A hiker’s journal: May 2012

Last entry first.

May 28, Monday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  It is late afternoon, and Nebra and I are on our way back to the 7th Ave parking lot when Eric comes by on his mountain bike and shouts my name.  Later after making a loop, he passes us again going the other way.  He is a manager at a local coffee shop and wears long sleeve shirts and long pants at work.  I see why.  In his biking gear, shorts and T-shirt, I see his arms and legs are covered with tattoos.  He is a competitive rider, and I want to tell him about the engaging mountain bike documentary, “Ride The Divide,”  I had seen but he moves away quickly.  Next time.

Purplish and white ironwood flowers now replaced by seed pods.

May 27, Sunday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  A break in the heat leads me back to the trails again.  It got down to 61 last night after several days of triple-digit highs.  As I pull out my hiking boots from the car’s trunk, a man walks across the street to where another hiker is parked.  “You better enjoy it today,” he says, “because this is the last time you’ll have before Halloween.”  It is the worst thing about desert living, the mental overload, knowing you now face five months in a row of sweltering temperatures.  The park has responded to the weather.  It is a sere place now, almost colorless.  The ironwood blossoms are gone, replaced by purplish seed pods.  The creosote has lost its yellow blooms.  Only the white saguaro flowers have hung in there.  It’s near dusk when I hear singing, a poor attempt at it anyway in what I believe is Navajo.   I look down on a lower trail where a dark-skinned man, bare-chested and slender, stops the yammering as he passes a distinguished looking older man with neatly combed gray hair.  Then in a few steps more the singer belts out a hideous “ha-ha-ha-ha.”   I figure he’s on drugs, maybe drunk,  a rarity in this park.  Returning on the 3-mile loop in semi-darkness, I see several Lesser Nighthawks darting about 10 feet off the ground in search of flying insects I assume.  It is 7:45 when I reach the parking lot.  I’m surprised so few are out enjoying the last of a nice desert evening.  I counted only 15 hikers, 1 jogger, no bikers.

Snags like this dead Ponderosa pine are benefits to wildlife.

May 22, Tuesday:  Fatman’s Loop, Coconino National Forest, near Flagstaff, AZ:  We have come north 143 miles from torrid Phoenix for the thin, cool air, and for a moment I thought it was getting to me.  I have this crazy idea of taking a side trail to the top of Mount Elden.  It is a very steep trail, rising another 2,000 feet over 1.6 miles from this junction at 7,500 feet elevation.  The trail Nebra and I are on, Fatman’s Loop, has been pretty ordinary, a moderate hike 600 feet up Elden’s east slope then following a contour at the mountain’s base and back down to the parking lot, 2.5 miles in all.

Nebra hamming it up at Fatman’s Gap.

On our way up, we have passed through a thin forest of Ponderosa pine and boulder fields.  This is volcano country and somewhere in here are said to be lava flows, none of which we saw.  At the easternmost end of the loop, the trail passes two giant boulders leaning toward each other.  Some call this Fatman’s Gap, thus, I suppose, explaining the name of the trail. Not even the fattest man alive would be deterred by it.  And it is nothing compared to the tight squeeze of Fat Man’s Pass on South Mountain Park in Phoenix.

One of the larger alligator junipers I’ve seen.

The highlight, at least for me, has been passing by several of the largest alligator junipers I have ever seen.  I stopped at each to marvel and shoot photos.  The alligator, with its little squares of bark, is quickly becoming my favorite tree.  And there were a few decent vistas.  But the views of the industrial east side of Flagstaff were far from spectacular.

Looking easterly from a high point on the trail.

Off to the southeast on the horizon the Mogollon Rim rises on its long eastward stretch to the White Mountains.  And it was near this spot I stand at the juncture of Mount Elden Lookout Trail, wishing to make more out of the day than just a routine hike.  I knew Nebra was game, and I want to please her.  We watch a young woman headed up the Lookout trail, running no less, breathing hard.  Ah, youth.  So unfair, I think bitterly for the zillionth time, all that energy and stamina going to waste.  She probably wouldn’t know an alligator juniper from a wildflower.  And if so, she wouldn’t dare stop her maniacal pursuit to some imagined glory.

