Friday, December 26 – Gila Bend, AZ

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.

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