by Dan Leeth
Flames of light flickered through the camper window. Squinting one eye open, I found myself engulfed in blazing color. The eastern heavens, ignited by the dawn, burned in a conflagration of fiery crimsons and glowing yellows. It was the four-alarm wake-up call of an Arizona sunrise.
I joined a handful of others standing at the edge of a bluff. In hushed silence, we watched as the incandescent sky silhouetted Monument Valley's famed rock towers. I would have missed this if I had not been camping.
For a fraction the tab of a resort hotel, one can buy a tent, borrow a trailer or rent a motor home and experience the pleasure of sleeping out in nature's inn. The wallpaper comes in the form of mountains, forests, deserts and seashores. Burbling steams and quaking aspens offer background melodies. Campfires provide crackling warmth, and it's the aroma of pines, not Pine-Sol that lingers in the air.
When it comes to camping, there are few places better than the American West. Much of this grand land is publicly owned and sites abound.
Since first crawling into a Boy Scout pup tent outside Phoenix, I've camped in all 11 contiguous western states. I've found what I think are ideal places to bunk in the great outdoors.
Although Arizona boasts conifer-clad mountains, it is cactus country that still defines Arizona camping for me. My preferred place is along the Verde River in central Arizona, where the morbidly-named Dead Horse Ranch State Park near Cottonwood proffers a lively base for fishing, hiking and eagle watching. Nearby, the Verde Canyon Railroad offers scenic rides, the ghost town of Jerome presents apparitions of its coppery past, and arty Sedona delivers everything from galleries and golf to New Age group gatherings.
An unparalleled array of national parks, forests and monuments grace Utah to the north. Years ago, my stepdog, hippie girlfriend and I were visiting Arches National Park near Moab. Too broke to pay for camping, we looked for a free site off Utah 128 on the Colorado Riverway. We soon fell asleep at an isolated spot beside the stream. A short time later, a boat's spotlight from a Canyonlands at Night floating tour awakened us. Fortunately, the dog's barking drowned out their hokey prerecorded narrative.
The pup has since perished, the girlfriend has become an ex and our site has been developed into a pay-to-stay campground. Still, the spot remains a favorite.
New Mexico offers deserts and mountains slathered with an aura of salsa. It also features Chaco Culture National Historical Park, an archeological enclave southeast of Farmington. A thousand years ago, this was a trade hub and spiritual center for the Anasazi. It was also an astronomical site.
At summer solstice, mystic pilgrims now flock to one of its ceremonial kivas where sunlight beams through an opening and illuminates a niche on the opposing wall. One year, a ranger allegedly placed a cardboard cutout of Elvis in the ruin. At dawn, the image of the King greeted the chanting revelers. I wish I'd been camped then to have seen it.
When summer's triple-digit temperatures melt the desert, the Rockies of Colorado beckon. Here, one can find camping in the shadow of 14,000-foot peaks. My favorite place to pitch a tent is in the San Juan Mountains near the southwestern corner of the state. Crags touch the sky, eagles soar and hawks fly and friends gather around the campfire where everybody's high (at least in altitude). It's like bivouacking in the middle of a John Denver song.
To the north lies Wyoming, a state that boasts rolling grasslands, a devilish tower and peaks that French trappers named for bulges in the female anatomy. Its most famous landmark, however, remains Yellowstone National Park.
My wife and I generally camp at Mammoth Hot Springs, an area that features wet terraces sculpted in limestone. Nearby, animals wander at will, and campground signs warn us to beware of bears. I've never experienced a problem, but the thought of a midnight encounter makes nocturnal toilet trips much more exciting.
Montana presents country so open and unpopulated that not long ago, the state did not bother with posted speed limits. The eastern part of Big Sky Country features plains and prairies. To the west rise the Rockies. Famed potter Beatrice Wood once told me, "sometimes you know a place is right because it feels good." In Montana, I search for such a spot. It seldom takes long.
While southern Idaho serves up spuds, the panhandle features forests of fir. Here, campers can still share the spirit of Lewis and Clark. Two centuries ago, the pair crossed Lolo Pass west of Missoula, Montana. Part of their route followed the Lochsa River where today a string of campgrounds along US 12 provides riverside sites. Near Jerry Johnson Campground, a one-mile trail leads to primitive hot spring pools. They offer simmering soaks to those of us whose tents lack tubs.
Next door, Washington features a variety of land-forms, each offering camping possibilities. My favorite remains the Olympic Peninsula. On our last journey there, my wife and I camped at Salt Creek Recreation Area near Port Angeles. From our mobile bedroom, we could watch cargo ships plying the straits between us and Canada's Vancouver Island.
World War II artillery bunkers still grace the grounds. At one time, big guns protected the two-nation waterway. They now provide concrete curiosities of a time before Toyotas and Hondas were welcomed ashore.
I've spent many nights camped in Oregon, visiting deserts, mountains and coast. Not long ago, I was exploring the Willamette Valley near Salem. I wanted to photograph its famous covered bridges just as Clint Eastwood did those of Madison County.
Instead of a lovely Meryl Streep, I was seduced by Silver Falls State Park. There, streams tumble in cataracts that range from house-high drops to plunges that thunder over 15-story cliffs. Enamored by the voluptuous water, I spent several nights encamped in its lair. Not only did I discover a new favorite, but when I came home, I could tell my wife where I really was.
California offers unmatched camping possibilities. I prefer the Sierra Nevada's eastern escarpment where granite ramparts rise in bands of peaks and palisades. A favorite campground lies at Whitney Portal near Lone Pine. Relaxing under the trees, I can smile knowingly at the load lugging backpackers who grunt upward toward 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, highest point in the contiguous states. I, too, did that in my youth. Maturity has relaxing benefits.
Most know neighboring Nevada for its glitzy gambling. Beyond the neon lies the Great Basin where barren valleys separate mountainous strips. This is a land so vacant, the military uses it for testing secret aircraft.
I love to top up the tank and go backroad exploring. At day's end, I emulate pioneers of yore and stop in a lonely spot surrounded by miles of nowhere. Undimmed by the glow of civilization, the stars always seem to shine with 100-watt intensity.
Some believe that the wilds of Nevada are a place where UFOs land. While I've never seen one here, I do not doubt the claim. The ETs are probably looking for a good place to camp.