Monthly Archives: December 2013

Operation Red Tanks

The words, “reconnaissance run” cause a quick surge of excitement in my stomach. As I begin to imagine the new trails and sights I will see that day, I have a hard time containing my enthusiasm and tend to hop a bit and my voice goes up an octave in squeaky anticipation. My anticipatory reaction to my run this past Saturday was no different. My friend Matt and I would be heading into the rugged Superstition Mountains just outside of Apache Junction, Arizona to explore the Red Tanks loop off of the Peralta Trailhead. According to the maps, this was to be an approximately twenty mile run. Allowing for “oohing and ahhing” time at the sights, I gave myself about five hours to complete the twenty miles, and so told my husband I would be home around one in the afternoon. As with any long run, I set off with seventy ounces of water, electrolytes, and some snacks. Starting off on the familiar Lost Dutchman trail from Peralta Trailhead, I had no idea that all of my planning was about to be shot all to hell.

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Before moving to Arizona, when I thought of the desert my first thought was barren wasteland, perhaps like the shifting sands of the Sahara. While Arizona is nothing like the Sahara, the Phoenix area does feel exquisitely barren to me. Getting out into the wilds of the state though, there is a diversity of life flourishing away from mankind. The mountains surrounding the Lost Dutchman and Coffee Flat trails are densely coated with saguaros, the imposing and impressive silent sentinels of the southwest. Coating the landscape around the saguaros is a plethora of thriving vegetation: chollas, ocotillos, prickly pear, and barrel cactus, just to name a few. These trails are sensational and completely runnable. I love to begin this run just before sunrise so that as I head east, I can see the glowing of the sun rising over the mountains. The run begins with a brief climb leading to a valley (named Barkley Basin after a rancher who used to own the area) that opens up below you. Descending into the valley, you cross over a wash or two, both of which occasionally have pools of water in them. Matt says that he has seen  frogs breed here! The trail is single track, rolls gently, and has some rocks thrown in for fun (I say that as if they were placed there purposefully…).

Barkley Basin

Barkley Basin

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Sunglow on the mountain

Sunglow on the mountain

Sunglow

Sunglow

A couple of miles in, some burning had occurred just off the trail. It appeared to be a targeted burn because only specific plants looked scorched, rather than the entire hillside. I can’t find any information on this online, so I don’t know for sure what caused the burning, or why. If anybody does know, please share- I’m very curious! It was an interesting area to run through- it smelled of smoke and felt empty somehow. However, the birds were already coming in and flitting through the ruins, bringing along their cheery songs. I imagine in springtime this area will be alive with wildflowers. I can’t wait to see it!

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Charred Saguaro

Charred Saguaro

Continuing on past the burned-out area, the temperature seemed to drop and the wind picked up. It was already a chilly morning, and the freezing wind blowing across my sweaty clothes did not help! At places along the trail there was frost glittering in the dim morning light. The frozen ground caused my toes to get cold through my shoes, and my hands inside my gloves were stiff and slow. Anytime I came out into the sun my entire body seemed to sigh with relief.

The farthest I had ever run on this trail before was 5.5 miles in, where a saguaro, that is at least 50 years old (haha), stands guard over the entrance to a quiet grove of cottonwoods known as Reeds Water. There are two windmills here, one of which I think is somewhat functional. It actually has water underneath it and only has boards covering the hole. The other windmill’s water hole is covered over with a bolted-down metal lid and the windmill itself is falling apart. This place is spectacular. The entire trail back to here is beautiful, but typical, desert. Springing out of nowhere are magnificent trees, and at this time of year, they are in full fall color. Yes- fall colors in Arizona! The trees were so vibrantly golden that they appeared to be on fire, lighting up the basin area. The wonderful, earthy smell of leaves on the ground permeates the air and soothes my senses. As I sit quietly on the edge of an old cement tank, the peace here invades my heart and rejuvenates me for my return to civilization. On every other run, this was as far as I had ever gone, turning around here to head back to the trailhead. Not this day, however. This day, we were heading out into the unknown for new adventures.

