Several months had passed since Chris and I had a good adventure together. Outside of a quick afternoon outing with the boys over in the McDowells we have each been doing our own thing this year. He went out on an overnight in Bryce Canyon and on a few ski weekends while I've been venturing into the Mazatzals. Anyways, it took a few phone calls for us to plan a solid three-day adventure and another few for us to throw it away and come up with something totally different, and then we were parking his car at Peralta Trailhead on a hot Thursday afternoon.
Our plan was surprisingly well constructed. Sticking to well-maintained trails in the western Superstitions we would make a loop in the forty-mile range, though there was plenty of side destinations to wander down if time permits. I tend to hike faster then Chris, so this gave us a base template to start with that I could spur off of and meet up with him later. As long as we met up at the planned rejoins then everything should work out fine.
There were a few complications. I had already done most of the trails in the western Supes and wasn't really looking forward to revisiting them. The temperatures were unpleasant this weekend - approaching triple-digit highs. Also, Chris is still at a standard backpacking weight. Where I've been cutting my equipment down, to the point where my base weight is under seven pounds, his is still in thirty-to-forty range. I did not envy him carrying that much weight in this heat.
Indeed, on the first climb from the parking lot it was apparent how much of a difference our packs were going to make. The first day of our hike was a straight shot west along the Dutchman/Coffee Flat Trails to the Reed's Water area, and from the trailhead there is a 150' climb over a half mile. I sped up the slope with my trekking poles and light pack, chatting busily with Chris on the way, while he lumbered up slowly and expressed concern when we reached the crest. We stopped for a quick rest here, knowing that the rest of Barkley Basin was relatively flat until we reached the junction with Coffee Flat Trail, and I tried not to think of the time slipping past.
See, one of the sacrifices that I made to keep my pack weight light was to only carry two liters of water capacity. I had a water filter and there were reliable water sources every four to six miles, meaning that two liters should be more then enough to hop from one source to the next. Assuming we were able to hike that distance in a short time, that is. If it took us too long to hike one of those legs then I'd probably get quite dry before reaching a fill-up point.
My other concern was just with our pace. The plan was to reach Dripping Springs before the sunset, which was moderately ambitious. We started at three in the afternoon and our destination was seven miles away, which should be easy to hit if we averaged two miles in an hour. Stopping for a break less than a half-mile in because of heavy packs wasn't going to help our pace. I kept my concerns to myself and tried to relax. I get too caught up with these things while I'm out hiking, too worried about hitting milestones and making good time, when sometimes I should just relax and enjoy being away from responsibility.
After the short break we pushed on, heading down the loose rock on the trail and into Barkley Basin. It's not all flat in here - the trail does buck up and down through a few decent washes in little twenty-foot climbs - and it does slope on the way to Miner's Needle. This basin does empty out behind us, south of the parking lot, all of the little drainages coming down the south side of the Superstitions (including the rather deep Bark's Canyon) and combining into a narrow pinch of land at Quarter Circle U Ranch before spreading out and drifting away to nothing beyond Gold Canyon. So as we headed east we climbed up the gradual slope of the basin towards Miner's Needle until we were right underneath it.
There is a trail junction near the base of Miner's, with Dutchman heading up towards and beyond the Needle to Bluff Springs Mountain and Coffee Flat cutting southeast to the crest of Barkley Basin. We stopped at the junction for a quick break. I pulled out my water for the first time and drank up, mindful of the miles left until we had a refill, and also snacked on some crackers. Chris pulled out a chair pad from his heavy pack and relaxed, looking quite a bit more comfortable than I did on my craggy rock. After ten minutes or so we got up and tackled the Coffee Flat Trail, which takes a rather annoying and roundabout route up and down a few little washes before climbing up the side of the saddle between Coffee Flat and Barkley Basin.
