Verde River Walkabout
March 21 - April 10, 2008
By Thomas J. Elpel and Friends
March 21. On the Road
Tom: After two years of writing, I finally wrapped up my latest book, Roadmap to Reality, and sent if off to the printer. Feeling half-crazed from so much time in front of the computer, I was desperate to get out in nature again for some hiking, camping, and primitive skills. Joining me on this trip were my son Donny, age 13, along with previous interns Sholei and Kris, and a guest, Niall from Canada. Sholei brought her dog, Mud, and I brought our dog, Timber. March is still winter in Montana, so we packed the car and headed south for Arizona.
Niall: I'm writing from the back of a van loaded with five bodies, camping gear, and two dogs. We drove all night. I slept most of the way through Montana, Idaho, and into Utah. Sholei drove first, followed by Tom, until it was my turn at about four this morning. I started driving somewhere in Utah, and drove steadily, except to fill up once, until nine-thirty. I was lucky to get the interesting roads as we left the interstate and took a secondary highway. The sun rose over the red cliffs and sagebrush of Arizona. The sunrise was brilliant pink and the landscape impressive.
Tom: I often think of Arizona as a far from Montana, so it is really amazing to leave home in the evening and arrive there in the morning. At dawn we stopped to let the dogs out for a bit.
Kris: I saw a raven. It is a powerful and fearless looking bird. I tried walking around, but the wind was cold and quickly drove me back into the car. The forest of juniper turned into sagebrush country, which soon gave way to canyon lands.
Donny: The road trip was not very interesting. I spent my time in dreamland, and I woke just after crossing the Arizona border. We stopped at the Colorado River for breakfast, then drove to Flagstaff.
Niall: We stopped in Flagstaff for gas and we went to a surplus store. I found a poncho and bought it for ten dollars, a good investment to save my good one. Donny needed camo pants, and ended up unwittingly buying a pair of woodland camo maternity pants, with a stretch panel on the front. We teased him about it for days.
We stopped in Camp Verde for ice cream and groceries. From there we drove to nearby Beasley Flat. The group, minus Tom, walked barefoot along the Verde River for an hour and a half. This area is greener than the desert we have seen, but it is still sparse compared to my idea of a river valley. We rearranged our gear in the evening, and I repacked all my stuff, after a reasonable shakedown, into a blanket pack. As night came on, we piled into the van and drove up the road to camp.
March 22. Heading Out
Niall: This morning we left the van with a shuttle service to have it moved to our destination near Payson. We walked out across the high ground heading southward. The day began to heat up, my pack became uncomfortable, and I found the ground a bit rocky for my glove-like "fivefinger" shoes. It was not an encouraging start. I fixed my blanket pack to make it tolerable, but it was still an uncomfortable pack. It is not designed to carry this much weight.
Kris: We made slow progress as the field of flowers brought our feet to a halt and our noses to the ground to breathe in the smell of spring. We stopped in the shade of a juniper tree and fashioned digging sticks and foraged brodiea bulbs. We stuffed our mouths and filled Mud's pack, then walked on a road toward the Brown Springs Ranch on the Verde River. We got our first taste of the diverse (hundreds it seemed) species of plants with thorns. I found a desert Christmas cactus with red fruits. I had seen them harvested on Survivorman, so I gathered some to taste. Hundreds of tiny hairs fall off, which ended up in my hands. We ate the fruits, but I spent hours plucking spines from my hands.
Niall: We left the road shortly before it terminated at a ranch house and followed a dry creek bed to the river. This was a neat way to travel, and it renewed my interest. The waterway had steep rocky sides at times, and the ground was often flat and sandy. It was also cooler. This joined another creek, where we filled up and just sat for a while. I guess we were all tired.
We made camp at the confluence of the creek and the Verde River. Making camp is a simple matter of unrolling blankets and gathering wood. We chose an open space among some willow trees, and tried making a fire with a handdrill, but though we got a lot of smoke it did not quite work. Donny started a fire with a fire-steel, and everyone started to cook their rice and lentils in individual mugs next to the fire. I made a quick tripod and hung my little pot/mug from it, which seemed to astonish Donny and Kris. I never thought of a simple tripod as bushcraft, just an essential thing, but I guess this is an unnecessary craft and doesn't really fit in with the "do nothing" method of survival.
Kris: We ate our meal, then had a salad (foraged by Tom), with creamy Caesar salad dressing. We brought the dressing to aid in the transition from tasteless civilized greens to the natural wild greens.
Niall: Campfire discussion revolved around bushcraft and the differences between northern and southern survival. Meanwhile, Tom gathered greens, Sholei cleaned the brodiea bulbs, and Kris and Donny tried snares. Dinner was very good, lentils and rice with some seasoning and a salad with oily Caesar dressing. As good as any meal I have had in the backcountry.
March 23. An Uncomfortable First Night
Niall: My first night was a rough one, as expected. I did not sleep by the fire, but bundled up in my blankets and poncho. I dreamed I was on a survival trip with Ray Mears, a modern bushcraft guru. We were building all kinds of things in the boreal forest, and I crafted a large, well-insulated bed of grass and boughs, and snuggled into it, because I was cold and wanted to get warm. I woke up to find that my toes were freezing and my hip aching. I dug a hip hole, rearranged my blankets, and snapped the poncho cover together. Bushcraft is deeply rooted in me.
The morning was not quite the alpine start I am used to. We languished by the fire, cooked oatmeal and then ashcakes, talked and filled up, then packed up. Ashcakes are a wonderful treat on the trail, simple to pack and prepare, and I will use them on many trips in the future. In the simplest form they consist of wheat flour, mixed with just enough water to form a dough that does not stick to the hands. The dough is flattened into biscuits and roasted on the coals. Hot off the coals, they are very good.
Kris: After eating a breakfast of oatmeal, we set off up a hill and skirted around the ranch. The hillside was blanketed in a variety of flowers and constantly brought our curious fingers to discover their place among the hundreds of families. Surrounding hillsides were coated in golden California poppies, demanding that we lift our eyes from the rocky terrain and soak in their beauty. We rested near some rapids on the Verde River and let their breaking sound sing to us as we sat in the shade of oak trees. The wind blowing over the cold river kept the heat of the day to a wonderfully pleasant level and we found ourselves grazing on miner's lettuce as we passed through this sense-filling land. I felt free like ungulates as we foraged our way through the day.
We broke through the welcoming forest and out into the heat of the friendly sun. It caressed my skin into a lethargic coma, but being so detached from nature's voice, as humans are, we walked instead of napping. We wandered along sandy beaches, rocks, and driftwood. We moved as quickly as possible over boulder fields and plant debris. The pace was slow over the difficult terrain, but I found much joy in jumping from rock to rock and letting them massage my feet.
Niall: The rocks began to hurt my feet, and this was about to get a lot worse. Sholei scouted ahead and returned with the recommendation to climb up high, but with the heat and Donny's reluctance to climb, Tom opted to take the low route, scrambling over rocks. It was quite the route, and progress was slow as we climbed over huge jumbled boulders and clung to the sides of rock walls. Finally we reached a cliff that was impossible to get by, and had to climb up beside and over it.
This was a very steep climb, with loose rocks that could fall and hit a person below. For the first section we went one-at-a-time, but the second section was less steep, and we were more complacent. I followed too close behind Sholei, and she accidentally sent a head-sized rock tumbling right at my head. I dodged it, but it would have hit me hard. I have been more careful since. Getting down took its toll. I managed to jam several large thorns in my hand, and had to be very careful on the steep, loose rock. After this I strongly suggested climbing to the mesa, but Tom, Kris, and Donny were more inclined to follow the river.
Kris: Eventually, we were cliffed-out, unable to walk any farther along the river. We backtracked to a sandy shore and made camp. Instant mashed potatoes are the perfect trail dinner, and I would be happy to eat their multiple varieties for months on end. We again enjoyed a salad before nodding off into restless sleep.
Niall: As we laid out camp, I noticed that Kris had taken a driftwood board and leveled out his spot, and began to cover it with grass. I ribbed him about this unnecessary effort, and he said that he had been hanging around me too long.
March 24. Climbing up a Dry Mountain
Niall: Much better sleep last night, though I did not expect it. I dug a proper hip hole and laid down as much grass as I could find, which wasn't much, and folded my blanket crosswise, curling up in it so that I had more width and less draft issues. It all worked rather well. Though the ground is rock hard, I can sleep on it with a hip hole, and though I was not quite toasty, I could sleep if I decided to. It really is a decision. I would sometimes lay there and start to shiver, convinced that I should be cold because I was in the open with scant covering. But then I would stop, snuggle in, realize that I was warm, and go to sleep.
After a slow breakfast, we decided to climb high to avoid obstacles on the river. There really was no other way, but we underestimated how high the gully behind our camp would take us. We climbed for hours, up a steep and rocky channel, which was very hard on my feet. Sometimes we had to lift the dogs up to get them through.