Defunct windmill

Defunct Windmill

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The saguaro that’s AT LEAST 50 years old

View of Reeds Water

View of Reeds Water

From Reeds Water, the trail continues along the base of an escarpment, following a creek. It’s easy to miss the turn onto this trail, even though it is marked by a giant rock arrow. Watching out for cow patties (they are so big it’s misleading to call them patties: giant shit-bombs might be more applicable), we crossed the creek many times. Once in a while during a crossing we lost the trail, but found it again quickly. I cannot accurately describe this portion of the trail to you. There are trees along the entire length of the creek, and water actually present within. It is beyond beautiful and filled with wildlife tracks. Since I really can’t do this stretch of the trail any justice, I will suffice with giving you pictures and recommending that you go and see it for yourself.

Becky- this one's for you

Becky- this one’s for you

Checking out the first views down the canyon from Reeds Water

Checking out the first views down the canyon from Reeds Water

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The giant arrow showing the way

The giant arrow showing the way

Fall colors!

Fall colors!

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Bobcat!! This was my very first sighting of one of these!

Bobcat!! This was my very first sighting of one of these!

Kitty print

Kitty print

Interesting poop

Interesting poop

Reflections

Reflections

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So far in this essay I have described beauty and wonder on the trail, and yet at the beginning I said that my planning was about to be, “shot to hell.” Well, that begins now.

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After seeing that last little waterfall pictured above, we immediately came upon the junction signpost where we turned left onto Red Tanks. Ah, Red Tanks. The Superstition Search and Rescue website describes this trail as the following: “Portions are rough and difficult to follow. The section through the upper LaBarge Box is steep and narrow, and is definitely not recommended for horses.” That’s it. Well, that sounds perfectly manageable to me. After all, I’m not a horse and a rough trail is acceptable. This trail is not rough, it is severely overgrown. It looks as though at one time it was a very nice trail, with giant easy-to-see rock cairns directing the way. Now these rocks cairns are covered in lichen and usually hidden in huge, towering bushes that have leaves resembling those of holly (but I don’t know what these bushes actually are- if you know, please enlighten me!) Most of the back side of Red Tanks is completely covered over with these pseudo holly bushes and “Wait a Minute Bushes”, what the locals call Mimosa biuncifera. A fellow hiker on the trail said they were called ‘Wait a Minute’ because the curved thorns on their branches, resembling the claws of a cat, grab onto whatever portion of you they can, and absolutely do not let go, forcing you to wait a minute. About half way along Red Tanks, the bottom half of my legs felt completely raw from the repeated attacks by desert shrubbery.

All I want for Christmas is some cactus in my leg.

All I want for Christmas is some cactus in my leg.

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Cactus in Matt’s shoe

So picture this, you are surrounded by beautiful countryside, over half way through your run/hike, you have no cell reception, and the 1:00 return time you told your spouse is absolutely not going to happen. You can’t turn around and go back, that would take even longer, you have to keep pressing forward. I will admit that my inner badass slipped at this point. This badass self seems to hang around when the going is awesome, but takes her fast feet and runs somewhere else when it’s not. I was left with just my concerned self:

“Do you have enough water? You didn’t plan for all day.”

“Where are other people?”

“Where is the trail?”

“My husband has to be worried sick right now.”

“Am I going to become one of the statistics of people lost in the mountains?”

And yet through all of that, there was nothing to do but keep pushing onwards because there was no other way out, just my own two feet. So, I had to push the nervousness and concern down, stay calm, and keep moving. The happy, excited chatter at the sights from the beginning of the run had dried up into quiet, mutual resolve. We were going to make it out of here, and we would be okay. Let me tell you, I was beyond thankful that it was “we” and not simply “I”. Having someone else there with you when you may have gotten yourself in over your head is immensely reassuring. “Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.” I don’t know who said that quote but I like it. My life is limited, so while I’m here I want to experience everything God has for me. I want to push what I believe my limits to be, and find out what they actually are. Since I placed myself in this situation where the only way out was onward, onward it was.

