Sunday, February 27, 2011

Arizona Escape: Verde River Ramble

Words: Greg
Photos: Greg and Trina

It's not that we were sick and tired of winter, so much. Because this winter hasn't been particularly harsh or anything. It's not even that winter had been limiting our activities much, as we've still been outside riding, hiking, absorbing the sights around us. But these small travels would all end at home by evening, with us snug and warm inside. With one exception when one of us attempted to not let the winter cold keep us from camping...

We do, however, like to camp. And apparently don't have the commitment/gumption/intestinal fortitude or even much interest in staying out, night after night, in icy, cold, wintry conditions. We did have some time set aside. So we loaded up the truck with camp gear and dogs and fled south.

Behind us snow and ice were clinging to all the dark corners of the valley and layered thickly over the peaks and mesas of the high country. Ahead, we hoped to find sunshine and dry trails where we could ride in shorts and t-shirts, warm campsites by flowing water where birds would bustle, and early signs of spring.

The first day's drive took us out of Colorado, through southeast Utah's red rock desert, into long miles of mesas and monuments, over pine-covered mountains, until at last, we slipped off the edge of the high country that bisects Arizona, and dropped into the warmer elevations near the Verde River.

We found our first night's camp in the dark on a sticker bush-covered ridge surrounded by quiet and coyotes that howled under the bright moon. And from which our dogs found it necessary to protect us by sitting up all night long in the tent and occasionally barking to scare away anything that might think of getting close. Despite that, we slept well.

In the morning we found that our ridge was bordered by eroded limestone cones, pocked and textured by water and wind. We wandered among the mini-spires and in a tiny canyonette where we found our first blossoms of the trip. Spring! With sunshine balancing out a chill wind, it even felt like it.

Down the dirt road in the truck, we were dropping down some switchbacks into a canyon and saw motion in the underbrush to one side. We slipped quietly out of the truck with our cameras and stalked closer to -- Javelina! -- the little pig-like collared peccary which had caused much excitement last year. And for which we had apparently learned very little respect, since we ended up walking quite near to a half-dozen of them, upwind of us, grunt-sighing and snuffling through the brush, trying to figure out what and where we were. Eventually they wandered off and we got back in the truck and continued.

Down into one canyon, then up and over a ridge and down into another, bumping along on a rough dirt track that cut into the steep hillside through the scraggly scrub and cactus. We rolled at last onto a smooth, sandy bench at the edge of the river where there were a number of beautiful campsites and no other people. We claimed a camp where a small cliff met a patch of vivid green grass and immediately set out to relax and enjoy the spot.

Barrel cactus, prickly pear, and tough desert shrubs clung to the cliff and hugged the dry sides of the valley. The moist riverbed was lined with deciduous trees, most of them still winter bare, but a few were glowing with green blossoms and buzzing with bees. Birds flitted through the bushes and branches, eeping and calling and warbling. The calm pool of river ahead of us drained its clear water into a tight channel to our left that hissed and burbled through its green mossy bed.

After a short but suitable period of relaxation, we strapped on our bike gear for the next phase of fun. As we prepped, another truck pulled up near the river and disgorged some hikers. We started up the riverside trail past a small decommissioned hydro power plant, and soon passed the group, a quartet of hippie-esque young folk in tie-dye and dreadlocks, carrying drums and at least one huge but seemingly light pack. They were accompanied by a small trail dog, and -- seemingly incongruously -- a trail cat, who we later learned was named Nova.

I actually think that a trail cat is interesting and cool. But at the time, Trina and I were both very focused on the fact that Zeek, our trusty JRT, might think that the cat looked particularly delicious. We yelled out asking if they could pick up their cat while we rode past, and they did. Which would have been a good idea, if the trail didn't suddenly get much rougher, and suddenly we were pushing and carrying our bikes and gaining no ground on the walkers. So we let them pass us back and waited until they were ahead again.

We were all heading to the same place. Once a small resort which burned down in the 1960s, now just a cement platform and a couple of pools on the side of the river -- both pools filled with warm water from a hot spring. To get there, we had to cross the river. Trina and I found a wide stretch where we could wade through the chilly water carrying our bikes, and where the dogs could swim. Sprocket is happy to swim to keep with us, but Zeek is never very fond of swimming and needs more encouragement.

We all made it across, took a short ride and a shorter hike to the pools. We have no idea what the original resort "decor" of the pools was, but it has evolved into a trippy and eclectic mix of art and graffiti, most of it earthy and "enlightened" and kind. The four hippie-hikers were already there and soaking. We soaked in a second warmer pool, and while our dogs were on their leashes, Nova the trail cat came up to torment them. Luckily no cats nor Jack Russell Terriers were harmed.

After our soak, we returned to our bikes, crossed the river again, and headed back to camp -- this time on a rough road that was much easier going than the sand/rubble/cliff trail, and which we hadn't seen from the other end. We spent the late afternoon and evening with river sounds, small flitting birds, blossoms, passing ravens, beaver tail-slaps, distant coyotes, a cool breeze and a warm fire with warm dogs on our laps.

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