Sometimes, even the best laid plans go awry. You can spend weeks - even months - planning out the best vacation and still have everything go completely wrong. When that happens, you can either admit defeat and go home to your sofa, or you can learn the art of improvisation. Which means, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
In honor of our eleven-year anniversary, John and I were planning to do what would be our first four-day (three-night) backpacking trip. This was a feat that had never been done by us before. John had attempted to do a solo trip of that length once, earlier in the year, but he was forced to cut that trip short when the stove stopped working mid-trip. We hoped that this would finally be the first successful trip ever.
Originally, our plan for the summer was to fly to Montana, to attend the Lost Prairie Skydiving Boogie; it was the one boogie that we have wanted to attend for a number of years, but there were always other things going on. This year, however, we just never got around to planning the trip. In fact, I had an entire week of vacation scheduled during the month of July and nothing to do!
As luck would have it, Mary was invited to go to Bible Camp with her cousin Joshua's church group. She went two years ago and had a wonderful time, so naturally she begged us to go again. When we looked at the dates of the camp - July 18-22 - John and I looked at each other and grinned. It just happened to fall during the week of our anniversary! Perfect!
Immediately, we started making plans for our multiple-day backpacking trip. Initially, we looked at doing a thirty-mile loop in the Blue Range Primitive Area, in the White Mountains. That would be perfect, because we could drive to Overgaard on Sunday the 18th, stay the night at the cabin, then begin our backpack on Monday the 19th.
And then those plan were dashed to bits when we learned about the Paradise Fire, which had erupted in Paradise Park, right in the middle of the wilderness area. It was not a very large fire, but it was still large enough that the Forest Service deemed it necessary to close the area. Which included all of the trails that we were planning to hike.
So on we went to Plan B. After more research, John came up with a trip in the Chiricahua Mountains, in southeast Arizona. It would involve a five-mile hike through Mormon Canyon to Round Park, near Chiricahua Peak. We would base-camp at Round Park for three nights and spend two days exploring the mountain range; then, we would hike out on day four (Thursday) and be home in time to pick Mary up from Janice's house after the kids returned from Bible Camp.
And then, something else happened - this time, at the very last minute - that could have ended our planned trip before it ever happened. Mary got conjunctivitis - yes, pink eye - two days before the start of Bible Camp. We already had our backpacks packed, and Mary was already packed for camp. Now this???
We took Mary to Urgent Care right away, in hopes of getting the infection treated as quickly as possible. She was given a prescription that worked aggressively to clear up the irritation, so that, by Sunday, it was almost gone.
Almost...but not quite.
Pink eye is just one of those conditions that people don't like to deal with, due to its highly contagious nature. We were all afraid that Mary was going to be turned away from Bible Camp because of it. Janice told us that she would say that it was an "eye infection" and that Mary was at the end of the treatment (which was mostly true), but she made no promises that it would work.
Rather than wait to hear whether or not Mary would be allowed to attend Bible Camp, John and I started our drive to Willcox anyway, at noon as planned. While we hoped that Mary would be able to go, we discussed Plan B: what to do if Mary had to come home. Janice had volunteered to take care of her if that was the case, but we didn't think that it was fair to either one of them to have to do that. John suggested that we immediately cancel our own trip and do the Cabin Loop (or any part of it) with Mary, if we needed to.
But we hoped that we would not have to do that. Mary would have been heartbroken to miss camp...and we needed the break from parenting!
En route to Willcox, John and I stopped multiple times to look for geocaches. He had done a pocket query on Geocaching.com to look for caches that were no more than a quarter of a mile off of the highway. At the same time, I had the opportunity to use my new iPhone 4 for the first time to geocache. This is something I was never able to do with my first generation iPhone, because that version did not have a GPS built in. How fun it was to be able to look up the cache, navigate to it, and to log it, all on one device!
While we were looking for our third cache, about halfway between Tucson and Benson, we got the call that we had been waiting for: both of the kids were on the bus for camp! (It sounded like Janice and Danny were already celebrating.) Relieved, we continued on our way to Willcox, knowing that we weren't going to have to fall back on Plan B after all.
When we arrived in Willcox, at 3:30 p.m., we looked for two more geocaches, located off of Business Route 10; then, we drove to our hotel - the Holiday Inn Express - and checked in. Along the way, we passed by the Best Western, where we had stayed ten years ago, when we visited the Chiricahuas for our first anniversary. It was hard to believe that it was that long ago...
With the whole evening to ourselves and nothing to do, John and I decided to go out for happy hour before dinner. We had seen a bar off of Business Route 10 that looked to be a fun place and went there for a couple of adult beverages. When we arrived, there wasn't much going on - just a couple of locals playing cards - so John and I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer.
