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August 28-29, 1999

"The Highline "Wreck"-reational Trail"

When we first decided to go backpacking that weekend, our original plan was to do a "luxury" backpack into Clover Creek. We wanted to take John's parents with us so that they could get a little bit of practice packing and unpacking their backpacks. Their only recent practice had been our difficult hike in the Narrows, in Zion National Park. We were going to be taking them into Aravaipa Canyon during Labor Day weekend - a three day weekend - so we felt that a dry run would be a good idea for them.

However, the plans fell through because Bill had to work, so John and I chose to do another trip, one that was a little more strenuous so that we could work on getting back into shape before our trip to Aravaipa Canyon. We also wanted to have a chance to test our new rain gear, which we had just purchased at Popular Outfitters a few days prior. We bought these rain parkas using gift certificates we had received as wedding presents. Each parka cost $99, and they are great for backpacking because they are small and lightweight, and they stuff into their own pockets.

Then, we had to pick a trail. Our choices were limited because most seasonal creeks were dry that time of year, and we didn't have the equipment necessary to carry extra water with us. We narrowed our choices down to two trails: the Pine Mountain Trail, in the Prescott National Forest, and a portion of the fifty-one mile long Highline Trail, on the Mogollon Rim. After calling the Prescott Forest Service and learning that there wasn't any water in the Pine Mountain Wilderness Area, our choice became obvious: we were going to hike the first eight miles of the Highline Trail, from the Pine Trailhead, along SR 87 (just a half a mile outside of Pine) to the Geronimo Trailhead, along FR 440. There would be water in the numerous springs along the trail as well as water in Webber Creek, at the Geronimo Trailhead.

We struck out for the trailhead at 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning and arrived less than two hours later, ready to hit the trail. Then we put on our backpacks and discovered that they felt heavier than usual, although we had tried to reduce what we usually carry. This was probably due to the fact that we had not backpacked in over a month! However, we figured that our heavy packs wouldn't slow us down because we were going to be hiking an easy trail. Everything we had read about the Highline Recreational Trail implied that the trail was relatively flat for the entire fifty-one mile length.

The first mile of the trail was indeed flat as it wound through the ponderosa pine forest outside of Pine. Although there were several mud puddles left over from recent rains, the hike wasn't difficult at all. Then, the trail began to climb steeply as it turned south to go around Milk Ranch Point. For the next two miles, the trail continued to climb, steeply for the most part. Naturally, John and I are accustomed to hiking steep trails, but what made this hike so difficult was the mud! It wasn't sludgy mud like the stuff we encountered on the Los Burros Trail the week before. No, this was slippery mud, the kind that made our lives miserable as we tried to climb that hill. "Well," John remarked as we reached the end of the steep climb, "it could be worse. It could be bright and sunny out."

He had a good point. It had been overcast all morning, so we didn't have the hot sun beating down on us. It was very humid, though, which made breathing difficult. At one point, I remarked that hiking in that humidity was like breathing through mayonnaise - a comment that John called "cute", though he didn't want to know if I had actually breathed through mayonnaise! (I hadn't, of course. Mayonnaise was the first thick substance that came to mind when I wanted to make the comparison.)

Naturally, since John had jinxed us by mentioning that that it could be bright and sunny out, the sun decided to make an appearance, about halfway down the trail. However, by lunchtime, it was obvious that we were going to get hit with a major monsoon storm, because there were dark gray clouds gathering in the distance. Soon, they covered up the sun and loomed dangerously above us. With the skies ready to open up at any minute, John suggested that we immediately find a place to set up camp so that we could be sheltered once the storm hit.

We found a campsite about an eighth of a mile from the spot where we had lunch. While John set up the tent, I bear-bagged the food. Just as we were finished, the skies opened up and sprinkled on us. John opened up the tube tent and used it to cover up our gear; then, we both crawled into the tent to get out of the rain.

It rained for about a half an hour, during which time John and I played naked to pass the time away. Then, after the rain subsided, we decided to go for a short hike. We were only a mile shy of the Geronimo Trailhead, and since our goal for the weekend was to hike all of the way there, we were determined to accomplish that goal, rain or shine. Before embarking on our short journey, I put on my rain parka, just in case it started to rain again. John, however, did not. "Aren't you taking yours?" I asked him. "No," he replied, "I don't think I'll need it."

Again John jinxed us with those famous last words. After hiking for twenty minutes through the slippery mud, we finally came to the Geronimo Trailhead. It was there that we found Webber Creek, which we had to cross to reach the trailhead. The creek, which was lined on either side with raspberry brambles, was flowing rapidly with muddy water (due to the rainfall). Crossing was difficult, and just as soon as we reached the other side of the creek, it began to rain again!

