After the snow flies, life in the forest slows down for a rest. Many of the forest creatures hibernate for the cold, winter months, while others migrate to warmer elevations and the vegetation that is their life support.
The trips to the mountains are less frequent but in some ways more meaningful, as it is a time that one can reflect without the hurried pace of everyday life in the valley. You have seasonal limitations put on you high in the mountains that come in the form of winter weather like chilling rains, blustery snow falls, freezing cold and blankets of snow hiding the tools of toil under the cabin. As the snow repeatedly thaws and freezes daily, you have icy sheets over the water puddles, crisp snow where the sun shines and nighttime temperatures freeze and deep pockets of soft snow in the shadows where the fluffy stuff is hidden from the warm melting rays.
An early morning walk down the frozen, rocky road to the abandon railroad track bed that serves as a sidewalk above the forest floor.
It is an odd feeling when you do something contrary to habit, common sense or custom. for example, as I started walking down the railroad bed, which makes an excellent hiking trail, I had an uncomfortable feeling. The bed had about three inches of snow on it except wheel a four wheel drive vehicle had driven over it a few days before. The sun had melted the snow compressed by its wheels leaving two steaks of exposed lava rock that make ups its base. As I was walking along enjoying the view, my thoughts were jarred by the barking dog that is always there to give you a howling sending off as you head into the forest or welcomes you upon returning if you choose to come by that way. But that wasn’t what made me feel uneasy. It was the fact that I was walking in the left tire track in stead of the right track that you would select if you are driving a car or riding a bike down the street. You should always be on the right side of your line of travel. I tried moving over to the right rut and sure enough, it felt more comfortable. Then moving back to the left side, I noticed the change in feeling. Isn’t that odd? We are so programmed.
Here is another example. My wife Carol and I went to the Fountain Hills art and craft show two weeks prior. We were walking down the path between two rows of vendor and exhibitor displays when I realized we were walking against heavy pedestrian traffic. I looked through a break between to artists’ booths and saw another two rows of displays with the pedestrian traffic going the opposite direction except for a few brave souls bucking the human flow just as we were. So we ducked between the roasted almonds and glass wind chime display and joined the crowd headed the correct direction down the rows to the right, just as if you were in an automobile. Another curious thing, if you ever go early to a theme park like Disney Land, you want to go to the left after you enter the main gate because the majority of patrons will go to the right and all of the rides will be more crowded it that directions.
So where was I? Oh yes, traveling down the path in the more comfortable right lane. What makes this path so unique, is that after it leaves the civilization of Sky Hi Retreat and the barking dog, it runs on a level plane even thought the forest floor is dropping toward Elk Springs Draw as much as forty feet. At the site where the railroad track crossed the draw, it was supported by a wooden trestle bridge. Now there are very little remnants of the bridge and of the track itself. Once in a while you come across a rusty, old spike or iron plates that held the rails in place. Without the bridge, a narrow path leads down to the little stream running through the draw. There are three little ponds or tanks that retain water for cattle or the wild life that abounds in this area. I was in hopes of spotting an Elk or two or maybe some of the turkey that have been eluding us on these hikes over the years. We do see their tracks often at these pools and also down stream around the Grail Tanks. Other critters we may run across in these parts are bear, deer, raccoon, squirrel, and ducks. So with my binoculars around my neck, I’m off and tracking, that is right tracking.
After several short stops to survey the surrounding terrain, looking for horizontal lines in a vertical forest which is the best way to spot a deer or elk checking you out, I pull off the track and head east through the forest on a winding ATV path. I really don’t like the noise of the powerful engines on all terrain vehicles, but have a single patch to walk on through the snow covered, rolling hills is nice.
The evening, there was a real change in the weather. The outdoor temperature started warminga nd the snow around the cabin was swiftly melting away. The next day by noon it was almost completely gone. Was that it for winter? We packed the car and headed home. The following week we had another small winter storm in the mountains, but my honey-do’s in the Valley keep us from darting up to enjoy it. It would be another two weeks before Carol and I could make another mountain top journey.
