Friday, July 25, 2014

Day 18: The Black Hills

The Tiger Mine Road trailhead
April 30: I woke up at my usual early time with the sunrise out of habit--despite my sleeping indoors this time--and spent an hour on my laptop catching up with some last minute things. But I had miles to do--about 20 of them, in fact, and couldn't linger all morning long.

I checked the weather forecast online before I left and it wasn't looking pretty. In Oracle, it was supposed to break 90 degrees every day for the foreseeable future. Of course, I'd be hiking away from Oracle, but it's hard to get accurate weather forecasts for "middle of friggin' nowhere" so I settled on Oracle as being the closest town. Some people might argue that Oracle should count as "middle of friggin' nowhere," but those people have never really been in the middle of figgin' nowhere to know what middle of friggin' nowhere really means. ;o)

In fact, the temperature on the trail would quite likely exceed that in the town of Oracle. Oracle had an elevation of 4,000 feet above sea level. The trail, according to my databook, would spend most of the day even lower descending to 2,794 feet above sea level by the end of the day's hike. Since temperatures typically rise 4 to 5 degrees for every thousand feet it descends, the highs I'd be facing would likely be 5 or 6 degrees hotter than the highs in Oracle. Mid to high 90s.

It wasn't something I looked forward to and was another reason not to linger too long in the morning. Really, I should have been hiking at sunrise.

I took a shower, packed up my bags and thought about my laptop. I could mail it ahead like I've been doing along the trail so far, but I was expected to meet Amanda just 60 miles down the trail in three days. My pack wasn't especially heavy since I only carried food for three days, although it wasn't especially light given the large amounts of water I carried. But at the same time, I didn't really want to deal with stopping at the post office to mail it ahead either. I was anxious to get going.

It looks like a bear box, but it's really a water cache!
See that H2O welded into the top of the lid?

Inside the water cache--gallons and gallons of water!
The other problem with mailing it ahead.... I'd get off the trail late on Friday. If I didn't get to the post office before it closed for the day, I wouldn't be able to retrieve my laptop until Monday since these small post offices weren't open at all on weekends. So finally, I decided just to carry my laptop. It would only be for three days! And with a pack already half-empty of food, it wouldn't even be the heaviest my pack has been on this trip.

The proprietors of the motel gave me a ride back to the trailhead. They almost went past it--from the trail where I got off at Highway 77, the trail follows Tiger Mine Road about 1.5 miles before veering back into the wilds on an actual trail and they were going to drive me the 1.5 miles down the dirt road.

"Wait!" I said, as I realized what they were doing. "I got off at Highway 77! That's where I need to get off at!"

They backed up a bit and let me off. "Oh, you're one of those 'every inch' guys."

I nodded agreeably. "Yes, I am one of those guys." =)

They told me that a lot of thru-hikers skip the eight miles through Oracle State Park completely--a side trail off the AZT will take them directly into Oracle cutting off the extra eight meandering miles through the state park. I couldn't say that really surprised me. Thru-hikers everywhere always seem to take shortcuts every opportunity they can. I never really understood that mentality--they choose to walk hundreds of miles through the desert, then short change themselves by cutting off a few miles here and there as if they didn't really want to hike it in the first place. Oracle State Park was quite pleasant to walk through. Easy, rolling hills. Lots of cacti in bloom. Rabbits and lizards darting around everywhere. Why would I want to miss that?!

But they seemed almost surprised that I wouldn't even skip the 1.5 miles of gravel road walk. Which, all things considered, wasn't a bad walk. It was easy to walk on, wasn't busy with speeding vehicles and not at all unpleasant to walk. But I wasn't going to walk from Mexico to Utah except for 1.5 miles on a gravel road near Oracle. Nope, I'd do every inch.

Prickly pear blooms
They dropped me off, and I thanked them for their hospitality. Then I picked up my pack started hiking. For the entire rest of the day, I didn't see anyone else. No mountain bikers, no runners, no hikers, no nobodies.

I did see a long, green snake on the trail that--for an animal with no legs--amazes me with its speed. I only caught the briefest of glances, though, as it sped off the trail and into a cactus.

The Arizona Trail Association calls this section of trail the "Black Hills." The trail did run up and down a series of small hills, but I barely noticed them. They were never very high and the trail was never steep.

The first water source on the trail was at the Tiger Mine Road trailhead where a large metal box held many gallons of bottled water. It looked like a bear box, but it was specifically meant to store water. An official water cache! My first of the trail! I'd lost count of the number of water bottles sitting on the side of the trail, but they weren't in a protective box that kept it out of the sun or away from animals. It seemed like a weird place for a water cache, though, with Oracle so close. I had to imagine pretty much every hiker went into Oracle and would have plenty of water (including myself) and not need anything from the water cache. Maybe southbound hikers who ran out of water and hadn't made it to Oracle yet might use it, but that was about it. It just seemed like a weird place for a water cache. I couldn't imagine that most people would use it!


The morning warmed up and within a couple of hours, I was sweating bullets. Shade was scarce, but the dry riverbeds were often lined with shady trees and that's where I would stop for snack breaks and lunch. Anything in my databook labeled as a "wash," I quickly learned, often had some shade available and I started planning my stops around them. A named wash such as Tucson Wash would likely have a lot of shade to choose from. An unnamed wash--perhaps not so much.

During a lunch break, I took out a camera tripod I had bought specifically for this trip. It was relatively small and lightweight and I had largely forgotten about it, but I had gotten the idea that I could attach it to my trekking pole and get some shots from interesting perspectives well above my head.

