Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Other notes on the first day in the forest

     We began our odyssey on the Mogollon Rim, a great gash that runs laterally along the center of the state of Arizona. It marks the southern border of a geological feature called the Colorado Plateau, consisting of a portion of the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the world. The most notable features of the Rim are a stretch of sandstone and limestone cliffs that extend, east to west, for fifty miles or more, rising majestically thousands of feet above the forested high desert. From the edges of the cliffs you can see mountains nearly one hundred miles away.
     The terrain is quite hilly with crisscrossing patterns of steep mountain canyons and cool, clean, freshwater springs. Nearly every ten miles there are coldwater lakes, which, along with the streams, are purported to provide some of the best trout fishing in the state. Our chances of survival rested heavily on the legends of Mogollon trout.
     The first thing I noticed, upon exiting the car, was the overwhelming aroma of the pines. The smell of pitch in the air is so pervasive you can feel it tingling on your tongue. It’s a good wholesome smell and taste. There is no comparing it to the medicinal stench of pine cleaners or the flowery reek of those Christmas tree air fresheners.
     It didn’t take long to set up camp. Camp consisted of a rope tied between two trees with a green canvas tarp thrown over it. I lined the soft pine straw with an old wool poncho I bought long ago in Mexico and threw a blanket on top.
     I have this image of myself just sitting on my duffle bag there in the dust. Darl’s old blue Pontiac brought us as far as it could. As I watched him drive back down the rutted dirt trail, I felt a pang of remorse.
The Maya dog was at my elbow. She had spent the chill of pre-dawn frolicking, sniffing, and exploring our new environs while I unloaded the car, pitched camp, and smoked a bowl with Darl. It was hard to believe she had been diagnosed with cancer just three weeks earlier. I’d always felt somewhat guilty to have raised Maya in the city. She was half Lab and half Coyote. This trip was going to let her experience the other side of her heritage. Sure, she and I had been hiking and exploring since she was a pup, but this was a whole different kind of hike.
“Well, here we are”.
     I spoke the words aloud with less conviction than I intended. Miss Maya turned and looked at me inquisitively, her golden coyote eyes flashing and her black fur glistening blue in the morning sunlight. It was apparent to me, her companion those last twelve years, that she was as uncertain of our fate as I was. It was an all or nothing gambit. There was no guarantee either of us would survive the summer. We had a hundred miles of rough terrain to cover before we reached civilization, and a lifetime to do it in. I don’t know about dogs, but times like those tend to cause a man to pause and reflect.
     Sitting there at 7,000 feet, we were in no hurry. It was a cool sixty degrees on the Rim, probably 25 degrees cooler than the bottom of the cliff two thousand feet below. The Valley of the Sun, which was our ultimate destination, was registering 100 degree temperatures when we left at four o’clock that morning. One of the goals of our quest was to develop a working timeline where we would always be in comfortable climates. I hoped to use this trip as an exploratory mission geared toward a future 365 day adventure.
I’d always felt somewhat guilty to have raised the Maya dog in the city. She was half Lab and half Coyote. This trip was going to let her experience the other side of her heritage. Sure, she and I had been hiking and exploring since she was a pup, but that’s different than living out there.
     Considering Maya’s age and illness, I only wanted to hike two miles per day, every other day. That would be less than our daily walks back home. Weeks of study at the Burton-Barr library in Phoenix, reading trail guides and poring over maps, yielded a route that would allow us to (supposedly) always be within three miles of an aquifer. Water weighs eight pounds per gallon, so I could only carry so much. I estimated that my pack weighed over two hundred pounds dry. Fifty pounds of that was dog food.
     I noticed grasshoppers leaping in the tall weeds. This was good to know. One of the subjects of my research was edible insects. Grasshoppers are supposed to be the tastiest. You remove the legs, head, and wings, and roast what’s left. I imagined it would take a lot of bugs to fill me up. I hoped it wouldn’t come to that, but like I said; it was good to know all the options, our lives would depend on it. There would come a day, probably much too soon, when our supplies ran out and we would have to live off the land. I took a deep breath of the sweet pine air and let it out with uncertainty. There was no turning back.

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