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October 16-17, 1999

"The Balla(r)d of Washington Park"

One year ago, on October 17, 1998, John asked me to marry him, during what was probably the most miserable camping trip we had ever taken on the Mogollon Rim. We had been hit during the night by brutal winds, and as a result neither one of us got any sleep. That morning, it was so bitterly cold and windy - and I was so sick - that we decided to skip our planned hike. In fact, we decided to bail out on our camping trip and check into the Windmill Inn in Strawberry, where we could sleep in a warm, comfortable bed and celebrate our new engagement.

One year later, in order to celebrate that anniversary - and our three month wedding anniversary - we decided to plan another camping trip on the Mogollon Rim. You would think that we would have learned our lesson the first time, but some lessons need to be learned the hard way.

Our original plan was to try to organize a group camping trip. We wanted to get all of my girlfriends involved, including those who thought that camping involved the Holiday Inn. Once again, John and I had bad timing, and the only taker was Lori Ballard and her seven-year-old daughter Megan (who had been the flower girl/camera geek at our wedding). Lori loved camping but had not done any since she was a kid, and Megan loved being one with nature, to the extent that she would come home from day trips to Sedona covered from head to foot with dirt, according to her mother.

We left October 16 - Saturday morning - bright and early, and drove to Washington Park, where we hoped to find a good campsite. Though we didn't arrive until 9:30 a.m. - and though it was hunting season, meaning that most of the campsites had already been claimed by hunters - we still managed to get a decent campsite, right next to the East Verde River. This campsite was found right next to the Washington Park Trailhead for the Highline Trail #31. It was a secluded site, set in a low area about a hundred feet below the trailhead. We couldn't get the van down to the campsite, so we parked it at the trailhead and hauled all of our equipment downhill to the site. We accomplished this very efficiently and managed to get all of our stuff set up by 10:30, just in time to do a short hike. The whole time, Megan kept asking us, "When are we going to go hiking?" She was dead-set on going hiking and couldn't wait to go.

She wouldn't be disappointed, because John had selected a moderately easy hike for us to do. Our hike for the day would be a two mile portion of the Highline Trail #31, from Washington Park to an unnamed creek west of the trailhead. John had hiked that portion two weeks ago with his father and decided that it would be appropriate for a child of Megan's age.
The Ballards & John on the Highline Trail
Equipped with our day packs, we began hiking at 10:30 a.m. As John promised, the trail proved to be a moderate hike, with a few steep sections that Lori hated. For the most part, however, it meandered through the woods and over some red rock shelves until it reached the unnamed creek. It took us an hour to get there - just in time for lunch! Since this was such a short hike - to our standards, anyway - John opted to bring the picnic backpack with us, so that we could have a little wine with our lunch. After we sat down by the creek, in a lovely, shaded area, John served the wine - and Lori served Megan a fruit drink - and the four of us enjoyed relaxing lunch in the woods.

Our return hike took us just under an hour to complete. Though Megan was beginning to tire, she still found the energy to turn our hike into a race between herself and John. It was interesting to see how much she is like John. They are not related in any way, yet Megan struck me as a "John Junior" in that she tends to be a "mountain goat". She is a child who truly enjoys nature. I hope that when John and I finally have children that they turn out like her.

Upon returning to camp, we decided to rest for a bit. Megan suggested that we all sit by the river, next to our campsite. We sat down there for about an hour. Then, as it began to get colder, we retreated to our campsite, where the early evening sunlight was beaming down, just enough to warm us up. We also began our search for firewood. Megan helped me gather twigs to use for kindling, while John went after the big logs - the ones that would burn all night.

Once they were relaxed, John announced that he wanted to go exploring. He knew that, across the East Verde River, there was a game trail that lead to the Pump House Trail, which would take them to the Highline Trail. He asked us if anyone wanted to join him. Lori and I were content to remain at camp and rest, but Megan wanted to go. So the two of them took off across the river, and an hour later, they finally returned. They had hiked about three miles during that hour - that was some incredibly fast hiking - and surprisingly, Megan was still not tired!