So as I rested in the shade, I fiddled around with it a bit to see if I could make it work. I attached it to the end of my trekking pole easily enough, but I found the real difficulty was in focusing and framing photos well. I'd set the 10-second timer on my camera then lift it high in the air, but I couldn't see the viewfinder so I couldn't tell if what it was aimed at was in focus, exposed correctly, or even in the frame at all! It took several attempts for me to get a selfie that looked somewhat presentable. I thought I'd use this technique a lot, but as much trouble as it was to take one photo, I knew I wouldn't be doing it often.

The mighty saguaro towers above mere peons like me. =)

The next water source was 15 miles from Oracle--Mountain View Tank, a 40,000 gallon tank of water a short ways off the trail. By the time I arrived, I had consumed most of the water I started with, but--strictly speaking--I didn't need more water just yet. Another water tank with reliable water was another 5 miles up the trail, and a yet another one was just 3 miles past that. I still had enough water to get me to the next source, and maybe even the one after that.

But I stopped anyhow--for a few reasons. First, in case I couldn't find the next water source. The next water was 0.2 miles off trail and I've had trouble finding water sources before! If I couldn't find the next water source, I wanted enough water with me to get me to the next one after that. And, second, I wanted "practice" finding water in the desert. I wanted to be able to recognize likely water sources from a distance, and I figured the more of them I saw, the more likely I'd recognize a similar source of water in the future. And finally, it seemed prudent to know where the nearest reliable water was located. If this source was dry or empty, I wanted to find out now and not after I backtracked a half dozen miles.

So I stopped for water at the large 40,000 gallon tank wondering if there was a spigot near the base to get water. But there was no spigot--just a ladder to the top of the tank. I climbed the ladder and saw that the tank was mostly full of water. Not to the very rim, but almost out of arm's reach too. I saw lots of tadpoles swimming around it the water and wondered how they ever got into this tank in the first place. It's amazing how life can thrive in the most unlikely of places.



I was a little worried I might lose my Nalgene bottle while trying to fill it up with water since the water level was so low, so I tied a rope around the mouth of it and threw it into the water while holding onto the other end of the rope. It just floated on the surface, though, and didn't fill up with water. I could probably use my trekking pole to push it under water, but first I tried reaching down and pushing it under water directly. It was a stretch, but I managed to do it without falling into the water myself then pulled the full Nalgene back up with the rope.

I collected a couple of liters of water this way--not much, but I didn't have to go for the next water source. I wanted just enough water that, if the worst-case scenario played out and I couldn't find either of the next two water sources, I would still have enough water to get me back to this location.

Before leaving, I soaked my hat, handkerchief, and shirt in the water to cool down. Oh, it felt good, but I knew they'd be dry in less than a half hour in this dry heat. Until then, I enjoyed the cool of the water!

I continued onward, my next stop at Cowhead Tank five miles up the trail near Camp Grant Wash. This had the same 40,000 gallon tank of water, but when I climbed the ladder, I could see that it was still actively filling with water and reached the absolute brim. All 40,000 gallons were accounted for! Rather than dip my Nalgene bottle in the water from the tank which was swimming with tadpoles, I put it under the pipe that was dripping water into the tank. It's always best to get water from as close to the source as possible, and in this case, that meant capturing the water before it even made it into the tank!


By now, the sun was getting low in the sky and it was time to start looking for a place to camp. I walked back to the trail, up a small hill along a gravel road, and set up camp maybe 10 minutes later practically overlooking the water tank I had just filled up at. The tank was situated at the base of a small cliff and the trail wound up and around to the top of the cliff. I found a flat area to lay out and called it a night.

Cholla blooms--just look at all that pollen!


High winds caused a lot of dust in the air. I could barely see
the mountains to the east through all the dust! These mountains
probably weren't more than a few miles away and, under
normal conditions, would have been very clear! I can't
imagine this much dust was good for my respiratory system either,
but there's not much I could do about that!


Love the ocotillo!

Goofing around with my camera at the end of my trekking pole. =)

Desert globemallows

Hot, dry and desolate. I wondered if there was even a single
living person within 10 miles of my location....

I always wondered where tape comes from, and now I've
found definitive proof that it grows on cacti! =) But in all seriousness....
I was a little puzzled when I found this. Why would someone leave this here?
Why would a hiker be carrying such heavy tape?
As if heat and lack of water weren't dangerous enough, now I could blow up
in a gas line explosion!

A saguaro forest!

Mountain View Tank, a 40,000-gallon water tank.
A 40,000-gallon water tank swimming with tadpoles.
Yeah, I can get that water...
Grasshopper on the water tank.
The water from the tank fed into this corral for cattle.


Hedgehog cactus blooms
This saguaro looks like it's seen better days, but I kind of liked
this "inside look" at the saguaro. It's an unusual perspective!
Cholla blooms
Camp Grant Wash
Cattle in Camp Grant Wash
Cowhead Tank, another 40,000-gallon water tank.
I climbed the ladder to the top....
...to see one of the most beautiful views of the entire trail! =)
As dusk approaches, it's time to look for a place to camp!
Oh, yeah, just look at that view! The green area down there
is Camp Grant Wash and that ridge in the distance is what we came down
an hour earlier.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

How do you avoid snakes curling up with you at night??

A M Jenner said...

I want to know how the frogs get out of the tank, once they're done being tadpoles.

Grumpy Grinch said...

I think those were mosquito fish, not tadpoles. Probably planted to reduce the skeeter population.

Ryan said...

You know, I'll totally buy into them being mosquito fish. That's makes a heck of a lot more sense! Fish seemed unlikely (how did they get there?) so I figured tadpoles because I know there *are* frogs around (I'd seen them), but that didn't really seem right either. Introduced mosquito fish, though, makes a lot of sense!

As for snakes.... they don't like to curl up with things larger than themselves, so you don't really have to avoid them--they'll avoid you!

-- Ryan