April 18, 2022
I was hiking by first light. The snoring last night was synchronized and non-stop, with one person starting as soon as the other stopped.
At one point, I almost screamed out loud so that I could wake everyone up and nap for a few minutes. Instead, I tied my puffy tightly around my head to block my ears, hoping it would add a sound muffling layer above my ear plugs.
Unfortunately, Down is not a good noise insulator.
After quickly packing in the dim grey morning light, I began the steep climb up from the East Verde river. It was steep, like toe lifting steep in some spots, and I climbed slowly while my legs warmed up. A torn calf muscle would be no fun with only the LF ranch to bail out to for help.
I did not carry water on the climb up from the river since Whiterock Spring was only about three miles away and a reliable water source. Managing my water needs while being safe takes practice, but I have learned to gauge my water needs over the years.
In the cool of the morning, if I camp at a water source, I’ll drink a liter before leaving and usually do not need another one for the next 4-5 miles. This is cut in half on steep climbing during hot daytime temperatures.
I took a few breaks over the morning’s hike, waiting for Cricket to catch up. Stopping was easy as the terrain was changing, and I often paused to admire the jagged rocks and boulders that appeared to have melted and reformed in this old volcanic landscape.
I was also walking across flat red dirt plateaus, which slowed me down, allowing me to gaze off into the distance instead of staring at my feet. I’m the opposite of most people that speed up on flat sections since I’m easily distracted. This is probably why I mostly fall on flat sections – the easily distracted issue.
The morning was long as I paused multiple times to wait on Cricket. The novelty of the vistas and scrub spruce had worn off by about the fifth break, and I had begun to have fun cow spotting and wandering off the trail to check old tanks and camp remains.
Much of the land I was hiking on was BLM and Forest Service land leased for cattle grazing, although I had no idea what they grazed on up on these high plateaus. There were scattered dry grasses, but they must need like 20 acres to feed a cow. Either that or like deer, they munched on leaves and twigs. Either way, the cows I chatted with as I walked looked well-fed so it seemed to be enough. Clearly they had my metabolism – eat nothing and gain weight.
I took a long lunch break in a good shade spot, waited for Cricket to arrive, and slowed to hike the rest of the afternoon with her. We were shuttling into Payson together, so there was not much point in getting too far ahead.
We continued up and over broad plateaus throughout the afternoon until we finally dropped down to Oak Spring. This was a great break from the heat, and the concrete trough brimming with Spring water was nestled down amongst the Oak trees. I sat and filtered water as Cricket handed down the water bottles while we discussed what we would eat in town the next day. The longer we hiked the more often this topic came up – standard trail chatter.
As we filtered water, we decided this would be an excellent place to eat dinner. Based on the campsites in the area, this was a popular location for hikers to camp, so I talked Cricket into climbing back up to the next ridge after we finished.
I wanted a good night’s sleep, and it would probably be a cramped location if many hikers showed up for the night, and this was likely since it was the only reliable water source in this area. I usually carried out my water, but many hikers camped near water since it was easier to have it close by for dinner, breakfast, and cleaning up.
Water and people draw critters and beasts, so I often move on from popular camping areas. I’ve spent many dusks and dawns peaking out from under the edge of my tarp or tent to watch long hairy legs wander around well-used campsites, and in most cases they were not hikers.
As we sat eating, Stargate showed up and announced he was camping at Oak Spring for the night. I showed him what I thought was an exceptionally nice spot for his tent and then I began packing.
Cricket grumbled about not having a long enough break, and she was probably right, but I was tired of sitting amongst the food-motivated black ants and said she should stay longer and I would meet her at camp.
We discussed how we would let Puff know we were going to camp up top, and letting Stargate know was not an option. Stargate was a nice guy, but we wanted to avoid his snoring. Texting was also not an option since we had no cell signal down in the canyon.
As Cricket started packing, we agreed Puff would figure out our plan when he got to Oak Spring. He was motivated since he wanted to catch the shuttle to Payson with us tomorrow from the Pine trailhead.
We hiked across the Canyon and turned up the trail as it began switchbacking up the side of the ridge ahead of us. I came around the last turn and groaned as the trail angled sharply up into what was a steep climb. Pausing with my full stomach, I looked back at Cricket, who saw my expression and started laughing, which made me laugh. We then broke into anxiety giggles as we crept up the steep hill.
The climb to the top of the ridge was straight up! This seemed to be the theme recently – straight up, straight down. I was either straining and cursing or turtling and cursing. I lowered my head, settled into a rhythm, and began climbing. As I got in shape over the course of long hikes, uphill climbs became enjoyable, definitely more than downhill turtling.
We finally reached the top and began searching for campsites. There were open spaces throughout the oak and manzanita, but much of the ground was covered in small sharp rocks, but after wanting in and out of the bushes and trees we finally found a good flat area with less rocks.
We set up on opposite sides of the space, about 20 yards apart. We were close enough to the trail where Puff would see us if he passed by, so not a stealth spot, but not so close that we would get woken up by night hikers.
I consider stealth spots those camping spots you cannot see from the trail, while other hikers consider stealth spots those that are not designated camping areas. If you can see them then they are not “stealthy.”
As we were wrapping up, Puff rolled up, announcing his pleasure at finding us camped just after the steep climb to the top. As he set up we all laughed and settled in for the night.
We were in a good location for our 3.2-mile hike to the highway at the Pine Trailhead the next day, where the Payson shuttle would pick us up.