Kris: It was cool in the shade of the gully, hiking among the boulders. There were intermittent water holes for the dogs to drink and bathe in, and every once in awhile we were treated with the opportunity to climb up dangerous but fun rock formations. We came to a difficult dry waterfall twenty feet tall. With packs on, I scouted to the right and Tom to the left; my adrenaline pumping, heart racing, and muscles shaking as I climbed over areas lacking hand and foot holds. Tom's route was obviously best, so everyone followed him. I took off on my own, not wanting to go back down and back up the other side. I met up with them later and we snacked on almonds and pine nuts. From there it was straight up the mountain, bush-whacking through the spreading junipers. I, filled with the joy of my pre-lunch solitude and a need for a summit, set off on my own. My legs reveled at the landscape before me and I felt no soreness as I powered my way up, zig-zagging around the junipers. We met up in the shade to consult the maps when a sneezing fit overtook me.
Niall: I relearned several navigation lessons about south facing slopes and valley bottoms - always choose the former, and avoid the latter, even in canyon country. We finally reached the top and still had to climb higher and to the west, hoping to intersect a trail on our map. This map was only a public lands map with limited detail. Tom had topographic maps for all but this first section. Another big navigation error, or rather a planning error. I should have checked to see if Tom had the maps ahead of time. I felt frustrated with Tom, and a bit less confident in his leadership.
Donny continues to lag behind and slow us down, while Kris has a tendency to hurry on ahead and get separated from the group. Sholei has done well, carrying Mud's pack when Mud could not. I was ready to vent at the top of the mountain, but I steadied myself and we all sat down to look at the map. I verified our position with GPS, and we managed to discuss our options intelligently.
We stopped at a muddy watering hole. Donny waded in the mud and threw his hat around while catching frogs, kind of like Poor Tom from King Lear. My feet have really started to hurt on the sharp rocks, and I am worried about what might happen to them yet. I'm feeling a bit stupid for wearing fivefinger shoes in this terrain. I really underestimated how rocky it would be. I hope my feet toughen up rather than collapse and ruin the trip.
Tom led us down into the canyon without discussion, over more sharp rocks and back into another gully, this one steeper than the last. I thought it might be a better option to stay at the water hole and try to find the trail tomorrow, but foolishly said nothing. The draw was very hard on my feet. When we started we had about three hours of sun left, and when we finally found this camp it was getting dark. Things took a long time before we found water. At first it was more of the same, jumbled rocks, cliff walls, sometimes five foot drops to climb down. But when we got to water, it was quite different. Tall sycamores and leafy ground were now the norm, but still no flat ground. These trees are huge, white, and seem totally oversized for the gully. It was quite beautiful, really, though not the stuff you could make pictures from. The water interacted with the roots and rocks in delightful patterns. But it was also very steep at times, and the footing was poor.
Tom informed us that the plants we had been scrambling over and grabbing were poison ivy, which was not even supposed to be out yet. We quickly washed our hands. Tom does know his plants. I forgot to mention that he was stung in that first gully, probably by a scorpion. He quickly chewed up an astringent plant that was at hand and applied it to the wound, continuing the treatment all day. There has been no swelling, and he reported only a bit of numbness.
Kris: I found energy in an area that reminded me of Tennessee, minus the humidity. I sped down the gully. Waterfalls along the way required careful climbing, but all seemed well until we found ourselves at the top of a forty-foot waterfall. I scouted to the right and Tom to the left. I made it down to the creek and looked up at the waterfall before making my way back to the group. We took my route and continued to wander down until we came to a suitable campsite.
Niall: Sholei and I collected greens for supper. This route took us along the edge of a sheer drop into the waterfalls and pools below. It was a surreal, which kept me from feeling any fear. It was very beautiful, but way too risky. We made it across okay, holding roots and sliding on our butts, and continued over more rocks and leaves.
As dark was gathering, I heard a shout ahead that a camping spot had been found, and felt very relieved. We were not even close to the river, but fortunately found a flat spot with water and wood. We quickly gathered wood and cleared sleeping spots. The usual arrangement, Donny and Tom by the fire, the rest of us scattered out. Dinner was a long time in coming. I kept the camp entertained with The Cremation of Sam McGee, the story of Willy the fungus baker, and the story of Erik and the falcons.
I like this role of storyteller, even though I don't do it all that well yet. It tickles my ego to be the one who is familiar with the mythological, exciting, and even the magical parts of life. What sort of mythology can I turn this insane journey into? I mean, look at the details. Donny is out of shape and selfish, like any other thirteen year old. Tom is... well, Tom. His character is one to discuss later. Kris seems like the most misguided naturalist I have yet met. He justifies and preaches the sort of laziness that means shivering the night away on a poor bed rather than taking a few minutes to build a good one. And as for Sholei, I cannot figure out how she has spent the ten years between our ages. Of all the group members, she is the most trustworthy, and she works hard. So here we are, out in the boonies scaling cliffs in sandals, moccasins, and fivefingers, sleeping in scanty wool blankets, with most of them carrying cotton clothing. Navigation is poor, planning nonexistent, and I find myself guiding the group sometimes, trying to keep it together when we get off trail so we don't lose each other, like we almost did after the first gully. There are the makings of a good story, I just have to take care of myself and make it through.
Kris: Rice and red beans for me and a night sleeping under a juniper on top of a boulder beside the creek. I set up a stick bumper to prevent me from falling into the creek below, before falling asleep in a land of paradise, juniper, and sycamore branches dancing to the light of the stars.
March 25. Back to the River
Niall: I passed a less restful night than before. Hard bed, and I could not get comfortable. I did not dig my hip hole deep enough. The discomfort brings out or accentuates any other discomforts, and I also felt cold, though everyone else agreed the night was the warmest yet. These nights are balmy compared to what I am used to.
I laid there in the morning, unwilling to leave the blankets, watching the light grow on the red rock walls close at hand and the huge white trees. For breakfast we had the customary oatmeal and ashcakes. I opted to eat my ashcakes hot, since the small portion of oatmeal did not satisfy, and skip lunch. Donny managed to burn yet another hole in his blanket and poncho. His single blanket now has four gaping holes burned in it, because this is the only blanket he brought and he snuggles close to the fire during the night to stay warm.
We finally got moving and headed down the gully. It was more of the same, hopping on rocks through the good parts, wading through bushes or scrambling over the hard parts. More pain for my feet. Cattle tracks and droppings started to appear, and I found a cattle trail that hugged the northern side, and we followed it. But the trail took us up, well above the river, and we had to scramble down a long rock chute. More murder on the feet.
Kris: We needed to get back down to the creek to avoid being cliffed-out, and so scrambled down a gravel slope, bringing our pace to a screeching halt. Going one at a time, we made it to the bottom where we filled up on good cool and clean spring water and lathered up in sunscreen. Down the creek some more until mid-afternoon when we met up with the river an eighth of a mile from where we started the previous morning. My blistered skin tore off, leaving a raw flesh on the sole of my right foot. With my sandals, I previously found barbwire hidden in the sand, driving a rusty barb deep into the middle toe of my left foot. Consumed with picking my feet up to avoid another injury, I neglected to keep my head up and was impaled in the forehead by a strand of barbwire stretched head-high above a gate. I have never seen barbwire nailed over a gate like that before.
Niall: At what must have been noon, we got cliffed-out again. It was very hot, and the prospect of climbing over seemed daunting. We stopped, and Tom, Donny and I went for a bath in the river, which was very cold and refreshing. Then we returned to the shade where the others were dozing, and snoozed for a bit. Reluctantly, we climbed above the bluff, which was actually quite easy. We continued on with only a few more stops, until at last we were cliffed-out again. But we knew where we were, because we could see a powerline intersecting the river, and this meant we were now entering our topo maps. So we were able to come up with a plan.
Tom: We could have avoided a lot of trouble if I had a topographic map of that first section of our trip, but I was unable to obtain one. Anyway, I thought the unknown was exciting and adventurous. We explored hidden gullies and riverside nooks that we would have completely missed if we were on the trail. Leadership flowed back and forth as whoever had the strongest opinion at any moment took charge and led the group. I liked it that way. None of us made great navigational choices, but we were never in any real danger. We learned by experience. I was especially proud of Donny. He trooped along over every kind of terrain with few complaints. The biggest challenge was bushwhacking. Almost every bush here has thorns. Our legs and arms were covered in bloody scratches.
Niall: Donny wanted to climb the slope to reach a road to Verde Hot Springs, but the group decided to camp there, since we were running out of light. It was our nicest camp yet, on a sandy bench among some willows, flat, sheltered, and warm. Supper was a labour-intensive project, cooked over Donny's firebed. We dined on ashcakes and refried beans. I mixed up the dough and tended the fire, and when it came time to cook, Kris and Sholei joined in.
March 26. Welcome to Mecca
Niall: This country came alive for me. In the morning we climbed up a javelina trail and found good walking along the ridges before joining a red dirt road. This was satisfying, efficient travel with panoramic views, the way navigation is supposed to work.