As I waited on the saddle for Chris to catch up I checked on our time. We had been averaging just under 1.5 miles an hour, which was not fast enough to reach Dripping Springs this evening. We could venture on after dark, something we were both used to doing, though I didn't like that idea. The bit of trail around Dripping Springs involves rock-hopping and route-finding that would be difficult to do in the dark, especially weighed down with gear. Eh, if we could reach Reed's Water we should be okay. I've heard there's water in the well for pulling and it is only two miles from where I stood and waited.
I drank some more water, sipping at the first liter, and once Chris was ready we pushed on down into Coffee Flat proper. Speaking of - the name 'Coffee Flat' is a bit overused. There is the Coffee Flat Trail that reaches from Barkley Basin all the way to JF Ranch. And then there's the large basin here that is called Coffee Flat, which includes Whitlow Canyon and Coffee Flat Canyon (both more washes than anything else) that flow down from the mountains in the north and into Randolph Canyon to the south. And those northern mountains, the ones that were towering above us as we walked the trail? That's Coffee Flat Mountain. So yeah, overused.
We talked about this and more as we headed down into the lush green basin. As much as I enjoy the quiet and solitude of solo hikes I can be a jabber-mouth with a hiking partner, and with Chris stuck with me I pointed out the nearby mountains (especially Buzzard's Roost in the south), tried to identify the plants we passed by, and reminisced about my last hike through here last December. When I let slip that Reed's Water was a more reasonable destination for the evening given our time Chris did get a bit worried. We still had some distance to go and the sun seemed to have dropped a good amount since we left Barkley behind. He pulled out his headphones to finish the day's hike on, something which speeds us both up, and we cruised quickly on the path and soon saw the tall green trees of our destination.
There was another thirty minutes of daylight left so we used it to scout out the water situation and pick out campsites. The well under the tall, rusty windmill was covered by several wooden planks and the water was only about ten or fifteen feet down. Chris used his dirty bottle, a length of rope, and a nearby rock to pull up the cool, clear water for filtering. It took a while to get another to filter, as his dirty bottle was only a half liter, though this wasn't a task we needed a ton of light for. While he worked on his water situation I set up my camp in a field of foxtails, something I would curse for the rest of our trip.
The rest of the night was very pleasant. We filtered to capacity, briefly explored the wash above the windmill (we hoped to find pools of water near the trees but found nothing), and cooked our meals around a crackling campfire. Stories were told and plans were modified to fit our missed destination. Honestly, this was probably a much better campsite than what we would have found at Dripping Springs. I vaguely remembered a few clearings up there, though most of them seemed further up Fraser Canyon. Maybe a shortened first day wasn't the worst thing, as long as we could make up the missed distance tomorrow.
As the moon began to rise and a cool wind began to drift through the trees the most horrendous shriek cut straight to the bone. We looked at each other in terror, wondering if we had just heard a cow in distress or a mountain lion or something else. We were relatively close to a ranching site, so our minds did drift towards cattle or something mechanical, yet it wasn't until the wind blew and the sound started up again before realization hit. It was the damn windmill. The wind was turning the blades and the old parts didn't glide as well as they used to.
Chris went up first, climbing up the old rungs to a locking mechanism, and tried to stop the blades from turning. There was no way we could sleep with that thing squealing on and off through the night. He got it and came down, and not five minutes later it was going again. I went up the second time and locked it again, this time waiting for it to go on the 'up' stroke, and this time it stayed quiet. If there's one fun thing to do in the dark with only the moon for light it is climbing old, rusty windmills on rungs that are bent and twisted with age.
Shortly after that adventure we let the fire go out and headed to our resting spots. Chris had his usual tent, one that is mostly mesh and lightweight, while I'm squeezing under a lone mosquito net that doesn't even give me enough headroom to sit up. It is actually more comfortable than I first imagined, and I curled up with my kindle and worked through the Wheel of Time series. It wasn't long before sleep overtook me, with the breeze gently whistling through the trees around and the full moon bathing us in cool light.