|And so, we reached the beginning of yet another new year.
Having come to the end of the month-long holiday binge, John and I chose
January 1 as the day on which we would start getting back into shape. We
resolved to lose the holiday weight (and other pounds that have we have
accumulated over time), to enable us to adapt to our ever-changing lifestyle -
mainly to keep up with our toddler.|
During the holidays, our lives changed dramatically when Mary, at sixteen and a half months old, finally learned to walk. It all started on Christmas Eve, when she stood up without help and balanced on her feet for the first time in her life. We had been waiting for months for her to do this and had been working with her every day in hopes that we could encourage her to find her balance. What a delightful surprise it was for us to see her do it on Christmas! Then, four days later, she finally took her first steps. For the next few days, she could manage about ten steps at the most before succumbing to gravity. By January 2, she was toddling across the room.
That meant that it was time for us to get our activity level back up to normal. During the holidays, we didn't have much time for hiking and backpacking, and that certainly had an effect on us. We were beginning to feel tired and lazy…and with a toddler in the house, we just could not let atrophy set in.
Before we had a chance to make any plans, John's parents asked us if they could join us on our New Year's hike. John's mother, Erika, had not hiked since our trek through Paria Canyon, because she was still nursing her wounded knee - she had received a stress fracture in it from her bad fall on the Rim Trail, in the Sierra Anchas (September 2001). Now that she was off the crutches, she was ready to go hiking again.
Knowing that none of us were in the greatest shape, I suggested that we start the new year with a long, flat hike through the desert, perhaps on the Brittlebrush Trail, in the North Maricopa Wilderness Area. (Now that we knew where the trailhead was located, there was no way we could get lost again!) John hemmed and hawed about it for a few days, but when he was unable to come up with a better idea, he agreed that we should do it.
So, on New Year's Day, at 7:00 a.m., John and Mary and I left the house to embark on our first adventure of the year. After making a stop at the grocery store for lunch supplies, we arrived at the Verley house to pick up John's parents, only to learn that Bill was not coming with us - he wasn't feeling well. Erika, however, was ready to go! She loaded her gear in the Jeep as quickly as she could, and minutes later, we were off!
To get to the Brittlebrush Trailhead, we took I-10 west to SR 85 (at Buckeye), then traveled south towards Gila Bend. Just before entering Gila Bend, though, we turned left onto SR 238, the road that goes past the Estrella Sailport and Drop Zone and into the town of Maricopa. From the junction of SR 85 and SR 238, it was about ten miles to the turn-off for the trailhead.
The last time we had tried to access the Brittlebrush Trail, we had gotten lost looking for the road to the trailhead. Although we had the turn-off for the trailhead marked on the topo map and thought that we had it pinpointed on the GPS, we still turned onto the wrong road. Had we stayed on SR 238 for a few more miles, we would have eventually come to the correct turn-off. Later that day, we took the Butterfield Overland Stage Route and ended up on the road that goes to Gap Tank and the Brittlebrush Trailhead. So, having figured out where the road was, it was not difficult for us to find it again.
The side road to Gap Tank and the trailhead is marked, though not very well, with a BLM sign indicating the Sonoran Desert National Monument; there is also a small wooden sign near the ground with the word "Trail" on it. It starts out as a good dirt road, passable in a sedan, with just a few dips and washboards. A few miles up the road, it passes through a coral, where we found several motor homes and horse trailers parked - some horseback riders were camped there for the long weekend. Not long after that, we came to a side road with a wooden sign marked "trail" and an arrow indicating that we should turn right…and we passed right by it! (D'oh!) At first, we thought that it was not going to the Brittlebrush Trail, but after consulting the map, we learned that we were in the right place after all!
That road took us another two miles or so to the trailhead, where, like Margie's Cove East, there was a large parking area and trail signs. It was not as developed as the other two trailheads, in that there weren't any picnic tables or campsites, but there were old telephone poles that acted as car stops, creating the boundaries of the parking area.
We parked the Jeep and prepared to go hiking. While the rest of us put on our jackets and hats, John spent a few minutes to shoot some video of the trailhead, with our new digital camcorder (which Santa Claus had brought us for Christmas). He also tried to film some footage of Mary toddling at the trailhead, but she found herself hesitant to do so, as she was unsure about walking on the dirt.
