Traditionally, Labor Day is one of those long weekends when Verley adventures happen. It started with our first Labor Day weekend together, in 1998, when it rained the entire weekend. Mary's first backpacking trip took place over Labor Day weekend in 2000, when she was only twenty-six days old.
This year, we didn't have plans...at first. After we failed to put together a multi-family camping trip - and after John learned that he would have to take a week of furlough during the following week - we were content just to stay home for the weekend and work on some projects around the house. That would also give John the opportunity to pack for the four-day solo backpacking trip that he planned to take during his furlough week.
But plans seemed to change by the minute during the days leading up to Labor Day. Less than two weeks before the holiday, I learned that I would need to travel to San Francisco September 6-8, to attend a training course for work. (It would be my first business trip ever.) That forced John to move his furlough ahead one week, as he couldn't necessarily go backpacking if I wasn't home; someone had to be home for Mary. (And John couldn't just sit at home for one week without being able to work; he doesn't handle boredom well.)
With John's solo backpacking trip rescheduled, we decided to go ahead and make plans for Labor Day weekend - or, at least, Saturday and Sunday. (We would stay home on Monday so that I could pack for my business trip.) After giving the matter some thought, we opted to go backpacking, on the Fred Haught Trail #141, only this would not be the usual luxury trip. This time, we were going to hike the entire distance of the trail, from General Springs Cabin to Pinchot Cabin - a total of about twelve miles roundtrip (six miles each day). It was certainly doable, and we would have all day - both days - to do it, if needed.
Before embarking on our hike, we set up a game plan to make the hike less stressful for Mary - and for us, for that matter. To make this trip successful, we decided that we would hike for a period of one hour, then sit down and take a twenty minutes break, during which time we would read, eat a snack, and relax. This would ensure that Mary got the rest that she needed...and that we kept our sanity, too.
Bright and early on Saturday morning, September 3, the three of us set off on our backpacking adventure. To get to the Fred Haught Trail, we took SR 87 north through Payson, Pine, and Strawberry, to the Mogollon Rim. From there, it was another twelve miles of dirt road - behind many slow-moving vehicles - to the General Springs Trailhead.
As expected, there was a rather large crowd camped at the General Springs Trailhead when we arrived; there must have been a dozen RV's and ATV's and twenty people, camped behind the historic cabin - just as it had been the last time we were there, during Labor Day weekend 2009 (when we took Mary's best friend Zoey backpacking with us). They were very gracious about us parking there in the middle of their campsite; they also wished us lots of luck on our journey as we geared up for our hike.
At 9:45 a.m., we set off on the trail. Like all of our other trips on the Fred Haught Trail, this one started out easily enough, and we hiked at a good clip of nearly two miles an hour. We were all feeling very strong...and it helped that we were so familiar with the trail, too; we already knew what to expect.
As we hiked into General Springs Canyon that morning, we were reminded of how conditions can change from one year to the next. In the past, the creek that cut through the canyon was always flowing with clean, cool water; it was something that we could always count on whenever we backpacked there. That summer, however, had been drier than normal; during our last two backpacking trips, we found only stagnant ponds of water where there had once been bubbling creeks. The same was true for the Fred Haught Trail; there just wasn't much water to be found at all.
We took our first break at 11:00, in a shady nook under a grove of trees. There, we ate granola bars and read books to get the rest that we needed to ensure that we could finish our journey. We had already hiked two easy miles and had not burned up too much energy by doing so; however, John explained that the more difficult stuff was ahead of us. Mary and I had never hiked the trail beyond Fred Haught Cabin; John had, and he knew exactly what we could expect...and it wasn't nearly as easy as the first three miles of that trail...
The next leg of our journey took us to the junction with the Arizona Trail, at which point, we crossed the creek one last time and climbed up a small ridge, towards Fred Haught Cabin. Just past the cabin, John explained that we were about to begin a steep climb up to Quien Sabe, so he suggested that we pause for lunch, even though we had not yet been going an hour since our last break. That would give us a chance to rest up before the big climb.
Mary was not happy about the big climb. Even though it was only a quarter of a mile in length, it was a climb nonetheless, and she just didn't want to do it. As we ate lunch, John explained to her his technique for handling steep climbs: take it slowly, take frequent breathers, and don't cry about it.
And so that's what she did. She took it slowly, hiking at her own pace and taking frequent breathers. Before she knew it, she was at the top...and it only took her five minutes!
"That wasn't so bad!" she exclaimed.
"That's what we were trying to tell you," John said.
"Yeah! You need to try it before you cry it!" I added.
As we reached the top, we crossed a forest road and began our descent into Quien Sabe Draw, at the end of which we would find a spring. (John remembered stopping there to fill his water bottles during his solo Cabin Loop attempt in June 2008, while Mary and I were in Baltimore.) By that time, we had already used about half of our water but had failed to fill up our bottles at the last pool.
It didn't take us long to hike through Quien Sabe Draw to the spring. As we approached the spring, we heard the thundering of hooves and realized too late that we had startled a very large elk, who was trying to drink from the spring. The elk dashed up the hillside, stopping long enough for me to take a picture of him before he disappeared into the trees at the top of the ridge.
Of course, having seen an elk drinking from the spring, we fully expected to find water there; instead, all we found was a rather large mud hole where water used to be.
"We probably should have filled up near Fred Haught Cabin," John said. "This is not good."
"Well, there has to be water near Aspen Spring," I said. "It's only a couple more miles, right?"
After a long break at Quien Sabe Spring, we started the steep climb out of the draw. John had forgotten about this climb; and Mary certainly wasn't prepared for it. There were plenty of tears shed before we crested the hill and the trail flattened out again. She was tuckered out already...and yet, we still had a mile and a half to go.
