The Apache Adventure
by Steve Langer
Reprinted from V6N2, September 1992
This is a tale of overwhelming danger. Those of you who shrink at the thought of facing imminent death should STOP READING THIS RIGHT NOW--you've been warned. OK, now the rest of the story.
Our journey begins on Saturday, May 2. I had just gotten out of a week long Hyperthermia and Radio-therapy conference in Tuscon and my doll (Brenda) had driven down from Lincoln NE to join me. We checked out of the pricy joint that my advisor was paying for during the conference and checked into a Motel 6 at the edge of town. The remainder of Saturday was spent checking out the Desert Museum and Sabino Canyon west of town. Of the two, I preferred the canyon. A tram starts out at 2000 ft. and winds its way 7 miles up into the desert mountains to top out at 7000 ft. Rather than tramming back down, the doll and I took the trail paralleling a snow fed creek. In several places the trail faded among the rock and rubble of the mountain, so we were obliged to get wet. About 1/3 of the way down, we bumped into some fine-looking nudists from AZ-State. They offered to share some beer with us, but the doll reminded me that some of my parts hadn't seen sunlight in quite awhile and they might not take to the 103 F blazing sun they would be exposed to. Sadly, we moved on.
Upon returning to the Motel 6, we were in the mood for some pool time. However, (this is absolutely true) the pool was filled with the Mexican soccer team. They hogged it all night. When we checked out Sunday morning, I noticed a GMC motor-home in the parking lot with Mexican flags on the hood. As I waited to return the room key, the guy in front of me paid for the entire team bill with his VISA. Turns out he was a Vice-Consulate to the Mexican embassy and travelling with the team. Wonder if our Secretary of State picks up the tab for the Olympic team? Anyway, we bid good-bye to Tucson and drove north-east for two hours to reach the south edge of Apache-Sitgreaves national forest (which borders New Mexico). Sunday night we car-camped off I-666 (yes, that's its name) just north of the town of Clifton, AZ. We were at 7000 ft. and shortly after we pitched the tent, it started snowing in the state camp where we were. Coming off the desert a mere few hours before, this was quite a shock. Happily, I overheard the couple near us talking and noticed they had a Scandinavian accent. As I hoped, they were from the conference and offered to share their roaring fire with us. Despite the snow, we had a great meal of chili (ours) and steaks (theirs) and turned in for the night.
Monday we resumed the northward trek on I-666 and began to see that it was aptly named (I called it Satan's Highway). We plunged up and down the mountainside with hairpin turns every 1/4 mile. There were no guardrails, frequent rock falls, and certain death to our right. Just when I thought it couldn't get worse, we went through a section owned by a Copper mining company. The clouds of golden dust emitted by their rock crushers turned day into night and we were reduced to 5 m.p.h. for about 1/2 hour. Finally, we reached a high mountain mesa and our goal, the town of Alpine, AZ. We checked with the ranger station and inquired about hiking trails. Unfortunately, the old ladies there didn't know much except that to avoid snow, we should stay below 8500 ft. We bought 4 topo quadrant maps, and retired for lunch to a local cafe to plan our assault. By noon, plan in hand, we set out. First, we had to go north of town a mile and find a Forest service road. That done, we followed the winding dirt path down the side of the mountain. Now, I-666 was nothing compared to this. It took 2 hours to go 21 miles and as we descended, we also went back in time. The canyon into which we plunged belonged to the Forest Service, but third and fourth generation families of ranchers still lived there. When we finally reached the canyon floor, our progress was further hampered by cattle and horses which ranged freely about the land. We also had to cross the Blue River at two fjords as bridges were unheard of in the canyon. At last, a small sign at the road-side indicated the head of the Grant Creek trail. We parked the Duster and got out the BACK PACKS FROM HELL.!!
