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April 2, 2005

"A Snake in the Garden"

With beautiful weather in the forecast for the weekend, John and Mary and I decided to go on a day hike in the Superstition Mountains, so that we could get back to doing what we love best.  John had always wanted to try the Garden Valley Loop, a 5.4 mile long loop trail that he had read about in the Hiker's Guide to the Superstitions, and this looked to be the perfect day to do it.

And then, the day before our trip - on April Fool's Day, nonetheless - we had a minor set-back: John was in a car accident. 

The good news was that he wasn't hurt and that the accident wasn't his fault.  He had been side-swiped by a guy who made an unsafe lane change on top of him.  The guy who hit him was insured; in fact, he hit John with his company's truck, meaning that his company's insurance was now going to have to pay for the damage to our vehicle.

The bad news was that it was the Jeep that was hit, and the damage was extensive enough that we didn't want to take it on any dirt roads until the damage was fixed.  After all, the road going into the First Water Trailhead is not exactly the best place to lose your bumper!

Now, most people would cancel their plans for the day, but not us.  After all, we are Verleys, and we live for the adventure.  John was still determined to hike Garden Valley, so he announced that we would just go ahead and take my car to First Water.  Even though it wasn't an Oldsmobile, it would still make it to the long as we drove very carefully...

So on Saturday morning, bright and early in the morning, the three of us piled into my Dodge Intrepid and headed out to the First Water Trailhead.  To get there, we took US 60 out to SR 88 (off of the Idaho Road exit) and followed the highway out to the First Water turnoff, just past Lost Dutchman State Park.  From there, we traveled two miles on a dirt road to the trailhead.

We arrived shortly before 9:00 a.m. that morning, on a beautiful sunny morning.  As we pulled into the trailhead parking lot, we discovered that many other people had the same idea as us: the parking lot was already nearly full.  (John feared that it would already be full and that we would have to park in the overflow lot, a quarter of a mile away.)  We knew immediately that it was going to be a busy day on the trail; hopefully, though, these people would stay on the numbered trails and not follow us into Garden Valley.

Before we started hiking, we stopped a moment to talk to the forest ranger, who was stationed at the trailhead to answer questions and talk to the hikers.  He warned us that there were lots of rattlesnakes out, now that the weather was getting warm.  "I got chased by one just the other day," he said.  "They may not be out now, because it's too cold for them now, but they'll be out this afternoon.  Be careful out there."

We thanked the ranger for his warning and went on our way.

We stepped off onto the Dutchman's Trail #104 and followed that on its gentle descent to First Water for about a quarter of a mile.  As we hiked, John and Mary started playing a game; John had brought a soft rubber ball (from one of Mary's games) and tossed it down the trail for Mary to get; then, once she had it, she would toss it for John.  They continued in this fashion while the trail was still wide enough to play, but as the trail narrowed, they had to quit for a while.

After a quarter of a mile, we reached the trail junction with the Second Water Trail #236; this trail would take us on a very gentle climb up to Garden Valley, located about 1.5 miles from the trailhead.  We had hiked this part of the trail before, as part of the Black Mesa Loop; this part of the trail was very easy...and this time, it was very scenic, too.

Our flower child...Part of the fun of hiking in the Superstitions in the spring - especially after a particularly wet winter - was looking at all of the wildflowers along the trail.  What was even more fun was seeing those wildflowers through the eyes of a four year-old.  Mary was in seventh heaven seeing all of those flowers, and she picked a small bouquet of them - one of every color - to carry with her.  During our first break, John tucked the flowers into her Diamondbacks baseball cap, where they eventually fell Mary started all over again!

While we were hiking, we passed by a lot of people - a LOT of people.  Several of them were fascinated to see such a young little hiker, and they all asked us how old she was.  Some of them expressed their concerns about her, because although she had only been hiking a short time, she was already very red in the face.  "Is she wearing sunscreen?" they asked us, to which we responded, "Yes, she is.  She's just a hot child."  And that is the truth; Mary tends to get hot and sweaty faster than the rest of us.  Naturally, we made sure that she drank plenty of water during the hike, just to make sure that she didn't get heat exhaustion.

