Monday, January 25, 2016

M is for Mogollon Rim (aka Just 2 More K)

As I mentioned in a previous post, back in 2012, the Scouts planned to spend a year prepping to hike the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately, we were unable to get a permit.  Our Scoutmaster remembered taking a group of scouts on the General Crook Trail along the Mogollon Rim many moons ago, so he suggested that as an alternative.  As an added bonus, not only could the scouts earn their Backpacking Merit Badge, but they could also earn the 50-miler Award and the National Historic Trails Award.

The General Crook Trail hearkens back to the time of the Indian Wars of the late 1800s.  General George Crook originally built this wagon trail as a supply line for Forts Verde and Whipple (near modern-day Camp Verde and Prescott, AZ) from Fort Apache 200 miles to the east.  But the Mogollon Rim proved a good surveillance point for patrols as well.  The rim sits 2000 feet above the valley floor, which ranchers used to graze their cattle.  The Apaches, in turn, would often raid the ranchers, so General Crook set up patrols along the rim to interdict the raiding parties.  This wagon trail was later preserved by the Forest Service as a National Historic Trail, providing beautiful views down into the lush, green valley along the 2000-foot escarpment.

We planned to hike 50 miles over five days but knew water would be an issue.  There is no water running along the trail, so we coordinated a chase crew of two of the adult leaders, who would find a suitable campsite along the way then radio us to tell us where to meet them, giving us access to the water our crew of six needed to refill our bladders, cook, and do laundry.

We arrived and set up our campsite just yards away from the rim.  The views there were spectacular!

The next morning, we had our first foreshadowing of the way the week would go.  Doc and I brought our GPSes that had the trail marked on there.  I began looking around for the trail but couldn't find it, despite the GPS telling me I was right on top of it.  It just looked like a forest of new growth several years after a forest fire.  It was so overgrown, however, that despite our ability to follow our GPS, it would be too much work to slog through, so we made the decision to hike down Forest Service Road 300 hoping it would intersect some semblance of the trail later.

We did eventually intersect the trail.  We followed it for a while, but it quickly became overgrown again.  That would sadly be a continuing story for the entire week.  Along the way, we replaced blazes and repaired rock cairns to make the trail a little better, but, ultimately, our efforts were futile.  At one point, we followed the trail as it was fairly well marked, but it ended right at a 100-foot cliff.  We worked together to scramble down and continue on, but we didn't find the trail again at the bottom.

Still, despite our frustrations with finding the trail, we walked through pretty country -- much different from the brown desert of Tucson.  We alternated amongst forest and open meadow, with spectacular views of the rim thrown in.

Once, as we walked through rolling hills, we spotted a meadow of yellow wildflowers off in the distance.  I remarked that it would be cool to walk through that vast expanse of beauty, and, before long, we did.  Unfortunately, that meadow of quaint, pretty, romantic wildflowers turned out to be one large tangle of vines that we were continually tripping over.  If that weren't enough, one of the scouts was extremely allergic to the pollen we were kicking up and couldn't stop sneezing.  But once in it, the meadow seemed endless.  We must have walked over a mile through the wildflowers before we left it behind for good with all of our shoes left a brilliant shade of yellow.

On the fourth day, we again found ourselves following the trail primarily by GPS.  As the day wore on, however, we once again found the trail.  We radioed ahead to the chase crew to find out where to meet them.  They assured us that if we just followed the trail, we would run right into our campsite, and, if that weren't enough, they had placed markers along the trail.  Considering what we'd been through already that week, we weren't convinced.  We asked how far away it was, and they told us, "About 2K".  That was good news.  We were getting tired after a hard day of wayfinding.  We walked for a considerable amount of time until we thought we should be there but kept walking until we reached a sign announcing the Gen Crook Trail, but ironically, the trail once again vanished there.  We radioed ahead to find out where we were supposed to go but they told us to keep following the trail and their markers; it was only 2 more K ahead.  We pulled out the GPS and followed it until we picked up the trail again.  Finally, we came to a road crossing.  It seemed like we had gone way more than 2K.  Again, we radioed.  Again, we were told to follow the trail, and we couldn't miss the campsite.  It was only about 2K away.  We walked on and did eventually pull into camp, and they were right:  It was impossible to miss, complete with American flag hung across the trail.  I guarantee we walked more than 2K, though.  That became our inside joke for a long time.

Our last day, we set out again on the trail.  It soon evaporated, though, and we never found it again.  We spent the day following the trail by GPS.  We hiked over rolling hills of grassland, crossing fencelines as we tried to follow the GPS trail.  That afternoon, we crested a hill and saw a truck off in the distance.  As we walked on, we converged with it, and it was our chase crew.  They were looking for us.  With the instincts of a tracker, Jack, our Scoutmaster, had predicted that we would be coming over that ridge at that exact time.  They had been scouting the trail ahead of us and discovered that the trail itself became a very busy highway with no shoulder.  Since we had hiked more than our 50-mile goal, they declared we were done, picked us up, and transported us to a campground with a big open area to set up our shelters and a beautiful creek running through it.  We washed our faces and dipped our feet in the creek, and life was good.

After an entire year of work, the boys had put a satisfying exclamation point on their journey from little-to-no previous backpacking experience to being capable of finding their way along a poorly marked route for five days.  Even without the best gear, they had become backpackers.

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