“Woke up this morning on an island in the sky, surrounded by clouds,” wrote iconic Southwest writer Edward Abbey from the Atascosa fire lookout. In May 1968 he hiked this trail near Nogales on his way to three lonely months watching for plumes of smoke and scribbling snatches of his posthumously published journals, Confessions of a Barbarian. Almost 40 years later, my destination is the same, except I’ll take in the 360-degree views and return the same day to what this desert anarchist called “the modern techno-industrial culture.”
The Atascosa lookout trail weaves through a thatch of graying blond grasses spiked with spindly ocotillos and ironically knife-shaped desert spoons. Yellow hills dotted with piñon, juniper and oak undulate to the left, fading into mountain ranges that hint at the views to come.
Shortly the path curves to face a butte chartreuse with lichen. Beyond it peeks a knobby mountaintop with the Atascosa lookout nested above like a brown Monopoly house. The breezy landscape swishes with Mexican blue oak, auburn Arizona madrone and “golden grassy hillsides,” as Abbey called them.
I keep picturing Abbey—his scraggly beard, his feet plodding over the same pink rocks I stumble on as he made his way up this steady 1,530-foot incline. He passed the same things I see: bulbous boulders painted with burnt orange, sage and mustard lichen. Slashes of deep pink rocks that accentuate gnarled silvery oaks.
I follow the trail around the mountain to a new vista: a brontosaurus-shaped butte and a vast plain of rippling ochre and khaki hills. About two miles along the trail, I switchback through a shadowy pygmy forest, then make the last steepish ascent to the top. (Continued on page 2.)