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July 8, 2001

"Kachina Cold"

Our next adventure took us back to Flagstaff, just one week shy of our second wedding anniversary. In search of cool weather in which to hike, John and I decided to do the Kachina Trail, in the San Francisco Peaks. This trail, which was six miles in length one way, would take us into a new wilderness area - the Kachina Wilderness - and we would also be able to get the distance that we had been craving, as this would be the longest day hike we had done since Mary was born (twelve miles total).

The day before our hike, John went to the Drop Zone to train with his team, Arizona Fast Track. While he was gone for the day, I did all of the shopping in preparation for our hike, which included a trip to USA Baby to buy a new carrier for Mary. The "Limo" was simply too big and heavy for a day-hike, and we had to return the little blue carrier to Janice, as Joshua was now big enough to ride in it. I was able to find a similar carrier at USA Baby for $40 - it had all of the same features, except that it was slightly lighter and it was purple (Mary's color).

On Sunday morning, we awoke at 4:45 a.m. and prepared for our day hike. Having become quite efficient at getting ourselves and Mary ready in a short amount of time, we were ready to leave before 6:00 a.m. We made one stop en route to I-17, to buy breakfast for ourselves and oil for the van. After that, we were on our way to Flagstaff.

Although Phoenix was under overcast skies that morning, Flagstaff was bright and sunny when we arrived, except for one large, gray cloud that lingered over the San Francisco Peaks. Naturally, I was worried that it was going to rain on us, and I voiced my concerns to John. He stated that, if it did rain, we would definitely abort the trip, even if we had only hiked a mile. Normally, we wouldn't have any qualms about hiking in the rain - we've done it many times in the past - but we just didn't want Mary to get sick again. She had finally gotten over her last bout - the one that had kept us at home for five weeks - and we didn't want her to have to suffer through another one so soon.

We arrived at Arizona Snowbowl just before 9:00 a.m. to find that there were already a few cars at the trailhead - it was a given that this trail was going to be a little bit crowded that day, considering that it was one of the coolest spots in the state (temperature-wise) to hike. At 9:00 a.m. exactly, after getting our gear together and putting on our sunscreen, we stepped onto the Kachina Trail and began our hike of the day.

As soon as we stepped onto the Kachina Trail, we found ourselves in awe by the beauty of the San Francisco Peaks. The last time we had tried to hike the Kachina Trail, in March 2000, the trail was covered in a blanket of fresh snow, and now, for the first time, we were seeing the green ferns and brightly colored wildflowers that had been buried under the snow.
Breathtaking scenery on the Kachina Trail
Although hiking in the snow was fun and the scenery was breathtaking (and vice versa!), I definitely preferred the hike without the snow. For one, it was much easier. Hiking in the snow entailed a lot of work, as there were points along the trail where the snow was knee-high, in March of 2000. The exertion (as well as being five months pregnant at the time) caused me to experience hypoxia before we had even reached the wilderness boundary; we were forced to turn around less than a mile from the trailhead. This time, without the snow, we were able to reach the wilderness boundary in just fifteen minutes, and none of us became hypoxic.

With or without snow, the trail is not difficult at all. Except for a few short climbs, the trail remains relatively flat as it winds through a wide variety of foliage: from bright, vast aspen groves to sparse ponderosa pines and grasslands; from wide open meadows to dark forests of dense pine trees and tall, wet ferns. For the first mile or so, the trail meanders through a forest of aspens, firs, and spruces. Here, there was a symphony of birds singing, accompanied by the sound of aspen leaves quaking in the breeze. Every now and then, the sun poked out from behind the gray clouds and broke through the tall aspens, lighting the trail and warming up the morning for us.

Just after we entered the wilderness area, the trail began to turn to the east as it wrapped around the mountain and descended a bit. Here, we hiked along the cliff, where we came upon some nice rock formations, as well as a cave. John pointed out that the cave might come in handy, should we encounter rough weather along the way.

As we came to the south side of the mountain, the landscape changed dramatically. We emerged from the forest of aspens into an open area, with dried grass and sparse pine trees. Here, we were able to see the city of Flagstaff and many of its distinct landmarks, like the NAU Skydome and Lowell Observatory. John and I also tried to pick out the Elk's Lodge where we had gotten married two years ago - we had a good idea where it was, but it was too small for us to see from 9,000 feet.

We soon came to a burned area on that side of the mountain. Though we didn't know for sure, we think that we had come to the charred remains of the Kachina Fire, of June 2001. At the trailhead, we had seen the warnings that there was a burned tree hazard along the trail - many of these trees were still standing, waiting to be blown over by the first fierce storm of the season.

At 10:30, we took a short break, at which point we encountered a backpacker - the only backpacker we would see that day. He had spent the night near the Weatherford Trail, where he had not found any water, though he had heard that there was water to be found in a tank nearby. He and John discussed how to do a twenty-one mile long backpacking trip by creating a loop out of the Kachina, Weatherford, and Humphries Trails, the only three trails in the Kachina Wilderness. John explained that the only thing that would make that loop difficult (aside from being out of shape) would be the lack of water.

As we continued hiking, we encountered three volunteer forest rangers on horseback. They allowed John to approach the horses, so that Mary could see one up close. She wasn't scared until the horse gently brushed his nose against her and snorted softly, so John took a step backward to keep Mary from crying. Mary didn't know what to think of these creatures, but one thing was for sure: she didn't like horse breath!