A few minutes later, the skies opened up as a monsoon storm rolled in. Soon, the bar was filled with motorcyclists, who stopped in to get out of the rain. Suddenly, the place was hoppin'! We were all having such a great time that it was a shame when the rain let up and all the bikers had to go. With that, John and I paid our tab and went to dinner.
By the time we made it to the Mexican restaurant, another storm cell had rolled in, and the rain came pouring down. It rained all through dinner and as we made our way back to the hotel. All that rain meant two things to us: 1) we were going to have plenty of water in the wilderness, and 2) we were in for a very wet week.
The rain continued to fall late into the evening; but, by morning, the storm cells had passed and the sunshine returned. We knew, however, that the clouds would not be gone for long; the air outside was thick and humid, which meant that afternoon storms were imminent.
John and I left the hotel around 7:00 a.m., in hopes of getting an early start on our hike. We had a rough, 4.5 mile hike - with 3,500 feet in elevation change - ahead of us; we knew that it wasn't going to be an easy romp in the forest, not by any means. The sooner we got started, the better.
It took us roughly ninety minutes to drive to the Turkey Creek Trailhead, which is located in a campground off of Turkey Creek Road. To get there, we took State Route 186 out of Willcox, through the ghost town of Dos Cabezas (where we stopped to geocache) to State Route 181. At the point where SR 181 turned right, we went left onto Turkey Creek Road - a well-maintained dirt road that passed by several ranches before entering the Coronado National Forest.
There was wildlife out in abundance that morning, as we made our way down Turkey Creek Road. Not only did we see the usual cows and horses, but there were deer grazing along the side of the road. And, of course, there were lots and lots of birds. The Chiricahuas (like the Santa Ritas and the Catalinas) are world famous among bird watchers, because there are so many species that inhabit these mountain ranges.
And one of these beautiful birds flew right into the front of the 4Runner, where it got caught in the grill! D'oh!
We arrived at the Turkey Creek Campground around 8:30 - much earlier than expected. Although we knew that we were in the right place, we had trouble finding the trailhead right away. John knew that it would not be marked, but he hoped that he would at least find a clear path. Upon closer inspection, he finally spied a path on the other side of the creek and figured out that it was the trail, based on the GPS coordinates and the map.
By 8:45, we were geared up and ready to hike...more or less. Our progress was slow-going from the very start, due to the weight of our packs. With four days of food in my pack, I was carrying more weight than ever, and it was more than I could handle. About 500 feet from the trailhead, we had to stop to shift some of the weight to John's pack, just so that I could breathe!
The weight wasn't the only thing that slowed me down; the humidity was so thick that I was already sweating fiercely, only a half of a mile from the trailhead. I had to sit down and convert my pants to shorts, just to get some air. That seemed to help, but every step was still a struggle.
Our pace continued to be painfully slow throughout the morning, as we hiked through Mormon Canyon. The trail climbed relentlessly, gaining 2,000 feet in the first 2.25 miles - it was steep and very rugged. We burned a lot of energy and found ourselves stopping frequently to catch our breath. We were also sweating a lot; and to replenish those lost fluids, we drank most of our water in the first mile. Fortunately, the creek had intermittent water, so we were able to top off our bottles during one of our many breaks.
At the one mile mark, we finally entered the Chiricahua Wilderness Area. By then, we had already climbed 1,000 feet. We had hoped that we would find some relief from the heat at the higher elevation, but with the thick humidity, there was no chance of that. We did, however, find a nice change to the scenery; gradually, the oaks and pinions and Chiricahua pines gave way to Ponderosa pines. And while the lower elevation was somewhat dry, the upper canyon was much more lush and green, and the thick canopy of trees provided us better shelter from the hot sun.
During the second mile, we were both beginning to drag. John was so hot and sweaty that he kept getting sweat in his eyes. I had to give him one of my two pink Breast Cancer 3-Day seamless wraps so that he could wipe his brow. We also had to stop once again to shift some of the weight from my pack into John's - I took his clothing bag, and in exchange, he took the rest of the food.
And if that wasn't bad enough, we started to hear the first rumblings of thunder in the distance. We still had time before the storm hit, but it was likely that it was going to rain on us before we made it to camp.
Gradually, the gathering storm brought a layer of clouds, which was a huge relief for us. Though it was still humid, at least it wasn't nearly as hot. Towards the end of the second mile, we were starting to feel a little bit better. And we were nearly at the end of the long, 2,000 mile climb. John indicated that we were very close to the switchbacks that would take us up to the Crest Trail...
And that was when all forward progress came to a screeching halt. Or should I say, a rattling halt...
With less than five hundred feet to go to the bottom of the switchbacks, I suddenly heard a loud rattling sound. Was it an angry bird? An angry squirrel? It sounded like one...
