A short story of a long hike through Arizona

By Anette Coggins

On the evening of the New Millennium, my husband and I scrambled over a barbed wire fence strung east of Kanab along Highway 89A. We had just entered Arizona from Utah; this was our first day hiking through the entire state of Arizona.

That night, camping on the Kaibab Plateau, we warmed ourselves next to a campfire, with the stars’ canopy above and dry earth the shade of rust beneath. I thought of the long trip ahead. Of course, I felt excited, but then there was a slight nudge of disbelieving; concern that this adventure could be too much of an undertaking for me. I may have put that thought into my first diary entry. Finally, Lulu, our German Shepherd/Husky mix, was ready to bed down. She circled in place to make a nook under some shrub. Seemingly satisfied after three rounds, she curled up into a tight ball, peeking out beneath her bushy tail just like a wolf. There just was no room for her in our tiny sleeping quarters. Although it was described as a two-person tent,  logistically, it barely fit Craig and me with all the gear. But Lulu was content with our arrangement, just like us. Packed light, with only the bare essentials in camping gear and food, our frame packs weighed roughly 40 pounds each. Not a light pack to schlepp over mountain ranges.

Ahead of time, we buried extra food and books in standard five-gallon plastic buckets along our proposed route to save on weight. Craig marked the coordinates on a GPS device to make sure we would find the buried buckets on our way.

The following day the weather was perfect, and we started hiking on the Kaibab Plateau in a generally southerly direction. The third night we woke up to a snow-covered tent. A storm had moved in, and it snowed all night and day. We’d brought quality rain gear, and we wrapped several items in the frame packs with sturdy garbage bags. But pushing on toward the Grand Canyon was now questionable, considering dry desert and hot sunshine were just a day’s drive south from here (and that is what I love about Arizona. Ski or swim,  just choose your elevation).

It was not a very hard decision for us to make. When we reached the road to Jacob Lake, we hitched a ride to Flagstaff. Passing by the gorgeous Vermillion Cliffs, covered in a dusting of confection powder, was the perfect ending for a new beginning.

Soon we headed out of Douglas by the Mexican Border toward the Chiricahua Mountains. Lulu carried her doggy pack, containing her dry food and a few awkward items dispatched from our packs. Worried about her feet getting sore from walking all day on sharp rocks and getting cactus spines into them, we had fabricated rubber booties out of bicycle innertubes to slip over her paws. But she dodged the cactus well, and her feet held up great.

The ponderosa forest on the north side of the Chiricahuas had a fresh dusting of snow on the ground, and as we descended into the folds of the land, we spotted fresh prints and scratch marks from mountain lions. The cougars declare their presence to others by scraping the ground with their hind feet before piddling on top. Turning around to check on Lulu (she always followed last in line), I realized she was missing. Five minutes of our calling and whistling for her brought no results. Then we discovered her 300 yards away, intensely sniffing a three-foot heap of ponderosa needles and branches. We walked over, and Craig lifted aside some of the roughage to reveal a freshly killed whitetail doe. Only the nutritious innards were eaten—a sure sign of a fresh kill, probably the night before. This heap was the hunter’s cache.

I imagined some lion in hideout watching us, impatiently flicking its tail, giving us a subdued angry growl.

I watched my back closely as we covered the kill back up. But then we thought that this venison might be excellent. We made a quick decision and uncovered the deer again and investigated. The meat was fresh, like from a freezer. The 30-degree night had kept it well preserved. So we quickly carved up some of the tenderloin and hindquarter meat. It felt like stealing. Now we all were hungry for it. And we left the cougar plenty. We did not carry a frying pan, so we placed strips of meat on a flat rock in the evening, slipped into hot coals, and fried the venison like Chiricahua Apaches. Lulu received her fair share, of course. She was the very reason we had such a delicious dinner!

We often worried about finding water before nightfall. This was always on our minds at the end of the day. We needed at least two gallons a day to stay hydrated, plus Lulu’s needs. Craig let her drink out of his felt hat and loved the cooling effect it brought him when he put the wet hat back on.

Craig had brought a map specifically marking natural springs in the mountains, and we carried a water filtration pump. But at times, we were too far away to reach a spring before nightfall and had to make do with a cow pond we found.

We brought some chlorine tablets and a water filtration pump, which did exceptionally well to filter out impurities, even cow poop. At night we used fire’s power to sterilize any spring or creek water by boiling it for five minutes to kill all the germs and possible Giardia and fill our water bottles for the next day. I could hardly notice the mud-colored water with my morning Cowboy coffee (bring water to a boil in a pot, then take from heat and dump a handful of coffee grains in. Let that sit for two minutes. Now sprinkle cold water on top. That will push the grinds to the bottom. Works every time and no filter needed, any pot will do).

Plants showing green foliage like the Tamaracs are promising in dry creek beds. Cottonwood and willows can sometimes reveal moisture underneath the sand. I have seen wild Burros by Yuma dig in washes, and at times water slowly seeped into the holes.

I particularly remember one hard day in the Chiricahuas, scrambling over the steep saddle through fields of catclaw by Cochise’s Head (a mountain peak named after the famous Apache Chief who lived in Arizona in the 1800s, because its silhouette resembles his). We were right below his “chin,” snagging our packs on the oak brush. This place was Wilderness, challenging endurance and patience with rugged terrain and dry heat.

