Just before dawn, I walked out into the still cool desert to look at the sky. Mornings and evenings are the most beautiful times in the Arizona desert, when the pinks and reds hang in the air like a thick glowing mist that stretches from one horizon to the other. On this morning, I was entertained with a remarkable celestial event I have never experienced before. I watched as the full moon, who had spent the entire night traversing the sky and bathing the desert in silver light, dropped beneath the western horizon at the exact same moment as the sun rose in the east. The evening before, their roles were reversed and, as the moon rose in the east, the sun set in the west. It was as if the sun and moon were sharing opposite ends of the same plate, and the plate was slowly turning on an invisible axis.
Luc, the wild-wise man we met at Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site a few weeks ago, told us that this phenomenon, with the moon sinking just as the sun rises, only occurs when the moon is full. At the time, I thought what he said was interesting, but when I got to witness the event firsthand, it struck me as profound. I had no idea of just how attuned our little earth is in relation to its nearest neighbours. I thought to myself, What are the odds of the sun and moon being so precisely synchronized? And why does this only occur when the moon is full? Similarly, why is it when we experience a solar eclipse, the disk of the moon perfectly covers the disk of the sun, only letting the outer edge of the sun’s corona shine forth like a golden crown? I don’t have the answers — I wonder who does. Every night we are entertained by an amazing dance up in the heavens that is as mysterious as it is beautiful. The ancient ones called this interplay The Music of the Spheres. And if it is a type of music, I wonder who was the composer was?
After the moon set, I heard some birds chattering excitedly about the coming of the day. I spotted what looked like a golden yellow canary flitting from one cactus to the next. During the heat of the day, when the sun is at its peak, the chattering is subdued and other than the croak of a raven, the hush of a rare breeze winding between the ancient crags, and the omnipresent buzzing and whirring of a million flies, bees and grasshoppers, the world is one of silence.
It seems like our entire journey up to now was only a precursor to our stay in Arizona. Maybe it was meant to be that way all along. In the basement (yes, that’s what they call the slide-out tray underneath the back door of our truck camper) we’re carrying the ashes of Kat’s parents. This is appropriate since they lived in the basement of our home back in Canada for close to fifteen years. In a few days, we’ll either be delivering them to the plots they have reserved at Lake Havasu City, or taking them someplace into the desert to scatter in the wind. Either way, their journey and this part of our pilgrimage is soon coming to an end.
For the past twelve days, we’ve been camped between two sites near Saddle Mountain. Initially, we only wanted to stay here for a few days, but the place enchanted us with its combination of peace and serenity, and its spectacular hiking. Also, I discovered I lost my credit card, which meant that we both needed replacement cards since we share the same account. We made the mistake of trying to get them shipped to the Saddle Mountain RV Park, where we planned to stay later that week to dump, replenish our water, and take showers. A week later, the cards still hadn’t shown up and when Kat inquired as to their whereabouts, she found out that the cards had been sent back because UPS won’t deliver to general delivery in an RV park and the RV park refused to sign for them “for liability reasons.”
Over the past two weeks, we did stay at the Saddle Mountain RV Park twice. For an RV park, it’s nice and clean and, with full hookups, we were grateful to be able to wash dishes without needing to shut off our taps a dozen times to conserve water. But the place was dominated by the mechanical sounds of big rigs endlessly starting and stopping and shifting in and out of position. During the nights, I had to keep my blanket over my nose and mouth to help filter out the thick moist reek of chicken manure from a nearby factory egg farm.
In addition to losing my Visa card, and perhaps a bit of my mind when dealing with this frustrating issue, I’ve been losing a lot of things lately for some reason. A day or so after we found a remote spot to camp near one of the toes of Saddle Mountain, I lost the eyepiece to the viewfinder of my camera on one of our hikes. The next day, I lost a lens cap. We all know the saying about everything happening in threes. But other than the hassles with trying to get our credit cards replaced, I really didn’t mind too much and just went with the flow. I love hiking and clambering around the crags and crannies that dominate this area. I figured I lost my lens cap during my hike earlier that day in an area behind some petroglyphs, and now I had an excuse to go on another hike.
As I passed the petroglyphs for the second time that day, I thought at first that they weren’t as prolific or elaborate as the ones we saw at Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site. But the petroglyphs at Saddle Mountain also don’t come with a half-dozen camera-toting tourists. On my way in to hunt for my lens cap, which I figured I probably lost at the top ridge of a small canyon behind the petroglyphs, I stopped again and sat on the ancient stones. I was alone as I meditated on the the people who had carved the rocks with the strange symbols, and how they had walked in the same area centuries before Christ was born. I wondered who they were.
I found my lens cap maybe half an hour later. Ironically, it was lying beside a “modern” petroglyph rock I had stopped to photograph, a rock where someone had recently carved a stick figure, the word “Chevy”, and some other simple designs. Although we come from what we believe is a highly advanced society, I was struck with how much more primitive and uninspiring the modern rock graffiti was compared to the unique glyphs left by people who walked here thousands of years ago.
After finding the lens cap, and feeling a surge of optimism, I returned to the small mountain behind our truck camper which I climbed the day before to see if I could now find the missing eyepiece to my camera. My legs were tired as I forced myself back up the 150 meters (450 feet) to the top of the mountain. The hike was steep, and I had to be careful not to slip and plunge to my own extinction on the loose shale. This time I wasn’t as lucky and I didn’t find my eyepiece when I got to the top. But I was still happy. I felt blessed that I was still healthy enough to be able to climb the same mountain twice in as many days.