I saw it just as John said it: "SNAKE!" It was about ten feet ahead of me on the trail and poised to strike. Caught off guard, I flipped around and stumbled away from the rattler as fast as I could, but the weight of my pack threw me off-balance, which in turn caused me to fall into a boulder.
As I came to my senses, I realized that I was badly hurt. My leg was banged up and swollen, and I had cut my knee open. The bruise on my shin was so painful to the touch that I thought at first that I had broken it; luckily, I was eventually able to put weight on it. The cut on my knee, however, took some time to stop bleeding; I had to use my seamless wrap to put pressure on it. Meanwhile, it was everything in my power not to cry; I never shed a tear, but I wanted to.
While I tended to my wounds, John did what he could to chase the snake away, but that rattler was not budging. He threw rocks near it, hoping that they would scare it away, but the snake just continued to rattle and linger in that spot. It took nearly fifteen minutes for the snake to uncoil and slither away into the trees, finally leaving an open path for us.
Our trek, however, was over. Although I could put some weight on my leg, there was no way that I was going to be able to continue hiking uphill like that, not when we still had another 1,500 feet in elevation to gain. John already knew it before I could tell him, and it was he who suggested that we turn back now.
Before turning back, we sat down on the trail and had lunch - after all, I was going to need all the energy I could get to limp back down the steep trail. It was there that we got to use our anniversary gift for the first time: our new backcountry stove. It was just like our old stove, only this one actually worked. The old stove, of course, had not been the same since we dismantled it to clean it prior to packing it for our trip to Canada last summer (our ten-year anniversary trip). One week earlier, during a very wet backpacking trip in the Mount Baldy Wilderness Area, the stove completely died on us, thus forcing us to buy a new one before heading to the Chiricahuas.
After lunch, John suggested that I get a head start on the return hike, while he stayed behind to clean up the dishes and repack. I did so, limping gingerly on my damaged leg all the way. Despite the fact that it hurt, and I could feel every jarring step deep in my bruises, I kept going, knowing that the faster I arrived at the trailhead, the sooner I could put my leg up and let it begin healing.
Less than a mile from where we turned back, and just as John caught up to me, I encountered something I fully did not expect to see (even more so than finding that rattlesnake at 8,000 feet in elevation): people! Here we were, in one of the more remote areas of Arizona, on a little-visited trail, on a Monday afternoon, and there were other hikers on the trail - a husband and wife and their teen-aged son. They had already set up camp on a small ledge next to the creek, at one of the places where there was water flowing, and now they were day-hiking up into the canyon to go exploring. We warned them about the snake ahead and told them about my accident; we then wished them a nice trip and left them alone to enjoy their hike.
Three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, we stopped for a break at an old stone structure, at the same place where we had found a geocache on the way into the wilderness. At that same moment, it started raining. Fortunately, it wasn't a heavy rain, and it was enough to cool us down a bit. It wasn't going to be long, though, before the downpour began, so we did our best to finish our hike before it came.
We were utterly exhausted by the time we arrived at the trailhead, at 2:00 in the afternoon. As soon as we got into the 4Runner, John turned on the engine, and we sat there, basking in the coolness of the air-conditioning and contemplating what to do next.
At that point, we were pretty much winging it. We didn't want to go home, not when we were on vacation and childless for the next three nights. The big question was, what do do?
The first thing we did was, we left the Turkey Creek Campground, to drive to the closest town for supplies. No matter what we were planning to do, we were going to need drinking water, beverages and ice, and bandages for my wounded leg. As soon as we had signal, we pulled up Google maps and found that the nearest town was Sunizona, which was about twenty miles away; as long as they had a convenience store, we were set.
On the way to Sunizona, the skies finally opened up with the torrential rainfall that we knew was coming. Had we not turned back, we would probably be hiking in that rain, and it would have been miserable...and yet, we would have marched on anyway because we had to. A part of me was happy to be high and dry in the 4Runner, despite the fact that the rain would have just been a piece of the adventure. Truly, I had had enough "adventure" for one day...
Once we had the supplies that we needed, we returned to the Chiricahua Mountains. Although backpacking was out of the question, there was nothing stopping us from car-camping at either Rustler Park or Barfoot Park. True, it wouldn't be the wilderness experience that we were hoping for, but at least we weren't going home to sit on our sofa.
We drove past Turkey Creek Road and continued on SR 181 until we came to Bonita Canyon Road, the turnoff to the Chiricahua National Monument. We then turned onto Pinery Canyon Road, which would take us up to Onion Saddle. Along the way, we discussed what to do over the next few days. It was all going to depend on how my leg felt in the morning. If it was okay, then we would start a new backpacking trip from Rustler Park; if it wasn't...well, then, we would just have to play it by ear...