Soon we skirted along the western slopes of the Dos Cabezas Range. The mountains derived their name for the prominent feature of being topped with two summits. The words are in  Spanish and mean, in grand fashion, two heads.

Water wasn’t the only problem on this trip. Living on just bannock and rice for a couple of days was hard for me. Somehow Craig managed much better. Is this a male thing? Wilcox – the classic cowboy town – was such a relief after we ran out of food. I remember Craig’s lamenting comment as we headed out of Wilcox on the Muleshoe Ranch Road leading to Hookers Hot springs, weighed down with 50 pounds: “How many bagels and sausages do we need?” I had made sure we had plenty of grub after our last experience. “Trust me!” I said, “We need all the cheese we can carry.” We had at least seven days of wilderness roughage ahead of us, through the remote Galiuros Mountains, before we ran into our next bucket or any place to get supplies. And I was not going to spoil my fun!

The Redfield Canyon Wilderness harbors many perennial streams and is an extensive sky island mountain range of southeast Arizona. The mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, known for their height and ruggedness, and hold an abundance of wildlife.

They sustain Mule and Coues deer, desert bighorn sheep, coyotes, mountain lions, and black bears. The mountains are a double range, split with the Redfield and Rattlesnake canyon. This was my favorite place in Arizona, geologically and because of the beautiful streams.

We spent a night in Jackson’s cabin on the southern edge of the Range. It is an old-style cowboy camp from the late 1950s, in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by stunning mountains.

We saw many signs of Ringtail at our camps and secured our food well from those little thieves during the night. We did hear their rustling around close to our pack, but Lulu made sure they left our stuff alone. After crossing the Galiuros for a week, a trip with no other person encountered, we headed for Globe and a hotel room.

After a month of hiking, I felt a low point on the trip. It seemed like it was always the same. Make morning coffee and water, tightly pack up everything for an hour, then walk and walk and make camp after finding water. The soft hotel bed in Globe felt great. Watching TV was relaxing, and my body loved the hot shower. These feelings were to be expected on a challenging journey. Nevertheless, I knew we had fantastic experiences ahead, and after we relaxed an extra day in our Hotel room, all was good, and off we went.

Now we edged along the Blackjack Mountains to the Salt River. Once there, we had little worry about finding water because we hiked upriver along Canyon Creek, a tributary to the Salt River. This is a beautiful bedrock country with many flat bottom waterfalls. After weeks of the dry desert, the luxury of washing my face in the mornings, swimming in the afternoons in the warm sun, and all the lush greenery present, made it feel like we had entered Arizona’s Shangri La. Even Lulu perked up, strutting around like she owned the place.

A few days later, we reached the highlands of the Mogollon Rim. We still had close to 30 miles before reaching the plateau and Highway 260 leading to Payson. T-Bone was flashing before my eyes. Two inches thick, crispy edges, bone connected, like a vision drawing me into an ever-tighter tunnel, and the light was at the end. So, thank you, Craig, for keeping going. We hiked the entire stretch that day, the whole thirty miles up that rim. When we finally reached Payson after hitching a ride, my bones creaked like the Tin Man’s before his oiling.

After six weeks, we had made it halfway through the State across very rough country. But we had misjudged and we ran out of time to hike through all of Arizona. We had lost some time because we changed plans when we quit the north and started fresh from the south. Also, we discovered that map miles did not equal hiking miles. Six miles on a map had quickly turned into ten or more hiking, with all the detours and elevation changes. Some days we did not hike at all, just rested our tired bones and minds, enjoying a special place next to a creek longer than planned. But we had known our capabilities, had the right gear and good maps, and nothing went wrong. And that is good news. There is always another chance to finish.

Craig and I each lost at least 10 pounds (lucky thing we wore belts on our shredded Carharts). And we were tough as nails. Lulu proved to be an exceptional companion, always ready to carry her load. Our tough Husky mutt enjoyed the trip just as much as we did.

We never picked up again in the future to finish the rest of our journey, though, heading north.

A much-awaited new adventure was approaching … a journey that had never offered itself to materialize. Craig and I had wanted children for three years. We really had wished to start a family. It just never happened. But something must have rattled loose on the long trek through Arizona. In late October of that year, I gave birth to a son when I was 37. I guess that 30-mile marathon the last day, craving that greasy steak, explained something in hindsight. I probably was already pregnant.

But there is more to reminisce about this journey than just talking T-Bone. Stashing parts of books and then reading them in reverse order (after we changed course) was funny. And putting the same bland food in each of the five-gallon buckets was the worst idea Craig and I ever had. And please, never again let me look at dried onions and beet powder in a small Ziplock bag! Especially the time capsules still weathering the storm along our route to the north—the plastic buckets still buried underground, waiting for us since the new Millennium. I reckon we have lost the GPS coordinates to them.

Author Bio

Anette grew up in Munich, Germany, and in 1988 at the age of 25, she traveled to Alaska to find adventure. There she met her husband, Craig, and happily stayed in America for good. She is now a mother of two and never lost her love for nature and hiking. Her children grew up in Skull Valley and went to school in Prescott. The family always worked in Nome, Alaska, gold mining the Bering Sea during the summer months. After becoming an empty nester, Anette started writing her first nonfiction book: The Land Of The Big Dipper, Alaska. It is due to be published this fall. She is currently working on her second nonfiction book, a collection of short stories titled: Beyond The Blooming Cactus, Arizona, due to be out next year. A Journey Beyond The Wild Mountains is a short story from this upcoming collection.