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See, beautiful

See, beautiful, but do you see any trail? Yeah, me neither.

No people anywhere, just big and rugged

No people anywhere, just big and rugged

Water all along the way

Water all along the way

Juniper, I think

Juniper, I think

Crazy cactus

Crazy cactus

Eventually we came across other hikers. Have you ever felt relief so strong that it makes you want to dance around in a circle and sit down and cry, all at the same time? That’s about how I felt. There were other people! On the trail I was on! I was actually on a trail that went somewhere! They said we had about seven and a half miles left. After another couple of miles, we met another hiker and chatted a bit about the trail. After another mile or so, we continued to run into hikers periodically.

Some animal thought a cactus was as good a toilet as any

Some animal thought a cactus was as good a toilet as any

View of a canyon we were able to pseudo-run down

View of a canyon we were able to halfway-run down

Final shot of fall colors before Matt was too exhausted to care about pictures anymore

Final shot of fall colors before Matt was too exhausted to care about pictures anymore

At last, we came into territory that Matt had been in before and recognized. When he told me, “It’s all downhill from here.” I knew that meant there were some downhill sections with some uphill sections too (If you ever have the privilege of running with him, I suggest you never believe him when he says a trail is, “all flat” or “smooth with no rocks”. These statements will prove to be wildly false.) Along this final portion, we actually caught up to and passed a couple of hikers we had seen earlier that morning. They had taken Whiskey Springs and were finishing up their day. We exchanged brief congratulations with each other- Matt and I were tired and desperately wanted to be done, so we didn’t chat. Finally, I rounded a mountain and there was the parking lot down below me. Never had anything looked so beautiful to me! At about that time, my phone notified me of a text- I had reception!! I immediately called my husband and left him a message letting him know I was not dead in the desert somewhere. Then I checked the text, which was from him, of course, and replied. By this time it was 3:45 and I had dinner plans at 5:00, so I booked it down to the parking lot as fast as my wobbly legs would safely take me (I really did not want a last minute tumble to finish off my adventure for the day). I paused at the parking lot just long enough to note on the register that our party had returned from the wilderness, and then I hopped in my car and took off, while at the same time downing a coke and big chocolate milk (ah- liquid!). FYI- I made my dinner plans exactly ON TIME!

Thinking back on this trip, it is probably the most harrowing experience I have had while running, though I know many ultra-runners out there have much more disturbing ones (by the way- I’d love to hear them, if you want to post them in the comments section, that would be great!) However, I think back on this trip with fondness- I had an adventure in the wild with my friend! Both of us knowing that the other was there in case anything happened, and would ensure the other got out safely, made the trip an exciting accomplishment, rather than a fearful undertaking. In the end, we saw cool things and enjoyed running camaraderie. Does life get any better than that?

My final, possibly pertinent remarks on this run are as follows:

  • When running a new trail, it is probably a good idea to carry iodine or some other form of water purification- you just never know if your planned 19.8 mile, 5 hour run will turn into a 22.8 mile 9 hour hike instead.
  • If a trailhead has it, always clearly sign the register
  • Always carry a compass and a map
  • Watch out for poop- you never know where you will find it

Black Canyon

New trails rock. If there’s a new trail, I want to experience it, so when I learned that Jamil Coury, the race director of the local Aravaipa Running was asking for runners to come out and do some test runs for the inaugural Black Canyon 100K, I said, “Absolutely!” The 100K course was broken up into three segments, to be run in three different training runs. Unfortunately, I had to miss the first training run, but I was super excited to go to the second. As you will see, I almost missed that one, too. Now to begin, I will start in as good a place as any, at the beginning.