We soon came to Friedland Prairie, another wide-open area with great views of Flagstaff. It was here that we could see the storm clouds gathering over Humphries Peak. Although we had not heard any thunder nor felt any raindrops, I knew that a monsoon storm was eminent. I just hoped that it wouldn't hit until later...much later.

About five miles in, we came to a rather peculiar meadow, as well as a lunatic...I mean, a jogger. What made this meadow so odd was the fact that, on one side of the trail, the grass was green, and on the other side, the grass was dried and yellow! We weren't quite sure what caused this phenomenon, but it was very interesting.

Upon entering another aspen grove, we felt a few raindrops fall on us. We were about to turn around and start hiking back, but we reconsidered when we didn't feel anymore drops fall from the sky. At that point, we were so close to the end of the trail that we were determined to finish it before it started to rain.

Around 11:30, we met another group of horseback riders and asked them how far we were from the end of the trail. The man told us that we were about a quarter of a mile from the end, and he was right! Ten minutes later, we arrived at the end of the Kachina Trail, at the junction with the Weatherford Trail. We had made it! (And, we had done it in under three hours - that was an accomplishment!)

We stopped there and had a quick lunch before starting our return hike. We also put a sweater on Mary, because it was starting to get cold outside. As soon as we stopped hiking, the temperature dropped considerably, and a cool wind picked up - it was obvious that the monsoon storm was going to hit us at any second, so now we were going to have to outrun it.

Our return hike began at noon, at which point we began to hike as fast as we could back to the van. On the way, we passed another group of people who, like us, had a little girl riding in a backpack on her Daddy's back. We also passed by the volunteer forest rangers again, but this time we didn't have time to let Mary play with the horses. We were making excellent time, and there was no time to waste.

In the distance, we began to hear the low rumbling of thunder as we passed through the "Two Color Meadow" again, and we knew that we still had some time before the storm hit. It wasn't until we came to the burned area that we actually felt the first drops of rain. They fell lightly at first - lightly enough that Mary was laughing as each little drop fell on her head. Then, about a quarter of a mile from the cave - two miles from the van - the skies opened up and poured rain upon us.
Seeking shelter from the storm in a cave along the trail
We ran from one shelter to another through the pouring rain, trying to get to the cave, where we would have a place to hide from the rain, but by the time we got there, we were all soaking wet. We sat down on a boulder and wrapped Mary's cold legs in a blanket while John fought to unfold the space blanket that was in our first aid kit. (Naturally, the space blanket was so tightly folded that it took John about ten minutes to get it open!) In the meantime, we were joined by another hiker who came to seek refuge from the rain. He told us that, every time he tried to hike the Kachina Trail, it would rain on him. Unlike us, he came prepared for the rain; he was wearing a rain poncho! And where were our rain ponchos?

The four of us - including our fellow hiker - waited out the storm for about a half an hour. During that time, the thunder grew louder and louder until it was directly overhead; then, it slowly began to drift away, and the thunder once again became a low rumble in the distance. The rain, however, continued to pour, with no end in sight. It soon became evident that the rain was going to linger around for a while, so we were left with no choice but to continue hiking in it. Our fellow hiker left about five minutes before us, determined to get back to his vehicle. Then, with the space blanket draped around his shoulders in an attempt to keep the rain off of Mary, John left the cave, and I followed a minute or so behind.

I don't think I need to mention that the rain was damn cold. Even after I started hiking again, my body remained chilled to the bone. My fingers were so cold that I lost the grip on my hiking stick several times. I was also exhausted, and no matter how hard I tried, I just could not make myself hike any faster. As for Mary, she was also chilled to the bone, and after fifteen minutes of riding in the cold rain, she began to wail. She was hungry, but her cold little fingers could no longer hold onto her bottle, so she threw it onto the ground. After a while, John was forced to stop under a giant pine tree and remove her from the backpack to calm her down before we continued to hike.

For the next fifteen minutes, until we reached the wilderness boundary, John had to carry Mary in his arms. At that time, the rain began to subside, as did Mary's tears. She also got to see her first white tail deer, as it ran across the trail and hid in the tall ferns. (I caught a glimpse of it before it disappeared completely.)

By the time we reached the wilderness boundary, Mary was calm enough to ride once more in the backpack. John put her back in the seat and announced that he was going to make a dash for the van. I followed about five minutes behind. At 3:15 p.m., I finally arrived at the trailhead, where John was already warming up the heater in the van.

We put dry clothes on Mary and changed her soggy diaper; then, after buckling her into the car seat, we wrapped a blanket tightly around her. Once she was settled, John drove like mad back into Flagstaff, where we stopped to get some snacks for the ride home. (We treated Mary to some chocolate chip cookies, which she deserved after what we had put her through!)

We drove non-stop back to Phoenix, and when we got home, we ordered a pizza and took a shower together to wash the mud off of us - Mary included. We spent the remainder of the evening resting, as we were all completely exhausted from the return hike.

Both Mary and John caught colds from hiking in the rain, but fortunately their colds didn't last very long. John missed one day of work, but after that he was fine. We gave Mary antibiotics and breathing treatments, and within a week, her cold was gone, too. That's what happens when you are ill-prepared for hiking in monsoon season. It was a lesson that we had to learn the hard way; next time, we will pack the rain gear!


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