When we arrived at Rustler Park, we drove through the campground to see who else was camped there before making a decision about staying there. It was a developed campground - and a fee area on top of that - and everyone knows that we just don't do campgrounds - especially after our Mother's Day experience. Had it been empty, that would have been one thing; at least we wouldn't have to share our space with others. But there was a rather large group - either a Boy Scout Troop or a church group - camped in there, and we decided that we would prefer not to hear them. Rustler's Park was just not going to work for us.
We then remembered that we had once camped in a large primitive campsite near Barfoot Park, in August of 2004. It was outside of the fee area - and therefore, outside of the campground - and our chances of finding it unoccupied on a Monday night were very good. We decided that that was going to be our best bet for the night; even though we didn't need the large campsite for just our backcountry tent, we would at least have the place to ourselves.
After getting settled in our campsite, John started dinner, while I tended to my wounds. The cut on my knee had finally scabbed over, but the bruise on my shin was starting to turn all sorts of pretty colors - and the swelling was such that the leg of my sweatpants felt tight over it. It was extremely tender to the touch as well - although, at the point of impact, the skin was completely numb and remained so for a long time. I dressed the wound with a gauze bandage - though it didn't do much good - and did my best to stay off of it for the night.
As we sat down to eat dinner, neither one of us spoke much, but that was mainly due to the complete exhaustion that we were both feeling. We were so tired that even the beer that we were drinking didn't taste good, nor did we have the energy to make dessert. Once all of the dinner dishes were clean and put away, the two of us crawled into our tent to read until bedtime.
Around 8:00 p.m., while we were still (barely) awake and reading our books, a fierce storm erupted over the Chiricahua Mountains. Thunder crashed and lightning flashed all around us; and a heavy rain fell. Then, just as the storm let up, another cell rolled in, and the storm began anew. This continued for four hours. Four solid hours of non-stop rain and thunder and lightning!
And it would have been fine...if we didn't have to pee! While we were in the tent, we were high and dry and warm in our down sleeping bags; we certainly did not want to go outside in the torrential downpour just to relieve ourselves. So, we both sat up and waited...and waited...and waited. I read several chapters of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy - the first one hundred pages, to be precise - and John watched an entire movie on his iPhone; but the rain never stopped. I lasted until about 9:30 and finally decided to brave the elements - mainly, because I just couldn't stay awake any longer - and John managed to fall asleep until 11:30, at which time he awoke and did the same thing.
At midnight, the storm finally died down, and the rain stopped falling. And we slept peacefully for the rest of the night...
The next morning, we slept in until 6:00 a.m. Considering how late we were up, listening to the storm, we were grateful for the extra sleep.
Despite the extra rest, though, my leg wasn't any better the next morning; in fact, it was worse. The swelling had increased, and the bruise was twice as large. Any hope of getting in a backpacking trip had been dashed to bits; we had to come up with a suitable Plan B - something to get us through the next three days.
Since we have always enjoyed visiting the Chiricahua National Monument, we decided to pay it a visit while we were there. Unfortunately, we wouldn't be able to do any of our favorite hikes, like the Echo Canyon Loop or the Rhyolite Trails; but just to be there to take in the beauty of the Chiricahuas was enough for me.
After packing up our campsite, John and I got into the 4Runner to drive to the monument. As we left, he had a sly look on his face, and I knew exactly what he was thinking: he was suggesting that we take another trip down Pine Canyon Road, to the Methodist Camp. During one of our visits to the Chiricahuas, in September 2002, we had done that road in the Jeep and soon discovered just why exactly there was a sign indicating that 4WD vehicles were required. Fortunately, he wasn't serious about doing it; he only mentioned it to see if I was paying attention...
Instead of taking the more adventurous route, we opted to stay on Pinery Canyon Road and take that all the way down the mountain to the monument. Along the way, we stopped to check out some of the sights along the way, including the grave of Frank and Grace Hands, which was located in the foothills. Having never seen the grave marker before, during our past visits, we decided to get out and take a look.
"Who do you think they were?" John asked, as we stood there, looking at the large headstone that marked their graves.
"They were probably ranchers," I replied. "There are lots of ranches around here."
"Oh, so they were ranch 'hands'!"
No surprise there; that was a set up, and I walked right into it with both feet. He just laughed as I rolled my eyes.
In reality, Frank Hands was not a rancher but a miner, who acquired the Hilltop Mine in 1913. He and Grace are buried near the start of the Hands Pass Trail, one the many mining trails that was established to reach the mines. Hands Pass, of course, is named after the family.
Upon entering the Chiricahua National Monument that morning, John and I stopped to learn about more of the early settlers to the region, by visiting the site of Faraway Ranch. Although we had visited the Chiricahuas three times in the past, this was our first time at Faraway Ranch, and we had no idea what it was all about. This was the perfect opportunity for us to see it.
Faraway Ranch was the first homestead in rugged Bonita Canyon. It was established by Neil and Emma Erickson, who were Swedish immigrants. Neil Erickson was stationed at Fort Bowie in 1881; Emma Peterson was a helper to the officers' wives at the same fort. They were married in 1887 and settled in and cultivated a piece of land in Bonita Canyon. They bore and raised their children on Faraway Ranch; their daughters eventually took over the land while their father worked as a forest ranger. They successfully ran a guest ranch on the land until the 1970's.
Today, visitors to the Chiricahua National Monument can park at a trailhead near Faraway Ranch and hike a short, flat trail through the homestead to see the various buildings that still stand there, now preserved by the federal government. There is also a short, 1.2 mile trail - the Silver Spur Meadow Trail - that goes from Faraway Ranch to the park's Visitor's Center.
John wanted to hike this trail, despite the fact that he knew I couldn't. He suggested that I drive to the Visitor's Center and wait for him there; he would meet me there in thirty to forty minutes. With that, he headed off down the trail, and I limped back to the 4Runner, parked at the trailhead.
On my way to the Visitor's Center, from Faraway Ranch, I encountered a deer in the middle of the road. I almost didn't see him, because he was standing in the shade of a tree; he also didn't move right away as I approached him. He and I stared each other down for several minutes, before he slowly cantered away. It was a lovely, precious moment.
Once at the Visitor's Center, I lingered around inside until John arrived, about twenty minutes later. We bought a gift for Mary there - a kids' book about geology in Arizona - as well as a book for me. John, on the other hand, bought a New Mexico State recreation map. While en route to the Visitor's Center, he had take some time to think about what we should do with the next two nights, and he thought it would be fun to explore New Mexico, since we were nearby. I had no objection to the idea; as long as I didn't have to carry a backpack through the woods on my injured leg, I was good with anything.
While we were still at the monument, John wanted to do another hike. I suggested that he do the Echo Canyon-Rhyolite Trails to the Visitor's Center; I could drop him off at the trailhead then pick him up again at the end. He liked the idea but chose instead to do the Sugarloaf Mountain Trail: a 1.8 mile trail (roundtrip) to the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain, the tallest point in the park, at an elevation of 7,310 feet.
We drove through the park to the Sugarloaf Mountain Trailhead, which was located several miles from the Visitor's Center. When we arrived, we discovered that the trailhead was fully equipped with restrooms and a picnic table under a shade tree. This was a perfect setting for me; it meant that I could sit and read my book in silence while John hiked.
It took John roughly half an hour to hike to the top of the Sugarloaf. Along the way, the trail offered him great views of the Dos Cabezas Mountain Range and Mount Graham, as well as the vast forest of hoodoos that make up the Chiricahua National Monument. Once he reached the summit, he found a small building: an old fire tower that now monitors lightning activity in the mountain range. From the summit, he could see the Huachucas and even the Santa Ritas...and he could see me as well.
And he yelled down to me from the summit: "HELLO!"
I heard him, laughed, and waved back to him. Then, I returned to my book.
It took him another half an hour to return to the trailhead. By that time, it was noon, and I was getting the camp stove set up for lunch. I thought I would get a head start on lunch and have the water boiling by the time he arrived; but he was earlier than I expected, and I was still putting the stove together when he walked up to me.
After a peaceful lunch at the trailhead, we left the Chiricahua National Monument and started on our long drive into New Mexico. At that point, we really had no idea where in New Mexico we were going; our goal was to get back to I-10 at Willcox and call John's parents for a recommendation. They had just spent some time in New Mexico in their motorhome, and we knew that they would have some ideas for us.
As soon as we reached I-10, we first called Janice to let her know that we were out of the backcountry and heading into New Mexico. Janice reported that she had received an e-mail from the pastor at Bible Camp, in which he said that Mary and Joshua were having a great time. That was good news.
We then called John's parents - Bill and Erika. They recommended that we drive into the Gila National Forest and camp near Glenwood. They had stayed at a campground near there and explored some of the backroads in the area; one of the roads would take us to a ghost town called Mogollon, which Erika described as an interesting little town. They also said that we should check out the Catwalk National Recreation Trail, which was located near Glenwood.
"The Catwalk?" I said. "I've always wanted to do that trail!" I hoped that, despite my injury, I would be able to hike that trail in the morning. Ever since I had read about that trail in the Arizona Republic about seven years ago, I had always wanted to see it.
Our journey took us east on I-10 to Lordsburg, NM, where we had intended to stop for gas, but we couldn't find a gas station along our route. From there, we continued north on NM 90, hoping that we would find something along the way; although there were several small towns along the way, none of these communities had a gas station. As a result, we were forced to go all the way to Silver City (which we had hoped to avoid) to fuel up and buy supplies for the night.
From Silver City, we proceeded onto scenic US 180, to Glenwood, NM. While in Glenwood, we stopped to pick up some of the supplies we had forgotten to buy in Silver City - mainly water; we also found the turnoff to the Catwalk Trail - NM 174. Depending on how I felt, we would return there in the morning and do the hike.
Another five miles up the highway, we came to NM 159, a windy-twisty road that would take us to the ghost town of Mogollon. Though the road was paved for the first nine miles, the drive was incredibly slow due to the sharp curves and hairpin turns; and, to make matters worse, it started raining, and that made the road slick. It seemed like we would never get there!
At the point where the road became dirt, we entered Mogollon, which was once a mining town. Evidence of the old mining operations were evident all through the town; there was rusted mining equipment in the hills overlooking the town, and there were boarded up mine shafts in the hillside. The town itself consisted of several buildings, some of which were still inhabited: there was a trading post, a museum, antique shops, and several homes. Some of the homes were very unique, and one of those homes in particular caught our eye. It appeared to be a one-room shack...built on the bed of a pick-up truck!
About two miles outside of Mogollon, John and I found a campsite, in a low-lying area near the creek. It was the first campsite we came to as we entered the Gila National Forest; although it was certainly possible that we could have found something further up the road, we were tired from the long drive and decided to settle there.
Once our camp was set up and dinner was consumed, John and I stretched out on a tarp at our campsite and read our books until we could no longer see the printing on the page. It was very peaceful and quiet, and we enjoyed every minute of it. At one point, John and I looked at each other and smiled. "This is nice," he said, and I knew that, despite all that had happened to us, he was okay with how our trip was turning out.
Around 7:30, we crawled into our tent and continued to read until we could no longer keep our eyes open. Nearly an hour after we were asleep, though, we were awakened by yet another nighttime monsoon storm. Like the one from the previous night, in the Chiricahuas, this storm dumped copious amounts of rain on us, and the thunder and lightning crashed all around us. The only difference was that this storm didn't last four hours; after only about two hours, it finally died down, and we fell back to sleep.
The next morning, we awoke to a beautiful, warm morning - a good day for a hike.
Although my leg was still very swollen, and the bruise had expanded, it felt good enough that I was able to put more weight on it - and that meant that I was going to be up for the short hike on the Catwalk. I had no idea how long the trail was - or even how difficult it was - but I knew that I wanted to do it, injured or not.
After breakfast, we packed up our campsite then got on the road. We returned to US 180 by reversing our trip on NM 159; along the way, we took pictures of some of the buildings in Mogollon. At the junction with US 180, we turned left and drove five miles, to Glenwood, where we turned off onto NM 174. At the end of the road, about five miles in, we arrived at the trailhead parking for the Catwalk National Recreation Trail.
As soon as we arrived, we paid our fee at the self-pay station then checked out the map nearby, to see what the trail was all about. The only thing that we knew about the Catwalk Trail was that part of the trail involved walking on catwalks through narrow Whitewater Canyon - similar to the Johnston Canyon Trail in Banff National Park in Canada. (That was one of my favorite hikes during our trip to Canada last summer.) When the hike was featured in the Arizona Republic several years ago, a new catwalk had just been completed, which enabled more visitors to be able to enjoy the hike.
The Catwalk Trail is comprised of three different trails: an easy trail and a medium-difficulty trail, which parallel each other and eventually meet up at the catwalks; and a difficult trail that continues on past the catwalks, to the end of the trail. The entire length of the trail is 1.1 miles long one way - 2.25 miles roundtrip, according to the sign.
We began our hike on the medium trail, which paralleled Whitewater River for the first quarter of a mile. It was a pleasant hike, one that was shaded by sycamores and cottonwoods as it climbed gently towards the start of the catwalks.
At the quarter-mile mark, we reached the viewing platforms, and from there, we continued our hike along the elevated walkway that was attached to the canyon wall. The walkway follows the route of the old pipeline that used to pump water from the river to the mill and to the town at the end of the canyon. The pipeline, which was established in 1893, was often called the "catwalk", as workers had to walk along it to repair it.
Walking along the catwalk, we had a great view of the river rushing below us in the narrow canyon; except for a lack of foliage, it was just like walking through Johnston Canyon all over again. I could have stayed there all day, marveling at the force of the water and how it had carved its way through the rock.
At the end of the catwalk, we came to the junction with the difficult part of the trail. According to the sign, the difficult trail was labeled as such because it was, at times, narrow and steep; in reality, though, it wasn't that difficult at all. Mormon Canyon had been difficult; by comparison, this one was not. I did hiked at a rather slow pace, though, because I did not want to jar my injured leg. Despite the fact that it was feeling a little bit better, I was still limping quite a bit.
About a tenth of a mile from the end of the trail, we came upon a large patch of green leafy plants, in the midst of which was a wooden sign that read "Poison Ivy". This was some of the largest poison ivy leaves I had ever seen! We were certain that we had brushed up against some of the leaves that were hanging over the trail; but thankfully, we never broke out in a rash.
The trail ended at an overlook, high above the river - which, at that point, was choked with giant, towering boulders. Below us, we could see that there were several teenagers trying to make their way upstream through the rushing river; they were very loud, and the girls were screaming because the water was very rough and cold. Given the chance, I'm sure that John would have done the same thing; but today, we were going to stick to the trail.
We turned around at the trail's end and started hiking back to the trailhead. Along the way, we decided to take the easy trail, rather than the medium-difficulty trail, so that we could say that we had hiked all of the trails that make up the Catwalk Trail. We discovered, however, that the easy trail was not that easy at all. Sure, it was wheelchair accessible and flat and easy, but there was no tree-cover. The trail was exposed and hot; we decided that we would have been happier hiking the medium trail, because at least we would have had some shade!
After we finished our hike - around 10:00 a.m. - John and I got into the 4Runner and began the next leg of our journey. The day was still young, and we had a lot to see before we stopped to camp again.
Our goal for the day was to drive to the White Mountain in Arizona and to find a campsite near Big Lake before the end of the day. Along the way, however, there were roads to explore and places to visit. John's parents had recommended that we take a side-trip to Reserve, NM, to visit Uncle Bill's Bar; we decided to make that our lunch stop.
On the way to Reserve, though, there was a road that was calling our name: Pueblo Park Road. Now, if this road sounds familiar, it should. In fact, it was the same road where we had broken the "Stupid Motorist Law" four years earlier, when we were trying to get to the Bonanza Bill Trailhead. We had driven six hours to get there, only to find that there was a "Road Closed" barricade sitting at the start of Pueblo Park Road, just outside of the town of Blue, AZ. Instead of going with Plan B (which we didn't have), we went around the barricade, only to find that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the road. Even with the torrential rainfall that we received that weekend, the road was fine, leaving us bewildered as to why the sign was even there in the first place.
John explained that Pueblo Park Road (also known as FR 232) went all the way from Blue, AZ to US 180 in New Mexico. He thought it would be fun to see if we could get all the way to the Bonanza Bill Trailhead - or at least to the Arizona border - before lunchtime. I said, "Why not?" We had nothing better to do anyway...
Pueblo Park Road was very scenic, and along the way, we passed by a number of trailheads and lovely campsites. Travel, however, was very slow-going, because of the number of bends and turns in the road. We only made it as far as Pueblo Park, which was halfway to the Arizona border; we then turned around and started back to US 180.
By the time we made it back to the highway, it was lunchtime, and we were hungry. Fortunately, we weren't far from Reserve, NM, where we were planning to stop for food; we made it there in fifteen minutes.
Reserve, New Mexico, is a quiet little town, which John's parents had recently visited while traveling in their motorhome. One of the attractions there is Uncle Bill's Bar, which was established in the 1890's; they recommended that we stop there for a quick drink.
Uncle Bill's Bar was quiet that afternoon; a few locals sat at the bar, chatting with each other and the bartender. John and I sat with them and enjoyed a cold beer each. We then discovered that they didn't serve food there, other than small snacks, so we paid our tab and went across the street to the Mexican restaurant for lunch; afterwards, we returned to Uncle Bill's Bar and knocked back another cold one. We also took a pictures of the bar to e-mail to John's parents, as proof that we had stopped there.
On our way out of town that afternoon, we stopped at the Gila National Forest ranger station, which was near Uncle Bill's Bar. We had been hoping to find a trail guide for the surrounding area - something that we could use to plan future visits to New Mexico. Sadly, unlike most of the ranger stations that we have visited, this one did not have any hiking guides at all. John was disappointed and even a little perturbed; he explained to the ranger on duty that even the Gila National Forest's website was a poor source of information; he expected to find at least more information at a ranger station!
After leaving Reserve, we continued our journey on US 180, until we came to another forest road that warranted exploration: FR 35. That road led us to FR 35C - which, according to the GPS, would get us back to the highway again...that is, if we didn't take out an oil pan doing so. About two miles in, John had to get out to move rocks in the road just to be able to pass; that was when we decided to give up and turn around.
As we continued our journey on US 180, we passed through the tiny town of Luna, NM, where the road curved to the west, then to the south, then west again, and finally passed in to Arizona, near Luna Lake.
We stopped off in Alpine to fill up with gas and to buy more supplies for the night; we also visited the ranger station in town, to pick up some of the free brochures, which included a map of the forest - something that would come in handy when looking for a place to camp for the night. We had been thinking of stopping off near Big Lake, off of SR 273, but we had no idea where.
Just north of Alpine, we turned off on to FR 249, which would become SR 273, near Big Lake. By that time, it was getting late in the day, and the clouds were hanging low in the sky, threatening rain. We were also tired from the long drive; the sooner we found camp, the better.
As soon as we came to Big Lake, we began to look for camp...only to find that we could not actually camp near Big Lake, unless we camped in one of the many campgrounds. And we just don't like campgrounds. We had to go outside of the Big Lake Recreation Area in order to find free camping...and even then, we found ourselves camped near other people. One family had very loud children, who quieted down after sunset; another guy insisted on hammering something after we had gone to bed.
On the upside, though, it didn't rain that night. Although it rained lightly on us while we looked for camp, we never got the thunder and lightning and torrential downpour that had plagued us the first two nights of our trip. That said, we got our first good night of sleep...
The next morning, we packed up our campsite early - right after breakfast - and started our long trip home to Phoenix. Naturally, we didn't go straight home - we didn't have to be home until late in the day - so we spent the morning exploring in the White Mountains.
The first part of our morning's journey took us to SR 273, where we passed by both the East Baldy and the West Baldy Trailheads (we had backpacked the West Baldy Trail #94 less than two weeks earlier). Just after passing by the latter of the two trailheads, we came to a dead stop on the highway, in the construction zone. Construction workers were present, and traffic was reduced to one lane. In order to avoid the bulk of the construction, we turned off onto FR 87, which would take us into Greer. True, Greer was out of the way, but we had lots of time to kill anyway.
Since we had been to Greer before and didn't really have a reason to stop there now, we drove right through town to SR 373, which brought us to SR 260. We did, however, decide to take another side trip - this time, on SR 473, which took us through the White Mountain Apache Reservation to Hawley Lake. I had never been to Hawley Lake, and John had not been there since the tribe had taken back all of the land (including the cabins) from the non-tribal homeowners, many years ago.
The drive to Hawley Lake on SR 473 was very long, but it was scenic. On either side of the highway, there was dense forestland, thick with pines and spruce and firs. Although there were forest roads throughout the forest, many of them were closed; there were large yellow signs posted at each road, indicating that the area was "Closed: No Camping". The only place where one could camp was at the campground at Hawley Lake, and that was by permit only, which could be purchased at the shop at Hawley Lake.
We drove through the community at Hawley Lake but did not stop. We did, however, get a little bit lost as we wound through the side roads. We let the GPS (our Garmin Oregon 300) guide us back to SR 473, despite the fact that it took us in the wrong direction a couple of times!
Once we were back on SR 260, we continued traveling west, non-stop, until we reached Overgaard. In Overgaard, we met up with John's parents - Bill and Erika - at the Gaard-Chak. While in Overgaard, the four of us went to The Cabin (one of the local bars) for lunch. As soon as we arrived at The Cabin, the skies opened up once again, and the rain came pouring down. By this time, we were used to it; we had seen so much rain during our journey that we were numb to it. We were just happy to be indoors this time!
After lunch, we left Bill and Erika and continued our drive home. For the most part, the ride was uneventful, especially after the rain let up; but that's not to say that it wasn't adventurous. As soon as we pulled into our neighborhood, we were surprised to find it full of police cars...and we were even more surprised to find that our street was closed! There had been a gang shooting in the neighborhood, and police were still investigating the situation. We were allowed to park at the corner and walk to our house, but we were not able to drive there until all of the bullet shells had been picked up.
We unloaded most of our equipment and walked it down to our house; then, we went to Janice's house to pick up Mary, making sure that we stalled long enough so that the police would be gone before we returned.
Mary, of course, had lots to tell us about camp; she had a wonderful time there, making new friends, singing songs, learning about the Bible, playing games, etc. And, on top of that, her eye cleared up! She told us that she wants to go to camp again next year. Perhaps that would be a great opportunity for us to try our backpacking trip again...
Though our adventure was over, the injury to my leg lingered on for a long time. By Monday, when I returned to work, I could no longer put any weight on it, the swelling had not gone down, and the bruise had spread over half of my leg - knee to ankle, shin to calf. Thinking that it might be broken, I went to Urgent Care to have it X-rayed. Thankfully, it was not; it was just badly bruised. My course of treatment was to wrap it in an Ace bandage for about a week and to take anti-inflammatory medication. (I was also supposed to use crutches; that lasted for about an hour...) Eventually, the bruise faded, and the swelling went away...just in time for our next adventure...
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