Fire In the Sky
I woke, and I found myself with a bit of a smirk, and a great feeling of security, as I lay in my rooftop tent listening to the pack of coyotes around the vehicle below. This was night number five of what was to be an equipment testing trip in preparation for a longer trip to Baja, but this outing was quickly becoming an incredible trip in its own right. The coyotes came and went that night, but the days before and after left me with a feeling of joy, contentment, and the knowledge that this is what I live for.
I have been traveling the country in a 2014 ram pro master converted to an RV, and our recently added 2018 Toyota TRD 4Runner, for 3 1/2 years now. It was the end of January and we left Atlanta on a cold, rainy morning at about 5 AM with the plan of arriving in Tucson, Arizona three days later to meet my friends Leigh and Josh. Tucson would be the beginning of our desert journey and the goal was to explore Arizona via back roads and off the beaten path tracks with a good portion being off road. It had been an uncommonly hard winter in the Southeast, especially for van lifers, and I was ready for a break. I was in need of some bright new scenery and the wide-open spaces that only the American Southwest can provide.
I arrived in Tucson mid-morning of the third day of my trip, found a shower, ate lunch, and prepared to meet Leigh and Josh to plan the first few days of our time in the desert. The idea was that we would load fuel, water, and food supplies in Tucson, and move as far north as weather allowed until our two-week trip was up. That afternoon we loaded our supplies and headed up to Mount Lemmon to find a flat spot for the night. Basically, that’s the only criteria we had for this trip; food, water, a flat spot, and of course, good views. We arrived on Mt. Lemmon and found just such a spot about 9 PM that night after finding that all the recognized camp sites were closed for the season. Everyone in the group was excited at the prospect of just how far north we could push and just how far off the beaten path we could get while in Arizona.
That night, the Mt. Lemmon site proved to offer some excitement in the form of footsteps on the rocky, gravely road at about 2 AM. As you would expect, I bolted upright in our roof top tent and poked my head out the partially zipped door and of course didn’t see the source. After several more occurrences of these footsteps, I finally dozed back off and after waking the next morning we found that we had parked approximately 300 yards from a local university observatory. There were more than one set of footstep sounds that night, so it is safe to assume it was a busy night for star gazing at the observatory. The vehicles that arrived the next morning at the observatory were curious as to how I managed to get the strange looking tent onto the top of the vehicle. That is a common occurrence in our travels with people not familiar with the set-up.
All was well the next day, so we laid out a plan and a general idea of what we were going to try. That day, the third day after arriving in Arizona, we moved to Redington Pass with the idea that we would move across Redington Pass the following day and over towards Winkelman, Arizona for the “flat spot” that we were sure we would find nearby when we arrived. While at Redington Pass, we had gotten word about the “Super Blue Blood Moon” (NASA terminology) that was to occur the next morning and we all woke around 4:30am to witness it. Redington Pass was a very busy place that night with photographers that had come from near and far. One fellow was so excited about the eclipse that he stopped in the 4x4 trail and absolutely insisted we need to come out to get a photo of our rigs beneath the moon. Only in the Arizona desert can you experience certain things, and someone’s willingness to approach strangers in the middle of the desert, in the wee hours of the morning for a photo is one of them.
The following day, as planned, we had a great day moving off road as we continued North of Redington Pass and after we refueled at a random road side gas station, we moved on to an area of ancient lava fields and set up camp there, and as expected we found our “flat spot”. This was the “Night of the Coyote” that began this story which obviously was exciting in its own right. It was cold this night and every night for the remainder of the trip as we were moving further North and away from the 50-degree nights we had originally enjoyed. The days were “shorts wearing warm”, so we didn’t mind.
Originally our plan was to load three days of food and water and move from resupply to resupply every three days. Today was that resupply. The plan that day was we would move into Phoenix, go by Sierra expedition, a local Overland shop in Mesa, then reload groceries and water, and proceed to The Granite Dells where a friend of Leigh and Josh lived nearby. We dropped by and saw Josh and Leigh’s friend, got information about local possible sleep areas, and then we headed towards our sleep spot for the night. I am a climbing guide and I love checking out local climbing areas, and although climbing was low on the priority list for this trip, we had a good day checking out routes around The Dells.
