Where is spring during spring break? Rarely in Wyoming. I think the schools call it “spring” break just to illustrate the word “irony.” “Winter break 2” might be more like it. But the title, and the numbing length of a high plains winter makes me yearn for spring each March. My daughter Rose, taking her break from work in the Omaha schools, joined me.
How far would you drive to find it, to see some green and get the sap flowing up your own frozen trunk? Spring can be a moving target in the West.
Spring break 2012 was a brute, with a massive front bellowing in like an airborne flood, burying Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming, of course, in a sea of wet white.
Seeing its approach on the weather radar we knew we would have to head south, far south, maybe Phoenix. Seeing it loom straight ahead of us while we rushed west on I-40 toward Gallup, New Mexico caused our stomachs to drop. Not wanting to crash the little Nissan into it head on we turned south toward the Zuni Reservation. It was in Zuni that the storm’s fury blanketed us in white.
The interstate was closed at Flagstaff but we were still moving, even if we couldn’t see where we were going. But any trip to the Superstition Mountains must involve a chancing of luck, a run of adventure.
Into the Superstitions
The Superstitions are a band of ragged volcanic rock in the Sonoran desert east of Phoenix. Midst the mountains and basins towering saguaros reach their ancient arms to the sky. TV westerns inserted the range into my imagination before the age of conscious memory. These were vistas of danger and romance. I have always wanted to go, to unroll a bedroll under the stars, with Marty Robbins singing in the background.
We pulled off the highway into the desert at dusk with a cloud cover so low we could see nothing but the rutted dirt road bouncing in the headlights. The 160,000 acre Superstition Wilderness was out there somewhere. Maybe we would find it. Maybe spring would find us.
Tents set up at the end of the road, too cold to visit, too tired to care; we slipped into sleeping bags, shivering through the night. Seventy degrees is normal for late March. This was not normal.
Dawn’s glow through the tent wall promised relief. I tapped the taught rain fly from within. Thin sheets of ice slid to the ground, shattering.
Stuffing on boots, donning a winter coat, poking out into the cold wet. Snow clung to the saguaros, filled the agaves, weighed down little golden poppies. Rose stomped her feet, holding her hands to her face. She was puffing steam.
The only way to warm up was to move out. Charge by coffee and oatmeal, we loaded our packs.
As we hiked up winding jeep roads toward a saddle known as Rogers Trough we watched clouds gather in the south east, darkening the sky, pelting us with bouncing white hail, then heavy wet snowflakes. We knew this was a rare way to see the Sonoran desert. But treasuring the specialness didn’t come easy. We just hoped each fleeting patch of sunshine would last. None did.
We crested the saddle and began a trip down into Rogers Canyon, the desert scrub of a hundred movies and entered a world of overgrown branches, limbs grabbing at us, hanging over us, shedding wet snow as we pushed through them following the narrowing trail, now slippery with mud. It was afternoon when we saw it.
But first there was a trickle of water. Angel Spring was sending cascades of sparkling life along the stream bed. Then we looked up. Gaping holes in the rough rock stared down. In one we could see straight lines, the rectangular walls of an ancient cliff dwelling.
Anxious to unload we pressed on just a few hundred yards, quickly making camp at a site along the creek in the shelter of gnarled oaks. The ruins whispered our names.
It was mysterious and quiet in the snow. A walled-in granary was on ground level. Climbing up a narrow path that clung to the rock led us to two upper rooms in a natural cave. The first held a tumbled-down wall and more food storage.
The second caught our breath. A perfect wall surrounded a courtyard, and at the end of the courtyard a ceiled room–post, timbers and rushes holding a roof of adobe aloft for more than 600 years. Behind it, another courtyard. It felt like we were trespassing, entering someone’s home while they had gone out for work or groceries. Rose and I were hushed. We could see the hand prints of those who had worked the adobe, smoothing it true over the hard rock. They were small hands, even a smaller than Rose’s.
This is the entry to Angel Basin, a flat pocket of meadow, ringed with trees, surrounded by rugged walls of rock. Three canyons enter one exits. High on the walls were the angels, rock angels, formations that we might calls hoodoos but here in the land of the Spanish are seen as works of God. Why should the devil get all the credit?
