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February 16-17, 2002

"Sundad Safari"

It had been a long time - too long, actually - since our last adventure, and even longer since we had last slept under the stars. Since New Year's Day, each and every weekend had been spent working on household projects, battling illnesses, or waiting out the bad weather so that we could go outside. (John did get to go skydiving on a few occasions.) We cancelled many plans to go hiking and backpacking, much to our dismay.

By mid-February, the situation was becoming desperate, so John insisted that we go camping - anywhere! He suggested that we leave February 16 and go find ourselves a nice quiet spot in the desert where we could relax and forget our troubles. "But isn't that the weekend of the Valentine's Money Meet in Eloy?" I reminded him. Not that John would ever forget the date of a major skydiving event, but I thought I'd say something anyway. As it turns out, though, he had already decided to skip the meet this year, because he just didn't have a team put together, so the weekend was open after all.

But would we be able to go? On February 5, Mary came down with the flu and missed four days of day care. I caught it from her and missed one day of work and spent a whole weekend in bed. The following week, I ended up with laryngitis and could not speak for five days! During that time, Mary had a very bad ear infection and had to go back to the doctor for an antibiotic shot. The situation was not looking good at all.

Fortunately, luck was on our side, and Saturday morning, the three of us were the picture of health! We were going camping!

We decided to go camping near the ghost town of Sundad, located southwest of Buckeye in Maricopa County. Established in the 1920's, Sundad used to be a tuberculosis asylum but was unsuccessful and eventually crumbled. There is not much left of the town today, except for some foundations, broken glass, and some old artifacts that have rusted over the years. The site, however, is clearly marked with white stones, some of which are arranged to spell out the name "Sundad."

During John's younger adult years, Sundad served as a site for many a New Year's party campsite. He spent a number of New Year's Eves out there with his buddy Preston, among others. This tradition started a while back, long before we met. Back then, there were still buildings in Sundad, but over time, they were torn down by people passing through and used for firewood. "It doesn't take long to destroy a town," John remarked.

In 1998, only weeks after our engagement, John took me on a pilgrimage of sorts to Sundad, to show me his old stomping grounds. We spent the afternoon hiking through the desert and checking out the other old ghost towns in the area - specifically, Hyder and Agua Caliente. For years after that, we talked about doing a winter camping trip there someday, but we never made it back there.

Our return to Sundad began on Saturday morning at 8:00 a.m. - a bit late for us, I know, considering that we typically are up before the crack of dawn. Our Jeep fully loaded with our camping gear, we left the house and immediately drove out of town - I drove, so that John could do some work en route. (Yes, it's wrong, I know…) That didn't last very long, though, because Mary soon wanted someone to play with her, so John set down his work and turned his attention to her.

To get to Sundad, we took I-10 west towards Buckeye then took the exit for SR 85 south. Two miles or so down the road, we came to the stop sign; just past that, we turned right onto Old US Highway 80, at the sign pointing the way to Palo Verde, Hassayampa, and Arlington.

As we drove down US 80, we passed through a number of farming communities along the way - some pristine, some in disrepair. We also passed by one very important landmark: the Desert Rose bar, in Arlington. John had stopped there numerous times on his way to Sundad and had even taken me there during our pilgrimage. We thought about stopping there that morning, but it was closed. "Perhaps on the way home?" I suggested.

On the other side of Arlington, we came to Agua Caliente Road and turned right. At that point, the pavement ended and we left civilization behind. Soon after the turn, the road forked; a sign indicated that we needed to go right to go to Hyder and Agua Caliente (Sundad was along the way), but I missed it and kept going straight…d'oh! Fortunately, I didn't get very far before John indicated that I should have taken the right fork.

From there, it was another 20 miles or so on dirt road to Sundad. Although it was a good dirt road all the way to Agua Caliente, and we could go 50 mph on the straight-aways, there were many sharp corners and cattle guards, which forced us to slow down periodically.

As we drove deeper and deeper into the desert, we saw something that began to worry us a little bit: a very long train that seemed to be blocking the road ahead. "This could be bad," John said. "I don't think that train is moving, either."

Was our camping trip doomed before it had even begun? As we drew closer to the train, we learned that that was not the case. The "very long train" turned out to be two trains, one on each side of the road. We were able to pass over the train tracks without incident.

The next part of our journey took us through the mountains, along windy-twisty roads that climbed to a pass that was at an elevation of only 1400 feet. "Wow, that low?" I asked John. "At what elevation will we be camping anyway?"

"Oh, roughly 900 feet," he replied. Now, I knew that Sundad was in the low desert, but I didn't realize that it was even lower than Phoenix! This was going to be our lowest camping elevation ever. (Not that we keep track of statistics like that or anything…)

Around 10:00 a.m., we finally found the entrance to Sundad, which was still marked with white rocks pointing the way to Main Street. We turned left onto the access road and followed it through three wash crossings (one of which was a little rough, but nothing that the Jeep couldn't handle), for about a mile, until it deposited us onto Main Street.

