The first teacher of Tonto Basin School, Angie Mitchell, found that her social life was rather limited among the several families that were in walking distance. Much of her leisure time was spent with her students, a number of whom actually lived with her in the teacherage or nearby at the Vineyard’s ranch. Her weekends were often spent sharing her hobbies with these young people, especially her love of exploring prehistoric sites. Saturday, Dec. 4, had dawned “wet and cold” after a hard rain during the night, and so she stayed home to “wash and sort and label my specimens, of which there are quite a few.”
The next day, Sunday, the weather invited a hike. Of her roommates, who were visiting elsewhere, only 14-year-old Sarah Armer was left to accompany Angie. They crossed Tonto Creek and headed up into the Sierra Ancha.
Her diary records, in her own vivid way, the harrowing experience that was to follow. “We climbed one mountain after another till at 3:30 we stood on the summit of the range several miles from home. We started back down a canon that looked as if it would be a pretty easy path, and first thing we knew found ourselves in a box canon where we wouldn’t be able to climb the sides in a hurry. Well, we discussed the situation & concluded we might as well see this canon through as try to retrace our steps. It was dark now with only the stars, but not at all cloudy.
“Such a trip as we had. We fell over steep rocky places twice and landed once on a big smooth sloping rock that rolled us gracefully to the bottom of the coldest spring of water I think I ever sat down in. The second time we were walking along & talking, feeling our way as cautiously as we could, when suddenly Sarah said, ‘Oh!’ And clutching wildly at me to save herself, pulled me with her and the force with which we lit in a sandy place several feet below would be difficult to describe. I think it loosened all my teeth and I’m sure it almost ‘dislocated,’ as Johnny would say, my spine. Sarah declares she turned a summersault & stood so long on her head that she ‘flattened it out’ on top & quite ‘unsettled her brains,’ but her mother says she didn’t have any brain to unsettle or she wouldn’t have been out there.
“Then we got among a lot of saguaros & our arms bear witness to the closeness with which they grew where we had to pass between them. Then we got a big shock. A large dusky shape near the canon wall stopped, growled & then sprang away from us with a shriek we know to be a cougar’s. He was probably frightened at our rather light colored dresses, for Sarah’s was a creamy looking ground with a dark spot in it, wool, and mine a very light tan. Anyway he left our neighborhood.
“We disturbed a rattlesnake in uncomfortably close proximity to our faces & left him rattling out his displeasure while we fled as fast as our uncertain ground would let us. Finally after what seemed a week we reached a place where nothing seemed to be ahead of us. Our sticks with which we poke the atmosphere touched nothing. We lay down & prodded down below with much the same result, only they hit what appeared to be a wall of rock at both sides and straight back underneath us. But nothing could we reach below. Then we tied them together with a handkerchief & tried again with like result. Sarah suggested we let ourselves down as far as possible and then jump as that seemed to be our only chance to ‘get out of that canon tonight.’ She argued it can’t be much worse than where we’ve already been.
“I nearly accepted her plan but somehow that deep yawning pit of blackness scared me out of the notion. Then noticing that the wall of the canon seemed, after rising some twenty feet or so, to slope back on one side (tho it might only prove to be the way starlight shone against it). I proposed we try pulling ourselves up by the brush and rocks till we passed the nearly perpendicular part and see if we couldn’t get out that way. This was on the whole more feasible, so at it we went and by the skin of our teeth we passed slowly up the face of the canon wall for 20 or 25 feet. We found that it began to slope gradually up till it formed another mountain side, but not a precipitous one. We worked our way slowly and surely among the brush and cactus on this mountain, and around the side of it till we reached where we could begin to descend it.
“Soon we found ourselves in the bed of a dry, sandy creek which we soon recognized as one a couple of miles from our home. We went a little ways down it, round the bend made by the mountain, and were struck suddenly with two facts. First, the canon we had passed thro’ and which had ended so abruptly was one that ended in a peculiar creamy looking ledge of rocks between two mountains, the top of this ledge being over 60 ft above the level of the sand we were on. At the very bottom of the ledge was a jagged lot of rocks. The ledge was worn as smooth as glass by the water that in the rainy seasons fell over it, like a young Niagara into the creek in whose bed we were now standing. We had seen the curious looking ledge before several times, and that was the place we had so nearly jumped off of! No wonder we shuddered at the thought of the fate we so narrowly escaped.
“The second thing that struck us was a big bonfire on Cactus Mountain, and it occurred to us that the folks thought us lost over on the other side in which case the fire would guide us home. It did not take us long to reach home. We found it was past 11 (we started before 8 that morning) and that they had built bonfires and shot off Vineyard’s gun and shouted hoping to attract our attention. Finally Vineyard and his man had gone out in search of us and if we got back in the meantime a fire was to be built on the hill next [to] Cactus Mountain.
“So they built that fire and Mrs. Harer got us some supper, for we’d eaten nothing since breakfast. Then we ‘took account of stock’ in the way of bruises & tatters and found something less than a thousand cuts, tears and bruises; picked out several hundred cactus & catclaw thorns from different parts of our anatomy, put on several feet of court plaster and gave up our wardrobe as past mending & got into other clothes.
“We came as near being total wrecks as we well could be. John V. soon came and when we told him where we’d been he said, ‘That canon: why I wouldn’t come down it for any money. It’s a miracle you’re alive.’ We shortly after crawled into bed and hope to be O.K. in the morning.”
The next day Angie described her aches and pains. “O yes! We’re O. K.! Or perhaps the reverse — ‘K. O.’ would more nearly express our state of body & mind. We are so stiff we can scarcely crawl, and if we bend over it is nearly impossible to straighten up. If we once get up it seems equally difficult to bend over again. School ran smoothly, but it was hard to teach today for I felt so like a busted community.”
By Wednesday she could report, “Am all right once more except for a few remaining scratches. Sarah ditto.”
NEXT: Early Visitors To “Tonto” Cliff Dwellings