A large bounder field near base of Mount Elden.

And so I thought it over.  Even at this elevation it was a warm day near 80, and the wind was fierce and seeming to blow from all directions.  It came down to this.  Did I have the stamina or will to go up to the top?  Or even half way?  I had a case of food poisoning over the weekend, leaving my legs, particularly the thighs feeling like mush.  Finally I said to Nebra, “Let’s go on down,” and we did, following a couple of Navajo women, one packing a baby on her back.

Some days you just have to face reality and not get swept up in euphoria of doing something special.  Some days you just have to enjoy what you have.  Often the trail is, to paraphrase, what it is.

I’m rewarded a short time later.  I discover a bumble bee working over a small patch of purple thistle.  I halt to watch for a few minutes.   It is hard sometimes, particularly for the many young people I see running and biking these rocky trails,  to understand that Nature is the show out here, and that man’s egotistic endeavors, like reaching the top of Elden, mean very little in the scope of things.

Wildfire smoke obliterates the view of mountains usually seen on the horizon here.

May 14, Monday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  I’m doing the home stretch back to the Visitors Center when I see approaching a husky man of middle age on a mountain bike. Tattoos cover every square inch of his bare arms.  “Great air quality, huh?” he says as he pedals by.  A “tattooed environmentalist?”  No.  He is only stating the obvious.  A light gray smoke fills the basin.  I have trudged along in this 100-degree heat, my lungs burning and struggling to breathe, the back of my throat irritable. The few hikers, bikers and joggers who have ventured into this outdoor hell can only blame the early start of the wildfire season.  On Sunday, five fires broke out in the state’s forests and with the aid of wind are filling up Phoenix with their poison.  Most of the smoke here, I believe, comes from the Gladiator Fire some 80 miles north near the mountaintop town of Crown King.  Haze blotches out the mountains on the horizon:  the White Tanks, the Bradshaws and South Mountain.

Smoke no deterrent for this Gambel’s quail.

But Mother Nature goes on, not missing a beat.  A swarm of honeybees works the flowers of the still-blooming ironwood tree, the shy Gambel’s quail darts across the trail at several points and a desert cottontail freezes from his feeding as I stroll by.  My count for the day over 2 1/2 miles:  12 hikers, 3 bikers and a jogger, numbers far below the norm.  Heat and smoke do not make pleasant companions on the trail.

The gold “A” on Tempe Butte.

May 7, Monday:  Hayden Butte Preserve and Tempe Town Lake.  Nebra and I are sitting atop Tempe Butte, or Hayden Butte, in midafternoon with its great views in all directions providing you peek around the cellphone-radio tower.  To the south, the city of Tempe fans out from its bustling shopping district on Mill Avenue, a light-rail train eases along tracks past Arizona State University to the station.  In the distant west, the highrises of downtown Phoenix emerge on the hazy horizon 10 miles off.  To the north and east, the rest of our route stretches out in the beautiful blue of Tempe Town Lake.

Although it’s Nebra’s first trip to the summit of the small peak, only 300 feet above the flat urban area below, I’ve been here at least twice before.  And I would not have come out here on a sunny, 90 degree day, if it were not on Liu’s list of “Sixty Hikes,” which I’m trying to do in 2012.

Even from the promontory below it’s difficult to see into Sun Devil Stadium.

The butte is also known by another name, A Mountain.  That’s because the butte’s southern flank is decked out in a gold “A.”  Gold for one of the school colors of Arizona State University, whose campus lays just below.  Sometimes it’s painted white, I’ve read, at the start of the school year.  And occasionally, while local students slept, their rival counterparts atthe University of Arizona have sneaked in and splashed their blue hue on it.  The courtesy has been returned on the UofA’s own A Mountain, in Tucson.

The first letter placed on the butte was an “N,” put in place by the senior class of 1918 when ASU was Tempe NORMAL School.  Later when the school switched to Arizona State TEACHERS College, the rocks were turned into a “T.”  It has been an “A” since 1955.