It was our standard Friday afternoon routine. I would get home from work and find the kitchen table covered with the items of survival that we would be throwing in the back of the Explorer shortly. I would go to my little home office to gather by little ditty bag that still contained some of the surplus clothing items that are used as back up like extra socks, underwear, etc. I grabbed a few more articles of clothing, my shave kit, even though I have never shaved up at the cabin, but it did have the other items of toiletries that I use. It is a little more difficult stuffing all my stuff in this little ditty bag ever since Mowgli, our ….. cat, encountered my large travel bag that I inherited from my son Jeremy. I always kept my large, red, multi-compartmented, bag with wheels under my desk in the office where it is very handy for me. One day Carol thought it would be better stored in the walk-in closet in the master bedroom. What she didn’t realize was that the master of the bedroom was Mowglai nd my open bag had now moved into her territory. So to staked claim to it, she positioned herself and sprayed inside my bad. Carol’s keen sense of smell, lead her to my bag and realizing immediately what had happened, hauled it outside. There, she gathered every cleaning aid and went to town scrubbing, spraying, scrubbing some more, pressure washing with the garden hose and scrubbing again. Spraying Lysol didn’t even help. My travel bag was kaput. Did I mention that it had wheels?
So back to my little •gym bag” that I received as a •freebee” from one of the vendors at the shop. Did I mention it didn’t have wheels or even any pockets and that it was yellow and has advertisement on it. Well, as you can tell, I missed by other travel bag but this little ditty bag will have to do.
As I loaded everything on and around the kitchen table in the car, Carol finishes packing the ice chest. We are now ready to go. We head up through Globe where we have a dinner stop Lorain’s Mexican Food Restaurant. The young, cute waitress there is always a little bummed when she doesn’t see the boys with us and her service is not quite a sharp. But the Goyo Burro’s, beans and rice are always consistently good. After dinner, we stop at the Chevron Station and grab a couple of hot beverages and we are off again, heading toward the Salt River Canyon.
Three weeks prior, on the trip with Chad and Jeremy, we traveled the stretch of highway from Globe to the Canyon with snow on the mountain tops flanking us to the North. It was a full moon that night and its bright beams would expose the snow’s whiteness that was gently layered along the uppermost elevations except where the deep mountain crevasses concealed its captive, frozen mass in vivid contrast of the dark shadows. It was a spectacular view that eluded the digital camera Chad was shooting from every angle and setting he attempted. It was one of the moments you had to be there for to appreciate it. On this trip there was no moon which had the starts stealing the show. Jupiter was low in the sky to the North and the Milky Way, Three Sisters, Orion and many other formations we easily seen by Carol to the South. With the snows gone and the absence of the moon, the mountain was in dark contrast to the night sky peppered with pin pricks of light from the heavenly bodies. This was another spectacular sight that you had to see in person to really appreciate.
We dropped over the pine covered rim and down the windy road to the bridge over the great Salt River at desert elevation, 2,000 feet below and then snaked up the other side of the canyon and back into the pines.
We reached the cabin about ten o’clock and chill of the cabin prompted me to fire up the wood stove to help knock the chill off of the cabin. Within the comfort of the sleeping bags we could still see the stars beaming out the front window wall, one of the major advantages of the • A Frame” cabin design.
Early the next morning, we were anxious to get out and hike the forest behind the cabin. As usual, I put on the coffee at 6:00AM and we each had a cup before our hike. I told Carol about how close on elk was to the cabin three weeks earlier and that I believed it was standing there when the boys and I pull up to the cabin. It may have been ready to jump the fence as its tracks led up to the section they have used in the past to gain entrance to the meadow as evidence by previous track sightings and elk hair on the barbed wire.
The still morning air was brisk as the sun just started to lighten the sky as we stepped out of the cabin. Carol and I walked over to the neighbor’s gate two cabins down as it was the easiest was to access the forest. We are planning to put a gate behind our cabin soon. We headed due north to walk by and check on the Wagner’s fort that some of the neighborhood kids had recently remodeled by adding pine branches raising the wall height to about six feet. Chad had carried by Dad’s old fishing chair there for everyone to use as a resting stop along the nearby trail. The weather and taken its toll on the vinyl covered seat and back, so Chad had replaced then with some old scrap plywood pieces that remained from the bathroom remodel. He also put a little nature book in a baggie for anyone that was interested.
Carol and I headed toward the higher end of Elk Spring Draw just below the culvert under the primitive road. We crossed Wagner Draw at its upper end and when Carol saw out of the corner of her eye, something moving just below the ridge ahead. It was a small heard of bull elk, maybe six to eight; it was hard to see exactly. We were not sure if they were coming up from the lower elevations or if they stayed in this area for the winter. We decided to cut a little higher and head toward the culverts where the draw waters pass under the primitive road head north.
