Mazatzal: Place of the Deer
Ten artists from across the country meet for the first time at the Deer Creek trailhead for a weeklong wilderness retreat. It’s important to be clear about which Deer Creek — because nearly every forest has one of its own. This one is about 90 minutes north of Phoenix, Arizona in a rugged mountain area called the Mazatzal Wilderness in the massive Tonto National Forest. Mazatzal is the Apache name for "place of the deer," and indeed, mule deer thrive in these mountains. Designated wilderness areas are typically inhospitable places for human development, and are given the strictest protection status of all federal public lands.
The Mazatzal Wilderness is an ideal spot for early springtime backpacking trips. In March, the Arizona desert welcomes folks with an itch to get outside when most places are still hunkered down for winter. Still, it’s a relatively isolated place; there’s not much water in the arid Arizona backcountry, and the mountain terrain is steep and rocky. Deer Creek is a rare year-round desert stream that flows from a spring rather than the more typical intermittent waterways that form only after heavy rain. For backpackers, natural water sources are like gold.
Today, the weather is perfect. It’s cool, but the sun’s laser rays are warm and penetrating.
The open sky is fluorescent blue, bordering on the unreal.
Artists call convenings like these "residencies" but this group isn't staying put. They'll camp at a different spot in the back country each night. Trip leaders pass out goodies like avocados, nuts, bananas, and blocks of cheese as everyone introduces themselves and exchanges pleasantries. After buttoning up their gear, the group sets off from a parking area that’s less than a mile from the highway. But, civilization is soon forgotten as they work their way up a trail hanging onto the side-canyon’s dusty slope. Cell service peters out.
A few of the artists are nervous; this is their first backpacking trip ever — and with a bunch of total strangers no less! But everyone is friendly, and the pace is slow. There’s lots of stopping to take in wide views, examine natural details, and draw or write in journals. The group spots a king snake, a scorpion, common crows, and butterflies. It’s quiet, except for the sound of last year's oak leaves crunching underfoot.
The artists arrive, finally, at the first crossing of Deer Creek. Ahh, water. Some people mix koolaid in their freshly filtered water to drown the taste of minerals and metal. It’s lunchtime — everyone chews quietly along the creek, toes in its cool water.
One of the artists examines round river rocks in a rainbow of purple-greys, reds, oranges, and blue-blacks. She begins to stack them in a shallow pool. Others seem curious, and begin to do the same. A silent city of rocks emerges from the creekbed, as if summoned by God. When construction is complete, the collaborators return to their resting spots to admire their work. The new mini-metropolis stands small under the shadow of Mazatzal mountains. The water whispers as it slips between stones.
The time comes to press onward. Everyone brushes sand off their toes before stuffing their feet back into boots. Bellies full, ten melancholy artists struggle to heave their backpacks into place. Before they wander away, they share the task of kicking down Cairn City — sending river rocks splashing back where they belong. Marching onward; ten mournful hearts hold onto hope, hold onto history.