Just before we reached Garden Valley, we had a short climb up some slickrock.  This part of the trail, which follows the creek, is one of John's favorite parts of the hike.  Mary very much enjoyed it, too, because she loves to climb rocks.  While John helped her climb up the slickrock, he was passed by a family - mom and dad, carrying a six-month old girl in a baby carrier, and at least one set of grandparents, as well as a teenager.  They all smiled at Mary as they watched her climbing the rocks, and all I could say to them was, "This is what you have to look forward to in four years!"

We spent about five minutes or so talking to the family when we reached Garden Valley - they were very nice people and were curious not only about the trail but how we managed to hike with our four year-old.  (They were also fascinated to learn that John was a skydiver - it said so on his T-shirt - so they asked him lots of questions about that, too.)  The family was not sure if they wanted to do Black Mesa or Garden Valley; I believe that they did Black Mesa, because we didn't see them anymore after that.  We, of course, bid them farewell then stepped off onto the unmarked spur trail that cut through Garden Valley.

Garden Valley, in springThis part of the trail was absolutely amazing - in fact, words and pictures just cannot do it justice.  The winter rains had been good to Garden Valley, as the grass had grown in tall and green, and when the wind blew, it created ripples through the grass that were just mesmerizing.  (I tried to record the movement on the digital camera, but it didn't come out the way I had planned.  If only I had had the video camera for it...) 

I wasn't the only one fascinated by Garden Valley.  As we hiked down the trail, Mary started giggling uncontrollably because she loved the tall grass so much.  We caught her running down the trail, catching the blades of grass with her hands as she went along and laughing.  It was a precious moment.

We stopped for a break under a mesquite tree about halfway through Garden Valley, and the three of us had a little snack.  Mary ate a half an apple while she played with dirt clods that she pulled up from the ground.  This part of the trail was full of dry, cracked ground that had recently been saturated with mud then dried very fast; the dried mud made perfect dirt clods for throwing.

After our break, we continued on down the trail.  Soon, the trail left Garden Valley and began its long descent towards First Water Creek.  Here, the trail was very narrow and rocky, so John had to hold Mary's hand to help her down the scree.

With all of the wildflowers came the bees, and on that stretch of trail, there were bees aplenty.  I could hear them buzzing around my ears, so I flicked my head from side to side to shoo them off.  Unfortunately, that didn't work too well, because I managed to get one caught in my hair!  I could hear it buzzing loudly next to my ear as I struggled to free it from my hair.  I yanked off my hat, pulled the digital camera off of my neck (and dropped it!), threw off my sunglasses, and tried to undo my braid, all while calling to John for help.  Finally, the bee managed to free itself from my hair without stinging me, leaving me with quite a case of the willies.

And then, just about a hundred feet down the trail, something else happened that would give me the jitters for weeks to come...

I had not even recovered from the bee incident when I heard a short, staccato rattle.  I stopped dead in my tracks, looked around, and listened, but when I didn't see anything, I took another step...and heard it again.

Looking down, I saw the head of the rattlesnake coming towards me, hissing at me, and I immediately shouted, "SNAKE! SNAKE!" while running in the opposite direction.

My first instinct, of course, was flight; my second was to keep Mary from getting any closer to that rattlesnake. I stopped both her and John before they could get any closer.

"Stay here," John said, and he cautiously stepped towards the rattlesnake.  At first, he didn't see it, but he did hear it (and so did sent shivers up and down my spine!).  He knew that the snake was not going to let us pass, so he was determined to chase it off so that we could.  He picked up a few rocks and tossed them in the general direction of the rattling sound, hoping to scare it off, but he soon found out that he wasn't hitting anywhere close to the mark.  As he stepped closer to see where the snake was, it started rattling fiercely, and that was when John finally saw it.  He, too, jumped backwards, scared out of his wits.

As Mary and I waited for the snake to go away, we could see a pair of hikers coming from the opposite direction.  Now all of us were trapped there, unable to move forward, until that snake went away.  John called out to the hikers to stop, and then he threw several more rocks at the snake to scare it away.

