During the past month, John had become more and more fascinated with the idea of backpacking into the wilderness. He had done much research on the Internet and had even purchased backpacking gear. I decided that, for the weekend after his birthday, we would go on our first backpacking trip.
John's thirty-second birthday was September 30, 1998, a Wednesday night. After he got home from work that night, I was waiting for him with a bag of presents: a Calvin & Hobbes comic book, a Refreshments CD, and a book called Hiking and Backpacking. (This book would accompany us on our backpacking trip.) Then, I took him to dinner at the Salt Cellar Restaurant, where we enjoyed a wonderful seafood dinner - John had steak and lobster - and a couple bottles of good wine.
Friday morning, our adventure into the wilderness began. John had chosen the West Clear Creek Trail #17 for our backpacking trip. The trailhead is found in the Bullpen dispersed camping area, near Camp Verde. We had already checked out the site two weeks prior to our expedition and determined that the road leading to the trailhead wasn't a bad one; we could make it there in the Oldsmobile. The day before our trip, though, John had sold me his Oldsmobile (and I had sold my Honda Civic). He then used that money to buy his father's van, the same one that had gotten stuck in the mud Labor Day weekend. The van had enough clearance to handle FR 214A without a problem.
When we arrived at the trailhead, there was no one camped there at all. (The last people we had seen were those at the service station in Camp Verde, where we had bought ice for the cooler.) After gearing up for the hike, John pulled out his backpacking guide and insisted that I take a picture of him scratching his head with a confused look on his face - that's my intrepid explorer!
For the most past, the West Clear Creek Trail #17 is a relatively flat trail with three or four creek crossings that were sometimes hip deep. It begins in high desert, cutting through meadows and desert shrubs before entering the wilderness area at West Clear Creek. As we followed the creek, we were in a beautiful riparian area with oak and sycamore trees, poison ivy, and tall reeds. Then, as the trail pulled away from the creek, we returned to high desert, and we had to hike through sharp cactus plants and scrub oak before descending to the creek once again. We did this for several miles, taking breaks often to eat trail mix and Power Bars for energy and to take off our backpacks. Though I was carrying thirty pounds - and John was carrying forty - I wasn't having many problems with the hike, probably because the trail was not difficult and I had already had a chance to practice hiking with the backpack. By lunchtime, I was still feeling energized enough to keep going.
However, it wouldn't be an adventure without something going wrong. About two hours into the trail, I suddenly realized that I had left my birth control pills in the van! It was too late to turn back, but fortunately, I had been taking them for so long that taking Saturday's pill a half a day late wasn't going to be a big deal. John didn't seem to be too edgy about it; he said that he wouldn't mind having children with me, but not right away!
The first injury of the trip was John's. For our adventure, he had purchased a Leatherman - a super pocketknife with tools built into it. He was using it for the first time to cut a hunk of cheddar cheese for a snack, and as he put the blade away, he cut his thumb open. Drops of blood fell onto the rock on which he was seated and onto his clothes. I quickly grabbed a bandage out of the first aid kit to put over his cut.
We stopped for lunch on a sandy beach next to our last creek crossing, at which time we were having trouble locating the cairns to guide us. After removing our packs, we sat down on our camp chairs (which were Crazy Creek knock-offs we had purchased at Target for $12!) and made sandwiches made of English muffins, summer sausage and cheddar cheese. (It may not sound appetizing, but it is a surprisingly delicious sandwich!) We considered camping in that area, but since it was still early in the day, we opted to continue hiking in hopes that we would find a better place further up the creek.
First we had to cross the creek; and that was our most treacherous cross of the day. The water was hip deep in some parts...and deeper in others. One wrong move and we could have been submerged. John went first to blaze a path for me to follow; he made it to the other side, where there were two large boulders in the water, which we could hold onto to get to the shore. Unfortunately, there were spiders on them! And not just any spider but huge, nasty brown spiders that were probably six inches in diameter!
Being the arachnaphobe that I am, I felt myself beginning to panic, and I refused to take another step until the spiders had moved off of the rock. John knocked them off with a stick -- they even gave him the heebie-jeebies -- then signaled for me to continue crossing the creek. I made it to the opposite shore without a problem, hoping that the spiders would not return for fear that I would panic and injure myself.
After successfully crossing the creek, we continued to follow the trail for another mile, at which time the path began to lead away from the creek. We soon noticed that West Clear Creek was more than 100 feet below us, deep within a canyon that seemed inaccessible. That disappointed us because we had had our hearts set on camping next to the creek. John began to hike along the rim of the canyon in hopes of finding a way to return to the water without having to turn around and go back to the last creek crossing. Finally, he found a wash that lead into the canyon. Once we climbed down the first ten feet of the wash, we had to cut our switchback down the steep walls of the canyon to get to the cliff. From there it was a sheer ten-foot drop to a sandstone shelf on which we planned to camp. Hiking down the switchback was frightening because the dirt was loose; one wrong step and I would have fallen over the edge of a seventy-five foot cliff. I decided to take that switchback on my butt because it was safer. Then, in order for us to get to the bottom of the cliff, we had to lower our backpacks by rope. Once they were at the bottom, we rock-climbed down an alcove in the cliff.