Traveling along the road, I drifted off into my own world of future plans, that state where the senses are satisfied and I live in my happy place, the bright and open future. Then we came to a gate, and shortly after to another one, where cattle chutes and sheds stood by the road, posted with "No Trespassing" signs. A small house, half stone and half wood, stood beyond, and in the yard was a tawny dog with a studded collar and an old man who has become the face of this part of the country for me.
His hair and beard were white, with toes showing through velcro shoes, knee high red and blue socks, black spandex shorts, a tattered camo tee, hunched shoulders and sun-withered skin, and a desert camo cap with the badge of a "rifle expert" - which I believe is a genuine one.
He came over and asked Tom where we were coming from. The answer was rather embarrassing, that we had taken three days to come from Beasley Flat. He asked how we had come, and the answer was even more embarrassing. You could tell what we looked like to him, and his outlook was probably correct. Five inexperienced outsiders lost in the country. He said the trip would take him two hours on foot. I don't know how much of a hyperbole that would be, but it is probably fairly close. He asked if we had topo maps, and the truth was again an embarrassment. He spoke with a drawl and the same spicy flavour of profanity I am used to from ranchers at home. He asked where we were headed, and looked over the route with Tom. He asked if we had a route planned, implying that planning was essential. Then he began to go through the maps with Tom, adding extensive knowledge of trails that did not appear on the maps.
He asked if we knew how to use the map, compass and GPS. I answered that I did, aware that this probably looked like a bluff. He became more paternal as the idiocy piled up. He offered advice that, truth be told, I should have known, such as, when crossing a draw, to look ahead for where the trail leaves the draw. I liked it, though, because it all had the same flavour as my northern adventure and old party chiefs.
He asked what our backgrounds were, which was met with an awkward response, since we are such an eclectic group. He cracked something like, "You're all pissed off at each other for getting lost." Finally it came through that we are a sort of primitive skills/survival group. Then he went on to plants, and he asked Tom what we'd been living on. They discussed the edibles intelligently. "Watch out for the onions" was the advice, and he also mentioned a plant to treat Sholei's poison ivy. She did not sleep last night because her legs and arms broke out, and she has been suffering today. That reminded him he had food on the stove, and he said a quick goodbye. Still no name.
Before we left, he said, "This is Mecca, you know what I mean", with a certain glint in his eye. Tom asked if the hot springs were worth visiting, and "Oh yeah, they're the main attraction." So we walked six hundred yards down a trail, which was strangely well maintained, with retaining walls of concrete, and found a concrete pool. There was brickwork on one side, each brick painted brightly in hippy colors, with things like "Led Zepplin" written on them. In and around the tub were several people, all naked, and many had tattoos. I felt like I had stepped into a scene from Easy Rider.
I might have joined them, but it wasn't an option at the time. We turned back and sheltered under a cliff. I started typing this entry immediately, and Tom and Sholei pored over the map. She is not sure she should continue, given her condition. The old timer estimated four days hiking to get to the van, provided we didn't get lost, which was clearly a potshot. I think we may be going home sooner than expected.
As I typed, the old timer came back eating a bowl of food. He asked us if we had found the spring, and Donny said, "There were naked people there". He did not think much of them, and had told me, condemningly, "They were talking about illegal substances," at which I struggled not to laugh. The old timer replied, "There's always naked people there. I told you, this is Mecca."
He led us to a better, shaded spot, and offered food and ointment for Sholei. He also asked how much "real survival experience any of us had." Tom said that he had gone on a lot of long trips, but was not yet able to live off the land. At this prompting the old timer said that he could, provided he was near the river. Good, old-fashioned boasting. I like it. I followed him and Tom to a draw a short ways away, where he showed Tom a wormwood plant, a type of sage, to make a poultice with. We picked it, and brought it back to the fire here in the shade.
He offered us the use of his fishing tackle. Tom did not express interest at first, but the old timer persisted, and eventually Tom, Donny, and I went with him to his house and brought back a minnow net and trap and some hooks and rods. We took it back to the shade. We prepared the poultice and cooked a quick lunch, waiting for the minnow trap to work for fishing bait.
Later the old-timer returned and talked more about fishing, telling us how to catch crawdads and how he likes to run his camp. As the conversation waned, I tried to pick it up on a line that interested me most. I asked him what brought him out here. He said "I'm dying. This is where they'll spread my ashes." I take this to be a melodramatic way of saying he has retired here.
Our conversation wandered and he shared a detailed theory of the origin of life on earth, that our distance from the sun provides us with the proper harmonics on the quark level to create carbon-based life and a cooling planet. Not the sort of thing you expect to hear on a survival trek. Then he went on to explain that mathematics is the language of God. He said he is a geophysicist, and when I asked him if this was his profession or hobby he answered with "both," and said he used to be interested in poetry and writing and then transitioned to a Christian phase. He told me that no man can tell you God's mind, and you cannot communicate with God until you are "willing to throw down Zeus." I won't pretend to know what he is about, and to what degree he is full of it, but the facts and techniques and theories he mentioned were sound so far, so there is some kernel of truth to his character. Who knows, maybe he is a geophysicist.
Awhile later he came back again. It seemed a bit comical, really. He would drop in, drop off tidbits of knowledge like how to track a snake, and then wander off again. He loaned Sholei a pair of Victoria's Secret pajama pants that belonged to a lost lady friend, because Sholei's pants are contaminated with the poison ivy oils. You can imagine the ridiculous image of red lingeree, with a rope tied around the waist to hold them up, in the middle of a strange sort of wilderness.
Sholei was a bit on edge, especially after he commented that her shorts were restricting her circulation. Being the only woman out there with giant rashes on her inner thighs, it is easy to see how she would be uncomfortable.
There was no fishing today, but we ate a large supper. Also, the old guy dropped and shared a bit of trail food--sugar water and sugared peanut butter. It was very good.
I realized the shadows were getting long. I cleaned up and quickly dug a hip hole and lined my bed with grass for a bed. I am not worried about getting cold, because if I do I will just head down to the hot springs.
This whole day seemed like a long circus show, and I don't know what to make of it. I am reinvigorated to continue on with the trek, though Sholei might have to catch a ride back to town and wait for us. The old guy kept repeating, "This is Mecca", "This is paradise", and "This is where anything can happen". Maybe his penchant for being cryptic added to the strange magic of the place. As I type, the stars are bright overhead, the river rushes nearby, and the air is pleasantly cool. I am happy.
March 27. Resting at Verde Hot Springs
Niall: I woke up this morning in the predawn glow. Last night was the best sleep I have had yet because I was able to insulate myself with enough grass. I walked to the hot springs, meeting Donny and Tom on the way, who were returning from a soak. I took photos of the colourful art that adorned the rock and cement walls, then slipped in and relaxed as the sun rose, stepping out to take better pictures as the light reached its best point. I dried out as I walked back to camp. Once there, I started breakfast cooking. Wood is scarce, and so cooking is fairly difficult. Donny returned to his blankets, and Sholei was rocking by a tree. She had not slept at all, and her rashes had begun oozing.
Tom and the old guy went over the maps again, and afterwards I plotted and checked our proposed route. It should take three days, provided we make about thirteen miles a day. This should not be hard, but with the inefficient camp we have run so far, it may be rather difficult. My feet are feeling very strong with the rest we have had.
My concern is getting caught in one of the long dry sections. I discussed the route with Tom, and found him fairly complacent about the scheme. Then he left with Kris and Donny to find the old guy, who I understand is named Sam, to help him with some chores, and I talked with Sholei. She is definitely catching a ride to town with Sam tomorrow. Not only are the wounds bad, but she does not feel comfortable with the trip anymore. I talked in depth about our route, trying to do as much contingency planning as possible. The only escape routes are the at the end and right here, and we could not count on cell service, though it ought to work if I could get up high. I will leave a plan of our route with Sam and Sholei, but as for an itinerary, I am not sure when to tell them to begin a search.
The essence of our conversation about Tom was something like this: a nice guy, but he plans very poorly, and he is not all that aware of what is going on. I finally had a conversation with Tom and the group, and it alleviated a lot of my concern. The whole group met, and I had the chance to vent my worries and frustrations, which, I realized as I let them go, were really quite vague. Tom agreed to make more of an effort to include us all in the decision-making, and I explained how I wanted the next few days to go - that is, with care, organization, and planning. Tom's standpoint is that he does not want to force anything, because that is where things go wrong. With this primitive style of camping, I can definitely see how trying to do anything without the right weather or location is impossible, and I should allow for that. But I made my concerns about safety perfectly clear, and did all the contingency planning I could.
Much more of a relief was the subsequent conversation with Sam, where I went over our route in great detail. Seeing what it will look like, I am much less worried. There are trails the whole way, and the maps are good. The crossing should be fairly easy, and there is water except for a couple of dry stretches, which I now know well enough that we have little chance of getting lost. Tom and I helped Sam load some garbage in a bin, a way of saying thanks.
