“…I realized and admitted to myself that I was not a being of comfort and complacency, that only by the wind on my face, the trails beneath my feet, and the adventure along the road could I truly be happy.” – Drizzt Do’Urden
Sun kissed mountain tops greet the day as Matt and I pulled into the parking lot at Spur Cross Ranch to meet the Aravaipa Running Tribe for the Skull Mesa Trail Fun Run. What is that you say? A 16.5 mile fun run? On something called the Skull Mesa Trail? Sounds epic. Count me in!
Just before setting out, Jamil pointed to a mountain off in the distance and said, “We’re going up there.” It was much higher than we were. We briefly looked over a map of our route. After my usual checking out the bathrooms (nice, clean porta-johns), the twenty-ish of us got our run on. We cruised down the early hills, soaking up the cool morning air. We hadn’t been going long when we hit our first creek crossing. We crossed this creek a few different times, either on rocks, a board bridge, or just by splashing through. This was my first time splashing through a creek on a run, and I must say, I loved it and will probably do it from now on. I’d heard horror stories of hot spots and blisters from running with wet feet and so had always been reluctant to try it. I did not have any problems at all. Glorious!
The desert at Spur Cross is exceedingly lush (think cottonwoods along the creek and dense vegetation everywhere else) and because of this, we ran on tight single track. Sometimes it was so tight that we got a little scraped up, but somehow, oddly, a little bit of blood on a run just seems to add to the fun of the experience. Sharing our cuts with each other afterwards is like a badge of honor. Once we left the lows of the creek we began our meandering ascent. We climbed and descended many rolling hills, always getting a little higher before dropping, to climb once again. Our destination mountain was always in sight. Slowly the vegetation began to change as we got higher.
I just recently finished reading “The Summit Seeker” by Vanessa Runs (I loved the book, by the way. Frequently I felt like she was describing me.) In her book she talks about stopping to climb trees while out running. When I was little I loved climbing trees. I remember climbing to the top of an alder tree once on a windy day and sitting there as the tree and I were blown precariously in the breeze. Living in the desert, I don’t have much of an opportunity for tree climbing, so when I saw one that lacked thorns, was clear at the bottom so I could watch out for snakes, and had a branch I could get to, I went for it.
The Final Ascent
Crossing a fence line and standing at the “base” (I say that in quotes because we had already climbed quite a bit just to make it to this base) of Skull Mesa and staring up, I could see I had a beast ahead of me. It was at this point that we came across Tom, another member of our group, and together we managed to stay on the trail and climb. Tom pointed out a petroglyph on a rock that I would have completely missed because of the direction it was facing!
The final climb to the top was a study in switchbacks. Matt is much stronger on the uphill’s than I am, so he powered on ahead. Tom kept me company and kept me encouraged as I dug into the burning in my glutes, hamstrings, and calves, pausing now and then to pant for breath. We were quickly up above everything else around us, the valley floor far below.
Coming out of the switchbacks at the top, I was greeted by the rest of the group. We went to the side to get pictures on the edge of the cliff (of course!) and were surprised that we could see Weaver’s Needle way off in the distance!
After our brief rest we continued on, the whole group together, across the top of the mesa. We were up so high that around us was all grasses and juniper, with some cactus thrown in for fun! The trail was very faint, and sometimes we may not have been on it, but it was wonderful to be running so high.
The difficulty of any climb is always fully rewarded in the descent. As we dropped off the top of the mountain, it was time to fly, and fly I did. Arms out and smile on, bring it on mountain!
The dense vegetation and especially the grasses made it difficult to see trail at times, and occasionally we lost it. However, I don’t mind trail finding like this- it adds to the adventure. We were always quickly back on the trail. At one point, as we were going through fairly thick shrubs, there was the dreaded (for me) call of “Snake!” Thankfully it was just a gopher snake. After my close call last fall at Usery Mountain Regional park where a Western Diamondback actually struck at me and I was probably within an inch of being bitten, I have not gotten over my fear of venomous snakes.
Some More Ascent Followed by More Descent
Did I say “The Descent” up above somewhere? Silly me. For some reason, I thought we would climb up to the top of the mesa, and then it would be all downhill back to the parking lot. It was not.
We did go down to a dry wash which we ran through for awhile, but then we went up again. And down again. And up again. And down again. (According to Matt’s Garmin, we had 3,241 feet of total elevation gain over the course of the entire run.) We went along a little creek with a dry tank and cottonwoods. And up again. By this time I was starting to really feel the food poisoning from two days earlier. Oh wait! Did I forget to mention that? Yes, I had a fairly severe bout of food poisoning that knocked me down for a couple of days. Up until I actually got out of bed on Sunday morning, I was still not sure I would be able to participate in the run. My stomach felt raw, angry, and tired on Saturday. On Sunday morning it just ached uncomfortably, but as soon as I started running, the pain went away. However, the weakness left behind after being drained by such an illness, the inability to eat much for a few days, coupled with some dry desert heat (only in the 80’s, so comparatively not bad), left me wiped. As in any run, though, the only way out is to keep putting one foot in front of the other, so I did.
I brought 70 ounces of water on this trip and I ran out. I was thankful for the member of our group who shared some of his water with me; I never got his name though. If you happen to read this, thank you!
When I started to see lots of hikers, I knew we were getting close, so I picked it up a bit and finished strong. It was hard and I was exhausted, but I finished at a solid steady pace and felt great about the accomplishment and experience of the day.
There was a hangout at the house of one of the group members’ after our run, but it was getting late and there was a long drive ahead of us, so Matt and I headed home. I was feeling completely crappy and Matt was hungry, so we stopped at Chipotle for lunch. All I wanted was tortilla chips, and let me tell you, the metamorphosis from zombie to human by just the ingestion of some carbs and salt is fascinating. After that, I was solid and drove home feeling great!
And so, another adventure ended. Another run spent basking in the beauty of creation, wind and sun on my face, while surrounded by good people. The trail called her siren song to me and I followed her. And I was truly happy.