We are headed into the Muleshoe Ranch Preserve on our three hike vacation. We will be backpacking into a wilderness riparian area. It is in recovery from man’s disrespect and ranching use, flood and fire.
We had readied ourselves in our Wilcox motel room the night before and are carrying our gear and food out to the truck. As we exit, the friendly Eastern Indian couple that run things, thank us for staying at their humble enterprise. It is unusual for them to see a man in a camouflage kilt in this small cowboy town.
Clothes off, the road to Muleshoe Ranch is paved only until just past the airport. Because of the road’s condition, it is several miles on to the destination, perhaps an hour’s travel.
We arrive in the parking lot. Curiously, there are three University of Arizona Van’s parked there, just as had been pictured in the satellite photography that I used on the internet google satellite map. It is as if they were photographed on the same day. We read the rules and then drive further.
Where there is a kiosk with sign-in sheets, we park again. The sign-in sheet’s last entry was four days ago. They had spotted a pride of eight coatimundi. This was a good sign that we would be alone on Easter weekend. This is another area that has been bought by the Nature Conservancy to preserve the riparian habitat’s treasure. It is known as Hooker’s Hot springs. There are casitas with the hot springs for rent on weekends at the old ranch complex.
We are cautioned to use four wheel drive and very soon, the road becomes extremely rough. We drive a mile over the crest of a hill to another canyon. There are tall trees below and a canyon stretching out. This is Bass Canyon. This is part of a loop trail that returns to the ranch. We drive through the stream bed, happy to see the water flowing through the tall trees. We find a decent place to park and unload our backpacks. The quiet, but for the numerous bird calls, is enchanting.
I have created a system that is ultra-light, but still, the water that we carry brings us to feel the extra load compared to a day hike. We are not sure what is in store. We don’t know if there is water ahead. I simply drape my sarong into the shoulder strap in the ready, don my hat and I’m ready to roll. DF decides to wear her white shirt to comfort her shoulders and shield from the sun. After locking the truck; we are off. Thigh muscles tighten and my feet now feel the extra weight, but only slightly. Obviously I need the exercise.
There is a well-marked path through this canyon. Where vegetation, or stone surfaces make it disappear, cairns have been placed. I had read that the keepers paint the trees blue to identify the trail during rainy flooding times.
We have every indication that we won’t encounter anyone, but being a holiday weekend, keeping a quick cover strategy at hand seems expedient. After about half a mile, I see a cat track. A few feet later, there are wet marks in the dirt. Could it be marking territory? I wonder. I notify DF and we very silently, very alert, creep forward, stalking some poor imagined beast. Then, in the distance, we hear sounds! Naw, it is just voices, but not just voices, but loud sounds and lots of them. It sounds like a party. We quickly cover up. I tie my sarong miniskirt in wrap around style and DF straitens her shirt and makes sure that it is tucked carefully into her backpack belt, also creating a miniskirt, which is just about butt cheek length. Her open front is now a cleavage laden v neck. We are legally covered, but underdressed for a barbeque.
We come across a glade filled with people, all about university age. There is an older man with a greying beard who has a following gathered around him as he sits in his wisdom and leadership on the other side of the stream. He looks at us strangely, as though he expected no one and we showed up, “What’s that?”
I had seen an owl’s pellet in the middle of the trail earlier and thought of that as odd. Of all places, there it sat in the middle of the trail. It looked planted. The naturalist students had most likely missed it.
In front of us, is a volcanic rock slope with six or seven women and a young man jabbering away. I quick-count at least 16 students. The trail appears to go directly over the slope through these students. What’s more, we would have to climb up onto the rock to continue. It would be impossible to not expose our genitals in our getups. We stand there as the students begin to move and congenially invite us through. I explain that it would be difficult for us to continue in “miniskirts.” I am momentarily at a loss. DF quickly flanks me, and finds a way through the creek and back, circumventing around the rock. Our dry shoes and socks become wet, but we are home free. A few hundred feet down the trail and I am again free-range naked, but for the backpack.
A mile from the trailhead, there is a wide wash opening where one canyon T-bones the other. The water stops flowing.
Here, we, turn downstream.
The seep willow reed-like plants align the stream near where the water just freely comes out of the gravely wash. The vegetation quickly becomes too thick to walk into the stream and the stream too deep. It is filled with green muck and too thin to follow. We have to find a way around the wash area through the trees.
The route quickly shows itself. We make good time, until it ends and the stream becomes a beautiful gentle flow through the shady forest that it supports. This will be a frequent pattern during our visit.
It becomes evident that this is hardly touched. It has been restored to a pristine riparian wilderness. There is absolutely no trail to be found. You either slosh through the stream, or bushwhack.
We are doing this naked, save barefoot shoes and the packs on our backs. I fold the sarong and placed it on my shoulders to cushion my shoulder straps. We have to be careful, but this mindful state has put us in a greater awareness, in touch with our surroundings, requiring us to work with the environment rather than work through it, trampling. The going will be obviously slow with this level of care, but this pristine environment was naked before us and it just feels wrong to damage it. We will continue with the utmost care to leave this place intact and leaving no trace, for anyone or anything.
There are the tracks of a wild cat, deer and a long series of what I guess to be raccoon. Along with these raccoon tracts is the same occasional human sneaker athletic shoe. After a while, I find one or two of these that were heading back. We ARE totally alone in the wilderness with no one for miles. There is something special to be in a situation that few have been.
There is always a trail, always something, but this place has been left alone, because it is a tough slow movement, hard to get to and get back out of.
It is not a hike.
It is an exploration of a place that is as if time has been forgotten, as if waiting to be discovered.
