|When it came time for John and me to celebrate our four-year
anniversary, we decided to take a three-day weekend and spend it together,
without Mary. Although we enjoy taking her with us on our adventures, we
needed to take a short break from parenting. We were soon going to have two
children instead of one, so this was probably going to be our last chance for
a while to get away from it all.|
We managed to arrange for John's parents to watch Mary for the weekend - of course, it wasn't as though we had to twist their arms to get them to do it! Bill and Erika always enjoy having their darling granddaughter come to stay with them. The plan, then, was that we would drop Mary off at day care on the way out of town on Friday morning, and they would pick her up in the evening after work.
The big question was where to go. John had already decided that we should go to the White Mountains, since it had been a long time since we had been there. With me being in my fifth month, John thought at first that we should stay at the Lodge at Hannagan Meadow. He went on-line and researched it, but he soon changed his mind when he saw the price: it was quite expensive! Now, we're not cheap - for special occasions such as that, John would have booked the trip anyway. However, with only two months left until our two-week vacation, we just could not justify the cost.
So, rather than spend our anniversary in luxury, we decided to camp in the White Mountains instead. That meant that we would have to buy a new tent, since our old one had a broken zipper. We decided that it would be our anniversary gift to each other. Just days before our trip, we went to Popular and bought a new 10'X10' Coleman tent - an upgrade to our old 9'X8' tent. We couldn't wait to give it a test run.
On Wednesday night, before the start of our trip, we loaded all of our camping gear into the Jeep. Mary watched as we did so and was quick to notice that we had not packed her gear. "Daddy, where's Mary's tent?" she asked. "Where's Mary's sleeping bag?"
"Mary, you get to stay with Grandma and Grandpa," we told her. We think that she was okay with that, but you can't be too sure with toddlers.
On Thursday night (our anniversary), John and I had our romantic dinner out at the Salt Cellar. Then, Friday morning, bright and early, we embarked on our adventure, stopping first to drop Mary off at day care. (Sadly, I forgot to bring Mary's Teddy bear with her for the special Teddy bear picnic that they would be having at school that day, so I felt very guilty about it! That wasn't exactly how I wanted to start the trip!)
As we made our way out of town, we tuned into KTAR to listen to the latest news about the Arizona wildfires. Not only was there a fire burning in Whiteriver, on the Fort Apache Reservation, but there was also a new fire in the White Mountains - the Steeple Fire, in the Blue Range Primitive Area. On Thursday night, we had heard that Hannagan Meadow had been evacuated and that US 191 had been closed between Alpine and Clifton. That was bad news for us, because we had planned to camp near Hannagan Meadow. We also planned to hike in the Bear Wallow Wilderness Area, but if US 191 was closed, we would not be able to get to the trailhead.
Of course, we always try to have a back-up plan, in case of situations like that. Upon hearing about the Steeple Fire, John selected a different area in which to camp, and he decided to talk to the forest ranger in Alpine to find an alternate route into the Bear Wallow Wilderness Area.
As our trip began, we took SR 87 north to Payson, where we stopped at the Wal-Mart to buy a few forgotten supplies. We also shopped for a game to play - without Mary, we were going to have plenty of time to play games. We found a Cribbage game, encased in a durable tin and bought that to keep in the Jeep for camping purposes only.
We left Payson going east on SR 260, towards Show Low. En route, we had a chance to see the full extent of the damage done by the Rodeo-Chedeski fire that had swept through Heber-Overgaard and the surrounding forest communities last year. It had charred 490,000 acres, leaving the once-beautiful forest in complete ruin. Passing through the damage, I couldn't help but feel a bit sad, knowing that it will take decades for the forest to recover...and yet, it was a fire that didn't have to happen, as both fires had been intentionally set by humans.
It wasn't until we reached Show Low, shortly after 11:00 a.m., that we finally emerged from the burnt forest.
Once in Show Low, John and I decided to stop at Subway for lunch. We ate our sandwiches in the restaurant, rather than take them to go, because we needed a break from driving. We had been on the road for over three hours, and we still had several hours to go.
For one lucky lady, it was a good thing that we did stay to eat in Show Low. Upon leaving Subway, an elderly lady approached us to help her with her minivan. She had gotten it stuck on a car stop and could not get it to back up at all. After several attempts, John managed to free it for her. She was very grateful for his help.
We left Show Low and headed east into Forest Lakes on SR 260; then, we continued on towards Eager. There, we stopped to buy gas before driving the final leg of our trip: the stretch from Eager to Alpine on US 180.
In Alpine, we stopped at the ranger station, to inquire about the Steeple Fire. The ranger on duty indicated that US 191 was closed ten miles south of Alpine, at the junction with FR 24, and it wasn't going to be open anytime soon. We could, however, access the Bear Wallow Wilderness Area by taking the longer route through the forest, on FR 25. It would involve about twenty-five miles of travel on all-weather dirt roads, but at least we would be able to do our hike. That was good news for us, because we really had our heart set on getting a new wilderness area.
