I knew we were in for a rough night when we looked outside and saw a woman walk to the sparse shrubs just outside our camper, drop her sweats, and squat to relieve herself as she showed us her more than ample moon. She seemed unaware that we were sitting just few feet on the embankment above her, watching from our dinette window. Kat gasped as I quickly turned my head, not wanting to etch the image onto my brain, but knowing it was already too late.
We were at one of the “boondocking” sites at Bartlett Flats campground in the Tonto National Forest, just outside of Phoenix. Like BC, Arizona has “forestry” sites that allow camping for those who prefer a more rugged and remote camping experience. We found a spot to camp beside a bank bordering a large reservoir. On the other side of the water, we had a view of orange-red cliffs tinted green from the moss. Arizona had received an unseasonably large amount of rain recently and many of the rocks were flecked with patches of thick moss. It would have been a beautiful place if not for the broken glass bottles, tossed water bottles, half-crushed beer cans, plastic bags, and soiled toilet paper (and poop) that seemed to be everywhere.
Before we pulled into the camping area, we had seen signs prohibiting glass bottles. Sure enough, when we pulled into a remote site to camp, the first thing Kat did was walk around and pick up all the broken glass and garbage.
I went around and found four or five mounds of half-dried black poop. The toilet paper suggested what kind of animal had left them. I tried to bury or hide them under some dirt and large rocks before Melo and Pixel came across them. I must have missed some, judging by their breath later on that day. After poop duty, I consolidated the three fire pits into one using my handy folding shovel. I don’t understand why someone needed to start a new fire pit when there was already a perfectly good one only a few feet away.
We arrived on Friday and by Friday night, it started raining. It didn’t let up until just after noon on Saturday when we took the dogs out for a hike around part of the lake. During our hike, we encountered so much litter that I finally said to Kat, “Let’s hike up to the surrounding hills to see if we can get to some cleaner spots.” It didn’t help. Wherever we went, the land was soiled and strewn with trash.
One of the most difficult parts of our journey is learning to live with other campers. Before we left, I would have thought that those who enjoy the outdoors and leave the confines of society to commune with nature would have respect for the land. And I’ve met many who do. Sadly, too many simply don’t care and we’ve learned to try and avoid other campers whenever we can, unless it’s in a hosted — and regularly maintained — campground.
It’s not only the trash and poop that gets to us, but the noise. All Friday afternoon and deep into the night we had loud generators chugging away for hours on end from one direction, and the constant boom boom of cranked-up country music from another. I tried hard to be sympathetic and understanding. As Kat says, “Many of these people have horrible jobs and this is the only place they can come to where they can let go a bit.” But when you’re out in a beautiful natural setting, it’s really hard to tune out the noise from various mechanical and electronic devices. I once read a book by the west coast sage and native Chief Dan George who said, “My children. I have had a vision and I have seen a time coming when all machines will stop.” Sometimes I wish that the time would be now. As long as our truck would continue to run, of course…
I think what I have a hardest time with, is the overall lack of sensitivity of too many people we encounter. They are not aware of their intrusions on others. But, as Kat also reminds me, is it any different when living in a city? There are always neighbours who similarly love to subject the rest of the neighbourhood with their own taste of music, or like to haul out their gas-powered leaf blowers at the first hint of dawn on a Sunday morning. Maybe those who have a lot of money can afford do buy a remote island where the noises and behaviours of others aren’t as intrusive.
“I’m afraid I”m becoming a misanthrope,” I said to Kat. “I don’t want to be around other people any more.”
“Any more? You’ve never liked being around other people,” Kat reminded me.
Our journey is supposed to be a spiritual one as well. Perhaps that’s the most important part of our journey. But how can one be spiritual and have such a dislike to be with others? When I visit what could be a special place in nature and everywhere I look I see trash and debris, I think of how Jesus must have felt when he walked into the temple and saw it turned into a flea market.
But aren’t truly spiritual people supposed to be tolerant, compassionate, giving? Maybe tolerance of others is one of my biggest lessons, I think to myself. As we hiked the garbage-strewn hills, I kept saying to myself, “Why look at the dirt when you can look at the flower?”