The abundance in this natural form is astounding.
The ecology shows itself in its interrelationships freely.
There is more algae, supporting more small fish. They are constantly darting away at a surprisingly rapid rate. Some are tiny like tadpoles. Some are six or eight inches in length. The rocks are extremely slippery and the water crystal clear, allowing the infinite number of colors of rock to glow below the surface.
There is evidence of a major flood, which has been mostly recovered from. The exposed roots, the redirected flows, the fallen trees, all contribute to debris which forms islands and collects silt, which create soil that is already teeming with fresh growth in green. Fields of florescent reeds, new seep willow, moss and a variety of small plants are seen creating new abundant life in the bed of fresh soil.
It is spring, there are many blooms. The saguaro studded Sonoran Desert comes down, abutting this totally different environment. There are cliffs of volcanic rock, or colorful sand stone. As we walk, we are surprised by a lone crested saguaro like we had never seen. It is on a hill sloping down into this canyon valley. They are usually more or less symmetrical, but his one is going in every direction and seems to be growing arms out of the tangled mass of its crest.
I hear a louder sound, a roar. I expected nothing. I had read a report of channels through rock canyon walls that we would have to swim through. Coming around a large tree we see an area of smooth bedrock with a short waterfall between it.
These are the first bolder like rock forms around the gentle stream bed and the perfect place to sit and have a break. We sit on a sloping rock naked, eating a re-hydrated lunch, enchanted by our surroundings.
We take photographs and play with the water.
We just sit, observe and take the abundance in, until it “feels” like it is time to go on.
We keep on for a couple of hours more, when we both begin to feel tired at the same time. We had begun to look for a flat soft place to pitch our tarp and net tent, but each spot covered with leaves had river rock hard and exposed below it. We had thought to use a sandbar, but had only seen them under the waters. We pray for another perfect spot to rest.
We soon find a dry sandbar. It has a ridge, but we could smooth it out with some excavation.
There are trees and a fallen log on each side to sit on and sit things on. I get out the tomahawk and begin to dig and scrape. Soon, digging like this, I am feeling my worn condition even more. DF then produces a long stick and we each take an end to level out our foundation. This works well, just like leveling cement. The tarp has to be set first. The sand is handy, holding up the post as we tie it secure with lines and I pound the stakes in. I am grateful that I have those sand worthy stakes. But still some of them meet river rock and can’t be driven deep enough. We begin to look for appropriate rocks to tie to. Each rock we lift, we discover that somebody, or group have a habitat under it. Critters squirm and quickly run away. Some are nasty looking. Here is more evidence of the abundance of life and another food source in the ecological food chains.
We have a camp. While DF re-hydrates a delicious spaghetti dinner, I collect a few more rocks from across the stream, dig a pit in the sand and make firewood with the tomahawk. We sit on the log in front of our shelter eating. I have taken my shoes off and am enjoying the soothing cool sand. We take turns tending the fire. The sun goes down, giving color in the sky through the trees. I get a flashlight. It is surprisingly warm at night, unlike the desert. I turn on the flashlight to get to the wood pile and there walking across my path, is a small scorpion. The last time that one of these had stung my bare toe was 1968. I couldn’t walk for two days after that. One sting out here and I would be in a terrible mess. Wet shoes are put back on immediately.
I set up the inside of the tent with bedding and pads. It is lumpy and uncomfortable even with the soft sand underneath. We may have to invest in ultralight blowup pads to get a good night’s sleep on the trail.
It is different tonight. The moon rises above the canyon walls, which are not huge, massive configurations, compared to the previous few days.
In the tent, we are not sleeping through the night. Everything outside is brightly lit by the full moon. Then, it seems to darken and later light returns. We think that it is tree cover from the huge cottonwood nearby. Later, after returning to Tucson, we discover that there had been an eclipse.
When morning twilight comes, we aren’t sure if it is the moonlight, or a cloudy sky from inside the enclosed tent. We sleep later than we would like, probably making up for a fitful night. The new camping quilt worked wonderfully, I must credit Enlightened Equipment.
We crawl out of the tent, me feeling stiff as a board from the work that I’d done the day before. It is catching up with me. The old log gives me a grip to pull myself out with, as I groan spontaneously. Breakfast is oatmeal with rehydrated strawberries, bananas with cinnamon. We are definitely having a slow start. We don’t walk away until nearly 11:00 am. We are pleased by the lack of disturbance that was done by our camp.
We find our way back. Parts are found from recognizable memories and parts are by searching.
At the boulder and waterfall that we had enjoyed before, we decide to do a snack lunch, instead of cooking. It helps immensely to eat more nutritious food.
After a few hours, we are back pulling out coverings in case of encounters on that nature trail off shoot in Bass Creek.
DF decides to just wear the shirt to pull over and a pair of underwear with her Easter egg socks. Later, as she saw her photographs, she laughed hard when she realized how silly she looked. She just looked like someone comically missing their pants. There would be more dignity bottom-free.
We see no one. We rest where there is evidence of a past fire. Huge tree trunks, deadwood, lay haphazardly.
Black charcoal trunks look like deep shadows.
It is a relief to finally see the truck ahead through the trees.
Once again fully naked, we eat like crazy off the bed of the SUV.
We take the back way on Cascabel Road, next to the San Pedro River. We are exhausted. There had been talk of staying an evening at Cochise Stronghold, but that will be another hike on another day.
This rougher form of camping in the wilderness and improvising, has showed me what a fine camping partner DF is. We were a cooperative partnership all of the way, finding trails, or during the continual chores of camping. I can’t help it if I’m lucky.