At nine o'clock, our hike began. We ambled up the trail for about a tenth of a mile then stopped to sign the trail registry and read the BLM signs about the wilderness area. There, we learned that the Brittlebrush Trail was six miles long and would gain about 600 feet in elevation - in other words, the hike would be flat for the most part, with only some slight climbs. And, like the Margie's Cove Trail, a good portion of the trail would involve hiking in the wash, where it was very sandy. The BLM recommends bringing a topo map to find the way, but we knew that there would be cairns set up to mark the path.
The trail begins with a slight climb as it wraps around a small hill then flattens out. For the first half of a mile, it is a straight shot across the desert, where it crosses over several small washes before it begins to turn. The desert here is very much exposed, with the only shade provided by the mesquite trees that grow next to the washes. Without the shade, it soon became quite warm, even though it was still early in the morning. In fact, it became so warm that John decided to remove his jacket only a half of a mile into the trail. He left it on a mesquite tree and marked its location with the GPS, so that he could retrieve it on the way back.
The next two miles took us up a very distinct footpath that easily traversed the pristine Sonoran desert. It was as flat and as straight as could be, and the terrain was not at all rocky or rough. Even though we were out of shape from the holidays - and even with one five minute break so that Erika could remove her jacket - we were still able to hike at a good clip and complete that portion of the trail in under an hour.
The trail soon took us around a hill of giant brown lava rocks and entered into the wash. Marked with cairns, the wash was rather easy to follow and did not look any different from the Margie's Cove Trail. It was lined with soft sand that slowed down our pace a little, and on either side of the wash, there were palo verde and mesquite trees, along with other desert trees, to provide us with some shade from the warm sun.
Around 10:00 a.m., we stopped for our first break. We found a nice shady spot under a tree, but when we found that it was too cold in the shade, we decided to sit in the wash, out in the full sun. We spread a blanket out on the sand, so that Mary would have a place to play, then we all sat down next to her and snacked on treats for about twenty minutes.
While we rested, John looked at the maps and the GPS to try to determine how far we still had to hike. In February 2000, while we were hiking the Margie's Cove Trail from the west trailhead, he had marked the end of the Brittlebrush Trail on the GPS. Using that landmark, he determined that we still had about 2.5 miles to go - we were more than halfway there. He estimated that we would be there by lunchtime, at the rate that we were going.
We continued hiking in the wash for another mile and a half, through the soft sand. Along the way, we passed by some very interesting landmarks, including one gigantic boulder that was probably twenty or thirty feet tall. What was remarkable about this boulder was that it stood at an angle, which created a bit of an overhang. Propped up against it was a series of smaller boulders arranged in such a way that they created little caves, just small enough so that animals could hide in them.
A bit further up the wash, we found a trail sign, with an arrow pointing to a footpath that left the wash completely. After a short climb, we were back in the flat, open desert, on a distinct trail that was anything but a straight shot across the desert. According to the GPS, the end of the trail was only a mile away…but that was the longest "mile" we had ever hiked in our lives! It was probably more like two miles, considering how many twists and turns there were. There were times that it almost seemed as though we were backtracking.
Eventually, all of those twists and turns brought us to the wash in which the Margie's Cove Trail was located. The last quarter-mile of the Brittlebrush Trail skimmed along the edge, above the wash until it finally dropped into a drainage and ended in the wash.
And so, for the third time in our lives (second time for Mary…since she was born…and the first time for Erika), we were back at that trail junction. And, for the third time, we had lunch at that spot.
Our lunch break lasted about twenty minutes; then it was time to go. At 12:10 p.m., we packed up our garbage and began our return hike to the trailhead.
For the return hike, I carried Mary in the backpack carrier, which she completely enjoyed because it meant that she would be closer to "Mommy". For most of the hike, she had been fussier than normal, particularly whenever John got separated from us. We just figured that she was in one of her "Mommy" moods, which was solved once she was on my back…or so we thought.
