Pack Rat: Packing The Mazatzals Fulfills Childhood Desire

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"As a young boy, I had a burning desire to go west and explore the gold mines and Indian ruins of years gone by," Kevin Leonard writes in the preface to his first book, "Ride With Me."

It's a desire shared by any number of boys growing up, as Leonard did, in the Midwest. The difference is that Leonard acted on his dream, and today, at the age of 56, he's still acting on it.

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Kevin Leonard and his two traveling companions spend a couple of months each year exploring the prehistoric ruins and mines of Arizona. Most recently, Leonard has been packing the Mazatzals.

Leonard, whose father owned a small dairy farm in upstate New York, learned all about horses and packing during his childhood. He followed his dream and moved to the West 30 years ago -- first to Utah and then to Arizona.

Just about every year, Leonard goes on a pack trip into some remote part of Arizona, usually by himself (plus a riding horse and a pack horse), and usually for one to two months.

His motive is simple.

"I like to explore," he said. "I like to find artifacts. I like to see where (the prehistoric people) lived, where they had their crops. I can tell all this.

"I explore mines, too. I look them up and study them first. I can tell you where they are and how many people they hired, how much they made, what they got out of them."

Leonard, who lives in Dewey, packs all over Arizona. But lately he's been obsessed with the Mazatzal Mountains. In fact, "Ride With Me" is an account of two month-long pack trips into the Mazatzals, one in 2000 and one in 2001.

Writing the book seemed like the natural thing for a storyteller like Leonard to do.

"I'd been doing a lot of packing out here and I'd tell everybody my adventures, and everybody said, ‘Man, you gotta write a book.'" Since it was published last October, almost 1,000 copies of "Ride With Me" have been sold, and a second book about two subsequent trips is nearing completion.

Leonard writes in a diary format, using plain, unadorned English.

He includes the simple experiences like eating his favorite dinner of sardines in tomato sauce with crackers. And he includes plenty of tips for the would-be packer:

"One thing to be careful about when packing or camping is to always boil your water for at least 15 minutes before drinking it, no matter what stream or creek you're in."

Water, as you might expect, is a prime consideration -- one that Leonard builds his entire trip around.

"Water is a big issue," he said. "You have to worry about it all the time, especially if you travel with a pack horse. You have to go spring to spring out here."

But Leonard's book is much more than a guide to packing, because it also packs plenty of high drama -- like the time he accidentally wandered into a rattlesnake den.

"There were probably 100 coming out of this crevice one after another," he said. One struck my boot.

"They curled up around me and I just stood in the middle for about 45 minutes. Finally I saw a clearing and I jumped out. If I'd got bit I would never have got out of there."

Another time, his horse was mired in quicksand up to its neck.

"He tried to get out for two hours and he was exhausted," Leonard said. "I got him so he rested his head and front shoulders on the front bank and I went to try and find some help. About 300 yards down the trail I hear a snort and there's my horse behind me. I have no idea how he got out."

Leonard also includes accounts of the treasures his explorations have yielded -- treasures he photographs and then leaves behind.

"I study for a trip all winter long," he said. "I go to the Sharlot Hall Museum in Prescott and I study the old maps. I take the old pack trails and I cut a lot of brush and that's why I find things people never see. I find mines people don't even know about.

"I found one in the Bradshaws two years ago. The wheelbarrows were still in it, like (the miners) just walked off. It was a gold or silver mine, probably from the 1920s."

Another time, Leonard found a bag full of valuable Indian pots, probably pilfered and hidden decades ago by someone who planned to come back for them but never did.

"There were 12, 14 pots," he said. "Some were broken, but they were real nice pots. I scratched the area over so nobody else would find it."

A home landscaper by trade, Leonard makes enough money in the summer to support his packing habit. His wife, Jan, is an accountant at Spring Valley Girl's School.

"She don't like it when she doesn't hear from me for two or three weeks," he said. "I've got a cell phone, but it usually doesn't work unless I get up real high.

"If I'm down at the Verde, I'll stop at Eddie Johnson's ranch. He's got a mobile radio phone. Or if the Forest Service is around someplace, they'll send a message for me. Everybody's good out there."

Leonard leaves this week on his latest trip, one that has him especially excited.

"I'm going to explore Racetrack Mesa in the Mazatzals," he said. "It's probably the least explored place in the lower 48 states. I've never been there, but I rode around it the last couple of years. I finally found a spring that's got water all the time that's four miles away. There's also supposed to be a spring the Indians used called Cedar Basin Spring that I want to use as a base camp if I can find it."

When he gets there, Leonard also hopes to find a treasure trove of artifacts from the prehistoric people who mysteriously disappeared from the area. He believes, as many do, that it was a lack of rainfall that did them in.

"I really think it was a drought like what we're getting right now," he said.

Leonard's parting recommendation to would-be packers:

"Do your research. Study where you're going. Watch the weather, and travel in years when there has been lots of rain."

All the proceeds from "Ride With Me" are going to a camp Leonard and his wife hope to build for underprivileged children near their Dewey ranch. The book, which features over 40 pages of full color maps and photos, is available locally at Jackalope Books, Art and Antique Corral, Oasis Christian Books, and Looking Glass in Pine. For more information go to the Arizona Trails Publishing website at www.arizonatrailspublishing.com.

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