Johnny and I are prowling a glorified goat track near the Galiuro Mountains in southeast Arizona in a Toyota FJ Cruiser. Burdened as we are by a trunk full of iced beverages, fresh eggs and bacon, sinfully thick sleeping pads, and the finest in folding chairs, we are nonetheless seeking the rewards of geography and solitude typically reserved for backpackers.
We’ve come to the Southwest because its vast acres of BLM land offer some of the most remote, scenic, and regulation-free hideaways in the Lower 48—perfect hunting ground in our quest for wilderness-flavored car camping. My partner, guidebook author Johnny Molloy, is like a grizzled bird dog in this pursuit. One of the foremost camping authorities in America, the Johnson City, Tennessee, native logs 180 bag nights and puts 25,000 miles on his car annually researching his growing catalog of books (nearly 20, including eight state-specific camping guides). The guy knows campsites like Robert Parker knows wine. I apply the brakes near a site with potential—a shade tree, a sweeping view, fuel for a fire.
“I’m not feeling it,” says Johnny. “Too exposed, and there’s no water.” Perfection will require patience. It’s unlike backpacking, where the thought process at the end of a wearying day is blissfully simple: If there’s water to drink and reasonably level ground on which to pitch a tent, you’re booked. Campsite selection from behind a windshield is just the opposite. There’s something about having four wheels at your disposal that unleashes an inner Goldilocks: This site’s too sunny, that one’s too windy, the next one’s not as pretty.
There are plenty of options here. We’ve targeted land governed by a recreational use policy summarized in these four glorious words: “primitive, dispersed camping allowed.” That’s land-manager speak for “you’re in the boonies, son, and there ain’t a fee station or ranger for miles.” But loneliness isn’t enough. We forge on to the high aspen groves of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, where the quaking leaves offer a soundtrack rarely disturbed by combustion engines. We find a sweet site, but an old cattle fence mars the view.
“Too much barbed wire,” says Johnny.
We relocate south, to the Chiricahua Mountains. Our sky-island destination is at the end of a 27-mile dirt road, and close to ridge-top trails. It’ll do for a night, but Johnny eliminates it immediately from championship material. “Too tame.”
The next day, we decide we need to do more recon, and stop in the tiny town of Patagonia. Johnny sees some off-duty wildland firefighters and figures they should know the area better than most. He swings into action with his disarming Southern drawl: “Ahm not from around here, and Ah wuz wunderin’…”
“Gardner Canyon is the one,” volunteers a young, stocky member of the crew. “You’ll have nearby hiking and even a running creek.” Gardner Canyon accesses the west side of the Mt. Wrightson Wilderness, a chunk of the Santa Rita Mountains laced by 35 miles of trail and lorded over by the pyramidal 9,453-foot Mt. Wrightson. We pause to close a cattle gate at Tunnel Spring, cross the Arizona Trail, then gingerly splash through Gardner Creek. Hard by the creek, I see it: a promising site beneath the outspread arms of a sycamore, with Mt. Wrightson visible through the canopy.
We pitch our tent, string a hammock, and take a short hike on the Arizona Trail where a blanket of tawny grasslands unfurls to the base of the Mustang Mountains. Back at camp, I clean off in the icy stream and crack a cold beer. At dusk, a whippoorwill whistles from the opposite bank. The aroma of burning juniper drifts on a cool breeze.
For the next three days, we’ll be torn between hiking and relaxing, between adventure and siesta, which at the end of our quest brings camping perfection into focus. What we’ve been seeking, I realize, is a yin-yang nirvana, a site with surroundings so magnificent your muscles beg to explore but so peaceful your brain begs to shut down.
Johnny and I will enjoy the push-pull of our paradise beside Gardner Creek until the siren call of something better gets us back in the Toyota. After all, some of the best places in life are just a few miles down that rocky, rutted road.
Get there From Sonoita, take AZ 83 21 miles to Gardner Canyon Rd. Turn west, and drive nine miles to look for campsites just before and after the road crosses Gardner Creek. Map Green Trails Map Santa Rita Mountains ($12, greentrailsmaps.com) UTM 12R 0519609E 3507383N Contactfs.usda.gov/coronado; (520) 378-0311