The next mile and a half were the longest mile and a half of our lives. At the top of the ridge, there was a short hike through the forest to another forest road; there, we crossed to the other side and continued through the forest. Soon, the trail began to descend sharply - okay, steeply - towards yet another forest road. Seeing how steep the trail was, we were already dreading the return trip; that was going to be a groaner!
At the junction with the forest road, we encountered another pair of hikers; they had just completed the Houston Brothers Trail and were heading back to the General Springs Trailhead. They asked us where we were planning to spend the night, and we told them that our plan was to hike to Aspen Springs, to camp for the night. They warned us that we should reconsider camping there, as there was a rather large group of campers already there, and they were loud and obnoxious. ("There were a lot of beer cans there, if you know what I mean," they said.) John asked them if they had seen any water between Pinchot Cabin and Aspen Springs, and they said that there was plenty of water along the way; however, there was nothing past Aspen Springs. If we were planning to camp, it would be wise for us to consider camping close to Pinchot Cabin.
So that was what we planned to do. That new plan sat well with us, too; it meant that we were going to shave a mile off of our trip. And at that point, we were looking for any excuse to be done with our hike.
The next part of our hike took us down the forest road, to the Houston Brothers Trailhead. Although the road was mostly flat, it was by no means an easy hike. It was nearly 2:00 in the afternoon, and the sun was bearing down on us. There was no shade to be found, and we were hot and miserable. At every curve, we hoped to find the Houston Brothers Trailhead; but instead, all we found was more road. We thought we'd never see camp.
Then, finally, we found the turnoff to the trailhead! At long last, our death march was almost over! We hiked as fast as our tired feet would allow us down the trail, a third of a mile to Pinchot Cabin...
...and when we arrived at Pinchot Cabin, at 3:00 in the afternoon, we found that we had the whole site to ourselves AND that the creek was actually flowing with water! No stagnant pools; there was plenty of fresh, clean water. We had found our home for the night.
Once our campsite was set up, we laid down and rested for the rest of the night. We were utterly exhausted - and our feet were blistered - from the long hike. Needless to say, we were all in bed early that night...
For the first time that night, John and I used our new sleeping pads, which we had just purchased at REI. We had reached a point in our lives where we were tired of sleeping on the hard ground overnight; it caused our hips to hurt in the morning, and it was no fun hiking out like that. After much research, we bought the Big Agnes Air Core sleeping pads. These sleeping pads look a lot like swimming pool floats and inflate to about the same size; deflated, they rolled up into a small bundle that weighed only about twenty-five ounces, so they were light enough - and small enough - to carry in our packs. The only downside to these pads was that they needed to be broken in before being used in the backcountry; every time we moved on them, they made a sound like someone passing gas, and that sound woke us up often throughout the night. They did, however, provide us with the comfort that we needed; we made it through the night and woke up without the usual aches and pains from sleeping on the ground.
Of course, we still had the aches and pains from the long hike we had done the day before...
Refreshed from a good night's sleep, the three of us awoke to a new day and to the challenge of hiking back to the General Springs Trailhead. We had a long road ahead of us; the earlier we started, the better. So, as quickly as possible, we packed up our gear, laced up our boots over our swollen and blistered feet, and hit the trail.
Our return hike started out with the long walk on the road - which, of course, was much easier than the day before, because we weren't attempting to do it in the heat of the day. It is amazing how fast one can hike on a flat, dirt road when the sun isn't baking down on it; we accomplished this leg of the hike in a fraction of the time it took us to hike there.
Hiking up the ridge to the next forest road? Now, that was another story entirely. We knew that it was a steep descent...and that meant that it would be a steep climb up. Knowing that it was going to be brutal, we planned ahead of time that we would take the climb slowly, stop frequently, and refrain from crying about it. (Again, it was that whole idea of "try it before you cry it" - a concept that we were trying to teach Mary.) That said, Mary managed to make it to the top of the ridge without any tears shed; she was quite the trooper.
We took our first break - an hour into our hike - at the junction with the next forest road, just before our descent into Quien Sabe. John reported that we were hiking at a much better pace than the day before; he expected us to be done sooner than the day before, only because we would be done with the difficult legs of the trail early.
I would have thought the same thing; however, Mary was still feeling the exhaustion from the day before, and she hit the wall about halfway through Quien Sabe Draw. We weren't even halfway through the day. It was going to be a long day.
Mary's problem turned out to be related to the blisters that she had on her feet; for the first time ever, she had some bad blisters - comparable to the ones I've had while doing the Komen 3-Day. When we broke for lunch, we all took off our boots to dress our blisters, and that was when we saw that Mary had the worst ones of all. No wonder she was in tears!
After lunch, we put our boots back on and set off to hike the last two miles to the trailhead. We also had to make a decision: 1) to make the last climb up and over the ridge, on the trail, or 2) go off-trail and hike through the creek. John preferred #2 - he always liked that route better. Mary and I preferred #1; despite the fact that there was a groaner of a climb up and over the ridge, it was on the trail, and we didn't feel like doing any route finding, not with the blisters that we had. So, when we reached that point, we opted to stick with the trail, and John went off on his own to hike through the creek. We would meet up him at the sign, at the bottom of the hill.
Of course, he beat us to the sign. He always does.
From the sign, it was only another half-mile to the trailhead; I don't think I've ever seen Mary that happy to be done with a hike! Her feet were sore, and she was completely exhausted.
We finished hiking around 2:00 in the afternoon and soon thereafter began the long drive home. En route, we stopped in Pine for a small treat to celebrate the fact that we had finally completed the entire length of the Fred Haught Trail, from the General Springs Trailhead to the junction with the U-Bar Trail, at Pinchot Cabin - a total of twelve miles round trip. Quite a feat for small feet!
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