Needless to say, we hiked back to camp as fast as we could in the pouring rain, through the slick mud that hindered our steps. After John helped me get back across Webber Creek, he took off ahead of me, leaving me to hike back alone - quite understandable, because he didn't have his rain gear and he was already completely soaked through. I fought my way back through the rain, treading as fast as I could through the rivulets that used to be the trail. Lightning flashed all around me, and the thunder boomed in my ears - in retrospect, it was a scary experience, but at the time the only thing on my mind was getting back to camp, where I could be in the shelter of the tent.
Soaking wet campsite on the Highline Trail
When I finally arrived at our camp, I crawled into the tent and discovered that everything was wet. Our "shelter" was sitting in a low area, and puddles of water had formed underneath the tent floor. Of course, if the floor of the tent had been made of plastic, that wouldn't have mattered, however, the floor of our backcountry tent is made of the same material as its walls - nylon! Once something had touched the bottom of the tent, the water began to seep through. Then, if that wasn't bad enough, we discovered that one of the seams on the rain fly had a small leak, just enough of a leak to be a nuisance. In order to solve that problem temporarily, John put his rain gear over the rain fly. To solve the other problem - the wet floor - we had to wait until it stopped raining. Then, we put the tube tent underneath the floor of the tent to keep the moisture from contacting the nylon.

It rained for about an hour. During that time, John and I stayed inside the tent and played cards until the storm subsided, for what else can you do when you're out in the backcountry during a storm? Even after the rain stopped, the ground was so wet and muddy that we spent most of the evening in the tent, emerging only long enough to take pictures, adjust the tent and cover our gear with trash bags, and cook dinner.

Before dinner, we still had to take care of another crisis: we needed to filter enough water to cook our food and to refill our camelback bladders for the return trip the next day. However, we were a mile from Webber Creek, which was the closest water source to our campsite...but we weren't about to go through that again! During the storm, we had laid out our pots and pans to catch rain water; when the storm was over, the pans were full, so we filtered that water. While John was working on that, I went to explore the area because I thought that I had heard water running. Sure enough, some of the dry rivulets were now flowing with muddy rain water! We were able to filter enough water to get us through the end of the trip.

After dinner, we returned to the tent and spent the rest of the evening in the tent, playing Rummy and Go Fish. Once it got dark, John strung the candle lantern up in the tent so that we would have enough light to play. Then, around seven-thirty that night, we blew out the candle and went to sleep, completely exhausted from the day's adventure.

We were awakened around 10:00 p.m. by the sounds of thunder and of falling rain - the summer monsoon had returned for the third time that day to wreak havoc. It was still sprinkling when we awoke the next morning at 6:30 a.m. By that time, we were so sick of the rain that we didn't waste any time dropping camp. At 8:00, we put our backpacks on and began hiking out of there.

For most of the return hike, the skies were overcast, giving us some relief from the brutal heat we had faced the day before, however, it was still very humid. The humidity and the thick mud made those long climbs very difficult. The worst part, though, was the steep climb from Milk Ranch Point, which took us once again through the slick mud, this time downhill. Somehow I managed to keep from falling, which was a miracle given the conditions, but John fell once and cut his hand on the log on which he landed. Then, a bit later, he slipped and almost fell again, leaving a "forty-two foot" skid mark - "And that was just the one in my underwear!" he joked as he pointed out the two-foot long skid mark his boot had left in the mud.

The mud wasn't the only hazard left behind by the monsoon storm. As we passed by Pine Spring, which was our first choice as a campsite because there was water nearby, we noticed that there was a huge tree trunk laying on the trail. "I don't remember this being here yesterday," John remarked. "Do you?"

"No, I don't think it was here yesterday," I replied. "It must have fallen over during the night! Good thing we didn't camp here!"

"Yeah, but I bet you if we had camped here, we would have heard the tree fall over!" he said jokingly. (Did it make a sound then, since no one was around to hear it? It didn't matter to me at that point, because if we had camped there and heard the tree fall, it would have scared me to death!)

We finished the trail around 11:00 a.m., completing the hike in just over three hours. Muddy and exhausted, we climbed into the van and drove into Pine, where we stopped at the Texaco station for lunch. Then, we headed home. After spending two days in the mud and rain, it felt wonderful to be home, to take a hot shower and put on clean clothes.

But, if you look on that sick and twisted "bright side", we did get to test our new rain gear that weekend!

 

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