The Salado Indians farmed this basin; drank, bathed and irrigated from this sparkling creek; rested and laughed in their rock and adobe home. A coati moseyed along a branch just a few feet from me, his long white nose sniffing the air. He looked like a wise raccoon, thin and trim, but with a nose lengthened by too many lies. Had his ancestors known these people, seen them pack out, never to return?
An Ancient Song
One of the splendors of backpacking is to be present in these pristine wild places for dusk and dawn, when light paints all in gold. One of the benefits of age is to wake early, even when you don’t want to. Dawn was crisp, the floor of lupines in the meadow traced with white ice, but the heavens were clear.
As the sky brightened and the first rays spotlighted the topmost stone angels I heard a melody, a woman’s voice, otherworldly, like no melody I had ever heard. Craning left, then right, listening, looking into the shadow, the sound came from nowhere and everywhere. I hit my head with the heel of my hand. The voice didn’t stop. I’m a man of science. I don’t believe in resident spirits. Was I, due to cold perhaps, cracking up? Was this a Salado maiden praising the dawn?
The sun rose higher, the light dropping to paint the walls silver and rose. Photos taken, I walked into the rays to warm. The music had stopped. All was quiet. I meandered back into the shadow where camp waited. Rose was up, making coffee and oatmeal.
We enjoyed the day walking down Frog Tanks trail through Rogers Canyon, then heading up high on a ridge to marvel at the chaotic splendor of this maze of sharp rock and blue sky. Here every plant is spiked, thorned and sharpened to cut just in case you were thinking of getting friendly. I didn’t dare tell her about that morning voice, that melody.
As we came back we heard the first others, other hikers coming in to share the basin. In the morning we would walk out, back to our car. The snow was gone now except for pockets in the shade. Such peace and splendor as the sun descended, the light on the wall ascending until the last candle went out. All was still.
Finale and Credits
We drove into to Apache Junction, the nearest town and the site of the former Apacheland Movie Ranch where those old westerns were shot, for dinner and a motel. The next day would find us day tripping up the popular Peralta Canyon and then, near the saddle, taking a secret cairned route to an overlook of Weavers Needle. By noon it was 80o. Birds were calling, insects humming, poppies straightening up after shaking off their cold cloaks of snow.
Legend has it that the Lost Dutchman mine is in the shadow of the needle at precisely four o’clock. It’s just that the legend doesn’t tell the day, or even the season of the year. But we had come across our gold, feeling its warmth on our shoulders.
The evening found us in t-shirts loitering at the rock pool in Hieroglyph Canyon, a watering hole for generations of Saldos, and later, Apaches. On the rocks surrounding it are the artistic records of hunts, visions and mysteries. But no music.
Like the groundhog that comes out of his burrow to look into the sky and then bears going back in, knowing when spring will come, we were content to drive back to Cheyenne. Yes, somewhere south there is spring. I was assured it would reach us someday.
And late at night, back on the interstate, in the dark, I had the nerve to tell Rose about the song I heard. “Hmm,” she said. “The first morning?” “Yes…” “Dad, just after you left camp I climbed up to a spot above the trees, and sang…” “Oh, but the melody I heard wasn’t….” Somehow the canyon had molded the tune to something ancient and mysterious. I only wish I could sing it to you.
If you go…
The Superstition Wilderness was established in 1939 as priceless and pristine wild place within Tonto National Forest in south central Arizona. More than 170 miles of trails call wanderers into its spectacular canyons and crags. There are trips suitable for day hikes and multi-day backpacks. Water is a concern and no hike should be made without some careful research and appropriate gear and supplies. Trail conditions are rough, rated from fair to very poor.
No permits are required. Group size is limited to fifteen people. Detailed information on the forest can be found by clicking “special places” at http://www.fs.usda.gov/main/tonto.
The Superstition & Four Peaks Wilderness Areas, Tonto National Forest (Trails Illustrated Map #851) map is excellent. For guidebooks I recommend Hiking Arizona’s Superstition and Mazatzal Country, a Falcon Guide by Bruce Grubbs.
Just north of the wilderness is Tonto National Monument which protects two large cliff dwellings and houses a fine museum showcasing Saldo culture and history. The impressive upper dwelling can only be viewed with a ranger guided group. Advance reservations for this trip are usually necessary and can be made by calling (928) 467-2241. For more information see http://www.nps.gov/tont.