Tom: I was shocked by the extent of Sholei's poison ivy rashes. From previous experience she knew it could take weeks to heal, so it was best for her to leave the expedition at this point. I was saddened to hear that, but she indicated that she wanted out of the trip anyway. She picked a good time to exit. The country ahead was more challenging than anything we faced yet. We planned to rendezvous after the rest of us made it to the van. Sam only drives to town once a month, to pick up his retirement check at the post office and get groceries. Tomorrow just happened to be the day. It is funny how things seem to work out that way.
March 28. Back on the Sweltering Trail
Tom: The predawn chill woke me again this morning, so I soaked in the hot springs until morning, probably about two and half hours. I am continually drawn to that state between sleep and waking, between night and day. In the pool I found myself slightly buoyant, halfway between floating and sinking. Nearly submerged in the body-temperature water, I began to lose my sense of separation from the pool. For an instant I felt only my heart beat, as if my heart belonged to the pool and I was nonexistent.
Niall: I slept very well once again, and it was light when I woke up. Tom returned from a bath at the hot springs and started a fire. I immediately got a breakfast started and did camp chores. But breakfast was basically ready before any of the others got up. Sam came by and said he had a number of chores to do before he took Sholei to town, and since I had finished my meal I volunteered to help. I planted and watered onions for him.
We bid Sholei and Mud farewell and then headed past the hot springs and up a draw beyond. After scrambling over a hill to avoid a cliff along the river, we intersected an open trail that led to a jeep road. We stopped at the transition, and loaded up on water. Tom asked me to teach Donny about navigation, so I showed him how to do a resection and taught him a bit about compasses and map contours. Then we climbed up high into the hills on the winding road.
Easy travel like this allows me to sink into my happy thoughts, and I lived in the brilliant future for the most part. But I was the official navigator, so I could not entirely ignore my surroundings. We almost missed an important intersection, because the trail that was marked as a road on the outdated map was almost invisible.
Kris: My pack is sitting too low today, and it is making my shoulders and back sore. On previous days I was nearly completely present all day, but with the discomfort of my pack, my mind occasionally wandered to the future. I find thoughts of the future maddening, for there are so many things I wish to do and so many options that it is painful trying to pick and choose.
Niall: Following Sam's advice, we left this trail just before a deep draw and followed a faint trail, contouring the rugged south face of a ridge. A horse had traveled through the area, and I enjoyed following its tracks, imagining myself a skilled tracker. Travel was not difficult, but it was hot and I was hungry and I fatigued quickly. Lunch consisted of a bit of dried apple and a tablespoon of peanut butter given to us by Sam. After following the contour for a few miles, we dropped down into a clear, wide creek with bright green foliage. Travel was easy there, and we knew we were in the clear. It took another hour and a half to get to the river where we chose a sandy site at the confluence where there was plenty of driftwood.
Tom: Donny started almost every fire on our trek using the fire steel on my keychain. He has an amazing talent for it. He can start a fire faster than anyone else, and he was always eager to do it.
Kris: Rice and garbanzo beans for dinner. The night was extremely windy, but with my poncho rolled over my blankets I was able to stay warm, aside from my nightly shiver sessions and my morning frozen toes. Stars, there are always so many more in the southwestern desert. The lights in town drown out all but a handful of stars, but out here we are a thousand miles closer to the sky.
March 28. Along the Verde
Niall: Last night was colder than other nights, due to a constant stiff breeze. My firebed was not that big and buried deep, so I had to wrap my blankets and poncho around me to stay warm. This morning Tom was up first and got a fire going with me.
He wandered off to check his fishing line and explore some of the plants around here while I tended the fire. That is a difference between me and him and many others. I have little urge to play. I like to do what I consider important, and to do it as well as possible. I prefer to build and maintain a fire perfectly, rather than let it burn and falter as it will while I explore around camp, the way Tom often does. I used to worry about this lack of playfulness and try to regain it, but the fact is, I am perfectly happy and see no need to change.
I was a bit frustrated by the slow start. Donny would not leave his blankets until breakfast was ready, and dawdled in preparing his gear. It was already getting hot when we started hiking.
Kris: Crossing the river was the first part of our hike this morning. Socks off, we pulled our clothing up and grabbed stout sticks. We crossed a slimy, mossy channel just above the rapids. The water was cold, but not numbing. A person could swim in it for hours. Across the main channel, the pull is stronger and the water almost up to my hips at times, but we all crossed without mishap. We dried our shoes for a bit I washed my socks, then we continued on. Tom scouted up a gully and found our trail. We snacked on chunks of milk chocolate, and I ate some of the foil previously melted into it. We stopped often along the trail, meeting all the new plants. The saguaro cacti stood with the majesty of giant redwoods. We snacked on cactus buds and added some to our salad bag. A figwort bush, phloxes, borage, and others lined our path.
Niall: We hiked on this trail for the remainder of the day. A footpath marked with cairns, it made for much better travel than any other trail thus far. It led up through green high country with spring flowers and down into the river, where the occasional huge cottonwood provided shade. Saguaro cacti began to appear, huge ones many times my height. Panoramic views of the river valley and the mountains ahead lay in a sultry haze.
Kris: We traveled fast with the path wide and clear. With no need to watch my footsteps, my head comes up to see that life abounds. Grasshoppers and butterflies part my way like a fountain shooting to either side. Lizards scatter into the cover of prickly pear any time they feel me coming. Walking down a trail, I saw a javelina and quickly backtracked to grab Timber and signal the others. Niall arrived first, and I pointed them out, since they were lumbering up the trail toward us.
Niall: Looking fifteen yards down the trail, I could see three of them, and they were heading our way. I almost grabbed my knife, a ridiculous thing to do, but just last night I had a dream about killing a javelina with a knife. Instead I went for my camera. I was about to get a shot when Donny came up from behind, and the javelinas promptly took off into the spiky brush. Timber took off after them, and we had to call her back.
My feet began to hurt halfway through the day and grew worse as it went on. I felt like I was developing a blister on the ball of my foot, but none appeared and moleskin did nothing. There is a single spot where it seems more calloused than the rest, and this is where it hurts. I can't figure out what caused it, but my fivefinger shoes are shown once again to be totally inappropriate for this country.
My feet toughened up to the terrain after recovering over the break, and the rocks no longer bother them, but the inside of the big toe is wearing out on both shoes and letting sand inside. I worried about the next couple of days and how my feet will hold up. It was growing dark, and I was worried that we would not make it to water with daylight left, but we abruptly pulled up alongside the river. I took a resection and found that we were exactly where we should be.
I have done quite a few resections this trip, and I took some time yet again today to teach Donny to use a map and compass. I enjoy teaching, and this is good practice for me. I dug a separate firebed twenty yards from Tom and Donny, to cook and meditate and type by myself. It looks like another clear night, and I hope for a good sleep that will repair my feet at least a little bit.
March 30. Pain, Dehydration, and Bad Navigation
My feet did not heal. Today was my worst day hiking, ever. I was up with the dawn, but the same routine repeated: I got breakfast going with Tom, while the others took their time getting up. After breakfast there was so much dawdling that we didn't start moving until it was hot out. My feet hurt from the start.
The pain at the base of my toes was still there, and it seems to be a huge liquid blister that will not pop. I gritted my teeth and hiked through it, going heavy on my heels to try to favour it. We climbed high above the river and veered away, climbing still. The pain was terrible, and I tried to shut it out. I had two walking sticks and leaned on them heavily. Long breaks ate up more time. The breaks did little to rest or rejuvenate me and just slowed us down. We climbed all day, high on a path marked by cairns, losing more time whenever we lost the trail. Taking ibuprofen helped with the pain, but as noon neared it was becoming clear that we did not have enough water.
I had forgotten that Timber needed water too, and we began to get low and started to ration it. I started to hate that dog as a vent for my pain. She is part husky, and can't handle the heat at all. I began to see her as a dead weight, since we were carrying her food and water too. She contributed nothing, except to annoy me by bumping into me when I already had enough trouble walking. I was literally ready to kick to dog.
Kris: My sandal strap broke again, and I wore it as a flip-flop the rest of the day. The trail became extremely rugged and took its toll on everyone. I worried that we wouldn't make it to Bull Spring in the rugged terrain, and saved most of my water for Timber. We snacked on marshmallows for energy, but limited how much we ate because food requires water, of which we have less and less.
Niall: I helped with the major navigation, but left it up to Tom to find the trail because I was distracted by my sore feet. He would lose it and push on, hoping to find it again, which pissed me off, since this usually led to backtracking. As the sun was getting low he lost the trail entirely, as we entered a burned-out valley. From then on, I realized that I was responsible here, regardless of the pain. I did some classic navigation, finding our position with a resection and plotting a bearing, and miraculously we found the exact site of the spring on my bearing. But I was seething, because while Donny would lag far behind, we lost Kris, who blazed too far ahead and off the course. The lack of discipline drove me nuts, and I tried to get everyone in a group, because with dark coming it would be easy to get lost.