As the sun started warming the air, a breeze picked up giving us that wind chill factor, but our brisk walking kept us warm. We crossed the draw where there had been a sheet of ice three weeks before, but no it was soggy, brown grass and mud. We picked our steps carefully and were successful in not getting our hiking boots too muddy. Instead of looping around to the south and heading to the train track bed, we kept walking to the north. It was still early in the morning which gave us enough time for a good five mile hike. We didn’t see anymore big game but the forest was interesting to study as it was changing from winter to spring. There is always something to see in the forest.
When we got back to the cabin, Carol made another one of her great breakfast with bacon & eggs, hash browns and orange juice. I really enjoy a hearty breakfast after a good hike. Breakfast is my favorite meal. It was know time to head to town for building supplies. We like taking the back road to town even though it is primitive and sometimes filled with washboard ruts. We do see a lot of wildlife going that way.
I heated the remnants of the morning coffee in the microwave and headed out the door. I didn’t bright my favorite stainless steel travel mug, so I had to use my old faithful, blue mug with the chip out of the bottom edge. That chip happened when I discovered that my miter box saw would best when I would support the overhanging wood with something three and one half inches tall. Guess what? My blue coffee cup is exactly the height and dose a great job, but don’t let it foll off of the table when you are finished cutting.
As we headed south out of our meadow, we spotted a large eagle soaring around Mullins Mountain. It would disappear in the shadows cast by the mountain but as it soared into the suns rays its shape and colors were highlighted with a back drop of crystal clear, blue sky. So we stopped the car to watch it for a few minutes as it would rise with the currents and glide on the hunt for its breakfast.
Just as we hit the cattle guard at the beginning of the primitive road, the coffee cup in my hand instinctively rose up to prevent its contents from splashing out as I have done so many times before. I was so proud that I didn’t spill a drop. Then as I rested the cup on my leg I hit a washboard and splashed the coffee over my right leg. It wasn’t hot, but was wet, to the tune of a six inch diameter spot. At least I didn’t get very much on the car seat. Carol chided me for spilling it as we continued on our journey. We didn’t see any wild life near the road so we decided to hike a while at the game preserve near the Porter Mountain Game Preserve. This is where the boys and I spotted a dozen or so antelope on our previous trip. We also spotted some fresh bear droppings which always makes the hike a little tenser, especially if I’m not packing.
We parked the car at the edge of the road that ran through a large meadow. Grabbing the binoculars we headed out across the grass lands and headed toward the scrubby pines and cedars two hundred yards in front of us. Carol only had to take five steps before she found bear droppings. We were now alert and had our eyes peeled for any movement in the forest ahead. We were hopping to kick up some more elk, as there was a lot of elk sign around. But in the distance I saw a flash of white. Looking through the binoculars I could see a lone antelope standing near a clump of cedars. I gave the binoculars to Carol so she could study it for awhile. They are so sleek and graceful compare to elk and deer. There black face marking on the surrounding tan background are very striking. It’s a beautiful creature.
We circled around the far edge of the meadow and through the pines where we were hoping to kick up elk or deer. Carol was hoping not to kick up the black bear that was obviously eating a lot of juniper berries. Without any more big game sightings, we arrived back at the car. Interestingly enough, there was a small bird sitting on the windshield wiper. As we opened the car it acted as it wanted to get in the car. We rolled down the windows to let the fresh air in, and it was fluttering in front of Carols face as she watched it from inside the car. I backed the car up and headed up the embankment with the little bird fluttering around the rear window. We figured we were on or near its nest and it was desperately trying to get us to follow it away from its young. It was happy to see us go. My last glimpse of it was it sitting on a small mound of freshly churned dirt. Its nest must have been there.
As we headed into town, Carol notice that the spilled coffee had now dried on my Levis and left a large, brown stain. She said that she did not want to go into home depot with me looking like that, so she was going to wait in the car. I told her it’s Home Depot and half of the men look like this and a few of the women do too. So I finished by Home Depot run and we went back to the cabin to get busy remodeling two front room wall sections.
The next morning we needed to make a early morning hardware run so I offered to buy Carol breakfast in town. I had coffee on early as usual, and we grabbed our cups, filled them up and off we went to town, again taking the primitive road. This time when I hit the cattle guard I was prepared to isolate my coffee cup from the bump and the washboard beyond, but Carol wasn’t. Her coffee spilled all over her jeans this time. As a smart husband, I didn’t say a word but did offer my handkerchief to help in mopping us the mess. As her pants dried, it left a big, brown stain. I wasn’t going to take her into the Hill Top Restaurant looking like that, so it would have to be the Mac Donald’s drive through for breakfast in the parking lot. It was a good breakfast though. Did I mention that breakfast is my favorite meal?