By that time, it was dinnertime - and as the sun began to set, it was also getting colder! On went the jackets and the long pants, and we also started the campfire to keep us warm throughout the evening. After the sun went down and darkness settled in, the temperature dropped significantly, and the uppers were beginning to howl a bit. "We should be pretty much protected down here, though," John pointed out. Being in a low-lying area, we were certain that we weren't going to be subject to the brutal winds that had blasted us last year while we were camped on the edge of the Mogollon Rim. And for most of the night, that was true. We had a lovely evening, during which we made S'mores and pies, roasted marshmallows, and, of course, drank wine. Then, around 8:00 p.m., we all turned in for the night...

...And, around midnight, the winds picked up. The same brutal, fifty mile an hour winds that had blasted us last year were back, vibrating through the rain flies and shaking the walls of our tents, throwing our camping equipment around, and ripping pine branches off of the trees above us. As a result, none of us slept very well that night. On top of that, when it was time to get up the next morning, it was so bitterly cold that all of us were miserable.

To make matters worse that morning, the winds didn't die down. Instead, they continued to blow just as fiercely as before. The wind was so strong that it blew over the camp stove while we were trying to boil water for coffee and oatmeal. It wasn't damaged, however, its fuel could have caused an explosion had it gotten any closer to the campfire!

Just like last year, John and I decided to call off our hike of the day and go exploring instead. After cleaning up camp, the four of us jumped into the van, and we drove down the Control Road to Highway 87 then up to Clint's Well to buy some snacks for the road. Then, the exploration began.
Heather & Lori & Megan at Potato Lake
Our first stop was Potato Lake, where we found a frisky chipmunk who had run into a tree trunk at the last minute to seek refuge from the humans. Along the way, we pointed out our favorite campsite - the meadow in which John and I had been "naked by a road".

Next, we drove to the Baker Butte Lookout Tower, where we were in luck because the ranger was there! She gave Megan all sorts of neat things for Show and Tell, including posters about wildlife in the forest, rulers, pencils, and booklets. John and I also had a chance to hike the Nature Trail around the lookout tower. The trail was only a fifth of a mile and fairly easy, except for a couple of steep sections that got the blood circulating - after that, we weren't so bitterly cold anymore!

On the way back to camp, we decided to stop by the Geronimo Trailhead of the Highline Trail. I pointed out the wild raspberries that grew in the brambles next to Webber Creek, and we all went looking for ripe ones to eat - that was quite the treat! (It was also a treat to be able to enjoy the area under drier conditions - the last time I was there, we were stuck in a rainstorm!) We also encountered a deluge of cars coming from Camp Geronimo, the Boy Scout camp at the end of FR 440, near the trailhead. Apparently, there had been some sort of jamboree that weekend, and as a result there was an incredible amount of traffic on the road! That's quite a change for us, considering that we're used to seeing no one.

We also saw a lot of wildlife during the return to our camp. We came across one coyote, two white-tailed deer, and of course, lots of squirrels. Megan kept track of them all by referring to the posters she had received from the forest ranger.

It was lunchtime when we arrived at camp, and it was also time for us to pack up and leave. After eating our sandwiches, we collapsed the tents and packed everything up in the van. Then, around 1:00 p.m., we began our journey home. By that time, we were all exhausted from the lack of sleep. In fact, Megan was asleep before we even reached Payson (Lori knew that she was truly asleep when her "McDonald's Radar" didn't go off as we passed through town - we had finally worn the child out.)

But the adventure was far from over. About eight miles from Saguaro Lake Junction, just as we began climbing over the last pass before descending into the Valley, we found a bus broken down on the side of the road. Now normally, we see vehicles broken down all over SR 87 because of the mountainous roads. This time, however, John knew the motorist. He recognized the bus as being "The World's Ugliest Bus", which belonged to Mike Putz, a skydiver. John couldn't just leave him on the side of the road. After finding a place for us to turn around, we returned to the bus. Along the way, we found Mike walking on the opposite side of the highway, trying to get a cell phone signal. We picked him up and drove him six miles down the highway, to a place where he could get a cell phone signal to call for help. Then, after he found someone who could help him tow the bus back to civilization, we took him back to the bus to wait for help to arrive. Mike was grateful that we went out of our way to help him. John told him that we've been in similar situations before and that we have often relied on the kindness of strangers to help us out. It was time for him to return the favor.

It was early evening when we finally made it home. Tired and beat, we unloaded our camping gear and said our good-byes to Lori and Megan. Though we had a fun weekend, we were glad that it was over, just to be out of the wind. We also learned a new lesson that weekend: don't go camping the weekend of October 16!


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