We stopped there to have a look around, to see if we could find a suitable place for us to camp. Unfortunately, with all of the broken glass and sharp pieces of rusted metal lying around, we could not camp there, as it posed a definite risk to Mary. (We were a long way from an emergency room.) John suggested that we try to find a campsite further away, where we could still see Sundad but where we could avoid the dangerous artifacts.

We got back into the Jeep and drove for another quarter of a mile, towards a flat area on top of a hill. To get there, though, we had to cross over another wash, one that was smaller but much more rutted than the others. I was not prepared for it and almost got us stuck, so John suggested that we switch drivers. He managed to get us through the wash and up the hill, where we came to a stop at a suitable campsite.

Well, sort of. Although it was not a bad campsite, it was nonetheless very rocky; and, since it was up on top of a hill, it was very windy, too. John hemmed and hawed about it and eventually took the Jeep to see if he could find something else. He soon came back and announced that we should stay put, because there was nothing else ahead.

While Mary played and tried to become accustomed to walking on the shale and lava rocks that lined the ground, John and I set up the tent…only to discover that one of the tent poles was broken! The elastic cord inside of the tent pole had split into two. John tried for about a half an hour to repair the damage, but eventually he gave up and put the tent poles together without it. It worked, but we paid close attention to the wind. If we were hit with strong winds, the tent would probably collapse on us, since there was essentially nothing holding one of the poles together!

Our campsite in SundadOnce our campsite was set up and we were settled in, it was lunchtime. We made sandwiches and ate them as we listened to the silence, the incredible silence. There was not another person around for miles, so we were completely alone in the wide open desert. For some people, that can be a frightening thought. For us, it was wonderfully relaxing to know that we were going to have the kind of camping adventure that we crave: complete solitude.

The silence only lasted as long as lunch. Then, it was time for Mary's nap, which meant that it was time for the first temper tantrum of the day. As any parent of a toddler knows, naptime often sets the stage for one of the roughest battles a parent can face. As sweet and loving as Mary is, even she puts up a fight at naptime, and that day was no exception. After a good half an hour of trying to get her to fall asleep, we eventually gave up and decided that we needed to wear her out first.

In order to wear Mary out and encourage her to take a nap, we put her into the backpack carrier and took her on a hike. True, there are no trails in Sundad, but we went hiking anyway, cross-country. To do so, John pointed to a row of hills about a quarter of a mile from our campsite and said, "Pick one." I selected the one in the middle, and with that we started walking towards it.

Upon reaching the hill, we climbed up to the top and took a look around. Although this hill couldn't have been more than twenty or thirty feet tall, it did give us a nice vantage point, from which we could nothing but flat, open desert for miles and miles. After stopping to take pictures, we kept going over a series of hills, up and down, until we came to the old well that overlooks Sundad. From there, we climbed down from the hills and walked through town, along Main Street.

Among the rubble and garbage that was left behind in Sundad, there are white rocks lining Main Street, to mark where the town once stood. A long time ago, someone came out to Sundad and laid down those white rocks to mark the location of the old town and to indicate where the buildings once stood. Despite the passage of time, the rocks are still there. Among them, there are three areas where the name "Sundad" is spelled out, in addition to other shapes, such as stars, crosses, and arrows. Next to one on the "signs" is the name "Wongo", which had been placed there by one of Preston's drinking buddies. While we were hiking on Main Street, we paused to look for it and found that it was still there.

Satisfied to see that it had not been knocked over, John suggested that we start hiking back towards camp. Mary had become very quiet, so it was time to get her back to the tent for naptime. Instead of taking the road back to our campsite, though, we continued on another fork and followed it to its end, where it dead-ended in a wash. We then skimmed along the edge of the wash and backtracked to our campsite.

As soon as we arrived back at camp, we brought Mary into the tent, where the naptime struggle resumed. Mary just did not want to take a nap. Eventually, her weariness caught up to her and she found that she could no longer resist the urge to lie down. I laid down next to her and pretended to be asleep, while John pulled out the "heavy guns": he read to her in a low, monotone voice, one that was so boring that it didn't take long before he lulled her to sleep.

While Mary slept, John and I relaxed and enjoyed the warm but overcast afternoon. Then, after Mary woke from her nap, John suggested that we all go for a drive, to have some fun with our four-wheel drive vehicle.

At first, John thought it would be fun to explore some of the washes in the area. He didn't think that the Jeep would have any problems handling the sandy washes; however, the sand was a lot softer than he thought it would be. That made him quite nervous, so he opted to stick to the roads.

Having explored a good number of the roads in the area, John knew exactly which road he wanted to take. He drove out to the main road (Agua Caliente Road) and found another side road, on the opposite side. John then indicated that he had taken this road before, in his old Chevy Celebrity. Along the way, we found some primitive campsites that someone had taken the time to groom. They were set up under the mesquite trees next to a wash and had been cleared of the black volcanic rocks that covered the ground in that region. The rocks had been used to outline the site. (That would be a great place to camp on a future trip to Sundad.)

We managed to go about two miles before John decided that he was done. With that, he turned the Jeep around, and we drove back to camp.

