We’re east of Tucson in the San Pedro Valley. We’re exploring and looking for good hikes away from the crowds created by bored Covid 19 refuges, the captives in their own homes out on the trails to blow off steam. We have stumbled onto a fine walk in the dry riverbed and an ancient and fun geological structure:
There is still some afternoon left, as we climb into the 4runner in pursuit of a place to simply pitch a tent.
I know that the trail that we intend to hike tomorrow is up the airport road. Narrow “Hot Springs Canyon” empties out into the broad flood plain and generally dries up before it reaches the San Pedro River. It crosses the road that goes to Cascabel.
We once approached the same canyon from the upstream side. There, the Nature Conservancy has bought up Muleshoe Ranch to protect against destructive incursions into the lush canyon’s riparian strip. Here is that trip:
I had studied the satellite images and learned that the road ends in a parking lot. Further investigation has garnered another blessing and a kindness.
Shelter and Solitude:
We have special permission to camp at the trailhead from the Cascabel Conservation Association. We have become members. This organization is a group of neighbors and interested parties intent on preservation of the land and wildlife, but also of their peaceful remote lifestyles. It seems that a few years ago, the traffic increased and partying quads and ATVs were tearing up the place and its serenity. Land owners have taken their property rights and created a coalition, restricting access.
We find the road to be rugged and slim. As we are slowly coming down a steep incline, we see a woman in front of her earthen bag domed home and stop. She is a board member of Cascabel Conservation Association and an obviously kind person.
She follows us down into the canyon to the end of the road in her old 4×4 pickup truck. There is now a facility there for adult sojourner nature lovers. It is a retreat spot. It has happened that the regularly scheduled group that was to fly in, had to cancel because of the virus threats. It is consequently available. Well, that’s us, the great escape from the odd pressures and stress of the Covid 19 virus. It is what we do. We never applied those words, but, hey!…”Sojourner”… Sounds good.
The place is intentionally primitive. A mesquite grove has been hacked and landscaped to accommodate small groups. There is a cabin. There’s a composting outhouse. There is a rustic outdoor shower. But, above all, there is a tremendous quiet and peace about.
We are feeling most fortunate. We’ll spend the night, hike to the lush riparian part of the canyon. The next day, we’ll continue on to Fairbanks to hike a wetter San Pedro.
We set up a camp with our new tent. DF discovers that I have absentmindedly left the gas canisters for the stove at home. The firepit will come in very handy.
The wind dies down, contrary to the predictions and we have a quiet evening around the campfire.
In the morning, the temperatures are comfortable enough and we are awash with the peace of the place. As the sun warms the day, we strip further, pack up camp and begin our search for sycamores and flowing water.
It is about a mile and a half to water, depending on the rains. It appears to be a wide wash from space, but being here, it is a tight route. It is easy to follow, but immediately we are walking on rounded river rocks. Each step must be careful, so as not to slip, or wreck an ankle. It is tough on feet. We have our toe shoes to grip and they cushion slightly. If any part of us gets a workout, it will be the feet and ankles.
The place is lined with desert broom, a tall bushy invasive species. It is impenetrable. If you ever necessitate removing any, it has roots in hell.
Beyond this corridor to either side, there is a flood plain with grasses and mesquite. Occasionally we see a tall cottonwood and hope for its shade to rest, but all of those old trees are in another wash, the old stream bed. The water’s course has changed.
The channel is straight, and a typical sight in Arizona. For years, the 4×4 and other vehicles would use the streambed for a road. The stream eventually took on the two track route. When the hard rains come, however, they wash the turned up soil and expose the river rock below. It becomes a manmade channel, with no meander to slow the flow. This channel is deep and bare rock.
After marching an hour and a half to get to the “good stuff” I see a landmark ahead. The brown cliffs give way to a rainbow of canyon walls of deep purple, white, mustard yellow and hues of red and orange. This marks where the canyon thin begins to thin and where there is most likely water.
DF is glad to hear this. Just moments before, she had groaned, “Well, this is no fun.”
We are tired of the same invasive species, which mostly block our sight of the more natural desert around us. We are tired of the lack of shade and mostly, the marching along on the dry river rock channels.
The respite is that any chill in the air has been negated by the warmth of the direct sunlight.
We have had enough, when we finally come to a spot in the wash with a puddle of water. It is encouraging. At this point it even lights a tinge of excitement.