Why look at the dirt,
when you can look at the flower?
It’s all about learning to live with the imperfections in life, and how the flaws — the knot in a piece of wood, the crack in the sidewalk, the gap in Madonna’s teeth — make the world a more beautiful place. I tell myself this as I try to find beauty in the remains of a used condom crushed into the gravel.
It rained all Saturday and I hoped the spaces surrounding us would remain open on Saturday night. But two silver cars pulled in just before it got dark, parking in such a way that their headlights lit up the back door of our camper. For the next hour or so, the cacophony of banging of doors, angry yelling, screaming kids, and clanking of utensils told us that they were setting up camp.
We had parked our truck so it would gain maximum exposure to the intermittent sun for the solar panels. Of course, we didn’t mind that our dinette window looked down the embankment to the reservoir and the pretty cliffs across the water. It was still light when the woman with the pumpkin posterior shuffled over and did her stuff, either too oblivious of our presence, or too immodest to care about us watching from our camper window. But just in case she hadn’t seen us, to avoid embarrassing her, we carefully closed our blinds. We also tried to shut out any more thoughts of who else would be using the space between us and the water as a toilet.
They had set up camp within an hour. From what we could tell, it was a family of maybe seven or eight including a few kids. “I feel sorry for them,” Kat said. “I remember how horrible it is camping in the rain.” I hated myself for not feeling sorry for them. I cursed myself for my lack of compassion.
It was even harder to feel for them when they rolled down the windows of one of their cars and began blasting some sort of pop music, the subsonic boom booms slamming into our camper. I had put on some quiet jazz during dinner, but I ended shutting it off because we could barely hear it. Through the frosted rear door window, I saw the glow of their campfire interspersed with white flashes from LED flashlights.
We endured the aural mayhem until maybe nine o’clock or so when the rain picked up and it started to get windy. We had to pull in our awning because it started flapping like a flag. Because the wind was lashing the rain sideways, we were sure that the makeshift tarp the other family of campers had set up beside the fire wasn’t doing a very good job of keeping them dry. By ten o’clock, they had retreated to their tent.
For the next while, it was blessedly quiet. By eleven the noise started up again. I guessed that the rain had gotten into their tent because we heard the sounds of breaking camp. “Hey, it sounds like they’re leaving,” I said to Kat, thinking of the rain and how it can be a curse to some, and a blessing to others.
Over the next hour, we saw and heard lights flashing, headlights going on and off, doors slamming, trunks slamming, the sound of a child crying, some yelling and cursing. And then the beautiful sound of a vehicle starting. I grimaced though when I heard the whirr of tires spinning in the mud. The rain had made the ground all soppy and it sounded like one of the cars was stuck. And no sooner had it become unstuck when I heard the second vehicle try to start. The engine just clicked and refused to turn over. “Maybe they drained their battery blasting their music,” I suggested to Kat. “Serves them right,” I said, then regretted saying it because it meant they might be staying for the night.
The racket continued for another few minutes. I was about to go out and see if they needed some booster cables — I always carry a pair in case of emergencies — when I heard the second motor roar to life. After what seemed like an eternity, both vehicles spluttered through the muck and left.
On Sunday morning, when I took Melo and Pix out, I was horrified with the mess the family of campers had left behind. Although they had only camped for maybe five or six hours, the entire area looked like it had hosted the party of an entire high school graduation class. The site was littered with all sorts of trash, including a soiled disposable diaper. Surprisingly, they even left their tent. At first I thought that maybe they had left someone behind to guard the camp, but when I saw the tent was missing a fly, which meant the rain would have been pouring through the netting throughout the night, I knew it had been been abandoned.
I put Melo and Pix back into the camper and went to explore the disaster zone a bit more when a big white pickup truck pulled up. The driver, a burly guy who looked like a cross between Ron Perlman in Hellboy and the cigar chomping Eugene from The Walking Dead, jumped out and looked around.
“What a fucking mess.”
“Yeah. They left last night. I guess the rain did them in.”
“Did you get their license plates?”
“Naw. It was too dark and it would have been awkward considering they were facing the back of our camper.”
