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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

The Innocents Encamped

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 4/19/2021
Posted: 4/26/2009
Topics/Keywords: #Arizona #Camping #Travel #VerdeHotSpring Page Views: 500
I bring a new friend camping…without making sure first that he likes camping.

A new friend, Jackson, told me he used to go camping a lot but hadn't in years. So, of course, I invited him to accompany Michael and me to Verde Hot Spring. What I failed to consider is that Jackson is a genteel young man who might not be ready for the free-wheeling hippies who camp out there. After all, camping in a genuinely remote area is a lot different than camping with one's parents at a KOA.

I camped at Verde Hot Spring a number of times last year. I took pictures from Fossil Creek Road, the unpaved and casually-maintained road there; the spring itself, once the location of a resort that burned down in the '60s; and of the campground, which is located about a mile from the spring. In fact, I've taken so many pictures there, that there is no longer much to document, other than the people we camp with.

I had given Jackson a link to my posts describing the place, so it wouldn't take him by surprise. However, as it turns out his busy schedule as a student prevented him from doing more than glancing through the posts.

So he didn't know anything about our friends Eddie and Carl, who I met a year ago there and who, although they live in Prescott, have become close friends of Michael and me.

When we arrived at the campground after an hour's drive at about 10 mph jouncing over the gravel and protruding boulders of Fossil Creek, we found Eddie at his campsite, conveniently located near the pit toilet (but not so close we could smell it). He had erected a three-room tent, and a separate kitchen complete with tables, a three-burner stove, a large cooler, and a canopy with side-tarps to keep off the setting sun.


I had planned to use our own two-room tent to accommodate Michael, Jackson, and myself. But there wasn't really room for another large tent on the site. And Eddie and Carl's tent was very roomy, and mostly empty. Eddie suggested that we simply put our king-sized air mattress in his and Carl's tent and sleep there; which we did.

The king-size air mattress is new. It actually consists of two twins which can be zipped together. That sounds like a good idea; and it would be, if the twins could be zipped closely together. Unfortunately there's about a six-inch gap between them, as I was to discover that night.

As we worked, Eddie shared the campground gossip. Jeff, I guy I met briefly last year, was there, he said. Then he pointed to a camp where, he said, some guy had punched his girlfriend in the head the night before. Jackson followed Eddie's finger in horror, and I noted that the campers in question had a couple of small children with them.

Then there was the lady who was there with her son, Todd. Todd had been helping Eddie and Carl out with chores such as gathering firewood, in exchange for cigarettes. Todd was in his twenties, and his car was busted. He and his mother had come here looking for his sister and her children, who had "disappeared". But their transmission had been trashed by the unmaintained road, and now they were stranded at the campground with no way to return home, much less continue their search.

After setting up our part of the camp, I took Jackson to see the river, where Carl was busy fishing. (I'm not sure anyone can actually be "busy" fishing; but he was, indeed, fishing, with whatever degree of earnestness one does that.)

Carl, fishing in the Verde River.

The Verde River runs through a canyon of its own making; there were mountains on each side of us. The setting sun made the hilltops in the east glow.

Jackson and the setting sun.

Carl explained that Eddie "wanted him back" for dinner when the sun no longer illuminated the eastern hills. He hoped to catch a fish by then, as he hadn't had much luck. Just then, Jackson spotted movement on one of Carl's poles (which he had arranged so that he didn't even have to hold them). Sure enough, Carl had a fish, which he quickly landed.

Carl lands a fish.

And it wasn't a minute too soon. The blush was gone from the hills by the time Carl had returned the terrified creature to the river. (Carl doesn't usually kill fish; he just annoys them.) I could just imagine the fish returning to his friends, trying to tell them how he was abducted by a giant alien from Beyond The Water, tortured, and returned home; and how they would ridicule him as a result.

Michael cooking burgers.

Back at camp, Michael and Eddie were cooking. We had agreed ahead of time that Michael and Jackson and I would handle our own food/meals, and Eddie and Carl would handle their own. So Michael was making a healthy meal of hamburgers and green beans in the propane skillet he gave me last Christmas (and which I love—it's awesome for cooking camp meals).

The sun set as we ate and the air cooled rapidly, though there was a slight scattering of clouds overhead that promised to hold in some of the day's heat. Eddie told us the previous night had been truly cold. But as this night promised to be merely cool, we decided to go ahead and visit the hot spring.

