Of our 25 years together, Nebra and I have mostly spent Thanksgiving Day on a desolate trail out here in Arizona. She happily calls it a tradition, and I guess it is. Of the 19 Thanksgivings I have recorded since 1986, we have done hikes on 14 of them. I have no account of what we did on the other five but I have to believe most if not all of those years found us on a dusty or rocky trail on our way up to a mountaintop.
What we do is this. The night before our hike, Nebra prepares the Thanksgiving Day meal for the trail. This year, she made up three baked-turkey sandwiches and her speciality, cranberry-oatmeal bars, and the next morning tossed them into her backpack along with some carrot sticks and broccoli. She plans to defer the traditional dinner to Sunday.
Our destination this year was a hike to the top of a very small mountain west of Lake Pleasant, a recreation area about 40 miles north of Phoenix. The mountain’s name is unclear. It is either Baldy, Francis Rogers or Cholla. It is only about 2,750 feet in elevation, but was said to offer magnificent views of the lake and other mountains in central Arizona.
I am not one of those hikers who is obsessed with speed or mileage or degree of difficulty. What I like best about hiking a new trail in a desolate area like this is simple. I like making decisions and trying to understand the environment that confronts me. Some are small. Which way does the trail go here? Why do so many saguaros grow there? Where did this volcanic rock come from? Things like that.
Some are life and death decisions. Like at what point to turn back on a trail so you do not get caught by darkness and become lost?
On this often vague trail, called 2HikerZ by the couple who designed, cleared and marked it with cairns, the big concern was the nightfall thing. When to turn around. Although the day was sunny, it was already cool, in the mid 50s. The first freeze of autumn was expected by morning.
It did not help that we arrived late at the Trailhead via paved road well after 1 o’clock. And then just to find the real Trailhead took another 15 minutes. The “builders” said the trail was made “deliberately vague” at the start to prevent motorized vehicles from tearing it up. We eased across a barbed wire fence and finally backtracked up an old jeep road, to the left not the right, and found a very small cairn. It was about 1:30 with two miles ahead to the summit. Plenty of daylight. Sunset at 5:26.
An hour up, not counting time for our Thanksgiving picnic, and an hour down. No problem, I thought. It was beautiful. Not a cloud in sight. Temps near 60 F.
Sometimes it takes a while to adjust to the trailblazer’s system. 2HikerZ and his wife had done a marvelous job clearing a small trail, sometimes with rock borders and placing cairns at critical junctures. Even sawing off good-sized limbs of an obstructing palo verde. But in places the trail was, well, vague.
It did not take long for me to choose Cholla as the appropriate name for this looming mountain. Amid the scrub of young saguaro, brittle bush, creosote and various thorny plants that cover the area lie fields of Teddy Bear Cholla, or Jumping Cholla. The Teddy Bear may look beautiful, soft and innocent when its yellowish-white spikes are backlit by the sun. But these cacti are formidable and potentially crippling to the hiker. At least three “jumped” on my blue jeans and hiking boots going up. I have read that desert rats place balls of Cholla in front of their burrows for protection.
The Teddy Bear has balls of fine, strong spikes that stick to anything that passes along. Once the spikes hit skin, they dig painfully in. Getting the spikes out is not easy. Hiking years ago in the Buckeye Hills I ran into a Teddy Bear with my knee and hobbled around for several days afterward. The “ball” of the Teddy Bear can best be knocked off by a stick or a hair comb. But to get the spikes out, a small pliers would come in handy. Some of the spikes stuck in the hard-rubber soles of my boots and would not come out. Long pants are a must on this trail.
The trail begins by following a ridge line that dips slightly into lava rocks of black pumice before heading up through heavy Cholla to the top of The Hill and then down to the base of Cholla Mountain. It soon became a heads-down trail, stumbling over steady rock. Still Nebra was able to catch sight of a pair of wild burros in front of her. She thought they were beautiful. But they disappeared, the only four-footed creatures seen all afternoon.
We stopped at the base of the mountain to eat. A small but deep box-canyon lay just to the southwest. Fall in there and kiss your life good-bye. No one would find you even if you were only injured. No other hikers were seen this day.
Nebra and I shared a flat rock for seating and ate leisurely at first then more quickly. I was starting to fret a bit about nightfall and reaching the summit was important. It had taken longer than I thought to reach this point, an hour and 15 minutes, and I estimated another 30 minutes would pass before we reached the top. The trail ascended steeply at this point over rough ground.
Not only was the trail steep, it was littered with small boulders and some loose rock. No depressing scree though. I had to halt several times to catch my breath. Again, I miscalculated the time. It took 40 minutes to reach the summit from the picnic area, not 30. Time, 3: 27 p.m. and long shadows were starting to form. I wondered if the trail might be less apparent coming down. Trails always look different depending on which way you travel them.
Anyway, the description was right. The summit offered a wonderful vista. The Bradshaw Mountains to the north, the dazzling blue lake below, even the skyline of downtown Phoenix. And the big silver blimp that is University of Phoenix Stadium where we hope to be Monday night for a football game between the Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers.
In the distance too we could see the sites of two memorable Thanksgiving outings. Four Peaks where we’d gone for our first hike in ’86 lay far to the east and behind us, on the west, was Vulture Peak, near Wickenburg, where we’d gone in 2001. Vulture was an emotional hike. It was not long after 9/11, and on the summit someone had planted a small American flag in rocks.
It is always interesting to see what’s on the top of any mountain. Sometimes it is nothing. From the road, the Cholla summit appeared in the shape of a volcanic cone. But in truth it is largely flat and brushy and rocky. My GPS calculated the elevation at 2,736 feet, a deceiving 891 feet above where the car was parked. It was harder than that.
Also on top, there was a six-foot cairn. At the bottom etched in stone: “Homer Campbell/Julia Campbell/March 1 1920.” To the right was a silver plaque bolted into rock: “Francis Rogers Mountain/ Mrs. Francis Grace Rogers/Cartographer Arizona Highways Dept./1915-1960.”
We started down at 3:50. My fears of an even vaguer trail were misplaced. It is much easier losing a trail going up than down. You can not see far ahead on ascent. But usually on descent, by looking ahead 10 to 15 feet, you can pick up a “lost” trail very easily.
I caught five more cholla balls on the way to the car. I flicked each off with a stick. None punctured skin. We got down to the picnic spot in half the time it took to go up, and we were back at the car well before dark. We had made it back to the Trailhead in only an hour.
It may not have been the best hike we’ve taken on Thanksgiving, but like any of them it had its memorable moments. The Teddy Bear “attacks,” the pumice field, the burros, the plaque and etching on the summit, the difficult ascent from the picnic spot. But most of all I’ll remember Nebra and I doing it together, our unusual way of celebrating the holiday.