A few hundred feet more and there is a small ponding deep enough to be a bathtub. I’m tempted, but, I figure that there will likely be more shortly.
We wander along seeing traces of dried algae. Obviously the water has flowed here for some time, before drying up.
We come to the beginning. A watery course fans out in a “V” before us, getting wider as we walk.
Soon, there are streaks of florescent green algae floating like long manes of hair.
The waters become bank to bank and we must now step between the green slime in fresh clear and above all cool water.
Our fivefinger shoes soak it in, feet refreshed. The dull soon enough becomes the wondrous. Especially after the haul, we feel the contrast and relief.
We look at the clock and we’re both surprised that we have not been hiking longer. We find a rock outcropping, where finally, a tall shady tree shelters us.
I climb up on the rock, pull off my pack. I place the sarong, that has been comforting my shoulders, down for us to sit on.
We sit as DF pulls out a lunch. We are quietly sitting enjoying the peace and beauty before us. It is tranquil.
Suddenly, there is a disturbance on the cliff above. A football sized rock falls, then rolls down the eroded slope. Clacking to a stop, with a few smaller pieces and a cloud of dust, it has taken our undivided attention.
Our eyes quickly look to its source. Something big enough to undo such a large weighty object must have been startled by us, retreated in fright and kicked it loose. We scan to see anyone, or a clue. There is no other sound, but the creek.
We are reminded that we have seen only one reoccurring footprint all the way up here. It has been going the other way. The perpetrator has to be an animal. Apparently, it will have to remain a mystery.
We get back to relishing our freedom and our find, our haven. It has been like using a treasure map, finding a chest and we are now sifting through the bounty in discovery.
A little and a little more:
We see across the way. In a slight distance, a tree is towering high enough to cover a red cliff.
I can see that things get narrower there. The creek will cross over to the other side of the canyon.
We finish our rest and decide to check out that distant tree and then see how we feel.
This is like a cross between Superstition Mountains and Aravaipa Canyon. The color of the geology is like that of the mining area. The way that the water flows, not hurried, and in a pretty consistent width is like most of Arivaipa Canyon. There, the creek had been the road, too. There are tall trees and shade. It is simply lush.
There are wild clouds in the sky, the sun dips in and out behind them as they blow by quickly. The cloud cover changes everything down here, everything. The bright colors tone down, except a few of the more florescent flowers. When that happens, the air cools immediately. The water feels warmer in contrast. The colorful cliff faces get darker. Shadows disappear and smooth out the terrain. There is a wholly different look to everything and then it reappears, undoing all that we think is normal here.
This is a riparian area where the vegetation has finally become more native. It is not dominated by desert broom and mustard. Russian thistle, aka tumble weed won’t penetrate here. There will be no more of it to walk upon, climb over, or dodge. It is verdant and a whole new natural ecosystem. It is incredible, wonderful and so green!
The prevalence and the consistency of a source of water makes so much difference. We have toured through an increasingly wetter environment into a strong natural ecosystem, dominated by indigenous life. We have come from a land not only tortured by cattle mutilation, but suffering invasive flora. The natural system has become gradually stronger by the gift of a water source.
This would be a good place to backpack into, to stay a night or two. It’s a wilderness, a wonderland, all to oneself. Still, it is not an easy hike, with a load on a back changing a body’s balance, those river rocks can be hazardous and slippery.
We have seen few places to camp. This was our predicament when we were last in this canyon, upstream. If a bivy and a cushion will do, one could lay down in many places. So far, we have seen just one suitable flat, less rocky spot to pitch a tent on the inside of a meander. The crawly life beneath each rock, I remember, is plentiful. Because of this, sitting on the ground is a hazard. The canyon is so thin, a passersby might find me unavoidable. A camp would be lying in the path of bear, skunks, or anybody.
There are spots where the bigger rocks disappear and a fine gravel takes over. The walking is much easier.
Still, we continue stepping in-between the persistent hair-like green algae floating in the stream.
There is another unusual puzzle here. The stuff is like seaweed, but bulbs attached to rocks. They start as something that looks like leaches attached to random rocks, then these bulbs grow into balls, to larger balls and look just like kelp that has washed up on shore on a California beach.
Some have leaves from hairy slime that look and wave like the ocean’s seaweed forest. It is like fresh water seaweed growing. We find a white sun-bleached conch-like shell. I ponder about the evolution.
