Yep, many good stories start with “so…” and go from there. This is a short story with the typical twists of a trip gone awry. My friend Jim came out to visit for a week at the beginning of April. We had planned to spend almost every day in a canyon or getting into some kind of situation to test ourselves in. Mother nature has a way of adding “challenges” to our well laid plans as well and we always looked forward to seeing how we fare. The first one came by way of appendicitis in the wee morning hours about a week before Jim was to come out. The appendicitis was for Jim – had it been for me it would have needed to occur on an undocumented second appendix as mine was removed over twenty years ago.
This little hiccup caused much concern over what we would be the nature of our mischief over the course of his stay here in the lovely state of AZ – that I would like to take a moment to point out is where Jim USED to live before he banished himself to the cursed land of gray skies and mosquitoes that is known as Michigan (even though his reasons were noble). I never really learned what the word Michigan means but I like to think it is an old Indian word for misery. Since “Michigan” sounds better than “Misery” they just never bothered to translate it before they made it a state. We would have to wait and see what Jim was up to doing when he got here. As it turned out, his threshold for pain approaches mine. This combined with a stubborn streak that wouldn’t let him waste his time here sitting on the sofa set the wheels in motion for a nice trip to explore a couple of (hopefully) unexplored canyons north of the Tonto Basin area of the Tonto National Forest. Plans were made, e-mails sent, maps printed and we were off. There were four of us on this little expedition and spirits were high as we began our trip. They wouldn’t necessarily end that way…
Our idealism got the best of us as we decided to take the direct route and actually expected to drive to where the map showed the best place to get out and hike to the drop in of our much anticipated canyons. Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s law is often my un-invited copilot and today he had mother Nature on speed dial as well. We drove 3/4 of the way up a mountain and were stopped cold – literally – by a snowbank in the middle of the road. What the F@#*!?! This IS Arizona after all – and no where near Flagstaff. We were a bit ruffled but unphased as we determined a back way to check the canyons we wanted to see by taking a little used road we had passed on the way in. So what if it is dirt , unimproved and unpatrolled. I mean, how bad could it be, right?
Funny you should ask… We back track 40 plus miles to get to this road and make our turn onto what at fist looked like a very well maintained forestry road. Woohoo – we’re in business!!! This road has plenty of twists and turns as many of the backroads in Arizona do. Like the others, this road follows the contours of the countless ridges and washes that make up much of the landscape of the Sonoran desert. We travel roughly fifteen miles before we read a sign wich indicated the road ahead is not maintained – travel at your own risk. Eh – so far so good – we’ll just go a little further… Well the road gets pretty rough from here. We needed about five more miles before we would be close enough to the bottom of our canyon destinations to get out and get a good look at what we might be dealing with. Wind and rain had washed much of the soil away and left a road made up mostly of large rocks and boulders with the occasional washed out road just to keep you from getting too comfortable. Mr. Murphy was loving it – my other passengers… not so much…
We passed a few ranches – amazed to see people living out here. We quietly wondered if they knew the Civil War was over… Then we came upon our first disappointment. We found the drainage from the first canyon we wanted to explore and there was some kind of Branch Davidian like compound there nestled quietly – and well away from the prying eyes of humanity. All it was missing were the machine gun turrets and I’m not entirely sure they weren’t just well camoflaged. We would have to continue on as we did not want to test the threats made on the No Trespassing signs. I am quite certain if I had a bullhorn and a pack of firecrackers we could have had their COMPLETE and undivided attention – right up until the time they began to realize the neither the F.B.I. nor the A.T.F travel in a single yellow Nissan Xterra. Fortunately for all concerned, my supplies did not facilitate my sense of humor.
In a scary twist, just as we were trying our best to be stealthy and pass by with out gaining unwanted attention, we came to a place where a CARDBOARD detour sign had been placed in the road pointing toward the happy little compound. Faces blanched, blood ran cold, and knees rattled but we tempted fate and proceeded to check it out. Suddenly I had visions from the movie “The hills have eyes” and I began to lose all enthusiasm for our adventure. Fortunately for all concerned the sign was placed by a good sumaritan to help us avoid a damaged portion of the road where it crossed a creek. This was especially important for me as I quickly realized that due to an old leg injury, I was the slowest one in the car. How did that old saying go…? “You don’t have to be faster than the bear (or the mutant canibal with the butcher’s knife) – just faster than the guy next to you.” Little did my companions realize that I am not above a quick whack to slow them down and facilitate my escape. If we all survived I would apologize then. If not – better them than me… No victim – no crime.