I once was lost,
but now I’m found…
— Amazing Grace
For the first nine days at Saddle Mountain we camped in a solitary spot near the end of one of the gravel roads. There were maybe fourteen or fifteen other RVs of various kinds spread around the desert behind. The area is all BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, which means we were able to camp for free. It’s not the free camping that appeals to us, but the remoteness. We love to be alone and Saddle Mountain offered us an abundance of solitude.l
The road to the campsite we picked was a bit rough, too rough for most RVs, especially the bus-sized Class A’s. But that’s why we opted for a truck camper on a four-by-four in the first place. It allows us to get to the places where others can’t go. It’s also why of all the rigs that were parked around Saddle Mountain, we were able to secure the most remote spot. There were no other people camped between us and the mountains, and the closest RV behind us was not even within yelling distance. Although we’re not nudists, we certainly could have been at this place. And for the first time since we started our journey, we didn’t need to draw our curtains at night.
Because the BLM lands are unsupervised — a couple of rangers did a drive through late our first Friday evening with spotlights blazing, either to look for partying yahoos or lost Mexicans — it does attract a mixture of people. Fortunately, unlike our disturbing experience at Bartlett Lake outside of Phoenix a few weeks earlier, people who come to Saddle Mountain keep the place clean. Other than some old faded pop or beer cans randomly strewn about, and the ever-present patches of broken glass that’ve probably been there since before the sixties, there’s very little new litter. I did come across shells from firearms of different sizes and calibers though, and on our first Sunday, someone was shooting at one of the more remote spots to the annoyance of Melo and Pix, and us as well. But for the most part, the place was peaceful and serene.
Although there are no real trails at Saddle Mountain, the hiking is incredible and it’s possible to go in any direction across the desert or over the mountains and see something new with every step. On our second day, and on many days afterwards, we wandered to the valleys hidden between the peaks of Saddle Mountain. The earth was covered with green and gold from the millions of poppies that seemed to radiate light from within. The desert was in bloom because of recent — and rare — rains. We tried not to step on any plants, but without designated trails, it was hard not to step on some. I pretended that the plants were pools of molten lava, and that I needed to hop from rock to rock and boulder to boulder to avoid burning up in the lava fire like Gollum at the end of The Lord of the Rings. I think making a game of it helped save a lot of the fragile plants from my heavy footsteps. Fortunately, the countless lizards whisking about wherever we hiked were too fast for our ponderous feet.
Scattered amongst the poppies we found all sorts of crystals and small florets of rocks that look like globs of melted wax. We picked up some of the prettier ones. I later learned that the rocks are chalcedony, a type of quartz common in this area. During one of my scrabbles on a challenging and dangerous rock face (Kat was back at the camper), I found a beautiful cluster of what rock hounders call a desert rose. It had probably been siting on the granite surface each day greeting the morning sun for at least a million years. Although I was carrying a rusty rock chisel I found in a cleft on another day, I didn’t have the heart to chip out the rose. I felt I would be stealing a piece of the soul of the land. We did gather a few of the loose ones scattered about though, since the land was offering those freely for anyone to pick up. One day I might get a rock tumbler and see what lies hidden in the hearts of the milky white knobs.
It’s not what you lose in life that matters,
but what you find.
During one of our hikes, when we stopped for lunch, Melo barked at something. Her bark triggered multiple barks in varying pitches from a dozen places all around the valley as we were serenaded by her echoes. Not recognizing the sound of her own voice, this inspired her to bark even more. Pixel, not wanting to be left out, perked up his ears and added his own voice to the choir. Soon we were immersed in a kennel of barking frenzy. I too joined the canine chorus and hooted and howled along with them until Kat asked us to “please stop”. There’s something special though about being in a place where the only other voices you hear are your own.
Of the almost two hundred places we’ve stayed at since the start of our journey, this was one of the few where we could sit outside, absorb the sun and breathe in the clear desert air without feeling like we were constantly being watched by other campers.
Far in the distance, we could barely see the main highway connecting Phoenix with the rest of the world. I could just make out what looked like an endless train of white trailers hauling consumables from one place to the next. As I listened to the distant hum, I was reminded that there is still an active and frenetic world outside our place of tranquility.
For the last three nights, we stayed at an even more remote spot near the eastern end of the mountain. It was the perfect place to contemplate the full moon and her mysterious dance with the sun. The days are becoming hot though, well above 90° F (30° C) during the day. We aren’t used to the heat and know that it will be unbearable here in just a few more weeks. This is the desert, after all. After only a few days, the lush blanket of green that covered the land and hills is becoming dry and the plants crunch into dust when we walk on them.
Tonight we’ll probably be staying at some other RV park to dump and clean up. We’ll pay our money for another parking stall so we can have hookups. Instead of dark open skies at night, fresh cool air fanning us when we sleep, and the peace that underlies most natural spaces, we’ll return to the sounds of RVs and other machines, bright sodium lights forcing us to draw our curtains, and maybe the smell of another chicken factory down the road.
In a few days, we’ll be parting forever with the ashes of Kat’s parents. There are some losses that can’t be forgotten. But I’ve also learned that, in life, it’s not what we lose that matters, but what we find. I may have lost some things at Saddle Mountain, but I know the impression the land made on my soul will stay with me forever. And if it means I’ll have more mountains to climb and more valleys to explore, some things are worth losing.
Kat has some things to say about our stay at Saddle Mountain here: