The adventure actually began on my twenty-eighth birthday, August 13. John had spent the past month meticulously planning every detail of his plan to make my birthday celebration an unforgettable one. He had called the forest service to get information about the Escudilla Wilderness and the Apache National Forest; he had researched every Internet site he could find about the area. He borrowed his father's van and camp stove. He shopped for my birthday presents; and he made reservations at the Salt Cellar Restaurant in Scottsdale for my birthday dinner.
After being seated at our table, John announced that he had to go to the men's room. That was when he sneaked out to the van to retrieve my birthday presents, which had been carefully hidden under an afghan behind the seats. I had no idea that he had even bought me anything; in fact, he had purchased one of the presents while we were shopping at Arizona Mills Mall just five days earlier. He had left me for ten minutes, during which time he had found and bought a pair of heart-shaped earrings for me. Hiding the box in the pocket of his shorts, he met up with me in Ross; and when grilled for information, all he could say was, "I don't remember." For the next few days, I affectionately called him "Mr. Selective Memory." He had also bought me a Camelbak, a small backpack containing a pack which holds four liters of water and a piece of tubing through which you drink the water -- the perfect gift for avid hikers like us. He had purchased one for himself as well.
The next morning, at five a.m., we began our journey, which would cover 987 miles over four days. As we took US 60 east towards Apache Junction, we saw the morning commuters line up to a dead stop on the westbound side of the freeway; it made me look forward to getting away from the hubbub of civilization.
After stopping briefly in Superior and driving through Globe (where I was born), we arrived at the Salt River Canyon, the first stop on our journey. We pulled off into the rest area and climbed down to the river to take pictures and to play. We also walked across the old Salt River Bridge and read all of the placards on its history (something useful to know in case we ever come across a Trivial Pursuit question about the Salt River).
We continued on US 60 until we reached Show Low, Pinetop and Lakeside - and we added these towns to our winter to-do list. He told me that he and some of his friends had once rented a cabin in Pinetop during ski season; when I told him that I had never skied before, he promised to teach me sometime after Christmas and that I would owe him a case of beer for it.
Once we had passed through the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, John turned onto SR 260 and then onto SR 273 - an all weather dirt road that would take us past some of the White Mountain lakes. We drove to Crescent Lake, a small body of water, which is descriptively named, and then to Lee Valley Reservoir, where a frisky squirrel stopped to pose for pictures. From there, we drove to Big Lake - another descriptive name. While we were there, it began to rain, so we didn't linger for very long. Eventually, we found our way back to US 60, and we continued on towards Springerville and Eager. At that point, we began to travel south on Highway 191 (the old Route 666, also known as the Devil's Highway) towards Alpine. We stopped for lunch at Nelson Reservoir - which looked more like a swamp than a lake - before we began to ascend into the higher elevations.
It was in Nutrioso that we first saw Escudilla Mountain: a 10,900-foot high bluish-colored mountain on which Escudilla Wilderness area, closed to all motorized vehicles, is located. This mountain is called such because of its shape; "escudilla" is Spanish for "bowl". In the center of the mountain there is a crater which some believe may have been created by a meteor. Our plan was to camp near Escudilla Mountain, in one of the surrounding meadows, and in the morning, we would hike the Escudilla Trail #308.
Before searching for our campsite, we drove into Alpine to talk to the forest ranger about camping in the area. She didn't have any recommendations for us because she hadn't been there, but we were able to find all kinds of brochures about the White Mountains region and wilderness areas of Arizona. As we left the ranger station and got into the van, our first disaster struck:
"Honey, when you packed the ice chest this morning," I asked, "did you pack the meat that was in the freezer?"
"I don't remember," came the answer. This time it wasn't selective memory; we were in such a hurry to leave that morning that we were destined to forget something. It just happened to be our food supplies for the next four days!
Alpine didn't have any grocery stores, so we were forced to drive back into Springerville to buy chicken breasts, ground turkey, and Italian sausage at the local Safeway. We also purchased a cheap pair of workman's gloves for John because he didn't have a pair to protect his hands from the cold weather that we would be encountering while camped at an elevation of 9,500 feet.
So finally, after driving an extra forty miles out of the way, we returned to the forest road leading to Escudilla Mountain, just nine miles north of Alpine. It was a light-duty road that was a little rough in places but very scenic. At some points, we would be driving through a dense forest of pines and aspens; then, we would emerge into a vast, green meadow filled with yellow, red, and purple wild flowers.
Our goal was to find the perfect camping site: something beautiful and secluded where could play naked and not get caught by passing motorists. However, we were faced with one problem: monsoon season. Given the condition of some of the side roads we found, one storm would have caused us to get stuck, and there would have been no one to tow us out of the mud. We drove around for about an hour, trying to find something that fit our needs; along the way, we ran over a snake that was crossing the road. When we found it, it wasn't dead; it just slithered away, its entrails hanging out of its sides. Gross!
Perhaps a mile or less from the spot where John ran over the snake, we found our perfect camping spot. It was off of an old logging road that seemed to be in better condition than the other roads we had found; and it led into a dense grove of pine trees, on the other side of which was a beautiful meadow. The meadow was almost completely surrounded by trees, providing us with the seclusion we needed. We both agreed that it was perfect, so we set up camp and got ready to prepare dinner...
...Then CRASH! A monsoon storm hit. Though it didn't last very long, it was enough to chase us back into the shelter of the van, where we drank wine and waited out the storm. Before it was over, we decided to go exploring to pass the time away. As we left our campsite, we met our neighbors: a flock of wild turkeys, which were taking a casual stroll down the road. John accelerated in order to scatter them; that was when we learned that wild turkeys can fly!
After returning to camp, John tried to start the campfire, but unfortunately, the wood was too wet to burn. No matter how much "Boy Scout juice" he used, the fire would go out every time we turned our back to it. Stoking it only made it worse. Eventually, we gave up on it and went to bed because it was just too cold outside to fight with it.
John had trouble sleeping that night; at one in the morning, he got dressed and crawled out of the tent, waking me as he left. He turned on the lantern then tried again to start a decent campfire in hopes of having at least a hot coal base in the morning. He managed to build a good campfire, but when he tried to stoke it, it died out. At that point, he gave up on it and decided to go for a walk. Taking the Maglite flashlight with him, he walked down the road that cut through the grove of trees. At one point, he turned off the flashlight just to see how dark it was; he told me the next morning that it was so dark that he would have easily gotten lost.
Continuing on, he eventually broke out of the trees, and a vast meadow opened up in front of him. It was such an impressive sight that he took me on the same walk later that morning, after sunrise. The meadow he had found was Terry Flat, and in the background was Escudilla Mountain. It was quite a breathtaking sight.
That morning, after breakfast, John and I threw on our Camelbaks and drove to the Escudilla Trailhead, where we would begin hiking the Escudilla Trail #308. The trail immediately enters the Escudilla Wilderness Area and begins to switchback up the mountain, through groves of tall aspen trees. Then, after a long uphill stretch, it levels out at Toolbox Draw, a beautiful meadow from which we could see Terry Flat and the grove of trees in which we were camped. We then began to ascend again, climbing up and over Profanity Ridge -- appropriately named -- and into a dense forest of pine trees. At this point, we went straight when we should have turned right; but we still made it to the end of the trail, where there was a fire tower and a spectacular view of the valley below. It was definitely worth the struggle to see it.
During the return trip, John took a picture of me standing in the aspen grove: this would be his "dear in the woods" picture, like the picture he had seen on a co-worker's calendar (a deer in the woods in the Escudilla Wilderness).
It took us only three hours to complete the trail roundtrip; when we returned to the van, it was only 11:00 a.m., meaning that we still had a whole day to kill. And what better way to do so than to go exploring! Armed with the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest Service map, John and I jumped into the van and went looking for roads that we could take. According to a web site John had found on the Internet, several of these roads, including FR's 24, 25 and 26, are considered scenic routes. Along these roads, we drove through vast meadows covered with wild flowers of every color as well as through forests of pine and aspen trees. We also drove along the Black River, which joins with the White River and becomes the Salt River somewhere in the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.
And, of course, no exploration would be complete without at least one trip on a 4WD road. After leaving FR 26, we ended up on Highway 191, going towards Hannegan Meadow. Just after passing Hannegan Creek, we found a primitive road that peaked John's curiosity. It was only a few miles long, and it led to the Thomas Creek Weir, a US government-owned facility that we think manages flooding.
After that, we headed north again on Highway 191, towards Alpine and Luna Lake. John also drove us into Luna, New Mexico, just to add it to the list of things we did on our trip - that way, we could say that we saw two states. There wasn't much to see in Luna, though, so we didn't stay for very long.
Upon returning to camp that afternoon, we decided to give each other a sponge bath before dinner while the sun was still shining. We laid the tarp out in the middle of the meadow then stripped down; and as we did so, the clouds began to roll in, covering up the sun. It got very cold very fast. We quickly scrubbed each other down; then, shivering, we tried to get dressed...and as soon as we had our underwear on, a truck drove by us! Embarrassed that we had been caught almost naked in the woods, we smiled and waved at the passing motorist, wondering if they were just as embarrassed as us.
Before I even had my shoes on, I felt the first drops of rainfall from the thunderhead above us. Thunder cracked and lightning flashed across the sky. We had already started cooking our dinner, so we had no choice but to continue doing so, no matter how hard or how long it rained. With the tarp draped over the side doors of the van, John and I prepared our dinner the best we could and cooked it on the camp stove. We ate our dinner in the van, sheltered from the storm, which had blown over just as the rice finished cooking.
That night we had another disaster. After the dinner dishes had been cleared away and the wine had been served, John and I went into the trees to gather firewood in hopes that we could have a real fire that night. The fire gods must have been pleased with us that night because we managed to build a very nice bonfire that burned most of the night. As we sat down to make pies for dessert, I suddenly realized that one of my earrings was gone! I was going to take them out before hiking the Escudilla Trail, but I had forgotten...and now only one of them dangled from my ear. Using the lantern and the Maglite, John and I searched through the grove of trees, next to the van, in the van...everywhere! I was nearly in tears, until John announced, "I found it!" I had lost it when I dropped my load of firewood next to the fire ring. Relieved and very happy, I threw my arms around him and thanked him with kisses for finding it; then I took the matched set and put them away in my purse.
The next morning, we began the next leg of my birthday adventure: the trip to Mount Graham. Getting there would be half of the adventure. We planned to take the old Devil's Highway (Route 191, a.k.a. Route 666) down through Hannegan Meadow towards Clifton and Morenci. The whole trip would be one hundred miles, but it would take us four hours to drive it because of the condition of the road. On the map, it looks like a bunch of Z's and W's all joined together. At some points along the road, the speed limit is ten miles an hour because of sharp U-turns and blind corners...and it's a paved road! (I tried to imagine it as an unpaved road, but it just seemed too scary.)
We made a lot of stops along the way, one of which was at Blue Vista. From this rest area, it is possible to see almost all of the mountains in the area; and labeled charts at all of the vista points tell you what you're looking at. There is also an interpretive nature trail that is three-quarters of a mile long. John and I decided to hike it as an educational experience. Along the way we found a wide variety of trees and shrubs, all of which were labeled with signs telling us what they were and what they had been used for historically. At the end of the trail we found some scrub oak; at first glance, it seemed that the leaves were discolored, but on closer inspection, we found close to 5,000 ladybugs! They were everywhere, crawling from every branch of every oak! For us, it was a neat experience to see so many ladybugs in one place.
Towards the end of the Devil's Highway, we reached the mines of Morenci, which had been established in the 1800's. During the years, as more ore was uncovered and the mines began to grow, the town of Morenci had to be moved to the site where it is today as it had been completely engulfed by the mine. Today the mine covers about three miles along the highway. Giant dumptrucks with tires the size of a sedan can be seen crossing the highway, carrying dirt from the mines.
Next to Morenci is the Phelps-Dodge mining town of Clifton. Our map indicated that there was a ranger station in town; we wanted to stop there to purchase a Coronado National Forest map (which would include Mount Graham). However, we couldn't find it...because the ranger station was several miles outside of Clifton! Then, when we finally did find it, at the junction of Highway 191 and Highway 70 (the road to Safford), we suddenly realized that it was Sunday; the ranger station was closed.
We continued on towards Safford, where we stopped to replenish our soda and wine supply and to buy a new gas cap for the van (we had lost it in Springerville). We also went to Dairy Queen for ice cream because it had been a hot day. Then we left civilization again and started towards Mount Graham.
John had camped on Mount Graham before, several years ago with his father. He said that getting there was rather interesting because you drive several miles on a flat desert highway. Then suddenly, there is a huge mountain in front of you, right in the middle of the desert! It was an awesome sight.
The road going up Mount Graham was a challenging one, with many sharp U-turns and blind corners; however, it was paved for the first twenty miles. Along the way we found the village of Turkey Flat, which was a small town of privately owned cabins, as well as some very nice picnic areas. We also tried to find the road leading to the controversial telescopes constructed by the University of Arizona, but we couldn't find it on the map.
We drove around for several miles past the point where the pavement ended. Finally, we settled for the overflow campground for Soldier Creek, which was empty. It was already getting late so John and I immediately set up camp and prepared dinner. Then John tried to build a campfire. Of course, once again, the wood was too wet to burn, no matter how much "Boy Scout juice" he used on it. I told him that he should use motor oil, but he said that he had forgotten to pack it. Fortunately, his father always kept some under the hood of the van, and that was what saved the day. Soon, we finally had a decent campfire.
While searching for more firewood, John found all sorts of wildlife, including a nest of baby birds and a skunk. We were also joined by a pack rat that night; the little critter sat under the camp table to try to catch some warmth off of the campfire.
The next morning, after dropping camp, we went exploring. We took the highway all the way to the top of Mount Graham, where it dead-ends at Riggs Lake, a beautiful man-made lake surrounded by fee area campsites. There weren't a lot of people there because it was Monday morning (and most normal people were already at work). We saw a few children fishing and a couple of canoes on the boat ramp, but for the most part, it was very calm around the area.
Our next stop was at the Mount Graham ranger station to buy a Coronado National Forest map. As John talked to the ranger about our adventures in the White Mountains, I checked out the educational displays in the next room. These displays were meant to teach visitors about the types of animals which inhabit the Mount Graham area - coyotes, deer, rabbits, skunks, etc. There were plastic samples of scat, footprints, and pelts, and you had to guess to which animal each item belonged.
We decided not to do any hiking that day; instead, we went rock climbing. On the way up the mountain the day before, we had found a waterfall at Post Creek, and we decided to stop there to play on the way home. The waterfall was probably anywhere from thirty to fifty feet tall, surrounded on either side by giant boulders suitable for climbing. John quickly scrambled to the top, using a fallen tree trunk; but for me to do the same took some careful planning and instructions. From the top of the hill, John directed me on which way to go, and I plotted my course by looking for footholds well in advance. Eventually, I joined him on top of the hill; from that standpoint, there was a beautiful view of the valley below Mount Graham and the surrounding mountain ranges -- it was well worth the work.
Though our weekend was almost over, we still had time for one more adventure before going home. After leaving Mount Graham and passing through Safford and Thatcher on Highway 70, we found Klondyke Road, a forty-mile primitive road maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. According to the map, Klondyke Road would take us through Aravaipa Canyon and into a parking area at the border of the Aravaipa Wilderness Area. This area had peaked John's curiosity, and he had been doing Internet research on it as a potential backpacking trip. However, visitors are required to obtain a backcountry permit from the BLM prior to entering the wilderness; and only fifty people are allowed in the area daily. Historically, Aravaipa Canyon was home to Apache Indians, and the name "Aravaipa" means "girls...probably for some unmanly act", according to a book on Arizona place names.
The first several miles of Klondyke Road cuts through low desert then gently begins to climb to high desert as it approaches private land, on which there are acres upon acres of ranches. In fact, most of the land in Aravaipa Canyon is privately owned. After we passed the town of Klondyke, we found ourselves in a preservation area through which there was absolutely no trespassing past the fence lines along the road. People had bought up the land in order to preserve the beautiful riparian area along the Aravaipa River. However, we were still able to enjoy the area as we drove through it. At times, we had to drive under a thick canopy of trees; other times, we could see the beautiful rock formations on the walls of the canyon. Truly a scenic route.
The last five miles of the road through Aravaipa became a 4WD road, according to a sign posted in Klondyke. This was due to the fact that we had to cross the river five times before reaching the parking lot; other than that, we were still driving on "super slab"...until we were 0.9 miles from the parking area. That was when we found the end of the road: a six-foot ditch that only a 4WD vehicle could have crossed. Had John owned the van, he would have attempted to cross the ditch, but he didn't want to risk damaging his father's van. We had no choice but to turn back.
Upon returning to Highway 70, we continued towards home, taking only one more side trip to see San Carlos Reservoir on the way. When we arrived in Phoenix, John announced that we had traveled a total of 987 miles over four days and that we had seen two states, seven counties (including one in New Mexico), two national forests, four major rivers (and countless creeks and streams), six lakes, two deer, one skunk, one lost earring, and five thousand ladybugs! Wow!
And thus ended the most memorable birthday of my life...
Return to Naked in the Woods.
|This site maintained by John and Heather Verley, © 2001-2010.|