With our hiking plans set, we left Alpine and entered the National Forest to find our campsite. Since we were unable to camp near Hannagan Meadow, John suggested that we look instead to the East Fork of the Black River, by taking FR 249 to FR 276. We would be able to find plenty of good campsites there.
We decided the camp near the East Fork recreation area - far enough away from the fee area and the riff-raff that was camped there. (There was a number of large families camped there; I imagine that the noise was horrendous.) As soon as we selected our site, we unloaded our gear and, for the first time, pitched our brand new tent. Of course, since it was a new tent, and that was the first time we had set it up, it took us two tries to get it right, because we didn't realize that there were sleeves instead of hooks for the tent poles! (D'oh!)
But what a difference a few feet could make! The new tent was huge compared to our old one. We had more room for the air mattress and even more room to walk around inside of it. Best of all, the zipper worked!
We spent the rest of the day at our campsite, playing cribbage, walking through the forest nearby, resting in our new tent, and watching the thunderheads drift overhead, wondering if it was going to rain or not. That evening, we had a nice, quiet dinner, then we relaxed until bedtime, playing games and waiting for the first stars to appear in the sky.
The next morning, after a peaceful night's sleep, John and I awoke early, in hopes that we could get an early start on the trail - especially since we had a long drive ahead of us to get there. After we ate breakfast, we got dressed then gathered up the hiking gear that we would need for our trek.
That was when we realized that we had forgotten some very important pieces of equipment: the shells for our camelback! We had remembered to bring both of the bladders, but without the packs to carry them, they were completely useless. Worse yet, we had nothing in which to carry our lunch and snacks. So, how were we going to hike without food and water?
Fortunately, being the clever people that we are, we came up with a plan. After a brief review of our gear, we found that the stuff sack for the air mattress was just big enough to carry one of the bladders and our food - plus, it had a strap that would enable John to carry it on his back. As for me, I would carry a bottle of water and refill it from the camelback bladder as needed.
With that problem solved, it was time to hit the trail. We were going to have to take the longer route through the forest to get there, and since that was going to take us an hour or more, we needed to get moving right away.
It was nearly nine o'clock when we finally arrived at the Bear Wallow Trailhead, where there was a thin haze of smoke lingering over the tops of the trees, as well as the faint smell of burning wood wafting through the air. We were miles from the Steeple Fire, so we weren't in any danger from it, but we were close enough to see and smell the smoke.
Despite the smoke, John and I began hiking immediately along the Bear Wallow Trail, in the Bear Wallow Wilderness Area - our thirtieth wilderness area in Arizona! We have now conquered one-third of the wilderness areas in Arizona.
From the trailhead, the Bear Wallow Trail immediately enters the wilderness area and begins a gentle descent towards Bear Wallow Creek. En route, it passes through a dense forest of lodgepole pines and spruce trees. On either side of the trail, there is a thick growth of grass mixed with poison ivy and poison oak, which meant that we would have to be extra careful hiking through the area...especially when we sat down to rest!
We also saw lots and lots of wildflowers! There were wildflowers everywhere, and many of them were covered with bees and butterflies collecting pollen. While John was photographing the butterflies, I spotted what I thought was a very large, brown moth, hovering over the flowers. Upon closer inspection, we discovered that it was not a moth at all but a small hummingbird, barely the size of John's thumb. He managed to get one picture of it before it flitted away.
After hiking three-quarters of a mile, we passed through a gate then began to descent steeply towards the creek over the next half mile. (That was going to be a groaner on the way out.) Upon reaching the creek, however, the trail leveled out and became a very pleasant stroll through the forest.
Our hike took us past a campsite that appeared to belong to Forest Service workers. There was a lean-to, a roll-away table like ours, and a bunch of heavy equipment, including hard-hats and axes. The occupants, however, were nowhere to be seen, so we weren't sure if they were from the Forest Service or not. We weren't even sure how they managed to get all of that equipment into the backcountry!
Continuing on, we came at last to the junction with the Schnell Canyon Trail, 3.5 miles from the trailhead. That would be the end of our hike for the day. The Bear Wallow Trail does continue on for another 16.5 miles, eventually ending at the Fort Apache Indian Reservation boundary. (Obviously, we were not going to make it that far!) Although John very much loved the trail, he said that he would never want to actually finish the entire twenty mile length of it, because he would be greatly disappointed by ending the hike at a barbed-wire fence.
We had a quiet lunch at the trail junction, in a spot where there wasn't a lot of poison ivy and oak. Then, once we were rested, we began our hike back to the Jeep.
