A Private Gray Landscape

During November of last year Bev and I were on our way to Bisbee. We’re a bit picky about campgrounds, preferring remote spots without many camping “neighbors”.

As we approached Tucson a campground east of the city looked promising on the map. It was tucked into a canyon at the base of Mt. Lemmon and for some reason had been named Peppersauce Campground. The road to the campground meandered down from the interstate heights and wasn’t very well marked. We weren’t sure we were on the right road until we saw the campground entrance.

The campground wasn’t crowded, had potable water, and only cost ten bucks. Enormous sycamores shade the campsites, which are strung out along a rocky dry stream-bed.

A nice spot, but well-worn by legions of campers. I enjoy getting away from the evidence of other campers. The federal National Forest workers keep the obvious litter picked up, but any place visited by so many people has bits of paper, cigarette butts, bottle lids and such detritus worked into the dusty soil, so eventually I’ll venture out in search of places which have been neglected.

The morning we left I was up early; after brewing and drinking some coffee I walked away from the fire-rings and trash receptacles. The sky was overcast and there wasn’t a trace of a breeze. I climbed over a fence, crossed the access road, and made my way up a thorny steep slope.

I can’t say I really enjoy thorny and brushy barriers but they do serve to keep casual walkers out. I was just thirty feet from the road and found myself in a place with real character, one of those corners of the natural world which are rarely visited and thus have been allowed to develop a strong ecological identity. Gray boulders and outcrops were shaded and penetrated by gray-trunked trees. The gray sky and dim dawn light helped create a monochrome scene, subdued and quiet.

The trees weren’t large but seemed old, mostly a Southwest species related to the Eastern hackberry. I believe they were Celtis laevigata var. reticulata, the Netleaf Hackberry. The slope with its embedded boulders seemed to have discouraged cattle from their usual depredations


Some of the intertwined trees seemed to have sustained bark damage, probably due to rocks tumbling down the slope.


Fallen leaves, both from the hackberries and from the surrounding mesquites, had gathered in drifts among the rocky ledges. I could tell that they hadn’t been rained upon since they had fallen.


The eastern hackberries with which I’m most familiar have gray bark like this species, but the trunks are crowded with canyon-like terraced furrows. In contrast, these trees have warty excrescences surrounded by smooth bark. The warty areas sometimes look like corky breaking waves, while others resemble some sort of ancient calligraphy:




I enjoyed this ephemeral scene, a tiny strand of dried grass, with a bit of green still apparent, lodged in a warty crevice:


Here’s a hackberry which blew over, perhaps because its roots had been undermined by some burrowing creature. A shoot sprouted from the prostrate trunk and headed for the light. Perhaps after a few more decades the fallen trunk will sink beneath the surface and the origin of the new trunk will be concealed from view:


A rain-shower or two will dim the luster and colors of these fallen leaves which have found a refuge in the root-instep of a hackberry:


After spending some time soaking up the ambience of the place I ventured into an area dominated by old and gnarled mesquite trees. The focus is a bit off, but this shot shows an expanse of contorted mesquite bark. The mesquite leaflets caught in the furrows of the bark reminded me of frail boats struggling to stay afloat in a choppy sea:


Before I descended to the road I had an encounter with a javelina. The animal burst out of a thicket just as I emerged from another clump of mesquite. We stood facing each other for about ten seconds. We were about fifteen feet apart. I was downwind and I don’t think the javelina knew what I was. I made a small movement but that was enough to spook the creature and it plunged back into the mesquite bosque. I enjoyed this brief encounter!

By the time I had returned to the campground the sun had appeared. I walked down the dry river-bed to re-visit a remarkable sycamore tree I had seen the evening before. It’s one the largest Arizona sycamores I’ve ever seen. The trunk is short but stout, perhaps five feet in diameter.


I squatted near the trunk and noticed that a chunk of river rock had been gradually surrounded by the tree. Maybe in a few more decades the rock will be completely immersed in woody tissue!


The branches of these sycamores often extend horizontally to a remarkable extent:


By this time I was ready for some breakfast!


2 comments on “A Private Gray Landscape

  1. Rain Trueax says:

    Nice photos and sounds like a nice place once you got into the less traveled part. Never though take javelina for granted. Our Tucson neighbor had their lovely dog, not a small one, killed by javelina. Their little tusks can rip the flesh badly, and some people have had them tear up their legs. Mostly it is if they feel threatened though and you didn’t threaten that one. When I come across a herd, like between me and my car, I stop and let them retreat. So far it’s worked. I like to watch them as being not truly a hog, they sure do look like anything but what they really are– big rodents.

  2. Larry Ayers says:

    I’ve encountered javelinas several times and haven’t ever felt threatened. I don’t threaten them, though, and they seem to want to get away when they see me. It might be different in the Tucson suburbs, or if I had a dog with me.

    Javelinas aren’t rodents; perhaps you’re thinking of the South American capybara, which can weigh as much as 160 pounds. Javelinas belong to a family known as the New World Pigs. Another Old World family includes the familiar domesticated hog, and both families are in a sub-order of the same order (the Artiodactyls) which also contains hoofed mammals such as cows, deer, and camels. Horses are in another order entirely.

    Sorry for the pedantry, and thanks for the comment!

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