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.
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…).
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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