A magnificent sunset in SundadUpon arriving at our campsite, the laziness set in, and there we stayed for the rest of the night. Following happy hour, John began to cook dinner; he grilled some juicy steaks for us, and a hot dog for Mary, on the camp stove, and we served those with pasta and green beans and a bottle of wine that was a gift from his boss for Christmas 2000. After dinner, we watched a magnificent sunset and toasted the end of a relaxing day.

Once the sun was down, the desert began to cool, so we build a campfire using firewood that we had purchased at the grocery store and stayed close to it for warmth. Mary sat in my lap and listened to John read her bedtime stories until it was time for her to go to sleep, and it wasn't long after she fell asleep that we followed.

We awoke the next morning around 5:30, before sunrise - not quite the coldest part of the day, but close. (We checked the temperature by turning on the Jeep; it was 50°.) John emerged from the tent and immediately tried to get a fire going, while I kept warm by staying in my sleeping bag.

As soon as the sun rose, the morning chill quickly disappeared, and our day began. After breakfast, we slowly packed up our campsite and got ready to go home…of course, our adventure was still far from over! As always, we were planning to take the scenic route home.

We left Sundad around 9:30 a.m., and from there we continued on Agua Caliente Road until we reached the town of Hyder, along Hyder Road. Out of curiosity, we went into town to see if the Whispering Sand bar was still open (or, at least, if the building was still there). The last time we had passed through that area, it appeared to have been closed down, but a lot could have changed in three years.

We drove for what seemed like a very long time on Hyder Road but did not see the Whispering Sand at all. At one point, John slowed down as he passed by an intersection that looked to be the right place, but there was only a pile of rubble there. "Did they knock down the bar?" he said, sounding very disappointed. But then I realized that we were still in Maricopa County - the bar was in Yuma County, just past the county line.

A few minutes later, we found it. The Whispering Sand was still there, but this time there was a "No Trespassing" sign on its door and a bunch of tree branches set up as barricades to block the parking lot. The Whispering Sand was closed.

Our curiosity satisfied, we continued on. We turned around and started driving in the opposite direction, towards our next destination: Painted Rock Dam.

To get there, we took Hyder Road and followed the signs to the Painted Rock Dam Recreation Area, which is located about five miles from the actual dam. En route, we began to see more and more people - something we had not seen in nearly twenty-four hours! As we drove closer to the park, we found many, many motor homes camped along the side of the road - it seems that we were not the only ones out taking advantage of the warm weather after all!

Petroglyphs at Painted Rock DamWe soon arrived at the Painted Rock Dam Recreation Area, where we found that there were already a good number of picnickers and campers there, enjoying the sunshine - so much for our solitude! Nonetheless, we parked the car in the day-use area and decided to spend a half an hour there, checking out the petroglyphs that were carved into the volcanic rocks. We hiked the short, paved loop trail that took us around the hill of petroglyphs (Mary hiked part of the trail by herself) and took several pictures along the way.

Once we were finished, we didn't see any reason to stick around, so we left to go to our next stop: Painted Rock Dam. Built by the Army's Corps of Engineers, the Painted Rock Dam is one of the largest earthen dams in the country and was designed to control flooding of the Gila River. When full, the flood basin below the dam could be the largest lake in Arizona, passing the capacity of Lake Roosevelt, but that has never been the case.

After seeing the recreation area, I think I was expecting to see more at the actual dam, but that was also not the case. Unlike the recreation area, the dam was completely devoid of activity - had it not been for the American flag flying over the Army Corps of Engineers buildings, I would have thought that the entire place had been abandoned.

It was not at all an inviting place. As we neared the dam, we were met by a locked gate, bearing a "Road Closed" sign. A smaller sign on the gate indicated that the road was open to hikers, but only to the lower lake. So, we put Mary in the carrier and began to hike towards the bottom to see what was down there.

The area was eerily quiet as we hiked towards the lower lake - which, as you can imagine, was completely dry. Along the way, we encountered what appeared to have been an old campground that had been abandoned - the access roads were blocked by chains, and the grounds were in complete disrepair. A bit later, we found a number of warning signs that probably deterred a lot of visitors from spending their off time there. One sign warned against consuming fish or wildlife that inhabit the area, because they were contaminated, possibly by the farmland upstream. Another sign warned visitors to stay away from the edge, overlooking the flood basin, because the sandy overhangs were prone to giving way.

The dam itself was quite interesting, even though we weren't able to get a closer look at it, due to the fact that it was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and "No Trespassing" signs. From the end of the road, where we were forced to turn around, we were able to see the spillway and most of the equipment used to run the dam. We took a moment to take a look around, but since it just wasn't what we were expecting, we decided to hike back to the Jeep.

"That just wasn't very pretty," John said once we returned to the Jeep. He tried very hard to take me to "pretty places"; this was one of his rare failures.

After eating lunch next to the Jeep, it was time to go home. From Painted Rock Dam, we found our way back to Interstate 8 then to Highway 85 at Gila Bend, where we stopped for ice cream. From there, we took SR 85 back to Buckeye, then I-10 home. (We did drive through the Wildlife Refuge Area near Buckeye, but we didn't see anything of interest there.)

And when we arrived at home, around 3:00 that afternoon, another adventure was over.

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