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Travel Digressions: The Coconino National Forest and the Beauty of Memorials

Travel Digressions: The Coconino National Forest and the Beauty of Memorials
Author Photo (Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, Arizona)

During the summer months, I enjoyed a visit to the Flagstaff RV Park, a beautiful spot situated among pines at 7,000 feet, literally breathtaking. Possessed of cooler summer weather than Phoenix, and graced by the ambience of pines, the city hosts a variety of outdoor activities, as well as the campus of Northern Arizona University. Happily, for me and my two dogs, the RV park has direct access to the Coconino National Forest.

Having grown up at the foot of the Angeles National Forest in Altadena, California, the sight of rolling mountains and greenery is always joyful, a reminder of home in its most glorious sense. And I have discovered much on the footpaths that parallel the RV park and Highway 89, the most interesting of which is a memorial plaque of unknown origin.

The Context of Memories

Wise historians remind us that plaques testify to the inhabitants of a region, extolling what they believe is important and worthy of remembrance. And sometimes those monuments can be unofficial, the project of one who had the tools and sufficient opportunity to create a tribute.

As I walked a narrow footpath, I discovered a granite plaque that matched the brown shades of forest life, making it difficult to discern. Then, I saw it. In bold capital letters, as if shouting to passersby, the word "Bear" testified to the memory of a beloved pet. Also bearing the inscription "1987-1996," the marker credits Bear with bravery, creating the image of a stalwart companion. Recalling the loss of my own pets over the years, I felt an immediate sense of kinship with the creator of the memorial, wondering who he (or she) might have been.

Author Photo

And this is what intrigues me about semi-wild spaces, the way in which nature offers its own context for our memories and experiences of life. Whoever took the time to order a granite plaque, and drill it carefully into place, must have spent many happy hours walking Bear through the forest, perhaps watching as the curious dog sniffed greenery or meticulously marked its territory--as dogs do with assiduous determination. After discovering a memorial, I found another sort of marker attached to a tall pine.

The Bearing Trees

The yellow sign intrigued me immediately, bringing bears to mind, definitely a possibility in the forests of Arizona. However, these markers pertain to something different. After a bit of research, I learned that they are sometimes called "witness trees" and generally serve to mark locations of historic events or delineate property lines. Random discoveries of this sort are delightful, often providing new research topics for my writerly life.

Author Photo (Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, Arizona)

A New Memorial

I began RV life with Azure, an older cat I had adopted in San Diego, shortly before the pandemic. At that time, the thought of early retirement was unknown to me, as I anticipated many more years of civil service employment. Then, along came 2020, and I took an early retirement. Although life on the road is a wonderful experience, and my career has since assumed exciting new dimensions, the cat did not benefit from the changes.

As an indoor pet, townhouse life was Azure's best existence, enough shelter to avoid mountain hazards--like coyotes--with sufficient freedom to bask in the sunlight of the patio, her fur pleasantly ruffled by the breeze. Jostling from place to place in a class C motorhome was a far cry from suburban comfort, and the change simply did not suit her. Moreover, the dog did not help matters.

Now retired and working from home--or, on the road, as is now the case--I needed a sidekick and walking buddy--a dog. With that, I took a trip to the Apache Junction Animal Shelter and found my dream companion, a little dog with a mohawk and an amazing personality. Jacoby, my great travel buddy, loved the cat and quickly became devoted to her. Azure, on the other hand, simply added him to the list of things she despised, hissing and glaring at him with a hatred that approached artistic fervor, always passionate and unpredictable. So, while in Flagstaff, I made the difficult decision to re-home the cat and adopt a second dog, a friend for Jacoby.

While walking in the Coconino Forest, I approached the now familiar memorial to Bear. After so much speculation about the presumed pet, and sympathy for its grief-stricken owner, I thought fondly back on Azure, wished her well, and left my own memorial to our former life.

Shadows of Change

A walk through the forest calls history to mind, as seasons taunt my brief existence, so fleeting, so often less than magnificent. In the presence of such enduring strength, the pines of old growth, rolling mountains and the skies above, I am caught in revery and transported, for a time. Catching my breath to continue moving forward, I note that life is a series of journeys and changes. At 53, I am well acquainted with this reality. At times, however, as I breathe air with peculiar fragrance, or gaze into a majestic distance, I reflect on it with a renewed sense of wonder.

Perhaps forest hauntings often have to do with memories, words left unspoken, life stories now lost within the shade of towering pines.

Author Photo (Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, Arizona)