The old car pulled up behind me, lights flaring as they crossed me, and then the driver killed the engine next to my Jeep. I wasn't sure what to do. There was a low chance that they were also here to hike, that I'd have an early morning hiking partner to converse with for a short time, but I doubted that. I was on a remote road on the north side of Apache Junction getting ready to hike a low-traffic area and it wasn't even five in the morning yet. Whatever this other car was doing here I just hoped it wouldn't involve me.
I nonchalantly swung a heavy pack on and grabbed my trekking poles (more on this later). No one had gotten out of the other car, though I could hear at least two voices talking through the closed windows. One of them laughed, a deep female chuckle. Prostitution immediately crossed my mind, or a drug deal, while it could be as innocent as a pair of rebellious teenagers sharing a cigarette. Or whatever teenagers in Phoenix do these days outside of their parent's watchful eyes. I took one quick photo of the city beyond our parking lot, doing my best to avoid facing their direction, before hurrying down the trail towards Pass Mountain.
Nothing would come from that half-encounter. When I would return several hours later the creaking old car would be gone and several SUVs would be parked with more obvious intentions of hiking the desert. However, it did fill my pre-dawn start with dread. Since moving to Arizona I had gotten used to early morning starts in an attempt to beat the heat, assuming that the only threat to this would be nocturnal creatures on the trail. There were other threats so close to a large city. An early morning start for me is a late night for others, and some may be desparate enough to break into my vehicle. All part of the joys of living in Arizona, I guess.
Anyways, onto the hike. I was near Pass Mountain on the south side of Usury Regional Park. There's a great big mountain here called Pass Mountain with a popular cave (Wind Cave) on the western slope. My plan was to hike around the whole mountain counter-clockwise, hitting up Wind Cave on the way back. There are several parking spots to reach this loop, including one that was conveniently close to that cave's trail, but that meant paying a fee and waiting for the park to open at six. Instead I parked in a more remote option that I was already regretting.
This was my first time at this park and I chose to base my hike off of a printed map of the park. I didn't bring a GPS with me today. The trail I walked was fairly defined with only one fork to figure out. I'd later found out that there was two forks, and I missed the first one, and this set me up for a pretty tough time later on, but that's getting ahead of myself. For now the trail was dark yet easy to track by the light of my headlamp.
On my back was thirty pounds of water. It creaked and squeaked as I hiked up the grade to the saddle ahead. There was no good reason why I had thirty pounds of water beside the new Komperdell trekking poles. I've never used trekking poles before, always brushed them off as an expensive accessory, until someone from REI talked up the virtues of poles and how much backpacking weight they helped displace and how great their knees felt after using them. So I found a good deal online and sprang on it. Half-off a pair of ultralight carbon retractable extra-tall poles seemed like an okay purchase to better handle the upcoming Isle Royale.
It took a while to get used to the rhythm of a pair of poles. You can pole on the opposite leg to add speed (enhance your natural gait), the same leg to offload strain, or push off both poles simultaneously if you like to pretend to ski. Also, if you plant the pole in front of your heel you will slow down and can shift a lot of pressure onto the arm, which is useful for stepping up. Planting the pole behind the heel is a real boost for forward motion. For much of the climb I tried to do opposite leg and behind the heel, adjusting my speed to account for the boost, and ended up mostly knocking my poles against rocks and focusing too much on the plant and not enough on the stability of the ground.
All this thought about poles helped distract me from an otherwise boring and dark climb to the saddle. Once I reached it I took a few glamour shots of the tall cairn on the top, took a quick swig from the single cold liter of water I had brought with, and pushed on. The early start and quick pace was for a purpose. I wanted to watch the sunrise from the northernmost point on the loop, from a point simply labeled as 'Viewpoint'. From here I should be free of the Goldfield Range to see a fantastic color show near Four Peaks. I had about forty minutes to reach that point.
Heading down from the saddle was relatively easy with only a few loose patches of gravel to ease over. The weighted pack and still cumbersome trekking poles didn't help with navigation. Within twenty minutes a new problem arose. My trail began to fade away. This didn't seem possible. For most of my hike I could depend on just following a well-trod footpath, and now I had only cairns to track. The footpath narrowed and disappeared for long sections and forced me to pick careful circles around the growing cholla population.
