Archive for December, 2008

Wednesday, December 31, 2008 - The Lagoon, AZ

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Our schedule now matches the original Battalion’s march. We are in the same area as they were on this date. However, it was one of those days with a route that prevented us from hiking “straight through” from our start to our end. There are private sections interspersed with public lands and we weren’t able to make connections for permission.

Taking the humorously named “Spot Road” northward, Denny drives us in to where she stopped yesterday and we poke around the Sears Point petroglyph area. The journalists do not mention these remarkable native carvings, so we suspect they passed south of the point. Hancock’s notes seem to take them along a looping path that way, but I want to see the location and wonder why they didn’t go this way.

As Peter and I walk around Sears Point, we notice the site is intriguing from a Native American perspective. After the Trek is over, I’ll discuss this site with experts and see if some of our observations are correct. But let me say this; of all the sites we’ve visited, this one speaks without the benefit of written words to explain it. It is not hard to imagine a young warrior or an old shaman perched up on the bluff trying to communicate with the Great Spirit and Creator. It is a religious location – a temple for the old ones.

As we start westward along the old trail, it becomes apparent that Denny can’t safely follow us with the Suburban, so we backtrack out to I-8 and drive westward to the Aztec exit. There, Peter and I unload the ATV and following a different two-track road, drive back out to where we stopped hiking from the east. We will try to connect the two ends but won’t have time to hike it consecutively. We’ll have to be content with locating the connections if we can. Denny decides to stay at the exit and catch up on her journal.

Driving along the two-track dirt road, my first priority location to document is “The Lagoon”, a usual stopping place along the Emigrant Trail and one that seems to correspond to the Battalion campsite for December 31. Some of the journals talk about a “salt pond” which the mules drank from. Some animals died, some were sickened. The men had to hike between a half to a mile and a half to draw fresh water from the river.

The Lagoon is an old oxbow lake – now dry – that formed from a meander of the Gila River. Later journals by emigrants also discuss the Lagoon as being saline – salty water. Subsequent flooding in the river bottoms has eroded trail sections in the area. There are various opinions about where the Battalion camped; the east, the south or west of the loop. From the journals I’ve read I’m not sure we can say with certainty which is correct, but given the shape of the Lagoon meander, I favor the southwest side as probably being closer to forage.

We mount up again and drive eastward to where the two track road goes downhill over the basalt cliff. I take some photos while Peter walks further ahead. After a few minutes, Peter radios and excited, “I found the trail.” And, sure enough, it’s a beauty – a straight up/down hill scar. The modern two-track is right beside the old trail which is still lined with thrown rocks at the top. The clearly visible older route continues uninterrupted for over a half-mile and can be followed back east to where we turned around earlier today. We’ve successfully connected the dots on this section.

After driving back to Denny’s location at Aztec, we grab some lunch and review the maps to determine if we can hike any other sections. Since it’s unclear, we ride the ATV out north towards the river, hoping to intercept the trail as it crosses the county road. Sadly, the county road ends and the private road is blocked. Dang!

It was an excellent day with some wonderful insights, great opportunities to document and verify things even if we didn’t get to hike too much.

Before it closes at 5 PM, we hustle down to the only store at Dateland, snag some sour cream, chips, milk and other “New Year’s” treats. Our celebration – out here, alone in the desert, far away from family and friends, is pretty subdued. We boot the computer and watch a movie on CD. Our thoughts however, are in other places. Happy New Year to one and all.

Tuesday, December 30 – Planning at Dateland, AZ

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

This morning, we complete our preparations to move the vehicles forward for our next trail section. After catching up on the immediate necessary correspondence, phone calls and interviews, we get on the road late morning.

During the past week as we’ve driven back and forth through Gila Bend, we couldn’t help but notice a shop that advertised their “World Famous Cactus Burgers.” Now, I’m no culinary Rachel Ray, Emeril Lagasse or Julia Childs, but sometimes these strange sounding foods pique my interest. Just so happens that Peter was also intrigued, so we talked Denny into a cactus burger lunch. Hey, it was that or a fast food place and quite frankly, I’ve grown to detest fast food.