Carl remained behind to try night fishing. His legs are often in pain and the two-mile round trip can be hard for him to navigate. The sky was brilliant with stars as the remaining four of us hiked past the abandoned power plant and the former sites of plant workers' homes and the old corral, to the place where we cross the river to get to the spring. Michael and I, who've each recently lost 20 pounds each, were delighted at how much easier the walk was now than last year, before we'd lost the weight.

There were a few people already in the spring, notably a doctor named Jim who spoke with Michael at length on medical issues. Michael will soon be returning to school for his doctorate in naturopathy, so they had a lot to talk about. Jackson and Eddie drifted to the far end of the pool so they could get to know each other without disturbing Michael and Dr. Jim. I hung suspended in the warm water, enjoying doing nothing but breathe in the clear air while gazing at the moonless, brilliantly spangled sky.

"Maybe we'll see you here tomorrow," Michael proposed at one point.

Dr. Jim shook his head. "Not tomorrow," he said. "Tomorrow I'm going to drive Todd up into Camp Verde to get him the part he needs for his transmission."

"That's really nice of you," I said.

Jim shrugged. "Someone's got to do it," he said. "They can't stay here forever."

Presently, sometime around 1 am, we decided to get back to camp. Except for one, rather odd-looking black cloud in the sky, the stars remained. It was continuing to cool, though. The brisk return walk kept us warm enough, but at camp we were compelled to accomplish our tooth-brushing quickly.

As we put away our toiletries, I said to Michael, "Listen to that. What do you hear?"

He strained. "Wind," he said. "Crickets. The river."

I smiled with satisfaction. "And what don't you hear?"

He shook his head. "The washing machine?" Michael often observes that our washing machine seems to be constantly running.

"No," I said. "We can't hear anyone's stereo! It's actually quiet here for a change!" That had been a problem on several previous trips: other campers who saw being here in the wilderness as an opportunity to play their music as loud as they wanted without being interrupted by the police.

So we got into bed. And that's when I discovered that the center of the king-sized mattress, which I had selflessly volunteered to occupy, was in fact a slot on the ground lined with a six inch tall air mattress on either side.

Moreover, while not bitterly cold, the night was definitely cool and it was a coolness the tent could not keep out. We had plenty of blankets and comforters, but there's nothing like snuggling to keep warm and, fortunately for us, we were all gay and so had no reason not to snuggle. But since I was in the middle, that meant I had two grown men wrapping their arms around me for warmth and squashing me into the pit between mattresses. Does that sound terribly uncomfortable?

I loved it and slept like a baby.

Moreover, while not bitterly cold, the night was definitely cool and it was a coolness the tent could not keep out. Fortunately we had plenty of blankets and comforters, and nestled in the space between the two mattresses I was warm and comfortable and slept like a baby.

The next morning I made my patented special scrambled eggs for breakfast, along and fried up a pound of bacon. (What makes the eggs special is the dollop of Marie's Ranch Dressing I add, and the fact that I cook them in lots of real butter.)

Cooking the special scrambled eggs in camp.

After breakfast we marched off back to the hot spring—even Carl, whose legs weren't hurting too badly. It was fun to point out the landmarks to Jackson we had passed in the dark the night before.

When we arrived at the spring, we were somewhat surprised to find a good number of people already there. A volunteer group had shown up to clean the pools. Through the course of the winter, rains pouring down the hillside tend to fill the pools with mud; and algae grows luxuriously along the sides. The group had arrived very early in the morning, drained the pools and started scrubbing. Now they were ready to be used, so our timing had been impeccable.

What may have been most interesting to Jackson was the fact that most of the volunteers, which included both men and women, were naked.

Most hot springs around the world are "clothing optional" and Verde is no exception. We'd been nude there the night before, including Jackson. But there is a difference between slipping without clothes into a embracing warm pool in the starlight, and walking back and forth doing cleaning chores while one's penis or breasts sway unfettered in the breeze.

Did I mention the volunteers were also stoned? Many hands may make light work, but when those hands share a bowl of marijuana the work becomes a pure joy.

Jackson, who had no problem smoking tobacco, generally lighting one cigarette from the other, was disturbed over the health issues he believed were associated with marijuana. He was also concerned over the fact that Eddie and Carl smoked almost as much marijuana as they did tobacco (and they were always smoking something).

"Eddie and Carl are HIV positive," Michael remarked. "A lot of their meds make them nauseated. Marijuana is the only drug that settles their stomachs and allows them to eat, without other side effects."

Clearly, Jackson had not previously been exposed to any arguments regarding marijuana other than those presented by those who profit by keeping it illegal. Michael's was a new thought for him.

