Sunday, May 03, 2009

Cold Camping, 16 to 18 April 2009

With our dog Keesha, Fred and I left home at mile mark 114 (183 km mark) at 11 AM to drive up to our 40 acres in northern Arizona. We stopped in Clifton at the old Train Depot to look at the railroad stuff and then proceeded up hill to the Morenci copper mine. Stopped for a photo. The mine geography changes every time we visit, mounds of earth moved, relocated, new deep holes dug in this enormous open pit mine. Even the very road (US Highway 191) is moved over here or over there.

Finally we drove up into the evergreen trees of Apache National Forest (the White Mountains) and stopped at Cherry Lodge picnic site for lunch. The namesake Cherry trees were displaying their pink blooms. Little information is available to explain why there are these few domesticated fruit trees in this wilderness.

We continued driving up the very crooked Coronado Trail, scenic but one of the twistiest roads in the US. Over 400 switchbacks over the 123 mile (197 km.) route.

When we passed Rose Peak which is 8786 feet, (2678 meters), (and a peak we can see from our house), we began to note snow piles in the shady woods, remnants of winter. To our delight we stopped to watch a small herd of Mule Deer grazing near the road. After another 100+ curves in the road, we finally arrived above 9000 feet (2743 m.) at Blue Vista, a lookout point with nothing but wilderness to see. The road straightens a bit as it goes north in the high country of fir and Ponderosa Pine trees. Finally we traveled through the scenic mountain town of Alpine, then up across another mountain pass next to 10900 foot, 3322 m. Escudilla Mountain. Finally descending to grassland at Springerville and St. John’s. Near there we saw outcroppings along the road of the Chinle formation, which is the main soil type of the Painted Desert. It gives slim pickings for the cattle range that is the main use of the hundreds of square miles of this sparsely populated part of Eastern Arizona. Chinle has a remarkable variety of color, from grey, to blue, to red, and shades in between.

Elevation begins to rise as we continued north up on the Colorado Plateau. Junipers and cedar trees predominated. And at the 339 mile (545 km) mark on Highway 191 we reached the turn off to our wilderness retreat. It is a slow 5 miles (8 km.) of 4-wheel drive only to reach our acreage. But it is worth the trouble. A spectacular view to the north of ridge after ridge of treed wilderness, and nothing but wilderness in every other direction too. No houses, no roads, no man-made sounds. At night: no lights, just stars…

After driving up our “driveway” and I use that term very loosely, we set up camp where we always do, a level spot with a tremendous view. Quickly Fred got the fire going as the temperature was dropping precipitously. The forecast had warned it might dip below freezing and it sure felt like it. A hurried supper prepared on a gas stove that would not cooperate, and piling more wood on the fire as it got colder and colder, until finally I decided to go to bed to get cozy. I had no idea how cold it would get…

This was the dog’s first overnight camping experience and she tentatively crept into the tent. She started to make herself at home on Fred’s side of the sleeping bag so I had to teach her that she had to lay on the other side of me. Sadly she curled up outside the sleeping bag.

I slept right through, 8 hours and woke with the first light, before 6 AM. It felt cold, but I didn’t realize how cold until I got outside the tent. The tent fabric was iced, the car was coated in frost, the dog’s water dish was frozen solid. I checked the thermometer and it was 18° (-9°C) Whoooaaaaa cold! We quickly relit the campfire from the embers of the last night’s fire. Fred fixed the cranky camp stove and we had hot coffee and I had hot oatmeal as fast as possible. Fred put the dog’s plastic water bowl near the fire. I thought it was a bad idea, but it did start to thaw the water, and then the plastic began to melt… After that the dog had a sick looking bowl, but it still held water.

After breakfast the sky began to look threatening. Grey clouds were rolling in from the north. Then sure enough, it began to snow. Fortunately it was just a brief storm.

After the snowfall we decided to go on a hike. It is just over a mile (1.7 km) to a very old, but still working windmill that pumps water for the cattle and wildlife in the area. We walked due west according to our little Garmin GPS. The wind and cold continued so even walking didn’t warm us up too much. After photos and finding a pile of blue feathers, the remains of an unfortunate bird, we headed back and slogging through the sand made it feel like longer than that mile or so. Our warm sweet-smelling juniper wood campfire was a welcome sight.

The wind constantly blew at a strong rate. So I spent most of the day near the fire. In the afternoon I did some target shooting with our nice Italian-made Gamo .177 caliber air rifle. I’m a fair marksman if I do say so myself.

I spent the day collecting a few pottery shards from the prehistoric pueblo people that used to live in this area. Then I read a book about Søren Kierkegaard as I sat near the fire. And also did a few yoga poses on a blanket in the lee of the fire. Too cold to get far from the fire!

For supper I made hamburgers over the open fire. I timed the meal so it was finished before darkness fell because the previous night it was difficult to maneuver in the cold and by the light of the Coleman lantern.

We sat by the fire for a long time, as the wind had calmed and the stars were out, although it was still getting chilly. The dog had learned how to sit close to the warmth, overcoming her initial fearfulness of the flames.

After another long sleep I woke the next morning to a balmy 28° (-3°) The sun was bright and the temperature shot up fast so that by the time we left at 11 AM, it was shirt-sleeve weather.
After re-tracing our 5 mile (8 km.) route on the sand road, or road suggestion (!), we turned north on Highway 191 to Sanders, a small town of 500 in the southeast corner of the great Navajo Indian Reservation. Bought a tasty Navajo Taco at a lunch stand and then preceded west on Interstate 40. After 30 miles (42 km.) I exited the highway at the Painted Desert.

A semi-circular road takes one past the gift shop and one of two official visitor centers, then past eight overlooks. We stopped at Chinde Point for lunch on this beautiful afternoon. The colors of the chinle formations are so amazing. They change with the time of day and the cloud cover. I was most impressed by the variety of reds, a result of iron oxidation.

On down the road we went, driving over Interstate 40 again, then across a great grassland where we stopped to observe a herd of 11 pronghorn antelope. Animals are protected within the boundaries of a National Park, so these were lucky antelope indeed.

We drove over the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line and then passed into the petrified logs section of the Petrified Forest National Park. We stopped at Newspaper Rock which gave an overview of several cliffside rocks containing 650 petroglyphs. There are eight places to stop and explore various fossils, an archeological site and many types of petrified logs. We didn’t tarry long as time was slipping away. But did stop to take each other’s picture next to a couple huge fossil logs.

When we entered the Park, a ranger bagged and tied a chunk of petrified wood that I had picked up on our land. Cars are subject to search if there is suspicion that a visitor is stealing pieces of petrified wood or other antiquities from the Park. With a million visitors to the Petrified Forest every year - if everyone just took one piece… it wouldn’t take long before there was no “Forest” left to see.

After buying a boatload of postcards and a couple books in the Petrified Forest Visitor Center, we left the Park and headed south. In St. John’s we called Fred’s son to go and feed our animals since we were still so far from home and it was 4 PM. While driving back up into the White Mountains we saw a small herd of Elk. Then we stopped in Alpine to eat supper at the Bear Wallow Café. From there I chose to drive the straighter route south through New Mexico, more miles, but easier, no hairpin bends. Just before full dark, we passed a handful of Javelina (or Collard Peccary) on the side of the road. And it was 10 PM when we finally turned into our driveway.

We had seen so many wild animals, beautiful vistas, petrified wood, mountains and grasslands, snow and sun. Once home, it was just nice to get a shower and clean off that smoky campfire smell. And find a jammed mailbox of letters and postcards for me!