Our first obstacle in the hike was, once again, the Blue River. Fortunately, it was only knee deep and I simply waded across. The doll, desirous of keeping her boots dry, removed them first. Once across the Blue, our greatest challenge for the next 1 1/2 miles proved to be picking out the real trail from the maze of cow paths. We lost 1-2 hours following false paths. Eventually, we found the true route and almost immediately began paralleling Grant Creek, a major tributary of the Blue. The trail criss-crossed the Grant 13 times in the next 3 miles, so the doll ended up with wet feet anyway. An hour before sundown, we arrived at the meeting of Grant and Stone Creeks and made camp 1 at 5000 ft., a mere 4 miles from the trail head and only 1/2 the distance we intended to make. But it was a pretty spot and I built a big fire to dry our clothes. The doll and I stripped down and bathed in Grant Creek, and had just enough sunlight left to enjoy our meal before turning in.
Day 2 dawned with a downpour and we toyed with the idea of turning back, but by 9:30 the clouds cleared and we elected to push on. Immediately after leaving camp 1, the trail climbed 2000 ft. up a series of switchbacks. Above 6000 ft. , we finally lost the cattle and horse tracks. In fact, we came across some Big-Horn sheep, but they scattered before we could get a picture. By two in the afternoon we'd reached the peak and were walking along a meadow when the rain returned in force. Despite this, the doll and I couldn't help noticing an occasional deer leg without an attached deer. I was wondering what kind of bizarre animal would leave drum-sticks all over when around 5 P.M. another problem seemed more pressing. The temperature had dropped to 50 Fç and yours truly was soaked right through his rain suit. Brenda led on, assuring me that out next camp site was "only another 1/4 mile". Little did we know that in the downpour and the mud, we took the wrong turn at the trail intersection we'd seen 2 hours before. By 6, the doll confirmed my fears that we were lost and we pitched camp. I should say she pitched camp because I was too cold to even unbuckle my pack. Lacking much in the way of a tent site (we were still on a 10 degree slope), Brenda pitched the tent right next to the trail. I struggled out of my clothes and barely got into my NORTH FACE INCINERATOR bag before I was overcome with the worst bought of shivering of my live. Suffice it to say, we didn't have a campfire that night. Oh, by the way, the tent fly leaked.
Wednesday dawned with the rain continuing, and Brenda cursing the maps. Since they were essentially blueprints, the ink ran to the point of almost total illegibility. However, she was convinced we were on the wrong slope of the mountain (north face instead of south) and picked a new direction. I blindly followed (after all I was in no condition to debate). When I heard rushing water, I was convinced she was right (we were supposed to meet another creek), but as we neared it I had this feeling of Deja Vu all over again. It turned out to be Grant Creek which we thought we had left behind the previous afternoon. Relief rapidly overcame embarrassment when we realized that it was a shorter distance to the car (7.5 miles) than the route we had thought we were on (9.5 miles). As the rain turned into hail, we retraced our steps down the 2000 ft. escarpment and 1:30 found us back at the original campsite. While we lunched on our soggy foodstuffs, a break in the rains came. Brenda hung her lavender and blue rain jacket on a limb to dry and some very confused hummingbirds damn near had orgasms in their race to try feeding on it.
My spirits began to soar when I realized I would see civilization again as we pressed on toward the car. I didn't even mind having to cross Grant Creek 13 more times (what the hell, I was already soaked by the rain). Then one hour from the trail head, the car and salvation, I realized what was leaving dear legs all over the place. About 30 yards ahead of me stood a cat. A large cat. A 5 ft. long, 200+ lb MOUNTAIN LION. I stopped and heard Brenda come up behind me. I said, "Ahh, Brenda, there seems to be this MOUNTAIN LION ahead of us. Please get my hunting knife out of my pack." I heard her say something about "...its no good going up a tree, they can climb." I remember thinking "...does she really think she can beat an animal that lopes along at 40 m.p.h. to the tree, WITH A PACK ON!" Then I remember just staring at the thing, and it stared right back at me, right through my pupils to the back of my skull. Five, ten seconds past, then I recalled someone saying that they scared off a large black bear by yelling. I didn't want to appear rude, so I cleared my throat and said in a firm ,but friendly voice, "SO DOLL, GOT MY .458 WINCHESTER MAGNUM OUT YET?" The spell was broken. The cat took one, two steps back and then ran towards the Creek. I lost sight of it, but Brenda says she saw it cross in two bounds. We both heard its snarl as it hit the water. The remaining mile was fairly uneventful until we reached the Blue River. The crossing 3 days before was a delightful knee deep affair. Two & 1/2 days of rain had changed that. It was 3 ft. higher, twice as wide, and flowing faster than a politician's mouth on the eve of an election. But with the Duster in sight, nothing could stop us. Brenda and I interlocked arms and began to wade, keeping 3 legs planted while moving the fourth. It was slow and we almost went down, but it worked.