Tempe Town Lake stretches east under the bridge linking Tempe and Scottsdale.

Cheap football fans once watched ASU games from up here, peering down on Sun Devil Stadium to the east.  But as the stadium grew and a towering pressbox was erected, you can no longer see the playing field from “A” Mountain.  If you watch the Fiesta Bowl, the TV cameras inside the stadium usually catch a shot or two of the butte as a dramatic backdrop.

At last we come down the trail, some of it in rock and wood steps, some in asphalt with a pipe railing, and head for the lake.

The lake was once the usually dry and rocky streambed of the Salt River, the water being siphoned off upstream into canals and irrigation ditches.  Only in times of infrequent floods did the river show water.

Tempe put up a rubber-inflated dam and filled the lake in 1999.  Eleven years later, in 2010, the dam collapsed, draining the lake.  But it was soon rebuilt and filled again.

A flock of olivaceous cormorants sunning at the Marina.

Coming down to the walkway along the lake’s edge, we pass a 12-story building that houses KPMG, the Netherlands-based auditing firm, and Microsoft.  Although the route’s traffic was described by Liu as moderate to heavy, we find only a few hikers and bikers and several joggers.  A young man and woman having sex on a lakeside bench, only partly hidden, stop then laugh as we pass.

We cross the east end of our hike on the bridge that links Tempe to Scottsdale, then turn west along the even more lightly traversed northern bank, past a marina with a few motorized boats and a flock of six cormorants sunning on one of them.  A few fisherman have lines in the lake which is stocked with rainbow trout, largemouth bass, channel catfish and sunfish.  Several sailboats tack into a stout west wind.  The only sounds are from airliners that use the riverbed as a flight pattern to nearby Sky Harbor Airport to the west.

A pair of sailboats negotiating a stout wind.

On the Mill Avenue Bridge we walk over the lake again on the west, completing our 4.3-mile loop into Tempe again.  The bridge roughly follows a 19th Century ferry route.  Tempe was originally named “Hayden’s Ferry.”  Charles Hayden, one of the giants of early Arizona Territory, ran a flour mill that still stands not from the bridge on the Tempe shore.  His son, Carl, was a U.S. Senator for 57 years.

The bridge, built in 1931, was the only one standing during the 500-year floods of 1979, and carried huge amounts of traffic between Tempe and Phoenix.

We have ambled along the entire route, the time elapsed about 2 hours.

Hungry, we head for My Big Fat Greek Restaurant on Mill only to find it closed and being remodeled after a March fire.  Mill Avenue for a brief period was one of the hottest shopping districts in the area, a charming tree-lined street on the western edge of the ASU campus.  But today it has a feeling of grunge, a darkening area that has lost some chic shops and two outstanding bookstores, Borders and Changing Hands.  Borders left long before the firm went bankrupt.  The high cost of parking discouraged many shoppers.  So did an increasing number of panhandlers and idle young people who make the Avenue their home now.

After supper at a mediocre pizza place, we snag the light rail back into Phoenix, about a 30-minute trip.  Hike No. 24 down.

May 4, Friday:  Petroglyph Trail, Deer Valley Rock Art Center.  A quartermile trail takes you into the heart of petroglyps, art scratched into rock.  (For the story, see “Along an Ancient Stream,” on May 7).

An ironwood in bloom west of Visitors Center.

May 2, Wednesday:  North Mountain Park, inner basin.  With little on my mind, I decided to count ironwood trees along the trail.  They’re easy to identify right now with their beautiful pink, lavender and white flowers.  As the palo verde sheds its yellow blossoms the ironwood begins its flowering in concert with the saguaro.  If there is a true Sonoran Desert tree it is the ironwood, which can live to 800 years or more.  It grows nowhere else but here in elevations below 2,500 feet .  In about a month, the flowers turn to seed pods and fall to the ground.  The seeds are said to be a rich-protein food for coyotes, doves, quail and small rodents.  I counted 18 of these dense-wooded trees, just about every one along small, dry ravines.  I didn’t know until I read it that there is an Ironwood Forest National Monument.  It is located northwest of Tucson.  Must be a fantastic sight this time of year.

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