Kris: I took off one way, and then it was decided that we needed to go another way. There was a quarter mile of separation, but I don't worry because I never feel lost. A hoot was sent out calling me back, and I bushwacked my way towards them. Periodic hoots and whistles continued, much to my annoyance. I think I could hear a group of people for up to a mile, but most people can't hear more than a hundred yards. It's not because I have good ears, but because I stop every once in awhile and listen, whether lost or not. I'd take fifty steps or so and then stop; I could hear branches breaking, feet shuffling, rocks clanging, and occasional chattering. The hooting and hollering was useless. Niall has worried about my tendency to wander off by myself because he thinks I will get lost, but I always have a general idea where everyone is. Anyways, we found the spring and set up camp.
Niall: I was still angry when we found water, but I cooled down when I was finally able to quench my thirst. I opted not to build a firebed tonight and sheltered in some bushes. This area is high and has been burned out, giving it a ghostly look, which was especially eerie when lost and the sun was fading.
We cooked a hearty meal of rice followed by bannock. While it cooked, I told about my northern adventures. Donny laid by the fire and didn't try to help. Lately he has been talking of nothing but burgers-that and Wierd Al Yankovic. I kept my frustrations to myself to keep the peace. But I felt like I was surrounded by idiots, or more precisely, front country naturalists with no concept of the dangers of the backcountry. Never rely on a naturalist to plan an expedition. If I had not brought a sighting compass, water filter, headlamp, and GPS, we would have been in heaps more trouble in the last week. I am in a foul mood right now, but I really wonder what I am gaining by the company, other than learning a few plant names. I have to calm down a bit and realize that the pain is affecting my thoughts.
Tom: I thought Niall and I made a good navigational team. He has excellent map, compass, and GPS skills, but less real-world experience comparing topographic maps with the landscape. I am accustomed to using the maps directly, and still don't know how to use a compass or GPS. We often differed in our interpretations of the map, but I followed his lead as long as the extra mileage was inconsequential. In this awkward way our skills complemented each other nicely, and by questioning each other's conclusions, we avoided larger navigational errors. If it were up to either one of us alone, we never would have reached the springs before dark. I only wish I would have insisted he wear better shoes for the trip. I seriously underestimated how rugged the trails would be.
March 31. Hobbling to Safety
Niall: I woke up to coyotes howling through the valley. They sound strangely different from those at home. It was beginning to get light out, so, despite wanting to stay in my warm blankets, I got up and started gathering wood and tinder. This woke Tom and Donny up and they moved out of the fire pit where they had been sleeping on a coal bed.
I filled up the cups and had the water boiling for mashed potatoes as quickly as possible, and soon we were all eating a huge breakfast. But for all my efforts, we were still very slow in getting going. Kris took a long time to pack his blanket pack, and other delays simply stacked up. I was irritated at the way they wanted to sit around the fire and keep warm in the morning rather than pack up while breakfast was cooking.
When we finally did get going it was blessedly overcast, which it remained for most of the day, keeping us cool. We started up the burned out creek and made sure we knew where we were, taking a GPS reference when we found a cattle tank. Thankfully, the trail we found was wide and obvious, and we climbed up out the south side of the valley and contoured the tallest peak, Bull Mountain.
My feet were in agony, and I plodded on with my head down, not stopping for breaks to get ahead of the group. But after we rounded Bull Mountain, I realized that we were heading off our bearing, and, after discussing our options, we climbed back up and contoured off trail, ending up at a saddle where the trail should have been. But still, the trail was not to be found. The massive valley of the East Verde River opened up in front of us, with a steep drop on all sides that went hundreds of feet down.
I verified the position with GPS and it indicated we were sitting in the middle of the trail. Apparently our map, which is nearly forty years out of date, was wrong. Our only real choice was to descend a shoulder to our left, following an old cattle trail. How cattle get around in such steep country is beyond me. From the top of the shoulder, the road was visible much further east of where it should have been. We spent two hours on the steep hillsides, scree jumping and scrambling. We were lucky enough to find a spring at the lowest point, where we stopped for lunch. Mercifully, my feet did not hurt for this part of the journey, probably because I simply could not pay attention to the pain, due to the difficulty of the terrain.
When we finally gained the road, it was in rough shape, but good enough for walking, and we began to make headway. The flat, rocky ground was the worst possible for my feet, and they began to hurt again. I plodded along without taking breaks, since they did me no good anyway.
After a mile or so, we dropped down to a better road, and continued for several more miles, constantly checking the map to see if it was the right one. Finally, it joined a real road, and there was a signpost that pointed back to Bull Spring, so we knew we were on the right track. My feet were really starting to give me trouble. The road was particularly hard on them, and I did my best to think of everything but the present. After a mile like this, Tom dropped back and started a conversation with me, knowing I needed to keep my mind off my feet.
We ran out of conversation after a couple miles and Tom went ahead to get to the van with Kris and Donny. I continued plodding along with increasing agony in the balls of my feet. I was soon hobbling. Fortunately, I believed that around each bend the van was waiting, and this kept me going. But it was still a very long walk to get there. When I finally did reach the van, it was parked beneath those huge white sycamore trees. I cast off my pack and collapsed. Sloppily throwing my gear in the back, I struggled to change clothes and climbed into the front seat.
Kris: I am glad that on the next outing I will be able to take better gear, but I am lost in some sort of depression/confusion at leaving the woods. Changing into my cleanest trail clothes and seeing my feet the same color as the earth, I know where I truly belong, in Nature where my roots, my feet, can quench their thirst, my branches and leaves sway in the wind. My whole body craves the deep caressing of the lover, the sun. I can't stand having the separation civilization demands from Nature. Any wall between me and the warm embrace of the sun is the most tortuous thing I have ever experienced. To live simply and see much country is the bearing my compass is set on. I move a bit in my bare feet, soaking up as much earth as I can before we leave.
Niall: It was dark by the time we reached Payson via a winding dirt road. This was scary ground to be traveling on in a minivan, but we made it without issue and stopped in Payson to eat. I had the most rewarding burger I can remember, and it rejuvenated me for a while.
Tom: We had enough food on the walkabout that I never felt very hungry, but Donny desperately wanted a burger and talked about it for days on the trail. He earned it too. I never intended to drag him through such rough terrain, but he handled it well and made it from start to finish with fewer injuries than anyone else. I felt extremely proud of him.
Kris: I enjoyed my food, but still felt lost and saddened. Out on the trip I felt joy. Much of the time I was uncomfortable, but my only wishes were to get shoes for the next segment, and to swap my blankets and packstraps for my sleeping bag and backpack. Going cold and hungry is a good experience, but I have done it many times. The hunger and cold drive the mind inwards towards thoughts. I instead want to be drawn outward and lose myself in the world that surrounds me. Balance is the way to go. To bring human things such as clothing and farmed foods into Nature is not to be separate from it, for they are part of Nature. But to bring a mindset of separateness into life is the cause of that division. Even fire separates me from nature. I enjoy it for cooking and warmth, but then I prefer to move away from the flames, to spend nights staring at the stars and silhouettes of trees against the night sky.
Niall: We drove north to Camp Verde, but the brakes started making grinding noises. Tom avoided using them by shifting down, and we limped into Cottonwood and finally got a hold of his wife, who told us where Sholei was staying. We showed up at the motel around eleven, probably waking her up. She had had a miserable time, and her poison ivy had not improved much. Sam had taken her into town, but he did not quite understand the problems she had with the rashes. He had her load and carry gear, which opened the sores up again. He berated her for scratching them, which she did not do. He dropped her off at a motel with no vacancy, so she had to walk a half mile in pain to find at another hotel one night. The next day she walked another couple miles to the motel where we met. She stayed in her room most of the time, but bought a dress at a thrift store to replace her chaffing pants, and otherwise only went out for groceries. My feet swelled up during the drive until I could only stand by on the edges of them. Tom got a room for the four of us, and I basically hobbled over and crawled into bed, filthy as anything, and went to sleep.
April 1. Into the Lap of Luxury
Niall: I took my first real shower in ten days. It was a difficult task, because walking was awkward on the blades of my feet. Also, I had no hot water, which made the shower a bit unpleasant. I washed my feet and legs, turning the water muddy. When my feet were clean, I could see that I had formed blood blisters in the middle of the pads, and the front half of my foot was very swollen. We ate a leisurely breakfast of leftovers in the motel room, and made plans for the day. Tom left to get the brakes checked. The problem turned out to be minor and was quickly repaired.
