Finding a good spot to continue east on Davenport Wash Trail was more difficult than I anticipated. The wash below Club Cabin was nothing but a tangled mess of cat claw that obscured any reasonable path forward. After pacing back and forth for a few minutes I spotted a lonely cairn across the wash and plunged forward, ignoring the thorns ripping into my clothes and skin, and stepped onto a trail on the far side. No one said this was going to be easy.
Six miles of new trail lay between me and Chilson Camp, and I had five hours of daylight. Should be possible to make it before the sunset. All I had to do was hop over to Red Rock Spring, climb a thousand feet, hack through two miles of thick brush, and cross a canyon that's over a thousand feet deep. Oh, after that I still had to hike the eight miles of familiar trail from Chilson to the trailhead, most likely in the dark.
After crossing the cat claw-choked wash things cleared up. The trail from Club Cabin to Red Rock Spring was well defined and only somewhat overgrown. When a tree or spiky bush claimed the right of way there was a trodden path leading around, and never once did I have to reference my GPS to stay on track. Before I knew it I was at the spring and admiring the clear water flowing down, which looked more appealing than Club Spring. I didn't admire for too long - that climb was waiting for me.
The cairns were large and the path was well-defined up the steep hill. It didn't take long for me to mess it up. With everything exposed to the afternoon sun the sweat dripped down my forehead and blurred my vision. Pulling out a handkerchief I wiped it away and pushed onwards, then wiped again, and before I knew it I was wandering along a game track some fifty feet above the cairns. Whatever. I picked a saddle where I could meet back up with the trail and aimed for it, eventually returning to the cairns just in time to turn and follow another steep ridge uphill.
As hot as the climbing was at least it was clear of brush. This steep section was open grassland and I could often see a cairn or two in front of me. When I rounded a final curve and saw the thick growth show up I stopped and sighed heavily. It was a mix of manzanita and cat claw and some sort of holly and maybe even scrub oak, plus deadfall. Seemed like a good time to pause for a drink and enjoy the view to the north.
The next two miles passed by like a bad dream dimly remembered. Sometimes I'd find short sections of path and follow it for a spell. There were also a few west-facing clearings that the sun seemed to have scorched clear of brush. Most of it was terrible bushwhacking, though, pushing and thrashing through neck-high scratchy branches. My arms were streaked with blood and my legs and torso collected thorns and bruises. I kept telling myself that it had to get better at some point.
One glimpse of hope came about halfway through in the form of the grassy peak of 5932'. That peak is on the corner of the junction of North and South Fork Deadman Creek, and sits next to the saddle where I'd descend down to South Fork. I remembered looking at that peak while I was hiking along Willow Springs Trail so many months ago. If I had a little more time and a lot more energy I'd love to swing up to the top, which had to offer a great view up Maverick Basin. Not today.
The brush slackened right at the end and hints of a trail began to appear as I descended along the saddle. The afternoon sun was starting to wane behind me. As soon as the path dropped into the shade I had to suppress a shiver. The temps couldn't drop that fast, could they? There was a wool shirt and sweater in my pack but it felt wrong to pull them out so soon after the hot, sweaty haul through all that nasty brush.
Signs of the old trail grew until I entered a rocky little wash, and then large cairns and a well-defined tread showed up to guide me along. Things did get better. I couldn't go too fast downhill, not with my ever-sensitive knees, and there were a few areas loose and rocky enough to slow me down. Still, it felt good to walk without constantly searching for the next cairn, and I began to let myself hope that I could actually get out of here tonight.
It was four o'clock when I reached the bottom of South Fork Deadman Creek, which gave me an hour and twenty minutes of daylight to reach Chilson Camp. That is, I needed to climb 1300' in 2.5 miles. Since I was down here I looked around for water with some hope. In my pack was a single liter left from Club Cabin and I was pretty darn thirsty. No pools waited for me, though - this creek was bone dry. I pushed my thirst to the side and started up the steep eastern bank.
Immediately I found myself on the wrong track and had to crawl along a crumbling face, grabbing handfuls of dead grass to keep from sliding back down, using my Super Mario powers to scrabble sideways to the actual trail. That took me up a series of partial switchbacks and eventually back into the sun, which was almost welcome with its slight warmth. At some point the trail faded into tall grass and I picked out a tree above me, climbed to it, and then picked out another, trying to gain a few dozen feet between gasping breaks. My legs began to feel like lead and I stumbled a few times. When my path curved to the side, lessening the grade a bit, I gave in and sat down in a field of gold.
In the back of my mind there was a worried voice telling me that I didn't have a lot of daylight left, and that I needed to keep pushing until I got back to good trail, and that I wasn't going to get out of the wilderness tonight. My eyes told me a different story. In front of me, in the golden afternoon light, was beautiful cliffs and a deep gorge and towering hills. I stretched out my legs and pulled out my last liter of water to sip, and while I rested some ballooning strands sparkled below, little spiders drifting in the breeze to new frontiers. I felt that worrying voice silenced by the grand scene that lay in front of me.
When I stood back up, shouldering my pack and getting my bearing, I felt ready. Ready to finish this section, ready to hike out of here, ready to go. I pushed on with a quick step, effortlessly picking out the cairns and striding onwards, never stopping to check my route or catch my breath. The hardest parts of the hike were behind me and it was time to take it home.
When I rounded the edge of the cliff band I saw the last leg of this trail, the hillside swing to Chilson Camp. Decent cairns and a lightly-groomed trail waited for me, which I was very thankful for. This shaded hillside sheltered a thick growth of manzanita over large, loose boulders that would have been hellish to bushwhack through. I only lost the trail twice in my haste and otherwise kept a healthy trot along the slight grade, eager to finish the trail.
The sun set thirty minutes before I reached Chilson, leaving me with dim ambient light to stumble into the large clearing. I looked around in a haze, noticing the large cairn that marked the beginning of Davenport Wash Trail that wasn't there a year ago, and realized that the last mile had been very recently cleared out. Darn, that's luck. Took a quick look at the camp, confirmed that there was no water here, and hauled tail up to the Mazatzal Divide. Another mile and I finally collapsed on the now-dark trail and took my final break.
It was cold, teeth-chattering cold, so I dug around in my pack and pulled out my shirt and sweater. Also switched my brimmed hat for a beanie for good measure and finally turned on my headlamp. After finishing the last of my water and one last snack I hauled myself up, stiff and sore, not anywhere as rested as I felt after my last break. A few more minutes and I was at the Barnhardt Trail Junction.
The descent was eerie in the dark. I've only done this trail once in the dark, in the early morning, and it didn't take long for the eastern sunrise to start painting shadows within the canyon. Today it was dark and only getting darker. To my left the hillside faded into black and only got steeper as I went along. At one point a chopper flew low over me, and then started to circle me with a spotlight, and I had to wave them off to keep going. Must have been a search and rescue chopper or something. Outside of that little excitement it was a dreary haul down to the trailhead.
Chris sat waiting for me, enjoying some tunes and Gatorade and watching the stars. He was helping out with the shuttle today, driving me back to FR 25 where the van was parked, and I really appreciated it - its a long drive from Phoenix. We chatted a bit on the drive and then I was back in the van alone, making it back to the house shortly before eleven. Still technically a dayhike, even though all the driving and six hours of hiking were done in the dark. At least I was done with all of the trails south of Mountain Spring, though, and I could finally mark Sheep Creek and Davenport Wash Trail, the latter of which I first visited back in February of 2016, off of my list.