We took our time getting back, especially on the steep climb away from the creek. We also stopped to take a picture of ourselves in front of one of the pretty meadows along the trail. Finally, around 2:00 p.m., we arrived at the trailhead, hot and tired but happy that we had done such a nice hike.
Rather than return to our campsite the way we had come, John decided to take a chance and see if we could take FR 25 to US 191, despite the highway closure. We needed to get to Alpine anyway to buy ice and gas and mantles for our lantern, so we were hoping that we could take a shorter route.
We made it within one mile of US 191 and did not see signs indicating that the road was closed. We thought for sure that we were going to make it all the way there...but then, we saw the forest ranger coming towards us. He immediately flipped a U-turn and began to follow us from a distance. Finally, at the junction with FR 24, he decided that we had gone far enough, so he turned on his lights and pulled us over.
The forest ranger stepped up to the Jeep and immediately began to lecture us about driving into a closed area. "We've had too many people coming to gawk at the fire," he explained, "and they're getting in the way of the firefighters."
"We don't want to get in their way," John said to him. "We just want to get back to Alpine."
They looked over the forest service map and soon determined that we could take FR 24 to US 191, as the closure was just south of that junction. It would take us a little longer, but at least we would not have to drive all the way back up FR 25! We thanked the ranger for his time then left him there to set up a road block.
We turned around and went back to FR 24, which we took for several miles, until at last, we came to US 191, ten miles south of Alpine. (Sure enough, there was a blockade set up there, preventing people from going any further south on the highway.) As we drove, John couldn't help but laugh about his brush with the forest ranger. After all, in the past three years, he had been pulled over by DPS, the Pima County Sheriff, the Maricopa County Sheriff, Phoenix Police, and even the US Border Patrol, but that was the first time he had ever been pulled over by the Forest Service...and he still had not received a single citation! "You're just a lucky guy, I guess!" I said.
After stopping in Alpine for supplies and gas, we decided that it was time to return to camp, to rest until dinnertime. On the way, as we started down FR 249, we saw a fawn, barely three months old, wandering along the side of the road; its mother was nowhere to be seen. John couldn't help but call out to it, "Don't go into the meadow, Bambi!" The fawn disappeared into the trees as we passed by; we hoped that his mother was hiding nearby, watching over him.
Upon returning to camp, we relaxed and played cribbage for the next hour. Meanwhile, we kept an eye on the sky, to watch the thunderheads drift over us. Within an hour, it began to rain, so John and I crawled into our tent to seek shelter. For the next ninety minutes, we took a nap in our tent while we waited for the monsoon storm to pass us by.
And when we woke up, we were well-rested and very hungry, for we had slept past our dinnertime!
We managed to cook our dinner before the sun went down, but we had to eat by lantern-light. Fortunately, we had just enough propane left in the canister to get us through dinner, but just after we cleared away the dinner dishes, our light began to grow dimmer and dimmer, until it finally expired, leaving us in the dark.
"We should have bought propane, too," John said. But it was too late now.
We spent most of the evening in the Jeep, looking at maps and talking about our upcoming vacation, which would take place at the end of September. We also discussed my birthday trip in August, when we would finally go to the Grand Canyon. Finally, around 8:30 that evening, when we could no longer keep our eyes open, we crawled into our tent and soon fell asleep.
The next morning, John awoke early and let me sleep in so that he could take a talk through the forest near our campsite. He returned about ten minutes after I woke up and started making breakfast. Once we were done eating, we both took a little walk through the forest to warm up. We walked about a quarter of a mile, to a bend in FR 276. To complete the loop, we took 276 back to our campsite.
As soon as we returned to camp, it was time to pack up to leave. We still had a five-hour drive ahead of us, and we were getting a little anxious to see our little girl again.
We left camp around 9:00 a.m. and took US 180 back into Eager, where we stopped for gas and snacks. From Eager, we drove non-stop on SR 260 all the way back to Show Low. Along the way, as we passed through McNary, we could see a gigantic plume of smoke, coming from the area of Whiteriver. We wondered if that was the a new fire, or if it was the same fire that had been burning for over a week, but we couldn't find any new information about the fire on the radio.
We stopped briefly in Show Low for a bathroom break then continued on towards Payson, arriving just in time for lunch. Unfortunately, it was noon on a Sunday afternoon, and many of the restaurants, including Subway, were completely packed. We did find a small line at Quizno's and decided to eat there instead.
Around 1:30, we arrived in Phoenix and drove immediately to the Verleys' house to pick up Mary. Although she had had a wonderful time with her grandparents, she was very excited to see us, just as we were to see her.
We brought Mary home and began to unload our gear. Then, for the rest of the evening, we relaxed with our little girl. It had been nice to have the break from parenting for a few days, but now it was time for us to get back into the swing of things again...
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