We packed up and left the motel, saying goodbye to Sholei. She is staying at the motel one more night, and her significant other is driving down from Montana to pick her up. He even took time off work to do it. We went to the library, where Tom corresponded online with his book printer. There were more trips to the post office, grocery store, and a few thrift shops. I stayed in the van for most of it for obvious reasons - I could only walk a short distance on the edges of my feet. We ate lunch in a park and drove to Phoenix. I considered bailing on this trip, but right now I think there is still a lot of potential for learning and unexpected surprises. I will make sure we don't get into any more stupid scenarios, though, by taking an active part in the planning.
Kris: We dropped Niall off at his aunt and uncle's house in Phoenix to give is feet a chance to recover while the rest of us car-camped at Bartlett Lake. It was dark when we rolled out our beds and went to sleep, skipping dinner.
April 2. Foraging and Cooking
Donny: Dad let me drive the van to a parking area and I did not see a stop sign. We drove past and they ridiculed me for the rest of the day.
Tom: I brought a wild food recipe book along on the first segment of our trip, and ear-marked recipes we could try with the wild foods we found in season. I bought groceries in town to complete the recipes, and we enjoyed experimenting with wild edibles.
Kris: We foraged wolfberries and prickly pear cactus pads and jojoba beans all morning, and started collecting aluminum cans. I removed the spines from the prickly pears, and we settled into cooking and eating all afternoon. We cooked bacon and eggs and marshmallows. We cooked the wolfberries into jam and batter-fried the prickly pear cactus. The cactus was good, but the tough outer layer should be cut off to make eating easier. A little wolfberry syrup on doughnut fry bread was excellent. The jojoba beans were not mature, so Tom's coffee-substitute tasted like boiled water.
Donny and I walked four miles to Bartlett Marina, overstuffing a plastic grocery bag full of crushed aluminum cans along the way. Tom met us in the van at the marina and we walked around a bit before driving back to camp.
Tom: As hunter-gatherers, it was natural to start foraging for aluminum cans. I was appalled by the amount of trash discarded around the lake and along the roads, and we decided to do an experiment in hunter-gatherer economics, collecting cans to buy a treat when we returned to town.
Kris: All the grease today made me feel sick. I curled up in my sleeping bag, on top of a wool blanket for padding on the level gravel. No dinner; lunch was too filling.
April 3. Relaxing
Kris: I slept until birds beckoned me with sweet voices to open my eyes just before sunrise. We collected palo verde beans, still hanging on the tree from last year, then left for Horseshoe Lake, a few miles upstream. We saw a roadrunner beside the road. It had a lizard in its mouth and dropped it as we drove by. The town tap water is awful, and I am becoming dehydrated because I can't drink it. We arrived at Horseshoe Lake, and I read while Tom and Donny swam. Then Tom drove to the nearby campground, while Donny and I walked there, managing to fill our plastic grocery bag full of cans. We cooked ramen noodles and experimented with flavors to make the water taste better. We hiked up a dry creek bed and looked at flowers until dark. Tom read aloud the rest of Wilderness Survival, a journal of three guys who lived off the land for forty-six days.
April 4. Tunnel Tag
Kris: I lay awake until just before predawn when great-tailed grackles called my head out of my sleeping bag. They share various calls, but they all sound like video game laser guns. I switched over to river water to rehydrate myself. We hiked to the Horseshoe Dam and collected another grocery bag full of cans.
Tom: There are three large culverts under the road near camp, tall enough to walk in, and about a hundred feet long. We played tunnel tag, chasing each other back and forth through the culverts, or up over the road back to the other end. It was fun, though exhausting. We played tag for more than an hour.
Kris: We gathered a large cup full of desert Christmas cactus fruits. Even with gloves I still got hundreds of spines in my hand. Using pliers was slower but better. Tom put them in a frying pan with gravel and a lid and shook it for a minute until all the spines were worn off, then rinsed them off.
Another walk and two more bags of cans filled. We'll see how much money that yields. Certainly it helped the landscape little since there is so much other trash, but every bit helps. Along the way, we studied the tracks and sand traps of a bug we later learned was an ant lion. I spent much of the day reading.
We cooked the palo verde beans for dinner; they were very good, another wild food success. We've been putting in an hour or less foraging each day, but manage to come up with a full meal. With some knowledge and practice and living year round, it would be easy to live off the land here for three hours a day of work.
April 4. Back to the Field
Kris: A cup of ramen noodles, a few forkfuls of last night's dinner, and three or four slices of bread dipped in Christmas cactus berry syrup for breakfast. Donny and I started down the road to collect more cans. Tom picked us up and we drove to town. We sold our cans, twenty pounds for twelve dollars. We forgot one bag in the car. We ate lunch and went to pick up Niall.
Niall: I spent three days healing my feet. They were in bad shape, and I could not walk properly until today. It was not exactly a restful time for me, though. I spent every waking moment either selecting and scheduling courses for next fall, researching courses and scholarships, buying new shoes to protect my feet, and a bunch of other things. Visiting with my aunt and uncle was part of it, and I enjoyed catching up with them. I am extremely grateful for the accommodation they provided.
Tom, Kris, and Donny arrived, and we sat down at the dining room table to plan our next outing. We decided to head up the Verde River from Horseshoe Lake for a few days, taking it slow and focusing on skills and foraging. I called home to let Mom and Dad know the plans and location. I don't like being out without a cell phone, and Sholei took hers back, but this is not a risky plan anyway.
I said my goodbyes and thank-yous and we headed out to a campsite near Horseshoe Lake. Beautiful backroad driving with a vivid sunset, though there was no chance to take a photo. We arrived after dark, ate some quick sandwiches, and rolled out the blankets, back into canyon life.
April 5. Chasing Javelina
Niall: I ate so much this morning I am ashamed of it, sort of the grand finale of my bulking up before returning to the trail. However, as we packed our gear and food, it did not appear that we would starve on this trip.
It has been colder at night down here, so both Donny and Tom needed two blankets and I offered to let them use mine. This was mostly an excuse to use my sleeping bag and bivy rather than use blankets. All my gear now fits nicely into my pack, so it is lighter and easier to carry than a blanket pack. With new shoes on my feet, I felt like running. We crossed Horseshoe Dam on a walkway beneath the curtain of water and cut across a hillside for a mile and half to meet a dirt road.
Kris: Golden poppies and yellow asters cushion our footsteps. Fiddleheads, prickly pear, mesquite, and so many others call us back to share in their presence. Saguaro demands an open mouth as it touches the sky. It is hard to be lost in thoughts when phloxes, waterleafs, buttercups, and lupine sing out their majesty. Before reaching the road, a hedgehog cactus breathes life back into my dragging footsteps with its big flowers. On the road, a fast pace to our campsite under a pair of cottonwoods on Deadman Creek. We drop our packs and take off up the creek, slings, rocks, sticks in hand. I wander off by myself to practice with my helicopter style. After little success, I pocket the sling and run as quickly and quietly as I can to catch up. We are all too loud and more focused on practice than hunting to actually find any animals. Donny and I slowly make our way back to camp and play gin, then a stalking game, then we make grass beds, gather firewood, and put water on to boil.
Niall: Tom hoped to find fish farther up Deadman Creek, so we continued upstream. The cliff walls narrowed after awhile and pools and thicker vegetation appeared, with small birds. I missed one narrowly with a thrown rock, but the pools yielded nothing. We continued upstream through a canyon corridor, sometimes wading, until we were nearly ready to start back.
Tom spotted three javelinas fifty yards ahead, crossing the stream into some low bushes on the left side. Tom slipped off his sandals and we started stalking. I did not expect much because the wind was at our backs. But as we neared the spot where they had crossed, Tom motioned me to stop. Four of them - not three - were holed up in the bushes, getting agitated at our presence. We tried to advance, but one by one they climbed up a steep trail out of the gully.
When the last one left, we scaled the rock face on a parallel route. It seemed very primal to climb a rock face as quickly and quietly as possible. At the top they were only fifteen yards away, in plain view. We tried taking photos, but they would not let us get any closer, and so an awkward sort of herding chase began until eventually we spooked and scattered them through the bushes and saguaros. Tom had left his sandals back on the creek and we returned to get them. But when we reached the gully, the sound of rocks tumbling down the sheer opposite side revealed two more javelinas, coming down at an impossible angle. We hurried down our side to intercept them, but before we were halfway down I could see them at the creek, crossing it and coming straight for us. I signaled Tom to stop.
To my amazement, the javelinas came straight towards us, up the trail where Tom stood. They hesitated and retreated when they realized what Tom was, then darted up another trail. We hurried to the top of the bluff. Tom was ahead, and reached the lip to see a javelina race by a few feet in front of him. I got a clean photo of one of them as they rounded the bluff.
Satisfied with the experience, we returned to Tom's sandals and started back down the creek, then returned to the mesa for easier walking. Travel was fast on the mesa, though the occasional cholla cactus would get lodged in my leg. Cholla are the worst, they have hooked ends like a porcupine quill and hurt to remove.