After a couple of hours, Jackson and I were the first to leave. I was feeling sunburned and didn't want it to get worse. When we got back to camp, we discovered to our dismay that a strong wind had come up while we were gone. The kitchen canopy had been flipped over and thrown a dozen feet away; only the one stake that held had kept from flying off into the river somewhere. Jackson and I righted it and re-staked it, then took a nap while waiting for the others to return. (Camp naps are the best kind!)

Before we fell asleep, Jackson showed me a couple of books he'd brought with him. Most were schoolbooks associated with the courses he's taking at Everest College. But a couple were books he read for pleasure. "Do you know this author?" he asked, showing me a particularly hefty book she'd written. I didn't.

"She writes Christian romances," he explained. "I love this one. I've read it through five times! And every time…" I expected him to continue "I find something new!" but instead he completed his sentence, "I enjoy it as much as the first time!"

I'm not sure what would possess a person to read a "Christian romance" once, much less five times. But apparently Jackson found it a comfort, which made me realize what a brave thing he had done in coming out to the woods in the first place. Here he'd been exposed, not only to a different way of life, but a very different kind of people than it seemed he'd known previously. He may not have expected it. But he was handling it with aplomb.

That's night's dinner, which I cooked, was sautéed shrimp with pistachios, broccoli, Portobello mushrooms, and garlic Alfredo sauce. I had brought linguini to add to it but forgot to use it. However it was still delicious and there was plenty of it.

This night when the sun set it got cold quickly, colder than it did the night before. We decided to not make a third hike to the spring. In fact, after our long day, with the unaccustomed time in the sun and the hikes, we were all pretty tired and decided to go to bed early.

Which was just about the time the campers in the next site decided to play Dave Matthews on their truck stereo at full volume.

As we huddled in our blankets we felt the very ground vibrate to the beat. Most people will turn their stereos down if another camper complains. But I was too tired to care. I have found that if I don't build up an emotional ("How dare they!") reaction to neighbors' music, that it doesn't prevent me from going to sleep. But both Michael and Jackson chorused about how inconsiderate the Dave Matthews Campers were, how Verde Hot Spring was just too gone-to-the-dogs to return to, and why did we come here to begin with, etc. Of course, it didn't occur to either of them to ask for the music to be turned down. And I was just about to get up and do it myself, when, as suddenly as it had begun, the blare was turned off. Just like that.

This night was cold. But we had our cuddling down pat and the next thing I knew it was morning.

Breakfast was a treat since Eddie cooked for all of us. (Of course, now I owe him a breakfast but that's all right.) He made tortillas filled with egg, bacon, cheese and potato. Yum!

Todd came by to say goodbye. He'd fixed his transmission—sort of—it wouldn't go into neutral, park or reverse; but it would go forward and that would get them home. I asked about his missing sister and nieces. He explained that he was "Irish" and that he's all about family. So he might fight with his sister but he loves her and would die for her.

"So you're saying…you had a fight with your sister?" I prodded.

"She was ruining her life. So, yeah, I was yelling, trying to talk some sense into her idiot head. But I didn't hit her like she said! But this guy came and knocked me out with a tree branch and when I came to, she was gone. They said she and the kids left with him. Someone thought they came here so we came after them, but it turned out they didn't and then we got stuck here. We been here for a week now, but finally we can leave. —As long as I don't have to back up!"

When Todd left, the rest of us exchanged looks. Talk about synchronicity! Obviously, the sister needed to get away from poor, smothering, brain-challenged Todd. The Universe, by allowing Todd's car to break down, had given the sister the time she needed to get away.

By now Jackson was anxious to get back home. His new adventures had been so diverting he hadn't had time to actually open the school books he'd brought, and he had tests coming up next week.

And I didn't mind; this was a rare back-to-back camping trip for me, since tonight I am camping with my friend Frank north of Globe, preparatory to going rafting Monday.

So we loaded up our kitchen gear, and the bags of trash I told Eddie we'd dispose of for him, and began the bumpy ride back up the mountain to the town of Camp Verde.

I myself have mixed feelings about returning here. Yes, the campground is crowded and some of the campers are sometimes rowdy. But sometimes you need to go to a place where you aren't comfortable, and where you can be exposed to people you mightn't ordinarily encounter. That's how you grow.

And besides, the place is still incredibly beautiful, and the hot spring is awesome and the stars are unbelievably bright. So, yeah, I will probably be back.

Probably unaccompanied by Michael and/or Jackson, however!