Finally, after many attempts, the snake slithered back into the brush and away from the trail, rattling loudly as he did so.  As soon as the rattle died down, John picked up Mary and carried her for fifty feet so ensure her safety, and I followed a few feet behind.  The other hikers then passed through there, too, without getting bit.  We all made it through safe and sound...and after that, we were much more cautious...

For the rest of the hike, we continually looked where we were going, just to make sure that we didn't step into the path of another rattlesnake.  It was a little unnerving to hike through the tall grass, not knowing what was buried out in the brush, so we took some precautions just in case.  This time, John hiked in the front to scout for obstacles, and Mary hiked in the middle.  (She wasn't allowed to be "line-leader" anymore.)  I hiked behind her to keep her from veering off of the trail and into the tall grass.

We soon reached a trail junction, where we were faced with a choice: do we continue to Hackberry Spring and complete the full Garden Valley Loop, or do we do take the alternate route that would cut a mile off of our journey?  Since it was still early in the day, and since Mary was still doing very well on the hike, we opted to take the longer route, through Hackberry Spring.

Hackberry SpringFrom the trail junction, the trail meandered along a ridgeline the soon dropped down into First Water Creek.  Here, the trail was very pretty, with grass as tall as Mary and lots of water flowing in the creek.  After crossing the creek once, the trail led us to a nice, sandy campsite that was situated next to Hackberry Spring.

Shadowed by the tall canyon walls, Hackberry Spring was the perfect place for us to stop and have lunch.  It got us out of the sun, and Mary had a chance to play in the cool sand on the beach. 

It would also make an ideal campsite for a backpacking trip.  We added it to the list of potential backpacks.

John and Mary and I lingered around Hackberry Spring for about an hour while we ate our sandwiches.  Then, once we were cool and rested, we decided to get started on the last 1.5 miles of the hike.

Hiking through First Water Creek required some route finding and boulder favorite!And that was where the hike became difficult.  Up to that point, the Garden Valley Loop was a very easy hike, one that required very little route finding or scrambling.  The next mile, however, was the complete opposite.  From Hackberry Spring, the trail took us through First Water Creek's canyon, and getting through there required route finding, boulder hopping, and creek crossings.

It became a very difficult hike for Mary, and the more she became frustrated, the hotter she got.  We took several breaks during that part of the hike, just so that she could sit down, rest, and drink water.  She began to calm down, though, as the route finding got easier.  That was when we found treasure along the trail: a small cave, butterflies, and even a pink tree!  (Actually, it was a tree with bright pink flowers on it - she had been looking for a pink tree and was very excited to have found one!)  Those little discoveries made that difficult hike easier for all of us.

At the very end of the trail, with just a half of a mile left to go, we came to First Water Ranch, where there remains today an old windmill and a ramada.  It was a perfect place to stop and take a long break, where we could cool down before we did the quarter-mile jaunt uphill.

Having hiked nearly five miles in about five hours (it was almost 2:00 p.m.), Mary was done for the day.  Just getting her to hike up the last quarter mile of the trail took a lot of effort.  I knew that she wasn't going to make it, so I suggested to John that I hike on ahead to the trailhead to get the car.  I would then pick up him and Mary at the end of the trail.  He loved that idea, so he handed me the keys and sent me on my way.

At the end of the long uphill, I came to a gate, and beyond that was First Water Road.  From there, I hiked another quarter of a mile along the road to the trailhead.  After throwing my gear into the trunk, I started up the car and drove back down the road to pick up John and Mary.  (Mary was now riding on John's shoulders.)  With that, our long hike was over, and it was time to rest.

We drove back to SR 88 and turned on the radio to hear the day's news; that was when we learned that Pope John Paul II had just passed away.  It had happened at 2:00 p.m. - at about the same time that we were sitting under the ramada at First Water Ranch.  "Well," John said, "I guess Mary had something in common with the Pope today; they both gave up the ghost at 2:00 p.m."

Mary fell asleep in the car on the way home - she was completely tuckered out from her long hike.  But we were so proud of her, because she had hiked longer than she had ever hiked before, and she had done very well, too.  We couldn't wait for our next adventure with her... 


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