The sun was sinking fast, and we seemed to be traveling for a very long time, roughly following the lip of the valley, walking quickly. We found a rough road and made good time, until it seemed we were on a straight north bearing from where the opposite edge of the valley was barely visible in the twilight. We set off down the slope towards it, thankfully not encountering many cacti, since it was getting harder to see. We struck the creek, and from there we could see the glow of a campfire against a tree, and returned to camp in complete darkness for a supper of ramen noodles.
April 6. Nausea Strikes
Niall: Last night I drifted in and out of dreams without knowing the difference. They were strange and varied, but in one I was hopping along river rocks, hunting with stones in hand, and saw a quail on the shore and managed to stun it with a rock. I ran over to try to finish it, grabbing its neck with both hands and twisting... and woke up in sudden pain as I was tearing the flesh of my thigh.
We packed and crossed the clear, clean stream for the last time. I drank as much as I could hold and filled my bottle. At first I thought it was the overdrinking that caused the ensuing nausea that made walking miserable. The day was hot, but we were following an easy road over a long mesa. Colors were bleached and the landscape slow to change. The route, only about six miles, took us around Chalk Mountain, and the soil became a blinding white. Donny composed stories for us, and Kris and I talked about common interests.
My stomach continued to feel more unsettled, and I could not stand to leave even my belt buckled over it. At Sheep Bridge, our destination for the day, it was particularly bad and I tried to relieve myself. I paid the price for the huge volume I ate yesterday, but it did not relieve the pain, and I felt worse.
We selected a campsite nearby, and I laid down in the shade to hopefully let the nausea pass, which gripped my lower gut in sharp pain. Kris hung around and we talked for some time. Donny and Tom explored the gully, and returned to the bridge to swing into the river on a hanging rope.
By supper I still had not improved. I read a lot while the others played. My illness provided an excuse to put off hunting and fishing for tomorrow. I missed supper and continued to read. We took turns reading aloud by the light of the fire from McCarthy's The Road. My nausea seemed to improve with some ginger tea, but it still ruined most of the day for me, probably my fault for trying to fatten up before the trip.
April 7. Snake for Supper
Niall: The morning began very slowly, since we had no destination in mind. I slept in until the sun had completely risen, and finally rose to make breakfast. Tom showed me how to make a bowdrill set, and I got to work carefully making my own, carving dried cottonwood root for the spindle and fireboard. Donny was at work too, and we finished at about the same time. It was already starting to get hot out, with gusts of wind blowing dust in my eyes when I started to drill. The spindle kept popping out and I tired quickly - both probably caused by having my bowstring too tight. Finally, as I reached near exhaustion, the board was smoking profusely and I stopped drilling and stooped to gather the coal. But in doing so I bumped the fireboard, sending my glowing dust everywhere. I was too tired to continue.
Donny had a similar experience, and so we crossed Sheep Bridge, a small suspension bridge that was formerly used to herd sheep across, to the rope swing. It was terrifying for me since I can't swim. But I swung out from full height anyway, plunging in over my head and thrashing to the surface, then struggling to shore. I did it three more times, though it only became marginally less frightening each time. It was definitely refreshing. Afterwards, we soaked in the nearby warm springs. The water flows through an old fiberglass hot tub.
Kris: I read for much of the day, wandering about, book in hand, sitting next to an algae filled stream as frogs hunted near the water and birds sang the joy of life. We got off late in the day and went high up to a trail that parallels sycamore creek.
Niall: Tom encountered a rattlesnake beside the trail. It was the first rattlesnake I have ever seen in the wild, curled up in the cactus and rattling like a sizzling pan. We formed a plan as a group. Kris pushed it out of the cactus with a long stick and Donny stood on the other side with a big rock, which he threw right on the snake's head, killing it instantly. We cut the head off and let it convulse for a while, but it continued to writhe in Donny's hand as he carried it, an extremely unnerving thing.
We dropped down to Sycamore Creek and discovered a paradise of those big white sycamores that I have been so smitten with and a shady area of white sand next to the clear and cascading creek. It is the most pleasant campsite we have yet found. Donny and I quickly and easily skinned and gutted the snake. Amazingly, the heart was still beating, despite being headless for nearly an hour.
Then it was time to make a fire. We both had our bowdrill sets, and decided to have a bit of a race. Donny had a huge head start, since I still had to find a new bow and socket and carve them, but I managed this time to start drilling and continue without stopping for about thirty seconds. The difference was having the string tension right and carving a better hand socket. Dumping the coal into a bundle of dried inner bark and grass, I sandwiched it between my hands and blew. I had so much of a coal that some of it dropped and burned my hand. But with some careful blowing, there was enough left to light the rest of the bundle into flame, and I made fire by friction in two minutes, which made me proud. I was amazed at how easy it could be.
Supper consisted of three courses of spiced up ramen noodles, a delicious salad of yucca blossoms, and roasted snake. The snake was delicious - it tasted like turkey to me, and I did not find it too chewy. Then more of The Road read by the firelight, before crawling into my sleeping bag under the bright stars.
April 8. Lazy Day in Paradise
Niall: Last night was like any other spent sleeping on the sand - fits of sleep that grew shorter and shorter as the depression I sculpted for my hip deteriorated. But I got the sleep I needed, just in a different pattern than at home.
In the morning I sat and read by the fire, which Tom kept burning all night. Tom hollowed out and carved a spoon with his knife and glowing coals, and the rest of us read and loafed. After breakfast, Kris and I went upstream to forage for salad greens. No one was in any hurry to do anything, since we planned to stay at this beautiful spot.
A short distance from camp, Kris and I were hopping over rocks when he suddenly skipped to the side to avoid landing on a gigantic lizard. Neither of us knew what it was, but since we didn't know what a gila monster looked like we treated it as though it was one. It was a couple feet long, rusty coloured and looked like a dragon.
Kris brought Donny and Tom for a look. Without pausing, Donny reached down and picked it up. It never tried to bite him, thankfully, so it must not be poisonous. We looked it over with curiosity, taking turns holding it or tickling its belly, taking pictures throughout. Finally we let it go and it scurried beneath a rock. Nobody was interested in eating it, since it had taken on the identity of a pet.
Donny: Kris and Niall found a cool lizard; it was about one foot long and orange and black. We took pictures of it, and I picked it up. It did not squirm very much but it did hiss. It looked as if it had beads stuck to it. When we went home we found out it was a Gila monster and it was poisonous. Oops!
Kris: Crossing the log back to camp, Tom stopped and talked for a bit, then Donny followed and scared a rattlesnake right where Tom was just standing. Niall joined us and we discussed what to do. Tom and I would rather not kill it, but it was too close to camp. I pinned its head and Donny cut it off. I'm keeping this hide, so I skinned and gutted it. Back to foraging, we collected a salad of lamb's quarters, miner's lettuce, a dandelion-type plant, grape leaves, and geraniums.
Niall: I was not feeling well in my lower gut once again, and so I tended the fire while Tom gathered yucca blossoms to add to our spaghetti. After a lunch of pasta salad, I laid down to read, because I again felt nauseous. Everyone else was doing the same thing anyway, the opulence of the location and the heat of the day inspired nothing else. My stomach continued to grow worse, and I skipped supper, reading instead. Here I was, in an area of great resources - plants, animals, and knowledge, and I spent most of the day reading. This intestinal problem worries me. It is not acute, but enough to kill my enthusiasm.
April 9. Building a Raft
Halfway through the night I woke up because raindrops were falling on my face. Tom shouted that we had to get up and move camp, because a flash flood could rip through our location if the rain picked up. So we packed our stuff in the dark, with only my headlamp, a flashlight that worked intermittently, and the firelight. We made a new camp and a new fire in the shelter of a large sycamore, and I happily went back to sleep. The rain was never more than a few drops, not even worth covering my head for.
In the morning we discussed plans over ashcake pies filled with marshmallow and wild rhubarb goo. We were all interested in building a raft, so we decided to return to Sheep Bridge and build one there.
We cut dead reeds until we had a huge mass of them, each roughly five feet long and half an inch wide. We bound the reeds into bundles with split sedges, collected back at camp. We lashed the bundles to a couple of wooden cross pieces with nylon cord. The whole thing took maybe three hours. We carried the raft to the edge of the water and Donny climbed on. It sank until it was almost submerged, but it held him. Tom got in the water to pushed it across to our campsite. We assembled a lean-to using the raft for a roof.
I started another bowdrill fire. I got a coal, but the powder blew away and I exhausted myself. Then I moved out of the wind, and Tom showed me how to brace the drill effectively. I tried again, this getting a coal before my arm began to fatigue. I placed it in the nest and the wind alone was enough to flare it. But I was too far from the firewood, and it burned my hands before I could carry it to the fire. The third try was a complete success.
Although the day was cloudy, it cleared off and brilliant stars and moon lit the water. It's hard to capture the beauty of the night on a camera, and you can't describe it in words, but I have to say that this is one of the best parts of living outside, the thing I miss most in the city, where the lights completely drown out the night.