And…wouldn’t you know it. I’ve misplaced their business card already so I can’t share the owner’s name. Nice guy though. The place is on the north side of Highway 85 in Gila Bend. I’ll remedy this oversight when I find the card or him on the internet.

Seems they put diced pieces of beaver tail cactus into the ground beef and to tell the truth, it does have a little flavor that one cannot describe. The meat could have used a little more fat – probably was that 93% lean stuff and the cactus couldn’t make up for the juices by itself. Denny felt it too dry also. I don’t recall Peter saying too much about it. But on the whole, I’d try it again – and it was huge with really good fries.

We hauled the RV to a park at Dateland arriving at 4:30 PM, then spent a quiet evening in the unit working on the upcoming week which promises to get a little hectic again. Well, it WAS quiet between trains. Seems we’ve successfully found yet another RV park that butts up against a VERY active rail line. About every 20 minutes we experience a 3.0 man-made seismic event. That continues well into the night, but we’re so tired we hardly noticed.

Monday, December 29 – East of Sears Point, AZ

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Another cold morning, so we make significant amounts of hot chocolate to get us going. The first priority was to break down camp putting everything back into the Henski truck. Denny drove the Suburban to the main road out, then hiked back a few miles to get the Henski. Meanwhile, Peter and I started out to see just how difficult it would be to follow this section of trail without any maps or guideposts.

The answer to that is that it isn’t – and sometimes is – challenging. You may remember that Rose Ann Tompkins had said we wouldn’t have “any trouble” following the trail (see the December 20 posting for details). We are hiking a section closely corresponding to their December 30 march. Their route took them south of the Gila River’s narrow valley just west of Oatman Flat and up onto the volcanic lava fields. By so doing, they avoided about six river crossings in the canyon. Given the chilly weather they recorded, I can’t say I blame them.

For the most part, the trail IS easy to follow. The many basalt lava fields are littered with medium size boulders – about 10-15 inches in size. Wagon wheels wouldn’t roll over such, so the men had to pick them up and toss them off the roadway to either side. This process leaves a “clean” pathway about ten to twenty feet wide with almost no sizable rocks.

Another evidence is that many rocks exhibit “bathtub rings” where they had previously been sitting on the ground. Chemical reactions had deposited white carbonate compounds on the rock bottoms, When the rock is rolled over or thrown aside, the bathtub ring of white is exposed – but the group of rocks have a helter-skelter arrangement of the rings. One just has to look for the odd colored rocks on both sides and the trail lies between the lines of rocks.

In some areas, erosion has deposited clay, sand and gravel which covers the ground to a depth exceeding the largest rocks. Consequently, there aren’t any rocks for the trail builders to throw aside. Subsequent erosion has removed evidence of the wagon ruts, leaving “gaps” between rocky sections. These areas are where the going gets rough – in terms of finding the route.

For such a cool start, the day turns out to be a very warm. Despite having camel packs full of water, both Peter and I deplete our fluids about 3:30 and start to get a tad dehydrated. Not enough food compounded the uncomfortableness of the day for us.

The Battalion journalists talk about crossing two ridges. We do that too following their trail clearly visible and photograph the cuts in the rocky hill faces. At one, there is an unmarked pioneer grave. Like the Foupp and Oatman gravesites, numerous modern travelers have left small offerings of trinkets, bullets, horseshoes and other items as an “honorable rememberance” of a fellow traveler from the distant past that didn’t make it to his or her destination.

The journalists also comment on having to pull across some sand dunes as part of their day’s journey. We find dunes that could easily be the same ones. They are at the right distance. For the most part they seem to be stabilized with some shrub growth on them. The sand is blown downwind against the southern border of the valley so we speculate the Battalion hugged the southern side of the river.