We woke the next morning and decided we would go to one of my favorite places in the world, Sedona Arizona. I wanted to see Sedona as much as any other place on the map in Arizona, so we decided that spending a few nights in the desert outside Of Sedona sounded like the perfect situation. Those red rocks at sun up and sun down seen from a desert campsite are hard to compete with. We knew that cold weather came with the notion of going further North this time of year, so we spent those few days in Sedona watching the weather further North around the Grand Canyon, and towards Utah, before committing to move in that direction. After receiving reports of snow on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, we ruled that area out, but we decided that things looked good enough a little further east towards the Vermillion Cliffs area, so that is exactly where we set our compass towards.
After leaving Sedona we went through Flagstaff for the “every third day” restock, and then we proceeded to Sunset crater to spend the night and check out the 1000-year-old area of the Sunset Crater volcanic eruption. We Reached the campsite late that night and we woke early the next morning, headed towards the crater to get out daily run and to take photos of crater area. After our run, we had lunch and proceeded further north towards Lee’s Ferry, and then on to Vermillion cliffs that afternoon. Our plan was fairly aggressive towards the off-road side of travel over the next few days, so Josh checked on potential recovery options and who to contact in an emergency if either of the vehicles became stuck in Arizona desert sand. That is an expensive proposition, so we crossed our fingers and as any adventurer who is worth their salt, we evaluated the risks and of course decided they were worth it.
We made it to a camp ground on the Arizona/Utah state line somewhere around mid-afternoon to set up camp, prepared to cook dinner, and settled in for an evening of laughter and relaxation. Now hear is where things get interesting in this story, at least in our minds. Envision, if you will, that our focus had been on the trip and none of us had listened to a news broadcast for over a week. As we were sitting around our evening shenanigan huddle, I caught a glimpse of a giant fireball slowly appearing on the horizon. That odd shaped fireball grew in intensity and size to the point that Josh later estimated that the fireball had taken up roughly a 15-degree arc on the horizon. We were all fairly excited about what we were seeing to say the least, and not knowing what we had just seen, we all immediately went to try and access social media to find out what had just happened, and nothing was showing on any available outlet. We began to think it was a large comet or possibly an asteroid that had entered the atmosphere. After thirty minutes or so I found a Phoenix radio station that was also curious about the bright light in the sky, so the news outlets we could find were just as uncertain as we were. The next morning, we found out that Space X had launched, and we had witnessed the final stage separation as the rocket fuel was being jettisoned into space. The only explanation for the magnitude of the ball of light we had seen was that the sunlight just below the horizon had reflected off the fuel in space. It would seem that our inability to connect with the outside world for those 10 or so hours following this siting gave us legitimate claim to having seen a UFO, and as short of a claim as it was, we stand by it, if only for the sake of remembering good times, and it was certainly a good time for those hours if nothing else.
The area we were in at this point around Vermillion Cliffs is very remote. We were able to move off-road quite a bit while in that area with little interaction with anyone outside of our small group. We saw incredible 800-year-old petroglyphs at the mouth of Pariah Canyon, amazing rock formations at White Pocket, the list goes on and on. We were one canyon removed from the famed Wave formation. For those unfamiliar with The Wave, a lottery is drawn every day for 10 people, and only 10 people, to be able to visit the formation. Due to the shortness of time remaining on our trip, we opted to come back later to try for the lottery and prepared to say our goodbyes to the incredible Arizona backcountry. The desert in Northern Arizona is such a vast and wild place. There is so much open land and it is all so incredibly awe inspiring. To see the Milky Way every night with such incredible clarity, and to have so many stars in the sky that it becomes impossible to discern the constellations. Incredible, simply incredible. Everyone must set their sights on visiting these places. The next morning, we bid adieu to our friends and the incredible landscape that had been our home for two weeks, and regrettably began our long journey back to the Eastern United States.
At the time of the completion of this writing, we have been back on the East Coast for three weeks. Inspiring places bring about inspiring acts, so we have already laid plans to head to the Deserts of Utah in June of this same year. The West holds so much wonder and possibility that sometimes I find myself asking why anyone would stop East of the Mississippi, why doesn’t everyone aspire to go beyond, to see these places that are at the heart of so many tales of exploration? After short consideration I am reminded of the days when the first Settlers arrived here in this land, the answer is the same now as it was then. It’s simple really, the reason is because the West is only for those who truly hold the spirit of adventure, the West is only for those who truly desire to ROAM Wild.....