It was time to collapse our tent and leave Grand Canyon area. There was already some work coming up for Jackson in July, so we had to pace ourselves to get back to New York in time. We laid our route through some interesting-sounding places, like Mormon lake and Happy Jack.
Mormon lake ended up not even being a lake! It was a dry field with the air of nostalgia for the good old times. A giant RV park right in front of the “lake”, lots of gift stores and very tired-looking taverns all created at atmosphere of trying to hold on to something that is no longer there.
Happy Jack was a small hunter settlement with a large restaurant / lodge at its center. The lodge was decorated with taxidermy of all sorts of trophy animals. Large men were drinking their beers, glancing at us suspiciously.
We continued South through the burning Tonto basin. A wildfire was raging near Phoenix and Tucson. The atmosphere was post-apocalyptic and surreal. We stopped to take a closer look at the burnt ground covered in grey and black ash.
One amazing experience was stopping by Orange Peel Recreational Area on our way to Tucson. The sun was setting down and the smoldering forest on the right side of the road was adding heat to already extremely dry air.
We could see the flames in the distance. The air temperature was around 95ºF and we desperately needed a swim. Luckily, there was no living soul around, not even mosquitos could survive this brutal heat. So, we went for a dive in the gentle warm water, lit by silver moonlight.
After this relaxing experience, we found a campsite on the side of the road down past Theodore Roosevelt Lake. Unpretentiously, we put our tent straight up on the hill across the road from the raging wildfire. As soon as the first rays of the sun touched the ground, we were up and going. It was impossible to spend an extra minute in such heat.
While packing up in the early morning, we heard some noise – somebody was talking loudly nearby, raising their voice to yelling. It didn’t take long to realize that these were a couple of cowboys bringing their stock to the grazing area. Two men and three dogs were ushering the small herd forward. It was amazing to see these guys in their element.
We took off and kept on driving till it was time for lunch. In our classic “let’s wing it” tradition, we decided it would be nice to stop at some scenic spot for a quick picnic, preferably by a river, aka Rio San Juan stop in Utah.
We chose a place called Country Thunder right on Gila river. It is a spot for an annual country music festival, and we thought it would be interesting to see… Well, the river appeared to be a ghost after all, dried out, hence seasonally vanished. Invitingly blue on Google Maps, in real life it was just a dry dead valley full of trash. We made friends with a lonely quail there and, disappointed, continued to Tucson.
The #1 on the list was Saguaro National Park with its marvelous giant cacti. It consisted of two entirely separate parts, one to the West of the city, and another one in the East. We started in the Western part, and it took us a while to find any tourist info and an official entrance. The park wasn’t very clearly marked from the outside, so it got us circling around for some time.
The flora in the park was stunning. Hundreds of desert plants all carefully marked and named filled the space. We saw the last fruits up high on tall cacti. It was probably too hot, so there were no other people around. Getting out of the air-conditioned car and attempting a small hike was a feat, but very much worth it.
Finding camping in Tucson was hard. What was listed as Public Land and National Forest here, was occupied by private estates and ranches. I’m not sure how this area is regulated, but it definitely didn’t seem very open to public use, regardless of the official status.
We tried looking in the North, but that part didn’t seem promising because of the wildfires close to Mt Lemmon. Having circled around Colossal Cave Mountain park & Coyote Creek without much luck, we decided to try Las Cienegas to the South. Finally, we took our chances off some Forest road.
Next morning we took half a day to explore Tucson and pay a visit to Jackson father’s old friend Tom. Everything was closed in the city due to COVID, so we couldn’t visit any of its art galleries or museums. Just a quick socially distant chat outside the house during these odd times…
Later that day we somehow managed to see the second part of Saguaro National park, its Eastern section. We got there around sunset. The wildfire was clearly visible on the horizon and the blue hour sparked the aura of subtle mystery.
At this point I realized that we are going to be heading East from now onwards, which meant we were going back. That brought a bit of sadness. We will be approaching New York day by day and our epic adventure will be over soon.