Monday, July 21, 2014

Day 16: A Haven for Summer

The trail, at first, was graded quite well--but
don't trip because the cliffs were severe!
April 28: I got another early start today, hiking by 6:00 in the morning. I knew it was going to be a long day--over 20 miles if I could help it!

From camp, the trail descended for a pleasant hour or two before it hit bottom and started its upward trajectory climbing dramatically over 5,000 exhausting feet. In my journal, I underlined exhausting. I don't underline a lot of words in my journal, so the fact that I underlined the word here means something!

The days were getting warm, but I didn't carry a thermometer so I can't say with any certainty how hot it was getting--but I started to suspect the highs in the days could have been hitting 90 degrees. Certainly the temps were at least in the mid-80s--uncomfortably hot--and the amount of water I consumed increased dramatically.

But it wasn't just the temperatures--the climb up started mellow, with plenty of switchbacks and an easy grade as it climbed up the canyon--but near Romero Pass, the rules changed. Switchbacks disappeared and the trail ascended steeply. My pace slowed accordingly.

I left the grasslands behind and once again ascended into a sky island--over 7,000 feet above sea level where pine trees and bears ruled the earth, not cacti and rattlesnakes. Most high peaks have trees near the base and rise above tree line. A sky island does the opposite--there aren't trees at the base but it rises high enough to reach the tree line. The Arizona Trail run through several sky islands--they're always long slogs up, then long descents down. Saguaro National Park was a sky island, as well as the Miller Peak Wilderness where the Brown Fire was burning.

The views were stunning from such a high perch, but they were exhausting to get to--and the high temperatures made it more so. Although, to be fair, by the time I reached the top, temperatures had dropped due to the high elevation. It might have been in the mid-80s at the lower elevations, but at 7,000 feet above sea level, I doubt it even reached 80.

The trail runs through the Wilderness of Rock--an aptly named area due to the abundance of boulders pretty much everywhere. It made the trail difficult to follow at times since it left no obvious trail whenever it ran over long stretches of boulders. In places, I had to keep my eyes open for cairns marking the trail to figure out which way to go. Stunningly gorgeous area, though, and tons of water all over the place pooled in the rocks.

Eventually, the trail re-entered civilization at Marshall Gulch and followed a paved road a mile or two into the small town of Summerhaven. Walking into town, I admired some of the large wooden houses more than a little surprised that they appeared to be made of wood. I had to imagine this area faced the threat of wildfires every year and wood didn't strike me as the most sensible of building materials. It kind of annoyed me. But then, so does it when people deliberately build on known flood plains, eroding cliffs, and such knowing it was just a matter of when disaster would strike rather than if it would strike. Seems to me that all these buildings around Summerhaven, in a thick forest, ought to be built out of something less flammable than wood.

Bzzz! Bzzz!

As I got closer to town, I noticed some large burned areas. Summerhaven, I thought, had a close call not too long ago!

I didn't plan to find lodging here for the night, though I would have loved to, for the simple reason that my databook didn't show any being available. I could buy some food at a general store, though, which was labeled in my databook as being good for "short-term resupply."

So I stopped there late in the afternoon to do a little short-term resupplying, which mostly consisted of buying junk food. I also bought a couple of luxury items I'd have to consume immediately like an ice cream sandwich and a bottle of Coke.

But I learned something else at the general store--it had burned down in a wildfire. There was a display inside of the general store before the fire, as it was on fire, and this new structure labeled "after the fire"--which was obviously taken in the winter since the scene was covered in snow.

It wasn't until I saw this that I realized that Summerhaven
had more than a "close call" with a wildfire.
Later, I did some Internet sleuthing to learn more about the wildfire--the Aspen Fire. More than 250 homes of the 700 homes in the area had burned in 2003. I walked outside to eat my ice cream sandwich, looking at the wooden building of general store and shook my head. Do people ever learn? It's a beautiful building, but I can't help but think its days are numbered. Someday, another wildfire will blow through town and burn it all down again. Maybe not in my lifetime, but eventually, it seems certain to happen.


I talked with a couple of locals who seemed fascinated by the Arizona Trail and asked me where I was camped when it snowed.

"When did it snow?" I asked.

"Two night ago!"

I thought back and answered, "I was camped just north of the north boundary of Saguaro National Park, but it didn't snow on me."

But apparently, it did snow in Summerhaven. Some areas, I was told, got as much as three inches of snow.

I walked north out of Summerhaven, along the Catalina Highway, turning off on Control Road (Forest Service Road 38) then onto the Oracle Ridge Trail which the Arizona Trail shared.

Oracle Ridge was a pleasure to hike along with wide-open views on both sides. The only issue was its exposure to wind--the strong gusts nearly knocked me over at times. The first part of it was burned--presumably from the 2003 fire that consumed much of Summerhaven--and I imagined the wind conditions were similar during the fire. With such a strong wind, it would have been all but impossible to contain it.


Looking ahead, I could see civilization in the low-deserts thousands of feet below and tried to identify the locations. Oracle, my next resupply town, was coming up soon, but I was sure that's not what I was seeing. Oracle should have been almost due north and the views from the ridge faced east and west. Due north was largely blocked by the ridge itself. Oracle Junction, probably.

I could see one structure far in the distance, however, that I recognized it immediately. Biosphere 2. It's a fascinating place, designed to completely insulate the indoor environment from the outside. Ideally, it would have supported a small team of people in a completely self-sustaining way. It was even air-tight so no oxygen could circulate between the two worlds. Earth was "Biosphere 1" and this was to be "Biosphere 2." In the end, that mission failed. Oxygen had to be pumped in when it became too low for the participants and an injured member had been allowed to leave then return with new materials.