Denny hikes about three miles ahead of us and is given a ride back to the Suburban by Curtis and Shauna Skousen who we met last week on their parents ranch. After Peter and I exit the wilderness area at 4:30 PM, we join up with Denny at the Suburban, pick up the Henski and beat it back two hours to Maricopa.

We return well after dark, repack our gear – retrieving the equipment we left behind in Maricopa and shuffling things between the various units to be more organized. Again, I marvel at the organizational complications that faced Colonel Cooke and the command staff.

After the repack, we all take a quick shower which is heavenly after so many days in the brush. Denny fixes us a very nice dinner while Peter and I finish up and we prepare to retire nearly at midnight.

Another thing occurs to us this evening as we sat discussing our plans. We are now just one month from completing the hike into San Diego – just one month.

Sunday, December 28 – Oatman Mesa, AZ

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Previously, I’d been told that services at the closest LDS congregation would start at 11 AM, so we enjoyed a very slow start to our Sunday morning. Gila Bend is over 45 road miles away, so we headed out a little after 10 AM. This is the only Sunday we’ve decided to attend church services in our 1840’s clothing. In general, we feel it would be a distraction to be the only “smelling like campfire smoke pioneers” at church.

This week however, we’re far from support vehicles, don’t have access to bathing facilities (other than hot water from the camp kettles) and putting on our “Sunday best” would require a dry cleaning to remove the smell we’ve developed in the past three days.

Upon arriving at the chapel a few minutes before 11, our group of thirteen slipped into a pew as the congregation was singing a song. I really hoped it was the opening song - just a tad early, but from the words spoken during the prayer following the song, it became obvious we had arrived at the END of services. Ouch! All that way for nothing.

But, bless their hearts, the congregation leaders offered to hold a special sacrament service just for us and invited anyone who wanted to stay to do so. While the branch president and his counselor blessed the sacrament, Dow and I were invited to pass the emblems of the Lord’s sacrifice to the group. It was an unexpected privilege since we’ve been on the trail so long.

After the sacrament, we were asked to offer some insights into our experiences. Much of our group expresses a new appreciation for what has gone before and how our few days together has influenced our lives, our perception of this small part of history and how we relate to it.

We make some arrangements for later in the week and head back to camp with gratitude for the kind reception we’ve had in Gila Bend. It’s a small congregation there, but truthfully, many congregations are very similar to Gila Bend; small, busy up to their eyeballs and trying to do the best they can.

Mid-afternoon, the Wilson’s get packed up and leave for home. They’ve came all the way from California to experience some connection to their heritage, both family and religious. We hope they enjoyed their time with us and are safe on their way home.

After dinner, Peter, Denny and I sigh with satisfaction and contented weariness. It’s been a very, very busy Christmas week for us and we look forward to a less demanding upcoming week.

Saturday, December 27 – Oatman Mesa, AZ

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

This is one of our hiking days that I’ve anticipated for many months. Today’s hikers will pass some historic locations that have come to have deep meaning for me. The Wilson’s are joined by other families and individuals who bring our numbers to thirty-six.

To prove how small the world is, one of the Wilson girls roomed at college with one of the Lyman girls. Neither knew the other would be here, but heavens, the squeals of delight when they recognized each other!

We “swear in” the hikers and start down the original trail, passing the Painted Rock petroglyphs, through a short section of agricultural fields and into the Gila River valley at Oatman Flats.

Stopping for lunch under a huge Australian Pine beside an old stone building, we’re met by one of the local ranchers and his dad. It turns out they are Battalion descendants.

It was particularly refreshing to hear the young adults chatting together as they hiked and during the lunch break. It’s times like this that provide me a direct insight into the workings of the 1846 Battalion – the things they talked about, how they acted, what their hopes were, their fears. The discussions ranged over a wide variety of topics – something I’m sure the “Battalion boys” did as they hiked along.