Now, I didn't know much about Usury. Some of the trails may not be well maintained. This just seemed weird, though. By the time the sunrise began to peak over the far eastern hills I was far enough beyond the Goldfield Range to catch a great light show. I was also completely off the trail. Both cairns and path had left me and I was surrounded by chollas and prickly pears and a few Joshua Trees. Slipping my pack off to the ground I tried not to worry and watched the sky over an aggressive ocotillo.
I looked around and tried to get my bearing. There was the pass I had just come down from, hidding behind a bend in the mountain, another pass almost directly south of me, and a large mountain west of that. A large mountain that shouldn't be there. I re-checked my map and used a bit of imagination and figured out a likely hypothesis.
There was a trail that circled all the way around Pass Mountain. This trail (going counter-clockwise) climbs up a saddle, circles around the northern end, and then comes south along flat ground past a spur path to Wind Cave. There is no mountain west of this loop. Yet here I stood, looking at a saddle with a mountain. I had circled around the wrong mountain, had somehow looped too far east, and was east of the loop I thought I should be on. So now I had two choices: I could bushwhack up to this new saddle, which was what I should have been climbing up earlier this morning, and return to the car or I could bushwhack due west and finish the loop (albeit a much longer loop). I went with the former. I was sweaty, the air was already hot, and if I was wrong the parking lot would still be closer with this option.
While bushwhacking up an overgrown saddle with a overpacked load of water is not a lot of fun there was one benefit. I was hiking in the shadow of a mountain. A slight breeze came through at times, chilling the sweat on my back and face, even if it felt like a convection current with today's morning temperatures of ninety. I climbed, avoided cacti, climbed some more, and kept my eyes on the saddle above.
Hoping to cut some difficulty out I did my best to veer to the right. If there was a trail that came down from that saddle it had to be on the right side. It took awhile to find anything. The path was narrow but cairned, loose but free of cacti, and I was thankful for it. Five minutes later and it intersected a wide, packed trail. This, this packed trail was the Usury trail. All morning I had been playing on an unofficial (and unmaintained) trails around the unnamed rocky mound next to Pass Mountain and now I was finally on the darn correct path. I booked it up to the top of the saddle.
From the saddle I could already hear voices from other hikers below. My morning solitude was over. For a brief moment I thought about turning around and following the loop around the north side, where it was unlikely I'd bump into anyone until Wind Cave some four miles distant, but I kept that urge in check. Instead I started downhill, breaking with my poles in an effort to ease the weight off of my knees.
Now that I was on a wide trail that was free of loose rocks and spiky vegetation my poles were much easier to deal with. I was starting to get the rhythm as well, at least as much rhythm I could fake after a few mere hours using them. On flat sections I used lift to push forward, on downhill I braked in front of my toes, and on a few upward rocks I pulled up with both poles planted. I didn't pretend to be a pro, though. When I bumped into the noisy groups coming up I stepped aside and pulled the poles close. The chance was high that I would have stabbed someone in the foot with a sharp metal end.
The walk downhill was long and boring. I tried to pass the time by guessing where I had gone wrong that morning. I could make out a few trails to the east, one of which I had walked up in the predawn, yet couldn't make out which was which. None of them seemed to intersect the one I was on now. Eventually I dropped down and walked beside a wash, one that I could dimly remember noticing earlier in the morning from the other side, so I knew I had to be close. Then a little spur cut off and dropped down into the wash and I followed.
I stayed in the wash for a few sandy yards before swinging up on the other bank and ended up on a familiar path. This was what I had walked on during the morning, and the spur through the wash had been tucked out of sight from my light. No wonder I had missed it. With a slight grimace I looked back at the mountain, the unnamed mountain east of Pass Mountain that I had circled, and traced my route up the saddle on the right and back the saddle on the left. I guess the hike hadn't been too bad. Both saddles were about the same elevation, though connecting the two around the back had taken me for a slow and painful crawl through the desert. Just an excuse to return some day, I suppose, Probably without the thirty pounds on my back.