April 10. Wild Ride Down the Verde
Niall: Last night was colder than most. Although I was warm, I was awake and could hear Donny whimpering, until he moved closer to the fire. I foolishly slept downwind and occasionally got a strong whiff of smoke. In the morning we took our time packing and polished off a lot of food that was water-soluble. Kris packed any gear that we could not afford to get wet.
The day began to heat up, and we carried the raft to an eddy by the bridge. We pushed it into the water with three packs on top. The plan was for Donny, Tom and me to float just a few miles to a landing site we established with Kris, where we would rejoin the road, maybe sleep until dark, and then hike the rest of the way back at night. The river was freezing cold to enter, but we tried to ignore it and pushed off, swimming hard o get the raft out of the eddy.
The river was very deep and the current strong, and I was terrified. I can't swim and haven't been in the water in years. The cold and panic were enough to get me into that state beyond fear, where simple commands like "swim harder" are all I can think and carry out.
Finally the river shallowed out a bit and my feet touched the ground. A wind was blowing and it was almost as cold out of the water as in it. As soon as I caught my breath, the floor dropped out, and I was struggling once again. Being a terrible swimmer, I was convinced that I had to kick and stroke hard to keep from sinking. With one arm towing the raft, I would pull with the other, kicking all the while with my legs. I could not put weight on the raft or it would sink down and get the gear wet. The effort was exhausting. It felt like miles, but we only traveled a few hundred yards.
I was dizzy and almost too tired to wade. My heart rate subsided with the slow walking, but my strength did not return. Up ahead the river narrowed and quickened. Tom said we had to pull hard to the inside of the bend or the raft would snag up. We struggled as hard as we could to keep the close to shore, the current picking up speed fast. When the river straightened out a bit, we looked ahead to see a faster, sharper bend, toothed with rocks. There was no way we could make it. We pulled the raft to the shore and dragged it up. As we sat catching our breath, I could see my leg shaking violently from a combination of cold, exhaustion, and fear. All my movements were shaky as I took apart the raft and packed up my gear.
And so ended our rafting adventure, a few hundred yards from where it started. Kris followed our progress and waited for us on the other side as we hiked back to the bridge and crossed it. It was a bit humiliating, but the raft itself worked for its purpose, and I got my trial-by-fire introduction to swimming, so I guess it was a success. We hiked with Kris to a spur in the road, and walked down to the river, where we stayed to dry our gear, sleep, and read. I started another friction fire and we cooked noodles and rice.
We began hiking again as the evening cooled off. Donny got chilled and wanted to start right away. We rejoined the road, passing a Pueblo ruin, a small maze of piled rock foundations with cactus growing throughout. We talked about music and movies as the sunlight faded. A half moon lit the trail clearly. Conversation could not last, and so we simply walked in the moonlight, saguaros and mountains in dark outlines on both sides.
I had eaten a large supper, and felt bloated from the start. As we walked, I began to feel pain in my lower abdomen, the same as on the other days. For the rest of the walk I tried to ignore the queasy pressure. Otherwise, the road was easy and our progress was unexpectedly quick.
Donny began to complain of exhaustion and cramping feet part way through, and he wanted to stop and sleep. Our trek was only about twelve miles, but it seemed to take its toll on him. Taking a slightly longer route than we came in by, we followed the road around a mountain to get back to the reservoir, rather than cut across country. Kris and I talked for most of this leg, and the moon sank quickly.
The moon was gone completely by the time we reached the dam, making the trail tough to see and the dam ethereal. It had a single yellow light at the far end, and water came thundering over its hundred-yard edge, crashing onto a rocky cascade below, spray glowing yellow in the backlight. A trail led down through a rocky corridor to the sidewalk behind the curtain of thundering water. The roar and dark even had me a bit on edge, and Timber ran as fast as she could to get to the other end. We walked the dark road walking until we found the van, moved it, and camped under the stars for a few hours.
Tom: I was both happy and sad to end our trip. We felt that we accomplished everything we wanted to, and experienced enough of the Verde River and Mazatzal Wilderness to last for a while. We weathered our trials well, becoming a team along the way. I tightened my belt by a few inches, but still have extra pounds to lose. I especially enjoyed all the botanizing along the way. This is an amazing area, and I am already dreaming about coming back in a few years, maybe by kayak, or possibly by canoe when the water is low. After weeks of warm weather, it is hard to imagine that there is still snow in Montana, but we loaded into the car and headed home.
Three Years Later - a Homework Assignment
Why Should I Suffer?
By Donald Elpel
"Why, would you want to do that?" one of my classmates asked in disbelief. I was in the process of telling my class at school that I would be leaving at the end of the month to partake in a hiking expedition through the Verde River Valley in Arizona, when I was asked this question. The question was very simple just an easy "why" but it made me think. Why did I want to go on this trip, was it to hike a hundred miles in blistering weather, and camp every night and almost freeze, I think not. The reason I have come to realize, is that I went because I wanted to go on an adventure. I wanted to walk through the Arizona desert with everything I needed to survive on my back, and that's what I did.
The place where we were going was, dry, rocky and barren but in a beautiful sort of way. This land that was so parched and in it grew only scraggily grass and small shrubs trying and succeeding to live in the harsh environment. I was amazed by the way things had adapted to survive there was the obvious cacti, and the other things you would expect in the dessert, sage, yucca, agave. Agave is an interesting and useful plant. The spines are covered in a toxic coating so that when, not if, but when, you snag your hand, or leg, or face it will, after awhile, begin to tingle and then go numb for a few hours. It is practically impossible not to get snagged on one of these succulent leaves of pain. While we are on the subject of spiny things, there is one in particular that I have come to hate.
This evil plant is called a cat claw acacia, and it really lives up to its name. On the branches there are curved spines that hook into anything that brush against them. One time I was trying to get down a steep embankment, and I jumped straight into a patch of these cat claws, I still have scars from the things. The trip was estimated to take a month and it was going on schedule until we were walking through this grove of trees in the bottom of a canyon, when my dad, who was leading, turns to us and says "Hey guys, I think this is poison ivy, so be careful." Unfortunately, it turns out that we had been walking through the stuff for about ten minutes or so and had it all over our legs. One member of our expedition, Sholei, was very allergic to poison ivy. The next day we went up a different canyon and found a road that we followed for a while.
We found ourselves at an old man's house and Verde Hot Springs. The man's name was Sam. I didn't hear his last name because I don't think he gave one. But he was pleasant enough to talk to and kept referring to the area as his personal Mecca. So we asked if we could check the hot springs out. He was fine with that, and we followed a path around a cliff to the hot springs, which were nicer than I thought. I figured they would be smelly, rudimentary built pits full of luke-warm water. But instead, what we found was a very nice semi-large concrete pool surrounded on two sides by walls which had some very interesting graffiti. You see, the road we followed was about twenty miles to town after you crossed the river, and people from town would come and party and write on the walls and all that fun stuff.
At this juncture we had a decision to make. As I said, we walked through the poison ivy. Well, it turns out Sholei was extremely allergic to the oils on the stems. This in turn caused her inner thighs to swell to the size of cantaloupes. We had to figure out how to get her out so she could get medical care, so we decided to ask Sam. He hesitantly agreed and a plan formed; Sam would give Sholei a ride to the nearest town while Dad, Kris, Niall and I would hike the rest of the way to our van that was parked about fifty miles further on. So we got some advice on the route to take from Sam, stayed the night there at the hot springs, then in the morning we took off on our hike out. We hiked all the next day through the hot, dry land slowly running out of water. We camped, ate, and slept, then awoke in the morning ready to hike to a water source at Bull Springs. The terrain had been hard on every one of us, but it was hardest on Niall who had decided to bring his Virbram Five Fingers as his only source of footwear. These Five Fingers, if you haven't heard, are a type of foot-glove with very thin souls made for things like rock climbing and running. This was a poor decision, as it turns out, due to the fact that we were walking ten to fifteen miles a day in sharp rugged terrain. We had more than a few map discussions along the way, and one or two arguments between Niall and Dad - mostly just Niall loudly stating his opinion.
Niall was very safety-oriented, to the point of getting angry at Kris for wandering off to explore. We got to Bull Springs with everyone exhausted. The springs were just a small trickling stream that was full of algae. We slept well that night due to our exhausted bodies and began our final push to the car the next morning. We hiked till we got lost then checked the GPS and found we were not lost and hiked some more. Niall almost quit because his feet hurt so badly but we made it to the van and went to get cheeseburgers.
How could I describe this trip: painful, suckie, cold, hot, itchy, gritty, and one of my favorite memories. I think sometimes to really appreciate a thing you have to suffer for it. In this case that means hiking ten to fifteen miles a day just to eat rice and lentils (I hate lintels EWWWW EWWWW!!!!!!) then sleep with one blanket in the forty-degree desert night then do it all over again the next day. I went on this trip to have an adventure and I did. Remember, the adventure is only as good as the suffering that goes along with it.
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