About a half mile past this little playground we decided to stop and check out our surroundings. I decided to go a bit further on foot to see if the road could possibly get any worse without either disappearing altogether or travelling through the nest of a T-rex. I was quickly joined by Scot, leaving Brandon to rehaydrate and Jim to try to figure out how to get his intestines back into his abdomen through his incisions. Fortunately he had a plastic spoon and some climbing tape…
As we were walking, I was pondering the sign we had passed and the precise definition of Unmaintained road. Unmaintained since when – World War 2!?! I was having difficulty even walking this road at times when something funny happened – we found a sign. The fact we found a sign in and of itself wasn’t funny. What was funny is this was a very nice expensive sign placed there by the Forestry service indicating that we were in the area of some Indian ruins. It went on to say they think the Indians left around 300 years ago and they don’t know why. I know why, it’s because they couldn’t build a F@#*ing road to get into or out of this place! Not really but the thought did amuse me for a minute. So first they put up a sign several miles back that would imply “Hey dumb a$$, don’t go any further because if you do and you get stuck no one will find your sun bleached bones for decades”. Then we find a second sign that seemed to indicate to me “Well you might be F@#*ed, but hey – check out some Indian ruins before you die! They couldn’t make it here either!?”. Curious…
So Scot and I turned back at this point to return to the vehicle and continue on. Just past the sign we found a nice shady place near a barely flowing creek where we could sit and enjoy a snack and plan our next move. This would be significant as we would come to find out. As Scot and I get back to the vehicle, we realize Jim and Brandon were not there. Either Jim had successfully re-installed his intestines and was off with Brandon exploring, or Brandon was disposing of incriminating evidence and offering Jims body to the locals as a peace offering and helping us to secure safe passage. Turns out it was the former – much to my relief.
We opened the back hatch on the Xterra and started to get some water when we heard a strange buzzing noise that was rapidly getting louder. Scot and I glanced at each other and simultaneously looked past the front of the vehicle where we were both amazed and terrified to see a hug swarm of bees “migrating” over the top of us. I learned later that bees often do this and it is called “swarming”. It happens when the colony gets too big or for a number of other reasons. I wasn’t particularly scared at the moment. I was fascinated by the sheer size of it and how you couldn’t see through it. It was huge and moved with a certain grace – like watching a flock of sparrows or fish move together. I counted about ten seconds for it to pass completely but realized only after they had passed that I had stopped breathing. Judging by the color of Scot’s face I don’t think I was the only one. I breifly entertained a certain satisfaction in knowing that me being slower didn’t matter in this case as we would be equally screwed – with the exception that I was the one with the keys to the car… I watched them pass over the hillside and around a small ridge before I lost track of them completely. I didn’t really feel like I was in danger but I did think I saw them communicating with each other by flashing gang signs. Scot was sure we had just cheated certain death and vowed to buy a lottery ticket that night.
Shortly after, Brandon and Jim came down off of a ridge they were exploring – oblivious to our most recent near death experience. We piled into the SUV and after a few minutes of driving, were all marvelling at the out of place sign next to the road and pondering just how many of our tax dollars it took to place it there. Soon after, we were at the shady place with the creek. This place was a desert sanctuary with tall trees, grass, a shallow gently flowing stream, and lots of shade. We hopped out and read some “No littering” signs that were once again, strangely out of place. We would have been less surprised to find human remains and a long badly written last will and testament. There were more vehicle tracks than I had anticipated finding though. There was some evidence of campers there recently too – unless it was a trick by the locals to lull us into a false sense of security before they… Never mind. As I’m munching on my Powerbar and once again pondering my place on the foodchain, I walk to the creek crossing to check it out. It has erroded into the soil pretty well but it is not deep and has obviously been crossed many imes. Both banks are fairly steep and the far one from where I am standing has a lot of slick rock and ruts on the otherside. How bad could it be?
I hand Jim my camera and tell him to get some pictures as I cross. Mr. Murphy had other plans. I throw it in gear and plow through the water, hit the other side and stop – cold. The ruts are too large and the rocks are too slick. I throw it into reverse and try to back out the way I came. Nope. Too steep. We spent the next two hours building and testing and building and testing various ramps made from rock, dirt, and river debris before we finally got out of there. My three companions angrily voted that I would be the first on the menu should we be stranded there for more than four hours and the need to resort to cannibalism should be their only option for survival. That was the good news. The bad news was that we were now comitted to continuing to where the map showed this road connecting back with the main road about 25 miles further. Bummer. We decided to explore on foot a bit and stretch our legs to see what we could find. Scot found a really cool waterfall and Jim found a particularly vicious form of poison ivy that does a good impression of flesh eating disease. I guess we know now what happened to the Indians… They were both just lucky I guess. I stuck aroung the truck and checked it for damage and prepared for part 2 of our trip.
Once we underway we spent another 5 hours banging jolting and jumping around before we finally found our way back onto pavement. All of us had stiff necks and sore muscles from our excursion into the unknown. the climbing tape held and Jim’s intestines remained intact – mostly. To top it all off, we missed the second drainage we wanted to check out but did find the third which looks promising. None of us were too inclined to return at the time. Jim spent the next two days recovering from this ordeal but we did get back out to run a couple more canyons before he left. All in all it was a good adventure filled with obstacles an overcoming them. It was also a reminder that you never really know what you’re getting into so it is best to always be prepared (even though we weren’t).
I’ll be back this summer when there is less chance of snow to explore those canyons and plan a way out. Scot and Brandon will likely be with me and Jim will be anxiously awaiting photos. I relish these times. They can’t happen often enough. I’ve heard it said before that life is remembered in moments. Our minds don’t remember entire days just impressions and highlights. Days like this are filled with highlights that make them memorable for years to come. I hope you have yours as I’ve had mine.