Having just returned from a celebratory repast at our local Thai restaurant, I must formally thank My Lovely Bride (shown here in a very snazzy outfit which got multiple ‘Wows’ at dinner from several ladies) for posting the blog by proxy on Friday while I was backpacking and hiking out west for a week. Suzanne also dropped me off and picked me up at the airport, which was much nicer than taking the shuttle or hitchhiking…
Well, the plan was for a week in the Superstition Wilderness, and I thought I had planned the trip with care, but three events conspired to wreck my plan… and as Colonel Crusty would tell you, “No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.” In this case the enemy was (a) the weather, in the form of a huge, slow-moving low pressure system that brought 2 inches of rain to some parts of the mountains I was planning to be in, resulting in dangerous flash floods; (b) the Superbowl, which some nitwit scheduled during my visit to the Phoenix area (how dare they!); and (c) an insidious attack by the Rhinovirus, resulting in a heavy dose of the common cold, which I must have picked up on the flight out to AZ, and which slowed me down more than a tad on my hikes later in the week.
My arrival at 6:00 PM on Tuesday allowed a necessary stop at REI (an amazing outdoor store) before closing time. I needed to get some pressurized gas fuel for my tiny stove (carrying this aboard an aircraft is a rather serious No-No that gets you invited to a special private meeting with unsmiling TSA agents). Then I found a hotel in Fountain Hills on Hotwire ($54 that night, $264 for the next few nights). I was going out into the boonies in my tent the next day, but I asked the desk clerk why the big price rise. He looked at me sorta funny and said, “Well… it may be because of the tens of thousands of visitors for the Superbowl and the Phoenix Open.” My reply: “Oh, really? I don’t watch much TV.” This caused his eyes to roll just a bit, and I think he may have taken me for a Conehead just arrived from Remulak. I tossed my bags in the room and went across the street for a pizza, where I met Ted Blank, a really nice guy whose son served in the Navy, and who is the president of the Fountain Hills Astronomy Club. Ted has his Really Cool Automatic Tracking Telescope (RCATT) set up outside this pizza joint and encouraged every passerby to look at the moon (75 times larger than the naked eye… Awesome!) and a nebula where stars are being born (in the Andromeda galaxy, I think???) It was a great way to end my first evening in Arizona.
After a decent night’s sleep, I drove to the trailhead at Canyon Lake, started hiking on the Boulder Canyon Trail (gee, why do they call it that?) and entered the Superstition Wilderness. The mountains are the location of many abandoned 19th Century gold mines, including the Lost Dutchman mine, which supposedly was the site of a mother lode. The prospector who found it died before he could extract the gold, and people have been searching surreptitiously for his mine for the past century. The mountains are also the traditional home of many Apache Indians, who believed that a hole here led to the underworld, and that the hole was the source of dust storms in the area.
By the way, the Superstition Mountains are not flat. The tall one in the distance is Weaver’s Needle, a 1,000 foot tall spire of rock with an elevation of 4,555 feet. Shortly after I took this photo, I met two young rock climbers who had spent the previous night on the summit after a challenging 5.5 climb requiring ropes and belays.
The hike in had many ups and downs, finally arriving in a canyon strewn with boulders tossed around easily by the flash floods that come with anything more than one quarter inch of rain (there’s not much dirt and no lakes or ponds to hold rain water in the rocks that serve as soil here). That’s Battleship Mountain on the right. My campsite would be just another hour’s hike at this point, and I was looking forward to sitting down and just enjoying the stark but strikingly beautiful scenery.
Did I say “stark”? “Nay”, you may say, “see all the green thingees in that photo!” Well, most of the green thingees are nasty plants like catclaw and cactus, such as this jumping cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida), which has attached itself to my calf in the photo at right. The spines of this cactus have thousands of microscopic barbs which can make removal rather painful. Fortunately I was not seriously affected by these little devils, and after this first encounter, I put on my long pants to reduce the probability of epidermal damage from aggressive vegetation.
