Sometimes we take classes that sounded like a good idea at the time … and end up making us consider writing a novel a la Wally Lamb … that’s the case with this Environmental Writing class. Rhetorically & theoretically it’s a great idea – but it’s a logistical pain in the ass & when I suggested that the professor include a better description of the course at registration, he basically called me Lazy. Why thank you, yes, I am L.A.Z.Y. and some day when I’m not running on 3 consecutive days of 3 1/2 hours of sleep, I will find a snarky set of words to flesh out that acronym … like in 4 years when I’m done with school … anyhoo … here’s the descriptive essay that had me up til 2am … the last time I had to describe a favorite place I was in Mrs. Q’s 10th grade honors English class and it was a yellow brick church in the 518. not exactly a well practiced skill … whatevs …
“People think being alone makes you lonely, but I don’t think that’s true. Being surrounded by the wrong people is the loneliest thing in the world” – Kim Culbertson
Upon arriving in Arizona in 2008, the first natural area we visited was the Tonto National Forest – specifically the Pinal Recreation Area. Composed of mountainous terrain adorned with both deciduous and coniferous trees, we were in love with the area from the first time we packed a picnic and escaped the summer heat hiking and playing Uno with extended family. Since then, the various trails up into the mountains – and across them – have become a refuge.
When we need a break from the noise of life, a picnic, plenty of water and we’re in a vehicle and on our way. When family & friends visit from out of town, especially in the summer, being able to gain perspective and cool off are traits that only the mountains can provide. We take a break from our regular trips in from the first heavy snow until about the end of March is due to road conditions/quality and the short days of winter.
A Sample Trip
7,812 feet above sea-level and more than 4,000 feet above town, able to see to the edges of space and time – so much sky the blue fades to white – the temperature 25 – 30 degrees cooler in summer than the town below, which appears much further than 7.6 miles away.
The tires crunch on gray rocks that look like shale over a sand/clay soil blend. The vegetation at the top is like a monk’s fringe surrounding a bare pate – starting slightly beyond and below the summit itself. Tumbling out of the truck: a large German Shepherd and her girl excited to run and explore, carefully unfolding himself the sexagenarian recovering from open heart surgery, stretching from the jostling ride 2 members of the sandwich generation – thankful for the perspective offered by blue sky, unencumbered sun, trees, land; for the opportunity to get the family up into the trees and away from it all.
Days like this – driving up the mountains, a picnic lunch, at once together in thanks and alone in nature with the thoughts – are the clearest reminder of why they left behind the big cities on the east coast, the industrial cities in the Midwest, and moved to a small town in rural Arizona: family, clean air, blue skies, freedom, individuality, time, space, quiet, solitude.
Visiting the mountains offers another perspective, too. A perspective of both the power and struggles of nature – seeing plants and trees growing in the most unlikely spaces, the evidence of past forest fires, the switch-backs in the roads where the mountain wins – and the unchanging majesty of some of the views. The individual plants may struggle and change, people may litter or graffiti, but the long-view out past the human imagination remains nearly constant.
Because the forest service roads are well maintained and clearly marked, encounters with wildlife for visitors are rare. The animals have the vast majority of the land to themselves. Primitive hygiene facilities and picnic areas that become increasingly natural the closer one gets to the summit show that people are regular visitors to the designated recreation areas, but they tend to be careful. Fire pits are well isolated and warnings are posted as needed. In areas where the road becomes one-lane, people are careful and watch for signs of traffic coming in the opposite direction.
Winter and Perspective
In the winter, the road is accessible only to a special vehicle that accesses the radio tower on the summit. Rather than round tires like an ordinary passenger car, it has 4 triangular tracks which enable it to cross terrain and conditions prohibitive to ordinary traffic.
When the road is passable to visitors, it takes nearly two hours to make the drive up to Pinal Peak from the entrance to the Tonto National Forest, crossing cattle guards, avoiding rocks and water-torn areas of the mostly sand road. While Arizona has 56 taller mountains than Pinal Peak, this is the 3rd highest peak in Gila County.
Being early March, it’s impossible to get that high up the mountain without equipment specifically designed to climb in the snow. Despite the signs of early spring in town, winter hasn’t completely left the high-desert communities of Globe, Miami, and Claypool. Even with evidence of long sunny days outdoors on cheeks & noses, the wise know that one more snow is likely to blow down the mountains and teach optimistic gardeners a thing or two about the high desert. The snow-line is still sitting around 6,000 feet with harsh cold winds creating treacherous conditions and questionable trails. Runoff from snow at lower elevations creates miniature geological anomalies in the road itself – like a snow-globe version of the movement of glaciers during the last ice age.
The Forest Service will grade the road soon. Easter – which is early this year – marks the time when families will return to picnicking, four-wheeling, hiking, horse-back riding and enjoying the scenic trails. Teenagers will again litter the sides of the trails with the detritus of adolescent experimentation. New paint-ball splashes will appear on the signs.
But for now, the canyon road trails lead up to Pinal Pass, the century plants’ stalks gone, the roads cross-hatched with tracks from rugged vehicles – Jeeps, 4x4s, side-by-sides, ATVs. Despite the signs of human interlopers, there’s a timeless sanctity to the increasing elevation, the sanctuary of the trees and rocks rising above the Babel of modern lives. Every visit is a little different despite the eternal nature of the mountains: a study-break picnic, a road-trip with good music, sharing the beauty with visitors, a family exploration, finding fall foliage and observing golden leaves as big as a grown man’s face.
Enhancing the View
The last time a descriptive essay about a place was a requirement for an academic endeavor, was 20 years and 2,500 miles ago. The tools of academics and communication have changed considerably since, as such, an online album of photos from various adventures in the Pinal Mountains of the Tonto National Forest have been assembled and are being hosted at Photobucket for anyone who – like me – seeks refuge in the mountains for a break from academia, work, and the encumbrances of modern mayhem. Each photo’s URL has a description of the photo at the end.