After taking a refreshing swim in West Clear Creek, we set up camp on one of the sandstone shelves next to the water. To chill our wine (which we had brought with us in a sports bottle), we tied a rope to the neck of the bottle and let it sit in the cold water for several hours. We then built a campfire. There was already a fire ring at our campsite, and there was plenty of dry wood nearby, so within minutes we had a roaring fire going. After that, we filtered some water from the creek to refill our camelbacks. We had to do all of this while there was still sunlight. Being deep in the canyon meant that we would see the sun set at three o'clock in the afternoon - we would still have sunlight, but we were going to be in its shadows and it was going to cool off quickly.
Before it got too dark, John started to cook dinner, which consisted of canned chicken cooked in broccoli au gratin flavored rice. He cooked our meal in little pots he had bought in Clint's Well, over a backcountry stove made by Camping Gaz, one of the better stoves on the market. It was a delicious meal. For dessert, we had pudding and fruit cups, and we drank our wine to celebrate our first backpacking trip.
We had a full moon that night as well as a sky full of stars. After dinner, while we were pleasantly buzzed from the wine, John and I sat on one of the boulders, in the middle of the creek, and watched the stars. It was very peaceful, very quiet...very romantic. "I try to take you to nice places," he said with a smile.
We slept under the stars that night; there was no place to hang our tube tent, but there really wasn't a need for it anyway. We crawled into our sleeping bags and fell asleep watching the stars.
Although it was very beautiful to be sleeping under the stars next to a river, there was a price to pay. Sleeping on the sandstone shelf proved to be very hard on the back and shoulders. Neither one of us slept very well that night. I drifted in and out of sleep all night, getting a total of four or five hours of snooze time. It was for that reason that I was very tired the next day during our hike out of the canyon.
After a breakfast consisting of Pop Tarts, John and I packed up camp and headed out of the canyon. First, we had to lift the backpacks up the ten-foot cliff by rope. Then, we had to climb back up the switchback to the wash. I did so on all fours because the dirt was too loose for me. In doing so, I dropped my hiking stick - the one Bill and Erika had given to me during Labor Day weekend. It landed next to the river. Scared and angry, I stood in the wash and tried to catch my breath. John asked me if I was okay; I shook my head. He asked me if I wanted him to get my hiking stick out of the canyon; I nodded. By the time he returned with the stick, I had finally recovered from my fright, and I hugged and kissed him, happy to be alive.
From that point, we continued hiking the West Clear Creek Trail. During the previous day, we had hiked the first five miles, meaning that we still had another 2.7 miles. When we had chosen this trail, John had told me that the last 1.7 miles is an 1800-foot elevation change as it climbs out of the canyon. What that means is that it is one long grueling climb that would take us nearly three hours to complete. Early on, during the hike, I fell down and bruised my knees. Then, towards eleven o'clock, I was in tears because the trail was just too difficult for me. Of course, at that point, there was nothing I could do but try to finish the trail at my own pace, but all I could think was that we should have returned the way we had come instead of trying to attempt that climb on our first backpacking trip.
Finally, we reached the boundaries of the wilderness area, and just beyond that was the trail terminus - but the day was not over yet! We still had to walk 2.5 miles down a forest road to get to the Blodgett Basin Trail, which would take us back to the Bullpen camping area, where the van was parked. It was on that forest road that John and I saw people for the first time in thirty-six hours; I had been walking at a good clip of 2.5 miles an hour, but John had lingered behind to refill his camelback. I managed to get a quarter of a mile ahead of him, and he managed to hitch a ride in the back of a pick-up truck to catch up to me!
The Blodgett Basin Trail, a 2.5-mile long trail that completes a loop with West Clear Creek #17, was a very boring trail that was not at all scenic. There were only two highlights of the trail. About halfway through the trail, John and I found a mother deer and her baby. The doe ran away, but the fawn lingered a moment longer, staring at us as if trying to figure out who we were. The other highlight was at the end of the trail, where we found the van. It felt wonderful to have finished the trail and to be in the comforts of the van again.
After stopping for lunch and ice cream in Camp Verde, John and I decided to drive up to the Mogollon Rim to join his parents, who were camped there, off of FR 218. When we arrived at the motor home, we discovered that his parents were not there, so we caught a ten-minute nap while we waited for them. Upon returning to camp, they discovered us, invited us inside to shower, and gave us hot cocoa and wine to drink.
At 5:30 in the afternoon, John and I announced that we were going to set up camp so that we could take a power nap before dinner. We lay down before six o'clock and fell asleep...and at six thirty the next morning, we emerged from the tent, fully rested and ready to begin a new day! "That was some power nap!" Bill and Erika joked.
During the morning hours, the four of us went exploring on FR 81, towards Long Lake and some of the other lakes in that area. We took the van because it had the clearance to make it over some of the roads, but these roads were in terrible shape, full of oil-pan eaters and tire-slashers. John had only owned the van for four days, so he was overdue for a disaster. While on one particularly bad road, we must have hit one of those tire-slashers, because suddenly the van seemed to be dragging. He asked me to look out the window and check on the back tire, which was fully inflated. Once we reached the good road - the all-weather road - the van was still dragging, because the right front tire was completely flat. "What is it with you and tires?" I demanded, laughing hysterically. "You've only had the van a few days and you already have a flat tire!"
We all worked together to get the van back on all four tires; John and Bill removed the flat, while Erika and I pulled out the spare. Then we had wine and cheese and crackers to celebrate another flat fixed.
Later that afternoon, upon returning home to Phoenix, I learned to keep my mouth shut about John and flat tires, because the Oldsmobile had a flat...
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