Upon reaching the Duster, we had a new dilemma. The fjords we'd crossed on the way in were now deeper than the Duster's exhaust pipe and over the bottom of the doors. I didn't relish the thought of waiting around until the River dropped, so we secured the aid of a retiree with a chain equipped pick-up truck. He towed us across the first ford easily enough, but the second was deeper and took much longer. As a result, we picked up about 2 inches of water. Thankfully, the Duster has enough rust holes that she self-bailed once we reached the other side. A rancher on the other side, who observed our crossing, commented "Aint never seen such a wet Spring in my life." Timing has never been my long suit. Before leaving our benefactor to return to his home, we told him about the big cat. He wasn't at all surprised. Said they get about a dozen every Spring around calving season, "...they like the easy pickings. Don't worry though, my son live traps •em and the Arizona DNR ships up to the Montana Rockies." By 6 that night we were back in Alpine. Our sopping clothes littered the 90 degree Hotel room whist the doll and I stuffed ourselves at the Cafe along with the local turkey hunters. The next day, Thursday May 7, we were off to Los Alamos and a rendezvous with GE Johnson.
The journey across New Mexico and up to Los Alamos was, thankfully, boring and uneventful. We found John at dinner time, were introduced to THE TIM (well known to readers of this paper) and dined at De Colores (the local equivalent of El Azteco). Friday morning John gave Brenda and I a dime tour of the Lab and then (since his Ph.D. Qualifier was in 3 days) politely shooed us out of his office so he could continue studying. We spent the day at Frijoles (bean) Canyon, an ancient Pueblo community, and climbed 150 ft. of rickety ladders to achieve enlightenment in the Kiva in a ceremonial cave. Shrouded in mystical wisdom, we returned to the GE's residence for dinner and entertainment.
Saturday John left us in charge of his place whist he flew down to Texas for his exam. We spent the day in Santa Fe where Brenda boldly attempted to break the back of the recession by purchasing large quantities of jewelry and pottery from the numerous Indian vendors. I contented myself with observing an environmentalist-wacko demonstration in the Plaza square. Apparently it was All Species Day and yet the speakers and numerous children were wearing "SAVE TURTLE ISLAND" t-shirts. I made an honest attempt to hear out the main speaker (who bore a striking resemblance to Peter Fonda in Easy Rider), but he lost me when he made the connection between the decline of the small American family farm and the GATT talks in Geneva.
Sunday we locked up at John's and headed for Albuquerque by way of the Jemez Mountains and the Jemez Hot Springs. John has already recounted his adventures there in this journal. Suffice it to say that Sunday has been officially declared as a nude day and the 106 Fç of the lower pools was more than adequate. While many of our fellow soakers were university students from Santa Fe, my instincts that the area would attract timeless hippies were not misplaced. Baron especially stands out. He was formerly a professional arm wrestler, but a snapped biceps tendon forced his early retirement. Now, Baron says he is a personal exercise therapist and masseuse to the movie stars (which he declined to name). He was also quite insistent about the healing power of crystals. After parting company with our new soak-mates, Brenda and I lunched in Jemez Springs at the Jemez Jouse (and boy, they have a Jelluva Jamburger). That night, we arrived in Albuquerque and the next day Brenda and I parted company at the airport. Me to return to my hum drum grad student existence in Detroit and her to continue West to the Grand Canyon, San Francisco and her brother. I want to thank John for putting up with us during a peak stress point in his life and everyone else who made up my Apache Adventure.
Last Updated 04/14/95.© 1996 PPSA