The Foupp family homesteaded Oatman Flats in the late 1800’s. It was and still is a hard area. The Gila River was wild at that time with just some irrigation ditches to help move water around. At the southern edge of the Flats there is a small cemetery started by the Foupp’s after a couple of their boys died.

Next, we follow some sketchy instructions to find where the Oatman’s are buried – or at least, where some of the Oatmans are buried. In 1851, they were on their way to California and got waylaid by an unhappy band of natives. There is much more to their story than I can possibly relate here and do the story justice. IF I do a book, the story will be enlarged upon in those pages.

Leaving the Oatmans to continue their rest, we hike closer to the volcanic basalt bluff, find a Battalion Trail marker, cross an old Gila River meander, and take a radio call from Denny who says happily, “I think I’ve found the trail!” She had driven ahead with the equipment truck and found the correct place even though we’d not been there before.

Denny pops her head over the ridgeline and the hiking group winds its way towards her. On Google Earth, this section of trail looks very artificial, but in person, it’s apparent the original trail has been undisturbed. Paul Lyman shares his expertise gained from researching the Mormon Handcart Trail. He points out wagon tire ruts, rust stains from slipping wheels and other trail features.

Most of the group gets intimate with the history, touching the basalt rocks smoothed by repeated passages of wagon tires, getting nose-to-nose with the grooves worn in these hard rocks and walking up and down the road cut into the hillside. The rocks are piled to the sides forming a surprisingly wide road and uncharacteristically placed on the side of the hill rather than directly up the front. Examining the structure, it’s my belief the hillside had suffered a small landslide forming a natural “cut and fill” structure that the road builders capitalized upon. Every rule has the exception and this is one.

Before sundown, we sit at the Oatman Massacre site to hold a sharing time. Peter shares his history through the Wades. The Willis’s share a bit of their ancestors’ story. I share the Oatman’s background and the decisions that led them to their deaths.
Sadly, twilight comes all too quickly. The non-campers have to exit the area before darkness falls. They have about fifteen miles to go back to the blacktop though a series of poorly marked lava fields. The rest of us put up camp, get dinner and spend another evening around the campfire.

Shortly after sundown in the western sky Venus, Mercury and Jupiter are visible, Mercury being a planet few people ever recognize. It’s a nice apparition of Mercury. It’s New Moon and we are quite remote from towns, so the night is particularly dark and the skies are brilliant with stars.

The cold is so deep again that most of us head off to bed quite early. It has been an exceptional day.

Friday, December 26 – Gila Bend, AZ

Friday, December 26th, 2008

This day dawns bright and cold – well down into the 20’s and we actually have a little ice in our water barrels. Everyone chips in to get breakfast going, cleaned up, camp broken and packed, then we head off about 10 AM.

Our route today continues to follow the original trail towards Butterfield Pass which lies about six miles to the west, then down towards the Gila River. We are more than halfway through the “Forty Mile Desert.”

Peter takes the first hiking leg. My back is pretty racked, so I drive the ATV ahead carrying the extra water, safety supplies and make sure the route is open after yesterdays deluge. Denny and Bob Church ferry the vehicles around to our next campsite at Painted Rock. Bob is one of the local reenactors from Mesa and has kindly agreed to help us in Jerry’s absence. The day would be a lot crazier than it is without Bob’s willingness to step in with his time.

Happily, the sun stays out all day, bringing a little direct heating for us – but not much. The breeze is still biting. One can hardly imagine what this must have been like in threadbare clothes, with limited options for protection against the elements.
The Wilson family are troopers. Even the youngest are brave and hike well for most of the day.

At the eastern base of Butterfield Pass, we stop to regroup as the slower hikers bring up the rear, read the Juan de Anza Expedition interpretive panels and snack on our lunches. Then, it’s uphill a couple miles through a progressively dense saguaro cacti “forest.” We look for wagon ruts and rust marks but can’t find any that are convincing to us.