The evening of November 30th, 2013, I was very excited and busied myself ensuring I was ready to jet out the door the next morning at 5:00 am. I was meeting my friends to head up to Black Canyon, Arizona for our 18 mile training run on some new trails. My Nathan hydration pack was filled with water and some snacks, my clothes were laid out, and my alarm was set. I fell asleep thinking about what the morning would bring.

Some hours later, I woke up feeling refreshed, (which to anyone who knows me AT ALL, is a terrible sign that something is horribly wrong- I never wake up refreshed), and wondering how much longer until my alarm went off. I turned my clock around and saw the time was… 5:30 am. I’m sure some choice words flew out of my mouth, though I don’t remember  what they were, (my husband could probably enlighten you, if you really need to know), and I ran downstairs as fast I could to call my friend Becky, who was driving. She and my other friend Matt had just barely left and they agreed to turn around to come and get me. I ran back upstairs, pulled on the pre-laid out clothes, grabbed my pack, ran out the door, and met them out on the road. I was so thankful they came back for me, (I’d really been looking forward to this run), but felt absolutely horrible for making us late. I don’t do late. Ever. To top it off, I enjoyed some time around a campfire the night before and hadn’t gotten around to showering the smell out of my hair, so, I had smoke-stink working in my favor too. The day was off to… well… some kind of start. Becky and Matt were both very gracious about my tardiness and didn’t give me too hard of a time about my smoke-stink. Thanks guys.

After picking up another friend of ours, Dawn, we raced up the freeway towards Black Canyon, and got to the meet-up point just in time. They may even have been waiting for us. I don’t know and really didn’t want to ask if I made them late too. The meet-up was actually where the finish of the days’ run would be, so we left our cars there and carpooled north to where we were to begin. Upon stepping out of the car, I was met with open, beautiful desert with hills all around us. If you have ever spent much time in the Valley of the Sun, you know that around town there aren’t any hills, so hills are a treasure.

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We waited for a few minutes for everyone to get situated: packs on and adjusted, shoes on and tied, bushes thoroughly peed on- you know, typical runner stuff. Jamil gave us a quick rundown: he would be out in front marking the trail with specific ribbons we needed to watch out for. Someone needed to play sweeper and ensure no one was left on the trail and that all the ribbons were taken down. Then, with no further fanfare, we started running.

Jamil Giving Us Instructions

Jamil Giving Us Instructions

The beginning of any run, especially on new terrain with new people, is all about settling into a good rhythm. There are always the front runners- those who take off like a shot from the start and are never seen again, (I am not one of those), and there are the rest of us, in a clump. Thankfully the clumps never last long and people quickly begin to string out as they settle into their pace with who they will be running with or near for the duration of the run. Once we thinned out, I was able to enjoy what I was seeing.

Clump

Clump

For quite a bit of the run, we were along the side of hill, looking out over a narrow valley with more hills on the other side. No houses, no signs of the civilization we were so close to, just clean desert. Peaceful. Restive. I stopped frequently to soak it all in.

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What Jamil neglected to tell us about this section of trail is that there were not one, but TWO river crossings in our course that day! Like with the hills I mentioned earlier, you would need to be familiar with the area to fully appreciate this, but I rarely see running water. In fact, I get insanely excited over a stagnant pool of water left over from a storm four weeks prior. These were not stagnant pools. These were fully functional rivers, with trees! Yes! Trees! Real, big trees! When I first caught a glimpse of the first river I was still up on the hill, so I had to stop and just look at the water for a while.  When I began moving again and realized that we were heading downhill towards the river I just couldn’t believe it! While this river may only be a crick to most people, it was absolutely a river for here in the desert, and I loved it. There was no bridge to cross on, but there were some rocks which were sufficient for hopping across. It would be interesting to see this area during monsoon season!