While hiking through the desert, she was in a fine mood. Along the way, I pointed out objects and named them for her. She even learned how to say "tree" that day, even though it sounded more like "tee". Later, before we entered the wash again, she got to see horses, as we passed by a group of horseback riders, who had come in from one of the Margie's Cove trailheads. (That was the first time we had ever encountered other people in that wilderness area!)
Then, when we entered the wash again, the trouble started. For whatever reason, Mary started crying, and she carried on for the next mile or so, stopping only when we took a break next to the giant boulder. Of course, as soon as she was back on my back, she started wailing again. John tried various methods to distract her from crying, such as giving her something to play with (i.e. her jacket, her hat, rocks and sticks), but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, the two of them began to play with her knitted hat, and that seemed to calm her down for a while…that is, until she dropped it.
No one noticed that it was gone until about a quarter of a mile later. Instead of leaving it behind, though, John volunteered to go back and look for it. As he left us, he indicated that we should keep hiking; he would catch up to us later.
So that's what we did. We probably hiked another mile or so without John before Erika began to get worried - why hadn't he caught up to us yet? Naturally, I was used to John doing stuff like that, and I no longer worried about him, because I knew - somehow, I just knew - that he would soon end up in front of me on the trail, waiting for me to catch up to him. I can't tell you just how many times he has done that same thing in the past, and I have now come to expect it from him.
Erika, however, wasn't convinced, so she decided to go back looking for him. At that point, I stopped hiking and waited for a little while, to see what would transpire next.
And wouldn't you know it? I heard John's voice calling out to me…from somewhere ahead of me on the trail! He had managed to find a cross-country route that took him to a point that was about a tenth of a mile from where I was standing. I turned around and saw him waving to me, and he asked me why I was just standing there.
"Well, because your mother went looking for you!" I replied.
We both called out to her, and I ended up going back to try to find her. I only hiked about a tenth of a mile, though, before I saw her coming back towards us - she had heard our voices and decided to return.
Once we were back together, we continued hiking, this time as a group.
When we finally emerged from the wash and found ourselves back in the flat desert, we were relieved to be out of the soft sand, which had begun to take its toll on our hips. Even before we reached the end of the trail, our hips had begun to ache, and that forced us to take one more break before we could finish hiking. We stopped at the tree where Erika had left her sweatshirt and rested for about ten minutes.
From there, it was another 1.5 miles to John's jacket, and another half of a mile to the Jeep - it would take us anywhere from forty minutes to one hour to finish the hike. By that time, we were on a mission; we just wanted to be done with it. We managed to catch our second wind, and that was what pushed us to finish the hike.
Erika, despite her long absence from hiking, started hiking very fast, and she managed to pull way ahead of us. Upon retrieving John's jacket from the mesquite tree, she had the trailhead in sight, and she kept going, never once noticing that John and I had gone cross-country!
As soon as John spotted the Jeep from the trail, he decided that it was time to go cross-country - and being equally tired, I followed…even though I didn't see the Jeep at all! "That's not the Jeep," I said, straining to see it, but John continued to assure me that it was.
Our cross-country route only took us five minutes, and we soon found ourselves back at the trailhead - and I found myself feeling a little sheepish for doubting him. Five minutes later, Erika, who had remained on the trail, joined us.
Tired but happy to be done with the trail, we took a moment to rest before we all piled into the Jeep to leave. During that time, we gave Mary a chance to play around in hopes that she would burn off some of her pent up energy - she had quite a bit of that stored up, which was probably why she had cried so much on the trail. (That would probably explain why she wouldn't take a nap, either!) It worked, too, because she soon fell asleep on the way home.
John had suggested that we take the Butterfield Overland Stage Route as a side trip on the way home, but since it was already 3:00 p.m., we decided to skip it. We did, however, inadvertently take a side route that we had not intended to take by taking a wrong turn at a fork in the road, but it was not a big deal because the road eventually ended up at SR 238.
Instead of returning to Gila Bend, we made a loop out of our day by taking SR 238 all the way into Maricopa, where we stopped to buy sodas and snacks for the ride home. From Maricopa, then, we took SR 347 back to I-10, and then I-10 back into Phoenix.
And that was the end of another adventurous day…but only the beginning of another adventurous year!
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