One of the characteristics of a desirable camp site is a flat spot big enough for your tent. Another is a nearby water source. I found both near this delightful body of algae-covered water, Second Water Spring. (There are only six reliable springs in the 370,000 acre wilderness. The water was only a couple of inches deep, so bathing was not in the cards. But my hand-pumped water filter supplemented by iodine tablets and iodine neutralizer tablets (to remove the foul taste and color imparted by the purification tablets) did the trick, and I replenished my 3 liter water supply in under 15 minutes.
A few minutes later my tent was set up, and I had a cozy abode ready for the night. There are very few bears around this area, which was a blessing, because I didn’t have to carry a heavy bear canister to protect my food, and the trees were big enough to hang my food bag high enough to keep coyotes and mice away. Unfortunately, campfires are not allowed, but gas stoves are okay, so I was able to enjoy a hot meal…
… made up of the dehydrated vegetables, chicken and pasta that I had prepared a couple of weeks ago. Just add boiling water, wait 8 minutes, and “Presto-Change-O”… it looked like real food. I declared it delicious, a meal fit for a king, complete with Eau d’ Second Water Spring. Okay, it might not have been quite as tender as the fresh version, but it was pretty good, and options were a bit limited. The nearest restaurant was about 6 miles/4 hours hike away.
As the sun set, I enjoyed a beautiful light show (no lasers) on the rock wall west of my campsite. I hadn’t seen anyone in the past couple of hours, and those were all day-hikers, so I knew I was going to enjoy the solitude of a desert evening that would see temperatures drop into the low 40s. My 32 degree sleeping bag (and if necessary a down jacket to supplement the bag) would keep me toasty warm atop my lightweight air mattress.
I fell asleep listening to the hooting of an owl out hunting his dinner on a brightly moonlit evening. No coyotes around here; I suspect there just weren’t enough rabbits or ground squirrels to keep coyotes alive in this area. It was one of the better night’s sleep I’ve had in my tent, with only a minimum of tossing and turning. The tent is very lightweight (read “tiny”), not allowing much room for thrashing about. Inside my old two-man tent, I had room for my boots and backpack… but not in the new one. My backpack was hanging in a tree (to keep mice out) and my boots were just outside the door (and yes, one does turn them upside down and shake them in the morning to check for tarantulas or scorpions).
I awoke the next morning just after dawn to sounds of rockfalls in the distance. I got up, and was just about to heat water for breakfast when an apparition appeared from the hillside above my campsite. Another hiker, but where did he come from? We were miles from any trailhead and it was just barely light enough to be hiking. He approached, and we started talking… Tom had been hiking the Ridgeline Trail, an 11 mile, very difficult trail along the spine of the Superstitions. It normally takes 10 hours to complete. He and his hiking partner (both experienced outdoorsmen) had started late, without a topographic map, and were “caught out” on the mountain by nightfall. While his partner had long pants, Tom only had shorts, and temps were dropping into the 30s up top. They split up, his partner waiting until daylight to move; without a map, Tom was unable to find the trail out, and his car was about 10 miles away on foot. To keep from getting hypothermia, Tom would sleep for 10-15 minutes, then hike for 45 minutes to warm up, all night long, mostly over boulders and through thick spiny cactus vegetation. He had found some water in rock divots on the mountain and treated it with iodine, but at 4 times the normal dosage. I saw his coughing and eyes burning from the harsh iodine, and suggested he use my purifier and refill his bottles at the spring. Then I noticed his arms and legs, badly cut up by cholla and catclaw, with dozens of cactus spines stuck in his skin. After a quick breakfast, I struck camp and we set off for my car, which was parked at a trailhead much closer than his on the other side of the wilderness area. After a 3 hour hike out, it took an hour and a half drive to reach his car; his partner was still on the mountain, but they had exchanged text messages after we got out of the canyons and he was okay, and expected to be down in about four hours. I was happy to help him out; he asserted that he would pay it forward to the next hiker he met in that predicament. The experience underscored the necessity for not underestimating the difficulties one might encounter in the wilderness or the mountains, and being prepared for every eventuality.