First Views

First Views

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On the way to the second river crossing (keep in mind at this point I didn’t know there was a second river crossing), I was feeling tired, so I was just walking. Suddenly, this amazing vista opened before me. The trail cut steep and straight down between two hills and way off in the distance Black Canyon City could be seen, nestled in among the hills. Now, picture me, standing at the top of a steep, downhill trail. What happens next? If you guessed extreme speed, you guessed correctly. Even though it was downhill, I was running so fast my lungs and heart were barely keeping up. It was glorious.

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The second river crossing was , if possible, even more exciting than the first. The area itself was calm, reminding me of a summer watering hole. I half expected to see a tire swing strung up over the water somewhere! After descending to the river, the trail appeared to simply end among some reeds. Thankfully, Jamil has mad trail-marking skills, so I was able to follow the ribbons in between the reeds and across a few hillocks in the river. This crossing had a few small stones in the river that I was able to hop across, but no clear crossing like the last one. Thankfully, I didn’t fall in!

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Somewhere on this run, I don’t remember if it was before or after the second river crossing, I made a very sudden stop because I spotted a tarantula. Matt took this shot of it. When he tried to get closer, it raised its bulbous abdomen at him and crawled away.

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The rest of the trail was just as amazing as the beginning. A couple of places had some jeep trails to follow, but mostly we stayed on the single track. At one point, we climbed up switchbacks to the top of a hill and had a great view on a couple of sides of the river winding its way through the valley below us. By this time I was tired and ready to be done. Thankfully we were within a mile or two of our finishing spot.

For once, I thought ahead and brought dry clothes to change into afterwards. After every run, it doesn’t matter much what the temperature is, I freeze. My lips and finger tips turn purple (I look like a zombie), and I usually start shaking and can’t get warm. The dry clothes made all the difference. While I did turn purple, I didn’t feel bad like usual, and actually felt relatively comfortable. I warmed up very quickly. I did, however, still smell like campfire smoke, and now sweat-stink could be added to that. Excellent.

We hung around for a bit talking to Jamil and some of the other runners. It was wonderful. We discussed upcoming races and running ultras (an ultra is any distance longer than a marathon, which is 26.2 miles). The atmosphere was calm, relaxed, and laid back. It was a perfect wrap-up to a perfect run.

If someone were to ask me to sum up, in one word, what the best thing about running the Black Canyon trail is, I would say that the best thing is that it’s tight. Yes, for all you non-runners out there, I said tight. As further description I would say, “tight, single track”. I run many trails, all kinds of trails, from wide open service roads, to sandy washes, to rocky ankle twisters, to smooth and clear swaths cutting through the desert. NOTHING compares to a tight, single track trail. A trail such as this is a footpath, nothing more. Bikers certainly can, and do, ride these, but the trail is exceedingly narrow, just wide enough for you to place one foot in front of the other. The desert is unrelentingly right up against your ankles, and yet this particular trail, for all of its tightness, is clear and entirely runnable. This aspect of the trail is what struck me the most and is a huge part of what makes this such an amazing run.

The final part of any long run is food. Always. Becky, Dawn, Matt, and I stopped at Whole Foods grocery store for lunch. That sounds odd, right? I thought so too the first time Becky suggested it, but they have this huge buffet of GOOD food. The food does not have the usual buffet-style, mass-produced flavor. It’s actually delicious, and so, I ate a lot and felt great.

Becky drove us back home and, as usual, we all had great laughs and discussions. The memories of these runs with my friends are so precious and I am so incredibly thankful for each and every one of them. These runners have each taught me so much. For a long time now, I have felt something that my husband put into some perfect, simple words. “In our modern American culture, we don’t need each other anymore.” I find this to be true in my life. We each work and have our little friendships, but I have found that, in general, we have forgotten how to need each other, and in doing so, have forgotten that others need us. I don’t know if anyone other than me has felt this way, but it is a lonely and empty place to be. Amazing friends gift my precious long runs to me. They are strong people, they are beautiful people with deep stories to tell, and I have learned so much from simply running beside them for hours on end. I am a better person because these people choose to be a part of my life. So thank you, you know who you are, for the life you give me on our long runs.