the aluminum bundling. I did the same.
We looked at each other.
“Is your potato stone-cold?”
“Yeah. Yours too?”
For some reason, common sense so intensely illuminated our minds at the same time, that we almost fell out of our chairs for the pain of it. How did we ever expect a huge potato to cook with four coals? We could hardly stop laughing, when suddenly, Daniel whipped around again like on a swivel chair.
“I don’t”, I replied. “What did you see?”
“Eyes. Something’s hunting us. I saw its eyes over there. You can’t hear it?”
I paused, shuffled my feet for stability, and perked my ears to the scene. It took a moment, but then I heard it. Rustling in the branches, small footsteps on the underbrush. Something was hunting us.
“What was it? Did you get a good look at it? Should we leave?”, I asked, hesitantly. I realized at that moment that neither of us could make a quick getaway. Besides, what could really be stalking us at that moment? Were we in peril?
We listened further, but no further auditory revelations were offered. After tossing a few rocks of humane warning into the trees and nearby foliage, we assured ourselves that we were safe, and that the night could go on.
Tossing the potatoes inside of the smoldering fire proved much more effective than our previous effort, and within 15 minutes, we had us some taters to eat. More light conversation ensued, and we hardly remembered our previous dance with the unknown adversary.
An adversary which was, my friends, quite real.
Daniel again caught him with eager senses afire, shooting around in his seat so quick that his red hair was a blur. Our flashlights found the target immediately; a pair of eyes in the distance, flickering and reflecting the light back at us, piercing, foraging, waiting. It disappeared for only a moment, and was back in a flash, nearly 10 feet from its previous position.
“No, it’s not”, Daniel replied. He seemed much more sure of himself than I was.
With his certainty placing the seed of doubt so firmly in my mind, my flashlight shifted from left to right, sweeping for its target. It only took a few more moments before we found our antagonist again.
“It’s a raccoon!”, bellowed Daniel. Indeed it was, and it had given us quite the scare. But enough was enough, and we tossed a few well-aimed rocks in his direction to give him a final send off. With Mr. Procyon lotor gone on his merry way, we returned to normal, but with a heightened sense of our surroundings. And I certainly listened to Daniel when he thought he heard something.
The rest of the evening was spent taking pictures and telling stories, until the hour grew late and we broke camp and put out the fire.
Oh, and a note about putting out the fire; it’s never a good idea to urinate on top of a flaming hot 45 LB rock. Cast your mind if you will, and imagine the stench of a locker room. Now, make it 1000x worse. That’s the smell of instantly vaporized urine. It’s horrifying.
In my last ill-fated story about camping, I concluded by tale by stating that I would do it all again in a heartbeat. That’s why we went, really. Even if you had told us going in that we would be beset on every turn by every imagination of obstruction, we would have sallied forth with dogged determination.
Like before, this lengthy travelogue certainly does not do the evening enough justice. As they say, you just had to be there.