Lockett Meadow Surprise —
I got some advice from a local in Flagstaff as to where I should spend the day hiking.
“You got to go to Lockett Meadow!” he directed me with gusto.
“How do I get there?”
He told me: right onto Rt. 66, left when I get to a sign for Sunset Crater.
“When you get there,” the local continued, “make sure that you drive the road all the way up to the top of the mountain. It sort of does a turn around, but make sure you take it to the top.”
The local was a little portly, around 50 years old, and still had long blond hair. He seemed to be still living his past life as a California beach bum, only transplanted to the mountains of Arizona thirty years later. But he gave his directions as if he himself went hiking there all the time. So I believed that it would be a place that I should go. Why not?
As I turned to walk across the parking lot to my car, the local beach bum yelled, “When you get to the top make sure you go to the trail that is not marked. Don’t go on the marked trail, stay away from that shit.”
I had just wanted to go into the woods to drink a bottle of India Pale Ale that some over eager traveler left behind in the mini-fridge of the dormitory that I was staying in. I find it auspicious when some mysterious fellow that I have never seen leaves me a beer. So I wanted to drink it out in an auspicious place: not in a foot smelling dormitory. I just wanted to go out and drink a beer in the woods, I did not care where, but a place called Lockett Meadow seemed to be the ticket.
Yeah, I could go for a meadow right now.
So I hopped into my little Subaru NewEnglander, took a right on Rt. 66, and then a left at a sign for Sunset Crater. The road quickly turns to dirt and gravel, and I have the feeling that I was getting “out there.” At least in the small sense of a day hike.
The dust of the road flew up around my car and I drove quick as I entered the forest. Pinyin Pines and Juniper lined the dirt road. I passed by primitive (free) campsites that temporarily (no more than 14 days, Jack) house car campers who like to camp next to their automobiles. I suppose it comes in handy to have a car handy when camping just in cast you need to get back to civilization in some sort of emergency — like if you forgot to pack the mustard or hotdog buns or something.
Like the car campers, I let my own car do my hiking for me and I took a turn to the right and began a steep ascent up a thin, rubbley, and neglected mountain road. I thought that I was going somewhere unheard of, sort of secret, that I got a good tip off from a local.
But, apparently, everyone else in Flagstaff got the same tip off.
I noticed a car come up to my rear on the one lane dirt road that swung around the mountain. Then another. Then another. As I began my ascent up the mountain I soon found myself with a tail of vehicles behind me, and an entire snake of cars coming towards me. For such a remote and unknown place, there sure was a lot of traffic. I looked at the road that swerved around the mountain bends and switchbacks: it was only one lane wide, it was still made of dirt and rubble, it was still — for lack of a better word — primitive.
But the traffic on it was intense. For every 100 meters that I traveled down the road, I would either need to pull over and give way to a line of traffic coming my way or the oncoming traffic would need to pull over for me. I pull my little Subaru over to the far side of the dirt road two dozen times to let oncoming traffic pass. At a few places there were nearly back country traffic jams.
Getting up the mountain was proving to take a long time. So long, in fact, that I was beginning to consider that it may have been faster to ditch my ride and hike up the mountain.
I was out in the mountains of Arizona. It was packed with automobiles.
In fact, the place was crawling, infested, befestered with automobiles. Cars truly are the dominant form of life on planet earth. And humans ride contently inside like parasites latched withing the intestines of a host. I push on the gas, stomp on the break, come perilously close to dropping over the edge of the mountain.
I make it to the top of the mountain. The snake of cars behind me follow my lead into an overflowing parking area. I am at the Lockett Meadow trail head and campground now. The place was packed with people and cars. The mountains were beautiful.
I walked on to the trail head. I had no intention of climbing mountains on this day. My sole drive was to sit below a tree and drink my beer, maybe nap a little, maybe read.
I walked down the trail that lead to the San Francisco peaks near Flagstaff. It was packed full of screaming people, campers, old people, and young kids.
The trail was so packed that I could not find a place to drink my beer in peace. After hiking two miles I dropped down into a ravine and ran up the other side. There, I found an empty, quiet ridge, a small trail, and no people. I was in a meadow where oak trees grew — their leaves have all turned yellow with the autumn. The bright sun shone through the yellow canopy, and the entire realm beneath was tinted the color of autumn. A brisk breeze blew the yellow leaves from the oaks and I watched them float down towards the ground. I opened my beer, I drank it along with the scene before me. I felt good.
But after an hour of looking out into the meadow, satisfied, my beer was drained. It was a good beer, I tipped my hat to the friendly traveler who left it behind for me.
I walked back down into the ravine and joined up with the main trail. I had completed my mission, but I only had my Subaru to thank for it. It was my automobile that took me out of Flagstaff, into the mountains, and returned me to the city once again — all in an amount of time that I wished to allot towards hiking on this day.
I was back with the yelping crowd of hikers. Mothers walked with children and old ladies stumbled over the rocks; fat bottomed men talked about football with other fat bottomed men. These people could scarcely walk on a five foot wide trail. To them, it was apparent by their words, this was wilderness. But these people would probably also not be out here without their cars.
The word wilderness denotes an area that has a contiguous area of over 5,000 acres without roads. By definition, “wilderness” is an area that cannot be accessed easily by automobile — if at all. If lost in a forest the first thing that you should look for is a road, and when you do find a road you should not leave it, as roads are the handmaidens of civilization: they will lead to to somewhere.
There is a buffer zone in the west of America that sits between cities and villages and true wilderness. This buffer zone is wide, expansive, and is always growing. This buffer area has trees and mountains and everything else that appears to be of nature, but it is not wilderness. In a very true sense, man is stuck up in it all — even if we are not visible at first, a walk over a certain ridge or mountain peak will reveal a new luxury housing development below, a house where there was not a house before, a paved road, a research center, an old ranch, a weather station: the hidden evidence of humans everywhere.
And humans blaze our way to wherever we go with paths: roads. Abbey called the national parks of the USA “national parking lots” because they have been blazed with blacktop and transformed into places for people to take a few snapshots of “nature” from the rolled down window of an automobile. The national parks of America are less used for hiking and more for driving. They are for car-hiking.
And I must admit that it is a small challenge to get far away from your automobile in a national park: the places are set up for driving.
There is still a lot of wilderness in the USA, but it takes a decent amount of effort to get there. And this is good. It should take a plan, provisioning, intention, and effort to get into the back country.
But the true back country is continuously shrinking dramatically, ever being pushed back by the recreational buffer zone between civilization and wilderness. As I rejoined the crowd at Lockett Meadow, I had an odd sort of sick feeling in my stomach — the scenes before me did not match: I was in the high peaks region of Arizona, but it was infested with people. People who brought their problems, tribulations, and mental white noise with them into the mountains. I listened to them talk, it was as though they were farting in church.
I was a theme park of nature, a parody of sorts, a jest at the natural world.
“If you build it they will come.”
They have now built it — roads going all through the wilderness. And they came. In droves. In swarms. An infestation of humans. Everywhere.
I came, too.
Where is the balance? Where is the line between human wilderness recreation and wilderness? Where is the barrier? Where is the boundary?
Is there one?
But regardless of limitations, in the face of nature all signs of civilization — including our roads — are but a temporary indulgence.
Vagabond Journey series on nature