The place has a futuristic look to it, like a city on an alien planet. I visited Biosphere 2 back in 2000 and could immediately recognize it even from a distance. The trail never approached to within about 5 miles of the complex, but it stood out.


I took photos regularly, like I have since I started the trail at the Mexican border. Typically, I try to take at least one photo every 5 to 10 minutes, and on this scenic ridgeline, I was probably taking a photo every 2 to 3 minutes. An hour or two into the ridge, however, my camera stopped working. It just plain stopped for no apparent reason at all. The lens came out, I took my photo, and when I turned it off, the lens failed to retract. I tried turning it off again, and eventually the display gave me a low battery error.

I dropped my pack, relieved. I always carried spare batteries. That's not a problem! So I replaced the batteries, turned on the camera, turned it off... and the lens still failed to retract. I tapped it a bit, kind of like kicking the TV that doesn't work, but it still wasn't doing anything and the display gave me a "lens error" message.

I might have said a four-letter word that ended with an exclamation point just then. I think it was crap!

I needed photos for Walking 4 Fun. Backtracking to Summerhaven wasn't appealing--I hate backtracking. Going ahead to Oracle was at least in the right direction, but I needed photos. I didn't want to do this again!

Fortunately, I came prepared. This wasn't the first time I've damaged a camera on the trail. It wasn't even the second time I've damaged a camera. This wasn't even the first time a camera just stopped working for no apparent reason at all. Consequently, I came prepared with a backup camera.

The beard is growing in nicely! =)

Until now, it had just been dead weight in my pack. It was the same kind of camera as the one I had been using, but an older version of it. I transferred the memory card and batteries to the older camera, turned it on, reset all of the settings (date, time, beeps, etc.) and continued the hike. I'd still have to do something about the broken camera, but it could wait until I reached my next trail town in Oracle. The broken camera was still under warranty as well--I'd had it only about 10 months. But it was still an inconvenience.

With little more than an hour until sunset, I started looking for somewhere to set up camp. The ridge didn't have many promising campsites and I figured there was a very real possibility I'd just have to camp on the trail itself. But I really needed to find a location that was protected from the strong wind gusts. The wind was brutal!

And eventually I found the perfect place. It was slightly to one side of the ridge which protected me from the wind on the other side and even had a small flat area where I could lay out comfortably that wasn't on the actual trail. Perfect!

I watched the sun set and pulled out my cell phone hoping it might connect to some of the civilization I could see in the distance, and it did when I held it high in air above my head.


My first call was to Amanda--I wanted to take care of the broken camera as soon as possible and she could help. The town of Oracle wasn't very big, but maybe there was a bus I could take into a nearby town where I could buy a replacement. Or maybe she could order one on Amazon.com and have it shipped to a post office along the trail. Or maybe.... something. I didn't know what, but Amanda could get online and do a bit of research for me. And ultimately, we learned that once I got into Oracle, the only public transit out of town was hitchhiking. No buses, no trains, no nothing. And the nearest place where I could likely buy a camera was quite a ways away in the outskirts of Tucson.

Shipping a camera to Oracle would have required at least a day or two off the trail--I was expecting to get into town the next day. There's no way it would have arrived before I did. And ultimately, we decided the best option was just to wait until I saw Amanda in a few days. When she picked me up off the trail, she'd have a car and we could drive wherever we needed for a camera.

Then, since my cell phone was actually working, I went ahead and used it to call my sister (I'm still safe--please don't call out the search and rescue teams!) and my mom (hi, mom!). I would have called from Summerhaven, but my cell phone couldn't get a signal at all when I was in town. Out here on Oracle Ridge in the middle of nowhere, I did get a weak signal. Weird....

Then I read my Kindle until I got tired and faded off to sleep.....

The rocks in the Wilderness of Rocks left pools of water all over the place.

And the views from the sky island were incredible!

The Wilderness of Rock was well named! But it often
made the trail difficult to follow too.

Lemmon Creek

I'm normally not a big fan of graffiti, but this made me laugh. =) Not
so much the "kiss a tree!" part as the "Go on and do it!" part egging you on.

What the heck? Why not?! Kiss a tree! =)

This appeared to be some sort of experiment or study along the trail,
but I have no idea what its goal was.

We're still on the right path!

The road into Summerhaven.

Snow is so common in these sky islands, they've developed
emergency snow routes! According to locals, some places
around here got 3 inches of snow just two days earlier. (Obviously,
none of it survived long enough for me to photograph it!)

Apparently, Santa has a summer home in Summerhaven!

I kept my eyes open for "wild and crazy turkeys," but I never found any.

The general store was a great place to rest! It was rebuilt after the 2003
wildfire burned the previous building, but I couldn't help but notice
that a heck of a lot of this building appears to be made out of wood.
Something a little more fire-resistant  would have seemed like a better option!
I've seen wanted posters at post offices before, but never one quite like this!
I'm not even sure if this is for real. It sounds like it's legit, but
it almost looks like a joke too... And what kind of reward is listed
as $2,869 (and growing!)? Why not $2,500 or $3,000?

My cell phone didn't work in Summerhaven, and the only payphone
I could fine was out of order. =(

I could only hope to see bears in the next 25 miles!

I suspected this was part of the 2003 burn.

The Oracle Ridge Trail followed the top of Oracle Ridge,
a good chunk of which is visible in this photo.




Hey, those buildings look familiar! It's Biosphere 2!
Close-up of Biosphere 2.

Sunset from camp.

3 comments:

Sue KuKu said...

Maybe the wild and crazy turkeys they are referring to are the thru-hikers doing the Arizona Trail!

Crystal R said...

I'm enjoying reading about your days on the trail. It makes me want to go on a thru - hike someday.

Anonymous said...

I remember my junior high geography teacher saying "if you build water, don't be surprised when you get flooded.."