“Forest” is a loose term for the saguaro filled canyon since the big guys are dozens of yards away from each other, but they are the biggest thing out here and they are more concentrated than any other large item. Interspersed is cholla, teddybear, hedgehog, and other cacti varieties - all of which display an impressive collection of needles. The pass closes in tight on the north and south, leaving us to follow the two-track route west towards the Gila River.

On this day of travel, Levi Hancock noted a new variety of tree they encountered were green, so I assume these are the palo verde trees which have a smooth, green bark and very few leaves to speak of. A few of them are around and their range has spread with irrigation and decorative plantings.

Our original plan was to hike across the Gila Bend area, but we found that about fourteen trail miles have been converted to agricultural fields and then the route crosses part of a reservation we didn’t get access to hike. Consequently, at sundown, we load everyone into the support vehicles and exit the wilderness area. We’ve decided to skip the “uninteresting” section in favor or some miles with significant history on them. The BLM folks sure were good to us and made this section one to remember.

The group pulls into Painted Rock campground slightly before sundown. Everyone knows the routine now so tents go up quickly, dinner is prepared and we get a chance to sit around sharing stories. It’s a relaxing evening telling Trek stories and sharing life experiences. We’re are all bundled up against the gentle breeze and cold as we sit around the campfire. The night is clear and wonderfully bright with stars but we don’t stay up late because tomorrow we get to see some wonderful sites.

Thursday, December 25 – Christmas Camp, Mobile, AZ

Thursday, December 25th, 2008

Merry Christmas. All of us wish you a wonderful time for family and the opportunity to contemplate the Gift of the Son of God for all mankind. The Savior is truly our advocate with the Father and will heal all our wounds.

Our youngest son, Brian, is currently serving a mission in MONGOLIA. He calls early and we get to talk quite awhile before we begin our day’s activities. He sounds good, seems to be working hard/smart and just might miss his family a tad little bit this Christmas. We look forward to having him home next year.

A few minutes before eight AM, we pull into the designated meeting area for today’s hike. We will be joined for the next few days by the Wilson family from California. There are ten family members, ranging in age from 8 to 80. They are descended from three Battalion ancestors - Levi Savage, Thomas Karren and Elijah (can’t read last name). We “enlist” the Wilson’s, issue their packs, muskets and other gear, have them take the Serviceman’s Oath, then take off for our adventure together.

We begin at the Gila Reservation’s western edge and proceed north to intercept the trail. It’s about three-quarters of a mile from the road. We make good time and can view the trail for a couple miles. The trail is expressed here as a line of trees and shrubs growing in the depression left by all the wagons using the Butterfield Stage Route.

About lunchtime and five miles into our planned ten mile hike, the cold front starts closing in from the southwest. The clouds lower and rain can be seen hiding some of the mountain ranges to our front left. It’s coming for us. When the rain is about ten minutes off, I call a halt and have everyone gear up. I don’t want a repeat of Santa Fe and have people get hypothermia - especially here since we can’t get a vehicle into this area to extract anyone.

A drizzle begins the storm but soon gets worse, raining harder and longer than I’d hoped. Within a few minutes, puddles start forming, then rivulets and nearly the entire ground is covered by a sheet of water after a half-hour of steady rain. You don’t realize how flat this desert is until the water starts sheeting.
Deep spots in the roadway fill with water and we try to dance around them to keep our shoes as dry as possible, but within a very short time all the footwear is thoroughly soaked. My socks start bunching at the toes and I worry that we’re going to have a hard time of it.

My real concern is that we have to make it to Christmas Camp – another four or five miles out. Once there, we have to put up the tents and camp. If the ground is as soaked there as it is here, with standing water, well, it will be a very long night for us.

Fortunately, the rain lets up after a couple hours and we arrive at camp with rainbows over our right shoulder. At camp, Owen Garner has set up a shelter. Owen will participate tonight with some of his Battalion buddies. They have put together a Battalion presentation which is kind of unique in its’ approach.

