Random encounters of the fourth kind
On the road in Chiricahua National Monument, a dazzling landscape of improbably balanced boulders, granite figurines and Déjà vu.
Listen up: Itineraries and reservations are fine for business trips and family reunions, but if you want to let Miss Sara N. Dipity out of her box, wandering is best done with plans cast in “Jello.” Thus, we land once again in Chiricahua—as far off the beaten path as one can get without disappearing—way, way down in the southeast corner of Arizona, at the juncture of Old and New Mexico.
It’s an all-day “white knuckle” drive to get to Chiricahua from Camp Madera, a renowned “birding” canyon midway between Tucson and Nogales. Roads are frighteningly narrow and shoulder-less. RV “Goldie’s” wide body struggles to stay between centerline and pavement’s edge. Still, it’s a heart-melting back-road drive, meandering sky-island mountains and seas of golden grassland savannas, the likes of which would bring Kerouac and Kuralt to tears.
The road narrows further as we squeeze into the Monument’s esophageal canyon, finally reaching an olden campground built in an era when people slept in "pup tents" instead of motorhomes. A perennial creek babbles merrily alongside minuscule sites overgrown with trees and vegetation. It’s an obstacle course, with a bike path for a road.
A sign reads, “Campground Full.” Being a cynic, I proceed… depositing Goldie’s paint on low-hanging branches. The camp is a maze of boulders and vegetation that tests driving skills and “breaking points.” My God. John Muir himself would have cut more “trees.”
A loop through Hell reveals a full camp, except for one site with a sign that says, “Reserved for Camp Host.” Half blocking the road, we pause to consider options. I notice a uniformed, silver-haired lady in my side mirror. She’s approaching with authority, like a cop on a mission.
"I hope you're not looking for a campsite," she barks. “Did you not see the sign?” Oh boy, Camp Nazi. By now I’m a tad testy.
"What, you mean I can't camp right here?"
The Camp Nazi has no sense of humor and points out that I’m blocking traffic. She’s a frowner, “smile muscles" undoubtedly atrophied from lack of exercise. Her Coke-bottle glasses reveal swastikas in place of pupils (Heil Hitler).
“Alright,” I say, hoping somewhere beneath her sagging bosom beats a heart. Time for a little tenderness.
“Must be nice working here.”
“Well I don’t get paid; just a free campsite for grief and swabbin’ toilets.”
I ask about various badges and pins on her uniform, where she’s from, then, the “coup de grace,” grandchildren. She softens. A few minutes later, I’m backing into the vacant “Camp Host” site. Turns out they aren’t due for a couple days.
In need of stretching legs, we go for a hike. About a mile in we meet a group of three hikers. They look familiar. Turns out we met at a party in Green Valley last week.
“Small world,” they say. Not so much “paranormal” as coincidental… still, coupled with the fact that last time we landed here we ran into friends from Montrose. You sneer. But what if I told you that it happened the time before that, too, while hiking a remote trail in an area called “Heart of the Rocks?”
Standing at an intersection, about to turn left, Bobbie notices two hikers off to our right. We exchange hugs and reunite with Eric and Maureen, a couple we once met at a campground in Texas. We parted, shaking our heads. Once is coincidence, twice approaches compelling, but three times… in remote Chiricahua? Sneer?
What if I told you it happened a fourth time, just a few minutes later? Insert Twilight Zone music here. After the surprise reunion with Eric and Maureen, I’m hiking along, dragging behind Bobbie, contemplating how one additional pee stop would have us passing close, but unaware, like ships in the night. What explains such random intersections between “circles?” Is the world really getting that small? But Chiricahua? It’s barely “on the map.” It’s hard to get out of my head, but I manage to escape the universe’s sorcery and get back to real time… pondering how much I enjoy this place, in spite of tight-quartered campgrounds and authoritarian Camp Hosts.
Eyeing a tower of balanced-boulder spheres, I’m struck by the uncanny nature of randomness that accounts for repeated chance meetings in unlikely places. It’s equally as bizarre as the oodles of hoodoos that surround me, with stacks of round on round boulders that dishonor physics.
A female voice breaks my meditation, "Are you Mark?” I turn around and face a couple that I’m pretty sure I don’t know. They are Canadians, Steve and Gloria, long time readers of my little ole Blog. Not all who wander without a plan are lost… apparently.
Mark Johnson is a restless soul who lives in Ouray, Colorado with his wife, Bobbie. He is happiest when exploring the West's nooks and crannies, hiking, climbing and moun- tain biking. He authors a "wanderlust" based bloog: www.Boxcanyonblog.com.