Imagine a time before smartphones, before online reservations, before reservations were even necessary. In those RVing dark ages, we found campgrounds in a publication called “Woodall’s Campground Directory.” It was the size of a Manhattan phone book (what’s a phone book?). In addition, we used a 10” x 15” spiral bound Rand McNally Road Atlas to find the routes to get us to the campgrounds.
Our habitual late starts meant we always crawled into campgrounds after dark. With a flashlight in one hand, these two giant books splayed across my lap, squinting at the tiny words vibrating on newspaper print, I’d read about an out-of-the-way county park west of the Tucson Mountains called the Gilbert Ray Campground and tried to place it on the map.
The directions to the park gave three different options. You could get there by going south of the range, north of the range, or right through the range. To me, it looked like going right through it would be the most direct route. I can’t remember where we’d come from that day—maybe Van Horn, Texas or possibly Las Cruces, NM—but I know we’d been on the road for a long time. We were tired. The shortest, most direct option sounded the best. But somehow we missed the exit.
The northern route took us through a rural area. In our high beams, a narrow, two-lane highway stretched out endlessly. Our car-sick cat yowled as the road dipped through desert washes. Occasionally street signs materialized out of the darkness. We squinted at the names. Had we missed the turn?
Finally, we recognized a road name and turned. This road was even narrower if possible, with short, steep inclines and declines. But after a few miles we saw McCain Loop. We were almost there!
Following Woodall’s directions, we turned right. The campground was supposed to be there on the left. It wasn’t. We kept going and then, with sinking hearts, we saw a yellow iron gate closing off what looked to be an entrance. We idled in the middle of the road, our exhaust billowing out of our tailpipe in the cold January night. I wanted to cry. I had no idea where we’d camp.
The space was too tight to make a U-turn with our camper, so we kept going on McCain Loop. It curved back towards the main road and then, on our right, we saw a beautiful, wonderful sign that said, “Gilbert Ray Campground.” We’d made it.
That first year, in early January, we nearly had the campground to ourselves. The office didn’t even open for another week. Of course, that has changed. Until this year you couldn’t make reservations. So as RVing popularity increased, sites became harder and harder to come by. RVs lined up every morning waiting for someone to leave.
Gilbert Ray started taking online reservations this year. We were one of the few who discovered that fact, so we got a good site for the dates we’d wanted. I had mixed feelings about returning, though. The first few times we visited Gilbert Ray, the beauty of the Sonoran desert and the rugged mountain views blew us away. But the last couple of times, we’d had to shove into small interior sites, with lots of neighbors also shoved into small sites, and had to constantly pluck cactus spines out of paws because there was no room for our pets to explore and chase balls. It also didn’t help that the last time we’d been here, Brandi got so sick we’d spent an entire weekend at the Tucson Pet ER.
But it was great this year. Maybe it was because our site was spacious. Or maybe it was because the weather was so wacky (It actually snowed. Snow flakes falling on Saguaro is such a rare event that I felt fortunate to have seen it—from the warmth of the camper!). Or maybe it was because this time I had a goal.
“This year, before we leave, I’m going to run up Brown Mountain without stopping,” I said the first night we arrived.
How many Hop Knots had I drank that evening? I don’t make statements like that. And how could I have forgotten the endless switchbacks of the Brown Mountain Trail and the fact that it actually traverses three “peaks.” (I don’t think they’d qualify as peaks but, remember, I live in Delaware with a mean elevation of only 60 feet. When a whale burps, Delaware gets soaked.)
It worked, though. My uncharacteristic challenge to myself got me out the door on days I otherwise wouldn’t have. I saw a cholla forest glow neon yellow in the setting sun. I saw dried-up moss come back to life after the moisture from the snow. I saw a low grey sky break apart, creating a patchwork of shadows across the desert floor.
I’d sure like to say that I accomplished my goal. But I’d be lying. I did not run the entire Brown Mountain Trail. However, I did the entire trail without stopping moving—we won’t discuss how fast I was moving at some points.
That first trip to Gilbert Ray, had we exited where I’d originally wanted to, taking the most direct route through the range, we would have been in for a shock. That road enters Tucson Mountain Park over Gates Pass, which restricts large vehicles because of the narrowness and curviness of the road and because of a steep, terrifying drop off. We were towing a 22’ travel trailer at that time, so we probably could have made it. Probably.
Mitch’s motivation is the same each time we come to this park: to bike down Gate’s Pass…as fast as possible. But biking down requires a bike ride up. While he can keep up with traffic going downhill, going uphill on his recumbent is a battle to stay upright. These days there’s just too much traffic for him to feel comfortable riding that slow on Gate’s Pass Road. As our week at Gilbert Ray continued, I could see his frustration with biking grow.
On our last full day, he went mountain biking. It turns out a trail parallels Gate’s Pass Road all the way to the top. The last few hundred yards turned into a bi-hike (hiking his bike to the top). But he accomplished his goal. He didn’t reach the speeds he would have on his recumbent, but he was smiling when he got back.