Cottonwood cotton is falling like fluffy snowflakes. It builds up, covering the ground just as thick and glistening as snow in places.
We have seen it beginning as seed and the seeds beginning to burst.
Here, it has advanced in its process.
Winds blow from the west, as afternoon sun shines through the canopy of tall trees.
The temperature is delicious. The sun keeps going in and out, in and out, so it feels chilly and then windy and this all over our nude bodies. Then it dies down and all we hear is the calm, the babbling brook. Then the wind brings another change, on another wave of air.
Incredible red rock forms are beside bright spring leafy branches. This coloring is so very Arizona. What a contrast. What a place this is, Arizona.
Above it all is desert. This area is filled with healthy saguaros. There are so many!
As it just meanders, there is no jumping, or climbing and few pools. It is mostly a smooth shallow road to walk. As the canyon’s rock walls spread apart and narrow, this will all change.
Everywhere, there are different kinds of flowers, but then and again, one of the startlingly bright florescent yellow/orange poppies springs up!
The butterflies are out, some white and some in amazing colors. Some butterflies with brown hues, then bright orange rings with black circles in the middle. They are all small. They circle and dance. I don’t know if they are in dominate competition, or in courtship.
This is raw and natural. There is always something new happening.
The wind is blowing, again. I turn to see DF standing on the inside bed of a meander. She is covered with goose bumps. It is a chilly wind right now, but we know that that will pass and the warmth of the sun will return. There is no sense getting dressed, only to become hot and stuffy. This feels real here, naked, experiencing the world as a body only can, naturally.
Heading back, we come around a bend and are suddenly hit full frontal by the force of the wind. “Quite a wind tunnel!” DF comments, her eyes wide in surprise. We are only slightly aerodynamic. It is not warm.
Something about the wind today, it is cold and then sometimes warm.
Back at the rock, sitting where we had had lunch, it is a nice slope, good for crossing the legs, or sitting in a squat. Our natural postures sit well on this natural surface.
We are looking from the rock toward some cottonwood in the distance. Its white bark is reflecting light. We had said, “Let’s just go see what we see. We’ll only go that much further. But one thing has led to another.
“What is around the next bend? “
”Okay, we’ll go a little bit further.”
Those few tired minutes were an hour and a half ago. We have been compelled through Wonderland.
We sit, snack and watch from our perch. We debate whether those are mine diggings, or natural avalanches up on the hill.
The hills are saguaro studded. Up there, the yellow brittle bush is a brighter yellow than it was this morning. “Are more blooming, or has the light just changed?”
A dark cloud has appeared to the northeast. It is traveling pretty quickly, but the wind is supposed to be westerly. So much, once again, for the weather predictions of this week.
“We have that low-ongggg lumpy stretch to do.”
“Better get going,” I voice, reluctantly. We are stiff and sore around the ankles.
It seems to have been a shorter time and distance back, when we end our sloshing. We find that the creek has receded since morning. Both of the puddle and the bathtub are now empty. The green slime dries out very fast.
Invasive desert broom lines the trail, steals the view. The old worn out jeep trail is sunken. Now, once again, this is a corridor walked step by step on the hard balls of river rock.
We have diner early, once again heated on the fire pit’s rocks. I break camp while DF prepares the soup.
We see our hostess on the way up the hill and ask for an extra evening.
That was easy and we are delighted.
At camp, it feels like a refuge, a hermitage. I sit and read Edward Abbey, when a little time presents itself.
The old Windmill occasionally creaks, just every so often. It emits what must have been the sound of a baby Pterodactyl. It is an antique. The directional fin still advertises its maker, Aeromotor from Chicago.
The next morning, we decide to just stay here for the day. To not hurry. To just be. To let the success of our escape settle in and to wallow in that. To let our bodies forget the stressors of masked shopping , impending contagion and disgusting politics. We can walk the waters of the San Pedro south of here on another day.
When we arrived, we were told that the flowers were not in bloom, but this morning they are out with the sun. They close up in the afternoon and stay bundled, until morning again. You wouldn’t know that they are here, but for morning. Everyone opens with delight. There is color all the way up the trail to the cabin to wash dishes.
After a week or two in the city, I often stand stunned, just listening to the stark silence.
A mockingbird repeats its gossip. I wonder just how accurate its calls are. Right here, right now, I have nothing else that needs to be done, not even get dressed.
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