“They sure don’t respect beautiful places like this,” I added.
“No point in getting confrontational. Never know if they carry.”
One thing about all the gun toters in the US, it certainly does help keep things polite. Well, maybe not always if you look at all the gun violence stats.
“Sonny” (not his real name) was a regular camper in the Tonto National Forest.
“I’ll bet they were Mexicans?” Sonny said.
“Ah, I’m not sure. It was getting dark when they got here. It looked like they could’ve been.” I already knew what would come next.
For the next ten minutes our conversation became a monologue with Sonny informing me that “ninety percent of those who trash these places are either Mexican, or Black” and that “they don’t respect the USA and the place we call home” and how “Donald Trump is gonna’ clean them all out and send ‘em over the stinking wall once it gets built” and “Hell yah, I voted for him and I’ll vote for him again and make sure he’ll get his full eight years.”
I told him that I had visited many other remote sites, even in Canada, and the junking of the wilderness was the same. “Trashers are everywhere.”
“So what do they do about them up in Canada?” he asked. “Shoot ‘em?” he laughed.
“They just close down the remote forestry sites. Too expensive to maintain.”
“They’re doing it here too,” Sonny said. “That’s why we’re all crammed closer together now.” To better contain the trash, I thought to myself.
Sonny said he was going to clean up the site later that day and I offered to help. I was planning to do so anyways. He did come back a few minutes later and “cleaned up” what remained of the firewood. He also asked me to help him load the tent onto the back of his pickup. We both agreed that the previous occupants of this campsite weren’t coming back anytime soon. Sonny then invited me to “Come on over later and have a beer with me.”
I said I’ll think about it, but then it started to rain again and it never happened. As he drove away, the entire tailgate of his pickup was covered with a banner:
Attention Snowbirds! Learn how to drive and do our speed limits before you cause more accidents please.
I discussed this later with Kat. Did it mean that snowbirds drive too slow or too fast? I figured that if it’s on a tail gate, it can only be read by someone who is following Sonny, so I suggested he’d like the snowbirds to drive slower and stop tail gaiting. But Kat thought it was the former, that snowbirds tend to drive too slowly and clog all the main roads with their cumbersome rigs. But do we really want geriatric seniors hurling down the roads with their 40 foot apartments at 75 MPH? I wondered if Sonny was secretly wising for another wall, a northern wall this time between Canada and the US. Sonny probably wouldn’t know that less than 10% of snowbirds visiting the US come from Canada.
In a way, I can understand someone like Sonny, and how it would be easy to blame a race or culture for all the problems in the world. We all see what we want to see. But Kat and I camped in enough places during our travels to know that when it comes to disrespecting the land, skin colour and culture know no boundaries. The problem isn’t race. It’s about awareness and sensitivity.
When I was a child, I loved to step on big black carpenter ants. I liked the sound they made as they popped under my soles. And I remember pulling legs off daddy long leg spiders and watching the legs twitch and the mouths on the raisin sized bodies opening and closing. But as I grew older, I came to realize that all life is holy and now, if an ant crosses my path I walk around it, and if a wasp gets trapped inside my camper, I capture it in a glass and let it out.
Those who destroy beautiful places like Bartlett Flats are like children. Neither good nor evil. Just not aware of they harm they’re doing. As much as I’d like to teach them to respect the earth, it’s not my place to do so. This needs to be taught in our schools, in our advertisements, in everything we do. It’s been a long time since I saw the old Give a Hoot — Don’t Pollute, slogan. Road signs warn about slap-in-the-wrist fines when littering, but there’s no emphasis placed on being respectful.
I can only hope that, one day, those who destroy places like this will wake up. Until then, as Luc, the wise man we recently met at Painted Rocks told us, “Just walk away.”
I thought about this for the remainder of our Sunday as we were subjected to the thump, thump of someone’s stereo again slamming into our camper. Sonny had bragged about his “generator” and his “big ass” speakers earlier that day. I wanted to tell him that there is more than one way to trash a place. But we decided to just follow Luc’s advice, and moved on.
Kat has s few things to say about boondocking at Bartlett Flats here: