September 16, 2018
ELOY Ariz.: Yesterday was a unique day—not unique in being wonderful, adventurous, and educational, although we had some of all that.
We had a great morning seeing the Grand Canyon. Spectacular beyond words. We fled the KOA early to drive the 50 miles of U.S. 64 to the national park, see the Visitor’s Center, and walk a half-mile of the Rim Trail, which follows the South Rim. Looking down, we were stunned to learn that creation of the baseline rock formation began 2 BILLION years ago. We gawked for a while, like throngs of others, picked up some books for the grandsons, and headed back that same 50 miles back to Williams.
After lunch at the same tourist place we visited three weeks ago (I winced at the “come back and see us!”) we got on I-40 to Flagstaff, then turned south on I-17 towards Phoenix. We were determined not to give up on camping, learning from our brochures that Arizona offers many camping options at its state parks. But in a comfortably air-conditioned vehicle, we forgot the climate problem.
We settled on Picacho Peak State Park, 68 miles south of Phoenix. The ranger on the phone said the unique formation of the peak is popular with hikers and climbers. I didn’t tell him we wouldn’t be doing the climb—nor think to ask about the current temperature.
We plodded down I-17, enjoying the view of those majestic Saguaro cacti famous from the Old “Arizona Highways” magazines and hundreds of Westerns. Driving through Phoenix the dashboard thermometer read 115F. I started getting antsy, but by then we felt committed. We passed the exit for Picacho, an unincorporated place, population about 400. Then we spotted the sign for the park. We pulled up to the ranger station just before closing time. The ranger seemed startled that campers showed up, but gave us a site. “Are there any snakes or scorpions?” Sandy asked. He shrugged. “Haven’t had a problem this summer, but it’s the desert,” he answered, then took off for the weekend.
Now both of us had serious doubts. The dash thermometer showed 103F. We drove slowly to the site. The park seemed deserted. No one in his right mind would be camping here tonight. We parked. The heat hit us with blast-furnace intensity. Are we nuts? I thought. Anyway, we had not seen a motel in 50 miles. The site wasn’t bad, it had a shaded area.
I’ve read that the desert cools off quickly after sunset, which was then just two hours away. I went through the motions, hauling the tent out and setting it up on a sandy spot. On inspecting the surface, I kicked pebbles and gravel into a suspicious hole. Snake? Scorpion? I didn’t want to know.
We decided to forget about cooking our own dinner. Nothing but a Subway at the Picacho Peak exit, so we backtracked north eight miles to Eloy and ate at Denny’s. I hoped we’d see some cooling off by the time we got back. No such luck.
We hiked several hundred yards to the camp bathroom and got showers and sat in our lawn chairs, sweating again, waiting for that evening cool-down. About 9:00 PM a breeze kicked up, fanning us gloriously, giving us hope. Shortly thereafter we saw headlights. Another dumb camper? We watched. The SUV passed us slowly then stopped. Then moved along, then stopped again. It did several loops, as if looking for a site, but never choosing one.
Sandy was nervous. “There’s no one else here. This is creepy,” she whispered. That SUV kept circling. We decided to go with the coward’s solution: sleep in the van. We emptied all the gear out of the van, stowed it in the tent, and fit the air mattress into the van, which was roomy enough, but still stifling. We turned in, setting the windows at half-open to allow some air flow. The roof of the van, with the Arizona sun beaming on it all day, radiated heat inside.
Stepping out of the van in the early AM, though, the night desert sky was spectacular, the stars appearing close enough to touch, Picacho Peak looming dark above us. The air still was warm, pure, and dry. I felt not a wisp of breeze, the silence was awe-inspiring. Two miles distant, the headlights of trucks on I-10 twinkled as they crawled along soundlessly.
Finally, it was 5:00 AM. Time to call this off. We heated up the water for coffee, suddenly dive-bombed by yellowjackets. Sandy, who’s allergic to bee stings, practically ran, waving a spatula around her head. They didn’t attack and sting, but showed they were really angry with us. I recalled the hole in the ground I had covered with gravel when setting up the tent. The nest, for sure. We gulped some oatmeal and threw the gear in the van.
I stopped at the bath house to brush my teeth and get another shower. A multi-legged critter with a long erect tail sat in the middle of the bathroom floor. Unmistakable: a scorpion. I’d never actually seen one before, but I’ve watched lots of Nature Channel specials. For this one case, I decided on capital punishment, and stomped it. It scuttled backward but to my relief, expired. I grabbed my toothbrush, hopped in the van and we were gone. Still, in a weird way, we’ll treasure this memory.