He pointed to several spots on the map while his other hand supported the unfolded mass from below. A few agile flips of the wrist and the map retreated into a square and landed back in Uncle Jim's palm.
"Woo Wee, look at this beauty," Jim gloated as he slid back into the car. He leaned forward between the seats to show off his svelte prize. "Now this is a map!"
Our day of planning had resulted in a tidy stack of maps but the thin paper tourist maps we had collected seemed like monopoly money next to the lacquered, pristine and precisely marked beauty of the Kaibab National Forest map, our newest addition to the stack.
"So he says just down the road here we'll see a turn off to our left with a gate and a cattle guard and a dirt road. That's where we can camp tonight."
Not far down, the dirt road appeared and we turned off the tourist heavy highway to the Grand Canyon and found ourselves in an unassuming ponderosa stand. The dirt road traveled back into the forest with tiny offshoots leading to campsites. Each group of sites was marked with paint stirrers and nondescript names: A23, T4, A45. We pulled down A23.
"That one looks ok. Pretty flat, maybe a little tight though." We mused at each spot on A23 weighing its pros and cons. The road wrapped around like a tiny horseshoe and I was reminded of land shopping with my dad so many years ago. The plots were marked off and the land was rough and you had to stretch your imagination to picture a house and a driveway and dogs in the yard. We drove a slow circle around the ponderosas, like wealthy prospectors, biding our time, being picky.
"Wait, stop the car." Jim was out of the car before I could put it in park. He raised his arms high like a triumphant gladiator accepting the crowds praise and walked the plot slowly letting out a heavens-opening-up "Ahhhhh." Downhill from the plot you could already see a florescent glow in the approaching darkness.
"Your Uncle is absolutely delightful," Rachel beamed, as we watched his theatrics from the car. We rolled down the window to hear him proclaiming, "This is it, this is the one."
"Dude, you can totally see the back of McDonalds from this plot. I bet this is where all the crackheads hang out," Rachel said.
"Crackheads?" Uncle Jim's face fell almost as fast as his triumphant arms. "Crackheads and McDonalds?" The haze of triumph seemed to fade from his eyes and he took in the scene. "No this is no good, we can't camp next to McDonalds. This is a terrible plot."
He slid back into the car and we filed back to the main dirt road and drove deeper. The sun was starting to set, it had already sunk below the treeline leaving us an orange glow to peer into the trees.
"Oh hey a methlab," Rachel pointed into the trees where an old vintage camper poked out of the surrounding brush. Yellow light seeped through the blinds.
'Great, well if the crackheads don't get us the methheads will," I sighed.
"You girls are being ridiculous, how can you tell those are methheads?" Jim asked.
"Haven't you seen Breaking Bad? They practically teach you how to make meth on that show. This is exactly the kind of place methheads hang out," said Rachel.
Despite fears of methheads in the night we were forced to choose a spot soon or suffer tent pitching in the dark.
Not far from the methheads a wide, flat plot opened up to our left and after debating if we should go back to the relative safety of McDonalds and the crackheads or risk the unknown danger of the methlab, we parked and set up camp.
The sun was quickly setting, and by the time Rachel and Uncle Jim had set up their tents the orange sky had completely relinquished to blue.
"Now let me show you girls a little trick," he said, pulling us over to a clearing in the trees where we could see up into the sky.
"Now north is this way," he pulled over some pinecones and made a little line of them in the needles. "Now I want you to get up out of your bag, first thing when you wake up, and come over to this spot and right there will be the North Star."
"That's west," Rachel said staring down at her smartphone compass and pointing to the spot Jim had just designated as our early morning scavenger hunt in the stars.
"What!?" he exploded with incredulous wonder.
"My compass says that's west. North is that way," she said, pointing to our right.
"Well why the heck don't I know what I'm talking about?" he cried. "There's going to be a lot of disappointed scouts when they find out I taught them the wrong thing."
"Well maybe YOUR scout leader taught you wrong," Rachel offered between laughs.
"A conspiracy," Jim's eyes went big. "Alright well never mind that, next we have to hang a bear bag." And just like that Scoutmaster Jim was on to the next task.
"Can't we just put stuff in the trunk?" I asked in my gathering desire to sleep.
"Well it's your rental car that will get pried open like a tin can I guess," Uncle Jim responded.
We dug through our bags, pulling out every piece of dried fruit, nuts, potato flakes and Jim's pungent jerky and threw it into a waterproof bag and headed for a tree.
"Now this isn't a real bear bag of course," Scoutmaster explained, "and it's kinda heavy, dang what all did we bring, but it should do the trick!"
We walked through what was now full darkness and shone our flashlights up into the trees looking for a viable branch to deposit our sack of bear bait.
A short walk from the car we found a tall Ponderosa with two lone branches that seemed rock throwing distance high.
"Now we just tie this rock on here and throw it." Jim wound the rope around a rock a few times and tied it off. He heaved his arm back and shot the rock up high. It sailed clean over the branches and plopped down into the needles. The rope did not follow. It hung limp over the branch like a defeated kite string.
We offered suggestions behind ill concealed snickers. Rachel offered to try. She advanced the knot tying by wrapping the rock lengthwise then around its girth like a package. The windup, the pitch. The rock shot forward into the air and wizzed past the branch, a good 10 feet below the mark and now it was our turn to collapse in laughter as Rachel retrieved the rock.
"Alright, my turn," I stepped up to the rock throwing spot. The rock had stayed secure so all I need to do was lob it over the tree branch. Cake.
The wind up, the pitch.
My rock shot straight up, and just as quickly shot straight down towards our upturned faces.
"I'm so glad no one is here to witness this terrible display of camping skills," I mused.
The rock had slipped out of the rope. Again it was retied, and again it was thrown.
Well, kinda. The rock had flown smoothly over our chosen branch and then had continued to sail over the next branch too and was caught on an offshoot of the second branch. We tugged, it stayed stuck. We tugged again and then screamed as this time a whole section of the branch fell towards our vulnerable dimwitted heads.
"Well this is just terrible! What kind of leave-no-trace scouts are we, ruining this tree." We also came to realize that our chosen branch was obviously too long dead to support the weight of our bulging bag, much less a hungry bear trying to swing from it.
We swept our beams to different trees in search of the perfect bear tree number two and landed on another ponderosa.
"Alright, no more messing around." Jim launched the rock so hard that when it flew over the brach it tail spinned into a vortex faster and faster around the branch until it had wound our shame so tight that it was immovably monumented to the tree.
Another tree was forced to sacrifice a limb.
Finally our night of bark-splitting tree terrorizing was over when we successfully secured a branch. We hoisted the bag into the air and pulled the rope down to secure it with a stick. The bag hung lamely, barely out of the reach of a hungry bear standing upright with outstretched paws.
As we crawled into our tents I looked overhead to see a perfectly clear sky through the trees.
A line of pinecones pointed out west to the North Star.