To tell the story, they have the visiting group get settled around a campfire, then, the reenactors wander into the brightly lit area to tell their stories. Rather than a script, the pass off questions which stimulates responses, so the pace can quickly change, the topics are free-wheeling and never the same. It’s an intriguing way to tell history. Probably wouldn’t work in all situations, but here at Christmas Camp, it’s effective and interesting.

The tents are up, we’ve had a stew dinner and been entertained. Now it’s time for the sack.

Wednesday, December 24 – Maricopa, AZ

Wednesday, December 24th, 2008

Preparations for the upcoming week occupied most of our day. We again scouted the route ahead, confirming sections, evaluating others for safety and/or access, racking up about 215 miles today. This wasn’t as rough backroads as have been our other forays into the wilderness, but still, it made for a long day.

We were invited to join a family get-together at the Figureros. There’s lots of Mexican food. The tortillas are huge – at least a foot across. There are so many good dishes that I’m afraid I lost all my weight gains. Wait – that’s backward. I’m afraid I’ve gained all my weight loss – or something like that.
An early bedtime is in store for us because we have a full day tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 23 – Maricopa, AZ

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008

Originally, during this week I’d hope to hold cooperative events with the Akamel O’odohom Tribe but apparently things changed over at the tribal government, so the opportunity will have to wait for another time. Their Huhugam Heritage Center north of Maricopa is beautiful and inspiring. Check it out. Personally, I’m excited to get back over there and do some research.

The Battalion journalists are very complimentary about these tribes – the “River People” as they refer to themselves. Lieutenant Emory – with General Kearny – comments that in some locations, their irrigation efforts had completely emptied the Gila River of water. Considering their lack of “modern” implements like plows and shovels, this represents lots of work by individuals. Their industry must have been impressive to watch. Their cotton was hybridized later to become Pima cotton, one of the worlds’ best long-fibered cotton varieties.

We make final preparations to go to the back country, shopping for food, shifting items from the yellow “Hensky” truck over to the RV and rearrange what’s left in the cube truck and on the flatbed trailer. This unpacking, repacking, consolidating of equipment and supplies occurred with the original Battalion as well, but in our case we don’t have as much of it to do all the time.

Consider this: A fully loaded Army supply wagon could carry about one ton - 2,000 pounds – of cargo.

Question – If the flour ration was one pound per man per day and if the full Battalion – 500 men - were actually eating that amount, how many days would it take to empty a wagon carrying only flour?

Answer – 4 days. That means the Colonel could have gotten rid of a wagon every four days had he been so inclined. He wasn’t. You spread around the weight to even the loads. It requires constant packing, repacking and consolidating supplies. At some points, there were more wagons than what could be supported, so Cooke occasionally pulled a wagon out of the line and that freed up more mules to help shoulder the loads. Of course, some of the mules are dying, so there’s another reason Cooke had to reduce the number of wagons. It was a logistical nightmare for him.

Monday, December 22 – Maricopa, AZ

Monday, December 22nd, 2008

Today we played scouts – guides – pilots. Let me explain.

Later this week we will be hosting an extended family and others who are coming to hike. Ages will range from 4 years to nearly 80 years old. We will be in some of the more remote locations with limited vehicular access. Our commissary must be stocked sufficiently to get us all across the Forty Mile Desert, then through another remote region of the Gila Valley.

The planning weighs heavily upon Denny – she is very good about details and organizing the minute-to-minute aspects of these times. I’m less inclined to sweat the details, so we make a good pair – even if we don’t always agree on things.

We rode the trail to the west checking access roads and probing along the route we intend to hike. We did not drive the actual route in a Wilderness Area. It’s been closed to vehicles by the BLM because some of the off-roaders have chewed the desert up. BLM hopes that with intensive restoration work, some long-term facility development and better monitoring, this area can be restored and maintained.

In our case, we had to pull an extra “special use” permit so we could take the vehicles with us this week. More paperwork. Yuck.