ON our first Thanksgiving Day as partners, 2014, Jim was fighting for his life at the Seattle Cancer Center while I rested at my daughter’s house in Portland, OR on my way back to Seattle from a Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN pre-surgery appointment for a back tumor with surgery scheduled for December 31. In 2015, I was recuperating from a 2nd 10 hour surgery in less than a year at the Mayo Clinic with Jim by my side.
It’s Thanksgiving Day and, though neither of us mentions it, we want a traditional turkey dinner. It’s not just the food; it’s the memories of families and friends, cousins and aunties and family time. We drive through the small town of Globe in eastern Arizona and stop at an open grocery store. In a front display, under a heat lamp, there are mashed potatoes with gravy, stuffing in take-out containers and a turkey breast!! I add a can of cranberry sauce to the cart. Salivating with anticipation, we search for a camping spot, following directions on the ALLSTAYS app.
We drive through Staffford, AZ passing fluffy, white cotton fields on both sides of the road in the flat countryside. Jim stops by the side of the road and I pick up stray cotton just to feel its softness. It’s sunny and unseasonably warm in the 60’s.
We turn left off the highway towards Gila Box. It’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land managed jointly with Arizona State Parks. A flat road stretches through barren land. There is no campground in sight. Hmmmm. Then the road turns hilly, and narrow.
White-knuckled Jim drives the single lane road around cliffs with a huge drop-off. What am I getting us into? What if the campground is filled? What if there ISN’T a campground. Will we have to drive all the way out? Jim is already tired from driving. We cross several washes with warning signs about flash floods. The scenery is gorgeous—big and primitive.
GILA BOX, RIPARIAN NATIONAL CONSERVATION AREA– Historically, riparian habitats within Arizona constituted only 2% of the state. Within the past 200 years, 95% of this acreage has been destroyed or altered due to clearing, channelization, over-pumping, improper livestock management. But in the Gila Box, cottonwood, willow and Arizona sycamore thrive. Mesquite trees form large woodlands, an increasing rare habitat type in the US.
Finally, we reach the small, 13-site campground. Each spacious site is near the edge of a cliff looking down to the river hidden by deciduous trees. The picnic table has a metal roof over it and a water spigot is close. There are rustic, but clean toilets. The camping charge is $5 per night–$2.50 for us with our senior national park pass. It is a beautiful, clear late afternoon. I sigh with the happiness that comes from knowing a peaceful, beautiful time stretches before us
Jim sets out our folding loveseat for sunset viewing while I transfer our Thanksgiving dinner to plates, gather silverware and napkins, and set the picnic table. After a few minutes pause to give thanks, we dig into our grocery store dinner, laughing with the joyfulness of an enchanted natural setting and better health. It’s filled with the tastes, smells and laughter of Thanksgivings past and the hope for future Thanksgivings. It feels that all is right with the world—our world at least.
It is hard to get Jim to settle and relax and not move to a new spot every day, but he does in Gila Box. We stay three nights. We watch the sun rise each day through the large window at the foot of our bed and feel the warm sun filling the Sprinter. Jim gets up to make tea and coffee and slides the big side door open. I stretch and luxuriate in the feeling of being in a fluffy, warm bed outside in the clean air.
Eventually I get up and make breakfast, always enjoying my changing “kitchen” view of a new location.
There are vague paths that we follow down to the river one day. We both use walking sticks to traverse the large rocks leading down to the river. From there, the ground is a little flatter and scattered with cacti.
But, oh, the rocks, so many colors and shapes. We continue carefully down the hill. We hear the river, but can’t see it, hidden behind large trees. We walk over small, dry washes to the riverbank and sit down on the grassy slope. The river runs quickly down small rapids and smooth stretches below us. Across the river are giant clay coloured cliffs. One looks like a windowless castle. The Gila River is well known for float trips and there are strict rules to the size and type of boats depending on water levels. No rafters pass us this morning. We explore a little more and head back up the hill, my pockets bulging with rocks.
Each night as the sun goes down we enjoy turkey leftovers, sitting in our loveseat watching the magnificent desert colours unveil an hour before sunset. We climb into bed, our solar reading lamps recharged, enjoying the quiet and the peacefulness during our reading hour. Since we are both reading books about the area, sometimes we felt the need to read each other a section that touched us. And we sink into bed, happy, and so much in love.
The days are warm, the nights cool, but we don’t need the heater. The rising sun soon spreads its warmth through the windows. The stars “put on a show for free’ that we watch fromthe big window behind our pillows.
We read, meander, talk, laugh, eat and relax in the peaceful setting. We take short walks and two-hour hikes, two days in a row!! It feels so good to hike again. Granted, I am really slow, but TWO HOURS!! The hikes are important for both of us. Jim’s cancer treatment neuropathy in his feet and my various numb, paralyzed body parts and poor balance makes even walking a challenge.
We won’t soon forget Gila Box and how good a grocery store Thanksgiving dinner tasted on a picnic table in the great outdoors. Another wonderful Thanksgiving memory.
The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets, which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired in value. Theodore Roosevelt